Hiking Kalbarri’s loop

Consider your options!

The warning was obvious, this was my last chance to turn back. “The trail gets much harder and hotter from here.”

If I didn’t have at least two litres of water, I should retrace my steps to Nature’s Window.

I thought it over. Shrugged. And carried on.

The Loop Walk in Kalbarri is famous enough that it’s one of the sights that you travel there for. Calling it a “walk”, though, might be underselling how challenging it can be — and possibly why it needs so many warning signs.


The Canoe the Gorge excursion I’d booked got cancelled, so I made plans of my own.

Nature’s Window is best seen at sunrise. The only problem was, sunrise was around 5.30 and the national park doesn’t open until 6 am.

I figured I would get there when the park opened, and start hiking at 6 am, since Google Maps told me it was only a 15 min drive from where I was staying.

I was awake, out of bed, dressed, fed and in the car precisely on schedule.

Except when I arrived at “my destination” I found Google Maps had interpreted Kalbarri National Park differently than I had intended and taken me to tourist information instead of to The Loop.

A quick reprogram and The Loop was now a 45 min drive away. It would have been 30 minutes if I had gone the right way at the start.

Extreme Heat Risk

Kalbarri gorges

Pulling into the national park, there were warning signs with stark messages of extreme heat risk. The Loop Walk would be closed from 7 am.

There’s a reason the best times to visit Kalbarri are in the Spring and Winter.

Summer heat can be dangerous in the gorges. It’s not uncommon for days to crack 40 degrees or more in a Western Australia summer, and I hadn’t taken into account that temperatures in the gorges can be ten degrees hotter.

It was still before 7 am. Did the signs mean you had to start The Loop before seven or finish it before seven? How can you finish before seven if the park doesn’t open until six? You’d have to start walking at least two hours before the park opened.

I practically leapt out of my car when I got to The Loop and grabbed my bag. I was already behind schedule, and so long as I started walking before 7, everything would be fine. Probably.

3 – 4 Litres of Water

I’d prepared well enough. I had close to three litres of water, and a separate water bottle I had filled the night before and chilled in the fridge.

Except that the second water bottle got left behind, so I had less water than was ideal to start.

Despite the extreme heat warnings, the forecast for the day was mild. They predicted a high of 30-something degrees, rather than 40-something. I could still be finished by 11 am.

Everything should be fine. I set off down the trail.

Nature’s Window

It was a short walk to Nature’s Window. I missed sunrise, and the view wasn’t as spectacular than I had hoped, and I was a little disappointed.

A few tourists were hanging around, wearing warm hats and windbreaker jackets, and taking pictures.

Either because it wasn’t yet, 7 am and a little cold, or because viral Instagram posts had unfairly raised their expectations, they didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the spot.

With little reason to hang around, I pressed on, and I saw more warning signs. Literal warning signs.

Do not start the walk after 7.30 am in warmer months. Wear long sleeves. Carry three to four litres of water. Walk with a companion.

I was in short sleeves, had less than four litres of water, and had no companion. Was I going to turn back? No way.

Into the Wild

It’s a four-hour hike. I figure I will walk for an hour and reassess conditions — how much water I have, how I’m feeling, that kind of thing. Then I can turn back if necessary.

Before the trip, I sensibly bought a mobile power bank. Since my phone can’t be relied on to hold a charge when I need it, it was a good thing to have “in case of emergency.” I even managed to pack it in my backpack that morning before heading out.

What I didn’t remember to pack was a charging cable.

No matter. Instead, I would just keep my phone on flight mode. It isn’t like I would be browsing social media or streaming music while I was walking, so it would be fine. I also had a camera that wasn’t my phone, so that would also stop the battery running down.

Before I started walking, I sent a message to my partner. It was a brief message to let her know I was heading “into the wild” and that I probably wouldn’t be contactable.

I didn’t know if I would have any mobile signal once I started, but she knew where I was, and the message let her know how long the hike should take, giving a reasonable timeframe of when to begin to worry if I didn’t get back in touch.

My phone safely on flight mode and tucked away, I’d barely started walking before I slipped on some loose scree, broken fragments of rock, and almost twisted an ankle.

I began to question how sensible it was to use the phrase “into the wild.”

I hoped my partner wouldn’t connect it to the book of the same name, where a young man dies in the wilderness, partly because of some ignorant and unfortunate decisions, and partly some lousy luck.

Luckily, I was unhurt. Even if I was hurt, I was still so close to Nature’s Window that someone could reach me quickly enough if I needed help.

It did give me pause. If I wanted a sign not to do this alone, this was it.

Down to the River

Below me, I could see the Murchison River snaking its way through the limestone gorges. I was excited to be here — I’d driven six hours the day before to get to these gorges — and it was so peaceful.

The tourists behind me at Nature’s Window were the only people I’d seen that morning, and if I stopped and listened, I couldn’t hear any signs of humanity.

There was no traffic noise — no shouting or arguments or conversations. There were no planes overhead or distant sounds of construction. No matter how much I strained to hear something, I could have been the only person left on the planet.

For the first three kilometres, the walk was a meandering trail along the rim of the gorge — heading steadily downwards, but like me, not in a great hurry to get anywhere.

The walking was easy, the sun wasn’t hot yet, and the only thing slowing me down was stopping to admire the views.

