Thursday, February 28, 2008

Visit to the Yucatan: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Feb. is the best time for me to visit Mexico. Due to the back to back President's Day and Lincoln's Bday holiday, I was able to take off for the whole week using only 3 vacation days. On top of that, Cancun vacation packages are cheap! We booked flight and 3-nights through Expedia (total= $450/person). The other 3-nights of our stay were all walk-ins and although this month is supposedly peak season, finding bargain hotels was not a problem. We stayed at St. Clemente ($42/night) at Valladolid, which is right across the plaza! Then, at Playa del Carmen, we stayed at a Mar de Caribe ($35/night), which is couple of blocks from the shops, pier, and the beach! So, if you're traveling there on winter time, maybe you can just book your first night and book the other hotel nights as you go. You have a better chance of finding bargains stays with the help of a good travel book.

Direct flight will take you to Cancun in about 6 hrs but since we were on a budget, our flight was 9 hrs to and 12 hrs from Cancun. You can also fly to Meridia, which I heard is a beautiful city and then, maybe depart from Cancun back to US so you can travel across Quintana Roo (the name of the state, take note on your customs form). Renting a car is probably not a good idea because the toll fees are expensive and there are many toll areas, too. Gas may not be that expensive (about $1 per Liter) but rental + insurance are kind of costly. There's also the risk of having your windows break into and get your stuff stolen when unattended, if you're not careful. Taking the local bus is easier, cheap, and you get to sleep/rest along the way with a good A/C and brush up on your Spanish by watching some TV, too. We took the bus from Cancun airport to downtown, checked-in to our hotel, ate at the local plaza then, head out to Zona Hotelera. The R-1 bus takes you between downtown and Zona Hotelera. Make sure you ask the driver which way it's going because you might get into the bus that's heading back. Due to the past hurricanes that hit the island, the beachfront is not as great in some of the resorts. The hotel-resort lobbies are amazing and some even have really sophisticated and artistic designs, like Aqua. The top resorts, like Riu, have a lot of activities to offer like numerous endless pools, volleyball courts, huge JENGA, bars with underwater seating, some have hammocks and canopy beds - all by the beach area. The sands are really fine and white at Riu beachfront. Keep in mind that during winter, sun sets early and depending on which part of the island you're in, you'll probably start feeling the cold wind and the start losing the sun to the shade around 5PM. So, start hitting the beach early on winter. It's a great time to visit for those people who don't like extreme heat or humidity. As far as food, I'm not really into goat cheese and the local delicacies. Thank God that a lot of the restaurants cater to what non-locals look for as far as taste and variety and the price is not that bad either. It's anywhere from $4 to $8 and can be as expensive as $30 (for a really great dish). The exchange rate was $1 to ~ 10.45 pesos. The peso sign looks almost similar to a dollar sign that it confuses me at first. I took out some money from my CITI account from a Banamex ATM, which takes CITI card. The bank charged me 2% of what I take out (e.g.: $1.5 fee for $75) so it's not that bad, better than what they charge you here in US. The exchange is better from ATM withdrawal but with the 2% fee, the street rate comes to about the same.

The 2nd day, we visited Chichen Itza ($10/person). You don't really need to get a tour guide, which is more expensive. You can just get a good book that can guide you through the park and there are also infomation you can read in front of each ruin. The El Castillo, the group of thousand columns, and the ball court are my favorites and they're really marvelous. No wonder this place was named as one of the seven great wonders of the modern world. The more you learn about the Mayan culture the more your heart goes out to those who were sacrificed in that place. There was a cenote at one end of the park where one can see children and women's skulls if you swim under the water, which I don't think any one will. The water looks stagnant to start with. All these send chills down my spine when I use too much of my imagination. If you're planning to get souvenirs, BUY it from the local artisans that are selling their crafts INSIDE Chichen Itza. I had a hard time finding $1 souvenirs elsewhere. I was able to get couple of $1 souvenirs here (make sure you haggle) but I wish I bought more! I just didn't want to carry a lot of stuff with me while traveling.

