Most people don’t realize that the sunny beaches along Mexico’s Maya Riviera are the purview of the state of Quintana Roo, while most of the massive Yucatan peninsula belongs to the Mexican state of Yucatan. That’s lesson one on the Yucatan. Lesson two: it’s full of genuine undiscovered cultural and historic gems for the curious traveller bent on experiencing a slice of the authentic Mexico. A road trip’s a must here, though, because there’s a lot of jungle in between the sights.
Take the state capital city of Merida, for example – crammed with museums, galleries, restaurants, music, dance, shopping. Every Sunday at the central plaza, much of Merida turns out to hang around, eat, listen to music, buy balloons for the kids and generally celebrate life. Known as the White City, the architecture here is splendid stuff, and from October to March you can tour Merida’s homes and gardens every Wednesday.
It’s a four-hour straight-on drive from Cancun using the maxipiste (toll road) but a better idea is to take your time on the free road, and overnight at the halfway point of the colonial city of Valladolid, where traditional Mayan dress is still commonly worn (and you can buy the clothing from genuine Mayan grandmas in the town square, the Parque San Francisco Canton). Founded in 1543, this is where the 1910 Mexican Revolution started. Look for occasional bullet holes on some of those lovely colonial buildings and churches.
Stay a few nights here, and a few nights in Merida, and strike out on daytrips to cenotes, haciendas, all-natural eco-parks, caves and little-known Mayan ruins. Or spread the stay out and add a few nights here and there in some of what Mexico’s billed as the “magic villages”, like the fabled Yellow City of Izamal, or Valladolid, or Uxmal. Explorers who try this side of the Yucatan will dine out on their travel tales for years to come.
Swim The InteriorCenotes – Yucatan’s awash with about six thousand of them – are a big draw these days. Only 2,400 have been studied and registered, and dozens are open for the swimming experience of a lifetime. Right in Valladolid, Zaci’s been popular with locals for hundreds of years. Dzitnup, about five kilometres southeast of Valladolid, is underground with a hole in the limestone above, and lighting and a guide rope to help you enter.
Ik-Kil, the Sacred Blue Cenote about three kilometres from Chichen Itza, is accessible via a “grand stairway”. The town of Cuzama is famous for its cenotes, and a tour starting from the town’s hacienda takes a horse-drawn buggy to three of them: Chelentun, Chansinic’che and Bolonchoojol. The village of Cenotillo got its name from more than 150 cenotes around it, and local guides will tour you around some of them.
Xlacah, at the Mayan site of Dzibichaltun just north of Merida, is an open ground level cenote. South of Merida, the cenote San Ignacio is located inside a cavern, and boasts lighting and music.
The newest cenote to open to the public is Cenote Yokdzonot, 18 kilometres west of Chichen Itza. It’s a 20-peso entry-fee, eco-project put together by locals to provide jobs in the village of Yokdzonot, and there’s a palapa restaurant offering genuine local Yucatecan food made by the cenote’s co-op members.
Underground & Dry(ish)Along with the natural limestone sinkhole cenotes, the Yucatan is peppered with caves, where the earliest Mayans once lived or worshipped. Guides are a good idea for all – and are required for the most labyrinthian. Lol Tun Caves, southeast of Merida in the Puuc region, are the peninsula’s largest and best studied, but the Calcehtok Caves, southwest of Merida rank a close second for size and may (they’re still being explored) be part of the region’s longest “dry” cave system. About 30 kilometres south of Merida, Tzabnah Caves is studded with 13 cenotes. And Balankanche Caves a few kilometres west of Chichen Itza are incredibly damp and claustrophobic, and were sacred to the Mayans.
Absolutely RuinedOnce you’ve seen Chichen Itza, you’ve seen the best-known of the Yucatan’s Mayan ruins – but it’s not the most grand, beautiful, or mysterious. The pyramids at Ek Balam north of Valladolid are bigger; the central pyramid at Coba is taller; and the Puuc Route south of Merida more hauntingly strange with its highlight city the massive, ruined Uxmal. The ruins of Calakmul in southern Yucatan, a lengthy southerly jog off the highway en route from Campeche to Chetumal, qualify as well off the beaten path, but worth it, and the Becan ruins nearby are just as isolated and magical. Both are reachable only by car. A closer side trip from Merida is Dzibilchaltun, with its own swimmable cenote. Dozens more archeological sites peppered around the Yucatan, all unique, are being slowly excavated.
A themed road trip around hidden ruins and hacienda stays is a sure winner for the beach-weary. Many of the Yucatan’s haciendas have been made over into top-drawer luxury bed and breakfasts or boutique hotels. Each is unique and lavishly restored. Hacienda Chichén Resort, Hacienda Misné, Hacienda Petac, Hacienda Xcanatun, Hacienda Santa Cruz and the Luxury Collection of several haciendas around the peninsula, all offer luxury hideaways. Hacienda Sotuta de Peón is the only working, henequen-producing hacienda, and offers tours.
Secret SpotsPlaces tourists seldom get to, either because they’re remote or little-known, are always worth whatever detour is required to reach them. The Biosphere Reserve Rio Lagartos, on the northern Gulf coast, is home to Mexico’s largest flamingo population and nesting ground (protected and not accessible). Boat trips through mangrove swamps take visitors past a giant salt flat and abandoned salt factory, and a small open cenote’s great for cooling off. The local Cooperative Río Lagartos Adventures offers tours, as does Flamingos Tour, and the Hotel Villa de Pescadores in the tiny fishermen’s village of El Cuyo offers private balconies. It’s a long drive from Cancun, and an overnight stay here is a good idea, especially for the chance to explore this uber-traditional village.
About 80 kilometres southwest of Merida, the quiet fishing village of Celestún is worth a few nights’ stay, with beautiful, uncrowded beaches, a number of hotels, good seafood restaurants, and flamingos who court and mate here, and nest further north at Rio Lagartos.
Yet more flamingos can be spotted at Isla Holbox, an island located at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, in Quintana Roo. A colourful village on the island has all an escapist traveller could want: hotels, food, Internet access, sand streets, a beautiful, quiet beach, traditional ambiance – and the unique chance to see whale sharks. This is the only port in Mexico where visitors are permitted to swim with these peaceful behemoths (dry suits recommended; it’s cold in the open ocean).
Slightly busier beaches can be found at Progreso, on the northern Yucatan coast along the Gulf of Mexico. Someday, this could well become another Cancun, but for now, it’s a blissful hideaway for North Americans in the know about the Yucatan’s secret spots – and another place well worth a few nights’ stay.