Monday, March 20, 2017

Traveling from Tulum to Belize

As a somewhat obsessive travel planner, it has become a practice to be more spontaneous. And whenever we're recalibrating, we flux in both directions, right?

After years of anally knowing every possible hotel or travel route or fun day activity, I went to Mexico with only two nights booked in a tent. I knew that we needed to be in Belize by February 16 to safely be at the retreat on February 18.

I'd heard you could catch a bus.

We had about a week in Tulum so I did some asking around. There are a few ways to get down but they're rather time consuming. The option that left us with the most free day time was to take the overnight bus from Tulum to Belize City. We purchased our tickets, waited in the well lit station, and boarded the comfortable ADO bus.

The trip was really fine. People always complain that the buses are freezing. They are. But I'm glad the drivers are alert. I just bear it in mind and wear all my clothes. I was fine.

The less fun pieces are pulling into the Mexican customs around 3 am and trying to be coherent. You have to pay an exit tax. It was less expensive for us to book one way flights into Mexico and home from Belize so our airfare hadn't paid the taxes. The bus driver doesn't mention it when you board either. We always plan for the unexpected so we paid it and were fine. A few other passengers had bigger issues.

And then round two, entering Belize. Immigration and customs is always a bit stressful but especially in the middle of the night. The upside is that there are no lines. The down side is that you have to try to be together.

From the border we probably only drove another hour into Belize City. I'd heard a mix of reviews from other travelers. I didn't spend much time, but I didn't find it to be an especially dangerous city. It seemed like a normal city where you should have your bearings. It reminded me of a lot of cities in the Caribbean or US south. It has the slow feel you find in tropical settings and the city falls away to country quickly.

We didn't spend much time. From the bus stop we took a quick taxi to the ferry. At the ferry docks porters take your luggage for you. This took me aback but it's commonplace in Belize. Thankfully, in Belize City these porters are wearing uniforms so you know they're official. In Caye Caulker they don't always wear uniforms, which can be slightly more unnerving.

The dock itself is pretty great! There are cafes and plenty of wifi and seating. Soon, we were seated top deck of a racing ferry headed to Caye Caulker. As it was the first ride of the day we were mainly surrounded by commuters headed to a day of work on the Caye. People laughed and joked like they were on a bus back home.

About 40 minutes later our bus sliced through the grey sky to a small mangrove-clad Caye. Like, small. Caye Caulker has no cars, just golf carts. You can bike the whole island in about 20 minutes.

I had booked us two nights in an airbnb. We took a golfcart down. We were early so they stowed our things and gave us our bikes. We set off for coffee and to get our bearings.


Caye Caulker is maybe the most chill place on earth. The cayes do have soft sandy beach, but they also have a lot of sea grass in the water so most people swim by walking out on a dock. Some parts of the world remove the sea grass but of course, this is disruptive to the ecosystem. In Belize, they generally leave it, which I appreciate.

In Belize, they leave a lot. Time is slow. People are playful. They dish it out and expect you to give it back. I had a Rasta follow me on a bike mumbling "Blueberry." I asked a Belizean friend what it meant and she reminded me of the Marley song about it-- a type of kush. She said, "Belizean men will say anything. They saw my sister with a lot of tattoos and started calling her 'coloring book.'"


Very quickly, I felt very relaxed. It is an easy place to do absolutely nothing. We were pretty fried after spending the night in a cold, border-crossing bus, so nothing felt really good.


As we explored the island, we saw signs advertising ferries that ran from Chetumal, Mexico directly to Caye Caulker. I asked how long that took. It sounds like it would have potentially shaved 2 hours and Belize City off our trip.

I would have known if I did some research.

What I don't know if when those buses and ferries run. It could have eaten into one of our days. It sounds like we would have taken a 2-3 hour bus south from Tulum to Chetumal. There we would have transferred for a ferry bound direct for Caye Caulker. Also, that would be a rather long ferry ride and it might not have been a comfortable trip.

We'll have to go back to find out.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mayan Ruins on Tulum Beach

After enjoying the delicious (and more affordable!) meals in town, jumping into every cenote we could get to, and wandering around the Yucatan, we decided to finish up our time in Tulum back on the beach.

The Zona Arqeologia is closer to the ruins and also more integrated into public beach accesses. If you stay in town and ride your back down to the beach, these tend to be the points where you hit the sand. All the way up the road, practically at the ruins, there's this weird and great place called Zazil Kin. It had nicer hotel rooms but also plenty of dark cabins. We found an available cabin with shared baths (meaning you walk to one place where there are clean restrooms and you walk to another shower house for a trickle of water to clean you) and booked it for our remaining nights.

