Yucatan: Pink Beaches, Cenotes, Flamingos, and much more…

Normally, in January/February I go to Hawaii to visit friends and to get a healthy portion of suntan and swimming. But this year with required COVID test or self-quarantine upon arrival, this option looked complicated. Instead, I decided to go to Mexico and check out Yucatan. First, let’s make it clear: there are two “Yucatans.” There is Yucatan state and Yucatan peninsula. The latter incorporates three states: Campeche, Quintana Roo (this is where famous Cancun and Playa del Carmen are), and Yucatan itself. I was interested in the latter – the Yucatan state which is mostly known for beaches and numerous sites of ancient Mayan civilization (Chichen Itza being the most famous one). As you will see later, Yucatan has much more to offer. And the good news is that – at this point – Mexico remains one of the few countries which not only allows Americans to visit, but also does not require any COVID tests or quarantine. And so for $213 I took American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Miami, 50 min. transfer and then one-and-half hour flight to Cancun.

First Destination: Colonial Town of Valladolid.

Yes, there is “original” Valladolid in Spain, but there is also a well preserved and very appealing Valladolid right in the middle of Yucatan state. It is a perfect base to stay if your time is limited and you like to explore many things in Yucatan. The best way to get to Valladolid is to take a comfortable and easy two hours ride by ADO bus company from the downtown Cancun station. In Valladolid, my recommendation is to stay either in a hotel or some AirBnB on the street called Calzada de Los Frailes. This semi-pedestrian, cobblestone street with nicely restored houses is full of small art shops, cafes, restaurants. It is only 5 min. away from the main town plaza and yet it is quiet and relaxed. Here is a picture which sort of captures the sense of Calzada de Los Frailes.

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If you follow Calzada de los Frailes in North Eastern direction, you will come to the historical center of Valladolid. But I first walked in exactly opposite direction: my destination was former Franciscan monastery: Convento de San Bernardino de Sena.

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Before going inside or getting any tourist information, I first simply walked along its facade and was mesmerized by the texture of stones and intensity of colors of the monastery’s walls.

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As it turned out, both the history and location of St. Bernardino convent are quite interesting. First, technically it is situated not in Valladolid, but right beyond Valladolid city limits and in adjacent neighborhood called Sisal. When the convent was built by Franciscan monks (1552-1560), Sisal was a fully independent indian town which existed until the end of 19 th century side-by-side with Valladolid controlled by Spaniards. By building monastery in Sisal the Franciscan monks pursued two goals. The first was to organize and oversee the conversion of the Mayan population right from the middle of their settlement. The second goal was to stay as independent as possible from the Spanish colonial authorities who controlled Valladolid.

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The name Sisal is also Mayan. It derives from Ziiz-Ha which translates as Cold Water, because of a huge underground natural water reservoir which was under the monastery. The monks – not Mayans – were able to construct a reliable well and use the water to grow fruit orchards.

The monastery is open for visitors and I highly recommend to check it out: simply wander around and relax (there were no other visitors, when I was there). The architectural complex has many patios, courtyards, galleries, rooms with ancient vestments, etc. There was this feel in the air that “the monks just left” (although the monastery was secularized in 1755). I spent a good hour there enjoying tranquility of this place.

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And then I walked back into Valladolid (it takes maximum 20 minutes from monastery to the center of the town).

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Valladolid of Yucatan was named after Valladolid in Spain, at that time – the capital of Spanish Empire. Interestingly, but originally (1543), Valladolid was founded in a different location – at a lagoon called Chouac-Ha in the municipality of Tizimín. However, Spanish settlers complained about the mosquitos and humidity at the water and petitioned to have the city moved further inland.

In 1545, Valladolid was relocated to its current place and built atop a Mayan town called Zací or Zací-Val, whose buildings were dismantled to reuse the stones and to build the Spanish colonial town. In 1705, there was a revolt by local Maya; the rebels killed a number of town officials who had taken refuge in the cathedral. When the revolt was suppressed, the cathedral was considered irreparably profaned, and was demolished. A new cathedral was built the following year that still exists on the main plaza. And it looks quite stately.

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If you like small boutique shops, local folk arts and handicrafts, small cafes, etc., you can easily spend couple days enjoying Valladolid. For me, it was more of a base to explore the area, but I liked a lot main square (especially, by the time of sunset)

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I also discovered two “hidden gems” which are highly recommendable. One is an unassuming from the outside panaderia/ bakery called Panaderia La Especial

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Whatever I tried there, was outstanding in quality and they have wide selection of various baked goods. And the price is a fraction of what you would pay in US.

