I'm writing this trip report as a way to give back to the community that allowed me to plan for an excellent adventurous family vaction in the Yucatan Peninsula. I spent many, many hours reviewing other trip reports, forum postings & reviews at sites like: tulum.info (http://www.tulum.info) and TripAdvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com) and I hope this report/review provides some insight into someone else's future vacation planning efforts.
This report covers the following major points of interest:
- Tulum Mexico
- Tita Tulum - beach cabanas - www.titatulum.com
- Tulum Ruins
- Hidden Worlds - www.hiddenworlds.com.mx
- Grand Cenote (Gran Cenote)
- Punta Laguna
- Akumal Bay
- Isla Holbox
- Holbox Whale Shark Tours with Whale Shark Daddy (Rodd Sidney) www.holboxwhalesharktours.com
- Casa Iguana - www.casa-iguana.net
- Continental Rent-a-car - www.continental-rentacar.com
Most of the trip reports that I've seen are organized by the travel day much like it was fashioned from a travel diary, which is exactly how I captured my thoughts and organized this report. At the end of each day or early the next morning I would write a few paragraphs in a small journal, plus I have the chronological ordering of hundreds of photographs to help jog my memory and to weave the story.
Of the places visited and vendors used, I only have negative things to say about one of them - Continental Rent-a-car. I'll not use their services again, you can read through Day 1 (car pick-up), 2 (car swap) and Day 8 (car drop off) to get a feeling for the lack of organization and while they were polite, I expect a little bit more sophistication from a car rental agency.
The other activities and vendors (e.g. Hidden Worlds, Holbox Whale Shark Tours, Tita Tulum, Casa Iguana) I wholeheartedly endorse and recommend. This was a trip of a lifetime and I'm not sure if I'll be able to top it, certainly not for so little expense.
Consider the following to be the Table of Contents:
- Day 1 - Travel Day & Continental Rent-a-car
- Day 2 - Arrive at Tita Tulum
- Day 3 - Coba, Grand Cenote, Tulum Ruins
- Day 4 - Hidden Worlds
- Day 5 - Cenote Cristal, Akumal Bay
- Day 6 - Punta Laguna, Chiquila ferry, Holbox, Casa Iguana
- Day 7 - Holbox Whale Shark Tours
- Day 8 - Return to civilization, Cancun
First, I think it is important that I provide a little bit of insight into the travelers. Our family consists of one father, two daughters (ages 17 and 14) and one son (age 10). I'm originally from Hawaii, love the tropics, get bored easily and wanted my southern-fried suburban mallrats to really experience another culture. In addition, I'm fairly frugal and Cancun (CUN) is one of the least expensive places to visit from a flight standpoint (from ATL), plus I now know that Tulum & Holbox are absolutely beautiful, have great beaches, great people and have no McDonald's, Pizza Hut nor Walmart which are my simple measurements of obvious US-exported commercialism and culture. Our home life is frenetic and a single day of the week might include soccer practice, baseball practice, guitar lessons, cell phones buzzing with dozens of text messages per hour, school work, Myspace/Facebook, video games, Disney Channel, etc. My goal was to really unplug, see something of our beautiful planet, gain some perspective on American lifestyle vs the rest of the world and Tulum + Holbox were absolutely perfect. I took two teenagers "off the grid" (no phones) and one boy (no video games) for 8 days and lived to tell about it. ;-)
Day 1 - Monday July 7th (Travel Day - ATL to CUN then drive to PDC)
I used Delta Frequent Flier miles to pay for the plane tickets and that meant no direct flight options so we went through Memphis on the way down to Mexico and then came back by way of Houston. I could have expended more miles (or dollars) for the direct flights but the layovers were short and the kids felt that the changing of planes was part of the adventure.
Hotel and car reservations were meticulously researched and booked online multiple months prior to the trip. I was taking three kids out of the country for the first time so planning was essential. Plus I'm a planning freak - that is half the fun.
We land in Cancun around 5pm and are immediately greeted by a huge line for passport control, this was NOT the most ideal greeting for three children who had just been unplugged from their phones and video games, I was ready for convulsions and even considered bribing some folks to get ahead in the line. This was not something that I had factored into my very detailed planning efforts but unfortunately there was nothing to be done, just wait, shuffle forward, focus on lowering your blood pressure, insure no incent bystanders were wounded by bored children. A little over two hours later, we are officially welcomed into Mexico, allowed to pick up our bags, exit the building, praying that our rental car company hadn't deserted us. I was overjoyed to find a fellow holding a sign with my name on it and the kids felt like they were celebrities.
I had booked the car rental from Continental Rent-a-car online at www.continental-rentacar.com which was recommended by the great folks participating in the www.tulum.info forums. My research had shown that Continental would be about half the the cost of Budget which is the company I normally use when traveling around the US. The quote was for $288 USD for a compact, 7 day rental, 4-door Nissan Tsuru automatic with A/C including a "free upgrade". Now, the fellow with my name on his sign actually had a shirt on that said "America Car Rental" but I shrugged it off and we waited a few minutes with him for a picked up by a fellow in a mini-van. As we are leaving the airport, we see flashing blue lights and are pulled over by the police! Of course my brain goes into overdrive with visions of Mexican prison life and a great deal concern about getting into the van with the fellow from "America Car Rental". Our agent (fellow with the sign) and driver pull over and jump out of the car for a fast paced conversation in Spanish with the police officer. My kids thought it was pretty exciting stuff and captured part of the exchange on the video recorder. The rental agent showed his instructions to the officer who then approached the van and asked me if I had in fact rented a car, I answered in the affirmative and he let us go.
