Day 1: Cancun
Arrival in Cancun, finally, after a stressful morning of transit. Stomach churning while driving foreign roads plagued with confusing road signs which send us in infuriating circles around town while trying to find our hostel. I forgot what hostels were like — loud, full of young vivacious travelers, rickety beds, flooding bathrooms, a party atmosphere, European techno music. That’s fine, since we are not in Cancun to stay.
We stick around the hostel for a simple communal dinner of endless nachos, guacamole, cheese sauce, beef, and salsa. The different accents display themselves in conversation but I don’t listen too attentively. It is humid and we are tired and wanting to get away from the noise.
We go for a walk to the “palapa,” which is a plaza of sorts with amusement rides and small children maneuvering wandering bumper cars. A young orchestra is playing quite impressively on a stage for an attentive audience that has gathered on this balmy night. We walk past the little stands selling “nieves,” or snow cones, and past the knickknack and jewelry vendors. Everyone is sitting, ambling with their family or partner, not waiting for anything in particular the way we seem to do at home when we sit in parks.
There is a pervasive sense of a slow life in such humid weather. Night, just like the day, is to be spent outdoors in open spaces. Children sit with their parents in front of mini-easels, painting with two or three thimblefuls of color their favorite Disney princess or Pixar character. They work patiently and stay within the lines. We sit in an open air restaurant and sip on pint-sized Micheladas, their sweetness and the tang of tamarind sticking to the throat.
Day 2: Tulum
A breakfast of omelette tacos and spongecake and coffee before hitting the road. Next destination: Tulum. The drive goes smoothly compared to our circular adventures of the previous evening. We laugh at the silly and strange billboards that appear along the way — constant reminders that you are still heading the correct way towards your destined resort or water park or luxury hotel. “Turn Here and Be Amazed!” “Amazed by our flight off this bridge,” says Will. The infamous speed bumps along the Mexican highways are huge, at random, and quite annoying. One must be constantly alert, for which I guess they serve their purpose well.
We arrive at the ruins of Tulum and explore them in the baking sun. As one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas, these ruins are situated on 39-foot tall cliffs which plunge spectacularly into the blue, blue Caribbean sea. “Tulum” is the Yucatan Mayan word for “fence” or “wall,” which explains its fort-like position; the site also had easy access to both land and sea trade routes. The ruins are grey and seem out of place against the backdrop of cloudless sky and clear, foaming waters of the beaches below.
It is sweltering, and after making our way through the different structures, we climb down to the beach and rush into the warm, green water crashing onto the sliver of shore. The seaweed is thick but the water is perfect. The lull of the sea water taking us out and bringing us in, dragging us out and pushing us back into the warm sand.
After watching the World Cup final in town, we go for a swim at the local beach under a more overcast sky shadowed by luminescent gray clouds. Local families wade in the shallows between tangles of seaweed. The three of us squat in the rise and fall of waves, laughing and languishing in the late afternoon tide.
Tulum is blaringly a tourist town, with its row upon row of shops selling trinkets, blankets, hats, mini-Mayan gods, and silver jewelry. It is a town for foreign beach-lovers and hippies who run hostels and own dogs and walk barefoot through the streets. The entire road between the highway and the beaches swarm with ecological lodging, fine dining, youth hostels, souvenir stands. And on the main street it is hard to find a place to eat that doesn’t seem like a Mexican version of Applebee’s, with bland food and high prices. After one night in Tulum, it seems like we’ve seen enough.
Day 3: Chichen Itza, Merida
A long drive west towards Chichen Itza. Passing multiple buses using the opposite traffic lane is slightly terrifying, reminding me of India. On either side of the highway are endless trees, the occasional biker disappearing into the woods which don’t seem to contain any paths. Passing police control is also slightly unnerving, at the checkpoints where men in black stand brandishing assault rifles. The ride is otherwise uneventful. Straight road and bright trees.
Chichen Itza is bursting full with vendors who try to lure you in with their painted ceramic skulls, jaguar magnets, and woven blankets. The customary wares of tourism. Beyond all this bustle, the first thing we come upon is the great pyramid, which grows up high in the distance, with its wide stone steps running straight up towards the pointed top. Looking at its impressive stature in the glare of the sun, I sometimes forget that this was built for going up, that Mayan feet pattered up the treacherous stairs as part of their daily, ritualistic lives. Clapping at the base of the stairs produces a strange, duck-like sound which rolls back down in echoing peals.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and features various architectural styles, inhabited and utilized as a major focal point from A.D 600 to A.D. 1200. The name “Chichen Itza” translates to “at the mouth of the well of Itza,” Itza being the group that gained political and economical dominance of the northern peninsula. The nearby Sacred Cenote or Sacred Well was a place of sacrifice for the Mayan rain god Chaac.
