CANCUN, Mexico — Cast your mind forward a couple of millennia. Imagine that future archeologists are contemplating the ruins of the seemingly endless procession of palatial hotels that now march into the distance here along the white sands of Mexico's Caribbean coast. It's fairly easy to see how the future scientists may be as mystified by these opulent monuments as their present-day counterparts are by the hundreds of cities which the Maya built in the surrounding 15,000 square miles of jungle, and then seemingly abandoned.
If the scientists do discover why the palace-hotels were raised on this narrow island just off the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, they will likely dismiss it as legend and keep looking for something more profound. But the reason is well known: From a short list of 400 possible sites around Mexico, government computers in the late 1960s were assigned the task of finding the perfect location for the creation of the country's most lavish resort. After much ruminating, the 20th-Century high priests brought forth the name of a skinny little barrier island just off the coast in the state of Quintana Roo.
Lapped by the warm, gemlike waters of the Caribbean on one side and cradled by lagoons on the land side, with offshore reefs, game fishing, white beaches, reliable sunshine and one of the world's richest archeological zones, Cancun was declared the worthiest mecca for sun worshippers bearing their almighty tourist dollars. And so the air conditioned temples that can shelter 20,000 North American winter escapees now rear up in splendor where before there were only thatched huts.
Although the resort--which is connected to the mainland by two causeways--is no more representative of the Yucatan than Waikiki is of Hawaii, it has proved hugely successful. The resort that did not exist before 1974 has quickly become Mexico's leading tourist destination.
And judging by the cities they built for themselves, the Maya would have wholeheartedly approved of the immense scale of Cancun. These people with the most advanced civilization in the Americas--they developed a calender more accurate than our own, mastered complex mathematics, carved a theory of evolution in stone 1,000 years before Darwin and a written language when Paris and London were still somebody's farms--didn't need computers to recognize a good thing. They made the Yucatan Peninsula the hub of an empire that lasted 1,000 years and stretched all the way to southern Guatemala. Half a million of their descendants still inhabit the Yucatan today; many local people speak only Maya and continue the traditions of their forefathers, considering themselves Yucatecos first and Mexicans second.
We flew into Cancun International Airport, about nine miles from Cancun City on the land side of the resort, and put our feet up for a couple of days at the Fiesta Americana Hotel before heading out to explore the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula by rental car. Driving almost anywhere in Mexico usually qualifies as high adventure, but the relatively unpopulated Yucatan and a mellow way of life in Mayaland makes road travel a lot less stressful than in the major population centers. The main hazards are the temptation to speed on the long straight roads and the wandering livestock and children on the roads around hamlets. The flat countryside throughout the three Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo is not in itself that interesting--low-lying jungles over porous limestone topsoil. But putting ourselves behind the wheel meant having the freedom to stop where we pleased and stroll secluded beaches, snorkel or explore lesser-known ruins and out-of-the-way towns at our own pace.
Our favorite circuit of the peninsula is a four-day drive that begins at Cancun and skirts the great beaches to the south, swings across the peninsula to the most famous inland ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza and the Spanish colonial city of Merida before turning back to Cancun. In order to avoid traffic we drove in the early morning, arriving at points of interest before late morning and retreating during the hottest part of the day, as do the sensible Mexicans, for a long and leisurely lunch.
Some of Mexico's most beautiful and uninhabited beaches scallop the Yucatan's eastern coastline, miles of sugar-white sand and surf created by the eroding limestone of the peninsula. On our first day out, we drove only about an hour from Cancun on Mexico 307 before unpacking our snorkeling gear and walking down a path to the small rocky inlet of Xcaret. There is no beach there, but the shallow waters of the inlet form a natural aquarium where we swam among clouds of dazzling tropical fish. On the horizon we could make out the island of Cozumel eight miles off shore, where pirates once hid their booty. Fabulous Palancar Reef, part of a coral reef system that meanders all the way south to Belize, draws divers from around the world.