Mexico: Seeing Ruins, Getting Ruined

Mexico had been on my list for ever, so when Virgin started their  service to Cancun, I jumped at the chance to burn some miles and plan a dream trip.

I booked 2 weeks, flying out on a Saturday, landing back in London on a Sunday morning. Early in the planning stage, I thought of including a side-trip to Mexico City, but logistics – and common sense – prevailed and I instead decided to spend my entire time in the states of Yucután and Quintana Roo, that I could cross relatively quickly and cheaply by bus, maximising flexibility.

My trip objective was to explore a little of the history of the area – the ancient civilizations of The Americas have always been fascinating to me (thanks to my childhood obsession with The Mysterious Cities of Gold which was, of course, all based on FACT) and, with 2012 being such a key year in the Mayan calendar it was pretty much written in the stars (or the sun, I guess) that I should check it out. In between (respectfully) climbing over ruins and moseying around museums, I wanted to grab some beachtime. get back in the water for some snorkeling  as well as checking out the famed party spots of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. How’s that for well-rounded trip?

Arranged on a map, it might look a little erratic and illogical (Tulum – Merida – Playa del Carmen is one hell of a backtrack, considering Tulum and Playa are pretty much next door to each other), but there was method to my madness.

    I didn’t just want my itinerary to include all of these experiences, knowing my nasty habit of going hard and exhausting myself – I wanted to impose some balance: a culture-heavy location, followed by a party place, followed by a chill-out spot, for example – to allow me to make the most of my two weeks.

    Transport

    I relied on the ADO bus network to criss-cross the peninsula. Comfortable – all my buses were modern, with toilets and the requisite dodgy movies – efficient and, above all, cheap – my longest journey (5 ½ hours Merida – Playa del Carmen) cost me around £8, most other trips were around £3-4. Tickets were easy to purchase – I took the opportunity to practise my schoolgirl Spanish, but all the bus station staff seemed to speak decent English, particularly in the larger tourist towns.

    I also took local buses (e.g. Uxmal and Río Lagartos) which, with a bit of local advice were simple enough, ferries (Cancun – Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen – Cozumel), the odd taxi. Oh, and I walked a lot.

    Uxmal

    Propping up the ruins in Uxmal

    Accommodation

    For reasons of budget – and because I like the company – I stayed predominantly in a mixed bag of hostels. They went from the sublime – the modern chic Hostel 3B in Playa del Carmen – to the ridiculous – the abandoned shopping mall in Cancun or my first hostel in Merida where they tried to put me on a camp bed outside the communal toilets. I checked out about an hour later. –  and everything in between.

    Because 2 straight weeks of sharing my living space with strangers can get a bit much (and because I am a total diva), I broke it up with 2 hotel stays. First, a night in a boutique hacienda in Chichen Itza to be near the ruins and beat the crowds and then, 2 nights at a gorgeous beachside retreat in Tulum. A little bit of luxe without blowing the entire budget, after all, this is supposed to be a holiday.

    Cabanas Tulum L

    The bed alone is bigger than my flat – Cabanas Tulum

    Activities

    Pretty much all my touring – ruins, museums etc. – was done independently.

    My route allowed me to take in the Mayan sites at Chichen Itza, Tulum, Ek Balam and Uxmal as well as the culturally rich towns Merida and Valladolid (where I got to visit time at the amazing Casa de los Venados folk art museum).

    Casa de los Venados

    Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera take a seat(ish) at Casa de los Venados

    To get a real taste of the Cancun nightlife, I joined an upscale bar crawl with the team at Cuncrawl – well worth it as my hostel was dead. No such problem at my other hostels which were full to bursting with drinking buddies – particularly in  Playa del Carmen where Thursday night is “Ladies Night”. Even I’ll get down off my feminist high horse for a night for free drinks (such a hypocrite…).

    A full day tour with Edventures that had me zip-lining, swimming in underground cenotes and paddling with turtles was awesome and amazing value considering my Snuba helmet ‘diving’ experience in Cozumel lasted about 20 minutes, cost pretty much the same and was absolute pants.

    Conclusion

    The Good:

    Almost everything! Staying overnight at Chichen Itza was a master stroke. I was there when the gates – a lesuirely stroll from my Hotel, Hacienda Chichen – opened and was on my way back out by the time a million coaches dropped off about a billion tourists from the resorts. I had the site pretty much to myself and, most importantly, missed everyone doing that stupid clappy-echoey thing on the Great Ball Court (you had to be there…actually, no you definitely don’t)

    Could happily move to Tulum, and snorkelling with Turtles at Akumal definitely makes my top 3  experiences EVER.

    Tulum Turtle L

    My new BFF

    The Bad:

    The weather! It’s the tropics, so although June was hot, I was also treated to some monsoon-like downpours . Don’t feel I did Merida justice as it was pretty much a washout and I never got to try out my roof-top plunge-pool-bath-thingy at Cabañas Tulum (though I did benefit massively from low season prices, soooo…).

    Cozumel, I could take or leave. The Snuba experience (definitely leave) was a replacement activity as the snorkelling trip I wanted to take had a 2-person minimum (the perils of flying solo). If I had a chance to get out onto the reef, I’m pretty sure I would have loved it, but based on my experience, Cozumel was just a place for gargantuan cruise ships to dock for day trips.

    The Ugly:

    Beach bar, Isla Mujeres

    Best bar stool EVER – Isla Mujeres

    I love a party town, but Cancun wasn’t really my vibe. I found the clubs – and the crowd- super-cheesy (sorry!). I jumped on a ferry and absconded to the gorgeous Isla Mujeres in the daytime to avoid the Spring Break-style beach parties. Maybe if I’d been travelling with my mates, I might’ve felt differently?

    As a two week itinerary, I think this worked pretty well for me. It had a good balance of experiences, I didn’t feel that I tried to pack too much in or that I spent too little time in any one location (except Tulum, where I’d happily retire – tomorrow). I can’t say that I would do anything differently

    As well as exploring some incredible places, I met great people, I ate amazing food – much as I love Wahaca, the cochinita pibil in Merida is on a whole different level. I discovered the difference between cerveza chelada and cerveza michelada (the VERY hard way), learned how to sip Mezcal and to drink my body weight in  margaritas. All  good life lessons, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    I’d like to go back and explore beyond the peninsula, either heading down into Belize and Guatemala or travelling further into Mexico itself.

    Next time Virgin has a points sale, it might take strait-jacket to stop me…

    The Damage

    In due course, I will be diving back into the Diva Diaries to blog more extensively on my experiences in Mexico. In the meantime, here is some more info on the basics (prices updated to reflect current rates):

    • I used my precious stash of miles to fly to Cancun with Virgin
    • Buses with ADO cost from MX$58 (site in Spanish, but easy to navigate. I used for research only, buying all tickets in person)
    • VIP bar tour experience with Jorge at  Cuncrawl from US$75
    • Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal and Tulum are conserved by the INAH. Entrance fees from MX$62
    • Hacienda Chichen ( Zona Hotelera de Chichen Itza) low season room rates from US$119
    • Cabanas Tulum (Road Tulum-Boca Paila km7
      Zona Hotelera) low season room rates from US$200
    • Casa de las Venados (Calle 40 #204 x 41 col. Centro
      Valladolid, Yucatan Mexico). Free tours 10am daily.
    • Edventure tour from PDC with ziplines, cenote snorkel, sea turtles and lagoon aquarium. Basic tour from US$90
    • Hostel 3B (10th Ave. Corner 1st South . Playa del Carmen). Was a chilled spot when I visited but now seems to have upped the party ante. Dorms from US$14 (I had a 4-bed female ensuite)

     

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