Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Yucatan Tour

We recently returned from a weeklong trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where we met our friend Karin and her son Nick and his girlfriend Emily. We were telling people that we were going to Cancun, but we never actually went into the city of Cancun, and didn’t get any closer than about a third of the way up the hotel strip, which runs north-south on a peninsula south of the city. We had a great week catching up with Karin and all the news from the north, touring Maya archeological sites, and snorkeling and spending some time on the beach. We also learned a few things about traveling in Mexico when driving from Belize.

We left here fairly early Thursday morning, planning to get as close to the Cancun airport as possible by Thursday night to pick Karin up on Friday morning. However, we go nowhere fast, and only got about an hour north of Chetumal by Thursday night. We started by stopping for Tom to deliver his weekly pay to Julio, our friend Mark’s caretaker. We unexpectedly met up with Julio and some of his friends driving out of 7 Miles as we were driving in, since Julio had hired a couple of extra guys for the day to do some heavy work around the farm. [Don’t worry, Mark, no extra charge to you; Julio took care of paying them!] Of course that meant we had to stop and chat, and that stop took us almost an hour. We then took another detour in Belmopan looking for a glass shop, since a branch sticking in the road had broken the driver’s side view mirror a few days earlier and we wanted to get it fixed before driving around in Mexico for a week. Everybody in Belmopan said to go to a glass shop in Belize City, and since we were heading that way anyway, we took their advice. That stop took another hour, but we drove north out of Belize City with a new side view mirror, albeit secured with Styrofoam and masking tape to give the glue time to dry so it wouldn’t fall out again.

We stopped at a roadside taco stand around Orange Walk for lunch. We each had six tacos and Tom had a Coke, for a grand total of $7.50BZ. We then headed north to the border, not quite sure what driving into Mexico from Belize entailed. What we found was that the Mexican officials were happy to help, and we got stamped out of Belize and into Mexico with no problems. Tom then went to the office to register the truck to drive in Mexico, and was informed that as long as we stayed in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, we didn’t need to register it in Mexico. The official there told Tom, incorrectly as it turned out, that if we decided to go out of Quintana Roo we could register the truck in Cancun, so we decided to skip registering at the border. The officer who had stamped us out of Belize told us that we weren’t required to get auto insurance to drive in Mexico and that many Belizeans don’t bother, but he also advised us that since we’re gringos driving a relatively new vehicle, it would probably be a good idea for us to at least look into it.

Having done this when driving into Mexico from the US, we didn’t think it would be any problem. We stopped at one of the insurance offices right over the border and got a quote. Then we went down the street to another, and got a quote for about $25US less. At this point our watches said that it was 3:15, so we figured we had plenty of time to get the insurance, get money changed and get on the road. However, we didn’t plan on it taking almost an hour to get the insurance. The office selling the insurance uses a website which is administered from the US, and all the drop-down menus are filled with options which would apply to most people driving from the US into Mexico, but which don’t apply to people driving from Belize into Mexico with a third-world vehicle. Our vehicle is registered in Belize, not in any US state. We got over that hurdle, and then had the problem of entering the make and model of a vehicle which isn’t sold in the US and, from what we saw, is probably not sold in Mexico. This involved trying all sorts of different options on the menus, having the insurance salesman go out in the street to examine the truck to make sure we were giving him the correct information (even though it’s on our registration, which he had in his hand), and finally just fudging it to get a value that matched what we told him the vehicle is worth. As we left the office, the insurance salesman advised us to go to a bank to change money rather than using the money changers who hang out by the border.

So, we headed into Chetumal looking for a bank, knowing they closed sometime between 4:00 and 5:00, and figuring we had plenty of time to find one still open. When we stopped at the first few banks, they were closed. We thought it odd that closing hours on banks were so arbitrary that they were closed when the signs on the doors said they should be open – and then realized that Mexico is an hour ahead of Belize, which stays on Central America time all year. We knew this from when Tom was driving through Mexico with Marjie and Chuck just last month, but it had completely slipped our minds. We finally found a bank that was open anyway, where we were told that we had to go to the money changers to change money. By this time it was well after 5:00, Mexico time, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to find anybody, and then realized that it’s for situations such as these that we keep our US bank accounts and ATM cards, so we hit an ATM and got enough pesos to keep us going for a couple of days.

