In ancient times everything on this territory was ruled by numbers as the Mayan God was a mathematician. Simultaneously the end of the world happened regularly. The cycle was 352 years, then life was over. The Maya left perfectly built cities and in a new place began everything from scratch. So, in Mexico, plenty of these huge abandoned Mayan settlements remain. When Europeans came and brought Christianity, the new religion abolished the reoccurring end of the world and “canceled” the final one but at the expense of the established order. Consequently, much of Mexico’s history since then has been a search for its own identity and stability as the region has seen chaos in many forms, including safety issues. However, one local told us Mexico is like Chicago, while you’re in a tourist zone – you’re safe and it seems to be true.
So here is a tale, which consists a combination of our own comfortable vacation and of our child’s visit with his limited budget.
How to get there and where to stay
Cancun has the second-largest airport in the country. Perfectly built, modern, well-designed logistics and accepting countless international flights daily. To arrive from northern and southern America no problems at all and the cost is relatively low. There are plenty of other international flights too.
For our traveling students, basic round-trip tickets from Chicago during the Christmas holidays cost $340 per person, and they could have been cheaper if they planned trip faster.
In our case, we bought a “bundle” from Expedia $1,267 for two people, which included 5 nights in a five-star hotel, a round trip tickets and an airport shuttle.
The student’s hostel in the center of the city cost $12 per night and the bus from the airport was $5. By the way, the buses in Mexico are modern, well-equipped (electronic destination sign, air conditioning etc.), they run often and on schedule and tickets can be bought online. So, buses are absolutely a wonderful option for traveling, including around the country.
If the bus is not an option for you, book the shuttle to the hotel in advance because the feel of a Turkish bazaar remains in this era of modernism with its unending and interesting propositions on the way to the exit.
The best area to stay in Cancun is the Hotel Zone, 10 minutes from the airport. There are beautiful beaches and absolutely luxurious hotels, with the choices not only for the price or content, but also for the style of visit – hotels for adults only, for young people who like parties, for families with children, there are also huge new housing complexes where you can book Airbnb. Also keep in mind that this is not the only option – between Cancun and Tulum (almost 2 hours’ drive) – the coast is continually filled with absolutely magnificent huge hotel complexes, planned in such a way that you may not have any reason to go beyond the territory.
For students and young people, hostels are a great option, not only because of inexpensive stay, but also it provides a great opportunity to meet new people and open communication. Our students met great companions for traveling – also students, but from Switzerland.
Few people need one, because tourism is a very important income for the country. For people from a country with visa requirement but who have US visa – this is enough. The only thing you should take care of – do not lose the immigration card filled on the entry, otherwise you could have the situation like our student – he had to pay a $50 fee but also had adventures as a bonus – trying to pay when they do not accept payment by credit cards.
You can pay by US dollars, but it is better to exchange your currency into pesos (rate 1 USD to 20). Probably the most convenient way to do it is your hotel because the places to exchange are infrequent and you need a passport (although there are semi-legal exchange points, which will exchange currency at a lower rate without any documents). And yes, in Mexico it is always better to have a cash, because even if there are payment terminals, they very often do not work.
Another problem – people sometimes tried to cheat. Our student, because of his young age and inattention, ran into this problem when trying to pay with a big banknote. We never had such a problem, but I would recommend pay attention and have small bills.
All tourist zones are guarded not only by the police, but also by the army and hotels have their own large security staff. Our child was a little shocked by the constant check points with seriously armed people. To navigate through all this may not be the most comfortable thing, but it definitely makes everything safer. Moreover, when the security forces see tourists – they try to help, speak, congratulate, give you water – so that is an interesting experience.
What to do
First of all, it is of course the beaches. The beaches are beautiful, it is just a paradise. Water of the Caribbean Sea is always warm, crystal clear, deep enough to swim comfortably with good professional lifeguards, who don’t bother anyone without reason. Compared with the US, where you will be chased by a few if you swim a little further then 20 meters from the shore. I finally could swim with pleasure. And oh yeah, the views are just incredible.
There is also a bunch of different types of entertainment in Cancun, such as theme parks (water parks, zip lining etc.), safari, a dolphin zone (you can swim with them) and much more. I did not completely find out the whole list, what is very infrequently situation for me. We decided to do experiment and try diving, especially because in the coastal zone people created an underwater museum – they drove a car and parked in under water and created all kinds of sculptures and scattered them on the sea floor. These sculptures have become very popular for different kind of fishes and turtles, so you get double the value. For this particular diving you do not need to have a license – the tour company provides you with a special training, the dive is not long and deep, so for beginners this is a great option and you can decide if you like such adventure. We booked our diving at Caribbean Connection https://caribbeanconnection.mx/ – they have great professional instructors and perfect service. The usual cost is $180 per person, it includes equipment, training in the pool and two diving with the instructor, a small breakfast and lunch and a boat to the diving spot. It takes a whole day. Additionally, you have to pay $20 cash for the national park’s entrance and $20 for professional photos under the water (optional).
In our case, our tour was almost paid by our hotel. Even more, we also received from hotel 20% discount for food, $100 discount on accommodation and pretty good bonus points to our rewards account. The total savings for us was about $400, mostly because we listened to a one-and-a-half-hour lecture about how Marriott develops their time share property network and partially because there were issues with my husband’s Marriot status.
