The Yucatan Peninsula has long been a prime getaway destination for winter-weary North Americans, offering pristine beaches, warm Caribbean waters, tasty Mexican food and a healthy smattering of culture. While we didn’t exactly fit into this bracket of vacationers with money to burn, we were certainly excited about the prospects of spending some time on white sand beaches, checking out the cenotes, and lapping up the ample vacay-vibes. We also had an alternate motive for hanging in the Yucatan for a while – Liivi’s family was planning to join us in Playa Del Carmen for a late Christmas and new years, and being only the end of November, we had a solid month to pass in this area before they arrived.
First stop was Cancun, being the only location with a half-decent airport in the region. Rather than embark upon a horrendous zillion-hour bus ride over the mountains from Oaxaca to Cancun, we chose the more expensive but infinitely more pleasant mode of air travel. Arriving with sanity intact, we jumped on a Ado bus and enjoyed a short ride into downtown Cancun while being entertained by a Spanish rendition of Tintin on TV. Once dropped off at the bus station, we took a horribly overpriced taxi to our hotel, which was itself nice enough but the neighbourhood was a trifle shady.
We spent the next few days exploring Cancun and generally getting flustered by the noisy traffic, expensive food, long taxi rides to get to the beach, and general unfriendliness of the city. After the walkability of Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca, we were unimpressed by the fact that you have to take a 20-30 minute taxi to get to the beach from town. And the beaches we saw were not exactly world class, being overrun with people, covered in seaweed, and so shallow you could walk 200 metres out into the water and still only be up to your waist. Admittedly we’d been spoilt in Puerto Escondido with the pristine beaches and laid-back lifestyle, but so far we were a little worried that we had to spend over a month in this area.
Notable observations in Cancun over the few days we spent there included:
- foolishly walking to the beach from town, a casual 12-14 km stroll alongside crocodile-infested swampland
- having a very civilized brunch at La Dolce Vita, a fancy Italian restaurant with impeccable service and reasonable food. The brunch was coming along swimmingly until the main meal was served and a lady came to replace our cutlery. As she reached over to kindly provide a new knife, I noticed to my horror that her hand was literally festooned with warts. Estimates would place her skin to wart ratio at around 3:1 – that’s a whole lot of warts to be touching your cutlery. Needless to say our enjoyment levels declined rapidly after that point. I found the situation quite hilarious, however Liivi was more inclined towards outrage than humour. Weirdly enough, we came back for dinner another day. Such was the state of restaurants in downtown Cancun.
- Dodging traffic constantly, and somehow giving myself a painful burn on the back bumper of a cop car as I crossed the road (it stopped suddenly and I barged into it…literally a run in with the law)
- Eating the hottest tacos we’ve ever had the misfortune to put in our mouths. I barely kept it together, while Liivi actually started freaking out and had a strange panicked look to her eyes. Sadly, there were no dairy products whatsoever at the restaurant to soothe our inflamed mouths, and we sat there trying to remain calm while the rest of the restaurant’s patrons (a motley crew of working class Mexicans) pretended they didn’t notice and tried to stifle their amusement.
Playa Del Carmen
Once again hitching a ride on a nice Ado bus, we took the 2 hour drive south to our next destination of Playa Del Carmen, with low expectations after our time in Cancun. Stepping outside the bus station into the blistering heat, we were pleasantly surprised by the change in atmosphere – we were standing on a bustling pedestrian street (5th Avenue), with pleasant shops all around, a party vibe emanating throughout, and generally just a whole different feel to the place. After experiencing the usual difficulty in directing our taxi driver to the hotel (turns out Mexicans and Central Americans can’t read maps!), we dropped our bags and began exploring. We liked what we saw: large supermarkets close by, nice restaurants, and pleasant beaches with cool bars pumping stereotypical but nonetheless pleasant house beats.
We hung out in Playa Del Carmen for over a week, soaking up the sun, eating at some tasty restaurants, sampling a cocktail or three, and swimming at the beach on a regular basis.
Tour of Tulum ruins, Akumal and the cenotes
We had been debating for some time whether to make the shift from Playa Del Carmen down to Tulum for while, as Tulum has all sorts of cool stuff, namely the famous Mayan Tulum ruins and the abundance of cenotes (large limestone sinkholes filled with pristine groundwater). The trouble was, from what we were reading online, Tulum appeared to be backwater place with limited accommodation and rudimentary access to the trappings of civilisation. We were getting a little tired of roughing it, so instead we opted to fork out some money for a top-rated one day tour of Tulum, some cenotes, and the beach at Akumal.
