Date of Trip: March 2005
We are a family of four from Sherbrooke, Quebec, on our first trip to Mexico. Our two children are Louis and Claudia, aged 8 and 5, respectively. We have traveled to the Caribbean as a family twice before, in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Both trips were to all-inclusives (AIs) and in early July.
We wanted to get out of the AI mode, as we found out that the excursion always turned out to be the highlight of those two previous trips. We wanted to have more liberties to explore. I fell in love with the tropical sealife … even in the desolate wasteland that Punta Cana turned out to be, and I wanted a place with great snorkeling. I had a fair amount of Aeroplan air miles, so we had to chose a destination Air Canada serviced. An experienced traveler myself, I did not want to put my kids through the hassles of an airport transfer … especially if that transfer was through Toronto’s Pearson airport.
We got a great deal for a condo in Half Moon Bay, next to Akumal, for about the same price as a small beachfront house in New Brunswick. For $10/day, they offered an upgrade to a third-floor penthouse–I took it just for kicks. Since three of the four tickets were already paid, this two weeks fell within our budget.
Flight from Air Canada (Montreal-Cancun) was on time and uneventful. Upon landing, we sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes, letting three jets dock in before us. Needless to say, customs was packed (what else is new on a Saturday?). Anyway, the place had proper A/C, and the line was moving briskly. Then we got the fabled RED LIGHT. One of my bags was packed so tightly that I was afraid I would never get it closed again. Anyway, all went fine, and we were out through a sea infested with timeshare sharks (all ignored) to the Hertz center. A funny thing happened to us and the two families before. Once the car got in the front, this little guy immediately started packing the trunk with the luggage. In any case, there was way too much luggage for the trunk, so every time the manager whacked him behind the head, calling him estupido, and told him to get a bigger car. It would have been funnier if it had not been for the 1 hour wait. We ended up with an old, battered Nissan with kinks all over, but the trunk was big enough, and the A/C was good. The left rear door would not open from the inside, and there was a definite rightward lean, but at least it certainly did not look like a rented car.
On the way to Akumal, we stopped at Puerto Morelos and had a late lunch at El Viejo Pescador. The food was okay (we had the seafood salad), but the beer was good and cold (Dos Equis, which would end up becoming our favorite) and the view at the ocean really put us in the mood. We then made haste to Akumal to the Lol Ka’naab condos, where we had rented a penthouse by the sea. I’ll say that this place was fabulous, with a stunning view of Half Moon Bay. Plus, there was a pool just by the sea. This was a definite plus, since the sand stops at the water’s edge, and it gets very rocky. Beach shoes were a necessity (we did bring them), but if we wanted sandy beaches and water, we had to go to Akumal Bay.
It was turtle-breeding season, and we could spot turtle nests here and there.
All is not well in Half Moon Bay, I’m afraid, as some locals have gone into bitter conflict with the owner of La Buena Vida. Turns out they have opened up a dive shop with two motorboats on the up-to-now motorless bay. The locals were extremely concerned that this would damage the coral and deleteriously affect the turtles that lay their eggs in the bay. Indeed, two of those splendid animals had already been trapped in the boats lines and drowned. So they have responded with a boycott and we were advised not to patronize this place. We did have dinner there that night. It’s the only place next door to us, and we were so exhausted that we did not want to go any further. All I’ll say was that the food was way overpriced for its quality, so I will have one more reason not to go there anymore.
Well, what a great start this is. Two days gone, 12 to go. The fact that time has accelerated to an unbearable speed is indicative of how much fun I’ve already had. I’m sitting on the veranda on the third floor, with the sea directly in front of me, lightning in the far distance, incredible stars in the sky, a cervesa on my right, and my Mac G4 on my lap for your reading pleasure. It began with breakfast at the Turtle Bay Cafe. Mium Mium. My only problem was that if we continue on that trend, we will end up with our pockets empty and our bellies distended. We found out Akumal is quite pricey restaurant-wise, and we decided that we will be eating out only one meal a day to salvage our budget. So that meant groceries at the Super Chomak, still scandalously expensive, but cheaper than the restaurant.
