Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, nachos, guacamole… Any story about Mexico has to be mainly about the food. I thought I’d had Mexican food before, I thought I knew what it would be like — I was wrong. Mexican food has completely surpassed my expectations.
We enjoyed trying the originals of all the foods we’d eaten before, and trying new ones like panuchos, flautas, … We discovered the joys of aguas frescas (fresh fruit juices mixed with water), did a beer tasting to find the best Mexican beer (Montejo was the clear winner), and sampled Mexican wine. We ate pastries and candied fruits in San Cristobal, coconut shrimp in Campeche, ceviche in Cancun. It has been a delicious time.
Of course, we didn’t spent all our time eating, we also found time for a few activities.
Playa del Carmen and Cancun
Our flight from London went smoothly and Craig, Janine and I arrived at Cancun airport in the middle of a late afternoon rain shower. It was still drizzling when the bus deposited us Playa Del Carmen, where we eventually managed to check into our hotel (it’s hard when the staff hide on the roof) and had a delicious taco dinner before turning in.
Our plan to explore Playa Del Carmen was hindered by the heavy rain showers that the heavens treated us to throughout the day, but we did manage to visit the beach and have a quick wander through town before getting drenched once again. Our friend Ange had arrived in the middle of the night, so we caught up with her, ate more tacos, discovered aguas frescas for the first time, and hung out by the pool.
The next day we had to make our way to Cancun, where we’d be staying for the next week. Ange’s family has a timeshare back in NZ and they kindly let us transfer one of their weeks to a resort in the hotel zone of Cancun. We’re not big on resorts, but our tranquil Sunday by the pool was one of the most relaxing days we’ve had this year.
Cancun seems to be built around excursions: to Mayan ruins, to theme parks, to other cities; we were hounded by people selling tours whenever we ventured into the main hotel strip. In the end, we caught the ferry to Isla de Mujeres for a day at the beach, explored the El Rey Mayan ruins right in the hotel zone, and did the Xenotes tour. Cenotes are pools that were originally part of underground rivers that are revealed when the bedrock above collapses; we visited four different ones and did activities like ziplining, kayaking and rappelling into the pools. It was a great day.
I really, really hate hiring cars. Something always seems to go wrong, whether it’s unexpected charges, inscrutable toll systems, or me misreading the speedometer and racing through England twenty miles above the speed limit (true story). However, since four of us would be travelling together, we decided that the flexibility a car would give us was worth the stress. As predicted, when the others went to pick up the car, magic charges were added that increased the price significantly, and within two kilometers we discovered Mexico’s secret weapon: potholes. Don’t worry, it didn’t take us long to recover the hubcap and get on our way again.
Our first stop was the beautiful city of Valladolid, which we explored in a circular fashion while trying to find our hotel, which was not where Google Maps thought it should be. This was to become a recurring theme. We’d planned to spend two nights there, but after visiting a small local museum, doing a tequila tasting, and seeing the Mayan chocolate museum, we were ready to move on.
The next day was a big one: Chichen Itza, which is perhaps the most famous of the Mayan ruins. We got there early to beat the heat and crowds — an excellent decision! It was crazy to think of people a thousand years ago walking these now-abandoned streets; playing the first-ever ball game; being sacrificed in the sacred cenote.
Later in the trip we visited two other major sites: Uxmal, where the sun beat down on us as we climbed one of the pyramids; and Palenque, where a guide took us into the jungle to show us some of the 18 hectares of unexplored ruins that surround the comparatively small excavated site. After a half-hour walk past walls and over jungle-claimed pyramids, the guide pointed out a still-functioning swimming pool and the aqueduct that fed it, then casually suggested we climb through the ten meter long aqueduct tunnel. We said yes — and it was awesome. After that, the excavated ruins were still impressive, but climbing them didn’t have the same frisson of adventure as our jungle tour had.
Back to the road trip
After Chichen Itza, we spent three days in Mérida, where everything we wanted to do was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. No worries: the city put on entertainment every night in the main square, right outside our hostel in fact, and we created our own adventures in the form of a tour of the city’s banks and a quest to find a Mayan medicine woman who sold us a particular herb that Janine was looking for.
On Wednesday we delayed our departure in order to visit the Mayan museum, where we filled in some of the gaps in our knowledge about Mayan culture. There was a particularly useful map showing where Mayan ruins were located throughout Mexico and when they were built: during the pre-classic period (2000BC-250AD), classic (250-900AD), or post-classic (950-1539AD). There are a lot of ruins!
That afternoon we visited Uxmal then continued on to spend a night in Campeche, a colourful walled city on the coast. The highlight there was walking through the streets and on the walls, and heading to the beach for a long swim. We also tried Campeche’s signature dish, coconut shrimp. Verdict: delicious.
The drive from Campeche to Palenque was long and potholed, and at one point our GPS tried to take us across country (we declined). We were staying in thatched-roof huts near the Palenque ruins, which was a nice change from hotels and hostels. We spent almost the entire day at the ruins, which were our favourite so far, then had a delicious late lunch that included banana stuffed with beef.
If I’d thought the previous drive was difficult, the next day’s drive to San Cristobal de las Casas was something else. Ange and Craig did a spectacular job of negotiating the potholes, but we were all pretty exhausted when we arrived and found ourselves in the middle of a procession. Luckily, the receptionist had a great recommendation for dinner: we sipped wine, picked at a platter of food, and said “no thanks” every minute or so to the vendors who approached us selling everything from food, to toys, to blouses.
San Cristobal is a great place just to walk around; it’s full of life and beautiful buildings. We all agreed that it was our favourite place on the trip so far. Sadly, our time was running out, so we only had one full day there: we filled it with street food, a visit to the Na Balom museum, and an evening of tapas.
Leaving town was harder than expected: the toll road was blocked by protesters, and our attempt to join the road further down was a failure. We ended up taking the long way through the jungle; twice the way was blocked by crowds of locals who demanded money to let us pass. We gave it to them.
It was a long day of driving, as was the next — although the roads were a lot better compared to those in the jungle! We made our way through Ciudad del Carmen, on to Xpujil, and spent a lazy afternoon by the lagoon at Bacalar. Our last leg of the trip took us to the Tulum ruins and on to Punta Maroma (near Puerto Morelos), where we stayed at the Amarte Maroma hotel and Craig and I made the most of the fantastic internet to get some work done (a router per room, talk about luxury!).
It seems like our three weeks in Mexico have sped past, and we’re sad to be leaving… though it won’t be for long! We’re off to Cuba for a fortnight, and then we’ll be back in the land of enchiladas. Yum.
Thanks to Xenotes and Amarte Maroma for providing their products to us.