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The Holiday Before the Journey - Part 2 (Cancun & Isla Holbox)

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Cancun. Tip #1. You don’t need to take a $35 taxi from the airport (unless it’s dark when you arrive). A “Donde esta el ‘ah-day-oh?’ or, even simpler, an “Ah-day-oh?” just outside the arrivals door will get you on to an ADO bus to the centre of the city for 94 pesos ($7CAD). Then, if you’re heading out to the hotel zone or ‘Zona Hoteles ’which the ADO bus doesn’t go to (for some stupid reason), any bus with an R1 or R2 sign will drop you along this entire narrow strip of hotel-infested land. For 12 pesos (80 cents)!

Cancun - what can I say? I’m sure Cancun offers an absolute blast for people staying in those enormous high-rise all-inclusive hotels fronting the pristine white sand beaches and the turquoise Caribbean. We tried to see what that experience would be like, but…just as we eyed a couple of well-placed loungers on the beach, we were caught…those security guards have their eyes everywhere – how did they know we weren’t just one of the guests, I wonder?

So, on the other end of the spectrum – well maybe not the other end, but far away from the end that those rich tourists sit at...remember that great 'complete apartamiento con piscina y laguna that we reserved? Well, what we got was a narrow, dimly-lit apartment in a dilapidated building. We did get a pool, though it was a tricky feat to climb across a narrow concrete ledge two stories above the ground, avoid the rusted and hanging rails along it, and successfully navigate the broken steps down and around the building to its backside to it. Once we reached the garden and the lagoon beyond, though, it was lovely and peaceful.

I would have appreciated some advice about the crocodiles. Thankfully, my toes were at risk only that first day before a random security guard patrolling the neighbourhood advised me to keep them out of the lagoon for the duration of our stay.

By day 3, we're hankerin' to get out of the city and as far as accommodations go, to move the bar a little higher. Compromise on this front is not working so well. I’ve stayed in too many nice hotels since that long-ago journey. And the Melaque beachfront hotel dream is still too recent to let go.

We decide to go north of Cancun to Isla Holbox, a place that I remember as laid-back, tiny, with a little but not a lot of development or tourists back in 2011. Aaron puts his fingers to work and finds us a hotel a block from the beach but with a view of the beach – upping the bar as planned. We head to the ATM (cajero - pronounced 'ka-hair-oh') at the CI Banco (Tip #2 - lowest commission of all banks we tried) to get some pesos thinking it might be difficult to get money on the island, then continue on to the ADO terminal (book trips anywhere in Mexico online at ADO). Getting to Holbox is a piece of cake. A three-hour bus trip to Chiquila, a slow lazy five minute saunter through that hot and dusty pueblo to the ferry dock, and we’re across to the island before we know it.

We hoist our packs on our back, climb off the boat, then walk a kilometre down a white sand road to the village centre. It looks busier than I remember – still no cars, but a few more tourist-filled golf carts than expected. It’s hard to find the pretty hotel that I stayed in before amongst the new builds. We find our hotel at the end of the road near the beach. Our room’s perfect – bright and colourful – and the blue sea is not far from our balcony.

We take our snorkels out of our packs and head to the beach to find a place to snorkel. We walk north-east for an hour seeing nothing but blue sky and gorgeous white sand beach, some crazy looking birds (reincarnations of Winston Churchill?), and lots of huge colourful kites with brave souls hanging off them, surfing at great speeds across the sea. Looks fun but, I suspect, a lot harder than it looks.

I have a bit of an issue around food…or the potential lack of it. I’m afraid of being hungry. So, true to form, when I discover that it’s 4:45 and we are on an empty beach an hour away from any restaurants, and even though I’m not in the least bit hungry yet, I panic. Just a little. Continuing to search for this elusive snorkeling place will just mean we have that much further to get back to food. “We have to go back,” I tell Aaron. Mi amor doesn’t even question my command.

The sun's setting as we reach the village. People are already making their way to what looks to be the evening gathering place – a long dock that reaches far into the sea and faces west and the setting sun. We continue around the corner and find a quieter spot with – oh, what do we have here? A double lounger facing the horizon just waiting for us.

Sweeet. Of course, though, I wasn’t that girl, and knew it was very likely that we’d get kicked off. But… our ploy to look like we belonged there worked - no one came around and we got to watch the sun set in a blaze of reds and oranges.

I think this is the moment I said to myself, “I want this! To be that girl who can walk out her hotel room and lay on a lounger.” But I wasn’t, so as soon as the sun went below the horizon, we scooted.

Despite my earlier panic about food, the heat keeps our hunger at bay for a few hours. Around 7:30, we venture out to see what we can find. And we find street food! Around the village’s central square, cart after cart offers sizzling something-or-others on their grill. Delicious smells waft off them. For 100 pesos ($7), we eat our fill of grilled tortillas covered with spicy meat and goat cheese (well, Mexico's version of goat cheese), and wash them down with a cold limonada. “Hasta mañana,” we say. Until tomorrow. We’re coming back for sure…every night. For another couple of bucks, Aaron gets a chocolate and banana-filled crepe from the neighbouring cart to top off our meal. Delicious.

As we walk home, I feel a small itch on my ankle. I give it a cursory scratch and another itch arises on the other side of my foot. I scratch and it becomes a small bump. And it doesn’t stop itching. In fact, it gets worse as I scratch. I don’t remember hearing any nasty whine of mosquitos. What the hell? Suddenly I remember another trip, another island. And an attack by sand fleas. I’d forgotten about those invisible and truly horrible creatures. I’ll bet this is what these are. Damn. As I scratch, I can feel the bites welt up. I hurry Aaron along, hoping to avoid more attacks.

Back in our room, I settle in under our clean sheets, still scratching, but feeling like I’m in store for a great sleep after our long walk. It’s ten o’clock – a bit early to go to sleep when one’s on a holiday, but…we’re 58 after all. Ten works for me. Then…boom! The music starts up. Loud music. Between the scratching and the noise, I think I finally dozed off at four in the morning. Tip #2. Identify the location of the bars in town before you reserve a hotel. We have three surrounding us. They don’t quit playing until the last drunken tourist leaves. Tip #3 – Bring earplugs – lots of them, they’re easy to lose.

By morning, the welts have formed small hard heads. The back of my arms feel and look like I have a bad case of acne. They are horrible things, those sand fleas – I scratch, desperate for relief, for days after I leave Holbox. Tip #4 - I’ve heard baby oil and Johnson’s Skin-So-Soft might keep the sand fleas away. Swim. That helps.

Despite the sand fleas, Holbox is beautiful.

If you are lucky and explorative, you might find a great café down a small side road that serves two-for-one kick-in-the-ass-potent margaritas for 100 pesos. You'll definitely enjoy some fantastic coconut-shrimp!

If you're patient and look around, you might find that bike rental place we found a few blocks from the centre as you head south-west that charges 35 pesos an hour or 140 a day (as compared to 350 per day in most places). And then with that bike, after riding further south-west out of town toward Playa Tortuga, you might find a pink flamingo or two, perched on one skinny leg in the shallows, looking for shrimp. But bring your mosquito spray!!!

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