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Journal - 25-Mar-2001, Sunday, Tulum, Xel-Ha, Quintana Roo, Mexico
(Trip: Ruta Maya, Southeast Mexico)

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Click for larger image! Waterbaby. Keywords: backpack,Mexico,travel,overland,camping,camp,bus,autobus,ruins,maya,quintana roo,tulum,cancun,xel-ha,snorkeling,pyramid,sea,sand,beach
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Click for larger image! Tulum. Keywords: backpack,Mexico,travel,overland,camping,camp,bus,autobus,ruins,maya,quintana roo,tulum,cancun,xel-ha,snorkeling,pyramid,sea,sand,beach
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Waterbaby
Tulum
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Getting out of bed, the reason for the droop on my side of the bed is obvious - the mattress is hanging of the edge of the base of the bed! Somehow in my tired state last night, it didn't occur to me to investigate the problem to see if there was a solution!

No matter. The mosquito net did its job. A good nights rest was had. And now I'm about to enjoy my first hot water shower in days. The attendant said it was necessary to wait about 5 minutes for the hot water to come through. I'm standing outdoors, buck naked, and after several minutes the water is still freezing. Was the hot water story the young man's idea of a sick joke?!

But no! Lo and behold, the water starts to run a perfect temperature for showering. Now this is luxury.

We take a taxi to the ruins, keen to arrive before the crowds. The taxi drops us at the entrance at 07:45. The walk to the ruins is about 1 km. There is a 'tractor train' that leaves at 08:00. We decide to walk, with all our stuff, to try and get at least a few people-free photos. The entrance sign says that the park now opens at 7am - not 8am as indicated in the guide - Arghhh!

The walk isn't too bad - the day hasn't heated up yet. At the ruins, we leave our bags with the bathroom attendant.

The ruins are indeed quite interesting. A small city with several fort-like buildings built on top of a cliff, facing the sea. The sea is a sparkling, transparent, green. There are a couple of small beaches at the bases of the low cliffs. The city has a wall around the perimeter - not a common feature in pre-hispanic cities.

The crowds show up pretty quickly, so only a few decent shots can be taken. While the tourists in Chiapas were almost exclusively European, it seems we're now moving away from the 'Euro-tourist' zone, and into US vacation territory. Most of the many tour groups are Americans.

A group of Japanese visitors are climbing on one of the temples, despite the area being roped off, with a clear "no climbing" picture. I try to talk to them but they just look at me and nod, with no intention of moving. I wonder how they'd feel if a group of Mexican tourists started climbing over the Emperor's palace in Japan. A little incensed, I report them to the wardens who promptly attack the group with whistles and hand movements.

I haven't seen Monica for a while and start to look for her earnestly. The small site is now full of people so it's hard to spot an individual. I walk hurriedly around the perimeters and between the buildings searching for her. I'm running around for over 30 minutes, ever more frantic, before I hear her voice calling me. Thank God - I was starting to fear the worse. Apparently Monica had seen me rushing around but thought I was just taking pictures!

The next stop in our rough plan is 'Xel-Ha', a lagoon, turned nature reserve, turned major tourist attraction. The many pamphlets and billboards show amazing snorkeling. It's only about 15 km from here.

The walk back to the main highway is a bit uncomfortable in the sun but we manage. A passing combi picks us from the highway and drops us off at the entrance road to Xel-Ha.

The start of the entrance road is lined with bright green, irrigated grass banks. We walk in the path of the water sprinklers to cool down. The walk from the highway to the park entrance is another kilometer. Iguanas scurry as we trek along the path. A tour van whizzes past every couple of minutes.

At the gates, Monica spies what has become our holy grail - an ATM! Greedily, we crowd inside the small booth and withdraw all the cash we can. The powerful, refrigerator-like, air conditioning enhances the experience considerably!

Much happier, we pay the $20 per person entrance fee and enter the park. We're clearly in gringo territory now, with nary a penny-watching European in sight! Everything is clean, tidy, and well organized with helpful little signs.

There are pools with dolphins. Visitors can swim with them for only $65. We decide to give it a miss today, and instead head to the lockers to dump our bags.

Problem. The lockers are about the size of a high school locker, and not really designed for two backpacks! The staff offer to keep them in their office. It seems like our lucky day.

