In March 1998, when Andrew was 15 years old, we took our Mayan trip together. I decided to take him for that month, because his small school in Anchorage, Alaska, was going to the Galapagos Islands, and I chose a less structured, free-wheeling vacation for the two of us. Andrew has traveled with me since he was four months old and has always been the best traveler, even as a baby.
We traveled by second-class bus, traversing a triangle from Cancun to Cozumel to Tulum-Coba to Valladolid to Merida then back to Cancun. I made hotel reservations only for the first night, at the Parador, a budget hotel in downtown Cancun. At $30 for a double, it was nothing to brag about except it was clean and close to the bus station. It also seemed safe. However, I accidentally went to the wrong floor of this hotel and found another room that opened with my hotel key. It was the same location but different floor. The next morning, we took the second-class bus to Playa del Carmen, which reminded me of Cabo San Lucas, with many turistas milling around. Playa del Carmen is not my mug of cerveza, but we had to catch a ferry to Cozumel from here.
We stayed at a good bed and breakfast, Alicia’s B&B, owned by Alicia and Chuco, about a mile from downtown on the edge of the jungle. We paid $25 a night, which included an ample breakfast, large bedroom, and margaritas in the evening. Alicia recently put in air-conditioning, but the house is breezy enough in the winter. There are hammocks available in all the rooms and they make for a cool nap. Alicia is from the US and Chico is a Mayan dive boat captain.
We ate at EL MORO’s many times (definitely a favorite with the locals). However, it is hard to find. Ask Alicia to direct you. You can rent a car for $35 a day or a moped for $20 a day. I’d recommend either to get on the other side of the island, where you’ll find wonderfully deserted beaches. The best place to eat on the deserted side (east side) is COCONUTS. Its location on a bluff offers a great view of the ocean. They also have the cleanest bathrooms! For snorkeling, stay on the leeward side (western) and there are many places to do that. My favorite was La Ceiba Hotel because it was so close and it had a wrecked airplane that you can snorkel around.
If you come down and stay with Alicia & Chuco please bring down some used summer clothes (especially for children). Alicia sells these clothes cheaply to the locals and uses the money to send Mayan teenagers to school. After sixth grade, students are required to buy their own uniforms, books, etc. and most of the kids cannot afford the $120 a year for these expenses. Plus, traditionally Mayan girls quit school at 13 and get married and have babies. Alicia, an American, is trying to encourage the Mayan girls to keep going to school. She tutors some of the teens at her B&B at night. Andrew and I helped out with “English Bingo” while we were there. Andrew made lots of friends with the local teens.
To contact Alicia’s B&B in Cozumel: Alicia@cozunet.finred.com.mx. Her web page is https://www.gis.net/~alicia/ phone number is 91-987-2-54-78. She will pick you up at the ferry dock if you let her know that you are coming.
We left Cozumel by ferry back to Playa del Carmen. Since the express bus was canceled, we took a late bus to Coba. We got in at 7:30 p.m. and it was dark. Nothing compares to being left in the middle of the jungle with no flashlights. We eventually found the Villa Arqueologica Hotel next to Lake Coba. The hotel, with beautiful pool, was so peaceful we stayed two nights. Costs for double room was $39. The rooms are unique because the beds are cut into the walls like caverns. There is a pool table and the ruins are just around the lake, in front of the hotel. Since Coba is off the beaten path, no reservations are needed. There were only about a dozen guests there, mostly elderly people. In Coba, you will also find a few typically Mexican hotels. One is the Bocadito, for about $10 a night. It has a restaurant and it is also where you buy your bus tickets.
Coba was my favorite ruin because nobody else was there from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. For $10, we hired a guide, who explained the ruins to Andrew and me. It was shady and cool and very jungly. We saw the most beautiful neon butterflies and birds here. Don’t buy souvenirs – too expensive. Save shopping for Vallodolid.
As we entered the city, our second-class bus went by the zocalo and I saw this beautiful old church (circa 1545) and told Andrew “Let’s stop!” Since we had no set-in-cement itinerary, we could just hop off the bus. I loved the quiet town and saw lots of families in the zocalo or plaza.
On the first morning, we took a 25-cent bus ride to Cenote Dzitnup, for a swim. It’s one of many underground limestone caves filled with a beautiful pool of water. The entrance fee into the cenote was about a dollar. Be sure and bring your camera and try to arrive around lunchtime when the sunlight streams through the hole in the cavern ceiling. There are some fragile fish in the cenote so do not put on oils, lotions, etc.
We splurged on a $3 taxi back to Valladolid, stopping for lunch on the zocalo (town square) and fell in love with the town and the cheap prices. We stayed at the Hotel San Clemente for about $15. It has a pool. The hotel has outside corridors and is a little noisy, so I suggest you ask for Room 314 or one of the end rooms. It was right across from the old church. We had a great lobster dinner at Hotel Santa Lucia – about $9 for three lobsters, grilled with garlic. If shopping is your thing, (sandals, dresses, etc.), Valladolid is the best place to do it.
