Monday, May 25, 2009

Final cruise?

By TravelGirl --

Imagine this – You’ve just graduated from high school after what seems like an eternity. All of those hours spent in math class, at school dances, at football games, studying for mid-terms and finals have finally come to an end and you get to celebrate with 35 of your classmates! Your parents got together and sent you on a week-long cruise out of New Orleans to Key West and the Bahamas as your big bang into adulthood. How cool would that be?

Then, imagine your second night at sea. You and your friends are scarfing down at the buffet, dancing and partying, and just having a grand ol’ time when you find out your classmate is missing and has reportedly fallen overboard. What a horrifying feeling for you, your friend, and for his family!

Well, that happened last night – again. It seems like we hear about a handful of people falling overboard from cruise ships every year. What’s really perplexing is that it is actually difficult to fall over the railings. If you are standing on the railing, yes you could fall over. If you are sitting on the side of the railing, yes you could fall over. If you leap over the side and dangle, yes you could fall over. Those are all deliberate actions one must take or be forced into taking. It just makes me wonder if foul play is involved in many of the overboard stories we hear about since no one would intentionally do those things. Would they?

It’s so sad to hear about news like this, and especially when it’s a young person whose best years are yet to come. Positive thoughts and wishes go to the family and friends of 18-year-old Bruce O'Krepki in hopes he will be found safe and unharmed.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In a rut? Travel.

By TravelGirl --

It’s been a week since we’ve blogged from Playa del Carmen. You’d think our fingers were broken from typing, but the truth is that life has just been very busy. I flew to Phoenix for a couple of days while TravelGuy stayed in Seattle and caught up on some client travel planning and booking.

Life is good, despite the return to rain in Seattle. We actually hit the mid-70s for several of the past days, which is typical of late June weather here, but we welcome that in mid-May. Why is it that some people (me included) respond so heavily to the changing weather patterns? I feel it in my knees and my mood. While generally a positive person, something about the gray skies seem to make my surroundings dirty and create a feeling of uneasiness. Maybe it’s because I know my doggies will end up with muddy feet after spending 10 minutes in the yard? Perhaps it’s because my arthritis is screaming at me? Whatever it is, I’m a statistic of a PNWerner who lacks Vitamin D about 10 months out of the year. With a bit of luck and perseverance, that will change. Enjoy May, and what it has to offer, and most of all…get yourself out into the huge world. There is so much to do and see. Get out of any rut you might be in. Travel.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

One last night of shrimp tacos, for now anyway.

By TravelGirl --

Here we are, spending our last few hours in Playa looking out at the beautiful Caribbean, enjoying the swaying of the palm trees, updating a blog with a laptop. Somehow this seems out of place, though a Muzak version of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas is more out of place than I.

We spent last night in the main drag of Playa, yearning for more shrimp tacos. Our pre-planning had pointed us to El Fogon, which was to have some of the most authentic food in town though about a 6-8 walk block away from the action. The bounces in our steps enabled us to make it through a shack-filled neighborhood to 30th and 6th Calle last night, where we were welcomed by Miguel. It was still about 85 degrees last night at 7 p.m. and something about the heat takes away an appetite. After looking at the menu, we opted for simple drinks, chips and guacamole. Alex drank a Dirty Banana while I sipped an Apple Daiquiri Рgood stuff to wash down the complementary saut̩ed cactus, radishes and cucumbers. Ah, Mexico!

Strong drinks El Fogon does make! We slumbered our way back to the main drag in Playa where the nightlife was barely starting to get underway. Still yearning for shrimp tacos, we headed to El Oasis, another little joint known for its seafood and service, where I indulged on my sought-after shrimp taco (only 20 pesos!) while Alex enjoyed chicken fajitas. The people-watching from this locale was great as it was right off of 5th Avenue, on a side street where many people enter the main downtown area of Playa. We were lucky to have two cute Europeans seated next to us. I wanted to hug them both, but instead…I snuck a pic of them while pretending to photograph Alex. Yeah, I can be sneaky that way.

Finally, we decided to hit the beach and the old favorite – The Blue Parrot. Seated in the sand on the beach at The Blue Parrot, we sipped on a Banana Daiquiri and a Blue Parrot (mixture of blue curacao, vodka, and some other tropical flavor). With a full moon (no, I’m not talking about Alex getting all wild and crazy), sounds of ‘80s music thumped in the night sky as we watched late-night fishermen pulling in their nets against the backdrop of the strobe-like light that was flashing to the beat of “Hungry Like the Wolf”. Seconds later, a child of maybe 9 or 10 asked us for money. The odd part of his request was that he wasn’t selling anything. He simply wanted money. All we had on us was cab fare, and we couldn’t give that to him or we’d be walking 5 miles in the heat. After all, this was a budget vacation so we needed every last peso we had just to get back to our room!

