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From our side of the plane, we can't at first see Cancun as we approach the Mexican coast, only a green swathe of jungle fringing the dark blue sea. Then the plane circles, to bring into view the semi-circle of reef on which the main part of the resort is built. Even so, compared with arriving at a Mediterranean coast, it all looks remarkably unspoilt. Not that it matters at the time to us. We will be heading straight inland without stopping in Cancun.
It is almost twilight, and we're late. Five hours late, thanks to a security alert at Charlotte, N Carolina, where we changed planes. This does matter, since it means we will be driving off into the interior in darkness to arrive at Chichen Itza late at night. We have hotel bookings, but never having previously travelled in Mexico, we are nervous about the journey. Guidebooks counsel against driving in the interior after nightfall.
There is a further delay at the Alamo car-rental desk, since the locals insist that the insurance we have paid for in advance through their London office is not valid and we need to buy more. Eventually, under protest and with a view to revisiting the matter when we return to London, we do, since it is the only way to get the car.
At last, we are out of the raw new concrete complex around the airport, and turning onto the busy neon-lit coast road. But after a kilometre or two and another turning, suddenly there is nothing to be seen but the forbidding forest along the roadside, illuminated in our headlights' glare.
This is the main highway into the interior and it is still only evening, but mile after mile passes with no sign of human habitation. Animal life abounds. Bugs splatter against the windscreen, and sometimes our headlights reflect on eyes in the undergrowth. Even the lights of vehicles passing in the opposite direction, glimpsed through the overgrown divide that separates the carriageways, are a rarity.
In the late summer of 2001 my elder son left China and went on to Mexico, where he and his girlfriend had found jobs teaching English in Comitán de Dominguez in the southern state of Chiapas.
By doing so he furthered not only his own aim of seeing the world, but also that of his parents, since we had made a foolhardy resolution to visit him wherever he settled for any substantial period. This did, I'm sure, provide him with an added incentive to seek out the most inaccessible places he could find.
Comitán is about as inaccessible as you can find in Mexico. About a hundred miles inland from the Pacific coast, it nestles close to the Guatemalan border. To reach it, you could fly to Mexico City, Acapulco or Cancun, each of them between 800 and 1000 miles away, and go on from there by a relay of internal flights and/or buses or by rented car. There is no train.
Because my elder son had forewarned us about the buses, and because we wanted to see something of the country on the way, we opted for rented car. Alamo fixed us up with this, or seemed to, the problem with insurance only emerging after we'd arrived. www.flightbookers.co.uk fixed us up with flights to Cancun on US Airways. We opted for Cancun because the road from there to Chiapas would take us through the Mayan relics in Yucatán. www.hoteles-mexico.com and a few phone-calls fixed us up with hotels on the outward journey. It all seemed very straightforward.
Not until we were driving through the black jungle encroaching on the road from either side did we feel daunted at all.
Fifty years ago the eastern side of the Yucatán peninsula was sparsely inhabited - just a few fishing villages dotted around its shores, reachable only by sea. My wife's aunt remembers staying in Cancun when it was one such village, and she and her husband were the only foreign visitors. The notion of a "Mayan Riviera" with Cancun at its hub would at that time have seemed laughable.
Inland the jungle reigned supreme. Yucatán mostly consists of a low-lying limestone shelf, notable for its almost total lack of rivers. One can drive for hours without ever crossing a bridge. Rain-water seeps straight through the porous rock, remaining only in cenotes, deep pools in the limestone, around which cluster such habitations as there are.
Although jungle vegetation can thrive in such a habitat, the shallow soil and the uncertainty of rainfall make it poor terrain for raising crops. Droughts are now believed to have destroyed the Mayan civilisation that flourished here until about 900 AD, and that of the Toltecs and Itzaes who subsequently occupied some Mayan sites until around 1450 AD. Once the droughts had passed, the jungle closed in over the remains of the Mayan cities. For more than five hundred years they remained hidden beneath thousands of square miles of tangled and uncharted greenery.
