We decided to mix it up a bit accommodation-wise by staying in two different parts of Mexico City during our four nights stay, mainly so that we could familiarise ourselves with different areas and because Mexico City is vast.
Downtown Hostel was recommended to us as an affordable and cool place. In a renovated bank it is pretty hip but in true hostel style, we were back to sharing bathrooms and at this stage of the trip we are totally over sharing showers. Plus, the Airbnb we had booked for the last few nights was way cheaper, not to mention more comfortable than the hostel. After wandering round the city centre for a few days, we were glad to leave the throngs of the tourist traps and retreat to the much quieter residential area of Roma Norte. We should know by now that we prefer to be further out of town where the locals live rather than in the thick of it all. Seven months in and still learning!
Feeling ravenous we headed to El Cardenal restaurant for an early dinner. A very traditional restaurant and clearly a bit of an establishment based on the size of the queue outside. It served its purpose but I don't think we’d rush back. The food was tasty, the portions huge, but it was all delivered with very little finesse.
Palacio de Bellas Artes is as impressive as it sounds and a building that surely can’t be missed, both because of its central location but also because you don't want to miss it, she’s a beauty! As a prominent cultural centre and having hosted some of the most notable events in Mexico City, it is also known as the ‘Cathedral of Art’, with murals by Diego Riviera covering the walls. The queues for entry to the exhibitions were ridiculous when we went and we were sure we wouldn't see any of the art anyway with that many people, so we enjoyed the AC for a bit and headed to the House of Tiles instead. The House of Tiles is unsurprisingly exactly as it sounds, an imposing house covered in tiles with a beautiful courtyard interior, you certainly can’t miss it when in this area of town.
El Moro Churreria is the place to undoubtedly find the best churros in town, I might even go as far as saying in Mexico! A real institution and made freshly in front of you, you’ll know you're at the right place when you see the size of the queue outside!
Mercado de San Juan was recommended to us for the exotic meat selections (think lion burgers, waaaah!), cosmopolitan food stalls, and what was reputed to be one of Mexico City’s best coffee at Triana Cafe. This place sells literally everything edible on earth! Including many things I am sure most would class as inedible, and by this I mean grubs. So many grubs and bugs. Deciding to save insects from the undergrowth for another day, we stumbled across an amazing Spanish deli, Baltasar, offering all the hams and cheese you could ever dream of. It has been a while since we had a ham and cheese sandwich that good!
Fuelled, we decided to hit the La Ciudadela tat market in search of more souvenirs for the fam and most importantly, a beaded puma skull. Sounds odd I know but really, they are very fun. You can get cheaper ones where the beads are placed on by hand on to plastic moulds but the best are the wooden carved heads, their wonky ears lending to their authenticity. After hours of searching, we found him, tried to negotiate, failed, walked away defiantly, then returned with cash in hand an hour later. Oh well, we tried. And the poor bloke’s only trying to make a living!
Plaza Garibaldi, with its infamous hoards of mariachi bands competing for the attention of tourists and locals alike, is a very fun place. Getting there however is not! Our guide book did not provide the most favourable review for this plaza, with it being aimed at tourists, they are also a target and there is reportedly a lot of crime. The surrounding streets are absolutely not to be negotiated at night, we were a little freaked, even in the middle of the afternoon. But the square itself is full of life, mariachi bands gather every evening from around 4pm and belt out the classics with gusto. They even give you little impromptu auditions to show off their voices before you pay for the full thing. The atmosphere is electric and the performances addictive.
On our way back to the hotel, we wandered past the main post office, an incredible little gem of a place and the spitting image of the Gringotts Wizarding Bank in Harry Potter. We were also advised no trip to Mexico City would be complete without a trip to the Opera Bar. It is ridiculously touristy, a little naff, and entirely missable. Why do rumours of these can’t be missed places travel so far when they are in reality such a let down?
