T: My bus ride to Playa del Carmen was a riot. It was jam packed with Mexican vacationers headed for the beaches in celebration of Semana Semana (Holy week) which is a BIG deal here. The holiday lasts one week and every single beach town in Mexico is literally swarming with people. Time and time again, locals had warned us to make sure we were somewhere extremely out of the way during SS. I met some young guys on the bus trip and dazzled them with explanations of simple bartending tricks to impress the ladies at their festivities. Erik and I had originally wanted to be further south for this week, but we were accepted by a couch surfer in Playa, possible the busiest party destination in the entire country, and we thought it might be fun to partake in the mayhem for a night or two. Playa del Carmen was quite a departure from the Mexico we had seen so far. Full of tourists; the restaurants are fancy, the shops luxurious and following suit, prices are at least four times that of anywhere else in Mexico. It’s a tropical Rodeo Drive with Mexican employees who all speak perfect English. Everything is geared towards the white folk, gringo tax on everything and barely a Mexi-town or any indigenous people to speak of. We weren’t impressed – this was not the vacation we set out for- but Leslie seemed sweet and she did have a private room for us. On our first night she offered to take us to a sushi place she tod us was really good and we were ecstatic… until we arrived and saw the prices. The place was right on the main drag and was more expensive than at home, for a tiny portion of food. Thanks CS host Leslie for so thoughtfully looking after your backpacking guests. Sheesh. Erik was left starving and we’d spent our food budget for one day on one meal. We were seriously underwhelmed by this point but decided to venture into the streets for some Semana Santa party action, after all, the streets and bars were jam-packed, everyone drunk, dancing and having a festive time. And yeah, it was pretty fun. On another night out we caught Erik’s favourite Mexican band, Molotov, playing a concert on the beach. Molotov is a Mexico City band who sing and rap their lyrics in Spanglish over a heavy bassline. It is the kind of music that gets a young Latin American crowd extremely amped. We didn’t pay the cover charge to get inside the enclosure, instead rocking out beyond the fence as the only white faces amidst a crowd of rowdy, drunk locals throwing around handfuls of sand and beer cans in celebration. During their song “Frijolero” which contains the line: “Don’t call me Gringo, you Fucking Beaner,” we were celebrities, everyone pointing and having a laugh at our expense. We embraced the chaos and showed our appreciation for the music. For the two weeks of Semana Santa, anything goes; children light off firecrackers, drinking hours never end and there are full blown parades down the main streets. Both frightening and fascinating to observe at close range.
The beach in this area is, of course, picture perfect but much too busy for us. While hunting for a Mexican street market to pick up groceries (rather than spend our money at the large stores owned by the government or Wal-Mart) we discovered a stunning, quiet little beach with only a few Mexican families enjoying BBQ’s. We felt much more comfortable here. Anything to avoid the giant resorts and get back to feeling like we were still in the Mexico we had fallen in love with. It sure was easier sometimes that everyone spoke English but it certainly isn’t the kind of place to gain any culture, do volunteer work or have a profound spiritual experience. A ferry ride to the beautiful island of Cozumel was worthwhile. We rented a scooter and toured its many breathtaking, relatively unpopulated beaches in a single day. The snorkeling was gentle and soothing. The most exciting adventure in the Mayan Riviera was for Erik’s birthday, which we spent in Cancun. One day riding on the bike we stopped behind a bus which had a huge poster advertising an upcoming Snoop Dogg concert on the beach. The date emblazoned at the bottom of the poster was auspiciously April 4th, Erik’s 36th. We both instantly knew how we’d be spending Erik’s birthday. Getting the tickets was another story. Turns out, our visas wouldn’t work on the website, so our host Leslie offered to put the tickets on her card and she’d pick them up after work the next day (2 days before the show). She forgot. So the night before the day of the show, we’re following Leslie to several (in the end seven) shops, pharmacies, grocery stores looking for one with a Ticketmaster printer so we can retrieve our tickets. Turns out, there is actually no outlet in Playa where you can pick up tickets. It would have been helpful if they mentioned this on the website. So we go to bed, praying we can get them in Cancun on the day of the show. Off to Cancun early, armed with Leslie’s visa, a personal note and her ID, we search for the store that’s supposed to contain this printer. Two hours later, a young woman at a bookstore finally reads our note, phones Leslie and confirms that the tickets are indeed, ours! With tickets finally in hand, we’re on our way to Wet N’ Wild, our first fun birthday stop. Living out our childhood days, we take the waterpark by storm. It’s Mexico, so of course the park is outfitted with several bars, unlimited drinks included in our entrance fee. Approaching sunset, the park is closing, but we are having way too much fun and go for another dip in the Lazy River, floating quite easily now from our stomachs full of beer. A number of lifeguards and employees kept calling to us to ‘get out of the pool’ but we needed just a few more minutes of splashing and tomfoolery. Of course, the lifeguards being Mexis, they’re not prepared to actually get wet or expend too much energy in retrieving us from the fake river so we merely let the artificial current push us around the entire park one more time before heading to the change rooms. We were pretty sauced and giddy from the sun and the beer and there was still the concert to look forward to.
