A Travellerspoint blog

Mexico

Life on the 'Island of Women'

Doing nothing on Isla Mujeres

Happy Anniversary to us! Pete and I have now been travelling for one whole year to the day. On March 2nd last year we were just leaving Auckland, taking the Overlander train to Wellington. I can't believe how quickly the time's gone... or how soon we will have to go home again. Guess I'll have to keep looking for that money tree, eh?

Anyhoo...

Note:

I realise that, technically speaking, I should be writing about Havana, which is where we went over New Year; the thing is, we had a pretty horrible time there (including the two of us contracting a nasty case of food poisoning that made us ill for a week!), and I’m not sure I can make a decent entry out of what would essentially be a page of non-stop whinging. So, I have decided to follow that old pearl of wisdom grown-ups told me when I was a kid: If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All!

Originally we had intended to stay in Cuba for a month, but soon decided that that was going to be way too long. Instead we sucked up the airline fees, changed our flights and returned to Cancun with big sighs of relief.

After celebrating the fact that we were back in the civilised world and that our food poisoning symptoms had finally disappeared, we had a question to answer:

What now?

At this point we realised that we had been on the move pretty much non-stop since the beginning of September. We’d spent three months touring the USA, then another month crashing cars in Mexico, so we both agreed that it was time to take a break. I found this quote in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which sums up our attitudes to travelling perfectly:

"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Eager. "Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little - handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker (*), their one anxiety to get 'done' or 'through' and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: 'Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?' And the father replies: 'Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.' There's travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!"

(*) The travel guide du jour. I guess today’s equivalent would be the Lonely Planet series.

Pete and I are not what we call ‘route march travellers’. We’re not out to see as many things as we can in the shortest time possible – we’d much rather pick one or two sights, take our time, and enjoy them thoroughly before moving onto the next thing (usually a pub). However, at this point in time we agreed that even ‘one or two sights’ would be one or two too many, and we wanted to stay put for a while.

Next came the fun task of trying to find an apartment in Cancun during high season. We did it, though, and ended up on a sleepy little island called Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). Although it’s a popular destination for apartment rentals, I didn’t find much practical information about the place before we went there, so I’ve decided to rectify this by writing my own guide to life on the island.

About Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is less than five miles (seven kilometres) long and half a mile wide, and has a population of about 14,000. It was given its name by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who, upon landing there in 1517, found many statues of goddesses. (Back in Pre-Columbian times the island was dedicated to Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and childbirth.)

Today it is a sleepy little place where old people sit outside and watch the world go by. Everyone goes to bed early, and gets up disgustingly early (and noisily), usually around 5.30 am. If your neighbours don’t wake you, the newspaper sellers and garbage collectors will.

The locals are very friendly and welcoming, and nearly everyone speaks some English. (They are also extremely tolerant of our appalling attempts to speak Spanish!)

Getting there

There are two ways to get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun: catamaran or ferry. The catamaran is for foot passengers and takes 15 minutes; the ferry is the only option if you want to take a car to the island, and takes about 45 minutes.

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The catamaran that we caught back to the mainland at the end of our trip. (We nearly missed it, incidentally, ‘cos we were waiting at the wrong terminal!)

As we’d given up on cars in Mexico, we took the catamaran. You can buy return tickets at the port for $14.50 (see Prices below for more info), and the boats leave every hour or so. About the only thing that caught us out was the queuing system: they have two separate queues, one for locals and one for tourists. The locals get to board first, so if the boat fills up and you are at the back of the tourist queue, then tough luck!

You can also expect to be talked at by a bloke with a microphone non-stop while you are waiting. I have no idea what he was blethering about, ‘cos I soon decided that listening to thrash metal on my MP3 player was preferable to listening to Mr. Man banging on about who-knows-what for the best part of an hour, so I wasn’t paying attention when he gave his spiel in English. Given that we managed to board and disembark in one piece, I doubt it was anything important.

Prices

I must admit to having a minor heart attack when I first entered a grocery store in Mexico City (many months ago) and saw the price of a bottle of Coke:

$85

“The price is in pesos,” Pete told me. “They use the dollar symbol here, too.” (My excuse is that I had just left the USA and was still thinking in terms of American dollars.)

After that was cleared up I was happy about prices in Mexico, ‘cos they were more or less equivalent to prices in New Zealand. (It was a nice change from America where we soon stopped converting currencies, ‘cos it was disturbing how much even basic items cost.)

