Cycling Through The Yucatan

Land of the Maya

I really had no great interest to vacation in Mexico. I had been there before and was not impressed by some of the conditions I had seen in the northern part of the country. But when the subject of cycling through Mayan Mexico was brought up when talking to co-worker, and fellow cyclist, Gavin Ells, I decided to give it a try, after all - cycling was involved!  The group eventually blossomed into five co-workers, and myself.  Three of the gang - Ann Ells, Kelly Kemmis, and Karen Nantes were all ticket agents, the rest of us - Dan Fauchoux, Gavin, and myself were all pilots.

A fair amount of research is required for a trip of this type, and we utilized two guide books in particular: "Cancun Handbook," by Chicki Mallan, and "Adventure Guide to the Yucatán," by Bruce and June Conord. These books gave us the maps that we were looking for, as well as a backgrounder for the area, and many suggestions on inexpensive hotels, or camping options. Both books are available at Novak’s in London.

If you don’t like cycling over large hills, one fortunate feature of this area is its geography, or should I say - lack of it. The area is extremely flat, with the largest "hill" rising perhaps 100’ over a one kilometre distance. The Yucatán was largely undiscovered until as late as the 1970’s when roads were first built through the jungle, and the resort area of Cancun was developed. Mayan civilization had prospered in the area for almost two thousand years, and many ruins are still left in the area for exploring. Besides these ruins, the area offers some of the nicest beaches to be found anywhere, as well as snorkeling and scuba diving which rivals the best in the world.

We started our adventure in London, Ontario with an exercise of bicycle partial disassembly - handlebars sideways, pedals off, seats down, and tires somewhat deflated. Then we put our bikes into either large bike bags provided by the airline, or boxes provided by the local bike store. The duct tape came in very handy!

The next day, Monday, April 27th, we left for Cancun - six coworkers with a passion for cycling and a sense of adventure: three males including myself, who were all veteran cyclists, and three females of varying cycling abilities - including one who I would class as a "beginner." Arriving at close to midnight, we rented a large Chevrolet Suburban for $60 US to take us to the hotel. The temperature this late at night was still about 28°C. Did we know what we were getting ourselves in for? We had planned to pedal to the south end of the state, where the capital, Chetumal touches the northern part of Belize, about 400 kilometres, plus a 100 kilometre sidetrip around the island of Cozumel.

The next morning we arose and started assembling bicycles. There were a few minor problems, most likely caused by rough handling along the way.  Derailleurs weren't shifting properly, and a rear wheel on one of the bikes had its bearings "readjusted." But we started off for our first destination: Puerto Morelos, about 42 km to the south, on the shore of the Caribbean Sea. We were blessed on this part of our trip: the road south was being "four laned." Although the construction was finished, cars were not yet allowed on this new section of highway. We were in our glory, and could ride six abreast if we so desired. The scenery was actually quite unremarkable. As predicted, it was flat, with low, scrubby jungle lining both sides of the highway. On several occasions as we rode, we could see the coastline as Cancun slowly disappeared. After several roadside "shade" stops, we arrived in the tiny fishing village of Puerto Morelos around 2:30 p.m. After consulting with an agent at the local tourist information centre, we were advised that a ferry would be leaving for Cozumel in about 30 minutes. We decided to try to catch the ferry. Upon arriving at the ferry docks, however, we were told the ferry did not leave until 6:30 p.m. Just as well, as Dan, riding his custom frame titanium bike was missing! He showed up about ten minutes later pushing his expensive steed. The rear "hoof" was injured by a chunk of glass. After fixing the flat, we headed to Pelicanos, a local seafood restaurant. After a delicious meal which included conch soup, we boarded the ferry for the three hour trip to Cozumel.

By the time we arrived in Cozumel, it was dark. The bike light I had brought for the trip came in handy, and most members of our group had red flashing lights to help illuminate us for the short ride into town. In San Miguel, the capital of Cozumel (actually, the only town on the island) we found clean, spartan accommodations for only $12 US apiece.  A few cockroaches were in evidence (according to our female travelling companions), the shower gave only a rudimentary likeness to hot water, and the beds consisted of a mattress on a cement platform, but hey, it was home! Across the road from the Hotel Pepita we found the best coffee in all of our travels in the Yucatan, and the small coffee shop run by a German expatriate housed a cyber café as well. The next day we cycled 85 km around the island, visiting numerous small cafes as we went. The east side of the island is very rugged, rocky and windswept, in contrast to the west side where sheltered reefs offer spectacular snorkeling. Only ten km from town we came upon some Mayan ruins currently under excavation: San Gervasio, but as we were running out of time, we moved on.

