In early 2013 my wife and I were in the Yucatan on a kind of extended honeymoon; I’d been wanting to see the ruins and temples for a long time. Most of them were on the tourist route – day trips from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Easy to get to and with lots of vendors selling souvenirs. But after we did most of the bigger ones and had our fill of Cenotes and all day Water Adventure Parks, we wanted to get out and see some more of Mexico. This is that story.
We started in Playa Cancun and rented a car for 10 days. Car rental is not cheap in Mexico – you have to pay extra insurance and other things. I shopped around and couldn’t find anything for less than about $50 per day.
If you drive down to Tulum (a nice coastal city, some of the best scenery is south of Tulum) you can turn right and get on a highway. It’s not a big highway though. It cuts straight through the rural heart of the Yucatan. We passed some really far out, middle of nowhere pueblos. We’d see a guy walking or riding his bike and think “where the hell did he come from?”
The landscape was monotonous, and we stopped for the night in Valladolid. It was a colorful, interesting old town, with a large Cathedral decoration by some colorful carnival equipment and a local market. But mostly a tough, dry place with few tourists. We got on the road late so when we arrived at Chichen Itza we didn’t have much time, it was already afternoon and they were closing soon. Not ideal.
But we had to press on to Merida, where we stayed a few days and enjoyed the Carnival. A lot of expats live in and recommend Merida. It was alright but I don’t think I’d live there. Driving was a pain, lots of small, one way streets. Tough, salty food. For the main carnival parade we had dinner at one of the restaurants with the old balconies so we could look right down and the festivities.
After the 3rd day we continued down South and visited Uxmal, featuring the large Pyramid of the Magician. The ruins at Uxmal are massive and sprawling, you could easily spend a day and not see it all. There were also some really interesting architecture, carvings and symbolism. Much more interesting that the other places we’d been or Chichen Itza.
We kept driving and somehow made it to Campeche – our new favorite town in Mexico. Campeche is not very touristy, but very beautiful and European. It’s where (in my understanding) more of the Spanish Wealth and families remained, so it has less “local Mexico” feel and is well-maintained historical city, full of sculptures, art and culture. There was an public exhibit by a local sculptor so all over the city were these winged figures… very beautiful.
But driving south from Campeche we lost touch with civilization. Champoton is a less well-maintained coastal city. I think that’s were we hit our first road block, with police holding us up until we paid a bribe.
And it was confusing, because they couldn’t ask for it, and if felt strange to just offer money…
We also found out that our car rental place hadn’t changed the licensing permit attached to the back window, which is week by week – ours was for the previous week. So the first roadblock pointed this out and I said I had no idea, it’s not our fault… he had us call the rental place to ask what to do.
The rental place just told me to give them some money.
“How Much?” I asked.
Around $10 or $20….I gave him a little more. I was feeling generous.
At the second roadblock, there were just a couple cops, one guy smiling big and leaning into the window, asking where we were from, what kind of money we use there, and “Oh, can I have some?” Much smoother.
Further south, probably around Escarcega, we got hit once on the way in and once on the way out. The second was a much larger road block. About twenty policemen with rifles. At first they were going to flag us through; then they saw our expired paperwork and knew they had us.
I tried to just give them money but they refused (too public) and made me get out of the car. At this point I’d been hit 4 times in the same day and was frustrated and running out of cash.
They wanted MUCH more money, more like a few hundred USD. They showed me the paperwork they would have to write up; they said they would have to take me to the local police station and I’d have to pay a big fine.
I kept saying I don’t have that much, they kept saying “So what are we going to do about it?”
I finally took everything out of my wallet (probably around $70) and said “This is all I have. Now we have no money for food or water. Can we go?”
(By the way, these negotiations were done in Spanish. I wonder what all this would have been like if I couldn’t speak any Spanish?)
We drove a little further and ALMOST stayed at a pretty nice looking and super cheap hotel by the side of the freeway, but decided against it because they didn’t have wifi (big mistake). We found the Calakmul turnoff and were looking for a place to stay. This area is really rural. We couldn’t find a gas station, supermarket, restaurant or anything. It was dark and a little scary. We drove down a pitch black, tiny weaving dirt road for 20 minutes and found a eco-resort near the Calakmul turnoff. (I think this one) but it was really pricy for very basic accommodation (about $160/night). We decided to stay anyway, but then learned they didn’t take credit cards, and we’d given most of our cash to the policemen.
So we looked around some more and found another little place with very basic cabins, for something like $15 a night. We had no food but the snacks we’d bought earlier, no water, but we figured we could just sleep and go to the ruins in the morning.
The drive to Calakmul the next morning was long and bumpy – a narrow road cut through the jungle, at least an hour, and you have to be careful of anyone coming the other way. Apparently there was a gift store/snack shop but when we drove in a guard just flagged us to turn towards Calakmul. When we finally got to the ruins, we learned we couldn’t buy any snacks or water at the ruins (even though there was a small information office).
We were pretty desperate, and tired and thirsty, but we didn’t want to drive all the way back out again… so we decided to just look around.
Calakmul is a large area, there are several enormous structures whose tips poke out of the jungle. We were mostly alone although we saw a few other visitors. We could climb wherever we liked; although after climbing two of the biggest ones my limbs were getting shaky and coming down was a bit scary. There’s definitely a more “tomb-raider” or “lost civilization” to Calakmul.
When we drove back out, the gift shop/snack bar was just closed. So we headed back to the highway and stopped at the first local restaurant we found (we’d been fasting for almost 24hours at this point…)
We finished by driving to Bacalar and back up to Tulum.
Was Calakmul worth the drive? Maybe…but I think I would have started from Campeche, driven up and around (Merida/Tulum) and then down and avoided the areas in the Southwest. A package tour would have been easier. Definitely bring a lot of water and supplies with you.
PS: This was all a year ago, things may be more developed now. Here are some pictures of the journey.