Translation: A Mexican Moment (thanks Google Translate!)
Last week I made a flying visit to Cancun to celebrate with some of the travel industry’s finest for an annual global conference and gala awards dinner. It’s a long way to go from Australia to Mexico for a forty-eight hour fiesta, so I took an extra couple of days beforehand to experience some of the highlights of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Armed with my Dora-the-Explorer Spanish plus the key phrase “Dos cervezas por favor”, I headed to Cancun quite unsure of what I was going to find. I had visions of a strip like Gold Coast’s Surfers Paradise – high rise buildings as far as you can see, tacky nightclubs and beaches packed with tourists – so it was a welcome surprise to see that Cancun has quite a bit to offer.
I arrived late in the day and was greeted by the most magnificent sunset when I walked out onto my balcony.
The colours were incredible. From my room I could see 180 degrees from east to west, with the sunset’s colours dancing across in front of me. Absolutely magical!
Before my arrival in Mexico, I had a little check-list in my head of what a trip to Mexico should entail…
- Visiting beautiful beaches and swimming in crystal clear water
- Exploring ruins – such as those from Mayan or Aztec ancient civilisations
- Eating Mexican food – tacos / fajitas / burritos / nachos – and the spicier the better!
- Drinking – especially Coronas and tequila – although perhaps I should avoid in-depth experience of this one
Since the second half of my time in Cancun was governed by functions and conference sessions, I decided to book sightseeing tours for my first two days there so that I could maximise my time and get a taste of the highlights of the area – good to see I followed my own advice – Top 6 Travel Tip – Plan It.
The first day tour required a sunrise wake-up, and yet again the sky did not disappoint…
… then it was on to the bus and out of Cancun towards the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is a Mayan City about 200km from Cancun. It was established before the period of Christopher Colombus, with buildings dating from between 600 and 1200AD. The main focal point of the complex is the Kukulkan Pyramid, known colloquially as El Castillo, which was built around 800AD and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The complex covers an area of approximately 6.5 square kms and can take an entire day to visit in its entirety. Those with limited time (such as on an organised day tour) will see only a portion of Chichen Itza, but it is enough to give you an idea of the city’s scope and complexity. We had about three hours here and covered:
- El Castillo (above) – with its symbolism and reference to the Mayan calendar. Each side of the pyramid has a stairway (you can see two of them in this picture), and each stairway has 91 steps, totally 364. At the top connecting the stairways is a central platform, bringing the total to 365 which is the number of days in the solar year. If you look between each set of stairs you can see 9 terraces, which makes 18 on each face of the pyramid – this equals the number of months on the Maya solar calendar. On the facing of these terraces are 52 panels, representing the 52-year cycle when both the solar and religious calendars would become realigned. Amazing. Also, if you stand directly in front of one of the pyramid’s sides and clap, the acoustics are so amazing that it sounds like a bird cheeping back at you.
- Main Ball Court – where they played a famous Mayan ball game. Both sides of the court have carvings of players, and original hoops (below) are still in tact on the sides of the court. Again, the acoustics here are so good that a person at one end can be clearly heard at the opposite end of the court about 130 metres away. Players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands and the aim was to get the ball through the hoop. Our guide told us that the losing team suffered fatal consequences… you can even see a beheaded player in one of the carvings.
- Temple of the Skulls- named for the rows of skulls which represent the heads of sacrificial victims (below). When the victim’s head was cut off, it was impaled on a pole and displayed in a row with others. Delightful.
- Temple of the Warriors and the Group of the Thousand Columns (below) – located to the east of El Castillo. Rows of broken pillars flank the temple, hundreds of which have now been restored. A figure of Chaac-Mool sits at the top of the temple – our guide told us that this is where sacrifices were performed.
- The Observatory – an impressive building that was constructed over several centuries as the Mayas’ made careful modifications that reflected their careful observation of celestial movements and measurements (below). Astronomers watched the approach of the spring and autumn equinoxes as well as the summer solstice from here. Like El Castillo, the precision it was built with and the solar alignment of it is extraordinary.
Whether you yearn for in-depth knowledge about the Mayans or you’re more like me and simply love the feeling of being in a place like this, Chichen Itza is an absolute must for any visitor to this part of Mexico.
So, Ruins from an Ancient Civilisation? Tick!
After Chichen Itza we had a great Mexican lunch at a local restaurant – loved the hot sauce and the local Mayan fare as well as Mexican and European favourites. The hot sauce was amazing – Mexican food? Tick!
Enroute back to Cancun, we stopped for about an hour at a sink hole – called a Cenote. Cenotes are characteristic of Mexico and result from collapsed limestone that exposes groundwater below. We stopped at a cenote near Chichen Itza called Ik Kil (below) – it’s about 25 metres below ground level and the water is about 35 metres deep. The water is fresh, clear and crisp but just perfect on a very humid and hot day. It’s a great opportunity for people-watching too… bomb-diving challenges were particularly entertaining!
It was a two hour drive back to Cancun but the air-conditioned bus and the onboard supply of Coronas (beer drinking – tick!) made it quite a bearable trip.
I had researched thoroughly about what do with my second spare day in Cancun (i.e. posted a question on Facebook asking where I should go) and a fellow blogger (Life is Short. Eat hard!) mentioned a little island off the coast called Isla Mujeres. It’s only a 45 minute ferry trip from Cancun and offers a chance to relax on beautiful beaches, go snorkelling on a coral reef, take a swim with dolphins (or whale sharks between May and September), wandering through fishing villages or a finding a colourful restaurant where you can enjoy a bite to eat. There’s accommodation on the island if you prefer a quieter stay than Cancun offers, but for me it was a perfect day trip and the opportunity to check another off my list – visiting beautiful beaches and swimming in crystal clear water – tick!
I know I have barely scratched the surface of what is on offer in this region, let alone the rest of Mexico, but I’m glad I made the effort to go and see something new and at least get a taste of this wonderful part of the world.
Oh and here’s my hot tip for where to stay in Cancun – about 8-10km outside of the main downtown area are a handful of resorts that are set on a beautiful stretch of beach and away from the craziness of the nightclubs such as Coco Bongo and Dady ‘O (yet still easily accessible if you want to party all night). It costs about US$15 in a taxi from this area of Cancun to downtown. My pick of the resorts is the all-inclusive Secrets the Vine – modern, elegant, exceptional service, great facilities and most importantly all-inclusive – room service, alcohol, restaurant dining, Wi-Fi etc etc. Great value and a beautiful resort.
Have you been to Mexico? Share you fave spots and must-sees here!
x Sonia x