Chichen Itza is one of the most notable of the remains. It is also one of the most visited, being within day-trip range (about 125 miles) of Cancun and neighbouring resorts. This was one reason we had opted to drive inland on arrival to stay at Chichen Itza, so that we could be up and looking at the ruins before the coachloads from the coast arrived.
Despite our misgivings as we drove off into the jungle - misgivings that were only aggravated by the surly police manning the checkpoint when we crossed from the coastal state of Quintana Roo into Yucatán itself and the surly reception we received at the hotel when we eventually found it after casting around the dark and ghostly backroad behind the ruins - the theory worked.
The next morning we awoke to an altogether more welcoming scene. We breakfasted on a terrace beside lush tropical gardens - luxuriant with bougainvillea, hibiscus, ginger lilies and bananas - before setting off on foot to the ruins. Iguanas were already out, basking on rocks beside the road. It was only 9.00 on a December morning and the day was already promising to become uncomfortably hot.
The first few hours spent exploring the extensive site were fascinating. It would be easy to devote a whole review to Mayan remains, or indeed to those at Chichen Itza alone. Photos of the central "Castillo" - a stepped pyramid - adorn many brochures and travel guides, but the site extends over many acres and encompasses many other notable features. There is the almost equally famous ball court in which a ritual game was played, culminating in the sacrifice of the captain of either the winners or losers (no one seems quite sure which), the cenote in which further human sacrifices were made, and numerous ancient structures of intricate stonework, decorated with stylised carvings. With only a few fellow-visitors about, the imagination can travel back to conjure up what this Mayan metropolis must have been like in its heyday 1200 years ago.
Once the crowds from the coast arrived around midday though, the atmosphere was lost and it became hard to focus in the hubbub and the heat. By mid-afternoon a sudden thunderstorm descended and we abandoned the ruins and retreated to the hotel, although not before my wife had bravely (foolishly?) scrambled the 365 steps up the Castillo in the downpour, to survey the dark green landscape stretching away under the lowering clouds on every side. I contented myself with taking the interior staircase, claustrophobic but safe from lightning.
It is little more than 70 miles from Chichen Itza to Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, founded by the Spanish in 1542 on the site of the Mayan city of T'ho. The Mayan and successor civilisations were already in decline long before the arrival of the Spanish, but with their customary vandalism and zealotry the conquistadores quickly eradicated what remained.
The pyramids of T'ho were dismantled for stones with which to build Mérida cathedral, the oldest on the American continent. This fronts onto a central plaza with palms and stone seats ringed by old buildings of pleasing Spanish colonial architecture. Despite the revolving traffic, it is a haven of relative calm compared with the narrow overcrowded streets around. Mérida, the "White City" because of the limestone from which it is built, is now home to about a million people many of whom have cars, but the street network dates from the days when it was only required to accommodate a few oxcarts. In a way, it is all the more attractive for it, provided one isn't trying to drive.
While I recover from driving, we lunch at a café in the plaza, fending off the attentions of a man who believes that having been taught English by a native of Manchester gives him a right to be our guide. His accent at least is interesting. At last we rid ourselves of him by promising to visit his brother's hat shop later - Mérida being a local centre for the manufacture of panama hats, the straw for which is kept moist and supple by their being made in caves. Interestingly though, one sees none of the traditional sombreros being worn in Southern Mexico; mostly, locals wear Texan-style ten gallon hats to keep off the sun.
At Mérida the jungle has already been left behind, and from there the road heads south through barer, drier country. It is also an older, slower road, trickling through towns on its way to the Western coast of the peninsula at Campeche, about 125 miles distant, a drive that takes us most of the afternoon.
Pelicans fish on the beach where we meet the sea just north of Campeche, perching on the skeletal shells of rotting boats abandoned on the beach, while magnificent frigate birds soar further out to sea. We pause to watch them before driving down a long promenade past modern hotels and apartments blocks to reach the historic city centre.
Campeche is a fine city, the one which we liked best of all we saw in Mexico. I call it city because it has that status and is capital of its own state, but it feels no larger than a town. Occupied and developed by the Spanish in 1540, it became their main port in Southern Mexico, and the scene of numerous battles with pirates and corsairs. For this reason it was heavily fortified, and the baluartes (strongpoints) on the walls are largely intact today. Each houses something of interest, such as a museum, or in one case a miniature botanical garden encased within the walls. From another, it is possible with permission from the custodian to mount the ramparts to walk the walls and take in the view across the town to the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, summoning him to let one down again by ringing an enormous bell set in the battlements.
