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The Holiday Before the Journey - Part 4 (Mahahual and Puerto Morelos)

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

So, trying to finish this Mexican blog so I can start telling you about South America. I could just end the ‘holiday blog’ but the last two villages we visited on our holiday are worth sharing.

Mahahual. Our next-to-last destination. We buy a ticket on the bus but discover that it’s much more convenient to go via collectivo. The ADO only goes once per day and only in the evening. We cancel our online bus ticket and catch a collectivo from Akumal to Tulum and then another to Mahahual. Easy peasy.

We are at the Luna de Plata, a lovely beachside hotel at the quiet far end of town about a half-kilometre from the centre. Our room comes with breakfast. Every morning we walk down from our room through a palm-treed garden, seat ourselves at a table overlooking the sea, and enjoy our coffee and orange juice, hard boiled egg, toast with soft white goat cheese and ham, and a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit.

Mahahual is a gorgeous little fishing village close to Belize. A lot of cruise ships come here; however, the cruisers don’t seem to overwhelm the village.

Many seem to opt for excursions outside Mahahual. The locals seem to appreciate the tourists that do come into town though. Fishermen bring them out to the nearby reef for a snorkel adventure, and the local masseuses offer them full body massages – a not-so-wonderful sight to see the line of naked backs on white-sheeted cots along the road edge. Thankfully, towels cover their lower halves. Smiling waiters at the edge of the beach call out to passersby and the beachfront is filled with happy vacationers drinking and eating way too much.

We spend some hours taking typical tourist pictures, then rent a couple of bikes for two hours for 100 pesos. We’re told not to venture off the road where we might be eaten by a panther or a crocodile like one of the town drunks recently was. We can do that.

We ride south along the coastline. ‘Se vende’ signs at many of the beachfront lots make us wish we were rich enough to buy one.

We are still trying to move slowly away from ‘holiday budget’ to ‘travelling budget’ so we alternate between eating 'local' and eating ‘gringo.’ One day we go back a street from the beach and eat meat-filled tacos at a restaurant that the locals congregate at, enjoying big glasses of horchata (rice milk with cinnamon, mmm) and jamaica (cold hibiscus tea) for $5, then on another afternoon we spoil ourselves with a beach lunch - a couple of coronas and a plato frito of deep-fried seafood with sardines, big prawns, chunks of fish and calamari. Nicer environment, same great taste. Actually, it felt like we’d inhaled a mouthful of grease, but it was a tasty accompaniment to our beer.

It’s nice to be able to choose the meal we want – there’s sure a lot of people that obviously aren’t in the same boat. Like some of the hotel staff’s families who live behind our beautiful clean hotel in door-less shacks with tin roofs and dirt floors. They clean our luxurious rooms then return a few metres away to their shabby houses – I wonder how they deal with that.

Although we’re careful with our money, we do spend money to do the things we want to do. Like dive. I have no problem spending $100 to do a couple of dives when I travel somewhere tropical. Many divers come to Mahahual, we’re told, to scuba dive at Chinchorro, an island 35 kilometres away, and apparently, they’re willing to spend a lot of money to do it. We shell out $275 US for me to do two dives and for Aaron to snorkel. The island is an hour away, and the sea is rough – it’s a back-breaking ride. As we approach the island and the shallows around it, the sea becomes calmer. It’s as clear as glass.

We gear up and are soon fifteen metres down with a several curious nurse sharks, nosing at our toes, and swimming under our bellies. An eerie feeling. They’re harmless but so scary looking with their cold white eyes like small stones atop their grey speckled heads. Huge parrot fish and striped groupers swim amongst the metre-high florescent green coral tubes, the gargantuan rose-coloured coral vases, so deep I can’t see their base.

We get another dive but need to let the nitrogen dissipate from our lungs for a half hour or so, so we motor to the inland for a small tour and lunch. No one lives on the isla other than the fisherman who live out here for a week at a time to catch lobsters, a few iguanas and some crocodiles.

Back to our normal allotment of internal gases, we do our second dive then head home. A great day!

An hour away from Mahahual lies Bacalar, a gem of a town I’d visited back in 2012. We go for a visit on our last day before heading north toward Cancun. Collectivos leave from the village just across from the town’s tiny ADO station – not hard to find. We purchase tickets to Bacalar and wait. Just like in Central America, vans don’t leave town ‘til they’re full. Slowly, over the next half hour, people trickle in. Twenty minutes after the driver said we’d go, the van pulls out.

I recognize nothing when we pull into Bacalar. I remember a quiet plaza and a couple streets spiraling out from it. Today, the plaza is bustling, and shops surround it on all sides. We’re running low on money – Mahahual’s only reasonably-commissioned ATM is at the Costa Maya Hotel, a couple kilometres from the centre, and we’ve been too cheap to get a taxi there and too hot to walk there. We’re happy to see a couple of cajeros on the side of the plaza. Disappointingly, neither provides us the pesos we need. One’s broken, and the other has no money in it. So maybe Bacalar hasn’t grown as much as I thought.

