As I packed up to leave San Cristobal I was on the border between total acceptance of what I was about to do as normal and not really believing what I was about to do. I was going to hitchhike halfway across Mexico with people I had just met. For the most part I seemed to be confident in the decision, I wasn’t having any inner or outer turmoil, but once in a while a wave of uncertainty would come. It was anxious uncertainty not fearful uncertainty so I decided it was a good thing – I wouldn’t want to enter into something like hitchhiking with blind confidence so some anxiety would keep me alert, and I hadn’t felt this way in a long time, not since I had gone back to the States, so I welcomed that something stirred it back up.
Saying yes to hitchhiking and actually doing it are two very different things. When I said yes I had the same idealistic visions that everyone probably does when they think about the freedom of the road. I saw us striding down the sun-drenched highway, music playing on the portable speaker while we entertained ourselves with jovial conversations or the street side version of car games, bonding while waiting with our thumbs out until the next pick-up truck told us to hop into the bed and took us as far as we needed to go. The reality did include moments like that, but if I said that was all it was it would be like reminiscing about school or a failed relationship – only acknowledging the good and ignoring the bad. Just like the rest of life, hitchhiking had plenty of both.
I’ll start with the good: we had some great rides.
On the way up to Tulum we were especially lucky, starting with Roxy. Leaving Ocosingo Brayan barely even stuck his thumb out at the first van coming our direction but it immediately pulled over. Roxy had driven from Vancouver Island down to Mexico in her Chevrolet minivan, which she had converted into a mobile home with a platform bed in the back. She had plans to go to Agua Azul and Palenque then up to Merida and said she would take us as far as she could without veering off her route. We spent two nights with Roxy, first camping at Agua Azul and then at a gas station about an hour from the intersection where we would have to say goodbye; she was continuing North and we needed to go East. She was a gem.
After saying goodbye to Roxy in Escarcega it took less than 5 minutes to get a ride in the back of a white pick up truck. That day was the day of white pick up trucks: three in a row took us almost all the way across the peninsula. I discovered the joy of riding in a truck bed and learned that the velocity of the car keeps you dry in a flash rainstorm. These rides felt like what hitchhiking was all about.
Our luck continued when we moved from Bacalar to Tulum. First we all crammed into the cab of a delivery truck whose hungover or maybe still drunk driver stopped to buy us all a couple of beers. Risky, but hilarious. We picked up another six-pack before jumping in the back of another pick-up that took us into Tulum. We arrived energized and quite tipsy.
On the way back to the Guatemalan border we snagged a ride that took us all the way from about an hour outside Tulum to south of Escarcega – around 10 hours of driving. Not for the claustrophobic, I spent the entire 10 hours closed up inside the back of this mobile exposition delivery truck. No windows, no air flow, laying on a horizontal dolly covered with moving mats. Somehow this ride was one of my highlights of the experience. Brayan and I just chilled in the back, talking about life and napping, while trusting that Ale and Matt up front would make sure we weren’t being kidnapped. We went through two police checkpoints and both officers that opened up the back door were shocked to see me inside the truck. I just said hola and, after a confused pause, they closed the door again and we kept moving. For a second I thought we were being sold, but everything turned out fine.
Our final great ride was in the bed of a pick-up truck that was covered by a cage. It took us through an incredibly gorgeous landscape at magic hour. We sat on top of the cage, smiling like fools, knowing that our hitchhiking would end the following day. We were almost at the Guatemalan border.
The second good: I got to see everything I missed the first time.
Like I said before, I was repeating my route through Mexico. I went back to Palenque, back to Green Monkey and Bacalar, back to the Pancho Villa campsite and Tulum, back through the same border crossing from Mexico into Guatemala, and back through Flores to get to Antigua. But this time I filled in the holes from my first visit.
On the way to Palenque I got to see Agua Azul and Misol Ha, two impressive and different waterfalls. Agua Azul is a large system with multiple levels of cascades and pools to swim in, and Misol Ha is a long solo drop. Back in Bacalar I actually did stand up paddle boarding this time (although I was not properly warned that it would be 5 long hard hours with wind and rain and without food or water). Back in Tulum I got to go to Akumal to swim with sea turtles. So even though I had already been to these places, it was thanks to hitchhiking that I now really felt like I’d done it all.
The bad: we spent a lot of time waiting on the side of the road.
Our first couple of days we were so lucky with getting rides really quickly that I was tricked into thinking hitchhiking was easy. Traveling back from Tulum to the Guatemala border was harder. We sometimes had to wait an hour or more for someone to pull over, and with the exception of the 10 hour truck ride most people didn’t bring us very far. It was hot sitting on the side and disheartening constantly sticking a thumb out at cars that didn’t even slow down. I think the difference was that on the way up we were always walking with our thumbs out, so people took pity on us. On the way down we were sitting on the side waiting, so people just keep on going. We tested this theory our last day and it was actually quicker to get a ride when we were moving. Lesson learned.
The second bad: tensions ran high.
