Cancun, Mexico – An assorted travel

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What – Mayan ruins, Cenote swim, Night club, jungle ATV ride,  Zip Lining(heels over head), Eco theme park.

Where – Cancun and around, Mexico

This time, it was an international trip for the long weekend. Chaitanya(Chai) – my Deloitte friend, who is on a mission to visit as many countries as possible in the lifetime, suggested Mexico during Christmas. With a valid US visa, Mexico doesn’t need any other visa to visit.  Main places of interest to us were Xcaret, an eco-theme park from my bucket list and Chichen Itza, one of the modern 7 wonders. We decided on Cancun since both of these are near to this city which sits between Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico with white sand beaches. After doing some initial research, we learned that we could cover the places of interest in 4 days and booked the flight tickets in early October. I was very particular about flying during night time with less flight time and Seattle didn’t have direct flights to Cancun. So I had to spend a bit more for my travel, which turned out to be the costliest part of the trip.  We planned the activities for the last 2 days only. I am glad we didn’t plan all 4 days, for we learned some important travel tricks this time. I had booked the stay at an hostel which turned out to be futile. Fortunately for me, my bank and cell phone carrier both had affiliations in Mexico which really helped me a lot.

Day 0 (24th Dec):
Chai flew from Minneapolis and reached Cancun in the morning. His experience and encounters with fellow tourists this day set the tone for the entire trip. We both were unaware of the bargaining that could be done before booking for the tours or stay or whatever activity. A Brazilian couple educated Chai about this. To start with, he booked the Chichen Itza tour at half the quoted price on Day 1. Chai had also visited the hostel I had booked and absolutely hated its atmosphere. So we decided not to stay there and ended up sleeping in different places on all nights. I boarded the flight from Seattle in the evening. The full moon lit the mountains which was quite a view from the flight. My co-passenger was a sweet lady from from Guatemala and I was surprised she knew about Mahabharata and Arjuna. She even spoke to me about Draupadi’s swayamvara.

Day 1 : Chichen Itza and swim in the Cenote
I reached Cancun early in the morning around 6 AM. Chai had booked a tour which would start at 8 AM and I did not have the luxury of time. Though the flight reached early by 20-30 mins, we waited for quite a long time just sitting and waiting for immigration forms which irked many. I only had a carry-on bag which sped my process and was at the counter to book a taxi in no time. The lady at the counter quoted 68$ for a 20 min ride to Plaza Caracol, Cancun. Fortunately another traveler wanted to go to Cancun(ADO bus station) too, and still not completely aware of the bargaining we would be doing in the next 3 days I made my first move in saving dollars by asking the fellow traveler to share the taxi for which she readily agreed. She was a cute girl from Italy, pursuing a PhD in San Diego. We spoke a lot during the 20 minute ride and reached ADO bus station where we both alighted. I called Chai, and coincidentally, he was right at ADO bus station waiting to pick me up. Thus I didn’t have to travel to Plaza Caracol by myself. I freshened up in the restroom at the bus station, got into comfortable clothing in the bus and was ready for the exciting tour ahead. I didn’t bring more shorts since I read the temp to be 25 C which I thought was a weather for pants. But I was completely wrong, shorts rules throughout the year in Cancun.

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The hotel zone at Cancun which falls on the narrow 20 km long strip on the sea looked posh and I was already in the happy vacation mood. I also loved being in the warm tropical weather. The tour bus picked up other tourists and by the time we left Cancun to head west to Yucatan state it was around 8:45 AM. The tour guide was quite cheerful and kept talking about Mexico and Mayan culture. He joked that the first person to fall asleep would be thrown for human sacrifice. Having slept for hardly 2 hours the entire night, I tried my best to stay awake. An Argentinean guy sat next to me for part of the trip. We reached a market and lunch place where we got an opportunity to see various Mayan artifacts and stones. I was particularly interested in Obsidian, called as fake gold by the guide. It would shine golden when poured water and kept at an angle in the sunlight. We roamed the place and had an ok buffet with the Argentinean couple. The guide had given some tips to recognize a Mayan – short and narrow eyes(since they came from Asia). Given the short height, the urinals for men were quite high in the restrooms than the ones I had used elsewhere which amused me. We got into the bus and reached Chichen Itza, which was the first wonder of the world I would be visiting.

