Circling the Yucatan Peninsula

We decided to revisit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, this time a little off the usual tourist trail with the Mayan ruins of Uxmal (oosh-mall) and Calakmul (kal-ack-mool) a high priority. It was July, rainy season, but the rains come in the form of afternoon thundershowers, not days long monsoons. Since our route would be a giant circle around the Yucatan Peninsula we rented a car, unusual for us as we usually travel by bus in Mexico.

We started in the colonial city of Merida. We like Merida with its colonial era buildings, plazas with live music at night and good selection of mid-range hotels in downtown. We installed ourselves in the hotel Delores Alba for relaxed for 600 pesos/night ($50) and spent a couple of days leisurely walking through the plazas in the evenings, getting lost in the massive central market (Mercado Municipal), sampling regional dishes in local restaurants and lounging around the swimming pool.

On the third day we threw a styrafoam cooler in the back seat of our rental car loaded with bottled water and ice and drove off to the Mayan towns of Ticul and Oxcutzcab (osh-koot-skab) buying some electric pink pitaya fruit (pih-ta-yah) from a roadside market as we went. Along the way we stopped for a couple hours and paid 35 pesos each ($3) to walk through the Mayan ruins of Mayapan, a small but historically important site. There were no other visitors there.

Then we drove to Uxmal, paid the 200 peso per person entry fee ($16 each), and spent a couple hours walking around this large site. We were fascinated by the intricate and massive buildings of the central plaza and main pyramid and watched a group of blue-crowned motmots (colorful tropical birds with long tails) flit between the ruins and the nearby forest. There were groups of tourists at the main plaza, but hardly anyone in the outlying areas of the ruins.

We spent the night in the small Mayan town of Santa Elena and visited the nearby ruins of Kabah with its unique pair of warrior statues guarding the entrance to the main temple and had the site to ourselves (42 pesos per person entry fee, about $3.50). Most people in Santa Elena speak Mayan as their first language, Spanish is their second language and usually spoken with a soft, shhhshing accent. Our bungalow at the Pickled Onion cost 600 pesos (about $50) without AC, but it was cool enough at night and we enjoyed the small swimming pool and forest full of lightening bugs at night. I noticed a number of local men riding around Santa Elena on bicycles with shotguns slung across their backs. They told me they were hunting javelina, deer and wild turkeys in the surrounding dry tropical forests.

The next day we rose with the roosters, bought a bag full of fresh rolls from a panaderia (bakery – pan-a-der-ee-ah) in town, stopped by the cyber café (yep, even Santa Elena is hooked into Google) and started the six hour drive to the town of Xpujil (shpue-heel) from where we would base our exploration of Calakmul. We drove south on well maintained highway 261 through the town of Hopelchen (op-el-chen) passing Mennonite farmers leaning against their pickup trucks in their overalls and straw sombreros. At Hopelchen we left highway 261 and continued south on a minor single-lane highway which deteriorated into a potholed rural track as we entered the ugly little town of Xpujil.

In Xpujil we went directly to the ruins of Becan on the edge of town paying 40 pesos each to enter (about $3.25 each) and had the site to ourselves. Noticing a wooden frame around the back of one of the outer buildings we investigated and found it was a plexiglass window covering a magnificent relief of a Mayan warrior with much of the original painted stucco in place. We returned to town and checked into the Hotel Calakmul paying 500 pesos (about $42), which wasn’t bad considering the swimming pool and air conditioned room.

The next day – Calakmul.

Gran Pyramide - Calakmul

Gran Piramide – Calakmul

Calakmul is deep within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve which itself is part of the greater Peten jungle stretching far into Guatemala, an area of over four million acres of undisturbed jungle and home to jaguars, monkeys, toucans and drug-runners. The archeological site of Calakmul is 100 kilometers (63 miles) from Xpujil, half of that distance down a long, narrow access road through the jungle.

