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July 2, 2009

Biodegradable sunscreen

sunscreen.jpgWhen you visit the Yucatan, it's a good idea to take some biodegradable sunscreen with you. Regular sunscreen can help kill coral reefs by promoting viral infections, and some places in the Yucatan, such as the Xel Ha water park only allow the biodegradable kind. It turns out that finding biodegradable sun block is harder than it looks. Most regular stores (I looked in Safeway, Longs, Lucky's and Costco) only sell regular sunscreen.

I finally found a biodegradable lotion at Grocery Outlet - Alba Botanica Fragrance Free Mineral Sunscreen SPF 18. I checked through the ingredients and none of them are in the lists that Xel Ha (at least) supposedly uses to check sunscreens. Beware that other Alba Botanica products do have parabens as preservatives, and those are not allowed. The lotion was only $3 for 4oz, so I rushed to get it, and indeed, it was probably a good idea given how expensive sunscreen can otherwise be.

But, but, but... as I began writing this posting, I did a bit of research and found that this sunscreen is not that good after all and that there are many that cause quite less damage to health and the environment. You can see a list of them here. Note that some of them are not necessarily biodegradable, but that, in itself, is not what kills coral reefs: specific chemicals are. Still, given that my regular sunscreen, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock, SPF-70 is much worse, I'm not too sad. Of course, the Neutragena stuff has a SPF of 70 and really works, and the Alba Botanica stuff only has 18, which means I'll have to apply thick layers of it and do it often.

I'm including here the list I've found of sunscreen ingredients not allowed at Xel Ha and similar parks:

Butil methoxydibenzoilmetane
Cetyl Dimethicone
Dimethyl Capramide
Octyl salicylate
Octyl metoxycinnamate

Note that some places want oil-free sunscreens (which mine is not), but I have found no information that says that non-petroleum based oils damage coral reefs. After all, humans and fish both have natural oils in their skins.

July 7, 2009

In Cancun

Here I am, in Cancun, at the hotel Gran Laguna Real or something like that, which I'll review later. I'm sitting in the small bar/restaurant area under a palapa, feet away from the lagoon. The hotel is on the zona hotelera, where all the major hotels are, but on the lagoon side, home of condos, time-shares and lower-quality accommodations. Being on the beach in Cancun might have been fun, but this is quite nice here as well. There is a little breeze which makes the heat (and it's quite hot at 9 AM) bearable, birds that chirp from time to time, and even iguanas and little lizards make their appearance.

Mike and the girls are in the pool, playing. It's a rather small pool, significantly smaller than the one at my mom's town-house complex in LA, but just the perfect size for the girls. Alas, it's very deep for them - 4 1/2 ft at its shallowest - but Mika is swimming quite well. "Swimming" in the broad sense of the word, as in being able to get from side to side of the pool - not as in being able to actually keep a stroke or breathe as she swims. We need to figure out where we can put her in serious swimming classes. I got lifejackets for both of them before leaving, so Camila can hang out all over the pool quite safely (though they, of course, still need adult supervision). I hope their screams and laughter are not bothering other people.

They've loved it here so far. We didn't arrive at the hotel until 8 PM, but they went to the pool immediately. We saw huge bats flying around, one with such a perfect bat shape that it really surprised me. They also saw several geckos and one iguana. They were fascinated. Even the single barracuda-like fish in the lagoon fascinated them. It's amazing, really, how little kids need to have fun.

As for the trip, it's gone both well and bad. The good part was the flight. We got to the airport ridiculously early (miscalculating how long it'd take to get there leaving at 6 AM), but after a trouble-free, line-full check-in we came upon a prize-wheel for United. You spinned (sp?) the wheel and got one of the prizes (18 & over only). Mika spun it for us, wishing to get a bottle of water, and got me day-access to the Red Carpet Club (United's airport lounge) and Mike and upgrade to economy-plus, space depending. Well, as we had kids, they let all of us go into the lounge, and we spent an hour there having a simple breakfast (all they had was bread/toast and dried cereals), reading and coloring. As comfortable as the club would be sans-kids (and they have a relaxation room full of candles, for those who really need relaxing), it does become a bit stressful to make sure they are not too loud and walk rather than skip/run. So after an hour or so we left, in search of our yet-to-be-assigned tickets.

And here came our second surprise: We were all upgraded to economy-plus! The seats were just as narrow, but when you fly with kids there is a lot of extra space on the seats - and there was plenty of legroom. The kids spent the flight sleeping, watching movies in our new, small laptop (from where I'm blogging), coloring and hanging out. I met a very nice woman, Maria, and spent much of the flight talking to her. She's a born again Christian and was interested in my trip from Christianity to atheism, but she was one of those Christians who actually focus in the New Testament. I liked her a lot and the time went away very quickly.

Once we arrived, trouble started as we were scammed time and again by car rental companies. I'll blog about this separately and later, as I'm fuming just thinking about it (because, as the one doing everything, it was totally my fault to fall for the scam). Indeed, our credit card has been put on hold by fraud prevention, so I wonder if they tried to scam us even more than I thought.

I also want to write a separate review of the hotel, which I'll do later as well.

As for now, we need to exchange money, call VISA and get on our way to our next destination.

Remember, you can always e-mail us at yucatan@marga.org

July 8, 2009

Days 2 & 3 - Isla Holbox

It's 9:15 PM. I'm blogging (duh!) under the small palapa that serves as the dining room for the restaurant/bar of our hotel, La Palapa, in Isla Holbox. I'm also being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Blogging here is probably not a good idea, but I don't have internet connection from our (rather nearby) room. I think I will go to my room anyway, blog offline and then have Mike copy & paste all my postings. See you!

Next day, third day of vacation. Last night, between getting the kids ready for bed, doing a bit of laundry and taking showers, I did not go back to blogging. Mike did do some internet work and got eaten alive by mosquitoes as well. As I write, there is a swarm of mosquitoes outside the wood-and-glass door to our veranda, waiting for us, I presume. I put some DEET repellent, rather than the Family friendly but useless OFF that I put on yesterday, but it doesn't seem to be much better. I woke up with itching bites on both my calves and feet. They are still itching, despite some anti-itch medicine. Lord, does anything work?

Mike and Mika are both going to swim with whale sharks today. They are the largest fish in the ocean – filter feeders, so not dangerous – and the one attraction Isla Holbox has in addition to its beaches. I don't know how far into the sea they have to go, but we've gotten some dramamine just in case. Apparently they may seem manta rays and other cool things in the way – we had dolphins ride with our ferry in the way over here, so I wouldn't be surprised if they encountered that as well. In any case, we will know later. As for Camila and I, we'll stay here, at the hotel, enjoying the beach and trying to keep away from the mosquitoes (yes, they are still there).

Yesterday was a pretty relaxing day. We woke up (in Cancun) , had “breakfast”, the kids played in the pool for a while, and then we headed off to exchange money and make a phone call. It was a long walk to the bank, and the mid-morning sun was relentless. The kids were hot, exhausted and whiny within 5 minutes, but the hope of ice cream kept them alive on the way back. After packing up we headed out.

Getting to Isla Holbox did not take only 1 ½ hours as promised, but it was generally straightforward. You head out of Cancun in the direction of Merida (there are signs indicating which way from time to time, don't turn unless you see one), made sure to take the free road when the option came out, and then drove until km 262 (marked), where we turned right, towards Isla Holbox. We did so once again at the end of that road, heading towards Chiquila. There we found Don Patricio's parking. It's less than a block away from the dock, covered and semi-secured – MN$40 a day. We were lucky that we arrived at the dock at about 2 PM, and the ferry was almost ready to leave. The ferry was MN$60 for adults and MN$35 for kids - free for 4-yo Camila. The ride is about 20 minutes, and, as I mentioned, part of it included dolphins.

Once here (in Isla Holbox) the kids and Mike played in the water, collected shells (some from rather big critters), watch Goosebumps in the small computer, went out for snacks and later dinner, and played in the sun. All in all it was a most relaxing afternoon and evening. We all fell in love with the place and decided to stay one more night, but the hotel is full so it's not an option.

We'll probably head to Cancun after Mike and Mika return from their shark-swimming trip.

Hotel La Palapa - Isla Holbox - Review

We decided to stay at La Palapa hotel (on July 2009)for four big reasons: they had availability, they accepted two adults and two children in a double room (two double beds), regardless of what they said online, it was at the beach and it got great reviews at tripadvisor.com. It was a great decision. The hotel is beautiful, family-friendly and utterly relaxing, close to town and with a friendly and accommodating staff. Definitely a place you should consider for your Isla Holbox stay.

When the kids saw our room – quite simple, with two double beds (rather hard, but so are often the beds in Mexico) and a couple of shelves, no phone, no TV, no mini-refrigerator, but cool with its two ceiling fans and a gorgeous veranda with a couple of chairs and a hammock – they begged to stay more than one night. It's US$90 a night (the rate we agreed on, though I've seen rooms offered for significantly less online), more than I want to pay for multiple nights. But hotels are quite expensive in Isla Holbox, and this one is truly enchanting. In any case, they don't have availability, so we are out of luck.