If You’re Waiting for a Sign, This Is It

At the three-kilometre mark is another sign. It effectively says “abandon ye hope, all who enter here.”

It is effectively the point of no return. This is your last chance. Hikers have died on this trail!

They were probably hikers who didn’t have enough water and were walking alone.

Without taking my water out of my backpack to check levels, I know I probably have less than two to three litres. But I have come this far without any difficulty, I’m not tired, and it’s still not too hot.

There are 5km left to go. It only gets more difficult when you have to climb out of the gorges. What’s the worst that could happen?

If I think about it, I have descended 3km into a gorge. The worst that could happen when hiking alone is quite serious.

If I was to hurt myself at this point, it would take several hours to reach me and more to get me back out.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t be considerably easier or safer to retrace my steps at this point.

By The River

As I walk along the gorge, following the waypoint signs, it looks like they are pointing along the rocks. Do I now walk along the rocks, or closer to the water? The latter would make sense.

There’s a joke. Growing up, we all thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it is as adults.

I’m reminded of this in the moment and don’t know how deep the mud will go. I step back quickly, grateful that I’m not stuck, and that my boots were laced tightly, and escape with only mud up my legs.

On reflection, the signs did mean to walk on the rocks. I’ve seen pictures of wetter times of the year when the river is higher, and it’s evident that you walk along the narrow rocky ledge — there’s less quicksand risk when there’s no sand.

I don’t know for sure how long it took for the Murchison River to carve out the gorges of The Loop. The walls of the canyon are stunning to look at in the morning sun, all striped and banded. They are also more than a little humbling.

Considering they are famous for containing fossils, my best guess is that the gorge must be something like 400 million years old.

Signs of Life

A short distance ahead, I see movement. I have been walking for hours, and it has been a long time since I last saw anyone, heard anyone, or even saw any signs of people.

I see it again. Maybe two people.

I walk on, and I see it’s a white animal, not a person. But… is that a dog? Did someone bring their dog in here?! There are two animals, I think, maybe they’re sheep, which also seems odd for where we are.

As I get closer I see the animals three goats, two white and one black. Surprising, but not as surprising as sheep. Or dogs.

A short while later, I see a couple of people. I can’t tell if I saw them as well as the goats earlier, it seems like a coincidence if not. The thing is, I don’t know where they have come from.

I can’t remember if there was more than one other vehicle in the car park when I arrived. There had to have been at least one, belonging to the tourists at Nature’s Window, but was there another?

How much earlier than me would this couple have had to set off to not see any sign of them before now? Unless they walked the reverse way, and are now walking back up, rather hiking than the whole loop. It doesn’t take long to catch them up.

They’re a middle-aged Aussie couple, and we talk about how lovely and fresh it is — it’s ideal hiking weather. The conversation lags, and I don’t know the etiquette of this.

Since I’m walking alone, should I now walk at their pace and stay with them? If only for safety. Or out of politeness. But they also might not want company. Instead, I walk on.

I figure now that at least if I fall and hurt myself, they’re behind me and will catch up — and be able to get help.

The Way Out

Before I’m out of the gorge, the sun comes out, and it’s starting to get hot. I can see, way at the top, Nature’s Window and there are tiny figures of people up there. It’s a steep climb in soft sand and loose rock, 2km uphill.

I eventually get to the top, practically staggering. There are people everywhere around Nature’s Window with selfie sticks and lounging seductively across rocky ledges for Instagram stories.

I stop and admire the view, take some pictures to see how it’s changed since I started, and then I just keep going.

In front of a family, I slip on some rocks and bang my knee. It’s not bad, but I consider to myself that it’s lucky I didn’t do that at the start of the walk, or I might have just turned around rather than risk it getting worse

A short while later, I meet the family again at a photo spot. They say something about a photo, and I think they want me to take their picture. “Are you ok?” they ask me. “Yes, I’m fine.” I don’t know why they are mentioning it again.

But it turns out they don’t want a photo, they were going to look at one together, and they thought I was approaching them for help.

I make it the rest of the way, briefly daunted by a staircase that now seems more difficult than anything else that day.

Around the car park for The Loop were shelters for picnics. Before heading home, I sat quietly in the shade of one, surrounded by a veritable cloud of flies. Tired, sweaty, dirty, peaceful and happy.

The Road to Kalbarri

With a squeal of tyres and a cloud of dust, I pull over to the side of the road. There’s a big sign saying “Kalbarri” and I’ve driven six hours to get here.


I mentioned Indian Ocean Drive in my previous post about Jurien Bay. It recently occurred to me that I’ve taken several road trips on it but not seen the end.

I’ve been to the white dunes of Lancelin, the desert pinnacles of Cervantes, the abandoned water park of Two Rocks, the koalas of Yanchep, and now the sea lions of Jurien Bay. But its end, in Geraldton, I didn’t know.

With some time on my hands before starting a new job, I decided a road trip was in order. I looked up where I could fly to in Australia with the meagre frequent flyer points I have, and the answer was not far. So I looked where I could drive to, instead.

I spent my first few months in Australia in the southern part of the south-west. Mainly Albany, with trips to Esperance, Walpole, and Denmark, so I felt I’d done the south coast. I can’t count the number of road trips to Albany I’ve been on, and even Margaret River doesn’t call to me in quite the way it does others in Perth.

Going North

This time, I decided I’d take the trip farther north to Kalbarri.

