Mexico – Yucatán

We have wanted to visit Mexico for as long as we can remember. It took a while but we finally made it to the Yucatan Peninsula, and spent some time exploring the region by car. Even though this is one of Mexico’s most heavily touristed areas, we still had a great time and managed to get away from the crowds when they became unbearable. We quickly learned that there is much more of this lovely country to see and will definitely be back for a more extensive return trip.

07 Jun: Got up at 0700 and had breakfast at 0800. Had the hostel call a taxi and went to the airport. Our flight to Miami was delayed for an hour, but no problem because we had a 4 hour layover and we figured there was plenty of time. Once we arrived in Miami, retrieved our baggage, and cleared customs, we only had about an hour before our flight. We rechecked our bags, but the luggage personnel were extremely lackadaisical and were working with zero sense of urgency. Since we had such a short connection, we asked if our bags could be handled since we didn’t want to get to Mexico without our luggage. Got to love Miami, as no one really gives a damn, and they were stoic in their wise-ass responses of “well, we will get to it when we get to it”. To add insult to injury, we finally figured out that we had to run to another terminal to get the ticketing counter to issue our subsequent boarding passes, which did not have seat assignments. Then we had to run back to our gate to get our seat assignments. After all of this, we decided that we really despise Miami airport and would give anything to avoid having to travel here again in the future. When we arrived to our gate, we learned that our flight had been delayed due to lightning (hence the luggage handlers attitude since all flights were grounded…would it have really been that difficult for someone to tell us that?). Anyway, a silver lining was that all economy seats were fully sold, and we were upgraded to business class. So we decided that we were not so mad after all. Since we had spare time, we searched for food. The best deal was burgers and fries for $16. This made us dislike Miami airport again. After eating, we saw that our flight was now boarding on time, so we ran to our gate and thought that we just made our flight. But, we were seated and waited for over an hour for our pilots, who were flying in from another location (also delayed for the lightning). We were sweating on the plane in the Miami heat as we waited for the pilots to arrive as no one else seemed to be able to turn on the air in the plane. Finally, the pilots arrived, turned on the air and put the plane in motion. We arrived in Cancun just over an hour late. We grabbed our bags and went out to look for the Blueway Rental Car agent that was supposed to be there holding a sign with our name. No agent around, but this was a bit understandable with us being over an hour late. Robby tried to call an 800 number on our reservation document, but it would ring 3 times and die. This was not good. We asked around and were informed that Blueway does not have an office in the airport, no agent was around and no one had a number to call their local office. Everyone was saying that we should just take a taxi downtown, rent a hotel room and check back tomorrow. We were not ok with this because it would mess up our schedule. Someone also said that it was possible they may have an office in the other terminal about 2 km away. There was one friendly guy that seemed really helpful. He offered to drive us to the Blueway office for free, but we wanted to check the other terminal first as we knew that we would not get a free ride with no strings attached. The last shuttle was about to leave for the other terminal and we kept talking to people that “wanted to help” until we missed the last shuttle. So, we then had to walk. We started on our journey and were stopped by another taxi guy. Then the original nice guy returned and again offered the free ride so we took it with expectations of having to pay for something. As we were riding to the Blueway office he told us that they were most likely closed and that we should just take a ride down town for $60 so we can find a hotel for the night. This did not sound very appealing. We arrived at the office and it was closed as expected. We searched everywhere for a local phone number to call but there were no numbers visible anywhere. As we were about to walk away, Robby walked over to a car looking for a phone number on a sticker or something that make be helpful. He found a guy sleeping in the car. After waking the guy, we learned that he was the guard/cleaning guy (Oscar). We figured that he would have a number for someone to call, but he said that he didn’t and we would have to wait till morning. He also said that there were no cars available to rent. Oscar said he didn’t have a number to call the supervisor and we should wait till morning. The guy that brought us said they could take us to a hotel and we could come back in the morning. We decided to save our money and camp out in front of the rental car place till morning. Oscar allowed us to sleep on the couches of the office till around 4am when he started cleaning. Then we moved out to the car that he was sleeping in. Little did we know this would be our car. In the morning we tried making calls again but no luck. Finally Oscar called someone and they were coming in.

