Today we were changing countries, travelling north from Caye Caulker in Belize to Tulum
in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
We woke early at 5am and organised our packs for the long travel day ahead. We were heading to Tulum, so we had six hours of travel and a potentially lengthy border crossing ahead. We checked out of Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel at 6:30am, picked up the breakfast packs we had pre-ordered the day before from Amor y Cafe and made our way to the jetty on the beachfront. We left Caye Caulker around 7am and sped across the Caribbean Sea in an open water taxi to Belize City, arriving around 8am. We collected our bags, loaded them into a small minibus and left at 8:30am. We eventually found ourselves travelling Belize’s Northern Highway on our way to Mexico.
Our minibus was having a few heating problems, so the driver had to slow to 70km to avoid the whole underbody of the minibus overheating. We could hardly keep our feet on the floor of the bus, but at the slower speed the heat disappeared. After a quick break at 10:30am, we continued until we arrived at Belizean/Mexican border at 11:30am.
The first part of the border crossing was easy – we paid our exit fee, had our passports stamped and then walked into a holding area where we changed our Belizean dollars into Mexican pesos by wrapping the dollars up, poking them through a wire fence and a guy standing on the outside slipped us the converted pesos back through the fence. He gave us the market exchange rate, so I’m not sure how he was making anything on the transfer.
The second part of the border crossing was just as easy, but much, much longer. We picked up an immigration form at one building, walked to a second building and found ourselves at the back of a very long queue. We filled out the form as we stood in the line, and it was sweltering – the building had no air conditioning, and we were wilting at a rate of knots. We eventually reached two immigration officers at a tiny counter, handed over our passports and they waved us through with a smile. We then walked to a third building to have our packs scanned. After the scan, we had to press a large button which randomly turned
a green or red light on. If the light went green, you were right to go, but if it went red, you had to open your packs up for inspection. My light turned red – Ren’s went green. The customs officer was almost apologetic, but he had to thoroughly inspect my pack. This was a very easy crossing, and the staff were very friendly, which was in contrast to the stories I had heard about complicated land border crossings from Belize to Mexico.
We walked out of the third building and found ourselves in Mexico – we were finally here! We put our clocks forward an hour and jumped into a minibus and headed to Laguna Bacalar for lunch at La Playita, a lakeside restaurant. We arrived at 2:45pm, settled at our table and ordered our first tacos in Mexico – al pastor marlin
tacos (marlin marinated in axiote sauce) and arrachera steak
tacos (grilled skirt steak cubes). I cooled down with a draught beer, while Ren went for a agua de horchata
(milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon).
The food was incredible. The marlin tacos tasted like tender pulled pork, and the steak tacos were smoky
and delicious. This was the Mexican food we had been craving, and we couldn’t believe we were tasting it at the first place we stopped. While we waited for the food, Ren went into the lake to cool down, while I sat at the table with a cold beer and captured the border crossing while it was still fresh in my memory. We finished the incredible taco meal and then jumped back into the minibus for the final three hours of our trip to Tulum. As we drove, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the Mexican and Belizean landscapes, and nor could I help reflecting on the difference in service levels in restaurants – one offering incredible service, and one more laze fare in its approach.
We arrived in Tulum at 8pm, and our first stop was an ATM to withdraw some Mexican pesos. We then headed to Villa Tulum – our hotel for the next two days. We checked in, dropped our packs and headed straight over the road to an impressive supermarket. It was 9pm, and we’d been travelling since 7am, so we needed some drinks and snacks. Sixteen hours travel with a land border
crossing into Mexico is not to be baulked at – we were exhausted. We walked back to our room, enjoyed the chicken and chilli empanadas, jalapeno
chips and a strange egg and ham pastry that we’d picked up from the supermarket and finally crashed at midnight.
We woke at 7am – it was the first time we had slept in since we arrived in Central America. We walked into the township of Tulum for breakfast at 9am, and found ourselves in Don Cafeto. Ren ordered the Maya breakfast (desayundo Maya), which included coffee, juice, toast and huevos motulenos
(fried eggs on fried tortillas with cheese, peas, turkey ham and salsa), while I went for a mixed fruit liquados
(smoothies) and the fruit salad, yoghurt and granola. Both were fantastic, as was the atmosphere in the cafe. Locals and tourists were queuing to get in to the place, so we finished our breakfast and walked the streets of Tulum for a while before heading back to the hotel. With the beach a major drawcard at Tulum, we jumped into a taxi at 11am and made the 3km trip to Paradsio, one of the few public beaches where you can access
the beach from the road. The sun was intense as we walked on the beach, trying to find a place in the shade to settle.
