Tulum.

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The last stop on my journey. My flight from Havana to Cancun is a leap of extremes; I enter North America in way of a transition back to the comfortably western, accommodating, and developed world that awaits me in New York. I depart Havana without having used the internet for more than one hour in eleven days and arrive to instant access to free wifi at the airport in Cancun. The limited supply of baked goods in the bakeries of Cuba were transformed to supermarkets providing varying types of cookies, cakes, and any sweet treats imaginable. I went from one world to the next on a mere 45 minute flight. I wasn’t prepared to arrive in a part of Mexico where there are more Americans than Mexicans, where American brands infiltrated every corner shop on main street, and where you can eat just about any type of cuisine you desired, from Thai to Italian to BBQ. Thankfully, my exposure to Cancun was limited only to the airport and to a brief stroll through downtown Playa del Carmen for a bus to mini-shuttle changeover. Although Tulum as a neighborhood is far less affected by the United States, it still gave me a shock, not only coming from Cuba but coming from six months of the hardships and discomforts I often experienced in South America. Indeed I was heading towards home, and Tulum, fortunately or not, was that last little thread I hung by to remind myself that I was a backpacker pushing through a whole lot of grit for half a year.

Initially I felt a little down by being back so close to the lifestyle I had departed from while traveling. But Tulum is a lovely town, although lacking of an “I’m in a foreign country that is Mexico” feeling. It’s a town of transplants from the United States and Europe, and most of them have a warm, inviting, and free-spirit hippie vibe about them. Tulum downtown is small, and after four days there I felt like a local. There are your typical pharmacies, souvenir shops, and alcohol vendors, but you can see the influence of foreigners changing the landscape of the town: fresh juice shops, street stalls selling coconut water, loads of wall murals painted with colorful, Mayan-inspired art, homemade gelato and ice cream stores, a shop selling only varying types of organic iced tea, scuba diving schools, and bicycle rentals. Mexico is cheaper than New York, and certainly not as backpacker friendly as much of South America; however, the prices of such luxuries I missed while traveling, like a green juice smoothie or dairy-free ice cream, were significantly less than in New York City, and I was grateful to have these little niceties accessible again.  

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For those with money to spend and a need for more of a beach/yoga retreat, the accommodations along the beach are where you’ll find ample opportunities. Only about fifteen minutes by car from downtown, these resorts and hotels line up one next to another, although in a way entirely dissimilar to Cancun. Instead of large, all-inclusive resorts with fancy gates and infinity pools, these hotels incorporate all the nature it occupies, with trees and sand making its way into the design of the space. The water in Tulum is a gorgeous turquoise, the sand is soft, and palm trees are plentiful. The hotels creatively incorporate the serenity that people seek when they come to Tulum, largely for a healthy yoga and meditation experience. It’s a single road that connects all the hotels, restaurants with vegan offerings, and stores that sell bohemian clothes and high-end leather dreamcatchers. The highly participated nightlife consists mostly of DJs playing deep house music on the beach, and those devoted to the festival scene congregate here at various times throughout the year.
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Knowing the way in which I like to travel, I can say that if I was in Tulum just for a vacation, I wouldn’t like it as much as I did while I was there in this context. As an outsider it truly seemed like a carefree, beach version of New York City, if we had no worry about making enough money or having a successful career. It’s a place where people go to escape but also have the option of bringing their diet and active lifestyle with them. And I was okay with that. There were times when I traveled when I wasn’t eating well merely because that type of food wasn’t available. I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air because a city was enveloped in smog. I would be so cold that my muscles ached. And here, I could absorb the piercing heat and the sunshine. I could relax and take one last inhale before heading back to the unknown that awaited me.

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I snorkeled with the green sea turtles, I swam in the clear, warm Caribbean waters, I ate fresh fruit and drank coconut water every day. I visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum. I went cavern diving in two beautiful cenotes. This was a highlight for me; never had I scuba dived in almost complete darkness and in fresh water where the water is completely still, where you have 100% perfect visibility. In these caverns I saw the world of caves under water, almost as if you were looking upside down. I saw just how complex these caves can be, how the stalactites and stalagmites are even more beautiful below the surface.

