Isla Mujeres – more beach time

We leave Cancun in beautiful sunshine but very soon the weather changes and before we know it the heavens have opened and it’s pouring. We arrive on Mujeres wet and a little miserable but it’s only a couple of hours before things have dried out and the sun is shining again.

So after Tulum it was off to Isla Mujeres for a few more days on the beach. We’ve had the last of our long journeys, from now on it’s just a couple of hours between the various beaches in the Yucatan. We get off the bus in Cancun, after passing mile after mile of massive beach resorts. And when I say massive I mean absolutely humungous – these things are the size of small towns. Yuk. From the bus station it’s a short hop in a taxi to the ferry port and then a quick 25 minute ride out to the island. Ferries go every half an hour from 5am to late at night so there’s no need to book tickets in advance, just rock up and away you go.

We leave Cancun in beautiful sunshine but very soon the weather changes and before we know it the heavens have opened and it’s pouring. We arrive on Mujeres wet and a little miserable but it’s only a couple of hours before things have dried out and the sun is shining again.

Isla Mujeres - town

The Stefs are staying at Poc Na, one of the few proper hostels on the island, whilst we’re in a small hotel in the centre of town. Before long, we bump into them in the street (the place really is that tiny) and agree to meet that evening for drinks. We hook up later at the Rock Bar, which starts off a great night with good indie music but slowly goes downhill when a couple of guys (one of them the owner of the bar) decide to show off their guitar playing and singing skills. I use the word skills loosely, it was pretty cringeworthy to watch and the only person that seemed to be enjoying it was the younger guy’s girlfriend. You know those people on X Factor who think they’re really good but are actually pretty appalling? Well enough said.

Isla Mujeres - town

Still, it was great to catch up again with the Stefs and we got introduced to a couple of lovely girls they’d met since being on the island. After some more beers and tacos for dinner, it was off to bed with plans for the beach the next day.

Isla Mujeres - the beach

Sure enough, the weather was much better in the morning and we headed down to Playa Norte to soak up some rays. It’s a beautiful beach here, the same white powder sand as in Tulum but with less sea grass and possibly even warmer water. After maybe half an hour lying on the sand we couldn’t bear the heat any longer as it was impossibly hot so treated ourselves to some sun loungers and umbrellas. Later our pasty skins managed to endure a little more tanning whilst sipping some Flor de Cana we’d bought. Mmmm.

Later, despite the previous evening, it was back to the Rock Bar, along with some more recruits from Poc Na. It was our last night with the Stefs so we were a little sad but all good things must come to an end.

Isla Mujeres - the beach

Apart from that, it was a fairly uneventful few days mainly consisting of lazing on the beach. We were lucky with the weather and although we had a few clouds we didn’t get any more rain. We’re definitely winding down now before we head home so there’s no more big sights to see or tours to go on, just a bit of relaxation before heading back to the English winter.

Tulum – slowdown

With just over two weeks left on the coast of Mexico there is not much left on our itinerary.

With just over two weeks left on the coast of Mexico there is not much left on our itinerary.  Depressing as it may seem, there is lots for us to do before we get back home. Job and flat hunting has begun and we are slowly working out the logistics of building our lives again in London. We are both sad that it’s all coming to an end but at the same time we are both ready to go home and are excited about all the new things ahead of us.

Tulum
Tulum

We checked into a great little hostel in Tulum town called Mama’s Home. Most short vacationers prefer to stay on the beach, about 5km out of town, but we were keen to keep the budget down and also needed to ensure we were near internet and phones in case of any news on job prospects. The hostel itself is nothing out of the ordinary, with clean, white rooms and a nice communal area but the breakfasts are probably the best we’ve had on our whole trip – day one: French toast with chocolate and banana; day two: spinach omelette with potato and papaya; day three: pancakes with maple syrup and watermelon. Yum.

