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Mexico Travelog


We crossed the border from Belize without incident (except for encountering the slowest, most disinterested border staff on the planet when exiting Belize) and arrived in Chetumal. From here we were planning to get the first class (ADO) bus to Tulum but were told different things by different people and were put into a cab with instructions from one of these helpful people. We probably made a mistake overriding their instructions and told the driver “No, we want the ADO terminal”. He then said something and started racing off in the other direction. Eventually, with broken English and Spanish, racing along at 60 mph, we figured out he’s telling us the next ADO bus from downtown Chetumal wasn’t until 6:00pm and he was taking us to the crossroads to meet another bus that departed at 1:30. But for how much? 45 ... 45 each ... plus return trip of 45 ... each. Well, OK, 180 pesos ($9) – but seriously, this is a long taxi ride? When he gets us to the terminal (in time for the bus) that price turned into 180 US dollars (3600 pesos). He was trying it on. No, no, no, this is Mexico – you just said 45 and to us that’s pesos (we are not Americans). Well, whilst discussing the price we got our bags out of the boot and on to our backs, suggested we ask a nearby policeman, handed him 300 pesos ($15) and walked off. He didn’t complain so we figured it was about right. Truth is, it was a bit of a deal because the price on the bus from that point up the road was 100 pesos each less than from Chetumal so the taxi ride only cost us $5 net. (As a side note, Peter has maps on his phone, we were aware of the alternate bus terminal, and quickly realised exactly where he was taking us so never worried that he was up to no good.)

Tulum is one of the trendiest places in Mexico right now (so what are two old farts like us doing here you may well ask). Well, Tulum is on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán peninsula, has powdery white beach sand, jade green water and, you guessed it, a Mayan ruin. We stayed in town, which is a few miles from the beach, where there are lots of great restaurants and shops.

First job was to write the Belize travelog and sort the photos. After a couple of days of messing about, one day we got up early (to avoid the crowds and midday heat) and visited the Tulum ruins which are right on the edge town. What makes this site unique is that it has a walled fortress right on the coast and was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in 1518. The Spanish, upon seeing this brightly painted fortress with a ceremonial fire burning must have been seriously impressed. The structures are smaller than many of the Mayan ruins we’ve seen so far but it’s walls and stunning setting on the coast make it unique. From the ruins we head along the beach but just had to stop for a cold beer and admire the beach. Also, it was blisteringly hot.

Another day we took a short taxi ride to Gran Cenote. The Yucatán peninsula is primarily made of limestone which was cracked by a meteor hit millennia ago. As a result, rainwater percolates into the limestone and flows underground (there are no above ground rivers in the Yucatán). Cenotes are open holes down into these underground rivers and Gran Cenote is one of the biggest (actually, two cenotes linked by a cave). Here we swam in the crystal clear water and snorkelled amongst the stalagmites and stalactites, the fish and the turtles. Sunlight penetrates the cenote and down into the water. The water diffuses the light making it brighter underwater than above in the cave. The underground rivers go deep and have been mapped for many miles (see photo). A group of seriously well equipped SCUBA divers came up from the depths and their bright camera lights illuminated the deep waters that the sunlight doesn’t reach – very cool.

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Not far up the coast is the island of Cozumel. A small island with a population of 100,000 people receives over 4,000,000 visitors arriving by cruise ship a year. We got a nice room on the waterfront with a balcony where we could sit and watch these behemoths dock. Mostly we just chilled here and ate at some really crappy American style restaurants (though we found one really good Italian restaurant). We went to book a snorkel trip and Peter couldn’t resist making it a dive trip (Jackie still couldn’t be persuaded to strap a tank on but was able to snorkel while Peter dove). Cozumel is considered one of the top dive spots in the world. There’s a significant current running along the coast, so drift dives (where the current whisks you past the coral and the boat drifts along above) are the norm. Whilst there are lots of fish and other life, this place has seen too many divers and, sadly, the coral isn’t in great shape. Still, it was great to dive again after 14 years.

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Chichén Itzá

In the middle of the Yucatán peninsula is the most famous and best restored of the ancient Mayan cities. We stayed in the nearby little village of Pisté for two nights. This allowed us to arrive at the site early to beat the crowds and the heat. Whilst not the tallest nor the largest it is certainly an impressive site. Highlights include El Castillo, the biggest ball court in the Mayan world, the Group of a Thousand Columns, the Jaguar Temple and, Jackie’s favourite, the Platform of the Skulls.

Like Tulum, but unlike the sites in Guatemala and Belize, we’re not allowed to climb these structures. I suppose visitors falling to their death tends to encourage the nanny ‘elf and safety rule makers, even in Mexico. One thing that impressed us was the incredible number of vendors selling handicrafts (tourist tat), some of which we are convinced are made in China. How can they make a living?

