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The Caribbean Yucatan

Mar 3

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 Zona Hotelera 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

Mar 4

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 Isla Mujeres, Mexicocheap, 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.
Pointe Sur, Isla Mujeres
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 theHotel Garrafon de Castillo access that costs. Once you are into the water you can go wherever you like.

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 Golf Carting on Ilsa Mujeresneighbourhoods 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!”Isla Mujeres

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

Paamul
Mar 8

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 louPaamulnges. 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 Columbia.

PaamulTheir 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 onPaaMul 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 called BacalarBacalar. 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 night.

Chetumal
Mar 9

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.
Beaches near Majahaul
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 to see.

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 campground near Chetamulno 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.

Carolyn Usher