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 we wanted the freedom to really submerse ourselves in the culture we were exploring. But, when it came time to plan another trip, we finally decided to look at our options. Great Adventure People (GAP), 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, was exactly what we were wanting. Most of GAP’s reasonably priced packages offer moderate to extended stays but they do not organize large tour buses nor offer a white glove approach. GAP utilizes local transportation when the entire group is on the move. If you want to go somewhere special, you will need to organize your own transportation. You GAP leader will certainly help if needed but they will not hold your hand nor tuck you in at night.
Since we were traveling over Christmas and New Year's, we wanted to stay close to home our home in Texas, so we decided on a 15 day trip through Southern and Central Mexico. The trip had a set itinerary with many optional activities along the way and plenty of time to soak in the experience on our own. I will admit I was a little skeptical at first. I had no idea what kind of hotels GAP arranged nor did I know how much “flexibility” these trips really offered. I was also suspicious because we were starting in Cancún, a place neither my wife nor I had ever wanted to visit. We knew it was a well-worn tourist trap and we wanted a more authentic taste of Mexico.
Leaving the Cancún airport, we jumped into a colectivo, a small bus which takes passengers to various destinations, and headed for the Kin Mayab Hotel. Just to be clear, a "colectivo" takes longer than a cab but it costs a great deal less. Pulling away from the airport, we were amazed by the number of monstrous hotels that line the beaches; and as we pulled up to one and then another, passengers departed leaving us behind. Eventually, my wife and I were the only ones remaining. As I watched out my window however, I began to notice we were slowly leaving Americanized Cancún and entering an area with more of a Mexican flavor. This was still not the Mexico we came to see but a much better place to find a meal.
After dinner, we met our GAP 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. Everyone was excited and ready to go.
We were thrilled to learn we would be leaving Cancún behind 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 GAP 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 however 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 to snap 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. covers 4 square miles so prepare for a full day of hiking if you want to see everything. Don't forget water!
GAP does not 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 we were off to explore. When it came time to leave, believe me we 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 the 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 know to be that helpful so I would need to know when to get off. Then, I would have to walk down 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 the finest in the Yucatán. It is fairly compact though you should allow at least half a day for a good visit. Since we were starting to move inland, the jungle was becoming a more dominate theme and Uxmal was an excellent example. There is a lot of renovation going on but the grounds are well tended. You are presently not permitted to climb the largest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician, but you can climb others to gain a great view of the area so wear good shoes.
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 of recommendations. 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." We opted to walk and I am very glad we did. The misty green of the lush mountain backdrop can capture your imagination and provides another great photo opportunity.
Palenque is a stark difference from the other sites we had visited because of the tropical rain forest canopy which covers most of the grounds. If you are quiet, you might even see monkeys racing through the trees.
As Christmas Day approached, it was time to head for San Cristóbal de las Casas with its narrow, cobbled streets and crisp air 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 us 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 in incredible variety to fruits, vegetables and house wares. They are also very proud of their link with the Zapatista rebels. Many of the tourists 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 offers inspiring views and dramatic panoramas as you float down during your 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. We 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 of us. 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 to contend with. Since we were always taking local transportation, we were never sure if it would be 1st or 2nd class. Unfortunately, this was a 2nd class 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.
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 we 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 the roof for a great view of the city. The hostel was completely full of travelers which again allowed us 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, we decided to rent bikes and take the trip up on our own, however we did not realize the short trip was straight up hill. It took us roughly 90 minutes to get there and 20 minutes to get back down. The ride down was extremely scary with all the buses and trucks going in both directions but it was nonetheless exhilarating.
We spent a few days in Oaxaca, but had one more city to visit before heading to Mexico City for New Year’s Eve. We were headed to 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 the night.
The next morning we headed for our final destination, Mexico City. This expansive city of 20 million is located over a mile high and 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 these places 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". It is not exactly a road, since it is blocked off in many places to create courtyards. 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 quiet long and requires a train, bus and taxi so be prepare for a full day. Spending New Year’s Eve in Mexico City is unlike what you might expect. 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 the necessary amenities and head back to our 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 flight home the next day.
Now that I have had time to reflect on the trip, all I can say is it was a great experience. GAP, and especially our trip leader Chris, went out of their way to make it a pleasant and yes, still adventurous trip. We will always be grateful. During our trip we learned about the Tsunami off India and the devastation that ensued. Chris decided to take all of the tips we were to give him and donate them to the Canadian Red Cross and GAP doubled them. I thought this an admirable action and was glad to double the amount I would have given him. It was an unfortunate occurrence and we were all glad to help in whatever way we could. For me, GAP has proven itself and I will not hesitate to contact them again in the near future.