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Cancun provokes either love or hate--nothing in the middle. Those fond of the beach, of being pampered, of turquoise waters and white sand, of cold beers and soothing margaritas, of really getting away from daily life, love the place and can't wait to experience it a second or third time. Critics love to hate it because it was manufactured from nothing--it was the world's first resort to be engineered from scratch after a talent search by the Mexican government. "There's no there, there," they claim, citing the lack of any kind of cultural background for the place.

The critics are wrong. In addition to pampering the body and relaxing the mind, the ambience of Cancun also affords opportunities to expand the mind. You can learn a lot about Mexico from the town's museum, its folkloric shows, even its regional and Mexican-style restaurants. And if you get out to the archeological sites that abound nearby, you will be immersing yourself in one of the world's oldest extant civilizations. (Yes, the Mayan people are still here and now increasingly interested in acting to preserve their culture.) When you tire of just relaxing (or golfing, playing tennis or participating in any number of the many other resort sponsored activities), there is the lure of the past, of mystic ways of life that can still teach us something about the world around us. (Chichen Itza, for instance, flourished from about 445 to 1204, when it was abandoned, leaving behind a valuable legacy of Mayan cultural accomplishments.)

Highlights

If and when lying on the beach gets boring, there are several things to do in Cancun, in the Hotel Zone itself, or downtown. One is the Museo de Arte Popular Mexicano, at El Embarcadero, Km. 4 of Kukulcan Boulevard. There's a nice collection of masks, regional costumes, nativity scenes, crucifixes, church models, images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, gourd art, musical instruments and all kinds of Mexican toys, spread out over 4,500 square feet. Admission $10, kids under 12 half price. Phone the museum at 849-4848 or 849-7777, Web site www.elembarcadero.com.

Every Wednesday at 3:30 is a bullfight (or perhaps a rodeo, with no intentional bloodshed) at the Plaza de Toros, Avenue Bonampak, phone 884-8248. There's a nice restaurant downstairs, La Guadalupana, a typical cantina style place, with friendly service and tasty light dishes.

Nightlife possibilities include the Tradicion del Caribe, a production featured at the Teatro de Cancun, weekdays at 9 PM, casual dress, drinks included in the ticket price, which starts at 280 pesos (about $31). At 7 PM in the same theater, there is Voces y Danzas de Mexico, with songs and dances "from every corner of Mexico." Located at Km. 4 of Kukulcan Boulevard, phone 849-4848, Web site www.elembarcadero.com.

Perhaps best of the shows is the Ballet Folklorico, daily from 6:30 to 9:30 except Sundays at the Convention Center, where the charge of 460 pesos (about $51) also includes dinner. Phone them at 881-0400.

Cruises are offered to Isla Mujeres by Captain Hook, phone 883-3736; and to Cozumel for snorkeling (8 hour trip) at Aqua World (phone 885-2288). There's a Columbus Lobster Dinner Cruise daily from 4 to 7 out of the Royal Mayan Marina, phone 883-1488.

For a very modest theme park, go to the Parque Nizuc, at Km. 25 on Blvd. Kukulcan, with slides, diving boards and dolphins. Admission $27 adults, $21 children, open 10 to 5:30 daily, phone 881-3000. Much bigger and better is Xcaret (pronounced Ish-cah-ret), a wondrous place where you can visit for $69, the price including admission, transport and show. It's a 2-hour trip (72 km., about 43 miles) to get there, but worth it. Departures at 7, 9, 10 and 11 in the morning, returning at 4:30 or 8 PM. Phone them at 883-3143.

A bit longer trip (122 km., about 73 miles), to Xel-Ha, a marvelous beach resort near Mayan ruins, costs just $10 for adults and $11.40 for children, admission only. Phone 884-9422 for more information. (Tulum, also near by, has ruins worth visiting, too.)

You can take a semi-submarine ride (you sit below water level and look out, but the craft remains above water level), through Nautibus, taking 80 minutes out to the reef and back, four departures daily. The cost is 240 pesos (about $22) for adults, half that for children. Playa Linda Dock, phone 883-2119.

If you want to take a local bus to other parts of Yucatan, you can go to the Holiday Inn and ask Nuevos Horizontes (Elite), or phone them at 887-2070.

On sale daily (10 pesos, about $1) is the Cancun edition of the Miami Herald, with late-breaking news on the front page and a lot of local listings and specials inside, including up-to-date information on bus and ferry routes and prices and other valuable stuff.

Chichen Itza

The most impressive archeological site in all of Mexico is Chichen Itza, a 3-hour ride (205 km, about 125 miles) west of Cancun. You can get there by rental car, chauffeur-driven car, group tour (anyone can join), or local bus. Most day tours allow less than four hours on the site, with about 90 minutes of that taken up by lunch. You can see the highlights in that time (I have on one occasion), but it's better if you can spend at least four hours on site. Best of all, stay overnight and attend the Sound and Light Show at the ruins. Be sure to visit the "Castle" (and try climbing the stairs if you have time), the Observatory, the Temple of the Warriors, the Thousand Columns and the Jaguar. The site is open from 8 to 5, daily. One firm offering a bus package is Greenline, departing at 8:30, returning by 7:30. The cost is $60, including the round-trip air-conditioned bus ride (with a video), 3 hours in each direction. Entry to the ruins, where you spend 2 hours, is included, as well as lunch. Phone them at 883-4545. (Note that Chichen Itza, as well as all other archeological sites in Mexico, charges no admission on Sundays and national holidays.)