Then, finally, came the moment where I could snorkel Half Moon Bay. The best of that trip were two turtles, with a HUGE one (4.5 ft) that endured me (nah … I was good) for over ten minutes. I did three more dives that day: one with my camera; of course, there were no turtles except for a small one swimming fast at the edge of my view. The other dives were with my two kids, aged 5 and 8, who were snorkeling for the first time. I think my kids were fish in a previous life… or it’s their dad’s genes. Anyway, I saw two other turtles with my 8-year-old boy. One of them got so close that he could almost touch it. Now his 5-year-old sister was really pouting, because she really wanted to see a turtle too. I think I’ll have to spend an extra long expedition with her the next time.
The rest of the time was farniente at the pool — one of my best choices, since I know from previous trips that children do get tired of the ocean after a while if there are no waves to kick them around. At 8:30 pm, they were all sound asleep, and here I was, sitting on the veranda, writing this to you… but this day was not over. You see, God got into a pissing contest with the 4th of July. Lightning was blazing every 5 seconds over the sea, and suddenly, La Buena Vida started their fireworks. I ran off to get my digital camera and was able to get three shots of simultaneous lightning and fireworks. What God lacked in color, he more than made up in firepower. A great way to end the day.
Tomorrow, Tulum and the hope we find a working ATM before manana.
Up at the crack of dawn and breakfast in the condo. Got to make it snappy, before the crowds take our spot.
We got to Tulum at 9am, and small buses were just beginning to arrive. We parked in the back lot (20 pesos instead of 35), and by getting in early, we got a spot in the shade, which would make a big difference later. Tulum was interesting… or what we saw of it was, at least. We began with the northern section. Interesting formations, considering that it was almost a thousand years old. With this said, the architecture is pretty basic: square blocks lined up and piled together.
It is clear that those buildings only have a ceremonial role, as nobody in their right mind would live in there with this kind of weather. There was a cave at the northern corner that my kid found very cool. The view from the cliff is just magnificent, and lots of beautiful pictures were snapped. It was actually beginning to get pretty warm as we made our way to the beach. We did have our swimsuits and a towel, so we jumped in. An hour and a half later, we were still enjoying those waves. There were pretty intense that day, and it was a huge amount of fun. There is a section of sand that probably has a perfect molding of my face after a big one slammed it in there. I also lost my Survivor bandana. It was my wife’s favorite, but it never popped out at the surface.
We crossed over to the hidden cove and started hunting iguanas. No photo of those big babies, since I did not want to risk bringing my camera through this surf. One tremendously cute Italian girl tried it, and you guessed it, one big wave, and splash goes the expensive digital camera. Her boyfriend was not amused. However, as fun as it was, we had badly miscalculated. By the time we finally got out, the place was packed … I just can’t imagine what it must be like in high season. Also, the sun and heat were killing us, and the mood of the children was going downhill fast. We decided to cut short and head out. We ran out of water just as we got out of the gate (I had a 3L Camelpack), and we all felt dehydrated and gritty from the sand. While waiting for the little train, I noticed that the line at the ticket booth was maddening. I just can’t imagine why anyone would pay to stand under this heat in this crowd. Vacations are supposed to be fun and enjoyable.
With no time to see the show or the shops, we just went to the ATM (YES! It was working–we only had 500 pesos left) and off to Tulum for lunch and mucho agua. El Basilico was closed for renovations, so we ended up at Quiero Mas for pizza. By the time we had gotten through the bread basket, spirits were back to high noon. The pizza was surprisingly good, with a very thin crust a la European–just like I love it. Next time, we’ll complete the visit of Tulum before hitting the beach. We also decided to scratch Coba for this trip. It’s just too warm for our kids, and it would be worse in the jungle, with no cooling breeze. We’ll just have to plan another trip in the future.
