After what seems like an entire day on the road (and it’s still only lunchtime), we arrive in Bacalar. And I have to say, the lagoon is very pretty – it’s known as ‘the lake of seven colours’, and the vivid shades of blue and green remind me of the Belizean Barrier Reef. We head straight to the balneario, a swimming spot with various amenities. Having slept for most of the way (and slept through the shopping), and eaten three Orange Walk tacos and a Chetumal McFlurry, it’s time for a proper meal. There’s no doubt that the food is delicious (I have an enormous plate of fresh shrimp ceviche with extra beans and avocado, washed down with an ice-cold beer); but the service could definitely do with some improvement – the amount of time it takes for the waiters (who are so plentiful that they almost outnumber the customers) to hand out menus and take orders is interminable. Watching the bored-looking staff milling about chatting to each other, while customers frantically wave arms and menus in the air in a desperate attempt to get noticed, reminds me that this country was colonised by Spain, after all ;-).
The rest of the afternoon is pleasant and relaxing. I swim in the lagoon, sunbathe, drink some more cold beer, and chat with my colleagues and co-workers. And at the end of the afternoon, as those poor saps get back on the bus to go all the way back to Belize, I smugly walk the few hundred metres past the ruined Spanish fort to my intended hotel. To find it full. Well, that’s no problem, as there’s another cheap hotel nearby. Except that’s full too. So now I have to ‘upgrade’, and head for the more expensive digs. I finally find one that’s not as pricey as the most expensive place in town, but it still costs twice as much as I thought I’d be paying. Despite being a mid-range place, it doesn’t have a card reader, so I can’t use my credit card and have to pay in cash. Fortunately, I have enough Pesos to pay for my stay, and use my pidgin Spanish to find out where the ATM is. Which is out of service. (I suppose in a small, sleepy town like Bacalar, I should be pleasantly surprised that there’s even an ATM at all). Putting aside enough money to pay for the bus tomorrow, I have just enough left to buy some snacks and a bottle of water (it’s lucky I ate that enormous lunch). I spend the rest of the evening in my hotel room, watching The Big Bang Theory in Spanish and eating chocolate biscuits. Aah, the exotic life of the international traveller. Michael Palin never has to put up with this.
The next day, after a duck’s breakfast and a wander round the fort, I leave for Chetumal. And like so many things in this town over the last 24 hours, that doesn’t quite go to plan either, as the bus seems to have been cancelled, or massively delayed. But the local taxi drivers are prepared for this situation (perhaps delays are a regular occurrence, or perhaps there just aren’t many buses passing through in the first place – Bacalar is off the main highway from Chetumal to Cancun); and for the same price as the bus, a taxi takes me and three other passengers into the centre of Chetumal (after waiting an hour for the non-existent bus and another hour for the other three passengers, that is). And I finally catch a break – not only is the hotel of my choice available (and cheap), the ATM is working too.
Chetumal is the capital of Quintana Roo state, and sits at the mouth of the Rio Hondo (the river that divides Mexico and Belize). It’s known as ‘The birthplace of the Mestizos’, as this is where a shipwrecked Spanish sailor married a Maya women in 1511 and together they produced the New World’s first mixed-race children (the Mestizos, as they became known, are the race that created modern Mexico and the group that makes up the majority of the population, both here and in Belize). Apart from a flashy new Museum of Maya Culture, there’s not much of interest to tourists. Unless those tourists are from Belize, in which case Chetumal is shopping heaven. Having already experienced the air-conditioned ‘delights’ of the shopping mall, I spend the rest of the day wandering up and down the main street in a futile attempt to find some clothes that fit me (Mexico has just overtaken America as the fattest nation in the developed world, and from the sizes of the clothes I can believe it). Most of the shops are staffed by bored-looking teenagers who are far too cool to work there, every T-Shirt has a picture of a rapper or some hideous logo slapped on it, and the music is both painfully loud and unspeakably bad. Clearly, I’m now too old for young people’s shops (Was I ever young enough? Or cool enough? I thought I was ‘down with the kids’ once, but whatever the kids are down with now, I’m not. I thought I was ‘cool’, but now, whatever I am, it isn’t cool, and what everyone else thinks is cool now is just weird to me). I finally find a shop selling sensible garments accompanied by music that doesn’t make my ears bleed, and buy my clothes.
For a small town, Bacalar was full of restaurants – inextricably, most of them were serving pizza (not that I ate in any of them); but Chetumal seems much less food-focused. I’d been told to go to the market for cheap local food, but there’s nothing happening in there at night, except a few taco stands at the back. Fortunately, there are some places on the main street (mostly Turkish restaurants and American fast-food cafes, so kebabs and burgers, basically). And although I don’t see any bars, there is the ubiquitous OXXO convenience store with its fridgeful of beer.
The next day is Sunday, and it’s time to head back to Belize. And sure enough, at the bus station, I spot the Belizeans immediately – they’re the ones loaded down with detergent and toilet paper. On the bus, the Belizean conductor informs me that I’ll have to pay an exit fee, but neither of us can work out if payment has anything to do with the time spent in Mexico (72 hours? 1 week? No one seems to know.), or whether or not I’m a Belizean resident (the last time I passed through in 2012, I told the Mexican official I was resident in Belize and he waved me through). But this time that excuse doesn’t work – the guy insists that the fee has to be paid by every non-Mexican (although I don’t see the Belizeans paying anything), and he’s holding my passport hostage, so there’s not much I can do other than cough up the money. Which doesn’t go into a drawer or till and isn’t acknowledged with a receipt, but instead goes straight into his pocket, accompanied by a nod and a smile. Then it’s to Belizean immigration, where the officials take a half-hearted look through my bag (presumably to search for illegal immigrants or Mexican Marching Powder, or maybe just to make sure I’m carrying some toilet paper); and one of them makes a joke about the superior quality of Belizean marijuana – “You shouldn’t smuggle weed from Mexico, you can get much better stuff in Belize”! Aah, it’s good to be back.