The next day under predictable Mexican weather, we biked to the ferry dock for the short boat ride to Playa del Carmen. Today we had another short ride southbound to the town of Akumal (Mayan for "Place of the Turtle"). In two hours and eighteen minutes of cycling, and 45 km later, we had arrived. After a snack of Mexican beers (we had arrived at happy hour), and the customary deep fried Nacho chips with piquante sauces, we hunted for accommodations. I entertained the women at the restaurant, while Dan and Gavin searched for some form of accommodation.  They found a large two story, two bedroom house vacated by its American owners for the off season for only $50 US for the six of us. It was beautiful, and we entertained the idea of staying a little longer than planned, like another two or three months. The thought passed slowly. Dinner this evening was at an Italian restaurant only a three minute walk away from the house. I swear we were their only customers for the night. Service in any restaurant we ate at was superb, the food was good, and best of all, prices were generally about one half of what we paid for similar meals at Canadian restaurants.

On Friday, May 1, it is Labour Day in Mexico. We cycled a short 33 km south again to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. After finding once again cheap (or should I say, inexpensive) accommodations very close to the ruins, we set out to explore them. Tulum was built by the Mayans from about 900 A.D. to 1500 A.D. This is considered to be the Post Classic period in Mayan architecture - a time where intricate stone carvings were replaced by stucco reliefs, and architectural techniques held on to for many hundreds of years suffered.  However, the site is very impressive, perched high on top of limestone cliffs that overlook the turquoise water of the Caribbean below. Due to the Labour Day holiday, the regular admission of $2.00 US was waived. We spent much of the day basking in the strong Caribbean sun on the beach below the ruins.  I can also vouch for the incredible scenery on the beach itself, as several young ladies must have found it very hot, and removed their tops.  Unfortunately, none of these ladies belonged to our cycling group.

On Saturday, our "real" cycling would begin. We were going to Felipe Carillo Puerto, an unremarkable Mexican city 98 km south of Tulum. Today’s ride would take us around the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a protected natural reserve set up in 1986. The only town we would encounter would be 30 km south of Tulum - the town of Muyil, where there is another small Mayan ruin protruding through the low jungle canopy. We got off to an early start around 6:30 a.m. The first two items we attended to were breakfast, followed by supplies for the trip. We purchased bottled water by the four liter jug this morning. By the time we arrived in Felipe, we were each down to our last few ounces. The distance actually came out to 102 km, after 5 hours and 22 minutes in the saddle, and numerous "shade" breaks. Our average speed was only 17.8 kph, but hey - we’re on vacation anyway. I can tell you it was difficult to find "quality" shade when the sun is up high in the sky. Once downtown in Felipe, we stopped at the most promising looking restaurant for some refreshments. The restaurant also rented out very nice hotel rooms with air conditioning (but sub standard plumbing, and no toilet seats), and we made it our base of operations for the night.  The plumbing was the most serious problem for me that evening, as the dreaded "Montezuma" disease we had all read about struck viciously.  I highly recommend Immodium DM!

