Almost 26 years ago Julie and I set off on our first international trip together as honeymooners. We flew from Salt Lake City to Cancun, Mexico. There were no jet bridges, and as we descended the stairs to the tarmac I remember being hit with my first experience of tropical humidity. I loved it and, perhaps perversely, still do.
We got in a shuttle van with several other couples, most of them honeymooners as well, and rode into town. We watched as one couple after another was dropped off at a luxury hotel in the Zona Hotelera.
Most of these couples were only staying for a few days on some package deal. We didn’t have much money and were planning to backpack down to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel for a trip lasting two weeks. So the van dropped us — the last couple — off at a nice but small hotel in town that was only $25 a night. But we didn’t care. We were there to explore Mexico and travel together as a young couple. Besides, the bed was nice enough and that’s all a honeymooning couple needs…right?
Welcome to Mexico!
We went exploring and got thirsty so I asked for directions in Spanish to the nearest market. Now, my Spanish consisted of what I had supposedly learned in junior high while I was not paying attention. The man seemed to understand me, but the problem was that he replied in Spanish. I said “Gracias” and we started walking in the direction he pointed and Julie asked me what he said. “I don’t know,” I replied.
At this point, Julie may have been panicking a little but she didn’t let on because she has an adventurous soul. The traffic was crazy, and we walked past the police station where there were several green and white taxi cabs impounded with bashed-in side doors. We were definitely feeling out of our comfort zone.
So we made it to a bar in the hotel zone, Carlos’n Charlie’s, where they spoke English. We got a table by the water and spent the rest of the afternoon and night there, a haven while we adjusted to a new country.
I looked up from our margaritas and watched a pterodactyl slowing circling in the orange sky. It turned out to be a Magnificent Frigatebird. We heard mariachi music and as the darkness settled, Christmas lights came on over the water where Nurse Sharks swam slowly in a small pen. It was so alien and romantic, and I was hooked on Mexico.
When we got back to the hotel that night, we found the gate to the hotel shut and thinking it was locked, we crawled through a window. In the morning the hotel manager pointed out it wasn’t locked, and we laughed because we were drunk and giddy with travel excitement and very much in love with each other.
Connecting in Cozumel.
After a couple of days in Cancun, and not really into the tourist thing, we caught a chicken bus down to Playa del Carmen. It dropped us off some distance from town and we walked in the heat to the ferry.
In Cozumel we explored and snorkeled and I got hit with Montezuma’s revenge. While I lay sick in bed, Julie walked around town and met an old man in a guayabera who helped her find mantequilla — butter — for some biscuits and told her to get Lomotil for me. The next day it was Julie’s turn to be sick. Later, she introduced me to her new friend and our savior with the Lomotil..
During our last night on the island, we mingled with local couples who walked hand-in-hand to watch the ferry arrive. They then hung out in the town square, socializing and snuggling while families ate ice cream and children chased each other across the plaza. This, and our encounter with the helpful old man, were highlights of our trip because we connected with locals instead of just handing over our money to them.
Back to Playa del Carmen.
Four days later, we took the local’s ferry back to Playa del Carmen watching Daffy Duck cartoons in Spanish while a small Mexican man fell asleep leaning against Julie. I had planned to take us down to Coba, but when we landed at Playa del Carmen we decided to just chill for the rest of the trip because the village had such a cool vibe and we were tired from our illness.
That was a good decision. We stayed in a couple of different bungalows on a blinding stretch of white, sugary sand. There was a campground of American and European backpackers, and a topless beach, and a slow pace without the hyperactivity of all inclusive resorts and pesky beach vendors. We found some small Mayan ruins.
One day I walked south along the coast while Julie rested back at the room. I passed a shipwreck and found an unexcavated ruin in the jungle. I started following a path and came out in a clearing where a Mayan was working in front of his tiny, thatched roof home. He stared at me and I stood there for a moment until I realized I was trespassing. We both waved at each other and I turned and walked back to my bride.
A few days later we were boarding the plane in Cancun (they sprayed a chemical in the cabin to kill any hitchhiking insects), and as the pilot banked over the hotel zone he came on the intercom and said “There’s where you left all your money.”
The fact is, we weren’t leaving anything. We took a love for Mexico back with us, and that’s a big part of the reason we moved to Tucson. Since then, we’ve traveled countless times in the country, exploring back roads, interacting with locals, hanging out on deserted beaches. My Spanish has only improved slightly but we no longer feel out of our comfort zone in the land of tequila, Mariachi and some of the friendliest humans on the planet.