Yucatán Peninsula

Here it is, our final blog post from Mexico! After 5 months and many kilometers, our final adventure was on the Yucatan Peninsula. After our time in the jungles of Chiapas, coming into Yucatan was a bit of shock. Suddenly we were back on the tourist track and finding a lot of tourists and people speaking English. This is a long way from negotiating the price of a boat in Spanish and riding through the jungle to explore what felt like our own private ruins. The Peninsula was more about the coast and beach bumming along the way.

We finally made it to the Gulf of Mexico! Our first major stop was in the town of San Francisco de Campeche. The Spanish influence in this city couldn’t be clearer; As you enter the old town, you pass through the old town wall that reminded us more of European cities along the Atlantic coast than any town we had seen in Mexico yet. The colorful streets were fun to explore and the coast had a scenic and well maintained pedestrian trail.

Campeche

From Campeche we headed up the coast to Celestún. This small finishing village is the starting point for flamingo boat tours, but we decided to go find them on our own. Even though the guys at the Pemex station told us there’s no road to Sisal, we went off in search of a path anyways. Heading east out of town, we followed a sandy road and sometimes drove along the beach. Along the way, we found a pull out that allowed us to view a flock of flamingoes up close. What cool birds – but when they fly away, they look really funny!

Celestun

From Sisal we headed to Merida. The capitol of Merida has a lot of nice restaurants and beer to offer, as well as a beautiful old town. However it was HOT, and the forecast warned it would only get hotter, so back to the coast we went!

Merida

Straight north to the town of Progresso then east along the coast to find a nice camping spot. We happened to run into Lars and Karin on the road, who we had met a while back in the Grutas. We stayed for a few nights on a beautiful beach under shady coco palms near San Crisanto. We spent 3 days relaxing and swimming, and only left because we ran out of food.

San Crisanto

Heading back inland we stopped in the village of Izamal. The town is built around three Mayan pyramids that are free to enter and has an impressive monestary at the center of town. The inland was still hot, so we headed on to Homún to finally visit some cenotes! Cenotes are essentially subterranean swimming holes. We went to 4 cenotes in Homún, including an abandoned one (too spooky for Rachel to swim) and a fun one with a rope swing to ride in! We ended up visiting a few more after Homún with the most remarkable perhaps being Choj Ha near Valladolid.

Cenote Choj Ha
Cenotes

Being near Valladolid also means being next to Chichen Itza, probably the most famous and most visited Maya ruins in Mexico. Of course we also had to go there. By being at the entry gate just before it opened we managed to ditch the worst of the crowds and the heat. The big and nicely restored pyramid and the big ball game court are really impressive, the rest however is not much different than the other sites we’ve seen, just with way more people. Nevertheless we are happy we went there. The Mayan architecture and the size of the cities they lived in are incredible.

Chichen Itza

Further along the northern coast of Yucatan we visited Las Colorades. Some of these lakes are used for salt extraction and it is also a great spot for Flamingo watching. After pulling into a wild camp spot out among the salt Lagunas, more familiar faces passed our way – Tyler and Megan, also known as Marley’s humans.

Las Coloradas

The following week we found ourselves up against Semana Santa, or the Holy Week. Most everyone has a week of holiday and we were worried there would be another round of holiday fireworks – poor Mitzi had a rough time at Christmas and New Years. So we found a quiet ecocamping spot near Valladolid to ride out at least part of the week. We met up with Tyler & Megan again. After a few days we all decided to ride go out the second half of Semana Santa underwater: scuba diving in Playa del Carmen!

Playa del Carmen

We signed up for an Open Water Diver course in town with Tank Ha Dive Shop. Rachel was technically already scuba certified, but it had been so many (20!!) years, that she repeated the whole course. Our instructor Irati was great and we made it through 3 busy days of diving and learning. We were so enthused that we headed down to Mahahual and spent a day diving there as well as a few days of beach bumming.

Mahahual

If you check the map, you’ll see that we were getting really close to Belize! We headed closer and closer, with a stop of Lago de Bacalar, a beautiful fresh water. Then we drove south to within 20km of the border.. And headed inland to visit more Mayan Ruins. On the road to Chetumal, we crossed paths with yet more overland friends. Thomas and Stefan, who Ben had flown to Halifax with, were heading east to the coast.

