Tadhg Peavoy heads off on a three-week adventure.
Mexico has been dogged by its reputation of being the most dangerous country in the world over recent years.
Mention Mexico and often the immediate riposte is something to do with drug-related murders.
And yes, the country is regarded as the most dangerous in the world, with murder and kidnapping being the major fears.
But is that a reason not to visit? Well, the Yucatán peninsula is lauded as the safest part of the country. In fact, the inhabitants pride themselves on it.
Armed with that knowledge, I set forth to spend three weeks travelling the peninsula, doing a loop from the air hub of Cancún on the Caribbean coast, across to the Gulf of Mexico and back across to Belize, before travelling back up the Yucatán's east coast.
As an entry point, Cancún is an extraordinary stop and something quite different to everything else in the Yucatán. Upon arrival, one feels as though one could be in Miami or Orlando: the heat hits you when you land, but so too does the US-like organisation as a minibus whisks you to the Zone Hotelera or downtown, whichever spot you choose to make your home.
The hotel zone is a strip of all-inclusives that runs along a spit the other side of a lagoon, with the Caribbean on the eastern side. And yes, those beaches are sweet, with white sands and azure waters just beckoning you to get in. But other than that, the strip is totally missable. The hotels are uniform elegance, and the restaurants and shopping malls bring you nothing that you couldn't experience on a trip to the US. No, the best areas of Cancun are downtown and Isla Mujeres.
Staying downtown gives you a feel for the area where all the Mexicans - many of whom go on to work in the hotel zone - live.
Staying at Soberanis Hotel, you can check out the best bars and restaurants in the downtown area and soak up the real Cancún. Carrillo's Lobster House is the place to feast while there.
The hotels in the coastal part of Cancún are also just a bus ride away, giving you the opportunity to soak up that Caribbean sun, while paying a fraction of the price on accommodation.
From downtown, it's an easy jump across to Isla Mujeres. Buses leave from downtown and drop you off at the ferry terminal at Puerto Juárez, where there are crossings every hour.
And if ever there was a ferry journey worth taking it's this one. At the other end lies a paradise-like location. A small island jutting out into the Caribbean waters, with the mellowest of beaches, and shallow, blue-watered lagoons, is quite a treat to find on the other side. Staying at the Avalon Reef Club places one at the north-east tip of the island. A sea-view room literally has one salivating at the sight of the Caribbean, and nothing but the Caribbean, from your window every morning.
With an all-inclusive bar and restaurant below, it's just the place to unwind following a trans-Atlantic flight, in order to prepare yourself for a backpacking jaunt across the peninsula.
Colonial Towns and Mayan Temples
From Isla Mujeres, my journey took me back to Cancún and then on to the first of three Spanish colonial towns I would visit: Valladolid.
A three-hour bus journey from Cancún, the city is simply beautiful. Based around a central square, Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado, the old, crumbling colonial architecture sucks one in from the moment you clap your eyes on it and leaves you wanting to find out more.
The Catedral de San Gervasio towers up in the centre of the town, like a beacon of the Christianity that the Spaniards brought with them on their crusades to conquer this exotic land. A stroll around, taking in the cathedral followed by a visit to the 16th-Century Church of San Bernardino, gets one acclimatised.
One of the great attractions of the Yucatán is its cenotes. These limestone sinkholes are dotted all over the peninsula - thousands of them, in fact. And in a park in the centre of Valladolid can be found Cenote Zaci, a beautiful, deep blue cavern, which is encircled by tropical greenery. Walking down the man-made steps carved into the rock one can plunge into the cool waters for relief from the tropical heat.
Valladolid is perhaps best known, however, as an entry point to Chichén Itzá. This Mayan settlement was first established in the late Classic period and is a quite stunning example of their architecture. One can visit a nunnery, sacrificial cenote and several temples of various functions. Tour buses start to arrive at 11am, when the place becomes an intolerable, tourist-jammed circus. But get there by 8am, and you can enjoy the peace of the sites with only a few other handfuls of early risers.
Back in Valladolid, the other must-do in the town is an eatery. Conato 1910 is set in a colonial building in the central square and serves superb Yucatán State cuisine. The blood sausage and Yucatán chicken are the dishes to go for, and the margarita cocktails will send you to sleep like a baby before an onward journey.