When you don't speak the local language you just have to assume that the locals are looking out for your best interests (or suffer an anxiety attack).
We drove a few more minutes and arrive at a small strip mall and walk into the rental agency which had a sign that listed Continental as well as America and I immediately felt better. I had a printed copy of my reservation which I provided the agent, unfortunately, they informed me that my automatico was unavailable, I would need drive an older Nissan standard (stick shift) for the next 7 days or swap cars in the morning (it was about 8 pm in the evening at this point) and I was too tired to fight, plus I don't know any proper Spanish curse words. I didn't have a lot of options and I knew I was sleeping in Playa Del Carmen (PDC) for the evening as I didn't wish to make the much longer trip to Tulum in the middle of the night. They agreed to let me swap out cars in PDC. The next step was to find gas and the PEMEX was just up the street from the rental agency. I had read about the fact that rental cars tend to start off on empty instead of full and about the gas station scams in Tulum plus I had forgotten to hit the ATM in the airport for some pesos. So I paid in USD and received change in pesos and it turns out that the exchange seemed to work out OK. We had officially survived passport control, encounter with the police, some "bait and switch" with the car rental agency and a gas station attendant who spoke no English - not exactly the adventure I was looking for but we were finally on the road.
The trip to PDC was uneventful and we navigated around until we found the Coco Rio hotel which I had booked via BestDay.com and had paid the $111 in advance. I had printed a map of PDC online (www.travelyucatan.com/playa_del_carmen_hotel_map.php) and had purchased several of Map Chick's Can-Do travel guides (www.cancunmap.com) which was another recommendation from the tulum.info forum posters. Coco Rio is on "the strip" in PDC, 5th Avenue which is for pedestrians (running North to South). We left the rental car parked on the street, checked in, walked down 5th, found some dinner at a highly Americanized sports bar and eventually turned in for the night - exhausted from a day of traveling and a lot of unplanned for adventure. Best quote of the day belongs to the 10-year old boy while navigating through Coco Rio's warren of halls and stairs: "Don't they know about elevators in Mexico" - culture shock is entering a world which isn't wheel chair friendly.
Day 2 - Tuesday July 8th (arrive in Tulum)
I wake up earlier than the kids and set off on foot to find the rental agency for the exchange of rental cars. I first verified that the current rental car hadn't been towed from the street where I had left it, then found the agency office which was South down 5th. It is tricky navigating in a foreign country when the street signs and directions are in Spanish, with no cell phone to call for help. Luckily the people at the front desk were able to point out my destination on the maps I was carrying and I was helped by another rental car agency who I assumed would know where his competitor was. As it turns out, the rental car office seemed to know I was coming but didn't have a car ready for me. Plus, I had to go through making a whole new contract! This was a bit painful but I'm a patient man. I had taken 5-mile capable walkie talkies on the trip and I had left one with the kids in case they awoke and found me missing so I felt like it was reasonable to wait. While waiting I was able to find an ATM for some much needed cash and generally watch the shops on 5th begin to open up for the day. The most exciting element was watching the armored car and heavily armed (shot guns, bullet-proof vests, automatic weapons) team arrive to replenish the ATM. After about an hour wait, I was presented with a much nicer Dodge Neon-looking but built by Hyundai automatic with great A/C, all sparkling clean and ready to go. I returned to the hotel, got the kids packed and moving, stopped at McDonald's on the way out of PDC for some breakfast where I told them this was their last bit of recognizable American culture they were going to see. There was some concern during the planning phase with my 10-year old's diet of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and chicken McNuggets, so I informed him he would just have to starve from that point forward (my idea of tough love).
The trip down to Tulum was really easy, 307 isn't a coastal road but you see exit signs for many of the major places to visit (e.g. Xcaret park, Puerto Aventuras, Xpu-Ha, Akumal, Xel-Ha, Hidden Worlds) and it is really hard to get lost. Plus I had studied the path via Google Maps (including the satellite view) and had great maps in hand - I was taking no chances. You get to Tulum Pueblo and hang a left by the 7-11, at their one and only one stoplight (a right takes you to Grand Cenote and on to Coba). Again this road is fairly straight forward to navigate and you'll see many of the various "hotels" that are asked about and debated on the tulum.info forums. Check out this map: www.todotulum.com/downloads/tulum_map.pdf, you'll see the road runs along the beach with cabanas/restaurants mostly on your left (oceanside), in one area the road has been washed out and is no longer nicely paved so expect some bumps but it is only a short distance of rough riding.
We arrive at Tita Tulum and it is truly beautiful. The walk up from the "parking lot" (some sandy areas between palm trees) into the U shaped arrangement of thatch-roof huts is spectacular. Here is picture of their "entrance" from the parking lot.
And the "lobby" was incredible:
Cabana number 1 was selected as it was one of the forward most cabanas in the small complex and you walk through what is basically a sand dune to get there. While the distance is short, it can be tough on people with heavy baggage, no paved walkways, just some paths through the tiki torches and palm trees.
We had arrived in
In the planning phase, it was tough for me to envision what Tita Tulum really looked like. The pictures on their website are a bit basic so I prepared this video for anyone who might wish to take a quick walkthrough on the grounds from the street, through the "parking lot", through the "lobby" and down to the beach (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IXQspwfDV0). I found that searching through YouTube and Flickr are effective ways to find out more about a destination. We paid approximately $110 a night that was prepaid via Paypal. Now, this was part of the adventure as well. The folks at Tita respond fairly slowly to email (it takes a day or two) and they didn't confirm the receipt of my Paypal transaction until I asked if everything was OK. With that said, I had read several reviews/reports in the tulum.info forums that suggested this was the case and I went on blind faith that everything would be fine and they were ready for me when we arrived.
