Wed, Mar 16, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Mexico and off the beaten track

The white-sand beaches of Mexico are fantastic, but inland has its own pleasures too

By Kerry Cavanaugh  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico in San Felipe, a tiny town that is one of the out-of-the-way rewards awaiting travelers who explore the remote reaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, far from the resorts of Cancun.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

We were speeding along a two-lane highway that cut straight through an endless expanse of dense, green jungle when my husband hit the brakes. Hard.

Tires screeching and smoking, our rental car hit a mound of asphalt and landed with a spine-jarring thud. Ahh, topes. You can't drive around Mexico, or in our case, the Yucatan, without being caught off guard by the Mexican speed bump at least once.

Topes marked the entrance of even the tiniest villages, warning us to slow down as we headed into their community. Our squealing tires pierced the quiet Yucatan afternoon, and an old woman poked her head out the front door of her hut. But her scolding scowl turned into a smile upon seeing a pair of hapless tourists recovering from tope shock. Embarrassed, we waved and continued along on our Yucatan road trip.

After five days of luxury in the beach town of Playa del Carmen -- enjoying morning swims and cold cervezas delivered to our cabana chairs -- my husband and I decided to venture inland to see the Yucatan's small villages and colonial towns. Like most tourists, we spent most of our time at the resorts lining the coastline from Cancun south to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. The white-sand beaches were fantastic, with warm water, gentle waves and coral reefs rich with tropical fish.

But inland holds its own pleasures, and it made the perfect road trip.

The region is rich in archeological treasures, environmental wonders and picturesque small towns. The sites were close enough for easy driving, but too far apart to make buses a convenient option.

Before leaving home, we heard the horror stories of roadside bandits and policia who solicit bribes from tourists, but we encountered no problems whatsoever. Locals were kind and helpful, especially when we stopped to ask for directions. The roads were well-signed, drivers were usually polite, and highways were excellent -- just watch out for the topes.

Before leaving California, I booked a four-door Dodge Neon at a reasonable price through a major American rental car company. But pay attention: Car insurance wasn't included in my online reservation total, and full coverage ended up costing about US$25 a day. It's a good idea to check with your car insurance company before leaving home, because some policies include rental car coverage.

From the coast, we followed a two-lane highway into the center of the Yucatan and were soon surrounded by thick jungle crammed with skinny trees no taller than 20m. Our green view was broken every 20km or so by villages too small to be mentioned on our maps.

In the villages, we caught a glimpse of modern-day Mayan living. Many families still live in palapas [traditional thatched huts], grow food in backyard gardens and swing to sleep at night in hammocks. But we saw several palapas with television sets, and most villages had a tiny convenience store selling soda and ice cream.

Some Mayan families were ready to cash in on the tourist trade with tables of carved masks and figurines for sale in front of their palapas. In a few villages, children waited alongside the topes, hoping to sell us bottled water and fresh-cut fruit as we slowed down.

We shared the highway with bicyclists, who often pedaled along with a woman or child standing on the frame above the back wheels. In larger villages, the highway cruised along the central square, usually quiet in the midday heat with a government office that always looked closed and a basketball court that always seemed to be empty.

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