We just recently finished up our European Adventure and have been travelling through Mexico & Central America since. Although it has been quite a culture shock from walking the streets of Paris, it has been downright amazing and most definitely eye-opening.
When we began planning we were slightly apprehensive, and a little nervous about getting our own way around Mexico & Central America so to put our mind at ease we booked a 37 day tour with Tucan Travel and had the whole itinerary planned out for us to cover 6 countries.
Could we have done it on our own? Looking back, sure, but having everything pre-booked was very relaxing and extremely fun with a group of like minded travelers. We were taken to places off the beaten track and we had the added bonus of a local guide from Guatemala to help with our Spanish.
Thankfully our guide, Ceser, was amazing. It’s one thing to take a walking tour with an awful guide but to spend almost a month with someone you couldn’t enjoy would be torture. We really lucked out, not only with our guide but also with our group. We all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and got along very well, especially in such short notice.
Note: All of our accommodation was pre-booked through the tour so we had no input to where we stayed, nor do we know the individual costs, which is why we haven’t recommended any of them.
Before we began our 2 weeks through Mexico we treated ourselves to an all-inclusive stay at one of the most beautiful resorts in Cancun, Paradisus Resort Cancun. Resort? Yikes, what heaven. We haven’t stayed in one of them for a while and wow, we had such an amazing time! It could have had something to do with sleeping in a giant king bed or having towels the size of rugs or quite possibly the most important of them all, the ridiculous availability of whatever food and drink we wanted, whenever we wanted!
Not having to look at the prices or finish the meal you didn’t like was pure heaven. It was a little hard not to get used to this lavish lifestyle after 5 days because we knew the moment we left that hotel it was back to the backpacker’s budget.
During our stay in Cancun, we were very fortunate to meet an amazing group of people from the USA who were at the Resort to get married. After a few Pina Coladas and exchanging our stories, they kindly invited us to their wedding at the hotel.. needless to say, we spent the next couple of days with their whole group, attending their pre-wedding all-white party and getting to know more amazing people in this world.
After leaving the white sand beaches of Cancun we headed for Mexico City where we would begin our 37-day adventure tour.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM MEXICO
When we first arrived in Mexico City early evening, we had no idea what to expect, so when the taxi told us he couldn’t quite reach our hotel but “don’t worry, it’s only a short walk away” our guards went immediately up. In bustling Mexico City, this felt quite intimidating, kind of like how we felt when we first arrived in Morocco. Backpacks on our backs, we walked our gringo pants down the street to our hotel, organized by the tour. We couldn’t help but feel like fresh meat to the 1000’s of men standing around on the streets watching us, but all was well and we made it. Clearly ;).
After we got our bearings and realizing we were staying in the historical centre of Mexico City, we ventured out for street tacos a block away. Street food is always a little suss but it’s all part of the experience. Funnily enough, it was one of our favourite tasting tacos the whole time we were in Mexico. Street food rule: If there is a lot of people hanging around eating it, then usually it’s safe to eat at as there is a constant turn around.
When daylight hit, we felt a little braver and went out to explore more of Mexico City, which in the main downtown area had a policeman on every corner and the occasional convoy with policemen holding machine guns. It felt safe as long as we saw them, but occasionally we noticed the streets changing in nature and our gut instincts kicked in and said to turn around.
Mexico City has a huge population of 9 million people and you sure saw it. We only had one day to explore the city, which quite frankly was enough and it happened to fall on a Sunday. There was probably 8.5 million of those out on the streets. There were street fairs, celebrations with fireworks, bike riders, road closures, concerts & sporting events.
A Day in Mexico City
For perfect views of the wild city below we ventured to the top of the Torre Latino, Mexico City’s tallest building. It only costs USD $5 so it’s worth a visit.
We walked along the famous street Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue that runs diagonally across the heart of Mexico City, we checked out the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see above) which is used for performances and as an art museum and basically watched the world go by from the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza. Oh and ate our way through many different taco stalls. $1 tacos were everywhere!
Mexico City was the first place for us to practice any Spanish we have taught ourselves so far! Baby steps, baby steps.
Puebla Town – Puebla is one of Mexico’s oldest towns, founded in 1531 and set in a valley with a backdrop of volcanoes with snow-topped peaks. Upon arriving in Puebla you could feel the difference from the grottier Mexico City immediately. The historic city centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site partly due to its impressively preserved Spanish colonial architecture. Right away it felt as though it had a European touch to it with the architecture, the cobbled streets & the street cafes. We stayed directly in the heart of the town across from the main Zocalo (Main Plaza). This town also had a younger crowd than Mexico City, almost like a university town.
Puebla was also the best place to try mole poblano, a rich, spicy sauce containing chocolate, cinnamon and nuts, as well as different types of hot peppers and it is often served over chicken. Sometimes it can be quite overpowering but it’s worth a taste!