Lodging

In the heart of downtown Cancun is the Parador, with 66 rooms (air conditioned), each having cable TV. There's a tiny swimming pool, a restaurant and bar. Rates 450 pesos (about $50), single or double. Contact them at 26 Av. Tlum, SM 5 MZ5 Lote 1, Centro, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico CP 77500, phone 884-1043, fax 884-9712, e-mail hparador@prodigy.net.mx, Web site www.hotelparador.com.mx.

For a European ambiance combined with the Mexican, try the Melia Cancun, right in the hotel zone and on the beach. Built in "Mayan style" (pyramidal), this 9-story structure (1990) has a super spa, 8500 sq. ft. of gardens and streams, the latter within the largest atrium complex in the Mexican Caribbean. Their golf course green fee is only $25 (compared to the Hilton's $106). Double rooms start at $189. For reservations phone 800/33 MELIA (from US & Canada) or visit their Web site, www.solsearching.com.

If you want to splurge, consider the 9-year-old Ritz-Carlton, which says it is "the first-ever and only AAA Triple Five Diamond Resort" and winner of all sorts of other awards. On its own 7.5 acres (with 1,200 feet of beach), the hotel charges from $190 up in low season for a double room, from $350 up in high season, and it is worth every penny, in my opinion. If you can't stay here, try to have one meal either in its Club Grill or Fantino, both also winners of 5-diamond ratings from the AAA. Contact them at Retorno del Rey 36, Zona Hotelera, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico, phone 881-0808, fax 881-0815.

Dining Out

Get yourself a Cancun Tips Savings Booklet, which has coupons good for savings of up to 20% on restaurants, up to 15% on shopping and up to 20% on entertainment. There are also vouchers for savings on jewelry, travel and nightlife. The Cancun Tips magazine itself is published twice a wear (summer/autumn and winter/spring) and is about 160 pages long, full of tips "for a perfect vacation." It's free and available just about anywhere you look. Downtown, by the way, is the place to find authentic and moderately priced restaurants. Also, try to pick up a Restaurant Menu Map at the Visitors Bureau or at brochure racks around town, as it contains some discount coupons Some are just for souvenirs, but others, such as one for La Destileria, is for "second round on the house from 1 to 4 PM." Another is 15% off lunch or dinner at La Curva.

For hearty Mexican food, try the above-mentioned La Destileria, where they have a Tequila "museum." A seafood casserole costs only $6.20, shrimp dishes go for $19, beef tenderloins at $17.30. Located on Kukulcan Boulevard in the Hotel Zone, across from Kukulcan Plaza, open from 1 PM to midnight, phone 885-1086.

Out in the Hotel Zone also is Lorenzillo's, a very pretty restaurant build out over the water, with live lobster year-round and specializing in all kinds of fish. Their seafood combination au gratin is only $15.30, but other dishes are in the $14 to $28 price range. Km. 8.5 Kukulcan Boulevard, next to the Plantation House, open noon to midnight, phone 883-1254.

Downtown, consider La Curva, also for Mexican food, cantina style with music. All you can eat and drink during three hours is available for only $19.99 plus tax. If that doesn't attract you, consider the giant shrimps wrapped with bacon and cheese at $14.50, or the maguey worms or crickets (both in season only!) for $13. They're open from 1 PM to 2 AM, and are at the Plaza Las Hadas on Avenue del Sol, phone 848-0458.

Also downtown is Pericos, with a kind of bazaar decor, live music and great Mexican ambience. Fajitas run from $16 to $18, chicken breast with pepper sauce $17.50. Find them at 60 Yaxchilan Avenue, phone 884-3152. Open from 1 PM to 1 AM.

Less pricey is El Pescador del Centro, also Downtown at 28 Tulipanes. Broiled grouper here is $12, shrimp dishes $19.50. Open from 11 AM to 11 PM, phone 884-2673.

At the very modest Pasteleteria-Creperia (Downtown), beef or mixed fajitas go for just $9.80, a fish fillet for $8.60. Also burgers, quesadillas and more at 7 Avenue Coba, phone 884-3420. Open from 7 AM to 11 PM.

A breakfast for just $2.95 (and up) is available at the Captain's Cove, out in the Hotel Zone opposite the Omni, from 7 to 11:30. Then they have a happy hour from 4 to 7 PM, and close at 11 PM. Sticking out over the water, with great lagoon views. Seafood, Mexican and regional specialties. Phone them at 885-0016.

Summing Up

For more information on Cancun, check out the Visitors Bureau at the corner of Coba Avenue and Avenue Nader, N/N Sm. 5, Cancun, phone 884-6531, fax 887-6648, e-mail pra_cvbcancun@hotmail.com. (Beware: Many publications list the office as being on Avenue Tulum, the old address.)

The country code for Mexico is 52, the city code for Cancun is 998. Then dial the numbers listed above.