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HOW TO USE THIS ROUGH GUIDES SNAPSHOT

This Rough Guides Snapshot is one of a new generation of informative and easy-to-use travel-guide ebooks that guarantees you make the most of your visit. An essential tool for pre-trip planning, it also makes a great travel companion when you’re on the road.

Introduction to the Yucatán is a good place to start, with an overview of the area’s big attractions and a list of highlights. From the table of contents, you can click straight to the main sections of the guide, which includes features on all the major sights. You’ll find practical information on the country as a whole, including details on flights, in Mexico Basics. Shorter contents lists appear at the start of every section in the guide to make chapter navigation quick and easy. You can jump back to these by tapping the links that sit with an arrow icon.

Detailed area maps can be found in the guide and in the dedicated map section, which also includes a full country map, accessible from the table of contents. Depending on your hardware, you can double-tap on the maps to see larger-scale versions, or select different scales. There are also thumbnails below more detailed maps – in these cases, you can opt to “zoom left/top” or “zoom right/bottom” or view the full map. The screen-lock function on your device is recommended when viewing enlarged maps. Make sure you have the latest software updates, too.

Throughout the guide, we’ve flagged up our favourite places - a perfectly sited hotel, an atmospheric café, a special restaurant - with Author pick. You can select your own favourites and create a personalized itinerary by bookmarking the sights, venues and activities that are of interest, giving you the quickest possible access to everything you’ll need for your time away.

RG

INTRODUCTION TO THE YUCATÁN

Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán Peninsula – the states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – had more contact with Europe, Cuba and the US than with central Mexico. Today, the region remains distinct, with traditional Maya life alongside massive tourist attractions such as the great ruins of Chichén Itzá and the super-resort of Cancún. Once the province of Maya rebels and palm-plantation owners, the Caribbean coast is now the so-called Riviera Maya, which includes the towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from these big centres, especially in the south, where settlements are sparsely scattered in dense forest, there’s still a distinct pioneering feel.

In northern Yucatán state, the landscape is relatively spare: shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees, and underground springs known as cenotes are the only source of water. Campeche state, by contrast, boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The entire coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingos at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán. Along the Caribbean coast, magnificent offshore coral growth forms part of the world’s second-largest barrier reef.

  There’s really only one main route around the Yucatán Peninsula; the variation comes in where you break the journey or make side trips. Whether you come from Palenque or along the coast from Villahermosa, you’ll find yourself on Hwy-180, which heads up to Campeche then veers away from the Gulf Coast towards Mérida and east to Valladolid and the Caribbean coast. Near Mérida are both the excellent craft town of Izamal and the Ruta Puuc, which includes major Maya sites such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, as well as a trove of smaller, less-visited ruins. Past these, you can push on to the Caribbean beaches.

  The stretch of coast between Cancún and Tulum, known as the Riviera Maya and including Playa del Carmen and Isla Cozumel, is one of Mexico’s most heavily touristed areas. South of Tulum, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, encompassing mangroves thick with birdlife and coral reefs offshore, briefly slows the march of progress. The coast south of the biosphere – dubbed the Costa Maya – is on its own development trajectory, but it’s still your best bet for hammock camping. The vast, beautiful Laguna de Bacalar is a crystal-clear lake that’s rich in wildlife and an affordable alternative to the beaches. Chetumal, the state capital and a duty-free border town, is chiefly important as a gateway to and from Belize.

  The road across the south of the peninsula is much less travelled. It passes through jungle territory dotted with ruins, collectively known as the Río Bec sites. The star is the enormous site of Calakmul, deep in the forest reserve near the Guatemalan border. From the top of its main pyramid, the tallest in the Maya world, the forest stretches to the horizon like a green sea.

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CYCLIST IN CAMPECHE

Highlights

1 Campeche This lovely walled city with narrow streets, pastel-coloured houses and public artworks is kept immaculate by its proud citizens.

2 Mérida Although the “White City” is the largest on the peninsula – alive with music and Sunday markets – it retains a tranquil charm.

3 Ruta Puuc See the distinctive sculpture at the Maya sites in this area (the largest is Uxmal), and stay in one of the quiet towns nearby.

4 Izamal The best place in the Yucatán to buy craftwork and meet artisans, this little town east of Mérida is also studded with ruined pyramids.

5 Chichén Itzá Visit the best-known of the Maya sites, with its vertiginous temple, Chac-mool figures and dramatic, snail-shaped observatory.

6 Cozumel The reefs around this island, just off the coast from Playa del Carmen, are some of the best places in the world for snorkelling and scuba diving.

7 Tulum The longest, finest white-sand beach on the Caribbean coast, with turquoise water and candlelit cabañas near ancient ruins, as well as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve just to the south.

Brief history

The Yucatán Peninsula is the longest continuously settled part of Mexico, with evidence of Maya inhabitants as early as 2500 BC. The Maya were at their cultural peak during the Classic period (300–900 AD), during which time they used solar, lunar and astral cycles to develop their complex and highly accurate calendar; they also had an elaborate mathematical and hieroglyphic system. Five hundred years before the Renaissance, moreover, the Maya had developed a sophisticated perspective in art. In the early ninth century AD, southern lowland cities (Tikal, in Guatemala, and Calakmul, among others) were abandoned, and northern cities such as Chichén Itzá grew. These in turn collapsed around 1200 AD, to be succeeded by Mayapán and a confederacy of other cities that probably included Tulum and Cozumel.

After the Conquest

By the time the Spanish arrived, the Maya had splintered into tribalism – although still with cities and long-distance sea trade that awed the conquistadors. The Yucatán Peninsula proved the hardest area of the country to pacify, with the Maya resisting slavery and debt peonage through constant armed rebellion. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the Caste Wars, when the Maya briefly gained control of the entire peninsula. The guerrilla fighters were eventually pushed back into the wilds of southern Quintana Roo, and held out until the early twentieth century, ending their struggle with conciliation from the Mexican government. It was one of the most successful fights against colonialism in the New World.

The Yucatán today

Today, the Maya still live in the Yucatán, in many cases remarkably true to their old traditions and lifestyle. The culture and language remain a strong source of pride that sets this area apart from central Mexico.

  On February 1, 2015, the state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancún, changed time zones, swapping Central Standard Time for Eastern Standard Time. The aim was to boost tourism by creating longer, lighter evenings.

For details on getting to the Yucatán and travelling across the rest of Mexico, as well as information on entry requirements and currency, plus public holidays, festivals and outdoor activities, turn to the Mexico Basics section.

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CAMPECHE AND AROUND

Capital of the state that bears its name, beautiful Campeche is one of Mexico’s finest colonial cities, but draws reasonably few tourists. At its heart, relatively intact, lies a historic port town still surrounded by hefty defensive walls and fortresses; within them, interspersed with the occasional grand Baroque church, are elegant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses painted in pastel shades and neatly restored. Nonetheless, the place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, doesn’t feel like an outdoor museum, with appliance stores and internet cafés occupying many of the shopfronts. Around the old centre are the trappings of a modern city that is once again becoming wealthy, while the seafront, built on reclaimed land, provides a thoroughly modern vista. Though the city is far less lively than Mérida, its immaculately preserved and tranquil streets compare favourably, and campechanos live up to their reputation as some of the most gracious people in Mexico.

  Beyond the archeological museum in the Fuerte de San Miguel – a “must-see” – and the market, which lies just outside the wall by the Puerta de Tierra, you don’t really need to venture into the modern city. Instead, one of the greatest pleasures to be had in Campeche comes from simply wandering around the old town in the early evening and on Sundays, when the central Plaza de la Independencia (which locals call the parque principal, or just parque) is closed to cars for a mellow party.

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Brief history

In 1517, a crew of Spanish explorers under Francisco Hernández landed outside the Maya town of Ah Kin Pech, only to beat a hasty retreat on seeing the forces lined up to greet them. Not until 1540 did second-generation conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger found the modern town. Until the nineteenth century, Campeche was the peninsula’s chief port, exporting mainly logwood (source of a red dye known as hematein) from local forests. It was an irresistible target for pirates until locals prevailed upon the Spanish authorities to fortify the city: construction of the walls, with eight massive bulwarks (baluartes), began in 1686 after a particularly brutal massacre. Although large sections of the walls have been replaced by a ring road, two major sections survive, along with seven of the eight baluartes.

La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción

Plaza de la Independencia • Daily 6.45am–8pm • Museum 11am–5pm • Free, but M donation expected

The city’s most central landmark is La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, on the north side of the plaza. Founded in 1540, it’s one of the oldest churches on the peninsula. The bulk of the construction, though, took place much later, and what you see now is a wedding-cake Baroque structure. Look in the adjacent museum (accessed via the cathedral) for a seventeenth-century statue of Christ, interred in a dark wood and silver catafalque, among other relics.

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Centro Cultural Casa Seis

Plaza de la Independencia • Mon–Fri 8am–9pm, Sat & Sun 9am–9pm • M • tel_icon981 816 1782

On the southwest side of the plaza, this cultural centre and small museum has an elegant permanent display of Baroque interiors. It also hosts art shows and performances, including musical serenatas most Thursdays. There’s also a souvenir shop.

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Museo de la Arquitectura Maya

Plaza de la Independencia • Tues–Sun 9.30am–5.30pm • M

On the seaward side of the plaza, the Baluarte de la Soledad, just south of the public library, houses a collection of columns, steles and other stone details helpfully arranged by regional style – Chenes, Puuc and more. Many of the carved stone pieces are accompanied by a sketch outline of the decoration – this helps train your eye to see the details. You can also climb up onto the top of the city walls.

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El Palacio Centro Cultural

Plaza de la Independencia • Tues–Sun 10am–7pm • Free • tel_icon981 816 7741

Opened in 2014, El Palacio Centro Cultural is one for history buffs. This modern museum charts the history of the city through multimedia displays and wide-ranging exhibits, from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costumes to replica Spanish galleons. Mostly in Spanish, but with some displays in English.

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Baluarte de San Carlos

C 8 at C 65 • Museo de la Ciudad daily 8am–8pm • M

From the plaza, heading southwest along the line of the wall brings you to this bulwark with cannons on the battlemented roof and, underneath, the beginnings of a network of ancient tunnels that runs under much of the town. Sealed off now, the tunnels provided refuge for the populace during pirate raids, and before that were probably used by the Maya. The baluarte houses Campeche’s Museo de la Ciudad, a tiny but rather lovely collection of local memorabilia that includes models of ships, with Spanish commentary.

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Puerta de Tierra

C 18 at C 59 • Ramparts and museum Mon–Wed 8am–9pm, Thurs & Fri 8am–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–5pm • M • Sound-and-light show Thurs–Sat 8pm (1hr) • M

The second remaining chunk of city wall is on the landward side, hence the name Puerta de Tierra. It hosts a surprisingly dynamic and enjoyable sound-and-light show three times a week, starting from the Puerta de Tierra and walking along the wall in the company of the “soldiers” guarding it.

  Just north along the wall, at the Baluarte de San Francisco, you can climb the ramparts and walk along the top of the walls and look over the old town on the one side and the newer, less preserved city on the other, typified by the market and the Alameda Francisco de Paula Toro, the Havana-inspired promenade next to it. Downstairs in the bulwark is a piracy museum, though it has very few physical objects, save some blunderbusses, cutlasses and crossbows: it’s probably appealing for pirate obsessives only.

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Fuerte de San Miguel and the Museo Arqueológico

Av Escénica, 4km south of the centre • Tues–Sun 9.30am–5.30pm • M • Take a taxi (around M) or city bus marked “Lerma” or “Playa Bonita” along the coast road), though once you get off you’ll still have a stiff climb uphill to reach the fort

On a steep hill on the southwest side of town, about 4km from the centre, the Fuerte de San Miguel houses Campeche’s impressive archeological museum. Plaques are in Spanish only, but the beautiful relics from all over the peninsula speak for themselves. Maya artefacts from Edzná and Jaina make up much of the collection; highlights include delicate Jaina figurines, fine sculpture and pre-Hispanic gold. But the best part is the treasure from the tombs at Calakmul, including the first mummified body to be found in Mesoamerica, unearthed in 1995. The jade death masks are mesmerizing. Enjoy the view over the ramparts, too.

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Fuerte de San José

C 5 at Francisco Morazán, 3.5km north of the centre • Tues–Sun 9.30am–5.30pm • M • Take a taxi (around M) or buses marked “Morelos” or “Bellavista”, starting from in front of the market

On the north side of the city, directly uphill from the paradores de cockteleros, the Fuerte de San José faces down a giant statue of Benito Juárez on the neighbouring hill. Its museum contains armaments, scale models of the city and ships and sundry items salvaged from shipwrecks, such as centuries-old Dutch gin bottles (signage is in Spanish only). Although this museum is not as compelling as the other fort’s, the view north to the green swathe of protected marshland is striking.

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ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: CAMPECHE

BY PLANE

The airport (tel_icon981 816 6656) is about 10km southeast of town; a taxi to the centre costs around M0. There are a few daily flights (2hr) to Mexico City on Aeroméxico (web_iconaeromexico.com) and Interjet (web_iconinterjet.com.mx).

BY BUS

Campeche has two main bus stations, one each for first- and second-class services, as well as a separate terminus for local and rural buses. The Edzná Tours travel agency on Circuito Colonias at C 8 doubles as a TicketBus office, to spare you a trek out to the first-class station.

ADO station The first-class station, called “El ADO”, has ADO, OCC and some ATS services. It’s about 2km from the centre on Av Central. Taxis line up outside (around M–50 to the centre), as do buses and colectivos (look for “Mercado” or “Centro”). To get back, look for “Av Central or “ADO” buses.

Destinations Cancún (6 daily; 6hr 40min–7hr 5min); Chetumal (1 daily at 2pm; 6hr 25min) via Xpujil (4hr 30min); Ciudad del Carmen (roughly hourly; 2hr 55min–3hr 40min); Francisco Escárcega (8 daily; 1hr 40min–2hr 10min); Mérida (roughly every 30min; 2hr 30min); Mérida airport (5 daily; 2hr 20min); Playa del Carmen (1 daily at 11.30pm; 8hr 35min); Veracruz (2 daily at 8.10pm & 10.20pm; 11hr 25min–12hr 55min); Villahermosa (every 1–2 hours; 5hr 55min–7hr 10min).

Second-class station The second-class terminal, with Sur and some ATS buses, is 600m northeast of the centre on Gobernadores, serving towns on Hwy-180. Walk west on Gobernadores or cross the street and take a city bus marked “Centro” or “Mercado”. All head to the market, just outside the city wall on the landward side. To get back, look for “Universidad” or “Terminal Sur” buses.

Destinations Hecelchakán (every 15–30min; 45min); Francisco Escárcega (hourly; 1hr 30min); Hopelchén (18 daily; 1hr); Iturbide (9 daily, 7.45am–5.35pm; 1hr 15min); Uxmal and Santa Elena (5 daily; 2hr).

Sur Terminal A small ticket office on Av República handles Sur buses going along the coast to the south (Champotón, Seybaplaya, etc). Independent local buses stop out front, for various surrounding villages. Buses to Pich, the town nearest to Edzná, leave from here until 11.30am.

BY COLECTIVO

Colectivos for towns north and east depart from Gobernadores near the second-class station – you’ll pass the marked stops where taxis wait to fill up.

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GETTING AROUND

By taxi Within the city, taxis are inexpensive (generally M–40) but not always plentiful. Look for them at taxi stands around the centre or call tel_icon981 816 2363, tel_icon981 816 2359 or tel_icon981 816 2355.

Bike rental Buena Ventura (tel_icon981 811 9191 ext 405), on 16 de Septiembre in the Best Western Del Mar car park, rents cruisers with baskets (M/hr) and leads tours around town.

Car rental Europcar, at the airport (tel_icon981 823 4083, web_iconeuropcar.com).

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

State tourist office Plaza Moch Couoh on 16 de Septiembre opposite the Palacio Legislativo (daily 8am–4pm & 6–9pm; tel_icon981 127 3300 or tel_icon1 800 900 2267, web_iconcampeche.travel). Helpful, and there’s usually someone who speaks English. It has a list of guides (speaking various languages) who lead tours of the city and archeological zones, though you might be expected to provide transport; try to make reservations a day ahead.

Campeche Tours 16 de Septiembre, in Hotel Baluartes tel_icon981 105 5747 or tel_icon981 133 2135, web_iconcampechetours.com. This agency runs a range of trips, including kayaking and fishing excursions.

City tourist office On the plaza, opposite the cathedral (daily 8am–8pm; tel_icon981 816 1782). More convenient but less equipped than the state tourist office. Smaller information booths are at the bus stations, in the Baluarte de San Pedro and in the Casa Seis.

City tours For a concise overview of the city try the tranvía tour, with commentary in Spanish and English, which departs from the main plaza (hourly 9am–1pm & 5–9pm; M0), taking a pleasant tour around neighbourhoods beyond the walls.

KankabiOK Tours C 59 no. 3-A, between C 8 and C 10 tel_icon981 811 2792, web_iconkankabiok.com. Small agency running excursions to Edzná and Calakmul, as well as nearby cenotes and beaches.

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ACCOMMODATION

Campeche’s hotels are only just beginning to match tourist demand – there is an increasing number to choose from, and a couple of them are outstanding. The few decent budget options are within a few blocks of the Plaza Principal; some top-end choices are just outside the old city walls. In any case, avoid rooms overlooking the street, as Campeche’s narrow lanes tend to amplify noise.

Castelmar C 61 no. 2-A, between C 8 and C 10 tel_icon981 811 1204, web_iconcastelmarhotel.com. Based in a former army barracks that dates back to 1800, this charming, colonial-style place has old floor tiles, a large courtyard and soaring ceilings. Modern touches include a small pool, a/c and satellite TV. US (M60)

Hotel Socaire C 55 no. 22, between C 12 and C 14 tel_icon981 811 2130, web_iconhotelsocaire.com.mx. A justifiably popular mid-range hotel with a handful of classy rooms – each with a/c, TVs, high ceilings and nice colonial touches – as well as a lovely pool and a coffee shop. It’s very good value, considering the quality. M50

López C 12 no. 189, between C 61 and C 63 tel_icon981 816 3344, web_iconhotellopezcampeche.com.mx. A nicely renovated hotel catering mainly to Mexican business travellers (hence the free newspaper in the morning); modern a/c rooms are in a pretty Deco-era building with open halls (though the bathrooms can be a bit musty). There’s a small pool. M0

Maya Campeche C 57 no. 40, between C 14 and C 16 tel_icon981 816 8053, web_iconmayacampechehotel.com. This small place just up from the plaza has fifteen fairly spacious rooms. Two floors open onto a slender courtyard, with a narrow shaded walkway above. All rooms have a/c, and regular promos can bring prices down by as much as M0. M0

author_pickPuerta Campeche C 59 no. 61, between C 16 and C 18 tel_icon981 816 7508, web_iconstarwoodhotels.com. Located just inside the Puerta de Tierra, Campeche’s finest hotel occupies the shell of a colonial home and warehouse. The pool winds through crumbling walls and is overlooked by a breezy terrace, a great spot for an evening drink. US6 (M05)

Regis C 12 no. 148, between C 55 and C 57 tel_icon981 816 3175. The Hotel Regis is a solid, if unremarkable, choice with very large rooms, all with a/c, arranged around a small patio; avoid the ones close to the neighbouring bar. M0

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EATING

Campeche is well known for good food, and restaurants abound. Seafood, available almost everywhere, is a good bet. For breakfast, the cafés along C 8 near the government offices offer everything from tacos to fresh juices and pastries. Later in the day, the café in the centre of the plaza serves good coffee and ice cream. Campeche’s market, just east of the walled city, is surrounded by comedores offering cheap and tasty lunches. Another local favourite is the stretch of paradores de cockteleros on the malecón – these seafood-vending kiosks are open until around 4pm (a taxi costs about M from the centre). At night, people snack at Portales de San Martín, just north of the walls between C 10 and C 12. Bars aren’t open late, but stop by the rooftop bar at the Puerta Campeche hotel (Fri & Sat only) for the view.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

Café Frappísimo C 8 s/n tel_icon981 811 7359, web_iconfacebook.com/Frappisimo. A modern, a/c coffee shop, just off the square, with well-made cappuccinos, lattes, frappuccinos and the like (M–52), plus tempting cakes, cookies and filled baguettes. There are also magazines, newspapers and books to flick through. Daily 8am–11pm.

Chocolates de la Mora Corner of C 59 and 10 tel_icon981 817 5658, web_iconchocolatesdelamora.com. The speciality at this delightful café is drinking chocolate spiked with cinnamon and almond, served hot or iced (M–50). There’s also a good range of cakes, pastries, sandwiches and snacks (all M–65), as well as home-made chocolates. Mon–Sat 8am–11pm, Sun 9am–7pm.

Luz de Luna C 59 no. 6, between C 10 and C 12 tel_icon981 811 9624. A quirky restaurant-gallery, Luz de Luna offers a generous variety of Mexican favourites – from ceviche to fajitas (mains M–145). Breakfasts are particularly good and plentiful, including cinnamon-scented cafe de olla. Daily 7am–9pm.

La Parroquia C 55 no. 8, between C 10 and C 12 tel_icon981 816 2530. High ceilings echo with the clink of dishes at this big open-front diner. Staff can be inconsistent, as can the food, but it’s inexpensive and convenient: mains cost M–170, while set meals are around M. Daily 24hr.

RESTAURANTS

El Bastión C 57, on the plaza tel_icon981 816 2128, web_iconelbastion.com.mx. The best place to eat with a plaza view (you can compare it with the old-photo wallpaper inside), though the traditional campechano menu (mains M–179) isn’t quite as good as others. Daily 6.30am–midnight.

Casa Vieja C 10 no. 319, on the plaza tel_icon981 811 8016. A Cuban-owned restaurant with well-appointed balcony overlooking the main square. Food is a bit international-bland, but it’s a great spot for a rum cocktail (M–60) or cold beer (M). Tues–Sat 8.30am–midnight, Sun 4pm–midnight.

Marganzo C 8 no. 267, between C 57 and C 59 tel_icon981 811 3898, web_iconmarganzo.com. Touristy but still pleasant and not as expensive as it looks. The varied menu (most mains M0–250) includes tasty crab quesadillas and generous botanas (bite-size snacks). Daily 7am–11pm.

La Palapa Resurgimiento, 2.5km south along the malecón from the city centre tel_icon981 815 5918. A good destination for a malecón stroll, this large bar-restaurant is right on the water. It has big seafood plates (around M0–250), but you can also make a meal from the delicious botanas served with every drink. Daily 10am–8pm.

author_pickLa Pigua Alemán 179-A tel_icon981 811 3365, web_iconlapigua.com.mx. Follow C 8 north to find one of the city’s most legendary restaurants, a pretty, rather elegant spot with exceptionally delicious seafood, such as creamy shrimp soup and fresh fillets with garlic and herbs (mains M0–250). Reserve for dinner. Daily 1–9pm.

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DIRECTORY

American Express In the VI-PS travel agency, C 59 between Ruíz Cortines and 16 de Septiembre behind the Best Western Del Mar (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat 9am–1pm; tel_icon981 811 1010).

Banks and exchange HSBC, C 10 at C 55, is just off the main square and has an ATM.

Internet There are internet cafés on virtually every street in the centre of Campeche.

Laundry The most central is La Antigua at C 57, between 12 and 14.

Post office 16 de Septiembre near C 53 (Mon–Fri 8.30am–3.30pm, Sat 9am–1pm).

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Edzná and the Chenes sites

Some 50km from Campeche lie the ruins of Edzná, surprisingly large and richly decorated, yet relatively little known to tourists. Beyond Edzná, you’ll need a car to follow Hwy-261 towards the town of Hopelchén and the so-called Chenes sites: the ruins of Hochob and Dzibilnocac (completists can also ask for directions to El Tabasqueño and Santa Rosa Xtampak as well). They share a similar style of architecture, with colonnaded facades and monster-mouth doorways, evolved from the Río Bec further south.

Edzná

45km southeast of Campeche • Daily 8am–5pm • M • Sound-and-light show April–Oct Thurs–Sun 8am, Nov–March 7pm (1hr) • M0

At the height of its power, between 250 BC and 150 AD, Edzná was a large city, on the main route between the Maya communities of the highlands and the coast. The ruins show evidence of a complex drainage and irrigation system that probably supported a large agricultural project and more than a thousand people. Its architecture features elements of Río Bec, Classic Maya and Puuc design. The sound-and-light show is surprisingly good, and involves tramping around the site (make sure you wear insect repellent) rather than just sitting in a seat.

Templo de los Cinco Pisos

The most important structure is a stepped palace-pyramid more than 30m high. Unusually, each of the five storeys contains chambered “palace” rooms. While both solid temple pyramids and multi-storey “apartment” complexes are relatively common, it’s rare to see the two combined in one building. At the front, a steep monumental staircase leads to a three-room temple, topped by a roofcomb. It’s a hot climb, but the view takes in the dense greenery and the hills that mark this side of the peninsula.

  As you look out over two plazas, the further of which must have been capable of holding tens of thousands of people, it is easy to imagine the power that the high priest or king commanded. Beyond lie the unexcavated remains of other large pyramids, and behind them, the vast flat expanse of the Yucatán plain. Inside the west-facing temple, a stele of the god of maize was illuminated by the sun twice a year, on the dates for the planting and harvesting of the crop.

The lesser buildings

Lesser buildings surround the ceremonial precinct. The Nohochná (Casa Grande, or Big House), a palace on the northwest side, is some 55m long and contains a room used as a temazcal (traditional sauna), with stone benches and hearths over which water could be boiled. Over in the Pequeña Acrópolis, the Templo de los Mascarones contains two eerie masks representing the sun god, rising on the east (left-hand) side and setting on the west.

Dzibilnocac

1km east of Iturbide • Daily 8am–5pm • Free

Dzibilnocac is a small site, and an easy stop if you’re in a car (note that many road signs for Iturbide refer to the town as Vicente Guerrero). By bus, it’s feasible, but you may feel it was not quite worth the trouble. The buildings here show the ultra-decorative facades typical of the Chenes style – its restored western temple pyramid is quite pretty.

Hochob

15km southwest of Dzibalchén (follow signs to Chencoh) • Daily 8am–5pm • M

Hochob features an amazing three-room temple (low and fairly small, as are most Chenes buildings), with a facade richly carved with stylized snakes and masks. The central chamber is surmounted by a crumbling roofcomb, and its decoration, with fangs, eyes and ears, creates the effect of a huge face, with the doorway as a gaping mouth.

Grutas de X’tacumbilxuna’an

3km south of Bolonchén • Daily 10am–5pm • M

Near Bolonchén, you’ll see signs for these caves. Though deep and rather dramatically lit, the area you actually visit is limited, and as a result, the attraction feels a bit overpriced. But if you happen to be driving by, it’s a brief scenic stop.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: EDZNÁ AND THE CHENES SITES

By bus For Edzná, Autobuses Ejidales services (30–40min) leave from in front of the Sur terminal in Campeche daily a few times in the morning, until about 11.30am, but the last bus returns at 3.45pm (confirm with the driver). For Dzibilnocac, the only other site really accessible by bus, take a second-class service from Campeche to Iturbide (8–9 daily, 7.45am–5.35pm; 1hr 15min), from where it’s a 1km walk.

By combi For Edzná, combis for Pich, a village 20km past the ruins, depart from in front of the Campeche market. To get back, you’ll need to ask the driver to collect you at the site, or walk to Pich; go as early in the day as possible.

By car If you’re driving to the Río Bec from Campeche, you can continue south from Hochob to Xpujil – it’s a good back route that avoids a lot of the truck traffic that plagues Hwy-186.

By tour Organized tours from Campeche cover Edzná and a couple of smaller sites, and are less rushed than visiting independently on public transport.

< Back to Edzná and the Chenes sites

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Hacienda Uayamón Carretera Uayamon–Edzná km 20, Uayamón tel_icon981 813 0530, web_iconluxurycollection.com. Off the fast road to Edzná, this hotel was founded as a cattle ranch in the sixteenth century and later became one of the largest henequen (a type of agave used for rope-making) haciendas in the country. In addition to the luxurious rooms, many with private terrace and plunge pool, another attraction is the exuberant birdlife plus beasties like armadillos and coatis. The hacienda’s restaurant is a good option for a romantic meal, or just an excuse to poke around the grounds. Call ahead for a dinner reservation. Daily 7–11pm. US5 (M30)

< Back to Campeche and around

Hwy-180 to Mérida

From Campeche north to Mérida, first-class buses take Hwy-180, which was once the colonial Camino Real (“Royal Road”). While the highway bypasses most of the towns along the way, second-class buses from Campeche and Mérida stop at almost all of them, and two signposted detours are especially worthwhile if you’re driving. The area is a nice slice of semi-rural Maya life, with triciclo taxis running alongside cars, and many women wearing traditional embroidered huipiles.

Museo Arqueológico del Camino Real

Main plaza, Hecelchakán • Previously Tues–Sun 8.30am–5.30pm • M • tel_icon981 816 9136, web_iconinah.gob.mx • Second-class buses (every 30min–1hr; around 1hr 15min) run frequently from Campeche and Mérida

Located in the town of Hecelchakán, about 80km from Campeche, this small archeology museum was closed for repair at the time of research, but it’s worth checking if it has reopened. It’s notable for its collection of Jaina figurines, beautifully detailed clay portraits of Maya people unearthed on the Isla de Jaina, just off the coast due west of here (and unfortunately not open to visitors). Typically just 10–20cm tall, the figures have been a key to research on the everyday life of ancient Maya people: what they wore, how they altered their appearance, what they did for entertainment. The figures were placed in the graves of the people they depicted, often held in their hands or laid on their chests.

Becal

Off Hwy-180, 35km north of Hecelchakán • Second-class buses run frequently from Campeche and Mérida

The town of BECAL is synonymous with the ubiquitous Yucatecan jipi, or “Panama” hat (the original Panama hats actually came from Ecuador). Shops throughout town sell them, and it’s interesting to see a village so consumed with a single cottage industry – a fountain made of concrete hats even graces the town square.

  If you pull over, you’re likely to be approached by a friendly local who will take you to a nearby hat shop, and perhaps stop at one of the town’s many cuevas, the cool, damp cellars in which the villagers traditionally make and store the hats to keep them soft and flexible. As for the hats themselves, the best (which can be crumpled into a ball and spring back to shape) are hard to come by even here at the source; shops offer cheap and mid-range options from around M0 to M00, depending on the fineness of the fibres and tightness of the weave.

< Back to Campeche and around

MÉRIDA

Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula. Within its historic core, though, MÉRIDA retains a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment over the last fifteen years. Yet even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners. Every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and the plazas throng with locals enjoying free music and other attractions. Not only can you live well here, but it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.

RG

Brief history

Founded in 1542, Mérida is built over, and partly from, the ruins of a Maya city known as Tihó or Ichcansihó. Its fortune grew as the capital for exporting henequen, the rope fibre that was Yucatán’s “green gold”.

  Trade was interrupted in the spring of 1849, when, early in the Maya uprising that became known as the Caste Wars, rebel armies laid siege to Mérida. They were within a hair’s breadth of capturing the city, when, legend has it, the Maya peasant fighters left the siege to plant corn. The Yucatecan elite quickly arranged a deal with the central Mexican government ceding the peninsula’s independence in exchange for support against future Maya rebellions.

  Mérida became an extraordinarily wealthy city, much of it poured into grandiose mansions along Paseo de Montejo. Then the henequen industry all but died around World War II, when nylon became the rope-making material of choice. But Mérida remains elegant, prosperous and intellectual, a vibrant mix of Maya, mestizos, Lebanese (who emigrated here in the early twentieth century) and more recent transplants from Mexico City and abroad.

Plaza Grande

Any exploration of Mérida begins naturally in this plaza, officially called the Plaza de la Independencia, and the largest in the city, at the intersection of calles 60, 61, 62 and 63. It’s the hub of city life, particularly in the evenings, when couples meet on park benches and trios of trovadores wait to be hired for serenades.

Catedral de San Ildefonso

C 60 on the Plaza de la Independencia • Daily 6am–noon & 5–8pm • Free

Built in the second half of the sixteenth century, Mérida’s largest church is in a rather severe style that veered away from earlier, more ornate Spanish styles. The building was heavily looted during the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century, though in a chapel to the left of the main altar, people still venerate the Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters), a crucifix carved from a tree in the village of Ichmul that burned for a whole night without showing the least sign of damage. Later, in 1645, the parish church at Ichmul burned down, and the crucifix survived, though blackened and blistered.

  It is entirely likely that the original crucifix was also destroyed in the looting of 1915, but whether the existing statue is a reproduction is irrelevant – it remains the focal point of a local fiesta from mid-September to mid-October, when each day a different professional group, or gremio (taxi drivers, bakers and so on), pays its respects at the church, then parades on the plaza.

MACAY

Pasaje de la Revolución, off C 60 on the Plaza de la Independencia • Wed–Mon 10am–6pm • Free • web_iconmacay.org

Beside the cathedral, the former bishop’s palace has been converted into shops, offices and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán (MACAY), which has the best modern art collection in southern Mexico, with permanent displays featuring the work of internationally acclaimed Yucatecan painters Fernando Castro Pacheco, Gabriel Ramírez Aznar and Fernando García Ponce.

Museo Casa Montejo

C 63 on the Plaza de la Independencia • Tues–Sat 10am–7pm, Sun 10am–2pm • Guided tours Tues–Sat 11am, 1pm & 5pm, Sun 11am & 1pm (1hr) • Free • tel_icon618 811 7136, web_iconcasasdeculturabanamex.com

Francisco de Montejo was the first conquistador to attempt to bring the peninsula under the control of Spain, in 1527. He failed, but his son secured the north of the peninsula in the 1540s. The father built this palace in 1549; it’s now a Banamex office. Visitors can see the lavishly restored wood-panelled dining room, off the back right corner of the Moorish-feeling courtyard. Above a staid doorway of Classical columns, the facade is decorated in the manically ornate plateresque style (probably the first instance of it in the New World), with conquistadors depicted trampling savages underfoot.

Palacio Municipal

C 62 on the Plaza de la Independencia • Mon–Fri 9am–5pm • Free

Facing the cathedral, Mérida’s city hall (ayuntamiento) is another impressive piece of sixteenth-century design, with a beautiful clock tower and a large painting upstairs that depicts the mestizaje, the birth of the first mixed-blood Mexican.

Palacio de Gobierno

C 61 on the Plaza de la Independencia • Daily 8am–10pm • Free

Completing the square, the nineteenth-century state government building is a must-see. On the ground floor and in the large front room upstairs, enormous, aggressively modernist murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco cover the walls. They powerfully depict the violent history of the Yucatán and the trials of its indigenous people.

< Back to Mérida

North of the Plaza Grande

Most of the remaining monuments in Mérida lie north of the plaza, along the main commercial streets of Calle 60 and Paseo de Montejo. Calle 60 is a parade of historically significant buildings, and Paseo de Montejo is lined with the magnificent mansions of the henequen-rich grandees who strove to outdo one another around the end of the nineteenth century.

Museo del Arte Popular de Yucatán

C 50-A at C 57 • Tues–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 10am–3pm • M

This is a small but flawless collection of Mexican craftwork, worth a detour if you have time and interest in the subject. It’s set in an old house, with a sense of humour about the bathrooms. The gift shop is small but well stocked.

Museo de la Canción Yucateca

C 57 between C 48 and C 50 • Tues–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–3pm • M, free Sun • tel_icon999 923 7224

Behind the former monastery of La Mejorada, this pleasantly old-fashioned museum details the development of the Yucatán’s traditional, painfully romantic trova music. It traces the diverse influences, from pre-Columbian traditions to Afro-Cuban styles, and shows off many of the classic stars. Its gift shop has plenty of CDs.

Museo de Antropología Yucatán (Palacio Cantón)

C 43 at Paseo de Montejo • Tues–Sun 8am–5pm • M • tel_icon999 923 7224, web_iconpalaciocanton.inah.gob.mx • 30min walk from the plaza

The former site of the city’s museum of Maya culture (now at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya) reopened in 2012 after renovation. As well as anthropological and other exhibits, the museum is worth a visit for the building itself, a Beaux Arts palace, trimmed in wrought iron and marble. It was built at the beginning of the twentieth century by Francisco Cantón Rosado, the railway tycoon, state governor and general who was a key supporter of dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Casa Catherwood

C 59 west of C 72 • Mon–Sat 9am–2pm & 5–9pm • M • tel_icon999 154 5565, web_iconcasa-catherwood.com

This colonial home displays an exhibit of English artist Frederick Catherwood’s etchings of crumbling Maya ruins, made during his excursions with John Lloyd Stephens in the mid-1800s. The works became the illustrations for Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, the first detailed English description of the ancient Maya ruins. The courtyard houses a pretty café too.

Gran Museo del Mundo Maya

C 60 Norte, 9.5km north of the centre, just inside the ring road • Mon & Wed–Sun 9am–5pm • M0 • Sound-and-light show: Mon & Wed–Sun 8.30pm • Free • tel_icon999 341 0435, web_icongranmuseodelmundomaya.com • Taxis cost about M

Opened in 2012 to great fanfare, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya brings to life the world of the Maya, from origins to the present day, through hundreds of archeological, anthropological, ethnological and historical exhibits. The main draw is the free sound-and-light spectacle, an immersive audio-video art installation that covers Maya history and culture in grand terms.

< Back to Mérida

South of the Plaza Grande

Heading south of the Plaza Grande, Mérida becomes somewhat scruffier, with the streets getting a bit more jammed with traffic and commerce, especially around the massive public market, the Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, close to which is a good museum.

Mercado Lucas de Gálvez

C 67 at C 56 • Mon–Sat 7am–late afternoon

Mérida’s main market is in two vast joined halls, plus a clutch of stalls around the periphery, with more than two thousand vendors plying their trades. It’s a wild scrum of consumer goods, from freshly hacked-up beef to hand-tooled leather belts to numerous varieties of bananas. Arrive before noon to see the most bountiful foodstuffs; craft shops (many in a separate wing on C 56-A at C 65) are open all day.

Museo de la Ciudad

C 56 between C 65 and C 65-A • Tues–Fri 9am–6pm, Sat & Sun 9am–2pm • Free

A nice touch of culture on the edge of the market, the grand city museum occupies the beautiful old central post office. The exhibits trace city history from ancient Maya times through the henequen boom. Text is in Spanish and English. There’s also a gallery of local contemporary art.

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ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: MÉRIDA

BY PLANE

Mérida’s Manuel Crecencio Rejón airport (tel_icon999 940 6090, web_iconasur.com.mx) is 7km southwest of the centre. It has a tourist office (daily 8am–8pm), post office, long-distance phones and car-rental desks. A taxi to/from the city centre costs around M0–140. You could also take bus #79 (“Aviación”), which goes to Parque San Juan, but the stop is a very long walk from the terminal, and it runs infrequently.

Destinations Cancún on Mayair and Hahn Air (2 daily; 1hr); Guadalajara on Volaris (1 daily; 2hr 20min); Mexico City on Aeromexico, Interjet and Volaris (16 daily; 2hr); Villahermosa on Aeroméxico, Aeromar, Hahn Air and Mayair (4 daily; 1hr 30min).

BY BUS

Mérida has two major bus stations, both on the southwest side of town, plus several smaller stations and stopping points, just about all of which are south of the plaza. In theory, they all deal with different companies and destinations, but in practice, there’s a bit of overlap. In addition to the larger stations below, AutoProgreso (C 62 between C 65 and C 67) serves Progreso and nearby Dzibilchaltún, while AutoCentro (C 65 at C 48) runs an additional service to Izamal, and the only service to the ruins of Aké.

TERMINAL CAME

Located on C 70 between C 69 and C 71, for express ADO, ADO GL, ADO Platino and OCC. You’ll likely arrive here if you’re coming directly from Cancún, Campeche or Chichén Itzá. City buses don’t head to the main plaza. A taxi costs about M–50, or it’s a 20min walk.