We are firmly in tourist land; every building on the main strip is either a restaurant or a shop selling souvenirs. Everywhere you look there are sombreros, wrestling masks and leather handbags, each shop a replica of the one next to it. However, only a short taxi or bike ride away, and you come to one of the nicest beaches we’ve seen. White powder sand, crystal waters and lots of relaxed beach bars. It’s a fun place to unwind, which is exactly what we were here to do.

Tulum - sand is too white, sun is too strong and the water is a weird blue color
Tulum - sand is too white, sun is too strong and the water is a weird blue color

Our stay was also planned to coincide with the visit of some friends we first met over a year ago in Vietnam.  We met Jill and Paul whilst visiting Saigon and had stayed in touch since. They were staying in a fantastic eco-type lodge on the beach and we spent a great couple of evenings with them and their travel buddies drinking rum and enjoying some delicious dinners. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to meet up with them again when we’re back in London.

Quiet night over a bottle of Flora de Cana
Quiet night over a bottle of Flor de Cana

We enjoyed four incredibly lazy days. Beach, internet, restaurants, films, bed, repeat.  We had originally planned to stay for five days but decided to leave a day early and head over to Isla Mujeres to meet up with the Stefs. After two months, on and off, of travelling with them, this was to be our final farewell before we headed home. I think we were all a little sad to say goodbye but I’m sure they will just about manage without us for the rest of their travels. We’re both a bit jealous they are heading to Nepal.

Merida – party town!

Merida is famous for its weekly celebrations held every weekend, where they close off the streets to traffic and have a bit of a knees up.

We arrived in Merida at 7am after our night bus from Palenque. We were staying at the Yucatan Vista Inn, a small, seven bedroom guesthouse with spacious rooms and a pool in the garden. We hadn’t told them that we would be that early and were greeted at the door by a very grumpy English man. After he’d moaned a bit about check in time not being until 12pm and me asking him sarcastically whether he’d prefer us to wait on the street, he mellowed a little and allowed us to relax in the lounge. As it happened, the guest staying in our room was up and out by 8.30 and an hour later our room was ready. Shattered, we headed straight to bed to catch up on a few hours’ sleep.

Swimming pool at our hotel

That afternoon we headed into town to explore the central area. Merida is famous for its weekly celebrations held every weekend, where they close off the streets to traffic and have a bit of a knees up. We had dinner at a typically Mexican place where the food was cheap and the service fast. Plus they were playing a Shakira concert on the television so Rich was pleased although a little quiet throughout the meal.

Happy Richard

The next day and the Stefs arrived from Playa del Carmen. They had promised back in Antigua that they would meet us for Rich’s birthday and now here they were! They managed to get a room in the same hotel and that evening we took them back to the Mexican restaurant before heading onto to a nearby bar for a few drinks and some light entertainment from a guy on a Casio keyboard. Unfortunately, everyone was feeling a bit tired so we called it a night around 11pm with plans for birthday celebrations the following day.

The cathedral at night

Sunday was Rich’s birthday and after a long lie-in and some TV, we headed into the main square to check out the festivities. One side of the square was now covered in food stalls, selling all the local treats such as tamales, churros and many other delicacies that we hadn’t seen before. Meanwhile, on the other side, a comedienne was doing a routine and judging from the size of the crowd she was pretty well known. In the middle of the square were the usual stalls selling souvenirs, hammocks and traditional cotton dresses. We grabbed a table at one of the food stands and had a great lunch for pennies.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed another square where a band was playing and lots of people were dancing salsa. Most of them were older couples and it was very cute watching them getting into the swing of things, mostly in time to the music!

Back at the hotel and we were greeted by the Stefs with a huge birthday cake for Rich and a six pack of beers – thanks guys!!!

Birthday cake and beers

Later that evening we headed out to an Irish pub for a birthday meal of fish and chips. Well I don’t know what Irish pubs these guys have been to but it was the poshest Irish bar I’ve ever seen! The food was absolutely delicious though and the fish and the burgers came close to the best we’ve ever eaten. Still not quite as good as Tranquilo on Little Corn but amazing nonetheless.

