Sunday, March 15, 2009

Quatro, por favor!

There are two ways to get out of town. One option is a holiday, which involves a trip to Disneyland carting around a litter of whining children from one attraction to another while your brain slowly leaks from your ears. Option two is a vacation, where the sole intension is to leave your everyday existence behind (including said children) for typically one or two weeks per year. Both options are expensive, but you definitely get more bang-for-your-buck when you opt for the v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n.

For my husband and I, vacations aren’t as frequent as we’d like, but I’m quite certain that we’re not the only couple whom have made that statement before (insert sad violin music here).

Heading out to the Riviera Maya with another couple was just what the doctor ordered, and although there were a surprising number of families with very young children aboard our plane to paradise, they remained very quiet and well behaved during our five-hour flight. There is little worse while on vacation than to leave your own children behind and discover you‘re surrounded with other people’s kids. Which brings me to travel tip #1:
- If you didn’t bring a pair of headphones & your iPod, buy a set on the plane and watch a movie. Total cost for headset & movie rental via West Jet Airlines $9.00.
The other male traveler in our foursome has very little knowledge of the Spanish language and had the word quatro confused with cerveza, so as he practiced his Spanish request for “beer, please” by rehearsing “Quatro, por favor”, we chuckled and decided his nickname for the rest of our journey was, you guessed it, “Quatro”. My nickname became “Jet Pack”, but I’ll explain that one later.

Our accommodations in Cancun were outstanding. This is a top notch, 5-star all-inclusive resort that is, for lack of a better description, massive in real estate terms. The beach frontage of our resort stretched two kilometers, which is virtually unheard of. This is the Moon Palace Golf & Spa resort, located 15 minutes from the Cancun International Airport, and roughly the same distance from the heart of Cancun proper. It just doesn’t get any more perfect than this by anyone’s standards.
We had been to Cancun once before and although our other resort, the Barcelo Maya, was quite lovely, it did not compare to the Moon Palace, accept the cost for both these resorts is comparable. Luckily our stay at the Moon Palace was gifted to us, so our only true cost was airfare and incidentals like cab fare or tour excursions away from the resort. We estimate the 4 excursions, including cab fares, ferries, transportation rentals & cervezas cost us $500 US per couple. A major bonus of Palace Resorts is the ability for the guests to use free of charge, any other Palace Resort hotel’s restaurants & common facilities in the Quintana Roo district of Mexico. What this privilege afforded us was the ability to travel anywhere, including both islands of Isla Murjeles & Cozumel and visit, eat & drink at these sister hotels for free. This, in our little minds amounted to royal treatment, and reminded us of the slogan “membership has its privileges”, from MasterCard commercials. This perfect perk, along with the high-end facilities they offer at each of their locations, would explain why 20 percent of all visitors to Cancun stay at a Palace Resorts hotel. Although 90% of our drinks & meals were within these various resorts & hotels at no additional cost to us, we did purchase a few meals & beers at local bars & cantinas along our travels.

Many have told us that the month of March is the best time to visit the Yucatan Peninsula. Our weather was consistently sunny with the odd passing of light high clouds, although it did try to rain on one day, but the effort was short lived. One thing that we could have done without was the wind factor. It was definitely not a good place to have any amount of hair. My sister-in-law and myself found it was truly pointless to style your mane into anything but a ponytail or bun. The temperatures hovered between 25 – 29 degrees, but said wind factor was a bonus in the heat department, as you never felt “hot”. Inland, the wind was virtually non-existent.

All of the tours we signed up for were great. The first tour involved a 40-minute bus ride from our resort to a boat launch just outside of Playa del Carmen. The crew of the catamaran style ferry we boarded was highly entertaining and took many passengers’ minds off the fact that the trip across to Isla Murjeles was rocky. To play up on the choppy ride, they started the “show” with the theme song from the movie Titanic, then proceeded to play act the last scenes of the film with one of the male crew dressing in a long wig and gown while they stood at the bow of the boat together, arms stretched out to the wind and splashing waves. It was very apparent that they were all quite enjoying their jobs as tour guides, and we found out later that the host guide had been doing this gig for 10 years and still loved it.
Isla Murjeles is a tiny island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Our boat landed right at the beach of our Palace Resorts sister hotel, the Isla Murjeles Palace. Part of the tour also included the option to participate in scuba diving/snorkeling for an additional fee, however we opted to tour the island on our own after enjoying a few of the free drinks and a light lunch at the hotel.We took a cab ride into the town area and rented a golf cart for the day, which cost us $50.00 US. Most of the transportation on the island is either golf carts or scooters, with the exception of a few cabs and police vehicles. You can circumvent the entire island in 40 minutes in a golf cart, and we found the pace quite appealing as you can pull over and hop out at any time along the roadway to appreciate the beaches and other sight seeing locations. As a photographer I found this the best way to see the island. Most of the time I was able to take fantastic images without ever leaving the golf cart of having to stop to take a shot. One caveat to the road around the island is the number of speed bumps, which were quite high in golf cart standards, and you needed to be forewarned by your driver that one was coming up, or you would have fallen out of the back of the cart every time.

