Yucatan - The Australian Way July 2012


Yucatan - The Australian Way July 2012
work that tan in
Flamboyant flamingos, dance-until-you-drop fiestas,
ravishing ruins, pirate relics and silky beaches tempt travellers
to a Mexican destination that’s hotter than a jalapeño.
words adam mcculloch
ome December, the 5125-year-
old Mayan calendar will reset to
zero, heralding an apocalypse or,
perhaps, a rebirth – depending on
which interpretation you believe.
The truth is that the renaissance is already well
underway on the Yucatán Peninsula, a heel of
jungle-clad limestone jutting out into both the
Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, at the
south-eastern tip of Mexico.
The ancient homeland of the Maya people,
the peninsula comprises a trio of states
(Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche) and
beckons travellers with a heady melange of
archaeology, adventure, regional cuisine and
eco-chic hotels. Add gin-clear oceans and more
festivals than you can shake a piñata at, and the
Yucatán is shaping up as one of the world’s
hottest new holiday destinations. 
photography: bruno
5 6 Q A N TA S j u ly 201 2
Mayan ruins
overlook the beach
at Tulum, Mexico
yucatán explore
he Yucatán Peninsula was actually forged in a
real-life apocalypse. The Chicxulub crater, located in the Gulf of
Mexico just north of the regional capital, Mérida, is ground zero for
a meteorite that may have wiped out the dinosaurs. The vast limestone shelf formed in its wake is covered in dense jungle concealing
a fascinating world of underground rivers and sinkholes known as
cenotes, which provide cooling relief from the tropical heat.
The first inhabitants were the Maya. The cities these industrious
folk built – Chichén Itzá, Ek’ Balam, Tulum, Cobá and scores more
– were architectural marvels. But by 900AD the grand cities started
to decline and the ruins that dot the Yucatán are some of the area’s
most-visited attractions, rivalling the Pyramids of Giza for
monumental beauty and historical significance.
The sisal boom (a plant fibre used for making rope) of the 1800s
created a new gilded age for the era’s industrialists, who built
grandiose mansions and stately streetscapes that transformed
Mérida and Valladolid into genteel European outposts.
For travellers wanting to get a taste of this region, which is the size
of New South Wales, the best strategy is to fly into the international
hub of Cancún, a rollicking Caribbean resort town, and head down
the coast to the Riviera Maya, a string of gorgeous beaches dotted
with hotels ranging from luxe to palm-thatched palapas. Many
visitors venture no further than this intoxicating mix of sun and
sand, but throughout the Yucatán, hidden treasures await.
“These days, many hotels
tout their green credentials,
but Tulum is the real deal”
5 8 Q A N TA S j u ly 201 2
TULUM Beaches
The lure of the seaside town of Tulum is as clear
as the sparkling sea: excellent restaurants ranging
from romantic candlelit tables for two to roadside
taco stands and lively barbecue joints; and there’s
a dedication to wellness manifested in the evergrowing selection of yoga retreats and spas.
These days, many hotels tout green credentials,
but the ones at Tulum are the real deal. Every
property along the beach is off the grid (most are
powered by the wind or sun), while the road is a
charming 10km track fringed with low-impact
beach bars, eateries and bike-rental shacks.
Artfully curated pop-up stores sell sundresses out
of converted shipping containers, or art books and
curios from surplus army tents.
Eco-consciousness isn’t Tulum’s only drawcard.
The wild, dune-fringed beaches are largely devoid
of the DJ booths and endless rows of beach chairs
that characterise the resorts further north, and
offshore lies the world’s second-largest coral reef.
The most spectacular beach is inside the Tulum
archaeological zone, an awe-inspiring bluff dotted
with the remains of a Mayan city constructed
between 1200 and 1450 AD.
“The vast
limestone shelf
is covered in
dense jungle
that conceals
a fascinating
world of
rivers &
Nueva Vida de Ramiro
8.5km Bocapaila.
(984) 877 8512. www.tulumnv.com
The turtle hatchery on the
beachfront gives this hotel eco
cred, but it’s the Argentinian
barbecue at its Casa Banana
restaurant that has all of Tulum
talking. From $US70 ($72).
Ana y José
7km Bocapaila.
(998) 880 6022. www.anayjose.com
Fresh ceviche (marinated raw
fish) and fish tacos with pineapple
and plantains elevate this hotel
restaurant to culinary greatness. 
photography: GETTY IMAGES
Tulum: at the water’s
edge; Mayan ruins (top)
Gulf of Mexico
Cave time:
Grande Cenote,
Quintana Roo,
j u ly 201 2 Q A N TA S 59
archer book archer bold
Playa del Carmen: scenes from
Hotel Básico, including fish tacos;
Farola del Ferry (far right)
Playa del Carmen Nightlife
Naturally, Playa Del Carmen has a beach with impossibly blue water.
