“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.”
— Judith Thurman
It has been many months since we have traveled or done any real exploring. And we found that it was past time for another adventure. So, for our birthdays this year, we decided to take a trip to Mexico.
I have been to Mexico just once before — a couple of years ago when we went to Tijuana to visit the dentist. Our most recent trip to Mexico was less about physical health and more about mental health and exploration.
It was a new adventure.
Having never truly traveled far in Mexico, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. I did some research and brushed up on my limited Spanish vocabulary in the hopes that this would help us get around. We wanted to have an experience, so we decided not to stay at one of the all-inclusive hotels that Cancún is famous for.
We decided not to stay in Cancún at all, but rather in Playa del Carmen.
So, we packed our bags and headed to the Minneapolis International Airport, excited and nervous.
After a surprisingly great flight that included movies on individual screens (thanks Delta), we landed at the Cancún airport. It had been 36 degrees in Minnesota that morning, and we stepped out in jeans and sweatshirts into a sweltering 90 degrees and humid.
After nearly an hour and a half in the customs line, we finally made our way out of the airport. And let me just say how happy I am that I did some research ahead of time. The bustling station was filled with people asking if we needed a taxi, a bus, a car rental, etc. — all converging around us in a chaotic mass. It was stressful enough finding our way through, and we knew we were looking for the ADO stand.
When we finally reached it, I asked for tickets, and we found our way to the bus that would take us an hour south to Playa del Carmen.
The ride was smooth and uneventful, but we enjoyed watching the scenery pass us by. Finally, we reached the bus station in Playa.
With luggage in hand, we stepped aside to figure out where to go next. Our phones had not activated the way we thought Verizon had told us they would. So, while we are normally fairly dependent on Google Maps, we did not have this as an option to figure out where to go.
I knew the address of our hotel, and I knew that it wasn’t far from the main strip in Playa, so we made our way in what we thought was the direction of the main street and found it. We are both adept at reading maps, so we soon figured out what direction to start walking in to find our hotel.
After about 10 minutes of walking, we came to a corner we believed to be correct. No hotel in sight. Our momentary worry was soon assuaged when we spotted a small sign down the street and an unassuming building.
This was our hotel, notice the very small sign hanging on the right side? This is all that told us we were in the right place.
A smooth check-in had us heading up the winding walkways to our room.
Our room was on the second floor overlooking the pool, but there were no loud noises or crazy screams and splashing coming from being poolside. No, in fact, it was incredibly quiet.
Our boutique hotel was called La Tortuga, and it was adults-only (in other words, perfect for us). We booked a room here for many reasons, but one of them was a very basic reason — La Tortuga translates to “turtle.” And I like turtles. Pretty simple way to narrow down our hotel choice from the hundreds of options.
After dropping our stuff off and changing into some appropriate warm-weather clothing, we headed out to the main strip to check things out.
And this is where we spent our first evening, wandering the streets of Playa. The downside? We were battling with Verizon to try to figure out why we couldn’t get my phone to work — not that we wanted it to, but we wanted it for emergencies. We eventually worked it out, but it was certainly a frustrating point.
That night, we had an absolutely delicious dinner and went tequila tasting at a local shop. This may sound very basic, but one major influence in our decision to head to Mexico was for the food. We desperately miss good Mexican food living back in Minnesota, and we were excited to eat our fill.
The night on the town was a fun first evening and start to our birthday trip.
The next morning, we woke up for a tasty breakfast at the restaurant connected to our hotel. And we were introduced to the wonderful staff that would make our stay even more amazing.
We had decided to spend our first day doing some snorkeling just south of Playa at a place called Akumal Bay Beach. I had read about the sea turtles coming in to feed on the seagrass and was looking forward to seeing them.
Our first snag came when we tried to take out more cash at the bank. Our cards were declined. Not knowing what to do because we couldn’t make a phone call (it won’t dial out to a 1-800 number), we started to head back to our room so we could call from WiFi. That’s when I received a phone call from a strange number that happened to be the security company for our credit cards.