By midday the heat and sheer number of visitors encourages us to return to our hotel for a refreshing dip in the pool (swimming pools have become a standard criteria in our hotel selection).

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The Mayan city of T’ho was conquered in 1542 where the Spanish founded the city of Mérida. It is the capital of Yucatán State and a traditional colonial city which means it is laid out as a grid of narrow streets, lined with colourfully painted one and two story buildings. Having many churches, museums, plazas, etc. it has become a cultural capital with a metropolitan vibe.

We spend more time than we care to admit in the German and Belgian beer pubs and in between pubs we visited several worthwhile museums including Gran Museo Mundo Maya and Palacio Canton.

One day we take a trip to Celestún, on the coast, to see the flamingos. This includes a boat trip into the shallow estuary where, in addition to the very pink flamingos, we see shrimp fishermen pushing their boats whilst dragging triangular nets behind them. The boat then heads through a mangrove tunnel where we look for crocodiles (didn’t see any) but see large termite nests up in the mangrove trees. We stop at a cenote where a freshwater spring wells up and pours into the saltwater estuary. We then head to Celestún’s beach where we spend a few hours having a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, a cold beer on the beach, and a very nice blue, crab meal at the restaurant. We should note that whilst the beach sand is lovely, the water doesn’t have the clarity of the Caribbean and so this side of the Yucatán peninsula is not nearly as popular a tourist destination and feels almost deserted. A good reason, in itself, to visit here.

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The next day we head inland to swim at the Santa Barbara cenotes. This group of three cenotes has been recently developed with a restaurant, changing facilities and a horse drawn truck on rails to get you around to the three cenotes. We, however, opt for riding bicycles.

The first cenote is completely underground and we have to go down a staircase that runs literally under a tree. Little sunlight makes it down here so the circular pool is lit by artificial lights. In the ceiling of the cavern there are a couple of round holes. These were created by the trunks of trees that, long ago, sent roots down to drink from the water below. The next cenote was a little more open and the water was much deeper and clearer. Stalactites came down from the cavern roof and stalagmites in the water coming up from the depths. This indicates that the water level has changed significantly over the millennia. There are also roots of trees hanging in the air down to the water. The third cenote has a stone staircase and a short tunnel cut into the limestone that brings you out right to the water’s edge. This deep cenote has a wide circular opening with a tree hanging over the edges with its root dangling down to the water. All three cenotes had a variety of fish but one black fish with whiskers like a catfish really caught our eye.

We took this trip as part of a small group of nine. They were a fun group and we enjoyed the socialising but had to chuckle to ourselves that some of them didn’t realise that the reason for visiting cenotes was for the swimming (and snorkelling) – they hadn’t brought their swimsuits.

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This UNESCO world heritage city, a few hours down the Gulf coast, is similar to Mérida but unique because of its fortifications. Once the most important port on this coast, the city walls were built to protect against pirate attack. Why Sir Francis Drake is so venerated here we don’t quite understand (our hotel was named for him and he’s highlighted in museums). While it’s another colonial town laid out as a grid with colourful one story buildings, Campeche is smaller and quieter and has the bonus of the walls and the defensive bastions to explore. We quite enjoyed exploring the museums, walking the waterfront malecón, and watching the folk dancing and music displays. Our only ‘complaint’ is that we took a taxi a few miles out of town to visit a highly recommended museum in a old fort, we were dropped off, and then discovered it was closed for renovation. Oh well, the local bus back took us up backstreets we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

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Being a full time tourist takes a lot out of you, we were getting a bit road and heat weary and we quite enjoyed all the stops along the Caribbean coast, so we decided to head back to Playa del Carmen (across the strait from Cozumel) for a couple of weeks of R&R.

Playa Del Carmen

This is the definition of laziness - we did almost nothing. A typical day consisted of a dip in the pool, a swing in the hammock, a lie in the sun and a read of a book. Repeat. We did think about going off to water parks, cenotes and Mayan ruins but then thought, nah, let’s just swim here.

We were quite lucky to find a quiet little hotel, just 12 rooms around a courtyard with a pool. Virtually every hotel we’ve ever stayed in, even expensive ones, have at least one flaw that Peter reckons he could do better, but this place is really well thought out. Clearly it was designed by someone who has actually ever stayed in a hotel or used a shower.

Playa is a fair sized town, just an hour down the coast from Cancun. It is known for its party scene and shopping – 5th avenue is full of bars, restaurants, posh shops and tourist tat. Jackie drooled over the O Bag shop (NO! You’ve already got the O Bag you bought in Sardinia, we’re backpacking!).

