Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to take a tour in Quintanna Roo, Mexico

There are lots of things to do here on the Riviera Maya--from ziplines and cave diving to calmer activities like walking around archeological zones and visiting theme parks. The destinations are spread out for about 75 miles along the north-south highway just inland from the ocean.

For every destination there is a tour; or rather many tours.  On every block here in Playa del Carmen there are "tour offices" staffed by hawkers selling package tours to these exotic destinations.  We're naturally wary of the hard sell, knowing there are often cheaper ways to access these spots.  But since there were a couple of places we really wanted to visit, both within ten miles of each other we looked into taking one of these tours.

Our destinations were Tuluum, the only Mayan site on the coast with the bonus of a wonderful swimming beach, and Xel-Ha, a lagoon where we snorkeled and saw the most amazing fish when we were here in 1984.

We shopped around and found that there was a combined tour to these places.  The tours all offered the same things: pickup at your hotel, a van ride to Tuluum and the entrance fee and a professional guide to the site, then two hours later a van ride to Xel-Ha and the entrance fee, then a ride back to your pickup spot at closing time.  It sounded pretty good.

But the tour we were on was very disorganized and was in fact a complete waste of time.  We were picked up at 7:20 in the morning but we didn't arrive at Tuluum (about 60 km away) until after 10:00.  We picked up other people who weren't ready, and then we were shuttled around and dropped at a shopping center where we waited for another bus.  There was great confusion about who was going to which destination and it took quite a while for things to be sorted out.  Once at Tuluum our bus parked a long way from the entrance gate and we had to hike in about a kilometer down a hot back road.

It turns out that we didn't need a guide as Tuluum is now very well signed with information about the site in English. But since were were on the tour we had to endure the "guide" with his jokes and silliness.  He had a tourist spiel but didn't really know much about the place.  By the time he'd finished there was only half an hour left before we had to rendezvous at the van. This left about 15 minutes for the beach.

The transportation for this tour cost us about $30 each.  Later, we found out that you could take a bus to Tuluum for less than $5.00 each so the whole thing was a big waste of time and money.

The day after our tour we discovered the collectivos a few blocks away from the tourist area.  These are little vans that the regular residents of Playa use for their transportation.  They're even cheaper than the bus and run continuously up and down the highway to all these locations.  The people who live here and work at Tuluum use these to get back and forth, and so do the tourists who are in the know.

This is is the way to do a tour in Mexico.  Choose your destination, walk to the Collectivo area and find one that's going to where you want to go.  They'll drop you a bit away from the front gate where the taxis wait, but there's usually another little shuttle that takes you right to the main gate.  When you're ready to return you just take the shuttle to the Collectivo stand and get the next one home.

We tried it the next day.  We got an air conditioned collectivo to Xcaret for less than $2 per person. 
The price is less than a quarter what you'd pay for the transportation part of the "tours" and you can do it all on your own schedule.  Now we know!

By the way, Xel-Ha was very different from what we remembered. It's now an all-inclusive theme park organized around the lagoon. In addition to snorkeling you can jump off cliffs, zip line, ride down the river on an inner tube, watch dolphins, etc. etc. With all this development, there are very few fish left in the lagoon so we  packed in the snorkeling after less than an hour, but it's still a lovely spot and we enjoyed looking around and sampling all the free food and drink that was included with the entry fee. Don't get me wrong; the day wasn't a complete bust.  Plus it offered some learning for the next time we're in Mexico.

Tomorrow we are flying back into the cold and rain of BC. We'll be sad to leave the warmth but happy to return to our friends and our life and our dogs.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Caribbean Sea

There are thousands of tourists here on the Mayan Riviera eating in restaurants, swimming in pools, going on tours to archeological ruins, and hanging out in bars drinking and dancing the night away. And we've done some of that too--but the star attraction here is none of these things; it's the stunning turquoise beauty of the Caribbean Sea.

Since we've been here we've floated across its clear waters on a ferry and in a glass-bottomed boat, we've swum over its reefs while snorkeling at the island of Cozumel and in the sheltered bay at Xel-Ha. We've walked its beaches at Tuluum and here at Playa and we've seen it in some of its moods.

