Mexico wasn’t on our initial list of countries we wanted to visit during this journey around the Americas. When it came to booking our flights from Cuba though, it ended up being way cheaper to fly to Cancún and travel overland from there than fly to Belize City.
Our Interjet flight from Havana took a bit over an hour. As we approached Cancún, we spotted Isla Mujeres, and the white sand beaches and high rises of Cancún’s hotel zone in the distance. But the last and most memorable thing we saw before the touchdown was a carpet of green with the occasional dead-straight road cutting through it. Most of Yucatán (the peninsula), as we found out, looks like that.
Having just left Cuba and travelled around the Caribbean islands for the past three months, arriving in Cancún felt like re-entering civilisation. Clean, wide roads, modern cars, shopping malls and large illuminated billboards greeted us on our way from the airport.
What did we get up to?
Considering we hadn’t planned to come to Mexico initially, we ended up spending 17 days on the Yucatán Peninsula (four nights in Cancún, one night in Chichén Itzá, seven nights in Tulum, five nights in Mérida) and seven days in Mexico City.
We took ADO (first class) and Oriente (second class) buses to travel between our Yucatán destinations. While both are owned by the same company and use the same terminals (at least at the destinations we visited), there are differences:
- The ADO buses were super clean, spacious, on time, with air conditioning set at perfect temperatures and toilets that worked; total luxury and way better than our experience with Greyhound while travelling around the United States of America. Tickets can be booked online, though we always bought them at the counter at the ADO terminal.
- Oriente reminded us of some of the buses we travelled on in Ecuador – still air-conditioned but without a toilet, a little less spacious than ADO, and stopping more frequently to drop off / pick up people along the way. A bus ticket from Chichén Itzá to Tulum cost us MXN104 per person (versus MXN220 on ADO to give you a comparison). Tickets can only be bought at the bus terminal (or on the bus).
Cancún has two distinct parts:
- the Zona Hotelera (a thin strip of land where hotel after hotel line endless white-sand beaches and shopping malls, chain restaurants and bars with nightly wet t-shirt competitions fill up space in between); and
- the Zona Urbana (where the workers from the hotel zone live with their families, and you can find low key accommodation options, and ma and pa taco restaurants).
You can take your guess where we stayed… in the latter of course, and we were glad we did. We had a small house just around the corner from Parque Las Palapas all to ourselves. The park has countless food and market stalls, and local families come here in the evenings and on weekends to hang out… a world away from the hotel zone.
As we played catch-up on website work after Cuba, we didn’t come to Cancún to do touristy stuff. There isn’t that much anyhow that would have interested us. We had planned to swim with whale sharks but decided against it when we heard that often dozens of boats congregate around one shark, putting them into distress just so that each of us gets 10min in the water with them (all for USD150+ pp). That item will have to remain on my bucket list unticked until we find somewhere more ecologically sensible.
One afternoon, we caught a public bus to check out the hotel zone (MXN12 per person), strolling along Playa Marlin, and enjoying the sunset over the lagoon that separates the two parts of the city with a few drinks and nibbles at one of the bars at La Isla Shopping Village. I tried my first and so far only Michelada, which I must say was not bad at all.
While you can visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site on a day trip, we had decided to stay overnight so that we could be on the site right when it opened at 0800h. This way, we were able to enjoy the monuments before the day-trippers arrived and beat the heat at the same time.
We stayed at Hotel Villas Arqueologicas, ten minutes’ walk from the site’s eastern entrance. The hotel was nice but unfortunately, it was hit by lightning the afternoon we arrived, which meant no electricity (and ultimately no water to shower or flush the toilet) for the duration of our stay (only the neighbouring five-star hotels have backup generators).
Buses that stop in Chichén Itzá drop off / pick up passengers at the main entrance. So if you decide to stay at one of the hotels near the eastern entrance you will have to get a taxi around the site to your hotel (for MXN80) – and reverse when you continue your journey. Bus tickets can be bought at the main entrance, to the left inside the souvenir shop.