Snorkeling gear rental costs $8 per person - about normal for tourist areas - and includes a free, new, snorkel. Monica loves this, as the thought of using a second hand snorkel fills her with repulsion!

There are huge quantities of fish, and the underwater camera comes into service. The fact that most of the other visitors are busying themselves with splashing loudly is a bit annoying. Fortunately the fish seem used to it and go on about their business as usual. Swimming away from a small island we spy an incredible fish almost a meter long. Monica takes a few shots before it slowly cruises off.

On the other side of the bay, more wonders await us, including a huge ray gliding along the ocean floor. I'd seen lots of TV programs about rays but never imagined I'd be sharing the sea with one. The feeling is magical.

After half an hour, the cold starts to bite. We head for the sun of the shore. As we prepare to climb the wooden steps out of the water, I suddenly become aware of something in my pocket. A small square which can only be one thing: My wallet!

What a fool! But what luck it didn't fall out. On shore, I open it all up and lay out the bills to dry. In the bright sun this doesn't take long.

Time to upload the camera's memory card so we can take more pictures. Transfer complete, I power up the camera again. Something strange happens; the camera doesn't turn on normally, and gives a cryptic "E18" message on the screen. We try a few times, replace the batteries, etc. but get the same error message. Oops. Just hope it's a temporary, self-curing, problem.

After an overpriced lunch, we follow signs to "Start of the river". We gather it's possible to swim or float down the river, into the lagoon. On the walk, we pass through wooded areas with the odd pretty bird. There are also a few jumping points where the brave can dive 10 meters into the river. We're surprised at the daring of the young children that are jumping repeatedly from the cliff-top, then climbing back up on a rope ladder. Hot from the walk, the clear, green, water of the river looks very tempting!

There is a warning sign next to the jumping points which helpfully states "Do not jump into river if you are unable to swim".

At the start of the river, they have a great system for your belongings. You put everything in a locked bag, which they then transport to a pick-up point near the lagoon - ready for when you arrive. An excellent idea. We pile almost everything in the bag and hand it over. Valuables - cash, credit cards, and two camera memory cards - go into a small waterproof bag to take with us. The waterproof camera still refuses to turn on.

The river water is ice cold and we swim quickly to stay warm. There are a quite a lot of fish in the river but the experience is at best 'nice' rather than 'amazing'. We stop half-way down the river. There is a path leading to two 'cenotes' in the park. A cenote is a lake fed from the clean water of an underground river. They often make great swimming pools and I've previously promised Monica we'll go swimming in one.

I check my waterproof 'wallet'. It's full of water. Terrific - the second soaking my poor pesos have had today. I hope the memory cards will still work. I place each bill, credit card, and memory card between my fingers to try and let them dry out a little as we walk.

The cenotes are quite small and shallow, with green-slimed walls, and home to duck populations. Unfortunately it doesn't look possible (or desirable) to swim here.

Cutting our losses and moving on, I put everything back in the waterproof bag and do a better job of sealing it this time. It seems to work and, after swimming a few meters, the bag is still dry. It also floats - handy should it fall out of my pocket. On the hand, it also tends to float out of my pocket! I decide to hold the bag in my hand instead.

By the time we get to the lagoon, a few minutes later, we're losing interest in swimming. I persuade Monica to at least visit the 'Mayan Cave' at the lagoon's edge. We've seen it noted on the big park maps that are dotted all over the place.

The Mayan cave is a short underground loop that one can swim through. The entrance hole in the lagoon's bank is a few meters across. We swim about 10 meters underground before exiting through another hole in the bank.

The walk back to the main area takes us over a 'floating bridge'. The bridge crosses the mouth of lagoon and ripples up and down with the waves. The shaking takes a bit of getting used to as we wobble the 30 meters across it. At the other end, the staff are throwing dead fish into the water, one at a time. The dash towards the bait is impressive. Maybe fifty half-meter long fish speed directly, from all sides, towards a single point. The movement is faster than the eye can follow. There are few people swimming in the water. Brave folks; those fish look mean and hungry!

We continue walking towards the place where we can pick up our locked bag. I put a hand in my pocket and the bomb drops. My plastic 'wallet' is no longer there. I can remember feeling it in my pocket in the Mayan cave, it must have floated out shortly afterwards. How could I have been so stupid as to leave it in my pocket?!

