By Judy Waytiuk
Yucatan’s thunder is often stolen by its neighbouring Maya Riviera tourism region along the peninsula’s coastline in the state of Quintana Roo – with good reason, since this glittering stretch of fine resorts, attractions and beaches offer perfect winter getaways, neatly packaged and manicured for tourists to enjoy.
But anyone with even a sliver of interest in the beauty of colonial architecture and (much further back in time) the mysteries of the early Mayans, the serenity of unspoiled nature, or the grand adventure of Yucatan’s remarkable underworld of caverns and cenotes, will happily lose themselves in the state of Yucatan itself.
Merida, Haciendas & History
Occupying most of the interior of this vast peninsula, the state’s population is largely centred in the historic colonial “White City” of Merida, so-called because of collections of sparkling, white-washed buildings in its colonial section. And that’s where a Yucatan journey should start. Founded in 1542 atop the older Mayan city of Toh, the city’s historic centre has classic buildings like the Governer’s Palace, where a quick study into the origins and history of the state makes a great Yucatan primer. Hotels ranging from five-star to boutique are sprinkled around the area, along with tranquil town squares, busy open-air markets, museums and the stunning Merida Cathedral. Time a trip during one of the city’s colourful festivals for bonus fun, drop by Santa Lucia Park on Thursday evening to hear the Yucaltepen orchestra, or head to the central plaza on Sunday for regular cultural events, theatre, food and crafts.
Strike out from Merida to stay a night or two at one of the elegant henequen (sisal) haciendas, built by the Spanish who grew the makings of hemp rope back in the 1700s, now restored and opened to guests. Book a tour of the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón on Highway 42 south of Merida; it’s a beautifully re-created period hacienda complete with henequen-making. Hacienda Yaxcopoil’s a well-preserved original close to Merida, open for visitors but not a working hacienda.
Get a car and check out the Convent Route that takes travellers through nine small, traditional villages studded with tiny cathedrals and convents. Travel the Puuc Route of ancient Mayan ruins, whose highlight site, Uxmal, is less-known than Chichen Itza, but bigger and arguably more beautiful. Both routes include the little village of Mani, where the books documenting Mayan written history were burned by a Spanish priest in 1561, in front of the tiny cathedral still there today. Keep your Spanish phrase book handy; not much English is comfortably spoken in the Yucatan interior.
Another, smaller colonial city midway between Merida and the Caribbean coastline, Izamal – this one dubbed the yellow city for the colonial architecture in its ochre-coloured historic centre – boasts the largest Catholic cathedral courtyard next to the Vatican’s, four Mayan pyramids right inside the city and loads of local colour from horse-drawn buggies to outdoor markets.
We North Americans are fascinated by the mystery of the Mayan civilization that ran most of Central America for centuries, and then withered – for no clear reason, though archeologists have all sorts of theories. Certainly, many of the Maya cities still existed, much shrunken, when the Spanish came along, but the decline of the Maya came well before that.
So we still come to marvel at the remarkable remains of what was once a thriving culture. Most of the finest Mayan ruins are in Yucatan. Some were trading cities, some religious sites, some were simply smaller settlements. Chichen Itza’s the best-known, but Uxmal on the Puuc Route is vast and geometrically perfect. It will take a full day to explore, and it’s heaven for serious photographers. Ek Balam, north of Valladolid, dates back to 600 BC and is the only ancient Mayan city with three-dimensional sculptures. It’s never busy here, and you can still climb the pyramids.
Even more deserted is Mayapan, south of Merida, with a colonial church ruin built from stones taken from one of the Mayan temples. Dzibilchaltún, about 15 kilometres northeast of Merida, has a cenote you can swim in, and a similar church.
About 15 kilometres northwest of Valladolid to the east of Merida, the city of Uayma was once a big commercial centre between Mérida and Valladolid. It, too has one of the stone-stolen churches that has been restored with a bright, coloured stucco face. The Spanish were big on over-building traditional Maya sites, sending the message to locals that the Catholic God was superior to their pagan ones.
Much further afield and branching into the neighbouring state of Quintana Roo, there’s always Coba, with its tall pyramid Nohoch Mul and its vast grounds (you can rent a bike or a Mayan-powered pedal cart), most of them still being unearthed by archeologists. And far south of Merida, in the state of Campeche, three sites, Chicanná, Becán, and Xpujil, represent a different architectural style, called Rio Bec. Becan even has a unique moat.
At many of the sites, you can hire a guide to take you through and tell you stories – some of them clearly creatively-embellished, but all worth listening to for bits of cultural knowledge you’ll glean; the Maya are great story-tellers.
The Jungle Beat
Off the beaten tourism track of sanitized, pre-packaged daytrips into busy sights and attractions of the Maya Riviera, Yucatan’s packaged adventures into nature take you to places you wouldn’t have dreamed existed in Mexico. The Celestun Biosphere, a long journey to southern Yucatan just north of the state of Campeche, is an eye-popper. At the right time (January and February) tens of thousand of pink flamingoes congregate for breeding, and tidily-organized, lunch-included daytrips from Merida-based tour operators do a great job showcasing the sight.
Thousands more flamingoes nest on Mexico’s Gulf coast, about halfway between Merida and Cancun, at the Rio Lagartos Bio Reserve. Rio Lagartos Adventures is just one of the guiding outfits offering trips here – and all the tour operators throw in a mud bath, swim, and lunches. It’s a long drive from either Merida or Cancun, so an overnight stay is best for this all-natural attraction. There are a few hotels, all inexpensive and rustic, but clean.
Along the Gulf Coast west of Rio Lagartos, about halfway to what was once a sleepy fishing village and is now the busy seaside resort of Progreso, the village of San Crisanto and its mangrove forest and cenote offer a unique, locally-guided eco-experience well worth later travel bragging rights: a boat trip through the still waters of the mangroves and a cenote swim. Find the office across the street from the baseball field (now that’s locally-based ecotourism).
Tour operators based in Merida, Cancun, or smaller towns like Valladolid, can offer guided trips to other secluded sites that are only just being discovered by more adventurous travellers: dozens of cenotes like Dzitnup near Valladolid, underwater springs and rivers like Nohich Nachich, and massive cave systems like Loltun southeast of Merida, once inhabited by the very early Maya (archeologists have even found mastodon bones here), or the sacred caves of Balankanche near Chichen Itza. Most tours provide bonus experiences revolving around meeting genuine, traditional Maya in small villages or compounds, usually with a true Yucatecan lunch catered by the families, with local “peasant” drinks you can’t get anywhere else. Just try and get delicious, milky, vanilla-tasting horchata at one of the all-inclusive resort bars on the Caribbean coast!
You really can’t. I’ve tried.
For more information, visit www.visitmexico.com