Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Anthony C. LoBaido traveled around the Yucatan of Mexico and unearthed its many jewels. They include Isla Muejeres, Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum.

THE YUCATAN, Mexico – It all began when the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Francisco de Montejo and his son, Francisco Jr., subdued the Maya between 1527 and 1542 and set up a capital at Merida. Like Crusade-era knights crossing the sands of the Middle East, the Conquistadors, who fought in the name of the Son of God, learned to also fear the Sun of God. The sun is unrelenting and the heat oven-like, akin to the Kalahari.

Half a millennium later, the lines at the airport are endless. Few signs around the rally point of Cancun exist to direct traffic and point the way out of the city. Yet in spite of a few postmodern inconveniences, the Yucatan has retained it allure for travelers the world over.

The ruins of Tulum rise from the Gulf of Mexico to offer one of the most splendid views in all of the Americas.

The Yucatan comprises three states and close to 2 million residents. The new toll roads speed the visitor between scenic outposts with First World efficiency. The locals are friendly and kind yet fiercely independent. In fact, the region has in the past tried to assert its independence from Mexico.

Consider that there was a time when the Yucatan had its own ambassador to the United States. However, modern advances in land, rail and air transportation have transformed the Yucatan from a seafaring trade regime between Cuba and the U.S. to an accessible, cosmopolitan mini-state.

Conquistador-era architecture and Cadillac ambiance dot the rugged landscape. A spectacular, out of the way spider monkey reserve at Punta Laguna is worth the price of the airfare in and of itself. Deep-sea fishing, diving, lobster fests, e-mail cafes and sunburns requiring zinc oxide are part and parcel of the faire de jour. As such, the Yucatan is a place that remains singularly mystical, magical, primitive and unrelenting in its ability to enchant.

The Island of Women

Just off the coast of Cancun, heavily armed soldiers and German shepherds patrol the ferry landing at Isla Muejeres. (Mexico threatened to legalize drugs earlier this year but relented under U.S. pressure). Along with Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, and Ambergris Caye, Belize, Isla Muerjes (“The Island of Women”) is considered to be one of the most spectacular islands in all of the world.

One of the jewels of Isla Muejeres is the Hacienda Mundaca. It was the home of a 19th century pirate named Fermin Antonio Mundaca de Marechaja. He was a slave trader who transported slaves from Africa to Cuba.

The Mayan civilization, based in part at Chichen Itza, boasted a warrior-like culture.

This very rich man fell in love with a pretty local woman named La Triguena, meaning “the brunette.” He built a special house for the brunette, whom he could apparently never make happy no matter what he did for her. Marechaja catered to her every need and whim. The grounds at this estate boast a zoo, cannons and monkeys swinging about in a large cage. It is simply magnificent.

The saying “Brunettes are nothing but trouble” has been attributed to Marechaja’s relationship with La Triguena, for she conquered his heart just as easily as Mexico City fell to the Conquistadors.

The beaches of Isla Muejeres are white and pristine, adorned with “the beautiful people” gathered from the four corners of the earth. There’s a quaint lighthouse, scooter rides and a turtle farm, as well as an English as a Second Language school for the intrepid.

Land of the Maya

Catholic churches dot the landscape of the rugged Yucatan.

The Yucatan is, of course, home to a very large concentration of the Mayan people, who in turn are spread out all through Central America. The spectacular temple complex at Tulum offers one of the most spectacular sights imaginable. It is here that travelers can swim in the jade green waters of the Gulf of Mexico at the base of sheer cliffs rising up to epic Mayan ruins. (The world’s second-largest barrier reef can be found off Belize and the Yucatan).

Near the Tulum grounds are a group of “Pole Men” who sit atop a high pole, then dive off and swing about in unison all the way to the ground. It may not be working in a coal mine, but this really can’t be considered an easy job. It’s all part of Tulum’s charm.

At Chichen Itza, the capitol of the Mayan civilization can be seen in all its grandeur. There’s a ball court where athletes played a game not unlike lacrosse. As depicted in the film “Against All Odds,” the Maya wagered the lives of themselves, their wives and their children on these games.

The unique writing at the Mayan ruins of Coba have drawn the interest of tourists and archaeologists alike.

Last spring’s Mexico-U.S.-Canadian summit (where details of the planned North American EU-like merger were no doubt discussed) led by the heady troika of Fox, Bush and Martin was held in Cancun. This included a stop by the three world leaders at Chichen Itza.

A cartoon appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch around this time depicted President Bush standing on top the Temple of the Warriors exclaiming, “Ha! Worship me, puny mortals, for I am Bush … God of War!” Standing to the side of this spectacle, Fox and Martin debate, Are you going up there to bring him down, or do I have to?”

Outside Chichen Itza is the Grand Cenote, (underground cave rivers called “cenotes” are plentiful in the Yucatan) where the ancient Maya disposed of unwanted children, the elderly and archetype Stepford wives. They just threw them in the water and drowned them. It was kind of the divorce court of its time one might say.

On the island of Isla Muejeres nature’s wonders abound.

“But they were sincere in what they believed … that’s what matters most!” Americans often hear from well-meaning PBS specials on the Maya.

Another noticeable feature of Chitzen Itza is the way the serpent is exulted to god-like status. This is not surprising, as the serpent appears in the annals of human history at important episodes of human spiritual development. Consider the cobra spreading its hood over the young Buddha, and the apple proxy in the Garden of Eden.

Ek Balam and the ruins of Coba offer the chance to see recently uncovered Mayan hieroglyphics. The main temple at Coba is very steep. As such, even the bravest climbers might require a loving hand to calm and guide them back down.

A peaceful sunrise near Tulum.

South of Coba is the city of Valladolid, which offers a charming ambiance of colonial churches and other buildings. The drive between Coba and Valladolid seems a page out “the road less traveled” as it’s dotted with unique points of interest. Mainly there’s a small, no-name town with a gorgeous little Catholic church and a cross adorned only with “INRI.”

It is the unexpected and unplanned stops such as these that make the Yucatan so special. For what the Mayans carved into stone and the searing sun burns into the flesh, the kindness and faith of the indigenous population will gently and unmistakably imprint upon the heart forever.

Previous columns:

The Global Backpacker

The world’s best destinations

Capturing the world on film

‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’

Images of paradise

‘The most beautiful place on Earth’

Sunset in Thailand

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