Mexico has a reputation for being dangerous and unsafe. Between five full seasons of Breaking Bad, endless documentaries of the ruthless El Chapo coupled with the fear instilled by the shadowy goon in the White House constantly referring to the Mexican ‘caravan’ of murderers and rapists, it certainly has not placed Mexico in a positive light.
Prior to our visit to Mexico, I cannot begin to tell you how many people back home were quick to highlight the violent reputation and of our impending demise in Mexico. It’s all a bunch of malarkey and in tune with the same malarkey that was expressed to us prior to our 2 month visit to Morocco. I will tell you, the most dangerous place we have ever visited after 4 1/2 years of travel spanning the globe, is the good ole USA where I am always guarded against the deluge of clinically insane people wandering the streets. My advice for prospective travelers is to ignore your fellow Americans, especially the ones that have never even set foot in Mexico and are simply regurgitating safety concerns they’ve heard on CNN or Fox News.
After spending about two (2) months in Yucatan and Quintana Roo states, I feel this negative reputation is quite undeserved. We visited numerous towns and observed a real strong sense of community with families out laughing and enjoying themselves, even during the late hours of the evening. At absolutely no point during our travels did we ever feel unsafe. To the contrary, I was surprised at how safe it was and how relaxed the atmosphere felt everywhere.
Following our brief stay in Cancun and our week stay on the nearby island of Isla Mujeres, we embarked on our six week roadtrip thru the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quitana Roo. The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is so much more than just the tourist hotspots of Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen. It most definitely is the perfect area for a good old fashioned roadtrip. If you look at the map of Yucatan, you can easily spend a few months in the area and still not get a chance to see everything.
The best and the most convenient way to efficiently explore and cover the peninsula is by renting a car. Most importantly, this enabled us to arrive earlier in order to beat the crowds and tour buses to the ruins and cenotes. Driving a car thru the Yucatán peninsula is relatively easy. You just have to watch out for the ubiquitous annoying speed bumps on all local roads. You also can’t get worked up by the speeding and aggressive Mexican drivers who seemingly take pleasure driving right up your ass. I drove for over a month all thru Morocco so I had some solid experience under my belt dodging goats, donkeys, camels randomly crossing the roads. In Mexico, its the old school packs of stray dogs on the roads and they want nothing to do with human interaction. They have their own shit going on just like we have our own shit going on.
Our mission for this trip was gorging on tacos followed by washing them down with delicious ice cold chaya juice & horchata rice milk. As well as experimenting with the abundance of other delicious regional Mayan and Mexican specialties. I really had no idea Mayan food is completely different to Mexican cuisine.
We were also determined to swim in as many spectacular cenotes as possible. In addition to checking out many of the renowned archaeological ruin sites. (Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Coba, Uxmal and Tulum Ruins). You could spend a month in Yucatan visiting many other ruins sites that don’t have any other tourists around. They are everywhere. However, given it’s relative distance and isolation from the more touristy parts of Mexico, nobody really passes through.
Our itinerary was as follows with many other stops in smaller towns.
CANCUN – ISLA MUJERES – VALLADOLID – IZAMAL – TELCHAC PUERTO – MERIDA – LAKE BACALAR – TULUM – PLAYA DEL CARMEN – COZUMEL
The many Cenotes scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula were spectacular. You could spend weeks just going cenote hunting. One of our other missions on this leg of our trip besides stuffing our faces with mucho tacos was to swim in as many cenotes possible.
A cenote is a natural pit, large holes in the ground filled with spring water. These pockets of paradise are truly hidden gems of the earth and are awesome places to swim and snorkel in. They are all spiritually charged places and sooooo freaking magical.
(Pro Tip – you must arrive before 11 AM to these cenotes in order to experience them in solitude and before the tour buses roll in). Many times we had the cenote all to ourselves which made the experience so much more perfect. Our favorite cenotes are outlined below.
Check out the attached Youtube video of a real diving contest at Ik Kil Cenote, nearby to Chichen Itza. This cenote was really spectacular.
Valladolid is a real laid back town. It is located in an area rich with cenotes to swim in and has the unique feature of having a cenote within the city center. We enjoyed simply wandering the calles surrounding the main plaza (aka Parque Francisco Canton) and a walking down the nicest street in town, Calle de los Frailes Street down to Sisal Park. Calle de los Frailes is a street with traditional colonial architecture that has been pedestrianized in the evenings/weekends. The houses have been turned into chic shops, cafes, outdoor garden restaurants and boutique inns. It reminded me of a 1930’s movie. Quite surprised to see a sophisticated street in this little town.