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Tulum ruins on the coast.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.

I’ve written this post so far as memory. Truthfully, I am back in New York now (my thoughts about being back will come in another post). However, I would like to share what I had written on my very last day traveling, the day I was to leave Tulum for a flight out of Cancun and back to New York. I wrote it on my phone with the intention of including it in this post once I was able to.

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A perfectly modern, western transition back into society. Tulum has certainly felt more like a vacation; I would say Cuba was the last time I felt like a backpacker, or at least the last time I truly acted like one.  It’s amazing to realize all the types of discomforts we are able to bear when we travel, and how little we seek out the comforts of a Tulum-type of place until, perhaps, the very end, when we know we are going home and all we want is to make things as seamless as possible.

And I’ve been transitioning socially as well, messaging friends to let them know of my arrival. I could have ignored their messages but I figured it would be best to slowly start speaking with them. I’m not sure I am ready to see some of them, honestly. But anyways, it should be alright.

So anyhow, today is the last day, and I needed to document this day as it is important to me. It’s the last day of the my past that I hope will shape my present. That I may slow down my walking pace, seek to not judge others and new people, embrace the travel spirit, blah blah blah. You know, all that life changing stuff we hear about from returning backpackers. But seriously, I am fully aware that this is a time of my life that was so precious, a gift I cannot help but be so proud to have received. I realize that not everyone can travel the way that I did.

There was so much of the normal trials and tribulations of a backpacker that I experienced while traveling through South and Central America, but I also left much behind me as I began to pave new paths for my future. I had to leave my apartment without actually physically being there, never having closure of my life in NYC and without a guarantee of coming back. I gave up job opportunities, and an immediate chance of employment at a tech startup in Berlin. I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school. So, I did research, chose a school in Berlin, applied for that school (by writing my essay in a Starbucks in Cusco), got accepted, took some time to see if I was really ready to leave town this coming September after a busy summer, and decided to defer my admission for one year. I am going home with no plan; all I know for now is I have about a month in New York while my cousin from Brasil will be visiting and my grandmother will be spending one week at home. So it’s a full house and a full summer, as I am leaving again for Brasil in August to see the Olympics in Rio. All of a sudden I’m a busy girl again, with places to go and people to see.

I suppose this way is better than being alone and without direction. But I still feel I am still without a true direction, and that makes me nervous. It also makes me laugh, because I met so many people traveling who were doing the exact same thing as I was. They were trying to find themselves through travel, trying to find the answers they were looking for. But as of right now I really don’t know where I will be in 6 months. The goal for right now is going to Berlin to work and then attend graduate school. I am absolutely certain that I need a break from the city that has worn me out, from New York. Being away from the city for so long made me realize that as much as I miss some of its comforts, culture, and glamour, I would truly rather give it all up, again, to see the world the way I saw it in South America.
To feel such rawness and extremes of emotions, to go through as many blissful moments as I did obstacles, all at once overwhelming, humbling, and powerful. To meet people that have inspired me and have made me look at myself in new ways. To see extraordinary beauty. This is travel. This was my six and a half months. All I can say is that I am excited yet terrified to be going home. As I have said and believed in time and time again: the universe provides, and what I am meant to be doing in my life is going to happen just the way it’s supposed to be.

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Antigua.

Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Guatemala was one of my favorite last minute backpacker-getaway decisions I’ve made. I was happily surprised by my time visiting the country. Guatemalans are reserved but very friendly, they respect their surroundings by being neat and courteous to others, and they have a great deal of pride of their religious beliefs and their Mayan culture and clothing. Although a small country, it holds a richness and diversity in geographical and cultural sites. Although I only had 11 days there before I had to catch my flight to Cuba, I felt I was able to see the highlights of the country, and left feeling energized and renewed as a backpacker from my time there. And best of all, my last two days in Guatemala was spent accomplishing a major physical feat: hiking up Acatenango Volcano.