Destinations Campeche (every 30min–1hr; 2hr 30min); Cancún (at least hourly; 4hr 25min); Chetumal (4 daily at 7.30am, 1pm, 6pm & 11pm; 5hr 30min–6hr); Escárcega (3 daily at 8.30am, 3pm & 9pm; 4hr 10min–4hr 40min); Mexico City (1 daily at 8.30pm; 19hr 45min); Palenque (2 daily at 8.30am & 10pm; 7hr 45min–9hr); Playa del Carmen (12 daily; 4hr 5min–5hr 25min); Tulum (4 daily at 10.40am, 12.40pm, 5.40pm & 8.15pm; 3hr 55min); Valladolid (11 daily; 2hr 15min); Villahermosa (11 daily; 8hr–9hr 5min).

TERMINAL TAME

Officially the Terminal de Segunda Clase, the TAME is across the street from the CAME, on C 69 between C 68 and C 70. ATS, Clase Europea, Mayab, Sur, TRT and some Oriente buses leave from here. Coming from Campeche, you may arrive here. There’s luggage storage (at a window outside, facing the CAME entrance). City buses don’t head to the main plaza. A taxi costs about M–50, or it’s a 20min walk.

Destinations Campeche via Maxcanú, Hecelchakán and Becal (every 30min–1hr; 4hr); Cancún via Valladolid (20 daily; 4–6hr); Cancún via Felipe Carrillo Puerto (12 daily; 5–8hr); Chetumal (7–8 daily; 6hr); Chiquilá, for Holbox (1 daily at 11.30pm; 6hr); Escárcega (3 daily at 11am, 1.10pm & 3.40pm; 6hr); Felipe Carrillo Puerto (11 daily; 2hr 30min); Hopelchén via Santa Elena and Uxmal (6–7 daily; 2hr 30min); Oxkutzcab via Ticul (11 daily, 5am–9pm; 2hr); Playa del Carmen (hourly; 5–7hr); Tulum (10 daily; 5–7hr); Villahermosa via Escárcega (2 daily at 5.30am & 11am; 9hr).

FIESTA AMERICANA

Some deluxe buses (ADO, ADO GL and Platino) arrive at a car park on C 60 at Colón, just west of the Fiesta Americana, north of the centre. A taxi costs about M–40, or walk one block east and flag down a southbound city bus.

Destinations Cancún (8 daily; 4hr–4hr 35min); Cancún airport (3 daily at 6.15am, 9.15am & noon; 4hr); Villahermosa (2 daily at 9.30pm & 11pm; 9hr 15min).

NORESTE TERMINAL

On C 67 at C 50. Second-class buses (LUS, Noreste and Oriente) from here serve the coast and small interior towns.

Destinations Cancún via Chichén Itzá and Valladolid (15–17 daily; 4hr); Cuzamá (7 daily; 1hr 30min); Izamal (14 daily; 1hr); Maní via Acancéh and Tecoh (10 daily; 2hr); Río Lagartos (1 daily at 5.30pm; 4hr); San Crisanto (3 daily at 7am, 10.15am & 6.30pm; 1hr 45min); San Felipe (1 daily at 5.30pm; 6hr 30min); Tizimín (6 daily; 3–4hr); Tulum via Cobá (1 daily at 5.20am; 8hr).

BY COLECTIVO

Minivans often provide a more frequent service to destinations an hour or two outside the city, and to smaller villages. These, as well as small buses to Dzibilchaltún, Oxkutzcab and Ticul, congregate on Parque San Juan (C 62 at C 69). For Progreso, colectivos leave from the east side of C 60 between C 65 and C 67.

< Back to Mérida

GETTING AROUND

By bus The city-bus system is convoluted, but in general, northbound buses run up C 56. For Paseo de Montejo, look for #17 on C 59 between C 56 and C 58, or #18 on C 56 at C 59. You can flag buses down at any corner; fares are posted on the doors.

By taxi Taxis can be hailed all around town and from ranks at Parque Hidalgo, the post office and Parque San Juan. The ones at ranks charge according to a zone system – usually M around the centre, and up to M to the outskirts. Cars roving the streets (signed “Radio Taxi”) use meters, and are often cheaper.

Bike rental On Sun mornings for the Bici-Ruta, bicycles are available for rent on the plaza; the rest of the week, contact Maya Byke, on C 58 between C 59 and C 57 (tel_icon999 287 1795, web_iconmayabyke.com; M/hr or M0/day).

Car rental Family-run Mexico Rent a Car, at C 57A between C 58 and C 60, has good rates with insurance (tel_icon999 923 3637, web_iconmexico-rent-acar.com). International agencies have offices in a strip on C 60 between C 55 and C 57, in the Fiesta Americana and at the airport.

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

INFORMATION

Tourist office Teatro Peón Contreras, C 60 at C 57-A (daily 8am–8pm; tel_icon999 925 5186, web_iconmerida.gob.mx/turismo). Mérida’s main tourist office is usually staffed with at least one English-speaker. Pick up a copy of the helpful Yucatán Today (web_iconyucatantoday.com), in English and Spanish. Other tourist information booths are in the Palacio de Gobierno on the Plaza de la Independencia (daily 8am–8pm) and on Paseo de Montejo at Colón, just south of the Fiesta Americana hotel. Info kiosks staffed with tourist police (tel_icon999 942 0060) are set up at the plaza.

Websites The website Yucatan Living (web_iconyucatanliving.com) is an excellent resource, posting a weekly events calendar and commenting on local bars, restaurants and news.

CITY TOURS

Bus tours An open-sided bus tour goes further afield than you’d walk. It departs from Parque de Santa Lucía (daily 9am–8pm; M0, children M; tel_icon999 927 6119, web_iconturibus.com.mx).

Horse-drawn carriages Calesas are M0 for a 45min trip around the centre and up Paseo de Montejo.

Walking and cookery tours Mérida’s tourism bureau gives a free walking tour (Mon–Sat at 9.30am); reserve at the office in the Palacio de Gobierno. You can also rent headsets for a self-guided audio tour anytime (M; take your passport). Chef David Sterling (web_iconlos-dos.com; 8hr) offers a range of cookery classes and food-related tours (US5).

TOUR OPERATORS

Adventures Mexico C 10 no. 374-C, Pedregales de Tanlum tel_icon999 925 1700, web_iconadventures-mexico.com. Does a good range of day trips to attractions around the city, as well as cookery classes and cantina tours.

Red de Ecoturismo de Yucatán tel_icon999 926 7756, web_iconredecoturismoyucatan.blogspot.mx. A network of community eco-adventure projects, offering activities like bike trips and camping excursions.

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ACCOMMODATION

Although Mérida can get crowded at peak times, you should always be able to find a good, reasonably priced hotel room. Unless you have a very early bus to catch, there’s not much point in staying in the grimier area near the main bus stations, nor in the generic top-end hotels along Paseo de Montejo. The best options are all within a few blocks of the central plaza – which is still just a long walk or a short cab ride from the furthest transport and sights. In addition to the usual hotels, Mérida has a glut of good B&Bs and smaller inns in converted colonial homes.

HOTELS

Dolores Alba C 63 no. 464, between C 52 and C 54 tel_icon999 928 5650, web_icondoloresalba.com. Popular, clean mid-range place situated around two courtyards (one colonial style, and one sporting a dazzling array of mirror glass) and a large swimming pool. With parking, laundry facilities and more, you get a lot for your money, but it is on the scruffier side of the plaza. M0

Eclipse C 57 no. 491, between C 58 and C 60 tel_icon999 923 1600, web_iconhoteleclipsemerida.com.mx. Suffering from colonial overload? This hip-and-modern hotel has spare white rooms, each with a different theme suggested with fabric accents and accessories (a lava lamp, a Warhol print, etc). A glittery-tile pool sits in the centre, and there’s a small café. A/c and flat-screen TVs are part of the package. M0

Hacienda Xcanatun 12km north of Mérida on the road to Progreso tel_icon999 930 2140, web_iconxcanatun.com. The closest hacienda to the city, this elegant eighteenth-century plantation house sits on lush grounds. Some of the luxurious suites have baths hewn from local rock. There’s also a full spa and an excellent restaurant. US0 (M00)

author_pickJulamis C 53 at C 54 tel_icon999 924 1818, web_iconhoteljulamis.com. Owned (and decorated) by two Cuban artists, Julamis is a great opportunity to stay in a colonial house for barely more than less-inspiring budget hotels. The six rooms and one suite (US/M85) all have a/c, and mix modern furnishings with soaring ceilings and old tiled floors. Perks include free beers in the in-room fridges and a plunge pool on the roof. US (M80)

author_pickLuz en Yucatán C 55 no. 499, between C 58 and C 60 tel_icon999 924 0035, web_iconluzenyucatan.com. Delightful rambling place with fifteen rooms to suit every traveller: studios, kitchenettes, private terraces or patios (and even a whole house just down the street). Pool, kitchen, and owners who were once tour guides, so well attuned to guests’ needs. The rooms are dynamically priced depending on whether you class yourself as “exceedingly”, “moderately” or “not at all” financially successful. M0

Mucuy C 57 no. 481, between C 56 and C 58 tel_icon999 928 5193. Quiet and well run, with kind staff, good-value rooms, a small pool and wi-fi in the lobby (but not, generally, in most rooms). Housekeeping isn’t always as diligent as it should be, but overall it’s tidy and the best of the non-hostel budget spots. A/c costs an extra M. M0

Posada Toledo C 58 no. 487, at C 57 tel_icon999 923 1690, web_iconposadatoledo.com. A rambling old family compound, ideal if you like faded elegance. Singles are a little cramped and light on character, but the high-ceiling doubles are grand (if a bit fluorescent-lit); all have beautiful tiled floors and antique furniture. M0

Trinidad Galería C 60 no. 456, at C 51 tel_icon999 923 2463, web_iconhotelestrinidad.com. An eccentric hotel crammed full of bizarre artefacts, sculptures and paintings. Rooms upstairs are lighter and more spacious, though furnishings are a little shabby. All have cool mosaic bathrooms; some have a/c. Its sister hotel, Trinidad (C 62 at C 55, tel_icon999 923 2463), has some cheaper rooms with shared bathrooms and fans, and guests can use the Galería pool. M0

B&BS AND GUESTHOUSES

author_pickLas Arecas C 59 no. 541, between C 66 and C 68 tel_icon999 928 3626 or tel_icon999 140 9553, web_iconlasarecas.com. A small, colonial-style guesthouse (one of the few run by a meridano), Las Arecas is a fantastic bargain. Rooms around the small garden courtyard are simply furnished, but four of the five have a/c, and there’s a communal kitchen. M5

author_pickMerida Santiago C 74-A no. 499, between C 57 and C 59-A tel_icon999 285 4447 or tel_icon999 197 6730, web_iconhotelmeridasantiago.com. This colourful colonial home with six bright rooms is farther west than other options, but worth the walk for whirlpool tubs and plush beds, great breakfasts, a big pool, spa treatments, and a helpful Mexican-Dutch couple as hosts. US6 (M15)

HOSTELS

Casa Nico C 63, between C 66 and C 68 tel_icon999 286 8944, web_iconhostelcasanico.com. Nominally a hostel, but the eleven simple private rooms win out here. The setting is a colonial house with a pool in the centre. Definitely the best option near the bus stations. Dorms M0; doubles M0

Santa Lucía C 55 no. 512, between C 62 and C 64 tel_icon999 928 9070, web_iconhostalstalucia.com. A decent back-up if Nómadas is full up, this hostel is set in a nice colonial house with a good location near Parque Santa Lucía with large a/c dorms, and private rooms. Dorms M0; doubles M0

Nómadas C 62 no. 433, at C 51 tel_icon999 924 5223, web_iconnomadastravel.com. Mérida’s longest-established hostel is a smooth operation, with both mixed and single-sex dorms, space for hammocks or tent camping, and fan-only private rooms, some of which are en suite. There’s even a pool, and (generally free) activities and entertainment almost nightly. Dorms M5; doubles M5; camping M0

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EATING

Good restaurants are plentiful in the centre of Mérida, though the best (and some of the least expensive) are often open only for lunch. At dinner, many restaurants cater largely to foreigners and are a bit overpriced; locals tend to frequent the snack stalls on Plaza Santa Ana (C 60 at C 47) and Parque de Santiago (C 59 between C 70 and C 72) for panuchos, salbutes and sopa de lima. There are also pavement cafés on Parque Hidalgo, along C 60 between C 61 and C 59, and a good juice bar on the southwest corner of the plaza.

YUCATECAN CUISINE

Though it varies across the peninsula, food in the Yucatán has a few unifying elements, most based on traditional Maya combinations and accented with many earthy spices. Little of the food is hot, but go easy on the salsa de chile habanero that most restaurants have on the table. It’s also called xnipek, Maya for “dog’s nose”, because the fiery chile induces a clammy sweat. The most popular dishes are:

Puchero A mutable stew that often includes chicken, beef, pork, squash, cabbage and sweet potato in a broth seasoned with cinnamon and allspice, all garnished with radish, coriander and Seville orange.

Poc-chuc A combination of pork with tomatoes, onions and spices, widely considered the region’s signature dish.

Sopa de lima Chicken broth with fragrant local citrus and tortilla chips, and the most popular appetizer or evening snack.

Pollo or cochinita pibil Chicken or suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pib, a pit in the ground, the shredded meat then utilized in many other snacks.

Papadzules Tacos filled with hard-boiled eggs and covered in a very rich red and green pumpkin-seed sauce.

Pavo en relleno negro Turkey in a black, burnt-chile sauce.

Salbutes Crisp corn tortillas topped with shredded turkey, pickled onions, avocado and radish, ubiquitous at dinner time.

Panuchos The same as salbutes, with an added dab of beans.

Chaya A spinach-like green that’s reputed to cure everything that ails you, often blended into a drink with pineapple.

Huevos motuleños A sweet-savoury mix of fried eggs and beans on a crisp tortilla, topped with mild salsa, ham, cheese, peas and fried banana slices.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

Bistro Cultural C 66 at C 41 tel_icon999 204 9358. Off the beaten track, but well worth the walk, this delightful French-run joint has a tranquil garden, murals on the walls, and a small, economical menu: daily specials from Europe, Mexico and further afield (M), plus cooling frappés and desserts like tarte tatin (M). They sometimes put on live music in the evenings. Mon–Fri 8.30am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 8.30am–4.30pm.

Café Crème C 41 at C 60 tel_icon999 192 9565, web_iconcafecrememerida.tumblr.com. Another French-run place, this café and patisserie with a shady patio garden has a tempting range of pastries, plus sandwiches, quiches and salads (M–60), as well as set meals and top-notch coffee. Mon–Fri 9am–7pm, Sat 9am–2pm.

Dulcería y Sorbetería El Colón C 61 on the central plaza tel_icon999 927 6443. A slice of old-town Mérida, with a refreshing range of fruit sorbets (from coconut to watermelon; M), black-and-white photos on the walls, and efficient waiters dressed in salmon-pink shirts. There’s another branch on Paseo de Montejo between C 39 and C 41, near Palacio Cantón. Daily 10am–midnight.

La Habana C 62 at C 59 tel_icon999 928 4715. Mérida’s older bohemian intellectual crowd doesn’t come around this coffee shop so much since the national smoking ban went into effect. But the black-and-beige-clad waiters still dish out economical Mexican-style diner food (snacks from M), and there are excellent daily meal deals (M–89). It also roasts its own coffee. Daily 24hr.

author_pickLa Reina Itzalana Parque de Santiago, C 59 between C 70 and C 72. This and several other basic restaurants around the same park are some of the few places near the centre to get a casual, super-cheap dinner of panuchos, salbutes and sopa de lima (expect to pay less than M for a good meal). They’re packed with local families in the evenings. Daily 8am–10pm.

RESTAURANTS

Amaro C 59 no. 507, between C 60 and C 62 tel_icon999 928 2451, web_iconrestauranteamaro.com. Set in a lovely tree-shaded courtyard with a fountain and a romantic guitarist Wed–Sat. A little overpriced (mains cost M0–200), but interesting veggie options, such as crepas de chaya, are novelties for non-meat-eaters tired of quesadillas. Mon–Sat 11am–2am.

author_pickLa Chaya Maya C 62 at C 57 tel_icon999 928 4780, web_iconlachayamaya.com. A simple, sparkling-clean restaurant with a thorough menu of Yucatecan specialities – including pavo en relleno negro, poc-chuc and panuchos – with handmade tortillas and lots of chaya, pumpkin seeds and other earthy flavours. Daily 7am–11pm.

author_pickEl Marlin Azul C 62, between C 57 and C 59. Long-standing local favourite for seafood, including great fish tacos and perfect fresh ceviche (from M). If there’s no space in the main restaurant (under a blue awning), try the separate, smarter dining room next door to the north. Mon–Sat 8am–4.30pm.

Rosas and Xocolate Paseo de Montejo 480, at C 41 tel_icon999 924 2992, web_iconrosasandxocolate.com. This hip hotel restaurant is a double treat: excellent creative Mexican food (don’t miss the crispy-fried octopus) plus eye candy in the form of the upper-crust meridano crowd. Toothsome desserts and regular live jazz performances, too. Mains from M0. Daily 7am–11pm.

El Trapiche C 62, between C 59 and C 61 tel_icon999 928 1231. Just off the plaza, this basic, budget-friendly Yucatecan restaurant is open all day and serves everything from fresh juices for breakfast to poc-chuc for dinner (mains M–140; set lunch around M). Daily 8am–midnight.

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DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

For drinks beyond the hotel bars, there are of course hard-drinking men-only cantinas (all over the city, including a couple on C 62, just south of the plaza), plus traditional family bars (bares familiares; look for signs saying “100% familiar”). These are a more mixed affair, with, yes, sometimes even kids. They’re open only till about 6pm, serving beer accompanied by botanas – small-plate snacks delivered with each round – and often live music.

MÉRIDA’S FREE ENTERTAINMENT

The historic centre hosts a party nearly every night of the week, all free and attended largely by locals. Many films and concerts happen at the Centro Olimpo de Cultura, on the northwest corner of the plaza. In addition, these are the recurring events:

Mon Jarana folk dances, in or in front of the Palacio Municipal on the west side of the main plaza. 9pm.

Tues Big band music, heavy on the mambo, Parque de Santiago (C 72 at C 59); trova at the Centro Olimpo. 8.30pm.

Wed Concert at the Centro Olimpo. 9pm.

Thurs Serenata Yucateca, traditional trova music, Parque Santa Lucía; classical music at the Centro Olimpo. 9pm.

Sat Noche Mexicana, music from all over Mexico, at the start of Paseo Montejo, Calle 56-A; jazz, salsa and more on the Plaza de la Independencia. 8pm.

Sun Car-free centre: in the morning (8am–noon), bicycles take over the streets for the Bici-Ruta (web_iconmerida.gob.mx/biciruta); in the afternoon and evening, the plaza is filled with music, dancing, food stalls and more. There’s also an all-day flea market in the Parque Santa Lucía.

El Cumbanchero Paseo de Montejo at C 39 tel_icon999 927 3265. This small salsa bar is owned by the son of the late Rubén González, of Buena Vista Social Club. Dancing starts at dinner time with an older crowd, who then give way to younger dancers around 10pm. Tues–Sat 7pm–2am.

Los Henequenes C 56 at C 57 tel_icon999 923 6220. Despite the ubiquitous cartoonish frog logo, Los Henequenes is really a traditional bar familiar, with a local clientele, two-for-one beer specials and a stage that regularly hosts live bands. Daily 11am–7pm.

Pancho’s C 59, between C 60 and C 62 tel_icon999 923 0942. A steak restaurant with a pricey haute Mexican menu, this sprawling space is better as a bar, with tasty mojitos and margaritas. Hit the happy hour (daily 6–9pm) for the best deals. Daily 6pm–2am.

Piedra de Agua C 60 no. 498, between C 59 and C 61, in the hotel of the same name tel_icon999 924 2300, web_iconpiedradeagua.com. Not a big party scene, but insiders know they can hide away in this courtyard bar and drink and talk late. The illuminated spires of the Iglesia Santa Lucia tower just beyond the ivy-covered walls. Daily 4/5pm–late.

La Quilla C 69, between C 44 and C 46 tel_icon999 576 8384. This artist-friendly café is officially an afternoon hangout but on irregular evenings (and occasional Sun afternoons) it hosts bands, DJs and films (cover M or so) and stays open much later. Check the schedule, but either way, it’s still a nice place for a beer. Tues–Fri 4–8pm, Sat 7pm–midnight.

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ENTERTAINMENT

In addition to the options below, there is free music in the various plazas every night. Or you can opt for a personal serenade at the central plaza from trios of trovadores, in their white shirts and trousers – M0 gets you three songs.

Centro Cultural Universitario C 60 at C 57 tel_icon999 924 6729, web_iconcultura.uday.mx. The Universidad de Yucatán’s Ballet Folklórico puts on a colourful performance of traditional Mexican and Maya ceremonies every Fri night. It’s touristy but still low-key and inexpensive. Fri 9pm.

Teatro Peón Contreras C 60 at C 57 tel_icon999 924 3843, web_iconculturayucatan.com. Check the calendar at the city’s grand old theatre, where events range from visiting pop musicians to the Yucatán symphony orchestra (the group plays alternating Fri & Sun Oct–April).

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SHOPPING

In addition to hammocks, other good buys in Mérida include clothing, in particular men’s guayabera shirts, which both Cubans and meridanos claim to have invented; Panama hats, known here as jipis; and embroidered huipiles, plus the traditional lace under-layer and checked rebozo shawl. Mérida’s distinctive trova music is available in many gift shops on CD; it’s especially cheap at the weekly serenade on Parque Santa Lucía, where vendors sell remastered classics or newer songs in the same vein. For all crafts, prices (and quality) in the main market are not great, unless you’re an unusually skilled and determined haggler.

BUYING A HAMMOCK

One of the most popular souvenirs of Mexico is a hammock – and Mérida is one of the best places in the country to buy one. If you want something you can realistically sleep in, exercise a degree of care and never buy from street vendors or even a market stall – their products are rarely good quality. Comfort is measured by the tightness of the weave and the breadth: because you’re supposed to lie in a hammock diagonally to be relatively flat, the distance it stretches sideways is as crucial as the length (although obviously the woven portion of the hammock, excluding the strings at each end, should be at least as long as you are tall).

  Cotton threads (hilos de algodón) are more comfortable and better hold their shape, but nylon is easier to wash. Sisal hammocks are generally scratchy and very poor quality – avoid them. As a guideline, a decent-size cotton hammock (doble at least) will set you back about M0–400.

Casa de Artesanías C 63 two blocks west of the central plaza, in the Casa de la Cultura tel_icon999 928 6676, web_iconartesanias.yucatan.gob.mx. This government-sponsored shop sells consistently high-quality crafts, including delicate silver filigree jewellery, at fixed prices. The clothing options are somewhat limited, however. Mon–Sat 9am–8pm, Sun 9am–2pm.

Librería Dante C 62 on the central plaza tel_icon999 928 2611, web_iconeditorialdante.com. This bookshop has predominantly Spanish-language stock, but also sells some guidebooks and maps, as well as its own line of field guides. Daily 8am–10.30pm.

La Poblana C 65 no. 492, near C 60 tel_icon999 924 0080, web_iconhamacaslapoblana.com. More a warehouse than a shop, this place has hundreds of hammocks stacked against every wall, sold by weight; a high-quality, dense-weave doble weighs about 1.5kg. Mon–Sat 9am–7pm.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange Most banks are around C 65 between C 60 and C 64, have ATMs and are open 9am–4pm. The most centrally located is Banamex, in the entrance to the Museo Casa de Montejo on the south side of the plaza; it also has an ATM.

Consulates Opening hours are limited, so phone ahead. Belize, C 58 no. 450, at C 35 tel_icon999 928 6152, email_icon[email protected]; Cuba, C 42 no. 200, between C 1 E and C 1 D, Fracc Campestre tel_icon999 944 4216, email_icon[email protected]; US, C 60 no. 338-K, between C 29 and C 31, Colonía Alcala Martín tel_icon999 942 5700.

Hospitals Mérida is the Yucatán’s centre for medical care. Clinica de Mérida hospital, Itzáes 242 at Colón (tel_icon999 942 1800, web_iconclinicademerida.com.mx), is accustomed to dealing with foreigners.

Internet Internet cafés dot every street in central Mérida, and especially C 61 west of the plaza. There’s free wi-fi in most of the city’s parks.

Laundry Lavandería La Fe, C 64 between C 55 and C 57, offers an inexpensive service (Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 9am–2pm).

Post office C 53 between C 52 and C 54 (Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm, Sat 9am–1pm). For packages, try Mayan Mail shipping service, C 58 between C 57 and C 59 (Mon–Fri 8am–8pm, Sat and Sun 9am–2pm; tel_icon999 287 1795).

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GULF COAST

A wide, fast road (Hwy-261) connects Mérida with the GULF COAST to the north, first passing the ancient Maya complex of Dzibilchaltún, then arriving after 36km in the port of Progreso, on which meridanos descend en masse in summer. Due west of Mérida, the little village of Celestún offers a very different coastal experience from Progreso, being surrounded by a large nature reserve. In fact, most people hit the beach only after taking a boat tour around a long inlet that’s home to a massive flamingo colony.

Dzibilchaltún

20km north of Mérida, east off Hwy-261 • Daily 8am–5pm; Museo del Pueblo Maya Tues–Sun 8am–4pm • M0; guides M0 for up to six people • Combis for Chablecal leave from Mérida’s Parque San Juan (C 62 at C 69) and stop near the ruins; leaving, you can walk or hitch a ride to Hwy-261, where you can flag down a Progreso- or Mérida-bound bus or combi

The archeological importance of the ruins of the ancient city of Dzibilchaltún is hardly reflected in what you actually see. What it lacks in grandiosity, though, it makes up for in the small yet excellent Museo del Pueblo Maya, which examines the persistence of Maya culture until modern times, with exhibits on traditional crafts and religion. There’s also a very pretty cenote, in which you can swim, and the area is part of an eco-archeological park, where birders can spot the rough-winged swallow and the Yucatán woodpecker. Allow about two hours to see everything.

  The place was settled from 1000 BC right through to the Conquest, the longest continuous occupation of any known site. More than eight thousand structures have been mapped, but unfortunately little has survived, in particular because the ready-dressed stones were a handy building material, used in local towns and in the Mérida–Progreso road. There is very little signage at the site, so it’s worth hiring a guide at the main entrance.

Templo de las Siete Muñecas

From the museum at the entrance, a meandering nature trail leads to the so-called Temple of the Seven Dolls. The temple was originally a simple square pyramid, subsequently built over with a more complex structure. Later still, a passageway was cut through to the original building and seven deformed clay figurines (dolls) were buried, with a tube through which their spirits were meant to commune with the priests. The structure is remarkable for being the only known Maya temple to have windows, and for having a tower in place of the usual roofcomb. On the equinoxes, the sun shines straight through the tower doors, in a display of ancient astronomical savvy that draws a crowd of tourists.

Cenote Xlacah

One of the ancient causeways that linked the city’s major points runs straight from the temple to another cluster of ruins. The centre of the grassy field is dominated by the shell of a Franciscan chapel. A little further west, Cenote Xlacah not only provided the ancient city with water, but also held ritual importance for the Maya. More than six thousand offerings – including human remains – have been discovered in its deeper end. It’s also home to several types of fish, including the Yucatán tetra, a type of sardine found only in the peninsula.

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Progreso

First impressions of PROGRESO – a working port with a 6km-long concrete pier – can be uninspiring, especially at the end of a summer weekend when crowds of day-trippers have pulled out, leaving beer bottles and food wrappers in their wake. But if you’re craving a beach, the long, broad one here makes a pleasant enough day out from Mérida. If you’re here in the winter, the beach will be empty, except perhaps for a few intrepid tourists from one of the cruise ships that dock here occasionally. The towns of Yucalpetén, Chelem and Chuburná – respectively fifteen, twenty and thirty minutes from Progreso – are much quieter, especially in the low season. Further west, though, the road is impassable, and it’s not worth making a detour back to the coast at Sisal, Mérida’s chief port in colonial times – it’s now practically deserted.

  Progreso itself is a small place, and it’s not difficult to find your way around. Calle 80 is the main street, running north–south and dead-ending at the beach. Here you’ll find the market (the fruit and veg vendors are usually shut by 2pm), along with a few banks with ATMs, and a couple of internet cafés.

ARRIVAL AND INFORMATION: PROGRESO

By bus Frequent departures from Mérida’s AutoProgreso depot, arriving in Progreso’s station on C 29 at C 82, four blocks south of the water. Returning to Mérida, you can catch the bus, or a combi, from C 80 at C 31 near the post office, on the north side of Progreso’s Parque Central. Leaving on summer Sun evenings, with the rest of the weekend crowds, you’ll have a very long wait for a seat.

Tourist information The tourist office is in the Casa de la Cultura on C 80 at C 27 (Mon–Fri 8am–2pm, Sat 8am–1pm; tel_icon969 935 0104), but it has only a free map and a few flyers.

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Hotels in town range from very seedy to somewhat overpriced, but Progreso is a popular family destination, so many have large rooms ideal for groups. The high season is July, Aug and Semana Santa; outside of that, prices drop considerably. You can also often find good house-rental deals for this stretch of coast on web_iconvrbo.com and similar sites. For cheap comidas corridas, the town’s small market, on C 80 at C 27, has several good stalls; also try the area around the plaza at C 80 and C 31.

Casa Aliso B&B C 21 no. 84, between C 50 and C 52 tel_icon969 935 2391, web_iconfreewebs.com/casaalisobb. With only two rooms, this small-scale operation requires booking ahead. It has a prime location just off the beach but several blocks from the malecón party scene. One of the rooms is more like an apartment, though both are the same price. US (M85)

Eladio’s Malecón at C 80 tel_icon969 935 5670. A lively, fairly slick bar-restaurant on the beach, where you can easily make a meal of the tasty botanas that come free with beers; mains are about M0–180. Daily 11am–9pm.

Playa Linda C 76, between 19 and 21 tel_icon969 103 9214, web_iconplayalindayucatan.com. Located right on the seafront, a few steps away from the beach, this neat and tidy hotel has bright rooms and larger suites with balconies and kitchenettes (M0); all types of rooms have TVs and a/c. M0

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East of Progreso

It’s best to have a car to explore this direction, as the pleasures come more from poking along the ever-narrowing road rather than heading for a particular destination. Chicxulub Puerto is notorious as the spot where a meteor crashed some 65 million years ago, one of the most significant events in the history of the earth ; there’s now a very good seafood restaurant. Alongside Hwy-27 at the Uaymitún inlet (around km 15), there’s a free viewing platform (mirador turístico) for spotting flocks of flamingos; go in late afternoon, but before the 6pm closing time (7pm in summer). The road continues to Telchac Puerto, a laid-back seaside village popular in the summer with escapees from Mérida, then another 9km to San Crisanto, where a village organization leads mangrove tours. In the village of Santa Clara, the beach is tranquil and the seafood fresh.

  Finally, at the end of the coast road is Bocas de Dzilam, a state nature reserve in the Parque Natural San Felipe comprising freshwater springs on the seabed. The water’s minerals nourish turtles, tortoises, crocodiles and dozens of bird species.

ARRIVAL AND TOURS: EAST OF PROGRESO

By bus Buses from Progreso do come out this way, but infrequently. You can get a more direct bus to Dzilam de Bravo from Mérida from the Noreste terminal (4 daily at 5am, 7.15am, 2pm & 8pm; 1hr 30min).

San Crisanto cooperative Just south of the crossroad, San Crisanto tel_icon991 959 7205, web_iconsancrisanto.org. The village leads trips through the mangroves in small rowing boats (M per person; 1hr 30min) – great for birding, and you end at a cenote for a swim. Look for the office south of the main road, near the baseball field.

Sayachuleb cooperative One block east from the north edge of the square, Dzilam de Bravo tel_icon991 912 2520. Runs tours (around M00 for up to five people; 5hr) to the Bocas de Dzilam.

CHICXULUB AND CENOTES

Some 65 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula – near the town of the same name – an event that is considered to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The strike also caused large sections of the region’s limestone bedrock to collapse, in turn forming thousands of cenotes (sinkholes).

  The region’s network of cenotes – which are generally filled with fresh water – was crucial for the Maya civilization that dominated the Yucatán Peninsula before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. These flooded subterranean chambers were vital sources of potable water in an area short on rivers and lakes, and towns, villages and ceremonial sites often sprung up around them. They were also considered sacred gateways to the Maya underworld, known as Xibalba (“the place of fear”). At Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá, for example, the Maya threw statues, pottery, incense, textiles, jade, gold and human sacrifices into the water as offerings to the gods of the underworld. The few human sacrifices who survived the ordeal, incidentally, were considered to have spoken with the gods, and have developed prophetic powers.

  Today the region’s cenotes – some of them have been turned into theme parks, others remain blissfully undeveloped – are perhaps the most memorable places for a swim, snorkel or dive in the Yucatán. Two of the most spectacular are Cenote X’Keken and Cenote Samula, just outside the city of Valladolid.

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

You can easily cover this area as a day drive; if you get stuck overnight, the hotel options are limited. On the other hand, you can eat quite well and inexpensively out this way.

Moctezuma Off the northeast corner of the plaza in Chicxulub Puerto tel_icon969 934 0403. Also known as “Los Barriles”, a reference to the giant wood barrels that form its front entrance, this long-running seafood restaurant is a traditional favourite for a lazy lunch of fried fish and other delights (from M). Daily 11am–7pm.

San Crisanto Cooperative Just south of the crossroad, San Crisanto tel_icon991 959 7205, web_iconsancrisanto.org. The same group that runs mangrove tours in this town also rents out large, clean and fairly basic cabañas that can sleep up to six people (just about). M0

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Celestún

Were it not for its amazing flamingo-filled lagoon, Celestún, 93km west of Mérida, would be little more than a one-boat fishing village. It’s literally the end of the road, dead-straight for most of the drive through the forest, until you emerge and cross a bridge to the end of a sandbar on the northwest coast of the peninsula. The town has grown a tiny bit in the twenty-first century (with an ATM and a petrol station, finally), but still has a castaway feel; it’s busy only on occasional Sundays and during Mexican holidays.

  The beach is wide, and the sea is cloudy yet clean – but it’s the birds in the 600-square-kilometre Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve here that are the real draw. A typical boat tour takes in the flamingos, most numerous from November to May, when blue-winged teal and shovellers also migrate. Dedicated birders can hire a skilled guide, or, if you are looking for something more active, there is the option to bike and canoe through the mangroves.

SEEING CELESTÚN’S FLAMINGOS

The primary boat tour goes from the large, palapa-roofed parador turístico, off the north side of the main road into town, just past the bridge (ask the bus driver to drop you here, as it’s a 20min walk back from the main square, or M–40 in a triciclo taxi). The basic one-hour tour (M0) stops at the flamingo feeding grounds and a freshwater spring amid mangroves. The two-hour trip (M0) also visits a “petrified forest”, really a spooky swath of salt-choked trees. Guides (a negotiable M0/hr) are definitely recommended – all speak English and can identify most of the birds you’ll see. You may be approached by unlicensed captains outside the parador; they will offer a competitive price, but their deep-keel boats are not designed for the inlet, and some passengers have found themselves pushing their craft out of the mud.

  For extended bird watching tours, look for Alberto Rodriguez Pisté, a fluent English-speaker and longtime birder; he’s one of the expert guides at the parador turístico. If he’s not there, he can usually be found at Restaurant Celestún, on the waterfront.

  A few other ecotourism operations have opened in recent years. The best organized is Manglares de Dzinitún (tel_icon999 232 5915 or tel_icon988 967 6130), off the main road a bit west of the parador turístico, and south about 1km. It offers kayak and canoe trips for M0–400, as well as birding trips and night tours to spot nocturnal fauna.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: CELESTÚN

By bus Departures from Mérida’s Noreste terminal (13 daily; 2hr).

By car If you’re driving from Mérida and don’t want to backtrack, take the small road south via Chunchucmil; it was redone in 2012, and makes a nice loop.

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

For cheap home cooking, visit the loncherías by the small market (just off the inland side of the plaza). There’s also a bakery on the plaza, and a bar-restaurant that’s open in the evening; the seafood places on the beach are generally open for lunch only.

Casa de Celeste Vida C 12 no. 49-E web_iconhotelcelestevida.com. Good if you want to settle in for a while, this restored house, 1km north of town on the beach road, has three rooms with kitchens. Fishing trips, bikes and kayaks are all available, as are discounted weekly accommodation rates. US (M25)

Manglares de Dzinitún 1km south of the main highway, just west of the parador turístico tel_icon999 232 5915, email_icon[email protected]. This bare-bones ecotourism place has a solar-powered cabaña and camping space (they’ll supply the tent). It’s a great wild location next to the mangroves, but pack some DEET-heavy insect spray. Cabaña US (M5); camping US (M0)

María del Carmen C 12 no. 111, at C 15 tel_icon988 916 2170, email_icon[email protected]. An adequate choice for accommodation on the beach, María del Carmen has rooms with balconies overlooking the water; a/c costs a little extra. Very popular during Mexican holiday times, so you’ll need to book ahead. M0

La Palapa C 12 tel_icon999 916 2083. Of several seafood restaurants along the beach, this one is the biggest and unfortunately the priciest, but it’s also generally more reliable than others in the centre. Expect to pay around M0–200 for dinner. Daily 11am–7pm.

Xixim 10km north of town tel_icon988 916 2100, web_iconhotelxixim.com. Operating primarily on wind and solar power, this remote and lovely eco-resort has stylish cabañas with outdoor showers, plus a good restaurant. The real treat, though, is the utterly wild beach. A number of tours are on offer. US7 (M40)

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SOUTH AND EAST OF MÉRIDA

South of Mérida are two scenic routes, steeped in Maya and colonial history: both are best experienced in a car, though you can get to a couple of major attractions by bus. East of the city, by car or bus, lies the pueblo mágico (“magic village” – an official Mexican government designation) of Izamal, which is exceptionally scenic and rich in tradition. Taken as a whole, this area represents the essence of Maya rural life, the heart of the Yucatán, in dozens of villages linked by narrow roads through dense forest. Life is slower here, often conducted by bicycle – stay alert while driving.

Ruta Puuc

About 80km south of Mérida in the Puuc hills lies a group of important and well-restored archeological sites, linked along a road commonly called the Ruta Puuc. The chief attraction is Uxmal, second only to Chichén Itzá in tourist appeal, as well as in its size and historical significance. From Uxmal, Hwy-261 continues on to the lesser site of Kabáh; shortly after that, bearing east on a smaller side road, you pass Sayil and Labná. From Labná you can continue to the farming town of Oxkutzcab, on the road between Muna and Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and head back to Mérida via Ticul and Muna. Or you can follow the longer Ruta de los Conventos back.

  The distinctive Puuc sites clearly evolved from themes in the Río Bec and Chenes regions: you’ll see the same gaping monster mouths and facades decorated in mosaic-like Xs and checkerboards. In both cases, though, the techniques reflect a new strategy of mass production – the mask-covered front of the Codz Poop at Kabáh, for instance, is dotted with hundreds of consistently round carved eyes. A new core-and-veneer style of construction, rather than stone blocks stacked with mortar, yielded sounder buildings with a smoother appearance.

TRANSPORT ON THE RUTA PUUC

Because the sites on the Ruta Puuc are far apart, and on a road poorly served by buses, it’s best to rent a car in Mérida. You can drive through in a day, but if you spend the night mid-route, you can explore the key sites and take in the Ruta de Conventos as well. The Ruta Puuc bus from Mérida was not running at the time of research, but scores of Mérida travel agencies offer Puuc-route trips that include meals and a guide, from around M0 per person.

Uxmal

Hwy-261 • Daily 8am–5pm • M4 • Sound-and-light show Winter 7pm, summer 8pm • M, or included in price of day entrance ticket • Guides About M0 for a small group • Parking M

Meaning “thrice-built”, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Uxmal (pronounced OOSH-mal) represents the finest achievement of the Puuc-region Maya culture before it fell into its ultimate decline near 1000 AD. Its spectacular buildings are encrusted all over with elaborate, and sometimes grisly, decoration. Uxmal is potentially more rewarding than a visit to Chichén Itzá, as the crowds can be a bit lighter, the decorative detail is fascinating, and you can still climb one of the pyramids. If you arrive close to opening time (the drive from Mérida takes about an hour), you can see the major buildings in a couple of hours and leave before the buses start rolling in. There’s a pay car park at the entrance to the site, where the visitor centre includes a small museum, bookshop with guides to the site, crafts store, snack bar and ATM.