Our cabin had untrimmed palm fronds that batted our heads as we ducked into the dim space. We said it didn't have a hair cut-- as some did! Even in the height of day it was hard to see in there. It kept the temperature cool but made packing a bit challenging.


Kevin and I slept side by side in our comical twin beds. I couldn't understand the mosquito netting because there were few bugs so close to the sea. However, one day the wind turned and blew down from land. Then I got it!

There were only a few hours of electricity a night so we read by flashlight. There was wifi only in the reception area so in the evenings all the guests congregated there. Some would drink and swap stories at the bar. Kids would play in the playground. We scrolled our phones and answered emails.


The first night we arrived we took a walk on the beach. Remember that full moon? It was huge and hung over the horizon of the water. The only people we could see were two others skinny dipping. Immediately, I shed my clothes and walked into the water. I've never before swam in the ocean at night. The moon was so bright and the water so warm.

As I walked back to the beach I was disoriented from the tide and had to find Kevin again. As I said, he is a cheerleader to any attempt on my part to be adventurous. He just worried that I might be eaten by a shark.


The following morning we walked up to the Mayan ruins. The entry fee is small and getting there early means you won't be as dogged by the tour crowds coming down from Playa Carmen and Cancun. The site was actually better labelled than Chichen Itza and some of the other ruins. Also, the ruins are built on cliffs directly over the sea. They form a bit of a peninsula that juts out before the Bay of Akumal crawls back into the coastline behind (we visited there one day to swim with turtles).

At the ruin site you can descend steps to little beach coves that are only accessible in this way. People wandered down to swim and play in the surf. There was no shade but it's a beautiful area.


The only part of Zazil Kin we weren't too into was the restaurant. They had you in their little stretch of paradise and the food wasn't great. We started walking along the beach and found better options. A beautiful breakfast spot with a view of the mangroves. A fun spot at lunchtime on loungers.

Best of all, when our friends Julia and Richard flew in to begin their Honeymoon, we all met up and shared tips. We spent the day swimming, sunning, listening to jazz, and eating great food. They dropped us off at the bus stop in Tulum town as we began to journey overnight into Belize.


Friday, March 17, 2017

DIY touring in the Yucatan Peninsula

Wandering through the main drag in Tulum you find lots of tour shops hawking one day trips to Chichen Itza, a dip in a cenote, lunch, and maybe touring a chocolate factory in Valladolid. I was interested in seeing these cites (when in Rome and all) and we hadn't rented a car so we needed ways to get places. When I booked our first night's hotel in town I asked if they had suggestions on how to see Chichen Itza. He advised booking a taxi driver for the day who would take Kevin and me to all the sites. I price compared that with going on a tour. It was cheaper to have our own private driver for the day.

I highly recommend it.

Jose picked us up at our hotel at 7 am. We drove two hours to Chichen Itza. Through the miracle of time zones, we arrived at 8 am as the park opened. As we waited to enter the park Jose hailed a tour guide who suddenly slid into the seat next to us. We asked him his rate and it was rather high. Kevin and I used to get a little flustered in those situations and agree to a tour even though we didn't want to spend the money nor experience the site in this way. Instead, Kevin had his bearings and politely declined the tour.


Chichen Itza is open to the hot sun. Early, the crowds are smaller but it fills up quickly. It can be overwhelming with vendors hawking wares and guides selling tours. But, historical sites the world over are like this. Angkor Wat was often very similar. Kevin kept hunting for a good book so we could guide ourselves. The plaques mainly had to do with architecture, not history, context, ritual, nor belief. We found the information we could.

Most of the sites are dedicated to Venus. Venus is a star visible in the night sky to the Yucatan. Venus intersects with Mayan beliefs on descending Gods and Goddesses, astrology, and seasonality. 

Hot and sweaty, we exited Chichen Itza after about two hours in the park. We'd actually stayed a little longer than we had told Jose that we would. He drove us directly to Ik Kil, a cenote very near to Chichen Itza.


As I stood at the rail looking down into the depths of the cenote I instantly recognized it from postcards. This place is the stuff of dreams. As it's close to Chichen Itza and more commonly visited, it's more expensive and with more infrastructure. There's a gift shop and locker rooms. You pay for everything. 

We slowly descended slippery stone steps down to the water level. There's a small area to stand that's crowded and jostling with people from Mexico and all over the world. A few ladders were stacked off to the left for those who wanted to descend into the water slowly. There's not a lot of privacy. Often someone would scramble alongside you.

