The Mexican Caper (1976) Part 6- Yucatan
Sporting a Yuca-Tan
Somewhere along the Mexican trail, as my friends back home froze their asses off, I lost sight of my goal: a beach lapped by azure waters. The journey to Yucatan was to get back on track, to the Caribbean, do some snorkelling, hang on the beach, stare at some bikinis ... the whole nine yards.
Due west from Jamaica, over the horizon from Rick’s Cafe sunset party in Negril, was a small island called Isla Mujeres, literally the Island of Woman. This seemed like an intriguing destination, even though I didn’t have a clue what it was like. There was one backpacker guidebook at that time on Mexico by Moon Publications, but I didn’t see a copy of it until much later; Lonely Planet had yet to start up.
The train ride to my destination was quite brutal, and in retrospect, it would have been worth getting off at Palenque, about halfway to Merida. If I had done so I probably would’ve run into Roland and Walt, who were hanging around those parts. Instead, for 36 hours, I sat in a very primitive second-class car, thanking my stars I hadn’t been too cheap and bought a lower, “cattle-car” class ticket.
There was three other gringo travellers in the car, and the first night, we sat around drinking pulque, the milky juice that is the base for Tequila. It was quite a jovial group, and we passed the night away swapping travellers’ terror tales in Mexico. Sleep was rather difficult, as there was no sleeper car, so we slept fittingly on our hard benches.
We awoke in the jungle, and it was ridiculously hot and humid. Thankfully, there were plenty of refreshments available, so we didn’t dehydrate. The train stopped at regular intervals, and kids would climb aboard hawking food and drink. They would stay onboard for a stop, then walk or ride back on the local train headed the other way.
The second night on the train was excruciating, but the time passed and eventually, (my motto: this too shall pass) we arrived in Merida about 7 am. Even though I was extremely burnt out, I decided to catch a five-hour bus from Merida to Punta Juarez, and cross over to the Isla Mujeres by ferry. After a few hours, we arrived near the port, and we had to walk about a mile with our gear. I was walking and talking to a fellow French Canadian, when a van pulled up and a nice couple offered us a ride to the port.
The port itself was tiny, and down the slope toward the harbor we witnessed our ferry boat crossing the channel between the mainland and the island. And there, in the distance, like a jewel in the sea, was Mujeres. It glimmered in the distance like Gilligan’s Island (a thought I’ve often had with remote atolls).
The crossing was serene, as the sun setting behind us and cast a golden glow on the peaceful burg. The island was ringed by reefs, and the multi-coloured blue shades reminded me that this was in fact the Caribbean, and that I had made a wise choice by picking Mujeres. The island was elongated, shaped almost exactly like a fish. It was still largely undiscovered by tourists; there was little in the way of all the usual tacky tourist trappings. Most westerners who came to the island were off-the-beaten-track travellers: Canadians, Americans, a spattering of Europeans, or Mexicans from Merida who came for week-ends.
There was one small town, which could be toured in its entirety in about a half an hour. At the north of the island, there was a splendid beach and small bay, which featured a coral reef. There were a few taquerias and restaurants, nothing fancy and a several charming hotels.
In short, an undiscovered tropical paradise.
As I walked around looking the sand lanes seeking a place to stay, I caught sight of Los Hamacas, a real “hang out” for gringos. This was the low-budget spot on Mujeres, so I checked in. I could string my hammock and stay inside corrugated steel huts, underfoot flour white Caribbean sand, or I could pitch my tent under the shelter of a tin roof. This I did, and then strung my hammock next to the tent.
I walked down to the beach, even though it was dark, and was surprised to see about 80 gringo (gringa?) women partying around a bonfire. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I hadn’t seen many women in my travels in Mexico. As it happened, these were students at an American medical school in Guadalajara, and it was their last night of vacation on Mujeres. No false advertising here I thought; this island sure lives up to its moniker!
We did some professional partying on the beach that night, under the stars, while the waves gently lapped at the shore. It was so peaceful, so mellow, as I was completely rundown after two and half days of travel, that I grabbed my sleeping bag and slept right out on the beach.
My vision of paradise was perfected.
I spent about two weeks on Mujeres, mostly lying on the beach, drinking cheap Bacardi Rum with fruit juices. Another favourite pastime was hanging out in the fishermen’s bar, where the beer was dirt cheap, less than .25 cents a can. There was always free plates of ceviche, seafood marinated in lime juice and smothered in hot sauce.
