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writer, editor, and translator based in San Diego, California, Jane Onstott has
written about Mexico in guide books and magazine articles since 1988. Her new
book, National Geographic Traveler
Mexico, is due out this fall.
The Yucatán peninsula is one of Mexico's best vacation destinations: it
has sugar-fine beaches, Maya ruins, colonial structures, and an ever-expanding
cultural scene. Many visitors make their base in Cancún, sipping margaritas
poolside or parasailing above the beach before heading off to snorkel in Cozumel,
party with the Europeans in Playa del Carmen, or visit the Maya ruins sprinkled
throughout the states of Quintana Roo (pronounced “Row,” NOT “Rue”) or
Merida is the second-most visited city in the region, and as the
colonial capital of the state of Yucatán, it has a lot to offer historically
and culturally. While I’m not one of Cancun’s boosters, I do love Mérida,
and of course the ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum – all exceptional
archaeological sites with good museums. But for me Yucatán's charms lie in the
smaller cities: Ticul and Valladolid, Progreso and Chicxulub… towns and
villages where locals still outnumber tourists and greet me “Buenos días, señora”
instead of “Hey, lady, how are you?”
The peninsula is almost perfectly flat, and with the exception of the
inevitable potholes after the rainy season, it’s easy to drive the Yucatan’s
mainly straight, two-lane highways. The new toll road between Merida and Cancún
is expensive and therefore almost traffic-free. But I always drive the free
roads without a problem. Bus service is also comfortable and ubiquitous, so
renting a car (expensive in Mexico, as you’ve no doubt noted) is a luxury and
not a necessity.
Situated halfway between Cancún and Merida, Valladolid is a lovely,
small city and a good base for visiting the ruins at Chichén Itzá and
from the Late Classic site Ek Balam, excavated in the 1990's. A longer
day or overnight trip takes you to the wildlife reserve at Río Lagartos, famous
for its populations of pink flamingos.
Compact and self-sufficient, Valladolid is a typical Yucatán town. It
has neither the cultural attractions of Merida, nor the glitzy beach resorts of
Cancún. For entertainment, I watch families congregate in the ancient main
plaza, where statues of women and dancing frogs form a whimsical fountain.
Petite Maya ladies stand in the shade selling embroidered cotton huipiles:
the typical, squarish dress of the region. A supply center for surrounding farms
and cattle ranches, the laid-back city of 35,000 is lined with family-owned,
single-story shops selling the necessities of daily life – machetes and mouse
traps, hardware and hammocks.
The Spanish began constructing Valladolid in 1543 from the stones of the
conquered Maya city of Zací. Many churches were built to accommodate the early
Christian converts, including the church of San Bernardino de Siena and
the adjacent Convento de Sisal, a Franciscan monastery. Both were
sacked during the War of the Castes, the extremely bloody, 19th
-century uprising of the Maya against their Spanish masters. Today the church
and former monastery, as well as the facades of surrounding homes, have been
restored to their original luster. The short walk from the main square along
Calle 41, lined in paving stones and fronted by homes in a palate of pastel
hues, makes a pleasant preamble to visiting the church. You can also see the
adjacent monastery, with its old-fashioned kitchen and back garden gone mostly
I understand why vacationers flock to Mexico’s Caribbean coast: I love
it myself. Nothing could be finer than wiggling your toes in that sugar white
sand, or floating in transparent, aquamarine water under a sky dotted with
fluffy cumulus clouds. But the price for these luxuries is high. Along with Cabo
San Lucas, Cancún has Mexico's highest hotel and restaurant prices, and the
“Riviera Maya” – the real estate stretching south from Cancún to the Sian
Ka'an preserve – is being built up fast. While there’s still lots to
discover and admire along the Mexican Caribbean, the Yucatán's north-facing
coast between Progreso and Dzilam del Bravo offers some wild, palm-studded
beaches and excellent deals in hotels and restaurants.
My opinion of Progreso, Mérida's nearest beach town, changes with each
visit. Determining factors include my mood, the intensity of the sun, and the
presence or absence of wind and blowing sand. The Gulf’s water looks different
each time, ranging from a steely, menacing gray to a magnificent aquamarine.
Residents and visitors promenade along the seawalk in the morning and late
afternoon, when the weather is less sultry, or hide out under the palm leaf
structures providing shade along the wide, long beach. Commercial ships dock at
the seemingly endless pier. Expanded and improved several times over the years,
the facility’s 1999 makeover was meant to lure cruise ships, but most of these
still steam by in favor of more exotic ports-of-call at Playa del Carmen and
Despite the uninspired architecture of squat cement and stucco houses
(many for rent) and ho-hum hotels, this city of 37,000 is a winter mecca for
sun-loving snowbirds. And it’s the traditional refuge for Merida families on
hot weekends and school holidays. Just about 30 minutes from Mérida, Progreso
has a string of sea-facing eateries serving inexpensive shrimp and conch
cocktails and plates of fried fish.
