Andre Sólo, Travel

Sólo, Where Yat?

We’re long overdue for an update. The short version: I’m back in the US now, and it’ll be a few months before I’m on a bicycle in Latin America.

After Mexico

Here’s the latest. After my time was up in Valladolid I traveled around Mexico a bit with a friend. (We took buses. The Giant is stored safely at Alberto’s house in Valladolid. That’s the same Alberto who leads underground swimming expeditions.)

Then I needed to buckle down and work somewhere. The journey has taught me that my purpose really is to write, and I’m focused a lot more on career. I chose the city of Xalapa—my favorite stop from the ride across Mexico, and the perfect place for a creative. I rented a small apartment June-August and finished drafting four new short stories.

Finally, I returned to the U.S. I have no illusions of doing the bike trip all in one go. Instead I do it in segments, often with six months or more in between. I’m currently in Wisconsin for a long overdue visit with my parents. I spend weekdays with them, weekends seeing friends, and every day getting a lot more work done.

Some of that work was dedicated to this year’s Hero Round Table, which I spoke at this past weekend. (It was great, by the way. Once the video of my talk is live I will share it here.)

Backstage at the HRT. I took this photo, but I can't describe what's going on here.

Magician Scott Dietrich backstage at the HRT.

When to Adventure On?

Those of you who are supporters are very familiar with the words adventure on. It’s the refrain I finished all of my video logs with. The problem: at this point, I don’t know exactly when I’ll be taking my own advice. I have no date for the next leg of the Adventure.

This is nothing new. So far, no segment of the journey had led seamlessly into the next one. Each section requires prep work and planning, and has to be balanced with other priorities in my life. But this time, the biggest consideration is career: there’s a lot I want to publish. I’d like to do that before I get back on the bike.

I’m fine with the delay. I used to agonize over the pace, and felt like a failure if I didn’t get on the road quickly. Not anymore. I have a deeper confidence about the Adventure now, and I know I’ll continue it sooner or later. Meanwhile, I gotta keep my kitchen in order.

Some things on my list before the next leg:

  • Publish four stories set in Mexico, and two books
  • Launch a collaborative writing project
  • Launch an app
  • Spend Hallowe’en and maybe Carnival in New Orleans
  • Look into getting a permanent home in New Orleans, so I have a place to come back to

One thing I’m not worried about is recruiting. I used to really, really want adventuring companions. Then I biked across Mexico solo, just like the name says, and it was amazing. A handful of friends have expressed interest in the Central America leg, and they’re welcome to come. But there will not be a massive call for adventurers this time. The journey is mine, and that makes me happy.

So what exactly are all these books and collaborative projects? I’ll save that for next time. Until then…

Adventure on :)

Lúnasa Days

Lúnasa Days is the story of a young man on a bicycle, finding his purpose in life. Check it out here.

Andre Sólo, Heroism, Spotlight

If You’re Just Joining Us…

Photo via Hero Round Table

Photo via Hero Round Table

For those of you at the Hero Round Table, thanks for checking out Rogue Priest. Here are some of my favorite posts if you’d like to learn about my journey:

It Was the First of Many Deserts

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

The Heroic Life

You might also enjoy my book, Lúnasa Days:

Lúnasa Days

It’s story of a young man on a bicycle, finding his purpose in life. Check it out here.

Andre Sólo, Heroism, The Heroic Life

My Hero Round Table Talk

Tomorrow I speak at the Hero Round Table, the world’s largest conference on heroism. I’ll be talking about how a journey teaches you to be heroic, and finding your purpose in life. I’ll also share a story from crossing the desert in Mexico.

If you’d like to watch, we stream my talk Friday 9/18 at 10:00 am Eastern/9:00 am Central. (That’s tomorrow.) Because it’s a live stream you’ll need to tune in on time to see me. You can do that here:

The Hero Round Table

The feed will appear Friday and Saturday during the talks. There are lots of other great speakers too, so consider sticking around.

You can also tweet me questions @rogue_priest with the hashtag #heroRT.

Regular updates will resume next week.

Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 3—The Twelve Hour Breakfast

Last time I offered a little glimpse of what days and nights were like during my time in Valladolid. But as time went on, they seemed to get wilder.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Party at Seven

Mario, our local chef-cum-poet extraordinaire, has a knack for creating great parties. Generally, if Mario was planning something everyone wanted in. But one plan seemed to go too far:

A breakfast party.

“Picture this,” Mario said. “We start at dawn. I cook. At seven sharp there is an amazing breakfast laid on the table. And together we share it, and the party starts.”

This proposal earned no shortage of groans. For the banda I ran with, it was just too early of a start. But Mario was relentless. Originally the idea was an overnight party—in one of Alberto’s cenotes, no less—with breakfast cooked over a fire the following dawn. Alberto ruled that it was too complicated, and the idea foundered.

At first I didn’t like the idea of an early wake up, either. But in New Orleans we start our Mardi Gras at 5 a.m. Friends force themselves out of bed to meet for a hasty breakfast and the assembly of the costumes. The great holiday ends at midnight, so by 7 a.m. the Faubourg Marigny is alive with revelers. It’s worth the bleary eyes.

Thinking of this, I asked Mario why he wanted a breakfast party so bad. And why so early?

“For the experience! Think of it, Andre: the sun is barely up, the day is not yet hot, the streets are silent. It’s a time we always miss, bunch of drunks that we are, but this one day we’ll get to see it, to experience it, and we’ll celebrate being alive.”

(Mario actually talks like that.)

I was in. “I don’t have a cenote,” I said. “But I have a pool. And an outdoor kitchen. Choose a day.”

And so the breakfast began.

Mario and I had a week to campaign our friends to actually wake up on time. No one wanted to, and almost no one gave a firm commitment. Mario promised to bring enough food for 12 people, and joked that we’d have to eat it all ourselves. Meanwhile, my contribution was a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream for the coffee, which I discovered was kept behind protective glass at the supermarket and required a secret code to purchase.

We shouldn’t have worried. On the day of the party, the guests tumbled in half-asleep and miserable, but quickly perked up at the smell of food. They brought with them fresh juice, treats, and the ingredients for morning cocktails. “Is there milk for the coffee?” someone asked. I slid them the Bailey’s.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

By 8:00 the seats were full, and people came and went all day. After breakfast we sat in bliss and chatted; after chatting we swam. The conversation ranged from philosophy and fate to sex, which to Mario are faces of a coin. When the debate got too intense I cooled it down by pushing Alejandra in the pool. But it was good, easygoing conversation. A party under the sun is just more humane than a party at night.

Swim, snack, chat, swim snack. Eventually someone gathered up ingredients and fixed another meal, and others made beer runs. “Get your glasses!” called Mario. “Get ready for the countdown!”

“What countdown?”

“We started at seven,” he grinned. “It’s about to be seven again.”

The assembled company murmured in disbelief. It was the twelve hour mark of our breakfast. Mario counted down the seconds and we toasted on the hour.

The party continued even longer, but when the sun went down the mood changed. Not for the worse or the better. It just changed.

I decided to rest, but the pool party got wilder. At one point I stepped inside for a call from a friend back home. I guess the guests missed their host, because a few lined up by the window and taunted me with full moons. The guilty parties will of course remain nameless.

By nine or ten, the moment was lost. People found their reasons to make an exit. Many weren’t tired out but were just ready for a new venue. For my part, I closed the door and relaxed, happy.

The Last Supper

The breakfast was far from the only party Mario threw. The greatest was also the last: the closing of his restaurant Naino. He was tired of not making a profit, and the tourist season was over. While everyone else thought it was a tragedy, Mario responded with his usual fatalism. It wasn’t meant to be; there was no point in fighting it; the only thing left to do was go out in glory. And so began the Last Supper.

I figured the name was just a joke, but it quickly became clear that this would be a thoroughly Biblical event. Mario was to play the part of our Lord and Savior. Per his invitation text:

“The next day Naino shall be crucified. Three days later it will make a brief reappearance and then ascend to the heavens, at the right hand of Mario.”

Costumes were encouraged, particularly togas and robes. I didn’t have a toga but I did have a checkerboard cape from my Chess Master costume at Mardi Gras. Striding across town in this outfit got a lot of Mayan double-takes.

