Last October 2019, Miguel and I wanted to spend our Halloween differently, so we decided to fly south to Cancun, Mexico for the Day of the Dead Festival or “Dia de Muertos“. Here’s a guide on how to safely get around Yucatan, things to do in Valladolid and some must-try food!
How to Get to Cancun, Mexico from Toronto, Canada
We took a 4-hour flight to Cancun via Interjet, one of the budget airlines in Mexico. Another option is Aeromexico. Our flight was delayed by 6 hours due to the fog that settled in Toronto. The plane we were supposed to take to Cancun couldn’t land in Pearson Airport, so it made an emergency landing in Montreal to re-fuel.
We had originally planned to drive down to Bacalar for a night but it’s a good thing we made a decision to go straight to Valladolid. Otherwise, we would have spent a good part of the following morning driving back north to our next destination, Valladolid. We spent a total of two nights in Valladolid and got more things done, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
Mexico Visa Requirements for Filipinos
Mexico is a visa-free country for Philippine passport holders if they have a valid US Visa or have permanent resident status in Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, or Schengen countries. Filipino tourists in Mexico simply need to fill up an Immigration Form. The attendant at the check in counter will hand you a form which you need to fill up before arriving in Mexico. Just ignore the part asking for the immigration form or card number. Alternatively, you can do it online and print out a copy of the form prior to check in, but it won’t make much of a difference since you’ll have to line up with all the other foreigners at immigration.
Getting Around Yucatan and Quintana Roo
First on our list is to pick up the rental car from Easy Way which is located in a secluded property 5 minutes away from the airport. It’s way cheaper compared to the car rental companies at the airport due to less tax. We paid about MXN 450 (USD 23) for a 3-day car rental. One of their employees greeted us at the airport and drove us to the Easy Way office. They also drove us back to the airport for free on the last day after we dropped off the car rental at their headquarter. We just gave the guy a MXN 20 (USD 1) tip.
Valladolid is a small town about 1.5-2.5 hrs away from the Cancun International Airport. We had a strict schedule and a limited time frame, so it made more sense for us to get drive around the Yucatan region ourselves. An alternative is to book with Xcaret Park and Resort or their other franchises like Xenses Park because they have shuttles that take guests to all tourist attractions and their other resorts.
We gassed up at Fullgas, the dominant gas station in Yucatan, Mexico. Half a tank cost us MXN 400 (USD 20).
Where to get Mobile Data Sim Cards in Mexico
On our way to Valladolid, we stopped by a major convenience store called Oxxo to purchase a Telcel Data Sim Card for MXN 29 (USD 1.5) plus your choice of plan.
Where to Stay in Valladolid, Mexico
I really liked Casa Valladolid Boutique Hotel, which is one of the better choices if you enjoy something more modern, spacious and resort-like in downtown Valladolid. Most of the other hotels are like inns. Plus, Casa Valladolid is right next to a park and a church.
However, breakfast is limited to toast and fruits. If you want a proper meal at the start of your day, you’ll have to go somewhere else.
Some Things to Know about the Yucatan Peninsula
1. Cancun is an hour behind Toronto but an hour ahead of Mexico City. It was 4 pm local time by the time we landed and 5 pm by the time we got our bag and out of the Cancun International Airport.
2. No Street Lights on the Highway. The Yucatan region is linked by Route 180. Due to our delayed flight, we got caught driving 1-2 hours on the highway after sunset. The highway didn’t have street lamps and was surrounded by dense forest, which blocked the moonlight. There were only a few cars traveling at night, which made the drive moderately eerie but the Mexican FM radio lifted the mood.
3. The entire eastern part of Mexico is covered in dense forest. Cancun thrives on tourism with its white sand beaches, cenotes and historic sites.
4. Barely anyone can speak English fluently. It’s easy to get things lost in translation. It’s also better to double up on your planned cash on hand since some restaurants and gas stations do not accept credit cards. However, they do accept American Dollars (USD 1 = MXN 20 as of Nov 2019).
5. Rural Mexico is kind of like rural Philippines: concrete houses, sari sari stores (tendiejo), and askals. The people are friendly everywhere.
6. Most dishes are made with corn. I realized that corn had such a huge role to play in the history of Mesoamerica while watching a cultural dance during Day of the Dead at Xcaret Park. Because their tortilla are made with corn as opposed to flour, the dishes are a lot heavier on the stomach.
7. Bring Cash. While a lot of establishments accept credit card, it’s still better if you buy Mexican Peso for when you stay in the rural parts of Mexico. There are also ATM machines in the small towns but be conscious of the bank fees.
Top Things To Do in Yucatan, Mexico
Chichen Itza Pyramid
The following morning, we headed west towards Chichen Itza and entered the resort by mistake. The public parking was MXN 100 (USD 5) and the private parking in the resort side was MXN 150 (USD 7.5), which is a better option if you want to avoid the buses and all the other tourists. The entrance fee is MXN 481 (USD 25) per adult foreigner. It’s strictly prohibited to fly drones around historic sites like Chichen Itza, and there are drone traps hidden in the area.
Tourist guides were clapping in front of certain sides of the pyramid, which echoed to make an animal sound that resembled birds. There were also numerous souvenir stalls all around and some of them sold clay jaguar heads that created the sound of a jaguar roar when you blew into them. We managed to get clay hand-painted Sugar Skulls the size of a baseball which can go for as low as MXN 150 (USD 7.5) depending on how well you haggle. There are also a lot roadside souvenir stands along the highway selling woven hats and Mayan calendar plates.
