We are travelling through Central America for a few months including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone they are part of one journey.
Soon we find ourselves bouncing along in a bus on a smallish track to the Belize border, it looked so much more substantial marked as a highway on the map. On the bus we chat to Sue a volunteer teacher working in Belize and she is supportive of our plan to go to Cuba via Belize and Mexico adding that Belize is mostly focused on island resorts and diving and can be expensive as a travel destination.
Chetumul: We take her advice, and at the Belize City bus terminal we board a bus to Mexico and arrive in Chetumul, a smallish border town. It’s local carnival time and the streets are packed with locals viewing the grand parade through the streets. There are lots of tight lycra, sweaty bodies, and rum and beer being drunk. Now, Chetumul is not really a tourist town, so we stand out a bit and provide our own little sideshow for the carnival.
Tulum: The next day, another bus to Tulum where we spend a couple of days relaxing on the Caribbean coast in a beach cabana. In the evening as we dine we serenaded by a mariachi band us with ‘Quando, Quando, Quando’ – the other diners are delighted we’re the centre of attention. Their joy is short lived as we tip the band and they move on to the next table…
Cancun: is a huge international tourist destination with 15 miles of beachfront resort hotels. We have heard that Isla Mujeers is a nice low profile backpacker’s destination just off the coast of Cancun. We catch the ferry but find it a disappointing place. Cancun has three million tourists a year, mainly from the USA, the airport is like a sardine canning plant. It seems the plant has had a malfunction and some of the sardines have slipped out onto this little island, so it is now like downtown Kuta, except full of Americans instead of Aussies – Cathy refuses to join the spirit of things and have her hair braided.
So, here we are in downtown Cancun staying in a sleazy 1950’s hotel close to the bus station. We begin searching far and wide for an English guidebook to Cuba, there are plenty in Spanish but we can’t find one in English. Our efforts go unrewarded so we organise for one to be expressed couriered from Melbourne, the irony is not lost on us. To fill in time while we wait for the guidebook to arrive from the other side of the world, we head off for few days to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. We take the bus to Valladolid about 2 hours west of Cancun and half an hour north of Chichen Itza, a major historic Mayan site in the Yucatan.
Valladolid: (Vaya-dolid) is now our favourite town in the Yucatan. It’s an attractive little place on a pleasant scale with the occasional tourist bus passing through on its way to Chichen Itza. As we have come to discover, most towns have a plaza or square which is in front of the obligatory church, colonial buildings and small hotels. We spent a few days, walking the streets looking at colonial architecture, wandering the markets and enjoying the food, we even get to attend a visiting Argentinean Circus.
Chichen Itza: we travel to Chichen Itza passing the local prison where the inmates weave and sell traditional hammocks mainly to domestic tourists. Chichen Itza is set in an open scrubby terrain and while the ruins are magnificent, we have been spoilt by the rainforests setting of Tikal.
In the heat, we climbed with other visitors to the top of El Castillo, the main sacrificial temple. Ninety-one very steep steps going up, and on the way down we hold on precariously to a large rope with the other nervous tourists who had heroically made it to the top, but were now trembling on the descent. It has a magnificent ball court maybe 40 X 80 metres overlooked by the King and Priest’s private viewing boxes. Depending on whom you speak to, the captain of either the winning team or the losing team lost their head after the match.
Merida: is the capital of Yucatan and we stay in a historically classified and restored hacienda complete with four metres ceilings and courtyard, hammock hooks in the walls and huge colonnaded and antique tiled porches. The centre of the city is full of colonial architecture in varying states of decay. The beautiful Cathedral looks out over the busy main plaza. It’s Sunday night and a big night for the locals with live bands and young and old, fat and thin couples dance in the streets encouraged by crowds of onlookers.
We splash out and dine on a balcony overlooking the plaza. We watch the crowds as we are entertained by a local mime artist as he mimics passers-by.
In Melbourne, our friends Leone and Mike have organised DHL to express the Cuban travel guide to Cancun and we are tracking its progress on the DHL website. It’s gone from Melbourne to Cincinnati and is now in LA, so our confidence is boosted at it’s on its way, so we decide it’s time to return to Cancun via Valladolid on a local bus.
It’s a long and slow ride as the bus stops and lets passengers and their goods on and off, there are lots of small villages with names too difficult to pronounce, but mainly starting with X. Back in Valladolid, we check the web site to find the guide has been returned to Cincinnati. It’s a mystery to us. We code name the guide ‘Dolores’, a common name for restaurants and hotels throughout the Yucatan.
With extra time on our hands we head north to see the Pink Flamingos at Ria Lagartos via Tizimin. Another slow trip with the bus stopping regularly for the locals. We arrived in Tizimin, accurately described in the guidebook as ‘a dirty, scruffy little town’ only to discover we have missed the connecting bus by 10 minutes. To the confusion of the original bus driver we board the same bus for the return trip to Valladolid.
We double check the guidebook for Ria Lagartos – Pink Flamingos. ‘…catch the bus to Tizimin and change to the connecting bus to Ria Lagartos… (turn page)… to do this in one day you will need to leave by 7am.’ The misconnection had saved us from an unprepared overnight stay in Ria Lagartos.
With Dolores now back in LA, and confident of an imminent rendezvous, we head back to Cancun on the executive bus arriving just in time to coincide with the American College Spring Break. Tequila drinking American youth, full hotels, busy restaurants and lots of t-shirts walking up and down the streets, it reminds us of schoolies in Surfers.
Campeche: To our surprise, Dolores has returned yet again to Ohio, we decide to spend a few more days in Cancun, still confident of a rendezvous. On Monday we contact DHL about ricocheting Dolores and they offer us reassurance. We flip a coin and head off into the Yucatan again, pass Valladolid to Merida, then south to Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico. A United Nations heritage site it was a major Spanish trading port with a large walled fort that was continually attacked by British, French and Dutch. We stay in a two- star historic hotel, eat some really good fish, and visit the town plaza overlooked by the Cathedral and lots of colonial colonnades.
While it was magnificent, there are only so many plazas, colonial architecture and cathedrals we could cope with in a week. We contact DHL again but despite their assurances we decide to abandon Dolores and Cuba for this trip and head across the southern Yucatan to Chetumal and the Belize border….
We have been most impressed with Eastern Mexico and its Caribbean Coast – Cancun excluded, nothing like the Hollywood version, pleasant towns, and pleasant people. The Yucatan is a big flat limestone plateau covered in three metre bush, the bus network is excellent with first class Mercedes buses providing toilets, air-con, reclining lounges, movies and express service. Surprisingly little traffic and it’s virtually impossible to get the wrong bus and all baggage is checked and labelled with receipts. It is certainly a place we could come back to, as the travelling is easy.