Terra incognita – a short story about Cancun dreaming founding

Engineers approaching to Cancun coasts, circa 1968. Photo given by Francisco Verdayes and Revista Pioneros.

We saw each other in the eyes, surrounded by darkness and connected with the ridiculous beam of the flashlight. My heart was a piston of incredible ups and downs, under the grapeshot in the blood. The massive cat, spot tattooed, was purring and wriggling the tail with hypnotic movements. He was sliding his paws over the sand, just a few meters of my hammock; he wasn’t coming close, and neither did a step back. Then, in an outburst typical of some prehistoric instinct, I found that he was fencing me in. Emilio touched mi shoulder softly, and it made me paralyze with terror. He bended down next to me. He had neither his shotgun nor his machete and it indicated me that I was going to die between the claws of the beast. ‘Don’t move, mi jefe. It’s a balam and he is getting to know you’. His words emerged from the palm trees, and reverberated into the black mouths of the waves crashing on the beach.

How did I get involved into this? Everything happened suddenly, one week ago. The Department turned the order and it resulted in a trip with Bustos, an exploration job to the damn end of the world. ‘It’s the Caribbean’ the Secretary said with a pleasant smile. ‘You are going with charge to the Banco de Mexico, four days. I want you to compile data. How the landscape is, the beaches, the coast, weather. It’s a trip of first perspectives. The Bank had requested you and Bustos to go there, the best engineers we have. You’ll have to make a report. This report will be seen by some important people, thus, I need all your skills in this, Anaya. It could be a starter to something important, definitive.’ I was listening to the Secretary without blinking, but his words were hardly to understand. When he asked ‘Can I trust you for the task?’ I answered with a backhand of professional tennis player: tell me at what time the bus departs. The Secretary laughed, and extended me a folder. ‘Don’t be a fool, Anaya. If you want to go there, only on a small plane.’ And that was all. I found Bustos affected because of the sudden mission; he didn’t want to go, but, after futile objections, he ended up following the orders.

I didn’t consider the Secretary’s words until the morning we rode in the plane and took off from the civil airport. I must confess it was my first time flying, and I felt a terrible emptiness in my stomach when the aircraft took the tires off the ground. Bustos was having fun with my reactions, the prick. The urban spot down there impressed me, Mexico City and the snowy volcanoes fading in the clouds pushed me to press the Nikon shutter few times. I got used to the heights very soon and I cheered myself up seeing the Pico de Orizaba and the coastline that I had never seen before. When the Gulf of Mexico spread up in front of us, Bustos was already snoring in his seat, with the hat over the face.

We started the descent. The heat grew up and I realize it when the first drops of sweat slipped down of my forehead. The clouds turned away and I saw the coast, the Caribbean. Is that Mexico? wonder myself. In my little centralist understanding, living in the big city, I couldn’t understand that all that beaches, remarked by a highly white line, delimiting blue and green waters, were ‘Mexico’. ‘Do you see the fish-form island? It’s Isla Mujeres. We are going to land there’, the pilot said. A small landing track made of dirt gave way to the plane and we landed, not without a good shakes. We still did not open the door and Bustos was fanning himself with his hat, cursing. We were perspiring terribly. When the pilot opened the door at last, the heat slapped us directly in the face. It was midday and the sun set the earth on fire, without mercy. Incredibly, Bustos did not take off his coat and tie. Later, I understood this: as good defeño, he wanted to impress the province. The Delegate of that small town was already waiting for us in the aerodrome, made with a type of grass called zacate and sticks. He greeted us effusively with a peculiar accent: ‘licenciados, welcome to Isla, I am Fulgencio N.’ I shook hands clumsily, the heat made me see double. Bustos made a face of hidden look down on him, but I was the only who saw that. The Delegate was a mayan native, with bronzed skin and short height. He was dressing a guayabera and coarse cloth pants, and sandals made of leather. Fulgencio drove us in a car which looked more like a rusty carriage, to the government offices of the island. By then, Bustos gave up with the formalities, and the coat and tie had disappeared. ‘You will be in front of this island four days, so I strongly recommend that take the malation with you for the mosquitoes.’ ‘Can’t you return us every day?’ asked Bustos, reluctantly. ‘The Government message says you have to spend the night there, lic’, Delegate concluded. Indeed, the orders were to spend the three nights in that place. The Bank had paid for it.

