10 Feb

Yucatán and the Ruins of Southern Mexico

We’re back in Mexico, a country full of topes (speedbumps) and delightfully large supermarkets! After being in remote areas of Central America for 8 months, nothing says Welcome Back To Mexico like being launched into space by an unmarked surprise tope, or stepping into a giant Wal-Mart Supermercado and having your brain explode with how much stuff there is. In this post we cruise through the Yucatán Peninsula, swim in a Cenote, see the relatively unknown Salto de Eyipantla waterfall, and climb some amazing Mayan temples.

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Crossing from Belize into Mexico is a celebration for us, since it will be our last border for a while! The Belize exit was relatively straightforward: exit stamps in passports from Immigration and pay the exit tax of 37.50 Belizean Dollars ($19 USD) per adult, 18.25 BZD ($9 USD) for children (payable in USD). Note that if you’re in transit crossing through Belize in just one day, you don’t have to pay the exit tax. The temporary import permit for the car was canceled at Customs and we were on our way back into Mexico!

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Entry into Mexico was very well regulated at their single border with Belize. We were directed to park by an official and entered the combined Migración/Aduana building. You fill out the provided immigration form or “FMM” (forma migratoria multiple) and your passports get stamped in. Cost for entry is 332 pesos per person (as of April 2015) and this is paid at the neighboring Banjercito window, along with your vehicle import permit. Hand over your vehicle documentation (car title, registration, Mexican insurance, drivers license, passports), pay the permit fee ($59 USD) and the vehicle deposit (more info here). Back at the car, there’s a window to pay for fumigation (75 pesos) and you are finally on your way.

Here is our route heading into Mexico from the Belize border:

Alright, let’s go see some ruins! The Yucatán is full of them, and we weren’t prepared for the hoards of people in beautiful seaside Tulum. Winter is the busiest time, after all. The largest temple is on the cliff side, facing the water. Makes for an impressive backdrop, but hard to capture from shore.

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After paying entry to the park (57 pesos/$3 USD per person), you can spend the day swimming at the gorgeous beach looking back at the ruins, just like many Maya have!

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Finding places to camp without paying exorbitant prices is difficult in the Tulum area, less than 2 hours from Cancún. Driving up the northbound freeway towards Cancún, we stopped off in a few hamlets on the beach side, hoping to catch a break. That’s exactly what we found here. Approval to crash for the night from a local bartender across from the beach bar and condo building. Black cat security on high alert for this free camp. Who are these people and what are they cooking!?

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The mega-resorts start an hour outside Cancún. We briefly drove through the Playa del Carmen area to see what all the fuss is about. It’s super swanky. Shops, resorts, golf courses… we had to try to fit in, which meant busting out the “nicer clothes” and getting Bruno a much needed car wash! We met up with the Rivières, a friend’s parents who knew Amanda as a teenager. Oh, the dirt they could dish. Happy to report that they’re doing swell and treated us to lunch at their lovely resort!

That evening we checked into an RV park just outside Cancún. We made a new friend named Patrick who is a founder of the non-profit Filmmaker For A Cause. They shoot videos for various charities around Mexico and Central America. Him and a buddy are driving a Mercedez-Benz Unimog, which is an unstoppable German military vehicle they bought used. Travis was very impressed with the indestructibility of the Unimog and considered trading in Bruno on the spot! For shame!

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The next morning we left in search of cenotes! Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. You see signs for them all over the Yucatán – some are highly commercialized enterprises, and others can be found in some local’s backyard! Cenote Ik-Kil cost us 65 pesos each ($3.50 USD) and the early morning swim was refreshing! The tour buses had yet to arrive and there were very few other people. We were able to enjoy the small birds who nest in the cavern walls, and swim among the baby catfish who were curious about us!

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In order to get to the cenote early, we actually spent the night camped across the street. For the most part, we hunt for camping using the iOverlander app, but sometimes we end up finding our own spots. While driving towards the cenote, we saw a motel that looked inviting with easily accessible restrooms and some good spots where Bruno could park. We stopped and asked about camping, they said sure, and we ended up having a sweet palapa covering us including picnic tables, electricity and our very own pool! Cost: 150 pesos ($8 USD).

After this nice camping and enjoying the cenote, we headed to the town of Ticul close to the popular Uxmal ruins. We took a room at Posada Jardin for 300 pesos ($16 USD) and were treated to a Maya snack prepared by the owner’s mom, who is of Mayan descent. It contained chaya (“tree spinach”), eggs, tomatoes, and what looks like sawdust on top (salty sawdust, that is). Travis’ refined palate described it as “earthy, bland lasagna”.  We researched later that it is in fact the tamale of the Yucatán, Brazo de Reina. Each Mexican state does their tamales a little differently and this one is influenced by the Maya culture. The sawdust was in fact ground pumpkin seeds!

