I’ve lived in London for over 40 years and I love it, but I can honestly still say I don’t really know it. After having recently visited Mexico I know Yucatecans feel exactly the same about where they live. Mayan swimming holes known as cenotes, vestiges of old sisal haciendas even yet to be excavated Mayan sites are hidden somewhere out there in the low lying tropical shrub and rural backwaters of this permanently being discovered area of Mexico. Given the nature of its hidden treasures one of the best ways to visit is by car.
True, there are speed bumps aplenty and signage can be less than clear once off the beaten track but such is Mexico if you want to `get out there’. Hang a right at the tranquil colonial town of Valladoilid, before reaching the spectacular, very popular site of Chichén Itzá and head to the small fishing village of Rio Legartos. Take a map in addition to your GPS, although they work well in most areas, a map will never lose its signal!
En Route to or from Rio Legartos I can’t recommend the site of Ek Balam highly enough. I knew I was in Mexico, home of Mayas, Aztecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs and many other ‘tecs so ruins are always high on the agenda of any visit but like any Mexican town or city all have their own character. Ek Balam was no exception: the main temple at Ek Balam is over 500ft long and 200ft wide which makes it one of the largest structures ever excavated in the Yucatán. You are permitted to partially climb the steps to get a closer look at some of the best preserved and most detail Mayan frescoes ever discovered in the Mayan world. Through the artistry, it was easier to determine closer details of the site and to date it back as far as 150BC, although the height of its power would have been between 700 and 900AD. The most impressive section of relief is a frightening-looking mouth of a monster through which the Mayan’s believed you would enter another world. Turn around and the views are breathtaking, the rest of the site lies beneath you with a rich forest canopy for as far as the eye can see.
As shady and enjoyable as Ek Balam was, I was looking forward to hopping back in the car and swerving the pot holes to get to the fishing village of Rio Legartos. We were a little off season to see flocks of pink flamingos but with a large plate of octopus and king shrimp ceviche, and a cold beer I wasn’t particularly bothered at first - the open-fronted restaurant was the only one I could see and seemed to be the main hub of the town. Post lunch we dived back in the boat and our guide took us on a scenic tour of Rio Legartos Biosphere at the Northern end of the Mexican Gulf. From April to August the flamingos flock here from Celestún to take advantage of the higher water levels in the area. The boat ride was leisurely and I was happy to sit back and relax after lunch, but it wasn’t long before I was snapped out of my lethargic state by the sight of an osprey desperately trying to haul a fish out of the water. The boatmen speak little English but you can hire an English-speaking, local guide. Having said that the boatman do know all the English names for the birds and plants and enjoy showing you them in hefty bird watching books. This is not just for birders though as two giggling tourists came past in the opposite direction wearing very little and covered from head to toe and the white sand, mixed with salt from the salt pans. This has exfoliating and healing properties, so we were told, but even if it didn’t it’s not every day you get to stick white sand all over yourself before swimming in milky turquoise water to wash it off!
Miraculously, we did see a handful of brightly coloured flamingos and I’m sure in season (Apr- Aug) the sight of thousands would be absolutely spectacular but I have to confess I’d had one of the most enjoyable days in Mexico as far as I can remember and will always remember turning right before Chichén Itzá.
>> If you like the sound of this, click here to see our newly inspired Self-Drive: Comprehensive Yucatán Circuit itinerary which visits Cancún, Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Celestíún National Park, Campeche, Calakmul and Bacalar on the Caribbean coast.