Friday, 10 May 2013


Hello people. How's it going?
This post comes from our final port of call in Mexico, the very cool and laid back Tulum. All you need to know about this town for now is that I am hung over and I am sat in my hostel room that the owner excitedly told us was called 'The Blue Dream'. Oooooohhhhhhhh!!

So getting straight into it; we took the overnight bus from the boozy beach town of Zipolite to the central highlands city of San Cristobal de la Casas. By the time we had wasted the day to catch the 22:50pm bus our merry band of backpackers had increased to 5 people. Along with ourselves and Nick, there was now also Patricia from Italy and 'T' from Canada, who would be our travel companion for a further 5 days, and is to blame for my current state!

Overnight bus journeys are never pleasant, give me a sleeper train any day, but I have to say that the buses in Mexico are the second best that I have been on in the world (Malaysia holds the number 1 spot).
The seats are big, the air con works and they always show a few movies. It is amazing that you can watch a movie in Spanish and still understand it just from literally watching the action.
We arrived into San Cristobal the next morning after a decent 5 hours sleep which is definitely an achievement on an overnighter bus.
What to say about San Cristobal? Probably the nicest place that we have been to in this country and definitely Arancha's favourite city. Due to is location at 2,200 metres it is hot in the daytime but very cool in the evenings (you need a hoodie), it is based in the central highlands of the state of Chiapas meaning that the surroundings are mountainous lush green countryside and the city itself is a blend of hippie culture meets art with enough cafes dotted about the place so that you constantly walk around with an espresso buzz.
We only spent 2 nights here and we passed the time walking the streets, visiting the churches (of course), allowing Arancha to get her shopping fix in the Mayan markets and generally hanging around drinking and bumping into the many backpackers that all seem to be following the same route.

One excursion that we did do in San Cristobal was to take a boat through the Canon (Canyon) de Sumidero. The canyon which began its formation at the same time as the Grand Canyon, whilst not as impressive as its much larger canyon cousin was an awesome sight. The trip consisted of a 2 hour boat ride along the river in between the canyon walls that rose up to a 1,000 metres above our heads and legend has it that some of the indigenous Mayan's jumped to their deaths from the top of the canyon rather than surrender to the invading Spanish army!
Whilst we were definitely safe and sound in our speed boat we did have close encounters with crocodiles, a group of sunbathing vultures and spider monkeys that seemed both inquisitive and very relaxed to have a boat full of humans staring at them and taking hundreds of pictures.

On our final night we popped out for a drink and ran into 'T' who we told we were leaving the following morning to head into the jungle to visit the ruins of Palenque. As she had nothing planned she decided there and then to come along and so began our tour around 4 different sets of ancient Mayan ruins.
A little bit of background info on our traveling buddy - T is a Canadian native American Indian who when she finally stops partying for 5 minutes is supposed to be here to find a suitable place to open a bar - a seriously important contact to have!! Plus, she is great fun and a real character.

By mid afternoon the next day the 3 of us exited the bus in the jungle town of Palenque and were all slapped in the face by a wall of super heated air. The heat was oppressive and I was very pleased that we were only due to be here for 2 nights to view the ruins and then get the hell out ASAP.
T had read about a hostel that was only a 10 minute walk away from the bus station but even such a small walk became a trek in such temperatures and we all arrived looking like we had been for a swim. The actual hostel was very nice set amongst the backdrop of the jungle foliage with its private cafĂ©, bar and bbq area.
Partly due to the fact that we were sweating our nuts off (metaphorically speaking for 2 of the group; it was real life for me) we were up and out early the next morning and in a collectivo heading to the ruins before 9am. A lot of the people in the hostel had made the effort to get to the ruins for opening time at 7am to avoid the heat of the day but as far as we were concerned this was lunacy. Yes it was bloody hot by the time we left at midday but at least we weren't knackered as well.
As for the ruins themselves - majestic would be a good word to describe them. Every fantasy I had as a kid about discovering lost cities in the jungles were fulfilled in this place. The city was at its peak in the 7th century but after its decline the jungle moved back in to swallow what was there before and so it lay undiscovered for hundreds of years. The areas that have now been cleared and restored are a huge array of pyramids and temples some of which are massive and take a great deal of effort to climb under the glare of the punishing sun. The thing I find even more fascinating about all of these sites are that what you can see is only a fraction of what still lays hidden amongst the trees and vines. We spent a full 3 hours exploring the buildings of Palenque but it is estimated that only 10% of what is there has been explored and uncovered to date.
For me the Mayan culture is more about the wonder and an appreciation of the architecture rather than a spiritual experience (my spirituality is waiting for me to return to India and Nepal) but in Palenque I stood amused as I watched a group of American's meditating in the shadows of the main palace. Now I am all for getting in touch with nature and harnessing the energy of the earth but what I think is pure bullshit is the leader of the group becoming possessed by the spirits of the dead, chanting like she was having an orgasm and shaking all over like she was having an epileptic fit before passing out and falling back against the stone walls. I can't imagine what these suckers had paid to come on this 'journey' but what I can tell you is that for free I really enjoyed watching the show.

