For all intents and purposes, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is one big holiday resort. The most Northeast state is a Caribbean playground and is so contrastingly different the Mexico I’d come to know. It’s absolutely beautiful, don’t get me wrong but it quickly became apparent it had lost it’s authentic charm. The spring-breakers, honeymooners and perma-tanners had had their way with it. The need for broken Spanish was not required as most of the locals spoke English and that saddened me a tad. Fellow travelers and backpackers were a plenty. Still somehow it remains to be one of my favourite states of Mexico. The variety was outstanding. There was the lagoon of the 7 colours, limestone sinkhole swimming, world-famous sandy-white beaches, snorkeling with turtles and impressive Maya ruins.
After a blisteringly hot and long 490km ride from Palenque, I descended upon Bacalar. My first taste of Quintana Roo and boy did it impress. The waist high lagoon of the 7 colors was the paradise I’d stumbled upon but never intended on searching for. The hostel organised an excellent half day out on a catamaran where we waded in the clear water, swam in my first Mexican cenote and had a mud bath. The hostel was rife with mosquitos which feasted on me but it was a small price to pay for this unique beauty.
A couple hours riding north of Bacalar was the town of Tulum. Following a recommendation from a friend from San Cristobal I hit up Mamas Home, run by the gregarious Spaniard Jose. A gent of a man who had lived in Dublin for 10 years and claimed he had much to thank Ireland for who he is today. Tulum marked the start of a very visible tourism transformation. Pale, USD-toting gringos roamed the streets in hordes and I had to check myself to confirm I was still in Mexico multiple times.
On one particular day in Tulum I rode to the popular Dos Ojos Cenote for a quick dip. Cenotes are ancient sinkholes formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock which exposes the groundwater. Complete with refreshing, crystal clear waters and dead-skin eating fish, they were a very welcome escape from the Mexican heat. This area of Mexico was littered with them, each with it's own charm and appeal and no two were the same.
On the ride back I decided to take a detour and check out beach. I was unimpressed by what seemed to be a honeymooners paradise of resorts, romantic restaurants and spas which shielded the beach from the public. Adamant to find the beach and grab my 'Made it to the Carribean shot', I kept going and eventually found a bedraggled cyclist who was also on a quest for the beach to camp for the night. I tried to use my google maps GPS location but it didn't show much. I told him I'd ride another couple of miles, ride back and let him know. Eventually I broke free of the commercialized beach and found a nice small stretch of untouched paradise. On a mission, I rode back to let the cyclist know who was nearly upon me and led him there. Martin was a Polishman who had left Patagonia 3 years ago and was approaching the end of his incredible trip in Cancun. He wore the trip on his face and skin, sun-bleached from the years of exposed riding. I've met many cyclists who were in the midsts of such epic trips, but none so near the end and it showed. I've no doubt that he had aquired wisdom and life experience far beyond the 3 years he was on the road. It was humbling and very inspirational to meet such a fellow who pushed the limits and achieved such an extraordinary feat. Oddly enough, he too had spent many years in Ireland, somewhere in the arse of nowhere like Rode in Offaly if I remember correctly. He briefly told me some great stories including how he’d been held up by machete twice in Honduras. We got on well and could have chatted for hours but light was fading and he was on a mission to find a suitable campsite on the beach so I grabbed a snap of us and we parted ways.
A mere 20km North of Tulum is the village/town of Akumal. I heard it was possible to go snorkeling with green and loggerhead turtles which grazed on the sea grass right on the beach. Armed with my new snorkel and goggles I'd just bought I excitedly hurried out to get a glimpse at these magnificent creatures. I parked the bike, strolled down to the beach, expecting there to be a catch. Did I have employ a guide or pay some made up beach fee for such a unique experience? Turns out no. It was rare example of uncommercialzed nature. Yes there were many guided tours but anybody with a snorkel and ability to swim needed not worry about that. I was 40/50m out from shore when I saw my first. About 1-2 metres in length, these gentle, graceful creatures were chomping away on the sea grass like it was going out of fashion. Many had huge remora fish suctioned to the top and bottom of their shells, living in perfect symbiotic harmony. I must have seen about 15 green and loggerheads in the 30/40 minutes I was there. I couldn't believe how accessible they were how many there were. Clearly unaffected and not bothered by the hordes of snorkeling tourists, they grazed happily coming as close as a couple metres to some lucky spectators. It's an absolute must-see if you ever come to these parts and to date one of the most intimate encounters I've ever had with nature.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen was not so much a destination for me but more of a stop over before hitting Isla Mujeres. I had no intention of spending more than the one night in this fully-fledged holiday resort town. I did however have the fortune of meeting two Irish lads from Kildare Dave and John. As fate would have it yet again, we'd continue to meet up in various countries through Central America. The hostel ran an all-you-can-drink mojito-making class which quickly escalated into a banterous free-for-all.