Chichén Itzá was bigger than either of us had expected. We ended up walking seven kilometres, crisscrossing between the different monuments. Many people rave about the Great Ball Court, El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors. They are certainly impressive but when it comes to choosing a favourite, we preferred the older structures such as the Ossuary (Tomb of the High Priest) and the richly adorned Nunnery and Church. Guided tours in English are available for MXN900 (about 2 hours). We roamed around the site ourselves and watched a few YouTube documentaries afterwards to get a better understanding of Chichén Itzá and the ancient Maya civilisation.
Apart from the archaeological site, we also spent an afternoon at Ik-Kil, a cenote about 3km east of Chichén Itzá. For those that haven’t heard about cenotes: Yucatán is essentially a giant limestone shelf that lifted out of the sea some 60million years ago. Limestone is very porous, so over time, water created caves (with stalagmites and stalactites) and some of them eventually collapsed to form giant sinkholes. Yucatán has thousands of these sinkholes (3,500 seems to be the most quoted number), some are still cave or cavern-like, others are fully open. And many of them are interconnected with each other and with the sea, making Yucatán THE paradise for cave divers.
Anyhow, Ik-Kil was to be our first cenote in Yucatán (we had visited another sinkhole, the Tosua Ocean Trench, in Samoa in 2014). It was impressive… and full of tourists cooling off after a day of traipsing around the archaeological site. Apart from the obligatory gift shop and restaurant, the place had showers, lockers (MXN30) and bathrooms, and those less confident in their swimming abilities could rent life vests. The sinkhole itself is ginormous. A staircase leads down to the base where people can enter the water via wooden ladders or jump from various heights into the water. If you don’t want to share the water with huge numbers of orange-clad day-trippers stay overnight and go there at 0800h when it opens. What you will share the water with though are small catfish (the largest I saw was about the size of my forearm). We enjoyed this first cenote experience, despite the busloads of tourists. The entry fee was MXN80 per person.
Similar to Cancún, Tulum is actually made up of three parts:
- Las Ruinas (the archaeological site);
- the Zona Hotelera (with the low key, off the grid boutique hotels and slightly esoteric, more expensive restaurants along Tulum’s beaches); and
- El Pueblo (the town itself where the workers of the hotel zone live, and you can find most of the backpacker accommodation and less expensive eateries).
Each is a few kilometres away from each other, requiring some form of transport. Many people hire bicycles. The cheapest we found was MXN100 for 24 hours. While there are collectivos (shared minibuses) between the Pueblo and the Zona Hotelera, they did not stop for us when we tried to flag them down. We heard from some sources that they are for the hotel workers only, but maybe they were just full.
There are plenty of collectivos servicing the road between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and hence the best option to get to the archaeological site is to take one to the turn-off (MXN20 per person) and then walk the 800-900 metres to the entrance. You can take the same collectivos if you want to go to Santa Fe or Paraiso Beaches. Just turn right when you reach the archaeological site (rather than left to the entrance) and after another kilometre, you’re at the beach. Taxis to these beaches from the Pueblo (or return) are MXN80.
The archaeological site is beautiful, a city built right on the beach. There is hardly any shade though, so bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water. Guided tours in English are MXN560, but we walked around ourselves and watched a YouTube video of the guided tour afterwards. Mayan ingenuity was again displayed in Tulum: noticing that the windows of the Castillo had different shapes, a guy managed to prove that the Mayans used these at night to direct boats through a small opening in the reef that stretches along the Yucatán all the way south to Honduras. With fires placed behind each window, boats had reached the safe passage when they saw the light from both windows equally strong. Genius…
While Tulum’s beaches are gorgeous, and it is thankfully less developed than Cancún or Playa del Carmen, Tulum has grown massively over the last decade, and prices (especially in the Zona Hotelera) have gone up accordingly. We stayed in the Pueblo and found it to be way cheaper, both in terms of accommodation as well as for groceries and dining (the fruit and veggie market was a block away from our apartment). Tulum had a very laid-back vibe, with lots of hostels, cool bars, restaurants and cafes. No wonder, so many foreigners have moved there.
