Two hundred and thirty-one days since returning home. Three quarters of a year with no particular excitement. One broken hand, a bruised rib, a car accident, a punched jaw, one funeral. Two weddings, two holidays, several parties, one cabin, two puppies, a new job. Thank God for friends and family. Or perhaps curse them, for being the reason I return to Minnesota. I leave, flying towards Cancun, Mexico.
It’s five days later. I sit alone on the bus as we wait for the rest of the passengers to board. The bus came early, an oddity in Mexico. I was just glad for the air conditioning. My body was unaccustomed to the heat and the humidity. It made me a little ashamed. I used to be tan, tempered by the sun, happy when I’m hot and comfortable in a small layer of sweat. But it had been a long time since I was last in the tropics. Since I was in Southeast Asia. Five hundred and thirty-six days ago. But who was counting?
It had been a lovely five days, relaxing on the beach, celebrating with family. Hailee was married. Well, she was married before this, but the trip to Playa Del Carmen was more of a celebration than anything official. I was happy to fly down to Mexico to attend, and also plenty happy to spend two weeks afterwards backpacking around Mexico. The plan was to see the Yucatan Peninsula, make my way to Oaxaca for a bit, then meet my friend Fernando in Guadalajara. That was the plan at least… Anyways, the wedding was beautiful. My cousin’s ideal beach wedding at our favorite childhood resort with her closest friends and family there to cheer her on. I could muse fondly of the glamor and elegance of the night, the tears and the hiccups, the kisses on the beach and the love that started in high school. But I don’t get paid for this so just come up with something on your own. What I will say is that I forced most of my family to do tequila shots with me and it was great.
But that was then and this is now. I was alone again, some of my family still at the resort and some already heading home. It made me a little uneasy. And that made me ashamed again. I was born to travel, but sometimes destiny is scary. I sat timidly in my window seat and peered out, looking at nothing in particular. The last of the passengers got on and the bus began to move, even before they could find their seats. Their were apparently assigned seats, something I wasn’t exactly used to on buses. I was used to tickets that had seat numbers, but buses full of people that didn’t care. I guess in Mexico it’s important. One of the girls behind me got up, laughing in that apologetic friendly way people tend to do, and tried to find her actual seat. Her actual seat was actually my seat. She didn’t seem to mind though and simply sat down next to me as we both laughed about the important unimportance of our seats. I was tense and unprepared for conversation, anxious and not particularly confident. My heart was still that of a homebody, not yet shifted into the traveler’s heart of open and fearless conversation. But the girl didn’t care, she just told me about what she was doing in Playa del Carmen. Where she was going and where she had been. Our simple conversation was all it took to ease me back into the right mindset. Somebody to get excited when I told them about where I had been and what I’d done. Someone I didn’t have to worry about seeming like a braggart to. Somebody with their own story that was happy to hear somebody else’s. I remember she grew up in Minnesota. I don’t remember her name. But that’s okay, that’s just how it is sometimes.
I marched out of the bus station in Tulum, flicked my phone to my offline maps, and walked towards the hostel that my heart for whatever reason chose to lead me to. I hoped there was a bed. I walked along the dusty road, snaking through the side streets until I finally got to Daytripper Hostel. It was a tight, unluxurious place that was nearly completely empty as I entered. It was midday and people were out exploring. I was eager to do the same. Asking for a bed. No, no reservation. Yes, that will do. The usual conversation, one that I had been on both sides of repeatedly. I threw my stuff on my bed, grabbed what I needed, and headed out. I had set my waypoint today on the Mayan ruins of Coba, an archaeological site an hour or two from Tulum and a well recommended site by the online travel community. I asked the receptionist about buses, but at that time of day there would be a long wait until I could leave. So I decided to hitchhike instead. it could be quicker, but it would also be a lot funner too. It was only a short walk to the main road where I threw out my trusty thumb, smiled, and waited. After about ten minutes, a guy on a scooter zoomed to a stop beside me. He was young, 19 as it turned out, and offered to drive me a a dozen kilometers towards my destination. I joined him and, hopping on the back, began to ask him about himself. His name was Diego and he was from a different part of Mexico, looking for work in Tulum. His English was so-so, but that never stopped me from having a good conversation with someone. We got as far as he could go, which happened to be the house he was staying at, and dropped me off aside the road. He even tried to help me get my next ride by trying to hitch with me, but I think he did more harm with good. One person is easier to take than two. Eventually he went inside to cool off and I gave him my name to add online later. He had talked about coming with me to see Merida in the west. That would work perfectly with my plan, so I agreed. He never did add me though. And I never did head west.