The next colonial town on the tour is Mérida, a much bigger affair than Valladolid. Mérida also has a central square, which has its own cathedral overlooking the town. The marvel here, however, is the Palacio de Gobierno, which houses Yucatán State's government offices. The draw is the murals painted by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, depicting the history of the peninsula in the most beautiful way. A few hours gazing at the art here is well spent, and helps to paint a vivid image of the turbulent battles that took place between the Spaniards and the Mayans for control of the peninsula.
The other major draw in these parts is at nearby Celestún, where one can visit the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún. Just a few hours' drive west, on the Gulf of Mexico coast, the huge mangrove reserve is home to a staggering variety of birdlife. The prize attraction, though, is the colonies of pink flamingos, which inhabit the waters and jungles, gracefully flocking together like a mass of pink candyfloss on the edge of the mangrove.
Located along the town's coast road is Poseidon Hotel and Restaurant, which is the spot to lay one's head if you want to chill by the gulf for a few days to enjoy its super-warm waters, and the calm nature of Celestún's fishing village vibe.
The last of the trio of colonial cities on the route is Campeche, just three hours' drive south of Mérida. Of the three towns, this was the one that really blew me away. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this walled-city is a beautiful hodgepodge of one-storey colonial homes, each painted in vibrant colours. As well as having simple and beautiful architecture, the town is also very much off the tourist trail, which is perhaps its biggest selling point.
Walking Campeche's streets is a far calmer and quieter experience than in Mérida and Valladolid, and offers a very restful stop on one's journey. The sights are many and the hard part is deciding what to see. The Museum of Mayan Architecture gives a clear insight into many of the sights seen in Chichén Itzá, while the town's eight bulwarks all have different museums telling the story of different parts of the town's story; one even holds a small botanical garden.
The coastal promenade, or malecón, leads one along the town's Gulf of Mexico beach and allows you to visit a small grouping of seafood restaurants on the beach, all of which open for lunch.
The even more off-the-beaten-track draw near the town, though, is Edzná. An hour's drive north, the superbly preserved Mayan ruins are one of the treats of a trip to the Yucatán. Why? Because you get much of the splendour of Chichén Itzá, but none of the crowds. You can meander through the ruins most of the day and there won't be more than a handful of other visitors. In addition, you can climb to the top of the pyramid temples - unlike in Chichén Itzá - to survey the sights in full, as well as the expanse of jungle that spreads out in every direction around you.
With that, my trip then swung east once more and back across to the Caribbean, courtesy of a mammoth bus journey from Campeche to Chetumal, covering 256km.
Caye Caulker, Belize, and the Riviera Maya
Having made the trek across the peninsula back to the Caribbean, and indulged in some roadside tacos, it was time to get back on a bus at Nuevo Mercado Lázaro Cárdenas and head south to the border for Belize. Buses depart several times a day and once aboard, the language spoken turns from Spanish to the laid-back Caribbean English of the Belizeans. It's a three-hour journey down to Belize City, and with reggae blaring, one can sit back, content in the knowledge that beach life lies ahead.
Belize City in itself is something of a shock to the system. Getting in late at night, the ghetto vibe of the city does tend to freak one out a little bit. My taxi driver escorted me personally to the door of my hotel in order to make sure I got there okay. With barbed wire atop the walls of the compound I could understand why.
However, a few hours later, following a trip down to the local Chinese take-away to grab food and beers, and a chat with the local gang members, who just fancied chewing the fat, the place took on a friendlier vibe.
As it was, the city was just a jump-off point for me to take the ferry across to Caye Caulker. A 45-minute journey out into the Caribbean, Caye Caulker is one of the truly unforgettable world destinations.
As soon as the ferry reaches the shore, you immediately feel the relaxed, serene and peaceful vibes and atmosphere of the island. Caye Caulker is just the place to go to decompress after a long journey and culture vulture-dominated few weeks.
In itself, just 8km long and 1.6km wide, the limestone coral island is a collection of guesthouses, hostels and beach houses, with a few roads of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The order of the day here is relaxation. Stroll down to the Lazy Lizard bar at the split - where the island is divided in two by a 20-foot waterway - and you will see most of the island's visitors lazing in the sun, listening to reggae, sipping a beer, and going for dips in the sea.
As the sun descends for the day in Caye Caulker, the most beautiful sunset provides an impossibly romantic setting. I stayed at Popeye's Beach Resort, which boasts a perfect location right on the coast of the east side of the island. The eating options on the island are abundant, but the two best in town are Rosa's Grill and the Happy Lobster. Both places do grilled fish and lobster to perfection. And the beauty of eating lobster on Caye Caulker is that it's the working man's food: cheap, cheap, cheap.
