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Yucatán Adventure: Cancún and Tulum

View Yucatan 2017 on zzlangerhans's travel map.


I've always appreciated our southern neighbor Mexico and I was thrilled to introduce Mei Ling to that intricate and diverse country before Cleo was born in 2012. As I expected she fell in love with the markets, the cuisine, and the creativity of Mexico and we've been back twice since then with many future trips planned. Our most recent visit was a ten day tour of the Yucatán Peninsula at the end of 2017. I'd been holding off on the trip mainly because it looked so easy logistically and I wanted to get more challenging journeys done first. I planned an itinerary for Buenos Aires and Uruguay instead which looked great until I checked the flights which were outrageously priced around the holidays. After that I didn't have a lot of time and energy left so we went with the Yucatán backup plan. The itinerary came together fairly straightforwardly, given the amount of time we had and the placement of the major cities and sights on the peninsula. I had never thought of going to Cancún but once I researched the city I realized that there was enough there to keep us entertained for a couple of days. It was also a convenient airport to fly into and rent a car.

As it turned out, the trip almost didn't happen. As I was going over my travel checklist the night before the trip I heard Mei Ling cry out "Oh no!" in a desolate voice. I jumped up thinking something had happened to one of the kids but fortunately it was just that Mei Ling had discovered that Cleo's passport was expiring the next day, the day of our flight. We had completely forgotten about renewing it. We huddled together and decided that there was no time to do anything but go to the airport as planned and try to get on our flight. Once we arrived in Mexico we could visit a consulate and get some kind of emergency renewal or exemption.

At the airport we tried checking in using the machine and sure enough we were denied. We played it cool once we got to the check-in desk and handed our passports to the agent. I avoided looking at her and started loading our bags onto the scale. The agent did a double take when she looked at Cleo's passport and pointed out the expiration date. We told her we were planning to get the passport extended once we got to Mexico. She seemed very skeptical but called over a supervisor. The supervisor listened to the agent for a minute, looked at Cleo's passport, and literally broke out laughing and shaking her head. My heart sank. That's when Mei Ling went into action. I don't really understand this ability she has but the only thing I can equate it to is when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells the stormtroopers "These are not the droids you're looking for" in Star Wars. Usually she brings it out when she's bargaining for something, like when she got a jeweler to knock eight thousand dollars off the price of her engagement ring. I saw her close in on the supervisor and I had to walk away from the desk and pretend I was horsing around with the kids. When I finally got the nerve to circle back the supervisor was shrugging and saying something along the lines of "Fine, but don't blame us if they turn you back at immigration in Mexico". We had somehow gotten by.

I took the supervisor's warning pretty seriously. When our turn came to go up to the passport official in Cancún, I had coached Cleo to be as bouncy and cheerful as possible. She can be very cute when she wants to be. I also put on my best demeanor and greeted the official as verbosely as I knew how in my limited Spanish, and Cleo handed him a drawing she had colored on the plane. He was obviously taken aback by the most amiable American tourists he was likely to encounter that day and barely glanced at our passports before waving us through.

The Hertz rental office was a madhouse with lines snaking around in every direction. After several failed attempts I found a line that eventually delivered me to a flustered agent. He took me outside and brought me to a Nissan Versa, a pokey subcompact that was certainly not the "equivalent" of the full-size car I had reserved. He claimed that it was indeed an equivalent and shrugged me off when I provided him with a list of the real equivalent vehicles from the Hertz website. They were Hertz Mexico, and here it was an equivalent. Then he told me that I had lost my rights to any specific car type by arriving forty-five minutes after my reservation, even though that was entirely due to the late shuttle bus and the long lines at the counter. Eventually I grabbed our three child seats and saw that it was possible to wedge them all into the back seat, although the rear doors had to be slammed in order to close them. I knew the agent didn't give a damn if we took the car or left it so we packed ourselves and our gear into the Versa like sardines and took off. The Airbnb was a welcome respite from the logistical travails of the day. It was comfortable and atmospheric with a cute little indoor spa that the kids were able to take a dip in.

I think most Americans and Europeans who have gone to Cancún don't realize they weren't actually in Cancún. The vast majority of tourists stay on a narrow strip of land that extends out into the Caribbean called the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone consists of a single road which is lined end to end with hotels, resorts, and clubs. Hardly any Mexicans actually live in the Hotel Zone, save for some housing for hotel staff, and there's almost no genuine Mexican culture there at all. It's more like an artificial community created for the housing and entertainment of leisure tourists. The single road through the Hotel Zone terminates at the airport, meaning that those arriving by plane never even need to see Cancún Centro. This is the real, rapidly-growing major metropolis of the state of Quintana Roo with almost a million inhabitants. We weren't in Mexico for beaches or discos, so Centro was where we stayed. I picked a spot close to El Parque de las Palapas, which seemed to be the center of social activity downtown.

