Roundup 3: Mexico Part 1
To Anne, our mango-loving friend.
After a mostly unexciting January in Bogotá, we arrived in Mexico for an eventful February. Despite our plans for slow travelling, we ended up moving restlessly across half the Mexican territory, covering 6 states in 5 weeks! But there was no other way; Mexico is enormous and travelling slowly would mean spending the rest of our lives here. Sadly, we can’t do that (yet).
Rushing through Mexico means that we have a lot to share in this roundup. So get yourself a cup of tea and sit back, because this update will take a good chunk of your time 😉
Yucatan Peninsula – Dream beaches, Mayan ruins and cochinita pibil
Playa del Carmen
We entered Mexico via Cancún but moved immediately towards the Riviera Maya to meet our friend Anne, who would join us from Switzerland for a stretch of our Mexican adventure. We chose Playa del Carmen as our base for some days, got ourselves a nice Airbnb, and in no time embraced our tropical holiday mood.
Playa del Carmen is a popular gringo destination – gringo here means a foreigner, usually from the US – known for its beautiful Caribbean beaches and fancy all-inclusive resorts. Is Playa del Carmen the “real Mexico”? Definitely not! It’s clearly tailored for rich gringos and their tropical-party dreams. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth visiting, and we had to see those beaches that everyone raves about!
It was nice to spend some days in this fancy little town, where the air is always festive and smells like sea and delicious food. And speaking of food, we had our first real tacos and they were mindblowing: seafood, pork, beef, anything they wrap in those corn tortillas is just amazing. We also found the most delicious brownies in the world right outside our bnb. We couldn’t have asked for more!
We were also lucky to find a lovely flat with a balcony overlooking the most happening street, so we could enjoy the lively tropical atmosphere without having to actually go out. And just a few blocks away, there was your typical Caribbean dream beach of powdery white sand and insanely blue waters We spent our days exploring the gorgeous Riviera Maya and our nights chilling out – and eating brownies – in the balcony. Isn’t that the dream?
Tulum day trip
The brownies from Ah Cacao soon became our favourite dessert. But when it comes to the savoury category, nothing beats cochinita pibil. Nothing. One bite of this Yucatecan speciality made of extra-tender, slow-cooked pork wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with salsa and chicharrón, and we were all instantly hooked.
We first tried cochinita on our day trip to Tulum, right after our visit to a Mayan archaeological site that, despite its popularity and gorgeous setting, turned out to be nothing spectacular. We might not remember the Mayan ruins of Tulum later in our lives, but the taste of those cochinita tacos will forever be imprinted in our memories. Equally phenomenal were the beaches around Tulum, which we will never have enough of.
Cenote Manatí day trip
The Yucatan Peninsula is paradise for water lovers: on the one hand, it’s got amazing beaches and on the other, it’s got breathtaking cenotes (sinkholes). There are thousands of cenotes spread across the region and they’re a major tourist attraction, as their natural beauty and crystalline waters offer the perfect escape from the everpresent heat.
We had visions of ourselves relaxing at the Gran Cenote or Cenote Dos Ojos, known as two of the prettiest in the region. Sure, they’d be crowded and even overpriced but we had made our minds: we had to see them. That was until we got half scammed by a taxi driver who took us to some random, unreasonably expensive cenote and we had to resort to an improvised plan B.
We ended up in Cenote Manati, a much lesser known cenote where Anne and CS had a refreshing dip while I took their pictures from the outside. Not being an experienced swimmer, I didn’t feel like going into a 10-metre deep sinkhole, thanks. Anyway, even from the outside, the water was emerald green and impossibly clear. Cenotes really are a natural wonder worth admiring from any angle. We’ll keep the famous ones for our next visit.
In the end, we can’t complain: we were forced to change our plans but got quite the reward: unlike the other cenotes, Manati is right next to the beach; an empty, unbelievably-pretty beach that we had all to ourselves. Well, we got some little company but we were happy to share the beach with it.
