Chichen ItzaAs reported last time
The main temple in Chichen Itza is breathtalking, despite the incessant number of tourists.
, I didn’t have the most ideal last night in Belize and when I awoke early to get the hell out of there, the aftermath of what was a crazy night was laid bare – literally – in the morning light. Used condom on the floor. A naked guy spooning a naked girl in one bunk. Another naked girl spread-eagled on her bed in another bunk. What the hell happened last night?
Well, I don’t know about the naked people, but I knew what happened to me the previous night – bedbug bites, again, and lots of them. I didn’t feel them during the night this time, which was unusual (developing a tolerance, perhaps?) but during the course of the day, they all began to pop up at various times. FFS.
Travelling with me early that morning was Ina from Finland. I had first met her and her friend Jo briefly out on Isla de Ometepe
and then again briefly in Antigua
. Knowing that we were heading the same way, we exchanged details in Antigua and sure enough, unplanned, I bumped into her on the main drag in Caye Caulker. As we were both leaving the same day, we thought we might
Paradise. This is in the Zona Hotelera where Tulum's beachside resorts are, but the resorts are fairly unobtrusive.
as well keep each other company across the border to Mexico.
Although there was a direct boat from Caye Caulker to Chetumal in Mexico, it was at the cost of US$45. So fuck that. So instead, we were on a boat back to Belize City from where we would catch a local bus across the border. A roundabout route, but worth it at half the price.
Although the bus was pretty much a chicken bus all the way to Chetumal, the border-crossing was painless (apart from me forgetting to save US$20 to pay to get into Mexico – the result once again of spending all my local currency before leaving the country and the second time I have had to borrow money from a girl to get across the border
– good thing I decided to go over the border with Ina then!) and before we knew it, we were in Mexico!
And it is cheaper here! Well, in Chetumal anyway. Everything seems well-developed too, compared to Belize and Guatemala. The most developed country in Central America that I have seen since Panama
. And as I bade Ina farewell – she got onto a bus to Cancun while I was going to Tulum – I noticed that the buses here are also much nicer. This
The bright lights of Cancun's famous nightlife.
is a first world country.
And speaking of firsts, my first day in Tulum one of my most enjoyable solo days in Central America.
Hiring a bike from my hostel for just 70MXN (Mexican Peso where US$1 = roughly 17MXN) for a whole day, I cycled from the non-descript and some might say, sketchy/crusty-looking, residential main town, where all the locals live and where all the hostels are located, to the Zona Hotelera
, which is a long strip of hotel resorts that run along the beach.
Also located on the beach are the spectacularly set ruins of the old Mayan city of Tulum. The ruins themselves aren’t that much to look at and the whole complex is relatively small when compared to Tikal, but it really is all about the setting here, with the main castle sat dramatically atop a cliff, with white sand and turquoise waters below.
After the ruins, I went to a beachside taco joint recommended by the hostel to enjoy some fish tacos and a beer over some people watching. It was mainly short term American vacationers of a younger age here, hanging out in front of this bar/restaurant on mattresses and deckchairs laid out
Dramatic looking cenote that I visited as part of my tour to Chichen Itza.
on the sand, drinks and tacos in hand.
I cycled everywhere and the riding itself was just as enjoyable as the stops. The whole area is flat which makes it perfect for cycling and for most of the route into the Zona Hotelera, there is a special cycle path. As for the Zona Hotelera itself, it isn’t as pretentious as it sounds. The main road follows parallel behind the beachfront (like the beach road in Puerto Viejo
) and there is a never-ending slew of resorts between the road and the beach, but rather than being a tacky strip of hotels, the resorts are hidden from the bush-and-tree-lined main road and towards the end of road, there are a number of campsites and wellness retreats, giving the place the feel of a slightly hippy-ish village. It was actually quite pleasant cycling through the Zona Hotelera and the whole place felt really relaxed – much like I did.
And while the whole of Tulum’s beachfront is pretty much a public beach backed by resorts, thankfully it’s not done in the same way as Roatan Island’s West Bay
The resorts are more toned-down, beach hut affairs rather than multi-storey, concrete monstrosities and the beach – because perhaps,
They're all over the ruins in Tulum.
it is so long – never felt crowded despite the number of tourists on it.
