Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to Mexico... And Hi, Erica!

Ten days on the beach in Belize... They fly by in a lazy late afternoon haze... Sharks, bed bugs, gorgeous sunsets, the KY Derby at the Barefoot Bar, a Belikin Stout most nights, a few longer boat and bus rides than you'd expect in a country this small, and finally, here I was, back in Mexico. Actually, I found myself standing on the dock outside of Chetumal, Mexico, along with the other 20 passengers of our speed boat from Caye Caulker, as we watched a Mexican police dog come up and eagerly sniff all of our luggage. I quickly rolled through all the places my backpack had been over the years and what scents it may have picked up along the way... and decided there shouldn't be much for a drug-sniffing dog to get too excited about. The dog agreed, and we proceeded down the dock and into Mexico - certainly a scenic way to arrive.

The following morning, I was back at the Cancun airport, welcoming Erica to Central America

Hi Erica! I've missed you - welcome to the tropics!

We proceeded back to Tulum, home for the three nights to come... and by home, I mean an idyllic beach-front cabana - a quick reminder of my feelings on Tulum in general and Play Azul in particular from my previous visit here, in case you'd forgotten. We wasted no time beginning to settle into the harsh realities of life on the beach in Mexico

Why yes, Cabana #2 does come with a hammock

Unfortunately, Erica only had three days for Mexico, so we eventually had to leave the hammock behind to go off and explore! By 3 o'clock that afternoon, we were nearing the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka'an, an enormous biosphere reserve just South of Tulum, filled with magroves, narrow boatways among the mangroves, and lots of interesting wildlife all over. Oh, and an occasional Mayan ruin. The manatees are the star attraction, so that's where our guide headed - I worried a bit that the manatees may be a little hard to spot, given that they live underwater and all (and us being above it), but these sea cows are mammals after all, so they have to come up to breathe every few minutes... so we settled in over the middle of the lagoon for some twenty minutes and got to watch as the local group of manatees (20 or strong) kept poking their snouts out of the water every few minutes for a fresh breath of air (Hmm... I wonder how they sleep?). They don't hang around long enough to pose for a good picture, but it is ever so cute to watch them poke their noses up through the surface. Certainly helps that Sian Ka'an is the antithesis of some over-developed tourist Mexican tourist resort - the bioreserve is just hard enough to access that you get the show all to yourself. Not another boat, or soul in sight - just us, the small boat, the guide, the mangroves all around, and the manatees poking through the water every few minutes.

Sadly, I wasn't quick enough to get any good shots of the manatees, but the rest of the reserve wasn't quite so shy:

Our boat speeding through the mangroves

Flowers at the spot where fresh and salt water meet at the edge of the bio reserve

An eagle surveying his property from high up in a tree

Day 2, we decided to go for some "active lounging" - we weren't going to stay on the beach in Tulum, but weren't going all that far off either - a mere 30km North to the beaches in Akumal, for a snorkeling adventure. And it is an adventure as these clear, warm waters are home to a population of sting rays and turtles... in addition to an assortment of coral and other fish. And you don't have to pay an arm and a leg to go into a lagoon reserve or go on a dive trip to see these guys - just wade in some 50 to 70 feet off shore on a public beach here in Akumal, and...

Well, first and foremost, there was the two of us living under the sea at Akumal. I'm told I was looking very intense here...

A little sting ray swimming through the waters

And a turtle showing no fear of us snorkelers whatsoever. Note the cleaner fish swimming alongside him.

Simply snorkeling for an entire afternoon is much too much hard work for being on the Mexican Riviera though, so after a couple of hours in the water, we found ourselves at one of Akumal's ever-so-convenient beach-front bars, enjoying a fresh ceviche and a couple of beverages:

Erica with her Coco Loco... A Coco Loco is, of course, a coconut filled with a volatile mixture of Tequila, Rum, Vodka, Gin, and a little bit of fruit juice... Good stuff - brings back memories of college.

It was up to me to attack the coconut's empty shell after all the liquor was gone.

And thus we transitioned to Day 3 - there was some souvenir (funny hats!) shopping, biking around Tulum, dining, and visiting a local grocery store involved in between, but I'll spare you those details, on to Chichen Itza and Day 3! In the interests of time, we decided to try out being proper tourists in Mexico - spending a full day on a tour bus, in the company of our tour guide, visiting Chichen Itza, as well as a couple of other stops of note along the way. Admittedly, a bus full of American tourists isn't normally my favorite way to explore foreign lands, but this was a good trip - Chichen Itza certainly feels like one of those place that you must see while down here, and this was certainly the best way to do so, especially given our time constraints. And, we even got a helpful tour guide...

El Castillo - Chichen Itza's famous main Pyramid (even if it's not technically a pyramid, really)

No trespassing sign, Mayan style, circa 1,000 years ago

Compared to the other Mayan sites I'd seen down here, Chicen Itza definitely had some interesting and unusual things going for it - it's actually relatively small, there's but a handful of buildings, the archaeologists estimate that at its height, the city was only home to some 60,000 people. Tikal and Caracoral (in today's Belize) were each home to several hundred thousand. However, unlike Tikal, Palenque, and Coba, there's a lot more of Chichen Itza to see. It isn't buried in nearly as dense of a jungle, instead, it's near Cancun, so it's been 'discovered' for a while now, and attracts thousands of visitors every day. It also means that the Mexican government has invested in some significant restoration efforts. Bottom line, Chichen Itza has comparatively few structures to see, but they are the best preserved/restored/exposed of any of the ones I'd seen on the trip. As for the visitor floods, there's no comparing Chichen Itza and any of the other sites down here - the crowds of tourists (and purveyors of local crafts for sale) are simply overwhelming here, as is the number of tour buses in the parking lot. Tikal may have had the more striking features, but it's just so difficult to get to that there's not anywhere near the number of people appreciating said features. As for Chichen Itza having been named one of the 'New Seven Wonders of the World?' Eh, that sure seems like a product of the Chichen Itza Pyramids being the easiest to access from the Cancun airport... (But, hey it looks like Chichen Itza had been the last of the Seven that I hadn't seen yet prior to this day!)

But! We weren't done... our tour guide had a few more stops under his sleeve before turning back - starting with a dip in the chilly waters of a nearby Cenote

The cenote didn't quite have the intimacy of 'The Pit', where I'd gone diving a couple of weeks ago (and there wasn't another soul about while we were there), but was most impressive in the size of the cave it occupied and the stalactites and stalagmites growing in its depths... It was quite the refreshing swim too!

Next stop, the nearby colonial town of Valladolid, reminding us once more that it's not just turtles and Pyramids out here. The Spanish came here too... and conquered, and converted, and built Cathedrals: Catedral De San Gervasio presides over Valladolid

Also in Valladolid, a perfectly friendly and photogenic little skeleton

And finally back in Tulum, for a fun little dinner at a local taco/quesadilla shop, featuring juice cups of ginormous proportions! (but no rodents of unusual size, as far as I could tell)

And that, sadly, was it for Mexico. The following morning, we were back to the Cancun airport, boarding our flights, and heading in the general direction of home. Well, not quite home yet - a stop in San Diego was scheduled along the way for my dad's birthday; Erica was flying straight to San Diego... I was taking a more adventurous route (if less circuitous, technically), and boarding a Mexican plane bound for Tijuana. Adventure to be continued from Tijuana!