The Yucatán Peninsula

Forty years ago, Cancún was an untouched spit of land off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Land that now supports high-end resorts and the nightlife of the world-famous Hotel Zone was nothing but marsh, jungle, and untouched sand. A total of 3 people lived in the area,  caretakers of a coconut plantation. Almost uninhabited, the Mayans had named the area, Kankun, or nest of snakes, and that’s about all it was.

That all changed in the 1970’s when Mexico’s city planners started an ambitious project to build an international airport, a tourist zone, and a residential city center. The project transformed the landscape into the country’s largest tourism resort and one of the premier destinations in the entire Caribbean. Today, it draws over 4 million visitors a year!

Thanks to dirt cheap flights on Frontier, we happened to be two of them!

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Cancún

The red-eye after work left the snow and cold far behind. We jolted awake to a bumpy landing just after 6am, where a wonderfully warm breeze was blowing. A pricey taxi shuttled us from the airport to our hostel out on the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone). We dumped our stuff off and headed out to the beach. A beautiful sunrise climbed above the horizon as we found a cozy spot to shut our eyes for a short nap. When we awoke, the sun was blazing down. It was a gorgeous day!

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In a deserted little square near our hostel we ate a wonderful breakfast of chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are tortillas that have been fried in a mixture of salsa, chile, chicken and cheese. The tortillas are baked until almost soft, delicious! After breakfast, we walked the beautiful beaches and found a nice spot to relax. We spent the afternoon swimming, building sandcastles, and playing some intense volleyball.

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Sore and sunburned, we headed down the main drag in search of some grub. In my opinion, Cancún is mostly Anywhere, USA. Walking the main boulevard, we passed all the major chains: Hooters, Domino’s, Señor Frog’s, Carlos’ n Charlie’s, Chile’s, and of course McDonald’s. With names like Restaurant Extreme and the Taco Factory, the others seemed pretty mainstream as well. Eventually, we settled on one called Casa Tequila. A little off the main strip, it had a beautiful patio and a menu complete with Mayan specialties. Albeit a bit pricey, the food was excellent. I had a traditional dish called Poc Chuc, which is a pork tenderloin that has been seasoned in a regional fruit called achiote. It was incredible. The waiter also gave us some Mayan salsa that was lip-burning hot. We sipped our margaritas, enjoying the atmosphere and the music of a fun Mariachi band.

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After dinner, we found our way to an empty beach bar where we lounged on some beach chairs and got a bit drunk off some Cocos Locos.

¡Qué un buen diá!

Isla Mujeres

The next morning we returned for some more delicious chilaquiles. Then we caught the ferry out to Isla Mujeres. In 2011, I spent a week on the island with my parents and it was good to be back. This time we were staying in Poc-Na Hostel, on the northern end of the island. After checking in, we signed up for a snorkeling tour and set off on a boat with a few others. Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel for that matter, are famous for their incredible coral and sea life, thanks to their prime location next to the Mesoamerican reef. Stretching 700 miles from the Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras, it is the 2nd largest reef in the world!

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Our tour took us to several spots along this reef, where we spotted colorful fish and barracudas. After a buffet lunch of some delicious seafood, we visited a collection of underwater statues known as MUSA. Equal parts eerie and interesting, we stared down on the statues in wonder. It was a great tour and we had fun with some guys visiting from Oaxaca, Mexico.

For much of the rest of the day we snorkeled along the reef club near Playa Norte. Highlights included a crab and several manta rays hiding in the grass. Mostly it just felt good to be in the water; our sun burn was starting to hurt! That night, we had a nice dinner at El Patio with an Australian girl from the hostel. We also wandered upon a Carnival festival, where the women wore colorful dresses and were dancing. After drinking a bit at the bar at our hostel, I got busted by a cop/makeshift security guard peeing on a deserted stretch of beach. We paid him 150 pesos, about $10, to leave us alone. In hindsight it was quite a funny situation. A sudden downpour drove us back inside and soon to our bunk bed.

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Playa Del Carmen

The ferry took us back to Cancún in the morning, where we rented a car from National at the incredibly low rate of $5/day. Maybe more shockingly, the car actually worked. We headed down the highway, first stopping for some lunch in a little seaside town called Puerto Morelos.

Fresh Ceviche & Guac, what more could you ask for?

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In Playa del Carmen we bought some Gringa tacos and a quesadilla from a food stand and then went in search of a beach bar. The places along the water were all surprisingly empty. We would find out the next night that it was because everyone was celebrating Carnival.

Akumal

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The following day we headed down to Akumal for some more snorkeling. We started at an area called Half Moon Bay. The water was clear and there were some massive coral formations; some of the brain coral was bigger than me! We swam for a few hours, spotting a baby turtle amongst the coral. It was the first I had ever seen in the ocean!

