San Cristobal to Playa del Carmen

 

Palenque

2 February

Balloons and food in the Zocolo in San Cristobal
Balloons and food in the Zocolo in San Cristobal
Town Hall
Town Hall in San Cristobal

I woke up early and went for breakfast with Barbara.  After that, it was back to the room to pack the bag and go for a last walk around San Cristobal before catching the bus to Palenque.

It was another beautiful day after a cool start and I walked down to the Zocolo for a bit of people watching. There were plenty of them strolling around as it was Sunday. There were also a couple of large tables set up under canopies by the Cross in front of the Cathedral where food was being served. Apparently this happens every Sunday.

Cross int eh Zocolo
The Cross in the Zocolo in San Cristobal

We walked to the bus station, which was about 10 minutes away and then sat on the bus for 6 hours doing 200km.  It was extremely windy road up and down the mountains. San Cristobal was situated at 2,300m and we are now down to 80m, so quite a difference. The scenery was beautiful along the way. Around San Cristobal, it is quite hilly (as you can imagine, given that it is so high) and green and fertile. As we went further on, it became more and more hilly with a lot more tropical vegetation. There were a number of interesting road works along the way, including one in which it looked as though they had taken part of the road to build a wall a bit further down the mountain!

On the road to Palenque
On the road to Palenque

Once checked into the hotel, we went out straight away to a taco place for dinner. This was followed by a stop at the Oxxo (local mini supermarket) to stock up on supplies for the morning as we have a very early start for a jungle walk with the ‘mozzies’.

Tropical vegetation
Tropical vegetation on the way to Palenque

Palenque

3 February

Map of Palenque
Map of Palenque

Our guide for the Jungle Walk this morning was Salvador, who also brought his very shy young son, Jorge. We set off at 6.30am and headed for the Palenque ruins. The walk was through the unexcavated part of Palenque, which was one of the most important of the Mayan cities built in the Classic period of the Mayans, between 600 and 900 A.D. The part that has been excavated is tiny compared with what still lies covered in jungle and foliage. Salvador showed us the entrances to houses and palaces which had long tunnels underneath. The structures are so strong, particularly the arch ways that are the entrances to the buildings, that trees are growing on top of them and have been for several hundred years.

Unexcavated Mayan Palace
Unexcavated Mayan Palace

We heard a howler monkey in the distance as well as a variety of birds as we walked. The extent of the ruins is quite extraordinary and excavations have been limited due to corruption, money and the question of who is actually going to undertake the archaelogy. There is apparently a huge palace, that was discovered by a local man in 1999 that, when a digital camera was lowered in, showed enormous amounts of jade. (Everything that has so far been unearthed has had large amounts of jade on the floors and in tombs).

Jungle canopy
Jungle canopy

Once the walk was finished, we were taken on a tour of the excavated part of Palenque. By this time, it was warming up and there were a lot more tourists around. We were shown the Palace of the Inscriptions, so called because an enormous number of inscriptions or hieroglyphics were found within it, the Burial Chamber of the Red Queen, whose tomb was full of jade and pearl objects and so named because she had been painted red with cinnabar, the ground dust of mercury, and Temple 20 (all the temples are referred to by numbers).

View from the top of the Temple
View from the top of the Temple
Skull carving
Skull carving

Once the tour was finished, some of the group went off on a trip to see a waterfall.  Becky, Trevor and I, however, sat at the top of a temple for about 2 hours, just watching the tourists and taking in the atmosphere, which was truly spectacular. There were people of all nationalities, unsurprisingly, including a couple (possibly Israelis, we thought), who were juggling and smoking at the top of a pyramid until someone shouted at them from below to show more respect. Hundreds of people took our photograph so we will be featuring far and wide (although I suspect it was not our charismatic selves that they wanted but the temple we were perched upon!).

Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple at Palenque
Palenque temple
Temple at Palenque
Temple at Palenque

I had quite a headache by the end of the visit so we got a Collectivo (mini bus) back to town after we had walked the long way through the jungle back to the exit, passing a waterfall along the way. I went back to the room and lay down with some paracetamol whilst the others went to Burger King for lunch.

We went out in the evening to a restaurant in the jungle (very touristy) where there was some live music playing. The food was once again excellent and we got taxis back to the hotel. I was with three others from the group and the taxi driver managed to find some music that we all knew that we could sing along to at top volume. It was an excellent way to finish the evening!

