Located 130 km south of Cancún the well preserved cliff-top Maya ruins at Tulum beach overlook expansive stretches of sparsely populated white sand beachfront and the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. Cabañas, camp sites and beachfront bars are scattered along the beachfront.
Inland about 42 km west of Tulum, the ancient city of Cobá was among the largest of the Maya cities. It’s architecture more closely resembles that of Tikal (in Guatemala) than of Chichén Itzá or Uxmal. Cobá is home to the tallest Maya structure on the Yucatán Peninsula, the 42 meter high great pyramid Nohoch Mul. It was an exhausting climb to the top, but we did it!
After cutting our visit to Cancún short we headed about an hour south to the former fishing village turned resort town of Playa del Carmen. Cancún’s tourist area consisted of several kilometers of spectacular beachfront lined with resorts, high-end shopping malls and an array of American themed restaurants and bars. While strikingly beautiful, the beaches at Cancún are narrow and accessing them without an all-inclusive resort package wristband requires, at times, near mission impossible style maneuvers. Separated from the town by several kilometers of highway, there is very little about Cancún’s beaches that feels authentically Mexican.
A much more relaxed and enjoyable base from which to explore the Riviera Maya is Playa del Carmen. Equally beautiful, Playa caters to more than just the spring break crowd. Here you can still buy your “one tequila, two tequila, three tequila…floor” t-shirt, conduct all financial transactions in U.S. dollars and speak only English, though your dining options aren’t limited to Hooters or Señor Frog’s and it’s possible to take in a bit of Mexican culture should you so desire. Our realization that these few resort areas are the most of Mexico that many visitors ever see was disappointing. Even so, the perfect turquoise water and white sand beaches of the Yucatán are hard to resist.
Now we’re headed for what will be our last stop in Mexico, the beachfront Maya ruins at Tulum.
Published March 2, 2009
Tags: Cancún, Quintana Roo
Several people had suggested we skip Cancún and head directly for Playa del Carmen, unfortunately that turned out to be good advice.
The best restored and most unique of the Yucatán Peninsula’s Maya sites, Chichén Itzá’s architecture is a blend of highland central Mexican and Puuc styles. The 25m high Pyramid of Kulkulcán is one of Chichén Itzá’s most impressive structures and a stone representation of the Maya calendar. Unfortunately, most of the structures are roped off and closed to climbing and visiting the site feels sort of like visiting a theme park. Vendors crowded all of the walkways trying to do business in U.S. dollars, tour buses were continually arriving from Cancun and by early afternoon Chichén Itzá was flooded with bathing suit clad tourists shopping for souveniers.
Published February 26, 2009
Tags: La Ruta Maya, Mérida, Uxmal, Yucatán
After waking up early to the sounds of what might possibly be the loudest hostel in Mérida, or all of Mexico for that matter, we headed about an hour south of the city to the ruins of Uxmal. Once the capital of an ancient Maya civilization located in the Yucatán’s Puuc region, Uxmal flourished from 600-900 A.D. It’s puuc-style architecture features many intricate carvings and geometric mosaics. Stucco masks depicting the rain god Chac adorn many of the buildings, not surprising given the scarcity of water in this region. It is speculated that these severe drought conditions led to the abandonment of the site around 900 A.D. Today, Uxmal is home to a population of enormous iguanas, some nearly the size of a small dog. They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on the ancient structures and it’s possible to get within a few feet of the giant creatures before they retreat back into hiding.
Unlike many of the ruins we have visited, Uxmal has some very modern facilities, several gift shops, fancy hotels, restaurants and even a gormet coffee stand on site. I almost fell over when the can of soda I asked for cost twenty pesos. Not to mention the high cost of admission and the fact that bus travel in the region can be as much as two or three times the cost of a similar ride in Oaxaca or Chiapas. Tourism is big business in the Yucatán and this region of Mexico is much different from the Mexico to which I had become accustomed. Absent are the packs of homeless dogs, there aren’t children working in the streets or begging for money, buildings are free of grafitti, no one is protesting anything and I can hardly remember what it’s like to be awoken by the sound of firecrackers at 4 a.m. Instead fancy tour buses make brief stops at all of the attractions, officers are on hand to assure everyone makes it across the streets safely and everyone speaks a little bit of English (or at least they claim that they do).
Travel is expensive in the Yucatán and apparently many Mexicans cannot afford the higher costs. Unfortunately, in our experience so far, it’s primarily foreigners marveling at Mexico’s most impressive sights. Besides the site employees, Carlos was the only Mexican national at Uxmal and he’s been the only Mexican on several of the buses we’ve taken. Back in Mérida our hostel bed is costing us nearly 50% more than what we’re used to paying for a hotel room with a private bath and cable TV. Most of the other backpackers that have come through our hostel seem to do as we are doing and pass through this region of the country relatively quickly. In fact, the majority of people packed up and took the first bus out of the city as soon as Carnaval ended.
Published February 25, 2009
Tags: Carnaval, Mérida, Yucatán
Mexico’s largest celebrations of Carnaval take place in the cities of Mazatlán, Mérida and Veracruz. Our arrival in Mérida at the start of the festivities was purely accidental. The fact that Mérida is host to the largest celebration in the Yucatán Peninsula complete with parades, street festivals, open-air concerts and lots of parties caught us completely by surprise. It turned out to be such a fun week and we couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction to the city!
Published February 23, 2009
Tags: Campeche, unesco
After a whirlwind couple of days in Palenque we headed north on our way to Mérida, making a brief stop in the colonial-era city of Campeche for a little rest and relaxation. Situated right on the waterfront, Campeche is a pretty place and a perfect example of a typical colonial-era Spanish harbor town. Its historic center remains surrounded by a 2.5km hexagon of bulwarks. Every building is painted a bright shade of pastel and trimmed in white. Campeche’s beautiful central plaza and palm-lined pedestrian pathway, or malecón, stretching along the coast are sources of pride for Campechanos and the city was designated a unesco world heritage site in 1999.