Yucatan peninsula in Mexico has so many attractions to visit. In three days, you can only get a glimpse of it in 3 days. Since we were limited on time, we tried to make best use of it by prioritising the places to visit. This itinerary will give an overview of our visit.
Day 0: Landing in Cancun and drive to Valladolid
Our port of entry in Yucatan was Cancun. We landed at Cancun airport, cleared immigration and customs and rented a car from Hertz. Before we hit the gas, we got a SIM card and withdrew money from ATM. The entire process took 2 hours but at the end of it we had all basic necessities were taken care of!! It was an eventful drive from Cancun and Valladolid. The distance of 160 km was a toll road passing through forest. There was absolutely nothing else on the highway. No fuel stations, villages or restaurants!! Even the exits were very few and U turns were rare to find. The number of vehicles were very less but the toll was quite heavy (319 MXN ~= ₹1,150)!!
We did not realise that we were crossing timezones between Cancun and Valladolid. We were wondering why our mobile was not showing correct time. In fact, we woke up on next day an hour earlier!! Later we realised that there we two states (Yucatan and Quintana Roo) which followed different timezones.
We had made Valladolid as the base for our Yucatan trip due to its central location. Unlike Cancun which looked like a copy and paste of a western city with sprawling malls, Valladolid had the charm of a typical Mexican town.
Day 1: Ek Balam, Pink lake and cenote
Our first place of visit was Ek Balam, a Mayan archeological site 25 kms from Valladolid. Mayan civilisation was one of the longest civilisation that started around 2000 BC and ended with the Spanish conquest in 16th century though its downfall started much earlier. Hence, it has a history of about 3500 years. It was not a single state or empire but instead it was a mix of states who were constantly in wars or alliances. Ek Balam was one of the cities that thrived during 8th century.
As we entered in Ek Balam area, we were happy to see a nice parking lot. Parking was free but there was a catch. A person came to us and quickly provided a brief overview of the place in a friendly manner. He told that he would be expecting a tip for watching the car while we are away. This is a nuisance in Yucatan area wherever parking is free in tourist sites.
The most interesting place is the Acropolis, also the largest structure in Ek Balam. The climb is steep but it provides a nice view of the surrounding area. On a clear day, it is possible to see Chichen Itza and Coba but we were not successful on that. Acropolis also hosts temples with a tomb of king.
Other notable structures are the Oval Palace, entrance arch and the twin temples. Ek Balam provided an orientation about the Mayan civilisation. A good start.
We continued further towards Rio Lagartos, a small town on the sea side. Since we were hungry we had our lunch at a restaurant overlooking the waters.
Post lunch, we headed to Los Coloradas, the site of pink lake. It is basically an area of salt mine. Since the place is in a private land, it was required to hire a “guide” to get into the lake. It was a great feeling as we never seen a pink lake. The colour is due to red colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp in the salty water. The place is also known for Flamingoes but they were very far.
Cenote X’Keken and Samula
A cenote is a natural sinkhole that is created by the collapse of limestone. It is basically a big natural well. An estimate says that there are about 6000 cenotes in Yucatan!! They played a great part in Mayan culture as there are no rivers or other water sources in Yucatan. Most Mayan cities thrived near cenotes.
We had planned to visit few cenotes during our visit to Mexico. Coming back to Valladolid from pink lake, we headed to the twin cenotes at the outskirts of Valladolid. There is a complete tourist infrastructure built around these cenotes. But as we went into a small tunnel underground, a different world opened in front of us. The darkness combined with stalactites and the pool of water gave us a nice experience. Life jackets were also provided for non swimmers.
