mexico vacation

I am not an eco-tourist.

On my recent trip to Mexico, Kate, Theo and I decided we wanted to visit some Mayan ruins. Near the Maya Riviera there are three sites: Chichenitza, the iconic pyramid named one of the seven wonders of the world; Tulum, the old Mayan seaport; and Koba, which features many different ruins, including a pyramid that can still be climbed by tourists. Based on advice we had been given, we chose to see Koba. Cathy bowed out, having been there before, and opted to spend the day at our resort on the beach with her book. Us three remaining amigos opted to do a trip called "Koba Mayan Encounter," which featured a tour of the ruins, lunch in a Mayan village, and an afternoon splashing in cinotes (underground freshwater caves), ziplining and kayaking.

A few days before our excursion we had visited the town of Playa del Carmen and, um, Wal-Mart, where I had picked up watershoes and a rashguard for our snorkeling adventures at Xel-Ha, which had been more like Disneyland than an ecological preserve, with beautiful paved paths and hammocks and recliners spaced along the shoreline. I (wrongly, as you will see) assumed our Mayan Encounter would be along the same lines, an easy day of fun in the sun. I jokingly referred to my ensemble of rashie, watershoes and bikini as my "Adventure Dani" uniform and insisted that the gang also refer to me as such.

Our day started at 7:15 a.m. Kate, Theo and I had just enough time to shove a quick breakfast down our throats before racing for the van that picked us up. Our guide's name was Carlos, although he inexplicably referred to himself as Charlie quite a lot, as if our poor North American tongues couldn't pronounce Carlos. There were two Canadian girls already in the van, and we made our way along the highway to pick up tourists at other resorts. Then, inexplicably, Carlos took us to his house. He explained that he had backpacks to give to the students at the Mayan village's new school, but also picked up his girlfriend (of, we're guessing, around 4 days), a Polish girl who I'm still not convinced knew (a) who Carlos was; (b) where she was; or (c) who we were. He also brought his dog to show us and asked if she could come along on the trip. All of the van's occupants were in favour with the exception of an American woman who pronounced herself "anti-animal" and asked that he take the dog away. Anti-animal? What does that even mean? My only consolation was that when we eventually arrived at the Mayan village, the almost feral village dogs flocked to her and wouldn't leave her alone. I would have rather had the dog than the Polish girlfriend.

Anyway, by 8 am we were on the road, and instead of letting us tired, tired tourists sleep, Carlos insisted on playing loud Mexican trance music for the two hour trip to Koba, occasionally pumping his fist and asking us if we were ready for fun. I fell asleep very quickly, fortunately, and awoke only as we arrived at Koba. The parking lot in front of the site was crammed with tourist shacks. We parked in front of one that had a sign proudly proclaiming that its banos featured toilet seats. That was my first sign that I wasn't in all-inclusive Kansas anymore.

Our tour joined up with another tour from the same company for the walk around Koba. The tourguide gave us a very extensive history of the old Mayan city as we stood, alternately sweating in the sun, or being eaten alive by bugs in the shade of the jungle. Midway through her spiel about a certain site, a young man, either Canadian or American, but definitely a citizen of Doucheville, wearing Vibram five finger shoes, interrupted her rudely to say impatiently, "Yes, but what is this for? Can I climb on it?" Charming.

By the time the tourguide had finished her explanations, in both Spanish and English, we had only 40 minutes to walk the 2 kilometers to the largest pyramid, climb it (Mayan stairclimber!), climb down, and walk the 2 kilometers back. You could opt to rent a bike, or take a "Mayan limousine" (where a poor Mayan fellow pushes you on a tuktuk up the dirt path), but the three amigos, also being cheap amigos, decided to hoof it through the jungle. When we got to the pyramid I realized that if I climbed up, my fear of heights would leave me stuck at the top like some kind of modern Mayan sacrifice, to be eventually eaten by vultures, so I opted to watch while Kate and Theo motored to the top, and then turned to walk back through the jungle at a more leisurely pace. My peaceful stroll was interrupted by a woman from the other tour who motored by on a bike and asked me "if this was the way to the pyramid you can climb on." She was with her daughter and I assumed she was talking to her, not me, so I didn't respond. The woman circled back around to glare at me and say "Thanks for answering, bitch." At that point I christened her "She-Douche."

Around noon, our bus headed out of Koba to bump along a dirt track road to the Mayan village. We assumed that we would be served our "authentic Mayan lunch" when we reached the village, a collection of huts, each featuring a huge satellite dish. Instead, Carlos led us into the jungle, where we hiked through mud and across rocks for about forty minutes, to reach the cinote.

"I didn't know there would be hiking," I grumbled as my watershoes slipped and slid on the rocks and mud. I couldn't grab a tree for balance as Carlos had told us that many of them would be poisonous, or containing poisoning snakes, and to keep our hands to ourselves. Great.

When we finally reached the cinote we were greeted by a Mayan shaman who asked us to hold hands as he performed a Mayan blessing. I couldn't concentrate as I had sweat running into my eyes and couldn't wipe my face because I was holding Theo and Carlos' hands and wished Mr. Shaman would get to the point already as he blessed us, each of our countries, and a bunch of other things I didn't catch.

