Back in 2010 after traveling to Belize for our 25th anniversary, we were presented with an incredible opportunity to purchase a waterfront condo on the tropical island of Ambergris Caye.  We didn't have to think long before taking advantage of this chance to experience a totally different lifestyle in a foreign country, and we moved here full-time in the summer of 2011 after I (Emily) retired from my job just one week prior.  In this short amount of time, we have had so many adventures, seen many amazing places, and learned so much about the food and customs of these proud and extremely friendly, welcoming people.  We have also met many interesting visitors to the country, and some of them have become good friends.  We have been truly blessed to have had this opportunity.

We have always enjoyed traveling and have done much of it over the course of our over 28 years together.  But traveling all over this small and exotic country (along with excellent side trips to neighbors Guatemala and Mexico) brought that love of wandering back to the forefront, amplified it, and gave us the courage to do more than we could ever do before.  And now that I am retired, we finally have the time to have many more travel adventures. 

Ultimately, and especially after meeting some inspiring full-time nomads here, we realized that we are not ready to hang our hammock in just one place.  And we missed participating regularly in two of our favorite activities besides travel, road cycling and hiking, neither of which are possible on the island of Ambergris Caye.  Even travel is more difficult from an island.  Although it was a dream of ours to live car-free and we've genuinely enjoyed the fun and challenge of riding our beach bikes everywhere, we miss being able to hit the open road when the desire hits.  And we want to be able to take our favorite companion Paisley along with us when we travel, at least some of the time.  In Belize we always have to leave her behind.  Well cared for to be sure, but not where she wants to be most, with us.

So today we announce, with bittersweet feelings, that we have just sold our condo in Ambergris Caye and moved back to the United States.  Because of Paisley, we aren't going to become world travelers at this time, but we do plan to do a lot of traveling in the US and some of Canada as well.  We're thinking about a motorhome.  There is still so much we haven't seen in our own  country, especially out west, and we want to see as much of it as we can while we're still healthy and fit enough to enjoy it.   But that's not to say we won't miss many things about Ambergris Caye and indeed, the entire country of Belize.

What we'll miss most:

  • The most genuinely friendly people we've ever encountered.  Their smiles, their "good mawnin, good mawnin"s are sincere and infectious.  These Belizean locals who have so much less than most Americans are much happier, much less stressed out, and their simple lives, focused on family, church, community, seem to be the reason.  Not to mention the sunshine that seems to put everyone in a better mood.
  • The balmy breezes and turquoise sea -- Yes, it's hot, humid, and muggy at times, but when you're taking it easy in the shade, it's super pleasant.  Shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops are the order of the day, so it's easy to go outside.  Very seldom is a jacket needed, and I think I've worn long pants about 5 times here total.
  • Everything is less crowded.  When we traveled to the mainland to go hiking, often we were the only people in an entire park or site.  We've hiked for miles on trails where the only other living, breathing creatures we encountered were birds, insects, and maybe a fleeting glimpse of a small forest mammal.  That is refreshing and so rare in the populous US.
  • Fewer rules.  We've climbed ruins and trails that would certainly be deemed "too dangerous" and off limits in the US. 
  • Our blog readers.  Yes, that's you.  You good folks from all over the world have been one of the biggest surprises we've experienced!  We've received so many kind, supportive notes and comments, and I hope we've been able to answer some of your questions and maybe inspire some of your own dreams.  Some of you have even become friends, and we've had the pleasure of meeting a few of you in person as well.  We sincerely thank you for coming along for the ride with us.  

At this time we are going to put this blog on hiatus and take a "blogging break".  We are undecided about having a travel blog in the future as we think we want to go back to more private lives, but if we ever decide to start another public blog, we'll update this one with the link, so feel free to keep your subscription.  Of the many lessons we've learned from our Belize adventure, one of the biggest is that we can never predict the future or what we'll be doing in a year or even six months!

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes and one of the wisdoms we gained from our experiences here.  Once you live in a place, no matter how lovely, it is all too easy to lose that "childlike enthusiasm" that a new place inspires.  We're hoping to get that enthusiastic feeling back in our future travels, wherever they may take us.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Barry and Paisley at Belize International
Emily at Jacksonville International Airport (Jacksonville, Florida) after a long and exhausting day of travel

No regrets!

Bougainvillea in Tulum, Mexico
After sixteen days of travel to five cities, our last day in Mexico had arrived.  It was December 20.  We figured if the world was going to end on December 21, we would just as soon be back home with Paisley.  (And of course I'm just joking; we never for a minute expected the world to end, but it was fun that we were traveling during the peak of interest in the Maya world and right around such an anticipated date!)