  The main restored buildings are set out on a roughly north–south axis in a large cleared site; the alignment of individual buildings often has astrological significance. As in all Maya sites in the Yucatán, the face of Chac, the rain god, is everywhere. Chac must have been more crucial in this region than almost anywhere, for Uxmal and the other Puuc sites have no cenotes or other natural sources of water, relying instead on chultunob, jug-shaped underground cisterns, to collect and store rainwater (most have been filled in, to prevent mosquitoes breeding, but Kabáh has an extant one).

RG

Brief history

Little is known of the city’s history, but the chief monuments, which marked its peaks of power and population, were erected around 900 AD. Sometime after that, the city began to decline, and by 1200 Uxmal and the other Puuc sites, together with Chichén Itzá, were all but abandoned. Political infighting, ecological problems and loss of trade with Tula, near Mexico City, may have played a part. Later, the Xiu dynasty settled at Uxmal, making it one of the central pillars of the League of Mayapán, but a 1441 rebellion put an end to centralized Maya authority.

Pirámide del Adivino

Entering the site, you first see the most remarkable of all Mexican pyramids, the so-called Pyramid of the Magician, soaring at a startling angle from its uniquely oval base. The legend of the pyramid’s creation tells that an old sorceress, who lived in a hut where the pyramid now stands, hatched a dwarf son from an egg and encouraged him to challenge the king to a series of tests – all of which the dwarf won, thanks to a little magic. Finally the king challenged him to build a pyramid overnight. The dwarf succeeded, and became ruler of Uxmal.

  Archeological evidence is a bit less magical, showing at least five stages of construction – six if you count the modern restoration, which may not correspond to any of its earlier incarnations. At the base of the rear (east) stairway, a tunnel reveals Templo III, one of the earlier levels. Walk around to the west face of the pyramid into the Cuadrángulo de los Pájaros (named for the macaws that stud the roofline of the building on the west side) to admire the even steeper stairway that runs down either side of a second, earlier sanctuary in a different style. Known as the Edificio Chenes (or Templo IV), as it reflects the architecture of the Chenes region, the building’s entire front forms a giant mask of Chac. At the bottom of the west face, divided by the stairway, is the very first stage of construction.

Cuadrángulo de las Monjas

Behind the pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle is a beautiful complex enclosing a plaza. The Spanish gave it this name, but it wasn’t a convent; theories range from a military academy to a sort of earthly paradise, where intended sacrificial victims would spend their final months in debauchery. The four buildings, probably constructed between 895 and 906 AD, are each set on a slightly different level, possibly representing the four main levels of the Maya universe. The facade of each is decorated with complex reliefs, and the quadrangle itself is a slightly irregular shape, apparently to align with Venus.

  Maya architectural skills are at their finest here, as the false vaults of the interiors are taken about as wide as they can go without collapsing (wooden crossbeams provided further support), and the frontages are slightly bowed in order to maintain a proper horizontal perspective. The north building, probably also the oldest, has a strip of plain stone facade (from which doors lead into vaulted chambers) surmounted by a slightly raised panel of mosaics, featuring geometric patterns and human and animal figures, with representations of Maya huts above the doorways. The west building, which has been heavily reconstructed, boasts even more varied themes, and the whole of its ornamentation is surrounded by a coiling, feathered rattlesnake with the face of a warrior emerging from its jaws. The east building mirrors the west one in its proportions; its snake decorations, however, run in long horizontal bars.

  An arched passageway through the middle of the south building, the lowest of the four, is directly aligned with the ball-court (ham-fistedly rebuilt with cement) outside.

Casa de las Tortugas

Today a path leads between the ruined side walls of the ball-court and up onto the levelled terrace on which stands the Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Turtles). This very simple, elegant building, named after the stone turtles carved around the cornice, demonstrates another constant theme of Puuc architecture: stone facades carved to resemble rows of narrow columns. These, marked with bands of masonry, probably represent the Maya huts still in use today, with walls of bamboo or saplings lashed together.

Palacio del Gobernador

Adjacent to the Casa de las Tortugas, the Governor’s Palace marks the finest achievement at Uxmal. Arriving at the then virtually unknown site in June 1840, explorer and writer John L. Stephens did not doubt its significance. “If it stood this day on its grand artificial terrace in Hyde Park or the Garden of the Tuileries,” he wrote, “it would form a new order…not unworthy to stand side by side with the remains of the Egyptian, Grecian and Roman art.”

  The palace faces east, away from the buildings around it, probably for astronomical reasons – its central doorway aligns with the column of the altar outside and the point where Venus rises. The use of light and shade on the long, low facade lends a remarkable harmony, as do the strong diagonals that run through its broad band of mosaic decorations. Close up, the mosaic features masks of Chac alternating with grid-and-key patterns and highly stylized snakes. The patterns vary in depth, lending a fascinating texture to the facade.

Grupo Sur

Behind the palace, you can climb the rebuilt staircase of the Gran Pirámide to see the temple on top, decorated with macaws and more masks of Chac – some of these have even smaller carved faces set inside their mouths. El Palomar was originally part of a quadrangle like that of the Nunnery, but the only building to retain any form is this, topped with the great latticed roofcomb that gives it its name: it looks somewhat like a dovecote.

  Beyond, the scrub forest is the perfect place to spot some of the Yucatán’s more distinctive birds, such as the turquoise-browed motmot with its pendulum-like tail, particularly along the path that runs off the south side of the Palacio del Gobernador. The trail leads to an odd display of small stone phalluses, protected by a thatch roof – collected from all over the site, they’re evidence of a fertility cult centred on Uxmal (they’re also worked into the back of the building on the west side of the Nunnery Quadrangle).

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: UXMAL

By bus Buses (5 daily; 1hr) run direct from Mérida, and any bus heading down the main road towards Hopelchén will drop you a short walk from the entrance. Note that no buses run back to Mérida after the hour-long sound-and-light show.

< Back to Uxmal

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Several hotels are close to the site, but none in the budget category. All are subject to sudden arrivals of huge tour groups, which can make the quality of service and food erratic, but you may be able to negotiate a good deal when they’re not full. A short drive away, however, are good budget options in Santa Elena, as well as the ultra-deluxe Hacienda Temozón.

The Lodge at Uxmal Adjacent to the Uxmal site entrance tel_icon998 877 2495, web_iconmayaland.com. Spacious and filled with greenery, if a bit overpriced. Its breezy restaurant and bar, La Palapa, is a convenient spot for a cool drink. The same management runs Hacienda Uxmal, on the highway opposite the turn to the site; the rooms have more colonial grandeur, for similar rates. US8 (M50)

< Back to Ruta Puuc

Choco-Story México (Ecomuseo del Cacao)

Ruta Puuc, a 5min walk north of Uxmal • Daily 9am–7.30pm • M0 • tel_icon999 121 8839, web_iconchoco-storymexico.com

Choco-Story México (also known as Ecomuseo del Cacao) produces and celebrates the main ingredient in quality chocolate. The Belgian owner, who also operates chocolate shops in Mérida, is working with a Maya collective to re-establish cacao production in the region. The museum explores the sacred significance of the cacao bean to the Maya and shows sustainable production methods. And don’t miss the tastings, of course, of chocolate in both liquid and solid forms.

HACIENDA HOPPING

Along the Ruta Puuc are numerous ruined henequen plantations, in various states of repair. Yaxcopoil and Ochil lie right beside the road, so it’s easy enough to be dropped here if travelling by bus, and flag down the next bus or colectivo to continue to Uxmal or Mérida (though check the schedule before you leave, as buses aren’t terribly frequent).

Hacienda Ochil 40km south of Mérida, just west of Hwy-261 tel_icon999 924 7465, web_iconhaciendaochil.com. This attractively refurbished hacienda operates as a good Yucatecan restaurant (mains around M0–180), a small museum and some excellent handicraft workshops, plus a small land-art work in a cenote by James Turrell. The entry fee of M is waived if you’re eating at the restaurant. Daily 10am–6pm.

Hacienda Temozón 35km south of Mérida, about 8km east off Hwy-261 tel_icon999 923 8089, web_iconhaciendatemozon.com. One of the peninsula’s best hotels – lavish rooms, a swish restaurant with an international menu, an opulent spa and a delightful swimming pool. Breakfast is not too expensive, so if you’re doing the route by car, it can be a treat to start your day here. US0 (M20)

Hacienda Yaxcopoil On the edge of Yaxcopoil village tel_icon999 900 1193, web_iconyaxcopoil.com. One of the closest haciendas to Mérida, and also one of the most dramatic. At its height, it employed four hundred people, but now the main house stands in a state of picturesque disrepair – peeling walls, sagging ceilings, rooms full of mildewed tablecloths and faded pictures. It also has wonderful (and less decrepit) accommodation in an adjacent guesthouse: a huge, high-ceilinged room with two double beds, as well as a stand-alone casita. A restaurant on the grounds serves Yucatecan breakfast and dinner. Mains average M, and kids eat free. Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm. US (M70)

Santa Elena

16km south of Uxmal, and just 7km from Kabáh, SANTA ELENA is worth visiting mainly for the magnificent view from its large hilltop church, visible for many kilometres around. Beside the church is a morbidly interesting small museum (daily 8am–6pm; free) with displays on local funerary practices, including the two-hundred-year-old mummified remains of four children discovered under the church floor in 1980. Just outside town, where Hwy-261 bypasses the centre, are several exceptionally pleasant places to stay; buses can drop you next to them on request.

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING: SANTA ELENA

El Chac Mool Hwy-261 tel_icon985 978 5117. The only restaurant not affiliated with a hotel around the ruins, El Chac Mool does decent local food (M–170), cheaper than the other options, although it closes a bit early. Daily 9am–8/9pm.

Flycatcher Inn Off Hwy-261 by the Santa Elena turn tel_icon997 978 5350, web_iconflycatcherinn.com. The first accommodation you reach when coming from Uxmal, a B&B with seven rooms and a separate guest cottage, all decorated with local craftwork and furnished with comfy beds. It’s about a 5min walk south from the main square, or buses from Mérida will drop you on the highway very nearby. US (M25)

author_pickThe Pickled Onion Hwy-261, east of the Santa Elena turn tel_icon997 111 7922, web_iconthepickledonionyucatan.com. British expat Valerie Pickle rents a handful of Maya-style cabañas in all sizes, with bigger ones great for families. There’s also a large pool. Her restaurant (mains around M0–160) has a mostly international menu but also does excellent versions of local dishes; picnic lunches and children’s meals are available. Summer 7.30am–9.15pm, winter 7.30am–8.30pm. US (M0)

Sacbe Bungalows Hwy-261, Santa Elena tel_icon997 978 5158, web_iconsacbebungalows.com.mx. A hospitable Mexican–French couple offer basic but spotless bungalow rooms, all with porches, dotted about spacious grounds; there’s also a cottage that sleeps up to five people (US). Meals are available. US (M5)

< Back to Ruta Puuc

Ticul

Located 80km south of Mérida on Hwy-184, TICUL is another good base for exploring the Puuc region, though not especially scenic. Historically an important centre of Maya shamanism, it’s also a shoe-manufacturing town, full of shops stocked with wildly impractical sparkly sandals. It’s well served by buses to and from Mérida and with services to Cancún and the east coast. The centre of town is around the junction of calles 25 and 26, with a large plaza to either side, plus a massive church and several hotels; the market, locally noted for great tortas at night, is to the west on Calle 23 between calles 28 and 30.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: TICUL

By bus Buses from Mérida and elsewhere use a station directly behind the church at the corner of C 24 and C 25-A.

Destinations Caribbean coast via Felipe Carrillo Puerto (17 daily; 4hr 20min); Chetumal (6 daily; 6hr).

By colectivo Colectivos for Mérida, as well as Santa Elena, Oxkutzcab and surrounding villages, set off when they’re full from various points in the immediate vicinity of the bus station: for Mérida near the corner of C 24 and C 25, other destinations mainly from C 25-A alongside the church.

< Back to Ticul

ACCOMMODATION

Plaza C 23 no. 201, between C 26 and C 26-A tel_icon997 972 0484, web_iconhotelplazayucatan.com. The smartest option in town, Hotel Plaza has all the amenities, if no particular style. As you’d expect, the en-suite rooms all come with TVs, telephones and a/c. There’s a decent restaurant, and staff can organize guides and tours. M0

Posada Jardín C 27 no. 216, between C 28 and C 30 tel_icon997 972 0401, web_iconposadajardin.com. For a little greenery, head away from the centre to Posada Jardín, which has four excellent-value cabins with separate sleeping and sitting areas, set in a bright garden with a small, sometimes murky, pool. All rooms have fridges, but a/c and breakfast cost extra. M0

Sierra Sosa C 26 no. 199-A, between C 23 and C 21 tel_icon997 972 0008. The simplest of the hotels in town, Sierra Sosa has basic, rather cramped rooms with shower and fan, with the option of a/c and TVs. Opt for one of the most spacious rooms, upstairs. M0

< Back to Ticul

EATING

Los Almendros C Principal, heading out of town towards Oxkutzcab tel_icon997 972 0021, web_iconrestaurantelosalmendros.com.mx. Ticul’s best-known restaurant is the original location of what is now a small chain and claims to have invented the classic Yucatecan dish of poc-chuc. Unfortunately that’s no guarantee you’ll get a great meal, but it’s worth a try. The big building has a pool for diners, and it’s packed with families at weekends. Daily 10am–9pm.

La Carmelita C 23 at C 26 tel_icon997 972 0515. In the centre of town, just off the plaza, this casual restaurant serves up an inexpensive set meal, as well as other à la carte dishes (M–180): the seafood options are particularly good. Daily 9.30am–6.30pm.

< Back to Ruta Puuc

Kabáh

Hwy-261 east of Uxmal • Daily 8am–5pm • M

This site lies on both sides of the highway some 25km from Uxmal. Much of Kabáh (“Mighty Hand”) remains unexcavated, but the one great building, the Codz Poop, or Palace of Masks, lies not far off the highway. The facade of this amazing structure is covered all over, in ludicrous profusion, with goggle-eyed, trunk-nosed masks of Chac – to get into the doorways, you need to tread over the mask’s noses. Even in its present state, with most of the curved noses broken off, this remains one of the strangest and most striking of all Maya buildings, decorated so obsessively, intricately and repetitively that it seems the product of an insane mind. At the front of the building is a rare working chultun (cistern), with a concave stone floor gathering water into the underground chamber.

  On the other side of the road is an unusual circular pyramid – now simply a green conical mound that, once you spot it, is so large you can’t believe you missed it. Just beyond, a sort of triumphal arch marks the point where an ancient 30km causeway, or sacbé, from Uxmal, entered the city.

Sayil

Ruta Puuc, 5km east of the junction with Hwy-261 • Daily 8am–5pm • M

A sober, restrained contrast to the excesses of Kabáh, Sayil was once one of the most densely populated areas in the Puuc region, home to an estimated seventeen thousand people from 700 AD to 1000 AD. It is dominated by one major structure, the 80m-long Gran Palacio (Great Palace), built with three storeys, each smaller than the one below. Although several large masks of Chac adorn a frieze around the top of the middle level, the decoration mostly takes the form of stone pillaring that mimics the look of bamboo poles – seen more extensively here than at any other Puuc site. The interiors of the middle level, too, are lighter and airier than usual, thanks to the use of broad openings, their lintels supported on fat columns.

  Few other structures have been cleared, and those that have been are widely scattered in the forest – a walk to these remote spots is a long, hot one, but it gives you a better sense of the scale of the old city, as well as a chance to view wildlife such as hummingbirds. From the Gran Palacio a path leads through the forest to the small temple of El Mirador, and in the other direction to a stele, carved with a phallic figure and now protected under a thatched roof. The path (in fact, a former ceremonial sacbé) carries on to the Palacio Sur, a large, little-restored structure with another characteristic bamboo facade.

Xlapak

Ruta Puuc km 10 • Daily 8am–5pm • Free

The minor road continues from Sayil past the smallest and least-visited of the Puuc sites. If you have the time, stop to see the one restored building, a small, elegant palace with huge Chac masks above its doorways and geometric patterns on the facades.

Labná

Ruta Puuc, 3km east of Xlapak • Daily 8am–5pm • M

This ancient city was historically far smaller and less important than Sayil, but it is in many ways a more impressive site. There has been more excavation here, so the main buildings can all be seen as part of a harmonious whole. The Palacio, near the entrance, bears traces of sculptures including the inevitable Chac, and a crocodile-snake figure with a human face emerging from its mouth – thought to symbolize a god emerging from the jaws of the underworld. Remnants of a sacbé lead from here to the Arco de Labná. Originally part of a complex linking two great squares, like the Nunnery at Uxmal, it now stands alone, richly decorated on both sides: on the east with geometric patterns, on the west (the back) with these and niches in the form of Maya huts or temples. Nearby is El Mirador, a barely restored temple mound topped by the well-preserved remains of a tall roofcomb. An inner passageway at one time led to the site’s principal temple.

Grutas de Loltún

Ruta Puuc, south of the junction with Hwy-18 • Daily 8am–5pm • M5 • From Oxkutzcab, take a colectivo or truck from C 51 next to the market; getting back may require a wait, as trucks are full of workers and produce; a taxi from town is approximately M–80

Located just before you reach Oxkutzcab on the road from Labná, these are the most impressive caves in the Yucatán. The two-hour tour (for which you can request an English-speaking guide) concentrates on strange rock formations and patterns in giant stalactites and stalagmites. At the entrance, a huge bas-relief Maya warrior guards the opening to the underworld, and throughout are traces of ancient paintings and carvings on the walls. The surrounding jungle is visible through the collapsed floor of the last gallery, and 10m-long tree roots find an anchor on the cavern floor.

Oxkutzcab

From Labná, you can head back to Mérida on the fast Hwy-18 (look for signs just north of the Grutas de Loltún), or you can stop off in the village of OXKUTZCAB, at the heart of Yucatán’s citrus orchards. If you visit early in the morning, you’ll see its huge daily market at the centre of town, at the junction of calles 50 and 51.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: OXKUTZCAB

By bus Buses to Mérida via Ticul (hourly; 2hr) depart from the Noreste bus station at the corner of C 56 and C 51.

By colectivo Shared vans come and go from beside the market on C 51.

< Back to Oxkutzcab

ACCOMMODATION

author_pickHotel Puuc C 55 at C 44, on the way out of town towards Labná tel_icon997 975 0103, web_iconhotelpuuc.com.mx. The best accommodation option in town, with a sand-coloured, fortress-like exterior, Hotel Puuc is a good-value place, with bright, clean rooms (a/c costs M extra) and a pool. The only drawback is the less than central location, which is awkward if you don’t have your own wheels. M0

< Back to South and east of Mérida

Ruta de los Conventos

From Mérida by car, the easiest route out is C 69 east to the periférico (ring road), then following signs to Mayapán. This takes you to Hwy-18, with the towns all well signposted and only a short way from the new road. Second-class buses to Maní stop at all the smaller towns en route, and can be flagged down on the highway.

The “Convent Route” – Hwy-18 from Oxcutzcab to Mérida – is a natural extension of the Ruta Puuc, or an easy day outing from Mérida on its own. Every town along the route has an immense fortress church, but the historic highlights are Maní and the late Maya site of Mayapán. The churches date mainly from the seventeenth century or even earlier, as the Spanish were trying to establish their control. They were built so huge partly to impress, as a sign of the domination of Christianity over traditional gods, and partly as fortresses and places of refuge in times of trouble.

Maní

12km north of Oxkutzcab • Regular buses from Mérida’s Noreste terminal (C 67 at C 50) until about 8pm

This small town was founded by the Xiu after they abandoned Uxmal, and it was the largest city encountered by the Spanish in the Yucatán, though almost no trace now survives. Avoiding a major confrontation, Maní’s ruler, Ah Kukum Xiu, converted to Christianity and became an ally of the Spanish. In 1548 one of the earliest and largest Franciscan monasteries in the Yucatán was founded here. This still stands, surrounded now by Maya huts, and just about the only evidence of Maní’s past glories is the ancient stones used in its construction and in walls around the town. In front of the church, in 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa held his infamous auto-da-fé, in which he burned the city’s records (because they “contained nothing in which there was not to be seen the superstitions and lies of the devil”), destroying virtually all original Maya literature.

Mayapán

Hwy-18, halfway between Maní and Mérida • Daily 8am–5pm • M • Buses from the Noreste terminal to Maní stop at the ruins on request

The ruins of the most powerful city in the Yucatán from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries sit right beside the road. It was a huge population centre by the standards of the day, with some fifteen thousand people living on a site covering five square kilometres, in which traces of more than four thousand buildings have been found.

  What can be seen today is less than grand – the buildings were crude and small by Maya standards, at best poor copies of what had gone before, and only a few have been restored (a visit doesn’t take long). The Mayapán society was initially dismissed as decadent and failing, but a case can be made for the fact that it was merely a changing one. As the priests no longer dominated here, what grew instead was a more genuinely urban society: highly militaristic, no doubt, but also far more centralized and more reliant on trade than previous Maya culture.

Brief history

According to Maya chronicles, Mayapán, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal formed the League of Mayapán, which exercised control over the entire peninsula from around 987 to 1185. It broke up when Mayapán’s Cocom dynasty attacked the already declining Chichén Itzá and took control of the peninsula. The archeological evidence, however, suggests Mayapán was not founded until 1263, after the fall of Chichén Itzá.

  Either way, hegemony was maintained until 1441, when Ah Xupan, a Xiu leader from Uxmal, overthrew the Cocom and destroyed their city. But this led to factionalism, which aided the Spanish Conquest considerably.

Acancéh

Maya pyramid Daily 8am–5pm • M

A mix of Maya, modern and colonial architecture, the town of Acancéh (pronounced “ah-kan-KAY”) encapsulates Yucatecan history. At the central plaza, beside the sixteenth-century church, is a large Maya pyramid plus two smaller ones, all surrounded by everyday life. At the top of the large pyramid are four huge stucco masks, some of the finest of their kind.

  The ancient Maya Palacio de los Estucos is about four blocks away, behind the market (get directions from the booth at the main pyramid). The stucco decoration on the long, low building is far from complete, but there are plenty of easily identifiable figures, animals and glyphs.

Los Tres Cenotes

Village of Chunkanán, south of Cuzamá • Daily 8am–5pm • M0/truk (up to 4 passengers; the last one departs around 3.30pm) • LUS buses (15 daily; 1hr 30min) and minibuses (2hr) depart from Mérida’s Noreste terminal and Parque San Juan respectively for Cuzamá; from here take a triciclo to Chunkanán (around M); combis also run from Acancéh

The trip to three cavernous cenotes is less a detour off the convent route than a separate day outing, as it typically takes at least six hours, including the drive from the main highway to the village of Chunkanán, followed by a 45-minute ride on a truk (or carrito), a rickety, horse-drawn carriage down old narrow-gauge rail lines. But the reward is great scenery, refreshing swims and a taste of bygone hacienda history. You’ll want to bring swimming gear, towels and perhaps a picnic, as locals do on weekends.

  The process of hiring a truk is slightly complicated by a business rivalry. Coming from Cuzamá, east of Acancéh, you first reach a large parking area off the right side of the road, signed as Los Tres Cenotes. This is an upstart organization, run by people from Cuzamá and greatly resented by the people of Chunkanán – another 2km south on a narrow road – who have no other income in their village. If you press on less than 1km down the road, you will find the original operation, in front of a multi-storey palapa restaurant. If you’re in a taxi or triciclo from Cuzamá, you’ll get steered to the first, Cuzamá-run truk stop; if you want to go to Chunkanán without raising a fuss, you can always say you’re headed for the restaurant.

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING: RUTA DE LOS CONVENTOS

author_pickEl Dzapakal Main road, Chunkanán tel_icon999 564 2435. El Dzapakal is a superb restaurant serving up hearty Yucatecan food (avoid the so-so international dishes), beautifully presented and very reasonably priced (most mains M–120). Daily 10am–6.30pm.

El Príncipe Tutul-Xiu C 26 between C 25 and C 27, Maní tel_icon997 978 4257, web_iconrestaurantes-elprincipetutul-xiu.blogspot.co.uk. Méridans often come down to Maní on day trips to dine at this festive palapa-roofed restaurant that has been serving Yucatecan standards (from M) for more than thirty years. It can be an absolute zoo on Sundays, but the food is always delicious. There are other branches in Mérida and Oxkutzcab. Daily 11am–7pm.

Sac-Nicté Chunkanán tel_icon999 923 7598, mobile tel_icon044 999 189 3133, web_iconmayanvillagerental.com. An authentically Maya-style compound (which can accommodate up to six people), where one small palapa hut houses two hammocks (with mosquito nets), another has a toilet and bathtub and another has a kitchen and extra hammock. At the back is a pool, and there are good-value weekly rates too. M00

< Back to South and east of Mérida

Aké

Midway between Izamal and Mérida on the back road via Cacalchén • Daily 8am–5pm • M • From Mérida or Izamal AutoCentro buses pass the ruins (6 daily; 45min); last bus to Mérida is around 8pm, but confirm before setting off; by car turn south in Euan, or take the direct road from Hwy-180, opposite Tahmek

On the scenic, slow route from Mérida, dense with Maya towns, these ruins are partially integrated into an inhabited village and working henequen plantation. Aké was probably in alliance with the old city of Izamal, as it is linked by one of the peninsula’s largest sacbeob (Maya roads). The most impressive building is the Edificio de las Pilastras, a large platform topped with more than twenty stone pillars. The Maya rubble intermingles with San Lorenzo de Aké, a fine neo-French henequen hacienda from the late nineteenth century. You’re welcome to wander through the antique-looking machinery to see the fibre-making process.

< Back to South and east of Mérida

Izamal

This excellent regional crafts centre is easy enough to visit from Mérida on a day trip, but don’t leave before sunset, when the place takes on a perfect golden glow, thanks to the striking ochre-yellow that covers all of the buildings. If you prefer the country to the city, Izamal can also be a good alternative to Mérida as a base for sightseeing. In this case, though, it’s nice to have a car, as Izamal is served only by second-class buses.

Convento de San Antonio de Padua

Central plaza • Convent Daily 8am–9.30pm • Free • Sound-and-light show Mon–Sat 8.30pm • M • Museum Tues–Sat 10am–1pm & 3–6pm, Sun 9am–4pm • M

In 1552 Fray Diego de Landa (later responsible for a vicious Inquisition and auto-da-fé in Maní) lopped the top off a pyramid and began building this grand convent, which now anchors Izamal’s two adjacent main plazas. The porticoed atrium occupies some 24,000 square metres. When the complex was completed in 1561, de Landa consecrated it with one of two statues of the Virgin that he had brought from Guatemala.

  Several years later, when church leaders from Valladolid attempted to claim the statue, it is said to have become impossibly heavy, and they were forced to leave it in Izamal. A cult developed and she is now the official patroness of the Yucatán; on a visit to the town in 1993, Pope John Paul II gave her a silver crown. During the fiesta dedicated to the Virgin on December 8, penitents climb the monastery’s staircase on their knees, and worshippers sing in the church the entire night before.

  The statue is on view in the camarín, a chapel around the back of the main altar. Next to the chapel, the Museo Santuario de Nuestra Señora shows many elaborate gowns that have clothed the statue. In the evenings, a sound-and-light show is projected on the front facade of the main church.

A CRAFT TOUR OF IZAMAL

A free map, available from most hotels and businesses, identifies the workshops of wood-carvers, papier-mâché artists and other artisans around Izamal – they’re all well marked and easily reached by bike, available from the craft museum. Be sure to visit Don Esteban, on Calle 26 at Calle 45, whose jewellery made from henequen spines is striking and modern, and whose effusive character is memorable. Agustín Colli, on Calle 19 between calles 24 and 26, makes double-weave hammocks that are positively luxurious (and well worth the M0 or so).

  For a broader selection of craftwork, visit Hecho a Mano on the south side of the convent plaza. This particularly good craft and folk-art shop is stocked with everything from Mexican wrestling masks to Huichol yarn paintings from Nayarit, as well as excellent photography by the owner; note that the hours (Tues–Sat 10am–2pm & 4–7pm) can be erratic.

Kinich Kakmó

C 27 between C 28 and C 26 • Daily 8am–8pm • Free

Izamal was formerly an important religious centre for the Maya, where they worshipped Itzamná, mythical founder of the ancient city and one of the gods of creation, at a series of huge pyramid-temples. Most of these are now no more than low mounds in the surrounding country, but several survive in the town itself, and are fascinating to see right in the middle of the residential grid; some businesses on the plaza have pyramids literally in their backyards. Kinich Kakmó is the largest pile, dedicated to the sun god and now partly restored. It’s just a couple of blocks north of the two adjacent central plazas.

Centro Cultural y Artesanal

C 31 on the plaza • Tues–Sat 10am–8pm, Sun 10am-5pm • M • tel_icon988 954 1020

This museum showcases choice pieces of craftwork from all over Mexico, with a wing devoted to Yucatecan specialities. It houses a nice shop, a small café (peek behind to see some pyramid remnants) and a quiet, perfumed back room where you can get a foot massage.

ARRIVAL AND INFORMATION: IZAMAL

By bus All buses arrive at a small station one block west of the main plaza. For Mérida-bound services, Oriente is preferable to Centro because you arrive closer to the town centre.

Destinations Cancún (hourly; 4hr; slightly faster Oriente service 3 daily, via Tizimín); Valladolid (hourly; 1hr); Mérida (roughly every 30min; 1–2hr).

By car From Mérida, it’s easiest to go via Tixkokob or Motul. Coming from the west on Hwy-180 libre, go to Kantunil then turn north by following signs for the cuota to Cancún, then make an awkward U-turn. From the westbound cuota, look for a direct right turn off the highway immediately before km 68. If you miss the turn (easy to do), you can continue to Hoctún, then backtrack.

Tourist office North plaza (daily 9am–9pm; tel_icon988 954 0009).

< Back to Izamal

GETTING AROUND

By horse-drawn carriage Horse-drawn carriages lined up around the plaza will take you for a pleasant paseo around the town (20min; M0).

By bike Rent a bicycle (around M0/day) from the Centro Cultural y Artesanal on the plaza.

< Back to Izamal

ACCOMMODATION

Macan Ché B&B C 22, between C 33 and C 35 tel_icon988 954 0287, web_iconmacanche.com. This B&B has an assortment of comfortable cottages (a/c costs US extra) tucked among rambling gardens taking up nearly a whole block east of the plaza; rates include breakfast, and other meals are available as well. M0

Rinconada del Convento C 33 no. 294, at C 28 tel_icon988 954 0151, web_iconhotelizamal.com. On the south side of the convent, Rinconada has eleven a/c rooms with shiny tile floors, mission-style furniture and plenty of natural light through large windows and patio doors. There’s a pool in a tiered garden-courtyard. M5

San Miguel Arcangel C 31-A no. 308, between C 30 and C 30-A, on the plaza tel_icon988 954 0109, web_iconsanmiguelhotel.com.mx. An airy two-storey hotel just across from the convent. Rooms are clean and bright and have a/c, while the upper ones along the front have balconies (for M0 more) that afford close-up views of the plaza action. For less noise, ask for a room off the courtyard, where you’ll have a view of one of Izamal’s ruined pyramids. Communal facilities include a hot tub. M0

< Back to Izamal

EATING

Los Arcos C 28, on the north plaza. Of the handful of evening snack operations under the portales that edge the north plaza, this one’s notable for its breakfast options, enormous tortas and delicious fresh fruit drinks (M–40). Daily 8am–10pm.

Kinich C 27, between C 28 and C30 tel_icon988 954 0489. This palapa-roofed place is a good traditional restaurant, even if it is a top tour-group destination. Women pat tortillas by hand, and the Yucatecan dishes like sopa de lima and poc-chuc are reasonably priced (around M–160). Daily 8am–10pm.

El Toro C 33 no. 303-G, at C 30 tel_icon988 954 1169. Just south of the convent, this small family-owned place is open for dinner, with a hearty Yucatecan menu of dishes (from M) like chaya tamales and queso relleno. Mon–Thurs & Sun 8am–11pm, Fri & Sat 8am–1am.

< Back to Izamal

DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange On the north plaza, C 31 at C 28, you’ll find a Banorte bank with ATM; there’s another ATM at the Super Willy’s grocery, just off the main plaza.

Internet An internet café is on C 32 just south of the bus station.

Laundry A laundry is on C 30 two blocks north of the north plaza.

Post office On the main plaza (Mon–Fri 8am–2.30pm).

< Back to South and east of Mérida

CHICHÉN ITZÁ AND AROUND

The most famous, the most extensively restored and by far the most visited of all Maya sites, Chichén Itzá lies conveniently along the main highway from Mérida to Cancún, a little more than 200km from the Caribbean coast. To do the ruins justice and to see them when they’re not entirely thronged with tourists, an overnight stop is well worth considering – either at the site itself or, less extravagantly, in the rather dreary village of Pisté, about 3km west. The village exists almost entirely to provide visitors with accommodation so they can get an early start. Larger Valladolid, to the east, is a better option as a base, as it’s both convenient and inexpensive, and has some general city life.

RG

The ruins

Hwy-180 libre, just east of Pisté • Daily: winter 8am–5pm; summer 8am–6pm, last entry an hour earlier • Sound-and-light-show (in Spanish) Nightly winter 7pm, summer 8pm • M3 • Visitor centre Daily 8am–10pm • M0 in total, comprising two tickets (for two separate site management bodies) • Guide (2hr) M0 • Horseriding trips cost around US/M5 and are bookable at Hotel Mayaland

The main entry to the site is on the west side. A huge visitor centre houses a museum, restaurant, ATM and shops selling souvenirs, film, maps and guides. You can also get in at the smaller eastern gate by the Hotel Mayaland. Either way, you’ll want to go in at opening time, as tour buses from Cancún and Mérida start arriving around 10.30am. Allow about three hours to see the site, and if crowds are light, start with the iconic buildings in the Itzá-era Chichén Nuevo (New Chichén) on the north side, then retreat to the Terminal Classic (Chichén Viejo) to the south, where fewer visitors go.

Brief history

Though in most minds Chichén Itzá represents the Maya, it is in fact the site’s divergence from Maya tradition that makes it archeologically intriguing. Experts are fairly certain that the city was established around 300 AD, and began to flourish in the Terminal Classic period (between 800 and 925 AD). The rest of its history, however, and the roots of the Itzá clan that consolidated power in the peninsula here after 925 AD, remain in dispute. Much of the evidence at the site – an emphasis on human sacrifice, the presence of a huge ball-court and the glorification of military activity – points to a strong influence from central Mexico. For decades researchers guessed this was the result of the city’s defeat by the Toltecs, a theory reinforced by the resemblance of the Templo de los Guerreros to the colonnade at Tula, near Mexico City, along with Toltec-style pottery remains and numerous depictions of the Toltec god-king, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcán to the Maya).

  Work since the 1980s, however, supports a theory that the Itzá people were not Toltec invaders, but fellow Maya who had migrated from the south, which would explain why their subjects referred to them in texts as “foreigners”. The Toltec artefacts, this view holds, arrived in central Yucatán via the Itzás’ chief trading partners, the Chontal Maya, who maintained allegiances with Toltecs of central Mexico and Oaxaca.

Chichén Nuevo

The main path leads directly to El Castillo (also called the Pyramid of Kukulcán), the structure that sits alone in the centre of a great grassy plaza. It is a simple, relatively unadorned square building, with a monumental stairway ascending each face (though only two are restored), rising in nine receding terraces to a temple at the top. The simplicity is deceptive, however, as the building is in fact the Maya calendar rendered in stone: each staircase has 91 steps, which, added to the single step at the main entrance to the temple, amounts to 365; other numbers relevant to the calendar recur throughout the construction. Most remarkably, near sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the great serpents’ heads at the foot of the main staircase are joined to their tails (at the top of the building) by an undulating body of shadow – an event that lasts just a few hours and draws spectators, and awed worshippers, by the thousands. The effect is re-created nightly in the sound-and-light show.

  Inside El Castillo, where visitors cannot enter, an earlier pyramid survives almost intact, and in the temple’s inner sanctuary, archeologists discovered one of the greatest treasures at the site: an altar, or perhaps a throne, in the form of a jaguar, painted bright red and inset with jade “spots” and eyes.

The “Toltec” plaza

El Castillo marks one edge of a plaza that formed the focus of Chichén Nuevo, and in addition to a sacbé leading to Cenote Sagrado, all its most important buildings are here, many displaying a strong Toltec influence in their structure and decoration. The Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), lined on two sides by the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of the Thousand Columns), forms the eastern edge of the plaza. These are the structures that most recall the great Toltec site of Tula, both in design and in detail – in particular the colonnaded courtyard (which would have been roofed with some form of thatch) and the use of Atlantean columns representing battle-dressed warriors, their arms raised above their heads.

  The temple is richly decorated on its north and south sides with carvings and sculptures of jaguars and eagles devouring human hearts, feathered serpents, warriors and, the one undeniably Maya feature, masks of the rain god Chac, with his curling snout. On top (now visible only at a distance, as you can no longer climb the structure) are two superb examples of figures called Chac-mools, once thought to be introduced by the Toltecs: offerings were placed on the stomachs of these reclining figures, which are thought to represent either the messengers who would take the sacrifice to the gods or perhaps the divinities themselves.

  The “thousand” columns alongside originally formed a square, on the far side of which is the building known as the Mercado, although there’s no evidence that this actually was a marketplace. Near here, too, is a small, dilapidated ball-court.

  North of El Castillo is the Plataforma de Venus, a raised block with a stairway up each side guarded by feathered serpents. Here, rites associated with Quetzalcoatl when he took the form of Venus, the morning star, would have been carried out. Slightly smaller, but otherwise identical in design, the adjacent Plataforma de Águilas y Jaguares features reliefs of eagles and jaguars holding human hearts. Human sacrifices may have been carried out here, judging by the proximity of a third platform, the Tzompantli, where victims’ heads likely hung on display. This is carved on every side with grotesque grinning stone skulls.

Gran Juego de Pelota

Chichén Itzá’s ball-court, on the west side of the plaza, is the largest known in existence, with walls some 90m long. Its design is a capital “I” surrounded by temples, with the goals, or target rings, halfway along each side. Along the bottom of each side runs a sloping panel decorated with scenes of the game. Although the rules and full significance of the game remain a mystery, it was clearly not a Saturday-afternoon kick-about in the park.

  On the panel, the players are shown proceeding from either side towards a central circle, the symbol of death. One player, just right of the centre (whether it’s the winning or losing captain is up for debate), has been decapitated, while another holds his head and a ritual knife. Along the top runs the stone body of a snake, whose heads stick out at either end. The court is subject to a whispering-gallery effect, which enables you to be heard clearly at the far end of the court, and to hear what’s going on there.

Templo de los Jaguares

This temple overlooks the playing area from the east side. At the bottom – effectively the outer wall of the ball-court – is a little portico supported by two pillars, between which a stone jaguar stands sentinel. The outer wall panels, the left and the right of the interior space, are carved with the images of Pawahtuns, the gods who supported the sky and who are thought to be the patrons of the Itzá people. Inside are some worn but elaborate relief carvings of the Itzá ancestors inserted in the Maya creation myth – a powerful demonstration of their entitlement to rule.

Cenote Sagrado

The city’s largest cenote lies at the end of the sacbé that leads about 300m off the north side of the plaza. It’s an almost perfectly round hole in the limestone bedrock, some 60m in diameter and more than 30m deep, the bottom third full of water. It was thanks to this natural well (and perhaps another in the southern half of the site) that the city could survive at all, and it gives Chichén Itzá its name (literally “at the edge of the well of the Itzá”). The well was regarded as a portal to the underworld, called Xibalba, and the Maya threw in offerings such as statues, jade and engraved metal discs (a few of them gold), as well as human sacrifices – all of them boys, recent research has shown. The Maya thought that any boy who managed to survive the ordeal had communed with the gods.

Chichén Viejo

The southern half of the site is the most sacred part for contemporary Maya, though the buildings here are not in such good condition. They were built for the most part prior to 925 AD, in the architectural styles used in the Puuc and Chenes regions.

