Category: Places

San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala — Part Uno

San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala — Part Uno

We’ve “lived” here for the last four weeks. And the next two. Not sure how much time it takes before you can claim you’ve lived somewhere, versus visited, but I am sure we’re under. Nevertheless, we’ve certainly lived here more than any place on this trip thus far. Figured I’d write two or three posts about our experience.

Pasaj Cap

Part campground. Part apartments. Full awesome.

I’ve often wondered, as I’ve sipped my locally-harvested and -roasted coffee while goggling across sky blue Lago Atitlan at the massive Volcan San Pedro, tinged orange from the rising sun: Would you ever get bored of this view? I don’t think, day in and day out, I’ve ever started at scenery this epic for this long. Most of the time it’s only a week or two. And even then, likely due to some unnecessary distraction, I don’t goggle the grandeur. I glance at it. Here, you’re forced to: Every campsite and apartment has a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. You can’t wake without the view.

Back to the question. Would you get bored? You might. If you’re like me. Familiarity breeds contempt. Variety is the spice of life. Insert other idiom. Or perhaps, and hopefully, you’re not like me. Perhaps, over time, the view would become more comfortable, more enjoyable, like a sweater made from shedded bunny fur that gets better with each wear. It’s an awesome view regardless of opinion. I’m not bored with it. Yet.

Sittin’ on the Dock on the Lake

We’ve spent a lot of time at the docks. Watchin’ the tide roll away. Wastin’ time.

The Town

Pasaj Cap is around a hill, about a twenty to twenty-five minute hike, from San Marcos La Laguna. Everett’s school, Escuela Caracol, which translates to Snail School and which strikes me as an odd name for an education advancement institution, is in town. Thus we walk into town almost every day of the week.

You can circle the town in about ten minutes. It has two main roads and a handful of auxiliary roads. It also has a walking alleyway lined with craft shops and restaurants that leads from the central dock to the central road.

It’s not the prettiest town. It has its moments. The alleyway is cool. But the true appeal of this town, and most of the towns we’ve visited around the lake, is the atmosphere. The encompassing lake views. The lush and ambrosial vegetation. The temperate weather.

Beet Buns

Coming from Mexico, the food has, como se dice, been worse. Not horrible. But horrible in comparison. However, while it’s not the tastiest of fare, it is the freshest of fare. No preservatives (from what I can tell). Handmade. Craft. Even the lemonada con soda is squeezed right in front of you, not poured from a faucet or can. I particularly enjoyed the beef, falafel, and chicken sliders with the beet buns at Cafe Camino.

Height Advantage

Last weekend, we took a truck taxi up the steepest, curviest road we’ve yet encountered on this trip. Or in life. Everyone just stands in the back of the truck. Our taxi, a well-aged Tacoma, somehow squeezed fourteen humans in the back and three on the bumper. Rickety rails around the sides are all that kept us humans from plummeting down the precipices. Andrea, the kids, and I clutched the rails for dear life — my forearms were sore the next day. The Guatemalans just stood and licked ice cream.

It was, however, during this trek, shortly before or after I nearly lost my lunch, that I realized that Andrea and I are giants in the land of Guatemala. Andrea is 5’8″. I’m 6’0″. Perhaps 6′.05″ since I haven’t had a haircut in a couple months. But we felt 8’0″. Andrea and I were literally heads and shoulders above every other person in the truck. Even my 5’3″ sister would be a giant here….

A Skirt And A Machete

Women of all ages don the traditional Mayan clothing: A traje. A skirt, a sash, and a wide-neck shirt, all brightly colored and patterned. Yet they also wear modern clothing. I asked our Spanish teacher, Clemente, why and when they change from traditional to modern. He told me it’s just their preference. Some wear traditional clothing all the time. Some wear modern clothing once or twice per week.

