Itinerary: Valladolid – Chitzén Itzá – Mérida – Uxmal – Celestun – Campeche – Palenque – San Cristobal de las Casas – Cañon del Sumidero – Villahermosa – Calakmul – Tulum
Arrival in Cancún
After a ten hour flight we pass through customs at Cancún airport at 5 p.m. local time. Welcome to Mexico! Outside it’s a pleasant 28 degrees. Half an hour later we are at our hotel in the center of Cancún, which, due to the lack of high-rise buildings, has a much more a village-like feel than I expected. Cancún was built in the mid-1970s as a holiday resort on the Caribbean Sea.Before then, the city simply did not exist. The tourists (many Americans) come here mainly for sun, beach and nightlife. For this you have to be in the ‘zona hotelera’, a narrow strip of land along the coast, where the beach and nightlife of Cancún takes place. Here you will find a lot of high-rise buildings. For us, Cancún is just an overnight stop before we leave for Chitzén Itzá the next morning.
After picking up our rental car, a white ‘Chevy’, we take road number 180 towards Mérida. There are two roads to Mérida: the 180 cuota (the toll road) and the 180 libre. The second one is slower, but we’re in no rush. Just after we have left Cancún, we are pulled over by the police. A police officer kindly tells me I was speeding. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t, but it seems pointless to argue. It’s what we’ve been warned for: in Mexico the police has a habit of pulling people over to give them a fine, whether you’ve done something wrong or not. This particular officer intends to confiscate my driver’s license, which I will get back when I pay 1500 pesos (about 75 euros) fine at the Cancún police station the next day. That doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. I explain that we’re not staying in Cancún and that I would like to have my driver’s license back. I pretend I only have half of the fine with me and suggest to settle the matter with him. The agent agrees and gives me back my driver’s license. Thata’s settled then. For the rest of this trip I will be looking in my rear view mirror more often than usual.
The road from Cancún to Valladolid, our first stop, is one long straight road. There is not much of a view: it’s obstructed by the trees and shrubs to the left and right of the road. Along the route are many ‘ranchos’, simple houses with a piece of land with coconut palms, fruit trees and here and there some cattle. Every now and then we pass a small village, usually not much more than a few houses, a few local shops and a school. We have to reduce speed to almost zero regularly: everywhere there are so-called ‘topes’, treacherous bumps to force traffic in populated areas to take it easy.
In Valladolid we park the car along the street and look for a place to eat. Near the central square we find an old market hall where now some shops and small eateries are located. Valladolid, a town from the Spanish colonial era, is mainly inhabited by Maya people. The town has a central park, mainly low-rise buildings, a large church and some shops and restaurants. It takes only a short walk to see it all. There is also a ‘cenote’ in Valladolid. Cenotes can be found all over the Yucatán Peninsula. Because of the porous limestone soil, no water remains on the surface (so there are no lakes), instead the water sinks into underground caves. In the past, these underground water reservoirs were important for the water supply. Just outside Valladolid we pass another cenote (Xkeken). There’s a hole in the roof of the cave through which daylight comes in.
After visiting Valladolid we drive to Pisté, a village near the excavations of Chitzén Itzá. Here we spend the night. The next morning we get up early so that we are at the dilapidated Mayan city of Chitzén Itzá before the coaches full of tourists arrive. When we wake up it’s still cloudy, but when we arrive at Chitzén Itzá, only five minutes from the hotel, the sky breaks open and the sun comes out. It’s sweltering hot, but hey, we’re in Mexico…
It’s still very quiet at the ruins of Chtizén Itzá: no sign of the hordes of tourists that will appear later in the day. Chitzén Itzá is one of the most beautiful and most impressive places that we will visit this trip. This is partly thanks to ‘el Castillo’, the amazing Mayan pyramid that is solitary located in the middle of what must have been the central square of this Mayan city (now a lawn). Surrounding it are the ruins of several other buildings, only parts of which have survived. Thanks in part to the necessary renovation work, the great pyramid is virtually intact. On the four sides are stairs to the temple area on top. Each staircase has 91 steps, added together and including the one step to the temple, there are 365, equal to the number of days of the ancient Mayan calendar (which had as many days as our modern calendar, which is of much later date). The 18 squares on the sides of the pyramid represent the number of months of the Mayan calender.
The heyday of the Mayan culture roughly coincided with the heyday of the Roman Empire in what is now Europe. At the time, the latter was regarded as a highly developed culture and was thought to be progressive in fields such as science, engineering and art. They were not aware that on the other side of the world there was also an advanced civilization, that of the Maya. Because it’s still quiet, there’s a serene atmosphere. Mayan people are busy setting up their stalls, where they will spend the rest of the day trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. We take beautiful pictures and are impressed by what we see.
