Zach and I plan a small vacation to Cancun, Mexico with our mothers.
This is actually my mom’s first time using her passport and getting out of the country. She is definitely excited to get that first stamp on a blank passport page–MEXICO!
With all the knowledge garnered from my experience as a flight attendant and traveling on my own, I’m hoping to spoil her rotten. Everything from airport lounges to airplane seats, she is definitely going to travel like a star with the perks of all my fancy memberships.
Arrive for International Flights at least 3hours Before Departure
Zach, mom and I leave to the airport early. Mom and Zach need enough time to go through regular TSA security lines. Miami security lines are usually always busy.
TSA PreCheck and Global Entry
I, on the other hand, have TSA PreCheck. TSA PreCheck is a Trusted Traveler Program that allows passengers to speed through airport security. I have this benefit because of my membership with Global Entry, another Trusted Traveler Program that allows me speedy service through Customs and Immigration when entering the United States from an International Destination. If you don’t know what these two benefits are, definitely be on the lookout for my post that will go into detail about Global Entry and TSA PreCheck in the next coming weeks.
Admirals Club Lounge, Miami
Passing security turns out to be a breeze. We have a few hours to kill before we head to the gate. I had planned for this to happen. I wanted to give our moms the premium airport experience. “Welcome, Mr. Guzman, to the American Airlines Admiral’s Lounge. Enjoy your stay today,” the greeter says.
We find a quiet corner, set our bags down, and head to the snack and bar. I get a Bloody Mary; mom enjoys a Mimosa. We gather a few snacks and sit in comfy chairs as we fiddle on the wifi. Mom is impressed with the luxury of the lounge. “So this is the high life,” she sips her mimosa and munches on a small platter of breakfast treats.
Zach and I head down to meet Zach’s mom, who is arriving from Birmingham. We spot her out of the hundreds of passengers hurrying and going. “Mah!” Zach and I both yell, hugging her, grabbing her luggage, and leading the way back to the admirals club.
This is the first time our moms meet. I figured what better place to meet than in a rich and sophisticated Admiral’s Club lounge waiting to board a flight to Cancun?
“Dana,” I say to Zach’s mom, “This is my mom, Janina,” My mom sticks her hand out to shake, ever the professional. But Dana says, “We do hugs,” which sends the warm and fuzzies down my spine. After an hour of chit-chatting, munching and lounging, we head to the gate for Cancun.
Traveling Rich and Famous
“Tillman and Guzman family, please recheck,” the Gate Agent blasts over the PA. She scans our Passports and hands us new Boarding Passes.
Mom looks at her ticket, then turns to me, “Are we in First Class?”
I nod, “Yep, we board first and sit in lie-flat seats. It’s one of those large planes with the double aisle, too.”
Mom is just giggly with excitement.
The flight to Cancun from Miami is about 1hour and 20minutes. We are seated together, but there are a few open window seats. Mom and I move to separate window seats to watch the ocean below. I really don’t understand why people have their window shades closed during a flight like this. Those waters below are absolutely beautiful. Mom is sipping her coke as she is gazing out the window overlooking the pristine Caribbean Ocean.
Immigration and Customs Forms
Eventually, the flight attendants pass out Customs and Immigration papers. This being mom’s first international flight she is a bit overwhelmed with the paperwork. “What’s my ethnicity? What flight number is this? What do I put for line 8?” I have to answer these questions for almost 200 people every day at work, and by the third time I’ve repeated myself, I get snippy and say, “Just read the form slowly.” But, alas, this is Mom, who’s repeatedly said that she brought me into this world, she can definitely take me out of it. So I’m obligated to be a little extra patient with her. However. She asks me, “How are we entering Mexico?” To which I reply, “Does it look like we are on a boat?” She laughs and makes a mark under “By Plane.”
After landing in Mexico, going through the misery that is Immigration and Customs, we leave the airport and head to the Avis Rental Car center. We pick up the small car, then head to our hotel.
