Phil’s Story

Well, we up and went to Mexico last week. It was our six month anniversary and Apryle’s birthday, Frontier had cheap tickets and my boss very generously subsidized the trip…so we bought tickets on Thursday and left on Tuesday night.

We went for six days and overall had a good time despite some stress here and there. Here’s how it went:

We took an overnight flight out of Denver direct to Cancun. When we arrived, we took a ferry straight to Isla Mujeres, a chill little island off the northeast coast of the Yucatan. While searching for a cheap place to stay, we witnessed a wild looking funnel cloud out over the ocean. We found a place to stay and proceeded to spent two days on the island. They have a turtle farm where they raise sea turtles in an effort to protect them, which we visited, and an amazingly calm blue-water beach where you can wade out a hundred yards and not get your hair wet. We even saw some octupuses and rays while snorkeling in a little laguna on the north end of the island. On our second night there, I ate a lobster tail, the first non-vegetarian meal I’ve had in quite a while. Also ate some phenomenal falafel and hummus at a place called Manana. Highly recommended.

We were getting a little cagey on the island, so we took off and went to the town of Piste for day and night. Piste is an inland village home to the famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Apryle had never seen anything quite like Chichen Itza, and we spent the whole afternoon and early evening wandering about the huge site. Late in the day, we stopped seeing tourists and wondered what was up….turns out the site was closed for the last hour or two that we spent poking about the old stones. There was no signage, nothing on the ticket; I am not sure how people knew. But it worked out, we had the place to ourselves and enjoyed a really cool afternoon. Returned in the evening for the “light and sound show”, an interesting event where they light up the giant Temple of Kukulkan and a Spanish-speaking voice booms out the history of the area. You should have seen the Mexican tourists running into the ruins that evening to get the best seats. Our day at Chichen Itza was one of the two best days of the trip.

The next day we went to Playa del Carmen. Playa is the next big town south of Cancun. We took our time getting there in hopes of seeing some interesting sights in Tulum (a smaller town along the way) but Tulum was so spread out that we didn’t see much other than a little Italian pizza joint with pretty good food.By the time we got to Playa, everything was booked. It was the day before Easter and all through the Yucatan, tourists from Mexico City and the rest of the world were stirring. And swimming. And taking up all the budget options in town. We wandered about for a bit, pretty frustrated, before a local fellow at the hostel recommended we go back south to Akumal. “Es un paraiso!” he exclaimed.

We went, reluctant to go back south and eager to get a place and hit the beach. Akumal was swamped with Mexican tourists. Paradise, maybe….but not during Semana Santa, or Easter week. There was nothing available in town for less than $150 US per night. Not what I expected of a developing nation. Very reluctantly heading back north to Playa on the not-so-cheap colectivo was one of the lowest points of the trip.

We ended up finding a decent hotel in Playa for $50/night. Not bad by US standards, but we didn’t expect Mexico to have such, well, American prices. Playa del Carmen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, blossoming at a rate of over 20% per year….and for good reason. Great food, good weather, incredible beaches, and easy access to a number of very cool places like Cozumel and Chichen Itza all combine to make Playa a hip spot. But along with the good, there is bad. The town is so touristy that it makes one uncomfortable. Walking along Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue), anyone with light skin is bombarded with all sorts of sales pitches. “Amigo, where you fron?” “Honeymooners! Want to go esnorkeling?” “Would you like dinner? steak and lobster!” and even the very occasional “want some weed?” whispered from a shady storefront while passing by.

The salespeople on Quinta were very aggressive but friendly, asking questions in their best English, but it was a front. They didn’t care about the answers to their questions…they just wanted to draw in the tourists and make a buck. It felt false and uncomfortable, and above all like a waste of time. I was used to a different sort of local culture in Argentina and China and Peru. I did not appreciate the Mexican version.

We spent some time beaching, swimming, and eating remarkable delicious and varied meals in Playa…crepes, grilled veggies, yellow curry, pasta with chipotle salsa. La Media Luna on Quinta served up some particularly tasty vegetarian fare.

I do not relax well, and laying on a beach just does not work for me. So on our last day, we decided to head to Cozumel, rent a scooter, and go snorkeling. Unfortunately, we missed the boat, sort of. We had spent the morning on the beach and around noon started making our way back towards our hotel room. We were accosted by the usual salesfolk…but this time we gave in a bit, trying to find the best deal on a snorkel trip. They took an hour or two from us, trying to push resorts, fishing trips, and scooter rentals. In the past I never bought anything from anyone who didn’t have it in front of them….a great way to dodge commissions and get the best deals. But for some reason in Mexico I was so tempted. Maybe because it was a short trip?

The whole thing blew up when we ran across a particularly friendly English-speaking saleswoman who I thought might give us the straight story. I asked, “Should we arrange a Cozumel scooter from you, here in Playa, for $30? Or will we get to Playa and find out that it should have been ten dollars cheaper?” She hesitated for far too long, then said “Well, I can do $25.”

Apryle had had it, and saw that the 1 o’clock ferry was about to leave. We took off running, trying to get on the boat. We bought tickets in a mad rush and ran for the dock…but one of the two ferries had cast off its lines and was under way. We had tickets for the wrong boat! So we rushed back to the vendor and managed to swap out tickets….but again too late! The remaining ferry cast off…and we were stuck for another hour. I have rarely seen Apryle so sad.

The tourists, the sales pitches, the incessant but false smiles and questions had taken their toll and she was done. It was only an hour, but it meant so much more to her on our last day. I tried to cheer her up, but the damage was done.

We boarded the ferry at 2pm, got to Cozumel, rented a scooter on the island (for just over $20), and headed to a little restaurant called Manati highly recommended by the guidebook. The food was good, incredibly large portions for $5 each…accompanied by a tasty drink made from hibiscus flowers. The good meal and the wind rushing past our helmeted heads helped to raise Apryle’s spirits, and by mid-afternoon we were snorkeling in a sea full of colorful fishes off the west coast of the island. We snorkeled at two spots and saw some great fish, huge hermit crabs, an eel and a barracuda, then toured the island a bit (seeing a very cool tarantula on the way) until we had to return the scooter. Cozumel was chill after the cruise ships left; it was much more our speed than Playa. Now we know.

Somehow in the ticket and ferry mix-up, we hadn’t gotten our return tickets even though we had paid for them. I couldn’t believe our ill-fortune, and pleaded in my best spanish with the ticket booth to send us back. The Mexican supervisor must have seen the desperation in my face and taken pity, and before long we were under way back to Playa.

We made a dinner of take-out crepes, packed, and had a short nap before the rooster next door woke us up in time for our 5am ride to the airport. By 1pm, we were sitting in a Panera in the States.

All in all, it was a good trip. I have never seen beaches so beautiful, nor such cool fishes. The ruins at Chichen Itza were incredible, and I got a kick out of Apryle studying every plaque and every carving at the massive site. We had a couple of pretty rough times, but I think that is to be expected anytime you travel to a new place; it was just doubly frustrating because our trip was so short every minute was precious to us.

Best of all, we got along tremendously with each other for the entire trip. We were both a little concerned that our different travel experiences, our different styles of doing things, different standards for hotels and meals, combined with the stress of overnight flights, second-class buses, bad water, hot and humid weather, might just cause some friction. But even when things didn’t go well, we got along with each other just fine. And that was the best part of the trip.

Now that we are back, I am really glad we went. We learned a lot, it was good practice for bigger adventures sure to come, and I really did enjoy the good parts. I think we will look back on this trip really fondly…even if our next vacation is someplace a little bit wilder and more off the beaten track.

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