Thursday, February 24, 2005

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, The End

[Originally posted on]

The End

Well, I'm running out of steam here, I can't think of any more stories, at least not interesting ones. We washed our clothes in the sink and dried them on the line, that's not too exciting. We snorkeled at Yal-Ku lagoon near Akumal, that was a load of fun, I must have seen 25 species of fish. My uncontrollable consumerism finally met its match in Cancun airport, where I successfully resisted the temptation to buy a giant black sombrero with silver stitching. We drove down the Boca Paila road into Sian Ka'an as far as the bridge, that was VERY interesting for a while as the road started to disappear out from under us, but we made it back OK. Um, let's see, they had a dog named Asha who was very sweet indeed. I peeled. Nancy peeled. A few more naked people swam in the ocean near us (unfortunately, some of them were men). The sun rose, the sun set, the lights came on, the lights went out, we laughed, we cried. Well, no, we didn't cry. I had the best time I've ever had and I've had some good ones. The thing about Mexico was that I felt, just a day or two into it, that I was really relaxing and tuning into a whole different way of thinking about time and what's important in life. [continues on in this drippy philosophical manner for several more paragraphs]. I could get used to this.

But in the end, it was about perfect. After two weeks, I wanted to stay, but I kind of wanted to go home again, too. This is a beautiful country, but it's not MY country; I'm glad it's there and I hope to see more it, and I hope the Mexicans realize what a treasure they have; all you hear about on the news is tragedy, but this was a wonderful place, even as poor as it is. I love Mexico.

And now I'm home, and I'm NOT ALLOWED to smoke cigars. Can you believe it? What is this a police state? Harrumph. It would be a lot easier to get upset if I didn't know for damn sure that I'm the luckiest man in the world. Thanks for a great trip, Nancy. Let's go back, OK?

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 11

[Originally posted on]

I think it was Monday

We had booked a tour of Sian Ka'an out of the Weary Traveler -- not the Cesiak tour, but the other group -- Amigos de Sian Ka'an? Anyways, they picked us up at our hotel, which was nice, as it was well out of the way. One of the tours goes down the Boca Paila road into Sian Ka'an, and reaches the lagoons that way, but our tour went down 307 from Tulum to Muyil, for more ruins first.

Muyil is a small site, but has some great architecture -- a little of both styles, the Classical and the Peten. I'm probably scrambling this all up, because I don't have my book in front of me, but one style has rounded corners on the pyramids, almost like cones, of perfectly concentric rows of steps, while the other has sharp corners and steep sloping sides, with ranks of steps going up the middle (like Chichen Itza).

(BTW, I had a dream once where I opened up a chain of really nasty KFC-style fast-food restaurants in Mexico called "Itsa Chicken Itza", and woke up in a sweat just as I was about to be understandably murdered by Zapatistas).

At the edge of Muyil, there is a nature hike that begins here and meanders down toward the lagoon. Our guide, Pepe, took us through and showed us all the interesting plants, including the tree sap that eats away your flesh in great wounds "like a cheese pizza", and the antidote to same that is usually found nearby. We climbed an observation tower, which rippled and swayed under our weight and caused at least one girly man to blanch and clamber right back down again -- nah, I wasn't scared, I just, uh, didn't want to spoil the view for the others, yeah, that's it.

The trail comes out at the first of three lagoons; the first two fresh water and the last mixed fresh and salt, as it opens to the sea at the Boca Paila (Mouth of the Paila, I can figure, but I don't know what "paila" means). There's a Maya-built canal between the first two, over a thousand years old, cut right into the limestone bed, and a much longer natural canal between two and three. We took a boat out, stopping briefly at another temple in the Muyil complex on an island, or more properly a hummock of red mangrove, which still bore traces of the red paint it was once plastered with.

Then, in the long canal, we learned how to put our lifevests on upside down, what the Maya guides call "diaper style", which seems weird but works extremely well as a floating seat. In these we floated down about a kilometer of the canal, past red mangrove, huge bromeliads ("air plants", that grow without roots or soil in the crotches of trees, supported by them but not parasitic), and many many tiny flourescent aqua fishes, hard to see in the flourescent aqua water. An amazing journey and a remarkable place. So nice to see such a gorgeous wetlands without hundreds of jetskis and waterskiers all over it, just pristine bird and wildlife habitat. Alas, being midday the only wildlife we actually saw in the flesh were a green heron and a beautiful great egret.

The tour concluded with a snorkel in the Emerald Cenote, which, you will be shocked to hear, is green, and very lovely.

By this time, I was starting to glow. What a magical trip. That night, at Tierras del Sol, Jose, the Maya gentleman who works for Carlos, dragged a bunch of branches out of the jungle, burned them down to coals, raked them out flat, and cooked foil-wrapped whole fish on a grill laid over a couple of concrete blocks. Boquinete, or hogfish: a red fish, very bony, with delicious firm white meat. It felt like a privilege to be allowed to share this meal with our hosts, Carlos and his wife Natalie, who are originally from Argentina, and Jose and his daughter Carolina, or "Caro-LEEEENA" as one calls her if one wants to see the broadest, shyest, happiest grin in the world.

This hotel was more like a B&B than a "hotel", and whereas sometimes B&Bs kind of give me the creeps, with the lonely lady living her peculiar faux-English fantasy out in her ghostly house somewhere, desperately wanting you to come share scones and tea in her drawing room or something, but this was quite different. An international crowd, with people from Spain, Germany, Britain, Venezuela, New York, and LA passing through at one time or another (there are only four or five units in the whole place) and there really isn't any place to go after dark unless you want to drive up into the "busy" stretch of the strip, by Zamas and the convenience store, so we'd sit around and watch the pretty mobile made of thorns cast shadows of dancers on the wall.