I told them I had called advance to tell them about our trip and that it was truly us in Mexico trying to take out money so that we could travel around. They asked if I was being threatened in any way, and I said, “No, I just want to eat some damn Mexican food!” I was a little annoyed at this point because we had not only called Verizon to set everything up in advance and had to deal with them, but we had also called the bank to tell them about our trip so that we wouldn’t run into this issue.
I told them not to turn off our cards again, and we went about our day, heading back to the room to get our dry bag ready for an adventure.
Instead of taking a taxi all the way there (about 30 minutes away), I had read about taking a colectivo, which was supposed to be much cheaper and was a main mode of transportation for locals.
We set out from our hotel to find the colectivo station, walking around the neighborhood by our hotel and into some nearby areas.
We would eventually come to think of the above wall with razor wire as a welcoming sign that we were close to our hotel.
I loved seeing some of the street art, though.
After walking for about half an hour, I desperately needed to use the restroom. But we were in the middle of Playa in an area without public restrooms, and I was getting nervous. Andy finally pointed to a cardboard sign that said “baños 5 pesos.”
We stepped into the stand, said, “baños?” to the two women working there, and handed them 10 pesos to allow us to both use the restroom. They pulled back a tarp leading to a small cardboard-like door that led into a small bathroom with a toilet and no toilet seat.
Welcome to Mexico. I was thrilled!
Ok, I get it, that comes off as a privileged person who thinks of using a bathroom as an adventure — but for me, it was all part of this adventure. And it was part of a larger experience that would prove to be both humbling and eye-opening.
We profusely thanked the women, asked them in the simple Spanish I knew which way the colectivos were, and headed out, feeling a little lighter.
We finally found them, vans lining the streets with destinations written in marker on the windshields. But it was just a strip of them heading to Cancún, so we kept going, asking people for the colectivo to Akumal until we found them.
We jumped in one labeled “Tulum” when the driver nodded yes to our question about Akumal and headed out.
After a bit of time, the driver shouted, “Akumal,” and pulled over to the side of the road where a bridge crossed the highway. This was us. We took a nice long walk to Akumal Beach, finding out upon arrival that it is now a protected area that you pay to swim and snorkel at. After the deaths of two sea turtles, they put stricter restrictions and protections on the area.
I was both pleased and disappointed by this news. I was very happy to hear they were protecting an animal that I love, but I was slightly disappointed that we needed a guide with us to go snorkeling when I am used to doing it on my own and brought my own snorkel gear and dry bag for our stuff. But I understood that they knew nothing about us and couldn’t possibly know if we would be responsible snorkelers or ones that would touch and destroy things.
So, we headed out with our private guide, entered the warm Caribbean waters, and saw some green sea turtles.
This particular turtle may take the cake for largest I have seen in the wild. And I was impressed by the side of the remora attached to the turtle — it was almost as long as my arm!
I was proud that I spotted a ray, as well.
It was a rather windy day, so the water clarity wasn’t great. But the water felt wonderful, and we both really enjoyed seeing the turtles.
After a little while, our guide led us back to shore, and we headed to a nearby restaurant for some more tasty food.
After another colectivo ride back, a shower, and a night on the town, we headed to bed early for our upcoming adventure.
We weren’t sure if we were going to end up booking any of the tours available, but after trying to figure out how to get to a few of the places we wanted to see, we decided a tour might be the best option.
On our second full day in Mexico, we got up bright an early for an all-day adventure. We’d be seeing Tulum, Cobá, and a cenote.
We were picked up from our hotel on a large bus and brought to a place in the jungle for breakfast. Unfortunately, we had tried to take out money yet again this morning only to find out that the banks had shut off our cards. Again.
I couldn’t call anyone — the bank, the number on the back of the card, nothing. We were in the middle of the jungle. I had gotten ahold of my dad and asked him to please call the bank for me and have them call me. I was also able to email the bank and requested the same thing. We were pretty stressed and nervous, having only brought a little bit of emergency cash but not enough to get us through the rest of the trip.
