Over Christmas I went on a roadtrip through Mexico that ended up being an adventure in every sense of the word.
A lover of mine, M, a French girl who I have been seeing in NYC for the past year, came along and our planning beforehand consisted of picking out a few destinations to visit and leaving the rest of the trip to chance.
We sketched out a skeleton of the trip over drinks one night and it looked something like this.
- A night in Tulum and a day exploring ruins on the beach
- Swimming in as many cenotes (sinkholes that are filled with crystal clear water from underground rivers) as possible
- Making it to Calakmul, Maya ruins deep in the rainforest
- Seeing the city of Palenque and exploring the southern state of Chiapas
- Spending time in Campeche and Merida, beautiful colonial cities in the North
That was it. We only booked one room for the first night we arrived and decided to play the entire trip by ear, choosing to either stay in a location for an extended period, or jetting off to the next earlier than anticipated.
One thing I fucked up on (M kept reminding/nagging me about) was the tickets. They were 200$ cheaper than any other combination but there were 8 hour layovers on the way and returning.
The plan was to spend the first layover time in Charlotte, North Carolina by taking a bus downtown and visiting art galleries and museums, but upon arrival it was pouring rain and we decided to plant ourselves in one of the airport restaurants and read. I actually enjoyed the downtime and finished and reviewed The Alchemist (click and visit), which is a great book to read through while travelling.
Our flight landed at 9pm in Cancun and we rented a car, got the hell out of that tourist trap of a town and spent the first night at an Airbnb spot in Puerto Morelos. There was a great bar nearby that had delicious beer, fun music, and people dancing hard on a Wednesday night.
We woke up early, walked around Puerto, watched morning waves pound the pier jutting out into the Caribbean, had some delicious coffee, and drove south to Tulum.
After separating after a short fight and having breakfast on our own, we made-up, reconvened, and drove up to the Tulum Mayan ruins, the only ruins in Mexico that are located directly on the beach.
They are a huge tourist destination and not that spectacular, but it was still nice to walk around and get our first taste of ancient Mayan culture.
A nice thing about the ruins is that there is access to a great beach nearby and we spent a good portion of the afternoon swimming in between rain showers and absorbing the sea.
After the salt water we went to the first cenote of the trip. Gran Cenote is only a few kilometers outside of Tulum, the entrance is designed for tourists but once you swim into the caves, you feel cut off from the world.
The water was perfectly fresh and incredibly invigorating. Imagine bathing in a huge natural spring that replenished itself constantly with purified water deep from under the ground. Exactly my kind of relaxation.
Outside of the town, along the coast, there are a number of beachfront hotels and restaurants. We visited one that was recommended by friends of mine in New York and sipped on cocktails while the sun went down. Most of the places on this strip are pricey and a little cheesy, but its impossible not to enjoy drinks while listening to waves crash on the shore.
The city center of Tulum reminded me a lot of my home in Brooklyn: people trying to be cool, good food, lots of music venues, funky bars, and a anything goes attitude that invites a hard party. It was nice, but after a long day, and getting caught in some pouring rain, we went to sleep at an Airbnb apartment before 11pm.
Waking up early and getting the day started as soon as possible is key to getting the most out of a trip. We were on the road and headed south early on Christmas morning. One thing that I found funny about Mexico is that there were no Christmas decorations stinking up the environment. No one cared to spend money on them and it was impossible to get into the holiday mindset. December 25th was just another day in the sun.
Looking at a map and referring to the guidebook, we decided to cut over to the coast on our way to Calakmul and have lunch in the small town of Mahahaul. The guidebook said that it was a quaint fishing village with good snorkeling. What it really was was a cruise-ship landing point that sold overpriced seafood in a shitty atmosphere with no character. We ate our fish quickly and bolted from the fat, bright-white tourists with speed.
Driving into the interior of the peninsula brought a great change from the dusty, populated coast, and we were surrounded by green rainforest, hills, and wildlife.
We jumped in to Cenote Azul next to Laguna Bacular and I used my snorkel and mask to navigate around the endlessly deep hole, chase fish, swim in between tree roots that snaked all over, and investigate interesting seeds and animals that were floating in the rich water.
Calakmul is located deep in the rainforest and there are no accommodations close by. The closest town, Xpujil, is just over an hour away and is like many of the small Mexican towns that dot the country: dusty, dirty, and depressing. After looking at the main hotel in town and deciding that we wanted to spend Christmas in a nicer environment, we declined the 18$ room and headed towards Rio Bec Dreams, an ecotourist lodge that provides small cabins in the forest to sleep in.
The place included a Christmas dinner and free drinks for the night. We drank at least 100$ worth of booze and feasted on salmon, salads, ham, vegetables, and turkey (oh the turkey). One thing I like to do when eating bird meat off the bone is to chomp through the bone and suck out the marrow. It weirds some people out, M gave me some particularly scrunched up faces, but I like doing it and the marrow is my favorite part of the bird.
