Friday 27 May 2011

Learning the lingo (and other activities...)

Over a week since the first entry and we´ve packed an incredible amount into the last few days - exploring new towns, visiting Mayan ruins, kicking back on white-sand/turquoise-sea Caribbean beaches and drinking lots of Tequila.

Uno Iguana
The single activity that has occupied the largest proportion of my time since our arrival though, has been my attempts to learn the language (this is exclusive to myself - ´Little Brother Ollie´ insists there is "no point" in him "wasting his time", he is after all "only here for a few days"!). Spanish is the primary language throughout Central and South America (except Brazil, where Portuguese is the standard) so I am determined to gain a general understanding as soon as possible, and hopefully become quite proficient by the time the trip ends.

Dos Iguanas
I wasn't completely unprepared for this - I've been listening to many hours of Spanish-learning CD's over the last few months, but the reality of actually speaking Spanish out-loud to a native Spanish speaker is quite different to listening to someone repeat phrases on a tape. I've never been much of a linguist and viewed language lessons at school as a pointless chore - everyone speaks English anyway, right!? I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who had this attitude at school (and some, like 'Little Brother Ollie', remain faithful to this viewpoint long after school has finished for them) and it is actually based on sound logic. It does seem like everybody speaks English - one of the most fascinating things is seeing two people from very different countries with their own proud languages (e.g. Norway and Israel, Holland and China) communicate through the only language everyone seems to share; English. Ironically, this is proving to be one of the main obstacles in my attempts to learn Spanish.

Tulum hostel communal area
I am under no illusions about how obviously a foreigner (or 'Gringo') I look and, as a result, most local people I approach will automatically address me in English. Even if I try to start a conversation in Spanish, they will often just reply in English. They are obviously doing this for my benefit, and 'Little Brother Ollie' is very happy with this arrangement, but it can be a little frustrating for me as someone actually wanting to speak Spanish.

On the occasions that this first hurdle is overcome, the main thing I learn is the meaning of the English phrase 'be careful what you wish for' rather than any new Spanish vocab. Everyone seems to speak at a hundred miles an hour - although, in reality they are probably just speaking as fast as I do in English - and even if I know the words they are saying, by the time my brain has worked out one word in English, I've missed the next five.

Trying to learn!!
I have also quickly realised there is a big difference between knowing a few useful phrases and actually being able to have a conversation - seems obvious, but this is one of the biggest challenges. Say I want to ask "Where is the beach?" ("¿Donde esta la playa?") "What time is the bus leaving?" ("¿A que hora sale al autobus?") or order four tacos ("¿Cuatro tacos, por favor") - I will have the correct phrase in my head, along with the most likely responses from the other party. This is all fine as long as their answer is simple and one I am expecting, but that doesn't happen very often (think how often the simplest, shortest response is used in English). There are a million other possible responses that I haven't learnt yet and if they use one of these I am stuck and often have to sheepishly explain that I don't speak much Spanish ("Hablo un poco Espanol") and/or ask them to repeat in English ("¿Puedes repetirlo en Inglese, por favor?"). Even the simple question "How are you?" ("¿Como esta?") can be a minefield if the other person isn't kind enough to just say "Fine, thank you" and end the conversation there. Quite counter-productive, but my vocab is slowly increasing and I have to reflect positively on the new words and phrases I have learnt at the end of each day.

Town square in Vallodolid
I'm also starting to speak in a slightly insane broken English accent whenever I converse in my own language, due to the fact that I'm trying to work out in my head how I would make the same statement in Spanish. Only a week in and I already seem to have broken my brain....

I'm trying to be patient with this, but still can't help feeling extremely envious whenever I overhear another 'gringo' converse effortlessly and competently in perfect Spanish. Like I say, it has only been a week so I need to be realistic. Once I get down into Guatemala (probably in another couple of weeks) I plan to enrol in a Spanish-learning school and live with a local family for 3/4 weeks in order to completely immerse myself in the language. Hopefully this will help and I shall report back on my Spanish-speaking progress soon.