After what seemed like forever, a car stopped beside me and I hopped in the back. A nice Mexican man drove me all the way to the beginning of Coba town, not speaking a lick of English but still making swell company. I marched the rest of the way to the entrance of the Mayan site, bought my ticket, and entered. I apparently only had about an hour before it closed, but I was a quick walker. Which was good, because there was a lot of walking to do. Inside the site, some people rented bikes to get around, but most people simply hopped onto a strange bike-taxi-contraption and had an eager local pedal their lazy asses from site to site. The ruins of Coba had a lot of well preserved buildings, from pok a tok courts to dormitories to religious altars. The main draw of the site, however, was climbing the 137 foot pyramid above the treeline and viewing the entire landscape from the ancient Mayan perch. The pyramid was surrounded by smaller structures, a well here, a mural there. At the center of a small clearing stood the tall, imposing structure that attracted tourists far and wide. The steps marched onward into the sky, with small crawling creatures slowly working up and down their rounded surfaces. These creatures were the aforementioned tourists. The steps were a bit steep, but I think most people were being a tad silly with how careful they were sliding up and down the slopes. No time for shenanigans, I ran my way up the steps in long strides, passing by many exhausted tourists of all ages. I let myself rest only at the top, where I could gaze upon the vast jungle all around me. The trees marched in all directions, not a sign of man to be seen in the entire view. The sun blazed strongly onto the top of the pyramid, and I hid in the shadows as I took in the serenity of the endless green around me. There were for too many people for it to be too peaceful, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Returning back to the rat race, I now had to contend with the very fearful creatures now crawling on their butts down the pyramid steps. They proved quite the obstacle as I hurriedly zig-zagged my way down the ancient Mayan staircase. At the bottom, I found myself a tad tired and rested while daydreaming about the vast structure in front of me. But I didn’t have too much time to daydream, so I skipped back the way I came and found a different path so that I could explore the many side trails that lead to other, less visited structures. Old ceremonial buildings, dormitories, plazas, and waterways. All that was left of a grand civilization, now hidden in the jungle. I was just barely able to see it all before it was time to leave and the workers of the archaeological site ushered us out. I went to the bus stop to wait for my ride back, when a taxi pulled up to me and offered to take me to Tulum for the same price as the bus. A collectivo, or essentially a taxi making money off of multiple people going the same direction. I said I would go for 70 pesos, but he wanted 80. We went back and forth, until he pulled out a shiny new Mexican 10 peso coin. Heads, he said, would be 70. Tails would be 80. I found the idea completely ridiculous, so of course I agreed. It landed tails. Somehow I knew that would happen. A deals a deal though, so I got in and finally returned back to my hostel after a hard day of adventuring. A fantastic shrimp burrito for dinner and I was quickly off to bed.
I awoke well rested. Unbeknownst to me, the last good night’s sleep I would have for a long time. It was almost 11 and breakfast was ending soon. At a hostel, you are never quite sure how good the breakfast will be, but I marched upstairs to the kitchen to find out for myself. A simple fruit and pancake meal filled my belly, and I sat with some other travelers and began the pleasantries I had missed for so long. I introduced myself to the group, quickly forgot everyone’s names, and began the exchange of summarized life stories. There was a group of three friends, two from Australia and one Brit, whom were roadtripping around the Yucatan for a bit. This combination of nationalities was sure to be dangerous, so I promised I would avoid them come nightfall. From the more mild mannered Denmark came Magnus, a classical long term traveler about one year through his journey of hopping randomly between continents. One of the main things to do in the Tulum area is check out the cenotes, or freshwater sinkholes. And once we realized we all had the same idea of what to do with the day, we decided to band together. So after a delicious lunch of barbecue pork tacos, we hopped into the rented car of the roadtrippers and began our cenote marathon. Our first stop was the Cenote Zacil-Ha. We stopped the car at a strange sign and tried to decipher the foreign language before us. We guessed maybe it said employee parking only, or some other such thing. Until our only Spanish speaker, Magnus, informed us it said PARK HERE. Off to a good start! We entered for the extravagant fee of 30 pesos each and feasted our eyes upon the small sunken pool in the ground. Four meters down, the crystalline blue water pooled about the limestone walls of the sinkhole, creating a serene oasis from the heat of the day. A simple, but still thrilling, cliff jump into the water below left my heart beating and my muscles tense from the coolness of the water. It was a small cenote, but we were lucky as their was only one family and later another small group of travelers sharing the waters with us. Relaxed, we spent time doing stupid jumps into the water below. There was even a zip-line you could pay 10 pesos for to get an even longer airtime on your dives. Elsewise, we would sit on the rope extending across the water and watch others do their flips and falls above us. Standing on the rope was also an option for the well balanced, but only one of us proved concentrated enough to complete such a task (thanks yoga!). Eventually we tired of this cenote and moved on to the next one, Cenote Carwash. A quick walk from Zacil-Ha and we arrived at the much larger cenote known for its scuba diving. Here we mostly swam, as it had little for cliff jumping opportunities, and shared the single scuba mask we had borrowed from our hostel. We watched as the scuba divers descended into the dark cave below us, never to be seen again (by us). After about an hour we knew it was time to move on to the final cenote of the day, Gran Cenote. This much bigger cenote was the most popular near Tulum, and for good reason. Two sinkholes, connected by a large underground cave six meters below the earth. From one sinkhole you could swim to the other, through a silent, dim cavern filled with the bednoises of sleeping bats. Turtles shared the waters with us, and hornets and small birds shared the cave as nests. Most people stuck to the sinkholes themselves, exploring the tiny caves with the sun nearby. But alone in the near-darkness of the deeper caves a solemn peace could be found. That nihilistic thought that you could drown in some random cave in Mexico and nobody would know for who knows how long. A strangely empowering thought, knowing that you can only rely on yourself to keep you alive and safe. A sense of personal responsibility that threads its way through countless aspects of exploration, both within and without. A little flickering feeling inside that reminds me why I travel. We left only once they kicked us out.
We watched the sunset back in Tulum, along the beach. We shared some supermarket beers and whatever junkfood had caught our eyes at checkout as we sat atop the hill just above the sands. A simple and peaceful moment shared between travelers with simply too much time to care. We drove back to our hostel at night and walked off to a local taco place that was highly recommended. Along the way, Freddy, our Brit, had gotten a ridiculously bad deal on a Mexican La Lucha style wrestling mask, and was proudly wearing it down the street. At our restaurant of choice I enjoyed an exquisite meal of tacos, sofritas, quesadillas, and empenadas. Finally being able to try some genuine Mexican versions of some my favorites. The salsa was exceptionally hot, and I had forgotten how much I missed crying while eating. After our meal, we went out for drinks. The first stop: a hostel roof bar filled with drug dealers, where I used a tablespoon of salt to do a tequila shot and for some reason agreed we would alternately pay for rounds of drinks that night. Dangerous. Stop two: Jazzy little outdoor patio bar with live music, where the bartender would alternate between overcharging and undercharging me. We stay long enough here for me to have to pay for two rounds. The music dying off, we somehow meet up with the other people from our hostel at a club in town, where two more rounds pass by me before the night is over. The music wasn’t very good, but it becomes far more enjoyable when you are doing tequila shots with a man in a wrestling mask struggling to fit the glass through the mouth hole.
