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Yucatán Peninsula Mexico & Guatemala (2011)

Yucatán Peninsula Mexico & Guatemala (2011)

With Australia's borders closed, and no chance of travel on the horizon, I've been revisiting our past holidays. It was finally time to write up this story. It was our first overseas trip together and one of our most eventful.

Mat Hollingsworth
Mat Hollingsworth

23 min read

In December 2011 Prue and I had been a couple for less than a year. We decided to take a three-week backpacking trip to Mexico and Guatemala. It tested our relationship and was full of challenges. Ten years later, we are happily married and have a daughter.

Our Route

Cancun

After a long and exhausting series of flights, Prue and I arrived at the Hilton Cancun late on 13 December 2011. We were jet-lagged but went exploring, but found that the town was dead in the offseason, so we hung out at the hotel beach and took advantage of the bar. As the evening approached, we still had some energy to burn, so we headed to the OXXO convenience store and stocked up on cheap beer and tequila and junk food. We then had a hotel room party.

By 2 am, we were finally ready for bed and the reality of having to get up in the morning and catch a bus was sinking in. Tired, drunk and excited we went to bed.

Isla Holbox

The year before our trip, I lived in a share house with some Mexican guys. One night I remembered them raving about a sleepy fishing village of the Yucatán Peninsula called Isla Holbox.


After our heavy night of junk food and junk booze in our hotel room, we woke late. We stared at an awful hotel breakfast and then dragged ourselves onto the bus to Isla Holbox.


The bus ride was slow and frequently stopped as we passed through many rural towns with people continually getting on and off with all sorts of strange luggage. Exhausted, we decided to try and sleep off our hangovers. I'd travelled extensively in Latin America and instinctively fell asleep hugging my satchel with all my valuables.


After napping for about 2 hours Prue and I woke up, we were getting close to the end of our trip. Soon Prue realised that items were missing from her bag, which she had between her feet while she slept. Wallet, cash and few random valuables, and, her passport. All missing. SHIT! Less than 24 hours in Mexico and we've been robbed, and Prue is missing her passport. Hungover, tired and stressed, Prue was freaking out, and we were not feeling great about the next three weeks. The worst part about losing the passport was we had to travel to Guatemala for our return flight and then transit through the USA, so we needed an emergency passport AND visas.


We asked other passengers on the bus if they had seen anything, but no one said that they had. Once off the bus we went to the police station and gave a statement. My Spanish was pretty good at the time, so I was able to provide a pretty lengthy and detailed account of what had occurred and what was missing.


The last ferry to the island was about to leave so we rushed to catch it, leaving the police with our details. We didn't expect to recover any of the missing items. Still, we needed a police report for insurance and to explain the absence of Prue's passport. The police gave us a letter verifying Prue's identity and a police report, and we rushed to catch the last the ferry.

The Isla Holbox Ferry

Exhausted and upset, we tried to relax into our first night at Isla Holbox. Prue felt guilty and was beating herself up despite me trying to tell her that 'these things happen and that we can fix it '. The staff at the accommodation were outstanding. They helped us get in touch with the Australian consulate, the American consulate, and helped us cancel our cards with the banks. Rather than a couple of relaxing nights on Isla Holbox we now had to get to Merida to meet with the USA consulate. Our only priority was to sort out Prue's ESTA then fly to Mexico City to get Prue and emergency Passport.


We tried to put that out of our mind for 2 days until we had made arrangements on the mainland.

The beach and bar at our accommodation

Passport Woes Aside

Isla Holbox was beautiful. Our accommodation was low-fi bungalows on the beach. The streets were made of sand and be bars and restaurants were open-air often also with sand floors. The locals were friendly, and it had a very safe community vibe. It was chilly and windy while we were there, so we didn't swim, but we enjoyed walking on the beach and exploring the villages. We also had one fantastic seafood dinner with grilled lobsters and prawns and of course margaritas.

Our accommodation
Delicious grilled seafood and ceviche dinner

Merida

We headed to Merida as planned but had to spend a fair amount of time at the USA consulate and on the phone to the Australian consulate. Prue spent hours each day for several days in the USA consulate. I was not allowed in, they confiscated her phone and gave no indication of how long it could take, so we had no way of getting in touch. I was stuck sitting on the street nearby reading my book, chatting with curious passers-by and suspicious USA security guards.

