Yucatán Peninsula December 2003


Just far enough outside the reach of nearby tourist warzones, Campeche has managed to keep itself a cozy little secret. With few hotels and only recently opening its first hostels, this sleepy pearl of a colonial town is a charmer that rewards the few who make the effort to pierce the fortified walls of its old town. The bright pastel colours of its uniform buildings reminded me more of gaudy Portuguese colonial fishing ports such as Macau than of any other Spanish colonial city. The delightful central park, just a block from the Gulf, hosts daily free open-air concerts in the summertime, and the locals are refreshingly unpretentious and truly proud of their city, recently anointed UNESCO world heritage city.

A typical steet in the Campeche old town, Campeche, Mexico

Merida and the Ruta Puuc

The bustling engine of the Yucatan Peninsula, Merida, is the largest city in the south of Mexico but less developed for the tourist industry than its counterparts along the Carribean coast. Apart from being a convenient transportation hub, there is not much in the way of tourist attractions, but it represents a vital and unassuming Mexican city with a more laid back attitude. It is also the gateway to the grand ruins of Uxmal and the smaller ruins along the neighbouring Ruta Puuc, which used to be suburbs of Uxmal in Mayan days. The strikingly ornate Puuc style, employing playful geometric forms and curves, many of which represent the face of the Mayan God Chaac, is in splendid evidence at Uxmal, and interesting variations of the style are found at Kabah, Labna, and to a lesser extent Sayil. My friend Aiko from Paris, now working in Tokyo, joined me for this phase of the trip on her Christmas break.

Detail on a wall facade, Uxmal ruins, Yucatan, Mexico


Chichen Itza and Ek Balam

To be honest, I had fairly low expectations of Chichen Itza, the largest of the great Mayan ruins. Its worldwide reputation is now often closely followed by comments of being overrated by other travellers who have visited all of the sites. Chichen, as well as the coastal ruins of Tulum, are flooded with tour groups taking daytrips from their beachfront vacation homes and hotels, and this has certainly contributed to the swelling midday crowds and subsequent amusement park atmosphere at the ruins. But this said, while climbing the central Pyramid was not as exciting as the ones at Teotihuacan or Palenque, the breadth of the whole site was, well, breathtaking. Chichen Itza wasn't simply a large city, it was a megalopolis dwarfing all other Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cities. Large enough to support an astronomic observatory, a ball park that wouldn't look out of place in the modern world, and multiple cenotes (bathing pools formed from volcanic craters), and mixing styles from different regions, epochs and styles (including the Puuc style) Chichen inspires awe from its mere presence and majesty. It's the New York City, London, or Tokyo of Mayan ruins, depending on your slant. It wasn't simply a case of me feeling good that day, either, because I was well into my gastrointestinally disturbed phase of my trip by the time I rolled through there. The relaxing town of Valladolid nearby makes a pleasant base for visiting Chichen, permitting one to arrive at opening time before the arrival of the thundering coastal herds. Valladolid is still an authentic Mexican town, populated by and for Mexicans, and it's an economical and more mellow alternative to the coastal resort towns.

A pyramid base decoration, Chichen Itza ruins, Yucatan, Mexico

Also accessible from Valladolid are the stunning newly uncovered ruins at Ek Balam. Discovered in the 1980s, this ruin gets no press, virtually no visitors, has no public transportation access (we got there sharing a taxi with other tourists in Valladolid), and no hype. Now is the time to go, because this isn't going to last. The sculptural detail, mostly on the pyramid facade, is jawdroppingly beautiful the likes of which I would not see again until Copan. And also like Copan, Ek Balam features representations of human figures rarely seen in the Mayan world.

Detail of pyramid temple, Ek Balam ruins, Yucatan, Mexico

The Riviera Maya

Much of what they say about the Carribean coast of the Yucatan is true and well deserved, both positive and negative. There are those that denigrate the tourist complexes all up and down the coast. People will argue over the pleasures or sins of the beachfront cabana lifestyle at Tulum, or the crowded Mediterranean resort feel of Playa del Carmen, or the ultramodern and spiffy conurbation of hotels and resorts on the Zona Hotelera of Cancun. To each their own, I say. But the bottom line is that all the tourists here, and all of the accompanying development, infrastructure and resulting conveniences and nuisances of the Riviera Maya, can be traced to one thing and one thing only: the undeniably sublimely perfect, clear, warm, turquoise water of the Carribean under incredibly perfect winter weather conditions. Mexico has cashed in on this perfect location and I say more power to them. The region is clearly wealthier than adjoining regions, as evidenced by the locals shopping in modern shopping malls, and standard of living the highest in the Yucatan peninsula. Cancun is especially misunderstood, though I found it fascinating in its own way. The Zona Hotelera is a strip of land extending into the sea chock-a-block with resort hotels and swanky shops. It's the closest thing I've seen to an American resort town outside North America, right down to the signs in English, the curbs, the sidewalks, the malls, everything. But for those who prefer to steer clear of such a sterile and 'unauthentic' abomination, they're free to stay in downtown Cancun, which is very Mexican, albeit cleaner and a bit pricier than other cities of its size. The transportation access is fabulous and it makes a convenient base to explore the region. 


Primitive beachfront cabanas, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

And then for those that truly seek a relaxing vacation on the crystal waters of the Carribean without going too far out of one's way, there is the Isla Mujeres, just a ten minute bus ride and half hour ferry trip from downtown Cancun. The island gets its share of daytrippers and divers from Cancun, but at night, the streets are refreshingly comfortable and manageable and the mornings are paradisiacal. As you can tell, this was my favourite place on the Riviera, and the only place where I felt completely comfortable. The 7.5 km long sliver of an island makes for easy walks up and down its length, and a good fraction of the visitors were Mexicans, which wasn't the case elsewhere.

Lagoon by the Carribean coast, Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

From here, Aiko returned to Merida for her flight back home, in time for New Years festivities in Kyoto, and I headed down to Chetumal, the last Mexican city at the southern end of Quintana Roo province. I spent 2 nights just unwinding there, revelling in uninflated prices and typical Mexican life once more, before crossing the Belizean border on New Year's Eve and bidding a fond farewell to Mexico.