Laguna Bacalar

We only spent one night inland again due to the HEAT, but visited a cave where over 1 million bats exit at dusk and the Calakmul ruins tucked into the jungle. Then back to the coast! While waiting a few days to get our pet import permit for Belize and prepare a few things before crossing the border, we settled down at beach side RV Park near Chetumal. We met up again in Thomas & Stefan, and also met again Roque & Sharon, who Ben had near-miss crossed paths in the States and we met in person way back in Todos Santos. And from here we are finishing this blog post on our last evening in Mexico – tomorrow we go to Belize!

Calakmul

Chiapas Part III: Mayan Ruins & More Waterfalls

From Frontera Corozal, we took an early morning boat with our travel buddies Tyler & Megan to the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan. The boat is about 45 minutes along a river that forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The ride through the jungle was beautiful with morning mists still coming off the water. The boat operators had assured us the ruins would be open when we arrived at 7:30 and we looked forward to having the ruins to ourselves, since we were obviously the first ones out there. When we got off the boat and headed towards the entrance, however, we were told that the ruins open at 8:00am. Although you can only get to the ruins by boat, the operators are totally separate from the site and will basically tell you anything to make the sale. After about 10 minutes of bumming around, the guys let us go in early anyways – But lesson learned!

Yaxchilan

The four of us entered these spectacular ruins, tucked into the jungle, and had the whole site to ourselves. First we pulled out our flashlights and made our way through a labyrinth occupied by bats, then eventually emerged into a large courtyard. There were no people here, just the four of us, the ruins and some howler monkeys in the distance. We climbed stairs and followed paths through the jungle to discover the various temples and buildings uncovered here. It was a remarkable experience beyond words! We didn’t run into any other people until around 9:30 as we were finishing our visit. Around 10:00 we hopped back in the boat and enjoyed the ride back to our cars.

The jungle is beautiful, but also hot and humid, so we went in search of a nice place to swim and camp for the night. We stayed at the Cascadas los Golondrinas a bit further along the 307. There are a series of waterfalls, a chilly river to swim in, and at night the sparrows return to home behind the falls. Around dusk, the birds swooped down from the sky and wooshed past us then through the falls into the cave behind. Quite a show from nature!

Cascadas de las Golondrinas

The following day we ventured on to another set of waterfalls, Cascadas de Roberto Barrio. We arrived here Saturday morning and the place was already pretty busy. When it’s that hot out, everyone is looking for a place to cool down. The waterfalls were lovely and we found a nice place to swim here as well, while Mitzi sat on shore and watched us like we were crazy. She’s not going to be tricked into swimming with us again any time soon!

Cascadas de Roberto Barrios

After the nice cool down, we made our way into Palenque. The Mayan ruins at Palenque are some of the most famous and popular in Mexico. We had such an amazing time in Yaxchilan that we set our expectations low – We’d have to be sharing these pyramids with other tourists after all. But Palenque did not disappoint. The temples and labyrinths tucked into the jungle were remarkable. It is estimated that only 10% of the site has been uncovered by archaeologists, and it took us over 2 hours to explore that! Towards the end of our visit the rain started to come in, and we decided it was time to head out of Chiapas. We had a remarkable time in this region: visiting Mayan ruins, swimming under beautiful waterfalls, seeing exotic wildlife, exploring colorful cities, going on boat trips and enjoying nature.

Palenque

Our Route:

Chiapas Part II: Along the Guatemalan border

Two of the main stops for any overlander or tourist in Chiapas are San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. The direct highway that connects the two, 199, has a number of roadblocks set up by the Zapatistas. Though harmless, what we had read led us to think they were just frustrating and possibly expensive to pay your way through. We weren’t worried about the blocks, but interested in what our alternatives were. After only half an hour with the Lonely Planet, we decided that not only was Highway 307 an option, it was the better choice. Waterfalls, lakes, and jungle ruins, all on the less traveled path. And to add to that, our friends from Spanish school in Guanajuato, Tyler and Megan (and their dog Marley), were planning to take this route around the same time. Decision made!

