“We’ll Pay for the Wall,” said no Juan Ever

Last week, I explored the enigmatic nation of Belize – surviving encounters with stingrays, sharks and, even more terrifyingly, Queen Elizabeth II. This week, I ate El Chapo’s weight in tacos and tortillas as I went cenote-hopping and ruin-trekking along Mexico’s trendy tail.

Day 71 – Bacalar, Mexico to Tulum, Mexico

So, I ended last week in the lakeside town of Bacalar, about thirty kilometres north of the Belizean border, although my time there was going about as smoothly as a Brexit negotiation. The meteorological conditions were miserable, and the ethereal lake (‘of seven hues’) appeared cold and barren. Well, with just under an hour to go before I had to catch a bus out of town, a stream of sunlight burst out from behind its murky veil and utterly transformed my surroundings.

I hastily wrapped up my trip around Fortress of San Felipe Bacalar (which wasn’t all that gripping), before hotfooting may way down to the brightening lagoon. Well, knock me over with a sombrero why don’t you, as I was greeted by more hues than at a Love Actually convention. I’m not sure what delighted me more: the spectacular lake itself, or watching a kayaker trying (and failing) to paddle to shore against the breeze – poor soul.

I then had a two-hundred-kilometre bus ride north ahead of me, which would usually fill me with apathy (as that would take about twenty-five days in any other Central American country). Thankfully, Mexico is not actually part of Central America (as I have reliably and passionately been informed by locals from every other nation) and as a result, their transport links are pretty darn good. I calmly rolled into the tourist hub of Tulum not three hours later, with time spare to observe a curious religious parade (well, more curious than your average religious parade) as well as to tuck into my first round of street tacos and side of Corona. Living the Mexican dream.

Day 72 – Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is a visitor hub for two reasons: it’s proximity to innumerable cenotes (Mexican sinkholes turned tourist swimming pools) and being within sweaty sauntering distance of an ancient walled city of the same name. This ruined metropolis was built right on the paradisiacal Yucatán coast (just as beautiful a shore as Cancún further north but without the five-star T-wats), and it was here that I decided to begin my tranquil beach day.

In hindsight, tranquil is not a word I would use to describe the ruins of Tulum, as busload after busload of the worst sort of humans had decided to make the day-trip south from Cancún. I attempted to keep my sanity intact, as I adroitly wandered the grounds of the bygone town, but my will was starting to falter (manifesting itself in the form of a twitching right eye every time I heard somebody say something spectacularly stupid). The only cure was to escape down the cliff to the nearby beach, buy a space cake from a Canadian backpacker and collapse on a sun lounger.

I woke up about two hours later with sand in my mouth and a Mexican over my face trying to sell me his spicy enchiladas. I did not oblige. Upon my return to the hostel, a few other Europeans (you can always differentiate them from Americans by the lack of noise that the group emanates) had decided to make a night of it and paint the town red. Surprisingly, so had most of the religious community as today happened to be the feast day of Mexico’s patron saint: Our Lady of Guadalupe. And as you know there’s nothing that screams religious celebration more than a hundred-strong convoy of pimped-out super-trucks inching down the high street flashing their multicoloured headlights and continually sounding their horns until 1 am. It’s what she would’ve wanted.

Day 73 – Tulum, Mexico to Valladolid, Mexico

Having observed one of Tulum’s ‘hot’ attractions, it was now time to visit the other – but which one? There are more cenotes on the Yucatán Peninsula than people, so there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll fall in one and break your neck at some point. I wanted to observe the finest of them all and so caught a ride to Gran Cenote (as it sounded the grandest). I think they overstated the grandeur of their cenote slightly, although I wasn’t overly exasperated given that I was feeling too rough to swim around in its untarnished waters.

The one-hundred-kilometre bus ride north-west to the city of Valladolid did not make for a very interesting journey – as the whole peninsula is flatter than piss on a plate. The only point of intrigue came when we were told to turn our watches back an hour (as modern as ever) as we were entering a new time zone. Why there is a single state of Mexico observing Eastern Time I do not know. Anyhow, goodbye Quintana Roo. Hello Yucatán… district? State? Municipality? No idea.

