The Other Side of the Yucatan
by Tim Leffel

The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is best known for the vacation factory areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. But what lies in that mysterious area to the west...?

Uxmal Yucatan

We bumped along the old train tracks of what was once a grand sisal plantation, the driver using the reins and his commands to keep the skinny horse pulling our little train car moving along. Up ahead another horse and train car were heading straight for us. Our driver stopped. "Get out please," he told us in Spanish. When we did, he deftly lifted our little cart off the tracks to let the other one pass by. He wiggled it back on, motioned for us to get in, and we were on our way to the first underground pool for a swim.

It wouldn't work like this in the Riviera Maya, of course. Everything would be gussied up for tourists and the entrance fee would be quadrupled. But we were in some hard-to-find little rural spot in the Yucatan state, far from the sunburn and bikini crowd.

If the Yucatan Peninsula were a scale and the weights were dollars or tourists, it would lean to the right in a 1000-to-1 ratio. Cancun alone got more than four million tourists last year and another couple million headed to the string of resorts between Puerto Morales, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum to the South.

The first time I laid eyes on this land, I was in a state of mind that made me the perfect target customer. Our round-the-world backpacks were collecting dust in the basement and my wife and I were worn out from caring for a toddler. We desperately needed some recovery time. We found a cheap all-inclusive resort deal, dropped the little precious off with her grandparents, and hopped a plane to the Riviera Maya. We spent five days and nights eating, drinking, sleeping, and lounging around. It was like a prescription filled by a doctor, but with tequila and beach chairs instead of medicine.

Our one excursion was to the seaside ruins of Tulum. We arrived on one of the little combi vans that ply the highway south of Playa del Carmen. The other 5,000 people making the place look like a rock festival mostly arrived on tour buses. It took longer to get through the rows of souvenir trinket stalls than it did to tour the underwhelming ruins.

After the recharging we headed inland, away from the vacation zone of large resorts and manufactured attractions. We hopped a public bus to Chichen Itza and after dropping our bags off at a hotel, we walked in at a magical time right after the last tour bus had pulled out. This was when you could still climb to the top of the main pyramid, so we saw the whole complex from above as everything glowed in the gold of a setting sun. We came back in the morning as soon as the complex opened, this time leaving just as the first load of day-trippers from Cancun were pulling into the parking lot. They would soon be sweltering in the mid-day sun, listening to a guide drone on with stories that directly contradict the other guide droning on nearby.

We ventured to the nearby town of Valladolid, getting our first glimpse of what a historic Mexican town really looks like, but there was no time to venture on to Mérida. Work and family obligations back home meant heading back to the airport.

Uxmal ruins

The Pull of Mérida

I soon got to Mérida myself on a writing assignment, then brought the family, my three-year-old holding her first passport. She adored the funky little hotel we stayed at in Mérida. It had a swimming pool, a pet bird, a hammock, and a little living room where she could spread out her coloring books. She loved the Mayan ruins of Uxmal: so many steps to climb, and lizards everywhere! A trip to see the flamingos near our rented Gulf Coast beach house nearby was a big hit.

Mexico Gulf Coast

It was such a positive experience, so much more of a Mexican experience than we had on the Caribbean coast, that we eventually put down some roots. We bought a little casita one house back from the beach in a little fishing village called Chuburna Puerto, near Progreso and 45 minutes from Mérida. For years it became our chilled-out getaway. It was our escape from the rat race, the 24-hour media deluge, and the American consumer treadmill. It was also our base for getting to know the Yucatan by car.

We returned to Valladolid another time with the grandmother who was babysitting on that first trip and went to Ek' Balam. We struck out from Valladolid about 9:30 and by 9:55 we had paid our few bucks each for admission and were inside. If it weren't for the busload of teenagers on some kind of club trip, the crowd would have been about 20 total. And unlike at Chichen Itza, there were no vendors on the pathways spoiling the ambiance. Although it's not far from that "wonder of the world" site, it's a world away.

Ek' Balam

This is a grand site that was active for a good 400 years, so there is a lot to explore. While there is no grand pyramid in the middle, we climbed enough steps to get our day's cardio exercise. At the top, the shrub and jungle panorama reminded me why there are still places like this that haven't even been found yet.

A Horse-pulled Train Car

Getting to the attraction of Cuzama a few years later was not as easy. We left the magical yellow city of Izamal, with its grand convent in the center, with clear directions printed out in hand. They were of only marginal help though as we motored through a few sad little pueblos with few road signs and a whole lot of flat scrub brush lands with no landmarks. After a few points in the right direction though from random people beside the road, we pulled into giant dirt-and-gravel parking lot filled with cars.

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