Tulum

6 Months in Central America

 

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40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

Hitchhiking Mexico

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.

My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.

Travel Friends for Life

So who is this Karim character that brought me to Tulum? We met last year at the Matterhorn South Hostel in Wanaka, New Zealand. He was the reason I played frisbee golf every day and tasted delicious home cooked moussaka. A couple of weeks later we met up in Sydney for a day on Bondi Beach and a night out in Newtown. We missed each other by weeks in Southeast Asia and again due to his food poisoning in California. So when we realized we would both be in Mexico at the same time, we had to make it happen, and Tulum was the perfect place for a reunion. Coincidentally, this reunion happened on our one year friendaversary!

Any time people asked us how we knew each other they were surprised by our history. We are truly travel friends. But now that we’ve hung out in three countries on opposite sides of the world, I don’t doubt that we will see each other again. With any luck, we’ll actually make our fantasy of an Africa road trip happen in the next two years.

Karim is one of those people I met in my RTW trip that confirmed that travel friends are life friends. We may not see each other all the time, but when we do it’s like we’re old friends catching up on life. And thanks to him, I got back into the swing of this travel thing.

See you again soon my friend, on one continent or another.

Tulum, More About the Cenotes than the Ruins

Tulum was one of the most highly recommended places in Mexico owing to its white sand beaches and picturesque oceanside ruins. I enjoyed both as well, although they each had their own negatives too. The beach was great for an afternoon swim, but unfortunately was overrun with seaweed during my time there, which clouded its typically turquoise color. The ruins were beautiful, but by 11 am they were brutally hot and overcrowded with tour groups.

My real highlight of Tulum was the cenotes. There are plenty of these natural sinkholes around the peninsula, but Tulum was the only place I went diving in them. The first day Karim and I snorkeled in one and discovered the appeal of its crystal clear water and fascinating cavern formation. We also saw how much more the divers were able to explore. So we checked out a couple of dive shops in town and decided to go for it when we found one that would let me dive in two too (Karim is advanced certified but I am not certified, so finding one that would let me do two cenote dives was tough since technically it’s not allowed).

We started in Casa Cenote, where they take all introductory and refresher divers since it’s always possible to surface in case anything goes wrong. We barely got any lessons before the dive started, something that was fine for me having done this a couple of times already but surprising given how Discover Scuba dives are supposed to go. The point of this dive was to test our buoyancy control; cavern diving requires a much more controlled, even dive style than open water does because there are rock formations above, next to, and below us. The first moment we went into a cavern I had to check myself mentally. “Oh right,” I thought, “this is what we’re doing, diving in a cave, with solid rock around me.” Luckily my next thought was, “This is so freaking cool!”

Our guide judged that we all did well enough on our first dive so he took us to Gran Cenote. This time we would really be in the caverns. Air was never too far away, but most of the dive we were surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites and frequently had to use flashlights to light the way. It was awesome. There’s something so uniquely cool about exploring caves in water. It’s another world down there. It’s not about reefs and wildlife like open water diving is, it’s about natural architecture under the earth’s surface. When we got back on land we were all stoked about what we’d just done, and I personally vowed to return once I’m certified to do more dives like this.

The next day Karim dove in El Pit, a huge deep cenote where advanced and cave certified divers can go down to 40 meters. Visibility is 100 meters and light rays that penetrate the water looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. One day I will go back and do this.

The Campsite I Couldn’t Leave

After Mexico City I jumped to the coast. Originally I thought I would start in Oaxaca and work my way up to the peninsula, but once I cut Belize (budgetary reasons) and learned a friend would be in the Playa del Carmen area I changed my mind and flew to Cancun. The airport bus landed me in Playa for two nights – an okay experience that doesn’t merit its own post – from which I took a collectivo to Tulum to meet up with Karim.

All I knew from him was that he’d found a “gem” of a place on the beach near the ruins where we could camp. I looked up as much as I could about where this Pancho Villa Bar and Campground place was, which only seemed to exist on a Facebook page, and based on the Facebook map and his vague description set out to find it. Turns out the bar is only a year old and the campsite less than half a year, which explains its seeming nonexistence; the first tourist post at the ruins didn’t even know about it, but the second one proved more helpful with the advice to turn at Playa Maya. I actually found it easily, although by the time I got there I was sweating so much you’d think it poured rain on my walk, and secured a tent at a bargain price for three nights.

The campsite was a gem. It was right behind the bar on the beach, so every day we could walk out to the ocean whenever we wanted. Along with multiple plots where you could pitch your own tent or sleep in one of the ones for rent, there was a hammock area where we hung out for daytime naps and nighttime chats, a kitchen of sorts (if you don’t mind cooking over an open fire), and a bar/reception/hangout area where the activities happened and the guys who ran the place spent most of their time. That’s where I learned how to shoot a slingshot and make a dreamcatcher, which is now hanging in this area amid the collection that Juan made.

Juan, the owner of this campsite, has traveled the world learning things. He built every structure on this site, wove every dreamcatcher decorating the hangout area, carved every decoration including the totem pole at the beach bar entrance, and made his vision of this place a reality. He plans to do it again on an island next year. He is one of those people that you meet only in places like this, where good vibes matter and time does not. “Manana” was his favorite word. I stayed up late talking with Juan about travel and life in a mixture of English, German and Spanish. He taught me how to make the dreamcatcher, his new nickname for me, and I drove his stick-shift Jeep down to a friend’s place on the Zona Hoteleria for conversation over beers and tacos and an impromptu soccer game on the beach. He took me in and I promised I would return one day.

Everyone who worked at the place accepted me into their friendship, despite my inability to converse in Spanish. Owing to their good English, we still were able to have conversations ranging in topic from sculpture in ancient Rome to typical Mexican humor. I passed hours sipping beers shooting the shit with these guys, and if it wasn’t for the sand flies that decided I was the tastiest thing since pastor tacos I probably would have stayed longer. The sheer quantity of bites earned me the name Crocodile Woman, so after my fourth night I decided it was time to leave.

I have come across these chill types of places around the world – Nicaragua, Colombia, Laos – and have always moved on before I felt ready, having to be somewhere else. This time I didn’t have that need, I had all the time in the world. I was curious to see how long I would actually stay in a place like this. When I first arrived, I thought I might stay for weeks and just disconnect. In the end I lasted four days. I have openly blamed the oppressive heat and hungry bugs, but inside I just knew it was time. And the fact that I could come to that decision just by feeling instead of by schedule is what this trip is all about.

Pancho Villa was an important place for me. A place where I finally felt like I’m into this new chapter, and where I let the logistical traveler go. The people and the place came together at the right time for me, and from then one I knew I would be in the mentality I hoped for when I left again. As of writing this it’s been a week since my departure from Tulum, and I can say that it’s going well so far. And I sincerely believe I have the Pancho Villa campsite to thank for that.