We started with a wonderful breakfast in our favorite Tulum breakfast eatery, Azafran.  Despite some mosquitoes in the garden, we had a delicious meal, excellent service, and some of the best coffee that we had on our entire trip.  This is the only place we got whole-wheat bread in Mexico, and the freshly squeezed OJ was great too.  We can't recommend this place enough if you are in Tulum.  Barry ordered the same loaded omelet as before, and I tried the fruit crepes.  Delish!
Barry's delicious omelet
My fruit crepes
Here's a friendly fellow we met on our walk back to the hotel from breakfast, hanging out in front of his owner's home courtyard.
We'd be heading south on this road to Chetumal to catch the ferry back to San Pedro.  We got another beautiful day for travel.
Waiting in the Tulum ADO station
As I may have mentioned in a previous post, while Mexican cities can have a ton of traffic at times, like this:
Morning traffic in Merida
In contrast, the highways are typically practically deserted by US standards.  Most people seem to travel by bus.  Love the lack of traffic jams!  We had another great view from the front row in the ADO bus.
Belize is "Belice" (pronounced Bell-ees-ay) in Spanish
But this day was not to be without drama and a bit of panic.  We had "open date" water taxi tickets back to Belize that we'd paid for as part of the round trip.  When we arrived at the San Pedro Water Jets terminal (via taxi from the Chetumal ADO bus station) at 2:15 for the 3 pm water taxi, we were informed that the boat was already full and that we should have made a reservation the day before.  Although there are two water taxi companies, and since we last visited Mexico, they have changed to an alternating day schedule, so there was no other boat to take back to San Pedro that day.  I strongly question the the alternating schedule since they could certainly fill both boats during high tourist season; though the schedule makes perfect sense during slow season.  This was not slow season.

We tried to explain that we had tried to get reservations for a particular return date when we bought our tickets but were told that we couldn't do that, and that we had a dog boarding in San Pedro whom we needed to pick up.  We were never advised back in San Pedro to confirm our return reservations a day ahead, probably because there were many fewer people traveling back in early December.  The attendant put us on the waiting list but said that they could not guarantee us seats as the boat was full.  She had a long list of travelers with confirmed reservations, but we could see that not all of them had been marked off as having checked in.  We had some hope since we weren't turned away immediately.

While we sat and waited, more and more confirmed passengers checked in.  Several other people without reservations came in trying to get on the boat, same as us.  One party of four was turned away because they were even lower down the "waiting" list than us.  A couple of other young men traveling alone were hanging around like we were, hoping for a spot to open up.  We had purposely spent most of our pesos other than those needed for the $300 MX (approximately $24 US) per-person exit fee.  If we'd had to stay in Chetumal, we'd have to find an ATM for more cash, get a hotel, contact Pampered Paws online (our cellphone did not work in Mexico), lose the money we'd prepaid for the tickets, and try to get tickets on the other boat the following day.  NOT something we wanted to contemplate.  Another far-fetched alternative would have been to take a bus or taxi to the Belize border, check out of Mexico and into Belize there, take another taxi to the Corozal airstrip, and try to catch the last flight of the day back to San Pedro on Tropic Air.  This possibility seemed fraught with problems because we were already tight on time, and there was no guarantee of any available seats on the plane without reservations, and no easy way to call without trying to locate and figure out a payphone.  Yes, I was inwardly panicking!

The clock kept ticking, and we kept watching the passenger list on the attendant's desk.  As it got closer and closer to 3pm, there were still a few people with reserved slots who had not checked in.  Finally, it became apparent that they weren't going to make it in time, so the attendant crossed out their names and put ours on the manifest in their places.  One other single man made it on the same way.  We breathed the hugest sighs of relief!

We still had to make it through Immigration, though this time the officer was very pleasant and friendly to us.  (This was the same man who'd been so rude when we'd come to Chetumal for the day and had been forced to pay the exit fee even though it is not required for visits of less than seven days.)
Whew -- we're on! I'm making the long walk down the pier to the boat we thought we wouldn't get to take
There was a lengthy holdup on the dock as the Mexican police and drug-sniffing dogs went over everyone's bags and searched the boat.  This surprised us since there was no luggage check on the way out of Mexico last time. I'm not sure why they would care about drugs being taken out of the country!  When we were finally able to board, we were packed in like sardines, but we were so happy to be ON the boat we weren't complaining!

With the long delay to get everyone and their luggage onboard, the boat was over thirty minutes late leaving the dock.  When we arrived in San Pedro, we'd have to go through customs and immigration, then run (literally) over to Pampered Paws to pick Paisley up before they closed at 6 pm.  It was going to be a tight connection, to say the least.  

We were sweating it out on the boat as it seemed like the longest ride of our lives.  The minutes kept ticking by, and when we finally pulled into the dock in San Pedro, we had less than 45 minutes before Pampered Paws closed.  I immediately called Kathy there and told her that we would be cutting it very close but were on our way to pick up Paisley just as soon as we made it through the lines.  She assured me they would be waiting for us, but I didn't want anyone to have to work late, so we hustled as close as we could to the front of the line for immigration.  

