SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
January 27, 1975
Forget the stereotypes. A vigorous band of Mexican technocrats with misgivings about Acapulco is creating a new resort on Canc�n
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January 27, 1975

No More Ma�anas

Forget the stereotypes. A vigorous band of Mexican technocrats with misgivings about Acapulco is creating a new resort on Canc�n

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In relation to Acapulco, Canc�n is a second front in Mexico's sun-and-surf offensive. In relation to Caribbean vacation spots like Jamaica or the Bahamas it is more like a sneak attack. Last fall Guillermo Grimm, Fonatur's marketing director, went to Martinique for the annual meeting of the Caribbean Travel Association. Some of the delegates from other islands, he recalls, were "rather cool."

This reaction is easy to understand. Many Caribbean islands have the same problems as Acapulco plus the crime and racial tensions of the largest U.S. cities. Yet here is a new challenger, close to the U.S. market and coming on strong. Press releases refer to Fonatur's staffers as "bright young technocrats." Statistics are churned out suggesting that Canc�n has lots of sunshine, little rain. For a while Fonatur implied that Canc�n had somehow been chosen by computers following an exhaustive talent hunt among sweet young beaches. Nor has it flinched from capitalizing on troubles elsewhere. "We don't have a racial problem in the Yucat�n," Enriquez-Savignac says. "The Mayas are gentle and friendly."

It may help, of course, that the Mayas live in an area that has seen few strangers. With an economy overly dependent on henequen, a plant from which twine is made, the Yucat�n has been historically isolated from the rest of Mexico, especially as one traveled eastward into Quintana Roo, the harsh and thinly settled area embracing the Caribbean coast. Quintana Roo graduated from territory to statehood just last October. Besides the Indians, its population includes the roustabouts who harvest the local chicle crop, many of them fugitives who found Quintana Roo to be a perfect hiding place.

Like the Yucat�n in general, Quintana Roo abounds in wild pig, quail and jungle deer, not to mention Canadian ducks who wintered in these parts long before anybody heard of Canc�n. An authority on the peninsula's wildlife is George Garcia Lopez, who for four decades has been organizing safaris out of M�rida, a busy and spotless city of 250,000. A tall, smooth-skinned man of 68 with a twitching eye that accounts for his nickname of Sem�foro, Garcia recently suffered the further indignity of having three teeth pulled. Afterward he sat in pajamas in his high-ceilinged den, dabbing a handkerchief to his mouth.

"There's every kind of hunting within 30 miles of Canc�n," he said. "There's big game, too, but I must warn you—our government has just approved new license fees of $480 for jaguar and $240 for ocelot. I went to Mexico City and fought with the government for seven days, but for nothing." He winced, though it was hard to say whether because of his sore mouth or the memory of his unsuccessful lobbying, then added, "I took my wife along, and for seven days I fought with her, too."

But hunting is downplayed in Canc�n, the assumption being that few guests of Villas Tacul or El Presidente will want to trudge through the wilderness to rendezvous with ticks and vipers. Hiking across the Yucat�n's archaeological sites is another matter. Some of these ruins already receive tourists, and Canc�n is within range of them via rented car or bus excursions organized by the hotels.

Perhaps the most appealing of the ancient Mayan cities is Uxmal, whose graceful temples and elaborate stone friezes date from the eighth century. Uxmal is a five-hour drive into the Yucat�n interior, and visitors can combine it with an overnight stay in nearby M�rida. Somewhat closer is sprawling Chich�n Itz�, with its massive pyramid, its grassy ball court—the largest yet found in pre-Columbian America—and its cenote, a gaping sinkhole into whose inky waters Mayan priests flung humans to their deaths as sacrifices to the gods. And it is just a 90-minute drive along the Quintana Roo coast to the ruins of Tulum, a walled city on cliffs high above the Caribbean. Archaeologists consider Tulum less important than Uxmal or Chich�n Itz�, but its builders obviously knew a thing or two about real estate.

Modern-day Yucatecans have long since misplaced the great architectural and mathematical gifts of their forebears, but most of them still speak Maya and their womenfolk can still be seen walking along lonely roads in their loose-fitting white huipiles. The Mayas have clung to their ancient ways despite the periodic oppressions of past Mexican governments, a sorry record that Canc�n may help reverse. Not only does tourism create jobs, but Fonatur, anxious to avoid the kind of slums found elsewhere in Mexico, has been selling some of Canc�n City's new residents two-bedroom homes with electricity and indoor plumbing for as little as $5,000. It is a neat bit of welfare statism: the homes on the mainland are partly subsidized by Fonatur's land sales on the island.

But the men of Fonatur are no longer quick to imply that Canc�n is some sort of Utopia in the jungle. It is largely a matter of image. "Nobody wants to visit a place that sounds cold and Orwellian," says Guillermo Grimm. "Tourists don't like to feel programmed." A new official line has emerged. Fonatur's bright young technocrats now tell everybody that Canc�n was selected by people, not computers.

The question of image aside, Canc�n is not perfect. This explains the beleaguered air of Jorge Gleesen, one of Fonatur's top on-the-scene officials. A bony, Ichabodian fellow in horn-rimmed glasses, Gleesen scoots around Canc�n in a radio-equipped Volkswagen, trying to keep abreast of visiting bankers, investors, journalists and politicians' wives. "We're badly understaffed," he complains, adding sardonically, "Oh, well, this is Mexico. Everything will get done sooner or later."

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