Nevertheless, I prefer to get away from the crowds when I have my beach time and at the end of the Zona Hotelera where the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an starts and the hotel resorts finally run out, is a stretch of undeveloped beach with no-one on it. The perfect place to dump my valuables and go for a swim. There isn’t as much space between the jungle and the water here and there is also an unfortunate amount of trash in the sand, but it is still paradise enough as I dove into the salty, aquamarine water.
Overall, it was one of my most satisfying days out that I have had alone on this trip.
That day, I had this overwhelming sense of being completely comfortable in my own skin and in my surroundings. I wanted to do everything on my own and to do it my way, and that was exactly what I did.
My hostel helped in that respect by being one of the most unsociable have been in.
It wasn’t a great hostel either. The hostel was small, the
The ruins overlooking some of the finest beach and water you'll ever see.
shower cubicle was small, the toilet cubicle was small, and there was no place to hide away because the whole place was so…small. I was continually bumping into things the whole time.
Everyone got personal power sockets, a personal fan, a personal light and personal curtains for their bunks but the bunks were arranged like coffins stacked on top of each other and sleeping in them felt like coffins too. Sweat coffins. We were like chickens in the dorms and everything felt so cramp. There in fact was so little space that one bunk had to be turned into a baggage zone where people could store their backpacks.
There were also motherfucking mosquitoes inside and out, so I had their
bites to add to my bedbug ones. Apart from two nights in Flores
, I have been plagued by mosquitoes ever since I left Lake Atitlan
and the plague continued here.
And to top it all off, the wifi crapped out on the second night.
I couldn’t wait to get out of there and it’s not often that I absolutely hate a place I am staying in.
However, it’s been seven months now of mostly dorms so at this stage, I just
El Castillo, Tulum
The main castle at the Mayan Ruins of Tulum, which overlooks the sea.
really wanted my own room for a while and some nice facilities. Staying at one of the expensive hotels in the Zona Hotelera would be perfect. If I could’ve afforded it…
ADO’s nice buses are very comfortable and well-run but they unfortunately don’t take international credit cards for online bookings. This meant that my plan of doing Chichen Itza independently on the cheap were dashed. It also cost me an hour of my time while I called my bank in New Zealand to sort out a problem they couldn’t fix. Just one part of a stressful day that also included me wasting time on the phone with my British bank, trying to track down where my new debit and credit cards were, given that I was flying out to Cuba in under a week – and I had no idea if there was even a courier company that could send anything there from New Zealand. To top things off, I finally managed to get my online banking up and running again (after yet more time on the phone with HSBC) where I then discovered that the scum who stole my wallet managed to run up a bill of £200
Cool bar in Tulum with some cool live music.
before I could cancel them. Urgh. It made me so angry.
I did manage to drown my sorrows that night with beer, although Corona out of a can just doesn’t taste the same. I and some crew from Mama’s House (my new, better hostel) went to a cool bar called Batey, where we enjoyed some decent live music and some more Coronas – this time out of a bottle.
Tourism is well and truly rife on Mexico’s Yucatan and this was point was well and truly rammed home on my tour of Chichen Itza, where hundreds of tourists were milling around at both of the tour meeting points where the massive tour company were herding tourists like cattle into various minivans and buses. The strange thing about my tour was that I had booked through an agent that gave me a price 200MXN (US$11) less than if I had booked with the tour company directly. Not sure how that works.
Anyway, with a mixed-age, wealthy-ish crowd of short-term vacationers from all over the world instead of backpackers from all over the world on my tour bus, I did feel a bit out of place. And I didn’t like this
Ik Ka Cenote
A cenote is a water-filled pit resulting from the collapse of limestone rock above it. There are thousands of them littered all over the Yucatan.
get-them-in-get-them-out tour operation at all. The tour felt a bit rushed but I didn’t mind this so much given I found myself alone with a busload of people I didn’t really want to talk to.
Our first stop on the tour was the Ik Ka cenote
– which as our guide helpfully informed us in both Spanish and English – was naturally formed when limestone rock above the underground water source collapsed. There are thousands of cenotes
all over the Yucatan, all formed thanks to an underground network of water leading to the sea.
We got to swim in this one, which was pretty cool – literally – and given the heat outside, it was definitely refreshing. The water felt so clean as well, as if you could almost drink it. There was a four metre platform from which you could jump in from and I managed to drop some sweet bombs. There was no risk of me hitting the bottom – the cenote is 50m deep! As a sight itself, Ik Ka was also pretty spectacular, complete with vines hanging from the roof of the cenote, giving the place a lost world feel.
