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More than meets the eye

There's a different -- and cheaper -- Mexico off the beaten path

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It might be the raspy roar of howler monkeys at the isolated Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan, the crisp mountain air and colonial architecture of San Cristóbal de las Casas, or the kilometre-high cliffs of the Sumidero Canyon, but at some point it’ll hit you: This isn’t how you envisioned Mexico.

Many tourists who venture to the southern reaches of this vacation getaway never brush the sand off their toes, slinging cervezas in the resort-studded beaches of the Mayan Riviera or enjoying the glitz of Cancún.

It's hard to go wrong with piña coladas and palapas,

But if you're feeling a little restless, venture outside the realm of your hotel and hop a ferry, or head inland. You'll find experiences a world apart from the Mexico of swim-up bars and tanning lotions, and at prices fitting for even thrifty travellers.

ISLA MUJERES

It's just a short ferry ride from the mainland, but the laid-back vibe of this small island is a remarkable change of pace.

Golf carts, scooters and taxis are the main forms of transportation, but for most purposes, your feet will do just fine. Outdoor restaurant and bar patios hum with activity in the evening but most fall silent later at night -- this is no party destination.

After a week on the Mayan Riviera, I met up with a friend to see more of southern Mexico, starting with some ocean-front time on Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). The tiny spit of land is an established tourist destination, and there's hardly a shop downtown that won't try to lure you in for deals on T-shirts and knick-knacks.

But on the island it all feels smaller, and more manageable. Isla Mujeres boasts plenty of small hotels with inexpensive, tidy rooms and backpacker-friendly hostels with even cheaper rates.

It's all minutes away from the public beaches and crystal-clear water, arguably the main attraction. Here you can throw down a towel most anywhere you like for free, or pay a few bucks and rent a reclining chair and shade umbrella. Buy a drink at the right beachside bar, and you'll get the chair at no cost.

When you're done lounging, take a stroll along El Malecón, the boardwalk lining the beautiful rocky shore on the eastern side of the island. Or hire a cab to drive you to the turtle sanctuary, where you can coo over (but not touch) baby sea turtles that will later be released into the ocean.

Many people who see the ruins of this Mayan city arrive after lengthy bus rides from distant hotels, just in time for the blistering sun and heavy crowds of the afternoon.

So I couldn't help feeling a little smug when the gates opened at 8 a.m., my friend and I among the first dozen people onto the grounds at Chichen Itza. For hours we took our time wandering past the ancient ball court and El Castillo, the imposing central pyramid, admiring the intricate carvings of bloodthirsty jaguars and eagles on worn stone surfaces. The air was cool, souvenir vendors were still setting up shop, and the solitude of the vast space gave a sense of wonder that can be tough to find in the afternoon crush.

We'd arrived the night before after a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Playa del Carmen, past stretches of low-lying jungle and the occasional field of spiky blue-green agave plants, used to make tequila.

Instead of staying in the nearest town of Piste, we opted for a well-reviewed hotel off the main highway, just minutes from Chichen Itza. After ditching our bags, we headed across the road for a swim in the Ik-Kil cenote, a stunning, nearly 25-meter deep natural well.

Tour groups came and went, but with nowhere to be, we could stay in the cool water as long as we wanted, gazing at the sky through dangling vines and letting the stress of the day's travels drift away.

PALENQUE

"Ruinas ruinas ruinas!" It was 6 a.m., and the colectivo driver with the rapid-fire delivery and booming voice was rallying a crowd for his first run of the morning.

After a quick breakfast we loaded onto one of the next shuttles, settled down beside men laden with jewelry who couldn't resist a quick sales pitch on the way to "las ruinas," the Mayan ruins of Palenque.

This ancient city shares its name but little else with the noisy, bustling town nearby. It's hard to sleep through your alarm in Palenque, the town, amid the sounds of barking dogs and a bus driver collecting passengers right outside your hotel-room window.

But like most tourists in the area, we were there for the ruins, and the sight of them rising up through mist-shrouded forest, howler monkeys roaring in the treetops, was unforgettable.

The mountainous terrain in the state of Chiapas is utterly unlike the beaches and mangrove swamps of Quintana Roo, and your jaw will drop at the view of the palace at Palenque against the surrounding jungle.

