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 It was seven years out of date, after all.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 It was seven years out of date, after all.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

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