El Castillo at Chichen Itza. See all photos here
I guess I'm
We considered a few different destinations, Jamaica? Too expensive right now, Dominican? Both had been there already. Cuba? Maybe. Mexico? Possibly but only if we go to the Mayan Riviera side so we can see some cool sights. In the end we chose Cancun, Mexico, based on prices and attractions. We booked our trip for Jan 30 to Feb 6th and after many hours on Tripadvisor decided to go with Sea Adventure Resort & Waterpark, an older hacienda style resort a little off the beaten path and away from all the tourists.
Our flight was good with no delays etc though our in flight entertainment system was down (Westjet I swear this happens 75% of the time, fix it already) but thanks to ipods, kindles, and good old fashioned paper books we were kept entertained.
Our resort in a nutshell was great, although upon arriving we were a little concerned. A couple from either US or Canada were in the middle of a fight with the hotel staff when we walked in the front doors. The bellboy was holding the door closed and they were shouting "you can't keep us prisoner here!!" and trying to open the door. It goes without saying that we were pretty wide eyed when we approached the front desk. It turned out the people had refused to pay $20 because one of their kids had spilled something on the bed and stained the sheets. Anyway, seeing how bewildered we were they immediately upgraded our room to an oceanview room with a jacuzzi on the balcony. Sweet.
View from our balcony
That was really the only bad experience we had at the resort. The staff were very friendly and eager to please, this was part of why we booked there, people on Tripadvisor couldn't say enough good things about the service.
The resort was located in Puerto Juarez in north Cancun, well away from the tourist zone. In fact it seemed we were pretty much on the outskirts of town. Pros were that we were close to the ferry to La Isla Mujeres and we had Mayan Ruins just up the road from us, cons were that cab rides into downtown were a little more money but not that bad.
Our first night we didn't do too much, just ate, drank, and got the lay of the land. The next day we paid for some tours and formulated a rough plan for our week.
Monday - Take the 2min shuttle up the road to El Meco Ruins ($3 fee at the gates)
Tuesday - Chichen Itza Tour ($72 each, 12 hour excursion)
Wednesday - Take it easy, maybe go downtown to the market
Thursday - Rio Secreto Cave Tour ($89 each, ~8hr excursion)
Friday - La Isla Mujeres
Saturday - Last full day, relax and enjoy it.
For the most part we were able to stick with our plan with the exception of La Isla Mujeres which got moved to Saturday.
Pano taken at El Meco ruins just a 10 min walk from our resortThis was such a treat. We had heard about it on trip advisor when researching our resort. Reviews had mentioned that this ruin site was almost always free of other visitors and this turned out to be true, we were the only visitors there for half an hour and then one guy from our resort wandered in as well. If you're in Cancun I highly recommend heading out to these ruins, they may not be as grandiose as Chichen Itza but the peaceful stillness from the lack of people gives it a more surreal feeling. Both me and my girlfriend counted it as one of the highlights of our trip.
The lizards have taken over the ruins at El Meco
Being that our hotel was a little out of the way we were picked up by a shuttle (30 min late) and taken downtown to where the mini tour bus was departing. The drive was around 2.5hrs with a stop near Chichen Itza at a Cenote. There you could swim if you wanted then a stop for an included lunch. The lunch was actually pretty good and included a bit more authentic local fare.
After lunch we made our way to the historical site where we stayed for 2 and half hours. Our guide said we could follow him or break off from the group, however he very strongly suggested we stay with the group because it was easy to get lost and not find the proper exit. Don't believe they hype! We stayed with the group and regretted it afterwards, our guide took us through the Great Ballcourt and then stopped under the shade of some trees and talked for over an hour. Then we were given a little less than an hour to wander around the whole site on our own. In the end we missed some cool portions like the Priests Temple and the Observatory. My recommendation is watch "Cracking The Mayan Code" (its also on Netflix) before you go and read up about Chichen Itza on wikipedia before you go and skip the guide.