Teotihuacan is an amazing abandoned city built around 300 BC by a civilisation now lost in the mists of time. The historic complex is a fascinating combination of ceremonial pyramids, such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the Ciudadela, which are connected by the Street of the Dead, palaces, old temples and the Plaza of the Sun.
The buildings are decorated with friezes and other ornate artworks. We were able to climb up 2 of the pyramids for a breathtaking view over the site. The stairs were steep, deep and long. Our tour guide told us back in the day when people climbed, they would zigzag their way up to make it an easier climb, so we all gave it a go and it surprisingly makes a difference!
Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka), is a beautiful city bordered by more mountains and thick forests, similar to that of Puebla but without the Spanish feel. Unfortunately, Jacob was sick in Oaxaca (too many tacos 😉 ) so it was a rough day to visit the city. Thankfully these towns are quite small so it’s more about exploring the small streets and watching the people in the main plazas than jamming in a whole lot of touristic sites.
Mexican Market Lunch
One thing that stood out in this town was our lunch experience. An unventilated large hall crammed with 10-20 stalls of everyone selling the same meat. No English was spoken and all 12 of us had no idea what to do, how to order or what we were even ordering. Walking up and down the hall you had men shouting at you, whistling at you, hissing at you & clicking at you. Once you pick a stall, you choose your meat, they give you a ticket and you sit down to wait. Cheap, fresh and super tasty. Side dishes are optional for only $1 and you pay 3 separate bills at the end (meat, sides, drinks). It was quite a headache, but also quite an experience.
If you don’t want to sit in a smoke infested hall then you can always head to the nearby markets and try Grasshoppers for lunch instead. If you like the taste of burnt hair with tomato sauce then you’ll be in luck. There’s always street food at the end of the day!
Monte Albán Ruins
Our second ruin visit was Monte Albán (white mountain) which was the holy city of the ancient Zapotecs, located 400 metres above the Oaxaca valley. Here, there were many structures to explore around the Grand Plaza including numerous tombs, ceremonial altars, tunnels, pyramids and palaces, many decorated by glyphs, paintings and intricate carvings. This site was our favourite of the 4 ruin sites visited mainly due to its remoteness in the mountains and the fact it has not been commercialized (yet). The view from the top of the pyramids to the rest of the site and the valley below really were stunning. It felt as though you were in a movie watching a movie set below.
We experienced our first Mexican overnight bus to San Cristóbal. Luckily the bus had seats that lay almost flat so it was an easy 11-hour ride. Considering it was just a bus ride, they weren’t shy on the security, walking through metal detectors to get onto the bus and everyone was filmed getting on and off. I guess it’s better safe than sorry!
San Cristóbal is a fascinating colonial city set in the mountainous Chiapas region. It was one of our favourite cities to visit. Modern with a rustic Mexican feel to it. The people were all very friendly, the streets were clean, the cafes were endless and we were fortunate to celebrate Dia de Muertos “Day of the Dead” here along with a 30th birthday from a guy in our group.
Eating – Our favourite place to eat in San Cristóbal was at Cocoliche and Oh la la bakery. Both were very well priced with a large variety, nice waiters and colourful interiors. The pedestrian streets were beautiful to walk up with colourful buildings lining the streets and a huge range of restaurants, cafes and shops.
Sumidero Canyon – Apart from exploring the town, we took a day trip to visit the Sumidero Canyon on a guided speedboat tour along a 30-kilometre section of the Grijalva river to the hydro-electric dam. We spotted crocodiles, monkeys, birds, and were driven through a stunning cliff faced waterfall.
Local Remote Villages
A real opener was visiting 2 villages nearby, San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. Here we were shown how modern descendants of the ancient Maya people live today. We got a fascinating insight into their pre-Columbian beliefs and their daily struggle to be heard in what is one of Mexico’s most isolated regions. The villages have their own distinct uniforms that are worn by both men and women.
One of the biggest struggles for us to comprehend was the lack of schooling for Mexican children in these villages. Our tour guide told us it wasn’t as common to send your children to school as it was up to the parent’s discretion, therefore, there were way too many kids running the streets and wearing clothes fit for someone 3 times their age. Unfortunately, high poverty levels lead to this as parents are simply afraid of the costs to send their children to school but it was difficult to see their futures when they live their lives like this.
We were also taken into the homes of a family to see where they make all there handicrafts, cook in their kitchen and sleep in their hammocks. It is very common for hammocks to be used as beds in these villages as they can be packed away and brought out for sleep to allow more room in their households. These people are so generous, happy and content with their life it really gets you thinking.
To get to Palenque was absolute torture. We were on the bus for 6 hours on nothing but windy, speed bump filled roads. Thankfully the scenery out the window was beautiful but it was the longest bus ride ever and very unpleasant for Emily who gets very motion sick.