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My absolute favorites were their cheesecakes: much lighter in fat and less sweet than American version.

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The second surprise expected at Mercado Municipal – town market. It is open every day from morning until 4 pm. I went there to buy a supply of fresh fruits and some other locally made foods and spices. What I did not expect to find there were dozens of stalls selling a variety of local handicrafts. I ended up buying a turquoise pendant. And – for about 8 $ – who wouldn’t?

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I still had most of the afternoon and decided to visit EkBalam – the local smaller version of Chichen Itza – the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. Best way to get there is by collectivo – a shared taxi fir four persons. This would cost you 50 pesos – about $2.5. But it was already later in the day and waiting for three more riders was long and boring. And so, I “splurged” and paid for entire taxi: 200 pesos/ 10 US $. If seriously, this is ridiculously cheap, because it takes about 35-40 min. to get there. Granted, Ek Balam is much smaller than Chechen Itza, but it has two advantages. First, it does not attract such crowds (2.5 mln. people visit Chechen Itza each year). Second, Chechen Itza is build on the plain. Differently, the remains of Ek Balum are in jungles which – to me – feel more romantic. I wondered around ending by most impressive structure – the acropolis

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And then I climbed on top of it which is totally permitted here, but not in Chechen Itza. The view was more than satisfactory.

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All this time I was just by myself – no other visitors. And it was afternoon. I took advantage of this situation and great location and used the rooftop of acropolis for my siesta. Only after about 30 min. of peaceful sleep, other tourist couple arrived. They woke me up, but this was also my chance to take a picture of myself.

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Another ten bucks for taxi, back to town, good dinner in a decent restaurant and back to my AirBnB. Tomorrow is a big day – the day of exploring cenotes.

Exploring Cenotes near Valladolid

Many people visit Yucatan specifically to see and enjoy cenotes. So, what is “cenote?” Pronounced seh-NO-tay, they are water-filled sinkholes that naturally occur in limestone rock when an underground cave collapses in on itself and exposes the groundwater underneath. Some of cenotes are fully enclosed in the caves while others are either fully or partially exposed to an open air. People come to cenotes to relax and swim in their cool and crystal clear waters. There are hundreds of cenotes dotted around the Yucatan Peninsula and some of them are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. In Mayan times a number of the cenotes were used for sacrificial purposes and objects such as gold, pottery and even human and animal remains have been found at the bottom of some cenotes.

Here is a great website which tells you about and helps locate cenotes of different kinds and all over Yucatan. The bottom line is that the most appealing cenotes have become commercial enterprises. That is Ok with me: I don’t mind to pay a few dollars for pleasure of swimming in some charming cave. Problem is when a certain popular cenote gets crowded, because a tourist bus has arrived. General recommendation is simple: go and visit early. Then there is a good chance that you will have the entire place for yourself. And so I rented a bicycle (many places in Valladolid offer bikes for rent) and explored three cenotes. My favorite was cenote Oxman (about 5 km. from Valladolid). It costs 7 US $ to enter and it has very nice facilities: showers, changing rooms, restaurant. It looks like this from the entrance

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When I approached cenote, just couple of other people were already splashing and having fun.

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I went down and…it felt like being in a real paradise.

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This is what you see from the bottom of cenote Oxman
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And this is where you actually take your heathy swim
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Look at this limestone formations which are intertwined with lush vegetation.

And this was my day of cenotes. Tomorrow I am heading to a small coastal town of Las Colorades – the town of white sand and pink (yes!) beaches, flamingos and salt mining. Luckily, Las Colorades remains – as of now – untouched by mass tourists. I will tell more in the next post.

Las Coloradas: the Town of Pristine Beaches, Salt Ponds, Pink Lakes and Flamingos.

First thing first: where are Las Coloradas and why to go there? The village is situated on the coast, on the very tip of Yucatan peninsula, about 20 km from the popular tourist destination – the town of Rio Lagartos. Las Coloradas is a new settlement. It did not exist until 1950s and in fact you won’t be able to find it on the maps until late 1980s. Why? Because originally it was created as a “ranch” which produced salt and was owned by a company Industria Salinera de Yucatan Sociedad Anónima. There is a colorful, tragic and somewhat violent story of the company’s workers who eventually were able to organize themselves in a very strong trade union, negotiate best conditions of work, and – most importantly – “buy out” their homes and land so that they would not be owned by the company anymore becoming instead a real town. This is how main street of Las Coloradas looks now

Las Coloradas is situated on a narrow strip of land about 2 km wide. On one side it faces the Gulf of Mexico. The other side of the village is exposed to a chain of lagoons. And this is where the salt ponds are built and salt harvested.

