Meet the crew! These are some of the awesome longhorns I got to share my travel experience with!
It’s Semana Santa, or Holy Week here in Mexico, which for many, means the time to travel and spend time with friends and family! In March my friends and I gathered around the kitchen table at Adela’s house and bought our plane tickets to Cancun. I had never seen the beaches of Mexico before and was so excited to have the chance to play tourist for the week. Stuffing our duffle bags with swimsuits and chanclas (flip flops/sandals), we boarded an early flight to Cancun.
Upon our arrival to the Cancun airport, we purchased a bus ticket that would take us into the actual city. The airport is about a half an hour outside of downtown Cancun. From the bus terminals, Arturo helped us hail a taxi and we bused down to Puerto Juarez, where we could purchase ferry tickets to reach Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. About a half an hour later we were sailing! We found seats on the top deck of the ferry and cruised toward Isla Mujeres. The wind and splashes of salt water were accompanied by smooth saxophone and smiles.
Once we found our airbnb in Isla Mujeres, we were able to explore the island a little more. Two minutes away from our house we discovered a small, isolated beach, free from the tourist rush and with the most turquoise water I had seen in my life. Packing turkey sandwiches and Chips (sabor fuego of course), we camped out for the day.
Towards the evening, we taxied north to Playa Norte, which is THE beach to visit on Isla Mujeres. Arturo told us that there were fish where we’d be swimming so we packed some saltines to feed them! After a trek across pure white sand, we found the pools where the fish were. Crowds of people offered cracker crumbs and huge fish would leap out of the water for a nibble. Before we had our own dinner, we decided to dry off a bit and lay out on the beach to see the sunset. The next day we would travel to Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen was HOT! Being from San Antonio, I’m used to the heat but not the humidity! Thankfully, we were able to explore the beaches and shopping centers. Truthfully, I felt like I was in a mini-America. Most people would speak to me in English instead of Spanish and there were a lot of tourists from other countries visiting. One thing that struck me was that many stores accepted US dollars. My friends and I carried pesos but I was floored that the region was touristy enough that it would accept tinder from another country? My friends and I were confused sometimes as vendors would offer us what we thought was an incredible low price in pesos only to find out they had been bargaining in terms of USD the whole time!!
After spending the first evening exploring the Frida Kahlo Museum in Playa del Carmen, we took another ferry to Cozumel for a day trip. Initially the group got split up due to a small ticket fiasco. Arturo and I sailed to Cozumel and checked out different car rental options/ restaurant choices while Nicky, Adela, and Bella caught the next ferry over. The group reunited at a local restaurant a few blocks inland. The food was cheap, local, and absolutely delicious! Afterwards, we rented a little car for the day to go beach hopping down the coast of Cozumel. For an automatic car we paid 800 pesos which divided amongst the 5 of us and converted to USD translates to about $8 per person. I had never rented a car before, much less in Spanish! It felt really great to be able to navigate a contract and ask clarifying questions in my second language! Key in hand, Arturo drove while Nicky took shotgun and DJed. Cruising down the coast, Adela, Bella, and I vibed to Bad Bunny (Caro) in the back seat.
Some of the beaches at Cozumel are rockier, though the views are just as stunning. We eventually ended up at Playa San Martin, which very well could be my favorite beach from the whole trip. We all floated out and drifted to the pattern of the waves. The water was the color of glassy turquoise. Afterwards, we piled back into the car to see the Mayan ruins the island hosts, but we had missed closing by 15 minutes. (The ruins close at a very specific 4:45?) We decided to try our luck finding a good restaurant back towards the city. We eventually found a great little taqueria that had excellent camarones empanizados (breaded shrimp) and camarones con ajo (garlic shrimp). I do everything in my power to avoid seafood but I knew I had to try some while we were at the coast! Pushing aside my pickiness, we feasted on tacos, tortas, and horchata!
Returning to our airbnb in Playa del Carmen, our next task was to figure out how to best travel to our next stop, Tulum. All week we had passed by white vans lining the streets called colectivos. Many of them offered ride services to Cancun and Tulum. Initially, we tossed the idea of taking one to Tulum aside, as they looked crowded and we had luggage. After a lot of back and forth about taking a bus, renting a car, or taking a colectivo, we finally decided to ask! Arturo spoke with the men running the colectivos and we found out that we could take our suitcases with us and pay a fare of 45 pesos ($2.50) for the hour long trip south to Tulum. The bus cost nearly triple! The worst that could happen is that the collectivos would charge us two fares to cover the space being taken up by our bags, but they never did! The colectivos cruised down the highway, picking up resort workers and traveling tourists alike, dropping them off at the different luxury hotels and resorts that lined the path to Tulum.
