So far in Mexico…


The lovely, though at the time, rainy, Bacalar

I arrived in Chetumal, Mexico on a Chicken Bus from Belize. It was my easiest (and cheapest direct) border crossing yet. The first time I’ve crossed on a cheap bus, not because of choice, but because in most crossings the bus only goes as far as the border. You typically must walk across and find another bus or often cab or collectivo on the other side.

Rain fell in Chetumal, filling the roads with massive puddles which more resembled ponds. This made maneuvering with a big backpack tough.

As with many travel days, Im starving and thirsty (I don’t like to drink much when I know my bathroom time is restricted). I spot a restaurant and walk toward it. As I walk from the road to the curb, my foot hits the slick, wet sidewalk and the weight of my pack pushes me forward, onto the ground. The 10 or so people sitting and eating nearby see this. I’m covered in a slimy layer of grime. Not off to such a good start.

I hail a cab and give him the name of the one hostel I had found–Hostel Chetumal–which I then learn isn’t actually in Chetumal, but, for some reason, in the free zone between the borders. Then I learn the cheapest place the cabbie can recommend is 300 pesos. I make a split second decision to have him drop me at the Bacalar bound colectivos. I had briefly read on Bacalar and remember seeing a cheap place near there. And I knew it was on the Tulum bus route–where I intended to head next.

It is raining even harder in Bacalar and the puddles here are lakes. The driver gives me his keys so I can retrieve my pack from his trunk on my own. He will stay in his dry car. I must do this while dodging these surprisingly deep puddle lakes.

I need to get yet another cab to take me to the hostel, which would be a 20 min walk in the pouring rain. We arrive to a locked gate and empty looking place. I’m wet, frustrated and beyond tired at this point. I ask the cabbie if he has another cheap (I emphasize this) spot he can drop me. He nods and takes me a few meters down the gravel road, dropping me at another gate this one with a sign–Bacalar Magic. This time a friendly Mexican woman lets me in.

Inside the gate are a few cabins and palapa structures, hip in that rustically intentional way. At one end of the property a very long wooden dock leads into one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen. Unfortunately for me its still pouring and I’m still starving.

I check into the empty dorm and ask the woman if they have food. She says she can make me eggs. Not wanting to wander around in the rain in search of food, I oblige. I enjoy my massive meal of huevos rancheros, beans and avocado. Unfortunately I don’t ask her the price until after (rookie mistake when traveling anywhere outside of America), assuming eggs wont be too expensive. They are 70 pesos ($4.50)–what will be one of my more expensive meals in Mexico. By the time I’m done eating, I notice the rain has let up and decide a walk is necessary. I wander around the little town, which by Central American standards is not so small.

I come to the town square–in Mexico, called a zocalo–and notice music, a stage, and small carnival rides. I indulge in a marquesita–like a crepe but crunchy, oozing with melty Nutella. This will turn into a favorite Mexican treat.

I walk back, lay down and fall almost instantly asleep by about 8:30 pm.

I wake early to a damp, overcast morning. This is unfortunate as this place could be paradise in sunny weather–and with other people to share my time with. However, I’ve lucked out on both. I walk in search of breakfast, but somehow find little but fruit from a little tienda so I walk back, take a shower in the delightful garden shower, pack up and walk to the bus terminal about 4 kilometers north of town. Here I have a massive, and quick, breakfast of huevos rancheros and bad instant coffee before boarding a bus to Tulum.


The almost-too-perfect beaches of Tulum

My 3+ hour bus ride flies by as I began a rousing book on the Mexican drug war. Somewhere between cartel beheading and police corruption, I arrive in Tulum. I walk out of the bus station, take a few steps and find The Weary Traveler Hostel, though this sounds fitting enough for me, as I wait to check in, I make a last minute decision to leave and get a cab and head to the Tulum Bike Hostel (recommended by a few people I met along the way) near the ruins and beach. By the point I arrived in Tulum, I had missed Weary Traveler’s last shuttle to the beach and didn’t want to spend the hot day in a hostel.

I arrive at Tulum Bike Hostel and almost immediately take advantage of their free bike rental. Having been alone the last 3 days, I invite a Canadian guy from my hostel to join me on a ride to the beach. Not getting to know him a bit better first turns out to be a mistake. He’s a real character–preferring to talk about survival skills, discuss how he’d like to be a Mennonite farmer, and share with me the strange songs he writes. Im relieved on the way back, when he discovers he’s lost his bike lock. I tell him ill catch him later, when he heads back to the beach to trace his steps. At this point I’m relieved to be alone again, and I head to check out the ruins.

The ruins themselves aren’t as impressive as Tikal or as beautiful and unvisited as those in Belize, but the setting–overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea, makes them special. I meander around a bit before heading back in the direction of the hostel. On the way, I’m stopped by a little man with ice cream samples. I try the bit and am overwhelmed by the creamy, coconut goodness that fills my mouth. Despite the 40 peso ($2.70) price tag, I buy a cup. Better with each bite, it may be the best ice cream I’ve ever had. In a great mood, I walk back to the hostel. I spend the evening getting some work done and hanging with the strange cast of characters also staying at the hostel.

In the morning I take the bike out for one last stroll to the beach, this time alone. It’s a perfect morning, the sun is warm, the sky cloudless. I lay and listen as the gentle waves lapse against the white sand. I watch as happy couples walk hand and hand. I peddle back in time for check out–stopping once more for a coconut ice cream, of course.