The tour then came with a
Temple Of The Warriors, Chichen Itza
The second biggest temple at Chichen Itza.
buffet lunch. As any backpacker will tell you, anytime the opportunity arises for you get to eat as much as you want, you are obliged to stuff yourself as much as possible so that you might be able to skip your next meal and save money – which is exactly what I did. Even if it is ordinary fare (which it almost always is with buffets). Something else that separated me out from the rest of the tour group, as they watched with astonishment/disapproval as I went up three times.
Then came the main event.
Chichen Itza isn’t the biggest site in the world and can be fully explored in an hour without a guide. As part of the tour however, we did have a guide who tried his best to build suspense and climax with his telling of old Mayan stories and traditions, but ended up with everyone in the group just wishing he would end the story quickly, so hot was the scorching sun.
It was interesting to hear about ‘death quidditch’, a ball game played with a 3kg ball that had to be put through a ring some 10m above the ground by your team before
Ball Court, Chichen Itza
Where young Mayan boys would play 'death quidditch'.
your opponents, without touching the ball directly. If you were born between the 21st and the 25th of July each year, then would have to participate in this game when you reached a certain age. If your team loses, then you and your family are all separated and sold off as slaves to other families in the community. If your team won, then you would be decapitated as a sacrifice to the gods and your family would gain a higher social status and untold riches. So the stakes were about as high as you could get and in my opinion, the players were in a lose-lose situation. Shame and separation from your family, or death. Basically, if you were born between the 21st and 25th July, you were f*cked!
This sounded like a very similar game with similar stakes, played by the Incas that I read about in Peru
. Perhaps they are somehow related?
Other interesting stories included how royal families would elongate the heads of their children when they were babies using a device made of wooden planks, resulting in royal kids having alien-like shaped heads similar to the titled artefact in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The
Relief, Chichen Itza
Etched into one of the buildings in Chichen Itza.
Crystal Skull; and the sacrifice of beautiful women to the gods whenever natural disasters occurred.
The site’s showpiece however, is the main temple. Not as high as some of the temples in Tikal, it is nevertheless a grandiose, breathtaking structure that also has high level of intrigue.
Firstly, if you stand right in front of the staircase and clap your hands, a bird-like echo would then come back out of the temple. It is said that this effect was deliberately created by the Mayans when the temple was built.
Secondly, the temple you see today is actually built over another older temple, which in turn is built over a recently discovered cenote. National Geographic are in fact going to broadcast live, the moment when divers go into the cenote for the first time later this year.
Lastly, at both of the equinoxes during the year, the contours of the temple create shadows from the sun that make it look like a snake is coming out of the top of the temple and is slithering down the outside of it towards the ground. How cool and impressive.
You used to be able to climb the steps of the main temple and
Colourful colonial town which is like a lot of other colourful colonial towns in Central America.
even go inside it, which was apparently like an Indiana Jones adventure. Like some of the pyramids in Egypt
, the passages are apparently very small. Then an American tourist decided to fall down and die from the top of the temple and now no-one is allowed up or inside it. Damn.
Impressive as it is, Chichen Itza has unfortunately, sold its soul somewhat. There are so many visitors and so many handicraft salesmen inside the site bothering you to buy their stuff at every turn. I guess it is a way of letting the local population try to make some sort of living off the tourism generated.
For me however, Tikal has a much better ambience and atmosphere and takes the prize as my favourite set of ruins in Central America.
On the way back to Tulum, we stop at the pretty colonial town of Valladolid. But once you’ve seen one cute, colourful, colonial town, you’ve seen them all. For Valladolid, see Antigua and Granada
. The town reminded me a lot of Trujillo, in Peru.
I then moved on from Tulum to Playa del Carmen where on arrival, I walked down the famous shopping street of Quinta Avenida
– “5th Avenue”. It became immediately
Shopping Mall, Playa del Carmen
All the luxury brands are here - Playa del Carmen is probably the most glitzy of all the resort towns on the Yucatan.
clear that Tulum in comparison, was a tranquil place. Two glitzy shopping malls reside on this pedestrian street as well as shops such as Tag Heuer, H&M, Bershka and Sephora. This was a glamour holiday destination. Hammering this point home, were the Ibiza-like beachfront clubs and the eyesores that were the beachfront resorts.