But Playa, as locals call it, also lays claim to the coast’s best clubs,
restaurants and bars, most clustered around the pedestrian-only
Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) or along the beachfront. There’s also
excellent shopping, including an artisanal chocolate maker and the
peninsula’s best (and possibly only) authentic French patisserie.
Hotel BÁsico photography: courtesy design hotels;
fish tacos & farola del ferry: GETTY IMAGES
La Perla & La Esmeralda,
5a Avenida, 112 Equina Calle.
The term “all-inclusive” can
set off alarm bells for Caribbean
aficionados; the region is studded
with such resorts. The new
Paradisus complex, divided into
adults-only and family-friendly
sides, reinvents the category
with 14 sophisticated restaurants,
of-the-moment design and luxury
features such as Thierry Mugler
toiletries, swim-up bars and suites
with direct access to a vast pool.
La Perla from $US343 ($354);
La Esmeralda from $US294 ($304).
Hotel Básico
Quinta Avenida & Calle 10.
(800) 400 8484. hotelbasico.com
This funky, 15-room boutique
hotel makes clever use of recycled
objects such as furniture made
from tyres, a reclaimed plywood
front desk and two industrial
tanks repurposed into a rooftop
swimming pool and jacuzzi.
From $US135 ($139).
Quinta Avenida & Calle 22.
(984) 873 3011. mayacuisine.com
This Mayan restaurant
(pronounced jack-shay) was
awarded a prestigious five-star
Diamond Award from the
American Academy of Hospitality
Sciences a couple of years ago and
it is still the best place in town for
regional dishes such as pakal
(chicken breast marinated in
sour orange and onions).
Ah Cacao
Quinta Avenida & Calle 30.
(984) 879 4179. ahcacao.com
Mexico was the birthplace of
chocolate, so what better place to
sate cocoa cravings? Sample Mayan
chocolate, heart-starting coffee and
unusual icy treats such as cinnamon
and lemon rind ice-cream.
La Cueva del Chango
Quinta Avenida & Calle 38.
(984) 1470 271.
The monkey after which this
restaurant was named is long-gone,
but the jungle-like interior is still
going strong, serving dishes such
as shrimp with cinnamon and chilli.
Blue Parrot
Calle 12.
(984) 206 3350. blueparrot.com
This beachfront institution attracts
a spirited crowd. There are swings
at the bar, fire shows most nights
and a dance floor on the sand. 
j u ly 201 2 Q A N TA S 61
explore yucatán
Like a dignified, retired sea captain, the UNESCOlisted town of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico
bears its battle scars with grace. After marauding
conquistadors fought with the Mayans over
several bloody decades to claim it in the 1500s, the
city was sacked repeatedly by French, Dutch,
English and Portuguese pirates. Each raid resulted
in more fortifications and higher walls, landmarks
that now define the outer limits of the immaculately preserved historic centre and serve as the
city’s museums. Signs of the old pirating days are
everywhere. Inside the San Carlos Bulwark, built
in the 17th century, is the old gaol – today, an excellent museum. The Puerta de Tierra (land gate),
which predates it, has gun placements and gunpowder stores. The San Miguel Fort now houses
the Campeche Regional Museum and contains a
fine collection of Mayan art. The Boats & Arms
exhibition, chronicling the pirate era, is housed in
the Fort of San Miguel El Alto, the second ring of
defence that was constructed in 1762.
Hacienda Puerta Campeche
71 Calle 59. (981) 816 7508.
This restored 17th-century mansion
is an exclusive and romantic
15-room property with soaring
ceilings, traditional Mayan-style tile
floors and hand-carved mahogany
doors. From $US198 ($204).
Spanish wall,
La Casa Vieja
319a Calle 10. (811) 8016.
A bit touristy, but an ideal spot
to watch the sun set behind
the cathedral, one of the town’s
loveliest sights. The restaurant
and bar is on the first floor of
a building facing the plaza; its
colonnaded balcony runs the
length of the block.
Edzná Mayan ruin,
Campeche; fiesta (inset)
MÉrida Festivals
62 Q A N TA S j u ly 201 2
Mérida’s romantic and compact Centro Historico
makes the city feel deceptively small – but its
population is one million and rising. Built by the
sisal boom, the mansions along Paseo de Montejo
and other colonial-era avenues are marvels of
baroque, art deco and neo-gothic design.
Méridanos love to celebrate (generally in a more
sedate way than some of the wilder Caribbean
party towns) and visitors are welcome to join in.