Marriot BONVOY loyalty
I am a Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Member. This Elite status is an added perk of my American Express Platinum Card. Bonvoy is the Marriott Hotel’s loyalty program. As a Gold Elite Member, I get points and extra points and bonus points. I get bonus points when I book with the Bonvoy App, points for paying with the Bonvoy AMEX credit card, and extra points because Gold Members get “Welcome Points” just for being Elite members. When I book a room I get 25% extra points, a free room upgrade (if available), and 2 pm Late Checkout. However, my two favorite perks of being an Elite Gold Member is that I get an exclusive Check-In line at the hotel front desk (which I absolutely love), and complimentary Enhanced In-Room internet access. The more you stay with Marriott branded hotels, the more points you rack up, the more perks you get. Elite members are Gold, Platinum, Titanium, and Ambassador. You have to stay 25nights or more to become these elite members normally if you don’t have the AMEX special credit card. Each status offers a wider and wider arrange of discounts and special benefits.
The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas
I book a 1 Bedroom Villa at the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas and Spa, Cancun, Mexico. This Resort is located on a strip with tons of hotels, much like the Strip in Las Vegas. These hotels in Cancun face the Caribbean sea. The Hotel Zone of Cancun on Kukulcan Boulevard is surrounded body by the Laguna Nichupte on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. The Westin Lagunamar is stunning. Entering the hotel with waters so blue as a backdrop takes our breath away.
“Welcome Mr. Guzman and family,” the Elite desk Attendant says. We head up to the room. As we are about to enter our suite, our phones are out and cameras ready to film. We want to capture the grand opening to our Villa. Sure enough, though, these cameras don’t do the view justice. We enter this amazing apartment with a living room, kitchenette, bedroom, and a whirlpool tub bathroom. We even have a balcony that faces the most stunning view anyone could ever hope for. There is a split second of quiet as we take in the scenery. Then we all talk at once, “Oh my god!” “This is beautiful!” “I can’t believe I’m even here!”
Our Apartment of Tranquility
I wish our pictures do the view justice, but they don’t. These pictures don’t even compare to the overall euphoria. There is nothing more spectacular than seeing the so-blue-that-it-hurts waters right outside our window.
A Moment to Reflect
It is at this moment a distinct elation overcomes me. The feeling is numbing. I am here in Cancun with my partner, with our moms, enjoying a three-day vacation. I am from a poor family. Zach is from a poor family.
Yet, after years of struggle, years of crying some nights (how am I going to pay for this, how am I ever going to afford that, am I going to be able to eat tonight, am I going to be able to pay bills) Zach and I are finally able to (after the hard work, sacrifice, and heartache) afford an indescribable hotel room at a destination we would have thought only the rich could afford. AND we get to be ourselves, gay partners, together with our mothers without shame, ridicule, or embarrassment.
There is indeed something surreal about the moment. The sand, the wind, the heat, the humidity, the company, the location…there is something more than providence or fate happening at this moment, it seems.
To the Beach
We quickly strip off our clothing and put on beachwear. We grab a quick bite to eat at the hotel pool bar and grill (for how expensive it was, it surely wasn’t that good), then head to the beach. We claim four lounge chairs under two frond-thatch umbrellas.
The walk from our lounge chairs to the ocean is not that far. We walk the beach to the waters. And as we are walking, I keep a close eye on my mom. This is her first time seeing the Caribbean Sea and touching Caribbean sand. She puts her foot into water clear enough to see to the ocean floor and the many little fish swimming around. Her mouth is an O of excitement. “It’s so warm!”
We wade out to a sand bar. She stands on a mound of sand in knee-deep water while waves crash around us. “This is so cool!” It’s a magical moment to see her reaction.
Our Moment to be Naturalists
Between periodic swims and lounging on the beach, we happen to order beer from a waiter. However, as we are watching him head back to the stairs to the main hotel area, he is standing still as a statue about 50 feet from us.