Fulgencio installed us at the hotel of Lima, a nice old man who was a congressman in the forties, and we found that he knew the capital very well. Our spirits came back while the conversation intensified and we drank cold beer with a winkle ceviche that I had never tasted. We ended the day listening Cuban salsa in a record table that old Lima had in the lobby. The first night was more than acceptable.


Fulgencio, early-rising as a rooster, was waiting for us outside the hotel to take us to the dock. I woke up Bustos and we dressed up reluctantly. I didn’t see old Lima again. The sun gave glimpses of rising and the hangover was ripping my brains apart.

A brown-skin man like Fulgencio was waiting in the dock. He had big hands and he was only dressing a cloth pants. He smiled when he see us. ‘Emilio Maldonado will be your guide there. Anything you need, with him, he knows it all. I will see you here on Friday, to drive you to the aerodrome’. That was the last thing the Delegate said, and just said goodbye. Bustos didn’t contain a glimpse of surprise saying just him? Emilio Maldonado was looking at us with a little trace of mockery, maybe not malicious —the capitals like us tend to think that about the provincials—  but that gesture let us see we did not belong there. ‘I would recommend you to take off your shoes and stay in t-shirt’ was the only thing he said before getting on the boat full of nets, rudimentary fishing rods and a kind of wooden boxes made of lianas. Bustos had a fight with his own suitcase while he trembled, tense, trying to get into the boat. At last we got underway. The engine, really old, coughed like a motorcycle and we were approaching to the continent slowly. ‘Take the camera out, right?’ Bustos reproached me. I had forgotten about it, captivated with the landscape. That was like being in the Treasure Island, in XVI century, with an indigenous boatman-guide. I took the camera out just in time to capture some turtles swimming next to us, putting their noses out the surface and aspiring air. We approached to a coastal dune wall, white and sparkling. Every time I came across with pictures of Acapulco and Veracruz, I recognized the sand like a brown-muddy thing. As the map indicated, that was an arc made of sand, moulded over thousands of years, according to the topographic studies in the folders. When we went ashore, I got amazed. Even Bustos was open-mouthed. We were in a kilometric, sparkling beach, with an endless rows of coconut trees, looking at us like green sentinels, rippling their palms facing the Caribbean breeze. The sand was like talc, very fine, with a sensation received by my feet in a wonderful way. We climbed the dune, and I realized that Emilio had brought us to one of the vertex of that sandy, winding island. The sight was not enough to delimit the beach, turquoise, crystal clear. ‘Inland, there is a small lagoon where we can get shrimp and lobster, but there are too many crocodiles, too. I will be around here if you need me’, Maldonado concluded.cancun-1975-punta-cancun-modificada-1

After the first impression, Bustos took the measuring tools. I continued taking photos and recognizing the land. I still did not believe that that was Mexico, the one of the noisy capital, dusty mountains and miserable towns, lost in the stony desert. When the sun was hitting from the highest, we sat next to the shadows of a palm tree to rest. Emilio came out of the brush with a rifle on his shoulder, carrying some huge, green coconuts. He cut the peel easily with his machete and gave us two for each. ‘Try not to drink a lot’, warned, ‘it gives pirix ta’, the runs’. We cracked up. He broke and split them and we ate the exquisite pulp greedily.