8 Jun: Around 0715 someone showed and we finally got our car. We tried to complain and get a discount or something but the guy said that we had to speak to the supervisor when we return the car. He only charged us for the days we were actually using the car, so that helped somewhat and we supposedly got an upgrade with our car. We got the car and were on our way. Stopped at a gas station to money from the ATM and some snacks. Drove to Valladolid. Went to the ruins at Ek Balam, which had some cool ruins and a steep pyramid we were able to climb up. Went to Iglesia de San Bernardino de Siena in Valladolid. Drove through Temezon looking for gas but no luck. Swam in Cenote Dzitnup. There were bats flying above and small catfish in the water. Minnows would nibble on your toes. There were formations of Jesus & Virgin Mary but we couldn’t find them without hiring a guide to point them out. We decided it wasn’t worth the bother. Drove to Izamal and visited Convento de San Antonio de Padua. Also drove around the Kinich Kakamo (pyramid dedicated to the sun god). Izamal square had a lot of horse carriages waiting to take tourists around the city. The helpful tourist police pointed out a different route to Merida. Merida is a city laid out with even and odd streets, so finding our hotel (Hotel Adventura) on Calle 61 between Calle 74 and 76 was easy. We checked in and opted for a room with fan only. The receptionist recommended dinner about two blocks away at Parque Santiago where there were a bunch of cheap/good food stalls and we were happy to take her advice. We found a supermarket where we grabbed cereal, milk, juice and water. The square had live music and hundreds of couples dancing the night away. Very romantic! Slept OK…did laundry and room was sweltering. We slept practically naked on top of the sheets and still weren’t comfortable!

09 Jun: set the alarm for 0630 and decided we were going to Uxmal but getting out of Merida was difficult. We eventually realized if we made our way to the airport, we’d see signs for Campeche (and thus Uxmal). Filled up with gas (about $30) and drove on Highway 261 which was full of butterflies which we demolished on our windshield. Went to Kabah first, since it was about 0930 and we didn’t want to contend with crowds at Uxmal. Kabah had some nice ruins (37 pesos entry) and the most important one was the Codz Poop (Palace of Masks), which had the god of rain (Chac) with hundreds of noses (most were cracked off). Very cool. Climbed up some ruins on the opposite side of the road for a nice view of Kabah. Afterwards, drove to Xlapak which was free! It is the smallest and least visited. There was a building with some chac masks above the doorways. Robby’s flipflop broke so he used some vines in the forest to create a makeshift repair job. Next temple was Labna, which had El Palacio’s nice sculptures (crocodile snake figure with human face coming out of its mouth). The arco de labna was cool, with intricate carvings on both sides. Some workers on the grounds were trying to throw stones and branches up some trees to get some kind of fruit. The only other cool site was el mirador, a tall pyramid structure that we weren’t able to climb up on. There were hundreds of butterflies near the parking lot, so we played with them for a bit. After Labna, we stopped briefly at Oxkutzcab’s fruit market (6 mangoes for $1) and a large yellow Franciscan church. Afterwards, ate lunch at Mani’s restaurant of El Principe Tutul-Xiu, which is popular with the locals and prepares Yucatean dishes. Saw Mani’s Franciscan church (OK but closed) and headed towards the Loltun caves but it was 1240 (we missed the 1230 tour) and next one wasn’t till 1400. We decided to skip it and go to Ticul, which had a neat church but even neater Mayan statues in the streets. Returned to Merida, Becky took a nap and than we headed out downtown to Plaza de la Constitucion (Grand Plaza) where trovadores were playing music and we were approached by a friendly guy who pointed out Mundo de Maya, a cooperative shop where hammocks cost a whopping 700 pesos each. We walked the square at night, and decided to come back during the day, returning instead to our dinner spot at Santiago Plaza. Make the rookie mistake of accepting the first tout who recommended a restaurant and both of us got food poisoning…not cool! Dinner was more expensive too, at 140 pesos (instead of 100 the night before for better food). Bought 3 music CDs for 60 pesos, and called it a night. Shower, laundry, washed mangoes for breakfast.

