1.3.06 - 1.10.06 0 °F
TUES. JAN 3
We arrived in Cancun at 12:30 p.m. The flight was only 3-1/2 hours & the view was extraordinary! We took a $7 bus ride into Playa del Carmen. We were driving in 4-wheel drive in a snowstorm to get to Newark & now it was 85 degrees & we were looking straight into the Caribbean ocean! We strolled along the beach as the sun set, which is my personal favorite time to be on the beach.
From www.yucatantoday.com: " A smaller town than Cancun, with more nightlife, shopping & better beaches than Cozumel is the community of Playa del Carmen. A sleepy town with unpaved streets less than ten years ago, Playa del Carmen has been discovered by travelers from all over the world….”
We were anxious to check into the Hotel Ziranda (about $50 US per night). We had to wire transfer them cash in full in advance, & never had a conversation with anyone, except some emails in broken English. If we didn’t do this, it would be too expensive. So we gambled that they were on the level – & they were. As you can see, it was a very simple room; no TV, clock, or telephone, which was cool with us.
We were starving, so we wandered around and sat outside with tortillas and a Dos Equis. We observed a cruise ship dumping people off & suddenly the town’s population tripled! We stopped at a snack stand where local women were selling traditional Mexican munchies. They didn’t speak English, so I still don’t know what we ate, but the chips tasted good, plus we got some fresh fruit in a cup.
In the evening, we explored Playa grabbed a bite to eat. I got Sangria & realized it comes with ice in it, but the server insisted it was okay. Well, I drank it anyway, scooping the ice out & I was in the clear! We made sure we had plenty of bottled water to brush our teeth with. We checked out a local Internet café, & it only cost us 40 cents to use it.
WEDS. JAN 4
In the morning, we noticed several stray cats making a home at our hotel. Can’t we rescue them? One kept following us. We named him Dos Gatos (2 cats). He even came into our room. He could have had fleas, but I couldn’t resist his cries at our door!
We started the day very early to check out the Mayan ruins at Tulum before tour groups descended on the place. We took a community van called a collectivo to get down there with the morning commuters. That was very interesting, riding with the local laborers. We were the only non-locals on the van. I was proud of myself indicating our stop in Spanish to the driver. The van dumped us off at the side of the quiet road and we walked the ½ mile to the ruin site. There were about a dozen independent travelers like us waiting for the place to open and I noticed many of them with Lonely Planet guides.
There were cats everywhere here also. We met a couple from Wisconsin. He’d been there before & gave us the best route to go exploring. It was a hot day, but a nice hike around the site.
The water was unbelievable! The beach was very quiet. We had a beautiful day, being among the first people to set foot in the place, so it was very serene.
The ruins were on the cover of our Lonely Planet Yucatan guide, so we determined to see this amazing place. It was a great way to spend the morning. We found this neat little alcove with the ocean waving into it.
We started our ½ mile walk back to the main road passing a number of tour buses just rolling in (probably from Cancun) with hordes of day-trippers. We were so thankful to have that quiet time at Tulum.
We grabbed a cheap bite at a nearby lunch stand & watched some guys do a Mayan dance. We went shopping at a little market & I bargained with the one guy & bought my dad a funky hippie shirt. I am not much of a shopper, but I do enjoy outdoor markets! We hopped on the next collectivo headed to Playa. After returning to Playa, we walked around town a bit & hit San Francisco, which is kind of like a Wal-Mart, & we bought some granola bars for snacks/meals & bottled water for really cheap. It was an interesting walk observing the different neighborhoods in town (both good & bad ones – we avoided certain streets, just because we weren’t sure).
We wandered around their supermarket just looking at the types of things they have there. It was a free thing to do! We wanted to buy a bar of soap to wash our laundry with also (we'd been doing it in the sink in our room)
We returned to the beach to get the last of the day’s sun. There were mariachi musicians there playing songs. After cleaning up at Ziranda, we consulted our LP guide for a dinner suggestion & they recommended Xlapak.
From LP:”This unpretentious but great restaurant really is that little genuine Playa joint you're looking for. In Xlapak you sit and eat under the canopy of big jungle trees; open and airy, yet shady during the day; romantic & serene at night. The walls are decorated with genuine Mayan motifs, painted the old way with natural pigments, & the floor is covered with Mayan hieroglyphs. “
THURS. JAN 5
In the morning, we hopped on the collectivo & headed out to the town of Tankah. According to the LP guide, it has beautiful snorkeling. Lonely Planet told us where to get off the van, so we did, but there was nothing in sight. We were standing there on the road wondering if we were in the right place, because it wasn’t on the map. We walked down a dirt road for a mile, before discovering this sleepy little beachfront town. We walked around for quite awhile until we encountered a person. We found this little dive shop that did snorkeling tours, run by an American ex-pat and his Mexican helper, Jorge.
