Wednesday, August 08, 2007

For most orient people Mexico is off their cognizance and wiser few would remember Tequilas, Señoritas, Mayans and Cancun when they think of Mexico. I was privileged and fortunate to experience the last in the list...the pride of Caribbean...Cancun. It is located on the south-eastern coast of Quintana Roo state of Mexico, part of picturesque Yucatán peninsula.

Vivaaerobus, that claims to fame being the most inexpensive flight, carried us down south from Monterrey. The flight was indeed cheap - paper boarding passes, no seat numbers, no refreshments (not even water), non-expanding seats slightly of lower quality than those older red BMTC buses. It took about two and half hours to reach our destination. An ADO bus, costing 35 pesos brought us to the central bus terminus of Cancun in less than half hour. It was quite hot outside, but ADO buses had better cooling systems and seats more comfortable for our derrières than Vivaaerobus ones. We had some roadside chicken tacos cursing the flight for not feeding us, walked for 15 minutes till we found our hostel Casa Mexico Tipico on Calle Jabali (read Caye Habali).

Señora Hilda, the hostel owner was warm and friendly. She explained the hostel rules in a jiffy and after a quick break, she explained us the basics of Cancun - what to see, how to get there, how much does it cost, where to eat, where is that, how is that - she answered a dozen of questions patiently wearing a sweet smile. Hostel has central air conditioning, neat and tidy rooms, immaculate sheets, clean toilets (shared) and even has a kitchen (shared) in case you would want to try out your culinary skills.

Cancun is a very simple city to navigate. In a nutshell, its a city with Tulum avenue, lagoon, hotel zone and beach. Tulum avenue is the backbone of the city containing central bus terminus and connecting neighbouring towns of Playa del Carmen, Tulum and others. Hotel zone is parallel to Tulum avenue which tapers as you move south, giving a shape of "7" when seen aerially. Between these two roads is a huge lagoon where tourists can boat, fish, swim or snorkel. Beach is on the other side of the hotel zone.

We boarded the city bus (Route-2) to one of such beaches on the smaller limb of "7", it was late in the evening, twilight illuminated the beach faintly, crowd was at its least. Waded and swam for an hour, repenting for not carrying beers. Took the same bus back to Tulum Avenue and had a tasty dinner at "Los Palleta Del Mayor", an inexpensive sea-food restaurant. The fish fillet sauted in garlic was fresh and fragrant, tasted suntuoso.

Day 2:
We started the day early, an ADO was peacefully driving us to Tulum. It costs about 72 pesos and 2 hours to reach Tulum from Cancun central, with a short stopover at Playa Del Carmen. Tulum brought back the memoirs of Goa in me. Street crowded with foreigners mainly Gringos, shops selling handicrafts, restaurants dishing out meals not just inside but on pavements too.

Hiring taxis in Cancun and its neighbouring places is the worst nightmare one may have. Taxi drivers are not aware that there exists a device called "Fare Meter" in this world. The fare largely depends on his mood, the face of the customer, the destination, time of the day, moon phases, star positions and several other supernatural factors. And they dont care for your bargain skills, which you used to excel all these years. We tried avoiding taxi as much as possible but in Tulum we had no other option (though there was option of bicycle).

We reached beach paying 35 pesos to the taxi driver, as we trod the soft white sands the sea gods started showing their fury. It started off with lightening streaks, thunder roars, stormy breeze, heavy drizzle mixed with sand. The beach side huts gave us shelter, in about 30 minutes the sea got pacified and rain stalled. We went to Mayan archaeological remains at Tulum. 45 pesos will fetch you an opportunity to witness the debris of Mayan city, consisting of stone buildings of varying sizes, along the magnificent blue beaches of Tulum. These buildings used to be the temples, castles and houses during the Mayan heydays 1200-1500 AD. The most beautiful one is the Templo del dios del Viento (The temple of the God of wind), which stands proudly on a circular base facing the blue and beautiful Carribean. Tulum was a fortified city then, and it was one of the major ports. At one place there is a wooden staircase leading to beach, we could spot many iguanas there, one of them was gaping at the visitors showing off its rosy oral interiors. After a short swim in the beach, we started walking back. Tried hitch-hiking few cars, none stopped, finally a taxi appeared and the driver agreed to drive us to downtown for 40 pesos.

