Mexico: Mayan magic

Revel in sinkhole swimming, tap into a natural world of crocs and coastal lagoons, and discover mind-blowing Maya archaeological sites — each prompting more questions than answers — on Mexico's laid-back Yucatán Peninsula

By David Whitley
Published 26 Nov 2015, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 12:44 BST

Tranquilo. The Spanish word seems to have a laser-guided aptness. Leaning over the balustrade of the Isla Contoy restaurant in Río Lagartos, the only action is the apologetic bobbing of the fishing boats stretching along the shoreline. It's a sweetly endearing small town that could pass as a themed area in an amusement park, but doesn't seem to know it.

Roofs thatched with guano leaves meet buildings painted in a panoply of excessively bright pastel shades. Some of the boats have been hijacked by gaggles of stodgy brown pelicans while the fishermen are elsewhere. And when the pelicans finally decide to move on, they struggle across the sky like pregnant sows lolloping across a barnyard, before picking up sufficient speed to regain their avian elegance. These, however, are not the birds that people come to see. The Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is where the flamingos like to hang out.

Paco the boatman unties his steed from the jetty and heads off towards the mangroves. Stretching the 45-mile span of the river mouth with only two small gaps, they're both a barrier and a habitat. The mangroves filter the saltwater from the freshwater and they provide a safe haven for nesting birds — herons, egrets and storks, as well as the flamingos, plus birds of prey, which perch on taller white mangrove branches ready to pounce on any fish too close to the surface.

Also skulking among the mangrove roots are the crocodiles that gave the Ría Lagartos its entirely erroneous name. Early Spanish explorers incorrectly thought they were caimans. They aren't, but Lagartos stuck.

Paco slaps a pre-caught fish on the water's surface, and a croc slinks towards the boat, taking the fish out of his hand. Interesting choice of pet, there, Paco.

The flamingos appear further along, near flats that have been mined for salt for hundreds of years. "They're monogamous — it's one partner for life," says Paco. They hang out in groups, though, and as the boat sidles up alongside, it's possible to see that the campest of birds isn't actually all that cute. Their long necks bend in S-shapes, but their heads have the Grim Reaper-esque look of the ibis about them. Take away the pink colour obtained from micro-organisms in the water, and they look rather sinister. Yet when they take flight, they have a grace entirely absent from the pelicans' first few wing flaps. They glide in formation, a Pink Arrows display team putting on a show above the water.

Snorkellers, Cenote Dos Ojos. Image: Corbis

Sinkhole swimming

The Yucatán Peninsula is essentially a massive chunk of limestone. Water seeps through very easily, meaning rivers run underground rather than on the surface. That doesn't mean they are hidden from view, though. The peninsula is riddled with thousands of cenotes — or sinkholes — that double up as often impeccably gorgeous swimming holes.

Some of these are better known than others, but often it's possible to rock up at one and have it all to yourself. Down a bumpy track at San Antonio Mulix, to the south of Mérida, Cenote X-Batún presents itself exceptionally prettily, with the roots of Alamo trees hanging down like squid arms from the surface into the crystal-clear pool below.

The man at the entrance gate is keen to point out this was where Florence and the Machine shot their new video, but there are no film crews to interrupt the serenity — just a couple of iguanas scurrying in the leaf litter outside.

The cenotes that require everyone to play nice and share however, are popular for a reason. And Cenote Dos Ojos, between Tulum and Akumal, is staggering in both looks and scale. A pair of roughly cricket pitch-sized sinkholes have created a network of caves that have become a magnet for cave divers. Even without scuba gear, however, they're ripe for exploring. Around the edge of one, I swim in a near circle — my snorkel and mask strapped into place — dodging the cave formations on the way. Fruit bats hang then flit inside the deeper-set caverns, shoals of tiny fish flit around imposing limestone columns and the light hits the water, turning it a staggering palette of different blues. It takes hours for the sense of wonder to even faintly subside. Slowly doggy paddling around a barrage of stalagmites and stalactites has an otherworldly magic to it that's nigh-on impossible to shake off.

The caves weren't always flooded, though. The small, on-site Museum of Prehistory delves into the bones that have been found within them. Reconstructed mammoths, giant sloths and huge armadillos take pride of place in the main rooms. But human bones have also been found down there, too.

Eugenio Acevez, the museum's director, says that during the last Ice Age, the caves were dry and people used to walk through them. One of those people was the 'Woman of Las Palmas', whose 10,000-year-old skeleton is one of the oldest ever found on the American continent.

