Across México: From CDMX to the Yucatan

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

We arrived in México Ciudad (nowadays shortened to CDMX) on February 6, 2019. after many weeks in South-East Asia and on Hawai’i this was our first step into Latin America and it would turn out to be one of my most favourite destinations so far. We had 18 days to spend before heading on to Cuba from Cancún Airport and there was a whole bunch on our list – after 2 days in the capital I was already sure I’d definitely want to return.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Ciudad de México (CDMX)

Having arranged a couchsurfing place beforehand (while still in Kaua’i) we made our way into the vast metro network of the capital and ended up in the district of Del Valle; our host lived at the metro stop Insurgentes Sur (about half an hour south of the the city center). We didn’t do much that first night, but drank wine with our host and her mom and cooked dinner. Also, this was the first time ever that we had a separate room each while couchsurfing, big luxury.

We spent three full days in the capital, splitting our time equally between three areas: the Centro Historico (day 1), Parque de Chapultepec (day 2) and Coyoacán (day 3).

Our first day of sightseeing began at the metro stop Juárez (named after likely the most famous and popular president México ever had, Benito Juárez) – from Alameda Central we made our way along the old and highly enchanting Palacio Postal, Zócalo and the Catedral Metropolitana to Templo Mayor and its museum, quite the gem and enough to relit interest in the old Aztec, pre-Spanish culture. Shortly after we got out, heading east towards the markets along Calle Moneda I was running into a former couchsurfer of mine, who recognized me on the spot; very delightful, Katerina!

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Further sightseeing highlights that day were the Plaza 23 de Mayo, the Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza Regina where we were being mesmerised by a rather fascinating street performance. Also, if you happen to be on Zócalo (the city’s main square) around 18:00, you can witness how soldiers take down the enormous national flag in one big ceremonial act.

First thing on the list for Day 2 was to arrange bus tickets to Oaxaca Ciudad for the day after (we meanwhile decided to spend one extra day in CDMX) – it’s not exactly straightforward buying tickets online with a non-Mexican credit card, so we were heading directly to the Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros Oriente (TAPO) before our actual day of sightseeing was about to begin. We took the metro to Insurgentes, then walked along the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma towards the Parque de Chapultepec and actually spent some 4 hours in the excellent Museo Nacional de Antropología, really one of the best museums I ever visited and absolutely worth every minute of your time and attention.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

After the museum we explored more things in and around the park:

  • the Tótem Canadiense
  • the water installations (around the Monumental Xochipilli)
  • the Fuente de Tláloc (in front of Diego Rivera’s Cárcamo de Dolores)
  • the cactus gardens just behind (at the Museo Jardin del Agua)
  • the Parque España and its counterpart, the highly enchanting Parque México

Somewhere around there we had dinner, got ourselves some beer and walked down the street as if we were smoking a spliff (apparently it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets in México). We then took the metro all the way to the stop Coyoacán and walked down into the district with the same name to meet Tere, a couchsurfer I hooked up with before, and her brother Alejandro. Brilliant and highly stimulant conversations followed; the feeling emerged that we will meet again some day. Some time later our couchhost Arlet joined the party and we soon moved on to another bar in the area; however, cK and I were quite too exhausted from one long day of sightseeing.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

Our final day in CDMX was to be focused on the very district we had beers the night before, Coyoacán – it happens to be where the famous Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had their homes, a very liberal and artistic minded area. We originally planned to get into Frida Kahlo’s house (turned into a museum ever since her death in 1954), but it turned out to be not only overpriced (250 pesos on a weekend day), but also terribly crowded. Instead, we decided to spend the time exploring more of charming Coyoacán, simply inhaling the stimulating spirit of art and raison d’être. We would not be disappointed at all, that place is packed with sweet surprises and wonderful street art. We especially fancied hanging out at the Parque de Frida Kahlo. If you happen to be here at night, I would recommend visiting a bar called El Jarocho.

Other things we did and see that day worth mentioning:

    the Parque de los Venados
    the Cineteca Nacional
    the Museo Casa de Leon Trotzky (we haven’t actually been inside, though)
    the gardens around the Museo de las Intervenciones
    exploring more of the area just north of the Centro Historico, especially around Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza 23 de Mayo

That was it for in the capital – later that evening on February 9 we jumped into the night bus towards Oaxaca Ciudad from TAPO in eastern CDMX.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Oaxaca

My personal expectations of both the state and its capital were reasonably high (due to the stories of my good friends Josie who happened to travel the area about a year earlier) and I was not to be disappointed in the least. Oaxaca delivered all the way and I utterly fell in love with it.

