This was a short trip I took to the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico back in November 2018, just before I hopped on a flight to Cuba. I rented a car in Cancún and drove to the charming beach community of Playa del Carmen, from there going on to the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and finally the charming town of Valladolid.
I touched down in Cancún, Mexico, and walked out of immigration and into the Caribbean sun. Amid the throng of tourists roared the large coach-style ADO buses, which provide service all up and down the Yucatán Peninsula. While I usually liked traveling by bus, today I would be doing something different: renting a car and going for a little road trip.
I would not be spending much time in Cancún. When most people think of Cancún, they’re probably talking about La Zona Hotelera, the Hotel Zone. This is a heavily-developed strip of all-inclusive resorts on an isthmus off the coast of Cancún, and is about as close to being the “real Mexico” as New Jersey. With the exception of navy blue-clad federal police atop armored vehicles with .50-caliber machine guns, you’d think you were on the Las Vegas Strip. I’m sure it’s fun, but Cancún is just the gateway to the Riviera Maya.
I hopped on a shuttle and headed to the Budget car lot. The attendant expressed some serious incredulity at me saying I was renting a car, using the same tone and look as you would with a kindergartner saying he’s building a rocket ship. I politely ignored him and went to the speak with the people at the counter.
The guys inside do speak some English, but I would be prepared with some Spanish phrases just in case. If you have a credit card, like a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, check to see if it offers comes with rental car protection in foreign countries. If it does, print out the pages that show that coverage and bring them with you. Technically, you should be good to go with that, and a three-day rental may only cost you $20 total for a small sedan. However, the guys at the counter may try and talk you into getting supplemental insurance. I went ahead and opted for this, only because it had been years since I had driven in a foreign country (Spain, back in 2012), and I just wanted to be on the safe side. That ended up adding about $50 onto the price tag, but it’s completely optional.
After filling out all the forms, they showed me to my car, a white Renault Logan. It’s the Latin American equivalent of a Kia Rio, and it was not particularly clean. I walked all around the car, snapping a few photos with my phone, just so I knew exactly what the car looked like before I even got in it. It was not in pristine condition, but at least the thing ran, and for that I could not complain.
I got in, pulled up my GPS, and turned the ignition. My road trip in Mexico was about to begin!
Cancún to Playa del Carmen
I had rented a room at the Urban Beach Chic Hostel in Playa del Carmen, just about an hour south of Cancún. If you keep heading south for another hour you’ll get to Tulum. Although I myself did not go to Tulum, Kristen went earlier this year with a girlfriend, and had nothing but wonderful things to say. I might even have her write a guest post!
While the roads can be a little tricky, the driving patterns are nothing compared to what I had seen in Mexico City, or in Puerto Rico. Matter of fact, looking back on it, driving in the Yucatán was quite pleasant.
I had read that it was best to stick to the main highways, as these would be well-maintained, faster, and safer. I had also been warned about what to do in the event of getting pulled over by the police, such as the fact that I would most definitely have to pay a bribe (but to never call it a bribe), and to never, under any circumstances, surrender my passport.
I did have a run-in with the Mexican police on this trip–twice, in fact–but in very unconventional ways. More on that later.
For right now, I had connected my phone to the car’s Bluetooth and was driving down the highway with the windows down, playing loud music and enjoying the sun and the cool breeze.
Playa del Carmen
The very rapid tourist development of Playa del Carmen has, for better or for worse, turned it into a sort of mini-Cancún. The difference is that while Cancún does its damndest to sequester its tourists in the Zona Hotelera, Playa del Carmen at least offers many lodgings and restaurants and shops on the mainland. I’m not going to say that you’re getting the “real Mexico” by going to Playa del Carmen, either, but it’s much more authentic than its upcoast cousin.
Driving within the city of Playa del Carmen can be a headache for the uninitiated (I won’t lie, I almost rage quit the whole trip), so it’s best to find parking as soon as possible and then explore on foot. Be aware that the yellow paint on sidewalk curbs means no parking, and the local authorities will ding you for that.
After circling the block several times I finally found a spot across the street from Urban Beach Chic Hostel. I was greeted by Gabriela Sosa, a friendly and intelligent woman originally from La Plata, Argentina. She spoke both English and Spanish, and could talk conversationally about everything from SCUBA diving to politics to the secret Masonic influences in her hometown. Since meeting her, I learned that she now manages the Urban Beach Chic Hostel, as well as the tour company Vibes Trips.