El Osario

A path leads from the south side of El Castillo to the major structures, passing first the pyramid El Osario (the Ossuary; also called the High Priest’s Grave), the only building in this section that shows Toltec-style detail. Externally it is very similar to El Castillo, but inside a series of tombs was discovered. A shaft, first explored at the end of the nineteenth century, drops down from the top through five crypts, in each of which was found a skeleton and a trap door leading to the next. The fifth is at ground level, but here too was a trap door, and steps cut through the rock to a sixth chamber that opens onto a huge underground cavern: the burial place of the high priest.

El Caracol

Follow the main path and you arrive at El Caracol (the Snail, for its shape; also called the Observatory), a circular, domed tower standing on two rectangular platforms and looking remarkably like a modern-day observatory. The roof has slits aligned with various points of astronomical significance. Four doors at the cardinal points lead into the tower and a circular chamber. A spiral staircase leads to the upper level, where observations were made.

Las Monjas

Immediately to the south of El Caracol, the so-called Monjas (Nunnery) palace complex shows several stages of construction. Part of the facade was blasted away in the nineteenth century, but it is nonetheless a building of grand proportions. Its annexe, on the east end, has an elaborate facade in the Chenes style, covered in small heads of Chac that combine to make one giant mask, with the door as a mouth. By contrast, La Iglesia, a small building standing beside the convent, is a clear demonstration of Puuc design, its low band of unadorned masonry around the bottom surmounted by an elaborate mosaic frieze and roofcomb. Masks of Chac again predominate, but above the doorway are also figures of the four mythological creatures that held up the sky – a snail, a turtle, an armadillo and a crab.

Beyond Las Monjas

A path leads, in about ten minutes, to a further group of ruins that are among the oldest on the site, although they are unrestored; this is a good area for bird watching, with few people around to disturb the wildlife. Just east of Las Monjas is the Akab Dzib, a relatively plain block of palace rooms that takes its name (“Obscure Writings”) from undeciphered hieroglyphs found inside. Red palm prints – frequently found in Maya buildings – adorn the walls of some of the chambers. Backtrack along the main path to the building opposite El Osario, the Plataforma de las Tumbas, a funerary structure topped with small columns; behind it is a jungle path that heads back to the main east–west road via the site’s other water source, Cenote Xtoloc.

< Back to Chichén Itzá and around

Grutas de Balankanché

Hwy-180, 1.6km east of the Dolores Alba hotel • Tours (in English) Daily 9.30am, 11am, 12.30pm & 4pm • M3 • Second-class buses and colectivos between Valladolid and Mérida can drop you at las grutas; a taxi from Pisté costs about M–80

These damp caverns are a refreshingly cool way to pass an hour. They were reopened in 1959, when a sealed passageway was discovered, revealing a path to an underground altar to Chac, the rain god. Tours with taped commentary lead past an underground pool, stalagmites and stalactites to a huge rock formation that resembles a ceiba, the Maya tree of life. Around its base lie many of the original Maya offerings, such as clay pots in the shapes of gods’ faces.

< Back to Chichén Itzá and around

Cenote Yokdzonot

Hwy-180, 14km west of Pisté • Daily 9am–6pm • M • Any of the second-class buses along Hwy-180 libre stop on request at the town plaza; the cenote is about 350m south; a taxi costs around M0, factoring in waiting time

The village of Yokdzonot is known for its well-kept cenote. It has excellent facilities, with good showers and toilets, plus a restaurant and camping facilities. Life jackets and snorkel gear are available, and you can take a bike tour to another nearby cenote.

< Back to Chichén Itzá and around

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: CHICHÉN ITZÁ AND AROUND

Arriving at Chichén Itzá, Hwy-180 libre curves around the site to the north, making an arc that merges with the site access road (the original highway straight through) at both ends.

THE RUINS

By bus First-class buses from all the peninsula’s major towns and cities stop in the site parking lot.

Destinations Cancún (roughly hourly; 4hr), with the 4.30pm ADO express bus (3hr); Playa del Carmen (2 daily at 7.35am & 4.30pm; 3hr 20min–3hr 50min); Tulum (2 daily at 7.35am & 4.30pm; 2hr 20min–2hr 50min), with the first bus stopping at Cobá (2hr 10min); Valladolid (at least hourly; 40–55min).

PISTÉ

By bus There are two bus stations, one at each end of town. You can buy tickets for any service at either station, but first-class buses stop only at the east end.

Destinations All destinations are the same as at the ruins, plus Mérida on second class (14 daily; 3hr).

< Back to Chichén Itzá and around

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Visitors to Chichén Itzá have a choice of staying in more expensive hotels immediately east of the ruins (all but one are on the short east-side access road off Hwy-180 libre, signposted “Zona Hotelera”), or cheaper ones along the main street in the town of Pisté, west of the site. In Pisté, most hotels are on the main road, between the village and the ruins, so it’s easy to shop around – though quality can be low and occupancy high. Though the town is short on good places to eat, there is a row of loncherías at the west end of town, facing the plaza – they serve comida corrida for about M, and are also open in the evenings, with lighter meals.

NEAR THE RUINS

Dolores Alba Hwy-180 libre km 122, 2km east of Chichén Itzá east entrance tel_icon999 928 5650, web_icondoloresalba.com. The best-value hotel near the ruins, with clean, colourful rooms (though rather tiny, spare bathrooms), a good restaurant and two swimming pools. Transport is provided to the site, but not back. The restaurant is good and affordable, and diners can use the pool. Across the road, you may notice the appealing-looking Parque Ikkil, but it is a massive package-tour-with-buffet juggernaut, not really even worth entering for its cenote. Daily noon–2pm & 7–10pm. M0

author_pickHacienda Chichén Off Hwy-180 libre, near the east entrance to the ruins tel_icon985 920 8407, web_iconhaciendachichen.com. Of the two luxury choices at the ruins (Mayaland is the other), this place has a more old-colonial, Mexican feel: the hacienda it is based on dates back to 1523. Some rooms are in cottages that housed Carnegie Institution archeologists in the 1920s. There’s also a spa. US3 (M40)

Villa Arqueológica Chichén Itzá Off Hwy-180 libre, near the east entrance to the ruins tel_icon985 851 0187, web_iconvillasmex.com. Not as lavish as its neighbours, but comfortable enough, and handy for the site. The snug, thick-walled rooms (each with a double bed and a single bed) and suites are set round a patio enclosing a pool and cocktail bar. US (M80)

PISTÉ

Felix Inn Hwy-180 libre, midway through town tel_icon999 851 0033, email_icon[email protected]. A sensible and sunny alternative to the hotels by the ruins. Clean-enough a/c rooms are laid out around a garden and pool, plus a restaurant and an internet café with sometimes-iffy connections. Rooms are shielded from highway noise by the lobby. M0

Las Mestizas Hwy-180 libre, midway through Pisté tel_icon999 851 0069. One of the more welcoming places in Pisté, this is a palapa-roofed setup with a similar menu to its neighbours; the best options are probably the regional dishes (M–180), such as the refreshing sopa de lima. Mon–Sat 8am–10pm.

Pirámide Inn Hwy-180 libre at the west end of town, next to the bus station tel_icon985 851 0115, web_iconchichen.com. Good rates, a pool and vintage Sixties style, but it’s all fairly dilapidated. Recommendable only for its location very close to the ruins, and the fact that you can camp in the big gardens (bring your own tent). Doubles M0; camping (per person) M

Posada Olalde On C 6, off Hwy-180 libre; turn south across from Posada Carrousel tel_icon985 851 0086, email_icon[email protected]. This is one of the quieter spots in town, as it’s off the main road. Palapa-roofed cabañas with fans crowd the tiny yard behind the main house, but they’re a fresher alternative to the tired rooms in the older complex behind. M0

Restaurante San Antonio Hwy-180 libre, opposite the east-end bus station in Pisté. Compared with the massive buffet restaurants nearby, this basic lunch spot (dishes M–120) is easy to overlook. However, it serves a daily stew special, has nice outdoor seating and is less of a tourist scrum than many of its neighbours. Daily noon–3pm.

< Back to Chichén Itzá and around

VALLADOLID AND AROUND

Yucatán state’s second city, VALLADOLID is around 40km east of Chichén Itzá, still close enough to beat the crowds to the site on an early bus, and of interest in its own right. Although it took a severe bashing in the nineteenth-century Caste Wars, it has retained a strong colonial feel and exudes the unpretentious attitude of a rural capital, catering to the farmers and ranchers who live nearby, and the village women who come here to sell their hand-embroidered huipiles and other crafts. It’s also an excellent place to eat, with traditional Yucatecan food still flourishing.

  The heart of the city is the parque principal, the main plaza at the intersection of calles 39 and 40, where the two white towers of the eighteenth-century Catedral de San Gervasio rise gracefully over the south side. It’s the place to be at dusk, when the curving love seats are filled with chatting couples and the bubbling fountain, topped with a statue of a woman in a traditional Yucatecan huipil, is lit from below. During the day, you can walk upstairs in the city hall (ayuntamiento; on the southeast corner) to see murals and photos of Valladolid’s history, including a wall of portraits of city leaders.

RG

Casa de los Venados

C 40 no. 204, just off the plaza • Tours Daily 10am (in English and Spanish) • M • tel_icon985 856 2289, email_icon[email protected], web_iconcasadelosvenados.com

This private home, a beautifully renovated seventeenth-century mansion, contains a truly dazzling collection (over 3000-strong) of modern Mexican folk art, shown by house-proud owners, an American couple, who are delighted to answer questions. Pre-arrange a visit by email, ideally, or drop by at 10am, the default tour time. The entry fee supports local charities.

< Back to Valladolid and around

Iglesia de San Bernardino de Siena

Parque de San Bernardino, 1km southwest of the plaza via C 41-A • Church Mon & Wed–Sun 9am–8pm; Mass daily 6pm • Free • Museum Mon–Sat 9am–6pm • M

Franciscan missionaries began work on this sturdy church shortly after the Spanish established Valladolid as an outpost in 1545. In 1848 Maya rebels sacked it; despite this, a fine Baroque altarpiece from the eighteenth century remains, as do some striking seventeenth-century paintings on the side walls.

  The monastery on the north side is now a museum, where you can see weapons that were dredged up from the on-site cenote, and other relics from the revolution. You can also see the beautiful structure that houses the water wheel over the cenote, and the sprawling gardens where the self-sufficient monks grew their own food.

< Back to Valladolid and around

Cenote Zací

On the block formed by C 34, C 36, C 37 and C 39 • Daily 8am–6pm • M

This cenote was the water source for the former Maya stronghold of Zací (“white hawk”), from where the fierce Cupul clan fought against the first conquistadors. Broad stairs lead down into a huge cavern where the air is cool, and light reflects off the green water. It’s also home to lots of catfish. Swimming is permitted, but not encouraged – there are no changing rooms, though you could tidy up in the open-air restaurant at the top, so long as you order something.

< Back to Valladolid and around

Cenotes X’keken and Samula

7km west of Valladolid on Hwy-180 libreCenote X’keken Daily 8am–6pm • M • Cenote Samula Daily 8am–6pm • M • Colectivos run to the village of Dzitnup from outside the María Guadalupe hotel on C 44; or cycle on a paved bike path starting from C 49 west of San Bernardino; or take a taxi (around M0 return with waiting time)

Perhaps the most photogenic swimming hole in the Yucatán, the remarkable Cenote X’keken is also called Dzitnup like the nearby village. Visitors descend through a tunnel into a huge vaulted cave, where a nearly circular pool of crystal-clear turquoise water glows under a shaft of light from an opening in the ceiling. A swim in the ice-cold water is an invigorating experience. A short walk away, in the same complex, at the even more impressive (thanks to spooky natural lighting) Cenote Samula, the roots of a huge tree stretch down towards the pool. Facilities include changing rooms, souvenir stalls, life jackets (to rent) and a restaurant. Not to be missed.

< Back to Valladolid and around

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: VALLADOLID

By bus Valladolid’s main bus station is on C 39 at C 46, a block and a half west of the main plaza. Additionally, AutoCentro buses serve Izamal (15 daily; 1hr) from the old Oriente terminal west of the centre, C 37 at C 54.

Destinations Cancún (1–2 hourly; 2hr 15min–4hr 20min); Chetumal (4 daily at 5.25am, 7.30am, 2.25pm & 8.30pm; 5hr 20min), via Carrillo Puerto and Bacalar; Chichén Itzá (hourly; 40min); Izamal (2 daily at 12.45pm & 3.50pm; 3hr); Mérida (12 daily; 2hr 10min), plus numerous second-class services; Playa del Carmen (13 daily; 2hr 30min–3hr 10min); Tizimín (4 daily at 8.49am, 12.24pm, 7.24pm & 9.30pm; 50min–1hr); Tulum via Cobá (11 daily; 1hr 30min–2hr 10min).

By colectivo Shared vans and taxis are convenient for nearby towns and sights, such as Tizimín, Ek-Balam and Dzitnup. Most depart from marked points along C 44 just west of the plaza, though the Ek-Balam service seems to shift around. For Chichén Itzá, Servicio Plus vans leave from C 39 between C 44 and C 46; these can be faster than buses in the morning, and much cheaper. They also serve X’keken and Samula, with departures at 8am from the same spot.

< Back to Valladolid and around

GETTING AROUND

By bike With its small scale and light traffic, Valladolid is a good place to get around by bike; you can also reach nearby cenotes via bike paths. Rent (for M/day) from MexiGO Tours, which offers a self-guided bike tour.

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

Tourist office On the southeast corner of the main plaza, by the ayuntamiento (Mon–Fri 9am–9pm, Sat 9am–8pm, Sun 9am–7pm; tel_icon985 856 2529, web_iconvalladolid.com.mx). It has plenty of information, including free maps, but is erratically staffed.

Tours MexiGO Tours (C 43 no. 204-C, between C 40 and C 42 tel_icon985 856 0777, web_iconmexigotours.com) runs trips to Río Lagartos and other nearby attractions, as well as bike trips (self-guided is an option) to local houses and cenotes.

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ACCOMMODATION

Valladolid’s budget hotels are good, and higher-end places are excellent value. Also note that the Genesis Retreat is less than half an hour away.

La Aurora C 42 at C 35 tel_icon985 856 1219, email_icon[email protected]. Great mix of old colonial style and new features: sparkling rooms around a central courtyard and pool but retaining the building’s old tile floors. For quiet, though, request a room away from the street, where traffic noise hammers off the stone pavements. M0

author_pickLa Candelaria Parque la Candelaria, C 35 between C 44 and C 42 tel_icon985 856 2267, web_iconhostelvalladolidyucatan.com. The excellent local hostel, facing one of the city’s loveliest squares, has spotless dorms and private rooms, plus a garden, laundry facilities, an outdoor kitchen and low-cost bike rental. Dorms M5; doubles M0

author_pickCasa Hamaca C 49 no. 202-A, at C 40 on the southwest corner of Parque San Juan tel_icon985 856 5287, web_iconcasahamaca.com. Set in a garden packed with fruit trees, this charming B&B has eight expansive rooms in a big two-storey building. There’s also a pool, and the expert owner can arrange massages, spa treatments and nature tours. M20

María Guadalupe C 44 no. 198, between C 39 and C 41 tel_icon985 856 2068, web_iconhotelmariaguadalupe.com. The best of Valladolid’s cheapies, María Guadalupe has well-kept rooms featuring private baths and optional a/c in a small two-storey 1960s building. Colectivos for cenotes X’keken and Samula leave from outside. M0

El Mesón del Marqués C 39 no. 203, on the main plaza tel_icon985 856 2073, web_iconmesondelmarques.com. Lovely hotel that started in a mansion, then expanded into neighbouring buildings. It’s where most tour groups stay, but the quality is high. It has a wonderful palm-fringed pool, and one of the best restaurants in town. M0

Tunich-Beh C 41-A, between C 46 and C 48 tel_icon985 856 2222, web_icontunichbeh.com. En route to the Iglesia de San Bernardino, on one of the city’s prettiest streets, and well worth the walk out of the centre. Spacious and clean rooms are well off the street, set behind a car park and palapa-covered walkway, in a verdant courtyard next to a clean pool. M0

Zací C 44 no. 191, between C 37 and C 39 tel_icon985 856 2167, web_iconhotelzaci.com.mx. A pleasant, modern, three-storey hotel with a quiet courtyard and pool, all of which make it exceptionally good value. The big rooms have a fan, or – for a few dollars more – a/c and TV. M5

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EATING

Whatever your budget, you’ll eat well in Valladolid – all of the restaurants recommended here could be considered “author picks”. The city market, the Mercado Municipal, is on C 32 between C 35 and C 37 and ringed with snack stands. For nightlife, there’s not much beyond people-watching on the plaza, where there’s usually some live music on Sun.

El Bazar Northeast corner of the main plaza. A sort of semi-open-air food court with an excellent selection of inexpensive, busy loncherías and pizzerias. Most of the stands are open at lunch, but a few also serve breakfast, and some serve lighter meals (M–60). Generally daily 8am–10pm.

author_pickCasa Italia Parque Candelaria, C 35 no. 202-J, between C 42 and C 44 tel_icon985 856 5539, web_iconcasaitalia.com. Sweet, family-owned Italian restaurant that’s both delicious and inexpensive (pizzas M5–150, pastas M–85). It draws local families as well as tourists, and there are seats outside on the city’s prettiest small plaza. Tues–Sat 7–11pm.

Conato 1910 C 40, between C 45 and C 47 tel_icon985 108 2003. A few rooms in an old house, furnished with antique oddities and vinyl booths. The food is eclectic, beautifully presented and home-made (most mains M–150), and includes a few sweets such as a rich coconut pudding. It’s a family place, but still has a special atmosphere. Mon–Sat 7–10.30pm.

Hostería El Marqués C 39 no. 203, in El Mesón del Marqués tel_icon985 856 2073, web_iconmesondelmarques.com. Valladolid’s best (and quite reasonably priced) restaurant is set in an interior courtyard on the main plaza. Don’t be put off if you see it packed with a tour group – the excellent menu (mains M–250) features Yucatecan classics such as sopa de lima and poc-chuc, along with city specialities like escabeche de Valladolid (chicken in a spicy vinegar broth). Daily 8am–10.30pm.

author_pickSquimz C 39 no. 219, between C 44 and C 46 tel_icon999 856 4156, web_iconsquimz.com.mx. A cute, somewhat stylish restaurant-café: pastries and coffee up front, full dinners at the back. The core of the menu is Yucatecan, but often presented in a creative, lighter way (mains M–125). Daily 7am–10pm.

Zací C 36, between C 37 and C 39 tel_icon985 856 0721, web_iconcenotezaci.com.mx. The restaurant at the cenote of the same name is reasonably priced (mains M–120) and features some hearty regional food, such as ultra-smoky longaniza sausage, and handmade tortillas. The setting is cool and shady. Daily noon–6pm.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange There are numerous banks in the city centre. Bancomer, next door to the post office on the plaza, changes travellers’ cheques and has an ATM.

Internet There are several internet cafés in the centre, including the Ladatel caseta on the plaza.

Laundry Lavanderia Daniela at C 41-A, on the way to the Iglesia de San Bernardino de Siena.

Post office On the plaza, C 40 near the corner of C 39 (Mon–Fri 9am–3pm).

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North of Valladolid

From Valladolid, most traffic heads straight east to the Caribbean beaches. The north, however, is less explored and makes a nice detour for wildlife: flamingo colonies at Río Lagartos are the main draw. You can also visit the small but flawless Maya site of Ek-Balam.

Ek-Balam

20km north of Valladolid, then 7km east • Daily 8am–5pm • M0; given the rich detail at the site, it’s worth hiring a guide for about M0 for a small group; Juan Canul, who has worked on many excavations, is recommended (ask for him at the ticket desk); he speaks Spanish and English

Notable for the high quality and unique details of its fantastically preserved stucco sculpture, Ek-Balam is nonetheless rarely crowded. The compact site, enclosed by a series of defensive walls, is really only the ceremonial centre; the entire city, which was occupied from the pre-Classic period through to the Spanish Conquest, spreads out over a very wide area, punctuated by sacbeob leading out in all directions.

  The entrance is along one of these ancient roads, leading through a freestanding four-sided arch. Beyond are two identical temples, called Las Gemelas (the Twins), and a long ball-court.

El Acrópolis

The principal building, on the far side of the plaza, is the massive Acrópolis, the stones along its 200m-long base adorned with bas-reliefs. Thatched awnings at the top protect the site’s finest treasure, an elaborate stucco frieze fully uncovered only recently; 85 percent of what you see is original plaster from the ninth century that didn’t even require retouching once the dirt was brushed away.

  A staircase leads up the centre of the building. On the first level, two doorways flanking the steps display near-matching designs of twisted serpents and tongues; in the right-hand carving, the snake’s tongue is emblazoned with a glyph thought to represent the city. Just below the summit, a Chenes-style doorway in the form of a giant gaping mouth is studded with protruding teeth. This is the entrance to the tomb of Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok, Ek-Balam’s king in the mid-ninth century. The lower jaw forms the floor, while skulls, lilies, fish and other symbols of the underworld carved below reinforce its function as a tomb gateway. Back on the ground, in the plaza, an exceptionally well-preserved stele depicts a king receiving the objects of power from Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok, the smaller seated figure at the top of the stele.

Cenote Xcanché

Daily 9am–5pm • M • tel_icon985 100 9815, web_iconcenotexcanche.com.mx

In the parking area at the Ek-Balam site, you’ll find someone selling tickets to a seemingly bottomless pool that’s a 2km walk from the ruins. You can rent a bike to ride there, and try other activities such as rappelling and kayaking at the cenote. There’s a small restaurant too.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: EK-BALAM

By colectivo The village and ruins are easily reached from Valladolid in a colectivo, departing from C 44 just west of the plaza.

By taxi A round-trip taxi from Valladolid costs about M0 with waiting time.

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

author_pickGenesis Retreat East of the village plaza tel_icon985 852 7980, web_icongenesisretreat.com. Not far from the ruins, this beautiful ecolodge has a big garden and a bio-filtered pool. Guests can take tours around the village and in the nearby forest. The vegetarian café makes a great stop after the ruins, with organic, local produce. Some taxi drivers may attempt to take you to another, less savoury, lodge around the corner – Genesis has a doghouse labelled “Concierge” out front. En-suite rooms cost around M0 extra; the treehouse-style “Birdhouse” room is a fun option for children. Daily 1–3pm. M9

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Tizimín

Travelling by bus from Valladolid north to Río Lagartos, you have to transfer in TIZIMÍN, the unofficial capital of Yucatán’s cattle country, 51km from Valladolid. It’s pleasant enough, but travellers rarely come this way, even though it is a handy transport hub for northeastern Yucatán (you can go straight from here to Mérida or Cancún, for instance). One seasonal draw is the Feria de los Tres Reyes, which takes place during Epiphany in early January. The fair’s festivities draw both Catholic pilgrims and cowboys (who show off their barbecue skills). The rest of the year, it’s worth arranging your schedule to pass through Tizimín at lunch time, for a meal at one of the region’s best restaurants.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: TIZIMÍN

By bus Two bus stations are around the corner from each other at C 46 and C 47, about at 10min walk northeast of the main plaza.

Destinations Cancún (6 daily; 4hr–4hr 10min); Chiquilá for Holbox (3 daily at 7.30am, 1.30pm & 4.30pm; 3hr); Mérida (5 daily; 3hr); Río Lagartos (12 daily; 1hr–2hr); San Felipe (7 daily; 1hr–1hr 30min).

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Hotel San Carlos C 54 no. 407, between C 51 and C 53 tel_icon986 863 2094, web_iconhotelsancarlostizimin.com. There’s no real reason to stay the night in Tizimín, but if you do want to, Hotel San Carlos is one of the better options in town, with tidy en-suite rooms with a/c and TVs. M0

author_pickTres Reyes C 52 at C 53 tel_icon986 863 2106. A great restaurant with hand-patted, chewy tortillas, black-as-ink beans and succulent meats – the soul of Yucatecan cooking (dishes M–220). It’s on the plaza, a 10min walk from the two bus stations. Daily 8am–11pm.

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Río Lagartos

This village 100km north of Valladolid is set on a small spit, surrounded on three sides by water and protected from the open sea by a barrier island. The resulting shallow inlet is inhabited much of the year by tens of thousands of pink flamingos, among nearly four hundred bird species in the Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Though there’s not much in the town itself, the flamingos alone make a visit worthwhile; the best time of year to see them is the spring nesting season, from April to July. There is no bank or ATM in town, so plan accordingly.

FLAMINGO TOURS IN RÍO LAGARTOS

As soon as you arrive at the bus station or get out of your car, you’ll be approached about boat tours to see the flamingos. Several experienced guides operate in town: ask for Ismael Navarro and Elmer Canul of Río Lagartos Expeditions (tel_icon986 862 0452, web_iconriolagartosexpeditions.com) at the Restaurante Isla Contoy, on the waterfront on the west side. They run boats to visit the many feeding sites; a two-hour tour usually costs about M50 for a maximum of six people and includes a swim; a three-hour trip (M85) includes a “spa treatment” at some mud flats. The agency also offers fishing, snorkelling, crocodile-spotting and sunset trips.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: RÍO LAGARTOS

By bus The station is on C 19 just east of the main north–south street through town. There’s a return service from Tizimín (12 daily; 1–2hr), but the last bus back there (for connections to Mérida or Cancún) departs around 5.15pm.

By combi Ask around the bus station area for shared taxis – they often depart at more convenient times.

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ACCOMMODATION

Diego y Matilde’s Posada C 19 no. 134 tel_icon986 100 8390, web_iconriolagartosnaturetours.com. A 5min walk from the waterfront, this four-room inn is run by the people behind Río Lagartos Expeditions; the rooms are comfortable and come with a/c, TVs and a light breakfast in the morning. M0

Hotel Villa de Pescadores End of C 14, on the waterfront tel_icon986 862 0020, web_iconhotelriolagartos.com.mx. An appealing hotel, right on the water, with spick and span rooms with a/c and TVs; some have tiny balconies with views over the inlet. There’s a restaurant onsite, and staff can arrange tours. M0

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San Felipe

If it’s beaches you’re after, head to this tidy town, where an offshore spit is lined with white sand. The town, which is also a popular destination for sport-fishing, is 12km west of Río Lagartos; many of the buses from Tizimín to Río Lagartos come out here as well.

The beach

Boats (M/person) depart from the east end of the malecón, where you can also buy tickets for various bird watching and nature tours (from M0 for up to five people).

At Mexican holiday times – notably July, August and Semana Santa – the beach is crowded; the rest of the year, though, it’s quite deserted, and you can set up camp here. If you do, be sure to bring protection against mosquitoes.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: SAN FELIPE

By bus From Tizimín, there are several daily buses (7 daily; 20min) to San Felipe; the last one back leaves around 5.45pm.

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ACCOMMODATION

San Felipe de Jesús C 9, between C 14 and C 16 tel_icon986 862 2027, email_icon[email protected]. San Felipe’s one hotel is average at best (nearby Río Lagartos has better options), but it has a decent restaurant and the views across the water are undoubtedly beautiful. Daily noon–2pm & 7–9pm. M0

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Isla Holbox

Near the northeastern corner of the Yucatán, HOLBOX (pronounced “ol-BOSH”) has just one small sand-street village of about two thousand people, wooden houses and virtually no cars. It’s technically not an island, but a very long peninsula – but you still must cross by ferry from the village of Chiquilá. The gulf waters here do not have the same glittering clarity as the Caribbean (nor the vibrant reefs), but they’re warm and clean, and Isla Holbox is rapidly becoming the trendiest coastal destination in the region.

  Development is of course marching on, but fishing remains the main industry and much of the area remains wild and harbours all manner of birds, including flamingos. From May to mid-September, visitors come to see the huge and rare whale sharks that congregate just off the cape; on the hour-long boat ride to see and swim with them, you may also see dolphins, rays and flying fish.

  One spot of trouble in paradise: truly fearsome mosquitoes during the wet season. And after the bustle of whale-shark season, the island basically shuts down for the rest of September and October – it can feel a bit dreary at this time.

ACTIVITIES ON ISLA HOLBOX

For whale sharks, Monkeys (tel_icon984 875 2442, web_iconholboxmonkeys.com) is one of the most established tour operators, though every hotel and guesthouse can arrange the trip. The price is typically the same with every company (about M00–2500/person, including lunch and snorkel gear; 5–6hr), but may change from season to season. For fishing, try Holbox Tarpon Club (tel_icon984 875 2103, web_iconholboxtarponclub.com; 8hr fishing trip US0/M,540). Posada Mawimbi runs snorkelling excursions – though there is not so much to see underwater here– as well as kayaking. Kitesurfing lessons/equipment rental and horseriding trips are available at Casa las Tortugas. In 2015 a conservation project, Crocodile Quay, was being put together, the intention being to run kayak trips to see the crocodiles and turtles in the mangroves towards the north of Holbox.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: ISLA HOLBOX

By bus There are daily buses from Cancún to Chiquilá (4.30am, 6am, 8am, 12.30pm, 1.30pm & 2.15pm; returning 5.30am, 7.30am & 1.30pm; services drop off a bit during the winter; 3hr 30min–4hr). Buses leave Mérida (1 daily at 11.30pm; 6hr) and Valladolid (1 daily at 3am; 3hr) in the middle of the night and arrive in time for the 6am ferry. If you’d rather go during the day, there are three buses, though you’ll have to transfer in Tizimín. You can also take any second-class bus along Hwy-180 libre and get off at the tiny town of El Ideal; from there, you can take a taxi north to Chiquilá for about M0–500, or transfer to the bus coming from Cancún.

By car Turn north off Hwy-180 libre (there’s no exit off the toll highway) at the tiny town of El Ideal. Secure parking is available near the ferry pier in Chiquilá (set the price before you leave – usually around M for any portion of a day).

By ferry There are numerous ferries (11 daily, fewer during the winter; 15–30min; M). If you’re with a group or arrive between departures, you might want to hire a private boat (about M0). But don’t miss the last ferry: Chiquilá is not a place to get stranded. There’s a restaurant, basic hotel, store and petrol station, but little else.

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GETTING AROUND

For orientation, you’ll usually receive a map on the ferry, though street names are seldom used.

By pedicab When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by triciclo or golf-cart taxis, which can spare you the 10min trek to the plaza, straight ahead from the ferry dock; the maximum charge is around M, to the very furthest hotels.

By golf cart The popular alternative to cars, which are rare. They’re available to rent (around M0/hr or M00/24hr) from several outlets near the parque, including Monkeys.

By bike You can also get around by bike, from many of the same golf-cart-rental agencies (around M0/24hr), though they aren’t always maintained very well.

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INFORMATION

Services On the modest main square, called the parque, you’ll find a post office, money-exchange desk and a couple of (unreliable) ATMs – always bring extra cash. Internet access is also a bit patchy.

Websites web_iconholboxisland.com and web_iconen-holbox.com are both useful, and web_iconipaffestival.com has info on the International Public Art Festival, which is held in April.

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ACCOMMODATION

Small-scale hotel development stretches east of town for a couple of kilometres. In early summer and before Christmas, rates for some of the upmarket rooms can fall by almost half; July and August, however, can be priced nearly as high as Christmas and Easter weeks. The beachfront hotels are all mid-range to luxury, but there are a few decent cheaper options away from the water. Locals have successfully contested plans for large-scale resorts in the past, but pressure from hoteliers remains.

Casa Barbara Tiburón Ballena, between the pier and the plaza tel_icon984 875 2302, web_iconholboxcollection.com/hotels/casabarbara_holbox-hotel.php. You’re away from the beach here (about a 10min walk), but also away from the town hubbub. The a/c rooms are clean and spacious and set along a deep courtyard with a pool. M50

Casa Takywara off Coldwell, west of the plaza tel_icon984 875 2352, web_icontakywara.com. A bit of a hike west, but right on the beach and away from party noise. The Colombian owner uses the hotel income to fund her pet project, the island’s only animal refuge (injured pelicans, stray raccoons, even a crocodile have a home here – securely fenced and away from guests). There are six rooms in total, including one cabaña on the water; all have kitchenettes. US5 (M20); cabaña US8 (M85)

Casa las Tortugas On the beach two blocks east of the plaza tel_icon984 875 2129, web_iconholboxcasalastortugas.com. Italian-run Casa las Tortugas has a great little collection of round, two-storey, a/c cabañas, beautifully decorated and tucked among dense greenery. Staff can organize yoga, horseriding and kiteboarding, among other activities. There are plans for a patisserie too. US0 (M95)

Ida y Vuelta Escobedo, east of the plaza, behind Xaloc tel_icon998 875 2358, web_iconholboxhostel.com. A friendly hostel just a couple of blocks off the beach, with screened shelters for tents or hammocks as well as a few beds, clean bathrooms and a shared kitchen. The Swiss-Italian owner also has a tour company that can arrange fishing, snorkelling and of course whale-shark trips. Dorms M5; cabaña M0; camping (per person) M0; hammock (per person) M5

Posada Mawimbi On the beach two blocks east of the plaza tel_icon984 875 2003, web_iconmawimbi.net. Posada Mawimbi has a similar set-up to Casa las Tortugas in terms of layout, but the rates are slightly lower. All rooms have a/c, but if you like a breeze it’s worth paying US extra for an upstairs room with a balcony. US8 (M90)

author_pickTribu Coldwell, three blocks west of the plaza tel_icon984 875 2507, web_icontribuhostel.com. One of the best hostels in the Yucatán, located just a half-block from the beach, and notable for its extremely helpful staff and back to basics, natural aesthetic. The complex, which includes a big kitchen, a bar and a movie room, was mostly hand-built by the owners. Tidy and simple private rooms might even convert non-hostel fans. Dorms US.50 (M5.50); doubles US (M5)

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EATING

Dining options on Holbox generally consist of Mexican, Italian and seafood, though the range of choices is rapidly expanding. Restaurants are all very casual, and this can extend to opening hours as well – they vary greatly depending on the season.

Buena Vista Juárez at Coldwell tel_icon984 875 2102. A very simple family-run fish restaurant, half a block back from the beach, Buena Vista specializes in seafood (mains M–260). Fried whole fish – plucked straight from the water that day – is the thing to order. Daily 10.30am–10.30pm.

La Chaya Coldwell near Palomino, close to the beach. This open-air restaurant is a great way to start a day in paradise, with ample and inexpensive breakfasts (around M–100) and very good juices and smoothies (if you’re on a health kick try the spinach-like chaya flavour). Friendly staff can spread cheer even if it’s drizzling. Daily 7am–late evening.

La Conquista Juárez at Coldwell, one block north off the northwest corner of the plaza. This screened-in wooden hut is a typical local place, and one of the best places to eat if you’re on a tight budget – you’d be hard-pushed to spend more than M0 on a meal. There are great empanadas (M–30) and daily seafood specials. Daily 11am–8pm.

author_pickLos Pelones West side of the plaza tel_icon984 120 9685. Authentic, handmade Italian food cooked by a friendly couple. There are familiar pasta dishes such as ravioli with blue cheese and walnuts (all pasta is home-made, and perfectly delicious), but also farther-reaching creations like fresh fish in a champagne and garlic sauce (mains M0–250). Great cocktails, too. Daily 5pm–late.

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DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

Don’t expect much in the way of nightlife on Holbox; locals generally lounge around on the plaza.

Carioca’s On the beach, two blocks east of the plaza. If you want a drink, you’ll probably wind up here – it’s one of the few nightlife options in town. And it’s worth coming earlier for the “suxi” (pronounce it Maya-style) and other creative blends of Japanese, Mexican and Italian cuisines (the ceviche is particularly good). Daily 5pm–late.

La Colibri Southwest corner of the plaza tel_icon984 875 2162. This little wooden house, painted with flowers, is enticing – it’s a nice place to start the morning with a big fruit juice (M–50), or end the day with a (more expensive) frozen margarita. There’s a food menu too, but you’re better off eating elsewhere. Daily 8am–10pm.

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CANCÚN AND AROUND

Independent travellers often find the glitz of Mexico’s mammoth resort city, CANCÚN, off-putting and its beachfront pleasures brash and expensive. Certainly, for anyone who has been out in the rest of the Yucatán or is eager to get there, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent here on the way in or out doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the city as an energetic, successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history. A closer look reveals hidden beach bars and inexpensive taco stands frequented by cancunenses who are friendly and proud of their city’s prosperity.

PRICES ON THE CARIBBEAN COAST

Because Cancún, Cozumel and other destinations along Quintana Roo’s coast (including Isla Holbox) cater largely to foreign tourists, local businesses often quote prices in US dollars, and peg them to the exchange rate. In this Guide we list prices in pesos, except when a business quotes a price solely in US dollars. For easier comparison, the peso equivalent at the time of research follows in brackets (for hotels) or after a forward slash – it’s meant as a guideline only.

Brief history

If nothing else, Cancún is proof of the government’s remarkable ability to get things done in a hurry – so long as the will exists. In the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided to develop a new resort area to diversify the economy. Computers crunched weather data, and surveyors scouted the country’s natural attractions to identify a 25km-long barrier island just off the northern Caribbean coast as the ideal combination of beautiful beaches, sparse population and accessible position. Construction began in 1970, and when the first hotel opened in 1974, it relied on a generator for electricity and trucked-in water.

Cancún today

In the twenty-first century, the city has struggled to shed its reputation for tacky fun (Spring Break happens only a month a year, after all), but it has successfully courted Mexican tourists. It faced a serious crisis after Hurricane Wilma severely eroded the beach in 2005, but restoration schemes finally seem to have taken hold.

Downtown Cancún

There’s little in the way of sights in downtown Cancún, though it is a pleasant place to stroll in the evenings. Both the sociable Parque de las Palapas and mercados 23 and 28 are good places to browse for a souvenir or get something to eat.

RG

Parque de las Palapas

This large “park” – really, a large concrete plaza – at the heart of Cancún’s downtown is the city’s social centre. It’s liveliest on Sundays, when the bandstand hosts some kind of music or entertainment, and most evenings, families come here to socialize. Craft stands are set up on one side, and on the other is a row of excellent food stalls, open every night. Smaller parks in the neighbourhood host craft or art shows.

Markets

For a sense of the city’s hum away from the tourist trade, head for Mercado 23, north of the bus station off Avenida Tulum at Cedro. The market is a small maze of stalls with the flavour of a village market, complete with butchers, herbalists and vegetable sellers. The bigger Mercado 28, west on Avenida Sunyaxchén, was formerly the main general market, but now stocks primarily tourist tat; its restaurants are quite good, though.

< Back to Cancún and around

Zona Hotelera

Most visitors head straight for the overdeveloped zona hotelera and its myriad resorts, restaurants, bars and beaches. Each of the latter is popular with a different crowd: among the best are Playa Las Perlas, Playa Caracol and Playa Delfines.

RG

Beaches

Paseo Kukulcán

The public beaches on the north coast of the zona hotelera face a bay, so the water is calm and often shallow. Playa Las Perlas (km 2.5) is small and has a playground for kids and palapas for shade. Playa Tortugas (km 6) has several good bars and more casual restaurants, while Playa Caracol (km 8.5) is the prettiest of the bay beaches, with plenty of palm trees; official entrance is by the Xcaret bus stop, but it’s easier to walk through Kinha Villas hotel (which has a nice simple bar).

  On the east coast, the beaches have more surf and occasionally dangerous currents. Delfines (km 17.5) is by far the most scenic because it doesn’t have hotels behind it, and even when it’s packed with locals at weekends, there’s still plenty of room.

UNDERWATER ART

Cancún may not have any museums on land, but under the waves are more than four hundred sculptures. This underwater sculpture park, the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA; tel_icon998 887 5501, web_iconmusacancun.com), is the work of English artist Jason deCaires Taylor. The concrete casts are largely based on real Mexicans, and some create surreal scenarios, such as a bureaucrat’s office on the sea floor. The aim of the ever-expanding museum is to draw visitors away from stressed reefs, while also giving coral a new place to grow. Though the first works were installed only in 2009, some of the figures are sprouting colourful buds and attracting other sea life.

  A few of the works are in shallow water (4–10m), so snorkellers can drift above them. But the MUSA is really better visited as a dive excursion: with a full scuba kit, you can submerge and look the strikingly realistic portraits in the eye. There are also glass-bottom boat and parasailing trips (see the website for more info).

