“How about we go somewhere in November?”
“This question leads to a discussion, and ends with a great trip”, says Sue.
“This question means Sue has a destination in mind, and we’re going in November”, says Kevin.
OK, Technicalities! Get over them.
We’re Sue and Kevin, AKA The Parental Unit of See Her Travel.
Guilty as charged.
We’re a long married couple, mostly retired (Sue for sure, Kevin keeps taking part time jobs) in average fitness and health, still south of 70, and have an adventuresome (within reason) inclination.
We haven’t ever done all-inclusives, but did cruise once–Alaska. For one week it was fun. That was enough.
However, at heart we’re backpackers, on the cheap, users of public transportation, readers of the Lonely Planet, visitors of out of the way destinations, museum attendees, light packers, eaters in hole in the wall places, appreciators of deserted stretches, on the spot planners who are always looking for interesting accommodations, and general grabbers of the moment.
Were we always this way? NO. When we were young we had this misguided idea we were supposed to get an education, get jobs, pay into pensions, you know the drill. All perfectly good considerations, but we’ve happily broken out in our “golden years”!
When the above Question was voiced in Fall 2017, we decided we didn’t want to go too far around the globe. Although Cambodia and Tasmania are still on the travel list, we only could be gone three weeks (refer to that darned part time job of Kevin’s) so after some elimination we settled on the Yucatan and a cheap red-eye ticket to Cancun.
People immediately started talking to us about the Mayan Rivera. Well, NO.
We were actually there in 1993 with kiddos, and distinctly remember climbing and grabbing See Her Travel and her older brother as they hung off the top edge of the main temple at Chichen Itza (you could climb to the top back then!). We also stayed in a small cement hut in a random place we loved, called Akumal.
That same Akumal is now a huge tourist base on the Caribbean. It was great then, things have now changed somewhat…
So we made our own plan, November 23-December 13, which See Her Travel has asked me to share.
A Retreat to the Isla Mujeres
We landed in the Cancun airport about 8:00 AM, which worked well for us. It was daylight, and things were easy. We caught a shuttle which would eventually take us to Puerto Juarez and the ferry to Isla Mujeres. The shuttle took the long way, via the hotel zone, so I guess you can say we toured Cancun resorts, and entertaining as it was, frankly that was plenty for us!
We had long heard about the Isla (reaching back to 1993 actually) and it was high on our list. The passenger ferry is a catamaran, leaving every half hour for the 20 minute trip across to and from the Isla. Be sure to save your Isla Mujeres ferry ticket, as it’s for the round trip!
The ferry lands at the north end of the Isla, where the bulk of the tourist activity happens. Of course, that would be too simple. We got a taxi to the south end where we stayed at Su Casa, an old cluster of little housekeeping bungalows right on a deserted beach. We booked in for three nights, to get our bearings, to acclimatize to the weather (hooray, we weren’t in the Canadian winter any more!) and to kick start the holiday.
Yes, it worked. The Isla is wonderful, more about it later.
Valladollid: Home to some of the Best Cenotes in Yucatan
After the three days on the island, we did the reverse ferry, and got ourselves to the Cancun ADO bus station. The Mexican bus system is awesome.
From Cancun we bussed west partway across the peninsula, about a two hour trip, to Valledolid, a colonial town and a provincial hub for the area.
We spent two nights here, exploring the museums and cenote swimming. You don’t have to go afield at all to do that, Cenote Zazi is right in town, we walked there, and loved it. Go in the later afternoon as then the tour busses are gone. We only shared the water with about a dozen people. Cenote swimming has been on my bucket list for ages, and it was fabulous.
(Side note: the family forced Mom to learn to swim about 5 years ago after never learning as a child. She didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the tough love has led to much floating in warm water since then. You’re welcome Sue!)
One of the other great things to do in Valladolid is Casa de los Venados, an unbelievable private home. The casa opens at 10:00 AM (precisely) for a free tour of an over 5000 piece folk art collection. Do not miss this!
