We had been cruising Mexico for three months when we reached Quintana Roo, a Mexican state known for its turquoise waters and the famous resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. We thought this region, the Riviera Maya, would be the apex of our journey in Mexico.
JP’s cousin, Dudu would be joining us for a week, and we could not be more excited about sharing our road trip experience with him. We were waiting for a visit for such a long time! JP was planning to dive and snorkel with his cousin and to enjoy some quality time camped by the beach. We were about to have a great time all together.
Well, as much as we would like to say we were impressed with Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum we were in fact somehow disappointed by the ultra-large-scale commercial setting. Okay, Cancun is super commercial, and we knew it, yet we were hoping Tulum was still down to earth. It wasn’t, and there were very few camping options for overlanders. The very few ones were very expensive and the vibe wasn’t right. The weather didn’t help either, with strong winds, rain, and loads of algae on the beaches. But despite all that, we had a great time with Dudu camping on wild beaches we managed to discover. Lake Bacalar was impressive, as well as the capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal.
Searching for the perfect beach spot in Riviera Maya
It was a sunny morning when we picked up Dudu at Cancun airport to start our journey together. We couldn’t believe when we saw him coming out of the gate. Dudu was the first (and the only) family person to join us on the road. We were excited to share our experience and to hear the latest about his wife Luisa pregnancy and about his first son, Caetano.
After a fast stopover for a few spicy tacos and to check the beach in Cancun we departed on our way to Tulum. Cancun is not really built for overlanders and frankly we couldn’t wait to get out of the ‘civilization’. So, after a post card picture at the popular Playa Delfines and a couple “cervecas” at a local restaurant we headed south in our search for the perfect beach.
On our way to Tulum we crossed several five-star beachfront resorts. It was one bigger than the other, and from the road it was impossible to see the ocean. It was like all beachfront was privatized. We looked at the iOverlander and found a spot for wild camping in between Cancun and Tulum. It was such a pleasant seashore with its light blue waterfront, white sand and plenty of palm trees. The only issue was the weather. We were unlucky to catch strong winds and rain which prevented us from enjoying the beach. The next morning I went for a run on the beautiful seashore while the guys enjoyed their traditional Brazilian Gaucho “mate” at the shade of the palm trees.
While running down the coast at some point I ran inside a private area, with very nice boutique villas by the beach, an ideal location for people looking for a bit of intimacy and quiet time. I enjoyed sneaking a peak at those exclusive villas. It was an interesting insight to glance at people enjoying their champagne for breakfast and watching the sunrise from their generous balconies. It was like looking at our past life in Dubai, yet now we are sharing this exquisite beach for only $5 a night because we have Brutus, with everything we need for a comfortable stay.
After a delicious camping breakfast, we went snorkeling and realized there was a magical underwater world full of colorful fish and corals just in front of us. Soon enough we learned that we were on the second largest coral reef in the world, that was still in process of formation. These corals run all along the Caribbean coastline. What a refreshing start of the day!
With the wind picking up it was soon too much for Dudu’s tent to be dry and stable for another night. So although we were having a good time at Playa Paraiso we thought we could have an even better time at Tulum. We really believed Tulum would be the coronation of our camping experience in Mexico. We have heard so much about it, we had great expectations.
It was a bit of a disappointment. Tulum’s reputation of a free spirit, easy going resort was not what we found. Perhaps it has changed with all the publicity and the jet-set money. We have found it very touristic and slightly hostile to overlanders. Most of the camping spots would not allow trucks the size of Brutus and the only one who did would not allow us to open our awning. The staff was not kind and the administrator did not seem to care at all about our wellbeing, as the weather was still unstable, and the awning would provide additional protection for Dudu’s tent in case of rain. Furthermore, it was unjustifiably expensive for US standards, not to mention for Mexico’s. Okay - we thought - let’s suck it up and check out all what Tulum has to offer before packing up and getting on with life somewhere else.
Since we were there, we wanted to visit the unique coastal Maya pyramids laying on top of the hill facing the sea at sunset. This archeological Maya site was formerly a trading port for the merchant routes extending to centers on the Yucatan Peninsula, Central Mexico and Central America. Tulum dominated in those times an independent sector with connections to other ports in the region and it fortified a religious and commercial route. Religiously, the city was dedicated to the planet Venus, a deity with a dual nature, that of the morning and the evening star. The setting of the Sun symbolized the descending of the God related to Venus.
As we could see the pyramids from where we camped, we decided to take a trail from the beach up through the jungle to reach the ruins.
