On the coast of Quintana Roo in 1995

Adventures on the Coast of Quintana Roo – My First Day in Mexico

I first visited Mexico and the coast of Quintana Roo on my honeymoon. By then, thanks to my husband, who introduced me to the study of the ancient Maya civilization, I was properly obsessed with it. I read travel and archaeological books about the Maya; I studied their writing system and the known glyphs and I dreamed about exploring their world, both past, and present.

With both my new husband and I dreaming about the Maya and the land they inhabit, we didn’t need to think much about where to spend our honeymoon. As soon as we could, we hopped on a plane to Cancun, the gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Driving Down the Coast of Quintana Roo

We landed on a small runway and walked off the plane into a field. A bus drove us into a tiny stuffy terminal. From there, we walked off to a car rental place, and after what seemed like hours of waiting, we got a car. Finally, settled in our vehicle for the week, we drove off towards Tulum on the coast of Quintana Roo.

The four-lane highway you might think of if you visited the peninsula in the past ten years was a narrow, two-lane road. Dense jungle vegetation grew so close, we brushed it with the side of the car. The tour buses of today would not fit on it.

The only thing we saw on the road between Cancun and Puerto Morelos was a sign for Captain Lafitte’s Croco-farm (I think I still saw it recently, it’s still there, though I can’t be sure, we never stopped).

The distinctive Yucatan-jungle smell I still love enveloped us as we drove in the dark on the narrow road, windows open, taking it all in. Most vehicles we encountered were bicycles, with whole Maya families balancing on them.

We drove slowly, wanting to make sure we saw the bicycles and an occasional wild animal in the pitch dark. It was the kind of darkness we wished for when we took the telescopes out at home. We could’ve pulled off the road and had a star party, all celestial objects visible with no light pollution around us.

We almost missed the turn towards Puerto Morelos, unlit except for the gas station on the road. The small fishing village had one hotel, called Posada Amor.

Yes, it is the same town you might know as filled with hotels and condos. Hard to recognize it, except for the crooked lighthouse by the pier. The family-owned hotel is still there, though expanded, and surrounded by many others. We knew about it from our travel book, so we set it as our destination for the night.

My First Night in Mexico

Since the town consisted of one paved road, it was easy to find the Posada Amor, the perfect hotel name for honeymooners. With no reservations, we walked into the restaurant that also served as the hotel reception desk.

The wall was filled with photos of explorers and travelers who had stayed in the hotel in the past. Excited to be there, I wanted to ask her about the photos. I didn’t, and she didn’t volunteer stories when she saw us looking at them. Although she understood some English, she wasn’t fluent. With our limited Spanish, most of the communication meant gestures and smiles.

At least we knew how to ask for dinner and a room. Dinner was no problem, and it was delicious. But she was out of private rooms, she said. I think she only had about six of them, to begin with.

But she was adding more, she told us. I didn’t see how that would help us until I understood that it meant she had another structure already built. Unfinished, it consisted of one large community room and shared bathrooms. She could rent us a bed in this room, she said. With no better option, and close to midnight, we took it.

The bed we slept in was the only furniture in the huge room with no glass on the windows. A few hammocks hung by the wall, with people already sleeping in them.

Surrounded by mosquito netting on an elevated area of the room, I felt like a princess in that bed. At least until the mosquitoes started their buzzing music. I learned that as pretty as it was, the netting surrounding us was not for show. It saved me from swelling up for my first day in my dream destination.

Sounds and Sights of Mexico…

The chatter of hundreds of birds, clucking chickens, mixed with occasional crowing roosters woke me in the morning. The added smell of jungle vegetation mixed with cooking aromas and wet wood burning brought me to the reality of where I was and made me smile. As I opened my eyes, I realized it was daylight. The early morning mist made everything seem to be behind a veil – and not just the mosquito netting.

As I walked to the open window frame and looked out, the mist gave way to a burst of bright colors. Brilliant forest greens, from deep dark to bright light, mixed with all shades of reds and yellows of flowers and birds heightened my senses.

As I stood there, taking it all in, I fell in love with Mexico.

But I also noticed the grey of cement mixers by our building and as workers started their day and construction noises disrupted the tranquuil moment, I was ready to leave the hotel.

