So, that was me worshipping at the Temple of Kukulcán at Chichén Itzá, Mexico.
If you look closely at the top of the pyramid, you will see the feathered serpent god Kukulcán slithering down the steps. If you can’t see him, that’s because you are not spirit-filled. Nothing a few shots of tequila can’t fix, however.
But you can’t go to Cancun without going up to Chichén Itzá. It’s a touristy thing to do. But mi gente, we were turistas.
We’ll get back to Chichén Itzá shortly. First, Cancun.
Oh, I can get used to Cancun.
I have a love-hate relationship with any body of water. But Cancun put me at ease. The powdery-sand beaches. The turquoise waters. The promise of a million tacos and toothsome enchiladas. Oh yea, I can get used to Cancun.
Right from the Cancun International Airport, the missus’ mood brightened. The Arrivals area was clean, modern and efficient. The border control officers were courteous and professional. The airport experience was a stark contrast to the one in Havana.
But once you clear Immigration and Customs at Cancun International Airport, it is bedlam. You are besieged by a deluge of salespeople offering you time shares, tour packages, car rentals and taxi rides. It can be overwhelming to the unprepared. But me, I’d pored over several YouTube videos and read a tonne about Cancun. I knew what to expect.
A simple advice: don’t sign up for any timeshares, presentations or take a taxi from one of the taxi hawks at the airport. Pre-arrange your taxi. Your hotel can help you out or you can book online. The taxis at the airport will gouge you so deeply, you’ll think you’ve been mauled by a tiger. These dudes can charge you between $80 — $100 for the 20-minute ride to the Hotel Zone. The ride costs no more than $35 in a private shuttle. If you are sharing the shuttle with other travellers, it’ll be around $15 per rider. I’d pre-booked our hotel transfer before arrival. I was in no mood for charity.
Let me tell you about a little hustle the missus fell for.
While waiting for our hotel transfer, Mrs Alade thought she’d cool her heels at Air Margaritaville, an open-air bar outside the Arrivals area. I chose to stand around and look out for our shuttle. As an Agege boy pulling himself up by his Timberland bootstraps, I have developed finely tuned nostrils for sniffing out a bad deal or a rip-off. And that Air Margaritaville smelled more like Mugsville. A bar in the waiting area of an airport in a city that thrives on tourism can’t charge a monk price. But Mrs Alade is not from the streets. She sat in a comfy chair and ordered a pina colada.
It was $45.
When we were in Miami, against my hesitance, the missus had also made us go into a cute ice cream parlour on Ocean Drive. It was our first time in Miami and on Ocean Drive. But again, I’d watched so many videos and read so much about Miami. Ocean Drive is not where you go if you have money you don’t want to spend. But how can we come to Miami and not go to Ocean Drive? Instagram might even sue us.
The missus ordered the smallest ice cream serving for one. Some flavour I’d never heard of. It was $19.50. Excluding tip. She said the ice cream was nice.
It’ll be nice if she doesn’t bankrupt me.
But I digress. Back to Cancun.
Getting into Mexico was simple. Unlike Cuba, I didn’t have to write to the United Nations about where and how to get a Mexican tourist visa. As a Nigerian citizen, you need a visa to visit Mexico. But getting a visa is easy. You apply to the Mexico Embassy in Abuja in person, and if all goes well, the visa is issued the same day. But we didn’t need to apply for a visa. Because if you have a US visa (of any type) or a Schengen, UK, Canada or Japan visa, you do not need a visa to visit Mexico. Just buy your plane ticket and you’ll be por favor-ing in no time.
Now, we could have flown directly from Havana to Cancun — a 1hr 45m hop. But the only direct flight was at 8:30 pm and on the poorly reviewed Mexican airline Aeromar. Call me cowardly, but I didn’t fancy a night flight between two third-world countries over the Caribbean Sea on an airline people thought was absolute crap. I read reviews a lot. I once bought a bicycle for my daughter that had a terrible review but hoped the buy would turn out right. It didn’t. It broke on the first day of riding. So, I decided to be safe than sorry. We opted to fly back to Miami and from Miami fly to Cancun.
Hotel Zone or Downtown Cancun?
What is special about Cancun anyway?
You mean apart from the turquoise beaches, forgetting all your worries and the enchantment of a Mexican society? Nothing really.
Cancun exists for tourism. That’s probably a discrediting thing to say about the nice and hardworking Mexicans who live in the city. Sure, Mexican folks live and work in the city long before hotels and resorts sprang up. But Mexican folks also live and work in Hidalgo del Parral. Nobody waxes lyrical about Hidalgo del Parra. Mexico has a lot of jungles and scorched earth. Not Cancun. It chose a nice spot on the Caribbean shores. On waters with delightful shades of blue where you can snorkel with turtles. Right from its mother’s womb, Cancun knew what it wanted to be.
