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We made the final push and wheezed our way up the narrow ancient steps, barely wide enough for a child’s foot. With hardly another soul in sight, the blazing Mexican sun beat across our faces as we gazed for kilometers from the pinnacle of Ek’ Balam – the “Black Jaguar” – scanning the emerald lid of the Yucatan jungles from a Mayan king’s vantage.
If you’re reading this post, you already have access to everything you need to plan the type of adventure where you’re out there on your own and not paying someone to do everything for you. In the summer of 2012, my fiancée Sarah and I wanted to fly to Mexico, drive across the Yucatan Peninsula and experience the history enshrined in the ancient ruins scattered throughout the region. We booked the whole trip online.
Before we left, our friends and family warned us not to stray from the resort; they couldn’t fathom that we wouldn’t even be setting foot in one for the duration of our vacation. When they heard about our plans to road trip across the region, they balked and cried, “Please be careful!” and “But you’ll get shot!” and “Are you sure you want to do this?” My friend Will even asked us to cancel at the last minute.
I took this into consideration. Will has been a real friend for years and years and I trust his opinions on matters like these. Not only has he traveled before, but he is a working actor living in an “up and coming” (read: slightly shady) Brooklyn neighborhood. Needless to say, he isn’t one to shy away from adventure. For the first time, I allowed doubt to creep in.
Fortunately, we didn’t back out. Had we heeded the warnings, I wouldn’t be writing this article right now. Take this advice: people will tell you that your trip cannot be done, or that it isn’t safe, or that there are other, better, cheaper, different, more whatever options, or that you’re doing things the wrong way. But, being independent means planning what you want to do and taking the steps necessary to make it a success on your own.
Welcome to Mexico
When you plan your own trip, be prepared for the fact that there will be hiccups. Brace yourself and prepare as best you can.
Before we left, Sarah was doubtful that everything would work out as planned. She asked me over and over again whether or not we had a way of getting from the airport outside Campeche to our hotel in the heart of the city. “Yes!” I finally convinced her, “Our rental car will be waiting for us.” I showed her the confirmation email stating that an emissary would be waiting at the airport holding a sign with our names on it. Her anxiety turned to excitement at the thought of being greeted “like fancy people.”
We arrived that night in the tiny Campeche airport to discover that, indeed, Sarah’s fears had been correct: the placard with our names on it was nowhere to be found. As the other passengers hopped into taxis idling in a short queue, we were soon left all alone, exhausted from the delays, a little drunk on free airplane Coronas, disoriented and confused in a foreign country.
We discovered a woman seated behind a tiny desk in the airport beneath a sign for an unfamiliar rental car company. Was this the person who was supposed to meet us? We stumbled through some terrible Spanish to let her know that we had been expecting a pick up from Easy Way Rent-a-Car and could she please help us.
She got on the phone. When she was done she said something with finality and a touch of relief to us in lightning-fast Spanish. Again and again, Sarah used her well practiced phrase, “¿Puede repetirlo con mas despacio, por favor?” and in response, the obliging woman would kindly reiterate at exactly the same speed. We deciphered one word: “joven,” but we couldn’t figure out the significance of the word “youth” in context.
All was made clear when a boy of no more than fifteen or sixteen pulled up in a car to pick us up. ¡Bienvendios a Mexico! We tried to ask him which company he was with, where we were going, or if he knew anything about our reservation. Sarah again rolled out her one proper Spanish request, and he, too, repeatedly obliged: “something something mi amigo,” as he shuttled us to the Easy Way office in town.
After an awkward twenty minutes or so of us not knowing what the hell was going on, the amigo who spoke some English arrived.
Our new best friend Andy Garcia settled everything for us, and the near disaster kind of fizzled away. For a fair price, we were finally able to rent a slightly beat-up vehicle (perfect for putting on some bumpy unlimited miles), check into our hotel, and fall asleep for the night. We made it!