Groceries were much cheaper at San Francisco, so we stocked up for a few days and headed home. The rest of the afternoon was spent snorkeling in Half Moon Bay (one turtle, one stingray, and one torpedo ray were the highlights). Actually, I never would have found that torpedo had it not been disturbed by the stingray trying to get away from my mere presence. It was completely buried under the sand. The waves were high, so it was rough going–too rough for the little ones, who were just as happy frolicking in the pool. Day Four After the Tulum expedition, we decided that this would be a very kid-friendly day, so we headed off to the public beach at Akumal Bay. We dropped our stuff in front of Lol Ha, the kids sampled the water, and I took my snorkeling gear and dove in. Akumal Bay is quite different from Half Moon Bay. The coral is not in good shape (lots of boats), but there is still a lot to see. There was a nice green moray eel under the concrete blocks that serves as moorings for one of the catamarans. I also saw a barracuda, a goldspotted eel (actually, my boy spotted that one), and a turtle. That turtle sight was with my little daughter, so she was thrilled of finally seeing her first turtle. On the northern side of the bay, there is a large white floating ball which marks the site of an old shipwreck. The cannons are still perfectly visible. The morning went way too fast, and I’ll have to go back and do a thorough exploring of that bay. Lunch was at the condo, and while the wife and kids had their siesta, I yet again snorkeled Half Moon Bay. In the evening, I found out to my chagrin that a T-shirt is insufficient protection when snorkeling (helloooo sunburn). When my wife’s turn came, she went to a spot in the bay I now call Turtle City and saw a total of four turtles. Her face when she got out told me I had just made a new convert to the church of snorkeling. I grabbed my camera and dove back in. After a while, I was able to get my first underwater shots of two of them.
Dinner was at Oscar Y Lalo, where we both had the whole fried fish (to die for). Margaritas were quite good but pretty strong. I really enjoyed the beachside setting and the hammocks to lounge in while you wait for your order.
After the Tulum expedition, we decided that this would be a very kid-friendly day, so we headed off to the public beach at Akumal Bay. We dropped our stuff in front of Lol Ha, the kids sampled the water, and I took my snorkeling gear and dove in. Akumal Bay is quite different from Half Moon Bay. The coral is not in good shape (lots of boats), but there is still a lot to see. There was a nice green moray eel under the concrete blocks that serves as moorings for one of the catamarans. I also saw a barracuda, a goldspotted eel (actually, my boy spotted that one), and a turtle. That turtle sight was with my little daughter, so she was thrilled of finally seeing her first turtle. On the northern side of the bay, there is a large white floating ball which marks the site of an old shipwreck. The cannons are still perfectly visible. The morning went way too fast, and I’ll have to go back and do a thorough exploring of that bay.
Lunch was at the condo, and while the wife and kids had their siesta, I yet again snorkeled Half Moon Bay. In the evening, I found out to my chagrin that a T-shirt is insufficient protection when snorkeling (helloooo sunburn). When my wife’s turn came, she went to a spot in the bay I now call Turtle City and saw a total of four turtles. Her face when she got out told me I had just made a new convert to the church of snorkeling. I grabbed my camera and dove back in. After a while, I was able to get my first underwater shots of two of them.
Dinner was at Oscar Y Lalo, where we both had the whole fried fish (to die for). Margaritas were quite good but pretty strong. I really enjoyed the beachside setting and the hammocks to lounge in while you wait for your order.
We rose with the sun, as usual, and had breakfast in the condo. We decided to spend the morning at Atkun Chen, which is very close to Akumal. However, it did take a while to get there since you have to take a 3.5km pothole-filled road through the jungle.
Upon arrival, we found out that we had forgotten our bug spray and that dinner was served. Fortunately, there were enough stupid tourists making the same mistake that bug spray was on sale. I almost immediately got adopted by Isidoro, a mischievous little baby monkey who was fascinated by my Camelpack, especially the bright blue nozzle that you drink from. The kids were ecstatic.