10 Jun: Woke up and planned to drive to Uxmal early to beat the crowds. We just drove that direction yesterday and thought we had the route figured out, but we were delayed by about 30 minutes as we tried to navigate our way out of Merida. Visited Uxmal which had a steep pyramid of the magician (Piramide del Adivino) (off limits), and a quadrangle complex of buildings (Quadrangulo de las Monjas or Nunnery quadrangle) intricately carved…very cool. We spent some time here exploring the ruins, and then made our way towards the Governor’s palace and the simple house of turtles (aptly named). Finished up by hiking the Grand Pyramid and were thrilled to have beaten the crowds, which arrived just as we were leaving the complex. Afterwards we stopped by a restaurant that had a pool (next door to the grungy looking Rancho Uxmal Hotel), we took a swim, had a few drinks and ate lunch. We didn’t have enough pesos and they did not take credit card. We ended up paying $38, which we thought was a bit expensive. Drove back to Merida and both had stomach problems. We ended up taking an afternoon nap where it rained torrentially. Afterwards, got up and explored the city highlights. We visited the city hall, governor’s mansion and several churches and parks. Looked for hammocks but all the shops recommended in rough guide were closed. Stopped by a supermarket for something to drink and some coconut cookies. The Mandarin drink that we bought wasn’t so good, but the cookies were nice. Walked back to the hostel and called it a night.

11 Jun: Merida-Ake-Chichen Itza: Got up and packed our stuff to check out before noon. We decided to try one last time to see if we could get some hammocks from a store recommended in our guide book called Tejidos y Cordeles Nacionales on Calle 56 at 516B. Good prices and decent selection. We bought two hammocks for 560 pesos, both of them were double sized. Checked out of the hotel, and drove towards Chitzen Itza, stopping at Ake’s Maya ruin with about 20 stone pillars, which is adjacent to a functioning henequen hacienda. The hacienda was locked up but we did take some photos of the henequen, and the mayan ruins were OK (32 peso entry fee). Drove onward to Chichen Itza and pulled into the lovely Dolores Alba hotel whose inviting pool and AC room felt like a piece of heaven after stifling hot Merida. We swam, and then had dinner (steak) followed by watching “When in Rome”, a silly comedy. The plan was to get up early tomorrow to see Chichen Itza, which is one of the nicest ruins in the Yucatan and we wanted to beat the early morning crowds.

