MEXICO: In Sickness and In Health

As I will post this blog, it will have been a full year since we came back from our travelling adventures. It perhaps shows what a busy year it has been or maybe explains how long it takes to really reflect on everything that happened. I don’t think we did have enough time to digest it all in those 8 months as even now, looking back at it, it is difficult for me to comprehend all those experiences. We spent the most amount of time in Mexico out of all countries – around 7 weeks – and the same feelings really ring true when I look back at our time there.  So much happened.

But before I talk about our time in Latin America, I feel like this last chapter of our journey really started as soon as our Aero Mexico flight set off of the Japanese soil. This was going to be the longest flight we had ever taken – just over 12 hours – and it would take us all the way from Asia to the Americas crossing the Pacific Ocean. I would have never believed this if someone told me I would be crossing the Pacific in the air at this – and really, any point in my life. I was in awe at all the blue space around our little plane icon on the screen on the flight with a small exception of Hawaii in the middle of it all. Couldn’t help but sing a couple of Jack Johnson’s songs to myself.

There are certain trips in my life, certain places where I saw or tried something new and it changed everything about that thing that I knew before. I feel like I hadn’t really tried bananas until I tried them in Brazil, and I never really had pizza until I had one in Milano. I also never really had seen a sunset before I saw dozens of them in India. This time, however, I realised I had never really experienced a jetlag. From the moment we touched down in Mexico City, it seemed my whole body was just too overwhelmed by that long flight. It took us the longest two hours to make our way to the hostel in the Roma district and although it was early in the day in Mexico, we pass out almost immediately and would feel most awake in the middle of the night for a good few days. Our bodies were drained of all energy whatsoever and we only managed to wander out for a couple of hours in the evenings to find some food. And what food it was! But more about that later.

Looking back through my camera photos, I found the trip consistent with my memory of Mexico – the two months clearly divide into three fragments: quite an unfortunate time in Mexico City and Merida, work experience in an eco farm and the remaining month in Riviera Maya.

MEXICO CITY

Our troubles with jetlag didn’t end there – soon we realised it must have been exaggerated by a heavy cold we both caught in the cold Tokyo air. Not only did this fragmented rest not help but I soon found myself with an ear infection as well. Few days followed of pharmacy visits and doctor searches where I tried to communicate my problem in my broken Spanish.

Needless to say, the five days we had planned in Mexico City were not as expected – it wouldn’t have been enough to see much of this metropolis under normal circumstances but now it felt we really just scratched the surface. Having said that, we were lucky to be staying in Roma – this young and hip area had a vibrant food scene and beautiful neighbourhoods to explore in those couple hours of the day when we mustered the little energy we had. Think farmers’ markets, organic fish taquerias and hipster cafes.

We also visited three other areas in Mexico City which I couldn’t recommend more:

  • Mexico Central with the Zocalo (the central square) – touristy and busy for a reason. The Zocalo is surrounded by a number of historical buildings and sites of interest. Most importantly, however, it plays an important role in every citizen’s life socially and culturally – one angle of this was beautifully covered by John Irving in his book Avenue of Mysteries. Add it to your list.
  • Chapultepec Park – a walk away from Roma, the Chapultepec park is one of the biggest city parks in the Western hemisphere and does not only provide an ecological space in Mexico City but also accommodates for a number of museums and sites. Upon a hill, proudly sits Chapultepec castle which is totally worth a visit.
  • Coyoacan – this bohemian area of Mexico City is mainly known for the Blue House, aka Frida Kahlo museum. However if you are not interested enough to wait in the queue for at least an hour, this area has much more to offer. Sunday is a good day to visit – you can enjoy the weekly artisan market wandering around the area’s cobblestone streets appreciating its colonial architecture and an upscale restaurant scene.

