Few travellers think of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for a road trip. But with 100-year-old cantinas, cool cenotes, colourful birdlife and ancient Mayan ruins, this is an area calling out to be explored..
“We are good 'alcoholic' people,” laughed La Negrita owner Patricia Martin, as another round of mezcals magically appeared on our table. “If you’re going to be drunk, you may as well do it professionally.”
Patricia clearly loves what she does: running La Negrita, a lively cantina (bar) in the 2017 American Capital of Culture, the Mexican city of Mérida, in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was easy to see why in this place where the good times rolled and beer and mezcal flowed abundantly.
A Cuban band played to a packed dancefloor. Couples energetically rumba-ed the night away. All the while, Patricia, the life and soul of the cantina, greeted friends with hugs and kisses, ordered fresh rounds of mezcal and clapped her hands to the music.
Mezcal with grasshoppers (Graeme Green)
Each glass of mezcal arrived with the rim coated in worm salt and a side dish of grasshoppers. “They’re called Chapulines,” Patricia informed me, as I tried the salty, crispy insects. “The red salt is Sal de Gusano, dried chilli powder mixed with agave worm, from the plant mezcal’s made from. This is the traditional way to serve mezcal.”
Later in the evening, we reluctantly left and rushed, a little more than half-cut, over to the 19th century José Peón Contreras Theatre to catch the local symphonic orchestra and a visiting oboist playing Beethoven, Haydn and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack from The Mission. Mezcal, Cuban rumba and a Classical concert may seem like an odd mix, but that's just Friday night in Mérida.
Sign in Mérida's central plaza (Graeme Green)
The capital of Yucatán state, Mérida was our first major stop on an adventurous road trip exploring the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. It’s not an area often thought of for road trips (many travellers never make it past Cancún).
But as we drove out of Cancún towards Mérida on long, straight, solid roads, passing tourist-laden coaches heading for the famous Mayan site of Chichén Itzá, the benefits of a car over a stuffy group tour bus quickly became clear.
Unlike the coach tours, we had the freedom to make our own plans, detouring to check out an old colonial church or stopping in Valladolid to walk around the leafy plaza or buy tortas (Mexican sandwiches) from a street stand. Most of all, though, having a car opened up possibilities for exploring colourful small towns, lesser known Mayan ruins and the thousands of little-visited cenotes (sinkholes) dotted across the peninsula.
Cars passing La Negrita cantina (Graeme Green)
Arriving at Mérida, we set out on foot to explore. The 475-year-old city is celebrating its second turn as American Capital of Culture (the only city to be awarded the honour twice) this year with the creation of ‘Seven Cultural Treasures of Mérida’.
We called in at the Cathedral de San Ildefonso, the public vote’s Number One ‘treasure’, walked the warm city streets to the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Homeland) and checked out colourful modern art in the downstairs gallery of José Peón Contreras Theatre, where we later caught a concert.
Perhaps the city’s cantinas should’ve made the list of cultural treasures, too, as some of them, like La Negrita and Cantina El Cardenal, are more than 100 years old. “Cantinas like this are very important here in Mérida,” Patricia told me, over a fifth or sixth shot of mescal, our table also loaded with beers, Chaya (a Mayan ingredient) cocktails and little plates of food that were served with each round, from fried balls of cheese to tamales with Chaya. “I came here with my grandfather and my father when I was a girl. Cantinas are places where a lot of children have their first drink.”
Barman at La Negrita (Graeme Green)
Cantinas have a reputation in Mexico as grim, poor, gloomy places, usually male-only. “10 years ago, the concept of the cantina was very down in the Yucatán. The word ‘cantina’ had a bad meaning. I saw the places where dying, and I asked: Why?”, Patricia explained. “We revived the original idea of the cantina, which was about lively music, a place for everyone, not just men.
“You get homemade food with your drinks, and the drinks are cheap but good quality. It’s not a luxury place, not a gastro bar. This is a revival of our heritage. It’s keeping Yucatán culture alive." It’s the kind of culture I’m more than happy to soak up.
Chef Christian Bravo in the kitchen at Casa Lecanda (Graeme Green)
Next morning, slightly groggy, we made our way out to Casa Lecanda in the outskirts of Mérida for a cooking class with Chef Christian Bravo in a warm kitchen that smelled of freshly baked bread.
Alongside art, music, colonial-era buildings and, of course, the cantinas, food is “very important in the Yucatán culture,” Christian told me. “We use some ingredients and methods from the ancestral Mayan people, some influences from Spain and South America. It’s a good mix. We use ingredients from the Yucatán region, but with a modern twist. We can make dishes with texture and flavour, with a Mexican and Yucatán atmosphere and taste.”
We prepared (and sampled) a selection of classy modern Mexican dishes, from a guacamole with sesame seeds and plantain crisps, a tuna ceviche with mango and a zingy bright red recado rojo powder, salbutes (deep fried tortillas stuffed with veggies), Sikil P’ak (pumpkinseed salsa) through to the closing dessert of fried banana, Greek yoghurt and Xtabentún, another local spirit.
“Salut,” Christian smiled, pouring shot glasses of the aniseed-y booze for us to drink. “Now the party can begin.”
