On day 18 of my #Mexpacker adventure I we had arranged for me and Dave to be hosted by West Adventures on their Hello Mexico tour. Unfortunately, due to our Day of the Dead plans, we were only able to join for the second half of this trip. This meant we would travel with them from San Cristóbal de las Casas to Playa del Carmen and had to miss the Mexico City to Oaxaca section.
Disclaimer: I was hosted on the Hello Mexico tour by West Adventures in exchange for honest and unbiased coverage. All opinions are my own and this post is about my personal experience.
I was excited join West Adventures, as it was the first running of this tour. Also as I’d been planning the Mexico trip for quite a while it would be nice to take a back seat and let someone else arrange everything before having to figure out the rest of the adventure!
We arrived at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport a little after midday. It has to be one of the tiniest airports I have ever been in, so cute! After quickly collecting our bags we headed out into the entrance/exit to wait for the West Adventures group.
Meeting West Adventures
The time came and the tour guide, Becky, came out of the arrivals and quickly found us. She introduced us to the rest of the group, Lily, Patty and Andrea. It was a small group, but that wasn’t a problem, I like small groups as you can really get to know each other. But as the maximum group size on West Adventures is 16, I wasn’t worried about the group size.
After we’d all been introduced we headed out to our local mini bus. It was about an hour’s drive to San Cristóbal, so we spent the drive chatting, getting to know each other properly and finding out how the trip had been so far. They all seemed very impressed with West Adventures, a good sign!
San Cristóbal De Las Casas
When we arrived in San Cristobal the first thing to do was to check into the hotel, Palacio Moctezuma. It was a great little place, with pretty courtyards. But once me and Dave got to our room, it was the stunning view of the surrounding mountains completely took my breath away!
Heading back down to the reception, Becky then led us out for an orientation of the town. It’s a pretty easy town to get your head around, with a few pedestrianised streets off the Zocalo. We walked down one of the pedestrianised streets towards the Zocalo, and on the way were joined by one of Becky’s friends – a stray dog. Recognising Becky, the dog came straight over, following us to the front of the Cathedral.
The Cathedral wasn’t in the best shape, due to the recent earthquake, and so we couldn’t go in. But Becky was able to point out our meeting place for the next morning, a big cross. It was hard to miss. One thing that struck me was the amount of children on the streets selling things. Becky told us not to buy anything as it would mean they would miss school the next day too. If they’re good at making money their parents will keep them selling instead of sending them to school. A sad situation, but it is reality in Chiapas state.
We then had some free time to wander around as Becky went to arrange the evening and the next day. The five of us headed down one of the other pedestrianised streets and quickly came across a market. It was quite a big clothes and textiles market, with lots of amber stalls thrown in there too. After only a few minutes we managed to get a little lost among the stalls! But once we managed to find our way out we stumbled upon an Artisan Market, which was pretty cool. There were some really interesting items for sale, like pendants made with coconut. The designs were really awesome.
An Evening of Surprises
As we were wandering around we realised that time was getting on and we needed to start heading back to meet Becky for dinner. She had told us she had some surprises in store for the evening so we did not want to be late!
The first stop was Comedor Normita for something to eat. Here the first surprise was that we weren’t allowed to look at the menu! Becky told us that this restaurant is run by a single mother, whose children help to run the place.
The only thing we were allowed to have was tostadas, as they are the best in Mexico here (well with no complaints about them in the eight years that Becky has been taking people here, I can believe that). We could choose either tinga (marinated and shredded beef) or chicken, although she advised the tinga. The tostadas came in threes, so I had two tinga and one pollo, as did most other people! It was a great choice, they were really tasty and filling! Plus they were really cheap.
After we had all had our fill of tostadas (mainly tinga), we headed back to the pedestrianised street and stopped at a place called El Tapanco. Here was our next surprise, in the form of a drink. We were not allowed to ask what the drink was…
The Surprise Beverage
The drinks came, there were ten glasses filled with a dark liquid. We were asked who wanted to try it first, and Patty went for it. The waiter lit one of the liquids, let it burn for a few seconds and poured another glass of liquid into it. Then he passed it to Patty telling her “one drink” so she downed it. The waiter stood at her side, with a napkin to catch any drips. Once the drink was done and the glass put down, that’s when the fun began! With the napkin he covered Patty’s mouth and shook her head, then a swift tap to the back of the head assisted the alcohol on it’s way!
This drink was called a “Mayan Sacrifice” we were told once we’d all partaken in our beverages. It was actually rather sweet for a drink that you’re meant to down in one. But that made it really easy to drink in one go. It was a laugh and good fun!
Chocolate, Churros and Wine
We were all a little shell shocked after our Mayan Sacrifices, so Becky took us Xocol-Na, which is a hot chocolate and churros place. The chocolate and churros were so good. And the place was really nice, with quotes about chocolate all over the walls. We all had the special hot chocolate that contained a variety of nutty flavourings, it was some of the best hot chocolate I’d ever had.
Completely stuffed, but not quite ready for bed, we headed back to the hotel. Mine and Dave’s room was next door to Andrea, with an outside seating area between us with the stunning view of the mountains. So we grabbed a bottle of wine and stayed up for a while.
The next day we went down for breakfast and I made a mistake. I went for chilaquiles (well, I loved them in Mexico City), and Dave went for a healthy fruit and yoghurt option. I’ve never been jealous of fruit and yoghurt before… But nevermind, at least we had another night in the hotel so I could try again. I found the chilaquiles not so good from here, but maybe it’s just the memory of chilaquiles in Mexico City being my first day that makes them so good in my mind.