We did find some time to explore the evening Christmas stalls in the plaza and enjoy some chilled time people watching.

Haciendas and Ruins

After several days of visiting the consulate, we finally had a resolution. Still, we'd have to travel to Mexico City to collect an emergency passport.


But we still had one day free in Merida, so we decided to hire a car and go for a drive to the nearby haciendas and ruins. It was such a good idea. It was so fun exploring and driving around the Mexican countryside.

Mexico City Passport Run

The next day we took a morning flight from Merida to Mexico City. Though it was a domestic flight, there were heavily armed security checking passports for foreigners before boarding the flight. Prue did not have a passport. It took several minutes explaining to the security guard how we came to be without any identification. Finally, after showing the officer the police letter, he let us board the flight.


After arriving, we took a taxi straight to the Australian Embassy. The staff there were brilliant, they told us exactly what to do, where to go to get passport photos, how to get them verified and within a few short hours of arriving Prue as issued an emergency passport.


We still had several hours to pass in Mexico City, so naturally, we went in search of tacos. We found a brilliant little place serving Tacos al Pastor nearby in Polanco. A few hours walking and a few more beers, we were finally relaxing and ready to get on with our holiday. We had decided to avoid Mexico City when planning our trip, but it turned out to be a fun little detour, and we wished that we had more time there.

Christmas in Tulum

After less than 24 hours in Mexico City, we flew back to Merida and took a bus straight to Tulum where we would spend Christmas. We had booked into another excellent little low-key beach-side cabanas. It was attached to a super relaxed 'slow-food' restaurant by Chef Hugo Orozco who specialised in fresh Mexicano food. The concept was pretty new back then, super locally sourced in-season ingredients, prepared with minimal intervention and served informally. It was great. We had breakfasts there and many lunches and dinners.

Tulum was a time to unwind and de-stress from our bumpy start. We had plenty of beach time, sleep-ins, long walks, slow runs, afternoon beers and sunset cocktails.

After discovering Tacos al Pastor in Mexico City, we were pleased to discover the brilliant Antojitos La Chiapaneca in Tulum, which also served up a mean Taco al Pastor.

Tulum Beaches

The beaches in Tulum are beautiful. They go on for kilometres and are remarkable for long walks. They also have brilliant sun lounges by the beach, each serviced by hotel bars and restaurants.

Drunk Christmas

For Christmas Prue and I booked into a fancy restaurant near our cabana. We had spent the afternoon walking and hanging out at the beach but hadn't eaten very much, we were saving ourselves for dinner. As sunset approached, Prue was feeling the thirst. So she ordered some margaritas to our hammocks. Then she ordered another one. "Ok, pace yourself, we have a nice dinner tonight," I said. But Prue was keen for more.


So we met halfway and decided to take a walk to another bar on the way home to put some distance between drinks. By the time we go to dinner, we'd only had three cocktails in about two hours, but Prue was on her way. She already had the giggles and was even more amused by me trying to keep a lid on her silliness as we approached the sophisticated restaurant. I could tell I was going to have to manage her through this quiet fine dining experience.


I'm not usually embarrassed easily.  But I don't like to be obnoxious around strangers in public, and you have to remember we are in Mexico, which is devoutly Catholic and where Christmas is sincerely observed. Also, I was hungry, I didn't want to get kicked out and be stuck without dinner.


On request, we were seated in a quiet outdoor area. It had quiet background music, lots of trees and moody low light. The chairs were hardwood and not as comfortable, but I thought best to be a little apart from the well-to-do American tourists. We had good silly banter, but not at all obnoxious. A pleasant Christmas dinner. The outdoor area started to fill, a conservative looking American family with young children were seated beside us. Our drinks arrived.