MERIDA

Merida is the capital of Yucatan and has an extraordinary cultural heritage, however it is often overlooked by Western visitors in exchange of Cancun and other more popular party destinations. Don’t be fooled though – Merida attracts a slightly older and a more local crowd but that is what made our visit there much more authentic than the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula. We also happened to stay in Merida during the Semana Santa (Saint Week), the week coming up to Easter. Highly religious, Mexicans regard Easter and the week before as a very important time of the year and to many it means a national holiday and vibrant celebrations to which we were luckily exposed.

The centre point of the city (like most in Mexico) is the main square and this is where a free daily walking tour starts each morning and everyone visiting Merida should do this on their very first day. The guide was engaging and informative, and the two hours spent circling around the city centre gave us much more interesting background information than any museum visit would. The Yucatan Peninsula is rife with history of the Maya people and the areas around Merida were one of the main centres of their civilization. When the conquistadors came, not only did they bring their religion as a means of control but also destroyed many of the Mayan sites and in Merida, they used the stone of the Mayan pyramids to build the square and some of the surrounding plazas of the city. However some of the ancient rituals and ceremonies are still performed and we got to witness an incredible sight of a weekly game of pitz, a Mayan game with a ball and a hoop on a side of a wall played by two teams of incredible skill. The blend of very Christian and Mayan cultures provides for a unique modern community which is celebrated in Merida more than anywhere else.

In general, I loved Merida – smaller in size, it was much more manageable and we could walk to most places as we were based centrally. It also has a cycling culture and to encourage it further, the city closes a big area of its centre each Sunday morning to allow for a mass cycling event. We joined in and breezed through the beautiful cobbled streets appreciating endless squares, parks and colonial plazas.

I have to mention this happened in the morning for a reason – by about 11am each day, the streets are empty and no sane local will be seen wandering around until around 6pm. Even though we had been closer to the equator before, the sun here looked down from right above you allowing for no shadow to escape the excruciating heat. What I perhaps did not expect from Mexico and this time taught me was that it is a desert country – the dryness of the heat felt like nothing I experienced before.

We went off to a good start in Merida – although I still had a cold and an ear infection, it was slowly going away and by the end of the first week here, we thought were feeling healthier than we felt for a while. I sometimes think our bodies were telling us it had been enough and it is time to go home; a more logical explanation is that perhaps our immune systems have been so run down we were picking up everything at this point. The day after, we fell miserably ill again with some kind of infection which wiped us out for at least 10 days. I was hit worse and ended up going to a couple of private hospitals for a drip (the most expensive drip of my life!) however Rhys was not far behind. Looking back, the two weeks seem now like one very bad nightmare – constant pharmacy visits, searches for doctors in blistering heat (the temperatures reached 40 degrees at the hottest time of the day!) and mainly laying around in bed in an incredibly painful and uncomfortable existence. We barely ate and our main nutrient intake was in a form of electrolyte drinks we picked up in pharmacies on a daily basis. I honestly felt the worst in my life and all I wished was to be home with my family. I was losing hope we will be able to enjoy Mexico at all.

FARM

Back in Asia, we had applied and had been accepted for a work experience in an ecological farm run by a lovely couple. Their aim was to build a self-sustained community model which could be applied all over Mexico to promote a more ecological way of living. Their farm, located a half an hour drive from Cancun, was a work in progress towards the wider vision. They housed and fed travellers in return of help in daily jobs and general running of the farm and it proved to be a haven for us to recover after the unpleasant experiences in Mexico City and Merida.

We happened to arrive when there were no other volunteers and ended up spending most of our time with the hosts and a couple of employees of the farm. We would wake up early and spend a couple of hours working before it got hot, then had some breakfast and the heat of the day was the time to ourselves – snoozing in hammocks dotted around the garden area, doing little chores and reading books. In the afternoon, we did a few more hours of work depending on what was required on the day and then the evenings were spend having dinner with the owners – Enrique and Karla – as they treated us to wonderful home-made meals out of the fresh produce grown on the farm. It was absolutely the reset we needed.