If we'd been at the back of the line, I don't think we would have made it, but we were lucky enough to make it through pretty quickly, and the custom's official didn't choose us for a luggage search; probably because we were carrying such small bags compared to a lot of folks.  She was in a jovial mood, and that set us at ease.  

Fortunately, Pampered Paws is not too far from the Water Jets building, so we were able to make it with a few minutes to spare.  Paisley was beside herself with joy and jumped up and down at least a hundred times behind the glass door when she saw us.  She always has a great time at Pampered Paws, and we feel totally comfortable leaving her there when we travel.  And they're so nice about keeping her a little longer if we decide to extend our trip by a day or two, as we have done a couple of times now.  

All that was left to do now was to catch a taxi back to our condo, never a difficult thing to do in San Pedro.  We were so thankful that we made it home and did not have to scramble for another day in Chetumal.  And what do you know, the world didn't end the next day after all!
El Fin...thanks for (virtually) joining us on this long journey!
Today's travel would take us from Merida back to Tulum, in the Quintana Roo state of Mexico.  But first, breakfast!  We decided to try the restaurant at our hotel (the Hotel Maria del Carmen).  They had an absolutely huge buffet, but I didn't think I'd get my money's worth since I'd been eating light after my brush with Montezuma's Revenge, and my appetite still wasn't back to normal.  Barry also passed on the buffet since he said it looked very heavy.  So, he enjoyed hotcakes and fruit, and I had plain scrambled eggs, still babying my stomach a bit.
I gave my beans to Barry :)
Thus fortified, we took one final walk up to the Paseo de Montejo.  Looks like a festival was coming up, as this electronic billboard was not there the first time we came through.
The Merida ADO station was busy this morning.
We got to ride in the pink breast-cancer awareness bus for the first time
Pretty nice seats -- right up front again.
Vendors selling fruit along the busy streets
Onward to Tulum
Mexico, like Belize, has many roundabouts with statues in the center
Tulum attracts a lot of young travelers compared to the other cities we visited in Mexico
Tulum was busier than when we were here before, with the end of the Mayan calendar just two days away.  We were awfully glad to have reservations at the Secret Garden Hotel.  

We walked right on over from the bus terminal and checked in.  The room we were in this time had a sink and dorm-size fridge.  It was nice to be able to keep our water bottles cold. Few hotels in Mexico have fridges in the room, at least the ones we stayed in, which tended to be older.  This was the one and only fridge of our entire trip.
Cute sink in our bathroom
Saying hi to one of the Secret Garden mascots
As usual, once we got settled in, we took off walking around town.  
This completed mural was being painted when we were in town the first time
Downtown Tulum
Barry finally managed to catch a photo of this man who bikes around the neighborhoods near the hotel, constantly squeaking a little horn to advertise his sweet breads, even after dark.  He's like the Mexican version of the Good Humour man!
Squeaka - squeaka!
We decided to walk back to El Camello for a seafood dinner since it was so reasonably priced.  But wow, was it packed!  We had to wait for a table outside.  This place attracts a lot of locals as well as tourists.
A full house
Once we finally got our table, they brought us a HUGE plate of chips and some of the complimentary smoked fish dip.  Barry ordered the same grilled fish as on our first visit, but I was brave and decided to try the garlic-butter pulpo (octopus).  It was really tasty but far too much for me to eat, especially after my stomach shrunk up with my limited appetite over the past few days.  I felt bad that I had to leave so much behind.
Barry's fish, accompanied by a cold Sol and the fresh salsas he adores
It was great to finally be eating normal food again, but...
...who could eat all this?! And if you're wondering -- no, I did not risk eating the salad this time!
Amazingly, after that huge dinner, Barry just couldn't leave Tulum without one last visit to the gelateria!  Needless to say, I couldn't even think about ordering any.
Stay tuned for the very last post in this interminably long series -- our return to Belize!
Since Barry was able to sleep through the marching-band practice outside our hotel window the night before, he awoke early the next morning with plenty of energy.   While I caught up on lost sleep, he walked over to the Campeche waterfront on the Golfo de Mexico and took a long walk, along with some nice morning photos.
Good to know
Finally I managed to get up, and we walked to Luz de Luna for breakfast.  Much to our disappointment, the very sweet proprietor told us they weren't serving this morning because they didn't have a cook or server!  Maybe they were sick?  So, we had to go with Plan B, wandering around until we found a place to eat.  We ended up back at the place we'd had lunch on our first time in town, Chef Color.  I was hungry after my brush with Montezuma, but figured plain hotcakes would be easiest on my stomach of the breakfast choices.  Barry ordered fruit cup, chaya bread, and Huevos Rancheros.  Wouldn't want him to go hungry!
Chaya bread -- like zucchini bread
After breakfast, we wandered around and took in the excellent Jorge Marin sculpture exhibit that had arrived in Campeche since our previous visit.  The sculptures were SO cool, and the pedestrian streets of charming Campeche a perfect venue.  Looks like it's going to be there through March, so if you hurry, you might still be able to check it out in person.  But if you can't get there, Barry got some pretty nice photos!
After checking out of the hotel, we made the long walk to the bus station; I was feeling a lot better fortified with my hotcakes.
Passing through the Campeche wall -- the pinata was new since our last time through
The Campeche ADO station is large and modern
And all decked out for Christmas
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, we had front-row seats for the remainder of bus rides on our trip.  The views were great.  No bulls on the road today, though!  We were going through a more modern part of Mexico now.
Off we go to Merida
Did not expect these modern streetlights in Mexico!
Fancy inspection station when entering Yucatan state
Entering Merida...notice the dark clouds ahead
Leaving bus station
We had no hotel reservations and could not stay at the bed and breakfast we'd stayed at on the way through Merida before, as Larry has a three-night minimum.  In this case, we just wanted to be close to the bus station since we'd only be here one night and had to catch another bus in the morning.  We had scoped out a few places on our first time in town, and I'd checked them on Tripadvisor.  We decided to try the Hotel Maria del Carmen.
The staff was very nice, the rate reasonable, and the room was well-appointed, but we ended up with another noisy street-side location.  After our experience the night before, I should have tried to specify a room off the street, but I'm always just so happy to get a room, any room, when I don't have reservations, that I don't tend to be too picky.  The bathroom was not as nice as the room; it was dark, the sink leaked like crazy, and it badly needed updating.  But for one night, we could live with it.
Hotel from the road -- our room was one that faced the street
When we left the hotel to walk around downtown, we discovered that it had just rained (remember those dark clouds in the earlier photo?)  This was the first rain we had seen since entering Mexico two weeks earlier, and it only lasted five minutes!

