So, I am back in Seattle once again – already missing the turquoise ocean and beautiful sunshine of the Yucatan. I thought I would be amiss if I did not complete the story of my travels and tell you all about the final week Giovanna and I spent in Mexico.
When I last wrote, we were spending our last night on the coast, in Tulum, before heading inland. Early in the morning we packed our backpacks and walked to the bus station to catch a bus to Coba – about an hour west of Tulum. Coba is home to one of the great pure Maya archaeological sites, a city dating back as far as 200 A.D and without the Toltec or Aztec influences of some of the more famous sites. I was excited because it also housed the second tallest pyramid in the peninsula, and was the only one that tourists could still physically climb. The ruins are set in heavy jungle, making them very “Indiana Jones-esque“. We took a guided tour and learnt how archaeologists had only uncovered these ruins back in the 80’s – when they discovered buildings that appeared as large hills, with tons of trees, plants and forest growth hiding the ancient stone beneath – as well as the painstaking process that is followed to unearth and restore the city. Coba has one of the great Maya “ball” courts – the Maya version of football which involved a small rubber ball that was manipulated through sideways hanging hoops either side of a ball court with only the knees, elbows, and hips of the 8 players per team. Apparently, one of the teams were always beheaded after the game, although no-one is sure if it was the winning or losing teams! (it was considered an amazing privilege to offer yourself in human sacrifice).
Nochoch Mul – the pyramid itself was a dusty 3 km bike ride away from the main entrance, and although climbing the 42m structure in the heat was a little painstaking, the view from the top was altogether worth it. It felt like we were in a movie.
We ran back into town just in time to catch the bus to Valladolid – a beautiful little colonial town where we would be spending the night. Unfortunately, I got very sick on the bus ride- and on arrival – we checked in to the nearest hotel we could find (which was a little bit dingy, dirty and suspect) – and I had to spend the rest of the day and night running to the bathroom and trying to sleep off a high fever. Not a highlight.
Fortunately, I felt much better by morning – and extremely hungry! G and I went out and found what was to become the cheapest, yet best meal we had in Mexico, with a very special kind of toast and eggs that are only prepared that way in Valladolid. We spent the morning idly sightseeing through the town, which was very quaint with its multi-colored homes, narrow streets, and decorations still lining the streets from Carnaval celebrations.
After lunch, we boarded another bus headed for Chichen Itza – probably the most famous of all the Mayan/Toltec archaeological sites. I found it to be stunning. It was on a much grander scale than Coba – El Castillo is a stunning pyramid that has been impeccably restored to full splendor. It has fascinating astronomical significance too – each equinox, the sun rising on its steps creates the shape of a serpent climbing the pyramid – the Toltec God Kukulkan. It is mind boggling to consider how these people, who did not possess a single metal tool, managed to build such structures, with such precision. Chichen Itza also contains some human sacrificial evidence in the form of nearly 50,000 skeleton parts that have been dredged from its Cenote Sagrada. Historians say that girls were even bred for the sole purpose of appeasing the gods through human sacrifice – and many who were in their pre or early teens were frequently forced to take an eternal swim in the sacred limestone cenote.
G and I stayed that evening for the sound and light show where they light up the pyramid and surrounding structures with lasers and give a resounding and overly dramatic narration that is supposed to send you back in history, but instead provokes stifled giggling.
We stayed in a village near the site that night – and I even returned in the morning to explore some more the of southern parts of the site that I had missed the previous day. By afternoon, we were on a bus headed for Merida – the capital of the Yucatan – where we stayed for 2 nights.
Merida is an extremely beautiful city – very Spanish in feeling with impressive cathedrals, grand plazas, open air cafes and cobbled streets. We stayed in a charming little pensione with a courtyard with a small pool (which we were very thankful for each afternoon when the heat was overwhelming at over 100’F) and cafe. We wandered the streets, visited the sites and museums, ate a LOT of delicious local yucatan cuisine like Pot Chuc – a spicy pork dish and a chicken recipe that gets served inside a banana leaf. We were also entertained by nightly live music on the grand plaza – especially memorable was the traditional yucatan dancing with 20 partners or so performing a dance that could be described as a mixture of ballroom-tap-Irish dance. Giovanna and I also stumbled into a number of people from villages only 10 miles or so from our home town in England. Two of them knew people that G worked with. Truly it is a small world when you travel. It was absolutely lovely – but after a few days…I was starting to miss the ocean.
