Mexico by the Books

I sat on a small dock, watching the sun sink over the ocean. We’d arrived in Belize a few days ago, by boat from Chetumal, Mexico, and made our way directly to Caye Caulker, where I now sat admiring the silhouettes of boats in the darkening sky.

We’d said our goodbyes to Mexico after an amazing month and a half in the country. As we reflected on our time there, in the immigration queue, we counted ourselves lucky for not having any major mishaps. A couple of lost/forgotten items of insignificant value (a clothesline, cheap sunnies) a few more serious bouts with illness, and that was pretty much it. We talked about the highlights as well: the first public bus we caught in Mexico City, the cenote diving, the Pacific Coast.

Though I’ve probably had enough tortillas now to last me quite some months, or years, I would have easily been able to stay in Mexico for longer. I would love to continue exploring the different regions that, in turn, offer such a variety of people and cuisine. Mexico is a beautiful country; plagued, in some ways, with problems and yet blessed with outstanding beauty and magnificent people. We felt as though we’d done a lot of the places that we’d visited justice during our time there, yet didn’t even scrape the surface of many areas of the country. Even where we’d been, we promised to return to, as each region, each city, could have months devoted to it and it still wouldn’t feel like long enough.

Now for the boring part. Let’s pull out some of the hidden accountant from inside me and break down the numbers.

Days: 48
Kilometres: 6,100
Pesos: 26,363
US Dollars: 2,217
Approx. Daily Expenditure (USD): 46

(Budget numbers reflect my expenditures only. Tim’s spending was a small fraction higher, mainly due to surfboard purchases and a slightly harder to satisfy appetite.)

For the Mexico – Brazil adventure, we have a budget of $40 US / day. This was established before some surprises from the Australian Tax Office, but until all of that is resolves in its entirety, we’re banking on that. We expect Mexico, Belize, Costa Rico, and Brazil to be among the most expensive countries we visit; Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to be among the cheapest. At some point I might put the full cost breakdown with expenditures on travel/food/accommodation, but not right now. Trust that you don’t even want to see the Excel spreadsheet.

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Border Crossing by Boat: Mexico to Belize

Our next destination was Belize. We got ourselves as far as Chetumal in Mexico where we had two options: continue our overland bus journey into Northern Belize or leave Chetumal on a water taxi and enter Belize directly onto one of the Northern Cayes, a handful of small islands found off of the coast. The second option appealed to us much more, so we organized ourselves in the morning in Bacalar and headed out to catch the 3 p.m. water taxi. Bacalar is about a forty minute drive from Chetumal, and inexpensive buses run several times a day between the two towns for 30 pesos per person. Taxis also make the trip, and if you catch a cab with a Chetumal label in Bacalar (or vice versa) they can end up costing about the same as the bus, as they have to make the return trip anyways.

We read in our sometimes-not-so-trusty Lonely Planet that immigration formalities have to be completed at the office in Mexico before departing, simply just ask your taxi to drop you off at the oficina de migracion. Bad advice. Doing this leaves you at an office on the outskirts of Chetumal, where there is nothing at all for you to do. The immigration formalities that need to be completed can be done directly before boarding the water taxi, and require no special effort.

Mexican Border

The water taxi leaves Chetumal and heads first to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, and then continues to Caye Caulker, which was our destination. The ticket costs 50 USD, and then there is an additional 10 USD “docking fee,” payable in cash and not featured on your receipt. We’ve heard since this is a bit of a scam, but I’m not sure how much of a fuss you could really put up about it. There is also a departure tax payable for leaving Mexico. If you have booked a return international flight to and from Mexico, the price will be included on your airline ticket, and you must present a copy of the receipt stating this in order to avoid paying it again.

We were loaded onto the water taxi, late, with a group of other tourists and all of the luggage. It took just over an hour to get to San Pedro, where everyone disembarked and passed through immigration. I’ve never been to an immigration office that has a sand floor before. No problems arose at immigration, and we were boarding a new water taxi bound for Caye Caulker shortly. Arriving by boat, with the sun long sunk below the horizon, to a foreign island was definitely a unique experience. We spent the next few days savouring the reggae beats, fresh cuisine, and permanently chilled out vibe of the caye.

