By Ed Junaidi on March 1, 2017
In last post, I began my journey in Mexico City then heading outwards to the Teotihuacan Pyramids, the magical town of Puebla and Oaxaca, the state that has a great number of different ethnicities. Throughout the way, I learned a great deal about the people of Mexico, the charms of its small towns and impressive UNESCO heritage sites. Follow me as again as I continue to Chiapas, Merida, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.
It took me eleven hours on bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a town located in the Central Highlands, considered as the cultural capital of Chiapas. The climate here is colder than Mexico City and can get as low as -8 degree Celsius especially at night. Amazingly, there is no pre-Hispanic city in San Cristobal de Las Casas.
Constrained by my tight schedule, I did not get to fully explore this charming town; however, I had the opportunity to travel down to Tuxtla Gutiérrez to check out the spectacular Sumidero Canyon. I was told that this canyon’s creation began around the same time as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, United States of America, due to a crack in the geological area’s crust and erosion by the Grijalva River, a natural river that still runs through it. Cruising on a boat along the river across the canyon make you respect Mother Nature even more!
At about 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I joined a tour group trailing down to Palenque. It took over six hours by colectivo (Mexican style transit van) from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Agua Azul, but the trip was worthwhile. The sight of the blue natural mineral water was spectacular. About 40 kilometres after Cascada de Agua Azul, the group stopped by at Misol-Ha Cascada, a waterfall that consists of a single cascade that falls from 35 metres high. Misol-Ha is famous for being the location the movie Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.
About another hour from Misol-Ha is the Palenque Archaeological Site, the site of a Mayan city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. This is the site that I grew up reading about its civilization and finally get the opportunity to witness it with my own eyes. Palenque ruins is also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1987. Although not as big as Teotihuacan or Monte Alban, this site consists of three temples that stand enigmatically atop the step pyramids namely Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross.There is also a stream that river runs through and underneath the ruins that was channeled from Misol-Ha.
The structure, complexity, and completeness of its history are perhaps the reasons why this Mayan site is the most studied and written about. Archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the total city has been uncovered and there are more yet to be excavated. It is fascinating simply to imagine how it would have been like during its heyday.
From Palenque, I travelled to another town and stayed one night in Merida. Sadly, I did not have time to explore this largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula. In my observation, this city has mixture of influences especially from the Mayans, the Spaniards, the French and the British. More than 60% of Merida’s population is of Maya ethnicity. Personally, I think the Mayans is one of the significantly most beautiful people in Mexico.
The temperature of this city can go as low as nine degrees centigrade, but when I arrived it was about 26 degrees. The city is lively with Mexican music and people going on with their lives. The atmosphere of this city really took me back to all the cowboy movies that I watched when I was small.
The guy at the hostel I was staying told me that there is another Maya archaeological site that is worth checking out: Uxmal. Following his directions, I took a bus from the terminal across the ADO Primera Clase bus station heading to Uxmal. I arrived in front of Uxmal entrance about one hour and a half later. Well, if I were to drive, I could have arrived much earlier because it is only around 60 kilometres south of Merida.
Uxmal is an ancient Mayan city from the classical period in present-day Mexico, considered as one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan culture, along with Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico; Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize; and Tikal in Guatemala. There were ancient roads connecting the buildings and also to other ancient cities in the area such as Chichen Itza.
Uxmal is famous for its solid architectural design built with well-cut stones set into a concrete core and not having to rely on plaster to hold the building together. It has not been declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site yet but the government is preparing for it to become one.
I wanted to stay longer in the Uxmal Archaeological Site to watch the performance of Light and Sound that would start playing at around 7:00 p.m., but, I need to pay a different entrance ticket for that. I was contemplating at first because it would have been an amazing experience, but decided to leave because I was afraid that I would miss the last bus to go back to the city. I had no idea what time the last bus was but I was informed that the next bus would be at 6:30 p.m. It was already dark by that time.
While in Merida, I took the opportunity to visit Chichen Itza, one of the largest collection of Mayan ruins and it would have been one of the mythical great cities according to Mesoamerican literature. Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic period and declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. The city might have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site. As soon as I arrived right in front of El Castillo, I immediately recognised this famous pyramid. Although not the biggest or the tallest, this pyramid has become one of the icons of Mexico, replicated into souvenirs like keychains, fridge magnets, miniatures and toys. A great number of people from around the world also gathered at this pyramid when the Mayan calendar ended recently.