The best-kept secret, and there are many as we discovered, was a government run park we stumbled upon. The road sign read, “Visit the Eastern Most point in Mexico”, and as we approached the park entrance we noted the lighthouse and a small park area adorned with steel sculptures. The fee to view the point and the sculptures up close were a mere 30 pesos each, so we paid the fee and wandered down the path. What we discovered was this fantastic vista and trail system that wrapped around the point at near sea level where the most magnificent crashing waves and rugged shoreline offered a display akin to fireworks. Not a word was mentioned to us, nor had we read about this fantastic locale in any of the brochures.
The thing about Mexico is that if you don’t ask, they won’t tell. So my travel tip #2 is:
- Research the area you are going to visit as thoroughly as you can before you go so you don’t miss out on the little treats that are never advertised or mentioned by tour companies. This is likely because they do not profit from divulging this information. Don’t be afraid to go it on your own, within reason of course. We often found the tour promoters had never been on many of the tours they sell, which can be a bit frustrating.
- Tipping gets you everywhere in Mexico, as it is the main source of income for 90% of the residents & workers. Have a pocket full of US one dollar bills wherever you go and you will get fantastic treatment. Not that you have to flash the cash before you get served, however if you need more information from them than what they are expected to give, the tipping comes in handy and usually brings a broad smile and a thank you to boot. We found we tipped virtually everyone who served us, as the service was quite good everywhere we went.

Our return boat trip to the mainland was equally as entertaining as the ride in. We drank 4 glasses of beer and shot a bit of tequila, then made the grave mistake of not using the bathroom on either the boat or at the marina when we landed before getting back on the bus to our resort. Most of us were ready to bust a gut from having to pee so badly. We actually got off the bus at another hotel because we just couldn’t handle the wait any longer.

The second excursion we embarked on was an eco styled jungle trek combined with a tour of Coba, where the tallest Mayan ruin was located. Coba is also the last of the Mayan ruins that you can still climb. Eight years ago when we first visited Cancun, you were allowed to climb one of the temples at Chechen Itza, but they have since been inducted into one of those wonders of the world preservation society groups (this is a good thing) and are no longer “touchable” by tourists. Tulum is also a no touch zone Mayan ruins attraction, but still a fantastic place to see as it is located right on the shore vs. other ruins which are all inland. I also like the idea that Coba was not a highly advertised Mayan ruin tour and that meant I had something a little more interesting or unique to talk about from my trip.We totally lucked out with the Coba Adventure Tour, as our guide was not only very environmentally conscientious but was also a full time senior paramedic and spoke perfect English. Our ride was a very comfortable air-conditioned van that seated all 11 tourists in comfort. Our drive into the jungle was about an hour and half, but the scenery was excellent as we passed many traditional Mexican and Mayan communities along the way.
When we arrived, we started our excursion with a zip line over a small gorge, then once on the other side we repelled down into the gorge to view the stalactite caverns and learn about the calcium deposits which were on of the reasons for the clarity and purity of the underground cenotes. These cenotes are the only source of drinking water for the Mexicans as there are virtually no rivers or streams to provide clean drinking water. The only issue with the cenote water is that due to the high level of calcium it needs to be boiled for 20 minutes in order to be drinkable. Not that it is of poor quality, but the high calcium concentration creates a problem of the development of kidney stones and boiling the water depletes the calcium levels to prevent this problem. We were also told that Hibiscus juice is a natural preventative treatment for kidney stones in that it helps to break them down in your body so you can pass the stones more easily.

