This is Part 2 of my trip to the Yucatan. To read Part 1, click here.
We woke up around 7 and immediately headed into the nearby town of Piste to catch the bus to Merida. Once there, we learned that the next bus didn’t leave for another hour, so we stopped by a local cafe and got some delicious huevos rancheros for breakfast. Afterwards, we walked over to the “bus station” which was an unmarked spot on the curb- had to ask locals to find it. People were lined up and eventually the bus showed up. Our bus ride to Merida took 2 1/2 hours. I slept for most of it but was woken up by a leak in the air conditioning system that led me to getting an unexpected free shower.
Because Merida has 5 bus stations (it’s a big city), I couldn’t get directions to the hostel. Luckily, I had downloaded the Google map of Merida and was able to determine my location. The streets in Merida are very easy to navigate. It is a perfect grid. All the east-west streets (calles) are odd numbers and the north-south streets are even. The bus station was located at 73 and 70, while the hostel was located at 51 and 62- a 15 block walk which took about 30 minutes. Unlike the other places I’ve visited so far in Mexico, this city is not catered to foreign tourists although it has a number of cool spots.
After quickly checking into the hostel, we immediately started exploring the city. We started with the main square (61 and 62). We went to the Cultural Center, City Hall, the Governor of Yucatan’s mansion and the fancy house of the man named Montejo who founded Merida in 1542. We then walked over to the main market. Merida has a very lively street life and the sidewalks are crowded with people and merchants. After wandering the many sections of the market: vegetables, meats, backpacks, Jesus figurines, dirty magazines, cookware, and anything else you could possibly want to or not want to buy, we reached a row of restaurants. All the waiters were hounding us to eat at their place, but we went to the one that was the most crowded. After sitting down, a man pulling a giant cart of speakers played a drum beat on the speakers and then played a piano while singing. He kept yelling “Viva America” to the many people passing by, presumably out of shock that an American would actually be in this very local market. As we listened to the music, watched the flames cook the rotisserie pork, and ate the cheap but delicious pork sandwiches, I was in total bliss soaking up the atmosphere.
The waiter then came over to talk to us. He spoke very good English and explained that he used to live in the US for 13 years as an illegal immigrant in Denver, Colorado. To get to the US he paid someone $7,000 USD and walked across the desert. He said he really enjoyed the danger aspect of the border crossing. One day, the authorities raided the restaurant he was working at and he got deported back to Mexico. Now he lives in a nearby beach town and works 12 hour days so he can earn enough money to get back to the US. I wish him the best of luck and hopes that he makes it back to the US.
We then walked down the tree-lined Paseo Montejo about 25 blocks to the Monument of the Flag before heading back to the main square for some well deserved ice cream. Now that it was 4, the huge cathedral finally was opened after its lunch break. The altarpiece was a 50 ft tall cross with a 30 ft tall Jesus. It was probably the largest Jesus I have ever seen.
Having now seen most all of the sites of Merida, we returned to the hostel. Jacki’s fitbit said we walked 10 miles today. Both of us had sore feet and legs. When we got back to the hostel and wanted to socialize with other travelers. However, everyone was silent and looking at their phones or reading. At 7, we took the hostel’s free salsa lesson where we met some Swiss girls. We invited them to get dinner with us but they were going to make their own food. The hostel staff recommended a restaurant called Chaya Maya 2 blocks away. As we sat down, a Canadian couple suggested we order the salad and the pork, so we did and it was delicious. After dinner we ended up going back to the hostel and (finally) started talking with other travelers before crashing around 11.
We woke up around 6 and had 3 hours to hang out before heading to Uxmal. The hostel provided a free breakfast so I got a light meal but mainly just rested in my bed. While the tour was supposed to start at 9, we got picked up at 9:15 and transported to the travel company’s store where we waited for another 20 minutes before getting onto the tour bus. The tour was completely full of middle-aged and newly retired couples from Canada. They were very pleasant to be around, but it was certainly a change from the backpacking vibe.
