Traditions, folklore, colours, importance of family and relatives, hundreds of legends, Mayan (and Aztec) ancestral roots of deep healing energy and the somehow laid-back and chill-out atmosphere – all that is Mexico, a truly magical land…
Pueblos Magicos, Hammocks and Mexican Music
If you’ve visited Mexico before, you’ve probably heard about Pueblos Magicos, towns that have strong symbolic attributes in history, culture and nature. It’s not easy to become one of them, a long list of requirements would apply and a committee needs to review the request.
Many of these “magical towns” are located in the state of Quintana Roo (known for the Caribbean and holiday destinations such as Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum) and Yucatán (best known for the beautiful town of Valladolid and one of the Seven New Wonders, Chichen Itzá) both situated on the Yucatan peninsula. I road-tripped through both the states and must say I couldn´t have chosen two better destinations for myself as I love water and the peninsula is washed by the turquoise Caribbean on one side and the green and captivating Gulf of Mexico on the other and there are many beautiful cenotes all around, more even in Yucatán state than Quintana Roo.
My Couchsurfing host, with whom I spent almost two weeks before I moved on to an Airbnb place near the downtown of Cancún, Oscar Joe, was super cool and no wonder he became my life-long friend during the time we spent together; we´ve travelled around a lot and he also invited me to his family in his home town – Kantunilkín. The family has a direct Mayan connection, so I experienced the pib, a traditional Mayan way of cooking in a hole in the ground, learned to make tortillas on a stone furnace (and open fire) and even found out what I am in the Mayan calendar.
Joe also enlightened me on the existence of biodegradable (BDG) sunscreens (bought in Wallmart for circa 170 pesos) as in some of the cenotes no sunscreens or only biodegradable ones are allowed due to the ecosystems present. I believe that BDG sunscreens are better also for the marine wildlife so I shall keep on using these merely.
It didn’t matter that sometimes I had to sleep on the floor (as I can’t sleep in a hammock, which is very common for the locals who might prefer a hammock to a bed, especially on scorching hot nights – one needs to understand that babies are being rocked to sleep in a hammock from their tiny weeny age, so there is simply a very natural feel for the locals about sleeping in a hammock) when we were moving from a place to a place or that Joe´s house was located basically in the jungle so there where insects and birds there that I had never seen before. On the contrary, I enjoyed all these adventures and our evening bonfires and talks in his backyard.
I also got reunited with my spiritual brother Oscar, two months after we got aligned in Cambodia. He took a few days off at the five-star Mexican Riviera hotel where he works now and we went to explore Yucatan together.
Except for all the cenotes, sea waters and Mayan ruins, I shall also keep fond memories of the local cuisine (more on that later) and the music: from Manu Chao´s albums we were listening to in the car with Joe, to the traditional folklore song La Bamba (which became popularized thanks to Ritchie Valens) and Mariachi music, as well as the feelingful cantos of Lila Downs and Costa Rican-born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas – both known from the soundtrack to Frida (the painter is a star in Mexico, especially since the movie was released) – and the street artists who would appear at a restaurant door (typically with their guitar but sometimes also percussions and indigenous instruments) to share a few songs (usually three) for some little contribution.
Cancún – Beaches, Snorkelling and Cenotes
Cancún is a significant tourist destination on the Caribbean Sea. People come here to enjoy their vacation in one of the comfortable hotels in the “Zona Hotelera”. The town is located just a few kilometres north of Mexico’s Caribbean coast resort band known as the Riviera Maya – the Mexican Riviera.
Even if you are not staying in one of the hotels, you are allowed access to most Cancún´s beaches (not the ones on the Riviera stretch though). They are stunningly beautiful and well-kept with turquoise blue waters, white sand (sometimes little rocks too) and rich marine life which makes these waters perfect for snorkelling.
A few of my favourites that I can recommend would be Gaviota Azul (more commonly known as Forum Mall Beach) with breakwater rock-barrier (so suitable for kids too), Caracol (for those who do not mind louder music and pool party noises coming from the nearby hotels) and Marlin beach for those who like it wavy – the waves are big!
Beautiful beaches are also to be found in the nearby town of Puerto Morelos where you can snorkel over the “Ojo de Agua” (Eye of Water), a tiny cenote that was created right in the sea. I personally did not like the beaches (or the town) of Playa del Carmen though…
If you are keen on colourful exotic fauna, you might appreciate the cormorants, pelicans, seagulls and even gannets flying around and above the beaches.
For those of you who dream of a beach wedding – the chain of Riu Palace Hotels arranges weddings right on the Caracol beach (and possibly elsewhere). In half an hour you can be wedded – I mean, if you fancy a very basic civil ceremony in scorching hot sun with reproduced music and solarized wedding photographs. The person carrying out the ceremony will probably try to shout over the voice of the sea using a microphone and might even mangle your names a little (which he had read for the first time shortly before the ceremony or at the time of it happening), but after all, you can always exclaim: “I got married in the Caribbean!” (You would be surprised how many Americans especially are interested in this kind of wedding.)
In Cancún, you also find the lagoon of Nichupté – though its waters look pretty welcoming in certain areas, it is not advisable to swim in there (except for, probably, Sigfrido Channel near the salty sea waters around El Embarcadero and Calinda Bridge) as there are alligators living there! There is a nice promenade along the lagoon in the area of Malecón where you can cycle or roller-skate or go jogging.
Quintana Roo (esp. the area around Cancún) and Yucatan are popular for their cenotes (flooded pools of karst origin). Sometimes, they are open, sometimes they are found in caves with blown ceilings. Cenotes in Mexico are purely of natural origin and you can bathe in most of them. Some have a very favourable entrance fee of around 100 pesos (e.g. Popol Vuh, Azul, Xkeken or Samula), elsewhere the entry climbs up to 250 or even 300 pesos.
The oldest cenotes are completely open and the younger still keep their dome intact to this day. Like other geomorphological formations, cenotes are transient and can end up clogged and dried.
There are places where you can find a sea beach as well as a cenote right next to each other – just like e.g. at Punta Esmeralda. Those cenotes are called “halocline”. The sea salt water mixes in them with fresh water, creating some amazing visual effects.
In some places you can even feel the spring of the cenote´s fresh water going up – an awesome experience indeed.
The most famous cenote in Mexico is the Well of Sacrifice in Chichen Itzá, where human sacrifices were performed. Many believe that the waters in the cenotes have healing effects though and that the cenotes themselves are sacred places. However, when you see how some tourists treat them, bringing their beer cans in, shouting in the caves, competing in silly little swim races, you might get a different impression…
Nonetheless, the cenotes are associated with Xibalba, the underworld in K’iche‘ Maya mythology (in the Popol Vuh narrative described as a court below the surface of the Earth), ruled by the Maya death gods and their helpers.