Cancun Makes a Comeback

NEARLY A YEAR after one of the strongest Caribbean hurricanes on record ravaged Mexico’s number one tourist destination, Cancun is reinventing itself. “In addition to improved airport facilities, returning guests will also witness that Cancun’s resorts, attractions and beaches have experienced a great deal of change since Hurricane Wilma last year, thanks to a destination-wide commitment to revitalize the area,” says Artemio Santos, executive director of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau.

More than just a popular vacation spot, Cancun generates a significant source of income for the country as a whole. According to the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, approximately three million tourists visit Cancun each year accounting for 30% of all tourism dollars spent in Mexico. When hurricane Wilma blew through the Yucatan peninsula on October 21, 2005, the damage to Cancun’s hotels, restaurants, and beaches was immeasurable. Ranked a category 5, Wilma battered Cancun for more than 24 hours with top winds estimated at 145 mph.

The slow-moving hurricane decimated Cancun’s top attraction, its beautiful shoreline with miles of soft sand. What was once a boulevard of powder-white sand, was reduced to a thin strip of beach in some locations and to no beach in others. To fix the famous beach, the Mexican government hired Jan De Nul, a global leader in dredging, stone placement, filling and salvage services, to reclaim the sand that was swept out to sea.

On February 1, Jan De Nul embarked upon a massive dredging project they finished in record-time only two months later. Working around the clock, workers dredged sand from 22 miles offshore and delivered it through a pipe for distribution on Cancun’s shoreline.  The project cost $21.5 million to complete and gave Cancun an even wider beach than before Wilma.

In addition to beach improvements, the city is using this opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure and add new attractions, condos, and restaurants. Many of the hotels have been rebuilt with additional first-class services.  The airport, which ranks second to Mexico City as the country’s busiest airport, is expanding and upgrading to accommodate more tourists at a higher level. “A lot of what was done was trying to make [Cancun] a more luxurious destination,” says Claire Kunzman a representative for the Cancun Tourism bureau. Upgraded services, and increased high-end hotels are designed to appeal to a more upscale visitor.

The city of Cancun has launched a massive public relations campaign—which included a $77,000 two-page advertisement in the official 2006 World Cup guide—to convince people to come back to Cancun. According to the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau’s most recent statistics, 700,937 tourists visited Cancun from January to April of 2006. Although that number is less than the 1,277,847 tourists who visited Cancun in the same time period last year, the public appears to be welcoming the new Cancun.

Recently the leading online travel company Orbitz ranked Cancun as the third most popular destination in the world for the summer of 2006. “We expect that both new and returning visitors alike will be excited to see the brand-new Cancún and all that the island now has to offer,” Santos says.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


A Damper on Earthquakes

PROFESSOR CINNA LOMINITZ of the National University of Mexico has lived through some of most deadly earthquakes in the Americas. When he was 14, he survived Chile’s 1939 earthquake that measured a magnitude of 8.3 and killed 28,000 people.

Years later he felt the effects of Chile’s 1960 earthquake that measured a magnitude of 9.1. He has never forgotten the cries of the wounded after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that destroyed 400 buildings and killed 10,000 people. Perhaps that is why he has devoted his professional life to understanding earthquakes and how to survive them.

One question he set out to answer is why do some powerful earthquakes do little damage and weaker ones do great damage? For example, the 2003 Colima, Mexico, earthquake had a magnitude of 7.4 but killed only 18 people. The difference, according to Lomnitz, might be a matter of mud.

Significant parts of Mexico City are built upon ancient mud flats that have a natural “pitch” of one cycle every 2.5 seconds. All objects vibrate at a specific frequency, and unfortunately Mexico City’s mud vibrates at the same frequency as certain earthquake waves.

The danger increases in buildings that are 10 to 15 stories tall because they, too, have a 2.5 second period.

“It’s like a tuning fork,” Lomnitz says. “They start vibrating with the earthquake. Since they lack damping, they don’t just move once. They move worse and worse as the earthquake proceeds.” Eventually the buildings sway out of control and collapse. “Something like that can happen in every earthquake,” he explains.

“However, in Mexico City it just specifically attacks buildings with that height. For example, in the downtown area you can find hundreds of old churches. Nothing happens to them. They’re not tall enough. This is true for all of the old colonial buildings.”

Major metropolitan areas in other parts of the world — such as the San Francisco Bay Area and the waterfront district of the Japanese city of Kobe — also have been built on mud flats and lakebeds. Both of those cities suffered devastating earthquakes in the past two decades.

Professor Lomnitz suggests that buildings, like cars, be equipped with dampers to make them more earthquake-resistant.

“These dampers work exactly the way the shock absorbers do in the car,” he explains. He believes that not only should dampers be included in new buildings, but they should also be added to already-existing buildings.

According to Lomnitz, the technology is available, the process is relatively inexpensive, and even though dampers do add to the construction cost, they add to the value of the building because they help save lives.

El Torre Mayor, Mexico City

Lomnitz points out that although a solution exists, dampers are not standard equipment in structures and their use is not yet widely recommended in building codes.

Mexico City now has one building that is equipped with dampers. At 55 stories high, the Torre Mayor is the tallest building in Latin America. It was built in 2003 and includes 96 dampers.

To educate others about the value of damping on soft ground, Lomnitz strives to be heard in the scientific community. A professor of seismology at the Institute of Geophysics, National University of Mexico, he is also a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, a chairman of the Committee of Earth Sciences in the National Research Council of Mexico, and a participant in UNESCO emergency field teams.

“My hope is that much more will be done about this peculiar problem to enable us to do away with earthquake risk on soft ground altogether.”