Collectivo service is yet another mode of transport between Cancun and its neighbours, an air-conditioned mini bus, wait-until-full system, stops at customer convenient places, costs a tad cheaper yet faster than ADO, no television but pumps out good music. We came to Playa Del Carmen by a Collectivo and took an ADO to Cancun.

Like the previous day we tried one of the beaches at hotel zone but on the longer limb of "7". I was awestruck by the extravagance there - noisy and palatial disco houses, expensive souvenir shops, grandiose food houses, rich gringos flaunting their BMWs and Harleys. Amidst all these riches we found our way to the beach, it was deserted since it was almost dark. We had grabbed few beers and peanuts from Oxxo, had the pleasure of swilling beer, on the rock, in the water. Waves were also quite high which added to the pleasure. Time passed quicker in the beach, all street food shops at Cancun centro were off. We wandered searching for food, found a Tamales shop opposite to bus station. Chicken tamales tasted good and the chocolate malt was filling and nutritious.

Day 3:
Our plan of going to Cozumel early in the morning got changed due to late awakening and a German lady. Since we woke up late, we happened to talk to Daniella, a big time backpacker. She suggested us to goto Coba, another archaeological ruins site and we decided to do so.

A collectiveo to Playa Del Carmen, from there another one to Tulum. Boarded an ADO to Coba (no collectivo service) which drove us to our destination in 40 minutes. Coba is a small village consisting of few small eating joints, handicraft shops and a main road leading to the lake crowded by crocodiles. Next to the lake is the Mayan ruin site, entrance costs 45 pesos. The area is covered with extremely dense green forests. There are 3 sites to visit each separated by few kilometers. The first one consists of debris of the pyramid Iglesia, the second highest point on which climbing is prohibited. The second one has the great Nohoch Mul, the highest pyramid (42 meters) in the Yucatan peninsula on which one could climb. The pyramid is steep and view from top is the greenest panorama one could see, dense forests till horizon. There was a circular shaped pyramid too and the final site consisted of stone inscriptions. The inscriptions are so inconspicuous that I felt they were just mounted stone slabs. We spotted beautiful butterflies in this archaeological park and could manage few good shots of them. It almost took 3 hours for to traverse the park. Since the walking distance can range upto 10 kilometers depending on the number of sites you wish to see, cycles are available for renting.

We grabbed a bus to Playa Del Carmen. Here we walked on the 5th Avenue, a very posh touristy street parallel to the beach. It had many restaurants, handicraft shops, beauty salons crowded by pretty women. We went to Playa Mamitas and hit the beach. Sand was soft and white, water was calm, beach less crowded. After an hour long aquatic pleasure, we walked back on 5th avenue and had dinner at a roadside restaurant near the bus station. Chicken tacos tasted awesome, though mango juice consisted of 99.99% water with 0.01% mango topped with ice. A thick banana milk shake from the neighbouring juice store after dinner compensated that watery mango juice. A collectivo brought us back to Cancun.

Day 4:
We changed two city buses from our hostel area to reach Puerto Juarez. This is the point to take ferry to the magnificent island of Isla Mujeres (Island of women). The ferry costs 70 pesos for a round trip and takes about 20 minutes to cross the Bajia (bay) de Mujeres. The island is just about 8 kilometers long and less than a kilometer wide, with Playa Norte (The North Beach) on one end and Punte Sur (The South Point) on the other.

Since no buses ply on the island, renting a bike was inevitable. It costs 250 pesos and you can use it till 5 in the evening. Since we were present in the island quite early, most shops were shuttered down and the crowd was minimal. We hit Playa Norte and were mesmerized by the calmness, no crowd, no noise, no big waves - few pelicans and albatrosses were fishing in an absolutely pacified fashion in an absolutely pacified bluish-green beach. The beach was so shallow that I could walk half a kilometer without getting my neck wet. I instantly fell in love with Playa Norte.