Everything also felt very Americanised – or Americanized
, if you will – and the number of white families and loud American tourists reinforced this feeling that we may as well be in Florida.
With its proximity to the US, Canada and to an extent, Europe, it makes sense that this is a place where mainly short-term vacationers come to relax, and/or party. With groups of said vacationers renting out villas and package tourists sipping cocktails on their deckchairs, their holiday was the complete opposite of mine. I was also a little on the backpacker breadline given my recent wallet theft and under-budgeting – so while I was scratching around trying to find enough loose change to buy myself a couple of tacos for dinner, I didn’t much appreciate seeing the couple next to me eating only half their dinner while I was still starving having already eaten
Beach, Playa del Carmen
This side of the beach, to the south, is the more spectacular side as it's not as spoilt by hotel resorts as the north side.
mine and nor did I appreciate the VIP comfort most of the people down at the beach seemed to be enjoying. So remembering that I am in fact effectively on holiday myself and that this was how I was feeling, I totally get local resentment at tourists.
But then I remembered that these tourists are probably only here for a weekend, a week if they’re lucky. I’ve not worked for over a year, have travelled for seven months and still have over a year ahead of me. I’m pretty sure that quite a few of these holidaymakers would probably swap their lives with mine right now.
As for the beach itself, the water is definitely dirtier here than in Tulum, particularly where the big resorts are north of the Cozumel ferry pier – a by-product of overdevelopment.
At both the north and south ends of the beach though, past the resorts on both sides, are tranquil, empty(ish) stretches of sand, and clean, clear(ish) water that people can enjoy away from the house music and drunken posers in the resorts. One should be listening to reggae or a relaxing, acoustic soundtrack when on the beach, not house or electro music
Grand Hyatt, Playa del Carmen
Managed to sneak into this plush resort to see how the other 1% live.
that quickens the pulse, in my humble opinion. But that’s just me.
My hostel sold itself as a hostel with “hotel standard facilities” and it definitely lived up to its promises. Everything was new, modern and comfortable; air-conditioning in the dorms, hot water, towels, a clean bathroom – it was a bit more expensive than normal but as I said earlier, despite my money problems I was craving nice facilities and I felt like I was due a treat. In fact, I’d loved to have had my hotel room but that definitely would have been beyond the budget.
Which was why I didn’t care that there was zero atmosphere at the hostel – I just wanted somewhere quiet to do Cuba and Europe planning and admin while I was still in a country with widespread wifi. It still had fucking mosquitoes though, so it looks like there are some things you’ll never get away from. So over it.
I always tend to have my most authentic foreign experiences while eating. Wanting to avoid American food and high prices by the beach, I naturally ended up at a local joint in front of a construction yard, eating chilaquiles
Chilaquiles, Playa del Carmen
A more genuine Mexican meal in contrast to what is available on Quinta Avenida.
chips) doused in chicken, eggs and a red sauce with smothering of fresh cream, while drinking horchata
and watching amusing Mexican music videos where the music is based on those famous Mexican sounds of accordions, brass bands and acoustic guitar.
In terms of food in Mexico, taco servings tend to be small – I would need to eat several to get anywhere near full – pineapple salsa is amazing and must be tried, and jamaica
is not a country but a very sweet juice similar to chicha morada
which I had in Peru. I’ve also really got into horchata, a kind of barley-based, spiced milkshake.
After two days in Playa del Carmen, I had finally reached my final destination on the American continent; Cancun.
In four days’ time, I would finally be leaving this continent on which I have spent the last seven months. But before that, I had one last thing to tick off.
You can’t come to Cancun without partying…so after a couple of days chilling out in Playa del Carmen, I booked myself into a party hostel on a Saturday night. It was cheap too, and they served both breakfast and – in a first for
Ribbon Show, Cancun
I had flashbacks to Amsterdam while watching this inside Coco Bongo.
me – dinner, as part of the price. When I arrived, I did think about what exactly I had let myself in for…
…well, any saving that I was making from staying at Hostel Quetzal was completely obliterated when I found out how much the price was to go to Cancun’s most famous club; US$87. Eighty-seven dollars! But with Cancun famous for its parties, my time here just wouldn’t be complete without testing them out. And if you’re gonna do it, why not go for the best one and something that is utterly unique? I hate the cliché, but you do really only live once.