Our assigned guide was Noah, and there was only the four of us with him. This led to a very detailed and extensive tour of the large caves, where Noah spoke in English and I translated in French for my wife and kids. Aktun Chen is a very extensive and beautiful cave complex with some of the most stunning stalagmite and stalactite displays I have ever seen. The whole tour took almost an hour, as Noah would point out each and every little point of interest. He really seemed to enjoy guiding such a small and very enthusiastic group. There were some large groups that went past us, but we took our time–such beauty is to be enjoyed, not rushed through. Sometimes tree roots would make their way through the cave. There was also a fair amount of wildlife, including bats, some nice blue-tinted birds, and lizards. There were some pools where the water was extremely pure. If you put your finger in it, the dust at the surface would spread out as if you had placed a drop of soap. You could also see shrimps and other organisms swimming around. Sometimes there are eels and catfish, although we did not see any.
Afterward, there was a small tour of the jungle where you could observe a selection of fauna and flora. When he showed us a particularly toxic tree, I recognized it as the chenchen tree (as in a previous post from James), and when I mentioned its name, he was stunned. On our way back, Isidoro seemed to be happy to see me, as he grabbed my hand and walked with me up to the parking. However, when we got in the car, he jumped on the hood and the roof and wouldn’t get down. It was only when a car pulled in with a family that he jumped down, and we made our escape. The way back was even slower than the way in, since we constantly had to stop to prevent from running over iguanas sunning themselves on the road.
On the way back, we finally understood the workings of the ATM at the Super Chomak. On the weekday, they fill it up in mid-morning, and by 2pm, it’s empty again. So if you need cash, you have to go around lunchtime and make sure to stock up on Fridays.
The afternoon was spent lazing at the pool and snorkeling Half Moon Bay yet again. Everytime I dove in there, I always found something new. This time it was a pair of 10- to 15-inch squids. I had my underwater camera with me, but I had just ran out of film. Turtles? Two of them, one of which was outside Turtle City, close to the reef wall.
When we got to the penthouse to prepare for our dinner, we found out there was no running water. There was a problem with the pipes, and they were working hard at it. Water was flowing again within the hour, as promised.
Dinner was at Lol Ha, where we had reserved a table right next to the stage for the flamenco show. The dancers were pretty good but a little too technical for my taste. Still, my daughter was so transfixed by them (she just loves to dance) that she almost completely forgot to eat. And then, during the finale, boom–sound asleep. My wife had the grilled tuna (tasted like a grilled tuna), and I decided to sample the chicken mole (very interesting taste). I had small spots of mole on my white shirt after the meal, and waiter said that if you did not get mole on your shirt, it would have meant the meal was not good.
That night, I walked the beach to see if I could find any nesting turtles… nada.
Tomorrow, we plan to go to Yal-Ku. Little did I know then that by this time tomorrow, I would have witnessed one of the most fascinating events in my whole life.
We got up early (again) this morning. It’s hard to sleep in when the sun comes up right into your bedroom window. So much farniente to do, so little time. Might as well get up. We decided to go to Yal Ku, which is almost next door. It was easy to beat the crowds this time, and we were almost the first in. They seemed to have done quite a fair amount of landscaping since this first reports. There are now some well-groomed trails with beautiful statues, strategically placed. This seemed to have affected the entrance fee, which stood at 65p for adults and 35p for children. Our first impression upon entering was that this water is cold! It really seems like an aquarium, as the fish are plentiful. The water has a strange, oily look, the result of the mixing of cenote and sea water. This really affected the visibility, and if you wanted a clear view, you had to dive under the thermocline–something my wife and kids were not experienced enough to do. The diversity is not as great as in HMB, but there were some species I had not found elsewhere, including the night sergeant and a pair of gorgeous queen angelfishes. We wisely went to the left upon entering and wandered our way through gorges and mangroves. After about 45 minutes, the kids were already getting tired, and my daughter was shivering from the cold water. They played for a while with the statues while Daddy made a second pass. We left around 10am, as the tour buses were coming in and disgorging their masses. We got back to the penthouse, and the wife and I both got to snorkel HMB once again (saw two turtles each). There was a certain amount of excitement with the guests, as one of the turtle nests is due to hatch tonight, and some already saw quivering of the sand. Hope I’ll be there when it happens.
