Lounging on a beach with a tropical drink at a resort in Cancun or Tulum makes for a great escape from the frozen tundra. That’s why so many Americans – myself included – head to the Yucatan, that peninsula at the southern tip of Mexico that splits the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Sunshine is abundant. Thoughts of snow melt with the warmth. Relaxation rolls in with each wave.
But I’ve also ventured beyond the popular Yucatan beaches. During my last trip, I stayed in Merida, a landlocked city with a rich Mayan and colonial history. On day trips from there, I searched for alligators and flamingos, swam in caves and bumped down remote roads that led to shockingly pink waters, where river and the Gulf of Mexico meet.
Each of these off-the-beaten-path places is alluring in its own way, and visiting them is surprisingly easy. In fact, some of the locations I’ve explored – all hidden oases of the Yucatan, within an hour or two of Merida – can be easily experienced during a day trip from the Yucatan’s Caribbean side. As for the beach chair back at the resort with your name on it, well, it’ll be waiting for you.
As my partner Joel and I climbed onto a small boat, a fisherman approached us. He showed us his day’s catch and then wished us luck in capturing an alligator.
I wondered about that comment, even though the small fishing village of Rio Lagartos translates to Alligator River. But we weren’t here after a 2.5-hour ride from Merida to catch anything, least of all a scaly reptile. We’d come to explore the bird-rich tangle of nature on the town’s edge known as the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.
The 375-square-kilometre reserve holds mangrove forest, saltwater estuaries and sand dunes – and about 400 species of birds, including snowy white ibis and brown pelicans. It’s most known, though, for its vast population of flamingos, said to be the largest in Mexico.
We cut our hour-long boat ride short because of an impending storm, so we didn’t make it to the flamingos’ nesting site. We were, however, mesmerised by the number of beautiful birds we encountered. In the end we spotted one alligator and a handful of visitors with white clay smeared on their bodies for its alleged healing benefits. A beautiful sunset greeted us as we made our watery way back to our car.
After our adventure along the river, we took a short drive to “the pink sea of Yucatan” known as Las Coloradas. These saline lakes appear in otherworldly hues of rose and pink, a result of high concentrations of algae, shrimp and other organisms. Flamingos, which are grey early in life, become pink after feeding on the organisms in the colored saltwater. It is prohibited to go into the water and there isn’t much infrastructure but the scene is worth the drive.
About 65 kilometres south of Merida, Joel and I hiked through the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, where archaeological finds include a pyramid, palaces and other buildings that are among the best preserved Mayan ruins in the country. After exploring Uxmal, we dropped in at the Choco-Story Museum across the street where we learned about the history of cocoa and its importance to the Mayan people.We also saw a reenactment of a Mayan shaman cleansing.
One of the most unusual natural wonders in the Yucatan Peninsula are its cenotes, sinkholes created by the collapse of limestone. There are 6000 of these pools in the Yucatan. They were once used as religious places for the Mayan people, who considered them sacred wells. Today, many offer rappelling and diving activities.
Among my favorites are Cenote Hubiku in Valladolid, and Cenote Hacienda Mucuyche in Abala. One day, we set out from Merida to find Mucuyche. After an hour’s drive, we came to a village where thatch-roofed palapas lined dirt roads, their inhabitants sleeping in hammocks. A wooden sign with “cenote” carved into it seemed like a good omen. At the entrance to a deep cave, life jackets dangled from a rope. We were invited to visit the small family cenote for a small fee, but it wasn’t Cenote Hacienda Mucuyche.
“Down the street, two blocks to the left,” a man instructed. We soon came upon a large stone gate – and our destination. We waited to buy tickets behind a handful of tourists. Inside, we were led on a brief tour through what an historic hacienda, then we followed a path to a cave with turquoise water. It was magical, peaceful and tranquil.
A guide led us, wading, through the pools into a dark cave. I put on the goggles the site provided, dipped my head into the water and saw a wonder of the world. That may be an exaggeration, but it looked like New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, only underwater. Stalactites seemed to go on forever.
Back into the light, we floated down a long green stream lined by pothos vines to a subterranean waterfall.
Like most cenotes today, Hacienda Mucuyche has a restaurant where local women make homemade corn tortillas.
The small fishing village of Celestun, about 100 kilometres from Merida, is near the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, a main courtship area for greater pink flamingos who flock there during fall and winter. Tour guides on the beach wait under palapas to take visitors on small-boat excursions to see the flamingos and freshwater springs. We opted to lounge on the secluded white-sand beach, which we shared with locals, cold beers in our hands. It was just another day on the Yucatan.