We headed on to Merida and, since all the cheap hotels were booked, we stayed at the El Gran Hotel right on the Parque de Hidalgo It is a French Neo-Classic beauty, and a good value at only $50 a night. The best hotels for value are the Hotel Reforma or Hotel Colon. They are under $15 for a double room with pool and very nice.
The first morning we hit the Santa Lucia Park because this is where you catch all the tours. We left at 10 a.m. on an open-air bus and for $6 each, we went on a two-hour ride around Merida with a knowledgeable tour guide, making a few stops at some beautiful mansions and notable places.
Every night in Merida, at different parks at 9 p.m., there are free open-air concerts and performances. One night I heard a classical guitar trio who were very good. The best restaurant we tried was the Portico de Peregrino. I had baked eggplant with cheese and coconut ice cream with kahlua for dessert.
We went to the light & sound show in Uxmal from Merida. Next time, I would like to stay at Uxmal, to more thoroughly explore the ruins. For the best deal to see a lot of ruins go to the Merida bus station at 8 a.m. and catch the Ruins Bus. For 40 pesos ($5), this bus will take you to five or six sites and will wait at the entrance for you. It’s like a tour bus, which returns at 3 pm. We would have done this if I could have gotten Andrew up at a decent hour. We also saw “Titanic” for only $2.00 each.
On Sunday we left Merida and spent the night at Piste. Piste was not anything special. The food was so-so. The hotel, Pyramid Inn, was not that great for $28, even though we got a free breakfast. Since Valladolid is so close to Chichen Itza, I highly recommend staying there. It is only about 20 minutes away. The ruins are nice at Chichen Itza but this is a tourist area. It was very hot, dusty and crowded. I did not climb the big pyramid on the outside but climbed the inside underneath the serpent stairway to see the jaded jaguar. You can only do this certain hours during the day.
We then took the cheap bus back to Cancun. This was a five-hour trip. An hour before Cancun, Andrew informed me that he had to go to the bathroom. We were in the middle of nowhere but near Leon. I had seen a few Mayan round houses but no town. Well, he got desperate and pretty much jumped off the bus and ran off into the bushes. I followed him and we ended up in front of someone’s home. The man spoke English and asked me inside. It was a little bit like an open-air restaurant. The man had a huge brick oven with a rotisserie. A hand made creation for sure, but well constructed. I looked inside and saw about ten whole chickens getting browned. Soon, about ten people showed up and we all were served a half chicken with beans and rice for about $2 each. Andrew and I had such a good time talking to these people. They were obviously happy to have some foreigners visit. It was one of those magical moments when souls meet and war and conflict are just a bad dream. After about two hours, we flagged down the bus and continued on to Cancun.
I had been careful with my cash so far, and it turned out I had a big wad left ($600 out of $900) so we splurged and stayed in Cancun in the hotel zone. We had no reservations and it was now mid-March – Spring Break for some colleges. We took the beach bus that runs up and down the Hotel Zone on the beach. Everything was full and I was about to give up and take a cheap hotel downtown away from the beach. Keep in mind, the cheap rooms were taken and I was being quoted $300 to $400 per night for Andrew and me. Nobody would bargain. Finally, the Sierra Continental Plaza relented and gave me a deal on a nice room. For $180, we got an all-inclusive hotel, with two huge pools, one overlooking the ocean. The other pool was on the lagoon side and was pretty quiet.
They had so many activities that I didn’t see much of Andrew. There was a small crocodile in the lagoon. On the lagoon you could rent kayaks, wind sailboards, paddleboats, etc. There were four ping-pong tables, a pool table and a life size chess set. Every night there were was a free floorshow from 9 to 10 p.m. Afterwards, the dancers would invite guests to go with them on a free shuttle to a local discotheque. There were so many activities there was never a reason to leave the hotel. I recommend this kind of “splurge” after cutting corners so much. It was relaxing to have everything “free” with an identifying bracelet and never having to go anywhere.
Andrew and I had no luggage. We each had one carry-on with wheels. Andrew also brought his skateboard. No matter how long I am on a trip, I bring only three changes of clothes plus the ones that I am wearing. Doing laundry is so much easier than lugging suitcases. Besides, it is so much easier jumping off that cheap bus in case you see a site that you do not want to miss.
When traveling with teenagers, let them in on the decision-making. Andrew is a chess player and always enjoys playing chess with young and old. We take time to pursue our individual interests. Even if your child is not a chess player, I suggest taking cards or a board game and a scrapbook of photos of home. Usually, locals enjoy seeing photos or postcards of animals, snow, the mountains, etc. It’s a great icebreaker.
I enjoy this kind of traveling with no reservations and no set plans. If you don’t go during holidays, I think it is best just to “wing it” while traveling. I also find that one or two people traveling together are going to experience more local flavor because they are so much more approachable and spontaneous than a large group. Having a child with you helps too. My son is the best traveling companion I have ever had because he wants to experience everything. He says next time we have to try the fried grasshoppers.