Tulum, Mexico

We had a wonderful time in Valladolid, but it was time to move on and get closer to the beach. After figuring out our bus tickets, we were ready to see what Tulum had in store for us. We had both heard a lot about this town as something special, up and coming, and beautiful as it’s right along the beach. So we had delicious breakfast on the hotel patio and then said goodbye to Valladolid.

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After a less than 2 hour bus ride we arrived at the bus station in Tulum and found a taxi driver to take us to our hotel. We were disappointed to realize that Tulum would be significantly more expensive than Valladolid was. The taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel and after arguing for a bit and using some gps, he continued and drove us towards our real hotel. When booking, we didn’t realize that this hotel was practically brand new and in a part of town that was very much being built up and full of construction. We couldn’t find the hotel with the driver, so he gave up and dropped us off. We started exploring and had no idea where to go or where this hotel was. Luckily, we ran into an American couple that asked us if we were lost and then pointed us in the right direction so we were able to find the place.

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Inside the hotel was really beautiful. We were happy to have found it after searching for so long in the heat and we were very happy to see it had an amazing swimming pool.

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After putting our stuff down and getting freshened up, we decided to find the beach. I thought the hotel was a lot closer to the beach than it ended up being and the front desk told us it wasn’t too far, but it was far enough. They had a shuttle that takes people to a beach club, but the shuttle only ran at odd hours that didn’t feel like our best option. The hotel did offer bikes to ride for free, so we figured we would try it.

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The bike ride was a little rough for me, I’m not going to lie. In that afternoon heat without any shade, I was struggling. Once we made it to the coast where the beaches were supposed to be, I realized it wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting. The whole coast where the beaches were, had been built up and were covered in beach clubs, hotels, restaurants, and shops. There was no public beach access that we could find, you had to pay in order to get to the beach. So we kept biking and biking trying to find somewhere to go where you didn’t have to spend money or at least not spend a lot of money. The road also wasn’t ideal for biking – it was tight, there were no sidewalks, the road often was damaged and with big potholes, and there were cars everywhere. We eventually gave up and found beach club where we could go, but we had to spend a certain amount of money in order to spend time there, which seemed to be how all the places nearby operated.

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After biking so long in the heat, it was worth it because the beach was beautiful and the water was perfect for swimming and so warm. We had a delicious lunch and smoothies and spent a few hours relaxing, swimming, and working on our tans. The guacamole was excellent!

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The bike ride to the hotel was a bit easier and we made it back as fast as we could. After biking back in the heat, we were ready to cool off again so we went straight to the hotel’s beautiful swimming pool and jumped right in. This was like paradise!

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We decided to go out for dinner so we found a really nice restaurant closer to the coast. It was dark, romantic (even though we didn’t really need that), and had the greatest food. The service was excellent too.

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After this dinner we were full and exhausted so we were ready to get back to the hotel and get some rest. Overall it was a great day in the sun!

Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Ik Kil

One of the main reasons we wanted to go to the Yucatan was to see some ancient ruins. We were able to arrange through our hotel to hire a driver for the day for very little cost who took us to Chichen Itza and a beautiful cenote at Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities hundreds of years ago and is now a large site of ruins. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has millions of visitors each year.

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I was amazed by the size of this site, it felt like we could keep walking and walking and there was always more to see. We could turn a corner and suddenly there would be another huge stretch of ruins. Actually standing there and walking around creates a really special feeling, like you’re somewhere you’ve only read about in textbooks in the past. It brings the whole history to life, something you can’t get from reading.

If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend doing a little research on when to go. One day of the week is free for Mexican citizens, making it way more crowded than other days. I also recommend going as early in the day as you can because by mid afternoon there were ten times as many people as when we first arrived and the temperatures were scorching. And as it was extremely hot, naturally we had to take a break for ice cream.

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After a few hours exploring everything this beautiful place has to offer, we were so ready to head to the cenote and go swimming to cool off and relax. Our driver took us to Ik Kil, which is very close to Chichen Itza. The water is about 130 feet deep (40 meters) and the denote itself goes 85 feet under ground (26 meters). This was the most beautiful cenote we visited on this trip.