Head to the neighbourhood of Santiago with its
whitewashed church and leafy park on a Tuesday
night for Latin dancing. Everyone from greatgrandmothers to hipsters strut their stuff. The
city’s main square (variously referred to as the
zócalo and plaza grande) hosts a concert every
Saturday night, while in February, a raucous, Riostyle carnaval fills the streets with more feathers
and floats than Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Rosas & Xocolate
Paseo de Montejo & Calle 41.
(999) 924 2992.
The most stylish hotel in the
city, the rooms in this converted
mansion – with its flamboyant
pink exterior – are pared-back but
luxurious. A highlight is the soaking
tub set in an atrium open to the
sky. At night the sleek rooftop bar
is the perfect vantage point from
which to watch strolling couples
on the avenue. From $US215 ($222).
La Chaya Maya
Calle 62 & 57 Centro.
(999) 928 4780.
The quality of the authentic
Yucatecan specialties dished
up at this corner restaurant
explains its perennial popularity.
Sample regional favourites such as
cochinita pibil (spicy pork wrapped
in banana leaves and slow-cooked
in a fire pit) and huitlacoche, a
black corn fungus often referred to
colloquially as “Mexican truffle”. 
Spanish wall photography: paolo giacoso/sime/4corners images; edznÁ, MÉrida market & fiesta: GETTY IMAGES
CELESTÚN Flamingos
Chac Mool
Chichén Itzá
Located 90km west of Mérida, this quiet fishing
village has one very flamboyant claim to fame –
during the winter months, thousands of flamingos
roam the lagoon in great flocks, chortling and
feeding on the shrimp. At the town’s entrance,
after the bridge, small boats gather, ready to take
guests on an unforgettable one-hour trip to see the
birds in their natural habitat.
Pretty in pink: flamingos
Hotel Xixim
10km del Viejo Camino a Sisal.
(988) 916 2100. ecoparaiso.com
The 32 thatched-roof bungalows
that make up this boutique
eco-hotel hit the perfect note
between sophisticated and rustic,
with breezy blue-and-white
furnishings, romantic canopied
beds and soothing views over the
jungle and ocean. There’s also
a large pool, bar and restaurant.
From $US290 ($299).
La Palapa
105 Calle 12.
This cheap and cheerful beachside
seafood joint is popular thanks to
delights such as coconut-crusted
shrimp served with mango sauce,
and ceviche. Look for the bright
orange facade and the giant
thatched palapa roof.
Shops, Valladolid
“Leafy squares and rows of
immaculate, candy-coloured
colonial houses...”
Street market,
Valladolid (right)
This sleepy little town at the centre of the
peninsula is a convenient base from which to visit
the most notable Mayan ruins. Valladolid’s leafy
squares and rows of immaculate, candy-coloured
colonial houses make it one of the peninsula’s
most charming cities.
Chichén Itzá, just 45km west, is the largest and
most popular of the Mayan sites. Arriving early in
the morning, before the tour bus groups descend,
ensures a more contemplative experience; but
given that this city once held 40,000 people, the
masses can actually lend an evocative sense of
what the city would have been like in its heyday.
All the cities of the peninsula were once
connected by limestone footpaths called sak behs.
From Ek’ Balam, famous for its 5m jaguar mouth
and winged warrior sculptures, to the palace of
Uxmal, many ancient roads remain.
6 4 Q A N TA S j u ly 201 2
Coqui Coqui
Calzada de los Frailes,
207 Calle 41a. (985) 856 5129.
One of the hippest hotels on the
peninsula, this “residence” is run
by Coqui Coqui perfume company,
which has interiors stores in Mérida
and Tulum. From $US230 ($237).
HOLBOX ISLAND Whale sharks
The waters of Holbox Island host 2000 whale
sharks in summer (June to August). These docile
filter-feeders can reach 12m in length. Many
captains of this fishing port now run sightseeing
expeditions. Upon sighting a whale shark, tourists
don snorkels and drop into the water to watch the
majestic creatures swim by – mere metres away.
Las Nubes de Holbox
Paseo Kuká & Calle Camarón.
(984) 875 2300.
A modern take on traditional
thatched roofs, rough-beam
ceilings and whitewashed walls
makes this beachfront property
a stylish vantage point from
which to view the passing
flotilla. From $US250 ($258).
Los Pelicanos
Calle Palomino
(behind Cultural House).
Locals and visitors agree, this place
has the freshest seafood in town. c
For airfares call Qantas on
13 13 13 or visit qantas.com. For
holiday packages to Mexico call
Qantas Holidays on 13 14 15.
chac mool/valladolid market photography: johanna huber/sime/
4corners images; flamingos: getty images; shops: lonely planet images
VALLADOLID Archaeology