The flight from Mexico city to Cancun was only one and a half hours, and we had soon landed, got out of the airport, and went to pick up our hire car. It wasn’t exactly a smooth process, but an hour later, we’d got a decent, couple of years old Seat Toledo, definitely comfortable enough for driving around here for a couple of weeks.
We didn’t want to stay in Cancun, so we drove straight south to Playa del Carmen. This is obviously a very touristy part of Mexico, but until you see it for your self, you don’t really know just how big tourism is here. The hotels that we drove past on the Riviera Maya, which is the coast from Cancun going South, are insanely big, the biggest, grandest resorts you could imagine, with hundreds of rooms in each, and there are dozens of these hotels.
We got to Playa del Carmen, check in to our motel, which with a couple of floors and maybe twenty rooms looked like a small house in comparison to these hotels and went out for some food. We walked down the main street, the Fifth Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants and tour shops and finally saw just how most tourists see Mexico, nothing like real Mexico. In two minutes you pass a Domino’s Pizza, a H&M, a Pandora shop, the Brits on holiday crowd must love it.
The whole length of this street is just foreign tourists, no locals in sight, other than those working here. The federal police patrol the whole strip constantly, guarding street corners and shopping centres with automatic rifles and protecting the tourists, although I’m not sure what people are being protected from. I’m guessing Cancun is the same, we didn’t see that, but outside these two towns, I don’t think there is a place in Mexico that looks like this, we certainly didn’t see anywhere else even slightly as touristic, and nowhere else constantly patrolled by federal police like this.
Outside of this main strip, towards the beach, are huge hotels lining the busy stretch of sand, and in the opposite direction is a bustling town, packed with street food, colectivos passing up and down taking people to work, and local people, the real Mexico. You walk even a few blocks this way and there’s hardly a tourist in sight.
One of the hotels on the beach front, all black and steel beams, nothing like what you’d expect to see on a Caribbean beach, is the massive (massive isn’t really doing it justice) Grand Hyatt, which has a ‘Daylight Club’ by the sea, where the cover fee to enter is $100 per person… Who are these people who come here?
Playa del Carmen is far from being a bad place to be, it has the amenities and restaurants for both tourists and locals, there was a restaurant close by to where we were staying, that although was pricey (for Mexico) it had Mexicans eating there also, so it was authentic delicious food. A tip for anybody looking for an authentic restaurant in this part, a real Mexican place serves Totopos (the fried tortilla chips that people call Nachos) for free, and they will usually warn all Europeans that at least one of the sauces that comes with them is ridiculously spicy and probably too much for you, so be careful.
We only stayed in Playa del Carmen for one night, then continued driving south to Tulum. Tulum is one of the places that is a must do around here for holiday makers and for travellers, although I struggle to see what people see in it outside of the main sights. It’s far less touristy than Playa del Carmen, there are no federal police here, just local ones, but still touristy enough so that some locals know how to scam you.
It didn’t start off great for us here, the first thing we did is went to fill up with petrol, in Mexico, there are people who work for the petrol station that fill it up for you and you pay them, there is usually no building for the petrol station, just a different brand convenience store next to it.
That means, petrol station attendants, have a free reign to try to scam tourists and although I didn’t know it at the time, I fell for one of the classic scams. I told the guy to put five hundred pesos (£20) in the car, but he stopped it at about 501 pesos, so I gave him a 500 note, and he told me it was 501. I leaned in to the car to get the one peso and by the time I looked back at him, he was holding a 50 peso note in his hand telling me I had only given him 50 originally.
Stac wasn’t there, I had no way of proving it, so I had to take the 50 from him and give him another 500.
I got back in the car, and checked my wallet about four times, I count our money every night, so I knew how much I had that morning, and I could tell I’d just been scammed out of 450 pesos. Stac got back from the toilet and I explained what I thought had happened, I got out of the car again and told him I knew what he’d done and he needed to give me the money back, he said nothing.
