For some reason I expected a Mexican guide but in bounced the owner of Avatar Adventures, floppy haired Nick, fractionally late but for good reason as another couple had decided to bail on the tour and not wake up when Nick arrived. A bonus for us as we were the only couple on board the bus.
An American from San Francisco originally, Nick was Californian to the core. He had been living in Mexico for eight years, his ex-wife was Mexican and he revealed he mentioned his eight-year-old daughter. Immediately I liked him. Pleasant, charming and honest he spoke about his job as though he loved it and especially the Mexican lifestyle.
Just 20 minutes drive from Tulum we arrived at Akumal Bay and kitted up on the beach in our snorkel and flippers. Having already sensed his vibe it was great to see Nick have a colourful conversation in Spanish with the lifeguards that insisted all snorkel groups, regardless of size, had to wear buoyancy vests. This basically meant it was almost impossible to snorkel horizontally. “They’re trying to turn it into Disneyworld,” he exclaimed as he stuck an imaginary two fingers up at authority, flaunting the rules as we carried on without them. Viva la Revolucion!
In just 30 minutes in the bay we looped out into the bay and back. Just 20 or so metres from the shore Nick pointed downwards and a metre long Green Turtle bobbed on the bottom. Soon he darted upwards for air and we did the same in time to see his head pop up above the water line for a few seconds. Further out we reached the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System or Belize Barrier Reef or even Great Mayan Reef, the second largest in the world behind our (Australia’s) Great Barrier Reef.
Although not as many fish as I had seen on other reefs there were some curious types such as the Spotted Trunkfish and the intriguing and rare Caribbean Reef Squid that watched us intently as we passed. Every time another stingray hovered visions of a Steve Irwin style attack appeared so I watched their barbs like a hawk as we floated (furiously) away. Two more turtles met each other on the bottom and pecked playfully at each other’s faces.
A short stop in Akumal town followed for a quick refreshment, fresh fruit ice popsicles from a local store. Packed full of fruit and it’s juice my mango selection and Carolina’s coconut choice were inspired decisions. The store’s paintwork and signage was artwork in itself and a snapshot of authentic Mexico. Nick went on to explain just a couple of months previously the owner was selling the store and all its recipes for just US $6500. He had a romantic vision of buying it but eventually someone local did. I joked, well stated factually, that it was almost the same cost as my wife’s wedding dress. And then half-wondered how much I could recoup to fuel my minute long dream of owing a Mexican Popsicle store.
The peak of the tour was nearing and we soon drove down a long, dusty road to the final destination, the Cenotes (caves). Owned privately this particular section called the Cenote Sac Actun is part of a huge network of caves across the Yucatan region, the second largest in the world. Descending down the dark entrance steps the underground world opens up to what Nick termed “an underwater museum”. Bats appear suddenly and flap above our heads. After a concise but easy to digest background we donned the wet suits and snorkels.
White stalactites hang from the caves ceiling everywhere you look, some reaching down into the cool water, growing at just three millimeters per year. Without the flippers to avoid clouding the water with silt we navigated around the eerie waterways, sharing the clear water with nothing more than some Tetra fish, from the same fish family used for skin-eating pedicures. Some of the underwater stalagmites look like natural made Totem poles whereas the ceiling hung versions are rougher.
Taking off our gear at a shallow point near the exit we shuffled through another narrow crevice to an area where ten metres ahead a tree’s roots had forced through the ceiling down into the water, causing a collapse. The result was a small island in a spotlight of sunbeam, the roots snaking upwards into the forest above. Nick reinforced the theological belief by the Mayans of the womb and the region being feminine, the roots being the umbilical cord. This is believed to contrast with the mountainous region of the Pacific, West side of Mexico that is said to be masculine with its mountains and more phallic symbols.
It became deadly silent and we all stood in thought, admiration, maybe Nick was thinking, he was clearly the deep thinking type. The silence was punctuated by the stunning Toke birds that looked like a rainbow coloured version of a small peacock but with just two feathers on their tail. The Mayans used them as an “indicator bird” so they could find water.
We exfoliated in the mineral rich silt, I enthusiastically scrubbed away as apparently it’s good for mosquito bites and my ankles had been feasted on. Ascending back up the exit stairs we dried off and sat on picnic benches eating the local meat tortas purchased earlier. As we eat we picked Nicks brain about places to eat, drink and he talked of his past. He used to live on Tulum Beach camping at various plots before it became too expensive and he moved into the town.
In just a few years he had seen how tourism and the rise of the Internet world could transform a town. Remarkably he mentioned a time he lived in the dense forest in the region and when the summer came he would spend his days huddled in bed under a mosquito net “sweating bullets”. It reminded me a little of one of my favourite films, Into The Wild, albeit a tropical version starring a more extroverted man.
On the 30-minute drive back to hotel we talked more and we listened to a snapshot of Nicks life. As a teenager he moved to New York State to his aunts bio farm with dreams of setting up a rural school for kids to travel to from all over the country. It lasted six weeks and he laughed when he said the furthest he got was selling organic produce at markets.
His views on nature were unsurprisingly strong and we covered topics such as whales, the culling of sharks, the disgraceful treatment of SeaWorld’s orcas and dolphins, issues Carolina and I agreed with. It appeared he was also a song writer and musician. The tracks playing on the bus’ iPod were from a band called Wilco, who like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was claimed were no longer cool to most, producing mediocre music now they had hit the mainstream and “stopped doing drugs.” I tapped out the bands name on my iPod notes to check out later.
As we pulled back into our hotel he mentioned there is a current lime epidemic, potentially disastrous considering Mexico provide 90% of United States’ limes. It was also disastrous, as limes were needed for beer and it was Cinco de Mayo or the “Fifth of May”, a celebratory day in the US and Mexico remembering Mexicans successful battle against France. By beating the French the Union prevailed over the rogue Southern states in the US Civil War.
We said our goodbyes on the reception steps and I promised to recommend him to any friends that may come to Tulum in the future. I was left with something he had said earlier, stuck on my mind. When I had asked about returning to San Francisco or the States in general he said, “I always felt I was one beat behind the drum in the States.” Mexico was his home.