I sat on another bus, this time aimed for Valladolid, soaked to the bone with a pounding headache to round it all off. I woke up hungover, but I didn’t have time for rest days, so I ran off to catch the next bus towards Chichen Itza that I could get. The skies thought that would be a good time for a sudden downpour so, running late for the bus, I sprinted through the muddy streets of Tulum to get to the bus station. As it turned out I wasn’t late for anything, since the bus was full and I’d have to wait an hour anyways, but that’s just part of the joke. I was just glad that once I got to Valladolid and to my hostel, I could collapse on the bed and nap away a couple hours off my headache. I allowed myself a lazy day, slowly wandering the streets of the colonial city until sunset. I then grabbed some enchiladas as take-out and stretched out on the porch of the hostel with my book as the little sounds of the town were drowned out by the pouring rain. It was an early night.
It was an early day. To catch the first collectivo to Chichen Itza I had to wake up at 7. And here’s a fun fact, almost the entirety of Mexico east of the capital is in the central timezone. Except for of course, Quintana Roo, where I had just been. So an early day became an even earlier one. While skulking about the streets looking for the right area to get my ride, I ran into two others from my hostel I had briefly talked to the night before. They were heading the same way, and so we rode together, in mostly silence, to our destination. The busy and chaotic tourist trap of Chichen Itza, still early enough to not be too crazy. I entered as quickly as possible, eager to see as much as I could before the tour buses arrived. As I walked along the main path to the beginnings of the ruins, touts began to flow in from a separate entrance, packs and carts full of goods to be sold for the day. Thankfully not allowed at the actual structures, they set up impromptu marketplaces along any stretch of path between separate sites. What could have been a peaceful walk through the jungle was now a proverbial gauntlet of knickknacks and tee-shirts, of “Hello friend”s and “One dollar, one dollar”s. But it wasn’t my first rodeo, so I continued on. At the center of the site was the massive Kukulcan Temple. Beautiful and in good condition, you could once climb up to the top. That was before an American died of a heart attack while climbing it, or so they say. True or not, the amount of traffic the pyramid would see in a day would certainly place a toll on its longevity. My second stop was far more interesting: the Juego de Pelota, or the ball court. Here the ancient Mayans played Pok a Tok, often a game to the death. A large, solid rubber ball would be hit around the court by teams of 1-3 using only elbows, knees, head, and hips. Hoops were vertical and located on the side of the field, in the center. As you might imagine, you score points by shooting the ball through the hoop! Depending on the city and the time period, it would either be the winner or the loser that would be honorably sacrificed at the end. Win or loss, it’s just a game, so try not to worry too much about it. The really interesting part was the near perfect acoustics of the 1,400 year old structure. From one side of the soccer field sized court you could hear clearly to the other. A simple proof of the vast scientific knowledge of the Mayan people. After the ball court I ventured to the Sacred Cenote, a mile walk from the main site. Here is where the longest stretch of touts were located, but thankfully most were still busy setting up as I passed through. The cenote itself used to be used for offerings to the gods, usually valuable items. Back at the main site, I explored countless other temples and civic facilities littered across the site. I say explore, but I really just mean looked at, because there was nothing you could enter or climb at Chichen Itza. A necessary evil, it made the site feel rather sterile compared to climbing Borobudur or jumping across forgotten temples in Bagan. Overall, Chichen Itza was a pleasant experience, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed as I left the site. It just wasn’t for me. I needed something, I just wasn’t sure what yet.
At this point, I should stop and mention what I had thought I was going to do in Mexico. The original plan was to go to the wedding in Playa del Carmen, stop at Tulum, go to Chichen Itza, and then figure out a way to Oaxaca to spend a week, then up to Guadalajara to see a friend. To reach Oaxaca, I had imagined flying from the Yucatan capitol of Merida. The flights turned out to be too expensive, so I had then thought perhaps a bus ride with a few stops in between. At this point it would have been convenient for me to simply hop on a bus from Chichen Itza to Merida, only an hour away. But I’m not really a fan of convenience. Spontaneity is more my style. And lets be honest, what does Merida have? It’s just another big city. Maybe some cool colonial architecture, but big whoop? I thought that was the only way towards Oaxaca, but as I later learned there was another road, far to the south, that would run hard west and take me to my destination. So after Chichen Itza I got on a bus heading away from my original plan. I headed south, towards somewhere recommended by friends, new and old alike. Six hours to Bacalar Lake.
It was a dark and quiet night when we arrived. I groggily walked off the bus, my light 20 liter pack thrown over my shoulder. I waited for Juan Carlos to grab his luggage from beneath the bus, something I enjoyed never having to do. As chance would have it, we were both staying at the same hostel tonight. Just as luck had had us meet once at our hostel in Valladolid, again on the ride to Chichen Itza, and finally a third time on our bus to Bacalar. Together we meandered through the streets, his rolling luggage skittering behind us, discussing the many nuances of our lives and travels. After only a little trouble, we arrived at luscious Magic Bacalar Hostel. A cabana style hostel right next to the lake. We checked in together, but then went our separate ways, since I had booked the slightly more expensive room right on the lake. Because I deserved it. The receptionist led me to a simple cabana facing the water, eight or so beds inside with mosquito netting draping them from above. As the receptionist left, I set my stuff down and introduced myself to the only other person in the room with me. Her enthusiasm caught me off guard as we began a long and detailed discussion of, you guessed it, life and travel. You’d think it would get old, but it doesn’t. She was a young German girl named Sandra, off exploring the world between her seasonal job as a waitress in the Swiss Alps. The hostel had a perfect dock, with lawn chairs and hammocks set up, so we took good advantage of them to go out and gaze up at the stars shining above our heads. Well not quite as good as the stars back home, I was still happy to be able to point out the constellations I knew. It was a peaceful night.
