Welcome to Las Vegas by-the-sea

Yucatan unspoilt? Hardly. Yet Robert Nurden found some delights intact, and a jungle that won't be beaten

I could blame the guidebook, but that would be churlish. It was seven years out of date, after all. Things change in that time, and Yucatan, in Mexico, certainly had changed. I went away to escape from things at home but ended up trying to escape something there too - the American way of life.

I could blame the guidebook, but that would be churlish. It was seven years out of date, after all. Things change in that time, and Yucatan, in Mexico, certainly had changed. I went away to escape from things at home but ended up trying to escape something there too - the American way of life.

The guidebook said that condominiums and hamburgers hadn't yet eaten their way into this far-flung corner of Mexico, apart from at Cancun. Well, now they had. In those intervening years cruise ships and package holidays had established a permanent mooring in this flat land of pyramids, hammocks and coral reefs.

Cancun is a traveller's litmus test. It's one of those places you either pass through quickly - in disgust often - or it's where you revel in wall-to-wall pleasure and sleep is outlawed. Well, I need my sleep and I didn't need Las Vegas by-the-sea.

I left town by the first coach out as rain came lashing down from banks of grey cloud, the backside of a hurricane that was rumbling away to the east. As I stared through my waterfall window at mile after mile of dense, green jungle, I vowed that my rucksack and I would re-establish the independent traveller on the Mayan map.

It was one of the most boring coach journeys I can remember: an unlifting curtain of green on either side of the road. Occasionally I saw the crouching, drenched shapes of small, dark figures hacking away with rusty knives at the fronds of undergrowth edging on to the curb. The jungle grows so fast that the roads would disappear in months if these anti-encroachment operatives didn't keep it at bay.

At Merida it was still chucking it down and I popped into a haberdashers. Within 10 minutes I had done at least half my Christmas shopping: it was to be cotton hammocks all round. In the summer in Yucatan, when the heat becomes monstrous, the Mayans sleep in hammocks praying for a breeze to play through the fretting.

I checked into a gallery. The Hotel Trinidad Galeria is an outrageous extravaganza of modern Mexican art first, a place to lay your head second. You enter what looks like a conservatory only to be met by a sinister piece of sculpture: a tiered display of dolls whose shaven heads and piercing gaze sent a Clockwork Orange chill through me. Manolo was at reception with a warm welcome. "Different, huh?" he said, sensing my unease. "Why can I not make my house a gallery?" I discovered hundreds of bizarre works lurking in dusty corridors and verandahs.

I loved bustling Merida, the capital of Yucatan, with its narrow streets, grand Hispanic buildings, shady parks and commercial buzz. Musicians in tight black braided suits wielded drums, pan pipes, mandolins and accordions on their rounds of the plaza restaurants, and acrobats and knife-throwers drew gasps from the crowds until darkness told them it was getting too dangerous, even for them.

The brooding cathedral with its heaven-high roof is as sepulchral as anything in Spain. The walls were stripped bare of decoration by angry peasants in the 1910 revolution, perhaps as a late reprisal for the Spanish pinching stones from their Mayan temples to build this monument to a strange European god.

Jorge, the guide at the temple complex at Uxmal, told me how the Mexican government was providing funds for the promotion of Mayan culture and for the teaching of the language in schools. His round, brown face frowned and his half-moon spectacles flashed in the sun. "We are different. We must keep our culture. We are not Mexican. And we are not American," he grinned, with a dismissive glance towards the Temple of the Phalli, outside which sat a motionless blob of obesity crammed into a pair of yellow and cream check pants.

The minibus dropped me off at the Hacienda Temozon, where peacocks strutted and shrieked on the lawns and quail scurried in crazy circles. A gardener in white cotton overalls and sombrero was listlessly dragging the crystal-clear swimming pool. On the balcony a fan worried the hot afternoon air. This 18th-century sisal plantation, which stopped production 30 years ago, has been exquisitely restored and turned into a showpiece hotel. It's where the President meets dignitaries for quiet chats - President Clinton had lunch there last year. Later, as part of an aid package to the locals, the Americans kindly turned the field where his helicopter landed into a baseball field. The trouble is, no one uses it.

The fibre of the sisal plant was used to make rope. All over Yucatan, at the end of the 19th century, sugar plantations switched to growing this crop known as green gold, and Spanish farmers made fortunes. When the industry collapsed, many haciendas were abandoned and their ruins disappeared beneath the jungle. Temozon's factory is still standing, restored in rich ochre paintwork, while inside the shredding machinery, steam engines and presses are on view.

On the cool verandah before dinner a smart young couple from Mexico City sipped Margaritas. He smoked a Havana cigar, she idly turned the pages of Vogue. A huge bowl of bright-green limes sat on the table in front of them. It was hard to know which still life to admire more.

I followed the pyramid trail to Chichen Itza, then to Tulum on the shores of the Caribbean. Here I rented a beachside cabana, a rickety, palm-thatched hut with a bed, a chair and no electricity. I had to pay a deposit. What for? There was nothing to nick. Night fell at 5pm, and then it was a case of lying in the dark, and listening to the sea or reading by candlelight. Or spending the night down at the Santa Fe, which is a restaurant, bar, diving centre, telephone kiosk and general meeting place whose floor is the beach and its canopy the palm trees. Ramon played folk songs through the rainstorms, the water dripping through the grass roof, through his long hair and on to his guitar. Other Mexicans joined in gutturally, balancing soggy cigarettes on the edge of chapped lips. Their notes lagged way behind Ramon's. Perhaps the tequillas were slowing us all up.

It was at Playa del Carmen that my guidebook got it most wrong. This seaside resort, which seven years ago had just a handful of little hotels, now has scores. Cruise ships swamp the bay, and the disco only stops booming at 3am. I would have to bob and weave if my iconic rucksack wasn't going to be submerged beneath package paraphernalia.

The 89th anniversary celebrations of the Mexican Revolution on the island of Cozumel were a riot. Thousands of children dressed up to the nines joined policemen, firemen, the army - everyone - for a parade along the promenade. Little faces peered out from behind placards of moustachioed revolutionaries. It looked as if a downpour would dampen the fiesta but, sodden and drenched, they kept going.

The Academia de Espanol El Estudiante was behind the bus station. Annabelle, from Mexico City, fixed me with her beautiful big brown eyes and said she'd teach me Spanish with a Mexican accent for $6 an hour. I made my excuses and stayed. At the end of my last lesson I falteringly said: " Yo tengo que regresar a Inglaterra" and wanted to say more, but only said: " Adios", and shuffled into the street.

I wandered into a condominium development on the edge of Playa. It was Sunday afternoon. I heard the sound of a guitar and singing coming from the golf course clubhouse. The southern Baptists were worshipping. "Ar'd like you all to pray for me," said a man. "I bin asking God to swing it for me here in Playa by grantin' me a little shop, but nuffin come up yet. But with your prayers I gonna do it."

On the road to the airport I saw another group of workmen hacking away at the greenery with inadequate knives, halting the jungle's advance. So far they'd managed to keep back the forces of darkness. And so, just, had I.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Britain's internet habits have been revealed in a new survey
tech
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style