On this side of the town, you will also find stunning cotton-candy pink lakes filled with salt. The vibrant color is due to red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that thrive in the salty environment. Further, as the water evaporates (which is part of the salt production process), these organisms become more concentrated, glimmering pink in the bright Mexican sunlight. Day-tourists come to Las Coloradas to wander around the lakes and absorb the beauty of these unusual landscape and color combination.

Want to hear a cool fact? The reason flamingos are pink is because they eat these pink creatures. Normally their feathers are white: they change color after eating this stuff! Speaking of flamingos, these graceful birds are the second reason to visit Las Coloradas. Here you will find hundreds of them.

Unlike other tourists, my choice was to stay for a few days in Las Coloradas. Via AirBnB, I found a modest, but very comfortable home (yes, there was hot shower and decent Internet connection). And it was right next to pink lakes.

This is my house from outside
And this is inside

Special thanks goes to my hosts: Juan Alberto Parra and his mother. Juan Alberto is the nephew of the charismatic leader of the local trade union, Arturo Castillo Dzul. It was Arturo Dzul who in the late 1970s managed to organize disenfranchised workers into a strong trade union and initiated the process of lands and homes’ transition from being a property of salt company into the property of town and people who live there. I was impressed, for example, by the fact that ordinary workers are now paid here about 300 US $ a week plus health insurance plus paid vacations. Not all doctors in Merida (Yucatan’s capital) make this type of money.

Chatting with my host was a unique experience: Juan Alberto is an excellent source of the local oral history and knows literally everyone in the town. As for his mother, well…here is just one example. Breakfast was not part of my accommodations arrangement, but I woke up in the morning from the knock on the door and was presented with delicious meal.

Local fish mojarra (similar to tilapia) in two versions: as soup and fried.

Speaking of food, Las Coloradas has a decent selection of places to eat. Nothing fancy, but very good quality. Further, for people who like fish and seafood, this is a right place to be. My favorite was cafe called Lalo’s. On first night, I ordered a portion of shrimp ceviche (for about 10 US $) and this is what was served:

Absolutely delicious blend of flavors, super fresh shrimps, and there was enough for two dinners.

Why I decided to stay in Las Coloradas for a few days? First, I wanted to have an experience of being for a while in an authentic Mexican village with people unspoiled by mass tourism. And in this respect Las Coloradas exceeded all expectations. I felt being truly welcomed into this community. Just a small example. No matter how many times a day I would pass the same house walking the same street, but its inhabitants would say again and again: “buenos dias” (good day) or “buenos tardes” (good afternoon). Many homes in Las Coloradas still look like traditional Yucatan houses.

Second, Las Coloradas has AMAZING white sand beach which – hard to believe – I had entirely to myself. The waters are calm and there are no dangerous currents: excellent place for swimming.

My only company were birds: gulls and pelicans.

The original plan was to be in Las Coloradas for three nights and to go afterwards to Chichen Itza – the most important Mayan archeological site of Yucatan. Guess what? I canceled visit to famous ruins and extended my stay in Las Coloradas. But then it was nevertheless time to say “Good bye” and move to next destination: the town of Homun which is probably the best place in Yucatan to visit cenotes of all kinds: commercial and not, fully enclosed in caves and open to the air. This will be in my next post. I left from Las Coloradas early – at time of sunrise, around 6 am. And, of course, my hosts – who made me feel truly like at home – Juan Alberto Parra and his mother were awake to say: good bye and come back soon!


Homun: World Capital of Cenotes

Homun is a dusty town situated about 40 km east of Merida, the capital of Yucatan state. It takes about one hour to come here and the cheapest way is by colectivo (shared van): 28 pesos / less than 1.5 US. The colectivo station in Merida is on Calle 52 and between Calle 65 and 67. The reason why people come to Homun is to visit many cenotes surrounding this town.

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. Often in cenotes the sections of cave roof have collapsed revealing an underlying cave system. In Yucatán Peninsula, the ancient Mata have used cenotes for both water supplies and sacrificial offerings. The term “cenote” derives from a Mayan word tsʼonot to refer to any location with accessible groundwater. Water in cenote is normally very clear, as it comes from rain and filters slowly through the ground. Naturally, cenotes are popular among both locals and visitors to Yucatan as good places to swim while enjoying unusual geological formations.

