Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 1: First Impressions

My first impression of the Yucatan as it came into sight from the plane window was of a vast, featureless expanse of jungle. I sat on the left side of the plane, looking south, and as a result didn’t catch a glimpse of the city of Cancún until the return flight. As we descended, the only indications of human presence were the long, straight swaths of power lines, and a few dirt roads and scattered clearings positively dwarfed by the endless forest receding westward into blue obscurity.

The Yucatan Peninsula comprises three Mexican states: Quintana Roo, which includes the eastern coast, and where I spent most of my time; Yucatan, in the northwest, which I entered only briefly, and Campeche in the southwest, which I did not have the opportunity to visit. Geologically, the peninsula is composed of an utterly flat slab of limestone, which until the most recent ice age lay at the bottom of the sea. I saw evidence of this almost everywhere, in the form of marine fossils embedded in the bedrock. Effects of this geology include thin, rocky topsoil which is very discouraging to modern farming technologies, as well as all kinds of fascinating geological figures such as caverns, underground rivers and cenotes (which I will get back to eventually, though likely in a later post).

Accorting to our Chichén Itzá tour guide (Eduardo, a Maya descendant born in Márida), in 1970 the population of Cancún was something like 180. Now it is 200,000. As late as 1995, the 60-mile stretch of coastline south of Cancun known as the Riviera Maya, which is now wall-to-wall with all-inclusive resorts, was uninhabited, save by a very few natives, subsistence farmers living in the jungle the same way they had for a thousand years.

On the hour-and-a-half ride to our hotel from the airport along México 307, we passed long stretches of thick jungle and mangrove swamp, punctuated by the towering, monumental gates of resort hotels and condo communties. Overhead, buzzards circled. The handful of billboards we saw were in English. Once in a while, we’d glimpse a cluster of ramshackle brown huts roofed in thatch-palm, or a block of hastily-constructed concrete tenements. The vast majority of Quintana Roo’s current population is employed exclusively by the tourism industry. They make an effort to conceal the class discrepancy–the resorts are all well-fortified, cordoned off from the outside world. But when you do catch a glimpse of the way most people live–as I did when I borrowed a bike from the hotel and made my way past the first couple of tourist-flooded oceanfront blocks into the city of Playa del Carmen–the difference is astonishing.

Our first act upon arriving at the hotel was to recline in the air-conditioned foyer, sipping at champagne and dabbing at our faces with cool towels moistened with rosewater. Which where presented to us on a silver platter by a brown-skinned gentleman in a black three-piece suit. That’s right: we had been there five minutes, and already we were settling into the stereotypical roles of rich white gringo classist oppression. Which, I might add, was exactly what I had been afraid of ever since I learned the meaning of the phrase “all-inclusive resort”. But dammit, they made it so easy! The whole time I spent there, nobody did anything without first asking my permission, then thanking me after I gave it. Somehow every time I tried to turn down some offered luxury it felt as though I were making a personal slight against the person offering it. Likewise whenever my poor knowledge of the protocols of highbrow culture caused a hitch in the smoothness of their delivery–faux pas such as getting caught in the bathroom when the maid arrived for turndown service, eating the first course with the incorrect fork, and attempting to set up my own cabana without the aid of beach security.

Not that I’m complaining. There was, after all, an endless supply of mohitos. Frickin dee-licious mohitos.

Everybody was just so darned nice. Freaked me out a little bit is all.

Still to come: Chichen Itza. The modern Maya. Tulum. The red handprints. Probably some random anecdotes in between. And to wrap it all up, the bibliography.

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