The last bus to Valladolid from Chichen Itza is at 430PM so, we started heading out of the park around 4PM. We spent the night there and got some good grubs at Squimoz (next to the bus station). The locals at Valladolid have really round face and round eyes, very unique. There were a lot of women wearing an embroidered white dress, which I was planning to buy for my mom but forgot :( The next day, we rented a bike (8 pesos, ~$1 /hr) to check out Cenote Dzinup/Xkeken ($2.5/person). It was great! Lots of fishes (mostly black), stalagmites, and the water was not cold once you get in. We saw part of the cave and decided not to venture far since there's nobody around. Swimming to the darker corners to touch the stalagmites is a little creepy when there's not a lot of people around. Specially, after finding a school of dark fishes, which first looks like a moving dark hole under the clear water. And you think, having the place all to yourself is a great idea - not! People usually take a siesta around 1PM to 2PM so, it's hard to find an open restaurant or panaderia. That's usually a great time to take the bus to your next destination, in our case - Playa del Carmen. On the way to Playa del Carmen, we passed by Coba, Tulum, and some of the resorts that line up the Riviera Maya. Tulum have a great Mayan ruin right by the beach and a little touristy just like Playa del Carmen. In the afternoon, a lot of the locals who just got off work from the resorts take the bus home so, it's interesting to just watch them hop in and out of the bus.

Playa del Carmen have the best touristy area by the beach. The streets, shops, and restaurants are usually packed with tourists. The next day, we took the ferry to Cozumel ($11/person). They have the best pasteleria, Zermatt, and we bought a lot of pastries that lasted us the whole day. We rented a scooter ($20/day), which we rode across the accessible half of the island. We stopped by a beach club where we climbed this floating iceberg-like dome and slide down its side. It's pretty high and I was a little afraid of losing my grip and having a bad fall back to the salty sea water. They also have two trampolines that have a slippery bridge that you can cross. It was a great, lively beach area. We found an iguana sun bathing on the way to a restaurant but decided not to disturb him. I was able to find a bargain and paid $20 for a $35 hammock at a shop across Sr. Iguana's before heading back to the pier. Thank God we have a basket in the scooter to carry our stuff. Most of the shops at Cozumel are great too but pricey so always ask for at least half off the price they're asking.

If you're carrying a lot of stuff, you can rent a locker (pretty spacious) back at the pier at Playa del Carmen, which is a little pricey ($10/day) or walk down to the bus station, which is close by and rent their locker instead ($5/day). We have to check out by noon at Mar de Caribe so, we put our backpacks and my bag of laundry at one of the $5/day lockers they have at the bus station. They open at 10AM and they give you a token, which means that once you close it, you can't open it again unless it's time for you to take your stuff out. Else, you need to pay again. Then, we took a bus to Puerto Morelos (~ 30 mins. north of Playa del Carmen), shared a cab (paid a $1 ) to the town from the highway, and paid $25/person for a 2-hr snorkling that includes equipment, park fee, and a boat that takes you to the coral reefs. The reefs are well-preserved and well-taken care of. The fishes have are sooo colorful and each of them have their own character and personality. There are a lot of schools of fishes that ride the waves and they're just fun to see! The last part of the trip was to check out an underwater cenote or sinkhole. It looks okay but I don't think I'll go in there. Maybe that's where the aliens hide* Puerto Morelos also have the best empanadas at Los Gauchos and horchatas we've ever tried. The local artisan shops are also great and it's right around the corner and near the town plaza. We took a cab ($5) to Croco Cun Zoo ($20/person) where you have a tour guide that lets you hold a small crocodile, a snake, iguana, and get a kiss from parrot. You also get to feed some deers and wild monkeys (Ebola Alert!). I wasn't able to spend more time observing the crocodiles but it was fun! We have to take a local bus back to Playa del Carmen and the bus was kind of old to be speeding through the freeway and doing sharp turns but we got back in one piece!

After we took our stuff from the locker, we hop in to another bus back to Cancun, where we spent our last day hotel-hoping, checking out flea markets (Coral Negro) and other shops. We attended a local mass at Cristo El Rey, right across the downtown plaza, and I had a big headache trying to understand with my limited Spanish. One of my goals is to at least learn the Spanish prayer, "Our Father". The plaza was a great place to be, specially on Sundays, where locals hang out and watch shows or just chill and let their kids loose. I wish our parks and open areas here in US can be as nice and filled with people like their plaza. Overall, it was a great trip! If you feel like checking out a well-put together adventure tour, you can check out the Xcaret or Xe'hal tour packages they offer almost anywhere. They're both huge resorts that offers various activities like Jungle Tours, Cultural Shows, snorkling, swimming with the dolphins, visiting Mayan ruins, and petting some exotic animals.

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