private excursions

Calakmul, Campeche

One of the greatest Mayan ruins sites on the peninsula, Calakmul is also a jungle paradise where you can see many local animals; including - if you are very lucky - the elusive jaguar. If you are looking for a "lost city in the jungle" this is definitely it.

The trip I recently did was Merida - Campeche - Champoton (lunch by the sea) - Escarcega - Xpujil where we overnighted in a small but decent enough hotel. The next day was spent at Calakmul and we returned to Xpujil for the evening. On the third day, onwards to Chetumal where I left my guests to take their flight back to San Miguel de Allende via Mexico City. The drive back from Chetumal to Merida takes about 5 hours if not making any stops. 

For a future trip I would spend more time in the area, as there are many other ruins sites to visit. Perhaps 5 days total leaving from and returning to Merida, making stops here and there during the driving portions of the trip.

Art Galleries - Special Merida Tour

Besides all the usual suspects - ruins, haciendas and cenotes - that visitors to the area love to experience, there is a thriving artistic community in Merida comprised of both locals and newcomers to the area. One very special tour can be arranged to see some of these galleries and meet the artists who create pieces ranging from paint to sculpture and beyond. 

On this day, which lasted about 12 hours or so, we visited artisans in their homes and galleries, had some great food in spectacular settings and even threw in a home viewing or two. A great day out with two local experts who I shall call Lucinda and Shirley, who are extremely knowledgeable both about art and where to find it in Merida.

An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.

An architectural masterpiece in Merida; yes, it's for sale.

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The first stop on the tour was a magnificent home, now on the Merida market. A true oasis from the noise and heat outside. The attention to detail and each carefully planned square meter of this home make it really worth a visit. And if you like it enough, you can even buy it and make it your new Merida pied a terre. 

After the house tour, a look at some galleries! Some of these you would never know about, as they hide behind an unremarkable and unmarked door on a hot Merida side street, while others stand out boldly, welcoming one and all to peruse their interiors.

Of course, we had to have lunch at some point. Here, the Hacienda Santa Cruz on the outskirts of Merida. Great food, fabulous place.

Puuc Route Day Trip

There are some die-hard Maya-philes that want to see all the sites on the so-called Puuc route or Ruta Puuc en español and these generally comprise Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna, in that order as you are heading out from Uxmal. 

There is also Sabacche, which has ruins and a small regional animal preserve, including an ocelot what is friendly and will let you join it in its cage (enter at your own risk) and a really interesting feature that showcases the air currents blowing around in the caves beneath your feet. Opening times there are sporadic so it's not always a sure thing. 

If you are really determined, you can also visit the LolTun caves, which kind of make up the end of the route and take you into citrus growing country. Very scenic and photogenic around there, with lots of fruit trees from mangos to oranges to limes and bananas, due to the excellent kankab or red soil.

A day out here, including Uxmal and LolTun, can easily be a 10 to 12 hour day, depending on how interested you are and how much time is spent at each site.

Here are a few shots of the ruins of Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna, in that order.

Kabah (above) is known for it's long facade of Chaac sculptures covering one entire wall and it's beautiful arch, leading to a sacbe that once went all the way to Uxmal

Sayil (above) is stunning

Xlapak (above) has one pretty building that has been restored and several mounds. There is so little here in terms of restored or reconstructed buildings that the site has no entry fee

Labna (above) has probably the most beautiful Mayan arch in all of the Puuc. It would be fantastic if the INAH could restore the small square around it

Magical Mystery Tour 4 - Homun Adventure

The fourth Magical Mystery Tour took place this week, and the destination turned out to be Homun, an area that is like a piece of swiss cheese: full of caves, cenotes, as well as a whole lot of history dating back to Mayan times and then the colonial era as well.

For those unfamiliar with the Magical Mystery Tour concept, in a nutshell it's this: you sign up for a tour which is practically free - you share in cost of gas and any tolls (vehicle rental if there a whole bunch of people) but you have no say on where the tour goes. These tours are designed to explore potential destinations for more formal tours in the future and may involve birding, photography, cave crawling, hacienda exploring, food tasting, cenote dunking and whatever else occurs to me. You have the option of participating in everything or nothing, but once you are along, you're along for the day! No whining, no special requests and a sense of adventure is a must. 