1:30 pm: Time for the cinote. I buckled a rappelling harness around my waist but found the leg holes were too wee for my legs. One of the Mayan men helping us looked at me, looked at his colleague, and instructed him to fetch the "mucho grande" harness. Great. Adventure Dani was reduced, or rather enlarged, to "Mucho Grande." Eventually I was buckled into my elephant harness and we approached the opening to the cinote, which had short ladders on each side. I peered down into the cave, which appeared to be about 10 feet underground, and thought, "That's nice that they're so safety conscious that they want us to rappel instead of using ladders. I feel better about this now." Kate and Theo went down before me, kissing for the "Mayan paparazzi" accompanying us on our trip, and then I positioned myself to head down into the cave to join them. On the last rung of the ladder I tentatively pushed off, hanging in space, and immediately began spinning.

"Oh no," Carlos laughed. "You're like a human pinata." A Mucho Grande human pinata, I thought grimly, and I began releasing my rope quickly to descend into the cave. As I lowered myself, I looked down at Kate and Theo, and realized how far away they were. This wasn't a 10 foot rappel - this was more like 100 feet. As I realized how high up I was and how far I had to slide on my rope, I began shrieking, awakening the bats in the cinote which began circling around me as I descended.

Finally I reached the water and a guide lowered me into an innertube, unhooked my carabiner, and pushed me off into the cool water. The inside of the cinote was cool, filled with fresh water and teeming with fish. For the first time since we had left the resort I cooled off, and splashed happily in the water, until I looked up at the opening to the cinote and thought, "How the hell am I going to get out of here?"

The answer was, much the same as how I got in. I was attached to the rope and jerkily hauled to the surface, shrieking the whole way. My only consolation was that some people chickened out completely and wouldn't even go down into the cave. Mucho Grande conquered her fears.

By the time we all got out of the cinote it was around 2, and 7 hours since we'd eaten. We were all dehydrated and starving, and hoped lunch was next on the agenda, but no, we were off hiking through the jungle in our harnesses to the zipline, which was strung over a crocodile pond. I'm not kidding. There were crocs in that there water. We could see them.

I had never ziplined before. I was so tired, hot and hungry at this point that I just wanted it over with and marched to the front of the line boldly. I lost my courage as Carlos clicked me onto the line.

"Are you sure?" I asked him, meaning, "Are you sure those two little pieces of metal will hold me on this tiny line and that I won't fall to my death in the crocodile pit?"

"I'm sure," said Carlos. So off I went, walking off the cliff and zipping over the pond. It was really quite fun, I thought to myself halfway across, until I looked at where I was going and worried how I would stop without running into the tree at the end of the track. So my shrieks of excitement turned to terror and I closed my eyes for the last half, sure I was about to meet my death by tree-collision. Somehow I stopped, however, and I was relieved to take off my Mucho Grande harness and watch Kate and Theo zip across (Kate yelled "Hoooolllaa Senoorrrrrr" at the crocodile as she passed).

Finally? Is it lunchtime? Yes, it is, says Carlos, and off we marched again through the jungle, with Carlos gallantly leading his Polish lady-love by the hand and the rest of us trailing along behind.

2:30 p.m. Lunchtime? Non non non amigos. Carlos may have said lunchtime, but he meant, "time to canoe." So Theo, Kate and I reluctantly climbed into a canoe, and pushed off. At this point I felt like I was in bootcamp, what with all the marching and activity and lack of nourishment. The only redeeming part of our canoe trip was the three of us singing "The Log Driver's Waltz" and "La Bamba" in three-part harmony, which not one person in another canoe batted an eyelash at. Carlos stood in a canoe and paddled his "girlfriend" around like he was a gondolier in Venice.

3:00 p.m. Yes. Lunchtime. After being forced to take group photos on the dock for the Mayan paparazzi. Lunch was a buffet-style meal served in a thatch hut and it was delicious. No, really. Except for the bugs and stuff, lunch was delightful, with homemade tortillas, black beans and empanadas, and hibiscus tea. We ate ravenously as if we'd been starved for days.

Then it was time for us to present the backpacks Carlos had brought to the village kids, which seemed a little staged - it made me uncomfortable, although I can't tell you why - it just felt like developing world voyeurism or something, benevolently handing out backpacks to these children who had nothing as if we had bought and paid for them, which we definitely had not. What made me even more uncomfortable was She-Douche grandly giving her daughter one peso coins to hand out to the "poor" children who were her daughter's own age, while her daughter clutched an ice cream that none of the Mayan kids were even allowed near. At this point I was ready to go.

And go we did, after we were marched through the gift shop to look at the pictures the Mayan paparazzi had taken (US$15 a pop), and forced to drink tequila toasts to our marvellous day. I was hot, sweaty, muddy, and exhausted and ready to head back to my hammock on the beach. Instead I got a two hour drive back in the van, with Carlos playing Mexican metal music, and a field trip to a gas station in Playa del Carmen where for some reason we all had to exit the van ("it's the law that no tourists can be in a car while it's being gassed up" - huh?). I wandered into the cool of the air-conditioned convenience store but had to make a run for it when I saw the van start to pull away. No way was I being left behind in an Oxxo station.

Adventure Dani and her trusty companions arrived back at the resort about 13 hours after their ordeal had begun, where Cathy was waiting in the lobby. I hugged her, saying pitifully, "hold me," and she marched me back to our suite so I could shower before dinner, laughing as I told her how muddy and bug-ridden my day had been.

Moral of the story? Adventure Dani only likes adventures without mud, tarantulas (oh yeah, did I mention those?), and Mucho Grande harnesses, and where food, toilets with seats and water are all readily available.