(Before we started our trip to Mexico, Belize and maybe Guatemala, we read all the obligatory Lonely Planets and also a large document written especially for us by a friend who has travelled there 15 years ago. Cheers for that.)
Our friend warned us that this city was hell. However, since our plane landed here, it was inevitable to stay here at least one night. As a matter of fact, we never saw the “hotelera part” (the part where are all the fancy big hotels are) and only stayed in run-down shantytown part, near to the bus terminal, and that is not so bad for just a single night.
This town is a lot nicer than we expected. The town itself has an authentic rundown tropical feel to it, even though the main street is full of touristy restaurants and bars. Even so, the target group is tourists of the backpack variety and the atmosphere in town is friendly and calm.
The cabins at the side of the beach (a 10 minute ride by taxi away from the town itself) are a bit decaying, but since the beach is public, you can visit them by day, lie down in their hammocks, order reasonably priced iced teas (the water is purified) but at night sleep in town, where facilities are nicer and cheaper. Adventure is nice and all that, but I hate toilets that don´t flush properly and bedrooms that smell of toilets that do not flush properly, which is what the cabins at the beach side are like, unless you are willing to spend 100 $ per night.
Highlight of our stay: a visit to the cenote grande nearby (30 pesos for the taxi bringing us there). A cenote is a kind of access to subterranean sweet water rivers. They are really refreshing (much more so than the sea, which has warmer water).
The beaches are nice too (blue water, white sand), but the sun is violently intense and the water is rather warm.
There is also a (not too impressive) Mayan ruin but either you visit it before 8 in the morning or you cover yourself with 5 liters of sunscreen and a white bed sheet, because it is rather like visiting the Sahara, only with a lot more tourists. We arrived at 10 in the morning, without too many precautions, and since there are hardly any shadows at the ruin site, we were almost exterminated by a horde of Daleks. I am kidding of course. What I meant to say was that we were almost exterminated by the sun, which in any case is a lot more aggressive than a bunch of pepper pots of the BBC special effects department.
A very charming city. It is in the low, jungle region, so it is hot and humid, but apart from that I would almost have mistaken it for a colonial city in the Altiplano of Perú or Bolivia. It is a small but very pleasant town. People are friendly, there are not many tourists, and there is actually a cenote right in the town center, which both our Lonely Planet and our friend had forgotten to mention, so we only found out when it was too late and were already leaving. Even so, we had a pleasant stay.
It is also a convenient place from which to visit the Maya ruin Chichen Itzá, which is, in fact, an impressive ruin to visit. Note that normally I am of the opinion that visiting monuments is a bit silly (which is why I don´t like Italy, and especially don´t like Rome, which is full of them. What is the point of the Colosseum when they don´t kill christians in it anymore?). But, again, I have to admit that Chichen Itzá, is really worth a visit. (It´s also nice for Tintin lovers.) Also, not unimportantly, there are enough trees here that provide shelter from the sun. Nevertheless, you better come before noon, to avoid the hordes of tourists and the sight of old Americans in little shorts.
On our way back, we visited the Dzitnup cenote, which is in a cave, and very refreshing, but also a bit run-down and not quite so nice as the cenote grande, that we had visited earlier near Tulum. Also, some stupid tourist idiot thought it was funny to climb into the roots of the trees that hang from the ceiling of this cave down to the water level. He was actually Dutch, which made things worse, because although I admit that stupidity is of all places, and stupid tourists come from everywhere (America and Israel, to name just two obvious examples), I always get particularly annoyed by Dutch tourists.
We had also a very good lunch in fancy hotel/restaurant Mesón del Marquéz. Dishes like pollo pibil or cochinillo pibil (chicken or pork with a slightly spicy red sauce) and sopa de lima (lime soup) are very commendable (and much nicer than the endless list of corn based dishes or dishes with corn-flour sauces).
Neither E. nor I wanted to admit it until late in the evening of the day that we arrived, but we were quite disappointed with Mérida. Especially since so many people and Lonely Planets had told us it was a marvelous place. We found it a very loud town, full of traffic, shops with speakers blasting loud salsa music in the doorways, and people calling us “amigo” everywhere and then proceeded in trying to sell us things we hadn´t asked for. Looking for some “culture” (as we were told this city possessed some) we ended up in the patio of a very posh hotel where a very slick jazz band tried to sound like Sadé, which would have been bad enough, but only managed to sound like elevator muzak. Then again, why go to México when you want to hear dreary jazz?
The next day however, we discovered some positive aspects of the city too. First of all, in the weekends the centre is closed for traffic, which is a big improvement. Also, there are in fact a lot of very nice colonial streets in Mérida. The main square is charming, especially at night, and the Palacio de Gobierno is worth a visit for the artworks that hang on its walls. The anthropological museum (Museo Regional de Antropología) is – just as our friend told us – really good and an interesting place to learn a bit more about this Maya thing everyone is always going on about. For one thing, we learned that really, 2012 is not the end of the world, just the end of a calendar cycle, so there… Seriously though, the museum is really worth a visit.
We also discovered a bar “Mayan Pub” with live music, a nice ambience, and a variety of tequilas.
One day, we rented a car and first visited nearby village Izumal, which is nice but nothing special and then tried to find some cenotes in the surrounding countryside. We got hopelessly lost and had to ask the locals of various little villages for our way, which wasn´t easy since clearly they were not used to speak Spanish, whereas our Mayan (of the Yucatan variety) was a bit rusty too. It got even more exciting when suddenly the sky decided to throw lightning, thunder and the entire Atlantic Ocean onto us. I am saying this without irony, I really enjoyed it very much to drive in this terrific rainstorm, in the middle of nowhere, on muddy roads that all seemed to go round in circles. We did not find the cenote, but I enjoyed it.
