EPISODE 112 – Raw Yucatan airs this weekend 2/22 & 2/23
Cancún… images of wild spring breakers or throbbing nightlife may come to mind, but a “Raw Travel” destination? You bet.
We began by foregoing the glitzy, glamorous Hotel Zone in Cancún and staying instead at one of the locally owned hotels in downtown (El Centro) where locals live and work. I prefer this as not only do we get to interact with the people of Mexico (as opposed to simply other tourists and those that are hired to serve them and keep them happy), but it insures our travel $s are benefiting the place where it is needed most… the locals, not some big corporation in Spain or the U.S.
Good intentions aside, the Yucatan Peninsula actually hosts one of the most diverse wondrous natural habitats in the world offering much more than the typical Cancún party experience.
Our 1st day was pretty civilized and began with a day trip to the Mayan temple of Chichén Itzá, an impressive site of Mayan pyramids and ruins that is squarely on the tourist’s trail.
But before arriving we stopped in Valladolid, a lovely little Mexican town full of beautiful colonial architecture, historic churches and friendly, laid back people. It was Sunday and though oppressively hot, the town square was full of tourists and local Mexicans in from surrounding haciendas and smaller villages.
After taking in a folkloric dance show we luckily met Israel who is somewhat of a local celebrity and man about town. Israel graciously volunteered to show us around.
He promptly guided us to the neighboring village of Uayma where the impressive Santo Domingo Ex- Convent & Church overlooks the town square like a protective mother. Having traveled extensively through Latin America, I’ve seen my share of historic churches but trust me when I say seeing this one in person is special. The church was built by the Franciscans in 1646 out of stones from nearby Mayan ruins, including Chichén Itzá . It has the distinction of 5 eagles featured into the design to help “protect” it.
While there we visited one of the town’s tortilla families which work out of an incredibly hot room where raw corn is soaked, turned into dough and fired over a furnace to crank out tortilla after tortilla. Despite the mechanization, tortilla making still requires 4 or 5 people providing plenty of manual labor in incredibly hot conditions.
Mari, is the owner and she and her family live on the premises. She said they work 7 days a week, cranking out thousands of tortillas for the townspeople who, like many Mexicans, eat tortillas at pretty much every meal.
She seemed happy to be there toiling over the hot furnace but I could only handle staying in that furnace of a room for a couple minutes at a time.Mari took us back to her cooking hut around back where she demonstrated the art of hand tortilla making over an open fire. For some reason, these tortillas from the open fire were even better. You could feel the love that Mari puts into her craft.
Afterwards, Mari graciously cooked us a meal of chicken soup and tortillas. The crew and I were extremely hungry (aren’t we always?) and ate voraciously of course. Mari tried to reject the $200 pesos (about $17 U.S.) I pressed into her hand afterwards but I wouldn’t hear of us 3 semi-fat, healthy and in their eyes, wealthy Americans, eating for free from the meager earnings she has to make do with for her family week after week.
However, I want to make it clear, I don’t pity Mari and her family. In many ways I envy them. There were happy photos of her now full grown children all around and grand-kids were running all about under foot and you could see the love in the home. I had the feeling that nothing was more important to Mari than family. Perhaps when you have less, family means even more. Regardless, Mari makes a mean tortilla and an even tastier chicken soup. Thank you Mari!
Next we rushed over to Chichen Itza. To gain entry you have to pass through overpriced restaurants, vendors and gift shops with throngs of tourists sporting fanny packs and digital cameras who roll through with the chartered tour buses by the hundreds. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ruins themselves are amazing and anyone who appreciates ancient cultures I think will find the trip worthwhile and utterly fascinating. We arrived a bit late just after closing and were granted a special “late arrival” tour of the ruins. I’m always more at peace and reflective in the presence of ancient cultures but the massive place was almost empty which gave the whole experience an even deeper, more spiritual feeling.
Next it was up early to head to the beautiful and remote El Eden Eco Reserve. You can only get to El Eden after 3 or so hours of a jeep ride through terrain so rough and difficult my stomach muscles were aching from the strain of trying to stay in my seat. I only stepped out of the jeep once during the entire journey to help clear some brush and limbs out of the road so the jeep could pass.