We spent the afternoon on the beach where the best entertainment came from a couple of very friendly dogs. We nicknamed this one Max
They loved playing fetch in the surf
The dogs were a huge hit and I captured some of this on video as well
At this point, I could declare victory as the kids finally understood "why Mexico".
I celebrated with a massage at A'Kiin on the beach and the kids swung in the cabana's front porch hammocks and played in the surf and sand. The beach is large and uncrowded, the sand similar to what you'll find in Destin, Florida white, fine and soft.
Immediately after check-in there was one cause for concern, water pressure. While I signed up for a thatch roof hut with limited power and no A/C, I had assumed there would be enough water pressure for a shower!
Luckily this was only a temporary issue that was corrected within an hour. Based on a tip that I picked up in the tulum.info forums, I picked up this little light socket/power outlet gadget before leaving home.
(note: all of these photos are high-res and you can drill down into the much larger version by clicking and following the link to Flickr where they are hosted - when viewing in Flickr click the ALL SIZES link just above the photo)
One of my selection criteria was to find a cabana that had power and while Tita cabanas do have lights, they don't have power sockets. I needed a way to charge my camera batteries. It should be noted that these sockets wouldn't handle a hair dryer nor a laptop (I did try and triggered the breaker) but the most critical things were the walkie-talkies & camera rechargeable batteries which it handled well.
We finished our day with a brief tour Tulum Pueblo, dinner at Don Cafetos (highly recommended in tulum.info) and some shopping.
The first night at Tita Tulum was a little rough on me. The air temperature was high enough to make it uncomfortable, and as advertised these cabanas only had natural sea breeze air conditioning. The trick was to move the beds closer to the open windows so that you could lay in the constant cross breeze. On this particular adventure, it was important to understand that you'll always be a little bit sticky and sandy. We packed only one pair of jeans and one hoodie each and never used them.
Day 3 - Wednesday, July 9th (Coba, Grand Cenote, Tulum ruins)
I awoke before 6:00 am to catch the sunrise which I had heard was absolutely beautiful, I was not disappointed.
We planned to visit Coba which is a bit of a drive away from Tulum so the first stop was the Pemex gas station by the San Francisco market. I asked for "dos cientos" which turned out to be too much and received correct change (it must have been the highly suspicious on my face). We also hit the 7 Eleven for some snacks & drinks for the road to Coba. There is very little on the road once you get past a few cenotes (Grand cenote is along this road), some houses made of sticks, a few failed businesses and small villages. A section of the road had hundreds of butterflies. There was one local shopkeeper that I made a mental note to stop at on the return trip.
The goal was to arrive before 9:00 am, before the tour buses from Cancun arrived and we made it. We paid our admission fees, said no to the first round of tour guide offers and went straight to the bike rental. Granted, I ignored the educational opportunity but I really wanted to beat the crowd. Our family has never taken a bike ride together and my son had only recent gotten his cast off due to a broken arm from a previous bike riding accident. It was great fun racing around a still fairly deserted Mayan city which had been overtaken by the jungle. The jungle was full of birds at full song and it was quiet whenever we stopped as there were only a handful of others on the trails. I thoroughly enjoyed our ride through the forest, in some cases the trees were so thick that the trails were overshadowed.
We stopped at an ancient Mayan ball court.
I really don't understand how someone could play a ball through that hoop with their hips, perhaps that is something I should have learned more about but we were having too much fun on the bike ride and wanted to get to the big pyramid. Along the way we found this structure so we dismounted and used it for a photop.
We finally arrived at the big pyramid and there were only a few other people there! Time to climb and enjoy the view from the top.
I sent the kids up first to capture the moment and this video gives you an appreciation for how high up you have to go.
I hate to admit it but they scampered up to the summit without a break and it took me at least one stop to catch my breath. It was quite a hike but the view from the top was totally worth it.
We enjoyed biking around Coba for a while longer.
My son found a local critter to chase.
which also turned into a great photop.
At one point, we encountered a man who was sweeping the trail and while he didn't seem to speak a word of English he did know how to point & shoot with the camera. I've not seen too many trees like this one aside from the ones in Hawaii so I thought it would make a great background.
As a child, I had an aunt that would purchase a National Geographic subscription for me at Christmas time. While other little boys were getting new radio controlled cars or cap guns, I was reading about pandas and the rain forest so to this day I have a huge love of all things green. You'll notice that this was a bit of theme for us on this trip. I hope my children would learn something about our planet and see a bit of it still unspoiled by man.
After visiting all the major ruins (we really moved along on those bikes), we were on our way out just in time to see the mob arriving.
There were people waiting for our bikes when we returned them and I was quite pleased with having seen Coba with only a handful of others and avoiding the rush. Now we could be on our way back towards Tulum but first a quick stop at the shop with the colorful "blankets".
The "store" was actually a family's home where the local shopkeeper was initially a young boy and his adorable little sister. They had kittens so we spent some time just browsing and playing with the cute little kitties. Eventually what I assume to be the mother must have noticed the gringos hanging around and she appeared to negotiate. As far as I could tell, she spoke no English so I put my high-school-Spanish translator to the test to strike up a bargain.
We rolled out of there with a couple of colorful "blankets", some great photos and feeling great about our ability to communicate, at least in pesos. I put "blankets" in quotes because it turns out they are actually tableclothes that we found in some of the Tulum stores where someone could actually tell us their purpose but they were twice the price and we appreciated supporting the local family on the road to Coba.
