Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mexico travel diaries

The Cathedral in Mexico City
Mexico had been on my travel list for a long time, but I finally got to planning my trip about a couple of months back. I wanted to somehow combine a day or two in Mexico City along with the Mayan ruins on the east coast, and I found a nice deal on AeroMexico using Google flights (If you haven't tried this yet, give it a shot. You might be surprised how they mix and match air
lines to give you the cheapest fare)
Palacio nacional
The Mexico City airport immigration lady spoke only Spanish, so this was going to be the first test of my Spanish speaking skills. I did talk with a couple of the Mexicans on the plane with me, and they were impressed by my Spanish, but this environment was different. The conversation went something like this.
Disclaimer: The exact Spanish sentences may not be correct grammatically, but this what I could remember/catch.

Immigration lady: Es su primera vez in México? (Is this your first time in Mexico?)
Me: Si (Yes)
Immigration lady: Estas solo? (Are you travelling alone?)
Me: Si (Yes)
Immigration lady: Qué hace en los Estados Unidos? (What do you do in the United States?)
Me: Trabjo como ingeniero del software (I work as a Software Engineer)
Immigration lady: Qué parte de México se quedará? (What part of Mexico will you be staying?)
Me: Primera Ciudad de Mexico para un dia despues Playa del carmen para cuatro dias. (First Mexico city for a day and then Playa del carmen for 4 days.)
Immigration lady (Handing over the passport and an immigration document):
 Recuerde devolver este cuando se vaya y ten cuidado (Remember to return this when you go back and be careful)
Me: Gracias! (Thanks!)

Me in Mexico City
Day 1 (Mexico City, DF, Mexico) : After exiting the airport I took a cab through one of the pre-paid taxi stands there (there might be cheaper options but I didn't want to waste the limited time I had to explore). I exchanged the USD at the airport, although, in hindsight, I think I'd have gotten a better rate at the ATMs.
Museo de bella artes
The taxi dropped me about 2 blocks from the hotel, it cost about 305 Pesos (~22 USD). I had booked a hotel close to Zocalo which is their main square. Think of it like the heart of the city; thousands of people throng this square during weekends and special occasions. It's the thriving spot of culture, politics, and all major events happening in the city.
You'll find street performers, road side vendors, bargain gift shops, among others, at Zocalo. It also has the most important historic and architectural monuments of the city: The Metropolitan cathedral, National Palace (Palacio Nacional), Mueseo de bella arte, Palacio Postal, Angel de la independencia (the latter three are walk able distances away).

The city has about 22 million people, thus making it the most populous city in the Americas. You literally can't recognize the streets during day time because all of them are swamped with people! On the bright side, all of the sights are within walking distances of each other.
With JD at Restaurante Casa de Madero

I spent most the day exploring the monuments and went back to the hotel to rest for a bit.

Evening, my Kansas City Spanish meetup friend JD, who was also visiting Mexico City, messaged me if I wanted meet and we decided to meet in front of the cathedral, as both of us were staying in it's proximity. He was
touring the city as well and was planning to participate in the Mexico city marathon the next day. We walked around for a bit, exploring how the city transforms by the night and had dinner at one of the restaurants he suggested - La Casa de Madero near centro.

Day 2 (Playa del Carmen): I had booked the taxi through the hotel the night and the driver picked me up a 8:45 sharp for my 11:30 am flight to Cancun. The return taxi booked thorugh the hotel cost me only 180 pesos (~14 USD) I ended getting there pretty early, around 9:10 ish,  as there was virtually no traffic getting there, being a lazy Sunday morning, as the driver said.
Flight to Cancun
After landing, I took the ADO bus to PDC from the Cancun airport (146 Pesos one way). They are located within a secure area on your left as you step out of the airport at Cancun. You can pay at the bus and they accept both cash (pesos only) and credit cards. The bus itself was very comfortable and air conditioned. The ride takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and fortunately my hotel was walking distance from the bus station at Playa. I checked into my hotel and spent the remainder of the day just strolling near the beach and exploring the small town.