And then we'd sit and read in bed by the dim light, and I'd have my cigar and a glass of rum on the deck, or we'd run out onto the sand and watch the stars. The first nights there there was no moon so there were a million stars -- I've seen a lot of stars up in the Cascade Mountains near home but nothing like this, with nothing to block the horizon and the stars went right down to the edge, the whole Milky Way, and the Big Dipper's in the wrong place, and Orion's belt is brighter than any of Liberace's, and the stars make the sand glow like snow. Mmm. I'm getting misty eyed just thinking about it.

After a few nights we started seeing the new moon, which was upside down -- a cup instead of a letter c -- and the sand got brighter at night, and we could see to walk up the beach to some of the other restaurants. A mixed bag, some were fancy, some were good, some were just OK. I will mention that Ana y Jose was the most beautiful; if I could swing the bucks I'd stay there next time. A lot of the really posh places suffered from the need of Europeans to have a constant disco music accompaniment, even at breakfast. I gather that some of the places get pretty hoppin' at night, but we're old and tired and are much happier with quiet nights of quiet stars, ("Corcovado", Joao Gilberto).

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 10

[Originally posted on]

Day Sump-teen

I'm settling in. When I pick up the Miami Herald (or "a Miami" as the girl at the Stop and Go calls it) I no longer recognize what they're talking about. Bush, what's this about a bush? Pope? I dunno. Canada? Never heard of it. Buncha guys in suits shaking hands, I don't understand at all. Hockey season cancelled? There's a hockey season? I'm starting to get interested in the Copa Libertadores, and I don't even know what that IS.

We got tired of walking miles up the beach to get to a restaurant, so we rented a car at Ana y Jose. Cute little "Chevy" 1.6; not a Chevrolet, a Chevy -- I couldn't find the word Chevrolet anywhere on it. I was hoping for an Atos, which is signed "by Dodge" here but is made by Hyundai. They look like they could drive through your average doorway into your house, they're so small. And cute. Even Nancy agrees, THESE little cars can be cute. Someday maybe they'll be legal in the States. The Smart Car (saw just one of these in Playa) has passed the emissions and crash test in the US and starting to become available (actually outperformed a lot of huge cars and trucks in the crash test).

But the Chevy is cool enough, and lo and behold I DO remember how to drive a manual. And Nancy is actually IMPRESSED. My chest is puffed out so far I'm practically honking the horn here. Hmm, better pay attention to the feet, the pedals are so close together my sandal is getting hooked under the brake. Not good. Yes, there was a little swearing, but all in all we're traveling.

First destination: supermarket. We always check out the foreign supermarkets. A couple of strange things we notice: all the coffee is instant, and all the milk is, well, actually there doesn't appear to be any milk. Wait, here's some little cans. And, hey, that's a lot of different kinds of detergent, isn't it? And over here, the beer. And the Cuban rum, mmm. I've never been one for tequila, personally; don't much care for the taste, and to be perfectly honest every time I drink it I end up setting something on fire. Remember, Nancy's impressed because you can drive a stick, now don't blow it!

Next stop: downtown Tulum. Tulum is, frankly, a bit of a shithole. Kind of a truck stop, a wide place in the road. But they've fancied up the main street, with a clever kind of main strip for the highway with a parking and lurking roadway on either side. We came armed with the knowledge that if you really want to see Mexico you have to get away from the tourists on the beach, at least as far as Vallodolid, preferably Merida, but we're not going to get that far this trip. Tulum it is. I bought a hammock. We ate a nice lunch in a divey spot -- again the "crummier the restaurant the better the food" rule.

I wouldn't want to stay at the Weary Traveler hostel, but it's a great place for information. You can book Sian Ka'an tours there, which we did, and check your email for almost nothing (the linux machines are only 5 pesos per hour), or sit around and watch the hippies watch action flicks on HBO. Excellent English is spoken and everyone is very friendly. While Nancy is checking her email, I amuse myself by reading a guidebook for Playa from 1989 -- Tulum isn't even mentioned (aside from the ruins) and Playa is a sleepy little town with only the *BANNED* [the name of this establishment was redacted by staff; I can't remember what it was, possibly Blue Parrot] recognizable amongst the establishments. No Senor Frogs! No Senor Frogs Official Stores! ¿Cómo vivieron?

Tulum is quite a bit hotter than the beach zone, due to the lack of breeze, and everyone in town is moving very slowly. We immediately recognize the wisdom of Mitch's advice -- don't walk on the sunny side of the street! If it's midday and both sides are sunny, find a hamaca and doze a while, or sit inside and watch Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones cut each other up with machetes. Or something.

We had a panic attack in Tulum one evening. We had eaten a pizza in town, and walked around, and came back out to our car -- and someone was parked behind us! Two tiny little cars in a space for one, and we're totally boxed in! There's another car idling behind that, and a bunch of what Joe Pesci calls "yoots" hanging around looking suspicious, but no drivers to be seen. Nancy is plainly a little terrified, but, I, being the fearless male of the species, am putting up an utterly transparently bogus front of unconcern. Well, we'll just have to drive up over the curb, I say, as a guy comes over and panhandles us: "pesos, comidas" is all I can make out but it's enough. He's not happy with the few pesos I hand over, but that's all I got, man. I bend down to see just how badly driving over the curb is going to destroy this Chevy -- initial estimates say "completely" -- when a giggling girl comes skipping over and laughs and says a bunch of things in melodious Spanish and backs out of my way. Total elapsed time of crisis: twelve minutes. As we drive back to the hotel strip, it occurs to me: I love Mexico!

The next day, I think it is, we drive out to the ruins at Coba. This is a bit different, as the highway isn't a federal one but a state, which means no shoulder, and frequently no lane markings. The huge trucks and buses are just as plentiful, though, which makes passing even more of an adventure. After a while, I don't even notice the sound of the rapid intake of air coming from the passenger seat anymore. I'm a pro; I'm whizzing in and out, left turn signal blazing, fingertip control, I'm in total -- GAAAAAHH. OK, both hands. Yes, dear, you're right. Could you wipe my brow, please?

