Including Ancient Mayan Civilisations Tour

Mexico City is huge, bustling and busy. It has been said that with its expanding population already exceeding 26 millions, it will outgrow itself and the infasructure will collapse 10 years from now.

The main roads system copes well with the traffic, and the vast underground train network with ten interconnnecting lines is inexpensive, airconditioned, and efficient, with trains arriving every 5 to 10 minutes, to transport huge crowds. Standing in an underground train carriage, I can see from one end to the other over the heads of the locals. Few Mexicans appear taller than my armpit. Many of the young Mexicans keep fit playing soccer, but most of the older generation have beer &/or Tequila bellies.

Everywhere you go, sidewalk vendors selling food and a variety of general goods, appear to conduct more business than conventional shops.

The magnificent Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park provides a spacious and interesing display of the history of Mexico. The park itself is extensive, but the main paths are lined with endless vendors stalls.

Other points I noticed around town are :

For a popular tourist destination, I was surprised how few people speak English. Those that do, only "pocheto", a little. But they do their best to be helpful. It appears that they are so keen to be helpful when giving directions, that rather than say they dont know, they will tell you anything, and often send you in the wrong direction. Its advisable to ask at least three people, and hope that two of them are correct — and even this isn't always successful.

Mexico Ancient Civilisations Tour, operated by Gap Tours, commenced in Mexico City in July, 2004, and finishing in Playa Del Carmen or Cancun. The tour group consisted of our intrepid young Canadian leader, Samuel; an English woman, Leela; two young Australians, Danielle and Kerryn; two young blokes from Belgium, Phillipe and Wouten; and me. We travelled by public bus and van, staying in simple hotel accommodation.

The full itinerary can be seen on

Rather than bore you with a journal of the tour, I´ll just mention highlights, observations, scenes and incidents along the route, not necessarily in chronological order.

On tour, we stopped in a variety of accommodation in towns with typical Mexican names like Peubla, Oaxaca, San Cristobel, Palenque, Merida and Playa del Carmen. The zocala (town square) in these cities is the centre of social life, and a great place to relax in a sidewalk cafe with a drink, and observe the passing parade of Mexican life, which we did in many of the towns.

Near Mexico City, we saw people walking on their knees across a vast cobbled square to the Basilicas de la Virgen Gaudalupe, to give thanks or pray for help. There is an ancient basilica which contrasts markedly with a vast ultra-modern basilica next door. I was also impressed by the highly decorated nave of the Capilla Del Rosario in Puebla, which was covered in gold leaf.

From the bus between Mexico City and Puebla, we saw a semi-dormant volcano with steam issuing from the summit.

Catching the bus from Puebla to Oaxaca was an interesting and amusing experience, as incorrect directions had us rushing to the far end of the bus terminal, to discover it was about to depart from the other end where we had arrived. But we made it ! (And this while Danielle and Kerryn were busting to use a loo.)

From Oaxaca we drove by taxi to see the impressive stark white, petrified calcium waterfalls and cascades at Hierve el Agua, where we also swam in mineral pools. The return trip in the back of a villager´s open van, up a steep, rugged, unmade, winding road was an exhilarating, hair raising experience.

My preconceived ideas of Mexico were based on photos of adobe houses with cactus out front, and a Mexican with a sombrero sitting in the shade. In fact, the Yucatan Peninsula over which we travelled is covered with vast magnificent green hills, densely covered in jungle and forrests. And the only sombreros I saw were in the tourist souvenir shops, and nightclubs.

A 10km cycling trip into the hills outside of San Cristobel to see a 750 metre deep cave, also provided us with the opportunity to photograph a group of Mexican children wearing traditional clothing. (Many Mexicans decline to have their photo taken.) The freewheeling down hill run on the busy highway back to town was also exhilarating.

A fascinating stage performance of Mayan culture and history, in a San Cristobel theatre was colouful, informative and interesting.

Our first visit to any ruins were to the Temples of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan. Palenque ruins are in a very hot and humid jungle area, covering a vast area, and only a relatively small part are cleared and partly reconstructed, but they include the main temple, and the Ball Court about which several controversial opinions exist over how the game was played, and who and how often people were sacrificed.

Merida was memorable for several reasons :

Another episode of repeatedly incorrect directions given by 12 to 20 people occured, when we tried to catch a collectivo (village bus) to a restored hacienda out of town for an enjoyable lunch.

We left Merida at 6am to arrive at Chichen Itza when it opened, and before the mobs of tourists arrived. Chichen Itza was the highlight of the Mayan ruins for me. It covers a vast area and has been partly and carefully reconstructed. The climb of the 92 steep steps (I counted them) to the top of the main temple provided a superb view of the surrounding area. It is easy to imagine the excitement which would have been generated during a competition in the huge ball court. The massive area of the Hall of Columns, and the Market Place, would have provided spectacular scenes in their prime. It is fascinating to consider the Mayan´s knowledge of the universe seen from their observatory. And imagine the cermonies which would have been conducted at the Temple of Venus.

Playa Del Carmen was the end of the tour for me, where I stayed for another 10 days of sunshine and relaxation.

Thanks to Sam for your company and leadership. Thanks also to the other participants, for your company and the shared laughs. (Who will ever forget the "Crazy 8" games of cards with International rules.)

Playa Del Carmen's beach is wide and covered with clean, fine white sand. The Carribean sea is usually a milky aquamarine, changing to a indigo where it gets deeper. The water is about body temperature, perhaps 1 or 2 degrees colder on a cooler day. Some stretches of the shore are lined with small boats, waiting to take tourists fishing, snorkelling or scuba diving. Umbrella shaded tables, sun lounges and sun beds are available to stretch out on and develop a tan, while ordering drinks to avoid dehydration. Various ferries plying between Playa and Cozumel Island, constantly take on or disgorge enormous numbers of passengers on the pier at one end of the beach.

When not on the beach, or beside the hotel pool, I often sat on my hotel balcony overlooking 5th Avenue, watching the endless stream of tourists wandering along, frequently being encouraged by shop keepers to examine their wares. While Playa del Carmen is booming, buildings are fortunately restricted to no more than two or three stories in height, so a "village" atmosphere is retained !

The first street back from the beach, coincidentally named 5th Avenue, has been converted into a pedestrian mall. Currently it is being paved for the entire length, from downtown where my hotel is near the ferry terminal to Cozumel Island, through midtown, to the far end uptown.

The entire length is lined with shops, many selling impressive silver jewellery and ornaments, souvenirs, clothing etc., travel agents for various tours and activities, and numerous restaurants providing an assortment of food. The building facades vary from old and tatty to modern and airconditioned. Many of the restaurants are open air, promoting the holiday atmosphere. It's pleasant to browse in the better shops, day or night, enjoying a respite from the heat, in the airconditioning.

As the sun goes down and evening develops, the sun chairs and lounges on the beach are replaced by chairs and tables, to celebrate "Happy Hour", often for several hours. Along 5th Avenue, the tattiness disappears amid the festive lighting. The quality of food in the restaurants varies. My favourite meal is a long skewer of grilled prawns, chicken and meat, beautifully cooked and presented, along with a couple more beers and a complimentary "marguarita".

During the day and night, soloist, trios, and groups of strolling musicians and singers, wander along the beach and past the restaurants, offering entertainment. One old fellow's singing sounds like the squalling of a cat with somebody standing on its tail, but he smiles and laughs and gets lots of custom.

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Last updated 24 May 2006.