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Tegan & Ingrid's world adventure

Mexico - Part 2 - Beaches and Pyramids

MEXICO | Sunday, 13 May 2012 | Views [2411]

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Most people would not have heard of the Yucatan Peninsula, or at least more people would have heard of Cancun – the premier destination for American College kids on their ‘Spring Break’. Cancun is one of the cities located on the Yucatan and the most common port for travellers in and out of the region, and we were no different. We flew into Cancun airport late in the evening, however with limited time to spend in the area, we decided against spending the night in the famed party town and headed further south to an equally infamous destination for partying, Playa del Carmen.
A friend we made on our travels explained the difference between the two cities quite well; Cancun is where you go if you want to party to get wasted, Playa is where you go if you want to party to dance. In essence, Playa has more of a European chic about it, with thousands of sun lounges and umbrellas strewn over the beach and a more ‘subdued’ and family orientated demographic – much more like a place we wanted to spend some time in when we arrived.

We spent the next day or two in Playa just soaking up rays on the beach and wandering up and down Avenida 5 – (what seemed like an) endless walking street running parallel to the beach front absolutely chockers with gift shops, restaurants and bars, nightclubs, jewellery stores, cafes, street performers and countless store merchants trying to lure you into their shops by any means (this got quite annoying). On top of this, you are constantly hassled by taxi drivers wanting a fare – kind of pointless considering we were all ‘walking’ up a ‘walking street’ if you ask me. Don’t get me wrong, Playa del Carmen is one world class beach destination, just a bit too touristy for my tastes.

The touristiness was fortunately not to last much longer. We took a local ‘Collectivo’ an hour or so south along the coast to the somewhat sleepier resort town of Tulum. Now, I just want to say straight off the bat that Tulum would probably be my all time favourite beach destination in the world! This place is amazing, and I could have stayed for weeks given the chance. Tulum is divided into two main sections; the beach front and the town centre. The beach front is approx 15kms long and spanned by hundreds of resort style hotels and cabanas (beach shacks) as well as excellent restaurants and of course one seriously incredible turquoise water front. The town is about 5kms inland from the beach but is not quite as long. The benefit of having the town this far inland is that it provides much cheaper options for accommodation and dinner to that of the beach front. The downside however is that it costs you 50Pesos (about $4) every time you want to take a taxi to or from the shore.

We spent three days of absolute bliss in Tulum. Each night we had a slightly different sleeping experience. The first night we stayed in a funky little hostel in town where we slept in our first double-bed bunk-beds. The second night we splurged a little and got ourselves a nice hotel room with a great coffee breakfast (somewhat of a rarity in Latin America). Finally on the third night we found some fantastic little Cabanas on the beach – quite literally stepping out our door onto white powder-like sands. While our nightly situation was changing, our daily routine stayed somewhat the same; sun, water and relaxation. I cannot talk up the Tulum beaches enough. The water is so warm and so calm and so blue-green it’s ridiculous. The sand is so fine and so white, yet not too hot to walk on and doesn’t get blown in your face while you are lying down. And, it’s quiet. So nice and quiet, this just made it seem so much more like we had our own little tropical paradise going on.

Then you visit the ruins. Oh my god. I’m pretty sure the ancient Mayan Wikipedia would have had a picture of this place next to the entry on ‘Paradise’. While the Tulum ruins themselves are not as grand or well preserved as others on the Yucatan, its setting makes up for it and more. Perched high on a cliff top overlooking the Caribbean Sea stands the small Fort ruins of Tulum. Built as an Ocean watch point for the Maya there was no need for grand Temples and the like, just watch towers, defence posts and some accommodation. But I tell you what; these guards seriously lucked out by getting posted here.

We left Tulum around lunch time after having visited the ruins and caught a short bus ride inland to the ruins of Coba. The ruins of Coba are quite unique from other sites on the Yucatan for one main reason – they haven’t been excavated as much as the others. This means that there is still plenty of Jungle surrounding the structures full of wildlife. Lonely Planet puts it really quite accurately when describing Coba – they say “… It feels like you’re in a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And they’re not wrong. We spent all afternoon wandering the huge site that is Coba, and due to its size, most of the time we were on our own trudging through the Jungle (so cool).