In other places, the old city walls have been torn down and used to pave the narrow streets around the port, adding to their character. Here too we are struck by something we will remark on again and again in our travels: how colourfully Mexican houses are painted, the stucco walls washed in vivid pastel shades. "Vivid pastel" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but not in Mexico as lime greens, orangey ochres, vibrant mauves, pinks and aquamarines abound. As in most Mexican cities, the old centre surrounds a stylish and leafy square, the centre for evening promenading, night life and eating out.
Rather to our disappointment, we found that Mexican food held few surprises for us. The tacos, tamales, fajitas and enchiladas may be more authentic in their homeland, but are in essence no different from those available from Mexican restaurants in the States, and to a lesser extent Tex-Mex restaurants back in Britain. Even less different is the Mexican beer, the same bottled Dos Equis and similar brands - perhaps my least favourite style of beer - selling here as there. Mexican wine is a novelty, but not one we would seek to rediscover elsewhere; not objectionable, but nondescript. Only the breakfasts, with delicious fresh fruit - juiced by several varieties of local lime - followed by vast egg concoctions, now seem truly memorable.
South of Campeche we follow the coast road for a while, visiting the fort of San Miguel, perched on a hilltop above the Gulf. It is the best-preserved of five such forts, built to guard the flanks of the city from attack.
Small fishing towns dot the shore, some of them beginning to sprawl out into resorts, but this coast has not been developed with the determination or on the scale of the Caribbean side of the peninsula, and is all the more characterful as a result. But the coast road is slow and we have a long distance to cover, so we soon turn inland again.
A hundred featureless miles of driving brings us to the crossroads town of Escárcega, which is no more than a stop between wherever you've been and wherever you're going to, a sprawl of bars, motels and garages along the roadside. Still, in a café here we discover sopa de lima (lemon soup) a tasty dish I forgot to mention in my perhaps overly-critical comment on Mexican food above.
Southwest of Escárcega the landscape is flat and featureless, maize fields and grazing land. The road deteriorates, with steep traffic-calming "topes" scraping the underside of vehicles in every town or village one passes through. Villagers wait beside them, proffering fruit or other snacks for sale. The apparent prosperity of the locals is deteriorating too. The dwellings are increasingly ramshackle, wooden or raw breezeblock structures with rough thatch or corrugated iron roofs, not the best protection against the scorching midday sun. Mangy mongrel dogs roam the ill-kempt roadside. These are not places where one wants to stop.
We are heading for Chiapas, and this we know will be poorer still, the poorest and most primitive part of Mexico. Beautiful, so we are told, with mountains as well as rain forest, but unruly too, with a long history of rebellion and banditry. Having been lulled by the handsome colonial charm of Mérida and Campeche, trepidation is beginning to set in again.
Before we reach Chiapas, we cross briefly through a little corner of Tabasco state. The guard at the border checkpoint fingers his gun, appraises us idly through tired cynical eyes, decides we are green gringos and demands money. There is no pretence that it will go anywhere but his own back pocket. "How much?" I ask. "A hundred pesos," he says - about £6.50. To me it seems a small price to pay to avoid the hassle he can probably create if he so chooses, but it triggers my wife into haggling mode, and with a sudden Spanish fluency she beats him down to twenty pesos in half a minute flat. A dangerous way to save a fiver or so, but I'm proud of her.
Still, it does nothing to dispel our trepidation as we head south towards the wilds.
If I try to relate our stay in Chiapas here this will go on forever, so I'll leave that for another review, and concentrate solely on the Yucatán peninsula in this one.
Two weeks later, on New Year's Day 2002, we drove back up out of Chiapas to Escárcega, to lunch at another dusty café by the roadside. We had thought of following the same route all the way back, but a sudden change of mood catches us and we turn east on Highway 186, the only east-west road within a hundred miles either way, straight across the neck of the peninsula.
