(This travelogue will be heavier on the pictures than previous ones. I bought a nifty little Nikon Coolpix camera, and I’m delighted with it. Click on any thumbnail to see a larger version in Flickr. Most of the photos are 8 Mpx, so you can get nice detail if you want it.)
Paradoxically, from northern Ohio it’s quicker to fly to Cancún, México, than to Salt Lake City. That was my first geographical surprise on our way out. (The second was that Cancún is due south of Nashville; I’d pegged it as south of Washington, DC.)
Normally, the sun right outside our window would quickly get annoying, flooding us with too much light and warmth when all we wanted to do was either nap or goof around on a dimly lit laptop. But once we got over the Gulf of Mexico, my habit of staring out the window was richly rewarded with cool photo ops with reflected sunlight. We had just left the USA when I snapped this one of several richly branched rivers merging with the Gulf, reminiscent of the Mandelbrot set (Plate 1). The ocean has a lovely, silver matte finish, and the cloud shadows look like “reverse field” clouds.
A little ways further, a lovely rainbow sheen appeared on the water, and the swells gave the Gulf a leathery appearance (Plate 2).
Our first view of the Yucatán peninsula was surprisingly colorful (Plate 3). “If Cancún looks like this, no wonder it’s so popular,” I thought.
Our fun and games ended when we landed. We were all herded down the portable staircase to the tarmac and wedged into a long accordion bus. As far as I knew, the entire complement of passengers from our Boeing 737 got on the same bus. Certainly our section had 70 or 80 people in it, stacked like new pencils in the box. We stood there and soon all stuck together in the infernal heat. It wouldn’t have made any difference if we’d had room to sit down, as the only seat was already occupied by the driver. Can’t even imagine what someone in a wheelchair would have to go through.
I was a bit apprehensive going through customs, on account of The Button. We’d heard about The Button, a.k.a. the Traffic Light of Judgment. Everyone—our Lonely Planet travel guide, our airport shuttle company, and our friends—spoke of it in half reverent, half uneasy tones, as if it were some dark and powerful magic from the High Mayan era. Press The Button and you see a red light or a green light. If green, you’re free to go and enjoy your stay in Mexico. If red—well, we don’t know what happens the red light appears, because nobody who has has ever been heard from again, but according to rumor it involves a great deal of what is known euphemistically as “extra screening.” But what really impressed me was: how does it know whether you’re good or evil? Does The Button read our minds? Does it somehow scan the immigration form you’re holding? It’s the greatest mystery in Mexico.
After a good hour and a half of trudging through labyrinthine, Mylar-delimited mazes, we were cleared to approach The Button. It certainly lived up to the hype: it was bright red and as big as a tuna-fish can, and bore the wear and oily residue of untold millions of pressings, like a master hacker’s space bar. The dude in front of us, a hippie with a backpack the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, tremulously approached The Button and gave it a shaky push. Aargh—red! He was led away to his doom. I stepped up and sealed our fate. Green! Woohoo! We’re free!1
On the way out to our shuttle we encountered the first of what I eventually called “gauntlets”: paths we tourists couldn’t avoid, lined on either side with boisterous folks trying to sell us shit. In the Cancún airport, it was timeshares. A fifty-yard tunnel of wall-to-wall, high-pressure salespeople hawking timeshares. Our shuttle service had warned us about these guys; that they’d try to tell us, incorrectly, where to find our shuttle, so that we’d get lost and wind up using their illegal taxi services. One walked out from the crowd to where we were quickly striding along (down the exact center of the hall) and asked us if we needed a ride; and when I showed disinterest, made a grand speech on how he was here to help us. I finally just said that we’d arranged a ride already, and he very kindly told me exactly where our shuttle would be waiting for us. And, just as we’d been forewarned, his directions were polite, detailed, and utterly false in every possible way.
That the Cancún control tower is plastered with beer ads tells you much about how this town rolls (Plate 4).