We left Playa del Carmen on a warm sunny morning and arrived some hours later in Valladolid, on a cold rainy afternoon. Our collective mood dropped a little when we had to walk in the pouring rain looking for our flat; it dropped to ground level when I slipped and fell down on the wet, uneven sidewalks (ouch!). It reached underground levels when we saw our new home for the days to come – the worst in the history of Airbnb!
It all changed for the better in the morning though – except for the house, which remained ugly. We fell in love with Valladolid’s charming main square and its pastel-coloured houses that look amazing against the blue sky. We loved the central market too, so full of life and beautiful people and sweet tropical fruits. And we loved the gorgeous huipil tunics worn by the indigenous women, which make the town all the more pretty and made us feel that we were in the “real Mexico” now. Plus, the city has a cenote right in the centre. How cool is that?!
We all had our low moments in Valladolid: I fell, CS came down with a cold, and Anne almost landed on a chihuahua (damn you, uneven sidewalks). But besides that, it was a very nice couple of days filled with sightseeing in the city and day trips to archaeological sites. Oh, and enjoying the delicious Yucatecan cuisine: tamales, atole, volcanes, panuchos, sopa de lima, and cochinita pibil filled our days and stomachs with joy.
Cobá day trip
On our first day trip from Valladolid, we went to the archaeological site of Cobá. Retrospectively, the ruins were not all that impressive but we did have a great time exploring them.
To begin with, we got to explore the site by bicycle. Granted, the two-wheelers were quite bad but there was something special about going through the jungle on an undersized rusty bike, looking for the remainings of an ancient Maya city. Also, we climbed what would be our first Mayan pyramid, the Nohoch Mul: a 130-metre tall structure that offers wonderful views of the area. A remarkable achievement, if you ask me: it was damn hot and we’re all slightly acrophobic.
After exploring the ruins and having a light lunch, we rented better bikes and set off to visit one of the many cenotes that surround the archaeological site. Cycling for half hour (each way) under the relentless afternoon sun, through hilly roads and on a bike with no gears was a bit tough, but the reward was worth it.
The cave cenote Choo-Ha was very special. Unlike the open Cenote Manati, this sinkhole is completely hidden underground and we had to climb down several flights of stairs to reach the water. Inside, countless stalactites decorate the cave and the crystal-clear water is incredibly still and refreshing, which came as a shock as the air inside the cave is actually warm and humid. We spent a good half hour enjoying Nature’s wonder and having our feet tickled by small catfish, before heading back to Valladolid.
Chichén Itzá day trip
On our second day trip from Valladolid, we visited the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. For years, Chichén Itzá felt like an out-of-reach mythical place that only existed in history textbooks. Now it was finally here and it was astonishing.
The humbling feeling of seeing it is hard to describe. Have you already seen our post on Chichén Itzá? If so, you understand what we’re talking about. If you haven’t, we invite you to do so (see the link above); if you’re into history and ancient architecture, you’ll appreciate the site as much as we did.
Probably due to the laws of cosmic balance, we ended up in what might be the nicest house in Mérida. Brand new, spacious, sparkling clean, and with a courtyard where we could enjoy the breeze in a Yucatecan hammock.
Aside from some really aggressive mosquitoes that kept us up every night, the house was kind of perfect. Had it been up to us, we would have stayed in all the time, relaxing and eating mangoes – the signature fruit of this trip. But we had plans to follow and limited time in Mérida so we spent most of our time outside, walking in the city and visiting nearby attractions.
Nothing remarkable happened in the city itself. Mérida looks very much like Valladolid, only bigger, which somehow makes is less charming. The streets and the market are way more crowded and hectic. We did, however, witness a reenactment of the Mayan ballgame at the main square, where every night there seem to be festivals and performances going on. After visiting several Mayan ball courts, it was great to have a visual image of how the game/ ceremony was performed centuries ago.
Uxmal day trip
Yes, we were blown away by the grandeur of Chichén Itzá but our feelings for Uxmal are much deeper and we’re not afraid to say it: the archaeological site of Uxmal is, hands down, our very favourite Mayan site in Yucatán (dare we say Mexico?). If you have checked our post about Uxmal, you probably understand why.