After our visit to Chitzén Itzá we leave for Mérida. This time we take the cuota. Remarkably enough, the toll road is hardly used, we drive on a largely empty road. Just before Mérida we fill up at Pemex, the state-owned company that has a monopoly on the operation of gas stations in Mexico. We are met by two employees: one fills the tank, the other cleans your windscreen for a small tip. In Mérida we first look for our hotel, located right in the center, which has numbered streets (odd north-south and even east-west). All streets are one-way here.
Mérida is built on the site of an ancient Mayan city that was conquered by the Spaniards. With one million inhabitants it now is the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s a busy, noisy city, with a lot of traffic in the narrow streets. The old center is concentrated around Plaza Independencia, also known as Plaza Major or Plaza Grande. It’s a green park, with the city’s cathedral on one side. Many of the buildings date back to Spanish colonial times, when Mérida was an important link in the trade routes from Europe to the Americas.
Every night of the week there is live music in the streets somewhere in Mérida. On Thursdays there is the ‘Serenata Yucateca’ in Plaza Santa Lucia. A stage and small stands have been built on this small square, which quickly fill up, mainly with tourists. The music is old ‘troba’ music, a tribute to the folk music of Yucatán. According to the posters on the walls, they have been doing this every week for more than 25 years. Very nice.
Because we wake up early, we can leave for Uxmal early as well. This ancient Mayan city is located 65 kilometers south of Mérida. There is a fine road to it, where we encounter little traffic. It’s also quiet at the ruins of Uxmal. Upon entering, you immediately come to the Piramide del Adivino (the magician), a distinctive looking pyramid with rounded base and sides. Uxmal experienced its heyday about 1,000 years BCE, but nevertheless many buildings have been (partly) preserved. Many of the bricks have been decorated with shapes which are still clearly visible. The Palacio del Gobernador is a large complex, which has been partly restored. On top you have a panoramic view over the Piramide del Adivino and the Quadrángulo de las Monjas, a large square with buildings on four sides.
There is little shade in the huge complex and in the sun it’s no less than 40 degrees. Around noon we have seen enough. On the way back we stop at Hacienda Ochil. Haciendas are old mansions from the Spanish era, with a plot of land around them, where, as in the case of Ochil, henequen was grown, a cactus-like plant whose fibers were used for rope. Ochil has a restaurant where you can eat al fresco, amidst the Spanish architecture and the atmosphere of an old hacienda. We are the only ones in the beautiful surroundings with palm trees, ferns, yuccas and birds. Highly recommended. In the course of the afternoon we are back in Mérida.
The next day we leave Mérida with destination Celestún. Twenty minutes outside of Mérida by accident we end up in Uman, a small, typical Mexican village, which is not aimed at tourists. It’s Saturday and the weekly market takes place on the central square. A good opportunity to make some nice photos of the stalls with tropical fruits and old ladies in traditional clothing. We didn’t plan to visit this place, but it’s very nice.
After Uman we drive down the long straight road to Celestún, which is still about an hour and a half drive. Just before Celestún you pass a large lagoon with mangrove trees. In contrast to the fairly dry interior of Yucatán (it’s the end of the dry season), the tropical atmosphere meets you here. We stop and buy tickets to take a boat trip of about an hour at the lagoon. The boat is covered and the wind provides some cooling. Besides sialing along the mangroves we visit a large colony of flamingos along the way. Several hundred pink birds stand with their long legs in the shallow water of the lagoon. A beautiful sight.
Celestún itself is a small village on the Gulf of Mexico. A white beach, palm trees and an azure blue sea, what more could you want? Under a palapa (a thatched roof) on the beach we have delicious grilled fish. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
After lunch we get a lesson in map reading for dummies. If most roads on the map are red or yellow, it is better not to take that one white road. It’s a shorter route to get from Celestún to Campeche, but the road is so bad that you have to drive at a walking pace. Fortunately, the last part to Campeche is a good through road again and for the first time there is a lot of traffic on the road. At 5 p.m. we arrive in Campeche, where we go to our hotel to take a shower and relax.
In the evening we walk to the Parque Principal, the central square of Campeche, which is beautifully lit up at night. On weekends, the streets around the square are closed to traffic and there are stalls where you can buy all kinds of food. It’s very atmospheric: people are strolling down the streets and chatting on the benches around the square.
