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The Next Cancun? : More hotels have sprouted at the Pacific resort of Huatulco, but its beaches remain quiet--for now


HUATULCO, Mexico — What could ever happen here? Not much, it seems from the sands of Chachacual Bay. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Mangrove trees bend in the breeze. Maybe someone puts up a palapa of woven palm fronds, maybe not. In the summer rainy season, the foliage grows thick and green. Then it fades as the dry 80-degree days parade through fall, winter and spring. And then the cycle circles again.

But there are other cycles at work at Huatulco, and change is the way of things. Decorative palms rise among the mangroves. Kayaks repose in the sand. And luxury suites climb the hillsides. This 22-mile stretch of coastline, about 240 miles southeast of Acapulco, is the focus of one of the most ambitious tourism-development projects in North America, and the Mexican government, hoping to repeat past successes in Cancun, Ixtapa and Los Cabos, is its principal sponsor.

Eleven years ago, when the building began, most of this 52,000-acre area was one scene after another of paddling fishermen, cornstalk rows and houses with dirt floors. The permanent population was somewhere around 1,000, and the government was just starting to buy families out of their waterfront lots and relocate them inland.

Twenty-four years from now, if FONATUR, the Mexican government's tourism-development agency, sticks to its long-term plan, Huatulco will be a resort with 2 million tourists a year, nearly 30,000 hotel rooms, a permanent population of 345,000 and all the accouterments of full-service, we-speak-English tourism. (It's likely that the resort will run a few years behind schedule; not-yet-completed facilities at Chahue and Cacaluta bays were originally to be done by this year.)

For now, however, Huatulco is suspended between extremes. Visit and you find warm weather, uncrowded beaches, a profusion of water sports, grateful entrepreneurs, several high-end hotels and a few advantages that are almost certain to vanish as the government's plans draw nearer to completion.

For instance: Eight years after the opening of the airport, paved roads have only reached three of the nine bays--Tangolunda, Santa Cruz and Chahue. As a result, the remaining six bays are the domain of dirt-road adventurers and boat passengers who arrive on day trips from the marina at Santa Cruz.

Seven years after the opening of the first hotel, a Club Med, there are 17 in business, from rustic to post-modern, with a combined capacity of roughly 1,800 rooms. The fancy, pricey places far outnumber the budget lodgings, but the overall occupancy rate is only about 50%, perhaps because most Americans probably can't pronounce Huatulco ( wah-TOOL-co ), let alone find it on a map.

Government figures show that fewer than 32,000 of the 181,000 visitors who came last year were from the United States, a figure far surpassed by U.S visitors to Cancun, Ixtapa and Los Cabos. Not much English is spoken, and most of the tourists I met here were from Mexico City.

I was in Huatulco for three days in May--the off-season, when room prices are lower, and temperatures a little higher, than in winter. After the hour-long flight from Mexico City, I stepped into 90-degree heat, boarded a shuttle for the 12-mile ride to the Sheraton ($7) and watched as brittle, gray foliage flashed past and finally yielded to the turquoise Pacific.

Santa Cruz, busiest of the bays and the center of village life before the resort-makers came, includes a handful of smallish hotels, several modest but inviting waterfront restaurants, a souvenir market and a post-FONATUR marina with about 200 slips. At its edges, fishermen mend nets, sort their catches and lay out severed dorsal fins to dry in the sun. Nearby, chartered motorboats await customers, and tourist-ferrying cabin cruisers collect passengers.

You can hire a boatman at the marina for about $20 and have him drop you off on an empty beach and return a few hours later. For those less inclined to trust strangers to keep such appointments, there are day trips in cabin cruisers. I paid $27 for one of those, climbed aboard a 30-foot fiberglass-shelled vessel with three crew members and seven other tourists (all Mexican) and set to practicing my Spanish and trying to keep straight the names of the bays.

Conejos, a collection of three empty beaches (targeted for a large hotel soon), is the easternmost along the east-to-west coastline. La Entrega is not a bay but a popular beach within Santa Cruz Bay. Chahue Bay is to be the site of a second marina, now under construction.

Up the coast we puttered, pausing to swim ashore or snorkel here and there, applauding when a stationary fishing pole jerked and crew member Roberto Carreno pulled aboard a gleaming green and yellow dorado that seemed nearly a yard long.

At Organo Bay, where FONATUR hopes foreign investors will soon put up an all-inclusive resort, I saw one palapa and several tons of creamy sand.

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