The night students sat at rows of desks in the elementary school in Canc�n City, a new town on the northeastern tip of Mexico's Yucat�n peninsula. Facing the others nervously, a teen-ager in a floral shirt was saying, "To impress tourists, you must be clean. You should have a...uh, haircut and...." He urgently consulted a slip of paper. "You should be shaved and neatly dressed. Your shoes, uh, uh...."
The audience of would-be bellboys, bartenders and chambermaids listened in sympathetic silence. Like the speaker, most were of Mayan extraction, small and copper-hued people whose ancestors once built a flourishing civilization in the Yucat�n jungle. Now the descendants were building something, too, a vast tourist complex promoted by the Mexican government on the island of Canc�n, a 14-mile sliver of sand just off the peninsula's Caribbean coast. These Indians of Yucat�n had linked Canc�n to the mainland with a short causeway, and were now lining its shores with hotels, condominiums and the manifold amenities favored by tourists.
They had also built, on the flat and wooded mainland, Canc�n City. Equal parts model city and construction camp, the city's population had mushroomed to 20,000 in less than three years. Many of Canc�n City's residents had traded thatched huts for masonry cottages, and quite a few had enrolled in night classes to learn the intricacies of mixing drinks and carrying baggage. The school also dealt with culture shock. Since most modern Mayas sleep in hammocks, aspiring chambermaids were shown what a bed was before learning how to change linen. And because many Mayas are shy, all the students were brought together one evening a week for poetry readings, music and recitations of the kind the teen-ager in the floral shirt was struggling to deliver.
"You must wear a sonrisa—a smile," he was saying. He himself, however, was close to tears. "You must have, uh, uh...." He hurriedly concluded, biting off the last word in frustration, "you must have confidence."
It is a mark of confidence that Canc�n is already welcoming its first visitors, the advance guard of an influx expected to reach one million visitors a year by 1993. The New York City ad agency of Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample recently launched what Account Executive I. Martin Davis calls the "opening salvo" of a campaign to introduce Canc�n (pronounced kahn koon) to U.S. sunseekers. "Mayan kings wintered here 1,000 winters ago," the ads proclaim. "Now you may join the procession." But Davis concedes, " Canc�n isn't for everyone yet. Right now it's for the explorer, the guy who wants to be not just the first on his block to go somewhere but the first in his whole state."
The pitch is to visit Mexico's newest resort not before it is spoiled but before it is ready. The whisper of trade winds is often drowned out in Canc�n by the roar of bulldozers, and vacationers must also contend with potholes in the streets, clouds of construction dust and a scarcity of working telephones. In their hotel rooms, guests may find it as difficult to bounce a peso off their beds as off, well, a hammock.
But the explorers Davis has in mind will find exhilaration all the same. Though direct flights from places such as Miami, Atlanta and New York are not expected to begin much before next winter, a $10 million airport has opened on the mainland 12 miles from Canc�n, and scheduled airliners fly in from Mexico City and the Yucatecan capital of M�rida. The taxi ride from the airport is along a new highway that cuts through thickets of chicle-yielding zapote trees. Soon Canc�n City comes into view, its paved streets, landscaped plaza and small whitewashed houses a vision on the desolate coast. Then the taxi reaches the causeway and crosses onto the island.
But it is not so much an island as a sandspit, an L-shaped outcropping that shoots this way for a few miles, then veers off that way. Along the one road, which only now is starting to resemble the palm-lined boulevard it is destined to be, shiny new buildings rise up like a row of sugar cubes. The road passes condominiums, a large convention center and the almost obligatory Robert Trent Jones golf course, all of which are nearing completion. So are hotels like the 197-room El Presidente, run by a Mexican chain, and Western International's 250-room Camino Real. Going up at the tip of a promontory and overlooking both shallow lagoons and the open sea is a 300-room outpost of that purveyor of tropical hedonism, Club M�diterran�e.
A dozen hotels, providing 2,000 rooms, will be open early next year; five are already in business. They include the lavish Villas Tacul, a cluster of individual casas, each a riot of hand-tooled copper sinks, handwoven tapestries and, depending on which you choose, fountains, patios and gardens. A five-bedroom villa, the biggest available, rents for $250 a day, maid service included. There is also the Canc�n-Caribe, with a scalloped beach, a labyrinthine pool and tennis courts under construction.
Lots have been set aside for Holiday Inn and Marriott, and work will soon begin on marinas and waterfront boutiques. But already much has gone up since Alan Saturn, a lawyer from Nashville, and his wife Nancy saw Canc�n a year ago. At a party in Nashville, the Saturns had heard a visiting Mexican rave about Canc�n. They impulsively contacted a travel agent, who somehow came up with confirmed hotel reservations. It was only after they flew to M�rida and made the four-hour drive to Canc�n that they discovered there were not yet any hotels or much of anything else.