At Play in the Fields of the Maya

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

At Play in the Fields of the Maya

The condo-free Yucatan is still out there. All you have to do is look for it.
By Jeff Spurrier

The bad news is you're landing in Cancún. The good news is you don't have to stay there. The over-development of Mexico's Caribbean coast, which is spreading like yellow palm blight, diminishes the farther south you head on Highway 307, the main coastal artery of the state of Quintana Roo. Just as the jungle defeated Cortés, the forest and mangroves have preserved the best of the Yucatán. Down long dirt roads are empty white-sand beaches, hook-bending gamefish, and deep, clear jungle pools carved out of limestone. So turn south out of the airport, do not glance in your rearview mirror, and do not stop until you see the waves breaking over the barrier reef or an iguana skittering over the road.

Sian Ka'an Reserve
Comprising 1.3 million acres of tropical forest, mangrove swamp, and savanna about 100 miles south of Cancún, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected wildlife refuge in Quintana Roo. Your best initiation is a day trip with the nonprofit conservation group Amigos de Sian Ka'an ($40 per person, and reservations should be made at least a week in advance; 011-52-988-4-9583). On a three-hour boat tour through wetlands, canals, and lagoons, you might see spider and howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and ocelots. An English-speaking biologist will be your spotter and will undoubtedly point out many of the reserve's 336 species of birds, including toucans, flamingos, white ibis, and the rare jabiru stork.

Stay nearby at Cabañas Ana y José ($50 for a double; 988-0-6022), in the reserve at kilometer seven on the Boca Paila Road. Rooms are spartan but comfortable, with tile floors, electric lights, and private baths (cold water only); the restaurant, in a sand-floor, thatch-roof structure called a palapa, serves decent burgers and seafood. Ask at the front desk for Manuel (yes, just "Manuel"), a local biologist who leads trips down the Boca Paila peninsula, pointing out plants, birds, and the off-limits nesting grounds of the endangered green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtles.

To explore the reserve on your own, rent adequate mountain bikes ($10 a day) at Ana y José and pedal down the Boca Paila Road. It's rutted, uneven, and littered throughout with fallen palm fronds--in other words, perfect for mountain biking. Take a triple ration of water and turn back when you're down to a third of your supply, unless you're determined to make it the 30 miles to Punta Allen, a fishing village at the tip of the peninsula.

If you're up for a splurge, spend a night down the road at the Boca Paila Fishing Lodge (800-245-1950), where $320 a night includes all meals, boats, tackle, and bait. You're guaranteed to hook something--if not bonefish, then barracuda, tarpon, snook, or Cubera snapper.

South of Playa del Carmen you'll see signs along Highway 307 proclaiming Chemuyil "the most beautiful beach in the world." Don't be deceived. The most beautiful beach, in the Yucatán at least, is a quiet little stretch of sand about 55 miles south of Cancún called Xpu-ha. The Mayan name means "Water of Tomorrow," and one hopes that doesn't translate as some developer's future project. Right now the beach is a nearly pristine Tahiti clone; a handful of Mayan families sequestered under the palms offer camping facilities and a few newly built concrete-and-tile rooms that rent for $25 a night.

But the best spot to camp is toward the southern end of Xpu-ha at Bonanza Beach, a small facility with showers, toilets, and basic thatch-roof cabañas with hammocks. To get there, watch for a small sign for Bonanza Beach on Highway 307; if you're driving south, the turnoff is the last dirt road on the left just before the Club Robinson driveway (at the kilometer 94 marker). There's good gamefishing close-in here; local fishermen will take you out for $50 an hour, but bring your own rod and reel.

Walk north from Bonanza along the beach for less than a mile to Punta Xpu-ha; here you'll find the clear waters of deserted Tin-ha Lagoon and Cenote Manatee, named after a colony of the shy weed-eaters that left long ago. The cenote, or limestone sinkhole, is 1,500 feet long and about 20 feet deep, and is fed by a long river that you can float on if you keep plugging inland through the mangroves. For snorkeling closer to your hammock, the reef is just a five-minute swim from the sand.

This 28-by-11-mile island has long been famous for one thing: diving--especially the fabled 3,000-foot wall of Palancar Reef. But don't tell that to Raul de Lille, Mexico's national champion boardsailor who trains and runs a school there. Among the cognoscenti, Cozumel is known for some of the best windsurfing conditions in the Yucatán: steady winds, 80-degree water, a calm bay, and challenging waves along the island's nearly deserted northern tip and windward coast.