Campeche’s old town is only a few blocks and as our hotel is right in the center, everything is within easy walking distance. The town looks nice, especially thanks to the facades painted in pastel colors. Campeche was once an important trading city, strategically located on the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the trade, the city and visiting ships were often targets of pirates and reminders of that history can still be found everywhere. On either side of the old center are two old city gates (the Puerta del Mar on the sea side and the Puerta del Tierra on the land side). Just outside Puerta del Tierra is the local market.
Yucatán is mainly flat land and so far we have mainly driven between trees and bushes without too much view. From Campeche the landscape becomes hillier and greener. The road runs along the Gulf of Mexico offers views of palm trees and and an azure blue sea. Occasionally a group of pelicans flies along the coastline. After a short stop in Champotón we drive on to Sabancuy, where we have lunch and take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. After relaxing for an hour, we drive on again.
From the coast we head inland, it is still about a four hour drive to our destination: Palenque. Along the way (just like on other days) we regularly encounter police or army checkpoints. At every state border (Mexico is a Union of states and is officially called Los Estados Unidos de México) a checkpoint has been set up where armed soldiers stop and check passing cars. We are always allowed to drive on (except for one time), because we are tourists. The checks are mainly aimed at combating crime, such as drug trafficking. Today we have to stop for once. Opening the window and pretending you don’t speak Spanish (which in our case comes pretty close to the truth) is enough to be allowed to drive on.
Palenque is located exactly on the border where the flat land turns into the mountains of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. When we arrive, there is a thick layer of clouds hanging over the mountains. The next morning, for the first time this trip, it’s raining. Luckily by the time we’ve had breakfast, it has stopped raining, because we are going to visit Palenque. This ancient Mayan city dates from between 300 and 900 CE, when it was the most powerful city in what is now the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
Unlike Chitzén Itá and Uxmal (both of which are in a flat area), Palenque sits beautifully against the backdrop of jungle-clad mountains. If you climb some of the ruins you can see the area from above. Palenque is also by far the busiest Mayan site we visit. Even early in the morning, many tourists are walking about. Unfortunately that makes Palenque quite touristy, but nevertheless a visit to Palenque is well worth it.
When we have seen everything, we drive back to the modern village of Palenque, nine kilometers from the Mayan city. Today’s Palenque not a notable village. The rest of the day we have time to relax.
It’s again (or still) cloudy when we leave Palenque the next day. The road soon winds up into the mountains. It’s much greener here in Chiapas than in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula, with views of dense forests and lots of banana and palm trees along the way. On the way we meet groups of children or young women who, when you drive up, pull a rope up the road to make you stop. They try to sell you bananas, mangoes or oranges. If you drive at a walking pace and they realize that you don’t intend to buy anything, they lower the rope again. This is a poor area and families try to earn some extra money.
The small villages we pass through look shabby. This is where the indigenous people of Chiapas, the Tzotzils and Tzeltals, descendants of the ancient Mayans, live. They are treated as second-class citizens. Here and there you will see a sign indicating that this is Zapatista area. In the 1990s, the Zapatistas revolted against Mexico’s central government, which did nothing for the local population. Understandable when you see how poor people are here.
Along the way we pass two waterfalls. Mizol-Há is a narrow, high waterfall, which you get to by paying a few old men with a rope over the road ‘for the use of the road’. Agua Azul is very touristy, lots of coaches and stalls with tourist stuff there. The road winds further along densely vegetated mountains. Along the way many children (with or without their mother) who hold their merchandise in the air when you drive by.
Just when you start to get tired of all the bends, you arrive in Ocosingo. Not a noteworthy town, but at the same time characteristic of a rural town in this part of the country. On the central square (old) men with cowboy hats and (old) women in colorful traditional clothing sit on benches under the trees. It’s a welcome stop for us. It’s another two hours to San Cristobal de las Casas, so two more hours of winding mountain roads.
San Cristobal de las Casas
We arrive at our hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas around 5 p.m.. It’s a long traveling day. But at least the sun is shining. San Cristobal is located between the mountains at about 2,500 meters altitude, and the temperature is a lot lower than we past days. The nights in particular get very cold. San Cristobal was founded in 1528 by the Spaniards and has always been the center of this region. As a result of political and religious conflicts, large groups of ‘indigenas’ (the indigenous Tzotzils and Tzeltals) have moved to the city. You can see them all over the city, where they sell clothes, necklaces and other items, wearing traditional costumes.
San Cristobal has a compact center and there’s a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The Calle Hidalgo / 20 Noviembre is car-free and has a modern feel. In the center is of course the unavoidable square (Parque 31 de Marzo) and a few blocks away is the Mercado Municipal, the local market. A very large one and we soon get lost in the narrow streets. Everything is sold here: lots of fruit, vegetables and beans, but also chickens, fish and clothing. Many traditionally dressed people here as well.
