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Discovering Yucatan

During my visits to the Yucatan, I've kicked up sand on silky beaches, climbed several steep-stepped pyramids and snoozed in a fair number of beachside hammocks.

But until my family's most recent vacation, I'd never eaten relleno negro in the kitchen of a Mayan home. Then again, I'd never before locked myself out of a rental car. On Christmas morning.

Even if we had scripted this minidrama, it wouldn't have been set in Telchaquillo, the proverbial middle-of-nowhere town where the locals speak Mayan to one another and Spanish only to strangers, and where the villages share one semi-public phone.

But that's how my husband and I met l8-year-old Roger Pacheco, his storekeeper brother-in-law, older sister, younger brother, cousins, grandmother and other relatives, pets and parrots we're still sorting out.

The soup was delicious and the tortillas stacked high. And after a dozen or so phone calls by Roger, along with a wad of pesos, the locked-out crisis was resolved.

Our Telchaquillo caper was in a region of the Yucatan peninsula far removed from the crowds. The epicenter of the peninsula's tourism is Cancun and the Riviera Maya, which stretches south to Tulum. Once away from this 90-mile stretch of mammoth beach properties, visitors can discover a Mexico that, in some cases, has barely been touched by tourism.

We found ourselves scouring maps that pinpointed the few and far between gas stations. We did not yet know that these Pemex outlets sometimes post ominous signs reading No hay gasolina (We have no gasoline) and that even when open rarely accept credit cards.

On state highways, we would pass only a handful of cars in an hour. The traffic instead was bicycles, the occasional horseback rider and triciclos _ bikes modified to three-wheelers so that they can carry on the handlebars two Mayans, typically small in stature.

For travelers wanting to add culture, history, nature and Mayans themselves to their sun-and-sand routine, here are the best possibilities.

Enchanted isle

Isla Mujeres fishermen pull up their riotously painted boats on the downtown waterfront on this 4-mile-long getaway.

The ferry filled with day-trippers and snorkelers from Cancun lands in the midst of the chockablock shops and cantinas that are the island's downtown. But the treasure here is at Garrafon, an underwater national park that boasts great snorkeling.

Closed for two years for a $7-million clean-up and renovation, it is now a showpiece. A $10 entrance fee gets you some of the Yucatan's best snorkeling, along with a good pool, restaurant and a paved path to a Mayan lookout.

Miss the afternoon rush back to Cancun by checking into the new, 20-room Villa Rolandi. Rooms have marble-wall double showers with six nozzles, and there is a steam bath and a hot tub on each patio. Just as delectable is the hotel's waterfront restaurant with its superb, Italian-accented cuisine. Villa Rolandi: fax 011-52-987-7-01-00; the Web site is www.rolandi.com. Or call Small Luxury Hotels of the World, toll-free 1-800-525-4800.

Nature's bounty

Gliding in a small boat through Sian Ka'an mangrove channels while roseate spoonbills scoot across the horizon, a blur of pink, is like opening a curtain to the Garden of Eden. Inches from the boat, tri-colored herons pose in branches and a chorus of hidden birds chirps with abandon.

The best introduction to this 1.3-million acre biosphere, recognized by UNESCO as one of the world's unique environments, is a daylong boat tour by the nonprofit Amigos of Sian Ka'an. For information, call Amigos de Sian Ka'an in Cancun: 011-52-98-84-95-83.

Road to ruins

The great Mayan city-states, including Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Coba, already had been abandoned and their litany of gods and rituals was slipping into myth when the Spanish belligerently burst in nearly 500 years ago.

What remains has been smothered by jungle, toppled by conquistadores, and lifted stone by stone to build walls, homes, churches and even to line swimming pool decks. Still, thousands of buildings remain, many of them nothing short of breathtaking.

The most visited site is Tulum, on the Caribbean south of Cancun. But the largest and best are Chichen Itza and Uxmal, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A fourth, Coba, may be the largest of all, with 6,500 structures identified but a mere 5 percent excavated.

At each, fine inns are within walking distance, letting you avoid bus tours and prowl evocative temples and stone-faced gods early and late.

