Host Kelly Regan is joined by Frommer's Guide author David Baird as he shares his advice for exploring Mexico's Yucatán. First piece of advice: Expand your travel experience beyond Cancún. Baird explains the ease of exploring this area, tells listeners how they can get past the tourist ports of call, and details the rich culture of the area. Learn more about Playa del Carmen, Mérida and the Riviera Maya, as well as how you can experience the culture -- even if you're staying at an all-inclusive resort.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Drive Yourself: If you're adventurous enough, get off the highways and take the backroads.
  • Start Early: It gets dark early so start off and get to your destination early.
  • Exploration: Cenotes, ruins, jungle.
  • Good Base of Operations: Playa del Carmen has a great variety of things to do.
  • Other Places to Go: Merida, Riviera Maya, Calakmul Ruins, Uxmal Ruins, Chichen Itza.
  • Book All-inclusive: Book with a big packager and save money.
  • Don't be Fooled: Many hotels have a city name, but are not located within that city.
  • Do Your Research: Get on the web and see what other vacationers are saying about their experiences.


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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.

My guest today is David Baird, who writes a number of travel guides for Frommers. He writes our San Antonio/Austin guide, he contributes to our Texas guide, and he's the primary author of the "Frommer's" and "For Dummies" guides to Mexico.

We have a new color guide out in stores now, called "Frommer's Cancun and the Yucatan, Day by Day," so I though this would be a good time to invite David on the show to talk about traveling through the Yucatan.

David, welcome. Thanks for being here.
David Baird: Thanks for asking me.
Kelly: You and I aren't going to talk about Cancun so much in this conversation. Not that it doesn't have a certain appeal of sorts, but I really wanted our conversation to focus more on the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula. So many people do visit Cancun and maybe take an excursion the ruins at Tulum or at Chichen Itza, but don't take the time to get out and explore the rest of the peninsula.

I wanted you to talk a bit about why people should. Why people should consider taking a trip and exploring a bit more of the Yucatan beyond Cancun.
David: I find the Yucatan a fascinating place. So, if you're really wanting something more than just a beach vacation, you have a lot of options. You can explore cenotes, this geological feature unique to the Yucatan, these underwater river systems that fill up these perfectly round sinkholes. You can explore ruins, you can explore the jungle. There's all kinds of options.

So, yeah, there's many reasons to go to the Yucatan beside the beach.
Kelly: There's so much more there waiting for you. And it's all very accessible. I was just there, as you know, and one thing I was happily surprised about was how easy it was to get around the Yucatan.

We rented a car and it was surprisingly easy to find your way around from place to place. So I don't think it's something that people should necessarily be intimidated about, driving around in this part of Mexico.

Do you have advice or tips for people about driving around the Yucatan? Or just kind of navigating the region?
David: Yeah. It's fascinating to me that you have this multi-lane superhighway that goes down the coast from Cancun to the airport, and then to the Riviera Maya. And then you have another one that goes towards Merida. Get away from either of those and you're into the backlands.

The roads are un-traveled. It's a flatland, so you don't have perilous curves or anything like that. And you have a chance to see all kinds of things like small Mayan villages and stuff like that.

My tips to anybody going are 1) the Yucatan should probably be in another time zone. No, really. Mexico tries to keep everything in the same time zone, and it gets dark early in the Yucatan. So, one thing is, start off early and get to your destination early.

Driving in the countryside in the Yucatan at night, you're likely to find a bunch of peasants riding their little bicycles at night, without any lights or anything.
Kelly: Yeah.
David: There's always wildlife. And there's livestock. So you just have to be careful.
Kelly: Right. I just know from the traveling I did, we're talking, you could drive for 45 minutes to an hour and not maybe see another soul. Or other cars. But, then, you would see animals and no streetlights or anything. So, dark means dark.
David: Yes. The other thing is "topes," or speed bumps.
Kelly: Yes, topes.
David: They're ubiquitous in the Yucatan. And sometimes they have a warning sign, sometimes they don't. And sometimes they have the warning sign, but you'll find no bumps.
Kelly: [laughs] Right!
David: The taxi driver association has come by and taken it off. I have a friend who qualifies them: the topes that are there without any sign or called "cryptopes." The ones with just a sign, but no topes, those are "fauxpes." There's a whole list.
Kelly: [laughs] Right. That's great.

