I’d mentioned to Norman that we liked getting up early, well I did at least, and I was very impressed the next morning when at 5:30 I went to the bathroom and came back to find that Norman’s tent was taken apart and he was trying to pack it up. It was his first time sleeping in it, so he wasn’t going to be fast, but I was very impressed with the early rising. I’d have another person to persuade Peter that leaving earlier than he usually got up was a good idea!
After packing up, we headed north and stopped at a food stand just before leaving town. We’d been looking for our standard breakfast of eggs, but the only place we found said it was 35 pesos. Having been used to paying 25 we had turned it down, but with more experience that seems to be the going rate in the Yucatan area, and so found a place with delicious tortas and quesadillas. It was followed by a 25km stretch of straight road heading towards a bigger road and we all went off having agreed to meet at the Pemex that was at the end of it. I rode off first and arrived at the Pemex a while before anyone else. I was surprised to see the next person arriving being Norman, I later learnt that Peter decided he wanted to ride behind Norman to make sure that he had someone there in case something went wrong.
While we were sat round looking at the map on the side of the Pemex, Norman let us know that he didn’t feel ready to go to Chiapas. There were a couple of ruins further south in the state that he was wanting to go to and wasn’t wanting to leave without doing so. Peter wanted to see them as well, but they were 150km+ back towards the Guatemalan border crossing so it wasn’t feasible for us with our schedule. We spoke together for a good while, but mainly to talk through Norman’s choices with him. Neither of us wanted to try to change his mind, he was on his own trip and we didn’t want him to come to regret any of the decisions he made because of us. It had been great to see him briefly, and we wished him all the best hoping that our routes might cross again either before we got to Cancun or for me when I get back from my planned month in Cuba.
With Norman heading off the other way, we started looking at the map again. Tikal is one of the main Mayan cities, and it’s main rival had been the city of Calakmul (called Kaan back in the day), so it was on Peter’s list of must sees. He had mentioned it back in Tikal, but the only sensible way to go there is through Belize. Thankfully, we’re not that sensible and so I came up with a different way of getting there. It was a decent sized detour, and would mean skipping the city of Campeche, but we’d not had any luck finding a host there anyway, so I took that as a sign that we weren’t meant to go there and so we headed to Calakmul.
What lay ahead us on the way to where we would turn continue towards Calakmul instead of Campeche was 250km of straight roads with a light headwind. I, as the navigator/route planner, spent a good amount of it working through our route in our head to ensure we get to Cancun on time. There was a slight bit of flexibility built into our schedule, but, with plans to go to Cuba getting firmer in my head, and Peter having a flight out on the morning of the 28th, not much. I realised that the detour to Calakmul would be doable if we ensured that we got to Calakmul on the morning of the 10th. That meant some very long days, and with the joyful headwinds, that meant a bit of thumbing. Although it was a large road with decent size shoulders, there was very minimal amounts of traffic, thumbing wasn’t easy. Every time a pickup went past Peter, he shouted “pickup!” and I stuck my thumb out. After a couple of hours of doing this, we managed to get a ride but it only went about 20km.
During the straight roads, we met our latest cycle tourist – Anthony from Washington DC. He was riding from Cancun to Oaxaca and had been on the road for about a week at that date. After a few minutes of talking, I checked it was OK and then recorded him and Peter talking for about 10 minutes. It’s an easy way to remember people we meet, and hopefully it’s interesting for people reading here. It seems that the Yucatan is pretty popular with cycle tourists so I won’t be surprised if we run into a couple more before we get to Cancun, although the detour through Calakmul won’t be helping the odds.
Late in the afternoon on the 9th, we made it to Escarcega, still 90km from Calakmul. It was the first day of carnival so we watched some of the floats go by, and then looked into the best way of getting to Calakmul. With the headwind and darkness there was no way that we could ride to Calakmul that night. We checked at the bus terminal, and there would be a bus at 11pm that would drop us off at 12:30 in the very small town of Conhuas at the top of the 64km single lane road down to Calakmul. It seemed OK, but we decided to go and sit at the Pemex to see if we could get a lift as it was still 7pm. 3 hours of asking every pickup that came into the Pemex on the edge of town, only about 7 or 8, and at 10pm with our last request we got offered a lift. They would be going 50km of the way and then we were more than welcome to stay there. It was a fast decision, and we made it poorly. We accepted.
