This was our most ‘last minute’ trip ever! Mexico was always on our list of countries to visit and we had been studying ticket price fluctuations for over a year. By December 2008, the prices were dirt cheap and we began toying with the idea of a trip. But I had just converted to OPT status, was missing some required documents and it being the holiday season visa consulates and school administrative offices were closed. Hence everything had to be rushed once the New Year began.
The day we got the visa, we booked tickets and accommodation. I would suggest booking tours or any other reservations online before you go. We found the prices in Mexico to be more or less the same, if not more. Avoid the hassle and make arrangements before you leave.
I would also recommend that you take Pesos in hand. American dollar is accepted but you will get change in Pesos only and usually a very bad conversion rate is used, leaving you with the shorter end of the stick. We took some Pesos from the bank here and got some money converted in Mexico as well. I think conversion rates were marginally better at some money exchange services in Mexican airports.
We flew to Cancun on Mexicana flights from SF. During immigration procedures in Mexico, they will give you a ‘Migratory Form for Tourists’ (FMT). Hang onto it. They will ask for it when you depart Mexico and I hear the fine for losing it is $40.
Upon arriving in Cancun, we took an ADO bus to get from the airport to Cancun downtown. There are many taxis and ‘collectivos’ available. But they are a rip off, charging 4-5 times the cost of the bus. An ADO bus ticket costs $3.50 (40 pesos) and the buses are very comfortable for the 30min journey between the airport and Cancun downtown. The ADO bus terminal in downtown is a pleasing white building that is as well maintained as an airport. This is where you would come to get a bus to other cities around Cancun or back to the airport.
The climate in Cancun was unbearably hot and humid when we landed. But after a couple of hours and some food, we were well adjusted. The roads are unlike the US. Not perpendicular at all. Reminded me of roads in India. Only maps and experience will tell you were the roads will lead you to. Logic won’t. It also rained the last day we were in Cancun and the roads were flooded with water in no time. As we hopped over one puddle after another and searched for ways to avoid wading through the water, I realized how much I missed the monsoons back home!
Cancun (translation of Nest of Snakes) is a resort city that was developed by the govt. for tourism alone. Before that it was undeveloped jungle land, which was literally a nest of a variety of snakes! With turquoise warm waters of the Caribbean sea and white powdery sand of shallow beaches (and Tequila of course), Cancun is a hot favorite with students on a spring break. There is a strip of land along the Caribbean Sea that has been developed into a ‘Hotel Zone’, dotted with luxurious hotels and resorts – much like ‘The Strip’ of Las Vegas, but with much less glitz. If you want to spend your vacation basking on the lovely beaches and enjoying the nightlife, then the Hotel Zone is the best place to be. We were on a short vacation with a big agenda and so one of the cheaper no-frills hostels in downtown suited us fine, to spend the night.
Dinner at ‘Pericos’ is a must for all tourists, to experience a Mexican fiesta! There is always a party atmosphere there, with live music, Mariachis serenading tables, waiters playing pranks on and dancing with customers etc. As soon as you walk in, they help you dress up like Spanish senors and senoritas and click a picture. Sombreros (large Mexican hats) are plopped on your head as you are guided to your table. All the waiters and hostesses are dressed in beautiful Spanish costumes. The decor is interesting and the experience is memorable. Of course, the food was good too, though costlier than other restaurants in the area.
We enjoyed food in Mexico. All places serve a plate of nachos with spicy salsas and dips while you wait for you meal. Be weary of those dips. They have the potential to set your tongue on fire. I was caught off my guard and tears rolled down my cheeks after the first bite! We tried all sorts of eateries in Mexico – from buffets to wayside vendors. In one of the smaller places tacos and tortes filled with tender pork shaved off slow roasting meat (just like a shawarma) tasted very good! Be warned – Finding breakfast in Cancun is the most difficult task. Thanks to the thriving nightlife that goes way beyond 6am the following morning, most of the places don’t open until mid-day.