Sunday was going to be another long day, but we had planned something special. According to the guidebook, "Rancho Encantado," a small laid back resort on the shore of the Bacalar Lagoon consisted of six casitas, or cottages situated in a lush eden of tropical shrubs, coco palms, and fruit trees - all just a few steps from the lagoon shore. This was for us. This was our reward! The map in the guidebook pegged the resort at about 80 km down the road - a nice day of cycling. Along this road, the scenery started to change noticeably, we now rode through several swampy areas. Thousands and thousands of butterflies joined us along the ride. The road started to change from flat to gently rolling. Many birds started cackling at us, and we saw several parrots take flight, replacing the ever present turkey buzzards that had been circling above for most of our journey. About thirty - five kilometres into the ride Gavin’s bike developed a flat. It was quickly changed during one of our many shade stops, but then about ten kilometres later, it started to go flat again. This time we were in luck, as we soon would be passing through the town of Las Palmas - a corner store was the only evidence we saw of a town, but we stopped and took some refreshment. The flat, it seems was caused by a small particle of glass which had eluded detection on the previous fix.  Local Mexicans laughed nearby as we fixed the flat.  They chuckled wildly when Karen, in her best Spanish explained, "gringo loco." Fifteen minutes later and we were on our way. Only another 35 km to go to paradise, or so we thought! Our next break was in the town of Limones - a scant 5 km away from the resort. We asked several of the locals for some directions, but kept on getting the answer "cuarenta" kilometres: "forty." We thought there must be some language problem, and they did not understand us. Another five kilometres failed to produce any resort. We came to the conclusion that we had somehow ridden past the resort, so we would continue on to the town of Bacalar, another forty kilometres down the road. Karen, one of the ladies we were cycling with was definitely starting to fade in the 35°C sun. Now we seemed to be stopping every five kilometres for shade and water. And we were sorry we had not added additional water in Limones. With an estimated twenty kilometres to go, I decided to press on, book us into a hotel, then ride back with some additional water. After about thirty minutes of cycling I came upon my first view of the Bacalar Lagoon. I was so elated, I had to stop and take a photograph. Another fifteen minutes of cycling, mostly downhill, brought me to the most beautiful sight I had ever seen: the entrance to "Rancho Encantado!!!"  We hadn't ridden past it, afterall.  I located the manager, and secured the last two available casitas for the night, and arranged for dinner for the six of us.  Then I loaded up with water.  Just as I started out to meet up with the rest of our "team," Ann and Kelly arrived.  They said the others were not far behind, and shouldn't need any water.  The "Three Amigos" arrived very shortly after, with Karen bloodied and bruised from a fall from her bike at the gravel entrance to the Encantado.  She was, none the less, elated to be here. 

The long ride had been worth it! The Rancho was beautiful beyond most of our dreams. We waded into the Laguna de Siete Colores (the Lake of the Seven Colours) fully clothed. It was the most refreshing swim I can remember in a long time. Dinner included many local specialties, and after dinner, we relaxed in the hottub.  We had actually cycled 115 km, in 6 hours and 31 minutes - at an average speed of 17.7 km., but the day took about ten hours of time, including the stops. During our hour in the outdoor hot tub, the ladies discussed staying an extra night, but some of the gang had to get back for work in a couple of days.

Our vacation was almost over. On Monday, May 4th, we pedaled another 51 km to the state capital, Chetumal. The relatively short 2 hour, 52 minutes ride was actually easy, and relatively pleasant, even if we had to listen to Karen’s atrocious language when her rear tire went flat. Once again we found a reasonably priced hotel for $10 US apiece.  We celebrated the successful completion of our ride with a victory "Corona" in the open air lobby of the hotel.  Across the street was another superb restaurant offering superb service, food, and prices. We couldn’t figure out why we were the only customers, until we decided to walk off the meal, with a walk to the waterfront. People were in abundance, and music was everywhere. They were celebrating Chetumal’s 100th anniversary. And we were part of it!

This trip opened my eyes to Mexico a little bit. Some observations I would like to share with you: 1. I found Mexican drivers to be as courteous, or more so than those in Canada. 2. The Mexican roads are in extremely good shape. Much better than those in Canada, with fewer potholes, although the shoulders were very small, and sometimes non-existent. 3. I found this area of Mexico to be very safe. This is not to say we did not take normal precautions such as locking bikes up, or taking valuables with us. We were not frequently hassled by the locals - certainly they were not as persistent and in your face as Canadian telemarketers. The people were very friendly, and would try to help wherever they could.  Language was not a big problem - we took along a Spanish phrase book, and improvised with some creative sign language.  The people were very patient with us.

The entire trip to Mexico cost $600 Canadian, for a ten day trip, which included hotels, meals, snacks, admissions, souvenirs, and duty free booze. It does not include airfare. Over the eight days were on our bike, we covered a total of 478.7 km.