The big activities besides wandering around exploring the town centre, are visits to the nearby ruins and cenotes.
Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman – A must visit. One of our favorites. Also has pool, bar, food.
Cenote Ik Kil – A must visit. Pro Tip – must get here before your Chichen Itza visit.
Cenote Xcanche – located on the same property as the famous Ek Balam Ruins.
Cenote Zaci – conveniently located in town but a bit rough around the edges.
Cenote Suytun – big Instagram cenote spot. Arrive early to avoid tour buses.
Cenote Yokdzonot – did not visit but gets good reviews.
Cenote Chihuan – did not visit but good reviews. Subterranean underground cave pool.
Ek Balam Ruins – small but no crowds like Chichen Itza. Cenote Xcanche on site.
Chichen Itza – packed with tourists. Tie in with nearby, Cenote Ik Kil & Cenote Yokdzonot
La Selva – (our fav local joint, awesome prices and food)
Loncheria El Amingo Casiano – (amazing hole in wall local joint in food court)
Other Restaurants –
Casa Italia, El Meson de Marques, Naino, La Calazada, Dona Hermelinda, Ix Cat Ik, Conato Restaurant, La Casona de Valladolid, Taberna de los Frailes, Yerba Buena
On our drive from Valladolid to Izamal, we correctly opted for the local road (Route 180) which runs thru the many small Yucatan villages instead of the less exciting toll road (Route 180D). Driving thru these villages offered another glimpse into Mexico that simply is not possible if you were to only visit the nearby tourist vacation hotspots of the Riviera Maya. Such a different way of life compared to the Caribbean coast. I took note of the simple life in these towns and I wondered what life would be like outside the modern world. It appeared to have a unique appeal.
What can I say about Izamal? It’s Yellow. All the buildings in the town centre are painted yellow. Kinda like the insanely popular Instagram travel spot Chefchaouen, Morroco whose buildings are painted blue. It’s a good gimmick to attract tourists and definitely helps create a unique atmosphere by making an ordinary town significantly more visually appealing. We were basically the only westerners in Izamal. We would often see people looking at us, half smiling, curious and having a look on their faces wondering how the heck us Flashpackers found their way to their tiny Yellow Mayan town.
Kinich El Sabor de Izama
TELCHAC PUERTO –
There are many beaches to stay at on the Gulf of Mexico but these beaches are nowhere near as nice as the beaches on the Caribbean side. However, we knew this going in and did not choose our three night pitstop in Telchac Puerto to lay on the beach. We came to hear the waves crashing, eat all the fresh seafood and cool out in this relaxed setting on the outskirts of the busier Progreso town. We took a daytrip to Progreso to check out the beach scene for lunch and we immediately knew we made the right decision avoiding Progreso. We opted for the isolation of Telchac Puerto, about 30 minutes east, for a more secluded beach experience, far away from the crowds. The house we rented really made the stay. It was a newly built Airbnb right on the beach called Villa Paciencia. It was huge and smack dab on the ocean with not a human around. We paid about $100 per night. If this same house was on the sea in another location in the world, it would could easily fetch well over $500 per night. There were no worries and no hurries in Telchac Puerto. It actually felt like we reached the end of earth. Now onto big city life in Merida.
So, here they are!! The modern day hipper Mexicans. We had been passing thru some real small sleepy towns and arrival into Merida was a bit of a change. Merida is the capital city of the Yucatan. The amazing thing about Merida is that it feels a lot more like a small town than a city of a million people. Walking down some of the side streets, not far from the center, even felt like a village. The city is not the prettiest at first sight but something that dwells in the old historic buildings really grew on me over time. Having a rental car allowed us to really dig in and explore not only the lively city centre but also the small outlying streets that tourists often miss and locals have kept to themselves.
Yes, the rental car gave us great flexibility but driving around Merida is no joke. I will make a bold statement and say driving through Merida was probably the most difficult we have experienced in all five years of our RTW. I did all of the driving because Flashpacking Barbie cannot drive for shit as she fails to understand the meaning of ‘defensive driving’. She is all offense and no defense. Therefore, I declared myself the sole driver and glad I did cause driving thru those tight intersections and calles were like playing Mexican roulette. I left Merida with ‘balls of steel’ and experienced enough to hit the chaotic roads of any those frenzied Southeast Asian cities. Note, with the exception of Merida, everywhere else in Yucatán and Quintana Roo was ‘no problema’ at all for this gringo. For those who do not want to tackle the Merida streets in a rental car, Uber is widely available and is dirt cheap. I mean dirt cheap with fares similar to Vietnam.