With the ruins done and dusted (so to speak) it was time to get out. We decided to head over to the west coast of the state of Campeche and visit the state capital of the same name and this involved catching an early morning bus.
This brings me onto the main thing I hate about hostel dorms. It was about 12:30am and the 3 young Europeans that we were sharing with came in and turned all of the lights on. Now I personally think that this is bad manners when you can use the light of your mobile to navigate about the room but overall it is not such a big deal. However, what I do think is completely selfish is to leave all of the lights on whilst you then head into the bathroom and have a 30 minute shower! Seriously, did your parents not teach you anything or are you just spoilt brats traveling on mummy and daddy's money?
Not one to let a slight pass me by (AJ being the same) we took great pleasure in rising at 7am, turning the air conditioning off, opening the curtains and also opening the windows to let the heat and mosquitoes in for breakfast before slamming the door as we left.
Yes it was petty and tit for tat but you get what you give. A'ight.

Next stop Campeche - we lasted exactly 20 hours. The Lonely Planet has thrown us a couple of stinkers but Campeche was the egg fart of the group.
The book's description makes it out to be a damn sight more worthwhile than the actual reality and maybe it would've been if we hadn't already walked around the streets of dozens of other colonial towns all painted in pretty pastel colours. It also didn't help that behind the fortified walls of this town we did not get the ocean breeze we were craving and when we finally did make it through the fort walls and over to the ocean there was no beach because back in the 1900's they decided take advantage of the fact that low tide would leave a few hundred metres of land exposed, so they built right out to low tides' edge meaning that the land stops abruptly at a sea wall.
Our hostel didn't improve our mood. How they managed to squeeze 3 bunk-beds into the room we were in I am not sure, but there were 5 of us in there and no air - it was not pleasant.
We arrived at 2pm, we explored the town, walked along the city walls, visited a museum and had a few beers. At 10am the next day we said our goodbyes to T and jumped on a bus to Valladolid. A very short and not all that sweet visit to Campeche - don't go!

As for Valladolid - you should go and upon arriving I realised that I had been here before on my last visit to Mexico 8 years ago!
Valladolid is another Mexican town like all the rest, it is based around a Zocalo (central square) but it feels somewhat more authentic and real. There aren't as many white faces hanging around and you feel like you have it more to yourself.
Our reason for coming here was that the town was located perfectly as a base to explore the ruins of both Chichen-Itza and Coba plus a few more sites if these two weren't enough.
We timed our visit to Valladolid to unexpectedly coincide with a festival so our evenings were spent in the centre of town watching the traditional dancers and folk bands whilst eating Nutella crepes.
We ate most of our meals in the Bazar Municipal - an indoor market as such which is all the more interesting because the food vendors are not allowed to approach you. In order to attract business they must remain behind their counter and shout as loud as they can and lean out as far as possible with a menu in the hope that you will choose them.
You feel quite guilty when you finally do make a choice but we made sure that we went to a different one each time so as to spread the wealth.

Early the next morning we jumped on the local bus along with the Mexicans and headed out into the middle of nowhere through tiny villages on our way to Chichen-Itza. Along with Tulum (my current location) Chichen is the most visited ruins in Mexico and the central pyramid is the image used in all the tourist brochures, so you have probably seen it.
I had been to Chichen-Itza before but I must not have done a great job of being a sightseer because I saw so much more this time. Probably something to do with not being hung over!
Whilst not as absorbing as Monte Alban in Oaxaca or Palenque the central pyramid along with the ball court of Chichen-Itza do make it a Mexican travel must. The problems with this location is that it is a favourite with the day trippers tearing themselves away from the all-inclusive luxury of Cancun and a result it gets busy and is also very commercial. The pathways are lined on either side with Mexican stalls selling tat at ridiculously inflated prices because holidaymakers have the spare cash to indulge in a spot of memorabilia shopping. Nobody cares to think that there are a couple of backpackers who need to make their money stretch for 18 months do they! Selfish.
Also, when I was here previously I was able to climb the pyramid and explore all of the ruins first hand, now it is all roped off so it feels more like being at a museum. I understand it is about preserving what is there but it is a shame nonetheless.
Another thing that did stick out about Chichen-Itza was that there must have been one iguana for every tourist - everywhere you cared to look there would be an iguana basking in the sunshine; some up to a metre long. I think we found them more fascinating than the ruins we were there to observe.