After breakfast we all headed to the cross by the cathedral to meet Becky and our local guide, for our tour of the nearby villages. It was a short drive by minibus to the first village, San Juan Chamula. We got out near a ruined church and graveyard and the local tour guide introduced himself as Caesar. He also told us a few rules: we were not to take pictures inside the church; general pictures of the market were ok, but if we wanted pictures of someone, make sure we ask. Seemed fair enough.
Caesar was great and gave us a lot of information. In these villages Spanish is actually the second language, as they still speak their native tongue. So he taught us a few phrases, such as Hello (Kúshee), Thank you (Kalaval) and Goodbye (Batkun). He was a vast wealth of knowledge and happily accepted questions, the best type of tour guide.
San Juan Chamula Village
As we walked past the graveyard to enter the village Caesar pointed out that the colours of the crosses were different. The colour of the cross represents the age at which the person died. There were also marigolds and pine around the graves, a left over from Dia de los Muertos.
As we walked through the market, there were many people in traditional dress; women in black woollen skirts and men in black or white woollen tunics. Wool is the main trade of this village. The leaders also have a hat, bandana and a sash and we were told not to take pictures of the leaders!
In the square Caesar told us about the voting system. Personally, apart from one small point, I think England should bring this in… Unfortunately women are not allowed to vote, but other than that, this sounds perfect:
The men stand in the square and the candidates are on a balcony. As each candidate is introduced the men will show their support, or not. Men show their support for the candidate by cheering shouting their name etc. To show that they don’t want the candidate they whistle and throw items at them… Best voting system if you ask me, candidates must be confident or they may actually get injured!
Crime And Punishment
The village has a very low crime rate, so Caesar told us. As the native villages around San Cristóbal have their own laws and policing they are separate to the Mexican government. They only have two jail cells in the village, one for men, one for women. These cells are open to the elements and depending on the crime criminals spend one to three nights. Generally it is just one night.
There is also martial law, which is probably why the crime rate is so low, Caesar told us a couple of stories about martial law. One of the stories was about a leader who had been keeping the money given to the village by the Mexican government. The men of the village took matters into their own hands. They literally beat him to death, and this was all fine.
There is no ‘inbetween’ punishment, it’s literally martial law or a night in a cell. All or nothing, quite literally.
Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
Now it was time for the main attraction of this village, the church. Although it looks like a Catholic Church, with crosses etc. it is not. It is not recognised by the Vatican, weddings and funerals do not take place here. Basically this village put up a very strong resistance against the Spanish, so they are not Catholic. Although they have adapted some Catholic traditions into their own practices. The church is whitewashed with beautiful turquoise features. Inside there is a pine needle floor (very slippery). I was amazed at how many tourist had extremely short shorts on, it’s still a church, even if not catholic. You wouldn’t do it in the Vatican, why be so disrespectful here? But unfortunately, people will be people.
There were many locals inside, praying and burning candles. Caesar told us to go for a look around, but in small groups. And not to stop and stare at any of the people, as it is rude, these are people worshipping, not monkeys in a zoo, was what he essentially said. It was quite hard to walk round, due to the slippery floor, but it was worth it. Above near where the altar would be was an amazing painting. There were statues of patron saints in glass cabinets around the walls and the air was thick with incense.
Once we were all back with Caesar, he told us about a healing ritual. The locals believe that if you are ill, it’s because part of your soul is not with your body. Therefore you must get that part of soul back.
It is a long ritual. The patient must purchase a chicken and certain number of candles in various colours, prescribed by the shaman. During the ritual, the chicken is passed over the patient’s body and then killed. The patient then takes the chicken home, cooks and eats it. Then the patient stays in bed for three days; they are not supposed to move, dress or even brush their hair. After this time they go with the shaman to the place where they became ill or injured (as it’s believed that this is where they lost the part of their spirit) and bury the chicken bones. Quite an intricate and time consuming ritual!
On exiting the church, we walked up the side and then turned down a street. Stopping by a house with an arch outside, Caesar told us that the arch shows that this is a spiritual leader’s house. We were about to go in so he warned us not to take pictures inside.
Inside was an altar, with candles and glasses of a clear liquid. Caesar told us that the spiritual leader is responsible for his altar, which is dedicated to one saint. Makes sense why there’s quite a few spiritual leaders.
Being a spiritual leader is completely voluntary and they have the role for a year. They have to apply for the role, which saint they want to represent and they must be married. If they are lucky they will then be chosen, but this can take years. When choosen they must leave their house for a year (but still have to pay for it) and live in the spiritual leader’s home.
Being a spiritual leader is a full time job, and they can not work at the same time. They must have enough money saved to live, still pay for their own house and buy the required items, such as alcohol and candles for the altar. You may ask, why would you bother? Well, you get respect and prestige, plus if you are chosen three times you no longer have to pay taxes. As a spiritual leader you are also allowed to sell items to get more funds, so many buy extra alcohol and sell the surplus. So it’s not all bad!
A few of the items used in rituals were passed around for us to look at. Each item was explained by Caesar. One of the items was alcohol, which we were allowed to taste. It was quite strong, but nice. Easy to drink.
Some of the rituals performed are a little worrying. There is generally some of the alcohol involved, plus helpers. Fireworks also play a part and they have a heavy lead tube which they hold and use to set the fireworks off. I would not like that job!
After leaving the leader’s house (and leaving a tip) we were given some free time to explore the market before heading to the next village.
San Lorenzo De Zinacantan
It was a quick bus ride to the next village, Zinacantan. Here cotton is the main trade and woman wear skirts with floral patterns and men wear tunics with floral patterns.
