Mayan ruins, cenotes, and secret beaches

It’s been a whirlwind of a week. We are now in Belize – today was our border crossing. I can’t believe it’s been almost a month in Mexico, where before we foolishly thought we would be spending two weeks at most traveling through. The breakdowns, of course, significantly derailed our plans but at the same time it allowed us to see more of Mexico by forcing us to slow down. We originally thought we would have to decide between exploring Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula, but we ended up doing both. I’m really glad we did.

Savannah was never successfully diagnosed in Campeche. We left it at the dealership for two days of testing to see if they could replicate the problem – the problem being losing all power while driving. While we waited in a coffee shop nearby, we did some research ourselves to try to figure out what was going. The code that triggered the check engine light was for a throttle actuator – basically from what we understand is that it regulates how much gas is used when the gas pedal is pushed. It turns out that many other Fords have issues with the throttle body/throttle actuator. There was even a recall for the 2016 Ford transit. All of the symptoms sounded precisely like what was happening with Savannah. After the second day in the shop with no answers, we decided to just request that the part was replaced and hoped that we were right. It was a $400 gamble…

Those few days in Campeche were super hot and we slowly were losing our sanity in the coffee shop. We did go and see Dune in theaters (in English) which was cool. And we had a night on the town where we dressed up in what we had around the van – for me a red dress and heeled boots, and for Andre hiking boots with cargo pants and a flamingo patterned button-down shirt. We tried 🙂

Once the part was replaced we hightailed it out of Campeche. We had done literally every attraction there that we could find, and we were ready for some outdoor fun. We read about a place to sleep not far out of Campeche (since we got Savannah back at around 3 PM). It was a site of abandoned ruins that was off the main highway a bit. As we drove down the narrow road that Savannah barely fit through, I wondered if this was a good idea for her test run as there was no service and the road continued to get more choked out with vegetation. Eventually though, we got spat out of the jungle at the parking lot for the ruins. It appeared it had been closed for a while for covid. We walked around the perimeter of the fence looking for signs of life and when we didn’t see any, decided to climb through the barbed wire and check it out. We did drive that crazy road to get there after all.

We were startled when a dog barked at us and seemed to be protecting a hut that looked like it was once used for admission. Andre shouted out, “Alguien alli?” (Anyone there?). No one answered, so we gave the dog a wide berth and set off to exploring. The sun was just setting and gave an eerie feeling to the place. The grass was cut but shrubs were growing out of the rocks of the ruins. We climbed to the top of a couple of the larger temples and watched the sunset. Andre stuck his head into a crawl space at one of the bases of the pyramid. As we were walking back to the van, I was sure I heard tires and voices. Nervous about getting caught trespassing, we snuck back to the van only to find no cars and no humans – phantoms perhaps. It was a pretty awesome way to get creeped out for the Halloween season! We later decided to watch “The Ruins,” a horror flick from 2008 about Mexican ruins and killer plants. It didn’t age well but it was neat to watch after the abandoned ruins experience.

Our main draw to the Yucatan Peninsula were the cenotes. Cenotes are basically large sinkholes or caves that fill with rainwater over time, and the peninsula is riddled with them. We read that cenotes were commonly used for drinking water by ancient Maya, and occasionally for sacrificial offerings. Our first stop was Oxman cenote which had a rope swing and looked really neat. However, upon arriving to the address, we discovered that it was a very well known and popular cenote equipped with a restaurant and shops. I was pretty bummed out to find the cenote filled with people and witnessing wannabe influencers try to get that perfect Instagram photo – one that would make it seem like there was no one else in the cave. I tried to ignore this and focus on the cool plants and fish in the cenote, but in reality I pretty much just retreated into a dark corner of the pool of water. It was still beautiful though and it was funny to watch Andre try to do backflips from the rope swing.

We moved on to Saytun Cenote where we planned to camp for the night. We checked out the cenote around sunset and found it busy as well. This cenote had an underwater walk way into the center. When we arrived, there was a line of about a dozen groups waiting to get their photo taken. Not in these photos were the people floating in life jackets in the water around the platform – life jackets were required. Of course it’s silly to think that something like cenotes would stay hidden from the public, but it was kind of sad to see how commercialized they’d become. Still beautiful, of course.

