ANOTHER GREAT ADVENTURE IN LATIN AMERICA!
Again, we loved everyplace we stayed and everything we did, no regrets. This one was actually 3 separate adventures:
:: 2 weeks on México’s Yucatán Peninsula with my husband fishing, diving, exploring Maya ruins and a variety of towns (Tulum, Valladolid, San Felipe, and Isla Mujeres), and snorkeling in cenotes and with sea turtles and whalesharks;
:: 2 weeks studying Spanish in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico with a small group in tow, living with a host family and exploring area water features, Maya ruins, and indigenous villages; and
:: 1 week in San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala, visiting the families of my Beca Project students and making plans for the project for the upcoming year.
I posted daily during the trip to a PHOTO BLOG:
You can view hundreds of additional photos from the trip on my FLICKR SITE: http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections
This travelogue will have additional specifics and links. I’ve decided to post in a string on a single thread and, as always, you can ignore the whole thing, scan for the bits that interest you, or read it word for word if you have strong eyes - it’s long!
I still stand by my packing list (#14 in the CA Lonely Planet FAQ list: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=828622 ) as it served me well again, with the addition of a couple of techy items most travelers wouldn‘t care about. I left my silk travel sheet at home and missed it the last week, would have liked my waterproof hiking shoes during 3 days of Hurricane Alex rains in San Cristóbal (but was happy not to lug them around the other 5 weeks), and preferred my half-sized bath towel to the backpacker model I’ve packed around for years. I enjoyed having my little netbook (tiny laptop) for photo sorting and sharing, blogging, and communication during 2 family crises back home; I packed along a couple of thumb drives which I used to back up my photos after sorting. I may shop this winter for a waterproof backpack or messenger bag.
In a nutshell, the weather was predictable for the season everywhere we visited with extra rain from (what became) Hurricane Alex at the end of the Yucatán trip and beginning of Chiapas - a few soggy days but it didn‘t slow us down. It was hot in the Yucatán - 90s and muggy - but didn’t spoil our fun; we were happy to have air conditioning at every stop and the occasional pool in addition to the water time we built in fishing, snorkeling, and diving. San Cristobal was in the high 60s/low 70s and Lake Atitlan was 70s/low 80s with near daily afternoon showers both places.
In the Yucatán, traveling in June had advantages that outweighed the heat and hurricane risk: it was low season which meant lower lodging prices, better availability, and fewer other travelers (and often individual attention) for activities and tours. Note that July and August are big months for Mexican vacationers so the low season appears to end with June.
HEALTH and SAFETY
There were a few mosquitos in Tulum Pueblo evenings and mornings but easy to avoid; in the jungly areas repellent was in order (we like Ultrathon and Sawyer’s controlled release deet products and have a few clothing products that ward off bugs). We drank only purified water which was generally provided to us by our lodging, tour, or study providers and ate a combination of self prepared, restaurant, and home cooked meals. I ate something bad (street fruit even though I peeled it myself? - not sure) in Chiapas and the antibiotics I’d packed along saved the day; I do not take them lightly but think they were necessary in this case. Otherwise - no problems.
In general we felt safe and our experiences were positive; in fact, they were mostly incredible. We had a few scary minutes when we exited the Ek Balam ruins and our car and driver weren’t there. Along he came, sorry to have kept us waiting, apparently oblivious to the fact that we were wondering if he’d taken off with all of our stuff. Because we’d been warned on the México branch of the Thorntree Forum we were (barely) able to escape the scams at the Pemex station in Tulum, otherwise people were friendly and helpful everywhere we went.
I’ve listed costs in whatever denomination we paid them. Exchange rate in México was effectively 12 pesos = $1US, slightly more at the banks. We used Santander ATMs in Mexico which didn’t charge a fee since we have Bank of America accounts. In Guatemala the exchange rate was 8 quetzales = $1US. We paid with a combination of Paypal, personal checks (the school in San Cristóbal), travelers checques (Mexidivers) and cash; we carried additional travelers checques and charge cards for backup but didn’t use them.
CHAPTER 1: 2 WEEKS EXPLORING THE YUCATAN WITH MY HUSBAND, MIKE
Best advice (other than pack really light and don’t try to do too much) is to buy the Can Do Maps http://www.cancunmap.com for the areas you want to see; imo they’re more complete and up to date than the guidebooks in terms of lodging and tours and they’re easy to pack around and reference as needed.
Portland > Phoenix > Cancun flights on US Airways were fine, hour delay out of Phoenix waiting for connecting passengers. We took a free shuttle from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and ADO buses from there to Playa del Carmen (106 pesos each) and on to Tulum (42 pesos - less for 2nd class but we wanted quick and ac) where we walked the few blocks to our hotel, Posada Luna del Sur http://sites.google.com/site/posadalunadelsur/welcome - highly recommended. Pretty, clean, friendly, helpful, with a large, well appointed room (ac, tv, fridge but no micro, nice patio outside our room, secure), $72US including tax, low season; check out the Trip Advisor posts http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g150813-d477460-Reviews-Posada_Luna_del_Sur-Tulum_Yucatan_Peninsula.html . There’s an honor bar, places to eat and lounge, a laptop for customer use and wifi on the rooftop terrace; I could pick up a little wifi on our patio but not in our room, #5 on the ground floor.