This quickly leads us back into the jungle and later past the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, an area of several thousand square miles straddling Southern Mexico and Guatemala that is being protected from agricultural or forestry development. Would that there were more of it. Along this road stand many of the less-frequented Mayan sites, including a hauntingly overgrown one at Becán where we are the only visitors. The trees rise out of the ruins, their trunks wrapped in multiple roots and creepers, like cathedral columns supporting the vaulted canopy above.
Habitations are few along this road, and whilst it is good to see so much virgin greenery, I have to confess to feeling a certain relief when, with nightfall descending, we emerge on the Caribbean coast at Chetumal. Chetumal is a regional centre and seaside resort, not as developed as the strip up towards Cancun, but kept busy by weekenders over from more expensive Belize. It seemed a pleasant enough town, but forgettable.
Equally forgettable is the drive north from Chetumal, until one reaches Tulum, which is unfortunately memorable. Set beside a seashore with little beaches nibbled out between the rocky headlands and swooping pelicans, this could be one of the most atmospheric of the Mayan sites. But the jostling throngs and the surrounding complex of car parks and souvenir shops are all that I can clearly remember now. Perhaps, as with Chichen Itza, you have to make sure to be there before the crowds.
Arrival at Tulum brings us out onto the "Mayan Riviera" and down to earth with a vengeance.
The road north from here runs about a mile or so behind the shoreline, with continual turnings leading down to resort towns or hotel complexes. We stayed eventually at Playa del Carmen, an archetypical purpose-developed resort town of the kind you could find anywhere around the Mediterranean, crammed with bars and shops selling tourist trinkets late into the night. Here in a shop window we see gaudy sombreros for the first time in Mexico. Signs say "We take your dollar at 9 pesos" (a peso below the money market rate) or "Broken English spoken perfectly", which at least had the merit of humour. Dives with names like Black Beard's Dancing Club fight for positions near the beach.
Okay, maybe my memories are jaundiced. Maybe because our hotel was near a fun fair that played loud American pop music late into the night. Or because I broke one of the car's rear lights manoeuvring out of the hotel car park. Or because the wonderful people at Alamo's Cancun office refused to accept that this damage was covered by either of the expensive comprehensive insurance policies we had taken out with them. Or because our flight was delayed so that we missed our homebound connection in Charlotte. Or because I'm growing into a grumpy old man out of sorts with the world as it is today, and the "Mayan Riviera" represents all too much of what I dislike about modernity.
We saw some great things in Mexico. Many of them were in Chiapas and must therefore wait for the sequel to this review. In Yucatán we found we enjoyed things in direct proportion to their antiquity. We liked least the new resorts that are gobbling up the coastline, then the newer towns elsewhere, then the Spanish colonial cities, then the Mayan relics. What we liked most, although we never strayed far off the beaten track into it, was the huge expanse of timeless jungle.
What did we think of the Mexicans? Some were friendly, some less so, some almost menacing. Certainly not the warmest or most welcoming of peoples in countries we have visited. We always felt that we had to be on guard against thievery and rip-offs.
Costs. Of course you want to know about costs. Flying to Cancun cost us about £500 each return, the cheapest we could find at the time on the Internet, but it was the Christmas holiday period; you might pay less or more these days depending on the state of the market. Car hire was more expensive than in Europe or the USA, even before the insurance "surcharge" (we did eventually get our money back, but only after nine months of badgering back in London). Petrol, hotels, meals and snacks were cheaper, but not dramatically so - perhaps two-thirds what you'd pay for the equivalent in England. As you might expect, the coast is pricier than the interior.
The dollar has fallen, and the peso with it, since then, so prices might seem lower to a European nowadays. Nevertheless, there are cheaper places in the world to travel, much of Asia for example.
Oh, yes, about the title. When the Spaniards first landed in the area they asked the inhabitants, in Spanish, what the place was called. Naturally the reply came in the local language of the time: "Yucatán" - "I don't understand."
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, January 25th 2004
The review of Chiapas can be found at:
The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has a number of fascinating archaeological sites dating from the ancient Mayan era.