Our day in Uxmal was hot and exhausting, but it left us with some of the best memories of Yucatan. The site is amazing! The details in every structure are so rich, unlike any of the other Mayan sites we visited. One can only wonder if the ancient Mayans were really human or at least half alien. How did they accomplish such feats of architecture and engineering with rudimentary tools?
Celestún day trip
On our last day in Merida, we went to the small fishing village of Celestun for wild-flamingo watching, great seafood and beautiful beaches. And although the flamingo watching was much shorter than expected, we’re happy to report that we successfully experienced all three things.
We probably had too high hopes for the flamingo watch. We thought that a two-hour tour would give us a long time to appreciate the birds, or at least longer than in our first wild-flamingo watching in Colombia. But as it turned out, it was only 10 minutes! The tour lasted two hours but only because it took 45 minutes to get to the flamingos, 45 minutes to go back, and 20 minutes to walk around a swampy cenote where the only attraction was a potentially fake crocodile hiding in the bushes. Anyway, the flamingos were gorgeous and we got to see them up close in their natural habitat, which is always amazing.
On the way back from the flamingos, we saw some boats being chased in the distance. Our boat driver told us that those were smugglers running away from the police, after which he said one of the strangest things we’ve ever heard: “It happens all the time; they’re not supposed to, but they keep smuggling Indian cucumbers”. Indian what? We googled Pepino Indio Mexico but found nothing more than salad recipes. We can only assume that it must be code for something fishy. If anybody reading knows the answer to this, please enlighten us!
Chiapas – the past and present of the Maya civilization
We left Yucatan for Chiapas and as we arrived in Palenque, after an 8-hour bus ride from Merida, it seemed as if we had gone to another country. For starters, the town isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. And there wasn’t any cochinita pibil or any of the delicious Yucatecan specialities that we had gotten used to. It was hot and humid and well, a little sad after our colourful and delicious experience in Yucatan. But we weren’t there for the town. We were there for the ruins, and they were incredible.
The archaeological site of Palenque is one of the most important ancient Mayan cities in Mexico, and it doesn’t take long to realise why. The carvings are pretty impressive – apparently, the best that the Mayans left – and the collection of hieroglyphic panels is mindblowing.
We had a great day exploring the archaeological site and in the late afternoon, we visited the on-site museum, which is even more impressive than the ruins themselves (plus, there’s aircon). To see the legendary glyphs that have helped historians unravel much of the history of the Mayan civilization was a privilege. Honestly, the European conquest of the Americas was a major setback for human history in general.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
After weeks of singlets and shorts, it felt somehow weird to be wearing jackets and long trousers. San Cristóbal de las Casas, 2200 m above the sea level, marked the end of our mosquito-filled days and brought a refreshing change to our travel routine. Suddenly, a new Mexico appeared before our eyes; one that we liked a lot.
The Mexican state of Chiapas is home to the largest number of indigenous communities in the country. To our delight, this is particularly evident in San Cristobal de las Casas and its mountainous surroundings. Anne and I went on a handicraft shopping spree, while CS had one of his best photography experiences of the whole trip. The colourful traditional attires and beautiful faces of the native Tzotzil and Tzeltal people – both descendants of the Mayans – confer a unique charm to this colonial town.
Our stay in San Cristobal de las Casas was made all the more memorable thanks to our lovely Airbnb and a fantastic restaurant that we discovered in the vicinity, where we got to enjoy the best of Chiapanecan food prepared by the Tzotzil chef Claudia Ruiz Zantiz. All fresh, all local, all wonderfully tasty, and beautifully presented; we couldn’t have asked for more. Even the service was exquisite. To all those visiting San Cristobal, Kokono’ is a must!
Sumidero Canyon day trip
One hour away from San Cristobal de las Casas, lies the magnificent Sumidero Canyon, a narrow and very deep gorge of great ecological importance in Chiapas that is home to numerous endemic plant and animal species.
