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Published: June 22nd 2015
They really love a good hammock in Mexico, and who can blame them?
It was a major priority that as soon as we got to Mexico we hot-footed it to a genuine tropical paradise. Two hours after landing in Cancun we were on the sun deck of ferry traversing a short stretch of the Caribbean to Isla Mujeres, basking in the warmth with a guy playing an electric guitar singing eclectic crowd favourites ranging from Credence Clearwater Revival to Besame Mucho.
Author's note: For the sake of thematic coherence we will cover all three of our tropical resort experiences in this blog, although this is at the expense of chronological accuracy. It wasn't quite three tropical paradises as the middle one was actually a bit of a hole. More of that later - let's not get ahead of ourselves!
Isla Mujeres is an 8km long, but less than 1km thin sliver of an island very close to, but a world away from, the tourist juggernaut that is Cancun. We stayed in a hotel that was really more of a tour operator (Seahawk Divers). It was laid back in the extreme, and its principle charm was that it was a short stroll from Playa Norte (North Beach). This was the white sand and
azure sea idyll that one hopes for when one visits the tropics.
Out first evening we strolled around the township. It has a touristy vibe, but with grungy food stalls, bars that run the spectrum from gringo magnets playing baseball and American football on big TVs, to al fresco affairs with elegant linen-wearing sophisticates. We opted for somewhere in-between, in a fish restaurant where the floor was in fact the beach itself and we could see a long line of small boats that had presumably been out that day to procure what was about to grace our dinner plates. It was here that we discovered what would become two of our staples for the entire Mexico trip: ceviche and pina coladas. The ceviche was a large plate of raw sea life: white fish, prawns and conch, bathed in lime juice, coriander and spices. As for the pina colada? Gigantic. The perfect food and drink components of a tropical paradise, and oh so cheap.
We used our jetlag to full advantage: we were hunting for a place for breakfast shortly after 7am in the morning (shocked that no one else was around... what's wrong with these people?!?) and ready
for sunbathing on Playa Norte for 9am. At that time of day, it's very easy to find your own private stretch of beach, but in actual fact it never got too busy. As well as incredibly white sand and shockingly blue water, there were chic al fresco restaurants and rather capable people offering massages. We were a little over-eager on our first day, and despite plenty of sunscreen our skin went from "post-English winter pasty white" in the morning to various shades of red in the mid afternoon.
It seemed churlish not to take full advantage of the fact that our hotel's raison d'être was diving and snorkelling tours. We went out on a speedboat with a couple of locals and a few other tourists, strapped on snorkelling masks, and jumped into the blue. Neither of us has done something like this before, and it was a fabulous introduction to underwater tourism. There were reefs teeming with spectacular sea plants, with fish every colour, shape and dimension you could imagine. We saw a turtle and a stingray... basically one each of the coolest things. There was an underwater sculpture garden with a hundred or so human figures and someone
had thrown a VW Beetle down there for good measure, which is gradually becoming part of the reef.
We loved Isla Mujeres: a magical place with a great vibe. By lunchtime on the second day our sunburnt skin had calmed down enough to allow for a massage each, and then it was back to the mainland again, and a coach trip down to our resort number two: Playa del Carmen. Lonely Planet had been very positive about Playa - "Euro cool" I think was the phrase - so we were keen to get a piece of the action at Mexico's most stylish beach resort!
Well... we didn't get that. It was commercial, very reminiscent of seaside towns in the Mediterranean, and not in a good way. Dare I say it, it was less Euro-cool and more Euro-trash. We didn't have time to explore it fully, but by all accounts the commercial area with its ice cream shops, tourist chintz and tropical themed bars, stretches for miles. We escaped the conurbation and reached the beach, which was uncannily similar to the Italian Adriatic coast, where the actual sea is fronted by a metaphorical sea, in the form of beach
umbrellas. It was crammed, and in a very short while we were bothered by all sorts of people including a woman who reached out and briefly started administering a non-consensual shoulder massage. Added to this chaos was a rather powerful stench of seaweed. Unfortunately at the moment the Mayan Coast of the Yucatan is blighted by a seaweed infestation that occurs on a five to ten year cycle. If a chap doesn't come to the shore every day and shovel the freshly landed seaweed into a wheelbarrow, the stuff accumulates into piles several feet high. It was gross to say the least.
We had only planned to stay in Playa Del Carmen for an afternoon - which in the end was an act of mercy. We had time for a burrito and pina colada to physically and mentally prepare for an epic bus journey that would takes us away from the coast, which we will cover in the next blog!
Some nine days later - after all sorts of adventures - we were very ready to enter the last phase of our Mexican holiday, with a few days of sun and sand in our third resort,
...ergo, gigantic smile
Tulum. After a long drive along a straight highway battling through the jungle and a brief tropical storm we passed by the thoroughly charmless township of Tulum and shortly thereafter reached the coast. The beach road went southwards for many miles past bars, restaurants and low density beach hotels. We thought we must have missed our hotel from the shear distance we had driven, but no, we got there in the end, and by all accounts the hotels and bars streched southwards even further.
Tulum has a hippy/backpacker aesthetic but is ultra-chic and certainly not for those on a budget. To give you an idea: the bank machines only issued US dollars. After arriving we strolled along the road to find a place to eat and were seduced by some live music emanating from an upscale Mexican restaurant. I was happy with the place as they had the only good Mexican wine list I saw on my trip and a sommelier who put in a very theatrical performance. I can only imagine how much I would need to spend on a bottle in London to get that sort of attention. Besides that, Maria Chiara was happy because the live
Every bit as good as it looks
band was in fact playing for the monthly salsa night! After dinner we went out on the deck to join in (well, me to look and MC to dance). It was quite a picture: some very accomplished Latin dancers (and a few inept gringo ones) on a white dance floor raised above the sandy beach with palm trees waving in the breeze and the Caribbean waters beyond. It is safe to say that at this stage, MC was very happy we came to Tulum.
We had our most expensive meals in Mexico here in Tulum, but they were also the best. The service, quality, variety and style were up there with big cities, and in this case we had the beach, sea and sun thrown into the mix too.
Yucatan's two biggest draw cards are the Caribbean coast and Mayan ruins, and it is only in Tulum where you get both at the same time. We made the mistake of visiting the Tulum ruins at the middle of the day when there were too many tourists and it was exhaustingly hot. We had already visited some of the greatest Mayan ruins of all (also covered in the next
blog) and so we were happy to see these ruins to "tick the box", buy some more water and swiftly move on.
In fact what was the biggest pleasure was staying around our hotel. Run by a garrulous Italian man, who made us superb breakfasts in the morning, this place was a few wooden shacks on the beach. It was the first time that Maria Chiara had gone to sleep with the sound of waves gently lapping against the shore. This is a mandatory life experience!! Most days were spent in a sun lounger reading and catching some quality rays, our Mujeres sunburn now a distant and unpleasant memory.
We made the grave mistake of leaving some of our belongings in our hire car in a supermarket car park. When we got back MC realised that the passenger door had been forcibly broken into. As well as her wallet and sunglasses being stolen, so was my camera, so for the second week of our holiday including Tulum itself we can only rely on pictures we took with our phone! That left an unpleasant impression for the last day of our trip, but the best experiences will stay in
our hearts and minds whether we have photographic evidence of having been there or not! And every time we see a pina colada again we'll be back in a hammock with the waves gently lapping against the shore.
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