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Byline: Kerry Cavanaugh Staff Writer

We were speeding along a two-lane highway that cut straight through an endless expanse of dense, green jungle when my husband hit the brakes. Hard.

Tires screeching and smoking, our rental car hit a mound of asphalt and landed with a spine-jarring thud. Ahh, topes. You can't drive around Mexico, or in our case, the Yucatan, without being caught off guard by the Mexican speed bump at least once.

Topes marked the entrance of even the tiniest villages, warning us to slow down as we headed into their community. Our squealing tires pierced the quiet Yucatan afternoon, and an old woman poked her head out the front door of her hut. But her scolding scowl turned into a smile upon seeing a pair of hapless tourists recovering from tope shock. Embarrassed, we waved and continued along on our Yucatan road trip.

After five days of luxury in the beach town of Playa del Carmen - enjoying morning swims and cold cervezas delivered to our cabana chairs - my husband and I decided to venture inland to see the Yucatan's small villages and colonial towns. Like most tourists, we spent most of our time at the resorts lining the coastline from Cancun south to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. The white-sand beaches were fantastic, with warm water, gentle waves and coral reefs rich with tropical fish.

But inland holds its own pleasures, and it made the perfect road trip.

The region was rich in archaeological treasures, environmental wonders and picturesque small towns. The sites were close enough for easy driving, but too far apart to make buses a convenient option.

Before leaving home, we heard the horror stories of roadside bandits and policia who solicit bribes from tourists, but we encountered no problems whatsoever. Locals were kind and helpful, especially when we stopped to ask for directions. The roads were well-signed, drivers were usually polite, and highways were excellent - just watch out for the topes.

Before leaving California, I booked a four-door Dodge Neon at a reasonable price through a major American rental car company. But pay attention: Car insurance wasn't included in my online reservation total, and full coverage ended up costing about $25 a day. It's a good idea to check with your car insurance company before leaving home, because some policies include rental car coverage.

From the coast, we followed a two-lane highway into the center of the Yucatan and were soon surrounded by thick jungle crammed with skinny trees no taller than 30 feet. Our green view was broken every 15 miles or so by tiny villages too small to be mentioned on our maps.

In the villages, we caught a glimpse into modern-day Mayan living. Many families still live in palapas (traditional thatched huts), grow food in backyard gardens and swing to sleep at night in hammocks. But we saw several palapas with television sets, and most villages had a tiny convenience store selling soda and ice cream.

Some Mayan families were ready to cash in on the tourist trade with tables of carved masks and figurines for sale in front of their palapas. In a few villages, children waited alongside the topes, hoping to sell us bottled water and fresh-cut fruit as we slowed down.

We shared the highway with bicyclists, who often pedaled along with a woman or child standing on the frame above the back wheels. In larger villages, the highway cruised along the central square, usually quiet in the midday heat with a government office that always looked closed and a basketball court that always seemed to be empty.

After passing through so many villages, Valladolid seemed like a metropolis. It's the first large city west of Cancun and is a commercial center for the surrounding villages.

The epicenter of activity was the plaza or parque principal, a bustling area full of cars and buses speeding around the large, tree-filled square. Within the park, locals chatted on park benches while schoolchildren in uniform giggled and goofed in the shadow of a towering cathedral.

Along one side of the square, vendors sold their wares to busloads of tourists. Cancun companies offer day trips to Valladolid to sample the authentic Yucatan experience.

After the high-pressure salesmen in Playa del Carmen and other tourist stops, the Valladolid vendors were wonderfully low-key, happy to let us watch them carve wood masks and Mayan gods. Women hung white huipiles along a wall, displaying the handmade Mayan blouse with a colorful embroidered neckline.

We were ready for some of the Yucatan's cuisine, and our trusty guidebook, Cadogan's ``Yucatan and Mayan Mexico,'' recommended El Meson de Marques, a historic whitewashed hotel overlooking the park. Our table sat in a shady arcade overlooking a courtyard and small gurgling fountain, and a waiter quickly delivered cool drinks.

We tried the pollo pibil, a Yucatan favorite with banana-leaf-wrapped chicken cooked in herbs, lime and bitter oranges. The dish came with fresh tortillas and three types of salsa - plenty of food to carry us through the afternoon and our next stop.

Valladolid is famous for its signature dish, lomitas de Valladolid, a plateful of spicy bits of pork cooked in a rich broth of tomato and garlic. Wrapped in warm tortillas and topped with black beans, the lomitas were delicious.

About five miles west of Valladolid, we visited Cenote Dzitnup, one of the region's most famous freshwater sinkholes. The cenotes lead to a network of underground rivers and lakes.

Much of the Yucatan peninsula is a flat limestone slab covered by a few inches of dirt and very little surface water. Instead, water flows through cracks in the limestone shelf feeding underground rivers and lakes accessible through thousands of cenotes.

We took a snorkeling tour of a cenote along the coast. The cave was pitch-black and the water freezing. We stuck close to our guide's lantern while weaving between giant stalagmites and stalactites, occasionally ducking under water to miss a low-flying bat.

