The Yucatan Peninsula lies between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It is made up of the states Quintana Roo and Yucatan. I spent a week exploring this region including the coastal city of Playa del Carmen, the colonial town of Valladolid, as well as several smaller villages in the Yucatan Jungle and archaeological sites such as Chichen Itza. Here is a list of experiences and things that I learned, saw, and felt during my week on the peninsula.
On the geology:
What does one expect when traveling to a tropical paradise in the midst of a hot summer? Rain, greenery, nature everywhere, heat, and relief from said heat by way of a crystal clear blue ocean. That was pretty much exactly what I experienced, with a bit of a twist to the “crystal clear blue ocean” part.
After a one-hour bus ride from Cancun Airport, I arrived in Playa del Carmen. My first
observations were of the immense greenery in the region. In Mexico, there are so many
different types of trees shooting up from the ground wherever slightly possible. The nature has such an undeniable power and this reminded me quite a lot of my time in the Bahamas, South India, and Thailand. Of course, it is also very humid and this gives way to short spontaneous bursts of downpours.
Rain can fall at any given moment and when it does, the crowds of people walking through avenidas separate within seconds as people run under roofs on either side of the street to wait it out. I guess it could be a scene that mirrors the crossing of the Red Sea? The sweltering heat in the Yucatan Jungle is even more so apparent with the humidity: Temperatures of 47 degrees Celsius and up to 85% humidity.
To take refuge from this heat, any normal person would cool off in the ocean. That’s why I went to Mexico after all. A year ago, I had my first taste of the Caribbean Sea and I was so desperate to swim in its turquoise waters once again. Unfortunately, due to a seaweed infestation that’s been plaguing the area, the beaches are almost un-swimmable. When you approach the beaches in Playa del Carmen, the water appears pitch black and it is absolute torture because you can see the cerulean blue miles out into the horizon. Unfortunately, any water close to the shore is completely saturated with seaweed. In addition, it smells horrific.
One day, I even walked for three hours hand-over-nose in search for one spot free of gunk but alas, I did not succeed. I thought of taking the bus to another city on the Riviera May – Cancun perhaps Tulum. But as they are all on the same coast, they all face the same problem.
My short-term fix to this selfish problem was swimming in cenotes (sinkholes that expose natural groundwater) and taking the boat to Cozumel, an island off the coast of Mexico with west coast beaches free from the seaweed surges that are headed for the east coast beaches. Luckily, both the cenote adventure and the trip to Cozumel were so fantastically incredible that they turned me into the happy mermaid I so wanted to be. More on this later!
On 5th Ave:
When I speak of avenidas, I speak of the oh-so-famous 5th Ave. Not the ritzy high-class 5th Ave. of New York City (where I work when I am miserable and not traveling), but of “la quinta avenida” of Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo.
The two cannot be any more different! Nevertheless, I can promise without the slimmest
uncertainty that I much prefer the Mexican version. It’s touristy in its own way because it’s a spirited street and utterly pulsating. Everyone is always smiling and dancing along to the mariachi bands whilst trying not to trip on the potholes. One sees everything from high-end designer stores and restaurants to bodegas and street-market style huts. I spent almost every day walking through the la quinta avenida observing all the colors that paint it profusely.
On the Maya people:
Before this trip, the only associations I held of Maya people were with human-sacrifice and Chichen Itza. Everything that I learned about the Maya people since, originates from conversations with my guide (a Maya man himself) as well as my observations of the people from the villages that we visited during our journey through the jungle.
The indigenous Maya are not considered Mexican as they are native to the land and differ from the average Mexican who has a mixture of African, indigenous, and European blood. According to my guide, Cat, the Maya live in a matriarchal society. You can tell who the respected women are by the dress that they wear – usually a white robe with floral lacing at the edges. You also start to realize that the Maya are very small in stature. They have dark skin and round skulls. According to Cat, the skull shape present today is caused by centuries of artificial cranial deformation that have been ingrained in their genetic makeup. Up until the 60s, Maya babies would undergo skull deformation to elongate and stretch out the skulls. This would make sure that only the fittest babies survived, therefore, creating communities of very strong members.
On the architecture:
The architecture throughout the region is so varied in style and in date. In Playa del Carmen, you can see anything and everything from modern shacks and huts to villas and luxury mansions. Once you start traveling westward and into the Yucatan jungle, the houses become older, much less extravagant, and more spread apart. The rural villages can be described as clusters of stone houses completely surrounded by wilderness.
Valladolid, a 16th-century colonial town in the middle of the jungle, was named after the Spanish city. It translates to “city of Al-Walid” which refers to an Ummayad caliph from the 8th century. Also known as the “Sultana of the East”, Valladolid was built as a Spanish colonial town and has hence been a site of several rebellions by the native Maya people.
When I got out of the bus I had entirely forgotten that I was in Mexico let alone the
Americas. It felt like I was back in Seville or Grenada because of the Spanish architecture and Moorish accents all around. The main cathedral was built under the orders of Isabel and Ferdinand and is supposedly the only church in the world to feature a snake. The scales which can be seen on the façade were added due to its symbolic meaning in Mayan culture.
Chichen Itza takes you back even further – to the 8th century. It is a classic pyramid style ancient settlement that has been remarkably conserved considering how old it is. Rome could have learned a thing or two. It’s hard to describe Chichen Itza because it’s quite a unique place. It’s not particularly beautiful but it does leave you speechless and in awe, because there is so much history. It is also quite unbelievable how much mathematical, astrological, and spiritual symbolism there is in the construction of the main pyramid. Cat was right. It is a verymemotional and moving experience to be surrounded by these ruins. It is utterly peculiar and even eerie… perhaps because the thought of human sacrifices lingers in the hearts and minds of every visitor.
On the cuisine:
Tacos! I had all the tacos. Chicken tacos, beef tacos, fish tacos, shrimp tacos. All the tacos! I had a margarita, sopa de lima, paella, guacamole, and more tacos.
For my last full day in Mexico, I decided to take the boat to Cozumel Island. I had heard from locals that the beaches over there were stunning and so I made the decision to get on a boat and go explore. Cozumel is such an incredible island. It was so tremendously beautiful. It was green, it was turquoise, it was blue, and it was everything that I was looking for on this trip. I had a huge part of the beach entirely to myself and I just spent the afternoon swimming alongside the little fish. The water was so clear, I could see it all. I was filled with so much joy, I wanted to cry. I looked through the pages of my journal because I remember feeling a certain way at this point of the trip. Here is what I wrote:
“I’ve been feeling so blessed this week because I got to experience so much. It has been a solo trip and so I have been able to do a lot of self-reflecting. Thinking about how far I have come in the last three years: All the places I have been, the new friends I have made, the people I have lost. I have never felt this way before and because I am such a pessimist, I tend to focus on the bad that is going on around me but right now I am only feeling blessed. I can’t stop repeating to myself “life is so beautiful”. Not just the perfect moments (like what I’m experiencing right now) but also the harder and sadder moments. They are just small parts of a bigger more beautiful story.”