Brace yourselves, this is going to be a long one. Paul and I knew a few months ago that we were going to have a one week break between graduation and the start of our bar-prep course, so we decided it would be our last real opportunity to travel before buckling down to a long summer of studying. Then when the whole swine flu epidemic hit, we had a lot of people telling us that we should cancel our trip. But we held on to our tickets and sure enough, the panic blew over. So last week Paul and I headed south of the border with my littlest sister whose study abroad program in Guadalajara had been cancelled.
On a stopover in Phoenix where we changed planes, I just about bungled our whole trip by leaving my purse with both our passports in it in the restroom. I realized my mistake within one minute but it was already gone by the time I got back. Feeling slightly panicky, I dashed around the airport between customer service desks and airport police, trying to figure out what could be done. Fortunately, within about ten minutes, the airport police were paged saying that my purse had been turned in with everything inside it. Good Samaritan, wherever you are, thanks!
Once on the ground at the Cancun International Airport, we picked up our super ghetto but functioning rental car and drove south two hours, away from the nightclubs and resorts of the Cancun strip, to Tulum, a tiny little town near a set of amazing Mayan ruins that once was a bustling port city for the ancient Maya. After a delicious dinner of chicken with mole, fresh fish, enchiladas, and flautas, we found our cabaña, a thatched roof 11-room hotel right on the beach.
This was our first time staying at an eco-hotel. The cabañas operate entirely on solar power and take other efforts to minimize the impact of travel on the environment (including a lack of a/c, power outlets, and water pressure). It was a cool experience but I missed good water pressure in the shower and being able to plug in my hairdryer.
The sand in the Yucatan area was like nothing I have ever experienced before. It was so clean and soft and light that it almost didn’t even feel like sand at all, at least not the kind I grew up with in southern California. Rubbing it between my fingers, the sand had more of a consistency of sifted flour.
Paul, Jessica and I splashed around in the unbelievably turquoise ocean beside our hotel room until it was dark,
then swayed in the evening breeze of the Caribbean on the hammocks outside our room while we took turns using the shower to rinse off the salt water.
Dressed in our PJs, we walked back out on the sand, laid down sarongs to sit on, and watched thousands of stars appear over the dark ocean while digging our feet in the sand. Since Tulum is nothing like Cancun and very few of the cabañas in the area have electricity, there wasn’t much light to contend with the visibility of the stars and it was quite an unforgettable experience.
I woke up to the sound of ocean waves at 6:00 am and went out by myself to enjoy a gorgeous sunrise and let Paul and Jessica sleep in a little later. Once we were all dressed and ready for the day, Jessica and I went for a walk down the beach before breakfast.
The Tulum ruins sit on a cliff right above the ocean. The scene is so picturesque that it almost seems like the ancient port city was built for just for the modern tourist.
When Spanish conquistadors first sailed down the coast of Mexico and saw these ruins from their ships, they decided not to land and turned away, probably astonished to find a highly advanced culture with massive stone buildings on a continent they had thought was completely uncivilized.
That afternoon, we drove to another set of ruins at Coba. Coba was a city where many goods were made before being transported over land to Tulum. It is also one of the last sets of ruins in the Yucatan peninsula where visitors are still allowed to climb the Mayan pyramids.
This was probably the hottest afternoon of our trip, but seeing and climbing around the ruins was totally worth it.
That night we wandered around the main plaza in the old Spanish colonial town of Valladolid. There was a beautiful cathedral flanked by tall palm trees and bathed in warm, evening sunlight.
Paul and Jessica bought churros from a street vendor and we ducked our heads in to see the interior of the chapel just before Mass started.
Chichen Itza is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and it is easy to see why. The entire site, not just the main temple, is amazing.
There are mysterious columns carved with fierce Mayan warriors,
the largest Mayan ball field in the Yucatan,
a cenote where gold, jewelry, animals, and even humans were sacrificed,
and of course the famous temple of Kukulcan.
There were hundreds of artisans throughout the site selling carved masks, blankets, shirts, jewelry, statues and other trinkets.
Jessica had a great time bartering with everybody in Spanish and picking up souvenirs.
It was a little sad though seeing how many locals were there to sell their wares and how few tourists showed up. We were told that for three weeks there was absolutely no one there because the Mexican government shut down all the ruins due to swine flu concerns. There were maybe 1,000 people there on the day that we went. Normally Chichen Itza sees between 25,000 to 30,000 visitors each day.