Merida: the Cultural Capital of the Yucatan
Then it was back to the ADO bus station, and on to Merida, another westward 2 hour bus trip. Merida is the cultural capital of the Yucatan, and a beautiful city, with many wonderful museums, plazas, art galleries, restaurants, history, and colonial architecture. With so many things to do in Merida, we were there for three nights, give yourself at least that long.
I highly recommend the free (Yes, FREE!) historic walking tour which leaves every day between Monday and Saturday at 9:30 AM from the city tourist office on Plaza Grande. Another highlight, also free, is the Casa de Montejo, a former palatial house right off the Grand Plaza.
Celestun and the Reserva de la Biofera Ria Celestun
Continuing our way west, we were ready for more beach time. We caught a Oriente Bus out to Celestun, a coastal village right on the Gulf of Mexico, about another 2 hour trip. (Are you seeing a pattern here? No plan on our part, just worked that way, but two hours is a nice length of time to sit on a bus.)
Celestun is more of a village, and the main reason people go there is to visit the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun. You go out in small boats, on a 90 minute voyage down the river, through mangrove swamps and you will see a variety of wildlife. The premier attraction is the huge flock of flamingos, and the colour is beyond description.
Most people do Celestun as a day trip from Merida, but we spent two nights there. In retrospect we could have stayed longer, it was delightful to be in a small place with a great beach! We were also fortunate as it was the start of the Christmas season, and we saw several small local parades, dancing in the small square, and many festivities.
We stayed in a very basic hotel, right on the beach, and loved the fishermen coming and going, the sunsets and taking walks.
Campeche: The Yucatan’s Fortified City
We wanted to head south along the gulf, but there wasn’t a direct route. We therefore took the Oriente bus back to Merida, then switched to the ADO bus, and journeyed to Campeche. Easy Peasy.
As so many Mexican centers, what a magnificent city! Campeche is a UNESCO Heritage site, and very worthy of that honour. A wall surrounds the historical part of the city, and was built to protect the city from pirates in 1663. The city feels almost magical, and we loved walking the Malecon (the seaside wall) and exploring the stone streets. There are wonderful museums in Campeche, many FREE!
I highly recommend the Mueso de la Arquitectura Maya, which presents a fine sample of archeological history. Great artifact are displayed and they show an informative video presentation that we liked so much we watched it twice. Of course it was also a nice cool temperature inside the viewing room and we could sit down. Just sayin’.
We also learned a great deal about pirates, none of it very appealing. Johnny Depp is not indicative of the real thing!
Our Campeche stay was three nights, and we enjoyed every bit of it.
Time once again to move on, but decisions needed to be made. We have one week left. Do we carry on further South around the Gulf? We’ve heard of a fabulous museum out of Vera Cruz, and that’s supposed to be a beautiful city. Do we go? If so, then we could fly back to Cancun.
Ek Balam Mayan Ruins and X’Chanche Cenote
Finally, we decide we want more down time, and less travel. We bus back to Valledolid, (four hours, via changing in Merida) as we had heard from another couple about a ruin site that sounded tempting. We spent two more nights in another great casa, and took a day trip to Ek Balam.
We had pretty well decided to skip ruins this trip, as we’ve enjoyed many in different countries, but of course submitted, and were glad we did. Ek Balam is stunning, different from the typical pyramid style temple, in that it’s long and massively impressive. Worth the trip for sure, and you avoid the big crowds of other sites.
In addition there is a cenote only 2 KM away, and X’Chanche is breathtaking. We were the only people there for at least 20 minutes, and then another man joined us. Our own private cenote, birds flying in and out, vines swinging in the breeze, water was soothing, the floating was peaceful, and it was the best experience imaginable.
So now we have four days left, what do we do?? We went back to the Isla, to Su Casa, and just chilled out for the remainder of the holiday. We were the only people there, and the days just slipped by. Slow travel just got slower.