Apartments

We found our apartment (as seen here) through this website, where we dealt with a lovely rental agent named Gladis.

The apartment was small (*) but functional, and was in a nice area very close to the town centre. We also had a maid clean the place once a week. Bedding, towels and kitchenware was provided.

(*) It consisted of a kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom, but the landlord told us he is adding a new floor upstairs soon.

Shopping

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Supermarkets are just as boring in Mexico as they are in New Zealand. Shopping sucks!

The one thing that concerned me about living on a tiny island was whether or not we would be able to get supplies easily. While I was researching the place I saw one blog which mentioned that most people sail across to the mainland to do their grocery shopping in Cancun. That is one heck of a journey, so I was relieved to find out that it wasn’t necessary.

There were two grocery stores on our side of the island, the main one being the Xpress Super situated on the main square. This is a large store which carries a wide range of dried / packaged goods, and has small refrigerator and freezer compartments. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also available, though there is not a terribly wide range of produce to choose from, and the quality may vary depending on when they last had new stock delivered. However, we found that there was plenty for our needs, and we enjoyed the novelty of cooking for ourselves for a change.

There are also dozens of little corner shops that sell mainly junk like beer, soda and crisps. They are not as well-stocked as the Oxxo stores on the mainland, but are convenient ‘cos they are everywhere. (They will also sell alcohol on Sundays after 5pm, unlike the supermarkets!)

A note about the water:

The tap water is not purified and is not recommended for consumption, however bottled water is cheap and available pretty much everywhere.

Pharmacies

There are several pharmacies in the area, including the one attached to the main supermarket in the square. You can buy a wide variety of drugs without a prescription, which we found very handy, though we did have to try several stores before we found some of the less common items.

For people who are still in the planning stages of their trip, I would recommend that you stock up on medicine before you go. Some medication is hard to find, and can be extortionately expensive. (For example: We spent $1,300 (US) in Florida, not including the $400 it cost us to see a doctor to get our prescriptions in the first place. Ouch!)

Launderettes (lavandarias)

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The island’s noisiest, messiest launderette: they were repairing the road, which is why it looks like there’s a sandpit outside. (Great service inside, though!)

There are launderettes everywhere, but the one we used was on Avenida Abasolo. They charged $5.55 for up to 4 kilos of laundry, washed and dried in 2 hours. We thought this was great value for money, especially as our apartment had no washing line and very few places to hang wet clothes.

Souvenir shops

You can buy old tat... sorry, I mean souvenirs pretty much anywhere on the island; vendors are impossible to avoid, there are so many of them. When wandering down the street expect to be stopped every two seconds by someone inviting you into their shop for a browse. You need to either get very good at saying “No”, or expect to go home with an awful lot of souvenirs! (We’re bad tourists; we said no.)

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I wonder what Walmart would have to say about this?

A note about bookshops:

There are a couple of places on the island that sell second-hand English books, but don’t expect a huge variety. (They seem to sell a lot of crime novels and thrillers, for some reason!)

Restaurants & Bars

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A typical street full of restaurants. We particularly liked Rolandi’s (the orange building on the left); they make fabulous pizzas and have free Wi-Fi, which was a bonus. Plus they seem incapable of pouring a single glass of wine: every time I asked for one they brought me a ¼ litre carafe. It was terrible, I tell you!

Restaurants and bars are plentiful, so you’re not gonna starve. We particularly liked the places that sold fresh fish. The waiters are lovely, and quite a few of them will ask your name when you go in. We were known as Pedro and Julia (pronounced hoo-lee-a, not hoo-lee-gan, as Pete suggested).

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is important for us as we are a pair of hopeless Internet addicts, so we were kind of alarmed to discover that our apartment had no router. Happily our landlord and our rental agent, Gladis, spent ages arranging things so we could piggyback next door’s Wi-Fi, so we didn’t have to spend the month suffering withdrawal symptoms and wondering how our message boards would ever survive without us.

As soon as we’d sorted out the Internet at home, we searched out public places where we could use our laptops. We found three: Rolandi’s restaurant, Pinguino’s bar, and Cafe Mogagua. This last was our favourite as it actively encouraged long-term browsing (and, by association, long-term drinking!). Their Wi-Fi was high-speed and free, and they had considerately supplied electrical outlets all around the bar. We spent hours there!

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Pete at Cafe Mogagua, forcing down a bottle of local firewater. Nothing new there, then, eh?

