Nude Travel: Inside Cancun's Clothing-Optional Resort

Awkward as a 13-year-old boy at his very first dance, I sit hunched on a granite stool at a swim-up bar in a resort in Cancun — Desire Pearl — chatting with a couple I've just met. Jeff and Mica live on 10 acres in the Northwest in an area so remote, Mica tells me while coyly playing with the straw in her slushy bright-blue cocktail, called an Oh My God, that they almost never get unannounced visitors.

So when there was a banging on the door recently while Mica was in the shower, she answered with a towel wrapped around her waist and a compact gun in her hand. "It was two young Mormon missionaries," Mica says, giggling. "They didn't know whether to look at the handgun or my breasts. Watching their big eyes go up and down — it was like, breasts, handgun, breasts, handgun."

Actually, Mica doesn't use the word breasts, and her name isn't really Mica (most everyone I talked to for this story asked me to change their name to protect their privacy). I've also failed to mention a few other important details: Desire Pearl is a clothing-optional couples resort, and both Jeff and Mica are naked as worms (except for Mica's two eye-catching nipple rings, which I swear I've barely glanced at). In fact, of the 30 or 40 people mingling in the pool, sipping Oh My Gods or Blue Lagoons, I am the only one with a swimsuit on. Or anything on, for that matter.

After Mica, a 44-year-old boudoir photographer with strawberry-blond hair finishes her story, her fiancé, Jeff, a pilot, says, "Well, I'm sure the gun got their attention honey bun, but what those boys were really interested in were obviously your breasts. They're awesome, don't you think?" he says to me, slapping a meaty hand on my shoulder. I smile and nod enthusiastically, never a man to argue with another man's assessment of his girlfriend's breasts.

As we are talking, another naked middle-aged couple sashays up to the bar in search of drinks. They are from Florida. Let's call them Ed and Marjorie. Nervous as hell, I smile at Marjorie, who looks disconcertingly like Reba McEntire (at least the parts of Reba McEntire I've seen). Using all my willpower to keep my eyes on her eyes, I idiotically ask her, with an adolescent flutter in my voice, if her friends call her Marjorie or Marge.

Moving in close to me, she puts a hand on my submerged thigh and says in a magnolia-scented whisper, "You can't call me Marge until I've shown you my fanny."

"Which she soon will," says her beefy husband, laughing. And sure enough, not a minute later, she pulls herself up onto the side of the pool like a seal performing at SeaWorld, batting her eyes as she looks at me demurely over her slightly sunburned shoulder. After slowly slipping back into the water, she comes back over to me and says in a perky Southern drawl, "Now you can call me Marge." Having no reply, I can only gulp down an Oh My God and then order another.

"So, Wally," says Mica, leaning in, "is this your first time at something like this?" "It is," I say. "And my name isn't Wally — it's David, or Dave to those who've seen my varicose veins." "Oh, I think you're probably a Wally," she says, looking intentionally at the wedding ring on my left hand. "Where's the wifey?" The wifey is home, I tell her, and I'm here alone because I'm a writer and I've always been sort of curious about clothing-optional resorts, like Desire Pearl, and when I got an invitation to visit, I couldn't resist. I plan to write a story about the resort, I tell them, and hope they'll be my friends and show me the ropes while I'm here.

Marge says she thinks I'm "kinda sweet and maybe not a Wally at all but maybe a Sam" (more on that later), and all four members of my new naked posse offer to explain to me "how things work at Desire."

"You absolutely need to lose the swimsuit," says Mica.

That could be a challenge. I'm a big boy with big feet, I tell them. I don't want to scare anyone. "Be sure you're at the Jacuzzi at 6," Ed offers, ignoring my humor. "And don't judge," says Marge.

This last piece of advice might be the most difficult to follow. How do you stay nonjudgmental when a soccer mom who looks like Reba McEntire presents her wet upturned bottom for your inspection two minutes after her husband, a motorcycle cop, has introduced her to you?

Don't judge. OK, I'm going to try very hard not to judge. But, jeez, Marge, do you really think that displaying your fanny is the best way to introduce yourself to a stranger?

Following Ed's advice, every evening around 6, I head for the Jacuzzi, which isn't really a Jacuzzi at all but more like a well-heated pool with jets on the edges and a round tiled platform in the middle where you can sunbathe, chat, sip a glass of wine or have sex. This is why Ed told me to be here at 6. During the day, the pool is where the action is (no sex allowed at the pool or the beach). But this spot is where everyone congregates for happy hour, in more ways than one, before heading off to shower and then dinner.

Marge takes me over to meet Rasheesh and Dorothy, who are from Detroit. Rasheesh, who is 39, tells me, as we sip mojitos, that this is his and Dorothy's last night at Desire Pearl and they would really like to "play" with Mica and Jeff, but he's not sure it's going to happen. "It's all up to the girls," he says, totally resigned.