That night we ate at a downtown restaurant we hadn't tried before but that had received good reviews on Tripadvisor, El Chile Habanero.  The restaurant was clean and neat as a pin, air-conditioned, and had a window into the kitchen, so we could see how clean it was behind the scenes as well.  Very impressive!

We had read rave reviews for the chef's special Aphrodite Chicken, so Barry ordered that and loved it.  It was packed with fresh fruit, and the colors were amazing!  I was sticking to a bland-food diet for one more day since I'd been sick the morning before, so I contented myself with a plate of mostly white food, while eyeing Barry's plate enviously.  Someday we'll go back and I will have the Aphrodite Chicken myself!
My plate of mostly white food (I gave the beans to Barry)
Barry's Aphrodite Chicken -- the orange fruit is papaya
Stay tuned as we head back to Tulum -- our last stop before the final leg home to Belize!
This was not the best morning of the trip.  In fact, it was the worst, for me anyway.

I woke up feeling a little nauseous.  Barry thought maybe it was because I didn't sleep well, but I wasn't so sure.  I had only had one cervasa at the pizza place the night before, so it certainly wasn't a hangover.  And Barry had had the same pizza and felt fine, so it wasn't the pizza. 

When we were waiting on our breakfast to be served at the Hotel Xibalba in Palenque, I started feeling worse.  After a couple of bites of plain toast, I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep it down.  I bolted to our room and to the bathroom, where I lost my previous night's dinner along with the small amount of breakfast I'd eaten.  (I hope that's not too much information!)  We had to catch a bus leaving in less than an hour, and it was hard to even imagine traveling as all I wanted to do was lie down and rest.  Somehow I got myself together, got back down to the table, and paid for our breakfast.  We checked out and made it onto the bus just in the nick of time.  I was still feeling a bit queasy and weak, but better than before my run for the porcelain god.

After analyzing what we'd both eaten over the past couple of days, Barry suggested that it might have been the salad I'd eaten at Entropia in San Cristobal de las Casas the night before last.  That's something he didn't eat, and you know what they say about raw foods and Montezuma's Revenge.  I figured the law of averages had finally caught up to me.

Fortunately, I was feeling better from then on out, just a little weak.  I had no appetite and ate nothing at all until dinnertime that day.  But, back to the story.

Today we our bus took us from Palenque back to Campeche, Mexico.  When planning this trip in Belize, we certainly didn't expect to return to Campeche.  It was initially just a convenient stop on the outbound portion of our trip, but turned out to be one of our favorite places we visited.  