I finally got a call when we arrived at our breakfast in the jungle. After about an hour of telling them, “If we get disconnected, you need to call me back because I can’t call you,” and, “We are in Mexico — DO NOT KEEP SHUTTING OFF OUR CARDS, WE DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY.”
Four people and three phone transfers later, and we were good to go. We hoped.
Thankfully, I got all this taken care of in time to eat the breakfast they’d made and hop on the bus to our first stop — Tulum.
It was hot, and beautiful, and windy, and enchanting. Tulum is the only Mayan site that is located on the coast. And they actually had a lighthouse and port for boats to come in.
Tulum was pretty darn impressive, and our guide gave us quite the history lesson. It was particularly amazing to see some of the engravings that are still visible and have stood the test of time against wind and water.
There were iguanas everywhere — to the point where one ran right across my foot.
We also saw a coati, which was simply adorable.
Our next stop was La Gloria cenote, and I was beyond excited. I had seen pictures of the beautiful cenotes and wanted to visit them. We were put on a truck with metal benches that went barreling into the jungle where we were dropped off near the cenote and left alone with our group.
It was everything I had imagined and more.
A cenote is basically a natural pit filled with freshwater that is created when the limestone bedrock collapses and exposes the groundwater. Cenotes were the main source of freshwater for the Mayans. And they are stunningly beautiful with crystal-clear water that gently flows from underground openings. Some people even go scuba diving in the deeper ones.
The water was shockingly cool but very refreshing after hiking around the ruins. And I loved looking at the fish.
I think I could’ve stayed all day long. And I can tell you what we’re going to do on our next trip to Mexico — cenote hop.
Too soon, we were picked up and brought back to the same place where we head breakfast and served lunch. Then we headed out to our final destination — Cobá.
Cobá is another Mayan ruin, only much larger than Tulum (I believe about 50 times larger). Our guide for Coba mainly spoke Spanish, and because we were one of four people who spoke English in our group, we weren’t too fussed about it. He told us the important parts in English, and I had a fun time trying to work out what he was saying before he changed languages.
Only about 30% of Cobá has been excavated, leaving much of it undiscovered. There were large mounds in the trees that we knew were unearthed temples.
Seeing the courts where they played ball was a sobering experience once we learned more about it.
They believe the game was typically used to determine who to sacrifice.
While I could probably talk about my fascination in the Mayans for several pages, which peaked ever since our trip to Belize in 2007, but I’m sure I simply wouldn’t do it justice. So, I’ll keep on track with describing our adventure.
After exploring the first part of Cobá, we hitched a ride on a tricycle to head further into the site. Our guide suggested taking this instead of walking the entire way to the next part of our adventure.
An adventure which led to us climbing to the top of a temple. A temple/pyramid that is 138 feet tall.
Our mouths dropped at the sheer size of it — the largest pyramid in the complex. Before thinking too much about whether or not we should climb it, we tightened up our sandals and started climbing, quickly making our way to the very top.
Looking at the jungle from afar, seeing the tiny top of a neighboring pyramid, our legs got a little jelly-like.
The sun was at its most intense, so we knew we couldn’t stay at the top for long. We needed to gather our courage for the descent, which we knew would be much harder.
Andy is not at all the fan of heights, and I couldn’t really blame his reaction to being up so high. Though it doesn’t typically bother me, I wasn’t thrilled either. There is a rope that runs down the center of the uneven stairs, but years of people tramping up and down the temple have worn the stairs to smooth. And the grip on our hiking sandals was no match for the dust layer atop the smooth stones.
We had to debate: climb down the slick stairs using the rope or go toward the edge where the stairs had more traction but there was no rope?
We opted for the rope.
We started slowly, crab-walking down by sliding our butts one step at a time, literally.
We soon realized that this was more terrifying because we were still looking down the stairs. So, we turned our bodies around to face them, crawling backwards one step at a time while holding the rope.
This proved to be the best method, and we eventually made it down.