The next day was sunny and beautiful. A loss for Sandra, whom had left that morning on a direct bus to Guatemala. I had planned to spend another night in Bacalar, but the hostel was apparently fully booked the next night. I figured I could just take a night bus headed west instead. The day was still young though, and while eating breakfast I overheard that there was a group from the hostel, Juan Carlos among them, headed out on a boat tour of the lake. With such fantastic weather, I decided to join them. So we filled a cooler with beer, hopped into our swimwear, and boarded our little skippy boat. Setting out, the waves crashed against our open little boat, shooting water in every direction. It was difficult to stay dry, but that didn’t really matter today. It’s amazing watching a sailboat work, it always stirs feelings deep within me of a nautical nature. Our first destination was a former pirates alcove, situated in the middle of the lake. Besides the pirates, it looked to be used as a bar at some point at well. It was now more of a swimming destination. We walked among the ruins of the pirate-bar and swam in the clear turquoise water until we were ready to leave. We now headed to another cenote, this one attached directly to the lake. The sudden drop off could only be seen with goggles, so we swam here leisurely snorkeling with the timid lake fish. After a quick sandwich aboard the skippy we raced off to our last swimming spot, a sandbar close to a protected bird sanctuary. Here the color of the water was at its finest, and our feet trod over the mucky white sand characteristic of a healthy soil with plenty of organic material to feed it. After all our beer had sadly disappeared we began our return, gliding across the waves with the wind at our back. Back on dry land, Juan Carlos, our new friend Raymar, and I decided to band together to find a different hostel for the night. I had, as it turned out, decided not to take that night bus after all. In fact, I had very different plans.
Plan is a strong word. Vague feeling is better. In Tulum, Magnus had told me about a hike into the jungle to see a hidden Mayan city. I had heard of it before years ago and always thought it would be cool to do. I misremembered it being in Belize somewhere, but had looked it up in later and now knew it started in Flores, Guatemala. In Bacalar, Sandra had told me about the express bus from Bacalar straight to, you guessed it, Flores, Guatemala. The five day trek into the jungle only left about twice a week, depending entirely on if there were enough people to warrant it. With my timing, I was absolutely committed to seeing my friend in Guadalajara the weekend next. Thus, the trek needed to leave the day after I arrived in Flores if I wanted to see the hidden city of El Mirador. Quite the gamble, eh? But this wasn’t a decision made off logic, it was one of intuition. I knew it would work out. And so, trusting fate and kissing the dream of seeing Oaxaca goodbye, I boarded that express bus at 7 in the morning.
Border crossings are always exciting times. They give you a little taste of the country and somehow combine tedious boredom with growing anticipation so you aren’t sure if you are having fun or not. And the suspense as your bag gets searched and you really hope they don’t find the
drugs animal products you keep sneaking between countries. Then you end up in Belize, a country you’ve never researched before, and suddenly find out that everyone speaks English and the population is majority black. And now that you know slightly more, you begin planning the inevitable trip in the coming years that will allow you to explore it FOR REAL. And before you know it, you’ve already left Belize and are now in Guatemala and the sun is setting and you pass by a taco bell and this confuses and terrifies you. And that’s what it’s like when you go from Bacalar to Flores.
We met at 5 in the morning outside the grungy, aged looking tour center somewhere in the middle of Flores. Flores was just a tiny island in the middle of a lake, maybe 200 meters in each direction, so it wasn’t very hard to navigate. I introduced myself to my fellow hikers, and soon we were in our van off to start our adventure to El Mirador. I told you I’d make it, didn’t I? You really should have more faith.
From Flores it was a grueling 3 hour drive north to Carmelita where we would begin the hike. We were all tired, but little sleep was to be had on the drive since the dirt roads and slow pace made even just sitting straight in your chair an impossibility. We passed through a military checkpoint and rolled along several tiny villages as we inched our way to the last village in Northern Guatemala. Eventually we made it and we all happily funneled out of the shuttle van and thanked our driver. Carmelita was a quiet village of only a couple dozen houses. We arrived at a square of sorts, with a crude basketball court on one side and the main building for the trek on the other. We gathered in the latter and were introduced to the crew that would be taking us to El Mirador. They all said a little bit about themselves and some jokes were told. At least I think so, since this was all in Spanish. Thankfully, Roberto and BOLD were fluent in English and translated for us. Something that would be very important for the enjoyment of the trek for us English speakers. After introductions, our stuff was gathered to be placed on mules and we were herded into a dining area to have our first delicious meal. A tomato and egg dish, it was simple but effective. After our meal we had our last chance to use a real bathroom and fill up on water until later that night. I took this time to instead study the local fauna of the region. It was an immersion course in fire ants. A particularly valuable lesson, as all others on the trip would later find out. All other matters settled, we suited up our day packs (or in my case, just a water bottle in hand) and began to walk through the village to reach our trailhead. The village reminded me a bit of some of the ones I walked through in Myanmar. Chickens and pigs strolled about as they pleased, trash piled up every which way, houses of familiar DIY ingenuity. One house even had satellite television! A strange middle point between being connected to an electrical grid while still being cutoff from other major infrastructure. Outside the village, we reached the fork in the road that separated man from nature. We took a right and began our steps into the vast expanse of green and brown before us.