Just off the coast of Cancun is the gorgeous white-sanded island of Isla Mujeres. ‘Women Island’ so-named because it is said the Spanish conquistadors used to keep their woman out here, out of harms way. I stayed in what was probably one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in; Poc Na. Free yoga on the beach daily(of which I partook often), free salsa classes(not so much :(), live entertainment, volleyball and of course beach-side hammocks for chilling.
My time on Isla Mujeres however was marred by an unfortunate string of bad luck. I was struck with a severe dose of what I can only imagine was flu which included fevers, chills and an upset stomach all the while trapped in the inescapable 32 degree heat. It knocked me on my ass for 3 full days was a truly miserable experience. I think at one stage I had convinced myself I had malaria, but lacked the nausea to back it up. I was just about on the upswing when on the ride back from a snorkeling trip halfway across the island with a German chica I’d befriended, I caught a rear tire puncture. The culprit: a key. Not a particular sharp key either. It had somehow penetrated all the way through. I had to send the German walking for the last 500m while I carefully rode the bike back to the hostel in a race against time before total deflation as I fishtailed all over the place. My first flat, lovely. I found a small scooter repair shop and asked could I use their space to fix my flat. The young man obliged and watched as I proceeded to struggle to remove the rear axle nut which was locked in place. The nut was to tight and my OEM tools were too shite to loosen it. With the help of his air pressure tool we removed the nut and I was able to remove the wheel. Breaking the tire bead was the next hardest feat but the young mechanic showed me his tricks of the trade. His prognosis of the hole was grim; too big to patch. Balls. I asked him if he knew where I could pick up a new tube on the island and he motioned for me to hop on the back of his motorcycle so we could try find out. This was my first time as a pillion passenger and it was not as comfortable as I thought. I towered above him also which must have looked hilarious. I was still not well and the heat was intense. I was close to delirious as we tore around the island popping into hardware shops and repair shops. Third time lucky, we found a guy who said he could fix the hole easily with some vulcanized rubber and a heated press. Cost me a total of 20 pesos($1.5). He also had new tubes that were the right size. I picked up one just in case. Things were looking up! When we got back to the shop, the struggle resumed to get the tire fitted back around the rim in the thick afternoon heat. Again he demonstrated his skills helping me. I was covered in grease, sweaty and unsteady on my feet but with the help of the mechanic’s son, we fixed my flat!
Another customer, a cheery old-timer with an infectious laugh asked me where I was from and admired my bike. He generously bought me a beer before jokingly scalding me for my upside-down placement of the Mexican flag on the side of my bike! The owner of the mechanic shop came back and the son filled him in. Either he admired that I was willing to get my hands dirty and did half the work or he was a generous man, either way he would not take payment when I asked him how much I owned him for his son’s time and labor. Quite taken aback from this kind gesture, I still insisted and thrust a 200 peso note into his son’s hand and thanked him graciously.
The drama on Isla Mujeres was topped off by some hoor stealing the OEM tools from the rather hidden pouch on the back of the bike a day later. I notified the hostel and asked about CCTV. We watched it saw a local, clear as day, fiddle around the bike, running his hand over it until he came across this slot and relieved me of my only tools at 6am right outside the hostel, the pilfering son of a bitch. The hostel said they’d check with the security guards but weren’t much help as he had been wearing a cap and they couldn’t get a clear glimpse of his face. Pissed off, I was ready to leave the island, feeling it was the island punishing me for overstaying my welcome.
I crashed in Cancun for two days to get the sand out of my hair and get organised following an eventful time on the island. On fine evening I decide to treat myself to the cinema where I watched the Avengers: Age of Ultron. Beforehand, as I waited to enter the screen, I was approached by an old Mexican lady who essentially tried to force a companionship on her daughters new English boyfriend who was without gringo friends. She dragged me over to him and expected us to be instant friends, two gringos along way from home. His name was Ryan. We chatted briefly and he proceeded to tell me how he met her on Tinder and followed her over to Cancun for 6 months. How funny. The mother was sad to hear I was only passing through. She's have to keep up her search.
The primary reason I'd chose to chill in Cancun was to pick up a new toolset knowing it would have the best selection of stores. I found an AutoZone, Walmart and a Home Depot and was able to pull together a new tool kit which stung me for an hefty $90USD. At least this toolkit was of much better quality and it provided a new found confidence knowing I'd be able to tackle many a problem with it.
Finally it was off to Vallodolid to rendezvous with Pat, dip into some cenotes and check out the mighty Chichen Itza. Besides some nice restaurants and the marvelous albeit totally over-hyped Chichen Itza mayan ruin, there wasn't much worth hanging around this town of Vallodolid.
After 7 spectacularly glorious weeks in Mexico, it was time to leave the land I’d come to know so well. I would be back, of that much I am sure but Belize was up next and with it came a new people, a different culture and fresh new adventures! Hasta luego Mexico!