While we were sipping away and chatting. The conversation entered a lull. Prue seemed distracted, and I assumed she just had a thought. Then an almighty reverberating fart rang out over the hardwood chair. My jaw fell open as Prue casually glanced towards me and resumed the conversation. The heads of the family next to us all made a sharp 90° turn towards us (me). "What?" Prue innocently asked me. "What?! You just let one rip and everyone heard it.". The blood rushed out of Prue's face. "What do you mean? Did you hear that? I thought that I timed it with the music and hid the sound" she explained. Prue then followed up with another laughing fit. The Americans were not amused. We are now the obnoxious drunk Aussies abroad. No point fighting it, we have been labelled.

The food arrived along with more drinks, and we continued to have an irreverent Christmas night. We didn't quite get to the level of anyone confronting us, but there was the odd sideward glance. I wasn't turned off. This was becoming a great holiday with the right balance of drama, mishap and fun.

Tulum Ruins

Palenque & worst bus ride ever

After Tulum, we were heading for the Ruins of Palenque. We had planned to get the overnight bus, spend the day at the ruins and then get the afternoon bus on to San Christobal de las Casas.

Before we caught the evening bus, we headed out for one last dinner at Antojitos La Chiapaneca. Sadly it was closed. So we want across the road to a much less appealing restaurant. The food was not good, but we ate it caught the bus and got on our way.

We arrived in Palenque early and explored the site. It was amazing. I'm always amazed by the ancient cities of Latin America. I've visited dozens of sites in Argentina, Chile, Peru and now Mexico. They never cease to amaze me.

It was a long day, and by the afternoon I wasn't feeling well. My stomach was upset, but I didn't give it much thought.

The worst bus ride ever

We boarded the afternoon bus to San Cristobal de las Chiapas. I was feeling terrible. Sleep it off on the bus, I thought. It was about a six hours bus ride. The bus was pretty run down, and I knew that the road was windy. But I didn't realise that it would be the most problematic bus trip that I'd taken; I had been on some shockers in Bolivia and Peru.


The toilet was broken, and it stunk. The bus rarely stopped, and when it didn't, it often wasn't long enough to get off, so there seemed to be a constant stream of people using it. I tried to put it out of my mind and sleep. But as the trip went on, my guts started to gurgle. I finally had to go. I gingerly navigated my way to the back of the bus, only to find that there was no paper. Another forgotten travel tip. I usually have a roll in my carry on, but I'd left it underneath in my backpack. I asked other passengers for paper, but everyone ignored me. I returned to my seat. Only a few hours, I can hold it. I must hold it. An hour passed and my stomach cramps got worse and by bowel was painfully uncomfortable.


Almost without thinking, I stood bolt-upright from my seat. I marched to the back of the bus, snatching the disposable headrest covers from first my own and then other passengers seats as I marched to the end of the bus. It was horrific. There was barely a clean or dry surface, and keeping myself stable as the bus jolted about on the road. My insides lurched the other direction I managed to emerge a few minutes later relieved and mostly unscathed. I lathered myself with hand sanitiser and tried to sleep. I was able to keep it together until we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas and immediately crashed in bed.

Prue's solution to the stinky bus before my ordeal

San Cristobal de las Casas

After a rough journey and a good nights sleep I felt weak but mostly fine the next day. I had a very plain breakfast and slow start, then we headed out into the town to explore.

San Cristobal de las Casas was fantastic. I loved it. The setting was beautiful, it had wide streets and the people were very 'alternative'. We learned that it was the the heart of the Zapatista uprising of 1994 where rebels captured the city and staged a revolt to secure better rights for the impoverished indigenous people and agrarian reform. You can still see the echos of that time across the city in its counter-culture leftist bookshops, strong arts scene and vibrant indigenous community.

We didn't have long in San Cristobal, but we did have a great time.

Chichicastenango and the bugs

It had been about 2 days since my bus ordeal. I was feeling better, but still not well. I was weak but able to function. We took the bus from San Cristobal to into Guatemala to the tiny town of Chichicastenango, which is famous for its textiles market and handmade indigenous crafts. We arrived in the late afternoon and had accommodation booked.