I wasn’t out of the safety and security of the jeep less than 30 seconds when I was in trouble. I snapped a small sapling and was then gravely warned by our expert guide, biologist and host Marcos, that I should wash my hands ASAP as the sap in the tree was poisonous and could leave a painful rash that could take YEARS to go away. Needless to say I was concerned as we were yet miles away from soap and water. Luckily, I had packed some Clorox Handiwipes (no, they are not a sponsor.. yet ha, ha) and they must have worked because thankfully, days later, I’m rash free.
When we finally arrived at base camp, it looked like a typical camping site or perhaps a set from Jurassic Park with some really, really crude cabins and thatched huts scattered about the several acre property which is buried deep in the savannah and teems with wildlife like Jaguars, Crocodiles, and more.
Solar powered electricity at the property was set to shut off at 7pm and there was no consistent cell phone signal. At night, our sparse cabins were candlelit. Just before the lights went out, we shooed a Tarantula and a giant water bug (a variety that is so big it eats frogs for dinner!) out of my room with a broom. TIP: Don’t leave your bags open when in the middle of a Yucatan jungle or you may bring back a few unintended hitchhikers.
We helped the team at the reserve outfit tree cameras to track and “photo capture” the elusive and dwindling endangered jaguar population in Mexico. Marcos could not have been nicer and I think we had the biggest, best heartiest lunch of the entire trip.The view at sunset from the lookout overlooking the entire reserve was simply indescribable. If not for the humidity and throngs of mosquitoes, I’d swear I’d died already and made it to Paradise.
However, the next day we were thrilled to get back to civilization and Playa del Carmen was like an oasis in the desert for us city slickers.
Playa del Carmen is lovely. It’s a very walkable town with plenty of luxury accommodations and spas for the pampered traveler (as well as a plethora of day trips to places like Cozumel or Isla Mujeres). Or if you prefer (and we do) a more “raw” & authentic experience, there are slightly more humble and affordable boutique hotels and hostels scattered about.
We made Playa our home base but we soon headed back to Cancún to visit the Anáhuac University to cover their inspiring American football team, the Leones (Lions) and their equally inspiring coach Marco Martos. Marco is 100% Mexican but also a former NFL Europe and NFL USA receiver with an incredible story (he made the NFL directly from Mexico, not via college, something almost completely unheard of) and contagious energy.
In order to get to the full feeling of practice, we woke up at 5:30AM to get to the University by 6:30 AM to take part of the team meeting. We ended up hanging out with Coach Martos and the team until almost 1 PM that afternoon. Watching these kids practice for over 2 hours in the hot Mexican sun was exhausting. These kids are playing for scholarships, not a shot at the pros and their love for the game is as genuine and inspiring as I’ve ever witnessed. It’s not exaggeration to say that Coach Martos’ enthusiasm rubbed off on me and I felt inspired in my own life and my own challenges by witnessing the fine, dedicated young people he and the university are helping to build.
The next day we headed to the Kantun Chi Ecopark where the gang treated us to a full day of cave exploring and swimming in the cenotes (sinkholes) which are all over the Yucatan (think of the Yucatan as a big slice of Swiss Cheese) but are especially beautiful in Kantun Chi.
I’m normally not much for dark, dank places full of bats but these caves were anything but and were absolutely incredible, with crystal clear water that you must swim in order to complete the 45 minute or so underground tour. You’re not so much touring the caves as swimming them and it’s a little chilly but seriously not as uncomfortable as it might sound. In fact, it was one of the highlights of the trip. Thanks guys!
The Yucatan is pretty incredible and yes, it’s very possible to have a cultural experience beyond the obvious Cancun, Cozumel, Playa experience. Tourists and locals are interdependent on each other creating an interesting dynamic that I still don’t quite have my head around just yet.
I’m still torn over the harsh conditions I witnessed that locals live with daily. While poverty is not unique to Mexico, in this area the dynamics of wealthy foreign tourists mixing with poor locals, I have to wonder if the locals truly consider their tourism industry a blessing that gives them a much needed living or a curse that reminds them of how little they have in comparison to their neighbors to the north. And if they like me, ponder the complicated question of “why?”. I don’t know.
Next up… an “almost” unplanned adventure in Belize.