We made it to Tulum — iPhone blaring Tom Petty and delicious jamón torta downed along the route — and found Maison Tulum, an utterly charming, budget-friendly option, operated by one of Mexico’s finest wingnuts, and, being a bit psycho myself, I mean that in the best possible way.
He told us that Guantanamo Bay is just a farce, and that the USA operates a clandestine naval base underneath the island of Cozumel. He also revealed the truth about secret Mayan ruins in the area, and knew the hidden sexual proclivities of Mexico ex-president Vicente Fox, who apparently prefers the company of eunuchs.
Deliriously puzzled, we laid our beaten bones down for the night, save for the exception of a pilgrimage for delicious seafood stew and a few Coronas, natch. We needed our rest — we were headed to the jungle ruins of Coba the next day.
But of course fate — my body! — had other plans.
I confess, I had a touch of the Montezuma come morning. I had a touch of something. But navigating the uncharted waters of gastrointestinal distress while sharing a hotel room with your lover is never comfortable, and the anxiety probably added to the problem. After countless trips to the loo, I had to come clean.
“I can’t stop pooping,” I admitted. Just like that.
With a laugh we headed to the drug store, where my lover grinned to the pharmacy girl that I needed something to stop diarrhea. (Savvy ladies, behold: always carry a secret stash of Imodium while traveling in Mexico.)
Now that that’s out of the way … Coba!
We hit the road — surrounded always by thick jungle with hand-painted wooden signs poking from the brush, advertising land for sale. The area of and outside Tulum is definitely on the make, and Tulum even has plans to build an airport. With gentrification imminent, I was grateful to experience it all in glorious low season, dusty back roads and grit in my rear-view.
Not to mention the side-road vendors hawking wooden lanterns and dreamcatchers and pitaya, a fruit I’d never seen before in my life, but which is best eaten cold, with a spoon. It’s milder than kiwi, and addictive.
The highlight of Coba was scaling the Nohoch Mul pyramid, the tallest in the Yucatan. It’s 138 feet tall with a rope threading down the center, to assist frightful climbers, like me. I climbed, knees wobbling, and mid-way looked down. Big mistake. The chicken in me wanted to turn back, but I proudly kept on.
I’m the type of girl who can get to the top, but needs a team of firefighters to get me down.
Getting down is the hardest part, for some reason. But the view was spectacular! Nothing but trees, forever.
I sat and scooted down each step of the pyramid until I was on land again. With sweat pouring from us, we hired the amazing services of a bicycle taxista to usher us out and onto the next adventure. Stay tuned!
It’s painful to fathom that my time here has dwindled and that my Mexican sojourn is coming to a close. It seems like only yesterday the plane was touching down and I had the whole two months ahead of me. Now I have two weeks. (But, what kind of gringa would I be without some secret plans in the works? Please, cross your fingers for me!)
So I’ve been keeping active as a distraction from the mounting depression and instability I’m starting to feel. Last week was incredibly eventful — beginning with a snorkel tour I took on Tuesday. Even though I’m now a PADI-certified diver, sometimes I just wanna snorkel.
I grabbed a cab to the Money Bar at 8:30 and when the boat arrived, who should I see but fair Antonio? Cozumel island’s favorite comedian/party animal/all-around good guy. I went from snorkeling by my lonesome to having a partner in crime. I love surprises.
I befriended Antonio during my November trip to Cozumel, and we’ve kept in touch since. If there’s two things Antonio loves in this world, it’s Tecate and tourists. He’s never a dullard.
Antonio happened to be the photographer for the tour I’d chosen, which would take me to a beach called El Cielo, rife with starfish. Also on the docket: Columbia shallows and Palancar reef. Antonio was super-hungover and told me he’d been on a 12-hour bender at some of the island’s cantinas — still, I entrusted in him to take some amazing underwater shots of me, Little Mermaid-style, after his crab breakfast, of course.
What do you guys think?
Glamorous and exciting photo-shoot concluded, I spent the rest of the day indulging in hair-of-the-dog Coronas with Antonio and eating fresh tuna with our fingers from a plastic yogurt carton. We spotted a few sea turtles while snorkeling, but the current was strong and the visibility suffered because of it.
But at least I got to drive the boat!
