A Travellerspoint blog

January 2018

Yucatán Adventure: Back to Mérida and trip conclusion

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We got back to Mérida in time for a late lunch and chose one of the city's more celebrated bistro's, Apoala. It was a different take on Yucatán cuisine from the rustic fare we had been having in the markets, but I was glad we hadn't opted for high end cuisine every day. There was another Mayan site called Dzibilchaltún with its own cenote not far from the city but in the end we decided it would almost certainly be an anticlimax after Uxmal. Instead we dawdled around the center and then got an early start on packing back at our Airbnb.

Every Saturday evening in Mérida they have an event called Noche Mexicana. As soon as we stepped back out of our Airbnb we realized we were in the midst of a fairly big street festival. It reminded me of an American-style gallery walk along with cultural events, vendors, and rides. There were thousands of people walking in the center of town which had been pedestrianized for the occasion. We followed the crowd and came upon various avant garde art installations as well as an audience participation photography exhibit. Our job was to trace something with a light in the air while the photographer took multiple rapid exposures and then overlaid them with computer assistance to create a composite image showing what we had drawn. Most people ended up with random spirals and squiggles. They were shocked when they completed my image and saw I'd drawn Cleo's name perfectly despite having to trace it backwards and turn off the light between the letters. There was a wonderful feeling of energy and we had the feeling we had stumbled onto a local secret few people outside of the area are familiar with.

I had hoped that we might get a quick look at another weekly event called Mérida en Domingo the next morning, but Mei Ling was flatly against it. She was very nervous because we had blown off getting Cleo's passport extended during our first stop in Mérida. There was really no excuse, except that we were enjoying ourselves and probably wouldn't have made it to Progreso had we elected to go to the consulate. I wasn't as worried, figuring it was unlikely that the Mexicans would care and virtually impossible that United States immigration would refuse to let a cute five year old girl back into the country. We'd probably get a stern lecture and be on our way. The whole center of the city was barricaded off for the Sunday festivities which delayed us quite a bit since our GPS kept trying to direct us through the closed streets. Once we arrived at the airport I busied myself with the kids while Mei Ling went to the departure desk to work her Jedi mind trick. Occasionally I took a look out of the corner of my eye and saw her arguing with a succession of people. After about forty-five minutes Mei Ling came back over to us and informed me she had been told there was absolutely no way whatsoever that Cleo would be getting on the plane with an expired passport. I was shocked but we had to decide quickly what to do. I was scheduled to work that night and the next. I could have called out but I really hate to inconvenience my team that way and also I was pretty eager to get back to work and replenish our funds after eleven days of pure spending. Ultimately we decided that Mei Ling and Cleo would stay behind in Mérida and hopefully get the passport extended Monday morning and be on a flight that afternoon. I took the boys and we boarded our flight back to Miami.

It was only a two hour flight so managing the boys on my own wasn't too much trouble. I had plenty of time to wonder if I had done something completely foolish and irresponsible by leaving Mei Ling and Cleo in Mérida. Mei Ling didn't speak a word of Spanish, but all she needed to do was find a hotel near the airport and then get an Uber to and from the consulate in the morning. I think if I'd had more time to think about it we probably would have stayed together and to hell with my work shifts, but what was done was done. As soon as the plane landed I called Mei Ling but she didn't pick up. She called me back a short while later and told me she'd decided to hop on a flight to Cancún instead of staying in Mérida, since they have a consulate there as well. It made more sense for her since English was practically the first language in the Hotel Zone where the consulate was. I found them a resort practically across the street from the consulate and let her tuck in for the night. She was able to get the emergency passport extension on Monday but still wasn't able to fly back until Tuesday evening, so I had a whole two days to worry about her and Cleo while I wasn't working or sleeping. Life with just the boys and Mei Ling's Mom was pretty weird and a little lonely. Of course, there wasn't any need for me to be concerned. The two girls were having a blast at the all-inclusive in Cancún going to the beach, shopping, and getting spa treatments. We learned an important lesson about double-checking our paperwork but in the end we didn't pay too high of a price for it.

Except for the passport snafu I can't think of anything I would have done differently. Ten full days was a perfect amount of time to absorb the Yucatán experience. I was really glad we extended our trip to Campeche, which was the most visually appealing city of the trip and had by far the best market. Mérida is also a wonderful city where tourism recedes to the background of the rhythms of regular Mexican daily life. We went to way more Mayan sites than I had originally planned, but if we had only seen Chichén Itzá we would have come away with a much more cynical perspective than was justified.

