Earlier this year (in February), my wife and I had a lovely 8 day, 9 night trip to Mexico. The first four nights were in Palenque, one night in Campeche, and then four nights in a B&B near Tulum. The major themes this year were Mayan architecture, some wildlife, and some actual rest and relaxation (something we don't normally do on our tropical adventures).
We spent the first full day of our trip just getting to Palenque (we flew into Villahermosa via a long layover in Houston). Apparently Palenque will be getting its own international airport at some point in the next 1-2 years. That will make a return trip much more likely. As it was, we cleared customs at Villahermosa at about 9:45 PM--and still had a two hour drive to get to Palenque. Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us (booked through our hotel) and we arrived with no problem whatsoever.
Days 1-4: Palenque
Our hotel was the Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal. Boy, after a long day of traveling, what a perfect place to arrive at. Someone was waiting to check us in and take our bags up to our room--at 11:45 PM. All of the buildings were constructed to resemble those from the Classical Mayan period--down to the intricate carvings and stelae. We stayed in the junior suite (cheapest room there) and it was a treat. Outdoor seating area, indoor seating area, air conditioning (we never used) gorgeous built-in tropical hardwood features, flat screen television (we only watched the super bowl on it). The food is an interesting mix of traditional Italian, Mexican, and Mayan cuisines--all of it very good.
Our first day was spent on a private tour of the Palenque ruins with our guide Arturo (booked through the Hotel). He was very personable and knowledgeable (he speaks French and Italian in addition to Spanish and English), and helped us enjoy the extraordinary ruins there (which was the main purpose behind this vacation). We spent that afternoon just hanging out by their pool (a three-tiered affair complete with waterfall (and iguanas and birds of course).
odd quirk: February is the low season near Palenque for tourism, despite being the best weather conditions. Apparently it's mostly Europeans that visit, and their peak time is July-August.
Our second day was supposed to be a waterfall and river day, but we decided to make it a hang out by the pool and have a traditional Mayan steam bath day (we've seen a lot of waterfalls, and just couldn't get motivated to pile into a minivan). Good call. We had the pool area all to ourselves, and were able to just soak in the sun and water.
Our third day was spent doing a tour of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Once again, we had the pleasure of Arturo's company. We did Yaxchilan first (and thus beat the big busloads of our fellow day trippers our there). The boat ride produced bird and crocodile sightings, while the ruins at Yaxchilan were especially beautiful in their detailed carvings--more beautiful than anywhere else we've seen. Bonampak of course is famous for its murals--and rightly so. Thank whatever deity is responsible for their miraculous survival over the centuries. We ended that day by stopping by the bus station to buy our tickets for the next day’s trip to Campeche.\
Day 5: Palenque to Campeche
While waiting for the bus early the next morning, we saw Arturo again. He was stopping by to make sure we made it on the bus okay. We were very touched—it shows what a good man and guide he is.
The bus ride to Campeche was largely uneventful. Bird lovers will want to ride on the lefthand side of the bus by the window, as that provides a great deal of birdwatching in the drainage areas next to the road—all kinds of storks, herons, egrets, etc.
Our hotel was the Hotel Castelmar. This is pretty much a “can’t go wrong” type of place—very good location in the historic center, very affordable, clean and well-preserved historic building, with a small pool, lovely courtyard, wifi, and very reasonable rates.
Campeche itself reminded us of Andalusia, in terms of architecture and street layouts within the historic center. We spent our day there walking around, exploring the forts and gates, just wandering the streets, and soaking it in. This was really only a stopover on our way to Tulum, and it fit that purpose in addition to providing an interesting day. We could have spent more time there to do day trips, and certainly wouldn’t have minded, but we weren’t left with the feeling that we were cheated with only one day there.
Days 6-9: Tulum
Easy Way Car rental dropped off our vehicle at our hotel (from their office in Merida). It wasn’t the cheapest rental, since we were dropping off in Cancun, but given the reviews we decided that it was a much better option than the in-town Europcar.
The drive from Campeche to Tulum wasn’t terribly difficult—we were able to use the GPS on our phones—but it was trying between Campeche and Merida due to road construction. We took the toll road between Merida and Valladolid. It goes very fast—very, very little traffic. But, there’s no services whatsoever. You either gas up/use the restroom before, or after. There is a rest stop at the very end, just as you exit. Food, restrooms, wifi, gas.
Our place to stay for our four nights near Tulum (inland village of Macario Gomez on the Coba road) was La Selva Mariposa. An absolutely gorgeous, wonderful place to stay. We stayed in the large suite, which had thoughtful design, a patio, plus a combination waterfall/plunge pool/private cenote right off the bedroom (with a hammock over it). Ah. The breakfasts are very good there, the owners are very friendly and interesting folks.
Activities. On our first full day, we toured Coba in the morning. Very much worth seeing, especially given its jungle location (we saw a column of army ants terrorizing everything in its path). One often hears how it’s more impressive than Chichen Itza—I’d have to disagree with that part. At least insofar as what as been excavated/restored. Perhaps that’s also due to being spoiled by seeing the sites in Chiapas. We then did some souvenir shopping along the road back (got a beautiful mask for a price I was embarrassed to pay, it was so cheap) and spent the afternoon in the plunge pool.
Our second full day was spent exploring the Sian Kaan Biosphere. We did two birding tours with Sian Kaan Community Tours—an EARLY morning bird walk near the Muyil ruins, and an afternoon boat tour of the waters (mostly lagoons). We saw 55 species that day—including some rare endemics like the Yucatan parrot and Yucatan woodpecker, as well as gorgeous birds like the green jay and the violaceous trogon. Most striking, perhaps was the sheer abundance of aquatic birds in the waters. Literally hundreds of tricolor, great blue, and little blue herons and great and reddish egrets. Throw in a small island full of roseate spoonbills and other such birds and it was a fantastic day. Sian Kaan is really gorgeous and a must-see in the area, if you’re into nature.
Our third day was much more mellow—walking around the ruins at Tulum and then hanging out a Tulum beach club for the afternoon. Tulum is as advertised—spectacular setting, tons of iguanas, well preserved but not terribly impressive ruins. The club we chose—La Vita e Bella—was perfect for our needs—very mellow vibe (not party central like some places) with of course the gentle waves and perfect powdery white sand.
The next day, we had to get up very early, and return the car to Easy Way’s office near Cancun airport. Warning—if you’re using Easy Way—their office is impossible to spot from the road. It’s tucked behind a gas station further up a hill. We had some issues finding it—we had to call from the road to get the location correct.
Overall, a lovely trip that combined nature, relaxation, and culture/history.