Welcome to the Jungle

Last month I wrote a post about the first week of my honeymoon, which was to the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic, and promised more to come. Our honeymoon was three weeks long so this is the second instalment of the trilogy. The first week was wonderful, relaxing by the pool, mixed with a few excursions to various beaches around the island, plus some rum drinking and cigar smoking. The second week was very different.When we were planning the holiday the idea was for the first week to be relaxing to recuperate from the run up to the wedding, and then to take it up a gear so that we wouldn’t get bored. That sort of worked, except that our first destination was more tourist focused, so there were more things to do; whereas the second was in the middle of nowhere.

I’m making it sound so far like we had a boring week. We really didn’t. After leaving the Dominican Republic (very early in the morning, I might add), we flew to Atlanta, and then on to Cancun in Mexico. At a first glance that is a tourist destination. There were a similar number of resorts to Punta Cana, miles of beaches, lots of attractions; except that we didn’t actually stay in Cancun. We drove for 5 hours- about 250 miles south, to the Quintana Roo district of Mexico, just north of the border with Belize. By the time we arrived in Mexico it was night time, so the picturesque drive that we had imagined, along the coast with views of the sea, wasn’t quite what happened. Between us and the sea was a lot of jungle, so we couldn’t see it anyway, and even without the jungle, it was pretty dark. We had the added pressure of knowing that at some point we would need to get fuel, but without many pesos and not knowing which gas stations took credit card; plus the fact that we were getting increasingly hungry; and the ever present fear of being stopped by the police. We had heard so many horror stories of foreigners being pulled over for minor infractions and forced to pay extortionate fines or be sent to jail, that we were fairly nervous. We spent the whole journey not going a single km/h over the speed limit, and getting increasingly anxious with each road block we approached, which were everywhere. Fortunately we were only actually stopped about 3 times, and each time, once the officer was satisfied we had driving licenses and passports, we knew where we were going, and hadn’t stolen the car, we were free to carry on. Phew.

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, the fantastic Explorean Kohunlich.  When we arrived in the middle of the night we were pleased to find we could go straight to our room and sort out all the paperwork in the morning. The accommodation was just what we wanted. A private thatched bungalow to ourselves, with a plunge pool, hammock and day bed outside. Proper shutters kept the sun out fantastically well to allow for a lie in, and although getting to the restaurant could be a bit of a quest with the number of jumping and flying insects, none of them got into the room. Every morning when we came out there would be a basket with coffee and some sort of cake, and biscuits were dropped around in the evening. You just had to make sure the resident fox didn’t make off with them first. We spent a lot of time around the room reading and sleeping, and felt completely at home. The only problem we had was that when it rained, and it was impressive when it did, the drains couldn’t quite cope and the shower and toilet would back up a bit. Never a problem with hygiene or anything, just a bit inconvenient!

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The restaurant and pool were both up at reception. Although you could order whatever you wanted at the restaurant, we wanted to try and eat local food as much as possible, in which case you were given two choices each day, quite often one meat and one fish. Even with my fairly fussy husband, we really did enjoy every meal. That may have been because quite often we didn’t know what we were getting, as we didn’t speak Spanish and the staff didn’t speak much English, so there wasn’t an opportunity beforehand to decide we didn’t like it! There were quite a few families there, so you would often see kids with burgers and chips, but most guests are Mexican, and were entirely used to the food that was new and exciting to us. The pool was a lot smaller than our last hotel, but it was mainly used for cooling down when it got too hot during the day. In the second half of the week there were often quite a few kids in it, so we normally left them to it and went to have a nap! There was also a jacuzzi next to the pool thought that was largely empty, so it wouldn’t have been a problem if we had have wanted to go in.

Probably the best thing about the hotel though was the daily excursions. At the beginning of the week you were given a programme of what was on, and there were multiple programmes rolling at the same time for different guests. You would get a phone call about 10 minutes before they were about to leave in the morning to check if you wanted to go out. The first day we were running to catch up after not realising our clocks weren’t quite on the right time difference! The staff who led the trips were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and they really made the holiday for us. We took a couple of trips out by ourselves, as we had hired a car to get down from Cancun, but we would never have had the opportunity to do all that the hotel arranged.