We started heading north around 5:30, knowing the sun would set around 7:00. About an hour north of Chetumal, we saw a sign for an eco-park, and pulled in to see if we could camp for the night. We met a park employee biking out on our way in, and he told us that the park isn’t yet officially open, but that we could camp there for 40 pesos each – about $3US. He said we had to get food on the main road, so he threw his bike in the back of the truck and rode out to the main road, where he told us that all the restaurants were closed, but we could buy food and cook it in the park kitchen. We walked through a small tienda, trying to figure out what we could get to make for dinner, and settled on eggs, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and tortillas. We also took the shopkeeper’s advice and bought a bottle of El Jimador tequila and Cristal toronja (grapefruit) soda, and headed back to the park. All of this, including the tequila, was 230 pesos, or about $17.50 US. One of the other employees told us where to set up our hammocks, which we did just before dark, and we then went into the future-restaurant kitchen to make dinner. What a luxury cooking in a huge, well equipped kitchen! We shared our eggs and tequila with the park employee, before heading for our hammocks.

After a not totally comfortable night – camping hammocks are not the king-sized bed we’re used to – we hit the road a little after 6:00 the next morning. We stopped for diesel and a taco breakfast in a small town south of Tulum. Our pork breakfast tacos and tea were less than $5US for the two of us, although we were a little bummed that we didn’t think to ask for the chicharrone with the pork tacos until we saw another diner do it. We got back on the road, and made it to the Cancun airport well ahead of Karin’s flight, so we had time to sit in the airport’s internet café and check email.

Karin’s flight arrived only slightly late, and we picked her up and headed for the Grand Oasis on the Cancun Hotel Strip to pick up Nick and Emily. They were waiting outside for us, so we loaded everybody’s luggage in the back of the truck and headed south for Tulum. We stopped for more tacos just south of Playa del Carmen, and got to Tulum around 2:30. None of us had made reservations, so we drove up and down Tulum’s hotel strip looking for a place to stay. Our original intentions had been to find a decent cabana on the beach for Nick and Emily, and Tom and Karin and I were going to camp. However, with tourism down as much or more in the Riviera Maya as it is in Belize, even the nice hotels were willing to bargain and we got a good deal on hotel rooms in a resort on one of the nicest parts of the beach – and the entire Tulum beach is absolutely beautiful. We had a swim in the beautiful blue Caribbean, showered, and went out to dinner – Italian, this time, instead of more tacos.

The hotel was nice enough that this is how they made up the beds the next morning.

The next day we got up and walked down the beach and were immediately accosted by a swarm of guides trying to sell snorkeling tours. The posted price was 250 pesos per person, but by the time Tom and Nick finished bargaining, walking away, playing the guides against each other, and pretending to argue with each other over whether or not we even wanted to snorkel anyway, they cut a deal with one of the guides who agreed to take the five of us out for 450 pesos. We grabbed a quick breakfast, got our snorkel gear, and found the guide who had agreed to take us out in his boat. The day before we’d noticed that most of the boats anchored just off the beach were just white motorboats, but we’d noticed one that was painted like a watermelon, green on the outside and bright pink inside.

We were lucky enough to go out in the watermelon boat!

Although our guide didn’t speak English, Tom and I now speak enough Spanish that we managed to communicate, and before we jumped in the water the guide took us a little way north up the beach so we could get a view of the Tulum ruins from the water. We then went to our first snorkel site, and spent about 45 minutes floating around looking at the underwater wildlife.

The snorkeling was nice, although Tom, Karin, and I all noticed that the reef off Tulum doesn’t have as many fish, as much coral, as much color, and as much life in general as the reef off the Belize coast; it seems that Belize’s efforts to make the reef into parks and reserves is working since even to the novice eye, it looks much healthier than the reef off Tulum. At our second snorkel site, we had a sort of funny English/Spanish misunderstanding with the guide. He told us to look for the “tres canons” (with an ~ over the “n”), and we though he meant to look for three canyons. It was only as we swam back to the boat and saw three cylindrical objects on the sea floor that we realized he’d told us to look for three cannons!