Out of San Cristobal, we took a long, bumpy road to Cascadas el Chiflón. Topes, the bane of every overlander’s existence, were in frequent and frustrating on the route. When we finally spotted the Cascadas from the road, it looked like an oasis! There are a series of waterfalls and vibrant blue river at the bottom. Lots of steps to the top, but worth it for those views!

El Chiflón

We spent the night tucked to the side of the parking lot, along the river. It was a surprisingly peaceful place to spend a Friday night. It was the first of many nights camping with our new friends Tyler and Megan. In the morning, we headed off to the Lagos de Montebello National Park. First we did a short (8k) 5 lakes hike. The views were spectacular! A number of people were swimming in the lakes, but the water was cold and we weren’t brave enough.

Montebello

We spent two nights at Lago de Tziscao, right on the Guatemalan border. It’s so close to Guatemala that you can be at the unmanned border in about 2 km. Rachel went for a morning run to the border and back – run through two countries in just 3 miles! The camp site was beautiful, clean and bug free. The weather was comfortable – not too hot or cold, and not too muggy – an Overlander’s Paradise!

Our caravan continued on to beautiful waterfalls at Las Nubes. We took a short hike through the jungle to a stunning viewpoint and swam in the cold water below one of the falls on our way down. The water must have looked refreshing because Mitzi jumped in for a swim as well! She regretted her choice immediately 😀

Las Nubes

The next stop on our tour along the 307 was actually a shortcut at the Guacamaya Ecotourism Center. We camped next door to a beautiful resort and were able to enjoy the amenities and tour offers while only paying a fraction of the price at our camp. This was our first up close encounter with monkeys! We saw many Spider Monkeys playing around camp and could hear the Howler Monkeys at night. In the morning we took a boat tour to observe wildlife – Crocodiles, Toucans, monkeys and various birds that live in the jungle here.

Las Guacamayas

After our morning tour, we packed up and finished our shortcut and made it back to the 307. Our next night was in Frontera Corozal. After booking a boat for Yaxchilán we went to bed early in preparation for our morning boat. Yaxchilán was so impressive it deserves a blog post of its own!

Howler Monkeys

Chiapas Part I: Aguacero, Sima de las Cotorras, Cañon del Sumidero and San Cristobal de las Casas

Chiapas is a spectacular state in Mexico full of waterfalls, wildlife and Mayan ruins. From the first day we were enamored by the region. Not long after crossing into Chiapas, we were waved over by a friendly guy that saw our Swiss plates and wanted to meet us. He had a truck full of watermelon and cucumbers and wanted to welcome us to Chiapas with a few! After we graciously accepted 2 watermelons and a cucumber, we had to insist that there was no way two people could eat more. People in Mexico have been friendly and welcoming during our whole visit, but we are still amazed every time a stranger is so friendly and generous with us. We (particularly Rachel) are slowly losing the introversion with strangers that we hold to from our lives in Seattle and Zürich.

Our first stop – other than for watermelon – was at the Aguacero waterfalls. The drive to the falls was already striking and we were excited for the 700+ stairs to the bottom. The waterfalls cascade down to a clean and shallow river at the bottom of a canyon. Before the earthquake in September 2017, there were many pools one could swim in at the bottom, but these unfortunately were destroyed. However the walk through the water in the river was refreshing and the falls are still stunning. We also met a couple of men spear fishing.

Aguacero

After the 700+ stair climb back to the top (in the middle of a hot and humid day) we headed onwards towards Sima de las Cotorras. A Sima is a sinkhole, and this one is home to hundreds of parakeets. At dusk the parakeets make their way home for the night, and at dawn the birds take off en masse with a massive amount of chirping. It is quit a sight. There is also a trail around the Sima where we saw other beautiful birds. Our favorite was a small hummingbird that we saw come home to its nest and plop in to protect its eggs.

All this we saw in our first day in Chiapas. The next day was another busy day of sightseeing. First we headed to the Cañon del Sumidero near Tuxtla Gutiérrez. This canyon has impressively high walls with a river at the bottom. It is possible to take boat rides on the river, but we chose to enter the National Park and view it from above.

Then our next stop, where we stayed for 2 nights was San Cristobal de las Casas. The town has beautiful colonial architecture and cobbled streets – and so many tourists! Our travel philosophy for the last few months has landed us mostly in locations off the beaten path. The times we went to popular sights, we mostly went early in the morning to avoid crowds or opted to head to locations more popular with locals than other gringos.

