How are you all doing out there in quarantine land? Staying safe? Not too bored or broke, I hope? Me, can’t complain. In case you don’t know—and why would you?—I don’t live in Mexico anymore. More on that another day.
Two months after Part 1, I’ve finally gotten back to some happy reminiscences about travels in Mexico in 2019. What a year. Despite serious problems and general craziness, Mexico is a wonderful country to travel in. I made the most of it during my ten years there.
In 2019 I went to the Mayan Riviera not once, but two times. The first was in February. I spent the entire time at the beach, at the Barcelo Resort watching three nights of Phish.
Phish is one of several U.S. bands that performs multi-night events at resorts on the Mayan Riviera. The great thing about Phish is that when you see three Phish shows, you’ll see three completely different concerts, without any songs repeated. And it’s always fun to do the all-inclusive thing, especially at a place as huge as the Barcelo. It was a quick mini-vacation with my wife, some friends from Oregon, and my favorite live band in the world.
My next trip to Mexico’s Caribbean coast was last October, when I traveled from Tulum to Chetumal with a stop at Bacalar in between. (Actually, I flew into Cancun, and spent an afternoon in Playa del Carmen on the way to Tulum, so technically I traveled all the way down.) I attended an academic conference in Chetumal, with some fun and adventure in Tulum and Bacalar before.
I’ve been to the Mayan Riviera many times, but that trip was the first time I never even went to the beach. Why? Cenotes!
Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that lead to the underground system of flooded caverns throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. They are nice to swim and snorkel in, but the coolest thing of all is to scuba dive in them, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, anywhere.
A year earlier, also near Tulum, I went scuba diving in cenotes for the first time. It blew my mind, so it was top priority this time around. I went to the same dive shop in Tulum, Space Dive (AKA Dive and Snorkel Tulum, about a block from the ADO bus station), for a day of diving with three tanks in two cenotes: Dos Ojos and The Pit.
The previous year I went to Angelita and Dreamgate. All four were phenomenal. I wrote a story about the experience, which I’ll publish on this blog if I can’t sell it. (It’s a bad time for sending stories out, as travel websites have been as hard-hit as travel agencies. So, visit your favorite websites, and click their links!)
The next day in Tulum I rode to Kaan Luum, a lake just south of Tulum with a cenote in the middle, on a cruiser bicycle provided by my beautiful, friendly and affordable hotel. You can see Kaan Luum’s cenote in the photo below; it’s the circle of darker water.
From there I biked on the shoulder of the hot highway farther south to the Muyil archeological site. It had some interesting structures and trails deep into the jungle. Exploring the area after swimming in Kaan Luum was a good way to spend the day, even if riding back on a bicycle under the hot sun was nothing easy.
The following day I took an easy three-hour bus ride to Bacalar, the small town on the huge lake of the same name.
Bacalar is also called the lake of seven colors, because the fresh water glows in different shades of blue and turquoise, depending on the depth of the water and the angle of sun. Wow, how gorgeous. I spent the first day swimming, and the second on a boat trip around the lake.
After Bacalar, I traveled to Chetumal for an academic conference at the large university there.
Many years ago, when I traveled from Cancun to Roatan, Honduras over several months, I passed Bacalar and Chetumal before crossing into Belize, but I didn’t spend any time in either place. I’m glad I did this time, especially for the seafood tacos! Below are fish, shrimp, octopus, and conch (caracol in Spanish.)
Thanks for reading. I will write at least one more post about traveling in Mexico in 2019.
As always, if you are interested in the Mayan Riviera (or Chiapas), please check out my books:
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It’s a tough time for everyone, especially for those involved in the travel industry. And not only those working in it, but anyone with plans to travel or even a desire to travel.
I don’t need to remind you why. We’re constantly reminded why, in different ways for everyone.
Me—with some extra time on my hands, brought on by a two-week quarantine, I’ve finished some old stories about Mexico. But it would seem strange to post them now. How could I do that, but not mention the state of the world today?