We took an awesome tour from San Cristobal to the Sumidero Canyon National Park. Well, at first not so awesome when our driver realised that we had been the only van driving all the way to the canyon; every other tour group had stayed in San Cristobal due to some sailing restrictions for the day. We were stuck in a tiny, uninteresting town with our clueless driver and three upset Californian guys that had been separated from their parents by the tour operator.
Tensions grew deeper as the driver refused to take us back and the guys refused to do anything without their parents, so I suddenly ended up playing translator/mediator of the situation. Happily, after multiple phone calls we found out that the sailing ban had been lifted and the parents were on their way to the canyon. So we just waited for them to arrive while drinking beer at 10 am, courtesy of the guys, who were well prepared with a cooling backpack and plenty of beers.
After the family reunion, we boarded the boat along with at least 20 other tourists and off we went, to finally see the Sumidero Canyon. Sailing along the Grijalva river, we were surrounded on both sides by rock walls of up to 1,000 metres. In some parts of the riverbank, we could see spider monkeys playing in the trees and even a crocodile which unlike the one in Celestun, appeared pretty real sunbathing on the sand. Or maybe it was just the effect of the beers? Our new friend really made sure we wouldn’t go thirsty on that boat! By lunch time we were all pretty tipsy, but nothing that some delicious consomé de cochito with tortillas couldn’t solve.
The day ended on a brilliant note, as we were taken to some viewpoints to see the Sumidero Canyon from above, which was just as impressive. Tired after a day in the sun through winding fluvial and terrestrial ways, we were all silent on the way back to San Cristobal. We thought we’d see the guys again but we didn’t. At this point, we don’t even remember their names, but we were glad to had shared the day with them.
San Juan Chamula & Zinacantán day trip
Intrigued by the indigenous population in the area, we decided to visit San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, two tiny towns inhabited exclusively by highland Maya people. These regions are highly autonomous and have their own rules, their own indigenous army, their own religious practices. We felt like intruders in a forbidden land, which was both disturbing and fascinating at the same time.
There wasn’t much to eat though, so we ended up lunching on the cheapest meat tacos in history, without a second thought. We were hungry and couldn’t afford to be picky, but based on the events of the days that followed, this may have worked against us. We probably should have brought our own food.
In order to get to Oaxaca from San Cristóbal de las Casas, we had to embark on a 12-hour bus ride. So things didn’t look good when Anne and I both woke up with upset stomachs in the morning of our departure. Our fears materialized 9 hours later when the road got impossibly curvy, and our crazy driver decided this was the time to try his bus-racing skills. We both threw our guts up, repeatedly, for 3 hours. Poor CS spent the whole time oscillating between us, with plastic bags and tissue papers. Suddenly, dying in a traffic accident was the least of our concerns.
Once in Oaxaca and recovered from the trauma and disgust, we enjoyed walking the lovely historical centre and the vast Benito Juarez market, where we got to try everything from delicious chocolate paste to fried grasshoppers to mezcal. Not to mention some of the most popular local dishes such as tamales Oaxaquenos, tlayudas, and mole.
There were many things to do in the surroundings of Oaxaca, but after some weeks of high-speed travelling – and the crazy bus ride to get here – we were in urgent need of a good rest. So we spent our few days in Oaxaca enjoying the UNESCO city centre and chilling with the fresh cucumber-ginger drink from La Michoacana Natural, our favourite ice cream shop.
I also took the chance to finally cut my hair in the beauty school next door from our place. It took two hours for my hairdresser-to-be to give me a funny mushroom haircut that I had to fix later with our Swiss knife but hey, it was for free! And she got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do a pixie cut, which is really not a common hairstyle in Mexico. A total win-win situation.
Monte Albán day trip
On our last day in Oaxaca, our plans to visit the archaeological site of Monte Alban were slightly altered when I woke up with stomach trouble. Well, it was mostly an arithmetic alteration: instead of three people going, there would be two.