Near where we parked there were crosses. Caesar told us that crosses are actually pre catholic here. The crosses represent the five directions in the native belief structure – North, South, East, West and the Centre.
In this village we went to a locals house, we were told that we are fine to take pictures, just not of the eldest woman. The house had several young women weaving and making clothing in the yard. We were given a demonstration of the weaving, it was quite an impressive contraption and looked difficult. It takes weeks with their weaving to make anything. But they don’t want to use more industrious machinery, as the way they weave is an important tradition.
Inside the house, the mother was cooking. We were given a tortilla and some ground pumpkin seed to try – it was surprisingly tasty. Caesar then pointed out how the candles in the church earlier were five different colours – blue; black; yellow; green; red. Each of these colours represents a direction. These colours are chosen as they are the colours that can be produced from maize. As maize species are an important crop in this region it make perfect sense.
We were also given some alcohol samples here, which once again were quite strong. Then we had some time to look at the family’s produce and buy if desired. Caesar also showed us a traditional wedding dress.
The Church and Chapel
After saying our thanks, and leaving a tip we headed to the church. This church is Catholic and recognised by the Vatican. The church was much more like what I expect from a church, with pews and an altar. Outside there was a chapel, which had been damaged in the earthquake, so a temporary chapel had been erected. After a quick walk around it was the end of the tour and time to head back to San Cristóbal.
It was afternoon when we arrived back and San Cristóbal. So first we headed to a nearby bakery, Boulangerie Panaderia. Here we purchased a bacon, mustard and cheese pastry. It was very good, I must say I am impressed with Mexican baked savoury goods!
As we ate me, Dave and Andrea decided to head back to the artisan market, as Andrea wanted to buy some gifts. After the purchases I wanted to head up to Iglesia de San Cristóbal, as there were meant to be the best views of the town from there.
A Tale Of Two Churches
We headed to the church on a hill that Becky had pointed out the day before. As we walked, we passed several small markets and stages, looked like something was going on! After we had passed these I thought it didn’t seem quite right. So I pulled out the Rough Guide and had a check. Turns out we were heading to Inglesia de Guadalupe instead! If only I’d checked the map first! Luckily there was still plenty of time in the day. And as we were nearly there we decided we could do both churches.
It wasn’t too much of a climb, but we were still rewarded with great views. Inside was, well, interesting. There was a picture of Mary, surrounded by neon lights. Just a bit bizarre!
We then headed back down and made our way (correctly this time) to Inglesia de San Cristóbal. The main thing I remember about this one is the steps! Lots of steps! So many steps! It was definitely higher. But you didn’t get the best views from the top – there were trees in the way. Just a little bit lower than the church were the best views.
The church itself was closed (I guess because of the earthquake, due to the scaffolding). But we had a walk around before heading back down.
Food And Wine
On arriving back to the hotel we had an hour or so before dinner, so we decided to share a bottle of wine again – I think Andrea was a bad influence 😋. It was nice just chatting the early evening away and getting to know each other more.
For dinner we went to Chimichurri, which is a steakhouse, so a little bit more expensive than the night before, but worth it. I had Arrachera Casa, house steak. It was smothered in cheese, onions and peppers. I had it with steamed vegetables and it was all amazing. Cooked to perfection and the wine was good too.
After dinner it was back to the hotel and me, Dave and Andrea finished our last bottle of wine – well we didn’t want to have to transport it the next day! Plus we didn’t want to waste the amazing views of the mountains.
Onward to Palenque
I didn’t make the same mistake the next morning, I had the fruit breakfast option and I wasn’t disappointed. Then it was onto the minibus for a long bus ride to Palenque.
It was a very windy road, over the mountains. This meant that we went through Zapatistas territory, which can be a little dangerous at times. But at this time everything was fine and we got through safely. Apparently if anything happens it tends to be bigger coaches that get targeted. Can’t wait to come back this way…
The scenery here was amazing. As we climbed higher into the mountain forests we could see valleys and waterfalls. It was a beautiful area. Although I did sleep for a bit thanks to my TRTL pillow, which I think I needed! Hope I didn’t miss too much as I snoozed!
Near Palenque we had two stops. The first was Agua Azul. When we arrived Becky told us to get changed if we were going for a swim, so naturally me and Dave did. As we came out Becky told us to order our lunch as we would eat here in about an hour.
It was a beautiful place, if rammed with tourists and vendors selling a variety of items, shouting at you to come and take a look and kids asking for money. Becky had warned us that due to recent rain we may be seeing ‘Agua Chocolate’ instead of Agua Azul, but it was blue. It certainly lived up to its name. We walked to the three separate viewpoints, I thought the second was the best. Although third was the most fun to get to, as we had to cross a rather rickety-looking bridge! The waterfall and rapids stretch for about 1km up the river, so it is only a short walk, but the different views are amazing.
Here Becky told us a fun trick to find out if what the vendors are selling is real amber or not. Get a flame to it. If the vendor is selling you a plastic fake the flame will melt it, so chances are they won’t let you put a flame anywhere near it. Whereas if it’s real amber it won’t be affected by fire, so the seller won’t even flinch. So when buying amber, always carry a lighter!
Into The Water
After we’d been to all the viewpoints we headed back down to the carpark. Near the entrance is where it is safe to swim, higher up there are dangerous currents. Once back down me, Andrea and Dave braved the waters. They were quite cold, but once in they were refreshing. In some parts the currents can be felt pulling at you, which is a little worrying! Luckily where we were the currents seemed to be pushing us back to the shallows.
