Rambling thoughts on going back to the Yucatan

It’s been 18 years since that summer I spent “travel writing” in the Yucatan – and, as it’s often the case with the distant past, it seems both as it’d happened in another lifetime or just last year. It is strange to me that I am separated by almost half my life from that young, adventurous girl that I once was, so eager for life, for experiences. And yet, aren’t I just the same? Have I really grown since? Do I miss her? I’m 40, still unaware of where my youth went, but old enough that I am just beginning to look back and cherish memories from what now it’s become so long ago.
The Yucatan is a special place for me. I’ve traveled a lot in the last 18 years, but never for so long and so thoroughly. Writing a chapter in a guide book really requires that you get to know a region intimately, that you inquire into its secrets and moods, and really, that you fall in love with it. Indeed, I see my relationship with that region not so differently from that with a long lost lover – you are curious to see him again, but also apprehensive of what time has done to you and him. I know that the Yucatan has changed; sleepy Plaza del Carmen, in particular, is now said to be a huge tourist mecca with hotel development after development. And yet, I’m told it still retains its character as a beach town. We are staying there (at an all inclusive hotel, of all things, but it was amazingly cheap, in a per-person basis it would almost accommodate my 1992 budget of $20 a day). I’m hoping to take a look at La Ruina, the “hotel” I stayed for many a night back then. It was located near the main bus road in Playa del Carmen, right at the beach, and was named so because of the small Maya ruin still in the property. I slept on my hammock under a huge communal palapa, enjoying the sea breezes and the friendly atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve thought about this place, about the Yucatan, really, in seventeen years. And now the memories leak through.
It is very strange to look through the couple of Yucatan guide books I borrowed from the library. It’s almost like re-encountering a foreign language, once you once knew fairly well but that is now a mystery (I have, indeed, the same experience with Arabic and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs). I remember the words, the names of the places. The resound in the back of my mind. But what do they mean? What are they? Conjuring the memories of what each site looked like, of even going there, is hard. I remember the earlier sites better than the later ones, though not always. I know for a fact that I stayed several days in Ticul – I can picture the lobby of the hotel where I stayed and my table at the restaurante Los Almendros -, but for the life of me I cannot remember in the least what the town looked like, or where I went from there, forget about the other hotels and restaurants I must have visited. Sayil, Calakmul, Dzibalchen… words (places) I spoke once, and now I have no idea what they are. It is sad, by the time we realize that we memories are indeed lost, it’s too late to try to keep them.
This trip to the Yucatan is accidental. I hadn’t planned to go anywhere this summer, I can’t afford to go anywhere this summer. But then a few weeks ago I found out that airfares to Argentina were impossibly cheap (under $500!) – and I decided that it was my opportunity to go back. I spent weeks (OK, a week) planning the trip, only to come to the conclusion that a month with the girls but without Mike, in a potentially cold apartment with no clear ideas as to what to do, might not be particularly enjoyable to anyone. I want the girls to learn Spanish, but I wasn’t clear on how I’d accomplish that. The apartment’s fridge and washing machine are broken, cable is cut so there may be no TV. In the end, I decided not to go.
But I had the travel bug and I checked out what fares to other Latin American countries were. Those to Mexico were, of course, the cheapest. My original plan was to find a beach somewhere in Mexico, rent a very cheap house, and spend a couple of weeks there. Not knowing anything of Mexico, I asked for advise and the first recommendations were of Progreso – in the Yucatan. Now, renting a house in Progreso in July is just not doable. Half of Merida has the same idea and available houses are few and at outrageous prices. But… that peaked my interest in going to the Yucatan. Fares to Cancun were also impossibly cheap – my no-stop tickets to Cancun from LAX were $275 each! -, much cheaper than to other areas of Mexico. Moreover, the Yucatan has great beaches, specially for kids who hate waves.
So the Yucatan it was, and slowly my trip morphed from 2 weeks at the beach to a tour of the region with four final days at an all-inclusive in Playa del Carmen.
I’m not unaware that this trip is not necessarily a good idea. Not only is the trip beyond our means (and while that never stopped us before, it’s time we become more fiscally responsible), but it will take place in July, when the Yucatan boils with heat and mosquitoes are at their fiercest. Yes, I traveled the region in July before – but I was young and leaner and I didn’t have two little kids along – two little kids very allergic to mosquito bites, moreover. Yes, not a good idea.
But I’ve pushed forward. For one, I wanted a trip to celebrate my 40th birthday, I wanted to go back to the past. It was to be Egypt but that would have cost twice as much. Plus I didn’t study my Arabic or my hieroglyphs, as I promised myself I would two years ago when I first had the idea of a trip. Today, at the library, I picked up a book on the Maya (something which I don’t think I even bother to do 18 years ago) – let’s see if I’m more industrious these weeks before the trip.
I also want to show this region that means so much to me to Mike and the girls. I want to see how it’s changed, how it’s the same.
It is strange, as I read the guidebooks and plan my trip I unconsciously go back into “travel writing mode” – something I haven’t done since that summer. I start to think that I have to write about that place, make a list of questions that I need answered – only to realize moments later, with a little bit of sadness, that this time I only have to think about enjoying myself.


  1. Libby

    Good for you! I’m sure you and your girls will have a great time! Where else in the Yucatan area are you planning to visit besides Playa del Carmen? There are so many wonderful places — Merida, Valladolid, Ek Balam in the Yucatan and Akumal, Coba, Tulum and more in Quintana Roo. The cenotes are a great way to cool off from the summer heat. Your girls would probably love the Xcaret and Xel-ha amusement parks. I live in Playa del Carmen, so if you have any questions feel free to ask me! Have a great trip!!

  2. Marga Lacabe

    Thanks for your comment! I’m so looking forward to this trip šŸ™‚
    Our plan is to go to Isla Holbox, Valladolid (visit Ek Balam, Balankanche, Chichen Itza, cenotes), Merida (Uxmal, Mayapan, Calcehtok, Loltum caves, whatever else comes up), Tulum & Coba, and then we’ll end the trip in Playa. Exactly what we do/see will depend on how the girls do. I know they like caves, but will they like archaeological sites? Will I get them (or at least the older one) to snorkel?
    I’m still thinking over whether to do Xcaret or Xel-ha or Hidden Worlds, or none at all – they are quite expensive and I’m trying to do this trip on the cheap. Indeed, I can’t believe how expensive Mexico has become, where are the super-cheap budget hotels of yesterday? But I have to remember it’s been 18 years (can’t really believe that) and there is four of us now šŸ™‚

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