On this tour, Angel (the internationally renowned Lawson's guide) and Jose Luis (professional driver and all-around go-to guy) were on the tour to Homun, to check out an hacienda and other attractions on a large property on the outskirts of Homun, way off in the Mayan jungle. This was not off the beaten path, there was no path.

First stop, after Starbucks, was breakfast in the town of Tahmek, just off the Merida-Cancun highway. Poc Chuc sandwiches amidst villagers and colorful chickens. Across the street, a very unusually named kindergarten.

A few minutes later, we were on a back road, leading out of Homun into the forest. As often happens, there is a bit of garbage along the side of this road, and while it looks disgusting, it did give us an opportunity to see and photograph the largest flock of turkey vultures I had ever seen. 

After some time, we arrived at this former cattle ranch, which saw a little of the henequen action but is not at all built up in the sumptuous way some of the over-the-top haciendas are. The building itself is very modest, but it sits on top of a cenote. Note the giant arch over the cenote, holding up the hacienda building. In the forest, falling to pieces, are more buildings. There is cow poop everywhere so you have to watch your step!

After checking out the hacienda and grounds, we walked about 25 minutes into the jungle to check out an opening in the ground which was really a cave. Inside, enormous rock formations, strange little critters and shards of pottery probably dating back to the Mayans, who used these cool underground spaces for both ceremonies and burial purposes. There was indeed evidence of Mayan actitvity in this cave.

After the caving, it was time to get into the underbrush and check out something else that is on this property: a Mayan ruin and a dry cenote. There are no more carved stones of any kind on the largish building structure, and there is a nearby Mayan graveyard that used to have stone tablets, all of which are now gone; stolen apparently. In the dry cenote, evidence of a Mayan garden, including a raised platform with earth and a cacao tree, which the Mayans cultivated back in the day. Also the skeleton of some poor cow that got too close and slipped into the hole and died there.

The day was a resounding success. Cenote, cave, Mayan ruin and cow poop. What more could you ask for? Muddy and dirty, we returned to Merida with yet another Yucatan adventure under our belts and Magical Mystery Tour #4 complete. Stay tuned on Facebook (Lawson's Original Yucatan Excursions) for the next outing.



Playa del Carmen Destination Hotel - La Semilla

Normally I would not be writing about hotels and such but this little 7 month old gem deserves a recommendation. La Semilla is an oasis among the hustle and bustle (especially the hustle) of Playa del Carmen. A couple of blocks from the ocean, under a tree with a backyard that reminds me of a typical Yucatecan home "patio" and an interior courtyard complete with fully grown trees, a waterfall and a creek throughout and even a home for the resident "alux". 

Extremely friendly and professional service, all kinds of commodities included at no extra charge, like the excellent WiFi, bicycles, towels for the beach, parking at the front door (ltierally), breakfast with real, strong coffee and amazing all-natural "jugo de la casa". If you are going to the beach, they will loan you a cooler so you can keep your beers cool. Amazing. 

It's a respite from what's going on outside and your senses are pampered with lemony scents in hallways and rooms, crispy cool air conditioning in the rooms and relaxing music throughout. Soft lighting at night and plenty of shade during the day.

Alexis and Angie have created a paradise and on your next trip to Playa del Carmen, definitely spend a night or three here!


The Convent Route - Day Two

The day started with a stop at Uman, which is nowhere near the so-called convent route, but since we were going to Ticul and Mani and had been the other way before, I thought the Uman-Muna route would provide some interesting views along the way. The large small town, our first stop, is where there is a giant church as well as all those insect-like mototaxis buzzing about.

Done with Uman and ready for more driving, we continued on to Muna. No church pictures there, but a huge procession/demonstration to do with Earth Day perhaps judging from the signs blocked traffic in Muna's main square while every citizen from the surrounding 17 mile radius marched in the parade. Mostly kids of school age, and in uniform.

