Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 8 Weeks
From Cuba we flew to Mexico.
Mexico - well I'd live there. I loved it. My favourite country. We travelled by bus from the east coast through jungles, mountains and along the south coast all the way to Mexico City. Colourful, wonderful, beautiful - a total adventure! We fell in love with it all. But what made Mexico (besides the extraordinarily delicious food)...the people!
The thing that surprised me most about Mexico was how safe I felt. There were times I felt the need to be vigilant - at bus stations, for example, however, in the local towns and cities I never questioned my safety at all. Families, groups of friends and kiddies frequented the streets at all hours of the day and night, mostly celebrating and partying! I wondered what on earth there was to be celebrating so much of; Saints birthdays apparently. Every day is someone's birthday and it seemed like the festivities never ended. In Mexico you always get a mix of people of all ages doing their own thing, so you never feel out of place. You lose yourself in the fun, love and laughter of some of the happiest and kindest people in the world.
Now, we never ventured North of Mexico City so I can't comment on those regions. Always research ahead of travel and check Foreign Travel Advice.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
Only 2 hours away from Cancun by bus, is the lovely little town of Tulum – famous for its ancient Mayan ruins and long sandy beaches.
Town is a little distance from the beach itself – approximately 10 minutes by taxi or collectivo or 20 minutes by bicycle. Aside from the nice bars, restaurants, arts and crafts shops which give Tulum its buzz, there is plenty to do outside of town. Super efficient and cheap collectivos arrive on the main road every few minutes, making Tulum an ideal base for exploring this gorgeous coastline of Mexico.
Places to Stay
There are plenty of accommodation options in town. You probably won’t get stuck if you just turn up.
We stayed at Mama’s Home. The hostel was clean and had a fun vibe. The people running it at the time were super friendly and provided us with great local information and rented out snorkel gear.
Things to See and Do
Ruins and Beaches
The Tulum ruins are OK. I thought that you could access the beach which sits in front of the ruins without having to pay the entrance fee – not so. Also, the tide was in so we couldn’t access the beach area at all, which was a shame. However, there are many beaches that stretch across Tulum, covering 10km, more or less. These are really nice and there are bars scattered along the way.
The Tulum ruins were very busy with tourists so if you want to avoid crowds I recommend the Coba ruins (below) instead.
For a really nice beach experience though, head to Akumal where you can swim with GIANT sea turtles just metres from the shore and visit the local Cenotes!
Akumal is a hidden gem and a real highlight of our trip.
The beach of Akumal was a public beach when we travelled so we could go out and snorkel independently. If the beach is still public there is no need for to go with a guide.
Swimming with turtles has always been a dream. On our second morning when the skies were a little clearer following the rain, we hailed a collectivo in town and paid 30 pesos for the ride to Akumal. The journey was about 30 minutes long and we arrived at about 8.00 am.
We were in the water for no longer than a few minutes before we reached these amazing creatures. As soon as my feet couldn’t touch the ground and my face went under – there they were – 2 beautiful enormous turtles. I swam about 1 metre above one and guessed it was the same size as me. Snorkelling out a little further you can see all sorts of tropical fish and rays in and amongst the reef. This tiny little beach of Akumal is paradise and well worth a visit.
The turtles nest in the Akumal area for several months of the year (May to November), and there are many programmes in place to ensure a safe nesting time for them. Both species of sea turtle that nest in Akumal (green turtle and the loggerhead turtle) are endangered, so these programmes are vital. The seagrass near the beach is a big draw card for these gentle creatures and they seem to thrive, despite the human presence.
Never touch the turtles. Make sure you give them their space when you are near.
Help keep the beaches clean - leave no trace.
You will be able to see turtles swimming at any time of day but if you want a unique experience I would recommend going as early as possible. At 9:00 am We saw maybe 5 groups of 10 people getting ready to go in
Avoid going with one of these groups as I can't imagine it would be a pleasant experience for you or the Turtles.
Take a bus from the main bus station to the Coba ruins, set deep in the forest just over an hour north of Tulum. It’s a nice day trip and you can climb the highest ruin in the Yucatan region. The setting is beautiful.