I booked a week in Kalbarri about 18 months ago, but was made redundant from my job and had to work the notice period instead of taking that break. It felt like we had unfinished business.

Destination decided, I set about looking for accommodation. I wanted it simple. I wasn’t planning to camp but tried to keep it basic. There were hostels, pubs with rooms, motor hotels, but I got a deal on a place through Airbnb for cheaper than anything else I saw.

All that remained was to squeeze some things into a backpack — particularly hiking gear, since I wanted to see the gorges — throw it in the back of the car, and go. Kalbarri is a six-hour drive from Perth, and that’s if you don’t stop.

Luckily, morning traffic in Perth goes north to south, so I was able to start driving and barely stop. Despite owning my car for several years, I have only recently worked out how to use the cruise control — and I wouldn’t have wanted to make the drive without it.

Dongara

My first real stop of the day was in Dongara, about three-and-a-half hours from home.

The first half of the journey felt surreal. I didn’t stop at the Pinnacles in Cervantes, why I’m usually on that road, and having so recently visited Jurien Bay, it felt strange passing through the town again.

It wasn’t Dongara itself where I stopped, more just a parking place on the side of the road. All that was there was a picnic table under a metal roof, not even a toilet. From the smell of the place, motorists were using it as both.

There was a strange contrast between the dusty road with the smelly shelter, and the blue ocean with its crashing waves if you turned your back to the highway.

Just the same, I didn’t hang around for long.

I planned to stop in Geraldton for lunch, and formally recognise it as the end of Indian Ocean Drive. The universe had other plans. I joined a line of cars in a roadside traffic stop and understood right away; this was more than just RBT and was slightly alarmed when the officer said they were looking for drugs and money.

It felt like one of those movie moments where an escaped convict is hiding in a car boot when the driver gets caught up in a routine stop.

I’m also not on the road often enough to see many stops. There was a checkpoint near Cervantes on a recent trip to the Pinnacles, but that was spot checks for rock lobster and fish. I didn’t know what to expect from this kind of stop, didn’t know if there would be saliva tests that would then flag up my ADHD medication. And if they did, what then? Would someone have to call my psychiatrist?

In the end, the stop came to nothing more than checking my driver’s licence, a breath test, and waving me on my way.

Geraldton

Geraldton foreshore

I was greeted by Geraldton less than an hour later, and surprised by the coastal city. In my head, I imagined it a dustier place with colonial-style buildings. Instead, it felt more like Albany, with definite signs of being an agricultural town — which makes sense, in the Wheatbelt.

I pulled in at the first pub I saw. Not immediately obvious was how to get in, but I found the doors to the bar. Locked. It should have been open, but the doors had other ideas.

While I stood off to one side, checking maps for where else I could try, another customer came along. He tried a door. Found it locked. Looked inside. He then appeared to say something to people within, opened the door, and went in. I followed close behind.

The pub was one of those places where the bar is more of a TAB than anything else; men sat at the bar with their pints, watching horse racing.

I looked around on the bar and the walls for a menu, and couldn’t see anything. Surely in a place like that, at lunchtime, you’d want to keep people around by offering food.

I asked the barmaid if they had menus. She looked confused. Are you serving food? Is the kitchen open? It will be for dinner. When’s dinner? Tonight. Nothing now? No.

I thanked them and set off to the foreshore instead. There would have to be somewhere to get food there, and I could enjoy a view of the ocean.

I found another pub, and this time the doors weren’t locked. Except I seemed to have to walk through what appeared to be a hotel lobby, all polished marble and freezing aircon, and into the bar.

This place was as different from the last as you could get. Instead of men drinking beer at the bar and placing their bets, it was a dining room. Tables, set nicely with cloths and wine glasses. And not a single soul in sight. I turned right around and walked back out again. Even if the kitchen was open in this place, it was probably too expensive.

I then gave up on the idea of a pub and settled for a toasted sandwich at a coffee shop. At least it had a view of the sea.

Lunch was brief. I’d spent longer than I wanted to find a place to eat, and figured I could always see Geraldton on the way home. Kalbarri was still two hours further, and I was eager to get there soon.

I’d made a reservation for a canoe tour in Kalbarri the next day. Booking instructions came with the direction to call at 4 pm the day before to check it was going ahead. There wasn’t far to drive, but that deadline was going to strike right between two places — so I resolved to pull in somewhere as close to 4 as I could.

I pulled in at some historic convict trading post. Mobile coverage is what it is outside of major cities, and it was a dead zone. I got out, walked around looking foolish, then jumped back in and sped off to find somewhere else.

The second stop was so unremarkable I didn’t even write notes about it. It was probably a wide spot in the road, but it had mobile reception. And nobody answered when I called.

Ever resourceful, I fired off a quick email and an identical text message and set off once more with Kalbarri in my sights.

Welcome to Kalbarri

The sign for the town crept up on me, and it was a spur of the moment decision to pull over and grab a photo. I’d driven a long way to get to this point, and had little more than 30 minutes left to go.

A short time later, I pulled into the dusty red dirt of the driveway for my home for the next couple of nights.

A short way off the back veranda, a couple of kangaroos were browsing in the early evening sun. The world was quiet, and having driven for so long it all now felt weirdly unreal.

And then realised I had less than an hour until the town’s only supermarket closed.