 

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Swimming in that cold water was exhilarating and refreshing. Experiences like this are why I travel. The clear, bluish-green color of the water makes it hard to realize how deep the water actually is. This is a moment I’ll never forget because feeling so in touch with nature is one of the best feelings – with birds and bats flying over you, fish swimming beneath you, and butterflies all around.

 

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Overall this was one of the best days of the trip because we saw such a historically significant place and had the perfect afternoon in a stunning cenote. The next day we headed to the town of Tulum.

Leaving for Mexico and Finding Valladolid

So despite having travelled to far away places across the world, like Fiji or Cambodia, I had never actually been south of the border to Mexico before this latest trip. I was excited to go on some new adventures because I hadn’t been out of the country since the previous Summer.

Arriving at the airport was extra exciting because I walked up to my gate and got called to the podium to receive a note. I wondered what it was about, but it was actually sweet.

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I also found out I was upgraded to First Class, which is always an excellent benefit of being a frequent flyer. The meal was pretty great, especially because it was unexpected. I got lobster ravioli and a delicious summer salad. Thanks United!

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The guy I sat next to on the plane lives in Cancun and had a ton of information about traveling around the Yucatan. I went into this trip pretty blind and was thankful my cousin Katharina had done some research for our adventures. Finding a great travel partner is essential to having a great trip, and luckily my cousin and I love to travel together and are always planning new trips. So this guy next to me gave me great advice of cities worth seeing, places less worth seeing, and what was safe/dangerous nearby. I always recommend asking locals for their opinions because then it’s way easier to break out of the tourist bubbles and see something “real” in the country.

So after arriving and finding my cousin, we made our way to our hotel. She had been waiting a few hours, so she had plenty of time to gather information about buses and traveling around, which became so helpful. Unfortunately it was close to midnight when we got going so it was dark and hard to see much on the drive besides the lights of other hotels. We had a beautiful suite that was way bigger than anything the two of us needed, but we were excited to spend the night somewhere so nice.

The best part of arriving in Mexico was the following morning. Because of Katharina’s jet lag , coming all the way from Germany, and my general excitement, we were both wide awake and ready to go out by 6am. We went straight to the beach to enjoy the amazing weather. When we were there, it was April, which means it was still snowing where I’m from. Just being able to put on flip flops and feel the sand on my toes was spectacular.

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Cancun was only our arrival point, we had no real intention of staying there because the plan was to backpack around and head to Belize. So after a delicious breakfast, we decided to get going to our first destination – Valladolid. We took a local bus, where we were the only tourists on board, and headed to a bigger bus station.

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The trip from Cancun to Valladolid was a few hours. We weren’t on a fancy bus, it was a smaller company that seemed to be more for locals. We stopped frequently to pick up people along the road and it wasn’t as direct as other bus companies would have been. But it was worth the ride, because Valladolid is so beautiful and we picked a newer hotel┬áthat also has spa amenities. Talk about paradise…

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We went to Valladolid for two main reasons – 1. To be close to Chichen Itza and 2. To see some cenotes, which are like caves with natural water where you can go swimming.

So after settling in, we took a taxi for super cheap to two cenotes called Samula and Xkeken. The great part of Valladolid compared to other cities we ended up visiting is how much less expensive it is. We could take long taxi rides for barely anything once we split it between the two of us.

These two cenotes give very different vibes. One is super dark, creepy almost and has tons of bats. It’s beautiful for sure, but a little less inviting to go swimming.

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The other has a high ceiling inside the cave and has a large pool. We could see fish swimming throughout the water.

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Both cenotes are incredibly beautiful and worth visiting if you’ve never seen one before like the two of us. They were practically empty of visitors which makes them more appealing than some other cenotes. We loved exploring, feeling part of a natural wonder, and getting refreshed in the cool caves and water when the outside temperature was so hot. Not to mention, the areas around the cenotes are super unique as well!

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When we finished this part of the day, we ended up unexpectedly getting a lot of time to see Valladolid. Our taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was (perks of a new hotel!) and gave up looking really quickly, so he dropped us off in the town square and sent us on our way. Instead of trying another taxi, we decided to brave it and walk. But that was perfectly okay because it gave us the perfect opportunity to see some of this city and it is a beautiful place!

