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The other face of the Yucatan

Visiting Mexican towns off the mainstream tourist path

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.”