This report is rather long, but we've tried to break it up with some headers, so you can scan down and find what interests you.
Notes by Margie:
My family and I recently returned from a week long trip to Akumal, with a one night stay in Cozumel. We are 2 parents with 2 adult daughters. My husband and I frequently travel to Europe, and have used the Fodor's Forum extensively in our planning stages. I did so again for this trip, and frequent visits to www.locogringo.com were also invaluable. Our children are well traveled third world travelers, and prefer to travel to small villages and hotels, so, in the planning, although we are all Club Med fans, we did not want a large all-inclusive ('AI') for this trip.
In choosing this vacation, we were looking for a beach holiday. Living in the Boston area, we were eager for some warm weather. We were also limited by having to travel during school vacation week, because our younger daughter is a teacher. I knew that wherever we chose would be expensive, hard to get to, and crowded. We also planned somewhat late, so Cancun or the Mayan Riviera seemed like a good plan. Using www.Kayak.com and Orbitz, we were able to find somewhat inexpensive flights to Cozumel, with a stop in Charlotte (we did not want to have a lay-over in a northern city, in case of bad weather).
We have friends who have stayed at the Hotel Akumal Caribe and recommended it to us as a good destination for this holiday. We booked 6 nights there and 1 night in Cozumel (Casa Mexicana).
The flights themselves were uneventful, but the check in process was rather stressful. As I said, we travel to Europe often, but our travel within the states is limited to a few flights per year. It seems that travel has become a nightmare. Leaving Boston at 6 AM, we figured that we would avoid the crowds. However, we did not count on the additional travelers for the holiday and the residual problems associated with a snow storm 3 days before this flight. The airport was a mess at 3:45 AM. I needed to stand in the front of a huge line bugging the US Air employee whose job it was to keep order, while the rest of the family stood on a massive line which was barely moving. He finally told me to bring everyone to the front of the line as our flight was nearing boarding. What a way to do things! There has to be a better way, but with limited space and personnel, I'm sure some people missed their flights waiting on the long lines. At the gate, we hit additional problems. We were told that we did not have seats - somehow; our confirmed seats were not confirmed. After waiting several minutes, they decided that they could fit us in - scattered throughout the plane. In the end, the flight took off on time and the rest of the flights were reasonably uneventful. You can now bring food on board, which is necessary because a can of soda or juice plus a bag of pretzels gets pretty boring. Incidentally, it was so crowded at Logan that I don't think having first class tickets helped. There just wasn't enough staff to handle everyone!
A word about TSA rules. My husband and I take several drugs in pill form, and did not know what to do with them on our carry-on. In the end, we both put our drugs in the usual 7 day plastic container, but also took the pills in the original bottles. I could not find any info on the TSA site, and reports have been varied on the rules. At the airport, I asked a TSA employee, and he said all pills were now OK to take in carry-on. That seemed to be true. Our pills and even my epi-pen passed without comment. Next time, I'll pack as usual.
They seem more careful about liquids and stuff like gels. The 3 oz rule seemed to apply, and it is necessary to put everything in 1 quart Ziploc bags. Rules vary on drinks though. We had been told that we could bring bottled water onto the plane if it is purchased after security. That was true on 3 of the flights, but, in Cozumel, they took a bottle of water I had just bought, saying it was illegal. On the plane, the hostess said that we should have been able to bring it on. It was pretty strange. In addition, Mexican authorities apparently are concerned about drug smuggling, and, in Cozumel, they searched our bags a second time (they had already been through security) just before boarding. They didn't search too thoroughly, but enough to slow things down.
The Hotel Akumel Caribe
We arrived in Cozumel, transferred to the ferry and had a lovely half hour boat ride to Playa del Carmen. After picking up our car in town, we drove south to the hotel in about 35 minutes.
The Hotel Akumel Caribe is a small gem. Much of the Mayan Rivera is lined with large all inclusive hotels. Akumal has not been developed in the same way. Besides the Caribe, there are a few other small hotels and several condos. In south Akumal is the Akumal Beach Resort, a largish (for Akumal) AI. People seem to like the ABR, but, except for walking on the beach in front of it, we never saw the facility or met anyone from there. The Caribe has about 40 rooms, with a few different types of accommodations. There is a newish 3 story hotel facing the ocean, as well as several bungalows facing a small garden. We had 2 of these bungalows. They were large and had AC, but were modest in their furnishings. One room had 2 double beds and the other had a king size bed. The beds were firm, but surprisingly comfortable. Each room also had a single bed that had bolsters, so it could be used as a couch. The room also had a round table, a fridge and safe, and a bureau. Everything is clean and well cared for, but it is not a place one would go if one wanted luxury. There is a phone in each room, but there is no TV. In each room is a large bottle of spring or filtered water (office water-cooler size) - very convenient and thoughtful. The tap water is not potable; in fact, it seemed salty. We loved the bungalow - private and quiet even though it was steps from the beach and restaurant.
