February 24, 2017

Beyond Tulum

Frank sprung from bed about 5:30 so we did not miss the sun rise. I was slower to leave the comforts of the covers, but I do love a good sun rise over the sea so I wearily moved about and joined him on the patio. We sat in the darkness about 30 minutes and the sky didn't brighten one bit. Frank turned to Google, and it said the sun would wake about 6:30. We had terrible coffee, terrible empanadas and a decent blueberry muffin while we waited. We also met a friend, a red tabby. She wasn't the least bit interested in food, just our company. She stayed close by the rest of our stay. Seven o'clock had struck, and finally, there was a glimmer of light.

Funny thing about being in the central time zone with eastern standard time, it allows the sun a snooze button. Longest sun rise ever. Fortunately, it was worth the wait! Look at that amber glow.

We packed up our snorkel gear and headed out for a day of adventure. GPS predicted a 2.5 hour drive from Tulum to Mahahual, it seemed over-estimated, but it didn't lie. Even with Frank's heavy size 15 on the pedal. There are a few towns in between, but not much else.

The turn off for Mahahual is clearly marked from Highway 307, and the road condition is fantastic the entire way so other than the distance, it's an easy drive. A light house welcomes those who arrive to Mahahual by car or cruise ship.

A half mile or so in the distance you can spot the Costa Maya port. That's right, this sleepy town grows by leaps and bounds from the daily influx of cruise passengers. Day travelers and off the beaten path trekkers co-exist here. A portion of the Malecon is only open to foot traffic, many likely never see what's beyond it. That's the part that had us intrigued.

The Malecon opens to traffic a bit down the road, golf carts are the main mode of transport in the area. The beach is narrow, the water is clear and the reef is so close you feel like you can reach out and touch it. Hotels and dive shops line the west side of the road. Leaving the beach for lazy days under the cover of palm trees or palapas. I couldn't help but wonder if this was always the case or if it was a result of Hurricane Dean, which destroyed much of the village in 2007. It's been fully rebuilt since then, I suspect building on the west side off the road offers a great deal of protection compared to the vulnerability of beachfront.

Further down, it gets quieter as the paved road turns to dirt. It's layered with pot holes and only wide enough for one vehicle in spots. Frank received a recommendation for a beach club that was 10 KM past town. Unfortunately, the name escapes me. As soon as, we thought we had gone too far, we spotted it on the right. We parked and went inside, it looked lovely and the ocean breeze was delightful. However, it was closed. They were serving breakfast buffet for hotel guests. We must have been too early. He was also told about a public beach further up the road, so we sought after that. We never found what we were looking for, but we stopped along the way to check out beachfront properties. Those that weren't maintained by homeowner or business were completely littered in plastic and trash. It crushed my heart to see something so beautiful, destroyed by man. It would take an army to clean the beaches. I'm betting there isn't enough resources or it's simply too costly to remove all of the rubbish that washes up on shore. I should have been astonished by the beauty, but I was ashamed and angry.

We pressed on, I thought we'd make it Xcalak. A remote village practically on the border of Belize. We were so close, but the gas light illuminated. I was doubtful we'd find another Pemex other than the one we passed before approaching the Mahahual lighthouse. The sea remained shallow with reef right up to the shore so it wasn't quite what we were after. We turned back and had one last look at Mahahual. I suggested to Frank that we check out Bacalar, known for the Lake of Seven Colors since we had come all this way. He was on board, we set our sights in that direction after filling up with gas. With the conversion, it was about $40 US. Far more expensive, these days, since the government stopped subsidizing the prices.