Beaches

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We had quite a few overcast days, as you can see here, but when it was sunny the beaches were packed.

The beaches were lovely, although we didn’t spend much time on them due to stormy weather. Still, we were chuffed ‘cos we were walking around in the middle of winter wearing shorts and t-shirts. Britain can keep its snow – we don’t miss that at all!

Getting around

Watch out for red Nissan Thingamabobs (I’m a girl, so I don’t need to know model names). These belong to taxi drivers who are as mental as cabbies in the rest of the world. I swear in order to qualify as a taxi driver you only have to do one thing: score 0/10 on the Patience Quiz.

You will also get honked every five minutes walking down the road, as taxi drivers seem to take it personally when they see tourists using their legs!

Golf carts are fun, and are popular with tourists. You can hire them hourly, daily or weekly. Rates vary, so shop around. We discovered that the further you are away from the town centre, the cheaper the price.

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Pete in our golf cart, the day we decided to visit the east side of the island and see how the other half lives.

Touristy stuff

There are a few things to do on the island, apart from drinking cocktails and slobbing out on the beach. You can spend a day at Garrafon Park, swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery, visit a turtle farm, or choose from a wide selection of fishing, snorkelling and boat tours (which we didn’t do ‘cos I get seasick sitting in the bath!)

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There are some monster turtles at the turtle farm. It was a shame we weren’t there later in the year, ‘cos I would have loved to see the babies hatching.

And thus concludes the Mexican part of our travels. We spent way longer here than I expected to, and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. Prices are reasonable, people are friendly and the weather is fabulous most of the time. If I get the chance, I would definitely come back here again!

Gotta go now, ‘cos the Internet is dodgy and I’m having difficulty maintaining a connection. I’ll write again soon from Costa Rica...

BYE!

Posted by Julie1972 10:33 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

In which Mexicans danced on their hats...

And crashed into our cars

I started my last blog entry by mentioning that New Orleans was a breath of fresh air, figuratively speaking; I cannot say the same about Mexico - literally! The air is evil over here, and for the first couple of weeks we were breathless and wheezy every time we stepped outside.

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Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and has a population of over 8 million people. It is also one of the most polluted cities in the world, partly because of its location: it lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, which traps the smog. This causes all sorts of health problems for the locals, including reduced life expectancy.

The pollution is so bad in Mexico City that car rental agencies in other states will not allow their vehicles to be driven into the capital, and instead force you switch cars for one with M.C. plates. We found this out the hard way, of course. Pete was keen to get out of the big cities and see a bit more of rural Mexico, and to this end suggested another road trip. This sounded good to me, and we made plans to do a circuit from Mexico City to Monterrey and back again.

The guy at the car rental agency freaked me out within ten minutes of entering the place. As well as warning us against mad local drivers and listing the dangerous roads we should try to avoid, he hit my major phobia button.

“They sell snakes by the side of the road in the north,” he said, conversationally. “They kill them, take off the skin, then sell the meat for food and the skins for belts.”

I immediately think of the snakes I encountered in Louisiana and Texas, reminding myself of my pledge to go home if I have to get up close and personal with another one. Add to this the fact that we had had two close encounters of the not very pleasant kind already this trip - a hotel fire and getting stuck in a lift - and the fact that bad things tend to come in threes, I was feeling kind of antsy.

Me: Change of plans! I wanna go south now!
Pete: No.
Me: Well, where exactly are these snake people? Could we just drive through that area very quickly?
Pete: They’re where we’ll be stopping tonight.
Me: *hides in corner and whimpers quietly*

As it turned out, we didn’t see the snake vendors until several days later, and although I was alarmed by how many of them there were (and, by association, how many big snakes there must be in the area), it wasn’t so bad ‘cos all you could see were the skins hanging out to dry in the sun.

I wish the snakes had been my Bad Thing #3; instead the universe decided it would be fun to involve us in a car crash. Two, actually. I dunno what we’ve done to upset Fate, but he/she/it appears to have it in for us. (Cue Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo.)

The first crash was ridiculous. We were on the motorway, and had just spotted our hotel on the other side of the road so needed to find somewhere to turn round. We drove over a bridge and see a car parked in the fast lane. Pete slammed on the brakes (which were rubbish - no ABS), but didn’t have time to stop before ploughing into the back of the moron. He was moron, too. He hadn’t broken down or anything; he’d simply stopped because he was low on petrol and decided he’d like to fill a canister in the garage over the road.

