Yes, it’s worse than we thought. A trip thru Mexico’s tourist centers in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Famous Chichen Itza, colonial Valladolid and along the not so pristine Maya Coast. Mainly trying to avoid bumping into other tourists. Wow! A very different Mexico.
Chichen Itza, 23rd December
We drive on from Merida. On the way to Mexico’s most visited archeological site: Chichen Itza.
On the way a stop in the village of Izamal. A Pueblo Magico renowned for its yellow houses and the Convento de San Antonio.
Later, approaching the famous site of Chichen Itza, we quickly understand why so many people warned us to visit this place.
And all of them had extremely valuable arguments why we should avoid this place: completely crowded, dozens of huge tour buses with all these Cancun-to-Tulum-package-tourists, the same discriminating entrance fee system as in Uxmal, the ruins are by far outnumbered by the souvenir shops placed around them, you cannot enter any building, etc.
Probably due to a certain tendency to masochism we still decide to experience all that. Maybe to preferably admire other tourists and Mexican souvenirs made in China and not the Maya ruins. Whatever. Let’s see how it works.
The next morning: at 8am sharp we’re at the entrance. Well, not at the counter to buy the tickets – but as the last members of the ever-growing queue. Just a few 100 people in front of us. Quickly we detect that we’ve correctly joined the queue for individuals – not the 1 for groups. They have a different 1 to enter them – by 100s.
Well, the guys are pretty efficient. In less than 1h we get our overprized tickets including Yucatan State’s discriminating penalty fee.
We’re ready for the adventure. As far as we know there are 3 different issues to explore and to admire:
- the ruins themselves as far as you’re allowed to approach them,
- the immense crowd of souvenir sellers and their products everywhere on the site,
- and all kind of tourists mainly occupied by taking selfies in strange positions or buying souvenirs.
But let’s start with the easiest 1: the ruins. You’ll not lose too much time on that. Simply because nowhere you’re allowed to enter or to climb anything. And they are by far less interesting than those at other sites.
So, a look at the pyramid called El Castillo.
On to the most famous building: the Templo de Los Guerreros. On top of it the even more famous Chac Mool – everywhere in Mexico’s PR work you see this statue. Of course, the whole building is closed. So, no chance to see Chac Mool. Nevertheless, some other details you may discover by using a good telephoto lens.
A little further Chichen Itza’s equally famous astrological observatory – at least from far. So far, the archeological stuff.
Let’s come to more funny issues: souvenir sellers and their stuff. Whatever you think about, Martin swears he would never ever buy anything as a gift to his all-beloved mother in law.
At 8 am the guys are still busy getting all their stuff to their stalls from the nearby forest, where they stored it in plastic bags.
By 10 or 11 they’re ready for the crowds. All their beautiful souvenirs are properly placed, in the middle a clear indication on which credit cards they accept.
By now everywhere you learn that everything just costs 1 US$ or 10 Pesos. We’re still wondering if it would be worth going to 1 of these gentlemen with 5000 Peso and to ask 500 US$ for it. Just to help him to get rid of US currency as it’s not legal tender in Mexico.
Let’s move to the next important issue: the esteemed visitors. Of course, most important for the local economy the souvenir buyer. The guys who need at least 1 souvenir of each country they visit, building every 5 years a new room in their home. The guys who can’t help buying a beautiful gift for their beloved wives – later wondering why the hell their sweethearts insist on immediate divorce.
The 2nd group: the picture-of-everything taker, selfie addicted, classical-group-photo-for-the-bookshelf-at-home obsessed- with guide or without.
Finally, the 3rd 1: the many tourists with a guide. Sometimes just a couple intensively listening to all historic details of Chichen Itza: Many as a tour group with some quite unruly members under social pressure to make at least 1 cultural trip during their beach holiday. Or listening very concentrated to the tour guide explaining them where to buy the best, the most beautiful and the cheapest souvenirs.
Leaving the site, we finally discover why there are so many people inside: just look at the number of minibuses carrying them from their all-inclusive temples to poor Chichen Itza.
Whatever. After such a visit you surely ask yourself if the whole effort was worth it.
For us it’s a pretty clear no – other sites are definitely more interesting and much more accessible. Of course, a site you’re visiting together with 5000 other guys loses all atmosphere. You rather feel you’re in the wrong movie.
Now we know it. And next time for the entrance fee we’ll prefer to drink the hell a lot of beer.
Need a change. Easy. Not far from overtouristy Chichen Itza is Cenote Yokdzonot. 1 of these sinkholes where groundwater is accessible for a swim. Well, there are 1000s of them all over Yucatan. And where tourists pass by they’re accessible for a moderate to hefty fee depending on the number of tourists passing by.
Yokdzonot is a few km off the main package tour route. Thus, all reasonable and only very few visitors. Time for a swim.
Valladolid, 25th December
We drive on to Valladolid. Just some 50km and we arrive in the next Pueblo Magico. It’s renowned to have a beautiful colonial city center. Must be interesting to visit.
