Down Mexico Way

Central America trip
December 2016
week 1 of 4

MEXICO | BELIZE
The Caribbean coast

by Xavier

Despite of our love for and extensive traveling across the Americas, there are still quite a few countries between Alaska and Tierra de Fuego that we haven’t visited, most notably in Central America, so the time had come to make a long overdue trip. Luckily, and thanks to our very understanding employers, both Simon and I managed to secure four weeks off from the start of December to the start of January, to loop around – mostly by land – yet another gringo trail across southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, with a very brief stop in Colombia on the way back home. And just as temperatures in London dropped to unacceptably cold, we grabbed our backpacks and hopped on a plane to Cancún, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

The itinerary

week 1: London – Cancún – Playa del Carmen – Tulum – Caye Caulker
week 2: Flores – Tikal – Flores – Semuc Champey – Antigua Guatemala
week 3: San Pedro La Laguna – San Cristobal de las Casas
week 4: Palenque – Mérida – Cancún – Bogotá – London

For practical details on how we got from one place to the next (what means of transportation, fares, travel times, etc) check out Simon’s HOW WE GOT THERE section at the end of each blog post.

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map source: Great Circle Mapper


Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From the airport at Cancún we headed straight to Playa del Carmen for a couple of days of doing as little as we possibly could.

The bus journey to Playa was most unremarkable, except perhaps for this documentary we watched on the way – which in hindsight was a lot more entertaining dubbed in Latin-American Spanish.

A local taxi took us from the bus terminus to Be Playa, a hip boutique hotel with a rooftop pool and a very popular sushi restaurant on the ground floor – and seemingly staffed and populated entirely by people half our age, which added a certain “down with the cool kids” element to the start of our trip.

Our time in Playa was mainly spent between the rooftop pool or the beach and the numerous cafés, bars, restaurants and shops around town (a couple of favourite places were Almirante Pech and Chez Celine), very much soaking up the weather, settling into full holiday mood, and gearing up for the days and weeks ahead – and musing on the fact that almost everyone working in Playa del Carmen seems to be from Argentina.



Tulum, Mexico

With the proverbial batteries fully recharged, we made the short road journey from Playa to Tulum, passing a number of exclusive residential resorts along the coast (screaming of “time share”), and checked in at Mama’s Home, a great backpackers hostel in the centre of town, right by the main area of tourist-aimed restaurants and bars, with super helpful staff, and hands down the best hostel breakfast we have ever had – unsurprisingly, the reviews online are glowing.

Tulum or not Tulum, that is the question – the ubiquitous calaveras

On our first day we went to see Tulum’s world famous Mayan ruins, perched on a cliff over a beautiful beach. Not without encountering some resistance, I managed to convince Simon to take a taxi for the short ride, and a few minutes later we arrived at the entrance to the site, where they charge a fee to get in. The site was actually much larger than what I had imagined from looking at photos, and also rather manicured to the point of resembling a themed golf course, with roaming groups of American tourists, assorted locals, and very photogenic iguanas. Still, a beautiful archaeological site and totally worth the visit – do check out the reviews!



This part of Mexico, and indeed the whole of the Yucatán Peninsula, is known for the abundance of cenotes, amazing geological formations where people go swimming, snorkelling and/or diving – and so did we. Staff at the hostel recommended going to the Jardín del Edén (Garden of Eden) cenote by midday at the latest, as it would get very busy later on the day. This particular cenote is just under 40km from the centre of town, towards Playa del Carmen, and not far from Akumal beach, which we decided to check out on our way back.

Before setting off, we hired a pair of snorkels at the nearby Iguana Bike Shop, also on the recommendation from the hostel. The shop guy asked us for a deposit and to retain one ID document – mine in this case – until we returned the equipment, before 6pm on the day, which I thought was a tiny bit ridiculous. We went back the following day to hire a couple of bikes and they asked us for one ID per bike, plus the deposit, which I thought was even more ridiculous, though I appreciate they probably have to deal with unruly backpackers all the time and just need to protect their business, but still.

