Chichen Itza & Piste 🇲🇽

So, for those of you that are still following, I guess we owe you all an apology! Life on the road our way in Latin America has been a little crazy, adrenaline packed and for us, we have always been true believers in living in the present moment (particularly when it comes to travel and exploring new countries), therefore we have been struggling to find the time to unwind and have some writing downtime! Nonetheless, we are currently on a bit of a break, so we will try our best to update you as fast as possible and get our story back on track where it belongs. Once again, apologies for the delays, but can you really blame us whilst on the adventure of a lifetime?

Back to our travel narrative, back to our time in Mexico and onwards to the sleepy town of Piste and its nearby tourist attraction – one you most definitely will have heard of and associate entirely with Mexican tourism: Chichen Itza. Not entirely sure of what to expect from Piste, we just knew it was a jumping off point for those wanting to stay in town and see one of the new ‘Wonders of the World’ and do some cenote hopping. Most people do day trips and tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, yet as we were passing through and wanted some advantage to hopefully get to the ruins before the rush of tourists or midday heat, we decided to stay in Piste and plan to head to the ruins the following day, staying two nights in total. Arriving in the mid afternoon, we had a quick wander and soon discovered that although there were plenty of accommodation options, there really wasn’t much to the one road town – it featured some tacky looking souvenir stalls, a couple of local food places, convenience stores surrounded by plenty of hotels, guest houses and hostels. Our accommodation was a well-priced new establishment, featuring amazing air-conditioning (well needed in the crazy heat!) and a cute little swimming pool in the centre of all the different rooms and villas – however if you know us well, you know that we’re not ones to just sit still and relax by the pools, so almost instantaneously, we were scouring the internet with any sort of activity we could use to fill in our afternoon and hopefully see a bit of what Piste and its surrounds had to offer, thinking it surely couldn’t just be limited to Chichen Itza.

The internet provided exactly what we were searching for – Cenote Yodkzonot. After a short taxi ride from our place to the cenote, we arrived toward the end of the afternoon and found out that we only had just over one hour until the place closed. For those of our readers who are unaware what a cenote is, or why these things are so damn marvellous and draw in large crowds of tourists to the peninsula region of Mexico every year, a cenote is a natural sinkhole resulting from the collapse of surrounding limestone bedrock that expose the groundwater below and result in a type of natural swimming pool. These places were significant to Mayan history, as they were places of worship, places to communicate to the gods and even occasionally undertake a human sacrifice ritual. These days, they are commonly places for people to cool off from the harsh sun, take a dive in the crystal water and create some Instagram worthy content – however, there is no denying there is a sense of feeling like you are going back in time and are lost in a hidden, remote location as you float amongst the fish and vegetation in these natural pools, particularly true at Cenote Yodkzonot.

As we paid the entry fee and rounded the top of the pool, we’re not sure what fact was more astonishing – the fact that we were metres and metres above this almost perfectly circular pool, which we were going to descend down to via a rickety little wooden staircase, or the fact that we were the only tourists or even people in the area, bar one lonely local young boy, doubling as the lifeguard. We smiled to each other and knew that we were incredibly lucky, we had probably found our very own little slice of heaven and we had the next hour to ourselves. Yodkzonot is relatively rare, in the fact that it has been left almost entirely natural (if you don’t include the manmade staircase and swimming platform to the water’s edge) and is one of the least busy for tourists. The water was completely still, the only tiny movements on the mirror-like surface were that of the hundreds of fish swimming just below the water’s edge and the vegetation growing off the rocks around the edges hung down like a green curtain of some sort, shielding you from the outside world. Birds swoop down near the water and sit perched high up in trees surrounding the crater of the cenote, singing their happy songs and dragonflies were skimming the water’s edge, somewhat dancing to the songs of the birds. Yes, our memory of this place really is this lucid and vivid – but how could it not be? It really was majestic, a nature lovers paradise and probably the most unique natural place we were yet to see.

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I was slightly more hesitant to get in the water than my counterpart, Blake. He seemingly has very little fear, is an incredibly brave travel partner and is always urging me to try new experiences, so it’s not hard to tell that he was straight into the water and already swimming around the centre of the dark hole before I was even down the ladder! I’m not entirely all that great with deep water where the bottom is not able to be seen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a super confident swimmer, but the thought of the unknown just isn’t all that grand to me and so it took me a little coaxing to get into the water. But boy am I glad I decided to join Blake – there is something so magical about these places and their water, it is so cool and refreshing and like no other swimming pool you will ever encounter. After an hour of paddling, jumping off the platform, taking loads of pictures and conversing in very broken Spanish to the lonely lifeguard sitting with us, our time was up and we had to bid the magical place farewell. If you are ever in the area, please go visit Cenote Yodkzonot. You may not hear that much about it, you may not find that much information online, but it truly is one of the Yucutan Peninsula’s hidden gems.