He is holding dirty dishes and constantly looking up towards the hotel as if he’s seeking help. Eventually, being the nosey Americans we are, we go to him. He is standing guard over something. We look closer. There is something moving by his feet. The moment of awe is breathtaking.
That’s a damn sea turtle!
“You watch?” The waiter asks.
“Heck yeah!” we all shout. Between snapping as many photos as we can and scanning the sky for seagulls and predatory birds, we keet guard of this baby turtle on his treacherous trek to the ocean. I can’t tell you the feeling I am feeling. That’s a freak’n sea turtle! He HAS to make it to the ocean! I got to take as many photos as I can! I need SELFIES!!!
Nevertheless, we stand guard over this little guy like the secret service agents we are. “Move, move, move!” we say to fellow beaches. This incredible creature eventually makes it to the ocean and I am kind of sad to see him off, like a parent watching a child go to college, “Come back to me!”
First Night Dinner
The day ends with a delicious dinner at Porfirio’s restaurant overlooking the Lagoon. In the distance gigantic thunderhead clouds flash against the light blue night sky with brilliant forks of silver lightning. Dinner is a fancy affair, with about 6 different waiters and staff coming in and out with new plates, new forks, different glasses, refills, food swaps. It really is a production.
Back at the hotel Zach and I enjoy a nightcap on the balcony. We share a bottle of red wine while listening to live music from the hotel over. Lightning flashes around us, lighting up the ocean and beach. We soon head to bed: tomorrow is an early pickup and a long day.
Waking up to Beauty
We wake up at 5 am. For this being a vacation, we sure aren’t relaxing by lounging around and sleeping in late. Nothing but GO GO GO.
I schedule a tour through Marriott Activities, an excursion website. I booked a 3 excursion in 1 tour where we will explore the Tulum Mayan ruins, snorkel with sea turtles and stingrays, then finally dive deep into a Cenote to swim in an underground river.
It is a lot for one day. But, here we are, 6:25 am pickup.
Small Tour Groups are better
“Hi!” Our tour guide announces, “I’m Pepe. I’ll be your guide for the entire day!” He’s this short and over-energetic young man. Especially for such an early morning pickup. However, his energy is infectious and we are laughing and smiling with him. The bus picks up two more guests for a total of 8 people on the tour. Zach and I totally appreciate the intimacy of this group. When we were in Japan and did the 3-1 Mt. Fuji tour, we were surrounded by 24 people. We often got lost in the crowd, couldn’t hear or understand the guide, and had to often guess what we were doing next.
Flight Attendants make quick friends
This tour group size is perfect. Zach quickly makes friends with other tourists. He finds out that the husband-husband couple sitting in front of us are flight attendants for Delta and live in Atlanta. I learn that the husband-wife couple sitting in the front of the van are from Germany, the husband being from Jordan and the wife from Romania. The tour guide announces, “I won’t start loading you with information about anything yet until we get Starbucks!”
The van erupts with laughter and much-appreciated thanks. We definitely need coffee. Entering back into the van, Pepe hands around muffins and breakfast bags. “Eat breakfast! Enjoy!”
Munching as we drive (there is a spinach and cheese empanada that is to DIE for) it takes about an hour to get to the Tulum ruins, our first stop. Before we reach the ruins, though, Pepe starts the tour.
“I want to introduce myself. I am Pepe and I was born in Mexico City. We are traveling down the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the home of the Ancient Mayan empire.” He goes on to describe the history of the Mayans and how they differ from the Aztecs who came before them, the Olmecs and the Tolmecs who came even before them.
We leave the bus at the entrance of the ruins and walk about a quarter of a mile to the archeological site. We are greeted with wildlife. We see many Iguanas. Lots of bugs. But the highlight are these cute little creatures called Coatimundi. They look like a possum in red panda clothing. “Yeah, they’re cute. But they’re aggressive,” Pepe says. “Like me!”
We enter the ruins.