To get there, Simon was keen on taking a colectivo, a type of people-carrier van that acts as local bus between Tulum and Playa del Carmen – and a colectivo we took (once we worked out how, it’s not immediately obvious), and it dropped us, eventually, at the entrance to the park where the cenote is. A small entrance fee is paid at the gate and there are places where to leave bags etc near the water – though no such thing as lockers, so one must keep an eye out and trust that nobody is going to pinch anything.

There were very few people around at that time, which was great, and the water wasn’t too cold, which was even greater. It was amazing to swim about such clear water, very deep in places, and being able to look at the abundant fish (some of the buggers will peck at you if you stay still for more than a few seconds, much to my surprise) and observe the divers in full gear near the bottom. After a couple of hours we headed back to the main road and hailed a passing colectivo that dropped us at Akumal, where we stopped for lunch and a spot of lying on the white sand under a palm tree before returning to Tulum – also by colectivo.  Not a bad day.


The following day Simon suggested checking out El Paraíso, a beach club and hotel very close to the ruins, where you can rent sun loungers and towels for the day and have reasonably priced food and drinks brought to you while you sunbathe on the gorgeous beach – which I thought was a smashing plan. To get there, and also on Simon’s suggestion (Deus dedit, Deus abstulit…) we hired a couple of old bikes (see earlier comments) and pedalled in the punishing sun for some minutes until arriving at the hotel grounds. Fortunately, the hotel staff didn’t seem to mind us turning up on rusty bikes and looking rather sweaty and disheveled, and advised us that parking was free if we consumed food or drink – for which they give you a parking token that you have to hand at the entrance gate on exiting. I must say it was a great day and totally recommended if you just want to chill out on the beach with a certain degree of comfort!

We spent the evenings mostly out and about the few but very popular bars and restaurant along Calle Centauro Sur, a couple of blocks away from the hostel: Le Bistro, La Malquerida, El Bocado, Batey
All in all a really nice few days in Tulum, but then it was time to move on.

By the way, a shoutout to the girls at the Burbu Clean lavandería (next door to the bike rental shop), who drew a big smiley face and wrote “have an excellent day” on my fresh laundry bag – it did put a spring on my step!

Caye Caulker, Belize

Belize is different from the rest of Central America, being English speaking (officially, though most people speak Spanish as well), culturally more part of the Caribbean, and a former British colony complete with a very young looking Queen on its banknotes. In the UK it is mostly known as the business playground of Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire former Tory party treasurer whose net worth has been described by Belize’s Prime Minister as equal to the country’s entire GDP and who briefly served as the country’s UN ambassador.

Caye Caulker (pronounced ‘quay’ or ‘key’, but most definitely not ‘kaye’) is a bit of a party island and very much the next stop on this particular gringo trail, and most travellers heading that way would do so via a well known boat trip from Chetumal. I am not a big fan of boats, and was very pleased when Simon said he had found an alternative bus ride to Belize City, which also cost us half as much. Of course.

And so we left Tulum on the 10am bus to Belize City – a very sensible and recently introduced service which not many people seemed to have cottoned on, so we practically had the bus to ourselves the whole way – and the worst thing I can say about the journey is that the choice of film was mind numbing.

The process of leaving Mexico and entering Belize was relatively smooth – except for the slight mental adjustment at having to switch from Spanish to English, and the sour female officer at Belizean customs… honey, if you want people to understand the words that are coming out of your scowling mouth do speak up and enounce, for God’s sake – of course I didn’t say this to her face because I wanted to be allowed to cross the border, but I hope she read it in my eyes.

Once in Belize City (not an attractive place, or somewhere to stop) a local taxi took us, and a fellow traveler from Nottingham that we met on the bus, to the dock, where the last boat of the day to Caye Caulker was leaving in an hour, in time for a spectacular sunset crossing, so the three of us checked in our backpacks and had a couple of Belizean beers while we waited.