We couldn’t really find anywhere, so we decided to walk to the other end of the beach. We didn’t get far – it was too far and too hot. Luckily a taxi drove past just at the moment we realised we were a little lost, overheated and isolated. We jumped in and headed to the non-public end of the beach strip where we lucked upon Hemingway Romantic Resort. There was hardly anyone on the beach, and we had free access to deck chairs, hammocks and swinging beds – all we had to do was buy a beer and mojito! Ren picked up some fresh mango with chilli and lime from a beach vendor, and we met a Mexican couple with a dog (Mestiza). They were celebrating their first anniversary, and they had brought their 11 year old kelpie-lookalike to the beach to celebrate with them.
After an incredibly relaxing time swimming in the Caribbean and relaxing on our swinging bed, we headed back to the hotel around 3pm. We caught up on our
travel writing, organised our packs for the following day and headed out to La Chipaneca for dinner. This place is well known for its tacos, and they were fantastic. We ordered an al pastor
(sirloin) and pollo
(chicken) taco each. When they arrived, we took our plates up to a communal condiments table and added guacamole, habanero
chilli (seriously hot), white onions, slaw and fresh lime juice. The taste was deliciously fresh, and the chilli nearly blew my head off! We also tried a sope
(thick tortilla with pinched up sides) with al pastor
and a panuchos
(fried tortilla with beans in the dough) with asada
, and we cooled down with coke, as they didn’t serve beer. Another great taco meal!
On our way back to the hotel, Ren picked up an ice cream to continue cooling the chilli. We dropped into a little music shop selling bossa and lounge Mexican CDs, which also had a lot of interesting art, including the ubiquitous works of Frida Kahlo. I tried to pick up some beer at the 7/11 closest to our hotel, but they couldn’t sell it to me because it was a Sunday. I’ll need to plan
my Sundays from now on!
After yet another great relaxing travel day, we edited the Tikal blog, selected a few photos and crashed at 11:30pm. We were heading to Playa del Carmen in the morning (via the Tulum ruins and a couple of swimming stops), and we had a reasonably late start (9am), so we had time to relax in the morning.
We woke at 6am, organised a separate pack for the day ahead and ended up having breakfast at the hotel, as nothing else was open (due to a public holiday). Our disappointment was short-lived, because the hotel restaurant was fantastic. I ordered the Caribbean (fruit, granola and yoghurt with coffee) and Ren ordered the huevos motulenos
(eggs with peas and ham). Ren also had the green juice (chaya, pineapple and honey), which was very refreshing.
We loaded our bags into a minibus, left the hotel at 9am and drove a short distance (no more than 10 minutes) to the Tulum ruins, which are located on the coastline of Tulum. We had seen the ruins the day before when we were exploring the beachfront. We wandered around in the searing heat of the early morning sun,
taking photos of ruins and iguanas while trying to avoid the hordes of tourists who were wandering around the ruins doing exactly the same. We realised how lucky we had been in Tikal National Park, where we had experienced the Maya ruins with virtually no-one else in sight.
We walked back to the minibus and continued our journey northeast through the ‘Maya Riverina’ towards Playa del Carmen. We stopped at a beach and went on a snorkelling tour, where we swam with stingrays and turtles. This was an incredible experience, as the turtles (who were grazing on the seabed) would slowly rise to the surface to breath, giving you a sideways glance on the way up. I was amazed by the way they used their feet to brush their face, in the same way that Mia (our cat) cleans her whiskers after a meal. The beach was crowded with snorkelers, and I seemed to be bumping into a lot of people, but I didn’t mind in the least.
After about an hour we swam back to the beach, jumped into our minibus and headed to a cenotes, eating ham, salami and jalapeno
baguettes on the way. Cenotes are
natural sinkholes, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has about 6,000 of them. We turned off the highway into a dirt track, climbed out of the minibus, walked to a rock ledge five metres above the water and jumped into the cool waters below. It was very refreshing. Ren also ventured into the cool water of the cenotes, and enjoyed the small fish nibbling at her toes.
Feeling suitably refreshed, we jumped into the minibus and headed northeast to Playa del Carmen. SHE SAID...
Our time in Caye Caulker and Belize had ended and we were travelling to the Mexican border and heading to Tulum
. Early in the morning (about 6.30am!) we headed to the water taxi terminal, and on the way we picked up our pre-ordered packed breakfasts of grilled sandwiches from Amor y Cafe. The cafe made its own bread, and my cheese and tomato sandwich was delicious.
