Last year, I blogged during a couple of my trips. It was a lot of fun sharing my thoughts as I moved through Vietnam and Europe. It was also exhausting – the photo editing, the writing, the iffy wifi. It made for a lot of late nights, and I’ve come to realize that while live blogging makes for better posts, being totally in the moment makes for better vacations.
Last weekend, I returned from short week on the Yucatan Peninsula with my sister, Mia, and her boyfriend, Mike.
The trip started in Mexico City. We had an overnight flight and a seven-hour layover at Latin America’s largest hub. After finding a hotel for Mia and Mike to catch a few hours of sleep, at 7am I found myself with over three hours to explore the city. I had no plans and no clue where I was going.
Thanks to the helpful folks in a Facebook travel group, I did learn that Uber was a great way to get around the city. So I set off.
The first place I went was the Vivero Coyoacan. The park looked huge on Google Maps, and was near the Frida Kahlo Museum, so it was as good as anywhere to visit.
It ended up being one of the most beautiful parks I’d ever seen. Tall trees, well manicured paths – it really felt like an enchanted forest.
Almost everyone in Vivero Coyoacan was running or stretching, preparing to run. They were also well-dressed for the weather in cool, mountainous Mexico City. Most wore long sleeves.
A mural not far from the park.
The Frida Kahlo Museum. It was too early to go inside.
I walked south to a beautiful garden – Jardin Centenario – which sits before a huge church – Parroquia San Juan Bautista.
The top of the church.
So on my next Uber ride, I wanted to see the center of Mexico City, the Plaza de La Constitucion, about 25 minutes to my north. But I entered it wrong on Uber and went 20 minutes southward. On the way there I spilled some coffee on driver Jose’s seat and left him a sorry note and $10. I didn’t want to tell him. Call it noble cowardice.
I don’t know much about Mexico City, but I know that the further you get from the city center – anywhere – the more dangerous things can get. I got a lot more looks from strangers down there, and it didn’t seem like there was much to see, so I hopped back in a cab to the actual Plaza de La Constitucion.
When I got to the plaza, it was off limits – under construction. That didn’t stop it from being the most policed place I’d ever been. This included cops at seemingly every nearby storefront, many in riot gear. Apparently there is such a heavy police presence to deter would-be political dissidents from taking over the square.
Got my selfie in before heading to the hotel and then the airport. It took me twenty frantic minutes to find wifi to request Uber, and we cut it closer than we’d like – but we easily made our flight to Merida.
This is the neighborhood in Merida where we stayed, on Sunday night.
It’s a beautiful city, and considered one of the safest in all of Mexico. You can walk around at any hour of the night with no problem.
Mike and Mia wait to cross the street.
Hotel Merida, downtown.
On Monday we took it easy walking through town and relaxing at our apartment. Here are Mia and Mike in the pool.
On Tuesday, we headed almost an hour north to the beach town of Progreso. It’s also the main port of the Yucatan state.
Progreso was a lot more touristy than I imagined, complete with people trying to sell you all sorts of things. I used the time to stay on top of my Book Club Madu reading.
Back in Merida.
Sunset from the back yard.
On Wednesday, we decided to tour a few of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. Cenotes are large sinkholes with water at the bottom, and there are 3,000 in the region – 70% of the world’s total. Cenote water is clear, as it is rain water filtered by the ground. Divers have found extensive cave systems in some areas, usually closer to the Carribean coast. As the Yucatan has almost no rivers and very few, very marshy lakes, these have long been an important potable water source.
Unfortunately, I only had my Go Pro during the cenotes trip, which is a far cry from having my own camera.
To get to the three cenotes we visited (I still don’t know their names) you had to take a horse. One hundred years ago, horses pulled sisal (agave) leaves on these very tracks. However, back then these tracks lead through vast sisal plantations, not dense foliage. In the early 1900s, nylon and other materials replaced sisal as the most efficient way to make ropes, twines, and certain textiles. The industry collapsed.
Not gonna lie, it got rough. Me and Mike are afraid of the bugs.
The first two cenotes were a lot of fun, but too dark and closed in to show in photos. The third was big, wide, and deep – 120 feet of water. The back of this humongous cave is a whole lot further than it appears here, cut off by the sloping ceiling.
Mia and Mike rest in the shallow part.
