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Deeper Into Mexico's Yucatan

The convent's atrio is remarkable, a great lawn enclosed by 75 arches and said to be the largest churchyard in the world after St. Peter's in Rome. The church itself is small by comparison, but equally compelling, with its gold altar and some recently discovered frescoes that were used to indoctrinate the Maya into the rituals of Catholicism. Back outside, I sit under an arch and listen to a teenager with a guitar serenading his girlfriend at sunset. Horse-drawn, painted carriages glide across the main square. In the distance, vegetation-covered pyramids rise like small mountains on the edge of town. I return to Katanchel in time for a moonrise swim.

The next morning, I set off for a swim of a very different sort. Guided by Monica and Anibal and accompanied by an Italian couple and Anibal's African hunting dog Kairo, I am bound for one of the many cenotes, or cave pools, that form a vast network of underground waterways throughout the Yucatán.

En route, we pass chapels with finials in the shape of mushrooms, churches decorated with Mayan gods and symbols, villages of thatched-roof houses that look as if they could be in the South Seas. We soon arrive in Chunkanán, where we come upon a bizarre miniature train resting on narrow-gauge tracks. Called a truc, the train is pulled by a small horse and driven by a 12-year-old Mayan boy. (Trucs were a major mode of transport during the sisal boom at the end of the last century; the tracks still wind through much of the peninsula.) The five of us (and Kairo the dog) climb aboard, and for five jerky minutes we roll through arid fields of agave and cactus toward the mysterious cenote. Suddenly our driver hits the brakes: another truc--carrying a group of cave explorers wearing full scuba gear--has derailed in front of us. We all climb out to help them lift their truc back onto the rails; then they help us carry ours over the same bad bit of track, and we follow the scuba gang to the cave opening.

The entrance to the cenote is like something in a children's book: a great hole in the earth, with a set of steep steps leading to a secret underground world. At the bottom, we come upon a cathedral-like limestone chamber: a pebbly beach edges a pool of crystal water, which shimmers in the faint shafts of sunlight that manage to make their way down here. Stalactites drip from the roof of the cave. Once in the water, I find I don't need a snorkel to make out all sorts of rock formations beneath the surface.

Later we wander around Chunkanán, where kids play soccer on the grassy main street and turkeys strut like peacocks displaying impressive plumage. We watch a couple of villagers spinning out honey from a comb, which they will reuse so that the bees don't have to waste any time building a new one. (Pungent Yucatecan honey is considered some of the world's best, and is frequently used to flavor lower-octane varieties.) As we leave the village, a lovely Mayan woman presents us with fluffy pink flowers and insists we see her garden.

All over the Yucatán, I am charmed by the kindness of the people. The next day, as I poke around the town of Tecoh, a young man named Valentino unlocks the great wooden doors of a coral-colored stone church and proudly points out its twisted-columned altar and fading frescoes, its caracole staircase, and the view from its bell tower. When I offer him a tip, he refuses. Later that same day, at Mayapán, an archaeological site that may be as large as Chichén Itzá but is only just beginning to be excavated, my guides are a group of Mexican boy scouts who are camping just outside the gates. Together we explore the ruins, and the tents where the archaeologists live and work--stumbling over heaps of numbered stones as well as statue fragments that may someday be full-fledged serpents, elephants, rain gods.

Although my plan was to seek out the lesser-known sights of the Yucatán, I can't pass up visiting Uxmal, a sprawling Mayan ceremonial center that flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries. One of Mexico's "big three" restored Mayan sites, Uxmal gets fewer tourists than Chichén Itzá and Tulum because of its relatively remote location, a good 250 miles from the crowds of Cancún.

The drive to Uxmal takes me through a different landscape--the rolling Puuc (meaning "hill" in Mayan) country southwest of Mérida. En route, I stop for a light lunch of Yucatecan lime soup, made with chicken broth and topped with crunchy tortilla strips, at the recently restored Hacienda Temozón. The vast grounds and long pool of this beautiful spot provided a photogenic backdrop when Mexico's President Zedillo hosted President Clinton for a summit meeting here.

Although Uxmal does draw some bus tour groups, who usually stay in nearby lodges, the site is well worth the journey. A triumph of architecture and landscaping, Uxmal has the look of a well-planned city, with each of its major building complexes set on a different level. Great green lawns and clusters of trees separate these neighborhoods. The towering Pyramid of the Magicians--with its distinctive curved sides--is so steep that I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo when I reach the top. The view is literally breathtaking; I'm scared to look beyond the tow rope as I rappel my way back down. Easier to appreciate is the massive Governor's Palace. Six hundred feet long and crowned with an enormous frieze that looks like some surreal mansard roof, it is considered one of the best examples of Mayan architecture anywhere. I'm reminded of the houses Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Los Angeles during his 1920's Mayan-modern period.

Uxmal is only one of many Mayan sites along the Puuc Route. Fifteen miles farther, the fat-columned, flat-roofed temple at Kabah reminds me of the Minoan palace at Knossos, on Crete. Five miles farther on, I discover yet another monumental Mayan palace--with 90 rooms--at Sayil. Beyond that, Labnea stuns with a spectacular stone arch that looks more Mughal than Mayan. I could even press on to see the sculptures and murals in the caves of Loltún, but it's almost dark, so I head straight for Campeche, where I'm spending the night.

The walled port of Campeche, founded in 1540, is the oldest city on the Yucatán Peninsula as well as the namesake capital of the state. Both the city and the state are virtually unknown to U.S. tourists, although Germans and Canadians are starting to discover both. I hadn't expected much of Campeche other than a place to spend the night, so I'm thrilled to find instead a lovely town of narrow stone streets lined with whimsical Neoclassical town houses. All of those in the old quarter were restored within the past few years and painted intense shades of yellow, pistachio, pink, oxblood, ocher, and robin's-egg blue.

I've arrived in Campeche on a Sunday night, and in the lively plaza, festooned with colored lights, an orchestra in a bandstand is playing bouncy Mexican numbers. Little girls in starched dresses and little boys in pressed T-shirts are everywhere. I have a drink and watch the scene from the balcony of Casa Vieja, where a hip young crowd listens to jazz over Cuban dinners.

"Campeche is one of Mexico's best-kept secrets," says Jorge Luis Borroto, Casa Vieja's Cuban co-owner. After spending the next day exploring the restored central city, I have to agree. I even do a little fantasy house-hunting in the up-and-coming barrios of Guadalupe and San Francisco.

Unfortunately, it's Monday, and the museum within the San Miguel fort is closed. I'd hoped to see the mammoth jade funeral mask and other treasures unearthed from Calakmul, another important Mayan site 150 miles south, which is currently being excavated. Calakmul itself is now open to visitors, but it will have to wait for my next visit; instead I head for the ruins at Edzná, a 40-minute ride from Campeche.

The drive to Edzná is a dream of no traffic, no towns--just green farms backed by low hills. The parking lot at the site is empty. I feel like a time traveler coming upon some lost civilization as I stride across a great lawn. A massive set of steps leads to an acropolis and a five-story temple-palace. From the top I see nothing but green fields, blond plains, and, beyond, a thick carpet of jungle in every direction. I sit down and breathe deeply; birdsong fills my ears. Except for a solitary guard across the lawn below, not one other person is here.

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