Here is a recap of our time in Chiapas.
We woke up next morning later than we had planned to. This was becoming a routine now 😬 I made some breakfast of the things we had in the kitchen and we packed up and left. There was a random tripadvisor post that I had run into while searching for a cheap and local way to travel to our next destination and we decided to try it out first instead of taking the longer option later in the day. Fortunately, we were still in time to get a camioneta for Zapata that got us there in time for the 10:30 bus to Chetumal. We reached Chetumal later in the afternoon via some beautiful and green roads and barely any civilization enroute. After a super late lunch at a Subway, we caught a colectivo to Bacalar.
Hues of Blue
It was by 7 PM in the evening that we dragged our tired selves into the AirBnB. It was a basic one but it would serve our needs. We would soon find out that Bacalar was much more expensive than the Mexico we had been travelling in so far. Later that night we walked out to see the centro, have some dinner of quesadillas and then landed at the Yak Hostel to book a sailing cruise for the next afternoon.
We spent the next morning in a cafe. Starbucks had come to mean good and reliable internet for us in this country. I am always amazed at how far ahead India is in terms of internet connectivity than most of the world. I downloaded Civ6 which had been lying around in my steam library waiting for some good download bandwidth and I would be addicted to the game for at least a few days to come 😆
At 2:30 in the afternoon we went to the Yak Hostel and waited for the sailing trip to start. The Bacalar Lagoon stretched out infront of us. It was called the Lagoon of Seven Colours because it sported seven hues of blues in very distinct strips. It was quite surreal to see and extremely pleasing and soothing.
Eventually our sailboat arrived and we boarded it with two Dutch girls and el capitan Miguel. The sails caught wind and we slowly moved into the depper parts of the lagoon. The blues of the lagoon changed colour with the underlying depth. The wind felt nice and I was reminded on the paraw cruise I had done in Boracay a few years back. Miguel, however, kept the boat from speeding and we enjoyed the slow ride on the blue waters.
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We stopped at one of the cenotes that was in the lagoon. The water there was darker and Miguel explained how the water came in from an underground source and due to the volcanic nature of the source, it was smelt and tasted of sulfides. We did not get into the water here but went to the shallower parts for a dip. This was next to the Pirates Channel. There were broad areas that you could stand in, and splash around. More sailboats and motorboats had started appearing in the lagoon and there was a general atmosphere of gaiety where we stopped.
While we clicked pictures and floated around, Miguel crafted a delicious fruit salad for us. All of us shared stories of our travels and Miguel told us how he had been sailing since he was three years old. He was a Mexican brought up in Italy and spoke Spanish, Italian, French and English. He had a seriously cool life goal as well - he wanted to buy a sailboat in Europe and sail it across the Atlantic to Mexico!
We got on the boat again and sailed into the lagoon. Miguel put on some music and everyone receded into their own thoughts, looking at the beautiful lagoon and the sun slowly dipping in the sky. We returned as the sun set and said our goodbyes ere the light left this small lagoon-side town in Mexico.
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We had dinner at Christian Tacos, right across the street from where we were staying at the AirBnB. The food was nice but their cocktails did not have any effect 😬 Perhaps we were developing a strong constitution when it came to alcohol. We suspected the Mezcal had something to do with it 😂
Falling in Love
We spent another day at the AirBnB. Bacalar, much like Brisas de Zicatela, has acquired the patronage of the international travelling community. The lake and the laid back atmosphere across the town attracts travelers from the Americas and beyond. There is no dearth of good food to be had and we checked out some interesting restaurants and cuisines during the day.
We headed to the centro that evening and decided to eat the pancake like thing that were being sold in carts. We had been seeing it since Palenque and it had piqued my interest. It was thus that we discovered marquesitas, one of the most affordable and beloved street food of the Yucatan peninsula. It was a thin pancake filled with sweet or savoury fillings and rolled up to take on the go 😋
Later we sat in a bar for a few drinks. The I Scream Bar was probably one of the most fun bars I have been to 😄 The bartender’s mood was totally representative of the entire place 😂
We had fallen in love with Bacalar during the two days we had spent here. And now we were thinking of extending our stay. Bacalar was a bit pricey so we decided to go ahead and splurge, one of the occasional luxuries we indulged in. So we booked a lagoon-side villa which was a some distance away from the centro and checked out of our AirBnB the next morning.