The whole thing was quite a shock. Happily no one was hurt, but I didn't handle it well. I was the first one out of the car, got straight in the idiot's face and told him what I thought of him in no uncertain terms. No matter that I don’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak a word of English, he knew what I was saying all right! (I think I used every insult I knew, and then made up a few more for good measure. It wasn’t pretty.)

I didn’t stop there either, ‘cos I proceeded to have a go at a policeman who came over to see if I was okay. (Note to self: yelling at people with guns is really not a smart move. Don’t do it again.) Luckily the copper took one look at me, decided he didn't want to deal with a hysterical foreigner, and made himself scarce.

So, yeah, not my finest moment in hindsight. If I’d been more composed I’d have given myself a slap.

Like I say, no one was hurt, but the hire car was a mess. It took hours to sort out with the police and insurance people. Señor Moron kept changing his story, and we had to rely on a translator to argue with him. The authorities were initially going to hit us with several fines, but the Chief of Police finally decided to waive all charges, having decided that good tourist relations was more important at that point in time. (I was happy to hear that they were going to charge Señor Moron, too. I dunno if he managed to talk his way out of it or not, but I bet he’ll check his petrol gauge more carefully in future.)

The second accident was as daft as the first. Again we had almost made it to our hotel. Pete braked to let a bus in, and *crunch*... not again! The twit who was tail-gating us parked in our rear end. (At least there was no way we could be held responsible for this one.) Thing is, Mr Tailgate didn’t want to be held responsible either, and kept pushing for a deal that didn’t involve the insurance companies. We couldn’t agree to that, ours being a rental car and all, but Mr. T. really did not want to swap details. I’d stayed in the car during all this (having decided not to yell at anyone this time), but eventually I got bored with the pointless, circular conversation going on outside. I stuck my head out the window and called the guy over.

Me: Senor? Do you have insurance?
Mr. T: Insurance? Yes.
Me: Good. Let us see your papers. At the moment you are wasting our time.
Mr. T: *trots off and fetches his papers from his van, no argument*

I dunno why he responded to me and not Pete, but I have several theories:

1. He has a really bossy mother and/or wife, and is used to taking orders from women.
2. Word spread about the last driver I screeched at, and Mexican people are now wary of all English gringas.
3. I looked like an escaped lunatic.

I’m going with option 3, personally. We’d been driving for hours, and were lost, tired, hungry and completely fed up with Mexican traffic. Add the fact that I had a killer migraine, PMT and sleep deprivation from being in a horribly noisy hotel the night before, I was not a pretty sight.

Anyway, whatever the reason, he coughed up his papers and swapped details with us. To be quite honest, we were both glad to see the back of hire cars. Between crashes and corrupt traffic cops, driving in Mexico has been a royal pain in the backside. From now on we refuse to drive in countries where they clip their driver's licences from the back of cereal packets!

So, enough whinging. Mexico wasn’t all bad; we had a great time when we were off the roads.

We started off in Mexico City, which is enormous, busy, bustling and an all-out assault on the senses. It’s a bizarre mixture of modern, ancient and everything else in-between. One minute you’re wandering past skyscrapers, the next you’re looking at a 16th century cathedral, and then you unexpectedly come across a Mayan relic where you least expect it. Which brings me to the reason I wanted to visit Mexico:

Tacos.

No, wait, that can’t be right! I meant ‘temples’, not ‘tacos’, honest. Or maybe I meant both ‘temples’ and ‘tacos’... Anyway, no matter, ‘cos we’ve been indulging in both.

Mexico is full of ancient temples and pyramids, and has a fascinating history. We knew very little about these cultures, so we decided to do a bit of research before visiting the relics. To this end, we spent a day at the National Museum of Anthropology, which turned out to be one of the most impressive museums I have ever seen. The place is huge: it has 23 permanent exhibition halls, and contains the largest collection of ancient Mexican artefacts in the world.

The exhibits are arranged in a time-line from prehistoric man to modern Mexican populations, and you’d need a couple of days to examine them all in detail. We only had an afternoon so had to cherry pick, but the highlights included:

- A display dedicated to the archaeological site at Teotihuacán, including a replica of Quetzalcoatl’s temple. Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent deity who was worshiped throughout Mesoamerica.

- The Aztec Calendar Stone. Many believe that this calendar is due to expire in 2012, heralding the end of the world. I’m not holding my breath; I still haven’t gotten over the letdown of the non-event of the millennium. All that fuss and bother about Y2K for nothing!