The bus trip took about 1 hour and after paying the entrance fee, we were face to face with a pyramid taller and more impressive than Chichen Itza. While our guide appeared to be knowledgeable and tried hard, his English wasn’t so good so I didn’t learn all that much from the tour. While Uxmal was a smaller site (it had only 25,000 residents to Chichen Itza’s 50,000) the architecture was far more intricate and impressive. While Chichen Itza was a combination of Maya and Toltec, Uxmal was pure Maya. My favorite part (besides the first pyramid) was the frieze above the administrative buildings in the many courtyards. Uxmal also had a ball court and plenty of iguanas. Unlike Chichen Itza, Uxmal did not have hundreds of merchants lining the roads nor the tourist numbers to support them. It was quieter although certainly not intimate. The back pyramid was open to climbing. Jacki especially loved climbing up and getting a bird’s eye view of the entire site. It was beautiful. The landscape was rolling hills of forest not quite thick or tall enough to be considered jungle. It kind of looked like Eastern Missouri. After 3 hours of Uxmal, we got back on the bus and headed to the next set ruins, Kabah.
Kabah was much smaller than Uxmal and only had about 7,000 residents and 3 main buildings. Still, those three buildings were quite impressive. The main building in Kabah was a temple to the rain god and had 356 statues of the face of this god on the exterior walls. This building also had 2 intricate statues of a person, presumably a person or unknown god. Additionally, in front of the main temple, there were small statues stuck in the ground. After about 20 minutes of exploring the main temple, a pyramid and a courtyard, we were ready to move out.
At this point, we were all pretty tired and very hungry so the lunch was greatly appreciated. I ordered cochinita pibil (Mayan pork), which was fantastic. I really enjoyed talking to all the Canadian couples about Mexico, Canada and the US. They were curious about LA’s water crisis. Lunch ended around 4 and we got back to Merida at 5. At this point, I was very tired and took a power nap and relaxed until 7. We went back to Chaya Maya for dinner and saw the Canadian couple again. After dinner, we went to see a cultural show in one of the squares. It included Mayan dance, music, and poetry. My favorite number had the dancers balancing trays with glass on their heads. Most impressive. At 9:45, I was still very tired and we headed back to the hostel, chatted with some British girls for a bit and then crashed hard.
After sleeping for 9 hours, we quickly ate breakfast and headed to the bus station. I was somewhat sad to leave Merida. It is such a lovely place with awesome people. While the hostel was awkwardly quiet in the beginning, after meeting people I really wished I could stay longer because everyone, both Mexican and backpacker, was so nice and friendly. Instead of going all the way back to Cancun, we decided to stop in the town of Valladolid, the cute colonial city that we almost got off by accident on the way to Chichen Itza. Now armed with more local knowledge, I really wanted to visit the cenotes (limestone sinkholes filled with water) in the area. Valladolid has 3. One is in town but the other 2 are 7 km out of town.
Since Valladolid was a very spontaneous decision (I suppose everything in the trip was), I didn’t have a map of the city or the cenotes. So when we arrived at the bus station, I had no idea where anything was or how to get anywhere. I quickly realized that this town has the same number scheme for the streets as Merida. We somehow wandered our way into the main square and found a map of the city on a tourist kiosk. After taking a picture of the map, we went to a lot of the main sites in town, the church and a local museum. I then went into a hotel and asked how to get to the cenotes out of town. The receptionist told us to walk to a street and hail a cab, which was a fairly easy task. The taxi driver told us $40 pesos/person to get there. As this was my first taxi in Mexico, I was pretty nervous but everything ended up fine and we made it to the cenotes without any drama.
Each cenote cost 60 pesos or $4.50…worth it!!! We decided to start with Cenote Samula and then to to X’Keken. Before walking into each cenote, we had to walk through a marketplace of about 10 stalls where people tried to sell us coconuts and rent life jackets. It seemed like there were far too many merchants since at this point we haven’t seen any other tourists. We then saw the staircase going into the ground, the entrance to the cenote. The staircase led to an amazing chasm. The chasm was circular about 70 meters in diameter. In the center was a hole approximately 10 meters in diameter with a tree root hanging down 8 meters or so. The water was deep blue and when the sun shone, light beams streamed into the chasm causing some of the water to look radioactive. Besides us, there was just only one Mexican family. Of course, we went swimming- the water wasn’t warm but definitely not cold either.
