13 August 2007

Cancun - A backpacker's account

Let's face it. Perhaps the most famous Mexican town/place/spot known to many Indians is Cancun. In fact, before I started for Mexico, most of my friends insisted that I should not return to India without visiting Cancun.

So, after biding my time, I decided to visit Cancun. But, I decided that there would be no fun if I went about the usual touristic way of doing it. You know, the expensive hotels, the partying, and all that jazz. Hence, I decided that this would be a budget trip. A trip that I resolved to document as much as possible, to destroy the myth that you need to have a fat wallet to enjoy your trip in Cancun. Of course, enjoyment is a relative word here.

I was forced to take an airplane to reach Cancun from Monterrey, since Mexico does not have trains, and driving down would take me 24 hours and the tolls for the roads and the fuel would cost you more than flying ! Yeah, Mexico is a strange country indeed. I decided to take the cheapest Mexican airline, Viva Aerobus. A round trip from Monterrey to Cancun will set you back by 2000 pesos (approximately 200USD). Note that this is a budget airline in its realistic sense. You will not be served even a drop of water in the airplane for free (Unless of course, you drink it from the taps in the toilets ;-)) ! I would suggest that you take your own water bottles. I am not sure whether they allow you to take your own food. I did not try it.

So, here follows a day by day account of my Cancun trip.

Day 0: I landed in Cancun airport at around 5.00pm. I had booked myself in Casa Mexico Tipico, a wonderful hostel.

If you are planning a backpacking trip in Cancun, look no further for an economical place to stay. This hostel is run by Hilda Gonzalez, a friendly lady, who also acts as your local point of information. She speaks English too, and has a cute three year old daughter Victoria and a Chihuahua dog for company. The hostel is centrally air conditioned, has clean bed sheets and clean toilets. What more can we ask for ? They also provide a kitchen where you can cook your breakfast/lunch/dinner. It is close to the bus station or Centro De Autobus (around two kilometers). A taxi will cost you 18 pesos. It seems that to go around the center of Cancun town, the flat taxi fare is 18 pesos. So, if you take a taxi to any place within the center of Cancun, bargain for 18 pesos if the driver charges you anything more. The hostel is located in 7, Calle Jabali (pronounced kaye habali) in Avenida Tulum. To get there, ask for Plaza Las Americas on Tulum Avenue. If you are coming from Airport, look for the Volkswagen showroom. Walk one or two blocks in the same direction that you can from Airport, i.e., towards Centro De Autobus, till you see an Oxxo shop in your right. Cross the Tulum Avenue and you would see Calle Jabali in front.


That is a map of Cancun centro, taken from here. To look for Calle Jabali, just look at the road above the "Merida->Xel-ha".


That is the dorm in the Hostel.

We took the ADO bus from Airport to Centro De Autobus costing 35 pesos, and had a nice evening walk to the Hostel from the Centro De Autobus. Since we were a bit hungry, we checked a taco shop just opposite to the bus stand. We had some really tasty tacos costing 8 pesos each. Once we checked in to the hostel, we were given a map and directions to some of the beaches that we can check out, by Hilda. We decided to check out the beach behind Casa Maya in the Zona Hoteleria. To get to the Zona Hoteleria (where all the action happens post 9.00pm ;-)), get to Avenue Xcaret from the hostel and take the R2 bus. The bus costs you 6.50 pesos. Once we hit the beach, except for the the soft sand and the gorgeous color, I was pretty disappointed with the beach. In fact, I was pretty disappointed with all the beaches in Cancun. Granted that they look lovely with the amazing color of the water and the soft sand, but pray where are the waves ? Isn't that supposed to be the major attraction in a beach ? I like my beaches with strong and high waves. Not where the waves are quiet. As my co-traveler Sachin was mentioning, maybe the tourists get scared if they see really high and rough waves ! In fact, I have also been to another beach here in Mexico in a coastal town called Tampico. The waves were pretty quiet even there too. I think it is time to make a trip to the Pacific side of Mexico to check out the waves there !