The room is not without problems, however. As beautiful as the veranda is, it's full of mosquitoes, even after they've sprayed insecticide, We found no way to turn on the A/C, though I imagine there must be one. Fortunately the two fans work very well, and there was quite a pleasant breeze blowing during out stay.

The hotel is located in a beautiful, white-sand beach, cleaned and combed daily. It has multiple lounge chairs on the beach, including a few that recline fully and have foam tops. Some are shaded, many are not. There are a few hammocks and lots of palms. There are several boats docked at the beach, but they still leave a large enough shore area in which to swim. A little palapa encases five tables and chairs and includes a bar/restaurant. You can have mixed drinks (MN$50-60) or one of a few dishes, from pizza (MN$40) to lobster (MN$150); the exchange, as I write, is about MN$13 to US$1, so neither very cheap nor ridiculously expensive (the spaghetti, for some reason, is MN$120 – 160, which seems absurd to me).

The sea is also beautiful. This being the Gulf of Mexico, the waters are not blue but aquamarine. The shore is full of small shells, but free of seaweed and you don't really need water shoes. It was very hot the first day we stayed at the beach (but the hotter it is, the fewer the mosquitoes), but very pleasant, and somewhat cloudy, the next day. The kids loved to play in the sand, specially at the end of the day, but beware that there are “tabanos”, a type of sand fly (horsefly according to a dictionary online) with a nasty bite. If you come here, you should really get some mosquito repellent with DDT, “OFF” doesn't cut it.

The hotel is very well located, one street down from the main street, and only a few blocks from the zocalo. There are plenty of restaurants nearby, from cheap traditional eateries (though most not serving Yucatecan food) to nice beach restaurants. Prices are pretty steep however, even at the more modest eateries.

The golf-cart taxi from the dock to the hotel was MN$30 – it should have been MN$20 for anywhere in the island, but we are ignorant tourists, what can I say? Tours to swim with the whale sharks booked through the hotel are MN$800, I'm not sure if they are cheaper elsewhere.

Finally, for those who read reviews that mentioned construction going on on the roof, the construction is all over, so you don't have to fear such noise. However, this is a very family friendly hotel, so it's not a place to get away from all noise.

La Palapa
Av.Morelos, 231 - 77310

Beach in front of La Palapa - Isla Holbox

Room at  La Palapa - Isla Holbox

Bathroom at  La Palapa - Isla Holbox

Room balcony at  La Palapa - Isla Holbox

July 10, 2009

Pictures from Isla Holbox

On the ferry to Isla Holbox, some dolphins played in the wake of the boat.

Mika had great fun finding things on the beach.

The kids loved the warm water, gentle waves, soft sand, and a very gradual slope at the beach.

What could be better?

This is a whale shark - the biggest fish in the world. We also spotted dolphins, sardines, and two manta rays. The underwater pictures of the whale shark didn't turn out well.

After jumping into the ocean twice to swim with a whale shark, Mika stayed on the boat.

One the fish Mika and Daddy spotted while snorkeling after swimming with whale sharks.

Days 3 - From Isla Holbox to Cancun

Our third day in the Yucatan ended uneventfully. Mike and Mika returned from their whale shark watching trip while Camila and I were playing in the beach. Mike came all sun-burnt and excited about what he'd done and seen, Mika was instantly in a bad mood when told that, no, we could not stay there another night. Instant attitude, instant questioning as to why we bother bringing them in this trip.

The ride back to Cancun, where we decided to stay the night so we could exchange our rental car for one that had a working air conditioning, also started on a bad note. We had left the rental car in Chiquila at Don Patricio's, a parking close to the beach. Don Patricio and I had agreed on a price of MN$40 a day, or MN$80 for 2 days. Once we get there, I tell him that as I get the money out of my wallet, and he says to me that I owe him MN$150! He says that I owe him for 3 days, at MN$50 a day! I remind him that we had agreed on MN$40 - I had said MN$35 and he'd replied with MN$40, and I had said OK. He argues he'd never given me a price. Then he capitulates, or remembers, but still insists that I owe him for 3 days. "How?", I ask, starting to yell. "Yesterday," I count with my fingers, "Today" . Two fingers, two days. He, of course, has no answer. Just insists that it should be 3. I give him the MN$100 pesos saying I'd call the police to settle this. He agrees. I suddenly realize he's not giving me any change, so I go back to get the money from his hand. He fights me off - he's stronger than I and is clutching the money. I call Mike. I think he realizes that he's going to lose and let's go. I return to the car fuming. Mike and the girls are getting the luggage ready. Mike tells me he has MN$70, I know I have MN$10 somewhere so I go back. "You are a thief and you don't deserve any of this, but I said I was going to pay you and I will". He's lying on his hammock, where he's been since pretty much the start of our conversation. He repeats "120", I, "you are a thief and I shouldn't pay you anything", "Don't pay me anything", "You don't want me to pay you anything? Fine". I start to go away. He says "I'll call the police". I turn around "call them, call the police, let's go, call the police". He's too lazy to get off his hammock. Plus, I suspect he's had non-positive encounters with the police. So I go, not paying anything, but mad and bitter at someone trying to scam me *yet again*.

The drive to Cancun itself is uneventful. It rains and the tires, which are the cheapest, least sticky model you can find, slide. Mike is a good driver so we don't, but he's not happy. The girls play and fight and ultimately sleep. As it often happens, the ride back seems quicker than the ride there.

We stay at the same hotel than before, it's under US$40 and a deal like that can't be beat. Plus we like the hotel. For dinner we drive a few blocks away to the really happening part of Cancun. There are restaurants and gift shops and bars. Hooters and Rainforest cafes (where the kids want to go, and everything is outrageously expensive. Prices at restaurants are comparable to those in America, I know it's Cancun but I'm shocked! We end up eating at a place where they have tiny tacos from US$1-$2.50. Given the paltry amount of meat they're still overpriced, but we're not too hungry. Then it's time to go back to the hotel, showers, lots of lotions over sunburned skin.

Mike will have to write about his whale shark watching trip. He had an awesome time. I'm one day behind in my blogging. And now it's time to go and pack so we can get going, have some breakfast, hit the prison & then Chichen Itza.

July 11, 2009

Day 4 - New Car, Ek Balam & Cenote Dzinup

It's Friday. I'm in Merida, at the hotel Dolores Alba, and Mika and Camila are happily swimming in the small hotel pool. Mike is upstairs, taking a nap. Camila is wearing a life jacket (the best buy ever) so I don't have to watch her that carefully. Mika has gotten pretty good at swimming, plus it's not that deep a pool. Still, they are within eyesight.

Yesterday started in Cancun with breakfast at the hotel, followed by a dip in the pool for the kids, while I packed our suitcases (it's a pain in the butt to have to pack up daily). That done we went to exchange our car at the rental agency, as our original car had a problem with the A/C - it worked well for half an hour to an hour and then it stopped. Not ideal given the heat of the Yucatan. Having to return the car was a pain, we had meant to stay that night in Valladolid rather than Cancun, but fortunately my plans for each day are pretty light, so we still managed to hit the two places I had planned - even though we didn't leave Cancun until noon or so.

The drive to the Valladolid area took probably an hour and a half or so (the half being getting out of Cancun). We took the paid road, hoping it would save time, and with NO idea of how expensive it was - about US$20 for the 150 km stretch! cuota.jpg We're definitely not making that mistake again. Still, we managed to get to Ek Balam early enough, so I can' t really complain.

Our first stop off the highway, however, was Temozon, a small village famous for its smoked meats. We got some smoked pork at one of the many roadside butcher shops (1lb for MN$50, not sure if we got taken) and, indeed, it was very good. Even though we'd had a lunch of sorts
in Cancun, both Mike and I devoured it.

After a brief, involuntary visit to Ek Balam village (we turned left on the side of the road when we were supposed to go straight), we ended up on the large but almost empty parking lot for the ruins. Ek Balam has gotten much more popular in recent years. Indeed, I hadn't been there as serious excavations/reconstructions did not start until the mid-nineties. But we were there a bit late in the day, and must have missed the tour buses.

Ek Balam is a pretty cool site. It has a large pyramid, which Mike and the kids delighted on climbing and a couple of other large structures. Some cool reliefs on the sides of the pyramid, which the kids could not care less about. By far the coolest thing the kids saw was a bunch of puppies, perhaps 8 weeks old, that were hiding in one of the rooms of the structure next to the pyramid. The kids were enchanted. They loved the puppies, they loved playing with them, holding them, petting them, you know the drill. They were by far more impressed by the puppies than by the ruins. They only left, after quite a while, to see some iguanas Mike had found on his explorations. But they wanted to go back to see the puppies, only some firmness and Camila's need for the potty helped us get them away.

Our next stop was the cenote Dzinup. I know that it's no longer called that, now that there are two cenotes in the Dzninup village that are open to the public, but that's how I knew it back then and that's what's easiest to remember now.

