And now for something completely different
“Remember me? I’m Miguel. I served you at dinner last night”.
Hmmm, not really. In fact, I hadn’t even arrived in Playa del Carmen in time for dinner last night.
Miguel is young, handsome and very friendly, and I quickly discover that there are plenty of others just like him in this resort town on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula who are using the same line.
“Remember me? I carried your bags at your hotel. I’m Jose”.
Yes, delightful. But pause, even for a second, and they’ll have you in their “uncle’s” shop before you can say “I’m not an American”.
It’s a novel approach to stake a claim to the tourist dollar, but the market strip is packed, the weather is stifling and everyone is using the same tactic.
We soon learn it is easier to whizz around the parallel streets rather than run the gauntlet of hawkers in this avenue of brightly coloured stalls filled with rainbows of shopping opportunities.
We have landed in Mexico, two old girls seeking adventure, after a long flight from Brisbane – 27 hours including a few hours in Dallas waiting for the connection to Cancun.
On the bright side, we did score an upgrade to business class for the last leg but only because, we discovered, we were the only passengers who had paid more than $5 for the ticket in the first place.
And so the journey begins, with a hire car at Cancun International Airport, late at night in pouring rain.
We turn south to Playa del Carmen, which is a similar distance from the Cancun international airport as Cancun itself, and in many ways the better option for starting a holiday on the Yucatan.
Cancun’s greatest attraction we decided on our way back to the airport a week later, is being the gateway to the beautiful but busy Isla Mujeres “Island of the Women” about 13km offshore.
Playa del Carmen further south is on the Riviera Maya, a popular resort strip in this part of the Caribbean.
It’s colourful, vibrant, friendly, noisy interesting and has white sandy beaches lapped by the blue-green waters that have made it famous in movies and novels.
For a day trip, the island of Cozumel, less than an hour by ferry, is one of the less busy places on this resort-bound coast of Mexico and offers swimming, snorkelling or just exploring in a “Mexican Ferrari” – a beaten up VW Beetle convertible.
The Yucatan Peninsula juts into the Gulf of Mexico and yes, we felt perfectly safe. It’s a long way from Mexico City and is made up of the provinces of Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche all of which have numerous sites to visit Mayan ruins.
Further south is Belize, the only English speaking country in Central America, but we decided to limit our activities to the eastern tip of the peninsula.
After a pleasant but lively break in the bustle of Playa, we set off south down the coast road, which meant we could avoid the major highway heading west.
Tulum had been recommended, mainly for its Mayan ruins but since our destination was Chichen Itza, one of the largest Maya cities, and the weather was like an oven set to “high”, we quickly decided to simply wave on the way past.
We turned right at Tulum with no regrets. The detour had been worth it to explore some more of the Caribbean coastline.
Most surprising was that there wasn’t an esplanade and often, to see the sea, it was necessary to squeeze through tiny villages and hope for a glimpse at the end of a lane.
Despite fears of a rough ride, the road to Chichen Itza isn’t too bad and we arrived late afternoon, perfect timing.
Leaving the Hotel Dolores Alba for dinner in the nearby village of Piste, we discovered the ruins were quite literally down the road. Handy.
Even better, it was right across the road from the Ik Kil Cenote, a deep, cold waterhole for a much-needed swim.
Until then, I had never heard of a cenote, but it turns out there about 7000 of them in Mexico. Essentially, they are sinkholes where the rain has eaten away at the limestone over millions of years to create deep pools surrounded by cliffs.
This means trudging down dozens of stone steps to reach the water but once there, the view up is astounding (and the view down from the top equally so) and the water, filtered by the limestone, clear and fresh. It’s not your average swimming hole.
We allowed a day for the Chichen Itza, home of the famous El Castillo pyramid and were glad we took the advice to arrive early.
Apart from missing the worst of the heat, we also missed some of the longest queues. It seemed bad enough having to line up for half an hour to get in, but by the time we left in the afternoon, queues were twice as long.
Nevertheless, it was worth the wait and El Castillo (Spanish for “the castle”) was glorious as the light played on its 365 steps.
Also called the Temple of Kukulcan, it was built by the Mayans between the 9th and 12 centuries, 300 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
There are many other equally fascinating ruins on the site and although popular, it’s not crowded and it was possible to wander at leisure.
The real reminders of this being a big earner for the local area were the dozens of market stalls selling all manner of souvenirs from leatherwork to colourful earthenware (none of it expensive) and groups of young men wandering around in full Mayan costume.
Next morning we set off on the short 120km journey to Merida, the Yucatan capital and largest city on the peninsula. Not being archaeologists, we’d seen enough ruins and decided to skip Uxmal, which offers insight into life before the Spanish conquistadores.
Until now, the skills acquired in my three-month crash course in Spanish had served me well, but I came unstuck in Merida.
It was a relief to discover that I wasn’t going mad, but that with 60 per cent of its population of Mayan ethnicity, Merida has its own parlance with a distinctive accent.
With its colonial history giving it Spanish, French, British and even a little Dutch, influence it has the typical historic centre with a Plaza Grande.
This is a city made for wandering, with magnificent colonial buildings, fortress-like churches, plazas and squares filled with the music of squadrons of buskers as well as plenty of restaurants offering good food, cheap margaritas, cheerful staff and a vantage point for the passing parade.
Streets that appear to be nothing more than lines of roller doors at siesta open up to reveal colourful shops while avenues of superb old houses tell stories of glory days past.
The Paseo de Montejo is lined with original sculptures that change each year.
An old Merida bus was a worthy tour and the Hotel Dolores Alba again served us well, its foyer and corridors a Frida Kahlo gallery.
Being only 35km from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico we set off north to Progreso where the beaches were uncannily like those of Spain’s Costa Blanca, with pastel-coloured lowset houses, shutters and quiet out-of-season esplanades.
The narrow strip of land with the highway to Telchac Puerto has the Gulf on one side and the Laguna Rosada on the other. These bright pink lagoons are coloured by the same algae that turns its resident flamingos pink.
From there, it was back to Cancun and against all advice, which we came to appreciate too late, we took the back roads across the tip of the peninsula.
Riddled with craters more than potholes, it was a long, slow trip but made us feel we were making an effort to explore the real Yucatan, off the beaten track.
A part of the world less explored by Australian tourists, Mexico’s Yucatan offers something completely different to the trails of Europe and Asia – and the food is cheap and worth the trip too.