Monday morning and we were off to be tourists. We’d booked ourselves on a tour to some nearby cenotes, underground pools in caves which you can swim in. There are tons of them around the Yucatan and today we were going to visit three of them.

It was an hour and a half ride before we reached our destination. Then it was out of the van and a quick change into our swimming gear before hopping onto our transport for the day – what can only be described as a train pulled by a horse. It was a bit of a bumpy ride but a nice change from sitting on a bus at least! Unfortunately, there was only one track so whenever we met someone coming the other way, one or other of us had to get off the train, manually lift the truck off the rails, let the other pass and then remount the truck back on the rails before continuing. Hmmm. Good design.

Our first cenote was a semi-open one, which you reached by climbing down a flight of stairs. Down below, there was a wooden platform and before us a pool of the clearest water which shimmered a deep blue colour in the cave. From the ceiling hung stalagmites as well as tree roots from the ground above. The water itself was not cold as expected but more like a swimming pool, it was absolutely beautiful. We spent twenty minutes exploring the cave before jumping out and back up to the surface to dry off and head on to our next cenote.

The cenotes

The second one was completely enclosed and you had to climb down a vertical ladder to reach it. Some of the older folk in our group stayed up top, it was a pretty steep climb down. Another stunning pool, this time a little colder due to the lack of sunlight but still not unpleasantly so. After this we were off to a final, semi-open cenote before the horses took us back to our start point. After a bite to eat it was back in the bus for our return to Merida. A very touristy but very enjoyable day and pretty cheap (about £20 each) to boot. Sometimes it’s just easier and cheaper to jump on a tour than trying to DIY it.

The cenotes
The cenotes

Unfortunately, girl Stef was ill so we opted for a dinner of takeaway Subway before packing our bags, ready for a bus to Tulum in the morning. The Stefs were off to Isla Mujeres but we hoped to meet up with them again in a few days’ time.

Palenque – better than Tikal?

The site is much smaller than Tikal, but mainly because they have only uncovered around 5%, with the rest remaining below ground.

And so from Flores it was on towards Mexico, the final country on our trip and our last overland border crossing. And what a border crossing it was! After being picked up by a minivan at 5am, we finally set off around 6am after much stopping and starting and waiting, I’m not sure what for. After an incredibly bumpy journey along some of the worst roads in Central America, the like of which we’ve not experienced since Bolivia, we arrived at the Guatemalan exit post out in the middle of nowhere. Here we got our stamps for the small price of 40 pesos, not an entirely legitimate fee but not a lot you can do about it. One couple tried refusing but simply got told that if they didn’t pay they wouldn’t get a stamp so after they’d eventually coughed up (come on guys it’s only £2) we were on our way again. A few miles down the road and we were all hauled off the bus and onto a boat to ride down the river and into Mexico.

Boat across the border

After half an hour on sewage infested waters we were out the other side onto dry land once again for our Mexican entry stamps. Then it was a short ride in a taxi to the bus stop before we piled into another minibus for the last leg of our journey to Palenque. Nearly nine hours after setting off we finally arrived at our destination. Phew.

Palenque

We were only staying in Palenque for a couple of days. There’s not a lot to see or do here except the ruins but we’d heard they were as good as Tikal or Copan and better than Chichen Itza. The town itself is pretty non-descript. Lots of shoe shops. Not much else of note. Still, our room was cheap and there was a Burger King in town so we had nothing to complain about. After dinner it was an early night, the journey from Flores had taken it out of us.

Skull carving at Palenque

The next day and we were off to the ruins. After our disappointing tour of Tikal, we decided to go it alone again this time and off we went, armed with our Lonely Planet for information. Collectivos head out to the ruins every 15 minutes or so and it takes about 20 minutes to get there. You have to pay an entrance fee when you reach the National Park and then get another entrance ticket to the ruins itself, all in about 100 pesos in total (£5).

More Palenque
...and more...