After our swim it was time for lunch. I was shocked to find it was three courses – we’d only had to order our mains. To start there was a pasta soup, which was in all honesty a little bland, until I added a dab of chilli sauce. This is how it is meant to be served, so that you can have it as spicy or not as you want. Next I had a whole fish, it came with rice, chips and salad. Quite a lot on one plate! The fish was very tasty, if a little difficult to eat, but that’s all part of the fun! Then dessert came, in the form of two tiny bananas each. These bananas were very sweet.
After our big feed, it was time to get back in the minibus and head to our next stop, Misol-Há. I loved this waterfall, and Agua Azul, for different reasons.There’s no way I could pick favourite as they were too unique from each other.
Behind The Waterfall
Misol-Há was a much larger waterfall, plummeting straight down into a pool. Well, technically it’s smaller, as it’s only 25m, but the straight drop makes it looks bigger. There were no hawkers and not many tourists, making it for a quiet, pleasant visit. Before going to the edge of the pool, we took the track that led behind the waterfall. I love getting behind waterfalls, I don’t know why, I just do. And getting behind this one was no exception. It’s stunning.
The path then led on, making a loop of the pool. A plank of wood had been put down as a crossing, which was quite fun to get over! Not long after this the path was blocked, so we had to turn around and come back the way we came.
We saw some other people trying to get past the blockage, which is a bit mental. If a slippery plank of wood is safe enough to cross, how bad must it be to be blocked off completely?
Once back at the pool me and Dave went for a quick dip. The swimming area is smaller here, but felt warmer. It was fun to swim in, and even more fun to get out, as the edges were very slippy rocks. But luckily there were ropes to help!
The End Of The Day
From Misol-Há to Palenque, is not too far, so the end of the long journey was in sight. It turned out that we weren’t staying in the town itself, but the La Cañada area, which is separated from the town by a ravine. We checked into the hotel, Xibalba and the room was lovely. There was a puppy made out of towels on our bed! It was so cute!
Soon it was time to gather for dinner, so we headed downstairs to meet the others. It was a long walk to Becky’s chosen restaurant – all the way across the road! Asking Becky what was good to have here, she said everything. So I went for a Chicken Breast with Chaya Stuffing and Cheese, Covered with Xcactic Sauce. It was a good choice!
We were all pretty tired after a long day of travel, and had to be up bright and early for a jungle walk. So we decided to call it a night not long after dinner.
In The Jungle
It was a very early morning for the jungle walk, and the hotel had forgot to put the coffee on that Becky had ordered! There was only time for a very quick coffee once someone was found to sort it.Thankfully the hotel had remembered our packed breakfasts!
A short minibus ride later and we arrived at the jungle. Our guide, Salvie, said his hellos and took us into the jungle.
Salvie was one of the best guides I’d ever had. He knew so much and kept a good eye on his group – Lily had a dodgy knee at the time, he kept really good care of her and was careful not to push here too much.
All About The Jungle
Salvie was great, he knew so much and obviously loved telling people what he knew. The first thing he pointed out was a tree that was in the river. He said it fell down about a year ago and you could barely see where it had fell from, the jungle had already taken over.
As we carried on, Salvie stopped to show us the vines hanging down from the trees. He told us how these are not actually vines, but roots from the strangler fig. A short walk later we came to a small crossing over the river. Salvie stopped once again. He searched in the water and came out with some shells. They looked really old, almost fossilised. Salvie told us there is a lot of calcium in the water, which has caused the shells to calcify quickly. This is also why the water isn’t safe to drink, well at least not over long periods.
There was also a tree that Salvie pointed out. This tree had rings on the outside, so you could tell the age of the tree. Just like back home, only difference you don’t have to chop it down too find out the age.
As we carried on walking we soon heard a loud noise. It was a howler monkey, unfortunately we didn’t manage to spot them, but you can’t have everything, can you?
A little further along we came to a structure. Salvie pointed out that this is one of the Palenque structures. There is only a small area of the Palenque ruins that have actually been uncovered. He also showed us something I found very interesting. The ‘arches’ for the doorways are not actually true arches, there is no keystone. Stones are just piled on top of each other. This is the reason why Mayan buildings have several openings and are long and thin. Without a keystone the buildings can’t be supported that well.
Salvie invited us to go into the structure. Me and Dave were jumping up straight away. It wasn’t the easiest hole to get in and once in you were hit with the smell of guano. The cave was full of bats, they got a little disturbed by us and it was quite freaky to have them fly at you and then suddenly dodge your face.
We didn’t stay long in the cave, it was a cool experience but the smell was something else! As we carried on our walk I pointed out a small plant on a tree. I was very impressed with myself, as I guessed right and this was a young strangler fig!
A Small Snack
A small walk later and we came across a load of termites. Salvie invited us to have a taste, as back in the day Mayans would have used these as food. Since insects are meant to be the next superfood, I gave it a go. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve done and I fell a little bad for the termites… But they weirdly tasted like carrots.
Not long after this small snack we came to another cave, that Salvie said we could go into. This one was even harder to get in, you had to kind of slide in. Once again there was the smell of guano, although there weren’t as many bats in this cave. Salvie told us to go a little further and take a look around the corner. Here was were the few bats were and you could see an ‘archway’ (though obviously not a true arch).
The Forgotten Temple
We carried on a bit longer, amongst the howls of the howler monkey and the birds calling. Soon we left the main path and got on a small trail. This trail wound up hill through the jungle and eventually stopped just under a rather large ruin.
Salvie told us this structure is the “Forgotten Temple”. This structure has to have the jungle cutaway around it every year so that it stays visible and uncovered. Here Salvie also showed us some jade that he had. He showed us some new jade and some old jade. Old is what has been discovered in Mayan Ruins, new has been shaped recently.