I'm sure we'll return to the Yucatán when the kids are old enough to enjoy the adventure park activities and maybe the next time we'll explore the southern reaches of Quintana Roo state. Living only an hour and a half from Cancún by air is too good of a situation to ignore.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:04 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Campeche to Oxkutzcab

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I can't take off from work until after Christmas so we always have to wedge our winter break trips into ten or eleven days. That meant we still had an extra three or four days after seeing the highlights of the Yucatán to explore areas that were a little off the beaten track. That gave us enough time to visit Campeche on the west coast of the peninsula but not enough to venture into Tabasco state. Laguna de Términos and its barrier islands looked interesting on the map but I couldn't find anything to justify stretching our itinerary that far. Instead we spent two nights in Campeche and then stopped in the smaller town of Oxkutzcab on the way back to Mérida.

Thanks to our detour to the Cuzama Cenotes it was already dark when we arrived in Campeche. We had a really cool hotel in the colonial center with a tiny indoor plunge pool on the ground floor. We picked a restaurant near the hotel and found an entire street blocked off with tables where people were eating al fresco. At our restaurant there was a collection of colorful sombreros and plenty of creative artwork on the walls.

As usual our first order of business was to visit the community market, just outside the walls of the old town. On the way there we had an opportunity to admire the pastel-colored houses lining the narrow streets of the colonial center. Campeche seems to have adopted this bright coloration in the old town as a theme, much like Izamal was the yellow city. Unfortunately the day was very overcast so our photos couldn't do justice to the picturesque and vibrant streets.

Outside the walls we crossed a frighteningly wide avenue and found ourselves in Mercado Pedro Sáinz de Baranda, Campeche's bustling community market. The market was at least the size of the main market in Mérida but here we found the colorful and unusual sights that the prior markets on this trip had lacked. Most interesting was the seafood area, which was full of unusual local fish including rows of small hammerhead sharks and some other species we hadn't seen before. Dried and salted filets were arranged in fan shapes next to huge sacs of golden roe. In the butcher's area we saw whole pig faces, slabs of viscera, and bisected hens with their developing eggs still inside. Pretty much everything that one can find in a Mexican community market such as produce, juices, spices, and preserves were on display as well.

The dining area was very crowded and hectic but we were able to find some counter space. We had a very enjoyable meal including the local specialty pan de cazón, a stack of tortillas filled with shark meat and covered in a savory tomato sauce.

We hung around the market until we'd explored every corner, but we still had much of the day left to fill. We returned to the formidable city walls which were built by the conquistadores in the 17th century to fend off pirates. We paid a small fee to ascend a staircase and walk the ramparts between the towers. There were still rusted cannons on the platforms.

We walked seaward through the old town until we reached Plaza Principal, a pretty, pigeon-filled square surrounded by museums, hotels, and the city cathedral. We bought a few bags of rice and let the kids amuse themselves with the pigeons for a while.

We weren't far from La Pigua, one of Campeche's upscale seafood restaurants, so we decided to drop in for a light lunch. We were almost the only people there on a late weekday afternoon except for a few businessmen. There was nothing special about the food that made us regret having mostly filled ourselves in the market, although the seafood soup was served with a fresh squash as a bowl.

A block north of the old city wall we ran into Campeche's long seaside promenade, or Malecón. It's a popular spot for joggers and bicyclists and is home to interesting sculptures like the Novia del Mar. The black figure depicts a local girl who fell in love with a pirate and gazes out to sea awaiting his return. The kids took a liking to the jumble of boulders that serves as the statue's pedestal.

After we'd had our fill of chasing the kids around and gazing out to sea we re-entered the old town through the ornate Puerta de Mar and found ourselves on the same restaurant street where we had eaten the previous night. It wasn't hard to find another appetizing place for dinner before returning to the hotel where the kids took a dip in the pool before bed.

The Campeche market had been so good that we went back for a second round in the morning. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to eat. If anything it was more crowded and frenetic than it had been the previous day.

We had one last stop on the way out of the city, a collection of small thatched-roof seafood restaurants at the shoreline on the northern end of the Malecón. Most of them were closed or in a state of advanced disrepair when we arrived. The one that was open didn't have any customers and had a rather unappetizing display of frozen seafood on a platter. We were pretty well fed already from the market so we decided to skip the seafood. Instead we had a final look over the Gulf of Mexico and tried out some hats at a clothes vendor.