Fortunately, this bus ride was not full of sick, coughing people, and we had great seats right in the front row passenger side, giving us a wide-angle view out the huge front windshield.  Since we'd booked all our tickets at one time in San Cristobal, we actually got these same seats (3 and 4) for the entire rest of our trip -- what a score.  We could see so much more than out the side windows.  And there were some interesting things to see!
Juggler just outside Palenque
Our bus driver reading while he drove (eeek!)
Uh-oh...traffic jam ahead!
Experiences like this remind you you're not in the USA!
Slower traffic keep right...
Car in front of us being searched at traffic stop
We were happy to see this sign after all that travel excitement.
Because I was still feeling pretty weak, we decided to take a cab from the bus station this time, since it was a long slog to the hotel -- we'd planned to stay at the Hotel Castelmar, where we'd stayed before.  

We were able to get a room, but as a walk-in, the room we were given wasn't nearly as nice as the large, inside courtyard room we had the first time around.  That room was quiet, with two beds and plenty of room.  This room was on the streetside and was very small with only one bed.  When the attendant left, we realized that it was going to be really, really noisy as the windows were ancient and didn't filter out much sound, and there was a lot of traffic on the busy street below.

We thought about asking for a different room, but we'd already put stuff everywhere and rumpled the bedspread, and I just didn't feel comfortable complaining, especially in a foreign language that I barely spoke.  Times like this are when you really miss being able to speak your native language.  Barry was in a grumpy mood because of the noise but somehow managed to take a nap -- I think he was just exhausted.  

We headed to our favorite Campeche restaurant for dinner that night, Luz de Luna.  I didn't risk having anything more interesting or spicy than chicken-vegetable soup with my stomach issue, but Barry had chicken fajitas, served with all the sauces he loves.
Chicken fajitas, Luz de Luna style
My chicken soup -- just what the doctor ordered
I felt good enough to walk around that evening, and we were delighted to find this 2013 calandario at a small shop.  We'd been looking for a calendar during our entire trip, but all we'd managed to find were Mayan calendars or a couple of others that were too large to easily carry along in our limited luggage.  This smaller one was perfect and would serve as a reminder of our wonderful trip.  Inexpensive too!
It was a happening night in the city, and we happened upon a concert in the park area not too far from our hotel.  There were lots of people watching, singing, and dancing around.  Very festive!
We also saw that a new Jorge Marin art exhibit had hit the pedestrian streets since we were in town before, but figured we'd get more photos in the morning with better light.
The beautiful streets of Campeche's Centro Historico
When we got back to our room, we took our showers and hit the hay early.  Almost right as my head hit the pillow, I started hearing a marching band practicing.  It sounded like they were right outside our window.  Even with earplugs, the rhythmic banging of the drums was really loud, and I couldn't believe that Barry had managed to fall asleep, but somehow he had. The practice seemed to last for hours, as every time they would stop for awhile, and I'd think surely it was over, after a five or ten minute break, it would start back up again, as loud as ever.  I'm not sure, but it seemed to go on until nearly midnight.  

After many nights of firecrackers around the December 12 Virgen de Guadelupe celebrations, we'd expected some quieter nights at this stage of the trip, but we'd have to wait a little longer.  Mexico is definitely a night-time kind of place and can be a bit of an adjustment for early-to-bed folks like ourselves.  

Stay tuned as tomorrow we head back to Merida, but not without one last look at Campeche's attractive waterfront and artistry!  
We had not made any hotel reservations for the return trip from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Belize as we thought we'd see how things went with the buses and which cities we liked best in order to determine how best to travel home.  Originally we'd planned to arrive back in San Pedro on Tuesday, December 18th, but that would have meant a couple of very long bus legs.  Since we were able to extend Paisley's stay at Pampered Paws for two days (thanks Kathy!), we decided to return on the 20th instead.  This gave us the chance to spend one more night in each of the cities we'd visited on the way to San Cristobal and avoided any 8+ hour bus rides.  We had determined that 5+ hours was plenty to be sitting in a bus.

Before we embarked on our journey home, we knew we should get a hotel reservation in Tulum.  It's the most touristy place we'd be staying, and since the end of the Mayan calendar was fast approaching on December 21, we figured it would be a zoo on December 19.  Fortunately, we were able to book the last available room at Secret Garden Hotel, the place we'd stayed at the beginning of our trip.  Relief!  We did not pre-book any other hotels for our return journey as we  thought we'd be okay walking in off the street in the less touristy cities, and that did prove to be the case.  