Besides, I don’t really have anything to contribute about the state of the world today. Sure, I have my own story, and the time will come for me to share that. But for now, I want to look back on some of the great trips I enjoyed in Mexico in 2019.
And not only Mexico. My wife and I traveled to Cuba last summer, an amazing and eye-opening adventure. Also we took two short trips to the U.S., one to San Francisco and the other to Michigan. One of these days I’ll get around to writing about those, or at least post some photos.
We’ll get through this, and we’ll travel again. There are countless fascinating destinations in Mexico, not to mention the world. Even in my ninth year living in Mexico, 2019, I found new and wonderful places to explore, some of them only an hour or two from my house.
These were some of my favorites:
Zihuatanejo is a beach town on the Pacific Coast, between Acapulco to the southeast and Puerto Vallarta farther northwest. It’s a good alternative to those two more famous beach destinations: cheaper, less developed, and undeniably beautiful, with several beaches and good snorkeling and fishing all along a secluded bay.
I went to scuba dive, among other places at one of the best dive sites in the Mexican Pacific: Los Morros de Potosi, a series of white guano-covered islands surrounded by underwater wildlife. As you can see in the photo above, we saw a humpback whale on our way to go diving.
Grutas de Cacahuamilpa
A few hours south of Mexico City is a national park I’ve passed on many bicycle rides over the winding highways between Toluca (where I lived) and Taxco to the south: Grutas de Cacahuamilpa.
Before I visited the actual cave, in 2018 I hiked and swam down an underground river that exits the mountain nearby. This was an incredible experience of something like eight hours, spent inside a long twisting cave that was mostly the size of a highway tunnel, but with a freezing cold river at the bottom instead of asphalt.
I assumed the Cacahuamilpa Cave would be similar, but when I finally visited in 2019, I was blown away by its size. Chambers that could fit skyscrapers were connected by smaller passages, making for a several hour walk from the entrance and back.
Look closely at the second photo above, and you can see the lit footpath far below the roof of the cave.
Two volcanos tower over Mexico City: Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, often shortened to Izta and Popo. Popo (in the photos above) is active and off-limits, while Izta is dormant, and a long, high-altitude, yet non-technical hike leads to the peak.
My wife and I went hiking in Itza-Popo National Park twice in 2019. The first time we hiked the saddle between the two mountains. I wrote about it here.
A few months later we went straight to Izta and hiked high to its rocky crown. Although we didn’t make it to the highest peak, the Chest, we made it to the high alpine area, summiting the First Knee (5,034 meters, 16,515 feet).
Iztaccíhuatl means “white woman,” and its peaks are named after parts of her body. The photo below shows Itza from the trailhead. The First Knee is a tiny bump slightly to the right of the highest point you can see in the picture:
Well, that’s it for now. Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment if you want tips about visiting these places, or if you’ve visited already. You can fly or take a bus to Zihuatanejo, but you’ll need a car for Cacahuamilpa or Itza-Popo National Park.
Soon I’ll add a second part about more destinations in Mexico, such as other hiking spots and some places in the Mayan Riviera. Also, check out two I already wrote, about a butterfly sanctuary and a bike ride to Valle de Bravo.
Stay safe out there!
Mexico’s discount airlines and general airport information
Updated January 2020
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Unless you enjoy excessive air conditioning, bad movies in loud Spanish, or sleeping sitting up, don’t take a long-distance bus between major cities in Mexico, at least not before checking the price of domestic flights.
This isn’t because long distance buses are dangerous or unreasonably uncomfortable. In fact, for most independent travelers in Mexico, the bus is the way to go. A variety of bus companies with competitive prices travel all over the country, and riding them can be a fun experience that brings you closer to the locals. Second- and third-class buses are often surprisingly cheap, and though expensive, first-class buses are much nicer than Greyhound, with big reclining seats and plenty of legroom.
But a flight from, say, Mexico City to Cancun is bound to be cheaper than the first-class…
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