By Jon Darby
I run a mezcal bar in London. For business reasons I needed to get to Oaxaca. Flights to Oaxaca (via Mexico City) were priced at over GBP 1000 – more than double the price I paid for the same route last year. However, flights to the popular package tourism destination of Cancun were around GBP 600. By my calculation, if I could get between Cancun and Oaxaca for less than the difference in air fairs (GBP 400, or about MXN 9,500), I would see some more of Mexico for free. So did I achieve it? Well there were a lot of distractions on the way.
Firstly, as soon as I book the flights I realise it’s whale shark season in the Gulf of Mexico. If I didn’t need to come for business reasons I’d be highly unlikely to choose to travel in the middle of the London summer (much rather miss some of the winter). That makes the likelihood of coming back in the same season low, and therefore a day out to see the whale sharks essential. Seeing the sharks (they’re sharks, not whales … I asked) means getting to one of the islands off Cancun. My flight lands just before 10pm and I promise an airport taxi driver a healthy tip if he gets me on the last ferry to Isla Mujeres at 11.30pm. I make it with just enough time to buy a beer from the shop in the terminal. After a fantastic, open air, open beer, moonlit ferry ride across the bay of Cancun I check into my accommodation. That’s one over-priced taxi, one return ferry ticket, one night in a hotel, and one beer already spent. And I have a feeling the whale shark trips aren’t giveaways.
They’re not. I pay USD 125 for a day out. I later find out from a tour operator/cocaine dealer (I wasn’t buying) on the street that it’s a bit steep. Should have been USD 100 at most, possibly even £80. Or maybe he was just trying to build his fair pricing credentials for the other deal he wanted to do, it’s hard to tell. In any case it was well worth the expense – what an incredible experience (the whale shark trip, not the cocaine, I couldn’t tell you about that)!
We leave at 7am and motor northeast for well over an hour (22 miles out) before spotting our first shark. New conservation regulations state you need to be able to see at least 5 of the beasts to get in the water and swim with them. I was a bit worried about this as friends who have been on trips in other parts of the world saw just one or two. I needn’t have been. Within minutes there must have been well over 100 sharks around us! So we jumped in, two at a time, accompanied by one of the boat crew (another new regulation). It’s quite daunting when you first get right next to one under the water – they’re seriously huge (up to 12 metres long—nearly 40 feet), and, not forgetting, sharks. One will swim right past you, within touching distance, like a beautifully spotted and glimmering public bus. You’ll try to swim after it for a bit, but obviously lose it to the blue depths. Then you’ll turn round to find another one headed right at you with its massive mouth wide open scooping up millions of plankton. How this enormous animal lives on stuff so small it’s barely visible to the human eye remains a mystery to me. Anyway it’s all quite shocking to start with but you soon realise they couldn’t care less about you swimming nearby and just gracefully avoid you (you might get a knock if you’re right in the way).
We have a wonderful first hour with these animals, each of my group getting in and out two by two and excitedly recounting their close up experiences. After that I become glad I made the early start. More and more boats appear, first on the horizon (land is not to be seen anymore) and then right next to us. Speaking to one of the guides, I find out the local authority allows 170 permits per day for whale shark boats. They can leave the island at either 7, 9, or 11am. They’re obviously all in touch with each other. They’re all carrying a load of tourists that would be seriously disappointed if they didn’t see sharks. So when a big school has been found it’s just a matter of time until all the boats come swarming. By midday we can count 80 boats around us. The sharks are almost penned in, and it’s all become a bit more Free Willy than Old Man and the Sea.
So we head back to the island. The crew anchor us off the north beach – a perfect stretch of pure white sand with waist high water a hundred metres out – and lay on a spread of fresh fruit and cold Coronas. Paradise. After a swim we head back to the dock where a ceviche and BBQ red snapper lunch is being prepared – delicious. I may have been able to find a cheaper boat, but these guys were great. Casa Del Buceo – highly recommended.
The widely accepted method of transport around Isla Mujeres seems to be golf cart. I can see the appeal, especially if you’re an American family of 4, like most of the tourists here. But I was conscious of the many hours on buses that awaited me, so I rented a bicycle to get some exercise. This is when I fully realised things are a lot more expensive up here than down in Oaxaca. The starting price, for a complete rust bucket of a bike, was MXN 300 (£14 or USD 17) per day – you can get a car for that in Oaxaca. I negotiated a little and very much enjoyed a couple of laps around the island on two wheels, but by now I’m well into my budget. Since last count there’s been an excellent yet pricey boat trip, a couple more night’s accommodation, a few island price meals, and an expensive rusty bike rental. And obviously quite a few cold Coronas. It’s time to get off this island.
An obvious way to save on accommodation costs is travel by overnight bus. Thankfully they’re pretty good here. Still a bit of a challenge if you’re really tall (like me), but totally manageable in terms of comfort, very well run, and punctual. It’s about MXN 600 pesos for the seven-hour journey from Cancun to Campeche.
Not really sure what I’m doing in Campeche, it’s just on the way and I wanted to stop somewhere with fewer tourists and a decent Internet connection. It’s a very pretty colonial town – immaculately restored buildings. It was nice to be somewhere that you need to use some Spanish, and to generally be amongst daily Mexican life. But if comparing it to Oaxaca (difficult not to), there’s no contest for me. Less art, less interesting food, less mezcal, less fun. And the Internet wasn’t great anyway. Didn’t stop the bills racking up though. I must be a good 7,000 pesos into my 9,500 peso budget, and I still need to get through the state of Chiapas and into Oaxaca.
The obvious stop in Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas – a small colonial town in the hills, surrounded by indigenous villages – apparently not unfamiliar with religious conflict. San Cristóbal has been recommended to me many times over, but even so there was only time in my schedule for a flying visit between night buses. It’s a very nice place to wander. The air is fresh and cool. The coffee is fresh and hot. And the textiles are extremely good value. My favourite sight of the short stop was that of seemingly every taxi in town, hired out, entirely covered in balloons (including windows and hubcaps), and filled with families allowing the children to incessantly honk the horns. Some had even rigged the alarms to go off while they were driving. I didn’t work out what it was all for, but it made quite the racket.
So after a lot of walking and local coffee, the inevitable purchase of an unnecessary scarf, dinner, and a debate about Brexit with a couple of German lawyers in a wine bar, I boarded the bus to Oaxaca. Made it! But did I make it under £400? Not quite. But not far off. And I had a lot of fun trying.