Then we moved on to Akumal proper, which is famous for it’s resident sea turtles. Almost immediately, we spotted one munching on grass on the seafloor.

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We swam around him, watching with curiosity. They are such majestical creatures.

In the next couple hours we would come across more than 10!

Snorkeling Glenna

We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant, more ceviche, and played some more volleyball with a fellow American.

A word of advice on Akumal… ignore the hecklers at the entrance and proceed right to the beach. They will try to convince you that you need to rent a life jacket and you must stay inside the buoys. They will also try to sell you a guide who can show you the “best spots for turtles”. None of this necessary. We swam for hours without a life vest and found plenty of turtles and coral on our own.

From Akumal, we headed to Cenote Azul and took a dip in the crystal clear water. Cenotes can be found all over the Yucatán Peninsula. They are essentially sinkholes that have filled with groundwater. At any rate, it creates an eerie underwater world.

Tulum

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Tulum is one of the most visited ruin sites on the peninsula. The Mayans called their city Zama, City of Dawn; very appropriate given its location on the Eastern coast of the peninsula. Situated on cliffs 40 feet above the ocean the ruins make for a dramatic contrasting image of land and sea. We shadowed a few tour groups, listening in on the guides explain the different structures. One of the more interesting was the Temple of the Descending God, which has an upside down man above the doorway. El Castillo, the main castle, is also impressive. At its height, Tulum was a major trading port for the Mayan empire and housed about 1,500 people.

A visit to Gran Cenote was well worth the admission. True to its name, this cenote was huge, with many different caverns to check out.

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Groups of scuba divers were touring the deep chasms, but we stuck to the upper ones with our snorkels. Swimming through the clear water, the light from the cenote’s entrance created an incredible vivid blue color. I would highly recommend a visit!

Cobá

Cobá was settled much earlier than Tulum and Chichén Itzá in around AD 50. It was one of the most powerful city-states in the Yucatán and is estimated to have had more than 50,000 inhabitants. The main draw is climbing the great pyramid, Nohoch Mul.

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One hundred and twenty steps lead you to the top of the 140’ tall pyramid. Gazing out across the jungle, you have the same view as the Mayans did 1,000’s of years before.

Wandering the rest of the site, you can find other lesser pyramids as well as ball courts and sacbes, or ancient roads. Some of these run over 100km away!

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Valladolid

We spent the night in Valladolid, the third largest city in the Yucatán. It was built in 1545 by the conquering Spanish who re-used stones from a previously dismantled Mayan city. The city was very colonial in style, cobblestone streets and all. We ate dinner at Las Campanas, a restaurant across from the beautiful San Gervasio Cathedral. Again we ordered Yucatán specialities, my pollo motuleño with fried bananas really hit the spot. In the town’s beautiful main square, stages were pumping out music and vendors lined the streets. Crowds formed in anticipation for something big to happen… 2 hours later, it still hadn’t come. It was quite strange.

Chichen Itzá

We drove through several small towns the next morning, en route to the greatest Mayan ruins of them all: Chichén Itzá.

The Mayans and Toltecs who resided here worshipped both Chac-Mool, the rain god, and Quatzalcótl, the plumed serpent.

Statues and carvings of both can be found all throughout the ruins. The most famous of the buildings is the reconstructed El Castillo.

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Standing at around 100 feet high, the pyramid is essentially a giant calendar; 4 stairways of 91 steps plus the top platform equal 365 (days in a year). The temple stretches high into the sky in an open grass field and is one of the first structures you will come upon.

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Straight in front of it is the giant ball field where teams literally played to the death. Behind, stands the group of 1000 columns, representing warriors of ancient times.

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Narrow paths take you deeper into the jungle to the cenote where virgins were sacrificed, the observatory, and other various structures.

The site is large and will take several hours to see. When the place began to fill in with tourists, we took our leave.

We tasted mezcal at the Mayapan distillery outside of Valladolid. While tequila is only made from the blue agave plant and can only be made in the state of Jalisco Mexico, mezcal is its less picky cousin. We toured the distillery, peeking in the ovens and tasting 6 different varieties. It is very similar in taste and flavor to tequila. A little buzzed, we made the drive back to Cancún.

A little note on the roads in Mexico… they were fabulous. The only real difference between highways in the U.S. were tons of speed bumps called topes. Otherwise, there was plenty of signage and they were in good condition.

We spent the night in Ciudad Cancún, or the city center. It was similar to the downtown of any bigger city, lot’s of traffic and very busy. We did find a great restaurant and splurged on some Chicken mole and Ceviche. Our hostel was super nice, but we passed on the outings to various clubs.

The next morning we caught an early flight back to Denver and back to the snow.

What a nice trip to beat the winter blues!

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Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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