The terrain to El Mirador was actually fairly easy. There wasn’t much elevation change and we didn’t have to carry our own stuff, so it wasn’t very tiring. The real difficulty was the trail itself. A thick mud that looked mucky and damp, even when it wasn’t. We spent most of the first day along smaller side trails, crisscrossing with the main trail at our side. The mud was a gamble to step into, as it was dry most of the time. But most isn’t very reassuring. The first day of hiking was pretty easy and our only real enemy that day was the thick blanket of mosquitoes that followed us. At first they ignored me, something that seems to happen only when I’m outside my own country. But eventually the sweat built up and I became too tantalizing of a snack for them to ignore any longer. I had of course forgotten to bring any insect repellent So I became the beggar of the group, taking any opportune moment to force others to be kind to me and coat myself in poison. After several hours we finally made it to our first campsite where we were greeted with rather luxurious accommodation. Good quality tents under a well made canopy, a dining area and kitchen, outhouses, and even a shower. It was already dark when we arrived, so we devoured our fried chicken dinner, shared a little whiskey and conversation, and then most were quickly off to bed. It would be early mornings for the next couple days. I took a little of time to myself to finish some writing, and then wandered about the nearby jungle trying to find something fun like a jaguar. I didn’t see anything big like a jaguar, but if I sat very still and paid attention, the entire jungle was alive and moving. At my feet were dozens of happy, hopping little frogs. Occasionally a strange beetle could be seen along a tree. And if you shined your light into the vast darkness ahead of you, faint shining shimmers could be seen spread out all along the ground and foliage. Close inspection of the little shimmers proved them to be the returning gazes of what appeared to be wolf spiders, some up to six inches in length. There was something strangely beautiful about shining your light down a path to see the dozens of glimmering eyes staring back at you. They were harmless and were simply out for their nightly hunts. I left them to their business as I returned to my tent.
Day two began with another wonderful egg breakfast, with wonderful eye watering hot sauce included. The hiking that day proved to be far more interesting than the day before. Deeper in the jungle, we were now able to see wildlife that would normally be too scared to come out near the village. Chachalacas, occelated turkeys, hawks, waterfowl, swifts, hummingbirds, storks, turkey vulture, toucans, woodpeckers, parrots, warblers. The list goes on. And I would have missed them all if it wasn’t for our guide and Pedro, both big birders who had the eye and expertise to find them. In the trees we also saw plenty (PLENTY) of spider monkeys, some squirrels, and heard boar and howler monkeys unseen in the distance. I wished for a jaguar. The other hikers probably wanted me to meet a jaguar too, just so I would shut up about it. But no sightings for me. The trail decided to give us all its difficulty in bursts today. We would find ourselves in areas completely underwater and our guide would lead us through a zigzagging obstacle course of balancing across fallen logs and hopping to small islands of dry land. I was glad I had good balance, and even gladder I had good socks and shoes. Our first swampy adventure is when most of the others made friends with the fire ants for the first time, smacking and yanking their relentless biting bodies off their arms and legs. The bite wasn’t very painful, but the itchiness afterwards would drive me insane for weeks to come. Once we cleared the swampy portions, the trail was actually fairly dry. It proved to be far more enjoyable than the constant slog the day before. As we approached got closer to our destination we began running into more and more signs of Mayan civilization. The remains of old roads, an excavated welcome sign, and La Muerta. La Muerta, or The Dead, was named such because when it was first discovered by archaeologists one of their guides went into labor there and passed away. A strange circle of life and an ominous name. La Muerta proved to be one of my favorite stops though, as right when we arrived our guide opened up a door, a door to the dormitory of the site, and half jokingly beckoned us in if we wanted to explore. He didn’t need to ask me twice, and hopped into the dark crawlspace before any of the others were sure if the guide was serious or not. With my trusty headlamp ready, I guided my way into the first small corridor. Mostly empty, I eyed the sinister looking side corridor, much smaller in size, and decided it would be smart not to go in by myself. So I went in by myself. Almost to a crawl, I inched my way down the small hallway and peaked my head around the corner. I was met with the curious gaze of a large whip spider. He didn’t really care about me or my light, as he was busy inching his way towards a nearby moth. The new corridor was much like the first, but now filled with plenty of whip spiders, moths, a couple geckos, and a single lonely bat. Eventually the others followed my lead and came in to explore as well. It became a bit crowded in the tight spaces, so I scampered out to the sunlight and began climbing the temple, a mossy and damp stairway to lead me to the top, still not quite above the trees. That was where I relaxed until our march continued. At the end of the second day we had arrived far earlier to camp than the previous. Our campsite looked similar to the previous, this time set up just at the beginning of the ruins of El Mirador. We arrived with enough time to settle in, stroll about the place, and still make it to the top of one of the temples before nightfall. Our guide lead us to the base of the pyramid, only appearing to be a natural hill from where we stood at the bottom. We clambered up the wooden staircase until we reached the beginning of the excavations, where we could finally make out the detail and beauty of the 2000 year old temple. This was El Tigre, the main temple at the west end of the complex. Overeager, I made sure I was the first to the top of the temple. Scrambling up the stairs, I finally peeked my head up to the top of the pyramid and beheld the vastness of what I had experience for the past two days. Standing triumphantly at the top I could see only an endless ocean of green in all directions. Only the vague shapes of hills differentiated the land before me. Not a single sign of man, alive or dead, could be seen from my vantage point above the canopy. At that moment I knew why I had detoured my trip to a different country, hiked dozens of miles, all based off of what could only be described as a hunch. It was for this boundless view of the splendor of nature, the mortality of man, and the understanding of the sheer force of will it takes to carve out the longest lasting civilization of the world from this eternal and dangerous chaos before me. Before man had decided to build a structure of this height, they couldn’t have even fathomed of what such a view would entail. It was a mystery to them, a mystery revealed upon this pyramid to them the same way it was revealed to myself now. Eventually the others caught up with me, and we enjoyed the splendor together. The sun set and the clouds blocked our view, but we had plenty to look at besides. I was the last one to come down.