Even when the sky is cloudy, it's so beautiful and caressing and welcoming, so different from the austere coldness of the North Pacific. I'm entranced with the Caribbean and want to experience as much as I can in the four days remaining.

It was cold last night and people are walking around with sweaters so swimming may not be in the cards today but this morning I took a walk along the shore and watched the sun rise over the ocean with the fishing boats getting ready to go out and the birds playing in the water.  It's just so beautiful.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mexican puppies

So interesting how different cultures view animals in different ways.  The difference between a Canadian's approach to animals and a Mexican's was sharply drawn last Sunday when we were at the after-wedding party at Jose's uncle's house.  The party was held on a big lawn under a tree overlooked by the two storey house.  Two dogs were on the roof looking down at the festivities, particularly interested in Natalia's little Shitzu pup running around on the grass. One was a big, handsome Rotweiller and the other a smaller white dog about the size of a small GSD.

Now in Canada, nobody keeps guard dogs up on the roof of their house but it is quite common in Mexico.  These dogs aren't really household pets; they're often left alone to bark at people who might come near the dwelling.  When we expressed an interest in the dogs, some of the little kids at the party took us up the stairs to the roof to meet them.

Well one of them anyway. The Rottie was in a caged area but this sweet one came over to us.  Her name is Maya and although you can't really see it in this photo she's beautiful--with blue eye and one brown eye.  While we were patting Maya, her four little puppies came out from under the stairs.  They're about four weeks old and they all have their father's Rottie markings.  And two of the four have their mother's eyes.  Aren't they adorable?

Once the kids found the puppies there was no stopping them.  They were picking them up and patting them and the mother was very accepting of it.  That is until two of kids carried a puppy downstairs leaving Maya behind. The owners of the house didn't seem to notice or care that the puppies had become playthings and the mother dog was worried.

One of the pups was being held by a child who couldn't have been more than two years old. This boy was carrying the dog by his hind feet and running around.  Harry and I and the other Canadians at the party were appalled.  Eventually Harry tried to go and get the kid to bring the puppy back upstairs but it wasn't going to happen.  The kid threw a tantrum and none of the parents seemed at all interested in the puppies welfare.

Eventually the little boy tired of his toy and Harry managed to bring it back upstairs.  But the other little puppy was taken away by an older boy about nine years old.  He bought the pup from the homeowners for about $8 Canadian and took it from its litter when it was only four weeks old.

We were all so worried about the puppies and the mother dog but the Mexicans at the party, all of whom are educated and upper class had no concern about what was going on.  We tried to console ourselves by remembering that these dogs at least have homes and are given food and water and some kind of shelter, even it if is under the stairs. In many parts of Mexico there are hundreds of dogs that don't even have that.

Two of the Canadian guests have decided to bring one of the other puppies back to Canada in a few weeks and Jose is helping them to make the required arrangements with a vet.  So at least one of this litter of pups will have a loving home.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Discovering Playa del Carmen

Twenty-nine years ago we visited this area and took the bus down the coast of Quintana Roo to visit the Mayan ruins at Tuluum. At that time the only thing here at Playa del Carmen was the dock for the ferry to Cozumel, plus a few cinder block dwellings along the gorgeous white beach.  We arrived yesterday afternoon from Mexico City where we saw Jamie off on his flight back to Vancouver, and it's quite a different place.

Now Playa is a holiday destination for travelers from all over North American and Europe. There are hotels of all ranges restaurants, nightclubs, and tourist stores lining the streets along the beach. Fifth street is closed to traffic and a river of people streams along it.  The river was broadened last night by a parade, which may have been for Carneval as I think it's this weekend.