12 Jun: Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum: Drove towards Chichen Itza, where we had to pay 22 pesos for parking. The ruins were cool (the ball court and warrior 1000 columns were particularly of note). The main pyramid (El Castillo) has been blocked off for about a year now, ever since some idiot came tumbling down it. I hate mass punishment! The pyramid is cool and there are some noteworthy things to see on the higher levels, but sadly it is roped off. We started off visiting the ball court, (Gran Juego del Pelota), admiring the massive snake carvings and jaguar sentinel (at the Temple of Jaguars). Apparently one of the stone carvings at the ball field shows a player getting decapitated by the opposing team’s captain, but it is impossible to know if the loser or winner captain lost his life. We couldn’t make out the carving, as they have crumbled away too much. We did see the Tzompantli, where carved skulls showcased where victim’s heads were hung on display. The Platform of Eagles and jaguars was cool, with carvings of an eagle eating a human heart (and Jaguar doing the same) were on display. We took some self portraits against the Castillo, and then wandered over to the Temple of the warriors and the group of 1000 columns section before heading to the older (south section) of Chichen Itza’s sights. The main ones included El Osario, which had neat snake carvings up the staircases and 5 levels of tombs (although the tombs are of course off limits). The Caracol (“the snail”) is so called due to its round shape and was an old astronomy observatory. The neatest building was the Monjas (nunnery) complex, with La Iglesia (the church) complete with Chac gods & penises standing at erection in lieu of their right ear. The last sight we visited was the Cenote Sagrado, which is a massive cenote where human sacrifices (usually small kids or women) were made. If the victim managed to survive, they were believed to have had a personal conversation with God. We headed back to Dolores Alba to check out and swim in the pool. Rain started coming down torrentially, and we were able to pay for our room with credit card. The roads were slick with rain so our car started hydroplaning…not cool! We drove carefully on our way towards Coba and then to Tulum. We reached Coba by about 3:45 pm, and opted to walk the 1 KM distances instead of renting a bike. Coupled with the heavy downpour and warm weather, the humidity had us sweating profusely in just a few minutes. Coba had 3 main sites, with one located immediately after the entrance, and the other two about 1 km from the entrance. We visited all 3, hiking up the Nohoch Mul (giant pyramid) last, with a nice view over the surrounding countryside. The group of 20 or so stelae in Grupo Macanxoc was OK, as most of the carvings on the stelae have long since faded. Our drive from Coba to Tulum was straight forward, and we found our night’s lodging at the American owned, El Crucero after realizing it was NOT in the centro, but rather quite close to the Tulum ruins themselves. We found our hotel room to be a bit dingy, and could see evidence of blood splattering from dead mosquitoes squashed up against the white walls all over our room. We decided to hit the bar for the final minutes of happy hour, but after sitting down and getting no service, felt like we had to move on elsewhere. So we headed back to the room to shower and lo and behold but the American female owner decided to walk in on us in a state of undress, screaming loudly as if she were the one being walked in on in the process! Not cool…she didn’t even apologize but tried to joke “are you guys naked?” as if we were doing something wrong in the privacy of our own room. Becky was highly perturbed that she would just saunter in our room when she thought no one was in (no explanation was given) and felt it highly inappropriate especially since we had no cultural differences to overcome…the owners are American for goodness sake! We decided to get away from El Crucero for a bit, and headed downtown where dinner was fantastic at the La Nave Italian joint where fresh pizza from a brick oven was prepared in mere minutes. Becky enjoyed a salami and Robby had 4 cheese. Good dinner which brightened up our evening considerably. We found El Crucero had good strong internet signal which is its one saving grace. We were able to download some shows and get a good night sleep.

13 Jun: Tulum & Playa del Carmen: Woke up early and were at the main entrance to Tulum by about 0830. Since the site had opened at 0800, there were already early birds walking the grounds. The mosquitoes were killer in the morning, and we had to spray on tons of bug spray to keep them off. Tulum does not disappoint. The first glimpse of the turquoise waters against the Mayan ruins is enough to quicken the pulse. We loved how everyone’s first reaction mimicked ours, with everyone snapping away at the gorgeous vistas. Sadly, all of the ruins are off limits, so it didn’t take long to see the entire complex. Afterwards, we relaxed in the crystal blue waters of the inviting sea, and were astounded at the waves of visitors who kept coming and coming. We left after only 2.5 hours, having got our fill of pretty Tulum. The sheer number of visitors heading in while we were leaving was shocking, and we knew their experience of Tulum would be vastly different than ours since everyone would be competing to take their very own pictures of the ruins. Checkout at the Crucero was at 11 am, and we just barely had time to shower before the deadline. We decided to drive straight away to Playa del Carmen (or simply “Playa”) as the locals call it. The streets are easily numbered, making our hostel, the Hostel Playa, easy to find (also its just across the street from Walmart) where we stocked up on drinking and food supplies. We grabbed a roasted chicken for only 62 pesos, and it ended up being lunch for two days. The hostel had a fridge and microwave, so it was nice to have cold beverages to enjoy. After eating and getting settled in, we strolled towards the Playa and can see its appeal as a tourist destination. With gorgeous shades of blue in the water, the inviting beach lured us in and we enjoyed our time in the surf until we realized we needed to book a scuba excursion for the next 2 days. Our first choice, Playa Scuba, was closed, so we ended up booking 2 more expensive dives with Scuba Playa for dives off the Playa. We had dinner at Carboncitos, trying their highly recommended salsa/nacho dip (6 varieties of salsa…yummy) and shared a steak taco dish. Walked on the beach and crashed at the hostel afterwards.