San Cristobal de las Casas

Walking around SC, we heard more German spoken than we have since the trip started! Apparently we had made our way onto the “Gringo Trail“. As we considered our next stop on the way to Palenque, and contemplated whether we take the direct route to Palenque or the long way along the Guatamala border, this had a small influence on our decision to take the long way.

Estado de Oaxaca

Our first stop in the state of Oaxaca was a reserve protecting Green Military Macaws, or Ara Militaris. The birds often return to a canyon in this reserve for the night and it is possible to see them through a guided hike in the late evening. While the hike was hot but beautiful, we only saw 2 Macaws from our viewpoint.

Guacamaya Verdes

Next we headed into Oaxaca City. Our original plan was to make a quick 2 hour stop to see the Centro Historico and grab something to eat before heading to the camp site, then return the next day to fully explore the area. Well, due to some bad luck, during those first 2 hours someone managed to steal the bags we had tied down on top of the Landy. Most people we have met on the road have some similar story of things being knicked, and though it was just chance that it happened in Oaxaca City, it left us with a bad feeling and we didn’t return to the city later on.

Instead of exploring the city, we visited a few sites nearby. The first was the town of El Tule, which is home to the world’s largest tree as measured by tree diameter. We also spent a night at Hierve el Agua. These are rock formations that look like a static waterfall. There is a lovely hike around the area to see the formations from different views, and small water pools above that you can bathe in (or like us, just enjoy the view from). On the way back to Oaxaca we stopped in Mitla an archeological site which is famous for the mosaic like decorations on the buildings.

Hierve El Agua & Mitla

From the outskirts of Oaxaca City, we decided to head towards the beach for the first time since Christmas. Along the way we stopped in San Jose del Pacifico, best known for its magic mushrooms. Since this isn’t really our thing, we just had a quiet night and enjoyed the people watching 😀

Then we arrived on the beach of San Augustín. And we were so unprepared for the heat! After a couple months at elevation, we thought we might melt under the midday sun. The beach was in a protected bay, so we could swim in the water to cool down. The waves were still ocean waves and were exciting to body surf in.

San Augustín

After 3 days at the beach, we needed to cool down and decided to make our way towards Chiapas. Our last night in the state of Oaxaca was near the border and so hot we could barely sleep… time to head inland a bit! 3

 

Zona Archeológica de Cantona

Cantona is a large and remarkable archaeological site that is much less visited than the other large sites of Mexico. Cantona was a large city with an area of approximately 12 square km and full of many pyramids and ball fields. The most significant feature is that these were all built without plaster or mud – just dry stone buildings. And for our visit, we only saw 6 other people in the 2 hours we explored this large area.

Cantona

Izta, Popo & La Malinche

Just outside Mexico City are the two big volcanos Iztaccíhuatl (5230m) and Popocatépetl (5426m), also called Izta and Popo. They are respectively the 3rd and 2nd highest mountains in Mexico. They form a National Park and Izta can be climbed whereas Popo is closed due to volcanic activity.
The road leading up to the basecamp of Izta at 4000m as a wonderful drive from the Mexican plateau. We camped for a night and the day after we wanted to get up to the first ridge to see the sunrise. We were ready shortly after five but a few minutes into the hike the batteries of Ben’s flashlight ran out. Since it was still completely dark, we decided to turn around and wait in the warm car until sunrise.
The hike is pretty steep but not very technical, however the altitude and the fact that we’ve only spent one night at this elevation totally killed us and after two hours we were only 500m higher. By now the sun was out and we enjoyed the warm sun rays and the not so freezing temperatures, ate something and turned around. At least we made it up to 4500m! 😀 On the way down Popo surprised us with a small “poof”!