On the road to Coba you pass over 2,183 topes in the two small towns along the way, plus Coba itself. The campaign banners are flying -- this is hard-core PDR country; The PRI won the recent elections in the state but out here in the sticks the poor people vote left. "Felix" banners are scarce, while "Chacho" (I think that's his name) is everywhere.

At Coba, we hire a guide -- no organized trip this time -- who turns out to be very good. The place is absolutely mobbed, though; we got there right after five huge buses of Italians. Now, I'm a proud and fervent internationalist, and I think Italy is terrific -- but you talk about your ugly Americans, these Italians, especially the old ladies. Oh my lord. They talk continuously, at the top of their lungs. They even carry on conversations with people who have climbed to the top of the big pyramid, Nohoch Mul (the largest in Mexico, and the second-highest Maya structure anywhere). From the bottom, shouting, waving. It's unbelievable.

And then they're gone. We left our guide, and spent the rest of the day just wandering the site. Once the buses left, we practically had the place to ourselves, it was wonderful. Coba is much larger than Tulum, and was a huge thriving city, not just a little temple zone. There are amazing stelae and two awesome ball courts and traces of sac-be, and the lagoons. Wonderful. We had been warned about bugs but didn't really get any. And then I ate the best thing I ate in Mexico, the pok chuk at the joint with the red chairs. Tourist trap, but what the heck, the achiote spice is fantastic.

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 9

[Originally posted on]

I have no earthly idea what day it is

We packed about seven different kinds of hand sanitizers and sanitary wipes and toilet seat covers and anti-diarrhea pills and I don't know what all, but so far I wasn't having any problems. The famous "tourista" or Monteczuma's revenge wasn't happening. Usually when I travel, it's the opposite; especially if I don't drink enough water, the concrete just sets right up.

I was even OK after we ate lunch at this place on the beach were I had some kind of stuffed chicken breast, and when I was on my next-to-last bite, I noticed a funny texture, and looked down and realized that I had just eaten a hunk of RAW chicken. I think it was a frozen cutlet that didn't quite stay on the broiler long enough. Gasp -- shock -- horror -- we all know that undercooked chicken is INVARIABLY FATAL and even the cutting board it touches must be boiled in bleach, or something -- I don't follow "Food Nazi News" that closely -- but two days later I was still fine.

But then, more than a week into our trip, I discovered a drawback to relaxation: I wasn't biting my nails. Now, understand, I've bitten my nails all my life; I can honestly say I have NEVER trimmed them with a clipper in my life. They're bitten so far down the quick and beyond that they don't even grow within a half-inch of the ends of my fingers anymore. I've tried the nasty-tasting stuff, and I just chew right through it; hey, it grows on you a little! Nancy realized a long time ago that it didn't matter how often she grunted with disgust or slapped my hands away from my drooling mouth, I was going to continue this perverted practice until I died. But here I was in Mexico, and growing hideous talons.

Now, I wash my hands, and I was using the sanitizer glop, and being as good a boy as I know how (which isn't saying much, but I'm trying), but you know what? I think my fingernails made me sick. I was brushing my teeth with bottled water and squirting lime on everything, but when I broke down and nibbled my new claws, because they were scratching me in places I didn't like being scratched, I think I was ingesting some nasties that were hiding under there. It's just a theory, mind you. But I was sick.

If you have to be sick, though, you might as well be in paradise to do it. And you know, I didn't FEEL bad; I just had to run up to the cabana every so often with a worried look on my face. I even tried a nice cold cerveza, and I can report as a result of this research that a nice cold cerveza on a warm day on the beach is pretty damn therapeutic. As a result of my need to be near a toilet all the time, we were forced to set aside our busy plans for action-packed days of tourism, and just relax under the palapa for another day. This proved not to be a hardship, oddly enough. And once I figured out that we could buy beer and ice at the store, and put them in the big tub that was providently placed next to our deck, I barely even had to get up out of my chair all day, except when I was called to go perform the unmentionable.

And when huge pelicans are flying ten feet over your head, who cares about a little tummy upset?

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 8

[Originally posted on]

Day 6 or thereabouts

We woke at dawn again. If we thought it was pretty off the deck of the Freud, it was awe-inspiring off the deck of this place, coming up right out of the sea.

The first day we did a little exploring, up and down the beach, and noticed a couple of enormous falling-down buildings, with caved-in palm roofs, rotting beams, and birds swooping in and out. We discovered that they formerly belonged to Pablo Escobar, the notorious Columbian drug lord who was killed by the CIA a while back, and now belong to the government. We soon discovered that the government was protecting their investment with real live soldiers, Federales suited up for war head to toe, with automatic weapons in their arms (along with their lunches, and on at least one occasion a pretty senorita) as they walked up and down the beach.

We also saw fishermen walk past once or twice a day with their spear guns and strings of fish; we even saw a guy walk up to the surf, put on this mask and snorkel, grab his spear gun from his buddy, and head off swimming to the reef, a good 200 yards or more away. Intrepid!

I discovered that it doesn't matter how much sunscreen you use, it only matters how much you DON'T use in just one moment of forgetfulness. I was doing really well -- my fair skin burns like flash paper -- but on the 6th or 7th day I left it off for just a half hour and roasted like a pig under a broiler. (I'm still itching and peeling as I type this. My cow-orkers are enjoying the sight of me with a network cable wrapped around my back trying to scratch that ONE PLACE I can't quite reach.)

Now, on a beach with no people, one's opportunities to admire that one particularly lovely form of the beauty of nature that gets so much attention here are limited. But while I was despairing of this, and plotting a way to get back up to Mamita's (because I was as yet unaware of closer opportunities), a couple of sweethearts strode up and dragged two lounges directly into my field of view. "Wouldn't it be nice if they", and then they did. Oh, I love humanity, really I do.

WHAP. "I know what you're looking at".

"I'm not looking, honey, really I'm not; I'm just working over in my mind the design for my new patented zoom-lens sunglasses".