Our penultimate site of this ruins odyssey followed swiftly the next morning with a visit to Coba.
At the bus station we noticed a young western lad dressed in a suit and tie (it was boiling) and it was very clear that he was of the god persuasion. AJ told me to avoid eye contact at all costs which of course meant that I couldn't, meaning that he approached us.
We let out a sigh of relief as he only wanted to borrow a phone and not preach the gospel but once we told him that we weren't carrying one he still informed us that he was a Mormon working as a missionary to spread the word of baby Jesus.
He said that he was on his way to Cancun and I jokingly told him that there would be plenty of sin for him to work with there - he didn't laugh as such.
I am not even sure why he was in Mexico at all - the whole country is mad for god; who is there left to convert and to save?
So, once again we made our own way to Coba on the local bus but were a little perplexed when we were dropped off at the side of the road and stood there as the dust created by the departing bus billowed into our faces.
Eventually, with the aid of a very helpful map directly behind us we found that we were only a 10 minute walk away from the entrance to the ruins.
As with the rest, Coba is only partially exposed and much of it still remains hidden by the jungle but the best thing about this site is that you can hire bicycles to save you walking the 6km circuit around the ruins.
Whereas Chichen-Itza has been 'done up' for the tourists Coba feels more like it has been left as it was - a lot of it is crumbling away but you can still climb over everything and touch and feel it to get a real sense of where you are.
The central pyramid is also available to anybody who wants to make the effort to climb to the peak and the views out across the jungles are worth it alone. Descending the misshapen steps at a very steep angle is an all together separate mission and I have no doubt that there have been a lot of broken tourist limbs from this.

Having completed a busy ruins schedule we required a bit of beach action to recharge the batteries. (Seriously, it can be hard work!)
Due to time and money we forced ourselves to make a choice between 2 islands and Isla Holbox won. The only problem with getting here was that there was one bus per day and that bus left Valladolid at 2:51am. No idea why it is 51, why not leave 1 minute earlier and make it a nice round 50?
It was a choice between staying up or trying to get an early night so like the rock 'n' roll stars that we are we were in bed for 8pm and did manage to get about 5 hours kip before the alarm rudely awoke us at 2am.
The plan had been to stay sleepy and continue to snooze on the bus but how can you when the driver is belting classics out such as 'Eye of the Tiger' and 'We built this city on rock and roll' at 3am? The volume was so loud that is penetrated the ear plugs!
So we stayed awake and had a sing song.

Come 5am we had arrived at the still sleeping port of Chiquilla but fortunately it was only a case of waiting until 6am for the first ferry of the day over to the island.
As is always the case we saw a couple that we had seen in Palenque the week before so we had a couple of fellows Aussies to chat to. I count myself as a token Aussie as I have my very own Sheila!
What is weird though is that the Mexican's think I am Argentinian! I think it is the hair along with the head band I have taken to wearing but hopefully this will work in my favour when I am actually in Argentina so I won't get bullied over the Falklands.

By 7am we had woken a softly sleeping islander from his hammock and were checked in to our own thatched roof cottage in a lovely 'hostel' set in its own gardens. Granted it was a mammoth 5 minute walk from the beach (a blessing with what was to come) but it was exactly what we were looking for.

I can't say that we actually did a lot on Holbox. We spent our time walking along the beautiful white beaches, we observed the numerous birdlife that were not shy of humans, we watched the pelicans dive bomb into the sea to feed, we swam in the emerald green sea, we ran into a food vendor from the Bazar in Valladolid who recognised us and we finally got to cook our own meals after 3 months of eating out.
Overall is was a thoroughly pleasant and relaxing 4 days; apart from The Storm!
During the afternoon of our second day the wind had begun to pick up and the sea had gotten a little choppy but we didn't really think much of it. However, at approximately 8pm lightning could be seen in the distance and I said to AJ that we should head to the beach to watch the show over the ocean - thankfully she told me that she couldn't be arsed because about 30 minutes later the storm arrived directly overhead and it was brutal.
We looked out of the windows and couldn't believe what we were seeing. The palm trees were swaying from side to side, the thunder was deafening, the lightning was constantly going off and the rain was coming down in a sideways motion and within 10 minutes the grounds were flooded.
It was at this point that the thatched roof didn't seem like such a good idea and slowly but surely the rain began to come in.
An hour later we were huddled in the bathroom with all of our stuff because the main room was now under an inch of water and still the rain came down.
Eventually the storm did move away and so at midnight we ventured outside through the floods and the dozens of frogs that were having the time of their lives to sort out a new room.
I can't fault the owners in any way - once they arrived they set about immediately moving us and another couple to alternative rooms and we very happily found ourselves in the best room in the house. We were now in the penthouse and it was a sh*tload better than our previous room. Result!