The admission fee to the dinner was supposed to be $150 pesos, but Mario neglected to collect it, leaving Manda and me to be his muscle. I also tithed a fair selection of wine, as our messiah had thus far failed to turn water into a liquor license.

The Last Supper by da Vinci

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Holy Cross

Despite the good times, I often abstained from parties. Once, when Naino’s kitchen closed and the tables were slid aside for the dancing to begin, I made my way to the door amidst booing and pleading from my compatriots. I believe in living in the moment, but the truth is I do precious little of it. I live more in my plans and my dreams, and a hangover does not help me accomplish them.

Still, I was anything but a wallflower during those months. There are more Valladolid stories than I can possibly tell. At one point I was invited to give a talk on my Adventure to the local community, complete with a Spanish translator. I made friends I haven’t even mentioned here: Denis, the jolly hotel owner and local maven; Allan, the quiet old genius who lives outside of town; and Harriet. Harriet approaches life as a puzzle that can be figured out. She tornadoes into a room with the charm of a New England ladies’ club and the booming voice of a naval commander. Once, at a fundraising breakfast she organized, I teasingly complained about the long speeches. “You know what, Andre?” she cheerfully replied. “Fuck off and die.”

At the end of my Valladolid time, I still had one mission left to accomplish. For 1,700 miles of cycling across Mexico I carried a card inscribed with the names of all the supporters who made the trip possible. (“Follow that Dream,” the card read.) I had pledged to leave it at a shrine of Guadalupe in Valladolid. The problem? There were none. I could spot household shrines through doors and behind gates, but no public ones.

My last week in Valla, I rode the Giant out to the villages. On the  city outskirts I spotted one of the ritual crosses of the Maya. A hundred years ago, when the Maya rose up against Mexican landowners, they formed their own Christian cult around a holy cross that could speak and issue commands to its followers. Even today, the villages have simple wooden crosses dressed in beautiful hand-embroidered garments as if the cross itself were a person.

I stopped at this particular holy cross, its pediment crowded with candles. Leaving the bike aside, I knelt down.

All the candles were of Guadalupe.

Reverently, I kissed the ground and offered the card. “Follow that Dream,” it still said, just barely, the words blurred by moisture and sun and months of riding in a bike bag. I set the card behind the candles, in this place where Mayan, Mexican and European tradition come together.

As I stood I saw a local mother and her two kids on the trail behind me. She held them back to let me do my devotion in peace. But when I met her gaze, she smiled warmly. So did I.

I had finished my mission of riding across Mexico. In the future, I’ll pick up at the same place and head farther south—through countries even more dangerous, on roads even more busted, with even less idea of what I’m doing.

But for now, I focus on my career. At the end of May, a friend from the US came down to visit. I left the Canada House and Valladolid in early June, and we spent some time on the beach before I headed to Xalapa to write.

So where am I now? That’s a story for next time.

For more reading, check out my book Lúnasa Days.

Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Review of the SNS Academy Intro to Atheist Spirituality

Photo by Caleb Roenigk

Several months ago I wrote about helping test a new course on spirituality for atheists. By “spirituality for atheists” I mean a path of personal growth using tools from spirituality (like meditation) with no supernatural elements. The course could also be used by people who are agnostic or humanistic and simply want a spirituality based on evidence.

The course is produced by the Spiritual Naturalist Society, a humanist organization. They took feedback from myself and other testers, improved the course, and have now officially opened it to the public. This is my review of the course.

(Disclosure: I know one of the course designers personally. I do not receive compensation for this review nor for readers enrolling in the course.)

Course Overview

The course is a 4-week, online, mostly self-guided experience. I say “mostly” because you’re expected to complete certain modules each week. Within the week, you can go at your own pace and on your own schedule.

The face of the course is humanist author BT Newberg. While I know BT in real life, I’ve never seen him teach before and he does so with a gentle, confident delivery that makes him easy to absorb. It’s clear he’s someone who meditates extensively in his own life, and when he talks about the practices he’s speaking from experience.