You can tell when people are trying to sell you new jade as old, as the holes and edges are different. The old techniques used mean that holes get thinner towards the middle, because the hole was painstakingly made by hand. So they would go through one side to the middle, and then start on the other side. Nowadays a machine makes the holes, so it is even. The way to tell if you are being sold real jade is to shine a light through it, as light shines through real jade. I’m getting all the good tips for purchasing gems on this tour!
Salvie told us there were two ways to get to the front of the Forgotten Temple, but one was much steeper. So me, Dave and Andrea followed Salvie on the steep way, whilst Becky, Lily and Pattie went the easier way. We had to be quick, so that we beat them around and got the best view. It was well worth it. The temple is amazing. And the view, wow. The best part, we were the only ones there.
The Proper Ruins
After the Forgotten Temple, it was getting close to the opening times of the main ruins. So Salvie took us back through the jungle and to the ruins entrance.
Once in the ruins, or the few that are uncovered Salvie took us in front of a series of buildings. He pointed out the first temple, named the “Skull Temple” as there is a skull seen on it. I wonder who came up with such an original name…
Salvie then pointed out another temple, which had a doorway after a few steps. You were allowed in this temple as here was where the “Red Queen” was found. The ‘Red Queen’ is the name for the remains of a woman found here. She was buried with lots of jade, which shows she was wealthy and important, but also cinnabar, which meant everything, even her bones, were stained red. Inside there is only the sarcophagus left, it is open and you can see the red colouring. There’s not much more to see inside here to be honest and it’s hard to see the colouring. One important point, flash wasn’t to be used and there was very little light. But the night mode on my camera picked up the red.
The Main Palace
The biggest pyramid cannot be climbed, which is kind of a good thing, if disappointing. Too many feet will ruin it, but that doesn’t stop me wishing I could get up there. Instead, Salvie took us to the Main Palace. Here he pointed out some ‘arches’. These were apparently the best that the Mayans came up with, but still no key stone.
We walked around much of the palace ruins, there were lots of different views and carvings to bee seen. One bit that stood out for me was the “Patio de los Cautivos”. This was courtyard where courtly activities took place. Around the courtyard the walls were carved with many different designs.
After our time on the palace we headed to another complex of buildings. This one included “Templo de Sol”. Salvie told us we could climb it for the best views of the site. He told us we had “Ten Mexican minutes” to climb, so a while.
We headed up and he was right, the views were immense. Especially from the left hand corner of the pyramid (the left hand side as you are looking at the pyramid). You could see all the uncovered buildings. It makes you think what it would be like, and how huge it would be if all the ruins were uncovered and reconstructed.
Once back down, Salvie told us that our tour with him was finished. Now we were faced with a choice. We could either get in the minibus with him to go back to town, or stay in the site. If we stayed there was a path we could follow to the museum, which our ticket also gave us entry to and then catch a collectivo back to town.
Obviously I opted to carry on exploring. So me, Dave and Andrea said our farewells and thanks to Salvie, then carried on looking around. On our walk we found the Templo del Count – so named because Count Waldeck used this temple as living quarters during his visit to Palenque.
As we carried on we soon left the ruins behind us and we were back into the jungle. It was a nice, quiet jungle walk with a very nice waterfall. There were also a few more ruins hidden in the jungle. The best bit though was a bridge, this bridge gave great views of the river, but moved quite a bit as you walked on it. All fun and games!
We reached the exit not long after the fun bridge. Across the road an a little further down was the museum. And it was closed. Electrical faults apparently. Oh well. So we got chatting to a French couple who’d also been disappointed by the closed museum, as we waited for the collectivo to town.
The collectivo dropped us off in the town of Palenque, which is a short walk from the Cañada area that we were staying in. So we decided to have a look round.
Other than being bombarded by tour companies trying to sell various tours, there wasn’t much in the town. We reached the square and the church and had a look round. That was it really!
It then dawned on us that we were hungry, so we went in search of somewhere to eat. We found a place called “Tropi Tacos” where I had Pastor Tacos, and they were great. They even came with pineapple, onion and a spring onion and coriander mix. The best part was that they had a stand with four different sauces and limes to garnish the tacos with.
An Evening Out
After lunch we headed back to the hotel to have a bit of a rest before going out. I say rest, we also had a few drinks together!
Six O’clock came around and it was time to meet the others. So we headed down to the reception, where Becky had booked us taxis. We headed out into the jungle road and stopped at a place called Don Muchos. Here they did Italian and Mexican food. Surprisingly not a weird combination, as there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Mexico!
The food here was great. I decided to have a break from Mexican food and have Ravioli with Mushroom sauce. It was some of the best pasta I’d had, it was freshly made and very saucy. A band started playing as we were eating too. It was a great place, and very popular. After dinner and finishing our drinks we headed back to the hotel to rest and pack before the early start the next day.
A Long Way
The next day we were setting off for Merida. An eight hour bus ride. Not far then. We were down first thing for breakfast, we only had half an hour to eat it! Then we had to head to the bus station to check in our luggage and begin the long journey.
There’s not much to tell about the journey. Other than it was long. Very long. We finally arrived at Merida and Becky got us taxis to take us to the hotel, Hotel Colonial.
This hotel felt more like a business hotel. But it was still very nice and comfortable. Plus there was a seating area on the roof, bonus!
Getting To Know Merida
Once we’d all settled into our rooms we meet down stairs for a walk around the town and to get some food. Becky took us up the road to the Zocalo. Here she pointed out the “Loveseats” that are only found in the Yucatan state, and the cathedral. The cathedral was very impressive, especially at night. But the love seats I was amazed by. They are simply genius. Seriously. They are made so couples sit facing each other, but are one bench.
