For many people the Yucatan represents Cancun, the Mayan Riviera, and Chichen-Itza. While each of these locations posses many positive attributes for the wayfarer, there are many other reasons to travel to the Yucatan. Most flights do culminate at Cancun, but there are also air services to Merida and Campeche on the Gulf side of the Peninsula if you prefer to start there.
As you approach the Cancun airport, the first striking characteristic is the relative flatness of the terrain. Thick vegetation commands the landscape in an even blanket that stretches in all directions. The only thing breaking the even green is a lonesome road or a foreboding electric tower appearing larger than it should be considering the surroundings.
The reason the Peninsula is so flat is because it is entirely composed of a limestone shelf jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The layers of limestone are composed of the life and death of compacted ancient coral reefs and sand, which serve as a metaphor for the multi-layered human history that chiseled its own existence into the surface of this even terrain starting more than 12,000 years ago.
Built on time, stone, and water, human habitation of the Yucatan has always relied on the geologic composition. At first glance, one would surmise that there is no fresh water available in this flat landscape. Surface lakes and rivers are practically nonexistent, for they lay predominately underground. The spongy limestone has been carved from underneath by the slow erosive properties of water and time, and it has created a vast network of cenotes (wells) and connecting rivers fed by rain and springs, which bring life. A trip to the Yucatan would not be complete without a visit to one of the countless cenotes that pock the landscape.
Mayans constructed their civilizations around cenotes, and the people drank and were sometimes sacrificed in them. Today, the Yucatan still depends on the cenotes for drinking water, but they also serve as tourist attractions for swimming, snorkeling, and diving.
Julia, my wife, and I rented a car in Cancun and drove all around the top half of the Peninsula for a period of ten days. The fairly new rental car had 5300 kilometers on the speedometer when we got it and 7500 kilometers and mud, scratches, scrapes, and cracks when we returned it. A conference was held in the Thrifty parking lot when I returned the car with five men gesticulating and speaking in Spanish while I innocently acted as if I had been on a rather uneventful Sunday drive. Luckily, the main person to make the decision sat inside and spoke English, so I went back in the office and proceeded to reiterate over and over how enamored I was with the Yucatan and its people, and how well he spoke English.
Julia and I often joked that there are more speed bumps in the Yucatan than there are people. You could be driving at 100 kilometers/hour and all of the sudden a speed bump would appear before your surprised eyes, forcing you to slam on the brakes, and narrowly averting going airborne. Their main purpose was served in small towns where the majority of the people walked, road bikes, or used horses, and crazy drivers needed to be slowed down. Invariably, people selling their wares would hunker down right next to the speed bump, so they could capitalize upon your slow movement and side glances.
More often than not Julia and I just wanted to take their picture. Aside from the speed bumps, there were many other obstacles and flashing moments to avoid while driving around the Yucatan. America boasts many big things, but there is no question the Yucatan houses the largest potholes on this planet.
In the countryside, trucks and cars would come barreling towards you at alarming speeds and in the middle of the road. People would decide to pass at times where I thought surely it was their last act on earth. We would drive sections of road cut straight and unwavering through the jungle for miles, and then without warning, in the middle of nowhere, some man would be riding his bike on the side of the road with a machete in one hand and a giant cord of wood strapped to his back. I consulted all spirits of human invention and thanked them for allowing me to end my vacation without having killed someone with the car.
But Julia and I were calm in comparison to most drivers. People in Mexico do not care for lanes or speed limits. Why follow when you can pass? And a horn was not meant to rest idle. Driving in towns and cities on roads never meant for vehicles was harrowing, and after having driven around Merida I can say that people who live in New York and San Francisco have it easy.
Julia and I stayed in Cancun our first night because we arrived too late to drive to Merida right away. We stayed in a nice, affordable hotel in the center of Cancun called Xbalamque Resort and Spa. For those not inspired by the glitzy, ritzy, touristy strip that Cancun is infamous-famous for, one can stay in the heart of the real Cancun and enjoy nice accommodations in close proximity to delicious restaurants.
The hotels downtown are older than most of the ones on the strip, but they exude an aura of a different era with more classical construction, and the interiors project great ambiance that obviously requires care and consideration.
The last night of the trip we did stay in the hotel zone on the strip, and while I am not one to enjoy blatant tourism, I must say that it beats Vegas if not simply for the beautiful Caribbean waters right out the doorstep. I say Vegas because it is very similar with grandiose hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants. A person can get almost anything they want in Cancun. Sitting on the beach sipping a fruity and listening to American music, alternating between the pool and the ocean, looking out across beautiful white sand and azul water towards Isla Mujeres, which we did not have time to visit but hear is a great place to boat out to, is not a bad way to spend a day. But for most of the trip we were not so sedentary, and we were up before 8:00 each morning seeing all that the Yucatan has to offer.
