2002-04-04

Chetumal, Quintana Roo, México

As we stepped off the Cubana Ilyushin Il-62 plane at the Cancun airport, I literally kissed the ground in happiness. The airport was crowded with people snacking on good Mexican food and the sound of shouting and laughter filled the air. After all the episodes of trouble, dengue fever, and trying to figure out what the hell was actually going on, it was easy to lose sight of just how great a country México is, and after Cuba, coming back to México felt like coming home.

After arrival, the first challenge is getting from the airport to the Cancún bus depot. The shuttle bus drivers' union has a strangle-hold on travel from the airport in Cancun. They charge 75 pesos per person one-way from the airport via the major hotels along La Zona Hotelera to the station. If you happen to be living on a wage of 50 pesos an hour, this is practically highway robbery. However, it turns out that the shuttle bus drivers only have a monopoly on travel from the airport; travel to the airport remains entirely unrestricted. Those who take a few minutes to sit and relax out front of the airport for a few minutes will notice that there is a clever way around this racket.

Following the example of the locals, we hauled our backpacks across the parking lot, headed out the gates of the airport, and started down the highway in 36 degree heat. Within moments a taxi skidded to a stop, and the driver, nervously glancing out the rear window, motioned to us to get in.

We didn't. Instead, we stood at the window asking "cuanto cuesta?", to which he shouted "no importa! vamos amigos!".

Still we didn't get in. "We'll pay 50 pesos... for the two of us."

Looking insulted, he replied "Are you crazy?! I won't do it for less than 70 pesos each!"

Glancing back toward the airport we told him "That's ridiculous, the bus is 75 pesos, and besides we don't have that kind of money. We live in Merida; we're not rich turistas norteamericanos."

A shuttle bus flew by honking its horn while the driver shook his fist at the taxista.

"Bueno! 110 pesos para los dos! Vamos!"

At 110 pesos, we were still overpaying by Mérida standards, but given that we were a 16km walk in scorching heat from the city, I was pretty sure we weren't going to get much of a better deal.

At the bus depot, we bought tickets for Chetumal, 5 hours to the south, then made a dive for the nearest yucatecan restaurant. After weeks of oil-drum pizzas and roast ham & cheese sandwiches in Cuba, I savoured every last bite of my poc-chuc. We finished our horchata, then climbed into the bus for the trip to Chetumal.

Confined by the jungle to the southeast corner of Quintana Roo state, and squashed between the sea and the Belizean border, Chetumal is the last outpost of civilisation before crossing into the jungle to the south. Until the end of the 1970s, like much of pre-Cancun Quintana Roo, it was essentially a free zone in relatively lawless territory. Trade with British Honduras (now Belize) was the foundation of the local economy, and earned it the title of the territory (now state) capital. The historical importance of trade gives the city a distinct feel from colonial Merida. You can still spot the occasional wood-frame house, and the city has a relatively modern atmosphere.

Previously named Chactemal, the city had served as a Mayan capital since pre-Columbian times. The first Spanish missionaries arrived the 16th century, and the Conquistadors followed soon after. By 1544, the city had fallen to the Spaniards and the remaining Maya fled into Belize, leaving the city all but abandoned for the next two centuries.

At the turn of the 20th century in 1898, Porfirio Diaz, then President of Mexico, ordered the establishment of a port at the mouth of the Rio Hondo in order to quell the flow of arms across the Belizean border and into the hands of the Maya. To this end, the city of Payo Obispo was founded by Othon Blanco with the help of Mexicans from the surrounding areas. The economy developed quickly and the city grew into the territorial capital by 1915. In 1936, the city renamed itself to Chetumal, which it remains to this day.

All along the waterfront of Chetumal is a gorgeous walkway. Unlike the shimmering blue waters of the north-eastern coast of the Yucatan, the water here was more reminiscent of the murky green ocean back home on Vancouver Island. The locals are adamant that the water is horrifically ugly, but I suppose when your bases for comparison are Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Cancun, that you can afford to be picky.

After sunset, as we wandered through the town, snacking on fresh tamales, we were stopped by a couple of old men sitting in chairs on the sidewalk in front of a saddle shop. They stopped us to ask where we were from and what brought us to Chetumal. We explained we were taking a trip to see Guatemala and part of Honduras before returning back to México.

"Why do you want to go to Guatemala? It's a dangerous. It's poor. They have nothing. Pickpockets are everywhere, and the people have no dignity left. Life is cheap in Guatemala, they've been surrounded by civil war and death for 30 years. It's a beautiful country with a terrible history."

That night, we checked into an 80 peso hotel. The employees were huddled around the television furiously debating México's loss to the USA in fútbol.

"The giants defeated us midgets! Look at the size of their players. And the Americans don't even care about fútbol! Can you believe this?! This is an insult!"

We tried to console them by mentioning that Mexico would be guarateed to put Canada to shame. It was the best we could manage. It didn't help much.

They shut off the game, and we got to sleep early. Just after the stroke of midnight I woke up and, in a final farewell to the bugs I had picked up in Cuba, I threw up (in order) the dinner tamale, followed by the entire plate of celebratory Poc Chuc I had eaten that afternoon. I felt surprisingly better, and fell sound asleep excited about the next day's 12 hour trip down a narrow dirt track road through the jungles of Belize and into northern Guatemala.

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