By Brian | Retirement Type
We stood impatiently at the counter in the chaotic, sticky-hot car rental agency near the Cancun airport. The friendly young señorita carefully finished the paperwork, congratulated us in perfect English, and handed over the keys.
My wife Kristi and I are seriously considering retiring part time in Mexico with the hope that we can retire earlier with less money. We’ve enjoyed trips to the Yucatan before – it’s one of our favorite places in the world.
The Riviera Maya
“Riviera Maya” is an exotic name invented by the local government in 1999, designed to beckon tourists with a familiar Sirens’ call. It encompasses a stretch of the Mexican coastline along the eastern side of the Yucatan from Puerto Morelos to just below Tulum and includes the island of Cozumel.
The beaches are world-class, the water is a perfect temperature, the surf is invigorating, and the snorkeling is otherworldly. There are few places around the globe that can offer such a rich smorgasbord of aquatic experiences, and few places with people and communities as open and inviting as here.
I first explored this coastline during college in the ‘80’s. It was undiscovered and quiet then, and the infrastructure was primitive. Over the years and a dozen trips I’ve watched it transform into a thriving collection of unique and vibrant communities, while still managing to retain a strong connection to its Mayan roots.
The area is scattered with countless ruins from the Olmecs, Toltecs and Mayans, dating back more than 4000 years. There are dozens within driving distance that are meticulously restored and willing to share their captivating ancient stories of battles, games, struggles, and human sacrifices to anyone who’ll listen. Our favorites are Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Cobá and Tulum, but one could spend years immersed in study of the complex history of this region.
We drove down highway 307 from the rental car agency towards our first destination, Puerto Morelos, just 25 kilometers south. On our way we passed at least a dozen all-inclusive golf, spa, and beach resorts, many welcoming their guests with majestic entry gates with manned checkpoints to keep out the riffraff. Several of the properties were protected with kilometers of tall fences and armed guards stationed atop elevated towers.
There are two ways to enjoy the local hospitality and natural beauty of this region. One is to immerse yourself in the colorful, unpredictable, and often-unexplainable people and culture of the region, and the other is to teleport into a heavily-armed, all-inclusive mega-resort spaceship hosting all the fantastical comforts you’ve ever imagined.
A vacation is, by definition, a departure from one’s regular life. It deserves to be treated as such.
We refer to the resorts as spaceships because they isolate their passengers from the alien lands around them while carefully maintaining proper levels of life support cocktails and epicurean atmospheres. It’s a wonderful experience if you’re looking for a simple, safe, and sanitized version of American luxury.
We’re not disciples of that type of space travel and prefer to explore and personally experience the natural delights and tribulations of the local communities and people.
Our first night was in Puerto Morelos, where we sloughed our traveler’s skins, donned our sombreros and huaraches, and went undercover as best as two pale-skinned Americans could do.
Puerto Morelos is an old seaport still used actively for shipping and fishing. The population of 9,000 is relatively small, and so far the city has resisted the extravagant nightclubs, boutique retail shops, and watersport activities that attract the typical tourists and the craziness they bring. It does have an amazing beach, friendly locals, and a casual downtown with quiet cafes, seafood restaurants, and shops.
That evening, as we started our walk down the beach to a much-anticipated seafood dinner in town, we passed a group of workers preparing for a grand fiesta. After a scrumptious meal we returned and hid in the shadows to watch a beautiful Mexican beach wedding. The bride was stunning, flowers were abundant, and the young flower girls pranced across the dance floor while the celebrants surprisingly partied to Cindi Lauper and her 80’s rock and roll cohorts.
We returned to our room, singing along with the classic tunes as they filtered through our traditional palapa thatch roof, fantasizing about retiring here and becoming one with the locals. Hours later as the drunken revelry intensified, and the DJ twiddled the volume dial, we realized that there aren’t any noise laws or curfews here, and we still have a ways to go in our transformation.
Finally, we buried our heads in our pillows and Boy George sang us into a fitful sleep. A spaceship might have been better that night.
Following a tip from some locals we met the night before, we cautiously drove down a narrow road away from the coast and civilization.
Eduardo and Miguel were sitting calmly on the wobbly picnic table when we arrived. The two youngsters perked up when they saw us and eagerly took our pesos in exchange for two old snorkeling masks and a tour of their three cenotes hidden deep in the jungle.
Cenotes are common throughout the Yucatan. Over many centuries, underground rivers carve away caverns in the soft limestone and dolomite. When the roof thins, weakens, and collapses, you’re left with a deep hole and a pool of cool refreshing water at the bottom. Most of these cenotes have steep walls and can only be safely accessed with ladders. It’s rare, but a few can be reached only through caves.
Eduardo hopped in the car with us and directed us through a maze of rock-strewn dirt roads to an indistinct turnout. I was nervous for our safety, but he was a skinny kid and I figured I could take him if he tried anything.
In case a quick getaway was needed, I let the car idle for a moment as he lifted the lid of a wooden box, pulled a cable, and grinned as a compressor reluctantly chugged to life.
He led us into a cave, now lit by a string of bare bulbs, and down a gentle slope hewn with stairsteps. At the bottom was a wooden platform jutting out into the wide-open air of a cavern cut with the teeth of dozens of stalactites and stalagmites. “Where’s the water?” I asked in Spanish, and instead of replying he tossed a stone just past the platform where it plopped into rings of ripples that spread across what I thought was midair.
It was the clearest water I’ve ever seen, and cold enough to shock us practically into paralysis.
Well? Riviera Retirement?
These are the experiences we all yearn for: Encounters with wonderful people you wouldn’t meet unless you take a risk and turn left on the road to adventure; Fascinating places that seem like they’ve never been discovered before; Experiences that are completely unlike anything you’ve ever imagined.
And it was only our second day.