The Beach and Akumal
The beach is wonderful if you love snorkeling. The hotel is situated on Akumal Bay, which is a lovely semi-circular bay. Small fishing boats anchor throughout the bay. There is a wonderful coral reef off shore, and it is possible to just swim out whenever you want. We brought our own gear, but you can easily rent from one of 2 diving centers right on the beach. There is scuba available, and many visitors come for that. Because of the reef, there is no sailing or wind surfing on the bay- one needs to go further south to Tulum for that those sports. It is possible to go out with local fishermen and have your 'catch' cooked at a local restaurant. Swimming is glorious. Incidentally, there is a pool near the hotel (which is more modern than the bungalows), but we never swam there. It looked pleasant, with chairs and shade.
The beach is somewhat busy during the day, especially during a vacation week, but is quiet at night after the day trippers leave. Boats arrive with snorkelers from the cruise ships and some of the AIs, but we did not find this to be a problem at all. They dock reasonably far out. I don't want folks to think this is a crowded place- it is just the opposite - rather sleepy and lazy. A beach village - well, a small village. There are lots of trees and palapas for shade and eager staff to carry chairs and chaises around. There is no bar service on the beach, but the bar is nearby and one can get a drink and carry it 20 feet to your chair.
Other amenities include a spa, and a wonderful concierge who will help arrange car rentals or activities. The front desk is warm (look for Adrianna and Santos and say hello) and helpful, and the cleaning crew is friendly and thorough.
On the hotel property, there is a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. The food is quite good, and reasonably priced. There is your standard Mexican fare, as well as wonderful grilled fish and other meats. We ate there two mornings and evenings. There is a pizzeria inside as well, so one late evening, we just ordered a large pizza (we had had a large late lunch). Next to the restaurant is a 'snack bar,' which opens about 11 AM, and stays open into the night. There is a bar, and a smoothy and ice cream bar.
This reminds me to make a comment about money. In Akumal, there is one ATM, but we found out that it is often out of money. One can use credit cards at many of the restaurants and stores, but cash is sometimes required. You can always use American dollars as well as pesos, but one needs cash all the time. If you're a guest at the hotel, you can just charge to your room at any of their facilities.
Akumal is rather small - all pretty much walkable and easy to get to. Outside the property of the hotel are a few restaurants - these are all just steps away. We ate at most of them, including Turtle Bay Bakery, the Loncheria, and the Pescador. Each one has a different personality and food, and we enjoyed them all. Also, inside and outside the property of the hotel are several craft and souvenir stores - we enjoyed looking through them. There is a large supermarket as well as a smaller one across the street. There are many condos nearby and the markets are active and popular.
Nearby (I'm not sure if it is on or off the property of the Hotel Caribe), there is an ecological center (the Centro Ecológico Akumal, 'CEA', http://ceakumal.org/) which studies the coral reefs, the endangered turtles, and the entire bay ecology. They offer public lectures during the week. We went to one on the turtles, which was interesting and informative. We were fortunate to be in Akumal for a 2 day festival sponsored by the CEA, which included lectures and demonstrations as well as a silent auction and dinner, and we participated in a wonderful snorkeling excursion with the staff.
The weather was lovely. In the early part of the week, there was a cold front and we actually used a blanket at night and sweaters at dinner. The days were warm to hot, but there is always a wind and it was beautiful.
What we did
Some vacationers stay at the hotel, never leaving, and just enjoying the wonderful beach. I probably could have done that myself - I love to curl up with a book on the beach. But I have a more active family, so each day, we went on an excursion. We had rented a car (from the US, by e-mail) through a tour agency that is affiliated with the hotel (www.akumalguide.com), and is just opposite the front desk in the Hotel Caribe Akumal reception area. There is another agency, the TSA, nearby, and I understand that they also have tours. One can rent cars by the day, and taxis are not expensive.
Our family had been to Cancun on previous trips, and had been to Tulum and Xel-Ha. We did not want to spend time traveling to more distant Mayan Ruins at this time. So, instead, we headed out to explore local activities. One morning we went to nearby Yal Ku, a lagoon filled with wonderful tropical fish. While we were snorkeling in the ocean by the hotel, we saw barracuda, turtles, rays, squid, and several schools of shimmering silver fish. Snorkeling on the lagoon was like being in an aquarium, with the wonderful smaller tropical fish like angels and parrotfish. Delightful.