Vallodolid Cathedral interior
Despite my lack of linguistic prowess, we have managed to achieve a great deal since my first blog. Our first day in Cancun was very much a chill-out, slightly jet-lagged day - we didn't get moving until late and headed straight to the beach, where we remained for the rest of the afternoon. The beaches all along the coast here really have to be seen to be believed - they are a cliché of paradise: powdery, bleach-white sand, carressed by a warm, clear sea that starts of a crisp, brilliant turquoise at the shore before gradually turning into deep blue ocean. The water is so inviting, it's impossible to even spend a few minutes at the shore without being lured in for at least one quick dip. The only catch in Cancun is that the seafront is dominated by high-rise, luxury resorts that release thousands of tourists onto the beach as soon as the sun comes up. Fortunately these developments disappear as you leave the bigger cities, but the picture-perfect beaches remain.

Ollie siesta
We wasted no time in exiting Cancun, and spent the next two nights 100km south at the much smaller coastal town of Tulum. Tulum is famous for its Mayan ruins - not the biggest or most impressive of these structures (which are found all over the region) but they can definitely boast the number one location. Set on a clifftop overlooking the ocean, you can visit the ruins in your swimsuit and use the beach that is hidden within the temple complex. Splashing about in the idyllic Caribbean Sea, with these ancient stone structures as a backdrop is a wonderfully surreal experience.

The hostel we stayed at in Tulum has been the most social and party-orientated of the trip so far - the combination of a big outdoor communal area, cheap beer on demand, and lots of young travellers created a couple of late, boozy nights and lazy starts the next day. Still, we met lots of cool people, had a fun time, and didn't completely waste our days in a drunken haze; we spent one of the afternoons on a short day trip 30km north to the town of Akumal.

Locals street-dancing in Vallodolid
Akumal is promoted as another resort town (although nowhere near the scale of Cancun) most famous for its coral reefs and giant sea turtles. Knowing this, we hired some snorkelling gear in Tulum and took it with us on the trip. The coral itself was a little disappointing; quite grey and sorry looking, most likely due to the level of tourism in the area. But we saw lots of colourful, tropical fish and were lucky enough to encounter a couple of giant turtles - very cool.

Next port of call was a place called Vallodolid (pronounced 'bay-o-dolid) about 100km inland from Tulum. We broke up the journey by stopping en route to spend a couple of hours exploring more ancient Mayan temples at Coba. These ruins are spread over a much larger area than Tulum, and surrounded by lush, green forest rather than sparkling, blue sea. The main attraction here is the fact that you can climb to the top of the tallest structure (Nohoch Mul  - at 42m high, only 3m below the tallest remaining temple on the Yucatan peninsula). The view from the top really is breathtaking; thick jungle fanning out in all directions as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by a couple of lagoons and interspersed with the tips of other nearby temples.

Me at Coba
Vallodolid is slightly off the main tourist trail (especially when compared to frenetic Cancun!). The city moves at a more 'Mexican' pace - locals will lounge for hours in the cool, shaded town plaza, and those who are on the move, saunter, slowly.... The streets themselves are laid out in a typical Spanish-colonial grid system ad lined with beautiful, small houses painted in a variety of soft pastel shades - everywhere you look the sun is reflecting off blocks of blue, red, yellow and green. It's a lovely place in which to just wander for a few hours, skipping between slices of shade to avoid the relentless sun overhead. When the heat got too much even for just walking around, we copied the locals and returned to the hostel for a couple of hours siesta in a hammock - there are worst ways to spend your days!