An hour later, we were in Bacalar. It rests on the shores of the inland Laguna de Bacalar which is about 25 miles north of the border town, and capital city, Chetumal. The lake is fed by cenotes with a limestone bottom, it casts the most amazing shades of blue. You can easily get lost in its beautiful tranquil glow. We were starved when we arrived, so the first order of business was lunch. A quick search on tripadvisor turned up El Manati Bacalar as the most popular spot to grab a bite. We were two blocks away - Perfecto! A galleria and market take up much of the space, a few tables a scattered in the rear garden. The scent of fruit sweetens the air as it's grown all around you. I missed that it was mostly a breakfast spot, but we had no trouble finding items on the menu. Chilaquiles are always an easy sell with me and Frank settled on the BLT. My choice was a bit better than his. The coffee and juice were the real winners, though.

After lunch, we tried to find somewhere to view the lake. There really isn't any open spaces, various businesses sell tours, but some where too high pressure, while others were impossible to coordinate. We couldn't nail down a boat tour, and we didn't want to pay the premium for an all day pass. Just when we were about to give up, Frank found a spot on outskirts of town that had a family living on site. A young girl collected the 5 pesos to enter and offered a two hour boat tour. The tour was longer than I wanted, but we drove down to the water to see what the lake offered. Swings hung from the trees, and little nooks were available to whoever grabbed them first. We were the only tourists. There were many families that had been picnicking for the day. There was no sand to ease into the water, just gravel. Frank tore up his feet walking to the swing. We didn't stay long, just long enough for the photo opportunity and I went just far enough out to say I was in it. Of course, the sun hid behind the clouds leaving the lake deep blue in color, rather than the shades of turquoise I was desperate to capture.

Frank was still trying to find a good vantage point, but I threw in the towel and suggested we head back. He agreed, but made one last attempt by turning off the highway to follow the signs toward Buena Vista.

The view improved, but it wasn't quite what I had hoped. Then, Frank found another way to the water. And finally, we came upon a rundown park, maybe abandoned? There was a rickety dock, broken slides and seaside cabanas. I'm sure during it's prime this was a happening spot. I found it a little eerie, but the view was indeed good.

We made it back to Tulum in good time, we were able to catch the sunset. We didn't get to snorkel and we didn't find our beach, but we did have an adventure. Cheers to that!

We cozied up to watch the pastel skies and snacked on guacamole while we panned restaurant reviews searching for a place in Tulum to try for dinner.

Frank chose the Kitchen Table. Deviled avocados swayed him! The restaurant is located in the jungle near the ruins so we thought it best to cover ourselves in bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes. It was a wise choice. I felt them flutter around my ankles while seated. Don't let that dissuade you, the restaurant is something special. It's completely integrated into the jungle surrounding with minimal ecological impact. They operate on solar, hence, the low lighting. Ingredients are fresh and local. They also specialize in craft cocktails, and they maintain a pretty good spirit list. I enjoy cocktails using mezcal and this one didn't disappoint. Frank opted for the mezcal straight. The Deviled Avocado made the trip worthwhile, it was delicious. We followed it with entrees of Octopus and Tuna. Solid meal, all around.

The Kitchen Table reminded me of what I love about Tulum. It packed a big city punch, but it was rustic and simplistic. Tulum might be the Yucatan's smallest big city. It's grown over time, but it has maintained it's charm. It's not Starbucks, malls and highrise condos. Like Playa del Carmen has become. It keeps a slower pace and it's stayed rooted in Mayan and Mexican culture. It's a real gem.

I was a little sad to leave in the morning, but I knew Xpu-ha awaits!

Adios, Tulum! It's been fun.

February 21, 2017

Arriving in Tulum

There is only one acceptable reason to wake hours before the sun rises, and that is to travel. Otherwise, let me sleep as long as the sun. Our scheduled Uber arrived timely at 4 AM. We flew Southwest to Los Angeles. It was a full, but fast flight. A little bumpy too, so no drinks or snacks. We grabbed breakfast at Rock & Brews inside LAX. $45 later, we filled the hole with microwaved eggs. Yep, that's right. Served right in the microwavable dishes. No glassware or silverware either, all plastic.