We even got to be translators for the nice old lady when a couple from Vermont showed up and couldn’t communicate with her. Made us feel REAL good about our Spanish skills.

On the road to the Uxmal ruins in the morning. Although we were nearby the world famous Chichén Itzá, we opted to skip it since we had the luxury of seeing so many other sites on our trip: Monte Albán, Copán, Tikal, Tulum, and eventually Palenque and Teotihuacán. Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico; approximately 2 million tourists visited the ruins last year. A bucket list item for another day.

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Welcome to Uxmal! Another fabulous ancient Maya city that was booming at its peak around 1100 years ago. A visit to Uxmal currently costs 426 pesos for two people ($22 USD).

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The devil is in the details. Or maybe that’s just a little turtle dude. The carvings at this site are beautifully restored and most of the buildings have really intricate engravings, which is unique from the other Mayan sites we’ve visited.

Around 1000 CE, Toltec invaders conquered Uxmal and the city faded out afterwards. In the 1550’s, when the Spanish invaded the Yucatan area, the few remaining residents of Uxmal either died or moved somewhere else, leaving this place completely abandoned for nature to reclaim.

Amanda climbs up the stairs of The Great Pyramid and…

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…looks out over her vast new empire!

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House of the Doves! Maybe more of the pigeon variety these days…

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Below is the Nunnery Quadrangle, a government palace with long buildings that surround a courtyard. Lots of nice carved facades on both the inside and outside walls.

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Corner view of the site looking out from the Governor’s Palace. What a gorgeous day!

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After seeing the Uxmal ruins we hopped in Bruno and drove about 3 hours to the town of Escargeca. Our iOverlander coordinates lead us to a dirt road with a large CAMPING sign. The only ones in a large open field, the barn provided some dusty rocking chairs to lounge in after dinner. For 150 pesos, the site was really lacking in amenities, but it’s hard to argue with a night of camping for $8 USD.

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The next day, we gobbled up our third set of ruins in less than a week – the jungles of Palenque! We thought it would be overkill, but we really enjoyed every ancient city we’ve visited. Each site is surprisingly different from the other, so we’re always excited upon our arrival. Including the parking fee, the Palenque ruins came to 194 pesos for the two of us ($10 USD). Here is Amanda atop the Temple of the Count!

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Palenque was a happening place from around 226 BCE to 799 CE. After it was abandoned, it was completely lost to jungle growth until the late 1700’s. By 2005, the discovered area covered up to one square mile, but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.

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The Temple of the Inscriptions. Construction started on this bad-boy around 675 CE and it contains one of the longest Mayan texts. It records approximately 180 years of the city’s history, focusing a lot on the rituals they used to do for the city’s patron deities.

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The Palace structure below was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ceremony rituals. The Palace is located in the center of the ancient city. Check out the four-story Observation Tower still standing. You can’t climb it, but that is some impressive engineering relative to other Mayan sites.

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Standing atop Temple XIII overlooking the city.

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Amanda contemplates life from the top of Temple of the Count. This temple got its name from early explorer Jean-Frédéric Waldeck, who lived in the building for a year or two in the 1830’s and Waldeck claimed to be a Count. A little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, according to his Wikipedia entry.

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We camped that night within Palenque National Park at Camping Michol. Basically, a family’s home with attached restaurant and some sketchy-looking cabins. The camping was only 30 pesos per person, though! Tough to beat a $3 USD camping price tag.

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Our final stop in southern Mexico is the little-visited city of Catemaco with their colorful sign.

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Right on the shores of a large lake, the municipality of Catemaco stretches north to the Gulf of Mexico and relies on tourism from Veracruz, 3 hours away. One of the most interesting things about the area is the tradition of sorcery or witchcraft that has its roots in the pre-Hispanic period. We met a handful of ex-pat Americans who spend their winters down here, discovering natural remedies and learning ancient potions (our words, not theirs). What percentage of these ancient potions have a positive placebo effect? Probably all of them. Supplies are running short, so get yours now!

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The folks we met recommended a grand waterfall in the area, so we set out to find it.

Salto de Eyipantla is found in a small village of the same name. Upon our arrival, Main Street was torn up by construction and our path was blocked! We followed the taxi cabs through some pretty small streets, betting they knew the best routes around. We got Bruno as close as we could to the falls, then parked him next to the cabbies’ watchful eyes and walked the rest of the way in. What a sight!

