Mayan Riviera (part II): Diving in & making friends.
written July 23 2012
My favourite day in Mexico was a day we spent hanging with hawksbill sea turtles in Akumal, a small town with a big sandy bay in between Playa and Tulum.
People pay big bucks to get transported from their resorts on guided tours to get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. We did it independently.
We got to most of our destinations in Mexico the same way the locals get around, the colectivo. These little buses whip up and down the highway 307 between Tulum and Cancun 24 hours a day, getting you where you need to go for mere dollars. To catch it, you stand on the side of the busy highway and flag them down. Our resort security guards looked at us like we were crazy as we strode through the gates with all of our gear for the day and parked our gringo butts on the side of a state highway. We got the hang of it pretty quick and could not believe how cheap it was. To get to Akumal, we waited for about 2 minutes until a colectivo picked us up and for about CAD$4, we arrived at the bay that we knew was teeming with turtles.
Was it ever. We made our way amongst the sea grass and were lucky enough to observe dozens of these turtles as they munched on their lunch. It is always humbling when a creature from a totally different, watery world allows you to come so close. They were tentative at first, but it is one of the greatest feelings to watch as they decide that you are not a threat and continue to chow down on sea grass. It reminds me to respect the ocean and to always keep in mind that I am a mere visitor, no matter how much I like to think of myself as part fish.
Our time with the turtles was punctuated with beers and fish tacos in a locally renowned beach bar, the Fish Market. We downed the tacos with the freshest guac and pico de gallo I have had to date and took it all in. The rustic establishment had a proper Mexican vibe, complete with lone old men sipping white Tequila and mariachi music filling the whole space. We felt miles away from our ivory tower resort and totally safe and happy, wrapped in a warm Mexican embrace and not even slightly worried for ourselves. Real Mexico, we discovered, is not how it is portrayed in the news. It is friendly.. Beautiful.. Delicious. A really special destination.
We ended our day by getting refreshed in a fresh water cenote, an underground cave spring. They are all over the Riviera and a popular way to escape the oppressive heat of the region. The cenote, called Dos Ojos (two eyes), had a cool and creepy feel to it. The water was bright blue and crystal clear and the sound of dripping was the only thing to kill the silence besides the flutter of bat’s wings. As we peaked under water, we could see only a few small (and friendly) fish and then the pure black abyss where the spring drops off into a cave. Yet another awe inspiring piece of natural Mexico.
Our watery pursuits did not end with turtles and cave swims. It is safe to say that we are truly insatiable when it comes to discovering marine life.
An hour north of Cancun and two hours by boat ride into the open ocean, majestic, docile and hungry whale sharks congregate to feast on plankton that surf in with the warm current. Though we had swam with the whale sharks once before in the Philippines, we could not resist the urge to hop in again and be made to feel tiny and insignificant by the ocean’s largest fish. The magic was not lost on me and the whole experience was even better, thanks to crystal clear water and a sun-soaked day. My incredible fascination with sharks was fully satisfied that day, which was wrapped up by enjoying some shrimp ceviche with ice cold Sols while wading in off of a white-sand island. There are some days in your life that you can just never hope to top.
A day of diving off of beautiful Cozumel rounded out our underwater experience in the Mexican Caribbean. Though we weren’t completely satiated, luckily two weeks in Belize awaited.
Mayan Riviera (part I): Time travel, from ancient Mayans to Conquistadors in a day.
written July 23, 2012
After one week in the Mayan Riviera city of Playa Del Carmen, all of my preconceived notions of what Mexico is as a destination have completely dissolved.
We were led there because the flights are cheap and we purchased a ridiculously inexpensive Groupon deal for a five star resort. Though not our usual style, how could we say no to a little luxury? We did not think that we would get so in to Mexico.
We thought it would just be another stamp in our passport, a jumping off point to Belize. A quick trip to a close international neighbour. We thought we would be at risk as travelers. Fish out of water, wandering the streets instead of confined to our resort. Stared at, maybe whispered about. Lost. Harassed. Maybe even scammed (though we did catch a gas attendant snaking our money). The reality is that Mexico taught me to toss any prejudgement about an unexplored country to the wind.
I did not expect to be so taken with the local culture and cuisine or so in awe of the natural beauty of the region. Considering we only used our luxury resort for sleeping, it is safe to say that Mexico caught me off guard and totally sucked me in. We put a backpacker twist on resort style traveling and got the full-on Yucatan experience, starting with Mexico’s first civilizations.
‘Bienvenidos, you guys are the first ones here!’ … That is what we were going for on our day trip to Ek Balam, an ancient Mayan temple site. This place is on the periphery compared to nearby mega cities like Chichen Itza and Tulum (which we also visited). A beautiful and nearly deserted archaeological site was our reward for an early morning and three hour drive in our rental car. The temple and surrounding structures have been carved out of the overgrowth and exposed in all of their glory. Archaeologists were working to excavate intricate carvings in the walls as we looked on. We labouriously climbed the tallest pyramid and looked out over the lush green jungle at the surrounding ancient structures. We felt like the King and Queen.
