Ruling out some of the riskier options, I crossed the border on a Greyhound directly from Houston to Monterrey, Northern Mexico. I couldn’t help reflecting on the sad state that relations between US and Mexico had found themselves in. A visit to the Monterrey Museum educated me on the history of the wars and purchases that led to the border’s finalisation, with the narrative being that Monterrey and its region feels as much a part of the USA as of Mexico. I wondered if they would ever be updating their exhibitions to include a Trump era.
Another oddity from the museum was the paintings that they had inn colonial times, that gave names to the offspring of interracial couples. A practice that was born out of a similar tradition in horses, these classifications of human were also ascribed typical personality traits.
I didn’t stay overnight in Monterrrey – I just left my bags with the Guardia de Equipaje in the bus station, explored the town for the day and then went back to catch the night bus to Mexico City.
With one day in Mexico City, I explored Teotihuacan, the famous Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. The ancient town is about 3,000 years younger than its Egyptian counterparts, but still interesting to see how civilisations can stumble across similar ideas without cross-pollination. The builders believed the Sun was born here, and held political and religious ceremonies attracting thousands, often involving a kind of week long basketball game, the victor of which having the honour of being sacrificed. Maybe life was pretty shit anyway.
Standing on top of one of the pyramids warranted the rare appropriate use of the word “awesome”, imagining those thousands an age ago. The centre of their modern world, the town thrived for 500 years until its inhabitants ended up inexplicably burning it down and abandoning it. It made me think about how stable we think our current civilisation is and how we may suffer the same fate.
Mexico City does not deserve its reputation of being dirty and unsafe – I found it to be no worse than London, although every city has its dodgy parts.
Diving the cenotes
Next was to be Tulum, as I had heard stories from other divers of the magnificence the cenotes, underground freshwater cave systems previously worshipped by the Mayans. As luck would have it two friends from the Roatan days (Billy and Megan) had surprisingly got together and were holidaying there, so I took the 23 hour bus a little early and stayed with them.
It was fun to see them both – we got wasted almost every night. And I did two dives in the cenotes. $140 is steep for two dives but it was unforgettable. Entering in an opening about the size of the bus I am writing this on, the first cenote opened out 30m below into the size of an American Football field, with a stream of light descending, echoing the Blues Brothers’ “Have you seen the light” moment. The freshwater, being less dense, floats over the saltwater layer and creates visual disturbances in the “halocline”, the thin layer in which they meet. Undisturbed it resembles a trail of smoke from a forgotten cigarette in a windless room. Diving through it looked like petroleum in water, and I felt disorientated as my eyes struggled to adjust their focus.
Only a flexible mind would categorise the second dive “Dreamgate” as anything other than a cave dive. Luckily the guide had such a mind, and dive it we would. Much shallower than the first dive, the dive meandered through horizontal tunnels, resembling the 80s film “Inner Space”. We were given torches (flashlights) and followed in single file as we were guided under stalactites, over stalagmites and between columns formed where they meet, pondering their ancient, painstakingly slow formation and trying not to break them or impale ourselves. Every now and then I considered how this was absolutely terrifying, with no direct access to the surface should anything happen. But I was too distracted by how bloody cool it was – eerie, prehistoric and atmospheric. There was absolutely no life in either cenote, but this was about the topography and it did not disappoint.
Our (my) Mexican gig
One day Billy and I were having a beer at a beach bar, with my guitar perched against the table. The barman took us to the manager, who gave us a gig that weekend. Playing in between sets of a trumpet/DJ combo, Billy deferred to me to start, and actually never played himself. And that was the story of “our” gig in Tulum.
A healthy dose of middle class guilt
Another theme that began in Tulum and continued later was the international gentrification of such places. Playa del Carmen, just down the road, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and eventually holidaymakers get tired of other holidaymakers and like to spread out. And it tends to start with the backpackers. That’s what was going on in Tulum. I should say Tulum also has Mayan ruins set idyllically next to the beach, although I never went, to my shame. Add to this the cenotes, of which there are hundreds but only 16 or so are safely divable, and you can see why Tulum is experiencing rapid growth. You can pick up a bit of land for a little over £10k. In doing so, as a foreigner, you push up the price of property for those who have grown up there. But you could decide to build a business that brings more people and money into the town, and hire Mexicans for a better wage than they could otherwise expect… Can this be a good thing, then?
I spent a week in Tulum discussing such things with Billy and Megan, invariably ending up at the excellent live music venue Batey’s, which served Mojitos made with freshly pressed Cane juice.