After a long, hot day in the jungle, we headed back to our hotel. On the way from Cobá, we drove by places and homes that made me realize what we had. And it fascinated me and humbled me, seeing how others lived. I wanted to photograph it, but that would have been far too invasive of me, to take away someone’s privacy. So, I’ll say this, seeing homes without windows, made of stone, partial stone, sticks, and leaves and dirt — it made me appreciate what we have, even if what we have is a 34-foot motorhome. It made me think for the thousandth time about the excess in our lives. And about how much we should appreciate the lives we lead.
Ten-plus hours since leaving, we were showering and trying to get up enough energy to go eat dinner. Needless to say, we went to bed early.
The next day, we headed for Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancún. We took a colectivo to Cancún, hopped in a taxi, and got dropped off at Puerto Juarez where we jumped on the local ferry for the island.
We didn’t know there was a faster ferry that most tourists took, we just took this one. But we loved it! The water was absolutely stunning.
That’s what the water really looked like!!!!!
We headed to Playa Norte, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire Caribbean.
And you know what? It may have been. The water was simply divine (does that sound cheesy? I don’t care. It’s the truth).
We floated, swam, soaked, splashed, played, and laid in the water. It was amazing. If you know me, you know my love of water. And this was some of the best.
After a rejuvenating swim and delicious lunch, we walked around the island for a long time before heading back to catch the ferry. Once on the mainland, we decided to take the bus to the colectivo station instead of the taxi, which had been more expensive.
A woman directed us where to stand, and we waited to be picked up. I wish I had taken a picture of this bus, but I’ll try to describe it. The “errray seis,” as she said it, or “R-6.”
It was a large, old bus with metal seats and plexiglass windows. It was loud, sounding as though it was losing parts each time it hit a bump. The driver did not speak English, but by this time, we weren’t concerned about that. We’d been using enough of our Spanish that we felt comfortable getting around. We felt pretty confident that he knew we were looking to get to the colectivo station.
Have any of you read the Harry Potter books? Or I guess they probably show it in the movie, I don’t really remember. But you know the Knight Bus?
That’s how Andy described this bus.
It barreled down the narrow streets, objects and buildings seemingly jumping out of its way. It would screech to a stop at a spot we couldn’t possibly understand how it had time to stop at since it had been going so fast. Then, BOOM, it was off again. Barreling through parts of Cancún I would not have felt comfortable walking around.
People got on and off, looking like they felt a little shaky after the ride. We entered a narrow street, almost ran into another bus, had to back up down the street while the drivers joked and laughed through the windows, and then we were off again.
Andy and I were grinning like fools the entire time, enjoying the ride like you’d enjoy a roller coaster. Finally, the bus slammed on its brakes and the drivers called out, “Colectivo!”
We got off the bus, turned around on the spot, and got a little worried because we couldn’t see colectivos anywhere, and we wondered where the heck we’d been dropped off in some random neighborhood in Cancún. We started walking in a direction only to hear people yelling from the bus.
The driver and several passengers were waving out the window, yelling in Spanish, pointing us in the direction we were supposed to go. We turned around and walked to the next block where we found the colectivo we needed and burst out laughing at the entire experience. It ended up making our top 5 list of favorite moments on our trip.
That night, we went out for another tasty meal and lots of tequila. And the next day, we had a day filled with relaxation (and detoxification).
We got massages at our hotel in the morning and hung out by the pool all afternoon, eating pizza from the attached restaurant and drinking as much water as we could (as well as some mocktails).
We read, swam, lounged, ate, and relaxed. And it was a nice way to spend our last day in Mexico. That night, we went out for our final meal, bought our bus tickets to the airport for the next day, and packed up.
Buying our bus tickets early ended up being the right choice because we would’ve ended up taking a taxi otherwise — the bus would’ve been full or we would have missed the time for sure.
We were happy that we’d learned about the transportation options instead of spending the money on a taxi or paying for the private shuttle from our hotel ($75 USD each way).
We made it home safe and sound, filled with stories and new experiences. And a longing for another Mexican adventure.
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.” — Isabelle Eberhardt