For the two weeks we stayed there, our main jobs were in the greenhouse (pruning and replanting vegetables), out in the fields building vegetable beds for the new season or looking after the many animals that lived on the grounds. Besides the 400 chickens which lived freely, laid eggs all over the place and slept in trees (I had forgotten they were birds too!), there were 9 dogs, numerous cats, a pet goat named Beatrice and a huge pet pig. The pig used to roam around free until it became so big it was destroying everything in its way – including the vegetable patches – and so now it ruled a massive fenced off area close to the chicken feeders. Don’t get mistaken – the pig lived a better life than most: it would enjoy the overflow of chicken’s leftovers and someone would most likely bring her some rotting fruit and not just anything – she preferred papayas. The most fun however was bathing her – Rhys would get a hose and spray all over her for a while as she played and jumped around with it.

We also got exposed to a little bit more of the animal kingdom we may have wanted. One of the first evenings of our stay there as we were coming back from dinner to our garden house where we slept, we found a scorpion chilling on a wall just above our bed. I volunteered Rhys for the nice job of getting it out. The nights were spent listening to all sorts of nature sounds – it was, afterall, a farm in the middle of nowhere – as the hut we slept in did not have windows, only mesh covering the walls. At early mornings, we woke up to the sound of roosters calling the start of the day at around 4 am. One evening we also got approached by a tarantula right by our feet where we were eating and whilst we never saw one, we were told to watch out for snakes as we went out for a pee in the middle of the night. Who cares about mosquitos at that stage anymore!

We couldn’t have had a better work experience here – besides the fact that the work we did was not very demanding and we felt more like guests than workers, we just had so much free time and space to regain our strength before the last few weeks of our travels. And what a month it was going to be.

RIVIERA MAYA

Right after our time in the farm, we were off to Cuba for a week to break down our time in Mexico. We were met by a couple of lovely friends from the UK – Natalie and Nicola – and Rhys’ brother Hugh. They then spent a few days with us back in Mexico, and Hugh stuck around even longer as we explored the coast of Yucatan Peninsula.

We visited three main cities – Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum – and whilst they are all dotted along the east coast of the Riviera Maya barely a couple of hours drive from each other, they each carry a very different vibe. Cancun is famous for its party life, especially for younger visitors – it is known as a popular spring break destination by many college students from the US. Playa del Carmen has a similar feel to it but definitely attracts an older generation, which absolutely does not mean there’s less of a party there. Tulum, on the other hand, has become the dreamy ‘boho’ destination where you stay in boutique hotels, buy home-made cold brew sold in upscale cafes on every corner and attend yoga classes in one of the many studios available. But I will get back to that. All of these places are in no way authentic to Mexico really – they are westernised version of what a lot of us want it to be and priced accordingly.

To be honest, most of our time in Cancun and Playa del Carmen was spent doing what you are supposed to do there – party. In the days, we would chill around in beach clubs or perhaps some hipster hostel with a pool and all-day margaritas. We spent Rhys’ and Hugh’s birthdays here – and it did not disappoint.

The most exciting days, however were spent in a rented car (best means to get around the peninsula!) driving around the countless Mayan ruins. Besides the most famous Chichen Itza, we visited Uxmal, Coba and Tulum ruins. Each day would start early with a long drive and a long walk around one of the sites before it got too hot – although we never managed to escape it – and in the afternoons we would look for a cold cenote to wash off the dust and sweat from the morning treks. The Yucatan Peninsula sits atop a massive stone plate which has an extensive network of underground rivers and a cenote is an opening of this network. They vary in size (some look like small lakes and others are barely wider than a well), depth and shape, and there’s thousands of them – therefore you will never run out of options.

Besides the ruins, we also visited a couple of islands just off the Riviera Maya. Isla Mujeres, a 30-minute ferry ride away from Cancun, stole our hearts immediately. This small chilled island has a couple of main hubs / villages with a plethora of beach bars and restaurants, a cool national park and the most amazing beaches. We liked it so much when we visited with Hugh that we decided to come back for our last week before flying back to the UK.