By the looks of this foreshadowing breakfast, I knew our second day in Isla Mujeres would be excellent. Grilled skirt steak, chilaquiles with avocado and crema, and there’s nothing quite like a slab of beans to start your day off right. Am I right? Coffee and orange juice. Al fresco seating. It was joyous; one of my favorite meals I’ve had in Mexico thus far. So simple, so fulfilling.
Afterward, we headed to the docks to hop on a whale shark tour — but the tours had all left hours ago, and it was only 9 a.m. After some finagling, we smooth-talked a captain into taking us. We paid a bit more for the private charter, but it would be worth it.
So while the captain went to fill the boat with gas, we hung around the docks for some beers with the boys, who were hauling in their catch of the day: barracuda!
It was time to set forth upon the sea. We loaded into the Mahache with Captain Fausto and his first mate!
The water was unbelievably choppy. This video doesn’t quite accurately capture the rollercoaster effect of the waves that day, but lucky for me, I am made of steel. Others would’ve been less fortunate, I’m sure.
It was a long, wild ride to the middle of nowhere to see the whale sharks. But as the engine slowed and we stalled, I stood up to see dozens of whale sharks basking around the boat.
We grabbed our snorkel gear and jumped in.
I was a little intimiated at first. The whale sharks were huge and they were everywhere around us — I had no idea what to do. But our guide took my hand and dragged me right into the path of one. “Go on, go on,” he called to me. I was breathless.
I followed each shark until it quickened its swim and advanced too far ahead to catch. But I’d turn around and there was another whale shark! And another.
I know it was wrong, but I touched one — and their skin is hard, almost plasticky. The guide said the biggest one he saw was 42 feet long!
I turned sideways and swam alongside one shark for a few minutes. Its eyes, which are located on the side of the body, turned to me and I looked right back. I looked into the eye of the whale!
It was the weirdest feeling. I felt so small, so out-of-body; and so overcome with emotion. I wanted to cry. I did cry. I can’t really explain why, except that I was alone, in the middle of the ocean, in Mexico, with dozens of mystical whale sharks, glimpsing something rare and beautiful. It was the culmination of my trip — dare I say my life? — to witness them.
Maybe it was hormones. But, just like with the snakebite incident, I thought about my life, about my family, and about my trip as a whole.
I am living. This, friends, is living.
It was definitely the adventure of a lifetime. If you have a chance to swim with the whale sharks — do it. And see Captain Fausto if you can.
He will change your life and then pour you a Sol.
The road to the Island of Women is paved with travel.
From Cozumel, you take a ferry to Playa Del Carmen, a bus to Cancun, a taxi to another port to catch yet another ferry, but the end result is paradise, even if it’s at 10 o’clock at night and you’re a bit drained after crappy Tom Hanks movies dubbed in Spanish and hair-raising ferry bathrooms.
But there was some delicious ice cream and elotes to sustain us along the way.
The vibe in Isla Mujeres is different than the other places I’ve been to in Mexico. While its name may be a nod to those fair Mayan maidens, I felt completely surrounded by the salty sea-going men who wear sharks teeth necklaces with khaki chino shorts. Its an immensely livable island, if you catch my drift.
Our first order of business was finding a cheap hotel for the night, one that would allow us to stay past the normal check-out, since we were in town for primarily one reason: to swim with the fabled whale sharks!
After visiting a few places, we settled on the economical and clean Los Arcos, bare-bones style, but smack-dab in the middle of the island’s main square. One night here was $600 pesos, or roughly $45 USD. Not bad, and we negotiated a check-out of 5 p.m. No rushing around without a shower for us (thank god I found a lover who takes more showers than me).
We threw down our woes and headed into the night, lured by the music of La Terraza, a mere stone’s throw from the hotel. The margaritas here were the best I’ve savored so far, indisputably fresh and handmade, with a salty, chili rim. And strong, too. After three of those, I was ready for … well, you can use your imagination.
But just as we were readying for a dance, the band announced their last number.
We stumbled to the waterfront a bit drunk. Isla Mujeres was hunkering down and it was only a little after midnight.
The hotel bed was hard but the soft-core porn on the Golden EDGE network was plentiful. It was time to rest up for the day ahead, which I didn’t know then would be the most incredible experience of my life.
Stay tuned to tomorrow for my part-two journey to Isla Mujeres!