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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Oaxaca 🇲🇽

Lucky for us, our next stop Oaxaca was only a four hour bus ride away and thanks again to ADO, we had a comfortable and safe ride and arrived in the late afternoon, as dusk was beginning to settle. We quickly dropped our bags off before doing a lap of the main town, taking in all the main sites and attractions on the Zocalo and beyond. Oaxaca is a real mix of colonial-style buildings, combined with native Zapotec and Mixtec cultural and archaeological sites, and is a perfect blend of ancient and old Mexico, as it is rich in both culture and history. Within the first hour of our stay we had ticked off seeing the main Zocalo right in the historic centre of the city, the Church of Santo Domingo and its ornate decorations that took over two hundred years to construct, the main Cathedral of the city and we had roamed the cobblestone streets, photographing the beautiful coloured buildings.

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The next day was to be a half day wandering and exploring the ancient Zapotec capital which now lies in ruins, 9km west and above the city of Oaxaca named Monte Alban. Its proximity to the city meant that transport was super easy to organise and a round trip shuttle was an inexpensive option. Monte Alban is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as it holds significant cultural importance to the local communities, who are now facing the challenge of trying to stop urban development from encroaching on this archaeological site. It is one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities and the oldest Pre-Colombian site we were to witness on our trip. If you put all of its history into perspective and just think of the mere age of this ancient place, the fact that we were able to not only visit it, but climb all (most of) the ruins and scale these structures to the very top, is actually incredible. The fact that these temples are even still standing is phenomenal, let alone standing enough to let modern day patrons walk on them is beyond belief and a fact that we still struggle to comprehend.

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As Monte Alban lies on a mountain ridge at over 1940m above sea level, it is safe to say there was zero cloud cover for the day, a massive need for SPF 50+ sunscreen and boy was it HOT! Being from Australia, most would assume that we are used to some level of heat and sun exposure, but I think because there was zero shade cover and we were scaling these ancient buildings, with their tiny little steps and great heights (a true workout for anyone looking to get in shape fast!), it was an exhausting day and sweat was pouring off us by the end of it. Combine this with the fact that as budget backpackers, we had decided to pack our own strawberry jam and some bread to make sandwiches for lunch, which soon found us with these wasps/bee-type insects upon us, and we had a bit of a shocker between flying insects and ridiculous heat.

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Despite these minor annoyances, you can tell by the photos that we had an incredible day and the size of our smiles relays exactly what an experience was had. We both love a good active adventure, and spending the day kicking up the dust, roaming through the ancient ball-court, past the old astronomical tower and scaling both the north and south temples was like nothing we had both experienced before. Not even the little old men in cowboy hats and traditional Mexican attire, constantly trying to sell us ‘real and authentic’ masks that were conveniently ‘found within the temples of Monte Alban’ could get us down. Compared to Templo Mayor, the Aztec site we visited in Mexico City that was nearly entirely destroyed, these ruins were a total next level experience and we were really enjoying the ancient history this country had to offer.

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The following day, we decided to see what modern Oaxaca had up its sleeve and once again throw ourselves into the chaotic and loco experience that is a Mexican mercado (or market). Benito Juarez Mercado is located centrally within Oaxaca city, and has an extensive history as the place to get anything you could possibly need; from a cheap souvenir, to a pet iguana, bottles upon bottles of mezcal and tequila, a chicken for your family dinner with its head freshly chopped off, a whole tuna fish that has not been sitting on ice and is definitely smelling off and spices upon spices with chilies and cooking supplies being sold by the pound. Small market vendors tap you on the shoulder, point you in the direction of their stalls and constantly tell you they have ‘cheap price for you’; we both remember being totally and completely overwhelmed by how forward they are and how personal space does not exist in a mercado. We stumbled upon some ladies selling that fine Mexican delicacy I spoke about in the Puebla post; chapulines. If you have ever smelled fried grasshoppers before, particularly in Mexico with the spices they toss them in, you will know exactly what I’m talking about and I’m sure it will never leave your nose. It is everywhere you turn in the markets in Mexico, a strong, almost burning smell, combined with roasted spices and spicy chillies. Having been in Mexico a total of seven days now, we were feeling much more confident and decided to indulge in this fine cuisine. I made Blake purchase a chipotle seasoned bag of grasshoppers, with some fresh squeezed lime to go and we took them back to our hostel – sadly without the addition of a pet turtle, iguana or bunny rabbit.

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Being the soft, scared, weak girl I am of course I made Blake go first – and filmed his reaction so that we could later post it to Instagram (check out the video, if you haven’t already!) and I think its fair enough to say that his facial expressions tell the entire story. I didn’t quite realise how spicy the chipotle ones were and they definitely weren’t Blake’s favourite culinary experience in Mexico. I was ready to sit this round out and avoid this completely, but after much hesitation and Blake forcing me, I can proudly say I conquered a fear and ate one. I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it however – but when else are you going to eat a fried grasshopper that is seasoned and topped with lime and feel its tiny little legs get stuck between your teeth? I think it was at this point it was beginning to sink in that we were being presented with so many incredible opportunities on this trip, and so many fun and brand new experiences like nothing else we had ever come across before. We were really seizing each and every opportunity that came our way and enjoying the learning and life experience we were gaining from this adventure.

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