It was with a sense of adventure and a feeling of backpacking proper that I took an assured step off the red-eye flight from San Diego to Cancun. I had previously alighted in Cancun airport, and had stayed at the same hostel, only 18 months prior on an explosive lads holiday with J-man, a friend from University, so knew the in’s and out’s of the bus system and the layout of downtown Cancun – often the most troublesome times for a backpacker of getting from a alighting point to hostel.
Mirroring the change in travelling mantra and lifestyle choice from our Alaskan cruise to San Francisco, the step down in the proverbial ladder of change from San Diego to Mexico was taking us to a backpacking lifestyle in the vein that mums and dads believe how backpacking looks. We were carrying our life on our backs (in our packs), we were ending up in foreign non-English speaking countries and walking 2miles instead of taking a taxi to save ourselves a dollar.
We had booked ourselves just two nights at the party orientated Quetzal Hostel in the grimy, sweaty, dirty, nightlife loving, American spring break craziness city of Cancun. On the backpacking scene the city is generally considered a place to party, drink, sleep in and repeat – and although I’d done it before (loving the infamous Coco Bongo’s nightclub) – Han and I were using it a base to see Chichenitza, arguably the most famous East Mexican ruins before quickly moving on to the more sedate and cultural Merida.
I struggled to not join in the drinking games and party the night away, even when free tequila was given out with dinner; my social, party, sin driven devil arguing with my conscious, early morning awakening, sensible angel and the next morning we found ourselves relatively hangover free chatting to fellow hostellers on our tour bus to see Chichenitza.
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Dating back to 600AD, and spanning over 600 years, this Mayan ruin site was one of the largest Mayan Cities. Spanning over 5 square kilometres, our guide spent a good hour taking us to the more famous buildings and areas, explaining the history and legends associated with the site, successfully transforming the ruins and tumbled down structures to a living breathing Mayan city.
Although I’d been to the site once before, the impressive El Castillo still overwhelmed me in scale and magnitude, and with more time to spare than before, Han and I explored the various crumbling buildings, observatories and temples. We took in the stories, myths and legends, wondering if all the unbelievable ‘facts’ our guide was telling us were real, and trying to form some mental picture of life and how the sites would have looked in their heyday.
With the Mayans at one point controlling all of Mesoamerica, a large part of what is now Central America, it was to be the first taste of many ruins to come, and certainly didn’t let itself down.
The next day we were up bright and early and on our way West to our next stop – Merida. My aunt and uncle who had visited this area many times before had put this cultural city on our radar, and as we slowly rumbled down the one way streets on our air-conditioned bus, I was beginning to like what I was seeing. As we got off and started to walk towards our hostel, I liked it even more. The streets were quieter, life seemed simpler, shops seemed geared towards the people of the city rather than tourism, and English was most definitely a second language.
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Our hostel was located right on the main square where the imposing ‘Spanish-built-from-Mayan-temple-stones’ cathedral overlooks the lit up square, reminding the inhabitants of both its post and pre conquistador roots, and proved to be a great location to explore and wander the streets. We found ourselves eating our way through tacos, horchatas and burritos from street stalls, looking for plug adapters in the busy market esque street life, getting lost in the confusing, winding indoor bazaar-like markets, and popping into a ‘cantina’, a very much local bar where seeing ‘gringos’ was a surprise to all (even ourselves when all heads turned simultaneously as we walked in, in a very movie esque scene).
We had 2 nights in Merida before heading off back South-East to the split personality town of Tulum, and after a night where Han found out that sipping tequila slowly like the locals tastes as bad as taking a shot, only slower and thus more prolonged, we were walking in the heat promising morning the 8 blocks to the bus station in preparation of the bus ride to our next destination.
We had booked ourselves into the family run Mama’s House, located just off the main tourist drag of Tulum. After jumping off the bus and walking down the main thoroughfare (which also doubles up as a major highway heading North to South), popping into the ‘informacion touristica’ and orientating ourselves we entered our air conditioned room, took a shower and washed off the travelling dirt and grime, revelling in the fact that we might not be sweating throughout the night whilst trying to sleep.
The town itself is split into two very distinct areas; firstly the more backpacker, hammock selling, tat offering, colourful bar producing road that lots of minor roads lead off, then 3km away the golden sands and hotel zone with more expensive bars, restaurants and high end shops. We spent what was left of the afternoon lazily wandering around the center, stocking up on some food supplies and doing what all backpackers do so well – not a lot.
Over the night we met our room mates and got chatting to a Dutch guy called Freek. Together we made plans to all head to ‘Dos Ojos’ (literally ‘two eyes’) the next morning, before Han and I were to head to a turtle touting beach, with Freek heading onto some ruins. Due to the structure and makeup of the terra firma around Eastern Mexico, cenotes, or sink holes that fill with water, are prevalent and are often found to be a staple of many tourist tours. Dos Ojos is one such cenote, or more accurately, two, and is known to be one of the most explorative and adventurous with a bat cave and over 16km worth of tunnels and caves for divers to explore.
We met up in the morning and all jumped into a collectivo (small minivans that run popular routes that you use for transport) and speedily zoomed up the highway to be dropped off to walk the final 2km to the actual cenote. We had all purchased snorkel gear earlier on and were soon presented with the 500m wide sink hole that disappeared into the darkness infront of us, a cave system starting for the scuba divers who could traverse the stalactites and stalagmites that formed the makeup of this magical entrancing place.
Snorkelling around marvelling at this underwater world, watching divers shine their torches into and out of openings, around stone pillars, and around cave systems, creating Hollywood style shadows and shapes was truly mesmerising and it took us all some time to finally leave the relatively small area and head to the second cenote.
Equally, if not more so, impressive than the first, it was coming to lunch when we finally all found ourselves back on the highway flagging down another collectivo to take us to our respective next stops.
Walking off a highway and landing on a golden beach, watching pelicans dive down into the water in a majestic show of nature fishing, whilst popping your head under the water to spectate the turtles world, as they slowly moved by munching on sea grass before dreamily coming up for air every 5 or 6 minutes, certainly wasn’t a bad way to end a day. As the monsoon season showed its true force on the way home, we reflected on a great day out, had a few beers with fellow hostel members and crashed out cool and satisfied.
Not wanting to let the pace drop, and with a hostel reserved on the Caribbean Island of Caye Caulker in Belize in two days time however, the sun once again began its daily routine, and we found ourselves on a collective to the jungle ruins of Coba the next morning.
Another Mayan Ruin site, the ancient city of Coba was expansive, so much so that as we entered the site we both hired bikes to traverse the 7km of trails that connect all the individual temples and structures. As we started bumping along the trails on our trusty rusty two wheels, we realised that this site had a very distinctive and definitely different feel to Chichenitza. Buildings, hidden by the forest, sprouted out and surprised us as we turned corners and cycled along. Temples could be explored, climbed, and walked on and the peacefulness and mystique of the site was not disturbed by hundreds of tourists viewing the same structures. We liked it.
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The main star of the show however was to be the Nohoch Mul pyramid. Elevating skywards 42m from the ground, with 120 steps to carefully climb up the 50% incline, we reached the top turned around and were presented with a panoramic view of the scenery; the forest expanding beyond sight in all directions, pyramid tops poking out above the canopy, with wildlife chirping and screaming. We could understand why the religious and ethereal undertones that were gained from these towering wonders of engineering.
A hitchhike back, some equally impressive, but very different Mayan beach ruins later on, and some good food back at the hostel was to be had, before we packed up, geared up and set out early the next morning to cross international borders to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize.