Thursday, November 24, 2011

My time in Mexico with Marcia

Those of you who know me well may know that my best friend Marcia and I have talked about doing a “girls’ vacation in Mexico almost as long as we have been best friends- nearly 20 years now!  When I started planning this year of traveling I decided that I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off my travels than for us to FINALLY do this trip we’d been talking about for so long.
We didn’t plan much of anything, short of getting online and looking at some hotels to get ideas.  Marcia’s sister Tami, as well as a bunch of other people we had talked to, told us we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we didn’t snorkel in Cozumel, and we figured if we were going to go to the trouble of getting to and from Cozumel we might as well stay there.  We decided we wanted to stay at the Occidental Grand Allegro, an all-inclusive resort on the south-west side of Cozumel.
We arrived in Mexico around 4 pm on Monday November 14th.  Since we decided to fly by the seat of our pants and call the hotel at the last minute to see if they had any “last minute specials” we arrived without a reservation and sat outside of the airport forever trying (unsuccessfully!) to figure out how to call the hotel on Skype.  Our biggest surprise came when the sun set around 5:15 pm!  Then we started to worry about trying to figure out Mexico public transportation in the dark so we were trying to figure out what hotel we would stay at near Cancun when a shuttle van driver who had been trying to get us to travel with him came over.  Earlier he had told us the fare was $30 per person to go from the airport to Playa del Carmen, which is where we needed to take the ferry to Cozumel.  We had dickered with him a while and reached an impasse when he wouldn’t budge at $20 and we wouldn’t pay over $15, since the bus was $12 and we really didn’t know what our plans were.  He said we could go for $15 each but we had to go THEN, because the van was leaving.  Feeling very rushed, we decided to go on to Playa del Carmen since Cancun is actually north of the airport so we would have had to travel that distance all over again the next day.  I had done a fair amount of research and felt better about wandering around downtown Playa del Carmen in the dark than I did about doing the same in Cancun, but Marcia was definitely worried that we would be turned into heroin-addicted prostitutes.
Marcia getting her hair braided.
Luckily, no such thing happened!  We arrived in Playa del Carmen without a hitch and had no trouble getting directions to the “hotel zone”.  Although Marcia was very displeased with hauling her giant suitcase over the uneven cobblestone streets, we found a nice little hotel rather quickly and had ditched our bags and were back out on the streets of Playa within about an hour of having arrived.  We spent the night wandering around 5th avenue, checking out little shops and bartering with the shop owners.  Marcia got her hair done up in little braids, which came with the added bonus of an instant face lift.  
I can’t say enough good things about our hotel.  It was called Lamnah and while it did have a sort-of institutional feel to it, the simple rooms were spotless and had everything we needed.  Here’s a link to my review of the hotel:

Marica in the ocean in Playa del Carmen
We were finally able to contact the Allegro the next morning while we at the most delicious breakfast I’ve had so far on my trip- some bits of fruit with coconut and cinnamon-spiced yogurt.  We had some difficulties booking our room with the Allegro but finally managed to secure a reservation through Expedia and after a brief swim in the ocean (which was about 1.5 blocks from our hotel) we checked out of the hotel, drug Marcia’s bag BACK across all the cobblestone streets we’d walked the night before and found our way to the ferry to Cozumel.  Before long we were on the ferry to Cozumel with beautiful aqua water all around and the mainland shore rapidly shrinking away behind us.  We had originally intended to take a taxi to the hotel but got stopped by a guy selling snorkeling tours, which we wanted to do anyway, who told us if we bought our tours from him he would arrange our transportation to the hotel free of charge.  He secured a taxi for us and we were soon zipping through the streets of SanMiguel.  Mexican taxi drivers are crazy!  Actually, basically everyone drives crazy, which made riding in the cab a nail-biting experience!  There are scooters EVERYWHERE and everyone is passing everyone leaving only feet (and sometimes only inches!) to spare!  It’s insane. 
What our building would have looked like without the broken railing

To our intense relief we made it to the hotel without pancaking any scooters.  Our room wasn’t ready yet so we grabbed some lunch- the first of many buffets- while we waited for it to be prepared.  When we had finished our room was ready and we went to check it out and get settled in.  We had looked at the pictures online and our little palapa-style building was just as we’d thought it would be, with the exception of the broken banister (complete with yellow caution tape!) and the slightly musty smell upon entering (possibly a result of the palapa roof?).  With the exception of these two things the room was very nice and the cute little elephant made from towels on our bed was a very nice touch.
Apparently making animals out of towels is common in Mexico.
We didn’t have much time left that day so we just chilled at the beach for a bit and saw a beautiful sunset, the last half of which I missed because I ran back to the room to get my camera and it was over by the time I returned!  :o(  Back in our room, our neighbors were playing music and it was coming RIGHT through the walls/door that adjoined the two rooms, which was fine then but we were a little concerned about how we’d feel about the thinness of the walls at 11 or 12 that night.  On our way to dinner we ran into a girl named Danny that Marcia used to work with and we discovered that her and her boyfriend were actually our noisy neighbors!  We made plans to meet up for trivia later that night but Danny apparently drank too much so we didn’t see them until the next day.  We also did LOUSY at trivia but blame that more on the guy who announced the questions than on our own stupidity (which DID probably factor in some, I am sure!).