Cancun is divided into two areas: the Zona Hotelera or Hotel Zone, and Downtown Cancun or El Centro.
The Hotel Zone is a narrow 22.5-km-strip on the Caribbean shores. It is dotted with hotels, resorts, villas, waterfront restaurants, nightlife and other attractions. It is the Cancun people have in mind when they think “Cancun.” The Cancun 23 million tourists visited in 2019. It is the Cancun 25 million people would have visited by the end of 2022.
Our hotel was in the Hotel Zone, the Beachscape Kin Ha Villa & Suites. Not too shabby. It claims to have the best natural beach in the whole of Cancun. It may well have. The beach was powdery white sand and the water was crystal turquoise. No dangerous undertow. No churning waves. Our homely one-bedroom apartment was only 40 meters away from the beach. I walked about two kilometres every morning on the beach, the clear water caressing my feet and darting back. I’m loving it in Mehico!
Downtown Cancun or El Centro (City Centre) is where the locals live. The real Cancun. The hotels here are cheaper and it is where you stay if you want to experience authentic Mexican living. This is where you’ll find the Walmarts, the iHops, and McDonald’s. It is also where you should go to buy souvenirs and eat inexpensive authentic Mexican meals. We booked a one-night stay in Downtown Cancun just to see what the place was like. It was a decent hotel. But I didn’t come all the way to Cancun to do decent. It is the Hotel Zone for me.
Beaches in Cancun
Strictly speaking, all beaches in Cancun are public (federal property). However, the beaches in the Hotel Zone have been appropriated by the numerous hotels, resorts and villas that line them. Each section of the beach now “belongs” to the hotel behind it. On paper, you can walk through any hotel lobby and onto the beach. The hotels that allow that might require a minimum purchase of beverages. And you can’t use the beach umbrellas, chairs or loungers for free. But not to worry. There are over 11 public beaches in Cancun. You can check them out here.
Getting around in Cancun.
Now, if Elon Musk or Bill Gates ever became broke, it’ll be because they took taxis in Cancun. In Mexico, you don’t need to join the Sinaloa Cartel to be rich. You only need to be a taxi driver in Cancun. The taxi drivers reason that if you are a tourist, you must have money and are entitled to rummage in your pocket.
How expensive are the taxis?
So, one day, Mrs Alade sent me to get some groceries. I walked to the Chedraui Supermarket about three hundred meters from the hotel. It was a walking distance. I’d planned on walking back to the hotel after the shopping. But the sun in Mexico is scorching and I was toting groceries in both hands. I decided to take a taxi.
I went to the taxi ramp at the supermarket. A taxi driver asked me to pay MX$200 pesos ($20). I baulked. He then reduced it to $15. No, can’t do. Adiós amigo. $15 for a 300-metre ride was simply unconscionable.
There was a bus stop across from the supermarket. I recalled the airport shuttle driver telling us we can get up and down the Hotel Zone for $1 on designated buses. I decided to give the bus a try. I waited alongside godly Mexicans. A few minutes later the bus arrived. I got in. It was $1 and it dropped me in front of my hotel less than a minute later.
Needless to say, I never took a registered taxi in Cancun.
There is Uber in Mexico. But in Cancun, Uber drivers are endangered species. They are frequently assaulted by taxi drivers. All the Uber I took were so secretive, they wouldn’t come into the hotel to pick me up. They’ll park outside the hotel or mall and ask me to get into the car as if I was an acquaintance. On a few occasions, I had to walk a few blocks to get into the Uber to protect the driver from being seen by taxi drivers.
The police are no help. They look away. One of the Uber drivers told me the taxi union and the police break bread together.
So, beware if you want to take Uber in Cancun. If you don’t like intrigue and subterfuge, just fork out for the shylock taxis. Or you can get around like most locals do: on the bus. The R2 bus for the Hotel Zone and the R1 for beyond. It’s clean and safe. And it is $1. Getting on the bus makes you look less touristy.
In the Hotel Zone, people struggle to keep their clothes on. Young dudes go shirtless and dudettes spot bikinis. Even in supermarkets. I thought about going around only in my beach shorts too. But I didn’t want to scare children.
Souvenirs and Mercado 28.
Well, I couldn’t go to Mexico and not bring home souvenirs. For me, that was a sombrero, a poncho, some glow-in-the-night ghoulish t-shirts and a Mayan hand-crafted leather backpack. And of course, tequila. This is the spiritual home of the tequila. I like to think that Mexicans consider poor tequila a national affront.
The place to get souvenirs in Cancun is Mercado 28 or Market 28, in Downtown Cancun.