Day 74 – Valladolid, Mexico

If climbing Acatenango was number one on my Central American bucket list, visiting Chichén Itzá was most definitely number two – at least initially. However, having been told of nothing but disappointment from fellow backpackers (and having beheld approximately thirteen thousand Mayan sites already), it had rapidly dropped down my list. I hoped an early start would shelter me from the worst hordes and I arrived as the gates to Kukulcan were opening.

I made sure to head directly to the central temple (before the pugnacious salespeople had a chance to open their innumerable stalls and start palming me off with panpipes) and was treated to a quite serene and magnificent vista. The main site is vast, much larger than Tikal or Copán, although it felt even larger given the temporary absence of any fat fanny-pack-wielding day-trippers from Florida. A sizeable cenote can be found a short walk from the temple, where naughty Mayan men and children were thrown in as sacrifices during times of drought (a veritable assemblage of skeletons was found at the bottom of the aquatic pit).

At least twenty other smaller temples can be sought around the site and, given my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised as to their state and splendour. As long as you stick to the time-worn backpacker rules of getting there early and not buying a single thing when there (I would need to sell a kidney or two to acquire any drinkable fluid), then you too could have a wonderful time at the majestic, the marvellous, the once in a lifetime Chichén Itzá – and I’ve not been paid a penny to say so.

Day 75 – Valladolid, Mexico to Mérida, Mexico

Another day, another chicken bus, this time to the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula: Mérida. But before it left the station, there was just time to have a glance inside Valladolid’s colourful cathedral. The colonial construction was built by Franciscan missionaries between 1552 and 1560 and, despite its striking architecture, wouldn’t even be the most striking cathedral I’d visit today. Strike!

That honour befell the cathedral at the aforementioned Mérida, whose great courtyard is also the location of a quite bizarre sporting event. Every Saturday, at 8:00 pm sharp, an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame called pok-ta-pok is played in front of large crowds of bewildered tourists. It involves two traditionally dressed teams of five, attempting to score goals by striking a ball through a small wooden hoop with only the use of their hips and buttocks. If it sounds preposterously difficult to you, that’s because it is. At half-time, just to add to the complexity, the ‘referee’ sets the ball alight and the game continues (although they are now able to use their hands). It certainly isn’t a game for the faint of heart (or the sane of brain).

Day 76 – Mérida, Mexico

I’ll tell you something else that is not for the faint-hearted: Mérida’s Sunday market. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people cram down the old town’s narrow streets and plazas to buy all manner of miscellaneous items including undergarments, toiletries and even cattle. The Méridan people are also extremely able salespeople, as I returned to the hostel with some socks, toothpaste and a Mexican yak (I think her name was Camila).

As I wandered the festive streets of the Mexican metropolis, I had an important decision to ponder. I had always wanted to complete my trip on foot and by chicken bus alone, but I had completely underestimated the epic size of the nation I was in. A ‘rapid’ bus to Mexico City would take around twenty-two hours (and cost over £100) whereas an internal flight on the Latin equivalent of Ryanair (let’s call it Juanair) would take just two (and cost half the pesos). I took the sensible option and booked a bus for the following morn. Only joking, Juanair it is…

Day 77 – Mérida, Mexico to Mexico City, Mexico

I always attempt to sleep as little as possible the night before a flight (being a practising insomniac makes this a fairly easy task), in the hope that I will collapse in a heap on the plane. However, not even six Coronas on less than an hour’s sleep could dull my agitations, as we took to the skies above the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly, a conversation I thought I had long since forgotten came flooding back to me. In a hostel halfway up Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, I bumped into a long-haul commercial pilot who admitted to two airports that still made him anxious when landing (even after ten year’s experience). Those two locations were Jakarta in Indonesia and Mexico City. I seem to remember him saying that he’d “rather have a haemorrhoidectomy than fly into Mexico City”. This was the wrong time to remember that conversation.

Well, after a relatively stress-free descent over the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, of course we landed safely (although I’d still rather the piles-removal-surgery). As soon as my fear and adrenaline had subsided, the alcohol and sleep deprivation kicked in and I hit the wall – both figuratively and literally (as I walked into a glass door). I then had to haul my bags across one of the largest urban sprawls anywhere on earth to reach my final hostel, somewhere in the capital’s suburbs. Would I make it? Was it one Corona too many? Find out in next week’s edition of ‘The Whinging Welshman’.

J

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