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In short, if Yucatan is the best Mexican state to explore cenotes, then Homun is Yucatan’s capital of cenotes. There are dozens of them here: of all kinds, sizes and degree of commercialization. Some have even been converted into luxury resorts with boutique accommodations and fine restaurants (Santa Barbara is a good example), while the others remain relatively undeveloped being situated on a private property of some local farming family. One can easily spend in Homun couple days going from cenote to cenote: exploring, swimming in their cool (but not cold) waters, and taking pictures (some cenotes feature impressive stalactites and stalagmites).

I stayed in Homun in a simple but very comfortable hotel called Hospedaje Papa Grande (Grandfather’s Hotel). It is run by super friendly and welcoming Don Hector and his nephew Ivan. I highly recommend this place.

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On the evening of arrival day, upon my request, Don Hector arranged an excellent massage (300 pesos / 15 US $ per hour) and suggested a good place to eat: restaurant at the hotel Santa Maria. But first I walked to the main town square and looked at different small “tiendas” / shops.

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A huge red structure looming from beyond town square attracted my attention. From the distance it looked like a grain elevator. But when I approached, it turned out to be a fairly ugly but impressive size-wise church

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I asked later Don Hector about it and he explained that the church was built about 300 years ago by Spaniards who were keen to convert all local Mayans into Christianity. Their idea was that the new Christian churches replacing traditional old Mayan temples and sacred places should be as impressive as possible. Hence, the size of this church. Regrettably, the Spaniards also used for church construction the stones and blocks from old Mayan religious structures.

But back to cenotes. The best way to explore them comfortably and efficiently is to hire a local guide with motorized tricycle. Don Hector recommended a young fellow named Daniel and this was another excellent recommendation. The deal was: for 200 pesos (10 US $), he will show five different cenotes. The entrance fees to each (typically 50 pesos) were on top of it. I asked in advance to take me to less commercial and touristy places – the cenotes where “the locals go” – and Daniel did great job accommodating this request.

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Daniel and his motorized tricycle.

The first cenote – actually most commercial of all – was called Canunchen

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Entrance from outside
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To come to cenote you need to descend fairly steep ladder.

One of requirements in commercial cenotes is that you should wear a safety jacket. So, I complied…

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Canunchen is a fairly big cenote: you can really swim – not just “splash” – there.

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Then we went to cenote called Hool Kosom which was a pleasant surprise. I actually wanted originally to go to this cenote (based on reviews from other people), but Google maps indicated that it is “permanently closed.” As if reading my mind, Daniel brought me there and…it was perfectly open. I liked very much swimming in crystal clear waters and under bright light coming from almost ideally round natural “window.”

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The next cenote was a very special experience. It is called Nu’ku’uch Tzo No Ot. Here is entrance:

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And this was the only picture that I was able to take in this cenote, because I did not have a water-proof camera. Let me explain. After descending these steps, you need to swim through a very short (no more than one yard) underwater tonel. And then you arrive in a nicely lit cave which is entirely disconnected from the outside world and has an array of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. A young fellow named Alejandro was “in charge” of this cenote: he accompanied me into underground cave and explained that it was a sacred Mayan place.

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Alejandro (right) is in charge of cenote Nu’ku’uch Tzo No Ot

The next cenote was Tza Ujun Kat. The entrance into it did not look very appealing.

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However, after descending into cenote, I realized that this is my favorite of all visited on this trip. Some decorative tropical plants were in the middle of a big arena-like grotto and there were many chirping birds coming in and out of cenote through the big opening in cenote’s ceiling. This place really “smelled and sounded” very good.

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The water surrounded cenote’s walls so that it was possible to swim full circles.

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But most importantly, this cenote had an array of impressive stalagmites and stalactites.

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I stayed here for at least 40 min. Honestly, visiting four cenotes, descending into each, swimming, getting out, etc. felt like “enough is enough.” But – o human grid! – I paid for five and was absolutely decisive to visit five. Luckily, the last one – called Pool Unic – was just couple hundred meters away. And I did not regret going there: somehow it felt very cozy and intimate. Probably because of particular lighting.

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There was an additional benefit from visiting Pool Unic. The lady who run this cenote also had a small shop selling a variety of traditional Mayan ointments and I bought a jar of anti-inflammatory cream.

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And this was the end of my visit to Homun. Tomorrow, I planned to leave for Chuburna – another coastal village with good beaches and thriving fishing industry. More in the next post.