Between Progreso and the small town of Dzilam del Bravo, about 50 miles
to the east, are a string of tiny beach towns and a few struggling resorts. My
advice is to investigate the former while avoiding the latter, which have poorer
facilities and services than their Caribbean counterparts with none of the
benefits of large, swank hotel chains.
About four miles east of Progreso, Chicxulub (pronounced Chick-shoe-lub)
is a pretty little stretch of beach where fishermen set off in small pangas and
wealthy Meridians have weekend and summer homes. In 1998 I discovered Margaritas
Ville (tel. 9/944-1434; www.margaritas.com.mx; email email@example.com),
newly converted from a lovely family home to a charming hotel. English-speaking
hosts Margarita and Mauricio have a comfortable, moderately priced beach haven
– perfect for Big Chill-type reunions or holistic retreats. The restaurant
features greens and salads, fresh seafood, and other healthy foods. Pretty rooms
with comfortable beds, screened windows, and private porches or balconies cost
US$50 to $80, including meals. (No kids under 16.)
A bit farther east, I found Palula Beach in San Crisanto
to be equally charming if more modest. The owners spent years working and
raising their family in California before returning to their native Yucatán and
building this casual, friendly, and inexpensive beach lodging. The two-lane road
continues past salt flats, used since pre-Colombian times, tiny towns, and sandy
roads shooting down to palm-lined beaches. This is one place where it’s handy
to have a car.
Waiting for You
The third state on the peninsula, Campeche, was once part of Yucatán
state, and the two populations still engage in a friendly rivalry. Over the past
five or six years, Campeche has been preparing for international tourism –
improving highways, signing roads and archaeological sites, and generally
improving infrastructure. But the few visitors that come are mainly Mexicans.
That’s incredible, because Campeche’s historic downtown is one of
the most picturesque places in Mexico. A sizable annual budget is dedicated to
the constant renewal of the historical center’s 16th- to 19th-century
facades in the original colors. City planners determine which colors may be used
and in what pattern. This color palate is deliciously different from that of any
other city I’ve seen, and includes rich creamy yellow, dill green, earthy red,
and golden ochre. Just strolling around the laid-back city and taking photos is
a worthwhile morning or afternoon agenda. Outgoing and friendly but with a touch
of reserve, campechanos are happy to direct you to the main square, bordered by
the cathedral and other important buildings. I always take a walk on the long,
recently refurbished seawalk (malecón) in early morning or late
afternoon. There much of the population can be found strolling, conversing,
dog-walking, roller-blading, or cuddling with their significant others.
Campeche state has many significant archaeological sites. Deep within a
biosphere of the same name, Calakmul is the hardest to reach, but Becán, Xpuhil,
and Chicanná are found just off the highway, at the fringes of the 1.5 million
acre preserve. Easiest by far to access, however, is Edzná, about a 40
minutes’ drive from Campeche city. On my last visit, fewer than half a dozen
visitors wandered the site under the towering ceiba (kapok) trees,
worshiped by the Maya as a conduit to heaven, the underworld, and the four
corners of the world.
Located on a flood plain about a day’s march from the sea, Edzná was
established around 300 BC with the arrival of Chontal Maya from present-day
Tabasco state. These seafaring merchants were also known as Itzá, today a
common surname in Campeche. Trade and political affairs connected Edzná with
kingdoms throughout the Classic Maya world, including Tikal (in today’s
Guatemala), Calakmul, and Uxmal. The architectural style of each of these
important cities is reflected at Edzná.
In its heyday this ceremonial and commercial city covered 25 square
kilometers; today the most important buildings hem several adjacent esplanades.
East of the ball court (juego de pelota), the Temple of the Masks is
decorated with two fierce faces representing the rising and setting sun at the
east and west extremes. The large ear ornaments, ritually scarred cheeks, and
(on the right-side mask) crossed eyes were considered signs of beauty and
nobility by Maya society.
The site’s most impressive structure, however, is el Templo de los
Cinco Pisos (“Five-Story Temple”), on the far side of a stepped acropolis.
Rising above a canopy of trees, it is surrounded by smaller temples and a steam
room (temascal) where priests purified themselves before ceremonies. The
magnificent building served as living quarters for the shamans and contained
altars for acts of human sacrifice and self-sacrifice: bleeding of tongue, arms,
earlobes, and genitals.
Demonstrating the Maya’s great knowledge of astronomy and mathematics,
the Five-Story Temple was positioned so that both planting and harvest of maize
were ushered in by a sign from above. At both times of year (May 1 to 3 and
August 7 to 9), the setting sun entered the topmost temple’s doorway to
illuminate the sun god idol within. You can still observe the phenomenon today,
although the Kinich Ahau stela has been removed.
My small group and I were exploring the topmost temple when thunder
began to boom and lightning bolts began an impressive and unexpected light show.