Our next stop was the tourist zone, where the show was being held. I’d been before on a family vacation when I was 15 but to Erik the hotel district in Cancun was an eye opener. Massive resort after massive resort for the entire length of the city, one small public beach and a whack of shops lining the street opposite the resorts. Cancun was worse than Playa. The resorts are bigger and there are even more of them. There are A LOT of police everywhere. I guess this is where they hang out waiting for the best chance at extorting the tourists. The white sand beach is one of the most beautiful on the planet, but unless your shelling out more than $100 a night to stay at a resort, you won’t even be able to see it. We’re half-cut so naturally poke around to find more booze. Armed with 2 mickey bottles of tequila, we grab some Cochinita Pibil tacos (delicious pulled pork cooked in banana leaves with fresh oranges, topped with pickled onions) and park under an umbrella while a flash rain passes. Sipping our tequila from coffee cups, we watch as different cliques cruise by en route to the show. On our way to the beach, I heard some guys talking about the concert so I butt into their conversation. Turns out they know the owner of this bar – one that happens to overlook the beach where the show is. You have to pay to get in, but it’s still a couple hours to the opening act, Cartel de Santa, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsTgGBagvnE so they invite us up for a drink. In the bar it was an all-inclusive thing. You pay 1000 pesos and you get a patio table to view the show and all your drinks for the night. Our new friends are very lovely and grab us some pineapple juice from the bar so we can make use of our tequila. Erik and I are hitting up all the tables, making all sorts of new amigos, telling stories and are apparently so entertaining that the owner insists we hang out for the show gratis. But we’ve still got these tickets. Having spent so much effort getting them we feel we can’t let them go to waste. Erik heads off back downstairs and tries to scalp them at the front of the venue. He works hard downstairs for a good 45 minutes but to his chagrin just can’t find a buyer for the tix. He hurries back upstairs and gets back into the bar in time to enjoy the show and many more free drinks.
Snoop was a tad disappointing. Due to the extreme windstorm he only played seven songs before running for cover. The atmosphere in the bar made up for it though. People were pumped and were running around talking to one another like we were all best friends, girls were up dancing on tables and the wind just kept howling outside in the first stages of a tropical storm. By now I’m challenging the bartender/owner to a “margarita off.” I figure I can whip up a better one than he can. He invites me behind the bar and I’m serving up a few margs before I tire of “work” and hit the dance floor. After rocking out for a while, we figure it’s time to leave while we’re still coherent. I’m offered a bartending job on the way out. Feeling pretty high from such a great night, we pound the pavement looking for more amusement but run into a spot of trouble. As best as we can recall, we had to pee really bad. Everything is closed now so we find some spots between cars to do our business but it wasn’t as private as we thought. We were spotted… by the policia, no less. They are out in hordes in these touristy spots and we had not anticipated that public urination was such a severe crime here. Of course it isn’t but the police look for any reason to extort some pesos from the tourists. They manage to grab Erik. He throws me the backpack and yells “RUN,” which I do. By struggling, he frees himself quickly from the officers grasp and bolts to catch up. We’re sprinting down the road, jumping over gates, passing through courtyards. Erik leads us into a club to hide and I’m quite sure we have left the cops in our dust. From all the stories we have heard about tourists getting robbed or kidnapped by the cops, we felt ourselves extremely lucky to have gotten away.