At this point, it is only about 10:30 in the morning and Grand Cenote was on the road back towards to Tulum. I had instructed the kids to have their swimsuits ready and we had brought our own snorkel gear so we were prepared for anything. We paid our admission and on the walk in found a cage full of peacocks. This particular one really got my attention, I've never seen one that was all white
It is hard to describe how incredible Grand Cenote is. It was a absolutely beautiful sunny day, there were small trees growing up from the "floor" of the cavern. We could snorkel back into the overhanging rock while birds (swallows I guess) flashed by in a blur above our heads and I brought some waterproof flashlights to have a look around in the dark corners of the "cave". There was even a swim thru to another area where you could see the sky and the jungle around you. The water was perfectly clear and it was just an amazingly beautiful natural setting with lots of tropical plants and small fresh water fishes. I had heard that there was an area to jump into the cenote but I didn't see a good jumping off point and there were relatively few people there overall. There was a small booth where you could rent snorkel gear but I always come prepared. I learned while living in and on multiple visits to Hawaii that you always keep your snorkel gear handy for just those moments were you decide to pull over on the side of the road and jump in the water. If you can't tell this was one of my favorite places and photo opportunities. I had one digital camera wrapped in a DiCapac (basically a heavy duty zip lock bag) that I had picked up for this trip. This allowed me to snap some underwater (or just in water) photos and vids.
After a couple of hours exploring Grand Cenote, the crew was getting hungry and we had eaten up most of our 7 Eleven snacks. The drinks were kept cool in one of those collapsible/soft coolers that I had packed in my baggage (another tip from reading tulum.info forum posts). We used that cooler for all of our day trips and to bring home a few drinks back to the cabana every night so it was one of our better investments and it turns out that we stopped at the convenience store (OXXO or 7 Eleven) every morning & evening for more ice and drinks.
At this point, we jumped back in the car and headed to Tulum ruins as I felt we could pack a little more into the day and we're a high energy family!
The Tulum ruins are north of the pueblo and the main intersection on the road back towards Cancun/Playa Del Carmen but it was a relatively short trip. We parked, talked to a couple of fellows about some a tour of the Tulum site as well as other opportunities. They were very pleasant and there was no hard selling at all. We politely declined the offers and hit the "food court".
Where it turns out they actually have a Subway so I gave in and we ate "American" food. It just so happens that produce (lettuce, tomatoes) and condiments (mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup) have a slightly different taste.
After our quick meal we walked out to where the tram picks up passengers for the trip up to the ruins. This is where you'll find the "flying men" - guys who dangle themselves from ropes while spinning around a pretty high pole. I had read online that the show was "free" and the boys worked for tips. When we walked up they seemed to be resting and it was a little warm at this point so I asked one fellow when the next show would start. He looked at us and said basically "dos cientos and we start right now". For a moment, I was a bit taken aback but then, well, to be honest, I'm a sucker for a show and we were waiting for the tram. They even gave us a nice photop at the end and were a neat bunch of guys.
Their version of "say cheese" sounded a lot like "tequila" but I'm sure I misheard that bit. ;-)
There were actually several other photops and I'm that guy who actually buys that photo of the kids screaming their heads off that you are shown at the end the Disney ride, so I'm thinking $5 was a bargain for the Mayan family photo, one extra large iguana and a very big snake!
Perhaps the exchange rate was getting to me so I asked the kids about the previous pitch for the guided tour. They thought it was a good idea so I then forked over some money for a tour with Florencio. I really don't remember the price but it was on the standard price sheet posted where the tram picks up.
Florencio wasn't very high energy, didn't seem all that excited though he was seemingly knowledgeable and tolerant of my constant questions (I paid the toll so teach me something). It was warm and late afternoon. I'm not sure how much the kids learned from the experience because the boy was chasing iguanas all over the complex (we left with over a dozen cool iguana "action" photos since he had one of the cameras) but overall I was happy with the tour and of course the ruins overlooking the ocean are just breathtaking.
At this point in the day, we were starting to get a little bit tired so we went back to the cabana for some R&R in the hammocks and beach. My son found a stick that he liked, you'll see it in a few photos and in retrospect, this was a dramatic shift away from Suite Life of Zack and Cody and video games. Mission accomplished!
After a short recovery and some showers we were refreshed enough to head out to Zamas for some dinner. We had a table directly on the sand, looking over a shallow cove by candlelight. We tried the potato skins, chips & pico de gallo, garlic fish, spaghetti, pizza and enchiladas and loved all of it. We remembered to take some photos of our food for the great folks at tulum.info.
One word of warning, bring your bug repellant, the mosquitoes descended upon us vigorously when the sun went down so we had to run back to the car and spray everybody down before the food actually arrived.
The next stop was the "Internet cafe" at this point the kids had survived being unplugged for a very long period of time, plus I needed to check on a couple of important emails.
We then went to the local city park in Tulum where we had the opportunity to watch some pickup soccer games plus we could put our high school spanish translator back to work. Now we were really becoming immersed in the local culture.
It was a great and enthusiastic game. One that we have played in our own soccer practices back home. It is neat to watch groups of people playing a game where there are no uniforms, cleats or shin guards. We returned the Tita's fairly late that night, I believe the parking lot gate had been shut but not locked. So we quietly made our way back through the sand dunes to the cabana. It was a beautiful night so we looked at the stars and the moon and chased around a few sand crabs via flashlight.