Later this afternoon, while the kids were in the pool, I went back by myself to Yal Ku with my underwater camera to try to get a shot of those queen angelfishes. There were lots of tour people when I got there, but they were on their way out, fortunately. However, the damage was done, as the visibility was very poor, and there was a fair amount of vegetal debris at the surface. I still went through every nook and cranny of the lagoon. I even went all the way to the reef, which involved a fairly long swim through basically nothing. My efforts were well rewarded when I entountered two barracudas and the mother of all stingrays which conveniently swam to a clear water spot for a perfect shot. On my way back, in a deep section, I noticed something unusual at the bottom, and when I dove in, I found out it was a nice Peackock Flounder (Click… Vrrrr). So the moral of the story is: When you go to Yal Ku, get in as early as you can, and be prepared to take a lot of deep breaths.
When I got back, my wife was undergoing shopping withdrawal (after all, it’s been six days). It took some effort, but I convinced her that Playa Del Carmen would be too much for only an evening — maybe Puerto Adventura (almost next door) would do the trick. Telling my daughter that there were dolphins there got us the necessary majority vote (a cheap shot, I admit). We were all set up and ready to go when there was a knock on the door. Elio’s wife told us that a turtle’s nest was hatching. Louis and Claudia bolted out the door, and both were gone in an instant. We followed them to a small gathering, and indeed, in one of the turtle nests, one little head was peeking out. A second one came, then a third, and within half an hour, about nine or ten small turtles were visible in the sand. We knew from the record that 87 eggs were in there. Nothing happened for a another half-hour, but we all knew we were in for the treat of a lifetime. We weren’t the only ones waiting, as a couple of vultures and a frigate flew lazily above. If any of them had the nerve to come down, they would not make it out alive. Elio and his wife gave instructions to everyone on how to behave. No flash photography. Nobody in the water. Wash your hands in the sea and sand before picking and helping any baby. Two adult turtles were visible 10 to 15 feet out in the sea, as if they were also waiting for the babies to come out. Suddenly, it was just like popcorn. Within a few seconds, over 40 to 50 babies popped out of the sand and raced to the sea. We had prepared a corridor, and all the children put the stragglers back in the right track. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Once they had safely reached the sea, Elio gently began to scoop out the sand. The remaining brood were helped out of the nest and sent on the way to safety. Out of 87 eggs, there were four duds–one dead turtle and one baby with a paralyzed flipper. That one was kept in a bucket to see if it would regain control of its flipper and released at night, so its chances of survival would be greater.
By the time it was all finished, it was 7:30 pm, and we were all famished. Plan B became dinner at the Turtle Bay Cafe. When we sat down, the mosquitoes immediately started to have their own dinner on my wife’s legs, but the staff thankfully had some bug spray available. They have a very interesting and original children’s menu, which is rare and was much appreciated. My wife had the pork chops (much better than La Buena Vida), and I had the very delicious fish tacos.
In contrast to the previous post, not much happened today. The clouds were gathering when we got up, and we were just not in a Speedy Gonzales mood. We thought of swimming Xcacel and doing the groceries, but a big thunderstorm scratched the first part of that plan. We ended up shopping in the Tulum shops and doing our groceries in San Franscisco. The rain finally stopped in mid-afternoon, and we just had time for one dive each in HMB. Not the best, since visibility was poor, and the waves were beating us up. Still, I managed to spot a couple of new species. After dinner at the penthouse, we got to the Lol Ha to play cards and have a margarita. I think I’ll skip Lol Ha’s margaritas the next time. They are very small, yet very strong–not the best combination. Also, I like my margaritas with crushed ice, not blocks. I have to figure out how to ask about it in spanish.