We sat on the quiet beach for a while and saw maybe 3 people the whole time we were there. It was very quiet, laid back, & serene. We even saw a dog walking along the shore. Steve, me, and Jorge took a motorboat out to the site where he dropped us off, & we went into the water, which made me nervous, since I swim like a dog on a good day! Again as in the South Pacific, it was amazing to see these creatures everywhere. Absolutely no one comes out here it seemed. The fish were everywhere. I tried to take photos, but I was advancing the film the wrong way! Yes, I know, I can be extremely absent-minded!!!! …..but Steve got some beautiful photos. Anyway, after exploring Caribbean marine life together, we headed back to the boat.
Dos Gatos came back into our room when we got back from Tankah.
We explored Playa at night, checking out El Jardin di Marieta, which is this funky little courtyard, with hanging lights from the trees made out of gourds & art galleries & funky shops that were out or our price range.
FRI. JAN 6
Today, we headed out to the Botanical Gardens. I don’t know what we were thinking. They were damaged from hurricane Wilma. At least we had the place to ourselves..........literally. We hiked around the damaged terrain and Steve spotted this resilient little palm, which I studied & took a nice photo of.
It was a nice walk, & we snacked on packed granola bars. We like to take excursions & not stay in the same place all the time. We were on the side of the road, waiting for a collectivo to flag down, & this other van stopped & asked us if we needed a lift. So we hopped on. The dude talked to us about Mexico and was listening to Mexican rap music – it was really bizarre (was it raggaeton I wonder?).
When we got to Playa we got ice cream bars & enjoyed the ocean. I noticed a cool shop run by a woman whose parents moved the family from California to Mexico when she was a kid. The shop was full of art & crafts made by local people – not your typical bric-a-brac, but really beautiful things. We got a few gifts there for people and Steve bought me this cool necklace. I was hemming & hawing over the $18, but he insisted on it. It is a disc made of copper that was dipped in acid, bringing out all kinds of brilliant colors. It was the only necklace like it, so we got it. The woman’s brother and wife came in pretending to be drunken cruise ship tour goers & Steve & I didn’t know any better, & thought they were obnoxious. We all ended up laughing & talking for a while, & they made some trip suggestions for us, telling us to take the free road instead of the toll road out to the ruins, so we could see the character of all the villages out there.
There as a hawker selling timeshares in the street. I said to him “get outta here” you know, in a funny but not adversarial way, when he tried to sell us one. He laughed, as he worked in New York City, and was entertained by my “accent”, & realized he wasn’t going to be able to sell us a timeshare. He spotted us on the street later & yelled to us calling us "New York!” Does he know we are from NJ? What a character.
For dinner we returned to the El Jardin di Marieta & checked out the little restaurant in the courtyard there, Casa Mediterranean, for dinner.
SAT. JAN 7
First thing in the morning, we checked out of Ziranda. Today we were off to Chichen Itza. The 2-1/2 hour drive was interesting. We traveled through many colorful villages & towns & I was snapping photos left & right.
The roads aren’t the best & people drive with the entire family riding in the back of the open pickup truck. We noticed these little houses on the side of the road everywhere there was a fatal accident. When we left Quintana Roo & entered Yucatan, there were military border control officers with huge machine guns studying every vehicle & making random stops & searches. Approaching the border was a little nerve-wracking.
When we entered Pista, we knew we were close to the Hacienda Chichen, where we’d spend the night. This place was brilliant! It was this beautiful landscaped tropical garden at a huge Spanish hacienda. It was extremely serene & quiet here. You’ve got to check out their website: www.haciendachichen.com.
“Hacienda Chichen has been a focus of activity in the Yucatan since the Spaniards founded it in 1523... It is located next door to Chichen Itza.... It is surrounded by acres & acres of subtropical forest and is home to over 150 known species of birds. During the last century, many famous archaeologists have stayed at Hacienda Chichen while exploring and studying Chichen Itza.” We wished we had more time & money to stay here longer.
www.yucatantoday.com: “The name Chichen-Itza is a Mayan word: CHI (mouth) CHEN (well) and ITZA (of the Itza tribe). Some believe people were occasionally thrown into the nearby cenote as sacrifices, & those who survived were believed to be seers.”