Perhaps it’s that fact, or perhaps it’s because we’ve been here for almost a month, but I don’t feel I stick out as much here as I have in other traditional environments, like India. However, I’m still reminded of my foreign-ness (and laziness?) when, almost daily, I see a minuture, elderly woman wearing a traje and sandals and holding a machete in one hand and bundle of firewood on her back while trudging up a steep, rock-infested street. I’m usually snacking on Cheetos when this happens.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

I have poor eyesight. As most of you know, I have a rare eye disease. While it’s been mostly corrected at this point — with my glasses, I see darn close to 20/20 — I still have an artificial lens and retina in my right eye and a cataract in my left eye. I like to blame my eyesight for, well, lots of things. Like not being good at cleaning the dishes. Or my recent obsessions with Croakies. Or distrusting koala bears. Or why we only toured the center of Antigua.

It’s Bigger Than It Looks

Antigua is recessed in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. We got the incorrect impression, based on a quick glance from a hilltop before our descent into the valley, that Antiqua was small. Just big enough to fill the valley. No more than a dozen calles. In fact, after our second day, we felt we had walked the city, the entire city, from the public playground one side to the Iglesia San Francisco on the other. We should’ve consulted a tourist map — we stayed in Policia Turistica station after all. It wasn’t until, on our final day, we took our van to a mechanic, that we realized how much bigger, how much grander Antigua is. Next visit, I suppose.

Policia Turistica

They’re aren’t many places to camp in Antigua. We chose here because, according to the reviews on iOverlander, half the folks that travel the Americas stay here. Travel, occasionally, loves familiarity. It’s a walled complex, two city blocks in each direction, overflowing with a police station, an apartment complex (where the police crash?), an impound lot, a grass-less futbol field, and a bunch of dirty overlanders. They don’t have facilities. Our porta-potty got a good workout.

We arrived at dusk — it took us three hours to travel about three kilometers through Guatemala City — and chose one of the few available spots, flanked on one side by five French families and the other by three German couples. We tried to remember who our allies were…. Then we saw the French family (Bruno, Pauline, Leane, and Nathan) that we’d traveled on and off with for the last couple months. Our kids were ecstatic.

Volcan de Fuego

The French family wasn’t around the first night. They, along with three of the other four French families — all with kids! — were on an overnight hike on Volcan de Fuego, an active volcano with miniature eruptions every half hour. They returned the next day. Battered. Tired. Queasy (their son got altitude sickness). Unsure whether the spectacle was worth the effort. Andrea and I debated, for the rest of our stay in Antigua, if we should attempt the same hike.

We ultimately decided no, mainly because our kids wouldn’t have other kids to distract them. And because we were too cheap to pay for horses. We’re planning the easier hike on Pacaya — a less active volcano, yet one were you can still roast marshmallows straight from rocks — when we return through Antigua in route to El Salvador.

Seismic Activity

Four sizable volcanoes, Volcan de Fuego, Volcan de Agua, Pacaya, and Acatenango, engulf Antigua. It’s stunning, shocking really. It’s also why Antigua is no longer the capital of Guatemala. It’s seismic up in here. Fuego erupted alongside three earthquakes toward the end of the 1700s, prompted the then Spanish Captain of the Kingdom of Guatemala to say, “that’s enough!”, or its Spanish equivalent, and move the capital to Guatemala City. Many structures, primarily churches, remain in ruins from the earthquakes to this day.

Fancy Fast Food

Antigua has, unquestionably, the nicest fast food restaurants in the world (see photos below). We could’ve lived in the McDonalds — and we nearly did, spending most mornings there to pilfer their wifi and evacuate our bowels (give our porta-potty a break). The Dunkin Donuts and Taco Bell could be settings for a Woody Allen movie. You want to eat fast food in this city. Kudos to the Antigua city planners for keeping everything pretty.

Colonial Magic

Once again, while the Spanish were brutal in their conquest of the Americas, they at least left behind some fetching architecture. While Antigua no longer posseses the grandiose cathedrals we saw in Mexico, because of the earthquakes, its streets are still lined with cobblestone and its buildings have been conscientiously restored. Every bit as captivating and charming as San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, our favorite colonial cities in Mexico. Perhaps more so with the surrounding volcanoes. Or at least what I could see of the surrounding volcanoes….

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Sweet River. Indeed.

Bye Bye Bikes

One too many topes. One too many crappy roads. The steel on our Yakima FullSwing severed in half, dragging our bikes on the highway. We were fortunate we checked our rear view camera when we did. We pulled over in a small village a couple dozen kilometers outside of Tikal. The rack was toast, ripped in half like a piece of toast. And we couldn’t fit all the bikes inside the van. Thus, the cheaper ones, Andrea’s and Paheli’s, were donated to the village, along with the remnants of the rack. We sold what was left of Everett and my bikes for pennies on the quetzal in Antigua.