Coba ruins
Another reason to stay in Vallodolid is that the jewel in Mexico's Mayan crown is only 45 minutes up the road. Chichen Itza is one of the modern wonders of the world (along with other such must-see global attractions as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China). The main structure here - El Castillo - is one of the best-restored in the country and therefore less of a 'ruin' than the sites we'd visited previously. It's also the most photographed and famous of all Mexico's tourist sights - you will most likely have seen a picture somewhere of this iconic pyramid; rising to 25 metres, with long stairways dissecting the 9 platforms on each of the four sides (the pyramid is actually a giant Maya calendar with each of the steps, terraces and panels adding up to a significant number relating to the Mayan year). The site is impressive enough even without this knowledge - especially if you arrive as early as we did and are lucky enough to gaze in awe at Chichen's grandeur without the annoyance of over-sized tour groups spoiling the view.

Tulum beach
We rose early again on our final morning in Vallodolid and hired bicycles to go and explore another nearby attraction - Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samula. Cenotes are natural, underground sinkholes - a uniquely Yucatean geological feature. In total there are about 3,000 across the peninsula; traditionally used by locals to gather fresh drinking water, but many now open for tourists to swim, snorkel and scuba dive inside. Some are fully exposed to the surface, while others can only be reached by tunneling down into the earth. The two we visited were of the latter variety, and both required a short descent down twisting, stone staircases. We weren't disappointed by what we found inside. The passageways widened slowly before suddenly opening into a vast, subterranean world - the cool, swimmable freshwater (already occupied by hundreds of fish) was irrestible after our 8km bike ride in the sticky, Mexican heat. Both caves were artificially lit by constantly-changing, coloured lights, which looked very nice, but I asked (in Spanish!) for them to be switched off. This allowed the cavernous space to be illuminated only by the shafts of sunlight that were piercing through the holes in the earth's surface overhead - creating a wonderfully, magical effect and a swimming environment like no other! I plan to visit more cenotes later in the trip.
Isla Mujeres

Our last two days have been spent on Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) just off the coast of Cancun. It's a very cool, chilled-out island where not much really happens, but that was just what we needed really after the non-stop travelling of the week before. We stayed in a hostel right on the beach with a big group of friendly travellers; days spent frolicking in the sea (astonishingly beautiful, again!), late afternoon volleyball games (gradually increasing in levels of competitiveness) and then cocktails at the beach bar way into the early hours - let's just say it was tolerable... 

I've have returned to Cancun for one night after dropping Little Brother Ollie off at the airport for his flight home - which means I'm officially a solo traveller (for the first time ever!). A little bit disconcerting, but I'm heading straight back to Isla Mujeres tomorrow for a few more carefree days on the beach - I will stay strong!

Until next time.... (more photos below)

Pastel colours in Vallodolid

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

Columns at Chichen Itza

El Castillo (note - no tourists)

Chichen Itza ruins

Chichen Itza ruins

Cenote Dzitnup

Under the sun shaft at Cenote Dzitnup

Swimming at Cenote Dzitnup

Me & Ollie at Cenote Dzitnup

Exploring passageways in the Cenotes

Cenote Samula (no artificial light)
Isla Mujeres volleyball court

Isla Mujeres beach


  1. Hey Jimbo, loved the update so much and the pictures are amazing, so envious of you! The Cenotes sound and look fantastic and i love the picture of my two little brothers together. Im glad that you are meeting people along the way and that you are having the chance to speak spanish to the locals. I miss you loads already but am being cheered up by your blog! I cant wait to see and hear about the next part of your journey!! Take care and speak soon. Lots of Love, Em xx

  2. Hi SOn, Ollie arrived safe and sound this afternoon, we have seen lots of amazing photos with a very good commentary from him. Hope the admin day went ok, let me know if you need any more help lol! I can't seem to log into the google account at the mo, and did't get any e-mail updating me of the blog so hope the account is ok? Also, the web page isn't showing any followers?

    Take care, lots of love,

    Mum xxxxxxx

  3. Looks like an amazing place, keep up with the blogs, have a safe journey with lots of adventures.

  4. props, I actually enjoyed reading this!!!. Although it makes me want to learn Spanish and go to South America!