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Saturday, 7 February 2015

ESPECIAL: Mexican Reflection...

Upon my reflections of 2014 and the obligatory attempts at foresight for 2015, I realise that since 2007 I have spent not just all my time, money and efforts on trotting around the globe, but I've also allowed my mind to be consumed by the next journey, whatever it might be - I yearn for discovery and am desperate for degrees of adventure to satisfy my unrepentant curiosity. Indeed, for as long as I can recall, I've fantasised of far away lands and have had incessant distant dreams of a path less trodden or people less understood. 

I started travelling to see the world, to learn by exploiting chance and to answer questions. Seven years later, I still crave the unexpected, I'm still asking questions and I still haven't found anything to beat the "never seen/felt/heard/experienced that before" feeling. The prose may look different in my thirties than in my comparatively carefree twenties, but the determination to be less ordinary remains. I look out to the world in wonder, glimpsing into the lives and homes of others with fascination and awe, taking part as much as I can. I opened a door that I can't seem to close, so here I find myself arbitrarily trying to document the tiny slice of an experience that can be quantified. Enter Mexico...

As an experienced traveller, I was surprised by my mixed feelings towards Mexico. On the one hand, I imagined the brash and overindulgent Americana party scenes of Cancun (incidentally, a spectacle I'd rather avoid), while on the other, I considered with trepidation, the country's persistent drug trade, the rising instability in neighbouring Guatemala and the [perceived] risk to western tourists of theft, mugging, kidnapping and the suchlike. In between all of these thoughts though, I couldn't shake the desire to explore more of Central America and I was itching to swim in the cenotes (infamous sinkholes), step onto the beaches and explore the Mayan ruins.

Beach on Cancun's Hotel Zone
CANCUN was almost exactly what I thought it might be, in good and bad ways, but I can tell you that I unless I was bound for one of the more remote islands (Isla Holbox for example), it's not the sort of place I'd frequent. We splashed out on Ritz Cartlon Cancun for our first couple nights and despite disappearing into the clutches of a resort on an even larger resort (commonly known as the Hotel Zone), we were greeted with a perfect white powdery beach, lining the bright azure blue wild ocean waters; the staff were super friendly, The Club Grill offered remarkable cuisine, with the most outstanding service I have seen in a long while, and the Sunday brunch spread was superbly indulgent. I wouldn't dare utter a bad word about our experience thus far, so to explain why I wouldn't go back is to remark on the fa├žade of it all. Cancun is akin to Las Vegas or Dubai, but instead of desert and Elvis or camel polo, you have a beach, sombreros and tacos! There are dance parties, happy hour promotions, club promoters, greased up scenes of youthful debauchery, and western food outlets everywhere. Cue imminent departure..

Using the very reliable and desperately cheap ADO bus service, we travelled 4.5 hours to the Yucatan capital of MERIDA and were delighted to find on arrival, that the atmosphere was immediately different. We jumped into one of the many cabs at the station, chuckled with the driver over the carnage that was his car interior, then checked into the Hotel Marionetas, which was so refreshingly humble and homely (see my full review on Trip Advisor). The city was vibrant and alive with crowds, the Plaza Mayor was brimming with all sorts of folk, and the shops were plentiful - we bought a genuine panama hat and got a table at a recommend locals restaurant. We were craving a spot of salsa or reggaeton after dinner, so we set about to find a dancehall. On our quest, we found the Angel of the Independence monument, which was a pleasant surprise (must do more pre-reading about areas!), and we walked past some rather expensive looking real estate; we even saw Starbucks (twice) and a couple gentlemans bars, but alas, no dancehalls. Instead, we settled into a deliciously kitsch bar playing 1990's musical triumphs and got entirely inebriated on what can only be described as a sugary pink alcopop-esque sparkling wine (possibly a Lambrusco Russo for those of you who recall turning your puke pink as a teenager on the sordid stuff!).

Should you be interested (and you should!), Merida is a fantastic location from which to explore further afield too. We missed a formal tour to CELESTUN, but amidst the poor appraisal of the local tourist board (why would you not recognise the money-making benefits to organising both half and full day tours!), we discovered that the local buses also journeyed there multiple times per day - it was cheaper and far more adventurous, so off we popped with some snacks and smug sense of achievement on our own. In a little under 2 hours, we arrived a quiet little coastal town and sought out the beach to find some soul with a boat who'd be willing to take us to see the flamingos! We were in luck and for a small sum, we joined a few other folk to venture out to sea where we saw pelicans, flamingos and even a baby crocodile, of all things. Upon returning to the beach for a fresh fish dinner, we watched all the fishermen return to shore and sat peacefully as the glorious sun set over the horizon. Idyllic really, when you think of it.