El Rey

Paseo Kukulcán km 18 • Daily 8am–5pm • M

This small Maya ruin overlooks the Nichupté Lagoon. It’s the largest Maya site in Cancún, though that’s not saying a lot. The buildings are on the small side, built during the empire’s decline in the late Post-Classic period, contemporary with those on Cozumel and at Tulum. There’s very little information available to explain them, but the area is peaceful and good for spotting birds and iguanas.

CANCÚN ORIENTATION

The city has two separate parts: the centro (downtown) on the mainland and the zona hotelera, or hotel zone, a narrow barrier island shaped like a “7” that holds a long strip of hotels, malls, restaurants and other tourist facilities. The island is connected to the mainland at each end by causeways enclosing a huge lagoon. Paseo Kukulcán runs the length of zona hotelera, from the airport up to Punta Cancún (where the road splits around the convention centre and a warren of bars) and back onto the mainland. Street addresses in the beach zone are all kilometre markers on Paseo Kukulcán. The count starts on the north end, near downtown. It’s not an exact science: two sets of markers exist, and are out of sync by about half a kilometre, so addresses are guidelines at best.

Museo Maya de Cancún

Paseo Kukulcán km 16.5 • Tues-Sun 9am–6pm, last entry 5.30pm • M • tel_icon998 885 3842

This long-overdue museum provides a rare dose of culture in Cancún. The space displays hundreds of small finds from ruins along the coast like Tulum, including Maya jewellery, burial masks, weapons, ceramics and the 10,000-year-old La Mujer de las Palmas (“The Woman of the Palms”), whose remains were found in a cenote in 2002. It also hosts occasional travelling shows from the national archeology trove in Mexico City. The site also contains the modest San Miguelito ruins (entry included in the museum admission fee), which include a small pyramid.

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ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: CANCÚN

BY PLANE

Charter flights from Europe and South America, along with direct scheduled flights from dozens of cities in Mexico, the Caribbean and North and Central America, land at Cancún International Airport (web_iconcancun-airport.com), 20km south of the centre. Most international flights arrive at terminal 3; domestic flights and some charter flights come into terminal 2; the recently renovated terminal 1 is mainly served by charter and low-cost flights. The terminals have currency exchange desks and ATMs.

  Buses run from the terminals (every 30min, 9.20am–12.30am; 25min; M) to the bus station downtown; look for the ADO desk after customs. There’s also a bus directly to Playa del Carmen (every 45min, 9.30am–11.50pm; 1hr; M6), stopping at Puerto Morelos on request. Shared vans take you to any part of the zona hotelera for a fixed price (around US–20/M5–340 per person; buy tickets at the respective desks outside customs). Taxis cost around US–50/M5–855 to anywhere in the zona hotelera or downtown. Returning to the airport, a taxi costs about M0 from the zona hotelera, a bit less from downtown.

Destinations Aguascalientes (3 weekly; 2hr 40min); Bogotá (4 daily; 3hr 25min; Guadalajara (3–5 daily; 2hr 45min); Havana (1–2 daily; 1hr 20min); León (4 weekly; 2hr 35min); Mérida (2 daily; 1hr); Mexico City (up to 39 daily; 2hr 30min); Monterrey (6–10 daily; 2hr 25min); Panama City (6 daily; 2hr 35min); Puebla (1 daily; 2hr 15min); San Salvador (1 daily; 1hr 35min); Tuxtla Gutiérrez (1 daily; 1hr 35min); Veracruz (1–3 daily; 1hr 45min); Villahermosa (6 weekly; 1hr 30min).

BY BUS

Arriving by bus, you’ll pull in at the city’s main station at the corner of Tulum and Uxmal downtown; it has luggage storage (daily 6am–9.30pm). The bus to Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos has its own lane and ticket desk. You can walk to most downtown hotels, or take a city bus to zona hotelera options.

Destinations Campeche (11 daily; 6hr 35min–7hr 50min; Chetumal (every 30min–1hr; 5hr 35min–6hr 50min) and second class (roughly hourly; 7hr); Chiquilá, for Holbox (6 daily; fewer in the winter; 3hr 30min–4hr); Izamal on second class only (14 daily; 4hr); Mahahual (1 daily at 6.45am, plus more in summer; 4hr 35min); Mérida (every 30min–1hr; 4hr-4hr 15min); Palenque (4 daily at 3.45pm, 5.35pm, 6.30pm & 8.30pm; 12hr 30min–13hr 45min); Tizimín (6 daily; 4hr 5min); Playa del Carmen via Puerto Morelos (every 15min; 1hr); Tulum (every 30min–1hr; 2hr 20min–2hr 30min); Valladolid (1–2 hourly; 2hr–3hr 30min); Villahermosa (17 daily; 12hr 45min–15hr 10min).

BY CAR

Heading west by car to Valladolid, Chichén Itzá and Mérida, you have a choice between the speed-bump-filled free road (libre) or the fast toll highway (cuota). From the bus station, drive north on Tulum about 1km, then turn left onto López Portillo; after a few kilometres you can get on the toll road. There’s another entrance to the cuota only off Hwy-307, 1.5km south of the airport. You pay in advance, at the booths on the highway, for the sections you intend to travel along.

Car rental International groups at the airport, most hotels and various locations downtown. A local option is Speed Car Rental, Uxmal 22 (tel_icon998 845 1373, web_iconcarrentalspeed.com).

BY COLECTIVO

Often more efficient (and slightly cheaper) than the bus, these shared vans run between Cancún and Playa del Carmen whenever they’re full (a matter of minutes at peak times). The most comfortable, run by Playa Express, depart from the bus station parking lot. Across Av Tulum are other, slightly more cramped, vans, to either Puerto Morelos or Playa del Carmen.

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GETTING AROUND

By bus To get to and around the zona hotelera, city buses marked “R-1 – Hoteles” run along Tulum every few minutes; several others run from different parts of downtown, all likewise marked “Hoteles”. For the ferry to Isla Mujeres, buses marked “Juárez” run north on Tulum, but these are not so frequent, so look for colectivos as well.

By car A car isn’t necessary within the city, but it’s not a liability either, as parking is not too difficult.

By colectivo You’ll need these shared minivans for getting to Gran Puerto (for the Isla Mujeres ferry) from the bus station. They’re marked “Pto Juárez” or “Punta Sam” and stop in front of the McDonald’s on Tulum.

By taxi Taxis are plentiful and can be hailed almost anywhere. Fares are based on a zone system, and you should agree on the fare before getting in. Big hotels have sample rates posted, which reflect a small surcharge to what you’d pay from the street. The trip between downtown and the zona hotelera costs around M0.

By bike Numerous places rent out bikes (around M0/day); not quite all of the zona hotelera has a proper bike lane or pavement, though, so proceed with caution.

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

Tourist information The city does not have a walk-in tourist office, but maps and brochures are available at every hotel. Kiosks advertising “tourist info” are usually selling timeshares or excursions.

Tours Most hotels in the zona hotelera have in-house agencies that can arrange standard day trips to the chief Maya sites. For more variety, EcoColors (Camarón 32, SM 27, north and west of Mercado 28; tel_icon998 884 3667, web_iconecotravelmexico.com), runs single- and multi-day kayaking, birding, whale- and shark-watching or cycling tours.

WATERSPORTS IN CANCÚN

SNORKELLING

Most snorkelling in Cancún is at Punta Nizuc, at the far southern point of the peninsula, but its coral has been damaged by crowds – you’re much better off making the short trip down the coast to the great reef at Puerto Morelos. In Cancún, operators spice up the ho-hum local snorkelling with a so-called jungle tour, which entails riding two-passenger speedboats through lagoon mangroves, then out to the reef. A trip can be arranged at most hotels and many marinas along the lagoon, for about M0–900 per person.

  Another popular snorkelling trip, only in the summer, is to see the whale sharks near Isla Holbox. It’s a long boat ride, but well worth it. Trips are cheaper from Isla Mujeres, but you can arrange through your Cancún hotel for a surcharge.

DIVING

Other reefs off Cancún’s coast make good beginner diving, with easy access and little current, as does the Museo Subacuático de Arte. Contact Manta Divers (Paseo Kukulcán km 16; tel_icon998 849 4050, web_iconmantadivers.com); open-water certification is around US9/M50.

KITEBOARDING

Ikarus (tel_icon984 803 3490, web_iconkiteboardmexico.com), based in Playa del Carmen, gives classes from US/hr (M25) on a remote beach north of Cancún.

SURFING

360 Surf School (tel_icon998 241 6443, web_icon360surfschoolcancun.com) offers private and group classes from US/90min (M40), with a guarantee you’ll be able to stand on the board; equipment is also available to rent from US/day (M0). Sign up at the office on Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5 in the zona hotelera.

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ACCOMMODATION

Cancún has a dizzying number of hotels. Downtown, on or near Av Tulum, holds the only hope of a true budget room, as hostels have proliferated. In the zona hotelera, you can stay on the lagoon side for less than in the glittering beachfront palaces – but on the beach, last-minute or low-season online deals can be impressive. Try “opaque” booking sites like web_iconhotwire.com, where you reserve without knowing the name of the hotel – you can’t go wrong with any four- or five-star property.

HOTELS

DOWNTOWN

Alux Uxmal 21 tel_icon998 884 0662, web_iconhotelalux.com.mx; map. Alux has unremarkable but perfectly functional rooms: although they are a bit dim, they do come with a/c and TVs. The hotel’s main appeal is the short walk to the bus station. US (M5)

Ibis Cancún Centro Tulum s/n at Nichupte tel_icon998 272 8500, web_iconibis.com; 2map. This sizeable outpost of the international chain is a good-value, if unexciting, choice: clean, comfortable rooms (with a/c and TVs), professional staff, and a reasonable on-site restaurant. M0

Kin Mayab Tulum 75 at Uxmal tel_icon998 884 2999, web_iconhotelkinmayab.com; map. This centrally located hotel is clean and secure, with the most comfortable rooms and best pool in its price range (book ahead). Request the back section, by the pool and away from the street noise. M5

Mallorca Gladiolas 11 tel_icon998 884 4285, web_iconmallorcahotelandsuites.com; map. Located just off Parque de las Palapas, this mid-range hotel offers excellent value in downtown. Bathrooms are a bit small, but rooms come with fridges and have nice colonial style, with lots of hand-carved wood details. US0 (M00)

El Rey del Caribe Uxmal 24 at Nader tel_icon998 884 2028, web_iconreycaribe.com; map. Sunny yellow rooms with kitchenettes, plus a pool, spa services and generous breakfast at this casual hotel that feels like it should be on a beach in Tulum. One of the few places in Cancún with a real ecofriendly sensibility. US (M95)

ZONA HOTELERA

author_pickBeachscape Kinha Villas Paseo Kukulcán km 8.5 tel_icon998 891 5400, web_iconbeachscape.com.mx; map. No frills, but in the best possible way: big, clean rooms with two double beds, as well as family-friendly suites. Every room has a terrace or balcony, and the beach is deep and palm-shaded – the best on the bay side. The handy location is within walking distance of Punta Cancún. US9 (M20)

Ritz-Carlton Cancún Retorno del Rey 36, near Paseo Kukulcán km 14 tel_icon998 881 0808, web_iconritzcarlton.com/cancun; map. The last word in luxury in Cancún: all chandeliers, oil paintings, and deep carpeting, plus impeccable service. While high-season rates are predictably high, the Ritz-Carlton is a great example of Cancún’s off-season value, when prices can drop by as much as fifty percent. US9 (M35)

Sina Suites Quetzal 33 tel_icon998 883 1017, web_iconsuitessinacancun.com; map. Personable staff preside over comfy rooms and suites with TVs and quiet a/c systems; the suites have either one or two bedrooms, a sofa bed in the living room and a full kitchen and dining room. There’s a huge pool, and the sundeck overlooks the lagoon. US (M30)

HOSTELS

DOWNTOWN

Hostel Quetzal Orquideas 10 tel_icon998 883 9821, web_iconquetzal-hostel.com; map. Super-friendly guesthouse-hostel with arty style, starting with cool graffiti at the front. Private rooms, with private outdoor space, will please even people who normally avoid hostels. The dorms (which include a women-only one) also have nice big windows, and there’s a/c everywhere. Rates include both breakfast and an exceptionally good dinner. Dorms M0; doubles M0

Mundo Joven Uxmal 25 tel_icon998 898 2104, web_iconmundojovenhostels.com; map. Cancún’s official Hostelling International hostel is nicely designed, and its all-white decor looks crisp, not dingy. There’s a/c everywhere, and both single-sex and mixed dorms, as well as private rooms. The hot tub on the roof says it all, though – this is a party place, for better or worse. Dorms M0; doubles M5

Las Palmas Palmera 43 tel_icon998 884 2513, web_iconlaspalmashotel.com.mx; map. This adequate family operation caters as much to Mexican workers as to backpackers, so there’s less of the typical hostel party atmosphere. The real draw: the cheapest a/c beds in town, in big single-sex dorms, and a few huge private rooms. Dorms M0; doubles M0

ZONA HOTELERA

Mayapan Paseo Kukulcán km 8.5, west end of Plaza Maya Fair tel_icon998 883 3227, web_iconhostalmayapan.com; map. The only hostel in the zona hotelera, with a great central location. However, there are a few drawbacks: pricey private rooms, no common hangout space and a weird setting in a spooky wing of an abandoned mall. Dorms M0; doubles M50

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EATING

In downtown Cancún, the most popular eating places line Tulum and its side streets. For budget food, follow the locals for lunch at the downtown markets: Mercado 23 and Mercado 28. At night, excellent food stalls at Parque de las Palapas serve open-face huaraches and quesadillas with an array of toppings; they’re open until about 11pm. Many of the restaurants in the zona hotelera are a rip-off, but the exceptions recommended here are solidly delicious.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

DOWNTOWN

100% Natural Sunyaxchén 26 at Yaxchilán tel_icon998 884 0102, web_icon100natural.com.mx; map. Largely vegetarian and decidedly wholesome, with veggie burgers and granola, as well as fresh-tasting Mexican dishes. Breakfasts (M–110) are especially nice, with lots of interesting juice combos. Daily 7am–11pm.

Los Bisquets Obregón Nader 9 tel_icon998 887 6877, web_iconbisquetsobregon.com. map. Part of a national chain, this bustling diner serves excellent café con leche (M) and Mexican pastries in the morning – just pick from the platter the waiter brings around. Daily 7.30am–midnight.

Pescaditos Yaxchilán at Gladiolas; map. A bit of the beach downtown: light reggae vibe, with fantastic lightly battered fish and shrimp for a song (around M for a generous basket), deadly shrimp-stuffed chiles rellenos, and good ceviches. Daily noon–10pm.

Ty-Coz Tulum, behind Comercial Mexicana tel_icon998 884 6060; map. This French sandwich shop is a treat. The specialities are stacked baguettes (M–75), but Ty-Coz is also good for breakfast, with buttery pastries and strong coffee. There are a few other “Express” branches in and around the zona hotelera, including at km 9, near the Chedraui supermarket. Mon–Sat 8am–10pm.

ZONA HOTELERA

author_pickEl Fish Fritanga Paseo Kukulcán km 12.5 tel_icon998 840 6216, web_iconelfishfritanga.com; map. Hidden behind a Domino’s, this lagoon-side seafood specialist is inexpensive, laid-back and frequented by residents – there’s even a bit of beach, so you can stick your feet in the sand while you eat. The menu ranges from ceviche to lobster tails in a garlic butter sauce (most mains M0–250). Daily 11am–11pm.

The Surfin Burrito Paseo Kukulcán km 8 tel_icon998 883 0083, web_iconfacebook.com/TheSurfinBurrito; map. This hidden gem, on a nondescript parade of shops and eateries, serves up Californian-style burritos, plus tacos, ice cream, well-mixed margaritas, and cold beer (expect to eat and drink for under M0). Delivery available. Daily 24hr.

Sushi Go Paseo Kukulcán km 8 tel_icon998 883 0808, web_iconsushigo.com.mx; map. Close to The Surfin Burrito, this is a good, low-key spot for fresh sushi (M–115), as well as rice and noodle dishes, tempura, teppanyaki and soups. There are a couple of other branches in town, and they will also deliver to your hotel. Daily 1–11pm.

RESTAURANTS

DOWNTOWN

Checándole Xpuhil 6 tel_icon998 884 5621; map. A buzzing, popular restaurant that has been around since the earliest days, with a breezy terrace and a selection of satisfying and fresh-tasting Mexican classics (around M–100) like enchiladas; the set lunch is M. Mon–Sat noon–8pm.

ZONA HOTELERA

La Habichuela Sunset Paseo Kukulcán km 12.6 tel_icon998 840 6280, web_iconlahabichuela.com; map. The hotel zone outpost of a classic downtown restaurant is pricey for its Caribbean-ish food (mains M8–625), but a great spot for a sunset drink, with windows overlooking the lagoon. There’s a cultural show on Wed and Fri (8pm). Daily 12.30–11pm.

MB Paseo Kukulcán km 12.5, in Live Aqua tel_icon998 881 7600, web_iconliveaqua.com; map. No sea view, but one of Cancún’s best hotel restaurants. Miami chef Michelle Bernstein mixes Latin, Spanish and even Asian flavours in a stylish but not-too-formal atmosphere. There’s a small but good wine list, too. Expect to pay M0 or more per person. Daily 6–11pm.

Río Nizuc Off Paseo Kukulcán near km 22; map. Few tourists find this seafood spot (dishes from M0) tucked amid the mangroves at the south end of the hotel zone. Ceviche and tikin-xic fish are popular with locals, who crowd in at weekends. Look for the turn just west of Puente Nizúc. Daily 11am–6pm.

author_pickSantos Mariscos Paseo Kukulcán km 12.5 tel_icon998 840 6300; map. A cool seafood joint just south of El Fish Fritanga that serves West-coast-style seafood (wedges of crispy jicama topped with shrimp, for instance) at very reasonable prices (around M0–250 per person). Mon–Thurs & Sun noon–11pm, Fri & Sat noon–midnight.

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DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

Cancún’s goal is to entertain millions of visitors each year, with the zona hotelera’s array of huge dance clubs, theme bars and top-volume everything (most clustered around Punta Cancún and rolling from about 10pm till the wee hours). Downtown offers a mellower scene: people often dance on weekend evenings at the Parque de las Palapas to traditional Mexican music, and the stretch of Yaxchilán north of Sunyaxchén is a popular local nightlife area, with terrace restaurant-bars and karaoke open till 3am or 4am, all punctuated by roving trovadores.

BARS AND LIVE MUSIC

DOWNTOWN

El Camarote Uxmal 26, in the Plaza Kokai hotel tel_icon998 193 3170, web_iconhotel-plaza-kokai-cancun.com; map. Ignore the sports bar outside; in the small theatre inside, El Camarote, Yucatecan crooners perform romantic classics for an older crowd. Cover charges from M. Thurs–Sat 10.30pm–late.

El Pabilo Yaxchilán 31, in the Xbalamqué hotel tel_icon998 892 4553, web_iconfacebook.com/ElPabilo; map. Mellow coffee shop with good cappuccino, espresso and snacks. Live guitar music or readings at night, sometimes out on the roadside terrace. A bulletin board has notices of art openings, concerts and the like. Mon 4–11pm, Tues–Sun 6pm–midnight.

ZONA HOTELERA

Señor Frog’s Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5 tel_icon998 883 1092, web_iconsenorfrogscancun.com; map. Practically synonymous with Cancún, Frog’s is the first stop off the plane for the Spring Break hordes – think foam parties, karaoke nights, and so on. Go for live reggae or just as an anthropological experience. Definitely don’t go for the food. Daily noon–3am.

CLUBS

ZONA HOTELERA

Bulldog Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5, south end of Krystal hotel tel_icon998 848 9850, web_iconbulldogcafe.com; map. A mega-club in Punta Cancún, notable because, outside of high Spring Break season, it’s frequented more by local kids, with hip-hop and rock en español on the speakers, and the occasional touring band. Daily 10pm–dawn.

Coco Bongo Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5, in the Forum by the Sea shopping centre tel_icon998 883 5061, web_iconcocobongo.com.mx; map. Coco Bongo remains the epitome of the Cancún nightclub experience, and what all other mega-clubs imitate. The night warms up with a floor show involving acrobats, Beatles and Lady Gaga impersonators and roving candid cameras zooming in on the shapeliest customers. Music, once it really gets started, is of the broadest, most crowd-pleasing variety. Cover with open bar: Mon–Wed US/M10, Thurs–Sun US/M80. Daily 10am–3.30am.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange Most banks (usually Mon–Fri 9.30am–3pm, Sat 9.30am–1pm) are along Tulum between Uxmal and Cobá and in the biggest shopping malls – Kukulcán, Plaza Caracol – in the zona hotelera. The HSBC, Tulum 192, stays open until 7pm on weekdays.

Consulates Canada, Centro Empresarial, Paseo Kukulcán km 12 tel_icon998 883 3360; Cuba, Pecari 17 SM 20 tel_icon998 884 3423; South Africa, Granada 30, SM 2A tel_icon998 884 9513; UK, Paseo Kukulcán km 13.5, at the Royal Sands tel_icon998 881 0184; US, Torre La Europea, Paseo Kukulcán km 13, Torre La Europea tel_icon998 883 0272.

Hospital The largest hospital close to the zona hotelera is AmeriMed, on Bonampak at Nichupté, behind Plaza las Américas (tel_icon998 881 3400 or tel_icon881 3434 for emergencies, web_iconamerimedcancun.com).

Internet Immediately across from the bus station and northwest on Uxmal are several internet cafés; some are casetas as well. In the zona hotelera, web access is significantly more expensive, but every hotel, and virtually every bar and restaurant, offers wi-fi.

Laundry Lavandería Las Palmas, on Uxmal just west of the bus station (open daily). In the zona hotelera, try Lumi Express at Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5 (closed Sun), next to The Surfin Burrito.

Post office Sunyaxchén at Xel-Ha (Mon–Fri 8am–6pm, Sat 9am–1pm).

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Isla Mujeres

Just a few kilometres off the coast of Mexico, in the startlingly clear Caribbean, little ISLA MUJERES is substantially mellower than Cancún, drawing people for long stays despite (or because of) the lack of tourist attractions. The 8km-long patch of land is now substantially built up – it’s no desert island – yet retains a certain air of bohemian languor in its narrow streets lined with colourful wooden houses. It’s a respite for anyone who has been slogging across Mexico, as well as a pleasant place to start your trip in Mexico (the whole trip from Cancún airport takes under two hours).

  The attractions are simple: beach and sea – plus the fun of zipping around the island, on the lone perimeter road, by bike, moped or golf cart, to more sea, more beaches and the tiny Maya temple that the conquistadors chanced upon, once full of female figures, which gave the place its name.

RG

Playa Norte

Northern end of the island • Free

The most popular beach, just five minutes’ walk from the town plaza, is Playa Norte – curving up and around the northern tip of the island, but protected from the open sea by a promontory on which stands a large resort. Aim to be under the palms here by late afternoon, as it’s one of the few places along Mexico’s east coast where you can enjoy a glowing sunset over the water. After dark, the palapa-roofed bars become the island’s mellow nightlife centre.

Hacienda Mundaca

Mid-island, at the roundabout • Daily 9am–4pm • M

About halfway down the length of the island lurk the barely visible remains of the Hacienda Mundaca, to which scores of romantic pirate legends are attached. Only one small house has been pieced together, with a few photos of old-time Isla Mujeres inside. There’s also a somewhat random display of a traditional Maya hut. The best spot is the suitably gothic-feeling garden at the back of the property – where insect repellent is a must. In front of the entrance, outside the hacienda grounds (so no need to pay hacienda admission), the island’s cultural directorate manages a few galleries with photos of the island, local art projects, crafts (sometimes including someone demonstrating hammock-weaving) and more.

ISLA MUJERES BEACH CLUBS

Aside from the broad expanse of Playa Norte, the island has a few other stretches of sand with lounge chairs and restaurants – they’re not dramatically more beautiful than Playa Norte, but they are a very good excuse for a golf-cart outing and a nice lunch.

Capitán Dulche Southwest coast tel_icon998 849 7589, web_iconcapitandulche.mx. This sprawling place has beautiful grounds and good food (though it’s fairly pricey; mains from M0). There’s a small maritime museum, open occasionally for guided tours (M), and intriguing art scattered around. Daily 10am–6pm.

Garrafón de Castilla Southern end of the island tel_icon998 877 0107. This basic beach club adjacent to Garrafón Park is set around a small protected bay where you can spot a few colourful fish. There’s not a lot of actual sandy beach, but different levels and areas for lounging. Food is reasonably priced, after an entry fee of M. Daily 9am–5pm.

Playa Lancheros Mid-island, just south of the roundabout. This small, palm-fringed beach is virtually deserted except at lunch time, when the good, very simple restaurant fires up the grill for tikin-xic fish. It’s been in operation for decades and is one of the best places to sample this Maya beach classic. Daily 11am–6pm.

Turtle Farm

Sac Bajo road • Daily 9am–5pm • M

Heading north from the mid-island roundabout, the road up the Sac Bajo Peninsula leads to a government-run turtle farm and research centre, which breeds endangered sea turtles for release in the wild. It also rescues threatened nests and keeps them buried in the sand on the grounds until they hatch. The entrance fee helps fund the preservation project.

Garrafón Park

Southwestern tip of the island • Daily 10am–5pm • US–199, depending on what package of activities you go for • tel_icon866 393 5158, web_icongarrafon.com

The longest stretch of reef on Isla Mujeres is mostly dead, and now enclosed in Garrafón Park, a slick operation with a zipline, kayaking and other mild thrills. But it’s grossly overpriced and usually crowded with day-trippers from Cancún. The penny-pinchers’ alternative is Garrafón de Castilla beach club next door; better, though, to go on a trip with the lancheros.

Templo de Ixchel

Southern tip of the island • Daily 9am–6.30pm • M (or free with Garrafón ticket)

This isn’t much of a ruin (the fertility figures the Spaniards spotted here have been removed), and the walk to it has been tarted up with some now-rusty modern sculptures, to justify the admission price. But it is situated on low rocky cliffs where the waves crash dramatically. As the easternmost point of Mexico, it’s where islanders come on New Year’s Day to watch the sun rise.

ACTIVITIES ON ISLA MUJERES

There are several dive shops on the island – recommended is Enrique’s Unique Dives (Medina 1, by the Pemex station; tel_icon998 145 3594, web_icondivingislamujeres.com), which offers a range of trips, including some to the MUSA, as well as the “Cave of the Sleeping Sharks”, where tiger, bull, grey reef, lemon and nurse sharks are regularly encountered. You can also take snorkelling trips with a couple of lancheros cooperatives, which are set up on the piers, and cost around US–30/M5–515 for two hours.

  In recent years, the lancheros have also begun offering tours to see the whale sharks that gather off the coast from (roughly) mid-May to mid-September (a trip more commonly taken from Isla Holbox), with prices around M00. While every shop touts the trip, only a small number of boats have the permit. Boats usually leave at 7.30–8am, and the trip to the sharks takes a couple of hours; there’s lunch and reef snorkelling on the way back.

  If it’s not whale-shark season, the next-best outing is to the bird sanctuary of Isla Contoy, 30km north. Designated a national park in 1961, the small island is home to some 150 bird species, including large colonies of pelicans, cormorants and frigates. You can go with the lancheros cooperative, or with Captain Tony García (Matamoros 7; tel_icon998 877 0229, email_icon[email protected]); both come highly recommended by island regulars. Tours last from 9am till 3pm or so and include a basic breakfast, grilled fish for lunch, soft drinks and snorkel gear for about US00/M,520 per person.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: ISLA MUJERES

By passenger ferry Passenger ferries arrive at Isla Mujeres town at two adjacent piers; the car ferry comes in further south. From the piers, it’s about a 20min walk to the opposite side of the island and the most distant hotels. Two companies, Ultramar (web_icongranpuerto.com.mx) and Magaña, run passenger ferries from Cancún to Isla Mujeres. Ultramar boats (M) leave from Gran Puerto (every 30min, 5am–12.30pm; 20min) at the end of Av López Portillo, and Magaña boats (M) depart from Puerto Juárez, 250m north (hourly, at 10min after the hour, and at 40min after the hour going the other way; 20min). Ultramar boats are nicer, but Magaña is handy if you’re in a hurry and have just missed an Ultramar departure. Some boats also run from Playa Tortugas in the zona hotelera.

Transport to the ferry In Cancún, buses (“R-1 – Pto Juárez”) that go this far north are not common; also look for combis (marked “Juárez”), which stop in front of the McDonald’s on Tulum, across from the bus station. A taxi from the bus station costs around M; it’s M0 from the zona hotelera.

By car ferry There’s also a car ferry (M0 per car with one driver, M per extra person; 4–7 daily; 45min), but you don’t need a vehicle, as the island is quite small and has plenty of bicycles and mopeds for rent. The boat leaves from Punta Sam, 6km north of Puerto Juárez.

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GETTING AROUND

By bus Every 30min from Rueda Medina in the main town down to the southern end of the island.

By moped or golf cart The best way of getting around the small island is by moped (around M0–300/24hr) or golf cart (around US/24hr). Virtually every other shop rents out both forms of transport for approximately the same rates.

By taxi Rates are posted at the stand between the ferry piers, starting at around M for hotels in the main town and running up to M to the south end of the island.

By bike Many places rent out bikes (around M0–150/day). You should be in decent shape to make a full island loop – there are a couple of hills, and usually a headwind coming back north.

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INFORMATION

Tourist office On Medina just northwest of the passenger ferry piers (Mon–Fri 8am–8pm, Sat & Sun 9am–2pm; tel_icon998 877 0307). You can pick up leaflets and maps.

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ACCOMMODATION

Isla Mujeres has a few solid budget places to stay, though they fill up quickly in the high season – advance reservations are recommended. Most of the reasonably priced options are on the northwestern edge of the island; some of the less expensive waterfront views are on the northeastern side, where the sea is generally too rough for swimming.

HOTELS AND SELF-CATERING

Carmelina Guerrero 4 tel_icon998 877 0006, email_icon[email protected]. The rooms at this motel-style budget operation, trimmed in lavender paint, are a steal, considering they have a/c and a fridge. However, the singles can be dismally small. M0

Casa El Pío Hidalgo 3, at Bravo, no phone, web_iconcasaelpio.com. The five rooms at this stylish hotel get booked up fast. All have one bed, plus a separate living room with a daybed. The owners’ colour-saturated photos decorate the white walls, and the minimalist-cool wood furniture is made on the island. Three-night minimum; no Sun check-ins. US (M65)

Casa Sirena Hidalgo between Bravo and Allende, no phone, web_iconcasasirenamexico.com. Very nicely redone home that has kept some old details, such as tiled floors, and added modern bathrooms and a breezy roof terrace. Breakfasts are lavish, happy hour on the roof deck is legendary and there are even two small pools. Three-night minimum in winter, two in summer; advance reservations required. US9 (M50)

Francis Arlene Guerrero 7, at Abasolo tel_icon998 877 0310, web_iconfrancisarlene.com. A small family-owned hotel with well-tended courtyards, a big roof terrace and clean, brightly painted – if rather twee – rooms with plenty of comforts (though a/c costs an additional US/M0). US (M25)

El Marcianito Abasolo 10 tel_icon998 877 0111, web_iconmarcianito.islamujeres.biz. This budget hotel is a good-value option: the simple but clean rooms come with fans and well-maintained private bathrooms; the breezier, a/c ones on the upper floors cost M0 more. M0

María del Pilar Abasolo 15 tel_icon998 877 0071, web_iconmariadelpilar.hostel.com. Under renovation at the time of research, the four rooms on the upper floor of this basic little hotel are supplied with a shared outdoor kitchen – they’re spartan and cool, with screen doors (but no windows). Two suites at the back share another kitchen, and the front room has its own porch. A/c costs extra. M0

Na Balam Zazil Ha 118 tel_icon998 881 4770, web_iconnabalam.com. Overlooking Playa Norte, Na Balam is a good, upper mid-range all-rounder: spacious rooms and suites, a lush garden, spa facilities, pool, hot tub, restaurant-bar, and an on-site yoga school. US5 (M90)

Nautibeach Condos Playa Norte tel_icon998 877 0606, web_iconnautibeach.com. A good option for families or groups, Nautibeach has enormous two-bedroom apartments, each with a balcony or veranda, in a modest, well-maintained complex facing the beach. US0 (M25)

HOSTELS

Poc-Na Matamoros at Carlos Lazo tel_icon998 877 0090, web_iconpocna.com. This compound sleeps 150, but it’s split into many smaller rooms that feel a bit cosier. Facilities can be less than spotless and there’s no guest kitchen, but it opens directly onto a broad beach (great for camping) on the windy side. There’s an on-site dive centre. Dorms M5; doubles M0; camping M0

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EATING

The area along and around Hidalgo between Morelos and Abasolo is lined with restaurants and bars. For inexpensive, basic Mexican food and great fruit salads, head for the few loncherías on Guerrero between Mateos and Matamoros, opposite Las Palmas hotel. In the adjoining public market, you can get inexpensive juices and produce. There’s a supermarket on the plaza.

author_pickBarlito Marina Paraiso Hotel, Rueda Medina, around 1.5km south of the centre tel_icon998 229 0042, web_iconmarinaparaiso-islamujeres.com. Huge and mouthwatering bagels, hot sandwiches and burgers (M–155) are the speciality at this café-restaurant. Good breakfast options are available too, including home-made cinnamon rolls (M). Daily 8am–9.30pm.

Caffe Italia Matamoros at Guerrero. This brightly painted Italian restaurant serves reliable pasta (M–160), pizzas (M–190) and panini (M–100) as well as cold beers (M–40). There’s a selection of secondhand books on the far wall. Daily 8am–11.30pm.

La Cazuela M&J Abasolo at Guerrero tel_icon998 884 0407, web_iconlacazuelamj.com. This casual café serves inexpensive (mostly Mexican) breakfasts. Its speciality is egg dishes baked in small casseroles (cazuelas), for M–105. Big glasses of green chaya juice are another healthy option. Tues–Sun 7am–2pm.

Cocktelería Picus Rueda Medina, just north of the ferry piers. One of several similar joints, this small beachfront hut with plastic chairs in the sand serves fresh and inexpensive ceviche (M0–150) and shrimp cocktails (M–150). Daily noon–8.30pm.

La Lomita Juárez 25-B, two blocks southeast of the plaza tel_icon998 826 6335. Locals line up for a helping of the chef-owner’s daily special, anything from bean soup and chiles rellenos to pan-fried fish with salsa verde. Hearty home cooking (mains M–190) that’s worth the hike up the small hill two blocks south of the plaza. Daily 9am–11pm.

El Poc-Chuc Abasolo at Juárez. This bargain lonchería with red vinyl tablecloths and a giant mural of Chichén Itzá is handily also open for dinner (although not all of the big meals are available at night). Fish soup and crispy panuchos are two reliable offerings (dishes cost from M). Daily 8am–10pm.

Qubano Hidalgo, between Mateos and Matamoros tel_icon998 214 2118, web_iconfacebook.com/QubanoIsla. There’s a great range of bulging sandwiches (M–130) at Qubano: If you’re struggling to choose, go for the signature chicken tostón, a messy delight between two slabs of crispy-fried plantain slices. Mon–Sat noon–10pm.

El Varadero West coast, adjacent to Puerto Isla Mujeres tel_icon998 877 1600. This super-casual Cuban restaurant, drawing a predominantly local crowd, is nestled among palm trees a little way out of town. Garlicky pork and refreshing mojitos are the specialities (cocktails M–60). Tues–Sun 1.30–9pm.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange HSBC, on Rueda Medina opposite the ferry docks, has an ATM; Banamex is on Morelos at Juárez.

Books Caffe Italia sells secondhand books in several languages.

Internet There are numerous internet cafés in the centre of town.

Laundry The cheapest laundry is Lavandería Mis Dos Angelitos, Guerrero at Mateos (closed Sun).

Post office Guerrero at Mateos (Mon–Thurs 9am–5.30pm).

Yoga Vastu School of Yoga (web_iconvastuyoga.com) offers daily yoga classes at the Na Balam hotel.

< Back to Cancún and around

Puerto Morelos

The quietest town in the Riviera Maya, PUERTO MORELOS, is actually the closest to Cancún, just fifteen minutes from the airport by taxi or bus. With a working fishing fleet, it’s unpretentious and calm, drawing visitors for long stays – but although it’s not ritzy, even the cheapest hotels might be over budget for some. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef begins here, just 600m offshore, and it’s in very good shape due to efforts of the townspeople to protect it. It’s a great, uncrowded place to get your scuba certification.

  There are two parts to PoMo, as it is sometimes referred to: the beach town 2km from Hwy-307, with a small traditional plaza and church; and the rapidly growing zona urbana (or colonia) on the inland side of the highway. Most visitors will spend all their time in the beach town.

CENOTES NEAR PUERTO MORELOS

The so-called Ruta de los Cenotes is a road that runs inland from Puerto Morelos, passing several swimming holes and caves (all open daily 10am–5pm). Look for the turn inland just south of the main Puerto Morelos intersection, marked by a large cement arch. Taxis from Puerto Morelos cost about M0–250 one-way; a round trip depends on waiting time. Dive shops in Puerto Morelos also run snorkelling and diving trips out here.

  Several spots are for group tours from Cancún, but a couple are open for independent travellers. The best is Cenote Las Mojarras (tel_icon998 147 0168, web_iconfacebook.com/ParqueCenoteLasMojarras; M0), at km 12.5, a big open pool with a zipline. Entry fees can be lower if you’re only staying a couple of hours, but with nature trails, lunch cooked over a wood fire and an enthusiastic manager who knows everything about the local plants, you can spend all day here.

  Several kilometres further is Siete Bocas (M0), a water-filled cave with seven points of entry, best for divers, as there’s not much natural light. At km 17.5, Verde Lucero (M) is a pretty, rustic-feeling pool with only basic facilities – some bathrooms and basic snacks.

Jungle Market

C 2, zona urbanaMarket Winter only, Sun 10.30am–3/4pm • Free • Spa Tues–Sat by appointment • Massages from US/M00/hr • tel_icon998 208 9148

If you’re in town on a Sunday, don’t miss the “jungle market”, where a women’s cooperative sells their wares, which include great food as well as handicrafts. There’s also some dancing. It’s a touristy event, but all low-pressure, local-run fun, and a good excuse to explore the inland side of town. The same group of women runs a very affordable spa in the same spot year-round.

Jardín Botánico Dr Alfredo Barrera Marín

East side Hwy-307, south of town • Nov–April daily 8am–4pm, May–Oct Mon–Sat 9am–5pm • M0 • tel_icon988 206 9233

These rambling botanical gardens provide a good overview of the Yucatán’s flora. A 3km path leads through medicinal plants, ferns, palms, some tumbledown Maya ruins and a mock-up chiclero camp, where you can see how the sap of the zapote (sapodilla) tree is tapped before being used in the production of gum.

ARRIVAL AND INFORMATION: PUERTO MORELOS

By bus Buses between Cancún and Playa del Carmen stop on Hwy-307 at the town’s main intersection on request (every 15min; 30min). They also leave directly from Cancún’s airport (every 45min; 30min). Taxis wait on the east side of the highway to take you the 2km into the beach town (around M–40 to the plaza). If you’re leaving on the airport bus, buy your ticket at least one day in advance, to make sure the bus stops and has a seat for you. If you’re just hopping to central Cancún or Playa del Carmen, it’s easier to flag down a colectivo van.

Banks and exchange A few ATMs are scattered around the plaza, but there is no actual bank. Avoid the generic machines not run by a specific bank, as their fees are extortionate. A couple of cambios can be found on the plaza.

Internet There is an internet café on the southwest corner of the plaza, next to the Oxxo shop. There’s free wi-fi around the plaza, provided by the cable company.

Laundry Lavaplus, on Niños Héroes, one block north of the plaza.

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TOURS AND ACTIVITIES

Cooking classes The Little Mexican Cooking School, on Rojo Gómez two blocks north of the plaza (tel_icon998 251 8060, web_iconthelittlemexicancookingschool.com), runs half-day cooking classes for US8/M90 in a sunny kitchen with an enthusiastic Mexican-Canadian chef. The school also has a small shop that sells cooking tools and locally produced foods.

