Que Pasa? Me No Pop I

On Monday, we had decided to head inland a little and visit some of Mexico’s most famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. The recommendations we had read were that you should get there early, before the tour buses from the coastal resorts arrived. We decided the easiest way to achieve this was to stay nearby on Monday night and get along early on Tuesday morning. Donald and Azza recommended a couple of places and we plumped for Ik-Kil, a hotel with a cenote on the premises.

On the way there, we stopped off in Valladolid, named for its Spanish counterpart and established in 1545, just fifty-three years after Columbus’ first transatlantic voyage. The reason for our hiatus here was twofold: we wanted some breakfast, and we were keen to visit Casa de los Venados, a private house which also served as a museum of Mexican folk art. We went to the house first and ascertained that the next tour would be at 11:30am, so we sat down for breakfast at a place just around the corner, called Los Portales.

Nourished, we headed back around to the Casa to take our tour. The house was bought as a ruin by an American named John Venator, who decided to retire to Mexico. (All the cool kids are doing it.) As the house was being restored, he started buying Mexican folk art direct from the artists and acquired an extensive collection. He formed a foundation for the artworks and it’s his intention to leave the house and works to the foundation upon his death. Meanwhile, the place is his home.


From the bench in the reception area, with images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (that you can sit on) to the specially commissioned card table in the living room,

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this is a museum where you get up close and personal with the exhibits. There are no roped off areas. The works aren’t buried behind glass or in cabinets. It’s a working private home, where you pass through the sitting rooms, the guest suite bathroom, cross a bridge over the swimming pool and pass by the kitchen counter where the cook was making what smelled like spaghetti bolognese. The art is eclectic, the setup is eccentric, and you should definitely go. Obviously, you can only visit on one of the guided tours, and they take place at 10:00am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm most days.

After our tour, we drove on to Ik Kil, checked in, and were escorted to our bungalow. The setup here was very nice and Ishbel took the camera out on to the porch to see what birds might happen by. She was delighted by what did happen by.


The Mexican Raccoon is also known as the Coatimundi. It may be obscure, but this little fellow led me to today’s post title.

We decided to take a look at the cenote to see if we wanted to have a swim. And promptly decided we didn’t.


There were far too many people in there already for us to want to join them. As we walked back to the bungalow, we encountered a group of Mayan dancers and, of course, we had to get a photo of them with Ishbel.


We had heard that Chichen Itza has a nightly light show at the pyramid so we decided we would head along there early and buy tickets, then have dinner somewhere nearby before the show. Sadly, as has been the case so often for us, the light show takes place from Tuesday to Sunday. I may remember no other Spanish from this trip, but the phrase Martes a Domingo is seared on my memory. We had dinner in a nearby restaurant then headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

When we had checked in, the receptionist had told us that the cenote opened at 8:00am so we decided to grab our snorkels and head up there to see how busy it was.


We spent a half hour swimming around with the entire cenote to ourselves. Very refreshing, and we were certainly awake and ready to face the day by the end of our swim. We showered, changed, breakfasted, and headed along to Chichen Itza. Our cunning plan to beat the tour buses hadn’t been entirely successful as we didn’t arrive until after ten, and there were plenty of buses already there. We bought our tickets and decided to hire a private guide as well to show us around the site. It’s a quite amazing place and was an important city in the Mayan civilization.

DSC_0485Just as we started our tour, there was a torrential tropical downpour. Our guide cleverly positioned us in the shelter of a tree while explaining some of the site’s salient points so we missed the worst of the rain and dried off quickly once it stopped. The tour lasted over an hour and we picked up a lot of information that we would never had gathered on our own so felt the guide was definitely worthwhile.