Southwest's route to Cancun is pretty new, not only did we secure a great fare; only 53 were booked on our flight. We were able to stretch out, the extra room was much appreciated. LA was drenched and the rain didn't let up for our departure so we were stuck on the runway about an hour waiting in the longest queue I've ever seen. The flight improved once we were airborn.

Construction seems to be complete in Cancun. The airport is quite modern now. We were among the first off the plane, and our bags were already on the carousel when we made it to baggage claim so it was very quick to pass through customs. There was only one couple ahead of us and they got the red light, I was pretty confident ours would be green - and it was.

Past trips we've rented from Thrifty. I had difficulty making a reservation twice, so I gave up and opted for an automatic compact thru Alamo. We've always gotten manual so I thought I'd splurge since it was only $6 per day (+$18 for TPL). The shuttle took us right over, it didn't seem too busy so I figured we'd be on our way in no time. Boy, was I wrong. They prepped a vehicle, but at the last minute they changed it out for another that was "grande" and had a full tank. An hour later, we were greeted with our ride. It was not at all large. It was an automatic and it had power windows - so it was the most luxurious rental we've had to date, but the doors still did not lock.

My original plan was to stop in Playa del Carmen for a bite and groceries, but we lost so much time with the delays and to worsen matters I had completely forgotten that Quinta Roo no longer observes daylight savings and switched to EST two years ago. Our Airbnb's location was just north of the Tulum Ruins near the Tankah Beach Resort. We thought it was best to drive straight thru and not waste anymore time. Road conditions improve with every visit - now, there are far less topes, but an extra traffic light or two. We made good time and checked in about 8 o'clock. I picked up the key at the beach club, but it was up to Frank and I to locate the building & our unit. It was pretty dark so it was a relief that it was well marked. We were pleased with the accommodations and we were stoked for morning to see the beach and the glorious Caribbean sea. We were starved and we worried that restaurants would be closing soon so we headed out straight away. We had no destination in mind, we parked on Av. Coba and walked until we found a place that grabbed us.

Malevo lured us in, the scent from the grill was intoxicating. But first, we were in need of a cerveza stat. Two Montejo's were downed in record time. They were cold and we were THIRSTY. Their housemade bread was yummy and the appetizer sampler followed. Which had three selections, the empanadas were our favorite. We shared the entree, which was pork shoulder, yucca fries and onion jam. It was fantastic! We were pleased to stumble on such a wonderful spot.

After dinner, we stopped at the market (Super San Francisco de Asis), but we were chased out because it closed at 10 PM. The third convenience store we tried, finally, allowed us to buy beer. We enjoyed Barrilitos under the stars while we waited for morning. Then, slept wonderfully, the king bed was cozy and the A/C kept the room perfectly chilled.

Morning came, the view was indeed beautiful, but the beach was a bit rough with rocks, shells and debris. Not ideal for bare feet. It was windy and the waves were unrelenting so we knew we wouldn't be logging much time in the water. So we didn't mind that a trip back to the grocery store would occur sooner than we intended because we quickly realized I failed to pack toothpaste. It's always something, isn't it? This time we went to the Chedraui. We were able to get all we needed, including a sharp chef's knife and omelet pan. We went a bit overboard spending almost $90 US. Cheese and meat to throw together a charcuterie platter was far pricier than we anticipated. All was well, we had quite the haul.

Frank was going to whip up one of his amazing breakfasts, but the hot plate didn't seem to work. No matter what we tried, it wouldn't warm. We opted for yogurt, with granola and honey instead. It was mighty tasty. With full bellies, we situated ourselves outside to do absolutely nothing - it was wonderful. I decided to shoot the airbnb host a message about the hot plate and he quickly responded that the pan we were using might have been too small to trigger the heating element. Later, for lunch, we gave it another go. Sure enough, the omelet pan was too small. We improvised a bit to make it work, but eventually gouda and ham omelets with a side of bacon were had.

We noticed there was a pool so Frank took a dip, it was clean and refreshing. You could still hear the waves crash poolside too. Then, not far off the pool was a cenote. Most of it was exposed to the sunlight so algae was rampant, not good for snorkeling. We lounged under the palapa enjoying the sea breeze until the sunset.

