The first time I travelled to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, it was under uncertain circumstances.
It was the week after the H1H1 virus had taken effect on the country, and an editor wanted me to find out how the area’s tourism was holding up.
I arrived to find Cancun’s hotel zone was my own lonely playground, with hotels at 30 to 50 per cent occupancy.
It wasn’t until I travelled 20 km south to the fishing village of Puerto Morelos that I experienced the vibrancy for which the Yucatan is known.
When I arrived at dusk, a slew of fishermen were returning from a day at sea with their bounty.
There were also quite a few boats carrying diving gear—Puerto Morelos is a point of departure for the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef near Australia.
The town square overlooks the azure Caribbean sea and many families were taking advantage of a walk around a seaside promenade.
I wandered into a seaside restaurant called Los Pelicanos, prototypical seafood joint with anchors and life rafts for decoration. As I sat overlooking the plaza while eating some of the best guacamole I’ve ever had, I continued to people-watch.
Unfortunately, I only had a few hours to explore Puerto Morelos, so I promised myself I would make it back.
Discovering Puerto Morelos
When returned to the region this summer, the rowdy crowds had returned to Cancun’s hotel zone, but Puerto Morelos had maintained its laidback charm.
Kids in school uniforms chased each other around the plaza and a small crowd gathered to watch a fútbol match inside Los Pelicanos.
A line of French tourists eagerly awaited their chance to purchase beer and hot sauce at an Oxxo convenience store, while Americans took photos of a business called “Tacos and Internet.”
This time around I also had a chance to check out the Puerto Morelos’ wild side with a visit to Crococun Zoo (276 pesos for adults, 168 pesos per child).
The regional wildlife park is located about a kilometre north of the city center on the main caretera (higway) and is the home of bright macaws, monkeys that aren’t afraid to eat out of your hand and a large population of local crocodiles.
The adult crocs roam in a cordoned off jungle enclave, but the babies are kept in large pools where they are easily accessible to squeamish tourists.
I now know that handling a crocodile baby is a bit like holding a writhing Gucci purse.
Puerto Morelos is also home to one of the best places to connect with the Maya underworld.
Cenotes are underwater caverns that are unique to the Yucatan, and I visited Cenote Boca de Pluma, one of the many along the Cenote Route, which runs approximately 15 km inland from the carretera.
Cenote Boca de Pluma is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and costs US$68 to enter.
I knew before jumping in that the ancient Maya had oftentimes used certain cenotes for ritual human sacrifice, and the occasional bat flying overhead made the experience even spookier.
But the experience reminded me why people keep coming back to the Yucatan despite hurricanes, world financial meltdowns and mysterious outbreaks.
It’s tough to resist an adventure.