De Lille runs a no-name thatch-roof shop on the sand next to the Sol Cabañas del Caribe hotel, near the end of the hotel strip north of town. Hop on one of his rented boards ($10-$20 an hour; lessons, $20 an hour), race away from the beach, and tack north three miles to Punta Norte, where the swells wrap around the island, building for some great wave-hopping around Isla de la Pasión. The best time is November through February, when the norte winds whip up from Belize.

Boardsailors also migrate to Cozumel's windward coast when an offshore breeze is blowing hard, but usually you'll just see surfers, bodyboarders, bodysurfers, and the occasional tourist on a moped.

Surfers hang out at two spots--in front of Mescalito's, a restaurant just south of the east end of the cross-island road, and outside the Naked Iguana bar at Punta Morena, about a mile farther south on the coast road. Look for a pair of ancient cannons found on a Spanish galleon wrecked offshore and a smashed longboard with the word surf scrawled on it. Ask for Natcho at the Naked Iguana if you want to rent surf gear; he has about a dozen boards ($10 a day), of varying quality and length, bodyboards ($5 a day) and fins for rent. The break is a close-in reef where waves reach up to seven feet during a winter storm. Beware of strong currents: There are no lifeguards, no phones, and few spectators, and if you're not careful you could wind up in Cuba.

When you're not on the water, Sol Cabañas del Caribe ($90 for a double; 800-336-3542) is a good place to recharge; it's an air-conditioned multistory hotel in a garden setting with an open-air lobby, 39 rooms with balconies, nine beachside cabañas, and a pool overlooking the bay.

The Cobá Road
Some of the best scuba diving in the Yucatán takes place miles inland, along a safety trail of fishing line played out through a maze of underground limestone caverns and caves. But for those untrained in the risky business of cave and cavern diving, simply snorkeling in the handful of cenotes along the road between Tulum and Cobá will give you something of the feeling without the danger. While you won't get the all-out experience of swimming through narrow limestone tunnels and giant rooms, you can catch shadowy glimpses of passageways and stalactites by poking around the cave openings at the edges of the cenotes. In the caves above water, you'll also see bats hanging from the ceilings. Cenote Calavera (on the right, heading from Tulum to Cobá, at kilometer two) is shaded by a thick canopy of jungle off a path about 50 yards in from the road and has a rope swing and a ladder for easy ascending. Up the road at kilometer five is better-known Gran Cenote ($2 entrance fee), with a natural bridge between large openings. And farther up, at kilometer eight, is Car Wash Cenote, so named because locals used to wash their trucks and buses here.

Cave and cavern diving are specialized forms of scuba that require different skills than open-water diving. You have to know what to do if your light fails or you become disoriented when a flipper kicks up silt. In some places where the ceiling is low, simply the bubbles from your tanks can dislodge pieces of cave as big as a VW. At Cenote Calavera there's a large sign, about 300 feet into the cave, with a picture of the grim reaper standing over the form of a dead diver and the warning to go back if you're not cave-certified.

Experienced divers can get certified by taking a series of four courses (about $250 each) over 12 days. For more information, call the Akumal Dive Shop at 800-448-7137.

Costa de Cocos, Xcalak
The dirt road to Xcalak, at the tip of the peninsula that borders Belize, is so godawful bad you'll surely wonder if it's worth the trip. Thirty miles in three hours from the coastal town of Majahual is a laborious undertaking, even with the chance of spotting jaguars, pumas, and wild boars in the bush.

But once you've arrived at Costa de Cocos, a cluster of octagonal bungalows hidden in a coconut grove a half-mile north of the village of Xcalak, you'll thank that road for keeping out the hordes. It's usually only serious divers who bother, attracted by the virgin diving at Chinchorro Banks, a large atoll some 20 miles offshore. But there's much more: excellent fishing--for bonefish, yellowtail, and giant tuna--just about anywhere you throw a hook; a small island in Chetumal Bay where roseate spoonbills and great blue herons nest; some of the best reef snorkeling to be found anywhere in Mexico; and the gorgeous setting of Costa de Cocos in the middle of a five-acre stretch of cleared sandy beach.

To explore the surroundings, you can rent diving gear, sea kayaks, and sailboards. Dive trips to Chinchorro cost $85 per person for a group of six. Ask owner David Randall about fishing and excursions to the bird island. Tile floors, platform beds with mosquito netting, and private baths make the wood-and-stone bungalows comfortable places to unwind. Meals--with a predominance of fresh fish and fruit--are served in the adjacent lodge. Rates are $44 per person based on double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner. For reservations call 800-538-6802.