We showered and dressed for dinner. We planned to drive to Playa del Carmen for Chicago style pizza at Don Chendo. There is a long dirt road from the sea to the highway, about midway, Frank slammed on the brakes. I didn't see what stopped him in his tracks, he reversed the car hopeful that he did no harm. "An iguana?" I questioned. "No, it's a coconut!," I screeched, answering my own question. Before Frank could speak, I'd eat my words as it shimmied ever so slowly. I leaped out of the car for a closer look, "A hermit crab!" Who would've guessed?! Good thing, Frank's eyesight is better than mine.

They were fully booked when we arrived, so we decided to walk over to El Fogon for a taco appetizer while we waited. The tacos al pastor were amazing as was the margaritas. By the time we returned to Don Chendo there was plenty of seating. The pizza was just as delicious as we remembered it. It's the real deal.

That night, Frank suggested we spend the next day in Xpu-ha or head south for an adventure. We were intrigued by what what lies south of Tulum. We've only gone as far as Kanlum Lagoon right outside there. Mahahual had piqued our interest which is 2.5 hours beyond Tulum. I opted for adventure. It was time to find a new beach!

February 16, 2017

Seventh Heaven

A year after we wed, we honeymooned in Playa del Carmen, MX. Many newlyweds chose all inclusive resorts, but I knew that wasn't our style. Instead, I booked our stay at Playa Maya, a small hotel, directly on the beach. "Beach access! How quaint?," I cheered. The first couple nights I booked a jacuzzi suite, then the rest of the trip was a room on the top floor so we could be perched above it all. It seemed so perfect.

Twelve years ago, Cancun airport was pretty basic. Highway 307 was paved but otherwise fairly primitive and loaded with topes. We suffered a bit of culture shock when we first arrived. Driving... the whole deal was a bit overwhelming. It was our first time out of the US. Well, that's not true, we had been to Windsor, Canada. But this was a totally different experience. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more. I remember Frank being pretty miserable and I had my doubts.

The first morning we were eager to see the beach, we walked the shore. We didn't find the tranquil waters we imagined. It was littered with people, fishing boats and not at all relaxing. To make matters worse, I was naive, and did not apply sunblock. Big mistake. Huge. I was toast on the first day. Blisters and all. I couldn't move without wanting to cry. A complete waste of that jacuzzi suite.

The following morning, I booked us an ATV/Snorkeling excursion. I was in so much pain, I wanted to cancel. But I overcame it, we went and had a blast on the ATVs. Hot & sweaty, we walked down to the cenote as a group. I stepped on a rock that gave way; I twisted my ankle and earned myself a pretty large gash while doing so. I bled steadily. A kind amigo, cleaned me up, gave me a bandage and teased me about watching out for sharks in the sea.

It was our second full day and I was a complete mess. I was red as lobster, blistered like bubble wrap, bandaged like a mummy; All the while, my ankle doubled, and later tripled in size. I should have taken it easy. Especially, in hindsight, but no, we pressed on and did everything on our checklist. We wandered all over the Tulum ruins, explored cenotes and splashed in the sea. I was convinced we'd never return. I had to see it all.

We did catch a break when we abandoned Playa del Carmen and headed south to find somewhere peaceful. We stumbled on Xpu-ha, the powdery white sandy beach and aquamarine waters were irresistible. It was heaven on earth. Most days, it was only Frank and I on the beach and it was there we discovered, Al Cielo. It began as only a restaurant, but had recently started renting out its four rooms to lucky travelers.

There in Xpu-ha, I felt no pain. I was mesmerized by the beauty. We bounced in the sea like kids on summer break. We squealed and bolted when a sea turtle came riding in on a wave. It was simply the best.