A pleasant drive on one of the small inland highways brought us to Uxmal. Despite my aversion to archaeological sites, our experiences at Coba and Ek Balam had showed me that these places could be beautiful and fun to explore if they weren't overrun with tourists and kitsch. We certainly had a big hole in our day to fill and Uxmal was only a short detour from our next destination. I was relieved to find only a small parking lot that was mostly unfilled when we arrived. A sign at the entrance informed us of a long list of forbidden activities accompanied by pictographs. My favorite was the drunk in the midst of collapsing backwards that represented a ban on alcoholic beverages.

Uxmal proved to be the best of the five Mayan sites that we visited. The Pyramid of the Magician was the largest and most impressive structure we had seen and there were hardly any other people around to spoil its majesty. The pyramid was thankfully off-limits but there was plenty of other territory to be clambered around. The top of one structure gave us an amazing view of the pyramid jutting out of the surrounding canopy of trees. It's funny how most people are somewhat familiar with Chichén Itzá but practically no one has heard of Uxmal, but I'm not complaining. Discovering these little secrets about the world is what travel is all about.

We didn't want to eat at one of the tourist restaurants at Uxmal but TripAdvisor found us a good restaurant on the road not far away. After a solid meal with draft beer we were sufficiently refreshed to proceed to the last city on our itinerary.

The main reason I'd chosen Oxkutzcab for our itinerary was the large wholesale produce market which would be in prime form on a Saturday morning. If I'd known that we'd be getting our fill of one of the best markets in Mexico in Campeche I might not have bothered. In fact, Oxkutzcab was a little bit of a letdown as the market was smaller and less energetic than Campeche, although it did have a beautiful mural on the front wall. Once we'd had breakfast we walked briefly around the center of town but aside from the picturesque old church across from the market there wasn't much of interest. At least we had satisfied our curiosity about whether we were missing anything by not stopping in any of the smaller towns on the peninsula.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Mérida

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In Mérida we had our only significant accommodation problem of the trip. We followed our GPS to the Airbnb address near the center of the city and found a nondescript commercial street with no street number corresponding to the address. Trying Google Maps took us around the corner but likewise nothing resembling the Airbnb. We started messaging the host through the app and got a bunch of confusing directions that didn't help. Eventually the host sent us a completely different address which we mapped to a location on the outskirts of town. No way. We weren't going to spend New Year's Eve in the middle of nowhere. Airbnb agreed to pay for a hotel and we began cruising around the center. Unsurprisingly the first few we checked were fully booked but eventually we found one that had a room available. It was a typical low-end hotel room with no atmosphere, but we deposited our stuff and headed to the center to see what was happening.

Mérida was by far the largest city we had visited on this trip but fortunately most of the markets and activity we were interested in were clustered in a walkable area downtown. There was a rather mellow New Year's Eve party going in Plaza Grande, Mérida's Zócalo, a pleasant mixture of paved walkways and landscaping. It seemed to be a local family scene, busy without being crowded. Three men dressed as the Three Kings in colorful robes circled around the plaza. There were a few vendors but nothing particularly appetizing to us so we meandered north where we eventually found a cluster of taquerias and some oversize chairs for the kids to clamber around on. There didn't seem to be much to be gained from walking around until midnight so we passed into 2018 fast asleep, pretty much the same as every New Year's since Cleo was born.

On New Year's Day we packed our bags and moved over to a short-term apartment we had found on Booking. It was a big improvement over the emergency hotel of the previous night. We knew the main community market was closed but we were surprised to find a couple of open taquerias in the much smaller Mercado Municipal Numero 2. The market shared a block with a beautiful colonial church and a small park.

One of the cool things about having our own wheels is that we had the flexibility to cruise out of town with everything in the city being closed for the holiday. Mérida is close to both the northern and western coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula which meant we had our choice of scenic beach towns. For New Year's Day we picked Celestún, a fishing village best known for its coastal wildlife sanctuary packed with wild flamingos.

It was an easy drive to the Gulf Coast where we found the station from which boats departed for tours of the estuary. We were a large enough group to get our own boat and after a short wait we were off. The powerboat moved quite quickly through the water and the kids all leaned out to feel saltwater spray and get their long hair blown back. I'm not a birdwatcher but the huge flocks of flamingos were very impressive, like pink islands in the middle of the estuary.

The tour included a visit to El Ojo de Agua, an area of mangroves which can be traversed by boardwalk to a small pond fed by an underwater spring that bubbles to the surface.

