January 20, 2014

Mexico: Driving a Golf Cart in Isla Mujeres

On My Golf Cart

My travel resolution has been for a while to at least attempt to drive abroad.  So I decide to drive on the golf cart friendly island of Isla Mujeres.  There are many golf cart rentals along the street right off the ferry terminal.  Prices and carts vary mildly among the shops.  In addition to a small deposit, the rental shops may also ask to hold onto something such as an ID card.

Before reaching the island, I watched many YouTube videos on how to drive a golf cart.  Outside of college campus, parks and airports, I have never seen a golf cart.  I have never been on one neither.  It turned out golf carts are actually very common, especially in real estate communities outside of New York City.  I had no idea so many people (tweens) drive golf carts.  Most videos on YouTube are more about mockery than instruction.  Fortunately, AJ created a more serious one that I could learn from.

My Rental Golf Cart

The main road right off the ferry terminal is Avenida Rueda Medina.  It runs from the north end of Isla Mujeres to the south end on the west side.  Continuing off from the south end onto the east side is about five to ten minutes view of the Caribbean Sea, depending on how fast or slow you are driving.

The View

A Ruin

January 16, 2014

Mexico: Swimming with Whale Sharks

Whale Shark and Boats

After six days in Mexico, I am finally going to see what I come here to see – whale sharks.  I wanted to see whale sharks when I was in Utila.  I wanted to see them the last time I was in Cancun.  But my timing was never good.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) come to the Caribbean Sea to feed on planktons and other things that get slip into their mouths along the way.  They can be seen near Utila year round.  But, in Mexico, whale shark tour operators can only run tours during Whale Shark Season (usually from mid-May to mid-September).  There are many regulations enforced to keep both tourists and whale sharks safe.  For example, boats must stay at least 10 meters away from whale sharks, swimmers must stay at least 2 meters away, and only 2 tourists from each boat are allowed in the water at a time with their guide.  These and other regulations are strictly enforced by the Mexican government patrollers.

Whale Shark Seen from the Boat

I read many reviews and articles (both positive and negative ones) before deciding that I do want to see the whale sharks.  The main concerns in the negative ones are whale sharks’ safety and the large number of tourists and boats that the whale sharks attract. 

When we reach the area where the whale sharks are, there are indeed many boats, each carrying about ten people.  But they are spread out in a large open area more than a 30 minute boat ride away from shore.  Since only three people from each boat (one guide and two tourists) are allowed in the water at a time, the big fish are by no means cornered.

I ask my guide, “So how long does each person get to spend in the water?”.  “Each time we go into the water for about five minutes, but you can go as many times as you want.”, he replies.  Then wouldn’t the tour go on for hours and hours?  It turns out the answer to that is “no”.

Watching Whale Shark Eat

Even though whale sharks are gentle animals, the water they swim in is not necessarily calm.  To swim with whale sharks, you have to swim either with or against waves. Snorkels and fins help tremendously.  But it still requires a lot of energy to simply be in the same water as them.  So many people do not return to the water after their first time.

However, if you spend more time in the water, you will see more.  As I look around to see where is the closest whale shark, there is a manta ray passing by right beneath me.  It takes a good few seconds before its large, flat, rhomboid body swims out of my view.  It is that big!

Part of a Manta Ray

On the way back to Isla Mujeres, we pass by a pod of dolphins too!

January 10, 2014

Mexico: Hotel Bahía Chac Chi

Hotel Bahía Chac Chi

When I see Hotel Bahía Chac Chi from the Ultramar ferry, I know I choose the right hotel for this trip.  Even though Isla Mujeres is only 7 kilometers long and 650 meters wide, I still prefer a hotel close to a public transportation hub.  In this case, it is the ferry dock.  Most boats bringing guests to Isla Contoy and to see whale sharks leave from this side of the island too.

Hotel Bahía Chac Chi

True to its beach town spirit, the lobby of Hotel Bahía Chac Chi is always open.  It does not even seem to have doors.  Everything from the nude sand tones to the diagonally vaulted ceiling and walls draws the sand and surf in its vibe.

Behind the lobby, there is a small rectangular pool that gets to almost 5 feet deep.  I never quite understand why hotels so close to beaches would have pools.  But it is actually quite calming to just sit in still water after a day out on boats or swimming in the ocean.

The room’s décor is minimum.  The amenities, however, are more than what I need – free WIFI, free breakfast, charging dock for iPhone/iPod, and television.  There are even free bottled water to help you rehydrate after a day in the sun.

January 9, 2014

Mexico: From Chichén Itzá to Isla Mujeres

Going from Chichén Itzá to Isla Mujeres requires a five hour bus ride, a transfer and a ferry ride.  It is doable within a day, but requires some patience.  The local bus I boarded went from one tiny town to another until it reached the terminal in Cancun. 