The next day had arrived and it wasn’t exactly the happiest day of the trip so far – I had been up sick for large portions of the night and weren’t feeling too crash hot. In a bit of a shock yesterday at the cold water, I had accidentally swallowed some cenote water as I jumped in, which I think was to blame for an upset stomach however as we were due to go to Chichen Itza that day, one of the new ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ there was no way I could pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately our plans to arrive nice and early before the heat and the crowds were thrown out the window, so our new plan was just to survive the day and try and enjoy this Mayan site as the best to our abilities. There must be someone looking over us this trip, because as we arrived mid morning we were blessed with the beautiful sight of clouds and an overcast sky. That’s not to say that we missed the tourists, because boy, were there tourists! Tour group upon tour group clambered out of buses within the huge carpark and we honestly had never seen anything like it at any other ancient ruins site we had visited to this point, it was like the Disneyland of the ancient world.

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We didn’t get hire a private guide as they were not so budget friendly and the amount of information on the site online or in guidebooks is extensive enough to our belief, so we took our time wandering around the ruins across the course of the next few hours. It definitely required a few hours minimum – Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities in its day and the site it encompasses is very extensive and quite large to walk around. We were really impressed by the mere size and enormity of the ball court as it became visually evident that this would have been the site where the really important matches took place; almost all of the ruins we had visited to date featured much more miniscule versions of the same layout.

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El Castillo (‘The Castle’), the postcard perfect 30 metre high pyramid does live up to its expectation, but possibly is even more grand in real life with all the space it occupies in the centre of the main plaza. It would be even more incredible to see during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when a series of shadows are cast upon the pyramid on the north side during the late afternoon evoking the image of a serpent wiggling down the staircase – unfortunately we will have to rely on our imaginations for this view, but can imagine the spectacle would be incredible and the fiestas surrounding such times are highly significant and full of life. Also in the site of Chichen Itza are two cenotes, the most notable of them being the ‘Sacred Cenote’, known for its history with human sacrifice and rituals. This wasn’t all that good to see, as it’s not entirely well preserved, is a little overgrown with greenery and the water has taken on quite a green colour due to algae presence but knowing its rich history couldn’t help but leave you with goosebumps around the site.

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In all truthfulness though, we would almost go as far to say that it was a slightly underwhelming experience. You expect grandeur, history and incredible stone pyramids as high as the eye can see for a ‘Wonder of the World’, however we weren’t truly satisfied that we had seen anything out of the ordinary or anything that we felt we hadn’t seen on a lesser scale at other ruins sites. Sure, the ruins were incredibly well preserved, intricately detailed and they were beautiful in their own rights, however maybe the immense amounts of tourists and gringos alike really put us off as we couldn’t see entirely what the hype was. All in all though, it was a great experience (I honestly think we would enjoy just about anywhere that’s foreign and exciting for us) and definitely not one to miss if you are ever that side of Mexico.

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Our next step was the cenote that goes literally hand-in-hand with every Chichen Itza tour, Ik-Kil. Sure you may not know it by name, but we have no doubt that you have all at least seen a photo of it on any aspiring travel bloggers page or anytime you Google search things to see in Mexico. Once again, there were tourists literally as far as the eye could see and it was hard to walk anywhere without bumping into the person next to you, but to see that iconic instagram famous shot was something we had both truly looked forward to seeing and definitely put a smile on our faces. It most certainly didn’t have the natural, magical feeling of the Yodkzonot Cenote – it was more like an actual swimming pool, with jumping platforms, strategically built viewpoints and concrete paved around the edge of the water itself, however we can’t help but feel some pull towards these incredible places, probably due to their spiritual history with the Mayan people. At this point in the day, I wasn’t feeling too crash hot so I was more than happy to take a few pictures, hand Blake our Go-Pro and wish him the best of luck, whilst taking a seat around the side and watching Blake and the rest of the holidaymakers jump, leap and splash off the diving platforms and laugh their way around the water. The greenery around the edge of the cenote is probably what gives it that picture perfect look and it did not disappoint, it was entirely like the photos depicted and we enjoyed it for what it was – a touristic swimming hole with a whole lot of beautiful history.

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Our time in surrounding Piste was done and the tourist sites completed, so satisfied with our time well spent we embarked on our journey to our next destination, Playa del Carmen. Being the thrifty, but not so wise travellers we were at this point, we had booked a second-class bus through our trusty ADO. We shall leave you on this note and probably fill you in on our bus journey and the not so class experience it was in our next chapter, so definitely stay tuned.

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Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Palenque 🇲🇽

After a bit of research and some hard thinking, we found the most time efficient and interesting way to make our way from San Cristobal to Palenque was to complete a day trip via some natural sites and end our day at the Ruins, to be dropped in Palenque town and so this is exactly what we booked. The trip itself would take several hours, so to see a few more incredible sights and get our transport thrown in too was a great deal and off we headed at 0500 that morning. As mentioned previously (in our San Cristobal de las Casas post), our hostel worker had a real thing for security, so when our van pulled up, not only twenty minutes late, it then took us about another five to ten minutes to solve the locks on the front doors from both inside and out, fumbling around in the dark and telling our driver in broken Spanish that we were sorry and we were coming, we were just incredibly locked in!! We bustled ourselves onto the bus as our huge backpacks slid under the back seats and settled in for the rest of the pick up around town. He was a truly peculiar driver – San Cristobal (along with most Central American cities actually) was filled with tiny little cobblestoned one way streets, so when attempting to pick a group up from a house down one of these said streets, he decided to take a Mexicano short cut. We reversed around ten blocks total, nearly the entirety of the one way street, dodging parked cars and stray dogs in the dark, rather than go the long way around and attempt to come the right way. I have honestly lost track of the amount of times we have said to each other, ‘It’s Central America, anything can happen!’.