Then I had to sort out the mess I had left on the bed and Becky and I were off to the bus station to catch the overnight bus to Merida. We wanted to do 2 trips there and wouldn’t have been able to fit them in if we went with the group tomorrow. Tomorrow could be a long day….!

Merida

4 February

We arrived in Merida at 7 am on the overnight bus from San Cristobal. I managed to get some sleep, but the bus, as usual, had air conditioning blasting forth. I really should have learned by now to take more clothes (as well as the socks, trousers and polar fleece!) We had a bit of a disagreement with the taxi driver, who took us to the hotel and who had quoted 30 pesos and then tried to charge 50 but that was the only little hiccup. (We paid 40 – and, OK it is peanuts, but it is the principal!

A Plaza in Merida
A Plaza in Merida
Government building in Merida
Government building in Merida
Pinata shop
Pinata shop

Luckily, we were able to check into our room straight away so could have a shower and breakfast. Then we went for a walk into town via the laundry. The hotels so far have all been very close and handy to the Zocolo, which is proving to be a bonus.

Merida is predominantly an old colonial city, the Spanish having destroyed all things Mayan when they arrived and then constructed buildings using their own style of architecture. It is known as the White City, as a lot of the stone used is of that colour, although, I would have to say, on my walk this morning, I saw little of this but a lot of the colours that Mexicans seem to prefer for their buildings.

Dress shop in Merida
Dress shop in Merida

Becky decided to go back to the hotel for a rest and I carried on wandering and observing the street life. There were lots of stalls along the pavement selling fruit and vegetables and I could not believe the number of material shops and shops dedicated entirely to ribbons and bits to sew on dresses. These have been in all towns so far. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as the dresses that are for sale all seem to be fairly heavily adorned with beads and ribbons etc. There are also a lot of pinata shops, which look quite bizarre with all the pinatas hanging up outside. A lot of them are shaped like animals, or Mickey Mouse etc. The Mexicans appear to be very fond of their stuffed animals, as I have seen a number of shops selling these too.

I sat in the Cathedral for a while. This is very simply decorated with a plain roof and dome. The organ started playing and I left when a service appeared to be starting and went and sat in the Zocola, until some Mexicans came and invaded my personal space. (Alright, they came and sat on the bench next to me but they were small benches!)

Round Pyramid at Uxmal
Round Pyramid at Uxmal

After that, it was back to the hotel to rest for a bit before going on the tour to Uxmal – pronounced ‘oosh-mal’. Our driver/tour guide, Manuel, picked us up in a fuchsia pink mini van and proceeded to hurtle round the streets of Merida, picking up a French couple and a Mexican couple to go along with us and the Chilean man who was already in the van when we were picked up. He then raced to Uxmal, which took about an hour, only stopping for us to buy drinks and lunch if we needed it, at a cafe, where I have no doubt he had friends and was getting a percentage. He appeared to be unfamiliar with driving a manual car, couldn’t seem to locate the indicators and obviously the speedometer didn’t work! However, we managed to get there safely.

We arrived at Uxmal at about 3pm and he gave us and the French lady, whose English apparently, was better than her Spanish, the briefest tour imaginable before allowing us to go off on our own, whilst he adjourned to a social meeting with his friends. We didn’t see him again until just before the Light and Sound Show, where he decided we didn’t need English translator earphones, because it was mostly music and not much Spanish. The entire show was narrated in Spanish and we didn’t understand a word. As we had paid for an English speaking guide, our tour leader will be following all this up with his office tomorrow!

Uxmal
Uxmal

View from the Pyramid
View from the Pyramid
View from the top of the Pyramid
View from the top of the Pyramid in Uxmal

In spite of our ‘guide’, we really enjoyed Uxmal. It is of an entirely different construction to the other sites we visited, with a round main pyramid. It is primarily Mayan with one part having an Aztec influence. There are many carvings of the rain god.  As there is little or no water in the area, they were constantly praying for rain. We actually had a few spots whilst we were there and, at one point, the sky became very black and threatening (and atmospheric!). There were also carvings of snakes with a human head coming out of its mouth, depicting the rain god, I think. The Mayans were very clever with the construction of their archways into buildings and each site has been different. They somehow balanced the rocks on top of each other so that if one side of the arch fell down, the other would remain.