We follow with our walking over the sand tongue. The palms gave us the precious shadow and the afternoon was delightful with the immutable breeze. ‘Look at it, jefes, look at it!’, called us Emilio, smiling as always, shaking his big hands. As we came closer, I saw something behind the countless dunes, removing the sand furiously, raising it in soft swirls scattering by the wind. A turtle, gigantic, was using his fins as flexible shovels. I had no idea about what was happening. Bustos whispered respectfully, like he was in a Sunday mass ‘she is going to lay eggs, that’s fucking freak, man’. ‘Josefina comes here every year, she does it almost in the same place’, said Maldonado. Josefina? I asked, trying to understand. ‘Yes, I marked the carapace, that’s how I know is her’. Bustos looked at me like saying this indio is crazy as hell, but, effectively, when we got closer to the animal, we found a little «J» engraved on the shell. Our new friend carried on with the task of making a nest for her future babies, without paying attention to us. We moved away completely silent.

We arrived at Emilio’s camp: a simple palapa made of sticks and zacate between bunches of palm trees. He came with three fish, gut them immediately, and he asked us for stones we had to gather in order to roast them. He smeared the fish with salt, a red mixture and lemon juice as condiments. The fish was another surprise to my taste; I couldn’t believe that, me eating in the shore of the beach next to a fire. Even Bustos was more cheerful than usual; Emilio share with us some digestive liquor called xtabentun and the engineer drank it with some weird faces. When the second glass came out, he didn’t matter about the flavour.

The sun hid, and clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies came of nowhere and hit us with formidable speed. When we were going to put the malation, Emilio pointed out the insecticide: ‘that thing doesn’t work, jefes’. Then, calm as water, stacked up coconut shells and set them fire. ‘Come here, while the happy hour passes by’. Without thinking, we let the white smoke of the coconuts cover ourselves up. The air armies were buzzing with anger around us, but they didn’t come any closer; it was like magic. After a while, the bugs disappeared suddenly as they came, therefore, we leave that smokehouse. I felt my eyes burning and sore throat. Some wheal left as a sign of the skirmish.

emilio maldonado.png
Actually, Emilio Maldonado was a real dweller of Isla Cancun, before the hotels and progress. Photo by Christa Cowrie.

I looked one of the most impressive nights in my life. Truly, we could see the Milky Way from there, the bright, galactic dust spread in the celestial vault. This and the little Emilio’s fire were the only two lights there. In that moment I felt in a desert island, in the end of the world, if that expression could fit. Mexico was a distant country from there. How the hell did the Bank and the Government expect to build a city, out of nowhere, far from everything? It sounded nutty to me. ‘This can’t be compared with any place in the country’ Bustos said unexpectedly, like he guessed my thoughts. ‘Do you know what Tourism means?’ Traveling, knowing places, monuments, I answered automatically. ‘And coming and spending days lying in a paradise like this, Anaya. Because that is what this place is. Very deep down, it is.’ I remembered what Secretary told me: it was a first impression trip. Apart from the engineering tests, the first impression that Bustos commented was, indeed, a perfect postcard, an Acapulco to the bazillionth power, today an uncut diamond. We were the first sent to check the place. Laboratory mice sent to the wild paradise.

Emilio brought hammocks for us. To be honest, I had never sleep in one before neither. My blood got cold when I found we were going to sleep open sky. ‘Don’t worry jefes, the animals don’t get close, and if they do it, with a little noise they run away to the wild’. Bustos shrugged, drunk and insolated with his red face: ‘all the bloody adventure, isn’t it, Anaya?’

Between nods and the exhaustion of the day I was disconnecting myself from reality. The waves crashing on the beach finally lulled me to sleep. Then, a noise of the bushes brought me to the surface again. I opened my eyes and didn’t dare to move a muscle. It was still dark, and between the foot noise I identified something like snores. It must be Bustos, but I saw him sleeping next to me and the snoring came from farther. I took a little flashlight from my pocket, and pointed it to the dunes. That’s where I found myself with the feline, face to face. I thought in a leopard because of the black spots on the yellow fur; it was huge and gave me a respectable aspect. Then I listened the quiet voice of Emilio, he was getting to know me. After a moment, the most distressed of my life, the animal maybe lost interest in us, because he went away by the coast, unconcerned, owner and lord of the place. Bustos, lost in his dreams, never clued in about that encounter.