Published in Americas magazine,  July-August 2004, by Chris Hardman

Scientists find 4,500-year-old Dental Patient

A MAN FOUND under 12 feet of volcanic ash in Michoacán, Mexico, appears to be the earliest dental patient in the Americas.

Scientists estimate that approximately 4,500 years ago, he suffered through multiple painful procedures to have his upper front teeth filed down to make way for a denture, most likely the palate of a jaguar or wolf. T

he interdisciplinary and international team of researchers — led by University of Connecticut Professor Tricia Gabany-Guerrero — has uncovered clues as to whom this man was and why he would have undergone such extensive dental modification.

The man’s remote burial site in the volcanic highlands of west-central Mexico might have gone undiscovered if not for the interest of the local Purépecha residents from the  Comunidad Indígena de Nuevo Parangaricutiro. They discovered a series of vivid cliff paintings in the shadow of the Paricutin volcano and encouraged the scientific community to come and study them.


The dental patient was accidentally uncovered while Gabany-Guerrero and her colleagues were excavating the site in search of the tools and paint used to produce the paintings. Much to their surprise they found the remains of a man wedged between two very large boulders.

“He really astounded us and his skull was oriented toward these paintings,” Gabany-Guerrero says.

Data taken from the skull, hand, leg and foot bones suggest that the man was between 28-32 years old, was in good health and stood 155 centimeters tall. Even though he lived in a harsh environment at an altitude of 8,860 feet, his bones show that he lived a leisurely life void of too much physical labor.

Researchers say that the dental modification, apparent lack of strenuous activity, and the location of the burial in front of a cliff wall indicate that the man held special status in his community.

According to Guerrero, dental modification was found in the Americas in the Late Post Classic period (1200-1441 AD), when people would insert turquoise or precious stones in front of their teeth to indicate status, but to find evidence of dental modification more than 1,000 years earlier is unusual. She suggests that the man held a ceremonial role in the community.

“You can imagine someone with filed down teeth and jaguar fangs sticking out,” Gabany-Guerrero says. “Certainly this would play up the ritual nature of who this person would have been in the society.”

The cliff paintings the man was buried under also provide clues to his identity. Very clear images show scenes of hunting, dancing and shaman in ritual poses.

“This is the first time that anything like this has been found in the Michoacan region,” says Gabany-Guerrero. “The iconography is giving us a window into a long period of time when this shelter was used for ritual purposes.”

She explains that archaeological remains of pre-ceramic societies are rare in this region and that this site might inspire more researchers to pay attention to a long-ignored area.

Currently the Comunidad Indígena de Nuevo Parangaricutiro is working with an NGO, The Mexican Environmental & Cultural Research Institute (MEXECRI), and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to manage the site and guide tourists interested in viewing the artwork.

Published in Americas magazine,  January-February 2007, by Chris Hardman

Medicinal Weeds of the Maya

WORKING WITH the Highland Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, University of Georgia researcher John R. Stepp has documented that weeds are a more valuable source of medicine than plants found deep in the forest. Stepp spent 9 months tracking medicinal plant use of 208 people in 6 communities. He found that the majority of medicines used were made from weeds found close by homes and villages.

The Maya are well known for their use of medicinal plants, and in recent years scientists from around the world have tapped into their knowledge in search of cures for cancer, AIDS, and other devastating diseases. But very little research has been done on the medicinal value of weeds — those pesky invasive species that quickly take over disturbed habitat near homes and other cleared areas. According to Stepp, weeds are a logical choice for medicinal use, “Weeds are readily available. You know that they are going to be there when you go looking for them. If you’re sick, you don’t want to travel a long ways to find a plant.”

Using weeds found close to home eliminates the need to store plants, saving time and effort. “Some of the more volatile compounds, if you dry them, lose their strength. So it’s much better from a treatment point of view to go out and get fresh material,” Stepp says. In contrast to other Indian groups throughout Latin America who dry and store plants, the Highland Maya rely almost exclusively on fresh material.

There are biochemical reasons why weeds make good medicine as well. Most plants manufacture compounds for defense against herbivores and insects. A lot of these compounds have medicinal properties — in small doses they are medicinal, in large doses they are toxic. Weeds tend to produce more compounds than plants living in the forest, who use structural defenses like thick bark and tannins to protect against browsing. Because most weeds only live for a short period of time, they can’t afford to expend the energy required to develop structural defenses. Developing chemical defenses is much more economical.

Stepp found that the majority of medicinal weeds were used for gastrointestinal diseases and respiratory illnesses, two conditions that account for 80% of health problems. One of the most frequently used weeds is the species Verbena litoralis. Named Yakan kulub wamal in Maya (grasshopper leg herb), this weed provides a potent cure for diarrhea. The Mexican sunflower, Tithonia diversifolia, is used to treat abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The Highland Maya have lived in the Chiapas region of Mexico for more than one thousand years. As a result, they have accumulated a vast understanding of medicinal flora that has been passed down through oral traditions to today’s population of 800,000 people. By the age of 5, children can name 100 plants, and adults can name nearly 600. This widespread knowledge has minimized the need for specialized healers. Unless they have a very serious illness or a condition with a supernatural element — like a curse —  most people simply go out in the backyard and treat themselves.

Stepp says his study contrasts with the romantic image of native people gathering secret plants deep in the rainforest. “The truth is more exotic,” he explains. “I think the fact that people do have such a widespread knowledge and that they’re living on top of their pharmacy is more exotic than trekking off into the jungle.”

Published in Americas Magazine by Chris Hardman