The bonus came when I stopped in at a lobster and shrimp processing factory on the outskirts of town, where a group of us bought ridiculously inexpensive fresh lobster and shrimp. Then, we’d pool our resources together to secure alcohol and mix at the small supermarket and party it up under the stars in front of a big fire; there were no problems with local officials whatsoever.
Most of the locals on Mujeres were dirt poor. Some of the shanties were a bit disturbing to look at, and usually, the dogs were territorial and menacing; more than twice beach mutts chased us down the lane at two in the morning.
One pastime on Mujeres was to rent a bike and then pedal seven miles south across the island. I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Turtle Farm, where tiny halfling turtles were bred for their meat (this before I found discovered they were an endangered species). Turtle soup was a delicacy all over the island, and it was very delicious, as was most of the food on Mujeres.
Eventually, the seven mile journey led to a Mayan temple at the end of the road. It was not a significant site, but was perched out over the cliffs looking south toward Cozumel and Tulum, the historical Mayan ports. At Garrafon, at the tiny coke and taco stand, it was possible to rent snorkelling equipment. This part of the island had a magnificent reef ten feet offshore that felt as if one was swimming in an aquarium, lots of fun for a rank beginner like me (Jamaica and the Florida Keys being my only other experiences).
As I snorkelled around, I was surrounded by two hundred pound groupers, and schools of brightly coloured fish, including the bright blue parrot. Nearby, a manta ray swam into view, and it was awesome. It’s giant wings would propel it gracefully through the water, and I followed it was best I could for over fifteen minutes. I must have spent over four hours in the very warm waters at Garrafon, and the fish were so friendly and fearless, it was a dream come true.
The key to successful Garrafon snorkeling was to arrive very early in the morning. Otherwise the tour boats would cross over from the newly minted Cancun resort, and a hundred snorkelers leapt off catamarans to view the fish. It was rush hour for snorkelers, and the Mujeres expats would hang out in the tiny seaside cafes watching the spectacle, smug in the knowledge we weren’t trying to vacation in one or two weeks or, as Jimmy Buffett said: “trying to cram lost years in five or six days.”
The locals were extremely friendly, always greeting me on my many walks around the port with a lively “Ola.” I was fascinated with their hammocks, which they slept in, and generally lounged in during the sweltering part of the day. Some of the Yucatan hammocks could hold an entire family of four, and at night, I’d stroll past open doors and witness entire families sleeping peacefully together.
The days of sunbaking and nights of partying soon turned into a big blur. Mujeres wove its magic over me, and it almost became too much of a good thing. After a few weeks, I began to feel restless, and I wanted to explore more of Mexico. I had completely recovered from my journey across Mexico, was feeling pretty relaxed, and decided it was time to head south to Tulum, where there was reputed to be a great beach and even more peace and quiet- if that was possible.
So, with some trepidation and not a little remorse, I stuffed my bag together and made tracks south towards Tulum. Since I had been having such great luck hitchhiking in Mexico, I decided to save a little money (it probably cost less than $5 to bus it to Tulum) by hitching. This was a major miscalculation, but of course, it took a while for this to sink in.
First, the road south from Cancun to Tulum in 1976 was still quite deserted. Few tourists had discovered the pristine beaches of the Yucatan south of Cancun, except in isolated pockets; the Mayan Riviera had yet to be named. Consequently, there weren’t many cars that could provide a lift.
Naturally, it was pretty easy to hitch from the port to the outskirts of Cancun airport. But from then on, there were few cars and no rides. I couldn’t accept the fact that I would be stuck all day by the airport, but after several hours, it seemed like it might be a good idea to flag a bus down. Just as I came to this conclusion, I naturally caught a short ride, which then dropped me off exactly in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, it was dreadfully hot, the sun was pounding down and I felt like an ad for “mad dogs and Englishmen in the noon day sun.” I kept getting short rides of about 5 or 10 miles, and by the end of the day, I must have travelled no more than halfway to Tulum (which was only about 90 miles south of Cancun). It reached the point where even the buses wouldn’t stop because they were going too fast and I wasn’t at an accepted bus stop, which was surprising considering buses generally stop anywhere in Mexico!