So, Mexico city is BIG. Everything is so spread out, the traffic is terrible and it takes an absolute age to get from one side of the city to the other. It is essential that you plan your activities based on the regions of the city so you aren't dashing around all day. Getting the metro is by far the best way but rush hour should really be avoided, we had a fairly nasty experience where we were rammed in to the carriage and some dick blocked the doors when it was our stop. Tears weren't far away!
A visit to the Luis Barragan studio has been at the top of our wish list for a while, well I have to admit it was more on Rob’s list as I only heard his name for the first time a few weeks ago. We were unaware however that you have to book ahead weeks in advance. Damn it! But not to be defeated, we decided to just turn up anyway and hope for the best - it worked! We were to return three hours later and we would get two spots on the afternoon tour, score!
In the meantime, we visited Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo. A small but beautifully formed and very digestible gallery. The best exhibition was a show that documented the variety of handicrafts made across Mexico. Both delightful and with a contemporary spin, there were displays of Mexican hats from across the various regions in Mexico and ‘farolitos de papel pintados’, aka paper lanterns. The historical roots of the farolito can be traced all the way back to China, Spanish merchants made this link possible. From the early sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries Spain held both Mexico and the Philippines as colonies. Trade relations linked the Philippines with China. These links gave Spanish merchants access to Chinese goods, which they began to export to other places. Chinese paper lanterns, imported from the Philippines to Mexico by Spanish traders, proved popular in the New World. The Mexicans used them for many kinds of celebrations, including Christmas! East meets West wherever we go!
The Barragan house was everything we had hoped it would be. One of Mexico's most famous architects, his home in Mexico City is now a private museum and is listed as a world heritage site. He was a master of colour, light and space and his style encompasses a combination of Mexican heritage with modernist forms of abstraction. Sadly we weren't allowed to take photos but Rob sneakily managed to get this one whilst our guides back was turned! No one works a fluro pink wall like he did! In the architect’s owns words: "I think that the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery." Magical indeed!
And at last, what we hoped to be one of our most exciting foodie experiences was upon us - PUJOL! Another restaurant featured in the Chef’s Table Netflix series and rated number 20 of the world's best restaurants, this place has been on our list for a long time. Our reservation had been in place for months. Game on!
Highlights were this baby corn coated in crushed Mexican ant sauce, the best soft shell crab we have ever eaten and the 1333 day old mole! Topped off with a tour of the kitchen and a cheeky photo with the Pujol team! It did not disappoint, service was sublime, decor a dream. How did we get so lucky?!
The Coyoacan area of Mexico City was made famous by two of it’s most well known residents, artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Frida first met Diego when she was an art student hoping to get advice on her career from the Mexican muralist, Diego. Despite being married at the time, a courtship ensued and eventually they were married, then they were divorced, then married again a year later. Their relationship was a fiery one to say the least, full of volatile tempers and countless infidelities. A friend suggested we walk down the beautiful Avenida Francisco Sosa to the square to admire the great and very varied styles of architecture. Coyoacan has a lovely village feel about it, full of low level houses, lots of independent coffee shops and small plazas dotted all over the place.
And of course Frida is EVERYWHERE!
The Soumaya Museum designed by Fernando Romero, and the Jumex Museum designed by David Chipperfield are undoubtedly two of the greatest buildings in Mexico City. And they stand side by side which is awesome when you've been running around a city as big as this.
The Soumaya is home to a private art collection of nearly 70,000 works from 15th to mid-20th century including the world’s largest private collection of Rodin sculptures. It is an extraordinary space and a joy to walk around. The upper levels were more interesting to us and we basically skipped the earlier artefacts.
The Jumex had a wonderful and extensive Warhol exhibition. We have seen so many Warhol canvases in some of the greatest museums in the world but seeing so many with such deep context was refreshing. The ‘Silver Clouds' room was a real highlight and a work inspired by one of Warhol’s studios. In 1963 Warhol moved his studio and along with his friend, transformed the nondescript warehouse space into something futuristic and otherworldly, covering the walls in tin foil and spraying everything in silver paint. Warhol's Silver Factory became the most innovative and productive time of his life.