I don’t want to get into it too much, but suffice it to say that when four people who are used to solo travel are now constantly together opinions will collide. How far we should go with a ride, where we should spend the night, what crossing we should aim for, how we should try to get rides – there are decisions that still have to be made despite the just go with it style of travel, and when people are on opposite sides it can lead to uncomfortable situations. And it’s not like there’s anywhere to go cool off for a while when fights happen on the side of the road; the only option is to walk 10 feet further down and wait it out. This contributed to our jumping on a bus when we got into Guatemala. We had made it out of Mexico, it was time to be done with this.
The overall: it was a great experience.
I can now say that I know how to hitchhike. And that I survived hitching in Mexico. Which is not nearly as scary as it might sound. I loved the uncertainty that came with it – we didn’t know how far we’d make it in a day or where we’d sleep that night. I never would have guessed that I would sleep in a tent at a gas station on the side of a highway. We met some great characters along the way. And most importantly, I made some great friendships. What started as a whim adventure up to Tulum turned into a life in Antigua, where I continued to hang out with Ale, Brayan, and Matt.
Writing this weeks later I can say that the decision to hitchhike changed everything. What that means I’ll elaborate on later, but it’s moments like this, when I decide to just say yes to whatever comes my way, that I cherish most about traveling. This yes attitude, this ultimate flexibility, this go with the flow life, this is why I kept going. Trust in the universe and it will lead you to where you should be.
Bacalar was the embodiment of what I wanted to happen in this trip.
I was not planning on going to Bacalar. I’d read that the lagoon was pretty but it was on the way to Belize, which I had already cut, instead of along the prescribed Yucatan route I had embarked on. But after I lost count of how many people told me I had to go to Bacalar, I remembered that I wanted to follow that kind of advice this time no matter what path I may have thought I was on. So I joined John and Thomas, my Valladolid/Merida travel companions, and went to check out this rumored lake haven.
What I discovered at Laguna Bacalar was serenity, comfort, good people, and good vibes. It was everything I was hoping it would be. When I arrived I booked two nights – I stayed four. That’s just how things go for me now.
We stayed at the Green Monkey, a laid back hostel right on the lake. When we arrived they had space in the bus – a yellow school bus whose seats had been replaced by bunk beds – so we booked two nights there. Because when you get a chance to play Lost and sleep on an abandoned bus you go for it.
The day we arrived it was rainy and muddy. The lake was nowhere near the color it was supposed to be and, since all the activity in Bacalar centers on and around the lake, there wasn’t much to do. But the point of Bacalar wasn’t to go go go, it was just to chill, so I didn’t mind the excuse to dig into the literary feat I had decided to set out with this trip – Moby Dick – and chat with the other travelers who were sticking it out hoping for good weather. Day two had some patches of sun, just in time for our excursion to the swings on the lake and margaritas, but day three we woke up to a beautiful sunrise. It didn’t take much convincing to extend our stay another night, although we were forced out of the bus due to an influx of online reservations and had to settle for a hammock. When I extended yet another night I actually asked for the hammock even though beds were open; I loved sleeping outside in the breeze. Those last two days were perfect weather. John and I did a little boat excursion one morning, but otherwise I spent most of my time hanging out in hammocks or on the dock.
It probably doesn’t sound like somewhere that would be so hard to leave when the main thing to do is just sit around and look at how pretty it is, but that is just the foundation of why I stayed longer. The beautiful setting got everyone there, but it was the everyone that made us all stay. The travelers that were in love with this place were cut from the same cloth. Everyone wanted to take a step back from the pace of the Yucatan, relax in a lovely place, and spin yarn with other people who wanted to do the same. A group would form on the dock swapping stories before deciding to grab veggie burgers together for lunch in town. Three out of four nights I cooked dinner with a mixture of travelers. My last night we enjoyed rum punch and cigars while playing a dice game. The talented Irish couple treated us to a live performance of traditional music and Tenacious D. Friendships were formed, laughs were had, and memories were made that will live with us all forever.
The lake was a big part of it all though. I felt like I’d returned to a home in an alternate world. A dock, ample reading time, and the clearest turquoise fresh water lake – I was in the Wörthersee of Mexico. All those years I visited the lake in Austria came flooding back to me at Laguna Bacalar. No wonder I wanted to stay as long as possible, it was familiar and sentimental and relaxed me to the core.
I left Bacalar in a way similar to my arrival there – totally unexpectedly. I had gone under the impression that I would continue with John to Palenque in Mexico. Something inside me felt uncomfortable about the prospect of the night bus though, and after a couple of days of hesitating with the idea, combined with a great group of people I didn’t want to leave just yet, I came up with an alternative that allowed me to leave after one more night on a day trip. I would go to Flores, Guatemala.
Flores, the launching point for Tikal and El Mirador, two sites I absolutely did not want to miss, is not near the rest of Guatemala. But geographically it happens to be almost on the way from Bacalar to Palenque. And our hostel offered a direct bus to Flores. And then I picked up a new travel buddy, Cassidy, who also wanted to see Flores but probably wouldn’t make it if she didn’t come with me. So totally last minute I changed the pseudo-plan once again and the next morning Cassidy and I left for Guatemala.
So because of travelers I landed in Bacalar. Because of the idyllic setting and other travelers I extended my stay in Bacalar. And because of gut instinct and spontaneity I left Bacalar for Guatemala.