I’d reckoned that we were early enough in the hurricane season: (read: the very first week) that we’d be safe from tropical activity. I reckoned wrong. The East Pacific had two tropical storms in May, and the remains of the second, Hurricane Barbara, arrived in Cancún just after we did. It no longer even qualified as a tropical storm at that point, but still managed to dump an astonishing amount of rain on us. The 24-hour rainfall for Cancún, ending at 8:00 PM, June 1, was 6.5 in (16.3 cm), and that was only a couple hours into the storm. (The average rainfall for Cancún over the entire month of June, I learned later, is only 5.5 inches.)
Good thing we hadn’t planned anything for our first day. We would likely have taken a dip in the ocean, but merely walking outside achieved pretty much the same effect. I stepped out to buy a toothbrush at the gift shop and got so thoroughly soaked that the only way I could dry my clothes was to blast them with a hair dryer on high setting for twenty minutes nonstop. We could just about hear the mildew starting to grow.
Imagine the most intense cloudburst you’ve ever seen, right at the beginning of a killer thunderstorm, and extend that over an entire night. That was our first day in México. Here’s what the view out our window looked like (Plate 5):
A bit more about the resort we called home. We could have paid a fortune for an “Ocean View” room, but since we’re cheapskates, we only sprung for one of the economy “Swamp View” rooms (as Plate 5 makes clear).
We’d never stayed at a true resort before, but our Alaskan cruise a few years ago prepared us fairly well. The restaurant situation was basically like a landbound cruise ship: no charge for the food, reservations only at the fancier places, and a buffet where you could just show up and browse most of the day. I didn’t really want all that much food, but I grooved out on the continuous drink service. We were constantly plied with free beverages: at meals, by the pool, and even on the beach. I was overjoyed to find that we could get free virgin strawberry daiquiris, but when I tried one, it didn’t taste anything like strawberries. It was plenty red, though, and the flavor was maddeningly familiar: it contained at least one tropical fruit, but not any identifiable tropical fruit. Then I realized that the active ingredient was super-concentrated Hawaiian Punch. (And, as I found out later, it was delivered through the multi-channel bar spigot used for soft drinks.) Once I got over the shock, I decided I rather liked it. I quaffed about thirty Hawaiian Punch daiquiris over the course of our vacation, and I reckon that my intestinal tract has been permanently stained fluorescent red. Instead of having to undergo a colonoscopy, I can just sit in a darkroom for half an hour with a sheet of photographic film strapped around my waist.
Our accommodations didn’t impress us nearly as much as the food. Our room was okay, but the layout of the hotel was ludicrous for a climate that can get as much rain as we encountered. That the resort buildings were open to the outside was to be expected in the tropics, and we had no problem with that, except that all the hallways in the buildings were perfectly level, and paved with frictionless, polished stone. We might was well have been in free fall, for all the drainage we had. Whenever it rained—usual case—an army of staff armed with squeegees was deployed to try—and fail—to herd the water back outside before the halls became estuaries. I’d brought along a pair of flip-flops I’d owned for nearly thirty years, but I could never wear them except at the beach, as I was in continual jeopardy of slipping and breaking something. Going barefoot was easier, but I still had to plant each foot carefully on the surface and let it bind for a second before I dared advance the next step. You can imagine how annoyed my companions got to have to wait for me whenever I had to do my mountaineer-crossing-the-glacier impression. And the outdoor trails were scarcely better than the hallways. For some reason, nobody else seemed to have problems walking on the wet paths.
(I finally abandoned my flip-flops at the resort; it was kind of sad, even though I desperately need a new pair with some actual traction so I can walk on a surface more slippery than live coral.)
In Part 2 of the Yucatán travelogue, we’ll visit Chichén Itzá and a really cool underwater grotto.
1I learned later that the green light/red light decision was completely random. It was merely a dramatic way to announce a random search. I kind of wish I hadn’t found out the truth of the matter; now I’m all disappointed at how mundane and uninteresting it really is.