There are shops that sell souvenirs in the Hotel Zone. But expectedly, they are expensive and the choice is limited. What you need to do is to head to Downtown Cancun, to Mercado 28. Take the R2 bus that plies the Hotel Zone ($1) and tell the driver your stop is Mercado 28. He’ll drop you off at a bus stop called Mercado 28.
But beware! At the bus stop, there are lots of shops selling souvenirs. But this is not Mercado 28. Many tourists have taken this array of shops to be Mercado 28 and have bought souvenirs there at high prices. Me, I’d read a lot about Cancun to know the real Mercado 28 was just a few minute’s walk from the bus stop. It has Mercado 28 written boldly on the wall. I knew what to look out for. I’d read a lot about Cancun, I could run for its Mayor.
But alas! The glow-in-dark t-shirts do not glow in the dark but glow only under certain coloured lights. So be warned. But I like the ghoulish tees enough to rock them without the glow. I’ll wear them to church for Communion Service.
Right. Chichén Itzá
Remember the Mel Gibson flick Apocalypto? That was the Mayan people. And the city of the marauding warriors could as well have been Chichén Itzá.
The Mayan people and civilization included several city-states that extended all the way to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. Chichén Itzá was one of the biggest and more prosperous cities. It dates back to 400 AD. In 1998, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and voted as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in a 2007 global survey.
Going to Cancun and not going to Chichén Itzá is like going to London and not eating fish and chips. It’s ridiculous, verging on the sacrilegious even. We had to go learn more about the Mayans.
Mexico may have some amazing beaches. But it also has some great archaeological sites. Chichén Itzá sits at the top of the pile and is still an active archaeological site. The fact that it is 193 miles from Cancun makes it one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.
We went on a group tour. The tour bus picked us up in front of the hotel at 5:30 am. Yea, 5:30 am. It needed to be this early to make the rounds to pick up other tourists at their hotels. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and hilarious. He was of Mayan descent and was effusive about Mayan history. You gotta toot your horn I say.
As the crow flies, Chichén Itzá is a 2:30hr-drive from Cancun. We made a short detour to the 16th-century town of Valladolid. We then stopped over at a Mayan village for lunch, tequila tasting and some Mayan crafts. On our way back, we visited a cenote for a quick swim.
Now, let me warn you: Chichén Itzá is hot! I mean, this is right in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula. Please go along with sunblock (sunscreen lotion) or a small umbrella. And dress lightly and comfortably. Sneakers and sandals are your best friend. You can of course wear your stiletto or oxfords if you want. But you’ll probably die and be buried in the bushes.
Right. Meet Rodolfo and Flavia. They are an Argentine couple. We met at the cenote.
Flavia came over to where Mrs Alade and I were sitting and began touching Mrs Alade’s skin! What in the world! Then she beckoned to her husband. Rodolfo came over with a big embarrassed smile as if to apologise for his wife’s lack of discretion. But Flavia didn’t care. She was just gushing over the missus’ taught skin. She touched my cheeks too.
Normally, I should have been incensed at this invasion of our space and seeming inappropriateness. I could convince my brain to dredge up Argentina’s detestable history with black people. But not everything in the world is about sexism or racism. I didn’t sense disrespect from these two people. Rather, there was warmth and affection towards us.
Turned out they were admiring our skin. Oh yea, black is beautiful. We age well. Flavia was telling Rodolfo how beautiful and smooth Mrs Alade’s skin was. She wished she had such skin. She wished she was young again. The couple were in their mid-sixties. They’d been married close to forty years.
Rodolfo knew only a few words in English. Flavia was hopeless with English. So we communicated through Google Translate. They told us that their children had left home and they were just travelling some. They invited us to visit them in Argentina. We would not pay for a hotel. They have rooms to spare and would love to host us. We exchanged numbers and got into our respective tour buses.
That’s what I like about travelling. You meet the most amazing people.
I’ve got to know Rodolfo and Flavia a little more. During the just concluded World Cup in Qatar, we texted one another when Argentina was playing. I shared in their tenterhooks in the finals between Argentina and France. I was chatting with both Rodolfo and Flavia on their separate mobile numbers. The chatter was relentless. When Argentina went up 2–0, I could sense Flavia doing cartwheels. When France equalized, Flavia cursed some patron saint. Luckily Argentina won. Flavia sent me a video of Rodolfo on the streets with an Argentina flag singing merrily. They both reminded me of their invitation to visit. It still stands. Flavia was one of the first people to send me a Happy New Year greeting.
Argentina is not on my list of places to see soon. But I confess that I am now seriously thinking about it.
There ends the account of our Mexican trip. I’m remiss we didn’t make the short trip to Tulum. Mexico, you haven’t seen the last of me! I’ll be back!
And oh, here’s the birthday girl once again!