Reading Week Adventure: Backpacking through the Yucatan, Mexico

What do you do during reading week? Relax at home in Toronto, or study for midterms at Waterloo? Why not book yourself a solo flight to Mexico to see the Mayan ruins?

I didn’t originally plan on traveling solo. A friend was going to come with me, but he had to cancel. I decided to go anyways just by myself, and now I’m glad I did it.

My flight landed at Cancun, where I spent three nights. After that, I backpacked across the peninsula to Valladolid, where I stayed for a night, and then onto Merida for two nights. Finally, I took a bus back to Cancun to catch a flight the next day.

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Above: Map of places I visited

Beaches of Cancun

Cancun is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America, with direct flights to many cities in Canada and the US. Flights here are relatively cheap, with a round trip from Toronto costing about $450 USD.

Landing in Cancun was the worst airport experience in my life. When my flight arrived at 10pm, there were hundreds of tourists from multiple flights coming in, and only two officials processing immigration customs. This resulted in a terrible bottleneck. By the time I exited the airport, it was past 1am — it took everyone over 2.5 hours to get through customs. Fortunately, getting out was smooth though.

The city of Cancun is quite literally built around tourism. The city is less than 50 years old, built in the 1970s when the Mexican government decided to develop its tourism infrastructure.

Above: Tropical island of Isla Mujeres

Many people come to Cancun for the beaches, and indeed, the beaches here are among the best in the world. But for a solo traveler like me, going to the beach is somewhat awkward. You can still do it, but you have to constantly keep an eye on your belongings when going for a swim.

Rather than an all-inclusive resort by the beach, I opted for a much cheaper room in a hostel downtown. Most of the beaches belong to private resorts, but there are many publicly accessible ones. I took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast with beaches and snorkeling activities.

Mayan Ruins

Climbing through the ancient Mayan ruins was the highlight of my trip. The Mayan civilization thrived over a thousand years ago in present day Mexico and Guatemala, and their society collapsed around 900AD for unclear reasons. They left behind majestic temples in the jungle to explore today.

Above: Chichen Itza and Tulum

I went to four different Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza, Tulum, Ek Balam, and Uxmal. Chichen Itza and Tulum were the most touristy, with hundreds of organized tour buses bringing tens of thousands of tourists every day. Because of this massive volume, you’re not allowed to climb any of the ruins, only look from afar.

The ruins of Ek Balam and Uxmal were much nicer: with few organized tours, there were no massive crowds, only a handful of tourists. I would highly recommend visiting one of these less visited ruins, because you can climb freely onto the Mayan pyramids. Standing on top of the temple where Mayan rulers once stood, overlooking the ruins of the ancient city in the jungle — it feels like traveling back in time.

Above: Ek Balam and Uxmal

Swimming in Cenotes

Another awesome activity to do in the area is swimming in the open groundwater caves, called cenotes. There are no rivers in the Yucatan peninsula, so cenotes were an important source of fresh water for the Mayans, who built cities around them.

Above: Cenote Zaci in Valladolid

Today, the cenotes serve as natural swimming pools. The water is cool and fresh, and it’s a lot nicer to swim in than the salty ocean water.

Language Barrier

Spanish is the main language spoken in the Yucatan peninsula. Some people speak English, especially around Cancun and by people interacting with tourists.

I’ve studied Spanish for a few months — so my level is far from fluent, but I can have simple conversations in Spanish. You can get by without knowing Spanish, but knowing some made my trip a lot more interesting.

I met a lot of Mexican nationals: either locals, or Mexican tourists visiting from other parts of the country. These people generally don’t speak English, but they’re very friendly and are happy to let me practice my Spanish with them. On the bus, I chatted with a girl from Chetumal spending her weekend in Cancun; the next day, I met a guy from northern Mexico in my hostel and we went out for drinks together.

The immersive environment is really helpful for learning a language. I’d pick up 10-20 new words every day just by talking to people.

Occasionally I heard the Yucatec Maya language spoken as well — the indigenous Maya people still make up a large part of the population here. It’s easy to identify the Mayan language by its plosive consonants and abundant “sh” sounds, a sound which doesn’t exist in Spanish.

It’s certainly not the case that everyone speaks English — in one of my hostels, the front desk attendant spoke no English at all. Overall, I’d estimate I used Spanish in 60% of my interactions on this trip.

Merida, The White City

Merida is a colonial city a few hundred kilometers to the west of Cancun. It feels very different from Cancun, with a much older history and fewer tourists.

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Above: Central plaza of Merida

At the center of the city is a massive cathedral, next to a plaza. There are many plazas around the city where people gather. The narrow streets are lined with colorful houses, and old cars fill the air with a faint scent of petrol.

Being friendly with the locals can backfire. Apparently in Merida, it’s unusual to see a random Asian guy in a restaurant speaking Spanish. So unusual that after talking to a local family in a restaurant, they offered me to stay in their house for the night. I already had a hostel, but I mentioned that I was on my way to visit a Mayan site outside the city, so they offered to go there with me. I agreed. Then, rather than take me there, they gave me a tour of the city, their house, and the mall. Then they introduced me to their daughter studying in Mexico City, and insisted we keep in touch on Facebook. In the end, I never got to the Mayan site, but it was quite an interesting experience.

Mexico Travel Logistics

In this section, all prices are assumed to be USD.

Around Cancun, the bus system is pretty good, with a two-hour air-conditioned bus ride costing about $7. There are also white vans called colectivos that pick up and drop off passengers along the highway; these are faster and cheaper, but less comfortable.

In Merida, the buses were more sketchy. I knew I was in Mexico’s backwaters when I accidentally took the second class bus from Chichen Itza to Merida, which stopped at every little Mayan village along the way, taking twice as long as usual. The bus to Uxmal ran once every 3 hours, and the schedule is nowhere to be found on the internet — you have to ask the locals.

Driving would’ve been a faster option. I wasn’t comfortable driving alone in a foreign country, so I took the bus, but you can see a lot more if you rented a car instead.

For accommodation, I slept in hostels, which cost about $20 a night for a private room and $10 for a bunk bed with many people in one room. I did a mixture of the two, but it’s easier to sleep in a private room, so for me, it’s worth the extra cost.

Most things in Mexico cost about half or one-third as much as the equivalent in the US: for example, I can get a decent meal for $5-10. On the other hand, I lost about 10% converting money into pesos through ATM and bank fees.

I got a SIM card at a bus station, which cost $20 for 1.5gb of data. Some people say that going offline gives a more authentic travel experience, but it’s useful to be able to look up information, rather than ask people where the nearest bank is.

I spent about $70 a day in Mexico, including hotels, food, taxis, entrance fees, etc. You can get by with less, but I wasn’t super frugal, and being a tourist, I probably overpaid for things.

Traveling alone is quite fun! With nobody else to account for, I can do as much or as little as I feel like. I never really felt lonely either, since it’s easy to find people to talk to in hostels.

That’s all I have to say for now. I have four midterms next week — great way to return to reality after a journey to another world. Better start studying.