While Cancun was fun, we are on a journey through this beautiful country and thus the next stop on our list is Valladolid. We stock on some groceries and drive alongside the toll road on a side road towards Valladolid. We pass through towns with small squares and run down playgrounds, while others are working hard to clean up and make something nice out of its center. After a quick lunch we continue onward to make sure we have enough time to enjoy Valladolid, but as we arrive a massive downpour makes its way to us meaning we are even stuck in our car outside our accommodation!
As the rain subsides we get out and into our overnight stay – Hostal230, incredible value at 22 euro/night including a delicious breakfast – after which we have a walk around town. The plan was to cool off in the local cenote, but unfortunately it is closed due to construction around the site. It seems we are quite unlucky today with things being closed, the market was closed as well, a restaurant that seemed nice was closed, and a park for lunch earlier that day was under construction as well… But of course we would not let this get us down and we do find a place for a coffee and relax. Walking back through town, we run into a group of Dutch girls when one calls out ‘Hey Kim!’… turns out to be a former colleague on holiday. It’s a small world after all!
Chichen Itza – Maya must-see?
As one of the most famous Mayan temples in Mexico, we have to put Chichen Itza on the list of places to visit. We come prepared as we are told to beat the Cancun buses and all the souvenir sellers in the morning by arriving early. We actually almost arrive TOO early, as we come to find in the morning that there is actually 1 hour time difference between Cancun and Valladolid! So we go back to bed and wait until we can get breakfast hahaha. As we drive to Chichen Itza we start to see vendors with their goods walk towards the site, and the parking lot fills up very quickly. The line at the ticketbooth starts to build as well, but once inside it still feels tranquil.
Chichen Itza is one of the best preserved sites and has a massive restored temple at its center. Once we start making our way across the site, visiting the palaces, the ballplay court and cenotes hidden in the forest, the crowds start to roll in, both tourists and vendors. While it adds to the atmosphere of the place and the boys especially love all the trinkets that are being sold, it is good we were early enough to get away from it (and make pictures with less people on it :-)). With Chichen Itza being one of the more expensive sites around, we are curious to see the rest of the country and Mayan sites on our route!
On our way to Merida we stretch our legs in the bright yellow town of Izamal, which is a fun mix of everything Mexican; a market, a square, a church, a convent and a temple ruin all rolled into one and explorable on foot or by horse carriage. The inhabitants clearly make an effort to show the town at its best and it is a break from the drive we recommend to take when driving between Chichen Itza and Merida.
Merida – Colonial history
Driving into Merida we easily add half an hour to our eta. The city is quite big and traffic gets slow in the afternoon, but it also gives us an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and see the difference with the towns we have seen so far. Merida is known for its colonial buildings and historical center, and we luckily have found a hotel close to all the highlights of the town AND with a swimming pool! So of course the boys take a big splash and after this great cooldown, we head into town for some dinner and a stroll.
All of the cities come to life in the evening here, and we really enjoy the lively atmosphere you get on the many squares and streets. Merida in particular has them around every corner and there are many things to do still, one of which is a ‘video mapping’ which is a story told about the city through a projection done on the wall of the cathedral. It is a really cool way of promoting the place you are in, and one that we have seen in other towns as well. The show is great, and we top off the night by a ‘Masquerita’ on the go – a crepe-like snack with cheese and Nutella… Yummie!
The next morning we explore the city again by daylight, and especially the big covered market is a fun experience. We consider to take a horse and carriage ride through town back to the hotel, but unfortunately prices are quite high and a fixed route which we are not interested in… next time!
Campeche – Sea town without beach but a great stopover
After a quick 2hr drive from Merida, we arrive in Campeche where we see the sea again! We have rented a small room in a house, which is in a perfect location to discover the town, known for a history of piracy they had to protect themselves from. This has resulted in a walled old town filled with colorful houses to explore on foot. But first we try to find a beach to have our toes in the sand for a bit, and it turns out the closest to that is a 10km drive out of town. As we do so we arrive at the beach being closed due to Covid… a strange concept as markets and other public places are open. It seems the rules are somewhat randomly imposed. In the same town, some playgrounds are marked off, and others are open to enjoy. As the beach is not an option anymore we drive uphill to another part of a fort, where we get some exercise done on its gymtrack.
Coming back to town we park our car at the boulevard for a moment to enjoy the sun setting in the sea. A sight we can see daily if we want to at our hometown, so seeing it abroad makes you feel like home a bit :-). We then put the car at our accommodation and head into the small streets on foot in search of a place to eat. Campeche has plenty of nice places, and so we end up at an eatery where we try some of the regional favorites: Queso Relleno and Sopa de Lima. Both go down very well, of course accompanied by an ice-cold Corona. We take a detour back along a square with a live performance, a beautiful park with playgrounds, and an outdoor event location where there is a modeling training happening.
