Spring break happens over roughly a six-week period from mid March to late April. It’s staggered at colleges depending on the quarter or semester system, and at elementary and high school levels, timing is determined by Easter’s date, local issues, and teachers’ meetings.
For college students, spring break is a siren song leading away from exams and schedules and onto some sun-drenched beach, preferably with lots of other like-minded souls. The beach blanket movies catapulted Fort Lauderdale to top spot in the 50s and in the 90s, Cancun claimed that position and has held on tight. It’s easy to see why — Cancun is a beauty with a lot to offer.
Cancun’s hotel zone, a slender sliver of powdered white sand at the top of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, stretches from the city of Cancun 28 kilometers along the coast to a junction where glamour continues, if headed south to the Riviera Maya, or ends if headed north.
The Zona Hotelera, as it’s known to locals, puts Miami Beach to shame. Ever since it was rebuilt post Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the beauty, glitz, and sophistication it exudes has taken on a new dimension and made it one of the premier international tourist spots in the world. As a backdrop to its bevy of glamorous five-star hotels is the deep turquoise Caribbean Sea with soft waves rolling off the nearby reef.
But Cancun’s hotel zone is a world away from the real Cancun, population 500,000 when I moved there in 1997, and now a city of 1.5 million plus. Located in the state of Quintana Roo, which was inducted as the 31st state of the Mexico Union as recently as 1973, the city of Cancun is a newcomer and the downtown area is often avoided by tourists.
Not that Cancun is dangerous. Far from it, as big cities go. But it is well removed from the glamour that the hotel zone has come to epitomize. It’s no secret that local tour guides and hotel concierges often tell visitors to steer clear of Cancun and spend their time — and tourist dollars — in the contrived calm of the hotel zone where every vista is deliciously staged. In the hotel zone you won’t see people on bicycles or children dressed for school. What you will see is a wide boulevard lined with the likes of the Rui Palace, the Ritz Carlton, the Hard Rock Café, and gaggles of tourists in sun visors and Bermudas carrying shopping bags from upscale shops.
In Cancun’s downtown, you find the basics of a thriving city – packed buses, streets crowded with people going to work, and buildings past their prime needing a fresh coat of paint. There are good markets, shopping plazas, and restaurants, and a light showing of tourists.
So far Cancun has escaped the onus of Mexico’s drug problems and remained a safe city. With 2012’s year of the Maya celebration, the Mexico Tourism Board announced blockbuster tourist numbers, totaling nearly 25 million visitors by October, according to an article in the LA Times that month.
With Pacific Coast Acapulco, in cartel infested Guerrero, in decline and the site of a recent tourist tragedy, where six Spanish women were raped by hooded men while on vacation at a tourist villa as reported by the Huffington-Post on February 6, Cancun has been a city holding its breath.
Now it can exhale as tragedy has struck. Not in Cancun’s hotel zone, but in a barrio nearby, according to an article March 15 in The Christian Science Monitor, where two gunmen entered a bar-restaurant on March 14 armed with AK-47’s and a 9 millimeter handgun and killed seven and injured five. The shooting involved members of the taxi (taxistas) union, according to The New York Times. Having lived just south of Cancun for 15 years, hearing mixed reports about the taxistas were common as all taxi comings and goings in the state of Quintana Roo must be run through this union.
On the night of the shootings, five wounded were taken to a local Cancun hospital, where one died on being admitted. Guards were stationed at entryways so that no more retaliation could take place. With Spring Break just beginning, timing couldn’t be worse. For Cancun, Spring Break is the last big tourist push of the year, and all hotels, bars, restaurants and tourist attractions rely on this influx of pesos to get through slower summer months when temperatures and humidity soar.
Can Cancun continue to escape Mexico’s reputation of a gun-ridden land of drug cartels and mayhem? The next few weeks will tell the tale, as Cancun resorts will either retain their Spring Break bookings, or lose them.