Chichen Itza and Uxmal are two archaeological sites in Yucatan Peninsula that are the most accessible and offer facilities for the disabled.
Tulum – also known as The City of Dawn since it faces sunrise – is located along the east coast of Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. There are also ruins in Tulum, located on a high cliff and known to be part of one of the last cities built by the Mayans, which managed to survive about 70 years after the Spaniards began occupying the lands that are now Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spaniards were believed to have contributed to its demise.
This ruin was a site of a major port serving Cobá, another Mayan archaeological site 30 minutes from Tulum town centre.
Cobá is important because it is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the Ancient World. The guide told us that these stone causeways stretched up to 70 kilometres to the North West heading to Yaxuna, another Mayan settlements back in the Middle Formative Period that was conquered by Cobá. However, when Chichen Itza began a war with the state of Cobá, they conquered this state and destroyed them all. Cobá never recovered.
It has been a lifelong dream for me to swim in one of the flooded cave systems in Mexico that locals call cenotes. I did not miss this opportunity when I found out that Dos Ojos Cenote (a flooded cave system that extends up to about 82 kilometres with 28 known sinkhole entrances) is just about 30 minutes by colectivo from Tulum, heading towards Playa del Carmen. I spent almost two hours swimming in there.
Most of the cenotes consist of clear bluish fresh water collected from filtered rainwater through limestone. The water temperature is 25 degrees Celsius throughout the year and the maximum depth near Dos Ojos is approximately 10 metres, making it perfect for swimming and exploring.
The best way to enjoy these cenotes is by diving because the formation of the limestone extends from the surface down to the underwater. I took a great joy in snorkelling within the cenotes. Visibility was excellent and only limited by light rather than water transparency. If I knew earlier, I would have brought my own torchlight before going to the cenotes – lesson learned. Next time, I better research more in depth on the places I am visiting.
This side of Yucatan Peninsula has grown very touristy over the years. It is the centre of attraction for tourists from the United States of America and Europe. Playa del Carmen is located within the tourism and resort district of Mexico, which is Riviera Maya.
Quinta Avenida is a famous pedestrian street right next to the beach where there are a lot of shops and restaurants. Although pricey, I noticed that this is the place to buy souvenirs, good food and tour packages.
Playa del Carmen has easy access to Cozumel, an island with excellent coral reefs, rays, moray eels and sea turtles, great for snorkelling and diving. I found many diving operators set up shop along the beach and Quinta Avenida.
The beach on Playa del Carmen has no actual name but the locals simply call it The Playa.
This is another important tourist destination in Mexico, located on the easternmost point in Mexico along the Yucatan Peninsula coast. As one of the cities gazing towards the Caribbean Sea, Cancun has gained popularity amongst travellers and tourists from all over the world due to its crystal clear blue water and white sandy beaches. Cancun has a tropical wet and dry climate with steady temperature between seasons, making it the best destination for beach holiday.
Cancun is accessible by Cancun International Airport where it serves many international flights from everywhere especially North America, Central America, South America, Asia and Europe.
About 13 kilometres off the Yucatan Peninsula coast likes Isla Mujeres, a small yet beautiful and enchanting island only seven kilometres long and 650 metres wide. This island is called Isla Mujeres by the Spaniards because when they first arrived, they found many statues of women, probably built by the Mayans to worship Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of childbirth and medicine.
Like Cozumel, this island is also touristy but its beauty is still preserved. Worth noting is the North Point, where I found a stretch of white sandy beach best known for its beautiful sunset. On the other hand, the South Point is where travellers can find a cliff with rocky formation and ruins of the Ixchel temples.
There are several options when travelling around this island. Most of the time, tourists would use golf cart and bikes. Personally, I settled for a bicycle, which I used to cover the island, taking me less than three hours to do so. And this is where my journey touring Mexico ended.
Gaya Travel Magazine extends our heartfelt gratitude to The Embassy of Mexico in Kuala Lumpur for turning the writer’s trip to Mexico into reality.