Off the Beaten Track in the Yucatan

Times Staff Writer

Short-term visitors to the Yucatan often spend so much of their vacation time commuting from resorts to reefs to ruins that they rarely have an opportunity to see what life is like on this picturesque Mexican peninsula.

Certainly the beautiful beaches, snorkeling coves and ancient Mayan cities are attractions that bring most Americans to the Yucatan. But toward the end of our second, weeklong visit to the area my wife and I yearned for something different, a look at the way the Maya live today.

Getting off the beaten track is not easy, but neither is it impossible. Unlike some areas of Mexico that have experienced difficulties recently, the roads of Yucatan are considered safe for American drivers, with frequent patrols by the green road-service trucks of the government tourist agency.

Not Many Roads

The main problem is that there aren't many roads in the Yucatan, and most of those were built by the colonial Spanish and the Mexican government over paths beaten by the ancient Maya to connect major cities.

Unfortunately, those villages between the major tourist points have been changed irrevocably by the steady streams of visitors. In many, small children are already so attenuated to the needs of tourists that they rush at vehicles stopped at the topes, the speed bumps, to hustle cold drinks and Popsicles.

Outside of these villages, miniature chapels still dot the roadside, and every now and again a solitary Maya materializes from the jungle, machete on his waist, waiting for a bus. Tantalizingly, these figures give little hint of life on the back-country, slash-and-burn ranchos of the interior where they live and work.

There is another, wonderful Yucatan, as yet unchanged by tourist migrations, which can provide some insight. To find it we simply looked at the map and found a road that seemed to go nowhere.

Not far from the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel we noticed a narrow, unnamed peninsula dangling like a pinkie into the Caribbean, south of the dramatic seaside ruins at Tulum. A road--a line on the map--led to the end of the peninsula and stopped, so we decided to take it.

We speak little Spanish and no Maya, so we stopped at Tulum to hire a guide. At the ruins' entrance we found 23-year-old Helaman Petlacalco, a descendant of the Aztecs from Mexico City and a member of a family of guides who have been through the three-year course given by the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

He was eager to take a day off from repeating his lectures on the walled city, although when we told him where we wanted to go, he asked why, because "there's nothing there."

Petlacalco suggested that we first go into the town of Tulum and stock up on fresh fruit and tortillas hot off the gas-powered conveyor belt, as he knew of no restaurants where we were going. In addition to guiding, he offered to take the wheel of our rented Volkswagen Rabbit as he provided a running commentary on ancient Maya history and life today.

We shared the road--which quickly turned into a pitted, jungle track--with scuttling crabs, lines of army ants, scampering foxes and tropical birds darting through the treetops. Deep in the undergrowth, sometimes canopied by foliage, we were often less than 50 paces from the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other.

Already Looted

Ruins were close enough to reach out the window and touch. While not on any tourist map, they had already been looted. Petlacalco was surprised to find them in such good condition otherwise, and said he suspected that there might be a medium-size Mayan city buried in the jungle near the end of the peninsula, because the enclosed altars usually served as way stations for traveling Indians on pilgrimages.

Along the coast are scores of deserted if not undiscovered beaches and reefs, along with a few primitive fishing camps for international anglers.

Beyond a rickety bridge at Boca Paila, where the large lagoon leads to the sea, is a bend in the road called El Retiro. Facing a large cove is a restaurant and, beneath the palms, 10 simple concrete cabanas in various stages of completion. About a mile offshore is an unspoiled reef teeming with marine life.

Anna Disep is an Italian woman who manages the place with her husband, a native of Yucatan she met on vacation five years ago while visiting the ruins at Palenque.

"It's exactly the place I dreamed to live in when I was a kid," she says. The entire peninsula is a biological preservation zone, especially rich in wildlife. In the jungle are jaguar, monkeys, raccoon, deer and snakes (sleeping facilities in the cabanas feature hanging beds to protect guests from unwanted nighttime visitors). Anna Disep, P.O. Box 403, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico; about $15 a night; open only December-February.

Eggs of Sea Turtles

Islands on the lagoon side are home for many birds, including flamingos. Last year, Disep said, she and some other volunteers dug up and reburied 5,000 eggs of spawning sea turtles. Those that hatched were marked for research purposes and carried to the sea.

We found a quiet fishing village of about 500 people called Rojo Gomez. Among the friendly people we met there were children who didn't yet ask for money to have their pictures taken; girls sitting on hammocks, studying the Bible; boys playing basketball. Green thatch was drying in one front yard in preparation for a reroofing.

The members of the village's fishing cooperative (only the sons of cooperative members can become fisherman in Rojo Gomez) were taking a day away from their lobster traps to meet and figure out a way to get higher prices.

A refrigerator truck comes each week to pick up each week's catch. Thanks to the cooperative, which needed facilities to keep the fish cold, the village has had electricity for two years. So it has also had TV for two years.

For some reason, land's end exerts a certain pull on travelers, especially in the tropics, so we pushed on to the point of the peninsula. At the end of our road, at Punta Allen near sunset, we found a lone brown pelican diving for fish and the wife of the lighthouse keeper husking coconuts to sell for oil, as her children played nearby.

To get a taste of Yucatan off the beaten track, it isn't necessary to make the entire 2 1/2-hour drive from Tulum to Punta Allen. Twenty minutes south is probably enough for most people. For the more adventurous, a full day and a four-wheel-drive vehicle are the best bets. Bring your own food. Figure between $20 and $30 a day for a guide, depending on the peso's value.

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