After getting my stuff packed away into my room, I asked Gaby for some recommendations around Playa del Carmen. She directed me to Avenida Quinta, 5th Avenue, which was the main tourist axis of Playa. With a general idea of what to look out for, I headed out.
Playa del Carmen was actually a small fishing village even 20 years ago. However, once a ferry service was set up to transport tourists across the water to Cozumel, the population began to boom. Today Playa has about 200,000 people, five times what it was in the year 2000.
There is no shortage of restaurants along Avenida Quinta and various other streets. You can go cheap at El Taco Mexicano with sidewalk seating, or spend a bit more at La Bodeguita del Medio, a restaurant/bar/cigar store fashioned after the famous institution in Havana, Cuba. It’s very hard to find bad food in Playa del Carmen.
If you need shopping, there is plenty of that as well, from the large shopping centers lining Avenida Constituyentes to the local vendors stationed along Avenida Quinta. Just be aware that the latter seem to have all memorized the same script: “Necklace! Bracelet! Coca-Cola!” and then as you walk past, “Weed? Blow?”
Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza
The next day, I had breakfast on the open patio of the hostel with several other Americans and some Australians, all of whom had either just gotten back from Cuba, or had been to Cuba in the past. I chatted with them over toast, yogurt, and coffee about their experiences and what to expect once I myself got there.
I said goodbye to Gaby at the front desk, who wished me a safe trip, and made sure all was right with the Renault. The GPS (free 4G in Mexico, thanks to T-Mobile) said the trip should take just over two hours. I put on some jams and headed out.
The topography of this part of the Yucatán is pretty flat, but it’s pleasant. It gets more heavily forested the farther in you get, and the roads are well-kept. Keep in mind that as you drive west from Playa del Carmen, you’ll be passing into a different time zone; when you cross from the state of Quintana Roo into the state of Yucatán, you’ll be going back one hour.
If there is one thing that I could implore you not to do, is speed. They take speeding very seriously in the Yucatán, especially for foreigners. Every so many miles you’ll come across police checkpoints that feature armed guards and some heavy duty speed bumps. Because of the flat terrain, they’ll probably see you before you see them, and they’ll want their cut. Here they call it la mordida, which translates to “little bite.”
Bribing is an interesting topic, I think especially for those of us from “more developed” nations. Nowadays, most Americans look at bribing as something morally wrong, under any circumstances. I’m not going to dispute that, though I should mention that it used to be fairly common here in the US, too, and not even that long ago. My grandfather used to live in Chicago, and would tell me how he once had to put his watch on the dashboard to get out of a speeding ticket.
In Mexico, the fact of the matter is that cops get paid a pittance. Research shows that the average cop may get the equivalent of about $350 per month. Desperation drives anyone to commit acts that may be viewed by more fortunate individuals as morally reprehensible, but you do what you have to do.
To be fair, police in the more touristy areas along the coast can make a killing; one of the people I was talking with over breakfast said that many cops in Playa retire in their 40s.
Chichen Itza (chee-CHEN eet-ZA) was one of the largest cities in the Ancient Mayan world from about 600 to 1200 A.D., and one of the most diverse. The name translates to “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” the Itza being one of the more powerful groups living in the area.
Chichen Itza welcomes over two and a half million visitors annually, and has become a symbol of Mexico. If you’ve seen a kids’ map of Mexico, or any infographic meant to represent the Ancient Maya, chances are you’ve seen one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza.
I parked in a lot probably a half-mile from the main entrance to the archaeological park. As of 2018 it cost about 50 pesos, or $2.50. I made sure I had sunscreen applied (believe me, you’ll want it), plenty of water, and my camera, and walked on over. After passing by seemingly endless rows of Italika motorcycles and the ever-present vendors, I arrived at the ticket booth for the ruins.
Anyone who’s been to world-famous tourist attractions will know that the lines can get super long and congested. Chichen Itza is no different. Expect to wait around a while before you get to purchase your entrance ticket. When I visited in November 2018, ticket prices were about 250 pesos (around $13.50), although the blog American Egypt says that as of Feb. 1st, 2019, those prices have risen to over $25. This is strictly for entrance, and does not include a tour guide. The prices for tour guides vary, but if you go knowing nothing about Chichen Itza, then you may want to go ahead and get a guide to explain the architecture and ceremonies of the Ancient Maya. However, you can sidestep this by doing some research beforehand, and/or learning a little Spanish and listening in on the other tour groups as they make their way around the ruins.