Cenote Dzitnup was much less rugged. For a small fee, we hunched through the cave opening and carefully stepped down a long, narrow set of stairs that opened into a huge cathedral-like cavern. Humid and dark, the cenote was like a community pool, abuzz with chatter. Dozens of children and their parents swam in the cool water and made cannonball plunges from rocks.

From the cavern walls and ceiling, rock formations hung like dripping candle wax. Birds flew in and out of the cave through an opening in the ceiling that allowed sunlight to stream down onto the clear water below.

Another bright spot on our travels was Izamal, a Spanish-style city of golden walls that has both a 16th-century monastery and a mountainous Mayan pyramid. Izamal was a bit off the beaten path, about an hour's drive north of the 180 freeway connecting Cancun and the Yucatan capital of Merida. But you shouldn't miss this colorful colonial city.

I'd read about the ``Yellow City'' in guidebooks, but I wasn't prepared for how yellow it really was. Much of the town's core is painted a vibrant gold or mustard. It's a walled city, with homes and businesses hidden behind gold walls and doorways. Only by walking along the narrow sidewalks did we occasionally get a peek into a lush courtyard or foyer to get a sense of the life behind the walls.

The town's main road ran straight into San Antonio de Padua, raised several stories above the city sidewalks and painted mustard to match the surrounding streets. Built by the Franciscans and completed in 1561, the monastery opens onto a vast grass courtyard. Some sources said that at the time of construction, the courtyard was the second largest in the world, after the Vatican in Rome.

No matter the world record, we enjoyed strolling the shady, quiet, 400- year-old arcades. The church itself is plain, cool and calm. On the street below, cars honked, motorcycles roared and disco music blared from the market.

From the monastery, we walked 10 minutes across town to an even older structure. Kinch Kak Mo is a Mayan pyramid that rises right in the middle of the city. It's actually a smaller pyramid built on top of a larger one and the base alone takes up two acres. After a muscle-burning climb to the top, we got an excellent view of Izamal and the surrounding jungle. By then our legs were wobbly and we were hungry, so we stopped at a nearby restaurant, Kinich Kakmo, hidden behind the city wall.

Inside was a shady, garden cafe. In a tiny palapa off to the corner, a woman kneeled by a hot griddle rolling out tiny balls of dough for tortillas.

We feasted on poc-chuc, a Yucatan specialty of pork marinated in bitter orange juice and then cooked with onions and herbs. We made our own tacos with some black beans, salsa and those piping-hot fresh tortillas. Yum.

Seeking another beach locale before the end of our trip, we drove two hours north through cattle country to a pair of tiny fishing villages on the Gulf of Mexico. Flamingos and fishing are the two main draws of this stretch of Gulf Coast, part of the Rio Lagartos National Park, but the area was no Cancun.

Instead, we drove back in time to a place where men line up after a long day of fishing to weigh their catch. The streets were empty by 7 p.m., except for a few families sitting outside chatting. There are fewer than a handful of hotels and no tourism infrastructure. We couldn't find an ATM machine.

The area is most famous for thousands of flamingos that nest from April to August on a sand bar in the gulf. Flamingos are rarely spotted from land, though. You have to take a boat tour offered by a local guide. When we drove into the town of Rio Lagartos, guides jogged next to our car offering tours, but we were too late in the day for the three-hour trip.

Still, we had plenty of time to wander the sleepy towns and admire the choppy, slate-colored gulf water. Rio Lagartos shares the coast with San Felipe, another fishing village about a 15-minute drive away. San Felipe is quietly charming, a tidy town with homes sporting fresh paint in pink, teal and purple. Streets end abruptly in mangrove lagoons.

It was late afternoon when we arrived. Most of the small fishing boats were already tied along the dock, and the promenade along the water was empty. San Felipe seemed to be going through a small redevelopment. The sidewalk along the marina had fresh cement, benches, shiny yellow lampposts and young palm trees.

Tour books describe San Felipe as a favorite vacation spot for locals. We must have arrived off-season, because all bars and eateries were closed, including Restaurant Vaselina, which is supposed to have mouth-watering lobster, ceviche and all kinds of locally caught seafood.

Instead we headed back to our tiny Hotel San Felipe for dinner. The manager handed us a lengthy menu, but all they had was whitefish prepared two ways - fried or grilled. Still, it was tasty.

Down the street from the hotel, we sat by the sea wall and listened to the waves lap against the rocks below. And slowly the sun, giant and gold like a shiny coin, dropped through bands of glowing white clouds. Orange and pink streaks lit up the sky before the sun finally disappeared beneath the gulf.

We lingered, soaking up the calm before we had to go home.

Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746



5 photos, map


(1 -- 2 -- color) There are many rewards for travelers who take to the back roads of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula - perhaps a sunset in teh finishing village of San Felipe on the Gulf Coast, top, or Izamal, above, dubbed the ``Yellow City'' because the walls of its core are painted in shades of gold and mustard.

(3) Schoolgirls chat on a street in Izamal, Mexico, a small town in the Yucatan known as the Golden City for its yellow walls.

(4 -- 5) At top, Yucatan locals sell carvings and hammocks from a roadside palapa. A trip inland offers quite a contrast with touristy Cancun. Above, hogs graze on a soccer field in a small village.

Jason Kandel/Staff Photographer



Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 13, 2005

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