TULUM, Mexico — Take the shuttle from the Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen and beware the American tourists: loud, impatient and sporting T-shirts from favorite local bars.
But board the bus in Playa to Tulum, a growing metropolis 80 miles down the coast, and backpacks replace rolling suitcases. Farther along in Chetumal, just over the border from Belize, the streets are empty most nights by dusk.
With turquoise-blue water lapping at alabaster shores — and, of course, Cancun and its all-inclusive resorts — the Yucatan Peninsula has for years been a favorite getaway for foreigners. But a trip down the eastern coast reveals another side to this Caribbean paradise than the spring break culture of Cancun.
Trash carpets the beach in Punta Allen, a remote fishing village. Mayan ruins in the south lie largely deserted. Dirt roads offer the only means of passage in parts of the flat coastal landscape.
As highways began to connect the region’s disparate cities, beaches and ruins, development crept ever farther south. Some towns have remained mostly free of tourism’s tentacles, their quiet streets a testament to the effects of remaining unnoticed by guidebook-toting gringos. Others have developed their own flavor, their own unique draw on foreign imaginations.
The influence of visitors is evident in Tulum, which has a hippie, somewhat alternative but still very touristy vibe. The first stop on my trip, Tulum was an important Mayan trading port between A.D. 1200 and the arrival of the conquistadors — its name is Mayan for “wall.”
Tulum’s best-known attraction, ruins perched on a seaside cliff, has long drawn busloads of tourists from the resorts to the north. But now, following the construction of a highway along the peninsula’s coast, a modern town has burst into bloom.
A jumble of European tongues fills the streets and Italian restaurants alternate with Mexican eateries on the palm tree-lined main boulevard. A circus wagon housing jungle animals advertises for the nightly show as travelers loaded with hiking packs walk past to their hostels.
The town has a population of more than 20,000 and has grown about 66 percent in the past two years, estimated Dean Enrique, who works in the city’s tourism office. And there are plans to put in a commercial airport between Tulum and the Mayan ruin site of Coba.
“I hope it’s not going to change, not going to turn out like Cancun, like Playa del Carmen,” said Roberto Deligios, who is originally from Italy and now owns an Italian restaurant in Tulum. “We don’t want to see big hotels. We love Tulum as it is.”
In contrast, Spanish reigns in Chetumal, which has largely escaped the tourist boom and remains a no-frills border town filled with open-air markets, cheap goods and aggressive drivers.
This was my first trip to Mexico, and I was meeting a friend who had arrived a month earlier. We set our sights on areas mostly free of tourists, including Chetumal, the state capital.
When we arrived on a Sunday night, a hotel clerk laughed at our inquiry about finding Internet access (though he was, in the end, mistaken — there are 24-hour Internet cafes). The tourists in town converged on the few restaurants open for dinner; most of the stores were long closed for the evening.
“It is tranquil,” said Jesus Arredondo, who drives a taxi in Chetumal and has lived in Cancun and Tulum.
Some stop here on their way to Belize, but there is little in the way of either hostels or luxury resorts. The city of about 137,000 has a room inventory of only about 1,000, in contrast to the roughly 6,000 rooms in Tulum, said Jose Bayon, undersecretary for tourism for the state of Quintana Roo.
With few tourists drawn to the main town, its beaches remain deserted; its undisturbed Mayan temples tower over the surrounding jungle.
We boarded a collectivo (which do not actually leave every hour as we had been assured) and headed to Laguna Bacalar — a lake with a Spanish fort about 40 minutes away. On this afternoon, it served mostly as a swimming hole for local residents.
At the ruins sites of Dzibanche and Kohunlich, we didn’t encounter the usual hordes of fellow tourists, digital cameras hanging from their necks. Instead, we were free to imagine the Maya emerging from the trees, gathering around their elaborate tombs.
Like Chetumal, the 600-person village of Punta Allen is not overrun by outsiders. It is protected by the pothole-filled road that is the primary access to the town.
The road has been repeatedly wiped out by hurricanes, and the 30-mile drive took us about two hours. Drivers zigzag across the dirt road trying not to bust car suspension systems. “Speed bumps” (in this case, ropes laid across the road) necessitate nearly stopping every couple of hundred yards.
The town is home to world-class bone fishing and offers easy access to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, so it has some tourist appeal. But for proof that it is still not a mainstream destination, look no further than its beaches strewn with seaweed and trash.
Travelers seeking an all-night party scene or even an evening ice cream be warned: In this end-of-the-world destination, there is no electricity between midnight and 11 a.m. — and sometimes even longer if the finicky generator does not cooperate.
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