As I listen to Vicente Fernandez’s deep, heart-wrenching vocals echo in my ear, I am brought back to the fast-paced streets of Mérida, where I spent hours wandering the century-old paths in an attempt to grasp Mexico’s fire and flame.
In the past couple of years, my love for backpacking has brought me to set foot in a number of countries. Now, it seems like a sham for me to say that I’ve visited Mexico, when 10 days in the Yucatán Peninsula can only be categorized as a struggling attempt to capture the essence of this vibrant region.
For many, Mexico may be synonymous with Cancún. The resort-dominate city sits on the Caribbean’s peaceful waters. Its nightlife and beautiful weather attract millions of visitors a year. For many, Mexico is synonymous with carefree vacationing. Unlimited piña colada and mouth-watering tacos in lavish restaurants.
Yet, in recent years, the fight over narco turfs in Cancún rose with the rise in tourism. It is unfortunate to see that the once peaceful waters of this beach-side city be subjugated to intensifying clashes. It is frustrating to see foreigners who come to the city for fast pleasures, leave behind a blazing trail of irreversible losses.
Nonetheless, the country I saw was vibrant and warm. The people cheerful and accommodating. As always with my stubborn curiosity, it was difficult to commit to one city. Despite, in theory, the week-and-half trip was supposed to be relaxing, I was whisked away by the need to explore other noted destinations.
In 10 days, with a little help from Google and lots of convincing from locals, I managed to squeeze in 4 cities and a handful of tourist attractions at a decently steady pace.
From vibrant Mérida to cozy Valladolid, from the gorgeous lagoon in Bacalar to beach town Tulum, I intentionally left the hustles and bustles of Cancún for a future getaway.
Being as ignorant as I was, I thought prices in Mexico would be similar to that in South Asia.
That’s not the case at all. A single bus ride from the Cancún airport to downtown Mérida took a fifth of my budget- some $40 after conversion.
But it was totally worth it. 3 hours after escaping the pouring rain at the airport, I just about caught the sunset in this lovely city after a comfy nap on the transit bus.
As the capital of Yucatán, Mérida is the largest city in the Peninsula. The city houses beautiful colonial architecture transformed by Spanish conquerors and broad, spacious boulevards influenced by the Parisian cityscape. Lavish villas, government housings, and royal households sit along Paseo de Montejo.
My host was a laid-back soul who lived on the outskirts of downtown. He shares his spacious bungalow with his sister, a cat, and a puppy. During my 3 day visit, I discovered a burning love for torta, which consists of a scope of delicious meaty sauce atop fluffy white bread.
Other than feeding my stomach, the city fed my soul. On my second day, I spent some 6 hours in the burning summer heat wandering around streets and streets of colorful houses, hidden statues, and beaming history. From the buzzing of Plaza Grande to the magnificent Altare della Patria, it was a treat seeing the everchanging colors as I ventured into differing neighborhoods.
The next day, I met up with Melanie, a traveler from Seattle who was just as eager to visit Uxmal-an ancient city from the Mayan period. A few hours away by bus, the historical ground is home to some handsomely preserved Puuc style buildings. Although it isn’t as well-known as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal’s Pyramid of the Magician and the Governor’s Palace are definitely worth a visit. The advantage, was, of course, the lack of tourists.
From Terminal TAME, we took the Sur Bus to Campeche that stops at Uxmal en-route, an air-conditioned ride that cost around US $7. Although it’s pretty easy to purchase tickets on the spot, it might be better to grab them beforehand during high-season.
On our way back, Melanie told me that she was planning on heading to Valladolid to see Chichén Itzá. Despite being hesitant to squeeze another city onto my somewhat packed schedule, I decided it had been a hot minute since I’ve crossed another World Wonder off my bucket list.
This is the beauty of traveling solo. Within an hour, my plans changed from staying in Mérida for a week to embracing another two cities- Valladolid and Bacalar, a small town with apparently, unbelievably blue waters.
The next morning, I boarded a bus to Valladolid, where we met two amazing girls that studied agriculture and planting. We all went to Cenote Suytun before myself and Melanie headed to Chichén Itzá the next day.
Cenotes are a common phenomenon in the Yucatánn Peninsula. As natural sinkholes, these geological forms come in all shape and sizes. Some sit graciously in the open while others are underground and hidden. Cenote Suytun can be categorized within the latter. Just about 15 minutes outside the city, the space was barely touched throughout our visit. Only a handful of people were within sight, which was great since the setting was rather small. The entrance fee was a couple of dollars and everyone was offered a life jacket.
The minute we headed downstairs and entered the cavern, I was awestruck by the magical sight. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, daylight and water streamed through an opening above. The water was chilly and refreshing. And our swims were accompanied by a handful of fish.