There wasn't much to do in the traffic, limited though it was and while waiting I snapped a shot of this beautiful old home, probably once owned by some rich fat cat and now a school.

Finally, we made it to Ticul. There, after checking to see which was the best way to Mani we snapped a few shots of that church (and the surrounding street area) as well.

And then, at long last, we made it to Maní, site of the infamous auto da fé, where the charming Friar Diego de Landa, burned as much of an entire culture as one man with a mission can, effectively wiping out the great majority of the Mayans legends, stories and cultural and religious icons. Later, and in his defense when put on trial for overstepping his mandate, he wrote a book about what he had seen and how the Mayans had lived which is now the only record historians have of that time. And to put the proverbial cherry on the sundae, he was absolved of any wrongdoing by the courts in Spain and sent back to the Yucatan and was named "Protector of the Indians". Nice job, Diego.

After Maní, what else is there in the world of churches, right?  Well, how about the church at Oxcutzcab? This town is famous for it's fruit market and the mural over it, but the church also has it's particular charm.

The Convent Route - Day One

Wooden cross in stucco on a church wall in Mama (that's the name of the town, really)

One of the routes that is promoted among tourism organizations is the so-called Convent Route or Ruta de los Conventos. I refer to it as "so-called" as it is really just a list of towns that have churches in them, dating back to the 1600's and that are full of history, but there is no real coordination of the touristic kind and if you arrive after the last morning mass, you are out of luck. No convent for you! 

So, to do it right, you have to get up early. Our intrepid little group of three left Merida at the ungodly (no pun intended) hour of 7 AM and found that that is the perfect time to visit at least 4-5 of the churches on the route before they close for the day.

First stop? The furthest point of the day's travel: Teabo. Teabo sounds like what you say when you love someone, in Spanish, and have a cold. Te amo. Teabo. Get it? The photos will speak for themselves; a very picturesque little church that was closed but a little chat with the gardeners trimming the grass outside and they found someone with a key and it was opened just for us. 

After we had our fill of Teabo and purchased some fresh tortillas at the tortilleria for breakfast, we moved along to our next stop, Chumayel, famous for its black Christ figure which was saved by a local villager named Severo who hid the wooden statue in his home when Salvador Alvarado's troops came to town with orders to burn the insides of the church. Salvador Alvarado was determined to break the church which had far too much power for the politicians of the day and ransacking and burning churches seemed like a good way to go about it.

Next stop: Mama. That's "no, no" in Mayan unless someone tells you otherwise. Then, you let ME know what it means. Mama in Spanish of course means female breast (where do you think mammary comes from) and if you add an accent ie. Mamá, then you have Mom. But I digress. Enjoy the photos of Mama's church, one of the larger churches of the day, so far. By the way, if you are on this tour, you might be feeling the urge to visit a bathroom at this point - feel free to use the bathroom at the municipal hall across the street.

Just at the entrance to Chumayel is a very colorful and photogenic cemetery that's worth a stop. So stop we did.

Tekit was the next stop on the day's tour, making it church number 4, and miraculously none of the churches were closed up to this point! Note that there are a lot of towns in the Yucatan that begin with the prefix "Te" (Tekit, Tekik, Tecoh, Tekax, Temozon, etc. etc.) and that is because the word "te" means something along the lines of "place of". Temozon, for example is Te = place of and Mozon = whirlwind. Anyway. Back to Tekit (no idea what a kit is). 

The church itself is fine, a little run down compared to the others. The town looks like it has some money, but it is pretty sad looking. The mangy and hairless dog in the main square, standing dejectedly and in obvious pain waiting for some kind of relief, the dusty streets, graffiti next to the Jesus statue in the church; everything looks run down. Compared with a place like nearby Tecoh, where the residents seem to have some pride in their town and it shows, Tekit looks like no one cares. 

Now the sun was shining in earnest and so we stopped for lunch at the Nah Luum hotel and restaurant, just across the street from the Tecoh exit off the highway and I was pleasantly surprised to find not only an attractive little restaurant and hotel, but smiling, gracious servers and good food!