Attack of the Mesquites
We are assaulted by mosquitos. Like, literally, they are biting, biting, biting. Mom is attacked by the dumb things. “It’s hot, it’s humid, and you’re yummy.” They are the most distracting bastards. It is so hard to concentrate on the lecture with these dumb things buzzing in our ear, landing on our skin and stabbing us with their pokey-pokes. I wish I had bug spray.
We view the Temple of the Wind, the Governors Palace, the Temple of Wisdom, and overlook the Tulum cliff.
After about an hour exploring the city, sweating in the humid heat, Pepe announces, “Who’s ready for a nice swim!”
The Delta Flight Attendant, “And a Cerveza!” We all laugh.
A five-minute drive takes us to a beach. “Ok, so, who has never snorkeled before?”
My mom and I raise our hands. “Perfect! You’re going to love it.” He instructs us how to properly use the snorkeling mask and flippers. The entire group puts on lifejackets, boards a small boat, and heads out over the waters into the great blue.
Just as our boat begins to link with the boats of different tours (there are about four or five small boats) someone starts shouting. Someone is shouting in Spanish, then many people are shouting in Spanish and pointing to the water. Some else screams, “Sea Turtles!” I stand up and there, literally a few feet from the boat, literally RIGHT THERE, is the most gorgeous animal I have ever in my life. I am familiar with land animals, up close with Giraffes and Elephants from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the many zoos I’ve visited, but the sea turtle before me is something I have only ever seen in pictures, nature magazines. It is swimming right THERE and it is a dream. I am close to tears.
Tour Guide Pepe yells, “What are you guys waiting for, GET IN!”
Mom and I jump into the ocean. At first, I am gripped by terror at how deep the water is and how much wildlife is around me. Terror quickly gives way to profound excitement. The coral reef below us is teeming with life. There are fishes everywhere. Huge fish, small fish. Oh my god, the sea turtle is inches from us with a wake of fish following him. I regain the surface and literally have to scream to get the pent-up excitement out of my chest.
“Stingrays!” I hear someone shout from somewhere behind me.
I duck my head back into the water. There, on the ocean floor, swimming as languidly as the day is easy, are three stingrays. They glide around the reef like airplanes. To tell you the truth, I am crying in my goggles. I’d have never thought I would be snorkeling and swimming with turtles and stingrays. Never would I have thought I’d be given this opportunity or able to afford to see something like this.
Our group follows Pepe around the reef area. I see Angelfish and Pufferfish. Zach spots a Moray Eel. Zach’s mom points and there are huge Sea Urchins nestled between the crevices of coral. The coral is stunning. They sway with the ocean current. There is a gentle clicking noise in my ear, the sounds of the reef.
We spend about an hour swimming and pointing. I didn’t know I’d be able to swim that long, and boy was I disappointed to leave the water at that. “You got to swim in the second greatest coral reef in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.”
The group returns to the beach, boards the bus and we are on our way. Everyone is sandy, hot, and damp. “Now, we travel to Xibalba,” Pepe whispers ominously. Even the word is mystical, hypnotic. “We travel to the Mayan Underworld.”
The drive is about an hour and it is barely 12:30 pm-noon. We are exhausted, famished, and overwhelmed with good vibes. The driver turns off the highway and onto a dirt road. “We are now in the Maya Jungle. We head to the Xibalba Cenote. The Yucatan Peninsula used to be under ocean water and was a gigantic coral reef. When the peninsula rose out of the water and the coral died, the entire land became limestone. Water seeped into the ground to create huge caverns that the Mayans used as places of worship and a way to get fresh water. Cenotes act as a filtration system and it has yet to be proven that the underground river connects the gulf, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.”
The ride to the Cenote is harsh. We bump our heads on the windows and chairs. The Delta flight attendant, “This is worse than turbulence on the plane!”