The site is as much a forest adventure as it is an exploration of a fallen civilization, and half the pleasure is in clambering around the less exposed ruins, still covered in vines and moss. Gaze through the greenery, take a breath of some of the sweetest air you've ever tasted, and Canadian winter will never have felt so far away.

There's no shortage of potential tour guides offering their services -- some legitimate, others questionable -- but it can also be nice to experience the site on your own. The entry fee of $7 US (subject to change) includes access to a museum, and feels low for all you'll get to see.

The town of Palenque, or the backpacker haven of El Panchán, also make good base camps for nearby natural attractions. You should have no problem booking a tour to the waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul, the latter a series of postcard-perfect waterfalls cascading into pristine pools, where you can swim in mineral-rich water an impossible shade of turquoise.

If time allows it, spend a day visiting the well-preserved murals of Bonampak and the serene, grassy ruins of Yaxchilan, accessible only by boat and little-visited compared to Palenque. Here you're within shouting distance of Guatemala, visible just across the Usumacinta River, and the monkeys are so close you can watch them swing through the trees.

A note on travel: the Palenque region is bound to be a highlight of your trip, but it's no quick drive to Chiapas. We broke up the lengthy bus trip from Chichen Itza in the Yucatán Peninsula with dinner and a free jazz concert in the arts-friendly city of Mérida, but all told we spent at least 10 hours on a bus.

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS

This city is worth the trip, but you might not think so during the six-hour drive through the central highlands, climbing 2,100 meters above sea level. It's tough to appreciate the spectacular views of ranch land and mountain peaks when all your energy is focused on keeping your breakfast down amid hairpin turns and incessant speed bumps.

If you can make it to San Cristóbal intact -- or if you spring for a flight directly to the nearest airport in Tuxtla Gutiérrez-- you'll soon be won over. This is a charming city in the mountains, full of colonial-era buildings and leafy courtyards, cobbled streets leading to a spacious zócalo, or main square.

San Cristóbal is an increasingly popular tourist draw, but it's also a commercial hub for indigenous communities like the Tzotzil and Tzeltal -- many visitors use the city as a base to take in the cultures of nearby Mayan villages.

Local women sell their weaving and crafts in San Cristóbal's market, and young girls wander the streets with shawls tied at their shoulders, laden with belts, jewellery, purses and scarves to attract customers.

San Cristóbal was one of the centres of the 1994 Zapatista uprising, and although it's generally safe today, tourist-friendly merchandise abounds in market stalls, including the ever-present Zapatista dolls, handmade figures with crude wooden guns.

From the city it's not far to the breathtaking Sumidero Canyon, where a boat will hurtle you down the green-tinged Grijalva River, carved through steep cliffs. Crocodiles lounge on the muddy shores just meters away from the boats, cormorants spread their wings in the sun, and the rocky walls rise close to a kilometre high on either side.

If anything is worth trading in your beach hat and umbrella-topped drinks for, it's this.

If you go:

* If you can't stomach the cost of airfare to less-travelled parts of Mexico, find out whether you can piggyback an extra week onto your all-inclusive vacation. It's not the norm, but some tour companies will let you delay your return flight by a week or two, enough time to venture further afield and still make it back to Cancún to fly home again. Be sure to check with tour operators first about their policies, as well as the potential cost of a date swap.

If you go this route, don't forget to factor travel time into your planning, and remember that a regional flight can spare you a lengthy bus trip, if it's within your budget.

If you're not interested in the basic amenities of a hostel but don't feel like paying for luxe accommodations, try for the middle ground of a budget hotel. We had no trouble finding rooms with two double beds for around $50 US per night, using online hotel reviews as our guide. These hotels are typically nothing fancy -- getting hot water in the shower might take a while, and you'll want to bring earplugs to block out street noise or the occasional barking dog. But all were clean and well-kept, and most were relatively peaceful.

* Get used to the peso. Sure, you can get by with U.S. dollars, but depending on the exchange rate, you can get better deals in the local currency.

* Public transit is your friend. Minivans called colectivos can take you safely on short jaunts to local attractions. And if you're not renting a car, Mexican first-class buses are comfortable and frequent on well-travelled routes. They're also a cool break from the heat -- sometimes too air-conditioned, in fact. Bring a sweater for longer trips, and keep those earplugs handy if you don't want to listen to on-board movies.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2009 E4

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