Public transport in Caye Caulker seems to consist of, effectively, old golf buggies that will drive you around the island very cheaply, though it’s easy enough to walk everywhere, it’s not a big island. One of these buggies took us to our chosen B&B once our bags were offloaded and we said goodbye to our Nottingham friend (called Nick, and with whom we kept bumping into along the trip, to the point it stopped being a surprise even in the most random places)

Off the back of online reviews, I booked us in what turned out to be a somewhat expensive and a little way off ‘downtown’ but great B&B called OASI, run by a fantastic lady called Luciana, who really looked after us during our short stay.

Out of the many aquatic activities that the island has to offer, we chose to do a half day snorkelling tour on the reef about 20 minute boat ride off the coast of the island on one of the two days we spent on Caye, which was both great fun and a little unnerving for me (read this and this) – but, have to say, we really enjoyed it, even though I got a reef cut on my knee that it’s proving rather tricky to heal. I am also pleased to say that all my effort at the gym before this trip meant I was able to jump in the water off the side of the boat without causing a tsunami that would have devastated the coast of Belize. So kudos me.

Jokes (ahem) aside, the rest of the time on the island we spent chilling out by the pool, or going out to the various cafes, bars and restaurants there: Amor y Café, Roses, Habanero’s, the Sports Bar





We really liked Caye Caulker, more than we had anticipated, and regretted spending just 48 hours there – when Luciana saw us out on our last morning she asked us “Are you ready to leave?” and we said “No!”, but leave we had to, so she gave us a big hug (bless!) and we jumped on a buggie to catch the boat back to the dock at Belize City, and from there the bus to the town of Flores, in Guatemala.

And all that was just the first week of our trip!  More on the next post.

👉 HOW WE GOT THERE

by Simon

BA flight from London to Cancún, then bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen. Buses operated by ADO run about every 30 minutes from outside the terminal. Journey time 1 hour; fare at the time of travelling was 170 pesos; buy just outside the bus before boarding, no need to book in advance.

Playa del Carmen to Tulum: buses operated by ADO run frequently from the ADO terminal on Calle 12 (note there are two ADO terminals in Playa; this is the main long distance terminal, not the Centro terminal where the airport bus arrives). Journey time 1 hour; fare 70 pesos; again, buy there before boarding.

Tulum to Belize City: buses operated by ADO run through the border crossing all the way to Belize City, twice daily at 10:00 and 00:45 from the ADO terminal; journey time is around 7 hours; the fare is 700 pesos; buy tickets in advance at the ADO terminal. Remember you may need to pay a fee to leave Mexico (we paid 390 pesos each). If connecting on to Caye Caulker, you could walk from Belize City bus station to the pier, but Belize City is a bit sketchy; a taxi was US$7.50.

Belize City to Caye Caulker: there are various operators, we used San Pedro Belize Express which seems to be the main one. It runs about every hour with the last departure at 17:30 (Belize is 1 hour behind eastern Mexico so the daytime ADO bus should arrive around 16:00 allowing you to make this connection fairly safely); journey time is about 1 hour; fare is US$15 single or US$25 return; buy at the dock, no need to book in advance.

note: all details correct at time of publishing.


All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

South America

WEEK 15 into 16

COLOMBIA
The Caribbean coast and Medellín

by Simon

Cartagena de Indias

The longest single journey of the trip so far. From Easter Island we flew to Santiago, and then on to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, via Bogotá. Dazed from our roughly 24 hour journey and blinking in the blinding sun (the heat was almost crippling during our entire stay) we joined a queue for a taxi to our B&B. Very efficiently, we were given a ticket which showed the price for the journey – this turned out to be useful as the taxi driver tried to charge us three times as much. This was only the second attempted taxi rip-off of the trip so far (the first being in Bangkok, where it seems almost mandatory).