At the time we travelled there were only 2 buses returning in the afternoon, so if you’re planning on taking a bus back don’t go before 11:00 am, otherwise you’ll be stuck out there for a whole day and you don’t need that long. I think we took an 11:00 am bus and made it back for 5:00 pm. 4 hours is more than enough time to potter about and don’t worry about the initial crowds, the site is huge so you they soon disperse.
Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Forget the dozens of restaurants that line the streets. The food served is average at best and mains cost over 100 pesos! A couple we met in Coba said their Mexican friends recommended an outdoor restaurant – El Rincon Chiapaneco – a true, authentic Mexican dining experience. The tables and chairs were all plastic fantastic, but with tacos, empanadas and enchiladas filled with hundreds of delicious fillings at 120 pesos for 2 people – who cares! I remember this meal to this day.
They don’t serve alcohol here but just try the big green drink with lime. It’s delicious!
Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar
Outside the Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar sits an old VW Beetle that’s been transformed into a sugar cane juicer.
The Mojitos here are made using sugar cane rather than granulated sugar, SO THEY’RE DELICIOUS! There’s a nice vibe in this bar – it’s relaxed, sociable, friendly and cozy. Sometimes there’s live music or a cult film night. There is also an outdoor area where a pet rooster keeps you company.
I loved this little town just east of Chichen Itza.
We weren't sure whether a visit to Chichen Itza would be worth it as we’d heard reports of it being over touristy and completely underwhelming. However, when in Yucatan I suppose it’s a must. Valladolid seemed close enough to make it to Chichen Itza early in the morning and the little town is famed for its cenotes, so we based ourselves there for 2 nights.
What a result. Valladolid was absolutely lovely, the cenote we visited was stunning and Chichen Itza was incredible!
Places to Stay
This is a beautiful hostel located inside a church courtyard – very close to town and the bus station but far enough away to give the illusion of being in a jungle lodge. The lush tropical garden is cleverly landscaped, with plenty of tables and chairs and hammock areas, making it a perfect place to kick back and chill out. Breakfast is included and is buffet style with unlimited coffee, tea and fruit. There is no regulation on noise so maybe opt for an upstairs room or take ear plugs.
Things to See and Do
Ask at your accommodation for a map. There are cenotes everywhere, including one in town. Our hostess said that her favourite one, San Lorenzo (as it was less touristy) was 4 km south of town. It’s absolutely beautiful. We spent a few hours down there swimming around. The tree roots from above stretch all the way down, disappearing into the water, so you’re swimming in and among them. Stunning!
We went with the mindset of getting it out of the way. Sure it’s a wonder of the world but coach loads of tourists arriving every 5 minutes wasn't an appealing prospect. I have to say, I was well impressed with Chichen Itza.
We took the 8.30 am bus from Valladolid and arrived at 9.30 am. As we walked in through the gates I saw it; this huge pyramid structure in the middle of a big green field. “Is that it?” I asked Seamus. “I think so” he replied, looking at the map. I asked because there was hardly anyone around. We took the opportunity of taking pictures and walked right up to the magnificent structure which was only roped off from about a metre away. Chichen Itza is more than just a pyramid as well, it’s an entire city of ruins. We spent the whole day wandering around and really enjoyed it!
Tip: Near the staircase of Chichen Itza clap your hands and hear the echo (similar to the sound of a bird) vibrate and come back to you.
If you’re getting a guide, explore by yourself first. Most groups with guides stuck to the path about 50 metres away from the structure itself. There’s nothing like getting up close and personal, especially with so few people around. We travelled here late November – low season, which may explain why it was so quiet at the beginning of the day. However, I’d still advise people to arrive early, as by 11.00 am all the tour buses from Cancun arrive.
Another ruin to visit in the area but we didn’t have time. I would have liked to have stayed in Valladolid a little longer. The town had a great vibe and the people were happy and relaxed. They also had an impressive Piñata shop!
Deep in the jungle, in the far east of the Chiapas region lies Palenque, an area which is home to some of the most impressive ancient Mayan ruins in the whole of the Chiapas and Yucatan states. (It is also the famous filming location of Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Hundreds of Mayan ruins are spread out over 15 sq km of dense jungle. On site you are able to climb on all of the ruins and explore the main palace grounds. It’s impressive.
Places to Stay
Collectivos can drive you from the bus station in town to the jungle where the ruins are located. It takes about 15 minutes so no matter where you stay, you will not be far from the attraction.