The cenote Dzinup is a beautiful cenote at the bottom of a cave. It's almost completely covered by limestone, with the exception of a little whole on the roof through which light filters in. I remembered the effect to be magical, the cenote having the most gorgeous deep turquoise color. I had seen it in the morning, however, and this time we were there in the late afternoon. It was also quite overcast by then. The cenote was pretty, but quite dark, and taking pictures was impossible. The kids and Mike loved it, though. The water was cool and refreshing, the cenote large enough to accommodate all the swimmers, and the setting just beautiful. Once again, I was thankful that we'd bought and brought along the life jackets, as it'd have been difficult for the kids to enjoy it so much otherwise. Indeed, the kids, who had had great reservations as to the cenotes when I was describing them to them, were instantly sold over. Today we explored Chichen Itza to Camila's chanting of "I want to go to the cenote" time after time :-)

The cenote closed at 5:30, so we headed to our hotel, the Hacienda Sanchez in Valladolid. I have to confess that I spent quite a long time researching hotels before this trip, and the research did pay off - as we've been very happy with the hotels we have been staying in. The hotel Hacienda Sanchez was no exception and I would fully recommend it to anyone making a stop in Valladolid. Indeed, we wished we had a reason to stay an extra day.

I very much doubt that Hacienda Sanchez was ever a real hacienda. Rather I suspect the hotel was built in the manner of an hacienda, with a three-story building and a number of "casitas" (or suites) facing a large, internal, manicured garden/patio. A very pleasant place all in all.

The kids, of course, zeroed in the pool and they happily swam there until the pool closed at 8. We then got dressed and went for dinner at the very empty hotel restaurant. Very empty, very good and very reasonably priced, that is. We had multiple juices/shakes, main dishes and dessert for less than US$30. And I can't tell you how beautiful the open room was, and how attentive the service. So far our best general experience in the Yucatan.

And that was it for the day.

Day 5 - Chichen Itza, Cenote Azul and Merida

Time is flying by. It's Day 7 already and I still have a couple of days to blog about. I also haven't yet posted any of the pictures - but I will do shortly. If you are following this (Kathy), you may want to look back at older entries for corresponding pictures.

Anyway, we woke up in Valladolid for our 5th day, at the Hotel Hacienda Sanchez, and had a very nice breakfast of eggs (served with black beans, of course) or pancakes, coffee, orange juice and pre-buttered French bread. Service, as the night before, was amazing.

We packed up (always a hassle for us) and headed towards our next destination: Chichen Itza. First, of course, we made a detour to buy a couple of hammocks at the state prison. In Mexico, you may remember, prisoners must feed themselves, plus they have a lot of time on their hands. So the prisoners at the prison in the Valladolid-Chichen Itza road, make some money by making hammocks. Their hammocks are double-stranded, and have the reputation of being the best in the Yucatan. We wanted to buy the largest there was, but that proved to be of monstrous proportions and price. Instead, we bought more "valued" price ones, which I think are still large enough. They are quite heavy and we paid US$40-50 for them. I can't tell, at this time, if we got a good deal. In any case, those selling it weren't willing to bargain (they said each prisoner puts a price on them, and they are not authorized to take less).


After that, it was time for Chichen Itza (MN$20 to park, MN$111 entrance, children free) which Mike explored fully. You can't climb much at Chichen Itza anymore (when I went, eighteen years ago, I actually climbed everything), so it wasn't as much fun for Mika as Ek Balam. Mike enjoyed it, visiting all the ruins, while the kids were probably more fixated on finding something to buy for the MN$10 we gave each of them. Mika was interested in the story of the human sacrifice victims thrown into the cenote, though somewhat disappointed that she couldn't see the remains.


Camila was obsessed with going swimming at a cenote, and she let us know of her wishes pretty much constantly throughout the visit. The only thing that really distracted the kids were the iguanas. They've seen lots of them by now, but they're still cool creatures.




After Chichen Itza it was time for the Cenote Azul at Ik Kil. This is a completely commercial operation, with a fully developed cenote, dressing rooms and bathrooms, life jackets and towels for rental, and tourist buses from Cancun (which visit it before or after hitting the ruins). Still, we got there right between the time that the earlier buses left and the newer buses arrived, so that we had 10 full minutes of bliss (aka "alone time") at the cenote. The cenote itself was beautiful, deep in an open cave, with roots of plants and trees hanging on top of it, and tons of little catfish swimming around (just try to grab one).



Once again, the life jackets were a great savior, as the kids delighted in both swimming around, and, later, in jumping into the cenote.



Despite my natural buoyancy, I was still a bit unnerved about swimming around in what's essentially a bottomless pit, so I mostly kept to the sides.

Once people started coming in, it became more like a glorified swimming pool than anything else, but the kids & Mike still enjoyed it. The hike up the stairs was much easier than it seemed it'd be.

After cenote azul I thought we could hit Izamal or the ruins of Acanceh, but neither Mike nor the kids seemed that excited by the prospect. Instead, we came directly to Merida (through the non-cuota highway, which proved to be quite nice).

In Merida, we are staying at the hotel Dolores Alba, which is very popular with tourists from all over. It's no wonder, it's pretty cheap (MN$540 for a double room for the four of us), it has a small but very clean pool, and gorgeous, large, tiled rooms. It was built in a more traditional-looking style than modern hotels, which makes it so much the nicer.

In the afternoon, the kids swam at the hotel while Mike slept. He wasn't feeling too well after his own encounter with Montezuma's. Of course, by the time he woke up and was ready to go, I fell asleep, and we all didn't end up going out for dinner until 9 or so. And of course, we were still somewhat confused about the layout of the city and did not take a map, so it took us a while to find a place for dinner (an expensive taco-chain near the zocalo).

We were all pretty tired by the time dinner was over, I had suggested that we take a taxi, but Mika insisted on that we do a buggy. It was MN$100! but Mike acquiesced. She, of course, was in princess-land being taken by a very cute horse-drawn carriage. We ain't doing it again, though.

Photos from Ek Balam

Kids at Ek Balam before they got hot and tired.

Mika and Camila carefully climbed to the top for this view.

The highlight of the visit to Ek Balam

See above.

Mika climbed everything she could.

We found this machete as we left Ek Balam.

July 12, 2009

Photos from X'Keken Cenote

View of the X'Keken cenote in Dzinup.

Swimming and exploring around the cenote.

One of the formations in the cenote.

Another view of the cenote.

Mika loved drinking coconut juice, which are sold at stalls for tourists.

Day 6 - Uxmal & Kabah

It's later on Sunday, the kids are playing at the hotel pool with Mike and I have some time to blog before we go shopping and city-exploring. I think I will actually be able to get caught up - at least with the blogging of the trip. I still have hotel & restaurants reviews to write - but I can do that when we get home.

In any case, yesterday started with breakfast at the hotel and then a leisurely drive to Uxmal, which is probably the second largest reconstructed Maya site in the Yucatan. In my opinion, it's also prettier than Chichen Itza, but being out of range of Cancun buses, it's much less visited. There were only a handful of people during our visit. Cost-wise it parallels Chichen Itza, just FYI.

The whole family enjoyed the Pyramid of the Magician (which you can't climb) and the Nunnery (which you can) together. It was alternatively hot and cool - depending on clouds and breezes - and there was much to see, including, of course, multiple iguanas. There were no cute puppies here, but lots of birds (in particular in the very aptly named "Quadrangle of the Birds" ) which build oven-style nests inside the ruins.

Despite the fact that it wasn't that hot, Camila and I tired quickly, and decided to go back to the entrance and wait for Mika and Mike. Mika and Mike, meanwhile, explored the rest of the site, climbing every possible structure and having a lot of fun. Their most interesting moment came when they saw two male iguanas bloodily fight each other. It's disturbing how much they enjoyed the whole bloody mess.

After Uxmal we meant to stop in Santa Elena for lunch, but couldn't find any suitable restaurant, so we continued on to Kabah, probably the 2nd largest reconstructed Puuc site. It's sad to say that the kids and I stayed at the entrance drinking sodas while Mike explored it by himself - but hey, we are wimps! Mike explored to his heart's content, though, once again climbing whatever could be climbed.

We decided to have lunch in Ticul afterwards, at the famed restaurant Los Almendros, known for its Yucatecan cuisine. I had actually eaten there in my last trip (let's repeat again, eighteen years ago) and wanted to relive the experience. Alas, the restaurant had moved since then, and we spent close to an hour looking for it - under the false premise that it would be somewhere near downtown.

During our search it started to rain heavily in Ticul - and when I say heavily, I mean heavily, as in trees falling off the ground heavily. We were glad we weren't outside. We finally found the restaurant, coincidentally during a short reprieve, and had a good, but not outstanding, Yucatecan lunch. By the time we finished it was close to 4 PM, too late to make it to the Loltum caves, our next destination. So we headed back to Merida ... and to the hotel pool.

We had dinner in Plaza Hidalgo - a square I well remembered from my last trip here eighteen years ago. Back then there were restaurants there, and I could bet there still would be some. And so they were. Very expensive restaurants, but we've found that Mexico, at mid-level traveling, is just as expensive as America. C'est la vie.

