Chetumal to Cordoba, Mexico: More Ease and a New Cooking Style, But Watch Out for the Kids!
Here was our situation:
- It was the middle of the Christmas High Season, when house rental prices are the highest and house rental vacancies are the lowest. (The euphemistic term for this is “Landlord’s Market.”)
- My wife, Jet, our two dogs and I we were in Chetumal, about as far south as you can go and still be in Mexico.
- Due to a bad experience with a house rental (see: Two House Rentals Gone Wrong, and a Guardian Angel) and as a result, no reservations anywhere, we needed a place to stay for several months in exchange rental payments which wouldn’t result in bankruptcy (see: “Landlord’s Market”, above).
What would you do?
From this less than powerful bargaining position and after lots of research and contacting pretty much everyone we had met on our Mexico road trip, Jet found us a place that seemed OK (all we had were pictures) through a rental agent we trusted at a price that didn’t feel like extortion after a natural disaster. It was in the Ajijic / Lake Chapala area, 1,182 miles from our present hotel room in Chetumal. Given the reality of our less than enviable situation, that was good enough for us. After seven months since crossing the border in Mexicali, 14 Mexican states and more than 4,000 miles on our road trip, The Fates had decided it was time for us to return to a place about halfway through our adventure we had stayed before and very much enjoyed.
We would have liked to have driven to the Lake Chapala area via a route that would be different than just re-tracing the one we took down to the Yucatan Peninsula by means of offsetting our return route to the west, so we could experience Chiapas and Oaxaca and Jet could buy the items originating from this area "factory direct" as opposed to from vendors pretty much throughout Mexico and most recently in Chetumal. However, given the combination “season / rental vacancy rate / rental pricing” dynamic and the fact that we had at best only an implicit hold on the rental, until we physically unpacked at Lake Chapala, if we took this diversion, our trip back would have been followed by this nagging black cloud with the words “What if it doesn’t work out and we have nowhere to stay?” written on it, so Jet put her grieving aside, and we reluctantly decided to take the most direct route.
On the good side, there is a very noticeable and cheery combination of comfort and relaxation that comes with visiting places you have been to before. You can loosen up and take in more, without being dogged by concerns such as “Are we lost?”, “Will we like it?”, “Where can we eat?”, etc. For most of the places we were going, we knew the answers to each of these questions from our experience gained earlier, when we first visited, and which would allow us to expand our experiences from the comfort of “the known.” Happily and with surprising joy, we booked the same three hotels we had stayed in on our trip down, thereby planning to balance the thrill of experiencing the absolutely unknown with the contentment and confidence of being in the tested and more familiar but not yet so familiar as to be boring. After being on the road in an unending parade of new places since May, it was an easy trade-off.
We left our great $26 hotel room in Chetumal to drive close to due west, from the state of Quintana Roo to the state of Campeche, across the girdle of the Yucatan Peninsula where Mexico is squeezed by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and Guatemala on the other.
Not unusual for this part of the world, the air was thick and musky, it was a bit humid and overcast, the jungle was omnipresent and the terrain was flat. Gradually, the scenery changed to rolling, pastoral hills, cleared for cattle and horses, but very few humans. It was relaxing and very green, with ponds, wooden fences with barbed wire. There was lots of room and plenty of signs advertising various, more remote Mayan ruins.
As is the case with many things that eventually become commonplace, we remembered the first instance; in this case, something that confused us. Traveling at about 60 miles per hour, we passed some kids running along the road, followed by an open truck with more kids in the back and Catholic religious symbols on top. Fascinating. What was that all about?
In this very rural area, about 20 minutes later, we saw another instance of essentially the same thing but with a different truck and different kids, then 10 minutes after that, another, and so on. It was now raining intermittently, and still we saw more kids running along the side of the road. Each group had some sort of unifying dress—tee shirts or neckerchiefs, etc. In places along the side of the road, kids and young adults waited in groups, too often sitting with their backs toward the traffic and way too close to the road for my comfort.
(Jet and I have often remarked how trusting pedestrians are in Mexico; sitting, standing, or walking right next to the road, many times apparently not paying any attention whatsoever to the possibility that with a slight turn to the right of a distracted motorist, their lives would be changed forever, or worse. And it’s not like there are never any safe places to sit; most of the time, there are. They just seem to prefer the unsafe ones.)
Being curious types, we stopped at a gas station that looked to double that day as a staging area for whatever was going on, and asked what was happening. Clearly, this was our first year in Mexico, because what we were witnessing was the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which commemorates the Catholic belief that Juan Diego, an early convert to Catholicism in Mexico, was visited by the Virgin Mary. Not only in the state of Campeche were they running, but they were also running simultaneously in the entire 31 states and one Federal District in the country. You can see our interview of some participants here.