The next hour or so, before the park closes, is spent searching for a floating plastic bag. It doesn't show up. Worse yet, I lose Monica! In my confused state, I reason that she must have started walking back to the pick-up point for the bag, expecting me to catch up with her. I run off in the same direction but don't find her. I return to the Mayan cave but she's nowhere to be found there either. I feel a panic rising. What if something has happened to her? She's dressed only in a bathing suit - not even shoes.

It's drawing up to 5 pm. We have to collect all our things from the locker office before 5. Monica knows this, so I hope to meet her either at the bag pick-up point or the locker office. There's no sign of her. I pick up the locked bag. Fortunately I had the key around my neck and not in the lost plastic bag!

To save carrying it around, I return the snorkeling gear. Monica still hasn't returned hers. More panic. I head for the lockers - my last stop. Once I claim our bags, I'll have no choice but to wait and pray.

Monica's not there. With a heavy heart I collect our stuff and wait. I sit on a bench like a lost child and pray that God has protected her. It's the longest 15 minutes of my life before Monica comes into view, apparently fine. The relief is enormous.

It's not exactly clear how we lost each other but Monica ended up swimming across the lagoon, while I walked across the bridge. Monica thought it would be quicker to swim than walk but unfortunately it meant our paths never crossed.

We ask at the information office if anyone's handed in my plastic bag wallet. I feel sure it must have been found because it doesn't seem to be in the water. No luck. They give us a phone number to call back in a few days.

We have some urgency to get to a phone/internet service in order to cancel my credit cards. There is a crowd of taxis sitting idly so we ask the price to take us to the edge of town where we saw an internet service. $6. For Mexico, this is really expensive - especially considering the air conditioned combi costs about $1. We walk the kilometer to the highway to take the combi instead.

We're picked up promptly and 15 minutes later arrive at the hotel that offers internet service in big letters. We walk inside the empty bar/reception and ask about getting online. Turns out the service is no longer offered. In fact, looking around, it doesn't appear that much of any kind of service is offered any more. There are some pay phones in the hotel across the street with credit card slogans on them (I still have a couple of credit cards stored in a different bag - the sign of an experienced loser).

I dial the 1-800 number to make the call. An operator answers. I ask how much it costs to make a credit card call to the UK - the location of my bank. They ask for the number. I'm told the number is invalid. They read the number back. The number is correct but their system says it's invalid. I hang up angrily.

Monica, meanwhile, has found a yellow pages that has local numbers for American Express and Visa - the cards I've lost. Great. We call the number for American Express. They give us another number for reporting lost cards. We dial. The person that answers says that the lost card reporting service has closed for the day, and we should call again in the morning! This is unbelievable!

Most worried about the Amex card, which has no spending limit, I call the UK using a $5 phonecard. I just have time report the lost card before the phone card runs out. That's one relief. Now for Visa. The local number asks me to enter the card number. I do so. A recording says "You can cancel this card by dialling the UK on...". So much for a local number.

Monica says that this hotel has internet service for $4 for 1 hour. Although expensive compared to other places, it will work out cheaper than calling the UK. Plus we get to check our mail.

The internet access turns out to be the personal computer of the owner's son (or so we guess). Luckily the passwords are saved, and so we're able to dial up. The connection is horribly slow.

It takes about 15 minutes before I'm able to enter my bank's website and report the lost card. At last it works and now both the lost cards have been reported. We can relax a little.

On Canon's website we report the problem with the camera, which is still refusing to power-up properly. Hopefully we'll get a quick response, with a solution, so we can continue to use the camera on the journey.

Once the hour online is up, we head outside to wait for the bus. Monica had told me earlier that there was a bus to Chetumal, on the border with Belize, at 19:45. I try to re-confirm this with her but she says she doesn't remember. The information came from some guys at the bus stop in the morning.

Rather than wait hopelessly in the night, I suggest she call the bus company. We're undecided between going to Cancun, to the north, or Chetumal, to the south. Cancun is good because it's bigger, more prosperous, and therefore more likely to have a vaccine we need. On the other hand, it's an expensive tourist destination. After today I feel like I've had my fill of expensive tourist destinations!

Monica returns from making the call. The next bus to Chetumál is at 11 pm. There is a bus to Cancun in 5 minutes. We decide to go to Cancun. As we wait, several buses whiz past on the highway. None seems to show any sign of stopping at the small bus terminal we're waiting in.