To the right, steps lead up to a small platform where you could jump into the deep water from a height of 25 ft. I held our bag while Kevin scrambled up the steps. In an instant, he was flying. 

There were two bored lifeguards really not doing very much. Most of the world seems to engage with the "life is risky" motto. Having recently shed much of my hesitation I told Kevin I wanted to jump. He is always interested in me being more adventurous and fun so he gladly took the bag. I began to ascend the steps. When I got to the top I saw the intimidating space between me and the water's surface. 

I said to the life guard, "I'm scared." He shrugged with boredom and said, "Jump." If I wasn't so nervous I would have found the whole thing hilarious. I asked if I should hold my nose. Again, a disinterested shrug. "Yes, that's good. Jump." Probably seconds had passed but I noticed people around me who were beginning to jump as I hesitated. It didn't feel safe to be so close to the edge. There was obviously no law and order. The lifeguard was mainly ensuring that people didn't jump directly on top of one another. I told myself to do it, held my nose, and stepped off the edge.


I hated the sensation of free falling through space but I loved the feeling of resurfacing in the water knowing that I jumped in fully. I loved feeling like I entered in with less hesitation than I used to, that I was doing the thing.

The waters were clear. There were plenty of quiet, private places to swim off to. Kevin spent a while on the edge of the cenote as the roots dripped water around him.

Afterwards, we climbed the flights of slippery stone steps back up to ground level and found Jose. 

He drove us to the colonial town of Valladolid for lunch. It feels like a place. Like, somewhere people work and live, which is always orienting after visiting tourist sites. We wandered around the center square before deciding on a spot to have lunch. There are factories in town that process chocolate and coffee for those who want to do more. We've taken some of those tours in other places. We just watched the kids leave school for the day, the retirees read their papers on a park bench, and life go by.


When we reconnected with Jose he gave us some options. We could always go back as we'd already had a full day-- we'd done what the group tours normally do but more quickly as we did it on our own schedule and only had to continually gather ourselves. We could stop at some more cenotes. Or, we could head to Coba, which is often it's own tour.

Coba is a slightly less touristed Mayan ruin by lagoons, some that are home to crocodiles. We asked Jose to take us to Coba. As we drove up to the quiet gate he told us to go inside and rent bicycles. The highest pyramid is about a mile into the park. He wanted to make sure we got there before closing.

His advice had been great so far so we rented two rickety bikes and set out on the path. The park is mainly flat and the trails are wide. The breeze gathered between the tall trees. Coba is much shadier and kinder than Chichen Itza. We passed smaller ruin sites until we finally found our way to the main pyramid. We looked up up up the steep stone steps with just one long rope to orient climbers.

So we climbed.

I've often found that up isn't so bad. You can lean forward and organize your weight. As we got to the top, we had to again negotiate lots of bodies speaking various languages with differing ideas of appropriate space sharing and respect for sacred sites. It's daunting. Little kids were up and down like mountain goats. We gulped at the height, sat a moment in the fading sun, before beginning our descent.

The tricky part. At a certain point the stone steps are so worn that they no longer have angles or a top surface to stand on. I think it's easier to shift into butt sliding there. I stuck my feet into little cracks and crevices to slow the descent as my butt slid on the smooth stone. My hands clung to the rope even as people on the other side grabbed on to aid their climb up. 

It wasn't my first rodeo.


We found our bikes again and dashed off to another part of the park to take in whatever sites we could before we lost light and access. The park was practically empty. The breeze was cool. The sites were beautiful and interesting. Ever since my evening and morning with the moon and sea I'd been singing a certain refrain in my head: "Everything is amazing. Nothing is perfect."


The breeze was cool and a mosquito bit me. The ruins were awe-inspiring and the crowds were annoying. The sun was glorious and it was hot.

It's all amazing. None of it is perfect.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cenotes!

Years ago, when Kevin and I traveled through Panama, we took turns reading Barbara Kingsolvers The Lacuna. We read about these clear, cold, aquamarine pools where human sacrifices were made and secret caverns are discovered. I started to read about these cenotes hidden throughout the Yucatan peninsula, known to those with roots to the land, and fantastical to tourists traveling through.

I love watering holes. One of my favorite scavenger hunts is for cold water hidden to refresh you on a hot day. I've lounged by the Blue Hole in the Catskills. Kevin and I got too late to one in the Pine Barrens (deforesting the surrounding environment changed the ecosystem causing the water to become polluted). I was enchanted by the idea of encountering cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula.