We arrived at the Villahermosa Hampton Inn as night fell, pulling in against the sounds of persistent and random firecrackers exploding in the distance in every direction, celebrating Juan Diego’s vision and the Virgin. The front desk manager remembered us, and in a magnanimous gesture to commemorate our first stay, charged us for only one of our two dogs. As we got to the room, one of our dogs noticed the same type of dog bed provided by the hotel that she had slept in during our first Villahermosa Hampton Inn experience, and immediately took up residence, tail wagging in approval. Even our dogs were more comfortable the second time around!
Leaving the next day, the road from Villahermosa to Cordoba slowly gained elevation, as we left the flatlands and saw the view this time from the east side of the road. It was still humid, with sugar cane, ponds and lakes, and lots of pastoral land. Given that we were on the other side of the highway, we were easily able to pull off at an intriguing-looking restaurant that had what looked to be a small amusement park next door with tanks of some sort. Getting out of the van and looking closer, we saw that the tanks were used for aquaculture and the restaurant was serving some of the contents of the tanks for lunch.
We had tilapia cooked “en papillote”, which Jet told me meant cooked “in paper” in French, but in this case, our meal in Mexico was cooked in foil. We ate delicious, fresh fish, cooked in a style I had never even heard of before, right off the main road to Cordoba, with a bus stop in front. They served us spicy and rich salsas made of chili seeds cooked in oil (see picture nearby). It reminded Jet of Chinese chili oil. Even though this unexpected treat was not for sale, Jet asked for a bottle to buy. The somewhat perplexed but accommodating waiter found a bottle, poured some in, and we had our souvenir. To the side of us, they had set up chairs for a religious gathering, as little boys dressed up as St. Juan and little girls dressed up as the Virgin Mary skipped and ran past us in full costume, parents in tow.
Arriving in Cordoba, the HB Hotel hadn’t changed a bit in the roughly one month since we had last stayed. Just like the last time, we enjoyed a big, very modern and comfortable, extremely well-designed room with a marble shower. Because we knew what we were doing, we made sure to get a window overlooking the park, which we described in an earlier post. What I didn’t describe before was the policy of using the in-room hotel refrigerator. Unlike in the US, where removing the Coke in the fridge would result at checkout in a trip to the ATM or the need for a credit increase on your card, in this well-stocked hotel refrigerator, everything was included for free! Astonished and not quite believing what I was being told because it was so opposite my experience in the US, I asked three times in my broken Spanish, using different word combinations. The result: Yes, it was “gratis.” Unwrap the candy!
Our dogs couldn’t be in the room with us, but we were not as concerned as last time we were there, because this time, we and our dogs knew the drill. We put our dogs in the van and parked it so that the end of the van could be seen from the front desk. Then, I had a quick conversation with the night guard (who remembered us from last time and was very friendly), and just like last time, I tipped him, in Mexico, always a much appreciated and very easy to afford gesture.
The next morning, I awoke the sleeping dogs and we more completely explored the beautiful adjacent park and surrounding neighborhoods. In addition to seeing more of the neighborhood, what had changed is that we had arrived on a weekend, so we could sample the brunch we had lusted after but not been able to experience the last time we were there. In stark contrast to the people at our most recent lower elevation experiences, the women customers at the brunch wore clothing designed for cooler climates. As we enjoyed the patio and ate the local specialties of different corn masa dishes, a Christmas party was in progress. We could bring our dogs to the pool area, just like before, where they, us, and the people at the party enjoyed the outdoors, the gorgeous, huge trees from the park close by, and the sound of the creek below.
Even though everyone was friendly the first time we visited, they just seemed even more friendly this time. There were smiles, recognition and greetings, along with our struggling but somewhat improved Spanish. We felt like we were being treated as recently retuned friends, fresh with adventures and stories to tell.
True, our adventures in the last several months had become integrated into Jet and me and changed us, as what was strange just months before now provided a familiar and safe place to which we could return.
Next, we depart Cordoba for Puebla and experience soaring mountains, lots of good things to eat, and a dancing klezmer band.
Expat Stories describing our experiences when we first arrived at the places in this article:
Potholes, Detours and Other Driving Challenges Southeast of Cordoba, Mexico: Just Follow the Pigs, Keep Calm, and Have Faith
To read the next story, go to: Cordoba to Puebla, Mexico: Soaring Mountains and Lots of Gastronomy
To read the previous story, go to Mahahual to Chetumal, Mexico: An Otherworldly Lake, a Time Machine, and Great Presents for Everyone
To see all Mexico road trip stories, go to Chuck Bolotin's profile.
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To see more videos of the trip, including those of all our house rentals that went right, see our YouTube channel.
(Map data 2016 copyright Google INEGI)
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