The next day we left early to visit the Coba archeological site, which is less than an hour west of Tulum. The site isn’t very large, but it was very interesting because it was somewhat spread out, and one entire area is devoted to a stelae park where there are very few remains of buildings, but stelae set up every 20 or 30 feet. Because they’re made of limestone, many of the pictures on the stelae are hard to see, but most seemed to depict gods coming down to earth and landing on little people on the ground – not the friendliest of images, but interesting. On the way out of Coba, Nick spied a very large crocodile lounging in some grass between the road and a lake, so we got out of the car to get pictures, which I don’t have because we forgot the camera that day – but he was big! We made it back to the hotel in time to spend a few very relaxing hours on the beach and standing in the very pleasant water, bouncing up and down with the swells.

Nick and Emily were scheduled to fly out Monday afternoon, but that gave us time to visit the Tulum ruins in the morning. I’d read in the guidebook that you had to enter at the main entrance, which wasn’t correct, and we could have walked less distance from our hotel to the back entrance than we walked from the official parking lot to the main entrance, after unnecessarily driving three or four miles out and around to the main entrance from the hotel. But, that gave us a chance to stop and get coffee, and still get to Tulum shortly after it opened before the cruise ship crowds.

The site is interesting because it’s on the cliffs above the sea and is surrounded on three sides by a very imposing stone wall, but other than that it was a little bit of a disappointment. None of the structures are very large or distinctive, and because Tulum is a cruise ship destination and sees a very large number of tourists through its gates, everything is roped off except the designated walking paths.

A few examples of painted walls are still visible, and one building has handprints painted high on one of its walls, which Tom, Karin, and I found interesting since we’d visited a cave near here where Maya handprints are painted in one of the chambers in the cave. We spent only about an hour and a half touring the site, and as we exited we were met by large groups of people being bussed into the site.

We went back to the hotel, ate a real breakfast, spent a little more time on the beach, and then packed up to get Nick and Emily to the airport. We did that without incident, and Tom, Karin, and I decided that we would head out to Chichen Itza, which Tom and I had visited on our way to Belize in January 2007, but which Karin hadn’t seen. Chichen Itza is in the Mexican state of Yucatan, which meant we had to get the permit for our truck. As Karin was saying goodbye to Nick and Emily, Tom started asking around to see where we had to go to get the permit. After lots of backing and forthing, he found the right office, only to be told that he had to apply for the permit and would get it in five days. Obviously, that didn’t do us any good, so it was time for Plan B. Tom, Karin, and I talked, and we decided to rent a car to drive to Chichen Itza, and leave our pickup at the car rental. We did this, and got on the road for the two hour drive just before 4:00.

We made good time on the toll road, although we had a good reminder about why you don’t drive in Mexico at night when a full-grown dark brown cow walked onto the road in front of us. Fortunately it was till daylight and the cow entered the road well ahead of us so we had no trouble avoiding it, but we realized why it’s not advisable to drive at night in Mexico, even on the highways. We pulled into the town of Piste, adjacent to the Chichen Itza archeological site, right around six and starting cruising the main street looking for a place to stay. We were using the AAA guidebook, which mentioned a number of places right around the ruins, but said that accommodations for the more budget minded traveler could be found in town. We found the same thing in Piste as we had in Tulum, and hotel representatives were standing in the streets waiting to deal with any travelers who looked at all interested in getting a room.

We talked to one of these reps and started to drive away, when another gentleman who turned out to be the owner came hurrying down the stairs of the hotel. Tom told him the deal his employee had offered us, he cut it by a third, and, since the hotel was quite nice, we decided to stay. The owner advised us on where to go to dinner for local food, and we followed his instructions and had a delicious dinner of the regional cuisine, both Mexican and Maya. The good thing about three people who like to eat traveling together is that we were able to get lots of small dishes of different foods and all have something from each of the dishes. We staggered back to the hotel completely stuffed, and had a good night’s sleep in a very pleasant place. The next morning we found out that this hotel is the sister lodge of one of the very posh hotels just outside the archeological site, and the owner directed us to go there for a very delicious breakfast as well as free parking.