By the way, I did spend part of this rainy morning doing a video montage on yesterday’s main event.
The was a huge storm that night with lightning, thunder, and wind like I have never seen. I was in the DR last year when tropical storm Claudette went above, and she didn’t even come close. At one point, the wind picked up the patio table and slammed it on the lights of the ceiling. The power went out, and all we had was lightning to figure out where did we put the candles.
The morning of the day after the storm was still pretty overcast, even a little chilly. A tree by the condo had fallen across the street, and the only thing keeping it from falling all across was the electrical wire 8-0. We felt that since the day was cool and that it was a Saturday, the day most of the tourists come and go, it might be a good idea to hit Xcaret. I always assumed Xcaret was sort of like a Mayan Disneyland. The moment I pulled in, I knew I had assumed incorrectly. The parking is actually quite well-designed, with lots of trees for shade. At Disney, it would just be a huge slab of asphalt. We got in at 9am and were only the 10th car coming in. The landscaping of this place is just fabulous–the best I have ever seen in a theme park. Lots and lots of tropical vegetation filled with trails and surprises. The iguanas were also as abundant as squirrels in Central Park. As the clouds were still present in the morning, we started by doing some exploring. We had fun in the ruins, visited the Mayan village and the butterfly house (nice design, but not enough species). When the sun got out, we hit the beach, and I took a tube, put my daughter on my lap, and paddled to the screen across the lagoon where you get very close to the dolphins. There were a lot of little fish in the lagoon, and when a bigger one wanted to have lunch, they would all start to jump out of the water (very cool). Our favorite activity on that day was the underground river. I almost had to twist one of my wife’s arms off before she agreed to go and almost backed out when she dipped her toe into that (almost freezing) water. In the end, she was the one who had the most fun, since she is an excellent swimmer with an incredible leg stroke. That river is long, and it’s a long swim… but still a lot of fun.
We had chosen to have dinner at the night show. The tables are very well-designed and positioned. The food was good, but a better-designed children’s menu would have been appreciated. They don’t appreciate peppered chicken with Caesar salad that much. The first act of the show (the Mayan part) was just spectacular. It began with the jugo de pelota, where the players try to put a rubber ball through a small stone ring using only their hips. This looked extremely hard, but they accomplished it with a certain elegance. Then it was a hockey game with a flaming rubber ball. That is really something they should do at the NHL, as it would really spice up the game. There were some ceremonials between those with beautiful costumes and animals. Finally, there was a large rendition of the arrival of the Spaniards, the conquest and the rise of the Catholic church. After that, it was string of folkloric songs and dances from the different parts of the country. I should have mentionned that 80% of the people at Xcaret on that day were Mexican, and they were really digging this. They knew the songs; they knew the music; they were having fun and showing it. As for me, my knowledge of Mexican folk music is right up there with Mandarin pottery, so it all began to look and sound the same. The drums from the state of Tabasco were cool, though. After two hours, the mariachi walked in (they’re right up there next to street mimes in my book), the kids had their share, and we made our escape to beat the crowd at the exit.
Then, all that was left was the harrowing drive on a Saturday night on a dark Mexican highway. If it’s not the drunken tourist swerving at 70 km/h, it was the drunken Mexican 6 inches behind your rear bumper with his high beams on. Sometimes it was a combination of both. Finally, I almost had a head-on collision with a tour bus passing two other tour buses and assuming oncoming traffic would just pee in their pants and swerve madly onto the shoulder (I sure did). We got home and crashed… in our beds, dead tired, but very satisfied by another great day.
Well, we have most clearly passed the halfway mark, and we have begun to start counting down. Today was a day of surf and sun. After yesterday’s hectic day, we did sleep late (first time ever in here) and took our time to get into gear. Then all we did was walk downstairs to the pool and the bay. I watched the kids play in the pool while my wife snorkeled, and after that, it was my turn… that was our morning. Actually, a lot happened. My wife met a very large elongated silver fish that got pretty close to her. The curiousity was mutual, but when the fish opened up his mouth and she saw all those teeth, she just freaked out… she had just met her first barracuda.
