Don't go there

On a car tour of Mexico, Tim Barrett discovers that venturing off the beaten track doesn't always deliver the anticipated rewards.

By Tim Barrett
May 14, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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"To think that most people see this country from a tour bus window," Erik shouted over the noise of the motor. "They'll never find the real Yucatan like we have."

I shared his sentiment. With only a single guidebook between us, our wanderings had been memorable far beyond our expectations. Every day had been packed with wonder, sensory delight and soulful human encounters. We'd bounced the rented Volkswagen from one adventure to the next, each one validating our no-tour guide, no-itinerary, no-reservations style. We were intrepid and confident. I was sure we were about to stumble on some amazing secret hideaway where no tour bus had yet ventured. Which must have been why we went to Dzilam de Bravo.


I spotted it on the map, a black dot perched alone on the peninsula's featureless north coast. That could only mean semi-tropical Caribbean paradise, right? We'd heard nothing about the place, so it must be truly undiscovered. The guidebook was quiet on the subject, naming only the road to get there.

Actually, calling it a road was generous. Parts were washed out and other parts had never been completed. We piloted cautiously. By midday the thick scrub jungle gave way to a strange, stark landscape. The closer we got to Dzilam, the bleaker it became. Hurricanes in recent years must have hit hard -- rusted cars sank in the coarse sand, and what buildings we saw were abandoned. Tall, dead palm trees stood in eerie rows, their crowns of fronds snapped off by high winds. Beyond them, the ocean sulked, gray and uninviting. We passed very few functional vehicles, only the occasional pickup truck with forlorn characters riding silently in back.


"There's something creepy about this landscape," I finally admitted. We'd both been avoiding this truth all afternoon.

"Yeah, the hurricanes must have wiped out the economy," Erik agreed. "It seems really depressed."

"There'll be something good going on," I wished.


We passed a roadside cemetery full of rotting floral arrangements. I began to think we weren't going to find a beach full of cheesecake on holiday, as we had in Tulum.

We rolled into town. The main drag had a few shops and a restaurant, but none was open. Sand blew across the streets and drifted around the steps of the crumbling buildings. Not a soul was present. We parked and walked to the end of the street, which merged abruptly with the misshapen and littered beach. A few battered fishing boats lay haphazardly on the sand. The late afternoon breeze carried a chill. There was absolutely nothing appealing about the place. We were hungry, but there were no prospects here.


We poked down another dry mud street. A desiccated structure with lettering that once said "Casa de Huispedes" showed signs of life. The door was locked, but humans made sounds inside. Our knocks produced a slow-moving, older man in a cowboy hat. He considered our request for food and lodging carefully, as if he wasn't sure he was up to the task.

"Un cuarto para dos ... con una o dos camas?" One room for two, with one or two beds, was a question meant to assess our masculinity.

"Dos camas," we reassured him.


"No tengo dos camas. Solamente una cama y una hamaca." So he didn't even have two beds. But I'd been fine in a hammock in Tulum -- this would be fine, too. And dinner?

He pondered the request, scratching his chin. Finally, he supposed he could go into town and find something to cook for us, but it would take two hours. Not sure that we had any options, we agreed.

He gave us a key and pointed toward the room. As we shuffled through the junk littering his yard, I was sure we were his first guests in a long time. Erik opened the door to our room and felt for the light. When the bare overhead bulb glared, he yelped.


"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Look!" he said, pointing to my sandaled feet.

Walking across the doorstep like a pet that had just been let in strode a prawn-sized scorpion. It waved its upturned tail and stinger assembly, which looked very much like an extended middle finger. "We haven't even moved in and we have a visitor. A hostile one, at that," I said. Erik kicked at it until it turned and scurried out.

The room was as bleak as the rest of the town -- carelessly painted, dirty, cold, without furnishings of any kind except a grim mattress. "I'll take the hammock," I volunteered. As much as we loved lounging in hotel rooms, reading and napping, I couldn't picture relaxing here. "Let's walk around the town some more before dinner." Erik readily agreed.


We found only one open establishment -- a tiny, sad tienda with little more than
Chiclets and candy for sale, certainly nothing that would qualify as an
appetizer. Erik asked the toothless shopmistress where we could get something to

"En mi casa," she replied. "Tienes dinero?" We had been in other private homes
on this trip, always enjoying amazing people and surprising food. And we still
had some money, yes. Erik and I exchanged glances -- getting to know local people
could be the saving grace of this place.

The old woman promptly closed up her store and motioned for us to follow her
down a sand path. We stopped at a structure that was no more than a hut, crudely
made of cinder blocks, cardboard, sheet metal and salt-crusted blankets. I
couldn't believe she lived here. She called out, and a wizened man, apparently
her husband, appeared from within. He regarded us suspiciously. They talked
briefly in muted tones; he then changed his demeanor, introduced himself as
Diego and welcomed us grandly inside.

On every trip there are times when you feel utterly far from home. Inside, we
saw that Diego and the woman lived in absolute and total poverty. They had
nothing. The shack barely qualified as a roof overhead -- Diego had made crude
attempts to repair storm damage that his house had not been built to withstand.
Rough sticks held dirty blankets where walls should have been. A crumbling
table commiserated with the mud floor. Diego directed us to sit
down. Then, as if this was an excellent seaside eatery, he inquired as to our
preference for dinner.


