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Bush Joins the Ranks of Presidential Tourists With Visit to Mexican Ruins

March 31, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

CANCUN, Mexico — Given a choice, President Bush is not a tourist.

When he visited St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002, he completed his tour of the Hermitage Museum in two hours 16 minutes. That was enough time to have look at the artwork and have lunch with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. There are 3 million pieces in the collection. Bush didn't see them all.

As president, he has been to Rome. He skipped the Colosseum.

Berlin? He drove past the Brandenburg Gate without stopping.

He did the Great Wall of China in a half-hour flat, then turned to a reporter and said, "Let's go home." And four weeks ago, Bush caused a diplomatic row by refusing entreaties while in India to visit the Taj Mahal.

All of which make his activities Thursday morning that much more remarkable. Bush took a one-hour flight aboard his helicopter, Marine One, from Cancun to Chichen Itza to visit the Maya and Toltec ruin that is among the world's greatest archeological sites.

The once-sacred city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was first populated about 1,500 years ago, abandoned and resettled, until it was finally deserted about 700 years ago.

Wearing a white tropical short-sleeved shirt, khakis and rough-soled hiking shoes, Bush walked along El Castillo, the pyramid that is the site's most prominent feature, accompanied by his host, Mexican President Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Sounding more the formal diplomat than the casual tourist, Bush said to Fox, "I want to thank you for letting us begin our very important meetings at this very significant historical site."

The three leaders are meeting here in a North American summit, and Fox has used the visit to send out a message that this resort on the Yucatan Peninsula, battered by Hurricane Wilma last year, is open for business. Bringing the foreign leaders to the remains of an ancient civilization sent out an additional graphic message: His country offers more for a tourist than just beaches.

Perhaps it was because Bush is in his sixth year in office -- or, more likely, because he really had little choice but to yield to protocol and the wishes of his host -- but the president cooperated with Fox's mission.

Together, the three leaders climbed about five of the pyramid's steep steps.

Security forces, armed and equipped with binoculars, stood atop the structure, some 360 steps above them.

At one point along the president's route as he toured the ruins, a band played a Yucatan song and he swayed slightly.

After adhering during his first five years in office to a schedule that had him speeding through meetings and meals and then heading to his next stop, or home, Bush joined the ranks of presidential tourists with his two hours at Chichen Itza.

To be sure, he has made some concessions to local culture over the years -- in Botswana, he made a quick drive through an animal park in 2003. And presidents rarely spend much time at tourist attractions while on diplomatic travels. But they do manage some sightseeing, often at the urging of their hosts.

Ronald Reagan, in China in 1984, detoured hundreds of miles to the city of Xian to see its terra-cotta warriors, an archeological treasure. Four years later, he strolled in Moscow's Red Square with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

And Bill Clinton took a full day off on a trip to Turkey to tour the remains of the ancient civilization at Ephesus.

But that has not been Bush's style.

Still, on Thursday, he squeezed in a favored pursuit.

Between the tour of Chichen Itza and the first of his diplomatic meetings, he worked up a sweat in his hotel's gymnasium.

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