After an hour or so, we headed to the girls’ house for some salad and juice. That night, we spent attempting to enjoy the Sound & Light show at the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena. (Attempting because we missed the show for some piña colada, what gives 🙂 )
Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Although Bacalar was a last minute decision, it quickly became my favorite destination. Not only was the town adorable, but the vibe was completely relaxed. Here, people enjoyed their days by the lagoon under the sun. Everyone seemed to know each other.
My host was completely fascinating. A scientist (how cool!) from India, she met her German boyfriend in Congo before they decided to relocate to Mexico. They recently purchased a tour boat that he operates during the day. She is known in the area for hosting delicious Indian feasts that spiced up my soul. For those visiting Bacalar, do contact Jey and participate in this fun-loving event.
That night, we met a couple of German travelers and quickly became friends with the happy bunch. A group of childhood friends, they planned yearly getaways around the world. After dancing the night away and going for swims/ burning our skins off the next day, it was inevitable that Jey invited them over for lunch on their last day in town. So there I was, helping cook an Indian meal for a bunch of foreigners in a small town in Mexico.
It was a curious adventure.
The most intriguing aspect of Bacalar was the number of adrift artists that wandered the streets. Creatives from around the world come and stay by the lagoon, turning the town into a hippie utopia. Some artists would negotiate a stay and a couple meals for their brilliant work. When I was just about leaving Bacalar, Jey began talks with a couple people to re-brand her simple bungalow. From its original white walls and minimalist surroundings to a glory of colors, it is not difficult to see how talented these people were!
Tulum, Quintana Roo
After chatting with the German group during lunch, I was quickly convinced that the best way to reach my last destination was with them and their minivan. As quick as were my days in Bacalar, I grabbed my backpack and was on my way to Tulum, another beautiful beach-side town in the state of Quintana Roo.
The first night, I decided to stay at a hostel- my first in almost 4 years! Although the place was adorable, I quickly realized it wasn’t for me. It just wasn’t too exciting talking to people who shared the same story. But since Melanie, my Seattle friend was stopping in Tulum as well, I gave it a try.
Quickly enough, I contacted a host in the area and moved over. Nico hand braided beautiful pieces for sell. His work is gorgeous, using big bold colors that often incorporated a stunning solid mineral as the center piece.
At the time, Nico was hosting another traveler as well. A Turkish native, Belve was biking from LA to Rio, an estimated year-long journey through some of the roughest neighborhoods in the world.
Rough, I say, because just months prior, Belve’s biking friend Holger-an experienced German biker lost his life while passing Chiapas. Belve was devasted. “Biking is a lonely journey,” he tells me, “when you meet a fellow traveler on the road, they become family.” He biked with Holger for a month before they parted ways.
Honestly, I have immense respect for travelers I meet on the road, especially solo travelers that go on extremely long journeys. Despite traveling solo, I’m rarely alone. For those that go into the wilderness with nothing but nature and silence for accompaniment, it can pose as an incredible challenge.
Not to mention how small the world is, that when I told my friend, a fellow biker this story, he exclaimed that he was an avid reader of Holger’s travel blogs.
Final Thoughts & Quirky Stories
Although my time in Mexico was short, it was extremely significant. Some personal matters rendered the trip one of the most difficult, yet needed.
But the story isn’t over. Other than getting food poisoning on the last day that lasted late into the night, onto the bus, into the flight, and all the way home, I forgot my Ipad at my host’s place in Bacalar. (re: try holding down bad tacos for 10 hours straight, with only pit-stops between each leg of the trip, was a catastrophe)
As a small town, Bacalar had no major postal offices. Mailing from their local office would cost more than the Ipad itself. So my host in Tulum helped set up a WhatsApp group that gathered a couple of incoming/outgoing travelers. After a handful of people and almost a month-long journey, the Ipad arrived safe and sound at my door.
People are amazing.
The roundtrip flight from Texas to Cancún was US $160 (seeing that flying from Canada to anywhere would cost twice as much, this was a treat!)
- Bus from the Cancún airport to Merida was around 710 pesos.
- Bus from Merida to Uxmal was around 151 pesos (return)
- Entrance to Uxmal was 232 pesos (foreigners)
- Bus from Merida to Valladolid was 190 pesos
- Bus from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá was 52 pesos (return)
- Chichén Itzá Entrance 232 pesos*(foreigners)
- Valladolid to Bacalar was 189 pesos
- Tulum Hostel was 250 pesos
- Spent the last night pampering myself at Hotel Flor, a cute little place $30
- Tulum-Cancún airport was 242 pesos
- Food/Drinks/Miscellaneous= 750 pesos (mind you beers were more expensive than I thought)
In total, I spent 2998 pesos (US 158) + $160 + $30 = 348 US for a 10-day trip, not too bad, considering that I opt for comfortable buses and lots of dining out!