If you bring a rented car to KaiLuum, a laid-back tent village on a virgin stretch of coast 33 miles south of Cancún, chances are you'll just let it sit in the parking area. This is a place of bare feet and rounded edges, where the sand every morning is etched with the trails of hermit crabs and motorized vehicles have no place. Some 40 walk-in tents have canvas floors, windows on each side, platform beds, thatch roofs, and two hammocks strung out front. Electricity and private baths are worth sacrificing for candlelight, ocean breezes rustling through the palms, and the aroma of hot chocolate from the open-air restaurant.

Most guests simply amble from hammock to beach to bar to hammock in a blissful alpha-wave state. But self-starters who need a break from Slacker Paradiso can take a 15-minute swim out to the reef to mingle with parrot fish, small yellowtail, and the occasional stingray. Dive instructor Felipe Fuentes can ferry scuba divers to a wall that plunges 3,000 feet (nearby Buccaneer's Landing rents good snorkeling and scuba gear, as well as a few sailboards). A healthy hour's walk along the desolate KaiLuum beach ends at a mangrove-bordered freshwater lagoon that spills out into the ocean. Skinny-dip anywhere along the way and the only witnesses will be pelicans weaving over the shore break, scouting for sardines.

If you must start up that car, head north 25 minutes to Puerto Morelos, an authentic and largely overlooked fishing port. To learn more about Mayan culture as well as jungle flora and fauna, take a daylong tour to a village deep in the bush with longtime Puerto Morelos resident Sandra Dayton ($25 per person; 987-1-0117). Closer to KaiLuum on Highway 307 is the Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden, well laid-out with three miles of jungle trails and spider monkeys running through the trees.

Back at KaiLuum, you can throw back a Bohemia at the honor-system bar while gazing at the lights of Cozumel across the water; dinner might be shrimp cooked over an open fire in the sand. The daily rate of $44-$55 per person, based on double occupancy, includes breakfast and dinner; for reservations call 800-538-6802. Pick-up from the Cancún airport costs an additional $25 per person. If you're driving, take the La Posada del Capitán Lafitte turnoff on Highway 307.

From the top of Nohoch Mul, at 140 feet the highest pyramid in the Northern Yucatán, the jungle around Cobá is a sea of nearly unbroken green. All around you are mounds almost as high, covered in vines, thick undergrowth, and trees--the 80 percent of Cobá's buildings that have yet to be excavated. Only in a few places do you glimpse the fallen-in tops of other ruins poking up through the trees--which is clearly the reason this historically significant site is far less visited than more easily appreciated ruins like Chichén Itzá.

But in such surroundings it's possible to imagine the awe of the first archaeologist-explorers who stumbled on these ruins in the 1890's after hearing rumors of a lost city in the jungle. Archaeologists are still puzzling over Cobá's unsolved mysteries: the role of the sacbes, the 30-foot-wide razor-straight limestone roads (one nearly 60 miles long) that the Maya built for some reason other than trade; the architectural link to Tikal, 250 miles away, rather than to the numerous closer ruins; and the reason the site was abandoned.

Getting to the top of Nohoch Mul won't provide any answers, but it will provide a context. It means scrambling up the steep square limestone blocks, angling back and forth until you get above treeline, where the breeze begins and you can absorb the immensity of Cobá. To avoid mosquitoes and the harsh noonday sun, the best time to visit is early morning. But to rush through is to miss the point: Walk the countless jungle trails, or get lost until you eventually come upon one of the sacbes that lead to other sites, such as the enormous Temple of the Churches, which has a stunning view of Nohuch Mul.

The best nearby lodging is the Club Med-owned Villa Arquelogica Cobá ($70 for a double; 800-258-2633), a quarter-mile from the entrance. Stop in at the gift shop for maps and guidebooks to the ruins. For Yucatecan pork and fish, head next door to Nichte-ha, an open-air restaurant where the food and the prices are both better.

The ruins at Tulum, in a spectacular clifftop setting high above jade and turquoise waters, lure tourists by the busload from Akumal and points north. But that's as far as they venture, which is undoubtedly why the wide stretch of beach less than a mile south along the Boca Paila Road has become a major pilgrimage site on the Yucatán's Hippie Trail.

This secluded section of coast, starting at Cabañas Santa Fe and running south for a few miles, has become a clothing-optional zone, with the most common beachwear limited to earrings, nose rings, and little Guatemalan ankle bracelets. Reggae churns out steadily from the speakers at the large open-air restaurant, and on full-moon nights the pagans come out of the closet and everyone gathers on the beach for bonfires and all-night drumming.

