Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas from Mexico City!

I've been here only a week yet already it seems like I've been here for much longer. After what seemed like days (or maybe I'm just getting too old to sleep in airports!) we arrived in Cancun and as soon as we got off the plane and the heat hit us it was obvious this was going to be a very different to Canada. We managed to find the bus into town (after some drama with a lost bus ticket!) and found the hostel fairly easily. I was a little disappointed to find it was a HI hostel because I usually try to avoid them (usually too many beds, no good common area to sit and chat & extra charges for things) but I couldn't fault the location and actually the lovely people there made up for the towel charges and lack of water at certain times of the day.

One thing that became obvious fairly quickly when we started to explore Cancun was that the people responsible for building the town forgot to consider pedestrians when they were making their plans. Virtually no pavements make walking anywhere an extreme sport - dodging cars and trying to work out where the hell the traffic is coming from means you constantly have to have your wits about you. Much to the amusement of the guy who sold us a snorkeling trip, we decided to walk to the hotel strip to find out where the meeting place was for the following morning and he was right, it was a long way. I like to walk though, it gives me a much better feel for a place than just sitting on a bus and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet so many iguanas had we been on wheels.

Cancun is a tourist town though, based around a hotel strip, each with its own beach. Downtown is a bit quieter and there are some nice little places to eat very well. It's easy to find a good dinner for less than £1.50 including a drink. Tacos, empanadas, quesadillas and nachos followed by churros for desert all washed down with fizzy pop or sweetened ice tea seem to be the order of things here. It really is diabetes waiting to happen with an abundance of fat and sugar...but it tastes SO good!

Figuring that we might as well make the most of the fact that Cancun is close to so many historical sites, we filled our days there to the brim. With 30 degree heat we decided swimming was a good option to start with so we took a catamaran trip out to go snorkelling on a reef off Isla Mujeres. The water was warm, the fish were beautiful and the food and drinks were all inclusive which made for a wonderfully relaxing day. Unfortunately the wind was too strong for us to be able to dive at the underwater art museum, but it's somewhere I'd happily go back to another time.

We also decided to go to Chichen Itza and settled for an organised tour as it was cheaper and more convenient than trying to get there ourselves. I'm not a fan of organised cattle truck type tours, but this was ok as far as they go. Our Mayan guide, Antonio, was very good and told us a lot about the area as well as about where we were going. It's interesting that there's no real hard sell here. Right from talking to the various tour people on the Main Street, it's all very friendly and easy to beat the price down with a bit of banter. On the snorkeling trip we talked to other people on the boat and it seems we paid at least 20USD less than most others people, in some cases 40USD and for Chichen Itza we got an even better discount. The guy who sold us the latter even bumped into us in the street the following night, recognised us and bought us beers! I guess the majority of people probably book these tours through their hotels and the premium they pay allows for the discount got those savvy enough to shop around.

Chichen Itza was incredible but spoiled slightly by the sheer numbers of visitors and continuous stream of coaches. There were also dozens of traders selling tourist tat right by the pyramid and temples which surprised me a bit given that it is a sacred Mayan site and it did ruin what would otherwise have been quite a special atmosphere.

As the only cheap flight we could find to Mexico City left at 3am on Christmas Eve and we had to be out of the hostel by 11am, we decided to spend the day visiting Tulum, the site of some Mayan ruins on a beach a couple of hours drive south of Cancun. Instead of paying out for a more expensive tour we used the 'collectivo' buses first to Playa del Carmen and then onwards to Tulum. Uncomfortable, cramped and hot, but cheap enough to more than make it worthwhile. Tulum was beautiful, the temples more spread out and far fewer people, which was a nice change from the chaos of Chichen Itza. Public transport here is pretty good - buses are on time and the drivers are fast! Public toilets on the other hand leave a little to be desired - one we found in Playa del Carmen didn't even have a door and it seems to be a theme that only one water tap in each place just have to find it!

That night Sharen continued her tradition of losing whatever is in her hand two minutes beforehand by managing a record of losing her bus ticket (again!) less than a minute after she'd showed it to a security guy to ask the gate number! Ticket found, we headed for the airport only to find that sleeping in airports isn't really done in Mexico. No seats or benches, just cold, hard floor, but we managed to find an electric socket and spent the next few hours camped out there.

All the sucking of breath through teeth and worried expressions that seemed to be generated every time we mentioned we were going to Mexico City so far seem to be unfounded. Thus far all we've found is good food and friendly, welcoming people who will go out of their way to include you in their family life and help you in any way they can. That's not to say that there aren't areas where we'd probably see a very different side of the city, but the trepidation with which people view a visit to the city I think is largely unfounded. My wonderful friend Maria collected us from the airport and cooked an amazing Christmas dinner that we shared with several of her sisters and their families last night. Much tequila was drunk and we finally crawled into bed at 2.30am. For someone who doesn't like Christmas much, I have to admit this one rates fairly highly. Here the real meaning of Christmas is still prevalent...time spent with loved ones, talking and sharing, not a money spending competition that is forced upon you as soon as bonfire night is out of the way. It makes a refreshing change.

Now I'm sitting here watching the Aristocats in Spanish, drinking poncha navideno and life is pretty good. Tomorrow we'll visit the city proper and in the few days following we'll see some other local sites before moving on to San Miguel de Allende for the new year celebrations and to El Rosario to visit the monarch butterfly reserve. After that a road trip back east to Chetumal and then a ferry to Belize. Leaving Canada was hard and it holds a special place in my heart for lots of reasons, but this country is beautiful too and I can't wait to experience more of it.

Hope you've all had a great Christmas wherever you are and who knows, maybe I'll be able to catch up with at least a few of you on my travels in the new year.

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