Travel Story: Bicycle Touring the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Although we flew into Cancun, we had little to no interest in actually seeing the city, so we spent just two nights at a great little B&B just south of the main town to give us a day to prepare. This actually worked out well because the US security services had unpacked our bicycles during transit, (which of course is fine and understandable) but hadn’t replaced them back into the boxes properly and with half the packaging missing – Candace’s was even upside-down! So I had to get a little handy with an adjustable wrench to bend various bits back into place.

Worth noting too, is that a short distance away from the B&B there is a food truck collective (link) where locals gather to drink beer and eat a selection of incredibly good food from around the world. Naturally, we had been super excited for real tacos upon arriving in Mexico so we headed straight for the taco truck! However, the poor proprietor didn’t seem to get as much business as the other trucks – the crowd were all young Mexicans and I guess they didn’t want their local food when they could have their pick of a wealth of other options!

The first stop on our Yucatan tour was Playa Del Carmen. We both know people that have lived and worked here in the dive industry and we had a list of must-eat places. A theme was quickly forming – whereas the Pacific North-west of the USA was about beer and coffee, Mexico was going to be about food! I took on a personal challenge to become a taco connoisseur in as shorter time as possible.

The ride was only about 60km and the terrain was as a flat as you could imagine, so we arrived around 1pm. Plenty of time to check into one of the best hotels for the money I have ever stayed in, and go for a little walk around the town. Street art is everywhere here (and Central America in general) and is of very high skill and artistry.

We took a day off in Playa Del Carmen with the sole mission to eat as much as possible (and buy flip-flops!). Although we made a fantastic and valiant effort to eat in every restaurant and at every taco stand possible, the winner by a long shot was a tiny little corner taco cart with a yellow awning that no doubt we may have walked by without a second look had it not been for two things. Firstly, there was at any one time, about twenty people lining up for their turn to order, and secondly, it had been recommended to us by a friend who had lived in the city some years previous.

The hot plates sizzled with the fat and juices from the overwhelming variety and array of meats that the vendor ladled on to them. The air was literally filled with smoke and the smell of the amazing food, and I felt like I was in a cartoon, where the aroma goes in one nostril and out the other, and physically lifted me off the ground to hover towards it’s source. I had to mentally concentrate on keeping my mouth closed lest my salivation should drip down my chin and form a puddle beneath my feet.

I knew exactly what I wanted to order. There was one type of taco I had been lusting after, and up until then, I had not had any luck finding – Tripas! Tripe – intestines! It seemed to me that many restaurants didn’t offer such questionable delicacies, and my only hope was this battered old taco cart on a non-descript street corner a long, long way from the main tourist strip.

When I gave my order, the vendor gave me a slightly sideways glance, I guess they didn’t see many tourists up so far from the beach, and if they did, I cannot imagine tripas was a popular order. I guess that soon he realised I was serious, and he duly scooped a handful of grey, slimy pigs intestines onto the hot-plate which began to spit and sizzle. As they cooked I could see the formerly un-appetising looking offal begin to shrivel and turn brown, crispy and start to become the real delicacy for what it is! It was everything I could have hoped for and I ate six of them – loaded with Guacamole, pico de gallo, and oodles of hot sauce.

The next stop was Tulum and we left Playa Del Carmen having waited a couple of hours for the rain to clear, Candace had found a cat and so she was happily occupied while I read a book. Fortunately it was another flat, 60km day (despite the heat and humidity) and again we arrived nice and early into Tulum. Although we did lose a short amount of time with the first of three punctures during our ride through Mexico. We had two missions for our time there, see the famous Mayan ruins, and swim in a Cenote.*

*A cenote is the top of an underground sinkhole. There is a vast network of underground caves, caverns and rivers that runs throughout the Yucatan peninsula. Where these underground rivers open up to the outside world, these are called cenotes. The Mayans believed they were entrances into the afterlife and revered them as such.

We had heard horror stories of heavily commercialised cenotes that have hundreds of people, bars, zip-lines, inflatable tubes, music etc. So Candace did some good research and happened across this hidden gem which I would recommend to anyone! (click here for a map) It was called Cenote Nic-te-Ha and we pretty much had the place to ourselves, it was so quiet and peaceful – we really felt lost in the jungle!

It was a simple, fast, and cheap ride from Tulum to Cenote Nic-te-Ha in one of the very regular ‘combi’ buses that ply this road up and down the coastline. You will need to ask the driver for Cenote Dos Ojos though, as Nic-te-Ha is the smaller, but much less known cenote in the same location.