Restoration at Uxmal
Restoration at Uxmal
Rain god carvings
Rain god carvings on the Pyramid at Uxmal

We admired the view from the top of one of the pyramids and had a lovely chat to a French man who came by (in a mixture of English and French), before joining up with the rest of our small group for dinner. This was fairly excruciating, with a mixture of Spanish, French and English and a Frenchman that seemed to switch between Spanish and French in the same sentence and spoke Spanish with a French accent. This was more than my middle aged brain could cope with! The food was good though the drinks were very expensive.

Carvings at Uxmal
Carvings at Uxmal

Our guide reappeared to direct us to the Light and Sound Show and then did his disappearing trick again. Despite the lack of English translation, it was still a beautiful event. Just looking at the ruins being lit up with the different coloured lights and hearing the voices was quite magical. An added bonus at Uxmal has been that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as Palenque, for instance, and was more enjoyable for that.

Sound and Light
Sound and Light
Illuminations at Uxmal
Illuminations at Uxmal

After that, luckily, Manuel was waiting to race us back to Merida where we arrived about 9 pm. Our laundry awaited us, the laundry man having delivered it to the hotel, and we were certainly ready for bed by then. It was quite a long day…!

Snake illuminated at Uxmal
Snake illuminated at Uxmal

Merida

5 February

Today was a spectacular day. After a large breakfast in the hotel, which included some rather tasty green rice, we were picked up by our guide, Raoul, in a mini van (thankfully, not bright pink), and taken to see some Cenotes.  Four Mexican boys also came on the tour with us.

Horse drawn transport
Horse drawn transport at the Cenotes

The Cenotes are large sink holes, of which there are about 2,000 in Yucatan, and several hundred in the surrounding States. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Unlike the sink holes in Florida and other places, they do not suddenly swallow up people and houses, as they are underground and made of limestone, so are hard rather than swampy. There are apparently some in the middle of Merida, and also one at the airport that has a 30 metre tunnel leading from it.

Locals make way for tourists
Locals have to make way for tourists on the one track

We visited three, all different and totally unlike anything I had expected or had visited before. We were transported by horse drawn carriages on rails between each one and, I must say, I did feel sorry for the horses, which were small and rather puny looking.

At the Cenotes
At the Cenotes
Cenote
Cenote
Staircase out of Cenotes
Staircase out of a Cenote

When we arrived at the first Cenote, we could hardly believe that this was what we were going down. It was a small hole between tree roots, which looked much too small for us to fit in. Inside, we had to descend on a ladder and then clamber  around stalactites and over the rocks to reach a deep channel, in which the water was between 3 and 10 metres deep. (We had all come suitably attired for swimming.)

Big splash in the Cenotes
Big splash in the Cenote

The water was warmish although, by my reckoning, not the 27 degrees that we had been promised! Luckily, the guide and the horse owners had brought torches with them, as we had not been warned that we would need them and it would have been somewhat dark in the cave without them. After we had all swum through, some members of the party jumped off rocks and into the deepest part of the channel. It was quite narrow between the rock walls though, so I was not brave enough to do it.

The second Cenote was quite a bit larger and had some natural light coming through from the sun. Both this and the next one, had the most amazing clear blue water and the reflections were quite magnificent when the sun shone through the entrance holes above. In all three, there were stalactites coming down from the roof and stalagmites coming up from the floor, some of which were very thick. Everyone enjoyed the swimming and the boys, particularly, enjoyed jumping in. The third Cenote had a very high rock from which they could jump and it was apparently so deep that it was used for scuba diving.

Reflections on the water
Reflections on the water in the Cenote

Stalactites in the Cenotes
Stalactites in the Cenote

After we had spent several hours travelling to and in the pools, we were taken to a local restaurant for a very late lunch (it was about 3pm by that time.) This was quite an unusual place, in that it was very large, with a very high brush type of ceiling and there was only us in it. Those of us that ate found the food to be excellent.

Entrance of the Cenote
Entrance of the Cenote

We eventually got back to the hotel at about 5 pm by which time it was almost time to order the pizzas to eat on the hotel roof top. I had eaten so much at lunch, that I decided not to eat but got some wine instead from the local shop. The view from the roof was beautiful, looking over the city, which was all lit up by this time. We stayed up there for a while, but once the drinking games began, I came back to the room for diary writing and bed. We have a very early start in the morning to beat the rest of the tourists to Chichen Itza.

