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 It was seven years out of date, after all.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 It was seven years out of date, after all.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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'