Looking back, and with how things turned out the next day, we should have paid and taken the 11pm bus. Sure, we would have arrived late, but it would have meant we were in the right place as soon as any tourists would be trying to go to Calakmul the next day. As it was, we ended up sleeping outside their tyre-repair shop but not getting to sleep until about 12 and so weren’t up as early as we had hoped the next morning. Then we were riding to the next town, and the horrible headwind from the day before, which meant we were going at half the speed as normal with more effort, kept going. By the time we got there, we figured we’d take ths bus the 20km to Conhuas and so ate breakfast and sat round waiting for it. When it turned up, the assistant said the luggage section was full, although the driver didn’t seem to agree with him. We guess they just didn’t want to go through the effort of throwing the bikes in for such a short leg, especially as they were already behind schedue. It meant we had 20km more to ride, but thankfully 6 or 7km in I managed to thumb a lift down as I was riding.
When we got dropped off at the entrance to the road to Calakmul we met our next problem. It’s 64km down the road and there was no way we were going to ride down it. The guy at the turn-off wasn’t particularly bothered about our predicament and was telling us it’d only take an hour or two to get there. I let him know that if he could ride there in that amount of time he was welcome to my bike. Thankfully about 10 minutes later, a car with a very nice French couple stopped and they were more than happy for us to go with them. They only had a small car, so we had to leave our bikes, but the security guy offered to look after them – maybe he wanted to start training to try and win my bike!
The French couple spoke neither much English nor Spanish, and neither me nor Peter know any French. That lead to a ride with some broken communication, but we worked out the important things (although never asked their names..). They were travelling on a 2 week trip around the Yucatan to commemorate the 20 year anniversary of the husband travelling from Mexico City to Cancun by bus with some friends after graduating university. They’d flown into Cancun and were a week in and after Calakmul would be heading east and up the coast to get back to Cancun.
The drive down to the ruins took an hour and a half. It was a single lane which although paved had potholes everywhere and even though the French guy was going like an F1 driver he still couldn’t regularly go much over 40km/h. We only saw two cars coming out during the drive, both taxis. When we arrived at the ruins car park, the French couple asked if they could walk around with us, and of course we accepted. Peter got to play tour guide as we went around and had a fun time showing off his knowledge that he’d got from not only the classes, but also reading 1491.
The ruins were similar to those at Tikal, but with the wonderful advantage of not being busy at all. Even though it was 12:30 by the time we got to the site, we were only the 32nd, 33rd, 34th and 35th visitors of the day – not even a full tour group worth of people! I guess it was how the other big ruins, like Tikal, Chichen Itzá, Uxmal and Tulum were before they got overrun. It’s not too much further off the beaten path than Tikal in a car, but being one in a huge number will make it harder for it to get the status of Tikal which basically is the one well known ruin of Guatemala.
Even though it has been a UNESCO site for 10 years, it’s still possible to climb up the pyramids and temples there. I guess that might be because it’s less busy and if it ever achieved Chichen Itzá popularity, it would be prohibited. The Toltec site of Tula just north of DF, one of the first ruins I visited, is apparently going to get UNESCO status soon and the main pyramid with all the huge statues on the top will be inaccessible to tourists any more. Having read about the effects of visitors, some of whom used kerosene to brighten some of the murals at Bonampak, others who over twenty years of rubbing sweaty, dirty hands over carvings have made them nearly impossible to dechiper now, I can understand the restrictions – but in a purely short-term view, it’s obviously frustrating not being able to climb some of the pyramids in the bigger sites. Although I say that, that’s obviously a good reason to go to the lesser-known sites like we have, as you get all the pyramid climbing you want there!
By the end of the central section, the French couple were tiring from looking at ruins and wanted to go back. As it was already past 3, and the security guard had mentioned that he’d only be at his post until 3, we were also minimally concerned that our bikes were just sat by the side of a very quiet road. Because of this, we ended up not getting to explore all of Calakmul – Further proof that we made a poor choice in not taking the 11pm bus.
I managed to nap for most of the 90 minute drive back to the bikes, so when we got there I had some energy and was ready to ride a bit more even though it was after 5pm. We thanked our French friends and wished them a good trip as they set off. For ourselves, we had two choices. One was to double-back 2km to the small town, where I had seen a couple of places to eat, and then camp there. The other was to keep going east, into the headwind, to the next town which was at least 20km down the road. As we’re not believers in u-turns, we went east and 31km and nearly 3 hours of fighting the wind later, just before 8pm, we found an open restaurant, pulled in, ate and crashed into tents, exhausted.
Carnival in Escarcega
Standing in Calakmul
Looking towards the main pyramid
Great visibility from the top of the pyramid – so flat