It was a small place with only a few guests and we enjoyed the dock constructed at the fringes of the lake. There were kayaks that we could pick up and of course, the beautiful lake beckoned as always.
We left once to stock up on grocery since there was nothing close by. On our way back, we ate at Taco Loco, one of the restaurants recommended by our sailboat captain Miguel for amazing seafood tacos.
We enjoyed the water and kayaked a little towards the sunset on our first day at the villa. We had got quite good at kayaking but since the day was almost done, we did not go too far from the dock and came back soon enough
Later that night we sat by the lake and indulged in some good wine after a dinner of instant noodles 😂
The next morning we had planned to go kayaking at sunrise but failed to wake up for it. Parul is not really a morning person and I get tempted into staying in bed seeing her blissfully asleep 😛 The entire day was spent in laziness by the lake. I read, wrote and played Civ. Parul indulged in some intense day dreaming and photography.
We kayaked again that evening. We started earlier and went all the way to the other side of the lagoon.
While the initial plan was to find a spot on the shore to relax, this turned out to be a colony of stromatolites.
We got off the kayaks in the shallow waters a little away from the colonies and enjoyed the water before heading back as the sun set. It was fun and tiring.
The next morning, while Parul stay asleep, I woke up and went out as the sun rose. I pulled a kayak and got into the slightly choppy waters watching the sun rise towards the east. We were far from the city center so there was absolutely no one in the water out here. I was floating on a kayak, alone for any distance to see with land far away on every direction. Somehow, in that isolation, I felt happy and I rowed on. It was almost a kilometer to the other side of the lagoon and I rowed on till I got to the spot we had come to the previous evening and then, on impulse, I rowed on towards the Pirates Channel, which was opposite to the city. I saw a lot of grasshoppers floating dead in the lake and many which were trying to fly across to the other side. Perhaps this was a natural phenomenon but I failed to understand why the grasshoppers would do such a thing as try and fly across the lake!
The Pirates Channel was a long distance away and extremely tiring. At the channel I found more groups that had started from the town of Bacalar; some in kayaks and some in paddle-boats. I rowed on and crossed the channel with it’s current helping me to the other side. It was another water body that opened up here and I decided to take a break. I pulled my kayak to the bank and walked to find a nice spot to sit in. The muddy banks reminded me of the snow treks as my foot pushed into the soft mud and I was struggling waist deep at times! Much unnecessary adventure later, I sat and watched the sun as it climbed higher and higher and heard the gleeful shouts of a group of girls trying paddle-boat yoga somewhere behind me in the channel. A couple conversed in rapid Spanish on the other side of the channel from where I sat. I decided that I was more at peace in the middle of the lagoon and headed back, struggling against the current of the channel this time around. Once the channel ended, I was hot enough to appreciate a dip in the refreshing water. I relaxed in the water for a while before continuing back towards the villa. I cut across the lagoon this time once the villa came into sight and while I had expected the current to be working in my favour this time, it clearly was not helping me any. Breaking now and again, I finally pulled into the dock at the villa where Parul was sitting smiling and wondering where I had been gone for five long hours while having left a message to be back after two 😬 But I was tired and happy and thinking that perhaps the two were deeply related for me.
While we had thought about extending our stay by yet another day to enjoy this beautiful place, the villa was booked and we fortunately saved on a considerable sum of money 😛 We packed up as wild peacocks walked around the property.
We had planned to walk back the distance to the ADO bus station but a couple leaving the villa in their car gave us a ride to the city center. They were driving around the peninsula in a rented car and gave us a really nice recommendation - El Cuyo, that we meant to but could unfortunately not follow up on.
A Fisherman’s Village
We bade goodbye to Bacalar and took a van to Mahahual. It was not very far but we had to spend half of the distance standing because the driver had picked up extra passengers on the way. That’s just how things were in Mexico and no one seemed to mind the mild chaos much. It was similar to the chaos which most communal societies, including India, have.