On the Tuesday- we took a long 4 hour bus ride to Tizimin, and transferred to another bus headed north to the tiny fishing village of Rio Lagartos – gateway to the Biosfera Reserva National de Ria Lagartos – a wildlife reserve for hundreds of species of birds, and home to colonies of more than 40,000 flamingos. On arrival, it became clear that we were literally the only tourists in town, and we were besieged with offers after stepping of the bus for accommodations, tours, food, ???? We smiled and moved on – because I had already reserved a 3 hour tour of the wetlands in the morning with an English speaking naturalist. We arrived at the restaurant where we were to meet with Ishmael – and found a note from him recommending a place to stay, and to return to meet him at 6:30pm – he was out on his boat “catching” our dinner! How lovely!
So, we wandered along the waterfront towards our choice of stay for the evening and noticed that the order of the day for local entertainment here consisted of sitting on plastic chairs in your doorway, watching passersby, and playing chess with neighbors. It was very relaxed and a welcome change of pace from Merida. Lots of dogs and cats roamed freely on the dusty streets and wrestled in the fading sunlight. In fact, the sunset was so beautiful that night, we stopped for a half hour on a park bench and watched the sun dip into the ocean, as a pelican flew overhead and dove for fish in the harbor.
The local fare that night was so fresh you could still taste the saltwater on the banquet of grilled lobster, served with garlic, butter, rice, mole, guacamole, chilies and pico de gallo. Delicious.
We had to wake before dawn the following morning – Ishmael was picking us up in the boat at 6am. The staff at our hotel were amazing – they brought up our breakfast with hot coffee at 5:30 and laid it out for us on the balcony so we could eat and watch the sun rise. It was magical.
The tour was a highlight for our trip – everything went in our favor in terms of wildlife. We saw scores of flamingos – at first a small group of about a hundred shrouded in early morning mist – but later a flock of nearly a 1000 – a giant orange mass, many engaged in the frantic and colorful rituals of choosing a mate. Flamingos, it appears, are monogamous and mate for life. We stayed for an hour or so, hoping that they would take to flight – but it is rare as they must conserve their energy, and Ishmael was careful not to scare them into flight – because they can break their long necks if they are startled. However, just as we were about to leave, the leader decided it was time to go and the whole flock eagerly followed suite. It was quite a site – seeing that many fly overhead. Many pictures were taken.
Ishmael showed us many other birds as well as crocodiles. Then he took us to a lagoon where the clay in the water is so dense, that you can float in it like its the Dead Sea. Later he took some wet clay and invited us to put some on our skin – assuring us it was safe and that it would act like a pore refining mask. Why not? We had fun covering ourselves head to toe in wet grey clay – and then waited eagerly for our swim in a freshwater spring because it dried and cracked very quickly, making it hard to move or show emotion.
We got back just in time to shower, pack and run to the bus headed back to Tizimin and then to Cancun. This was to be the only really arduous bus journey of our vacation – the bus had no air conditioning, and apparently, no suspension either! It was a bone jarring, teeth chattering five hour journey to Cancun.
Giovanna and I had really packed this day chock full. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go on a night dive in Cozumel because of Carnival, so, whilst in Merida, I had called every Scuba shop in Cancun to see if any of them were operating a night dive for Wednesday evening. Only one was. We were due to check in at 4.30 and we had only just arrived at the bus terminal at 4:20pm. So, we thought, to hell with checking in to our hotel, we hopped in a taxi straight to the dive shop and just made it- throwing our back packs behind the check in counter and hoping they’d be safe.
We were both a little nervous but also excited. This was to be a two tank dive – the first one being twilight-dark, and the second one in complete darkness. The boat was enormous and powerful – since we had to go that much further from the coast to reach the reef. Luckily it was only a small group of five of us with the master diver- but the sea was very choppy making getting on the equipment, and the water entry especially challenging. Not being able to see very far around you was a little unnerving at first, but I soon got used to it. It was just that much more important to not lose sight of your buddy and the rest of the group. The current was very stiff. We saw 3 turtles on the first dive, along with a magnificent green and purple octopus, lobster, nurse shark, and many fish that were out in droves. By the end of our 35 mins at 55 feet or so, it was time to come up to the safety stop for 3 minutes. That got a little confusing as I couldn’t tell which way was up, nor could I see the surface – so I had to rely on my pressure gauge. Somehow I put too much air in my BCD and surfaced before everyone else. That turned out to be the scariest moment of the whole dive – being in the open ocean, at night, alone, in 15 foot swells with the boat nowhere in sight. Time and again, I was pummelled by big black waves coming at me like a scene out of the “Perfect Storm”.
