I’m a Boomer, and I’ve lived through 11 presidents, Eisenhower to Obama. Right in the middle was Jimmy Carter, naval officer and peanut farmer. I got off the long distance Greyhound in DC and walked to the White House. It was late the night before Jimmy’s inauguration, and the hustings were built, the stands erected and the bunting draped in front of the White House. There was no one around.
I climbed over the fence around the CBS booth, which was right across from the presidential reviewing stand. I sat in the chair Walter Cronkite was going to occupy 12 hours later and smoked one of my last joints. I left the roach under Walter’s chair, and headed back to the bus.
I had started in Montreal that morning, and was bound for Mexico City, by way of Laredo, TX. I was on my way back to Mexico after returning to my home in Quebec for Christmas. This was during the two or three years in the late 70s when I was laying low in Central America.
I had a job to return to, being the manager and director of an expat theatre company in Cuernavaca, a garden city full of ruins, human and stone. Before that, I had spent a winter on an island off the coast of Belize, close to the barrier reef and great diving. I started out slinging my hamaca from a pair of palm trees outside Tony Vega’s Far Inn, the traveller’s hostel on the beach..
This was the cheapest accommodation on the island, apart from living on the beach with no anchor at all, so to speak. Not that there was much more accommodation. Several rooms to rent in local houses were about all there was, besides Tony’s. Nowadays, this island is covered with condos and resort homes, and I don’t know what they do for water, when I was there the small population could hardly make it on the rainfall.
I eventually graduated to a room in Tony’s, which I shared. I paid for that by painting an attractive swinging sign for the Inn, done in the kind of font you’d see on a Grateful Dead concert poster. Tony loved it.
Tony was a middle-aged Belizean, nut-brown and wiry, with a little terrier called Chip. His invariable greeting was “Chip! Bite their ass Chip!” Tony had to go to Miami for a couple of months to deal with a family matter (his divorce, I think) and he left me in charge of the Far Inn. Not much to be in charge of, it was a ramshackle two story beach house with rainwater cisterns and that was about it.
The delight of the island was the Barrier Reef, just offshore. Still unspoiled and mostly unfished, the reef was an accessible wonderland of marine life. Riotous Parrotfish, glowing Red Snappers, glowering Groupers, Conchs, Hammerhead sharks. I had a spear gun, a mask, snorkel and fins. That was all the hunting gear one needed for dinner. That winter, I met a fellow with a dive shop on the island, who would take us out for twenty dollars; two tanks, buoyancy compensator vests and all the gear. No training, no certificate, just a twenty dollar bill. Fun.
When spring rolled around, I headed north into Quintana Roo, which was still a lawless wilderness then. In Mexico City, they talked of Quintana Roo like it was the Amazon. It was where the gangsters from Veracruz went when it got too hot on the Gulf Coast. My destination was Tulum, now a feature on every tourism poster of the Mexican Riviera, but back then, largely unknown and little visited.
The most romantic white sand beach lies at the foot of the cliff Tulum is built on, and it stretches for miles. A couple of hundred yards down the beach from the temple was a collection of palapas, palm thatched huts, which were rented out for protection from the sun during the day at the beach. I stayed there, with the beach to myself, regular meals at the restaurant in the car park, almost always empty between the infrequent tourist buses, and explored the ruins at moonlight.
That part of the Yucatan peninsula is covered with ruins. It’s said that flying over the Yucatan in 1000 AD would be like flying over Ontario today, farms and villages everywhere. Years later, while driving the coast highway, I pulled over to pee. I walked a few yards into the jungle for modesty, and bumped smack into a tiny temple, split by a tree. In the shelter of the temple’s door and remaining roof, there was an exquisite fresco of an ascending god, still brightly coloured. This would have been the centerpiece of a modest museum’s collection; here it was forgotten in the encroaching jungle.
I bypassed Cancun (then, just being developed, and mostly a construction site) and ended up in Merida, Capital of Yucatan state. Merida is a graceful colonial city where the men dance with each other and wear glittery sandals. There is an old palacio off the Zocalo that is the grandest rundown hotel I have ever stayed in. Twenty foot ceilings, beams, tiled floors, a central atrium open to the sky, it was built in the 17th century and hadn’t been renovated. The windows, tall and arched, swung open on the Zocalo and the warm scented air. I stayed in Merida for longer than I should have. 

Nearby, facing the Zocalo, was another palacio, this one still occupied by the decayed remnants of Merida’s colonial ruling family. Tours were available, and I took one. Decrepit furniture, dusty ripped tapestries untended since the 1800s, and the owner, a tatty aristocrat manqué who wore his tie outside his sweater, hovering around the edges of the tour, as if to make sure the silverware (of which there was none) wasn’t taken.
Next stop was Palenque, in Chiapas, by bus. I got to the village of Palenque late, and was expecting to head out to the temple complex in the morning. Fate intervened though, and a Mexican staying in the hostel asked me if I wanted go with him, he was going tonight. We took his motorbike up the long rutted road into the hills. He stopped in the dark and said there were guards at the far gate, we should get off here.
We parked the bike and followed a path up a river under the moonlight. There was an opening in the jungle ahead and all of a sudden we burst out into the plaza in front of the Palace, all alone in the temple complex. The white stone of the buildings and the ball court gleamed in the moonlight and the effect was thoroughly magical. I spent the night exploring the lost city alone under the moon.
Just down the road from Palenque lies another magical place, Agua Azul, or Blue Water. And it is BLUE. It’s a river flowing down from the hills and across a large flat plain. There’s a national park. The river is about 200 feet wide and about a foot deep in most places. The bottom is composed of the cleanest white sand imaginable, and the water, through some mineral effect, is bright blue. Just sitting in the river on the sand bottom, wiggling your toes, is enough to make you laugh out loud. It looks like what rivers must look like in heaven.
I hung my hamaca between two trees in the tall silky grass at the edge of the river, and slept like a baby. It wasn’t until I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, up in the mountains the next night, that I realized I was crawling with ticks. I had to enlist the help of a fellow traveller to pick them from the places I couldn’t see. Visit Agua Azul by all means, but don’t camp there.
After San Cristobal, buses took me further south, to Guatemala and El Salvador. My money running out, by this time I was living on buns and avocados, which sold for about a nickel. I climbed Mt Atitlan, Guatemala’s highest volcano, in shorts and a t-shirt, and spent the night in a steam vent, soaking wet, but warm. Avocados fueled that climb. The temples (each town had one, somewhere) got smaller and cruder (I never saw the splendour of Copan) until it was time to turn around and head north.
I made it as far as Puerto Arista, a nasty little beach town right at the bottom of the Mexican Pacific coast. One unpaved street, a couple of cinder block bars with ratty palm thatched tables and that was it. The brown gravel beach dropped off about 10 feet off shore and there was an undertow which almost killed me. The waves were short and sharp and made swimming impossible.
I was sick with amoebic dysentery and my money had run out. I was stretched too far and needed an angel. He came in the form of Capt. John Yancey, USMC (Ret’d). But that’s another story, called An Everyday Hero.