The site is much smaller than Tikal, but mainly because they have only uncovered around 5%, with the rest remaining below ground. When you consider what the whole place would have been like at the time it’s pretty impressive. The structures are also more complete than Tikal. Ok, they’ve done some restoration in places and you can see where, but it really helps give you a sense of how it would have looked. The setting, deep in the jungle, is beautiful too, although the dozens of hawkers selling tourist tat do somewhat detract from the serenity of it all.

...and more...
...and more...

The other great thing about Palenque is that you can still climb up most of the structures. I’ve heard that Chichen Itza is all roped off these days so you can’t really explore properly ( someone died ). The stairs are steep though so wear proper shoes and comfortable clothing, the Eastern European girl in a dress struggled a bit and we got a great view of her knickers a few times. It’s definitely worth the climb though as you get some awesome views over the whole site from the buildings that sit up on the hill. Since the ruins are in the jungle there are also a couple of waterfalls on the walk back to civilisation. Not quite the spectacle of Iguazu but pretty nonetheless.

The waterfall

After a few hours at the ruins it was back to town for something to eat before heading to the bus station for a overnight journey to Merida. Then a few days there to celebrate Rich’s birthday before a final few weeks on the coast.

Tikal – complete washout

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films.

Not every day on a 14 month holiday is going to go exactly to plan. When we first packed up and left the UK we took with us a very British attitude that a holiday abroad must include sunshine and warm weather. On our way we’ve been through it all, unbearable heat, snow storms, tropical gales and everything in between. We accepted long ago that not every day will be dry and prepare for wet days with a smile. Since we have only a few weeks before returning to the UK perhaps it was fitting then that we were treated to a total downpour, preparing us for London in February.

Tikal is one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America, it’s the poster child for the Mayan prophecy that the world will end on Dec 21st 2012 and so has become a big hit with the tourists. Mentalists will flock here at the end of the year, as the world ends, and dance and stuff in the hope they will be granted pass to the next world or a trip on an alien spaceship or something. Hotels are booked up, prices are rocketing. I want to be there on Dec 20th, buying up all their valuables at discount.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

These Mayan ruins have always been on our list as a must do whilst in Guatemala along with Palenque in Mexico. We have crossed off Chichen Itza after hearing underwhelming reports and also we want to spread our time between beaches, towns and ruins. Tikal is famous not just for its impressive temples but also the setting; the site sits deep in the jungle, populated by howler and spider monkeys.

Tikal
Tikal

We are staying in Flores, a cute island about an hour away. The town is joined to the mainland by a small road with most hotels overlooking the crystal clear lake. It’s not so touristy, and although there are souvenir tat shops everywhere it still maintains its charm. And it’s cheap. Our hotel room was £11 a night including private bathroom, air-con and cable TV. We set our alarms for 4:00am with a bus to Tikal at 5am. Everybody tells us we must aim to get to Tikal by 7am as there is less chance of rain.

Wrong.

Tikal - damp
Tikal - damp

It rained. Not your usual heavy rain, but soaked to the socks in a second rain. Many in our group (we opted for a guided tour, he was a bit crap but you need someone as you can easily get lost at the site) fled back to the café drenched and cold. We had our raincoats but after a few minutes they afforded no protection. After about an hour and a half the rain stopped and even a bit of blue sky sneaked out. We spent about three hours in total around the site, it’s certainly impressive, the steamy jungle adds to the whole experience but in all honesty we didn’t actually like it as much as previous Mayan encounters. Copan Ruins was beautiful, and as our guide told us, was where the artists lived so had many more decorative buildings and carvings. We don’t think our disappointment was too much down to the rain. Maybe after Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu we take some pleasing.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films. That made my day. I sat on top of a temple looking out at an immediately recognisable scene and made a few Yoda impersonations.

Tika or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are
Tikal or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are

We had both developed trench foot so headed home and had a quiet day. As per usual in Latin American towns, there was a street festival that night, locals lugged around town some religious gold, that could better be used melted down and donated to the local hospital. The streets were filled, a local band with trumpet fired up and fireworks finished the night. Awesome.

 

Generic Latin American street festival fun
Generic Latin American street festival fun