Anyway, I splashed around for sometime in the beach behind Casa Maya. It was more of a salt water lake, but what the heck. It is a water spot after all ! Once we finished that, we took the R2 bus and reached Avenue Tulum. We decided to check out the restaurant Los Palleta Del Mayor in Avenue Xcaret for dinner. Be warned that it is not easy to get budget dinners in and around Cancun. We were warned by Hilda at the hostel, and hence we were kind of prepared for the prices. A decent fish fillet will set you back by 80 pesos. The salsas here were nice and spicy. A medium Veracruz style seafood & rice was really tasty and set me back by around 80 pesos. For the unknown, Veracruz is another coastal town here in Mexico. It is a different issue that the fish fillet upset Sachin's stomach, but having a black hole for your stomach where anything and everything gets absorbed (as I do), makes things that tad bit easier when you are on the road ;-)

We then decided to hit the bed after buying some Quaker oats cookies and bread for next day's breakfast. The Quaker oats cookies are, IMHO, the best bet for a backpacker. Four cookies cost you 4.50 pesos and you can comfortably satiate your hunger for an hour or two.

Dinner in Cancun's downtown restaurants start early and close early, 6.00pm to 9.00pm. Post 9.00pm it may not be possible to get budget dinners and you may end up spending a decent portion of your budget for just one dinner. Hence, plan your dinner times carefully !

Day 1 : Tulum

We decided to check out Tulum. This is an archaeological site, having the Mayan ruins. To get to Tulum from Cancun, we took the ADO bus again. An air conditioned bus costs you 72 pesos and you would need around two hours to get there. Be warned that the buses get to full capacity quickly and hence, it is better to get the bus stand as early as possible. I heard that there are guided tours and such, but trust me, it is always better to explore on your own ! We reached the bus stand at around 6.30AM and took the bus at 7.00AM. We reached Tulum at 9.30AM.

I must digress here for an important piece of information. Cancun, being on the seashore is extremely hot and humid. In fact, the climate is more like Indian climate, more specifically, like my motherland Madras. I felt at home ;-). But the point here is that the buses and sometimes, the taxis in which you travel are air conditioned. When you travel in them with your cameras, naturally enough the cameras get cold. When you get out of the bus, be prepared to allow sometime for the cameras to acclimatize to the heat. Otherwise, you would be hampered by condensation on your camera lenses. We were unable to take pictures for sometime due to this problem. It could lead to fungus on your camera lenses too !

From Tulum bus stand, we decided to hit the ruins and the beach. We took a taxi to get to the beach. This will cost you 30-40 pesos. Bargain hard, for the taxi drivers are always on the lookout to make a fast buck with the tourists. Then again, coming from India and more specifically my motherland Madras, bargaining with taxi drivers comes naturally to me ;-)


That is a shot of the Beach in Tulum. We were greeted with overcast skies when we reached Tulum, and hence the photographs are not the way I would have liked them to be. In fact, if you notice carefully, you would see dark circles around the corners. That is a problem with my Nikon 18-200 VR lens. Let's not get to that ;-)

It started raining and we were forced to take shelter. That rains were also helpful in a sense that it helped our cameras to clear the condensation that had happened in them.

Once the rains stopped, we headed towards the ruins.

Tulum, in ancient Mayan language meant "Wall". This was supposed to protect the city from invasion. Tulum also is the principal temple for the Diving god.


This is a map of the ruins in Tulum, taken from here.


That is a shot of the "Temple of the Wind". Yeah, I could have got a better shot of it if it were not overcast. Of course, you can always head to Sachin's travel blog for some better pictures. Yeah, he is a better photographer (and better equipped, in terms of lenses), than I am.


That is a shot of the "Temple of Frescos". We spent around two hours there walking around the ruins.


A shot of the beach by the ruins in Tulum. You need to pay 45 pesos as entry fee to the ruins. In case you come by car, you need to come through the main entrance and pay 30 pesos to park your car.

We took another taxi and got back to the Centro De Autobus. Since it was close to lunch time, we had a light lunch in Don Cafeto, opposite to the bus stand. The milkshake tasted well and according to Sachin, the coffee tasted good too.

We decide to return back to Cancun and we tried out a different mode of transport, the collectivo. These collectivo's are 16 seater, air conditioned vans that ply from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, and from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum. The only advantage of these are that they are available at any time, unlike the buses. They are only slightly cheaper than the buses and run at a slightly higher speed when compared to the buses. Apart from that, they did feel a little bit uncomfortable to travel. However, if you are seriously on a budget, using these collectivos for your entire trip can save you around 30 or so pesos, enough to get a decent breakfast ;-) To look for the collectivos in Cancun, get to Centro De Autobuses, cross the road and get to Av. Nader. The collectivos start from that point to Playa Del Carmen.

We took a collectivo and got to Playa Del Carmen. We were in a mood to explore this place, but since we had anyway decided to come here the next day, we decided to head back to Cancun and hit the beach there.