Following our morning of culture, it was finally time to pack our bags (again) and head to the airport. There were so many things we didn't manage to do, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the Frida Kahlo Museum, the Venice of Mexico City at the canals of Xochimilco, but we felt like we had seen enough to understand the city.
Luckily we arrived three hours before our flight. Because we very almost didn't make it! On checking in we were advised that we did not have visas for our entry to the USA. Yes, we said, because we don’t need visas. No he said, you do, you need an active ESTA. But we have active ESTAs we said. No you don't he said. SHHHHIIIIIIIIT. No, we don’t, we said, our previous passports had ESTASs registered, not the new ones we have been travelling on for months. Ah CRAP. But somehow, the gods were looking down on us. After a mad dash running around looking for reliable wifi, a lot of swearing, iPhones freezing, refreshing web pages, we actually managed to apply for our ESTAs online and to our relief our applications were approved immediately. Thank god we haven't visited Iran recently! And thanks also to the total shit of a man, Mr. D. Drumpf for almost ruining the final leg of our trip.
Puebla was a bit of quick stop with just a couple nights there, but it was enough time to get a flavour of the place. As one of the largest cities in Mexico it is sprawling, so we just focussed on its colonial downtown area which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with most large Mexican cities, everything seems to orientate around the Zocalo (main square) at the heart of the city, with the action tailing off the further away you walk.
Having heard of Puebla’s signature dish, the Cemita, we headed off in search of the best joint to sample it. Cemitas La Poblanita did not disappoint! They are ridiculously well stuffed sandwiches. You can choose from a number of fillings but the classic has a pork milanese at its centre with a bird’s nest of stringy cheese piled up on top. They were almost as big as our heads but super delicious! No dinner required after that beast!
The obvious thing to mention about Puebla is that it’s famous for its fine ceramics, most specifically talavera pottery. We wiled away hours wandering the streets, marvelling at the beautiful tile work seen mostly on the colonial style buildings, but also in the street paving. Sometimes it would be just a couple of tiles for detail while others were completely covered, but either way they lifted the building and were a delight to see.
Historically the abundance of high quality clay in the area attracted artisans from all over the country to the region. The Spanish potters taught the locals the European techniques of glazing, and these combined with the local designs became known as Poblano Talavera. I don’t think there is a single street that doesn't show off this proud heritage and there was a tiled surprise around every corner.
Talavera Uriarte is a wonderful shop that provides a visual history as well as exhibiting and selling some of the finest examples of talavera tiles and ceramics. If I owned a french barn, I’d fill it with these!
The Biblioteca Palafoxiana, and the rest of the Casa de le Cultura in general, is well worth a visit. Full of lovely little spaces dedicated to local arts and printmaking, it also houses the first public library in the Americas and is regarded so highly that UNESCO made it part of its ‘Memory of the World’ programme. Its serious #librarygoals and like something out of Harry Potter.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo is fairly uninteresting as church interiors go (although we have been pretty spoilt!) but the real game-changer is the Capilla del Rosario inside, a masterpiece of Mexican Baroque with more 3D gilded gold relief than we have ever had the pleasure of seeing! It was a real sensory overload.
Of all the many high quality museums that Puebla has to offer, the newly renovated Museo Amparo is an absolute must. We were so impressed we put it to the top of our list of Favourite Museums on our trip so far. It’s a big call. As the most important historical museums in Puebla, if not Mexico, it traces Mexico’s development over its history and features pre-hispanic, colonial, and modern art. It is light and airy, its old spaces beautifully interlaced with its more contemporary facade and its avant garde approach to the use of technology makes it very easy to connect with parts of the collection we would usually walk past. It’s a labour of collecting love dedicated to the owner’s wife, and it shows. Not to mention that the views of the church domes from the roof are spectacular!
Las Ranas Taqueria is a must stop for Puebla’s classic ‘tacos pastor arabe' which are essentially spiced kebab meat wrapped in pitta bread-like tacos with lashings of fresh coriander, tomato salsa, and chile sauce. Delicious!
So for the most part, Airbnb has worked out for us, albeit a few odd picks here and there. Our accommodation in Oaxaca was just that. After another night bus and with both of us having colds and feeling pretty under the weather, we were happy to arrive in our little self-contained room with private balcony. Our hosts however were a little odd and clearly extremely religious, thankfully we managed to keep ourselves to ourselves and had little interaction. After crashing for a few hours we ventured out in search of Libres Tlayudas, a very local kitchen serving the most amazing, and huge, tlayudas. Tlayudas are basically folded Mexican pizzas - beans, salsa, stringy cheese and shit loads of chorizo. Delicious but it won’t do any favours for my waist.
The main square, Plaza Zocalo is well worth a visit. It is full of balloon venders, artisanal stalls, kids blowing bubbles, and is lined with cute cafes that overflow at lunch time or as when we visited, full of people taking shelter when the skies decided to open. We decided to wait out the downpour in Mercado Benito Juarez, a wonderful market full of everything you could imagine. Whole stalls dedicated to honey, fresh herbs, leather repair shops, piñata stands, fresh fruit sellers, juice makers, meat counters, and the list goes on. It was easy to see why Oaxaca is the foodie capital of Mexico!
Boulenc, cafe extraordinaire, a quirky hipster hangout with double height ceilings, crumbly walls, and reclaimed furniture. A ‘let’s use these old doors for tables’ type of place serving the most delicious pastries, and hands down THE best pancakes of my life. We loved it so much we didn't want to leave and broke all our rules by returning the next morning to pick up some pastries!
The Museo de la Culturas de Oaxaca is set in the most spectacular and authentically restored convent surrounded by botanical gardens, so not only are the interiors beautiful, the glimpses of the gardens through the open archways are green and luscious, and transport you away from the city.
The convent also serves as a museum for Oaxacan culture and takes you through the years, showing indigenous pottery, jewellery, and other interesting artefacts such as the star of the show, a human skull overlaid with turquoise. There were also some bizarrely contemporary looking sculptures that were in fact hundreds of years old - most specifically a rat that looked like it had crawled straight out of Banksy’s sketchbook! To be honest, we sailed through the museum rooms and were more interested by the details of the building. A must visit!
The Templo de Santo Domingo next to the cultural centre is probably one of the most beautiful churches we have visited so far, and we have visited A LOT so that's saying something! Almost every square centimetre inside is decorated in 3D relief with the most intricate gilt designs. The bright sun shining through the lightly stained glass-windows made the altar look utterly radiant.
After a bit of research, it became clear that El Destilado was up there in the top ten restaurants list of Oaxaca. It did not disappoint! Lots of local produce, excellent service and the setting was laid back and easy going. Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca was also a great pit-stop, although only half of the gallery was open when we visited. Their main exhibition was a great Polke works on paper show but the rest of the space is usually dedicated to the work of local artists.
Oaxaca’s main export, and locally consumed product, is Mezcal. It’s rapidly growing in popularity around the world’s hipster cocktail bars, after many years of decline in Mexico. Mezcal is produced exclusively in Oaxaca although it doesn’t have regional protection yet. We were keen to do a tour of some Mezcal palenques but had left it all a bit last minute to join one. However after a late night last minute visit to Mezcalogia Bar, we were put in touch with Zak, a barman and Mexcal enthusiast from San Francisco.
At 9am the next day we set off to the countryside in a small hire car with Zak, his friend, and his friend’s girlfriend. In Mexico mezcal is drunk neat. So starting with four shots at 11am set a precedent for the day. The first producer we visited, on the side of the main road, exemplified how simple and primitive mezcal production still is. All Mezcal is made by hand, including cutting the agave with a machete, then crushing it with a stone mill pulled by a donkey. Before this the agaves are roasted whole in the ground for 24 hours using hot rocks heated by local wood, all buried under a mound of soil. There are many different varieties of agave which, like grapes, produce different tasting mezcal, including rare wild varieties which require riding on horseback into the mountains to collect. As a bonus stop we also popped in to a local pottery shop which also doubled as a pulque producer (fermented agave juice, a strange cross between beer and wine).
The sweet, sugary agave pulp is then distilled in homemade copper stills also heated by wood fires. The distillate is collected in dirty plastic containers and stored in large plastic bins around the barn. The final product when bottled is worth big money in the US, but certainly tastes best straight from the vat in a smoke filled Mexican barn with views of the surrounding hills.. We were finally invited for lunch cooked by the grandmother of the producer which was a perfect end to the day.
Feeling a little tipsy after our morning session and ready to call it a day by the time we got back to town, we powered through and visited the Arte Textile gallery which is well worth a stop if you are into fabrics and textiles. When we visited, there was a wonderful exhibition by a Danish artist called Trine Ellitsgaard who has called Oaxaca home for the past 20 years and uses her work to investigate age old techniques and present them in a contemporary light. I fell in love with her work! Have a google!
On the good instruction of Zack, we headed to Origen for an early dinner. Once again, a culinary delight, if not a little on the overpriced side. But it was the first time we ate dried caterpillars and cactus, both of which were delicious and made great companions!
After a looooong night bus from Campeche, we finally arrived in San Cristobal. After our disappointing time in Campeche, we were hoping that all the good things we’d heard about San Cristobal were right. Happy to report we had good vibes from the off! Firstly, the temperature! Located in the Central Highlands state of Chiapas, the town is surrounded by mountainous terrain which meant that it was genuinely chilly. It was a perfectly mild, not humid 24’C. The relief of walking around and not sweating was very exciting to us. Our Airbnb was also perfect, simple and without frills but cool in a paired back concrete box kind of way. There were cool cafes in abundance, bakeries with genuinely fresh produce, and hippy filled bars and restaurants that we actually wanted to eat in.
The town’s Spanish colonial layout has been well-maintained and is full of narrow cobblestoned streets, red tile roofs and wrought iron balconies over flowing with flowers. It is a lovely place to wander around and just take it all in.
The Iglesia del Cerrito is a fun little church at the top of about 200 stairs. In typical Mexican fashion, there is a neon altar and a stained glassed window that has a chap that looks strangely like Mr Burns from the Simpsons. Around the corner was another little chapel that had locals silently rocking and chanting rituals. We later learnt that many of the locals were Mayan Catholics, so they're Catholic, but mixed with ancient indigenous adherents, rites and beliefs.
Much of the city’s culture is associated with the municipality’s large indigenous population - primarily the making of textiles and amber products. We had great fun walking around many of the markets around town and even made a sneaky purchase myself (no idea how it will fit in my bag!), a beautiful embroidered skirt which I can’t wait to wear back home. We were also encouraged to buy directly from the market as opposed to buying from the shops in the high street as the shop's money goes straight to the wealthy landlords, whereas the market stall funds go straight to the producers. All about giving it back to those that have the skill to make it in the first place!
The Textile Museum was also well worth a visit, Rob was at first reluctant but left feeling quite wowed by the incredible skills handed down through the generations as demonstrated in the museum's fantastic and interactive exhibitions.
After having eaten so much Mexican fare and beginning to miss Asian food we opted for Asiarico7 restaurant, a real find and exactly what we were craving. Sushi made in front of us by a Japanese chef and a delicious ramen. Highly recommended!
As we have done in most cities, we sought out a walking tour which we find is the best way to get to grips with the town and learn about the politics and history directly from a local. This tour was without a doubt our best so far, Carlos was such an enthusiastic, passionate, and very sweet guy. During the four hours we were with him, he talked about local Mayan medicines, took us to some of his favourite cafes and galleries, and showed us some of his favourite street art. Most interestingly however, he was an active member of the Zapatista movement so we gained an insider view on not only its development in history and the beliefs they hold but also what the current situation is. It was fascinating.
As recently as 1994, the Zapatista Army took over San Cristobal along with six other Chiapas communities and declared war against what they felt was a corrupt Mexican state. Initially made up of mainly rural indigenous people, they fought for social equality and rejected political classification. They sought control over their local resources, especially the land the indigenous people had been forcibly removed from by the government. It was a movement that garnered international support, with people travelling from all over the world to fight with them. Without going into too much more detail, it is a very sad tale and many of the indigenous people are still displaced. After two decades of rejecting the Mexican electoral politics, they now have a candidate running for the 2018 general election. We left the tour feeling much more informed and sympathetic towards their ideology.
We unfortunately had rather sleepless nights as the locals seemed to be into letting off fireworks at the crack of dawn. Thanks for that. We tossed and turned and jumped every five minutes whilst cursing whichever loon thought it was a fun idea to wake the whole town up at such an ungodly hour. We later however learnt that this was indeed a common behaviour as they are used to celebrate religious festivals. Why they have to celebrate at 5am is still beyond us.
Casa Na Bolom is also a highlight. It's the home of archeologist Frans Blom and his wife, Gertrude Duby Blom, a documentary photographer, journalist, environmental pioneer, and jungle adventurer. Now a museum and research centre it is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of the Lacandon Mayan people and their cultures, as well as the preservation of the Chiapas rain forest which incidentally is now were the couple have been buried. The legendary Lacandon Maya are the only Maya never to have been conquered or converted by the Spanish.
Campeche is a traditional Mexican seaside town. The historic walled centre is almost exclusively aimed at (mainy Mexican) tourists. Although very colourful and nice to look at, briefly, all the food in Campeche was utterly awful and overpriced. It was also oppressively hot and humid, which coupled with our extremely average hotel made the whole experience fairly missable. It's a poor version of Cartagena in Colombia, so just go there instead.
Having rented the car from Merida to reach Uxmal, we thought we would make the most of it and visit Yaxcopoil Hacienda. After so many Mayan ruins, we were starting to crave something a little different and a 17th Century plantation sounded perfect. The name Yaxcopoil means “the place of the green alamo trees” which it turns out is a lovely description. The house represents two of the great periods in the Yucatan Peninsula; the pre-Colombian period and the Spanish colonial period, and it was once considered one of the most important haciendas due to its size and magnificence. It is also one of the only haciendas that has been maintained in its original condition.
The main building contains high ceilinged lounges, spacious corridors, and verandahs, whilst the surrounding gardens are extensive and luscious. It is a great shame that there aren't more of these beautifully restored haciendas. Driving around you see ruins and evidence of long-forgotten and presumably once great buildings. We did however hear that more and more expats are now buying property to restore, we certainly agreed that they would make fantastic projects!
There is also an incredible machine house in the grounds which is where the henequen (an agave plant whose fibres are stripped to make rope) shredding machines live, and there is an incredible German diesel motor made in 1913 stored there. Turns out that the building it's housed in is rather an iconic one, having been featured as many a scenic background for movies.
OMG, the heat. It is ridiculous. It drains your energy and strips you of any desire to do anything, see anything and generally move. But Merida is a nice town and thankfully we had a great air conditioned room to retreat to.
The Lonely Planet raves about a restaurant called La Chaya Maya. It was also listed in loads of blogs as one of Merida's best restaurants- well, it's not. And if it is, then the food scene in Merida is decidedly average. We were super disappointed by the food and I will go as far as saying that it almost put me off tacos! We have come to realise that there are many different types of tacos, usually flour or corn based ones. And there is a particular type of corn taco that smells like a dead animal which is most off putting. Lonely Planet fail once again. Why haven't we learnt our lesson yet?! The quest for the perfect taco continues and I am yet to be impressed by this fabled delicious Mexican cuisine everyone keeps raving about. It all looks the same to me! We did stumble across Pola Gelato, a tiny and super trendy ice cream joint. Gelato has become one of our new things. We have started to seek it out wherever we are and we are becoming quite the seasoned experts! Real gelato puts the shade on ice-cream.
Our night was revived on entering the deep and ever unfolding La Negrita, a pumping bar located on the corner of a fairly residential area. To my delight (and to Rob the budget-holder), it was two for one on the mojitos so with more glasses than hands, we decided to 'get on it', enjoyed the live music and the colourful people watching.
