Cancun: Spring break, summit

CANCUN, MEXICO — CANCUN, Mexico -- If the talk about borders and immigration drags on at the summit here today, President Bush could always slip out and sneak into "the foam party."

That's tonight's bash at one of the disco-lounges on the resort's hotel strip, where American college students in bathing suits gyrate to music beneath an endless stream of foam raining on them from the ceiling. The foam slops around like the beer in their plastic cups, rising from the floor up to their necks and billowing up on their heads.


It is Cancun, after all, and the spring breakers have been partying here for weeks, although the sheer number is down considerably as Mexico's No. 1 tourist resort continues struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Wilma tore through six months ago.

The timing might seem a bit curious for a juxtaposition of summit buildup and party down. But showing off Cancun's reconstruction and luring back the tourists are reasons the Mexicans wanted to be host to Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper here this week.


Others, not so enamored of the annual rowdiness, think the smaller spring break crowds are just perfect.

"I'd say it's down by half, not that I care," said Henry Louda, 64, a retired Caterpillar employee from Cleveland who has wintered in Cancun for 22 years. "They can send them all to Egypt as far as I'm concerned. Actually, Iraq would be better."

Judging how well Cancun has recovered from Wilma is like deciding whether the hotels are half full or half empty.

Wilma was one of the strongest hurricanes to slam into the Yucatan peninsula in years. Then it stalled overhead, its whirling winds breaking atrium windows and flooding basements for 62 hours. The storm ripped nearly the entire beach away from the hotel strip.

Since then, President Vicente Fox's government has spent $20 million on restoring the sands and re-landscaping the boulevards. Thousands of construction workers poured into Cancun to help rebuilding efforts as the government tried to clear away bureaucratic hurdles in time for the year-end holiday season.

Six months later, only about 65 percent of Cancun's 27,822 hotel rooms are bookable. Many hotels have reopened. Many have not. Tourism officials say part of the delay is the result of problems securing insurance money and a decision by some hotels to completely remodel.

Some tourists in functioning hotels say the experience is as good as before. Much of the beach has been restored. But others are surprised by the construction sites, remaining piles of rubble and sand, palm trees propped up with boards on the way in from the airport.

Lorenzillo's, a popular seafood restaurant built of wood on a pier, practically disappeared - "It was carried away into the air," said a taxi driver. But it now has been moved into another building next door as the original is rebuilt.


"We're thinking now that the majority will be ready in the summer," said Israel Urbina, a spokesman for the Cancun Convention and Visitors Center. "We're ready to receive the presidents, and it's a reason for us to be proud and to show them how Cancun has advanced."

As a testament to Cancun's reputation, some spring breakers arrived without knowing the first thing about any hurricane. Nor did they know Air Force One and an armada of presidential support would descend on them, creating a mix of topless sunbathers and stern-faced security guards, journalists in safari vests dining next to youths with full-arm tattoos, earrings and Bronx accents.

While some spring breakers were nostalgic for the Cancun of old, others were determined not to let either Wilma or the presidents spoil their fun.

"The bars are still packed, but the lines aren't as long," said Mike Coxworth, 18, a high school graduate from Edmonton, Canada, slurping a blue kamikaze at his hotel bar. "I thought the place would be destroyed way more than this."

Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune.