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Beyond Cancun

  

Vast meadows of aquamarine waters engage the eye with its irresistible Caribbean allure. The palm fringed powdery beach eagerly awaits the warm sea, its sand smooth and white, visited by the occasional noisy gull or brisk sand piper. Small crabs burrow in and out of tiny openings in the sand, their refuge from predators. There are other bathers but not many, several dozen at best, more than enough room for everyone in this, only one of countless glorious beaches that line the Mexican coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula known as the Mayan Riviera. I am sitting on a beach chair, surrounded by palm trees, shaded by their arching fronds, contemplating swollen coconuts, turquoise waters, and the cerulean sky wrapping the whole of it like a silken garment. I landed in Cancun this morning and dashed off in my rental car with wife and three (of four) children, to this beach, known as Xpu-Ha, a Mayan word meaning “mist of the water,” preferring the pristine coastline further south to the mega hotels and traffic of Cancun. But there is more to the Yucatan Peninsula than beaches. The region tosses together a greater variety of items of intense beauty and historical interest than perhaps any other province in the world. But one would never know that if one limited one's visit of the Yucatan to Cancun alone.

I am positioned on the shoreline, poised between sand and surf, observing the broad blue horizon. My two compatriots, my elder son and daughter, assist me in maneuvering the kayak we are about to board into the speckled blue-green pastures before us. The Mesoamerican reef, the second longest coralline system in the world (after Australia's Barrier Reef), beckons. It is located a mere 300 meters from shore, readily approached by kayak, and stretches hundreds of kilometers north and south. We arrive, don our snorkels and masks and dive in. A cacophony of hallucinogenic colors and shapes await us - hundreds of different coral species undulating about, providing home and sanctuary to an equally sparkling array of fish species that float and fidget below the surface. It is a polychromatic circus, as if someone had simply flipped a switch to expose a plethora of the most enchanting and iridescent coral and fish one could imagine. There are coralline canyons and mushroom pinnacles, stag horns, and forests of lavender, crimson, and golden fan-shaped and cylindrical species, leisurely billowing with the tide. The sea life is electric with flamboyant fish, peeking in and out of their Technicolor domicile. It is another universe, seemingly light years from earth, and yet with a mere lifting of my head, I can gaze upon the shore where my wife is tending to our two year old. Pleasure this profound seems almost decadent.

The Yucatan offers something else that is watery and splendid yet completely different from its Caribbean surf and coral - Cenotes. A cenote is an opening or sink hole, the entry point for complex networks of underground rivers that branch out in myriad tunnels, canyons, and water systems within the limestone plateau of the Yucatan. Fed by rainwater, which filters through the porous plateau, the underground rivers have sculpted the chambers into an apocalypse of rock formations, caves, and channels. Some of the vaults weakened and collapsed, unveiling fresh water sinkholes, called cenotes by the ancient Maya, who considered them sacred, their source of freshwater and the gateway to the spiritual underworld.

Cenote Ik-kil, near Chichen Itza, is a deep, gaping well of a cenote. Seen from above, it is a yawning, circular cavern with luscious blue waters as pellucid and pure as rain. My ten-year-old son and I hurry down a limestone stairwell. At the base of the stairs, the cenote greets us with an exhilarating cool breeze, a form of natural air conditioning. The panorama then explodes: aquamarine waters, multiple waterfalls cascading down from on high, and the ubiquitous vegetation crawling up the vertical banks: vines, limbs, and whole trees festooned along its craggy walls, their roots trailing from above. The flawless blue sky is visible through the opening above, to remind you that you remain stationed on planet earth albeit in a watery, underground paradise that suggests otherwise. We jump in. It is crystalline and cool with a multitude of twinkling shades of aqua that stun the senses. Small black bewhiskered fish swim before and alongside us. We whirl below the trumpeting waterfalls, feel the sharp droplets pitter-pattering like rain upon our backs. I gaze at the towering vault above me, suspended in defiance of gravity. I feel as if I am bathing in a coliseum, so vast I can scarcely believe it is natural. At precisely this moment, a needle of liquid sunlight pierces the cenote opening, providing soothing uncanny warmth amidst the wetness. It is a sensual epiphany, a Yucatecan celebration of nature, life, and water.

About two hours from Cancun, Valladolid, the colonial jewel of the Yucatan, summons. Founded in 1543 in what used to be the Mayan city of Zaci, it was one of the first Spanish seats in the peninsula. Today, it is a bustling town of 65,000 inhabitants. It has a splendid zocalo (town square or plaza), a museum, excellent restaurants, narrow streets and alleys, and Spanish style homes adorned with decorative balconies and porticoes. The pastel painted exteriors illuminate the day with tints of almond, terracotta, lilac, and ochre. A large church dominates the town square made of beige limestone with blue stained glass on its outermost façade. The zocalo boasts a central fountain with a statue of a maiden, manicured lawns, painted stone love seats, and tree covered lanes. Ice cream vendors offer paletas and cremitas (popsicles and sweet, flavored cream) with intriguing flavors (coconut, rice, pineapple). We stay at the archetypal colonial hotel, “El Meson Del Marques.” It is an elegant old building with a stately inner courtyard bearing columns and arches, a fountain, golden walls, hanging plants, and the mellifluous sound of falling water; tables and chairs are set for dining. There are large trees integrated into the structure, tall, massive beasts accommodated seamlessly by the edifice. It is a pleasant respite.