The next part of the trip involved another ½ hour drive deeper into the jungle where we participated in a short kayak paddle in a bog connecting to a hiking trail that lead us to a cenote cave. Our guide Isreal provided us with a basic understanding of the jungle area and what this particular cenote meant to the local people. We were given a traditional Mayan blessing by a shaman, then had a quick outdoor shower to remove any bug spray or suntan lotion from our bodies before descending into the cavern and taking a dip in the crystal clear aquamarine water. We then headed back to our first location to enjoy a very tasty picnic lunch prepared by the village women. In this village the language was not Spanish, but traditional Mayan.

The third leg of the adventure was another ½ hour drive to the Coba site. There are a few muddy fresh water lakes in the area, which are riddled with crocodiles, so swimming in them isn’t an option. The hike into the Coba site is roughly 1 kilometer, but if you are in need of assistance, you can to rent a bicycle or have someone ride you in and out of the site on a two seated bike cart for 90 pesos. We opted to walk in, but by the time I had repelled, hiked, kayaked and climbed the Coba ruins I was unable to make the trek back without assistance from a “Mayan limousine service”.

The main Coba pyramid called Nohoch Mull (mull means large) consists of some 120 plus steps in a very steep angle. There is a rope down the center of the staircase, which aids you in both the climb up and particularly on the climb down. The view from the top is outstanding, and one of the smaller pyramids is visible above the jungle canopy from this vista, as well as two lakes. The entire day trip to Coba & the Mayan village was about 12 hours long and we were rightfully ready for a few relaxing drinks by the time we returned to our resort. I utilized my deep marble encased jetted tub in our room to help soothe my aching legs a few times as there is a fair amount of walking involved in many of these excursions, and I was not physically prepared for it like my travel companions were.

We opted to go on a day trip to downtown Cancun, which was a free sponsored trip from our resort. It allowed you to see several more of the resort’s chain hotels and spend a few bucks pumping up the local economy. We managed to miss our return bus back by mere minutes, but a cab ride was only 15 minutes long and quite inexpensive. As members of the resort, any of their hotels’ bellboys were readily willing to flag you down a good cab and ensure you a safe comfortable ride back.

Our fourth excursion in or 7-day whirlwind tip was a 40-minute commercial ferry ride to the island of Cozumel. This island is 5 times larger than Isla Murjeles, and a far more bustling of a locale. If you are 50+ and just want to sit in the sun for 7-14 days drinking cervezas then Isla Murjeles is the place to be. The Palace hotel there is boutique styled and very laid back. If you are looking for both a fun resort and a little livelihood in your trip, then the mainland or the island of Cozumel is your better choice.

We opted to rent a jeep and explore on our own as we did with Isla Murjeles. We traveled along the shoreline roadway, which for the most part was parallel to the main highway that circumvents Cozumel. The beaches here are spectacular. As with both islands, the shore closest to the mainland has much calmer waters, and the eastern sides facing the Caribbean have very active waves and are not typically suitable for swimming unless you are very confident in your water skills or enjoy surfing.

Dotted along the roadway in stretches of 2 or more kilometers were charming little bars and shanty shack style shops. We stopped at each one to enjoy the views and a beer or two. Three places really stood out in our travels. The first was the Rasta Bar, which is dedicated to the late Bob Marley on the eastern side of Cozumel. You can purchase Bob Marley t-shirts & enjoy a beer while leaving your mark with a felt pen on any of the exposed beams and umbrella stands there.

To the left of this charismatic little "joint" is a national park which charged $5.00 US entry fee per person. There you can drive to the point and view both a crocodile sanctuary as well as a lighthouse and two very small Mayan ruins. This area is predominantly a sand dune and a large stretch of the beach area is where the sea turtles come each year to lay their eggs.

The third treasure was another stretch of beach, which topped all beaches we had previously encountered. The sand was as soft and white as flour and with the exception of us; only one other family was there. The huge waves crashed upon the shore and the balmy wind made you forget any trouble you might have had. At the end of this amazing beach was another little restaurant/bar where we enjoyed more rounds of nachos with salsa & beers. I left there feeling quite sure that if I had the cash to spare I would buy a condo on Cozumel.
Since we spent so much of our time exploring, we sadly left Mexico with little more colour than we arrived with. And as I promised, here is the reason for my nickname “Jet Pack”. Although I’m sure you are thinking it has something to do with Montezuma’s revenge, it in fact referred to my inability to keep up with the rest of our pack due to my unfit body. My husband joked that I needed a jet pack attached to my ass to help me keep up, and from then on he would occasionally look back to see where I was and yell “come on jet pack, we haven’t got all day”, to which I replied “Quatro, por favor”!

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