Next we headed to Amaro, this was a cool restaurant. There was an outside courtyard where we sat. Here I had my first try of Cochinita Pibil. This is suckling pig cooked underground, wrapped in banana leaves. In all honesty it’s just like slow cooked pork.
After dinner we all went out for dessert. Marquesitas. There was a stall basically opposite the restaurant, so we headed there. The best marquesitas are definitely in Merida. Who knew caramel and cheese could taste so good?
My First Cenote
Breakfast in the morning was amazing. It was a breakfast buffet and there was everything you could possibly think of! From fruit and yoghurt to fresh pancakes to cheesy pork and everything in between. So much choice!
After breakfast our tour guide arrived. Today Becky was not coming with us, as she had to do some work. So we waved goodbye and set off to Santa Barbara and my first ever Cenote.
It was about an hour drive to Santa Barbara and when we arrived we arrived the tour guide told us that we could not use sun cream or bug spray. The water is freshwater and a source of drinking water for the region, so no chemicals can go in. We also had a choice, we could either grab a bike and cycle to each cenote or be take by a horse-pulled cart along a track. Me and Dave joined the others with the horse-pulled cart.
I have no idea how long it took to get to the first cenote. It wasn’t too long, but it was a very bumpy ride! When we entered into the cenote, we were the only people there. It was fully enclosed and so had to have lights. We had about an hour in this cenote, which was more than enough for a swim around.
I was stunned, the cenote was beautiful and eerie. The water was pleasantly cool and the stalactites and stalagmites made for some interesting features. And so began my love (maybe even obsession) with cenotes.
Fish And Snorkels
A couple minutes before we left this cenote a few more people arrived. But not many. It was a wonderfully quiet place to discover cenotes.
We left the first cenote and literally crossed the road to the next one. This one had a few more openings so you could see beams of light going down into the water. Beautiful.
As I started to climb down the steps I noticed that there were fish in the water. Lots of fish. As I stopped on the steps they started nibbling on my feet! It’s a bizarre sensation, it really tickles, but I love it – and I HATE my feet being touched! I actually sat down and enjoyed this free pedicure for a while before swimming around the cenote!
Another couple soon joined us in this cenote. After I’d had a swim around the guy offered us all to take a look using his snorkel. Snorkeling in cenotes is magical, you can see why the Mayans believed that the underworld was reached through water. With the rock formations below the water and shafts of light descending down, it is beautiful to see.
After this me and Dave realised that there was a jumping platform – we saw someone else jump off! So we took one look at each other and knew it had to be done! It wasn’t the highest platform, but it was still great fun and great for my first cenote jump!
The Third And Final Cenote
The next cenote was a short walk away. So dripping wet we walked to the third and final cenote of the day. Stairs led down into a big cave mouth. The guide told us that it had only been open for about three weeks, but I think he meant the stairs were new, not that the cenote had been discovered!
And this cenote. I was speechless. Honestly. It was beautiful. Completely open at the top with tree roots hanging down into the water. We were told to be careful and not touch the roots, so that the tree does not get damaged. These trees feature in Mayan mythology as they link the underworld, earth and the sky and is in their creation myth.
The couple with the snorkel were here too and let us have another go of the snorkel. It was amazing to see the roots disappear beyond my vision along with the light. I thought this was the most beautiful cenote I had seen.
Back To Merida
After about an hour in the last and most amazing cenote, we got back into the horse pulled cart thing and were taken back to the entrance. The ride was just as bumpy on the way back! Once back at the entrance we all got changed and were taken back to Merida.
We arrived back in the early afternoon, and had a bit of spare time before dinner that night. So me, Dave and Andrea decided to go for a walk around.
I wanted to go and see the ‘Blistered Jesus’ in Catedral de San Ildefonso, on the main square, but first we wanted a snack of marsequitas. We headed to the stall from the night before, as they were so good! But the stall was no longer there! So we had to cope without the amazing marsequitas.
A Strange Market
On our way to the Cathedral, a Mexican guy started speaking to us, asking where we were going. We told him the Cathedral and he replied that it was shut until 4pm, but he knows a great market round the corner. He was very persistent, and Andrea wanted to buy souvenirs, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt.
It was definitely one of those “my cousins market” situations. We climbed the stairs and it was a shop, not a market. It was also just a bit weird. Just a feeling. Luckily the guy had left us at the entrance so we were able to leave and head back to the Cathedral quickly!
It turned out the guy hadn’t actually lied, the Cathedral was shut until 4pm! Luckily we didn’t have long to wait and headed onto the Zocalo for a look around.
The Zocalo is very pretty, surrounded by beautiful buildings. We had a closer look at the Loveseats, and I still think they are great inventions, I don’t know why no one else has cottoned on to this design! They are actually quite pretty in themselves, with curving features, the only thing I think they are missing is a place to put your wine!
Jesus And Murals
A short while later and it was time for the Cathedral to open. It is a lovely Cathedral, but the main attraction for me was the “Blistered Jesus”. This is in an alcove to the left of the main altar. According to legend, the crucifix was made from the wood of a tree that was struck by lightning and burst into flame, in Ichmul. The tree burned throughout the entire night, but was left relatively unscathed. This is why the statue is black.
The church in Ichmul, where this crucifix was, also burnt down years later and the crucifix survived this fire. However, the statue was lost or destroyed in the Revolution, so the one seen today is a replica.
