The Yucatan peninsular is an amazingly flat spur of land from the south east coast of Mexico. It comprises the entire country of Belize together with three Mexican States; Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche. That meteor fell 65 million years ago off its coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, which wiped out the dinosaurs. I will come back to that later.
We arrived at the main international airport at Cancun, near the tip of the peninsular, but we avoided the holiday metropolis; landed, hired a car and headed out west along the toll road 180D (there is also a free road 180), looking for a turning to take us north to our destination of Isla Holbox; but mile after mile of deadly dull, flat forested expanses came and went and I was getting anxious. Online reports said the ferries stopped running at about 7pm: in the event I think the last boat was at 9 so I stressed for nothing. Current maps still don’t have this critical turning marked, although it was built two years previously; but eventually it turned up and a couple of hours into our journey we reached the town of Chiquila on the coast. You can leave your car for a few days in one of the small private car parks around the ferry terminal. Then down the pier to a ticket booth, hop on the ferry and a pleasant half hour voyage later you reach your destination.
The island is delightful. Don’t take my word for it: go and see. There are virtually no cars, transport is by foot, bike or diesel driven “golf buggy” taxis (or hire one yourself) along dirt roads. The young lady taxi driver who took us to our hotel must have thought I was mad to lift my case on to the rack for her – since her superior strength swiftly became clear. We stayed at a great hotel on the edge of town – which only means a couple of hundred metres from the centre, and largely spent our two days there walking along the beach. There are nature reserves in both directions and lots of exotic birds. It is misleading to call a place like this “unspoilt” when there are hotels and restaurants along the beachfront but Holbox is not yet overwhelmed by development and it retains great charm.
If we had had a few more days we would have taken boat excursions such as the trip to swim with whale sharks but anyway we failed to book and missed out. The trip is two hours each way in the hot sun and with a risk that there aren’t any sharks when you get there. Tip take the more expensive trip from the pier that is organised through the hotels because their boat has an awning to provide shade. There are also trips to the island bird sanctuaries but how those are different from just walking along the beach and seeing the birds I do not know.
Two days fled past and we regretted not booking for longer, so much so that on our day of departure we dawdled on the beach for as long as possible, ignoring the weather reports and the gathering clouds. You will be surprised how much rain can fall in the 30 seconds it takes to grab belongings and sprint to shelter. Tip don’t believe them when they say the ferries run in all weathers. Also note that sailing times are irrelevant if roads flood within a minute of the heavens opening.
We reached the ferry eventually – with one guy driving the taxi and another helping to push it through the puddles – and to the mainland and our next destination of Chichen Itza. This ruined (post-classical era) Mayan City is one of the most famous archaeological sites, covering a huge area. It is fascinating to note the difference between the original Mayan city and the much grander but, to my eye, less beautiful areas built during the later domination of incomers, believed to have been Toltecs from the north. Tip if your budget will stretch to it, stay overnight at the Mayaland Hotel. It is magnificent and absolutely next to the ruins, so you can have an early breakfast, walk a couple of hundred yards, and you are almost alone in the ruins long before the coach parties turn up en masse at 11.00 and you still have time for an afternoon swim in the pool.
Talking of swimming leads me to cenotes. That meteor created blast waves that caused underground cracks in the rock throughout the Yucatan. Over time these gave rise firstly to underground rivers and then to underground sink holes which are called cenotes. Often a part of the roof will have fallen in so that there is light and access. They were used by the Maya as reservoirs and sometimes, delightfully, for human sacrifice. Nowadays many are open for the public to visit. There is something rather magical about swimming in these underground pools: the light, the shadows, the cool water, the muted colours. We stopped at Ditznup, a place with two separate cenotes between Chichen Itza and the colonial town of Valladolid. The facilities are basic but clean enough and it is a fun thing to do.
Then on to Tulum…another beach stop, this time south of Cancun. It was recommended to us as another unspoilt place but that is something of an exaggeration. The main town is inland, very touristy and downmarket and I struggle to find anything nice to say about it. The beach area is some miles away and badly signposted. It does have a very nice and very long beach and there is a great nature reserve close by and Mayan ruins and cenotes and it is a good base for trips. On the other hand there is one road along the seafront (so pedestrians share it with cars and trucks) lined with, admittedly, low-rise hotels and restaurants. Many are labelled “eco chic” which tells you all – half the facilities at twice the price. So they build little cabins on the beach which are sweet but likely to have inadequate lighting, no cupboard space, not enough shade on the beach and you risk being kept awake by the sound of the waves, but you do feel a bit hippy. I am being unfair because it does have charm – we found nice restaurants and enchanting views. Tip many restaurants don’t accept credit cards so take cash and stock up at the cash machines.
We spurned the boat trips because the quoted price of $150 per person was outrageous, and drove into the Xian Kaan nature reserve ourselves. People on boat trips seemed to have no shade, which is not my idea of fun in 35 degree heat. We found a couple of lovely places to walk but both were private property that we intruded upon. The dirt road is bad and so it takes a good couple of hours driving to reach the far end at Punta Allen, where there is reputed to be a great fish restaurant. We set out late and did not feel like the drive – but may have missed out…
Going in the opposite direction along the beach you would find the ruins of a very late period Mayan walled town that has little of the splendour of other remains we visited but is beautifully situated and worth a visit. Tip go early before it gets crowded and before it gets really hot and always take your own water on excursions – not because you can’t buy along the way, but just to be sure. There are more spectacular remains at Coba, an hour inland, but we did not get there, nor to the several cenotes in the area. Next time. Brian Finch
Planning a trip? We have lots of maps, guides and literature on the Yucatan region: stanfords.co.uk/Yucatan