Eugenio explains that the land is owned by the local Mayan community, but it took a while for them to realise what they had. An initial reluctance to have people dive and swim in their water source had to be overcome, and then they had to be persuaded of the merits of the underwater archaeological expeditions and museum.

"From about 120 families present at the initial meeting, only three people had been to a museum," Eugenio explains. "And it took a showing of the Ice Age movie to make the community realise what they were sitting on."

Since then, lives have been transformed. "The lifestyle has changed in ways their parents or grandparents would never have thought," says Eugenio "The soil is very poor for agriculture, and most were hunters. Now they have learned to speak English, Italian and French, they have cars, they go to school in Tulum and some are working as snorkelling guides while others run the restaurants and rent the gear."

There's a similar story at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum. Here, a local Mayan cooperative, Community Tours Sian Ka'an, runs a variety of tours into the pristine jungle. Heading out on one, guide Alberto Cen Caamal tells me the people here used to be chicleros. In other words, they were on the frontline of the chewing gum industry, carrying out the backbreaking work of tapping sapodilla trees for chicle sap, the raw material used to make gum. Alberto shows me the spiralling scars in the bark of one trunk in the mosquito-swarmed jungle around Muyil, an ancient Mayan site. Now, however, Alberto gets to be everything else. "I am a beekeeper," he says, pointing out a small hive of stingless bees. "Two weeks before the bee season, I do a ceremony. The mites at the bottom of the hive all die — it really works. But if we don't find a way to protect them in the future — no more fruits."

He's a 'doctor' too. "When we were living in the jungle, my father said you need to know every medicinal plant or you will die younger," he says, stopping regularly to explain said plants' uses. "Now we drink Coca-Cola, we drink cerveza. You can feel the difference."

A boardwalk and a soundtrack of incredibly noisy frogs leads to the first of two lakes to be crossed in a small motorboat. It's all delightfully serene and unthreatening — just water and sawgrass as far as the eye can see.

The boat navigates its way through a narrow, man-made channel to the second, wider lake. But it's the channel beyond that's the target. It's natural, relatively fast-flowing at around three miles an hour, and connects Lake Chunyaxche to
the sea.

The boat is moored against a jetty, and life jackets are temporarily taken off only to be reapplied over the legs and fastened around the waist. This is followed by three great splashes as grown men wearing what look like big orange nappies leap into the channel.

What follows is so laughably silly and deliriously joyful, that time simply ceases to be important. Floating along with the current in the sunshine, past crabs and turtles flitting between the mangrove roots, feels like having a water park's lazy river to yourself. The pressures of real life are stripped away, huge grins spread over faces and the childlike sense of pure play returns from long dormant recesses of the psyche. When the jetty marking the end point comes into view, there's genuine, gutting dismay at the whole ridiculous farrago coming to a close.

Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza archaeological site. Image: James Tye

Urban retreat

Not all modern Mayans are working in tourism. The majority now live in cities such as Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state. Around one million people reside here, of which around 60% are indigenous Mayan. Among the snarl of comically inadequate, narrow streets are a wealth of churches and mansions that hark back to a fierce Spanish colonial influence.

Mérida has a few mildly diverting galleries and more shops selling local garb and handicrafts than it's possible to dream of. But it's mainly a place for lazily hopping between picturesque plazas, most of which seem to have musicians and dancers putting on some sort of show at any given time. Quenching your thirst on a cafe terrace is a far more rewarding pursuit than diligently taking in local art — although the very expensively designed and flashy Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in the north of the city is worth the detour. This is as much for the fascinating displays on the Chicxulub crater — created by the meteorite credited with wiping out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago — as the exhibitions on past and present Mayan life.

But urban Yucatán's sleeper hit is the city of Valladolid, which at first doesn't seem like much beyond its main square and cathedral, but expands into utter beauty when heading south west to the Templo de San Bernardino and Convento de Sisal. This castle-like 16th-century church and convent complex is gloriously atmospheric, largely because you can pretty much have it to yourself while getting lost among the hulking limestone inside. But the approach road is all niche shops, artisan chocolatiers and courtyard garden restaurants.

Valladolid is also by far the best place to stay for early access to the Yucatán Peninsula's long-standing main attraction, Chichén Itzá. Since it was declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 (partly a result, I suspect, of badgering visitors to vote on specially-installed computers at the exit), your experience at this ancient site has very much depended on when you arrive.

