Eyes darting behind our snorkel masks, we swished through crystal-clear, turquoise water and attempted to process the sensory overload of the rainbow-hued Caribbean fish and dramatic coral formations.
My husband and I were exploring the underwater marvels found within the Puerto Morelos National Reef Park in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the world’s second largest), and we spent those treasured hours continually beckoning to one other and gesturing wildly with delight.
When an enormous black manta ray appeared at my side, flapping its fins, we both forgot to breathe as we took in the sight. It was much wider than I am tall, its tail alone some 4 feet in length. It was a never-forget moment, yet one of many that happen regularly at this reef — located just 500 meters off the coast of Puerto Morelos.
This wasn’t my first trip to Cancun. Some 35 years ago, when it was in its infancy as a tourism destination, I lived and worked in this area. Today, the popular tourist attraction is almost unrecognizable from what it was back then — a Gilligan’s Island-like oasis of long, untouched beaches stretching between hotels.
The Cancun of old was populated by iguanas and an almost completely Mayan population, and there were only a few restaurants vying for the attention of adventurous tourists who came to the newly “discovered” hot spot.
Today, Cancun still has those impossibly beautiful beaches with sand of never-gets-hot silky white limestone, but the action-packed city now has more than 1 million residents, and the hotel zone has nary an inch to spare.
Iguanas? I challenge you to find one.
Fortunately, a few places less than 30 minutes from Cancun International Airport have managed to keep their tranquil, authentic ambiance. Puerto Morelos, for instance, a small fishing village just south of Cancun, remains the Puerto Morelos I remembered — albeit with a few more residents from up north and across the pond.
It remains home to a multitude of iguanas and many Mayans, and there are no towering hotels. Local by-laws limit buildings to three stories, and the town is no longer the ferry embarkation point for the island of Cozumel — another factor that may have helped keep the population down.
We stayed at two all-inclusive properties operated by AM Resorts. The first was Dreams Riviera Cancun, a very well-run, attractively-designed, family-friendly place, situated about a half-hour beach walk from Puerto Morelos; the second, Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita, is a posh, 90-suite, adult-focused property with exquisite furnishings and artwork.
We were particularly smitten with Zoetry’s 50 or so tropical birds that live there in relative freedom, attended to by a devoted birdkeeper named Marcos. If you visit, I hope you’ll meet Makita, a military macaw who found sanctuary on the property after Hurricane Wilma and never left.
She loves to wave one foot in greeting and was enthralled with my flowery beach coverup. During afternoon teatime, (a pastry extravaganza), Makita and the other social birds entertain diners with their cheerful and noisy chirping.
All of Puerto Morelos’ larger hotels are out of town, which keeps the original character of the community intact. The beach walk from Dreams is a pleasant one, although it involves passing by a clothing-optional resort, which some might find unnerving.
The sights also involve countless soaring pelicans and seagulls, and when you arrive at the town beach, the pure white sand sprouts a slew of brightly colored umbrellas and beach palapa huts where international visitors chatter in Spanish, English, French, Italian, German and more.
The little harbor is home to some 20 or so small canopied boats with crews equipped to take snorkelers and divers offshore to the barrier reef — for very reasonable prices.
Off the pier, on the quaint boardwalk area’s benches, older foreign residents and tourists take seats during the daytime, but in the late afternoon, Mexican “novios,” (romantic couples) and students socializing after classes take their places.
Puerto Morelos is not the spot for visitors seeking a throbbing dance club scene and all-you-can-drink bars. It’s a very laid-back town, although there are many town festivals, hosted either at the beachfront plaza or two miles away in the colonia, where most of the 10,000 locals live.
For those not staying in the gorgeous all-inclusive resorts, there are many B&Bs, vacation rental houses and small inns to be found — many of them quite charming and well-appointed.
And, contrary to what many visitors might expect, the larger resorts are NOT homogenized, might-be-anywhere conglomerates.
For example, the Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita is exotic with art and sculpture adornments obtained on the owners’ many trips around the globe, and wellness-oriented offerings include activities like an authentic Temazcal steam-room ritual ceremony led by a Mexican shaman.
Held in a domed small hut, the Temazcal gathers up to 12 participants who sit on low benches while the shaman chants and waves fragrant palm and other fronds over hot coals to spread steamy mists of copal and other native plants. The group members breathe in the steam for a spell, then are encouraged to take a refreshing dip in the hotel’s effervescent saltwater pool.
Puerto Morelos also offers a nice set of attractions beyond the world-class diving and snorkeling to be experienced on its spectacular reef.
At the Crococun Zoo, just outside of town, a one-hour guided tour affords views of crocodiles, parrots, spider monkeys, snakes, deer and other wild animals. The botanic garden, or Jardín Botánico, is also a scenic and delightful setting, with more of the entertaining spider monkeys scampering overhead.
A three-hour visit to the Little Mexican Cooking School is also a treat. Located on the main avenue, facing the beach, the school has classes during the week with an experienced local (English-speaking) chef. Students leave with an apron and recipes along with their memories.
For folks who consider beach lounging the main attraction, the wares at Alma Libre Bookstore have obvious appeal. The shop features a large selection of used English paperbacks, plus new books of local interest — and, yes, transactions include trades.
After that, the itinerary usually involves a short jaunt to the beach to find a spot under a palm-branched palapa to sit and relax with a book and a cold Negro Modelo beer in hand.
If you go
How to get there: American, Spirit and Aeromexico, as well as some charter companies, fly direct to Cancun from DFW in as little as 2 1/2 hours.
Depending on where you stay, shuttle services, taxis and rental cars are available from the Cancun Airport to Puerto Morelos. Luxury hotels, such as Zoetry, provide shuttle service, as do most charter companies.
Where to stay
▪ Dreams Riviera Cancun: www.dreamsresorts.com/riviera-cancun
▪ Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita: www.zoetryresorts.com/paraiso
▪ Crococun Zoo: A one-hour guided tour costs $30 for adults, $20 for children 6 to 12, and $18 for seniors over 60. 52-998-850-3719, www.crococunzoo.com.
▪ Jardin Botánico: Free admission, but donations accepted. 52-988-206-9233; http://www.bgci.org/garden.php?id=1218
▪ The Little Mexican Cooking School. All classes are $110 per person, plus tax. Phone: 512-410-8146; www.thelittlemexicancookingschool.com.
▪ Wet Set Diving Adventures. Snorkeling company with prices that start at $35 per person for a three-hour coral reef snorkeling tour, equipment included. Diving excursions are also offered. 646-736-7726; http://wetset.com.