I sucked out all of the marrow, downed another 6 fingers of the finest mescal they had, stayed up laughing with M and observing the fantastically full moon and returned to the hut horny. While making love to M, my stomach started to twist in knots. I blamed it on the endless mix of drinks that was had, didn’t give it too much thought, downed a bunch of water, and went to sleep hoping it would wear off by the morning.
Two hours later I was jolted out of a deep slumber with the rush of fluids being churned up through my mouth. I rushed out of the hut held on to the railing and puked my guts out all over the forest floor. After a few heaves, I went back inside and M told me to take a shower.
When I got up in the morning, my body was aching in pain and my stomach felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus all night. M gave me some of her strange French digestive medicine and I sat on the bed pale white and ready to pass out. The next barf made me realize that it was the turkey that was the culprit. No doubt in my mind was had about this and it was confirmed especially since me and M had eaten all of the same exact food, except for the turkey, which she avoided.
I was feeling horrible and all I wanted to do was go back to bed and sleep it off. But this was a trip where I was willing to push myself, especially since M was with me and Calakmul was one of the major sights we wanted to see. We packed up our things and I got behind the wheel (M is from Paris and does not drive). About 15 minutes down the road I started to lose the color in my face, it was bizarre watching myself go pale in the rearview mirror and somewhat fascinating. As most of the blood left my head to fight the war in my stomach, I felt the unstoppable purge boil up again. While simultaneously hitting the brakes, pulling over to the shoulder on the road, opening the door, and taking off my seatbelt, I was able to ralph all over the moving road without getting any bits on myself or crashing the car. M watched with amused horror and some admiration from the passengers seat.
With my stomach completely empty and my body in pain, I drove an hour through winding, narrow, jungle roads and made it to the entrance of the Calakmul ruins.
It was another 3km hike through the forest to the ruins and when we got to the first pyramid I collapsed on some stones while M skipped merrily to the top.
Then we reached the pyramid that I had been fascinated with ever since reading about it during my research. Structure #2 towered into the sky and imposed its perfect design among the rainforest.
Calakmul was occupied and built up between 300BC and 900AD. Sitting at the base of Structure 2, absorbing the surroundings fully, and visualizing the ancient civilization became a very visceral experience. I was lost in thought and had one of those moments when the reason for travel becomes completely clear. There is nothing like first-hand experience of human achievement and true beauty.
I mustered up the strength to climb to the top, high above the canopy, and enjoyed the view. A few other pyramids were visible and 100s of square miles of rainforest were unmolested by any kind of human activity. It was a glorious sight that filled me with awe. We could see clear to Guatemala and observe other structures that poked up through the trees.
My energy had been zapped by the climb and my illness and I lay down on the very top of the pyramid to rest. When my eyes closed, an interesting thing happened. A web of patterns danced across my closed eyelids and I recognized them from the ayahuasca ceremony that I had partaken in almost two years prior in Peru.
I let myself be taken over by the vision and it transformed in to the unmistakable face of a Mayan. This slowly turned into the shape of a jaguar who stared at me with wise eyes. I asked the jaguar for help with my illness and it leaped into my body while the vision dissipated.
I slept for a few minutes and when I woke up and descended the steps, I could feel the jaguar growling in my guts.
M gave me a bunch of tissues and I retreated deep into the forest, dug a hole, and emptied my liquidy bowels completely. While I was doing this, monkeys high in the trees started shaking the branches furiously and throwing round seeds at me. This got me laughing and I lost my balance while squatting and fell over naked into the forest dirt.
With all of the poison out of my system, I felt much better, but still very weak, and after throwing seeds back at the monkeys I wandered a little more around the ruins.
This was truly a special place, I would encourage anyone traveling to the Yucatan to make the trek away from the more traveled parts and witness true beauty. I am a firm believer in energy pockets that are concentrated in certain parts of the world. Calakmul is definitely one of these special places and my vision there solidified this.
I couldn’t go on much longer because of how weak I was feeling and I left M to go back to the car, eat some pita bread, and think about what I had just experienced.
M returned and we made the 6 hour trek down to Palenque. It is located in the mountainous state of Chiapas and surrounded by ruins, rivers, jungle, and beauty. Along the way we made a few stops to enjoy exotic scenery and I felt my body healing slowly.
We arrived in Palenque and found the city to be a sort of living hell. On top of the stress that filled the streets, the Christmas weekend was one of the most heavily visited times of the year and every hotel in town was booked. We finally found a place in the Disney World like section separated from the city meant for white people scared of the locals and I cringed as they ripped us off for an 80$ room in a Best Western.
Stay tuned for part 2. We get lost in the jungle, stumble upon incredible scenery, visit beautiful cities, and celebrate the end of the year in style.
If you liked this travel story, check out my Art Basel adventure from last year.