We had eight nights in Merida which allowed us to hit up a ton of the fabulous restaurants serving Mayan and Yucatan regional dishes. Eating at the vast number of restaurants in Merida is the real highlight of the city. We split our 8 nights, staying four (4) nights at the Hotel Casa San Angel, which we really liked and was perfectly located in Santa Ana Square. Santa Ana was one of the popular three squares, in addition to Santa Lucia Square & Plaza Grande, where both locals & tourists gather. The other four nights we hunkered down into an AirBnB right in the thick of a gritty local neighborhood where many tourists would never consider staying and it felt as though we were thrown back in time. We absolutely loved the feeling of being so far away living here. Right down the block was our favorite local ‘hole in the wall’ seafood joint called Restaurante Mar y Sol which served as our ‘go to’ place when we did not feel like heading to the city centre.
I was very impressed with the strong sense of community here in Merida. There are all sorts of fun outdoor entertainment on tap that locals actually partake in. The weekends bring the locals out to the main city squares. Thursday nights is the Yucatecan Serenade in Parque Santa Lucia. (Pro Tip – get here at about 8:30 to get a seat). Saturday nights is the La Noche Mexicana at the south end of the famous Paseo de Montejo. This sweeping street is a real cool street to wander down afterwards with cafes/restaurants. Make sure you get your lips on some awesome refreshing sorbet at Sorbeteria El Colon (the other location on the main square of Plaza Grande). Also on Saturday nights at Plaza Grande, the Pok Ta Pok Ball Games are held.
Sunday morning is BiciRuta Day where the main drag of Paseo de Montejo is closed down to traffic and all the locals flock here to ride bikes which can be rented right there.
The big daytrips from Merida include:
1) Uxmal Ruins & nearby cenotes: Cenote Dzonbacal & Cenote X’batun & Kankirixche.
2) Cuzama Town Cenotes – Cenote Chacsinicche, Cenote Chelentun, Cenote Bolonchoojol
3) Celestun Town – Biosphere for some nature and to check out the Flamingos.
Merida Restaurants – Our favs
La Chaya Maya, Manjar Blanco, Apoala, Amaro, Catrin, Mercado 60 Food Court, La Tratto Santa Lucia, Manjar Blanco, Los Trompos, Hotel Casa San Angel for breaky.
Other Restaurants –
Oliva, El Trapiche, El Principe Tutul Xiu, La Prospe del Xtup, Rosa Sur 32, La Chaya Maya Casona
Taco/Torta and Hole in Wall Joints – Our favs
La Lupita @Mercado Santiago (best on Sunday mornings), Mercado 60, Wayan’e, Restaurant Mar y Sol, Cafeteria Impala
Oh, and Sorbeteria Colon for some first rate sorbet in the main Plaza Grande and on Paseo Montejo.
THRU THE BINOCS –
Food plays one of the major roles during our travels. Mexican food is Flashpacking Barbie’s favorite ethnic cuisine and she is totally game for a carne taco at all hours of the day….even for breaky. The food as been absolutely fantastic in Mexico. We are now five (5) weeks into our travels in Mexico and I honestly can count on one hand the bad meals we have had. I will go on record and say Japan and Mexico has ‘the most’ flavorful food of any of the countries we have visited on our RTW. I may have to also throw in Morocco however, the depth of dishes are quite limited if you get tired of the ubiquitous Tagine.
In summary, we really enjoyed the Yucatan. We are very lucky to have unlimited time for our travels. As a result, the pressure to hit up only popular tourist places fades away. Getting off the beaten path is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel in my opinion. While we have enjoyed many of the big cities we have visited, there is nothing like staying in the smaller towns and villages where not a lick of English is spoken. These are always the kind of places that offer the most unusual experiences. We loved queuing up with the locals at the local supermarkets, local restaurants and coffee shops without a tourist in sight. This is precisely what makes passing thru the tiny Yucatan towns so appealing.
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE CENOTE VIDEOS – (YUCATAN)