Wednesday we took it pretty easy; we did some kayaking in the morning and then went to do this time share thing which we weren’t at all into but we were going to get a $20 jeep rental out of the deal so we were pretty excited about that!  We came back to the resort after our talk and I did some snorkeling while Marcia lay on the beach and worked on her sunburn.  That night we hooked up with Danny and her boyfriend Raoul for dinner and later we watched the “traditional Mexican show” the hotel put on, which was actually pretty cool.  They had dancers from a bunch of different states in Mexico, all in traditional garb doing traditional dances.
Marcia and me on the glass bottom boat on our way to snorkel.
On Thursday we had our snorkeling tour in the morning, which was amazing.  Marcia had been thinking she might not even get in the water (because she has a completely unrealistic fear of fish!) but she actually DID get in and really enjoyed her time.  I LOVE snorkeling so of course I had a great time, although my ears hurt for the next two days due to the repeated re-pressurization (popping my ears when I dove down)!
The coolest thing we saw was a sea turtle- not sure if it was a (a hawksbill, I think, but it may also have been a green...?) but everything we saw was pretty amazing.  :o) 

To my intense disappointment my gopro didn’t work as well underwater as I had hoped.  When you view this video imagine everything looking amazing instead of BLAH.  :o(  We actually saw way cooler things on the tour than I saw at the hotel but it's difficult to tell because most of the time I was diving down 20 or 30 feet and the sunlight didn't penetrate well enough for my camera to capture video very accurately at that depth.  :o(

When we got back from our snorkeling tour we grabbed some quick lunch and the keys to our jeep and headed out to explore the east side of the island.  There were tons of little roadside stands selling all the same things we had seen in Playa- things which were fun to see the first couple times but after seeing 30 or 40 of the same shops selling the same things it gets a little old!  We DID stop at one of the first stands we saw, which had several hammocks strung out for people to lounge in. 
yay!  Hammocks by the beach.
Marcia bought a lemonade-type drink that was in a green coconut and the sweet guy behind the counter split a green coconut for me and I was able to have “spoon meat” for the first time since having left Kaua’i 7+ years ago.  Spoon meat is what people from Hawai’i call coconut meat that is very young.  The meat is only a few millimeters thick and so soft that you can scoop it out with a spoon, hence the name.  It’s a completely different experience than eating a mature coconut, and not for everyone (Marcia thought it taste like dirt… or was it “ass”...?  I can’t remember… not good, in any case!), but I love it.  The guy put some lime and some type of red spice on it, which I didn’t enjoy as much as just eating the spoon meat by itself but it was nice to try it a different way than I’d had it before. 
Gorgeous beach on the east side of Cozumel.
The eastern shore of Cozumel has mile upon mile of gorgeous beaches where you can spend hours working on your tan, lounging in the shade of a palapa or strolling along the beach checking out the tide pools. The best part? There's not much there besides the occasional roadside stand or restaurant, and not many people besides the handful of other adventurers who are sick of their all-inclusive resort so it's completely feasible to find a place all to yourself!

sketchy road
After passing about 30 more roadside stands we finally made our way to the ruins of San Gervasio, which we accessed by driving 6 km down a road surrounded by jungle that Marcia was pretty sure was hiding a bunch of Mexican drug-lords or at least human slave traffickers.  The ruins themselves were very cool but we were unable to fully appreciate them as we hadn’t thought to bring mosquito repellent and they found us whenever we stopped moving for more than about 1 second.  In fact, at one point I looked over at Marcia and she had a cloud of about 6 of them just hovering around her head just waiting for her to stop.  Sadly, it was probably one of the briefest visits the ruins have ever had but on the plus side we got a little bit of exercise running from site to site!

Mayan people, especially women desiring fertility, would journey to the island of Cozumel to make offerings and pray to the Moon Goddess Ix Chel.  This building is called the “Little hands structure” because there are red hand prints that mark the wall, leading some to believe that it may have been a nursery or day care.  It’s a large building and may have served both residential and ceremonial purposes as it’s comprised of two rooms, the interior of which contains a small temple.

Sunset from the esplanade in San Miguel.
We finished at the ruins and headed west toward San Miguel.  The timing was perfect so that we were able to catch a nice sunset as we came into San Miguel. We successfully navigated the streets and managed not to get into an accident with any other drivers or to run over any scooters and even found our way to the free parking area the guy who arranged our jeep rental had told us about.  
Plaza of San Miguel.
We walked around the touristy area near the ferry for several hours just checking out the different wares, most of which were exactly the same as everything we’d been seeing for the past several days.  However, there were several artists around the central plaza that had their unique crafts on display so that was a welcome relief. 
Marcia bought a bag of churros and, due to some language barriers, a bag of plantain chips which she gave away to the next street artist we stopped at.  The churros (or something?) made her feel not-so-great so we grabbed a seat at one of the restaurants by the plaza and watched some young people spin poi, staffs and other things they lit on fire.  One lady had a hula-hoop and was pretty amazing to watch.  Marcia got some chicken soup; of which she ate the broth only because there was an entire chicken drumstick in the soup (bone and all!) and she hates drumsticks so that didn’t really help her stomach feel better, although the broth apparently helped because by the time we got back to the hotel she was getting her second wind! 
We decided that the perfect way to wrap up our vacation was to lounge in the hot tub by the bar for a bit, which hadn’t sounded appealing at all before that due to the heat.  We called it a somewhat early night and packed our bags so we’d be ready to go in the morning.

Here’s a link to my review of the Allegro if anyone is interested!

The next morning we headed out pretty early, wanting to be sure to give ourselves plenty of time to get Marcia back to the airport.  Sadly, she made it on her flight so her adventures in Mexico were over but mine were just beginning!

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