We finally arrive at what seems to be nothing more than a campsite. There is a platform raised above ground for the restrooms. There are two pillars that are shower stalls. There is a wooden structure that covers about 6 sets of tables. Right behind this dining area is the largest hole in the ground I’ve ever seen. Along the far edge of this hole is what looks like the inside of a geode, or like the opening of a mouth with teeth. “Is that where we are going?” I ask apprehensively. The trail from the dining area to the steep stairs leads down into a black abyss. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but thoughts of being enclosed in such a tight space and swimming in darkness don’t bode well with me.
“No, we go to the other Cenote. The Underworld.” Pepe leaves it at that. He then beckons us to a table set up with an assortment of food.
“This is rice with carrots and peas. This is cold pasta with olives and corn. And this is pork cooked with Achiote peppers.” Chinita Pibil, I think he says. There is also a watermelon and orange cake. Flies land on the fruit, which seems unappealing, but this is the jungle, baby. Literally we are surrounded by dense jungle with vines hanging from tall trees, roots making trekking treacherous, and the noise of bugs a steady loud drone. I would be terrified to even think of trying to walk through that. The food is delicious. It’s so satisfying.
“Ok! Get your life jackets on, your water shoes, and we follow that path into the jungle.”
I gulp, my lunch sitting uneasily in my stomach.
Sure enough, a small path cuts through the jungle. Gigantic locusts buzz in the trees overhead, some falling to the ground with a hollow thump.
The Delta flight attendant, “Oh god, just leave me here to die.” He moans as we pass a fallen tree. “I’m dressed like a pig in a blanket and miserable.”
His good humor makes us all laugh.
Pepe, “With any luck, we will see the Scorpion-Spider, the Golden Spider, and the Tarantula!”
The Delta flight attendant, “Oh hell no. I’m going to die.”
The path takes us about ten minutes before we reach our destination.
The Mayan Underworld: Xibalba
Smoke hangs over the area. An acrid haze settles over the area giving me a sense of disquiet, like following in the footsteps of soldiers to the front line of war. There is a vague hint of apprehension. I feel like I shouldn’t be here, entering some hallowed, religious area. I feel like I’m disturbing some resting giant, some paranormal sanctuary. This is an adventure, right?
I look up and way up there in the treetops is a rickety, almost haunted-looking treehouse. Is it like a guardian to ward those to stay away? Or is it a protector to guard those from trespassing?
“What’s that for? Who lives there?”
Pepe, “I don’t know. No one has ever told me.”
The Delta flight attendant, “It’s your next Airbnb.”
Even though I laugh, I can’t help but see the darkness of night filled with exotic monsters lurking just out of firelight reach. It must be haunted, I conclude. The treehouse is directly over the gigantic pit, also known as the Underworld. There must be a demon up there!
“This is Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. The smoke helps keep the mosquitoes away, but it also serves as a religious marker. Back in the ancient world, only high elite political figures and religious authorities were able to enter a Cenote. This is sacred land.”
The Delta flight attendant, “Great take me to hell. Put me out of my misery.”
Slowly the darkness envelops us. Slowly the bugs’ incessant rambling dwindles to nothing. Slowly we make our way down. Slowly the light disappears. Slowly the temperature drops dramatically. My arms prickle with goose-pimples. I look up, and barely a few feet above me is the oppressive weight of the earth. The claustrophobia is slowly beginning to snake its tendrils into my heart. The cavern echos it’s immensity. It seems sound gets lost in the holes of darkness patching what little light we can see. It is a powerful feeling knowing that we will be swallowed by the black.
The group is eerily quiet because of this cave’s solemnity. We are in the presence of something truly age-defying. This cave has seen the passing of eons. We don’t compare to the immortality captured here.
It takes a long time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Every creep, every step, every noise is amplified. The darkness begins to fill with beings, with the monsters our imaginations. We can’t help but conjure them up. There! behind that boulder must be some god-awful spider. There! under those rocks must be a glisteningly black venomous snake. There! behind us like a stalker of the night must be the walking horror of the caverns, a demon of such terror that no words can describe it, the embodiment of evil, of depravity.