It’s true, they have a pretty nice Zocalo (central square) and a few streets adjacent. Nonetheless, the whole colonial area is really small and rather touristy. Especially if you’re unlucky enough to visit the Zocalo around 10 am, you’ll have enormous problems to sneak around – among these 100s of package tourists dozens of huge buses discharge in front of the souvenir shops.
They’re having a short stop on their way to Chichen Itza. And as it’s the only Mexican town they’ll probably see it must be an amazing experience for them.
Still remain optimistic. Some 10′ later they all have disappeared. And you’re free again to sneak wherever you like on the Zocalo, ...
… to visit the Convento de San Bernandino de Siena, …
… to stroll thru the colorful streets …
… – especially nice at sunset and …
… finally, to sip a beer in a watering hole at the Zocalo.
Visibly the waitresses in a kind of X-Mas mood.
Next morning time for a change. Some more Cenotes: Samula. Just a few km outside of Valladolid.
A steep stair leading down to the cave. A cave lighted up by a small hole on the top.
Next: Cenote Xkeken. Just next to the other 1. Even darker. But seems to be the preferred place for Mexican tourists. Thus, quite busy.
Puerto Morelos, 27th December
Enough of this dark underworld. Time for some sun, sand, sea and …
Thus, we’re on the way to the Caribbean – as the Mexicans say. We’re on the way to the Riviera Maya. It’s said to be the most awesome part of Mexico’s Caribbean cost and of course the tourist hotspot of the country. To Puerto Morelos, some 200 km to the east.
Pretty boring road: forest to the left, forest to the right. Sometimes another car crossing.
On the way Prado needs to be fed. A stop at the next Pemex Station. A friendly guy filling up. Suddenly we realize that he fills in gasoline instead of diesel.
What the hell. Supposedly Prado in its age is no longer flexible enough to adapt to a new diet.
And a few minutes later some mechanics are emptying the whole mess. 1 1/2 h later the wonder happens. Prado gets rid of all gasoline, and continues running on pure diesel enriched with a good load of sulfur – it’s favorite food.
A short discussion with the poor Pemex guy and it’s clarified that we don’t pay everything for his mess. Finally, he takes the opportunity to contribute.
Late afternoon we arrive in Puerto Morelos – in desperate need of a beer.
Mostly Puerto Morelos is described as 1 of the last remaining fishing villages at the Riviera Maya. Unspoilt, not touristy, a place where you can still experience Mexico as it was before package tourism crowds inundated the coast.
Well, maybe true if you compare it to Cancun or Playa del Carmen. But also, a proof how relative opinion can be.
Whatever, for us Puerto Morelos rather looks like 1 of these failed tourist developments on the Canary Islands. You know these places on Gran Canaria where nobody else than British citizens dare to go anymore.
In the center of the village numerous ugly apartment buildings, some converted in a kind of guesthouse, some hotels, a number of restaurants, many souvenir shops and fortunately a huge supermarket. The clientele of this place: mainly Canadians, a few lost souls from Europe. Of course, at this time of the year pretty crowded with poor Mexicans looking for a nice beach where they can drink a lot of beer.
Definitely, remains the question why there are so many tourists here. For Canadians it’s clear – warm weather.
Well, there’s also the beach: very fine white sand – at least when it’s not covered with Sargassum seaweed or compacted by excavators removing it. Fortunately, currently the beach is free of any veggies. And they installed a barrier in the sea to reduce seaweed on the beach. No idea if it works well.
There’s another reason to come: the turquoise water – at least if there’s no seaweed. And some corals nearby.
We take the opportunity for a snorkeling tour. Despite the short distance from the beach you’re not allowed to swim to the reef. Anyway, it would be difficult due to the seaweed barrier.
Of course, when making a tour you won’t die of loneliness. You’ll snorkel with some 10 fellow snorkelers, all permanently chasing all fish in front of you or at least producing the hell a lot of air bubbles with their fins. And finally, you’ll have at least some 10 other boats around you.
Whatever. There’s quite a number of corals to admire. And some turtles. Even if marine life is not very diversified. Unfortunately, you’ll also discover soon, that the reef is heavily damaged in many parts, a lot of dead coral – a problem often mentioned in Puerto Morelos – but who would stop over-tourism on the reef if there’s not much else to offer to the poor visitor.
Mahahual, 29th December
Definitely we consider the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos too crowded, too touristy, too expensive (even at the odd ATM the banks charge 3x more than usual) and not spectacular enough to stay any longer.
Thus, many reasons to drive to a more remote, more unspoilt and more interesting place. Our bible to Mexico – the famous Rough Guide – knows exactly what we’re looking for: Mahahual – a remote village further south at the untouched Costa Maya. Yeah, we’re aware that there’s a pier for cruise ships. But it looks like there are rarely any of these swimming monster hotels ever arriving there.
So, we drive southwards. Some 350km to Mahahual. Just to find this paradise. Landscape on the way as usual in Yucatan.
