Getting to know the real Mexico. For an inside look, skip the package tour

THE first driver we found in Mexico slipped a cassette into the tape deck of his vintage Impala. Ah, the liquid strains of Latin guitars under the volcano! (For, as the old travel books say, we were proceeding past snowcapped Popocatepetl to Cuernevaca, where we would walk the streets that Malcolm Lowry had so hauntingly led us down in his novel ``Under the Volcano.'') But what were the liquid guitars playing? ``The St. Louis Blues.'' I didn't have a chance to explain that this was a folk song of my country. ``It is my song!'' said the man at the wheel, grinning as he waited for his meaning to sink

in. Of course. His name was Luis.

Perhaps the moment was not a full epiphany, or sudden manifestation of the nature of the universe. But, if we had known, it was a foretaste of all the moments that would make us glad we had skipped the package tour and stumbled along getting acquainted with Mexico -- and Mexican people -- on our own. Luis was a preview of Isidro, Jos'e, Jes'us, Mar'ia, Ram'on, Guillermo, Guadalupe, and Mrs. Contreras.

We had been tempted by ads for a 15-day ``deluxe escorted tour.'' It included flights from Boston to Mexico City, south to Oaxaca, east to Villahermosa, and north to M'erida, near the Gulf of Mexico. Then it went by land through Yucat'an and on to the Caribbean and the island of Cozumel for a bit of beach after the rigors of clambering over ancient pyramids.

We enlisted a travel agent and some back-from-Mexico friends whose tastes we thought we shared (and did share except for a certain hotel we would depart from a day early). Then we mapped out the same trip over 18 instead of 15 days, including more time around Mexico City, whose great Museum of Anthropology we decided we should have visited after the ruins as well as before.

For R&R we were steered across from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen. Here the long white sands were delightfully lonely, as they surely will not be when development plans are completed. Here Joan forgot the lack of a bathtub when she could almost touch the sea through the stone lattice of our room's spacious shower stall.

We had booked some of the same first-class hotels as the package tour. We took the same plane hops inside Mexico. We omitted a tourist attraction here and there but included more music, theater, and -- above all -- those murals in which Mexico is so rich. The three of us -- parents and grown daughter -- wound up spending about $1,500 less than the tour price. Since this was the same as the cost of our air fare, you might say we flew free.

We were not met by escorts, of course. Every arrival and departure was a little adventure in learning. I spoke Spanish I didn't know I knew when Joan's suitcase came off the plane in Oaxaca looking as if it had been through a trash masher.

This is where Mrs. Contreras came in, the airline official who had to deal with people talking loudly and waving Spanish phrase books to convey that they would rather not wait for a factory estimate and repair of a suitcase destroyed through no fault of theirs. Eventually, as we sat dumbly in a gentle rain of Spanish, thinking ever more highly of bilingual education -- yet being glad this episode hadn't all been left to a deluxe escort -- I saw Mrs. Contreras give a bill to a young man. He went out into

the night and came back with a new suitcase for Joan. It was big enough so that I had to pack only a few things of hers in mine.

Speaking of wives, it was Isidro who stopped and invited a smiling woman to join me on the front seat of his van during the drive back from a stunning trip around Oaxaca. ``Mi esposa,'' he said, and we had a chance to meet one more person we might have missed if we had been part of a package.

In Yucat'an we rented a car. The steep cost (including required insurance that had gone up to $8 a day) seemed worth it when we were able to stop at villages and try to talk with people without being with a busload of other tourists. We could take unplanned side trips or shorten our stay one place and extend it at another.

The driving was easy in this flat part of Mexico, with long straight roads as in the American West. Evidently some of them have not changed, except for the paving, since John L. Stephens wrote his celebrated ``Incidents of Travel in Yucat'an'' in 1843: ``On both sides were low, thick woods so that there was no view except that of the road before us.'' Stephens's volumes, with engravings by Frederick Catherwood, make wonderful browsing before and after visiting the sites of Mayan civilization .

As for present-day navigation, we found at a hotel gift shop an invaluable booklet, ``Where to Drive and What to See in Yucat'an,'' by George Cobb (Edici'ones Dante, SA, Calle 59 No. 472, M'erida, Yucat'an). It noted bad roads and told of a new road, not on any of our other maps, which enabled us to drive from the ruins of Uxmal to the ruins of Chich'en Itz'a without going back north to M'erida, as everyone told us to.

We missed something by not having guides everywhere. But still we wouldn't give up times like being entirely alone, walking along a narrow forest path from the familiar ``new'' city of Chich'en Itz'a (``at the rim of the well of the Itz'a'') to the ``old'' city. After almost turning back, we came to a clearing -- and there were the crumbling temples of antiquity. We felt a taste of what Stephens and Catherwood must have felt, slogging through they knew not what, seeing men slashing undergrowth with machetes as we saw them still along the roads, and finally reaching the summits of human art and skill that seemed to be waiting just for them.

Roderick Nordell is editor of the Monitor's Home Forum page.

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