Road Trip: Quintana Roo and Yucatan, Part 1

I went to Cancún so you don’t have to.

Well, no. Go to Cancún for the nice warm beach. Have a cocktail or two in a hollowed out pineapple.

Then spend the rest of your time cruising around Quintana Roo and Yucatán.

We (2 adults and a child just shy of 2 years old) visited the region from late May to early June, the very beginning of the low tourist season. Also known as the beginning of the relentless oppressive muggy tropical heat. Given the choice, I will always pick bad weather over tourist hoards. The exchange rate at the time of our visit was $1 to MEX$19.

This is part 1.

Cancún , Quintana Roo

As I stated before, the beach is the number one reason to go to Cancún . The water is mostly calm, though with occasional warnings of strong undercurrent, warm, and there is excellent snorkeling and scuba diving in the area. While its not hard to find a hotel with beach access, there are several excellent public beaches with large clean bathrooms and changing rooms. Playa Delfines is the most popular of these with tourist, while Playa Langosta has a more local crowd.

Speaking of these two beaches: if your goal for this trip is to take an Instagram worthy photo of the very popular and colorful CANCÚN sign, skip the line at Playa Delfines and head north to Playa Langosta. By line I mean actual bus-loads of people waiting under the searing sun for this photo. No one will be the wiser.

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Cancún sign at Playa Delfines.

The relatively new Museo Maya de Cancún is a worthwhile start to a road trip through the peninsula. The modern white building houses a small collection with some great examples of relief carvings, as well as a very cool saber tooth tiger skeleton. Attached to the museum is the Zona Arqueológica San Miguelito, which opened to the public in 2012. There is a cafeteria on site, which was not yet open for the day at the time of our visit, and an excellent gift shop, something I rarely say. You’ll want to buy everything, and you should.

Across Boulevard Kukulcan from Playa Delfines is the Zona Arqueológica El Rey. The ruins themselves may not seem impressive when compared to others in the peninsula, but the site offers a good opportunity to get up close to rather large iguanas, and to enjoy a break from the crowds of the Hotel Zone.

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Zona Arqueologica El Rey, Cancun.

From here we left Cancún until the last few days of our trip.

Valladolid, Yucatán

An easy drive from Cancún, we used Valladolid as a base point for reaching Chichén Itzá, but the small city is well worth two days to enjoy properly.

We stayed at the beautiful Casa Quetzal Boutique Hotel. The hotel’s rooms surround a lush courtyard, and each is fitted with a large and far too comfortable hamaca, all the better to survive the tropical midday heat.

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Embroidery in our room at Casa Quetzal

One of the things I love the most about going back to Mexico is how perfect tropical fruits are. The papaya served at breakfast here was tender, deeply orange and gently sweet. Perfectly as it should be, and possible only when tree ripening the fruit as much as possible. The simple but very good breakfast at the hotel included bowls of sliced papaya and banana, with granola and vanilla yoghurt, sweet breads, and excellent coffee and fresh orange juice.

Every meal at Valladolid was more than was already highly anticipated. At Cocina Economica Zaci-Hual, inside the Bazar Municipal, we ate the ‘paquete familiar de 8 guisos,’  The place included the omnipresent cochinita pibil, poc chuch (grilled citrus marinated pork), Valladolid style longaniza, tender grilled fish, pechuga empanizada (breaded chicken cutlets), etc, as well black beans with hoja santa, rice, searingly hot habanero salsa, and a large stack of the softest corn tortillas. All for MEX$360, and more than 2 1/2 people could eat. If this particular establishment inside the bazaar isn’t appealing, there’s plenty more to choose from, or wait for one of the many pushy vendors to find you.

Next were banana leaf wrapped tamales at La Palapita de los Tamales. This spot is even popular for deliveries and carry out orders as it is for dining in the heavily vegetated courtyard. The menu changes daily, and at the time of our visit we the three tamales available: steamed máculan tamal of runny strained masa, filled with white beans, and hoja santa; baked chachacua tamal of masa with recado rojo (achiote paste), shredded chicken, tomato and a hard boiled egg; the third was a baked pork tamal colorado, similar to a northern style tamal, but of Yucateco proportions.  These last two were pan-fried in lard before being served to give them a nice crisp crust.

Since eating in a shady tropical courtyard seemed like the Valladolid thing to do, the next meal was at Yerbabuena del Sisal, with golden fried plantains served with Mexican cream and thick refried black beans with hoja santa, a cazuela de huevo en salsa de tomatillo y nopales, a pork torta on whole wheat bread and a generous portion of avocado, and a large bowl of tropical fruit with a side of thick plain yogurt and granola. The courtyard is beautiful, cool and calm, the coffee is excellent, and the generous portions come served on gorgeous clay dishes. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options on the menu, if that’s your thing.