We checked into a hotel that was a bit outside the centro. The receptionist offered us snorkelling trips and more but we had thought of checking out the diving here. Mahahual lies on the Meso-American Barrier Reef system which is the second largest in the world after the famous one in Australia. It runs along the Caribbean coast of Mexico and a lot of famous dive locations are dotted on the coast. I chose Mahahual on impulse because I saw fewer number of dive shops online and assumed it would not be all that touristy. As we walked from the hotel to the city center, where all the dive shops were located, the empty streets and closed shops suggested that the city was a little too non-touristy.
Walking along the sargassum affected beach, we reached one of the shops just as it was wrapping up. The girl there explained the prices for each of us and the sites that they went to. I took her number and told her that we’d let her know in case we wanted to dive the next day. I was not quite sure and the other dive shop I had marked was a bit too far to reach before closing time. We aimlessly wandered around the beach and saw another modest dive shop at the far end of the beach. It seemed closed so we went to enquire in the shop next doors. This is where we met Norma, a Spanish woman who had been living in Mahahual for a while now. She was a dive instructor at the shop next doors and ran this shop as well which sold odd beach stuff (swimsuits, sunscreen, etc). A big part of how I decide upon dive shops is the conversations I have with the people I meet there. Norma turned the tables in favour of Mahahual Dive Center despite the previous dive shop being cheaper. After much deliberation, I booked my Advanced Course and Parul booked her Discover Scuba (yet again 😛). Parul even bought a flashy pink one-piece which was bolder than her usual style. Once again, Norma did a brilliant job at convincing her of how amazing she was looking in it (I had said as much but clearly I suck at sales 😑).
We sat in a small shop to have some mezcal and dinner. I had a feeling that Mahahual was going to be delightful 😄 We walked back in the dark along the beach, looking at the eerily closed town which seemed in a state of abandonment.
The next morning started a little later than I am used to for diving. When we reached the dive shop, we found it open and bustling. Parul went to the shallow part of the beach for her usual drills of DSD with Norma. I met up with Auden, my Canadian instructor who would be teaching me the advanced skills. She told me about the course structure and what all we would be covering and helped me download the relevant material online (the SSI app is pretty great!). Jorge, the shop owner, was there - a eternally amusing personality full of light hearted comments and laughs. We also met Carlos, the proprietor of the hotel we were putting up in. He was doing his rescue diving course here. All in all, this place felt very homely. There was no formal feeling of being in a “shop”.
We were joined by a French family for our first round of dives. They were a well travelled bunch who lived in South Africa. The man was a bush wildlife photographer and the woman was a HIV doctor. The son was a well behaved teen who was overly enthusiastic about the water. They had some amazing stories to share and told us about this once when they were diving in Cuba and one of their equipment started leaking air. The instructor simply patched it with a duct-tape underwater and resumed the dive as usual 😂 We also found out about Jorge’s amazing underwater photography skills!
This section will not have many photographs since our underwater gear is rather limited. We hope to get it soon though. Diving shows you such beautiful things!
My first dive was hardly what I was expecting. Auden and I went to a shallower sandy part to practice my buoyancy. This was something I had always thought I was good at. Turned out, I was just good at fiddling with the BCD. The forty minutes underwater were a struggle as I miserably failed at the exercises that Auden was asking me to do. So engrossed did I become in all of this that I forgot to check my tank’s pressure and while we were wrapping up at the safety stop, I felt a lack of air in my tank. I checked and it was in the “red zone”. I panicked that I was running out of air and told Auden as much. She seemed a bit nonchalant about it and I assumed it was because of my miserable performance at the buoyancy skills 😑 I told her I was going up and she nodded assent. I surfaced and tried to inflate my BCD. Did not happen so I assumed I was all out of air and tried manually inflating it. Auden surfaced by this time and swam to me asking what was wrong. “Can you bloody not see!” I said in my head and uttered “Air! I’m out of air!” She pressed the button on my BCD and it inflated alright 😕 “You are not out of air”, she said. “Relax!” The boat picked us up and then Parul and the French family. Auden looked at my dejected face and suggested that we postpone the second dive to the next day. I happily agreed. I needed time to absorb everything. The day had been humbling, to put it mildly.