When driving to Merida there is no reason to drive Highway 180d. Driving along we just assumed that we were adventurers in an unknown land. It was not until we forked over the $20 toll that we realized we were just naïve tourists. Highway 180 parallels 180d the entire way to Merida, and that is the way, we later came to find, is the preferred route. Yes, you do go through many more towns that slow you down, but if you can afford an extra 30 minutes it is far more preferable than the drab scenery and expense offered by 180d. The government’s decision to charge this astronomical fee, which basically dissuades everyone from using this brand new road, was perplexing to us; but this would be just the first in a line of government decisions that we found hard to understand.
We stopped off on our way to Merida to see Chichen Itza. It is indeed a touristy place but rightfully so. It is an impressive site with many well preserved temples, structures and the famous ball court. Be sure to check out the acoustics at the ball court by clapping your hands. Also, walk down to the Cenote and imagine you being thrown in there for the purpose of a religious sacrifice.
Merida is a fantastic European-style city, and it is centrally located for visiting many Mayan sites and the Gulf of Mexico towns such as Celestun and Campeche. Julia and I both absolutely loved Merida and were sad to leave. It is a very cosmopolitan city with a rich colonial past evident by the many mansions, palatial buildings, intricate friezes, and overall architectural detail on most all of the buildings. We stayed in a fabulous place called Medio Mundo just a few blocks from the main square. One enters Medio Mundo by ringing the bell on the outside of the large wooden gates and smiling at the gatekeeper through the iron portals. Once let in, you walk into the first of two courtyards adorned with tropical plants, Merida made vases and pots, and beautiful tiling and pastel colored walls and floors. There is a fountain in the first courtyard, and then a pool, tables, and bar in the second courtyard where breakfast is served each morning consisting of fresh fruits and homemade breads and pastries. There are great little nooks to sit and read and relax, the rooms are tastefully done and comfortable, and each night we were lulled to sleep by the splashing fountain below us. Well worth the mere $55 per night we paid.
Originally a Mayan settlement, Merida was conquered by the Spaniards in 1542. Since that time it has grown to 1,000,000 inhabitants of Mayan, Mexican, European, mestijo, and other descent. If traveling to Merida one must plan to spend a Sunday within the City. Many of the tourist attractions are free on Sunday, and there is also live music and people everywhere. Merida is made up of many quaint little parks and squares that are in many cases quite close to one another. A visitor can easily take in four different bands on a typical Sunday by simply walking a few blocks between the main square and the parks of Santa Lucia, Maternidad and Hidalgo. It seems that everyone comes out on Sunday and at some point or another end up in the main square of Merida.
I obviously cannot discuss all of the places to visit in Merida here, and that is what the guide books are for anyway, but the buildings around the main square symbolize so much of the history and future of the Yucatan that I must touch upon them. Probably the most significant structure to first greet the visitor’s eye is The Merida Cathedral. One of the oldest buildings in America, construction was first started when the Spanish ordered the tearing down of the then on-site Mayan temples to build it. I looked but did not see, but apparently Mayan hieroglyphs can still be seen in some of the stones used to build the Cathedral. It is an impressive structure, especially inside with the huge vaulted ceilings and overwhelmingly large and ominous Jesus at the altar. I watched many people crossing their chests as they walked by it on the street.
Right next door is the Palace of the Archbishop, which is a beautiful museum featuring varying works of many different Mexican artists. I would venture to guess that many people think of the stereotypical blankets, hammocks, and the like when they think of Mexican artwork. That type of thinking is not necessarily unfair considering how prevalent it is; nevertheless, the museum illustrates the many other creative outlets of the Mexican people.
On the other side of the street is the guarded Los Palacios building, which houses some impressive paintings by a famous Mexican artist, Castro, which depict the history of Merida. City Hall is on the other corner, and we watched several great performances consisting of Mayan dance, Mexican jazz, and symphony in front of this building three of the four nights we were there. One night Julia and I were the dance partners for two Hispanic women that appeared to have had too much to drink. I spent an entire song with one of those girls wrapped tight around my midsection swaying back and forth to her own beat. It was fun though, and we enjoyed participating more than the casual observer.
Continuing around the square you come to Casa Montejo. Casa Montejo is the most curious building in my opinion because of the carved sculptures that adorn the entrance. The sculptures are of two Spaniards on either side of the doorway standing on the heads of grimacing Mayans obviously in great pain. It is such a blatant reminder of the oppressive and brutal Spanish rule. What is also interesting is that since 1980, Banamex, which is probably the largest banking institution in the area, has owned and occupied the building. Such a befittingly blatant act for the bank; of course, Mexico is filled with blatant acts just like its northern neighbor.