14 Jun: Playa del Carmen: The hostel folks were partying into the wee hours of the night but it was a ghost town in the morning. We were up to go scuba diving by 0800 at Scuba Playa, where we got issued our gear and met our dive master, Hector. By 0840, we were on our way to the boat where we had two dives this morning, the Tortugas and Barracuda dives sights which were a short boat ride away. Tortugas lived up to its reputation with a lot of turtles and a bunch of tarpin towards the end of our dive. The current was very strong, so the best thing was to let it take us without any resistance. We had a short time in between dives where we drank some water and ate a yogurt bar. The second dive at Barracuda was more crowded, with a bunch more scuba boats and divers. We tried to break free from the crowds, and enjoyed seeing a neck crab (very cool, it blended in with the coral), spotted moray and green eel, a pipe seahorse, spider, stingray. Becky got nicked by an aggressive sergeant major fish who was nesting and felt she got too close to the nest! Two nice dives and we enjoyed it and Hector, who is a very nice guy. He took his underwater camera and ended up taking a couple of photos of us, promising to email them to us once we friended him on facebook. We thanked him and the Scuba Playa crew after our dive and headed to the hostel for lunch. We did stop by Playa Scuba and were happy to find them open, booking 2 cenote dives with them for the next day, with a 500 peso deposit and the promise to see them at 0800. Lunch was chicken and we then had several hours of beach time, soaking up the rays. Afterwards, we caught happy hour (pina coladas for Becky and cerveza for Robby) on the main strip (5th avenue) and than headed back to the hostel to grab more money for dinner, at the highly recommended Argentinean restaurant (El Diez) on Calle 30 and the main strip….yummy and affordable dinner plus a kick ass mojito. We really enjoyed it. Becky bought some jewelry from a silver store and we fell asleep watching The Book of Eli.

15 Jun: Playa del Carmen, Cancun: Got up and were at the crowded Scuba Playa by 0800. There were apparently 3 groups of divers heading to the Dos Ojos Cenotes today, and our dive guide was the friendly Fernando. We drove in the car with Luis (co owner with German Klaus) after getting our gear sorted out. First we stopped (briefly) by a taco shop where tacos could be eaten for 10 pesos each. We tried the local drink of rice & sugar “Horchata” which was refreshing. The Cenotes dive experience was incredible! We had to pay a park entrance fee of 100 pesos each, (we did get our gear for free from the dive shop since we were staying at the hostel) and we were limited to small groups of no more than 5 each (incl dive master). Our group consisted of me and Robby, Dan (father who had to split from his group) and Fernando. Very cool, did feel like flying in air since the visibility was so clear and the caves were so pristine. I loved it although Dan thought it was a bit boring. Guess cenote diving isn’t for everyone although we thought it was spectacular. Right after our first dive, we got fresh tanks and were off straight away for our second dive, consisting of just me and Robby and Fernando…lucky us. We got to stray off the rope a bit and ended up in a bat cave (neat) and minnows kept trying to nibble on us. Lunch was simple fare of sandwiches (tasty) and we checked out the photos that the professional photographer had taken although we thought the price was too steep at 500 pesos for a CD! He had some nice shots of us but we just couldn’t imagine paying that kind of money for the shots. We helped Luis lug all the stuff back to the dive shop and thanked him and the crew for a fabulous day. We stopped by an ATM for US $ and than grabbed our luggage from the hostel, making the drive to Cancun. We found our hostel relatively easily, the Hostel El Meson del Tulum and took a dip in the pool. While packing for our onward trip, we realized we still had chips/salsa to consume so we had that for dinner and got caught up on trip notes. Overall initial impression of Mexico is that we have only glimpsed the surface of this vivacious country. We cannot wait to come back and explore much more of this fascinating region of the world.

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