If you can manage to ply your sun-kissed torso away from sunbathing, while listening to reggae, and going for the occasional swim, there are a couple of other activities that really need to experienced while on the island.
Taking a hike down to the most southerly tip of the island is worthwhile. When I say hike, it's really not that strenuous and only takes maybe two hours up and back. The sun will most likely be shining and you can top up your tan while you're at it, so no need to worry on that account. Along the way there you'll come across some iguanas and plenty of birdlife, as well as some beautiful swimming spots, totally devoid of tourists and with the most stunning vistas out across the Caribbean Sea. You'll also get to see the more stylish and expensive homes built on the island, most of which are designed in the style of a lighthouse with the living quarters placed at the top over a large, solid tower base. You can walk by and dream of one day owning one of these abodes.
Alternatively, you can rent a kayak at the split and row as far south as you can go. The current runs from south to north, so you can pretty much just drift back down to the point where you rented the kayak, which makes the return journey a mellow affair after the exertion of travelling into the currents.
The real must-do at Caye Caulker, though, is a trip snorkelling or diving, as the island is situated right beside the Belize Barrier Reef, the fourth biggest reef in the world. There are countless outlets that do trips out to the reef, and getting your guesthouse to recommend one is probably the best way to go. Just make sure that you get to see the reef's three crown jewels: nurse sharks, stingrays and turtles. Swimming with sharks is one of those moments when you realise how lucky you are to be alive in order to see such natural beauty. I can't recommend it enough.
It's hard to leave Caye Caulker, but when you do, another few beach towns are just what you need as you slowly make your way back up the coast.
Back in Mexico, Tulum is an amazing spot to spend a few days. With white sand beaches and water so blue it would make you rub your eyes in disbelief, it's one of the main tourist stops in Mexico. But it's not overrun. There is a constant flow of sun worshippers travelling to and from the beach each day, but it's such a wide and long coastline that it doesn't feel jam-packed. In addition, there are Mayan ruins perched on the hilltop looking down over the beach, which are worth a visit for their manicured gardens, Mayan architecture and vista back down to the beaches below.
You can either stay at a beachside guesthouse, or instead up at the town, which is a cycle or taxi ride away. I'd go for the beach guesthouse option as you want to maximise your time down there, and get taxis up and back to the town to visit the best restaurants and bars. Of those, there are loads to choose from, but Cetli is one not to miss. It's Mexican-style cuisine with a twist, and its difference in preparation and ingredients is not to be found anywhere else in the Yucatán - a fantastic eatery. In addition, the décor is hipster chic and the restaurant is set in a quiet back road, which makes for very intimate dining. For drinks, Curandero on the main street has great DJs and live music most nights. It's also interesting from a design point of view, as the majority of the interior is made from recycled objects.
Tulum is also located close to some stunning cenotes, notably Gran Cenote, which is just 3km from downtown. It makes a great freshwater spot for snorkelling and swimming through caves.
The last leg of my journey involved trekking back up to Cancún for a flight back across the Atlantic Ocean to Irish soil.
Playa del Carmen makes a handy base to stay in the night before leaving. Kinbé Hotel is located near the beach and its minimalist design echoes European cool. As a city, Playa is nothing to shout about. It's very commercial and rammed with tourists. The main beach is also terribly polluted, so I would recommend walking south to the next beach along, which is far quieter and much more scenic.
The best attraction in Playa is Coco Bongo. For $US70 you get entry to the cabaret show - and free beverages all night. What you see is pretty spectacular. Think Cirque du Soleil, mixed with a nightclub, mixed with a cabaret show, mixed with a live concert. Stars of screen and music are impersonated in the world-famous live show that you really shouldn't miss. It's a great way to round off a trip to Mexico, and even though your head might be a little sore on the way to the airport the next morning, it'll be well worth it.
As for danger, yes I did chat to a Mexican in Tulum who told me about his experience of being kidnapped and tortured in Acapulco for two days.
But my experience of the Yucatán was of a relatively safe region, with incredibly friendly people. Yes, one needs to be aware of scams at all times, and also be prepared to bribe the police when crossing borders. However, with safety precautions taken, the rewards of visiting the Yucatán make it a trip worth taking.