The Funny Thing About Expectations

We’d been told from a fellow traveling family that it was a good stop. A great stop if you consider the quality of the showers. It was also a convenient half-way point between our previous destination, Tikal, and our next destination, Antigua. We didn’t see many other options on the map. At least other options that did not involve sketchy roads.

We’re not sure what we were expecting. A nice stop. A warm shower. Perhaps a flushing toilet. We weren’t expecting a gorgeous, otherworldly river.

It felt like floating through a scene in Avatar as we cruised up the river Rio Dulce toward the Caribbean. Limestone cliffs surround you. Volcanos overshadow you. Snowy and Great Egrets, pure white, glide from perch to perch over you. Northern Jacanas, Jesus birds as some call them, with their banana yellow beaks and scary, spidery toes, hop across lilly pads near you. Iguanas swim, yes swim, in front of you. And occasionally, an artfully and architecturally fetching hut, juts from the jungle next to you.

Fun Stops

We made two fun stops in route to Livingston, the town at the cusp of the Caribbean. The first was a restaurant slash place to extract tourist dollars for the local community (a non-profit restaurant, which is pretty cool). Next to the restaurant, a natural hot springs flowed into the river. It lived up to its name. You have to swirl the river with the spring water to make it tolerable. The second was a restaurant slash mini water park. A couple waterslides, a trampoline, a rope-swing, and several jumping platforms extend from the deck of the restaurant. You can eat here. You probably should eat here. But if you’re like the Lingle’s, you’ll be far too focused on the waterslides to concentrate on eating.

The Spanish Again

Spanish conquistadors sailed up the Rio Dulce to invade Guatemala. While, I suppose, it’s a bit sensational, a bit, como se dice, macabre, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would’ve felt like to witness the massive Spanish galleons wind from the ocean through the limestone cliffs, which get quite narrow in sections, to the mouth of Lago de Isabel, where they launched their attack on Antigua. But I’m fascinated by sailboats.

Ram Marina

Hence one reason we chose (or were likely forced, by me) to stay here. The facilities were immaculate, built for the yuppy yachters that dock here after a season sailing the Caribbean. It has laundry, a well-provisioned grocery store (one of the best we’ve seen in Guatemala), nice showers, and of course, bundles of beautiful boats. Most days, I found myself just strolling the grounds, ogling, lusting really, over the various catamarans “on the hard”.

Awesome Stop

This may have been our favorite stop on this trip thus far. Life mimics the tempo of the river here. Peaceful. Calm. Serene. It’s a place where you can, and you want to, just squat in a chair with a book and watch the sailboats meander by.

Tikal

Tikal

Okay. We lied: Palenque is not the Indiana Jones ruins. Tikal is. This is where you can harness your inner Indiana — though, unlike Palenque, they don’t sell fedoras at the entrance.

Calm Ruins

I’m sure Tikal gets overrun. We arrived on a Sunday. We expected throngs of tourbuses and tourists and trash and tiendas. General chaos. We expected to wait until Monday. What we got instead, was a handful of cars, a few buses, and two Ocellated Turkeys.

It was overcast and the Weather app said rain. We’d just polished off some fairly epic chicken paninis at the Jaguar Inn, where we were crashing (they allow overlanders to overnight in the parking lot). Given the weather, and our full bellies, naps seemed imminent. Or perhaps slices of key lime pie and then naps. Inertia for certain. But the more we looked around, the more we were reminded how few humans were around. It felt like having Disneyland to yourself. We couldn’t risk crowds on another day. We packed our raincoats and marched toward the entrance. Andrea grabbed a coffee.

Creature Sites and Sounds

When the Mayans left — reasons are uncertain, ranging from overpopulation to agrarian failures to meteorological drought — animals moved in. And mosquitos. Though I suspect both were there before the Mayans.

White-nosed coatis now roam the streets — a band of coatis passed right by us at one point, momentarily petrifying Everett and Paheli. Spider and Black Howler Monkeys leap through the trees. Red-lored Parrots, Masked Tityras, Lineated Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, and Montezuma Oropendolas fly overhead.