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At this point a serious decision needed to be made: to go or not to go to the mammoth that is Mexico City. Bruno has some reservations about driving into world-renowned traffic jams!

  • Of all the pics, the one of the Unimog stood out the most. I bet Bruno felt inferior after seeing that beast! 🙂

    You had quite a run of ancient ruin sites in the Yucatan. I think we would be worn out before making it to the third one (though Palenque looks the coolest!).

    Is it worth spending any time in Catemaco? Looks very pretty from the pic.

    • Amanda

      You may be surprised at all the monster trucks out on the road. Bruno often has inferiority complexes after staying in an RV park or two! In fact, the one in San Miguel de Allende had an incredible number of Europeans traveling in massive German vehicles I’d never heard of.

      Palenque was probably my favorite (aside from Tikal in Guatemala, but that’s on a whole other level of size). It’s great hiking through the jungle and coming across such massive structures!

      Re: Catemaco, I think there’s lots to do in the area with access to a vehicle. The town itself is small, but quaint. Enough tourist activities without drawing the winter crowds. I wouldn’t recommend traveling out of your way to go, but that said there are diehards that have been going back year after year.

      • I’m still looking for that undiscovered corner of Mexico that’s worth visiting but not overrun with tourists (don’t worry, I see the irony in that statement as I know I’m a tourist too! 🙂 ).

        I had high hopes for San Miguel but it felt a little too much like a playground for Canadians and Americans (though their actual playground was really impressive and the kids loved it!).

        • Amanda

          Right next door – one hour west from San Miguel – we loved Guanajuato. Colorful, hilly but still walkable. College town with cafes, restaurants, giant trees, interesting architecture… I’d love to go back there someday!

          Puerto Escondido is a coastal town that’s harder to get to, so I think it keeps many tourists away. It’s the weekend getaway spot for people that live inland in Oaxaca. Several beautiful beaches to swim at, surfing at different levels, restaurants, shops, cute hotels…

          So much travel to look forward to in the future!

          • Oh, we loved Guanajuato! We only took a day trip there from San Miguel (spent 2 weeks in San Miguel). I wish we would have spent 2 weeks in Guanajuato and taken a day trip or two to SMA.

            We didn’t make it down to Puerto Escondido last summer (spent 2 weeks in Oaxaca City instead). I read good things about Puerto Escondido. Maybe next time! 🙂

  • Mark G

    Beautiful photos of beautiful places! Thanks for sharing.

    I think you’ve already gone through Merida, but just fyi there is a large limestone mosaic sculpture on the end of a long avenue north of the cathedral. It was designed and built by the grandfather of one of the process engineers here!

    Happy travels!

    • Amanda

      No way! That’s super interesting. Sorry we missed it! Have a great weekend, Mark!

  • Alex Kramer

    Hey that’s funny I was at Palenque on Monday. We also went to another ruin which was huge and virtually empty, Tonina near Ocosingo. I am recently FIREd and on a sailing trip. I used buses and combi taxis for transport from the Pacific side (Puerto Chiapas) to the ruins. They are great once you accept the fact the drivers are crazy and you could die at any moment. I’ve followed your blog since the beginning.

    • Travis

      Nice! I briefly considered getting into sailing after FIRE, but the steep learning curve, intense boat maintenance requirements and high cost of ownership pushed us towards driving Bruno around instead. I’d love to learn more about your setup. Where has your trip taken you so far?

      • Alex Kramer

        I feel the same way about sailboats and also my wife is seasick prone, which is why I’m crewing on someone else’s boat. Actually we have been stuck two weeks at my starting point in Puerto Chiapas due to weather however we are heading Sourh this morning after the port captain arrives to stamp passports. I have a blog at firedthejob.com.

  • David

    Hey I really like tracking your progress. Would be nice to know how this scary economy has been affecting you guys. Have you had to make any changes yet? How has your net worth been affected? Its been scary enough for us who are still accumulating, I can imagine it would be a different experience for those who have already begun the independent life. Looking forward to hearing some financial updates as well as your trip updates.

    • Travis

      Hey David! Our portfolio is currently around $900,000. At the end of each month we check the portfolio balance and then project our budget for the upcoming month based on 3% of our portfolio. With the market drops we’ve tightened our belts a bit, and the main thing we’ve changed is that we’re camping more than we were before to reduce spending.

      Next month (March) will be one whole year since we quit our jobs and started traveling, and I’ll probably post more detail on our finances then.