Mexican Caribbean – Cenotes, local hospitality, snorkeling, chilling boss style

I’m now finishing up my time on this trip in the Mexican Peninsula. What a great part of the world!

Recent highlights:

Getting off the heavily beaten tourist and backpacker trail – connecting with locals again and enjoying their hospitality and genuine human friendliness. I’ve met some great people who have gone out of their way to offer assistance. From getting a free bus ride from Semuc Champey to Coban on a premier bus with AC (after chatting to one of the locals on the back of a 4×4), to getting offers for free accommodation with the sister of a restaurant owner I had spoken to in Chetumal, then offers of a free local tour guide in Valladolid and many others. The further away from the tourist trail you are, the more exotic you must seem to the locals (and perhaps the more in need of assistance)

Cenotes! Before this trip I didn’t know what a Cenote was, but now it is one of the favourite things I’ve seen in Mexico. For those who don’t know, they are basically like sunken holes into the earth filled with water (often crystal clear cool water), they have come about due to the type of rock that this part of Mexico sits on and how it has only recently been pushed above the ocean level. There are hundreds and hundreds of these Cenotes in Mexico (perhaps thousands?), and many of them have few touristic layers of expenditure you need to get through to visit – you just need a local to tell you where they are.

Serious chilling at Laguna Bacalar – this place is the most chilled town I’ve been to in the Americas. Everything was chilled and relaxed and it is sitting on a beautiful freshwater lake. After one night I had to keep moving as I was fearful I was get stuck there! But if I was ever going to host a meditation or yoga retreat…

Snorkeling and beautiful beaches – the beaches here are genuinely spectacular. The sand, water color and temperature, the marine wildlife and coral reefs.. I stayed at 5 different coastal cities, but by far and away my favorite experience was snorkeling at Akumal. I met a guy from Texas who loved snorkeling and was looking for a snorkeling buddy to head out with (his girlfriend was afraid to), he knew where to go and had gear on offer – perfect! We went out for a solid 2 hours session, saw around 10 massive turtles up close, then founds some schools of fish, and some corals. It was my first real snorkeling experience and I loved it. I tried to replicate that experience up in Cancun and at later islands but I think Akumal is where it is at!

Other highlights were seeing some more Mayan ruins including the obligatory and probably over- hyped Chichen Itza, hanging out in the separate cities of Flores and Coban in Guatemala.

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Local Cenote (Oxman) near Valladolid. I had this to myself for over an hour. I did swim but was weary to dive into unsure about the depth… turned out the reason why I can’t see the bottom is that is another 67 meters down!

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Semuc Champey before swimming in the lovely cool water..

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Laguna Bacalar – our own jetti complete with multiple hammocks and shelter. Spend a lot of my day here after kayaking across the lake.

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Tulum ruins, Mayan Ruins in a picturesque location. It was basically a walled City on next to a low cliff. Beautiful stuff, and the water was pretty nice too.

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Chichen Itza. Impressive large site, but very heavilly touristed. Fortunately I was one of the very first few people there and avoided the crowds and heat.

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Serpent heads in Chichen Itza.

Mexico Yacutan and Chiapas – Mayan ruins, jungle and heat

Yucatan heat (ala Hot Yoga for a City) –

I started this trip off in Merida, landing close to midnight – as soon as stepping off the plane the heat and humidity hit full force. The temps were around 38 degrees, and hardly dropped overnight. Over the next few days I would turn into a water processing machine – drinking upwards of 4 liters of water a day and just sweating it out. The outside temp felt like an ongoing Hot Yoga class. It was noteworthy seeing the locals wearing pants (all of them) even in the middle of the day, most hardcore were the machine gun toting police at checkpoints, who were decked out in plain black long sleeved overalls! And they didn’t even look like they were sweating!

Mayan ruins (surprises) –

Over the next week I would check out three Mayan sites. Uxmal, Edzna and Palenque. These were all unique and each fascinating in their own way. Having previously not known much at all about the Mayan civilization, I was surprised firstly at how many ruins there are in Central America, many still undiscovered or not yet excavated – seeing them all is simply an impossibility (there are hundreds) so I’ll pick around 7 interesting sites for this trip. Secondly, I was surprised at how well many of the buildings had stood the test of time. For example, in Edzna there is a 6 story building that was apparently built almost 1500 years ago, without any metals, and it is still in good condition. For all sites so far I’ve been practically the first person there in the morning – before the crowds come in. It is well worth the effort, escaping the heat, the crowds, and also the sites are more picturesque with the morning sun.