As our eyes begin to slowly adjust the truth of our surroundings begins to unfold. It is as if we are opening our eyes for the first time. The cathedral of the earth begins to form out of darkness, a birthing. Equally exhilarating and frightening the scene is eerie, mystical, magical. Out of murky darkness stalagmites and their twin stalactite create an alien world. They reflect the meager light from Pepe’s flashlight. Water from unknowable distances drip drip drip. Minerals and salts drip drip drip. The drip drip drip refracts and echos. It is otherworldly. Drip drip drip.
There is a faint glow ahead. “Watch your step!” Pepe whispers. His whisper bounces off the walls and against the blanket of silence. The footing is treacherous, indeed almost dangerous. My mom is a klutz most of the time and I’m afraid she’s going to fall because of the ever treacherous path between the rocks and points of the stalactite and columns of stalagmites. We continue towards the source of light.
There is a small lamp rigged to an outcropping of rock high above us. The scene opening before us is surreal.
An underground lake. From high above stalactites reach down, reach painfully down and dip into the still still still water. They are like fingers of some unknown entity testing the temperature of the mirrored waters. The blue waters are pure perfection, almost as if Gods and Goddesses are the only ones privy to touch. Indeed they are so unearthly still.
“Who’s ready for a dip?” Pepe jumps into the still waters disturbing the calmness and solemnity of the cavern. His splash reverberates against the formations, disrupting the peace, causing chaos. Don’t do that! I wanted to shout. We are in the house of the dead. Disturbing the water must surely awaken the damned.
Mom takes the next plunge. I admire her tenacity. Surely she isn’t thinking of water goblins or dark monsters.
I jump next. The water is freezing!
“Prepare for Shamu!” The Delta flight attendant says as he leaps into the air. “Tidal wave!”
After the whole group jumps into the water, we follow it as far as we can go. The path intertwines through rocks and sculptures millions of years in the making. At times I can’t see under me, the darkness comes from under. There are points where I am able to stand in the water, such soft sand. Then there are points where I go forward like a blind man, inching my way along afraid to hit my head on rocks both hanging in the air and jutting out from the water. There are points I hold my breath afraid of what might pull me down into the great abyss. There are points where I am even too afraid to move.
Time has no meaning here. The sun has no meaning here. Life would have no meaning here, but life has found a way. There are bats circling above us. There are blind fish swimming with us. Pepe points, “Notice how tree roots have broken through the limestone searching for water.” Roots touch the waters of life for which the Mayans have blessed this sacred place, this Cathedral, this testimony to the forces of nature beyond space and spanning eons of time.
We traverse this underground world. We disrupt the still stillness of the church. We are interlopers.
When we tread back to the light, the smoke is a welcome. We climb the steep path up the rim of the cauldron pit. The humidity suffocates us. The disgusting heat of the region sears our cold skin.
“Take me back to the death-water!” The Delta flight attendant says.
This is our adventure. We trekked the path of the Mayans. We saw their ruins, their homes, their places of worship and law. We caught a glimpse into their ancient lives by wandering their city of ruins.
We jumped into the sea and pretended to be Mayans spearing for fish and food. We swam with sea turtles and stingrays. We saw many fish and coral reefs that you normally only see in pictures: brain coral, gigantic purple fan coral.
We delved deep into a Cenote and swam an underground river. We saw the reason the Mayans respected and revered Xibalba.
The ride back to the hotel is long and we are exhausted. Sore. Bugbitten. We are ready for an hour shower. When we get back to the hotel we prepare for our last night evening meal.
After dinner of tacos and beer, we head back to the hotel. Zach and I finish off a bottle of wine on the balcony overlooking the Cancun Caribbean ocean. We sigh a sigh of content.
In the morning we leave early to return the rental car. We have enough time to get lunch at Guy Feri’s burger place. The plane is empty enough for all four of us to get first-class seats together.
Until our next adventure, dear reader, Adios! Or if your here to stay, read about our Tokyo Trip!