Palenque was technically the final stop on our loop through the Mexican state of Chiapas. A rather hip little city best known for the impressive Mayan ruins on the outskirts of town.
We camped at a hotel on the outskirts of town and spent the first full day there fumigating the camper. Because TICKS! Marley, running through the jungle with hopeless abandon, sheer unadulterated joy, had picked up a whole mess of unwanted guests. We had used the standard anti-tick medication on him that you can buy at any Petsmart, but had not given enough credit to the veracity, or just the sheer number, of ticks in the hot humid jungle environment. Being from Colorado, with its extreme dry climate, we had also never had to deal with the little buggers. By the time we noticed, the poor guy had more on him than we could count. So we went into cleaning overdrive. Wash dog, pluck ticks, wash dog, pluck ticks, wash dog, pluck ticks, wash self, wash camper – repeat. Not our finest hour.
We were ready for a little fun the next day after the long, disgusting, tick infested yesterday. Woke up early and walked over to the ruin entrance, arriving just as the gates were opening.
The massive site, dating back to 600-900 AD, was one of the most impressive that we have had the opportunity to see. After our experience at Yaxchilan I had tried to keep my expectations low. It was going to be hard to beat the magic that accompanied the remote location. While these were much busier, they also housed grand pyramids with well-preserved detailing that had somehow survived the centuries.
Our plan after Chiapas was to head towards the Yucatan Peninsula to soak in some sun on a few beaches and jump into a few Cenotes. So we said goodbye to arguably the most beautiful state in Mexico and headed towards the Mexican state, and city, of Campeche, a colonial town built along the Gulf of Mexico. Our expectations were honestly quite low for Campeche. The Yucatan Peninsula experiences such a high level of tourist traffic that we had mentally prepared ourselves to be a bit let-down.
Campeche is one of those cities that is difficult to “overland camp.” In short, it’s a city. No large expanses of public beaches available to remotely park and not be bothered. So we found a hotel in Centro and enjoyed a few days sans-camper. Taking in the sights of the surprisingly beautiful colonial city and enjoying some good old-fashioned air-conditioning.
The city, originally founded in the 1500’s, was of Spanish conquest, the evidence displayed in the colonial architecture. The city was fortified in the 1600’s and remains to this day walled on all sides, although only 500 meters of the original wall stands today. The cobbled streets and colorful baroque architecture were delightful and the days went by faster than expected.
On to Cenotes! Cenotes are large sink-holes filled with unnaturally crystal clear water and are speckled all throughout the Yucatan region. The phenomena occurs when fragile limestone collapses at the surface exposing an expanse of groundwater underneath. They can range from open air sink-holes, to grottos, to caves with stalactites and stalagmites reaching towards one another, depths ranging from just a few feet to hundreds.
Our first was Cenote Kankirische. We wandered over to the entrance, really nothing but a hole in the ground with a set of wooden stairs to guide you down. So down we went into the grotto-style cenote and were immediately taken aback. How can a place like this exist? And how had we not heard of these before? The water was a cacophany of blue, stalactites dripping from the domed ceiling, tree roots hanging from above. We jumped in, dipped our heads under the surface and the perfect clarity of the water allowed for near perfect visibility of the cave underneath, deep crevices extending in every direction.
We camped there that night, waited for the small crowd of visitors to disperse, and then visited the cenote after dark with nothing but our flashlights to illuminate the cavern, listening to bats chirp and erratically fly overhead.
The next morning we awoke at sunrise and went back down, enjoying the solitude of the place, observing the sun illuminate the water as it arced across the sky, and watching as flock of sparrows circled overhead.
Our next stop was Cenote Noh-Mozon, a cenote that could only be reached by way of a long, rough backroad. We encountered gate after gate along the road, hoping at each one that we were actually on the right road to our destination. We were, and it was worth the hassle to get there.
The open-sky cenote was hundreds of feet deep, a deep bottomless blue. The remote location pretty much guaranteed there were very few visitors. We walked down the leaning rickety wooden steps to the platform at the base of the cenote and leapt in. No ledges to cling to on this one, just a deep expanse of endless water beneath our feet.
That evening we headed towards the town Homun. A town that exists for one reason: cenotes. They are everywhere, each hotel and property seemed to have their own. We arrived in the evening, stupidly jumped on the first camp option we came across – to stay on a families property in their backyard with no facilities and with use of their cenote. We were led down a set of stairs, through a small cave, and eventually over to a small pool of water, with about 25 other people wading in it, each with a beer in hand. I’ll mention the no facility thingy again…beers in hand…it’s a long walk back to the public bathrooms, but there is this stagnant pool of water we’re all swimming in….Nope. Not gonna get in this one. Whoops.
We just made camp that evening and the next day realized there were much better camping options in town. Ah well. We made our way over to one of those options, Cenote Hacienda San Antonio, dipping into the cave-style cenote with large crags in the limestone walls to pull yourself deeper into the cavern. We didn’t stay long. Just enough time to cool off of the morning. The temperatures were rising to a point of almost unbearable (>100F) and we were were in need of a cool down.