Safe cities (touch wood) –

All we really hear about Mexico on the mainstream news is really about either drug murders, or about the border crossing with the US. As it is with many places, once you actually go there – you can dispel the myths and make up your own mind. Having said this – I did choose an extremely safe and sheltered part of Mexico to start this trip and so far on this trip I’ve felt completely safe. Also I am going to completely avoid the known places to be very dangerous in Central America, such as Honduras, El Salvador and parts of other countries.

Merida was a flat, hot, green, and lively City. Campeche was a beautiful beach side city, with the downtown inside a big walled fort build back in the 1600s – it had a lot of charm and not many white foreigners at all. Palenque has a chunk of hostels in the jungle next to the ruins, these were great – like stepping into a different world for a couple of days. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any mosquitoes there (not sure why). San Cristobal was charming City in the hills, with big markets and heavy Mayan populations. It was interesting to read about the Zapista movement – and to see some of the postcards and touristy items that were being sold. Some juxtapositions and contradictions, like foreign owned tourist stores selling t-shirts of Che Gueverra… Anyway it was interesting to learn more about was some of the Rage Against the Machine early songs were based on.

An intense week to start with,.. looking forward to finding a spot to chill a bit soon.

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First 18,000ft climb – Pico De Orizaba, Mexico

While studying at Duke University I joined a group (BOLD – Building Outdoor Leaders and Doers) which among other, sets out to tackle a physical challenge each year, and along the way learn new leadership skills. This year the challenge was to climb a 18,491 ft peak in Mexico, Pico De Orizaba ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pico_de_Orizaba). It is actually the 13th highest peak in the world by prominence so no walk in the park!

Preparation

I was coming off a good base level of fitness as I had been training for the NYC Marathon just a couple of months earlier. For this ascent we needed to pick up some new technical skills (using ‘clamp ons’, pick axes, working in small groups etc) and we needed to arrive earlier to acclimatize to the altitude which was going to be one of the major challenges.

We arrived in Mexico around 5 days before the ascent, spent a couple of days exploring the local Cities. We enjoyed Xmas? NYE? In Puebla, and and did a ‘warm up’ ascent of La Malinche (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malintzin) to start acclimatizing. This totally wiped me out! Then it was time to gear up and get ready for the main ascent.

Attempted ascent

We woke in a lodge on the side of the mountain nice and early, 12:30am. Had some soup and other snacks, got geared up and then started the climb. For the first 6 hours or so we needed our torches, the climb started on rocky trails, then gradually had more snow, then finally we needed to put on your cramp-ons for the ice. At this point it was starting to get very steep. It was approx 50 degrees and we were carving flat switchbacks.

Our team had been split across seven groups (approx 4 in each group, connected by a single rope, and with a guide), by early the distance between the fastest and slowest groups, started increasing, and there were some calls for us to turn back. But as a whole, we decided to keep pushing.

Ice storm!

In the mid morning we were hit by a nasty Ice storm. I’ve never experienced one of these before and didn’t really know what they were. Basically, it was raining ice! The ice would just hit you and stick. I built a nice ice layer on top of my hood. This was pretty extreme and in additional our visibility dropped significantly which added some extra dangers for our group. After a few more group discussions we made the hard decision to turn around and head back down… the guides told us this ice storm was pretty rare. However we were told we had made it to 18,000 feet (very close to the top!). Perhaps they were just saying that to make us feel better, we couldn’t really tell as the visibility was so bad but I’ll believe them.

We returned the base camp, then back into the City and after a rest enjoyed a final night out. It was disappointing to not make it to the summit, but you need to respect the peaks and know your limits. I loved this challenge and definitely want to tackle more like it in the future.

 

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Pico De Orizaba on a sunny clear day (the weather wasn’t like this when we attempted it!). It is by prominence the 13th highest point in the world.

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Pico la Malinche – at 14,000 footer. This was tough but the views were worth it!

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Some additional warm up exercises in the City of Puebla

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The crew – great bunch of people!

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During the ascent, after the ice storm, during one of our stops. This was pretty brutal and we were struggling at this stage. I’m happy my camera still worked at this stage.

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Some how managed to squeeze a smile for a pic! Notice the layer of ice built on the ice picks, my scarf is a coated in frozen layer of ice (my exhalation freezing), this was definitely a new experience. Also note there is close to zero visibility! it was just white in every direction.