And this is another thing, that somebody who tends to have a little bit of a lead foot, you just can't do that when you're driving there, because hit these speed bumps and you could just go air borne. Or get two flat tires very quickly. So you have to be careful about that.

The other thing I think might be worth mentioning, is that I know that especially when you get down toward the southern Yucatan Peninsula, the gas stations are kind of fewer and farther between.
David: That's true, but it's changing. On my last trip there, they had put in a couple more. And it's getting... I have, on occasion, gone into a village and just said, "Where can I get gas?" because I was desperate.

And there's always this one guy who has a 25-gallon tank and will sell it to you for a higher price than the regular stations.
Kelly: Right.
David: But now, there are more stations available in places like Bacalar and places like on the highway to Escarcega. Getting gas is a lot easier now than it used to be.
Kelly: Then it used to be. OK, that's good to know.
David: Except during power failures. And that's the one thing.
Kelly: So tell me, what's you favorite place in the Yucatan. As you said, there's so many different types of experiences. I'm curious, when you go there, what's your favorite place to visit and why?
David: I have a lot of places I like. But I think if you're thinking about a vacation that mixes a little bit of everything, then I think -- just strategically -- Playa del Carmen is a great place to start. As a base camp, if nothing else.

Because it has the nice beaches and it has good food and some night life. But it also has a lot of infrastructure for getting out into other activities. Be that sport fishing or horseback riding. Any number of activities.
Kelly: And you can also take the ferry from Playa to Cozumel.
David: You can. Now, I have a little problem with that, because you get there and Cozumel is a little tricky to explore. Do it in an afternoon and you're going to see the same things that all the cruise ship visitors do, which is the waterfront and maybe one block inward.

And you're going to see a lot of duty-free and silver jewelry stores, things like that. I think that Cozumel is a place best enjoyed for a two- or three-day trip, the minimum.
Kelly: OK. So you're kind of getting beyond the sort of waterfront touristy strip and seeing more of the islands.
David: Yes. You get a feel for the community and you start finding out just how laid-back people in Cozumel really are. You can go to the other side and find a little beach palapa that serves good fried fish and enjoy yourself all by yourself.
Kelly: You've been traveling to the Yucatan for a long time now. For you, as someone who's been around to so many different places there, what's your favorite place to go back to?
David: Well, I like Merida a lot. Merida, every time I go, there is something going on there. It is a really dynamic city. Huge cultural scene. I've seen international artists there all the time. They organized a fabulous guitar conference. And they had these just really impressive guitarists from around the world there.

Or something else. There's always something going on in Merida. And I like that about it.
Kelly: Yeah. Can you just mention briefly, every Sunday there's the Merida en Domingo, which is pretty much a festival every weekend. There's music and there's markets and things like that, so there's definitely a lot for people to see.
David: Oh, yes. The downtown area just closes down. They block the streets off. People come out in droves. And there always street theater, street comedians, there's a used bookseller, all kinds of things going on. Fairs, right and left. And then it all dies down in the afternoon, as everybody goes and has their midday meal and takes a nap.
Kelly: huh.
David: In the evening, it surges again. It's really fun.
Kelly: Oh, that's great.
David: At night, the municipal band starts playing in front of the Uinta Miento right there on the main square. All the locals start dancing, and then the visitors come in and dance.
Kelly: And it happens every weekend, right?
David: Yeah. Every Sunday.
Kelly: Yeah. That's great. So they definitely know how to have a good time.
David: Yes, they do.
Kelly: So, I wanted to go back to -- you mentioned Playa del Carmen earlier -- and I wanted to go back to that for a minute. I really enjoyed it there when I was there. It feels like a hippie town that's sort of starting to go slightly up-scale. It definitely has a boom town feel to it. And I know that's it's a very different place than it was, even five years ago, certainly ten years ago.