Behind the other ruins is a ball court where the Ancient Mesoamerican Civilization would play the iconic Mayan Ball Game. The sport involves players using their hips to shoot the ball through hoops sticking high above opposite walls. The hoops were smaller in diameter and were about 3 to 4 meters higher than a regular basketball hoop. The ballcourt is 3x longer and 2x wider than a regular basketball court. Seemed like a difficult sport.
We drove back towards Valladolid, passing by Cenote Oxman located in Hacienda Oxman. The entrance fee is MXN 150 (USD 7.5) per person consumable for food and drinks. We spent it on panuchos, empanadas and cocktails while chilling a the poolside!
Hacienda Oxman is a resort with a swimming pool, cabanas and a poolside bar. There’s an outdoor shower and some changing rooms, but no indoor private showers.
Just next to the pool is a stairwell leading 3-storeys below ground to Cenote Oxman, a cavern filled with freshwater with natural light flooding in from above. The resort had installed a rope swing so guests can do a Tarzan swing off a platform. Miguel did a backflip! It reminds of the time we went to Siquijor Island in the Philippines!
Our last stop was at Cenote Suytun which is famous for its stone pathway leading to the center of the pool with a small skylight right above it. It was a lot darker compared to Cenote Oxman, so the sun rays actually looked like a spotlight on the circular dais.
The entrance fee to Cenote Suytun is MXN 120 (USD 6) per person. When we got there, there was a cult-ish ritual going on. Turns out it was a spiritual group from France trying to wash away their sins away with the help of the Mayan Sun God. We found out about this because we ran into the same group when we checked in later that afternoon at Casa Valladolid Boutique Hotel.
Day of the Dead in Xcaret Park
Yucatan Food of Mexico
The Mayan cultural heritage doesn’t just manifest itself in Mexico’s architecture and culture, but in its cuisine as well. Around the town of Valladolid alone, one can savor the different traditional Mayan food that have evolved into modern Mexican dishes that survived westernization.
One of the first on our bucket list was to try an authentic Mexican Taco. As opposed to the mainstream taco, the real Mexican taco is made of corn tortilla rather than wheat. It’s usually just 3 to 5 inches in diameter, served as soft taco. There’s this carinderia style establishment in Tulum called Taqueria Honorio that served out-of-this-world tacos for only MXN 25 (USD 1.25) each!
Located along Calzada de los Frailes in Valladolid is Cafeina. The owner happened to be there and recommended the Arrachera Don Trejo for MXN 245 (USD 12.5) which was good for two. We had no idea what it was but it was late and we were tired. It turned out to be the best meal we had in Mexico. The beef was so succulent and flavorful! The dish came with quesadilla, guacamole and salad. Miguel and I also ordered a shot of Don Julio Tequila which was super smooth. A tall shot glass cost us only MXN 130 (USD 6.5) each. Great deal!
I had a different idea of an Empanada when I first had it at Hacienda Oxman. Unlike the Filipino empanada which is stuffed with all sorts of meat and vegetables often with a thick crust, the Mayan emapanada has a thin fried crust layered with cheese but hollow inside. It’s a very light and delicate dish.
It was also in Hacienda Oxman where we had Panucho for the first time. It’s kind of like a soft taco but with a thicker corn tortilla.
I also recommend Casa Conato Cultural, an Instagrammable restaurant in Valladolid which doubles as an arts and craft store selling handmade bags, accessories, clothes, tapestries, magnets and other souvenirs. Past the store is the spacious restaurant with a garden cafe and rooftop bar. We ordered two shots of homemade tequila, a couple beers and the Yucatan sampler, all for MXN 540 (USD 27.5).
On the drive back to Valladolid, we stopped by the roadside to buy 6 pieces of Churros for around MXN 20 (USD 1) from a street vendor. Half of it was drizzled with caramel and the other half with chocolate.
Right next to the street vendor is an obscure convenience store equivalent to a sari-sari store in the Philippines. There we discovered Canijilla, a canned alcoholic beverage with a 5% ABV. It comes in different flavors, and the one we tried was Limon Pepino or lemon cucumber.
The expression “hot tamales” suddenly made sense when I tried a Tamale for the first time in Xcaret Park. It’s made of masa or corn dough filled with cheese, meat, chili and/or vegetables, all wrapped in corn husk, seasoned and steamed.
Takis is a snack probably named after taquitos. I’m not sure which came first, but they’re pretty much like Doritos Dinamita, except saltier and tangier. They can be found in any convenience store, supermarket or “bodega” for about MYR 25.
Mezcal and Tequila
Everyone knows what a Tequila is but not a lot of people have heard of Mezcal. What they share in common is that they’re both made of the agave plant. There are about 125 out of 166 species of agave growing in Mexico, but the blue agave is scarce compared to the rest. Tequila is made of 100% blue agave, while mezcal can be made by blending different agave species.
We bought a bottle of Mezcal de Amores which was on sale (~60% off) for MXN 428 (USD 22) in the local grocery due to the holiday–Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This brand goes down pretty smooth. I highly recommend it!
You should also check out local tequila stores which sell artisan tequila like Hacienda 3 Campanas which has a fruit-forward, oaky flavor.