The 7am ferry to Belize City was running late, which gave me the chance to befriend the ferry terminal’s puppy who we named Brownie for her brindle colouring. She knew how to work the crowd and could pick the people who had breakfast scraps for her. In
between sniffing out food, she would come over for a pat and a cuddle. She was seriously gorgeous and reminded me of our Oliver very much.
The ferry ride was lovely. I was more alert for the return trip to Belize City than I had been a few days ago, and I got to appreciate how beautiful this part of the world is. At the ferry terminal in Belize City we were picked up by a minibus which took us to the Mexican border. We drove through sugarcane country and shared the road with trucks transporting loads of harvested sugarcane to a big cane processing factory we’d driven past. The factory was apparently run on bio fuel from burning the sugarcane plant after the canes were harvested.
The border crossing was a lot more involved than when we crossed from Guatemala to Belize. We got off the minibus and walked with our luggage to a building where we received our immigration forms. Then we joined an enormous queue in a second building where our paperwork was processed. It was hot and we shuffled along the queue in a daze. The actually processing by the smiling officer only took
a minute and we exited that purgatory of a place to a third and final building for customs. I had expected this to be the most difficult part of the border crossing, but we entered a beautifully air conditioned building with a lone friendly officer. We scanned our bags and then pressed the ‘random search’ button. Andrew was first and got a red light, and had to have his bags searched. I got a green light. As more of us filtered into the room, the random search button became a source of entertainment – red lights got an ‘ahhhh!’ and green lights got a ‘yeeey!’ The officer on duty was quite amused by our behaviour. 😊
We were on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the State of Quintana Roo, which is known for its beautiful beaches and Maya ruins – with Tulum boasting having both, and in close proximity. The Yucatan Peninsula was a Maya stronghold at one point, and we’d been told that this is where we could expect to find the best connection with native Maya customs and ingredients. In Mexico today, the largest ethnic group by far is the Mestizos who are of
mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, followed by the indigenas
populations (there are more than 50 recognised groups of pre-Hispanic indigenous inhabitants). The largest indigenous group is the Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs), followed by the Maya, Zapotecs and Mixtecs.
After crossing the border we headed to the freshwater Laguna Bacalar for a lunch stop at La Playita. We drove through some surprisingly lush green countryside with scatterings of small villages along the way. I had a quick dip in the refreshing turquoise lake while we waited for lunch – our first meal in Mexico. As a long time taco fiend and sunshine worshiper, I’ve been dreaming of coming to Mexico to eat tacos for a very long time, and here we were! Andrew and I shared the al pastor marlin
tacos (marlin marinated in axiote sauce) and arrachera steak
tacos (grilled skirt steak cubes), which were delicious beyond words. If this was a sign of things to come in Mexico, we were going to return home a few sizes larger after this trip.
On our drive from the border to the lake and onto to Tulum, we noticed a stark difference between the Belizean landscape and Mexico. I
know we were in the tourist heavy Riviera Maya part of Mexico, but Mexico was very noticeably much richer than Belize and Guatemala. The roads were better, the buildings were bigger and the cars were newer.
Tulum is advertised as a beach paradise on the Caribbean coast. Tulum probably wasn’t our best introduction to Mexico, but its reputation had preceded it and so we were prepared for its resort nature. However, we were surprised that it had a very laid back hippie and almost rustic feel too.
We arrived at Hotel Villa Tulum at 8pm. It had been a super long day of travel and we were too tired to do anything other than have a quick dinner and go to bed. We walked to the giant supermarket across the road from the hotel and bought chicken and cheese empanadas and a strange sweet pastry with ham and cheese. I also really enjoyed a cherry coke – a flavour from my childhood.
We started our next day as we would a Sunday at home, with a sleep-in and a long breakfast. Even though I liked Tulum, the charm of the city was somewhat lessened by the fact
that the main part of town straddles the highway. We walked most of the main street while searching for a place for breakfast and stumbled upon Don Cafeto which had mainly locals in it. I ordered the Maya breakfast which consisted of a coffee, juice, huevos motulenos
(a popular breakfast in the Yucatan region – fried eggs on fried tortillas with cheese, peas, turkey ham, salsa, a slaw and fried plantains). It was large enough to feed two people and I was glad Andrew had only ordered fruit, yoghurt and granola, as there was no way I was able to finish even half of it on my own. The food was fabulous and we weren’t surprised that by the time we’d finished, there was a queue to get a table. We realised that we’d just beaten the Sunday post mass crowd from the nearby church. It was also the Labor Day long weekend, which added to the number of people out and about.
