Cheery Chetumal

“If the world had any ends,” English author Aldous Huxley opined in 1934, “British Honduras would be one of them.” Back then, of course, the country – now Belize – didn't end at the border with what's become the must-see city of Chetumal, the surprisingly active capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Nor, edging the  border, with the shopping frenzy of the Belize Duty Free Zone.

Mansion of the governor of Quintana Roo. Photo by Jimm Budd.To me, Chetumal is one of the best places along the entire Mexican Caribbean. It's also the gateway to the Maya Coast, an appealing alternative to highly-developed Riviera Maya. Appealing in part because it is not expensive. Best hotel in town is the Holiday Inn.

Temptation is to leave Chetumal as soon as you arrive, rushing off to see the magical waters at Lake Bacalar with its old San Felipe fort (built in 1733) or the much older Maya structures at Dzibanché, Kinichaná, Kohnlich, Rio Bec, Xcalak and more. Then there are the beaches at Mahahual, maybe the next Cancún. Even Belize tempts, but a day or two should be set aside for Chetumal itself.Museum of Maya Culture. Photo by Jimm Budd.

A good way to see this city and get to know it is aboard the Bulebuzz, one of those faux trolley cars used for sightseeing. Later, stroll along Avenida Los Heroes and spend a morning or more at the Maya Culture Museum, easily the best this side of Mexico City. On Avenida Heroes, El Palacio de Pelucas (Palace of Wigs) still reigns in all its glory, recalling the era when every woman in Mexico wanted a wig of her own. That was in the early 1970s, when what was the territory of Quintana Roo became a state. Back then, duty-free Chetumal was known as the source of supply for perfume smugglers.

Youngster meets visitors on a 'Maya Immersion Tour.'

Today, the source has moved across the Rio Hondo into the Belize Free Zone, which is where all the peddlers in Mexico seem to do their shopping. Spread out over nearly 300 acres, the Zone is in Belize but autonomous from the rest of the country. The Zone includes hotels, what supposedly are Las Vegas-style casinos and more than 300 stores selling everything imaginable, some legitimate, much not, all of it untaxed. Entering the Zone is easy, but it's harder to get out. On leaving, visitors (but not Mexicans) are hit with a US$30 departure tax called a “document processing fee.” Next comes Mexican customs and immigration, which can be quite strict.

More pleasant are boat rides over to San Pedro, which to me is the garden spot of Belize. Golf carts are the favorite means of transportation. Water taxis usually leave Chetumal early in the morning and return in the afternoon, but it is wise to inquire in advance. Belize brags that it is the only English-speaking country in Central America, but San Pedro is more like a place in Jamaica. Some of its neighbors deny that Belize is Central American at all.

Mahahual, about 85 miles up the coast from Chetumal, is the place to go if you want to remember how today's booming city of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya was half-a-century ago. Biggest hotel in town has only 50 rooms and most have far less.

Mahahual is a place cruise ship operators discovered when looking for anStone carving at the nearby 'Temple of the Masks.' alternative to the mega-port at Cozumel. Developers built a pier, boats arrived, and everything else followed, including a faux Maya village. Luxury is difficult to come by in Mahahual, but those who enjoy discovering someplace new usually are enchanted. Cautious souls may prefer taking a bus from Chetumal, looking around and seeing what accommodations are like before making any commitment.

Closer to Chetumal is Bacalar, a town and a 30-mile-long lagoon famous for its seven shades of blue. Different depths account for the different hues. The colors -- and the fact that Bacalar is a lagoon and not on the ocean -- set it apart. The 18th century San Felipe fort is here, as is the Blue Cenote, said to be the biggest cenote of them all.

The town itself is only about a 30-minute ride by bus from Chetumal, but hotels are spread out all along the lake. You really need to take a look yourself to see which one you would prefer.

Chetumal as a vacation destination will appeal more to the traveler than to the tourist. Thus far, there are no all-inclusive resorts in these parts, no place where the weary executive can relax on a beach or by a pool, waiting for a waiter to come along with some refreshment.

Well, perhaps there are such places, but it would take some exploring to find them.

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