The surf was pretty rough that day. It was sunny, it was hot, and the wind was its usual self, but the waves were the worst I have ever seen here. Maybe it was the tide, or maybe it was a storm offshore. I haven’t been here long enough to know. I do know that there was a pretty good riptide, and that hasn’t happened before. At one point, when I was following a squadron of four squids, a big wave came and ripped my goggles off. I should have known, because these little babies like to hang out where the action is. By some unknown reflex, I had managed to grab onto my goggles, and that’s when the training and experience paid off (don’t stand up and crush the coral, put goggles back, hold top, blow air out of your nose). By that time, those little thingies had gone off, and I decided to call it a day.
After lunch, we were wondering what to do when it hit me. What do you do when surf’s up? Well, you surf, of course! I knew that 10km to the south was a beach, Xcacel, which was a good turtle nesting ground and which did not have a barrier reef. Off we go with the boogie boards in the trunk. The road to Xcacel is very poorly indicated (actually, the sign is after the road, as I had noticed on a precious trip to Tulum). Also, there were potholes the size of my car. A guard told me in Spanglish that we will have to take all our stuff, he will watch the car and we will tip him on the way back. I already knew about this so all we had were our towels and boards.
And what about those waves. There were really killer, and it’s a great thing I did not listen to James when he told me there were no waves at this time of the year and that we should have left the boards at home. We boarded until all our body cavities were completely filled up with sand, and then we started to do a rather lame beach-hopping on the way back. Both the beaches at South Akumal and Jade Bay were not accessible. There was a small path leading to the beach at the northern tip of the road in Jade Bay, but the beach there was very rocky. We stopped at Akumal, but it was packed with locals (it was Sunday), and the water was too blurry to snorkel. We finally decided to get home, as it was already 5:30: time to shower and get a beer.
This vacation is really sinking in now, as we are starting to get up later and later. After breakfast, I settled into the hammock and continued my reading on the rise and demise of the Inca empire. My wife and daughter had gone to Akumal for some supplies. When she came back, she had this little smile she has when she makes an executive decision and knows I’ll like it. The first thing was that she had registered me for the turtle walk tonight, as there was one place that has become available. The second thing was that she had chartered a fishing boat, and we were leaving within the hour.
It was a small but sturdy boat with four lines. It came at $100 for two and a half hours–a pretty good deal, I think. The boat took a northern turn and soon, we were passing in front of HMB, each of us with a rod and chugging cervezas and agua, as the sun was quite hot. Just before Xaac Cove, something gave a hard thud at my rod, and the line started spinning. I gave it a pull, and I saw this large barracuda jumping out of the water. It was man versus fish, predator versus predator, but I was not letting go. While my wife was watching, another one made way with her bait. I finally reeled in this 3.5-foot barracuda–about the size my wife had encountered yesterday. I inquired if we could eat it and asked about the potential risk of ciguatera. Moises told me that if the fish had put up a lazy fight, it would have been too risky to consume. This one, however, fought really well, so it was good for the casserole.
Nothing happened for another hour, and the kids almost fell asleep on their bunk. I ask Moises for another cerveza when my rod got a pull and went limp–that one got away. Immediately, Anne-Marie screamed that she’s got one, and the other rod beside me started spinning. I grabbed it, and both of us were pulling and reeling. We got a two-foot-long barracuda each. We immediately decided to release the both of them, since we already had more than enough fish meat. So in the end, it was two misses and three hits. We got back to Akumal Bay, and I had to go through the usual “fisherman with a big catch” pause for posterity. Moises then filleted the barracuda, put it in my ice box, and off we went.