Of the cultural sites that must be visited and well known for sure – it is ruins of the Maya and cenotes.
The Mayan ruins are many, different kinds, the most famous in this part of the country – the national archaeological park in Tulum and Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is probably the most famous and most visited place in all of Mexico. It is a huge ancient Mayan city, which is perfectly preserved. Maya believed that they planed their cities to be a reflection of the structure of the universe, so everything was built according to Math and Astronomy, with interesting acoustic effects. The territory for tourist’s visits is limited – the main pyramid (in fact there are 7 pyramids one inside another), the stadium (the origin of the famous Harry Potter’s game is right here), the bazaar, the temples for sacrifices, and a couple other buildings. With a 15-minute walk you can see an observatory. Everything else is closed for the visitors – the scientists are working there.
I highly recommend taking the guide – the legends within the ruins remain silent without a somebody making them come alive with incredible stories. With a guide, you can skip the entrance line, which is almost as long as the one at the Vatican. The cost of entrance is 481 pesos per person (24 dollars). In the ticket office you can only pay 406 pesos with a credit card the rest has to be paid in cash. If you have cash, you can pay for the park fee and guide service at the special booking station (near ticket office). The guide costs 1000 pesos (50 dollars) but also only in cash. I recommend buying tickets online, and on the spot without a line and problems to book a guide service. Website for additional information and purchase of entrance tickets: https://www.chichenitza.com/
Our children took an excursion from Cancun ($50 per person), which included transport, a guide, a visit to the town of Valadolid and Chichen Itza (entrance + guide). They were terribly frustrated, and that is an understatement because of the service level. They were picked up by the excursion company from the hostel at 7 am, and until 12 pm they were packed in some awkward room as the company’s staff tried to understand which group was supposed to go where. In Valadolid, they were given just 20 minutes to walk around, and in Chichen Itza they had just 1 hour, which is almost nothing. Through my research, I have learned that many of the excursion companies in Mexico operate in this style. Some people complain that they buy the tour (including through the hotel), and then provider simply disappear in the unknown direction – sad situation when the day is ruined and the money cannot be refunded. So be careful.
We rented a car. Also, not without adventure. We originally booked an Alamo car through Expedia and the cost was a mind blowing $1 plus insurance. Unfortunately, after a $30 cab ride, my husband and the taxi driver could not find the rental office, so we had to rent a car from our hotel for $80 per day and it was manual. So, the first hour of the driving was a special pleasure until my husband finally remembered how to change gears on the car. Later, as a result of a half-hour conversation with Expedia, they compensated us $100 for this incident. Our children were much more lucky. One of their university friends, originally from Mexico, rented a car without a problem, so they could comfortably stroll around during two days, paying together only for gas and toll (385 pesos or $15.75 (cash no credit cards) one way on the way to Chichen Itza). Probably locals can handle it much better than us.
So the children returned to Valadolid and were able to wander there – the town has a very unique architecture, an interesting history and also the remains of the Mayan buildings (temples, houses, etc.).
We on the way back from Chichen Itza, in addition to Valadolid, visited 2 cenotes.
Cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. In Mexico there are around 6,000 cenotes. Each is unique and different from others. Some of them are great for snorkeling, because there are fish and turtles (Grand cenote), others great for diving (Dos Ojos), some interesting for jumping (cenote Calavera) others are just beautiful and it is a pleasure to swim. In any case, they are something that you must experience. Most of them have an entrance fee and contain some kind of infrastructure (houses, where you can stay, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc.). We paid on average $3-5, only Dos Ojos was $17.5 per person. However, there are also free ones. Working hours for most of them is only until 4 pm. There are a couple of blogs with more details:
Tulum is the port city of the ancient Maya, directly on the seafront which was active for centuries, slightly different from the spiritual cities which was abandoned every 352 years. The entrance cost is 40 pesos per person ($2), parking 100 pesos ($5). Details are available here http://www.tulumruins.net/
The children got here by bus from Cancun for $10 and stayed here for one more day, during which they visited nearby cenotes and another Mayan town Coba. Coba’s claim to fame is the largest network of stone causeways in the ancient Mayan world, called sacbes (white roads). Over 50 of these roads have been discovered at the site, with 16 of them open to the public. The raised stone pathways connect clusters of residential areas to the main pyramid area of Nohoch Mul and small lakes used as a water supply nearby. It is a 30-minute drive from Tulum by taxi (about 500 pesos ($25) or on a bus for $3 with a 5-minute walk to the entrance. The entrance to the ruins is 55 pesos ($3).
This is actually all that we did in our 5 days, and our students in their 9th—well except beach time.
What else I can mention – buy a sunscreen in advance, you will be definitely need it because of extremely powerful sun, and in Mexico, a small bottle of sunscreen will cost you $20. Drink only bottled water, because you can get into an unpleasant story. The cost for the bottle is a half-dollar and you will be definitely safe. The same thing with street food – don’t try it. Our student felt it, barely flew to the home and then for almost a week suffered as he got well.
So, be careful and unforgettable visit will be guaranteed for you. We are certainly going to come back again.