Cancun to Palenque (Dec 26-Jan 1)
After being home with our families over Christmas, it was bittersweet getting on that WestJet flight and heading back to Mexico. We had such an perfect holiday that I felt quite sad leaving Victoria to continue another 3 months of travel. Thanks to our wonderful family and dear friends for making our Christmas so very special
Cancun to Bacalar - 387 km
On the drive from Cancun, down the coast and past the myriad of all inclusive hotels, this part of Mexico is populated by tourists who are looking for an uncomplicated week in the sun with margaritas, beaches and perhaps a mariachi band. Why not.
As we drove past Tulum, the last town catering to tourists on the annual pilgrimage to the sun, the countryside changed and the highway turned away from the ocean. Palm trees gave way to scrubby trees and there wasn't a town for miles. Our destination, Bacalar, is on the southern end of 35 km long Laguna Bacalar. The Mayan name translates to "The Lake of Seven Colours" and the lagoon certainly lived up to its name.
On arriving at our GPS's coordinate for "Camping Bacalar" we couldn't find anything resembling a campsite. Up and down the street we searched. We talked to people camping on the street (not our idea of fun) and a few waiters at restaurants who suggested a few options, but no one had heard of Camping Bacalar. We finally decided to head to the southern edge of the town to "Cocalitos." This family run campsite is a real gem for anyone wanting to swim in the fresh waters of Laguna Bacalar. We were able to camp right at the water's edge and enjoyed swimming many times during the two days we were there. Dozens of Mexican families were also camping in tents so the entire site had a very festive feeling. Bathrooms were rustic, but cleaned daily. However, the flimsy shower curtain that opened directly to the view of campers wasn't something that we used.
On our second morning, we walked the 4 km to the town of Bacalar along the road that hugs the lagoon. Many impressive homes, hotels and hostels dotted the road. One hostel, the Green Monkey, and a number of other hotels offer yoga classes, vegan menus and eco friendly tours. Mexico isn't all margaritas, beaches and mariachi bands. No margaritas or mariachis here. Dreadlocks and backpackers. We wondered whether many young travellers intended to pass through this town and ended up staying.
Bacalar to Calderitas via Chetumal - 51 km
With reluctance we left the tranquility of Bacalar to continue our journey. What luck to find another amazing gem a few kilometres down the road, Cenote Azul. Cenotes are natural sinkholes with cool, fresh water. This cenote is the second largest in Mexico. There is nothing more delicious than jumping into the cool, fresh waters of a cenote on a hot, humid day! Unlike most cenotes that offer no amenities, Cenote Azul rents life jackets (most Mexicans cannot swim), offers a full service restaurant, and houses a huge palapa for picnicking. We brought out our snorkel gear and spent a few hours enjoying the refreshing waters. Loved it.
From Bacalar to Calderitas, we drove through the state's capital, Chetumal. Positioned right on the border with Belize and in a huge bay, it's a port city. Driving through town, we wondered why all of the buildings had a newer look and all seemed to be of the same era. We read later that Hurricane Janet completely flatted the town in 1955 and it was totally rebuilt. That explains why the city has a very 50s feel and shows no signs of very old, worn out buildings. We stopped at the Mayan Cultural Museum (Museo de la Cultura Maya) which is quite impressive. Although very short on artifacts, it had large, impressive scale models of many of the Mayan ruins. We would have stayed longer to play with the interactive computer displays, but the AC wasn't working and it was very warm.
About 10 km up the coast is Calderitas. Located in this sleepy little fishing village, YaxHa campsite was a perfect spot to relax and ready ourselves for the next leg of our journey. The ocean water here was a weird avocado green colour that was a sharp contrast to the blue, blue sky. A bit odd. Excellent campsite with great bathrooms and strong wifi.
Parked next to us were two friendly young men from Switzerland. One of them had been travelling for 6 months with his girlfriend through Central America. When she flew home to return to work, his friend joined him. On our other side was a man from Ontario in a pickup and small camper who had been travelling solo through Mexico for a while. He was heading to the Cancun airport to pick up his wife; they are planning to spend 6 months travelling through Central America. Another camper, a retired fireman from California, was travelling with his wife and both were very nervous about "banditos." They were the first US couple that we'd met for some time. We are meeting mostly Europeans and Canadians and very few Americans. It seems that the media in the US is doing a fine job of scaring away US travellers with their reports of drug cartel murders. Certainly there are areas of Mexico that have cartels battling with each other and with the Mexican army. But good old traveller's common sense (don't drive at night and don't flash lots of jewellery or money) are all that is needed in Mexico. We have always felt very safe here.
Calderitas to Palenque via Escárcega - 494 km
Ok, well, maybe it isn't all sunshine and lollipops. We hit a blockade about 100 km from Chetumal. And we were stuck for 2 1/2 hours. Thank goodness we had all the comforts of home with us, especially our bathroom! In this part of Mexico, residents feel that the government isn't doing a very good job and they are disputing which state they should belong to: Quintana Roo or Yucatán. The dispute is now in the Supreme Court and while the courtroom battles continue, the residents are protesting by occasionally blocking the only road between the Mayan Riviera and the rest of Mexico. The government will not stop the protests so long as the roads are opened for 10 minutes every hour. So, every hour the branches that are blocking the road are quickly removed and federal police officers hurry as many vehicles through in that ten minutes as possible. While we were waiting, we spoke with a few Mexicans who were from all over the country. They are very supportive of the protesters and patient with the wait. They blame the government entirely.
Because of the delay, instead of making it to Palenque in one day, we had an overnight at a Pemex gas station which had a massive truck stop. We tucked our little rig between semis that dwarfed us. We were awakened early the next morning as the trucks fired up their engines; we were on the road by 7:30.
The highway SW toward Palenque was in very good condition, so even with a few stops, we made it in record time. Good thing because there was a divine swimming pool waiting for us. Maya Bell campsite was another gem with excellent bathrooms and nice hot showers!! Simple things can make such a difference. Since it is New Year's Eve, we chose to take part in their special dinner. At 230MX or about $18 CAD, it's a real bargain compared to what we would pay at home. The live music started at 8 with three musicians who played traditional music from Bolivia, Columbia, Mexico and Central America. We danced, enjoyed the company of a young couple from San Miguel and felt very lucky to be in such a beautiful place.
Up early on January 1st, our goal was to be into the ruins when it opened and before the busloads. Like other ruins, this one is unique in many ways, yet has many similar qualities. Part of the uniqueness is the growling, barking sound of howler monkeys in the jungle surrounding the ruins. Their loud, deep calls were both unnerving and exhilarating. We're in the jungle!! Yikes, we're in the jungle. One way to exit the site is through the jungle, down a winding path, past waterfalls, twisting vines, ruins yet to be uncovered, and the steaming green jungle. Constantly serenaded by the monkeys, it was one of our favourite parts of Palenque.
Mexico ... you are so much more than we imagined!