As the clock nearly struck 10 p.m. we decided these two bodies needed to hit the sack, so we headed back for a nightcap of leftover Mexican eggnog, watched the ending of Finding Nemo, and drifted to sleep to the sounds of the seas.

Alaska Airlines canceled our direct flight to Seattle (back in Jan/Feb when all airlines were eliminating itineraries) so we’re flying to LAX this afternoon where we’ll spend the night before flying to Seattle tomorrow morning. Alaska is paying for our hotel since they canceled our original itinerary, and I can only hope it’s within walking distance to shrimp tacos.

While this week in Playa del Carmen is coming to an end, we have reinforced how much we prefer the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen to the craziness of Cancun or the Pacific side of Mexico. While ANY side of Mexico is a TREAT, as long as a beach can be appreciated, we know we’ll be back here within the next two years to do it all over again. Now if we could only maintain our tans that long. Ahhhhh…

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Xcaret – Crowds + Corona = The Best Time

By TravelGirl --

Ah, 89 degrees at Xcaret today. It felt like we had the park to ourselves. As each day goes by, we are more and more thankful that we decided to continue with this trip rather than reschedule due to the U.S. Travel Advisory. The park fully re-opened yesterday as Mexico’s government allowed government offices and establishments (holding 80 people or more) to re-open to the public. Still, it was evident tourists are not flocking back to Mexico quite yet…which makes more availability everywhere for us!

If you’ve never been to an eco-park in the Yucatan, imagine part beach, part jungle, part zoo. If you’ve been to Xel-Ha, just imagine a larger version of the park with animals in their habitats EVERYWHERE.

After entering the park, we strolled along several of the walkways to view howler monkeys, spider monkeys, a pig-like swine thingy, iguanas, parrots, manta rays, pumas, bats, flamingos, manatees, a shark, dolphins, turtles, ducks, and a kitty cat…yes, a sweet and loving kitty who obviously had made a home at the park. The cool thing is that the animals were not kept in cages. Instead, they lived in habitats that were separated by lagoons. The lagoons were a simple way to keep the animals from drifting over to the people population, though dumb tourists could easily have hopped into the lagoons to get into the animal areas. Oh how refreshing it is to be in an eco-park void of railings and walls to keep people from falling into water tanks or in with the animals. It just makes for a more natural environment.

Xcaret is built around a series of underwater rivers, and we took advantage of our extra buoyancy this week (yes, we have really enjoyed the cocktails and tacos the last few days) by floating down the 1/3 mile river, partially in the sun, partially underground in the caves. While we have been accustomed to 80 degree Caribbean water, the cave water temperature was a refreshing 75…still nothing to snivel about. It was a refreshing and relaxing boost to the day. Following the river float, we found some beachfront palapas and, you guessed it, we plopped ourselves down for the next 4 hours – Alex in the shade, me in the sun – with an occasional dip in the water to simultaneously view the dolphin show about 100 feet away. Upon our exit from the park, I spotted a pyramid of Coronas. Having consumed mostly Dos Equis the past few days meant I was yearning for the pure taste of that freshly cut lime wedged into the top of a Corona. Quench my thirst it did.

The day’s activities ended with a stroll along the beach, each of us sipping some Mexican egg nog. Wow, that stuff is good! Not sure why it’s considered “Mexican” but the basic ingredients are eggs, milk, macadamia nuts, cane sugar, alcohol, and something else we can’t translate. Ha! The flavor is sort of a sweet caramel, milk nog of some sort, but all I can say is that it’s the perfect nightcap for a sunset stroll and an end to another blissful day in the Riviera Maya.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mamita’s Beach Club

Wednesday arrived and we decided to get out of our room at the bright and early time of 9:50am. The resort’s complimentary shuttle dropped us off right in the middle of Playa del Carmen. This time we hung out at Mamita’s Beach Club. Great location, great service, and a great beach. For 90 pesos we were able to secure two chaise lounge chairs and a palapa, because the TravelGuy needs his shade. The menu was the most “American” we’ve seen during our trip, featuring: Hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, and spaghetti. They also had fajitas and quesadillas, but no tacos! All in all, Mamita’s is a great beach club with a regular pool and a kiddie pool in the back, a DJ (but not loud and obnoxious), and a section of actual beds on the beach for 200 pesos each. We would definitely spend a day there again.

Supposedly the temperature today hit 95 degrees, though the beaches have been quite breezy so we haven’t really felt it. That being said, we are looking a tad redder than we’d like, so we’ll need to stock up on more sunscreen before venturing out tomorrow to Xcaret to relax even more.