The day before departure, we bought all our bus tickets for the return leg of the trip from San Cristobal to Palenque to Campeche to Merida to Tulum at the ADO satellite station in San Cristobal, conveniently located quite close to the Hotel Diego de Mazariegos, where we'd spent the last three nights.  The clerk spoke no English, but since I'd transformed into my Mexican persona of Emilia (according to Barry), it was no problema, and it was nice to have it all taken care of at one time.
Emilia comprar boletos de autobus (Emily buying bus tickets)
We had a beautiful last morning in San Cristobal to walk to the bus station.  Just look at that sky!  Note that Barry was carrying our new duffel bag on his front side -- we couldn't have done without it as our luggage seemed to have magically expanded to fit its every nook and cranny.
One last photo op by the pretty Carolina blue and white church
Bus station
This leg of the trip proved to be the bus ride from hell.  In addition to the queasy-making mountain roads on the way downhill to Palenque, we were subjected to the gentleman in front of us seemingly coughing up a lung for the entire trip as well as other sickies all around us sneezing and coughing.  We actually resorted to hiding under our jackets to breathe as we so didn't want to catch a cold on the trip.  Traveling while sick is miserable, as I am sure the man in front of us could attest. It was a very, very long five and a half hours.  Fortunately, there were some nice mountain and valley views, when we dared to take a quick peek out from under our germ-blocking tents!
For some reason, we stopped at an OCC bus terminal in the town of Ocosingo for half an hour.  Normal stops are only about ten minutes, and there are typically only one or two stops on a five-hour bus ride, so this really prolonged the trip.  We were surprised by this as we didn't stop here at all on our way to San Cristobal from Palenque just a few days earlier.  Of all bus stations we'd seen on the entire trip, this one had the least to recommend it -- no nice food vendors, no colorful decor, and no free restrooms.
Even the sign was boring
Well, the tree behind the station was nice!
Our bus
I suspect it goes without saying that we were really, really glad to arrive in Palenque and get out from under our "breathing" jackets!  

They had made a lot of progress on the road paving work around the Maya head statue since our last time in town.
Much less dusty!
We were able to get a room for the night at the same place we'd stayed before, the Hotel Xibalba.  However, the front desk clerk was the same lady I'd basically accused of trying to double charge us last time, and I'm pretty sure she gave me a dirty look, though I was as polite as could be and used my best Spanish (which is probably laughable by her standards).  She assigned us a smaller, less nice room than the first time, with only one double bed, but there was no way I was going to complain.  We found out the next morning that our rate didn't include continental breakfast this time either, but at least the rate was the same $44 US as the first time.  It was getting into high season, so I had thought it might be higher.

We didn't take photos that night as we ate at the same place as before -- the Pizzaria Palenque.  We ordered the same pizza as our first visit -- why mess with a good thing?  This time we splurged on a large instead of a medium as we were really hungry. 

Stay tuned as we continue traveling home through Mexico to Belize.  I'm reposting this map of our travel journey since it's the same route in reverse this time.  Tomorrow we head back to the charming city on the Golfo de Mexico, Campeche.
Our route home from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to San Pedro, Belize
We decided to visit San Cristobal de las Casas while we were traveling around Mexico because it sounded absolutely charming.  Lonely Planet describes it this way:  

"Set in a gorgeous highland valley surrounded by pine forest, the colonial city of San Cristóbal (cris-toh-bal) has been a popular travelers’ destination for decades. It’s a pleasure to explore San Cristóbal’s cobbled streets and markets, soaking up the unique ambience and the wonderfully clear highland light. This medium-sized city also boasts a comfortable blend of city and countryside, with restored century-old houses giving way to grazing animals and fields of corn."

We were looking forward to the highland terrain with lower humidity and cooler temperatures than we've grown used to.  It would be a brief taste of autumn -- and much cooler than winter in Belize!  So, on December 13, we left Palenque behind on a bus bound for San Cristobal.  Even though both cities are in the Chiapas state of Mexico, San Cristobal sits at an elevation of 7200 feet, while Palenque is only at 200 feet, so we would be doing quite a bit of climbing on this day.

We bought our tickets the day before at the ADO station, though we would actually be taking an OCC bus to San Cristobal, as OCC serves this part of Mexico.  It is equivalent to the ADO first-class bus.
Typing in our names when buying tickets
Palenque ADO Station
I think I was attracting a little attention as I used my new Galaxy Tab to read in the bus terminal (see below).  There was no wi-fi, but I was reading a book using the Kindle app.  This was our first trip with the tablet, and it worked out really well.  We had no room for a full-size laptop in our packs, and while on previous short trips we've managed without a computer, on a sixteen-day trip, we didn't feel comfortable without some form of communication device.  The tablet allowed us to check bus schedules, restaurant ratings, and even make some reservations for our return trip -- not to mention to keep up with all those pesky emails that pile up on a trip.  And I didn't have to carry a book along as I had several free ones loaded on the Kindle app. 
The men at the desk had just loaded a washing machine up on the counter to go on the bus!
Although the bus ride from Palenque to San Cristobal is only about 130 miles, it takes approximately five and a half hours due to the mountain roads.  It was a beautiful drive, but Barry and I both felt quite queasy during the middle part of the trip where there were many hairpin turns and bumps.  Fortunately, we didn't have to run for the rest room, but it was an icky feeling and not something we anticipated in advance.
Gorgeous views
I would have liked to check out this road-side clothing stand.  I just love these embroidered Mexican dresses and blouses!
At last, the road straightened out, and we were both feeling fine again by the time we arrived in San Cristobal.  

