Five Days in Mexico
I spent five days in Mexico with Under30Experiences, and it was the best time of my life. Here's a little recap of my experience...
Five Days in Mexico
One of my goals last year was to travel somewhere in Central America. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize were all on my list of destinations. That didn’t pan out. There was too much planning required and I never found the right time to go.
Instead, I waited for Black Friday and took the opportunity to book a discounted trip to Mexico with Under30Experiences. Similar to G Adventures and Contiki, U30X is an American-based group travel company offering trips in Latin America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
I had gone to Iceland with them in 2016 and had really enjoyed the experience so booking their Mayan Trip in Tulum for $695 USD was a no-brainer.
For most of the trip, we moved around in a private van included in the price. If you are travelling solo, you can take an ADO bus from the Cancun airport to downtown Tulum. In Tulum, you can rent bikes for short distance travel, taxis and/or colectivos for longer distances.
We stayed at Hotel Casa Sofia in downtown Tulum, a small B&B off of the main avenue, not far from all the bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Despite its closeness to the action, the hotel was relatively quiet except for Friday and Saturday night when the nearby nightclubs’ thumping bass could be heard until 2 AM.
As usual, I loaded up my Always Online Wireless pre-paid SIM with a 1GB plan. However, it didn’t work for most of the trip. I had to rely on the hotel’s wifi in the mornings and evenings and remained phoneless the rest of the time.
Although it was weird at first, my brain felt more relaxed without the urge of constantly checking social media/emails. Perhaps a sign that I could use a phone detox?
My plane landed in Cancun about 20 minutes early. We were scheduled to leave the airport via private shuttle at 2:30 PM which meant I had 4 hours to kill at the airport.
First problem: there is no wifi at the Cancun airport; at least not in the Arrivals area. I spent about 20 minutes trying to get my SIM card to work before giving up and I just hung around the Arrivals board which was conveniently located next to the group’s meeting point.Two hours later, the second U30X’er arrived.
As is often the case when meeting complete strangers, we both just stood fairly apart at the meeting point until I gathered my nerves to ask her if she was with the group. We then went to the Berryhill restaurant – our meeting point – where another solo traveller randomly struck up conversation with me, and the three of us just hung out until the rest of the group joined.
There were seven of us scheduled to leave the airport. After plane delays, broken Spanglish with our driver as we tried to explain that we were waiting for the last girl, wondering whether or not we should wait for the last girl, contacting our trip leader who in turn called the last girl who had finally landed and was going through customs, we were all accounted for and ready to go to Tulum.
We boarded our shuttle and at some point along the way, we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break. One of the attendants tried to charge us but our driver essentially told him to fuck off and let the ladies use the bathroom.
Now, in case you didn’t know, unless you go to a resort, you do not flush toilet water after going to the bathroom in Mexico. Instead, you have to throw the paper out in the provided trash can. This was all a shock to us but no less than the gas station toilet with no toilet paper (the attendant ended up giving us a roll), no lid on the toilet (time to practice those squats!), and no way to lock the stall doors (we ended up holding the door from the outside for each other). Welcome to Mexico!
Our group was the first one to arrive to the hotel. The other half of the group along with the trip leaders were on their way from Belize which can be selected as a combo trip with Mexico. We hung out on the rooftop terrace/lounge until the rest of the group arrived. When they finally made it, we introduced ourselves, knowing full well that it would take a couple of days to remember everyone’s names, and off we went to dinner.
The first restaurant on our dining itinerary was El Mariachi Loco, just up the street from the hotel, at the corner of Calle Orión Nte. and Av. Tulum. The food was great and I discovered queso fundido, the best Mexican appetizer (yes, as good if not better than guacamole).
After filling our bellies with tortillas and quesadillas, we made our way to Batey also known as the Mojito Bar. There I had a delicious Passion Fruit mojito which I topped off by eating the surgarcane stick used for stirring the drink. It brought back memories of eating sugarcane during my childhood in Haiti.
It was open-mic night at Batey and we were treated to an impressive cover of “Zombies” by The Cranberries as well as a few Elvis songs. Day 1 ended on a high note.
Our trip began in earnest on Day 2 as we drove to the Punta Laguna Nature Reserve to go see some monkeys and do other activities. We hiked in the jungle for a while.
No monkeys were seen except for those on the information boards. We watched a local shaman perform a Mayan ceremony and drank some balché.
We then hiked to the lake where we boarded canoes and rowed across the lake where a zipline awaited us.
I’ve never ziplined before so I was nervous, but not as much as I thought I would be. I guess it’s because the worst case scenarios didn’t seem too bad. I would either
a) get stuck in the middle of line if I used the break too early or
b) fall in the lake if the line snapped.
I ended up not using the break and hurtled towards the end of the line.
Still equipped with our harnesses, we canoed back across the lake and made our way to the first cenote of the trip. The Punta Laguna cenote is literally a hole in the ground. We rappelled down into a dark cavern inhabited by bats and illuminated by a single lamp.
