“Its been raining solidly all week” our holiday rep explains in broken English, greeting us before getting on the bus.
Not exactly a promising start to what I envisioned as a sun-kissed twelve days in Mexico, sipping Corona and shooting Tequilla.
“But you guys might be lucky, we are expecting it to get better from today onwards.”
Well I should hope so. The problem with the Caribbean is that if you go in June, July or August, you’re in the rainy season. So it’s a bit of gamble when it comes to the weather, which is a bit of a mixed bag. At this moment in time it was comfortably hot but this was soon to change.
The journey from Cancun airport to Tulum takes just over an hour and a half. We were to stay at the Gran Bahia Principe, a five-star all-inclusive hotel on the east coast of the Yuacatuan.
The coach trip was a tedious one. Just one straight highway running into the distance for what seems like an age, that is, until you reach the grandeur of the hotel.
Vast, six foot-high letters GRAN BAHIA PRINCIPE stand proud at the entrance to the grounds. Right on cue, as if our tour rep (who’d been trying to sell us ‘magic’ mosquito repelling bracelets for the duration of the journey) had cursed us, the heavens opened.
At this point our luggage had been unloaded from the coach, we’d checked in and got on to what can only be described as an elongated golf cart and set off to our rooms.
The Gran Bahia Principe is made up of little villas spread around the massive grounds. The reason for the golf cart-esque transport is that the hotel has an astonishing 2,700 rooms. So if you’re one of the unfortunate few whose room is located at the other end of the hotel grounds- away from the lobby, pool and other such amenities-you’re going to rely on the transportation to get you from one end to the other. Or walk 20 minutes in the searing heat. Fortunately for us, we were housed in villa 1, which was located within 30 seconds walking distance from the lobby, pool etc.
The pyramid at Chichen Itza
One of the main attractions of staying in this part of Mexico is the opportunity to see one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’; the pyramid at Chichen Itza. It a huge stone structure measuring 30 metres in height and angled at 45 degrees. The name translates to “The mouth of the well of the Itza”.
Mayan in origin, it stands tall in the middle of a flat grass expanse surrounded by various other crumbling stone structures. The pyramid has steps on each face, though weathered by the years. At one point, you were permitted to climb up the steps but sadly that is no longer allowed. It’s actually ludicrous to think you were ever allowed to stomp up those steps in your Converse Allstars, ruining something that was built in 600AD. You might as well use The Mona Lisa as a table mat.
Annoyingly, we had a tour guide that had the habit of repeating himself several times when showing us around the pyramid and other ruins. This was made all the more frustrating when you’re standing in temperatures of 35 degrees plus. The small patches of shade underneath the trees provided some relief from the searing heat, but did little to deter me from the opinion that our guide suffered severe short term memory-loss.
The pyramid was not the only attraction at the ruins. The Great Ball Court is the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 166 by 68 metres (545 × 223 ft). The imposing walls are 12 metres (39 ft) high, and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents. According to our guide, the Mayans played a game a bit like basketball there, attempting to throw a ball though the stone rings attached to the walls…except they weren’t allowed to use their hands- only their shoulder, hips, torso and head. The word ‘impossible’ comes to mind here. At the base of the high walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. One memorable picture is a carving of a player who has been decapitated and from the wound pours streams of blood which turn into serpents and wildflowers. Vivid, to say the least.
There were various other small ruins to look at in the area but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all really. It doesn’t help that on the way to some of the ruins you are accosted by people trying to flog their wares. Stalls line the paths on either side, displaying necklaces, wooden masks, clothing and other knick-knacks.
“Young sir, please come here, I give you good price, good price”
“I have beautiful jewellery, almost free almost free”
Almost free. It’s a phrase you hear almost everywhere there’s tat salespeople. As I experienced when I was in Bali a few years ago, these salespeople will say almost anything to get you to buy their goods. Can’t blame them really, but it gets wearing as you pass stall after stall with people trying to catch your eye and lead you over to the junk on display.
As fun as walking around all day looking at bits of crumbling stone masonry is, it did make a nice change to visit one of the many bustling towns the Yucatan peninsular had to offer.
Originally a small fishing town, Playa del Carmen is a laid-back tourist spot with streets lined with shops and stalls. Avenida Quinta or ‘Fifth Avenue’ is all pedestrian for 2 miles, completely free of cars. As you make your way along the avenue, you’ll walk past a dizzying array of bars, shops, restaurants and unenviable Mexicans dressed up as Mayan warriors, sweltering under layers of make-up and body-paint, beckoning you to have your picture taken with them.
Many of the bars are intricately decorated. One of them I walked past had dollar bills plastered over the walls and had swing seats instead of bar stools. Almost all of them advertise ‘a bucket of beer’ and tacos for only a few dollars. Playa is definitely the best pub crawl location in the world, but you’d never make it to the end of the 2 miles without dying of alcohol poisoning.
Playa also has a ferry terminal which carries passengers over from the Island of Cozumel, a world-famous scuba diving location. It is thanks to the island of Cozumel that the beach at Playa is sheltered. The water is turquoise in colour and when you’re standing on the beach in the sweltering heat, the wind ruffling your hair, you’re glad you’ve had an experience of the ‘real’ Mexico, making a nice change from the plastic resorts that line the coast of the Yucatan.
Now, since I have mentioned Mexican food, I’ll take the opportunity to express my disappointment with it. In any Mexican restaurant I’ve been to outside Mexico, the enchiladas are delicious, the nachos and cheese guiltily pleasurable and the tacos crispy and tasty.
However, I couldn’t comprehend how…bland the food was. The tacos weren’t crunchy at all. I don’t know, perhaps I was under the impression they were meant to have the crunchy texture of tacos you get in Taco Bell or any other faux Mexican food outlet. But the tacos I tasted in the hotel, in Playa, in Chichen Itza, were small floury wraps of some kind and tasted of sawdust. The beef filling lacked flavour, or perhaps the flavour was masked by the sawdust taste inherent in the wrap itself. It is a sad day indeed when I acknowledge that the popularized hard-shell taco so ubiquitous in America taste far better than the limp form you get in Mexico. I will point out however that the guacamole was tasty and went well with the nachos and melted cheese.
Culinary failings aside, the assortment of tequila available in shops is astonishing. They have every flavour you can think of, ranging from strawberry to coffee, to chilli- if you’re feeling brave. Scattered around our hotel were tables with bottles of tequila on, shot glasses, a tub of salt and a plate of limes. This being an all inclusive hotel, you don’t pay for anything, including drinks.
The strawberry tequila sitting on one of these tables in the bar area caught my eye, so I wandered over and poured myself a shot. It tasted pretty much how you’d expect it to taste- of tequila, with a strawberry aftertaste to it. What I had noticed was that as soon as I started to pour myself another shot, I saw people sitting in the bar area all turning their heads to look at me. A thought occurred to me. Did they think the bottles were there for decoration or something? Despite the fact that the shot glasses and limes were displayed invitingly, teasingly in a manner to suggest that you can help yourself?
As soon as I’d had my fill of the spirit made from the blue agave plant and began to walk away, the sound of scraping chairs filled the air as people got up and almost ran to the table to start pouring themselves a glass of the stuff. Monkey see, monkey do.
It’s a shame there was a weight limit for my luggage. If I had no interest in silly essential items such as clothes, shoes and my razor, I would have emptied my suitcase and filled it with as many bottles of tequila as possible to take back with me.
Copyright © 2011 Richard Sayers