Once we were settled at the Airbnb we drove over to El Parque de las Palapas which was in full holiday mode. All kinds of food were being served from kiosks in the center of the park as well as street food stalls. One popular dish was corn on the cob slathered in spicy mayo and grated cheese. We went for some more substantial fare like pozole and enchiladas. The park was packed with people and had tons of activities from carnival rides to remote control toy trucks jousting with skewers and balloons. Mexico is one of the best countries in the world for fiestas and street life and we had found the perfect place to kick off our latest trip.

Centro has two major community markets, the larger of which was within walking distance of our Airbnb. Mercado 28 was sizable enough but seemed mostly focused on crafts and dry goods which weren't of much interest to us. We did get an excellent Mexican breakfast at a colorful outdoor restaurant.

Slightly north of Centro is Punta Sam, from where ferries embark on the short trip to Isla Mujeres. This little island packs in a host of tourist activities such as snorkeling, a turtle farm, and swimming with whale sharks. Most people cruise the island in rented golf carts but we chose to walk to our chosen activity, a swim with dolphins. Mei Ling and I had done this before in Jamaica so we figured it would be a thrill for the kids. It wasn't terrible, but the activities mostly involved standing in cloudy water against a dock while the dolphins bumped by us in a rather aggressive fashion. I think the kids were more scared than entertained. As dusk set in we walked back to the north end of the island where there was a quaint church and a pedestrianized street packed with busy outdoor cafes and craft shops. It was a very vibrant scene and we decided if we ever returned to Cancún we would probably stay on the island.

We had to wait almost two hours on an atrociously long line for a ferry back to the mainland. For dinner we picked a restaurant in the Hotel Zone called Porfirio's, which turned out to be excellent. The tamarind and mezcal margarita alone justified our choice but the food was excellent and surprisingly daring for a restaurant in a tourist area. Some highlights were a salad with nopal cactus leaves and a sauce with chapulines, seasoned crickets.

In the morning we were eager to get on the road to Tulum but we still had one community market to visit for brunch. Mercado 23 had a better community vibe than Mercado 28 and a great atmosphere with mariachis and lots of fresh produce. A seafood ceviche with slices of fresh avocado was particularly delicious.

On the way to Tulum we passed straight through Playa del Carmen. The adventure parks in the area sounded really cool but our kids were still too young for that. Instead we got to Tulum in the early afternoon with plenty of time to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum. At the entrance to the ruins the kids were amused by a gathering of coatimundis, small animals in the raccoon family that were accustomed to receiving tidbits from the tourists. The ruins were quite beautiful, scattered around a grassy landscape that extended to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Steps led downward to a narrow beach that appeared to be closed.

After the ruins we drove to the main beach so the kids could enjoy the sand for a little bit. We tried to find a highly recommended restaurant on the road that went along the shore but as far as we could tell it didn't exist. Instead we ate at a crowded seafood restaurant in town that was quite good.

In the morning we found a beautiful outdoor taco place for breakfast. On the way out of Tulum we stopped at Cenote Carwash for a dip. The Yucatan cenotes are natural freshwater pools formed by the collapse of limestone into underground caverns. Many of the cenotes are in caves or have steep staircases and aren't well-suited for young kids. I had researched the cenotes carefully to find the ones that would be best for us but I was still nervous as none of the kids were strong swimmers yet and Spenser couldn't swim at all. We needn't have worried about Cenote Carwash, though. It was very easy access and there were plenty of child-sized life jackets available. It was a very refreshing dip in crystal clear water in a beautiful natural environment.

On the way to Valladolid we stopped at the Coba ruins, an architectural site spread over a wide area of jungle connected by a network of roads. Many people rented bicycles to get around which wasn't feasible for us with the three kids. Fortunately there were also three-wheel bicycle taxis available to transport us to the central pyramid Ixmoja. Surprisingly it was permitted to climb the pyramid and there were about a hundred people scrambling up the steps, most of them clustered around a rope that had been strung up the center. Clearly we were not going to get Spenser up there and it seemed way too risky to take both kids, so much to Ian's dismay I went up with Cleo while Mei Ling stayed at the base with the two boys. It was quite a nerve-wracking climb and just the latest of countless episodes where I've wondered to myself if I was underestimating the dangers I was putting my kids through. When we got to the top the view was quite amazing, what appeared to be unbroken jungle as far as the eye could see even though I knew we weren't far from the town. We carefully made our way back down and then got back on the road to our next destination.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged cancun tulum isla_mujeres cobá

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