We decided to hire a scooter for a day from a shop near the Scotiabank branch on the way out towards Playa del Carmen (MXN500 for 24h). We spent the day visiting two cenotes and riding along the beach road in the afternoon, stopping for ice cream at Origami (which was not cheap but had superfast Wi-Fi, and the ice cream was nice too).
Arriving at around 0900h, we only shared the place with a minibus full of Japanese tourists. The cenote is partially open, consists of two interconnected caverns/caves, and has stalagmites and stalactites underwater (bring your goggles or rent them on-site). It is home to a group of turtles that swim around the water lilies, small fish, small birds that nest in the walls (including the gorgeous mot-mot) as well as tiny bats. While not cheap (entry: MXN180 per person), we really enjoyed it (especially without the crowds).
A few kilometres north-west of Gran Cenote, this one was again very different: fully open like a deep rock pool, with small caverns leading off to the sides. The cenote is not very big but great if you like practising your somersaults jumping into the clear deep water. You can do that from three different launch points and there is even a zip line. The entrance fee (MXN80) includes the use of a swimming pool and various chill-out areas. There is a restaurant on site which serves huge and surprisingly yummy meals. We arrived at Zacil-Ha around 1100h and shared the cenote with a family of seven. When they left, we had it all to ourselves (albeit not for long).
The water at all cenotes we have visited was pretty cold, which is nice on a hot day, but if you get cold easily you may want to bring a shirt.
The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Mérida was the friendliness of its people. Actually, it scared us at first when people approached us asking whether we needed help or even just whether we had a good day. In other countries, this usually meant they wanted to sell us something or just beg for money. Not so in Mérida: A guy crossing the street would give us a short history lesson as we stopped outside one of the many theatres. An office worker on his break, coffee cup in hand, would stop for the small talk.
Besides its people, the capital of the state of Yucatán is blessed with stunning colonial architecture. It was already an important settlement under the ancient Maya, but sadly nothing is left of it as the Spaniards used the stones from the Mayan buildings to build their own structures (over the top).
Mérida is the American Capital of Culture 2017. Every night of the week, there were different shows in different parts of the city centre – all for free. Yucatán Today is a great source to find out what’s on but also to learn about all the things to see and do in the state of Yucatán.
Also free are the guided walking tours starting at 0930h and1800h from the Palacio Municipal at Plaza Grande and covering the area around Plaza Grande and the Iglesia El Jesus. During our time in Mérida, we tried Yucatecan specialities at Chaya Maya, checked out the huge Lucas de Galvez market area, and enjoyed a Sunday stroll around the traffic-free city centre.
We can also recommend a visit to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (or GMMM). Did you know that a meteorite hit an area just north of Mérida which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago? Well, you will hear all about it and learn a lot more about Yucatec and Mayan history at this well-curated museum.
Ciudad de México
With 22 million people living in the greater Ciudad de México (CDMX) area, we expected it to be huge and busy, but nothing can really prepare you for it. Landing in Ciudad de México, you can hardly make out the carpet of houses under the cloak of smog covering the city. Though thankfully, the air was not as bad as we first expected.
People in CDMX seem to be in constant movement, a bit like ants. An efficient metro system connects the different parts of this huge city. So efficient in fact, that you have to be very fast getting on and off the train as doors close on you with hardly any warning. Thankfully, there is a section for women and children at the front of the train which I used when I travelled by myself. This is intended to prevent sexual harassment (which sadly seems to be a big issue in Mexico) but also makes for a less pushy experience as you get on/off the train. On our last day, Paul and I got separated (and I got squashed by the closing doors) when we tried to catch a train. A bit shaken, bruised and dirty, we were reunited at the next station.
