Across the Yucatán with a Ragtag Carny Crew

by Matthew Asprey

16 February 2011

'Huichol Yarn Painting' image (partial) courtesy of Mexican Art  

Plunder of the Sun

For the last month Clare and I have moved from the tourist resorts of the Caribbean Coast to the Mayan Ruins and cities of the Yucatán. Before Mexico I had worked hard on my fiction during a month of bitter winter in New York and Montreal. I was missing out on the Australian summer and a few days on a hot Mexican beach sounded ideal. The cheapest way to get to the Yucatán Peninsula was to fly to the resort city of Cancún.

After checking into a hostel in Cancún’s centro or downtown, Clare and I went snorkelling off Puerto Morelos, a beach resort of thatched cabanas and cool white sand. We headed to the reef in a skiff manned by two wiry Mexicans. The warm wind ruffled my shirt. The captain dropped anchor and I dived into the water. Floating over the reef I marvelled at large dusty yellow sea leaves with purple veins, fish with scales like snake skin, black stingrays buried in the seabed, and coral formations that looked like the Hanukkah menorah we’d recently seen in the windows on New York’s Upper West Side.

Back at the hostel Clare read up on the history of Cancún’s development. The prime tourist area is a narrow peninsula, a former barrier island now joined to the mainland by causeways. A long strip of resorts faces the Caribbean. According to a 1996 paper by retired exploration geologist Peter V. Wiese at the UNESCO website, Cancún was developed in the early-‘70s to be “a Miami with a Mexican flavour”. The city became a planning and environmental disaster. It’s also a disaster for the workers. We read a scathing September 2003 article by Marc Cooper from The Nation. Poverty among the working population of Cancún is entrenched. Despite staggering investment in the city’s tourist industry, very little money has been devoted to building basic infrastructure for the city. As of 2003, “about half the residents are not connected to the sewer system, and local groundwater has turned toxic.” Also shocking is that “a de facto economic and social apartheid keeps the two worlds of Cancún—the served and the server—quite distant except when conducting necessary business.” This means, for example, that local workers are prohibited from swimming at certain beaches. The very concept of a private beach offends me as an Australian. I remembered the anger of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, an unforgiving screed against white tourism to the Caribbean island of Antigua. Read that and try to listen to the Beach Boys’ ‘Kokomo’.

Clare and I decided to get out of Cancún as soon as possible.

Worker housing surrounds the centro. Early one evening Clare and I walked around a market square. It was filled with Mexican children riding go-carts. Wealthier Mexicans are increasingly vacationing in Cancún. A few stalls sold second hand books. Outside the square we encountered a tall electric-white Christmas tree beside a nativity scene. Across the street was a low modernist church, Viva Crosio Rey, with fairy lights and an evening congregation. In a park people were selling jewellery and two teenagers were projecting a documentary on the prophesies of Nostradamus against a white wall.

Our hostel had a rooftop terrace looking over the streets. At sunset I drank a cerveza as my mp3 player shuffled randomly to Miklos Rozsa’s score for the 1962 epic Sodom and Gomorrah. I laughed, but the music was not really apt. Perhaps some horrified American parents see Cancún as a City of the Plain that will corrupt their college-age children, but actually the city is simply the latest in a string of unthreatening, pseudo-exotic playgrounds for Americans to get pissed and get laid. Australians go to Bali for the same reason.

I’ve been fascinated by cultural representations of Mexico for years. In 2003 I’d written and directed a short film called Location Scouting, an unauthorised prequel or fictional response to Fun In Acapulco (1963). Remember that travelogue? Elvis Presley romances Ursula Andress, croons ‘No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car’, mumbles his lines in front of blue screens, and never leaves the security of Paramount Studios in Hollywood. I shot my little film on a tempestuous deserted beach north of Sydney, sent a brave actor into winter surf wearing a sombrero and swigging from a bottle of table wine in a straw pouring basket. The drunk Mexican drowns. Cut to heartless Hollywood location scout. This will be a perfect setting for the clambake scene, he notes. (It wasn’t a very subtle short film.) Something about that particular Elvis movie must prompt the fictional impulse; last year I came across Javier Marías’s fine novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, another imagined making-of.

