Travel: Mexico - the antidote to winter

By Amir Bibawya

Night scene of Mérida Yucatan.
Night scene of Mérida Yucatan.

The police didn't ask for bribes. The roads were safe and fast. The food was particular, yet delicious.

A road trip across southeast Mexico offered the perfect antidote to winter: sun, beaches, yummy food, great drinks and amazing sights, from a colonial old town to ancient Mayan structures.

Best of all, the longest stretch of driving was just five hours from Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean to Campeche on Mexico's Gulf Coast.

The roughly 1600km loop also traversed three remarkably different states.

Quintana Roo, home to resort-laden Cancun and Playa del Carmen, has more of an American feel than most places in Mexico. Campeche's laidback and colorful atmosphere is a nice contrast to Yucatan's earthy cuisine and cultural significance.

Car rental rates are low (though locally obtained insurance, which is essential, will up the cost). Major highways in the region are split into freeways and toll roads, cuotas.

The tolls are relatively inexpensive and the cuotas are often empty.

At times you can travel almost alone for miles.

With $250 round-trip flights from the U.S. and the Mexican peso worth half what it was five years ago against the American dollar, there's no better time to visit.

History and Iguanas

The trip started at Petit Lafitte , a small locally-owned resort situated just far enough outside of Playa del Carmen to avoid its boozy vibe.

The resort has drawn a faithful clientele of Americans for decades. Returning guests greet staff with hugs and everyone is on first-name basis.

After a week of lazy beach days and ceviche feasts, the road beckoned.

First stop, Campeche's capital city, also called Campeche, which has a small town feel and a colorful grid of streets.

The old town, which dates to the mid-17th century, is surrounded by a hexagonal wall with seven intact bulwarks, each unique in design and significance.

Right outside the Puerta del Mar bulwark is a long, beautiful seaside walkway where joggers, strollers and tourists congregate.

An hour from Campeche lies the pristine Mayan site of Edzna, which dates to the seventh century B.C. Perfectly manicured lawns separate the Mayan structures, the most impressive of which is the 120-foot Edificio de los Cincos Pisos (which means building of five floors). Kids will love running around spotting iguanas.

Driving from Campeche to Yucatan's capital, Merida, consider a stop at the beautiful Hacienda Santa Rosa, a luxury Starwood property where rooms start at $300 or so a night.

The restaurant serves delicious Yucatan fare at reasonable prices in a serene atmosphere. The spa was once a small church.

The Five-tier pyramid, Great Acropolis, Edzna, Campeche.
The Five-tier pyramid, Great Acropolis, Edzna, Campeche.

Merida, Flamingos and Uxmal

Merida is everything Campeche isn't. It's big, busy, noisy and dusty. But this cultural hub has many interesting sights to lure tourists and, increasingly, American and Canadian retirees.

The town's cathedral is an austere and intimidating structure whose once-ornate decorations were stripped away by secular Mexicans during the revolution. Churches dot the town's historic center.

Caleche (horse-drawn carriage) rides through the old town are an entertaining way to spend an hour. Open bus tours visit Merida's modern neighbourhoods, which have some stunning mansions, especially along Paseo de Montejo. The local Starbucks looks like something from a belle epoque flick.

Merida is also a good jumping-off point for the trip's most stunning sites: the biosphere reserve at Celestun, and Uxmal, a Mayan mecca.

Celestun will draw shrieks of wonderment from even the most bored teenager with its year-round colony of thousands of pink flamingos.

Small motorboats take you 100m or so from the colourful flocks. You won't need binoculars to watch them gracefully fly, then land on water.

The sprawling Uxmal complex boasts many unique structures including the Governor's Palace, the Nuns' Quadrangle (with intact colorful decorations), and the Pyramid of the Magician, with its unique curved outlines.

Uxmal provides a solid impression of what Mayan life was like without the crowds of the more-touristy Chichen Itza.

Getting there:

* You can fly into Merida but cheapest fares from the U.S. are to Cancun.

Zika warning:

* Mexico is in the zone for Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are more prevalent at inland Maya sites than beaches. Consider buying mosquito-repelling plastic bracelets to take with you.

- AP

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