We liked staying on the south edge of town, shopping in the nearby grocery and local fruit stands for breakfasts and lunches, eating at places the locals frequent, within walking distance of the tourist-driven restaurants and shops but a bit south of the main drag; in nearly a week we just ate out 5 times. We had a great breakfast at Azafran - fruit/yogurt crepes for me for 45p, eggs w/ great salsa, mashed potatoes, wheat/seedy toast for Mike for 60p; we also bought a loaf of the bread which we ate through the week for 40p. We thought Charlie’s was good for dinner but not incredible - 95p for Mike’s chile rellenos and 80p for my vegies and potatoes, both w/ typical Mexican side dishes. At Don Cafeto’s we splurged on the combination seafood platter (310p for both) which could have fed 4, lots of leftovers for the next night: fish, shrimp, octopus, and squid prepared with sweet peppers and onions and served in a huge frying pan on the table with lots of good vegies, chips and salsa, rice, and tortillas; nice ambiance on the sidewalk with live music. I enjoyed the locals place called Camello Cocterleria y Pescaderia on the south end of town; a large serving of shrimp tacos with chips and salsa and tortillas was 45p. Our last night we watched the sun set and enjoyed a pizza at Zama’s on the beach, about 90p.
We rented a car (a little manual Hyundai Atos from Hertz, about $200US for the week) so my husband could access fishing flats in the Boca Paila area; it took him a few days to figure out the tides and the flies but he ended up catching (and releasing) some nice bonefish.
I dove 2 days. I was happy with my dive shops which specialized in the 2 types of diving I wanted - reef and cenote. I could be spoiled by the individual attention I received. The Mexidiver http://www.mexidivers.com shop, ($90US for 2 tanks) is across the road from the beach, so you walk across the sand, into the water, and into the boat. We visited the sites of La Ballena and Eagle Ray; it was just the dive master Nicolas and me and, though it wasn’t the most fabulous diving I’ve experienced, it was a satisfying mix of varied topography and a good variety of fish including butterfly fish, angels, grunts, jacks, schoolmasters, goat fish, damsels, basslets, trumpet fish, trunk fish, and wrasse. Highlights were 3 different types of moray eels including a really enormous green one and 2 beautiful spotted eagle rays that flew slowly past as we rose to the surface on the final dive. Unfortunately, we also saw 3 lion fish which are beautiful but are native to the Pacific and have no predators in the Caribbean; some apparently escaped when a hurricane devastated a large aquarium a few years back. They are very poisonous and devour young indigenous reef fish like there’s no tomorrow.
Another day I dove with Richie from Xibalba dive shop http://www.xibalbadivecenter.com/diving.asp?LID=en $110US for 2 tanks including entrance fees to 2 cenotes. It was AMAZING - gorgeous light and blues and greens, curious cave formations, spooky dark places, and a halocline, the line where the salt water (below) and fresh water (above) mix, causing a blurry layer you can barely see in that looks like a separate water surface from above and from below - fascinating! We did 2 dives, Gran Cenote and Calaveras (Temple of Doom) Cenote. Here’s a cool website: http://www.grancenote.com/photos.htm that will give you an idea of what it was like.
Mike and I snorkeled in several cenotes within a 10 minute drive of Tulum. The 1st was Dos Ojos (2 Eyes) Cenote; look around for the 3rd “eye” - we liked it best. We enjoyed the jungly hike despite the heat and near 100% humidity, snorkeling in the cool (cold at 1st!) water, swimming with the small fish and around interesting cave formations, the view of the world from inside, and the swallows and gorgeous motmots (my favorite type of bird) nesting in the stalagtites. Casa Cenote is a canal-like open cenote lined with mangroves. We crossed the road to the beach and snorkeled there, too; there was a decent representation of Caribbean reef fish but the visibility was poor - like diluted milk from the fine sand.
One morning we visited the Tulum Maya ruins, arriving shortly after they opened at 8am - highly recommended in order to beat the heat and the crowds. We pulled our little rental car into a practically empty lot and wandered in as venders were unlocking. When we walked out an hour and a half later (still early in the day!) the lot was nearly half full with vans and huge buses from Cancun and Playa del Carmen and there were easily a hundred people in line for the bathroom. Although we understand the rationale, we didn’t like that you can’t climb on the ruins or explore inside; most of the buildings you can’t even touch; it was hard to “feel” the place with so many roped off areas. We liked the gorgeous blue sky and picturesque clouds, beautiful grounds and interesting buildings and perimeter wall, nice grassy areas, incredible setting overlooking the sea, and lots of big lizards (really big).
One afternoon we headed to Akumal, about 14 miles north of Tulum, to go snorkeling in Turtle Bay in 5-10 feet of water. Sea turtles were EVERYWHERE - too many to count! We snorkeled for about 2 hours and took lots of photos. I will never forget sharing that time with Mike and dozens of those beautiful, peaceful creatures.
Next post, Valladolid...
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ANOTHER GREAT ADVENTURE IN LATIN AMERICA!