God only knows where we went after that (I love a bit of random!), but a truly delightful local chap took us to three amazing cenotes (one of which was ours privately for just a measly few pesos!), some fascinating ruins and a peaceful hacienda for lunch (or in my case a giant plate of plantain...mmm!).

Next stop was CAMPECHE, an ancient walled city and port, only 2.5 hours by bus from Merida. We checked into Hotel Socaire (see my full review on Trip Advisor), admiring the cobbled streets and colourful buildings within the walls. Despite people milling around here, there was a general sense of calm, especially within the walls of the old town, and I began to realise that the Mayan people were consistently showing themselves to be a very gentle, hospitable, calm and warm collective.

There are two things I should share about Campeche! (1) Playa Bonita is absolutely not bonita (beautiful), rather quite surreal, a little scabby and not somewhere I would've felt comfortable strutting around in a bikini (not that I ever really "strut" in a bikini, you understand, but there were too many awkward looking gawping fellows loitering around my liking!). The bus ride there though, was much fun as it scuttled through so many local villages, all that looked to be crumbling and worn at the seams. (2) Edzna is a special and serene place, worthy of your time if you want to see more of the ancient Mayan ruins. You can get a local mini bus there from the other side of the food market, which in itself, was a buzzing hub outside of the town walls - the bus stop is not immediately obvious (naturally!), but if you wander around the market area long enough, you'll see a gaggle of mini buses clustered together (they'll leave when full enough!). It's all part of the adventure, you see!

Our penultimate stop took us 4.5 hours down the road, closer to the Guatemala border and further into the jungle to PALENQUE. After checking into Hotel Chablis (see my full review on Trip Advisor) and without much time to waste (we were only staying for two nights), we booked what we came for: a tour to Yaxchilan & Bonampak. It was to take us as close to the border as we could get, to see more mystical ruins, accessible by long boat, 45 minutes down the Usumacinta River. We also booked a tour to Cascadas de Agua Azul, which was pleasing to me because aside from caves and adrenaline inducing endeavours (except bungee jumping because that's insane, not to mention impossible!), I always love a waterfall, especially ones that I can either swim in or walk behind - here, we did both. I promptly then busted my leg, which left me hobbling around like an invalid with tourettes for a few days! With a stick and a decreased capacity to feel shame though, I shuffled on. Palenque itself was not nearly as tiny and remote as I thought it was going to be and I rather liked the atmosphere in the town, which had plenty of restaurants, bars and people (a rather disproportionate number of pharmacies too, but who was I to grumble in light of my aforementioned enfeebled leg!).
Mojito Bar in Tulum

Having already accepted that we wouldn't be able to simply 'cut through' Guatemala and Belize to get back up to Cancun (damn civil unrest!), we instead boarded an overnight bus to TULUM, braced for a bad nights sleep and stocked up to the eyeballs with snacks and pop! Uolis Nah was to be our final resting place and I was hoping that we wouldn't be walking straight back into a miniature Cancun (see my full review on Trip Advisor). Much to my endless satisfaction then, I was delighted to find a tiny bohemian Mexicana town, brimming with gift shops, rustic restaurants and a free spirit. 

The closest beach was Playa Paraiso and it was gorgeous - here was a place that felt to be straddling local and tourist life by equal measure even if the reality swerved to the latter! Lined with expensive looking eco lodges and beach bungalows, there was not a giant or gaudy resort in sight, yet it still oozed all the splendour of a beautiful beach location! What a supremely superior spot when compared to Cancun I'd say.

If you fancy a day away from the beach, then you can take a 20 minute bus ride to Xel'Ha, which is an all-inclusive style nature park full of funtastic things to do. It's all rather Americanised (sorry Yanks, but you do seem to err on the side of organised fun in a risk-free / culture-free resort style environment), but if you put that aside, it's actually very well thought out! You can eat/drink as much as you like, you can snorkel, zip line, dive off cliffs, swim with dolphins and relax in a luxury spa. 

Do you want to know the best thing about Tulum though?! We made friends with local waiters on our last night and finally found somewhere to have a dance to reggaeton! Tulum was such a fantastic place to end a holiday and I thank you Mexico, for your hospitality. 

May the adventures endure, the questions evolve, and the world continue to fascinate, intrigue and amaze.

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