Then, a small backtrack to a refreshing cenote on the way before returning to Merida - tired but satisfied with the day's achievements.

Uxmal, again. It never disappoints!

Uxmal is probably the most popular destination for day trips from Merida, for cruisers and non-cruisers alike. The great thing about Uxmal is that besides being the best Mayan ruins site on the peninsula in my opinion, the road to and from Uxmal offers so many interesting places to stop for a photograph, a banana or some exploration. 

First stop is usually the town of Uman, and on this day, that is exactly what we did. There was a small mass happening in the enormous church so we didn't go in, and later a large Mercedes hearse pulled up with Jalisco license plates for some kind of funeral.

After stolling around Uman, having that banana in the market (you haven't tried a banana until you have tried a platanito dominicano) and taking a ride on the tricycle taxi, the next stop this day was Muna, where we visited Pedro (aka the Gourd Man) on his hilltop vantage point with the great view of the surrounding area.

A little shopping, a sip of fresh squeezed orange juice and we are on our way to Uxmal.

After Uxmal it was off-roading time and we rushed to get to the cenote in the middle of the jungle where thankfully no one else was around and no oncoming traffic on the tiny one way dirt path into the underbrush. You see, when you are in the middle of this tiny road and you see an oncoming vehicle, someone has to back up the entire distance traveled so it can be a bit hair raising.

Feeling refreshed and just a little peckish, we crossed the highway and made a quick stop at the Hacienda Ochil for a bite and found them ready to close for the day, but a little cajoling (and the fact that I have been here numerous times and the waiters took pity on us) enabled us to wrangle a couple of cervezas and some delicious sopa de lima which really hit the spot. Also, we were able to see that they really do make the cochinita pibil in a fire pit and don't cheat by sticking the pig in an oven. 

Mayan ruins, flamingos AND cenotes in one day!

Often I am asked if I can arrange a tour to the three cenotes of Chunkanan/Cuzama, and while the cenotes are still there, the fantastic little tour is not. You can read about that original tour by clicking here

Short-sighted squabbling by villagers with no long-term vision of the benefits that this attraction was bringing to their communities, combined with a complete lack of any intervention by any competent authority has led to the demise of the tour, although it is still being advertised and promoted in many magazines, websites and brochures. At no point was the final user - the visitor - taken into account. He or she has to find out about this through websites like TripAdvisor or by actually arriving at the site only to find that some of the cenotes are having "maintenance" done and the tour is completely different from what is advertised. I could go on about this for hours, but don't want to bore you completely to death.

Luckily, there are hundred if not thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan, of every imaginable shape and size; open to the sky, hidden in caves with just a tree root to scamper down from the jungle surface into the refreshing water below.

Homun is in the heart of cenote country and right next to the the aforementioned villages of Chunkanan and Cuzama, and have their own cenote attractions - and this past weekend I took some visitors out to see a few of them.

Picking them up at the beach where they were staying, they mentioned they wanted to see flamingos so we took the Xcambo - Baca - Merida road and were able to see quite a few, in small clusters,  just beside the highway. Their coloring was pink with white still visible, indicating these were juvenile flamingos as their feathers don't turn completely pink until they become adults.

After stopping at the Xcambo ruins for photos and a quick walk through (free admission) and some flamingo photos, we continued on through Baca and visited its large church in the middle of town. Baca was an important city back in the day and while it is somewhat deteriorated since the henequen industry crashed, you can still see evidence of it's relative wealth in the colonial era and turn of the century buildings along the main street.

After Baca, a straight shot out to Homun, where we hired a local guide - a 12 year old who swore she was 16 named Barbie - who rode with us to all the cenotes and made the introductions at each one. It is not necessary to hire someone local to visit the cenotes if you know where they are, but why not spread the wealth and help folks in Homun out a little? For $200 pesos you have a chatty local guide who knows everything about everyone in the town (just ask) and you are helping an entire family. Barbie has been doing this since she was 8 years old, and while for us North Americans it is a bit disconcerting to think that you are sending your 8 year old daughter to ride around with strangers to caves, it seems to not raise an eyebrow here. I think if an evil-doer ever tried anything, the villagers would see to it that he had a particularly nasty end.