The format has three parts:

  • Videos. Each module begins with a video. Most videos are about 10 minutes long (there are transcripts if you prefer to read). The videos introduce core concepts and the practices that you’ll be asked to do. Most feature the voice of BT Newberg, with plenty of images and illustrations to break up the visuals. Several modules use audio guidance by Dr. Helen Weng, a meditation researcher, instead of videos. I thought the videos were well done, insightful and to the point.
  • Self-guided Q&A. After each module is a short Q&A or quiz. There is no grade on this—the course is quite gentle if you get an answer wrong, showing you the correct one and an explanation of why. The questions are about concepts from the video and help make sure you’re following the reasoning of how to do a practice or how it will help. I personally did not get a lot out of doing the Q&A, but I understand it helps with learning retention and some people like it.
  • Forums. There is a private online forum for course students. This is a great touch, as it allows you to speak to other like-minded individuals. Small talk is optional, but each week has a prompt for discussion in the forums that led to, in my opinion, very high quality conversations.

Altogether, the total time commitment is about 3 hours/week.

What You Learn

This course is officially Spiritual Naturalism 101, an intro to naturalistic spirituality. The curriculum is ambitious—they really set out to give you a complete, hands on spiritual path. The course covers everything from understanding emotion to finding peace and fulfillment to facing death without an afterlife. It would have been easy for the course to go off the rails, but they kept it practical by anchoring each module in a specific practice.

If I had to name a main theme of the course, I would say “self mastery.” Several sections are dedicated to emotions, how they arise, and how to manage them. Clearly, awareness meditation is a major part of this, but so are lots of other, less well known practices. BT comes back often to the idea of “broadening,” or simply taking a moment to look at the larger context of a situation, in order to defuse stress, anxiety or negative emotions. That’s a shortcut a Buddhist wouldn’t take, which underscores that this course is all about what works and not just sticking to an age-old practice.

Not everything is about emotion. The course delves into what it means to live in a naturalistic universe. One module addresses suffering as a natural part of our world, and strategies for accepting that. Another deals with the anguish of knowing that death is final, and how to create meaning in a meaningless world. If you’re seeing a broad range of influences here, both Eastern and Western, you’re exactly right.

The most fascinating section dealt with myths, religion and mysticism. Maybe surprisingly, it didn’t disparage them. The SNS is very clear that it believes in none of this stuff—but it believes it can be useful anyway. BT describes his experience making offerings at the shrine of a deity he is 100% sure does not exist, and why that practice was valuable. He suggests that myth and mysticism fill a certain need in the human psyche, and can do their job even when taken as purely symbolic. “Dive deep” into the ocean of myth, he says, “And let naturalism be your lifeguard.”

Of course, this won’t appeal equally to every student. No section will—I found some highly valuable and others less so. But no section gets pushy. The course only asks you to understand the concepts and try each practice once; which ones you end up using on your own is an entirely your decision.


So far my comments have been mostly positive. I think it’s a good course. But are there downsides? Potentially:

  • I would have liked to see a female face in the course. Make no mistake, BT is very approachable and SNS has a lot to offer all genders. But in a world of male gurus it would be nice to see a woman leading a spiritual class, especially a highly intellectual one. Perhaps a future version of the course could trade off videos between BT and a female instructor.
  • What you get out of the course will depend a lot on your existing view toward religion. It might be too “let’s use stuff from religion” for strong atheists and too “but not believe in it” for others. Whether that’s a pro or a con will depend on your point of view.

All in all, I was very happy with the course. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to explore their personal development and “spiritual” worldview without going down a faith-based path.

The first SNS 101 course begins Sunday, September 6th. Cost is $100, or $50 for SNS supporting members (you do not have to be a member to join). Space is limited to the first 10 students to sign up. Get more details or enroll here.

Next time I’ll get back to stories from Valladolid. If you’re hungry for stories now, check out my book.

Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 2—Yucatán Nights

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Valladolid looks quiet but there’s a lot going on. Last time I introduced the crazy cast of characters I managed to fall in with. Now it’s time for some misadventures.

Writers Are Boring

Most days were tame. Writers are boring artists: we don’t hop around stage and cast spells like musicians or actors. We don’t even put on a show of furious brush strokes. Furious laptopping just looks like you’re unbalanced, too angry over someone’s comment on Youtube. I spent many days quietly typing at home.