Unsuccessfully trying to spell ¨Mexico¨ with the Playa crew

Playa del Carmen
I gather my things, check out and cross the highway to flag down buses en route to Playa del Carmen. It doesn’t take long to catch a collectivo. The trip takes around an hour. I arrive and head toward a hostel recommended to me; but after 15 minutes of walking, I stumble on Hostel Che–a friendly looking spot with free breakfast and lots of lounging space. I check in and head immediately to the beach. I stay until my hunger pushes me on. I discover all the places near the beach are well out of my 50 pesos per meal limit and head closer to the hostel. I have a shwarma-like wrap and as I eat it a Mexican man who appears to be about my age, sits down at my table and starts asking me the usual traveler questions–where I’m from, where I’ve been, where I’m heading. He shares that he’s a bartender at a hostel by the beach. He invites me out that night. Having met nobody else at that point, I agree to meet him out later in the evening.

Later that evening, we meet up and he takes me to the hostel bar, on the breezy rooftop where he serves drinks. I am instantly introduced to all of the hostels guests–most of whom are either Scandinavian or Australian. It’s a fun night, with too many cervesas and shots of mescal. When the hostel bar closes a group of us head to a fancy club, where we get our own VIP spot with a view of the dancing people, crowded bar and music. Its one of my first nights out since New Years Eve, and well worth the break.

I wake up feeling the night before. My foggy head and weak stomach a payment for the nights festivities. After breakfast, as I lay in bed trying to read myself to sleep, I meet a friendly group from my hostel. They talk me into joining them as they head to the beach in Tulum. Though my body says no, I know if I stay will spend the rest of my day in a lazy spell. We head to Walmart (yes Walmart!) to buy rum and coke and snacks. In the liquor isle we meet Shane, a friendly Aussie also buying rum. We invite him to join us to the beach.

The mood is jovial in our collectivo. We took up much of the backseats and talked loudly amongst ourselves, joking and laughing, and obviously identifying ourselves as tourists.

We spend the rest of the day under the glorious cloudless sky, the hot sun streaming through palms overhead. We drink rum and coke out of borrowed coffee mugs, and frolic, like children on a sugar high, in the vibrant blue Caribbean Sea. We stay till sunset, chatting and enjoying each others company. Before heading back to our hostel, we stop at a busy tacqueria and eat tacos filled with pork so tender chewing was not necessary, garnished with raw onions, cilantro and creamy guacamole.


With the playa del carmen crew at our first cenote

The next day we catch another collectivo and head to a cenote–my first in Mexico. We walk down a long, sunny dirt road until we reach a lovely clear pond of water open to the outside, a cliff overhang and rocky parameter. We jump from the cliff into the icy water and spend the remainder of the afternoon sunning and snorkeling. We have fantastic beef tortas with tender meat, sauteed onions and spicy salsa, then drink margaritas until the sun sets before heading to a free BBQ at our hostel. It’s perfection.


Valladolid´s lovely cathedral


We spend an afternoon and evening in Cancun before I wake and catch a spontaneous bus to Valladolid, a pleasant city of pastel colored colonial buildings, large, breezy plazas, and a wealth of cenotes and ruins nearby. Though I don’t intend to, I spend 5 days here. My hostel is one of my favorite in all my trip–a homey place, decorated with folky Mexican art, and vibrant colors; comfy beds, 2 amazing kitchens, a free laundry area, a quiet garden hammock nook, and a movie room. Its an easy place to meet other travelers eager to explore the area.

One day I join an American and we rent bikes and ride to a nearby cenote. This one is in a large cave, lit by a large hole in the ceiling, which illuminates a small portion of the cenote. The roots of a tree reach through the hole, drinking the crystal clear water below. We swim in the icy water before riding our bikes to a nearby village to check out another cenote hidden below the town square. We must pay a police officer 10 pesos each to unlock the gate. Below the steep, dark limestone staircase is a cenote, too dark to swim in. After, we ride our bikes to another small village. As we near the town square, we notice crowds of people gathering around a large constructed arena. We are encouraged to stay, as the free event we´ve stumbled on is a bull fight. We climb the ramshackle structure for a better view. The show begins with a man wearing full traditional Mexican bull-fighting costume riding around the arena on a horse, holding a microphone, singing. When he finishes, two matadors enter the arena, and the angry bull is released from his pen. After the show, the unlucky loser (the bull), is publicly butchered and sold to the masses within minutes. It´s a gruesome though fascinating event.


Bull awaiting his gruesome fate

That night we wander around Valladolid soaking up the Carnaval festivities (which went on the entire week I was in Valladolid), live music, street food, and the bizarre spectacle of mobs of scantily clad adolescent boys dancing in an inappropriately sexual manner.

Another day I take a long walk to another cenote with a German girl from my hostel. We spend the afternoon lounging in the sun. That night, I befriend a group coming in from Merida. We make dinner and play cards, and make plans to visit Ek´Balam, nearby Mayan ruins, the following day.

We share a collectivo to the ruins and spend the hot, cloudless day swimming in the on-site cenote and wandering around the ancient stone buildings and temples. It´s a good day–however, after the impressive ruins of Tikal and several tourist-free ruins in Belize, Ek´Balam fails to impress me.

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Carnaval festivities in one barrio of Valladolid

Promises of a travel companion to Cuba lure me back to Cancun. A girl I had met in Playa del Carmen expressed interest in joining me on 9 day trip to Cuba. We decide to meet in Cancun and investigate ticket prices. We purchase the soonest departing tickets to the Communist island in the sea, departing in 4 days time. Having time to kill we hang out in our backpacker party hostel, take a one night trip to the nearby Isla Mujeres, take long walks around the ugly city, cook ourselves dinner each night in the hostel kitchen, and prepare for our flight.

See Also:
Why Americans should see Mexico by Backpack
Holy Mole
Leaving San Cristobal and the Oaxaca Coast

Categories: Mexico


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