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travel | cancun

An escape before parenthood

Central American caves, waterfalls, hair-raising drives—and everywhere, children

A boy feasts on a hunk of watermelon in a small town beside Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. PHOTO CREDIT DAVID ABEL

A boy feasted on a hunk of watermelon in a small town beside Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

CANCÚN, Mexico — It was like reverse schadenfreude, in which I experienced a twinge of pain from the pleasure others took in my apparent good fortune.

Everyone we told seemed elated, while I was apprehensive, feeling the urge to escape — preferably far away.

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Which is how, on my 40th birthday, I found myself in a bar that I had not visited since college. I sat there, staring into a shot of tequila, a liquid fire I hoped would free me from the anxiety that had been building in the few weeks since my wife, Jess, had told me she was pregnant.

Techno music thumped from speakers that felt like they were everywhere and an order of magnitude louder than the last time I had stopped at Señor Frog’s in Cancún, where we had just arrived to start a three-week trip through southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

We decided to call our winter getaway late last year a babymoon, which Wikipedia defines as “a vacation taken by a couple that is expecting a baby, in order to allow the couple to enjoy a final trip together before the many sleepless nights that usually accompany a newborn.”

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It was the prospect of such stress and the accompanying mayhem that had long dissuaded me from taking the plunge into parenthood, a looming reality I was reminded of on the flight down as we watched an exhausted father struggle to keep infant twins from wailing and a restless toddler full of food on his face from a tantrum.

“Your life is about to completely change,” he told me, after Jess smiled adoringly at the children and told his wife we were expecting.

Like a prophecy, his words reverberated over the next few weeks and left me more determined to relish this last jaunt of freedom — this pause before true adulthood — on which we could do whatever we pleased.

Wikipedia says babymoons usually take place “at a resort that offers appropriate services, like prenatal massage.” We were going a different route, one that included 15-hour bus rides into a remote jungle, climbing waterfalls in caves while holding candles, and getting soaked on small boats as we cruised down an alligator-infested river in a tropical storm.

After the tequila — Jess, of course, was neither drinking nor craving an escape — we walked along the main boulevard of the hotel zone in Cancún, which felt like a ghost town the week before Christmas with what seemed like more soldiers than tourists. (Although the drug war has transformed parts of Mexico into a war zone, with government estimates of nearly 50,000 people dead since 2006, we never felt unsafe.)

The next day we took a ferry across the turquoise waters to Isla Mujeres, where we toured the small island in a golf cart and snorkeled with parrot fish. As we roved around, I found myself staring at couples with small children, wondering how they did it, whether we would have to give up our itinerant journeys, much-needed respites that provide those few deep breaths from our daily routines.

At dinner that night, we met a couple from France eating al fresco, with their baby in a stroller. They looked the picture of familial harmony, until the little boy, who could not have looked more blissful, inexplicably erupted in tears.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” his mother told us. “There are trying times. But you don’t have to give up your life.”

We headed a few hours south on the Yucatan coast and spent the next few days in the tranquil town of Tulum, where the factory-like hotels and package tourism of Cancún gave way to bungalows on the beach and more backpackers than families.

We did all the things a childless couple can do: We dined at trendy restaurants for as long as we wanted, read and ran on white-sand beaches, and explored well-preserved Mayan ruins and a large barrier reef full of stingrays and colorful coral.

We rented a car and searched for cenotes, ancient freshwater swimming holes that formed underground where the limestone bedrock had collapsed. The first one we visited would have been hard to find without a sentry pointing to a small opening in a stretch of dirt that led to a spiral staircase, which wound a few hundred feet below ground. At the bottom, a small vestibule led to a large opening, which looked like an underground amphitheater filled with a pool of perfectly clear water.

Free of concerns, we snorkeled in an open-air cenote that runs under a road into the ocean and luxuriated at another inside a vast cave, where bats hid in the large, dangling stalactites and flashlights were needed to avoid sharp stalagmites piercing the water. They felt like secret swimming pools, majestic places that seemed almost unreal — conjured from the 1980s classic movie “The Goonies.”

When we were ready, we boarded an overnight bus for an 11-hour trip west to Palenque, an ancient Mayan outpost in the Mexican state of Chiapas. When we awoke in this city carved out of the jungle, we found a hotel, showered, and left within the hour for a daylong tour of millennium-old temples, a towering waterfall called Misol-Ha, and a paradisiacal place called Agua Azul, where a bright blue river tumbles over a series of small waterfalls.

In a lush land full of beauty, I found myself transfixed by something else: The little girl helping her mother carve mangos and sell them on sticks like lollipops; giggling children jumping off a rope swing; a boy bursting with exuberance as he helped his parents stuff candy into a piñata.