After Chichen Itza, we decided we would take the jungle road back past Coba, another site of Mayan ruins. About halfway there, the heavens opened and rain started bucketing down. In the UK, it’s fairly well known that the first rain after a dry spell makes roads very slippery. I was in no hurry to get anywhere so I was perfectly comfortable driving at a much reduced speed. Even then, as I drove I could feel the potential for aquaplaning in some of the accumulated puddles on the road. Some of the local drivers don’t share my caution and I was happy to let them pass, although not so happy with some of the places they chose to do so.

Eventually, we arrived at Coba and the rain had not yet relented. We decided to grab a coffee and snack at the restaurant just next door and sat there watching the rain. A couple of chaps wandered up who had been at the top of teh Coba pyramid as the rain started. And it showed. They were utterly drenched, to the extent that Ishbel felt obliged to offer them the use of our travel towels, which they delightedly and eagerly accepted.

The rain threatened to ease off a couple of times, then started again with renewed vigour so we gave up on the idea of Coba and headed back to Donald and Azza’s place. The whole area had experienced the rain and it was actually cool in the evening. So much so that, for the first time in quite a while, Ishbel needed a blanket to sleep under. We have a dive booked for Wednesday morning. Let’s hope the weather clears up.

Reeling in the years

Saturday morning, we packed up to leave Cozumel. We had breakfast then took a taxi along to the ferry terminal. The embarkation was considerably less stressful than on arrival and, before long, we were comfortably ensconced on the modern ferry that traverses the 12 miles to Playa del Carmen in about 45 minutes.

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We had reserved a rental car for the rest of our stay in Mexico from a company called Carflex which combined competitive pricing with the convenience of an office on the pier at Playa del Carmen. They handed over the keys to a Chevrolet Aveo into which we crammed our luggage and set off south to visit our friends.

We first met Donald 35 years ago in Copenhagen, when his first words to us were, “You must be Brian and Ishbel. Would you like a beer?” With a greeting like that, how could we not be friends? We were in Copenhagen visiting mutual friends at the time but we’ve stayed in touch over the years across many different geographies. He has retired from working in the US to live in Chicago with his wife, Azza and they have kindly agreed to host us for the rest of our stay here. Donald greeted us in the traditional manner, so we had a beer and chatted for a while, combining a catch-up on recent events with random reminiscences from years ago.

They live in a beach side community populated by a number of ex-pats and we met a few of them on Saturday evening and enjoyed a delicious meal in the local restaurant where we had a lovely meal as the Caribbean lapped against the beach. After dinner, chatting and drinking continued until, eventually, we all ran out of energy and called it a night.

Ishbel was up early on Sunday morning and went for a walk along the beach. The wind was blowing hard that morning and the sea was quite lively.

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The weather mellowed a little as the morning wore on and, before too long, Ishbel was able to capture this picture of an osprey after it had caught a fish.


The Yucatan Peninsula rests on a bed of limestone. A defining feature of limestone is its porosity: water seeps through the stone and, over time, creates cavities and channels. The caves formed by this erosion are subject to subsidence above, creating sinkholes, similar to the one we saw in Australia. Here, these sinkholes are called cenotes, and were sacred in the pre-Hispanic Mayan culture. The cenotes come in various shapes and sizes. Some are steep sided pits, others look more like rivers with an extensive water course at ground level.

Nowadays, many of the water-filled cenotes are used as swimming holes, or for cave diving. On Sunday, we visited the nearby Casa Cenote, a U-shaped lagoon-like version where we were able to snorkel to our heart’s content. I was so intent on looking for marine life with my eyes focused below the water that I was surprised when I looked up and saw a sign instructing me to go no further without a guide. I decided to turn around and was even more surprised to see a sign I had already passed bearing the legend: “Caution. Crocodile area.”  Donald reassured me later that it was only a small crocodile that lived in the cenote, and it didn’t eat people.

On the way back, we stopped at La Buena Vida in Akumal for a late lunch on the beach. Once again, the food was delicious and there was an added bonus since they had craft beer on draft. Donald and I shared a pitcher of Mundo Maya IPA. We headed back to the house and relaxed for the rest of Sunday. I realise my life hasn’t exactly seen a lot of stress for the last six months, but this beachfront living is particulary relaxing!

