Thursday, 15 August 2013

Isla Holbox: Swimming with Whale Sharks

Just off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula lies the island of Holbox, home to brilliant white shell beaches, bird watching and fantastic whale shark viewing. The island is just a short ferry ride from the mainland and costs 80 pesos one way for the 30 minute trip. The ferries leave from a little town called Chiquila which has many bus connections. Getting to and from here to Cancun is only three hours, however they aren't that regular so best to check times at the bus terminal first.

Finding accommodation is easy enough as there are now plenty of options on the island, the place fills up at weekends, and during holidays it is a very popular destination for Mexicans, but if you walk around the small town which occupies the centre of the island you'll soon find something.

As for activities there are a few on offer here from deep sea fishing to bird watching, but none more popular than the whale shark viewing. There are loads of tour operators who pretty much run the same operation, as usual, just walk around and enquire and when you feel you've found the cheapest/best place, go with them. We paid 1000 pesos which is on the low end of the spectrum, many places were charging up to 1300. Just shop around.

The tour begins with an early morning start at the dock where you join up with the rest of the group, your captain and guide. It take about two hours to get to the spot where the whale sharks are feeding, the plankton which was so prevalent only a couple years ago close to the coast is now all gone so the whale sharks have to go further out to sea.

It is possible to see schools of these beasts from some distance off, with their fins popping out of the water as they swim around and surround the nearby boats. At time of arrival, there must have been some 30 whale sharks in the general vicinity, quite incredible really and a real treat for me since I have wanted to see one since my first scuba dive in Thailand. For a week every other boat on the island saw this one solitary whale shark chilling in the area, I think I can safely say this makes up for that disappointment and then some.

Groups are small on the boat and you have to be with a guide, this isn't a problem anyway as he was able to figure out where they would be just by looking in the water and seeing something we couldn't. If you didn't follow his lead you had to attempt to listen out for people on the boat telling them yelling directions or suddenly bricking it and swimming away as a 30ft whale shark came out of nowhere with it's mouth wide open. I know they're not into eating humans but as if you would bother playing chicken with one of them.

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico
Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

You get about a couple hours or so at the site, and by the end you're pretty tired from kicking your fins in a pathetic attempt to catch up with a fish, and just from the exhilaration of the experience itself. In comparison, the rest of the day doesn't hold a candle to the first activity of the morning: there's a stop at a lagoon, plenty of flamingo viewing and ceviche, which on any other day taken on their own would have been great, but whale sharks are just cooler. The ceviche was delicious though, and the captain was good enough to give me a second bowl.

Aside from these aforementioned activities, the only other thing to do here really is to relax. There are plenty of hotels along the beach and if you buy drinks or food you can make use of their deck chairs, failing that take your own booze and wait til someone asks you to pay a rental fee, this only happened one time in four which made for very pleasant drinking and lounging.

My trip may be coming to an end but I was happy to come to a place which would rank among one of the highlights of my trip: it was peaceful, there was affordable day drinking, the sun shone endlessly and the beach was right on my doorstep, what's not to like? I would definitely come back here on holiday.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Palenque Ruins in Chiapas, Mexico

The Chiapas region has many jewels to share but considering I am right at the end of my trip, time is tight so just a couple highlights before scooting east to the Yucatan Peninsula for snorkeling with whale sharks on Isla Holbox and visiting Chichen Itza, the last of the Mayan ruins on my itinerary. Before I get to those though, Chiapas has it's own notable and world renowned ruins worth a look at: the ruins at Palenque.

The ruins themselves are situated about 8km outside of town, however there are accommodation options both in town and along the road to the ruins. If you have a bit of time, stay outside of town where it is much more relaxing, however, if you are low on time just stay close close to the bus station and take a combi from town to the visitors' entrance of the ruins.

Once you get into the grounds it is just a short walk to the first and main plaza: Templo de las Inscripciones Group, pretty easy to figure out. As you enter, the first temple you see is the Templo de la Calavera (Temple of the Skull) which you can climb up and gain a good view of the area. Next to it is a non-descript ruin, followed by Temple XIII which archaeologists believe was a tomb for Pakal's wife, and next to that is the Templo de las Inscripciones which was the tomb of Pakal himself.

A little background information: Pakal was the Mayan ruler here from 615AD to 683AD, he actually managed to live to the ripe old age of 80 which was pretty impressive in the 7th Century. Unfortunately for visitors now, both tombs to the deceased are now off limits to the public as they undergo much needed renovation.

Temple of the Skull at Palenque in Mexico
Temple of the Skull
View of the Temple of Inscriptions Group at Palenque in Mexico
View of the Temple of Inscriptions Group
View of El Palacio at Palenque in Mexico
View of El Palacio

View of the Temple of Inscriptions from El Palacio at Palenque in Mexico
View of the Temple of Inscriptions from El Palacio
As you walk through the plaza you can't help but always notice El Palacio (The Palace) and where archaeologists believe Palenque's ruler would have lived, it is the biggest building in the area after all. The Temple of Inscriptions has the honour of being the tallest. There are a few courtyards to wander in and a watch tower which was built by Pakal's son, it is believed it was primarily built so that the rulers of the day could watch the sun hit the stairs of the Temple of Inscriptions during the winter solstice.

View of El Palacio at Palenque in Mexico
View of El Palacio
View of main plaza at Palenque in Mexico
View of main plaza
The next main group is Grupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses) and construction of these buildings took place after the death of Pakal. Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross) is situated on a mound overlooking the rest of the complex and there are great views stretching all the way to the Temple of the Skull available. Surrounding the mound are Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), Templo XIV and Templo de la Cruz Foliada (Temple of the Foliated Cross) which is another temple where you can climb up the steps to look around at the engravings.

Templo de la Cruz at Palenque in Mexico
Templo de la Cruz
Steps up to Templo de la Cruz at Palenque in Mexico
Steps up to Templo de la Cruz
Templo del Sol and Temple XIV in the foreground at Palenque in Mexico
Templo del Sol and Temple XIV in the foreground

These are pretty much the main complexes amongst Palenque's ruins but there are more to look around. South of the Group of the Crosses lies the Acropolis Sur (Southern Acropolis) where discoveries are still being made close to the two main temples. Further north is the Northern Group which is accompanied by two satellite groups: Group 1 and Group 2. Not too much here besides a ball court where Mayans are believed to have played a sport similar to football and the Templo del Conde (Temple of the Count) which gained fame primarily because some crazy count decided to live up there for a while.

Templo del Conde at Palenque in Mexico
Templo del Conde

Part of the Northern Group at Palenque in Mexico
Part of the Northern Group

Part of the Northern Group at Palenque in Mexico
Part of the Northern Group

Part of the Northern Group at Palenque in Mexico
Part of the Northern Group
You could easily spend hours just roaming around the grounds and inspecting every nook and cranny for something a guide book or a guide will tell you about. I for one just enjoy wandering around the ruins with a book in my hand reeling off information as I go. Similarly to Tikal, visitors still have access to walk on and around many of the buildings which also adds to the experience. If you are ever in the south of Mexico, Palenque is right on the edge of Chiapas and pretty much in the middle of the area, so if you ever get the chance, I would definitely recommend a day trip here.