The site was pretty cool, the hoards of tourists kinda took away from the surreal landscape though. It wasn't until I had gotten home, processed and de-touristed the photos, that I could look back and appreciate what I had seen. It seems to be the same no matter where I go, I felt the same when I was on the Great Wall of China. I heard some people complaining that you they no longer let you climb up on the structures, I for one was glad since it kept people out of my shots ;)
Temple of The Warriors at Chichen ItzaOne last note on Chichen Itza regarding souvenirs, there are some items we saw there and passed over because we thought we'd find them again later for a cheaper price. While this was true of some items there were others that we never saw again, for example there was a woven blanket with a very cool Mayan/Aztec looking pattern that I regret not picking up. I also bought an ash tray and a stone chess board while we were on our way out, I got both together for $20 and later on I saw the same chessboards for $80. I just said to the guy I've got a bus to catch, take it or leave it and he took the cash. When I told one of the vendors I bought the same chess board for around $15 he got a little angry and said that was not possible ;)
Rio Secreto Caves
Photo from cd purchased after the tour
Now this was something I was very excited about before the trip. I came across it while reading up on excursions in and around Cancun and was surprised when I had discovered it because I had seen portions of it featured in the BBC/Discover series Planet Earth. I had no idea that this was in Mexico so as soon as I found out I told my girlfriend this was something we had to do.
The Yucatan penninsula is primarly limestone, because of this there are no natural rivers, instead they are all underground. Normally these caves are filled with water and require scuba gear to explore them, underwater cave exploration is one of the most dangerous activities in the world. Rio Secreto on the other hand is one of the few underground rivers that you can actually walk/wade through without ever having to put your head under the water.
The tour cost us around $99 USD and included pickup/dropoff from our resort as well as lunch at the caves. Like the Chichen Itza excursion our shuttle to pick us up at our resort was late, this time though it was running really late. Eventually after talking to a rep from Best Day Travel we found out that our shuttle had gotten a flat tire, the rep then put us into a cab on their dime and sent us downtown to meet up with the bus. We ended up being the last people to get on the bus and I'm sure people were thinking it was our fault we were late and held them up. Oh well I'll never see them again anyway ;)
Despite getting off to a rough start the rest of the excursion was great. Just a heads up though the showers they make you use before getting into your wetsuit are insanely cold since they are using water from the underground river. Its funny when you get back and you see another group who are just about to go through the same experience ;)
Our tour guide was great and our group was fairly small, I believe they always try to keep the size below 10 people. Walking is a little tricky since the bottom of the cave isn't always flat, just go slow and you'll be fine. Throughout the tour there is a guy that shadows your group and snaps photos here and there. At preset locations they have flashes setup (with bags over them to keep them dry) and they'll get you to pose for a shot like the one below.
A posed shot while on the tour, note the flashlights in the pools providing extra light ;)
At the end of the tour while you're busy trying to get your wet-suit off they run ahead and dump their memory cards. You then get a shot of an anise and honey flavoured Mayan liqueur and they try to sell you the photos they took of you. Its a little steep at $60 USD for a disc but I'd rather pay for these shots then some lame one on a beach with a parrot on your shoulder. The disc you get also includes some nice stock shots from the caves as well, unfortunately the stock shots are lower res (2-3Mega Pixel). One thing to note is that your disc will contain two folders, "Fotos" and "Fotos para impresion", the first contains photos that are good for web use and emailing, the second contains larger files (10 Mega Pixels) which are for printing. At first I didn't see the folder with the full sized files and felt a little cheated.
La Isla Mujeres (The Island of Women)
On our second last day we took a ferry across to the Island of Women. There is plenty of stuff to do on the island like diving and a whole host of water sports or you can rent a golf cart and cruise around the island. We however just played it low key and just walked up and down the strip on foot. At one point we wandered off the main strip a little too far and it was looking a little seedier, I don't think we were ever in any danger since the whole island makes its living on tourism.
Some graffiti we came across when we wandered off the beaten path on La Isla Mujeres
While we were off the beaten path we came across a neat little cemetery that had this creepy black cat apparently standing guard at the gates.
We made it back to the main strip and found a little ice cream/gelato shop which was a nice place to sit and cool off a little. All in all the island was decent, others we talked to that had done some of the excursions had quite a good time so I'd say its worth checking out.
In the end it was quite a nice little winter get away, we had a nice mix of adventure and relaxation and didn't break the bank in the process. What more can you ask for right?
Here's a little video I put together from a collection of clips I had shot with my little ipod touch.
While staying at the resort you get 2 vouchers per week to eat at their fancier a la carte restaurant "Oysters". We found the food there to be quite good and while we thought the buffet was decent this was definitely a nice change. Here's a clip of our waiter preparing our Mayan Coffee: