The In-Transit Report


Scuba Report: Mexico

Note: These are not my pictures!

Tulum is a small city on the ocean, with its own ruins, beaches (which I don’t really care about), and tons of cenotes nearby to explore and dive. I spent three days diving in the area, starting off with a bull shark dive off of Playa del Carmen, just 45 minutes north of Tulum. Though I didn’t like that they baited the sharks, having huge sharks circling around is pretty cool. Don’t worry, sharks don’t kill nearly as many people as the media and Hollywood would like you to believe.


The cenotes, which are the main diving attraction in Tulum, were amazing to dive. In total I did 4 dives, my favorite one being Angelita (first picture), a deep sinkhole. We dove down to 30m / 100ft where the fresh water meets a cloud of hydrogen sulfate, colored from the rotting trees that are scattered around the cenote. 

Once you descend through the cloud, you wind up underneath, circling around in the dark surrounded by dead trees. Really, really cool dive. It’s pretty much like falling into a horror movie set, which is right up my alley.

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The other ones I did were Calavera, Gran (2nd picture) and Casa Cenote, all very beautiful but different from Angelita. 

Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been unable to resist the urge to dive, so the month of December was absolutely wonderful for diving, but not for my budget!

I set aside a few days to dive in one of the most popular spots in the area, which is Cozumel. After my detour through Valladolid and Merida to see more ruins (see my previous entry), I took a bus to Playa del Carmen, and from there caught the ferry over to the island of Cozumel. I had a couple of hours in Playa, and found nothing there but a glut of tourist spots, gaudy, overpriced souvenirs, and lots of people trying to sell me everything. I was thankful to get on the ferry out to the island, though I expected Cozumel to be even worse.

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Luckily, it wasn’t. There are lots of touristy spots all over, not to mention the all-inclusive resorts all over, but I stayed at a really nice, and inexpensive, hostel. A few streets over and the town turned into a normal place. The next day, I started the first of four dive days. Over the week I did nine dives, most in pretty nice spots, although some were just okay.

The best dives sites were the Palancars, one of which was basically walls of coral, forming arches and passageways that were great to swim through. The others, also good, were Paso del Cedro, Colombia, and then I finished the week with a night dive at Paradise Reef, which was nice, but very frequented. Over the last 6 months of diving, I’ve gotten much better and more natural, so these dives were very relaxing, and I got to work on perfecting some of the skills I’d built up. It was the perfect “vacation” while on my trip.

Central America Part Two: Mexico (Tulum, Valladolid, Merida, and Cozumel)

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In Tulum, I spent some time diving (see my other blog entry specifically on diving!), and checked out the local ruins on the beach. Nice, but not amazing comparatively. Lots of sun and iguanas, though. I love iguanas, and here there were too many to count. I spent a lot of time chasing them around trying to get good shots.

I met some cool people in Tulum, stayed at an awesome hostel, and was happy to stay in one place for more than one or two nights for a change!

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After Tulum I went to Valladolid with two guys I’d met in Tulum. The town is less than two hours away by bus, and close to Chichen Itza, which is the star attraction of the Yucatan Peninsula. Valladolid is a pretty small town, a nice place to hang out for a couple night while visiting the sights.

The next morning, I caught the collectivo to Chichen Itza with the guys, early as we could moving. We succeeded and were the first people inside, and got to see this beautiful Mayan temple without the normal hoards!

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In one of the hidden sections, there are buildings with an incredible amount of small details carved into the walls (also pictured). Chichen Itza lived up to its hype, especially since I got to see it first thing in the morning with no other tourists. It’s a nice mixture of size, scale, and detail, with some hidden parts that are absolute gems. The pyramid (pictured) is impressive and very well restored (or preserved?).

I’d been told by someone that the main pyramid and other buildings in the main area are originally Mayan but updated by the Toltecs, and that the buildings in the other section, that I liked better, were more authentically Mayan, and older. 

Later I went to Ek Balam, another Mayan ruins site nearby. This was a small treat. It had an incredible amount of detail, similar to the other sections of Chichen Itza, though at this time of day it was more crowded than when I went to Chichen Itza.

One of the amusing things to see in most of these sites are the ball courts: two sloping surfaces facing each other. Apparently the game was considered sacred to the Mayans, and occasionally the best player would be sacrificed to the Gods to attain a higher status. Interesting. If only we still did that, so I could stop hearing about how high so-and-so’s salary is.

I was running out of time to see ruins before going to Cozumel, but I managed to get to Merida and stay over two nights. Merida is one of the biggest cities in that area of Mexico, but it has a nice colonial old town area and generally good vibe.

I lucked out. In high season, I managed to get one of the last dorm beds (girls only dorm) for the two nights, and the next day was Sunday. There’s an area full of ruins called the Ruta Puuc, and once a week on Sundays, there’s a bus that stops at five sites along the way. In the time I had, there was no other way to see all of these sites in one day, so fate had it that I arrived on Saturday night.

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Although I didn’t get nearly enough time at Uxmal at the end, there were some small but lovely stops:

Sayil: Very small, but with a very beautiful and well-preserved palace.

Xlapak: Nothing much to see but a small building, not really worth more than a 10-minute stop. 

Labna: Very nice little details. Big palace and a beautiful arch, with a raised temple in the background.

Kabah (pictured): This one I really wanted to see. It’s know for the ‘wall of masks’ of the rain god. The nose is either upturned or downturned depending on if the people are praying for more rain or less rain. In this area, they’re upturned.

Uxmal (rest of the pictures!): This might be my favorite Mayan ruins site. The pyramid of the magician is the most unique pyramid I’ve seen so far, and the site is both massive and incredibly detailed. I could have spent hours and hours at this site, it was amazing! I took a ton of pictures and switched lenses every five minutes. I need to go back…

Next I moved on Cozumel, or, as I like to call it, tourist playground. The switch from Merida to Playa del Carmen, the coastal town where I caught the ferry out to Isla Cozumel, was pretty much a mess of American tourists, where the USD is king and there are people everywhere trying to sell you everything. I put my headphones in and ignored everyone while I waited for the ferry.

On the island itself it was much better; there were apparently laws enacted to reduce harassment, but only on Cozumel. I spent most of my time diving, but found the island pretty nice the rest of the time. I hung out with other divers, but could see that much of Cozumel was still normal people going about their lives. It was a relaxing stay, followed by a day of transit from Cozumel, back to Playa, and up to Cancun in the evening to fly out the next morning to California, where I spent Christmas with my awesome family. That was a lovely, relaxing week where I got to catch up with everyone, take care of some errands, and prepare myself for yet another complete 180: heading to Europe after 3-something months in Latin America.

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The more I think about it, the less I want to group South and Central America together as “Latin America”. Sure, they have language in common, for the most part, but both regions have a different vibe and feel. Not just that, but each country has a different feel to it. To say Latin America just feels like cheating.

My experience in each region just makes me want to go back and see more, experience more. I’m already half-planning my next RTW trip… because travel is the most wonderfully dangerous addiction!

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Central America Part One: Belize, Guatemala and on to Mexico

Because I spent longer in South America than I originally intended, my trip through Central America was a whirlwind of movement, sites, and of course more diving.

I started out by flying into Belize, where I went straight to Caye Caulker, an island close to Belize City. It’s just about the perfect tropical vacation destination: a very creole island with good food, plenty of bars, a range of accommodation choices, and no cars on the sand roads. There were beaches and plenty of places to dive, including the iconic Great Blue Hole. I, of course, dove the Blue Hole and surroundings, and had a great time, though it wasn’t as impressive as I was hoping for. The rest of the time, I chilled out on the island, went snorkeling, and then traveled onward to San Ignacio, a Belizean city near the Guatemalan border (literally 15 minutes away).

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From San Ignacio I did the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave tour, where you basically swim through a cave, which the Mayans believed was an entrance to the underworld, and then get to climb up and see ruined pottery, ritual items and a few skeletons to boot. Very cool.

From there I popped into Guatemala to see Tikal, one of the most famous Mayan sites in the area. It’s know for its incredibly tall pyramids, which are definitely impressive. Incidently it was also my birthday, which I ironically spent by going to bed early the night before in order to wake up at 2:45 to leave for the sunrise tour at 3am. Yeah, that’s correct… 3AM. I guess that means I’m an adult.