So we headed towards to the coast, to the very small town of Telchac Puerto and more importantly a beach camp with plenty of palm trees for shade. You could wade deep into the shallow water at this spot, and most importantly there was a breeze to cut the heat wave that had swallowed us up the past few days!
Next stop were the pink lagoons of the Yucatan. Located along the Atlantic Ocean, Las Coloradas is a large lagoon known for it’s high salt concentration and utilized as a salt mining operation. Not all that interesting until you take in the unreal pink color of the lagoon and it’s best known inhabitants – Flamingos!
A large concentration of brine shrimp in the water lends bright varying shades of pink to huge pools of briny salty water. Roads criss-cross through the lagoons, white and salt-crusted. Occasionally you will happen upon a flock of Flamingos chowing down on the brine shrimp, the pink color of the shrimp leaching over time into the birds resulting in the famous pink hughe of their feathers.
We camped along the lagoon, wedged between the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the calm pink waters of the lagoon. The next morning we awoke and went for a walk in search of the pink birds.
A few days later we headed into the neighboring beach town of El Cuyo, a small kite-surfing community taking advantage of the constant onslaught of wind that continually hammers this coastline. We made camp right on the beach for a night, enjoyed the breeze and the ocean views. The ocean here is beautiful but a bit rough for swimming!
At this point we had successfully waited out the heat-wave that had hit the inland Yucatan Peninsula, so we packed up again and prepared to make our way to the town of Valladolid for more Cenote action. We were also quickly approaching the Easter holiday, Semana Santa, that would be taking over the very religious country. In our brief experience over Christmas this meant almost non-stop Ranchera turned to 12 and lots and lots of drinking. So we were hopeful that Valladolid would offer a refuge from some of the craziness where we could hide-out for the remainder of the week.
On our way into town we made a swim-stop at Cenote Oxman. A quick stop turned into a couple hours as we enjoyed the rope swing suspended over the water, plunging us into the 75 meter depths of the water below. There may have been a Michelada or two thrown into the mix too.
We headed into town in the early evening, shared a few beers with a Canadian couple we had met at the Cenote, and arrived at our camp on the outskirts of town just after dark. This camp spot would become our temporary home for the next five days as we waited out the Semana Santa weekend.
Valladolid had more to offer than we originally imagined. We took a spectacular tour through a house/art museum in the town center. An American couple purchased and lovingly refinished one of the original buildings bordering the main plaza. After painstakingly remodeling the home, they opened the doors to the public to display their huge collection of Mexican folk art. An eclectic display of artwork from all across the country displaying the wide array of cultures from region to region.
The owner of the campground we were staying at even led us down a trail to a “secret” cenote. Taking us past Mayan ruins and remnants of an aquaduct before dipping us down and guiding us along the steep edges of the cenote cave.
At this point we were caravanning again with Ben and Rachel (GranViaje) and planned our next stop with them – scuba diving in Playa del Carmen. We made the arrangements for an Airbnb in Playa del Carmen and said goodbye to Valladolid.
Our time in Playa del Carmen began for one reason and one reason alone: scuba diving. Ben and Rachel were getting their PADI certification and Tyler and I had scheduled a couple days of fun diving and a refresher course as it had been about two years since our last dive.
The first day of diving was…just okay. The ports had been closed due to weather so we were ushered off to a couple of Cenote dives. The sinkholes were crowded and there was a whole lot of and leg bumping involved. Not our best experience, I think our maximum depth that day was around 7 meters. That being said, the dives were unique, and more importantly we completed our refresher dive which reoriented both of us with the equipment and techniques.
The next day the port was (thankfully!) open and we took off in the afternoon for a couple of dives off of the Cozumel coast. A 45 minute boat ride took us out to the reef we would be diving. A strong current in the area meant that we would be drift diving, the current pulling our bodies along the reef wall. We had opted for a deep dive course, allowing us to descend, for the first time, to a depth of 100 feet.
It was a blast! The water clarity was fantastic, the coral was vivid, and it was easy to fall into the almost meditative state that diving takes you to. The deep dive “challenges” we completed included some simple math under the water ensuring we were not affected by narcosis, and observation of a color chart under the water, visualizing how the lack of light penetration at those depths impacts how we perceive color – reds, oranges, yellows, even greens are perceived as varying shades of brown. We surfaced from our first reef dive in ages with huge smiles plastered on our faces. This is why we loved diving!
Our second dive that day we had the option to do another reef dive or a shipwreck. We opted for the shipwreck as we had never done anything like this. So glad we did! The dive master guided us around the ship, passing us by a huge sea turtle, and then slowly guided us into the wreck, passing us through doorways and up into tight passages. It was a challenge for sure attempting to control our buoyancy as we worked our way through the ship.