The first thing which falls to the eye is the huge grayish pyramid in the center of the ruins which is known as Temple of Kukulcan. It stands 98 feet tall and has 365 steps on each side which are closed for climbing. There are various stats and theories about each structure on the pyramid. Most interesting being the serpent formation from the shadow of the edge of pyramids during the equinoxes. We were assigned an old English guide and he outright ruined the experience. He hardly did justice to the magnanimity and wonder of the Mayan’s knowledge. He just showed some pics, carvings and always spoke about how Mayan’s partied(yes he pronounced party) in the structures around. But it’s worth reading or watching documentaries on Mayans online, I still do sometimes. Other attractions included a ball court, where a Mayan sport was played and leader of the losing team would be sacrificed. We walked around the various other complexes and came to the other side of the pyramid where the restoration wasn’t complete yet. I appreciated this view a lot since it looked sort of untouched and authentic. Anyways, I will move on to the next part of the trip leaving you to explore by yourself more details about the place and Mayans.

After a brief stop at the church at Valladolid, we went to a cenote called Suytun. Cenote is a sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. While some are covered partially, others are covered completely or not at all. The one which we went to was covered completely except for a hole in the middle. All around we could see crazy limestone formations. The swim at Crater lake had given me enough confidence to venture in unknown waters and I got into the water excited. I swam across the cenote and wherever I could enjoying the amazing environment.

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This was one of the best experiences of the trip. I highly recommend anyone visiting Yucatan peninsula to experience this. After an awesome ending for the tour, we went back to Cancun and stayed at Hostel Kabeh for the night. We traveled around in the local buses which were convenient enough. Each ride cost 11 pesos. Since Chai is vegeterian and I part-vegeterian, we didn’t experiment much with the food.

Wait, did I mention that Cancun is very famous for night life? We went to a night club called Coco Bongo, whose punch-line is “Puts Vegas night life to shame”.  We just paid the cover charge without drinks and entered a not so quite huge room with people, lights, decorations, music, etc. People were dressed for hotness and were giving off dance vibes. The atmosphere was so energizing and electrifying that I wasn’t bored even for a single minute though we were there for hours without a girl as a partner. It wasn’t just a dance club, but there were performances – acrobats, music and the environment was concert-like. The display played on two screens, one semi transparent and a solid screen in the back. The coordination of colorful displays, lighting, music, confetti, steam, etc was super awesome. Although I am not a night life person or a frequent party goer, I feel that this was the best club I have ever been to and I would let the readers decide for themselves should they ever visit this amazing place. We finally called it a dayand went back to hostel to get some sleep.

Day 2 : Jungle Zip-line, ATV riding and zip-line cenote
We hadn’t planned anything for the day and after brainstorming some activities, we went to Plaza Caracol to find some activity tours. We were able to negotiate a good deal for zip-line and ATV and settled for that. In the free time before the tour pick up, we roamed the white sand beach around the hotel Riu. We were picked up around noon and it was a 70 minute ride to the jungle. Co-incidentally, there was another Amazon Seattle employee in the tour and an Estonian couple whom we hanged out with. First activity was ATV ride.

Being very familiar with the ATV from the experience at Oregon dunes,  I was confident about the ride but little did I know that I would equally enjoy the ride. Chai was my pillion and we rode on a broad uneven mud roads initially. I tried to drive as crazy as possible – splashing into the muddy water, speeding irregularly, etc. Then we went off the main road and into a narrow path. It was here where I had the maximum fun riding. Sometimes trees stem would make the path so narrow that we were literally inches away from hitting them. The road was uneven to increase the adventure. We were supposed to follow the guide in front hence we were in single file. I sometimes slowed down deliberately to increase the distance from the bike ahead and then sped up to have more fun negotiating curves in the narrow path. Chai just wondered how I was pulling it off – handling the bike without colliding into the trees. We then reached the main road again. I saw the Estonian guy speeding in a snaky way which would give a drift effect. I tried to emulate it and it was fun feeling the drift in rear tires. I realized that I love ATV very much – not that I love other sports less but ATV is continuous action packed and fun. Mud water kept splashing onto us and by the time we ended the 45 minute ride we were quite dirty.