We then headed to Punte Sur, the other end of the island. The roads were neat and narrow almost laid parallel to the blue beaches. Punte Sur is where the Mexico ends on its eastern side. We climbed atop a light house inside Carribean village, the view is splendid from this point, blue beaches on two sides till horizon and an obscured Mexican mainland on the third side. We drove back to downtown and decided to do snorkeling.

It costs 200 pesos for an hour long snorkeling. After a quick test of costume size, we were in boat driving towards the coral clad region. The water was crystal clear though terribly salty, we fell back from the boat like those scuba divers and started snorkeling. The life underneath was amazingly colorful and vivid. We happened to spot starfishes, colored fishes ranging from violet to red, long and fierce barracudas, schools of tiny fishes and interesting sea weeds. We were wet and hungry after snorkeling, we found one of the home kitchens "La Susanita" and had delicious chicken tortillas. Though home kitchens are supposed to be inexpensive, we had to shell out 150 pesos for lunch, which was a bit too much for the quantity of food we had.

Azul blue beaches, eye feasting ladies, hot sun, soft sand, ice cold beer, post lunch sloth and reverie - these exactly describe how we spent time after lunch at Playa Norte. We were wading in water like lazy cattle for two long hours guzzling down beer. We returned the bike at about half past four and took the ferry back to Cancun. After a quick rest, we were in the hotel zone watching the golden yellow sunset on the lagoon. We went till the lowest point on longer limb of "7" where the bus takes "U" turn and came back to downtown. Had tasty mushroom quesadillas
at roadside restaurant.

Day 5:
Our flight was at 4 in the evening, so we were not able to risk a far place. We decided to have a look at the much talked about "Market 28". Daniella joined us too, taxi fare was 18 pesos. It was like one of those BDA shopping complexes in Bangalore, selling T-shirts with Cancun prints, sunglasses, leather wallets and hats, Mayan souvenirs and other sundries supposedly cheaper than other places. After a quick stroll, we relaxed and talked over a drink till the lunch time at "Tiknixik". We talked German history, Indian culture, Cuban lifestyle, travel stories, food and loads of other interesting things with Daniella. Mouthwatering roasted chicken with rice and tortillas was served for lunch at the same place. We came back to hostel and relaxed for a while, we packed our luggage, bid farewell to Hilda and Daniella, walked lazily to the bus station gulping chilled beer. An ADO bus drove us smoothly to airport and we were flying back on Vivaaerobus back to Monterrey.

Traveller tips (mainly for backpackers/budget travllers):

1. If you're backpacking avoid all the fancy parks like xcaret or xel-ha. Many may recommend you to visit, but considering the fact that you have to cough out 1000 pesos (on a budget travel!!!) for an amusement park, though it includes snorkeling, food and some entertainment, I would rather explore something more intense, interesting and inexpensive. It would be an interesting place for those travelling with family or on honeymoon, but no way for a backpacker.

2. Cancun is an exorbitantly expensive place, roadside food is a good option for budget travellers. There are innumerable places dishing out tacos, quesadillas, tamales and hotdogs. Most of them are clean and food is delicious, so if you hesitate to eat on streets you're missing something nice and tasty.

3. Buses ply with high frequency and higher speeds. The drivers seem to be retired formula-1 drivers, it looks as though they are having drags with the other buses or taxis when they drive in hotel zone.

4. Collectivos are faster and cheaper than ADOs and I personally liked it more than ADO buses.

5. You can find hostels in Cancun here.

6 . A note to all SLR shooters: ADO buses have a cool atmosphere inside, but the luggage cabin above the seat is mind numbingly cold. I threw my camera bag there while going to Tulum and it was so cold that even the inside of the lens got fogged, which may lead to fungus. You're better off keeping the camera bag underneath the seat.

7. In most archaeological sites, use of tripod is prohibited and use of video camera requires you pay extra.

More photos:
http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=754892
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sachinb/tags/cancun

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