Mexico was one of the places that I'd really been looking forward to visiting ever since we decided to include Central America in our trip. Craig and I are big fans of Mexican food, it's probably our favourite cuisine so we were really looking froward to trying some local fare and also ticking Chichén Itzá another 'New Wonder of the World' off our list. Mexico was also where we would be flying from in a couple of weeks to go to Cuba and then New York; already we were close to the end of our whirlwind time in Central America.
We left Flores in Guatemala really early in the morning by shuttle bus, Flores is situated very close to the border with Belize and to save time we would be travelling through Belize rather than going around. The journey was smooth sailing though the only irritating moment was when we had to pay to enter Belize even though we'd only be passing through. Luckily after a bit of a panic and a scramble we had just enough American dollars on us to pay the fee that I'd found hidden in my backpack. The dollars that I'd been carrying in my purse for emergencies such as this was among the money stolen in Ecuador. We had hoped to stay in Belize originally if only for a couple of nights but after a bit of research found that it was an expensive country and didn't seem worth the extra money just to say we'd visited properly. As we passed through we saw that the small English speaking country had a Caribbean feel to it with blue skies, palm trees and painted wooden signs. We met a lovely couple named Kelly and Adam on our coach who we chatted all things travel with (they run a travel blog named Destination Addict), they were kind enough to give us two spare tourist cards for Cuba when they heard that we were going, saving us $20 each, thank you so much Kelly and Adam!
We arrived in a border town in Mexico and said goodbye to Kelly and Adam as they were off to the coast while we pondered where to go ourselves. We received a 'welcome to Mexico' drink courtesy of the coach company which was a lovely touch and got talking to Tavi and Ani who were in a similar predicament to us. After a quick chat with a taxi driver we decided to split the cost and drive a few hours up the road straight to Tulum. The sun was setting but the ride seemed to fly by as we all exchanged travel stories. Arriving in Tulum late with nowhere to stay we approached a few hostels but they were fully booked. Eventually we found a slightly run down place on the main strip and booked ourselves in for a night in a dorm, the owner advised us that a party was scheduled for that evening in the bar upstairs but we were so tired we didn't care. We all went out for enchiladas and then headed to bed weary from another long travel day.
The four of us enjoyed a lovely breakfast together at a quaint café the next morning before going our separate ways. Craig and I packed and caught a colectivo up the road to a new hostel while Tavi and Ani were able to check into an apartment on the beach. Our hostel sounded lovely on the booking site but upon closer inspection seemed a little unclean and unfriendly. It was a lot cheaper than others in town and at least had space so we decided to make do. After a rest we rode bicycles to the huge local supermarket, the ride was lots of fun and I enjoyed the novelty of wandering around a supermarket fully stocked with lots of treats.
The next morning we took the bicycles out again and rode to Tulum ruins which weren't far from our hostel, it was an easy and flat ride. Despite leaving nice and early we still had to queue and were completely surrounded by American tourists, the joy of being in some parts of Central America was the lack of holiday-makers and more authentic travel feeling, we doubted that Mexico being such a popular destination for both Americans and Brits would be the same. The ruins were a nice place to visit but we felt that having been spoilt by Copán and Tikal they didn't blow us away. The place was crawling with people so much so that you had to deal with crowds everywhere and none of the Mayan temples could be explored as they were all roped off. The factor that did make the ruins worthwhile was the idyllic location on the coast; the view over the Caribbean sea was beautiful as the water sparkled under the sun. We soaked in the views and watched huge lizards slowly wander along paths and under bushes. We rode back to the hostel to make lunch and then headed back out again to visit the white sandy beaches that Tulum is famed for. The beach was lovely and we enjoyed a refreshing drink on a wooden deck overlooking the ocean. I couldn't help but feel that Tulum was wasted a little on us as we didn't have the money to enjoy the location as much as people who come here especially do. We couldn't afford to stay in a fancy beachfront resort or do any big activities or day trips which felt like a shame, but we did try and enjoy the area on our modest budget as much as possible. In the evening we visited a vegetarian restaurant on the main road between Tulum's centre and our hostel, of course we rode our bikes there and our dinner was delicious.
The next day we were happy to be leaving the hostel which we'd decided was indeed horrible. The people staying there seemed intent on being idiots and someone stole our juice from our labelled bag in the fridge and drank the lot. Is it too much to ask that all travellers and backpackers have some kind of mutual respect for one another? Apparently it is. We left the hostel catching a colectivo to a bus stop where supposedly buses stop for Valladolid our next destination. We waited for ages in the hot sun before having to share a taxi instead as no bus arrived. Luckily the taxi was affordable and we had been charged the same as locals which was reassuring as that isn't always the case. In Valladolid a town central on the Yucatan Peninsula we'd booked a hostel which had excellent reviews that I'd found mentioned on a travel blog. We were dropped in the main square and walked down a few pretty side streets to get to our hostel situated on a leafy square. The hostel was a dream come true and on a different scale to the one we had just left. The owner was friendly and our dorm room was light and airy with a huge window looking out over the square. The best part was the kitchen and dining area under a shelter in the garden. The kitchen was huge and most importantly clean with lots of character and nice wooden tables to sit at surrounded by plants and flowers. We popped across the square to a café for lunch and sat at a little table outside in the shade. The food, a vegetarian burger was delicious and incredibly cheap. It seemed that because we'd ventured inland a bit we'd found a town with less tourists and therefore lower prices which was great for us. In the evening we tried the Italian a few doors down from the café and had truly amazing pizza. I ordered the Nutella gelato for dessert which was probably the best gelato I've eaten in all my life (and I've eaten quite a lot of it). After Craig had an initial taste he kept asking for more as it was so good so I ended up sharing the lot, if that isn't love then I don't know what is.
