through the US
Border Crossing at Eagle Pass, TX
Saltillo & Zacatecas
& Lake Chapala
& San Miguel
The Caribbean Yucatan
Cancun is two worlds. The first is the mainland city of Cancun, home to
more than half a million Mexicans. It has all the amenities and attractions
of any good-sized city. The other world is Isla Cancun, better known as
the Zona Hotelera. This is a thirteen km long spit of land that extends
out into the Caribbean Sea. There are dozens and dozens of humongous hotel
complexes spread over its sugar sand beaches. It is connected to the mainland
at both ends by causeways and bridges.
We took a look around. There are lots of restaurants, bars and souvenir
shops but few
people in them. This is because most of the hotels are all-inclusives
so people don’t venture out too far from the hotel buffet line.
That and the fact that you cannot hotel-hop because if it is an all-inclusive
you need the precious wrist band that lets you in the front door. Or any
door. We tried to check out a hotel some family members have a time share
for but we were not permitted past the heavily guarded gate. We took photos
from the road, like the poor country cousins we are.
Where are we staying? At Mecoloco RV park in Puerto Juarez about 13 km
to the north of both Cancuns. Mention Mecoloco to any RVer in Mexico and
you get the rolled eyes and
“Oh no …is it still that bad?”
For starters, the campground is covered in very tall grass. When we arrived
a pick-up truck was circulating through the campground carrying a big
tank of chemicals on the back with a sprayer that was swiveling 360 degrees
to spray for mosquitoes. I jumped into the van and shut the windows as
fast as I could but I noticed that the permanent residents just sat in
their chairs and inhaled. Could explain why you cannot get a sensible
word out of them.
Just kidding about that. I think a lot of them talk a Mayan language instead
of Spanish. At least that is the only explanation I have for the manager
of the RV Park who grunted and groaned and made sounds that were neither
Spanish nor English. That or too much DEET in his diet.
Yes, it is a real dump. When I went to see the bathrooms I came back to
the van and started crying. I simply could not bring myself to have a
shower in there and I am pretty inured to the shambles that most Mexican
restrooms typify. I wear my flip flops and keep my hands close to my sides
and my mouth shut. Which is what I did here too. I have my melt downs
but then I pick myself up and get on with whatever is necessary.
Isla Mujeres is a tiny island off Cancun, just 8 km long by 300-800 metres
wide. There is a car ferry so you could take your vehicle over but it
makes more sense to travel the 11 km from the mainland by foot ferry and
rent a golf cart for the day. These are not cheap,
about $45 US for the day including insurance, but they sure are fun.
Isla Mujeres means “island of women.” There are several explanations
for the name. Most popular is the legend that the Caribbean pirates who
made this area their home port stashed their women here when they went
off to plunder and pillage. Another theory says that the Mayans held their
virgins here prior to the festivities they were groomed for – ie,
sacrifice. Third and not as interesting is the belief that when the Spanish
were exploring the area they found Mayan sculptures of fertility goddesses
scattered over the island so named it “Island of Women.”
Legend also has it that the best snorkeling is off the Isla Mujeres so
we threw our gear into the golf cart and went exploring. We were directed
to the south end of the island, Garrafon Park. We were chagrined to learn
on arrival that access to the snorkeling beach is $69 per person. Apparently
this includes lunch and a zip line but still.
A bit discouraged we retreated to the southern tip, Pointe Sur for a pleasant
and reasonably priced lunch at the restaurant overlooking the Caribbean.
Steve being Steve he chatted up some vendors at the souvenir shops and
discovered that there is another way to access the snorkeling beaches.
Just before the expensive Garrafon access there is a hotel called Garrafon
de Castillo. For 50 pesos (less than $5) they provide beach access, lounge
chairs under a tent, change and restrooms. For $2 you can rent a locker
to stow your valuables while you swim/snorkel and there is a café
for meals and drinks. You can also rent everything from snorkel gear to
towels to life jackets. It was GREAT. We snorkeled right up to the place
where the $69 people were zip lining. Beaches in Mexico are all public
so it is just the
access that costs. Once you are into the water you can go wherever you
Was the snorkeling any good? Well, depends. The water was very clear and
that was great but we were just a month out from the Galapagos Islands
and it would be hard to equal that snorkeling experience. But it was lovely
just to loll about in the warm turquoise wate.