OK, enough lazing about, it’s time to get back to our job of being tourists. We took a bus up the coast to Cancun then flew to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas state.

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Tuxtla Gutiérrez

The state capital is a busy modern metropolis and a transportation hub. Although zoos are not normally at the top of our list, the recommended Zoomat did not disappoint. Chiapas State has the highest concentration of animal species in North America, many of them endangered. The zoo is a spacious, forested hill top and the animals are in large, natural looking enclosures. There is a wide variety of animals, including large cats, birds, insects, snakes, crocodiles and nocturnal creatures that we tried, and failed, to get pictures of. There are also a number of wild animals hanging about that were not in cages. The howler monkeys were particularly vociferous. Our favourites were the spider monkeys and the jaguars. One last thing of note, the (higher) entrance fee for tourists is 25 pesos (about $1.25 or 90 pence).

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The main draw of Tux (as we refer to it) is the Sumidero Canyon. This impressive fissure in the earth’s crust, through which the Rio Grijalva flows, was dammed in 1981, creating a 25 kilometre long reservoir. We take an amazing two hour boat ride through this incredible gorge, with its thousand metre high sheer cliffs. We see many birds (and a spider monkey) along the way but fail to spot any crocodiles. There were a variety of interesting rock formations, including one that looked like a giant Christmas tree.

After the boat trip we stopped for lunch in the small colonial town of Chiapa de Corzo. The large town square features the oldest ceiba tree in the region and a red brick fountain, La Pila, that was completed in 1562. From there it was on to the miradors, lookout points, to view the canyon from above. Wow, wow and wow – as ever, the photos just don’t do it justice.

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Back in Tux, a few blocks from our hotel, is Jardin de la Marimba. Every night there are free Marimba concerts and people of all ages come to dance.

Oaxaca (wah-hah-kah)

A ten hour overnight bus journey, brings us to another UNESCO world heritage site. The city centre overflows with churches, art galleries, museums and leafy plazas. Arriving on a Sunday, we head out and see lots of people enjoying a lovely afternoon in the park. This place has a bit of the same feel as Antigua Guatemala but it’s a real, functioning city, not just a tourist town. There’s lots to explore here and we spot many microbrewery bars and gourmet restaurants that we want go come back to try. Oaxaca is rated one of the world’s great food cities.

But first, there’s an historical site to visit – not Mayan but Zapotec (pre-classic Mayan period). On top of a 400 metre hill, this 2500 year old city was built over many centuries and today there are the remains of many temples, palaces, residences, tombs, a ball court and observatories. Although it’s hot and sunny, it’s not humid and, up this high, its really quite pleasant. At the furthest end of the site, on the steps, at the top of the Southern Platform . . .

OH NO! Big oops, Jackie misses a step. Thankfully falling on the step not down the steps but she has seriously damaged her ankle.

There’s a railing and Jackie, with a lot of help, manages to get to the bottom of the steps but there’s no way she can walk out. A site warden radioed for a vehicle and they drove us to the entrance where we got a taxi to the hotel. Hmm, so how bad is it? Yup, needs a hospital, the concierge gave us the name of the nearest and hailed a cab. Straight in, doctor there in minutes, x-rays, confirmation its a grade 2 sprain (not broken, phew!), wrappings, jab in the butt, a pair of crutches, tablets and out in a little over an hour. It’s amazing the service you get at a hospital when you’re paying for it (about $200 or £150 – what a bargain).

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So now Jackie’s in considerable pain and struggling with crutches. She can only barely make it to the hotel restaurant and every step is a workout. We change our plans to stay here a couple of extra days but that’s the end of touring. Too bad, there’s lots of stuff in Oaxaca to see.

Mexico City

We manage to get to the bus terminal and onto the bus without too much difficulty – fortunately it’s Sunday and pretty quiet. In Mexico City the huge bus terminal is a concern but there are porters and one gets a wheelchair, Peter is carrying all the luggage. We get to the taxi rank and they put us in the next taxi jumping the queue, although we protest, but everyone is totally OK with that. Mexicans are really nice.

So visiting the sights is out of the question but there’s a hop-on-hop-off bus that’s not too far. Well, we thought it wasn’t too far but 400m was Jackie’s absolute limit (maybe a bit beyond it). There are four bus circuits that interconnect and we do two of them. So Jackie sits downstairs and Peter goes up to the open deck to get pictures. Sorry, but our Mexico City photos are all just from the top of the bus. We’re really disappointed because it looks like there are some fabulous sites to see. Mexico City looks magnificent, we’ll have to come back. It’s a long (7 hour) day and Jackie’s exhausted but we’re heading home in two days. Loved the travel but we’ll be glad to get home.

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Click here for Australia (Part 3) Travelog


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