As we still had plenty of time before dinner, we decided to go into one of the other buildings on the square, Palacio de Gobierno. In here are murals, lots of murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco. They depict the violent history of the Yucatan and the hardships of the indigenous people
The murals are very powerful, especially the two opposite each other on the ground floor. These show “The Social Evolution Of Man In Yucatan”. The first part shows the daily life of the Mayan people and the second shows the Mayans after the conquest. In just three strong colours it is a powerful piece.
Climbing the stairs there are three murals next to each other. These depict the five directions in the Mayan belief – North, South, East, West and the Centre.
Once upstairs there is a main room of murals and some in the corridor. One of my favourites was the “Sisal Cutters Hands”. Sisal was once used as rope and made the area rich. The sisal cutter has rough hands through his work, the work that made Merida rich and gave him little.
All the murals have powerful imagery and a description. For someone who is not really into art, I thought this was amazing. The emotion behind the images could really be felt.
A Taste Of The Yucatan
We met back up with the others and headed out for dinner. This time we went to Panchos, which is a taco bar. We were lead to a table in the outside courtyard, surrounded by pictures of historical figures, such as Frida Kahlo and Marcos.
Here Becky told us that it was best to choose from their small plates and have a few. So me and Dave chose two each and shared. We had two Yucatecos (one pibil, one chicken), an avocado and mango salad and stuffed ravioli. All the food was amazing. My favourite has to be the salad though and I normally don’t go for salads.
As we were eating Becky pointed out one of the pictures on the wall. The picture was of a lady in a large sombrero. She told us that this is a very famous picture from the revolution, but no one actually knows who this woman is. I think it’s quite interesting that she is unknown.
One Of The Seven Wonders
We had an early bus the next day, so could not enjoy the breakfast buffet again. Instead we had a packed breakfast from the hotel. The early start was so that we could arrive at Chichen Itza in time for opening and beat the worst of the crowds.
As much as I was beginning to hate Becky with all her early mornings (only joking, it was just the early mornings I was hating), she had a point. We arrived at Chichen Itza before opening time and there was already a queue! What were all these people doing up so early? They are all mental!
Before we entered the site we were met by our guide, Guillermo, who took us inside and straight up to the main pyramid El Castillo, One of the Seven Wonders of the World. As we all stopped to take pictures he told us “No, come here for the best picture” and led us to the left of the pyramid. So we all got that iconic picture before the crowds descended!
Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site too, find out more about the UNESCO Sites in Mexico you should visit
As more people started to come into the site Guillermo led us to the Ball Court. Along the way we passed a building with grinning skulls carved on every wall, this is the Tzompantli, and it is thought that victims heads were hung here. Nice.
The Great Game
We entered the massive Ball Court of Chichen Itza, which is the largest known. Shaped like an ‘I’ it is surrounded by temples, the target rings are halfway along each side. Guillermo told us about the game. The ball game is symbolic and although the full rules and significance is unknown, it was clearly an important event.
Two teams compete, to score goals a leather ball must be passed through one of the hoops, which the other team defends. But the ball can only be touched with the head, hips, elbows and knees.
On the walls of the ball court is a panel, this panel shows players of the game. One of these players has been decapitated, and another is holding the decapitated head and a knife. Guillermo told us that because of this it is believed that a sacrifice took part after the game. But it is unknown whether it was the losing or winning team, or just the captain. It is something we will probably never know.
Here Guillermo also demonstrated the ‘Whispering Gallery’ effect of the ball court. It is designed in such a way that sound is echoed throughout the court. He demonstrated this by clapping, and the echo was loud, in fact louder than his clap. This means that if the Emperor, or anyone else, made an announcement, or just needed to be heard, he would not have to shout, as his voice would carry to the other end of the court.
As we left the Ball Court we were quickly surrounded by market stalls. There was also a pile of what looked like pillars, with an iguana keeping cool. You could just see his head poking out, he was so cute!
Anyway, back to the Market stalls. Guillermo told us that not just anyone could sell inside Chichen Itza. They had to be local, be selling local goods and could not approach tourists. Personally I think these are good rules. I hate getting harassed by vendors! He also told us that there was talks of putting the market outside the main entrance, an even better idea if you ask me. I feel all the stalls do take something from the place. Probably because when I am visiting somewhere like this I am really not interested in shopping and all the shouts of “my friend” and “barato y bonito” get annoying after awhile!
The Intelligence Of The Mayans
We walked past the stalls and ended up back at El Castillo. This time it was much more crowded, definitely too late for the perfect picture! Here Guillermo told us how the building is actually the Mayan Calendar. There were four staircases (only two are restored), each with ninety-one steps with an additional step at the entrance of the temple. This adds up to three hundred and sixty-five.
Even more amazing, on both spring and autumn equinox, near sunset, the serpents heads at the bottom of the pyramid are joined to their tails at the top by a body of shadow. This could not be an accident!
The pyramid also has the ‘Whispering Gallery’ effect. So that once again, anyone speaking could be heard. Here all the tour guides were clapping to demonstrate this effect. It was a little noisy! But you have to admit, the Mayans were pretty clever with their buildings!
And There’s More To See
Next we headed towards the ‘Group of a Thousand Columns’, which once formed a square. On the far side is a building known as the Mercado, though there is no evidence of this ever being a marketplace! Guillermo pointed out some sculptures on these buildings. These sculptures were of Chac, the god of rain.
Walking further we went through another market and here the amount of people began to dwindle. Few tourists come this far. We passed a smaller pyramid, known as ‘The High Priest’s Grave’, as the burial chamber of a high priest was discovered here. (I know, you never would have guessed from the name!)
More Clever Buildings
Carrying on, we came to a building known as the ‘Observatory’, or the ‘Snail’. With a circular domed tower, it does look like a modern observatory. The roof even has slits that are aligned with points of astronomical significance. Therefore it is highly likely that the Mayans were actually astronomers. They seemed to be very intelligent people!
