Believe it or not, Mexico was not actually my first choice. An island of communism in a largely capitalist hemisphere, it was Cuba that has long been on my list of dream destinations. That hardly comes as a surprise. Cuba’s beaches are the usual Caribbean paradise; the food is heavenly and the nightlife second to none. Many also believe that Cuba’s atmospheric socialist touch will not last for much longer than its ageing leader, Fidel Castro.
In short, I absolutely had to visit.
The preparations for my planned Cuban adventure began in spring 2010. I had looked up the respective flights for the autumn. I had bought the Lonely Planet guide. I had asked some friends for tips. I had sketched a fortnight-long itinerary.
And it was when I had almost booked the flights that it became clear I could not go to Cuba in the autumn. The good first half of the autumn is the Caribbean hurricane season, felt vividly on a narrow stretch of land planted right in the middle of the sea – all that is Cuba.
Cuba was thus more of a spring destination. As for the autumn, I urgently needed a replacement, and, preferably, a close one. Where could I go?
After countless references ranging from Alaska to Australia (didn’t I say a close replacement?), somebody suggested Mexico. My familiarity with Mexico was back then little more than the soap operas broadcast profusely in parts of the former Soviet Union in the early days of freedom. Was Mexico really that interesting? Cactuses and tequila sprang to mind. I was not entirely convinced and even went as far as revitalising that crazy Alaska option.
But my initial scepticism about Mexico evaporated fast. Brisk examination revealed a hidden gem: the country boasted enough diversity to satisfy even the pickiest of visitors. From beaches to jungle, from paradise diving spots to remote artisan villages, from ruins of civilisations long gone to buzzing megalopolises – Mexico was special and deserved a closer introduction. Not even the fact that its Caribbean coast was, too, exposed to hurricanes (although to a lesser degree than Cuba) could convince me otherwise. The questionable honour of hosting yours truly on a holiday was pompously awarded to Mexico.
Trip planning for Mexico was not particularly difficult. I decided not to reinvent the wheel (as in go camping in some remote jungle next to the Guatemalan border, say) and to stick to the routes previously paved. In other words, I largely copied one of my colleagues’ time-tested itinerary.
The plan was to start with a few lazy days on the beach (though, knowing myself, I was very sceptical about how “lazy” those would really be), mix in some quality Mayan and Aztec ruins, experience inland Mexico’s nature as well as mountain towns – and culminate in at least one closing day back on the coast. A simple enough journey for two weeks.
I was looking for bargain flight deals to anywhere in Mexico when, as if by magic, Thomson Airways advertised a direct charter link from London to Cancun. The latter pretty much impersonating all that is beach culture in Mexico, it was an appropriate start and finish of my holiday. Some are just too lucky in life!
Except, of course, that I was not a big fan of mass tourism and had to stay elsewhere on the Caribbean coast – in the reasonable vicinity of Cancun, but preferably not in the “Snake Pit” itself. The quieter, the better.
After a brief consultation with the mentioned colleague, I disqualified Playa del Carmen (for little else than being a mini-Cancun in disguise) and instead chose the smaller town of Tulum. Located 130 km south of Cancun, Tulum boasts primarily Mexican population and is incomparably quieter than its northern counterparts – with a wonderfully secluded stretch of white sandy beach. Just what every girl needs, right?
Going further, I absolutely had to pay a visit to San Cristobal de las Casas city in Mexico’s south-eastern state of Chiapas. I had heard so much about the colonial feel of this high-altitude settlement – and about the peculiar traditional villages surrounding it – that missing it would have been unforgivable.
Unfortunately, road distances in Mexico are no joke. There are a whopping 900 km between Tulum and San Cristobal. I needed a stopover. My eyes fell on Palenque, a well-known Mayan site some 745 km southwest of Tulum. It looked like a promising stop, both thanks to the ruins and the beautiful waterfalls nearby. There was a direct overnight bus from Tulum to Palenque, too. Palenque it thus was.
From Palenque, I would take a 6-hour bus to San Cristobal de las Casas, where I could easily spend three days. Where to next?
Where else but Oaxaca, undisputedly one of Mexico’s most interesting cities? My absolute travel guru, dudado, has spent some time in Oaxaca and given spiritual guidance on the city in her blog. As a good follower, I could only nod in obedience and quietly duplicate. Oaxaca was going to be my next stop.
So much enthusiasm was going into my route planning that I had lost every sense of distance. It was certainly a good idea to return to Cancun for my inbound flight to London – but Oaxaca would already be 2,000 km away from my departure airport. In other words, double the distance between Malaga and Barcelona!
Taking a bus all the way back would be a 24h+ suicide. Passenger railways are close to extinct in Mexico. What I needed was a domestic flight; and Mexicana neatly connected Oaxaca with Cancun via Mexico City for mere 150 US dollars.
Perfecto! My route for a 2-week October holiday was ready. And oops, it was only March. I do tend to plan my trips in advance, don’t I.
(Continued in “Part II: Yucatan”)