Access Road into Calakmul

Access Road into Calakmul

There are three payments to make to reach the archeological site; a 60 peso ($5) charge per car by the local Maya community at the access road, a 56 pesos ($4.75) per car charge by the biosphere reserve agency halfway down the access road, and a 52 pesos per person entry fee ($4.25) to enter the Calakmul archeological site at the end of the road.

There aren’t any stores at the archeological site, so we took bottled water and a lunch of pollo asada (roasted chicken) that we had bought in Xpujil and glad we did. We walked around the huge site for hours, climbing the pyramids and getting scolded by a group of howler monkeys as we walked under their tree. There were no more than two dozen other visitors at the site and we often had whole plazas and pyramids to ourselves, sometimes getting lost walking along deserted jungle pathways.

From Xpujil we headed east to the laid back town of Bacalar on the shores of crystal clear Laguna Bacalar (Lake Bacalar). We moved into the clean and quiet Hotelito La Ceiba for 400 pesos (about $35) which we liked a lot with its air conditioned room, kitchenette and rooftop terrace. We took a swim in the refreshing, but touristy cenote azul (seh-no-tay: deep sinkholes filled with fresh water) followed by a 4-hour tour of the lake by boat for 400 pesos each (about $30 each). A Mexican tourist and his English girlfriend generously shared their bag full of cold beers with us as we swam in the refreshing, clear waters of the lake.

The next day we drove 2 hours to the small, coastal resort town of Mahaual (mah-who-wall) and installed ourselves in the Blue Bay Beach Resort which was a thatched hut with a water bed and shared bathroom for 300 pesos (about $25). We snorkeled in the “blue bay” which is a cove formed by a breakwater and lounged on the beach for the rest of the day. After a night in the “resort” we decided to splurge for a room with air conditioning and stayed at the Caballo Blanco hotel for 1,400 pesos ($115), way overpriced compared to other places in town.

The following day we attempted to reach remote Punta Herrero, a fishing village at the tip of a long peninsula extending north from Mahual, but our cheesy rental car couldn’t negotiate the rough road and we turned back after bouncing along at 5 miles per hour for a mile or two. On the way back we noticed a side road snaking off towards the ocean and followed it to a beautiful cove with four or five small thatched roof homesteads on the beach under neat rows of palm trees. Noticing a guy mending his fishing nets by one of them we started talking to him. El Chapulin (the grasshopper), as he called himself, agreed to sell us a fresh fish dinner with a couple of cold beers and after retrieving some small fish from his fish trap just offshore he cooked them up with black beans and rice. We spent a pleasant couple hours talking to him and his family, paid him 200 pesos each for his hospitality (about $16), and drove back to Mahual satisfied with a day well spent.

Time to start closing the circle on our circumnavigation of the Yucatan so we drove north to Tulum where we sprang for more luxurious accommodations and paid 1,400 pesos (about $115) to stay at the Mezzanine, a boutique hotel on the beach a mile south of the Mayan ruins of Tulum. As it turned out we were there for “salsa night” and as evening fell a five-piece salsa band from Cuba, complete with dancers, began playing and they were hot!

Salsa Dancers - Tulum

Salsa Dancers – Tulum

Time to move closer to the airport in order to catch our flight back to Seattle, so we relocated to the sea-side town of Puerto Morelos just twenty minutes from the international airport at Cancun. Puerto Morelos has somehow escaped the mega tourist development of places like Cancun. It’s touristy for sure, but in a low-key, counter-culture kind of way. We ensconced ourselves in the funky Posada Amor for 500 pesos (about $42). The room was clean enough, but dark and hot, so we borrowed a standup fan from the manager which helped some. We walked around town that evening watching as a large group of women dressed in white togas held a spiritual healing session with a shaman in the main plaza. We had seafood cocktails and cold beer at a table in the sand at La Playita, a beachside restaurant and a favorite with the locals.

And then, it was day eleven and time to go. We drove the twenty minutes to Cancun, turned in the rental car and flew back to Seattle not really ready to leave, but not sad to be back in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of Washington State either.

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