A Travellerspoint blog

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)

The best travel experiences of my life: The top five

This is the final installment of an eight part series on the seventy best travel experiences of my life that begins here.

5. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja was the highlight of the most amazing solo journey I've ever taken, a ten day journey by bus and ferry from the southwestern to northeastern tips of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was the roughest traveling that I've ever done but also the most rewarding in a place that few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. Tana Toraja is an area of central Sulawesi that is home to an indigenous polytheistic society that has remained relatively isolated from the Islamic and Western influences that have defined the rest of Indonesia. Among the unique customs of the Torajans are funerals with sacrifices of domestic animals, internment of the deceased in cliff crevices and caves, and tongkonan houses with characteristic curved roofs. Perhaps the most remarkable custom is the carving of wooden effigies of the deceased called tau tau which are often placed on balconies attached to cliffs. Many of these customs seem primitive and morbid to Westerners but I felt as though I had arrived at the most physically and culturally remote place from my home that I had ever encountered in my travels. Given that I'm already twelve years older and now with a wife and three kids, it's probably unlikely I'll ever travel again in third world transportation shoulder to shoulder with locals conducting their daily lives. It's an experience that I am very grateful to have had in the final months of my single life.

4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. It was quite a struggle to find the entrance to the park due to a lack of cell phone signal in the area. The lakes and waterfalls are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains and are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down. There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.

3. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The more I think about Puerto Rico, the more I realize that our experiences there could have taken at least five places on our list. I included the beautiful colonial city of old San Juan, the exciting fishing trip at La Parguera, and now the bioluminescent bay at Vieques but I passed on the incredible views in the Cordillera Central and the roadside pig barbecues in Cayey. If there's one single most important thing to take away from this list, it's that Puerto Rico may be the most underappreciated travel destination in the Western Hemisphere.

Our short trip to the island of Vieques got of to an inauspicious start. While waiting for the little turboprop plane to fly us over we each had a margarita in the airport bar. I didn't feel a thing but by the time we arrived in Vieques Mei Ling was red faced and could barely stand. There also weren't any taxis at the airport. The information desk claimed to be calling us one but we waited at the entrance of the airport for an hour and no taxi showed. Finally some people in a passing car asked us if we needed a ride which we gratefully accepted. When the driver saw me practically carrying Mei Ling into the back seat he asked if we needed to go to the hospital but I declined, and by the time we arrived at our hotel Mei Ling was back to her old self. I had miscalculated the time it would take us to walk to the departure point of the kayak tour of the bay and halfway there I realized we needed to start running. We arrived breathless and just in time to be included. The experience was truly wondrous and unique. The luminescent protozoa filling the water sparkled and shone with every stroke of the oars as our kayaks glided through the darkness. Once we were in the center of the bay we were allowed to jump into the water and admire the glow around our limbs as we paddled. Mei Ling was especially amazed as she had never even heard of the phenomenon. We didn't want to take a chance with our precious cameras by enclosing them in plastic bags for the kayak trip so we don't have any photos of the bay but we have our memories and plenty of other pictures from the beautiful and peaceful island of Vieques.

Be aware that licensed tour operators are no longer allowed to permit tourists to swim in the bay, and also that the bioluminescent phenomenon was severely affected by Hurricane Maria. If you choose to visit Vieques make sure you do your own research to get the most up-to-date information regarding Mosquito Bay.

2. Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
Carnival in Trinidad is the greatest party I've ever experienced in my life, and I've seen a few good ones around the world. Everyone's heard of Mardi Gras and Carnaval in Rio, but the awesome thing about Trinidad is that it is for everyone. It's not drunk and rowdy, nor is it exclusive. Everyone gets to participate as much as they want and have an amazing time. Mei Ling and I signed up in advance for a Mas Band, which just requires a payment for costumes but no particular musical or dancing skills. We arrived several days in advance to participate in the many fetes and competitions that lead up to the Mas procession on the final day. We went to an exciting party every night and watched children's parades and steel pan band competitions during the days. The morning before the final parade we woke up at dawn for J'Ouvert, a riotous opening to the official Carnival involving heavy dousing with paint, flour, and chocolate syrup. It took us an hour to shower off the gunk to be ready for our Mas rehearsal. The Mas procession was exhausting but exhilarating, hours of constant dancing to soca music while surrounded by people of every description wearing some of the coolest costumes I've ever seen. One of the things I look forward to most is bringing my kids back to Trinidad for Carnival once they're all old enough to be part of the children's Mas.

Not only was this one of my best travel experiences, but it was the trip on which I realized that after forty-two years on my own there was no way I would ever let Mei Ling go. Marriage was scary but Mei Ling was just too beautiful and too much fun to be with. After our Trinidad trip I knew that I would never regret spending the rest of my life with her. A month later I asked her to move to Miami and live with me, and six months after that we were married. Nine years and three kids later (including five or six more carnivals around the world) and our life together hasn't gotten any less exciting.

1. Amazon ecolodge in Brazil
I've finally arrived at the end of this list, my greatest travel experience of all time. Now that I've completed the list I would probably put a few experiences in different order, but not this one. The trip Mei Ling and I took to the Amazon was just one of those charmed events that could probably never happen again in the same way. Even our flight to Brazil was perfect - a five hour direct flight from Miami to Manaus in the center of the Amazon on an empty plane. We slept for the entire duration of the dawn flight stretched out on our own four-seat center rows. We had a fine day in Manaus and were taken by van and boat to our lodge the next morning. Once we arrived we discovered that we would be the only guests at the lodge for the entire three days of our stay. Given that it was 2009, I suspect they had a few cancellations because of the financial crisis. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by an extremely affectionate and mischievous woolly monkey named Conchita who would be our constant companion and tormentor during our stay. If there wasn't any food in our hands to steal she was crawling into our laps to be cuddled.

None of the staff at the lodge seemed disinclined to work because they only had two guests. In the morning we'd ask what activities were on the schedule and the guides would tell us all the options and ask us what we felt like doing. In the evening we'd ask what was for dinner and they'd ask us what we wanted to eat. Even though we had chosen a fairly cushy Amazon lodge not very far from Manaus, we still had a range of amazing experiences from piranha fishing to a night camping in the jungle. I felt like we were having the same experience a billionaire might get after reserving an entire lodge for his own family. I know we'll do the Amazon again when our kids are old enough but I don't expect we'll be lucky enough to have another lodge entirely to ourselves with another semi-domesticated woolly monkey to enchant our kids.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:33 Comments (4)

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