As dusk approached, I decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to hitch in the dark in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula. I thought I stood a better chance of getting run over rather than being picked up, so I strode down a nearby lane to see if I could tell how far it was to reach the beach. The route south ran perpendicular to the coast, but usually, the sea was out of sight.
The path eventually led to an idyllic green bay, half moon shaped, with palm trees hanging over the water. I was thoroughly exhausted from the heat and the incessant waiting game and looked for a place to pitch either my tent or my hammock. There was a little cantina nearby, but they didn’t have anything but lukewarm cokes. That was it for this beach: one small cantina with some indifferent locals.
I walked down to the far end of the beach and decided to pitch my hammock between two palms. It certainly was a resplendent location, with the Caribbean lapping up to the shore. The sky was filled with a million stars, and even though I was totally bushed, I did enjoy the dazzling scenery (there’s nothing worse than becoming so caught up in getting to destination that you forget to enjoy the scenes along the way).
I built a small fire, and managed to prepare a meal with the food I had purchased in Cancun (I heard provisions were scarce in Tulum). Then, after eating, I crawled into my hammock, got inside my sleeping bag, and faded out as the stars danced across the sky. I woke up many times during the night, hearing strange rustlings in the trees from the wind, and looking out across the sea to menacing clouds offshore that thankfully stayed out over the Caribbean.
A spectacular sunrise greeted me at dawn. The crimson sky burst across the beach, an amazing sight. I soon got out of my sleeping bag and packed my meagre belongings together and vamoosed out of the area. Soon, I was able to flag down a bus, and somewhat bleary-eyed, landed at Tulum.
Castles in the Sand
And so castles in the sand, melt into the sea, eventually. Jimi Hendrix
Tulum was a very popular place for off-the-beaten track adventurers in the seventies. Camping was free in those days off the beach, and most amenities were either non-existent or very primitive. The beach stretched out in a long path for several miles south, an uninterrupted stretch of white sand.
At the north end, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, stood the Mayan ruins of Tulum. These are very famous, because they reveal the Mayans as navigators, something that remains quite a mystery to archaeologists (as does the Mayan language, among many other things).
From the ruins to the far end of the beach, a superb coral reef jutted out into the sea. At one end, the reef was a short swim from shore; at the other, it was almost a quarter mile away from land. There was an excellent grove of salt water pines to camp in, and I found a place to pitch my tent, sheltered from the wind with little difficulty.
The first thing I did upon arriving in Tulum was to deposit my pack with a group of very friendly travellers, rip off most of my clothes, and jump into the clear blue sea. It felt so refreshing after the “short” 28 hour journey from Mujeres to Tulum. Then I set up camp, and segued into life at Tulum for about a three week stay.
My campsite was one of the best on the beach; the previous tenants had constructed a table, a beautiful fire pit complete with a grill and I found an excellent shelter for my tent. Living like a beach gypsy, I cooked all my meals and spent little.
A few days after I arrived, three travellers from France asked if they could share my campsite, since it was so large. I was agreeable to this, and to my delight, for the next 10 days we ate French cooking, including lobster and the camp specialty: fresh pineapple crepes. What a life!
In order to acquire fresh water, we had to hike up the cliffs to a building that housed the officials who maintained the Tulum ruins. And the town, if you could call it that, was a walk through the jungle. Along the way, there was a natural fresh water pool in a cave, known as a cenote, and we’d often stop for a refreshing bath to wash off the salt water from all the snorkelling.
One of the highlights of Tulum was the full moon party. The tribe of Tulumians gathered around a huge bonfire, and soon there was the requisite guitar playing and singing, and bottles of rum and beer being passed around. The moon was so bright, the sand so white, that a guy from Quebec was heard to comment that: “The sand looks like snow, it’s so white. But if this is snow, I’ll gladly take it over Quebec’s version any day.”
There really wasn’t much nightlife at Tulum, besides sitting around the fire. We fell into a pattern of waking early, lying on the beach all day, snorkelling, playing frisbee and of course, taking an afternoon siesta. Tulum was a laid-back place, and there was nothing to think about but sun and fun.
One morning, I awoke before dawn and walked through the dark with two guys from Minnesota to the ruins. We slipped through the gate, as the guards were sound asleep, and sat on one of walls. Tulum is actually a very small site compared to its more famous cousins of Uxmal or Chichen-Itza. But the evidence of Mayan architecture was unmistakeable.
