Monday, October 02, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #7 - Playa del Carmen

The bustling beach town of Playa del Carmen is located in the center of the the Riviera Maya. From the north (Cancun) it's about a 45-minute drive down 307. You can enter Playa on the northern end via Avenida Constituyentes, or through the center of town using Avenida Juarez.

Both of these main thoroughfares lead to the popular shopping district known as 5th Avenue (locals call it Avenida Quinta or La Quinta). 5th Avenue is a mile-long pedestrian-friendly street that's packed with shops, stores, restaurants, cantinas and boutique hotels. There are several modestly-priced public parking lots conveniently located near Avenida Constituyentes and Juarez, and street parking is often available along 4th and 6th Avenues. If you're traveling by cab, just have the driver drop you at one end or the other and start walking.

Overwhelming as 5th Avenue can be at first, it's virtually impossible to get lost in here. An excursion to 5th Avenue is most fun starting in the early evening. After 6:00 p.m. the sun starts setting and the temperature drops accordingly. Restaurant owners entice you into their establishments, strolling mariachi musicians entertain at a moment's notice, and the neon signs cast their their colorful glow over the street.

You'll pay a little bit more for all the ambience here, but not that much. Food and souvenirs may run 10-15% higher, but it's worth it. 5th Avenue offers a family-friendly environment and is an extremely clean and safe place to spend an afternoon or evening.
-Larry Widen

Friday, September 15, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #6 - Exploring Pueblo Tulum

At the end of the Riviera Maya, about 80 south of Cancún, ancient ruins, boutique hotels and an art colony comprise the eclectic pueblo of Tulum.

In the city's archeological zone, Mayan palaces, temples and other civic buildings from 1300 A.D. overlook the sea from a breathtaking cliffside location. The 45-peso entry fee ($5) is a cheap price to pay for the privilege of swimming in the ocean directly below the pyramid El Castillo.

South along the coastline, small solar-powered hotels provide electricity to guests each night from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Using candles for illuminations, nearby restaurants serve fresh seafood and other local cuisine right on the beach. Air conditioning is provided by the perpetual ocean breeze.

A wide variety of outstanding Mexican folk art, clothing and beadwork is available in an intimate marketplace located near the Hotel Piedra Escondida.

Along the main street of Tulum, souvenir stands are interspersed with cantinas, convenience stores, mercados and pharmacias. This is where the people of Tulum work and live.

Take a walk off the main drag and explore the iglesias (churches), escuelas, (schools) and other community centers. Cancún is a great tourist experience, but the real Mexico is found in places like Tulum.
-Larry Widen

Monday, September 11, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #5 - Chichen Itza

"Very soon we saw rising high above the plain the Castillo of Chichen. In half an hour we were among the ruins of this ancient city, with all the great buildings in full view, casting prodigious shadows over the plain and presenting a spectacle which, even after all that we had seen, once more excited in us emotions of wonder."
The above description appears in the diaries of John L. Stephens, a writer who visited Chichen Itza in 1841. Stephens and his companions must have been intrepid explorers, for to reach Chichen in those days was difficult indeed. The heat, insects, jungle and scarcity of fresh water are just a few factors that modern-day visitors don't often consider.

Various other expeditions traveled to the ruins after Stephens' diaries were published, and in 1895 the amateur achaeologist Edward H. Thompson began what would become a 30-year examination of the site. As part of his explorations, Thompson dredged the first artifacts out of the Sacred Cenote. From 1924 to 1944, the Mexico government excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and a number of other buildings at Chichen. In the 1960's the Sacred Cenote was dredged again, this time under the supervision of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Today, Chichen Itza is the most visited of the major Maya archaelogical sites. Because it's only a short trip from Cancun by car, many visitors make the trip here. Unfortunately, deterioration has led to the famous pyramid, El Castillo, becoming unsafe for climbing. Still, a few hours on the grounds are well worth the trip. Chichen's excavated ruins include temples, palaces, markets, baths, and ballcourts. And the Sacred Cenote is easily accessible for viewing.
-Larry Widen

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #4 - A Visit to Valladolid

Just 40 miles west of Cobá is Valladolid, a charming city with architecture and customs that recall Colonial Spain. Instead of the traditional open-air Mexican plaza, downtown Valladolid is clustered around a park with filled with majestic banyan and ceiba trees. This lovely public square is enclosed by elegant wrought iron railings. Across the street, the Hotel Maria de la Luz serves the local lunch favorite, a tender, flavorful pork dish called cochinita pibil. Marinated in in habanero peppers, cumin, paprika, chili powder, coriander, salt and pepper, the pork loin simmers for hours before making its way to the table. A few forkfuls of cochinita are placed inside homemade Merida bread and dipped in the spicy achiote broth before eating. If you’re waiting for the bill, know that Mexican waiters are far too polite to bring it until you actually ask them to do so. A simple ‘la cuenta, por favor’ whenever you’re ready will do the trick.

The hotel rests in the shadow of San Gervasio, a 600-year-old cathedral that was around when the Mayans were holding off the Spanish soldiers who wanted control of the region. Three blocks away is the historic Cenote Zací, a huge freshwater spring in which Mayan insurgents hid before ambushing the Spaniards in Valladolid’s bloodiest battle. On a happier note, there are several fine arts and crafts stores along Calle 42 with unbelievably low prices. Plates, cups, wall art and many other ceramic items are a real bargain here.