Tikal is a feast for the eyes and ears. Howler monkeys yell conversations between the trees. Spider monkeys drop fruit seeds from the canopy, which sounds like rain. Toucans croak. Woodpeckers hammer. Parrots squawk (they’re kind of annoying). And oropendolas make that bizarre, mechanical teapot sound heard here.

Sheer Size

Tikal is the largest excavated ruin in the Americas. It felt like it. It’s a twenty to thirty minute walk, down an ancient, crumbling Mayan causeway canopied by rainforest, to the first significant structures. Another twenty minutes to the next. I’m guessing we walked ten miles (at least). And we didn’t see everything.

We also hiked to both the top of the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV, the tallest pyramid/temple in Tikal and pre-Columbian structure still erect in the New World. Our glutes were nice and taught. Temple IV was also where George Lucas filmed the scene where the Millennium Falcon flies over the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope! We took the photo below from that exact location.

Tikal, with it’s bisecting causeways (named after the archeologists that discovered them), and grouped structures, felt more like a city than a site, unlike many of the other ruins we’ve visited, whose main structures were concentrated in a condensed area. Though Tikal (est. 90,000) never grew to the size of Teotihuacan (est. 250,000), it remained an important, some say the most important, Mayan site until its final collapse.

You could spend days, weeks, touring and absorbing Tikal. Many do. We only lasted an afternoon. It was, however, with the slight rain and slight tourists, just about the perfect afternoon to hike the tens of miles and thousands of steps to witness this archeological marvel. A world heritage site and one of seven wonders of the new world.

Clarissa Falls, Belize

Clarissa Falls, Belize

What’s around that corner? Greener grass? Whiter beach? On this trip, I often ruminate, sometimes pontificate, on those questions. I’m also innately antsy. And when you’re constantly looking elsewhere, you struggle to see what’s right in front of your face. I’m sure some famous person said that. Or something similar.

Third Day

We spent the first two days at Clarissa Falls, a campground a few miles outside of San Ignacio, Belize, debating if we should leave the campground. Go see those ruins. Tube in that cave. Cross into Guatemala. The debate occupied most of our free conversation — all while a beautiful river and jungle surrounded us.

Toucans

We saw a Keel-billed Toucan perched atop a ceiba tree at our first meal in the campground’s restaurant. That should’ve been the first smack on the side of the head to stop and look around. Smell the jasmine. The next morning we saw two Collared Aracaris, named for the apple red collar that wraps around it’s berry black and banana yellow belly. It has a black sawtooth pattern on its red, yellow, and orange bill.

[Can you spot the aracari in the picture below?!]

Fun fact: Toucans, at least the keel-billed ones, croak. Like frogs. You can hear them above your head every other hour of the day. Yet even when you hound the sound, and despite their crazy colors, toucans remain difficult to spot.

Jade Water

Green water is suspect. Like swimming through algae. I’m much more inclined to hop into blue, or even brown, provided its brown from mud and not other sources, water. Perhaps it’s just unfamiliarity.

Hence my hesitance to swim or paddle board in the Macal River. The water was clear. But jade. Clear…. But jade. I contemplated that as I contemplated jumping off the dock below our campsite. I mean, there’s a difference between apparent and true color, right? And this river is surrounded by jungle. And limestone. It’s reasonable, almost rational, that the color would be a shade of green. Plus its clear. Yet jade….

I eventually took the plunge. We all did. The temperature was the perfect amount of cool to offset the, at times, stifling heat. We spent as much time in the water as on the land, mainly jumping from a deceased tree and then floating to the dock (see video below). This kids also caught minnows — using crackers and plastic bags! — off the dock. It was incredible. Refreshing. Though I now may have a horn growing from my back….

Electric Fireflies

The kids spotted fireflies the second night. Compared to the fireflies we’ve seen in the Northeast and Southeast US, which have more of a candlelight glow and casual flight, Belizean fireflies are electric, both in color, neon green, and action, swiftly zagging through the night, leaving a trail of light behind them.