The site is vast, encompassing all the different and varying structures that made up the great city — the temples, columned structures, quadrangles, the courtyard where the Mayans played their ancient ball game, “el gran juego de pelota.” The carved snakes, jaguars, skulls, and inscriptions on the temples are quite elaborate. One structure leads to another down inconspicuous dirt paths, and we wander, amazed, savoring the moments in which there are no other people but us. The souvenir sellers are rampant and insistent, however, as we move around. The commercialism makes me sad, but then of course, who wouldn’t want to also see this? An entire city built by a lost empire.
We continue on to Merida. When we enter the hubbub of this Mexican city, the street numbers seem to have been blindly established. Attempting to find our hostel, we see 63rd street three times one after another. The streets are quite congested, with gas stations, shops, Oxxo’s (a convenient store similar to 7-11), men and women zipping from one side of the street to another. Merida is a real city. The people go to and from places, doing their shopping, eating at the fast food restaurants which prepare delicious gorditas, taking walks with their families.
We visit the plaza which is flanked by a church, a palace hung with magnificent paintings depicting the struggle of the indigenous peoples, other government buildings, and ice cream shops. All the parks in Merida also feature what we come endearingly to call “chatting chairs,” cute ornamented concrete chairs in a ying-yang structure built so that sitters are able to face each other and converse in a comfortable manner. There are hardly any tourists in Merida, among its colorful and grimy buildings, its outdoor marketplace where we grab tortas and delicious “sopa de lima,” or lime soup, next to Mexican families and couples. The most delicious soup I have ever tasted!
Day 4: Merida
We explore the city some more, this time to venture into the Museo Regional de Antropologia de Yucatan. With its palatial columns and bright, open spaces, this museum offers a beautiful and poetic exhibition on the landscape of the Yucatan as photographed by Armando Salas Portugal. His photographs, depicting the ruins of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and other important spaces and natural landscapes of the peninsula, are black and white and endowed with mystical quality. Some of the photographs are paired with poems by indigenous poets, in both Spanish and Mayan. The upper level of the museum features an exhibit on the legends and stories of the Yucatan, as well as how they connect with the daily life and customs of the present-day Mayans who still preserve their culture.
“I love you more than my own skin.” — Frida Kahlo
“I forgot many times that I’m a landscape artist in order to capture only immortal gestures, an architectonic ensemble of marvel, masses, and grandiose volumes and prodigious effects of chiaroscuro.”
” They are images processed in photographic material and imagined in the laboratory of searching.”
After lunch, we go north to Progreso beach, eager to swim in the ocean during the hot afternoon. The waters are a bit murky but the beach is still picturesque with nice silty sand. The water is warm, still, and comforting.
Day 5: Cenote X-batun, Uxmal, Chetumal
On our long route to the Mexican border town Chetumal, we make two stops, first to visit the cenote X-batun, a natural swimming hole far off the beaten path down narrow dirt roads and past a tiny village community in the middle of nowhere. Upon seeing the cenote in person, I could understand why the Mayans believed that these were sacred wells which communicated with the underworld.
The fresh, blue, still waters reflect the cave formations which encircle the well like a bestial mouth and plunge quickly down from the shallow wading pool into the dark depths of the unknown. With my snorkel gear on, I am overwhelmed by the sense of peace that I always feel under water. I can hear myself breathing, and I can see into the bottom of the well but just up until the floor vanishes steeply into its underground vastness. I am drawn to the silence, the small shafts of natural light which reach meekly into the water, the atmosphere of the sacred that the little swimming fish may also feel. The depths are mesmerizing and slightly ominous, and as I pause at their edge I imagine tentacled cave monsters snatching hold of my ankles and pulling me in, a modern sacrifice to the ancient rain god, Chac.