One day we went to Xcaret (prounced esh-ka-RETT). I had read a lot of comments critical of the park, saying it was a mini Disney, etc. Well, we really enjoyed it and although it was school vacation week and there were a lot of people, it did not feel overly congested, and no activity had lines or was extremely crowded. We loved seeing all the animals, including the breeding turtles and the manatees, loved the underground river snorkeling, the small Mayan village and cemetery, etc. The evening performance was a lot of fun. I understand that this is just a sampling of what the Yucatan has to offer, but, what Xceret does, it does well, and it was an enjoyable day.
We also went to Aktun Chen, an enjoyable cave tour. One of our daughters is a primatologist, and we spent a while watching the squirrel monkeys in a large habitat display. Afterwards, we went to Oscar y Lalo, a beautiful beach and restaurant on Solomon Bay, about 15 minutes south of Akumal. The first time we were there, we could not eat, because it turned out they only took cash, and we did not have enough money with us, due to the ATM at Akumal having run out. We returned for a wonderful meal later in the week.
OK - I have to admit it now. We went to Dolphin Discovery in Puerto Aventuras to swim with the dolphins. Trust me, this was a difficult decision. I had read many of the comments about the treatment and capture of the dolphins, but after many family discussions, we decided to do it. And we loved it. There is something magical with being so close to these extraordinary animals. We were in a small group of nine, and it did not appear that the dolphin was stressed. She seemed to like performing, but who knows. Once you decide to do it, you just have to let go of all the other stuff. We loved going for a ride on the belly of the dolphin as well as being pushed on a boogie board. The trainer was with us, and the dolphin got lots of fish for treats. The facility had large swimming areas, and the dolphin we were with had a 6 month old baby swimming nearby and occasionally with us as well. It made us feel better to know that they are breeding in captivity. In the end, I doubt we'll feel a need to repeat the experience, but we are glad that we did do it, and we have the video and some photos as souvenirs. Please, no lectures ' it's done and we're happy we decided to do it.
We had a delightful birthday dinner at La Lumina about a mile from the hotel. Adrianna at the hotel had booked us a table on the beach, but it was too windy the night we ate there, and we transferred to a pleasant indoor table. I'd recommend the restaurant - good food, a nice wine list, and pleasant surroundings. But see Larry's note at the end of this report.
After our delightful stay in Akumal, we returned our car to Playa del Carmen, and took the ferry to Cozumel. We had decided to stay in San Miguel, because it was just the one afternoon and evening and we thought we did not need a beach hotel. The hotel, Casa Mexicana, is a lovely modern hotel across from one of cruise line docks. It was carefully designed and is a charming place to stay in town. The extensive breakfast buffet is included and is in a lovely open garden deck. There is a nice, though small, pool on the first floor that looks out to the sea and ships. It was interesting to watch the thousands of passengers going to and from their ships. We walked around, ate, and shopped. The town wasn't too exciting, and we did not see any more of the island. We understand that it is quite beautiful, and we would like to return at another time.
Our flight back to the US was uneventful and on time. We were supposed to have an almost 4 hour layover in Charlotte, but the airlines changed us to an earlier flight (without asking or notifying us), so we were able to arrive home at a more reasonable time.
Notes by Larry: I think Margie's done a pretty complete report, but I'd like to add a few notes:
Balloon twisting in Akumal
My younger daughter, who is a teacher, as was mentioned above, is also a 'balloon twister'. That is, she is skilled at making hats, animals, and other such 'sculptures' out of balloons. One day, to meet some of the locals, we drove to the actual village of Akumal, on the west side of the highway. I started chatting in Spanish with a man who was hanging around, who immediately assumed that we gringos had turned the wrong way off the highway. He informed me that I really wanted to be on the other side of the road, where there were nice beaches and shops. On this side, he told me, there are only rats.
My daughter made a hat for him out of a few balloons, but there didn't seem to be any children around, so we headed back towards our car. But a few kids then appeared, and the man we had spoken to showed them the balloon hat, and pointed them in our directions. Our daughter made them some more hats and some balloon animals. One of the kids ran off with her prize, and the next thing we knew, about thirty or so kids materialized, from all directions. Our balloon twisting daughter made balloon sculptures for the kids, while the rest of us took photos. She made a balloon 'collar' for a local collarless street dog, who seemed unperturbed by it. It didn't last long, as the dog shortly walked by a nearby cactus, causing it to explode with a loud pop. That didn't seem to faze the dog either.
I spent much of the time chatting with the proprietor of a nearby grocery store, in which a couple of men in the back of the room were mass-producing tortillas, apparently for use by local families (people came in from time to time to buy a few packages), and perhaps for local restaurants. The men were using a large motorized machine with rollers that looked rather like an oversized pasta machine. We had to stop after about 45 minutes, not enough time to twist balloons for all the kids, but my daughter was getting tired. The kids she hadn't gotten to were pretty gracious about it.