Day 3 (Tulum & Cozumal): I had booked a tour to Tulum through one of the local operators in Cancun as they do a collective tour to the ruins in the morning. The tour started with the bus picking us up close to the meeting near Señor frogs and driving us to the ruins. We changed the buses midway as one bus headed to Chichen itza towards the west. We landed at the ruins and had about 2 hours of free time to explore.
Tulum ruins
Tulum is the only coastal Mayan city, thus making a unique. The ruins themselves aren't that impressive, but the setting for the ruins along the turquoise ocean makes it an impressive sight.
After the tour I came back and just relaxed by the beach in Playa. I spent about an hour talking to a random old lady, who was also waiting for the ferry, in Spanish as she regaled me with tales about living on the Cozumal island and commuting back and forth for work to Playa del Carmen. Evening around 5, I took the ferry to Cozumal island, which is about an hour away. I had dinner at Restaurant Palmeras. I felt it was slightly on the expensive side compared to Playa and other places near by, but I was warned of that by the old lady. I came back by the 7:00 ferry as I didn't want to wait until it was completely dark to return. The last ferry leaves the island for Playa at 9:00 pm.

Day 4 (Rio Secreto & Akumal beach): I read about Rio Secreto on Tripadvisor and it almost immediately grabbed by attention. Just 10 min by "taxi collectivo" from Playa del Carmen, this hidden gem will blow your mind. The underground water reserve has thousands of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. It’s like stepping back in time to witness something mysterious and truly spectacular. Before the tour began, there was an introductory video about the story behind the formations and the caves. We were then taken into a van and driven for about 20 minutes deep into the woods. They gave all the gear required, suit, floats, water boots, the works.
We were asked to take a shower before so as to not 'pollute' the river and went through a Mayan cleansing ritual by a native Mayan, which although sounds tacky, was quite interesting. We then stepped into the caves.
Akumal Beach
Tips: You don't need to know swimming to get in there, some of the water is as much as 15 feet deep but you can float using the life vests given.
The entrance fee was $67.15 and it has to be booked at least 5 days in advance to guarantee a slot. They also charged an additional $60 for the photos, which I felt was expensive, but there's no camera (even if it's waterproof) allowed inside the caves.
Also, try using 'Taxi Collectivos', these are shared hop-on/hop-off taxis located between 15th and 20th St at PDC. They are the cheapest and quickest mode of transportation south of Playa.
After the tour I went and relaxed at Akumal beach, which is about 30 min south by 'taxi collectivo' from Rio Secreto.

Day 5 (Chichen Itza, Yucatan): I had booked a tour to this 'Wonder of the world' through Yukatreks, as public transportation is sparse and I wanted somone knowledgeable to understand the hisory behind Chichen Itza. The van picked me up promptly at 7:20 am
Chichen Itza
Cenote X'keken
as decided and drove us to the Chichen itza while picking some the others on the way. The good this was this tour was limited to just 9 of us. The main pyramid at Chichen itza is pretty big, and depending on the time of the day, it can get upwards o
f 40'C in the middle of the ruins. So I'd suggest reaching there as early as you can. The site has a variety of ruins of different
architectural style as it was apparently the most diverse of all the Maya cities. There is also a big cenote near the ruins. The tours at the ruins lasted about 3 hours and we then headed to Cenote X'keken in Dzitnup, Yucatan to cool off. Some of these cenotes are really impressive and they were worshiped by the Mayans as it was their source of clean water. After the cenote, we headed ov
The Church at Vallolodid
er for lunch to Hacienda Selva Maya. They had served up a buffet of Mexican food for us and I don't know if it was the hunger or something else, but that was hands down the best Mexican food I've ever had. Post lunch, we headed over for our final stop, before the drive back, to Vallolodid, this Spanish colonial town was first set up in the 17th century . This historical city has the oldest church in the Yucatan, colonial Spanish architecture, family-run shops and wonderful crafts by local artisans.

To sum up the whole tour, I'm glad I could combine Mexico City along with the East coast, as I got to experience the best of Mexico! The country has a bit for everyone's interests and I'm sure a trip there would satisfy anyone's requirement for a great vacation.

What businesses did I use?
Airlines: Delta (US-Mexico flights) and Aeromexico (MEX-CUN flight only)
Hotels : Casa San lledefonso and Hotel Colorado
Tours: Cancun Best discounts, Rio Secreto and Yukatreks