Belize Immigration

Belize Immigration

Bacalar and Bickering

Laguna Bacalar is beautiful. A large lake surrounded by encroaching reeds and remarkable cenotes, all set alongside a rather unremarkable town. Despite the beauty of its setting, Bacalar was one of the first times I’d been truly annoyed during our travels through Mexico. We booked a campsite online for what seemed to be the too-good-to-be-true price of $10 US (130 pesos) for the two of us for two nights. Turns out we were right. We arrived in the evening, and caught a cab from the bus for a reasonable 20 pesos. We weren’t quite sure how big the town was or how safe it would be to wander around after dark (Small and probably okay, it turns out). We gave the address of our accommodation, as well as the name, but our taxi driver could not locate it. We found another, more popular and well-known option, but not the one that we had booked online. Finally, we had the helpful driver drop us off on the corner, and rationalized that we could simply check into the other option if we needed to. Turns out Arbol de la Vida was right where it said it was, on the intersecting corner of two streets, but it was so poorly lit and signed that we hadn’t even noticed it. Once we found our way through the wire gate and into the property, and I finally located the person in charge, we set about setting ourselves up for the night, eager to get some rest after a long day.

As I began to confirm the booking with the gentleman, I reazlied we had a problem. Despite the confirmation e-mail that I showed him and the amount it told us that we owed, he was asking us for 70 pesos per person per night to camp. Not willing to bend on this matter, we said no. We would pay the agreed upon amount or leave and find a different campsite. Finally this was agreed to, and we paid in US dollars, as we had only enough pesos to get us to the border and wanted to avoid getting cash out again in Mexico. We gave him $20, and after checking at the hotel across the street for change, he promised to give it to us in the morning. I did feel bad being so stern on the payment, as it appeared as though it was a new operation and a lot of time, effort, and money would have gone into creating the property. It was clearly a mistake on the IT end somewhere, where the rates had been inputted incorrectly, but the only reason we had ended up at that property in the first place was because of the exceptionally low price.

In the morning, we decided to take advantage of the nearly water-front location, and hire kayaks to explore the lake. There are several cenotes along the edge of the lake, which basically put Bacalar on the map. We took off with kayaks from the property for 60 pesos each, and battled the waves and the wind towards the cenotes. It soon became apparent that the paddling was too tough for me, and the distance too far, so we tied our two extremely non-efficient single kayaks together, Tim in front, so he could half tow me along. We made it to Cenote Negro where we stopped for lunch and enjoyed swimming along the edge of the dramatic cenote drop off. We were still only about half way to the other cenotes we had endeavoured to reach. Exhausted, and still facing the paddle back, we called it a miss and headed home. Upon returning, we told the total price for our kayak rental: 360 pesos. What?! Two kayaks, at 60 pesos each. It turns out this was 60 pesos each per hour, a fact that had not been communicated. After haggling it over for a minute, Tim and I shrugged our shoulders and realized we would have to pay it. We weren’t, however, prepared to hand over any more money without making it clear that we were still owed $10 US from the night before. This spurred another conversation about the rate for camping (we were dealing with a new employee) and further frustration regarding the reservation. All in all, it was a lot of hassle and not quite enough reward. All of that being said, excitement was building as we prepared to leave; the next day we were heading to Belize!

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

40 Metres Below: Diving The Pit

Diving the Pit was something that I wouldn’t have considered an option for me until it happened. I have my Open Water diving certification, which recommends divers only descend to a maximum of 18 metres (and many dive shops adhere to these recommendations). The Pit invokes dives up to 40 metres deep. On top of that, I’ve had consistent problems equalizing while diving – this is where pressure builds up inside your ear and it can’t escape. Not being able to equalize properly can lead to serious problems with your ears, and at depths that great would make diving impossible.