Once unclipped from the rope, we quickly found out that there was no place to stand! We would have to tread water the entire time! Now, I’m a decent swimmer but trying to stay afloat is not exactly my idea of a good time.
One guy in our group found footing on a rock formation in a small section at the back of the cavern. A few of us followed him there to get some respite from swimming but there wasn’t much space to move around.
Our salvation came in the form of life jackets provided from the crew above ground. We could finally float leisurely and learn all about how the cenote was used for human sacrifice. There were even human remains at the bottom of cenote which our guide helpfully pointed out with his flashlight.
Once those who wanted to see the human bones up close all got their turn with the flashlight and diving mask, it was time to leave the sacred cenote. We had to use the ladder to get out of the cavern and that was a workout in itself.
Although I quickly figured out that pushing myself up with my legs required less effort than pulling with my arms, it got more and more difficult on the higher rungs as they were both slanted and slippery. All that exercise and it wasn’t even noon.
For lunch, we stopped at Chile Picante, a local restaurant not far from the Coba ruins. Once again, the food was delicious and we left with our bellies full.
Our active day continued with a tour of the Coba ruins where we were greeted by an ambulance siren. The Coba archeological site is huge and our main point of interest was the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, a 42 meters tall pyramid that is climbable.
To get there fast, we rented some bicycles which brings me to confession time. I never properly learned how to ride a bike. My Dad tried to teach me when I was 8 or 12 and although I could ride for short distances, I never truly got the hang of it. And once I discovered rollerblades, I just forgot about riding bicycles.
That is, until I got to Coba.
I did try to ride a bike. When we got to the bicycle stand, I took my time picking a bike, trying three different models before finding one on which I felt somewhat comfortable. I started disastrously, bumping into someone while trying to get going.
Once the crowd thinned out, I did okay. That is until I faced traffic coming the other way and quickly fell into a panic which made me zigzag all over the place. I guess the group realized I was missing because one of the trip leaders and a group member circled back and found me. When I explained that this was not happening, the trip leader had me jump on his bike and we raced to join the rest of the group.
At the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the guide explained the history and purpose of the pyramid but everyone was just mentally gearing up to climb it especially after we had learned that the ambulance we saw leaving the complex earlier on was for someone who fell down the pyramid.
The climb wasn’t hard at all. Once you get into a groove, all you have to do is keep the pace. If you stop, that’s when your body decides it has had enough. The view from the top was spectacular.
After catching our breath while listening to more historical tidbits from our guide, it was time to make our way down. While several people insisted on going down sitting down, I found it much easier to just go down sideways.
Our adventure over, it was time to return to Tulum to get some rest. For dinner, we went to an amazing Mexican steakhouse called El Asadero. I picked their specialty Arrachera but everything on their menu looked good.
After dinner, a few of us went to some hipster craft beer bar not far from Batey. I’m not a beer person but I tried a few of their samples just in case I stumbled into a magical beer like I did in Barcelona. None of my choices were good. I settled for a margarita to cap off the night.
The third day was the most exhausting in terms of travelling. We set out very early to Chichén Itzá which is a two-hour drive from Tulum. Little-known fact (unless you’re a map nerd), Tulum and Chichén Itzá are in different time zones so while we left around 8-8:30 AM for a long drive, we were inside the Mayan complex around 9:30 AM with no line to be seen.
The visit was mind-blowing. It was one thing to see one of the Wonders of the World with my own eyes but hearing about how the Mayans constructed El Castillo with acoustics and the sun’s movement in mind just left me speechless. Our guide had explained to us the rules of Pok-A-Tok when we were at the Coba ball court, but The Great Ball Court in Chichén Itzá left us scratching our heads. The field was not only huge, the walls were not slanted, leading us to believe that this game could last for days.
A chorus of “almost free” from souvenir vendors accompanied the rest of our visit through the complex. Some of us were better hagglers than others, so we would trade tips and strategies to get the best price. I ended up buying a fridge magnet for 20 pesos which is less than $1.50 - a nice change from the overpriced magnets from England.
When we left Chichén Itzá, the line to enter snaked from the turnstiles all the way outside around the corner from the entrance building. We were glad to have gotten there early and see the place with minimal crowds.
We had lunch in a nice little restaurant in Valladolid before making our way to Cenote Zaci which was only a few blocks away from the restaurant, much to the chagrin of those who were hoping to take a nap in the minibus after lunch. While the Punta Laguna cenote required us to rappel down a hole, Zaci was all about jumping from the surrounding walls/cliffs.
The cliff jumping turned into a bonding moment for our group as we cheered each other on and challenged the reticent ones to jump. Believe it or not, I initially did not want to jump. But once I convinced myself that I was not going to hit the rocks if I jumped far enough, I jumped in with no hesitation.
Some required a lot more convincing, but at the end we all jumped off Zaci’s back wall. Note: they do charge to use the bathroom over there. It’s only 5 pesos but you can change in your car if you don’t want to pay.