A little bit of Merida, a little bit of Yaxcopoil

Susan and her husband were back in town with their parents and they wanted to see one of the Yucatan's many haciendas. The original idea was to go to Sotuta de Peon but since the House and Garden tour they were on finished too late to make that happen, I thought it better that we visit the Yaxcopoil hacienda. 

I caught up with them at the last house of the House and Garden tour, run by the pioneer Yucatan magazine, Yucatan Today.  It was a beautiful old home, and unlike many of the older homes in Merida, is still lived in by its' owner. Have a look:

With the tour behind us, we drove to the nearby hacienda Yaxcopoil, but of course, as always happens on one of our tours, there was a diversion. A detour, a small stop, a side road; these are the things that make the trip memorable and today was no exception. Everyone was hungry and wanted to eat before visiting the hacienda where Doña Nica most likely was no longer making panuchos under the tree on her makeshift griddle over a fire, and so a quick ride around the block in Uman yielded the La Margarita restaurant, on the main square, serving home cooked meals. The menu? Bistek con papas and espelon con puerco, a version of frijol con puerco (pork and beans) that is very special as the espelon is the tender, new version of the black bean and gives the dish a particularly delicious consistency.

Energy restored, we continued on to Yaxcopoil and enjoyed this immensely photogenic hacienda in the warm glow of afternoon light, before returning to Merida for a well deserved nap.

Magical Mystery Tour #2

This is the photographic chronicle of my second Magical Mystery Tour outing, as described in the last installment here.   

On this occasion, as I had some garage sale items to deliver to the beach, I thought it would be interesting to take a drive I never had made before - the road from Chuburná to Merida, via the back road through Sierra Papacal and the hacienda Suytunchen. 

It was a beautiful, sunny day and the tour started, as usual, with a detour to see the fishing boat "refuge" or harbor in Chuburná. A stop along the beach also provided a glimpse at the major work underway to reclaim the eroding sandiness there.

Once you leave the beach area, you are driving on a raised one and a half lane, pot-holed road that cuts across the mangroves. You will see egrets, ducks, cormorants a pelican or two and on this occasion I saw a couple of small groups of flamingos. Not being equipped with a super birders zoom lens, I could only take photos from the road and at a distance. 

At the end of what seems like an interminable road where the vegetation changes from marshy mangrove to scrubby underbrush, you suddenly find yourself on a wide, brand new stretch of highway, and a sign announcing the CICY. I always wondered where the CICY was, having heard they had another property. Well here it is, out in the middle of nowhere with a security guard and gate - to prevent intruding zombies from attacking, I suppose. 

This wide, well marked highway is like an oasis in a mirage, as it appears after the long drive along the pocked road from the beach and then disappears when you enter the town of Sierra Papacal. Please, someone explain to me the logic of building a perfect, modern highway - that is only 1 kilometer long and abutted by crappy roads to get there in the first place?

The balché tree is in bloom however, and growing right there by the mystery highway so I was able to get some good photos of the flowers.

Sierra Papacal was next, but there was nothing in the tiny village that caught my eye, even with a circus in town, except a sign for a turnoff to Suytunchen, which sounded interesting so I went there instead. It turns out Suytunchen is another hacienda, this one raised cattle up until recently, when it became a venue to be rented for social events. The daily rate is around $25,000 MXP for the location; you provide everything else. As you can see, it is small, but has some great photo op potential. The afternoon light warms up the bright colors painted over those melancholy, silent walls, that have watched the telenovela of life play out in front of them.

With the light fading fast, this was the last stop of the Magical Mystery Tour #2 - a slightly shorter version than the first, but nevertheless, a worthwhile trip.

From Suytunchen, a sign indicated the road to Merida and I was on the Progreso-Merida highway in minutes and home.

 Stay tuned for the next Magical Mystery Tour!