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After walking in the heat for a half hour, we were ready to jump in the pool at the hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening relaxing. We had a delicious dinner with some tacos that were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life (as expected). Amazing. Writing this while sitting in Sweden months later, I am craving Mexican food!

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We went to bed early that night after quite a long day of travel, cenotes, and heat. We had big plans for the next day to visit Chichen Itza, so we needed some rest.

 

How Traveling Saved Me

When I was seventeen, I felt completely invincible. Like most teenagers, I felt I had it all and nothing was going to get in the way of my dreams. I was full of life, optimism, joy, and drive. I was preparing to graduate from high school with honors, I won trophies for my piano playing abilities, I had an active, healthy social life, I had a trainer at the gym and was in excellent shape, and I was studying accounting with hopes of a future career. Everything was going my way and I was untouchable.

Until one morning, I found out that I was, in fact, just as vulnerable as any other person.

My mom drove me to school like any other morning and we were just talking, getting ready to start the day. Then another car smashed into us and my life changed forever. It wasn’t so severe that anyone almost died or anything, and I know how lucky we are for that, but it was devastating none the less. From that moment, I was practically on bed rest for months, stuck in a restraining neck brace, hardly able to lift a finger without excruciating pain. I was on a lot of pain medication that made me foggy and exhausted. I missed the last few months of my senior year, they rearranged everything so I was still able to graduate with my class, but it certainly wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was left out of events and activities that are important at that time in a person’s life. I didn’t get to do the typical Senior year moments. Everything normal just disappeared and faded away. There I was, completely defenseless to what was happening.

Months after, I was “on track” to healing and was supposed to be feeling “better,” yet I was still struggling with every aspect of daily life. Looking back, I still remember how much I suffered that year. There were days I was in so much physical pain that I couldn’t brush my hair or get dressed by myself. My skin was raw from the brace. I had crippling headaches that made it difficult to get out of bed. I couldn’t sleep because the pain would keep me up, and then the lack of sleep would cause more pain. I learned I would never have the same function in my left arm and hand. They kept telling me that I was young and healthy so I would be fine overtime, but I wasn’t. Time passed and doctors became more honest about the realities I would be facing after I wasn’t so young anymore.

And emotionally, I was a wreck. I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t, but the car accident exasperated my anxiety to such an extent that it sometimes made it hard to function properly. I had horrible panic attacks, sometimes to the point where I fainted. I struggled with an overwhelming need to be in control, something I still work on. I felt that in a moment when I didn’t have any control, my life was ruined. So I put everything I had in me into school and the rest of my time was devoted to doctor appointments, physical therapy, and painful treatments. Some weeks I had four days a week full of appointments. I was prescribed Xanax to help cope. I tried seeing a therapist to talk about how anxious and depressed I was, but it only made me feel worse – like a failure when I wasn’t improving. Talking about what happened wasn’t healing me or causing my injuries to recover. My medical problems became my extracurricular life. I couldn’t get a job or join clubs in those first few years of college. Of course my social life suffered. Many of my friendships dissolved and my relationship with my boyfriend was strained and just didn’t take its natural progression because he often had to take care of me. We couldn’t go places or be out late because I was in too much pain. It’s not easy to be young and have to explain to your peers that you can’t go out because you’re body is failing you. It’s not easy to be young and to be forced to face real vulnerability and loss.

I was drowning both physically and mentally. I had the best support system around me with a loving family who did everything they could to help me, but no one really knew what I was feeling. I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t explain the way my body felt – the hurt, weakness, or physical and emotional exhaustion. I felt frustrated because I was so depressed and hated how much I lost, but I also knew I was lucky to be alive and in as good of condition as I was. So then I felt guilty for feeling bad for myself. I suffocated myself in overthinking everything about my life – my past, present, and future. I was afraid to do anything because what if it made things worse. The what if’s of life started to pile up and consume me and I knew people around me were tired of hearing it. I developed such strong social anxiety that I struggled to have even the most basic of conversations. So I kept focusing on school and what I could control, but it’s not healthy to completely absorb yourself in studies. I never even skipped a class throughout college because I would think “what if I have to miss because of my medical problems.” But all the A’s in my classes weren’t changing my realities.

