Where: Cancun, Mexico
When: December 2002 and November 2006
Why: I first went to Cancun in 2002, at the end of the Lanzarote summer season, along with five other holiday reps. Steven, Steve, Helen, Alex, Ben and I had worked our little socks off and we went to Cancun for a well deserved break, to relax and to let our hair down. Going to Cancun was possibly one of the best ‘holiday’ holidays I’ve had, and certainly one of the most well-earned.
I returned to Cancun in 2006 on a film shoot for Sol Melia. Thanks to American Airlines losing most of our camera equipment, I only had time to work my little socks off on this trip (what a turn around) and I barely left the hotel!
Cancun is tourist land. It’s a city made of hotels, malls and bars, all purpose built for tourists. It’s America-on-Sea, and totally fake, and yet… I liked it! The lagoon the resort is built upon has crocodiles in it; there’s jungles just waiting to take over the town; there’s Mayan remains near by and the second largest reef in the world just off-shore. They have tequila and Mexican food galore; sand like flour and it smells of the Caribbean. Yes, much of it is very, very cheesy (although I kind of like that), and totally fake but there are many natural and historic wonders near by and I felt that there was a Mexican undercurrent of wildness to the resort.
The first time we went to Cancun we flew direct from the UK with First Choice, who we all worked for. It was in a small-ish plane and was a fourteen hour flight (ouchy). One of the longest flights I’ve ever taken.
The second time we flew to Cancun via Miami. We flew to Miami with Virgin Atlantic, one of my favourite airlines (seriously, I was having so much fun on the plane I could have flown back to the UK and back again). We then flew from Miami to Cancun with American Airlines who lost pretty much all of my camera equipment. American Airlines are useless, have the worst customer service ever and I will never, ever, ever, as long as I may live, will fly with them again. I still get angry thinking about trying to track down my lost luggage – when it was just sat in their lost-luggage office at Miami airport, clearly labelled, totally distinctive and all one of them had to do was to walk into their lost-luggage office and they would have found it instead of totally messing my budget and schedule around and forcing me to talk to idiot Americans who cannot think or go off the ‘script’ even though my first words are ‘I’m really sorry but can I speak to so and so as I have already called your call-centre fifty million times and’…. GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. Calm, Jennifer, Calm.
The flight from Miami to Cancun took one and a half hours and was very turbulent.
Cancun airport is huge and there are cash points in arrivals. Cancun airport also has very persistent porters who will carry your bags for you for a few dollars or pesos (even if you really don’t want them to). Find out more about Cancun Airport at the Canucan Airport website.
We got transfers to our hotels. There is a public bus if you;re travelling independently. It takes about half an hour to get to the ‘strip’. See the airport webpage for more information.
Please note, You have to pay to leave Mexico, by paying a departure tax on departure. I’ve been doing some research and most websites say it currently costs 900 pesos/$65 (about £45)( January 2016). As Cancun airport is very busy, make sure you leave yourself enough time to process the departure tax and be prepared to queue. Some airlines include the departure tax in their fares, but both times I’ve been we’ve had to pay separately.
Buses run every five minutes along the strip to the main touristy areas and to the centre of Cancun. It was six pesos per journey. Find out more about the routes at www.travelyucatan.com/cancun_bus.php.
To get to the tourist sights which were much further out we took tourist tours.
When we visited Cancun for filming the boys hired a car for the day and drove down the coast. They found the driving to be OK.
You can catch long distance buses to other destinations in Mexico from the central bus station in Cancun. For bus times visit thebusschedule.com. However, I should advise you that Mexico is a big country and you may be better off flying. The bus to Mexico city takes 26 hours!
What we did on our holiday
Please note: this section is about what we did in Cancun in December 2002, as when I returned in 2006 I spent my whole time in Cancun working very, very, very, very hard.
Going to Tulum and Xel-Ha was one of the best day trips that I’ve ever been on. Just one of these sights would have been amazing; to do both in one day was wonderful.
We booked our trip through our First Choice representative.
To visit both Xel-Ha and Tulum the cost is US$199 (about £100). It is expensive, but it’s oh so worth it. To visit just Xel-Ha the cost is $71.10 (about £40).