You can stay in town or in any of the hotels or cabins on the road down to the ruins (there are many). We followed the guide books recommendation of staying at El Panchan, which turned out to be a throwback to Blair Witch.
Although sleeping there was pretty grim, for a couple of days it was actually OK. The pizza which the restaurant served up (which was awesome) and the company more than made up for it (we met some great travellers). It was an adventure and I'm glad we stayed in the jungle rather than in town. Click here to read more about our Palenque adventure.
Things to See and Do
Palenque Ruins and the Waterfalls – Misol-Ha and Agua Azul
As much as I wanted to visit these sites independently, it worked out cheaper and better to see them as part of a tour. Going it alone was too much hassle and the waterfalls are about 2 hours drive away from Palenque. Public transport to and from the waterfalls is not guaranteed.
We were dropped off at the ruins early in the morning, and had 4 hours to walk around. We then went to Misol-Ha Waterfall. This is an amazing waterfall, and even if the water is thundering down you can still go for a swim close to it, as there are ropes stretching out across for you to hold onto.
Swimming here was an experience I will never forget.
Agua Azul was our last stop. Dozens of waterfalls cascading and you can go for a swim but it’s quite built up around the edge with restaurants and shops and people selling things. The water can be quite polluted in places as well.
Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Set deep in the Lacondon jungle and accessible only by boat via the Usumacinta River that runs between Guatemala and Mexico, these ruins were not your average Chichen Itza/Palenque ruins.
Most of the ruins were left in their original state, untouched and still crumbling and there were very few tourists. Howler and spider monkeys swung through the trees and the caves were filled with huge spiders and bats. This was a real Indiana Jones experience!
Also included in this tour is the option of staying in the jungle for a few days, for hiking and trekking. This option can also include an onward journey to San Cristobal. Make enquiries at one of the many tour agencies in Palenque.
San Cristobal de Las Casas
Beautiful colourful colonial buildings, coffee shops, bakeries and wine bars serving hot mulled wine, all tucked away between lush mountain landscape and countryside. Heaven!
San Cristobal gets cold! When we arrived in December the temperature was below 10 degrees. We immediately had to buy winter clothes from local village folk selling them on the streets.
Places to Stay
We stayed at a friend of a friends hotel – Hotel Posada Las Casas and it was really lovely, bright, comfortable and cosy – a real home away from home. The bed was huge and comfortable, there was cable TV and a lovely hot shower/en suite bathroom. The internet connection was also brilliant!
I know a few people who found good accommodation through Air BnB as well – worth checking out!
Things to See and Do
San Cristobal itself is quite small but you could easily spend a week or more here. Some travellers we met had chosen San Cristobal as a base for studying Spanish for a month. The landscape is incredible and there are plenty of markets, coffee shops, bars and restaurants to explore.
This region of Mexico celebrates festivals like no other. If you arrive during festival time be prepared for fireworks, parades, music and dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Canon Del Sumidero
The Canon del Sumidero is a narrow 1000m deep canyon surrounded by a national park located north of the city of Chiapa de Corzo in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Sailing through it is like venturing through the movie set of Lord of the Rings.
It’s stunning but because it borders with a city, unfortunately there’s a lot of waste that flows into the river. However, money made from the boat trips goes towards daily clean up operations. You’ll see plenty of boats out and about clearing any waste away. I didn’t see any pollution myself but was glad that money from my tour went back into supporting the environment.
The canyon is home to crocodiles, vultures and hundreds of other bird species. The boat ride lasted approximately 2 hours and took us all the way through the giant rock formation and back again.
Zicanatan and San Juan Chamula
Zicanatan and San Juan Chamula are very famous Tzotzil indigenous villages located just 30 minutes outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas. Visitors flock here to witness the religious traditions that are unique to this community.
The local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Mayan customs, Spanish Catholic traditions mixed with other religious rituals, making for a once-in-a-lifetime insight into one of the most intriguing religious customs you are likely to experience.
Read more about my surreal experience of these indigenous villages here – San Juan Chamula – Voodoo Catholicism and a Chicken Sacrifice.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
There are many bakeries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants in San Cristobal de las Casas but these were my favourites:
La Vina de Bacco
Possibly my favourite bar in the world – I exaggerate not…In fact, when I met other travellers and Mexicans after I had visited San Cristobal all of them asked me if I’d been to this bar. There is an extensive wine list and beer and other alcoholic beverages available for those who don’t want wine – but the emphasis is on wine! Red wine, white wine, mulled wine, sparkling wine, dessert wine and with each glass of wine you receive free tapas!
