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Visitors Slowly Return to Uncrowded Mexico

December 15, 1985|DON SHANNON | Times Staff Writer

COZUMEL, Mexico — We felt like the only two tourists in Mexico City a few days ago and haven't really felt crowded, even in this normally standing-room only Yucatan resort this week.

And a stopover in Mazatlan on Mexico's Pacific coast, before our arrival in Mexico City was equally remarkable for the small number of American travelers. Although it was a first-time visit for my wife and me, we had the definite impression that tourists were a good deal more welcome than usual.

Hotel staff personnel, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and even police went out of their way to provide help. Everywhere we traveled outside the capital, Mexicans expressed puzzlement at the absence of Americans because, except for the severe damage caused in a relatively small area of Mexico City, the Sept. 7 earthquake left no trace on any part of our itinerary.

While most commentators blamed indiscriminate news reports that implied vast areas had been struck, government officials associated with the tourist trade said they believed travel advisories concerning security, issued by the U.S. State Department earlier in the year, may have been equally responsible for deserted hotels and resorts. We were unaware of any such problems during our visit.

Train From Mazatlan

There may have been another reason for the loneliest part of the journey--a train trip from Mazatlan to Mexico City. Better-informed tourists would probably never have considered it. As a rail buff, however, I had originally planned to ride the Ferrocarril del Pacifico all the way south from the border starting point at Nogales.

Friends in our San Francisco starting point insisted that we should skip the first leg and fly straight to Mazatlan on Mexicana's Sunday-morning flight. The change saved nearly 48 hours. We would otherwise have had to fly to Tucson and wait overnight to catch the southbound train from Nogales Monday morning, arriving at the port city the following morning.

An ominous portent of things to come was the resumption of the rail journey Wednesday morning. The Mexico City-bound train, scheduled to depart at 8:10 a.m., chugged into the station about noon, affording plenty of time to examine the only tourist attraction near the Mazatlan station, the municipal cemetery.

Our bedroom in a vintage Pullman car, bought from the Southern Pacific when U.S. passenger service ceased, was a time capsule from the 1940s. By good fortune, the car's air conditioning was still working. This was not the case with the dining car--six cars and several death-defying leaps away--where the worst food we encountered in Mexico was delivered to dirty tables by a sullen crew. The eating problem was subsequently resolved by following other passengers who hopped off at frequent stops to buy from vendors offering fried chicken, tacos and an endless variety of fruits and drinks.

The arid landscape passed, increasingly difficult to see because no window washing ever took place. Despite the powerful efforts of three diesel locomotives, the train fell further behind schedule and instead of reaching Guadalajara at nightfall, it didn't arrive until after midnight, thereby missing the connection to Mexico City. This worked out happily, however, providing an unexpected day in Guadalajara to see the magnificent churches in the city's colonial center. Aside from some business patrons at the Sheraton Guadalajara hotel's lavish breakfast buffet, we encountered not another gringo in eight hours.

Outskirts of Capital

Back aboard the Real Aguilar (the old cars have been renamed and we spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to read the old names under layers of paint), we woke up on the outskirts of the capital. We saw no evidence of the earthquake, however, until we left the central station and passed through a tent city in which residents of the area were still housed. After that, damage was more and more evident until we reached the Paseo de La Reforma, where several office buildings stood abandoned, leaning at odd angles, some with collapsed floors.

Most of the Zona Rosa, the normally thronged shopping and hotel district, was intact, and our hotel, the Calinda Geneve, built in 1907, showed not a crack from the latest of several major tremors it has experienced in its long life. But there was a repressed air to the entire city as residents appeared to struggle back to normal life in the wake not only of the catastrophe whose death toll is still unknown but in the continuing pressure of a grinding economic crisis.

Traditional sightseeing continues, but at the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside the capital, the English version of the sound and light show was attended by less than 50 persons while hundreds of Mexicans waited for the Spanish-language performance that followed. A pleasant benefit from the absence of foreigners, however, was that we got a table at the usually crowded restaurant, Charlie's, near the pyramids and were served in less than an hour.

No Problem Getting In

For the same reason, we got reservations the next night at the famous Inn at San Angel in the city, calling only a few hours in advance. This, friends said, is not usually the case.

And when we appeared at Cozumel, the island off Yucatan, a day earlier than scheduled, it was to be greeted warmly. The resort in normal times is so crowded that tourists with reservations sometimes find themselves shunted to other hotels. The Hotel La Ceiba, a favorite for scuba divers because of its waterfront location, was little more than half full and larger hotels like the Sol Caribe and El Presidente appeared to have even more vacancies.

With the easy availability of hotels and airplane seats--and railway tickets for masochists--combined with a peso at about 500 to the dollar, Mexico is this winter's winner for easy travel.

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