We arrived in Oaxaca Ciudad in the early hours of February 10, watching the sun rise while entering the Chocolate Hostal in la Calle de los Libres. I picked the place for good reviews on Booking.com and I also fancied the name. A friend from Sweden (who I visited in Bern in the summer of 2013) later wrote me that she had stayed in the same place just a mere weeks earlier.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

It was the perfect place for us by all means: With us waiting at the reception for a slightly confused hostel receptionist to get his stuff sorted was a traveler from Portugal named Roberto – a very peculiar, but likable character; the three of us ended up in the same room and I kept on sleeping until the sunbeams were hitting my face from a window towards the rooftop. I woke up hearing the sounds of a guitar being played and later went up to have a look at the source of it. This is how I got to know Julie, a girl from around Freiburg who now lived in Leipzig to study education – a very sympathetic street musician and artist. Her companion was a fellow traveler from Seattle, Washington, in his late 30s named Tim.

After cK and I spent a majority of the day wandering around the city, among other things listening to an open air concert in front of the Catedral de Oaxaca, I again made my way up to the rooftop terrace and then ran into three Austrian girls (named Gloria, Veronika and Miriam) who cK and I immediately connected with. That same night still the five of us rented a car for the upcoming 24 hours. After cooking dinner together I got up to the rooftop and spent the rest of that enchanting day chatting with Julie, Tim, and a young traveler from Argentina who provided us with the finest hierba.

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Next thing early morning, cK, the Austrians and I were driving towards Hierve El Agua, a set of natural rock formations that were being created by fresh water springs whose water is over-saturated with minerals like calcium carbonate. Apart from four other travelers who set up tents at the cascades we were the first people at the site and it was quite the sight. If you decide to go, you should definitely come as early as possible.

When driving back to Oaxaca, we passed through the attractive little city of Mitla, where we visited parts of the ruins north of town plus the Parroquia de San Pablo. On the way out we took a dusty sideroad and suddenly faced the first ever tornado (rather: a whirlwind) any of us has ever seen. Sweet and incredibly rapid!

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.
Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

After shortly stopping at Santa María del Tule (to see the age-old Arbol de Tule) we still tried to make it to Monte Alban, the original city of Oaxaca and now an archaeological site about 9km to the west from Oaxaca’s central square. We arrived right in time for the guards to close the gate and enjoyed the sunset over the city instead. Later that night we invited a young German artist into the hostel, Fabienne, who was about to be our couchhost for the 3rd night in town.

We joined a “free” walking tour the following day and made it to Monte Alban in the afternoon, hitching a ride in the back of a regular car (the five of us all squeezed together), enjoying the scenery almost completely devoid of other people before heading back to town to have dinner inside the Mercado 20 de noviembre. We more or less accidentally ended up in a back-alley of the theatre where they showed Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso (in O.V. with Spanish subtitles) on a projector. We highly enjoyed watching the spectacle (they had to restart the movie repeatedly due to technical difficulties) and organized some cans of beer that had to be carefully refilled into plastic bottles since Mexicans (quite like the Polish) are apparently so afraid of their citizens being drunk that they thought it a good idea to make drinking in public illicit. They caught us twice and we almost had to leave the open air cinema, but somehow managed.

Driving out of Mitla.

Driving out of Mitla.

The girls left that night towards CDMX and cK and I settled over to couchsurf with Fabienne who rented an apartment in the north-east of town. After visiting a bunch of art galleries and the city museum, getting lost in a bookshop and trying hard to find some purple dye and peroxide to colour our hair and beard we set off to catch a minibus towards the coast the next night. At the bus station of Transportes Villa de Pacífico we also met Roberto again who left the city together with us.

We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the early morning of February 14, didn’t book any accommodation in advance, but found two empty beds for us at Puerto Dreams Hostel, immediately falling asleep (I don’t even know if I was able to sleep in that minibus at all) – Roberto booked a bed at neighbouring La Escondida Hostel, but couldn’t check in until some time in the afternoon (but used the time to head down to the beaches). There was a Valentine’s Party at an associated hostel (Puerto Dreams Surf House) that ended in the pool at one point – and cK got himself a proper vaquero hat.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

After one lazy day at sweet Playa Coral in Escondido we took a late afternoon bus to Mazunte, but quickly realised that the last colectivo for the day was long gone, hence got stuck at the highway crossing before finally hitching to the beach and our pre-booked hostel called Dharma Spa (acceptable for a night, but otherwise not worth bothering). The next morning (February 16) my good friend Micha from Berlin arrived in Mazunte as well and I met him at the beach while cK was riding the colectivo to Pochutla to acquire information about bus connections and prizes from the coast to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas.