This is a refrain I hear from every man I talk to at Desire Pearl: The women are in charge. Case in point: A few minutes later, Mica and Jeff come over to say hello, and just joking around, Rasheesh lifts up Mica's foot from the pool and attempts to kiss it. But before he can, Mica plants a foot in his chest and pushes him back. Jeff, laughing, puts a consoling hand on Rasheesh's shoulder and says, "You can kiss her fanny, Rasheesh, but you can't kiss her toes." And so it is.

Here's the thing: When you're socializing with four or five buck-naked people, conversation tends to be more open and honest. The couples in my naked posse seem more engaged and attentive than the couples I know at home. The conversations seem more intense and — how do I say it? — a little lovesick. The men lean forward and stare directly into their partners' eyes. The women lightly touch their men on the shoulder, the forearm, the cheek.

There's less hypocrisy, less cattiness (I've never been in a social situation where the women seem to honestly enjoy each other) and less peacock strutting. It's like romance is in the air — not sex, although that's there too, but romance. It's as if each couple is saying, "OK, I am as naked and vulnerable as I can be. Let's be honest with each other." Much to my surprise, I like these people. In fact, I've become a bit envious of them. After three days at Desire Pearl, I've learned there's really not all that much that separates them from me — or probably you.

Yet another part of me realizes that we are different. For one thing, I still have my swimsuit on. One afternoon while I'm hanging out with my posse around the pool, I look around at the three naked women sunning on pool loungers; the four or five couples of various ages being led by a cute kid from Hungary in aquatic aerobics; and all the other guests snoozing, bare asses, on daybeds or playing volleyball on the beach (so much bouncing!) or, like me, sprawled on chaise lounges, reading. I mumble to myself, "Who are these people?"

Jeff, overhearing me, looks up from a magazine and says, "About half of us are swingers. Another 30 percent are naturists and not interested in the sex part. And the rest have probably come here for the first time and don't know what they are, but they'll be swingers in about five days."

Mica, who has been holding an exalted warrior yoga pose on the pool deck, considers Jeff's remark and says she disagrees with his figures. "I don't think it will take them five days. More like two."

At which point Don and Janet come over and slide into the empty loungers beside me. Janet is a hypnotherapist from Southern California. She says, "So, Sam, you've been here for four days. What's with the swimsuit?" I tell her I'm just being careful. That I don't want to get sunburned "down there." "I don't think so, Sam."

Trying to change the subject, I ask her why she and Marge always call me Sam — and why they first called me Wally. "There are three types of guys that go to resorts like this without a wife or a girlfriend," she tells me. "The first type is a Vinny. A Vinny wears gold chains and thinks he's God's gift to women. Very obnoxious. A Wally is a guy who sits in the corner and stares at the women and fantasizes. Very creepy. And then there's a Sam. A Sam doesn't hit on women who are with partners. A Sam talks to couples — not just the women — and he does not stare at the women or make them uncomfortable. Sams are here just to have fun, and they're usually fun to be around. You're a Sam. But you'd be a better Sam if you'd lose the trunks. You'll never really be a part of this group until you do."

Janet then offers to give me a free hypnotherapy session to "get to the bottom of why you're really afraid to be naked." I take her up on it. Ten minutes later, we're sitting in a quiet, shady corner off the beach restaurant, where she draws a line down the middle of a legal pad and says, "I want you to tell me what awful things you think will happen to you if you take your swimsuit off."

The questions go on like this for 20 or 30 minutes, with her probing deeper and deeper into my psyche until she thinks she's hit the jackpot. "Aha!" she says happily, slamming her legal pad on the table. Then she coaches me through what are basically mindful meditation exercises, focusing on my breath, before having me visually walk down 20 steps into "a beautiful, tranquil garden where you feel safe." And then, with me in a state very much like pre-sleep, she suggests images and thoughts, happy thoughts, as she tells me to release all the fears and insecurities that are keeping me from being able to get naked.

And then I walk back up the 20 steps from the garden, and when I am fully awake, she asks me how I feel. "Fine." "Any different?" "I don't think so. Just kind of tired."

I thank Janet for the session and then head off to my room, where I sleep soundly for several hours. When I awake, it's twilight. I wander down to the hot tub, and without even thinking about it, drop my swim trunks, slip into the water and shuffle over to my naked posse — Don and Janet, Jeff and Mica, Ed and Marge. Ed offers to buy me a drink (a running gag at the resort since all the booze is included). "We hardly recognized you naked," he says jovially. Marge lifts her Oh My God and proposes a toast: "To David," she says. "Welcome to the group. It's really great to see you."

And I am certain she truly means it.