Our next stop was Tulum. We saw there was a cenote on the way and stopped by. This one, Choo-Ha, was still built out with stairs and lights, but much less crowded and we were able to swim in the crystal clear water and have some time to marvel at how cool these geological wonders are. And we were not required to wear life jackets and could swim freely 🙂

Tulum seemed to be like the rebel brother of Cancun (though I’ve never been to Cancun). Cancun appears to be expensive hotels, night clubs, and crowded beached. Where Tulum we thought of wild beaches, the Tulum ruins, and rum. It definitely felt like a lawless place where traffic laws didn’t exist and you had the right of way if driving a moped – bonus points if you were covered in tattoos and looked intimidating. We also realized it was still very much a vacation town and a lot different than other towns we’d driven through in Mexico. We stopped to eat dinner at a hotel restaurant overlooking the ocean and saw that prices for the suits were about $500 US per night.

The road along the coast, where a lot of the hotels and bars were, was incredibly rutted and we bounced our way along until we reached the southern edge. From there we paid a small fee to continue on an even more rutted road to our site where we’d sleep. The van rocked and bucked through the potholes and we were happy to finally put it in park. It was just a pull off on the side of the road that we found as free, wild camping on iOverlander, but it was just steps from the beach. We found a dilapidated structure of an old cabana and drank rum while watching a thunderstorm while we celebrated one crazy year together.

The next morning we hung out on the beach, having a good stretch of it to ourselves. We read books, soaked up some sun, skinny dipped in the ocean, and climbed all over the cabana.

When we were happily rejuvenated with some solo time, we returned to the crowds and checked out the ruins of Tulum. This was the busiest ruins site we’d been to being right in the city. It was pretty cool how it was built on the edge of the sea. It was tough to try to imagine what it would have been like when it was an active city – it felt like a completely different world, and it probably was. We also saw an iguana eating another iguana. On our way out we bought cold coconuts and Andre confirmed that he did not like coconuts.

Our last place in Mexico was Bacalar. We saw it was near the border of Belize and Mexico and thought it would be a good place to set off to the border from the next day. We read there were swings out in the lake at a hostel camp site, but once we drove to it we realized it had been closed down. We ended up staying at a different hostel, no swings, but the lake was pristine and crystal clear. We met another couple there and chatted for a bit. They also had plans of traveling to South America but were making money along the way to do so. There was also a whole pack of dogs at this place which was pretty fun.

In order to cross into Belize, we would have to book at least three nights of stay at “gold standard accommodations” based on a list where establishments met the criteria to be covid safe. That night after hanging around the hostel we researched the cheapest places we could stay. We had inquired about if we would need to, since the van is our home right now, but it was confirmed that we would still have to have proof of reservations at establishments to get across the border. We finalized our plan to spend 3 days in Belize and booked bunks in hostels.

We only needed to drive 30 minutes to get to the border (this morning). It wasn’t as stressful of a crossing as it was to get into Mexico, but it still took about an hour and a half. We needed to get tested for covid with the rapid antigen testing method. Once we were cleared to be negative, we had to run around the customs office to get our immigrations forms approved, passports stamped, and Savannah imported. It was also a bit easier this time because Belize is an English speaking country. Despite this, apparently we still looked lost and a friendly officer helped us make sure we got everything sorted. The one thing we don’t have is Belize car insurance, which is mandatory. We stopped at 5 different insurance locations after crossing the border, but being a Saturday afternoon they were all closed… and will continue to be closed until Monday. We tried our best, hopefully we won’t get pulled over and “locked up” as the custom officer explained happens in Belize.

We got some pizza for dinner, yes that was our first meal in this new, exotic country. And we’re now sipping Belikin beers on the rooftop of the hostel we’re at. We met the very enthusiastic chef who lives here and we’re currently being DJ’ed by him and his impressive vinyl collection. He insisted we come into his studio and see how many records he has, which is more than I’ve ever seen in one place besides at a record store. And he shipped all of them from the UK to Belize when he decided to move here 10 years ago. He’s definitely playing us some bangers.

We’ll only be in Belize for 3 days before we’ll cross in to Guatemala. Here’s to hoping we see some cool stuff snorkeling around the coast here!

Andre’s post here!

Updated map of places we’ve slept, here 🙂

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