Generalities Archives

June 27, 2009

Welcome & Travel Preparations: Where to book flights and hotels

Welcome to our Yucatan blog. Mike (hubby), Mika (7yo), Camila (4yo) and I are getting ready for our brief, 2-week tour of the Yucatan. I love planning trips almost as much as actually taking them, so I've been busy with all the details of this one: even though I'm pretty sure that once in route we'll change our plans, at least somewhat. But that will just add to the fun of all of it.


One of the main reasons why we are going to the Yucatan, is that I scored pretty affordable tickets. I did so by checking several travel sites several times a day. Mostly I used Orbitz, Expedia, Cheap Tickets and Kayak, a website that lets you check several sites at once. I found Kayak sort of clunky and not that useful, I preferred checking out each website by itself. I skipped Travelocity, because it's very frustrating - it almost never has the flights it advertises, you go through the whole buying it process only to be told the fares have increased from five minutes before. It's a waste of time. I also used Book It, to look for combined air-hotel packages, but I found that the flights it offered me were horrible (cheap, but with very extensive layovers). I also used the airlines websites directly.

What I learned using these websites so intensely for a few days is:

-None of them had all the flights at any particular time. The flight I eventually booked, I bought it at - but it also appeared in Orbitz. Expedia, which used to be my favorite search site, offered me the worst flights this time around. So the moral of the story is: to find the best flight, search several websites and search often.

-Prices change wildly all the time. A flight that might be $300 when you search, may be $350 when you search 10 minutes later and $280 when you search again. Don't despair if you "lost" a great fare, you may get a better one a few hours later.

-Book when you find that great fare. Yes, they may go down in price, but then again, they may not. The flight that I booked for Cancun costs, at this very moment, three times as much.

-Search other airports. Sometimes fares are lower from neighboring airports - if you can use them just as easily, do searches that include them as well. ALSO, if you are going to take a flight that has a layover anyway, see if it'll be cheaper to buy each flight independently. When you do that, you can make use of smaller airlines that do not appear in the search engines.

-On that same token, don't forget Jet Blue, Southwest and other airlines that don't appear in the search engines. If they go where you want to go, search them separately.

At the end I ended up with a great flight, going direct to Cancun, at a reasonable hour for less than I was planning to pay. But believe me, when I saw that flight come up I grabbed it immediately.


When I was a "budget" traveler, staying at the cheapest hotels possible, I never booked hotels in advance. For one, when you do, you are pretty much stuck by the itinerary you first plan. For another, most of the fleabags hotels I used to stay, don't take reservations. And truth be told, when you travel to the Yucatan in summer (specially in this economy and after the swine flu scare), you don't really need reservations.

BUT, what I found searching around, is that while hotels in the region have brought down their prices to deal with the scarcity of tourists, they are less likely to tell you so when you approach them directly (at least by e-mail or over the phone). Sometimes the best prices you can find are through an online travel agency. But which travel agency? Here, I found out that it also varies by hotel. Some agencies will have the best prices for one hotel, and really expensive ones for others. If you are looking for a bargain, you need to check several of them.

The cheapest online travel agencies I found for hotels in the Yucatan peninsula were:

For resorts/all inclusives

Cheap Caribbean
The vacation travel mart

For smaller hotels in Mexico

Best Day
Great hotels

But don't forsake the big ones, either. I found the best price for a cheap hotel in Cancun at Travelocity. And beware that some hotels only list with one online agency - and some with none.

Even if you are not going to make reservations in advance, it pays to check what the online price is, so that when you show up at the hotel you can ask them to match it. For what I read, not all of them do, however.

Something else to be aware, if you are traveling with 2 children, is that some hotels which offer 2-double beds in a room, have an online maximum of 1 child per room. I called one of those hotels on the phone to make sure it'd be OK to have 2 children in the room and they said "but, of course". Note, however, that in particular in Merida, many hotels do not take children in the first place. You need to visit their website to find one which ones.

I start my research into hotels at Trip Advisor - a website that, among other tings, features reviews of hotels world wide made by travelers. Though I publish my hotel reviews on my website, I usually also post shortened versions to Trip Advisor. And so do thousands of thousands of people, so you are likely to get at least a review or two (or a hundred) even for small hotels in small destinations. When there are few reviews I google the name of the hotel online followed by "review", but this is less useful as the hits you get for the first few result pages tend to be travel agencies rather than independent travelers.