The next day, after a minivan trip up a long, dizzying road through steep mountains, we strolled the cobblestone streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Here the legacy of Spanish rule persists in the colonial architecture, the influence of the rebel Zapatistas remains visible in the graffiti, and the effect of a surge in tourism drifts out of the myriad restaurants in scents of freshly brewed cappuccino, newly baked croissants, and pepperoni pizza.

Still, I could not help aiming my camera at what struck me as more compelling: the delight of two girls dressed like princesses out on the town with their similarly dressed, proud mother; the blissfulness of babies being cradled by their parents at the night market; the precociousness of the children hawking bracelets and other trinkets.

By the time we crossed the border into Guatemala and boarded a boat to navigate Lake Atitlan, where shadows from the surrounding volcanoes float in the cobalt water, Jess began to notice my budding interest in children. She smiled with some relief when I showed her my pictures of a boy devouring a hunk of watermelon and a girl staring through binoculars larger than her head.

“I hope this is a good sign,” she said.

Kids can be adorable — I know from having nieces — but won’t they rob me of my solace, end my well-honed independence, suck the joy out of traveling?

During an afternoon roaming around the colonial center of Antigua, the capital of the country before Guatemala City, we met a British woman carrying a large backpack on her chest and a baby in a floppy hat strapped to her back. I was amazed and asked how she managed.

“You have to continue living the way you want,” she said.

She pointed to a large red mark on her son’s forehead and offered advice for traveling with children in the developing world: “Carry around a mosquito net.”

On another minivan trip to see sprawling caves and underground rivers in central Guatemala, we met a couple from South Africa traveling with their young daughter, who eagerly introduced us to her mascot for the trip, Papa Smurf. The three had spent the past month traveling around the country — by motorcycle.

“Children are very adaptable,” the mother said, as her daughter consumed a bag of Cheetos.

They didn’t hit the bars much anymore, she admitted, but they insisted on doing what they would have without a child. “You just have to bring enough toys,” she said.

Over the next few days in Guatemala, I took note of the resilience of small children who accompanied their parents on an hourlong trek up a peak overlooking the turquoise river in the region known as Semuc Champey, the mischievous impulses of young boys exploding firecrackers in the Afro-Caribbean community of Livingston, and the serenity of a single mother from Utah shepherding her teenage daughters across rutted roads and bumpy rivers.

By the time we arrived in Belize, I began to think that having children was not the end of the world as I have known it, that it could be less a millstone than a source of pride, even a new kind of pleasure.

As we made our way from Punta Gorda, a sleepy town in southern Belize, to Caye Cauker, another backpacker redoubt off the northern coast, I basked in my lingering freedom: kayaking in the sunset, sailing on a booze cruise, snorkeling with sharks, barracuda, and other large fish. We awoke and went to sleep when we wanted, wandered about in whatever direction seemed pleasing, and lapped up the peace of having no worries.

It was a good run, I thought.

On the boat back to Belize City, I met a Belizian woman about my age on her way home to see her children.

When I told her I was about to become a father, she smiled. She told me about the hardships. About the costs. And about the things you have to give up.

“Everything is going to change,” she said. “But it’s going to change for the better. It will be the best thing you ever do.”

All I could do was hope she was right.

If you go...

Jenna’s B&B

Panajachel, Guatemala

011-502-5458-1984

www.jennasriverbedand

breakfast.com

A comfortable bed-and-breakfast with a sumptuous, freshly prepared spread and a gracious host on the coast of Lake Atitlan. Rooms $60, with breakfast.

El Portal

Semuc Champey, Guatemala

011-502-7983-0016

A series of newly built huts

with fearless guides and reasonable fare, overlooking the turquoise Río Cahabón.

Rooms $30.

Tortugal

Río Dulce, Guatemala

011-502-5306.6432

www.tortugal.com

Abutting the river, bungalows with a well-stocked bar and a breezy dock beside a large branch of the river.

Rooms

$55.

Where to eat

Casa Banana

Tulum, Mexico

011-521-984-806-2871

www.casabananatulum.com

Great breakfasts, hearty lunches, and dinners that range from Argentine-inspired steaks to fresh fish. $5 to $15 per person.

La Casa del Pan

San Cristóbal de Las Casas

Mexico

011-521-967-678-7215

www.casadelpan.com

The croissants and other baked goods may be the best on this side of the Atlantic. Chefs are French.

$2 to $10 per person.

Wish Willy Bar Grill

Caye Caulker, Belize

011-501-660-7194

wish-willy.com

A backyard barbecue offering grilled lobsters in ginger butter sauce, grilled fish with coconut lime sauce, and specially prepared jerk chicken.

$10 to $20 a person.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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