The next activity was a series of obstacle course from a tree to tree at above 25 feet from the ground and zipline.  Some were on narrow wooden planks and quite exciting. Zipline through the jungle amidst the trees was fun too. We were given a hard glove to hold the metal rope for braking during the end of each traverse.  The best one was when they made us zip-line heels over head.

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It was quite an experience. There were 12 traverses in total. The next activity for the day was zip-lining into a cenote. This cenote was completely uncovered and looked more like a lake. There was a metal rope tied from one to end other where we could hold the triangle slide down with the help of gravity and then jump into cenote. I attempted the somersault while jumping but wasn’t successful. I fell on my back, hurt most of the times. There were other parallel ropes (one over the other) tied where we could walk from one end to other. While walking a guide shook it deliberately and after managing to stay on the wobbly ropes for sometime I fell in the water. I also jumped from a heightened platform which was at 20-25 feet height. Though I had jumped in Crater lake from a similar height, I was still scared before the jump. All in all it was fun – an adrenaline pumping day. We went back to Cancun and managed to stay at Hotel Costa Blanca at a very good deal obviously after bargaining.

Day 3: Xcaret – An eco theme park
Adventure, actio and fun hadn’t ended yet. Xcaret was simply excellent and spectacular. I could go on with numerous adjectives, you will know why. I hadn’t booked the transportation for Xcaret thinking that the tour buses would reach the park late. Ultimately we couldn’t manage to take ADO buses and ended up taking a taxi to the park. We reached around 9 AM and I was eagerly waiting to check this off my bucket list. By the way, Xcaret is a nature based theme park with plethora of water activities and attractions. The main attraction being the artificial river which goes through amazing formations, caves, Mayan village, mangrove trees, etc where people can swim with a life vest. Its also a aquarium and zoo with number of sea animals and wildlife. Well, there was also a two hour cultural show in the end. Maybe I should just start explaining what we did.

I had booked Xcaret plus tickets which included lockers, buffet and snorkel gear. We went to the lockers first, deposited our stuff there and started with the first activity for the day – swim in the river. We were given fins and life vest which would help us in a 45 min swim though the river. We entered the caves and got into the cold water to start the swim. This part of the river went through some amazing concrete, rock formations, caves (fully covered and partially covered).

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It was quite tiring to just do the front stroke, so I resorted to various other ways to swim. The easiest being laying flat on back and pedaling like on a cycle. The river passed through various sections of the park and some of the stretches were quite exciting. We reached the end of the section and took off our vest and fins to explore the beach side section of the park. We first went to the hammocks area and then to Dolphins section. Most of the special activities like swimming with Dolphins/sharks, etc were paid and had absurd rates so we just stuck to the free activities. We went to snorkeling which had a section of sea water with various fishes. This section was connected to main sea but we were supposed to stay in the limits to be safe. This was the first time I snorkeled and it took some time to get comfortable with the gear. Often times water went into my mask or from the other end of the tube for which I had to come out of water to fix. Gradually I got a hold of it and viewed some colorful fishes under water. There were two specific ridges where some of the most colorful fishes were swimming and it was quite an experience swimming between the ridges behind the fishes.

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I wonder how awesome Scuba diving would be. After we were content enjoying the swim with fishes we went to have lunch. On the way we saw sharks, huge and mini turtles, stingrays and various other sea animals. Macaw birds, Iguanas and flamingos were the most common. The lunch was an international buffet with ginormous spread and I had delicious sea food, jelly, etc.