We walk down toward the lagoon Bacalar is famous for. I remember kayaking across its clear turquoise length back in 2012, stopping at small islands to swim and lie in the sun. Along the road paralleling the laguna, I see the changes. But it’s nice. I must say that I do appreciate a little bit of growth. Bush and mangroves only entertain me so far. The funky cafes that pop up here and there along the once-empty road are a nice addition. A friendly tour guide calls us over to offer us a two-hour laguna tour. His fluent English, and some recommendations from his American buddy, persuade us to dole out 500 pesos. Within minutes we’re stuffed in a taxi with a couple of other tourists and taken up the hill to a small hotel where boats are waiting.

Immediately, our guide – a different one – begins relaying the history of the laguna. Sadly, I understand nothing. Silly me, expecting that a fluent salesman means an English tour. Thankfully though, a woman on the boat starts to translate and though her English is minimal, I learn a lot more than my poor Spanish was taking me. Although I believed I understood the guide’s story – something about the salt content of the laguna – I was way off. He apparently was telling us the story of the beautiful virgin girls sacrificed as gifts to the early inhabitants’ gods. Wow, how off can I be – sigh.

And finally, our last destination. Puerto Morelos. Twenty minutes south of Cancun and a whole other world. We book ourselves into Hotel Ojo de Agua, a few blocks from the centre and, we discover, the location of the best snorkeling in town. We’ve reserved a room, but given it’s our last week, I ask if it has a view. Searching his records, he informs us that it doesn’t, but that he has another that does, for, of course, a few more pesos. “Podemos verlo?” I ask him. Can we see it? “Si,” he says. He brings us to the view room which is big and luxurious, and, as promised, has a view of the ocean. “El otro tiene solo una cama y es mas pequeño,” he says. “Cuanto cuesta mas por eso,” I ask – how much more for this one? “Quinientos pesos,” he answers – thirty dollars. Sold. I’ll pay an extra $30 a night to get this room rather than a smaller one with only one bed and no view.

Yes, I know I said that I’m trying to transition away from ‘holiday budget,’ but really, $30 a night more is so much better than the additional $70 per night we were contemplating paying in Mahahual for a fantastic room. I know, I’m not doing such a great job of transitioning. Anyways, we dump our stuff in our room, and head down to register and pay. Expecting a massive cost, I’m astounded to hear that it’s only $30 more for the whole week, not per night! Aaron, of course, knew that all along – probably why he agreed so easily to the change. So great.

First morning, after a quick breakfast, we grab our snorkels and head for the water. Immediately, I see a small black manta ray. A few feet later, a massive spotted eagle ray.

“Holy,” I say out loud under the water – well it comes out more like “Mmm-mmm!” Continuing a few metres further, I see movement on the sea floor. Oh my gosh, it’s an octopus. My first one! “Mmmm-mm!” I “yell” at Aaron, wanting to get his attention. He swims over and we float in silence over this amazing creature. One leg after another, it rolls itself over the sand. I dive down to look at it closer. It senses me and immediately inflates all its legs, making itself larger I imagine. I go back to the surface and it moves quickly toward some vegetation. I glance at Aaron for a second and when I look back, it’s disappeared.

Crazy. Suddenly, I see a black shadow to my right. As I focus on it, the shadow clarifies. Holy shit - it’s a barracuda – and it looks to be about six feet long! And there’s another! I freeze, knowing they’re likely more afraid of me than I am of them, but not wanting to chance a move that’ll bring their attention to me. They glide off silently and I breathe again, realizing I’d stopped for a minute. We swim along the boundary marker for a few hundred metres further then head back, feeling chilled. As if I’d not seen enough wondrous sights during this snorkel, just as we reach the sea grass, I spot a huge family of squids, their funny backward-swimming bodies pulsing along with each expulsion of water. Such odd creatures. What a snorkel! What incredible snorkeling this whole trip.

At the edge of town, on a sunny morning, we discover a small café – Lola y Moya. Sitting at one of its courtyard tables we peruse its large menu, discovering wonderfully familiar things like breakfast bagels but bravely choosing instead a mollete. Lola, perhaps, or maybe it’s Moya, brings me two great big slabs of toasted bread covered with refried beans and cheese. It’s way too much for me to eat on my own, but…I do. Smarter the next morning, we split the delicious jalapeño cheese breakfast bagel.

I love walking through the little shops and having small, very simple conversations with the vendors. Today I talk to Roberto, who used to live in the US but was kicked out as an illegal immigrant. His wife and young son are still there – he’s not seen his son for nine years. I can’t imagine how he deals with that. He doesn’t seem bitter though – “That’s the system,” he says. I will keep working and maybe I can get my papers. “And maybe Trump will be booted out and it’ll be easier for you,” we say. “Si,” he says with a resigned smile.

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