The walk from the bus station was little less than a mile.  And as anticipated, this city was very charming, though bigger than we had realized.  Including the surrounding area, approximately 250,000 people call San Cristobal home.
We stayed at the Hotel Diego de Mazariegos, which is spread over two old colonial buildings and is gorgeous.  We would spend three nights here before beginning our journey back to Belize.  The price was $69 US per night, an amazing deal, I thought.
Inside the pretty courtyard
Our room -- 309
Our room was super charming with high, beamed ceiling, two beds, a table and chairs, and even a fireplace!  We didn't use it, though; that seemed like too much work (and we had no matches).  I felt like we were in a castle.
Our castle-like digs
We also had a great patio out the back of our room, though we really didn't get to use it.  During the two full days we had in town, we kept so busy we were rarely in the room during the day.
The patio view
And on a sunnier, but cooler, day
The hotel even provided a little shopping opportunity for me.  I bought a pair of earrings and a bracelet for good price from a friendly little man who manned this booth in the evening.  He was one of the few people we met in San Cristobal who spoke excellent English.
Please stay tuned for much, much more from San Cristobal...this may just have been my very favorite city of the five that we visited (thought it's awfully hard to pick)!
Our main purpose in visiting the Mexican city of Palenque in the Chiapas state was to visit the Palenque Archaeological Site (Maya ruins).  This site is medium in size compared to huge sites like Tikal, but is one of the most widely studied, written about, and well-known Maya sites.  

After breakfast we walked out onto the main highway to catch one of many collectivos to the site.  These are inexpensive vans that run back and forth all day long.  There are no set stops, you stand by the side of the road, and before too long, one will stop for you.  In addition to tourists, they also transport vendors carrying their wares to sell at the site.  There were a few vendors in the collectivo that we caught.
Riding in back of a collectivo

Entering the site.

After paying our entrance fee, we entered the site.  Unfortunately we did not have a printed map and did not see any available there.  If you're going, you may want to print a map before you go, because it's easy to get disoriented -- this is a large place!  Another tip:  there is plenty for sale to eat and drink right outside the entrance for very reasonable prices, so you don't need to buy bottled water or anything to eat in town to bring along if you don't want to.  We bought some water and a couple of snacks to supplement what we'd brought along.
Entrance to site
What lies ahead?
This map would have been really handy to have in hand. There are no more of these billboards once you pass here.
I wish it had been a sunnier day for photographs, but it was hazy and overcast for most of the day.  That did help keep temperatures down.  Here are just a small (?) selection of the many, many photos Barry took of the various structures at the site, in no particular order.  

The Palace.

The Ball Court.

Temple of the Cross.

Temple of the Cross in the center of the photo
Temple of the Cross (right) showing all the stairs. Yes, we did walk to the top. In fact, Barry walked up them twice in pursuit of photos!

Temple of the Foliated Cross.

Temple of the Sun.

Temple 13.

Temple of the Skull.

Emily climbing the Temple of the Skull
Please stay tuned for Part 2 of the Palenque ruins and much more!
Today's journey: Campeche to Palenque
After visiting the Old City Wall in Campeche, it was time to check out of the Hotel Castlemar, leave the colorful centro historico district behind, and begin the long hike to the ADO bus station to catch our bus to Palenque, in Mexico's Chiapas state.  It was again a warm day, so we got quite a workout carrying our packs.  Now you see how we eat so much on these trips without putting on tons of weight!
Pretty floral nursery along the way
The bus to Palenque stopped at a couple of different towns along the way.  These stops gave us a chance to stretch our legs and get a snack if needed.  Escarcega was one of the stops.
Along the way we went over the Usumacinta River, an important trade route for the ancient Maya before roads existed in this area.
We also witnessed (after the fact) a very serious accident involving a couple of tractor trailers.  Hopefully everyone involved was okay.
On the way to Palenque, we briefly went through the fourth Mexican state of our trip, Tabasco.  There we stopped at another town, Emiliano Zapata.  I stayed inside the bus this time, but Barry had a look inside the station, finding it much different from the typically modern, chrome and glass ADO terminals we had become accustomed to.  Until he showed me the photos, I didn't understand exactly what he meant when he said that the station was "very Mexican" inside.  Once I saw the photos, I understood immediately.  This station takes first place in the categories of "most festive" and "most colorful" along our route!  Looks like a great place for a kid's birthday party.
Too bad I didn't know they had panuchos on the menu!
After passing through two state border crossing checkpoints, we finally arrived in Palenque, in the Chiapas state, in the late afternoon.  There was construction in the center of town, requiring the bus to go way around the block on some tiny, dusty roads to get to the terminal.  
Fortunately the walk to our hotel was a short one.  The city was dusty from the construction and it being dry season and not all that attractive until we got to the street where the main tourist hotels are located.  We found out later that this is called the "La Canada" area of town.  Although there was some construction going on here as well, there were lots of trees and jungly shade, and it was very attractive.  Hilly too!  Quite a change from the flat island of Ambergris Caye where we live.
It got much prettier after the right turn into La Canada
Ah, this is more like it!
When we checked in at the Hotel Xibalba, above, we had a stressful experience (one of the very few of the entire trip, looking back now).  I had reserved the two nights' lodging online and had written on my sheet that I had already paid for one night on my credit card.  However, when I went to check in, the woman working at the front desk charged me for both nights.  She didn't speak English, so I tried, in halting Spanish, to explain that I had already paid for one night.  She kept telling me "no, no, no".  I wanted to check my credit card online, so went outside to a table to try to use their wi-fi to do so.  But not only did I not know their wi-fi password, I realize that I had neglected to bring my credit card website password -- something I meant to do.  I was sweating and getting a bit panicked.  