But I felt out of place in the Canada House. There were four bedrooms and just one of me. I mostly lived in the back building, but I preferred to work up front in the outdoor kitchen, surrounded by nature. As a result I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. It felt odd having such a huge place to myself.

I wrote four stories I had dreamed up crossing Mexico. The first is about a woman in Laredo, who needs money for her son. She seeks out a magic man that lives in the desert, braving the threat of drug traffickers to find him—only to find out he’s in with the narcos, and requires a sacrifice.

The second one was conceived amidst the ghost towns of Real de Catorce. It follows a desert pilgrimage to the sacred mind-altering peyote. And a third tells of an old woman, an herbalist, who leaves her village and her adult children to seek her fortune in the big city. The big city, unfortunately, does not want her.

The last is a tale set in Xalapa, but it’s not done yet. It also doesn’t fit. While the others are all magical realism, this one is about love.

I wrote other things besides. I started to sit on the street, like an artist with a sketchbook, and write about what I saw.

One road in grabbed my attention. It’s a tiny lane off a major city street, but you’d think you’re in the country. It has trees, a low stone wall built by hand, a thatch roofed cottage, chickens. I mentioned my infatuation to Manda and she lit up. “Do you mean the street off Calzada de los Frailes? Second corner from Alberto’s, isn’t it? It’s rather like a storybook.” Artists think alike.

While I was writing, one of the street’s residents came up and introduced himself. Soon he brought two cups of coffee from his house and got bread from a passing vendor, and we practically had a picnic. He told me he’s a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s gone sober to win back his wife. Later, he confided that his coffee mug contained beer.

The paradox of writing is that to do it well you need to be reclusive, but sitting in your home alone deprives you of fresh material. Everyday I went out and walked around. I observed and made notes. But, deep in my inner world of ideas, I hardly talked to anyone. I ate alone and preferred restaurants where I knew no one. As the wait staff became friendlier I wouldn’t want to return. This hermitage may sound rude or lonely, but it only improved the quality of my work and, most days, my happiness.

Yucatán Nights

In the evenings I was more social. By day Yucatán’s an oven, but after dark there are cool breezes. It’s a joy to sit outside a cafe or bar. Some nights we would go to Alberto’s—his Valladolid residence is a shuttered bakery—and we sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside his door. Families gathered in the plaza at night, and some upstanding citizen had donated a circus carousel for the kids (it was almost election time).

“Wow, what a nice gift to the city,” I said.

“Come on!” yelled Alberto. “Do you know that music plays all night? I’m taking out a hit on that thing!”

We also got a new arrival. Arianna, a professional musician from California, had fallen in love with Valladolid. Now she was scouting possible places to live. Arianna is a person who can talk to anyone, and she relishes doing so (she also has game with both men and women).

She really widened our friend circle. Mexico is a country of clear class divisions, and foreigners are automatically slotted into the upper caste. I can easily make friends with locals who are business owners, hold college degrees and know English. Working class Mexicans, however, sometimes view me with suspicion. Not so when Arianna walks up flashing her smile.

It was through her that I met Rosalía, a 30 year old Maya woman who is unmarried, works 10 hours a day and lives with her family. Unmarried at 30 is unusual in Mexico; no kids is even less common. Both are conscious choices she has made so she can save up money and open a business with her brothers. She is both a dreamer and a hard worker, a dangerous combination.

Soon she invited us to dinner at her house. We shared beer and pizza while her brothers grilled us about life in the US. Arianna’s Spanish made mine look good, but we managed to trade stories in a mix of languages. Slowly they seemed to accept that, although we have more money, we are basically not that different—and we’re at least not stuck up about it. It was the first time they’d ever had a foreigner in their home.

The next day Rosalía apologized fiercely.

“Why?” I said.

“Because we drank so much! You must think we’re drunks!”

I smiled and thought of the pool parties at Canada House.