There were only a couple of excursions that we ended up doing on our own. The first was to the Mayan ruins in Dzibanche, and that was only because we had missed the hotel trip due to timing issues. When we arrived we started wandering around on our own, and after a short walk came to an impressive temple. I’ve seen pictures of these places before but never really appreciated how tall they actually are. When you climb to the top you can see for miles over the jungle.

When we came back down we were pretty happy, thinking we’d seen everything, when we came across a member of staff, who pointed out a monkey with her baby swinging about in the trees above us. We were excited, as it was the first wild monkey we’d seen. But then he asked if we’d like him to show us the rest of the site. We didn’t realise there was a rest of the site, so took him up on his offer. Again, he didn’t speak much English, we don’t speak much Spanish, but gradually we managed to understand each other. We were so glad we went with him. It turned out the place was huge, he took us under ropes, climbing up parts of the building we wouldn’t have been allowed to on our own, and explaining what we were looking at. He should us parts of the temples where the original red colour had been recently restored; he explained the size of the sleeping areas for the priests; which parts of the site were used for human sacrifice, and how much of an honour that was; and even pointed out a gigantic spider, which I would have rather not seen. Dzibanche turned out to be a really impressive and interesting site.

The first hotel excursion we went on was in two parts, to the town of Bacalar, and to Cenote Azul. We drove to a hill fort in Bacalar, which was unfortunately closed as it was on a Sunday, but had some wonderful views of Bacalar Laguna. We had a bit of a wander around the town, and met up with the rest of the group in a bandstand in the local park to hear a bit about the history of the town. Bacalar was a Mayan city before Columbus but was one of the first to be taken by the Spanish Conquistadors. However the fortress was built to defend themselves against the pirates, so there were cannons aiming over the lagoon to keep them out. While we were listening to all of this in the bandstand, there was an optician setting up shop and performing eye tests across from us, which was quite unusual. He had his eye chart set up on the wall and everything. Watching him kept me distracted while I was waiting for the English translation!

Later on in the week we went back to the lagoon to actually get out onto the lake. We were taken canoeing and through the marshes to experience the quiet that comes with being remote. Fortunately the biggest wildlife in that particular lagoon is tiny fish, so I didn’t need to worry about anything. The problem was the mud/sand that you had to walk in to get through. It was quite deep so you sunk a bit with each step, but very powdery so it felt slimy, and had a high sulphur content and smelt disgusting. When we returned to the proper lagoon we were told the sand had an exfoliating quality, so happily sat and rubbed it all over ourselves- looking a bit like monsters, then waited patiently, laughing at each other for ten minutes until we could wash it off, and then my skin did actually feel surprisingly soft. Mexico may be too far to go for exfoliation though!

We canoed back to the shore where a fantastic meal was waiting for us, having been brought by the hotel, where we started talking to another family who turned out to be Mexican, from the Chihuahua region. It was fascinating to see their perspective on Britain- it turned out to be mainly based around Top Gear and Brexit! After lunch there was an opportunity to go sailing around the lake- fortunately on a small boat manned by the tour guide with 4 people per boat. Those not out on the lake made the most of the small jetty and dived bombed off it into the water. The level dropped off sharply so it was deep enough to not need to worry, but did get very competitive with scoring each jump!

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However, on the same day that we went to Bacalar, we also had a trip to the Cenote Azul, which was one of the things we were looking forward to. Cenotes are pools fed by the underground rivers that run throughout Mexico. They tend to be very deep, and completely clear. There’s very little marine life in them, and certainly nothing dangerous. This particular one was over 90 metres deep. I’m a very confident swimmer normally, but knowing how deep it was did freak me out a little bit, so I eventually gave in and put on a life vest for some extra peace of mind. We tended to stay to the side of the Cenote, mainly because it was more interesting, but there was a rope going all the way across so plenty of people were spread along it. The water was fairly warm when you first got in, and there were hundreds of tiny tropical fish swimming close to the surface. Swimming around the outside, there were lots of trees growing along the banks with their roots in the water. I found it quite eerie swimming through them and seeing the ghostly shapes close to the surface, but then disappearing as they went down and the light to see through the water disappeared. There were some slightly bigger fish swimming between the roots but nothing hugely exciting. We had a go pro camera with us, which I was incredibly nervous about holding, knowing that if we dropped it we would never get it back.