Cancun

6 February

We had all paid a bit extra for private transport to get us to Chichen Itza when the gate opened and thank goodness we did, as when we left at midday, the place was crawling with bus loads of tourists. We left at 6am and had a very smooth trip to the site, which is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Even so, we were not first in line at the gate and not the first tourists through in. We met with our guide, Guillermo, who was very knowledgeable and gave us a tour for about an hour and a half, after which we had free time to explore.

Main Pyramid at Chichen Itza
Main Pyramid at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is a walled city, with the temples being within the walls and the houses and living areas being outside them. In fact, it is believed that there were at least three walled areas, the second one housing the University, and a third one, that has, in fact, been restored but we weren’t told what it housed.

Men at work
Men at work on top of a temple at Chichen Itza
Snake head carvings
Snake head carvings at Chichen Itza

The main pyramid was built so that the four corners lined up with the sun at the equinoxes in the morning and afternoon. The steps go up at an angle of 45 degrees and there are 2 other older pyramids within. Only two sides have been able to be restored as, when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they destroyed much of it and used the stones to build their own houses. The Spanish do not appear to be well liked in Mexico, even to this day, as, being ignorant of the Mayan culture, they destroyed so much when they arrived. Once again, there are many carvings of the rain god in evidence, as there is so little rain in the Yucatan. Each temple site has carvings of the gods that were important to them and their situation, so it might be rain or it might be the sun, for example. The rain god is very easy to spot (at least when his nose is still attached) as his nose resembles an elephant’s trunk.

Ball court at Chichen Itza
Large Ball Court at Chichen Itza

There are 11 ball courts at Chichen Itza, one of which is the biggest we have seen so far. Normally, they hit the hard leather ball with parts of their body, but it is likely they used rackets on this particular court, because of its size. The ball had to be hit through large rings attached high on the walls and the winners were likely to have been human sacrifices to the gods. There were some carvings on the walls depicting headless men, knives and dripping blood which lent a little support to this theory!

Other buildings at Chichen Itza included the Palace of 1000 Columns, an Observatory, with its top window openings lining up with the horizon, and, what is believed to be, the University.

The large ring on the wall of the Ball Court
The large ring on the wall of the Ball Court at Chichen Itza

Traders at Chichen Itza
Traders at Chichen Itza
Observatory at Chichen Itza
Observatory at Chichen Itza

There was also a sacred Cenote. However, the waters of this one were a lot greener and murkier looking than the ones we visited yesterday. Apparently, 150 human skeletons were found at the bottom of the Cenote and there is a legend (not supported by Guillermo) that they were human sacrifices. They must have made the drinking water quite tasty!

Sacred Cenote at chichen Itza
Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza

We all met at the restaurant for lunch by which time, what seemed like hundreds of traders had set up their stands and thousands of tourists had joined us at the site. It is the closest Mayan site to Cancun, which is a very developed tourist destination. I had a delicious bowl of spicy vegetable soup and then we were on our way again.

Temple of a Thousand Columns
Temple of a Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza

The road was very straight and the countryside flat and green all the way to Cancun. We had one minor halt in proceedings when the driver pulled over in the outskirts of Cancun and we noticed smoke/steam coming from the engine. Luckily, it was only a broken hose, which was soon mended, the water replenished, and we were on our way again.

The hotel proved a little tricky to access as the pavements on both sides of the highway were pulled up and were being worked on by many men and diggers for several hundred metres. However, we eventually got there, checked into our rooms and went on a brief familiarisation tour, which included the supermarket and laundry, both essential locations to know about! After that, I managed to lose everybody (deliberately) and had a wander on my own for a while. Sometimes, one just needs that space!

Once back at the hotel, Becky, my room mate of the last few days, and I had a quick swim in the pool and then we finished my bottle of wine from yesterday, whilst watching re-runs of ‘Friends’ on the television. We have discovered, that several episodes of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Friends’ run back to back at the appropriate drinking hour so have been watching them over the last few days. Sad, I know, but at least they are in English.