There is another great and distinguishing feature of the Yucatan, perhaps its best known attribute, unique to the area like so much else, for which travelers journey from the four corners, that being the ancient Mayan ruins. When you enter the Yucatan, you are entering the world of the Maya. At the height of Mayan culture during the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD), the Mayan lands were ruled as a series of autonomous but interdependent city-states many with elaborate constructions including temples, palaces, and administrative structures. It is the ruins at Chichen Itza that are perhaps most renowned, but there is another wondrous Mayan ruin, less visited but for my money, far more exquisite and transporting, those being the ruins at Uxmal. Located in the Santa Elena Valley in the Puuc Hills, in the 7th century it became the seat of Mayan political and economic power for the Puuc region.

The first site of Uxmal is its most famous: The Pyramid of the Magician. It is a towering structure with a steep stone staircase leading up to the temple square above. Its sides are esthetically rounded, soothing in comparison to the more angular Castillo at Chichen Itza. It sits on a bed of lush grass, as if an incidental outcropping emerging from the earth. It towers 35 meters above the ground and dates from the 8th century. Near it, is the Quadrangle of the Nuns, a courtyard surrounded by a four sided construction with delicate filigree carved into the exteriors and many grotesque images of a long nosed Chaac, the rain god. The Governor's Palace, with its magnificent façade nearly 100 meters long, offers stylized Chaac faces, geometric patterns, decorative cornices, and corbelled vaults. Uxmal covers a huge tract of land but the structures are close and easily reached. Because we are in the Puuc hills, it is cooler here. It is hot, but not sweltering. The compound can be seen in an hour but inevitably takes longer as one chooses to immerse oneself in it as if finding some measure of peace amidst the great Mayan spirits that once resided here. When one stands upon the Great Pyramid and scans the entire complex, it is an immensely serene and sensuous vision. In one glance, one can capture the ancient Mayan city, its erstwhile grandeur reduced to ruin, grappling with the forces of nature, the wind, the rain, the ever-encroaching jungle, yet managing to give us a glimpse of its former breathtaking splendor. It is the portrait of a turbulent encounter between nature and civilization, a tragic portrayal of an advanced civilization lost to the world, leaving only its magnificent structures as its legacy. It is intoxicating.

Ah, the Yucatan! So much more than Cancun and we have only scratched the surface.

Other Points of Interest in the Yucatan

 

Mayan Ruins

Tulum: The only Mayan city ever built by the sea. Spectacular views. 145 km south of Cancun.

Coba: “The Jungle Ruin.” Elaborate and well preserved Mayan city in the jungle. 40 km from Tulum.

The “Puuc Route”: Several glorious Mayan ruins separated by short distances, close to Uxmal, at Kabah, Labna, Sayil, Xlapak, and culminating in the incredible caves at Loltun.

Chichen Itza: See the great pyramids of Chichen Itza. Grand and awe-inspiring.

Palenque: Not officially in the Yucatan but within striking distance. Beautiful and majestic, in the adjoining Mexican state of Chiapas.

Cenotes

(There are hundreds, many marked by small hand painted signs on the sides of roads. Many are worth visiting. Here are some of the more spectacular examples, accessible by hiway 307, connecting Cancun and Tulum.)

Cenote Tankah: 5 km north of Tulum. It flows into a beautiful white sandy beach.

“Hidden Worlds”: 13 km north of Tulum. Spectacular cave diving and snorkeling.

Aktun-Ha alias “Car Wash”: Swimming and snorkeling.

Gran Cenote: Diving, snorkeling, swimming. Caves with stalactites and stalagmites.

Cristal Escondido and Maya Blu: 4.5 km south of Tulum. Two cenotes connected by an underwater cavern. Great diving, snorkeling, swimming.

Beaches

There are many beaches along the “Mayan Riviera.” Some are more secluded and pristine. Others are quite developed. Here are some examples. All are accessible by hiway 307.

Playa del Carmen: The port for Cozumel. Fully developed with mega hotels. I remember when it was a sleepy village. Lots of trendy restaurants, boutiques, cafes and shops.

Xpu-ha: Pristine and wondrous. My favorite.

Akumal: Exclusive and quiet.

Tankah: Picturesque and restful.

Tulum (the beach not the ruin). Near the ruins and town. Rustic cabanas. Simple and tranquil.

Cities and Towns

Merida: A beautiful colonial city founded in 1542, the capitol of the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Progresso: Port city for the Capitol in Merida. Scenic beaches and excellent seafood.

For Kids (and adults)

Xel-ha: A natural wonder with dolphins, coral reef, colorful fish. Great snorkeling.

Xcaret: Dolphins, coral reef, aquariums, butterflies, aviary, museum, traditional Mayan village, dance, music, diving, snorkeling, giant turtles, lagoons. Spectacular. Requires an entire day.

 

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