Jurien Bay’s sea lions

It’s Sunday morning. I should be relaxing in bed, considering feeding cats breakfast. Instead, I’m underwater watching two sea lions chase each other, round and round, in playful circles.

Only two and a half hours from Perth lies seaside town Jurien Bay.

My biggest question is why I haven’t visited sooner: it’s got beautiful beaches and a sparkling ocean. And sea lions.

Indian Ocean Drive runs up the south-west coast, starting in Perth and ending a dusty 400km later in Geraldton. Opened less than 10 years ago, it’s slightly quicker than other routes, and connects coastal towns directly to Perth. Combined, it’s had a positive effect on the local economies of many places along the way. Including Jurien Bay.

I’ll write about other places along the Drive another time, but today is Jurien Bay. And, yes, its sea lions.

A Town Divided

This part of the coast was discovered by Europeans more than a century ago, and Jurien Bay got permanent buildings for the first time in the 1950s. Even those were reportedly little more than corrugated iron shacks.

In parts of Jurien Bay, there are still some original houses, built when it was a fishing industry town. There was a time when the seafood supply chain connected almost everyone; catching the fish, processing it, or selling seafood.

Rock lobster has since become a billion-dollar industry, and when the mining boom funnelled wealth into Western Australia, Jurien Bay benefitted.

Today there is a strange disconnect in the town. One street will have original weatherboard houses, but a short distance away, closer to the water, it’s more like a millionaire’s row.

What is also clear is the impact of the global financial crisis.

Some lots are half-finished, and faded billboards are still advertising land for sale. Fancy mansions stand almost as islands with their residents enjoying early evening drinks on their balconies overlooking deserted streets.

The housing boom might have looked like it would last forever, but Jurien Bay shows the high-water mark of where that wave broke and rolled back. As a town, it feels like it has a fractured identity.

The Mane Attraction

What I didn’t know until recently was that Jurien Bay is famous for its sea lions. 

I have a decidedly amateur interest in marine biology, including sea turtle conservation, meeting seals on kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding adventures, and even swimming with wild dolphins last year. I leapt at the chance to meet sea lions.

Tourism is big business for towns like Jurien Bay. Climate change affects ocean temperatures, the fossil fuel industry is becoming less sustainable, and extreme and unpredictable weather events are becoming more common, so it’s important to support local economies.

Luckily, there are several sea lion tours to choose from in town, and during school holidays you definitely need to book in advance. We got the last two spots on the last tour with Sea Lion Charters — leaving first thing, 7:30 on Sunday morning.

The tour starts with a short journey out into the bay while the skipper blasts 80s Aussie anthems and shares his knowledge of the area with his passengers on board. But everyone on the boat is nervously thinking the same thing: what’s going to happen? Will we even see any sea lions?

Face to Face

This is no ordinary tour where you watch wildlife from the comfort of a boat. Here, you meet sea lions, face to face, in the water. You slip on a wetsuit, strap on a facemask and snorkel, and jump in the water — the sea lions are waiting to meet you.

Once the boat reaches the area of a nearby protected island in the bay, sea lions of all shapes and sizes are lounging about in the warm morning sun. Once they see us, it doesn’t take long for the sea lions to come swimming out to us.

Sometimes you observe sea lions swimming a little distance away from you, indifferent to your presence, doing their own sort of aquatic feline thing, other times more playful ones swim up and try to encourage you to join in a game.

Or a pair of playful sea lions, barely a metre away, will spend several minutes chasing each other in circles, over and over. You watch, transfixed, feeling like you have stumbled (or haplessly swum) into a nature documentary, but you can’t look away.

You watch until their endless twirling makes you start to feel dizzy, but the sea lions are content to keep on going like they are performing in a show just for you.

There is up to 16 people on a tour, and multiple tours in the same area — plus private boats also out to see the wildlife, so it might seem like it gets crowded in the water, but it’s a big ocean. You can swim happily and peacefully on your own, and a smiling sea lion will rocket past underneath you, or you might be among a small group of people, and just as you put your face into the water notice, a sea lion friend is swimming, unnoticed, by your feet.

Tours have the option to hire a GoPro camera so you can take photos or shoot video of the experience. I’m only glad that I didn’t take it up, because any video footage would be soundtracked by my excited swearing when a sea lion swims by.

With this sort of thing, you can think you know what to expect. Even if you know you are going to meet sea lions, sometimes literally being face to face with them if they are feeling curious about you, nothing can prepare you for how that feels when it happens.

It’s exhilarating and humbling and emotional.

Jurien Bay is so close to Perth, and an adventure to meet the town’s sea lions is an easy and unique experience.

Finding the angel of Mexico City

Mexico City
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

I arrive in Mexico City and through snarled Friday night traffic we make our way to my hotel.

Of course, Mexico City feels like a different planet to Merida. For that matter, it’s like a different world to Perth.  Just compare Perth’s 2,022,044 people to Mexico City’s 20,998,543.

People in Merida had warned me about Mexico City. They told me that people there didn’t speak English, and that crime was rife. When it’s the biggest city in North America you can see why it would get a reputation, and be viewed with derision or distrust.

I checked in to my hotel, showered, charged my phone, and set out onto the busy Mexico City streets to find the Ángel de la Independencia, a monument celebrating the start of Mexico’s war of independence.

I’d seen the angel from the taxi on my way in, and since it was nearby, figured why not? I had nothing else to do. It was too early for dinner, and I’d already spent enough time sitting around doing nothing over the past 48 hours.