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After swimming we came out and went to the restaurant on the side of the lake to get some food before the bus was ready to go back to the hotel. We needed a bit of help to translate the menu, and fortunately there were some willing volunteers. Even if we could have spoken Spanish, there were so many local specialities it wouldn’t have completely covered everything. The restaurant itself looked like it had seen better days, and certainly fit into the Mexican cantina feel. Everyone coming to the Cenote used the toilets so they weren’t in the best condition, but better than nothing. It took a little while to get anyone’s attention to be able to order, but it was certainly worth it when we did. I had coconut shrimp, which is one of the few specific meals I can actually remember, because it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had. Huge pieces coated in a coconut batter. Absolutely delicious.

We had another lake based excursion later on in the week, this one to a smaller lake called Jelelche, and at night. This was probably the most adrenaline filled excursion of the trip, not because of the canoeing, but because of the journey. We set out in minibuses with one pulling a trailer of canoes. The first part of the journey was along the main road so everything was fine. But to get to the lake we had to drive down a track through the jungle, that got narrower and narrower, and muddier and muddier. We were slipping and sliding all the way down, at one point getting the van stuck in a particularly muddy hole, but eventually made it to the lakeside. As it was getting dark we paired up into canoes and set off across the lake.

The reason for going at night was that the lake contained crocodiles, and we were more likely to see them in the dark. We did see some, although not very close up, so the most we saw was flashing eyes. We were more startled by the tiny fish that jumped into the canoes as we paddled through them. At one point we came to an open stretch surrounded by reeds, and were told to stop paddling and turn our torches off. In the quiet we could hear the crickets, frogs, and bigger creatures moving around in the darkness. Sitting there we could also appreciate how bright the stars looked compared to back home.

When we made our way back to the lake shore we could see torches had been lit, and we were welcomed back to another feast in the dark. We were joined by a local dog and a couple of kittens, which kept us entertained until food was served, and then had a chance to use a toilet shed before trying to make the journey back. In the time we had stopped it had still been raining, so I wasn’t convinced the minibuses would make it back to the main road. There was a lot of speeding up approaching corners to get us through holes and over slopes, and a couple of times we had to get out and push, but after a particularly stressful journey we made it back.

One of our more active excursions was a trip to a ruined Franciscan monastery in the jungle called Chichen Ha. The bus took us most of the way, then we cycled the last few kilometres along a path. I hadn’t cycled for a long time so wasn’t very confident initially, but soon got the hang of it and although I haven’t yet remastered hills- going up or down- I got there in the end! The monastery is in complete disrepair now, but in its day it had been a place of sanctuary for both Spanish and Mayans. We were shocked to find that there were quite a few human bones littered around the site. We were told that this was because if someone came across a body in the jungle, regardless of race, they would be brought to the monastery as a safe place for a decent burial. It was strange to see them in little crevices in the walls, and caught between the roots of trees that had grown out of tombs.

We spent a bit of time wandering around the monastery, and then we headed off for a tour of the jungle. We compared the difference between Mayan and Spanish wells- Spanish being built above ground with complex methods of catching rainwater, and Mayan being deep holes that tap into the underground rivers; saw some bats that were roosting in a well; saw the ceiba tree that is so tall it was considered sacred as it reaches up to heaven; and learned about ficus trees, which grow up around other trees and use their resources to survive. We’d been told there were jaguars and pumas in the jungle, as well as other less predatory animals, such as jungle chickens, but apart from finding a suspiciously long feather, we didn’t come across them- which I was disappointed about!

The final excursion we went on was right on our doorstep, and by accident as we were planning to go on our own but happened to leave at the same time as the hotel guides, so went with them instead. The ruins at Kohunlich are some of the most impressive that we saw on our visit to Mexico. We’ve been to other ruins and been surprised by just how large these Mayan communities were, but this one really brought that home to us. Standing on the ledge looking out from the kings palace you could see the market place below, the different temples, living spaces, and could really imagine the civilization that lived there. We also found out a lot about Mexico as we went through. We noticed a particularly large niche in the wall, and found out that was a priest hole. The priest would go and barricade himself in when he needed some time for reflection or to communicate with the gods. We learned about Mayan football that is played by hitting a heavy ball with your shoulder or hip to get it through a hoop that is more like a quidditch hoop than a basketball hoop. At night it would be played with flaming balls in a manner more similar to hockey. Interestingly, the winner would be given the honour of being sacrificed to the gods.