At one point along the way, I saw out the window countless tiny yellow butterflies fluttering about close to the ground at an empty lot.  The ground did not even have grass, much less any flower.  Alberto, my guide at Muyil and Sian Ka'an, told me that the butterflies were looking for salt.  It turns out sodium is a vital nutrient to butterflies just as it is to other animals.  According to Dino Martins’ Mud Puddle (or be damned!): article on on salt-seeking butterflies, only male butterflies would be out looking for salt in such huge groups, while female butterflies get theirs through mating.  I wish I have a good picture or video of the butterflies.  I have never seen so many butterflies so densely gathered at any flower patch.

Swordfish Decoration

In Cancun, I transferred onto a smaller bus wrapped in UltraMar’s blue and yellow ad to the ferry terminal at Puerto Juárez.  When I saw the swordfish decoration hung outside the terminal building, I felt a pang of déjà vu.  Why does this look so familiar?  As I wrote this post, I checked pictures from my last trip to Mexico, and I really was here before!  I was even on Isla Mujeres!  But it was only a quick day trip from Cancun.  This time I will remember.

Ferry Terminal at Puerto Juárez

An UltraMar Ferry

A Pirate Ship Nearby

Before Sunset

At Sunset

January 8, 2014

Mexico: Chichén Itzá’s Zona Norte

Vendors setting up stalls on Sacbe No. 1

It may not look like one, but the path between Zona Central and Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) to the north is a ruin too.  It is called Sacbe No. 1 – part of the road network Mayans built connecting major cities and cenotes – protected by a long wall on each side.  Nowadays, every morning, numerous vendors bring in different kinds of souvenir on carts and set up their stalls along the walls. 

Wood carvings of The Three Wise Monkeys are quite popular.  They come in different sizes and colors.  But, aside from there being monkeys in Mexico, The Three Wise Monkeys actually have no connection to Mayan culture.  The concept of the monkeys that “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak” originates from a word play of the same phrases in Japanese “見ざる, 聞かざる, 言わざる” (mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru).  Each phrase ends in ざる (zaru), which could also mean monkey.  The origin of “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak” (shortened from “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”) is Confucius.  Nonetheless, the monkeys are well recognized and very cute.  They can be bought in any combination and arranged in any order.

Many Wise Monkeys

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) is located at the very north end of Sacbe No.1 and Chichén Itzá.  It is a natural well 60 meters wide in diameter.  Despite its murkiness, archeologists enter the water and found various objects sacrificed during ceremonial rituals.

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote)

January 7, 2014

Mexico: Chichén Itzá’s Zona Central

Cactuar and Koala in front of Temple of Kukulcan

The great thing about staying at one of the hotels by Chichén Itzá is that you can explore the ruins from when it is just open until it is about to close to visitors.  The time before the buses arrive and after they leave is when you can take pictures with the least photo bombs, especially at the popular Temple of Kukulcan in Zona Central. 

Another must-see in Zona Central is the El Gran Juego de Pelota (The Large Ball Court).  The Large Ball Court is 70 meters wide and 168 meters long.  The games played here supposedly required players to keep a heavy rubber ball from touching the ground by passing it back and forth among themselves without using their hands.

Outside The Large Ball Court

Inside The Large Ball Court

A Ball Ring

Opposite the Ball Court, on the other side of Temple of Kukulcan are groups of massive number of stone columns.  Some are carved with reliefs, some are not.  But they all once supported roofs.  The whole area, now resembled neat plantation of rocks, was once supporting the ceilings of a market place, steam bath, and parts of several temples.

Columns near Temple of Warriors

Ruins of a Steam Bath

January 4, 2014

Mexico: Chichén Itzá’s Zona Sur

Chichén Itzá has three main parts – Zona Norte, Zona Central, and Zona Sur.  They are connected by paths that seem to be only occupied by souvenir vendors selling wood carvings and silver accessories.  The toy of the year is something that resembles a leopard pipe.  It makes what supposes to be the roar of a leopard when it is blown.  But don’t let the constant roaring discourage you and keep walking.

Zona Sur has the most diverse types of structures.  Seeing the egg like observatory, El Caracol, on a brochure when I got home was what made me realized I missed the entire south part of Chichén Itzá on my first visit.  So this is time I make sure that I go there first.

El Caracol (The Observatory)


There are a small but well embellished structure called La Iglesia (The Church) and a building known as Las Monjas (The Nuns) many times larger than the church.

La Iglesia (The Church)

Las Monjas (The Nuns)

Casa Colorada (The Red House or Chichanchoob)

Sometimes it can be difficult to match the plaque on the floor to the structure it is referring to.  For example, Casa Colorada (the Red House) is named for the fragments of red paint found inside the building. 

According to the guidebook I purchased the last time I was at Chichén Itzá, there should be a path located somewhere between Casa Colorada and  Las Monjas that led to another complex known as Old Chichen.  I walked back and forth between the two buildings and referenced the map at the ruins, but I could not find the path.  I guess there will be always be something to discover.


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