Tuesday we toured Chichen Itza. We hired a guide who not only told us lots of interesting things about the archeology of the site, but also filled us in on some of the politics of archeological sites in Mexico. Tom and I had noticed that buildings we had been able to explore in January 2007 were now roped off, and like Tulum, tourists are confined to designated pathways. Our guide told us that this was because of the large number of cruise ship tourists visiting the site and doing damage, and that while some people thought it would have been better to limit the number of tourists rather than limiting access to the site, the property on which the site sits is owned by an individual, not the Mexican government, and this individual wants as many people as possible to visit the site so he can get entry fees as well as skim off profit from all of the gift and food concessions. We wondered why the entry fee was double the other site entry fees, and this explained it. We enjoyed wandering around the site anyway, and as we were getting ready to leave, we struck up a conversation with a gentleman and his son touring the site on their own. They both spoke with British accents, but explained that they now live in Florida, and that the son, Alex, was just setting out on a six-week backpacking adventure. His father, Ian, had flown to Cancun with him, and was planning to say goodbye in a few days and fly back to Florida while Alex headed south into the rest of Mexico. Tom sort of offhandedly told them that if Alex decided he wanted to start his adventure in Belize, we were heading home on Thursday, and all he had to do was contact us by Wednesday night and he could get in the Little Bluebell bus for a ride to Belize.

We decided to leave Chichen Itza and stop by another archeological site, Ek Balam, which had been recommended both by our Chichen Itza guide and by a guide we spoke with at Tulum. Ek Balam is located outside the city of Valladolid, so we headed in that direction on the regular highway rather than the toll road. Along the way, we saw a sign for some cenotes, and decided to stop and see what they were. A “cenote” is a water-filled sinkhole, and they’re all over the Yucatan. Some are above ground, some are underground, some have buildings over them – they come in all shapes and sizes and varieties.

The ones we stopped at were both in caves, underground, with small holes to the surface and lots of tree roots poking through. We decided to take a swim in the second, and spent a good hour swimming in the very clear water with very black catfish. By the time we got out of the cenote, it was too late to head to Ek Balam, and since we had the rental car until the next afternoon anyway, we decided to get a room in Valladolid and tour Ek Balam the next day.

We drove around until we found a suitable place to stay – not as nice as the hotel the night before in Piste, but perfectly adequate. We went out to dinner at a small restaurant on the town square, and struck up a conversation with our waiter, Javier. Towards the end of another delicious Mexican meal (can you tell I love Mexican food?), we asked what time they opened for breakfast the next day, and were a little dismayed to hear that they didn’t open until 8:00. Seeing our dismay, Javier told us that his wife was in the process of opening up a little restaurant in the town where he lives five kilometers from Valladolid, and invited us for breakfast. We told him that sounded great, and he actually followed us out onto the sidewalk trying to determine if we were really serious – and we were. After some difficulty navigating the one way streets around the town square we made it back to the hotel the long way around, but at least the next morning we knew how to get to Javier’s wife’s restaurant.

It was well worth the small detour. The entire family greeted us, and we were the breakfast guests of honor. We had pork tacos as a breakfast appetizer – with chicharrone since we’d remembered to ask for it this time – and then Javier’s wife made us delicious eggs scrambled with chaya served with fruit and fresh hot hand-made corn tortillas. We sat and talked with Javier and his wife until almost 9:00, and then returned to town to find our way to Ek Balam.

Ek Balam is very small and is located well off the beaten path, but it was well worth the time and a few extra kilometers. We shared the site with one mini-busload of tourists who toured much more quickly than we did and were gone before we were halfway through the site.

The site is interesting because almost all of the buildings have rounded corners, and despite the site not covering much acreage, it has a number of very large structures.

Some of these structures are just tree-covered rock piles, but the largest of the structures is more restored than any of the other sites Tom and I have visited. It actually looks like the artists’ pictures we see in books showing what archeologists think the sites looked like when the Maya were inhabiting them, complete with thatch roofs and completely reconstructed frescoes and statues.

I had sort of mixed feelings about this – how do they know exactly what the statues and frescoes looked like? – but overall I liked it because it left much less to the imagination than the other sites we’ve visited. We climbed all the way to the top of the largest structure, as well as looking around its back where no reconstructive work had been done, and then exited the site and headed back to the coast.