Obviously we knew that the storm had been bad but it wasn't until the next day that we realised how bad it had been. The bone dry and dusty roads were now transformed into flooded clay walkways (it felt quite nice squelching between my toes) but when we got to the beach we were slightly taken aback.
There must have been a huge ocean swell because broken and upturned boats and fishing nets now littered the beach for as far you could see and all of the hotels had beds and mattresses out to dry in the sun - I think we were very lucky to have been located far enough away from the beach to practically get away unscathed and relatively dry!
Apart from the drama of the storm the rest of our time on the island passed by like the tick-tok of a hammock swing and so came the time for us to leave.
It was another early start and only one thing of note happened on our way to the ferry - I slipped on the wet clay with all of my bags and landed on one knee like I was about to propose. It hurt, Arancha giggled and 2 other people saw it which always makes it worse.

Next stop - Cancun. Oh dear.
I came to Cancun when I was 25 years old and I was a different person then. I was a standard holidaymaker on a fortnight away with no interest of exploring the country I found myself in. All I wanted to do was relax by the pool and get smashed before getting back to the day to day grind of going to work to pay the mortgage.
This is life and it is the way it is but thankfully for me that now seems like a lifetime ago and life is somewhat more of a pleasure these days.
Coming back to Cancun as a somewhat more enlightened traveller was not a pleasant experience. It hasn't changed in 8 years, everything is still the same, it is still full of American's, it is a commercial hell hole and it stinks. I know that I am being a travel snob about this but I can cope with everything that I have listed above, but what I can't abide is how Cancun treats everybody as a cash cow and shouts at you from their shops with an "Oi" rather than a "Hello". Wankers.
The price of food, drinks and general goods was astronomical. As a good measure of what I am talking about, a beer is 20 pesos all over Mexico but in Cancun is was 80 pesos in some places; you can buy a t-shirt for 60 pesos in other parts of the country but here I couldn't find anything for less than 1,000! It was crazy.
But the thing that annoyed me most was that everything was in US dollars. It took me ages to find an ATM that would actually dispense pesos. I am in Mexico, why the f*ck do I want US dollars? And do not try to charge me in US dollars with your completely ripped off exchange rate!

Ok, I feel better now. I have exorcised the Cancun demons!
Actually, our Cancun experience turned out better than you may have thought from reading my rant above.
We were north of the hotel zone in a more residential area and the hotel had a pool that opened up to a view over the lagoon. Being in a more residential area we also had access to more appropriately priced eateries and it is no lie that the two places that we went to had the best food I have eaten so far on this trip.
Rather than pay 300 pesos for lunch in town we had the most amazing fish and shrimp burritos for 40 pesos each - they were beaut. They were so good that I had fish for breakfast!
Also, the colour of the sea in Cancun is out of this world, it seems like it is almost luminous blue.

We did have one night out in Cancun and after a few drinks on our hotel balcony we jumped on the bus and found ourselves outside of Senor Frogs.
1 drink here was enough - partly because it was full of trashed kids gyrating on the stage to crap music and partly because 2 drinks set us back 170 pesos. As I mentioned, we are used to paying 40 pesos for 2 beers.
We decided to try out the rest of town but after 10 minutes of reps shouting at us to come into their club / bar we gave up. It just wasn't the place for us and is not a place conducive to being a backpacker - it is just too expensive and frankly too trashy. Maybe I have just changed and I am now scared that I am growing up?

Our final Mexican destination was Tulum and we boarded the bus relieved to be exiting Cancun and getting back to a more low key setting.
We had also been promised a good party by T in Tulum and seeing that Cancun was such a disappointment we were keen to get on it.
We knew T was about but we honestly didn't expect her to get onto our bus when we stopped in Playa del Carmen to pick up some more passengers! Such a small world.

