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2013 and earlier

On the trail of the Maya

Travel writer James Tennet reports from Mexico at the beginning of a trip due to include up to 16 countries over at least 9 months.

I had no fixed idea of where I would go, or how long it would take, but one thing was certain: it would all begin in Cancún.

And so, with at least nine months to play with and armed with a vague plan to learn Spanish, travel right across Central America and onwards to South America, I arrived at my very first stop. I was met by a cliché of paradise: powdery, bleached-white sand, caressed by a warm, clear sea that starts off a crisp, brilliant turquoise at the shore before gradually turning into deep blue ocean. The water is so inviting, it's impossible to even spend a few minutes at the shore without being lured in for at least one quick dip.

The only catch in Cancún is that the seafront is dominated by high-rise, luxury resorts that release thousands of tourists onto the beach as soon as the sun comes up. The good news though is that these developments disappear as you leave the bigger cities, but the picture-perfect beaches remain.

We wasted no time in exiting Cancún, and spent the next two nights 100km south at the much smaller coastal town of Tulum. Tulum is famous for its Mayan ruins – not the biggest or most impressive of these structures (which are found all over the region) but they can definitely boast the number one location. Set on a cliff-top overlooking the ocean, you can visit the ruins in your swimsuit and use the beach that is hidden within the temple complex. Splashing about in the idyllic Caribbean Sea, with these ancient stone structures as a backdrop is a wonderfully surreal experience.

Next port of call was a place called Valladolid, about 100km inland from Tulum. We broke up the journey by stopping en route to spend a couple of hours exploring more ancient Mayan temples at Coba. These ruins are spread over a much larger area than Tulum, and surrounded by lush, green forest rather than sparkling, blue sea. The main attraction here is the fact that you can climb to the top of the tallest structure (Nohoch Mul – at 42m high, only 3m below the tallest remaining temple on the Yucatan peninsula). The view from the top really is breathtaking; thick jungle fanning out in all directions as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by a couple of lagoons and interspersed with the tips of other nearby temples.

Valladolid is slightly off the main tourist trail (especially when compared to frenetic Cancún!). The city moves at a more 'Mexican' pace – locals will lounge for hours in the cool, shaded town plaza, and those who are on the move saunter, slowly. The streets themselves are laid out in a typical Spanish-colonial grid system lined with beautiful, small houses painted in a variety of soft pastel shades – everywhere you look the sun is reflecting off blocks of blue, red, yellow and green. It's a lovely place in which to just wander for a few hours, skipping between slices of shade to avoid the relentless sun overhead. When the heat got too much even for just walking around, we copied the locals and returned to the hostel for a couple of hours' siesta in a hammock... there are worst ways to spend your days!

Another reason to stay in Valladolid is that the jewel in Mexico's Mayan crown is only 45 minutes up the road. Chichén Itzá is one of the official Modern Wonders of the World (along with other such must-see global attractions as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China). The main structure here - El Castillo - is one of the best-restored in the country and therefore less of a 'ruin' than the sites we'd visited previously. It's also the most photographed and famous of all Mexico's tourist sights – you will most likely have seen a picture somewhere of this iconic pyramid; rising to 25 metres in height, with long stairways dissecting the nine platforms on each of the four sides (the pyramid is actually a giant Maya calendar with each of the steps, terraces and panels adding up to a significant number relating to the Mayan year). The site is impressive enough even without this knowledge – especially if you arrive as early as we did and are lucky enough to gaze in awe at Chichén's grandeur without the annoyance of over-sized tour groups spoiling the view.

We rose early again on our final morning in Valladolid and hired bicycles to go and explore two other nearby attractions, Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samula. Cenotes are natural, underground sinkholes – a uniquely Yucatean geological feature, and one revered by the ancient Maya. In total there are about 3,000 across the peninsula; traditionally used by locals to gather fresh drinking water, but with many now open for tourists to swim, snorkel and scuba dive inside. Some are fully exposed to the surface, while others can only be reached by tunnelling down into the earth. The two we visited were of the latter variety, and both required a short descent down twisting stone staircases. We weren't disappointed by what we found inside. The passageways widened slowly before suddenly opening into a vast, subterranean world – the cool, swimmable freshwater (already occupied by hundreds of fish) was irresistible after our 8km bike ride in the sticky Mexican heat. Both caves were artificially lit by constantly-changing, coloured lights, which looked very nice, but I asked for them to be switched off. This allowed the cavernous space to be illuminated only by the shafts of sunlight that were piercing through the holes in the earth's surface overhead, creating a magical effect and a swimming environment like no other!

After the non-stop movement of my first week in Mexico, I decided it was time for some relaxation. With that in mind, Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) seemed the perfect candidate for our next stop. Lying just off the coast of Cancún, it's a very cool, chilled-out island where not much really happens; days were spent frolicking in the sea (astonishingly beautiful, again!) and nights drinking cocktails at the beach bar way into the early hours. Let's just say my introduction to Latin America has been tolerable so far...

This extract is taken from James Tennet's travel blog:
James has also guest-written our latest top 5: Mayan ruins of Mexico: Mayan ruins of Mexico

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