Tulum is the only Mayan sea-side city. This city of ancient temples overlooks the white sands and blue seas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It must have been a wonderful place to live. The gentle sound of surf; the cool breeze coming in off the ocean; the fabulous beach. It’s just yum!
Tulum sits on a wide expanse at the top of a cliff. The ruins of the city consist of el Castillo, a series of small walls, temples, watch towers, houses etc, and the most gorgeous, white sand Caribbean beach. The site is extensive and the buildings are interesting, although there are so many of them that we did become a little overwhelmed after a while, and as the site is so open to the sun, we did find ourselves overheated and rushing through towards the end.
One of the things I loved about the site was the huge sea birds that floated on the air above the temples and over the sea. When they spotted a fish they would twist their bodies down, dive, dive, dive into the sea and catch their fish, before floating back up to rest on the breeze again. Watching these huge birds floating above the ancient city was an amazing, mythical sight.
However, the best thing we saw at Tulum was an ancient Mayan ceremony – which Helen and I only caught as we’d been lazy and caught the little train back to the entrance. In the ceremony, four men (veladores) climbed to the top of a very high pole with ropes tied around their ankles. At the top they sat on a small square structure which they span around and around (‘you spin me right round baby’), slowly winding the ropes attached to their feet around the top of the pole. Then they threw themselves off the top and span around in a merry-go-round kind of way, upside down, 100 feet in the air, and they slowly span to earth! It was amazing to see and really scary.
I’ve since been told that the ceremony is very significant because of the numbers: there are four men who spin around thirteen times. This makes the number 52 – which is the number of weeks there are in a year.
You can find out much more about Tulum and how to gethere independently at the Tulum Wikitravel page.
Xel-Ha is one of the natural wonders of the world. It’s an open sea aquarium, with more fish than you can shake a chip at. It’s a ‘real/natural’ water park where the lazy river ride is a real lazy river, the lagoon is a natural lagoon full of fish and turtles, where the beaches are real and the hammocks are swinging. I love it!
After a delicious lunch (which we gulped down as we were so excited), we hired snorkles, masks and flippers so that we could go swim with the fishes in the lagoon. I have never seen anything like it. I started off by following the rays, swimming this way and that above them as they skimmed along the sandy sea bed. Then we swam to the rocks in the middle of the lagoon where we were surrounded by millions of fish. There were orange and white parrot fish, and bright blue fishes (I don’t know where they are called), and they all just glowed and sparkled. I swear, there were so many of them we could have just lifted them out of the water. Then I started to get a little cramp so I decided to swim to the side, and just as I was getting to the pier the biggest grouper ever(! – like, I swear he was two feet long) just swam past me. He was brilliant.
Anyway, after swimming in the lagoon we decided to catch the little train to the start of the real, lazy river ride. Here we lazed in hoops, watched the fish swim about below us, waved at the iguanas sunbathing on their rocks. The only problem with the lazy river was that it was a little bit too lazy and so about half way along we had to get out and swim and drag our hoops behind us, as we had a bus to catch and we thought we were going to be late.
However, we did have time to stop to swim with the turtles.
We could also have swam with dolphins here, but that was something we’d already done at the water park back in Cancun.
Xel Ha is located 60 miles form Cancun and is 8 miles North of Tulum.
For more information on Xel-Ha, visit www.xelha.com.
By the way, in Cancun we saw Xcaret advertised everywhere. This is another water park. From what I understand, this is a purpose built water park and not a natural one. So if I had to choose again, I would go to Xel-Ha again.
Chichen Itza is a huge, ancient Mayan city, located in the centre of the Yucatan Peninsular. The ruined city is enormous: a huge site of buildings, temples, pyramids, observatories – hidden in the jungle. As they are slowly cutting away the trees, more and more of this amazing site is slowly emerging.
It took us three hours to drive to Chichen Itza from Cancun, with most of the journey through bleak, unrelenting jungle.
Once at the site we had a guide who took us to see some of the most important buildings (including the observatory) and then we were given an hour on our own to explore – so we headed for the most famous building on the site: The Kukulcan Pyramid.