Once off the bus, we were looking at the map trying to work out where it was, when an Asian man approached me and asked in broken in English for directions. I could barely understand him, so I asked him in Spanish if he spoke Spanish. He said that he did, but was still learning. I asked him where he was from. He said Japan. I had recently lived in Japan for about 2 and a half years, and my Japanese was passable. So I asked him in Japanese if he'd prefer to speak in Japanese. The look on his face was priceless. He was so confused. Here was a middle-aged Japanese man, in a tiny town in Guatemala asking an Aussie for directions in English, and we ended up chatting in Japanese. He was a lovely guy. It turned out that his company had sent him to Mexico City for work and he was learning Spanish. He had taken a holiday to visit Guatemala.


Anyway, we parted ways and searched for our accommodation. We couldn't find it, and they didn't answer their phone. So we started searching for vacancies elsewhere. A young guy approached us and said that he had a room. I was suspicious, but we went along with it. The room was sketchy, the building was run down and in a rough location, but we needed somewhere to stay, and the guy was pushy, so I agreed to take it. Once he left, Prue and I did a quick evaluation. The door didn't lock, there was no outdoor lighting, no staff to be found, not many people around at all. Nup. Bail.

As we were walking outside to continue our search, an old man called me over. He began to caution us at length about 'Bad people' and 'Be careful' and 'Don't go outside'. Great. It was dark now, and we basically had nowhere to stay other than a place that looked like sure trouble. We quickly jogged to the centre fo the village to an ex-pat bar and asked for a room, someone had a recommendation with vacancies. So we hurried over there, checked it out and made a booking. I told Prue to wait there while I ran back to the sketchy place to get our bags. Fortunately, no one saw me and out stuff was still there. I grabbed our bags, and we bailed.


I was starting to feel really crook again. So a light dinner and an early night. So far, I did not love Guatemala.


The next day I still felt shocking. I couldn't keep anything down and was severely dehydrated. But we only had one day in Chichi then we had to get the bus to Antigua. We did the textile market and bought lots of great fabrics. By lunchtime, I was weak and could hardly walk. I needed to get medical attention.

We went to the hospital and got a stool test. The doctor came back and said that I was "muy muy enfermo" 'very very sick'. He said that I had Amoebic Dysentery. Yes, I was very sick. He gave me medicine and bottled water.


I was dreading the two-hour shuttle bus ride to Antigua, no toilet. Well about an hour into the drive we passed through a town and quickly found ourselves in a significant traffic jam. The city was at a complete standstill. I was feeling rubbish, and the bus wasn't moving. An hour later we were still in traffic but finally discovered why. There was a parade taking place down the main road of the town which happened to be the thoroughfare for the highway. Evidently, no traffic permits required for marches in Guatemala. As we sat there exhausted staring out the window and the parade of bad Disney character knock offs and bizarre clowns, internally I was screaming with frustration. Still, I was too weak to say anything and powerless to do anything. Fortunately, I was able to hold out needing the bathroom.


After 5 hours, our two-hour journey was finally over. Or so we thought. The shuttle bus was supposed to drop us at the hostel. Still, instead, the driver decided to drop everyone at the bus terminal because he'd had enough and it had taken too long. I was at my wit's end, so were all the other passengers. As I was one of the better Spanish speakers and perhaps had the shortest fuse, I gave the shuttle bus driver and navigator an earful. The other passengers joined in, and after a bit of argy-bargy, we persuaded them to divide up the group into several other shuttle busses and have everyone delivered to their hostels per our agreement. I needed to be in bed.


Finally, we arrived at our hostel. After much co-motion and disfunction from the reception staff, we were allowed into the hostel. They had a very secure door policy after dark. Then, we could only get a dorm room at our hostel, but we explained my health situation and requested a private room, but there was nothing that they could do. I went straight to bed in the dorm with frequent trips to the bathroom. I barely slept all night and spent a good portion of the night in cold sweats and fever. Swinging between shivering and then burning up in a torrent of sweat on the bathroom floor. I had never been so unwell in my life. Even after 12 months of backpacking in South America eating and doing whatever I wanted, I had not once had any illness even close to how sick I was that night.

Antigua

We woke in Antigua, and luckily we were moved to a private room. I think some of the dorm guests had complained about my groaning and general condition.


It was new years eve, and I was in a bad way. The medicine was working by flushing my system. I could hardly move and had to remain close to the bathroom.