Light broke across the horizon, as the sea pounded against the cliffs below. We could imagine the Maya, waiting for a ship to come in from Cozumel, bringing unknown treasures. It seemed like we were caught between the land of the living and the dead, sort of like the experiences Carlos Castenada was always on about in his books. Gazing at the sunrise from our perch within these ancient Mayan ruins was an out-of-body experience.
“There are entities which are in the world, and which act on people. They are here, around us at all times. In daylight, however, it is more difficult to perceive them, simply because the world is familiar to us, and that which is familiar takes precedence. In the darkness, on the other hand, everything is equally strange and very few things take precedence, so we are more susceptible to those entities at night.” Carlos Castenada, Journey to Ixtlan
The two lads from Minnesota were on their way south to Belize, and then, the Bay Islands in Honduras. My funds were becoming a bit thin by this time, but I really wanted to go further south into Central America. However, I didn’t know how easy it would be to have money sent down. The guys said they’d cover my expenses until I got money wired, but I had my reservations about the journey (mostly financial). I had money in an account in Canada, but in the seventies, having money wired was a risky affair (I’d heard a lot of horror stories, and was about to experience this firsthand all too soon).
Eventually, I did depart fabled Tulum, and at the last moment, as we reached the border at Chetumal, I chickened out. I guess I still wasn’t as fearless a traveller as I was to become later on. Eight years later, I stood at the main intersection in Belize City, Belize’s capital city. On one corner, standing as it had for years, was The Royal Bank of Canada, at that time my bank in Canada. On the other side of the street was the Bank of Nova Scotia, another Canadian bank. Obviously, had I proceeded on to Belize with the Americans, I could have had money wired overnight. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty vision, they say. And so, another fork in the road…
Of Mayans, Mushrooms and Pyramids
Such are the choices travellers face who have no itinerary. As I mentioned, I was travelling around Mexico with a very poor map and no guidebook whatsoever. Travellers coming from where I was headed often, but not always, provided useful information, but as we later discovered when my wife and I travelled around the world, a lot of this is very subjective. One person’s definition of paradise could be another’s hell.
My options, on the other hand, were outstanding. I could head west across the Yucatan and arrive at Palenque, site of one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Mexico. Still hurting from my last bout of hitchhiking, I decided to catch a cheap local bus. The route was not regularly serviced, so I had to make a series of connections. I ran in with an American expat who was moving from the Yucatan to Palenque for a while.
We managed to get as far as Zapata, a small town near Palenque, before darkness; a lack of transport forced us to stop for the night. There wasn’t any place to stay in Zapata, but we convinced a family to set up some cots in their bathroom for about .50 cents!
One advantage that Zapata did have, as we soon discovered, was a bar with a pool table. At this phase in my life, I was a seasoned pool shark, one benefit of my wasted youth, and we started playing the locals for Tecate beers (they were only 10 cents each!). The locals were very diplomatic despite their inability to beat us at pool.
Eventually we purchased a round of Tequila and Tecates for the whole place and became local heroes. We had a rip roaring time, drank ourselves into a stupor on beer and tequila, with the ceremonial lime squeezed into the can, which became ridiculously popular in North America some years later.
The next day, sporting a major-league hangover, we caught a ride on the back of a produce truck, and were unceremoniously deposited into the centre square at Palenque, then a sleepy town hung on the edge of the jungle. I enquired into the possibilities of having money wired from Canada, as I was pretty much broke, and the word came down that the phones worked only about an hour a day. The best place to get money wired was reputed to be San Cristobal de Las Casas, a brutal eight-hour bus ride through dense jungle and numerous switchback passes.
I was starting to get a little concerned about my financial status at this point. But Palenque featured a beautiful campground on the outskirts of town, complete with a waterfall and river. It cost about 25 cents a day to camp, so this did not impact on my finances in the least. The farther off the beaten track, the cheaper everything became in Mexico.
Despite everything I’d heard, I was still unprepared for my first view of the ruins. Palenque is a major Mayan site, because it was the first pyramid ever discovered by archaeologists that actually contained a sarcophagus. Until it revealed itself from the grips of the jungle, the conventional wisdom was that the Mayans did not bury their dead in pyramids as did the Egyptians.