Speaking of sunglasses, I recently splurged on a fancy-schmantzy pair of spectacles, because I am incredibly blind and even more incredibly vain, which included a smashing set of clip-on sunglasses, made especially to fit. With a whatchamacallit, a Croakie, to hold my glasses on while swimming in the surf (I mean it, I am really blind without, about 20-500), I thought I was all set. Until I caught a big wave smack in the face (which was actually my objective at the time), and came up sans clipons. Every other thing in the bleedin' ocean washed to shore around us (the nearby beaches that were not swept clean every morning were covered in plastic flotsam, or is it jetsam?), but not my sunglasses. This trip is getting expensive!

And yet, I can't stop grinning. I have photographic proof, from Nancy's camera: I look like a complete idiot, a total subnormal -- but a happy one.

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 7

[Originally posted on]

Day 4 Continued (5? Who can tell? Where's my watch? Did I bring a watch?)

So, the tour was great. Winding through Playacar was a little scary, as I have a phobia for gigantic All-Inclusives (though if they are your preferred accomodation in paradise I won't begrudge you; I won't begrudge you anything as long as you're not standing on my ear while you're doing it).

We return to Playa, and check into Hotel Posada Freud. Now, I have to tell you, I thought La Tortuga was gorgeous -- I didn't even get around to describing the rooftop jacuzzi or what happens when you jacuzzi au naturelle with a big glass of rum and a bigger cigar. Hmmm, I don't think I will, actually.

But if you stay at La Tortuga, I think I would recommend forgoing the charms of the spa jets and get an interior room; their pool is beautiful, and any room that doesn't open on 10th is going to be a LOT quieter. I was awakened the morning after Stupor Bowl Sunday at 4:01 AM by a crowd of about 50 people right outside the window, howling and banging on the garbage cans. Hmm, that part I didn't like so much.

So when we saw the room at Posada Freud, which hung right over the street, and realized that the kind of annoying blooz-bar we had been trying to avoid was right underneath us, we were trepid. The room was lovely, and that worrisome balcony was huge, with a scrumptious hammock, which I immediately used to erase about two and a half hours, but would it be noisy?

It was. The bar featured a dreadful series of musicians starting with some inept Bob Dylan karaoke and working up to a grand finale of a U2 cover band, not inept but I don't like U2 much, so it was a problem. We were all set to get pissy and annoyed, when we remembered -- hey, we're in Mexico. And what do you know, but at some point -- not THAT late -- they stopped playing and we slept like babes, and in the morning we discovered -- the sunrise! We missed it at La Tortuga, as we faced the wrong direction there (shoulda slept in the jacooze).

At 5:50, Avenida Quinta is absolutely dead quiet, and the sun is just turning into an orange-red fireball, and the whole world is silent and glowing. Wow. At 5:53, a guy shows up at one of the shops in a little truck, and the street starts waking up, but it's still so peaceful and calm; no hint that there were knee-walking tequila gobblers under our window just a few hours before.

I'm starting to realize that no matter how good this gets, it's about to get better right around the corner. And if I go back to Playa, I think I'm staying at the Posada Freud again. Balcony room.

We ate, and lazed around on the balcony, and wandered around the town a little, and started thinking about our next journey. We were torn; rent a car, or take a cab? We decided on a cab, even though it's expensive as hell to get to the hotel strip on the Boca Paila, it's not as psychically expensive as driving on that highway. Eventually, but not today, my friend, not today.

I discovered a magic trick, whereby you can make a cab driver disappear instantly in thin air: go up to a group of them, and say "Tulum?", and as they all start opening doors and nodding their heads yes, yes, I will take you, no I will take you, then add "Boca Paila?". Instant ghost town. Where did everybody go? Our bags, which had already partly been loaded into one cab, were back at our feet, and were left alone with one brave soldier, the only cabbie on Calle 10 willing to haul us down the Boca Paila Road.

Our hotel there was Tierras Del Sol, which is way, way down at the end of the hotel strip in Tulum, almost to the entrance to Sian Ka'an -- kilometer 10. Our cabbie lied and said he knew where it was. I had a map from the hotel website but he wouldn't look at it, nor would he quote a price; he waved the standard rate sheet at me, which said "Tulum 435 pesos", and said something about figuring out the rest when we got there. It's very difficult for a non-Spanish speaker to explain to a non-English speaker that "km 10" means 10 km from the ruins, not 10 km from the highway junction or 10 km from the Tulum road junction with the Boca Paila road. I'm not sure I can even explain it to myself.

But off we set, and got another lesson in 307 driving. Those lane markers are just suggestions, you know. We like to think we in the USA live in the "land of the free" but you haven't tasted ANYTHING of real freedom until you've decided to pull out in the face of an oncoming overloaded semi in order to get around a destroyed 1981 Chrysler Le Baron with no doors, trunk, or hood that's going 18 MPH on the shoulder. And hoping you'll clear the old guy on the bicycle on your way back over, so the huge bus can have the center (i.e., oncoming) lane for a turn.

We made it, though, and successfully shouted and gesticulated our desire to turn down the Tulum road, and hit the Boca Paila. As the road got worse and worse, our cabbie was obviously thinking we were idiots, and lost, and his car was going to become a 22nd-century Maya ruin in the jungle. The road crew had been back, destroyed the road even more; it was now bi-level, with the southbound "lane" a good foot higher in elevation than the northbound, and was chopped up into human-head sized chunks besides. If you go slow, this isn't much of a problem, until the yahoos in their jeep convoys heading for the fishing camps or Punta Allen roar past at 40 MPH; we were more than satisfied to be making 15. And all that construction meant of course thick clouds of dust, coating every leaf. If you made the mistake of trying to clear it with the wiper-washer fluid, you made limestone mud on the windshield. That's the same stuff they mortared the Maya pyramids together with, I think -- dust and wiper fluid. Our cabbie was far too polite to swear out loud, but I think he probably had a few thoughts to confess the next time he was in church.

But then, the road got a little better, and we passed some nice-looking places that didn't seem like wilderness at all -- Ana y Jose, Las Ranitas, Amansala -- and then finally, Tierras del Sol. We paid off our cabbie with what I hope was a generous settlement, and made our way into the jungle.