Mérida and CDMX were late additions to our itinerary. We had planned to cross the border into Belize on 20/21 July, but Paul then learned from a running friend that Ciudad de México hosted its annual Half-Marathon on 30 July. With the cheapest flight to CDMX departing from Mérida, we added some time there, taking the opportunity to catch up with the parents of our friend Tanja, and a few days in the capital for Paul to acclimatise to the altitude. At 2,200m above sea level, CDMX is not quite as high as Quito but still enough to cause shortness of breath and headaches for a few days (at least for me).
We stayed in a great short-term rental apartment near the Plaza de la República. In walking distance of both San Cosme and Revolución metro stations, it was the perfect spot from which to discover the city.
A self-guided walking tour around the Centro Historico took us to the Zocalo (if you watched the James Bond movie Spectre you may remember the huge square at the beginning of the movie), the Municipal Cathedral and through pedestrian shopping streets to El Torre Latino with its 360-degree views over CDMX.
We then continued past the Palacio de Bellas Artes and through Parque Alameda Central (with a great sculpture exhibition by Mexican artist Rodrigo de la Sierra) to El Caballito, where the Half-Marathon would start.
We spent an educating morning at El Templo Mayor, part of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, buried for centuries under Colonial buildings the conquistadors had built on top of Tenochtitlan. Did you know that the valley of Mexico City used to be a giant lake? Tenochtitlan was situated on an island within the lake. A large part of Mexico City is built into the drained lake bed, and you can still see it everywhere: the ground of the Municipal Cathedral is very uneven, and buildings lean in different directions as they have sunk into the soft ground.
With Paul avoiding long walks the days before his race, I explored CDMX by myself. I checked out the Frida Kahlo Museum and strolled around Coyoacán, a hip and wealthy suburb with quaint cafes and colourful houses in tree-lined streets. I’d been sitting on the fence about this famous painter and while I still do, the museum has made me understand her just a little bit better. If you plan to go book your ticket online which gives you a specific time slot to enter. The queues otherwise are ginormous. Be prepared to feel like a sardine though as hordes of tourists are shuffled through the different parts of the property.
I also spent the best part of a day roaming around the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA). It’s a huge complex showcasing the different pre-Columbian cultures. Originally hunter/gatherers from Asia, these peoples followed their prey across the Behring Strait. Experimenting with agriculture eventually made them settle all across the Americas and build their magnificent cities.
I am in awe of the craftsmanship these peoples possessed and of their advancement in pretty much everything: architecture, art, astronomy and linguistics. These were thriving civilisations thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived. Mexico itself not only had the Mayas and Aztecs but countless other peoples. And they still exist today. We actually witnessed an impressive display of the different indigenous cultures in Mexico just outside the Templo Mayor.
While in Mexico City, we were fortunate to catch up with Paul’s running friend, Ramon and his family, in Coyoacán. The food at Los Danzantes right behind the Fuente de Los Coyotes was delicious. We even tried protein-rich fried grasshoppers for the very first time.
On our last day, Paul and I explored two other suburbs: wealthy Condesa just south of the Bosque de Chapultepec (the city’s biggest park and double the size of New York’s Central Park) and its poorer cousin Roma, stopping at Mercado Roma for lunch. In between those two is yet another park, Parque Mexico, which seems to be a favourite with dog walkers. We counted up to 15 dogs walked by one person at a time. Crazy.
After our detour via CDMX, we flew back to Yucatán. The flight to Chetumal plus shuttle bus to Belize City was still way cheaper than flying directly to Belize. Go figure… Chetumal is a typical border town: You just can’t shake off that feeling of seediness. It’s also heavily overpriced: A taxi ride that would have cost MXN70 in CDMX cost MXN200 in Chetumal. In short, a place to get out of as quickly as possible.
Had we entered Mexico via Chetumal, our view might have been tainted but thankfully, we had a great time exploring the Yucatán Peninsula and Mexico City. The people are amazingly friendly. There is history on every corner, and gorgeous beaches and cooling cenotes too. We’ll be back for more. With a country as huge as Mexico, we could easily spend months here, exploring different parts. Paul was initially concerned about Mexico’s crime reputation. While there is surely the reason for it in certain areas, we felt safe at all times (even at night).