After slightly over two months in Central America we crossed into Mexico and were promptly handed a 6 month visa and allowed to pass into the country without having our bags searched. We have managed to travel all the way from Panama City, through nine border controls without being searched or scanned once!
Before we started the trip, Mexico was the country that I was most looking forward to visiting, but then I had been looking forward to Vietnam too, so my excitement at reaching this milestone was slightly tempered. I’ve always loved spicy food and that has only been enhanced throughout the trip, and as Mexico is known for its spicy salsas and our first region is famous for it’s habanero peppers, I think I might just have arrived in heaven!
The most noticeable thing at our first bus station was the lack of chicken buses, they had been replaced by Pullman coaches where you get assigned a seat that you don’t have to share with anyone else and all the people with their market goods aren’t crammed into the aisles, but this privilege comes with a hefty price tag. Arriving in Tulum we quickly went about finding our first taco stall, which came complete with a salsa that was satisfyingly spicy.
Did I mention we had been looking forward to Mexican food? The next day rather than exploring Tulum, we decided to go on a self-guided food tour, trying the different types of antojitos (snacks) on offer, including sopes, gringas, burritos and panuchos, topping off the evening with fajitas and enchiladas and finishing a bowl of salsa that I had been warned was ‘muy muy picante’.
Realising that if we tried to eat our way around Mexico it could lead to serious waistline problems, we decided to broaden our Mexican horizons outside of food and as this region was once the heartland of the Maya civilisation it wasn’t too hard to find some culture. If I was around in Maya times then I would have wanted to have been situated at the Tulum complex. Even though it’s not as extensive or impressive as some of the other Maya sites we’ve seen, it has the perfect location!
The beach and the colour of the sea made for an amazing setting and somewhere as good looking as this is understandably followed by crowds of tourists over the busy holiday period, but it was still great to cool off in the huge waves and become pro wave jumpers.
Whilst at the ruins we got to see the Danza de los Voladores or Dance of the Flyers, performed by the Maya as a gesture to Itzamna their creator god. Not for those who are scared of heights, five men dressed in traditional costume climb a pole, then, while one plays a flute from the top, the four others spin around a pole upside down with ropes bound to their waists and wrapped around their ankles until they reach ground.
The Yucután Peninsula was created when a giant coral reef became exposed to the atmosphere. Gradually the coral limestone was dissolved by rainfall and created a massive cave and underground river system. Many of them collapsed creating sink holes or became flooded, creating Cenotes where fresh water floats on top of sea water. We signed up to a snorkelling trip that included a trip to the 3rd longest underwater cave system in the world, Cenote Dos Ojos. The water was spectacularly clear and the stalactite and stalagmite formations provided a fascinating snorkel as we swam through the formations and dived down through them, occasionally swimming under very low ceilings to enter caves, such as the Bat Cave, which despite having bats in had no sign of Batman. It was an eerie but highly recommendable experience and it was easy to see why it was chosen as the location for the horror film The Cave.
Our next site was Yal-Ku laguna which is comprised of fresh water run off from Cenotes that merges in the laguna with sea water. Again there was an opportunity to swim through rock formations as the porous rocks have created tunnels as well as being able to see an abundance of fish under the mangroves that were protruding into the laguna. We returned to Tulum to see in the New Year, happily sampling many of the local brews on offer.
Next we headed inland to use Valladolid as our base to visit the most recognisable Maya site in the Yucután Peninsula. While exploring the city’s central plaza we came across a local food court where we would eat all our meals over the next three days and where I took on an assumed name. On our first visit, when writing out our order we forgot to write down a name and when I told them my name it was written down as Frayman, so that became my name in Valladolid, and the owner of the restaurant would beckon us using it every time we walked into the food court. Despite trying as much as we could we didn’t even make a dent on the extensive list of regional foods on offer, but managed the spicy stuffed jalapeno peppers.
Meaning at the mouth of the well of the Itzá, referring to the sacred cenote within the complex grounds, Chichén Itzá is the the most visited attraction in the Yucután province and one of the most visited sites in Mexico. So to beat the crowds we arrived early, but we weren’t expecting to be the first people in line to buy tickets, which meant that we were the first to see it’s most photographed landmark, the Kukulcán Pyramid or El Castillo. The temple has been beautifully restored on three sides but perhaps our favourite aspect of the temple was the side that is yet to be restored.
Despite the impressive nature of El Castillo our favourite part of the complex was the great ball court, the largest of it’s kind in the Maya world. Not much is known about the exact rules of the game but the inscriptions on the walls of the court give some details to the rules of the game which involved getting a ball through rings located 30ft in the air, with the losers like in most Maya contests losing their heads.
The Maya are well known for their human sacrifices and at Chichén Itzá, they even had a platform on which to display the heads of the decapitated, which is easily recognisable from carvings of skulls along its base.
We were slightly concerned that Chichén Itzá wouldn’t live up to the hype as the Maya site that made the new seven wonders of the world list amongst all others, but it was a grand and colossal structure that left us in awe of this wonder.
Playa Del Carmen
We headed back on the coast for some beach time. Most of this region is pretty developed, but we had managed to miss the ‘in your face’ mass tourism aspect of it, but in Playa Del Carmen it was inescapable. Aside from the advertisements for Tequila, Corona and Tacos it didn’t feel like Mexico, with its North American stores, fast food outlets and prices displayed and quoted in US$, it could be anywhere in the world. It’s the sort of place where you come for a drinking holiday and have a good time on the beach.
However, for backpackers the accommodations are expensive and not worth the money, the food portions are large but expensive and there is nothing authentic about it. However, there is a reason why so many people come here and that’s due to its fabulous coastline and the activities along it, and we are no different so we decided to head over to Isla Cozumel 20 kilometres away to see if we could find it more to our liking.
Although still very touristy, we preferred Cozumel to Playa as most of the tourist industry is based on resorts dotted around the island, not in the main town where we chose to stay. Even though the first couple of streets from the shore where filled with shops and touts leaping onto day trippers, when they returned to their hotel or cruise ship in the evening the numbers died down and it didn’t feel so touristy, and just heading inland a few streets back you could find a real Mexican town and all the places where the locals eat and drink.
Cozumel is the largest island in Mexico and is rumoured to have some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world. Although more expensive than in other countries I've dived I decided to see for myself. Despite strong currents of around 4 mph where we got pushed where the current wanted to take us, it lived up to the hype and as probably the last diving that I’ll do on the trip, it was nice to have saved the best to last, but I wont be a dive bore this time and will leave the fish descriptions to your imagination!
After ten days discovering what our taco limits are(Jo = 3, Ryan = 5), we decided to set off from Mexico’s largest island to the biggest island in the Caribbean, but more on that next time.
Ryan y Jo