As the hoards of tourists began to flock, we took off down the highway to Valladolid, a charming 16th century colonial town where a friendly local made us fajitas and served us cold Sol with salt and limes. This is when it really started to get to me. All it took was a little trip through history from ancient to colonial and then modern times. Mexico is so rich in culture, flavour and fun… There is so much on offer for independent travelers like us. So much to do beyond the behemoth resorts and overpriced organized tours. I craved more of the real thing, the authenticity that lies on the outskirts of the tourist infrastructure… and we spent the rest of the week seeking it out.
To be continued…
Roatán, Honduras - Into the Blue
I have been struggling to write this post. Ten days is a relatively short trip in my experience. So much of it was spent below the surface of the water, completing an advanced course in scuba diving that I have found it difficult to come up with an interesting story from my time on Roatán. But I knew that our time underwater was punctuated with some really good land dwelling.
Then it hit me. Three weeks later.
I was practicing yoga, the one hour per day that I reserve for myself to think about absolutely nothing except that moment. I found my thoughts consistently coming back to that little island off the Caribbean coast of Central America. I have not been able to stop thinking about Roatán. It is not the most beautiful place I have been, but my preoccupation comes from the fact that in just ten days, I felt really connected to our little west-end corner of the island. You might say that I fell in love with the personality of the island; it’s hard not to.
It started on New Year’s eve. By this time, I had long forgotten that Continental (temporarily) lost our baggage and I was ready to say goodbye to 2011. It all started at a sprawling beach party in front of a live reggae band. The Salva Vida flowed. Hips swung. Everyone was beaming. As the spectacular midnight fireworks went off, I realized I wasn’t just happy to be ‘elsewhere’ … I was happy to be in Roatán. The four of us made our way down the beach, only to fall further in to the thick of things. Our travels took us to a local’s dive bar on the beach that seemed to literally be shaking along with the bass line and the bodies. In we went, swept up into a never-ending congo line and swallowed up into the rhythm and the dancing, only to be spat out an hour later, gasping for air. This pattern continued all the way down the shoreline. As our attempt to dance in the sand after a few Salvas grew tougher and tougher, we slowly …. very slowly, made our way back to our beach house.
When I woke up in 2012, I was thirsty. Yes, I was in dire need of water…. but I knew my time on the island was limited and wanted to soak up more of what the previous night had offered me. In between the fabulous snorkeling and diving, we spent our days exploring our side of the island. Our place was sandwiched between West Bay; think hundreds of beach chairs and oiled up Europeans, and West End; a rustic, bohemian little town occupied mainly by the locals. We frequently made the walk to West End to take it all in.
The understated charm of West End was endless. Though it’s nothing but one strip of beach road, it was packed with those island vibes that I can’t get enough of; hand-painted wooden signs, lazy smiles, reggae flowing though every. single. establishment. We tapped into the hybrid of Afro-Caribbean-Latin roots by consuming everything from delicious beachside cart tacos to spicysweet jerk chicken. We enjoyed sundowner beers with that beautiful ocean background noise. We walked aimlessly down the beach, greeted by the locals. I could spend so many days reliving that…
One night, the four of us lounged on our rooftop patio, watching the cans of Salva Vida accumulate and gazing at the incredible display of stars. You could hear the ocean, we were that close. I thought about ‘Salva Vida’… the name of the national beer, which means ‘Life Saver’ in Spanish. Of course a beer can’t save your life, neither can traveling, really. But it can do a lot of good; refocus, reconnect, rebuild. I didn’t know how badly I needed to do these things until I was introduced to the island of Roatán.
They say how you ring in the new year is how you’ll spend the next 365 days… and I’ll happily spend it thinking about those nights.
Roatán, you really got to me.
Honkers is Bonkers.
Hong Kong, from literally the minute I entered the air space to the minute I left, was crazy. Flying in was a surreal experience; the clouds were thick and grey and though we knew we were descending, nobody knew how close we were to the ground. Then, the airplane emerged from under the frothy sky and …. there it was. Looking out my window, I got a brief glimpse of the city state and before I knew it, the landing gear was connecting with the tarmac. The fleeting image of infinite cloud-grazing buildings, massive green humps of mountains and a sprawling waterway was enough to heighten my anticipation … what to expect at street level, I didn’t really know. People … neon lights … food stalls … I always have an image of a place like this before I go in to its depths.
