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Cruising to the Yucatán

The Yucatán offers sun, sea, and Maya mysteries.

beach and cruise ship on Mexico’s Yucatan coast
Photo caption
A cruise ship sits offshore on the Yucatán Peninsula.

You're traveling alone?" questioned the uniformed functionary welcoming me aboard the Grand Princess luxury ship for a weeklong Caribbean cruise. I detected a note of incredulity in this inquiry, strongly suggested by the patronizing smile that preceded it. W "Yes," I replied impatiently, having answered similar queries several times already that morning while making my way through Fort Lauderdale, the port of embarkation. Apparently no one in his right mind takes a Caribbean cruise unaccompanied, although it seemed to me I'd read a few stories—by Hemingway? Maugham?—where great adventures await the solitary traveler. W But how should I know? The only seagoing vessel I'd been aboard before was a refurbished World War II Liberty ship that took me and several thousand other seasick soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean to fight the Korean War in Germany. That was not a pleasant voyage.

Life aboard the Grand Princess, with its four swimming pools, three posh dining rooms and six other eating spots, bars, three theaters, casino, and nightclub, held promise of palmier days. My stateroom with a balcony overlooking the sea compared favorably to my accommodation on that earlier journey—a hammock pressed against an air vent.

Without actually canvassing the other 2,600 passengers aboard, I nevertheless concluded, as previously suspected, that I was indeed the only one among them cruising alone. Far from inspiring a compensating gregariousness on my part, my singleness led initially to quite the opposite course. In fact, for the better part of the first day at sea, about the only words I uttered to another living soul were, "A Beefeater on the rocks, please, with a twist of lemon."

This sense of profound isolation was reinforced when my luggage was lost. I feared I'd have to appear at the ship's formal affairs in the rumpled khakis and sport shirt I wore upon boarding. And as the theme song from the old Love Boat television show resounded over the speaker system, I was stricken with the sensation that I was actually bidding farewell to my brand-new blue blazer, now irretrievably lost.

My wardrobe showed up later that day. In due time, I was dressed appropriately and assumed a chummier attitude toward my fellow passengers, exchanging observations on such diverse topics as the unwarranted popularity of old-time bandleader Ted Lewis and the joys of residing in Wampum, Pa.

Our main destination was Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula with its Maya ruins. But there were stops at the Princess Cays resort and on Grand Cayman, where foreign funds often are parked and where 449 banks serve roughly 37,000 inhabitants. There were four cruise ships anchored at Grand Cayman on our arrival, each disgorging a thousand or more tourists into the port city of George Town. As a fashion note, I observed that, with the male tourist, the classic short-pants-white-legs-black-socks look is still very much in vogue.

The eastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula was once a penal colony, but chicle (as used in chewing gum) as well as the exportation of hardwood such as mahogany brought prosperity. In the '70s, the first hotels opened in Cancún, as the coastline with its broad beaches and Maya history had the potential to make the area a tourist paradise. And so it has become.

Our first Yucatán port of call was Costa Maya. From there, some of us ventured inland by buses over rough jungle roads to the ancient Maya village of Chacchoben. One of the advantages of touring alone became immediately apparent on this bus ride: There was a vacant seat next to mine, so that I could spread out in comparative luxury while my fellow travelers were bunched together. The relative discomfort of their situation was forcefully articulated by the hefty couple seated behind me.

We were reminded by our guide that the Maya were accomplished in many fields. Skilled farmers, they were also architects, astronomers, mathematicians, calendar makers, and writers. Precise dates are hard to determine, but they settled in the Yucatán several thousand years ago, remaining there until the 15th century when, beset by internal conflict and failing crops, they faded into history. And yet, in this part of Mexico, Mayan dialects are still spoken by many.

Chacchoben dates to the lost civilization's classic period, approximately A.D. 250 to 900. Great stone pyramids still loom above the dense palm and mangrove forests. The classic-period Maya held religious ceremonies at the peaks of their pyramids and evidently conducted their business downstairs in separate chambers.

Led by our intrepid guide, Doris, we wandered among these dark stone structures and clambered up the formidable stairs to what seems to have been the village square. As we labored upward, a woman next to me complained to Doris, "If the Maya were such short people, how come they made these steps so high?" It seemed a reasonable question, but Doris, herself a short person, ignored it. Short people, high steps? This remains one of the mysteries of an ancient culture.

We next sailed north to the island of Cozumel. Ferried ashore to the mainland town Playa del Carmen, we took a long bus ride to the "lost city" of Tulum, which has been restored to something approaching its 13th-century glory.

Tulum was the home of Maya aristocracy and the priesthood. With its protective stone walls and obviously posh dwellings, it may well have been America's first gated community—Tulum Estates? These later Maya were energetic road builders, and they laid out paved streets that would not be out of place in one of today's upscale suburbs. But they did reject the wheel, although they were familiar with the concept. The wheel may have had the drawback of too closely resembling the sun and moon, objects of serious worship in their orthodoxy. The Maya walked; they didn't drive.

Pyramids in Tulum were of a modest scale, and there was great serenity in these ruins. At the same time, knowing that the Maya of the Tulum period also are believed to have practiced human sacrifice there, you could sense the underlying violence. Servants, for example, tended to be extra diligent in attending to the good health of their masters because, according to Maya custom, when the boss kicked off, the help went with him to the grave.

To hear José, our Tulum guide, tell it, Maya sports had a do-or-die aspect alien even to the likes of Bobby Knight or Bill Parcells. They played a game apparently involving aspects of both basketball and soccer. It included a rubber ball and stone hoops placed around the court. The rules allowed players to maneuver the ball using only their hips.

Competition is said to have been fierce, and part of the postgame festivities called for sacrificing members of one or the other team. While some now believe it was the losers who paid the ultimate price, others think the winners became the sacrifice. José tended to agree with this last group, even though he was wearing a cap with the logo of the losing Dallas Cowboys. "To offer up the loser for sacrifice," he explained to us, "would be an insult to the gods."

Such morbid conversation was banished as I scrambled up to the top of Tulum's outer wall and beheld a spectacular view of the blue Caribbean, with another huge cruise ship sailing in the hazy distance.

Soon after another, for me, comfortable bus ride and a ferry to the Grand Princess, we were ready for the homeward trek. From the ferry, I became aware of the vast size and almost surreal presence of our ship. It resembled a fantasy vessel you might see in some glamorous '30s movie. Maybe for the first time on this cruise I felt part of something really big. I even stepped out of character and ventured this opinion to the woman next to me—who, it turned out, spoke no English.

And finally to home, a round-trip of some 2,055 nautical miles. We had smooth sailing all the way, enjoying wonderful food and entertainment, a little history, and, finally, some merry conversation.

Best cruise I've ever taken. And I took it all by myself.

Photography Courtesy Princess Cruises

This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.