Our hotel in Tulum was great, and fantastically located. We could walk across the road to the Mayan ruins in just a couple of minutes. This proved worth it’s weight in gold as it meant we were there at opening time – we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Not to mention it hadn’t yet got too hot and we could walk around in comfort. As we were leaving we saw the hoards arriving in huge buses from the package holiday resorts up and down the coast, and we glad to be getting out of there by that point. Also – the mosquitoes were awful! I tucked all my clothing into each other to turn myself into a impenetrable fortress, although a number of them actually bit through the fabric. When we got back to the hotel, Candace counted over thirty mosquito bites on one of her legs alone!

I really loved the Mayan ruins, I could have spent hours staring out to sea from their clifftop perches, imagining what it must have been like for the first European adventurers coming across the Mayans and their thriving coastal cities. It must have been somewhat daunting too, seeing such imposing structures, built on top of sea cliffs.

Getting there early was absolutely worth it and we spent a wonderful couple of hours pretending to be jungle explorers finding a hidden city. (Lame!)

After Tulum, we had a long two-day slog ahead of us. The only town of any size along the route was 112 km away, and then the next town beyond that was another similar distance. We filled our panniers with as much bottled water and snacks as we could, and hit the road – from the looks of the maps, I forgave myself for thinking that there would be absolutely nowhere to eat for the whole day.

Fortunately, I was very much mistaken! Even the smallest little villages had little family owned restaurants that served incredible food and terrible coffee. But it was hot, full of caffeine, and complimented the wonderful Mexican breakfasts that fueled our hungry muscles. The folks who ran these restaurants were amazing too – incredibly friendly, helpful, and they all seemed genuinely thrilled to have two foreign bicycle tourists happen across their humble little businesses.

This guy above who runs a roadside tamale stand, had a guestbook for all his visitors to sign. He also showed me photographs of previous cyclists who had passed through, and even showed me a little local bicycle touring magazine which had a wonderful poem written in it.

The outright friendliness and hospitality shown by the folks in these tiny villages was only representative of the incredible friendliness we experienced throughout our entire time in Mexico as a whole. I don’t think I have felt so welcomed and embraced anywhere to the same extent as here!

As the day plodded onward, the heat became brutal – our only respite were the green bus-stops that could be found as we passed through each of the villages en-route. These little oases of shade were our only place to sit and relax in the otherwise featureless, flat, straight-road landscape. Sometimes, (although not often enough!) wandering vendors came around with coolers packed with ice-cold juices and water, and we embraced icy coconut water and tamarind juice – re-hydrating ourselves and sending much needed sugar and electrolytes to our tired bodies.

What we hadn’t accounted for after such a long day in the saddle, was the 10 km of dirt-road riding through the jungle to arrive at our stop for the night next to a swamp. We had a ‘palapa‘ (a basic, traditional style thatched building) to stay in which would protect us if it rained, but the mosquito netting on it’s walls had long since rotted away. We pitched the inner mesh of our freestanding tent inside the palapa to offer us some protection from the hoards of ravenous biting insects that lived in this humid backwater.

At one point, having been to use the bathroom outside I made a horrible mistake. I shined my head-torch up to the inside of the thatched ceiling of the palapa to be confronted what initially looked liked a night sky full of stars, but I soon realised it was the eyes of hundreds of spiders looking back at me, reflecting beautifully the light from my torch. I did briefly consider not saying anything about it to Candace, but my evil side won out and I told her – she was not at all impressed, and I don’t think she slept overly soundly for the rest of the night!

The next day brought with it a similar plodding monotony as the day before it had. We cycled in blazing heat and humidity on razor-straight roads, and counted down the kilometres until the next town marked on our map where we knew there would most likely be a green bus-stop, and if we were lucky enough, roving street vendors selling their wares of icy-cold, sugary juices.

The mind-numbing monotony was occasionally broken by seeing fat tarantulas scurrying across the road in front of us which would send us scrabbling into our panniers for a camera. They were jet-black and hairy, but their abdomens were scarlet-red – I wouldn’t have wanted one in the tent with me at night!

Finally we arrived into what would, for me, become a highlight of Mexico – Bacalar. A small town on the edge of the ‘Laguna de los siete colores’ (Lagoon of seven colours), Bacalar manages to perfectly balance a touristy town without losing its genuine, local feel – not to mention the beauty of the lagoon itself. We stayed in a very rustic, yet exceptionally good-value B&B which was very close to the water, if a little far from the action in the town. However, the owner could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and the walk to town was pleasant and we loved the whole experience.

The town’s little hippy scene complete with vegan cafes, great coffee shops and the usual eccentricity that goes along with that type of town, blends perfectly with the gorgeous natural landscape, and the fantastic Mexican folks that call this place home. Naturally I wasted no time in trying the tacos and they were awesome. I would also be lying if I said we didn’t try lots of Mezcal (for research purposes of course) and Micheladas – the latter of which are like a very spicy Bloody Mary, but made with beer! Mmmmmmmm…

Next up …

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