Our journey in Mexico was wrapping up! As we were in Cancún, we wanted to do some sightseeing around the Caribbean. Then our plan was to head back west to Mérida, and then south towards the border with Guatemala.
From Cancún we cruised down the Carribean coast to the usually more low-key city of Tulum. It has added some trendy (some cutesy, some sterile) restaurants and shops.
We have camped before on the beach in the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, south of town. But the long road in can be rough, so we copped out and stayed in the Chedraui supermarket parking lot close to town. We went to the beach by the Tulum ruins: definitely not off the beaten path, but it felt good enough. (Boo hoo, poor us, I know).
The peaceful Laguna Bacalar
To escape the crowds, we drove farther south and then inland to a place we’d never been: Bacalar, which has a lake seven kilometers long with shallow, transparent water. The mud at the bottom is white in some places, making it look like you are in a bathtub, though the water is cool.
The town of Bacalar has made good use of the government’s “Pueblo Mágico” money; the main plaza looks tidy, and they’ve widened some sidewalks. It was a pleasant place to spend a few days, though you can see the center of town is gearing up for more tourists.
Down the road from the center of Bacalar is Cenote Azul. The aerial images on Google are much more impressive than the photos here: you see a circle of dark blue tucked under the wing of the elongated touquoise laguna. We cycled there one day for a quick dip. The water was warmer than in the laguna, and a great place to swim some lengths.
A stopover in Valladolid
On our journey back to the northwest corner of the peninsula, we stopped in Valladolid, a colonial city and a cenote-lover’s paradise!
But this time we only stayed one night at Hacienda San Lorenzo. There is a large cenote on the premises and they let you camp. Coincidentally, my parents swam here when they visited a few years ago! Aww!
Back in Mérida
Finally we circled back to Mérida to revisit some places and people from our past!
First, we spend some time walking around Mérida’s center. When I blogged about it a few weeks ago, I raved about the city’s rough, real exterior and warm colonial interiors.
But this time we realized that the center of Mérida hadn’t improved since we lived there in 2010. Where were the bike lanes that other major (and smaller) cities had laid out? Where the were the pedestrian-friendly streets or sidewalks? How was the government encouraging people to move there and take care of dilapidated and exhaust smoke-stained buildings?
Instead, the neighborhoods right outside the lovely main square are still poor and neglected, while more exclusive gated communities are being built farther and farther away from the city.
Still, Mérida remains a real city that doesn’t always cater to tourists. The restaurants and bars run the gamut from piss-on-the-wall canteen to five star Italian Trattorias. We ate at a few restaurants that we used to like.
New friends, old friends
One day, we went to the Yucatan Polo Cup Finals at the Polo Club to the north of Mérida (they are currently building another gated community next to it too). This time we brought along two nice guys from the hostel, Youssef and Juan Pablo.
It was a warm afternoon. Heineken, Strongbow, and Sol were sponsoring the match and were giving away free booze. Youssef was never seen with an empty hand. (which may have prompted him to converse with all the horses in the stable.) Juan Pablo wisely kept layering his sunscreen.
To cool off, we then went to the nearby village of Noc Ac where there is a partially underground cenote we used to swim in. It had been officially closed due to rocks falling, but a local man told us we could slip around the fence, and just swim in the open part of the cenote. There were a bunch of kids already hanging out there. We took turns jumping in!
That night I met up with an old friend, Célida, and her friend Tiwi. We had drinks at La Casa Chica, one of the newest bars in the city.
Célida just recently spent a year going around the world as a masseuse on different cruise ships, and is studying a master’s degree at the Mérida branch of the UNAM. She runs her own massage studio and eco-product shop called Sac-Nicte, in the center of town.
Tiwi is studying a doctorate in Marine Science. She’s monitoring the water tables in the Yucatan by placing of a special instrument inside cenotes!
I had a really nice time with these amazing women, and was happy to catch up with Célida.
Botanas in Progreso and the scariest bus ride of our lives
On another day, Edd and I took the bus to port town of Progreso. It usually takes a swift half an hour to get there, making it Mérida’s closest beach.
We went for drinks straight away at Eladio’s, a botanero chain restaurant. At a botanero you buy pretty much any drink and get several varied plates of food, all free. Like tapas on steroids.
Then we walked along the newly-developed malecón and I bought some sandals which were handwoven from nylon thread!
We had to wait in quite a line to get on the bus back to Mérida. While we waited, I said to Edd, “Isn’t it weird that these buses only have one door?” Finally we climbed on a bus and sat down somewhere in the middle.
About ten minutes down the highway, a sour-smelling smoke started to creep in from the back of the bus. A guy came up to the front to tell the driver.
After what seemed like forever, the driver pulled over on the shoulder of the road. By that time, the inside of the bus was so smoky that you could only see into the row in front of you. There was a hazy orange glow through the smoke. An alarm started to sound: WAK! WAK! WAK! WAK! WAK!
The driver opened the door, and we all crammed into the aisle to get off the bus, but no one seemed to be moving out of the front door, which remember, was the ONLY exit. People in the back coughed and pushed. A lady screamed. Kids were on the bus. The bus driver just sat in his seat, staring into space and doing nothing. He knew the bus was going to blow up.
Well that’s what went through my head anyway. We finally made it off and got out of the way! The bus was in a cocoon of smoke. Some moron went to get his cooler from the luggage compartment. Finally the driver stepped out, took a casual look around and saw that the smoke seemed to be coming from the engine.
Not one car, not even a taxi, stopped to offer help! We had to wait for another Progreso-Mérida bus to come, and we overloaded those buses. We were so shocked we barely spoke on the way home.
When Edd puffed on his vape that night in the van, my heart jumped!
Saying goodbye to Mérida
The next couple of days we hung out with funny Youssef and a French guy named Stephan. We had chili at the camper together on the last night. Edd and I also snuck in one last movie at the Cinemex: The Post.
After a week in Mérida, it was time to head south. On the way out of town, we stopped by the house where we used to live. The neighborhood is still great. But the house is a complete dump now. The good news is that one of the palm trees we planted in the backyard is about 20 feet tall! It feels like a piece of us is still there.
We drove two hours southwest of Mérida to the old walled city of Campeche, on the Gulf side of the peninsula. That this was the last Mexican city we visited on this trip was weird, since it was where we first came when we were looking for work years ago.
Campeche is looking really spiffy these days. The government has painted the buildings, widened the sidewalks, and pedestrianized a few streets. I was one of many tourists gathered in the main plaza to take pictures.
They have also opened a small museum near the western part of the wall. We went there because they let you walk along the top for about 500 meters. It’s a nice vantage point to see the city!
We camped in the Walmart parking lot, and the next morning we drove six hours south to the town of Tenosique, an hour from the border with Guatemala.
In Tenosique, we parked behind a “no-tell motel” called Hotel Frances. It’s a classic parking spot for overlanders getting ready to enter Guatemala, or who knows, it might even be the set of a Tarantino film. Well I couldn’t think of a better way to end our six months in action-packed Mexico.