It turned out to be a great decision, with EdVenture Tours providing a good group of people and excellent guides. First we were driven to Tulum, where we paid a little extra to get tickets and a “train” ride into the ruins. We spent an entertaining couple of hours wandering around and checking the place out. I found the ruins to be quite unique, as while we’d seen a lot of Aztec and Mayan ruins by now, these were the first that were right on the ocean, so you got this crazy juxtaposition of 1500 year old buildings and fortresses hard up against palms and azure Caribbean sea. We arrived early in the morning so the place wasn’t yet overrun with tourists.
Next up, we had a short briefing, were given snorkeling gear, and headed in the van to the area where a heap of cenotes are located, around 10 minutes out of town. From this point in it was ATVs and Mules only, however there wasn’t enough room for our group and the tour guide so he drove ahead in an ATV and gave us the keys to the Mule. Thus ensued some highly enjoyable but amateur maneuverings across 10 kilometres of pitted limestone terrain.
Surprisingly, we made it to our destination in one piece, hopped out, and geared up. Then we got to explore two very cool private cenotes (owned by the tour company), one of which was down inside a cave, complete with bats and underwater lights, illuminating the tiny fish skitting about below us as we swam by. The water was pristinely clear (and so clean you could drink it), but alas the GoPro didn’t fare well in the low-light conditions, and all of the photos came out blurry.
Next stop was Akumal, the hottest turtle hangout in the Mayan Riviera. The beach here was quite spectacular, and due to the close proximity of the reef to the shore and an abundance of turtlegrass (their favourite type of food), there were sea turtles everywhere, in water which was only a couple of metres deep. We swam around in awe, with turtles within easy arms reach munching happily away on seaweed and completely ignoring us. There was plenty of other sea life to spot, with an abundance of exotic fish and a number of rather ominous-looking stingrays.
Despite having spent a LOT of time in the water already that day, we were required to make one more dip in the waters of a unique nearby lagoon. Due to its brackish water, the lagoon has an interesting ecology, with a thin layer of warmer freshwater overlying cooler seawater filtering in from the ocean. This made for some cool fish spottings and very interesting visuals, as you could dive down through the thick, oily-feeling freshwater into the clear blue seawater and find yourself in a completely different world.
Aside from the over-abundance of turtles crawling about on the hotel floor (and they didn’t look overly healthy either, presumably only getting fed the bread offcasts from breakfast each morning), Cozumel seemed just a slightly more chilled out version of Playa Del Carmen, with some nice pedestrian areas, reasonable restaurants serving mountainous and highly alcoholic margaritas, and good views across the water towards the mainland.
We spent the next week hanging out on Cozumel, mostly just working on our online business tasks at the hotel but also sampling the many restaurants and bars, and spending a couple of days exploring the island by scooter (the island is huge and you need some form of motorized transport to explore it – scooters are the cheapest and most enjoyable of machines on offer here, if you can avoid getting ripped off by the rental place). After making the mistake of heading to Playa San Francisco, Cozumel’s horrible take on what an “American” beach should feel like (annoying Mexicans strutting around blowing whistles and harassing old ladies, ridiculously loud music and expensive food and drinks), sped further down the island to Playa Palancar. Finally, we had found a little piece of paradise, with few people, pristine sand and clear, calm water and good snorkeling directly offshore.
After the beach, we continued on our trusty scooter around the end of the island and back up the other side, stopping off at a cool Rasta bar right at the bottom on the beach, and again halfway up the other side of the island, where we observed a large crocodile swimming slowly and ominously towards us.