Tuna and mango ceviche (Graeme Green)
Haciendas are another of the ‘Seven Treasures’ on Mérida’s list. Driving south, we stopped at Chablé in Chocholá, 25 minutes outside Mérida, an 18th century hacienda that’s now the Yucatán’s coolest new place to stay. The green grounds are incredibly relaxing to walk around, like a time warp, with crumbly stone arches, pink bougainvillea and giant ancient trees, the old blue-walled hacienda at the heart.
Inside the Casa Principal (main building), though, the feel is ultra-modern luxury, with plush sofas, wall-sized modern paintings, cool art works (Day of the Dead skulls inside glass vases) and a quiet library. The casita we stayed in, private and secluded in the jungle, is minimalist and modern, spacious, decked out in creamy white, with a private pool and hammock, and big windows looking out into the greenery.
Lounge and bar area at Chablé (Graeme Green)
We woke to birdsong, swam in the pool and drank our morning coffee, watching out for elegant mot-mots, red Cardinals and green parrots in the trees. The resort’s central swimming pool, or ‘Oasis’, is surrounded by palm trees, a fine place to while away a few hours or a day.
At night, the trees and pathways were lit up with orange bulbs, while fireflies flash and flicker over the lawns. In a restaurant with long, tall, glass cabinets filled with colourful bottles of tequila, the owner's private collection of more than 3000 bottles soon to be recognised by Guinness as the largest in the world, we tucked into Mexico City chef Jorge Vallejo’s menu of light healthy dishes, including scallop tiradito and trout with apple, with lots of herbs and veg from the garden (and a bit too much use of ‘foam’), washed down with a bottle of tasty wine from Baja California in northern Mexico.
It all made for another reluctant departure in the morning; I’ve stayed at several of the Yucatán Peninsula’s best hotels, but Chablé has re-set the bar a little higher.
Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal (Graeme Green)
We drove south, crossing the state border from Yucatán into Quintana Roo, stopping to visit the Mayan city of Uxmal, a massive and peaceful place to walk around in the afternoon, after the coach tours have left.
We explored the Ballcourt, used for ancient Mayan ballgames, and climbed up the steps of the Governor’s Palace for a fine view of the Pyramid of the Magician sticking up high above the jungle, before driving on again through sleepy villages and dusty backroads to Kankirixché cenote for a cooling swim in the off-the-beaten-track underground cave.
Reaching the Yucatán Peninsula’s south coast, we passed the massive Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve and arrived at the laidback beach town of Tulum.
Starting out early next morning, we drove out to Cobá Lake, next to the Mayan ruins of Cobá, with birding guide Carolina Cepeda.
Early morning at Cobá Lake (Graeme Green)
“We have all the migratory birds coming back from Canada and America and all the nesting birds here,” Carolina said, explaining why the lake is a birding hotspot, as we walked around the calm lake’s edge, spotting blue Yucatán Jays, Bright yellow and orange Hooden Oriole, Blue Grosbeak and, a favourite, a gold-throated woodpecker with a punkish red hair-do.
Limpkin’s waded around the lake’s edge, while Snail kites flew across the calm morning lake. “Sometimes, around this pier, we see crocodiles,” Carolina warned.
We travelled on to explore the local cenotes. “There are around 8000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula,” said Carolina, the Mayans believing the sinkholes to be links to the underworld and their ancestors. “Some are open and on the surface, but many are underground in caves. The Yucatán is limestone. It’s like Swiss cheese.”
Swimmers in Kankirixché cenote (Graeme Green)
Bats flitted among the greenish stalactites inside the cave of Tamcach-ha, while we swam in crystal-clear blue water.
Back above ground, tiny hummingbirds floated among the branches, while mating Mot-mots, with long tails and colourful crests, called out to each other from the forest. A grey fox scampered across the road, peeping curiously back at us through the undergrowth.
“For me, Multan-ha is one of the most beautiful cenotes. The water is so clear,” Carolina mentioned, as we arrived to the entrance of another cenote. We descended a spiral stairway to the massive empty cave with a bright blue pool. Apart from a few small fish, we had it all to ourselves.
Punta Laguna was our final stop of the day, where the forest crackled with the sound of gangly Spider monkeys high up in the trees, as they pulled apart a plant called Elephant Ears, picking out the seeds (to eat), then dropping the useless inedible part through the branches to the ground.
Tulum beach (Graeme Green)
We spent a final couple of days in Tulum, a small (but growing) town that’s the ‘anti-Cancun’, with no big resort hotels.
Kite-surfers zoomed along the blustery stretch of Caribbean coast, where pelicans dived into the waves. Just once, a turtle popped his head above the surface to take a breath.
We strolled around the town’s little touristy shops and ate at seafood restaurants, but spent the rest of our time on the powdery white beach, where there’s not much to do but read a book, take a cooling swim in the ocean and drink mezcal cocktails. As in Mérida, it’s the kind of ‘culture’ I could soak up all day long.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America, who arrange self-drive road trip holidays in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, including car hire from Cancún airport, hotels, cooking classes in Mérida and private birding and cenote excursions to Cobá. See www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk or call 020 8600 1881 for more details or to book.
Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com, 0844 2092 770) fly from London Gatwick to Cancun up to three times per week.
For more on Chablé Resort and Spa, see chableresort.com.