Day 4 - Thursday, July 10th (Hidden Worlds)
I was up early again, my body seemed determined to catch the sunrise and the friendly grounds keeper for Tita was always up and he also enjoyed watching Sol come up in the morning.
This particular morning I was able to catch a brief glimpse of the bats that lived in the tree just outside of our cabana and with the sun coming up they were headed back home after a long night of feasting. They were very hard to catch via my simple point & shoot digital camera but I managed to get a couple of photos.
Today was the day for Hidden Worlds. I had previously made the reservation online and had made a tough decision between Hidden Worlds (www.hiddenworlds.com.mx) vs Selvatica (www.selvatica.com.mx). Hidden Worlds just happened to have great deal on their website of about $59 a person for unlimited access and what swayed me in the end was the ability to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I hate cattle style "tours" and all of the reviews of Selvatica suggested that groups of people where herded together to each zip line, rode it once and then moved on to the next event. While Selvatica had many more zip lines, I was sold on the freedom offered by Hidden Worlds, the snorkeling in the "bat cave" and the SkyCycle. I can tell you that for my family, I totally made the right decision.
The Hidden Worlds entrance is directly off of 307 and its impossible to miss, we had seen it on our drive down from Cancun and knew exactly where to go. After checking in for confirmation of my reservation and payment, they provided us with wristbands and told us to jump on one of the jungle buggies for the jolting, jarring and wild ride. The jungle buggies make frequent trips from the entrance to the area where the activities are (it is too long to walk) and they will also transport you between the SkyCycle launching point and the main activity area. I was able to capture a few moments of one of these rides on video. My kids held on for dear life and loved every second of it.
Upon arrival at the main activity area, we were strapped into our safety gear and prepared for the zipping, splashing, rapelling, skycyling, etc. The team at Hidden Worlds were extremely friendly and welcoming. They were absolutely a joy to be around and they spoke great English. There were 3 photographers who captured a lot of your adventures and sold the digital pics on a burned CD to you at the end of the day - $25, of course I bought them.
I'll say that the "adventures" don't give you much of adrenaline rush as they've been made safe enough for the average tourist, however, the staff was so nice and made it so much fun the kids completely loved it. How often do you get to say that you ziplined through the opening of a cenote for a splashdown? I highly recommend Hidden Worlds for anyone that has adventurous children. I personally enjoyed the SkyCycle the best. Being alone, quietly peddling along through the jungle canopy, plus the SkyCycle lines take you through a couple of caverns as well. We were never rushed, never herded and my son wanted to do the long zip line three times. The best aspect of that was they normally have a staff member sending the person down the line and a staff member waiting to receive them. In one instance, where my son declared he wanted to ride down again, they couldn't find the fellow who was supposed to be on the receiving end, after a few attempts on the radio, the "launch" guy didn't wish to keep us waiting so he grabbed the zip and went on down the line himself, waiting for my son to arrive.
Our photographers were Solomon, Eduardo and Jack and they were all gracious and helpful. I didn't make note of the other staff members names but they were all quick to greet you with a sincere smile and make you feel at home.
Just like the previous days, we returned to the cabana for some beach time, clean up, then out to Charlie's for dinner, some shopping and even more soccer. This time we found an upscale city park that had organized games but there are no public restrooms to be found. We even found a ladies team working with their coach.
Day 5 - Friday, July 11 (Cristal Cenote and Akumal Bay)
This morning I actually "slept in" and just missed the sunrise but started the day with a walk on the beach. I encountered this guy lounging about
Portuguese man of war - beautiful colors while resting on the sand but certainly something you wish to avoid when in the water. He apparently missed the tide that morning and was willing to pose for a nice photo.
This was our last "full day" in Tulum so we wanted to keep it somewhat casual. Once we got the kids up and in the car, we drive down toward Sian Ka'an so I could see if the "Arch cenote" was accessible. I had heard about it on the tulum.info forums and thought I was try to find something more off the beaten path. I don't think we found it, but we came across some signs, a path so dense with overhanging foliage that you had to stoop down to get through it, a glimpse at a small body of water and enough mosquito bites to last you a life time. Perhaps someone can translate the signs for me. They likely say something along the lines of don't trespass, you'll be eaten by an alligator.
So next I wanted to see the Cenote Cristal which was down 307 south of Tulum, this particular Cenote bore no resemblance to Grand nor the ones at Hidden Worlds. It looked more like a pond that you would find in central Alabama (and I've seen a few of those). However the water was crystal clear and mostly locals were visiting at the time we arrived. We didn't end up staying long, there wasn't much to see but it proved to be a great site for some fun photos.
It was just about lunch time and I still wanted a chance to visit Akumal Bay, reputed has having sea turtles to swim with and a short distance from Half Moon Bay where there is actually a reef. The biggest challenge with this area is there is no parking so I used a trick I had read in one of the online forums. I drove up the parking guard and said I was going to lunch at Lol-Ha, a really nice upscale beach club. He waved us into the protected parking area. He were actually hungry so some lunch was in order. It turned out to be great and at the end of the meal, I asked the waiter if it was OK for us to leave the car parked and enjoy the beautiful beach and bay, he said "si" so I grabbed the gear out of the car and we setup right there in front of the restaurant.
I combined the snorkeling videos for both Akumal Bay and Holbox
I didn't find a way to get to Half Moon Bay, it would have been a long hike from where we were by Lol-Ha and the only parking seemed to be right at people's rental houses and condos. At this point, the kids had had enough so we returned to the cabana for some resting and a nice walk on the beach.