This is a city that stole one of my best friend’s hearts and thus stole her away from me, so I had to go confront it to see what was keeping her there. After ten months apart I knew we’d be going all-out and I was expecting the full-on Honkers experience. I got what I hoped for. This girl navigated me through the belly of the beast that is the Hong Kong night life; almost nothing but champagne was consumed, our high heels treaded the cobblestone streets and the only work out I got was from dancing. We did it all, from the Dragon-i patio’s kicked-back relaxation to Volar’s cave-like after hours experience. I think I did alright, for a girl who lives in sleepy Western Australia and likes to have a beer on the beach….
The night-life is representative of the spirit of Hong Kong in a lot of ways. It’s vibrant, fun, in-your-face, intense … it’s out there. I am saying this with all sincerity, Hong Kong is seriously the city that does not sleep. Who has time to rest in a place like this? There is dim-sum to be eaten, markets to troll and deliciously lavish dinners to enjoy. With only four full days, Brit made sure we packed it all in and there was no room for any rough morning excuses, though I did try. Any queasy feelings I had were soon cured when I looked out the window at the city that was awaiting and decided that I could sleep when I got back to Perth.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so intrigued by a place just based on what I saw daily happening on the streets. East really does meet West here. Explore an endless market in Mong Kok where you can buy a fake Marc Jacobs purse or, if you want the real thing, there is a high-end mall across the street. Indulge in all-you-can-eat dim-sum on a breezy patio and wash it down at a hawker stall with fresh fruit juice for one Australian dollar. But it’s the people that show you how the two worlds really collide here - Aussies speaking Cantonese to their peers in a business meeting, tons of multiracial couples, Cantonese subtitles for Hollywood movies, pizza shops situated next to Chinese restaurants. In Hong Kong, I got the best of both.
Yes, it was crazy. I never stopped. I probably got one full night’s sleep, spread thin over five nights. Hong Kong is full-on and I can see why Brit just can’t get enough of it. Nobody can, it’s totally, shamelessly excessive … her friends kept telling me, you’re not staying long enough, don’t leave on Friday, you’ll miss the weekend! For me, though, I didn’t feel the need to extend. A combination of bright-eyed anticipation, a lot of Uni stress to (literally) shake off and the most kick-ass tour guide I could imagine … I confronted this city with all I had. And I have to say, after getting to know it a little, I’m willing to let it keep my best friend.
Guess I’ll just have to visit again….
Yours from Jetstar flight 3K111,
Margaret River - Wine, Waves & a Wicked Van
I think Margaret River is the reason I came to Australia… though I didn’t know that until we road tripped down there and spent five days in the region. I’m not sure if it was the drop from the local vines, watching the five metre swell crash against the giant rocky coastal cliffs or the wildlife that hooked me…. maybe it was everything. What I’m trying to say, is that the south-west corner of this continent embodies everything I expected to get out of my Australian experience, and it had endless amounts of it all.
What’s grown and produced in Margaret River really ended up defining our trip. We took a chilled-out wine tour to sample the vino that comes from the region’s famous grapes and as we learned about each winery’s story and got informed on the wine-making process, I could tell that the local vintner’s passion was infecting me. It was hard to resist… I mean, with wine that delicious! The region is still pretty small-scale in terms of export, so we’re talking about people who simply make wine for the love of it. You could really taste that love, and I definitely brought some of it home, bottled.
Not neglecting our love for beer, our camper van took us to visit the local brewers, where we felt a little more in our element. Most interesting was the Bush Shack Brewery, makers of some quirky brews, such as Strawberry Blonde, Chilli Ale and Chocolate Beer. Our tastebuds were reeling. Margaret River tastes good.
Our trusty tin-can of a Wicked Van helped us peruse the coastal road from our campground base to indulge in everything else that the region had to offer, from blissfully silent caves to soft white beaches. But the most unforgettable for me was, simply, the scenery. The best things in life really aren’t things…
We parked our van almost anywhere to enjoy them. Cooking lunch on a beach and watching the waves pound the coast… Perching ourselves on a cliffside rock with a sundowner to listen to the ocean and watch the day wrap up. The south-west coastline is a sight for sore eyes, and it really doesn’t get much more beautiful than this. Even driving offered up some gorgeous sights; sprawling countryside paralleled by infinite coastline… One hundred vineyards, thousands of vine blocks… Kangaroos bounding away through the fields. So stunning, I could go on forever. It went on forever.
The entire trip came full circle on the last night, spent enjoying a couple of bottles of cleanskin Chardonnay from a local winery. These grapes didn’t turn out as perfect as they should, so it’s sold without a label for cheap at the cellar door. The sun disappeared over Busselton Jetty (the longest in the southern hemisphere at 2km) and soon the wine did too. We drank it out of plastic mugs for extra classiness and moved indoors to the van for a relaxing night of hearty camp-made pasta, cards, and more Chard. MMMMmmmmmm.
Yours loving the Margaret River aftertaste,