The Yucatán Peninsula

Well, we made it. The final leg of our Mexican adventure. I have wanted to go to the Yucatán Peninsula ever since I found out that most of my favorite parts of the movie Romancing the Stone were filmed there. I imagined mountains with monkeys and handsome expats of questionable character around every corner.

Nope. Come to find out the Yucatán is quite flat and dry especially compared to the Colombia of my imagination. All of the expats we met seemed quite wholesome. That is what I get for having expectations.

The Yucatán Peninsula is actually made up of three different states. They are Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. Our first stop on the peninsula was in a seaside town called Isla Aguada. I wasn’t exactly in love with the place when we arrived. We had hoped to camp at a restaurant that reportedly would welcome campers if they ate at the restaurant. We like that arrangement because it enables our restaurant addiction. When we arrived at the restaurant it was closed and nobody was around. Plan B was a resort with RV camping on the beach. That sounded nice. They were asking $400 pesos ($20 USD) a night. That is extremely steep. We used our expert negotiation skills to get the price down to $300 pesos. Still too expensive. We were the only campers and there was just one other couple staying in the hotel portion of the resort. We parked right up against the beach and set up our camp for the night. I should probably mention that there was an unsightly chain link fence topped with barbed wire between us and the beach proper. We were making dinner when the chief sand raker (raking sand is a big thing in Mexican beach resorts) came over to cadge a cold cerveza off of us. We don’t mind sharing our provisions with the locals. It gives us a chance to get to know people. This guy was an exception. He just drank our beer and tried to ignore us. We did our best to initiate conversation but he was not having it. He gave us the shortest answers possible and looked away. We asked about his family. Yes, a wife and daughter. Stares off into the distance. We asked how long he had lived there. Whole life. More staring off into space. We asked about his work. Gets off at 9 pm. Looks at his shoes. Eventually, he was done with his beer and went back to his raking. About half an hour later he wanders back over looking for another beer. I was feeling stingy as we had only chilled a few beers and I wanted to keep them for us. Plus, this guy was no fun to hang out with. Scott has a more generous nature and gave him another frosty cerveza. More failed attempts at comradery ensued until he finished his beer and wandered off again. The third time he came around we had grown tired of the awkward noninteraction and wanted to enjoy our dinner in peace so we let him know that we were running low on beer supplies and couldn’t give him any more. He told us that there were plenty of stores nearby and we could just go get more. We couldn’t argue that point and he was content to stand in our campsite waiting us out until we gave him another frosty beverage. We were relieved when 9 o’clock rolled around and he went home. The next morning our attempts to play on the beach were thwarted by the chain-link fence which we were locked behind. So, we packed up camp, left the resort, and drove around it to get to the beach that was on the other side of the fence. It felt silly. We played around a bit at the beach and headed off into the heart of the peninsula.

View from within our compound.
View from the beach near Isla Aguada.

Once we headed inland, things started to look up. We drove into the state of Yucatán and turned off the main road toward the tiny hamlet of Homún. After snaking through the narrow streets, we arrived at a rancho on the north end of town. Our home for the next couple of days was the Ex-hacienda San Antonio. Their claim to fame was a sweet little cenote that only cost $35 pesos to enter. Cenotes are interconnected freshwater pools that are often underground but sometimes open to the sky. The Yucatán Peninsula has about 6000 cenotes. The Mayans would use the cenotes to communicate with their gods. Many cenotes have been found to house the evidence of sacrifice to the gods. Both pottery shards and human bones have been discovered within the cenotes. This one was in a cave that was accessed by climbing down about twenty feet of steep wooden stairs into a hole in the limestone. We saw an iguana tail sticking out of one of many nooks and crannies in the rock walls.  At the bottom, there was a large pool of crystal-clear water with little fish swimming around. It was such a treat to swim in the cenote because it was really, really hot outside. They had installed some lighting along the ceiling of the cave as there wouldn’t have been enough light to see from just the access hole. Smaller caves branched out from the main swimming hole begging for exploration. Eventually, our goosebumps got the best of us and we left the underworld. We stayed a couple of nights enjoying the cheap camping in their parking lot (only $25 pesos a person). The restaurant there was super cute and the food was out of this world. We could have stayed there for longer but I was feeling the need to get moving.

Cave bouldering with a guaranteed soft landing!
Chasing the fish.
The meals in the restaurant were garnished with fresh green habanero peppers!
Santiago and his family were incredibly gracious hosts at the Cenote San Antonio.