Carrying on, we came to an area called the ‘School’. There were two buildings that Guillermo pointed out, the ‘Church’ and the ‘Nunnery’. The nunnery had a great façade, made up of small heads of Chac, that combined make one big mask, with the door being the mouth. These buildings are a contrast, the Nunnery is Chenes style, whilst the Church is Puuc style. Though the church still has lots of Chac imagery too!
And that was the end of the tour with Guillermo. So we said our thanks and goodbyes. Becky told us that we could stay for another hour and explore further if we wanted, I was definitely up for that.
Just before we finished Guillermo had told us about the cenote in the complex. In this cenote a lot of dead bodies were found. So there is a theory that the reason Chichen Itza fell was because the Mayans dumped their dead in the cenote, which was actually their water source. Since they were obviously very intelligent I don’t buy this theory, and neither did Guillermo. It’s more likely that the Mayans deliberately poisoned the water source when they were leaving so that other people could not claim their city.
Time To Explore
Me, Dave and Andrea headed off to find the cenote. It wasn’t hard to find, it was just on the opposite side to where we were! We had to pass through another market, this one all the way down the path. So in the way!
But it didn’t take long to get to Cenote Sagrado. It’s quite the impressive cenote, very big, but the water didn’t exactly look inviting! Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to walk all the way around it, but we still got some good views of it.
After this we explored the main plaza a little more, as we still had some time spare. There is what looks like a worn statue of Chak. I feel that the rain god was very important!
Onward To Playa
Time was soon up, and the site was getting very crowded, so we felt that it was time to leave! We met up with the others and got back on the minibus. It wasn’t a long drive, as we stopped for lunch not too far from Chichen Itza. The restaurant was nice, but as I’d just had some of the breakfast pack, I didn’t eat here.
The next leg of the journey was much longer! But after a few hours we arrived in Playa Del Carmen. Becky told us to make sure we were on Quintana Roo time, as it’s an hour ahead!
We were dropped off right outside the hotel, Hotel Hulku.The hotel was lovely, though it took some time to check in! When we got to our room the first thing I noticed was the amazing dreamcatchers. They were beautiful! And there was a pool… Bonus!
An English Beach
As we checked in it had started to rain. What was that about? Mexico surely doesn’t rain (except in rainy season). But it really was raining! Me and Dave waited a while and as it started lightening up we headed out.
We made our way to 5th Avenue, the main pedestrianised street. And it was like we’d been transported into the USA! Seriously! All the US brands, big names, tour guides shouting at you in English, bars with US price tags. It was noisy and crowded and not what I’d expected! We walked along for a bit and soon got sick of all the people trying to get us into their bar/shop/travel agency and the odd few walking past coughing “weed” into our ears. Not my kind of place.
So we made our way off this street and found the beach. We decided to walk back to the hotel along here. And it started to rain again. English beach holiday! So we walked along the quiet beach barefoot in the rain. It was lovely and peaceful, if very wet. We got soaked to the skin! And we actually felt cold for the first time in Mexico!
A Farewell Meal
It wasn’t long before it was time to meet the others for our final meal together. We were heading to a place called Pik-Nik, it wasn’t far so me and Dave walked whilst the others got a taxi. It didn’t make sense to get two taxis!
Me and Dave arrived just a few minutes behind the others. So we ordered drinks and started chatting. Becky told us that the seafood was good here. Something called Ceviche caught my eye and I asked Becky what it was. Basically it is Mexican sushi. It’s raw fish that is left in lime juice, which ‘cooks’ it. I ordered the Ceviche and Dave ordered the ‘Coctel’, with the plan to share.
After we’d ordered we were brought guacamole, none of us had ordered this, they’d given it us! Bonus! The guacamole was very good. And there was lots of it.
The ceviche had a very citrus taste, but was nice. Coctel was more tomato-y and very nice. The food here was very good and I’m glad I tried the ceviche and coctel!
Not Ready To Say Goodbye
After the meal me and Dave walked back to the hotel. The others wanted to nip to Walmart, which wasn’t far from the hotel, so we said we’d met them back there. When they arrived back they came baring ice cream and wine. Looks like the night wasn’t ending just yet!
So we stayed up drinking, eating ice cream and chatting. It felt like we didn’t want to say goodbye. Andrea had an early flight the next morning, so we knew we’d not see her at breakfast. But eventually the wine ran out and we got tired, so we said our goodnights and went off to bed.
The next morning me and Dave went down to breakfast quite late, so we assumed everyone had already had theirs. But as we were getting our coffee Lily, Pattie and Becky showed up. We drew out breakfast as long as we could. Once again, we didn’t want to say goodbye, but the time came.
Becky was off to her flight. Lily and Pattie off to their resort and me and Dave off to our Airbnb. It was the end of our amazing time with West Adventures.
Wonderful article, Nat! I’m looking forward to doing that trip now as soon as I can fit it in. One of the few I haven’t done. Thanks so much!
I am just looking into booking this particular tour with West Adventures. I wondered if you cold tell me how many were on the tour and the age range? Also were there very long days of driving? What was your highlight of Mexico?
I highly recommend this trip! It was so good. On my tour there were only five of us. The maximum number they take on a trip is 16, but the average is 8-12. There were a few days of long driving, especially Palenque to Merida. Most driving days are broken up with sightseeing though.
My highlight was Palenque. The local guide was amazing and really knew his stuff. Plus the ruins themselves were beautiful.
I hope you enjoy the trip!
Ummm…you had me at chocolate, churros and wine! Looks like so much fun!!