The Fatal Chef

Valladolid has some good restaurants. There’s Fallo’s Seafood, where the 5-foot tall owner leaves his shirt open to show off his chest hair while making shrimp cocktails. There’s Yerbabuena, which serves the best breakfast in town, and where my waiter Carlos struggled to accept that he could speak to me in Spanish instead of using his perfectly practiced English. A hundred steps from my front door was Family Restaurant Oasis, more like a bar with a full menu, where the food is awful but the botanas (free snacks if you order beer) are worth the stop. In the evenings I would go to Conato for great food and solitude; Casa Italia, for great food and the risk of running into people; or the most fabled eatery of them all, Naino.

Naino was the restaurant of our Portuguese poet-chef, Mario. Originally he ran it like a standard restaurant with a menu. “I got bored,” Mario told me. “And I had customers get rude if we were out of something. So I took their menu away.” His eyes glittered.

The new deal was simple: you paid 120 pesos and Mario brought you three courses (sometimes four) of whatever he felt like. It was a hit, and rocketed him to the most popular restaurant in Valla. But that didn’t make it profitable. For one thing, 120 pesos is a low price for the kind of fine dining he provided. For another, the city resolutely refused to give him an alcohol license. (Valladolid is controlled by twelve ancient families and is notoriously conservative.) Undeterred, Mario launched a “bring your own” policy with no corking fee and frequently sold illegal cuagamas (40 ounce beers). But every wine bottle brought from the corner store was 150 pesos in missed revenue.

For Mario, the fun wasn’t in making money. It was in creating experiences where people truly let go and enjoyed themselves. There are many terms I could use to describe the man: a fatalist, a sensualist. But I think the best description is that he’s Mario. And Mario came up with ever more extravagant ideas for parties.

One of those ideas was the twelve hour breakfast. But that’s a story for next time.

Until then, check out my book or show your support. Thank you as always for reading.


Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 1—The Right Group of People



In the last entry I finished my ride across Mexico and reached beautiful Valladolid. But that was months ago. What was it like living there? Valladolid itself is a small colonial city, but my life there was much wilder than I could have expected. Here’s a first look into that time, and all the people I met.

When I arrived in Valladolid I didn’t have a clear plan. I knew I wanted to live there and write long term. “Long term” meant a few months, a novelty after biking to a new town every few days. But first I needed a place to stay.

For the first few nights I booked a room with Manda, a British fashion designer who came to Mexico to teach design. She ended up hating the job but loving the country. For three years she followed Mexican teenagers photographing their amazing Colombia-inspired fashion. (Her book about the teens is stunning, by the way.) But I knew none of that. I’d chosen her house simply because it was the coolest looking place on AirBnB.

Manda's book

Manda’s book

Soon I made friends with her two dogs, Prince Harry and Chaparro, and her cat Lord Freddy. In the mornings we’d all sit together on the back patio. Manda and I sipped English tea and ate home-made granola (“muesli” in British parlance). In the afternoons I’d work on the computer while Manda made entire dresses or her next piece of home décor. I tried to teach Manda how to make coffee, but with only a pot to heat the water and no filters, I quickly switched back to tea.

I couldn’t dawdle around, though; I needed to find a place of my own. Showing up without a plan is new for me. Not knowing where I’d be living or how long I’d be there was uncomfortable, but strangely relaxing.


My arrival in Valla coincided with the height of Mardi Gras season back home. A New Orleans friend told me scoldingly, “I remember someone sitting around my bonfire two years ago and saying he’d never miss another Mardi Gras again.” She called in that oath, and I didn’t need much convincing. Flying was bizarre after so much cycling, and I stared out the window in a trance as we crossed the entire Gulf in hours. Then I hit the Big Easy, saw my friends, and had an amazing Carnival. (Our costume theme was Games, and I went as the Chess Master, with a black-and-white jacket I painted myself.)

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

As a side-effect this trip reset my tourist visa, so when I returned to Mexico I had six more months to play with. Meanwhile Manda had a lead for me: two Canadian friends were getting ready to fly north for the summer, and needed a house sitter badly.

The Canadian House was jaw-dropping. It’s an entire compound arranged around a central garden with a giant pool and a waterfall. The front house is a palapa (thatched roof cottage) and the back is all modern.  It wasn’t a true house sitting gig—I paid rent to stay there—but it was a good deal. It hit it off with the owners and before long I literally had the keys to paradise in my hand.