We’d talked to Alex and Ian, the men we’d met at Chichen Itza, about staying where they were staying on the Cancun hotel strip. However, we decided to stay in Puerto Morelos, a small town about 15 miles south of Tulum which is much closer to the airport where we unfortunately had to drop off Karin the next morning. We wanted to try to squeeze in one last snorkeling trip, so we stopped at the first decent looking hotel we saw, got a room, and set up a quick snorkeling excursion. We changed into our suits, grabbed our gear, and headed for the boat, where we met a couple from NJ who had traveled down from Cancun to snorkel in Puerto Morelos because the reef off the shore of the town is a National Park and they’d heard that it was better than many of the snorkeling sites in the area.

They were right; while it still wasn’t as good as the reef off the Belize coast, it was much better than the reef off Tulum. Our guide, Marcellino, swam with us, and showed us lots of interesting wildlife including some small rays and a purple starfish (which Tom says the guide said it was a sea spider, but it looked like a starfish to me). He also took us over a sinkhole in the ocean floor where the ocean floor broke through to an underwater freshwater river, and let us jump out of the boat and get a good look at that and the variety of sea life around it. The only bummer about this trip was that the park police demand that snorkelers wear life jackets, which none of the three of us liked, but we had a really good time and it was a great activity to end our vacation.

We got back to our room, showered and changed and went out to another Mexican dinner. When we got back to our room, Tom checked email and found that Alex had left a Skype message saying he was going to take us up on our offer to return to Belize with us. We were pleasantly surprised, and made arrangements to meet Alex and Ian at the Cancun airport when we dropped Karin off in the morning.

We got up and walked into the town of Puerto Morelos for breakfast the next morning, then packed up and very sadly headed for the airport. We said a difficult double-hug goodbye to Karin, although we were quite glad to hear that she’s already thinking about another trip to Belize next year, and that Tom and I are welcome to stay with her and Mark if we can travel up to NY anytime. This is the only thing we don’t like about living here – we love it when we see all of our old friends from the US, but the goodbyes really suck and just never seem to get any easier. In any case, Karin had to catch her plane, and Tom and I had to meet Ian and Alex, which at least gave us something else to keep us busy.

I’d like to say our trip home to Belize was uneventful, but it wasn’t. The first part was pleasant enough with a stop at a small Mexican kitchen for our last real Mexican meal, but then the weather got bad and we were driving very slowly through torrential rain. We’d been talking to Alex about what to do in Belize as we headed south, and he’d decided that he’d like to spend a couple of days on Caye Caulker. Thinking about logistics and minimizing Alex’s travel time, we decided to drop him off in Belize City to get the water taxi to Caye Caulker, and then explained how he could get the bus to San Ignacio when he came back to the mainland and headed out to our place. We were frustrated with the bad weather and bad driving because the last water taxi leaves Belize City at 5:30, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway because we were held up so long at the Belize border that we wouldn’t have made it anyway.

We hit a delay before we even got to the Belize border. We’ve always heard the horror stories about gas station attendants at the Mexico Pemex stations trying to rip off the tourists, but with two trips through Mexico for Tom and one for me, we’d never experienced it. That changed in Chetumal, when we pulled into a Pemex to fill up before returning to Belize – where diesel is much more expensive. Before we even got to the pump, we had two guys gesturing madly and telling us where to go, and then jumping on the bumper and riding with us to a pump where three other guys were milling around. As Tom popped the gas cap and got out of the truck, he noticed the attendant rushing to get the nozzle into our tank, and saw that the pump already had 200 pesos on it. The other guys were jumping around asking questions and generally trying to create confusion, but Tom told the guy to stop pumping the gas anyway. He didn’t, but he talked fast at Tom telling him not to worry about it and kept pumping as the other guys kept scurrying around. Tom let it go, but when the guy finished, Tom gave him the total minus the 200 pesos. They all started yelling at him. Tom just said no, and with them continuing to yell, got in the truck and pulled away. As we drove back onto the highway, we looked back and they were all laughing – apparently they don’t mind too much when the gringos don’t fall for their tricks, even though they put up a good show of being very offended at the pump.