Awesome Host

A host is as much as part of the overlanding experience as the site. Chena, the owner of Clarissa Falls Resort, was as good of, if not the best, host we’ve encountered on this trip-venture. Amazing, friendly, accommodating. She also cooks mean tacos and Belizean dishes. She cares, sincerely cares, about her guests, not just what’s in their wallet. You’d love her smile. And you, like us, would be excited just to order a meal from her.

Placencia, Belize

Placencia, Belize

The Caye you can drive to, as the locals say.

We skipped Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, mostly because the ferries to the islands were complicated with our van but also because, as we’ve read, and confirmed through other travelers, they’re crowded. And gringo. Expats have driven up the prices and out the local charm. Everyone is trying to access the same reef anyway. Placencia seemed as good a place as any to do so.

Mariposa Restaurant & Beach Suites

We crashed in the parking lot of the Mariposa. The owners, a cordial couple from Canada, just requires campers to eat at least one meal per day in their restaurant. Well well worth it. You get access to their sparkling pool, combed beach, and stunning views for the price of an excellent, albeit slightly expensive, meal.

Flat Wallet

Everything in Belize is expensive. Beers are served in 9oz to 10oz bottles (so you pay more per ounce). Food costs as much if not more than the US. Gas is twice as expensive as the US. And unless you just happen to have a SUV and/or a boat parked down here, to explore the jungles and cayes, ya gotta pay for guides. We spent as much in a week here as we did in two weeks in Mexico.

Belize Love

Nevertheless, we love Belize.

The towns, while not picturesque like some colonial towns in Mexico, are colorful and charming. They’re also clean, especially compared to most towns in Mexico. The highways are gorgeous. The Hummingbird Highway, which bisects Belize, is like driving through a jungle fantasy. The people are also incredibly, obnoxiously friendly. Not obnoxious in that they annoy you, but obnoxious in that they remind you that you’re not that friendly….

And the culture, a combo of British colonial and creole and Caribbean and Central American, is fascinating. And an anomaly in this region. It feels different. The casual tempo, the happy demeanors, the sweltering humidity. It also sounds different. The garifuna drumming, the sing-song English, the rastafari music. It’s a place where you want to sit and do nothing — which, if you do, will save you money.

Beaches

You shouldn’t vacation in Belize for the beaches. They’re nice, but they’re not postcard, sleep-in-the-sand beaches — unless you’re fortunate to travel to one on some remote caye. The beaches are, however, excellent jumping off points for the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world. If you’re a diver and/or snorkeler, this is your place.

Silk Cayes

We took a snorkel tour of the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. Even though it was overcast (see picture below), which obscured the visibility a bit, we saw as much marine life as we’ve ever seen. Dozens of varietals of coral and tropical fish. Nurse Sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays, Southern Stingrays, and Leatherback Turtles. Even saw a Magnificent Frigatbird get into a Top Gun dogfight with a Laughing Gull. While I’ve been to more easily-accessible reefs (US and Spanish Virgin Islands) and more colorful reefs (Hawaii), I’ve never been to a larger, more diverse reef. You can snorkel for days in any direction.

Belize Zoo

Belize Zoo

Our first stop.

Actually, the Tropical Education Center (TEC), an eco-reserve ran by the Zoo, was our first stop. They allow overlanders to camp in their parking lot. They also offer several cabanas for rent. TEC frontiers the jungle and features hiking and bird watching trails, an above-ground pool, meeting rooms, and a restaurant. TEC caters, it seems, to outdoor and nature clubs from high schools in the United States. You get a good education here. I learned that it is possible to sweat out ten pounds in one day.

We went to the Zoo the next day.

Ecotourism

Ecotourism is in. So in. I don’t think we made a stop in Mexico that didn’t advertise an ecotour or eco-hotel or eco-something. However, in Mexico it mostly felt like a charade, strategic advertisements to lure gullible tourists. Nothing looked sustainable. Nothing felt ecological. And we didn’t witness any conservation (though we were told they were happening, somewhere over yonder).

Not in Belize. The ecotourism here appears legit. The facilities are built to minimize their impact. Workers and volunteers understand and can educate you on local environmental initiatives. And the conservation is easily witnessed, right there in the jungle or right over there on that reef. Kudos Belize. Kudos.

