BACALAR, MEXICO — When I arrived in Cancun a few years ago, I was greeted by a sea of touts who put on the hard sell, visitors in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, and resorts and restaurants where noise was the norm -- all part of a rock-solid tourist infrastructure.
When my husband, Paul, and I came to Bacalar and environs a few months ago, we found shops that closed for siesta, an eco-resort that focused on Maya architecture and cuisine and historic spots that left us feeling almost as though we were the first visitors.
In this secluded part of the Yucatan, we had struck travel gold.
Our good fortune was partly due to accessibility: Bacalar is on the southeastern part of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo. It's about four hours from Cancun and half an hour from the Belize border, so it's off the tourist radar.
But as we strolled through the old Spanish San Felipe fort, learning about the Maya and the European pirates who raided the area in the 18th century, and looked out over Laguna Bacalar, the limpid lagoon of seven colors, we had to wonder how long before our secret was discovered.
A 10-minute, $4 taxi ride took us to Rancho Encantado (Enchanted Ranch), an eco-resort built two decades ago, long before green travel became a cause celebre.
Visiting Rancho Encantado is like stepping into a movie set, except this is the real deal. It's home to orchids, orchards (some damaged by Hurricane Dean in August) and more than 150 species of whistling, chirping, trilling tropical birds. Its 12 private casitas have thatched palm roofs and Maya murals. For $250 a night, we had the primo luxury casita; three healthful gourmet meals prepared by a Maya chef; his-and-hers hammocks 5 feet from the glass casita doors; the pristine and deliciously swimmable Bacalar lagoon 10 feet beyond the hammocks; an unobstructed view of the jicama-colored moon; and access to Ramon Childers and Suzanna Starr, the owners, and Susy's significant other, John.
They were key in helping us explore the area, which is filled with Maya ruins that are as exquisite as their better-known counterparts.
We chose Dzibanche for the first of several major archaeological sites we visited. To our amazement and delight, we were the only tourists there.
Dzibanche was a great center during the classical Maya period (classified as about 200 to 800). It was so extensive that it had 22 plazas; only three have been excavated so far.
We climbed Building 6, a temple in the Teotihuacan style, a stone base with a pyramid on top. Archaeologists think that priests from Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, 1,100 miles away, traveled from that powerful city to perform rituals at Dzibanche.
The nearby ruins of Kohunlich were comparatively crazy with tourists; there were four besides us.
One of the highlights of this city, occupied from the 6th to the 12th or 13th century, then abandoned, is the Temple of the Masks.
As we climbed the steep steps of the 1,500-year-old building, we were flanked by stone masks, about 6 feet tall, that adorned the facade. They had large, open lips, huge disc-like eyes and protruding tongues. In the afternoon, the sun shines on the faces and illuminates them, underscoring the power and divinity of the characters they represent.
PLYING THE LAGOON
The following day, Susy and John arranged for us to board a 27-foot catamaran for a trip on Bacalar Lagoon. We breezed by aqua-hued cenotes (sink holes), mangrove swamps, water lilies, old Spanish cannons, the Pirates' Mouth (a channel used during the time of the pirates), small clumps of savanna grass that looked like Don King's hair and vast expanses of sensual, gentle green-blue waters.
Ramon Aguayo, the oceanologist, boat owner and captain, uses the energies of nature as he sails -- the sun, the ocean, the wind.
"I do judo with the wind," he says.
He beckoned us into the water, so we lowered ourselves into the lagoon. "Under your feet is silt," he said. "It's very fine calcium carbonate. You can rub it on your faces and bodies."
We did. We turned ghostly pale. It was an inexpensive, self-administered spa treatment.
Early one morning, we drove for two hours to the neighboring state of Campeche, where we visited a town called 20 de Noviembre -- the 20th of November, for the date in 1971 when it was founded.
The little-known Maya village is an ejido, a form of community land management promoted by the Mexican government for campesinos and indigenous people. Each ejidatario, or member of the community, farms his own land, about 100 acres, and uses the produce for consumption or selling.
The principal activities in this town, whose residents speak Mayan, are farming, beekeeping, extracting chicle (or gum) from trees. They raise pigs, chickens and turkeys in their backyards, and a few of the animals meander through the streets.