For a day of adventure, we booked a tour with ‘Selvetica’ in Puerto Morales, which included Extreme Zip-lining, Mountain Biking and swimming in a ‘cenote’. Zip-lines are often used as a means to access remote areas of the jungle and zip-lining is a popular vacation activity. At Selvetica’s we were zipping at high speeds and at a height of about 20 feet above the jungle floor. Movement depends on the angles at which the cables are tied, the position of your body and gravity alone! The first zip-line was terrifying but soon the experience began thrilling enough to enjoy the view far below and the wind in your face. I must say the encouraging guides at Selvetica made the experience wonderful. After miles of zip-lining, it was time for some rough terrain mountain biking to a cenote. Cenotes are deep natural sinkholes where underground rivers emerge. Both the underground rivers and these cenotes were considered sacred by the ancient civilizations like the Maya. They used to ceremoniously throw children, virgins and warriors into these huge pools, as a human sacrifice to their gods. As a custom, these bodies were never recovered.
The highlight of our trip was a visit to Chichen Itza – One of the 7 wonders of the world! Its pyramid-like structure with steps on 4 sides leading to a temple on top, is one of the most famous sites of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans were very good at astronomy and their temples and observatories are built according to precise calculations. This particular temple is dedicated to ‘Kukulcan’ the plumed serpent god. During the solstices, a shadow falls across these steps, resembling a slithering snake! There are 91 steps on each of the 4 sides of the pyramid and one single step on the top, leading to the temple. That’s exactly 365 steps to represent a cycle of a year! It is no wonder that the Mayan calendar is considered to be more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we follow today. Chichen Itza is also an acoustical wonder. Clap your hands and the sound resonates and sounds like a loud bird call at the top of the pyramid. This was probably their loudspeaker facility!
Chichen Itza must have been a hub in its heydays. The tracks connecting Chichen Itza to most of the important cities in the Yucatan peninsula, are still visible. There are a number of cenotes around Chichen Itza. Pollution of these cenotes is cited as a possible reason for the city being abandoned long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
There are other ruins of Mayan landmarks within the complex. Most noticeably, the ball court. The ball game was a popular ancient game played to invoke the leeping gods of the underworld. Players had to hit a ball through a hoop high up in the wall. At the end of the game, one player (history isn’t sure whether it is the winner or the loser – most likely to be the winner as it makes a more worthy sacrifice) was beheaded and offered to the gods.
We took one of those day trips to Chichen Itza in a luxurious double decker bus. The tour included a buffet lunch in a Mayan village, a swim in the ‘Ik-Kil’ cenote and guide sevices. There was also a small dance entertainment by some Mayan natives during lunch. Though ours was an ‘English’ tour, our guide knew just enough English to plough through his well rehearsed information. Hence I found the tour to be dragging, with very little information exchange. I also read that there are sacred caves about 4-6 km from Chichen Itza. An archaeologist excavating a cave found a false wall which eventually led to a system of caves with pottery, jewelry and idols left exactly as it was, in Pre-Columbian times. Maybe that is worth a visit as well.
While the Maya civilization occupied the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, the Aztec civilization occupied central Mexico. Hence, Mexico city and its surrounding areas boast of Aztec ruins. Entire Mexico City was built by Hernan Corrtes (the Spanish conquistador who colonized Mexico) over the Aztec capital city, Tenotichtlan. It is said that the Aztec emperor Montezumo mistook Corrtes to be one of their Gods and almost handed over the empire to Corrtes on a platter! But in the ensuing conquest the Aztecs were almost completely wiped out. Tenotichtlan their capital is said to have been comparable to Rome and other European cities in its grandeur and culture. Some workers accidently stumbled on the ruins of ‘Templo Mayor’ the Aztec temple in the heart of Mexico city, while digging to lay cables. Amazingly, large intact parts are open for public viewing. Parts of the exposed ruins of Templo Mayor and the adjacent museum can throw light on the Aztecs.
All cities founded by the Spanish have the same layout – a main plaza surrounded by the Cathedral, the Govt. Palaces and other important buildings. Mexico City is no exceptions. The plaza area in Mexico City is referred to as the Zocalo. Templo Mayor is right next to the Cathedral and it is believed that Corrtes used some of the large stones of the Aztec temples, to build the church.
An important visit for us in Mexico City, was to the Basilica of Guadalupe. This is where Mother Mary appeared to a native, just 2 years after the fall of the city of Tenotichtlan in 1531. She left an image of herself on the native’s poor cloak, which is still intact to this day. The cloak has been chemically tested but no known pigments were found to have made the image. This is considered the most visited Christian religious site in the Western Hemisphere. For more info on the miracle, check http://www.cancunsteve.com/guadalupe.htm