Then we went to the raft section. A raft seating 20 took us on the river in between the high banks. The ride was peaceful and over a clear water with occasional water sprinkled over us.. Next we went to witness Papantla flying men show. It was quite a simple and creative technique where 5 people would go to the top of a wooden tower with ropes tied on their waist and swing down as the rope unwound them on rotations. I also liked this show where 4 of them took a section of rotating X and managed to stay on it.

We went to the river to swim again but took a different route this time and this section of the river was one of the best experiences in the trip. It passed through high banks, Mayan Village, almost pitch dark caves, under a huge colorful dome, mangrove forest, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed swimming this stretch. Though most of the stuff were man made and artificial, the experience was real. After enjoying a windy section near the hammocks, we went to the inland beach. There was parallel ropes here too and this time and I made others fall by shaking the rope. The beach was not wavy and provided a pool like feel with tubes. It started raining and we then went to the birds and butterfly section. The birds section was a treat to the eye with various birds nestled in an area with artificial waterfalls and walkway along the rim of a huge well like formation. We went back to lockers, took our cameras and then came back to this area to take some pics.

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It was around 6 PM and the cultural show would start at 6:30 PM. I had gotten familiar with the torturous paths in park and dashed to the theater to get the best seats. On the way, people were dressed in Mayan traditional outfit and decorated the walk to the theater. The theater itself was huge. Everyone were given small candles. When we lit them and the lights were turned off, the theater looked stunning with numerous tiny fires on everyone’s hand. The show started soon and it described Mayans, the Spanish invasion and Mexican present culture. The Mayan sports which included ball game played only by hips and the fire hockey were interesting to watch. Occasionally, the theater was filled with light and the energy was amazing. It was a beautiful and colorful show indeed. The show ended with Macaw birds circling the theater and I wondered how did they train them to do so. It was an xpectacular and xcellent experience at Xcaret. Might be one of the best places to get introduced to various activities and experience different things all in a day. I would recommend this too for anyone visiting Cancun. We took the taxi back to Cancun and stayed at hostel Mayapan for the night.

Day 4 – Tulum and beach
I had begun learning Spanish using the duolingo app quite a while ago but was never regular. This trip taught me few new words and it was nice learning a little more of a new language. For the last day, we had booked a tour to Tulum online and it was an okay-ish tour. It included 3 hours of round trip travel and around 2 hours of visit to Mayan Ruins along the beach.  Fortunately the guide was good this time and enlightened us with few things. In comparison to the Vijayangara ruins at Hampi, this looked quite small, and I didn’t enjoy that much. However, I was very interested to know stuff about Mayans. We went back to Cancun and as we hadn’t really enjoyed the swim at the beach, we decided to play there for some time. It had been a couple of years since I had been to a beach, so I guess I felt the water too salty. I enjoyed getting hit by waves and  floating in the Caribbean waters.  A thought comes to my mind, ” I love water as much as the fire, I love mountains as much as the beaches, I love wind as much as the tranquility. I just enjoy being in the nature’s purest form”.

On the return journey, my layover was at Pheonix airport. I had only one hour to catch the next flight and I was called into security room for extra computer verification. To make the matters worse, the line for security check was very long. I would simply not make it to the flight without skipping it. I jumped the line requesting fellow passengers. One guy was quite helpful in letting me jump the lines. After the security check, I literally dashed to the gate with belt and other stuff in my hand. I made it to the flight just in time. I was glad to be back home in peaceful Seattle by late night.

It was an action filled, adventurous, historic and entertaining trip. I thank Chai and my new made friends for a great experience and as always, I look forward for my next trip.

Tips: 

  • If you are in a liberty of not planning everything before hand, try to bargain for the tours and activities with the agents. Online prices are ridiculous.
  • Try hostels if you are traveling in budget. Visit them before booking or make sure to read reviews before hand.
  • Contact your bank for affiliations and withdraw money from the affiliation to reduce transaction fees. I got pretty good exchange rate.

Nikhil Navali

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