The Kukulcan Pyramid is famous as once a year, on the summer solstice, the sun lights up the side of the steps and a great snake of light appears. The Kukulcan Pyramid is also where they used to sacrifice people. It is in the centre of the site and is very, very cool.
Stephen, Alex and I decided to climb the pyramid to see what it was like at the top – but half way up a tropical downpour began. Going up was easy – coming down was a nightmare! At the top of the pyramid is a small building, floating on a platform high, high, high up above the wet jungle. And you can’t see the steps from the platform – so you really do feel as if you are floating up high. As you can’t see the steps from the platform at the top, to get back down you seem to have to take a step into nothing. The people who climbed down before us appeared to just disappear over the sides.
It must have been an amazing experience to be a priest or a sacrifice up here (at least until you had your heart cut out). You really feel as if you are floating up above the world, close to heaven. I suppose the sacrifices didn’t have to worry about coming down the steps – only about being ritually sacrificed.
It took me fifteen minutes to build up the courage to go over the edge onto the stairs. There was only a wet rope to hang on to at step level, and the steps were like a waterfall. It was one of the scariest things I’d ever had to do. This pyramid is high, man, and the rope and the steps were wet. In the end I went down step by step on my bum.
And if you think I’m being a great big ninny by being so scared, can I just say that Alex and Stephen were scared too and apparently you can no longer climb the Kukulcan Pyramid at Chichen Itza because it is so dangerous (and because it was ruining the pyramid – sorry pyramid). Apparently (according to my guide who may be lying) lots of people died from falling off the pyramid – and not just the Mayan sacrifices!
Anyways, after that, we just wanted to get dry and calm down, so we hardly saw any of the rest of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is huge, and to be honest, we didn’t do justice to this site. We were there for two hours in the rain, and so we didn’t even see half of the city. We didn’t see the football pitch, the hall of the jaguars, the hall of the warriors, the other temples etc etc. You need at least a full day here – if not more, and to have a really, really good guide who can explain what you are looking at and tell you about the fascinating Mayan history and culture.
The cost for the site is 111 pesos (about $10).
The girls and I had a great afternoon shopping at Plaza Kukulcan, which is half way round the strip. They have loads of interesting stores, a fake canal like Venice, some fun cafes and restaurants (one of which is based in little huts over the lagoon), a house of horrors and the aquarium. I bought the sexiest shoes in the world ™ in Plaza Kukulcan. Shopping in Mexico was fun as they had a lot of products which were different to the UK, and loads of funky clothes and accessories. They also had the large chain stores too.
On one of the other days we ventured into Cancun town on the bus. It was interesting to see the other, lived in, more normal side of Cancun. We got very excited as they had a Walmart and we’d never been to one before. There was also a huge mall here too, although I didn’t think that this one was as good as Kukulcan.
Swimming with dolphins and sharks, and Wet n’ Wild water park
We found three places in the Cancun area where you can swim with dolphins: at the Wet n’ Wild water park, at the aquarium at Plaza Kukulcan and at Xel-Ha.
We decided we wanted to swim with dolphins in as natural an environment as possible, so we chose to swim with them at the Wet n’ Wild water park (no hey weren’t on the water slides). Here the dolphins weren’t in pens and they were released into the sea each night. We also went here as we wanted to go into the water park afterwards.
The first time we went to swim with the dolphins, it was sadly raining too much for us to do it; so instead we went to Plaza Kukulcan where we dried out in a steamy, hot American diner, and then Helen and Steve went swimming with sharks in the aquarium. I’m so jealous! I wish I’d done it. They put on breathing aparatus and then were put into a huge cage and then dropped into the shark pool where they could see the sharks up close and feed them for ten minutes. From outside, where we watched, it looked brilliant and not that scary. I didn’t fancy being in a metal cage underwater though.
