Two hours after joining a sea of American humanity at the airport in Cancun, Mexico, I'm finally getting close to the front of the snaking customs line. By the time it's my turn to flip open my passport, my patience for crowds has been totally spent.
Luckily, the hordes are heading to the high-rise hotels crammed along the beaches of Cancun. I am heading south.
Less than 40 minutes after putting my rental car in gear, I'm at a small resort of palm-thatched structures on a white beach that stretches between the ocean and the jungle.
At sunset, a young man carrying an Olympic-style torch runs barefoot over sand that is turning temporarily pink. He stops every few yards to ignite smaller torches along a path. I feel a lot closer to Tahiti than to Cancun.
"This is fantastic. I can't believe this place," says an arriving guest with wonder in her voice.
"Don't tell anyone else about it," says a man passing by.
But KaiLuum II is just one of many unique, out-of-the-way resorts nearby. The area south of Cancun is filled with charming treasures waiting to be discovered. They are particularly unexpected because they are so close to Cancun, the No. 1 international destination for U.S. tourists, according to a recent report. Cancun has the dense development and American feel to prove it.
Most are tucked a mile or so off the main highway, down bumpy, potholed roads that offer little promise. But the roads end at quiet beaches and small, individually owned hotels that seem preserved from an earlier era of travel.
Not every property in this area between Cancun and Tulum fits that definition. In fact, the area is in danger of one day becoming yet another "little Miami," as some locals derisively call Cancun. Mexican officials have built a smooth highway and have given the area a spiffy name: Riviera Maya. Developers, primarily from Spain and the United States, have been rushing in to build huge, all-inclusive resorts along the highway.
The resorts have names like the Mayan Palace, but the only Mayan you'll ever see near the walled-off properties will almost surely be in uniform. The resorts offer no sense of place. In fact, the Coco Cabana looks like something that aliens tried to spirit out of Las Vegas in one piece, but mistakenly dropped from the sky onto this patch of Mexican soil.
If anonymous high-rise resorts divorced from the locals are your thing, then stay in Cancun. There is much to be said for the place: Cancun was chosen for development specifically because its beaches are so fine. I've enjoyed myself there several times, each time going for the resorts at the outer edge of central Cancun.
There simply would be no point to traveling down the coast to yet another high-rise resort, this time along a highway, often some distance from the beach. And while some beaches along this stretch of coastline offer the perfection of Cancun's beaches, others have rocks at the water's edge.
But if intimate, authentic, unexpected and even funky little properties are your thing, then the Riviera Maya is your place. You need only leave the highway, and travel just slightly off the beaten path.
Road to KaiLuum
KaiLuum is about 30 miles south of Cancun and six miles north of Playa del Carmen. There is no sign for it from the highway. Instead, you turn at a sign for Capitan Lafitte's and follow a bumpy country road for about a mile until it ends at the beach. A few hundred yards to the right is KaiLuum, built in 1999 by Mayan craftsmen who remembered the old ways for constructing simple but elegant buildings, called palapas, from wooden poles and palm leaves.
The bar and adjoining restaurant sit directly on the beach, with a floor of sand and a soaring, cathedral-style ceiling. The bar is open 24 hours a day; soda and beer are stored in an old-fashioned ice box filled with giant ice blocks.
A waiter points to a pegboard that has a sheet of paper with the names of guests written down the side and a series of squares running across the paper next to each name. He explains that you pay when your stay is over and use an honor system to keep track.
"You move your peg over one square for a soda, two for a beer and three for a mixed drink," he explains. "Every day we put up a new sheet of paper. If you get to the end of the squares in a single day, we get you some aspirin and take you to bed."
I mix my own rum and Coke and order a fantastic ceviche -- fish, shrimp, onion, tomato, cilantro and lime juice, with guacamole on the side -- for about $6.
Only one building on the property has electricity, and there is only one telephone, for emergencies. Yet the place exudes luxury; it's simply the luxury of another century. Dinner, for example, is served by the light of gas lanterns hanging from the restaurant's high ceiling. The place screams out "honeymoon," except the lodgings aren't quite as private as a new couple might wish.
Each couple -- no children under 16 are allowed -- has a separate palapa, a sort of open cabana with a palm-leaf roof. A large tent with giant mesh windows is erected under the roof of the palapa. But this is not Boy Scout-style camping. Each tented palapa overlooks the ocean and has a platform bed with a mattress and Mexican blankets, side tables with candles and hammocks hanging just outside the room.