Dinner that night was at El Basilica which was wonderful and our last night in Tulum. We will definitely go back to Tulum again one day and believe it or not there were a few activities that we didn't get to like Ek Balam, Selvatica, Pac Chen, Half Moon Bay snorkeling and cenote scuba. However, the biggest win wasn't the activities, it was finding a peaceful place of tremendous natural beauty where we could have some shared adventures and more importantly leave the chaos of daily life behind.
Day 6 - Saturday, July 12 (Journey to Chiquila/Holbox and a stop in Punta Laguna)
We packed up and settled our bill at Tita Tulum (prepaid via Paypal so there was nothing to do accept tell them we were leaving) and paused for a photop at the entrance.
We were a little sad to leave Tita's Cabana #1 behind but we did have a second phase to our family adventure - a trip to Holbox to see whale sharks. Holbox is a small island about 2 hours north of Cancun, it has even fewer Americanized amenities such as the lack of ATMs and certainly nothing that resembles a fast food joint. Directions were provided by Rodrigo (aka Rodd Sydney, Whale Shark Daddy). There are several providers of whale shark tours that launch from the PDC and/or Cancun areas but launching from Holbox meant you spent less hours in the boat and I wanted to see this small, rustic village called Holbox (pronounced hol-bosh). Rodrigo/Whale Shark Daddy was selected because he was the first Holbox-based provider to answer my inquiry email, he actually called me directly the next day, was very friendly and he walked me through all of the arrangements. He provided me a shortcut from Tulum to Chiquila which knocked at least 1.5 hours off of the total road time. Plus I realized the "shortcut" was actually the road that went past Punta Laguna monkey reserve. Prior leaving Atlanta, I had spent a lot of time reviewing directions, searching forum postings & other trip reports and I knew that Punta Laguna was a place that I wished to stop. However, I was a little concerned about the shortcut through the interior instead of following the 307 north road back to Cancun and the relatively easy directions from Cancun to Chiquila. I spent some time trying to eyeball the path via Google maps satellite view but generally trusted in the accuracy of Rodrigo's directions. With that said, the directions were perfect and while the roads themselves were often unmarked there were signs that said "Holbox", "Chiquila", "Kantunilkin" or "Nuevo Xcan" along the way. You basically head up the road towards Coba (which means you can stop here as part of the trip), take the first right at the circle (aka Glorietta) instead of going around to the left for Coba and spend about 45 minutes running down a narrow, unlined but well paved road. You'll pass a couple of Mayan villages, one of which must have been in the tourist business based on the vans parked out front and you'll eventually go right past Punta Laguna. Pac Chen is along this road but we didn't stop in for a visit, according to forum postings Pac Chen is for tour groups only. The following photos give you a view of this narrow road and the sign for Punta Laguna.
I stopped at the front and hired a guide (recommended by forum postings), he spoke English, Spanish and Mayan and was very helpful. He showed us some leaf cutter ants, took us out on the lake in a canoe, marched us through several jungle trails and found us a monkey. There would have been no way to have done this on our own. Unfortunately we had arrived around noon which is when the monkeys are normally sleeping and much less active but the lake was stunning and jungle trails fun.
On the way back out, we stopped at the small hut at the entrance to Punta Laguna and purchased some snacks & drinks (still had the cooler) for the next leg of the journey. We had to travel to Nuevo Xcan at Hwy 180, then to Kantunilkin, then San Angel, Solferino and finally Chiquila. Again, there are large signs to indicate direction so getting lost was never a concern. Plus there were interesting things to see along the road. Note: I filled up with gas in Tulum, while there is a Pemex in Chiquila by the docks, it didn't have any gas the day we left the area.
After a long trek, we arrived in Chiquila and the ferry location, found Panchos Parking (recommended by Rodrigo) about 300 yards away from the dock. A nice young man named Juan Carlos came by with one of those "tricycles" to help move of bags from the car to the doc area. My son needed a restroom break and the one inside the boat itself was broken, so we walked up the Pemex where a nice young fellow charged us 5 pesos, there was no gas, just a 10 year old restroom attendant. We happily paid the toll and took care of business.
The ferry tickets are inexpensive, under $5 USD each. The ferry ride itself was a little rough, your bags are strapped to the top of the boat and they were splashed some, luckily all the electronic gadgets were with us in the belly of the boat. It turned out to be quite crowded, one person brought his motorcycle as well.
The ferry ride itself was less than 45 minutes but it was hot, crowded and I have a tendency toward seasickness. I left the ferry with a slight headache to find that all the taxis had been taken. We waited for a while before we started dragging our bags down the sandy road where eventually a nice fellow in a yellow golf cart found us and took us to Casa Iguana. This was the low point of the trip as I was hot, tired, hungry, had a headache from the ferry ride and generally grumpy. Check in at Casa Iguana was slow to say the least, our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we had to wait about 30 minutes, the setting was beautiful but it was hard to appreciate at that moment.
The good news is that the room had several more amenities and we were gradually coming back to our form of civilization - there was a ceiling fan, two rotating floor fans and an AIR CONDITIONER! I had paid the $15 premium for A/C when booking the reservation and was that a stroke of pure genius. We rested in the cool air for a while then got ourselves cleaned up and walked into the village proper (about 300 yards a way). We went to Edelin's for some pizza and cold Cokes, rented a golf cart and had a blast taking turns driving around the small island. One thing that we were struck with was the level of littering - there was trash everywhere.
The golf carts on Holbox are diesel powered therefore a bit noisy and have very, very slow acceleration but it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the trip overall. We cruised all over the island, befriended several stray dogs and it turns out that while Tulum might win the prize for sunrise, Holbox provided some amazing sunsets. The rental cost around $40 USD for 24 hours and was absolutely worth it.
