Don't underestimate the wisdom of the college set. When they dub a place worthy of a spring break invasion, it has to have certain attributes, mainly sun and fun. The same attributes, in other words, that you want for your own vacation. The lesson is simple: avoid Cancún in March when the place is overrun by the hedonistic young. But any other time of year by all means vaya y disfrute [go and enjoy]. Not, of course, that you'll need Spanish to do so. English is widely spoken.
Cancún is Mexico made easy. It's safe, clean and sparkly, especially in winter when the temperature rises to the high eighties and the sun gives the scenery added brilliance. The sugar-fine sand glistens white, the sea shines with lapis blues and translucent turquoises, and the forest takes on hues of emerald green. As for the hotels, they have air-conditioning, purified water and maids who sprinkle flowers on the bedsheets and fold the ends of toilet tissue rolls into intricate fans.
For a place with abundant natural beauty, Cancún is a most un-natural town, one of the few cities in the world that was born from the marriage of government and computer. As recently as the late 1960s, Cancún was a deserted stretch of land lined with pristine beaches. It's safe to say that the few natives who fished in the crystal clear water had no idea that their homeland had won a government-sponsored search for Mexico's most promising tourist destination, one that would bring much needed hard currency into the country. In 1974 the first hotels opened, and life on the Yucatan Peninsula was forever changed.
While ardent conservationists may argue that 25,000 hotel rooms and three million visitors a year despoils the environment, for the most part the government has restricted development to specific areas and taken care to preserve the region's physical beauty and honor its ancient heritage.
That heritage, which centers around the Maya culture, is what sets a trip to Cancún apart from, let's say, a trip to equally winter-friendly Florida. Where else can one swim in the shadow of a 800-year-old temple? Where else can one play golf amidst the ruins of an ancient city? The juxtaposition of past and present permeates the Yucatan; the easy access to both gives Cancún a special allure. It truly does have something for everyone, from athlete to archaeologist, adult to child.
Assuming you're staying in the Hotel Zone, you'll be on a long, narrow island shaped like the numeral 7. The open sea will be to the north and east, sheltered lagoons to the west. Between them, all types of water activities are abundantly available�sport fishing, jet skiing
sailing, kayaking, parasailing, water skiing, wind surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving. For those who want to see the sea without getting wet, various companies offer rides in submarines or glass-bottom boats.
For those who like water activities mixed with cultural insights, there are two not-to-be-missed eco-parks. Xel-ha, which means "the place where water is born," is said to be a present to man from the Maya gods.
It's hard to imagine a more delightful gift. Riddled with rivers and on the edge of a large inlet, Xel-ha is perfect for snorkeling, swimming or inner-tubing. Well-cleared pathways meander through controlled jungle where occasional Mayan relics hint of the past,and knowledgeable guides are on hand to explain why, for example, the ceiba tree was considered sacred, the Mayan hut is open on the east and west, and pijibi ducks walk in pairs.
Xcaret is more developed but far short of Disneyesque. An award-winning example of ecologically-sound tourism, the park combines water-fun (snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing and, for an extra price, swimming with the dolphins), horseback riding, nature exhibits (from botanical gardens to a wild bird aviary and butterfly pavilion) and an excellent introduction to Maya traditions
The park is an arrive-early, stay-late destination. Even water-leary visitors will enjoy an inner-tube float down one of its two rivers, past rocky grottos, lush forests and a replicated Maya village. During the day dancers perform ceremonial rites, sometimes remembering the Aztecs, who once ruled central Mexico, but more often depicting the Maya.
Finally, the evening show in a 6,000-seat theater details the history of Mexico in music and dance. It's a whirling, twirling extravaganza that has caught the attention of Disney officials who just may bring it to Florida.
Now, both educated and exercised, you're ready to explore the area's Maya sites. Five sites in or near Cancún provide different views of a people who, in the three thousand years from 1500 BC until the Spanish conquest, developed a civilization noted for its sophisticated understanding of astronomy, agriculture and architecture.
Ruinas del Rey's fame is directly related to its proximity to the hotel zone. It's a relatively small site, but easy accessibility makes it a good introduction to the more interesting structures a bit further away. It dates back to the thirteenth century and is stylistically similar to Tulum, which is the ruin-of-choice for those who want to mix archaeology with picnicking and swimming.
Tulum is a picture-postcard ruin, perched atop a high cliff overlooking blue waters. It was a temple, a walled fortress and a commercial port and was still thriving long after other Mayan cities had failed. The Spanish never directly conquered the site; it disintegrated when, as a result of the conquest, commerce was disrupted.
If Tulum is Maya-by-the-sea, Cobá is Maya-in-the-forest. It's a large site, and archaeologists believe it was once home to 40,000 people and encompassed nearly 30 square miles. There are still roads to be cleared and 5,000 mounds to be excavated. Exciting? Yes. But buses park far away and, unlike Ek Balam, reaching the ruins requires a trek through forested paths. Wear comfortable shoes.
As recently as 1998 Ek Balam was a mostly forgotten site, hidden by an overgrown jungle. Today National Geographic is studying it and clearing has begun, yet most tourists ignore it in favor of trips to the better-known and better-preserved ruins of Tulum and Chichén Itzá. A big mistake. Archaeologists think that Ek Balaam, which would have towered above Chichén Itzá, was once an important and influential city. But most of all, its still-untrampled surroundings give visitors the feel of traveling back into antiquity.
Finally there's Chichén Itzá, which is three hours from Cancún by highway, more if you drive the local road with passes through small Mayan villages. But as one of the Maya world's most well-known sites, going to the Yucatan without seeing Chichén Itzá is akin to visiting China without seeing the Great Wall. It was once the center of political, religious and military power in the region, and its architecture reflects the gradual changes in thought and lifestyle of the ancients. Of particular interest to the ghoulishly as well as culturally inclined: huge structures devoted to human sacrifice.
Interested in learning even more about Cancún? Here, some guidebooks that give different perspectives.
HIDDEN CANCÚN & THE YUCATAN by Richard Harris (Ulysses Press, $16.95) Get tips on ritz and glitz from other books; use this one for adventures further afield, to find the non-air-conditioned Mexico and the photos of Mayan women a la National Geographic.
CANCÚN, COZUMEL AND THE RIVIERA MAYA ALIVE! by Bruce & June Conord (Hunter Publishing, $14.95) Bruce Conord (shown here with Mayan children) urges shoppers to bargain but respect the fact that most vendors consider themselves lucky to make $25 a week. His guide is aimed at the person who may be staying in the Hotel Zone but who wants to venture into the villages.
(MOON HANDBOOKS MEXICO by Joe Cummings &Chicki Mallan, (Avalon Travel Publishing, $21.95) Moon books remain the best page-per-penny buy available. There are nearly 1200 jam-packed pages and even if you're only interested in Cancún and environs, you'll get your money's worth. You can save a few dollars, and lighten the load in your suitcase, by buying the 200+ page concentrated version, MOON HANDBOOKS CANCÚN, MEXICO'S CARIBBEAN COAST (Avalon Travel Publishing, $14.95). Written by Chicki Mallan, co-author of the Mexico book, it covers the same ground, usually in the same words.
INSIGHT COMPACT GUIDE: CANCÚN & THE YUCATAN by Tony Halliday with Bronwen Hillman (APA Publications, $8.95). Insight Guides excel at the tease. Top-notch photography and high gloss paper mean that a quick flip through the book gives readers a pictorial overview of sights and attractions. Short essays provide excellent introductions to the area's history and culture.