For Parul, on the other hand, things had gone as smooth as usual. Norma and Jorge were so surprised and impressed at Parul’s calmness underwater that they took it upon themselves to teach her how to swim. There was a small pool behind the dive center and they gave her a few lessons there. I came intermittently to the sessions on the first day and realised that she was much more confident when I was not around so I just check in from time to time. She was definitely making progress! Much more than I had imagined possible in a single session.
We thanked the guys and bade them goodbye for the day. Auden told me to go through the course material for the next day and then we sat in the shack next door for some lunch.
The town was much more lively today than it had been yesterday. The shops were open and tourists were walking down the street. It was a regular tourist town now! The secret to the transformation was the cruise ship docked at a distance. Mahahual was a regular stop for cruise ships making their way on the eastern coast of the continent. When the cruise ships docked, the taxis plied, the shops opened, the masseurs called out the happy tourists walking the streets, the shacks played loud music to attract patrons. These were mostly American tourists, wide eyed and loud, splurging their dollars and pumping them in the local economy.
We walked back to our hotel to rest. I indulged in the usual game of Civ apart from reading up on the course material for the next day and contemplating about the day that had been. My frustration peaked at the dinner when I was exasperated at the food being the “same” stuff no matter what I ordered 😑
I left the next morning after packing my bags. We had decided to move to a hostel later that day since it would be cheaper and closer to the city center. Parul would join in later since she did not have any dives that day.
I had two lessons - Computer Diving and Navigation. Auden taught me how to use the dive computer to do all the necessary calculations and in the second lesson she taught me how to navigate using a compass and using physical references. The underwater world, which had seemed so uniform and similar in every direction slowly started making itself much more real. I made it a habit to check my gauge and computer at regular intervals, I practiced the buoyancy skills that I had sucked at the day before and improved at them ever so slightly. Auden tried to motivate me between the dives while I kept asking her for ways to improve 😂 This was a much better day that the one before.
By the time my dives ended, Parul had come to the shop as well and was practicing her swimming. She had managed to nail it for a short distance! I guess all she needed was patient teachers (which I am definitely not) and the correct direction (which we had figured in Cambodia).
The town was desolate once again today. We went back to the hotel and stopped for lunch at a taco place nearby. We had another pleasant surprise today. We had recorded a podcast with The Musafir Stories while we were in the USA and they had edited and released the content that day. I sat listening to our memoirs of the Kashmir Great Lakes trek while hogging on some delicious seafood tacos. The day was definitely going much better today.
We returned to the beach later that evening to get Parul to practice her swimming for longer lengths than the pool had allowed. She still grimaced and stopped every time a wave hit her face but I guess she’s doing alright 😆
We ended the night with some fried food and a litre of michelada 😛
The next day’s agenda had two lessons - Deep Diving and Fish Identification. The first was all about the depth and after the last one at Koh Tao, I was a little skeptical about air pockets getting stuck in my ear. It went alright though and we went 29.2 meters deep into the ocean. The next one, Fish Identification, had me perplexed. I had to memorise a few fish varieties from the book, learn their symbols and identify the ones that Auden would point out underwater 😑 I also had to draw the ones I could not thus identify 😂 It was a fun dive and by the end of this one, I was much better practiced in buoyancy, much more aware of the gauge and computer, used my air judiciously; all in all, I was much better at diving! Parul had come diving today and the blue and calm waters of the Carribean coast made for a fantastic day.
We returned to the center and thanked everyone yet again. Both of us had our own special reason for fondly remembering this dive shop. The entire experience of diving in Mahahual had been a relaxing and pleasurable one. The dive center and everyone there made things interesting and exciting. Right from Jorge with his jokes, Auden with her comforting instructions, the captain and his laid back attitude (and love for Gorillaz!); it all seemed to fit in extremely well. I was glad that we dove here and I got my Advanced here rather than elsewhere. It was such a stark difference in experience from the Open Waters in Koh Tao.