So Anne and CS visited the site while I stayed home recovering. From what they reported upon arrival, the site was nice but extremely hot and dry and in any case, nothing as spectacular as we’d seen so far in Uxmal or Chichen Itza. I was somehow happy to hear this, and that my little stomach problem didn’t seem too bad. After one day of rest, I was back to normal. Or so I thought…
When in 1519 the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met Aztec king Moctezuma II, he was received with precious gifts and treated with the highest honours. Two years later, however, he and his men had killed Moctezuma and slaughtered a great deal of the Aztec population, enslaving all those who survived.
Legend has it, that angered by such betrayal Moctezuma decided to take posthumous revenge on all foreigners on his land. Forget about traveller’s diarrhoea. In Mexico, this is known as La Venganza de Moctezuma and I got it bad, really really bad during our stay in Puebla. Anne and CS got it too, but they recovered much faster. Thankfully, Moctezuma has somehow softened over the years; five centuries after the incident, we could endure his revenge in a flat with Netflix and a decent toilet.
It took me a week and a prescribed course of antiparasitics to recover, so I couldn’t see or do anything in Puebla. On the bright side, I lost some weight. Anne and CS were not entirely fit either, so they didn’t go out much either, plus they were busy taking care of me anyway. Our plans for Puebla and its surroundings will have to wait for our next visit to Mexico.
There’s one thing that we did in Puebla before Moctezuma’s attack. Well, not exactly in Puebla but it all started there.
Some months ago while travelling in Colombia, we met this Mexican guy in Santa Marta named Oswaldo. We clicked instantly and pinky-sworn to visit him in Puebla some months later. So, as soon as we arrived in Mexico, we contacted him to plan our little reunion.
He informed us that his family would throw a double-birthday party for his brother and cousin, which would coincide with our visit. What are the odds?! We accepted his invitation with great enthusiasm, bought some mezcal in Oaxaca for the occasion and off we went, to party in Puebla. Something told us that this party was going to be big.
It was indeed big. So big, that it involved a 4-hour road trip to reach the venue, which turned out to be in the State of Mexico. From Puebla, we travelled all the way to Mexico City and beyond to reach Oswaldo’s hometown: Melchor Ocampo. And there, where no tourist has gone before, we took part in the biggest, longest, loudest party of our lives.
The whole town was there and they were all somehow related. We couldn’t keep track anymore, who’s a cousin, who’s an uncle, we had no idea. There were three rock bands, lots of booze and dancing, it was all very “Mexican” to us. The main party started on Saturday night and ended the next morning, but some of Oswaldo’s closest relatives kept going until Monday morning, dragging us along. With some sleeping breaks in between (for us, not for them) we were partying with them the entire time, drinking and singing and at some point dancing; even Anne danced a little! It felt quite surreal. And exhausting!
It wasn’t all drinking though. We also had the most Mexican of all meals thanks to Oswaldo’s lovely mom and aunt Juanita, who prepared a beautiful feast with homemade mole, tamales, and sopa de tres quesos, amongst many other delightful specialities. It was touching to be sitting at that big table, treated like members of a large Mexican family that we’d just met. It was a true moment of human connection that we were happy to be part of. Despite the fatigue, the whole weekend was truly unforgettable and we’ll be forever grateful to Oswaldo and his family.
Our last stop with Anne was Mexico City. We were not quite as fresh as when we met five weeks ago, but we still managed to do all the things that we’d planned for Mexico City before her departure. Even if we were performing only to like 60% of our physical capacities.
We visited the jaw-dropping National Anthropology museum, wandered through the rooms of Frida Kahlo’s house, and saw the legendary Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in the ruins of Teotihuacan. It was a short but productive time in the dazzling Mexican capital. Our mission was accomplished; our energy reserves, depleted.
To sum up
Our first five weeks in Mexico may have been tiring, but our experience so far has been beyond amazing. This country has enchanted us with its colours and flavours, and with its charismatic people who’ve touched our hearts with their smiles, kindness, and generosity.
As Anne flew back to Switzerland, we stayed one more week in Mexico City, planning our next moves and catching up a little with blogging. We still have five more weeks in the country and plenty to see and do… but that will be for the next roundup.