After storing our truck and trailer at Desert Trails RV Park in Tucson Arizona we flew to Cancun on the northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We immediately picked up our rental car ($25/day including damage insurance) and escaped from that tourist trap to the tranquil small city of Valladolid, a two-hour drive to the west.
It was evening by the time we arrived in Valladolid, so we checked into our hotel (Aurora Hotel Colonial, $42/night). Then we went out for dinner scoring an excellent meal of regional Yucatecan specialties at the funky, but delicious Conato Restaurant. We would be spending more time in Valladolid later in the month, so we turned in early, content with an excellent meal in our bellies and exhausted from the day’s travelling.
Up early the following morning and a two-hour drive westward to Merida, the capital city of the state of Yucatan. Merida is a large city with an extensive colonial era city center that became rich exporting henequin, a durable fiber made from the yucca-like henequin plant. The invention of synthetic fibers like nylon ended the opulent colonial era for Merida, but the mansions and great-houses from the henequin barons remain along with modern street art throughout the city.
On the way to Merida from Valladolid we stopped at Izamin, a colonial Mayan town. We stumbled across a store selling guayabera’s (Mexican wedding shirts), and I bought a nice one for $20. Once in Merida we moved into the hotel Delores Alba, an old favorite of ours located in the historic colonial center of town with large, air-conditioned rooms and an indoor swimming pool for $42/night. We took a refreshing dip in the pool before walking down to the main plaza where everyone was dancing to the mambo-like rhythms of a Jarocho band. While walking back we had some fresh pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread).
The next day we drove to the ancient Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. That night we re-discovered one of our favorite restaurants, Los Almendros, with its excellent regional foods. We highly recommend it. We spent another day walking down the Paseo Montejo, lined with gigantic colonial-era mansions.
Before we left Merida, we drove out to the biosphere reserve of Celestun for a flamingo tour. That was somewhat disappointing since the large flocks of flamingoes wouldn’t arrive for another month. So, we drove out to the tiny beach town of Sisal and took another tour of the mangrove swamps there. This was much better even though Sisal is only about 40 kilometers from Merida, it’s somewhat off the beaten track with very few tourists. On the way back from our tour we stumbled upon groups of flamingoes feeding in puddles just twenty feet away along the dirt road we were bouncing down. That was a treat as they seemed to ignore us as they performed their strange Charleston-like, knee-bending mating dance as we watched them close-up.
After Merida we drove another two-hours westward to Campeche, capital city of the state with the same name. We checked into the Francis Drake hotel ($42/night) and spent our time exploring the Mayan ruins of Edzna, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico at Playa Bonita and walking around the beautiful colonial city. Campeche has probably the most well-preserved colonial city center in the Yucatan enclosed by three hundred year-old walls and fortifications.
From Campeche we drove westward once more to a place we hadn’t been to before, Ciudad del Carmen on the enormous lagoon, Laguna de Terminos, within another coastal protected area. We paid for a two-night stay in the Hotel Hacienda Real ($57/night), but loud music was playing all night so we cancelled our second night and drove to Xpujil at the far southern boundary of the state of Campeche. Before we left the Lagoon de Terminos we took a tour of the lagoon with a local fisherman seeing dolphins and lots of sea birds.
We arrived in tiny Xpujil (pronounced Shpew-heel) and checked into another one of our perennial favorites, the Hotel Calakmul. Tiny rooms, but clean with a swimming pool and air conditioning; a bargain at $27/night. Xpujil has a number of ancient Mayan ruins nearby and so it makes an excellent base from which to explore them.
The largest site is Calakmul, over 60 kilometers from Xpujil, and deep in the Peten jungle with no services or stores. So, we bought a four-liter bottle of water and some roasted chicken, bread and fruit from the local grocery and made sandwiches for our trip the following morning. Most of the archeological sites charge about $3 to enter with Calakmul costing about $15.
The next day we got going early. Little did we know that it would be a good wildlife viewing day and as we approached the entry road to Calakmul a grey fox ran across the road. A pair of javelinas crossed as we drove deeper into the jungle. Once we arrived at the archeological site we spent three hours climbing the pyramids and walking around the huge abandoned city. We stopped for lunch, but a pair of spider monkeys in the tree above us decided to bombard us with fruit shells, so we moved on. Calakmul is one of the largest ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico.
From there we drove back out the long. potholed access road to Calakmul to a smaller archeological site, Balamku. It was worth the effort as the main pyramid has a well-preserved relief carving of the gods of the underworld. On the way out we were rewarded with a toucan flying by low overhead and a pair of parrots watching us as we drove by.
It was late afternoon by then and we were just in time to stop at a clearing along the highway where there’s a trail to a huge sinkhole, home to nine species of bats. The entire bat colony is up to 2.5 million individuals. We hiked a quarter-mile to the sinkhole, waited about twenty minutes, when literally tens of thousands of bats flew out of the cave. At first, they flew straight up out of the cave dispersing into the forest. Then they formed into a whirling vortex of tens of thousands of bats while a pair of great horned owls looked on from a tree below us. It was an incredible sight, but the stench emanating from the cave was almost unbearable and it had gotten too dark to take photos. Lightening bugs flashed through the forest as we walked back to the car. Well satisfied with our day we went bed early planning to see some of the smaller archeological sites in the morning.
The next day we drove out the site of Becan with its long tunnel entrance. Then to Hormiguero with its spectacular carved relief on the main pyramid. We finished the day early walking around the ruins of Xpujil with its unusual and steep triple towered pyramid and more carved reliefs. That was enough for the day and we returned to the hotel for a swim in the pool and some relaxation before leaving the following morning for the lakeside town of Bacalar.
On the way to Bacalar we had one more Mayan ruin to check out; Rio Bec. I’d read that the road to Rio Bec was bad, but that was an understatement and after sliding through muddy potholes I finally hit one that sank the car up to it’s frame in sticky deep mud. We were stuck tight about a mile from town. Luckily a hunter came by on his motorbike and went town for help. A half hour later a pickup truck arrived with three guys and we pulled the car out of the mud hole. The car and we were covered in mud so we abandoned the trip to Rio Bec and drove on to Bacalar. That adventure cost us 600 pesos to get pulled out and I lost my camera in the confusion. Once in Bacalar we spent the rest of the day washing the caked on mud off of our sandals and the car.
Up early the next morning we moved on to Mahahual, a small coastal local resort area that we had been to before. There we moved into a comfortable Air BnB apartment that we had reserved for $52/night. Better yet, the hosts, Vanesa and Chano, operate the local dive shop and I signed up for a snorkeling trip to the Chinchorro Banks, an off-shore atoll on the second largest reef in the world. We highly recommend Casa Viento as a base to explore Mahahual and the reefs. We finished up the day with a lobster dinner at the Blue Fish Restaurant – excellent.
The trip out to the Chinchorro Banks cost $130 usd, takes all day, and it was worth it. The banks are far off-shore taking an hour and a half to reach in a fast launch. We were a mixed bunch of snorkelers and divers which the crew managed by dropping the snorkelers first on shallow reefs then taking the divers out to deeper water, later picking us up in the same order. The reefs were full of neon bright tropical fish in every color you could imagine, but the corals were even more spectacular. We stopped for lunch at an atoll fringed with mangroves seeing large iguanas and salt-water crocodiles. Sorry, no pictures since I lost my underwater camera in the disastrous trip to Rio Bec.
We spent our last day in Mahahual cleaning up the car and relaxing on the beach. The next day we would pick up our friend Aline from Paris at the Cancun airport and travel around the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula with her. But that story is in part two of our trip to the Yucatan.