At the top of the rise, a vision appeared, a god, naked but for a pair of swim trunks "Hola, Steven!" It was Carlos, our host. The naked but for etc. part was put there in the name of my wife, who seemed oddly unable to speak properly. I'm a ladies' man myself, but even I could tell that this Carlos fellow was kind of hunky, in a Enrique Eglesias kind of way. While she stood there going "huh huh, huh huh", I grabbed her hand and followed Carlos to our new digs.

The guidebook called the owners of Tierras del Sol "laid-back" which is like calling Yao Ming "fairly tall" or Bill Gates "well-off". This was not going to be like staying at the Four Seasons. Our cabana was right on the beach -- not NEAR the beach, not JUST ACROSS THE ROAD from the beach, not WITHIN VIEW of the beach, but ON the beach; you stepped off the deck onto the sand -- this is a distinction which tends to escape realtors and hotel advertisers in some places I could mention. The first thing we noticed was the door. Not only did it not lock, it didn't latch; there was a good quarter inch clearance there. Carlos says, "I need to fix, or maybe you can put something?" We wedged some cardboard in there, and it was fine. Stayed that way the whole time.

And there are people all over the world staying in places with ultra-secure doors made to ultra-high tolerances who are enjoying themselves one hell of a lot less than we did. Laid back charm. In spades.

The room was cute, and the deck, which looked out to the main strand just feet away, featured a couple of comfy deck chairs, a hammock chair, and the best hammock I've ever touched -- absolutely immense, the size of Minnesota, with a tight weave. I'm pretty sure I spent many hours in the thing but honestly my memory is weak on this point, as I tended to become unconscious just sitting down in the thing.

If that wasn't enough, we could move even closer and sit under one of the palapas provided for that purpose. Which we did, for the entirety of day, er, well, a couple of them. Didn't move the whole day, and why would you want to?

The beach was as nice as Mamita's, but deserted. The room was lovely, completely rustic, with adobe and stick walls, a busted shutter over a glassless window, the aforementioned door, and two dim low-voltage light bulbs that only worked in the evenings through morning.

The only real drawback, if you chose to see it that way, was that we were a fair distance from anything at all. That first night, we were too tired to go off in search of food, so we looked at Carlos with big sad eyes and he made us the best ham sandwiches we've ever had.

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 6

Originally posted on]

Day 4? I'm losing track

So, after we checked out of La Tortuga the night before -- why, you ask? Well, you see, I amb dumb, and when I made the travel arrangements, and after I checked them, and checked them, and was satisfied, I forgot about them. And then Nancy says "so, what day are we checking out of La Tortuga? I want to go on the Wednesday Tulum tour". And I say, well, here, I wrote it all out: Check out of La Tortuga on Wednesday, check into Tierras del Sol on Thursday. Why don't you trust me to do this right? Do you think I'm stupid?" This is before we left, you see, and tensions are running a little high.

She looks at the paper and is silent.

"God! You act like I can't do anything right!"


Then, carefully, "so, uh, where are we staying Wednesday night?"

La Tortuga! Can't you read? It says right here, Wednesday night -- uh oh.

Like I said: I am dum. Dumdumdum. No hotel. La Tortuga has booked the room. And we want to take this tour that day, not wander around looking for a hotel.

I swear, we've been married almost nine years, and this thing where I turn out to be wrong is getting a LITTLE OLD. It would be much more equitable if just occasionally she would be wrong too. But no; if you really want to screw things up, you need to get the master to do it. I am that master. And she thinks that just because I screw up, and she turns out to be right after all, that when I throw a little temper tantrum as a result that's poor sportsmanship. Women. I tell ya.

On the other hand, if it wasn't for her, I'd be sleeping on a bench. Yes, dear.

Good luck: Hotel Posada Freud has a room, La Tortuga will be happy to hold our bags, and we can take the tour after all.

Our tour director that morning is Mitch, from Mitch looks suspiciously like a California surf bum, but turns out to be a French-Canadian dive bum instead, a totally different species. There are no surf bums here; no surf. But Mitch is a wealth of knowledge about the area, not just tour-guide stuff but the general ways of Playa. Deceptively laid-back, he is actually pretty sharp, and funny, and as good a guide as I could possibly have hoped for. Miguel was our driver, and we had a motley collection of playa.infoers along with -- I'm terrible with names, but they were from Indiana, Michigan, Chicago, Rhode Island, and the UK (London and Glasgow).

On the way to Tulum, Mitch provided an invaluable lesson on Mexican highway driving, with Miguel expertly demonstrating the techniques. I have to say that for a first timer, renting a car and navigating highway 307 as a virgin would be a terrible, possibly fatal mistake; it was much better to have a skilled demonstration before tackling it ourselves.

After a stop to acquire beer (for LATER, what do you think we're all alcoholics?), we got the Tulum tour with a brilliant guide named Hernan. I liked him because he knew all the stories, but didn't try to pass them off as gospel truth. There are a lot of rumors around Tulum, and the Maya culture, that are not necessarily supported by the facts. For instance, the popular story that lights behind two windows in El Castillo guided Maya canoes home through the only opening in the reef -- if you can see one light, you're off target but if you can see both, you're right there; this story is cast into doubt by two facts: the Maya canoes were light enough to pass over the reef in most cases, and also no soot from lights was ever found on the ceiling of the rooms in question. I don't know if you get that kind of analysis from every guide. Hernan "call me Ernie" was great.

After Tulum, which we timed perfectly -- a zillion buses showed up when we were almost finished -- we went to Gran Cenote, and enjoyed a snorkel. A bit crowded for my tastes; I actually saw more fat ladies' butts than I did fish. But the caves were wonderful. Nancy would not concur, as she gets creeped out in any kind of cave, above or under water, but I am a claustrophiliac and love small spaces. However, Mitch's detailed explanation of deep cave diving, delivered next to the big map of the underground river system all across Quintana Roo that is posted up at Gran Cenote, made me realize the limitations of that feeling. Those people are CRAZY -- five air tanks, more than a mile of string, through spaces so tight you have to push your tanks through ahead of you? I'd rather walk on the moon in my jammies.