We awoke slightly later the next day, eager and ready to explore the mystery of El Mirador. Our guide was in no rush though, so we sat around a little longer that I would have liked before we set out for the largest Mayan structure yet discovered, La Danta. We passed by several smaller structures along the way, hopped across literal pools of fire ants, and clambered over old and forgotten walls until we finally reached the base of the massive La Danta pyramid. It was a serious climb in and of itself, arising from the forest floor, climbing up to the base of the complex, and then finally up the wooden stairs to the pyramid itself. You could sense the awe and glory of the temple as you looked upon it, understanding the significance it had in its prime. As we marched up the last steps of the pyramid, we came face to face with the howler monkeys we had heard so much of the past couple days. They are definitely more bark than bite. At the top of the pyramid the impressiveness of the view from El Tigre was multiplied 10 fold. We were nearly 30 meters higher now, far far above the rest of the jungle. We sat here for over an hour, peacefully absorbing the magnificence of the moment. Until the helicopter came. Instead of doing the hike as we did you could spend 500 dollars and fly from Flores to El Mirador on a helicopter, spend a couple hours here, and be back in time for supper at the country club. I’m sure you know how I felt about that. But we were polite, and as they flew in and circled the pyramid some of us waved, others joked about wanting a rocket launcher, and I seriously considered mooning them. On our way back from La Danta as we returned for lunch, our flying friends drove past us in a fancy golf cart filled up with posh looking elderly British folk. I guess they didn’t really have the option to hike at that age, but I still didn’t like em’. After lunch, we relaxed for a little too long again. I took the time to finish reading my book. After far too long we set out to see the rest of the buildings of El Mirador. Only half of us came with. In greater privacy, we got to enjoy several other temples, throne rooms, sacrificial altars, observatories, and an extremely well excavated frieze of the origin myths of the Mayan religion. Another sunset on El Tigre and the day was done. That night was a wonderful meal of egg fried asparagus, a dish I need to try a hand at myself, and then we were off to sleep.
The hike back proved far less eventful, as it was along the same path as before. We also had the thrill of seeing the ruins behind us, and only the expectation of relaxation and luxury ahead. So we became slower, more tired, and many seemed excited for the journey to end. I definitely felt the toll the trek was having on me, but I wasn’t particularly looking forward to getting back to civilization and having to go through two days of travel to reach my next destination. I tried to stay in the moment as much as possible and really take in the quite peace of the jungle. I found myself hiking alone more often than not now, occasionally nervous I had made a wrong turn. It was important for me to clear my head though, and I came out of that jungle far happier and sure of myself than when I had entered. Nature is important to me, and travel isn’t quite the same without it. We returned to Carmelita on Thanksgiving. Our last meal was a delicious smoked pork with beans and rice. We took some last pictures and thanked all the people that had helped us on the trek. There was a wall in the main building, filled with signatures and messages from those that had done the trek before us. I didn’t have anything to say, but still eagerly signed my initials at the center of the mural. If you ever go, look for them. It’s in the same style that Tolkien did his. Once all was settled, we hopped back into our van to finish the last three hour ordeal to Flores. Back in town we said our goodbyes. Mine wern’t as good as I would have liked, since I was distracted with trying to arrange a night bus as soon as possible. I’ll just have to see them again some time to make up for it.
The day before I was in middle of the jungle, surrounded by the tranquility of the outdoors. Now it was sunrise and I was in Guatemala City, with no idea what to do besides catch my flight later that evening. So I improvised. I found a hostel on Maps.Me (Thank you so much Maps.Me I love you), and offered them a couple of dollars to be able to shower there and use the internet for a couple hours. This gave me some time to freshen up after the trek, as I was only able to shower once during the whole thing. I’m not a particularly smelly person, but even I have my limits. With the internet I finally booked my flight home, as I was sure that I would make it to Guadalajara as long as my flight went as planned. And with the rest of the day I walked around the capital city of Guate. I saw the main plaza, the important churches, the less important churches, the parks and the stores and the traffic. Cities aren’t my style, but less developed cities are still pretty fun. I picked up some food off a random street vendor, found a rather luxurious mall to buy a new book, and then finally began my walk to the airport. It proved to be a long and strange ordeal as I walked along the highway, but why pay for a taxi when I have legs and time? I made it to the airport with time to spare, and to the plane with some time to spare, so it all works out in the end.
I was back in Mexico again, steering back from my detour to my original course. I landed in Mexico City an hour before midnight. My journey to Guadalajara was far from over, as I had to catch a bus in two hours. But I had time to kill so me and Janine, a girl I met on my flight, decided to grab a beer or two. She had several hours to kill until her next flight to Costa Rica so we kept each other company. She turned out to be an Alaskan fisherman, and definitely hyped up the idea in my head of spending a summer fishing to save up money for travel. We’ll see. Eventually I had to say my goodbyes and so I hopped on my bus and tried to catch whatever sleep I could during the 3 hour journey. The bus dropped me off at Santiago de Queretaro, only half way to Guadalajara. Here I asked around at the bus station how to get to Guadalajara and learned the unfortunate lesson that Mexicans aren’t very helpful unless you get super direct with them. Everyone told me there was no bus, or that the bus left in 10 hours. As it turned out, they should have just pointed down to the other end of the station where I could get the ticket to Guadalajara, but that would be too helpful, huh? I finally got to Guadalajara at 10am, four hours later than planned. I didn’t have any WiFi to use when I arrived, so I just hoped that my friend Fernando was expecting me to bit late, since I had told him I’d be there at 8. I also had no plan on how to get to him. I did have the address though, so I figured it out. One bus, 30 minutes of walking, two trains, and another 30 minutes of walking later I finally got to his apartment. Easy! Also his apartment was gated, with good security, so I figured out my way in there too. Eventually he came down to greet me after some delicate language skills on my part. It was good to see Fernando again, I hadn’t seen him since last year, around Christmas time, when we were both working at Big Fish Hostel in Budapest. You meet a lot of people that you hope to see again, but it doesn’t seem to work out every time. This time it did. As it turned out, he thought I was coming in the night, not the morning. And it was good that I arrived when I did, because he was just about to leave for his hometown and was texting me that I should find a hostel tonight. But it worked out. So we left, right away, to hop in his truck and drive off to Ciudad Guzman.