We had an excellent dinner at La Lumina, for Margie's birthday. They were pretty busy, and yet were most accommodating when it proved to be an unusually windy evening, causing us to ask to be moved from the table we had reserved on the beach.
But I think I should report that when the bill arrived, I did a rough addition in my head, and it didn't seem right. So I added it up more carefully, and it was indeed incorrect. The bill summed to 965 pesos for four people, but they had added it to 1,105, an additional 140 pesos. That amount matched one of the items on the bill, so I thought that they had perhaps added a line twice when summing. I reported this to the waiter, expecting him to come back with a corrected bill.
Instead, after consulting someone else who had apparently prepared the bill, he reported that 'we've included a 10% tip'. I found that rather dubious. Although the bill had a line for the 'propina', nothing was written there, and there was no other indication that a tip had been included. Besides, the amount added was almost 15% (a more reasonable tip, actually), not 10%. No other restaurant in Mexico had ever added in a tip, let alone doing so without any indication. I wrote 'incluido' on the 'propina' line, and paid the 1,105 pesos. And I thought I ought to report the event here.
Mexico, Mexicans, and the Spanish Language
Some readers may recall that I'm interested in Romance languages, and that I speak Spanish reasonably well for tourist purposes. That's helpful, but not necessary, on the Mayan Riviera. It's a tourist area, and most of the people in routine contact with the tourists can get along at least reasonably well in English. But if you are interested in working on your Spanish, I heartily recommend Mexico. The Spanish spoken there is generally quite clear and easy to understand. I also liked pretty much all the people I met, who were generally quite friendly and good-natured. In the airports, and the markets in Cozumel, vendors could be quite aggressive about trying to collar you into some deal or another, but they would generally take a polite 'no' for an answer, without hounding you any further. Nobody ever accosted you for such purposes in Akumal.
Orbitz and US Airways
Orbitz booked all our flights on US Airways, but for some reason, booked the first flight as a 'code share' on United ('operated by US Airways'; I wonder if they did it to save a few bucks). This caused us a lot of problems. First of all, since the first flight was (fictionally) on a 'different' airline, our luggage was only checked through to Charlotte. Secondly, we didn't get seat assignments on that flight. I remedied this by phoning US Airways in advance, and asking for, and getting, assigned seats, 10A-D.
But that didn't end our problems. Probably because of this, we were unable to use the automated ticketing machines at the airport, and were thrown into the general chaos of the hundreds of people waiting in line to see an agent. When we finally got to an agent (barely in time, and only due to Margie being very aggressive), the agent needed to rebook the initial two flights to get our luggage checked clear through. Then at the gate, we were told we had no assigned seats, and that row 10 is an exit row, and is never assigned in advance. We hung out by the gate, not knowing if we were going to make our flight, or possibly lose our entire pre-paid vacation, or a portion of it. If we didn't get on that flight, we might not get out for days. Due to an earlier snowstorm, there were people who had been trying to get out of the airport for three days, and they would certainly have gone before us. We've done well using Orbitz in the past, but I was not impressed with what they did this time. And the chaos at the gates left me unimpressed with US Airways as well, although once past this initial problem, all our flights were on-time, and reasonably pleasant.
Let me note that it was common where we were to quote prices not in pesos, but in US dollars ('usd'). But in Mexico, of course, you really end up getting charged in pesos, the local currency, so that $75usd got converted to pesos. If you then pay by credit card, you credit card company converts this back to dollars, and then adds a currency exchange fee. Thus there's a double conversion, and an additional fee.
For example, after our swim with the dolphins, we bought a video and some large format souvenir photos that together were quoted at $75usd. Dolphin Discovery converted this to pesos at a rate of 10.95 pesos to the dollar, resulting in a charge on my charge card of 821.25 pesos. Charge cards, fortunately, give you a very good exchange rate. My Visa card converts the 821.25 pesos to dollars at a rate of 10.96 pesos/dollar, resulting in a dollar charge of $74.93, actually a bit less than the quoted dollar amount. Thus the double currency exchange generally doesn't cost you much, if anything at all. But Visa then adds a 3% Currency Exchange Fee, in this case $2.25, so the actual cost in the end comes to $77.18.
We used American Express wherever it was accepted (quite often, actually), because they charge only a 1% Exchange Fee. Since the same symbol ('$') is used for both dollars and pesos, it can be a bit disconcerting to look at a charge slip and see a charge for $1,105 after a meal. But that's pesos, not dollars, and since the charge is being made in Mexico, there's no confusion.
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