Valla Days Feb-June 2015 530_rs

“My” pool.

The Guy with the Pool

Before they left, the owners told me, “You should have guests over. Use the house. Use the pool. Enjoy it.” Manda knew everyone in town and introduced me around. I’d like to think I would have made friends on my own, but it didn’t hurt being the guy with the pool. Valladolid is close-knit and I quickly got to know all the local characters, most of whom had stayed in Canada House at some point.

María José is an environmental consultant who moved from Mexico City because she loves the Yucatecan jungle. She owns a small farm in one of the Maya villages, where she’s learning to raise stingless Mayan bees and helps the villagers build up tourism.

Ariane is the owner of Dutzi boutique, an outspoken German and the “other” fashion designer in town. She and Manda are good friends. I first met Ariane on Manda’s patio, where she burst in the door rebuffing one of Manda’s guests: “Look, I can’t talk about ‘oh what part of Germany are you from,’ I’m not on vacation, I just worked twelve hours!” I liked her immediately.

Other regulars included Pelucas, a Spanish artist who can’t keep a straight face; Mario, a Portuguese chef with a poetic streak who served small plates at his restaurant Naino; and Alejandra, the owner of the town’s best tequila shop. Alejandra is an adventurer in her own right, and taught me how to sound like a tequila expert (I am not one).

A cenote. National Geographic photo.

The Fearless Cenote Hunter

One character I kept hearing about took forever to meet. That is Alberto, better known as the Cenote Hunter. Cenotes are the breathtaking underground lakes that lie hidden everywhere under the Yucatán, most completely sealed from the surface. But sometimes there are openings, making them natural wells and much sought-after swimming holes. Many villages have a communal cenote, for their own use or for tourists; most churches and town centers are built right over one, as they were the original water source; and every resort, tour company and rich foreigner wants to own one. Alberto single-handedly carved out a new industry, talking to Maya locals and hunting out cenotes in the jungle. He buys and sells them, and has inspired many imitators.

No sooner did I meet Alberto than I was invited along on a cenote expedition. Alberto is a whirlwind: you cannot make plans with him, but any given morning he might call you and tell you to be ready in 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I’d ask. “Come on, there is a beautiful cenote I want to show you! Let’s go!”

Whenever feasible the expeditions are carried on bicycle. I got the call and met Manda at her house. We teamed up with Alberto, all on bikes, with both of Manda’s dogs chasing along behind us. The goal: a cenote named Mukul about 18 km away.

“Are you sure the dogs can run that far?” I asked Manda.

“I brought water for them, they’re tough boys, aren’t you my tough boys?”

About 12 km later one of the tough boys was riding in my bicycle basket and the other one had long since abandoned us.

"Who is the dog, and who is the master?"

“Who is the dog, and who is the master?”

Mukul was beautiful. We left the bikes on the roadside and waked a mile through the jungle to two holes in the ground. “Watch that hole,” Alberto said, pointing. He tossed a rock down the other. WHOOSH! About 20 turquoise blue birds exploded out of the depths, spooked by the falling rock, all flying right past my face.

After the bird show we entered the underworld. Mukul’s descent is a mere 100 feet of wobbling ladder, followed by a log staircase that Alberto’s business partner built. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They almost never collapse.”

The cenote at the bottom was vast. We stood on a natural ledge overlooking it: a cavernous lake extending far into the dark, lit only with a little sunlight from the two holes above. Trails glittered across the black water, caused by mineral dust floating on top. It gave the effect of pathways left by faeries hoping to lure us to their world.

18 km is a short bike ride for me, but in 100 degree weather (with a four-legged passenger) it’s not easy. Plunging into the dark, cool water was like medicine. More friends showed up while we swam, and then the wine bottles were opened.

“I feel like we earned this wine,” Manda said. “It tastes better this way.”

By this time I already knew I had fallen in with a special group of people. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Valladolid or what I’d do next, but I knew I made the right decision staying there. I just had to make sure I buckled down and got my writing done—but that’s a story for next time.

For more reading check out my book Lúnasa Days.