We took an ADO bus from Playa Del Carmen to Cancun, costing 34 pesos. We then walked back to our hostel, changed and we decided to hit the beach near Coco Bongo. Being a Saturday, we decided to check out the night life too. We once again took the R2 bus and got down in Zona Hoteleria near the Centro De Conventiones. We decided to get to Playa Caracol, but ultimately hit a lonely and secluded beach behind Coco Bongo. Since it was drizzling a little bit, the beach was also fairly strong. We squatted on the beach and with the rain on us, it felt quite nice.

We then returned to Centro De Autobus hoping to taste the same tacos we had the previous day. However, as I said earlier, dinner closes early and hence we could not have the tacos. However, we crossed the road to Av.Nader and had tamales in a pushcart, "El Paisa". They tasted really nice. He also had a chocolate flavored boiled maize drink, which tasted quite unlike anything else I had tasted before. In fact, it was quite nice. In all, the tamales and the drink cost us 25 pesos each. Quite an economical and most importantly, since tamales are steamed, there was no health risk too ! We then walked back to the hostel for a good night's rest.

Day 2 : The day of surprises.

One of the good things I like about staying in a Hostel is that you meet backpackers from various nations and you can learn interesting things about that place from them. One such backpacker who stayed along with us in the Dorm, was a German lady Daniella. In fact, we were planning to get up early and try to catch a photograph or two of the sunrise. Unfortunately, we slept away and woke up as late as 8.00AM. Yeah, I can see a grimace or two on many people when I say that 8.00AM is late ! You see, when you are out on vacation, you need to get up early and sleep late, so that you can enjoy the sights and sounds of that place.

Anyway, in a casual conversation with Daniella, she mentioned that we should check out Coba. We had eliminated Chiche-Itza from our travel plans, simply because with its new found fame as a wonder of the world, it would be too crowded. She mentioned that we should try out Coba since we would be able to climb the pyramids too. That served as an extra motivation to check it out.

Coba is around 45 kilometers from Tulum on the Tulum-Villadroid road. There is a direct bus from Cancun to Coba and it leaves at 9.00AM. Since we got to the bus stand at around 8.30AM, the bus was already full. You can also get to Tulum and try catching a different bus to Coba. As our luck would have it, all buses out of Cancun in the direction of Tulum were packed ! Hence, we fell back on our new found mode of travel, the collectivo. We took two collectivos to get to Tulum and took another bus from there to Coba. A ADO bus from Tulum to Coba costs you 35 pesos. We reached Coba at around 12.00pm, a good three and a half hour travel from Cancun. If you have a car, you can cut down some travel time.

Coba, was nothing like what I expected. It is the perfect backpacker's paradise. There are no big hotels, no touristic rush and in fact, it is mostly left untouched by the crazy tourists. In fact, I would recommend Coba as a must see. Most Mexicans I spoke to have not even heard of that place.

Coba mean "Ruffled Water's'" and it gets it name from the five lakes in the vicinity. In fact, the pyramid here is taller than Chichen-Itza, and this also happens to be the oldest Mayan settlement. Coba has the highest concentration of sacbeob, or a system of roads built out of stone (sacbe in singular). In fact, the longest scabe is around 100 kilometers, extending all the way to Chichen-Itza. The ruins are in the middle of an untouched and yet-to-be-explored jungle, which make it an amazing place for photography too. There are some amazing butterflies and various other birds which make it a must visit for photography too.


That is a multi-color bird I saw there !

You need to walk for around half a kilometer or so to get to ruins from the bus stand. We did see a restaurant or two. So, a decent place to have lunch does exist. We did miss lunch, but that is a different story ! On the way from the bus stand to the ruins, we saw a house where they were hand dyeing the clothes using vegetable based dyes.


The ruins are divided into a number of sections like Nohoch Mul, Coba Group, Chumuc Mul, e.t.c. You can either walk around the entire ruins, a distance of around 5 or 6 kilometers, or take a bicycle for rent. You can also use a push-cart like taxi for ferrying you around. Bicycle for rent will cost you around 100 pesos for the day and the push-cart like taxi, if I remember right, will cost you 100 pesos for an hour ! Entry to the ruins will cost you 45 pesos. You are allowed to carry your cameras inside, but not your tripod. That is quite silly. There is a toilet at the entrance, which is fairly well maintained. There are no water spots, so it is better to carry some water while you walk inside.


That is a shot of the path where you walk to get to the ruins.

At the entrance, you get to see the Chumuc Mul.


That is a shot of the temple at the Coba group. You are not allowed to climb the ruins here.