It was initially a relief to get on the boat – until I discovered just how rough it was out there and how fast the nausea came on. Giovanna threw up five times and refused to go down on her second dive. I wasn’t ready, and thought I’d puke through my regulator – but decided to go down if only to avoid the rocking of the ship. Our second dive was completely dark, and we even turned all our flashlights off for several minutes to marvel at the thousands of tiny luminescent lights from the algae on the coral. On this dive we found the largest sea turtle yet – must have been five feet long. Absolutely beautiful. Quite an experience, though in hindsight – I think I prefer diving in the daylight when you can SEE everything that might be swimming by. I just couldn’t shake the feeling down there that something might just “grab me” from the darkness. You know?
As you can imagine, Giovanna and I collapsed that night and slept hard. Unfortunately, we woke up the next day feeling like we’d been hit by a truck, and had absolutely no appetite. Sadly, our last 2 days were spent in our room in bed, mutually complaining about how shit we felt.
Luckily, we were feeling bright enough to eat some toast the next morning before heading out to the airport. I was very sad to say goodbye to Mexico, but mostly to say goodbye to Giovanna. I made her promise to come out to visit this summer. And so ended my trip – and this email too! Sorry it has been so long – AGAIN.
I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures! Hopefully, I’ll post some pictures too very soon!
It is day seven of Giovanna s and my Riviera Maya-Yucatan Peninsula adventure. All is extremely well and we are having an amazing time.
Today s experience I think has been the highlight for me so far. We are staying in Tulum, about 100 kms south of Cancun. This area is famous for its Cenotes, which are limestone caverns filled with freshwater that stretch for miles underground, eventually connecting to the ocean. They are filled with amazing rock formations and stalagmites-tites that are millions of years in the making. Today, we both took a two-tank cave dive of the Dos Ojos Cenote a few miles outside Tulum. Our Dive master – Arturo – is a local, and we had fortuitously made his acquaintance on our second dive in Cozumel on Tuesday. He offered to give us an individualized tour, which was awesome, because it was extremely personalized and completely non-tourist trap in nature. We were both somewhat nervous of the dive – since we are still relative beginners, there is much comfort to derive in knowing that if something goes wrong, you can always come up to the surface. However, in this cave dive, we would be navigating through a series of whilst breathtakingly beautiful , altogether enclosed tunnel systems. We geared up in the hot midday sun. Walking down in our gear to the cave entrance was a task in and of itself. The water was perfect. Totally transparent with visibility easily in excess of 100 feet. Color – turquoise. Lots of tiny gupper fish swimming amongst us. After our safety and buoyancy checks (buoyancy being very important in a cave dive to avoid crashing into protected formations- and because it is more difficult to dive in fresh water) it was time to head down into a completely new world.
There truly are not words to describe the experience. No hay palabras. All I can say is that to be swimming in a totally pitch black cave, with a flashlight, and know that nothing separates you from the darkness but your mask is a feeling unlike any other Ive had. Looking up to the entrance of the cenote was especially breathtaking, as the rays of the sun filtered into the water creating various inspiring levels of translucent blues. I had some trouble half-way through our first 40 minute dive – all of a sudden my right ear would not equalize and I felt searing pain. Trying not to panic, I made the signal for distress and Arturo swam over to me. However, there was nowhere to ascend to relieve the pressure on my eardrum. We swam back to an opening and tried to rise a few feet, to no avail. We actually ended up surfacing after another back tracking swim. My ear finally popped on the surface, but from that point on, my anxiety level was a little heightened. This trip truly tested my fears- of confined spaces, and being trapped without real outside air to breathe…one can use their imagination. I was able to continue the dive, and followed Arturo s instructions to continue equalizing even when it didn’t seem that we were changing depths.
After a short break, we loaded on another tank and completed a second 45 minute dive – this time in a more challenging part of the cave, where in parts, there were no light sources bar our flashlights. Absolutely unforgettable experience- I could only sum it up as deliciously terrifying!
The rest of the trip has been far less anxiety –inducing. I arrived without a glitch last Friday, only to have to wait for Gs plane to arrive – five and a half hours later…..! Her flight was delayed, and upon her arrival, I was forced to yell and scream for her to run so that we could catch the terminal transport to get to the last bus to Playa del Carmen, so that we could catch the last ferry to Cozumel….
We just barely made it.