Anyway, a few days later we went back to the water park where we did do our dolphin swim. The guide was great and you could tell she was a dolphin expert and really cared about the animals. The actual swim was a bit scary and I found it a bit unnerving: dolphins are huge animals! I liked putting my head underwater and hearing the dolphins talking, but the dolphin kiss I felt a bit weird about, and I declined the dolphin push – which is where they push your feet with their nose and make you ride up in the water. It just felt unnatural to me and not fair on the dolphin (especially as I’m not a little girl), although the guide reassured us that Sidney (our dolphin) liked to play.
After we’d been swimming with Sidney, we went into the Wet n’ Wild water park where we lazed about and went on the lazy river ride. It was quiet and fun when we were there. We had a nice, lazy half day.
We swam with dolphins at Dolphinaris. Dolphinaris is at Wet n’ Wild water park.
Helen and Steve swam with sharks at Cancun Interactive Aquarium. The aquarium is a good thing to do on a rainy day, otherwise you might as well get out into the ocean and the lagoon where these fishes and animals actually live.
We didn’t do the dolphin swim whilst at Xel-Ha as we didn’t have a lot of time there, but if you’d like to Delphinius are the people who run the dolphin swim programmes at Xel-Ha and Xcaret.
Speed boat riding
We hired speed boats and we went across the lagoon and out through the waterways to the open sea and the reef, where we went snorkling. Personally, I just saw a lot of seaweed here. Xel-ha was a lot better for the diving. But the speed boat bit was brilliant – very James Bond. And they have crocodiles in the lagoon. It was a tour, with a guide – and we sped boated in convoy – but it was a really cool half day trip to do.
We booked our trip through our holiday rep, but it looks as if this is a trip offered by a number of people. I’m pretty sure that we went on the Blue Ray trip. The current cost of the Blue Ray trip is $71/ person (about £45) (January 2016).
Lazed on the beach
The sand on Cancun beach is so fine, it is like flour. The sea is warm. We spent a lot of time on Cancaun beach and it is just yum.
OK – we were a group of young holiday reps, set free after a long, long summer season – so we did let our hair down a little and Cancun is the place to do it. San Miguel for breakfast, liters of cheap cocktails in dodgy clubs, balloon parties, foam parties, shots by the pool. It wasn’t sophisticated but it sure was fun. Cancun is party capital. It would have been rude not to.
One of the most fun nights we has was in Senor Frogs, which was like an American MTV, spring-break party. There was a water-slide, in the bar, that went out into the lagoon – where the crocodiles live.
Where we stayed
Sierra Cancun (now Le Blanc)
On our first visit, we stayed all inclusive at the Sierra Cancun, which was a fine hotel. It had pools on either side of the hotel – so you can always lie in the sun; beach front location; huge rooms; good bar and great food. It was on the lagoon and on the beach – and it had an alligator which liked to come and sunbathe by the children’s playground each day.
The Sierra Cancun has been relaunched since our visit and this is now an adult only, luxury, all-inclusive resort called Le Blanc.
Gran Melia Cancun
On my second visit, we were filming a commercial for the Gran Melia Cancun, which is a huge hotel made up of five pyramids. The hotel was architecturally stunning. The pyramid lobby contained waterfalls, gardens, sushi restaurants, bars etc, lots of secret hidden areas and walkways to explore or to hide away in. It was very nice, although I’m not sure I had the time to properly appreciate it as I was working so hard.
The outdoor area is a wonderful collection of pools with private cabanas and huts where you could go and relax in the shade with your loved ones; tennis courts and a golf course, and you could use their water sports equipment on the beach.
The hotel is on the beach front (of course). Thinking about it now I can hear the sound of the surf and feel the sunshine and the breeze coming in off the Pacific and see the sparkling light on the water. Yum.
The hotel also boasted a great spa, loads of restaurants and bars, a private mariachi band, cash point, supermarket etc– you really don’t have to leave the complex if you don’t want to and I suspect many people don’t.
My room had a bathroom, sitting room/office area, massive bathroom and a jacuzzi bath on the balcony, overlooking the sunrise. The suite was enormous and very, very nice!
I probably wouldn’t normally stay at the Gran Melia Cancun, as it’s not my sort of place and it’s right at the end of the strip; but it was very, very, very, very, very nice and I feel very lucky to have stayed here.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.