Walking for a bit more distance brings you to the Chumuc Mul, or the ball court. While the real usage of this is unknown, atleast to me, I could hear the guide explaining how the Mayans used it to find out time ! Since he was talking in Spanish, I could not quite understand how it was done.


I must mention here that in almost all the places of archaeological importance that we visited, there were guides willing to explain the place for a small fee. We did not avail of their services, as I am quite familiar with the fact that more than giving out just the facts, most guides often romanticize the place and the history ! I think it is better to use the internet ;-)

Walking for another kilometer or so brings you to the tallest pyramid in the Nohoch Mul group.

This pyramid is around 42 meters tall. There is a board which says clearly that climbing the pyramid is at your own risk.


A view from the base of the pyramid.


A view from the top of the pyramid.

I suggest that you climb the pyramid simply to get a breathtaking view of the jungle from the top. There are a few interesting carvings into the wall in the top.

From here we traced back out steps and reached the Macanxoc group. We did not find anything interesting in this group, except for some stone carvings and stuff, most which had been obliterated by the vagaries of time, the heat and the rains ! However, we did see a lot of fauna !

We spent around three hours here and missed lunch. We however managed to see a crocodile having its lunch in one of those lakes.


We came back to the bus stop to get a bus back to Tulum. It was then that we realized that Sachin forgot my tripod while we were busy capturing the crocodile. We then ran from the bus stand to get the tripod back and ran back again to catch the bus, an exertion that left us with drenched shirts ;-)

We slept soundly in the bus from Coba to Playa Del Carmen. We took a MayaB bus (A different transport provider like ADO, but slightly cheaper) which cost us 56 pesos.

Once we reached Playa Del Carmen, we decided to check out the Playa Mamita (Beach Mamita). We walked from the bus stand to the beach. The promenade in Playa Del Carmen is quite interesting to walk through with a lot of shops and stuff. There is a hostel directly opposite to the bus stand in Playa Del Carmen. I think staying here would have not been a bad idea at all ! I did not get into the beach since I did not get my spare underwear and a towel to dry myself out.


The pier in Playa Mamita.


A view of the beach.


The above photo is the most viewed among the Cancun pictures I have uploaded in flickr. What kind of a world is this ? ;-)

We then had dinner in a small joint near the bus stand in Playa Del Carmen. The mango juice I ordered had nothing but water ! Once again, we finished our dinner in around 50 pesos each. I did see a long queue to buy hot dogs and tacos from a pushcart near the bus stand. In hindsight, we should have tried out that place instead of this joint. I would suggest that you try out the food at the push cart vendor ! We then took a collectivo from Playa Del Carmen and requested the driver to stop near our hostel and reached the hostel.

It was a day well spent !

Day 3: Isla Mujeres

We decided to hit Isla Mujeres to spend the day doing some snorkeling. After all, is a visit to a coral island complete without snorkeling ? Yeah, yeah, I still do not know swimming, but did that deter me from going out to the sea ? Heck, no !! I cannot miss that beauty for anything in the world.

You can get to Isla Mujeres through a ferry from Puerto Juarez. To get to Puerto Juarez, we took a bus to Centro De Autobuses and from there we took the R2 bus ! It would have been easier to take the R2 bus from Av.Xcaret near our hostel itself, but we did not know about it. The ferry from Puerto Juarez to Isla Mujeres will cost you 35 pesos one way and 70 pesos for a round trip. Yeah, it should be a bit cheaper if you buy a round trip, but it was not.

Once in the Island, the easiest way to move around is to rent one of those mopeds. Taxis are prohibitively expensive. A full day rental of a moped will cost you 250 pesos, fuel included. Be warned that most shops open only after 9.00AM. We reached the place fairly early at around 8.00AM and just chilled out by the sea waiting for the shops to open. We had already had breakfast of Slim-fast and cookies.

Slim fast is perhaps, the most value for money breakfast. Though it costs 20 pesos if you buy it individually, a pack of six cans costs you just 100 pesos, and you can withstand your hunger for upto four hours ! Highly recommended when you are traveling.

If you are on a budget, there is nothing much to see in Isla Mujeres, apart from snorkeling. There is, of course, this beautiful beach, the North beach, or Playa Norte. We hired a moped and reached there at around 9.00AM. We then dived into the beach and lazed around a bit, waiting for the rest of the town to wake up.


We then moved to the southern most point of the island, which was supposed to have a Mayan ruins. However, you needed to pay 40 pesos to get to that ruins and since there were not that many ruins, and since we had already seen Coba the previous day, we did not check out the ruins.