To reach the ruins, the road wound through the jungle to the top of a hill. Below, the valley floor spread out, very lush. Wild monkeys jumped through the trees, and at night, they roared like lions. Rounding a corner, the ancient city came into view. To the left, the pyramid, unmistakable; then, the city itself, with the observation tower for studying the stars. The Maya were so advanced in their understanding of the stars that one school of thought posits that they were in actually in contact with extra-terrestrials.
In 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier removed a stone slab in the floor of the back room of the temple superstructure to reveal a passageway (filled in shortly before the city’s abandonment and reopened by archeologists) leading through a long stairway to K’inich Janaab’ Pakal.
In 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier removed a stone slab in the floor of the back room of the temple superstructure to reveal a passageway (filled in shortly before the city’s abandonment and reopened by archeologists) leading through a long stairway to the tomb of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, also known as Pakal the Great. The tomb itself is remarkable for its large carved sarcophagus, the rich ornaments accompanying Pakal, and for the stucco sculpture decorating the walls of the tomb. Unique to Pakal’s tomb is the psychoduct, which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone covering the entrance to the burial. This psychoduct is perhaps a physical reference to concepts about the departure of the soul at the time of death in Maya eschatology where in the inscriptions the phrase ochb’ihaj sak ik’il (the white breath road-entered) is used to refer to the leaving of the soul.
In the last 20 years, a great deal more of the site has been excavated, but currently, archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the total city has been uncovered. Palenque remains much visited, and perhaps evokes more affection in visitors than any other Mesoamerican ruin.
There were several odd humanoid creatures hanging out in the Palenque district. Many of these expats consumed the magical psilocybin mushrooms that sprang up in the morning from the dung of African cattle transplanted to Palenque. Then, they would sneak into the ruins at Palenque before dawn, and watch the sun rise over the pyramids.
I never indulged in this pastime, probably because my campground was some distance away from the ruins. Besides, I was always of the opinion that being in the Third World was often wild enough, and to combine hallucinogens with the local environment was too strong a mix for me.
The ruins were simply stunning and spectacular. I had no idea the Maya were so advanced, and had constructed pyramids at least as spectacular as those in Egypt. As I was to discover later on while traveling in Guatemala, the Maya had an empire that rivalled any culture on the planet for city planning and construction.
The ruins at Palenque are also interesting for the vistas they provide. As you climb the observatory tower, which was used to gaze at the stars, there is a terrific view of the plains below. Behind the ruins, there was a set of waterfalls with small pools. It was great to go for a cool dip in these waters, after touring the ruins. It always seems that we westerners tend to visit historical sites set off from towns during the heat of the day. The most ideal time to visit ruins would seem to be early morning or late afternoon. But the logistics of getting to these sights means the tour buses usually arrive at midday. I made it a point to visit tourist sites before or after the crowds left.
So it went on for a week or so in Palenque. Going into town to try to arrange some money to be transferred from Canada became a real adventure. As it turned out, the nearest bank that accepted money transfers was in San Cristobal de Las Casas, through the jungle by bus.
I turned down a generous offer to travel with two Canadians to San Cristobal, who offered to pay my bus fare. They went on to San Cristobal, and I decided to head north towards the border of Texas.
Guatemala had recently been struck by a devastating earthquake (1976), with over 25,000 people killed and many more displaced. I had planned to travel south from San Cristobal, but once we heard about the death and destruction surrounding the quake, I decided to head north back to Canada.
I eventually made my way north through the kindness of strangers, hitchhiking from Palenque to Brownsville Texas with less than $5 in my pocket. Across the border in Texas, a Western Union Telegram was waiting with enough money to get me back home. Notes:
The term “gringos” would be the subject of lots of speculation while I travelled through Mexico. One version had it that it came from the Americans, who invaded Mexico for a time. They would sing a song called “Green Grows the Grass of Home”; l hence, green-gos. That was my favourite version, because it fairly reeked of bullshit.
AKA Turista, Aztec Two Step, The Shits, The Trots etc… in fact, I think there are many descriptors for a mild or severe case of food poisoning all over the world – the bond that links all travellers together who journey off the beaten track – at least, sooner or later. Later, I would spy human excrement on many a side street in Mexico, so I didn’t feel so bad about my earlier transgression in La Paz.