The second dive day clearly outdid the first. It was a reminder that we wanted to dive as much as possible as moved through Central America.
This would have been the end of Playa del Carmen for us, a town that didn’t have much to offer for us beyond scuba, but the tooth I had problems with in Oaxaca was raising its ugly head again and I had booked an appointment with a local dentist.
What I expected to be a few days (at most!) turned into a full week. Some of it poor timing (my initial consultation was booked on Easter weekend so the main dentist wasn’t there), some of it was just unease about having more dental work done in a foreign country, and some of it healing time after the actual procedure.
We rented another Airbnb on the outskirts of town and hunkered down for several days, taking full advantage of access to a washer and dryer for the first time since we’d left Denver. We washed EVERYTHING fabric in the camper, cleaned it inside and out, blended up smoothie after smoothie (since it was all I could eat) and watched a whole lot of Netflix. Not our most exciting moment. Tyler was going out of his mind with boredom after a few days, but after the painful dental procedure (tooth pulled and implant) I really just needed the time to heal.
That being said, by the time my final follow-up appointment came around and I got the all-clear to leave we were both very ready to leave. Ready to move back into the camper and get back onto the road again!
Our final days in Mexico were spent seeking out a perfect Caribbean beach, visiting some of the more remote ruins within the Yucatan Peninsula, and spending a few incredibly lazy days on an unbelievably beautiful lake.
We headed South from Playa del Carmen to the small town of Mahahuala that leads a secret double life as a port stop for a huge number of massive cruise ships.
We camped a few days next to their Mirador, watching as the small town built around a few cutesy scuba shops and dive hostels exploded as the cruise ships pulled into port each day. It was definitely a town purpose-built for the tourism industry. It was not, however, the blue-green pristine beach we had been hoping to find. A combination of conditions, a large one being rising sea water temperatures, had resulted in a massive seagrass bloom across the coast. We had encountered it in Playa del Carmen, and really every beach we had visited along the Caribbean coast. The brown seagrass would come in with the tide, piled several feet deep in some areas, the beach front hotels trying their best to remove the never-ending burden to ensure their stretch of beach remained walkable. For us it was a very physical reminder of the impact of climate change on our beaches and landscapes.
We made our way to Lake Bacalar next. An immense lake in the lower Yucatan colored the most surreal shade of turquoise blue, dotted with cenotes coloring the water a deep blue. The shore of Lake Bacalar was what we had hoped to find when we were hopping from beach to beach along the Caribbean coast.
We spent the days catching up with other Overlanders, reading, dipping into the shockingly warm water, and hanging out on the swings in the middle of the lake.
The last day in this area we make a quick day stop at the river running into the Lake. The limestone walls of the riverbed from a crusty basin that you can jump into and then let the current take you away. So fun! Just watch those knees on the rock!
Our final days in the Yucatan, and Mexico in general, were spent driving our way out to some very remote Mayan ruins, and taking in a spectacular bat show along the way.
The drive in to this region took us a good four hours. We arrived in the late afternoon and made our way to the unassuming trailhead with the small bat sign posted. This trail would lead us to the mouth of a cave known for the presence of a huge number of bats. We sat by the cave, along with a couple other dozen folks, and quietly waited. Around 7:00 pm, right after dusk, the show began. Just a few bats trickling out at first and then swarms of them, circling together as they exited, leaving a whirlwind in their wake. The smell of the air changed, the wind changed. The long drive there suddenly seemed totally worth the effort
We had originally planned to visit the ruins of Calakmul. The trouble with these ruins is the (VERY) long road to reach the ruins takes visitors through a wildlife preserve that is very adamant about their no-dog policy. We gave it a shot with Marley, got turned away and headed to a couple other ruins that were some of the best we had seen on our trip. While we can’t speak for the Calakmul ruins, and they are supposed to be incredible, the ruins of Becan were certainly not to the missed.
The crowds were sparse, maybe one or two other people around, and the structures were incredibly well preserved.
Our final few days in Mexico were spent prepping for our border crossing to Belize. Cleaning, stocking up on essentials – the not so glamorous side of #vanlife. Thank to iOverlander we were able to spend our last few days in style camped at a hotel/overlander spot jutting out into the bay of Chetumal.
It’s hard to believe we managed to spend over five months in Mexico, but also hard to imagine leaving it. The expansive country had welcomed us in and we had become perfectly comfortable with all the small things we tend to take for granted at home. We ate a mind-numbing number of tacos, tasted perfectly balanced rich moles, dipped endless numbers of brunuelos in hot cups of the best hot chocolate. We played on remote beaches, dove in protected reefs, scaled our highest mountain to date. We poked our heads into ornate churches that had withstood centuries of history and violence. We walked the remains of ruins, ancient cities built in the most inhospitable of places. We listened to the terrifying cry of the Howler monkeys high up in the trees.
We are two naive gringos who had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we crossed the border and couldn’t be more grateful we said “the hell with it” and went anyway.