We’d be hitting the road in a few days, but first we toured the brightly painted Campeche, a former colonial city with a bit of pirate history to boot. Campeche’s tourism slogan, “Sueña Despierto,” is apt: the surreal route we took to get our rental car and the relief we felt once our vacation started in earnest felt like a waking dream.
My advice to you when traveling independently is to take everything in stride. What could have been a ruinous experience for a couple who did not know what to do next, turned into a laughable memory and a quirky beginning to a self-sufficient vacation.
On the road
The Yucatan Peninsula is hellishly hot and attractions can be crowded in the middle of July, but we fared better than other tourists. We didn’t have to rely on cramped tour buses, expensive expeditions led from the mega-resorts, or a commission-grubbing travel broker in order to see the sacred sites. We usually arrived before the crowds and always left in our air conditioned car when the sun got too hot.
Some ancient pyramids literally sprawl right up to the roads we drove along. In fact, it’s not easy to go far down a local highway without spotting a tiny brown sign for a nearby pyramid. We couldn’t see everything, so we used Hidden Cancun & the Yucatan Peninsula, a descriptive guidebook that didn’t have too many opinions, to help us figure out which ruins we most wanted to visit in the limited time that we had.
We ended up with the healthy mix of a couple “must-sees,” Chichen-Itza and Tulum, and a few lesser known but equally impressive sites: Edzna, Uxmal and Ek’ Balam.
We were able to avoid the crowds because our itinerary didn’t sync with the resort tourists’. We’d have an early breakfast (“huevos rancheros con chorizo, por favor”), throw our bags into the car, and drive an hour or so to our first park of the day. Inside, almost by ourselves, we could get close to the regal structures. We scaled pyramids, examined stone carvings and marveled at the surviving details in the glyphs of warriors and sacrifices. We could even touch the bright paint that decorated the Mayan gods and which still clings to the stones in the spots shaded from the sun.
Too soon, though, the dreaded buses would begin to arrive. Instead of elbowing through the masses, we’d leave and eat lunch someplace like a thatched roof restaurant serving local dishes in one of the nameless dusty villages we passed through. We’d drive for a couple more hours, make pit stops at the roadside attractions that piqued our interest and, if we were lucky, visit one more significant site in the afternoon. Otherwise, we strolled around looking for a romantic dinner in the new city where we’d set up for the night.
You could choose, as many vacationers do, to book a stay at an all-inclusive resort along the beachfront in Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, and fill your days with hotel buffets and drinks on the beach. For a price, your resort can set you up with a group “excursion” into the jungle to tour some ruins – usually Chichen-Itza. That’s all some folks want, and that’s fine enough for them. There’s nothing wrong with drinks on the beach.
We remember the misery of one resort couple, though. It was late morning, but so hot that we had to swipe the humidity out of our way to move forward. If it wasn’t the dampness in the air we were swinging at, it was definitely mosquitoes the size of birds. We’d just explored the vacant ruin Edzna from top to bottom and wound our way down a tropical jungle walkway back to the main entrance. There, I struck up a conversation with another man as he and I both waited for our partners to return from the bathrooms.
The high noon sun now slammed us directly from above as the women came back. The couple was beat and ready to go back to the resort, but their group still had another hour allotted on their tour. We all stood around for a bit, panting and making inquiries about our respective trips, before Sarah and I headed back to the parking lot, sans group. We bade farewell as they slumped back down on a rock ledge, waiting for their company to meander back and get picked up by the hotel employee.
By relying on ourselves, we had a better time in Mexico than anyone expected. The dangers prophesied by well-meaning friends and family never materialized. We saved money and time by booking our hotels online beforehand. Because we rented a car, we saw more of the region than we could have with guides and tour buses. And by putting in the legwork and trusting our own abilities, we cobbled together an unforgettable journey that wouldn’t have happened if it had been up to anyone else.
What do you think?
Do you get more enjoyment out of a pampered, luxury vacation or a self-sufficient one?
Has anyone ever tried to discourage you from realizing your travel goals?