At Chichen there were tons of people trying to sell wares to the visitors of the ruins. There were signs posted indicating that you shouldn't buy from these people. One woman was waving handmade embroidered coasters at me saying "one dollar". There were even little children hawking. There were hawkers everywhere. It was sad to see the poverty.
We headed out to Chichen, exploring the Nunnery, el Castillo (“the castle” which was closed to climbers),
the Temple of the Warriors,
the Observatory, the thousand columns, the Temple of the Jaguars,the Tomb of the High Priest, the ball court, & even a sacred cenote. There was another couple in the ball court with us. She was an art history major & explained the brutal game based on the carvings. This was a remarkable, spiritual, yet violent place.
Aside from el Castillo, you could climb up or into anything you wanted to explore deeper. The grounds were tremendous and surprisingly uncrowded. We were there in the late afternoon, after tour buses left to return to their respective resorts. We had the benefit of staying only steps away. It was an awe-inspiring place & we tried to imagine what it must have been like when the Maya ruled.
We saw images of warriors, serpents, and Chac, the God of Rain.
From mysteriousplaces.com “Deep within the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala and extending into the limestone shelf of the Yucatan peninsula lie the mysterious temples and pyramids of the Maya. While Europe was still in the midst of the Dark Ages, these amazing people had mapped the heavens, evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics. They invented the calendars we use today. Without metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety. Their legacy in stone…lives on as do the seven million descendants of the classic Maya civilization. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities.”
As the sun was setting, we walked back to Hacienda Chichen. It was extremely quiet & serene there. We never saw any other guests there, except at dinner. We ate outside on a veranda looking into the tropical forest with soft lights overhead & a mariachi band playing island music. I could get used to this!!! It was the best night in Mexico (sure beat our flooded out bathroom at Ziranda – more on that later)
After dinner, we walked the a dimly lit, quiet path through the grounds to the entrance of Chichen Itza to watch the sound and light show outside. It was a cool, clear night. Travelers from all over the world gathered on folding chairs with earpieces containing different languages. Over loudspeakers, Mayan folklore & legends were recounted to the sounds of music & shots of light across the ancient ruins. It was a lot of fun, but I wondered what the Maya would think of the light show on their temples?????
We called it a night after the lightshow. It was very quiet & serene on the grounds, I can’t stress that enough. It was an excellent place to get our bearings.
SUN. JAN 8
In the morning, we explored the grounds more, snapping photos of exotic plants & spiders. We chatted with the guy at the hacienda as we checked out. He is a local Mayan & told us about his ancestors & taught us a couple Mayan words. As much as we wished we could stay, we had another 3 hours drive to Uxmal. We passed through a ton of villages, which was amazing to see. One guy was collecting cans in a bag on his bicycle & waved to me as I took his photo.
We arrived in Santa Elena to the Flycatcher Inn, where we’d be staying. When we arrived at the Flycatcher, children were playing outside, running barefoot after a goat.
It was their last day off before school started again. They would be our neighbors. An American ex-pat and a local Mayan married & started this little inn. She joked that when guests wander around town, the locals all think they are her brother or sister, since we all look alike to them! So we settled in and got an overview of the village. We were told not to drink the water, nor put anything at all in the toilet. Next, we went to Uxmal to check out the ruins.
From differentworld.com “Uxmal is one of the most well known of the Maya cities, and rated by many archaeologists as the finest. There has been much renovation work and the grounds are well tended, but wear good shoes if you intend to do any climbing. It is permitted to climb the largest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician (or the Great Pyramid), and the view from the top is well worth the effort, though the steps are extremely steep" Off we went to Uxmal to do some climbing and exploring.
The name Uxmal means 'thrice-built' in Mayan, referring to the construction of its highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatán peninsula, and at its height was home to about 25,000 Maya. The area is known as the Ruta Puuc or Puuc route, from the nearby hills.”
We did A LOT of climbing at Uxmal. There were so many places to go and so much to explore. We took our time here. We checked out the Kabah, & Sayil (The Palace), the Governor’s Palace,
House of the Tortoises, the Quadrilateral of the Nuns,
The Building of the Doves (or Pigeons),
Uxmal was well worth the drive out there. This was a tiring, yet exciting and interesting day. When we got back in the early evening, we quietly wandered the streets of Santa Elena.