Monica calls again. The buses don't stop at this terminal after 6 pm. Now they tell us. The main terminal is about 2 km away. There doesn't seem to be much option but walk. There is another bus for Cancun in an hours time.

"And the water...?", Monica asks as we head off. Somebody else's half-empty bottle sits on the wall.
"I have our water".
Monica looks worried. "Then who's water is that?!".
"I don't know, it was there when we arrived".
"But I drank from that bottle!!!"

At least the bottle looked clean (though it's difficult to tell in the dark!).

The walk is tough going. The night air isn't too hot but our stuff weighs a ton. Now we've got two free snorkels to carry too! A road sign on the two-lane highway says "Tulum 2km".

By the time we come to a sign that says "Tulum 1km", we're practically dying. We've done a lot of 'full-load' walking today and now my back feels ready to break. A taxi passes by and pulls up about 30 meters in front of us. We wave wildly and make towards it. The taxi sits there motionless for about a minute as we catch up, then speeds off. The abuse we yell at the driver doesn't bear repeating!

Plod, plod, plod. We continue, trance-like, along the dark highway, nervous that we'll either be hit by a speeding car, or fall into some deep, unseen, hole. Or attacked by a snake. The only way to keep going is to turn off the brain and concentrate on marching. Plod, plod, plod.

The edge of Tulum looms, with it's bright lights. We recognize the supermarket we bought food from yesterday. It can't be far now. We keep walking, feeling a bit embarrassed, in a town, to be suffering under our heavy loads.

After transversing several street blocks, we still haven't seen the bus terminal. We must have gone past it. We ask a local. "About five blocks further on". Groan. Keep walking. Plod, plod, plod.

We've long missed the bus we were aiming for but they seem to be fairly frequent - Cancun is only a couple of hours away.

Finally reaching the bus terminal, we throw down our packs. I don't feel well. My body is completely enveloped in a thick layer of sweat. I've GOT to change my shirt; I don't care if the last bus this year is about to leave. Monica gets the message as I head to the bathroom, clean shirt in hand.

Splashing cool water over my torso, and donning a dry shirt, feels marvelous. My body no longer feels like it's going to break up - just exhausted.

Back outside, Monica says the next first class bus leaves in 1 hour. Second class buses pass every 15 minutes. I don't fancy the idea of standing in a crowded bus that stops every few minutes, so we wait for the first class bus. Meanwhile I head for snacks.

A block away there's a small store that has some of our staples: Hershey's chocolate milk, biscuits, drinking yogurt, etc., and we gorge on these. Feeling better already. Just think of all the calories we burned.

A second class bus pulls up. It's going to Cancun and doesn't seem too crowded. We hop on. $4 each - not much cheaper than the other bus but this one leaves now!

The bus journey is mostly straight and we sleep a little on the short journey.

As we pull into to Cancun, it feels a bit startling to be in a big city again. Bright lights, crowds of people, everyone moving in 'fast forward'. We hardly know where to turn. The crowd moves us outside the terminal building, where the taxis are picking people up at high speed.

Monica stops to pull out the guide to find a cheap hotel. I opine that we should just ask a taxi to take us to the cheapest place he knows. Monica disagrees, saying the we'll just be taken to his brother's hotel. At this stage, if it has a horizontal bed it will suit me fine. Monica fuddles with the guidebook regardless.

A taxi driver comes over to offer his services. I'm surprised he bothers as there's a steady stream of customers and the rank is moving swiftly. He says he knows a hotel that sometimes has rooms for around $28 (a typical hotel room in Cancun costs over $100). He'll take us there for $2. Cool. We get in. The drive to the hotel is about 5 minutes.

We're in luck. The hotel has a decent room available and we check in. The taxi driver was very friendly and has done us a great service. Maybe Cancun isn't the monster of an expensive tourist resort we thought it was. The taxi drivers in Baja California wouldn't start their engines for less than $5.

The hotel has hot water. We take our second hot shower in two days - might get accustomed to such luxury!

The room is completely sealed for the air conditioning (another luxury), so no fear of mosquitoes (just stale air!). We collapse on the bed, bodies throbbing. The pads of my feet have a numb sensation, like they've received a local anesthetic.

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