When we arrived at our shop of choice, Scuba Tulum, I was asked again if I would like to dive The Pit, and I told them my reservations. They told me that I was welcome to do it if I liked, and that Tim and I would have our own guide so if anything went wrong we could come up from the dive without disrupting the trip for anyone else. Tim said he was on board, and I was much more at ease knowing that it would be just the two of us in the group; Tim has always been a patient and generally awesome dive partner. Por que no, I figured – why not?

We arrived at the entrance to the Dos Ojos system. We were to dive the deeper dive – The Pit – first and then do a second dive in the “Bat Cave” of Dos Ojos. Intimidated is a bit of an understatement to what I was feeling as we geared up and headed to the opening of our cenote, knowing that 40 metres below the surface lay an underground world that I could potentially get the chance to explore, but that it was nearly two times deeper than I’ve dove up to this point.

The Pit was spectacular. I started off the dive slow as I struggled to equalize – it seems as though the first 5 or 10 metres are always the worst. Our guide and Tim sunk slowly down with me. Eventually my ears got sorted out and could deal with the pressure, and I fully began to appreciate the dive. I had only gone diving in the ocean before, and cenotes offer a completely different experience. The towering walls of rock surrounded us as we descended further and further down. Eventually we drifted through the halocline layer of the cenote – where the salt and fresh water try to mix and it creates a layer of blurry water. Due to the traffic in the Pit already that morning, the layer was not as sharp as it apparently can be – as flippers churn the water, it becomes less distinct. As we sunk past the halocline towards the deepest portion of our dive – around 36 metres – a ghostly tree rose out of the blur and the sediment, reaching its long-dead branches towards the light it had long lost. There was a pile of soil and bits of trees on the ground layer of The Pit (the actual cenote is closer to 120 metres deep, but branches off down a small cavern from where were diving). This pile was formed when the ground at the top of the cenote collapsed and deposited itself inside. The stalagmites and stalactites inside the cavernous offshoots of The Pit reach toward one another and almost make you forget you are underwater at times.

We looked back at where we had entered. The sunlight streamed in from above, casting its rays and cutting blue trails through the water in the cenote. Divers made their way to and fro, putting the scale of the formations into perspective. The ghostly remnants of forested life reached skyward from their gloomy home. The entire picture was bordered with hanging stalagtites, reaching their limey claws towards the ground. Bubbles trapped amongst them along the “ceiling,” formed miniature pools of glass. The photos we purchased front the dive shop don’t even come close to doing it justice, but here we are anyway.

The Pit

The Pit dive was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. Diving to such great depths in such a unique environment was truly exhilarating. Dos Ojos was a completely different dive and it brought to light how unique each cenote can feel. It was a much smaller cave, and much more enclosed. The majority of the cenote was a cave system that didn’t receive any natural light. Using torches and dodging stone formations awakened the latent claustrophobic in me, and I found myself gulping my air much quicker than I normally would. Halfway through the dive we surfaced inside the cenote in what they call the bat cave – a dark section of the cavern where bats congregate. Without question, I enjoyed The Pit more, but it was incredible to see the differences amongst two cenotes, even ones that were so close together. More cenote dives are making their way on to the list of things to do in life, without question.

The Pit II

Tulum in Thirds: The Ruins, The Beach, and Cenote Diving

Tulum is a bit of a tricky one. It is essentially divided into three parts. Tulum centro is on the main road. It’s a bit dusty, a bit heavy with traffic, but it is also filled with a plethora of yummy restaurants, hippy-friendly stores, and dive shops. Tulum’s beach is about 3 kilometres from town (most of which has a nice, dedicated bike/pedestrian path) and is much quainter and more laid back. All of the smoothies, beach bars, and bike rentals a person could need can be found on the beach. Finally, we have Tulum Ruins, several kilometres out of town, and one of the main tourist draws for the region.