June 30, 2009

Books, Websites and other resources on the Yucatan

Last time around I did not have much time to prepare for my summer-long trip to the Yucatan. I had finals pretty much right until the day I left and, as I was already backpacking and carrying a lot of papers (this was in the pre cheap-laptop days, I had to write all my notes & reviews longhand), I didn't have much space for resource materials in my luggage. So I winged it - relying on guidebooks and the invaluable knowledge of the young people who were staffing the Tourist Information Center in Merida: they helped me visit pretty much every single interesting site in the state of Yucatan (though at the time there were many, many fewer cenotes opened to the public).

This time around, however, I had a few weeks warning before my trip and the time to do some reading on the region and the its history. I've also been aided greatly by several websites and bulletin boards that expand on the all in all meager information from my guidebook. So here is what I've used - feel free to comment and add other resources.


The Maya

For books I relied mostly in the pitiful selection at my library. I only found two books on the Maya that where somewhat recent: The Maya by Michael D. Coe and Daily Life in Maya Civilization by Robert J. Sharer. While they both contained similar information, I liked the second one much more than the first one. Sharer does not give you an iota of information about the daily life of the Maya (it'd be all speculation after all, wouldn't it?) but he does provide abundant information about the history and culture of the Maya. He is more willing than Coe to extrapolate from post-conquest records and archaeological know-how, so that you end up with a clearer picture of what Maya civilization may have been like. He is also more detailed in explaining his methods and has taken to heart the old adage that, when writing a paper (or a book), you should "say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you said". Some may find this repetitious, but as I'm not a very careful reader, and I tend to glance rather than read some paragraphs (in particular those at the end of a section or chapter), his method is very useful to me. All in all, I enjoyed this book very much.

If you are seriously interested in reading about the Maya, however, you should get a copy of The Ancient Maya, 6th Edition (or whatever is the newest edition when you read this) also by Sharer and a co-author. This is the book on the Maya and will give you all the background you will need. Alas, they didn't have it at my public library and I was not going to spend $30 to buy it. Hmmm, maybe I should have.


My library had two guidebooks, Hidden Cancun & the Yucatan, which I didn't like at all, and the 2008 version of Frommer's Cancun, Cozumel & the Yucatan, which surprisingly, was better than the other book. It isn't "complete", but it has a voice and I think as much info as the book I ended buying. It also contains a map of the Yucatan peninsula, albeit a very basic one including only the major roads and sites.

The book that I, foolishly, end up buying was Moon Yucatan Peninsula: Including Chiapas. The 2009 edition was not yet out, so I got the 2007 edition instead. Back when I wrote my chapter on the Yucatan for the Berkeley Guides: On the Loose in Mexico 1993, the Moon handbook was the only guidebook to focus only on the Yucatan and it did a great job of covering most of the interesting sites in the region. Hoping that it had maintained its standards, I bought it sight unseen, and, as I said above, it was a mistake.

I'm displeased with the Moon Handook for several reasons. For one, its maps are ridiculous - there are very few of them, they don't include all attractions or even some useful roads for the car traveler (such as the shortcut from Cancun to Chiquila. Second, it has very few hotel listings (though that is less important in this age of Trip Advisor, but not everyone does their travel planning with the help of a computer) and, in particular, very, very few budget listings. Now, I'm not sure if this is because the Yucatan no longer has really cheap accommodations, though that seems somewhat unlikely. Third, but probably most importantly, the Moon handbook is no longer thorough: it does not include destinations that may not be touristy in themselves, but that are important stops in the bus-traveler route or serve as centers for visiting nearby sites (such as Hopelchen). There were other reasons why the book annoyed me, but we don't need to go into them. Needless to say, I'm sorry I bought it.

I haven't taken a look at either the Lonely Planet 2008 Cancun, Cozumel & the Yucatan or 2006 Yucatan nor the 2008 The Rough Guide to Yucatan 2, but I'm sure both of them are much better. I've used Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide extensively before, and I usually prefer the writing style of the Rough Guide - if I find one somewhere for cheap, I'd definitely pick it up.


There are fortunately several websites on the Yucatan that you can use to get general information as well as insider tips. And of course, you can google specific things (like "cenotes") for detailed info on that subject. The best Yucatan websites are:

Yucatan Today

a print and on-line magazine

Yucatan Living
expats living in Merida

The best discussion boards, where you can ask and browse questions and answers are:

Trip Advisor's Yucatan Peninsula Forums
Make sure to post under a specific destination, as few people read the general forum

Lonely Planet Mexico Forum

For the most useful map of the region, go to Google Maps and enter "Yucatan Mexico" in the search field. You can then zoom in to see roads.

Travel Yucatan

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 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.

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.

About Generalities

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Marga & Mike's Yucatan Adventure Blog in the Generalities category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Ek Balam is the previous category.

Hotel Reviews is the next category.

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

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