Diving Long-established Almost Heaven Adventures (Rojo Gómez, one block north of the plaza; mobile tel_icon998 846 8009, web_iconalmostheavenadventures.com) offers certification courses for US0/M85 and one- and two-tank dives for US–90/M5–1540, as well as diving tours to inland cenotes for US0/M00.

Snorkelling You can go with Almost Heaven (which does night trips as well), or with any of the boats at the two piers in town, for around US/M0 per person. Note that a couple of booths on the plaza are actually selling timeshares, but might try to reel you in by offering a snorkelling trip. Regardless, although you could swim to the reef, regulations require you to go with a guide.

Day tours Ecab Explorer (tel_icon998 123 5062, web_iconecabexplorer.com) runs day trips to Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Cobá, Ek-Balam, and more.

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ACCOMMODATION

Most people stay in rental properties – Alma Libre bookshop has nice ones – so the hotel scene is fairly limited.

Acamaya Reef Park On the beach, 5km north of town tel_icon987 871 0131, web_iconacamayareef.com. Located a 40min walk from town (turn near the entrance to the Crococun zoo), this is a little slice of the good old-fashioned beach life, holding out between the resorts. It’s the only place in the area you can camp. Or opt for a thatched-roof cabaña, all but one of which are en suite. Cabañas US (M0); camping per person US (M5)

Amar Inn On the seafront, 500m north of the main plaza tel_icon998 871 0026, email_icon[email protected]. This bohemian, family-run hotel just off the beach has seven large rooms and three cabañas (fan only); some have high ceilings, loft beds and kitchenettes. A delicious Mexican breakfast is included. Cabañas M00; doubles M00

Casa Cacahuate C 2 in the zona urbana tel_icon998 208 9148, web_iconmayaecho.com. With two spacious guestrooms, the “Peanut House” is a great chance to be in the forest in relative comfort, as well as to interact with the non-touristy side of Puerto Morelos. It’s also a handy place for solo travellers to get acclimatized, under the wing of hostess Sandra Dayton, a long-time Mexico resident (who also runs the Jungle Market). US (M0)

Posada Amor Av Rojo Gómez, just south of the plaza tel_icon998 871 0033, web_iconposada-amor.wix.com/puertom. One of the longest-established hotels in town, Posada Amor is well run and clean. Some of the quirky, individually decorated rooms (with either fans or a/c) are the least expensive around. A decent alternative if Posada El Moro is full, though try to get a room away from the bar. Puerto Morelos’ low-key nightlife centres around the bar at Posada Amor and another next door. M0

author_pickPosada El Moro Rojo Gómez 17, just north of the plaza tel_icon987 871 0159, web_iconposadaelmoro.com. Sunny, spacious rooms with choice of fan or a/c (US/M0 extra). Suites have kitchens, and the weekly rates are a steal. Inside is a pretty little garden and even a small pool. DIY continental breakfast included. US (M50)

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EATING

For a town of its size, Puerto Morelos has a disproportionately large number of great places to eat, offering a mix of local cuisine and flavours brought in by various expats. Most places are on the plaza, where everyone seems to convene at night. Also look out for informal eateries run out of people’s front yards.

Café d’Amancia Southwest corner of the plaza tel_icon998 206 9242, web_iconfacebook.com/CafeDeAmancia. Come here for deadly strong coffee and a breakfast bagel or lunch-time sandwich (M–80), plus a great vantage point for watching the action on the square. Mon & Wed–Sun 7am–3pm & 6–10pm.

La Casa del Pescador North side of the plaza tel_icon998 251 4813. This restaurant, run by the fishermen’s cooperative (located up the green spiral staircase), is simple and great value – a good place for lunch, or for dinner, when La Playita is shut. Fish fillets from around M0. Daily 10am–10pm.

Al Chimichurri Rojo Gómez, south of the plaza tel_icon998 192 1129. If you’ve overdosed on seafood, follow the smell of sizzling steak to this expert Uruguayan restaurant, where you can stock up on meat, empanadas, hearty lasagne and dulce de leche crêpes (most mains M0–250). It also serves breakfast and lunch at an adjacent café. Service, however, can be slow. Tues–Sun 8am–10pm.

Govinda’s Niños Héroes, three blocks north of the plaza tel_icon998 230 5573. This small barely-a-restaurant in the front of a yoga studio serves a set menu of vegetarian Indian food that’s delicious and excellent value (around M). Go early, as it can run out. Mon–Fri noon–4pm.

Lonchería Mimi Niños Héroes, north of the plaza. Look for the pale-green facade on this tidy cocina económica, where a team of women cooks up daily specials (M–80) in a spotless open kitchen. Go early, as food tends to run out – and the handful of tables fills up fast. Daily 8am–2pm.

author_pickLa Playita Melgar, half a block north of the plaza. This casual spot on the beach is where the town fishermen kick back and enjoy the fresh catch of the day, sold by the kilo and perfectly fried. A whole pescado frito for two and a few beers will set you back about M0. Daily noon–10pm.

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SHOPPING

Alma Libre On the plaza, south side tel_icon998 252 2207, web_iconalmalibrebooks.com. Probably Mexico’s most extensive secondhand English-language bookshop, the Canadian-run Alma Libre has some twenty thousand volumes to choose from, including many on the area’s natural and archeological attractions. They also stock some good-quality souvenirs. Oct–May Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 4–9pm.

Hunab-Ku Artesanía Two blocks south of the plaza on Rojo Gómez. Reasonably priced craftwork in a little “Maya mini-mall” where you can often see the artisans at work. As a bonus, crocodiles hang out in the swamp just behind. Daily 9am–5pm.

< Back to Cancún and around

PLAYA DEL CARMEN AND AROUND

Once a soporific fishing village where travellers camped out en route to Isla Cozumel, PLAYA DEL CARMEN (often called simply “Playa”) is now a hot spot with pretensions of being the next Miami Beach – and, from a local perspective, a goldmine of employment in construction. Mexico City’s elite pop in, as do day-trippers from Cancún and passengers from cruise ships docked on Cozumel. As a result, the town’s main centre of activity, Avenida 5 (also called La Quinta), a long, pedestrianized strip one block back from the sea, is often packed to capacity with tourists rapidly emptying their wallets in pavement cafés, souvenir outlets and designer-clothes shops.

  Nonetheless, the low-rise development and numerous European-owned businesses make it seem, at least on the quieter north side, relatively cosmopolitan and calm (certainly when compared to Cancún). The nightlife in particular has a hip edge, but as the town has grown, it has become tougher on budget travellers.

  Playa’s main beach has suffered some erosion and looks thin in some stretches. More serious beach-goers head to the area north of Constituyentes, called Playa Norte, where the deep, silky sand drops into waist-high green water with mid-size swells. A couple of beach clubs form the major social scene here.

RG

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: PLAYA DEL CARMEN

By bus Most visitors arrive on short-haul buses at the central bus station, sometimes referred to as the terminal turística, on Av 5 at Juárez, the main street from the highway to the beach. There are luggage storage facilities upstairs at the bus station. Another station, on Av 20 between C 12 and C 12, handles longer-haul trips on ADO; you can buy tickets at either station. From both, a taxi to the hotels furthest north should be no more than M–50. From Cancún airport, buses run to Playa (every 45min; 1hr). Numerous private minibus operators will take you directly to your hotel (about US/M0 per person), or you can take a taxi (around US/M40).

Destinations Cancún (every 15min; 1hr 15min); Cancún airport (every 45min; 1hr 5min); Chetumal (every 30min–1hr; 4–5hr 20min) via Tulum (1hr); Chichén Itzá (2 daily at 7.30am & 8am; 3hr 40min–4hr); Cobá (10 daily; 1hr 45min–2hr); Mérida (16 daily; 4hr 50min–5hr 40min); Palenque (5 daily; 11hr 10min–12hr 40min); San Cristóbal de las Casas (5 daily; 16hr 5min–18hr 5min); Valladolid (18 daily; 2hr 40min–3hr 20min); Villahermosa (7 daily; 12hr 5min–14hr).

By car Driving into or through Playa can be a bit of a chore, due to the traffic. Easing things slightly is an express overpass on Hwy-307 with several well-signed off-ramps onto Playa’s major east–west arteries. If you need to head north or south in town, it can make sense to head toward Hwy-307 and use the overpass.

By colectivo To reach smaller towns or beaches just north and south of Playa, colectivos are the easiest option: the Cancún service departs frequently from Juárez just west of the main bus station, and vans heading south to Tulum leave from C 2 between Av 10 and Av 15.

By taxi Private taxis can take you anywhere you need to go along the coast – they’re more expensive than colectivos, but far cheaper than any tour company, even when you pay for waiting time.

< Back to Playa del Carmen and around

GETTING AROUND

By car All the large car-rental companies have outlets in Playa – most are situated on the main coastal highway at the turn-off into town or in Plaza Marina near the Cozumel ferry pier at C 1 Sur.

By taxi You can hire taxis from stands on Av 5, or flag one down on the trafficked streets.

By bike The central area of town is walkable, but as Av 5 extends ever northward, it can be nice to ride a bicycle to the farthest points; a bike path runs along Av 10. For rentals contact Holabike (web_iconholabike.com); book in advance and they’ll deliver your wheels to your hotel (M0/day; helmets M/day).

< Back to Playa del Carmen and around

INFORMATION AND ACTIVITIES

Tourist information Tourist info kiosks, on Juárez near Av 15 and on the main plaza (daily 9am–9pm; tel_icon984 873 2804, email_icon[email protected]), have bilingual staff who do their best to answer any enquiries. web_iconrivieramaya.mx and web_iconplaya.info are useful websites.

Kiteboarding Ikarus, Av 5 at C 20 (tel_icon984 803 3490, web_iconkiteboardmexico.com; 3hr group lesson US5/M35).

Scuba diving and snorkelling Tank-Ha, C 10 between Av 5 and Av 10 (tel_icon984 873 0302, web_icontankha.com), offers PADI certification courses, one- and two-tank dives (US–65) and snorkelling trips (US–85/M10–1450).

< Back to Playa del Carmen and around

ACCOMMODATION

Hotel prices are inflated in Playa, especially along Av 5 and the beach. These more central hotels are also noisy, due to general party ruckus (south of C 26 or so) or construction (on the ever-expanding north side). Heading inland a bit, to Av 15 and beyond, gets you both a better rate and a better night’s sleep. High season in Playa includes July and Aug, when Europeans come, as well as mid-Dec to April.

HOTELS

author_pickEl Acuario Av 25, between C 2 and C 4 tel_icon984 873 2133, web_iconelacuariohotel.com.mx. A great example of the deals you can get by heading away from the beach, El Acuario has big rooms, all with a terrace or balcony, and some with kitchenettes, clustered around a central pool and garden (which also features a tortoise enclosure). Nice touches include free coffee and beach towels, plus a book exchange. Good online offers. US (M75)

Alux C 14, between Av 10 and Av 15 tel_icon984 803 2482, web_iconhotelalux.com. Alux is a little frumpy, like its downtown Cancún counterpart, and marketing is not its strong suit, with a barely legible sign out front. But on the whole it’s a good deal; rooms have a/c and the more expensive options have kitchenettes. M0

Casa de las Flores Av 20, between C 4 and C 6 tel_icon984 873 2898, web_iconhotelcasadelasflores.com. A charming place to stay, with spacious and stylish en-suite rooms overlooking the lush garden (all have a/c; rooms with TVs and fridges cost an extra US/M0). There’s a nice pool, and bikes are available to rent (US/M5 per day). US (M20)

Casa Tucan C 4, between Av 10 and Av 15 tel_icon984 873 0283, web_iconcasatucan.de. A Playa institution, retaining a hippy atmosphere. Rooms can be a bit dark and musty – and you’ll either love the elaborate murals or hate them. But with perks like laundry service, a big swimming pool, and great coffee at the restaurant, it’s hard to beat the price. Rooms come with a/c and there are also cabañas with fans. Book ahead. Cabañas US (M0); doubles US (M65)

Jungla Caribe Av 5 at C 8 tel_icon984 873 0650, web_iconjungla-caribe.com. On a prime corner on La Quinta, this quirky hotel has a courtyard that’s so overgrown you can hardly see the pool. Stairs trimmed in black-and-white tiles ascend like an M.C. Escher etching to rooms with a similar black-and-white (and somehow Eighties-looking) style. A/c can be noisy (as can the street), but the little balconies are fun for people-watching. US (M65)

One Av 25, between C 12 and C 12 bis tel_icon984 877 3060, web_icononehotels.com. This large, rather generic business traveller-style chain hotel is near the long-distance bus depot. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be worth recommending, but in Playa del Carmen, it represents a rare spot of mid-range value. M0

Paraíso Azul C 2, between Av 10 and Av 15 tel_icon964 873 0054, web_iconcasadegopala.com. Convenient for the bus station and the colectivo stands, Paraíso aims to live up to its name with a lush palm- and banana-laden courtyard that helps mute the bustle of its central location. The second-floor terrace is inviting, the rooms are big and clean, and there’s an unusually deep pool on the roof terrace, where the owner teaches scuba diving. US (M75)

HOSTELS

3B Av 10 at C 1 tel_icon984 147 1207, web_iconhostel3b.com. A self-described “party hostel”, 3B has a rooftop bar, modern kitchen, positively chic bathrooms and furniture, and professional staff. Despite its “boutique” aspirations, it’s still very much a hostel, convenient for buses, colectivos and the Cozumel ferry. Dorms M0; doubles M0

Vive la Vida C 2, between Av 25 and Av 30 tel_icon984 109 2457, web_iconhostelvivelavida.com. A rare good hostel in Playa, this one is clean, well designed and well managed by an enthusiastic young staff. There’s a pool in the smallish courtyard, and a stocked communal kitchen. Dorms M0; doubles M0

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EATING

Playa del Carmen is heaving with restaurants of every kind, and even the traditional Mexican places stay open late. Av 5 is lined with tables – but if you’re on a budget you’ll need to search out where locals go: try the taco carts on Juárez close to the beach (breakfast and lunch only), stalls on Av 10 at C 6 (open at night) and various restaurants on Av 30. There’s a supermarket on Av 30 at C 20, and the smaller DAC store, half a block north, has great produce. One warning: the turnover in restaurants in Playa is so high as to make a guidebook writer despair – half these places may have closed by the time you go; the good news is that new places will have opened.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

100% Natural Av 5, between C 10 and C 12 tel_icon998 885 2904, web_icon100natural.com.mx. This link in a mini-chain serves fresh, healthy versions of Mexican food (lots of it vegetarian), fresh fruit juices and great breakfasts (M–110 for the latter). A good alternative to La Cueva del Chango, in a more central location. Daily 7am–11pm.

author_pickLos Aguachiles C 34 at Av 25 tel_icon984 142 7380, web_iconlosaguachiles.mx. An array of salsas arrives at your table along with the menu at this open-air seafood-snack place, and the challenge is not ordering too many dishes as an excuse to use them all. Even a simple aguachido (a tostada piled high with fish, cabbage and herbs) is a substantial snack here (around M–50). Daily noon–10pm.

Café Veracruz C 2, between Av 20 and Av 25. No-nonsense café – or rather counter – with just one item on the menu: flavoursome black coffee (M) made from freshly roasted, organic beans (which are also for sale) from Veracruz. Ideal if you’re waiting for a colectivo to Tulum or Cancún. Daily 8/9am–6/7pm.

author_pickLa Cueva del Chango C 38, between Av 5 and the beach tel_icon984 876 2537, web_iconlacuevadelchango.com. This garden restaurant is a local favourite, especially for long, late breakfasts. The menu includes tasty empanadas and crêpes, house-roasted coffee, and inventive main meals (M0–215). Mon–Sat 8am–11pm, Sun 8am–2pm.

author_pickLa Floresta West side of Hwy-307, just north of Av Juárez tel_icon984 803 3885. This big palapa next to the highway is a road-tripper’s delight, serving overstuffed tacos de camarón, the perfect marriage of batter-fried shrimp, mayo and chunky tomato salsa. Should you need variety, seafood cocktails and ceviches are available, too (dishes from M). Daily 8.30am–6pm.

Karma Bagels Corner of La Quinta and Constituyentes tel_icon984 803 2192, web_iconkarmabagels.com. Playa outpost of a small Mexican chain, with a simple menu featuring several differtent types of bagels and an even greater array of meat, fish, cheese and veggie fillings (M–110), plus fresh salads. Daily 8am–10pm.

Nativo Av 30, between Constituyentes and C 20 tel_icon984 873 0758, web_iconfacebook.com/NativoRestaurants. Delicious fresh-fruit smoothies and Mexican food like tortas (M–80) and tacos (M–85), across the street from the similarly excellent DAC market. Daily 7am–midnight.

RESTAURANTS

Babe’s C 10, between Av 5 and Av 10 tel_icon984 879 3569, web_iconbabesnoodlesandbar.com. This cheerful, Swedish-owned Thai noodle house – which also serves a fine Cuban mojito – typifies Playa’s international hodgepodge. Dishes like pad thai start at M for a huge portion. Tues–Sun 4pm–midnight.

author_pickCasa Mediterranea Av 5, between C 6 and C 8 tel_icon984 806 4679. Tucked inside the Jardín del Marieta, amid art galleries, this modest little trattoria (there are only about six seats) serves delicious fresh pasta, such as fettuccine with shrimp and squash (M5–350). Daily 2–11pm.

El Fogón Av 30 at C 6 bis. Follow your nose to the meat-covered grill at this basic, brightly lit taco joint that’s generally mobbed with locals. No booze is served, but you can wash down all the meat with a big selection of aguas frescas, all for less than M0 per person. There’s another branch on Av 30 near C 28. Daily 8am–10pm.

La Tarraya On the beach at C 2 tel_icon984 873 2040. This local institution has been open for more than thirty years, well before Playa was a gleam in a developer’s eye. It still serves standard beach food (most mains M–100) like ceviche and pescado frito with plenty of cold beer. Daily noon–9pm.

Yaxché Corner of La Quinta and C 22 Nte tel_icon984 873 3011, web_iconmayacuisine.com. This elegant restaurant (pronounced “jag-SHAY”) specializes in traditional Maya cuisine (mains M5–375). The menu features dishes like chicken in a sour orange and chipotle sauce, slow-cooked suckling pig, and tikin xic, a marinated fish fillet cooked in a banana leaf. Daily 8.30am–10.30pm.

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DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

At night, La Quinta becomes one long street party, and you can find any sort of music in the array of bars, though most people will wind up around the lively intersection with C 12. If you’re looking for a mellower atmosphere, head north of C 16, even as far up as C 40. Happy-hour specials can ease you into the night without depleting funds too rapidly.

BARS

Alux Juárez, 400m west of Hwy-307 tel_icon984 803 2936, web_iconaluxrestaurant.com. It’s expensive and a trek from the main drag (tell the cab driver “ah-LOOSH”), but how often do you get to party in a technicolor-lit cave? Opens early for drinks, followed by dinner (overpriced, but fine; mains M0–380); a DJ or a floor show of belly dancers and jazz musicians gets started around 10pm. Usually no cover charge. Daily 5.30pm–late.

Caiman C 24, between Av 5 and Av 10 tel_icon984 803 5250. A welcome change of pace from the often brash Playa bar scene, Caiman is a low-key joint with a friendly crowd of locals and expats. Cold beers cost M–50. Daily 11am–midnight.

Diablito Cha Cha Cha C 12 at Av 1 tel_icon984 803 5250. Mexico-goes-rockabilly is the loose theme at this retro-cool open-air lounge. Fuel up on Mexi-Asian snacks (tempura red snapper, spicy hand rolls, and so on), or just go straight for the tequila-mango cocktails (around M0). Daily 6pm–late.

Fusion C 6 at the beach tel_icon984 873 0373. This mellow beach bar, with tables in the sand and the glow of kerosene lamps, is a great slice of old-fashioned, pre-club-scene Playa. There’s live music most nights, and a strong drinks menu (beer M–45, cocktails M0–120). Daily 9am–late.

Kitxen Av 5, between Av Constituyentes and C 20 tel_icon984 879 4749, web_iconfacebook.com/Kitxen. This cool bar-restaurant is owned by a member of legendary Mexican rock group Los Jaguares, so live bands often accompany good bar-snack food and drinks. Daily 5pm–2am.

Ranita C 10, between Av 5 and Av 10 tel_icon984 873 0389, web_iconranacansada.com/bar-ranita.html. A crew of regulars – mostly expats – hang out around the horseshoe-shaped bar. Unless there’s a live band wedged into the small space, it’s a mellow scene and a welcome break from other high-volume places. Sun–Thurs 1pm–2am, Fri–Sat 1pm–3am.

El Tigre Av 10, between C 2 and C 4. Good local spot for beers (around M–40), ceviche and ridiculously generous botanas. Women will probably feel more comfortable accompanied by a man; the billiards area upstairs is men only. Daily 11am–5pm.

BEACH CLUBS

Canibal Royal C 48 at the beach tel_icon984 803 4506. Your long walk to the farthest north beach is rewarded with a 1950s Brazilian lounge vibe, creative food and delectable eye candy, in the form of all the Mexico City hipsters who hang out here. Daily 11am–7pm.

Mamita’s Beach Club C 28 at the beach tel_icon984 803 2867, web_iconmamitasbeachclub.com. Of the two clubs at Playa Norte (Kool is the other), this one is marginally nicer and has better food. It has plenty of room to spread out and a hip but not overbearing party atmosphere. Chairs and umbrellas are for rent, or you can spread a towel at the water’s edge and still get waiter service for drinks; the food is good (if a tad pricey). Daily 10am–7pm.

CLUBS

La Santanera C 12, between Av 5 and Av 10 tel_icon984 803 5250, web_iconfacebook.com/LaSantanera. Super-stylish club with a comfortable, breezy lounge area, diverse music and good strong drinks. The scantily clad party crowd – equal parts visitors and residents – usually staggers out just before dawn. Wed–Sat 10pm–6am.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange HSBC, Juárez between Av 10 and Av 15 (Mon–Fri 9am–7pm); Bancomer, Juárez between Av 25 and Av 30 (Mon–Fri 9am–4pm). Both have ATMs.

Consulates Canada, Av 10 at C 1, Plaza Paraíso tel_icon984 803 2411; US, C 1 Sur between Av 15 and Av 20 tel_icon984 873 0303.

Internet The streets off Av 5 hold numerous internet cafés; La Tabería on C 4 between Av 5 and Av 10 doubles as a caseta.

Laundry Lavanderías are scattered every other block on the side streets. Try Gigalav, on C 2 between Av 10 and Av 15 (daily 8am–9pm; M/kg).

Post office Av 20 at C 2 (Mon–Fri 8am–2pm); geared to dealing with tourists.

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Isla Cozumel

A 40km-long island directly off the coast from Playa del Carmen, ISLA COZUMEL is known to package tourists as a cruise-ship port: nearly every day, up to ten liners, each with several thousand passengers, dock at one of the island’s three dedicated piers, all just south of the only town, San Miguel. But Cozumel’s other major attraction provides the perfect escape from the crowds: the reefs that dazzled Jacques Cousteau in the early 1960s are some of the finest in this hemisphere. Even if you don’t dive, there’s a certain appeal in wandering the relaxed inland blocks of San Miguel, away from the piers, spotting Maya ruins and birds (the Maya called the island cuzamil – “land of the swallows”) in the dense forests and being the only person on the windswept eastern beaches.

RG

San Miguel

Along the malecón (Av Rafael Melgar), downtown SAN MIGUEL caters to cruise-shippers with restaurants, souvenir shops, tour agencies and jewellery stores. There are typically fewer boats in port at weekends, and on Sunday evenings, cozumeleños come out to the main plaza for live music.

RG

Museo de la Isla de Cozumel

Av Melgar between Av 4 and Av 6 • Mon–Sat 9am–4pm • US • tel_icon987 872 0093, web_iconcozumelparks.com

This attractive museum has small displays of the flora, fauna and marine life of the island, as well as a good collection of Maya artefacts and old photos. It occasionally hosts live music and theatre events – check what’s on with the tourist office.

The southwest coast

Aside from a small public beach on the north side of San Miguel (at C 16) and a small strip north of town, all the beach action is south of town on the Carretera Costera Poniente. Beach clubs typically charge about M for beers, and seafood mains for M0–250; you’re expected to buy a nominal amount.

Parque Chankanaab

Southwest coast, 8km south of San Miguel • Mon–Sat 8am–4pm • Adults US, children aged 3–11 US • tel_icon987 872 0093, web_iconcozumelparks.com

Tourists are usually steered right to the Parque Chankanaab. It’s a lovely lagoon, but overdeveloped, with mini-golf, dolphin pens, botanical gardens and kayak tours. You’ll probably want to skip it unless you have kids, who will like the calm water.

El Cedral

A large arch on the inland side of the road at km 17.5 marks the turn for the village of El Cedral, founded in 1847 and now primarily a vacation spot for San Miguel’s better-off residents. There’s no reason to drive up except in late April and early May, when the village hosts the ten-day-long Fiesta de la Santa Cruz, a huge fair with bullfights, prize-winning livestock and dancing.

Alberto’s

Southwest coast, km 17.5 • Daily 10am–11pm • tel_icon987 869 1228

Immediately opposite the turn for El Cedral, this is the most rustic of the beach clubs on the west coast, with a great beach and snorkelling. There’s nothing but a small, very good restaurant, boasting fish fresh-caught with its own boats. Snorkel trips to the best reefs run from here. The boat ride is shorter (and cheaper) from Playa Palancar, but the beach there can be a party scene, while tranquilo is the watchword at Alberto’s.

REEF ETIQUETTE

Coral reefs are among the richest and most complex ecosystems on earth, but they are also very fragile. The colonies grow at a rate of only around 5cm per year, so they must be treated with care and respect if they are not to be damaged beyond repair. Follow these simple rules – and advise your guide to do so as well – while you are snorkelling, diving or in a boat.

Use only biodegradable sunscreen in reef areas; oils in standard formulas stifle coral growth.

Never touch or stand on corals, as the living polyps are easily damaged. Also avoid disturbing the sand around them, as it can smother them.

Don’t remove anything from the reef.

Don’t anchor boats on the reef; use permanently secured buoys instead.

Check where you are allowed to go fishing.

Review your diving skills before you head out.

Playa Palancar

Southwest coast, km 19 • Daily 9am–6pm; dive shop closed Sun • Snorkel tours around M0 • tel_icon987 118 5154

The last beach on the western shore is pretty, centred around a restaurant that serves good tikin-xic, and there’s a dive shop where you can arrange a boat ride (2hr) out to Palancar Gardens just offshore. With parasailing, wave-runners and kayaks on offer, it’s good for active beach-goers; others might find it a bit noisy.

Faro Celarain Eco Park

Southern tip of the island • Mon–Sat 9am–4pm; museum of navigation daily 10am–4pm (same ticket) • Adults US, kids 3–11 US • tel_icon987 872 0093, web_iconcozumelparks.com

The southernmost point of the island is a protected reserve for diverse wildlife, the Faro Celarain Eco Park (also called Parque Punta Sur). The site contains several lovely beaches, where you can hang out in a hammock, take a kayak tour around the lagoon or snorkel out and possibly spot some hawksbill turtles. This is also a prime spot for bird watching, as the mangroves host both migratory and endemic species, including the widespread Cozumel vireo and the Cozumel thrasher, once thought to be extinct. On the way in, you pass the tiny Templo El Caracol, which may have been built by the Maya as a lighthouse, though it’s awfully squat. When the wind is right, it whistles through the shells embedded in its walls. You can climb to the top of the Punta Celarain lighthouse for amazing views over the coast, or visit the adjacent museum of navigation in the former lightkeeper’s house.

  Within the park, a bus transports visitors between various sites (or you can rent bicycles), including viewing towers over a network of lagoons and a beach restaurant serving good fried fish.

San Gervasio

6km north of the Carretera Transversal • Daily 8am–3.45pm • US.50 • tel_icon987 872 0093, web_iconcozumelparks.com

Midway across the island, San Gervasio is the only excavated Maya site on Cozumel (the main ancient city, part of a major sea-trade network in the pre-Conquest era, was covered by a US air base, now the airport). With several small temples connected by sacbeob, or long white roads, it was one of the many independent city-states that survived the fall of Chichén Itzá, flourishing between 1200 AD and 1650 AD. It was also one of the most important Mesoamerican centres of pilgrimage for Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and weaving – though it’s not particularly impressive now. As part of a larger nature reserve, however, the site is worth a visit for the numerous birds and butterflies you can spot early in the morning or late in the day.

The east coast

Cozumel’s rugged, windy eastern shore remains undeveloped because it faces the open sea and is usually too rough for swimming. The Carretera Costera Oriente runs 20km south to Punta Sur, passing many tantalizing empty beaches (swim only where you see others, and be wary of currents) and the occasional beach hut serving margaritas, but only until sundown because there’s no electricity. Punta Morena occasionally draws surfers, and the beach at Chen Río has two protected coves where you can swim or snorkel, plus a very good restaurant (El Galeón). Playa San Martín, just south, is usually best for swimming.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: ISLA COZUMEL

By plane From the airport, where there’s an ATM, a combi van service makes the short trip into town (about M). Destinations include Cancún (on Mayair; 4–5 daily; 20min).

By bus You can buy tickets for onward mainland travel at the ADO office on Av 10 at C 2.

By passenger ferry The passenger ferry dock is in the centre of San Miguel, with the plaza directly across the street. Two passenger ferry companies, Mexico Waterjets (web_iconmexicowaterjets.com) and Ultramar (web_icongranpuerto.com.mx), depart from the pier at C 1 Sur in Playa del Carmen, for San Miguel in Cozumel (roughly hourly, 6am–11pm). The price is the same (M3), and the boats are roughly equivalent as well, so just pick whichever is departing soonest – and buy only a one-way ticket, so you have the same freedom on the return trip. Returning to Playa, the ferries depart Cozumel hourly (5am–10pm), though this can change according to the season.

By car ferry Transbordadores del Caribe (tel_icon987 872 7688, web_icontranscaribe.net) operates a car ferry (Mon–Sat 4 daily, Sun 2 daily; 1hr 15min) to Cozumel from Puerto Calica (also called Punta Venado), 7km south of Playa del Carmen. At M7 per car and M per passenger, it’s worthwhile only if you’ll be staying on the island more than a few days. If you opt not to take your car, the closest parking to the ferry terminal in Playa del Carmen is the secure car park behind the main bus station.

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GETTING AROUND

By bus Buses run around town, but the only one you might use is the hourly one to the beaches and hotels just north and south of town. Look for the northbound bus on Av 10; the southbound, on Av 15. But note that the majority that go by are for other routes within San Miguel. To get outside town, you’ll have to book a tour, take a taxi or rent a vehicle.

By car Numerous local rentadoras in the town centre have similar prices (around M0–1000/day), and haggling often doesn’t get you much; you can often do better booking with a chain online.

By taxi If you have substantial luggage, you’ll want a taxi for any hotel east of Av 10. They’re plentiful and operate on a zone system.

By bike Cycling is only really feasible in town and to the beaches to the north or south as far as Parque Chankanaab, where there’s a separate track. Sombrero Rentals (tel_icon987 857 0085, web_iconsombrerorentals.com) has well-maintained mountain bikes and beach cruisers for about US/M5 per day; they’ll deliver to your hotel.

By moped Fun on a clear day, but opt for a car if there’s any sign of rain. In addition to the discomfort, roads are very slick when wet. Sombrero Rentals has them (around US/M0 per day).

UNDERWATER IN COZUMEL

DIVING

Some of the top dive spots are Colombia Deep and Punta Sur, directly south from the marshes on the southern tip, but the latter has strong currents. There are dozens of dive shops in town – Deep Blue (Salas at Av 10; tel_icon987 872 5653, web_icondeepbluecozumel.com) is one of the best, offering tailor-made small-group tours; a two-tank dive costs US–80/M95–1360, depending on the size of the group. For certification courses, Caribbean Divers (Av 5 at C 3; tel_icon987 872 1145) comes recommended, as does Blue Magic Scuba (C 4 no. 71; tel_icon987 872 6143, web_iconbluemagicscuba.com).

SNORKELLING

As soon as you get off the ferry, you’ll be offered trips. Short tours (1–2hr), priced at around US/M0, go to nearby reefs such as Villa Blanca, which are fine but not spectacular. The best destinations are Palancar Shallows and Colombia Shallows; they’re off the southwest coast, so better visited from Playa Palancar’s beach club. There’s also walk-in snorkelling – the good sites closest to San Miguel are Villa Blanca Shallows (Carretera Sur km 3.5), near the Sunset Grill, and Paradise Shallows – turn off near Carretera Sur km 5, then turn right at the marina.

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INFORMATION

Tourist office The island tourist office (Mon–Sat 8.30am–5pm; tel_icon987 872 7585) is in the complex on the east side of the plaza, up the escalators.

Website web_iconcozumel.travel is a useful source of information.

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ACCOMMODATION

The hotels in Cozumel are divided into two categories: resorts (most all-inclusive) strung out along the coast on either side of San Miguel, and more affordable places in the town centre – though none of these, even the lone hostel, is very cheap. Along the beach, the hotels to the north require a taxi ride into town, while a few to the south are within walking distance from the action. At the town hotels, sea views are overrated, as they usually come with traffic noise from the malecón (San Miguel’s seaside promenade) below.

SAN MIGUEL

Aguilar C 3 Sur 98 at Av 5 Sur tel_icon987 872 0307, web_iconhotelaguilar.com; map. A reasonable low-cost option, Hotel Aguilar has clean, tile-floor rooms with no shortage of plastic flowers; all have a/c and fridges. There’s a small pool on site, and car rental is available. M5

Amaranto C 5 no. 321, between Av 15 and Av 20 tel_icon987 564 4262, web_iconamarantobedandbreakfast.com; map. Winding staircases and curving walls distinguish these three fanciful stucco palapas and two apartments stacked in a tile-trimmed tower. Rooms – all with fridge and microwave, some with a/c – are clustered around a cosy courtyard and small pool. US (M55)

Las Anclas Av 5 Sur 325 tel_icon987 872 5476, web_iconhotelvillalasanclas.com; map. A cluster of two-storey suites with kitchenettes; each sleeps up to four, with a queen-size bed upstairs and two day-beds downstairs (though the latter are best for kids). A lush central garden makes the place feel homely. US5 (M30)

La Casona Real Juárez at Av 25 tel_icon987 872 5471, web_iconhotel-la-casona-real-cozumel.com; map. So long as you love orange and yellow (the wall colours of choice) and you can forgive exposed and questionably joined pipes in the bathrooms, you’ll appreciate the excellent value at this modern hotel with a/c and a courtyard pool. US9 (M25)

Flamingo C 6, between Melgar and Av 5 tel_icon987 872 1264, web_iconhotelflamingo.com; map. Popular with the scuba set, with a roof terrace and a bar (noise alert: occasional live salsa bands). “Courtyard” rooms aren’t as breezy as the larger “superior” ones, but all have a nice modern style, and the full inclusive breakfast is very good. US (M30)

Hostelito Av 10 no. 42, between Juárez and C 2 tel_icon987 869 8157, web_iconhostelcozumel.com; map. A fine hostel, with six-bed dorms (including one with a/c) and private a/c rooms, as well as a convenient location, a small book exchange, a roof terrace and luggage storage. Dorms M0; doubles M0

Pepita Av 15 Sur 120, at C 1 Sur tel_icon987 872 0098, web_iconhotelpepitacozumel.com; map. One of the oldest hotels in town, and also one of the best kept, with clean, simple tiled-floor rooms with a/c, fridges and TVs. Amenities include a pretty courtyard and free coffee in the morning. M0

Tamarindo B&B C 4 no. 421, between Av 20 and Av 25 tel_icon987 872 6190, web_icontamarindocozumel.com; map. At this French-owned B&B, rooms have cosy nooks and whimsical touches. A full breakfast is included, and the owner’s excellent cooking and island expertise put guests at ease. A/c rooms and apartments cost US–30/M0–510 extra. US (M05)

OUTSIDE SAN MIGUEL

Blue Angel Resort Carretera Costera Sur km 2.2 tel_icon987 872 7258, web_iconblueangelresort.com; map. Close to town, and with an excellent dive shop and shallow-dive training both in the pool and right off the hotel’s small beach. All rooms have sea views and private balconies. US8 (M10)

Ventanas al Mar On the east coast, 5km south of Mezcalito’s beach bar and the intersection with the Carretera Transversal tel_icon984 267 2237, web_iconventanasalmar.com; map. This hotel – the only one on the east coast – runs entirely on wind power. The giant rooms and the two-storey suites, which sleep four, have basic kitchenettes, as well as terraces overlooking the crashing surf. Bring groceries if you plan to stay a while. Two-night minimum stay. US5 (M00)

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EATING

A good number of San Miguel’s restaurants are pasta-and-steak tourist traps catering to a dull palate, but tucked in the backstreets are a surprising number of small family-run operations. The cheapest snacks of all can be had through the afternoon at the city market, on Salas between Av 20 and Av 25.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

Chilangos Av 30, between C 3 and Morelos; map. At this tiny family-operated place, design your own quesadilla or huarache by pointing at the ingredients on display in a small glass case – lots of veggies, among other things. Then the masters behind the counter assemble a great, reasonably priced meal (around M–70). Daily 7–11pm/midnight.

Corazón Contento C 2 at Av 10 tel_icon987 876 1526; map. At this very welcoming operation near the plaza, the coffee is atypically strong and delicious, and the breakfasts – which range from fruit salads to French toast – are good value (from M). Daily 7am–10pm.

Nacho Crazy Boy Av 20, between C 1 and Juárez; map. The eponymous Nacho operates a battery of blenders and squeezers in front of his house, to create inexpensive and delicious juice drinks (M–60). Opening hours can be a bit erratic. Daily 8am–11pm.

Panadería Cozumeleña C 3 at Av 10; map. Stop by this sweet-smelling bakery (entrance on C 3) to pick up a pastry (M–40) to go, or, for a more leisurely light breakfast, settle in at the adjacent coffee shop, a neighbourhood hangout (entrance on the corner). Daily 7am–10pm.

Restaurant del Museo Melgar, between C 4 and C 6, at the Museo de la Isla de Cozumel tel_icon987 872 0838; map. Enjoy a quiet breakfast (M–100), lunch or dinner on the balcony of the museum with a view of the sea. The food – from huevos rancheros to club sandwiches – is fresh and filling. Mon–Sat 7am–11pm.

RESTAURANTS

La Candela Av 5 at C 6 Nte tel_icon987 878 4472; map. Home-cooked breakfast and lunch, with a half-Cuban twist (black beans and rice, mojitos). The “fish Candela” (in a tomatillo cream sauce) is just one of many tasty house dishes (around M0). Nice breezy terrace seating at the back. Mon–Sat 8am–6pm.

Casa Denis C 1, between Av 5 and Av 10 tel_icon987 872 0067, web_iconcasadenis.com; map. A little wood-frame house, this is the best bet for eating near the plaza, even if some of the bigger meals can be a little bland. Best to stick with a beer and some snacks (M–80) and watch the action from your pavement table. Daily 8am–10pm.

author_pickLe Chef Av 5 at C 5 Sur tel_icon987 878 4391, web_iconfacebook.com/LeChefCozumel; map. A charming little spot (also known as Le Bistrot) where the chef-owner devises new specials every day, such as various pizzas and creative sandwiches (lobster and bacon is the house speciality). Expect to pay around M0 for a meal and a drink. Mon–Sat noon–11pm.

Conchita del Caribe Av 65, between C 13 and C 15 tel_icon987 872 5888, web_iconlaconchitadelcaribe.mx; map. This locally famous informal seafood spot (dishes from M) is worth the cab ride deep into town. The generous portions of ceviche are particularly good, and on Sundays you can get paella. Daily 11.30am–7.30pm.

New Especias C 3 Sur at Av 5 tel_icon987 876 1558, web_iconfacebook.com/NewEspecias; map. A good-value restaurant specializing in Italian food, from bruschetta and gnocchi to thin-crust pizzas, seafood and steaks (mains around M0–200). The menu also features a few more unusual dishes, such as sweet Nutella pizzas and barbecued lion fish (an invasive species that threatens Cozumel’s reefs). Mon–Sat 6–11.30pm.