Tulum is a fab place to base yourself in order to explore another set of Mayan ruins as well as a number of cenotes, a deep natural sinkhole / waterhole, some of which lie within caverns and can be entered via a leap of faith.
However our first day was not about sightseeing, it was about getting drunk. After checking into the Blue Dream we headed straight over to T's hostel and set about drinking the evening away.
All in all it was a great night, we met some good people and around 16 of us played drinking games which included necking shots of tequila with chilli powder. Just to continue with the 'small world' adage one of the group we were drinking with was a girl that Arancha has shared a room with at the beginning of January in Canada!
Due to effects of the booze the following day was a compete right off.

As mentioned we were partly here to complete our Mexican ruins tour and we definitely saved the most beautiful until last. The Tulum ruins, whilst not that large made up for this by the fact that they were built on a grassy knoll on the side of a raised cliff that look out through the palm trees and out over the turquoise Caribbean Sea and the world's second largest reef - you couldn't choose a better place to build your home and I bet the sacrificial virgins couldn't complain too much either!
As with Chichen-Itza it is over populated with tourists but it still didn't seem to take too much away from such a stunning place.
From the ruins it was also only a short walk down to the palm tree leaden powdery white beach that stretched out into the distance for as far as we could see and this would be where we spent the rest of our day.
For our final 24 hours in Latin America country number 1 we rented bicycles so that we could take ourselves on a tour of the cenotes.
Renting a bicycle to ride along a busy and dusty highway in the scorching heat was maybe not the best choice of transport to get ourselves over to the cenotes but given that we were visiting them with a view to taking a swim what better way to leave you in a position where you can truly appreciate the refreshing waters.
Cenote number 1 was the Gran Cenote - the largest and therefore most populated waterhole. To reiterate, a cenote is a deep pit / natural sinkhole and is something quite characteristic to Mexico. Essentially they were once underground rivers / pools flowing through cave systems but at some point in the past the roof 'caved' in. The results of these incidents are crystal clear natural swimming pools with a completely unique dynamic of you being able swim amongst fish and turtles through stalactites and stalagmites whilst having bats dangling and flapping above your head - I guess for some people this is not exactly the idea of a great afternoon out but for quite a number of people at Gran Cenote including us, it was.
After an hour of fun we jumped back onto the bicycles and headed to our second cenote of the afternoon, Cenote Calavera.
This cenote is not really on the tourist agenda which was great for us but a big mistake on their part. You enter as though you are passing down somebody's side gate to get to their back garden and after a couple of minutes the ground just drops away to a transparent liquid blue pit. Once the 3 cave divers in full scuba gear had departed we and one other American girl had it all to ourselves.
I did have a chat to the dive leader and he told me that the cave networks go on for miles and that you could actually swim from this cenote to the Gran Cenote in 2.5 hours - trapped underwater and underground for 2.5 hours? - no thanks!

Now there was a ladder down into the pool but given that the drop was more or less 3 metres a simple jump would suffice.
The other brilliant part of this cenote were the 2 potholes that also opened into the cavern from the roof and after much trepidation standing at the edge of a hole where the entrance had to be timed just right to avoid skin loss on both the front and back of our bodies we stepped out and dropped through.
Unfortunately Arancha's jumping was cut short via a slip on the rocks and a sliced toe but it didn't take away from a thoroughly enjoyable last afternoon.

So that's it, Mexico is done. We didn't really have any idea about what to expect from our first foray into Central America but it is fair to say that after 6 weeks spent in Mexico it is a great country and one of the easiest places in the world to travel around.
Looking back on all of the towns / cities that we visited they certainly all have similar traits and you could probably visit 2 or 3 colonial towns and that would be enough but with regards to the 6 archaeological sites that we ventured to I enjoyed them all. It is just a shame that they all fell into ruin and you are only left with imagining how they would have looked at their peak, but maybe that is part of the charm?
Palenque was the standout among the group but Monte Alban is right there on it's heels.
As for the natural attractions of Mexico the petrified waterfalls and canyon were excellent day trips and both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines are fantastic in their own ways. It is crazy to think that having flown into Mexico City we missed out on exploring half of the country - who knows what other treats would have lay in store for us?
However, there is no use in looking back for now we have to look south as we cross the border into the land of dreadlocks and creole - Belize.

Hopefully I will have a clip to accompany this post ASAP.

ps. Massive congrats to all my peeps who are getting pregnant / had kids - what is going on?
Moggy, Polski, Bob, Egg and Lats plus your lady friends!

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