It's growing pretty fast, and I'm curious to hear what you think is in the cards. Do you think that that development is going to continue, and it's going to really change the feel of the place? Or do you think that the community leaders who are really hold fast to Playa's more laid-back identity are going to succeed?
David: Playa -- if you talk to anybody who was there ten or fifteen years ago, who then returned -- they're going to be disappointed. They always are. They remember that fishing village that used to be there. And, yes, it's true. But for people who are going for the first time, they're going to find it to be a lot of fun.

And, as I remarked earlier, it is a really great place to go, strategically speaking, for any vacation.
Kelly: Right.
David: And I still really enjoy it. What the Riviera Maya has done -- and it was really spearheaded by the folks in Playa -- is they've instituted height limits to any buildings, of three stories.
Kelly: OK.
David: So, as not to become a Cancun. They've also tried very hard to limit development in certain areas. So, it will never be a Cancun or something. Right now, the great impetus in development is to build condos. So, they're building condos, and it's becoming sort of a residential place.

And there's good to that, and bad. The good being that you're going to get a certain amount of sedentary population that's always going to be there, and going to provide some continuity. So, I don't think Playa is going to be ruined the way a lot of other might.
Kelly: OK. Might be, right.
David: A lot of people might think it's going to become another Cancun. It's certainly growing remarkably fast. Every year I go back, there are other things, other neighborhoods and things, like the large Colosio area in the north.

But the core of Playa remains essentially the same. It's a wonderful place to be. Everything's in walking distance.
Kelly: Yeah, it is. And you have the main drag near the water as a pedestrian street, so it really encourages you to get out and explore. Which is really nice.

We've been talking about the Riviera Maya, which is essentially the area of coastline that's south of Cancun, and there are a lot of all-inclusive resorts down this stretch of beach. And, again, more kind of coming up every day. And I know in the books you write, you cover a lot of the all-inclusive resorts.

I'm wondering if you have one that you prefer, or even if you just have some tips for people that might be wanting an all-inclusive vacation. What advice you might have about booking them. Are there ways to kind of save money while you're shopping around?
David: Yeah. There's a certain "sameness" to the experience of going to the all-inclusives. They're organized around the same principals. In fact, many of the people who run these, they run a series of them. This whole technique of making a profitable enterprise out of hotel that sells food, beverages, and lodging all at one price, that was perfected on the coast of Spain.

And most of the operators of these all-inclusives are Spanish-owned. And they go with the formula that's worked for them before.
Kelly: Right.
David: So, you have to concentrate on a certain few things that improve the feel of a place. Where is the hotel located? If it's on a good part of the coast or not. Don't be fooled by the name. There are certain hotels that put the name at the end of their hotel name, like Tulum. But they're not located in Tulum. [laughter]

This is quite common. I have people ask me about this. "But you said Tulum Beach is great! Why don't I see it?" Well, because it's not in Tulum.
Kelly: Right.
David: So, don't be fooled by that. And then, get on the web. See what people are saying about the food in these places. That is the biggest difference I see in some of these hotels, and in the end, it's a difference that can make or break a vacation.
Kelly: Sure. Because, especially with the all-inclusives, they're large complexes and you're sort of encouraged to not go off the property for the duration of your stay. So, if you're going to a place where you're really not crazy about the food, there's a way that you can kind of feel stuck there, going to the same lackluster dinner places night after night.
David: Exactly. And that brings up the other issues, which is location. Just south of Playa del Carmen, and the little development called Playacar, are twelve all-inclusives.
Kelly: Wow.
David: Now, those are not on isolated stretches of the coast, so it's very easy to go from there into Playa. If and when you get bored with the food you're eating at the hotel.
Kelly: Oh! Right.
David: Whereas, some of these other places, you really have to work to get out of the places. [laughter]
Kelly: Right. It could be like a 45 minute trip, just to get to another restaurant.
David: Exactly.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a good point. So, Playacar gives you the option of enjoying the all-inclusive experience, but then being able to get into Playa del Carmen if you wanted to shop or eat or something like that.
David: Yeah. And the other thing is, there's a great advantage -- if you're a family and you have a lot of mouths to feed -- there's a great advantage to going to one of these all-inclusives.

