One Week In Mexico
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One Week In Mexico

As we broke through the bottom of the cloud deck, I looked out the window at the tops of the palms.

The uninterrupted jungle canopy filled the window with a uniform green carpet. There was only one problem. The windows on the right side of the plane were still showing the slate-grey sky. Coming into the airstrip in pan-flat Cozumel Mexico, the windows should have shown a bit of sky and a bit of ground on both sides, not only one or the other. We were coming into the airfield, one-wing down falling out of a hurricane spinning its way out across the whole Gulf between here and Houston.

Abruptly the views in the windows swapped sides. Rotund retirees, aged and pre-tanned gripped hard at the hand rests and planted flip-flop-clad feet into the tightly woven blue carpet. There was a roller-coaster flutter in the pit of my stomach as the trees lurched closer, then everyone pressed back in their seats as the captain smashed on the gas. The rolling airliner did the most athletic thing it had probably done in months. We plowed back up into the low clouds in a move that would probably result in paperwork after the flight.

“Sorry, folks” the captain drawled casually without further explanation. “We are gonna head around and take another run at that. We should have you on the ground in a few minutes.”

On the ground in a few minutes, our plane disgorged its wobbly, slightly air-sick contents down two sets of rolling stairs and onto the sweltering tarmac. It was beginning to rain, which prompted many passengers to instinctively raise rumpled magazines over their heads and scamper in boat shoes and floral prints toward the terminal doors. My wife and I kept an easy pace. It was so hot and humid it scarcely mattered if you were hit with actual rain or not. Besides, we hadn’t come to Mexico to hurry.

The most crowded we would be on the whole trip was on the shuttle to our resort. The brown Dodge minivan, unaltered from civilian service except for the light on top and a magnetic sign with a phone number on the door, was packed to the brim and beyond. A single column of freezing air blasted past our driver, its benefit lost completely on the slender woman who had got in last and let her husband take the outside seat with more leg room.

She was already dressed for the beach, and her lean frame caught the full force of the eager air conditioning. She pulled at a sweatshirt in her bag as the rest of us sweltered against each other back in the third row.

I have always wondered what it would be like to vacation at one of those ultra-exclusive resorts where you have acres of beach to yourself and empty dining rooms filled only with stunning views and overly-attentive waiters. As we spilled from the van into the open-air lobby of our hotel, I realized I was about to find out. A pile of money was not what had brought about this experience, though, for our hotel was normally a garden-variety all-inclusive for the masses.

We had passed a guard at the gate to our hotel, but the bulge under the back of his pastel polo shirt was only a radio. At the resorts in Playa del Carmen, just across the water a scant 11 miles away, the guards in fatigures were carrying assault rifles. A a recent spate of newsworthy kidnappings for ransom in 2012 had put a damper on American interest in visiting Mexico. Though the beaches were still paper-white and the water as sparkling as ever, the gates to paradise were literally guarded by Mexican Army troops reassigned to reassure would-be guests that their stay in paradise wouldn’t be longer than expected.

A mai-tai with a military escort was not to the linking of many Americans, it seemed, and resort bookings had plummeted. Add to that an early-season hurricane, and the bungalows along the water stood in empty shuttered rows. The hammocks all swayed in the breeze, but listlessly and empty, rather than slowly under the weight of some relaxing middle manager from Georgia or Texas.

The bar stools mostly sat empty around the tiki hut beyond the pools. Floral shirted bartenders talked with one another, as there was no one else to talk to. No laughing packs of escaping suburban soccer moms having their Mama Mia moment were to be found toying with one timid shot of tequila to celebrate a wedding, a divorce, or both. Only a few middle-aged men sauntered along the flower draped paths, Hawaiian shirts open over their beer guts to let out the building heat of a sunburn from an ill-timed nap.

The whole place had a strange, out of kilter feel to it, but we didn’t mind. Not one of the six people in our party were the resort type anyhow. We would sooner have been out and about exploring on our own rather than cooped up in a cloistered paradise of this little Disneyland version of Mexico. The strangeness of an empty resort and staff so bored they looked disoriented seemed to fit the altered little world we had landed in. You may as well try anything once if you can, though, including being pampered.

Days passed in that strange way that can only happen when you are completely cared for by people you never really see. Each day had a similar rhythm of beach time, showers, naps, little adventures on the water, and then putting on a real shirt for the daily trek to try a new dining room somewhere on the resort. Each of the restaurants had a different theme, though we were beginning to notice commonalities. The red sauce on the pizzas at the Italian place had a similar tang to the mild salsa that came with the chips down by the water. The deserts in the American joint at the end of the private beach looked suspiciously like the ones served at lunch under the wide veranda next to the pool with the swim-up bar.

The guests at the resort started to recognize each other. There were so few of us that it was impossible not to. We would sometimes wave awkwardly at one another as we crossed paths going down to the water or coming back to mill about haphazardly like cows outside a barn as we waited for the lunch spots to be opened.

After a few days, our crew had been baptized in the clear ocean from all the stress we brought with us, and we were antsy for adventure. There were conversations with the concierge over the wide, marble front desk in the morning sea breeze. Phone calls were made and soon two white Jeeps without any doors, tops rolled back, and oozing an air of limitless adventure pulled into the drive. Kidnappings or adultnappings were harder, we figured, on an island. Where could you take someone once you had napped them? It didn’t matter. We needed some open air, an open road and the edgy fun of not keeping your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.

Comfortable isolation and adventure.

We needed some open air, an open road and the edgy fun of not keeping your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.

