Mexico: Mayan Ruins, Mezcal, and Surfing

In this post: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido, Merida, Tulum, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen

 

After completing the 1400 mile coastal drive along America’s Highway 101, it was time for me to leave behind the familiar settings of the U.S.A and venture into the unknown lands of Latin America. My flight out of San Diego was bound for the Mexican capital, Mexico City, home to more than 20 million people, most of whom will have limited or no English so this would certainly be a challenge, but being outside of your comfort zone is what travelling is all about and I had racked up a fair few hours on Duolingo (an app for learning new languages) so was ready to get stuck in. Bienvenido a Mexico!

 

Mexico City

When i arrived in Mexico City it took a while for me to warm to the place, I arrived late at night, scrambled out of the airport, found a ride and then struggled to direct my Taxi driver towards the hostel,  but heavily assisted by Google Maps and a basic grasp of Spanish numbers, I eventually arrived at Hostel Amigos Suite, my accommodation for the next 3 nights.

After checking in at reception, I wasn’t entirely convinced by my choice of stay, my room kind of looked like a jail cell with no windows and the bar upstairs was deserted and had a leaky roof, it was rainy season in Mexico so an impressive electrical storm lit up the sky but I decided to head back to my room and call it an early night, it had been a long day of travelling and adjusting to a completely new environment might take a while,  i’ll re-evaluate this tomorrow. First thing in the morning I made my way upstairs to the bar with the leaky roof which doubled up as a restaurant and was pleasantly surprised to find a few more people there than the night before and a full Mexican buffet – Huevos Revueltos (scrambled eggs), rice and beans, baked nachos, and a nice selection of fruits, this helped to improve my mood and first impressions. At breakfast I made friends with a couple of lads from the UK, who were in Mexico on a 3 week trip starting in Mexico City and heading east to finish in Cancun, on a similar path to myself. As we got talking I managed to invite myself to join in with their plans for the day, so with my two new friends I signed up for a sight-seeing excursion of Mexico City and Teotihuacan – a set of ancient ruins just outside of town.

We set out on our tour a short while after breakfast and The Basilica Of Our Lady Guadalupe was the first stop, it’s quite an impressive building in its own right but what makes it really stand out is the fact that it’s sinking! One side of the Basilica is at least a few feet below street-level and walking around it is quite a disorienting experience, Mexico City was built on a lake so this is happening to a number of buildings around town and it really needs to be seen to be believed.

The sinking Basilica Of Our Lady Guadalupe.

Our next stop was the tour highlight, the ancient Mayan/Aztec site of Teotihuacan and en route we were fed a ton of information by our dynamic tour guide, a local Senorita from Mexico City who excelled in explaining in great detail all of the stops on our trip, but when it came to translating it into English she gave us a basic sentence or two and then sat down; note to self – I need to learn more Spanish. Teotihuacan is home to a very impressive set of ruins, epic in scale and in a very good condition considering the city was abandoned in 700AD, at it’s peak it was home to 150,000 inhabitants and to this day historians have no idea why they left, I enjoyed exploring the site imagining what it would have looked like all those years ago. Whilst we were there we scaled the Pyramid of the Sun, The Pyramid of the Moon, and walked along the Avenue of the Dead, I would later encounter many more ruins similar to Teotihuacan, but this being my first I was truly impressed with what I saw and it inspired me to learn more. On the way back into the city we stopped off at a few more locations of historical importance before making our way to the hostel.

Enjoying a cold cerveza after climbing the Temple of the Moon.

 

The Temple of the Moon and the Avenue of the Dead.
Another one of Teotihuacan’s well maintained structures – The Temple of the Sun.

The following morning I explored the Centro Historico area, where the iconic Metropolitan Cathedral is situated alongside Templo Mayor, an Aztec pyramid which was destroyed by the Spanish colonialists to make way for their own structures and incredibly the location of this pyramid was forgotten about until recently, when it was excavated only a few decades ago. If you want to explore ancient civilisations in Mexico you don’t even need to leave the city centre!

 

The Metropolitan Cathedral.

 

Templo Mayor – a Mayan Pyramid in the heart of Mexico City.

 

Later that evening I met up with Greg, a friend from back home who would be joining me for the next 2 weeks on my journey towards the east coast, his flight was severely delayed meaning his total travel time was around 48 hours, in this instance the only way to get properly acquainted with the new surroundings was to go for a beer or two, so we done exactly that and found a perfect rooftop location overlooking Templo Mayor. I could see Greg drift off a few times as I told him my stories from the previous month of travelling, but as you would expect from any good travel buddy he managed to pull through and after a few more bottles of Victoria we made our way to Barrio Roma, one of Mexico City’s trendy neighbourhoods, to sample some of the nightlife.  