We explored all around the site- going up to the kings palace as well as down to the common traders marketplace. We went up to the top of the sun gods temple and looked out over the jungle. We discovered an incredible plant that curls up when you stroke it to protect itself from predators. We found a little group of bats flittering around in a small room.

One of the highlights of the day though, was that when we were leaving we heard some rustling in the trees above us, looked up, and saw a monkey. As we were watching the monkey, he was joined by a few more monkeys, until eventually there was a whole family in the trees above us, eating their tea.

In between all the Mayan ruins and canoeing, we spent a lot of time reading and sleeping. Even though there was so much to do around us, we didn’t want to make ourselves too tired before going back to real life. However there was one more thing we did before moving on. On our final day we got up very early so that we could spend our last 24 hours at XCaret Eco Theme Park on the way up to Cancun. We had read reviews before we came and decided it was something we really wanted to do while in Mexico, and it really was worth it. XCaret isn’t a theme park in the sense that it’s full of rollercoasters. It’s more like a massive zoo. Only instead of walking around, there are three rivers that you can swim around, some of which go through tunnels as well. We were caught off guard suspecting that they would be warm, but in fact they were freezing, definitely worth making the plunge though. We only had time to go around two, they do take a couple of hours each. The first one-azul- was full of bright tropical fish that made it worth snorkelling all the way round, whereas the second- maya- had more interesting things above water. It went through tunnels and caves- with bats- through a mangrove swamp, and at one point we even found ourselves in the middle of a Mayan tribal dance!

They also went way beyond with the level of wildlife on offer if you didn’t want to swim. There was a huge variety of animals, including exciting things like pumas, loads of flamingos, iguanas roaming wherever you looked, and manatees- which I’ve only ever heard even referenced in Florida before. The highlights for me though were the sea turtles- always a favourite of mine, and particularly as they have a sea turtle breeding programme, which releases hundreds into the wild every year, but also means that they have tanks full of babies.

They also had an amazing aviary, that spiralled around 5 levels with a waterfall in the middle. Birds of prey, like a beautiful American Eagle, were kept in their own areas around the outside, but there was a huge variety of colourful birds that were able to fly around the inside. We could have spent a lot more time there if we weren’t trying to squeeze everything in, and we’re not even that into birds!

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is the incredible show they put on in the evening. We didn’t have high expectations, but were taken through centuries of American history by very talented dancers and singers, including a game of Mayan football- complete with flaming balls!- followed by music and dance from particular regions in Mexico- which we never knew had such variety. There were horses, mariachi bands, a village square scene that turned into a picture of the Virgin Mary, it was incredible. It eventually led on to a finale with lit up representations of some of the animals at the park, a display of men dancing around a wooden pole about 40 metres off the ground, and all came together alongside some of the resident parrots doing loops around the stadium. We were so impressed by what we saw, it was definitely worth going early to get seats, the stadium was packed for good reason!

XCaret is definitely somewhere that we would go back to, and even bumps up Mexico on the list of places to go to make that happen! We would particularly like to go back with the kids, who would love it. Particularly Sam with the number of iguanas wandering around. The only thing that we really felt made it more like a theme park were the park photos as you went around. There were a few park photographers in odd places, but loads of automated photo machines. You had a wristband that you could save them all to and good offers to combine days and bands. With the number of things in the water, it would be really helpful if you went without a GoPro or waterproof camera.

So at the end of week 2 of our honeymoon, we’d had a good mix of relaxing and adventure and were in a good place to start week 3. Looking back I think Mexico was my favourite part of the honeymoon, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to. I had an image in my head before I went of a bleak, desert like country, where drug barons ruled, and you had to be really careful of the police- what I found was an incredibly friendly, and beautiful country, steeped in culture and history, with so many fantastic places to explore it would be impossible in one visit. I’d love to go to Chichen-Itza near Cancun, which we just couldn’t get to this time, and explore some of the other regions apart from Quintana Roo. Mexico is staying firmly on my list of places to visit.

Next time on to the final installation of the trilogy, and a completely different experience altogether…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Welcome to the Jungle

  1. Pingback: Welcome to the City of Angels | blogging the four c's

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