To travel from Las Vegas, USA to Cancun, Mexico, took us two flights, most of a day, crossed two time zones and took us to a slightly different world. Mexico is somewhere between the USA and Central America, between modern commercialism and traditional values, and even though there’s McDonalds, Walmart and American TV (dubbed into Spanish), there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve crossed a cultural and historical boundary.
Cancun, however, is not typical Mexico. I’m not sure what it is typical of, maybe all-inclusive holiday-land, but it’s a bit of a strange place, separated into a downtown area and a Hotel Zone, the latter strung out along a dual-carriageway with each hotel claiming their own bit of beach. We had a nice hotel, met some nice people on the beach and found a nice restaurant but somehow the place just didn’t do it for us…and that’s not even taking into account the tricks and trips that greeted our arrival.
On landing at Cancun airport and walking through customs you are greeted by a cabal of seemingly official, uniformed, tourist information people (for want of a better word). They then try to sell you taxis, tours and time-shares, or failing that, offer ‘free’ jaunts that need a five dollar deposit and entail a visit to a ‘presentation’. The sad thing is that we nearly went for it – or perhaps it was all genuine and the sad thing is that we didn’t – but something didn’t ring true, we were tired and wanted our hotel, and so we said “No, gracias” and headed for the bus.
Maybe it was the tiredness, but on getting off the bus and leaving the bus station Rachel and Kiah then went flying for the third time that day, tripping off a kerb and into the gutter, fully laden with backpacks. We had planned to get another local bus but the taxi drivers couldn’t believe their luck, and scooped us up for a slightly-overpriced trip to our hotel. Fare enough or taken for a ride, but we were at least glad to be in our room with nothing worse than a bruised and twisted ankle for Rach, and a slightly mucky Kiah.
We then had a couple of days in Cancun, which was more than enough, before moving on to Isla Mujeres, which is a small island half an hour away by ferry. There we had a lovely hotel, almost to ourselves, complete with resident iguanas, and their own kayaks (just to be clear, the hotel had kayaks, not the iguanas!)
We went kayaking, did a bit of snorkelling, and saw some fairly funky fish.
Now we all have an image of snorkelling in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, and the sea did approximate to that vision – however when you pictured it, did you do so with a stormy, overcast sky above? Thought not, but that’s what we got, with regular downpours and stifling humidity, and that was the pattern for our three days on the island.
We went to the picture-postcard beach of Playa Norte, with it’s white sand and azure sea, and Tilly commented that she didn’t think beaches like this really existed, and it was how you might draw a typical, tropical beach. But again, one minute we were sat there, sweltering, next we were running to a restaurant, already drenched from the sudden deluge.
When we then found that some money had gone missing (almost certainly) from the hotel room, we were starting to get a little downcast ourselves. We couldn’t prove anything, or be absolutely sure, so had to let it go but it tainted our first few days in a new country. Sad that you tend to remember the odd bad incident, rather than the overwhelming majority of helpful, friendly people, so we’ll try to think instead of the taxi driver who took us out to the port – as he dropped us off he ran inside the terminal to make sure we caught the ferry about to leave.
After the island we then got a little hire car for the drive down the coast to Tulum. On first glance it looked fine, and it got us from A to B, but reminded us of how cars used to be – no central locking, a metallic clang when you shut the door and more scratches than our mosquito-bitten legs – when the man went round the car marking off the dents and scrapes he might just have well have given the card to a toddler and asked them to scrawl all over it. Driving was also an experience – first through downtown Cancun (busy and confusing), then down the highway – this is like a motorway, but every so often they like to put a speed hump the size of a low wall to catch the unwary. However, apart from nearly entering the stratosphere a couple of times, we made it to Tulum and the very lovely Posada Yum Kin, a boutique hotel that we could somehow afford. We had a kitchen, hammocks and there was a pool that you could only reach by going up a spiral staircase, across a bridge and down some more steps. However it says something about the level of luxury that the only people we got talking to were two American couples, both on their honeymoons.
We also found the delights of the Chedraui supermarket. As you pull into the car park it’s almost like driving into another world, and if you want to know where to find all the tourists and gringos just head over to the extensive wall of imported and luxury foods. There amongst the Californian wines, jars of pesto and Thai curry paste you can find bewildered westerners looking for something familiar that definitely doesn’t involve refried beans. We were delighted to find instead Heinz baked beans, which says something about our girls’ (and my) adventurous palates!
We then finally got to see our first ruins in Mexico, though there would be many more to come. If the USA doesn’t have too much in the way of ancient monuments, Central America has them by the bucket-load, dotted throughout the jungle, and maybe some of them would make it on to most people’s bucket-list.
First up for us was Coba, and it was great fun, particularly since you could hire bikes to travel between the various bits and cool down a little on the way. Climbing the huge pyramid was certainly very hot work.
But then we were in the middle of the jungle, and the jungle had certainly tried to reclaim it’s territory.
To cool down on the way back we visited a cenote – these are sink holes that lead into an underground world of rivers, pools and caverns and we’d seen documentaries about them years ago. It was suggested that it was partly these that allowed the Mayans to create their advanced civilisations, as they had a reliable water source under their feet. Whatever, they make enticing places to swim, with cool, clear water and dappled sunlight, and the girls loved spotting the turtles.
Thursday then arrived to bring our weekly battle with anti-malaria tablets. I think we got it down to a mere couple of hours this time and as a treat we decided to go to the Hidden Worlds Adventure Park. This was, without doubt, a highlight that I’m sure the girls will look back on for years to come. First you get a truck to bump you several miles into the jungle, then you climb on a bike suspended from a cable in the treetops for a ‘skycycle’, that starts up high amongst the leaves and drops down into a cave. You then turn round and go on a different cable through three more caves before having to climb back up to the start again. Given the heat and humidity we were very impressed that we all made it!
We then did a zip-wire and a rappel down into a cenote – fairly exciting but only a mere preamble to the main event, a weird cross between a rollercoaster and a zip-wire that they called the Avatar. It had been designed and built there and was the first, and probably, only one of it’s kind – I’m not sure many places would have a sufficiently relaxed enough approach to Health and Safety. But it was brilliant: exciting, exhilarating, invigorating and powered entirely by yourself walking up the steps to the start. You twist and turn, dip and rise through the trees then career along a slide into a cave before plunging into the cenote below. I whooped, Tilly yelled and Kiah made not a peep of a sound, but we all went for a second go. Rach started off screaming, increased the intensity, built to a crescendo and hit the water with blood-curdling screetches echoing around the cavern. She declined the offer of a second go.
The day finished with a swim through the stalactites of the cenote, which the girls found more scary than the avatar.
Next was the Tulum ruins, which are famous for their setting overlooking the sea. They weren’t as exciting as Coba, with manicured lawns and a no climbing rule making it feel somewhat less adventurous, but you can’t deny the ancient Mayans picked a lovely spot. The information boards waffled on about it being a strategically important, defensible position but maybe they just liked the view.
And so that was our first week or so in Mexico, and before we headed inland we had a last walk along the beach and found a bar with a live band playing cool music as the sun set and the sea breeze whipped the sand past our feet. Even though this part of the Yucatan peninsular is particularly flat, we’d had our ups and downs (in more ways than one!) but the last few days had been a lot of fun. Also, we’d seen a heck of a lot of lizards and iguanas, which is always a bonus…