After lunch we walk up the stairs that lead to the Cerro de San Cristobal, a hill on the outskirts of the city, from where you have a nice view. Then we have a drink in one of the cozy streets, before we go for dinner at a small eatery on a square, actually no more than a kitchen with a few tables outside. Meanwhile we see half of San Cristobal passing by. It is Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter and so Catholic Mexicans go to church every evening.
Cañon del Sumidero and Villahermosa
We leave San Cristobal de las Casas and drive over the mountains in the direction of Tuxtla Gutierrez. This is a beautiful route, albeit with a lot of turns. We only have to drive about 85 kilometers after two hours we arrive in Chiapa de Corso, our destination for today. Chiapa de Corso is a small village that does not have much to offer itself. The main attraction here is the Cañon del Sumidero. Today is Good Friday, so everbosy in Mexico has a day off, and everyone seems to have come to Chiapa de Corso today.
The quay in the village is the starting point for a two-hour boat trip on the Rio Grijalva to the Cañon del Sumidero. We buy tickets, get on the next boat and before long we sail into the gorge. Every now and then we stop to take photos of birds or a (small) crocodile. The view from the boat of the stone walls of the gorge, which rise up straight from the water, is breathtaking. At the highest point, the rocks are 800 meters high. It’s about 35 degrees and in the boat we are in the full sun, luckily there is a bit of a colling breeze. After sailing all the way back down the spectacular gorge, we spend the rest of the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel.
The next day we leave the state of Chiapas behind us and drive into Tobasco. The mountains give way to hills and later to flat land. We pass by lots of livestock and some large banana plantations. In the course of the afternoon we arrive in Villahermosa, a large city that is not really interesting. However, there is Parque La Venta, where you can see several statues that have been found in the area of La Venta, a region west of Villahermosa. The statues have bene made by the Olmec people. The Olmecs date from before the Maya and are therefore also called the ‘mother culture’. Although the statues have been removed from their original environment to be exhibited here in a city park, it’s nice to stroll through the park for an hour or so.
The next morning we get up early, because we have a long drive ahead of us. About 450 kilometers, from Villahermosa to Xpujil. It’s still dark when we leave Villahermosa. We drive east, towards the light and see the sun rise right in front of us. The road is good in this area, which makes it a nice ride. Around noon we arrive at the turnoff to Calakmul, which we initially pass because due to road construction the signs have been removed.
From the exit, a narrow road leads sixty kilometers off the main road, away from civilization. Here, deep into the jungle, sits the dilapidated Mayan city of Calakmul. There are few visitors, but the site is very worthwhile. Amidst the vegetation are large structures (somewhat unimaginatively referred to as ‘structure IX, X and XI’) around an open space referred to as ‘Grand Plaza’. We see are a number of black monkeys in a tree and a little further on is the most impressive building: the ‘Grand Piramide’.
You cannot see the top of the Grand Pyramid from the ground, because it is built slightly backwards. To see the top, you have to climb all the steps of the steep stairs at the front of the pyramid. Halfway through the climb I wonder why I’m actually doing this, but soon I get the answer: from the top of the pyramid you can see for miles over the area. Nothing but jungle to the horizon. Above the treetops you can also see the top of another Mayan ruin.
After spending the night in de nondescript town of Xpujil, and another long drive, we arrive at our last destination of this trip: Tulum. Here, the Maya built a port city on the rocks, from which they traded with peoples in other parts of Yucatán and in what is now Belize and Guatemala. The ruins of the dilapidated city are beautifully situated on top of the rocks and overlooking the azure blue Caribbean Sea. The ruins are a popular destination for bathers from Cancun, which is reflected in the crowds. It is warm, but here on the coast a cool wind is blowing.
Our last night we stay in a cabaña, almost directly by the sea and including a private terrace with hammock. Here we can relax all afternoon and tomorrow morning. And if that is not enough: a few meters away is a white beach with a clear blue sea and sunbeds under the palms. We spend a few hours here and end the day with piña coladas on the terrace of the hotel restaurant, which is located near our cabaña.
The last day of our trip we relax at the beach. Then we leave for the airport of Cancún, which is still a two hour drive. In nine and a half hours we fly back to the Netherlands. Mexico had been on my wish list for a while and the trip has lived up to my expectations in every way. We have seen impressive Mayan cities, visited nice Spanish colonial towns, had delicious (and often ridiculously cheap) meals, and relaxed in the sun near pools or under palm trees on the beach. So in short: a great trip!!