Ciudad Guzman was two hours south, the home of many famous artists of Mexico, including director Guillermo del Toro. We drove through the mountainous deserts of central Mexico, passing by agave farms and berry orchards. Eventually we arrived at his family’s house, a large and beautiful home tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of the town. We went inside and he showed me around the ornately decorated interior. His mother greeted us in the kitchen, my favorite place in any house, and although her English and my Spanish were lacking we still made heartwarming greetings to each other. It didn’t take long for her to offer me food, so I took good advantage of the chance at some Mexican home cooking. It was as fantastic as you can imagine. She also took my laundry, something that can be difficult to get done while traveling, and I got a quick shower before we headed out for Fernando to show me around the town square a bit. The main plaza was quiet and charming. It had a peacefulness intrinsic to itself, unobstructed by the chaos of city life or the predation of tourist areas. As far as I knew, I was the only foreigner there. And so he showed me some of the art around the plaza, pieces from Jose Clemente Orozco, and we walked about the small market area. It was mostly just nice to catch up with him after all these months. That night, we met up with some of his friends up at a spot they called El Paradiso. Up on the mountains we drank beers and chatted high above the city. They were all young and spoke pretty good English. I wish I could have returned the favor and spoke decent Spanish back. We got to the topic of what to do tomorrow, and Fernando and I were kicking around the idea of climbing the nearby volcano of Nevado de Colima. Somehow we convinced all of his friends to join us the next morning for the 3 hour hike. We would meet at 5 am and all drive together. It was getting to be about 10 when we left the mountain retreat, more than enough time for a decent night’s sleep. We just had to make one quick stop at a friend’s house for maybe an hour. And while his friend was lovely, the copious amount of tequila they gave me was not. I did my best to convince Fernando it was a good idea to get home so we can rest for the hike, but my requests fell on deaf ears.
It was five in the morning. We had gotten about one hour of sleep. I couldn’t tell if I was hung over or still drunk. Fernando was my alarm clock and I wanted nothing more than to smash the snooze button until it stopped working forever. I briefly considered staying behind, but I’m not particularly good at giving up. Especially in the face of really stupid and difficult plans. So I begrudgingly got in the truck, slept what little I could on the bouncy ride over, and then poured out with the other when we finally arrived at the start of the trail. The sun was rising and it was beautiful and I hated it. We got our things in order and set out, marching beside the alpine trees along our dusty, rocky trail. With just the first couple steps, I wanted to all at once vomit every last drop of tequila I’ve ever drank, and simultaneously collapse into a restful coma. I did neither, and instead concentrated on the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. We quickly whipped out a couple of snacks we had brought for breakfast and I figured out how to keep down at least a bite or two before we set out again. The first third of the hike was along a dirt maintenance road passing up through the treeline. Eventually the trees died out, we stopped for another snack, and then began our march through the barren, ashy second third of our hike. The slopes were more forgiving here, but my stomach didn’t care much for the increasing altitude either way. I tried my best to dispel the idea of time and simply march forward at whatever pace I could. Fernando and I were definitely slower compared to most the group, whom had hiked this mountain plenty of times and had almost endless reserves of energy. I’d like to think I would have kept up with them under better circumstances. But maybe not. Eventually we reached the final portion of the hike, as the ashy gravel gave way into large rocks and jagged cliff faces. Now the challenge wasn’t so much walking as it was climbing. Here we had to be careful and pay attention, lest our footholds slip and we send rocks tumbling down to the other below us, or join those rocks on a long journey down. The view, and the altitude, became grander and grander as we climbed. It made our long breaks all the more enjoyable. When we started hiking, I was told it would only take about two hours to summit. It was well past three when I finally dragged my sad, achy body to the highest peak of the inactive volcano. Some people like to scream and cheer when they peak mountains, especially difficult ones. I usually just try to find somewhere to sit. From here above the clouds we could see the entire area; the still active volcano nearby, the city in the distance, and all the intricate lowlands weaving about until they hit the next range of mountains in the distance. We stopped and gawked for quite a while, taking pictures, eating, and generally being happy for ourselves. I also had a lovely catnap. I loved the view, but I was also relieved when we were finally making our way down. We took a different path down, one with more bouldering to be done, but we got through fine. At this point my stomach had settled but my brain was dying, so I dozed whenever we would stop for a couple minutes rest. We finished the rocky portion and quickly breezed through the ashy portion, this time finding a long ash deposit that you could running slide down to make quick time. I did so with considerable unenthusiasm. And lastly we finished off walking down into the pine forests again until we finally made it to the road. When we finally returned to Fernando’s home after a several hour ordeal, I passed out quite happily in his bed, free from the trials of the mountain.