When we walked around there were lots of stares, but in a friendly way. They were more curious than anything else. I asked two women making tortillas if I could take their photo, but they were very shy and didn’t understand me as most of the people in the town speak Mayan, not Spanish, although the children know both.
A lot of people were burning their trash and the women seemed like tough, hard workers. There was a group of young men, who appeared to be drinking, so we steered clear of them. Still, it seemed like a friendly place. There was however, a lot of poverty.
Some children were innocently poking fun at us foreigners when we visited the local church. It was amazing to see how these people lived with so few belongings & it inspired me to throw things out when I returned home.
We went into a local general store to get some bottled water & the owner went out of his way to serve us. We paid 40 cents for the water, but that's OK. We walked past a sickly old woman begging & we turned back & gave her the 20 pesos we had on us (about $2 US) & she was so appreciative, it was sad. We heard lots of roosters and chickens. We asked our neighbor if they would pose for a photo of us. This hard working older woman, proudly fixed her (traditional Mexican) dress & posed with one of the children playing with the goat when we came in. I took the photo with a disposable camera, so I apologize for the poor quality of the photo.
We headed back out for the sound and light show at Uxmal (similar to the one in Chichen).
MON. JAN 9th
At 7:30 am, there were roosters crowing and Spanish music playing on a loudspeaker to remind families to assemble the schoolchildren. It was the children’s first day back at school. We had breakfast & chatted up the owners, Kris and Santiago. Breakfast consisted off all kinds of exotic fruits grown right on the property. I don’t know what we ate, but all was good. We started our long drive stopping in a number of places spending the day on the road.
They suggested we take a look at Cenote IK KIL: www.yucatantoday.com: Located in the Eco-archeological Park Ik Kil. Called the "Sacred Blue Cenote," A grand stairway leads you down the steps into the water. There is also an excellent buffet style restaurant here.
We wanted to stay longer bringing our swimsuits, but 2 huge tour buses came rolling in and we were literally steps in front of about 80 people. So we checked out the cool place & cut it short. We did take advantage of the buffet. Since everyone was at the cenote, we were the ONLY people in this huge room & had first dibs on all the delicious buffet things. We do like having the place to ourselves!
Next stop was cenote Dzitnup, which is run and owned by the locals, as it should be. www.yucatantoday.com. “It is probably one of the most photographed cenotes in the Yucatan. There is lighting and a guide rope to make it easier to enter.” This was a beautiful place.
Our last stop were the Ek-Balam ruins. From www.yucatantoday.com, “Ek Balam, located just north of Valladolid, is special in another sense: it is never overwhelmed with tourists. The enormous elaborate Acropolis pyramid, located inside the Mayan site of Ek Balam, is a striking sight after driving miles through the surrounding jungle. You can climb this imposing structure….. Ek Balam, which means black jaguar, was at the height of its importance as a city during the Late Classic period (600-900 A.C.).”
When we were looking for the Ek-Balam, it was in the middle of nowhere – we were just following our map. We ambled into this little village called Ek-Balam, which is not to be confused with the ruin site. We drove around being careful of the local children running around barefoot. We ended up driving past where the road was to get to the ruin site & asked for directions. When we found it, it was very quiet & very cool. We climbed around this place also, & at this point in the trip, our legs and feet were pretty tired of climbing. The view at the top of the Acropolis Pyramid was well worth the arduous climb.
The stairs were extremely narrow & there were no guardrails. This was a nice way to cap off our adventure. It was back on the road again toward Playa del Carmen and back to civilization.
At around 5pm we returned the rental car in a rain storm (the only rain during the trip). We even saw emergency vehicles whiz by responding to an accident ahead. It had been raining hard, & there was flooding in Playa. I wondered why the curbs were so tall & now I knew why. Restaurants were flooded also because everything is situated outside. We went to a place called 100% Natural for dinner/smoothies, & most of the lights were out & we had to dodge huge puddles to get to our table. Our room at Ziranda had been rained into (there are no screens there) & the bathroom was flooded, but there was nothing you could do about it (we weren't staying at a fancy hotel or resort). I was surprised that they weren’t better prepared for heavier rains in Playa. We called it an early night, since we did so much traveling & exploring again that day.
TUES. JAN 10th
In the morning it was sunny & we hopped on the 8 am bus back to the airport. We returned to our car at long term parking at Newark at 7:00 pm in the freezing cold January air. This was an eye-opening experience.