Once pick up of the others was complete, off we went to a small place up in the hinterlands, high in the mountains amongst plenty of farm land for a quick breakfast stop (pre-packed in true backpacker fashion!) and I think it honestly came at a great time for us. Blake’s patience with the seemingly useless speed bumps literally every twenty metres down the road was wearing thin and we had driven for kilometres under these crazy, speed hump riddled conditions and had barely travelled all that far for the amount of time it had taken. It was a beautiful break stop, despite the stray dogs everywhere trying to steal your food, and incredible to notice due to our elevation we were actually eating breakfast just above the clouds.

We hit the dodgy roads again and finally came to our first natural stop – Agua Azul. Agua Azul in Spanish literally translates to Blue Water, and to say that the water was blue is actually an incredible understatement. It is a series of natural swimming pools and falls, formed out of a large limestone ridge (the reasoning behind the intense blue colouration of the water), all linked together by the cascading river rushing from the top, flowing down through each level and finally arriving into the riverbed at the very bottom. We arrived at this bottom river point and were told we had over an hour to explore, so we made the most of it and climbed all the way to the very top, making sure to get plenty of snaps along each vantage point before reaching an incredible series of natural swimming pools that were mostly uninhabited – probably due to the need to climb the immensely long staircase in the heat to reach them. We went for a quick swim, jumping off the rocks and into the incredible turquoise waters and before we knew it, it was time to head all the way back down the path and stairs and hop back on the van to our next destination: Misol-Ha.

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Misol-Ha was only an hour or so drive away and was only a viewpoint destination meaning our swimmers dried and our walking shoes were back on by the time we pulled up to the car park of the waterfall. Misol-Ha is a thirty five metre waterfall that comes down from over a cliff side into a beautiful, almost perfectly circular, natural pool that is incredibly deep – I don’t blame the patrons for all wearing life jackets to be honest! It had a small cave system behind it (warning: extra entrance fee required which seemed to be taken just from random locals giving unofficial tours with iPhone torch lights) and a walking trail behind the waterfall so you could witness the power and force of the water up close and personal, hearing the loud rush and feeling the water mist over your face. We’re both real suckers for waterfalls and natural sights, so this was a buzz for us and a contrast to the more shallow, but swifter moving falls of Agua Azul.

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It was then time for the main event and our entire reasoning for even heading to Palenque – to see the Mayan Ruins and witness the incredible jungle temples first hand. I can’t say this disappointed in the slightest and was well worth our hype. The ruins we had so far visited had been excavated as entire sites and were completely clear of any greenery and devoid of any plant life, bar some grass or a couple of trees, so to see this ancient Mayan city still half surrounded by jungle, in which people can see howler monkeys (we didn’t at this point, but have on our trip!), large green iguanas and multitudes of bird life was truly incredible. The structures were beyond huge, the staircases thin and narrow and before we knew it, we were running up and down them, scaling these temples and undertaking an immense lower body workout without even noticing! Unfortunately our tour was only offered with a Spanish guide so we opted to look at the ruins by ourselves and undergo our own private tour, educating ourselves with the signs written in English and following the popular worn in track in the grass.

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At this point in our trip, reflecting on a couple of ruins we had seen so far, Palenque had quickly stolen number one spot. It is incredible to be able to climb the structures here, they were definitely some of the tallest we had ever seen and some you could even enter inside – talk about feeling like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft! Although it felt like we were witnessing an entire city, it is estimated to this date that less than ten percent is explored, and potentially up to a thousand structures lay still buried beneath the forest canopy. The Temple of Inscriptions situated within the complex, contained one of the only crypts ever found to this day in a temple in Mexico – giving it almost Egyptian vibes, with the discovery of crypts and sarcophagus’, jade masks and obsidian knife offerings to the gods and human remains. It was a hot, sweaty humid day amongst the jungle and although we both just about nearly died scaling up the incredible thirteen level Temple of the Cross, the day was over before we know it and we’re sure we could have spent much more time within the incredible complex, exploring the museum and wandering through the structures at a much slower pace, potentially even monkey spotting!

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Honestly this day trip was incredible, breaking up our travel day with different stops as it meant we were only travelling for a couple of hours or so at any one time and we were constantly exploring new things that we wouldn’t see otherwise, so would definitely recommend to anyone travelling this route. This tour was also available as a round day trip from San Cristobal itself, but as we were only dropped in Palenque around 6pm and the group still had another six hour drive to get back to where we had started, we probably wouldn’t recommend that one unless you were on an incredibly tight schedule and were desperate to visit the incredible Palenque Ruins.