The Yucatan

This article is from the August 2001 – September 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
The Yucatán
by Jane Onstott A writer, editor, and translator based in San Diego, California, Jane Onstott has written about Mexico in guide books and magazine articles since 1988. Her new book, National Geographic Traveler Mexico, is due out this fall.

The Yucatán peninsula is one of Mexico’s best vacation destinations: it has sugar-fine beaches, Maya ruins, colonial structures, and an ever-expanding cultural scene. Many visitors make their base in Cancún, sipping margaritas poolside or parasailing above the beach before heading off to snorkel in Cozumel, party with the Europeans in Playa del Carmen, or visit the Maya ruins sprinkled throughout the states of Quintana Roo (pronounced “Row,” NOT “Rue”) or Yucatán.

Merida is the second-most visited city in the region, and as the colonial capital of the state of Yucatán, it has a lot to offer historically and culturally. While I’m not one of Cancun’s boosters, I do love Mérida, and of course the ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum – all exceptional archaeological sites with good museums. But for me Yucatán’s charms lie in the smaller cities: Ticul and Valladolid, Progreso and Chicxulub… towns and villages where locals still outnumber tourists and greet me “Buenos días, se ora” instead of “Hey, lady, how are you?”

The peninsula is almost perfectly flat, and with the exception of the inevitable potholes after the rainy season, it’s easy to drive the Yucatan’s mainly straight, two-lane highways. The new toll road between Merida and Cancún is expensive and therefore almost traffic-free. But I always drive the free roads without a problem. Bus service is also comfortable and ubiquitous, so renting a car (expensive in Mexico, as you’ve no doubt noted) is a luxury and not a necessity.

Validating Valladolid

Situated halfway between Cancún and Merida, Valladolid is a lovely, small city and a good base for visiting the ruins at Chichén Itzá and from the Late Classic site El Balam, excavated in the 1990’s. A longer day or overnight trip takes you to the wildlife reserve at Río Lagartos, famous for its populations of pink flamingos.

Compact and self-sufficient, Valladolid is a typical Yucatán town. It has neither the cultural attractions of Merida, nor the glitzy beach resorts of Cancún. For entertainment, I watch families congregate in the ancient main plaza, where statues of women and dancing frogs form a whimsical fountain. Petite Maya ladies stand in the shade selling embroidered cotton huipiles: the typical, squarish dress of the region. A supply center for surrounding farms and cattle ranches, the laid-back city of 35,000 is lined with family-owned, single-story shops selling the necessities of daily life – machetes and mouse traps, hardware and hammocks.

The Spanish began constructing Valladolid in 1543 from the stones of the conquered Maya city of Zací. Many churches were built to accommodate the early Christian converts, including the church of San Bernardino de Siena and the adjacent Convento de Sisal, a Franciscan monastery. Both were sacked during the War of the Castes, the extremely bloody, 19th -century uprising of the Maya against their Spanish masters. Today the church and former monastery, as well as the facades of surrounding homes, have been restored to their original luster. The short walk from the main square along Calle 41, lined in paving stones and fronted by homes in a palate of pastel hues, makes a pleasant preamble to visiting the church. You can also see the adjacent monastery, with its old-fashioned kitchen and back garden gone mostly to seed.

Sidebar: Sacred Sinkholes

Living in a land devoid of rivers, the lowland Maya worshiped water in all forms. They revered dew, rain, and the sinkholes (cenotes) that formed in the peninsula’s porous limestone shelf. Thousands of these sacred pools dot the region, both above and below ground. On the outskirts of Valladolid, you can swim with the local boys on large, green Cenote Zací. For a more intimate experience, head several miles west of town to Cenote Dzitnup, where a dusky light filters through a chink in the cave’s ceiling to illuminate the mystical subterranean pool.

The North Coast

I understand why vacationers flock to Mexico’s Caribbean coast: I love it myself. Nothing could be finer than wiggling your toes in that sugar white sand, or floating in transparent, aquamarine water under a sky dotted with fluffy cumulus clouds. But the price for these luxuries is high. Along with Cabo San Lucas, Cancún has Mexico’s highest hotel and restaurant prices, and the “Riviera Maya” – the real estate stretching south from Cancún to the Sian Ka’an preserve – is being built up fast. While there’s still lots to discover and admire along the Mexican Caribbean, the Yucatán’s north-facing coast between Progreso and Dzilam del Bravo offers some wild, palm-studded beaches and excellent deals in hotels and restaurants.