Then we went down the Boca Paila road, where we would be later staying, finding it even rougher than the guidebook said -- a team of Mexican highway workers were grading it, basically grinding it up into dust, which didn't seem like a good idea, but if I've learned anything in my life on earth it's "don't argue with road machinery". The private beach we ended up at was beautiful, even pretty than Mamita's, and with NO PEOPLE. There were a couple of hippies in the woods (including a rainbow-painted van with long-expired Washington plates) but otherwise pretty much deserted. Lunch was served -- some famous Playa-style barbecued chicken. Previous comments about disappointing food do not apply here; this was a great homestyle treat, with buttery mashed potatoes and rice and beans and fruit and hey, are those beers cold? Mmm.

Then another cenote, Cenote Azul, which was even prettier, and deserted, and I was starting to actually listen to some of the real-estate talk the others were throwing about. Hang on, I think I just forgot where I work! Nancy, where do we live?

So, if you're looking for a recommendation, take Mitch's tour, it rocks. It was tons of fun, very interesting and educational, and a great introduction to some of the places we would be returning to shortly. Which means that tomorrow's tale will not be about getting lost, or about getting into a horrible car crash on 307.

Next: Boca Paila Paradise

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 5

[Originally posted on in response to some comments there]

ThrushJockey asks about pics. Well, that's another story. Remember, this is the trip where everything went wrong, right?

I have one of these really cool micro-cameras, a Minolta Dimage Xt. About the size of a credit card, but has optical zoom and decent rez and takes really good pictures. it cost a fortune, well, by my standards. I like it so much I went and spent another fortune on the special marine housing so I could take lots of great snorkeling shots instead of using those crappy disposables that I can never get to take decent shots. I was all set; I was geared up.

Then I put my shirt down on the sand and a bunch got in the pocket and I put it back on and put the camera in my pocket too and it broke.

Am I allowed to say "****" on this forum?

There went about $600 worth of fun. I am a digital dork because I really do have to throw away 90% of the pictures I take to get a few good ones. I know I said earlier I couldn't get in a huff over anything, but I came close there. Damn. So I went into a camera shop, several of them actually, and confirmed my suspicions -- if I wanted a digital camera I was not going to find any bargains here. Double damn. I ended up springing for the cheapest thing I could find, a "Venta" or "Vela" or some damn thing, for about $160 USD, that would at least take the same kind of SD chips I was loaded with and allow me to shoot some pictures.

Three days later I broke that one too.

By that time, I was in such a glow that I don't think I even swore, causing Nancy to get all suspicious and ask me a bunch of personal questions to prove that it was really me. The beard I was sporting by then had her wondering.

So I do have some pictures, but not as many as I had hoped, and I haven't gone through them yet, because I have to hook my camera up to my computer to upload them and my CAMERA. IS. BROKEN.

So why am I so happy?

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 4

[Originally posted on]

Days 2-3

That night, we had a proper dinner where I was fully aware of my surroundings. It's not my intention here to criticize, so I won't name names, but in general I have to say that the fancier the restaurant, the worse the food. We spent a lot of money at some well-recommended joints, only to receive very bland chicken cutlets or fish or whatever, floating in dull cream sauces with the same boring tongues of carrot and zucchini everywhere. I know everything doesn't have to be aflame with chilis, but really, we ate some incredibly boring meals in Playa.

On the other hand, every time we ventured into a taqueria, even the grimiest beat-down plastic chair place, we had absolutely wonderful food. The best thing I ate in Mexico might have been the pok chuc in the tourist-trap joint (the one with the red chairs) at Coba. In Playa, Los Almendros on 10th at Calle 6 had some terrific tacos -- I had one that was pork fat, which sounds gross but was awesome, and the chorizo is with mashed potato, and if you haven't had a mashed-potato & chorizo taco yet you're missing out.

The other best thing I ate was the famous shrimp taco at El Oasis. The rest of my meal was good, but that shrimp taco was like a trumpet blast and a ten-minute fiesta in my mouth. And that was only the second or third best thing at El Oasis; you've read about the tamarindo sauce, but for me the green sauce is the one I wanted to take home. I had heard stories of even Mexicans laying on some of this devil's milk and being shocked, but it was still a surprise. One drop -- POW. Two drops -- WOW. OK, we'll go to five drops on a chip -- oh lordie, the tears were running down my face. There is NOTHING on this earth as wonderful as the smoky sweet taste of habanero pepper, and when you taste it coming on you know that the blowtorch is about to touch the flame. WHOOSH. I sorta regretted it the next day, but I scarfed up a whole thing of chips with this magic sauce, never getting further than six drops at a time. When the guy who looked like the boss walked by, I flagged him down and raved incoherently for a few minutes, and when he told me I could drop by with an empty water bottle and cart some of the stuff away for 50 pesos, I cried some more. It's in my fridge right now.

If you're wondering, I discovered a few temporary cures for head colds here: one is a big snortful of salt water (decongests for a half hour), and the other is a repeated mild overdose of El Oasis's green sauce.

Thank you, habanero peppers.

Day 3

Repeat day 2, with a little more shopping.

A few fun experiences: I tried to buy a bottle of water in a drugstore on 10th with a 50 peso bill (getting small notes and coins was a constant problem). The girls there couldn't make change; I looked, and they had fewer than 10 pesos in the till. No English, no Spanish. For fifteen minutes I tried different combinations of more water, sunscreen, gum, toothpaste, different notes, taking things in and putting them back in, until I finally hit a combo that worked, which included some gum I didn't want. I think that unless you at some point acquire some gum you don't really want you haven't been to Mexico. While this was going in, another fancily-dressed American lady stopped in and had the same luck, only she swore and stomped out in a huff.