You walk a short distance to shared bathrooms. "People are leery of communal bathrooms; they associate them with a gas station or something," says manager/owner Clayton Ball. But these are something quite different. Shower rooms with bright tiles on the walls and floors are immaculate, as are separate toilet facilities with scented candles. Sinks surrounded by tile mosaics are outside, sheltered only by a roof. Above the bath facility, on an open porch overlooking the jungle and the beach, you can get a massage, then relax in a hammock.
"We use the fridge to store blocks of ice," says Ball. "We buy everything we're making fresh each day," he says, which explains why restaurant patrons must reserve a place at dinner by 1 p.m. each day, before the chef goes shopping.
From KaiLuum you can walk along the beach all the way to Playa del Carmen, then miles beyond. You can arrange sightseeing tours of the area, or diving and snorkeling trips either in the ocean or in one of the many cenotes, or underground caves, that honeycomb the area. KaiLuum also offers Spanish classes on the beach most afternoons.
Or, you can just sit on the beach in an oversize chair made of logs, with a big rock as a footrest. That happens to be my choice for what's left of my first day. And apparently I am doing it right.
"The main product we sell is peace and quiet," says Ball.
I could use more peace and quiet but unfortunately have promises to keep. The next morning, I head out to find alternatives for travelers who can't imagine luxury involving a tent, but prefer stars to street lights, and are tired of elevators, crowds and brand names.
Tulum's Hotel Zone
I travel down the lightly traveled highway, just past the Mayan ruins of Tulum, and turn left off the highway to the "hotel zone" in the town of Tulum. The two-lane paved street dead-ends after 11/2 miles, and a road of packed dirt and macadam stretches to the right and left. Along this country road, about 20 small hotels are nestled between the jungle and the beach.
Before my trip is over, I will stay in, or visit, every one that seems to have promise. I come away with several favorites, each distinctive, ranging from funky-cool to simply luxurious.
Hotel Zamas falls into the former category: funky in a good way, not in the moldy sense of the word.
Owner Dan Vellejo McGettigan saw this property, then an abandoned coconut plantation, when he came to Tulum for his honeymoon in 1993. He went home to San Francisco and returned a few days later to buy the property.
I first fell in love with this area several years before McGettigan did, and wondered at the time if it was possible to buy property here. It kills me to hear him say he bought 2.5 acres for $6,000. He first built the restaurant, living above it for a time, and since then has added eight wood and painted-concrete buildings with palapa-style, palm-leaf roofs. Most are two stories, with 15 rooms in all.
"I built from inspiration," says McGettigan. He drew outlines of what he wanted in the sand, and Mayan builders followed his plans. My room, on the second floor, is a huge rectangular affair, with a wide porch all around. The giant bathroom has three corners and one rounded side. An open shower is built in the rounded, turretlike area and has long skinny windows overlooking the jungle. The floors in the bathroom are tiled; in the bedroom, they are concrete. Mosquito netting hangs over the bed.
I need a flashlight to get from the restaurant to my room, which is dimly lit since the hotel uses solar power. But I don't want any lights this night in the hotel about a mile from the Mayan ruins of Tulum. I lie in the darkness in a hammock on the porch, watching the stars and listening to the ocean's roar, thinking that Mayan royalty had it so much better than the kings and queens of Europe in their drafty old castles.
The following day, I move on to Maya Tulum, a beachfront property that was once an ashram and still offers yoga, reflexology, massage, facials and "other treatments for the body and soul."
Each guest room is in a separate building made of stone and stucco. Most have stone floors, and all but one is round. Maya Tulum also gets its electricity from a solar-powered generator, and lights are turned off from midnight to 6 a.m. Television? Forget about it. A couple of young entrepreneurs, however, operate an Internet cafe in the hotel zone, and you can go there to rent and watch a video if you need a fix.
Just down the road, Cabanas Ana y Jose is more traditional and luxurious, with 15 rooms in a thatched-roofed building of stucco painted bright blue, green, red and white. Las Ranitas is a bit more upscale still, but with a price tag significantly higher: Doubles at Cabanas Ana y Jose, for example, start at $75; at Las Ranitas, it's more like $170.
The weather, during this trip in late November, is perfect every day. The entire Yucatan Peninsula is warm year-round, with average daytime temperatures in the eighties. Like everywhere in the Caribbean, hurricanes are a threat in late summer and early fall, and hit every five to 10 years.
The Riviera Maya has a number of major attractions, many of them built to attract day-trippers from Cancun. I elect to visit the Mayan village of Pac Chen, a tour that also includes a visit to the once-great Mayan city of Coba.
The village of Pac Chen, three miles into the jungle on a narrow dirt road, is a strange blend of authentic and touristy. Until a few years ago, the villagers eked out a subsistence living six miles inside the jungle. A tour operator persuaded them to move three miles closer to the main road and to establish a new village, with the understanding that they would allow visitors. At the time, the village had 60 people living in it.