My opinion of Progreso, Mérida’s nearest beach town, changes with each visit. Determining factors include my mood, the intensity of the sun, and the presence or absence of wind and blowing sand. The Gulf’s water looks different each time, ranging from a steely, menacing gray to a magnificent aquamarine. Residents and visitors promenade along the seawalk in the morning and late afternoon, when the weather is less sultry, or hide out under the palm leaf structures providing shade along the wide, long beach. Commercial ships dock at the seemingly endless pier. Expanded and improved several times over the years, the facility’s 1999 makeover was meant to lure cruise ships, but most of these still steam by in favor of more exotic ports-of-call at Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.

Despite the uninspired architecture of squat cement and stucco houses (many for rent) and ho-hum hotels, this city of 37,000 is a winter mecca for sun-loving snowbirds. And it’s the traditional refuge for Merida families on hot weekends and school holidays. Just about 30 minutes from Mérida, Progreso has a string of sea-facing eateries serving inexpensive shrimp and conch cocktails and plates of fried fish.

Between Progreso and the small town of Dzilam del Bravo, about 50 miles to the east, are a string of tiny beach towns and a few struggling resorts. My advice is to investigate the former while avoiding the latter, which have poorer facilities and services than their Caribbean counterparts with none of the benefits of large, swank hotel chains.

About four miles east of Progreso, Chicxulub (pronounced Chick-shoe-lub) is a pretty little stretch of beach where fishermen set off in small pangas and wealthy Meridians have weekend and summer homes. In 1998 I discovered Margaritas Ville (tel. 9/944-1434;; email, newly converted from a lovely family home to a charming hotel. English-speaking hosts Margarita and Mauricio have a comfortable, moderately priced beach haven – perfect for Big Chill-type reunions or holistic retreats. The restaurant features greens and salads, fresh seafood, and other healthy foods. Pretty rooms with comfortable beds, screened windows, and private porches or balconies cost US$50 to $80, including meals. (No kids under 16.)

A bit farther east, I found Palula Beach in San Crisanto to be equally charming if more modest. The owners spent years working and raising their family in California before returning to their native Yucatán and building this casual, friendly, and inexpensive beach lodging. The two-lane road continues past salt flats, used since pre-Colombian times, tiny towns, and sandy roads shooting down to palm-lined beaches. This is one place where it’s handy to have a car.

Campeche: Waiting for You

The third state on the peninsula, Campeche, was once part of Yucatán state, and the two populations still engage in a friendly rivalry. Over the past five or six years, Campeche has been preparing for international tourism – improving highways, signing roads and archaeological sites, and generally improving infrastructure. But the few visitors that come are mainly Mexicans.

That’s incredible, because Campeche’s historic downtown is one of the most picturesque places in Mexico. A sizable annual budget is dedicated to the constant renewal of the historical center’s 16th– to 19th-century facades in the original colors. City planners determine which colors may be used and in what pattern. This color palate is deliciously different from that of any other city I’ve seen, and includes rich creamy yellow, dill green, earthy red, and golden ochre. Just strolling around the laid-back city and taking photos is a worthwhile morning or afternoon agenda. Outgoing and friendly but with a touch of reserve, campechanos are happy to direct you to the main square, bordered by the cathedral and other important buildings. I always take a walk on the long, recently refurbished seawalk (malecón) in early morning or late afternoon. There much of the population can be found strolling, conversing, dog-walking, roller-blading, or cuddling with their significant others.

Campeche state has many significant archaeological sites. Deep within a biosphere of the same name, Calakmul is the hardest to reach, but Becán, Xpuhil, and Chicanná are found just off the highway, at the fringes of the 1.5 million acre preserve. Easiest by far to access, however, is Edzná, about a 40 minutes’ drive from Campeche city. On my last visit, fewer than half a dozen visitors wandered the site under the towering ceiba (kapok) trees, worshiped by the Maya as a conduit to heaven, the underworld, and the four corners of the world.