Poor Prue was primarily stuck in the hostel. Guatemala isn't the safest country for tourists. Antigua is relatively safe, but it's generally ill-advised for single foreign women to go out alone. Prue did venture out for lunch only a block from the hostel, and even on that short outing, she had a bit of trouble and was aided by a local woman. So as the evening approached and the town got rowdier, and Prue got hungrier I had to pluck up the energy to escort her to the supermarket; not that I was in any condition to do anything if anyone bothered us. It was a ten-minute walk each way, and we made the trip without incident, but it took it out of me.


Prue had celebrated a dull New Years Eve watching the amateur fireworks from the hostel rooftop while tried to sleep. It was actually quite surreal. It sounded like a war zone with fireworks and rockets shooting off in every direction as kids with backpacks of explosives ran about setting them off and yelling.


By the next day, I was starting to feel myself again, and we were able to explore the city. Antigua was pretty, but a bit dull, and full of shady characters out to fleece tourists, so we were pleased that I was most sick there and not elsewhere.

The Volcano that looks over Antigua

Lake Atitlán

Our final destination was Lago Atitlán. It was a great place to unwind and decompress before we head home. Fortunately, I was feeling well by then. We mostly spent our time reading by the lake and watching the fisherman.


One day Prue and I hired a double canoe to paddle on the lake. We learned why they are often referred to as 'divorce boats'. As Prue paddled one way and me the other, or as we stuck our oars against each other more than the water.


All in all our time by the lake was relaxing. Until we went to book our transport to Guatemala city to meet our flight home. We had checked on the first day, and the private shuttle bus office confirmed that the bus runs twice a day no matter what. We booked the morning bus to give us some wiggle room for our evening flight, even though the bus trip was only about two hours.


However, on the day of our departure, the bus didn't arrive. After much arguing with the teenaged staff member at the bus office, who simply smiled in response to each of my questions about where the bus is or if it was coming, I finally managed to get her to put me on the phone to the company owner. After a pretty heated exchange, he revealed that they simply didn't run the morning service because we were the only passengers. We were moved onto the afternoon bus, and fortunately, it arrived more or less on time, and we caught our flight.

Journey Home

PPrue's passport and visas worked. We exited Guatemala and transited the USA.
Finally, we were on a flight to Australia, by way of Aukland. We were exhausted and wanted to get a good rest. So we both took Stilnox sleeping tablets which the travel doctor in Australia had prescribed for me. Six or so hours into the flights from LA we both woke up for the dinner service. We felt pretty good but had another six or so hours to go. We checked the Stilnox package, and it said we could take another, so we did and went back to sleep. Well, we woke for breakfast just before we arrived in Aukland and we were both pretty out of it. Prue was really quite bad. She couldn't speak properly and was falling asleep with food in her mouth while trying to eat. It was quite serious. As we got off the plane, I carried all her bags and had to hold her up, and she struggled to walk down the air bridge and do the layover hall. It was very early in the morning, and no one was around.


As Prue entered the new tiled arrivals hall, she became we and needed to sit. I set her up on a chair and went to look for a shower or bedroom where we could get cleaned up and rest. I returned 2 minutes later to find Prue standing up projectile vomiting onto the freshly polished tiled floor as a cleaner looked on with slumped shoulders in disbelief. I rushed over to Prue and held her up and cleaned her face. I escorted her to the shower and helped her wash. Over the next two hours, as we waited for our flight to Melbourne, Prue slowly got her senses back. It was quite scary. We later learned of all the famous cases of people who had overdosed with Stilnox. I have no idea why the doctor has prescribed it to us, without any caution or warning or offer of a milder alternative.


We finally arrive home in Melbourne. As we replayed the tales above to friends and family, everyone remarked that if we can endure that holiday together, then we can survive anything. We thought it was amusing at the time, but in hindsight, it has turned out to be true. Prue and I did stay together, and those tough shared experiences early in our relationship strengthened our bond. It tested us, but it didn't break us. We needed each other to get through each little trial. When Prue was in need, I helped her, and when I was in need, she helped me. In between, we'd go exploring on mini-adventures and make each other laugh. It's been pretty much the same ever since.

Only now, our trials are more domestic and usually less life-threatening.