Once through the gates and onto the sacred ground of Chichen Itza, the crowds never really let up. That’s the thing: if you’re going to go, I would strongly recommend going as early as possible. Be there when the gates open, or you’ll have to put up with everyone and their dog also wanting to see the ruins. I elected to sleep in that day and it proved to be my downfall.
And yet I was determined to make the most of my time there. After walking down the ubiquitous liminal space of a vendor-lined pathway, you emerge onto a large courtyard, with a large flat-topped pyramid looming in front of you. You’re looking at El Castillo (“The Castle”), also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.
El Castillo was built sometime between the 700s and 1100s A.D., stands 99 feet high, and measures 181 feet on a side. Kukulcan, the temple’s namesake, was the Mayan “Feathered Serpent God,” analogous to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. Listening to numerous tour guides, I learned that during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun casts triangular shadows around the edges of the pyramid, resembling what could be a serpent crawling down the side of the temple.
Anyone who read my post on Teotihuacan, the ruins of a mighty Pre-Colombian civilization near present-day Mexico City, or who has been there, will know that you can walk on those structures. This is an interesting concept and one not without some controversy. All those footsteps of all those millions of people every year, year in and year out, surely takes some sort of an ecological strain on these centuries-old structures. At the same time, some of the closest I’ve ever felt to the history and viewpoint of these ancient people was by literally walking in their footsteps. The same went for Tikal in Guatemala.
You can’t walk on the ruins of Chichen Itza, and there are positives and negatives to this:
Positives: The ruins are saved further erosion than that already caused by the elements. As a result, the structures seem to gleam a nice clean white.
Negatives: You just don’t get that personal connection that you do with other sites. It feels like an open air museum, and is simply not as memorable nor engaging.
I went up to one of the INAH stewards patrolling the grounds, and asked him in Spanish why you couldn’t walk on these structures.
“Chichen Itza is one of the world’s treasures,” he said.
There is perhaps another reason. According to an old Endless Tours blog post, in January 2006 an 80-year-old woman fell to her death climbing back down from the top of El Castillo. All of Chichen Itza’s monuments and temples were then roped off to tourists. Almost all other archaeological sites in the Yucatán followed suit shortly thereafter (with the exception of Tulum, as of 2019).
After leaving the main ground with “The Castle,” I continued on my walk to one of the other noteworthy ruins: “The Observatory.”
The Observatory is also called El Caracol, or “The Snail.” This is due to there being a spiral stone staircase inside the dome-shaped structure. The Observatory was used for naked eye observation of the night sky, above the level of the surrounding vegetation.
Along with ancient ruins, the Riviera Maya is also known for its cenotes. Cenotes are actually sinkholes that fill with water, effectively becoming natural swimming pools. The cenote located on the grounds of Chichen Itza is known as the “Sacred Cenote,” or “The Cenote of Sacrifice.”
In ancient times people were ritualistically sacrificed to the gods in the Sacred Cenote. Indeed, when archaeologists dove to the bottom of the cenote in the early-1900s, they a blueish layer of sediment at the bottom that contained many skeletons. These skeletons bore the telltale marks of ritualistic sacrifice, as well as jade and gold trinkets.
Nearby is a beautiful archaeological park devoted to another cenote, the Ik Kil Cenote. This photogenic cenote is perfectly safe to swim in.
Chichen Itza may be one of the treasures of the world, but it wasn’t one of my all-time favorite destinations. With a new price tag of $25, I can’t wholeheartedly, unconditionally recommend Chichen Itza. If you want less-traveled options throughout the rest of the Peninsula, I’ve heard that Uxmal is a great alternative. I was unable to go there during this trip but have heard many good things about it.
After my time at Chichen Itza, I decided dinner was in order. I walked back to my car and drove out to Valladolid, a decent-sized village about 45 minutes east of the ancient ruins.
Valladolid was founded in 1543 and is named after Valladolid, Spain (the nationa capital at the time). Valladolid in turn comes from the Arabic Ballad Al-Walid, meaning “The City of Al-Walid.” This town of about 45,000 is known affectionately as The Sultaness of the West. It’s very charming and, honestly, I enjoyed it more than Chichen Itza.
