Chetumal, Mexico (October 11-13)

Last weekend was another long weekend, celebrating Independence Day, and the feeling of obligation to ‘use it well’ came up. But being near the end of our 6 months we are pretty strapped dosh-wise so wondered what to do as cheaply as possible. A friend had told us how easy it was to catch the bus north to Chetumal, just over the Mexican border, so last Saturday found us on an express bus, comfy seats and air con, for the princely sum of £3.50 each. It was surprisingly uncomplicated to pass through the customs and immigration, and quite extraordinary to witness the volume of traffic moving back and forth all the time. There is a large ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, full of local businesses and merchandise, and people from both countries apparently flock there to pick up clothing and cheap electrical goods.

We immediately noticed a big difference to Belize – the roads were tarmaced, and there was an obviously developed infrastructure of masts and cables, road ‘furniture’, plus lots of the other trappings of twenty first century life. The cars were more modern and in good condition, and a lot more of them. This neck of Mexico is part of Maya Caribbean, and obviously much more developed than some of the other regions of Mexico, such as we had witnessed surrounding San Miguel Allende a couple of summers ago.

The town of Chetumal is 20 minutes down the road from the border, the most south-easterly corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun, now a big tourist attraction, is due north for 382 km (217 miles) to the top of the peninsula. It was fun to be in a Spanish speaking country again, though we foolishly left our dictionary and phrase book in BC. The bus terminates at ‘el Mercado Nuevo’, and we caught a taxi to ‘el Mercado Viejo’, where the museo and other more touristy bits are. The second hotel we found was cheap, clean and comfortable (relatively!) and had friendly staff. We relished the different style of what we had become accustomed to in BC. Everything seemed hugely modern – we wondered how it would compare with the UK; would that be different again when we return?  The streets were wide, paved, clean, with no Albert St. dust coating all the produce.  The walk down to the ‘esplanada’ was spacious and felt safe. The coastline was much the same as Belize – cayes and reefs breaking the horizon, and a sticky mud coating the sea bottom after numerous hurricanes, making most of it unavailable for swimming from the mainland. Our hospitable hosts advised us that after the museo – which was both informative and well laid out – we could catch a sort of mix between bus and communal taxi out to Bacalar.

The next day found us waiting patiently in a very hot vehicle for the necessary 4 passengers before the driver was willing to take us on the 40 minute ride. Bacalar is situated on the edge of the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors) in the state of Quintana Roo, and according to the guide books “provides a wealth of history and magic. This town cultivates the memories of its ancestors: fishermen, merchants, warriors and poets.”  We were set down in a small but charming plaza, next to the wide and as we were rightly told, variegated colours of the Laguna. As we walked towards an old fortress and some cabanas beside the water just beyond, we were very politely approached by a guide. His manner was so courteous (“Yes, the beach is down there; and when you return maybe I can show you around the fortress? I am a very knowledgeable guide, and I have educated myself in order to be able to inform others well.”) that we almost succumbed. He was obviously not getting much business at this time of year – but it was not on our agenda. We wanted a swim!

A dirt road led to a track down to a small area with a long wooden jetty going into the lagoon. We had to pay a few pesos to walk down it. It had a bar and restaurant area – all in gaily painted concrete – and was fringed by about 10 round concrete tables and ‘stools’ covered by a thick palm thatch.  We found an empty one, and whilst currently in warm sunshine we could see large clouds on the horizon so determined to get on with the business just in case… A few wriggles and pulls later (changing never seems to get any easier) we submerged ourselves into the warm, clear turquoise blue water. Gorgeous. Sometimes we have found the sea almost uncomfortably warm, but this was just right! It was an interesting texture too, salt free of course, and slightly chalky. The texture of the bottom was a peculiar mix of chalk and clay – or at least that is what it felt like.

We eventually made our way back to our table, only to be accosted again by the man on the track. I protested that we had paid, but he pointed to the thatch and said ‘Más pesos.’ More pesos for use of the table and shade, but not too astronomical. The dark clouds were coming closer and quite a squall was building up on the water, small white horses dotted across the surface. On the far shore we had a spectacular show of lightening amidst the falling rain. More wriggles and squirms got us out of wet cossies, ready to run for shelter when necessary. An archetypal young art student came round with a jointed wooden display board with some very pretty earrings, not a million miles from the style of some that Gemma used to make. Being in Mexico they were so much cheaper than anything in Belize, so to her delight we bought some. By this time the clouds had by-passed us, but we decided to grab a little lunch at the café we had noticed between the track and the fortress.

As we entered the small café right on the water’s edge, there were only two other rather unsavoury looking men drinking beer at a nearby table. After a bit they got up and left, and a young and very dour waiter came over to see what we wanted. We decided to share a small creviche, a salad made with prawns, and having made the order wondered if we had made a silly mistake. An empty restaurant? Shell fish? Hmmm. After a bit a fishy smell wafted across our noses, and I turned to see an elderly lady standing with a small cooking pot and shelling a huge pile of fresh prawns. Shortly these ended up on our table in a very good salad indeed!

Trying to avoid disappointing the guide, we decided to walk into the centre of the village by a different route. A long dirt track took us up the small hill, and past a typical assortment of wooden and concrete houses of various sizes, shapes and states of being, only with a Mexican rather than Belizean flavour to them. We came out to the main road leading to the plaza, only to be hailed warmly from behind by our tour guide approaching from the other side of the village. He cheerily informed us that he had just had his lunch, and was now going back to his post, being an excellent tour guide, and that he would see us later no doubt. All said in almost perfect English in a gentle and respectful way. Oh dear!

We sat gratefully on a bench in the plaza, awaiting a communal taxi which we had been reassured would be about 3pm. Half an hour later there was still no sign of a taxi  – in fact almost no sign of any traffic at all. We managed to communicate our concerns to a shop keeper, who informed us that the taxis were around the corner. They turned out to be regular taxis, so we were mightily surprised that the cost was the same as the other taxi-bus. Then one driver said for an extra 10 pesos he would take us on to where our hotel was. We agreed, sat in, and then noticed the roars of laughter from the gaggle of drivers congregated on the pavement under the shade of a large tree. We felt it had something to do with us but were not sure what. After a while of nothing happening we began to stare questioningly at the driver, who came over and held up 4 fingers. Quatro persona. We realised that the price was the same because this was the same – a communal taxi. Two more folk came along surprisingly quickly, and he sped us speedily and safely down the – excellent – highway into Chetumal. He dropped the 2 other people off, got out quickly to talk to the taxi drivers at his ‘depot’, and then started the car up to take us to our hotel. Within a minute I saw what the joke was….he drove us round the block! The cool of the evening found us having another long walk around the esplanada feeling quite safe amongst the parents and children strolling along too. A very pleasant and cheap weekend in Mexico.