One blatant aspect of Hispanic culture that Julia was especially privy to on many occasions around the Yucatan was the all too familiar machismo that men often practice when they see a woman of fair skin and blue eyes. I know that men of all ethnicities and cultures operate on a heightened sexual plain when in the presence of a pretty woman, but Hispanic men cannot resist the all too common stare, whistle, and the even more unusual, clicking of the teeth.
Julia began to approach the entire phenomenon like a social scientist in the field. She could govern response with slight changes in appearance. It was interesting for me to see the dramatic differences in responses when she wore her hair up in a bun verses when she let it down. She could proceed down the street unmolested if she chose to cover her skin, but the moment she exposed, for instance, her shoulders and arms, countless responses were instantaneous. It certainly made Julia a bit uncomfortable, but after a while the cars stopping in the middle of the street, the barrage of whistles and cat calls, clicking teeth, and stares everywhere became humorous – only, of course, because they were all harmless. I guess it is all about what you are not used to, especially in a foreign land.
Over the ages the “beautiful blonde” has continued to captivate and instigate many cultures. There was one billboard that we often saw around the Yucatan that summed up the whole situation quite nicely. Superior beer, a Mexican beer, commissioned these enormous billboards featuring a thinly clad blonde white woman swilling their beer with a look of ecstasy. Hispanics do not have blonde hair, but they are obviously drawn to those that do. During our travels, Julia and I saw many such advertisements. In my opinion, brunettes of all races are equally beautiful, but we never saw large billboards featuring them.
We did several day outings from Merida, including Uxmal and Celestun. Uxmal is a wonderful excavation with ruins as equally impressive as Chichen Itza, but without the crowds. There are structures still being unearthed from the jungle carpet, but it is quite clear that the Mayans once operated a massive city here. Sources state that Uxmal was at its peak around 750-925 A.D., and it was the hub for a civilized area stretching over 160 kilometers. Uxmal is a fantastic place to spend an entire day consorting with those that have come before us.
Celestun is, well, funky. The coastal area is a bit barren and the burned down restaurant featured in the guidebook didn’t exactly give us the warm and fuzzies. We headed down to the docks and hopped aboard a boat with a congenial captain to see the profusion of flamingos that find respite in the protected bays just inland of the ocean. They feed upon a shrimp that contributes to the beautiful color of their plumage. It is quite a sight to see what seems to be thousands of these pink pirouettes bobbing about in the shallow waters in search of food.
Driving in and out of Merida you will discover many long forgotten haciendas, which in their heyday employed significant amounts of laborers bent on producing rope and twine from the agave plant. Spanish overlords made a healthy living shipping their product to Europe and beyond, and the haciendas reflected their opulence. Many of the haciendas are beautiful and demonstrate the Spanish and Moorish architecture. Likewise, you will see churches and cathedrals in close proximity, which emulate this same style. They are at the center of all of the ubiquitous little cities that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. The Spanish definitely exerted their influence, but revolution eventually overturned their rule.
From Merida, we made our way to the Caribbean and Tulum. While Tulum is a popular destination for tourists being bussed and boated down from Cancun, it still maintains a certain charm and calm. We stayed in a cabana right on the beach and enjoyed some nice boat assisted snorkeling, the ruins of Tulum, and some delicious seafood. We also spent a considerable amount of time simply lounging on the beach, relaxing and swimming, with side trips to the refreshing cenote swimming holes just inland of the coast.
One of cenotes we visited was the Grand Cenote just outside of Tulum. It was fantastic. The crystal clear water is a refreshing change from the salty ocean and humid air. The cenote itself is reminiscent of an oasis in the midst of a desert. Of course, you are not in a desert but instead in a tropical Caribbean paradise; but you get the point.
Simply bobbing under and above the stalagmites and stalactites would not give you a sense of the depth of the Grand Cenote, nor would a snorkel and mask. Fortunately, I happened to be snorkeling around in the back of one of these caves, admiring the fish and the sapphire light, when three divers emerged from one of the side caverns with their flashlights on. It was then that I understood how three-dimensional the Yucatan Peninsula really is. What I saw was an enormous ampitheatre that stretched underground farther than the eye could see. These little edens offer life to many other species aside from humans, so be careful not to come face to face with something you do not want to meet. Life is abundant and beautiful in the Yucatan, but it is not all friendly.
On our way back up the coast to Cancun, and the eventual flight back to responsibility, we were amazed at the amount of growth. Resorts are springing up everywhere, and don’t be surprised to see a Walmart billboard or two. How easy it is for giant excavators and earth movers to simply tear away the vegetation and put the stamp of man in its place. Hopefully there is a local movement on the part of Maya and Mexicans to protect some of what is left.
Despite signs of rapid development, the moral of the story is that there is much more to the Yucatan than Cancun. Poke around a bit and you will uncover a rich history filled with incredible accomplishments, bitter oppression, and the melding of a diverse culture, which is still holding on to many of its traditions.