I have to say that in my whole two weeks in Mexico my desire to get into a huff over ANYTHING was at a historical low. By the end of the trip, you could have run over my foot in a car and I would have waved and smiled a little "te nada".

At some point I found myself trying to explain to Nancy where all these cigars came from. I have no idea, look, there's not that many, well, OK, I guess that's kind of a lot, but I'm on vacation, honey? The woman is capable by now of rolling her eyes without even moving a muscle. I endured a little scorn, possibly edged with a bit of contempt, but, well, I got to enjoy my cigars. I am very grateful to the person on this forum who recommended the Santa Claras, hecho en Mexico, as they were fresh and excellent, mild but a terrific head-filling smoke. Mmm. The Te Amos were also good, though not as good for me, the Torrents a bit less so, and I managed to save my money and not buy any Habanas -- though I did several times see the kid selling the glass-lid fakes I'd been warned about. Peso for value, I think the Santa Clara was about as good as I'm capable of appreciating. The cheap rolled-on-the-spot ones were also fun -- super moist and fresh, obviously not as prime a tobacco but pretty damn good for half the money, at least for the first few inches.

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 3

[Originally posted on]

Day 2
OK, then. THIS is more like it. Nancy is awakened, fully refreshed, by the sound of me sneezing like a bomb going off sixteen times in a row. I think there's pieces of brain mixed in there by now. More pills.

Lying there in bed waiting for my skull to stop richocheting, I can't help but notice that it's a beautiful day outside. HEN-ry! had demonstrated the functioning of the impossibly complex A/C remote-control the night before, but he was operating under the mistaken impression that because I was standing in front of him, nodding and saying "yes, OK" that was absorbing even a tiny fraction of the information. I was not. But you know what? We didn't need A/C. I wanted to hear the birds outside, and it wasn't that hot; just very pleasant.

I couldn't really hear the birds all the well, though, because one drawback to the "junior suite with rooftop jacuzzi" at Hotel La Tortuga is that it backs onto 10th Avenue. I had been terrified booking the room that the noise from 5th would keep us awake -- but the noise from 10th was of a whole 'nuther caliber. Trucks, scooters, cars, banging cans, people yelling, whistles, honks, all kinds of things. It was a lovely day, all right, but a loud one. However, I was actually kind of glad, because I'm a terrible late sleeper and I HATE wasting the beautiful days on vacation gurgling up slowly out of sleep. Let's get out and have a look!

So we went to breakfast downstairs. Hotel restaurant, quite pleasant. A great deal of papaya was consumed by us both, in both solid and liquid form, as we both crave the stuff and the ones we get at home are three bucks and have been only partially ripened, apparently by exposure to nuclear waste. Not the same. These were yummy. The Agora restaurant attached to La Tortuga does a very nice breakfast if you're looking for something simple in a lovely garden setting.

Then: the beach. I read somewhere that there's a beach around here, and I meant to find it. We got our towels and membership paper for Mamita's at the desk, and strolled up through the town. Avenida Quinta (see, my Spanish is improving rapidly) even at this hour is a riot of color and sounds. Very pleasant. Mamita's is quite far, up beyond where the good street peters out, and Nancy is as usual convinced that I am leading her in the wrong direction into some kind of abandoned worksite, probably with a huge pit of chemicals to fall into, but I drag her onward and we find instead a bit of nice beach.

Nice, did I say nice? We've been to Hawai'i a few times, and we have fantastic beaches here in Washington (as long as you keep a sharp eye out for huge SUVs barrelling across them at 50 MPH), but not like this. What is this, this, STUFF on the ground? It can't be sand -- it's light and fluffy like powdered sugar, and it's cool to the touch, and when you snuggle your toes down in it, it's even cooler. Amazing. I've never seen sand like it. I'm starting to like this place. ATCHOO.

The bandana is gone; I think it was carted away by the hazardous waste people at the airport. But Nancy, being a woman, has secreted about her person at least a dozen little packets of tissues. Being a man, I of course habitually make fun of this ladylike behavior; I don't need no steenking tissues! Except of course I do. Once again I am forced to grovel and admit that I am a base creature and wrong as always, and get my own supply. ATCHOO.

The scenery is so beautiful; luscious glistening mounds of -- er, OK, I'm not supposed to be staring at the Italian women. Right. Seven shades of blue in the sea, four more in the sky, a few puffy clouds scudding across in the light breeze; and what's this? Oh hello. Why, yes, I WOULD like a nice cold cerveza, por favor.

We spend the entire day just lying there on our lounges. I got up a couple of times to shift mine a few inches to keep up with the moving shade, and at the previously arranged hour we did stroll up to the webcam and pose for our friends. But other than that, it was just pure decompression time. I could get used to this. I AM used to this already.

Ah yes, she turned over. Thank you, benevolent universe. It's a good thing Nancy can't see where my eyes are pointing through these new sunglass -- OW! What'd you hit me for?

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, Part 2

[Originally posted on]

Still Day 1

When we arrived in Cancun, the sun was starting to set. The only thing I notice as we come across the Yucatan is how thick the jungle looks and how insubstantial the bits that have been hacked out of it appear. It looks like if they closed Cancun Airport for a week, they'd never find it again. I'm starting to understand how the Maya cities could disappear for so long.

At the airport, we stand blurred by fatigue and confusion for a while until we realize that the ten thousand people standing in front of us are actually in a line. Our line. We have no idea where it goes, but it is clear that we need to get in it. If we had dashed straight for it off the plane without a second's hesitation, and gotten to the end of it just five minutes faster, we would have saved ourselves about an hour, as we would have got in ahead of the, oh jeez, now it's THIRTY thousand Italians. But we didn't.

So we slowly shuffle across the floor, eventually figuring out that we were headed towards those stairs over there. "Ah", I said, it's just down those stairs over there". Nancy was still mysteriously silent; there are times when my incredibly clever yet thoughtful running commentary wears a little thin, I'm told. At least she wasn't punching my arm. Yet.