Chuburna: Good Place to Visit and Relax

Honestly, when planning this trip, more than anything, I wanted to spend a good chunk of time on the beach: swimming and sunbathing. The first portion of the “lazy beach life” – Las Coloradas – was more than satisfactory. For concluding days in Yucatan, I have chosen another coastal town called Chuburna. Similarly to Las Coloradas, Chuburna has white sand beaches and good conditions for swimming (no dangerous currents, etc.). Also – like Las Coloradas – Chuburna is situated on a very narrow peninsula facing Gulf of Mexico on one side and lagoon (formed by the river estuary) on the other. Yet, it is more developed than Las Coloradas, because of its proximity to Chelem and Progresso – two towns which are very popular with expats living there (especially, Canadians) and numerous Mexican tourists. Hence, when you go to the beaches in Chuburna, you will almost inevitably see either other people

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Or some sort of beach-front houses.

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Speaking of these (relatively recently built) seafront homes, some of them were quite interesting. Look at this one (the picture is taken from the opposite to the beach side): it looks almost like a small fortress (or bunker) with solid metal fences, massive walls and no windows. I wonder who live there?

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I was very happy with my accommodations. Through AirBnB, I found this cheerful pink cottage surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. It had a sense of peaceful seclusion and yet it was only 4-5 min. of walk to the beach. And for $20 a day, it was a real steel. Further, when booking it, I did not realize how lucky I was with my hostess, Martha. I will say a few words about her later.

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Unlike more touristy Chelem and Progresso, Chuburna has very limited selection of shops and places to eat. But one restaurant definitely stands out in both variety of seafood-based dishes and their quality. It is called Christo Ray and is run by an extended family which includes both fishermen (hence, the reliable supply of high quality fish and other seafoods) and people who actually manage the restaurant.

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Here are just two small fragments from their menu (divide all prices by five in order to get price in US $)

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Speaking of seafood, Chuburna (and neighboring towns) is one of the best areas in Mexico for getting fresh pulpo (octopus) which is my favorite. Not surprisingly, while in Chuburna, I ordered almost every night some octopus-based dish. And they all were inevitably good.

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Octopus ceviche (cooked octopus marinated in lime juice with onions and cilantro) plus a portion of “kebee con camarons” (like small meatless burgers stuffed with shrimps).
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Pulpo en escabeche: octopus cooked with various vegetables in vinegar (very tender and tasty)
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Pulpo a la Veracruz: octopus cooked slowly with olives and tomatoes.
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Aquapimiento con camaron: raw shrimps marinated in blend of lime juice, onions, cucumbers, and (plenty) of jalapenos. Spicy, but very flavorful.

There was one interesting meeting in Chuburna. One day, walking on the beach, I found this huge off-road yellow truck.

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Somewhat surprisingly, it had French license plates. So, I approached and began conversation. Long story short, a French family was traveling in this truck from Canada (they brought the truck there by boat from Belgium), through the North, Central and South America. The estimated duration of the entire journey was two years. Here is their website with description of all adventures.

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After three nights in Chuburna, I was laying peacefully on the beach preparing mentally to leave, because my return flight to US was scheduled for the next day.

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And then I got SMS from Volaris (the air-company) informing that my flight was “modified,” but not telling how exactly “modified.” SMS provided both US and Mexican phone numbers to call and obtain all details of the changes. Neither of numbers – when I tried to call – were working numbers. Through Google, I found correct numbers (did Volaris sent wrong numbers on purpose) and yet it has taken about one hour to get an agent on the phone. She explained that my flight has been canceled and changed for one day later. I complained, but was I really unhappy? Not at all: I was glad to extend vacations for one more day. And yet, the day come to say Good Bye to Chuburna, my pink cottage and my wonderful host, Martha.

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Being originally from the capital, Mexico city, Martha lived in different places in Mexico, had a very colorful life and worked in different occupations: aerobics trainer, massage therapist, owner of high-end spa, and much more. Being essentially retired and living in Chuburna, she never “stops:” she is trusted home sitter for wealthy expats and desirable private massage therapist. Needless to say that I used (and enjoyed) her massages. And we also shared couple of dinners sharing our life and travel experiences. Thank you, Martha, for my time in Chuburna!

Last word and advice for Americans returning home from Mexico to the USA and Canada. Both countries require presently a negative COVID test before permitting to board the plane. Don’t worry about it. Both international airports in Yucatan (Cancun and Merida) offer this service. It takes only 30 min. to get results and it cost only about $32. Granted, when heading to airport I was a little nervous, but…it looks that I am good to go home.

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I liked Yucatan and I will be back.

One thought on “Yucatan: Pink Beaches, Cenotes, Flamingos, and much more…

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