Late that afternoon we grabbed swimsuits and towels and headed to Cenote Dzitnup for the most unusual swimming experience I have ever had. The Yucatan peninsula is riddled with limestone pools and rivers buried underground which contain all of the fresh water supply for the area.
The ancient Mayans could not have survived without these water sources and in many cases believed they had mystical powers or religious significance. Dzitnup is a large underground cave with a single large hole overhead that lets in sunlight. Bats flew around high overhead while we swam with small black fish in the cool water below.
There were even spots on the side of the cave where we could climb up and dive (or in my case jump) into the water. It was a little creepy swimming in a cave with bats and fish, but definitely a unique experience.
That night we went back to downtown Valladolid and wandered through the main plaza again. We stumbled on to the most amazing restaurant in the open air patio of an old colonial house.
Paul and I ordered a platter with typical Yucatan dishes including panuchos, salputes, cochinita pibil and other house selections and Jessica had chicken tacos which came topped with cottage cheese.
There were drippy candles, lush greenery, and soft music playing while we ate a wonderful meal and shared a slice of flan for dessert.
We took backroads from Valladolid to Izamal, another small, very Spanish-colonial town with beautiful ochre buildings and a huge monastery.
A guide gave us a tour around the monastery and proudly told us about when Pope John Paul II came to visit the monastery for three hours in 1993.
Our guide spoke entirely in Spanish which was great because Paul and I were hoping to give Jessica as many opportunities as possible to use her language skills since her study abroad program was cancelled. I was actually surprised and pleased with how much Spanish I have picked up with just half a semester of Spanish 101 class and a couple trips to Spanish-speaking countries.
The plan for Day 4 was to visit the city of Merida, a major city in the Yucatan, but by the time we got to our hotel the only thing we wanted to do was to hit the beach. So we changed quickly and headed out to the beach area of Progreso and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the ocean. We were so exhausted by the time we got back to Merida that we just ordered room service and spent the rest of the night watching “The Simpsons” in Spanish. Not the most exotic part of the vacation, but still a whole lot of fun.
The ruins at Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mall) were some of the best preserved and interesting of all the ruins we visited during our trip.
There were detailed carvings of birds, turtles, rattlesnakes, the god Chaac, and jaguars along with geometric designs.
We had some great views from one set of ruins that looked out over the 25 square mile area covered by Uxmal. Jessica said that she even preferred the ruins at Uxmal to the more famous ones at Chichen Itza.
After a long five hour drive back to Cancun, we ate dinner at the La Parilla restaurant where the food was decent but the music provided by mariachi bands was fantastic. Even though it was touristy, we went ahead and paid ten bucks for a mariachi band to serenade us. Out of all the incredible things we did on our vacation, the experience of being surrounded by the music of Mexico is easily my favorite memory.
For our last day in Mexico, we decided to get out of Cancun (which we didn’t like all that much – it was much too Americanized for our tastes) and head to Xcaret, a natural waterpark about 45 minutes south of Cancun near Playa del Carmen.
We snorkeled through an underground river that flowed past a reconstructed Mayan village, wandered through a butterfly farm, and watched caballeros show off some of their horse riding skills.
Jessica treated us to one of the major highlights of our trip by paying for us to go SNUBA diving, which is like scuba diving except that the oxygen tanks are on a raft attached to a tube that lets you descend 30 feet underwater without carrying the tank on your back.
We saw sea turtles, barracuda, and tarpon, and had a great time just floating along the ocean floor.
None of us had ever done anything like this and we thought it was so cool to just look around and see the massive amounts of water that completely surrounded us.
It was awesome. Thanks Jess!
After an unbelievably fabulous Mexican buffet at Xcaret where we stuffed ourselves silly on tamales, roasted meat, guacamole, tacos, Mexican pastries, and lemonade,
we waddled over to grab seats for the Mexican Extravaganza show that the park puts on every night.
There were traditional dances from different regions in Mexico along with music from each region.
There were more mariachi bands, and singers who performed traditional songs that the entire audience sang along with (while periodically pumping their fists in the air and shouting “Viva Mexico!!”). It was awesome.
We had so much fun on this vacation, especially since we had some company this time. Jessica did a great job using her Spanish and we are already trying to figure out a way to take her along on our next trip.