Yucatan Travel Tips that may or may not be helpful…
This season (November 23-December 13) was great time to travel in the Yucatan and the right amount of time to do what we did. We took short bus journeys between destinations, and explored more thoroughly, rather than trying to take bigger hops around the country. The weather was good, although still warm by our thin Canadian blood standards, at 30C inland mid-day. We tended to explore in the morning, take an afternoon break, and then do more adventuring by late afternoon.
I swear by the Lonely Planet, it has seldom sent us wrong. Kevin loaded Maps.me on his phone for the first time, and it was awesome. No data needed and great maps the whole way.
Before we left Canada, Su Casa was booked for our first stay, as we don’t like scrambling for accommodation on arrival. I then booked hotels online a day before we relocated to a new city, except for Celestun where there was no response. We just walked into town and got a room there.
That said, we were in a quiet season. Travel before December 15 and there is a lot of availability along with low season rates.
For money, take a combination of sources. We had USD in cash and we had a peso cash card from our Canadian bank. This card was loadable while in Mexico and very useful. If you travel as we do, though, plastic doesn’t always work in Mexico. For example the hotel in Celestun was 500 pesos cash. Period. FYI, that’s less than $30.00. Did I mention it was on the beach? And basic? Bring it on!
We travel with one large backpack which Kevin carries, and I carry a smaller one. Clothes are rinsed as we go, and we just take basics; no good clothes, no fancy stuff. We load our tablets with books from the library, and take an empty daypack in the bag, to pull out for day use.
Ask taxi drivers for travel tips and you’ll get great local non-tourist restaurants.
Sit in the plazas and watch the world go by.
Drink bottled water, but we ate everywhere (great food!) with no problem.
We had wifi everywhere, some good service, some slow, but got the job done.
ADO busses are excellent, run frequently, on time, are comfortable, plus they have AC and Spanish movies. We had no trouble getting tickets for the times we wanted, but don’t arrive late, the bus leaves on the dot!
If you need a taxi from a bus depot, walk half a block away and you can get one for about half the price as in the terminal. We are fine walking a kilometer carrying the backpacks, but more than that, in the heat, we get a taxi.
Our passports and extra cash are in zip locks and in money belts under our clothes. We always wear shorts with zip pockets, and I do not take a purse. Good footwear is a must, there are no smooth sidewalks in Mexico.
We’ve been asked if travel in Mexico is safe. We never felt at any sort of risk.
Of course, shockingly, we aren’t out drinking in the bars till closing, nor are we hitchhiking, hanging around in deserted alleys at night, or flashing around money or expensive things. We saw no guns, drug dealers or homeless folk on the streets.
Unfortunately we only speak English. I have learned to carry a small notebook and a pen in my pocket. If necessary I write down the name of the town/accommodation/attraction to show to the ticket seller or the driver. This works rather than stammer around with my terrible pronunciations.
As we’ve gotten more “mature” (and Kevin put his foot down after I booked us into the Antique Hostel in Istanbul a few years ago, even though it was perfectly fine) we are no longer in the cheapest digs if there are other mid-range options.
Unless we are really stuck, no dorms, and we get our own bathroom. One of us snores, one needs the facilities in the night. I’ll let you figure who’s who.
I have nothing against North American hotel chains, but I can stay home and go to a Best Western 5 km from my front door. Why would I do that in another country? Go local, go cultural.
In the Yucatan cities we stayed in a series of casas found in the LP or online, large old homes turned into small inns or hotels. They had beautiful courtyards, pools, greenery, and pleasant outdoor space. The rooms were great, most came with breakfasts, and the prices were reasonable.
You can get a long way with smiling and looking like you need help. Maybe it’s our age, but people almost always treat us well. (Kevin’s Note: Sue does this thing where she says to the young person trying to help us, “What would you do for your mother?” It’s almost embarrassing but damn, it works.)
All in all, travel to the Yucatan! Take the road less tourist travelled, and enjoy every day.
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