“The reviews for this place are NOT for this place at all, & are actually from another hostel. Also, the photos are either taken from this other hostel, or are some kind of weird animation. Nothing from this ad is as posted which is false advertising. We booked this place after seeing the good reviews, nice photos & promise of good times, free bike rentals & a nice pool. On arrival, we walked down a rutted trail to the hostel & were met with a construction zone. The whole place is still being built! The pool was filled with cement, everything was muddy from the builders, & it was noisy. EVERYTHING is unfinished. At 4pm, we asked to see our dorm & were told that we couldn’t as they were still finishing it. When we walked past, they were actually in the process of constructing our beds! Literally building our beds as we arrived. Thus every time I climbed onto my bunk for the next 6 days, I would get black paint on my hands. There’s nowhere to sit. Only 1 table & 1 couch. It’s really noisy, all the time. The hosts are always blasting music. I like music, but not listening to death metal as I relax by the pool. Workers were in our room often to finish the curtains or beds but there are no lockers, so the risk of theft is high. There were two noisy pumps outside our room, which whined all night & made it hard to sleep. On the 2nd last day, our expensive coconut oil was stolen, possibly due to the workers using the kitchen. Despite this hostel being “new”, most things they’ve installed are used and of poor quality.“
…and that was the toned down version, as Hotels.com refused to publish my first review. Unfortunately, we were booked in for 6 long nights at this place, and they were not at all apologetic for the state of it. I spent many hours on the phone with Hotels.com but they couldn’t cancel our booking and get out money back, on account of the fact that Hostel Che didn’t even have a telephone OR email address for hotels.com to contact them and make the arrangements! Our hands were tied, and we just had to suck it up and live inside a construction zone for a week.
Aside from our unpleasant accommodation, Tulum actually ended up being a cool place. There were plenty of nice restaurants, a nice bike path down to the beaches (around a 15 minute bike or 45 minute walk), and another cool strip of hotels and restaurants down by the water. We spent most of the time with our friends Celia and Sam, either hanging with them at the beach, checking out more cenotes, or chilling back at their much nicer hotel (unlike us they’d planned ahead and managed to not get completely ripped off). We spent a pleasant but uneventful Christmas down in the beaches area with them (it was strangely deserted on Christmas day, even though everything was booked out), and that was that.
The one major drawback about Tulum, aside from Hostel Che, was the fact that the Mayan Riviera was experiencing some chronic offshore winds the whole time, which were pushing vast amounts of seaweed onto the beaches and rendering them almost unusable. A shame, considering they are supposed to be some of the most beautiful in the world.
Hess family explorations
The 28th had finally swung around the day of reckoning was upon us: the Hess family was arriving in Mexico. We shot back to Playa Del Carmen and moved in to the impressive top floor suite they had booked for everyone for the next few days. As the day wore on, various members of the family started to filter in, having been exposed to all manner of dramas on their way over: cancelled flights in Houston, rental car issues in Cancun, parking issues in Playa Del Carmen – you name it, they seemed to have trudged through it. Eventually, everyone was gathered together, a few tears of frustration were shed, and the happy reunion was permitted to blossom.
We spent the first day together just wandering around Playa Del Carmen and chilling, as most of the crew was in dire need of a relaxation day after the trials of the day before. The next day, we embarked upon an ill-fated (slash ill-researched) mission to an area far to the south of Tulum, where the aim was to visit a biosphere reserve and see some cool wildlife. Well, after many hours of dragging the rental cars through some of the worst roads any of us had ever seen, we supposedly arrived at our destination. And there was nothing there. Just a lonely wharf in a lagoon and across the road an abandoned restaurant. Feeling a little deflated after our efforts, we made the best of it and went for a dip, explored the abandoned biosphere welcome centre, and generally just shook our heads at the situation.
On the way back from the ill-fated mission, we stopped off in Tulum so that the rest of the family could witness the past glory of the ruins. While they did their thang (buying their tickets and then being told after 5 minutes of being in there that it was closing – classic Hess drama), Liivi and I chilled on the beach at Playa Paraiso, soaking up the excellent house tunes and swimming away the frustrations of the day.
The next day was new years eve, so we made our preparations for the big event, loading up on snacks, supplies, and sufficient alcoholic beverages. We enjoyed a relatively laid back new years, sipping homemade pina colatas and walking down to the beach at midnight to watch the fireworks and drink champagne.
The final stop on our month-long jaunt of the Yucatan Peninsula was Merida. After fixing a punctured tyre on one of the rentals, we piled into the cars and made our merry way across the peninsula to Merida, stopping off on the way to visit a couple of “urban” cenotes outside the city of Valladolid. This place was set up almost like a public swimming pool, with an extensive ticket centre, changing rooms, and a series of market stalls and confusing circular hallways you had to walk through to get to the cenotes themselves. It was my suspicion that the hallways were circular so that people would get confused, lost, and hungry, having to stop at the nearest market stall for food and refreshments.
If our first impression had been one of a public swimming pool, it was even more so when we arrived at the two cenotes. They were packed with people, from practically newborn babies to tottering elderly, but it was nonetheless cool to swim in them, check out the fish, and look up at the tiny holes of light in the ceilings.