For our first full day in Valladolid we decided to go for a wander around the town to get our bearings and see what we would stumble across. We found colourful doors and old cars aplenty which made for nice photographs and then found an old convent which we paid a small amount to go into. The convent was a little run down and in need of some TLC. I thought back to the beautiful convent in Arequipa in Peru which was full of colour and plants, this place could be just as lovely with some care. I liked to think that our admission price might go towards some renovation costs and garden upkeep. We stopped at a café just across from the convent and had smoothies before heading back to the hostel. We got chatting to another couple who were on holiday in the Yucatan, driving from place to place. When they mentioned that they'd be going to Chichén Itzá the next day by car we asked if we could tag along to which they said yes!
We were up nice and early for our day trip to Chichén Itzá and were excited to see our forth New Wonder of the World. Tagging along with the couple we'd met meant we didn't have to struggle using public transport to get there but it also meant we had to wait around as they were late getting up. We were so keen to get there early to make sure that we could see it before the crowds that we were getting a little frustrated at being delayed. Eventually we walked through the gates of the Mayan site and hurried to the huge stepped pyramid named 'El Castillo'. We were pleased to be able to take a few photographs of the pyramid without lots of strangers in the picture too. With the pressure of getting a good photo off we were able to admire the huge structure which was bigger than I had imagined. One side was completely restored while the other looked a little more crumbled to reflect its age. We walked around the site which encompasses lots of Mayan structures including other much smaller pyramids and a huge ball court, a feature that we'd seen at Copán in Honduras as well. Little sign posts taught us about the symbolism of certain carvings and as we walked around the stall holders finished their morning set up and started calling out to flog their wares. We found the huge cenote which is like a natural well and saw that it was overgrown with plants and watched a line of large ants march past.
After we'd seen everything that there was to see we decided to leave Chichén Itzá and drive a short distance to another Mayan site that we'd seen signposts for. We parked up on the side of a road and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We walked along a track and saw two men sat under a shelter, we wandered past to the crumbling pyramid structure and climbed it to sit and eat our lunch. As we looked out over the views which were flat and mostly consisted of overgrown stone walls we noticed the two men walking towards us, one of which was carrying a huge machete. We started to feel a little uneasy, there were no signs to suggest that we'd have to pay or that the structures couldn't be climbed and when we entered the area they had said nothing. They climbed the pyramid that we were stood on and Craig immediately got to his feet, the man with the machete was holding it in his hand, not in a threatening way but the mere sight of it made me nervous. In Spanish one of the men proceeded to talk and the guy we were with was able to loosely translate a part of it, they were talking about giving a 'donation' for the sites upkeep. From what we could see, no money has ever been spent at the site, the whole area looked like it had been abandoned since Mayan times and not looked after since. The 'donation' was obviously not a voluntary thing so we gave an amount between all of us and quickly walked back down the steps to ground level where we felt less backed into a corner. The men said something about walking with us, we walked on and picked up the pace and they eventually returned to where we'd passed them originally. We had a quick look at another structure but feeling unsafe decided to walk on and back to the car via a different path that meant we wouldn't have to pass them again. I kept looking back over my shoulder just in case and wondered what might have happened if we'd refused to give any money.
Another day, another adventure. Today wasn't just any day, it was Craig's 32nd birthday so we decided to go to Ek Balam a place not too far away with Mayan ruins and also a large picturesque cenote to go swimming. We took a colectivo taxi to the site and after paying our entrance fee wandered the pretty Ek Balam ruins which unlike Chichén Itzá we were able to climb and fully explore. We climbed to the top of one temple which was a bit of a challenge thanks to the extremely steep steps and breathed in the fantastic panoramic views. It was a boiling hot day with perfect blue skies so we were looking forward to getting to the cenote for a swim in the afternoon.
We walked a couple of kilometres along a dusty track to the cenote and after a quick bite to eat we changed into our swimwear and climbed down the rickety wooden ladders to the pool which glistened a perfect turquoise green. Birds swooped above the water and tree roots and vines dangled down, it felt like a magical place. We jumped into the water which was refreshingly cool and swam with the fish that inhabit the natural swimming hole, I wasn't sure how deep the water was but had a feeling that I'd never be able to swim to the bottom. Once out of the pool we dried off and walked back to the entrance where a taxi took us back to town, we had a celebratory dinner at the Italian opposite our hostel as it had been so nice on our first day and didn't disappoint the second time, of course we each had the Nutella gelato, no sharing today.
We left lovely Vallodolid the next day for Cancun where our flight to Cuba awaited. The next couple of days were spent mostly in the hostel organising travel insurance for New York and researching things to do in Cuba as we knew that once we were there we wouldn't have access to the internet. The only times we really left were to eat amazing authentic tacos at a roadside restaurant, satisfying the Mexican food craving that we'd had. We couldn't believe that we were at this point already, we had five nights in Havana to go and then we would be at the end of our time in Central America. With a little trepidation we headed for Cancun airport on the morning of April 24th for our much awaited time in Cuba.
🎥 Central America video:
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