Day 7 - Merida

What a laid back day! Mika and I got up and went to get some pastries, juice and a dress for her at the zocalo. Then we came back, I blogged, the kids swam.

The whole family headed to the zocalo, got a couple of more dresses, watched a kids show (Mika volunteered to participate, she loved it!), had lunch (finally an affordable one!) and returned to the hotel.

We went back to the pool, I played with the kids for a while, then Mike did, and now the three of them are laying down on the beds, sleeping. Yep, it's 3:45 and that's it for the day so far. My plans for museums, zoos and all are shot - but hey, they are enjoying themselves :-)

Restaurant @ the Gran Hotel

Last night we had dinner at the restaurant of the Gran Hotel, situated in Plaza Hidalgo. I had often been to Plaza Hidalgo when I was in Merida, eighteen years ago, and remembered that at the time there were restaurants located there. I figured, chances are they'd still be there. Indeed, there are two restaurants at the park, the one from the Hotel Caribe and the one from the hotel Merida. They both are quite expensive, IMHO, with dishes hitting and going over MN$100 - but we weren't sure we could do better elsewhere and it was nice to eat at the park (really, a small plaza surrounded on two sides by the hotels and on the other by a church). We decided on the restaurant of the Gran Hotel because in addition to Yucatecan food, they offered pizzas and pastas.

We ordered a pizza margarita for the kids, a ham & pineapple one for me (MN$9) and panuchos for Mike. For the uninitiated, panuchos are small fried tortillas filled with black beans and covered with shredded chicken, lettuce and perhaps tomato and avocado. I remembered liking them more than I have in this trip. Mike thought that they were good, but not special.

I enjoyed my pizza and the kids seemed to like theirs. The crust was very thin, but the cheese was flavorful and the toppings tasted fresh. Beware that one small pizza is really enough for two - we wasted a lot of food.

Drinks were expensive - MN$20-40 for soft drinks, juices and shakes. I had a glass of OJ which was good and Mika liked her watermelon shake. Camila found the lemonade too sour, even after adding quite a bit of sugar, but I enjoyed it.

Dinner came to about MN$400 after tip, which I felt was too expensive for the experience, but c'est la vie. Service was quite good, though I'm not sure why the waiter regaled us with stories of his own family.

Beware that because you are eating outside, street vendors come from time to time to offer you fans, kids' toys and other things. But I guess that's part of the fun.

Gran Hotel - Restaurante
Calle 60 No. 496 x 59 & 61 @ Parque Hidalgo (aka Cepeda Peraza)

July 22, 2009

We're back

Well, after two wonderful weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mike, the kids and I are back. Our blogging adventure did not work out as I planned. I couldn't make time during the first ten days or so to blog, and then later we didn't have an internet connection. I apologize to those of you who thought we were lost in some cenote somewhere, or were eaten by wild tigrillos.

But I don't want to let this blog go to waste, so I'm planning to add descriptions and reviews of the different places we went, hotels we stayed at and restaurants we ate at. They won't be of any interest to our friends, of course, but they might be useful to people looking for specific info on such places.

As for my daily going ons, you can still find me at voxpublica and facebook.

Cenote Cristalino - Riviera Maya

Summary: The best place in the Riviera to get a pedicure.

The Cenote Cristalino is a mom-and-pop operation and one of the best secrets in the Riviera Maya. It's hard to believe that a place like this can exist amidst the jungle of cement and fake-jungle that makes up what has come to be called the "Riviera Maya" (and which was simply the "Quintana Roo coast" once upon a time). The place is quite simple, there is a cleared area by the highway where you can park your car (don't expect an actual parking lot, though), a room with a cement patio where you buy your tickets (MN$4 for adults, MN$2 for kids) from a member of the family, and a somewhat rough but mercifully short path to the cenote.

The cenote itself is a large pool with water up to the ground, there is a cave on one side, a smaller pool on the other and a 15ft tall wall on the opposite side from the entrance. Kids and would-be-kids delight in jumping in from up there. The water is definitely cool at first, though it becomes impossibly comfortable within a couple of minutes. It's crystal clear, allowing you to see several feet down. Unfortunately there is not that much to see - most of the rocks and floor are covered by soft algae. A few gorgeous blue catfish swim around, but you won't find this a rewarding snorkeling experience.

What makes the cenote cristalino so great are the thousands of other little fish that swim in the cenote waters. These long-lost cousins of the spa-popular garra rufa LOVE to eat dead skin, and chomp it off your feet, ankles, lets and even elbows if they can get to it. The results can be amazing, I could barely recognize my feet after a couple of hours at the cenote. I still need a pedicure, but now I won't be too embarrassed to go to the salon.

It's also a pretty nice sensation to experience. The fish are very gentle, so much so that you may not feel them at all on your most callused skin, and can be even ticklish. Just putting your feet in the waters and waiting for them to do their job, can be a very relaxing experience.

If you want to go, here is some advise: try to go early in the morning or later in the afternoon, and not on weekends, as it gets crowded with locals. If you do come in the less hot hours of the day, bring mosquito repellent (just don't apply it to those parts that you want nibbled). The cenote is great for a dip and some water fun as well, it can get deep, so a life vest is recommended for little children and those that aren't strong swimmers.

There are no facilities at the cenote, though you can buy snacks and drinks on site.

The cenote is located right next to the cenote El Edén and the Cenote Azul, north of Xpu-Ha. If driving south, start paying attention to the sign for the turnoff for the Kantunchi eco-park, the cenotes are almost right after it. There is no road sign per se for the cenotes.

This was probably one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip and it's highly recommended.

BTW, salons in the US have started to offer this procedure. Alas, expect to pay US$45.

Sign for Cenote Cristalino

Fish eating dry skin

Croco Cun Zoo

You don't have to be a kid to enjoy Croco Cun Zoo, an animal park located on Highway 307, a few miles north of Puerto Morelos, but unless you have kids with you or you are a kid inside, you may not want to spend the US$20 entrance fee (US$12 for kids over 6) to do so. While the zoo it's cool, in my humble opinion, it's not worth such an exorbitant entrance fee. But what do I know? My kids (7 & 4 yo) rated it as their favorite experience of the trip, along with playing with puppies at Ek Balam.

Your visit to the zoo consists of a 1.5 hour guided tour of the facilities. They have tours in English and Spanish, but you may have to wait until there are enough people to start a tour (we did the Spanish one to skip the wait). Our tour guide, at least, was very knowledgeable on the animals at the zoo and able to answer all my questions. Signs at the zoo suggest guests tip tour guides - we gave her MN$20. You will also want to buy a bag of food to feed the animals (or rather, one bag per kid you bring along), they are a couple of dollars each.

The tour starts with a visit to some parrots - the colorful birds come from all over the continent, one is free but the other ones are in cages. The parrots love to be fed peanuts, make sure you give one to each, as they get jealous!.

Next stop are the crocodiles. Here you will find some of the smaller members of the family - babies up to 4-5 years old. It will be just your first opportunity to see them. Croco Cun is very aptly named, they have TONS of crocodiles. If you like to see inert lizards holding still for hours, you will have no better opportunity. And indeed, you will have the opportunity here to walk along a path within the crocodile enclosure, with dozens of seemingly satiated relatively small (as in 1m or so) crocodiles inches away from your ankles. All they'd had to do was to jump and off with your feet, but for some reason they prefer to just stay there completely immobile. Still, it's a cool experience.

You will also get to look at a number of snakes, most of them in cages, and hold one or two around your neck. They have iguanas of different colors (you'll get to pet one) and turtles (no petting these, but you can feed them grapes). There are a couple of very cool tigrillos, which were laying in a worrisome small mesh cage, and a deer enclosure. The native deer are pretty short, and impossibly cute. You can feed them local leaves - they'll come to you when you shake them - and they will go crazy over the carrots, sunflower seeds and peanuts in your food bag. I think feeding them (and petting them) is the part the kids enjoyed the most.

The part that should be the most fun is the feeding of the monkeys. There are a number of wild and "freed" spider monkeys hanging around the zoo, and they will play for food: grapes, when they are really hungry early in the morning, and bananas later on. Alas, by the time we got there, around 12:30 PM or so, they were fully satiated and they couldn't care less about our food offerings. I think the experience would have been much more rewarding if the monkeys had approached us. So if you go, go before other tourists have had the chance to feed the monkeys.

And that's pretty much it. If you go, make SURE you use a lot of mosquito repellent - the mosquitoes are merciless here. You can buy drinks, snacks, ice cream and mosquito repellent at the entrance.

In all, it was a nice experience, just too expensive for my taste.

Croco Cum Zoo

Parrot kissing Mika

Mika holding a crocodile

Mika with snake around her head

Kids feeding deer

Deer eating from Mika's hand


Yucatecan Hammocks

Many years ago, when I first went to the Yucatan, I bought myself a couple of Yucatecan hammocks. They were reported to be the most comfortable in the world (albeit by Yucatecan themselves), and indeed I found them very comfortable back then. After returning from the trip, I had them in storage for many years (no place to put them) and then, after I bought a house, I hanged them in my patio.