In the months we spent in east Mexico, we encountered the issue of Sargassum seaweed that Mexico, other Caribbean countries and even some coasts of South and Northern America have been experiencing for years now at certain points of the season. It is thought to have been exacerbated by global warming and materially means immense amounts of brownish seaweed in the waters and on the beaches of these places. At the worst times and when we visited, there is so much of it that you cannot and really do not want to swim in the sea, and where local authorities and hotels try to clean it up and pile it on sides of beaches, it rots and stinks incredibly. With its Playa Norte facing the west side, Isla Mujeres escaped this problem and sadly was one of the only spots in the whole of Riviera Maya where we could swim in the sea.

The other place where we found west-facing beaches was the island of Cozumel – easily reached by a short ferry from Playa del Carmen, it was the place we decided to spend Hugh’s birthday on. After following the coastal line of the island on scooters enjoying incredible sea views most of the day, we found some incredible snorkelling spots for the afternoon where the beaches and sea were clear and full of colourful fish. And, of course, these jaw-dropping experiences were followed by a happy hour or two…

After all of our visitors left, Rhys and I had just under two weeks to soak in the last bits of sunshine and reflect on our trip. We spent the first half in Tulum, the southernmost point of the Yucatan coastal line we reached. In some ways, it was my favourite place in the whole of Mexico. A bit of a guilty millennial pleasure, even the pastel-coloured buildings of the town added to its instagrammable vibe. Much like quieter and quirkier parts of Bali, Tulum offered sunshine with breaks for puppy yoga (I had to!), boutique shopping and organic gluten-free vegan caricatures of the real Mexican food. Some better than others.

Smaller in size than other Yucatan cities, Tulum also promoted cycling and you can easily spend a few days on a rented bike exploring the town and surrounding areas. Due to the convenient location, it means that tourists can cycle to a number of cenotes from Tulum within less than an hour. The Tulum Mayan ruins are also perched up on the shores of the Caribbean Sea right on the edge of town. All this means is that it is very easy to get around in and offers plenty to keep occupied for a good few days.

Unfortunately, whilst we visited some niche hotels to enjoy their poolside, we did not get to swim in the sea for the same seaweed problem mentioned before. For this reason, we moved back towards Cancun and spent the last few days on Isla Mujeres stretched out on a beach trying not to think we are one flight away from rainy London.

And so before we knew it, it was all over. The Indian sunsets, Himalayan treks, Thai islands, Laotian monks, thousands of scooters in Vietnam, Malaysian food, the city jungle of Singapore, the jaw dropping beauty of Indonesia, island hopping in the Philippines, the blossoming Sakuras in Japan, the rum & cigars in Cuba, and all of the incredible two months in Mexico.. It was suddenly all a memory. And it will always be a great one.

FOOD

But just before I finish off, I have to dedicate a quick paragraph here to the Mexican food. Looking back, I can now confidently say that Mexico provided for the most delicious food of the whole trip. I definitely lost count of how many tacos I had eaten but every single one of them was a work of art (even the one in the Merida market which I am pretty sure gave me the Rota virus…). The Mexican cuisine celebrates all the flavours and sensations that I love anyway – spicy chillies, cooling guacamole, zesty lime, juicy meat and crunchy nachos – and delivers them in such a wholesome way showcasing the best ingredients this vast country has to offer. If you ever visit Mexico for anything, go for food and eat as much as you can because you will never find anything like it.

FRIENDS

We were incredibly lucky to have been joined for a part of our time in Mexico by our lovely friends. And I wanted to make sure you get a glimpse of their experience here too.

NATALIE

What was your favourite place we went to?

This is a difficult question but I think I will have to say the cenote we visited after Chichen Itza (even though I literally was nearly sacrificed to the Gods).

What is your impression of Mexican people?

Really friendly. I didn’t speak much to anyone but in all instances where I did, the atmosphere was very relaxed. However a strong tipping culture!

If Mexico was a colour, what would it be?

Bright yellow.

What did you bring home from Mexico?

A sculpture of a head that is supposed to protect from danger.

Would you go back?

Absolutely, saw so little.

What do you miss most about it?