Once in Tulum, we decided to visit one of their famous cenotes, or springs. Paying a few dollar entry fee, we discovered a huge natural spring with bright blue (and refreshingly cold!) water. In the first one we visited, you could dive under the water to see a seemingly endless underground cave. Meanwhile, above water, people could zipline across the cenote to jump in while others floated contently. Making our way home early, we set our alarms for 6am so that we could make a day trip to one of the 7 wonders of the world – Chichen Itza!
We had a car by 8am – the catch? The car rental service only had cars with standard shift! Bella got voluntold that she’d drive us to the ruins; nobody else knew how to drive stick shift. We piled into the car, and without hesitating, Bella shifted into first and we were on our way. Three hours and one mean parallel park job later, we made it to Chichen Itza! My friend that had visited a few days before told me that students attending Mexican schools/universities had free entry. After presenting our IDs and letters of acceptance to ITESM we were finally in!
I was in awe. The pyramid was huge and so well preserved. I was so eager to investigate each side of the structure and admire the architectural feats of the Mayans. The grounds of the ruins have much more than just the pyramid, there is also a court for the ball game played by Mayan warriors (sometimes in life or death scenarios). I couldn’t believe how big the court was. The circular goals were posted 25 feet above ground! The bases of the stone walls still had intricate carvings of the Mayan gods and goddesses and I wished I knew what they said. After walking through the ruins, Nicky and I spent hours speaking to the local vendors selling their artisan crafts. Many of these vendors are Mayan. One man named Jacinto, showed us his beautiful mask carvings. He told us that before 2005, people could climb up Chichen Itza and that inside of the pyramid, there was a smaller pyramid and a cenote! After being named a world heritage site, all of this was closed off for preservation efforts. He explained to us that the name “Chichen Itza” has significance in the Mayan language and refers to honoring the God of Water, Chac. You can see the face of the water God Chac at the very top of the pyramid. He told us that he had been coming to Chichen Itza with his family since he was 5 years old and that all of his family members only spoke Maya. He offered us a crash course lesson on Maya 101 and we were eager to imitate the unfamiliar sounds and phrases. He told us that the sounds in Maya are actually quite similar to those in English and was elated to guide us through a basic conversation. His phrases included: “Good Morning”. “I’m hungry,” and perhaps most appropriately, “beautiful”, because that’s exactly what our conversation and our trip to Chichen Itza were – beautiful. Nicky and I bought a few of the mini Chichen Itza statues to take home. The woman selling them to me gave me a good deal “because I spoke Spanish”. I thanked her and thought the about amount of tourists she must see each day that she might have to negotiate with in a language that is not her own! By speaking Spanish and overcoming the nerves that come with speaking, I was able to learn so much more about Chichen Itza and really connect to the culture of the area. I was left wanting to know so much more and wishing I spoke more Maya!
As we walked back to the car, desperate for some AC, Arturo found a cenote that was close by that would definitely cool us off! Bella threw the car into reverse, only to launch us forward. We all froze. We couldn’t get the car into reverse?? Bella had enough room so that she was able to inch out of the parking space, but now we were in the middle of the main thoroughfare to get to Chichen Itza. The road wasn’t wide enough for the car to completely turn around; we’d have to back up. The edges of the road slanted down into ditches where more cars were parked so putting the car into “reverse” and rushing forward meant that we would crash. We all realized we’d have to push. As oncoming traffic became an issue, we flung ourselves out of the car and burned our hands on the dark metal hood of the car as we pushed it back onto the road. Howling, we scrambled back into the car and made our way to Cenote Ik Kil.
We found a parking spot here we could pull through to exit (and not worry about backing up) and made our way to the ticket booth. After cramming an (almost) impossible number of backpacks, bags, and shoes into a single locker, we finally dove into the cenote. The spring was crowned by a halo of vines and flowers that led us to cool blue waters crested with trickling waterfalls. The cenote was 150 ft deep and every now and again a ray of sunlight would peek through. We floated until our hunger became stronger than our love for the water.
On the car ride home we pulled over at a small restaurant, where I finally got to try cochinita pibil, a plate the Yucatan is famous for. Cochinita Pibil is a marinated pulled pork that was served to us with ample corn tortillas, rice, black beans, salsa and red onions. I cleared my whole plate!
The next morning, we started our voyage back to Cancun. We were able to take a colectivo from Tulum to Playa del Carmen and another from Playa del Carmen to Cancun. Once settled in our Airbnb, we got some rest for our flight home to Queretaro the next day. Having the opportunity to travel during Semana Santa was absolutely wonderful. Beyond stepping out of my routine of schoolwork and projects, I was able to use all of the Spanish I’ve learned to help figure out the logistics of a vacation that was jam packed with activities and new destinations! Working with my friends, we were able to not only figure out but enjoy all of the new people and environments we encountered. Despite small challenges and the unfamiliarity of the situations we were thrown into, we learned to keep exploring.
This post was contributed by Paige Johnson, a 2019 Global Ambassador majoring in International Relations and Global Studies.
Don’t get left behind. Read more about Paige’s experience in Mexico>>