The pleasantness of the situation, however, declined rapidly after multiple spottings of what was suspected to be human poo. Floating past us in the water. We rushed out of the first in dismay, only to find similar poo floaties in the second cenote. In circumstances not dissimilar to the infamous pool-pooper of Invercargill, it seemed the Valladolid cenotes had their own serial pooper at large.
Making sure to check for any fecal residue, we toweled off and continued on to Merida. Here we explored the city by night, enjoying the mix of modern and colonial architecture, and first made a day trip out to the Rio Lagartos lagoon near Celestun, then spent a cultural afternoon at the famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
Aside from being a heck of a long drive away from Merida, Rio Lagartos was very cool, with it’s brackish waters providing excellent habitat for all manner of interesting wildlife. After spending a long time waiting in line, it was finally our turn to jump on a boat and hoon off up the lagoon in search of everybody’s favourite bird – the flamingo! Along the way, we saw plenty of other birds, including eagles, herons, pelicans and cormorants. Then we made landfall and were forced to walk through around 1 kilometre of squelchy muck, presumably composed largely of bird shit, to see the flamingos. But the squelching was well worth it, as there were plenty of the crazy pink birds dotted around a shallow body of water when we arrived.
After squelching back through the poo-mud, we jumped back in the boat and went to an area of mangroves, where the boats stop once more and you can walk along a series of boardwalks to check out more wildlife. The main attraction on that particular day was a large, angry-looking croc sitting around 10 metres from the boardwalk with his mouth open. Surprisingly, perhaps only 15 metres from that same man-eating croc was a family of Mexicans taking a swim in the lagoon, seemingly unperturbed that the croc was so close. I couldn’t help myself, and looked in horror at the water directly behind them, pointing and shouting in my atrocious Spanish “que es eso?!” (what is that?!). They were suitably freaked out, and my day was complete.
Our final expedition involved a day trip to Chichen Itza, a solid 1.5 hour drive from Merida. Chichen Itza is quite possibly the most famous of all the many Mayan ruins, and as a direct result was positively overflowing with tourists. A far cry from the laid-back, no-wait process of getting into the likes of Teotihuacan or the Tulum ruins, Chichen Itza involved long lines, multiple ticket purchases, and a separate trip to lockers to store our bags, due to the fact that you can’t really take anything in to the ruins. The line wait did, however, give us the opportunity to requisition a friendly Mayan guide, which seemed like a good idea at the time considering the number of people in our group and the sheer scale of Chichen Itza.
The decision was a good one, with our chirpy Mayan guide chucking out jokes left right and centre, and with plenty of knowledge to keep us entertained. We wandered through majestic temples, vast ball courts (the Mayans played a game similar to a mix of lacrosse and soccer, with maybe a little Potter-esque Quidditch thrown in – with the slight variation in that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed at the end of the game. Quite the honour, apparently), and sweeping plazas. El Castillo, the iconic symbol of the Mayans, was suitably impressive, with all sorts of fancy cosmic positionings and audio arrangements to render it fitting for a culture highly advanced for its time. Also impressive was the Plaza of a Thousand Columns – no exaggeration, and a feat of engineering not to be scoffed at.
Hot, sweaty, and covered in ancient Mayan dirt, a refreshing swim after traipsing the ruins for hours seemed just the ticket. Thus we mosied on over to Cenote Ik-Kil, one of the more famous of the Yucatan sinkholes. In a rare stroke of Hess luck, we arrived mere moments before the gates were due to close for the day (5pm), raced in, got changed, and ran down the many stairs so we could get a swim in before the place closed in half an hour. While it was also busy here, the place seemed a lot better managed and the water a lot cleaner. The cenote itself was very cool, located well below the earth and with a yawning cavern and ceilng hole overhead. The cenote had the added bonus of some cliff jumping, which Amine and I made the most of. All in all, good times were had at Cenote Ik-Kil.
To Chetumal, and beyond!
The next day, we parted ways with the Hess crew, grabbed a taxi to the local Ado bus station, and embarked upon an 8 hour ride across the Yucatan to Chetumal, our last stop in Mexico. Here we stayed the night, then next morning trundled our bags and various paraphernalia down the road to the water taxi, whereby we would speed across the water to our next country, Belize. We had survived Mexico, and now it was time to test the muddy waters of Central America.