Valladolid is a wonderful place to experience Old World Spanish art and culture at your own pace. Spend a whole day or just a few hours. Daytrippers who venture off the public square will find open-air mercados that sell fresh fruits and meats. Very few people in Valladolid speak English, but they’re extremely gracious to visitors who dredge up some long-forgotten high school Spanish.
-Larry Widen

Monday, August 28, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #3 - The ruins of Cobá

Visitors to the Cancún area will enjoy exploring the spectacular ruins of Cobá, an ancient jungle city that archaeologists think was built in 600 A.D. Because the local advertising materials often concentrate on nearby Chichén Itzá, many tourists don’t find their way over here. As a result, those who arrive early in the day may just find they’ve got Cobá all to themselves. The city is huge and spreads out over 50 square miles so be sure to bring a bottle of water and a comfortable pair of shoes. Not all of Cobá’s buildings are on display, but a series of well-maintained gravel paths lead to the ones that are. The bicycles, which can be rented at the entrance, are a great way to cover a lot of ground in a little time. There are virtually no hills in the city, and pedaling is effortless. A can of insect repellent makes time spent at Cobá more enjoyable. Without it, the tiny jungle mosquitos will raise a few harmless but annoying bites that turn itchy after a day or two.

Cobá’s astronomical observatory, the royal palace, a military watchtower and two pelota arenas are among the silent sentinels that line the sacbé, mathematically precise Mayan roads that radiate in five directions like spokes on a wheel. One particular sacbé is exactly 100 kilometers long and leads to Chichén Itzá, while another goes to the site of Yaxuna. To date, 16 of these roads have been uncovered in Cobá. Experts estimate that more than 50,000 people once lived in the city and there are about 6,000 structures still hidden within the jungle awaiting excavation. Cobá has been identified as a major economic center that supplied goods to the neighboring Mayan communities. The port cities of Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Tulum were important trade hubs that were used for bringing merchandise into Cobá.

Deep inside the complex is Nohoch-Mul, a massive limestone pyramid that has the distinction of being the tallest structure in the Yucatan. Climbing the steep 120-foot facade is a bit of a challenge, but most definitely worthwhile. The rope bolted to the stairs comes in handy, especially towards the top. There’s a place to sit and rest near the bas-relief stone carvings at the summit while admiring the stunning views of the surrounding jungle. Several structures are partially visible through the foliage. Cobá is operated by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology & History. Admission is 45 pesos (about $4.50) Monday through Saturday. There is no charge to visit on Sundays and national holidays.
-Larry Widen

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #2 - Casa Sombra

The beach house we stayed at is called Casa Sombra (Shade House). It's located in Aventuras, which is at the south end of Akumal. The water park of Xel-Ha is about 5 minutes drive from here.

Casa Sombra comes with a Mayan couple, Dino and Artemia, who are the live-in caretakers. They actually stay in a separate cottage at the rear of the property, and they are as visible (or invisible) as you like.

The guest house is 50 feet from the ocean and has huge windows in the living room that look out on it. There are hammocks and beach chairs and a shower right outside the door, so swimming, sunning and walking on the beach is very convenient.

One of the nights we were there, some sea turtle eggs hatched right outside our door. At midnight there were almost 100 baby turtles scrambling around looking for the ocean. We gathered a bunch of them in a bucket so they'd be safe until they could be taken and released into the surf. That's something I'd never seen before; quite an experience.

-Larry Widen

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal 2 #1 - Puerto Morelos

I took my family to the Riviera Maya on August 12 for a week-long trip. They'd never been there, so everything was brand new for them. We decided to rent a beach house rather than stay at one of the large all-inclusive resorts, just to try something different.

The beach house, called Casa Sombra, was located in the town of Akumal, which is about 60 miles south of Cancun. We also rented a car, figuring that having our own transportation would give us more freedom and allow us to see more of the area. I'll put some stories about driving and the beach house in subsequent posts.

The Cancun airport is pretty small, and the rental car agencies are located less than a block from the terminal. It's very easy to exit the airport and get onto Highway 307, which is the main north-south road that serves all 80 miles of the Riviera Maya. About 15 miles south of Cancun is a tiny beach town called Puerto Morelos. If you blink, you'll miss it. But if you're in the area, it's a great place to visit for lunch or a cocktail.

The town is only a few blocks long, and like most other Mexican villages, everything is centered around the plaza. The Blue Marlin, a little grill on Tulum Street, has great food for 55 pesos (about $5) per plate. The waitress's name is Reina. She dosen't speak English, but a little high school Spanish goes a long way down here.

Across the plaza on Avenida Roja Gomez is Iglesias de San Jose, a beautiful Catholic church that's worth a quick visit. There's a stained glass window and some religious statuary inside. Puerto Morelos is pretty laid-back, what would have been called a "hippie" town 30 years ago. Residents include businessmen, painters, artisans, marine biologists, dive masters, doctors, and local fishermen. There are also three or four gift shops that sell souvenirs at better prices than you'll find in Cancun, and book lovers will want to stop in at Alme Libre, the Riviera Maya's largest used bookstore.
-Larry Widen