The sunrise was a kind of redemption, something religious: the sun emerging of the Caribbean, its beams of light bore through the clouds, the breeze brushing the dunes. The next days I saw the crocodiles, Emilio showed me them in the lagoon called Nichupte by himself. The mangroves, authentic natural labyrinths, emerged from the crystal and placid waters of the pond, reflecting adjacent worlds under our footsteps. Much to my horror, I saw triangular fins gliding not too far from the shore. ‘Those don’t bite unless you come close to the babies’, told an over-confident Emilio, with his perpetual smile. From that moment, Bustos didn’t get into the sea, and he focused in the work and measurements. Flocks of parrots, toucans and many more birds were flying every hour over our heads; colourful festivals in the sky, but sometimes they were really noisy. I took notes and more photos.


‘They’ll have to fill it up, Anaya’ Bustos said, taking me apart from the overcoming visions when I saw the small boats over the lagoon, carrying copra and the fish catch of the day. Fill the pond up? I asked, incredulous. ‘Of course, this part of the sand arm is too thin; we need more space for the road lane’. Road? Are you talking about concrete, Bustos? My mind was shocked just thinking about it. I couldn’t believe I was asking myself as a constructor. It was obvious. I do the math and calculation reluctantly. Of course, it would have to be filled. The major parts of the dune arm. Maybe with big stones first, to make a good base under the concrete, due to the water depth. I gave that information to Bustos. He checked the data, and was agree with it giving a grunt.

On the third day, a terrible storm fell of nowhere. Wind, heavy rain and black clouds beat against the palm trees, bending them without mercy. Bustos was startled like a child because of the lightning bolts; the howling wind was shaking the Emilio’s cabin powerfully. The storm last for two hours, and almost suddenly, the sun came up in the sky, splendorous; we were bewildered, all wet to the bones. ‘It happens, jefes’ Emilio said. He was got used to our stupid faces.

The four days passed and we said goodbye to Emilio. He gave us souvenirs: watermelon-sized seashells. When I shook hands with him for the last time, a kind of smile, melancholic, peeked for an instant in his bronzed features. I trembled when I found out it was a sad and devastating premonition. ‘I planted almost every coconut you see’. It was everything he said.

When Fulgencio received us at the dock in Isla Mujeres, he was taken aback by our appearance: the beards and the exhausted reflection of old castaways in our sunburned faces. ‘How was it?’ Asked to Bustos. ‘A pain in the ass’, mumbled him, fusing Fulgencio with a glance. I told him as a courtesy that we got all we needed, and I thanked him hastily.

Would the project be made? Would it work? Going back in the plane, I thought about the turtle, Josefina, making her nest, and the fibrous, brown arms of Emilio, rocking his secret lover, helping her to shovel the sand falling and falling with the centuries in that same dune. I was wondering who would have the courage to inhabit a place like that, who would get bravery to snatch it from the primitive. Would the time say it? The Government, the bankers would? Bustos was writing and writing in his notebook like he was possessed. He was sketching out and outlining, a sort of sevens over the squared paper: one bridge here, a landing track over there, with the name Kaankun in the margins. Then I was aware of it, and a shudder in my low back indicated me that I was it, Bustos was it too. We were messengers to Emilio, Josefina, and all that we saw in Kaankun. Messengers of this fact: that the country and the progress would fall over them pretty soon and without mercy, like that weird storm came of nowhere. And be a witness of it would be my punishment. The eyes of Emilio had spoken it all to me: in his pupils was sailing the premonition of inevitability.

cancun circa1970.jpg
Cancun Island (hotel zone) circa 1970.
Cancun Island, today.


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