by Rita Ireland
We are whisked from the Cancun airport to an all-inclusive resort, greeted with a glass of champagne. Although it is the easiest travel transition we’ve ever had, we stand on our balcony noticing the incessant zumba music and happy sounds of kids at the pools. Ahh —“free” liquor and food all day, 84 degrees, and look at that bright blue Caribbean. Feeling lucky to be here for a wedding, my spouse and I plan to ignore the screaming and splashing while adults consume shots of tequila and log into their laptops. Cordial Mexican servers balance their trays, maneuvering around tourists, treating us all like winners. It is a margarita-infused Disneyland in the Yucatan.
This is the Mexico that some Americans only know – those lovely, coastline resorts. It is natural to go to a safe place, a relaxing place, where warmth and sunshine beckon beach-goers from our wet state like a fly to a summer soda.
“Oh, I like Mexico now. It feels safe to me,” one of our wedding friends summarizes at the end of our Cancun stay. But, this is not authentic Mexico, we want to say.
Lucky for us retirees, we choose to explore a little longer: rent a car and drive inland for less than two hours to the interior of the Yucatan peninsula— the exact opposite of what we had just experienced. Driving straight into the sunset on an empty tollroad, we arrive at our destination, the colonial city of Valladolid. A local, parallel road that we discover upon our return is free, slower and more fascinating. Prepare for “topes” – those swollen bumps across roads that slows traffic. Often children rush to car windows with their wares: oranges, potatoes, drinks— a moving lemonade stand.
I had been to Valladolid before and knew that it would be a good base — a hub to “return home” each afternoon. Ahh, those sweet naps, no re-packing, the same bed. As we age in our travels, we find that staying put for a while not only comforts the mind (a few less things can go wrong), but it lets us sink deeper into the locale and soul of a city.
Valladolid is riveted by a delightful central square. Families and locals relax in Parque Principal, comforted by the sounds of fountains and shade trees. Children weave among baby strollers; vendors sell ice cream and pork sausages. Mayan women wear traditional white blouses with colorful embroidery. Emboldened with pride, their language is making a resurgence. We begin connecting with the locals with our limited Spanish. Rather than repack my straw hat, I give it away to a surprised girl sitting on a park bench.
Surrounding this square are old Spanish-style shopping arcades and a two-spired cathedral built in the 1500’. Our hotel El Meson de Marquez stands proudly on this square since the late 1600s. This institution lingered in my memory when I had previously stayed in the Hostel Candalaria with girlfriends, a funky garden spot with hammocks in the back, and outdoor breakfasts with younger travelers. But my spouse and I were ready for a romantic setting, which offers its own challenges after 43 years. Walking through their open-aired courtyard, palm trees and geckos dot the pool. No screaming, loud music or yelling for another margarita here. Our five nights in the junior suite (including breakfast) has views of the square and the jaw-dropping cathedral, yet it is only $88 a night through Trip Advisor (December 2017 price).
Although Valladolid is a crossroad of highways providing many a day trip, there is much to see and taste within walking distance. Every day is a delight of outdoor restaurants and inexpensive eateries, like the Loncheria El Amigo next to our hotel. Our favorite is the Yerbabuena, with a colorful, artistic atmosphere competing with plates of delicious roasted pork.
One morning we discover a quirky private home of an American couple. They have collected art from villages all over Mexico and turned it into the Casa de los Venados. Our tour guide explains that the home contains 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. Although the couple is not there this day, this tour feels unusual — are we really allowed to walk through their intimate colonial home, bathrooms and all?
Two blocks further is a cenote in a city park. It is a deep natural water hole resulting in the sinking of limestone. Zaci Cenote is open to the public for a pittance. We meander down the trail, through drooping vines and tropical flowers, where local teens are diving. It is easy to imagine brave Mayan warriors jumping in after a battle.
Most travelers to the Yucatan visit the Mayan world heritage sites. Arriving early to Chichen Itza is cooler and less crowded than when 10 a.m. tour buses drop off international tourists. It is a half hour west of Valladolid. The ruins are breath-taking and expansive. Mayans were high achievers in art, math, astronomy, and architecture around 1000 BC to the 1500’s. Their fallen temples seem to await our interpretation of their stories carved in bas relief. Or perhaps it was the mid-day heat and the lack of places to sit and ponder that put us in an odd stupor, while hawkers squawk into pottery pieces, recreating the cry of a jaguar.
More mysterious is the local Mayan ruin, Ek Balam, only 15 minutes north of Valladolid. It is still being unearthed, structures buried underneath wild growth. We enjoy the quiet, the birds, and our Mayan guide. My husband challenges himself to climb the narrow steps to the top to gain perspective, while I sit on a rock and watch him slowly traverse down. More delightful is our bicycle ride on the path through the jungle to a cenote. After changing into swim suits in a shack, we negotiate the steep wooden steps to the bottom to find inner tubes and refreshing water. We join a couple from England to swim with the fishes.
Our final day trip from the hub took us to a sleepy village called Rio Lagartos, a two-hour drive north. We rent a boat at the docks after some negotiating with a local fisherman. But because of low tide, our guide could not get us closer to see the elegant flamingos—the largest population in all of Mexico. Like the Queen of Sheba, I command to be closer, wanting to see their brilliant pink-orange hues shimmer in the sun. Both my husband and guide jump into the lagoon and push our little boat through the sucking mud – to my chagrin. We had better luck ordering ceviche and beers at the river’s edge.
Lagartos may be a sleepy town, but its river is teeming with danger. Soon we were motoring up the channel through eerie swamps — 150,000 acres of this bioreserve — to find crocodiles. No civilization along the shores. Our guide finally slows our little boat in the thick mangroves, pointing out the amazing birds along the way. We see its eyes first. A slow-moving, large crocodile emerges, hearing the slapping of the guide’s fish against the boat. And glide it did, within a foot of our little blue boat.
“Teeth as long as six-inch nails!” my husband gasps. Holding our breath, we try to mirror the boat guide who sits calmly awaiting our signal to return to reality.