Located on a flood plain about a day’s march from the sea, Edzná was established around 300 BC with the arrival of Chontal Maya from present-day Tabasco state. These seafaring merchants were also known as Itzá, today a common surname in Campeche. Trade and political affairs connected Edzná with kingdoms throughout the Classic Maya world, including Tikal (in today’s Guatemala), Calakmul, and Uxmal. The architectural style of each of these important cities is reflected at Edzná.

In its heyday this ceremonial and commercial city covered 25 square kilometers; today the most important buildings hem several adjacent esplanades. East of the ball court (juego de pelota), the Temple of the Masks is decorated with two fierce faces representing the rising and setting sun at the east and west extremes. The large ear ornaments, ritually scarred cheeks, and (on the right-side mask) crossed eyes were considered signs of beauty and nobility by Maya society.

The site’s most impressive structure, however, is el Templo de los Cinco Pisos (“Five-Story Temple”), on the far side of a stepped acropolis. Rising above a canopy of trees, it is surrounded by smaller temples and a steam room (temascal) where priests purified themselves before ceremonies. The magnificent building served as living quarters for the shamans and contained altars for acts of human sacrifice and self-sacrifice: bleeding of tongue, arms, earlobes, and genitals.

Demonstrating the Maya’s great knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the Five-Story Temple was positioned so that both planting and harvest of maize were ushered in by a sign from above. At both times of year (May 1 to 3 and August 7 to 9), the setting sun entered the topmost temple’s doorway to illuminate the sun god idol within. You can still observe the phenomenon today, although the Kinich Ahau stela has been removed.

My small group and I were exploring the topmost temple when thunder began to boom and lightning bolts began an impressive and unexpected light show. Soon the sweat we’d worked up climbing the hundreds of narrow steps was washed away by a flood of rain. Along with my friends, I crept down the slippery steps as fast as I safely could. Sprinting across the deserted site, we arrived at our bus with muddy feet and hair unattractively plastered to our flushed faces. We were dismayed to imagine arriving in this state for lunch at five-star Hacienda Uayamón (a restored henequen plantation); we could only laugh. The unexpected natural sound and light show was worth any reproach.

Valladolid’s best hotel and restaurant are Hotel Mesón del Marqués (Calle 39 203, tel. 9/856-2073 or 856-3042, fax 9/856-2280, e-mail: If you want cheaper accommodations, a meal on the pretty central patio is still recommended.

In Campeche I recommend Hotel Baluarte (Av. 16 de Septiembre 128 at Ruíz Cortínes, tel. 9/816-3911, fax 9/816-2410) unless you have an objection to ‘50’s architecture. With a restaurant, travel agency, car rental, and parking lot, it is close to the main square and faces the malecón. For an excellent lunch join Campeche professionals at La Pigua (Miguel Alemán 129, tel. 9/811-3365), or have a typical, inexpensive, and lively dinner at the informal eateries of Cenaduría de San Fransisco (near the church of the same name on Calle 10 #86; open daily 6 p.m. to midnight).

Fiestas de Yucatán Mexicans love to party, and the Yucatán’s fiestas and festivals provide plenty of opportunity. While semana santa, or Holy Week (Easter), is a relatively sober and introspective affair, most fiestas combine food, music, and fireworks in lively parties lasting long into the night.

Certainly the most impressive in terms of planning, execution, and overall enjoyment is carnaval. It is vigorously celebrated on Cozumel island (state of Quintana Roo) and in Campeche, capital of the eponymous state. And Mérida’s carnival is growing in stature every year. A bawdy storm of excess and fun preceding the abstemious Lenten season, the week-long party permits no sulking or ill humor. It’s the perfect occasion, therefore, for reciting coplas, verses composed to air in a public and humorous way any faux pas or fiasco committed by elected officials the previous year.

For the most part, however, the politicos just party along with everyone else. Each year a new theme inspires a barrage of outrageous costumes for parades and fancy-dress balls. Pretty girls and cherubic children ride impressive allegorical floats along the main drag by the sea. Companies of school kids and adults work for months ahead on costumes and choreographed dance competitions to be presented on opening day. To many winners, the approval of their peers means as much as the accompanying cash prize.