The cotton hammock only lasted a couple of years - while cotton is supposed to be more comfortable (I'm not so sure of that myself), it does not wear well under the elements. "Silk", or nylon, is remarkably sturdy - and my nylon hammock lasted for seven years and two small kids, before I needed to replace it. The new hammock, which I bought online, cost me US$85 and was not of the same quality, but still quite comfortable. As I wrote recently, I really love my hammock - but given that they last forever in storage, and that I know that eventually it will wear out, I decided to buy a new one during my recent trip to the Yucatan.

I read in several bulletin boards that the best hammocks were to be had at the store outside the prison a few kilometers west of Valladolid - so during our fifth day in the Yucatan, we stopped there on our way from Valladolid to Chichen Itzá.

Hammocks outside the prison at Valladolid

The hammocks here are made by prisoners (who clearly have the time) and they have a tight, double stranded weave. You can compare the weave from the blue and yellow hammocks we bought we that of our regular hammock - which is still of MUCH greater quality than the hammocks you see around the Riviera Maya (which are really badly made and just as expensive). The pictures are not very good, but I will try to replace them with better ones soon (aka, as soon as I get the camera back):

New hammocks

Yucatecan hammock weave

Yucatecan hammock weave

Old hammock

Yucatecan hammock weave

The hammocks are also very heavy. Unfortunately, and we didn't notice this until a few days ago, they are also very smelly. The smell reminds me of rotten cheese, and it smelled out our rental car until we figured out where the smell was coming from. I now have them hanging outside, airing them out - but I've read a suggestion that I soak them in a solution of vinegar and water and then let them dry out in the sun. I'll try that later today and then report back.

We paid MN$550 for the yellow hammock and MN$650 for the blue one (that one is for a friend). The color choices were very limited, and I was unhappy with most of them. I did love the yellow one for myself - and I'm hoping my friend will like the blue one. As the hammocks are so big, I couldn't really tell why the blue one was more expensive than the yellow one. The guard said that the prisoners price them and they are not necessarily consistent. The prices are non-negotiable.

There are a couple of other stalls selling hammocks by the prison - I didn't stop at them, so I don't know if the hammocks are also made by the prisoners or if they are of similar or even better quality at a better price. You may want to check them out.

There is a potential ethical question on whether you'd want to support prisoners who committed heinous crimes (not just robbery, but murder and rape). Personally I think that any attempt at rehabilitation is worthy, and that they shouldn't be punished beyond their prison sentences.

Viva Wyndham Maya Hotel - Playa del Carmen - Review

The Viva Wyndham Maya is not the worst hotel I've ever stayed at - that
honor goes to a $4 a night Guatemalan hotel, where the cockroaches were
so big and so abundant that I had to leave in the middle of the night in search of less buggy accommodations.

This is not to say that the Wyndham Maya is roach infested (though
there were some worrying little bugs coming out of the information
folder), but when I arrived there (after our stay at the Sandor Caracol
Beach Resort
), I wanted to cry.

You see, I paid pretty much the same amount for both hotels - and while
the Sandos Caracol could be described as the “Target” of the all
inclusive resort industry, a solid 3-star resort, the Wyndham is closer
to K-Mart or Walmart, or a thrift store for that matter. Indeed, I
wondered if that's where they got the furniture which surrounds the pool
and pool-bar area. If I was a hotel reviewer (well, I guess I sort of
am, as I'm writing this review), I'd give it one star max (it claims it
has 3).

Now as for the detailed details:

Why I chose this hotel

I chose the Viva Wyndham Maya because it was the cheapest all inclusive
I could get in the Riviera Maya when I made the reservations. I did check out the reviews at
tripadvisor.com, and while some expressed problems at the hotel, most of them
were very positive. None really explained that this was a low-end hotel


The hotel is located in Playacar, a newish designed “community” of
hotels, condos and time-shares. It's across the street from a shopping
area of sorts, which contains a Starbucks, a pharmacy, a travel shop and
various stands and shops selling Mexican-looking souvenirs. Playacar is
about a 20 minute walk our US$5 taxi ride from Quinta Avenida in Playa
del Carmen.

The hotel is located at the beach.

Check In / Out

When we went to check in (mind you, at 2 PM rather than the 3 PM check
in time), they only had one person at reception. That meant we had to
wait, and the “lobby” is open to the elements (read “hot”) and without
seating possibilities. Still, it's all in all not a big deal. However, check in can be very slow
for people who arrive at busy times or in groups.

The check in was painless enough, but the hotel required that we show
them all our passports and entry cards, and they made photocopies of
them. Photocopies that they will keep, god knows for how long, for some
unknown reason (the receptionist claimed he didn't know why they were
doing this, he claimed that it was a policy from Accounting). I am
suspicious that the hotel may believe it attracts the sort of clientele that might
be willing to steal a pillow or break and ashtray, and Accounting wants
to be sure they will be charged for that. Indeed, their hotel policy
says that people will be charged for anything they take, which goes
contrary to the policy of most nice hotels (those who expect guests to come back).

The Viva Wyndham is a “bracelet” hotel. That means that when you check
in they put a plastic bracelet around your wrist that you must wear
throughout your stay. There is no way to take it off at night or other
points, and then put it back again. My bracelet gave me a rash after a
couple of days, fortunately one of the guys at the front desk allowed me
to remove it and put another one on my other wrist.

Unlike other hotels, the front desk staff won't let you check out unless they cut the bracelets from everyone's wrists - again, suggesting that they believe their guests may possibly use their facilities for a little while after check out without paying. *shudder*


The Viva Wyndham Maya has two types of standard rooms, those that have
been updated by the adults pool at the front of the hotel, and the
“regular” rooms closer to the main pool/beach. We stayed in one of the
latter. I did not get the opportunity to see any other rooms, so I
can't comment on them.

The room we stayed reminded me of those at mom &
pop hotels from the 50's. Mind you, the Viva Wyndham Maya is nowhere as
old, but I guess all the humidity and lack of upkeep wears down rooms
quite quickly. Our room had peeling paint and stained walls and doors.
It was simply furnished with two double beds, one night stand, a shelf
coming out of the wall, with two drawers underneath it, that served as a
stand for the TV and as a desk of sorts, and a chair. There was a
closet and a mildewed mirror. The mattresses were put on top of hard
surfaces and they were hard, though not as hard as those in other
Mexican hotels. The pillows were small and hard, not particularly
comfortable, but easily folded for those who sleep that way. I had no
problems with the bedding.

The bathroom also showed many a sign of aging. It had a bathtub, but
the plug was stuck at mid-point, making it impossible to close for a
bath or to open completely to avoid the water reaching your ankles when
you take a shower. The bar for the toilet paper holder was missing, so
the toilet paper was left on a shelf. No big deal, all in all, but
another sign that the room was in decay.

There was a mini-refrigerator in the room holding 3 drinks when we
arrived. Despite the fact that the refrigerator had a weird smell to
it, we did ask for it to be filled up five times during the first two
days. At the end of the second day, a couple of sodas were added, but
no more.

The rooms come with a very loud air conditioning system (the plus is
that you can set it to the temperature you want and maids don't turn it
off when they come clean the room) and a TV. Alas, the AC is so loud
that it's hard to hear the latter. It also makes it somewhat difficult
to get to sleep. On the plus side, rooms near the beach are also near
the “theater” with the nightly entertainment which begins at 9:30 PM,
despite the closeness you can't hear a thing over the AC.

There were dispensers with hand soap and shampoo in the bathroom, as
well as something that could have been shower gel or hair conditioner,
we didn't figure out which and just used our own. There was no lotion
provided or anything else, though there is a shop where you can buy
what you need.

In all, we found the room serviceable but depressing. Alas, we wanted
to stay close to the pool and beach and that's what we got.


The Viva Wyndham Maya is a relatively small hotel, long and narrow. You
can walk from the gate to the beach in about 5=10 minutes. The grounds
themselves are manicured and clean, there are palms and native plants as
well as grass. The vegetation hides a number of agoutis (cute rodents, about
twice the size of a squirrel) as well as the odd iguana. The kids, of
course, loved looking for them.

The hotel counts with two pools, each with their own bar, as well as a
nicer bar in the reception area. The buffet restaurant, serving
breakfast, lunch and dinner, is on top of the reception room. There are
also three other restaurants serving Seafood, Mexican and Italian food
(we only tried Portofino, the Italian restaurant).


There is a gym, with a variety of machines, a spa and an internet room
with three computers. Internet access is not included, and it's charged
at US$5 an hour. There is no wireless anywhere in the hotel (but you
can get free wireless at the large McDonalds a few blocks north of the
Playacar exit).

The hotel provides you with free bicycles (you can take them out for 3
hours between 8 AM and 5 PM), free boogie boards and kayaks, as well as a
catamaran (if you know how to use it).


There are organized activities throughout the day, they don't vary day
by day though there tends to be a daily “tournament” for something or
other. Activities include exercise/dance classes and games.

There is also a trapeze that children from 4 to 15 can use between 9-11
AM and adults can use from 3-5 PM. There is less of a wait to use this
than you would guess.