We only had a few nights planned for our stay in Mexico City so we really only scratched the surface, I regret not being more organised as there is more I would have liked to have seen such as Mexican wrestling or the Frida Museum, but still, after a rocky start arriving late at night in unfamiliar surroundings I left wanting more and anyway Greg and I only had 2 weeks in Mexico so we had a lot of ground to cover. 

 

Oaxaca

We made our way south from Mexico City to Oaxaca, the capital of Oaxaca state,  a colonial city with a very unique style and plenty of character. This time I carried out a bit more research before booking a hostel and my pick “Casa Angel Youth Hostel” may have been a tad more expensive at around £6, but the rooms were much comfier and they had a nice common area on the roof, excellent staff, and a good breakfast included. 

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The colonial architecture in Oaxaca is fantastic.

 

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Celebrations on the streets of Oaxaca.

 

On our first full day we decided to book onto another sight-seeing tour. First stop was the world’s widest tree – recognised by the Guiness Book of World Records – having recently driven through the redwoods in Northern California my expectations were high, it was massive! and to be honest it looked more like 10 trees merged into one, but the guide promised us that this wasn’t the case. After that we made our way to a factory which uses traditional methods to weave rugs and various items of clothing, the detail of the stitching was very impressive and larger items can take months to complete. The dye used for the red colouring was made by crushing a small insect found on the cactus in a pestle and mortar. Then onto a Mezcal distillery where we would learn how they make the spirit which is very similar to Tequila – Tequila is actually a type of Mezcal. Not only did we learn how it was made but we were also given the chance to sample large quantities of it, we were promised 25 shots of different varieties and although the shots were small that was a lot of alcohol to take in before lunch and a number of people in our group had enjoyed it so much they decided to down a couple of extra bottles, these lads who were on a rugby tour from England were a bit rowdy en route to the next location. Our next stop was to a set of Mayan ruins called Mitla known for its unique and intricate mosaic patterns which adorn the walls of the site, but after all that Mezcal our group was finding it hard to concentrate on what the guide was telling us, it was however a stunning ancient site with an equally impressive Spanish church next to it, but the company who arranged the tour should have saved the Mezcal tasting for the end of the trip. Finally we made it to the main event, Hierve El Aqua, which has a cliff face made of white rock that gives the appearance of a waterfall, it was a breathtaking sight and an absolute must visit for anyone travelling to Oaxaca.

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The widest tree in the world.
The bar at the Mezcal distillery proved to be very popular with our group.
The mosaic walls at Mitla.
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Hierve El Agua – A “waterfall” made of stone.

 

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The landscape surrounding Hierve El Agua is stunning.

Back in the city we had fun exploring the streets and checking out the colonial architecture, we wandered around markets and sampled different varieties of street food and discovered that Oaxaca is one of the culinary capitals of Mexico. The main town of Oaxaca is very pleasing on the eye and there are plenty of good restaurants, cafes, and art galleries to visit. Our time here was rushed, but I would definitely come back and visit again someday.

The Spanish architecture around the streets of Oaxaca.

Puerto Escondido

Our next stop in Mexico was Puerto Escondido, a small coastal town with mile after mile of beautiful sandy beaches and perfect conditions for surfing. The bus from Oaxaca however was an absolute nightmare, I have never suffered from travel sickness before, but 7 hours of zig-zagging through the mountains will go down as one of the most uncomfortable trips of my life, that morning we had decided to skip breakfast and it was probably for the best. Anyway, we just about arrived in one piece, checked into the hostel and made our way down to the beach in time for sunset and 2-4-1 cocktails at a bar called Sativa. 

Sunset in Puerto Escondido.

 

The following day we managed to catch some surf down at Playa Carrizalillo, the waves here were small but as a beginner it was ideal for me and despite a shortage of consistent surf-able waves, the water was warm, the weather was perfect, and I was quite content sitting in the line-up waiting. The surf further up the coast in Zicatela is world-renowned and it hosts the World Surf League every year and after building up some confidence on the smaller waves we decided to check it out, this was not a great idea, some of the waves were small enough but at times we were seeing a swell of up to 4 metres or more which was definitely beyond my abilities as a surfer with a foam board, but it was still great fun watching other people brave the elements to ride the monster waves.

Playa Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido is a great spot for beginner surf.

 

Overall Puerto Escondido was a fun stop, I enjoyed the beginner surf there and the relaxed chilling-by-the-beach vibe, it’s probably not the best stop on the South Coast for beginner surfers, as the majority of waves are too big but there is plenty going on around town and lots of fun to be had a night.