Micha was rather spontaneously booking a trip to México as well, like us starting with the capital (though a couple days later), but while we had already booked a connecting flight from Cancún to Cuba he was bound to return to CDMX. However, there was a sweet spot that just fit perfectly in both our itineraries and we used it to the fullest. First thing we did was organising new accommodation and we got lucky with a room directly at the beach, not far from the peninsula and Punta Cometa – the 3 of us paid 500 pesos for the night.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Right after we carried the backpacks over from the hostel we jumped into the water and there we met Julie and Tim a second time – they hitchhiked from Oaxaca Ciudad to the coast and based themselves at a work-away place in Puerto Escondido. Josie happened to be in Mazunte as well (in late 2017), so she was with us in thoughts when we ascended the peninsula for watching the sunset later and then ending the day with some hours of dancing to catchy, albeit quite familiar electro tunes in a night club just next door.

We took it easy the day after and eventually boarded a colectivo to Playa Zipolite some 5km further down the coast, a famous hippie hideaway, especially famous for its nude beach. Micha and I were just dropping out the water when we ran into Julie and Tim one final time. A good hour later we were already on our way to Pochutla where we got onto the night bus to Chiapas, having said farewell to Micha after a short, but splendid interlude. I can only hope that it won’t be too long until I see marvellous Oaxaca again.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Chiapas

A bunch of people who we met in Oaxaca recommended us the Puerta Vieja Hostel in San Cristóbal de las Casas and, as it turned out, that was indeed an excellent choice. We slept in an 18-bed dorm, spent a good amount of time in the hostel playing table tennis, had a superb vegan breakfast (even though I had to wait an eternity for it) and prepared a dead-cheap and supertasty dinner that was enough to fill our bellies a second night as well. On the evening of February 18 I booked my return flight to Europe (from Lima in Perú to Madrid in mid-May).

The day after, on our second sightseeing stroll, I once again ran into someone who recognised me from Couchsurfing – a Berlin-based traveler who just spent about a fortnight in Chiapas, most of the time in an area called El Panchán near the ancient city of Palenque.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Later, while cK had his beard trimmed at a local barber (who very sympathetically asked him all about the Berlin Wall, currently reading the ever-famous Diary of Anne Frank) I was buying myself a Spanish copy of Albert Camus’ El Extranjero (L’Étranger) and beginning to devour it on the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Paz when an old man was seating himself next to me, keeping me busy with eagerly asking a hundred questions. Quite enriching.

That night, coinciding with our 100th day on the road, there was a full moon party at the hostel and we happily indulged to the never-ending supply of utterly delicious mojitos that the owner himself was keen to distribute among the hostel guests. After some relaxing time in the hammocks we eventually found ourselves dancing with a group of British girls that caught my eye some hours before when still sitting on the city square answering the old man’s questions. There was a certain sense of extreme frivolity and excitement in the air that was about to burst any minute now – we clearly couldn’t have had a better time then right there, right then.

But we also had a bus to catch – as difficult as it was to break away from a rapture of pleasure and delight we actually managed to enter the night bus towards Palenque. The mojitos, unfortunately, as refreshing and enjoyable as they were, would now get back to us with a vengeance: When having a stop-over in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez the ADO personnel simply wouldn’t allow us to reenter the bus because we were to drunk (which manifested in varying degrees between the two of us). Either way, together with a traveler from Argentina (likely due to her foursquare persistence) I managed to obtain two new tickets to a follow-up coach and after another change into a smaller bus in Tabasco’s Villahermosa we finally arrived in Palenque in the early forenoon of February 20 – tired, exhausted, destroyed. After a short walk and a small, but energizing breakfast we hailed down a colectivo to the Zona Arqueología de Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

WikiTravel writes about the ruins, they would “still evoke some of the wonders that the early Spanish visitors must have felt” when coming across the area – well, we were probably arriving a bit too late for that, but either way: due to generally rather late opening times (08am) that peculiar sensation of being an early-day explorer will be denied to even the keenest early bird. This is in strict contrast to the absolutely mesmerising experience in Guatemala’s Tikal where it was (at least in 2011) still possible to enter the ruins in early morning mist with just enough darkness, utterly undisturbed by the chatter of toured groups and, even more relieving, of the trash-selling vendors who can literally “ruin” the sensation – to my knowledge they are still prohibited in Tikal (my all-time favorite Maya city experience).

However, wandering along the temples, even in a rather doubtful bodily condition was a wonderful experience and utterly worth the 75 pesos (plus another 36 for the national park fee); unlike to what we were about to pay for upcoming temples on the Yucatan Peninsula (see below).