Cheers

Not many dining options exist near the TEC and Zoo, which was on a fairly remote stretch of Belize — actually, all of Belize has felt remote; only 370,000 people live here. However, the one, easily-accessible restaurant was excellent. Great burger. Fantastic local food. And they even had a Boise State t-shirt hanging from their rafters!

Traveling Brewery

Outside Cheers, we met an Argentinian duo that owns and runs Sur, Cerveza Artesanal, a traveling craft brewery. These guys brew and sell beers as they travel — they’re currently traveling to Cancun to catch a flight to Russia for the World Cup! Awesome and inspiring idea. I got the sense they brew just enough to travel and live. We bought Sur’s Red Ale and Hefeweizen. With the Red Ale, I was hoping for hoppy — not many hops down here — but it was more of a farmhouse beer. It fell flat, both with my expectations and literally. The Hefeweizen, however, was incredible. One of the best I’ve ever had. If you see these guys on the road, make sure you flag them down!

The Zoo

Andrea and I love zoos. As most of you know, I proposed to Andrea with an elephant at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC. However, we’ve also gotten increasingly skeptical of zoos as we’ve aged. I credit zoos for inspiring my love of animals — and in that sense, they add value to the world — but I get a little dejected seeing animals caged. Unless, of course, they’re caged for good reasons, like rehabilitation, breeding, legit study, and/or because they fell out of their nest and could no longer fly, like the Jaribu stork at the Belize Zoo.

All the animals here are here for a reason, not just display. They also only feature local animals. And instead of building structures and cages to contain the local animals, the Zoo just fences up areas of the jungle, leaving whatever landscaping is there. It’s the most natural-looking and -feeling zoo I’ve ever visited. You get the sense that they care, genuinely care, about each and every animal housed here.

Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar

Our last stop in Mexico. And a goodie.

The lagoon of seven or seventy, depending on who is describing or who (like me) is listening and translating, colors. Mostly blue colors, however. All gorgeous.

This, as much if not more so than all of the recommendations we’ve received in Mexico, lived up to the hype. It’s a Caribbean ocean in a lake. Ivory sandy beaches. Encompassing tropics. Gentle surf. Turquoise and sapphire and emerald and indigo and so on blue waters. Yet fresh water.

Hostel Crowd

But nice.

We’ve seen the hostel herds on this trip — mostly trekking the cities in their hipster clothing and with their I’ve-got-a-pocket-for-everything backpacks — but we hadn’t shared campgrounds with them. Until here. The campground keeps a dozen tents semi-permanently erected. Hostel-ites rent them for about $15 USD per night. They charged us more for parking in their lot….

I stayed up late — like old-man dad late, so like 10:30pm — one night playing cards with three travelers from the UK. Two coworkers from the Ministry of Defence. One recently divorced and liquidated (sold his business) father. It was entertaining just listening to them talk, first trying to guess, based on accent alone, precisely where each one lived in the UK, second about the inadequacy they share with us United Staters about not being forced to learn a second language, and third about how to get rid of ISIS (we’d had a few beers). They taught me the universal card game for hostels. %&^#head. Or Poophead, as I later told Everett.

You’d dig this place, if only for the conversations.

Quebecois

We traveled for a few days — the last day at Xpu-Ha and two days here — with a cool family from Montreal, Martin, Cathrine, Margaret, and Beatrice. Margaret and Beatrice are beautiful, spunky kids with golden, curlicue locks — they reminded our kids of their cousin, Lucy. The kids entertained themselves so the parents could tend to more pressing issues, like relaxing. They drove from Montreal to Nicaragua and are now heading back in a pimped-out Toyota 4Runner.

Paddle Boarding

The wind is similar to an ocean. Nonexistent to slightly offshore in the early morning. Onshore from mid morning on. By the time I got around to paddle boarding, it was mid morning.

I’d paddle directly into the wind and waves to cross, mostly so I wouldn’t fall off the board yet partly for the exercise. The first time I crossed to the uninhabited side of the lake, I felt intrepid, like a pirate discovering a new bay to stash their plunder. I even thought at one point that I was paddling toward a Mayan ruin — it turned out to be just a very rectangular-shaped tree.