The Playa Sur, or South beach.

In case you are not on budget travel, there is a theme park here. For 1500 pesos, you get to snorkel, have a buffet and so many other activities. However, I would not recommend that you do that. If you pay 250 pesos and have four hours to spare, you can get to do snorkeling and have lunch in one of the many beach side restaurants. In case you do not want lunch, you pay 200 pesos and snorkel for ninety minutes.

The snorkeling was perhaps the highlight of my trip. It is a must do. I saw multi colored and multi hued fishes. A truly amazing experience. It is a different matter that when we reached back to the boat, the currents were too strong for me to get back to the boat and the guide had to come to my rescue and help me get back to the boat ;-) It is a pity that I could not take any photographs of the fishes that were there. Maybe, the next time around, I will try to take an underwater camera or something.

We took the snorkeling trip from the pier itself. In fact, I could see only one place that was offering snorkeling. After we came back from snorkeling, we had lunch in a quite "Home Kitchen", La Susanita. The seafood was really fresh and tasted quite nice. However, it was not all that cheap or whatsoever. It did cost around 80 pesos, but was definitely worth that money.


A view of the street outside La Susanita.

We were in the mood to have an early lunch and try to go to Chichen-Itza to see what they hype was all about, but since the shop from where we took our mopeds was closed, we could not return the moped.

In a way, that contributed the most relaxing part of our trip. We decided to get back to Playa Norte. The beach here is quite shallow for about half a kilometer or so. So, we just hit the beach and lied down on the floor of the beach, allowing the waves to lap us around. We spent around three hours here. In fact, next to snorkeling, we spent time in the most relaxed manner and in the most economical manner possible !

At around 5.00PM, we returned the mopeds and made our way back to the hostel. We then decided to check out some spots in the Zona Hoteleria, since we wanted to get some photographs of sunrise in Cancun.

We were recommended a taco restaurant called Los Primos, close to our hostel on Avenue Labna. We decided to have dinner there. The best part about this place was that they serve Jamaican flower soaked water. It tasted really nice when it was chilled. We had mushrooms and cheese Quesadilla (pronounced kesadiya). Each one of them will set you back by 15 pesos. Not economical at all. But, what the heck, the taste was quite good.

We then slept early, since we were planning to get up early the next day to get some photographs.

Day 4: Return

I did get up early in the morning, but a cloudy sky put a stop to our plans of early morning photography. Yeah, I guess we should have still hit the beach and had a nice early morning bath, but we discarded the plan for some sound sleeping time ;-) Since we had to catch our flight back to Monterrey, we had decided to check out Market 28 for the day, have a quiet lunch and get to the airport. Daniella was willing to give us company and we hit market 28 at around 9.30AM. Most of the shops were still closed, but we just window shopped a bit. I blew up around 200 pesos on a leather waist pouch. We then crossed to road and got to a place called Tiknixik (pronounced tiknishik) and sat down and gossiped/talked about India, Germany, Travel and other things. We also had our lunch here. In fact, lunch was fairly cheap here and quite tasty too. The fish that Daniella was eating tasted nice too. It is worth checking out this place if you are in the vicinity of Market 28.

We then returned back to the hostel, took our bags and walked to the Centro De Autobus. We took another ADO bus, came to the airport and returned to Monterrey.

So, in all these we managed to finish our four day trip in around 400USD. 200USD for the air tickets, 160USD for travel and food, and 40USD for the hostel. A very satisfying and in fact, a really nice trip.

Do not even bother about visiting places like Xcaret or Xel-Ha. They are, IMHO, for kids ! If you want to check out diving, try Cozumel. If you want to do snorkeling or scuba diving, go to Isla Mujeres to do it for cheap !

If only the waves in the beaches were a bit higher and stronger ;-)


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Posted by Shyam Krishnaswamy at 9:09 PM


  1. Blogger ARUN posted at Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 3:45:00 AM GMT+5:30  
    Hey Shyam ! .. Thats an Excellent Post man ...!
    Keep Blogging..

  2. Blogger Nandan Jha posted at Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 11:19:00 AM GMT+5:30  
    Hey, real detailed post. i guess it may be overkill for a casual reader but for someone who is actually planning a trip, its gold.

    I and some of my fellow ghumakkars write at www.ghumakkar.com , look at it in your spare timeand if interests you then you can write your travel stories there.
  3. Blogger K.Shyam posted at Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 9:04:00 PM GMT+5:30  
    Arun: Thanks !

    Nandan: Yeah, the intention of this post is to help the traveler.


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