US$87 got you entry into Coco Bongo, made famous by Jim Carrey career-launcher, The Mask, and an open bar so as a backpacker, I was going to drink the club dry. But it also got you some amazing acts that performed on one of two stages inside this arena that can hold up to 3,000 people. There were tributes acts (read: impersonators) to Star Wars, Lady Marmalade (the Christina Aguilera et al version) and Queen, as well as performers doing tricks on ribbons, which reminded me of the first time I got really high
Lil' Kim Impersonator, Cancun
Coco Bongo puts on regular short shows like this Lady Marmalade tribute act, in addition to the open bar, febrile atmosphere and dance/party/singalong-friendly music that makes for a truly memorable nightlife experience.
on space cake in Amsterdam
. It was quite the spectacle and in between the acts, a full house partied hard to classics such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Cotton Eye Joe, Summer Of 69 and other hits that were played at the peak of the night rather than at the end of the night, as you might normally expect. Along from the hostel with me were Canadian Riley, Englishman Freddie, and Aussies Gabby and Millie – we all had an awesome night and not one that I’ll forget anytime soon, despite the amount of alcohol consumed. You know it has been a good night when you wake up at midday still completely shitfaced…
…but it also means unfortunately, that when you eventually sober up, you feel the wrath of a killer hangover. But a good cure for that, is to go to the beach.
Cancun is more like Tulum in orientation with a city centre and a separate Zona Hotelera
some twenty minutes away by a very frequent, efficient and cheap bus. Playa del Carmen is much more compact, with everything by the beach.
The beaches are naturally where all the hotels and hotel resorts are, of which there seemed to be
Playa Chac-Mool, Cancun
The busiest stretch of beach in Cancun's Zona Hotelera.
more than in Playa del Carmen. The water is clearer here than in Playa and about the same as in Tulum, but the water is much rougher on the eastern beaches. I preferred the calmer northern beaches where all the piers are, mainly because there were much less people there once you walked past all of the northern resorts. I managed to find my own little private spot in this area where I swam and lied out my hangover.
In terms of central Cancun, there isn’t really much to it – it is a pretty concrete, non-descript place.
When asked what there is to do in Cancun, your only reply is to “go to the beach”. There isn’t much else to do here but party and relax. Which explains the proliferation of Americans in the resorts and the congregation of Aussies and Irish at my hostel – most of which were here to binge-drink, and fair enough I suppose.
Ultimately however, the Yucatan of Mexico doesn’t really feel Mexican at all and really does feel like the US.
Because there are so many tourists in these parts, many locals speak English meaning that it becomes embarrassing for me
Northern Beach, Cancun
Less waves and less people on the northern side of the Zona Hotelera. There is always a tranquil, deserted spot on the beach if you're willing to find it.
when I speak Spanish with them and they reply to me in English. I’ve also had a little trouble understanding them too – yet another country, yet another accent, yet more slang, and yet another way of speaking Spanish that this intermediate Spanish speaker has to work out and decipher. And they speak fast here too.
My other gripe with Mexico is the insistence of cashiers on giving you all your change in f*cking useless coins. I ended up carrying sacks of them everywhere I went.
And it seems appropriate for me to end my writings from Central America with a gripe, because recently there has been plenty of those. The majority of South and Central America is broadly similar in terms of the language, culture, architecture, cities and nature, and I was gradually beginning to get over it all as I got towards the end – I was getting harder and harder to impress and just wanted to travel somewhere a bit different, for variety’s sake.
South America has the blockbuster sights, the better infrastructure and is more backpacker-friendly.
Central America is sunnier, boozier and more fun – but seems better set up for short-term tourists than backpackers
Taqueria La Eufemia, Tulum
Beachside taco joint - perfect place to enjoy a beer, some fish tacos and some people watching.
and public transportation is much less comfortable and straightforward. I ended up doing many more activities in Central America (which costs money and adds up – El Salvador
and Nicaragua apart, I didn’t find Central America as cheap as I was expecting) – Central America seems more about what you do, where South America is more about what you see.
So it has been fun Central America – thank you for a fun two months. That night I arrived at the airport in Panama City seems like an eternity ago.
But if it’s something different that I’m after, then I’m sure I’ll get it with my next destination – my most anticipated destination in all of Latin America, where perhaps I have saved the best for last – Cuba!
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