Waking up to heavy rain, we pressed the snooze button and took it easy. 'Taking it easy' these days means lying in bed watching a series, The Handmaid's Tale has been keeping us more than occupied the past few days. Anyway, when we did emerge, it was to explore the Mercado Lucas de Galvez, Merida's main market. As an ever-evolving mass of commerce, its sells everything under the sun and is ridiculously hectic.
Santa Lucia Park, billed as one of Mexico's most beautiful squares (really?!) is a pleasant place to while away an hour or so but full of touts trying to drag you into one of the surrounding restaurants. Apola incidentally looked lovely but was outside of our ever increasingly strict lunchtime budget. As a total sideline, Coqui Coqui is just around the corner and is not only the most dreamy perfumerie, it also has a private suite above it. If money was no option, this is where we would have been sleeping. It is the very meaning of #accommodationgoals.
The budget did however stretch to the family style restaurant, Manjar Blanco which was was nice but again offered much of the same fare we had seen before during our time in the Yucatan, albeit slightly modernised. Our plan of wandering down Paseo de Montejo and eyeing up all the grand colonial style mansions was slightly ruined by the RIDICULOUS monsoon that decided to arrive just as we were ready to leave the sheltered confines of the resto. Of course, we had neither umbrella or waterproof, I was in silk shorts and Rob was in flip flops. Prepared as ever as we slipped and slopped our wet selves into the Rosas & Xoclate hotel. As one of Merida's finest boutique hotels and restaurants, as non-guests, we felt slightly cheeky setting up a drying off camp in their lounge area but less so once the bill for a coffee, tea and a slice of chocolate cake came! Yikes. Sorry Rob.
The Central Cultural La Cupula is a must visit arts space. As a hub for contemporary art, performances, dance, art residencies and concerts, it is the fruition of seven years of planning and construction work by collector and president Leila Godet Voight. The unique domed building that forms the core of the complex, which also houses the home of Voight and her husband, was originally the stables for the nearby Palacio Canton on Paseo de Montejo (one of the many supersized mansions nearby). The domed portion of the expansive structure, now painted lavender and white, was probably a space for exercising horses. Alright for some!
Mexico, and in particular the Yucatan, is peppered with Mayan ruins. Many were discovered surprisingly recently in areas of overgrown jungle where whole towns were hidden in the undergrowth. Chichen Itza is the most famous of these and made it to the most recent version of the seven wonders of the world (as voted for by a load of plebs who watch TV, so not exactly based on knowledge). It is of course impressive, but an old 85-year-old lady ruined part of the fun for everyone when she climbed a pyramid a few years back and fell off and died. So everything is now behind ropes and barriers restricting all access. Skull symbology is particularly prevalent at Chichen Itza as chopping off heads was rife, in particular from the top of pyramids. Painted skulls are available from all good tat stores across the country.
The best advice for visiting the site is go early to avoid, a) the unbelievable hordes of tourists, b) the extremely oppressive heat and humidity, and c) the worst of the voracious mosquitoes. They have also controversially allowed anyone to access the site and sell their wares, so there are extremely aggressive touts absolutely everywhere pushing tat on you for 'just $1'. There is a disappointing lack of information around the site, presumably to encourage the use of guides, however we downloaded a free app which fairly successfully did the same thing.
However at Uxmal there are no hordes of tourists, but points b) & c) above very much still apply. We arrived at 10am and had the place to ourselves. A big perk is that you can still access all the buildings as no grannies have died yet attempting to do so. The main pyramid is just as impressive but has curved edges and is not stepped (which is presumably the stereotypical feature people enjoy seeing at Chichen Itza). Uxmal is all round more interesting and the majority of the site is in a better state of restoration, however being further from Cancun means that far less people make the journey. It's very much in the middle of the jungle so visiting without a tour bus requires car hire (the closest town is Merida, see following post).
