The Mayan secret to a good nights sleep
Some vacations can almost be cast in stone before they begin. For instance, picture yourself spending two weeks in the Mexican mega-resort of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. You see yourself basking in the sun, snorkeling or scuba-diving over colourful tropical reefs, eating fresh platters of seafood and drinking way too many of those cocktails adorned with pineapple slices and little umbrellas.
Shopping is also a likely pastime, as you equip yourself with an oversized Mexican sombrero, an impractical croquet bikini and your cool new Bo Derek braid hairstyle that promptly freezes when you arrive back in Canada. Not so stylish when hidden under a toque.
The only real wildcard in the pack is whether you will succumb to Montezumas Revenge and lose all the weight gained off those numerous cocktails.
But then there are those other holidays, when fate deals a far less predictable hand. We had been warned that Cancun was expensive, so had headed straight to Isla Mujeres (or the Island of Women), which was a short ferry ride from Cancun. The US dollar had also made its mark on this community, with many prices written up in the US currency as well as the peso.
Average hotel accommodation started around $60 US a night, although hard bartering could secure you a room for $17 US at a small family-run establishment. The 8 km long island hummed with braided tourists driving rented golf carts and motorbikes, and good-humoured shop and bar owners trying to lure you inside. Days slipped away swimming in the turquoise-blue warm waters and exploring the tropical reef survivors of 1998s Hurricane George.
If this had remained the status quo, it would have been a nice vacation. However if you want to discover the heart of a country, the best rule of thumb is to make friends with locals who will take you places far off the beaten tourist track.
We meet Miguel Cortes during our quest to find a hammock. Afternoons of hanging out in his hammock shop led to an offer to accompany him on a road trip to his familys house back on the mainland Yucatan Peninsula. It was nearing the end of the two-week Easter vacation and he had to pick up his wife Reyna and two kids. We hired an original model Volkswagen Beetle, which was the most common vehicle on the road, and roared out across the hot jungle plains. Mexico is one of the few countries where these cars are still made. Even the police drive them.
Miguels family lived about 40km out of the main centre, Merida, in a small village noted for its fine hammock making. The differences between a mediocre and a great hammock experience are many, including the materials used, the weave, the size and even the way you lay on one. Contrary to popular practice, hammocks should be laid on almost across the centre, rather than end to end like a banana. And these people should know, since they sleep in hammocks every night, without back problems. Walking around the village at night, you could see directly into the houses with their criss-cross of hammocks hung up ready for sleeping and candle-lit effigies of the Virgin Mary.