Day 2: Chichen Itza, Ik Kil and Izamal
It was a big day as we were visiting Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It opens at 8AM and we planned to be there at that time to beat the crowds who arrive in buses by late morning. Chichen Itza is about 40 km from Valladolid. We had early breakfast and started. While driving, I noticed a sudden warning coming out of dashboard indicating that the front left tyre was having less air. I pulled over to the side and checked. I was not a flat tyre but I felt that the air was less. While picking up the car in Cancun, I had felt that the air was less in that tyre but had dismissed it. Anyway, immediate task was to fill air. We crossed Chichen Itza deviation and drove further to the town of Pitze where we found a fuel station and filled the air. The warning went off. If there was a puncture then the warning would come again by the time we come back from Chichen Itza. But that was not the case. It was just that the tyre pressure was less. The experience in Jordan came in front of my eyes!!
Chichen Itza was one of the major Mayan cities. Even today, the ruins are spread across a large area. Dominating the area is Temple of Kukulkan or El Callisto, a step pyramid. What we see is the outcome of restoration as the city was left to ruins after the decline and conquest of Spanish.
Unlike many other ruins in Yucatan, tourists are not allowed to climb up on any of the ruins.
Other notable structure is the great ball court. It is one of the largest in Mesoamerica. The ball courts in Mayan era has violent history. Most of the ballgames ended in sacrificing humans captured in the war. Sometime, it could be the captain of the team. I was hard to imagine the scene during those barbaric days!!
Other important ruins Temple of warriors, group of thousand columns, El Caracol (observatory) , Osario pyramid and many others. It looks us about 3.5 hours to visit all the ruins. It was so hot even in the middle of winter. Imagine the condition in Summer!! Most people were walking under the shades of the tree to space from the hot sun.
Last but not the least was Sacred cenote (Cenote Sagrado). It does not look “beautiful” when compared to other cenotes in the area but historically it is important. Famous as “well of sacrifice”, Mayans sacrificed humans and objects into the well as a form of worship to the god. My mind went back in time for few seconds thinking about the plight for people who were dumped into the well.
By the time we came out of the complex, we were surprised to see the parking lot filled with cars and tourist buses. It was indeed a good idea to come early.
We proceeded to Ik Oil, a cenote few kms away from Chichen Itza. The creepers dropping into the centote gave a beautiful look to the cenote.
After having lunch at a restaurant in Pitze town, we headed to Izamal. It is a nice little town where most of the buildings are painted yellow. It was a nice experience to walk in the lively town. We also climbed Kinich Kak Mo pyramid which provided a nice view of the town.
Day 3: Coba and Tulum
It was time to leave Valladolid and head towards the coastal town of Tulum. We stopped at Coba, a short detour on the route to Tulum. Coba is an important Mayan city which is in ruins. Coba ruins are scattered around a large area in the forest and it requires good amount of walking. We hired a bicycle and roamed around the area. It was a new experience for us!!
Nohoch Mul Pyramid at the far end of the ruins is the most prominent structure. We the climbed the steep steps to reach the top. Like Ek Balam, it provided a nice view of the surroundings.
From Coba, we headed to Tulum. Tulum looked like a nice town with many vegetarian restaurants!! We had lunch in one of the restaurants and headed to the ruins. The parking area was huge with automated ticketing system. It was surrounded by many shops. It looks some time for us to find the way to the ruins!! Since the ruins were situated a km away, we chose to take a shuttle bus that plied between the ruin and parking area.
Tulum was one of the last cities built by Mayans when their civilisation was in decline. It did survive for few years after Spanish conquest. The city was built next to the Caribbean Sea with tall cliffs providing proaction from invaders.
Due to the proximity of the sea, the ruins of Tulum looks really spectacular!!
Tulum was the witness to the Spanish conquest in the area. It was hard to imagine what would be the reaction of the kings and people there when the saw the Spanish boats with “strange” people!! Note the civilisations in Americas developed in complete isolation from rest of the world. It would have been. Surprise to both side when they saw each other!!
It was then time to head to Cancun. The road from Tulum to Cancun was in complete contrast from the stretch between Cancun and Valladolid. High end resorts (in hundreds!!) dominated most of the costal route between Tulum and Cancun. We stayed in Cancun and took the flight on the next day.
Due to paucity of time, we could not visit places like Uxmal and Mayapan. Yucatan has amazing beaches which we gave a miss.