During the day Tulum's only dive instructor, Fernando Davila, runs the Santa Fe Dive Shop (988-4-2876), which rents basic snorkeling and scuba equipment at very reasonable rates. The best snorkeling is directly in front of the shop. Swim out 600 yards to the reef, where you'll find groupers, spotted rays, and moray eels, or sign up for a dive trip to the outer edge of the reef ($55 for a two-tank dive). Four-day certification courses cost $150. Davila can also set up fishing for mahimahi and tuna ($50 an hour).

Cabañas Santa Fe (no phone) offers several choices: camping ($2 per person per night), hammock-cabañas ($8 per night), and cabañas with actual beds ($10 per night). A mile or so south on the Boca Paila Road you'll find Que Fresco, where you can stay in one of several thatch cabañas with beds and tile floors ($25-$30 per night) or camp (about $3.30); either way, the trip is worth it simply for the food. Settle in on the covered porch, where you can watch frigate birds spiraling over the rocky point a hundred feet away while awaiting fresh snapper accented with one of chef Carlos Zendegas's garlic-and-oil sauces. After lunch, play horseshoes or volleyball, or swim in four nearby cenotes (Carlos's wife, Sally, will draw you a map).

There's a good reason the dive masters on Cozumel recommend Akumal as the Yucatán's second-best spot (after Cozumel, naturally): the barrier reef here is relatively close to shore, just a few hundred yards out, and there's not as much current as in Cozumel's waters, which makes diving safer and conditions much better for underwater photography. Added bonuses on the reef are an abundance of sea turtles (Akumal means "Place of the Turtles"), nurse and tiger sharks, and coral canyons full of staghorn, lumpy brain coral, and purple-pink sea fans. The coral is healthier than at many places on Cozumel, probably because it has seen far fewer visitors.

Snorkelers can swim out and amuse themselves along the near edge of the reef, but scuba divers will enjoy Akumal most. Nearly 30 charted dive spots have been labeled so far in the ongoing mapping of the area, with Tzimin-ha Reef, Gonzalo's Reef, and Dick's Reef among the best for variety. The excellently outfitted Akumal Dive Shop on the beach (987-4-1259 or 800-448-7137) offers an array of dive trips, rental gear, and instruction.

If you're all used up and have nowhere to go but the surface, you can rent sailboards and sea kayaks from Windsurfing Akumal, next to the dive shop. Windsurfing is good once you head south beyond the reef, but be advised that there is a strong northern current outside the bay, so you might have to do some serious tacking to get back in. Kayaking is enjoyable in the bay for beginners, beyond the reef in either direction for more experienced paddlers.

For a break from the ocean there's Yalku, a Disneyesque lagoon hidden down a roped-off, guarded road in the middle of a condoized gringo ghetto. Shallow and immaculate, it's the only place you're likely to be mugged by schools of demanding fish used to receiving handouts from visitors. In recent years Akumal has blossomed as a family-friendly place, giving it a PG rating that contrasts sharply with the party-on atmosphere of Cozumel. Villas Maya (800-351-1622), a small beachfront hotel with a pool, offers a range of accommodations, from air-conditioned rooms and beach bungalows with private baths ($54 for a double) to roomy two-bedroom, two-bath condos on Half Moon Bay ($76 for four people), a half-mile north of Akumal.

Tankah Cenote
A natural beachside pool 20 minutes south of Akumal, Tankah Cenote is right on the cusp of becoming a lagoon. Just give it another 10,000 years. Right now it's more a large pond at the edge of the mangroves, separated from the ocean by a stretch of sand a few hundred yards wide. The water is deep and clear and cooler than the ocean, which is why you'll find locals taking brisk wake-up dips in the morning.

You won't see any signs on 307 advertising the beach at Tankah, however. The handful of private homes there are all American-owned, making this a quiet, pseudo-private expanse of empty sand that's perfect for long walks, protected shallow snorkeling, and easy kayaking. To get there, head south from Akumal on Highway 307; around kilometer 126, look for signs advertising Casa Cenote, an open-air waterside restaurant where you can load up on Texas-style ribs and beans. Sea kayaks are available ($5 an hour) from Casa Cenote for trips out to the reef.

About a half-mile south of the cenote you'll find Casa de las Palmas, a three-room B&B in a modern, one-story stucco home with ceiling fans, colorful tiles, and comfortable beds. It's a bit of a bubble existence--somewhat like being a guest in a wealthy relative's seaside retreat--but good for de-stressing.

Doubles cost $90-$150, including breakfast; to make reservations call Oxford Travel at 800-245-7264.

Jeff Spurrier, a writer based in Los Angeles, lives part of the year in Mexico.

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