Until tomorrow…

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chips, salsa, guacamole…and a mask.

By TravelGirl --

Ah, 90 degrees, white sand, turquoise water, blue skies, fresh tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole. That’s the Mexican Caribbean I know, and where we’ve been for four days now. To have a little bit of fun, we decided to snap a photo of me wearing a mask while on the beach (think Speidi in Mexico a few days ago as they strolled romantically along the beach...except they were SERIOUS about wearing masks. Hahahaha!). The minute we started to put them on, people around us started laughing. Of course, we told them we were just going to wear the masks for photos, but conversation ensued about the paranoia that has been created surrounding the H1N1 flu and how everyone agreed that this week is the BEST time to travel to Mexico.

Lazy, lazy, lazy days. Isn’t that what we all want and deserve every now and then? Today was another lazy day – Cinco de Drinko in the U.S. or just May 5, 2009 in Playa del Carmen. What seems phenomenal is that we moseyed our way down to the beach around 10:45 a.m. and had our pick of palapas and lounge chairs. No need to slither to the beach at 7 a.m. to save spots since there are empty spots everywhere! We plopped our towels and books down, and beached ourselves for the next 7 hours only taking breaks to visit the pool’s swim-up bar, body surf in the 80 degree Caribbean water, partake in a Taco Fiesta, or cool down with “Vacation Tang” (a concoction of rum and mixer for anyone who wants to save a few bucks each day).

Other than the fact that the day must come to an end…does it get any better?

Monday, May 4, 2009

A single tall soy latte…with a mask!

By TravelGirl --

It’s about time! We finally encountered our first interaction with non-medical or non-government workers wearing masks! Wouldn’t ya know it…it was at American-owned Starbucks. Visualize this…we’re wandering along 5th avenue in downtown Playa del Carmen, zig zagging from side street to side street, eyeing the mouth-watering fresh mangos, cucumbers, and other fruits from the little Mexican ladies at the fruit carts, when we see a Starbucks a few storefronts ahead. First, it’s a bit surprising to see a chain in the quaint, village-like Playa del Carmen (especially compared to Cancun), however since Starbucks seems to be everywhere, it really wasn’t a shock. As we strolled past, we saw a gal wiping down the tables outside the store wearing a mask. We looked in as we walked by and saw that ALL of the employees were wearing masks. We couldn’t pass by the opportunity to pop inside to have a word. According to the young man behind the register, they were required by Starbucks to wear masks (see photo; you can’t really tell, but he IS SMILING behind that mask). American paranoia at work in Mexico. They stood out like a broken pinky toe.

We’ve had the chance to speak to Mexican nationals who regard the entire H1N1 flu scare as a “planned” attack by the World Health Organization to create paranoia around the world in order to test new flu strain remedies. After only having been here for three days, we are reinforcing our belief that this whole flu scare is just a bunch of hype. Many more people have died from the “regular flu” than from this new strain. Ok, enough of that for today, and back to the adventure on the beach.

Most of today was spent in lounge chairs on the beach, next to Bad Boys Beach Club. We got a bit of a late start today, so by the time we got into downtown PDC it was already 2 p.m. However, it’s never too late to order Coronas with shrimp tacos and shrimp quesadillas. Have I mentioned that I’ve been eating shrimp tacos almost on a daily basis here? I can officially say that I’m addicted, and I will fully admit that I am a shrimp-eating vegetarian when I travel. It’s the one living thing I’ll eat, but I’m also not convinced shrimp even has a neo cortex (so I don’t feel bad). No fish or other seafood enters this body though!

After several hours on the beach, we got antsy and realized we needed to explore. We spent the next two hours walking south along the beach, then up to 5th avenue, through a jungle-like dirt path full of interesting bird sounds and iguana-like creatures, to Playacar. The beaches there were not only deserted, but a crystal-clear light turquoise color with some shades of teal and blue. We frolicked in the water because we could. It was gorgeous. The oceanfront villas in Playacar looked mostly empty as we strolled past one, then another, then another, until we realized we had to make the trek back into town to grab a cab. Feet tired and bellies gurgling with hunger, we made our way back into PDC, headed to a bar showing movies on the beach, decided we were too old to stay out late and grabbed a cab to head back to the Royal Haciendas.

Tomorrow will be similar. When you find yourself in 85 degrees, nothing but beaches and white sand, there is no reason to do anything other than just chill.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Free Drinks at Happy Hour!

Greetings from Playa Del Carmen!