Visitors to the Yucatan are almost obligated to see at least one Mayan ruin, and we’d do so on Wednesday. While people rave about Chichen Itza and Uxmal, we decided to visit Mayapan.
I heard about this ruin, and many of the Mayan villages I visited, from a wonderful book called Yucatan’s Magic – Merida Side Trips: Treasures of Mayab. The authors encourage travelers to jump off the beaten path, my favorite thing to do.
Mayapan is not the most impressive ruin on the peninsula, but you are likely to have it almost all to yourself. It also has the distinction of being the last big Mayan Capital in the region, reigning from the mid 1200s, following the fall of Chichen Itza, until around 1460. It’s Pre-Columbian collapse is still not entirely understood.
To visit to Mayapan without a car, you must go to the small Mayan town of Telchaquillo. The vast majority of its 1400 residents speak one of Mexico’s 63 Mayan languages still spoken today. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish as well. Mayan stone carvings from nearby ruins are used to decorate this church.
A home in Telchaquillo, on the way to Mayapan.
The half hour walk, mainly in the sun, to the Mayapan ruin was brutal. I haven’t figured out the science yet, but the sun in the Yucatan is hotter than anywhere I’ve ever been. It just is.
At least half the walk was on a highway. Keep in mind it was nearly 100 degrees – as it was most days. I was drenched in sweat.
But having these ruins to ourselves made it all worth it.
Between 12,000 and 17,000 people once lived in Mayapan, which had an area of four square miles. The more important citizens lived closer to the city center, where we were.
I made my way up the stairs of the Castle of Kukulcan, the main pyramid.
All the way up.
What a view.
The round structure was the observatory.
So we headed back to Telchaquillo, looking at houses on the way.
Interestingly, there are very few beds in these villages. Everyone sleeps in a hammock.
Mia and Mike wait for the van to take us home. There is an impressive network of small, privately owned vans that transport people around the peninsula. It’s never hard to get back to Merida.
We got a lot of stares in tiny Telchaquillo, including from these children.
The young girl in the middle is wearing traditional clothing.
Back to Merida.
On Thursday, we switched apartments. Here’s the sunset from the roof of our second place.
The Cathedral in Merida. Some of its ornamentation is part of a light show that the city projects onto this large building.
By week’s end, Mia and Mike were exhausted and wanted to relax on our last full day, Friday. I decided that I would head out to several towns that I read about in the book. I ultimately wanted to visit Mani, a small Mayan town that has been continuously inhabited for the past 4,000 years.
My first stop was Tecoh, whose Catholic church was built atop the remains of a Mayan ruin.
And in front of that 17th century church, you can play basketball. Yucatan towns must lead the world in basketball courts per capita as I saw dozens over my three days criss-crossing them. Even the smallest villages had at least one, which sometimes doubled as soccer fields. I rarely saw people playing soccer and never saw anyone playing basketball.
This huge obstacle course for children would be used as part of a carnival and fair to begin later in the day.
After roaming Tecoh for over an hour, I waited an hour in the shade to catch a bus back to nearby Telchaquillo, where I took this photo. This man was on the bus with me, but I don’t recall if the tire was.
This time I ventured into Telchaquillo’s main cenote.
I found kids using it as a community pool! Admission is around 27 cents.
So I waited almost an hour, again, this time in Telchaquillo, for a bus to the legendary Mani. As I waited, a resident of Telchaquillo explained to me how beautiful of a city it was.
The thirty-five minute drive took almost an hour and a half due to all the stops the bus made. By the time I got there, it was 6pm, and the driver told me the last bus was at 7pm. It would actually come early, at 6:45 – which I luckily anticipated.
Not only did I have limited time in Mani, but its downtown was surprisingly touristy. There was a reason it was not highlighted in the off-the-beaten-path book.
The Church and Convent of San Miguel in Mani.
Many women in these Mayan towns wore traditional outfits.
The sixty mile drive from Mani to Merida would take an hour and fifteen minutes by car. But the bus I was on stopped in what had to be at least ten villages on its way back. It took three full hours to get to Merida at almost 10pm.
Some passengers traveled with cargo beneath our bus.
Grateful to be on my way back home, I enjoyed the sunset and some music.
Some places you visit and feel no need to go back, but I will definitely return to the Yucatan – maybe even next year. There’s just so much to see and do, and we only scratched the surface.