After the excitement of Cancun and Playa, we took a short ride to Tulum, Erik arriving first and setting us up in a quaint hotel just off the main drag, much cheaper than any hotel in the 30 km long row spread out along the entire beach. Tulum, similar in some ways to Cancun and Playa, is a playground for tourists looking to kick it solely in their resort. Not our style, but yes, the beach was beautiful. I checked email upon my arrival and hopped in a cab to find the hotel, Erik having decided to go to the bus stop at the very same time. I described Erik to the elderly guard, told him the room number, flashed him a big smile and thankfully, he let me in. Eager to shower, I was nearly undressed when there was a knock at the door. The hotel owner was not happy about me being in a room with someone else’s stuff and fair enough, Erik, to get the cheapest rate, had failed to mention the addition of a girlfriend. We went back and forth and finally I showed them a photo of us to convince them that I really did know Erik. He still appeared to think I might be a crazy person, following Erik around, so out of courtesy, I sat on a chair out front and waited for Erik to return. This respect seemed to impress them as from then on out, after my identity was confirmed, they treated me like their own daughter. When I was to leave a couple days later, the old man who had let me into the room originally did some hard bargaining on my behalf with the taxi driver. For literally ten solid minutes I sat in the cab as the man ensured I was to pay the correct price for my fare back to the bus station. In a touristy place you would expect to pay twice as much as a local and the man knew we weren’t your average all-inclusive tourists. It was the sweetest gesture and I thanked him significantly kissed him on the cheek and left feeling humbled at the kindness of this lovely person. It’s these simple things when you travel, reminding you to keep faith in mankind; you can never anticipate the generosity demonstrated by strangers.
Tulum is home to many natural ecotourism aquatic parks, and my parents had gifted us a day at Xel-Ha, the largest and most popular one, for Erik‘s birthday gift. We showed up at opening hour to enjoy a lavish desayuno (breakfast) spread, while the park came alive. It was a perfect day of snorkeling, tubing, eating, lounging and exploring the grounds. We spotted wild boars, manatees, sting-rays iguanas, birds, ant-mon-coons (Not sure what they are really called, but this is what we named them) and too many fish to count. A luxurious day, especially for budget backpackers, we left full of wonderful food, completely relaxed and extremely appreciative. For dinner we dined on the main street in Tulum at a hole-in-the-wall spot serving up massive eight peso empanadas and, for dessert, sucked back some Chaya juice (Chaya is a healthy spinach-like green used in many typical dishes and drinks in the Yucatan & Quintana Roo states). At the end of our meal we mounted the motorcycle parked on the main street but as soon as Erik pulled away from the curb, CRASH, the bike went down in a heap. We were both able to jump free of the bike as it went down on its side. Erik made sure that I was okay and then said that the handlebars had locked up and he was unable to turn. We succeed in avoiding injury but were now blocking a major vehicle route and a police officer rushed over. Some quick investigating led Erik to discover the ignition switch had dropped through the cylinder and was jamming the steering assembly. This isn’t a spontaneous failure, so Erik concluded someone had tried to steal the bike by accessing the ignition switch. (The same thing had happened in Erik’s underground parking in Vancouver a year earlier.) But this was the first attempt to appropriate the bike in Erik’s almost six months on the road. With the help of a passing truck driver and police officer, we pulled the bike upright out of the way and searched the pavement for the missing screws, to no avail. Erik eventually figured out a way to get us home and the next day went to sort out the issue. Miraculously, in this tiny town, he managed to find a taller de moto (bike mechanic) and even more unbelievably, the man had a box full of odd screws, finding, in minutes, ones to fix the problem perfectly.
Ready for another new home, we made way to our last town in Mexico before crossing into Belize. Bacalar is a mysterious place, not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Bryce had been a month earlier and insisted it was a must-see, as did our host in Merida, Jorge, who had been having dreams of it since a childhood visit. A tiny paradise, Bacalar is set on a crystal clear, white sand lagoon that doesn’t exceed 20 feet in depth. The swimming is heavenly and the tone, magical. Inhabited by only teeny fish and empty snail shells, it makes for one unforgettable getaway. We splurged a bit ($30) on a lovely hotel complete with hammocks, a dreamy garden and dock into the lake. Without much to do in town, we really wanted to check out The Fort de San Felipe Bacalar, built in 1725 to help fend off raids by pillaging pirates and illegal wood dealers, but being its only attraction, the cost was too rich for our budget. No big deal; the turquoise waters of the lagoon soothed and renewed us throughout our few days here as we prepared to leave Mexico behind for a new culture and country. If you are in the state of Quintana Roo, it is highly advisable to take a few days to relax in this tranquil oasis, just don’t expect to find much else to do.