As Kevin and I packed up our belongings at the Zona Hotelera campsite and headed into town, we asked about visiting some nearby cenotes. We began hitching rides on collectivos, or vans that function like buses. For change you could ride shoulder to shoulder with local commuters to a site off the highway. Some cenotes charge more for admission than others. The more expensive sites tend to have picnic areas and changing rooms. The less expensive (and in my mind, more worthwhile) sites had pretty much no development. You encounter the crystalline water, set your things down by some tree roots, and dive in.



I remembered The Lacuna as I swam through the stories of each cenote. In some, there were roped off areas to not disturb swimming turtles. In others, you swam under cave outcroppings populated by thousands of sleeping bats. You could swim deeply and find caves and tiny pockets of air. By one cenote, we were harassed by a family of ducks that had likely been domesticated by tourists unwisely sharing food. Cenotes were sites of sacrifice and test at Chichen Itza and other holy places. 

I told my Aunt about visiting the cenotes and she said, "I have nightmares about them!" In her nightmares, she's thrown into the dark depths. As people have been through the centuries.

They hold our dreams and our fears.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hearing your own voice between the moon and sea

The last few months have been loud and dense and chaotic. There has been a lot of noise and fear. Again and again I tried to make room to hear my own voice, but it was really hard. I was traveling ahead of the Belize retreat in part to soften into a space appropriate for facilitating the retreat. I needed to make sure I was at peace to try to offer the same to the attendees.

Given the intensity I was wondering what it would take.

It took one day.

As I wrote, when I first woke in Tulum it felt sort of weird just because I was out of town proper. I just needed a minute to get a lay of the land. Once I felt like I had my bearings, I opened up to its beauty.

I spent a lot of time with the sea.

The water was clear and so many blues.

I'm often a really hesitant swimmer. While I love to swim, it can take me an unreasonably long time to enter the water. I let that shit go. I walked directly in and submerged. I felt a lot that was tangled in me float away.



There was a Full Moon on February 10. Astrologically, it had significance and due to my current love of all things Chani Nicholas, I was paying attention.

In the middle of the night on February 9, I woke up. I decided to exit our hot little tent to use the bathroom. As I walked out of the tent I saw I didn't need a flashlight due to the bright light of the growing moon. I walked into the moonlight, funneled through the palm leaves. I stood there looking at the moon for a long time. I stood there feeling the moon for a long time. I stayed with the moon in this quiet, soft place.

And then I went back to bed.

In the morning, thanks to our intel from the airbnb host, we went to get breakfast at one of the fancy beach front hotels. The hotel had these amazing cabana beach beds spread out along the sand. They had outlets and signs you could turn if you wanted to order something. Kevin was completely freaked out. We set up camp, ordered breakfast, and took out our books. Still a bit dazed by the moon, I stood up in the growing sunlight and walked directly into the water. And I understood something that I had been struggling with for some time: "what has this period of my life taught me? What was this struggle about?"

With sudden clarity, I knew.

I walked back from the water, laid in the shade alongside the person I loved, and let myself be warm and content and at peace.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Finding Tulum

Our first morning in Tulum we woke up in our hot tents, unzipped our doorway, and wandered out to the street that runs through Zona Hotelera in Tulum. We passed lots of long, lithe white people wearing expensive clothes. We saw lots of signs in English advertising things I like ("yoga! smoothies! cleanses! beautiful clothes!") but didn't necessarily expect to find written in English in a seaside Mexican town. I mean, I'd heard Tulum had a long history of Americans traveling to do yoga but I didn't think it had been annexed by Malibu...

I was getting a little salty. This is not unusual for me early in travel. I have a weird habit of feeling unclear and not super comfortable arriving in a new place. Then, something opens and I fall in love.

Kevin and I decided to go into town to see if we could actually see residential neighborhoods and schools and churches and evidence that we hadn't landed in some weird outlier. The taxi sped us up the highway to town proper. He spoke Spanish (amazing!). We saw actual people living actual lives. Things got dirtier and more real. He said people lived this far (a car or bike ride) from the beach because they actually know this environment. It's safer to give the sea some space.



As we thanked the taxi and exited, we found a little garden restaurant. We settled in to begin hunting for a place to stay in town. Tulum was beginning to reveal itself.

We got our game plan together. Our belongings were safely stored at our airbnb in Zona Hotelera so we were unencumbered to walk around town and see if there was a hotel we could reserve for the upcoming few nights. We probably walked in and out of 8 places but it was actually fun. In each setting we saw other possibilities of passing our time. We talked to people and got suggestions and ideas. Ultimately, we found two places on the outskirts of town that were affordable, could accommodate us, and felt good. We booked them and decided that our time in town would be base camp for exploring the wider Yucatan peninsula.

