Dodging a Holiday in a Remote Mexican Town
The night before Thanksgiving, while most of my acquaintances were setting tables or stuffing turkeys, I was in a lonesome town in Mexico, watching a salamander eat mosquitoes on a greasy kitchen wall. It was a hungry thing and went about devouring its prey with whip-quick lashes of an energetic tongue. Though I had chosen to avoid the feast day in the north, I didn’t mind the little lizard’s gluttony. Its meal, after all, was untroubled by the usual distractions: by football on TV or, moreover, the familiar family dramas. Despite — or perhaps because of — its enforced veneer of bliss, the month between the Macy’s parade and the Times Square ball drop can often inspire an unseasonable longing to escape.
The place that I’d escaped to — Xcalak, a seaside town at the bottom of the Yucatán Peninsula — is one of those remote locations, like Key West or Gibraltar, whose inaccessibility is the essence of its charm. I had come for the holiday to evade the conventions of overeating and bickering with kin — to experience an admittedly transparent feeling of without-ness. Xcalak (pronounced ESH-cah-lahk) is a fishing village defined by what it lacks. Its few hundred residents largely live without electric power or modern indoor plumbing. There are solar panels and rain-catchment basins, but there aren’t any banks or A.T.M.s. You can’t use your credit card, and forget about your cellphone. The nearest place to refuel your car is an isolated Pemex station 30 miles away.
What the village has instead of creature comforts is an amiable vacancy, an atmosphere of off-the-grid seclusion that comes from the fact that it rests at the end of a very long road. It was the day before the holiday arrived when my companion, Cheyne, and I started on that road, leaving the Cancún airport in a rented Chevrolet. Content to be in exile, we traveled south on Highway 307, snacking on a bag of salted corn chips and speeding past an endless stream of garish all-inclusives. But two hours later, once we passed Tulum, the tourists — and the traffic — disappeared. The road abruptly narrowed and began to snake through drowsy towns of thatch-roofed shacks and vivid orange stores and wild dogs chasing bicyclists, none of whom had much appreciation for the local driving rules. As we neared the so-called city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, it was obvious that we had left the guidebook Mexico behind: stooped-backed men appeared on the shoulder and were whacking at the overgrowth with vintage-style machetes in the kind of pointless toil typically reserved for chain gangs in the north.
It was in Felipe, three hours south of our departure, that we filled our tank for the last leg of the journey and finally consulted the traveling directions we’d been given by our hosts. These were decidedly ambiguous and give a flavor of the navigational patience required for the trip to Xcalak.
“Just south of the town of Limónes,” our cheat-sheet read, “take the road toward the sea and Majahual. Before Hurricane Dean the signage was excellent. But most of the big signs blew down in the hurricane, so you have to pay attention to the distances to know where to turn.”
Advised that our turn was precisely 67 kilometers past the service station in the center of Felipe, I pulled over for a moment and Cheyne took the wheel. Within an hour, she had found our exit and swung us off the highway to a smaller road that passed through marshy swamplands and stretches of an inhospitable scrub. An hour after that, on the turn to Xcalak, the thoroughfare that had once been simply narrow tapered even further to a hilariously slender one-lane road. This, we later learned, was a habitat for jaguars, which emerged from time to time, slipping out to hunt from the mangrove jungle hungrily encroaching from the berms.
At any rate, we flew past a garbage dump and the stench of burning palm fronds. Hawks and cormorants were whirling in the sun. It had been 30 minutes since we’d seen another car, and turning from the landscape, it occurred to me that the two of us were utterly alone out there — and that, in the excitement of all that isolation, Cheyne had our little Chevy moving at a rate in excess of 100 miles an hour.
Entering Xcalak, the thing you notice first is the evidence of poverty. The town’s main drag is an unpaved stretch of potholes, and many of the homes are merely hovels, clad in plywood siding. There are beached boats, turkey coops and blackened buildings abandoned after fires. Mangy dogs — friendly, but uncared for — roam the roads.
Still, you quickly realize that what looks like destitution to the eyes of an American is no more than the natural, if challenging, restrictions of a limited economy. In spite of its remoteness, Xcalak does have an infrastructure catering to visitors; and after we traversed the axle-eating craters of its entry road and checked into the Casa Carolina, a beachfront inn a few miles out of town, we drove back to the village in search of an early dinner. Passing a motor scooter ridden by an acrobatic family of four, we found ourselves at Toby’s Brisas del Mar, one of the town’s few restaurants and the only one that seemed to have its lights on in the rural darkness. It was inside Toby’s that the salamander was enjoying its mosquitoes. It was also there that we met the proprietor, Toby Alamilla, a lifelong resident of Xcalak.
As we waited for our meal — cheese quesadillas and seafood tacos — to simmer on the open stove in back, Mr. Alamilla, 33, spoke of the relationship between the tourists and the town. “People come here to be in nothing,” he said to us in English. “The gringos, they are always nice, but there isn’t much involvement with people who actually live here. When you come to Xcalak, what you want, I think, is to be outside of civilization.”
As I left with our takeout plates, this phrase struck me as correct, but freighted with a certain amount of vacationer’s guilt: Cheyne and I had, in fact, come to Xcalak in flight from civilization, the American version of obligatory excess. But early the next morning, when the sun came up, furiously bright at 6 a.m., a different civilization was waiting at our window: palm trees, pelicans, hordes of swarming dragonflies and a rickety bat-board dock that extended from our hotel’s shore into the glittering Caribbean like a spine.