But then I realized I had enough. I was drained of the self-pity and other people feeling sorry for me. I was tired of letting this one terrible moment control so much of my life. I had had enough of nothing improving. I was twenty years old and didn’t want any more regrets. I couldn’t stand the thought of being trapped in this body or this anxiety any longer. It had stolen enough of my life. So one day, I planned a summer abroad traveling around Australia and Fiji. Although I still had medical issues and was in regular treatment, I got the clear to go on this trip with some limitations. To pick up and leave was very unlike me, or maybe very much like pre-accident me that had faded away. I  decided I wanted to actually have a chance to live, like really live. So that was it. I packed up and took off across the world.

Being away that summer, I felt completely liberated. I had left behind all the baggage of this accident that had taken over my life for years. No one I met knew what had happened to me, I didn’t have the burden of appointments every week, I was able to do whatever I was capable of without people watching my every move, and my anxiety just melted away. Traveling gave me back the ability to focus on the small moments of every day and appreciate their value in a new way. It was like someone reached down through me and pulled out my soul from some depths where it been lost.

People who know me question how I can be so anxious at home over the smallest things, yet, when I’m in a country across the world I am able to just go with the flow. I really believe traveling saved me. I wanted to travel. That was always the plan and some part of my life, but my accident made that seem less possible. At home, I was obsessed with perfection and control, and my anxiety got the best of me most days. Yet, in a weird way my accident made me less afraid to go out and explore the world. I guess I felt that if something so tragic and life changing could happen around the corner from home, then I may as well go across the world and take my chances. There was suddenly less to be afraid of when breaking out of my everyday routine and trying something completely different than there was staying stuck in the same place each day.

That summer abroad changed me. It gave me strength, inspiration, and hope for a better future. I became more self-sufficient, independent, and motivated. I felt like my whole world had opened up again. These refreshing moments throughout my trip stayed with me. Experiencing being one tiny person surrounded by the immense Great Barrier Reef, humbled me. The joy of something like spotting a group of kangaroos on the side of the road made me feel like a happy child again. Staying in a Fijian village with people who have so little gave me perspective about my own situation. But mostly having real time alone gave me the chance I desperately needed to process the challenges of the last few years. The trip changed my attitude and outlook on life. As my experience came to an end, I dreaded going home and feared I would go right back to who I was before I left. But I didn’t.

And that’s when I really understood the impact of traveling. It changed my life, just like that terrible accident had, but this time it changed me for the better. I was excited about life again in ways I hadn’t felt for years and I couldn’t wait to go again and again. The experience of traveling became my addiction and greatest passion.

So I made it home and I pushed through school and work. I struggled with another troubling medical bump before finishing school when my dentist found a tumor growing in my jaw. I was faced again with my vulnerability, but I was able to get through it. After the surgery, they discovered the tumor was not cancerous and I would be okay despite some minor nerve damage in my face. But I continued pushing on and eventually I finished school with the highest honors in two degrees.

My biggest plan for the future wasn’t to get right into a career or go to graduate school. My plan was to live my life the way I wanted to and to see as much of the world that I could, as soon as I had the chance. I had been faced with two traumatic medical experiences that forced me to acknowledge how short life can be and how quickly it can change. I knew making plans for “someday” was not worth the wait. After graduating from university, I spent a year traveling. When I was home, I was completely inspired. I began to paint, to learn cake decorating, to work on photography, to write, and I even learned how to exercise with my changed body. I found new passions in my life. I found ways to manage my anxiety through these passions. And yeah, I still really struggled too. As much as I wish traveling could have healed me physically, it didn’t. There were times I suffered horribly and couldn’t move for days. There were plenty of tears over the years as I realized how much I would never be capable of again. But sometimes, after surviving the long plane rides, when I would be on the other side of the world, in warm weather with fresh air – I would feel better too. Home or not, there are always good days and bad days.

Now, nearly nine years since my car accident, I still have lingering pain, physical weakness, and limitations, but since leaving for that first big solo trip to Australia, I’ve been to 18 countries – about 2/3 of the countries I’ve seen in my life. I’ve travelled more around the States. I’ve been much more open to life and actually living in ways I hadn’t realized my accident had stolen from me. Traveling continues to help me work through some of the toughest moments of my life. I always look forward to a bright future with more trips. Traveling has saved me.