The first morning after we arrived, we headed out to the ruins. We caught a taxi, and negotiated the price from 80 down to 40 pesos. You can also grab one of the collectivos heading towards Playa del Carmen, but the ruins are a way down from the main road, so it adds a bit more walking to the journey. The entrance to the ruins is crowded with restaurants, shops, and performers looking to capitalize on the tourist dollar. Entrance to the ruins is 59 pesos per person, and beyond the gates the crowds of hawkers disappears entirely. Tulum ruins are set in one of the most idyllic and unique places of many Mayan ruins: directly along the coast. They are not nearly as impressive or as grandiose as many of their inland counterparts, but seeing the blue waves of the Caribbean coast of Mexico alongside the ancient stone definitely adds an intriguing element. With this in mind, bring your bikini. There’s a staircase down from the ruins directly on to the beach, and it’s a welcome reprieve from the heat of the sun to jump into the sea partway through your tour.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The taxi back to Tulum will likely run you a bit more – the “official” posted rate was 90 pesos, which had recently been changed by marker from 70 on the sign. We refused to pay that, as it was a bit outlandish, and in the end we made it home for 70.

That evening, we spent a few hours (it turned into a bit more of a process than we initially imagined) researching dives. Tulum is well known for scuba diving: the cenotes that populate the Yucatan Peninsula have a high concentration around Tulum and Playa. A cenote is basically an inland sinkhole formed from the ground or bedrock collapsing and exposing the underlying groundwater. Cenote diving is one of the most interesting and unique things you can experience as a scuba diver. The issue is that there are so many cenotes. Each has its own characteristics, features, and attributes. It is a combination of many factors that contribute to the trip you may end up taking from Tulum: the cenotes themselves, trying to combine a variety of cenotes into the same day trip, depth, dive qualifications, the locations, the distances, the price, availability, visibility … the list goes on and on.

We have a friend that has spent a lot of time diving in the cenotes of the area, and he gave us four big names as recommendations: The Pit, Angelita, Calavera, and Dos Ojos. Other cenotes that will come up during the dive shops sales pitches include Gran Cenote, Casa Cenote, and Chac Mool, among others. My initial preference was to dive Calavera, which sounded like one of the most interesting options. Also known as The Temple of Doom, Calavera begins with a small opening and then opens up into larger, expansive caverns. There is a well-formed halocline layer (a blurry layer where sale and fresh water try to mix) in the cenote as well. Though all of the descriptions of the cenotes sound outstanding, for some reason Calavera was calling my name. However, we ended up speaking to one dive shop who said that in the last few months, the visibility in Calavera had become very poor, and that it wasn’t worth the dive. Nix that option.

It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end, we booked with Scuba Tulum for two cenote dives the following day. The plan was that Anna would do The Pit and then one dive at Dos Ojos and I would do two dives at Dos Ojos. The trip worked out well to accommodate different levels of divers, as diving The Pit involved going to around 40 metres, and an Open Water dive ticket certifies you to 18. As an added – and unfortunate – twist, Tim had been feeling rather under the weather since Cozumel and wasn’t sure if he’d be up to diving the following day. We booked the trip for Anna and I, with the possibility of adding Tim in the morning if he was feeling up to it.

Morning came along, and unfortunately Tim wasn’t doing any better. He’d been having pretty severe, shooting headaches, a sore and stiff back and neck, and had also been running a bit of a fever overnight. Since the majority of his symptoms had come on after his diving in Cozumel, we thought it could somehow be correlated to diving. That or he’d pinched a nerve or something along those lines, and needed to see a physiotherapist. With neither a dive doctor nor a physio on handy offer in Tulum, Tim decided (with some encouragement) that a trip back up to Playa to get sorted would be a worthy mission. Anna and I took a rain check on diving (Hers to unfortunately be much longer than mine, as she had an early flight to catch from Cancun the following morning and would be unable to return to Tulum to dive.) and the whole team made it back up to Playa by about noon. Anna set off for some shopping and beaching, and Tim and I visited Playa’s International Clinic on 10th Ave & 28th Street (It has a hyberbaric chamber and 24 hour emergency care, if need be). The clinic had an English speaking doctor, and we were in quickly. After having a thorough discussion, she put Tim on oxygen for about an hour, to rule out decompression sickness from diving (whereby his symptoms would improve after the treatment) and made us an appointment the following morning to have blood work done. We’d arrived on a Sunday, so the physiotherapy clinics were closed anyways, and we intended to go the following day as we both had a feeling it was something mechanical.