The restaurant choices here are enormous. Last night we had a fabulous meal in Italian restaurant that rivaled anything we had in Italy. But the prices are high, essentially like Canadian prices. But there are alternatives. This afternoon we wandered three streets further away from the beach and found a nice clean restaurant that serves a Mexican clientele. The food was excellent and less than half what we would pay in the tourist zone.
Our hotel is a new one and very luxurious.  We have a small room at the back but still get to use the rooftop swimming pool.  Sadly my camera has decided to stop working so I am using my cell phone to take photos. This is not ideal for me, the compulsive photographer, but it’s better than nothing.

I tried to capture the incredible blues of the Caribbean over the white sand but without camera settings this was all I could get. It will give you some idea of the beautiful beach here.
Tomorrow we will be taking the ferry over to Cozumel and doing some snorkeling from a glass-bottomed boat. Cozumel has one of the best reefs on this coast and we should be able to see many beautiful tropical fish.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Mexican Wedding / Fiesta in pictures

The wedding went off without a hitch and the party afterward did indeed go into the wee hours of the morning. 
This photo was taken in the church, which was filled with literally hundreds of lilies.  The service was lengthy and included many readings, hugs from family members, that's Tania's mother in the green dress coming to embrace her at the altar. It also included the ringing of bells, and communion.  One part that I liked involved the siblings of the bride and groom draping them with a crystal beaded cross. 

As the bride came down the aisle the enormous chandelier was lighted.  And I thought it was a very Mexican touch that it had a green balloon hanging on it from an earlier event.

The service lasted about an hour and a half and then we drove to a hacienda / hotel where the huge tent had been set up in a grassy area for the party. There were over 300 guests all seated at round tables decorated with flowers.  Just as we arrived, so did the bride and groom accompanied by a waterfall of fireworks.

They sat at their own table on a raised dais garlanded by flowers, where they held court while we were served a marvelous four course meal including the best Spanish wine and whatever drinks you wished.  

After dinner the dancing began, first with Tania and Jose, then different family members dancing together.  Here Jose is dancing with his mother and Tania with her father.  Eventually the dancing opened up to all comers and the floor was jammed.  Waiters started to serve drinks and bring different festive objects like bobbes, shakers, masks, sombreros, and coloured ribbons for dancers to wear.  
Here's Harry wearing a mask and yours truly with bobble lights!

There were lots of formal games, some familiar and others quite different.  Here's Tania throwing her bouquet. This was followed by Jose throwing a garter. then games that included people ritually drinking tequila, donning masks and snaking across the dance floor.  I'm posting these photos quite large so you can see the wonderful flouncy dresses worn by many of the young women.

Harry and I had a great time watching and also dancing to all kinds of different music.  Around 2:30 the waiters brought out slippers and big blowup shoes, and I think shortly after that the sprayer full of booze came out. 

But we were ready to go home by then, not really wanting to stay up past 3:00 or so, so we missed that part. Apparently it was 5:30 or 6:00 before the party wound up.

The next day there was a more subdued gathering at an uncle's house where people wandered in to sit around eating tacos and drinking tequila and vodka tonics and reminiscing about the night before.  Jose and Tania are heading to Cancun for a honeymoon and since we're going to be in the area we may get together for dinner one evening.  They are a really sweet couple who will be living in Vancouver once Tania finishes school in April.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Preparing for the wedding

We've been involved yesterday and part of today in preparations for the wedding fiestas.   Jose's mother and aunt spent most of yesterday creating little bags of popcorn, potato chips and something very Mexican called Chicharones.  Each bag is finished off with two packages of hot sauce and a silver ribbon.  These are for one of the parties, not sure which one.

 Some of the other guests from Canada who came to stay with the Reyes family are pitching in to help.  The beautiful young woman in this photo is Jose's sister Natalia.

She's been so helpful to us, showing us around town, helping us to find what we need like a wine store and a place to get Jamie's suit pressed. (He brought it down in his backpack.)
 We went out yesterday afternoon with Natalia to get some tortas for lunch.  Tortas are the Mexican version of a sandwich and these ones were fantastic.  I had Milanese (breaded veal cutlet) with fried cheese, tomato, avocado and onion on a fresh bun.  Fanatastic.  We sat at the counter and watched them cook the tortas for all the people who came in for lunch.

