Throughout the first 12 days of our world travels, we covered 500 miles from the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico. The southeast region of this beautiful country is not only rich in pre-Hispanic history and Mayan culture but is also geographically diverse. The deep jungle, thousands of cenotes, and beautiful beaches make it a paradise for anyone who is willing to veer off the beaten path to explore it.
We chose to spend two weeks backpacking the Yucatan peninsula as our honeymoon (six months later :)) and quickly realized we couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin our adventures! Daniel had already warned me that starting in Mexico, his home country, would set the bar high for all other countries, and he was absolutely right.
Our first destination was Holbox, a small island north of the state of Quintana Roo, three hours away from Cancun. In order to arrive to this car-free, hidden gem of an island, we had to take seven modes of transportation from Kansas City, from planes to taxis to buses to ferries to golf carts. 24 hours later we checked into our hotel, 20 feet from the most amazing beach we have ever seen. Setting the bar high for beautiful beaches, we are certain that every beach we set foot on from now on will be compared to the crystal-clear waters and white-sands of Holbox.
After our first long walk on the beach, we affirmed that this island definitely lives up to it’s name as the “Land of the Hammocks”. There were hammocks EVERYWHERE! Hammocks over the water, in front of every hotel, on random street corners, and in front of stores.
Every morning we would go for a jog or a bike ride along the beach and were so inspired and motivated by it’s beauty. On our first jog, I realized a half a mile in, that I was wearing my headphones but hadn’t even turned my music on! And for someone who cannot exercise without music, I realized just how much I was being moved by my surroundings.
Our next stop was Valladolid (or as I say, Valla-do-lo-li-did). It was a short stopover in this quaint, little colonial town on our way to Chichen Itza but we enjoyed every minute that we spent there. We especially loved the adorable town square full of these lovers’ chairs.
The next day, we hopped on a bus to our hotel near Chichén Itzá. We spent the afternoon lounging in the pool and relaxing before our long day of exploring the pyramids starting early the next morning. Because Chichén is a world wonder, it is a very popular tourist destination so we arrived early in the morning, per the advice of the locals and were so glad we did! By the time we left around noon, the heat of the midday sun made it almost unbearable and the huge crowds of tourists that were gathering would have made it difficult to get any good photos.
We then headed towards the Ik Kil cenote that was located across the street from our hotel. We spent a couple hours there swimming in it’s magnificent natural pool and jumping from the 20 ft cliffs. We both agreed that after visiting 8 cenotes, Ik Kil is still our favorite.
Returning to our hotel after a long day of walking and sightseeing, we sat down to enjoy a delicious meal of authentic, traditional Mayan food.
After our meal, we had the opportunity to learn an invaluable lesson in the power of helping others. We were approached by a very friendly girl from Turkey who needed help making a phone call in Spanish to reschedule her flight for the next morning. While Daniel was more than happy to help, neither one of us had a phone line to make the call. So we contacted his mom via FaceTime and she spent half an hour communicating back and forth with us and the airline to inquire about the flight change.
In the end, the fee was more than she could pay and she ended up declining the change. However, she was forever grateful that we, as strangers, took the time to help her out, to the point of getting his mom involved. We had a nice chat about both of our travels and her home country (which Daniel has already visited) and when we mentioned that we would be visiting Turkey together eventually, she extended a warm, sincere invite to stay with her. We exchanged information and she went on her way.
This simple interaction with Elif made us stop and think about what it is that fuels our desire to travel around the world. Sure, the amazing sights, historical landmarks and natural beauty of each country is enticing. But the real life lessons and rewarding moments will come from people. People who are different from us, who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages and who live different lives than we have. People like Elif, who are willing to open their hearts and homes to complete strangers like us. We are beginning to realize that relying on the kindness of strangers is absolutely necessary when traveling to foreign countries. In order to do this, we must have faith in the goodness of people and be completely open to every lesson that they may offer.
Our next destination was Merida, the vibrant, capital city of Yucatan where we stayed with a longtime family friend of the Moreno’s. Norma and her 15 year old granddaughter Alyx gave us a warm welcome and extended their Latin hospitality throughout our stay. Upon arrival, Norma excitedly showed us the new hammocks that she had purchased for us to sleep in. (With an average high of 95 degrees, and no air conditioning, sleeping in hammocks is how Yucatecans manage to stay cool enough to be able to sleep).
For someone like myself, who has never slept in a hammock before, I was a bit skeptical about the sleeping arrangement. So we ended up taking the only bed in the house, while our hosts resorted to hammocks. It only took one sweaty night’s sleep for me to realize the extent of their kindness in offering up their hammocks.
The first two nights in Merida, we attended cultural shows in the main plaza. The first night was a sound and light show that was videomapped onto the side of the cathedral that told the story of the city’s history.