While walking to El Panchám.

While walking to El Panchám.

Since the Museo de Sitio is included in the entrance fee, we visited that also – despite being close to taking a nap lying on the ground behind some installations. Most impressive was probably the sarcophagus room (the tomb of ruler Pakal who was in power between 615 and 683).

On the way out of the National Park we paid a short visit to El Panchám, found it to be an attractive (hippie) place to while away a couple days and returned to the city of Palenque to buy groceries, use the supermarket’s wifi connection and to withdraw money that was calculated precisely to last for the remaining couple of days in México and then entered just another night bus towards the Yucatan.

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Yucatan Peninsula

To claim I had a good night sleep would be pushing it, but I felt sufficiently arranged for another day of sightseeing – enter Mérida, capital of Yucatan State. It was early morning of February 21 and still being in the bus cK realised that he was being pickpocketed over night. Some sneaky asshole must have pulled out his bag, taken his new smartphone (freshly purchased in Hawai’i) and a good amount of the cash that we have just withdrawn a few hours earlier. Sweet morning, ya!

Luckily, cK still had his old phone ready in the backpack and we were soon out and about to explore the city. The bag drop within the ADO bus station was ridiculously expensive (a 100 pesos), so we were opting for a hotel and found one close to the center; the owner was a gem and since he didn’t ask for any money for keeping our luggage, I gave him a tip. Still in the hotel, cK noticed that they were also stealing his (cheapo) sunglasses from within the baggage compartment (which basically means that the ADO bus boys were responsible for it).

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes...

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes…

Mérida, despite boasting a population of about 850,000 people, has a rather compact city centre and we enjoyed discovering its treasures: art galleries, enchanting parks, an endless amount of picturesque doors and windows of a hundred colours, arty cafés and boutiques. After some hours of strolling around we hit the bus one more time and finally made it to Valladolid, some hours further to the east, the central city to a whole lot of Maya ruins and, even better, to an excellent selection of freshwater sinkholes, better known as cenotes.

There is quite a selection of hostels in town, but the prices vary strongly and we opted for a place called Guacamaya Hostel where we paid 300 pesos for a double bed (first time ever that we stayed in a sort of “double bed dormitory”). We shared the room with 4 other travelers from Argentina, none of whom spoke English (as was to be expected): 2 girls called Ana y María (one more klischee fulfilled) and two guys named Maximiliano and Jonathan, quite an interesting as well as amusing couple. We felt immediately comfortable in Valladolid and especially the central park (Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado) was a delight to walk around at after sunset.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

After some intense consideration of where to go to see more Maya ruins we eventually decided against world-famous Chichen Itzá and for the much lesser known Ek Balam site – not an easy decision: While the temples around Chichen Itzá are surely stunning and breath-taking we also didn’t feel like tourist groups and vendors and then there was Ek Balam popping up which was almost as expensive as the C.I., but featured a pyramid on top of an ‘acropolis’ that one was actually allowed to ascent. The die was cast.

We actually managed to be the first two visitors in Ek Balam (originally known as Talol) and had to wait about 30min until it was finally 08:00. When we were there they charged us 413 pesos for the entrance (which is heaps even for European standards), but expect to pay even more in the upcoming months and years. Nevertheless, the view from atop the pyramid, the lack of tourists and vendors, the ability to freely climb around before any security shows up and also the abundance of iguanos on and around the temples was actually worth it. Also, there is a cenote close-by (and it happened to be the first one we ever visited – hooray!). To visit that one, though, you’ll be charged another 50 pesos. Still, worth it.

We later hitchhiked back to town and visited Valladolid’s city cenote (for a very acceptable 30 pesos entrance fee) which was clearly worth every minute. This whole cenote business is actually worth a blog post in its own right since their story of origin is so fascinating.

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam...

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam…

...before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

…before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

The last stop on our Méxican journey was the town of Tulum, some two hours south of Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo. There is not much to say about that last bit: The place is acceptable, but I wouldn’t think of returning there: It’s packed with tourists (mostly U.S. Americans, but also bunches of Argentinians and Europeans), the cenotes are utterly overprized and the beaches mediocre. It was an okay place to spend our last night at before hopping on the plane from Cancún to La Habana on the Communist island of Cuba. But that’s another story – waiting to be told while sitting in a Viazul bus making its way to Santiago from the pretty town of Camagüey.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Costs

Not surprisingly, México was second in line when it comes to costs: much cheaper then Hawai’i, but also clearly more expensive than Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam (plus Thailand and Myanmar, even though I haven’t tracked the details for that trip).

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