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The master-planned tourist's playground
© Mark M. Hancock

By Mark M. Hancock

When planners, politicians and investors sought a location to rival Acapulco, Cancun was the logical choice. So logically it was chosen by a computer when all national statistical data were fed into the machine.

It is ideally located. Along with the Caribbean Ocean came wildlife, jungle, miles of beaches, ancient ruins, and a centralized location from southern U.S. and northern South America. Which is how Cancun became a master-planned tourist attraction 25 years ago. It now accounts for 30 percent of Mexico's foreign currency influx.

Mexican currency is the peso. Although old pesos are still in circulation, they are rare because their value is 1/1000th of the nuevo peso (new peso, which was introduced in 1993).

The exchange rate varies by location and day, please check http://www.oanda.com to get current rates. Generally,travel agents will give the best rates, while airports, hotels and the market use currency exchanges as an income-generating business

Most merchants will accept U.S. dollars (marked USD on signs). However, bargaining power in the markets is reduced when dealing in USD.

Merchants prefer to deal in pesos. Consequently, the street exchange rate is relatively low, and all negotiations are at a flat dollar rate (USD's lose the change).

U.S. coins are not used, and blunt merchants will tell shoppers to give the coins to the church. But, Mexican coins come in denominations of 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 pesos. Be careful when dealing in coins until familiar with them (a 50 peso coin will buy most bottles of alcohol).

Shoppers have two options: the plazas or the markets. Shoppers who want a solid, posted price should go to the plazas. Here they will find up-scale stores, restaurants and entertainment.

Adventurous shoppers roll their dice in the markets. Here they will find a broader selection and a higher initial price. But after careful negotiations, the market price will be the best.

Before going to the market, browse the plaza and get some fixed prices for desired items. In the market, never accept the opening quote. Offer an amount 40 percent lower than the plaza price. If you can get the market merchant 20 percent lower than the plaza on price, then you have an agreeable bargain. You must be ready to talk the language of the market.

The language of Cancun is Spanish, but most island workers and merchants can speak English as well. Any attempt at speaking the native tongue is appreciated and rewarded.

Tourists will hear everything from Japanese to German being spoken amongst groups. So, language shy Americans have nothing to fear.

Crime is something else not to fear in Cancun. Tourists can safely walk the beaches or boulevards at any hour.

Early mornings (around 5 to 6 a.m.) allow the beach comber to witness the birth of a unhurried dawn.

Aside from occasional tiny side-scampering crabs, the sound of breaking waves and spectacle of a gradual violet to red sunrise are the sole property of those sparse few who care to be in witness.

After a romantic sunrise stroll or a wild night, a hearty breakfast may be necessary. The hotels offer breakfast buffets at reasonable rates. Most buffets include standard American fare with a south-of-the-border twist.

Pico de gallo, green take-your-hat-off-hot salsa, and cool fresh fruit accompany most meals. Mild white pineapple, which is a Mexican native, eases some of the chili pain.

After breakfast, vacationers may want to enjoy the area's water sports or take a guided tour.

A cautionary note: on the first trip to the area, avoid anything associated with time-shares. Many so-called "free" tours and contests are ploys to get wealthy vacationers to invest in this beautiful locale. Often, the free "one hour" tour wastes a person's entire precious day.

As a rule, visitors should not release information about their hotel or room number--unless they want an early morning call by a time-share firm.

Legitimate tours are available on land, air and sea at discount rates. However, most tours have limited availability and need to be booked in advance. Bus tours to ancient ruins, such as Chechen Itza, or boat tours to near-by islands, such as Isla Mujares or Cozumel, are plentiful.

Most island cruises include all-you-can-drink rum punch. The more unusual of these cruises include a completely submergible submarine and a Spanish galleon (pirate ship). Some of the largest ships own private beaches with showers and thatched huts on Isla Mujares.

Diving to snorkeling is reported to be fabulous. Sea turtles and more than 500 species of tropical fish make their home in this region, which is second only to the Australian reef. The best sealife watching is on the reefs where animals feed and can feel some degree of safety.

For the particularly adventurous and proficient divers, cave diving in the Yucatan "cenotes," sink holes and underground waterways, might be the biggest challenge. Divers will need to make sure their guide is specifically a Certified Cave Diver.

Back in Cancun, transportation is not a problem.

A very good bus system runs through the hotel zone and into downtown. A one-way ride for any distance costs a standard three Pesos (about 43 cents). Buses leapfrog along the boulevard. Potential passengers need not wait more than five minutes before the next bus will pick them up. Although designated stops are prevalent, travelers can waive, and the bus will stop.

However, there are rare "no-bus" zones, where the bus cannot stop. These are often near longer stretches of park-like medians which have non-developed areas on either side. The frequent taxis will pick up stray tourists in these areas, but expect to pay more.

Taxi fares are based on a flat-rate. Normal price schedules are posted in most hotel lobbies. The number of passengers also makes no difference. However, agree upon a price with the driver before getting into the taxi.

Cancun is located due south of Pensacola, Fla. on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. It is in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean Ocean side (as opposed to the Gulf of Mexico).

It is approximately 150 miles west of Cuba and 1100 miles north of the equator which leads to its year-round average temperature of 80 degrees.

Because of this proximity to the equator, daylight is fairly standard from day to day. Central time zone travelers will need to set their clocks ahead one hour in the summer and keep time the same during the winter.

Peak travel season is between November and May. Partially because of North American winters, but mostly because hurricane season is between May and November.

Ironically since the hurricane naming system has changed, those with masculine names cause more damage than those with feminine names. Trip planning might be made with this in mind while booking.

When booking a trip through a travel agent. The frugal traveler may want to consider the all-inclusive packages. Although cost is minimal in comparison to the U.S., a better overall package is often available through these plans. Early planning pays off in more ways than one.

Just make sure to save at least one afternoon to bask in the sun and relax on the ivory sand.