Rock’n Java Melgar 602, between C 7 and Quintana Roo (C 11) tel_icon987 872 4405, web_iconrocknjavacozumel.com; map. At this American-owned seafront diner, healthy sandwiches, salads and veggie chile are balanced out by hearty burgers and fantastically rich and delicious desserts (like double fudge brownies). Mains M–140. Mon–Fri 7am–10pm, Sat 7am–2pm.

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DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

Kelley’s Av 10, between Salas and C 1 Sur tel_icon987 117 9224, web_iconfacebook.com/KelleysBarCozumel; map. Big open-air sports bar with a pool table and live music on weekends – you might see your diving instructor or tour guide there off-hours. Tasty American food during the day (steaks around M0). Daily noon–11pm.

La Morena Av 10, between C 3 and C 5; map. A restaurant with a back garden serving earthy Yucatecan food, and also a great place to hang out in the afternoon, when beers cost around M and you can fill up on the botanas served with each round. Daily 11am–11pm.

Tiki-Tok Melgar, between C 2 and C 4 tel_icon987 869 8189, web_iconfacebook.com/TikTokcCozumel; map. This second-floor bar doles out the umbrella drinks, and the party gets started earlier than most, as this is one of the few bars in town with a sunset view over the water. There’s live salsa music (dance classes Fri night) later on. Daily 7am–5am.

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DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange HSBC (Mon–Fri 9am–7pm) is on Av 5 at C 1 Sur.

Internet Scarce in the centre of town, but more numerous around the public market.

Laundry There are two lavanderías on Quintana Roo (C 11) just east of Melgar.

Medical care Hyperbaric chamber and clinic on C 5 between Melgar and Av 5 (tel_icon987 872 5050, web_iconcozumelhyperbaricchamber.com). 24hr Centro de Salud, on Av 20 at C 11 (tel_icon987 872 0140). Most doctors are accustomed to dealing with English-speaking patients and those with diving-related issues.

Post office Melgar at C 7 Sur (Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat 9am–1pm).

< Back to Playa del Carmen and around

South to Tulum

Much of the seafront south of Playa del Carmen has been developed into resorts or condominium villages, and their access gates line the east side of Hwy-307, leaving little or no access to the sea for non-guests. There are just a couple of good beach spots, but on the inland side, you’ll find some good cenotes.

Xcaret

6km south of Playa del Carmen • Daily 8.30am–9.30pm • M75 (a bit cheaper if you book online) • tel_icon984 206 0038, web_iconxcaret.com • Second-class buses stop on request; dedicated ADO bus from Playa del Carmen runs 3 times every morning; taxi from Playa around M0

The attraction you see billboards for everywhere is actually a surprisingly pleasant theme park: Xcaret offers all the Yucatán’s attractions in one handy place, with a museum, a tropical aquarium, a “Maya village”, a beach, some small authentic ruins, pools and more than a kilometre of subterranean rivers down which you can swim, snorkel or float. Neighbouring Xplor (web_iconxplor.travel) is dedicated to ziplines and other outdoor adventure – but it’s very expensive for what it is.

Río Secreto

6km south of Playa del Carmen, opposite Xcaret • Tours daily at 9am, 10am, noon, 1pm & 2pm • US/M45 • tel_icon888 844 5010, web_iconriosecretomexico.com • Second-class buses stop on request; a taxi from Playa del Carmen costs around M0

This tour through a water-filled cave is a slick operation, but an undeniably cool one. You don a wetsuit to clamber over rocks and swim through sparkling-clear rivers, and the only light comes from your own headlamp. It’s a good adventure, but still doable for kids or not-so-strong swimmers. It’s also a good activity for a rainy day.

Xcacel

Hwy-307, just south of km 247 • Daily 8am–6pm • M

A few kilometres south of Akumal and immediately south of Chemuyil, Xcacel is a sea-turtle research station and pristine beach with good waves for body-surfing. Visitors are welcome, and there are basic toilets and a shower. Ticket-sellers will check that you’re using only biodegradable sunscreen. It’s only 500m from the highway – handy if you’re coming by bus or combi.

Parque Xel-Há

Hwy-307, 13km north of Tulum • Park Daily 8.30am–6pm • US/M15 (a bit cheaper if you book online) including all food and drink • tel_icon984 206 0038, web_iconxelha.comRuins Daily 8am–5pm • M

Despite a sky-high entrance fee and a theme-park feel, this natural water park is a highlight of this coast, especially if you have children. If you spend a full day, it can seem pretty good value. Built around a system of lagoons, inlets and caves, it’s a beautiful place with rope swings, snorkelling, cliff jumping and a lazy tube float. Across the highway, not to be confused with the water park, is a set of small Maya ruins with some notable paintings of birds, and miniature temples like those at Tulum.

Hidden Worlds

Hwy-307, 14km north of Tulum • Tours Daily 9am–dark • Snorkelling around US/M5; diving around US0/M15 for two tanks • Dos Ojos Daily 8am–6pm • M0 • tel_icon984 877 8535

This park area encompasses some exceptionally beautiful cenotes and caverns. Guided group snorkelling and diving trips run several times a day, with options for ziplines and the like. You can also visit glimmering Dos Ojos cenote on your own, for a fee paid at a separate entrance just to the north on Hwy-307, though it is also a popular place to dive.

< Back to Playa del Carmen and around

TULUM AND AROUND

To visitors, TULUM can mean several things. First, it’s one of the most picturesque of all the ancient Maya sites, poised on 15m-high cliffs above the impossibly turquoise Caribbean. Tulum also refers to a stretch of broad, white beach, dotted with lodging options that range from bare-bones to ultra-swank; many of them, as well as many super-casual beach bars, still show their backpacker-friendly roots in style, if not in price. Finally, it’s a booming town (often called Tulum Pueblo to distinguish it from the beach) that has evolved from roadside waystation to real population centre, where visitors can arrange tours into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, among other things.

  Long considered the hippest coastal destination in the region – a title Isla Holbox is now vying for – Tulum is rapidly developing: there’s even a Starbucks now. Despite this, it remains a wonderful place to visit.

RG

Tulum ruins

Hwy-307 • Daily 8am–5pm, last entry 4.30pm • M • Parking on the main highway; tickets sold at the site entrance, about 1km east; a shuttle (M) runs between the parking area and the ruins; you can also approach from the south, parking at the dead-end of the beach road and walking in

On a sunny day, with the turquoise sea glittering behind the weather-beaten grey stones, your first glimpse of the Tulum ruins can be breathtaking, despite the small scale of its buildings, all clustered in a compact mass. When the Spaniards first set eyes on the place in 1518, they considered it as large and beautiful as Seville. They were, perhaps, misled by their dreams of El Dorado and the brightly painted facades of the buildings, for architecturally Tulum is no match for the great Maya cities. Mostly built after 1200, the structures seem a bit haphazard because walls flare outward and doorways taper in – not the effect of time, but an intentional design, and one echoed in other post-Classic sites along the coast like El Rey in Cancún and San Gervasio on Cozumel.

  The site itself takes only an hour or so to see, though you may want to allow time to swim at the tiny, perfect beach that punctuates the cliffs. Arrive in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the worst crowds. You walk in through a breach in the wall that surrounded the city on three sides; the fourth faced the sea. The first building past the entrance is the Casa del Noroeste, one of the many small-scale buildings which typify the site, with their slanty walls and narrow windows. Closer to the sea sits the Casa del Cenote, a square structure straddling what was once a water-filled cave, the source of life for the settlement. On the bluff above and to the right are the Templos Miniaturas, several small-scale temples, complete with tiny lintels and mouldings, which were probably used as shrines.

RG

Templo del Díos Descendente

Skirt the small beach to reach the Templo del Díos Descendente. The small, upside-down winged figure depicted above the temple’s narrow entrance appears all over the city, but in only a handful of places elsewhere in the Maya world. It may represent the setting sun, or the bee god, as honey was one of the Maya’s most important exports.

El Castillo

Immediately adjacent to the Templo del Díos Descendente, the Castillo, on the highest part of the site, commands fine views in every direction – but to protect the worn stones, visitors may now only look up at the building from the base of the hill. The pyramid may have served not just as a temple, but also as a lighthouse. Even without a light, it would have been an important landmark for mariners.

Templo de las Pinturas and around

Away from the sea, a cluster of buildings is arranged on a city-like grid, with the chief structures set on stone platforms along parallel streets. Of these, the Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings) is intriguing: the intricate carvings on its exterior slowly reveal themselves as you look closely. The corners form glowering masks trimmed with feather headdresses, and the “descending god” can be spotted in one niche. Unfortunately, you can no longer view this section of the temple, as it’s closed off (it is actually on the exterior of an older, smaller temple, which has been preserved by the surrounding gallery), but one remarkable scene, created at a later date than the others, shows the rain god Chac seated on a four-legged animal – likely inspired by the conquistadors on horseback.

  The best view of the whole site is from the cliff edges to the south of the Castillo. A small trail leads along the edge, delivering a great perspective on the sea and the ruins, then loops down through the greenery.

< Back to Tulum and around

Tulum beach

Tulum town is generally empty of visitors by day because they’ve all decamped to the beach, the longest, most impeccable stretch of sand outside Cancún. The easiest access is at one of the beach clubs, where you pay for lounge chairs and drinks; far south, especially in the biosphere reserve, there’s easier free access. The most popular clubs are walking distance from the ruins, making it easy to sightsee, then grab lunch and a spot in the sun. El Paraiso Beach Club, about 500m south of the ruins’ back entrance, has a generous stretch of sand, often with bands, beach soccer and volleyball. The designated public beach close to the ruins is Playa Maya, a little south of El Paraiso; local fishermen’s co-ops here offer snorkel tours and fishing trips. And just south of that is El Mariachi Beach Club, more of a locals’ hangout, where you can get super-fresh ceviche.

RG

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: TULUM

By plane Airport shuttle Tucan Kin (tel_icon984 134 7535, web_icontucankin.com) runs both from, and to, Cancún airport, dropping at all hotels; shared service from US/M0 per person.

By bus The bus station is near the southern end of Tulum Pueblo; during the high season it’s worth booking your seat in advance.

Destinations Cancún (every 30min; 2hr 20min–3hr); Chetumal via Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Bacalar (hourly; 3hr 15min–4hr 10min); Chichén Itzá (3 daily at 8.36am, 9am & 2.45pm; 2hr 30min–2hr 50min); Cobá (10 daily; 40min–1hr); Mahahual (1 daily at 9am; 2hr 20min); Mérida (7 daily; 3hr 50min–4hr); Playa del Carmen (every 30min; 1hr); San Cristóbal de las Casas (5 daily; 15hr 5min–16hr 35min) via Palenque (11hr); Valladolid (roughly hourly; 1hr 40min–2hr 10min).

By colectivo Colectivos gather almost next door to the bus station. Passenger vans run very frequently to Playa del Carmen and every hour or so to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, stopping anywhere in between on request.

TULUM ORIENTATION

Coming into the Tulum area on Hwy-307 from the north, you arrive first at the well-marked pedestrian and bus entrances to the ruins – the site itself is on the water, 1km east. There’s a long-haul bus stop here, so you don’t have to double back from town.

  Another kilometre or so south is a traffic light marking the main intersection. A left turn here leads, in about 3km, to the beach, where accommodation is strung along a narrow but paved road running north–south along the water. To the north (left from the junction) are a few hotels, the better publicly accessible beaches and, after 2km, a back entrance to the ruins. To the south (right from the junction), hotels dot 7km of road, up to the border of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

  Back on Hwy-307 (here called Av Tulum), the centre of town is just a little further south.

< Back to Tulum beach

GETTING AROUND

By car To rent a car for a day outing, try Hertz (web_iconhertz.com) on Av Tulum.

By taxi The main taxi office is on the west side of Av Tulum between Centauro and Orión; most prices are shown on a board outside (M–100 to beach hotels). Tulum’s taxi drivers have a reputation for denying the existence of hotels that don’t pay them commission; if you have planned on a particular hotel, insist on being taken there.

By bike Many hostels and hotels offer bikes to rent (or even free for guests), as do most travel agencies.

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INFORMATION, TOURS AND ACTIVITIES

INFORMATION

Tourist information Info kiosk with erratic hours on Av Tulum at Osiris, just north of HSBC. The Weary Traveler hostel usually has good free maps.

TOUR OPERATORS

Community Tours Sian Ka’an Osiris and Sol de Oriente tel_icon984 871 2202. The best tours of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, run by Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an. Birding, sunset (with cheese and wine), kayaking and fishing are among the trips on offer.

Savana Travel Agency Av Tulum, between Orion and Beta Sur tel_icon984 142 2422, web_icontulumtravelandtours.com. A full-service travel agency for flights and car rental, as well as local tours.

ACTIVITIES

Diving Reefs off the coast are fine but not lush – cenote diving is the real attraction in this area. Acuatic Tulum are reliable operators, on the beach at Cabañas Zazil-Kin and just off Hwy-307 on the road to the beach (tel_icon984 871 2508, web_iconacuatictulum.com.mx).

Kitesurfing Extreme Control at Caleta Tankha, north of the ruins (tel_icon984 745 4555, web_iconextremecontrol.net).

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ACCOMMODATION

Basic sand-floor cabañas on the beach made Tulum famous with hippy backpackers, but they’re in short supply now, as more comfortable (and much more expensive) places have sprung up. In fact, you may want to stay in town if you arrive late, have a limited amount of time (and money) or just prefer hot water round-the-clock: most hotels on the beach road have power only in the evenings (though this is changing), drawing on solar panels, windmills and (less ecofriendly) diesel generators. Depending on your point of view, the candle-lit ambience is rustic charm or expensive primitivism, and the thatched palapa roofs on cabañas can be a liability in the rain. As in Playa del Carmen, most hotels also charge high-season rates in the European holiday period of July and Aug. Addresses for the beach hotels are given in terms of distance from the junction with the highway access road. In addition to those listed below, Las Ranitas, which was closed for renovation at the time of research but is due to reopen in early 2016, is worth a look (web_iconlasranitashotel.com).

HOTELS, B&BS AND CABAÑAS

ON THE BEACH

Cabañas Copal 700m south of the junction tel_icon1 800 681 9537 in Mexico, tel_icon01 866 471 3472 in the US, web_iconecotulum.com/cabanascopal.html; map. The round, cement-floor cabañas are quite crowded together, but they’re relatively well priced. There’s electricity only in public areas but plenty of hot water, and a clothing-optional beach. Good spa on site. US0 (M80)

Cabañas Zazil-Kin 2.4km north of the junction tel_icon984 124 0082, web_iconzazilkintulum.com; map. Although we’ve heard reports of theft, this is probably still the best value of the remaining backpacker-friendly operations, with a lively bar scene. Of the basic, concrete-floor cabañas (cold water only), a couple have private bath; a dozen rooms in a new block have a/c. It’s perennially popular – so reserve or arrive early, as rooms go fast. US (M5)

Dos Ceibas 5.5km south of the junction tel_icon984 877 6024, web_icondosceibas.com; map. Colourful, spacious cabañas in front of a turtle-hatching beach. Solar power and recycling mean that Dos Ceibas’ “eco” label is more convincing than most; yoga and meditation classes offered. The cheapest cabaña has a bathroom outside. US0 (M00)

Nueva Vida de Ramiro 4.5km south of the junction tel_icon984 877 8512, web_icontulumnv.com; map. Peaceful, quirky eco-hotel powered entirely by wind turbines. Attractive wood cabins on stilts and cement cabins with big tiled bathrooms are built over and around untamed greenery. The restaurant serves tasty seafood. With several suites and whole houses, it’s a good choice for families and groups. US5 (M60)

Zamas 1.3km south of the junction tel_icon984 877 8523, web_iconzamas.com; map. Enormous, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, some right on one of the prettiest stretches of beach in Tulum. Hot water and electricity are plentiful, but the style remains bohemian. Good restaurant too. US0 (M30)

IN TOWN

Don Diego de la Selva West side of Hwy-307, south of town tel_icon984 114 9744, web_icondtulum.com; map. French-owned hideaway just out of town, with a pool, tranquil garden, Gallic-influenced restaurant and big, white rooms with terraces; choice of fan or a/c. Guests can use facilities at beachfront sister hotel, Don Diego de la Playa (which is also recommended). US (M80)

L’Hotelito West side of Av Tulum between Beta and Orión tel_icon984 136 1240, web_iconhotelitotulum.com; map. Good-value Italian-run hotel with palapa roofs and a garden courtyard, quiet despite its location in the middle of town. Rooms have an old-fashioned, comfy feel: upstairs with high ceilings and fan or, for US extra, a/c; downstairs with a/c. US (M20)

Kukulcán East side of Av Tulum between Beta and Orión tel_icon984 871 2112 email_icon[email protected]; map. This basic budget hotel has faded but clean tiled-floor rooms that open onto small garden spaces at the back – a nice patch of green in town. All rooms have ceiling fans, and some also have a/c. M0

Posada Luna del Sur Luna Sur 5 tel_icon984 871 2984, web_iconposadalunadelsur.com; map. This posada has exceptionally comfortable, tranquil rooms set around a small garden, with welcoming and helpful staff to create an intimate B&B atmosphere. No children under the age of 15 are allowed, and there’s no breakfast during the low season. US0 (M55)

Teetotum On the road to the beach, 200m from Hwy-307 tel_icon984 745 8827, web_iconteetotumhotel.com; map. Four sharply designed rooms with iPod docks, a/c and mod furniture – though it’s overpriced, and housekeeping, and service in general, needs sharpening up. There’s a plunge pool and a café-bar, and the location on the road to the beach hits a sweet spot: quiet, but walking distance to town and an easy bike ride (on free bicycles) to the water. US5 (M00)

HOSTELS

IN TOWN

Hostal Chalupa On the road to the beach, 50m from Hwy-307 tel_icon984 871 2116; map. Excellent hostel with rooftop bar and small pool; dorm beds are in three- or four-bed dorms, all a/c and en suite. Two private rooms, sleeping up to four people, are available too. Vegetarian kitchen. Dorms M0; private rooms M5

The Weary Traveler Av Tulum, just south of the bus station tel_icon984 871 2390, web_iconwearytravelerhostel.com; map. The best-known and most convenient hostel in town; basic, large dorms as well as private rooms, some of which are en suite. Very party-centric and not always the cleanest, but a great meeting place. Don’t expect service: it’s DIY from check-in to breakfast in the communal kitchen. There’s a shuttle to the beach. Dorms M0; doubles M0

CENOTES NEAR TULUM

The area north and west of Tulum has one of the largest concentrations of cenotes on the peninsula, including Ox Bel Ha, which at almost 170km is the longest water-filled cave system in the world. Many of these freshwater sinkholes are accessible from Hwy-307 or off the road to Cobá. Some, like Hidden Worlds, have been developed as adventure centres, and the guides and marked trails at these places can help put first-time visitors at ease in dark water and tight spaces. But it’s also worth visiting one of the less developed alternatives, such as Gran Cenote, 4km up the road to Cobá from Tulum (8am–6pm; M0), where the only service is snorkel-gear rental. Either way, you can float above stalagmites and other rock formations – all the fun of cave exploration, with none of the scrabbling around. Zacil-Há, 4km further (M), is a local hangout and a great beginner pool, as you can see the sandy bottom.

Divers must have open-water certification for cavern diving (in which you explore within the reach of daylight), but cave diving (in which you venture into closed passageways and halls) requires rigorous training. One of the best cave-diving specialists in the area is Aquatech Divers at Villas de Rosa (tel_icon984 875 9020, web_iconcenotes.com; cenote dives from US/M20) at Aventuras beach.

  Local development may threaten cenotes in the long run, but clumsy visitors can do more damage in the short term. All the same rules for reef preservation apply here; and be very careful climbing in and out of the water – use the paths and ladders provided.

< Back to Tulum beach

EATING

Because the accommodation in Tulum is spread over 10km and the town is so far from the beach, almost every hotel has its own restaurant and bar. Guests tend to stick to their own hotels, but a few places to eat along the beach road merit a special trip. In town, a number of inexpensive cafés serve comida corrida and rotisserie chicken, and there’s an increasing number of cheerful, mid-range places run by European expats.

CAFÉS, CHEAP EATS AND SNACKS

IN TOWN

Baguettes and Croissants Pte at Alfa tel_icon984 141 7600; map. Good-value bakery café, a short walk off the main drag, serving sandwiches and filled baguettes (from M), cakes, pastries, light meals and decent coffee. Useful for picnics or bus journeys. Daily 7am–9pm.

El Camello Jr East side of Hwy-307 at the south edge of town; map. Unpretentious, plastic-table-and-chair place, but the crowds will tell you the seafood is excellent and cheap – from the ceviche to whole fried fish (mains M0–200). It’s typically closed Wed in low season. Mon–Sat 9am–9pm.

La Hoja Verde Beta, just off Av Tulum tel_icon984 000 0000; map. This vegetarian/vegan restaurant, opposite the meat-focused Pequeño Buenos Aires, offers a pleasing change of pace, with tasty ratatouille, falafel, quinoa risotto and curries (mains M–105), plus great juices and smoothies. Tues–Sun 2–10pm.

La Nave North side of Av Tulum between Orión and Beta tel_icon984 871 2592; map. A busy hangout with fresh-fruit breakfasts, inexpensive pizza from a wood-fired oven (M0–200) and Italian staples like pasta, gnocchi and saltimbocca. Daily 8am–11pm.

El Tacoqueto East side of Av Tulum at C Acuario; map. A dependable lonchería with gut-busting daily specials (feel free to poke your head in the kitchen to see what looks good) for about M, or delicious hot-off-the-grill tacos for even less. Daily 8am–9pm.

author_pickUrge Taquito West side of Hwy-307, one block north of the traffic lights tel_icon984 100 0118; map. Humble roadside place specializing in (grilled or fried) tacos filled with fish or shrimp (around M), which you can dress up with fixings from the salsa bar or the epic condiments rack. Not to be missed. Mon–Sat noon–5pm.

RESTAURANTS

IN TOWN

El Capitán On the road to the beach, 200m from Hwy-307 tel_icon984 116 3967, web_iconrestaurant-elcapitan.com; map. Vast portions of high-quality, keenly-priced fish, seafood and Mexican classics are served up at this friendly restaurant: the ceviche is particularly good (mains M–230). The mosquitos, however, are ferocious, so bring repellent. Daily 8am–10.30pm.

author_pickCetli Polar at Orión tel_icon984 108 0681; map. Chef-owner Claudia trained in Mexico City’s premier culinary academy; at her casual restaurant, try refined versions of Mexican classics (mains about M0), such as chicken stuffed with chaya (similar to spinach) with a cactus fruit jelly. Mon, Tues & Thurs–Sun 5–10pm.

Pequeño Buenos Aires East side of Av Tulum at Beta tel_icon984 871 2708; map. Giant Argentine steaks and parrilladas (huge mixed grills; M0–1190 for two people to share), washed down with some excellent wines from an extensive list (by Tulum standards). The hamburger, using top-quality beef, is great value. Daily noon–10.30pm.

ON THE BEACH

Hartwood 7.6km south of the junction, on the beach road web_iconhartwoodtulum.com; map. The menu at this jungle-side restaurant, run by a New Yorker who aims to have a zero-carbon impact, changes daily, uses local (and often unusual) produce, and is cooked entirely on a wood fire. Expect modern, international dishes (around M0–400) like slow-braised pork ribs, tangy lime tart and cinnamon-spiked plantains. Wed–Sun 6–10/11pm.

Hechizo 7.5km south of the junction, on the beach road tel_icon984 879 5020, web_iconhechizotulum.com; map. This gem of a restaurant is owned by a former Ritz-Carlton chef and features a short, sophisticated international menu (mains M0–370; daily 5-course prix fixe M0) that changes frequently. Email to reserve one of the eight tables. Mon–Sat 7–10.30pm in the high season; private parties only in the low season.

Mateo’s 1.3km south of the junction, on the beach road across from Zamas tel_icon984 179 4160, web_iconmateosmexicangrill.us; map. Very popular Tex-Mex-style roadside diner with burgers, tacos, fajitas, coconut shrimp and the like (mains M5–320). Service may be slow, as almost everything is cooked on a single oil-drum barbecue. Daily 11am–late.

Qué Fresco 1.2km south of the junction, on the beach road, at Zamas tel_icon984 877 8523, web_iconzamas.com; map. Very popular mid-range restaurant with fresh salads, pastas, pizzas, and some of the healthier Mexican dishes (mains M0–230). Its beachside setting makes it a great way to start the day, too. Daily 8am–10.30pm.

El Tábano 2.3km south of the junction, inland side of the beach road tel_icon984 134 8725, web_iconeltabanorestaurant.com; map. As an open-air operation in an area without utilities, every day at this creative Mexican place starts with spanking-fresh seafood and produce – nothing from the freezer here (most mains M5–250). The setting means mosquitoes, though, so bring repellent. Daily 8.30am–9.30pm.

< Back to Tulum beach

DRINKING AND NIGHTLIFE

You’ll have to ask around about nightlife as there’s no single place where people reliably congregate, though El Paraiso Beach Club often has a party around the full moon.

IN TOWN

Batey Centauro, just off Tulum; map. An old VW Beetle out front has been converted into a sugar-cane press at this hip bar, which specializes in mojitos (try the ginger flavour; M–60) and is a great spot for a sundowner. There’s often live music and DJs, and a selection of tapas is on offer. Mon–Sat 4/5pm–1/2am.

ON THE BEACH

Mezzanine 800m north of the junction, on the beach road tel_icon984 131 1596, web_iconmezzaninetulum.com; map. This cool bar-lounge does excellent cocktails and Thai food (mains M5–425); it’s the only place on the beach where you can regularly find a dance scene in high season, every Fri. (Annoyingly, though, non-guests can’t rent loungers/umbrellas.) Daily 8am–10/11pm.

La Vita è Bella 1.6km north of the junction, on the beach road tel_icon984 151 4723; map. Reasonably priced sandwiches and wood-oven pizzas (M0–230) are served until 11pm; a cocktail bar opens at 9.30pm, and a European party crowd often gets dancing later under the big palapa. Non-guests can rent loungers/umbrellas, if there’s space (M0). Daily 8am–11pm.

La Zebra 4.6km south of the junction, on the beach road tel_icon984 115 4728, web_iconlazebratulum.com; map. Live music from Thurs right through the weekend, with a Sun salsa party that draws both tourists and residents, starting with free classes at 6pm (coinciding with happy hour). There’s a huge selection of tequilas, and the restaurant’s Mexican food (dishes from M) is good as well. Daily noon–late.

< Back to Tulum beach

DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange HSBC, with an ATM, is in the middle of town, on the east side of Tulum between Osiris and Alfa; there are other ATMs at the bus station and nearby on the west side of Av Tulum.

Internet Plenty of places offer internet access, and most hotels have wi-fi. Reliable downtown places include Riviera Movil, just south of the ADO.

Laundry Several in town, including Lavandería Cheemil-Po, Av Tulum, just south of the bus station.

Post office West side of Av Tulum between Satélite and Centauro (Mon–Sat noon–3pm).

< Back to Tulum and around

Cobá

45km northwest of Tulum • Daily 8am–6pm • M

A wide highway cuts through the jungle inland from Tulum, leading to the ancient city of COBÁ (and the tiny Maya village next to it). It’s a fascinating and increasingly popular site. The clusters of buildings are spread out over several kilometres, so the area can absorb lots of visitors without feeling crowded, and you can ramble through the forest in peace, looking out for toucans, egrets, coatis and myriad tropical butterflies, including the giant iridescent blue morpho. A visit here requires at least a couple of hours; renting a bicycle just inside the site entrance is highly recommended. Although the ruins aren’t as well restored as those at Tulum, their scale is more impressive, and the dense greenery and wildlife make a good counterpoint to the coast.

  Ceramic studies indicate that the city was occupied from about 100 AD up until the arrival of the Spaniards – the site is even mentioned in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a book of Maya prophecy and lore written down in the eighteenth century, well after the city was abandoned. The city’s zenith was in the Late Classic, around 800 AD, when its wealth grew from links with the cities of Petén, in lowland Mexico and Guatemala. These cities influenced Cobá’s architecture and use of steles, typically seen only in the southern Maya regions. Cobá also prospered later through its connections with coastal cities such as Tulum, and several structures reflect the style found at those sites.

Nohoch Mul

The centrepiece of the site is the giant pyramid Nohoch Mul, taller than El Castillo at Chichén Itzá and, in its narrow and precipitous stairway, resembling the pyramid at Tikal in Guatemala; at the top, a small temple, similar to structures at Tulum, dates from around 1200. The view takes in nearby lakes, as well as the jungle stretching uninterrupted to the horizon.

Grupo Macanxoc

If you’re feeling intrepid, head 1km down a shady sacbé to Grupo Macanxoc, a cluster of some twenty steles, most carved during the seventh century AD. Stele 1 shows part of the Maya creation myth and the oldest date recorded in the Maya Long Count calendar system, which tracks the days since the moment of creation. Other steles depict a high number of women, suggesting that Cobá may have had female rulers.

Cobá cenotes

6km south of Cobá • M each • Buy tickets and arrange a taxi (around M0, inclusive) at the entrance to the Cobá parking area; by car, buy tickets at the first cenote

After visiting the ruins, or as a separate excursion, you can make a trip to a group of cenotes outside the village of Cobá. The first you reach, Choo-Ha, is the least good for swimming, though its stalactites are impressive. The second, Tankah-Ha, is the most spectacular, a grand subterranean dome. Multún-Ha is deeper, and no natural light penetrates.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: COBÁ

By bus Numerous buses (10 daily; 40min–1hr 10min) run to Cobá from Tulum; the first one leaves Tulum at 7.17am. Confusingly, there are generally fewer buses heading in the opposite direction.

By taxi A taxi from Tulum to Cobá costs about M0–450 each way.

< Back to Cobá

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Hotelito Sac-bé On the south side of the main street through the village tel_icon984 206 7140. Leagues better than the other budget options in town, Hotelito Sac-bé has a handful of clean rooms offering various amenities (some have a/c). The restaurant here serves an excellent, generous inclusive breakfast. M0

La Pirámide Facing the lake. The best of the big restaurants that ring the parking lot by the site entrance, this is a casual, open-sided place dishing up all the usual Yucatecan specialities (around M0–180). Daily 7.30am–9pm.

< Back to Tulum and around

Reserva de Monos Arañas de Punta Laguna

Highway to Nuevo X-Can, 18km northeast of Cobá roundabout • Guides available from 6am or so • M/person, plus around M0 for a guide for a group of up to ten people • No buses come this way; arrange a taxi or tour in Tulum

This small forest reserve protects one of the northernmost populations of spider monkeys. From the entrance kiosk, you’re required to hike with a guide to where the monkeys usually congregate. There’s no guarantee you’ll see them, but they’re at their liveliest in the early morning and after about 3.30pm. You can also rent canoes at the lake here.

< Back to Tulum and around

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

SIAN KA’AN means “the place where the sky is born” in Maya, which seems appropriate when you experience the sunrise in this beautiful part of the peninsula. Created by presidential decree in 1986 and made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the biosphere reserve is a sparsely populated region sprawling along the coast south of Tulum. One of the largest protected areas in Mexico, it covers 1.3 million acres. Most of the thousand or so permanent residents are fishermen and subsistence farmers gathered in the village of Punta Allen. Most visitors enter at the north border, from Tulum, on day trips; only a few hardier travellers press on to Punta Allen and stay for a stretch.

  The reserve contains all three of the principal ecosystems found in the Yucatán Peninsula and the Caribbean: the area is approximately one-third tropical forest, one-third fresh- and saltwater marshes and mangroves, and one-third marine environment, including a section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. All five species of Mexican wild cat, including jaguars, live in the forest, along with spider and howler monkeys, tapir and deer. More than three hundred species of birds have been recorded. The Caribbean beaches provide nesting grounds for four endangered marine turtle species, while extremely rare West Indian manatees have been seen in the inlets. Morelet’s and mangrove crocodiles lurk in the lagoons.

TOURING THE SIAN KA’AN BIOSPHERE

You can enter the biosphere unaccompanied (M), on the road south from Tulum’s beach hotels, but you will benefit far more from an organized tour, easily arranged in Tulum. One of the best operators is Community Tours Sian Ka’an (tel_icon984 871 2202, web_iconsiankaantours.org), part of a non-profit group called Centro Ecológico de Sian Ka’an (CESIAK), which funds its research and educational programmes with a couple of tours. One heads off by day through the ancient Maya canals that crisscross the marshy areas here, while another is a late-afternoon excursion that takes in sunset inside the reserve; both cost around US/M60. Half-day kayaking and fly-fishing excursions are available too, as are trips looking at the process behind making traditional Maya-style chewing gum. These are great trips around the fringes of the reserve’s vast open spaces, with excellent opportunities for bird watching. You can reserve a spot at the office in Tulum.

  If you really want to go it alone, you can stop and swim at deserted beaches almost anywhere along the way, and there’s a visitor centre about 9km inside the reserve where you can rent kayaks, follow nature trails and arrange boat trips around the lagoons (from around M00–2000/boat).

  In Punta Allen, hotels can arrange fishing tours, as can the local tourism co-op, for around M00 for the day (per boat); book at the office signed “tourist info”, beside the beach as you enter the village. The co-op can also arrange nature tours of the Sian Ka’an lagoons.

Punta Allen

Right at the tip of a narrow spit of land, with a lighthouse guarding the northern entrance to the Bahía de la Ascensión, the remote fishing village of PUNTA ALLEN is not the kind of place you stumble across by accident – it really is the end of the road, with no mobile signal, no ATMs and limited internet access. Bonefish and tarpon in the bay are a draw for active travellers; layabouts come for hammock-lounging. The beach isn’t great for swimming, though, as there’s lots of sea grass, and, depending on the currents, a bit of rubbish.

Chunyaxché

Hwy-307, 20km south of Tulum • Daily 8am–5pm • M; boardwalk M; 2hr boat tours around M0/person • Second-class buses or colectivos from Tulum to Chetumal stop on request; it’s easier to return to Tulum than to continue south, as colectivos are often full

The little-visited ruins of Chunyaxché – also known as Muyil, for the nearby village – lie on the north border of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Despite the size of the site – probably the largest on the Quintana Roo coast – and its proximity to Hwy-307, you’re likely to have the place to yourself, as few people travel further south than Tulum.

  Muyil was occupied from the pre-Classic period until after the arrival of the Spanish, after which its people probably fell victim to European diseases. Most of the buildings you see today date from the post-Classic period, between 1200 and 1500. The tops of the tallest structures, just visible from the road, rise 17m from the forest floor. There are more than one hundred mounds and temples, none of them completely clear of vegetation, and it’s easy to wander around and find buildings buried in the jungle, but climbing them is forbidden.

  The centre of the site is connected by a sacbé to the small Muyil lagoon 500m away. This is joined to the large Chunyaxché lagoon and ultimately to the sea at Boca Paila by an amazing canalized river – the route used by ancient Maya traders. Wildlife scatters as you follow the boardwalk that leads through the mangroves to the lagoon. At the end of the path, you might find someone offering a boat tour down the canals and past less-explored Maya sites – but it’s not a reliable way to enter the reserve.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: SIAN KA’AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE

By car The road south from Tulum has helped maintain Punta Allen’s special quality: it’s famously rutted and flooded – and often impassable – in the rainy season, and can still be slow going during the dry months, typically requiring at least 3hr for the 50km drive. Think twice about coming down here in a rental car, especially if there’s any chance of rain; even if you can get through, you may be trapped if there’s a storm. There are perpetual rumours the road will be paved, but this is unlikely due to reserve regulations. There’s an alternative, very bumpy route from the highway south of Chunyaxché and in to Vigia Chico, where you can catch the launch that meets the Punta Allen colectivo.

By colectivo A colectivo (daily at 2pm; around 3hr) runs from next to the taxi syndicate in Tulum (call tel_icon984 879 8040 in the morning to reserve a seat). Another goes from Felipe Carrillo Puerto; daily at 6am; around 3hr) via an even more bone-rattling route to Vigia Chico (also called El Playón), where launches cross the bay to the village. From Punta Allen, the colectivo for Tulum leaves at 6am, and the launch for the Carrillo Puerto service goes at 7am (reserve your seat beforehand at Tienda Caamal).

< Back to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Although there are many enticing stretches of sand along the road from Tulum, biosphere regulations prohibit camping to control erosion – which is not to say it’s not done, unfortunately. All hotels in the area have their own restaurants, and independent restaurants are very few. A truck travels the peninsula on Wed and Sat, selling fresh items you can’t get in the Punta Allen tiendas; it arrives in the afternoon or evening, depending on road conditions.

author_pickBoca Paila Camps Carretera Tulum–Boca Paila, 8.5km inside the biosphere tel_icon984 871 2499, web_iconsiankaan.org. This rustic but comfortable operation, run by Centro Ecológico de Sian Ka’an, is a cluster of “tent cabins” set among the trees in a prime location near the beach. It’s rigorously ecofriendly: guests share bathrooms (with composting toilets), but there is hot water, thanks to solar and wind power. The staff are very well informed about the reserve, and the inexpensive restaurant is great at sunset for its view across the jungle. US (M60)

Cuzan Guesthouse South end, Punta Allen tel_icon983 834 0358, web_iconflyfishmx.com. The longest-established place in town, with a wide variety of cabañas and palapas, as well as a restaurant and bar. The focus is firmly on fishing here, and there is a range of packages on offer. US (M0)

Posada Sirena Northern end, Punta Allen tel_icon984 877 8521, web_iconcasasirena.com. Entering Punta Allen from the north, past the naval station on the right and beached boats on the left, the first and cheapest of the accommodation options is the bohemian Posada Sirena, with four cabañas and an owner with tales to tell. US (M0)

Serenidad Shardon Southern end, Punta Allen tel_icon984 876 1827, web_iconshardon.com. South of Cuzan, Serenidad Shardon has the most comfortable beach houses, as well as dorm beds and space for camping (which is permitted in the grounds here) with the option of renting tents and all the gear inside, all with access to showers and a communal kitchen. Dorms M0, cabañas US0, camping M

< Back to Tulum and around

Tulum to Chetumal

The road from Tulum to Chetumal skirts the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and heads into the Maya heartland, past the ruins of Chunyaxché and on to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the capital of Maya resistance. Closer to Chetumal is Laguna de Bacalar, as scenic as any Caribbean beach.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto

The slow-paced agricultural town of FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO doesn’t look like much on the surface, and few people make a special trip here, except perhaps to catch a colectivo to Punta Allen (as an alternative to the one from Tulum). But if you’re driving, it’s an interesting short stop, being an important cultural and spiritual centre for the modern Maya, following its role as capital of the independent “Zona Maya” during the nineteenth-century Caste Wars (when it was called Chan Santa Cruz). In the 1850s, rebels from the north gathered forces here and took guidance and inspiration from a miraculous talking cross that told them to fight on against their oppressors.

  You can still visit the Santuario de la Cruz Parlante, built on the site of the talking cross (its remnants have been moved to a smaller town nearby). To reach it, turn west off the main street (C 70 or Av Juárez) at the Pemex; the complex is at Calle 62. Back on the plaza, the Franciscan-style Iglesia de Balam Na was in fact built by the rebel Maya as a temple – using the slave labour of captured white fighters, no less; it was consecrated as a Catholic church only in 1948.

ARRIVAL AND INFORMATION: FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO

By bus The station is on the plaza at the corner of C 65 and C 66, a couple of blocks west of the highway. Buses between Tulum and Chetumal stop here, as do buses from Mérida via Ticul.

By colectivo Colectivos from Tulum (1hr) stop on Hwy-307 at C 73, one block north of the main traffic circle, and a few blocks northeast of the plaza. The colectivo to Punta Allen (2 daily at 9am & 3pm; 3hr) leaves from the first block east out of the main traffic circle.

Tourist information The small tourist office, on C 70 at C 59 (Mon–Fri 9am–4pm; tel_icon983 267 1452), has information on surrounding Maya villages. Or stop in at Xiimbal Tours, on the plaza at C 65 (tel_icon983 834 1073).