The hurricane that had blown us here was finally passing, and the sun was peeking through the lumbering hippopotamus clouds still scattered about the sky.

At the south end of the island, the endless jungle finally broke away at the bend in the Quintana Roo C-1 where the paved road turned north again. Only a thin strip of dirt road ventured any further around the Laguna Columbia to the Faro Celarain, where Cozumel ran out of south and all that lay before us was the sudden wind and open sea filled with the most stunning cobalt waves I had ever seen washing over the jagged reef.

Any trip on or near the Yucatan, though, would not be complete without having at least one look at some ancient ruins. Driving up the coast, we were still bathed in the fresh wind off the sea until we reached the only turn at Mezcalito’s where the road plunges left into the jungle and across the island. Deeper and deeper into the island we drove, leaving the lone highway and heading further north through the unmolested jungle to the Zona Arqueologica San Gervasio.

Though we were deep in the forest, I had expected something akin to the experience of wandering through the remnants of cliff dwellings in Arizona or Utah. But, I had never been to the Yucatan before. Buzzing along the road in our jeeps under the jungle fronds had suggested a Jurassic Park feel, but touring the ruins, things were now getting downright Indiana Jones. The jungle had barely been carved back from some of the great stone buildings, greedy, knobby roots reaching out to pull apart the limestone walls. Iguanas of a size I had never seen drug themselves across the ground and up into the low branches of the trees, scaly scraping noises coming from their bellies on the dry ground and occasional surprised shrieks coming from inattentive, camera toting tourist who had set the lizards crawling out of reach.

The path to the first temple was well marked and showed the evidence of a road that had withstood hundreds of years of serious attempts by the jungle to erase it. Some of the blocks were still tightly set together, though their dished tops now harbored recent rain or tufts of grass between their bone-white rims.

After looking over the first temple, we followed the signs to the second stop shown on the diagram on the visitor’s map. Here reality and representation diverged. The last sign pointed straight down a green tunnel in the forest, but instead of an old, rescued road, there was only the tops of angled stones sticking occasionally out of water and mire on the jungle floor. The few stones and patches of what looked like dry ground were just far enough apart that you could almost hop between them if you stuck every landing. There was no telling how deep the water and mud would be if you missed. We tightened camera straps and shoe laces and took a leap. Then a second. Then a wobbly third.

It was not long before my luck ran out.

A promising nub of stone was withing reach, but I didn’t notice the faint green slime covering it. No grease or lubricant made by the hand of man could have a lower coefficient of friction. My rugged trail-running shoes stood no chance. I went down full-length into the green water and felt a stab of pain in my left hand.

Pulling myself up quickly out of the sucking mud, I saw a bright river of blood streaming from my palm. Of all the places on earth I could think to get an open wound, this was one of the least inviting. My head started swimming with dark wonderings about what kind of superbugs and mysterious tropical diseases had probably leapt eagerly under my skin.

We were far enough in that seeing the rest of the ruins seemed as quick as trying to go back. We poured the last of my water on my hand in a futile attempt to clean the wound and went on looking at the jungle slowly reclaiming the temples. My hastily bandaged hand served as a potent and unexpected connection to the reddish-brown handprints on the inside of one low building. These prints left on the soot-blackened stones looked like they too may have been dipped in blood to leave their mark. The question was whose blood it might have been.

Driving back through the city of Cozumel itself, I had seen tourists heading back to the towering cruise ships, the back of a calf or shoulder taped up to cover a new, possibly ill-considered tattoo. The hole in my bandaged hand was the only mark I would take home, healing uneventfully into a faint, white crescent on my palm.

That night, after taking a pile of mystery medications bought at a pharmacy with a few pesos and some very dodgy, rusty Spanish, I sat at the end of the tiki bar, one bandaged hand on the counter and the other around a $.50 Mexican lager. The sea breeze and the empty beach were behind me, and the pool sat as glassy and empty under strings of party lights as its photo in the brochure.

Everyone else had gone to bed early after our big day on the road, tired as you can only be after a day in the wind and sun. I turned and looked out at the twinkling lights of Playa del Carmen just visible above the dark water. Taking a sip of my beer I looked past the lights into the great darkness beyond.

I thought about those soldiers standing at the gates of the resorts across the water, and the quagmire of drugs headed to the States and tourists coming back down that kept this local economy thriving and in peril at the same time. I thought about the wild, endless jungle and the ancient temples it had eaten. The little walled-in slice of ocean front I sat in was so small, so tame. Even today’s adventures had been circumscribed, constrained to Cozumel’s one loop of highway that ringed the island like a giant grown-up go-kart track.

A couple days later I closed the door to our cabana for the last time and went to find my wife sitting by her luggage in the shade of the high, open lobby. Dodge mini-vans were dropping off fresh loads of tourists just like us, though they were not yet sun-burned and still carried themselves with that slight tension of the overworked and under-rested. They fingered their phones nervously, though back then few US carriers had signal on the island.

Finally, we loaded into a van. Then it was out past the guard in the pastel polo shirt. Everyone in the back of the van passed a few pesos forward to tip the driver. It was time to shed the last foreign currency we couldn’t spend at home and get ready to be blasted back to our daily lives courtesy of American Airlines. The week had been blissfully uneventful, allowing us to build up the energy for a fresh start on life that only vacations can provide. I looked at the clear skies over the gulf and hoped our departure would be less eventful than our arrival. It is, after all, harder to get a second try at a takeoff than a landing.

Want to see more?

Digging through the archives, I found a photo of the actual coffee shop I visited! You can find it over on Patreon.