For accommodations, contact the Lodge at Uxmal, call toll-free 1-800-235-4079, Web site www.mayaland.com; the Hacienda Chichen Resort, toll-free 1-800-624-8451; the Villas Arqueologicas at Coba, fax 011-52 (987) 4-20-87.

Fairy tale haciendas

Hundreds of ochre and maroon haciendas are scattered over the flat peninsula south and east from Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. Built over the past three centuries as the center of operations for cattle, sugar cane and sisal farming, most are evocative whispers of their past.

Only a few, such as Tabi Hacienda near Uxmal, are in the process of being rescued from oblivion. Four of the grandest, though, have been restored as luxury hotels. Lounge in finely woven hammocks under rhythmic arcades, swim in oversize pools and grow accustomed to the style that the absentee landowners enjoyed on their infrequent estate visits.

Contact: Hacienda Katanchel, toll-free 1-800-525-4800; www.slh.com. Information on the other luxury haciendas from Starwood, toll-free 1-800-325-3589; www.luxurycollection.com.

Birds of a pink feather

Celestun, 90 minutes east of Merida, is an Audubon fantasy world.

Hire a small boat from town to motor down Rio Celestun to the flamingo preserve, passing storks, egrets and blue herons. After 20 minutes, the boatman cuts the motor and you aim your binoculars at the several thousand flamingos that spend their day pecking for shrimp in the shallow waters under the burning Mexican sun.

The excursion takes little more than an hour, leaving plenty of time for a feast of guacamole, just-fried chips and grilled garlic shrimp at La Palapa, on the beach. It's an easy day trip from Merida.

Cycling Cozumel

So what if two, sometimes three cruise ships disgorge thousands of passengers every day in Cozumel's waterfront town? Escape the influx by renting a bicycle or moped to tour the island at your own impromptu pace.

First stop is San Gervasio, a late Mayan site dedicated to Ixchel, the only Mayan female deity. Continue another few miles to the windward coast, where the ocean is wild, the gorgeous beaches empty and the sun-pinkened restaurants a dose of pure Margaritaville.

Bike rentals, about $13 per day; scooter rentals, $25 for 24 hours.

The longtime favorite hotel is the Presidente Inter-Continental, where snorkeling is excellent. Contact Presidente Inter-Continental, toll-free 1-800-327-0200; www.cozumel.interconti.com.

Riviera Maya

With 15,380 hotel rooms, and more under construction, the Riviera Maya that starts south of Cancun at Playa del Carmen and continues to Tulum is the fastest-growing resort destination of Mexico.

It has the beaches, the snorkeling and, still, the wide-open spaces with the promise of a secret lagoon around every bend. The development here is big and bold, with many of the newest properties being built by Spanish companies and often filled with budget-minded European travelers. Two properties stand out:

La Posada del Capitan Lafitte is a laid-back beachside property of 65 rooms. Unpretentious, family-oriented and with a prime location 10 minutes north of Playa del Carmen, it has a loyal American clientele, some of whom have been returning for more than 15 years.

Contact La Posada del Capitan Lafitte, phone/fax: 011-52 (9) 873-02-12; www.capitanlafitte.com.

Only 10 minutes away, but at the other end of the economic scale, is Maroma, an inn that's garnered fame for its impeccable service and for bucking the trend by building an intimate, service-oriented property where R&R (no children under 16), not activity, is the draw. It's expensive, though, and few rooms have ocean views.

Maroma, fax, 011-52 (987) 2-82-20; www.maromahotel.com.

Living past

Unlike the Aztecs of central Mexico or the Incas of Peru, the Mayans are a living culture, speaking Mayan among themselves and following centuries-old customs.

Men cycle the roads with a few skinny sticks tied to the handlebars _ enough firewood for a day's worth of cooking. Women embroider elaborate floral borders on huipile blouses.

You will pass clutches of sleepy towns lined with rectangular homes that have scant furniture and no beds _ only hammocks hung between the narrow walls. Look for timeless villages in the small Yucatecan towns along the Convent Route of l7th century churches south of Merida or the Ruta de Puuc near Uxmal, about 90 minutes south of Merida.

Freelance writer Susan Kaye has traveled to Mexico more than 60 times. Her articles on Mexico have won national and international awards.

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