We went and parked up outside the convenience store next to the petrol pumps and sat trying to think of what to do, when I noticed that there was some activity between the works and I saw the guy who scammed me pass something to somebody else.
About two minutes later, the second guy walked up to the car, knocked on the window and told me, that they’d found my 500 note, and that I dropped it under the car. We couldn’t believe, we think they must have expected that we were calling the police, so they panicked and gave it us back. The end results was, because he swapped it earlier, and handed me the 50 peso note, by the time they gave us the 500 back, he had done himself out of 50 pesos. We considered ourself lucky this time and drove away wondering how all this had just happened in five minutes, we were certainly more careful at petrol stations in future.
A short while later, we stopped for lunch, every restaurant here looked like a tourist place, but we picked one, the food was small portions and high prices and when he gave us the bill he had added 10% on to it for no reason. In Mexico, restaurants aren’t allowed to add tip on the bill, but he refused to give us our 10% back. We’d been in Tulum one hour and been scammed already.
From then things just got better and better, we visited the Tulum Ruins, the Mayan Ruins right on the sea front, the area is green, spacious and beautiful. Parking here was hilarious, we saw a guy running a car park that had a sign which said 50 pesos on one side for parking and 100 pesos on the other, he obviously changed his mind quite often. We got a local to ‘look after’ our car for 50 pesos, then we finally had a conversation with a local in Tulum who wasn’t trying to scam us.
We then spent the evening drinking beer and playing cards in the garden of our hostel.
The next day we drove a couple of hours south to Bacalar, we had now well and truly got away from the hotel tourists, we got pulled by the police on the way there, because we had no front number plate, which the hire car company assured us was fine here, because it had one on the back. The police officer checked our documents and sent us on our way, not a peso changed hands, it was great.
We got to the tiny town of Bacalar, dropped our car at the hotel we’d stay in for the night, then went to meet some people who run boat tours out on the lagoon for the afternoon. Bacalar lagoon is a large nature reserve of small islands, crystal clear fresh water, and Cenotes (an underground river and cave system in this region).
We joined the boat tour and for the four hours that it ran for, us, two Germans, some Canadians and some Mexicans enjoyed the lagoon and the unlimited free beer and tequila on board. Actually some of us enjoyed the drink more than some of the others, and by the time we got off the boat, both of us were quite drunk, we stopped for some Tacos and had an early night.
Next it was a short drive to the last town in Mexico in this area before you cross in to Belize, called Chetumal. This town is strange, it’s close to Bacalar, which has lots of travellers and it’s the town where boats come from Belize, frequented by travellers, but we couldn’t seem to find another tourist in the whole town.
We did notice on the drive in, that there was a large fair ground on the edge of town, and a sign advertising the local Feria (Mexican fair) which was also on tonight. I got ridiculously excited by this, Me, Col and others had been to lots of Ferias in the north of Mexico when we worked here and had a great time, I couldn’t believe we’d got far enough away from tourists, that this happened here, and we could go.
That afternoon, we drove up to see some more Mayan ruins close to Chetumal, got eaten alive by mosquitoes in the jungle there, then stopped by for an amazing Ceviche on the way back, even though neither of us were hungry, it just looked really nice, and it was.
Day turned in to night, we went down to the local Feria, and it was amazing, similar to the ones in the north, but more for families here, there was huge roller-coasters and fair rides, lots of street food and cafes, markets, a huge music concert, beer, and even a farm area where people buy cows and bulls, and yes that is weird, but it’s Mexico, and it’s normal here 🙂
We walked around all night enjoying the atmosphere, ate some great food, drank lots of beer, played the fair ground games and went on the big wheel, we wanted to buy a cow, but it was a long walk to the hostel, and it would have never fitted in a taxi.
We thought about crossing in to Belize for a few days, over to the Islands there. We could have left our car in Chetumal and gone for a couple of days before continuing, but after some research, we were put off by the costs just to get a stamp in the passport and a couple of days in another country. The boats were crazy expensive, and both countries charged border fees to cross, so we didn’t make it to Belize this time.