And so, just as I had begun my travels ice climbing Volcán Villarrica in Chile in December (my post about it can be found clicking here), I neared the end of my journey with an even more challenging hike. It was difficult, but it was an incredible reminder that we can truly achieve whatever we put our minds to. And the physical challenge was just what I needed to keep me motivated as I began to acknowledge that I was indeed going home within a month. Acatenango Volcano peaks at 3,976 meters, and although it’s not the highest climb I’ve done, it was the longest. We began our hike in the morning at 2,400 meters above sea level. The following six hours was a straight uphill climb, finishing the day at basecamp at 3,600 meters. The following morning we awoke at 4am to finish the vertical climb on soft volcanic ash to the summit. The two steps forward, one step backward rule was in full effect as we scrambled to the top with just enough time to watch the sunrise alongside a nearby volcano peaking above the clouds. My knees were like jello, my hands and face were frozen, I had barely slept the night before. It was not only the incredible view but also the exhilarating feeling of making it to the summit that made the entire journey worth it. The volcano is joined by  Volcán de Fuego, a highly active stratovolcano where you can see eruptions of ash and lava on a weekly basis. We were so lucky to camp overnight with a close view of Fuego, and throughout the night we were able to see it erupt, something I had never seen before in my life. I was in awe of our guides who did this hike about three times per week. One of them brought his puppy named Valentino. Having a dog accompany our group was a real treat, as it offered an escape from the discomfort of the grueling hike to the summit. The hike itself was a fascinating experience of three completely distinct biospheres: the dry farmland and oak forest, the wet and humid cloud forest, and the high altitude pine/subalpine forest at the higher levels of the volcano, just beneath the volcanic ash that leads to the summit.

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View of Volcan de Fuego at sunrise.

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Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Hiking up to basecamp.
Hiking up to basecamp.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
Ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
Volcanic ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
The puppy accompanying our hike.
The puppy accompanying our hike.

Prior to the hike, I was able to visit the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, only 35 minutes outside of Guatemala City. It’s a colorful, cobble-stoned town in a valley, surrounded by active volcanoes, and generally serves as any tourist’s introduction and farewell to the country. On a shuttle bus from the airport in Guatemala city to Antigua you’ll see for the first time the local busses that Guatemalans use, which are called “chicken busses.” These busses were previously American yellow school busses, only in Guatemala people have made them colorful, often metal plated, and generally pimped out, each with their own signature look and style. Some even carry the old license plates from the state where they were used. For example, I saw a California license plate on a silver and red painted chicken bus, with a painting of Jesus at the top of the backside of the bus. The motorbike taxis are equally adorned with pride and care, reflecting the driver’s individual personality.

Antigua.
Antigua.

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A local chicken bus in Antigua.
A local chicken bus in Antigua.

From Antigua I made my way to the mystically serene Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake at 1,560 meters above sea level. The area has been a sacred place for Mayans for centuries, and holds a measurable vortex of energy. It’s difficult not to sense the spiritual presence of the area, particularly in the small villages surrounding the lake that can be easily visited by boat. I stayed in the backpacker town called San Pedro, but was able to visit the mind-body conscious village of San Marcos one afternoon. As soon as I had arrived I saw that it was a place filled to the brim with yoga and meditation focused hotels, Vipassana retreat centers, shamanic healing workshops, organic vegan restaurants, and shops selling natural, homeopathic herbs and medicines. The initial shock I felt was how could this exist so far away from where you’d normally find it, such as in Bali or Koh Phagnan in the Southeast Asia. It was a true hippie hideaway, one that I immediately felt a connection to. But as I walked around, and with two friends I had made who were nowhere near this sort of lifestyle back in their hometowns, I felt that the high concentration of these types of establishments only served to lessen the effect of the positive and transformative experiences that are being offered to visitors. Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? I realized that although I consider myself a practitioner of many of the offerings to be found in San Marcos, I am also very much aligned to the New Yorker way of living, which brings in that balance of a practical, day-to-day work life. It did feel as if some of the authenticity was lost. Or, perhaps it was a reminder that these practices, traditionally derived from eastern medicine, are now becoming popular enough for westerners to bring them to the rest of the world. Globalization has it’s positive side effects, and arguably this is one of them. But perhaps the reality of it is that eastern societies actually incorporate these practices into their daily rituals, and not as merely an escape or a retreat. And by doing so, there is no need to go out of their way to travel to, and pay for, a transformative experience. It is in their blood and in their culture. This is something that I hope tourists passing through this sacred lake will realize: that they can make change happen wherever home may be for them and still be true to their authentic selves.

