On My Mexican Beach Trip, Flu Was a No-Show

By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 2009

A little Montezuma's revenge? That I could handle, with the help of some ginger ale and over-the-counter drugs. But when the swine flu -- or the H1N1 virus, as it's more properly known -- reared its ugly head, I came close to ditching a long-planned vacation to a resort town near Cancun.

After all, the trip, to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday, wasn't meant to be a high-risk adventure -- the kind for which you need a course of shots, accident insurance and antibiotics in your carry-on -- but an easy beach getaway.

In the end, the latter is what it turned out to be. The four-day trip to Playa del Carmen proceeded as planned, with everyone in our group of 12 flying in from various locales, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Maryland suburbs. I returned home with my health intact and with a healthy sense of skepticism about the breathless 24-7 coverage of the outbreak and the somber, often confusing, alerts from the World Health Organization and U.S. officials. (My mom, on the other hand, was much more direct in suggesting that a change of plans might be in order.)

The number of infections and deaths in Mexico City notwithstanding, the disease seemed largely a non-issue on the Yucatan Peninsula. I took my usual tropical-destination precautions, drinking only purified or bottled water, avoiding foods that seemed iffy and applying plenty of SPF 30 sunblock. I also toted three travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer, which admittedly I used obsessively, as if it were some kind of vaccine.

Otherwise, I went about my beach business with hardly a worry. True, it was disconcerting to be greeted at the airport by a health official in a surgical mask who took the temperature (by means of a quick forehead scan) of all arriving travelers. Once he waved us through, I had no further need of medical services. Leaving Cancun, I had to undergo a final temperature check by a similarly masked official and to fill out a form stipulating I was free of flu symptoms. (The only other people seen in surgical masks were the workers in the local supermarket and a bartender at the popular beach club Mamita's.)

If anything, the one-two combination of a sour economy and the hype over the H1N1 outbreak made the logistics of group travel simpler than during more-ordinary times.

My partner and I traveled on half-empty planes, getting bumped up to first class on both legs. We mostly had the pool and hot tub to ourselves at the upscale Porto Playa Condo Hotel and had no trouble scoring tables for 12 at dinner. At the same time, the town's main drag -- the pedestrians-only Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) -- and intersecting streets seemed busy enough to me, although others recalled denser crowds on previous visits.

Still, the cheesy,Vegas-style Coco Bongo nightclub had a line out the door one night, and other bars and dance spots bustled with revelers. The most popular place in town seemed to be Mamita's, where the palapas (those island-style thatched umbrellas) were much in demand in the scorching May sun. Rival beach clubs were not so fortunate: They were nearly empty.

Through all of my Playa del Carmen explorations, I didn't come down with so much as the sniffles or even an upset tummy.

Whether my smooth travels were due to luck or all that hand sanitizer, I can't say.

Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer.

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