Soon we realized we took the wrong trail, yet we also wanted to find out where the trail would end so we continued. When we finally reached an open space after some efforts through the jungle we were approached by a security guard questioning where were we coming from and if we had our tickets. We were puzzled and explained we were lost whilst trying to find the archeological park entry. He was kind enough to explain we have reached the inside of the archaeological site through a backdoor, through the forest. We offered to go back yet he charged us the entry and allowed us to stay in. It was good as the sunset was near and going around would have take us too much time. Now we were just there, by the beach, to experience it all.
It was interesting to observe a different type of archeological site, this time beautifully located on the top of a coastal plateau, by the beach, with the main temple positioned on the highest point. The settlement was strategically built to monitor the sea horizons in order to defend the fortress. The view from the top was gorgeous. No wonder the Mayas set up in this amazing spot.
The next morning JP tried to go out for a swim with Dudu yet there was so much algae they could not enjoy or see a thing. The rude campsite administrator told us to pull back our awning, we could not cook outside. So, this was it. We decided to pack up and leave. Which we did, with a not so good impression on Tulum. Overrated, at least for overlanders. We needed space, good vibe, a beach access for Brutus, and this was not available to us in Tulum or Cancun.
When planning our next stop, and since there were plenty of “cenotes” in the area, we thought it would be nice to show Dudu some of the unique formations which make this area so special. So off we went 😊
That day we went and swam in two different cenotes. One of them was good for diving, as it had a lot of hidden underground channels. The other one was more spectacular in color and mystical as we went down underground 30m to see it. It felt special to be just us in this cenote which was hidden in the jungle of Yucatan. We had exclusive access to the underground water world of the peninsula, and it was even more satisfying to be able to share this unique experience with Dudu.
Lake Bacalar – our biggest surprise in Quintana Roo
Since the beaches were filled with algae and the weather wasn’t nice at the coast, we decided to make a short detour and visit Lake Bacalar instead. We heard from other travelers that Lake Bacalar was beautiful, especially its turquoise colored waters. We said to give it a try and after a 300km ride from the "cenote” we were we have reached our spot. I have let Dudu and JP to ride together inside Brutus’ driving cabin to enjoy each other’s company. I took the passenger seat on the inside Brutus living cell, spending some time by myself and writing my traveling memoirs.
Arriving at Lake Bacalar was phenomenal. The water was so crystal clear, with light blue and green colors, we could see the bottom of the lake. It seemed like a dream place for relaxation and meditation. We were all flabbergasted.
After some time visiting different campsites around lake Bacalar we have set ourselves up at the Cocalitos campground, at a nice flat spot just few meters from the lake. It was nothing fancy, just a large plot of land with a restaurant where we could camp. The interesting bit about Cocalitos was that besides being at the water it was where some of the oldest living life forms in this planet are located. With 3,5 million years of age the stromatolites are microorganisms formed in shallow waters by trapping, binding and cementation of layer upon layer.
We were completely ignorant about these creatures and indeed curious to find out more about them. They looked like circles of microorganism formed in the water, somehow like corals. These ones where we camped were bigger as they were fossilized too.
The lake was amazing. We could see fish while snorkeling and had a crystal-clear view to the bottom of the lake. It was a very calm atmosphere.
For couple of days we felt in heaven there: meditating in the morning, exercising, snorkeling, kayaking to explore the ancient stromatolites, enjoying the freshly cooked fish at the restaurant next door, cycling through the village in the search of fresh fruits and veggies. Simply living day by day in this relaxed bohemian ambience.
Mahahual and Xcalac: beautiful but the windy weather was chasing us
After these relaxing days at Lake Bacalar we continued our adventure towards the southern point of the Riviera Maya in the pursuit of the perfect camping spot by the Caribbean Sea. JP and Dudu wanted to experience spearfishing and we were very curious too about the untapped and uncommercial resorts that lay on the last tip of the peninsula, Mahahual and Xcalac.
It was Playa Paraiso campground where we stopped just before Mahahual. The camping spot was gorgeous. Our truck was parked just in front of the sea, on the white sand shaded by the palm trees. The weather continued to be capricious. Very windy, often clouded, with a bit of rain. For this reason, there was not much swimming or spearfishing, but we discovered something more beautiful: the lady owner of the place, of Maya origin, Teresa. She was absolutely the revelation of our journey in Mahahual. We were really impressed with her kindness, warmth and genuine hospitality. In Playa Paraiso we felt the “buona onda” we were looking for.
We spent hours talking with Teresa sharing our life experiences and listening to her story. It was so insightful to learn about the hardship she endured in the beginning of her life just to be rewarded later on due to her principles, kindness and generosity. She offered her place to overlanders for a very reasonable price, and her beachfront property was full of good vibrations. We were charmed by her special Maya mystic origins, her calmness and kind presence.