The next morning we arrived early, and had the blood test results back within an hour. Turns out Tim had brucellosis, an infection caused from contaminated dairy products. All of his symptoms were a product of the infection. Both surprised and relieved with the diagnosis, Tim accepted his prescription for antibiotics, paid the bill, and left. With that, we were free to head back down to Tulum and to diving. Along the way we also said our goodbyes to Anna, who headed back up to Cancun to catch her flight. We had an awesome week travelling with her, and invited her to rejoin on us on any leg of the trip, if she felt the need for another vacation.

We returned to the shop where Anna and I had booked (and then subsequently cancelled) and they honoured their promise to let us use our previous deposit for diving on a different day. We booked the same package and ate our way back down the street towards home, revelling in the cheap and delicious tortas, tacos, and quesadillas that litter Tulum’s streets.

Playa & Sol

Probably mostly due to my burning desire for a night on the town, we opted to overnight in Playa del Carmen before continuing southward for Tulum. Several oversized bottles of Sol (the reigning beer on this coast) and a few shots of tequila spurred heaps of good conversation, and we found ourselves making a reasonably late appearance on the town at around 1 a.m. We popped briefly into The Blue Parrot, one of the most famous beach bars in Playa. We scarcely had time to take advantage of one round of 4 for 100 peso beers before we ran into a friend we had met that afternoon who drug us off to a neighbouring bar. We were treated to some first-class service (it appeared as though our new friends had some pull) and danced as much as we could before calling it a night.

We had a very slow start the following morning while we tried to motivate ourselves (with the help of some delicious smoothies) to get ourselves up, out the door, and into a collectivo bound for Tulum. The collectivos head from Playa del Carmen to Tulum whenever full, which ends up being about every five or ten minutes. They carry around 10 passengers and cost 40 pesos a head, which makes them quicker, easier, and cheaper than taking the bus. People can get off and on whenever they like, and they drop you fairly centrally in Tulum. This was the part of the Yucatan we had been looking forward to most, and we intended to fill our next few days with ruins and beach and diving.

From a Rooftop in Cozumel

We passed through Playa del Carmen and headed straight to Cozumel, an island about 45 minutes by ferry from the mainland. Cozumel is a very popular destination from Playa and this makes for a proportionately more expensive ferry ride than Isla Mujeres, at 326 MXN each, round trip.

Immediately upon arriving in Cozumel, we were greeted by a barrage of tourist-aimed goods, shops, restaurants, hostels, and the associated touts. We’d booked a room at Hostelito, a sprawling, multilevel hostel close to the main square. While exploring town on our first night in search of food, we stuck with the customary method of walking a few streets back from the main drag in order to find cheaper and more local eats. We happened upon one of the better supermarkets we’d come across for quite some time, and ended up cooking ourselves up dinner. (Something we’d done far too infrequently in Mexico, due to the cheap and accessible street food. It ended up being quite the treat.)

I was feeling a bit under the weather, and spent half the next day re-energising at the hostel while Tim and Anna shopped around for a dive trip they wanted to do. I took advantage of the terraced outdoor areas of the hostel and did yoga overlooking town, then caught up on some life admin and writing. The team returned with the good news that they’d found a shop they wanted to dive with and were headed out for a twilight and a night dive that evening. I took advantage of our supermarket discovery and started dinner for the crew: a take on fajitas, including a kilo of freshly made tortillas I’d found at the supermarket (for the shockingly low price of 10 pesos) and about as much guacamole.

Tim and Anna really enjoyed their dives, one of which was at a reef wall. Cozumel is world renowned for diving, and they had the chance to see some pretty awesome marine life. A turtle, a shark, sting rays, and an amazing reef wall all featured. They also had the luxury of essentially organising their own dive trip, as it was just them who went out on the boat. The trip ran them 1300 pesos each for the two dives. My brief time in Cozumel was far less exciting, but still perfectly rewarding.

Anna Diving

Photo Credit: Tim Binks