Cartagena has quite a history. It was the main port used by Spain to ship back to Europe the treasures that it, er, stole from the indigenous population after the conquest. The British wanted a share of the loot so employed pirates (most famously Sir Francis Drake) to attack and grab. It was one of the first cities in Colombia to declare independence in 1810, and it was subsequently ‘pacified’ by the Spanish, resulting in the death of almost half of the population. What proud histories our countries have! The city is full of statues to people executed by firing squad “for being a patriot” – although Colombia did of course go on to win its war of independence. The old city is almost perfectly preserved, and with its massive city walls, church towers, narrow streets, and balconies covered in flowers, feels a bit like Spain’s Cordoba or Seville. We explored as much as the heat would allow in the days we spent in Cartagena, including visiting the vast fortress constructed by the Spanish on the outside of the old city (to protect it, successfully as it turned out, from British attack), and the network of tunnels within it.

Cartagena

Our next stop was Santa Marta, four hours further along the Caribbean coast. One of South America’s oldest cities, it was founded in 1525 by the Spanish, their first settlement in Colombia. Santa Marta is visited primarily as a base for the famous trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) and the Tayrona national park. We ended up doing neither of those, as the heat made a five block walk uncomfortable, let alone a five day hike through the jungle. We did however enjoy the hotel pool and some rather amazing street performances in the old town, including spectacular gymnastics, traditional dancing, and fire-juggling. We also visited the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the villa and grounds where South American independence hero Simón Bolívar – El Libertador – spent his final months. On our final day we took a hair-raising local bus journey over the cliffs to the nearby resort of Taganga for lunch at Babaganoush, a very unassuming restaurant with great views over the bay and excellent food (also stupidly cheap), run by Dutch chef Patrick Verdegaal, who came out to greet us at the end. Very nice man. Lunch was followed by an interesting walk along the packed beach, and another unnerving bus ride back to Santa Marta – which suffered a major power cut during our last night that knocked out the air con in the hotel so we barely slept at all because of the horrendous heat. We still made our flight next day to Colombia’s second biggest city, where we arrived feeling a little the worse for wear.

Santa Marta

Simon Bolivar memorial

Xavi thinks the Simón Bolívar memorial is a little “COLOMBIA ÜBER ALLES“…

Santa Marta and Taganga

Medellín was reduced to a near war zone in the era of cartel boss Pablo Escobar but since he was killed in 1993 it has recovered and now feels a pleasant and reasonably safe city by Latin American standards. We stayed in a very chilled hostel in the upmarket district of Poblado, and ended up staying rather longer than planned – in my case, much of the time sitting in the hammocks in the garden. We did however venture into the centre of town, following hostel manager Lucy’s advice to leave watches and credit cards behind. The central square has been decorated with numerous distinctive sculptures by Medellín-born artist Fernando Botero; it should be very impressive but unfortunately the very persistent hawkers made it hard to enjoy. We retreated from there into the calmer Museo de Antioquía, which has an extensive collection of Botero sculptures, paintings, and drawings, as well as other Colombian art, and it’s well worth a visit.

Medellín

Museo de Antioquía, Medellín

Medellín is located in a deep valley, with the poorer districts often further up the steep slopes on either side. To link these previously inaccessible areas to the metro system in the valley, the city has built cable cars (the Metrocable). We took the longest of these routes, which makes a spectacular ascent across the south of the city, over the mountains and deep into the surrounding countryside, to visit Parque Arvi. This was a pleasant escape from the heat of the city, although despite a long and rather breathless walk across the park (which is at around 2,000 meters of altitude) we failed to find any of the supposed attractions there.

Medellín

Metrocable, Medellín

Some in Medellín are cashing in on the city’s troubled history, and offer Pablo Escobar tours, where you can visit the key sites in the life and death of this (depending on your point of view) local Robin Hood hero or international gangster and terrorist. You can even meet his brother (who was also his accountant, managing wealth estimated in 1989 as US$30 billion). These tours are near-mandatory for visiting backpackers but Lucy was clear she did not approve – not entirely surprisingly, many in Medellín don’t – and we weren’t organised enough to arrange it ourselves. Next time!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.