Thursday, October 14, 2010

You Don't Have to Go Far

I am writing this blog at the suggestion of a few folks who read  my book, What's an American Doing Here? Reflections on Travel in the Third World and wanted some details to help them get startedI will attempt to pose suggestions from time to time about travel off the beaten path, a type of travel that is slightly riskier, requires a little more effort and is a bit less comfortable but that can be far more rewarding and growthful than the way most Americans choose to see (or actually miss seeing) the world. I hope you enjoy the suggestions. 

In a search for adventure or just travel without tripping over fellow Americans and bus tours along the way, one need not travel far from home. Although Papua New Guinea or the Bolivian highlands seem to assure success in this regard, there are some wonderful places nearby which offer great opportunities to meet indigenous people and experience a variety of cultures quite distinct from our own.

One of my recent trips with my my intrepid cotraveler, my wife Bev, was to the city of Merida in the Yucatan, the southern area of our next door neighbor, Mexico. If you speak Spanish you can follow our trail with no guide. If not, you can find someone at each site to take you around and help you find what you want. Merida is quite another world from the section of Yucutan that hosts most Americans, Cancun and the string of resorts strung below it. Actually it is a good ride from Cancun so you don't have to worry about tripping over your compatriots along the way. No spring breakers here.

The Merida hotels are quite reasonable. Just choose your level of comfort and make a direct reservation on the net or ask your travel agent to do that for you. We stayed near the center where the colonial buidlings still face busy streets and where we could visit the cathedral and other desired sites. Then we rented a car and took day trips to wonderful places throughout the area.

Among the locations we visited were the popular and very impressive sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Each was more than worth a full day; each an opportunity for insight into the workings of the powerful Mayan Empire cities and enjoying their admirable building prowess. We usually got to the sites early and left when the sun toasted the areas in the afternoon. Traveling alone enabled us to do it our way and at our own pace. But there are many sites in the neighborhood that tourists rarely visit which are fascinating and instructive, each worth at least an hour or so stop along the way. Dzibilchaltun, a small but unique and interesting Mayan town, can be reached along the path to Progreso, a beach far north of Cancun. Progreso itself is not an exciting vacation area although and the sand is a bit rough, yet many Mexicans escape there and the prices are considerably cheaper than the more southern seaside sites. Not far away is Celestun, a waterway where tropical birds breed, especially brightly colored flamingos and flocks of white pelicans. All of these places can be reached in a single day making for a varied and interesting trip.

Near Uxmal is the site of Kabah with its impressive palace of masks and lots of other ancient Mayan statuary. One can visit Kabah on the same day as a trip to Cuzama with its deep wells called cenotes that the local people used for water to support their civilization and which remain essential today. There are no ground level rivers in the Yucutan so these cenotes are both necessary and beautiful, nestled in caves with stalactites and stalagmites and crystal clear water, the lifeblood of their communities. They are also swimmable for the more adventurous visitors. In Cuzama one can rent a horse and cart with driver to traverse the jungle paths that lead from one cenote to another. It is a delightful, rewarding journey.

Another highlight one encounters traveling through the Yucutan are uncrowded and barely visited cave complexes, the most interesting being the Balanchine caves. These are as lovely as most of the more famous caves that tourists are accustomed to visiting but they are easy to get to and almost never overrun with visitors.

In the small towns along the way one can encounter the friendly people who live in the area, most of them descendants of the Mayans though a milennium removed. They live in traditional houses that are quite different from the standard ones in the towns where folks sleep on hammocks rather than beds and where the kitchens and foods are probably more like their ancestors' than those of the town dwellers around them. While Mexico is quite well developed generally, there are many many thousands of people who live Third World lives. There is something for all tastes in the Yucatan.

Cathedral, Merida on New Year's Eve

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