We finished out our stay at Playa Maya, it was a nice enough place. It just wasn't well suited to us. Trudging through the sand with my busted ankle was torture. I cursed, "Beach access!" The third floor walk up was a really bad idea. It just was not meant to be.

Two years passed, I swear it nearly took that long for my ankle to heal - I had really done a number on it. We returned to Xpu-ha, we stayed at Al Cielo. It was wonderful. It was everything I hoped it could be. That is, until, Montezuma's revenge had a stranglehold on me. I was so sick. I had taken a beating in Mexico, but we continued to return. Al Cielo was too special not to. We watched it grow over the years, sadly, it was ultimately sold to Escencia, the luxury resort next door. They painted it, made a few changes and started charging double.

We thought we'd sworn it off, but Xpu-ha's siren song would lure us back. Our initial plan was to visit Thailand this month, but a poker event changed locations and Frank could no longer take the time off. It left us with only a week to take vacation if we squeezed it in immediately after Superbowl. This has been an ideal time for travel in the Riveria Maya - Plenty of sun, warm temps, cool sea breezes. Southwest Airlines offered a good fare to sweeten the deal. We still couldn't pull the trigger on Al Cielo, but I found an Airbnb on the same beach, and another in Tulum. We thought we'd shake it up and try something new. And just like that, we booked our seventh trip to the Yucatan.

February 8, 2017


Everyone should believe in something. I believe I should be on the beach sipping on a margarita. That's where you'll find me as you're reading this. That's right, we left the states for fun in the sun in Mexico. Specifically, the Riviera Maya. So... in the meantime, I'll share about our visit to San Diego. We've made countless trips by car, but the drive takes longer and longer each time. When Spirit ran $70 RT fares it was a good excuse to try flying. Frank flies each year for his annual trip to Del Mar. It's always worked well for him. It seemed promising. As an added bonus, Spirit joined TSA PreCheck just in time for our trip. Their enrollment was flawless, which was appreciated since we had such a problem using our KTN on Frontier.

We flew out on the first morning flight and touched down in San Diego by 9:30 AM. It was the shortest flight I've ever been on, 44 minutes. The San Diego airport was smaller than I expected and very easy to navigate, I believe it was the fastest I've ever made it from gate to exit as well. It was only 30 degrees & dreary when we left home; we were at the tail end of a week long cold spell, the wintry weather had taken its toll so it felt like sweet relief to feel the warm sun once we stepped outside. It was tempting to sit and soak up the sun right there at the airport, but we had other plans. Important plans! Breakfast at Con Pane Bakery. We hailed a Lyft over to Liberty Station. We were noshing on sandwiches and a cinnamon roll in no time. The Italian on rosemary olive oil remains my favorite sandwich in all the land. The cinnamon roll was mighty delicious too, per usual. However, Frank also had them toss in a Gouda and Herb Scone. Good lord, it was the perfect savory treat. So moist, flaky and cheesy... just wonderful.

We walked over to Von's for odds and ends, and Starbucks. We sat in the courtyard because it was too lovely not to. Yes, there is a courtyard in the middle of Von's. I don't think I'd mind grocery shopping quite as much if ours were like this. Anyhow, with our errand out of the way, we Ubered to our hotel in hopes of checking in. I snagged a great deal at the Omni on Hotwire. The deal was made even sweeter when our request to check in early was granted, and they even upgraded us to premier view on the 17th floor overlooking the bay. Stunning, truly.

As tempting as it was to climb in bed and never leave, we couldn't resist the sunshine. We wandered the waterfront from the Convention Center to Seaport Village.

We grew thirsty so we stopped for cocktails. A margarita on the rocks for me, and a beer for him. Neither were particularly good, but the view was lovely. All the walking must have worked up a hunger, because we found ourselves in an Uber headed to El Indio. A fish taco and taquitos were the perfect snack. We strolled the neighborhood a bit before taking the trolley back to the hotel. Before heading up to the room we stopped at a nearby liquor store so we could have cocktails in our room while viewing the sunset. It did not disappoint.