- A replica of Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feather headdress.

After seeing the anthropology museum we just had to go and see Teotihuacán for ourselves. The site is about 30 miles outside Mexico City, so we decided a bus tour was the best way to get there. Of course, in typical tour guide style, they don’t just take you to the main attraction. First we we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a popular Catholic pilgrimage site), followed by a Blatant Shopping Opportunity at a place where they carve stuff out of basalt (though they did give us free tequila and alcoholic cactus liquor there, so it wasn’t a total waste of time).

Anyway, Teotihuacán, when we finally arrived, was amazing. It is a huge complex, so we didn’t have time to see all of it, but most people gravitate towards the Avenue of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.

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Me and the Pyramid of the Sun. No one is sure who built Teotihuacán, but the city is thought to have been a centre of industry in its heyday, with many tradesmen and craftsmen. Teotihuacán collapsed sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries, and again no one is sure why. Experts originally thought that invaders raided and burned the city, but others have contested this, hypothesising that the burning occurred during an internal uprising. No one knows for sure, so its destruction remains as controversial as its creation!

Of course, looking at the pretty pyramids is one thing, but it’s quite another to climb ‘em. “What a good idea!” we said, watching other tourists going up and down. “Let’s do that.” And which pyramid shall we climb? Why, the big one, of course! It's only 248 steps - how hard can it possibly be?

We never learn. This is Pete at the top:

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Pete practising being a sacrificial victim. Did the Aztecs bother cutting out the heart if the victim had a coronary after climbing all those stairs?

That wasn’t the end of our pyramid adventures, though, ‘cos we spent Christmas in the Yucatan. After several days sitting around in our resort, overeating and drinking too many cocktails, guilt got the better of us, and we decided we really ought to go out and do something. There wasn’t much of discussion about where to go: we were in the area, so we just had to see Chichen Itza.

This tour also had an extra side-trip: we got to go swimming in an underground sinkhole:

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Swimming in natural wells – way more interesting than Blatent Shopping Opportunities.

Chichen Itza is a huge ancient Mayan site with many beautifully preserved buildings. Because of its size, it is worth while taking an official tour to make sure you don’t miss anything. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and we felt that we got a lot more out of the tour by being part of a group.

Mayans were a bloodthirsty lot, and we heard some gruesome stories that day. The most memorable for me was about the popular sport of the time, a game which involved putting a heavy ball through a stone hoop. Use of the hands was forbidden, so the players used their hips, or sometimes bats and rackets, to manipulate the ball. Matches were between two individuals from two teams of players. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed – willingly, I might add.

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A stone ring on the Great Ballcourt. Apparently actual goals were rare events: the rings are six meters off the ground, and the balls were only slightly smaller than the hoops.

The Mayans were talented astronomers, and relied on star charts heavily to help them make day-to-day decisions. Male athletes were chosen according to the zodiac: babies born between certain dates were taken from their parents and raised to play sports. They were indoctrinated to believe that being sacrificed was a great honour. (Heh, and I thought my P.E. teachers were sadists. Suddenly double hockey first thing on a Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad.) They did a similar thing with girl children, who they sacrificed to ensure the rain would fall.

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The observatory (a.k.a. ‘the snail’, due to the spiral staircase inside the building). The observatory’s design was condemned by Mayan expert J. Eric Thompson; he described it as "hideous... a two-decker wedding cake on the square carton in which it came." Everyone’s a critic, eh?

The main attraction of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a huge step pyramid dedicated to the god El Kukulkan, which, sadly, we weren’t allowed to climb. Our guide told us that too many little yobs had been going up there with cans of spray paint (what is the matter with people, honestly?), plus in 2006 an 80 year old woman fell from the staircase and died.

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El Castillo has a pretty cool acoustic property: if you stand parallel to a staircase and clap your hands, the echo sounds like a bird’s cry.

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Pete. (The '32' sticker on his t-shirt was our tour bus number.)

There is so much more to both Chichen Itza and Teotihuacán I can’t describe it all here. We enjoyed both trips immensely, and if you ever get the chance, we recommend that you go and see them for yourselves.

I think this entry is longer than usual, so I’ll stop now. But before I go, I just wanted to say that we didn’t actually see any Mexicans dancing on their hats... but we did see some dancing with beer bottles on their heads.

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Pete was so, so worried that someone would drop a bottle and waste precious beer!

Posted by Julie1972 17:23 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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