I found the way there along a bustling street that felt like London’s Leicester Square. There are bars and restaurants and live music and suddenly: I feel lonely.

People all around me are celebrating Friday night with friends, and I’m on my own. Even if I went to bar I’d still be drinking alone, and besides that, they don’t feel like my kind of place.

El Ángel of Mexico City

Photo by Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz on Unsplash
Photo by Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz on Unsplash

Once I reach El Ángel, a random man in the street tries to accost me.

I have no idea what he wants, so I just ignore him. It’s the safest thing to do in a city like this, where you are very obviously a tourist, and alone.

I find a bench nearby where other people are sitting, and sit down to admire the Angel from a distance.

I don’t know if this is a public bench just as a place to sit, or if the other people are waiting for a bus. And as I sit there, I’m not sure what do next.

I set out to find the Angel, and I found it. This was not a very difficult task, it is nearly 50 metres tall and quite visible. So what now?

This is when I notice a tour guide selling tickets for a sightseeing bus. I enjoy a good tourist bus, so with broken, faltering English (people weren’t kidding about the lack of English in Mexico City) he explains to me how it works.

I buy a ticket to ride.

While I’m waiting for the next tour to start, I start to walk away so I can get a couple of photos of the Angel — and the guide runs after me to tell me that’s not where the bus leaves from! I reassure him, as best as I can, that I am coming back.

The bus ride quickly takes the loneliness out of things.

Sure, it was full of people all speaking Spanish, and none of them is alone, but it’s a shared, communal experience.

It feels less lonely than the bars. Furthermore, from my spot on the top deck I can watch the world go by and see the sites.

I don’t understand anything that the tour narration says, but it’s more about moving.

At worst, one is in motion; and at best, Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, One is always nearer by not keeping still.

I also have no idea how long the tour is meant to last, and if I am meant to just stay on board and do different tour loops. I figure that I’ll just stay on the bus until I reach the angel again.

Before long, it starts to rain and they close the roof. Then the windows steam up. Between the steam, the rain, and the Spanish commentary, I’ve no idea about anything. But I’m having a good time anyway.

By the time the tour takes me back to the Angel, the rain has intensified. It has turned into one of the heaviest storms the city has known — either that year or forever or something.

It’s impressive either way. And I have neither a jacket or an umbrella.

Finding Food in Mexico City

Mexican restaurant
Photo by Vitchakorn Koonyosying on Unsplash

Running as a group of gazelles through the wet streets, several of us run to the overhang of a nearby bank.

We join other people also sheltering from the rain. But it’s no good, this is just an island and the rain isn’t going anywhere.

Instead, I dodge the rain as best as I can to get back to my hotel and search for a restaurant the driver had recommended to me earlier.

All I remember being told about it was that it had Mariachi music, and I saw it was near a crappy looking place. So I navigate to that, figuring it must be within a block radius, so all I need to do is treat it as a wheel and circle around it.

My restaurant is as promised. There is live music (I’m excited to see mariachis, it’s just like my favourite film el Mariachi) and one of the singers is wearing a wrestling mask. I don’t know why.

I begin to wonder if this was such a wise decision after all. But hey the food is hot and the beer is cold.

The Cancun Breakdown

My tour of the Cenotes with local guide Gustavo was also my last day in Merida.

I was back to the hotel in plenty of time, so I grabbed my bags and hot-footed it to the bus station. Then I had to again try to collect my ticket using broken Spanish.

First, I couldn’t find the entrance. I’d been dropped off in some car park, but couldn’t find a way in. While wandering aimlessly outside an official came to find out what I was doing and directed me inside.

Even inside, and in the wrong place, he pointed me to the right desk.

The ticket collection went more smoothly than the outward journey, and I boarded my evening bus.

I slept most of the way back to Cancun, dozing in and out of consciousness, while a TV played a Spanish-dubbed Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even in Spanish and with eyes closed I was mostly able to follow the plot.

There was also a dubbed Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters. It was hard to follow, and I wonder if it makes sense in English.

The bus eventually arrived…somewhere. It was hard to know. The driver made an announcement, the bus stopped, and most people got out. But not everyone, and not the person in the seat next to me. I was confused where we were, but the bus set off again. About 10 minutes later the bus arrived in Cancun, with me relieved I hadn’t got out too early.

At my hotel, there was confusion with my booking. What the difficulty was, I still don’t know. I feel like perhaps they had me booked in twice, but we eventually gave up trying to understand each other.

They gave me a key, I looked for a lift without success and instead carried my bags up two flights of stairs

Breakdown

The next morning, my transfer picked me up according to plan and dropped me at the airport, easy as that. Things were going well, and I had already checked in for my flight online.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Proudly, I presented my passport at the desk to drop my bags. But there was something wrong.

I tell them where I’m travelling, and the time of my flight. I show my boarding pass. They explain to me the trouble: this is for Friday. Today is Thursday.

Checking my documents, I realise they’re right. I’m due to fly to Mexico City on Friday, and home on Monday.

So what about Thursday? Everything proceeded as scheduled, the trouble was that the schedule had only come together at the last minute when one of my tours wasn’t available and things had got shifted.

Somewhere between the cities and the tours and the time zones and the international date line things got confused, and we all missed an entire day we hadn’t accounted for.