After an early evening siesta, we sought out dinner options. We knew we wanted to try something new. We decided on Phil's BBQ because I've had it bookmarked on Yelp for years, it has 4.5 stars and over 10,000 reviews. Our Uber driving confirmed it was tasty, but admitted he preferred a place called Grand Ole BBQ Y Asado. We bookmarked it for a future visit. Walking into Phil's I was a little underwhelmed because there was no scent of smoked meat in the air. It's just one of those things I've come to expect. I reserved my judgement and was excited to try the ribs, link and onion rings folks have raved about for ages. We were given a buzzer and we anxiously awaited our order.

The ribs were very tender, grilled with a dry rub and sauce was served on the side per our request. Which was wise, it was a bit too tangy and tomato-based for my liking. They were good, but definitely not Texas good. Where's the smoke ring? I've come to realize I'm officially a barbecue snob. After dinner, we walked over to Target in hopes of finding Chargers gear on clearance, but no such luck. We caught a ride back to the Gaslamp and the nightlife was in full swing. We weren't feeling it. Instead, we opted for the best bar in the city. Which just so happened to be right in our room. Seating for two, amazing view, we choose the music and no wait for the restroom. We did not regret our decision.

We slept wonderfully with the window open. Don't ever underestimate the power of fresh air! I can't be the only one that hates being cooped up with recycled air in the winter and summer months, can I? Frank was up before me, he went to the gym to get a work out in. I showered, and managed to flood the bathroom floor while doing so. The only flaw with the room was the shower curtain was too small for the curved shower rod. Thankfully, they had us well stocked with absorbent towels.

On the way out for breakfast we stopped to see if late check out was possible. The hotel was fully booked due to the convention, but they did extend check out to 2pm. We were grateful. We grabbed a bite at Werewolf. Frank had to try the Pork Belly Benedict. They also had Chilaquiles on the menu so I was easily sold. Curiosity got the better of us and we added on an order of breakfast balls. We started with the balls which were mashed potatoes and bacon fried balls drizzled with gravy. They were pretty darn tasty. Our entrees were too. The pork belly was perfectly rendered and quite possible the most beautiful poached eggs were nestled on top. At bottom of each stack was a potato pancake to sop up the rich & silky goodness. The chilaquiles roja's flavors were well balanced, not too acidic or spicy. I only wished there was more tortillas to soak up the sauce. Overall, we were quite pleased, it was a nice find.

Next, we caught a Uber over to Coronado Island. It seemed like an ideal place to enjoy the perfect weather, sunny skies and 75 degrees! We wandered around the island and Frank introduced me to the Bloody Mary served at Hotel Coronado. Surprisingly, I've never tried one before. I honestly didn't think I'd like it, but I did. He asked for it extra spicy. It's funny, though, it reminded me more of soup than a cocktail. A gazpacho, if you will. I now understand why many are served with antipasto, sliders or a meatnormous amount of bacon. People watching was superb from the patio. People came from everywhere and anywhere.

Back at the hotel, we rested a bit and then, packed up our belongings and left our bags at the bell desk. We caught a ride to Liberty Station. We had a late lunch at Con Pane Bakery. Unfortunately, they were out of the rosemary olive oil bread. It's still better than most on sourdough, but it just wasn't the same. Luckily, we did snag a cinnamon roll, because someone failed to show for a pick up order. You win some, you lose some. We walked around the park and along the water until the sun began to set. Our last stop was the Cuban Cigar Factory. We often visit when in town, Frank enjoyed a stick (or two) and much to my delight they had Pliny the Elder in the cooler. Which we typically only find in San Francisco. It's a good way to pass the time!

The time had come to gather our bags and return to the airport. We were met with a large group of protesters, but it didn't slow us down. Security was quick and easy, and we arrived at our gate with ease. The flight home was timely. I must say flying is pretty darn convenient. It's not a fit for every trip, but we'll definitely take advantage of cheap fares in the future.