On the Road – in Daylight

We set off on the road towards our first destination of an ancient Maya site, Xel-Ha. The road, still deserted, looked different in daylight. Jungle vegetation surrounded us, as we seemed to be driving in a tunnel of green. As pleasant as the drive was, we didn’t go far. We would stop somewhere special on our way, my husband, Jeff said.

“Where?” I asked.

“You’ll see. You’ll love it.”

We turned off the road onto a sandy track towards the ocean. It was still early; So close to the shore the morning coastal fog enveloped our surroundings. As we parked, a local walked out of a small cement building. After greeting us, he set off to sweep the cement walkway to a small restaurant housed in a palapa hut.

For once, I remembered to lock the car – but wish I didn’t

We got out of the car and locked it. I was ready to go when I noticed Jeff look up with a strange, amused expression on his face. He held up the car key for me to see.

“It’s broken,” I stated the obvious, looking at it. “Where is the other half?” I asked.

“In the door,” he answered.

I started laughing.

“I didn’t know you were that strong,” I joked.

“Only in Mexico,” he said, a phrase we’ve used often since, but at the time I didn’t know how true it was.

“It did look very worn,” I said. “Oh, well, we won’t lock the car from now on,” I added.

“We won’t drive it, either,” Jeff said, “unless we get another key.”

That’s when I realized that it was our only key. And, of course, we both locked the car for a change.

“Aren’t you proud of me for locking the car this time?” I asked, referring to my mishap of a time I forgot to do it.

Part of the reason I was there and not back in my home country had to do with me neglecting to lock his car – and leaving all my valuables inside – during one of our first dates. My passport and all my money got stolen as a result, getting me stranded in the US, missing my flight back to Romania. Although things worked out, I learned to lock the car door as soon as I got out. But in this case, I wished I didn’t.

We were stranded on a sunny beach in the middle of nowhere. A perfect day in Paradise. The only downside was that all our papers, money, hats, and sunscreen were inaccessible, locked in the car.

On the coast of Quintana Roo in 1995
Stranded on a deserted beach on the coast of Quitana Roo

Worse Things Could’ve Happened

In case you are wondering, this was before cell phones, before number codes on the car doors, before huge resorts on the coast, before the Riviera Maya was a thing. When we asked the restaurant owner who greeted us if we could use his phone, he looked at us like we just landed there from outer space.

“I have no phone,” he said.

“Do you know where we can find one?”

“In Playa del Carmen,” he said, “one hour drive.”

He had no car to take us or to let us borrow. Like most locals, he used a bicycle for transportation.

Pointing down to the beach, he told us a group camped there the previous night, maybe they could help.

Meeting Strangers, Fellow Travelers

When we approached the group, I noticed they spoke French, so I thought I would have to talk to them. I am painfully shy and was even more so in my younger days. So, despite being fluent in a few languages, I rarely talk to people. And I never open up a conversation.

But I knew I would have to this time. Dawdling, I was forming the perfect sentences in my head, in French, of what I would say. Afraid of being noticed, I also wished to be. My palms were sweaty and not only from the heat and humidity. Yes, I was nervous, but determined to talk to them.

And then, one of their friends emerged from a tent and they greeted him in English. Relieved, I heard him answering, and he sounded American. So Jeff could talk, I didn’t have to. I know, it used to be that hard for me to walk up to strangers and talk to them. It’s gotten much better with age. The benefit of getting older for me is that I don’t care what people think, which makes it easier to communicate with them. But at the time I was in my twenties, still very green, very self-conscious.

As Jeff talked to our new acquaintance, it seemed to me they knew each other forever. I wished striking up a conversation with perfect strangers would come naturally to me, too. We found out what they were doing on the peninsula and eventually we explained our predicament.

They had been driving the van through the Yucatan, camping as they went, visiting beaches, cenotes, Maya ruins, and colonial towns. After a few weeks of this, they were heading back to Cancun. The place we, at least one of us, needed to be.

“We’d take you guys back to the car rental company, but we need to figure out how. We are packed to the brim,” he said. “In the meantime, care to join us for breakfast?”

