When the dolphins surfaced next to the ferry I almost went right over the edge. A good omen for our third trip to Mexico, one we’d been aching to make since we fell in love with the Yucatan Peninsula in 1993.
We flew into the island of Cozumel the night before and now are heading across the strait to Playa del Carmen, then towards our final destination south of Tulum. We’re not sure where exactly, just that there are beautiful beaches where you camp on the edge of a crystal blue ocean.
Our original plan was to get to Playa immediately. Senor Frog’s beckons however, and, when you’ve just spent a -30 Celsius New Year’s Eve in Winnipeg, Canada, there is always time to drink a margarita in the humid Yucatan breeze.
Sleeping at Las Ruinas, a campground just off the zocalo, is very much akin to sleeping in a city park. At 50 pesos per night for two people, it’s not a bad deal and right across the street is the best breakfast on Mexico’s east coast. Open 24 hours (and featuring movies nightly on the 28 inchTVs) Caffé Sofia’s delicious buffet of frijoles, huevos con jamon, freshfruit and juices, granola, yoghurt, fried potatoes, chilaquiles and other items is staggeringly affordable at 33 pesos.
Only the best adventurers have a full breakfast before boarding the second-class bus. For approximately 7 pesos each we are packed along with around 40 of our closest new friends onto a bus the size of the one that used to take you to school. If you like danger and exhilaration you will enjoy hurtling south on the 307 and the intimate proximity of your companions ensures that you will not fall over.
The 307 forks just before Tulum, with a road to the ruins winding in the direction of the ocean and the pueblo ahead on the highway. Following the foliage-lined road past the ruins you can find all manner of accommodations, from simple palapas (thatch-roofed) huts, to gorgeous cabins.
We find our home a couple of miles down the road, where a narrow drive wanders off into the bush. Villas Pocal-Votan has been open only since mid-December of 1996-- so new in fact that weare the first campers on their property and they have to make up a new fee for camping: 30 pesos per person per night.
Arturo, practitioner of Buddhism and owner of Villas Pocal-Votan, hasn’t razed his land and the towering coconut palms and surrounding bush and fan palms create a lush oasis sloping down to the blue water.
If you have the US$60 per night,their villas are quite the luxury, with their “moveable wall”, two sections which open like patio doors to reveal the stunning scenery below. Kitschy, but comfortable, are tipis at 150 pesos per night.
Our campsite -- a palm grove perched on a small sandy bluff, over looking the ocean -- is a small, sandy, piece of heaven. During the Mexican winter, the wind blows from the east, giving us the occasional feeling that we’ll soon be parasailing in our tent. The upside is that you don’t need mosquito netting! With our tent, a couple of sleeping bags and our hammocks, we’ve got a spot that is the very picture of beach living. Next time, though, foam mattresses. That sand gets hard.
North of Villas Pocal-Votan, the beach is swallowed up by the pockmarked black limestone that forms the foundation of the peninsula. It’s not true climbing rock, but it provided us with a morning of rough oceanfront hiking and one particularly interesting moment involving a small chasm and a splintering log. Walking down the coastline instead of the road, the boundaries between the cabana properties almost disappear and it really does feel like one big beach community.
Between Cabanas Los Gatos north to El Mirador, just next tothe ruins, broad stretches of white sand offer excellent nude beach prospects but you should consider wearing a waterproof belt pack so you can take your valuables with you.
Even in a place so remote and laid back, there’s still a “downtown”. South of our camp, on the“Tulum strip”, several cabana properties crowd the road, complete with restaurants and a little store. The day ends with utterly delicious fresh fish (and the attentions of a purring cat) at Que Fresco!, just next to Bungalows Zamas. The sky is a blizzard of stars onblack velvet. If you look carefully, you can see the satellites criss-crossing overhead. And, for one brief instant, a falling starblazes in front of us. Another good omen.
Ever feel like you’re being watched? Orenzo, the shameless green parrot of Cabanas Ana Y José, hangs from a rope over my head, eyes fixed on my breakfast. Orenzo’s needs attended to, we receive a short discussion about our trip into the S’ian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, even further south down the gravel road.
Offered by the Amigos del S’ian Ka’an, don’t expect umbrella drinks on this tour. Instead we develop a keen appreciation for an organization whose aim is to make human activity sustainable within a protected area. A two hour tour through the lagoons of S’ianKa’an reveals the sight of an entire family of roseate spoonbills,nesting companionably with herons and cormorants. Another mangrove island holds the remains of a small Mayan temple,alone in the middle of the lagoon. The day wraps up with a swim in an icy cool cenote where the fresh water of the underground rivers mingles with the salty surges from the ocean.
The ruins at Tulum are the remains of the only oceanfront Mayan settlement, rising majestically from the limestone cliff. They told us back at El Mirador that the onlyway to get to the ruins was by the road, you couldn’t walk along the rocky coastline. So we try anway. Stepping carefully and edging around sharp projections, there’s nothing quite like knowing that if you slip, you fall into the churning ocean below. Imagine our surprise when we break
Back on Cozumel now. We’d heard about Hotel Flores from a couple ofdivers on our flight. For $16/U.S. night you get a clean, secure room in downtown San Miguel completewith a ceiling fan and, most imperatively, a hot shower! There is no restaurant on the premises, but you’re downtown-- explore a little.
Muy Mexicano! offers a delicious buffet of Mexican food including pollo mole,chilles rellenos, handbaked tortillas, sopa con chorizo and a multitude of others. Our timing is perfect, the storm we’ve felt brewing finally hits with spectacular horizon-to-horizon lightning and sheets of rain. Very nice not to be in a tent tonight!
If you time it carefully, you can do a complete circuit of the “happyhours” in the downtown area.While San Miguel now boasts both a Planet Hollywood and a Hard RockCafé, we buck the trend and start with the sports bar (look for the papier maiché Dallas Cowboy) then head to Sharky’s, and round off our evening at Carlos & Charlie’s, legendary home of much silliness. If you want to dance, play a little indoor volleyball and generally revel and debauch,this is your place.
One last scooter trip around the island. The east side of Cozumel is barren and beautiful, with mile after deserted mile of white sand beach. A pair of hawks hovers overhead on the thermals, leaving us as we pull into the Paradise Café, newly rebuilt since it blew over in the hurricane of 1995.
Drink a cerveza, listen to a little reggae in the hammock and off again.If you’ve got the energy(and good suspension), take a drive down the sandy road to the lighthouse at the southern most tip of the island -- incredible view!
Cozumel’s beaches are spectacular but for us nothing compares to the atmosphere of Playa Sol. Once you’ve run the gauntlet of hawkers at the entrance, you can lie in the sun, rent a seadoo or play beach volleyball with the local spikers. Today the water is dead calm, affording a perfect view of the fish and ocean floor below. Grouper, angel fish and the occasional ray cluster around sunken stone statues and reef formations while a pair of curious fish follow me around, occasionally drifting up to nibble my toes.
One last dinner at Los Tortugas is a must. Off the main track and unassuming in appearance, prepare for the most incredible lobster and shrimp flambé. Prepared at your table, it is a dramatic and utterly decadent experience. Time left only to head to the airport and catch the X-files (inSpanish) before boarding the flight home.
As it gets shiveringly cold and the snow appears on the ground, it seems highly unfair that only hours before I was digging a spike out of the sand. All we’ve got left are sunburns -- and about a pound of sand in our hair.Good enough.
Seahorse Beach Resort
Hwy 1 - Trinidad