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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Yucatan drive-thru part 2!

MEXICO | Saturday, 28 February 2009 | Views [7715]

The deathly theme continues into the souvenirs...

The deathly theme continues into the souvenirs...

Everything was set for our rendezvous with my parents on 2nd February: our accommodation was booked for the following 2 weeks and we had even hired a car. Our itinerary went something like this: bumming on the beach in Puerto Morelos, taking in the temples of Tulum and Coba, enjoying cafe culture in Merida and finally an ecological retreat in Ek Balam; the last stop also being the perfect base to explore one of the biggest Mayan cities Chichen Itza .

Our first challenge was to collect the car from Cancun airport, navigate our way to Puerto Morelos a “sleepy” fishing village only 20km away and book into our self catering apartment. Actually, as it turned out our first challenge was simply to get the car. My online booking had vanished into the ether and it took at least two hours to get a replacement vehicle. On the road finally, Dan driving, we faced the next challenge: the Mexican road system.

We’ve seen some driving since we arrived in Central America, but always from the relative safety of a bus, where keeping us alive and finding the destination is someone else’s problem. Now it was ours. Dual carriageways, impatient speeding drivers overtaking on the inside, massive road humps and incomprehensible signage (or lack of) quickly heightened our stress levels. Mine only came down when we finally handed the car back two weeks later... But amazingly we found Puerto Morelos and our pad with only two smallish detours. Having dumped our bags we were almost straight out the door again and off to the airport again to pick up Mum and Dad.

Nearly everyone who arrives in Cancun is on a package tour and it shows. Reps wait outside the doors to the terminal, herding their passengers into waiting buses. Information on incoming flights was minimal. We finally found an arrivals screen in the bar next to the terminal doors, you guessed it, you’re not actually allowed into Arrivals. The flight we were waiting for was delayed and we settled down to wait. Several hours later my frazzled parents finally made it through the portals, minus my Dad’s luggage. We were able to leave the airport... only to come back the next day.

Taking a breather between trips to the airport...

After a good nights sleep we were back again, this time to sign my Dad up as a driver, to increase our level of car insurance (yep we were that scared) and to find out where the heck that bag was. It hadn’t left home. So now we had to dare the roads of Cancun itself to find Walmart and spare clothes. Road works and curses later we settled for Sears, found a supermarket and made it back to Puerto Morelos with a big sigh of relief. At last we could relax.

Puerto Morelos was about as sleepy as it gets on the Mayan Riviera. It had its own hotel zone, compact town square, bars, restaurants, book shop, artisan shops etc bordered by the sea on one side and a saline lagoon which curbed development on the other. A short slip road later and you hit the coastal highway, and over the road from there the rest of Morelos. This was supposed to be our beach base for a couple of days, but we settled for the pool instead. Winds were up meaning all the beach was good for was exfoliation! After a day resting and building up our courage we hit the road again this time in search of a cenote.

This cenote was 50m deep!

Heading inland the landscape we found ourselves in resembled a large calcareous sponge with scrub trees on top. Dry, water runs underground, accessible only via large subterranean sinks known as cenotes, or as some people like to call them ‘C’-notes! Sometimes roofs collapse and you can gaze down 30m to a pool below. Trees know to sink their roots down. People too relied on them to live here. Now tourists like us swim in them! But not without a road adventure first of course! We hit road works again, this time complete resurfacing of single carriageway. Which is to say we were in the middle of nowhere on an unmade road, dodging machines and trying to find a sign, any kind of sign that the cenote was near.

Luckily while we were out getting lost, our luggage was found. It arrived soon enough to invalidate any insurance claim by my outraged father. Guess what? He’d never lost a bag before!

After Morelos we headed back down the coast towards Tulum, taking in a spot of coffee window shopping in Playa... In Tulum, we almost got lost again, trying to find our hotel along yet another unmade road. This time tracks were carved out of the scrub forest in a grid-like pattern anticipating Tulum’s expansion. And there it was, our hotel a veritable oasis of high walls courtyard fountains and sumptuous rooms... on a deserted dusty track which two years down the line will probably be full of traffic. It really happens that quickly. Why? Because tourists, like us, keep coming back for more.

The hordes at Tulum

Tulum’s big attraction is actually 2km outside the town along the beach. Somehow they’ve kept development to a minimum on the shore itself. It’s worth the view. The ruins of what was once a small Mayan fishing/trading settlement (complete with temples, of course) stand proudly on bluffs overlooking a pearly Caribbean sea. The ruins were quickly explored. Everybody was actually here for the beach and the amazing backdrop. Everybody being the operative word, it was crowded. That wasn’t enough to put us off viewing the beach though and once we felt the sand between our toes, Dan was first in.