A nice city but nothing special. We had our embarrassing moment when we entered, all dusty, sweaty and backpacker looking, a fish-restaurant, recommended by Lonely Planet, which was a lot more posh than we expected. Not expensive, as such, because in México, a restaurant with dishes that cost about 10 US dollars is already posh, but just very classy and full of executives and bank directors and waiters that behind their polite little smiles seemed to think “what the hell are you two tramps doing here?”. Or maybe it was just my lower middle class inferiority complex speaking, because E. actually quite enjoyed her dish of shark in banana leaves. On the end bill, the waiters had been kind enough to already include a tip of 15% because they clearly did not expect us to give any.
Still, the city was pleasant, but not worth a visit for more than a day.
We were warned that this town was awful, and of course, it is all very much set up for tourists who want to visit the nearby Maya ruins, but still, I rather enjoyed being here. E. had some problem with the tropical jungle heat here though. Palenque is in the state of Chiapas, and the jungle here is a bit more hardcore than the jungle in Yucatan.
The nearby Palenque Maya ruins (like Chichen Itzá, but even more so), are certainly well worth the visit. It consists of a number of temples, burial places, palaces and living quarters and it is all quite impressive. Also, since it is in the middle of the jungle, there are plenty of trees here that provide shades.
After the ruins, we went to visit two waterfall places, (Aguas Azules and I forgot the name of the other one) where we could swim, which – I can assure you – is a deliciously refreshing experience in a hot humid jungle climate.
San Cristobal de las Casas
This is the only city we visited that lies in the mountains. It brought back pleasant memories of the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. And indeed, San Cristobal de las Casas is a very pleasant place to be. Admittedly, there are two or three streets in it which are very touristic, in that typical highland sort of way: shops that sell woollen sweaters in many colours, hippies trousers that look like pyjamas (who came up with that?), and a lot of places where you can drink tea, but we weren´t there during the most tourist season anyway and most of the town was really beautiful and enjoyable.
I liked the cool air. I loved the marketplaces. I don´t mean the handicraft markets, but the food markets, full of exotic fruits, old women from the countryside with four live chicken in her hand, and shyly laughing indigenous girls who giggle about that strange 2 meter tall gringo. Despite that giggling, you can sense also a certain hesitation on the part of the indigenous population with respect to anything gringo, white skinned, blue-eyed and either Spanish or English-speaking. And I although I don´t think I am exactly to blame for everything bad that has happened to the current indigenous population or the Mayas of yore (or the Incas or the Apaches or the Etruscans) I can understand their grudge against anything American and/or European (which is pretty much the same thing anyway). And, anyway, I much prefer this honest attitude (which in any case, as long as we behaved politely and respectfully, melted down more often than not), than the “hello my friend” attitude of Mérida. We also liked a bar called Kinoki, where we watched on two successive nights, two documentaries about the Zapatist movement (“Corazón del Tiempo” and “Zapista“). Both were quite propagandist, but they do give insight on what the Zapatist battle for indigenous rights in the Chiapas region is all about and also how people live in this region.
We both definitely liked this city very much.
Next came a rather horrible bus ride of about 12 hours straight from San Cristobal de las Casas to Chetumal, near the country of Belize. Add to that another horrible three hours in a small bus from Chetumal to Belize city. At the border, the Mexican officials ripped us and all tourists off for about 200 pesos (ca. 20$) without any explanation. (Taking the boat from Chetumal to Cayo Caulker in Belize, directly might avoid this). Then add another two hours by boat from Belize City to Cayo Caulker and then, there we were.
Cayo Caulker, Belize
An island where you continuously hear reggae and original ska music (one bar on the beach played an entire album of Toots & the Maytals) cannot be a bad place to be. There are tourists of course. Half of the very small island (you can walk the entire lot of it in one day) is pretty much solely dedicated to tourism, but it is a pretty laid back sort of tourism. In fact, the entire island is very laid back. Imagine the cliché image of slowly walking Rastafari men who wish you a nice day all day long and you have a pretty accurate image of Cayo Caulker. Maybe the island has preserved this coolness because it hardly has any real sand beaches (you can enter the water from the piers) and this way has avoided the invasion of the hordes. It is a very relaxed and relaxing place.
On our third day there, we went on a snorkeling tour on a boat, to see the coral reef. Even though the coral reef is in rather a bad state due to the climate change and the amount of tourism (so there we were just as guilty as a matter of fact), it is still a beautiful place to go snorkeling. Later in the afternoon, we actually went snorkeling near sharks (I have forgotten which type, but we were assured they were not dangerous) and stingrays. It was a very nice tour and the only real drawback was that of course I got sunburnt once again, this time on the back of my legs.
On this island, I also ate lobster for the first time and it was delicious. All fish dishes on this island are, for obvious reasons, very good.
Playa del Carmen
On our last night before our flight, we wanted to be at a place near Cancún, and we ended up in Playa del Carmen. If, according to our friend, Cancún is hell, then Playa del Carmen is the purgatory. I have no idea what else I can say about this hell hole. Think Calella, think Lloret de Mar, think Almere.
At one point, we were lying at a bit of beach (which admittedly, if you ignore the hotel resorts, was of the rather beautiful white sand and blue water variety) in the shade of a palm tree before we got chased away by some poor idiot in a uniform who worked for a nearby beach hotel resort and assured us that since the palm tree was planted by the hotel, the shade was also private property and we were not allowed to lie in it. That sort of sums up what Playa del Carmen is about.