After taking a long walk by the beach that day I became tired and thirsty. I was dreaming with some coconut water and what a surprise when Teresa allowed us to drink the coconuts which were hanging from the trees. Upon our return she already opened and cleaned the coconuts for us. She left them next to our camper for our enjoyment. We spend the whole evening chatting, drinking coconut water with rum and made friends. We had new neighbors, an Austrian couple which were overlanding the Americas too.
Mahahual itself was more touristic than we expected as it receives at least one cruise ship a day with hundreds of tourists in what was supposed to be a quiet boutique beach resort. The new Tulum some would say. With so many cruise ships stopping by the resort has transformed itself into something pretty commercial and overrated. When we saw the menus of each restaurant with prices in $ we realized we are in a touristic spot. It didn’t feel that genuine, therefore we bought some souvenirs, did our grocery shopping and escaped this busy place.
There was one thing that impressed me: the best shrimp soup I ever ate was in Mahahual in a local restaurant. After we filled up with food supplies we proceeded towards Xcalak, curious what we would discover there, the last coastal village in Riviera Maya. At this point we were not hoping anymore to find the perfect beach spot, we realized the weather was simply not on our side. But since we were there we wanted to reach the southern tip of the peninsula.
Just before Xcalak we decided to stop by at some cabanas positioned right at the beach. We read they had good camping infrastructure and nearby opportunities for spearfishing. Since JP and Dudu were so much looking for this kind of adventure, we went for it. The area indeed looked amazing if we considered just the white sand, the palms and the proximity to the beach. But the wind was still chasing us bringing a lot of algae to the shores. Would there be a better spot in Xcalak?
Curious to find out whether Xcalac would be nicer we decided to move on and continued the road. What a disappointment! The beach was dirty with so much decomposing algae we could not handle the bad smell.
Therefore we decided to return to the previous campground with the cabanas to stop there for our last few days with Dudu. We finally accepted the fact that the weather was not on our side and tried to make the best of the circumstances. It was a lesson we learned: nothing is perfect, and we had to make the best of every situation.
We spent nights talking over delicious dinners and lots of mezcal, mornings waking up with the Brazilian traditional “mate”, kayaking the troubled sea, trying to snorkel with no success, watching the pelicans hunting the fish, meditating in the mornings, admiring the beautiful bay and recharging with the sea breeze. The presence of Dudu was a blessing for us, he brought so much peace and calm. It was a pleasure and joy to be in Dudu’s serene company.
Time flew fast and the morning when Dudu had to return to Brazil arrived. I remember that morning we played a “tarot” game as a goodbye “party”. Dudu asked each one of us to choose randomly a card. I picked up “The Sun”, JP picked up “the Change”, while Dudu “the Force”. It was very encouraging to understand that only in the past week I was somehow associated with the strength, shine and power of the sun. Dudu is passionate about the Maya calendar and zodiac and as he searched based by my date of birth, we understood that I represent the “magnetic yellow sun”, while JP the “electric snake”. I felt blessed and special that day when the sun appeared to me again in the tarot game cards. Somehow, I wanted to believe it was not just a coincidence and that it was a truth about myself. I wanted to take that from Mexico and the Mayas 🙂
Before dropping Dudu at the bus station in Mahahual which would take him to the airport back in Cancun, we thanked him for being a great journey partner and wished him safe travels back home to Brazil. But before his departure we went to celebrate one more time with the delicious shrimp soup and “tacos de camarao” from the same local restaurant we’ve been the first time in Mahahual. We had a great time, so thank you Dudu!
Chetumal - our last and long stop in Mexico
We continued our journey towards Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo and the closest city to the border with Belize. It was our last stop in Mexico before our next country adventure. The moment to say goodbye to dear Mexico was approaching and we had to prepare for a new experience, Belize. There was plenty of admin work to do, such as: fixing the diesel heater of the cabin, checking border conditions, preparing the necessary documents for customs, checking the food restrictions, cleaning the food storage and fridge, study points of interests, routes, camping spots, etc. Ironically enough, Chetumal was just a stopover admin transition spot in our schedule, but we ended up staying there for a week. Not only the camping spot was perfect, a lovely flat grassy area next to the sea shore with great infrastructure for overlanders like showers, pool, internet, good restaurants nearby, but we also got the chance to reunite with fellow overlanders and experience an authentic scene of the contemporary Chetumal.