The second night we watched a demonstration of a Pok A Tok game, an ancient Mayan ballgame that combined athletic competition with religious human sacrifice. Players had to hit a rubber ball through a stone hoop, using only their hips.
Our third day, we rented a car and drove to the cenotes of Cuzamá with Norma and Alyx. In order to reach the hidden cenotes, we had to ride a tiny, rickety train cart pulled by a horse, an hour and a half into the Mayan jungle. It was quite an adventure just to get there. But once we arrived, the journey was made well worth it! The transparent cool, blue waters were refreshing and exhilarating and we had a blast jumping off the rocks into the sinkholes. Even 60-something year old Norma maneuvered down the steep and dangerous rocks to join us! If only I am half as daring and adventurous as that woman when I am her age, I will feel accomplished. She was a true inspiration.
After leaving Merida, we hopped on a short bus ride to the northern coast of the peninsula to visit Progreso. We arrived on a Monday afternoon to completely empty streets. With not a soul in sight, we feel a bit odd at first, as if we add just arrived in a ghost town. We found a restaurant to have lunch and learned from our server that the town shuts down on Mondays, after a busy weekend full of tourists and resumes again on Tuesdays. So we took advantage of the quiet day by taking a nap on our very own “private” beach, under a palm tree.
Our second day in Progreso we visited El Corchito, a natural mangrove full of wildlife and four beautiful cenotes. We had a blast playing with the friendly raccoons (and other unknown species of furry creatures). We even almost got robbed by a feisty raccoon when we left our backpack unattended while swimming. Thanks to a local woman chasing him off, the raccoon ran away empty handed.
During lunch that afternoon, we learned an important lesson in the difference between ordering from the Spanish menu and the English menu. We took a seat at the bar, where we were greeted by the bartender with a friendly “Hello” and a menu in English (with English prices). Daniel returned the greeting in Spanish and asked for the Spanish menu. We were shocked to see that the prices for locals and Spanish speakers were less than half of the prices for English speaking tourists.
Since then, I will always get a nudge or a look from Daniel any time we are in a cab or a restaurant and I speak English, to remind me that we are going to get charged double by simply being Americans.
The next stop on our Yucatan tour was Uxmal, one of the most important archeological sites of Maya culture. Although it is not a world wonder, like Chichen Itza, to me it was more interesting because it was entire town in ruins and not just a couple pyramids. It really gives you a feel for what the community was like thousands of years ago by seeing the town in its entirety.
That afternoon, we went to an outdoor chocolate museum and animal sanctuary and had the most amazing experience. We learned about the origins of chocolate and how it is made, watched the coolest rain ceremony and made friends with a loving, adorable spider monkey. (My bonding moment with the monkey has been my most memorable moment of our trip thus far!)
At night, we returned to Uxmal from our hotel across the street for another videomapping light and sound show. It was amazing to see the buildings illuminated at night because we could see every single tiny detail so well. It was also a bit eerie (in an amazing way) to have bats flying all around us and to hear the sounds of all the nights creatures from the Mayan jungle.
We had plans to leave the next day and head towards the western coast to Celestún but we were loving our amazing hacienda so much that we cancelled our non-refundable Air BnB to stay an extra day. We took a couple bikes out into the huge fruit plantation behind our room and relaxed by the pool.
The next morning, we took a four hour bus ride (that we were told would be two hours, leaving us sorely unprepared) to Campeche. This clean and colorful city is known for its huge wall that was built in the 1800’s to protect it from the many devastating pirate attacks they endured. We attended a pirate reenactment show and had the chance to climb and tour the wall and it was very impressive.
While our stay in Campeche was a short one, we loved everything about it. From the cool, colorful buildings, to the streets made for dining, to the lively and friendly people, we enjoyed it all.
One old, Campechano man in particular will forever remain etched in my mind. As we were walking along one of the narrow brick streets, we rounded a corner and nearly collided with the man as he was coming out of his doorway. He turned his head towards the sky pointing to one lone pigeon and said to us, “Mira las palomas!” “Look at the pigeons!” as he threw a huge bowl of bread chunks onto the sidewalk. Out of nowhere, at least 30 pigeons came down directly behind us to get their meal. The man then told us that he had been feeding the birds every single day for the last five years.
I walked away from witnessing this 90 year old man’s passion for taking care of the birds and felt overwhelmed by emotions. It truly is amazing that something so simple can be a life force to someone; the thing that gives them purpose and meaning in life. I saw the look of contentment and fulfillment on his face as he was feeding his birds and I will never, ever forget that.
Campeche was the final stop on our Yucatan honeymoon before flying to Mexico City for part two of our Mexican adventures. Stay tuned… 🙂