We call the art of figuring it out as you go "Guerilla Vacationing"
I started to feel like I had a sense of where I was. Tulum has three zones: Pueblo (the town), Zona Hotelera (the fancy), and Zona Arqueologia (pretty great, we'll get to that). Zona Hotelera is the concentration of resorts on a gorgeous strip of soft beach. Again, if you have a weekend free and want to be hot and happy, go! This is where we landed in our little camp site.


Pueblo is where people actually live. There are neighborhoods and permaculture farms and Indigenous community projects and hipster coffee shops and poverty and wealth and international schools and dirt and it kind of feels like a truck stop because of the highway running through. I love it. It's really weird and it's really wonderful. You drive or bike in any direction and there's a cenote. You can bike to public access spots at the beach. There are Mayan ruins and the streets are named for astrology and esotericism.


Zona Arqueologia is the quieter, less developed, more publicly accessible part of the beach leading up to the Mayan ruins. It's lovely but it is a drive or bike ride from town.

I'm starting to learn the value of secrets and privacy. Tulum felt like a place that knows that lesson. The cards you hold. What you reveal.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Getting Away. First stop: Mexico

Kevin and I believe in maximizing plane tickets. They're usually the most expensive piece of travel, so we milk them. Whenever we can, we add travel time around yoga retreats. Working for ourselves affords us some flexibility-- just not security!

Usually, I'd take the time after the retreat but this year we scheduled the retreat over President's Day to try to make the most of attendees' vacation days. This meant we were traveling rather late in February and if we added on travel time, we'd get into March, which is the beginning of landscaping season. It wasn't going to work so we opted to travel a bit before the retreat.


I was hesitant because it's normal for retreat attendees to have questions right before they fly out. I want to be accessible to them. I communicated with everyone well in advance of travel, booked my tickets, and headed out about 10 days before the retreat.

And it was all fine.

And it also wasn't. I had deposited a check of a chunk of my annual earnings into my business account. I waited a few days for it to clear before transferring it into my personal checking so I would have access to those funds, if I needed them, while abroad.

The teller had transferred my earnings into another account.

The night before I traveled out I stood in line at the bank trying to track down where they had put my money. Thankfully, they sorted it out and correctly deposited my money as I landed in Mexico.

It's always something.

Kevin and I decided to start our travels in Mexico mainly because Belize is kind of pricey! The retreat was an outlier-- Ak'bol purposefully keeps their prices low so the retreat was actually really wonderful and accessible. When I looked into travel around Belize I was a bit surprised by the rates. We knew our money would go further in Mexico so we booked!

Tulum had been on my radar for some time. I knew that Tulum was also a bit pricier than other parts of Mexico but it is super close to the Belizean border, which made good sense. On February 7 Kevin and I flew into Cancun. I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at the airport. (I'm big on airport pick-ups and traveling with some currency for your arrival destination. Make things easy for yourself while you get your bearings!)

Our shuttle driver dropped off guests at big resorts in Cancun as well as more reasonable hotels in Playa del Carmen. As is our way, Kevin was snoozing while I was hungrily watching the highway. I don't mind overland travel overseas... I love to see life lived a multitude of ways.

We drove into Tulum and towards the beach. I'd found an airbnb close to the beach where I figured we could spend two nights getting our bearings. Other reviewers had warned that shuttle and taxi drivers often couldn't find this airbnb. The owner assured me they would.

The driver couldn't find it. We drove up and down the road along the beach where all you can see is the entrance to hotel after resort after hotel. It was sort of freaking me out. It felt ritzy and inaccessible and not really like Mexico... more how I would imagine Miami Beach or Los Angeles. I had other ideas in mind if Tulum was too weird-- maybe heading over to Isla Mujeres or Isla Holbox-- I stopped the driver a few times to ask directions before we found our spot.


Our airbnb was "jungle camping" or renting a tent with a bed, near bathrooms and showers. Again, all location. In addition to giving me proximity to the beach I've often found the budget places offer you guidance to be independent. The owner gave us lots of tips of finding access on a beach that is overwhelmed by resorts. In the Zona Hotelera most hotels and resorts either deny access to the beach or charge those who aren't guests at their hotel. Our jungle camping friends pointed out where we could enter and where we could get discounts at nearby reserves. A resort can be OK if you don't have much time and need to get away. If you want to travel and explore, you need people who can orient you.

Kevin and I entered the beach access we'd been directed to and started to feel the tension and travel melt. The beaches at Tulum are some of the most beautiful I've seen. The sand is powdery soft. The water is waves of turquoise meeting deeper blue.

We started to trust that all our plans were enough. Everything was OK. For now, we paused and settled in.