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Wilma’s Powerful Impact – Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Wilma’s Powerful Impact

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Cozumel Destruction
Cozumel Destruction
All travelers know that they are often at the mercy of many things outside of their control. It may be a delayed flight, an overbooked hotel, or even a taxi driver with a bad sense of direction. None of these things, however, compare to the destructive forces of nature that throw a wrench into travel plans, and disrupt the lives of more than just the traveler. It is these events that make us take stock of our own lives, and be thankful.

When my fiancée, Isabelle, and I, both from Canada, were planning our Mexican wedding for November of 2005, we were very excited. Unfortunately, the excitement and usual nervous anticipation of an upcoming trip turned into anxious, sleepless nights after Hurricane Wilma ripped through the Yucatan Peninsula and Mayan Riviera in late October. Our dream of a perfect seaside wedding was in serious jeopardy.

Tricia Staffa, a veteran of destination wedding planning at Marlin Travel in Calgary told me, “There are only two events in my years of being a travel agent that would compare to Wilma. First would be when Canada 3000 went bankrupt and second would be the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

Our hotel warned of damage to the property and we were told that many flights were cancelled. Despite the optimistic assertions that the hotel would not only be open but be fully functional, it was clear that we had to consider other options. Unfortunately, other options were scarce at the time given that we had only a few weeks to go and 21 anxious guests to consider. We felt powerless about the situation and guilty about its repercussions on our guests.

As the days passed the prognosis became worse and we had to decide what to do. After many phone calls and a few restless nights, we changed hotels (and increased the budget) to one that amazingly had suffered much less damage. Given the devastation that had occurred, we felt both relieved and lucky to have been able to make the changes.

While descending into Cancun airport, I was struck by the lifelessness of the jungle below. What was once a thriving green blanket of swaying trees was now nothing but bent and broken grey sticks. On both sides of the highway south to Playa del Carmen, large mounds of rubble and broken trees were piled to allow passage. The many billboard signs that once lined the highway, singing the praises of the upcoming resorts and attractions, were reduced to giant, naked scarecrows. One after another they passed, their backs twisted and broken. Tattered threads hung lifeless from their metal frames and blew softly in the breeze.

In Cancun the streets were eerily quiet – the kind of quiet that you sense when the power unexpectedly goes out. You know that not long before the energy was flowing, almost hectically, but now, suddenly, there is nothing. It was estimated that as little as 10% of the normal amount of hotel rooms were available in Cancun. Trees lay broken in the streets and scattered across the front lawns of the many mega-hotels. Where there were once thatched roofs, there is nothing. Where there were once magnificent glass windows and ceilings, there are now plywood sheets, struggling to hold together what remained.

Cancun Billboard
Cancun Billboard
On Cozumel, the popular island destination just a few miles off the coast, the destruction was worse. Entire resorts lay in rubble. Buildings still strong enough to stand were nothing more than concrete skeletons, their skin blown off and insides strewn about. It was a war zone.

In Playa del Carmen the main pedestrian drag, 5th Avenue, was subdued, devoid of its normal raucous nature. Soft, muffled sounds of bargaining merchants and shuffling feet filled the air. The port facility was barren and roofless but work was underway to repair it. Just adjacent to the port remained what was left of the world-famous Senor Frog’s. Workmen swung sledgehammers at the crumbled concrete remains. I cringed repeatedly at the steady flow of young boys wearing no gloves or even shoes who walked past, carrying materials and equipment destined for the many worksites along the oceanfront.

“I spent three days in my apartment in Cancun,” said Juan, a taxi driver who shuttles tourists from various resorts on the coast to Playa del Carmen and back. “I didn’t even try to come out because of the powerful winds.” He went on to say, “The number of fares that I have now is about half of what it normally is.”

The storm’s effects were far reaching. Jorge, the gregarious snorkel guide operating right off the beach at our resort told me, “Tourists still come, but not like they used to. My salary is down about 40%. We really appreciate all opportunities to take visitors on our tours.”

Diana, our wedding coordinator at the resort, told me that the number of weddings was down and occupancy was not yet 100%, but they were lucky to have suffered much less damage than many other resorts. “We were closed for just two weeks,” she said, indicating that the staff rallied quickly to get things back to normal. A native of Colombia, Diana had an infectious smile, soothing voice, and energetic spirit – a necessary recipe for surviving such a setback as Wilma.

As it turned out, the wedding, and the entire week, went off without a hitch and surpassed all our expectations. How they were able to pull it off, I have no idea. Despite the destruction, I was powerfully struck by the strong will of the locals as they went about their lives with gratitude and smiling faces. A warm hola greeted us everywhere we went. I can’t imagine a similar situation happening in Canada with a bounce back so quickly, so strongly. After seeing such destruction and the heartache, it’s hard to fathom a reason to be upset by the small inconveniences that tourists often face.

We came here to celebrate the beginning of our new life together and, in a strange way, Wilma made our experience that much more memorable. Upon returning home, we realized just how lucky we really are.

Since then, things have improved dramatically in the affected areas. Frantic preparations were made in anticipation of the busy tourist season. Staffa now says, “It’s about 80% back to normal along the Mayan Riviera, Cancun, and Cozumel.” Given that Wilma’s impact was felt harder in Cancun and Cozumel, she also notes, “Away from the tourist areas, there are parts where you can still see the effects of the hurricane.”

Cozumel Destruction
Cozumel Destruction
Weddings in the area seem to be full steam ahead also. Diana now says, “Wedding requests have increased 50% compared to 2005. It looks like the hurricane never happened.” Staffa concurs, “I see no impact on wedding bookings.”

As a fitting example of the resiliency of the locals, the resort is planning a “Wilma Bash” for December 2006 to honour the efforts of those who pulled things together during those remarkably difficult days in Wilma’s aftermath. The impression left by our experience there has us considering sending our RSVP to the party.

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