The cenotes were for me one of the best parts of the trip, but I was surprised to see large groups of tourists also going for a splunk. We thought we would be seeing a lesser-known site after miles of back-road driving, but I guess others had the same idea. After drying off, we head further south to visit Uxmal, another ancient Mayan city and important archaeological site. The shape and decoration of the temples differ from the ones we saw in Chichen Itza. The structures are also well-preserved but more rounded, and quite astonishing not because of their stature but because of the mere fact that there are so few people there. We are able to climb up the ruins and sit in the courtyards, lying on the centuries-old stone under the baking heat. The nunnery quadrangle is impressive, empty, and welcoming.
After lunching on delicious Yucatan chicken and soup (and delicious coffee to boot), it gravely hits us that we have about six more hours of driving until we reach Chetumal, and it is already late afternoon. We soon discover that it will take even longer because there is no real highway running from east to west on the peninsula, and that most of the roads are under construction and are single-laned, terrifying two-way roads. We drive through many small towns and villages with nary a tourist in sight. A violent rain storm suddenly engulfs the car and minutes later it becomes night. We drive onward on roads straight as arrows with menacing, labyrinth-like tangles of bushes immediately on either side. For hours everything is either the dark of the forest or the glare of car and truck lights, and the rumble of mud and unpaved dirt. Finally at midnight, we reach our hostel, and glory be that they hadn’t already sold our beds.
Day 6: Belize, Tikal
After three hours of sleep, we wake up early to try and catch a bus across two borders and into Guatemala. The Mayan gods however seem to have a different plan. After being duped and overcharged by a taxi-driver who leaves us at the market place, we are suddenly stranded in Chetumal amidst people who all tell us different and conflicting information about the buses and their schedules. After much thought and back and forth between the bus stations and our hostel, we decide to catch a later “chicken” bus to cross the border to get to Belize City.
It turns out to be an exhausting but interesting way to see parts of Belize and to see the kinds of people that get on and off the bus. As this was a local bus, we are able to observe the various kinds of people that make up the strange mix of Belize’s populations: dark-skinned school girls who speak Creole, Mexicans going to work at gas stations located hours from their pick-up point, and old grandfatherly Menonites from a northern European country traveling only with bags of fruit loops and grapes. The bus, which is really a school bus, soars and bounces creakily through the gravelly roads through the colorful scenery that is Belize. The houses are low and isolated, reminiscent of an island town and Caribbean culture. The wind rushes through the open windows to ease the heat.
In Belize City, we catch another bus to Benque, the town right near the border of Guatemala, where we take a taxi right to the border. Crossing the borders is less scary than we think, simply a matter of stamping passports and paying entry and exit fees. We discover that Belizeans are super friendly and go well out of their way (even to the point of being indignant with each other) to help us, whereas in Mexico such help would generally be to solicit money. We are somewhat confused but pleasantly surprised.
When we finally cross into Guatemala by foot, we wait for yet another bus which eventually drops us off in El Remate at nightfall. After a strenuous day of traveling, we discover that our hotel is quite literally an inviting jungle paradise, with a huge, circular garden built around a beautiful ceiba tree where, when you look up, you can see the dark sky strewn with thousands of stars. We lie for a few minutes in the hammocks outside in the garden, which is modeled after the Mayan underworld with the tree as its center. The quietness is rare and inspiring, and we are joyous for rest and a good night’s sleep.
Day 7: Tikal
I’ve always loved the jungle and its intimidating force of green, merciless growth which takes no time to overpower man-made structures. The national park of Tikal is an ancient Mayan city surrounded by thick and beautiful jungle; the crumbling ruins are amazing seen within their environment, where you can hear the desperately loud screeching of insects and birds. This was the world of the Mayans, in which every leaf, footprint, and breeze signified something much bigger, in which the ruthless jaguar and the powerful snake were gods, and in which humans formed only a small part of nature’s design. Climbing onto the high steps of temples, one can see the lush green valleys below. Tikal is grandiose and suggestive of the natural spaces that were sacred to the Mayans.
In late afternoon, we go for a swim in Lake Peten Itza. There is nobody except for another family in the distance, and ourselves. The lake is enormous and lined with trees, completely still. The bottom is mucky, but the water is clear. The vastness of the lake make us wonder about the creatures lurking farther away where you can’t see the bottom. Nearby the lake, horses, dogs, and pigs wander the dirt roads, and the utter tranquility of this little town in Guatemala sinks in slowly as we paddle gently, stirring up silt. It is the perfect way to cool down during the steamy siesta hours.