It was now Saturday evening and Holbox was just wrapping up a big fishing tournament, there was plenty of fresh fish to go around, a live band and dancing. It was fantastic. I was able to capture a bit of it on video.
We also spent some time on foot in the village, purchased some drinks and browsed some handmade jewelry.
The Whale Shark tour pick up was at 6:30 am, the dock in the same location as the beach party - a short distance from Casa Iguana. So we went to bed with all the fans blowing and the A/C maxed out. We still had no TV and no phones but just a little A/C was HUGE win. It is amazing how much we like our creature comforts - I've gotten soft in my old age.
Day 7 - Sunday, July 13 The Holbox Whale Shark Tour
Today was the big day, this was the single most expensive aspect of our trip. I felt the kids could handle the adventure based upon some previous experience. The girls and I had performed a night time snorkeling trip with manta rays off the Kona coast in Summer 2007 so we had some experience in the open ocean around extra large plankton consuming animals.
A golf cart arrived to pick us up by 7:00 am where we went to have some coffee and cookies. We were on the water by 8:00 am and heading out to the open ocean. The whale sharks feed in an area where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, our guide talked to us about how the color of the water shifted during our journey.
Our captain was on the lookout for sea creatures and abruptly throttled back to stop the boat. He had spotted a pod of "flippers", dolphins. One of these fellows was curious about us as we were about him. He came over for a visit.
There was a disturbance in the water where on the surface it would appear that thousands of fish were fighting just below the surface of the water. Our guide indicated that they were sardines and the dolphins were herding and feeding on them. Perhaps tuna were hunting below as well.
Sadly, we had to leave the dolphins behind as whale sharks were also feeding in these waters, it seemed only a few more minutes on our speedy boat to arrive in at their banquet table. The sea was thick and green, filmy, containing small bubbles, it was whale shark manna. Our guide and captain spotted a couple of these incredible creatures. We spent several moments just watching them swim past us and if you drill down to the high-res pictures you can see the water qualities that I attempted to describe.
Now it was time to get wet and we each took multiple trips into the water. Horizontal visibility was poor due to the water conditions but our guide & captain knew exactly how to navigate us, put us in the water at the right place for an up close and personal visit. This is a fish that is the same length as my GMC Yukon and I had previously fielded several questions about what happens if you get eaten. Well these guys are basically vegetarians so the only way to endanger yourself would be to try to swim down their throats, which isn't possible either, they move through the water pretty well. A swim with the whale sharks could only last a few minutes because that is about all that you'll have the endurance for.
These short video clips capture the underwater experience and a feel for the "chase" pretty well. You can certainly hear this camera man huffing and puffing. I used the DicaPac underwater case on my cheap Sony digital camera.
After several swims, we had lunch on the boat and then to visit shallow area that had a rocky bottom, some sea plants and some fish. We spent time snorkeling there for a while, our guide pointed out some sleeping nurse sharks and we enjoyed many moments of simple serenity. We kept our eyes on the water for the boat ride back to hotel. There were flocks of golden rays "flying" through the water and we spotted a few mantas as well.
We were dropped off at the beach in front of Casa Iguana and spent more time in the afternoon hitting the local internet "cafe" and exploring the island via golf cart. All roads are basically packed sand & dust. When it rains, large pools of muddy water form and when it is hot and dry then you are breathing the dust.
There is plenty of the island that is only accessible via boat and/or on foot, the vegetation is of the scrubby, stunted breed and the island feels like a large sandbar. There are portions of the island that feel like a "third world country" due to the destruction caused by previous hurricanes. It appears that the local school was destroyed and all that is left is the shell of the buildings and some blackboards on the walls. Many of the homes were basically shacks and local dump isn't a land fill, we were already at sea level, it was simply an area of the island where everyone tossed their garbage. Holbox could use a lot of love, a Spring cleaning (litter abounds) and reconstruction.
Dinner was at Viva Zapata and another beautiful sunset. Our trip was winding down and we were starting to think about home.
One of my objectives was to introduce my children to another culture, for them to see firsthand a simpler, less wealthy lifestyle. In Tulum and Holbox, we spent time in the city parks, walking about the villages off the tourist friendly paths, we saw a wedding procession where it appeared the newly weds were under 16 years old. We watched children under the age of 2 playing in the dust & rubble by their homes. Dogs sleep on the streets (please watch for them as you drive about). I think my suburban mallrats now have a much expanded worldview.
Day 8 - Monday, July 14 - Return to Civilization: Holbox to Cancun
I reserved a day in the schedule to make the return trip from Holbox to Cancun. All of our planned adventures were completed. The rental car was due back by 5:00 pm that day and we had a hotel reservation at the Cancun Marriot Courtyard right by the airport for the 7:00 am flight the next morning. Our only objective was to pack up, get a golf cart "taxi", catch the ferry, jump back in the rental car and return to Cancun. Easy right? Well I had managed to misplace the rental car key. We were still in Holbox, checked out from the room and awaiting the taxi so I make a point to verify all the critical items:
- Three kids - check
- Wallet - check
- Passports - check
- Cameras - check (didn't wish to lose the photos)
- Cell phone - don't matter
- Car keys - oh oh
I had managed to lose the car keys and the brain went into overdrive. After a nearly perfect execution of seven days of Mexican vacation that required over 40 hours of intense planning over several months, I had managed to drop the ball during the wrap up phase. I was thinking about how to contact the rental car company when we landed in Chiquila, perhaps I would have to take a taxi to Cancun, get a spare key then taxi back to Chiquila to fetch the rental car. Perhaps we'd miss our flights due to all of this running around. How would the rental car company even find it at Panchos, 2 hours away from where I rented it? It was a very unhappy moment but I was doing the math, I could find the taxi, pay the fines, get the kids checked into the Marriot and work throughout the night if necessary to get the car returned to Cancun and still make the flight - sleeping was optional. Luckily, we kept digging through the rooms and all the luggage and after 45 minutes of near panic attack, I found the stupid key in the little pocket of the backpack where I had placed it for safe keeping! Doh!
