South of the Border - Mexico’s “Other” PeninsulaMay 01, 2008 09:39PM ● By Greg Niemann
by Greg Niemann
I have penned the Baja Beat column in every issue of the San Clemente Journal since summer 1995 when issue number one rolled off the presses. This is not a goodbye, but an expansion.
A lot has changed since our first column: Baja’s changed and so have I. Many thousands more “gringos” now dwell in Southern California’s “playground to the south.” And, after writing two impassioned books about Baja California, my literary focus has broadened to include other topics: more travel, the outdoors, desert communities, and even business.
I no longer get to Baja as often for the off-road forays like I used to, but visiting the rest of Mexico – well, that’s a different story. And instead of the long drive and fighting the border crunch, we generally fly to our Mexican destinations.
In recent years I’ve revisited Mazatlán, snorkeled out of Puerto Vallarta, caught plenty of sailfish and dorado (mahi mahi) in numerous trips to Zihuatanejo, lazed in Pacific coast villages along the Costa Alegre north of Manzanillo, watched the cliff divers at Acapulco, explored unique mountain villages in the states of Colima, Guerrero, and Michoacan, trod the cobbled lanes in the silver town of Taxco, attended a writing seminar in Mexico City, and reveled in the Mexican Independence Day festivities in San Miguel de Allende.
Overview of the Yucatan
But out of Mexico’s 32 states (including the Federal District), the three states that comprise the Yucatan peninsula have been a particular magnet for me, and I’ve been all over Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche. While I’ve often used Cancun as a jumping off point, usually we head west to the less-touristy Mérida and Campeche areas and the old hemp plantations that have now been converted into delightful haciendas.
Along the way, I’ve romped over numerous Mayan ruins from the popular ones at Chich
én Itzá, Cobá, Tulum and Uxmal, to some that are rarely visited. Generally my wife drives, and she may second guess my navigating her down a narrow dirt road in the jungle. Then there’ll be a clearing and we’ll stop to marvel at some lesser known ruins that appear above our heads, looming over the verdant jungle floor.
Some of those old Mayan sites, like one we visited last month at Oxkintok, where the state of Yucatan borders Campeche, inspire awe as the somber quiet is disrupted only by chattering of birds and monkeys. That jungle site is one of several so tranquil and ethereal it’s hard to realize that thousands of people once occupied a vibrant city there.
The entire Yucatan peninsula is porous limestone and riddled like Swiss cheese. Caves and cenotes (holes full of water) are everywhere. Most caves will have a guide or two outside to take the occasional visitor inside their dark and perplexing interior labyrinths. And believe me, unless you are a serious spelunker, you do not want to try it on your own. They’re not maintained like Carlsbad Caverns with illuminated and paved paths.
At the Grutas de Calcehtok (near Oxkintok) the only sign of life was a teenage boy in a hammock strung up near the entrance. He identified himself as a grandson of the long-time guide Roger Cuy and quoted prices for personal tours of various lengths.
Also known as Actun Spukil, this massive cave system is considered one of the two largest on the peninsula, and occasional cavers still discover more tunnels all the time. A rickety metal ladder descends to the cave opening where about 60 hand-hewn steps takes one on down to a great chamber where large trees and bushes vie for the sunlight streaming through the several rooftop openings.
Among more frequented caves is Loltun in southern Yucatan near the confluence of all three states. A couple of years ago, we joined another couple with a mandatory guide and marveled at the intricate underground system. A third option is another large and extraordinary cave, the Bakankanche cave system near the heavily visited Mayan site of Chichén Itzá.
Swimming in Cenotes
There are cenotes everywhere and a swim in one of them is long remembered. I especially like the Cenote Dzitnup near Chichén Itzá, where a beautiful turquoise pool rests in a vast limestone chamber replete with the requisite stalagmites and stalactites. A small hole in the chamber roof casts a spotlight on the water and it seems mandatory to swim over to it. I did not have swimming trunks with me that day but nobody seemed to mind my underwear.
Another of my favorite cenotes is downtown in the delightful town of Valladolid. The Cenote Zaci is about 240 feet deep, has a walkway around its 140 foot diameter, and beckons visitors to jump in the cool emerald green waters. It is walking distance from the wonderful hotel El Mesón del Marquis on the town square (zocalo).
The Mayan Riviera
While we personally like to strike out for the off-the-beaten-path locations, there is still plenty to do along the Riviera Maya, that popular stretch between Cancun and Tulum, where the roads are wider, English more widely spoken, and many more tourists reside.
Less than an hour south of the Cancun airport is Playa del Carmen, one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities. While only a decade ago it was little more than the ferry point to the island of Cozumel, it has greatly expanded. We were amazed to see the venerable Blue Parrot Inn, once on the town’s northern limits now in the center of town amid lots of hotels, tourists, shops, and the lengthened Fifth Avenue pedestrian street. Sam’s Club and Office Depot even found the town, for crying out loud.
Just south of there is Xcaret, a theme park attraction in a natural setting; underground snorkeling rivers, dolphin pools and much more attract vacationing families from all over. Another similar type park is at Xel-ha, about an hour south, near Tulum.
At Tulum, one of the Mayan empire’s most picturesque ruins adorns a cliff over the light blue sea. A beach road just south of the ruins has a lot of bungalow type hotels and inns hidden among palms along the powdery white sand. We’ve stayed in a couple of them. Los Lirios, Cabanas Ana y Jose, and Cabanas Tulum are popular.
Tourists seeking to explore cenotes and caves along the Riviera Maya corridor will also not be disappointed. One of the largest, Gran Cenote, is just inland from Tulum and offers snorkeling through a massive arched cavern. Off the main highway are also Cenote Kantun-Chi, Dos Ojos Cenote, Hidden Worlds, and Cenote Azul. You can arrange tours to many of these places through your hotel.
We like to rent a car at the Cancun airport and we’re not alone. It seems most of the traffic along the corridor consists of big and little cars, SUVs and Jeeps, all with rental decals, and all full of tourists turning pink from the sun.
In the other direction, the main road to Mérida, which passes Valladolid and Chichén Itzá on its way to the wonderful old colonial city of Mérida, is a toll road, wide, straight as an arrow and well maintained.
Once you get off the toll road however, the roads are generally paved and good, but slow. Every small village features at least two “topes” or speed bumps – and you will come to a stop before crawling over them. The flip side of driving those secondary roads is seeing Mayan life as it has been for centuries, the thatched housing, unique tricycle taxis, and traditional dress (long white gowns with beautiful elaborate embroidery, white trousers and straw hats.)
You can fly into Cancun or Mérida with a host of air carriers and remain ensconced at any number of Cancun resorts. But to really experience the Yucatan, try to get out for at least a day or so to enjoy all that the Yucatan peninsula has to offer.b
Future “South of the Border” columns will alternate between Baja California and other Mexican locations. b
(Greg Niemann, a long-time San Clemente Journal contributor, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com. )