We met the rest of our group for what was meant to be our final dinner with everyone. Will, Jacob and Kerrilee are leaving us here (although it sounds as though we might be followed by at least two of them) and 10 new people are joining us. Nell, Becky, the tour leader’s, kiwi friend who lives in London, arrived tonight and also came out to dinner with us. This was at a restaurant round the corner where we sat outside and ate because it is, at last, warm enough to do so. Everyone was in fine form aided by a few ‘two for the price of one’ cocktails. We were discussing what to do tomorrow, the options being pay to go to an island beach, pay to go and sit on the beach on the hotel strip, go shopping or blob. Apparently, the 20km strip of beach is owned by the various hotels and restaurants along it, each of which charge to sit there for a day. One group member, who wants some ‘glam’, is going to pay $120 US to go to the Hard Rock cafe and sit on their beach for the day, one or two people are taking the ferry (140 pesos or approx $14 NZ each way) to go to Isla Mujeres to sit on the beach and some of us are going to take the bus to the Plaza des Americanos, go to the shopping mall and then come back and blob by the pool and read our books. Guess what I am going to be doing?

Cancun

7 February

I woke up quite late (for me) and sat in bed catching up on three days worth of diary, downloading photos and writing the blog. Becky was still asleep, so I went down to breakfast about 9.30am where obviously everyone was having a late morning. As we had a free day today there was no rush to do anything.

After breakfast, a group of us caught the bus to Plaza des Americanas, which is a large shopping mall. I’m not quite sure why I went and I soon got bored, not surprisingly. We met for lunch and then Becky and I came back to the hotel where I spent most of the afternoon messing around with photos and the blog when I should have been lounging by the pool reading a book. I had to sit on a landing as there wasn’t any wifi in the room and there was quite a lot of foot traffic so I had one or two interruptions (usually nice ones though)!

Pavement repairs in Cancun
Pavement repairs in Cancun

I considered going to have a look at the hotel strip but decided it was too much effort to get a bus to look at a lot of hotels backing onto the beach. Cancun is very much a tourist town. The Mexican Government, several years ago, decided that it needed to promote tourism and develop a tourist area. After a lot of research, they decided that Cancun would be the ideal location. It then had about half a dozen families living there. Sand was shipped in and a beach created. Hotels were built along the beach and now it is one massive resort. The hotels and restaurants all charge to go on the beach that they ‘own’ although there are apparently a few public beaches.

Oxxo shop
One of the Oxxo shops – purveyors of life saving Americano coffee!

At 6pm, we had a meeting for Becky to welcome the new people joining the tour and to give us some details about the next part. The new arrivals comprised three French Canadian couples, a French Swiss couple, an Englishman and Canadian man, meaning that more than half the group is now French speaking. Quite impressive! There are actually a lot of French speaking people in Mexico, it seems. After the meeting, everyone else went out to dinner but Becky and I were feeling anti-social so we got some quesidillas and had them with our wine in the hotel. There was a balcony along from our room with suitable table and chairs so it was very comfortable. We were forced to go to the supermarket for extra supplies though and I did a trip to the Oxxo for much needed coffee. (The Oxxo has been my main source of coffee throughout Mexico.)

Playa del Carmen

8 February

We had another early start today as we were catching an 8.15 am bus to Playa del Carmen, which is about an hour’s drive from Cancun. However, we had a free day once we arrived, so it was worth it.

Mayan ruins at Tulum
Mayan ruins at Tulum

We were unable to check into our rooms at the hotel so we parked our bags and took a Collectivo (mini bus) to Tulum, which is another Mayan site. By the time we got there, it was very hot and we had to walk about 1 km from the bus stop to reach the ruins.  There were hundreds of tourists.

The exit gate at Tulum
The exit gate at Tulum

There is no doubt that Tulum is in a beautiful setting right next to the sea but Trevor summed it up perfectly when he said that it didn’t seem real and it was just like a theme park. Thank goodness we had the opportunity to visit all the other sites. There was a beach next to the ruins and we left Trevor there and came back to Playa.  I was in dire need of some alone time so we decided to go our separate ways on our return.

Iguana
Iguana

Playa is extremely touristy. The main street is just full of restaurants and tourist shops and the beach is full of sun beds and people. There was a bit of entertainment happening at one end of the beach and also volleyball etc. However, I just watched and kept walking. All interesting to see but I am glad we are moving on to Belize tomorrow.

Wedding car at Playa
Wedding car at Playa

Interesting display outside shop
Interesting display outside shop in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen beach
Playa del Carmen beach

Once I had stocked on supplies at Walmart for our long day on the buses tomorrow, I came back to the hotel for a swim. I then monopolised one of the tables by the pool and set up my office to do my diary/blog!

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