Pink sand from sulfur streams lined a few sections on the opposite side. I’m guessing these streams help keep Laguna Bacalar that near perfect temperature, just cold enough to cool you but not warm enough to remind you that you’re taking a bath with thousands of people.

Lake House

The American Dream: a lake house or ocean cottage. Here, at Bacalar, you can get both. It was one of several (likely hundreds if you ask Andrea) times that I’ve stated: I can see us owning a vacation property here some day. A simple place. You know, thirty to forty rooms, so all of my family and friends can vacation with us simultaneously. Oh, and a large fridge for Mexican beers. Several jetskis. Three pingpong tables. A margarita machine. Bowls of Sour Patch Kids. A bowling alley. I guess. Private chefs. Toucans that deliver messages from one side of the property to the other, you know, since it’s so huge. Pools. Many. Servant monkeys. A water slide that goes from the fourth story of the house to the lagoon. Meat sticks galore.

Or, I suppose, if I can’t afford any of this, which I can’t, I’ll just rent a tent.

Mexico’s Caribbean

Mexico’s Caribbean

We spent the last week of March on the Caribbean side of Mexico. Mainly hiding. It was Spring Break in the US and Semana Santa (Easter week) in Mexico. Everyone was on vacation. Eh. Vree. One. But I suppose we’re everyone too.

Tulum

We initially stopped in Tulum.

Tulum is famous for having one of the best-preserved and only Mayan cities on the ocean. It also has spectacular beaches, often ranking in Mexico’s — and sometimes the world’s — top ten. Unfortunately, while we were there, those beaches were covered with mounds of seaweed. Like two to three feet tall mounds.

It was also blustery. And touristy. Any sense of calm we hoped to inspire from a tranquil beach was eradicated as soon as we exited our van. After an expensive lunch at an inexpensive-looking hotel, and a quick walk down Tulum’s main drag, we decided to search for another beach.

Playa Xpu-Ha

We wanted, nay, probably needed, a spot between the major tourist destinations (from North to South, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Akumal). We figured we’d visit a few spots, choose the best. We visited one: Playa Xpu-Ha, just north of Akumal and south of Playa Del Carmen. The line of cars from the highway to the parking lot near the beach was a half mile long. We parked at the end and marched to the beach.

As we neared, the thump da thump da thump of house music from various clubs and restaurants could be heard. As could laughter. And the occasional scream from some crazed toddler. The sound of chaos really. But we marched on. Steadfast and determined. Yet increasingly aware of our (presumably) lack of options.

We ventured through a series of disorganized parking lots, sectioned off by ropes in various sizes and states of decrepitude. Then, in the back of the last lot, we saw it: the last open spot. Then we saw the French family that’d we traveled with a couple weeks prior (our kids love their kids). We took that as an omen. We sprinted back to the van.

The Campground

Like many, if not most, of the campgrounds we’ve crashed at in Mexico, this one has seen better days. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was just designed with exposed wires jutting from outlets, half- to non-functioning water faucets, and the flair of a geriatric hoarder.

The bathroom was the worst I’ve seen outside of India. I’m not even sure I’d call it a bathroom, just a filthy room where water either goes down or comes out of holes and where mosquitos flutter the good wing and do the bad thing.

Seaweed

The beach, like Tulum, was covered in seaweed. A British family told us it’s the worst they’ve witnessed in their twenty-plus years vacationing in the Riviera Maya. Workers from the clubs spent the mornings raking and wheelbarrowing the seaweed off the beach. A feeble effort. More returned, like an army of angry slime attacking the shore, every hour. (The picture above is just after they cleaned.)

The wind also howled five of the seven days we camped. That two day reprieve, which also fortuitously brought less tourists and seaweed, made this stop worth it, despite all the first world problems described above. It’s pretty amazing how simple and beautiful life can be on a pretty beach. We mostly just sat on that beach, gazing into the ocean horizon, occasionally glancing back to ensure our kids hadn’t drowned.

Easter

The Easter Bunny, as we learned, doesn’t hide eggs in Mexico when it’s raining. Instead, He (do you capitalize this one?) hides pesos in vans and writes notes that those pesos can be spent on candy in the minimart near the beach.

Miguel

We’ve met some interesting folks on this trip. Fellow travelers. Fascinating locals. Miguel was the latter.