After Chetumal, we drove a long way over to the other side of the peninsula to Campeche, we knew the town centre was a UNESCO heritage sight, but knew little else about here. It didn’t stop us driving five and a half hours from Chetumal to get there though, and after stopping for a great local lunch half way, we arrived in the afternoon to the stunning town of Campeche.
The town centre is maintained in the Spanish Colonial style that it was built, the city walls surround the UNESCO area, and the buildings and streets and stunning to wander around. The best thing was, it’s so far from the eastern coast, there’s not many tourists here, there are some, but it keeps its quiet charm.
We booked a nice hotel, and stayed there for three nights, in a beautiful room with our own terrace, the hotel even had a pool, we weren’t used to this kind of luxury so far here. There was only one street in town with restaurants on, and we stopped there multiple times in our days here to eat nice salads and have a few beers in the evening.
The central square of Campeche is beautiful, Colonial buildings on three sides and a large, impressive cathedral on the fourth. One side of the square had a light and sound show where a graphic representation of the history of Campeche was projected on to the full face if the building. People sit around in the square watching the projection, or listening to live music on other nights.
The day we left Campeche, we drove to Uxmal ruins, about an hour and a half, one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico, according to the locals, which they were, much less touristy, explored them for the morning, then drove to Merida in the afternoon, where we were just going to stay one night.
On the drive there, Stac wasn’t feeling too great, but we thought we were just both hungry, we dropped the car at the hotel in Merida and walked down to the centre to find some food. Stac got worse as we walked and dived in to an unnamed fast food chain, that has a king, to be sick in their toilets.
We didn’t know why, I was fine, so we went back to the room, Stac went to bed and I went out for some lunch by myself. We had been travelling for ten months now, and it was the first time we hadn’t gone out to eat together, it was strange.
I had a fantastic lunch, Stac on the other hand looked like death. We stayed in the room for the afternoon and I drove out to pick myself a pizza up for dinner, when I got back, I’d not even had one slice of it yet when I started not feeling great too.
It soon became clear, something we’d eaten or drank the previous day had given us some sort of food poisoning, and we spent the night taking it in turns to empty our entire digestive systems down the toilet.
We both stopped being sick in the night, but when we woke up in the morning, we didn’t have the energy to move and felt awful, we walked to the front desk to ask them if we could stay an extra night (or if they knew a good mortuary), and immediately had to return to bed.
By the afternoon, we managed to walk the four blocks to buy some water, but we still couldn’t eat and decided that day was over. By the next morning, after spending 36 hours in bed in a town we wanted to explore, we’d started to feel a little better, we even considered having some food, Stac hadn’t eaten in over two days, and knew we had to move on to the next place without seeing any of here.
We drove from Merida to Piste, a small town close to Chichen Itza, where some travellers stop for the night so they can arrive to Chichen Itza before all the tour buses turn up. Small town doesn’t really do this place justice, actually it’s tiny, it has about three restaurants that only open during the day for the tour buses. We had a small lunch in one, and kept it down, which was a success, and didn’t feel like any dinner that night anyway, which was fortunate considering nothing was open.
Stac was confused that we kept missing meals, it didn’t make her happy.
The next morning we began our new jobs, as full-time taxi drivers for the Germans, we’re not quite sure why this is the case, but German people find it completely acceptable to walk up to us and tell us that we are driving them where they are going. It fortunately happened to be the same place where we were going, Chichen Itza, the next morning. These two had only just arrived at this hostel, sat down, then walked up to us and asked us if we could take them when we go the next morning, we naively agreed.
We got to Chichen Itza around 7.30am, the gates open at 8am, and we were about the fifth car in line, although people without cars could just go in now. We got in there before the group tours arrived, explored the grounds and saw the stunning ruins, in fact we got in there before the hundreds of people allowed to sell tourist tat in there had even set up shop yet, which was a bonus.