The next site on our list of ruins to see was the world famous Chichen Itza. After spending the night in the nearby colonial city of Valladolid (and enjoying in my opinion the best Mexican meal of our entire stay in the country, Burros –a huge, fat Burrito filled with seared meat and veg and topped with sour cream, cheese and lettuce *drooooooool*) we met a really cool chick from Brooklyn, Leticia, who actually grew up in Uruguay so helped us out for the day with her much better Spanish skills. So once again, it was really nice to meet someone new and enjoy the awesome sight that is Chichen Itza with her.

Ever since Chichen Itza was named as one of the new wonders of the modern world every single tourist on the Yucatan makes their way here. Day tours from all over the peninsula as well as Backpackers and self guided tourists absolutely swarm to this site every day. So we made sure to get there quite early to beat most of the crowds. I’m glad we did. We had about 30mins around the main Pyramid, El Castillo, pretty much by ourselves (except for the handful of Yoga and ‘Natural Energy’ absorbing hippies littering the grounds), so we were lucky enough to manage some photos without any other tourists. While the main Pyramid is the major draw card, Chichen Itza has so many other amazing sights to explore; from the ancient Great Ball Court*, the largest in Mesoamerica to the Group of a Thousand Columns. A lot of travellers that we had spoken to on our journey through the Yucatan had told us how they thought Chichen Itza was overrated and that the only reason it was named a wonder of the modern world (over other ruins in the area) was because of its convenient location to Cancun, etc. I must disagree. Chichen Itza is incredibly impressive and is by far the most well preserved and maintained of all the ancient ruins that we saw. A true ‘wonder’ in my mind, and a great way to conclude our journey through the Yucatan Peninsula.

*The Mesoamerican Ballgame, or Ulama, was pivotal in Mayan society and is quite interesting. Many historians believe it was the earliest form of the sport that evolved into what we now know as Football, or Soccer. Not only was the game played as a form of recreation, but it was also commonly used as a form of religious ceremony, a way of settling neighbourly disputes and even as a form of warfare between rivalling tribes. In the most widespread version of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips and forearms, although some versions allowed the use of rackets, bats, or hand stones. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4 kg, and sizes differed greatly over time or according to the version played. The aim was to keep the ball in play and try to strike it through your opponent’s goal, which was about a foot in diameter and usually about 3 meters above the court on the side walls. More often than not, if the match was not of a social nature, the game would conclude with the losing player/team captain or in some cases the entire losing side being sacrificed through decapitation.

I must admit, after flying back into Mexico City we had planned to spend a few days further north in the town of Morelia, however after so much travelling ( we were now up to 10 months and counting) the idea of staying in one place was just too appealing. So we planted our stuff in the hostel and stayed in the city for the next five days. Our time was by no means uneventful however.  One day we visited the home (and now museum) of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter (you may remember the film about her life played by Salma Hayek) and also the home of Leon Trotsky after he was exiled out of Russia. Both museums were fantastic because they were maintained in the way that the two would have lived inside them, all the furniture and working instruments still in their rightful places. We also spent an afternoon at the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropological Museum), which is incredible and covers the entire history of civilization throughout Mexico from the earliest forms of man through to traditional cultures still existing today.

Just before we were to leave Mexico we had one more amazing sight to see. The ancient site of Teotihuacan is located roughly 30kms from Mexico City and houses two of the largest pyramid structures in the world; Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. Joined by the ‘Avenue of the Dead’, these two gigantic structures are over 2000 years old and tower above the surrounding landscape. It’s also home to the largest collection of locals trying to flog off cheap and tacky souvenirs I’ve ever seen anywhere. You seriously couldn’t take 10 steps without being hassled to buy something useless which was always described as “almost free”. Hilarious.

Anyway, all great things must come to an end, and so it was time for us to leave this astonishing country. Mexico truly surprised us (in a good way), and we can’t wait to come back someday.

But for now it was on to the final stop on our round the world adventure, California!

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