We got to the border and pulled up to get stamped out of Mexico, and realized that Tom and I each had to pay about 200 pesos to get out. We didn’t have that much Mexican cash left, so Tom had to find a money changer to get the pesos. Then I realized that the horse trailer parked at the border was our friend Chrissy from Cheers Restaurant, who had just spent four days driving through Mexico with her two new mares sealed in the horse trailer, and the Mexican officials were giving her a hard time and trying to make her pay Mexican export fees on the horses, when the whole reason they’d been sealed in the trailer for four days was so she could avoid the fees and the hassle of the export paperwork. With the help of a Belize BAHA official, she’d managed to convince the Mexican officials she could exit the country with the horses without all the export crap, but by the time she did that she’d missed the chance to get the truck and trailer checked out, so she had to spend another night in Mexico with the horses sealed in the trailer. We talked for a few minutes, expressed our dismay at her situation, and headed for the Belize border.

We got to the Belize border, and after one minor detour when we realized we were heading for the Free Zone rather than the border crossing, we pulled into the parking lot of the Immigration Hall. We got out and talked to the Immigration Officer, who told us “welcome home” and stamped our passports, and then gave Alex a 30-day visa after a minimum of the obligatory hassle. “Why are you here? Where are you staying? Where are you going? How long will you be here? What will you be doing while in Belize?” – all questions Alex couldn’t really answer since he hadn’t even thought about Belize until the day before. When the three of us explained this to the officer, he laughed and said he’d give him the 30 day stamp since he was a nice guy, and we all laughed and said thanks. The officer then told Alex and I to carry our packs through customs, and told Tom to drive through with the rest of the stuff. Unfortunately the officer at the drive through didn’t like this idea, and he made Tom go back to the parking lot and unload the entire truck – camping gear, cooler, snorkel stuff, laundry bag, etc. – and carry all of it through by hand. The only saving grace was that the customs officials in the hall were calling the guy in the booth as many bad names as we were, but it still took more time and effort than it should have – and, worst of all, they made me dump the half bottle of tequila I had in the cooler!

By the time we got on the road and reset our watches to Belize time, it was already 5:30. This meant a replan on Alex’s Caye Caulker transport, so we stopped in Corozol, got online, and looked up hotels in downtown Belize City near the water taxi terminal. We found the Belcove Hotel, and when Tom called they said they had a room and would give Alex a good rate. So, we headed south on the Northern Highway. We stopped between the airport and Belize City for dinner so Alex wouldn’t have to go out on the streets on his own at night in Belize City, and then headed downtown. After only a brief search we got good directions and found the Belcove which, as advertised, really is a two-minute walk from the water taxi terminal. Alex and Tom went inside to check the place out before deciding if Alex would really stay there, and when they determined that it would be okay, we said goodnight and headed home. We pulled in our driveway about 11:30 – a very late night for us, but we were home safe with another vacation unfortunately behind us.

6 comments:

Wilma said...

Great post. I really appreciate the details you included such as parts of the ruins being roped off, the hustle they tried to pull at the gas station, the good food you had, and the great bargains you were able to get. You really had an action-packed holiday!

sandy a said...

that was a really interesting post! We are picking up tips from everyone's blogs about driving thru Mexico. Our house is being built now, so we will probably be bringing a vehicle to Belize in the next few months!

Marge & Tom Gallagher said...

Thanks, Wilma & Sandy. This trip was definitely a learning experience, even for little things like not popping the gas cap until you check the pump.

Sandy, let us know when you're about to head down. Since Tom just did the drive through Mexico with Marjie & Chuck, he's pretty up to date on how it goes.

sandy a said...

thnx, will do!
S

Michelle said...

Great trip report - we're planning on meeting our family in Cancun in the Spring and after gleaning so much valuable advice from your previous posts we know we'll we walking in your footprints when we make our trip. Thanks for the free advice! I miss Mexican food more after catching up on your Blog.

Chrissy said...

Hahaha, except, we DID end up having to *export* them. TG for friends in the most unlikely places, a friend living in Chet helped us get through all the paperwork before the weekend.Not cheap though.