We dressed for breakfast, which is served each day in the Casa Carolina’s palapa on the beach. The hotel’s owners, Caroline Wexler and her husband, Bob Villier, were already on hand at 7 a.m. to deliver mugs of coffee, plates of homemade muffins and freshly cut bowls of melon and papaya. We’d been told in advance about the necessary rules that govern the villa’s use of solar power and rain-collected water, and had managed without much trouble to obey them: Turn off the ceiling fan before you leave your room. Don’t let the toilet trickle overnight or you might find the shower’s water basin empty in the morning.
It is a testament to Xcalak’s allure that our hosts bought the property in 1994, only four days after arriving in the village on a scuba diving trip. Ms. Wexler, at the time, was a social worker at a hospital in suburban Philadelphia and Mr. Villier worked in public relations. The couple put down $30,000 for the land without quite knowing which lot in particular was theirs. “All I can say,” Ms. Wexler said, “is that it felt like the right risk to take — and I’m no gambler.”
As we lingered at our meal, Ms. Wexler regaled us with the quirky list of semi-boldface names that had visited the Casa Carolina — Tony Blair’s press secretary, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter — while her husband picked up the palapa phone and made arrangements with a boat captain to take us on snorkeling trip that day. Told by Mr. Villier that the captain would fetch us in an hour at the hotel’s dock, Cheyne and I returned to our room to prepare.
Our pickup had been set for 9 a.m., but back in the room I discovered that my cellphone — the only clock I had — was out of power. I thought at first to plug it in, but then, of course, it dawned on me: tracking time was one of those traditions we were trying to escape.
In the end I left it on the nightstand. And there it remained, unpowered and irrelevant, for the next four days.
Forgive the comparison, but a mangrove jungle seen from a boat looks not unlike a giant maze of floating marijuana. Into its hempishness we went, motoring in a skiff named Sharon through claustrophobic channels of vegetation on a four-hour journey that was one part “Heart of Darkness,” one part “Lord of the Rings.”
As we glided past the foliage and its skein of bony roots, our captain, Luis Batun, stood at the tiller pointing out the wildlife: the spotted eagle rays beneath us in the shallows and the osprey and spoonbills winging overhead. Captain Batun also gave a thumbnail history of Xcalak. The village had its heyday in the early 1950s when it served as a southern port of entry from Belize. There was a movie theater, a billiards hall and a bustling fishing market. But then in 1955, Hurricane Janet blew through. Much of Xcalak was leveled and never came back.
What did survive the storm was the reef offshore, which we soon explored at length. The world submerged was a watery inverse of the world in town: busy, crowded, teeming with marine life. I learned the names of the creatures that we saw on a fishing expedition the following afternoon: yellowtail snapper, pug-faced grouper, brightly scaled sunfish and a stout little fellow aptly named the grunt.
Back aboard the Sharon, Cheyne and I sat down on a narrow wooden thwart for the 15-minute return trip to the Casa Carolina. Captain Batun opened up the engine, and we slapped across the inbound waves, catching air as salt spray peppered our faces. As the hotel dock came into view, I turned to my companion and said, in what was probably an over-gushing tone, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
She shook her head and shushed me. Then she said herself: “I don’t want to talk.”
This, of course, was the appropriate response.
Xcalak persistently surprises: its sleepiness was wakened one day by the abrupt arrival of a townwide triathlon; among its hotel choices, is a “clothing-optional” resort. But the biggest surprise was no doubt the presence of the Leaky Palapa, a fine-dining restaurant, which, in a village otherwise — and admirably — free of sophistication, serves a version of Caribbean haute cuisine.
I’d heard rumors about the place on previous trips to Mexico, whispered reports about a three-star establishment in the middle of the jungle run by two expatriate Canadians who had sold their restaurant outside Toronto years ago, cashed in, dropped out, moved to Xcalak and ever since had been shocking the turistas with French-based, indigenously-flavored fusion dishes. The Leaky Palapa seemed like the place for Thanksgiving dinner. An email before we left New York got us the reservation required by its website. Really? I thought. A reservation? In Xcalak?
When we arrived on Thursday night, a few stray dogs were nosing around the parking lot, and a brackish funk was coming from a nearby creek, which, we soon discovered, was a favorite sunning spot for crocodiles. Inside the gate, however, was a candlelit oasis — Japanese garden, origami napkins — as elegant as any upscale restaurant in New York.
Walking in, we were immediately greeted by Linda Bestard, a garrulous ex-Londoner (as in London, Ontario) who manages the front of the house, while her partner, Marla Styles, formerly of Saskatchewan, oversees the kitchen. Sweeping us toward our table, Ms. Bestard recommended the shrimp and lobster in pineapple butter and helpfully pointed Cheyne, a vegetarian, to the huitlacoche ravioli in a squash-flower cream sauce.
Wine arrived. The Caesar salad came wrapped in a cracker of Parmesan.
You will understand, at this point, why cognitive dissonance set in.
But that, as we found out, was Xcalak, what made the place unique, what kept it balanced on a beam between remote retreat and vacation destination.
Three days later, in the dreadful development of the Cancun airport, I thought of something Ms. Bestard had said when we visited her restaurant again after — nowhere else to go — the power in town had suddenly gone out.
“It’s weird, I know,” she had told us. “People come in and I see them go, ‘What is this place? Where am I? Am I still in the jungle? Or am I back in civilization?’”