< Back to Felipe Carrillo Puerto

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Hotel Turquesa Maya On the main road, at C 56 tel_icon983 834 1218, web_iconhotelturquesamaya.com. If you need to stay a night, this is the best option in town, a solid mid-range hotel that does the simple things well: comfy, well-equipped en suites, a good restaurant, and efficient staff. US (M0)

< Back to Tulum and around

COSTA MAYA AND BACALAR

The beaches that line the 250km of coast between the southern edge of the Sian Ka’an reserve and the Belizean border may not be as picture-perfect as those in Tulum – they’re often shaded with pines, not palms – but they are beautiful in their sheer emptiness. Despite development pressure in the form of a cruise-ship pier, the COSTA MAYA, as the area is known, still has a very end-of-the-world feel. The two towns in the area, Mahahual and the smaller Xcalak, were hit hard by Hurricane Dean in 2007. Mahahual was rebuilt, but Xcalak is still quite battered. Beachcombers typically stay around Mahahual; divers and anglers head south to Xcalak.

  Inland from the coast is the surprise respite of Laguna de Bacalar, every bit as clear and beautiful as the Caribbean and harbouring its own special wildlife. Like the Costa Maya, its shores are a respite from development up the coast.

DIVING ON THE COSTA MAYA

The Banco Chinchorro, declared a biosphere reserve in 2003, lies 35km off the coast. The lush coral atoll, littered with shipwrecks, is the main draw for divers visiting the Costa Maya, and it can be reached from either Mahahual or Xcalak – though not all shops have a licence to visit. Dreamtime Dive Centre, about a kilometre south of town on the coast road (tel_icon983 124 0235, web_icondreamtimediving.com; single-tank dives from US/M5; full-day trips from US0/M25), is a reliable place with regular trips; Gypsea Divers, on the malecón at Nacional beach club (tel_icon983 130 3714, web_icongypseadivers.com; as well as diving, from US/M05, offers snorkelling trips, from US/M5), also comes highly recommended.

  In Xcalak, Diving XTC (tel_icon983 831 0461, web_iconxtcdivecenter.com) has a Chinchorro licence. The reefs closer to the shore here are lovely too; it also runs snorkelling (from US/M0) and fishing (from US9/M40) trips, and offers open-water certification courses (from US9/M10).

Mahahual

Puerto Costa Maya, where the cruise ships dock, is out of sight north of MAHAHUAL (60km east of Hwy-307), but its influence is felt on cruise-ship days, when the village springs to life with souvenir stands and jet-ski rentals along the slick seafront promenade, an extremely miniature version of Playa del Carmen. It’s a surreal juxtaposition with the rest of the ramshackle town. To avoid any crowds and capture the real Robinson Crusoe vibe, just head down the bumpy dirt beach road south of town.

ARRIVAL AND INFORMATION: MAHAHUAL

By bus Mahahual is linked to Cancún (1 daily at 6.45am, returning at 5pm; 4hr 20min–4hr 35min) and Chetumal (2 daily at 6.30am & 3.30pm, returning at 5.40am & 4.10pm; 2hr 30min) by daily buses. Additional buses may run at weekends and peak Mexican holiday times. Given the limited direct services, consider taking a bus to Limones (2 daily at 6.30am & 3.30pm, returning at 7.15am & 5.45pm; 55min), at the junction on Hwy-307, then a taxi to the coast.

By car There’s a Pemex station on the main road just outside Mahahual, the only fuel locally. Be prepared for a roadblock and thorough car inspection on the main road leaving Mahahual.

By taxi You can get a taxi from Limones for about M0–600, depending on your bargaining skills and final destination. In Mahahual, local taxis hang out at the corner of Sierra, just beyond the bus station; it’s around M–80 to the beach hotels.

Money It’s wise to bring plenty of cash: there are at least three ATMs (at [email protected] internet, the Pemex station and Hotel Luna de Plata), but they are frequently out of order.

< Back to Mahahual

ACCOMMODATION

We give addresses for places in town below, though the only street signs are on the malecón; Huachinango is the main street south through town. Virtually everything is here or on the malecón. Many places have higher rates at weekends, when it’s a popular escape for Chetumal residents.

Almaplena Eco Resort and Beach Club Coast road south at km 12.5 tel_icon983 137 5070, web_iconalmaplenabeachresort.com. At the higher end of lodging options, but done right, with a commitment to the “eco” in its name and sparkling rooms with handmade Argentine furniture and tapestries from Chiapas. To avoid the long haul on the rutted beach road, take the paved inland road toward Xcalak, then cut toward the coast road and turn north. US5 (M60)

Balamku Coast road south at km 5.5 tel_icon983 839 5332, web_iconbalamku.com. Serious ecofriendly outlook, recycling grey water, generating solar power and keeping natural landscaping around its attractive white stucco, thatch-roofed cottages. Wi-fi access and kayaks are included. US3 (M25)

Las Cabañas del Doctor Coast road immediately south of town tel_icon983 832 2102, web_iconlascabanasdeldoctor.com. Across the road from the beach and in easy walking distance of the centre, this place has economical cabañas (with private bathrooms) and camping spots. Kayaks and snorkelling gear are available to rent. Cabañas US (M0); camping US (M0)

Kohunbeach Coast road south at km 7 tel_icon983 700 2820, web_iconkohunbeach.com. A good budget option with a handful of clean and roomy palapa-roofed cabañas (each with a shady terrace and hammock) so close to the surf you’re nearly in the Caribbean. Kayaks and bikes are available to rent. M0

author_pickMaya Luna Coast road south at km 4.5 tel_icon983 836 0905, web_iconhotelmayaluna.com. Idyllic bungalows right on the beach (no a/c, but breezy enough), with private roof terraces for stargazing, plus a couple of smaller apartments. The restaurant serves Dutch/Indonesian/Mexican fusion food, and rates include an excellent breakfast. Primarily solar-powered. M00

author_pickMayan Beach Garden Placer, on the coast 20km north of Mahahual tel_icon983 132 2603, web_iconmayanbeachgarden.com. A real getaway: a beautiful spot on a relatively empty beach, with lovely, well-equipped palapa-roof rooms. Some units have kitchens and a/c. Use of kayaks and snorkel gear is included; excellent meals are available too. US (M35)

Posada Pachamama Huachinango between Martillo and Coronado tel_icon983 134 3049, web_iconposadapachamama.net. Run by friendly Italian owners, Posada Pachamama has a selection of very comfortable rooms with a/c (though no real views), a café, and access to the beach club next door. Staff can organize tours and activities. M00

< Back to Mahahual

EATING

Fernando’s 100% Agave Malecón between Sierra and Chema tel_icon983 112 2724. This sand-floored, palapa-roofed place is the best in town for simple Mexican meals (around M–180), and just about every visitor and local hangs out at the bar here in the early evening. The “100%” may refer to owner Fernando’s hospitality. Tues–Sun noon–9/10pm.

author_pickTravel in’ Coast road south at km 6 tel_icon983 110 9496, web_icontravel-in.com.mx. A popular meeting place for the local expat community with great food from an eclectic menu (like shrimp curry and pork shawarma; M–200), home-made pitta bread and frequent theme nights – tapas on Wed, for example, and regular fondue sessions. There’s also an attached guesthouse. Tues–Sat 5.30–9pm (plus Mon Christmas to Easter).

< Back to Costa Maya and Bacalar

Xcalak

It’s hard to believe Xcalak was once the largest town in Quintana Roo: today it’s a desolate village that still hasn’t recovered from being flattened by a hurricane. Forty kilometres south of Mahahual, it can only be reached by a paved but potholed road that runs inland. The main reason to visit is its superb snorkelling, diving and fishing; it has no real beaches. Phone service remains patchy, so some companies conduct much of their business by email; see the websites web_iconxcalak.info and web_iconxcalak-info.com for more information.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: XCALAK

By bus Caribe buses depart Chetumal daily (around 6am and 4pm; 5hr). Return journeys from Xcalak go at around 5am and 2pm; schedules are prone to change, so check before setting off. From anywhere on Hwy-307, you can connect with the Caribe bus at the town of Limones (7.30am and 5.30pm), where most first-class services on the main highway should stop.

By car Xcalak is 40km south of Mahahual, but the coast road is impassable. You must take a narrow road, paved but potholed, that turns south off the highway just before you reach Mahahual. The only petrol is in Mahahual.

< Back to Xcalak

ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

Costa de Cocos Coast road north of town, no phone, web_iconcostadecocos.com. A long-established, laid-back fly-fishing and diving centre with its own boats and dive instructor, plus good snorkelling off the dock. Accommodation is in old-fashioned wooden cabañas and there’s also a popular restaurant. US (M35)

Tierra Maya North of town tel_icon983 839 8012, web_icontierramaya.net. This welcoming guesthouse is a short drive north of town, and unlike other places around Xcalak, it has a bit of a sandy beach. All the rooms have fans, and most face the water. There’s a good restaurant, too. US (M35)

< Back to Costa Maya and Bacalar

Laguna de Bacalar

Inland from the Costa Maya and some 35km north of Chetumal, the gorgeous Laguna de Bacalar stretches along the east side of Hwy-307. If you haven’t checked a map, it’s easy to mistake it for the Caribbean, glinting through the trees in flashes of colour from palest aqua to deep indigo. About 45km long and 1km wide, it’s the secondlargest lake in Mexico (after Laguna de Chapala, south of Guadalajara), but still attracts only a small number of Mexican tourists and a small expat community with a bent for ecology and yoga. The birdlife here is exceptionally vibrant.

  The small town on the edge of the lake, BACALAR, was once a key point on the pre-Columbian trade route, and unexcavated Maya remains surround the lake. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, one of the Maya’s sacred books, mentions it as the first settlement of the Itzá, the tribe that occupied Chichén Itzá.

Museo de San Felipe

Bacalar plaza • Tues–Thurs & Sun 9am–7pm, Fri & Sat 9am–8pm • M

Bacalar’s juicy history is detailed in this small but interesting museum, set in a restored fort built by the Spanish in 1730 for protection against pirates from what’s now Belize, and later used as a Maya stronghold in the Caste Wars. The fort is just off the plaza, the centre of Bacalar town, about 1.2km from the highway, where the bus stops.

Balneario Municipal

Lakeshore just downhill from the Fuerte de San Felipe, Bacalar • Daily 10am–6pm • M

The liveliest and most scenic of the swimming spots on the lake, this town-run “beach” has changing rooms, a reasonably priced restaurant and other facilities. The water is shallow, with a white-sand bottom – easy for kids to frolic in.

Cenote Azul

Southern end of the lake, a few kilometres south of Bacalar on the lakeshore drive • Daily 9am–6pm • Free • A taxi from Bacalar costs about M

A distinct attraction from the lake itself, this “bottomless” cenote is an enormous inky-blue hole in the ground, with invigorating cold water. Around the edge is a restaurant that features live musicians at weekends, when it’s a destination for Mexican families – this is the only time the place is busy with swimmers and dive-bombing teens.

ARRIVAL, INFORMATION AND TOURS: LAGUNA DE BACALAR

By bus Second-class buses (every 1–3 hours; 30–40min) northbound from Chetumal stop at Av 5, off the plaza; southbound services stop on Av 7, a block uphill. Some first-class buses will drop you off on the highway.

Information web_iconbacalarmosaico.com is a useful website.

Tours Active Nature (mobile tel_icon983 120 5742, web_iconactivenaturebacalar.com), based at Villas Ecotucan, does 2hr jungle walks (M0) or lake trips (in kayaks or Hawaiian-style outrigger canoes; from M0), as well as multi-day kayak camping trips (from M00).

< Back to Laguna de Bacalar

ACCOMMODATION

Casita Carolina In Bacalar, south of the fort on the lakeshore drive tel_icon983 834 2334, web_iconcasitacarolina.com. A pleasant guesthouse with seven rooms as well as accommodation in two parked RV trailers (named “Boler” and “Scamp”) in a spacious back garden that stretches almost to the shore. There’s a pool, and kayaks are available to rent. Doubles M0; trailers M0

Laguna Azul At the northern tip of the lake, mobile tel_icon983 114 7002, web_iconhotellagunaazul.com. A remote location, but wonderfully welcoming, with a great little restaurant and bar. Choose from sturdy en-suite cabañas, camping spaces or RV sites, and rent a kayak to explore the lake. Cabañas M0; camping/RV sites (per person) M

Laguna Bacalar South of Bacalar, on the lake tel_icon983 834 2206, web_iconhotellagunabacalar.com. Wonderfully kitsch and comfortable, this old-style Mexican resort is decorated with seashell-encrusted countertops and plaster pillars galore. There’s a pool that’s also open to anyone dining at the restaurant. A taxi here from the plaza costs about M. M00

Villas Ecotucan Hwy-307, 5km north of Bacalar tel_icon983 120 5743, web_iconvillasecotucan.info. Large cabañas on attractively landscaped grounds between the lake and acres of untouched forest. You can also visit just for a swim and to climb the observation tower; there’s a small fee to use both. Colectivos and second-class buses can drop you on the highway near the entrance. Doubles M0; camping M

< Back to Laguna de Bacalar

EATING AND DRINKING

Gaia Av 3, just off the southeast corner of the plaza, Bacalar tel_icon983 834 2963. Gaia is an excellent vegetarian restaurant (dishes M–140) serving fine breakfasts and a good-value comida – even staunch carnivores will be able to find something to their tastes. Tues–Sun 8am–4pm (but hours can vary).

Orizaba Av 7, one block off the northwest corner of the plaza, Bacalar tel_icon983 834 2069. This popular, low-key place has a loyal local following. It serves up satisfying but inexpensive Mexican classics (M–120), as well as a good-value daily set meal. Daily 8am–4pm.

< Back to Costa Maya and Bacalar

CHETUMAL AND AROUND

If you’re heading south to Belize, you can’t avoid the capital of Quintana Roo, CHETUMAL, 1.5km from the border. The neighbouring country’s influence is reflected in everything from people’s quirky English names to the clapboard houses. Many of these old wooden cottages were wiped out by Hurricane Janet in 1955, however, and Chetumal was rebuilt in concrete. The city is bustling but largely oblivious to tourists, which can be refreshing after the hedonism of the Riviera Maya. But you must have a particular love for border towns to appreciate the place as a destination. It does make a decent one-day stop for resting and restocking, as everything (except car rental) is relatively cheap. Nightlife is pretty tame, but on weekend evenings the plaza by the malecón has food stalls, and residents flock to the bar-restaurants strung along the seafront east of here.

RG

Museo de la Cultura Maya

Niños Héroes at the northern edge of the centre • Tues–Thurs & Sun 9am–7pm, Fri & Sat 9am–6pm • M

Architecturally spectacular, this museum is in desperate need of refurbishment, as many of its interactive features only work sporadically. Nonetheless, the full-scale replica of the mural-filled room at Bonampak is great, especially if you’ll be headed to those Chiapas ruins. An auditorium, meanwhile, hosts film screenings and free modern art displays. On the street in front, the Alegoría del Mestizaje sculpture is one of the most striking depictions of the popular theme of the intermingling of Spanish and indigenous cultures, showing modern Mexico born of a conquistador and a Maya woman.

< Back to Chetumal and around

Museo de la Ciudad

Niños Héroes at Chapultepec • Tues–Sun 9am–7pm • M

If you have a nostalgic streak, the city museum, with its romantic memorabilia of Chetumal’s swashbuckling days, is a better use of your sightseeing time than the Maya museum. It’s next to the Centro Cultural de las Bellas Artes, a striking 1936 neo-Maya-style compound, where there’s usually live music on weekend evenings.

< Back to Chetumal and around

Maqueta Payo Obispo

C 22 de Enero near Av Reforma • Tues–Sat 9am–3pm, Sun 9am–2pm • Free

A Caribbean house contains this scale model of Chetumal as it looked in the 1920s, hand-carved by a resident with the perfectly chetumaleño name of Luís Reinhardt McLiberty. The small adjacent museum tells the story of the lighthouse barge Chetumal, with which the Mexican army helped establish the town and the country’s border with British Honduras.

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ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: CHETUMAL

By plane The airport, with services to Mexico City (1 or 2 daily with Interjet; 1hr 50min), is 2km west of town.

By bus Chetumal’s main bus station is on the north side of town, a short taxi ride (around M) from the centre. A bus ticket office in town, on Belice at Colón, handles long-haul services. A few second-class buses, including Mayab services to Cancún, actually depart from the dusty yard adjacent to this office – it’s worth checking here for service before heading out to the main station.

Destinations Cancún (every 30min; 5hr 20min–6hr 25min), most via Tulum (3hr 5min–3hr 50min) and Playa del Carmen (4hr 10min–5hr); Escárcega (8 daily; 4hr) via Xpujil (2hr), for the Río Bec; Mahahual (2 daily at 5.40am, 6am, 4pm & 4.10pm, with additional services in Aug; 2hr 30min), some services continuing to Xcalak (4hr 30min); Mérida (4 daily first class at 7.30am, 1.30pm, 5pm & 11.30pm; 5hr 30min–6hr 5min) and second-class Clase Europea and Mayab (10 daily; 6hr 30min); San Cristóbal de las Casas (7 daily; 11hr 55min–12hr 40min), some via Palenque (7hr); Villahermosa (3 daily at 1.05am, 10.40pm & 11.15pm; 8hr 15min–8hr 50min).

By car Continental (tel_icon983 832 2411, web_iconcontinentalcar.com.mx), in the lobby of the Capital Plaza Hotel, or Europcar, Niños Héroes 129, opposite Los Cocos (tel_icon983 833 9959), and at the airport (tel_icon983 107 9008, web_iconeuropcar.com.mx).

By combi The Terminal de Combis on Hidalgo at Primo de Verdad. Services include Bacalar (every 30min; 45min) and Nicolás Bravo (4 daily; 1hr 15min), for the nearest Río Bec sites.

TO BELIZE

Entry requirements Citizens of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa to enter Belize. If you are planning to return to Mexico, make sure to keep your tourist card, or you will have to purchase another.

By bus Buses run frequently between Chetumal and Corozal (1hr), the closest town across the border. You must get off the bus and walk over the bridge at Subteniente López, 8km west of Chetumal. The cheapest, very rattle-trap buses leave from the mercado nuevo, 1km north of the centre on Calzada Veracruz (roughly 4am–5pm; more frequently in the morning). A few of these continue to Orange Walk (2hr 30min) and Belize City (5hr). First-class services – a bit more comfortable – run by Linea Dorada, San Juan and Premier Lines depart from the main bus station (5 daily; 3hr to Belize City), as do at least two buses a day to Flores in Guatemala (for Tikal, via Belize), one or more in the early morning (6am) and another at lunch time (12.45pm).

By water taxi From the Muelle Fiscal on the downtown waterfront, San Pedro Water Taxi (tel_icon+501 226 2194 in Belize, web_iconsanpedrowatertaxi.com) runs services (daily 3pm) to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye (US/M20) and Caye Caulker (US/M05), as does San Pedro Belize Express (tel_icon983 839 2324, web_iconbelizewatertaxi.com; 3–4 weekly at 3.30pm; full schedule online; US/M5). Buy tickets at the dock, from travel agents in town or via the companies’ websites.

By car Cars rented in Mexico cannot generally be driven into Belize.

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

Tourist information The main tourist office, on 5 de Mayo at Carmen Ochoa de Merino (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; tel_icon983 832 2031), is friendly enough but not particularly knowledgeable. There are also information kiosks at the bus station and on the malecón at Hidalgo.

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ACCOMMODATION

Arges Lázaro Cardenas 212, between Niños Héroes and Juárez tel_icon983 832 9525, web_iconhotelarges.com. The Lebanese-Yucatecan owner of this place is determined to make this blocky, Soviet-inspired hotel more appealing, with big, clean rooms at reasonable prices, a pool and free parking. M0

Capital Plaza Hotel Niños Héroes 171 tel_icon01 800 1717, web_iconcapitalplaza.mx. A centrally located, mid-range hotel, Capital Plaza has comfortable (if bland) en suites, plus numerous facilities including a restaurant, a swimming pool, a gym, car rental (Continental) and an in-house travel agency. M00

Los Cocos Niños Héroes 134 tel_icon01 800 719 5840, web_iconhotelloscocos.com.mx. The pick of the downtown deluxe hotels with large, comfortable rooms (the “premier” category is worth the upgrade; M00), a pool and a sprawling terrace bar and restaurant. Also has some very pleasant suites. M0

Juliet Efraín Aguilar 171 tel_icon983 129 1871, web_iconhoteljulietchetumal.com. On a pedestrian walkway just off Niños Héroes, close to the old market, Hotel Juliet has clean all-white rooms with TVs, and fans or a/c. Bland, but comfortable enough. M0

Ucúm Gandhi 167 tel_icon983 832 0711, web_iconhotelucumchetumal.com. One of the better deals in town, though it looks unpromising from the motel-like front section (where a few bargain rooms are just M0, but dim and noisy). Rooms in the back building, however, by the huge pool, are brighter and quieter, and have a choice of a/c or fan. M0

< Back to Chetumal and around

EATING

The intersection of Niños Héroes and Obregón has the highest concentration of restaurants, while the stalls at the “old market”, south of the Museo de la Cultura Maya, have good, inexpensive lunches.

Las Arracheras de Don José Blv Bahía, between Cozumel and Josefa Ortíz tel_icon983 832 8895, web_iconfacebook.com/ArracherasDonJose. The speciality of this sprawling terrace restaurant, very popular on weekend nights, is meat tacos of every kind (fill up for around M0), served with an array of fresh salsas. You can also get good-value steaks, stuffed baked potatoes and pastas. Daily 11am–10pm.

El Emporio Merino, just east of Reforma tel_icon983 832 0601. An excellent Uruguayan restaurant in a historic wooden house – steaks (M0 plus) are served with lashings of garlicky chimichurri, the empanadas make a tasty starter (for those with big appetites), and there’s a good selection of South American wines. Follow the smell of grilled meat. Daily 1–11.30pm.

Marisquería Mi Viejo Av Belice 166 tel_icon983 833 1737. This bar familiar, with a crooner onstage backed by a tired keyboard player, may not seem promising at first glance. But the food (M0–220) is a lot livelier: try the sopa de mariscos, which brims with purple squid tentacles and shrimp, or the ceviche. Daily 11am–5pm.

Los Milagros Zaragoza, between Niños Héroes and 5 de Mayo tel_icon983 832 4433. Enjoy a tasty, inexpensive breakfast (M–70) at this little pavement café, busy day and night, with a real air of a locals-in-the-know hangout. Daily Mon–Sat 8am–9pm, Sun 8am–1pm.

Pantoja Gandhi at Av 16 de Septiembre tel_icon983 832 3958. With a good comida corrida and hearty dishes like mondongo (tripe), chilaquiles and hefty tortas, this is a popular spot for a morning or midday meal (M–80). Mon–Sat 8am–2pm.

< Back to Chetumal and around

DIRECTORY

Banks and exchange Banks with ATMs cluster at the junction of Juárez and Obregón.

Consulates Belize, Genova 369 (Mon–Fri 9am–noon; tel_icon983 285 3511).

Internet Plenty of options, including Arba, with branches in the old market and opposite, on Aguilar.

Post office Plutarco Elias calles at 5 de Mayo (Mon–Fri 8am–6pm, Sat & Sun 9am–12.30pm).

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Calderitas

Frequent buses depart Chetumal from Cristóbal Colón west of Niños Héroes, behind the Museo de la Cultura Maya, but do not go on to Oxtankah

At weekends, Chetumal descends en masse on the small seaside resort of Calderitas, just 6km north around the bay. You can hire a boat at El Rincón de las Tortugas bar (tel_icon983 834 4220) for various day outings: to the beaches on the nearby empty island of Tamalcab (around M0 for 6–8 people); a tour around the bay to look for manatees (around M00; 3hr); or to several other nature spots.

< Back to Chetumal and around

Oxtankah

7km north of Calderitas • Daily 8am–5pm • M • Taxi from Chetumal, about M0 with waiting time

Established in the Classic period (200–600 AD), the ancient city of Oxtankah is more interesting for its recent history. It’s allegedly the site of the first mestizaje, where shipwrecked conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero married into a Maya family and fathered mixed-race children – the origin story of modern Yucatán, and Mexico. What remains are the ruins of several buildings around two squares, with an architectural style similar to that of the Petén region in Guatemala, and a chapel built by the Spanish. It’s a peaceful wooded place, with trees and other flora neatly labelled.

< Back to Chetumal and around

RÍO BEC SITES

West of Chetumal, along the border with Guatemala, lie the little-visited but dramatic RÍO BEC sites, many tucked in dense jungle that harbours diverse birds and beasts, especially in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, around the ruins of the same name. The area was once heavily populated by lowland Maya, and linked with the site of Tikal in Guatemala. The largest ruins here, with their long, low buildings, dramatic towers (really elongated, stylized pyramids) and intricate carvings, are easily as impressive as Chichén Itzá, heightened by the jungle setting. The area is accessible either from Campeche or from Chetumal, and you’ll need to have a car or hire a taxi to see many of these sites – but this means you’ll see few other tourists.

  The largest town in the area is Francisco Escárcega (usually just called Escárcega), far to the west in Campeche state. It’s a major bus hub, but somewhat dusty and unwelcoming, so most visitors to the sites use the much smaller village of Xpujil, on the border of Campeche and Quintana Roo, as a base for visiting the area. It’s a one-street town straddling Hwy-186, with basic hotels and restaurants, as well as taxi drivers prepared to shuttle visitors around. If you’re in your own car, note that there’s a gas station just east of town.

VISITING THE RÍO BEC SITES

The typical strategy for visiting this string of ruins is to spend the night in Xpujil, hire an early-morning taxi to visit Calakmul and Balamkú, and return to Xpujil to see the ruins in town in the late afternoon. You can then take a late bus to Chetumal or Campeche. If you have the time, though, it will be a more rewarding and relaxing visit if you take at least two days and allow yourself to see more. Renting a car in Campeche or Chetumal affords the most flexibility, but taking taxis can cost about the same amount, leaving you the option of continuing on a loop route rather than returning your car.

  Using Xpujil as a base, taxis can be arranged through the hotels, though you’ll usually get a slightly better rate if you deal directly with the drivers gathered at the crossroads in town. Rates vary depending on both the number of people and your bargaining skills, but reckon on paying around M0–1600 to go to Calakmul and Balamkú or to Kohunlich and Dzibanché, half that for Chicanná, Becán and Xpujil, including waiting time.

  If you’re not in a hurry, it’s also possible to start off sightseeing from Chetumal by taking a combi to the town of Nicolás Bravo, hiring a taxi from there to visit Dzibanché and Kohunlich, and then flagging down a second-class bus to Xpujil.

  Alternatively, there are organized tours to Calakmul from Campeche; if your Spanish is up to it, go with the experienced (but not very bilingual) team at Servidores Turísticos de Calakmul (tel_icon983 871 6064), which runs the unofficial tourist office in Xpujil and a campsite in the biosphere reserve. Tours may costs more, but a good guide can really make the area come alive, as many of the sites have little or no signage.

Xpujil

Hwy-186 in Xpujil, 250m west of the bus station • Daily 8am–5pm • M

The most accessible of the Río Bec sites, Xpuhil is also the smallest. Dating from between 500 and 750 AD, it is in excellent condition, and it has three striking ersatz pyramids, which have almost vertical and purely decorative stairways.

< Back to Río Bec sites

Becán

Off Hwy-186, 6km west of Xpujil then 500m north • Daily 8am–5pm • M

Unique among Maya sites, the city of Becán is entirely surrounded by a dry moat, 16m wide and 5m deep. Along with the wall on its edge, it forms one of the oldest known defensive systems in Mexico. This has led some to believe that Becán, rather than present-day Flores in Guatemala, was the site of Tayasal, an early capital of the Itzá, who later ruled at Chichén Itzá. First occupied in 600 BC, Becán reached its peak between 600 and 1000 AD. Unlike the sites in northern Yucatán, many of the buildings here seem to have been residential rather than ceremonial. In fact, the tightly packed structures – with rooms stacked up and linked by internal staircases – create a strong sense of urbanism, akin to modern apartment blocks.

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Chicanná

Off Hwy-186, 2km west of Becán and just south • Daily 8am–5pm • M

The buildings at Chicanná are the precursors of the Chenes style, with their elaborate decoration and repetitive masks of Chac. The gaping, square-carved doorway at the impressive Structure II gives the site its name (“House of the Serpent Mouth”). The rest of the building is covered in smaller masks of hook-nosed Chac, made up of intricately carved mosaic pieces of limestone, many still painted with red stucco, in a style that was developed in this area and the adjacent Chenes cities, then picked up and refined by later builders in the Puuc region to the north.

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Balamkú

Off Hwy-186, 5km west of the turn-off to Calakmul • Daily 8am–5pm • M

This main draw at Balamkú is the elaborate, beautifully preserved 17m-long stucco frieze. It’s inside the site’s central palace; ask the caretaker to let you in. The embellished wall, crawling with toads, crocodiles and jaguars, seems to undulate in the dim light, and the rolling eyes of the red-painted monster masks, though smaller than those at Kohunlich, are perhaps more alarming here.

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Hormiguero

22km south of Xpujil • Daily 8am–5pm • Free • Taxi about M0–300 round trip with waiting time

The small site of Hormiguero is accessible only by a bumpy, forty-minute ride, and a visit takes the same amount of time. But the decoration and the wild jungle setting make it a particularly transporting one. Excellently preserved carved monster mouths from the Late Classic era adorn the two excavated buildings, which are topped with impossibly steep towers. Keep your eyes on the forest floor here as you explore – Hormiguero has its name (“anthill”) for good reason.

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Río Bec

Off Hwy-186, 10km east of Xpujil and south of the ejido of 20 de Noviembre

The scattered buildings of the city of Río Bec are usually closed to visitors, though some years it opens for a few months in the spring. If you do visit, you will see the most extreme example of the Río Bec false-pyramid style: as at Xpujil, the “steps” on the twin towers were never meant to be climbed – the risers actually angle outward. Ask at the tourist office in Xpujil about arranging an expedition on horseback.

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Calakmul

Off Hwy-186, down a signposted road midway between Escárcega and Xpujil • Daily 8am–5pm • M, plus M per person for the reserve

The ruined Maya city of Calakmul is one of the best places for contemplating the culture’s architectural legacy. The complex is only partially restored and a long drive south of Hwy-186, but its location in the heart of the jungle and its sheer size are awe-inspiring. Probably the biggest archeological area in Mesoamerica, Calakmul has nearly seven thousand buildings in the central area alone and more steles and pyramids than any other site; the great pyramid here is the largest Maya construction in existence, with a base covering almost five acres.

  The view of the rainforest from the top is stunning, and on a clear day you can even glimpse the tip of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala. Arrive early (the gate to the biosphere on Hwy-186 opens at 7am) to look for wildlife such as wild turkeys, peccaries, toucans and jaguars. Even if you don’t spot anything, you’ll likely hear booming howler monkeys and raucous frogs. Plan to spend about four hours exploring the site – longer if you’re a Maya-phile. Bring snacks and water, as there’s no vending at the ruins.

Brief history

During the Classic period, the city had a population of about two hundred thousand and was the regional capital. A sacbé (Maya road) running between Calakmul and El Mirador (another leads on to Tikal) confirms that these cities were in regular communication. Calakmul reached its zenith between 500 and 850 AD but, along with most other cities in the area, it was abandoned by about 900 AD. Excavations begun in the 1980s have so far uncovered only a fraction of the buildings, the rest being earthen mounds. Some of Calakmul’s treasures are on display in the archeological museum at Campeche, including two hauntingly beautiful jade masks. Another mask was found in a tomb in the main pyramid in 1998.

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Kohunlich

Off Hwy-186, about 60km west of Chetumal, then 9km south from the village of Francisco Villa • Daily 8am–5pm • M

If you stop for only one ancient site in the Río Bec area, make it Kohunlich. The ruins, seldom visited by anyone other than enormous butterflies and wild parrots, are beautifully situated, peering out above the treetops. The buildings date from the late pre-Classic to the Classic periods (100–900 AD) and the majority are in the Río Bec architectural style. Foliage has reclaimed most of them, except for the Templo de los Mascarones, which is named after the five 2m-high stucco masks that decorate its facade. Disturbing enough now, these wide-eyed, open-mouthed images of the sun god, Kinich Ahau, once stared out from a background of smooth, bright-red-painted stucco. Also look for an elite residential area called the 27 Escalones, worth the detour to see the great views over the jungle canopy from the cliff edge on which it is built (prime real estate was just as valuable 1400 years ago, it seems).

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Kinichná and Dzibanché

North off Hwy-186 81km west of Chetumal • Daily 8am–5pm • M

Set in a drier area sparsely populated with trees, these two neighbouring ruins are on a smaller scale than Kohunlich but still merit a visit. Kinichná’s hulking pyramid, built in metre-high stones layer upon layer by successive leaders, barely clears the trees, but you can look over the surrounding terrain (and spot a glimpse of the rather squat Dzibanché), now broken into farmland.

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ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE: RÍO BEC SITES

BY BUS

XPUJIL

From the bus stop in Xpujil, ADO (2 daily) and Mayab (4 daily) buses run to Chetumal, plus at least four more second-class services, a couple of which continue all the way to Cancún. To Escárcega, there are around fourteen departures, many continuing to Villahermosa. Second-class buses run north out of town, past the Chenes sites towards Hopelchén; most continue to Campeche, though some head to Mérida via the Ruta Puuc.

ESCÁRCEGA

The ADO first-class bus station is at the west end of town, at the junction of Hwy-261 and Hwy-186; from there, it’s 1.5km to the east end and the Sur second-class bus station, which you might use for more frequent services to Xpujil (you can buy tickets for all services at ADO).

Destinations from ADO Campeche (11 daily; 1hr 50min–2hr 25min); Chetumal (11 daily; 3hr 35min–4hr 30min); Mérida (7 daily; 4hr 40min); Palenque (6 daily; 2hr 50min–3hr 25min); San Cristóbal de las Casas (5 daily; 8hr 5min–11hr); Xpujil (4 daily at 12.16am, 4.20pm, 8.10pm & 10.46pm; 2hr 15min–2hr 30min).

BY CAR

If you’re driving from Mérida or Campeche, the back route via Hopelchén and Hwy-269, arriving in Xpujil from the north, is a good road, narrow but usually empty. Expect a police checkpoint at the border between Yucatán and Campeche states.

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INFORMATION AND TOURS

Tourist information At the east end of Xpujil, about 2km from the crossroads, ecotourism group Servidores Turísticos Calakmul runs an unofficial info office (Tues–Sun 9am–1pm & 4–7.30pm; tel_icon983 871 6064, web_iconecoturismocalakmul.com). The group can also arrange day tours and ecotourism activities, such as camping and biking, though staff primarily speak Spanish.

FIESTAS IN THE YUCATÁN

A highlight of village festivals in the area is the massive bullrings, elaborate hand-built structures made entirely of saplings. Expect plenty of fireworks and jaranas, one of the traditional Maya dances. Carnaval, the week before Lent, is colourfully celebrated in Mérida and on Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. For events in smaller villages, ask at the Yucatán state tourism office in Mérida, which maintains a full list, or check the weekly events bulletin at web_iconyucatanliving.com, which often mentions nearby fiestas.

Fiesta de los Tres Reyes (Jan 1–6). In the cattle town of Tizimín (Yucatán); expect steak.

Día de la Candelaria (Feb 2). Candlemas: candlelight processions at Tecoh and Kantunil (Yucatán). The week prior is a fiesta in Valladolid (Yucatán).

Equinox (March 21). Huge gathering for the serpent shadow at Chichén Itzá.

Semana Santa (Holy Week, beginning Palm Sunday, variable March–April). Passion plays in Mérida, Acanceh and Maní (Yucatán).

Fiestas de Santa Cruz (end of April). Two-week fair in Cozumel’s El Cedral (Quintana Roo), ending on or near May 3.

Fiesta de la Cruz Parlante (May 12–18). Chancah Veracruz (Quintana Roo), near Felipe Carrillo Puerto, celebrates the Talking Cross of the Caste Wars.

Feria del Jipi (May 20). In Becal (Campeche), celebration of the Panama hat.

Torneo de Pesca (last weekend in May). Fishing tournament and party in Puerto Morelos.

Día de la Chispa (June 4). In Valladolid (Yucatán), re-enactment of the battle that sparked the 1910 Revolution.

Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo (June 26–30). On Cozumel and in Panaba (Yucatán).

Fiesta de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (July 15–30). Ciudad del Carmen (Campeche) and Motul (Yucatán).

Chac ceremony (dates variable). In Edzná (Yucatán), to encourage the spring rains.

Feria (Aug 10–16). Town celebration in Oxcutzcab (Yucatán).

Feria de San Román (Sept 14–30). Campeche’s city festival.

Gremios (mid-Sept to mid-Oct). Pilgrimages and processions to Mérida’s main church.

Equinox (Sept 21). Another serpent spectacle at Chichén Itzá (see March).

Día de San Miguel (Sept 29). Cozumel’s main town festival.

El Cristo de Sitilpech (Oct 18–28). The miraculous Black Christ is paraded from Sitilpech (Yucatán) to neighbouring Izamal, where there’s ten days of celebration.

Feria del Estado de Yucatán (first three weeks of Nov). At fairgrounds south of Mérida.

Feria de Motul (Nov 4–11). Festival in Motul (Yucatán) with bullfights.

Día de la Inmaculada Concepcíon (Dec 8). Widely celebrated, especially in Izamal, where crowds gather to sing the entire night before.

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Dec 12). Celebrated everywhere; roads are filled in the days prior with church groups running relays.

Christmas Fiesta (Dec 25–Jan 6). In Temax (Yucatán), featuring the procession of Las Pastorelas, in which images of the Holy Family are carried from house to house.

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ACCOMMODATION AND EATING

XPUJIL

Calakmul About 500m west of the bus station, Xpujil tel_icon983 871 6029. Of the two main places to stay in Xpujil (the other is the Mirador Maya, another 500m west), this one is marginally preferable, with tidy cabins with a/c and TVs. The perfectly functional restaurant stays open a little later than most things in town. M0

CHICANNÁ

Chicanná Ecovillage Resort Hwy-186, across the highway from the Chicanná site tel_icon981 811 9192, web_iconchicannaecovillageresort.com. The most comfortable rooms (in cute thatched-roof bungalows) in the area – though the “eco” label isn’t really accurate. If you’re breaking a sweat sightseeing, you can also stop by here for a drink at the restaurant and a dip in the pool. US (M10)

CALAKMUL

Rio Bec Dreams Hwy-186 km 142, west of Calakmul turn web_iconriobecdreams.com. A smaller lodging option, as well as a great travellers’ resource: the owners are archeology buffs who can advise on the latest site openings and arrange good tours. The restaurant, with its varied (non-Mexican) menu, is open to all. Rooms include en-suite cabañas (quieter, as they’re away from the road) or wood “jungalows” on stilts with shared toilets. Cabañas M50; jungalows M50

Yaax’ Che Calakmul reserve road km 7 tel_icon983 871 6064, web_iconecoturismocalakmul.com. Servidores Turísticos Calakmul, an excellent ecotourism organization, maintains this campsite with basic cabañas and space for tents. It also rents gear and will point you to nature trails within the reserve. You can try stopping in for a meal, but as the kitchen uses all local products, it may not have provisions on hand in slow seasons. Cabañas M0; camping M0

KOHUNLICH

Explorean Km 6.5, a 40min drive from Chetumal tel_icon01 443 310 8137 (US), web_iconfiestamericana.com/explorean. The most luxurious hotel in the region, by some distance, Explorean provides accommodation in delightful bungalows, plus a well-equipped spa and a lovely pool. A wide range of tours is on offer, and rates are all-inclusive. US6 (M35)

ESCÁRCEGA

Hotel Real Primaveras C 55 s/n tel_icon982 824 0810, web_iconrealprimaveras.com. If you’re stuck overnight in Escárcega, this is a solid mid-range choice. All the en suites here are bright and well equipped (a/c, TVs, etc), and there’s a café and small terrace. M0

La Teja Southwest across the traffic circle from the ADO station. For a bite to eat in Escárcega, this is one of the nicer options, and convenient for the bus station. All the usual Mexican and Yucatecan dishes (from M) are on offer, with fresh juices too. Daily 24hr.

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