The hotel has an archery range (open for a couple of hours in the
morning and afternoon), and bows for both children and adult.

Finally, there is one ping-pong table.

Children Activities

The hotel counts with a kids club that operates between 9:30 AM and 5
PM. The two girls who run it are great with the kids, and my children
enjoyed it a lot. There is also a “mini-disco” for kids at 9 PM.

As mentioned above, children are allowed to use the trapeze, the archery
range and the bicycles (there a couple of small ones for little kids,
none with training wheels).

There are babysitting services available for US$5 an hour. We didn't use them.


There is one daily show at the “theater” (a stage reminiscent of a high
school auditorium, with a roof but no walls and cheap plastic chairs) at
9:30 PM. It changes from day to day and is adult-oriented. I didn't
see any so I can't comment on them.


There is one by the reception area. We didn't go.


The Viva Wyndham Maya has two pools. They are both rather small and
were very crowded during our stay. You can't really swim in them or
play something without bothering other people (not that people were that
polite). The water in the general pool was unpleasantly hot. The other
pool is for adults only. The large pool has a swim-to bar.

If you want to get a lounge chair under the shade, you need to arrive by
about 8 AM and reserve it by putting your towel on it. People start
doing so about 7-7:30 AM.


The beach in front of the Viva Wyndham Maya is just plain beautiful.
The sand is white and powdery and the sea has the most amazing
blue/turquoise color. A mere postcard could not make it justice. If
what you want is to stare at a lovely sea, you could do no better.

The beach itself is rather narrow and filled by rather uncomfortable
lounge chairs. As with the pool, if you want a lounge chair in the
shade, you should come and reserve one by 8 AM. Fortunately, I'm an
early riser so this was no problem for me. People seem to be respectful
of others' towels.

The sea itself is rougher than in other areas, and quickly gets
waist-deep, but it's perfectly fine for even young children. The
temperature is great, specially in the morning.

As with the pool, the beach and the sea are very crowded from
late-morning on, if you want to enjoy the sea in peace, come early.

There are large rocks under the water, water-shoes are recommended but
not essential.

There are also sand bags, a few on the beach delimiting the areas for water sports and swimming, and others underwater, where the sea turns deep. We didn't think they were particularly unseemly.

Time Share Sales

The people selling time-shares (or vacation something or other, they'll
never admit they are time-shares) have a desk in the patio area beyond
the lobby. However, they swarm around the lobby and lobby bar area and
will approach you if you make eye contact (or even if you don't). They
are very polite and nice, however, and once they are told that there is
no way in hell that you would buy a time share at this hotel because you
consider it hell on earth, they'll stop bothering you (but they'll never stop saying hello to you).

If you are actually considering doing a time-share presentation for the
gifts, be aware that the gifts here are considerably lower than those
you can get elsewhere. For example, they could only offer me a $60
discount to Xcaret, while other places can offer you discounts twice as


The hotel has a very small parking lot by the main entrance gate. We
were always able to find parking, however.


The Viva Wyndham Maya has a buffet, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner,
a snack bar and three reservation-only a la carte restaurants. In
addition, you are welcome to use the dining facilities at the Wyndham's
sister hotel, the Viva Wyndham Azteca (located three hotels over, also
on the beach), which include its own buffet, as well as three
reservation-only restaurants.

Buffet Restaurant

We had breakfast at the buffet four times, lunch a couple of times, and
dinner once. Breakfast included American “favorites” such as
pancakes, French toast and freshly-made omelets, as well as Mexican
dishes (though few of these). I don't think I was ever able to find any
bacon. I found most of the food bland and a waste of calories, but I
was satisfied with some banana bread and nutella or cajeta (Mexico's
version of dulce de leche). The coffee and tea were somewhat drinkable, and
while the juices were the industrial-size cheap bottled type kind, the kids liked them well enough.

Lunch was actually OK when we had it. Once we had a breaded pork cutlet,
tasteless in itself, but OK with added salt and lemon juice. Another time there was some nice, tender chicken - and yet another a good pork rib. Just don't expect much flavor.

Dinner, on the other hand, was atrocious. There were very few choices, and those
available did not taste very good. We decided on the BBQ chicken and
ribs, and they were so dry as to be inedible. Fortunately we were able
to get reservations at the a-la-carte restaurants for the other 3 nights
of our stay.

A la carte restaurants

There are 3 a la carte, reservation-only restaurants at the Viva Wyndham
Maya, one serving seafood, another Italian food and another Mexican
food. In addition,there are 3 other restaurants (a Mexican one, an
Asian one and an Italian one) at the Viva Wyndham Azteca, the Maya's
sister hotel a few hundred yards down the beach. So guests have
theoretically a choice of 6 restaurants. In reality, it doesn't work
like that. The restaurants, by the way, only serve dinner.

You can go to the reservation desk every morning from 8 AM onward and
make reservations for the restaurants. They will let you make
reservations in advance; how many will depend on how many nights you'll
be staying (we stayed four, so we could make one reservation in
advance). But you can always make a reservation for the same night.

Now, which restaurants and times will be open for your reservation seems
pretty random. I couldn't make a reservation in advance for the Asian
restaurant, but I was able to make it the day of.

In any case, this system benefits the early birds who can be there first
- which worked out well for me, as I'm an early riser. People start
lining up at about 7:40 AM - if you're first or second you should be
able to sit in one of the chairs, so it's best to be early and bring a book.

Below are quick reviews of the three restaurants we visited: Portofino
(Italian @ the Maya), Bamboo (Asian @ the Azteca) and Il Palco (Italian @ the


Portofino is an Italian restaurant with a nautical theme. It offers a few salads, two or three soups, a couple of appetizers, some pastas and some main dishes - as well as three deserts. We found it to be good, though not in the least exceptional, and were particularly pleased with the desserts.

The kids had pasta (the restaurant made it with just butter & cheese for my 4 yo), and were happy with their dishes. I actually thought their spaghetti carbonara was quite good, even though it lacked bacon. Mike and I had steaks, beautifully presented but a bit tough and bland - but Mexico is not particularly known for its beef. The pasta portions were too big but the entrees were very nicely sized. A tartlet with tropical fruits was delicious, and a passionfruit mousse was surprisingly tasty. Service was good and efficient. Definitely a great improvement over the buffet.

Il Palco

Il Palco had the nicest dining room of the restaurants we ate at. The smallish dining room was decorated in soft colors with large (art-deco?) paintings that the kids liked. It had the atmosphere of a chic bistro. The menu was Italian / Italian American, which a few salads, several pastas and entrees. The kids and I had pasta, which we found to be good but not special. Mike and Mika liked my carbonara, which I thought was just OK (but it's hard to make good carbonara), and Mika's fetuccini bolognese was fine. Mike thought his chicken breast stuffed with something or other was pretty good. Mika liked my tiramisu dessert (it had quite a mild flavor). Service, once again, was good, and it was a meal several notches above the buffet.


Bamboo is described by the Wyndham as an "oriental" restaurant - they are seemingly unaware how the word has offensive connotations for Asians and Asian Americans. What it actually is, is a top-notch restaurant serving inventive new-pan Asian cuisine. Despite its tacky 70's inspired Japanese restaurant look, Bamboo could stand alone as an Asian bistro even in a food-mecca-sort-of-city such as San Francisco (or at least the East Bay). Every dish we had was good, inventive, interesting and tasty. The fried spring rolls had wonderfully flaky shells, and a vegetable filling that included black beans and who knows what else - there were distinct Mexican flavors, but it was still an overall Asian dish. The sushi tasted fresh and could have come from any sushi restaurant around.

Mika and Camila had the chow mein, thick noodles with either bok choi or spinach strips, carrots and tiny broccoli stems. It had a sweetish sauce that brought everything together. I had the kofta, described in the menu as an Indian dish. The somewhat heavy meatballs (I actually don't remember if they were meat or lamb) might have been Indian, but the sauce was soy-sauce based, also a bit sweet, and delicious. I wasn't as crazy for the brown rice that came with it, but I'm not a big brown rice fan. Mike had the panang chicken, perhaps the least mutated dish of them all. He also enjoyed it.

We all had the fried ice cream for desert - the kids weren't crazy about the shell, but I thought it was quite tasty. Service, once again, was perfect.

Bamboo is definitely a restaurant I'd go to if it wasn't attached to the hotel - but not, unfortunately, reason enough to go to the Wyndham.


The staff of the hotel was friendly but mostly low key.


The Wyndham has a very international clientele, with an emphasis on Latin Americans (mostly Argentinians and Mexicans) and Europeans, we saw relatively few Americans.


Despite the fact that Mike and I are veteran budget travelers, we did not like the low-end atmosphere and amenities of the Viva Wyndham Maya. We are not likely to stay at an all-inclusive hotel any time soon, but if we did, it would definitely not be at a Wyndham property.