The worst travel day ever…

I’m taking the approach of a tabloid sub-editor and using outrageous hyperbole for the title of today’s post. But this was not a fun journey.

The theory was straightforward enough. We were scheduled to leave Lima at 13:05 and arrive in Cancun at 18:42. The plan was to sped a few days on the island of Cozumel, and do some more diving while we were there. I had checked that the ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen on the mainland ran until 11pm, and it was a 45 minute to 1 hour taxi ride from Cancun airport to the ferry terminal. That all sounded like a reasonable contingency cushion so I went ahead and booked our Cozumel hotel for the Tuesday night.

I was aware in advance that this would be our least comfortable flight, since it was the only route in our RTW trip where business class wasn’t available. We were in economy and when I booked it back in October, I knew I’d be able to deal with a single economy flight with all the rest in business.

We were ready to head to the airport on Tuesday morning when Ishbel, jokingly, said “Maybe you should check your email to see if we’re delayed.” After arriving at the airport for our previous flight, from Buenos Aires to Lima, just as we received an email informing us of a 7 hour delay, we thought it prudent to check anyway. And, as luck would have it, we had an email saying we’d been delayed by two and a half hours. This was going to make it tight for the ferry, but still manageable assuming reasonable immigration and baggage experiences.

We delayed our departure by an hour then Uber’ed out to the airport. No priority check-in are bag drop for us so we queued up and, fairly quickly, handed over the bags then headed through the exit formalities to wait airside. We killed some time with window shopping but, eventually, our flight was called.

We were instructed to form two lines: Rows 1-14 and rows 15-29. I could see our plane n the runway and it had steps at the front and back. I also noticed it was an Airbus A320. I’ve flown in this plane many times because BA use it between Glasgow and London, but I always thought of it as a short-haul craft. Interesting that we have it for a five and a half hour journey. Anyway, I assumed that they would start both lines and our line would board at the front and the rest at the back. But no. Everyone from the other line boarded first the we got on. Luckily, there hadn’t been too much use of the overhead bins, so we got my mandolin and Ishbel’s camera bag in there.

We had been allocated seats 11A and 11B, which I hadn’t really thought much about. I let Ishbel take the window seat since she may want to take photos. I was in the middle. Not great, but it’s not the end of the world. Fully loaded, the doors closed, the safety demonstration was performed and off we soared into the wild blue yonder. And, as we soared and with the seat belt lights still illuminated, the lady in front of me decided it was time to recline. She remained in that position for the entire flight. I don’t usually recline my seat but I decided to give myself that extra bit of room and lounge back myself.

I’m in 11B. The emergency exits are in Row 12. You may or may not know that the row in front of the emergency exit – in this case Row 11 – has its recline function disabled so that a reclined seat does not block the exit in the event of an emergency. So I was stuck there with the lady in Row 10 luxuriating in her semi-recumbent position while I sat hunched up for the rest of the journey.

The captain made up some time on the journey so that we landed shortly after 8:00pm in Cancun. And then we waited 20 minutes before a pier became available for us and we trundled over there and finally got the doors open. Ishbel and I are expert in power walking from the plane door to the immigration queue and we were doubly motivated today by the possibility of missing our ferry. There was a short line when we got to immigration and there was one Mexican lady in particular who was the most efficient official we have seen in our travels. She was speed reading and stamping passports at an incredible rate and, before we knew it, we were at her counter and being stamped with alacrity. Excellent. It was now 8:30pm. We can do this!