There is a wonderful plaza in the middle of town overlooked by the Church of San Servasio. The plaza holds a fountain and plenty of opportunities for people-watching. You can find vendors selling fresh fruit chunks, fruit juices, ice cream, and other snacks all around the square.
Ringing the square, you can find all different kinds of restaurants and shops. I personally recommend Las Campanas, a nice place right across from the church. To be true to the ancient roots of the Riviera Maya, get the cochinita pibil, pork roasted in a pit in the ground, Mayan style.
After walking around its cobblestone streets and pastel-colored homes and businesses, you might stumble across another swimming hole, the Zací Cenote. Be sure to pack your swimsuit because this is one of the most relaxing places I came across in my time in Mexico. The waters are cool and deep blue, and there are plenty of places to sit and relax along the water’s edge. Just be warned that the paths can be rather slippery, so hold on to the walls and railing as you make your descent. There is also a ledge for jumping into the water, if you prefer some action. I don’t know exactly how high it is, but it had to be no less than 20 feet. There is also a restaurant overlooking the cenote if you want to grab a drink on the balcony.
With the sun setting over this quaint Mexican town, I walked back to the main plaza, where my Renault awaited me. I was just in time to catch an interesting performance. I asked someone in the crowd and they said the dance was called La Jarana, and that it was a dance that involved keeping plates of drinks perfectly steady on your head while you tapped your feet and twirled to an upbeat tune.
I was very happy to see tradition alive and well in this part of the world. Having had my culture fix, I breathed in the gathering dark one last time, then got into my car and headed back to Playa del Carmen.
Final Word: The Police
I mentioned before that foreigners should exercise extreme caution when operating a motor vehicle in the Yucatán, as local police are always on the lookout for a mordida to supplement their income.
Allow me to elaborate on that.
I included the part about not parking on the yellow-painted curb because I learned that lesson the hard way. Very early the next morning, when I was set to drive back to Cancún for my flight to Cuba, I could not find my car keys. Nearing a state of panic, I ran out to the rental car to see if they fell under the seat. That’s when I noticed that the rear license plate on my car was missing, and there was a ticket on my front windshield. To make matters worse, unbeknownst to me, I had run out in the darkness right in front of a group of police officers patrolling the streets on ATVs.
While I was digging around in the car, I saw blue lights flash through the windows. Looking up, I saw three officers in white shirts, bulletproof vests, and black balaclavas, showing only their eyes. They shined flashlights in my eyes and asked me if I had been drinking, to which I explained that I was in a hurry, but not drunk. They explained that I was parked in an illegal zone and that they had taken my license plate as proof of infraction. That’s apparently standard operating procedure there.
After much explaining and feigning my anxiousness, the three masked officers finally let me go. The front desk attendant told me he had found my keys, and I was good to go.
Since I was running late to the airport, I pressed down a bit harder on the gas pedal. I wasn’t going too much over the speed limit, but enough that a portly cop at one of the check points spotted me a quarter-mile off. He waved me over to a small parking area across from the guard station.
He began speaking to me in very rapid Spanish legalese. Lucky for me I had several years of speaking and studying Spanish under my belt, or I would have been completely lost. No doubt this has been an effective tactic to use with those who don’t understand fluent Spanish.
The key is to remain calm in this situation, and ask the officer how this can be taken care of. “Puedo arreglar la situacion aqui?” or something to that effect will be fine. In this case, the officer instructed me to see what I had on me. I was actually somewhat excited, because this was a new experience for me, and I didn’t think I’d have to part with more than $20 USD, or about 400 pesos.
I looked in my wallet. I had 70 pesos, or the equivalent of $3.50.
I looked throughout my luggage. I had another three bucks. Everything else was in Euros that I would be exchanging in Cuba.
I took the three dollar bills and the Mexican small bills and showed it to the officer.
“Eso es lo que tengo,” I said. This is what I have.
The police officer looked at the measley wad of crumpled up bills in my hand, then at me, then back at the bills, and sighed.
“Caballero,” he said, scratching his brow. “Please watch your speed. Have a nice day.”
I actually felt kind of bad, driving away, but that quickly dissipated when I had to pay the illegal parking fine at the rental car place. Even so, I didn’t let it bother me: I had had an incredible time in the Yucatán, and was looking forward to yet another adventure!