Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Merida

Travelling inland from Cancun and I came into contact with several gems of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Valladolid is an adorable little town which makes a great first stop away from Cancun. Refreshingly Mediterranean in atmosphere, the town has a number of nice churches, a pleasant square and several museums around which to wonder. The market is also worth a look too, with an array of fruits and snacks cooked on the street and considerably cheap in price.

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Perhaps the highlight of Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. There are many different cenotes dotted around this part of Mexico. They are essentially a series of collapsed caves and caverns filled with fresh water and connected by a delicate web of underwater streams. The Mayans apparently considered these pools entrances to the underworlds and they were treated very seriously in the Mayan society.

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Me at Cenote Zaci

A lot of cenotes are located bus rides away out of towns and cities. Cenote Zaci, however, is situated right in the centre of the town, just a few streets away from the market in fact, which makes its breath-taking appearance all the more surreal.

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Cenote Zaci

The water is beautifully clear and little black fish come and nibble at your legs if you’re not careful! There’s also a 20ft ledge which you can jump off – it took me a while to gather up the courage, but the thrill of the jump was well worth it!

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Me in front of El Castillo

About an hour along from Valladolid is the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan ruins are probably best known for the distinctive and well-preserved El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan); the first and most iconic temple you see as soon as you enter. The shape and position of the temple is very important for the spring and autumn equinoxes when the sunrise causes a particular triangular shadow to be cast along the balustrade – creating the effect of a feathered serpent slithering down the temple steps.

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First settled in the early classic period of around 400AD, the city was built near the site because of the presence of two cenotes. The Sacred Cenote lies a couple of hundred metres away from El Castillo and was thought of as “the well of the Gods” by the Mayans. Human sacrifices used to be thrown into the pool so as they could use the cenote as a passage from this world to the next.

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Furthermore, a grand pelota court stands near the centre of the city – pelota being one of the most popular sports of the Mayas. Comparable to football nowadays, professional pelota was taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously as the captains of losing teams could very well face human sacrifice (at least professional football isn’t quite as tough on its players…)

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Entrance to the Pelota court in Chichen Itza

Ruins of the observatory, market and the nunnery (basically a university) are also in very good condition. Some have beautiful carvings showing  sacred Mayan animals such as serpents and jaguars, but also weird faces with eclectic expressions.

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Two and a half hours more on the bus from Chichen Itza and one reaches the capital of the Yucatan peninsula; Merida. Merida is a beautiful colonial city, with a similar Mediterranean feel as Valladollid. The beautiful square sitting in the shadow of the cathedral is the focal point of this town and is very atmospheric in the evenings when bands are playing and people are singing and dancing. As with many colonial towns, a rife of street food is available and the city also has several museums including a Mayan Museum.

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Central Square in Merida
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Tulum, Mexico

I took a chicken bus from Belize City all the way north to Chetumal in Mexico. There is an annoying exit tax when crossing from Belize – $20 US in fact, which I wasn’t too happy about. From Chetumal it was an uncomfortable second class ADO bus to Tulum, arriving at dark to a very chilled out hostel.

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Me relieved to have finally got to the beach!

Tulum is an odd town, not what I expected at all. The google pictures of it show sprawling beaches, which there are, but they are about 5km out of town – believe me, I walked it! Most people hire bikes which I would probably recommend as the best way of getting around, though collectivos and taxis are available.

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Beautiful sprawling coastline

Also the most obvious difference from any other part of Central America that I have travelled so far is the tourist trade. Even volunteering in Monteverde – a town that lives for tourism – I felt it more authentic than the coastline with resorts and hotels fencing every bit of sand.

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Main road in Tulum

There are ruins in Tulum, and they are quite impressive being directly on the coast. It is recommended to get here early (as with any tourist spot) and there was a random road train ferrying people around, though I have no idea of its origin or destination.

The town itself mainly lies along a long strip of busy road consisting of tourist restaurants. Mexico is cheap in comparison to Belize and towards the less busy end of the road I found an extremely nice street-food style burrito shop Burrtito Amor. This place has a great atmosphere and fast service, not to mention amazing burritos at a very cheap price; my hefty portion of a cheese and bean burrito cost me less than $3.

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Burrito Amor, for a good, cheap streetfood style experience

But alas, it is time to move further north, delving ever deeper into the lands of the American tourist.

Caye Caulker, Belize

Off the shore of Belize lie a number of Cayes, or small islands with their own communities and rich marine life. I took a ferry from Belize City to Caye Caulker, a very small Caye with only one main street.

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My time here was mixed. Some of the locals act a bit oddly towards tourists – some of them were high and drunk some of the time and one got very angry when I refused a spliff at two in the afternoon.

The beach is small, but the water is clear and beautiful and very refreshing to swim in. Lots of snorkelling tours go out from the island with chances to sea sharks, dolphins and even manatees among other colourful coral fish.

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The island is quite expensive compared to the rest of the country, but I did have a great time going out to the Sports Bar on Saturday – where most of the island seems to go. Furthermore, I met a very hippy, spiritual guy in my hostel room who played a ukelele with whom I stayed up to about 4am talking about everything, from experience of consciousness to how his father reacted when he chose to move to the jungle. Very weird, very surreal, I was somewhat relieved to get back on the mainland and continue my journey north to Mexico.

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Into Belize – San Ignacio

A public bus from Flores and I arrived at the Guatemala-Belize border which was quite easy to cross in comparison with the Costa Rica-Nicaragua.

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The Belize border

Belize feels very different to Guatemala. A former British Colony and situated on the Caribbean Sea, there is a distinctively Caribbean feel. Indeed, although many can speak Spanish, many people around here speak with a beautiful Caribbean tone. It is also very green and flat, reminding me a lot of some places in Europe.

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Sign in San Ignacio…

My first port of call was the town of San Ignacio about 20mins or so from the border. This small town is nestled in the middle of rolling countryside and there are plenty of cave tours and Mayan ruins to see. For me, I took the time to walk to a river crossing where you could swim.

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River crossing and swimming!

I also made friends with some nice waiters at Tandoor restaurant on the main road. Glenn was fantastic to talk to and they all made me feel very welcome.

A good stopover city, but now it is time to head for Caye Caulker on the Caribbean Sea.