By the time we left around 9.30, the tour buses were there and it was awful, crowds of people everywhere you turned, Cancun must be desolate during the morning, because everybody comes here.
We ditched our German hitch-hikers here and drove back without them, they’re probably still at Chichen Itza now looking for more daft Brits to take them back.
After Chichen Itza, we drove up to a small town on the north coast, Rio Lagartos, we would be staying here for the night, but first we were going about half an hour along the coast to Las Coloradas, a sight used for mining salt, where the minerals in the ground make all the water in the area appear pink.
We arrived, saw the strange sight of the pink water, and also saw flamingos in the water and flying over, Stac has a theory that the people here are lying about why the water is pink, she believes it’s pink because of the flamingo poo.
We’d not even been here two minutes before we were immediately hounded by another couple of Germans telling us that we were now their taxi driver, I think there must have been a public service announcement put out on the German government’s travel advice for Mexico, about the two English travellers here with a car who will taxi you around for free.
For the next two days, they conveniently happened to be travelling in the same direction as us, so they got to swap the cramped buses for air-conditioned bliss in our car. Fortunately, these two were different, Felix and Maike, actually happened to be nice people, and we became good friends with them over a few nights out.
Our night in Rio Lagartos began by us meeting them for a quiet drink over sunset, we left there after paying for the twenty beers that we had drunk between us. Then ended up in a strange locals shed-come-bar, where a friendly local had cottoned on to the fact that if he was nice to us we’d buy him all his beer because it was so cheap, and we were drunk. The night ended quite hazily, drinking tequila out of the bottle in the street like the classy travellers we are.
Next stop was Valladolid, a city in comparison to some of the other recent stops, where during the day we visited some of the best Cenotes in the region, even though it was pouring with rain, and in the evenings we sat with Felix and Maike in the street, listening to music, drinking and laughing… I know, Germans laughing, I told you they were different.
Our final stop was back in Playa del Carmen for a couple of days before our flight out to Cuba, the plan was to rest here for a couple of days, visit the local beaches, considering we’d had no beach time in Mexico yet, and to visit a nature adventure-park close to here that we’d heard about.
Unfortunately, we arrived to Playa del Carmen to grey skies, which that night turned in to constant rain for the next 36 hours, so we lost an entire day to rain and didn’t get to see any of the beaches. We had booked tickets for Xel-Ha park online for our last day in Mexico, but it was miserable and raining constantly, we tried to get a refund, but they said no, so we knew we may as well just go and see how it was.
It was about 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, and we had a car, but the tickets were expensive on the account that you get included food and drink for the day, including an open bar, so neither of us wanted to drive. We woke up, the sky looked a little clear so we set off looking for a colectivo to take us there. Within five minutes, the rain returned and flooded all the streets, twenty minutes later it stopped and we walked the kilometre on flooded roads to get to where we needed to be.
We found a colectivo, set off to Xel-Ha and fortunately for us, that was the last of the rain we saw, by mid morning the sun was out and it was a beautiful day to be there. Xel-Ha is a cross between a nature park, an adventure park and an all-inclusive hotel, not necessarily something we would usually do, but it looked fun with zip lines and tubing and snorkelling, so we gave it a go, and it was great!
We had a fun day exploring the park, we did the zip lines in to the water repeatedly, the huge seven-story water slide from the lighthouse, and I did a cliff jump a couple of times, it was only from around five metres though.
We saw kids do the jump, we saw a pensioner do it, Stac stood at the top for ages, being cheered on by what appeared to be hundreds of onlookers, and eventually bottled it at the last minute and didn’t jump 🙂
Our time in Mexico had come to an end, we could have easily stayed for longer, and would love to come back again and see even more. Mexico is everything that makes travelling great, its highs and lows, its fun, its great people, great food and a just a good time, we loved it!
Next stop… Cuba!