Working my way through the custom's line in the Cancún airport, I heard the distinct sound of a bottle breaking as it hit the floor. I couldn't tell exactly where the noise came from but as I walked toward the luggage carousel I immediately saw the trouble. Lying against the wall was a backpack leaking a yellowish liquid onto the floor. Evidently, the liquid was tequila and the bottle had been inappropriately stowed at the bottom of the pack. As if on cue 2 young Americans came running out of the bathroom carrying handfuls of paper towels. As they screamed in frustration, I could only think one thing, “Welcome to Mexico.”
For years, I traveled alone away from organized groups because I wanted the freedom to really submerse myself in the culture I was exploring. But, when it came time to plan another trip, I finally decided to look at my options. GAdventures, a touring company offering adventure tours and that prides itself on providing the maximum amount of freedom while not burdening their guests with hotel or transportation arrangements. This sounded great, I could go and do whatever I wanted and my hotels and local transportation were taken care of by the tour. Most of the company's reasonably priced packages offered moderate to extended stays. These are not large tour buses nor were the trips offering white glove service. GAdventures utilized local transportation when the entire group was on the move. During any free time, which there was plenty, and you wanted to go somewhere special, you needed to organize your own transportation.
Since I was traveling throughout December and over Christmas and New Year's, I wanted to stay closer to home than most of my previous trips so I decided on a 30-day trip through Southern and Central Mexico. The trip had a set itinerary with many optional activities along the way with plenty of time to soak in the experience on my own. I will admit I was a little skeptical at first. I had no idea what kind of hotels Gadventures would arrange nor did I know how much “flexibility” these tours really offered. I was also suspicious because we were starting off in Cancún, a place I had never wanted to visit. Coming from Texas, I knew it was a well-worn tourist trap and I wanted a more authentic taste of Mexico.
Leaving the Cancún airport, I jumped into a shared 'colectivo', a small bus which takes a number of passengers to various destinations and headed to my first stop, the Kin Mayab Hotel. Pulling away from the airport, I was amazed by the number of monstrous hotels that lined the beaches; and as we pulled up to one and then another, passengers departed leaving me behind. Eventually, I was the only one remaining. As I watched out my window, I began to notice I was slowly leaving Americanized Cancún and entering an area with more of a Mexican flavor. This was still not the Mexico I came to see but a much better place to find a meal.
After dinner, I met my GAdventures tour leader and the other members of the group including 2 American women, 3 British men, 3 British women, 1 Australian woman, 1 man from the Netherlands and 2 young girls from Japan. All in all, it seemed like a fun group and everyone was excited and ready to go.
Playa del Carmen
I was thrilled to learn we would be leaving Cancún the next morning and heading for Playa del Carmen. Playa del Carmen is only slightly better than Cancún. There are nearly as many tourists as Cancún and it still feels more like the U.S. than it should but we did find one restaurant and one hotel worth mentioning. The restaurant, called 100% Natural, was vegetarian and located at 5th Avenue near Calle 10. Make sure and try their Hibiscus tea. The hotel, “La Rana Cansada” arranged by GAdventures was a great choice. It was close to the beach and provided us with a tranquil setting to sit back and enjoy each other's company.
Just outside the city was the main attraction, the Mayan ruins of Tulúm. Because of its close proximity to Cancún and Playa del Carmen, it can get very crowded. Although the ruins are less impressive than Chichén Itzá or Uxmal, they have the blue Caribbean as a backdrop, offering great backdrops for photographers. Look closely for opportunities to snap some shots of iguanas scurrying through the brush.
After a day and a half in and around Playa del Carmen and Tulúm, we headed across the Yucatán to Mérida. On the way, we stopped at Chichén Itzá to see the most famous of all Mayan sites. Be sure to get there early to avoid the crowds and climb the Pyramid of Kukulkán before it gets too hot. Chichén Itzá covers 4 square miles so prepare for a full day if you want to see everything, and don't forget to bring lots of water!
One great thing about Gadventures is they don't herd you around in organized groups but leaves you time to explore on your own. You can also organize your own guide if you want a more in-depth understanding of a particular site. Our tour leader set a time to meet later in the day and then I was off to explore. When it came time to leave, believe me, I was exhausted and ready to go.
Later in the evening we arrived in Mérida and made our way to the Hotel Trinidad. This was one of my favorite hotels. The hotel also serves as an art gallery and has large paintings hanging on almost every wall providing more than your average hotel. The owner is also very kind and went out of his way to ensure we were comfortable. If you find yourself in Mérida, I highly recommend the Hotel Trinidad.
While in Mérida, I wanted to visit the ruins of Uxmal, and since this was not a trip GAP arranged, I found a local bus station and purchased a ticket.
I also found I would need to pay attention and get off the bus 45 minutes after it departed the station. The drivers were not known to be that helpful so I would need to know when to get off. Then, I would have to walk a dirt road for another 30 minutes or so. Well, I fell asleep 10 minutes later but was awaken by the driver asking, "Uxmal?"
Uxmal is rated by many archaeologists as one of the finest in the Yucatán. It is fairly compact so it only takes a few hours to half a day for a thorough visit. Since I had moved more inland, the jungle was more dominant and completely surrounded Uxmal. There was a lot of renovation going on but the grounds were well tended. Again, be prepared to climb the largest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician.
Leaving Mérida we packed our gear and headed further inland to Palenque in the State of Chiapas. Our hotel, located just outside the city limits and very close to the ruins of Palenque, was El Panchan; another on my list to recommend. Their restaurant, Café Restaurante Don Mucho, is incredible and the atmosphere is inviting including live music from Bolivian, Peruvian, and Mexican artists. Hotel guests represented countries from all over the globe providing ample opportunities to discuss world affairs.