Day 8: Caye Caulker
More traveling awaits. Yet another bus, but less stressful this time, since the route is direct. We leave Guatemala and return to Belize from where we came, and in Belize City catch a ferry to Caye Caulker, a tiny island off the coast. When we arrive, it is late afternoon, but we manage to go for a sunset boat ride with a guide who takes us to the shallows between two islands. There, we go for a swim and do a bit of snorkeling, but there’s not much to see because it is so late — just a whole lot of sea grass. But the ride is magnificent, and we see the orange globe of sun quickly lowering itself beyond the beaches.
Caye Caulker is a peculiar place, definitely very touristy, its white sandy roads traversed by golf cart taxis and bicycles. The island is full of restaurants, coffee spots, and places advertising dives and water sports. It thrives on the young foreigners who come to party and play, but it is still delightful because of its quaintness. We dine on fresh lobsters that we hand-pick, and they are grilled to deliciousness — one of the best meals of the entire trip.
Day 9: Playa del Carmen
The last stretches of our whirlwind tour through the Yucatan. Instead of bussing back up to Mexico from mainland Belize, we decide to take a water taxi straight from Caye Caulker into Chetumal. It sounds more relaxing but doesn’t prove any less stressful. There are long waiting periods at each of the borders, and the ride turns out to be still quite long and hot.
Finally at Chetumal, we joyously find our rental car safe and sound, but as we begin to leave the city en route to Playa del Carmen, a man from within another car at an intersection points furiously at the front of our car several times. All I can think is, “Oh no.” We pull the car over and discover that one of the front tires is flat. The Mayan gods are unrelenting after all.
Fortunately, there is a “llantera” or car repair shop across the street. A young man from the shop sees our car as we pull up and, after we get out, immediately starts to crank up the car and remove the tire. In his primitive, dinky little shop, he is able to dig out the nail that punctured the tire, re-patch it from the inside, and put it back on the car in less than ten minutes, and for less then ten American dollars. I am amazed. As if nothing had happened. The nail was surely a souvenir from all of our off-roading across the construction sites in the Yucatan.
After four hours, we arrive at Playa del Carmen. Honestly, it’s a pretty horrendous place. Ten years ago, it used to be a fishing village with beautiful beaches, but today, gigantic resorts line the shore, and young Mexican tourists and old leathery American tourists alike sprawl lazily on the reclining beach chairs under umbrellas, or even worse, in their individual pools in their luxury condos which, we find out the hard way, offer no way out to the street. A tourist trap, indeed. On Quinta Avenida, the flux of people are constant, as well as the badgering by vendors and waiters and store owners. Shiny shops and chic clubs populate the street, and there are even tacky mariachi bands and smooth jazz piano in some upper crust restaurants. The food is reminiscent of an overpriced Chili’s. The whole scene is slightly upsetting, but we console ourselves by the fact that we will spend all day at the beach, which is famous for its reefs — and where there are reefs, there are wonderful fish.
Day 10: Playa del Carmen
And spend all day at the beach we do, in the green, warm waters along with hundreds of other vacationers. The trick is to try to ignore the fact that there are so many others, but this is difficult to do when we spot things like a pair of American girls snapping selfies in the ocean with their waterproofed iPhones, screeching at the horrible dangers of oncoming seaweed. It is certainly beautiful, the kind of beauty you only get a sliver of and must savor despite the terrible commercialism ravaging the place. Right on the shore line there is a monstrous hotel being constructed. The concrete hollows of each floor do not yet show off what money can buy, but the rumbling of the drill can certainly be felt, as our snorkel guide says, by the fish and other sea creatures from miles away.
Yes, that’s a cute turtle bobbing about!
Even still, we are delighted by a tour which takes us lurchingly by catamaran out to the sea, where we briefly glimpse two huge sea turtles, and to one of the reefs. With our snorkel masks and flippers on, our guide leads us in and out of the corals. We see schools of colored and camouflaged fish, shells, calamar, and even get to hold a spindly starfish. Snorkeling is glorious — the silence of the underwater world, the graceful flutter of fish fins, this entire aquatic habitat so diverse and wonderful right beneath our own world. I am so glad we get to see this side of Playa del Carmen, right off its shore. After wandering the souvenir shops in the evening, we are on our way home the next day after ten grueling and magnificent days in the Yucatan.