The golf cart taxi to take us to the ferry dock arrived about the same time that my blood pressure had returned to normal and I was once again "Hero Dad" instead of "stupid, I can't believe you lost the keys" (kids can be tough). The return ferry ride was a piece of cake. The rental car was exactly where we had left it, right beside Pancho's house. We moved back into it and prepared for the next multi-hour drive to Cancun. Then I had a hunch. We were leaving the Chiquila vicinity when a fast moving relatively new and clean passenger van went buzzing by me. It has to be a tour bus returning to Cancun after leaving Chiquila and it was moving at a great clip and would surely have the "shortcut". Sure enough the van took a left down a smaller unmarked road well before my directions (I had planned to follow them in reverse back to Hwy 180 near Nuevo Xcan) were leading me. I had studied various maps before the trip, including the satellite view on Google maps. I had read a few forum postings about a "secret" way the tour vans take between Chiquila & Cancun. This had to be it, it was leading in the right direction. So I stomped on the gas and followed a breakneck speed. We whipped through the unmarked backroads of the Yucatan Peninsula. The excitement level grew even more when a monsoon struck. It was a total downpour and you could barely see the car in front of you. Trees feel across the road and blocked it in areas but I had committed to staying with the van otherwise all was lost (or at least we were going to be). After a few twist and turns through what appeared to be a small village we popped out on two a two-lane road with painted lines and my sense of direction said this had to be Hwy 180, racing towards Cancun. The rains stopped, the clouds opened up, the sun came through and sure enough we were on the outskirts of Cancun less than 2 hours after leaving the Chiquila ferry docks!
This was our first encounter with major civilization in 7 days. Cancun is mini-America with McDonalds and Wal-Mart and all the obnoxious tourist junk & neon of Panama City, Florida or Ocean City, Maryland. The kids saw a Domino's Pizza and started screaming - it was an eat-in joint in additional to delivery. We pulled over and gorged ourselves and American tasting food for the first time in a week - it was heavenly.
At this point the sun was shining again and we found our way into the "elbow" of Cancun with its high rise hotels, pirate ships, booze cruises, glitzy malls and on the radio - American music (the radio had been silent for the previous 7 days). We were overjoyed and the following video captures that moment perfectly.
We had one final stop as I've been to Cancun a few times before. My children really liked what they saw, they had been starved, sticky, sweaty, sandy, without hair dryer/flat iron, radio, TV, cell phones, etc for a complete week at this point.
So I decided this was a moment that would allow for an important lesson! I pulled into the flea market that sits in front of The Plaza Forum by the Sea. For those of you who have not experienced the flea market, well, you should experience it once. There are dozens of little shops, all selling the same cheap spring break tacky t-shirts (beer and sex are popular design themes), the same shot glasses, the same overpriced somberos, Mexican blankets and figurines, beer koozies, counterfeit designer items, etc. The shop keepers all speak very good English and they are aggressive, they stand out in the hallway and give you their best sideshow barker come on. Some of the better lines are "Come in, just for the hell of it", "50% off just for you, special deal, good price" and my personal favorite, "Come see my shit". They shopkeepers are harmless if sleazy and the parking attendant wanted a personal tip for watching our car. We did purchase a few pieces of junk after haggling and hearing about how the salesperson's boss was going to kill them for the making such a bad deal. It was a fake Mexican team soccer jersey so his mark-up in his asking price was ridiculous to begin with.
At that point, my children had a better feeling for Cancun and I left feeling pretty good about the lesson learned. There is rare and extraordinary natural beauty, rich culture and a glimpse of ancient history in the Yucatan Peninsula but it is not in Cancun.
We checked into the Marriot Courtyard, washed smelly clothes in their laundry room, took really hot showers, swam in the pool, watched Disney channel, made phone calls to friends & family back home and got on the Internet.
The last piece of the puzzle was the returning of the rental car and the Marriott Courtyard was directly beside the strip mall where I had picked up the original Nissan Tsuru that was switched in Playa Del Carmen, The car was filthy after several days of surviving our adventures but it didn't have a scratch on it. Plus the original $288 price quote included all insurance and had no deductible. So I drive it around to the Continental/America agency office and started the check-in process. The same folks who had helped me a week earlier were there and they took the key and looked over the car. The problem was they didn't use computers and the records associated with the car were back in Playa Del Carmen and they couldn't finish the transaction and present me the final bill without the paperwork! This was a little bit frustrating and they told they would get someone to drive up the records and they'll bring my bill to the hotel. I knew this was dangerous but was tired at this point. I walked back the hotel and never heard from them again. I did check my credit card statement carefully and it would appear they ran the charges for $312 which was close enough to the original estimate that I've not tried to pursue any long distance complaints. It goes with out saying that I can not recommend Continental (www.continental-rentacar.com)and won't contact them for my next trip. The good folks in the tulum.info forums had also suggested Easyway (www.easywayrentacar.com) and I plan to give them a shot on my next visit.
We fly out on July 15th, clean, dry and well groomed but with many, many excellent experiences behind us. It was time & money very well spent.