It's so great to have someone here to show us around this charming city, which was founded in 1640!  It's been around quite a while.  Some of the buildings are really beautiful.

The church that Jose will be married in this evening is one of them.  This is the exterior, which can be seen from all over the centro historico.

The interior is stunning with cupolas and chandeliers.  It's going to be a beautiful ceremony (complete with Catholic Mass).  And it will be followed by literally dancing to dawn we're told.  Apparently there is a breakfast served at 3:00 am to keep people standing up!


One preparation that surprised me was the purchase of a hand-operated sprayer that will be filled with a potent mixture of rum, tequila, water and Tang.  It will be available to be sprayed into the mouths of (I hope) willing drinkers.  I'm certain I won't be one!
There was some discussion of who would operate it and Jamie's name came up.  I'll leave that decision up to him.  Here's Jose with his sprayer.

I spent an hour this morning getting Gel nails applied in preparation for the big event. Natalia and her mother both had this done and I didn't want to be left out.  I'm having a bit of a challenge with them just now on the computer keyboard.  But hey, it's worth it.

After all, how often do you get to party with the Mexican elite in San Juan del Rio?  This wedding is a big deal. It was on the front page of the society section of the San Juan del Rio newspaper this morning.
Once I've recovered from the party I'll let you know what the evening was like.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Hotel Layseca in San Juan del Rio

We totally lucked out with this hotel in San Juan del Rio.  It's just two blocks from where our friends live and two blocks from the beautiful church where Jose will be married tomorrow.  This is an adobe style building with a beautiful interior courtyard full of tropical flowers and tile work.  Our room on the ground floor opens out to this lovely covered walkway complete with finely worked wooden benches.

The same beautiful woodwork is on the beds and chairs in the rooms.  This photo shows the ceiling with its beams. We think it must be at least 16 feet high.

We slept deeply last night and awoke to sun shining through the transom above the wooden doors.  Peeking out I could see citrus fruit hanging off a tree. It turned out to be grapefruits.  And the most beautiful flowering Datura I've ever encountered. (See below.)

This one has creamy double flowers.

Below you can see another part of the courtyard with its inlaid stones and Bougainvillea.  And one of several outdoor rooms furnished with tables and chairs for guests seating.  All this with good showers and internet connection for less than $75 per night.

What more could you ask for?

We spent the day with Jose and his sister Natalia getting ready for the big day tomorrow and the party in the evening.  Apparently there is yet another party taking place the day after the wedding.  It seems that it's going to go on for the entire weekend.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Friends in Mexico

We're off to the wedding of our friend Jose, who grew up in a small city in the centre of Mexico. San Juan del Rio is off the tourist path, although it's close to a number of well-known colonial towns like Queretero and San Miguel de Allende.  This photo shows the main street of San Juan del Rio with some of its colonial architecture.

Our family has a connection with Jose's family because both Harry and I taught English to Jose about ten years ago. Jose was a fantastic student who came into Harry's class straight out of high school.  He studied at an ESL school here in Victoria for a couple of years and mastered English well enough to be accepted at Simon Fraser University, where he graduated with a degree in Psychology. He's now working as a social worker on Vancouver's Downtown East Side.

We met Jose's parents while he was studying in Victoria and they invited our son Jamie for a visit in in San Juan del Rio when he graduated from high school.  It was Jamie's first time away from home in a foreign country. Harry and I visited the Reyes family them in 2008 when we were traveling to Mexico in Mohita.  And we've kept in touch since. This is a photo of Chata, Jose's mom, and Natalia, his sister, taken on that trip.


The flowers are from the wall in front of their house.

Jose is marrying a young woman from San Juan del Rio and they plan to live in Vancouver. Tania has a degree in communications and hopes to find a job there.  We are so excited to be able to share this special time with them.  This will be a true Mexican wedding and we've even managed to pry Jamie away from school for a few days so he can come along too.  We're flying into Mexico City on Thursday afternoon and then we'll take a bus to San Juan del Rio.

 The wedding takes place on Saturday, perhaps even at this church.  I'll keep you posted.