But there I was. Cancun airport, 24 hours early for a flight, and nowhere to stay. I called the Emergency Assistance number for my travel agency and discussed options. I wanted to be adventuring in Mexico City rather than Cancun for 24 hours.

The assistant is looking for alternate flights, and I get disconnected. I tried to make a call with Whatsapp with no more luck.

Using the airport wifi, I shoot them an email and got an instant, automated response. It could be hours before I’d get a reply. Not knowing what else to do, I had a breakdown in Starbucks instead.

I sat with my head in my hands and sobbed because I was far from home, with nowhere to stay, nobody to help me, and didn’t know what to do next.

After a few minutes of this, I pulled myself together. Crying in a coffee shop doesn’t help, I have to put on my big adventurer pants (or tourist in a city airport pants) and just get my shit together.

The fact was I couldn’t change my flight on my own. Even if I could change it, I would be 24 hours early in Mexico City, have nowhere to stay there and nobody expecting to pick me up. The sensible thing would be to book a room for a night in an airport hotel, and come back the next day.

Resolution

Mexico City here I come
Photo by Adro Rocker on Unsplash

So that’s what I did. The taxi was an absolute rort, charging me 600 pesos plus a tip (over $40 AUD) for a 5-minute journey.

The hotel staff were friendly and helpful on my arrival. I was too early to check in, but they took my bags, told me where I could find the aggressively air-conditioned business centre upstairs, and that I could access my room at 3pm.

All things being equal, it wasn’t how I would have chosen to spend a day, but it was an excellent opportunity to be nowhere and do nothing and just have some downtime.

The next day I got a taxi back to the airport. The driver practically kicks me out at the curb when we arrive. It’s that way he says, pointing to the terminal. He’s not getting any closer, makes no attempt to help me with my bags. I don’t tip him.

This time, I drop my bags off without incident. I’m on my way to Mexico City.

Uxmal Adventures

Tuesday morning in Merida was the late start that I really needed on Monday, after the countless hours of travel and four hours sleep.

Just the same, I was awake by 7.

The tour destination of the day was Uxmal. But first, the people.

October is a quiet time of year to be visiting Mexico, and I didn’t know how many people would be on my tour. The day before had been a small group, but steadily the minibus stops at more places, and the group fills out.

Among my companions for the day were a couple in their 20s or 30s who greeted us with a brief Buenas dias when they boarded, a group of Belgian and German girls, and two Mexican gentlemen I’d had the pleasure of meeting on my tour the day before.

They were pleased and surprised with my enthusiastic Hola amigos, to me their familiar faces were almost like old friends.

The minibus was noisy, but I strained to overhear the couple seated behind me, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I tried to pick up their accents.

The tour destination of the day was Uxmal. But first, the people.

October is a quiet time of year to be visiting Mexico, and I didn’t know how many people would be on my tour. The day before had been a small group, but steadily the minibus stops at more places and the group fills out.

Among my companions for the day were a couple in their 20s or 30s who greeted us with a brief buenas dias when they boarded, a group of Belgian and German girls, and two Mexican gentlemen I’d had the pleasure of meeting on my tour the day before.

They were pleased and surprised with my enthusiastic Hola amigos, to me their familiar faces were almost like old friends.

The minibus was noisy but I strained to overhear the couple seated behind me, I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I tried to pick up their accents.

Uxmal

I saw Chichen Itza recently described derisively as a hole by a Mexican person. Others commented that it was a flea market.

An article online had been reporting plans by the Mexican government to raise admission prices for foreigners to the site.  Most people were commenting on the article had been more interested in criticising the decision to let countless traders into the site.

One person mentioned that people should visit Uxmal instead, and another responded that it should be kept “secret” for longer.

It’s inaccurate to call it secret, but Uxmal was serene and almost deserted compared to Chichen Itza. And there wasn’t a single person trying to sell you anything within the site.

We walked up some steps into the site and were greeted with a view of a giant pyramid. A few of us paused to take photos and were told — this is the back, unadorned, side of the pyramid.

On the other side was not just a pyramid but a large city. You aren’t looking at one building, there is a palace, a pyramid, a ball court and much more. Uxmal is also remarkably well preserved.

We were there for hours. As we wandered around the grounds, feeling carefree, we silently admired the engraved Mayan lattices in the stonework.

From the top of one temple, if you look in the right direction off into the dense canopy jungle, you can just about see the top of another, crumbling stone building.

The cities stretch for miles, and there is so much still undiscovered across what was the Mayan empire.

Lunch that day was a restaurant our group had almost to ourselves. Over chocilata and beers, I found that the couple whose accents I hadn’t been able to make out on a noisy minibus were from Mandurah, a city a little way south of Perth.

Monday Night, Mérida

It was my first night in Mérida, and I eventually convinced myself that even if I’m not hungry then I should at least venture out in search of food, if only for the adventure.

Walking through the humid evening, I pass a couple of bars that look like they’re frequented by locals — but I’m after food rather than a drink. And I have a destination in mind.

The Mérida streets are busy, filled with people coming home from work, and as I pass through the busy downtown streets with department stores I could really be anywhere.

I try not to use my phone too obviously in public. It’s not flashy or expensive, so nobody would see it and think I’m rich, but I also don’t want to stand out and look like I don’t know where I’m going. Luckily, Mérida’s streets seem to be a tightly organised gird.