 

Merida

Once we were done surfing and partying in Puerto Escondido, we took a flight north-east to the Yucatan city of Merida. Now I’m sure there’s plenty to do in Merida if you are willing to search for it, but we just didn’t see what all of the fuss was about. Apart from an impressive town square and a walk through the streets, which were similar to Oaxaca but without the finesse and friendly atmosphere, we couldn’t find a great deal to do. This can be an issue with travelling, rushing from town-to-town you quite often miss what really makes a city or even a country so unique, one thing I would say to anyone new to backpacking is that you are far better off spending more time exploring each individual place rather than just ticking places off a list and trying to do too much. I had heard good things about Merida, but as we only had 2 nights there we didn’t have time to settle and were unable to explore further than just a few blocks from the hostel.

The main square in Merida.

However, just a short drive outside of the city, we did manage to visit one of the many cenotes found in the Yucatan Peninsula, a cenote is an underground cave with often crystal clear water perfect for swimming, snorkelling, diving, or just relaxing. This particular cenote was fairly small but beautiful and the perfect way to cool down after spending a long morning walking around the humid streets of Merida.

A small cenote near Merida, a great place to escape the heat and humidity.

Tulum and Cancun

From Merida we took the 4 hour bus east towards Tulum, a nice comfortable journey this time on one of the fantastic ADO busses which drive all over Mexico, a definite upgrade from the tiny collectivo which had transported us through the mountains between Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido.

Tulum is a small town on the east coast of Mexico and home to a 13th century set of Mayan Ruins which were built right on the beach, with this spectacular backdrop it provides a beautiful contrast of colours; with the rocky greys and yellows of the ruins, you then have the white sand, turquoise sea, blue sky, and during our visit dark stormy clouds approaching from the distance. As we continued to explore the site these clouds were soon overhead and within an hour of being there the storm had set in, it was rainy season (which runs from May to mid-October) after all, so we had to make a run for nearby shelter. I enjoyed Tulum but any visit to this part of Mexico in rainy season is always likely to end this way.

The location of the ruins in Tulum couldn’t be better.

 

 

Blue skies making way for stormy grey clouds at Tulum.

 

After letting the rain settle a bit we had to make a dash for the bus, the roads and pathways were now completely flooded but it was due to leave shortly so we had no choice but to wade through all the puddles, we arrived at the station which was also flooded and hopped on our bus towards Cancun.

What is there to say about Cancun? other than it’s full of the wrong type of tourist, the whole coast line has been taken over by mega-hotels and big restaurant chains to satiate the needs of the large waves of American and European tourists who holiday there all year round. What was once a beautiful stretch of coastline where sea turtles would come to lay their eggs, has now been bulldozed over and covered in concrete to make way for 5 star accommodation. This kind of tourism brings in a lot of money, but it’s not what this country is about, it’s been designed to be a home away from home for tourists who are often not interested in immersing themselves in the incredible culture which can be found all over Mexico and it makes you embarrassed to be one of those tourists when you visit there…anyway rant over, we had a few nights left in Mexico and it was Greg’s final stop before flying back to London, so we were going to make the most of it and just embrace the chaos.

We stopped in a hostel a few miles away from the main tourist area and made friends with a few interesting characters who joined us for a night out on the strip. We made our way towards the Hotel Zone, which is also where all the clubs and bars are located and had a good night, I wouldn’t choose to go there often but with good company it’s possible to have fun anywhere and Cancun is no exception. The following morning we took a local bus to the beach to nurse our hangovers and just enjoyed the view out to sea whilst we recovered.

The beach in Cancun is lovely, even if it has been taken over by the big hotels.

Playa Del Carmen

After waving goodbye to Greg, I set off towards Playa Del Carmen for a few days of relaxation to recover from all of the nights out, sight-seeing, and constant travelling we had crammed in over the last two weeks. However this didn’t entirely work out as planned when a friend I had met in the hostel in Cancun came down to meet me for the day, what had promised to be a relaxing afternoon, soon turned into a day of knocking back beers and tequila and listening to live music – one more night won’t hurt. As the evening progressed we discovered a hidden gem of a hostel which was hosting an epic party, we instantly made more friends and had fun until the sun came up!

I decided to keep a low profile on my last two nights in Mexico (I meant it this time), relaxing on the beach, eating good food, and trying my best to keep out of trouble. Playa Del Carmen was a good place to chill, a little less in-your-face than the mega hotels and clubbing scene of Cancun and plenty of nice areas on the beach where you can find an umbrella and read a good book, the perfect way to end a hectic couple of weeks. 

Mexico, it was a pleasure.

Andrew

 

 

Up Next…

Crossing the border into Belize, narrowly avoiding Hurricane Earl, and just enjoying the laid-back Belizean life.

 

 

 

Check out my Instagram for more pictures from Mexico and other adventures.

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