When we’d had enough of the water we got in our golf cart and bombed
around the island. It was a bit frustrating for Steve who’s just
another guy when it comes to driving. The rental carts obviously had governors
on the speed because we could not go very fast. Fine with me as I was
all about the sightseeing. But lots of local people have golf carts too
and these were flying past us at terrific speeds and of course that gets
a guy geared up. No matter how hard he pressed his foot to the floor there
was no making this thing do much more than putt -putt along.
We drove through the local neighbourhoods
where regular residents were going about their lives. We went to the northern
end of the island and stopped in a beachside bar for drinks. Here pretty
girls in thongs (and I’m not talking flip flops) lolled about on
bar swings and sunbathed on beach beds; provocatively if I may say so.
These are quite luxurious looking structures – raised beds about
8 feet by 8 feet with sheer white curtains on four sides. If it all sounds
just a little too decadent, just remember that there are lot more oldies
with cottage cheese thighs and old farts with overhangs roaming these
beaches than pretty young women. There are young men too, but invariably
these all wear the baggy surfer shorts that make them look like they have
their dad’s pants on. The only male specimens wearing speedos are
elderly Europeans who shouldn’t be.
Most bars and restaurants in Mexico are generous with their taco chips,
automatically putting big baskets on the tables as soon as you sit down.
I’m not fond of these at home, too much like chewing cardboard but
in Mexico these are fresh fried and delicious. So when they didn’t
come automatically we ordered some, asking for a basket of tacos. Well,
this was a mistake because what we got was a plate of soggy taco chips
soaked in refried beans. Apparently what we should have asked for was
simply, “chips.” I pass this on so you won’t make my
mistake. What you want are “chips!”
Back in the golf cart we hit the main drag, one t-shirt shop after another
except here the specialty is shells and they are comparatively cheap.
We bought a big snail conch from a fellow on the beach. Pretty shell.
Unfortunately over the next few days we wasted a lot of energy blaming
each other for having stinky sandals. Eventually we discovered that the
shell had not been properly cleaned. The conch is still with us, but it's
been secured in the stowage hatch of the kayak on the roof. When we get
home we’ll put it in the garden and let the ants take care of the
residual tissues before we bring it back inside
We moved on to one of the highlights of this trip, spending time with
our friends in Paamul. This is a beautiful area near the town of Playa
del Carmen. Wherever we’ve been in Mexico we’ve run into RVers
who speak so fondly of time they spent in Paamul 5 years ago, 10 years
ago or even 20 years ago.
That long ago snowbirds from Canada and the US started hauling rigs down
here and staying for months at a time. Then they started building what
they called “palapas.” Now a proper palapa is just a thatch-roofed
open-sided structure to protect you from the sun. We’ve used lots
of palapas in campgrounds on the various coasts. Tie your hammock to the
posts and you are home.
But in Paamul these palapas took on a new definition. With the owners
returning each year they started making improvements. It was not long
before these palapas started looking like beach cabanas c/w with bathrooms,
bedrooms and lounges.
There are now more than 100 permanent palapas at Paamul and our friends
Glen and Susan have one of the nicest.
They've backed their 5th wheel into it, with the palapa surrounding and
towering over it. On the first floor are a storage/laundry room, a bathroom,
a kitchen and a lounge. On the second floor is more lounge space plus
a screened but open bedroom. It’s absolutely lovely and perfect
in every way. Susan laughs when she asks if I think she’s gone too
far yet with the Mexican décor. “Nope, not yet.”
It must be fun to let loose with the bright primary colours and Mexican
ceramics that looks so great here but so out of place in Ontario or British
palapa backs into the jungle and this may be the best part of all. They’ve
pushed back the jungle, pruned the natural foliage and planted some beautiful
indigenous species. As a result they have a wonderful collection of birds
and small animals that come to visit. We sat in their beautiful open-sided
lounge and watched the local bird and animal life in its natural setting.
It really is magic.
And then there is the ocean ….just a few steps away. We did some
snorkeling right in Paamul while we were there and it was every bit as
good as Isla Mujeres. The water was warm and soothing. The RV Park has
a pool and lots of loungers under umbrellas. There is a dive shop onsite
and some of the best diving on
the Riviera Maya is right off Paamul.
It’s all about lifestyle there. Because people come and stay for
six months at a time they form communities of interest. There are sports
enthusiasts who play volleyball and tennis and golf. I watched a resident
giving an aquafit class in the ocean. There are artists and craftspeople.
There are musicians who meet regularly to jam and lots of parties and
events to play at – everyone is welcome to perform. There are book
clubs and Bible studies and lots of philanthropic initiatives –
school rooms being built, libraries being equipped, a daycare that is
being supported and assisted by some of the Paamul residents.