Soon the sweat we’d worked up climbing the hundreds of narrow steps was washed
away by a flood of rain. Along with my friends, I crept down the slippery steps
as fast as I safely could. Sprinting across the deserted site, we arrived at our
bus with muddy feet and hair unattractively plastered to our flushed faces. We
were dismayed to imagine arriving in this state for lunch at five-star Hacienda
Uayamón (a restored henequen plantation); we could only laugh. The unexpected
natural sound and light show was worth any reproach.
love to party, and the Yucatán's fiestas and festivals provide plenty of
opportunity. While semana santa, or
Holy Week (Easter), is a relatively sober and introspective affair, most fiestas
combine food, music, and fireworks in lively parties lasting long into the
Certainly the most impressive in terms of planning, execution, and
overall enjoyment is carnaval. It is vigorously celebrated on Cozumel
island (state of Quintana Roo) and in Campeche, capital of the eponymous state.
And Mérida's carnival is growing in stature every year. A bawdy storm of excess
and fun preceding the abstemious Lenten season, the week-long party permits no
sulking or ill humor. It’s the perfect occasion, therefore, for reciting coplas,
verses composed to air in a public and humorous way any faux pas or fiasco
committed by elected officials the previous year.
For the most part, however, the politicos just party along with everyone
else. Each year a new theme inspires a barrage of outrageous costumes for
parades and fancy-dress balls. Pretty girls and cherubic children ride
impressive allegorical floats along the main drag by the sea. Companies of
school kids and adults work for months ahead on costumes and choreographed dance
competitions to be presented on opening day. To many winners, the approval of
their peers means as much as the accompanying cash prize.
Both Campeche and Cozumel elect two types of carnival royalty:
diminutive queens and kings of the prepubescent set, as well as a pair of the
town’s most energetic, ambitious (and, yes, attractive) young men and women.
Campeche goes a step further with the coronation of a “TV queen,” a beloved
soap opera personality or pop star who lends even greater swank to the year’s
Cozumeleños, however, spurn the need for outside intervention, no
matter how glamorous. “It would never be permitted here, never!” bristles
the island’s longtime carnival organizer (and talk show host) Fernando Ferráez.
“This would be an intrusion! Impossible!” Indeed, it’s rare that a king
and queen of carnival are elected who haven’t participated strenuously over
the years. According to Ferráez, “It’s a question of honor, and, of course,
of loving to dress up and to dance!”
One carnival tradition that most Campeche residents could live without
is the throwing of paint. Anyone foolish or brave enough to leave home on Fat
Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) can expect to be spritzed, spattered, or
bombarded with paint via water pistol, balloon, or 5-gallon bucket. The city
government is discouraging this form of entertainment, however – at least
downtown, where there’s a serious financial commitment to maintaining the
historic center’s 16th- to 19th-century facades.
Less destructive and equally lively is Cozumel’s Feria del
Cedral. Celebrated with bullfights, horse races, dances, and
carnival rides, the week-long festival has its roots in an act of faith. During
the worst of the War of the Castes, wealthy landowner don Casimiro Cárdenas
promised God a yearly devotion in exchange for his family’s salvation. They
escaped to Cozumel with several other families (and a few indispensable
indigenous servants). Today members of the island’s 16 oldest families honor
don Casimirio’s promise with el Baile de la Cabeza (“Head Dance”).
The dance is especially challenging for the small but conspicuous group of women
who carry on their heads the symbolic offering. With utmost dignity (and
balance), each woman carries a massive barbecued pig’s head surrounded by
brilliant paper banners, bottles of balché (a liqueur of distilled
flowers), and small loaves of bread. The porcine platters, fluttering flags, and
women of all ages in bright embroidered dresses make quite an impressive sight.
On the Day of All Souls (November 2), offerings are made not to appease
God, but to attract the anima of deceased relatives back to earth – at least
for the day. Throughout the Yucatán (especially in rural areas), altars are
prepared within even the humblest homes. A glass of cool water, burning incense
and candles, fragrant flowers, and the beloved’s favorite food and drink: all
are meant to entice the soul of the dead with tastes, sights, smells, and simple
Deceased children are considered to be angelitos, or little
angels. Therefore, their altars are prepared the evening preceding the Day of
All Saints (November 1), and might include garish sugar candy skulls and a
favorite toy or doll. Women rise early to prepare special tamales. Baked in an
earthen pit, the corn-based treats symbolize communion between the living and
the dead. While these cook, families visit the graveyard to clean tombstones and
crypts and decorate them with flowers.
Besides those mentioned above, cultural events and saints days are
celebrated throughout the peninsula; some have their origins in pre-Hispanic
tradition. Here are a few of the most enticing.
and Fall Equinox: Tens of
thousands gather at Chichen Itza to garner the beneficent rays of the sun on
March 21 and September 21. On El Castillo, the midday sun makes a serpent shadow
appear to slither down one side of the pyramid, uniting with a carved
Quetzalcoatl head at its base.
Jazz Festival: Celebrating its
first decade in 2001, this affair attracts international jazz musicians and
aficionados, and is held at the end of May.
de San Román: Ten days of
festivities, including fireworks, dances, and a fair, precede a procession of
this highly revered Christ statue through the streets of Campeche, Campeche.
de Otoño: Two weeks of cultural
events are held in Merida at the end of October and beginning of November, with
theater, music, and dance both folkloric and modern.