All we had to do now was wait for the bags to start appearing on Carousel number 2. So we grabbed a couple of baggage carts and scoped out the optimal waiting spot and stood in anticipatory tension, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Another flight arrived and their passengers started coming through immigration. And their bags started appearing on Carousel number 3. Questioning of the nearest unfortunate in a high-vis vest revealed that all the bags from our flight were being checked by customs officials. At 9:40pm, the familiar siren and flashing light signalled the intention of the carousel to start up. And start it did. Bags appeared. Five of them. Then it stopped again. A further five minutes of mounting tension and rising blood pressure and the siren sounded again. The lights flashed and the carousel finally started disgorging its precious cargo. Our bags weren’t the first out, but they arrived.

We loaded everything onto our trolleys then bounded hell for leather towards the exits. Where we encountered another queue. Every single bag, including hand baggage, from every single passenger, was being passed through an x-ray machine before we could exit. We finally reached the front of the queue and hefted our bags onto the belt then scurried round to pick them up again. Charging on, we encountered one last obstacle. There was a random baggage check and you had to press a button. If it was green, off you trotted. If red – a full open bag check lay in your immediate future. My head may have exploded if the red light had come on but fortunately, it was green. It’s now 9:55pm.

The first thing I see upon exit is a currency exchange. Conscious that I have no pesos, I rush towards it in time to see its sole occupant exit and rush towards the toilets. OK – no time to wait for him. Ground transportation is a priority. Ground transportation that will take a credit card. There are counters. I decided randomly on one. It’s just on 10pm.

“I want to get to the ferry terminal at Playa del Carmen. Can you get me there by 11pm?”

“Sure,” is the suspiciously casual reply. Either I’m worrying needlessly or this young lady doesn’t give a damn whether I make it or not. I don’t have time to analyse the nuance of her tone. I pay what she asks and rush outside to find my allocated car. We load all the luggage in the boot and dive into the back seat ready to be whisked ferry-wards. The driver appears to have found some paperwork that needs to be completed before the engine can be turned on. Apoplexy is only just around the corner for me.

Finally the key turns and we’re off. I tell him we need to make the last ferry at 11pm. He wants a good tip if he makes it he says. I agree, without necessarily explicitly revealing that his tip will be paid in a combination of leftover Chilean Pesos and Peruvian Soles. We arrive at the entrance to the terminal at something like 10:53pm. We disgorge ourselves and our luggage and I thrust some random currency into the driver’s hand. Then we start running. And running.

It turns out that the nearest vehicular traffic can get to the ferry is the entrance to a mall which is around 500m from the ferry itself. Eventually, we see a sign pointing up an escalator for ferries to Cozumel. Onward and upward we race and reach the entrance.

“Two returns to Cozumel,” I proudly say.

“No. Ticket office downstairs.”

Ishbel waits with the luggage and I take the stairs two at a time, locate the appropriate booth and acquire the tickets. Back up I go, heart pumping and every ounce of fluid in my body pushing its way through the pores in my forehead. We have tickets!

“You’d better hurry,” say the helpful ticket collectors. We pass through the ticket barrier, then have to go downstairs again. It’s a long pier, and the ferry is at the very far end of it. More running. More sweating. As we near the ferry, they pull up the gangway nearest us. Bastards! We run on. We check te two suitcases and we’re on board. We made it, with the gangway being pulled up behind us. We find seats with a table and slump down. We deserve a beer so I pop to the bar to acquire a couple. It’s cash only. And I still don’t have any pesos. They take US money, but can’t change the $100 bill which is the only thing I have. OK, the beer can wait.

It’s a 45 minute ride to the island and all goes smoothly. We disembark, collect our bags, walk to the exit, then ponder our options. There are no ATMs in view. This doesn’t look like the kind of place where te taxis will take cards. We consider walking. We dismiss walking. Fortunately, there’s a taxi marshal who speaks English. He agrees that we can get a taxi who will take us to an ATM on the way to the hotel. This part of the journey goes smoothly and without a hitch.

We pick up pesos and we drive to the hotel. The check-in process is straightforward and we’ve arrived.

“One last thing,” I say to the gentleman at Reception. “Where can I get a beer?”

“Sorry, sir, but the bar’s closed.”