If you're going to book it, you should book it with one of the big packagers. What they do is they go to an airline, they buy tickets wholesale. They go to these hotels and the buy rooms wholesale. They get ground transportation. They package the whole thing and give you a low price.
Kelly: Right.
David: And their prices are so low, it would be hard to work something out for yourself that cheap. Even if you had frequent flier miles like crazy. It still comes out about the same, so you don't win anything by doing that.
Kelly: Because they're able to get those wholesale rates.
David: Right. The other option, though, would be to go for a condo that rents by the week and then buy your groceries. The kitchen's usually stocked pretty well with frying pans and things like that. And feed your young'uns the old-fashioned way. That would be another option.
Kelly: [laughs] Right. And you can go out if you want, but then you still have the option to stay home and cook. If there are finicky folks in your group, then it's a little bit easier to please them as well.
David: Yeah. You can find pretty good condo deals in either Puerto Morelos or Acumel. And both of those of those places have websites that rent condos and things like that. It's pretty easy. And they both have grocery stores you can go to and things like that.
Kelly: So, there's definitely places where you can stock up.
David: Yeah. You can stock up, and they're well-located. Neither of them are boom towns, so you get away from that boom town feel too.
Kelly: Let's talk a little bit about some of the more cultural aspects of traveling in the Yucatan. In the books you write for us, you write a lot about the ruins that are in the Yucatan. As someone who's been there quite a bit and you've visited a lot of them, you know quite a bit about the history of the Maya and other indigenous peoples who were in the Yucatan.

What's your favorite ruins site in the Yucatan, and why is it your favorite?
David: That's a really tough questions too, Kelly. Thank you.
Kelly: [laughs] I'm putting you on the spot, David.
David: Yeah, you are. Well, I live in Austin, Texas. And here there's a big center for Mayanist studies. I have friends who are Mayanists, and they're just terribly fun people to talk to. And I got my degree in anthropology, and I've always been interested in these people.

But to look at ruins I think you have to go with an open mind, and you have to clear yourself of what everybody has told you about it, including drummers. Just go and try and conceive of how things were working back then, just from the ruins you see.

Now the ones I find most intriguing are the ones in the far south, in a city called Calakmul. That is well off the beaten track, but it's a wonderful place to go. The last time I did, I saw the way this other ruins work, they don't clear-cut the whole area of trees, so in these plazas that were grand open areas you have this jungle growing, and it adds a feel of exploration to the situation. And what adds even more is that in these plazas, in these trees, you find howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and lots of wildlife. Calakmul has the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.
Kelly: Oh really?
David: Yes, and it's a large, large city that rivals Tical, the famous Mayan city in Guatemala. And in fact, they conquered Tical and had Tical under their power for about a century. It's an interesting place, too, because of the architecture. Not just that tall pyramid, but some of the smaller structures have very elegant stonework, so it's just a wonderful place to stroll around.
Kelly: And how easy is it to get down there. Is it pretty accessible?
David: Well, we were talking about this earlier. You get away from the coast and it's funny, it's another world. It changes, the traffic slows down. So if you were to get there from Playa, you'd drive through that busy highway that gets you to Tulum, and then you get into the Sian Ka'an bio-preserve, and things change right away. You are back into Mexico; and it is a few hours' drive, because you have to go down the coast to Bacalar, and from Bacalar there is a highway going inland, and you actually cross from the State of Quintanaroo into the State of Campeche. And soon after that there is a grouping of ruins known by anthropologists as Rio Bec area, and it is one of the Rio Bec ruins.