We hang out with them while they packed up the van, filled to the brim, as he said, and somehow squeezed room for one person. There was no way they could make room for two. Which was a relief for me, since I find it much easier to spend time alone than to talk to people.

I wanted to explore the beach instead. So we had Jeff go since his name was on the rental agreement anyway, and I would wait for him on the beach.

Alone on the Coast of Quintana Roo

I spent half a day on a gorgeous beach on the coast of Quintana Roo.

I sat down at the mini-bar with the owner for a drink of mineral water. Maybe part of the reason I love being around the Maya has to do with them being quiet.

I felt no pressure for small talk, and it wasn’t just about the language barrier. I knew enough Spanish, and he did, too, for a few exchanges, but we were quiet. It wasn’t the awkward silence where you’re trying to think of something to say, but a comfortable quiet, where you can just be, without expectations.

As I sat there, sipping my water, enjoying the slight breeze coming from the ocean, the noise of critters in the palapa top above, time seemed to slow.

Xcacel restaurant in 1995
The restaurant on the beach

After a while, I felt the need to explore. So I thanked the owner for the drink and company and walked out. The sun was hot and bright by now, but I noticed a partially shaded trail leading down the coast through a coconut grove.

On the coast of Quintana Roo
An old coconut plantation promised shade…

Following the Footsteps of an Explorer

Having read Peissel’s book, “The Lost World of Quintana Roo” written in the 1970s, I felt I was following his footsteps as I set off through an old coconut plantation similar to those he wrote about.

I noticed a shipwreck of an old Spanish galleon, surprised that it could still be there after centuries. (In case you’re wondering, it’s no longer there, a storm that hit the coast the year after we were there took it out into the ocean.)

After walking in the explorer’s footsteps for about a mile, I saw my first iguana, sitting across the path, blocking my way. I didn’t know what to expect, and since he looked at me lazily as if to say “Time to turn around,” I listened. I thought Jeff might return soon and he would be worried if he didn’t find me.

An Encounter with Locals

On the way back I met a group of Maya young men on their way to work, carrying machetes. They were walking towards me on the narrow trail, quietly, in the heat.

It was the first time I saw machetes, open, uncovered, in real life, in someone’s hand. They are scary-looking tools. Even more so if your imagination runs wild and you remember what you read about the Caste War when they used them for more than tools to clear the jungle with.

I kept my imagination in check though and didn’t run the other way. A smart decision, since they had no intention to harm me or anyone. They would work to clear the jungle for one of the first resorts getting built on the now-famous shore. I didn’t know this, but it was a good guess considering that I saw a place that looked like a building site in the direction they were walking to.

They greeted me, more politely than I’ve experienced from others their age, and continued their way. If it surprised them to see a lone white woman on their beach, they didn’t show it.

We got the car unlocked, but had one more thing to see

I spent a short time on the beach, but soon I needed to get out of the sun. No hat, no sunscreen, no shade, and white skin that burns way too easily don’t mix well with a sunny beach.

Back under the palapa of the tiny restaurant, the owner greeted me like an old friend and put another bottle of mineral water in front of me. I sat a few minutes longer, enjoying his company before we saw a car pull up.

An employee of the rental car company drove my husband back to the car, unlocked it and gave us a new key. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the broken piece out of the door, neither could he offer us a different car. So for the rest of our trip, we could not lock the driver side door. Not that we ever felt the need to.

“Did you see the turtles?” was one of the things Jeff asked when he saw me.

“No, I didn’t,” I answered, though I saw an enclosure behind the restaurant.

Since I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t venture over a structure that could belong to someone. We walked over, but it was just an empty lot.

“Tortugas?” Jeff asked the restaurant owner who came out and joined us.

Somehow we understood when he told us they didn’t disappear, we just happened to visit in the wrong season.

We’d see the baby turtles hatched on later trips though. And he good news is, the beach is still a turtle sanctuary. Surrounded by large, all-inclusive resorts on all sides, it is still protected from development, thanks to the turtles. The restaurant is gone though, but the beach is still hidden, used mostly by locals.

By the time we left on that first day, I felt that I knew the beach intimately and made a friend.

On the coast of Quintana Roo in 1995
On the beach I spent my first half day in Mexico on.

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