Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yucatan Trip: Flamingos and Mangroves

This is part 3 of my chronicle of a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula.  I'm writing it out partly to share the story with friends and family, and also for anyone researching their own potential trip to that area.

We are a family of three, with one 9-year-old girl.  Ours is a teacher-supported family, so we can't afford lavish vacations, but travel is a priority for us, and we sacrifice other things in order to make room for it.  So, our trips are designed to be affordable, but we also try to keep it relatively comfortable and fun for our daughter.  Gone are the days when we strapped on some giant backpacks and headed to a post-communist country during the off-season with no plan, staying with someone we met in the train station.  But we are also not satisfied with an all-inclusive resort hotel on the beach.  We want to learn about the history and culture of a place, to explore and engage with it.  So, our trip is different from most that I have read about online.

For this trip, we rented a car and had our budget hotels scheduled between Merida, Tulum and Cancun.  After enjoying Uxmal, we headed to Celestun on the West coast of the peninsula.  By this time, we had figured out that the pages of google maps directions I printed out before leaving were completely useless.  I had a Tomtom Via that usually can't find a signal, but on this day, it directed us to our destination very reliably, taking us on small two-lane roads through a number of little towns.  This gave us a chance to see how people live outside of the larger city.  If we had it to do over, we might have spent a day in Maxcanu, which looked really sweet.  Most of these villages were made up of thatched roof huts and crumbling adobe houses, but in the center would be the remains of a large Colonial building that was obviously once a beautiful symbol of affluence.  We saw people on their bicycle-carts; the main form of transportation.  Often, these are laden with wood or foliage just gathered in the jungle, and the driver would have a machete.
A house in one of the villages.

Since we in the U.S. are in constant conversation about our economy, this trip was a reminder that U.S. citizens have a very different idea of poverty than most countries in the world.  Also, our lifestyle is completely dependent on consumerism, and we don't know how to go out and gather resources from our surroundings.  These peoples' lives depend on their ability to hunt, gather, and to live in clusters where resources are shared.  The villages are full of cisterns that collect water, and we saw some that were raised up with spigots underneath.  Once we saw someone showering under one of the spigots.  We saw freshly butchered chickens hanging in windows, a dead cow in the bed of a truck probably on its way to be turned into food, and a lot of people offering their fruit or tamales in their front yards.  Luckily, fruit trees grow everywhere there, so it is a major part of the diet.  Juices of all kinds are very popular and are served in restaurants.  They can contain prickly pear and aloe, along with more common ingredients.

So, we arrived in Celestun and found the nature reserve where we hired a boat to take us out to see the flamingo nesting grounds.  The cost for a boat was more than double the amount stated in the guide book, and it was nearly $125 for 90 minutes.  An Austrian couple were standing in front of us, experiencing the same sticker shock, so we asked if they would like to share a boat.  We pooled our money, which still cost us $75, but I think it was worth it.  The boat took us on a long ride out to the flamingos, which was an indescribable experience.  As we approached the nesting grounds, there was a thick line of pink across the huge body of water.  As we got closer, we could see the individual birds.  The driver cut the engine and we just floated around as close as we could safely get to these amazing creatures.

After that, we were taken on a beautiful tour of the mangrove forests, through little lagoons and waterways, and finally docking at a spot where we could get out and explore.  Some people from other groups were swimming in the crystal clear water and we got close-up views of all kinds of loons and cranes.

It was a very satisfying tour, and when it was over, we went into town to play in the ocean.  I'm not sure we found the normal area for swimming.  As we looked for parking, a man approached the car and spoke to us in very quick Spanish, helping us to find a suitable parking spot.  We gave him some change, and he led us to the beach where he handed us over to another guy.  This guy asked us for more money.  We asked, "Por que?!"  He said, "For a boat!"  We managed to explain that we had no interest in a boat, but only wanted to come to the beach, so he walked away.  I think we had found a place where boats come and go, but we spent a little time enjoying the beach and water anyway before heading to Merida.

This was a second trip to Merida, and I wrote about the city in my first segment, so I won't go into it.  But we stayed at a small family-owned hotel called Hotel Casa Nobel.  It is in a more affluent area of the city, just a few blocks from Paseo de Montejo, which is a whole street of beautiful buildings and the Museum of Anthropology.  As usual, the exterior of the hotel blends in with everything else, but the interior is a little oasis.  The room was clean and comfortable, the pool is small but just right for us, and the courtyard is nicely landscaped and a very peaceful place to relax.

Next time, I'll write about our trip to Izamal and Valladolid, and introduce you to cenotes.

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