The development has RV sites for the likes of us, cabanas and hotel rooms
for rent. Nightly rates are reasonable – 800-1000 pesos per night
for short stays. Cheaper for longer stays. We did go exploring in the
area and there are other, more luxurious locations for wintering over.
But I have to say that the legendary Paamul has a funky kind of charm
that makes it the right place for refugees of the 60s like us. We’d
be comfortable here if we ever decided to stay in one place over the winter.
As it is, we may come back for a few weeks some winters and rent a cabana.
But for now it is time to move on so we carry on down the coast to a place
The campground here is a very modest balneario, a place where locals come
to enjoy the beach life. Thank goodness people like the Churches have
taken the time to search out all these places to camp because a person
would never find them on their own. This one is just an address, hand
written on a sign half-hanging off a fence post. When we stop an old woman
rouses herself off her stoop and limps over to unhinge the gate. She points
to the beach. We drive in and park down by the water. There are a couple
of local families picnicking on the wharf but we are the only campers.
After we settle in I try to find someone to pay. The old lady brings me
a piece of paper with “100” written on it. I assume this means
pesos so give her that. She seems satisfied. I ask her where the bathrooms
are. She points vaguely in a direction. I pick through a debris field
of old car wrecks and brambles to find a decrepit grey brick outhouse.
Thank goodness for the porta pottie. We’ll just be here for the
Today we leave the balneario and its crowing roosters – since 3
am. I thought roosters were only supposed to crow when the sun was coming
up. First we head into the town of Bacalar to check out the old fort on
the waterfront. It was locked with no indication of when it might open.
No problem, we backtrack up the highway bit so we can explore the long
spit of land between Majahual and Xcalak.
Majahual is a funky little town that was virtually destroyed in the 2005
hurricane. Although we saw lots of residual devastation and abandoned
houses down the spit, the town itself has been mostly rebuilt, in a thatched-roof
palapa kind of style. It would not take much of a hurricane to scatter
it once again.
There are hotels and cafes and bars, dive shops and ATV rentals, fishing
charters and shell shops. The drive down the spit was pretty. Took most
of the day to make it to the sleepy little fishing village of Xcalak.
The beaches are gorgeous – from a distance. Once you get out and
try to walk them you are impeded by garbage everywhere. This trash is
dumped off the cruise ships and Caribbean islands. It just washes up here.
I took less than five minutes to assemble 20 flip flops and shoes for
a photo. And that’s just such a small part of it. It was very discouraging
When we were in Corpus Christi, Texas we saw notices inviting people to
participate in their annual beach clean-up with the info that last year
they cleaned up 800,000 pounds of trash from their local beaches. This
would be in addition to people picking stuff up in front of their businesses
and properties. They need a program, or perhaps simply a change of attitude
about this in Mexico because it is very sad to see.
By evening we were in a lovely campground in the Caribbean city of Chetumal.
The place was spotless and pretty with gorgeous palm trees of different
species shading the camp sites. The pool was amazing – huge and
warm and clean. The bathrooms were perfect. I was one happy camper as
I showered and cleaned up for the night. But no
place is perfect. When Steve went to shower an hour later there was no
water. None. Apparently this is a shortcoming of this particular city.
The water simply runs out.
A major objective of ours in Chetumal is to see the Museo de la Cultura
Maya. This is reported to be the best museum of Mayan culture in Mexico
so we are eager to see if we can come to a better understanding of the
ruins that we have been visiting.
I don’t know if that was accomplished. We certainly gave it the
best part of a day, looking at the displays and reading all the explanations
which are in English and Spanish.
The museum is organized on three levels, reflecting Mayan cosmology. The
main floor is the real world. The upper floor is the heavens and the basement
is the underworld. There are detailed models of different Mayan cities
and lots of artifacts. But I can’t say I am
really any better informed about the Mayans. There is still this overriding
sense that almost everything that is stated about them is conjecture.
Tonight we are in the midst of an intense tropical storm. The lightning
is flashing, thunder rumbling and roaring, sometimes exploding over our
heads like gunshots. The rain is pelting the van so hard we have to close
all the windows. This makes it terribly humid in here but leave the windows
open and everything gets wet. Every storm we’ve ever been in near
the Caribbean has been a real doozy. I cannot imagine how violent they
get when it is hurricane season (June to November).
Tomorrow we head back inland; Palenque, home of the jungle ruins will
be our destination.