After about 20 minutes in Samula, we headed over to X’Keken, which was larger and more crowded but overall a similar experience. This cenote was crescent-shaped and the tree roots almost reached the pool. Additionally there were cave stalactites in one portion of the cenote. The hole to the surface was only about 5 feet across. We spent about 20 more minutes at this one before catching a taxi back to Valladolid. We then walked to a third cenote right in town, Cenote Zaci named for the Mayan town that Valladolid was built on top of. I suppose this has some significance that the ground will always be Mayan no matter what happens on the surface. Regardless this cenote was open- instead of a small opening and an underground pit, this cenote was essentially a large pit in the ground partially covered by the ground. The water wasn’t as clear as the others but did have a few sports to cliff jump. I didn’t swim in this one.
We then caught the bus back to Cancun. The trip took about 3 hours but with the time change, we got in around 7pm. We quickly checked into the hostel and caught a local bus into the hotel zone to experience what most tourists see. The hotel zone is basically a long line of large resorts on the beach. Part of the strip is “party central” which looks like the Beverly Center mall but with large clubs. We ate dinner at a place called the Taco Factory. The food was mediocre. These were actually the first tacos/burritos/quesadillas we had in Mexico. Up to this point we only ate Yucatan food which is completely different from what most people consider Mexican food. Yes the chips, salsa, rice and beans are all the same but the dishes in the Yucatan use a lot more pork and seasoning with local produce such as sour oranges and chaya. So trying this Americanized (most of the tourists here are American) version of Mexican food was disappointing.
After dinner, we bought tickets to go to CocoBongo which by all accounts is the best club in Cancun. The entrance was a steep $75 USD which cost more than all my hotels/hostels put together for my week. While I was reluctant to spend that much money, the price included an open bar. We were advised to get in line 30 minutes before Coco Bongo opened at 10:30. Since this was our one night in Cancun, we figured why not go big.
After checking out another bar across the street called Congos, we got in line at 10 for a 10:30 opening. Before the show started at 11, the bar had synchronized dances from the “chicas”- 12 or so attractive dancers. They danced to everything including the Electric Slide, Cotton-Eye Joe, Pitbull, and some Mexican songs. At 11, the show began. The dancers performed on a stage above the main dance floor and essentially recreated music videos with costumes, wigs, and dance moves. They performed medleys around 5 minutes long then they took a 5-minute break for a costume change. During the breaks, the DJ played club music. We saw segments on Phantom of the Opera, Michael Jackson, Batman, 80’s, Brazilian music, Madonna, and a lot more. It was a lot more fun than a normal club. At around 1:30, we were ready to leave. We walked down to the street and hailed a public bus which then proceeded to speed at about 60 mph down the road. At times, I felt like the bus was going to tip over from the turns. As we neared the ADO bus terminal, I managed to climb my way over to press the “Stop Request” button. The bus driver then brought the bus down to a slow crawl as we disembarked before speeding off into the distance. I am amazed to still be alive.
Woke up and had to head over to the airport to catch the noon flight. It was an easy 30 minute bus ride over. The international terminal was essentially an American airport. Every flight was going to the US. My favorite moment was going through the security line and somebody annoyed that he wasn’t in the TSA Precheck line, not realizing that the TSA doesn’t operate in Mexico.
Instead of a direct flight back to LA, we unfortunately had to connect through Orlando. The flight to Orlando took only 2 hours, but then we had 5 hours to hang out in the airport. After catching up on texts and emails, we decided to find the best view of the runway and discovered a restaurant on the 9th floor of the airport hotel in the main terminal. While the restaurant was only open for dinner, we did see a pool down on the 6th floor, so we walked down the stairs and lounged on the pool deck. The water in the pool was very warm, but it was raining outside so we didn’t stay for long. Eventually, we went to our gate and flew back to LA, wrapping up an awesome trip.
I really enjoyed this trip and wished it was longer because there is so much to do in this part of the world. I could have easily spent another week exploring the underwater museum, Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco. I am definitely looking forward to going back to this very accessible destination.