That night we hit up a nice Italian place (recommended by Jorge) to celebrate the dives and out personal successes ✌️
The American Sweetheart
Mahahual had been nice but now that we were not diving, we realised that a beach-side place had little to offer us. Plus the accomodation was a bit too expensive to simply dally our days about. So we decided to move on to our next destination, Tulum.
It took a couple of bus changes and something similar in terms of number of hours to reach the town. This was one of those towns that had been recommended by everyone whom we had shared our Mexican plans with. And over the time we had formed an opinion of Tulum in our mind - touristy. And it did turn out to be touristy, heavily so.
We walked from the bus station to the AirBnB we had booked in a quaint neighbourhood. The place was cheap, nice and ample for our needs. There was a kitchen as well, which meant we could cook 💃
We dumped our luggage and left to find some lunch. We settled on an Argentinian place that served empanadas. Tulum, much like Brisas de Zicatela was now home to a lot of travelers and expats. Hence the food here was pretty diverse and comforting.
We did some shopping to stock up the refrigerator and returned to the AirBnB to relax.
Our AirBnB also had two furry denizens. Bob, the dog, hated being patronized, looked at us with suspicion every time we left the room and barked at us for any number of reasons. The cat was a clingy one that wanted to be rubbed and loved. She ran into the room the moment we unlocked the door 😂
We spent our days working indoors. The heat was daunting and the comfort of the room was somnolent. I got hooked to Civ6 (officially addicted by now), ranted on the philosophy of slow-living, completed editing pending pictures from Europe. It was quite a fruitful time spent there. After all the continuously active travel, this was a much needed respite.
Ruins and Beaches
On our second day here, we went to check out the Tulum ruins. The ticket counter had more tourists than we had seen in any Mexican archaeological site as yet. Made sense since the town had more tourists than any other Mexican destination as yet. We walked around the ruins and pretty though they were, they did not seemed justified as archaeological sites. They reminded me of the Goa forts sitting on the cliff overlooking the vast ocean. The hordes of tourists all around made it less charming than the vacant Goa forts though.
There was beach access from the archaeological zone as well (!) which finally explained to me why so many of the tourists were walking around half naked.
Our main attraction at the site, however, were the iguanas! Initially we had mistook them for mere monitor lizards but some online searching had corrected us immediately. Oh and we also saw a raccoon 😆 We clicked a lot of pictures, mostly of the wildlife since the ruins were not as impressive 😛
After the ruins we walked to the Paraiso Beach. We had heard much about this one as well. This beach was having it’s sargassum season as well but tractors were deployed to clear out the weed from the beach. The labourous activity did not allow the beach to look beautiful and hampered the natural process of water cleansing that the sargassum facilitated. The ecological debt of tourism 😑
The beach itself, though nice, was not really as mindblowing as it had been made to be. I guess Clear Water Bay has raised our expectations immensely 😄 Since it was too hot, we cut our time on the beach short that afternoon and mostly sat at a shack sipping on cocktails and munching on nachos.
The next morning I went running along the road all the way to the beach. It was a nice run, mostly because the town had a dedicated walking/cycling lane.
We returned to the Paraiso beach that evening on cycles and spent more time bumming on the beach and trying to swim but giving up because of the itchy weed. The bright moon and the gentle waves were a happy experience. The number of conversations Parul and I have had on such occasions escapes my memory. There was something about mind control in reference to diving which faintly comes back to me, but the rest is gone ☁️
The next day was our last in town. We spent some time hopping cafes and had some dinner at a local place.
Later that evening we went to check out the nightlife of the city for the first time during our stay here. It was interesting indeed but Tulum had already fulfilled our purpose of breaking the active travelling and giving us time to catch up on the pending work.
The next morning we packed up and headed to the bus stand, stopping to grab some breakfast en route.
While we had considered more things to do out here, we decided to hit up the next suggested destination. The lack of public transport and my hesitation to rent a vehicle restricted us from visiting the cenotes around town. We contented ourselves with walking about the town, looking at the amazing street art, eating some delicious food and spend the nights laughing over tequila.
The next from Mexican stories - Part 5.