Having acquired a taste for soaking up sunshine in balmy Belize, I was ready to experience the same on Mexico’s white sandy beaches, so later that morning we visited the beach. Very much like in Belize,
Mexico’s Caribbean coastline has expanses of blue water and plenty of sunshine. However, the number of people on this side of the border somewhat took away from the laid back Caribbean feel that was inescapable in Belize. We caught a taxi to Paradiso beach, and from there we walked the entire length of the beach until rocks prevented us from going any further, where we had to duck back onto the hot road for a little while.
We walked into Hemingway’s Romantic Resort, ordered a mojito and a beer and used their swing bed to while away the afternoon… with coconut trees, cotton ball clouds and ethereal blue calm water as our primary view. 😄
Even though the beaches are techinically open to the public, the fact that all the hotels and restaurants are built in a row along the beaches means you can’t access a beach unless you enter one of the properties. This annoyed me a bit, but for the price of two drinks we had unlimited access to a near empty stretch of beach, so we were happy. I couldn’t resist buying some mango with chilli and lime from a guy who was working the
beach, the price was exorbitant, but hey, it was delivered to our swing bed!
Just down from us, we noticed a young couple and their Kelpie-like dog having a picnic on the beach. We started talking with the couple when I went up to ask if I could pat their dog – they had come up from Cancun for the long weekend to celebrate their one year anniversary, and 11 year old Mestiza went everywhere with them.
We returned back to the hotel at 4pm. My hair was matted with sea spray and I was thoroughly sunned out, so I desperately needed a shower and heavy air conditioning.
That night Sophie took us out to dinner at La Chiapaneca. This was a thriving taqueria
(a place that sells tacos) that originally started out as a taco stand, but expanded into two small no-frills rooms with a small kitchen. We had to scramble for tables, as there were lots of people, but it also had a high turnover. The tacos were only 7pesos each so we tried a range – al pastor
(sirloin) and pollo
(chicken). Andrew’s favourite was the asada, while mine was the al
pastor. We also tried a sope
(thick tortilla with piched up sides) with al pastor
and a panuchos
(fried tortilla with beans in the dough) with asada
. My favourite thing about this place was the condiment table with stone bowls full of guacamole, habanero
chile sauce, chopped white onions with coriander leaves/cilantro, slaw, sliced radishes and fresh lime. I love this way of eating, and I’m looking forward to trying more taquerias
while we are in Mexico.
The next day we breakfasted early at the hotel restaurant, as we had a full day of exploration before travelling on. I’d loved my huevos motulenos
so much the day before that I ordered it again. I can see that this dish may replace my favourite breakfast of huevos rancheros
! I also tried a chaya
and pineapple juice that was delicious. Chaya
is a green five-pointed spinach-like tree leaf that is considered a Maya super food.
After breakfast we visited the Tulum ruins. It wasn’t as early in the morning as we had planned, because our driver was an hour late. As our bad luck would have it, we got there just behind a very very large group, which made working
our way through the ruins a bit tedious. Every cruise ship that docks in nearby Cozumel offers a day trip to Tulum, along with every resort from Cancun to Tulum, so it was very packed.
The ruins sit dramatically atop a cliff, amid palm fringed beaches and turquoise waters. A very different setting to the thick forested Guatemalan Maya ruins of Tikal we’d visited. Given all the rampant marketing for the Tulum ruins, I was surprised that the site was much smaller than I had expected. While the buildings weren’t as striking as I had thought they would be, it was still an interesting place to visit. And the large iguanas wandering around the ruins added to the atmosphere.
Also included in the visit to the ruins was a snorkelling trip to Turtle Bay. I had planned on going into the water and attempting to spot some turtles, but when I got there and saw the less than direable set up, and the fact that the snorkelling was over coral… I decided to sit it out. I really loved that Andrew got to swim in the warm water and have close encounters with turtles and sting rays.
Judging from the two tourism experiences we had had in Mexico so far, I would say that tourism in Mexico seems to be somewhat unchecked. The model used is very much based on demand and supply with no sustainability principles applied. I hope I’m wrong.
Our last stop for the day was at the Azul Cenote (cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes). It was an open cenote with a cave roof over one side of it. The water was emerald green and Andrew couldn’t help himself and jumped in from the top. I chose the more conservative entry and walked down the somewhat slippery steps and got into the cold but super refreshing water with Andrew’s help. It was a gorgeous setting and a lovely way to end our day.
Next we travel northeast to Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo, Mexico.
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