Across the street for Yerbabuena and Caza Quetzal is the 16th century Convento de San Bernardino de Siena. The pink walls of the ex-convent conceal a courtyard housing some rather territorial geese, as well as turkeys, chickens and peacocks. A large underground cenote is visible by climbing the wheel house. The small museum has various tools and weapons recovered from the cenote as well as photos. This building played provided refuge for soldiers during the Caste War of Yucatan, a conflict between Mexicans of European decent and Mayans, which began in 1847 and carried on till early in the 20th century. Which side took refuge here, I couldn’t tell you.

There is a small fee, MEX$30 or 40, to enter the convent. The church next door is free of charge. In the evenings, the building’s pink walls are beautifully lit up in red for a free light and sound show, in Spanish at 9, and English at 9:20.

On the south side of Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado, is the Catedral de San Gervasio, a building of calm and quiet in comparison to the snack vendors and masses of song birds outside. Just to the east of the cathedral is Yalat Arte Mexicano, selling the highest quality artisan goods I came across on the entire trip and is packed with hand embroidered huipiles, with an area dedicated to Mayan chocolate.

To get more than an eye full of Mexican folk art, we visited Casa de los Venados, a more than 3,000 piece private collection housed in a 16th century residence. Free tours are held daily at 10 am, or by appointment.

Just outside of Valladolid, and a little bit outside the normal tourist path, is Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman, where one of the many cenotes of the region is found. These limestone natural swimming holes have long been important, as they were seen by natives people to connect the surface world to the underworld. Religious offerings were thrown into them, pottery, carved objects, and human sacrifices.

This particular cenote is open to above, with the water level some 30 feet below. The calm blue water is more than 200 feet deep, with a pleasant chill. Life preservers are provided, and several ropes for resting cross the cenote. There’s a nice rope swing too. The cost of entering the cenote was MEX$40 per adult.cancun_playa_langosta

The hacienda has a snack bar and swimming pool as well, which was closed for repainting on the day we visited. Like Convento de San Bernadino, the hacienda also played a role during the Caste War of Yucatan, a conflict brutal enough to have reduced the area’s population by almost 2/3.

Chichén Itzá and Cenote Ik-Kil, Yucatán

I cannot emphasize it enough, so it will be in nice large letters. If you are visiting Chichén Itzá (which, please do, it is a beautiful place and hugely significant in Mesoamerican history) GET THERE EARLY. The site opens at 8. Be there at 8. Why does this matter? Getting there at 8 means you can find parking, you’re not dodging swarms of tour groups, it’s less boiling hot in the actual literal jungle, the hundreds of vendors working the site are not set up yet, and you can enjoy a good 2 hours there in relative comfort.

This is the only one of the three large archeological sites we visited in which I felt the need to hire a guide. Advertised prices for a 1.5 hour tour were MEX$750, but guides are open to haggling. Our guide was kind enough to do all the haggling himself, and gave us a rate of MEX$400 by adding another visitor to the tour who covered the remainder.

Why get a guide? Sure, the history of Chichén Itzá is long, interesting and worth hearing, but the site has fantastic aural qualities, which a guide will know how to best demonstrate. If you want to walk around the Gran Juego de Pelota (the ball court) whistling, clapping, doing bird calls or what have you to try to find the perfect spot for the echo effect, be my guest. I can’t whistle, but I can find a guide that does; it’s probably a requirement.

A little bit of Mayan math. The speed of sound is 343 meters per second. Half of this is 171.5. The length of the ball court is 168 meters. Meaning that whistle, clap or bird call the guide makes at that sweet spot, will come back to you in just a shade under a second.

If you want to test your endurance, take the long walk through the souvenir gauntlet to the Cenote Sagrado de Chichén Itzá. Unfortunately you can’t cool off in this formerly sacred cenote, as it is currently polluted and un-swimmable (and not even due to continued human sacrifices). If you need refreshment, there is a snack shop next to it with very refreshing lime paletas.

Speaking of human sacrifice, here’s a quote from that day’s Instagram post:

Do not be one of these people.

If the overall size of the archeological site seems unimpressive, remember the city had been in decline since the 12th century, and likely barely resembled the glory days by the time the Spanish arrived. Approximately 90% of the city is buried in the jungle. Those working to preserve what remains constantly fight vegetation humidity and black mold growing on the limestone temples.

Just a few minutes away from the site is Cenote Ik Kil, the most popular of the cenotes we visited. The site is well-developed as far as amenities, offering locker, towel and life-preserver rental. Entrance fee to the cenote was MEX$70, and rental fees were MEX$30 each. Yes it adds up, $1.50ish at a time.

Due to just how popular the cenote is, the more bodies in the water, the more turbulent the water gets, thanks to bounce from the limestone walls. Once again, GET THERE EARLY. We were lucky enough to enjoy more than half an hour of comfortably calm water before it turned into a washing machine. The water is cold enough to get rid of the heat of the day and wake up the appetite in that short half hour.

Coincidentally enough, there is a large, very busy and very good lunch buffet on the property. The service is terrible, but the food is not. Enjoy all of it. If you need a nap afterwards, there is a small hotel on the property, with bungalows spread out throughout the lush jungle.

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