Miguel is a fisherman. The purest I’ve met. He lives in an abandoned RV in the back of the parking lot. He fishes three times per day, every day. I’m not sure whether for fun or for money or for both — I resisted the temptation to ask; that’s a much too American question — though I doubt the distinction is important to him.

To fish, Miguel perches on a pile of seaweed, decked in Patagonia gear and with his neon blue fly rod on his waist behind him like a sword in a sheath. He watches for a particular kind of fish. I can’t remember the name. He called them surfers. When he spots them, he leaps off his pile, sprints into the shallows, and begins whipping the waves. It’s mesmerizing.

I often wish I had the passion, the conviction, of someone like Miguel. That my vocation and occupation would sow together seamlessly. That no worldly affliction, whether internally or externally imposed, would bother me, prevent my passion. Be a little more like Miguel in other words.

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos

Cenotes

Thousands of cenotes — sinkholes, some swimmable, some not — pepper the Yucatán peninsula. Cenotes are formed when limestone collapses into a subterranean water source. A vast costal aquifer resides under the Yucatán. Hence all the centoes. We crashed at one for a night in route to Chichen Itza.

We were famished when we arrived. Two competing taco stands across the street from the cenote entrance canvassed for our commerce. We chose the one on the right, mainly because there appeared to be actual cooking going on — the other stand appeared to be selling tacos and tamales from a Coleman cooler. We chose wisely. Some of the best tacos we’ve had in Mexico, rivaling the goat and fish tacos we had in Guerrero Negro.

After ingesting, we walked to the cenote. Then I inadvertently ordered the deluxe package for the family — I struggled with the Spanish — which was only two hundred pesos more and which included a zipline ride and kayak rental. We never used a kayak. But we did zipline across the cenote at a fairly dizzying height. Even the kids! See video below.

Villas Arqueologicos

We decided to crash outside of the van for a couple nights, mostly because we couldn’t remember the last time we showered. That crash was Villas Arqueologicos, across the street from the more exclusive, more expensive Hacienda Chichen, yet still within walking distance to the side, less well-known Chichen Itza entrance.

For the money, about $60 USD per night, this is a fantastic hotel. A pleasant, albeit chilly, pool flanks a palapa-covered restaurant in the center of a lush courtyard. Unfussy yet fetching Mayan-themed artwork and sculptures adorn the courtyard and rooms. It even has a bibliotheca, featuring a emerald-green felt and mahogany pool table that occupied most of Everett’s free attention. He was a shark by the end of the stay.

Chichen Itza

The gates opened at 8:00am. We arrived minutes thereafter. The line, at the less well-known entrance remind you, was dozens long. It was also the most expensive archeological site we’ve yet visited. Chichen Itza is certainly aware of its proximity to Cancun.

Hundreds of tourists managed to enter (mostly from the main entrance) before us. Yet it still felt, relatively, calm. Relativamente tranquilo. We marched toward the main draw, El Castillo first.

Six iguanas were basking in the sun in front of the temple. Or basking in the attention they were receiving. As many tourists were snapping photos of them as the temple. Count us amongst those tourists. Then we turned our attention to the temple. It is, especially compared to the other ruins we’ve visited, remarkably well-preserved. Remarkably reconstructed really (they were able to find and fit most of the fallen stones). Only one side looks ruined. The other sides look like they’re ready for another human sacrifice.

We took a lap around the temple. Then, after crossing the finish line, we witnessed thousands of tourists charge the compound. It felt like the tourist zombie apocalypse. You couldn’t even move a few yards without joining someone’s selfie. So we retreated to The Grand Ball Court, the largest of the over thousand ball courts discovered in Mesoamerica, about two times the size of a football field, on the other side of the complex. Here, many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ball players lost their heads. I lost my mind. It was awesome.

After that, we ventured to a cenote where young Mayan girls were sacrificed to their gods and then to The Plaza of a Thousand Columns, which unlike most of the exaggerations above, likely does have a thousand columns. This part of Chichen Itza felt more European, more Roman than previous sites. Some scholars think the design looks Spanish, though it’s clear it was built before the Spanish arrived. Regardless, business happened here. Lots of it. You can easily picture crafts and produce and decapitated heads being sold here.