Young people routinely moved to town to get jobs. Today, the young people stay, because the jobs come to them. The women cook traditional foods for the visitors and make crafts to sell. The men conduct tours through the jungle and assist tourists who skim above a lake on a harness attached to a zip line. There are also jobs lowering tourists into and raising them out of the cenotes, using pulleys, ropes and harnesses.
The young people tend to take the jobs shooting digital pictures of tourists who want proof that they ventured far beneath the earth to swim in a cenote. Each adult villager shares a tourism-related job with a second person, working alternating weeks. The villagers, who live in traditional huts, share their wages and are saving to buy a concrete community center where they will go during hurricanes.
If I were an anthropologist, I would head straight to Pac Chen and stay for a year or so.
Instead, I'm a tourist, and I have no idea what the villagers are thinking, or how their lives and traditions will be affected. I just zip across the lake, enjoy some of the best wood-roasted chicken I've ever tasted, and pity the two strong men assigned to haul me out of the cenote, where we swim and float on inner tubes beneath rock and stalactites. I chat briefly with an 8-year-old boy named Santos, who had greeted me in English. I tell him he must be very intelligent to speak two languages. "Si," he says, looking at the ground but smiling proudly.
When we are about to leave the village, Santos jumps in the van with us.
"He's from a village closer to the road," explains the tour guide. "The people in that village always send one of the children to Pac Chen and tell him to get a ride home, because they know we'll have to stop near the village to let him out. They're hoping you'll all buy honey when we stop."
Sure enough, up the road a woman is waiting with baskets of honey. Santos touts its qualities and collects the money before getting out of the van to fetch and distribute Coke bottles filled with the golden liquid.
We continue farther inland to Coba, a highly advanced Mayan city built around the eighth century and home at one time to 55,000 Mayans. The city once covered 42 square miles and had hundreds of miles of roads that reached to other Mayan towns and cities. One of the temples left from this vanished civilization is 138 feet high and is as mysterious and impressive as an Egyptian pyramid.
It was even more mysterious nearly two decades ago, when most of the ruins were still largely covered by jungle and you felt a little like Indiana Jones, exploring without another person in sight. Today, while far from crowded, there are enough people around to remind you that you're a tourist, not an explorer. I take a quick look and go off to try and find a wonderful small hotel nearby that I'd remembered fondly all these years.
It's still there, with the same elegant tile work and the same name: Villa Arqueologica Coba. The pool, surrounded by tropical flowers, is just as beautiful as I remembered.
Bright Lights, Big Playa
I hate to admit it, but after one more night of quiet and solitude, I'm in the mood for bright lights, loud music and tourist shops. So the next afternoon, I head to Playa del Carmen. The town is something of a compromise between the complete serenity of hotels close to Tulum and the metropolitan feel of Cancun. I'm invigorated by the blasting trumpets of mariachi bands. For a time, I enjoy the rock-and-roll oldies being performed in a bar across the street from the Hotel Lunata, a gracious, European-style hotel with a lovely interior courtyard. But by midnight, I'm ready for everyone to stop playing. They don't.
The beaches of Playa del Carmen are comparable to those of Cancun, and the town has a very Mexican feel. Good restaurants, nice shops, plenty of entertainment. But after one night, I'm ready again for quiet and solitude. I notice a tiny newspaper ad for a 30-room hotel in Xalococo, just 10 miles to the north. It will bring me within 34 miles of the Cancun airport for my departure the next day, and it's only $45 a night.
Experience tells me I'm on to something good when, to reach the hotel, I must bump a mile along a one-lane road bordered by jungle. And indeed, the Qualton is a find -- a modern two-story building facing a deserted beach and a swimming pool rimmed with tropical flowers and bushes. Rooms have patios or balconies and cable TV. If you don't turn on the TV, all you can hear at night are the frogs, the crickets and the surf.
The chef comes out to greet me and asks what I want for dinner, and at what time. The manager, Carlos Sandoval, joins his only guest for coffee and dessert after dinner.
It's hard to get out the word about a hotel off the beaten track, open just a year, he says, so he plans to offer the promotional rate until 2004.
"Once people see it, I think they'll return," he says. "You can go to Playa del Carmen to party but come back here to relax."
He agrees that the Riviera Maya is changing rapidly and mentions that developers are planning town houses and apartment buildings about halfway between his property and the highway.
The next morning when departing, I drive about half a mile along the narrow, bumpy road when I'm suddenly stopped in my tracks by bulldozers and other heavy equipment. They are widening the road, and clearing a space in the jungle.
Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washington post.com.