Our next move was to backtrack a little bit to the city of Mérida. Scott was needing to have access to the internet to publish the latest Sporadic Sojourns YouTube video and I found a sweet little hostel in town that had a camping area in the backyard. For $100 pesos a person we had access to a swimming pool, great Wi-Fi, and breakfast included. It was a pretty fabulous place to hunker down for a bit. On our way into Mérida, we got stopped for our first real police checkpoint. We had passed a ton of military checkpoints where they usually just wave you through or ask a simple, “where are you going, where are you coming from?” This time we had to pull out all of our documents and hand them over to the nice police officers for safekeeping while they searched through the truck. They were very thorough. They went through our toiletry bag and actually opened all of the bottles of moisturizer, the floss, the Q-tip box. They found our stash of bungee cords hidden with the jumper cables. They found all of our granola bars stashed in a reusable shopping bag. They went through my purse and found all of the tubes of lip balm that I haven’t thrown away despite the fact that they melted away to nothing months ago. They were kind enough to keep my money from blowing away while they checked every pocket of my wallet. The guy thought he was onto something when he spied the kazoo in the middle console.  He sniffed it and asked if it was a pipe. When I told him it was for music he told me to play it for him. That is how it came to be that I found myself on the side of the highway in southern Mexico playing the theme from The Muppet Show on the kazoo for an austere audience of two policemen. After about half an hour of poking around in our truck, they gave us our documents back and dismissed us. Woo-hoo! We passed with flying colors! As we drove away we marveled that they didn’t even blink at the giant cans of bear spray we are packing under our seats…

Can’t miss the bright city sign.
Gateway into the city.
Streets of Mérida.
They call the bug a bocho in Mexico.
My morning happy place in the shady breezeway drinking free coffee.

After we had our fill of pretending to be youths at the hostel in Mérida we headed out in search of another cenote. This one, Cenote Suytun, was the polar opposite of our first cenote. When we pulled off the highway and into the parking lot there were no less than five giant tour buses parked. We knew that there was camping available at the cenote so we went to the ticket booth to inquire. They never looked up and said $120 pesos per person to go to the cenote. When I inquired about camping she sent us off down a dirt road to a resort behind the chaos of the parking area. The little resort was a breath of fresh air. They had a swimming pool surrounded by brightly colored little cabins and a camping area for us off to one side. The cost of camping ($250 pesos) included entry to the cenote as well. We decided to relax for the evening and visit the cenote early the next morning when we wouldn’t have to share it with 200 of our closest friends. We were delighted to find that we were camped out next to fellow Pan American Overlanders, the Southbound Seahags, whom we have been following on social media but had not met in real life. We compared stories from all of the places we had gone in common and discussed potential future routes. It feels good to meet kindred travelers. The next morning, we ventured down into the depths of the cenote. Life jackets are compulsory for swimming and cost $30 pesos for rental. This cenote was very developed. There was cement stadium seating along half of the cave and a catwalk constructed out to the center of the pool. When the sun was just right a beam of light would hit the platform at the end of the catwalk. When we got there (after being funneled through the gift shop) the first bus of the day had just arrived. We boogied to get some pictures before the busload joined us and then donned our lifejackets for a swim. The swimming was not worth the $30-peso jacket rental fee. The water was pretty murky and the cave smelled strongly of bat poop. I’m pretty sure we were marinating in guano soup. While we were bobbing around in the soup there was an interruption in the constant parade of would-be Instagram influencers taking their turn on the catwalk. Four people dressed in full Mayan warrior costume performed a ritual honoring the gods of the underworld and then posed with tourists for photos for donations. There was a slight current in the pool that was pushing us towards the Mayans while they performed. We kept having to flutter ourselves away trying not to cause a splashy disturbance. Once the singing and dancing was over and the photo posing had commenced, we felt free to splash our way to the shore of the soup and climb up out of the underworld. There was a second cenote on the site with no people and even murkier water. The coolest thing about it was the giant tree rooted at the bottom and branching out at the surface. And the motmots nesting in the limestone. Feeling satisfied with our tourist-laden experience we headed back to camp to counteract the guano with some chlorinated pool water. We ended up camping there for two nights as I am a sucker for a swimming pool.

A moment of peace in the underworld.

Our final destination in Mexico was at Laguna Milagros outside of Chetumal in Quintana Roo. On our way, we stopped in Tulum. No, not to see the famed Mayan ruins right on the ocean. We stopped to sample vegan tamales and green juice and get out of there as fast as possible. If we had money to burn and enjoyed shopping even a little then we would have been tempted to stay but it was way too touristic for my liking. After spending five months in Mexico the really gringo-laden touristy places kind of freak me out. I feel like if I spend too much time in them I will be hypnotized by a crocheted dreamcatcher and start loading up our truck with oversized terracotta garden statuary. Laguna Milagros was a place for Mexicans on vacation. The only thing to buy was consumable. Delicious food and micheladas. We camped on the lake behind a restaurant that played very loud music. It was perfect. The lake was a light blue color I now associate with mineral-rich rivers and the shore was dotted with docks perfect for swimming off of. In the morning people would row by in their tiny crew boats. Afternoons provided a steady breeze to keep us from overheating. It was a perfect place for us to organize the truck to be ready to say goodbye to Mexico and hello to Belize…

Evening bliss on Laguna Milagros.

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