21 January 2013

Vacation on the Mayan Riviera

In our two weeks in Mexico over winter vacation we learned practically nothing new about the country, its culture, or its people. After many years of turning up our noses at Americans who went to Mexican resorts just to have a good time, we became those Americans! Well, not quite. We'll never stay at big, ugly expensive hotel resorts. So, even though we were in that part of Mexico called the Mayan Riviera which seems to exist to provide a vacation destination for Americans and Canadians, we explored the area a fair amount and made friends with a lot of locals.
We had a really pleasant time here. The warm Caribbean Sea and white sandy beaches saturated our senses day and night. In our second week we stayed in a nature sanctuary called Sian Ka'an. We expected to see lots of wildlife - monkeys, cats, etc. - but, it turned out there were no trails we could take into the jungle.

Casa Redonda

We had a house on a fantastic beach and about a 100 meters to the west of us was a gorgeous lagoon, home to crocodiles. What a treat to have the beach right at our doorstep! The views of the sea from from all over the house were sensational.   We were surrounded by nature - birdsong, the  wind swaying the trees, the sounds of waves ...

Casa Redonda had a very interesting architectural design. The ceilings resembled those of thatched palapas. Impressive round wooden beams were supported the sloped ceilings. There were lots of windows to take advantage of the views and also to provide light.

We were however, disappointed with the very poorly equipped kitchen. We were a long way away from restaurants and needed to prepare our meals. There were no cutting knives, no can openers, no coffee maker. There were two cooking pans - one too small and the other too big. After the fantastic kitchen we had the first week, this came as a shock.

At night we could see billions of stars and identified many constellations. A full moon rose from the sea just after sunset on our first day and that was just so beautiful.

How did we spend our days? Beach walks, reading, writing, preparing meals, getting skilled at making margaritas, and taking the occasional drive into town. Oh, and of course, visiting Maya ruins!!

Not far from us was a restaurant and the office of CESIAK - the ecological organization operating out of this biosphere. All the buildings on the property are powered by wind and solar energy. There are windmills and solar panels at various locations.

This photo was taken from a boat when we went on a boat tour across the lagoon. It was sunset as we approached the boat landing.

mangrove swamps
Sian Ka'an is part jungle, part mangrove swamp, and part savannah. The boat took us across the lagoon and then we hiked along a boardwalk built over a mangrove swamp.

 The highlight of the boat tour was floating down the river for 5 km. We used the life-vest as a float and just glided down with the current. The cool water, fresh air, and beautiful scenery made this a pretty sensational experience.

We had a daily ritual - to get up right before sunrise and walk on the beach - barefoot on the soft, white sand. That time of day, when the earth lights up and the sun begins to make its appearance is just pure magic.

We always went into the water - so warm, so delicious - and got splashed by the waves. By the time we got back to the house we were dry again.

Fruit and Vegetable Stand

 The fruit and vegetable stands in the neighborhoods were pretty decently stocked. So we were in the tropics and had high expectations when it came to produce. After all, in the US it is so hard to find fruit and vegetables that do not come from Mexico! We found lots of mangoes, bananas, papayas, and bananas. The vegetables were limited, though. Apart from poblano chilis and some squashes, we had trouble finding anything exciting. Still, it was a lot of fun shopping where the locals - mostly of Maya descent - shopped.

This is a cenote. These deep pools found in caves are common in this part of Mexico. You can get on a zipline and dive into the pool for a thrill. We found this one in Vallodolid on the way back from the famous Chichin Itza.

Okay, so we did learn a little bit about the people indigenous to that area (Quintana Roo and the Yucatan), namely the Maya. We spent Christmas Day at the most famous Maya site - Chichin Itza. Mainly we learned that the Maya built enormous stone pyramids and were amazing astronomers, keeping accurate calendars. We also learned that when they met the Toltecs they adopted the practice of human sacrifices. Much evidence of this has been found at this site.

Chichin Itza was a thriving village when the conquistadors arrived in the New World. Then at some point the Maya just abandoned the place. In addition to the big pyramid there were other important structures, like this temple.

Details on a wall

There are 96 steps leading to the top from each side, giving a total of 364. With the top platform you get a total of 365. See what I mean by "amazing astronomers"?
El Castillo

After dinner one evening Daryl and I were lying on the hammock out on the terrace enjoying the balmy evening. Suddenly we detected movement on the wall and spotted this scorpion. We didn't know what to do so we just ignored it and went inside.

The next day the scorpion wasn't on the wall and we couldn't see it anywhere. Then at dusk we noticed it (or its sibling) inside the house! We panicked. Daryl mumbled something about a nest of scorpions. Where was that nest? Sri and Daryl used a plastic cup and plate to carefully move the scorpion out of the house and into the bushes. No more scorpions appeared after that!

We spent a rather fun afternoon in the town of Playa del Carmen. It's a reasonably small place, but very much a tourist town. The beaches here are as cute as the ones you see in holiday brochures. The town is vibrant and has lots and lots of fantastic restaurants. If we ever return to this area I think I'd like to be based in this delightful town.

The first thing I did as soon as we arrived in Playa del Carmen was to test the waters. Magnifique!!

 We had lunch at a very popular garden restaurant called La Cueva del Chango. With the tropical vegetation and iguanas you really feel you are in an exotic place. The food was every bit as satisfying as advertised. Sri loved the molé sauce over nopales enchiladas and I killed an excellent tomato based aztec soup. I liked the chunks of avocado thrown in.

This photo captures very well how I spent much of my days in Sian Ka'an. Despite the balmy temperatures and the sound of the sea Zadie Smith whisked me off to North London with some incredibly interesting characters. Her latest book, NW, is every bit as satisfying as we have come to expect from such an intelligent writer.
Daryl read Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, which he particularly enjoyed having recently spent three months in Paris.

When we got tired of looking at the sea we strolled over to the lagoon. So serene, so beautiful, and what amazing sunsets. We hoped to see a crocodile make an appearance, but that didn't happen.

Can you see the trash on the beach? On our beach walks when we saw the beaches covered in litter we were mystified. We assumed it came from the locals and maybe even washed up from the surrounding resort towns. On our boat tour through the reserve our guide informed us that in fact the trash came from other countries!! Two factors - the reef and the ocean current - lead to trash from the west coast of Africa and from the coast of Europe being carried all the way to these shores. There are international efforts being made to clean up the beaches here.
Interestingly, every morning workers employed by hotels and resorts clean up the trash and seaweed on their beaches.

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere is close to the town of Tulum, famous for its Mayan ruins. The most remarkable feature of these ruins is the location - right above the sea. Just below is the best beach beach in the area. The turquoise water was just pure magic.

Tulum town - a few miles away from the sea - is also quite interesting and lively. It has very much of a local, Mexican ambience. A great assortment of restaurants and other shops liven up the main road.
The tourists stay in hotels that line the coast just south of the ruins. This part of the Maya Riviera used to have more of a hippie vibe in the past. But the area is rapidly becoming a bit like Cancun ...

Why do iguanas fascinate us? They are as common in the Tulum area as garden lizards back home.

We were sad to leave Sian Ka'an when the week was over. It really is a very special place. The infrastructure for visitors to explore the area is lacking - but, perhaps that's what makes the area all the more charming. Some day there'll be loads of tour campanies taking people to the reef on kayaks, and snorkeling tours, and four wheel drives through the jungle, etc. We were lucky to experience it before an inevitable change.