About this time, they sent an English-speaking manager out to talk to me.  He assured me that they do not charge a deposit when booking online.  He gave me the wi-fi password, but since I couldn't check my credit card, I ended up going ahead and paying the entire amount, figuring I could dispute the charges after the trip if it turned out I'd been double charged.  Fortunately, the place was not very expensive, just $44 US nightly, which included continental breakfast.

As it turned out after we got home, I was mistaken.  A couple of the hotels I'd reserved online before the trip did charge one night's deposit, but the Hotel Xibalba was not one of them.  I somehow got confused and wrote down the wrong information on my sheet.  This was one time that I was very glad to be wrong!  

The room was small and basic, but a good deal for the price, especially since breakfast was included.  It had air-conditioning and a TV, though reception was poor, so we didn't use it.  And there were Scarlet Macaws on the wall.  Love them!
As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, today, December 12, was the La Virgen de Guadalupe fiesta.  We had seen more pilgrims on their bikes during today's travels, and they were celebrating in Palenque today.  When we first arrived, we thought we were hearing construction noise, but we finally realized it was fireworks.  And they continued to go off with a BOOM-BOOM-BOOM all through the wee hours, and even with ear plugs, sleep was fleeting on this night.  These things were seriously LOUD and booming, not the quieter pop-pop-pop of some firecrackers.  We hoped this would be the last day/night of festivities, but it actually went on for a couple days and nights!  Who knew?!  We certainly didn't read about this celebration when planning this trip, but I guess it was all part of the experience of traveling in a foreign land.

Stay tuned for our next post about the Palenque ruins.  They were amazing!  
Before we leave Campeche and move on to the next city on our Mexico trip, we need to backtrack just a bit to share an interesting bit of Mexican culture that we knew nothing about but witnessed up close and personal during our travels.  

As we were on the bus from Merida to Campeche, we started noticing both individual and groups of cyclists along the shoulders of the road.  Some of them carried flags, posters, lights, and lots of other gear.  We had no idea what this was all about at the time, but knew it had to be something other than random chance.
They were riding in pretty poor conditions in some places, like in this construction zone as we approached the city, which was hilly and had gravely shoulders and large vehicles passing by.  Gotta give them lots of credit for this difficult journey!
As we took our walk in Campeche after checking into the hotel, we continued to see more of these groups of men on bikes as well as some in trucks.
And on the long walk to the ADO bus station the next day, we continued seeing more of them, riding in the midst of very busy city traffic.  The mystery deepened.
Some of these guys had huge burdens -- I don't know how they managed to ride their bikes with these loads.
When we finally had a chance to do a little research online, we discovered that December 12 marks La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our lady of Guadalupe, i.e., the Virgin Mary) fiesta.  This date is widely celebrated throughout Mexico's predominantly Catholic community.  Many of the faithful make pilgrimages to Mexico City, where the Basílica of Guadalupe is kept; while others travel, primarily by bicycle, to other churches throughout Mexico for the celebration.  According to this site almost everywhere there is an altar to the Virgin Mary, a celebration occurs on December 12, which is "one of the most important dates on the Mexican calendar."  The photos above were taken on December 10 and 11th as the faithful headed to Campeche's churches for the celebration.

Here are two of the beautiful churches we saw in Campeche.  I suspect that the second one, the large cathedral, was where the pilgrims were headed for the fiesta.
Perhaps the flags were up for the upcoming festival?
Same cathedral dramatically lit at night
Another fact we gleaned from our internet research is that firecrackers mark the night of the celebration.  Little did we know how much that would affect us later.  (Stay tuned!)