Viva Wyndham Maya
Playa del Carmen

An agouti at the hotel grounds:


July 23, 2009

Sandos Caracol Beach Resort & Spa - Playa del Carmen - Review

The Sandos Caracol resort is a 3-star all inclusive beach resort,
neither more or less than that. We went there with almost no
expectations, and found it to be a mostly pleasant place to be, with
mostly a very cheerful and dedicated staff. It offered nice, if aging,
accommodations, standard food, and a reasonably nice pool and slice of
beach. Probably its best feature was the kids' club which my kids loved.

How I chose the hotel

The Sandos Caracol resort, along with the Viva Wyndham Maya, had the cheapest rates I could find for the two nights in July I was looking for. I figured that it'd be nice to check
out a different resort, so I went for the Caracol.

Finding the hotel

I made the reservations through the Sandos website, which provided me
with the wrong address and directions for the hotel. That meant that we
spent about an hour driving back and forth around Playa del Carmen,
trying to find it. Finally, we ended up at the Sandos Playacar, where a
helpful guard told us how to get to the Caracol. Once we knew how to
get there, it was relatively easy to do.

To find the hotel from the south, drive past Playa del Carmen until you see a sign for the Grand Coral resort, go into this complex and then follow the signs for the Sandos. There are currently no signs for the Sandos on the road. If coming from the north, look for the Grand Coral signs before Playa del Carmen proper.

Check In / Out

The checking in process was quick and painless. I explained what
happened to the receptionist, who was understanding and called the
manager, who clearly couldn't care less and did not even offer an
apology (much less an upgrade or anything). Ricardo, the receptionist,
did put us in a very nice standard (what we've reserved) room, a stone
throw away from the pool and the beach. He did, however, passed us on
to our “private concierge”, who I expect was meant to try to sell us
into a timeshare. She somehow realized that that was not in the cards,
so gave us some info about the hotel, offered us a free day at the
Sandos Playacar (worth US$90, she said, but the Playacar was only US$20
more a night when I was making reservations), which we declined, and
sent us in our way.

The Caracol is a "bracelet" hotel, which means you have to wear a bracelet throughout your stay.

The check out process was just as painless. I returned my keys and towel cards (make sure to not lose these, there is a US$50 charge for each card that is not returned), got a piece of paper to give to a bell-boy, and that was that.


The kids and I thought that our room was pretty nice. It wasn't
particularly big, but we liked the blue and yellow color combination
(being a Cal graduate, maybe I'm biased towards these colors).
The room had tiled floors, which we appreciated, a small closet, two
queen size beds, a night table, a small dresser with a fridge and a TV,
one of those things to put your luggage, and a very small desk. We
appreciated the fridge and the fact that the room came with a clock ­ so
many rooms in Mexico do not. On the down side, the room had very bad
artificial lightening, it'd be a strain to try to read at night.

The beds were fairly comfortable, hard, but not the hardest we've
encountered in Mexico. The pillows were overstuffed, and not too

The one major problem with the room, however, was the A/C which began
leaking our first morning. The maid noticed it and called maintenance;
the guy who fixed it made a hack job that barely lasted, and soon it
began to leak again. I called again, and within a couple of hours the
problem was fixed.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the hotel has central air, which
means you do not get control of the temperature in your room. The a/c
seems to be fixed at about 24C, which we found pleasant.

Finally, the hotel provides you with soap and lotion (there is a
dispenser in the bathroom), but not with shampoo or other toiletries ­
bring your own. They do give you a bath towel per person, but the
towels are old and rough. The same can be said for the hand-towels and

The rooms were quite clean, and the beds were beautifully set with rose petals and a swan-shaped towel, which the kids loved.


The Caracol has an “eco-hotel” theme, which is mostly manifested by a
series of water canals surrounded by abundant vegetation and inhabited
by various critters. My girls delighted in looking at the fish and
turtles from the bridge near the buffet. They loved the iguanas that sunned throughout the result during the warm afternoons, and once my oldest got to see a friendly coati which showed up after dinner.

The problem with such an "ecological" landscape, is that all the standing water promotes mosquitoes - and the mosquitoes were insatiable at the Caracol. Be prepared for them and bring plenty of strong repellent.

The hotel has a central area with the reception, a bar nearby and areas for tours/time shares. Close to it is the disco, "theater"/sports bar, shopping area, and the restaurant/lounge/central bar area. There are rooms in most directions from this central space - a couple of the other restaurants are at random locations in the property.

The hotel counts with four pools, the main one is closest to the beach. There is a bar/snack bar by the pool, and I think another one in the beach.

The buildings themselves are all meant to look classy, and are decorated with nice furniture as well as design touches. The whole resort has a designed-community look to it. It is, however, quite comfortable (beyond the mosquitoes).

Note that while there are gold carts that can help carry luggage and people around, the hotel can be easily negotiated on foot - it's not that big.


The hotel does not have wireless internet service, as far as we could ascertain, but you can connect to the internet through their computers for US$5 an hour. I don't know if they offer any other business services - if they do, they're probably pricey.

I think there is a gym, and there's definitely a spa (in the central area). We took a look at it and it was quite nice, the large jacuzzi would look inviting were it not for the oppressing heat day and night.


There are activities throughout the day, some in the pool, others in the beach and presumably others elsewhere. These include games and classes.

I didn't find anything that we could do by ourselves, however. The two pool tables at the sports bar did not have all balls (they were lacking the 8-ball, for instance).

Children Activities

My kids loved the kids' club, which included standard activities such as making sand castles, playing in the pool and watching movies. When we were there, the teachers were guys - I mention this as some people are less comfortable with male teachers.

There is also a different kids activity every night around 7:30 PM. One night it was a kids' disco, another night a piñata (this one was particularly popular).

There are a few inflatable swimming toys you can borrow.

Shows and Disco

We didn't experience either.


The Caracol has four pools. The main one is pretty large and it's really two pools connected by a rather wide waterway. There is a shallow kiddie pool at one end and a swim-to-bar on the other end. The bar side was closer to our room and was the least crowded side, so we liked it better. The swimming pool is surrounded by lounge chairs, and there are several palapas with little tables providing shade - still, if you want to make sure you get a chair under one, claim one early. This pool is right near the beach.

One of the other pools is for exclusive use of their club people, another one is for adults only and the third one is open. These were standard pools, not very interesting, but very quiet, even during the hottest part of the day. If you are looking for a quiet swim, either is a good bet.


The beach in front of the Caracol is your standard white sands - turquoise waters Riviera Maya beach. It's very pretty, of course, but not the prettiest in the area. The beach itself is very crowded with lounge chairs - there is barely any free space. However, the northern side of the beach was not very crowded with people while we were there. Most of the activities happen in the much louder southern side.

There are huge sand bags in the ocean, near the beach. I didn't find them unattractive, but they weren't a good source of snorkeling material, unfortunately. They do create a sort of bay in front of the hotel, making the waters quite gentle and ideal for little children. The water in front of the hotel is quite shallow and becomes deeper quite slowly.

All in all, I think it's a pretty beach but not spectacular.


The parking lot is by the reception, it's small but apparently sufficient.


Like other all-inclusives, the Caracol has a buffet and a number of reservation-only, a-la-carte restaurants. We were there for only two nights, so we weren't given access to the latter. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner at the buffet.

In general we found the food to be fine. There was a great selection of cooked items, as well as a grill-to-order station. The food follows a nightly theme, the "Mexican" night included dishes from throughout Mexico, including the Yucatan. However, we found most of the food to be rather mild, albeit made with good ingredients. I'd describe the food as "banquet quality", rather than "restaurant buffet quality".

The buffet restaurant is large and not air conditioned, it can be a little hot.


We found the drinks to be quite good at the different bars we tried. The banana daiquiris in particular were great. The hotel does use syrups rather than fresh fruits in most instances, however.


The staff was quite friendly, and everyone you saw always greeted you. They seemed quite efficient (except for the A/C guy).


The clientele seems very international, albeit with an emphasis on Europeans and Americans.


We liked the Sandos Caracol (specially in retrospect, after staying at the Wyndham) but found it a little bit boring. Still, we appreciated the feeling of semi-emptiness of the place, which might be a temporary thing, however. I think the hotel is a middle class, family hotel, and was a great deal for the price.

Sandos Caracol Beach Resort & Spa
Playa del Carmen

Bedroom at Sandos Caracol

Towel art at the Sandos Caracol

July 24, 2009

Snorkeling at the reef - Puerto Morelos - Riviera Maya

The coral reef in front of Puerto Morelos is supposed to be one of the best places to snorkel in the Riviera Maya - so of course, we gave it a try. You can go to the reef from different locations, but Puerto Morelos is the closest, and therefore the cheapest. We had a car, so getting there was easy. We were able to park on the street on the western side of the main square. You will find outfits that will take you to the reef across the street from the square, on the northern side. They all charge the same: $25 per person for a 1 1/2 to 2 hour trip, including life jackets and snorkeling equipment. It also includes the entrance fee to the reef (yep, there is one). They will take you to 2-3 different locations, and the experienced guides will show you the best places to snorkel. There is a cooperative of boat owners that has a booth on the northeastern corner of the square, but we went with an independent boat owner who caught us as we were walking that way. His name was José (I think) Morelos and he owns two boats. He belonged to the cooperative for many years but decided he could do better on his own. I can recommend his outfit as honest and laid back, but bear in mind that neither the guide nor the captain that we had spoke English (not an issue for us).