Anyway, Cancún has taken over Acapulco’s role as Mexico’s prime beachside tourist destination. One morning the newspapers reported 15 decapitated bodies dumped outside of Acapulco’s Plaza Sendero shopping centre. So it’s not so much fun, these days.

Clare and I moved on down the coast to find a less crowded place to relax. We did not at first succeed.

Playa del Carmen is a smaller-scale Cancún, a long strip of fine white crushed coral. Smaller hotels front the beach. You can rent a deck chair or get a massage while girls emerge from the gentle surf with seawater glistening on their bare nipples. A pedestrian street, Quinta Avenida, runs parallel to the beach and is entirely designed to cater to turistas americanos: McDonalds, Starbucks, a Johnny Rockets with broken table jukeboxes, over-priced restaurants and bars and nightclubs. Shops sell sombreros, Mayan kitsch, Cohiba cigars, bottles of tequila and mezcal, summer dresses, scarves, and bikinis.

Clare and I fled to the nearby island of Cozumel. The ferry was an expensive 140 pesos each way. At the island’s main port we hired a motor scooter. I rode east with Clare hugging my waist. We turned north onto a rough road towards the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. Clare was giddy with an archaeologist’s excitement. Iguanas scurried over the remains of a city once devoted to the worship of the Mayan fertility goddess Ix Chel.

After exploring the ruins we rode on to the eastern edge of the island, a rocky coastline washed by limpid blue sea. I parked the scooter beside a strip of white sand circling a small rocky cove. I strapped on a pair of goggles to check out the fish. Outside the boundaries of the cove I followed a sandy underwater path and navigated the rock formations. After the swim Clare and I dried out empty-bellied and salty in the late afternoon sun. We got back on the scooter and circumnavigated the whole island until we arrived back at San Miguel, the pretty port town. There’s a Beach Boys song about that place, as well, or at least some fantasy place called San Miguel that “could be in Mexico / where you don’t need no dough.” Not exactly true, but it’s a better song than ‘Kokomo’.

Another day I ignored my daily budget and went scuba diving in a cenote called Chac Mool, 22 kilometres south of Playa del Carmen. Clare, who hasn’t yet done her open water diving certificate, was conned into coming along as a snorkeller. A cenote is an underground cavern filled with water. They go deep. An English backpacker told me he’d dived to the bottom of Cenote Angelita, a 200 feet pit with a hydrogen sulfate layer. At Chac Mool I slid into a wetsuit, strapped on my B.C.D., scuba tank, and regulator, and leapt backwards into the cenote. Our group leader signalled to deflate our B.C.D.s and descend. The fresh water became salty several metres below the surface. Between the two layers the water blurred as if I was swimming through oil. There were very few fish in the cenote. The thrill was to descend to completely underwater passages guided only by the lights of our underwater torches. At one stage my dive group ascended to a cave with about a metre of airspace beneath the roof. The roots of a tree plunged down through the roof to drink the water. We had to be careful not to knock our tanks against the stalactites.

Clare and I moved on to Tulum, south of Playa del Carmen. This was much better. You can stay in a hotel or cabana on the long beach south of the archaeological ruins, but staying in a hostel in the centro is the cheaper option. From there you can jump into a taxi and spend a fixed price of 40 pesos (US$3.30) to get to the nearest beach. Tulum’s coastline is thickly wooded. The quality of the seawater is excellent, too, because the local authorities have tried not to repeat the environmental mistakes of Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

When it rained I sat in La Flor de Michoacan Juice Bar and wrote while taxis slushed past. Later, Clare and I left the main strip of hostels and restaurants and wandered into the workers’ barrio. The residences range from well-maintained houses and apartments to crumbling concrete, wooden, and corrugated tin slum dwellings. Pieces of broken glass and wire were cemented into the tops of some of the mouldy concrete walls. Stormwater drains had overflowed and flooded the roads. Garbage disposal seemed non-existent in this neighbourhood. Near-bursting plastic shopping bags hung on fence posts and lay in rain puddles. Stray dogs rummaged in milkcrates packed with plastic soft drink bottles, discarded gloves, broken coat hangers, and jagged tin cans.

It’s possible to stay in Tulum Centro and live a life of ease for under US$25 a day. After you’ve explored the ruins there’s not much else to do except read or go to the beach. I met a grizzled backpacker from Ottawa who was doing that all winter.

Clare and I looked at a map and plotted our path northwest to the city of Mérida.

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