We decided to spend our first full day just relaxing at the resort in the chaise lounges and enjoying the scenery. Nothing creates smiles more than sun, surf, sand and free alcohol for TravelGuy and TravelGirl. The “Welcome Home” party at the Royal Haciendas is one of the few times when we’ll be offered free alcohol during our stay. Beer? Si. Rum & Coke? Si. Non-alcoholic beverages? Si… but not for me. One full hour of open bar with middle-aged folks being goofy as all get out, cuz there ain’t no party like a Royal Resorts party. Limbo contests, musical chairs, water balloon toss and of course, the often imitated, but never duplicated “Protect your balloon, but stomp all of your enemies’ balloons” game. Good times for one and all, especially if you enjoy laying back and watching the shenanigans.

We had forgotten how large and reasonably priced the on-site grocery stores are at the Royal Resorts. The prices are lower than a 7-Eleven and in many cases lower than your typical Safeway (one liter of mango nectar is $1.69, for example).

What I learned today: The great thing about falling asleep while listening to your MP3 player is that you can figure out how long you were asleep by back-peddling through the songs you don’t remember.

Today we also learned that among Royal Resorts’ five resorts in the Yucatan, they only have 2000 guests this week. That means we’re probably under 10% occupancy in our specific resort (yes you read that correctly). That gives you a glimpse into the VIP treatment we’re receiving (despite the fact that Tara thinks she’s a public figure and the reason for her VIP treatment). We didn’t get out to the sand until about 11:30am and we had our pick of palapas. Traveling to Mexico right now is akin to flying after 9/11; it’s the best time to be in Mexico, especially if you don’t like crowds.

As the sun prepares to set in the next hour, I relish the smell of the flowers outside my balcony as I take my second nap of the day.

Until tomorrow…

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Masks and Mayhem – where is it?

From TravelGirl --

We landed in Cancun this afternoon, and based on all previous media accounts, one would have thought we were jumping into a pit of fire with rabid monkeys and flesh-eating zombies. Au contraire, I’m afraid. Oh wait, that’s French. Here I am in Mexico for probably the 15th or 16th time, and I can only say, “Uno Cerveza, Gracias, Si, No, Uno mas,” and that’s about it. Time for Spanish lessons, eh?

Anyway, upon boarding the Cancun-bound Alaska Airlines jet at LAX, we had expected to be armed with masks and hand sanitizers. Alaska had previously removed all pillows and blankets and reportedly was distributing the masks and sanitizer to all passengers flying into Mexico. This just simply wasn’t true. Either they ran out, or they came to their senses and realized there is a flu virus going around, not the plague. Did you know that 1400 American women die EACH DAY during childbirth? Yeah, I never knew I’d have a better chance of losing my life to childbirth than I would to the H1N1 virus. Oh wait. I’m not pregnant.

Ok, so getting back to the topic at hand here – no masks and no hand sanitizers were distributed. We flew first class thanks to an MVP upgrade, and arrived to Cancun painlessly and effortlessly. You’d never know there was an epidemic (or near pandemic) going on. Cancun greeted us with 86 degrees, sunny skies and bright and cheery nationals waiting to help us part with our money via timeshare tours, car rentals, shuttle rides, you name it. Guess what? NOT ONE of them was wearing a mask. No where did we see canisters of hand sanitizers. Most of the immigration and customs officials were indeed wearing masks, but not even the airline employees in Mexico were wearing them. There was no sign of a rampant disease that was out to kill us!

We signed up for a tour of the Grand Mayan. It is the best way for us to gain entrance to Xcaret for only $40 as opposed to $240 for both of us. Yes, we will be giving 90 minutes of our lives to the timeshare salesperson that will receive a mere, “Thanks for your time” from us, but it’s all part of the game here. Plus, we are on a teensy little budget.

Arrival to The Royal Haciendas via shuttle was again quick and painless. We checked in, unpacked, checked the inventory of our pre-purchased groceries that were nicely tucked away in the fridge and cupboards, then wandered along the beach for a sunset walk, before heading to dinner at La Palapa, the onsite restaurant. There is no mayhem here. Heck, we jumped into what we thought was going to make for great video footage, but it’s just not here. We DID, however, bring our own supply of masks, anti-bacterial soap, hand sanitizer galore, and a prescription for Tamiflu (just in case). We ARE using the soap and sanitizer just to be safe, but the masks appear to be overkill. At the point I gain the urge to lick a doorknob, well, then…I suppose I’ll fight that urge by wearing a mask.

Tomorrow we’ll likely venture into town or at least spend the day relaxing in the sand, and will give a more ambient report of the sunshine, sand, and beautiful Caribbean Sea.

Masks and Mayhem? Not in Cancun or Playa del Carmen…at least not today.