After 18 hours of traveling, the LAST thing you want to do is be RUNNING through the streets of a strange city asking in very unpracticed Spanish where the **ck the ferry terminal is, and then continue screaming as you try to run to a boat that is pulling up the passenger gangway. We were very tired on arrival, had a quick bite to eat and passed out.
The following two days were spent in idle relaxation. In fact, the weather was rather nasty in Cozumel at first – around 60 degrees with harsh winds and occasional downpours. The port was closed, so were unable to dive. We had no problem, however, spending the time filling our bellies with delicious all-inclusive food and cocktails…. And more cocktails. We made lots of friends, including an inordinate and inexplicable number of couples from Minnesota. Everyone seems to be intrigued by Giovanna and I – and Im not sure if its our accents or whether its because we are constantly tripping over ourselves with laughter. It is so good to be back with my friend…. I love you G!!
Other than stuffing our faces, we did manage to work out, visit the local museum (where we had Mayan life in a traditional Mayan hut explained to us by a lovely older man who spoke Mayenglish – very difficult to decipher!) and we were very lucky to have arrived, completely unplanned, during Carnaval – celebrated with much gusto in San Miguel, Cozumel. The parade was wonderful and LONG…..the costumes, the dancing, the music, the drinking, the concerts – it was very easy to get caught up in the abundance and excess of it. And all we needed to share was a warm smile and a wave to get our beads….
Finally, on Monday the sun came out and the winds calmed down. We were able to go out on our first dive boat- leaving, conveniently from the palapas of our hotels private beach. Much of the reef here was very damaged by Wilma, but it is still teeming with life and has much vibrant coral that is unharmed (especially below 40 feet). On our first dive, we spotted a turtle, moray eel and a lobster- in the beautiful Palancar Gardens. Our second dive was a full drift dive – and the current was not at all as disconcerting as I had anticipated. We basically dropped down in a vast expanse of blue and then kind of “let ourselves go” to the current which pulled us in to a series of coral “walls” which we then just relaxed and watched as they floated by…This dive gave us a nurse shark , another turtle, and of course lots of parrot, angel and other reef fish. Wonderful.
Coming back from the dive, G and I had one too many cocktails by the pool (should have known better too – nitrogen from the dive exacerbates the effects of alcohol) – and we passed out around 5 not to wake up for four hours or so…. Too much fun!
By the way, the people of this region are just so friendly and curious. EVERYONE has been helpful, polite, endearing and very eager to talk to us. English is not very widely spoken, so I am being forced to dredge my three years of high school Spanish to the surface of my brain- but I am managing. If anything, the people are so friendly, there have been times where I have wished that they simply let us be- instead of enquiring as to our origins, places of residence, families, plans, etc etc etc… Not something to complain about really.
After another wonderful day of diving and celebrating “Fat Tuesday” the mother lode ending to five day Carnaval – it was time to bid goodbye to the coral reef fringed island of Cozumel.
Giovanna and I took the bus south from Playa del Carmen, stopping for the afternoon at Xel – Hal – an ecopark, that is really just a Tourist trap. It was very beautiful, except a bit exhausting – very far to walk between all the attractions (ie…45 minute walk barefoot on paths through the humid jungle just to wait in line for a tube, to wait in line to get snorkel gear, to wait in line to get in the bloody river, all the time telling yourself ” oh ,,,this is supposed to be fun, I am having a great time, its so relaxing!” The lagoons themselves were beautiful and full of vibrantly colored fish. However, we were not going to pay $190 each for a “dolphin encounter” – so we stayed till sundown and then got a cab to Tulum, where we arrived last night. Our hotel is “nice” although the room smells a bit like the inside of a wet old sneaker. The owner is very kind however, and multi tasks between reservationist, chef, housekeeper and tour guide at an impressive pace.
This morning, prior to our Cenote dive, G and I got up early to avoid the crowds, and headed over to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. The excavated buildings are fascinating and in the most incredible location overlooking the emerald green ocean. Iguanas are everywhere, appearing to own the abandoned 1200 year old city. Archaeologists believe that this is where the Spaniards first appeared on the horizon in 1512 to the confused Mayans. Note to self: watch Apocalypto on return to USA:
Anyway, must go –my hands are starting to really hurt. It is so good to write a travel log again, I must say!! It has been far too long!.
Hope that you enjoyed part I – part II is on its way. Tomorrow we head to the ruins of Coba, then on to Valladolid, Merida, Rio Lagartos and then back to Cancun.
Be safe and well, and Ill see you all soon!