When we reach the stairs, we realize that we still have fourteen hairpin turns left -- I counted -- before, well, I couldn't see what happened after that. Turns out that's where the giant roomful free-for-all was, where everyone tried to shove their way into one of the Immigration lines. So we shuffled some more. Shuffle, shuffle. Hey, I'm still a little high from the pills. The bandana was a serious bio-hazard by this time, though; if Nancy had had a big plastic bag with her she would have placed that over my head.

But then, the crowds parted like magic and we were standing there pretending we could understand what the nice man was telling us, which turns out to be "you're done here, please go over there now", which we did, got our bags, pushed the button, which was set to "everybody gets green", thankfully, as there were still forty thousand people there, and a mere two hours after we disembarked our plane, we were free to go.

I won't complain about Cancun because I've returned from international flights to far more unpleasant situations, like JFK in New York, where you are herded for miles down low-ceilinged, narrow slaughter chutes and end up in a room where you can see the people waiting for you on the other side of the glass but don't get to touch them for four more hours; or Sea-Tac, where you have to reclaim your bags THREE TIMES and go back through security twice -- coming IN. Urgh. In contrast, when we went to Copenhagen last year, we had a 100-yard walk through soothingly lit wood -paneled terminal, past immigration, into baggage claim where our bags were already waiting (after 15 minutes!), and were seated on a train into the city center 20 minutes after touchdown. This isn't that, but it's OK.

Immediately after clearing Customs, we are surrounded by literally dozens of uniformed people telling us to go to Xcaret. Right this minute. They all have "maps" of the area that show the Cancun airport, the highway, Xcaret and Xel-Ha, and nothing else. They appear to work for the government. I haven't been bum-rushed like this since I last landed in Newark, where all the nice gentlemen want to "help" you find a cab -- a useful service seeing as how all the cabs are fifteen feet away, lined up. We manage to extricate ourselves from the eager beavers and make our way past the five hundred sign-wavers outside to the one fellow holding up "Steve Dean" which is my first and middle names only, but it's the right name and hotel, so I figure we're good. It turns out his name is not Lamore; that's the van company. He's Miguel, and as soon as he shakes his hand he disappears again, to get the actual vehicle (which oddly enough is not parked here on the walkway).

The van arrives, much animated conversation ensues, and we head off to Hotel La Tortuga in Playa Del Carmen. It's fully dark by now, of course, so all we see of the mega-resorts along the coast is their giant illuminated signs -- when we can tear our eyes away from the dodge-em ballet taking place on the highway, that is. Um, we don't drive like this in Seattle. We're passive-agressive; these folks are just flat out regular agressive, and -- JESUS CHRIST THAT HUGE TRUCK IS COMING RIGHT --- ah. I think I'll close my eyes now.

Being dark, and being really tired, and still a little pill-crazed, I don't recollect much of our arrival except lights and colors and sounds. We manage to check in, and Henry, or HEN-ry! as he calls himself, takes us up to our room. Mexico is finally starting to happen here; the Hotel La Tortuga is absolutely beautiful, all dramatically-lit white adobe walls with beautiful plants cascading over everything, and tiles.

I'm pretty sure we ate dinner, but I never got to my cigar; I was out like a light before I got it lit.

Next: Playa

Where I Went On Holiday - Playa Del Carmen, QR, Mexico

[Originally posted on]

This is going to be long and boring. Don't say I didn't warn you. The theme is probably "how can so many things go wrong and still be perfect?"

Day -2
I'm sitting in front of trying to find some firm data on BOTB, if you know what I mean, when I sneeze. A minute later, I sneeze again. And then four in a row. You know how when you turn Furby upside down he says "worrrrried...."? That's me. I will NOT get effing sick the day before my trip, I will NOT.

Day -1
But of course, I do. Full-blown cold, still getting worse by the second. I absolutely hate cold medicine of all kinds, I hate the stoned feeling more than the symptoms that they mostly don't take care of. But this is important; I'm going to be on an airplane. Damn it! Damn it! Plenty of fluids, echinacea, sacrifice a chicken in the back yard, I've tried everything, and now there's nothing to it but hard drugs. Rush to drugstore and stock up.

Day 1 (there's a zero in Maya numbers but not here)
Our flight is at 6:00 am, so here I am loading my bag into a cab at 3:30 AM, freezing in my vacation clothes. The bags have been obsessively packed and repacked approximately 400 times as several kinds of pointless anxiety sets in: should we bring the blender? Do they have towels in Mexico? Honey, I don't think the kitchen sink is going to fit in here, can it go in your carry-on? Nancy (my lovely and very patient wife) is having her own internal travel panic, which unlike mine is a deeply internal one; she appears to be in a standing coma.

One advantage of early morning travel for me is that I'm used to moving around in an unconscious state. Plus there's the Tylenol Cold pumping through my veins -- I think I took both "AM" and "PM" just in case. I have no recollection of arriving at Sea-Tac or getting on the plane.

I hope this doesn't offend anyone here, but it seems like people from remote areas have less of a conception of how to behave in crowded circumstances. The Alaskan woman sitting next to me appears to be full-on insane. She doesn't want to sit in the middle seat, so she stakes out an aisle seat up ahead that's not hers and glares bitterly as we load at anyone who thinks they have a ticket for it. She's also offering a loud running commentary of all the things she doesn't like about flying to her poor husband six rows back. She shifts several times before slinking back to her proper seat, where she puts her feet in my foot-cubbie and sprawls over my armrest. I'm so wired by this time I just sit there staring straight ahead.

I gather from the ticket stub that we stopped in LA, but all I can remember is having to get up to pee about eight times. I'm bad that way, but this was ridiculous. I blame the Tylenol, or maybe it was the Sudafed I topped it off with. The medicine wasn't really working all that well; if you were on that flight and got sick, I apologize. I what was rapidly becoming the world's most repulsive bandana wrapped around my exploding face most of the time, at least, so the by-spray was at a minimum.

Next: Cancun