After returning to the car we proceeded to the village of Celestún on the coastline. We walked along a street of colorfully-painted houses and selected the most promising of a row of surprisingly-busy fish restaurants. The rear of the restaurant opened out onto the beach. We enjoyed a leisurely meal of fried fish and ceviche and afterwards the kids played for a while on the beach underneath clouds of aggressive seagulls.

Back in Mérida we went for a stroll along Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard lined with historical mansions and upscale hotels. At the southern end of the avenue we found a street party we hadn't encountered the previous night. There was live music, food and craft vendors, and a winter wonderland lighted display. Mérida had turned out to be a pretty good choice to spend the New Year holiday with kids.

Tuesday was a typical weekday so we hustled to the main community market, Mercado Municipal Lucas de Galvez. The sprawling market was spread over a few buildings so at first we ended up in a rather lackluster food court of taquerias. We had breakfast there figuring the market was slow because of the holiday. Afterwards we found the real market which was much more interesting but similar to others we had seen. We did find a much better food court and had a second meal of chocolomo (marinated veal) and mondongo (tripe soup).

This time we drove north to Progreso, another small town on the Gulf Coast of the peninsula. Progreso was somewhat larger than Celestún and had a cruise ship port, so it was a completely different vibe. There were a lot more bars and sidewalk cafes, most of which were filled with Anglos. There were also resort-type hotels along the beach and a tourist market. It was overcast and windy so there wasn't much to do on the beach besides kick the sand around and duck from the diving seagulls. There was an appetizing seafood restaurant so we lagged around long enough for an early dinner that didn't really live up to expectations.

On the outskirts of Mérida we passed a small amusement park and stopped to let the kids jump around in a bounce house and play with soap bubbles for a while. By the time we got back to the center we had a bit of an appetite again so we went to Mérida's multicultural food hall Mercado 60. Naturally there was an emphasis on Mexican and other Latin American offerings but there were also European and Asian stalls. The bar was spectacular and the lighting and decor made it more atmospheric than most food halls we've been to in the United States.

The morning we left Mérida we went back to Mercado Numero 2 since it had been mostly shuttered on our first visit. It was certainly much more lively this time around and a great atmosphere to have another satisfying brunch.

We detoured inland towards the center of the peninsula to visit the Cuzama Cenotes. I had researched the most interesting and child-friendly cenotes before our trip and these were near the top of the list. The special wrinkle here was that the only access to the cenotes is via horse-drawn cart on a disused mining railway, which I thought would be an additional thrill for the kids. Cuzama was in the middle of nowhere and we soon found ourselves driving on a single-lane road with one car behind us. As we drew close to our destination we came to a fork and although our GPS route had us going one way, I could see that the other road took us there much more directly. I decided, like Robert Frost, to take the less-traveled road and saw the car behind us going the way our GPS had directed. Uh oh. We drove for a while longer through dense countryside and the road petered out into a dirt path. I reversed course to the last intersection and drove up a wider road, only to soon realize we were driving over train tracks. I quickly reversed back to the last turn and after debating whether we should return to the fork, eventually decided to push further along the dirt path. Soon enough we came upon a farmhouse and when we drove around it we found ourselves back on a paved road downstream of a few houses. Our direct route had taken us to the opposite end of the village from the part accessed by the highway. The locals were rather nonplussed to see our car emerging from the wrong side of the town but directed us to park and quickly showed us to a horse cart. A few minutes later we were jolting along the tracks to the cenotes.

Fortunately our guide took us to the largest and easiest cenote first. The main challenge with Cenote Chelentún was descending the steep and rickety staircase but once we had arrived at the bottom safely we found an expansive pool with few other visitors. There were little fish in the water that would nip gently at your skin if you stood for too long in one place. We had a refreshing swim and decided to forgo the other two cenotes in favor of an earlier arrival in Campeche. The guide assured us the other two were smaller and not as well-suited for children. When we got back to the car they cleared a path for us through the horses and carts blocking the road so that we could exit the town the correct way this time.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged celestun merida progreso Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Valladolid and Chichén Itzá

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Valladolid is a small colonial town in the state of Quintana Roo whose main draw for tourists is its proximity to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam. Our Airbnb was a surprisingly modern and chic villa in a rather nondescript residential neighborhood several blocks from the city center. Our host was very kind in helping us locate an ATM but we were completely unable to withdraw cash no matter how many we tried thanks to a scratch on the magnetic strip of our debit card. Eventually we were able to get a cash advance on our credit card which came with an irritatingly large fee.