I awoke around dinner time and sauntered downstairs where his family was having a little party. In Mexico, every Sunday is a party. I went outside to greet myself to the other members of his family, whom actually all had superb English skills. We got along great. Fernando’s father, already well into his cups at this point, asked me if I liked Mexico. I answered that I loved it. And every couple minutes after that, we would repeat this exchange. His family found it hilarious. They also found it hilarious when he tried to get me to do shots with him. Then they started chanting my name to encourage me, and at that point my ability to resist peer pressure caved in and I found myself with the youngest member of the family pouring three seconds worth of tequila into my mouth. I really don’t try to get into these situations, okay? Thankfully Madre Cruz didn’t let it get any worse and I could go to bed without a repeat of the night before. And I had some bomb chilaquiles.
The next day we got up early, ready to return to Guadalajara. Fernando was still in school and it was finals week, so the plan was that he would drop me off at his place before class so that I could explore around the city myself. That was the plan at least. A true stereotype, he seemed to always be running late. And so I joined him at university for the morning. I strolled about the campus, feeling nostalgic for my time at school. I sat in the Mexican version of a quad and read my book, and after an hour or two Fernando returned and we made our way back to his apartment. We relaxed for a moment and then went downtown, where we had lunch with his family whom were getting ready to fly out to California. It was some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. Afterwards he showed me around the city of Guadalajara. The major churches and the old architecture. We stopped at the Regional Museum of Guadalajara and looked at more of Jose Clemente Orozco’s works. Then we went to the huge marketplace in the center of the city, where we wandered about with the vague notion that I should get some souvenirs. The place was filled with countless leather workers and cobblers, bird keepers and weavers. Just as we were about to leave, disappointed I couldn’t find anything interesting, we stumbled upon a small shop filled with ponchos. Now that’s something I could use in chilly Minnesota! So I happily left with two ponchos for about fifteen bucks total, one extremely warm and the other extremely decorated with images of the Mayan calendar. Satisfied, we left to go back to his car and begin our drive back to his apartment. He had classes that night too, so the plan was to drop me off before that. That was the plan anyways. So I was back at university, sitting in the library, reading my book as students all around me chatted away or worked on final projects or snoozed on chairs beside me. Finally we returned to his apartment where we chilled out, ate some food, had some beers, and watched Uma Thurman chop up some bad guys.
The next day, my last day, we woke up after a good night’s rest and grabbed some tacos ahogados for breakfast. Fernando was off to school, without me this time, and I had the day to myself. Everyone recommended me to go visit Tlaquepaque, a small town located right in Guadalajara. So I hopped on some buses and did too much walking for my own good. The area was surrounded by schools and universities, which were just letting out for lunch as I was walking through. Here is where I learned how unenjoyable it is to be catcalled as a bit too many girls started calling out “Hola guerito, como estas!” followed by a long string of unknown Spanish. Guerito is a diminutive form of ‘blondie’, often used as a form of endearment. And while I’d be completely fine with someone just talking to me in that way, there was something incredibly uncomfortable about getting shouted that by a group of strangers. And so I pretended I didn’t know a lick of Spanish as I walked by them, oblivious to their advances. And I cried in the shower later, but that’s normal. Besides that fun, Tlaquepaque was very picturesque, a perfectly quiet little traditional village in the middle of a major city. I looked at (surprise) churches, got some ice cream, and found a couple of little souvenirs for the family back home. When I returned to the apartment later that day, nobody was around, so I enjoyed some peace and quiet to do a little reading. That night I was planning on going to a La Lucha match, a battle between masked wrestlers similar to the wonders of WWE. I was under the impression others were going with me, but it quickly became apparent this was going to be a one man affair as others began dropping off like flies. So I showed up alone to the arena, bought myself a mask, and sat down ringside to watch some half naked oiled up men pretend to fight one another. The energy in the stadium was overflowing. From the crowds, constant shouts were heard belittling the fighters they dislike and rooting on the fighters they adored. Each match consisted of a group of good guys, with their white, blue, or Spiderman style masks, against a group of bad guys, with their black and red masks. The fight would usually start out one vs one, until one of the bad guys would inevitably be a bad guy and start 2v1ing the good guy. So it devolves into a free for all until the ref decides its time to reset. The arena was filled with yelling, but only half of it was directed at the wrestlers. The other half was directed at each other, as the people in the ringside seats would get into shouting matches with the people in the cheap seats, usually calling each other putas and other such Mexican unpleasantries. It was here where I was called guerito again, so this time I could triumphantly return with a couple of Spanish cuss words back. The show continued, the midget was brought out for some action, until the final bout began. The crowd went wild for the captain of the good guys, seemingly a very important figure in this strange mythos. People were chucked out of rings, masks were almost torn off, back flips were…flipped. If you sat in the front row you were liable to get smashed into by one of the wrestlers, whom would gladly knock your beer everywhere and then sit dazed and confused in your chair while you laugh and take selfies with him. It was truly a magical time, and a fantastic ending to an amazing three week trip.
The plane landed and I looked out the window. There was snow everywhere and I could already tell how cold it was going to be when I left the plane. The other passengers began to unbuckle themselves and grab their luggage. Somebody behind me bumped into another person, and in true Minnesotan fashion exclaimed an “Oofta sorry about that!” And I can’t particularly explain to you why, but that was when I was happy to be home. Not just in the sense that I was back from this trip specifically. But that I was overwhelmed with pride and love for where I came from. The little Midwest city I was raised in. With the thick forests and endless lakes. With the hot summers and the hellish winters. With the people too nice for their own good. That was when I knew I loved it, and that was when I knew I could leave it. Not the apathetic ‘take it or leave it’ attitude I normally had, but the idea that I can be both ecstatic to leave and ecstatic to come back. An equilibrium of sorts, a stepping stone into figuring out just what the hell it is I’m supposed to be doing. To new adventures, where ever we are.
Thanks for reading.