Finally, we reach Mahahual. Well, to start with we pass thru the village. Not at the beach, just a street behind it. Looks like any 3rd world settlement a few weeks after a heavy storm. All pretty rundown, ugly, untidy. It’s true they were hit by a bad hurricane some 12 years ago. And currently we follow a back road. The village’s beachfront must be better.
We find our accommodation in Mahahual. 1 of the last available rooms – but with 2 unique points: the priceyest room we ever had in Mexico – and the worst accommodation we’ve been in in this country. Wow – only the 2 campsites in Mahahual look more awful. You would even not dare to leave your doggie there. Whatever, you cannot have all between X-Mas’n’New Year’s eve. We’re staying in the Blue Kay Eco-Resort. Don’t bother about it, just ignore it. Their staff do the same about their guests.
We head for the beachfront. A pedestrian zone just behind the beach. Great idea. Just a pity the houses still look the same as on the back road: a continuous row of hostels, hotels, apartments, muncheries and souvenir stalls. At least for us it’s difficult to recognize the elements of a romantic fishing village.
Ok, the beachfront will not win any beauty contest. Maybe the guys did simply not have the time to get their houses in a better shape because they are so busy selling souvenirs.
Whatever. Of course, the most important issue is the beach. And what we’ve heard about it – it must be paradise.
Of course, they have announcements explaining the phenomena of the massive appearance of Sargassum seaweed. They even give a very ecological explanation. Thus, no need to further mention the causes for its exuberant growth – the immense erosion and contamination in the Amazon basin.
The beach: it’s really a palm fringed beach. Wow.
To make life more comfortable for tourists they created what they call Beach Clubs: 1000s of sunbeds. 1 beside the other, many rows in each club. In each corner a high capacity speaker and you can enjoy Jose Jose and other famous Mexican musicians the whole day long. And to give you a good choice: there are dozens of beach clubs all along the beach.
In between them quite a number of muncheries.
Remains the beach and the famous turquois water. Quickly you realize that the beach is pretty narrow. Having a closer look, you’ll discover the sand filled bags and rock walls along the shoreline. They should prevent further erosion. Thus, avoid the beautiful sunbeds falling into the sea.
Of course you also realize the huge cruise ship at the pier. Maybe 1 reason why so many elderly guys sneak along the pedestrian zone in desperate search for a beautiful souvenir.
There are also parts of the beach less affected by erosion. Hence, no need to protect them by these plastic bags.
There, it’s not easy to find a small space to enjoy it. There are already a few other guys who had exactly the same idea – at least this time of the year.
Bacalar, 31st December
The remote romantic village of Mahahual. We’ve seen it. Definitely we wouldn’t return. As well as we would not recommend anybody in search of the paradise to even think about going there. Probably it’s more adapted to hardcore masochists than to ordinary overlanders.
We’re on our way to Bacalar at the eponymous lagoon. It’s said to be 1 of the most beautiful lagoons of the world. A mix of deep blue, intense turquois and white. Well, despite its name it’s not really a lagoon, it’s rather a lake not far from the seashore created by a number of cenotes in a flat valley.
And the village of Bacalar: rather tiny. Some streets, a main square and the 17th century fort to fight pirates invading the town. Add a lot of guesthouses, small hotels and a few eateries – and that’s it.
Well, of course on New Year’s Eve also the hell a lot of Mexican tourists on their ultimate trip to the next year.
Despite the many tourists Bacalar seems to be much more reasonable than the coastal places further north. Much less commercialized, much friendlier and definitely you won’t have the permanent feeling to be somebody’s favorite milk cow.
If you wanna see a little more of the Laguna you need to go by boat. The guys in the streets are all selling these boat trips.
Nevertheless, you’re definitely not alone touring in the turquois water. But as always during this time of the year you have no choice.
Most important is the visit to what they call La Isla del Amor. For some couples a sheer necessity, for other guys a rather dangerous place.
You pass along the coast. Admire what they call living rocks (stromatolites). Many of them rather damaged by unruly swimmers.
Visibly very exclusive and expensive villas along the shoreline. Many belonging to poor politicians or desperate public servants knowing that somewhen they’ll need an adapted hideout.
And even more interestingly we were shown the villa of Joaquin Guzman. The guy they call El Chapo, head of the mighty Sinaloa Cartel who felt so pity with his neighbors that he organized a constant supply of drugs for US citizens. Currently, he enjoys a US prison. Probably he didn’t pay his taxes. Whatever. Now his modest house is a tourist attraction. No idea if you can rent it.
You cross to the other side. Thru incredibly turquois water, …
… to make the most impressive selfie you ever made. Even your unbearable neighbor at home will knock at your door to see it.
Yeah, it’s true there are a few guys sneaking thru the shallow water. Just be careful not to bump into somebody. Especially as many don’t look very appetizing with their full body beauty masks made of the mud they find on the ground.
And that’s colorful Bacalar. It’s true the visit with so many other guys around you is slightly strange, a little discouraging and not very adventurous.
Better visit it another time of the year. It will definitely be more pleasant.
We’re again on the road. To Chetumal at the border to Belize.
Guys, that’s it for this post. More soon. Promised.