At 8am, it's glorious and can be taken in relatively peacefully. By 11am, however, all the tour buses from Cancún have filled the car park and unleashed a living hell.

Chichén Itzá was once one of the great Mayan cities, but that's not quite what's on display. Each iteration of the grand buildings was built on top of the last, like Russian dolls, and the remaining incarnation is from the period when Mayan civilisation had entered its catastrophic decline. There's a heavy Toltec influence in the design and decoration — although no one really knows whether this is a result of conquest or alliance.

Lack of concrete answers is a recurring theme. For example, how were the creators of the main El Castillo pyramid able to provide the illusion of a serpent snaking down the edges during the March and September equinoxes? Nobody quite knows. Why does clapping next to El Castillo create an echo like the squawk of a quetzal (a colourful forest bird)? Not sure. What were the rules of the ball game played in the gigantic, arena-sized and remarkably well-preserved court? Well, we can hazard a guess based on the Aztec version, but that could be as different as American football is to the football played everywhere else in the world. And were players ritually sacrificed after the game? Hmm, depends on your interpretations of carvings and bas-reliefs found on the site.

What remains is the visually stunning lure, but what's been destroyed is equally as intriguing. The Spanish burned almost all the Mayan books that could settle arguments about the civilisation's culture, calendar and crises. The frustratingly scant information that remains has been pieced together and, sadly, often guessed at solely based on what's been left in situ.

Chichén Itzá is just one of dozens of Mayan sites in varying conditions across the Peninsula — and each prompts more questions than answers. Even relatively minor sites such as the one at Tulum manage to induce attacks of the what? why? how?s. It's the only coastal Mayan city, and the relative tiddliness of the buildings indicates that it's a late Postclassic era effort. But then you learn why it's there. Along the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula runs the second longest barrier reef in the world. Today, that's a boon for scuba divers and snorkellers, but hundreds of years ago it was an incredibly dangerous obstacle. There is, however, a small gap in the reef that allows boats to pass through. And that happens to line up with the window of the tallest building. If you were at sea, and could see straight through that window, you'd know you were in the right spot. Quite how the calculations for this were performed, again, is a mystery.

But for all the Peninsula's man-made wonders, the natural ones have a tendency to force themselves to the forefront. At Tulum, ropes prevent humans getting close to the buildings, but they don't keep out the hundreds of iguanas that have decided to call the ruins home. Virtually every visitor who should be admiring the handiwork of an ancient civilisation ends up lavishing their attention on these lizards. They, of course, just ignore the fuss and sit soaking up the sun. Tranquilo. Muy tranquilo.


Getting there
Cancún International Airport is the main gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Gatwick, while Thomas Cook flies year-round from Gatwick and Manchester, plus seasonally from Glasgow. Thomson flies year-round from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester, plus seasonally from Newcastle, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle.
Average flight time: 9h.

Getting around
Roads are good, and driving is your best bet. Most international car hire firms are found at Cancún airport. Alternatively, taxi transfers between key points aren't expensive and taxis in towns are very cheap. Buses also link cities, with ADO covering most major routes. Tour companies such as Cancun Adventures in Playa del Carmen and Mexigo Tours in Valladolid run half- and full-day trips to most sites of interest.

When to go
Peak season is December-April with temperatures around 30C. June-November is wetter and more humid (but cheaper), with September-November hurricane season.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don't need a visa.
Currency: Peso (MXN). £1 = 24.63 pesos.
Health: No vaccinations or tablets needed, but it's best to stick to bottled water.
International dial code: 00 52.
Time: GMT -5 (early April-late October), GMT -6 (late October-early April).

Where to stay
El Paraiso Hotel (Tulum). Rooms from US$120 (£78).
El Mesón del Marqués (Valladolid). Rooms from 680 pesos (£26).
Koox Casa de las Palomas (Mérida). Rooms from US$131 (£85).
Mansión Mérida on the Park. Rooms from US$168 (£110).

More info

The Rough Guide to Mexico. RRP: £17.99.
Lonely Planet Guide Mexico. RRP: £17.99.

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers a 13-day Yucatán Peninsula self-drive tour from £1,180 per person, excluding international flights, but including accommodation and car hire.
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights, all-inclusive, at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, with flights from Gatwick and airport transfers, from £983 per person.

Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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