While we were very happy with the service we received, neither Mike nor I were awed by the reef. I have to say that my only previous snorkeling experience was in the Big Island of Hawaii, where I saw TONS of fish and giant turtles. There definitely wasn't the quantity and variety of sealife here that we experienced in Hawaii. Of course, I can't possibly say if that's because we didn't snorkel in the appropriate places, or Hawaii just has better snorkeling.

The highlight of the trip for Mike was encountering a skate.

In all, we thought it was a fair price for the service we got, and we did not regret going.

Reef at Puerto Morelos

Reef at Puerto Morelos

Reef at Puerto Morelos

skate in the Reef at Puerto Morelos

Grand Royal Lagoon Hotel (aka el Gran Laguna Real) - Cancun - Review

Summary: Modest hotel, but fun and relaxing.

We stayed at the Grand Royal Lagoon Hotel (aka el Gran Laguna Real)
because it was one of the cheapest hotels I could find in Cancun ­ about
US$38 after tax through travelocity.com, including breakfast for two. There are four of us (two adults and two children), which makes it less
than US$10 per person, quite a bargain in my book.

The hotel is located on the lagoon side of Kukulcan Blvd in the Zona
Hotelera. It's right after the golf course, if you are coming from the
center of town, on the other side of the boulevard from the
Intercontinental hotel. It's probably not a long walk to the beach ­
though you will have to find a place to cross the boulevard and then a
walkway to the beach. The lagoon itself is too full of seaweed and
refuse (waste water flows to it) to make it swimming-friendly.

The hotel is quite small (comparably speaking, given the mega resorts
that mostly inhabit Cancun) but comfortable. A few three story
buildings surround a rather small, but very clean, pool. It was a
perfect size for the kids, however, as they could easily swim across it
(Mika by herself, Camila wearing a life jacket).

We stayed at the hotel twice, for one night each time. Our first room
was, very fortunately, located on the ground floor, a few steps from the

The room itself was very modest and pretty dark. It had two double
beds, a night table, a large desk, a TV, a mini-fridge and a closet.
The room, like the bathroom (shower, not tub), was very clean. The AC
was turned on to 16 when we came in, and clearly it had been for a
while, as the room was wonderfully cool. It became quite cold at night,
however, so I'd recommend turning it to 20 or so before you go to sleep.

The beds were quite hard, as were some of the pillows (Mike was not a
happy camper when he woke up), but I thought comfortable enough. The
only light in the room is a fluorescent bulb on the ceiling, not very
strong, which makes reading quite hard.

Our second room, also in the first floor, but of another building, was
similarly furnished but did not have a refrigerator. It was also
smaller. We asked for a change to a room with a fridge, and we got one
in the third floor of another building. This room was larger and better
lit, but also by a single fluorescent bulb.

Whether you get toiletries will depend on the room. Our first one had soap and shampoo, the second one neither, and the third soap and shaving supplies (!?). I'm sure you can ask for whatever is missing.

The rooms have a safe in the closets.

The grounds of the hotel are pretty small. The pool is centrally located and there are lounge chairs around it. Beyond it, towards the lagoon, there is a restaurant under a palapa, and another palapa with a large table. There are a few hammocks hanging up, and then the dock. We saw our first iguana at said dock.

The restaurant serves basic foods at prices that are not outrageous for Cancun. Breakfast includes eggs, fruit, toast, coffee and juice.

Grand Royal Lagoon
Boulevard Kukulcán Km. 7.5 Zona Hotelera
+52 998 883 2899
Marga's Hotel Reviews

July 25, 2009

Hotel Hacienda Sanchez - Valladolid, Mexico - Review

The hotel Hacienda Sanchez was a surprise; one of the most pleasant surprises we had during our trip to the Yucatan. Finding it was a pain the butt, it's located near the paid (cuota) road to Chichén Itzá while we were arriving to Valladolid from the free road. If you are staying here, just head for the cuota road and you should be able to find it. It's right next door to a large supermarket.

The hotel is not really an hacienda - or at least I can't imagine it ever was one. It consists of a 3-story building placed on one side of a central courtyard. One-story suites line the courtyard in two other sides, and the restaurant is in the remaining one. The central courtyard is beautiful, with lovers' benches, manicured patches of grass and flowers and a fountain. The swimming pool to one side is large, refreshing and very clean - it has both an adult and a kids' side (it closes at 8 PM for cleaning).

I would have liked to enjoy the courtyard more, but unfortunately there are lots of mosquitoes. Bring repellent!

The rooms were fine but nothing special. Two beds, a night table, a desk with a TV, closet and a very powerful a/c (no fridge). They had nice towels and soap and shampoo in the bathroom. There is free wi-fi from the rooms and elsewhere in the hotel.

My only complaint about the room (other than the de rigeur hard beds) is that they didn't use a fitted sheet on the mattress, which means that the sheet came out during the night :-(

Perhaps the best part about the restaurant was the restaurant. It serves Yucatecan and continental food, but you definitely should go for the former. My pollo pibil was delicious and Mike really enjoyed his longaniza (a specialty of Valladolid). Their licuados and fresh juices were divine. For dessert I had caballeros pobres, or "poor gentlemen" - something I had never tried before. It's basically a type of fried bread with a honey-cinnamon sauce. Very, very good. The prices were ridiculously low, I think that less than US$5 for the main dishes!

I should say that I really loved the ambiance in the restaurant. It's in an open building with two rooms opened to each other. One is more or less a lounge area, while the other the dining room proper. Mike said the airy room reminded him of the place where they had the dance in the Zorro movie - indeed, take the chairs and tables away and it'd be a great dance hall. As it's open there is no a/c, but it's kept cool by ceiling fans. The rooms are decorated with hacienda items, guns and paintings.

We had breakfast the next day (US$15 more for 4 people if booked at the time of your reservation) and it consisted of eggs or pancakes, served with beans and something else I can't remember, buttered bread, fruit, coffee and juice. Everyone was quite full.

What I enjoyed the most, however, was the dedicated, kind and attentive service. Everyone was very polite and eager to help.

In all, I wish we would have been able to stay at the Hacienda Sánchez for more than one night, and I wholeheartedly recommend this hotel. We found the cheapest rates for the hotel at http://www.cancun.com/.

Hotel Hacienda Sánchez
Beginning AV. Zaci-hual
01 (985) 85 6-52-12
01 (985) 85 6-52-14

Marga's Hotel Reviews

Hotel Hacienda Sanchez

Hotel Hacienda Sanchez

Drink at the Hotel Hacienda Sanchez

Hotel Dolores Alba - Merida, Mexico - Review

I almost didn't go to the hotel Dolores Alba in Merida due to a couple of negative reviews at tripadvisor.com. One, in particular, claimed that the pool was full of leaves, and if there was something I wanted in a hotel, it was a good pool. But then, someone in the tripadvisor.com fora recommended the hotel, and I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did, as the Dolores Alba is a very nice and comfortable hotel, and we felt very much at home there.

The hotel is situated four or five blocks from the main square - not as close as I'd have wanted, but there isn't much you can do about that. It has a small, private, locked parking lot for those who, like us, are driving (and given all the ruins and sites to explore near Merida, it pays to have a car). It also has a restaurant, which we didn't try.

The hotel itself is divided in two parts. The older part of the hotel consists of two wings surrounding a central, covered patio (where the table/chairs for the restaurant are located). A newer part is made out of three additional wings surrounding the swimming pool. There are a lot of arches and iron work that help give the place a faux-colonial style. There are some plants around one side of the pool to make it look more tropical.

The pool is on the small side, and it's very popular with guests, but it's immaculately clean and my children loved it. My 7-year-old was able to touch bottom in the shallower part, but my 4-year old was not (so she floated around in her life vest).

We found the rooms to be quite beautiful. Ours had a very nice tiled floor, darkening windows (you can look out from the inside, but they look like a mirror from the outside) and some stylish features such as gorgeous painted glass night lights. The a/c worked very well, and the room had a TV with cable but no fridge. There was only a shower in the bathroom (I think soap but no other toiletries were provided).

My favorite detail from the room were the two rocking chairs placed around a small table by the windows. They were comfortable and just a tad luxurious. Unfortunately the beds were very hard, probably the hardest we experienced in this trip.

The hotel has a laundry room with rather big washers and driers. Washing and drying a load will cost your MN$50, including the detergent. There are also drinks for sale at MN$15. As the hotel is downtown there are places were you can buy anything close buy, including a very good bakery 1/2 a block away.

There is free wi-fi in the hotel, though the connection is not always great from the bedrooms.

In all, we really enjoyed our stay at the Dolores Alba and would stay here again. We made our reservation through their own website. The rate during our stay for a room with two double beds was MN$540.

Hotel Dolores Alba
Calle 63 No. 464 x 52 y 54

Dining Room at the Hotel Dolores Alba Merida

Hotel Dolores Alba Merida

About July 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Marga & Mike's Yucatan Adventure Blog in July 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2009 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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