As I pass one corner, a random guy tries to get my attention. ¿Cómo está? I ignore him. He tries again in English, and gets nothing more from me than a brief glance. There is nothing he could say to me that I’d want to know, other than maybe your shorts are about to fall down.

This is not the restaurant you are looking for

I don’t know if I find the restaurant I’m looking for, as right about where it should be a small group of are standing. Apparently, in the evening, various women take to the streets to sell brightly coloured fabrics and blankets.

Instead, I keep walking and guess I must have missed the place. Thanks to Mérida’s grids, I am able to navigate back to a different restaurant I’d seen.

As I’m greeted at the entrance, I use my very best Spanish yo quiero una mesa para uno, por favor. The waiter seemed surprised that I was dining alone. I have no friends, I told him in English, and I don’t think he understood.

I was able to negotiate ordering some water, even if I wasn’t clear what the waiter was asking. Perhaps with surprise and disappointment he was asking no beer? nothing stronger? I then ordered Mayan chicken fajitas.

Caliente

To their credit, two separate waiters warned me that the skillet was hot when it out. I like to think that even if it hadn’t been visibly sizzling, I’d have got the gist — I know the word caliente.

The food was good, and among the accoutrement were two small bowls of unidentifiable liquids. I tried using both in my first fajita. That was a mistake. With the next, I avoided them both and used only lime juice and beans.

Having established the spiciness wasn’t in the chicken and was in the liquids I’d used so liberally, I resolved to just alternate between them, despite being no clearer what these salsas were.

With the meal finished, I asked for the bill. Maybe I was unclear, or didn’t speak loudly enough, and the waiter asked me if I wanted postres. The word was familiar but I didn’t immediately remember what it was, so just told him, sure, yeah, that. I figured that was probably the word I was looking for.

It felt like the waiter was gone for a while, and in the time he was gone I remembered that the word meant dessert. It still seemed like a long time to be finding a dessert menu, when the restaurant was fairly quiet.

At one point, a waitress stopped by the table to ask me something. After struggling to grasp what, I had to tell her no entiendo¿no español? She asked me. Hablo un poco, I replied. I still have no idea what I was being asked.

Instead of a menu, when my waiter returned it was to present me with four fresh desserts to choose from. I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally agreed to eat all four — but luckily they seemed satisfied with me just choosing one.

Swimming in Cenotes in Yucatán

Other than hundreds of Mayan archaeological sites, the Yucatán peninsular is famous for cenotes — effectively sinkholes, caused by the meteorite that was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

When you’re told you’re going swimming in a sinkhole, the mental image is less than appealing. I picture a dirty hole in the road, or a big muddy puddle.

The reality is quite different.

The first cenote you visit in Yucatán is probably going to be Ik-Kil. Close to Chichen Itza, the cenote was sacred to the Mayans, where people were sacrificed to Chaac, the god of rain.

Today, it’s more of a tourist attraction with a restaurant, shops, and cottages to rent.

Ik-Kil eco archaeological site

The cenote was far from a dirty hole in the ground. Instead, it is clear, cold waters in a magical-looking cave.

It’s 90 steps down to the cenote, which is itself over 35 metres deep.

At the top, and most of the way down, there are various signs forbidding jumping and diving into the cenote.

Why that would occur to anyone as a good idea seems like a mystery, but on the way out the park, there is a sign mentioning it as a site of Red Bull Cliff Diving.

A few days later, my group tour itinerary had cenotes underground snorkel planned.

To be completely honest, I hadn’t been interested in visiting cenotes before I arrived in Mexico.

After visiting the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site I thought I’d seen what they had to offer. I figured they were fine for a one-off visit when you’re going somewhere else.

Much like my preconceived notions about what a cenote would be like, I was completely wrong about what this day tour would involve.

And I was very wrong when I thought that the cenotes would all be like Ik-Kil: commercial, touristy.

I was met first thing by my guide Gustavo, who was warm, funny instantly likeable, and who told me that we had “the biggest tour group ever” that day.

We’d had quite a large group the day before, so I wasn’t altogether surprised — but what he meant was the tour group was only me.

A private tour with a smart, knowledgable and funny guide sounded like the ideal day.

Together we took a public bus out to a local village. The bus was more like a private minibus than the public transport I was used to in Perth.

How anyone knew where the bus was going, or when to signal the driver they wanted to get off, was a total mystery to me.

Luckily, Gustavo and the driver understood each other, and there we were on the next stage of our adventure.

Moto-Taxi

The tour said we’d “move as the locals do” and take local transport to the cenotes.

Local transport wasn’t limited to the bus — next, it was the moto-taxi, much like the one pictured.

Off we went, bumping down dirt roads with rain-filled potholes, and Gustavo joked to me that this was a “Mayan massage” as we were shaken and thrown about on the bumpy roads.

But Gustavo also made the very valid point. Instead of this, we could be in an air-conditioned van with a bunch of other tourists.

Wasn’t this better? It was definitely more real.

Over the next few hours, the three of us — Gustavo, me, and the taxi driver — visited three different cenotes, each slightly different from the last. And each completely different to the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site.

There were no showers or gift shops in sight at these places, and rarely more than a couple of other visitors.

Some were entirely underground, some were partially caves, another had tiny fish nibbling on your feet, some had impossibly deep water and dark underground caves.

That kind of depth makes you feel a little funny, you’re just floating there or treading water, and underneath you, the water goes down forever.