The main Governor's Palace is particularly impressive for it's complex carvings and reliefs still in tact. There are the standard ubiquitous temples and a large and impressive Cuadrangulo de las Monjas (Nunnery for non-Spanish speakers), named by the Spanish because they didn't know what is was originally used for and it reminded them of the convents back home (the Mayans obviously didn't have any nuns!).
Another pleasant feature of Uxmal is that it is still hidden in the jungle which can be viewed by climbing to the top of the very steep steps of the Great Pyramid. But access to areas off the beaten path are fairly free and available, just look out for the wildlife.
It's also worth wandering off to find a few of the hidden treasures, such as the skull and crossbones motifs at the cemetery, and the amusing stone penises, which were probably used for a number of practical reasons such as deflecting water. Just make sure you 'not sit' on them.
There are several islands off the coast of the Yucatan, Isla Holbox, Isla Cozumel and Isla Mujeres being the top three. With only enough time to visit one, it was a tough decision. Cozumel is meant to have great diving, Mujeres is super chilled, and Holbox is also super chilled but with the added benefit of it currently being whale shark season. Once we learnt that little fact however, it was pretty easy. Holbox it was!
It is a pretty accessible island, with just a thirty minute boat ride from the mainland. And if you imagine a hippy Caribbean island, then you’d be picturing Holbox. The ‘roads’ are unpaved and sandy, the bars colourful and rustic with toothless dreadlocked locals, and long since relocated expats waving you in. There are no cars so everyone rides around in golf carts and quad bikes. It is a happy place for sure.
It is also referred to as the Island of Mosquitos by the locals which was a slight concern but we weren't bothered by them too much. Due to it being the whale shark season, accommodation was expensive so we had planned on staying just two nights. We also got slightly caught out on the money front, most places were cash only and in good island style, the only proper cash machine was empty, and the other one we did find was making the most of it and charging an insane amount in fees. Luckily it was so hot we didn't really feel like eating much anyway! Instead, we feasted on 15MXN (50p!) tacos and beautiful sunsets. In a place like this, there is really little else you need. Oh, and air conditioning. That helped, A LOT.
But the main reason we were here was to snorkel with the worlds largest fish, whale sharks. Have no fear, they only eat plankton and are gentle beasts. There are loads of different companies offering tours which last for around 5-7 hours depending on where the sharks are but they all offer pretty much the same itinerary. Collect from hotel, boat, snorkel with sharks, short snorkel to see turtles and rays, ceviche lunch on nearby island and return. We learnt that you get a MUCH better deal buying the tour in person rather than online. We went with Holbox Adventures as they had good trip advisor reviews and paid US$100 each which is a lot, but I can confirm it was worth every penny! The other company recommended to us was VIP Holbox. We did hear that some of the cheaper tours only let you swim with them once, but we went into the water three times so felt like it was worth the extra cost.
After a seriously bumpy two hour boat ride (with no shade!), we joined a couple of other boats and immediately saw the fins. So exciting! We were told that they gather off the shores of Holbox around this time of year to feed off the plankton, they are mostly solitary and their journey across the planet is still a mystery to those that study them. There are rules to swimming with them, don't touch being the main one, you have to be accompanied with a guide at all times, and only six swimmers are allowed in the water at any one time so you have to take turns. This can be problematic when there are lots of boats and only a few sharks but we were lucky and our captain said there were around 26 in the waters that morning. How they know this, I have no idea.
The captain positioned the boat a way off, ahead of the direction in which the shark is swimming and you have to be ready to jump when they say go. Its a bit hectic because you have to swim like hell to keep up with them, luckily the guides are strong and drag you along and get you in the right position so you can see properly. They are gentle, majestic beasts, have tiny eyes, massive mouths and deep gills. This beauty was around twelve meters long but the biggest can grow to around twenty-four meters.
Totally out of this world.
Rob & Charlie's travelling adventures on their long journey back to London after living in Hong Kong. Four continents, twelve countries, lots of experiences.
All photos copyright ©
Robert Ware & Charlotte Nunn