My last night at Lake Atitlán brought me to another place in my memory where I felt as if I was back home; I found myself at a bar in San Pedro playing deep house music and with fire dancers worthy of a Burning Man DJ and performance set. But something was different. Something had quickly brought me back to Guatemala, accompanied by a big-bellied laugh that only I could hear as my laughter was drowned by the music. As backpackers danced and watched the performance, an old Mayan woman walked across the center of the dance floor, a basket on her head filled with muffins. She didn’t seem to notice or care of what was happening around her. It was such an odd image. Here was a woman, born and raised on this land; was she adapting to the changes around her, or forcibly catering to those who have decided to make roots in her village? Was she just trying to sell her food and go about the rest of her night in peace, and not let the new music and strange foreigners influence her? I asked myself this as I watched her pace around the bar, until at last she vanished.

Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan.

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San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.
San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.

Anyhow, a little sidetracked there. My next stop was near a town called Lanquin. It was a long daytime journey on winding, bumpy roads, but by nightfall I had arrived at Semuc Champey. The forest was unlike your typical humid jungle. Rather, it was a dry, pine forest with a mix of trees that blended the native species of central america to some of the trees you’ll find in the mountains of upstate New York. Semuc Champey itself is a series of limestone bridges and caves that runs through central Guatemala and meets the Cabahón River. Combining the limestone and the river creates various tiered pools of turquoise, which were extraordinarily beautiful. From there I made my way to Flores, the jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal. In just one day’s drive I left the dry forest of Lanquin and found myself in the country’s northern tropical rainforest, rife with abundant wildlife, namely howler monkeys, toucans, and coatis. Tikal itself dates back to the 4th century BC, but reached its height during the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 AD. We watched the sunset from one of the temples in Tikal and listened to the birds and howler monkeys as they made their way to sleep.

A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.
A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.

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Tikal ruins.
Tikal ruins.

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Some practical tips for those looking to backpack in Guatemala. Firstly, most ATMs do not accept MasterCard debit cards. I had a huge problem with this as both my debit cards are MasterCard, and after trying countless machines in Flores and in Antigua, I was not able to withdraw any money. Luckily, I had just enough dollars that I could exchange to last me the remaining four days in the country. Secondly, Guatemala time is very different from the standard concept of time; when a Guatemalan says the journey will last 1.5 hours, it will actually take 3. The most common method of transport within the country for tourists are small shuttle busses, not the local chicken busses. These busses are not the most comfortable and often lack air conditioning, but they are the safest and most reliable means of getting from one place to another. The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin took almost 10.5 hours on a tourist shuttle, even though it was advertised as 8 hours. Don’t be fooled by the small size of Guatemala. Because of the road conditions it does take a long time to cover a short distance, and unfortunately the only overnight bus you can take is from the town of Flores (where you go to visit Tikal) to Guatemala City. I did take this bus and it was decent, similar to an average quality South American coach. So in all, be aware that you may take a day just to travel from one place to another, which makes the amount of days remaining to visit the cities more limited if you’re short on time.

A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
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Local Guatemalans seen on route from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin.

 

One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.