The sprawling forest as far as the eye can see – I felt like Indiana Jones just by being there! It feels like there must be a lot of history still to uncover in Mexico.

NICOLA

If Mexico was a colour, what would it be?

Bright yellow.

What was the most memorable day?

The day we spent walking around in Chichen Itza followed by the visit to a cenote.

What did you bring home from Mexico?

Sugar skull earrings.

What do you miss most about it?

The food, drinks and good times!

HUGH

What was your favourite place we went to?

Isla Mujeres. Despite being very touristy, it’s still a very pretty place to be.

If Mexico was a song, what would it be?

Go with the Flow by Queens of the Stone Age.

If Mexico was a colour, what would it be?

Purple, Fiesta and Siesta colour.

How was your birthday in Mexico?

Comes in high on the list of memorable birthdays. Relaxed but also silly. My kind of birthday.

What was the most memorable day?

I’ve got three just to be annoying. Both cenote days and cycling around the ruins.

What do you miss most about it?

The Pulque. Odd texture to start with but once you get over it, it was really nice.

RHYS

What was your favourite place we went to?

RANCHO SAN JOSÉ. Our Mexico home for a couple of weeks. I didn’t leave the ranch the whole time, and after constantly being on the move for so long it gave me the chance to relax and reflect. Surrounded by wildlife, incredibly fresh food, outdoor showers and snoozes in hammocks. It was a lazy paradise.

What is your impression of Mexican people?

Incredibly friendly. You would think they would get tired of tourists – especially in Cancun. But they were relaxed, funny & welcoming across the board.

If Mexico was a song, what would it be?

Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash. Traditional mariachi instruments, but heavily influenced by America. And f**king hot.

If Mexico was a colour, what would it be?

White. White sand, white bleached stones, white buildings, white water waves, white marble haciendas. It’s always blindingly bright.

How was your birthday in Mexico?

A whole day of swimming in cenotes, live music, Mexican food and tequila. I would do it every year if I could.

What was the most memorable day?

The natural beauty of Mexico is one of its most unforgettable features – but one of my most memorable days was a beach side hotel in built-up Cancun. We spent all day drinking beers at the pool bar, lying on the beach and making new friends. It was a day that we didn’t make many plans, and had so much fun.

What did you bring home from Mexico?

My birthday bottle of Mezcal – which I’m too nostalgic to drink. And also an understanding that my old idea of Mexican food was something the Americans put together.

Would you go back to Mexico?

I would honestly go to every single place again. Mexico was one of my favourite countries, and I’m glad we chose to spend so much time there.

What do you miss the most?

Apart from the beautiful beaches, the cool cenotes, the incredible food, the friendly people, the rich culture, the live music, the incredible Aztec history, the relaxed atmosphere and beautiful weather – I’ll miss riding across the tropical islands on mopeds with my brother. It’s a great way to see an island.

GABS AND RHYS’ MEXICO HIGHLIGHTS

 RHYSGABS
FoodI honestly can’t say. I don’t think I ate one thing I didn’t like.Seafood tacos on the first night in Mexico
Drink Bohemia Beer. (The colder the better)Margaritas!
People Party People in Cancun! Spring breaaaakEnrique and Karla who hosted us on the farm
Place Cancun Eco RanchIsla Mujeres
Experience Riding Scooters across islandsSwimming in cenotes – all of them!
Culture shock You don’t know what Mexican food is. In the same way that Dolmio is fake Italian Having always known Mexico was a religious country, it did not occur to me how conservative the population may be. I wandered around Mexico city in shorts and a T-shirt to find lots of people staring at me – even on hottest days, Mexicans wear jeans and conservative tops.
Any otherI didn’t know what suffering was until I almost died in Merida. That sickness & heat makes me grateful for my health everyday since. I have never experienced such high speed bumps anywhere else in the world. To make it even more interesting, Mexicans don’t tend to put road signs warning of them and place them in the most peculiar places. After following a straight road for a while, out of nowhere you find yourself flying up in a rented car after encountering what seems like a log in the middle of the street!

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s