I was mentioning to JP once that we didn’t really find one place in Quintana Roo that wasn’t too touristic nor too indigenous. We were looking for some degree of contemporary authenticity to experience how the locals live, eat and have fun. We found all that in Chetumal.
Cycling through town during the weekend was a colorful view on how the Mexicans enjoy their free time by the beach, eat by the promenade, drink beer in small gatherings and listen to “reggaeton” on the sidewalks. We were in the middle of it and that was what we were looking for to experience.
Coincidently, we met again the Austrian couple we camped together at Playa Paraiso net to Mahahual, as well as our American friends Dong and Lindsey, with whom we spent such memorable times in Zipolite, Oaxaca.
Unfortunately for the Austrians they were looking for a good mechanic to help them out with their truck. Their Nissan Navarra rear axle was compromised, and their chassis had parted half way due to the excess weight of the living cell. JP was flabbergasted to know it was all made by Bimobil, the prime line German campervan builder. The living cell was clearly too much for the Navarra, and poor calculation and design made a couple be stranded very far away from home.
To make everything worse they barely spoke any Spanish, so JP offered himself to help them out. They first went to Nissan, who was not interested in fixing the axle or the chassis, as the car was a modified version of a Navarra. They did, however, recommend a mechanic which ended up being the worst nightmare of this poor Austrian couple. Due to this reason we decided to stay a bit longer to help them than we had originally planned.
To everybody’s frustration, after negotiating and renegotiating price and scope, spending lots of time waiting for spare parts, when the spare parts finally arrived and the service was concluded the final work was not up to the expectations. In fact, it was a disaster. Even the Austrian embassy was contacted, yet at the end the Austrians didn’t make it. Long story short, when your vehicle lets you down on the road and you have no trustworthy service center to repair it, it can’t get any worse for you. Unfortunately, for our Austrian friends their overloading experience ended right there. They had to return to Austria.
Besides this frustrating event we had a good time dining in the restaurants nearby with our friends. We ate amazing tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, seafood soup and cheered for more margaritas and Pacificas 🙂
During this time, we managed to do most of the admin work we needed to, excepting one: JP fixed the diesel heater so we could have heating inside the truck; however he could not fix the hot water boiler. So, we would not be able to have hot shower. This meant we would have to take cold showers once we reach colder temperatures from Peru down to Argentina. Wintertime was waiting for us as we were descending south the continent.
Anyways, there was not much we could do at that moment, no specialized shops to help us out. So, after a week in Chetumal we departed slightly anxious towards the exit border with Mexico and the enter border with Belize.
Crossing to Belize there were two challenges to overcome: first one, we needed to show at the Mexican border the invoice stating the amount we paid to enter into Mexico. As we entered we asked if we had to keep it and they said no, so we disposed the document. Now they were asking us to pay it again.
We arrived at the Mexican border on the 1st of March and as expected the customs wanted to charge us again the visa fee. JP simply refused and with an authoritative style he explained the customs officer that we have the vehicle importation paperwork which in order to be processed requires the paid entry visa. The officer insisted we needed to pay again. Tired of explaining the story again, JP simply said: “I am not going to pay!”. That moment the customs officer returned our passports and we moved on. It was so funny seeing JP in action 🙂
The second challenge was Belize itself. We heard the country is more dangerous than Mexico. Funny enough before entering Mexico from US, we were warned and told the same thing that Mexico is very dangerous. After cruising it from north to south for three months we felt it was not that dangerous as people may think, on the contrary, we felt comfortable and relaxed most of the time. We knew from experience that things are not that bad as one may imagine. However, we were still a bit stressed out about what we would face in Belize. When one had never been in a country, nor does know the culture, the people, it’s normal to be a bit anxious by the unknown. From the calm days and the white sand beaches with turquoise waters on the Caribbean Sea we had to switch to adventure alert mode to enter Belize. It was again time to get out of our comfort zone.
Happy we got away with this exit we headed confidently towards Belize border.
By this time, we spent three months in this beautiful and exotic country which is Mexico, much more than we planned and imagined. It had been a wonderful and genuine experience.
From Baja California with its amazing beach camping and beautiful snorkeling spots to the contemporary Mexico City with its rich history and culture, the charming and indigenous Oaxaca with its exquisite cuisine, the adventurous Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula with its cenotes and the light green Caribbean waters, Mexico offered us more than we thought. Besides amazing nature, ancient history lessons, great food, relaxing moments and lifetime friends, we got more than we planned for. Soon I was about to find out I became pregnant in Mexico 🙂
From then on, our adventure took a new turn. We started to travel in three and all decision we took included our new member of the family and expedition, our little baby Luca.