Dan can`t resist a dip

After Tulum, we headed inland to Coba. This is another ancient city taken over by time and forests, but now partially restored for the benefit of roaming tourists. The site is extensive and so we hired bikes to see the ruins. That was a load of fun in itself! Besides its archaeological interest this is a good place to see birds and crocodiles in the nearby lake. So it was no surprise that a pair of British birdwatchers kept popping out of the undergrowth on our way around...

Having fun cycling at Coba

Our next stop was the colonial city of Merida, the capital of the Yucatan state. Leaving the highway we joined an arterial road into the city and were soon faced with the intimidating but surprisingly logical Mexican system of alternating one-way streets. Merida had the novelty of numbered “calles”, although it`s best not to rely on street signage. Some of the numbers went into reverse or were skipped altogether and signs were quite often missing or just painted over. Far better to spot a landmark and then count the number of blocks straight ahead and left or right to your destination. In this way we made it to the front door of our hotel in the historical centre. And, with a further set of instructions from the Gerencia (management) succeeded in placing the car in secure parking for the duration of our visit. Phew.

Merida is huge, have I mentioned the Mexican propensity for urban sprawl? More than a million people, and yet the centre is easily covered on foot. It`s not touristy despite quite a few tourists. There was one pedestrianised street and a profusion of small shops selling everything from knick-knacks to power drills. There were no fancy boutiques like Playa del Carmen, much to the disappointment of some of us... Then there were the street vendors keen to sell you hamacas (hammocks), shirts, bracelets, belts, sunglasses.... anything they could carry in fact. Except live animals! This being the Yucatan and a Mayan heartland there were also plenty of artisanias. We found our way to a cooperative enterprise called Maya Mundo where Dan promptly fell in love with their hand woven rugs. Twenty four hours later the compulsion was still as strong so Dan claimed possession of a fine red specimen, in exchange for a healthy dowry of pesos. Just so you know, we`re not carrying it around with us! It`s currently on holiday in France chez family Lee.

Maypole dancing Mexican style...

Whilst in Merida we visited the sites like the cathedral and municipal palace with its grand murals of the arrival of the Spanish, Mayan rebellion and ensuing history (see our photo gallery!). We also enjoyed the cafe culture for which the city is renowned; alternating between caffeine and alcoholic beverages. I have it on good authority (Dan`s palate) that Mexican beer is pretty good. The evenings were spent experiencing more Mexican delights (although more for the carnivores) for example the mole poblano a chocolate chilli sauce often served with chicken, and lime soup. Our last night in the city included a cultural show with folk dancing. Men and women dressed in white pivoting round with trays of drinks balanced on there heads. Then later more peculiarly something that very closely resembled a maypole dance! 

Enjoying cafe culture in Merida

Our last stay after Merida was in the rural village of Ek Balam, near some Mayan ruins of the same name. We stayed in an ecolodge, the Genesis Retreat, an oasis of peace and quiet after the traffic of the city... Until nightfall. Then the dog chorus began, howling, barking fighting through until the early hours. As the dogs finally wore themselves out, the cockerels started heralding the fact that sunrise was at least 3 hours away. We shouldn`t have been surprised, Dan and I have been there before, but the next day and for rest of our time in the village we woke up feeling like zombies.

Nevertheless, we found the energy to climb the temples of Ek Balam – the biggest we`d seen so far in the Yucatan, and with (Dan says) fantastically preserved stucco friezes. Then we made an early Sunday morning trip to Chichen Itza, one of the best known sites in the peninsula. Our reward was to make it there in the cool of the day, before the crowds and just as pleasantly, before the souvenir vendors had set up their stalls. Dan was in his element, it’s the same as castles, give him a camera and ancient crumbling piles of stone and he´s off.  With some imagination we could, almost, imagine having the place to yourselves. This city was once huge. Everything about it is on a grand scale: the buildings, the carvings, the plaza. It was designed to impress and from my perspective to instil fear – if the number of skull and other macabre motifs are anything to go by. I decided some time ago that I wouldn’t have wanted to live in ancient Mayan Society and what I saw here did nothing to change my mind!

The grandeur of Chichen Itza

Deciding to enjoy some more sights from the present day our last day trip was to the nearby town of Valladolid. This was a pleasant colonial town in the process of tidying itself for tourists (e.g. repaving the town square), but still very much its own place. We wandered around its busy streets admiring the architecture. Here we stopped at a small cafe in the centre and I had the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. Forget cocoa, this was melted dark chocolate delight! Later, lunch was at the town’s cenote. No swimming there now, but surely it is the reason for the town being here. With a nose for shopping we also found a street where several businesses were making and selling shoes. Three pairs of sandals later (between three of us) and we were ready to go home. The next day it was back to Cancun airport and an end to our Yucatan holiday.

Valladolid Plaza

To see more photos of the Yucatan, click here

Tags: beaches, cenotes, coba, dogs, driving, luggage, merida, parents, ruins, tulum


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