Editor's note: The following blog entry is based on experiences from Smarter Travel's company trip to Cancun, which took place from January 11 through 15.
As we were preparing to leave the tour bus that had taken us to nearby Mayan ruins, our guide implored everyone listening, "Please tell all your friends, 'Cancun is back and ready to welcome you with open arms.'" I wish I could give such a strong recommendation but I can't. Cancun has made major improvements since it was hit by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, but it's still a bit rough around the edges.
First, the good news. Having just returned from spending the Christmas holidays in New Orleans, I can tell you that the Mexican government and Cancun business owners have apparently done a lot better job of cleaning up the roads and beaches and rebuilding the tourist infrastructure than we've done on the Gulf Coast. In contrast to the Gulf (where in many areas it still looked like Katrina hit the day before), the roads all seemed repaired and clear of debris. I only saw a few damaged structures where no rebuilding had started. The landscaping in and around the hotel zone and airport was immaculate, and transportation was running regularly. Most of the big restaurants and clubs seemed fine as well—Señor Frogs and Coco Bongo are as big and garish as ever.
However, I did see two problems—one small, one big. The first and lesser of my concerns is the beach. Cancun was renowned for powdery white-sand beaches stretching for miles along the coast. Eight miles of beach eroded during the storm, leaving hard, jagged limestone in its place. The government acted fast to fix this loss, spending 21 million dollars to replace the beach with sand dredged off the ocean floor. So, Cancun now has a beach, but in my observation, it's a lot narrower than before along the hotel zone and the sand is chunkier. But if you've never been there before, you won't notice the difference.
What you may notice is unexpected construction going on in your hotel—the biggest caveat I see for anyone thinking about going to Cancun soon. While a lot of hotels are 100 percent restored, others aren't—even ones that claim to be on their websites. Walking up and down the hotel zone, I could see that many hotels open for business were still undergoing major construction.
My hotel room was fine, although not entirely refinished. This was not the case for a number of other Cancun travelers I met. I heard reports of constant construction noise, laborers doing work in the hallways all day, flooding and water dripping off ceilings, and, worst of all, cockroaches and rats in rooms. These issues were all reported by guests staying in properties whose websites (or phone reservationists) claimed that all construction was finished, so the travelers were caught completely off guard.
Given these hit-or-miss hotel experiences, I'd offer three recommendations to travelers considering a Cancun vacation: Wait until next year, stay farther down the coast on the Riviera Maya (it experienced less hurricane damage), or check the recent guest reviews posted online for the Cancun hotel you're considering. You'll find the most listings on TripAdvisor.