Part of me would worry about the possibility of an underground current or undertow that might drag me down.

I don’t know how realistic that concern was, but Gustavo told me his Mum would get worried every time he went to the cenotes.

Since we didn’t have cave diving licenses, our snorkelling, consisted of just face masks and swimming, although Gustavo would frequently dive under the water where the floor was within reach, and search for treasure — lost items people might have dropped in the waters.

Yucatán Chicken

For lunch, Gustavo took us to a house in a local village for a home-cooked meal — while we waited for our food, I grabbed us both a couple of bottles of beer from a dusty shop next door. 

The food lovingly prepared for us was Yucatan chicken, a chilli-citrus spiced chicken, and Gustavo showed me how to eat tacos properly: take a tortilla and tear it in half. Holding half of the tortilla in a slightly cupped hand, use it to tear off some chicken and grab other fillings. Tear, eat.

Gustavo laughed at the absurdity of gringos eating hard corn tacos.

Even while eating I’m excited to share this more “authentic” way to eat Mexican food with friends when I get home.

I feel like Chichen tonight

Chichen Itzá, Temple of Kukulkan
Temple of Kukulkan

Being tropical, days in Yucatan were prone to thunderstorms. It definitely adds to the atmosphere of Chichen Itza’ to have thunder rumbling overhead.


My tour to Chichen Itza’ was scheduled to pick me up at 8am. After arriving in Mérida at 4.30am, I was out of bed at 7am for breakfast. Dazed and bleary, jetlagged and feeling I’d barely slept

As I swung by my room shortly before 7.45 to grab a bag a member of the hotel staff was knocking on my door to tell me that my tour was waiting for me.

On our way out of the city we swung by two other hotels to pick up other members of our tour. First was two Mexican gentlemen, then a younger couple who could have come from anywhere in the world — but turned out to be from Perth.

Chichen Itza’, like many of the famous sites of the Mesoamerican civilisations, is a whole city and at one time was home to something close to 50,000 people.

What is often thought of as Chichen Itza’ is the Temple of Kukulkan — the dominates the site and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I found it breathtaking. Standing at 30m high, it’s more than twice the size of the Parthenon in Greece.

The pyramid’s size is not even the most impressive part. The whole city, and all of the Mayan cities, were hand carved with stone tools and yet carved to such precise standards.

For example, the temple is aligned to correspond with sunsets on May 20 and July 24, and each of the pyramid’s sides has 91 steps — producing 365 steps when included with the temple at the top.

the Great Ball Court is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica, measuring 168 by 70 metres
the Great Ball Court

The acoustics of the site were also meticulously planned. If you stand in a certain point in front of the temple and clap your hands, the unique acoustics create an echo that sound like a bird, and in the city’s Great Ball Court (the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica) the walls are curved in such a way that voices and sounds carry much further.

Walking around the city of Chichen Itza’ was almost overwhelming, there is so much to see and take in.

There are various temples, and the platform of the skulls, and besides from any of that ringing the whole site of the city are various merchants wanting to sell you handcrafted wares, trying to entice you with shouts of one dollar and trying to catch your eye.

From Australia to Cancún to Mérida

Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash
Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash

After what felt like a lifetime of flying (but was like 35 hours) I arrived in Mexico.

In a thunderstorm.

Cancun was humid and close even at 10.30 at night.

I was picked up at the airport, and then it was a short drive to the bus station before I was left on my own.

I approached the ticket counter and waited my turn. Waiting your turn seemed to be maybe optional, but I was not about to upset any locals by pushing in.

Yo tiene un boleto I told the lady behind the counter. She didn’t understand. I hadn’t been prepared for this. I thought I would speak perfect Spanish, they’d understand my flawless pronunciation, I’d be given my ticket and it would all go smoothly.

Ummm…un boleto? I tried again, probably now stammering nervously than with confident command of the language. Donde? The woman asked. I understood she was asking where (thanks, Duolingo lesson 1) but not the wider context. Where was my ticket? How do you say, in your system? In cyberspace? In my phone in the form of a confirmation number?

I kept showing her my phone, in particular the important part of the details where it said confirmation number, right underneath where I was going. Some understanding passed between us, and the woman started entering details into the computer. One passenger, leaving at midnight, going to Mérida. I even entered my name for her. Then she showed me the price.

I had already started to suspect maybe she wasn’t looking up my booking, and was instead starting a new one, but I didn’t know the Spanish for I am very sorry, I think there has been a comical misunderstanding here. Given the choice between just buying a new ticket or facing the embarrassment of starting this whole business again, I decided I would persevere.

This time I think I was clearer with what I wanted, was referred to another assistant who did understand what I wanted, and got my ticket without having to buy one from scratch.

The bus station was much like you’d expect. It’s a far cry from Perths underground bus port, but probably almost indistinguishable from bus stations in a variety of the dozen cities I’ve lived in or had the misfortune to catch public transport in.

There was no aircon, but there were a couple of pedestal fans at one end that seemed to be more for the benefit of the staff than anyone else.

I feel very conspicuously foreign, but my masterful command of the Spanish language — while failing to immediately retrieve a booked ticket — did help me to buy a donut and a bottle of water.

Then it was just a mere four hour bus ride from Cancún to Mérida.

Flat feet, no sense of direction — but a burning sense of adventure