I had been to Mexico twice before, both as a kid, so this was going to be my first trip to our southern neighbor as an adult. The Yucatan Peninsula region of Mexico is very popular among tourists, we had found that out our first two trips staying in the all-inclusive resorts. To get a better feel for the “real” Mexico, we decided to go off the beaten path. My parents rented a small house on the small island of Isla Mujeres, about a 30 minute ferry ride Northeast of Cancun. We were staying in La Gloria, a neighborhood on the Southern part of the island.
When the taxi brought us to the gate of our temporary home we were all excited. When we couldn’t find Leti, the housekeeper, and realized we were locked out without her, things changed. Was this a scam? Thankfully, it was not. We just happened to be early and Leti wasn’t exactly ready for us. The short scare was over. Now it was time to explore.The Caribbean Sea was literally across the road from where we were staying. It was a rocky shoreline, but beautiful nonetheless. Our first meal was at a little local restaurant called La Bruja. It was traditional in every sense of the word. We also stocked up on some groceries from a little store right around the corner from us. Coming from the suburbs, I find neighborhoods like this awesome where you can walk anywhere. You just can’t do that back at home.
The next day we caught a cab into downtown. Isla Mujeres is a small island so downtown wasn’t much, just a whole lot of souvenir shops and restaurants. We ate lunch at a really nice place and shopped around for awhile. Surprisingly, the cemetery was very interesting. It was full of color and all the tombs were aboveground. Also, people leave all kinds of mementos for the deceased. Dad haggled a really good deal out of a local tour guide: he rented a golf cart for several days as well as two tours, one for snorkeling and one for Chichen Itza for Erin and I. We proceeded to drive our new toy around the island, stopping for dinner and a nice view of the sunset. That night we watched a great lightning show from our porch.
The next two days were beach bumming days. We found a nice seclusive beach on our side of the island called Playa Lancheros, a little park called Garrafon, and also tried the big beach near downtown called Playa Norte. They were all great places to relax and get in the water, though none had very good snorkeling. The abundance of iguanas at Garrafon was exciting.
Dad and I visited Hacienda Mundaca, a local attraction, though we could not figure out what the hell it was supposed to be.It took some searching on the web to find out that it was the estate of a Spanish mercenary. In his attempt to court a young Mexican woman on the island, he built a lavish arch as an entrance, orchards, cages for exotic animals, and more. The woman never bought it and he died alone. At least the story is cool. During these two days we also fell in love with the local bakery, La Panaderia. For 5 or 6 bucks we could get stacks of some of the yummiest breads ever. Yum!!!
Chichen Itza Full Day Trip
The cab was there at 5AM just like we had asked… what a good guy. Then it was a ferry ride from Isla Mujeres to Cancun, a van ride to a certain hotel, and finally onto our tour bus. It was going to be a long day, it was a 3 hour ride from Cancun to Chichen Itza, but Erin and I were up for it. Our tour guide was awesome. Full of information, he switched between Spanish and English effortlessly. It took some effort to follow as he would say a sentence or two in each language before switching, but I was very intrigued with what he had to say. He spoke much about the history of the Mayans, how their ancestors still continued many of their traditions, and about the economy and traditions of Mexico as a country. Our first stop was at a cenote about an hour or so from the ancient city.
Cenotes are deep, natural sinkholes that expose the groundwater beneath. They are characteristic of the Yucatan Peninsula and are a key source of freshwater for residents of the area. They are especially important in Mayan culture- they made sacrificial offerings in them as a thank you note to the gods. This cenote was gorgeous, a beam of light entered a hole at the surface and reflected off the crystal blue water to thrust the cavern into a surreal light. We took a dip in the cool, but refreshing water. It was a really neat experience. The next place we stopped was at a market filled with tourist goodies. I gave in and bought a picture frame, while Erin got a silver necklace piece with Beth’s name written in Mayan. We also had a buffet style lunch here with many traditional Mayan dishes. I love Mexican cuisine and this was not a disappointment. After stuffing ourselves full, it was finally onto the main attraction.
The archaeological site contains ruins of the former great city, easily the most famous of which is the great temple known as El Castillo. This was dedicated to Kukulkan, the snake god, and consequently has many snake figures carved into it. The temple alone is impressive; its simply amazing that people could build such a thing without modern day technology. Even more remarkable is that it serves as a 3-dimensional calendar: 4 stairways of 91 steps plus the platform on top equals 365 total steps!!! Other interesting structures in the complex included the huge ball-court where they would play to the death, and the Temple of 1000 Warriors. It was scorching hot out and we were literally mobbed by artisans every few minutes trying to sell us their goods, but it was all worth it. Chichen Itza was truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life.
We followed up our all-day adventure to Chichen Itza with a half-day snorkeling tour. Other than us four, there were only five other people with us including our guide and the driver of the boat. What the group lacked in numbers, it made up in diversity. An older woman told us her story of how she had been traveling alone through Mexico for the past month or so. She lived in Los Angeles and was the editor of a couple shows including one mom recognized. The other two customers were a Jewish couple from Israel.
We set out from Playa Norte Beach crammed into a small boat with a bunch of gear. We stopped a total of four times to jump into the pristine, warm water and explore our surroundings. Each site had something new to offer. The first was abundant with fish, including a group of barracudas!!! The second held a submerged statue of the Virgin Mary, while the third and fourth were parts of a the Museo Subacuatico de Arte, an underwater museum. This comprised of hundreds of life-size sculptures that rested on the sandy bottom, 20 or so feet from the surface. Because of how deep they were, it was hard to get a good look at the details of artwork. Either way, I was still able to appreciate them, as did all the fish and acquatic life that made them their home. All in all, it was a great snorkeling tour. And I had to follow it up with some more snorkeling of course… I went on the shore across from our house.
Last Day in Paradise
On our last full day on the island, we woke up early and rode the golf cart down to Punta Sur, a park at the Southern point of the island. We witnessed a gorgeous sunrise and then explored the park for awhile. It was a random collection of art pieces, some were really beat up, and Mayan ruins. The shoreline was breathtaking, strong waves continuously crashed over some deadly looking rock forms. We ended our stay with a nice meal at The Soggy Peso and then some drinks on our porch. We would definitely miss our little island paradise. Who knows though, maybe someday we’ll be back.