We spent our first evening in Valladolid strolling around the town. On the way to the center we passed by Cenote Zaci, a huge sinkhole right in the middle of town where many locals were still swimming. Next door was a touristy restaurant where they had dancing waiters and a lady making tortillas at the entrance.

The Zócalo, or central square, was a grassy space with some kiosks selling street food, toys, and crafts. Surrounding the square were the main church, city hall, and several upscale hotels. We ate at one of the hotel restaurants where we had a good meal of Yucatan standards such as cochinita pibil accompanied by mezcal cocktails.

In the morning we went directly to the municipal market. Valladolid had a typical mid-sized produce market where we were never far from the smell of freshly-slaughtered meat. There were plenty of food stalls lining the outer wall and we had an excellent breakfast of empanadas and tamales. Something about being around all the raw ingredients in a market makes the cooked food taste even better.

We had thought Chichén Itzá was just outside town but it was actually a forty-five minute drive. As we neared the ruins traffic slowed to a crawl and it took us another half hour to reach the entrance. The parking area was blocked off and we were directed further down the road which was lined with parked cars. Eventually we arrived at the last car and walked about a half mile back in brutal heat. Long lines of people snaked everywhere and I took my place at the end of the one that seemed to be for the ticket window. For about ten minutes we stood around and nothing moved. Mei Ling went to the front with the boys and did her Jedi mind trick, and then brought me up to a security guard who showed me directly to a ticket window. The river of humanity passing through the entrance was pretty ridiculous.

Chichén Itzá is by far the most celebrated of all the Mayan ruins and I'm sure there's a very good reason for that in terms of historical significance. However the reason was lost on us and I'm sure on 95% of the other visitors. Some of the buildings were impressive to look at, especially the Pyramid Of Kukulcan. Fortunately climbing was not allowed on the pyramid so we could see it in its original form rather than blanketed by people in their bright vacation outfits. However there were still thousands of people scattered around the large clearing in which the ancient buildings were situated and the setting was nowhere near as interesting as Coba or even Tulum. Hawkers were selling drinks and knickknacks everywhere and some people in indigenous oufits were performing a dance of very questionable authenticity. This was the fifth of the "Seven Wonders of the World" I had visited and the atmosphere was very similar to the other four - the Great Wall, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and Christ the Redeemer. I have Petra and Macchu Picchu still to go. Hopefully I'll find them more worthwhile.

As we walked out of the entrance to begin the long trudge back to our roadside parking spot, we noticed that cars were being waved through into the lot. Except for having jumped the line it didn't seem to have been our day. We hadn't spent as much time at Chichén Itzá as we anticipated so there was plenty of time to visit the local cenote Ik Kil. From above Ik Kil looked just as scary as Zaci and much more crowded, but there were plenty of life jackets so we climbed in and hoped no one would jump on top of us. It was quite different from Cenote Carwash which had been at ground level in a wooded area. Here we could look up and see sunlight streaming in from above as though we were in a stadium with a retractable roof. The cave walls were festooned with green plants and long vines hung down from the surface like the tentacles of a jellyfish. It was a very beautiful and refreshing experience despite the crowds.

In the morning we trooped back to the market which we were pleased to see was in full swing despite it being Sunday. We had breakfast of roast chicken and tamales and took a short detour north to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.

Ek Balam was as quiet and peaceful as Chichén Itzá had been chaotic and crowded. There were a few other people around but we often had an area to ourselves. I made up for leaving Ian out of the pyramid climb in Coba with a trip up to the top of the structure called the Acropolis. It wasn't as steep or slippery as the Coba pyramid but we still had an awesome view of the surrounding forest. It was funny that after I had resolved not to make any effort to see any Mayan ruins other than Chichén Itzá, we had already seen three other sites that we liked better. I didn't know it then but the best was still to come.

About halfway between Valladolid and Mérida is the "Yellow City" of Izamal. The town gets its nickname from the yellowish-brown color of almost every building in the town center. We had a refreshing lunch on the outskirts of town and then drove into the center. The Zócalo was surrounded by buildings of different shades of yellow and gold including the Convent of San Antonio. There were a few food carts in the square and we got a dessert of marquesitas, crunchy crepes with caramel filling. Afterwards we walked up the hill to the convent and admired its colonial facade which looked from the front like it had been cut out of clay with an Exacto knife. Once back on the road we set a course for Mérida, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Yucatán Peninsula. It was New Year's Eve and we were ready to party.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged valladolid chichen_itza izamal Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Cancún and Tulum

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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 Comments (0)