In any case, I was expecting to just go there for the ride and split off from the tour, but the guide was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had. He was very excited to share all the information about the temple, and about all of the animal life in the jungle surrounding it. We were treated to a symphony of angry sounding howler monkeys, along with various birds, as the sun rose.

Unfortunately, it was very misty and we couldn’t see much from the top of the pyramid we were sitting on, but the sounds alone made it a very special experience. From here, we walked around the quiet grounds before all the tourists rolled in. It’s amazing to see how much of the site is still overgrown and what kind of condition it’s in. I wonder what it’ll look like in twenty-five or fifty years.

The rest of the day was relaxing, and I just spent in hanging around the town of Flores and at the hostel, which was very nice. Definitely not the worst way to spend a birthday. And then I went to bed early, again, having to get up at 4am to catch my bus to Palenque, Mexico.

I’d originally toyed with the idea of dropped Tikal and Palenque from my itinerary because of the distance they are from the rest of my planned stops, but I’m really glad I didn’t.

I spent two nights in Palenque and visited three amazing Mayan ruins sites. As much as I liked Tikal, the ruins near Palenque were much more impressive to me.

FYaxchilan 57rom Palenque, I did a day tour starting at 6am to two sites: Yaxchilan and Bonampak. They were actually on the Guatemalan border, which I went through on my way from Tikal to Palenque, but the day tour was fine to go through, though it was dark when I left and dark again by the time I got back!

Yaxchilan, accessible by boat down the river that separates Mexico and Guatemala, was actually a pretty sizable site with a number of buildings and a greater amount of detail than I expected. Lots of doorways were carved, and then there was the sun temple (see photo of the facade), adorning the top of a hill overlooking the whole site. It was a long climb up, but it was worth it to see, appreciate, and photograph.

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Bonampak, while smaller, hosted some of the best preserved and most impressive frescos I’ve ever seen in the Mayan temples, or maybe any temples.

Originally, the Mayans applied stucco and then painted their buildings red or blue, which you can only see slight remnants of now. Seeing the paintings inside the temple in Bonampak makes me really curious about how the buildings looked when they were actually in use.

I’ve learned a lot about what I like and don’t like while traveling. While I like big, impressive sites, I’m more interested in the smaller details. That’s why sites like Angkor Wat and Borobudur, which have both, are my favorites. I like Machu Picchu, but it lacked in detail what it did have in size and setting. Yaxchilan and Bonampak deliver on the details front.

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Palenque, the ruins that the town took its name front, has a great mixture of both, and that makes it one of my favorites. I got there via collectivo at 8am, right when it opened, and ran around like crazy taking pictures, before I decided to just sit down and enjoy for a few minutes.

I wound up in conversation with a woman from the states who fell in love with the area, and was telling me what it was like fifteen and even three years ago. She said she feels like the local culture is degrading, unfortunately, and that she sees less and less people in traditional clothing. That’s one of those unsolvable puzzles; oftentimes, happiness is rooted in traditional, but the current of development overtakes and destroys. To me, Mexico seems incredibly developed, at least compared to many of the places I’ve been in South America.

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I walked on, still ahead of the tour groups. Palenque really seems like a city; you can just feel it when you wander around. It’s not just a collection of buildings that happen to be near in each other. While I walked I could visualize people living, working and traveling along its streets, through the halls of the palace, and all throughout. Though the stairs are crazy steep, so I still can’t figure that part out…

There was another entire section that I had a hard time finding thanks to unclear signs, but when I finally did I was almost alone in the jungle with some overgrown ruins, which reminded me a lot of Ta Prohm in Angkor. A tour group blew past, but I just got to stay there, exploring a pile of stones overgrown with moss. Very, very cool.

I’ve suspected lately that I’m “ruined out”, that I’ve just seen too many ruins in my travels, but places like these remind me why I love to travel. In all of the places I can see the differences; every place has a different vibe to it. Now I can see the different styles of Mayan architecture from Palenque to the Ruta Puuc. It’s part of the life education that is travel. There’s no better way to learn and truly understand history than to see what it has left behind, to really engage it and enjoy it.

From Palenque I traveled onwards to Tulum, a 10 hour bus ride that seemed short to me, compared with most of my bus rides in Peru and Bolivia. I’d originally intended to go to Merida first, but wound up picking Tulum because the bus was earlier and I didn’t see the need to stick around Palenque much longer.