Both Campeche and Cozumel elect two types of carnival royalty: diminutive queens and kings of the prepubescent set, as well as a pair of the town’s most energetic, ambitious (and, yes, attractive) young men and women. Campeche goes a step further with the coronation of a “TV queen,” a beloved soap opera personality or pop star who lends even greater swank to the year’s event.

Cozumele os, however, spurn the need for outside intervention, no matter how glamorous. “It would never be permitted here, never!” bristles the island’s longtime carnival organizer (and talk show host) Fernando Ferráez. “This would be an intrusion! Impossible!” Indeed, it’s rare that a king and queen of carnival are elected who haven’t participated strenuously over the years. According to Ferráez, “It’s a question of honor, and, of course, of loving to dress up and to dance!”

One carnival tradition that most Campeche residents could live without is the throwing of paint. Anyone foolish or brave enough to leave home on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) can expect to be spritzed, spattered, or bombarded with paint via water pistol, balloon, or 5-gallon bucket. The city government is discouraging this form of entertainment, however – at least downtown, where there’s a serious financial commitment to maintaining the historic center’s 16th– to 19th-century facades.

Less destructive and equally lively is Cozumel’s Feria del Cedral. Celebrated with bullfights, horse races, dances, and carnival rides, the week-long festival has its roots in an act of faith. During the worst of the War of the Castes, wealthy landowner don Casimiro Cárdenas promised God a yearly devotion in exchange for his family’s salvation. They escaped to Cozumel with several other families (and a few indispensable indigenous servants). Today members of the island’s 16 oldest families honor don Casimirio’s promise with el Baile de la Cabeza (“Head Dance”). The dance is especially challenging for the small but conspicuous group of women who carry on their heads the symbolic offering. With utmost dignity (and balance), each woman carries a massive barbecued pig’s head surrounded by brilliant paper banners, bottles of balché (a liqueur of distilled flowers), and small loaves of bread. The porcine platters, fluttering flags, and women of all ages in bright embroidered dresses make quite an impressive sight.

On the Day of All Souls (November 2), offerings are made not to appease God, but to attract the anima of deceased relatives back to earth – at least for the day. Throughout the Yucatán (especially in rural areas), altars are prepared within even the humblest homes. A glass of cool water, burning incense and candles, fragrant flowers, and the beloved’s favorite food and drink: all are meant to entice the soul of the dead with tastes, sights, smells, and simple nostalgia.

Deceased children are considered to be angelitos, or little angels. Therefore, their altars are prepared the evening preceding the Day of All Saints (November 1), and might include garish sugar candy skulls and a favorite toy or doll. Women rise early to prepare special tamales. Baked in an earthen pit, the corn-based treats symbolize communion between the living and the dead. While these cook, families visit the graveyard to clean tombstones and crypts and decorate them with flowers.

Besides those mentioned above, cultural events and saints days are celebrated throughout the peninsula; some have their origins in pre-Hispanic tradition. Here are a few of the most enticing.

Spring and Fall Equinox: Tens of thousands gather at Chichen Itza to garner the beneficent rays of the sun on March 21 and September 21. On El Castillo, the midday sun makes a serpent shadow appear to slither down one side of the pyramid, uniting with a carved Quetzalcoatl head at its base.

Cancún Jazz Festival: Celebrating its first decade in 2001, this affair attracts international jazz musicians and aficionados, and is held at the end of May.

Fiesta de San Román: Ten days of festivities, including fireworks, dances, and a fair, precede a procession of this highly revered Christ statue through the streets of Campeche, Campeche. September 18-28.

Festival de Oto o: Two weeks of cultural events are held in Merida at the end of October and beginning of November, with theater, music, and dance both folkloric and modern.

[sidebar] Although Day of the Dead ceremonies (called Hanal Pixan in Mayan) are basically private, tourist-oriented destinations like Cancún and Mérida prepare public altars and organize related cultural events.

[sidebar] Cozumel’s nearly 4,000 hotel rooms usually achieve 100 percent occupancy during carnival week, and Campeche, with fewer accommodations, becomes saturated as well. Make hotel reservations well in advance.