Comida Thai - Real de Guadalupe # 84 Centro
The lady who runs this tiny little eatery is from Thailand. Her food is delicious, completely authentic and will, without doubt warm you up!
You cannot visit San Cristobal without sampling the local brew, Pox (pronounced posh), which is used for religious ceremonial purposes. It literally translates as medicine and tastes a little like Schnapps. It’s so delicious. It comes in many different flavours – my favourite was the plum and hibiscus (Jamaica Flower). In the Posheria you can sample lots of different flavours and each shot (which you sip) is accompanied with some chocolate and slices of orange.
Oaxaca City is a place you need to explore at all hours of the day – from early morning when people are making their way to work, to the lunch time rush hour and evening. Leave no corner unturned in this cultural, culinary mecca of Mexico. I have no particular recommendations as such – Oaxaca is a place in which you can easily discover your own highlights and experience your own adventure.
Places to Stay
One of my favourite hostels. The private room was really comfortable and bright, the garden area sweet and the breakfast different every day. It was simple but lovely. The staff were kind and friendly and the whole hostel had a really positive vibe.
Things to See and Do
Zocalo and the Mercado de 20 Noviembre
What an experience. This square and market is where to experience true Oaxaca culture. Check out my blog ‘The Crazy of Oaxaca City‘.
The tree of Santa Maria del Tule (Arbol del Tule)
Claimed to be one of the largest trees in the world – Arbol del Tule has the stoutest trunk of any tree and in 2001 it was placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. We hired some bikes from the hostel and rode for approximately 1 hour to the town of Santa Maria del Tule to see this great tree.
If you come out of Oaxaca City take the Ferrocarril road to Tule along the old disused rail track. It's just one straight path, making this a very easy trip! Take your time in this little town, and see if you can spot the lion hidden in the tree!
I wanted to avoid staying in Puerto Escondido because of the reputation it had as a party town, but I really wanted to visit Laguna Manialtepec (the lake of lizards) about 18km west. This lagoon is famous for its night-time phosphorescent waters created by plankton.
I eventually found an amazing hostel/hotel with a pool, situated across from a beautiful beach that had some of the best seafood restaurants. I totally rate Puerto Escondido and would go back!
Places to Stay
This is the place that made me think - 'I could live here!' The Swiss owned hotelito (little hotel) on Zicatela beach was more like a swanky B&B. It was close enough to the beach but far enough away not to hear any noise in the evening. It really was like a little Oasis of calm. I didn’t know Zicatela was a party beach until I left and someone told me. It may turn into a party beach at night time but during the day the beach has more of a family vibe. The hotel has a gorgeous little pool, the rooms have huge double beds and the showers are hot! There’s a fridge full of beer and an honesty tab, a communal kitchen and wifi. Excellent!
Hostess, Manuela is fantastic. She arranged the tour for us to Laguna Manialtepec and gave us some excellent suggestions for places to eat nearby.
Laguna Manialtepec (the lake of lizards), famous for its night-time phosphorescent waters was a great excursion. Swimming in the lake felt amazing (if a bit weird)! My skin and the water glowed as I moved. It was like floating in a hot bath tub, and lying back and looking up at the stars and fireflies whizzing past was just out-of-this-world beautiful. The tour included a boat tour of the lagoon before dawn.
Try to avoid Laguna Manialtepec during full moon – your chances of seeing phosphorescence is dramatically reduced. There’s not really a special time of year to see this happen – it’s year round, as long as the moon is not full.
Around December time the turtles nest in nearby Mazunte. Keep your ears close to the ground. Usually hostel owners are in touch with local fishermen who will let people know when this is happening. It’s one of the largest turtle nesting areas in the world, apparently.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
We didn’t venture out too much – we preferred to hang out by the pool a lot of the time, however our hostess Manuela recommended a seafood restaurant – Los Crotos – located on the next beach along from Zicatela, where the fishermen moor their boats. What better setting to have your dinner. I had Red Snapper fried in garlic – AMAZING!