Iztaccíhuatl Hike

On the same day we took the gravel road down to Cholula. Cholula is another pretty colonial city with the biggest pyramid (volume wise) and next to Puebla. The pyramid is so big, that the Spaniards decided to build a church on top of it…

Cholula & Puebla

A short drive outside Puebla is another Volcano, La Malinche (4461m). It’s less high – the 10th highest mountain in Mexico – and a good training for high altitude hiking. We camped at the Centro Vacacional IMSS La Malintzi at 3100m.
The hike is very pretty with some really steep section, but we were now better acclimatized and made good progress. Unfortunately the weather turned on us just before the ridge at about 4200m and we had to turn around with the peak in sight 🙁

Mexico City

From Teotihuacán looking towards Mexico City, you see a daunting thick cloud of smog. As you drive through the outskirts of the city, the sky seems to darken a bit as you enter that smog… and we thought, one or two nights will be enough here.

But after we got into the center of the city and especially the neighborhood Condesa, the smog dissipated significantly and a beautiful city emerged. We stayed with Andrea, who we met in the Copper Canyon, at her lovely apartment in Condesa. Saying Mexico City is huge is an understatement. This is North America’s largest city with a population of around around 10 million. There are limitless places to eat, drink coffee, have a beer and walk around. The metro through the city is frequent and cheap – only 5 pesos per ride (equal to about 30 Rappen). This price has actually doubled in the last decade!

The biggest downside of Mexico City was that it isn’t very dog friendly. Dogs are forbidden on the metro and in most restaurants – other than in Condesa, lucky for us, and of course when it comes to street food, anything goes. The Centro Historico of Mexico City is full of museums and churches, which we had to alternate visiting while one of us stayed outside with Mitzi.  it was a bummer that each of us had to hurry through the sites, so as the other didn’t sit around on the street waiting (since most coffee shops in the center were wary of the pup).  We were still able to visit the Palacio National and see Diego Rivera’s impressive murals and enjoyed the architecture of the buildings around the Zócalo and beyond.

We also visited the Roma and Coyoacán neighborhoods, enjoying food and sights there. In Coyoacán we hoped to visit Frida Khalo museum, but timed it wrong – Saturday morning. We decided waiting an hour or more was a bit much, so visited the markets and center of the neighborhood instead.

After 4 days, we went back to the Landy and said goodbye to Andrea. We hope she is able to visit us in Switzerland when we are back and repay her generosity!

Teotihuacán

We have visited many archaeological sites at this point, from active excavations to well maintained sites with detailed museums. Now we were heading for probably the most famous site in all of Mexico, Teotihuacán. This city used to be home to over 100,000 people, making it the largest pre-Columbian American city, and one of the largest in the world at its time.

We arrived early in the morning, before the tour buses showed up and only a handful of visitors had come in. We walked the Avenue of the Dead, which is the Main Street of Teotihuacán, and climbed to the Pyramid of the Sun in near solitude. At the end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Pyramid of the Moon, with some of the steepest stairs we’ve ever seen to top. The site also contains a museum with artefacts of pre-Hispanic America.

Querétaro and Hidalgo

After our long stay in Guanajuato, we were happy to hit the road the again. Our first stop was the city of Santiago de Querétaro. The town has a beautiful old city and long viaduct that used to transport water into the city. The city is also home to a great brewery our friends Tyler and Megan (@justwanderinthrough) told us about. They had great beer and great food, and we were able to sleep in the parking lot that night. This meant Ben could sample their stronger beers without concern.

The following morning we headed out to some Pueblo Magicos nearby. First was Bernal, a cute village located by a giant monolith. It is the third largest monolith in the world – though we still don’t really know what constitutes a monolith vs a rock. We hiked a ways up the trail under the monolith to a viewpoint to enjoy the views. We then headed off to the small town of Tequisquipan and enjoyed another pretty old town.

Bernal

The next couple of days we spent at a beautiful hot spring. Grutas Tolantongo are absolutely magical. We slept aside a warm turquoise river, swam in a cave that had hot water streaming from the roof and relaxed in hillside thermal pools overlooking the beautiful valley below. And by pure coincidence, we ran into two other Swiss couples the first night there.

Grutas Tolantongo

After two relaxing nights at the Grutas, we took the scenic gravel road to National Park El Chico. We visited a couple of mining villages located around 3000m, Real del Monte and Mineral del Chico. We camped in the park two nights went on some short hikes there. The air was wonderfully clear – the last clear air we would breath before heading into the State of Mexico and Mexico City in the following days.

Parque Nacional El Chico