So it is a little tricky to get to. Your best bet is to overnight in one of the few lodgings that are along that highway, there.
Kelly: It does sound like it's a very different feel from some of the other ruins where, as you said, they are these kind of vast open spaces, and these stone buildings kind of rising up amid these open spaces. It sounds like you have the opportunity to experience something a lot more unusual than that.
David: To go back to your question, Calakmul is the most intriguing of those ruins, in that way that it is forested and all of that. Now as far as elegance and majesty, I have to say Uxmal is a place that is unlike any other of the ruins. It has this wonderful oval-based pyramid known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf, with these incredibly steep sides. It's a fascinating place. And then this beautiful palace with this classical architecture of balance and proportion. And then the older city, with a couple of major pyramids that go up, and a good deal of, really, design-conscious and craftsman-conscious stonework, stone friezes that are just gorgeous.

The fact that planners built these raised platforms, these massive raised platforms, to give a certain amount of play in the heights through some of the plazas.
Kelly: Like, the presentation.
David: Yeah, that's another favorite. And of course Chichen Itza. Now Chichen Itza is hyped--you see it in all the travel posters and stuff like that--but it lives up to it. It's such a massive city, and the two things I love the most about the area are of course the massive ball court--that ball court is larger than any ball court ever found anywhere else.
Kelly: And the ball court, when you're there, it's astonishing that people were able to play this game. I think that's what was so surprising to me. There were these stone rings high, high up on the walls. I believe the ball had to travel through the rings, right, and the hole in the ring is not that big, and it's really high up to get the ball through that ring.
David: Yes. Well we don't know exactly how the game was played. There is a lot of surmise, and a few people play it in a way and try to recreate it now in a way that most people think it could have been played. But we do know that hands were not allowed. I don't know exactly how they did it, either.
Kelly: Hands were not allowed, the hole's up really high, it's not that big. There is something very mysterious and very engaging about it when you're there and you're trying to piece all this together, I think.
David: Yes, and of course all that very clear, detailed stonework along the walls, showing decapitations and things, adds a lot of drama to the game I'm sure.
Kelly: Right, right. And I think the other thing they say is that it's also unclear whether the winners or the losers were sacrificed at the end of the game.
David: Yes.
Kelly: So it kind of adds a little bit of a dimension to, what exactly are you playing for? Do you want to win or do you want to win not so much?
David: Yeah.
Kelly: Yeah. So we're almost out of time, but before we go, I wanted to ask you briefly about the violence and upheaval that was going on in Oaxaca in 2006. You and I have talked before about tourism dropping off sharply because of the unrest, and I was hoping you could give us a very quick update on what's going on there now. Do you see things calming down? Are people returning to Oaxaca City? What's the status of that right now?
David: Yes, people are going back to Oaxaca City. I have talked to some friends who are hotel owners and guides, taxi drivers even, and things are improving. But there is a certain cloud hanging over the city. This May the teachers could go on strike again as they do every year. They may not, because of all the upheaval of this last year. In June there are municipal elections. Those might spark unrest. It's not a bad time to go--I hear the city is looking good, that all of the scars and things left from the four months of occupation are gone, and that people are very, very pleased that I have talked to who have gone to visit the place. But just pay attention to news reports before you go and before you plan a trip, and see just how things are going. If the teachers don't go on strike again in May--and I have no idea whether they will or not--then it is a good indication that people are tired of this and that things have returned to normal.
Kelly: OK, well that's good advice. People can keep track of what's going on as they are planning a trip, and just kind of play it by ear and see how it goes. Hopefully it will rebound because it is one of the most beautiful areas of Mexico, so it is kind of sad to see that happening.
David: Yeah.
Kelly: That is, unfortunately, all the time we have for today. I feel like we could be talking about a lot more stuff, but we will have to have you back, David, to talk about more things Mexico. So I have been talking with David Baird, who covers Mexico for Frommer's and the Fordemi's Travel Guides. He co-writes our Frommer's Mexico and Frommer's Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan Guides. In addition to those books, we also have a new color guide on sale now called "Cancun and the Yucatan Day by Day" so be sure to check that out. David, thanks for being here. I enjoyed our conversation, and maybe we'll have you back to talk some more.
David: I enjoyed it too, Kelly. Thanks.
Kelly: Yeah. Join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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