The day’s excitement wasn’t over yet. Back at Tulum, we went to dinner at La Malquerida where one girl in our group ended up ordering a shot of mezcal. Seemed innocuous enough...until the waiter dropped a worm in a glass - much to our horror and our trip leaders’ amusement.
Apparently, in Mexico, if you end up ordering the last shot of a bottle of mezcal, you get a worm in your drink! Our girl was a trooper and downed that drink in a single gulp but not before everyone had taken a pictures of the worm.
Our night ended at Ki’bok rooftop right across the street from La Malquerida where we all had cocktails and shots (sans worm this time).
In our second to last day, we stayed in Tulum, starting the day with a short visit of the Tulum ruins. Once again, I was impressed by the Mayan’s ability to measure the solstice and equinox through their architecture. Our guide’s explanation of their calendar also made complete sense and seemed a lot more simpler than our 365/366 days in a year nonsense.
After the ruins, we explored two more cenotes: Taa’k Bi Ha and Nicte-Ha. Both were beautiful in different ways.
The first had hundreds of stalactites hanging from the roof and the water was a perfect blue. Out of the four cenotes we saw, it was the only one that made me want to learn scuba-diving just to be able to explore the depths of it. The little we saw with our snorkel gear and flashlight was amazing but left me hungry for more.
Nicte-Ha was simply gorgeous. With the world-famous Dos Ojos nearby taking in all the tourists, we were the only ones at this serene, lily pad-laden cenote.
I could have easily spent the entire day there, alternating between lazing in the sun and snorkeling among the fish and water plants. We had music, GoPros, snorkel gear, and the whole place to ourselves. We were only missing food to make it a party.
The rest of the day was ours to enjoy however we wanted. Half of the group including myself returned to La Malquerida for lunch where we ordered pizza (yes I had pizza in Mexico, sue me – it was delicious). The other half went cross the street to El Milagrito for seafood-based meals.
The group split in two once again to go to the beach. The sun was long gone, hiding behind menacing clouds but we could not return to the States/Canada without having gone to the beach at least once.
There were two options to reach the public beach: rent a bike for 100 pesos or take a taxi for 100 pesos each way. After my disastrous experience on a bicycle at Coba, I opted for the taxi. The risk of taking a taxi to the beach is that you don’t know how long it’ll take to find one to return back to the city.
It wasn’t much of a hassle after all. We luckily stumbled upon a taxi right as we exited the beach with a second one not far behind. On the way back, we also noticed that there was some sort of taxi stand near one of the numerous resorts along that stretch of road.
So, if you’re like me and can’t ride a bike, taxis are available. Make sure you negotiate the price before getting in the cab as we ended up paying our return driver 120 pesos plus tip instead of 100 pesos plus tip.
We had our last dinner at Charlie’s, right on Avenida Tulum. At this point, we were all tired of the guacamole and chips appetizers, but they were so freaking addictive that we finished all the baskets anyways.
I finally got to sample Mexican seafood by ordering shrimp. They were good but I much prefer Haitian seafood.
After a quick stop for ice cream at Panna e Cioccolato (they have Ferrero Rocher flavor!!!), we ended the night at a rooftop night “club” were two DJs played what sounded like one continuous eurotrash techno song while drugged up backpackers danced the night away. Our group quickly left the dancefloor and congregated to the bar where the crowd was less active.
I don’t think this day counts since we all went straight to the airport after breakfast but I should still close out the itinerary. We returned to the Berryhill restaurant where we all ordered a more filling breakfast and just hung out as people left the group one by one to catch their flights. My return home turned into a frustratingly long journey.
First, my flight out of Cancun was delayed because there was another plane at its assigned gate so it had to move to another gate. We landed in Toronto late but I wasn’t worried.
I had mistakenly assumed that connections in Canada were the same as in the States and Europe where you don’t have to go through customs until your final destination. How wrong I was. After going through customs, I had to go trough security once again where only one lane was open. One lane for all passengers!
At this point, it was past boarding time for my flight to Montreal. A couple who was on the same flight flagged down a WestJet agent who tried to get to get us in another lane only to be shut down by airport employees.
We then tried to squeeze through the long line of people but stopped halfway when we found ourselves with other passengers on the same flight as us. We figured if we were all together, there was no way the flight would leave without us. When I finally made it to my gate, there were only five people there and boarding hadn’t even started. We ended up leaving much later than previously scheduled and I arrived home long after midnight.
Despite the long journey home and the long wait at the airport at the start, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip. I usually travel solo which means doing all the research and planning. It was nice not having to do any of that and simply relax and enjoy all the beautiful moments.
If you’re looking for a great group travel company, U30X definitely fits the bill. Our tour guide, Balam, was awesome and very passionate about Mayan culture. If you’re ever in the Yucatán Peninsula, I suggest looking him up at Ecoculture Excursions.
I will definitely return to Mexico someday. Just the food and liquor is good enough to bring me back. Add all the history and preservation of pre-colonial culture, and it’s definitely a winner in my book.
For now, I will leave you with our group’s motto; “Chimichangas, tequila, and orgasm!”