Upon leaving the bus in Palenque, Jacob’s glasses fogged up entirely and Emily’s hair turned curlier than Curly Sue from the 98% humidity. Palenque’s town itself was quite small with not a lot to see so we were purely there to visit the following attractions. If you do ever head to this town, we would highly suggest eating at Cafe Jade. We went there for lunch and dinner on the same day.
Palenque Mayan Ruins – Exploring the Palenque Mayan ruins from 400-700AD, deep in the steamy jungle was quite an experience. Although we had already been to two ruin sites, this one was quite different due to it being vastly overrun by the jungle and being high in the mountains. We also got to go inside one of the recently discovered Mayan temples, where they uncovered tombs with jewels inside. The surrounding jungle, fog and 200 odd waterfalls also added to this cool experience.
Cascada de Roberto Barrios – After exploring the ruins in the humid jungle we were taken to a beautiful undisclosed swimming hole with a stunning waterfall that you could actually stand on the edge of. We jumped off the rocks, trees and played with the local Mexican kids. We were the only tourists there which made this even more special.
After a 9-hour bus journey from Palenque, we reached the town of Merida. Merida had a nice mixture of colonial buildings, churches and plazas and the markets had beautiful weavings, hammocks, crafts and souvenirs. At night the city comes alive with live theatre and concerts. For a real upscale Mexican meal, head to Pancho’s but you won’t find the $1 tacos here, unfortunately.
Swimming & Exploring the ‘Cenotes’
Around Mexico in the Yucatan province, there are many ‘cenotes’, underground fresh-water cavernous swimming holes. These were truly spectacular and we were spoiled by being taken to some lesser known ones, which meant we had the whole caves to ourselves. The crystal clear water was the perfect temperature and the adventure getting there was an experience itself.
Our favourite, Cezuma Cenote, required us to go deep in the forest by a number of forms of transport, including a minibus, a horse-drawn ‘tuk-tuk’ on a railroad, a 5 seater motorcycle and then down a ladder through a small hole inside a tree. Quite an adventure! It was a huge highlight of the whole trip and something photos can not do justice.
En route to Cancun we stopped for yet another visit to a ruin site, the famous ruins know as Chichen Itza or as we liked to call, Chicken Pizza. Chichen Itza is an impressive Maya/Toltec site recently voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Constructed between the 7th and 10th century AD, Chichén Itzá was a centre of pilgrimage for the Maya for over 1000 years. Compared to the other ruin sites visited, this one was by far the most touristic and commercialized and it took away from the experience.
After exploring the sites and taking many photos we headed into Cancun to our hotel located in downtown. Unfortunately, we weren’t at one of the all-inclusive hotels this time around, although we both had not seen downtown Cancun before so it was a good chance to do so.
Cancun has 2 areas to stay, the main hotel zone called Zona Hotelera and this area runs directly along the beach. There is side by side resorts all ranging in price, most of them are all-inclusive. However, if you’re on a budget then its best to stay Downtown Cancun where you’ll find many of the hostels and you can easily take the public buses directly to the beaches that are 20-30 minutes away.
Nightlife in Cancun
Cancun is known for its beaches and a huge range of all-inclusive hotels but it’s also very famous for its nightlife, which even CNN claims “puts Vegas nightlife to shame”. If you’re up for a solid night out then there are many places you can go with our recommendations below:
Coco Bongo – A cheesy but very fun show with unlimited drinks. A mix of acrobatics, dance and comedy. You can pay anywhere from $65-90 US for entry with an open bar.
Congo Bar – All you can drink bar but much cheaper than Coco Bongo as there isn’t a big show. Prices range from $25-$30. It’s an outdoor bar/club with all the bells and whistles, dancers, streamers, smoke machines, etc.
The City – The biggest club in Latin America. Unfortunately, it’s only open on Fridays so be sure to visit here if you are in Cancun on a Friday night.
Playa del Carmen
Similar to Cancun, Playa del Carmen has a resort side where all-inclusive hotels spill onto the beaches and there’s also a downtown where you’ll find many shops, beaches, cafes and smaller hotels/hostels. There definitely wasn’t a shortage of hostels/hotels in this town. It is extremely touristic with people asking you every corner to take their tour. It’s very chilled by day though and wild in the evenings with similar bars/clubs to that of Cancun.
So what did we do in Playa del Carmen? After walking down the main street known as 5th avenue we decided to take the 4.5km walk to recycle our wristbands from our stay at the Paradisus in Cancun. However, this time visited the Playa del Carmen location. Working the system? Or breaking the rules? You can decide, but for us, it was well worth it! A whole day at the pool, cocktails and 2x buffet is a definite win. Upon leaving the resort, we were asked our room number and quickly said: “ah yes hmm 2002”! Out without a notice…phew!
And that’s a wrap… after spending just under 2 weeks in Mexico we caught the famous Chicken bus (yes this is a real thing!) across the border to Belize!
Married days survived; 231