El Panchan is located adjacent to the Palenque National Park about a mile from the ruins. From El Panchan you can walk to the archaeological site or take a "colectivo." I opted to walk and I am very glad I did. The misty green of the lush mountain backdrop can capture your imagination and provides excellent opportunities for taking pictures.
Palenque offers a dramatic change from the other sites I visited because of the tropical rainforest canopy which covers most of the grounds. If you are quiet, you might even see monkeys racing through the trees.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
As Christmas approached, it was time to head for San Cristóbal de las Casas with its narrow, cobbled streets and crisp air, it was the perfect place to celebrate the holidays. This city lies at a much higher altitude so it was a little cool but the staff at the Hotel San Martin provided me with enough blankets to stay warm. They even let us hang a piñata on Christmas Eve until we got a little too rowdy trying to crack it open.
Surrounded by indigenous villages, San Cristóbal offers a wealth of crafts and archaeological treasures. In its quaint streets and the surrounding villages, the regional Indians still wear traditional and colorful clothes and sell their goods, ranging from woven and embroidered textiles, an incredible variety to fruits, vegetables, and housewares. They are also very proud of their link with the Zapatista rebels. Many of the tourist shops sell small rebel dolls, Comandante Marcos and Che Guevara tee shirts.
Located an hour outside of San Cristóbal is another highly recommended natural Treasure. Sumidero Canyon with its sheer cliffs and deep river waters offering gorgeous views and dramatic panoramas as I floated down the river during my 2-hour boat ride. The area is inhabited by wild monkeys, iguanas, and crocodiles. There is also a beautiful formation called Christmas Tree Falls that consists of unusual rock tiers covered in green moss and purple flowers. I had heard that during the wet season, the water falling from above even looks like snow.
When it came time to leave San Cristóbal, I was not excited for what lay ahead. Up to this point, most of the bus trips had been only moderate in length. We were now heading to Oaxaca and had a grueling 12-hour ride through the South-eastern region of Mexico ahead of us. Since we only took local transportation, we were never sure what to expect. Unfortunately, this would be an old bus which meant even more discomfort than anticipated. Strange though, while most passengers slept I quietly watch out my window as the topography changed again and again. It was an amazing testament to the diversity of Mexico.
As we approached the state of Oaxaca, the pleasant sub-tropical climate offered the serenity I needed after the long haul. The state of Oaxaca has peaks almost 10,000 feet (more than 3,000 meters) high, caverns among the deepest in the world, virgin beaches, hidden jungles, and luminous valleys where cultures who once lived in its midst now come together.
In Oaxaca, we stayed at the Paulina Youth Hostel. As far as hostels go, Paulina's was wonderful. We could even climb on to the roof for a great view of the city. The hostel was completely full of travelers which again allowed me the chance to sit back and enjoy some good conversation.
Five miles west of Oaxaca lay the ruins of Monte Alban. This site is perched on a mountaintop high above the surrounding valleys. Because of its close proximity, I decided to rent a bike and take the trip up on my own. This was a mistake, I had not realized the short trip was straight uphill. It took roughly 90 minutes to get there and 20 minutes to get back down. The ride down was extremely scary with all the huge buses and trucks going in both directions. I will say it was nonetheless exhilarating.
After spending a few days in Oaxaca, it was time to leave and head to my last stop before heading to Mexico City for New Year’s Eve. This stop was Puebla which lies on the main route between Veracruz and Mexico City. Puebla was the principal city of colonial Mexico and as such, its appearance is the most European of all the colonial cities.
In Puebla, we encountered the only glitch on the entire trip. The hotel GAP arranged lost our reservations. This forced our guide to scrambled to find last-minute accommodations. Unfortunately, the only hotel available was well below the standards GAP had maintained. This is not to say GAP placed us in luxury apartments but simply that we were always comfortable and more importantly, we were always pleased. In Puebla, we were placed in what appeared to be a jail cell. Still, the showers were warm and we were only there for a few nights.
When it was time to go, we headed to our final destination, Mexico City. This expansive city of 20 million was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital. Reminders of past civilization pervade the city, particularly at the Templo Mayor Excavation and Anthropological Museum at Chapultepec Park. Make sure and take some time to visit both to get a better understanding of the area.
Outside of Mexico City is another must-see attraction.Teotihuacan, commonly translated from the Nahuatl as "City of the Gods", is organized around a central axis, called the "Avenue of the Dead". This avenue is not exactly a road because it is blocked off in many places to create courtyards throughout. The name actually comes from an early rumor that the Teotihuacanos buried their kings here. Even though Teotihuacan is located just outside Mexico City, the trip out was quite long and required a train, bus, and taxi so be prepare for a full day.
It was now getting close to the end of my trip and we were getting ready for New Year’s Eve in Mexico City. As is usual in the United States, wild parties and outrageous nightlife usually accompany any New Year's celebration. But in Mexico, a large majority spend their time with family. We wandered the streets for some time only to find clubs charging $50-$75 US to enter. Since there were 12 of us, we decided to buy what we needed and head back to the hotel to share New Year’s Eve with the hotel staff. We toasted in the New Year making it a great night and the perfect send off for our flights home.
Now that I have had time to reflect on the trip, all I can say is it was a great experience. GAdventures went out of their way to make it a pleasant and yes, still adventurous trip. I will always be grateful. For me, Gadventures had proven itself and I will not hesitate to contact them again when I am ready to hit the road.
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