Touring the Yucatan, after Hurricane Wilma

Waiters in the U.S. aren’t likely to make a sign of the cross while slipping a $1 tip into their pocket. That is one difference about being here.

The quick, silent, subtle gesture was an indication of greater gratitude – especially this year.

It happened as I had lunch in Mexico recently, in high-end lodging along the 80-mile Riviera Maya waterfront. One expansive, all-inclusive, beach resort is miles from the next, and little needs to move fast – not the chefs or bartenders, the lazy manmade river in front of my suite, the transportation that carts visitors from Mayan ruins to cultural arenas to airport departure desks.

A friend and I, here at the same time by coincidence, intend to meet for a drink or meal. That doesn’t happen. We are both in Riviera Maya, but properties are an hour apart and each resort is its own secluded, exclusive entertainment destination.

It is an especially good match for lovers, or friends in need of R&R but little more. My pal came for a business convention, and that works here, too.

“It’s gonna be all about me and the beach,” said Rachel Russell of Waukesha, 29, during our flight from Milwaukee. She and co-worker Kimberly Pendzich, 27, are mortgage loan officers who booked four days at a classy Iberostar, the hotelier that is based in Spain and has properties in 27 countries.

There was no need for cultural excursions, Rachel insisted, just warm sun and cold drinks. This was a spontaneous break, planned a month ago for about $700 per person, including air.

It has been three months since Hurricane Wilma made a shambles of the Yucatan Peninsula, either by actual damage or the perception that tourists had best stay away.

En route from the Cancun airport, groves of wind-whipped trees arch severely and uniformly. Many palm trees have a ragged leaf trim; some billboard frames are naked; sometimes vegetation turns from lush green to waterlogged brown. But the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea remain arresting, their beaches slowly gaining tourists as word spreads of hotel reopenings and the lack of debris.

“Viva Cancun!” “Cancun Is Still Standing.” The banners flap along the 14-mile hotel zone, which seems to have more construction workers than tourists during my two-day January visit.

A few hotels are open; most others will reopen in time for spring break. This deliberate vacation development also is one of North America’s most popular honeymoon destinations, but bookings are flat this year.

Recovery efforts have been high-energy, as the livelihood of more than 100,000 people is at stake. Workers rely on tourist dollars in this part of the world, where farming is difficult because limestone interfers. Many service workers are trilingual, speaking the Mayan language as well as Spanish and English.

“I love my country,” Miguel Rodriguez says, and he is eager to explain why. He is 24, about 11 years younger than Cancun.

For two years, he has been one of the 300-plus Lomas Travel employees who also represent Funjet Vacations in Mexico. The Lomas partnership with Funjet, which is one part of the Wisconsin-based Mark Travel Corp., began in 1987.

Tour guide Victor Palacios, who was without work for 22 days because of Wilma, does not play up the possibility of poverty. “The Mayans are not poor, just different,” he says. “They are self-sufficient and happier than many of us. They don’t know the word ‘stress,’ or the word ‘PlayStation.’”

How important is the Cancun market to Mark Travel? “It’s more important to us morally than financially,” says Bill La Macchia Jr. “You can get beach and water anywhere. This is about a relationship.”

He is chief operating officer for Milwaukee’s La Macchia Enterprises, which is the parent company of Mark Travel. At are webcasts and blogs, to update travelers about Cancun, Riviera Maya and the nearby island of Cozumel.

“This is a destination that needs you,” La Macchia explains. “We have the service, and the quality – the warmth, charm and graciousness. The only thing missing is the people,” the tourists.

“This is a destination that has changed over time,” he says, recalling that “we had to stay away for a while,” until the 1980s, because sometimes guests would have to bribe a hotel to get a room, even if they had a reservation.

But today, “we are family” with Lomas, in a half-dozen parts of Mexico. Mark Travel’s humanitarian efforts have involved post-hurricane relief, as well as building a ceramic-tiled courtyard at a Puerto Vallarta orphanage.

“There will never be better deals to Cancun than what you’ll see this year,” predicts Anthony Stone, a sales rep for Barcelo Hotels & Resorts (, a worldwide and upscale chain with four Riviera Maya properties.

That’s not a universal assessment. Holly Botsford of Funjet predicts “better values” instead of “incredibly aggressive deals,” to uphold brand integrity. So a property may provide special wines, or a two-for-one cultural tour price, instead of slash room rates.

“It’s not like it was after Sept. 11,” she says.

For some hotel/resort chains, destruction is an opportunity to rebuild at a higher level of quality. A handful will not open until summer or fall; updates appear at

My base is a half-hour south of Cancun, at the adults-only Eldorado Royale. It seems unscathed; construction work proceeds discreetly, behind a patch of thatched fencing.

Instead of laying off employees after Wilma hit, this Karisma Resorts property had them switch jobs, be it shoveling sand out of rooms or restoring the beach. Chefs cooked for co-workers instead of vacationers.

Karisma’s five Mexican Caribbean resorts are gourmet all-inclusives, good for foodies. The only buffet table you’re likely to see is at breakfast. The Eldorado Royale has seven restaurants, with seafood to Italian culinary themes. You can linger over dinner by candlelight on the beach, arrange for a couple’s massage there at sunrise or sunset, be wed in a tiny chapel.

Options here, or at other Karisma resorts, also are about personal butlers to draw a bath or help you unpack, cocktail lounges with artisan tequilas and private-label wines, beachside bar swings and beach beds with curtains that retract. It’s hammocks for everyone, and frozen bar tops that keep drinks chilled.

One Karisma resort, Hidden Beach, is for nudists. Azul Blue, which opens in November, will be for families. For more, see

Riviera Maya, a decade-old vacation development in Mexico, is between Cancun and the Tulum ruins, where Hurricane Wilma’s effects were minimal.

For tourists who want less isolation, there are numerous hotels in the lively city of Playa del Carmen, an hour south of Cancun, and ferries to Cozumel have resumed. Nearby is Xcaret (, an eco-archaelogical park, with Ballet Folklorico cultural shows at night.

Near Tulum is Xel Ha (, another ecological space that is described as “the world’s largest natural aquarium.” It also is a natural water theme park, for swimming with dolphins to snuba diving (where the oxygen tank stays on the surface).

To Bill La Macchia Jr., it all remains an area of “spectacular value,” referring to dollar investment as well as cultural exposure.

This press trip to Riviera Maya and Cancun was the first that Funjet Vacations, in operation since 1974, has organized to the area. Travel was subsidized for 18 North American travel journalists.