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We spent 10 days on the Yucatan peninsula, not one of them in Cancun.

Sound crazy? Not at all. The monster Caribbean resort is about as Mexican as a theme park. Which is why, after flying into the Cancun airport, we rented a car and hit the road for other attractions - uncrowded beaches, Mayan ruins, provincial cities.First stop was Playa del Carmen, a seaside town about 40 miles south of Cancun. We checked into the Albatross Royale, a funky but friendly hotel - hammocks on the porch, fans in the room, cool sea breeze all over - located right on the (topless) beach.

As a side trip, we hit Tulum, a Mayan ruin about 30 miles south of Playa del Carmen. Inhabited from roughly 400-900 A.D., the site is perched spectacularly over the dazzlingly blue Caribbean.

Onward. After playing in Playa, we jumped in our car and motored three hours (most of it on an excellent toll road) to Chichen Itza, the most imposing of all Mayan cities. First we checked into the lush Hotel Mayaland, set amidst tropical gardens a few hundred feet from the entrance to Chichen.

Built in 1930, the hotel features cool, tiled public rooms, private villas built in a native style and peacocks wandering the lush grounds.

It was a fitting introduction to the wonders of Chichen. Dominated by the magnificent pyramid known as El Castillo, the city is a fabulous artifact of a complex, and mysterious, civilization.

Be sure to check out the Ball Court, once used as the site for a ritual game something like lacrosse, and the Observatory, a conical structure used for astral calculations. Do not miss the sound and light show held every night at nine. The nighttime ruins, star-filled sky and high-tech extravaganza make for a truly cosmic experience.

We next drove three hours south to Campeche, a provincial capital on the Gulf of Mexico. A major trading center in the 17th century, the city was walled as a protection against pirates.

The eight battlements of the old city are still standing, as are sections of the walls themselves.

What's inside them is a pristine old colonial town - cobblestoned streets, stuccoed buildings with cool interior courtyards, an old-fashioned zocalo (main square) where band concerts are held almost every night. It's a great place to stop for a day or two.

About 2 1/2 hours north of Campeche lies Merida, a bustling city of 500,000 souls. Dominated by a colonial downtown, Merida is crowded, swelteringly hot and architecturally undistinguished, but has a vibrant street life. Check out the funky municipal market, located in a warren of streets south of downtown. Hit the large zocalo, which often features live musical events (the streets around it are turned into a pedestrian fair on Sundays). Make sure to try one of the Lebanese restaurants - the city boasts a fairly large Middle Eastern population, which has immigrated with culinary skills intact.

For those with a serious bent, Merida has a handful of excellent museums. We particularly liked the displays of native crafts at the Museum of Popular Art. And the Museum of Anthropology and History, with its permanent display on the Maya, is housed in a 19th-century mansion once owned by an agricultural tycoon.

Our last night in the Yucatan was spent in Puerto Morelos, a teensy fishing village 25 miles south of Cancun. A dock, scattered businesses, dogs roaming the streets: This is the kind of backwater town where the main hotel, set within lush tropical vegetation, is located on a dirt road a kilometer from anywhere.

Still, Puerto Morelos boasts an excellent seafood restaurant across from the zocalo - the kind of peace and quiet many vacationers require.

So what if the power went out at our hotel last night in Mexico?

So what if the weather was hot and muggy the entire time we were there?

It couldn't take away from the pleasures of our eclectic trip.


GETTING THERE: There are many flights to the international airport in Cancun, either regularly scheduled or chartered. But most are based on a four-day or seven-day turnaround. If you want to stay longer, you'll pay a premium for doing so. Check your travel agent for the best deal.

DRIVING: Driving around the Yucatan is simple - the major roads are well-surfaced and well-marked. The only caution is the topes (bumps) that appear as you pass through a village or town. They are usually marked - but not always - so exercise caution when driving through populated areas.

There is an excellent, four-lane toll road most of the way from Cancun to Merida (about 180 miles). It's not cheap (one-way runs around $15), but well worth it, since it saves driving on a secondary road through the topes of many small villages.

RENTING A CAR: Car rentals are available from any of the major American agencies. Be sure your vehicle has a radio and air conditioning; Geo Trackers and Jeep Wranglers are popular here, and they usually have neither. You'll need both, because the weather is hot and humid, and the Yucatan topography - miles of low scrub - extremely boring.

READING: We used "Frommer's Yucatan, '95-'96," Macmillan, $13.95, to help plan our trip. It's complete, concise, and filled with useful information.

PLAN AHEAD: One final note. We went in the off-season (early June), and made hotel reservations for only the first three nights of a 10-day trip. After that, there was no difficulty finding a room. If you're going in-season, however, this will probably not apply; it's best to plan ahead.

The wretched state of the Mexican economy made for some unbelievable bargains: Two-room hotel suite in Merida (older, colonial-style hotel): $45/night; dinner for two with drinks and tip: under $20; two tickets to a Mexican league baseball game: $1.80; souvenir T-shirts: $5.