I had severe second thoughts -- was eating here a good idea? Aside from the
question of hygiene, we were certainly imposing on these people. And we'd
already sent our innkeeper off to fetch dinner. But Erik was both fearless and
starving; he quickly rattled off our favorite choice of Yucatecan cuisine: rice,
fish, garlic and limes. He even asked for a beer, which, amazingly, they had.
While the woman prepared the meal, Diego broke the awkward silence with a
sweeping gesture of his arm. "La vida aquí es muy, muy buena." Life here is
very, very good.

Well, OK, but what he did he do for work? "Soy un pescador. Es un vida muy
He was a fisherman, and led a very rich life. We were puzzled; he may as
well have said he was an astronaut. There was simply no connection between his
statements and the dire setting in which he made them. We tried to ask him in
our broken Spanish what had happened to the town, but Diego merely steered the
conversation back, insisting that we understand: "La vida aquí es muy buena." He
asked no questions of us.

With a flutter of apologetic hand-waving and mumbled explanations, the chef
brought three bowls of food. Mine and Erik's appeared to have the requested
ingredients, while Diego's contained only rice. For a few moments we confronted
our food in silence, then tasted it.

It was terrible. Tough, salty, dry fish chunks overpowered the glutinous,
undercooked rice. Whole cloves of unpeeled garlic lurked within, and the lime
was moldy. I couldn't imagine a more appropriate time to humbly accept
generosity, but we simply couldn't eat it. Diego had no such problem; he
polished his bowl with proud gusto and reminded us again of his excellent
quality of life. Then he stood up, a gesture we were glad to assume meant that
our visit was over.


Except, of course, for settling up. He named an amount, not looking at us as he
spoke. We paid. I was never good at math, and converting dollars to pesos still
confused me. So it wasn't until we were halfway back to the Scorpion Inn that I
realized we'd spent roughly the price of a fine meal in an expensive restaurant
back home.

Erik was peeved. "Mr. Wonderful Life! After forcing us to listen to his nonsense,
he robs us! And I'm still hungry!"

"Oh, well, they certainly need the money. Maybe they can buy a new house."
wondered if our innkeeper had come up with anything better for us to eat. He
couldn't do worse, unless he'd gone shopping at Mrs. Wonderful Life's store.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried -- he hadn't gone anywhere. The casa was dark and shuttered
when we arrived, although there were a few battered cars parked in front that
hadn't been there before. We knocked several times before the door cracked open
and a quizzical face -- not the innkeeper's -- peered out, then quickly shut the door.
We stood outside for several minutes, confused. The door opened again, and the
same man gruffly motioned us inside.

The room was pitch black except for the harsh glare of a television. In the
flickering light I saw our innkeeper's face, hypnotized by the screen. He
ignored us completely. Many other men crouched in the room, all equally rapt,
although our presence seemed to make some of them uncomfortable.
On the screen, over a soundtrack of bad instrumental rock music, a skinny white
man with a shag haircut methodically having sex with a panting, flop-breasted redhead.
They diligently plied their craft, then rearranged their various extremities and
orifices and continued work, doggedly. Like an archeologist digging in a special
kind of dirt, I identified the music, the hairstyles, and the species of human
as late 1970s Los Angelenos.

Our host looked up, indifferently. "Es porno," he explained. Ah.

We stood there in the darkness like alien emissaries -- two pale riders offering
heartfelt cheer and goodwill from a distant culture quite unlike the one in
which these men lived. And yet this sordid bit of video flotsam had found its
way from our shore to theirs, arriving before us, and mesmerizing our host so
completely that he forgot all about hospitality, not to mention our dinner.

We skulked out. No one paid us any mind. There was nothing left to do but go
back to our dismal quarters, not an uplifting prospect. In the room, Erik
pondered, "What about this hellhole -- did Señor Porno say how much he was going to
charge us?"

"No, I don't think he did. The rates are probably similar to the restaurant
prices, and I'll bet he charges extra for the adult TV, just like in a Holiday
Inn. Wasn't he supposed to bring us blankets and sheets?" The room was barren,
just the way we'd left it.

By now Erik and I had developed a kind of traveler's ESP -- we didn't need much
discussion to know what the other was thinking. So when I dug around in my pack
for the map, I could tell Erik was right on my wavelength.

"You know what I'm thinking, right?" I confirmed. "We only have a few more days
in Mexico. If we leave now, we could make it to Valladolid in a couple of hours,
get a room there and be back on the beach at Tulum by noon tomorrow. Whaddya

Erik was already packing. Checking our route again before folding the
map, I transposed some letters in Dzilam de Bravo to the name I'd remember it
by: Dizmal Depravo.

We crept out and stealthily loaded our car, parked right in front of the
Scorpion Inn's Den of Sin. Erik started the motor and backed out before we
slammed the doors. I checked the fuel gauge. "We're pretty low on gas. If we
don't find a Pemex station somewhere on this road, we'll be sleeping in the car.
You up for that?"

By way of response, Erik pressed his foot to the floor and headed straight into
the deep jungle night.

Tim Barrett

Tim Barrett is a writer who lives in Northern California.

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Latin America Mexico Travel