Palenque & its ruins
Another stop along the route are the ruins of Palenque, in a different part of Mexico which is more land inward and jungle style. We are still at the end of the rain season which means we get surprised by heavy rainfall here and there, but being in a more rainforest-like surrounding it is only fitting that we do. We have a nice hotel, even a pool, so when we arrive the boys take a plunge while we get some laundry sorted and check dinner options around the hotel. Luckily our hotel is at the end of a long street filled with restaurants, so we have a wide range to pick from. We continue to order random things from the menu and sharing them across the table, which has been a great way of trying different foods and everybody getting different tastes throughout the meal. Of course there is always guacamole, so if it disappoints, nobody has to go hungry :-).
The next day it is on to the Palenque ruins, a site in the jungle which is much smaller than Chichen Itza, but with a more mysterious vibe as a lot of it is still covered under plants and rubble. Like Chichen Itza, there are many guides offering their services and souvenir sellers across the site, and unfortunately half of the site is closed off due to Covid, which leaves us with only the main temples. We get another massive downpour on us while we are there, but decide not to let it get us down and put on our rain jackets as we explore a nature trail outside of the archeological site. Waterfalls, butterflies, monkeys, and a lot of muddy slippery ground to cover equals fun for all and we roll into the car with dirt all over us to head back to the hotel. The afternoon is spent relaxing and putting in some schoolwork for the boys, as showers of rain pass us by. A small moment of sun is of course immediately used to dive into the pool again, and with that the afternoon is very relaxed.
We needed the relaxation, as the next day promises to be a bit of a challenge ito the road we decide to take. Google the 199 road passed Ocosingo and many horror stories fill the web about robberies and other bad experiences. The choice is to take this road and make the 215km trip in 5 hours, or take the 450km detour in 7-9 hours… We get a lot of info from the locals and decide to take the shorter road, but be prepared for mishap (no valuables in sight, small cash to give if needed). The drive itself is a steady climb of 2500 meters in green curvy roads, filled with 339 ‘topes’ (speedbumps, and yes we counted them :-)). We run into 2 ‘ropes’ along the way pulled up by little girls trying to sell food, but other than that the drive is smooth and beautiful and with that we arrive in the afternoon in San Cristobal de las Casas, happy with our decision to take this way!
San Cristobal de las Casas
What a different vibe here in San Cristobal de las Casas! It is clear we have come into a mountainous area and we start to be reminded of our time in the Andean mountain towns in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The atmosphere is super relaxed and the old part of town is a real eyecatcher. Not just the colorful houses and dozens of churches at pretty squares, but here the women wear traditional clothes that are bright and colorful as well. A real treat! Fun of exploring a town in a hilly surrounding is you never know if the 100 meter alleyway is going to be straight or straight uphill ;-).
While we explore the town we get greeted by a parrot on a rooftop – “Hola!” – , see people get their influenza shot on the street, get tempted to buy the cutest husky puppies ever and end up in a quaint little restaurant where we eat pancakes for dinner and have our first round of Margarita’s. The temperature has come down quite a bit from the more tropical lowlands, and as we did not bring jackets or shoes on this trip we get back to our accommodation slightly frozen. Of course this is quickly solved by all of us getting into bed and warming up very rapidly!
Crossing the border into Guatemala
The next day we have the first cross-border challenge on the agenda, making our way into Guatemala. With Covid-19, the potential complexities have increased, and Guatemala has quite a few rules to get in so we came prepared. First of course we had to get stamped out on the Mexican side, which was a full 5 minute exercise only delayed by the fact that everybody had to come into the office to show their faces. Easy peasy so off we went to the border for our Guatemalan check-in! The border crossing becomes a very narrow road in a mountainous area with every inch of that road covered with shops and people. A bit claustrophobic coming into the next country.
Step one is waiting for a guy to move the cone in the middle of the road so you can park in front of the next cone. Fumigating the car is the step here, for which you pay at window number 1… we had exchanged some dollars for quetzals so were thankfully prepared! Then it was on to immigration (window number 2), with a superfriendly man who told me to go to the customs first and see if the paperwork for our rental car was in order, before he would take care of immigration. Hence we move to window number 3, and ask the customs employee if it is okay to bring our Mexican rental car in. Mind you, we paid almost 180 dollars to get a notarized document saying we can, but of course customs might disagree, and not many rentals make it here. After half an hour of debating, calling people, debating some more the verdict was; YES you can…
Great! So we go back to window number 2, get stamped in by our immigration friend there in 2 minutes flat (no need for the men to show their faces) and then get back to window number 3 for the car… Debating the validity of our request was one thing, but doing the paperwork is another and thus the man took about 45 more minutes getting everything typed in, printed, copied, signed, and then there is a payment to be made. Not with him, but with the bank next door: Window number 4! No card accepted, it is all in cash (which turns out to be the standard in Guatemala we realize later on) and thankfully very fast, but after the payment it is another 10 minutes to verify and process the payment. All in all, we got through in 1,5 hours… and NOBODY checked our Covid status or papers…. *sigh*
The drive from the border is still a very windy potholed road with crazy drivers, proven 5 kilometers into it by a very bloody motor driver on the road surrounded by people… Good warning coming in here! The 90km after that takes us over 3 hours, meaning we arrive after dark at our stay for the night. Pfew… not easy, very tiring, but we made it; GUATEMALA here we come!
Next week: On to Guatemala!