After lunch, my daughter fell asleep, so I snorkeled HMB with my underwater camera. The conditions were much better than the last two days. Visibility was very good and wave action minimal. I was able to finally get a good shot at a squid and a large pool of blue tangs. Finally, I almost collided with this 2-foot turtle that lazily swam by me for about five minutes before moving on. When Claudia awoke, she wanted to go to the beach, so we went back to Playa Akumal. I snorkeled with her in water one to two feet deep, and a surprising number of fish went by. That included a two-foot barracuda and a cute cofferfish. I did some exploring on my own, and at one spot, there was a large metal plow half buried in the silt, and under it was this 5-foot green moray eel. I think it was the one I saw last week under those concrete blocks.
Dinner was (very) fresh barracuda, and off I was to the CEA turtle walk. It began with an interesting presentation on turtles and their life cycle. One thing I did not know was that turtles spend their first 10 to 15 years in the same bay where they were born. There are currently 22 turtles in Akumal Bay, including a local turtle with only one flipper, which has become a local celebrity. We then walked up the beach to Jade Bay (actually named Bahia Tortuga) without seeing anything. When we reached the hatchery, Ivan (their boss) ran to us and told us that one of the nests was hatching. The staff became very excited and started hugging each other. It was to be the first hatching they would witness, and they kept reminding me how lucky I had been to have witnessed such an event a few days ago. We were not allowed to go to the hatchery, but they brought the 100 babies in a styrofoam box. Ivan got in the water with a flashlight to simulate the moon, and each of us was allowed to take one and put it onto the beach to watch them make their way to their new life. I came to Akumal in the hope that I would be able to witness at least one egg-laying event. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be blessed to witness two hatchings instead.
I was planning to skip this report because we were on full farniente/manana mode and nothing. All day I did basically nothing. I got breakfast at Turtle Bay Cafe (which we are totally hooked on), did some snorkeling, read, and took a siesta on the hammock. So as you can see, there was nothing to report. There was neither waves nor wind today. Only a puny little thing blowing from the jungle and bringing even more humidity. The visibility in the bay was crystal-clear, but there was nary a turtle flipper to be seen. Those who know me and those who are still reading this report know that this is totally out of character. So yes, there was a method in my laziness. Another turtle nest was due to hatch, and the sand had started to drop, a sign that the eggs were hatching under one foot of sand. So every hour or so, I would walk on the beach to the nest to see if any little head was poking though. Nada all day long.
We had dinner at the Lol Ha beach grill, and it was pretty ordinary. The only extraordinary outside dinners we’ve had to date were at Oscar Y Lalo and at the Turtle Bay Cafe. My wife is allergic to chili peppers, so we have to be careful (she gets a lot of stomach cramps from them). So in the end, all of my family would much rather have me or my wife prepare the meals–we are both pretty good cooks, so we don’t miss out much. It’s also less hassle to prepare a meal than to entertain two little kids while awaiting a meal they probably won’t eat. Also, the penthouse comes with a maid service which does the dishes, so it is still a vacation.
So we come back from dinner, I look out from the veranda, and I see a small crowd at the beach: hatching! So in typical U.S. army fashion, we hurry up and wait. Once the first head pokes up, it can take from one to two hours for the full-blown volcano to erupt. At this time of the year, night falls at the speed of a racing horse and we are soon in complete darkness getting eaten up by the bugs. So in the end, it won’t be as exciting as last Thursday. However, this place is always full of surprise. Word gets to to us that another, 100 meters away, is also hatching. We walk back and forth to try and guess which one would blow up first, but it’s a dead heat. There was a two-way radio that kept us informed on the progress. Suddenly, we get word that the southern nest is erupting. I bolt and run just in time to see a flow of turtles splurt out from the nest. That one was much bigger than last time (147 eggs versus 87), and a carpet of turtle starts to wiggle their way to the waves. It’s very dark, and with a couple of red lights, and we coax the babies into the sea and away from the building lights. Then I hear that the other nest has erupted 30 seconds after the first one. When I get back to it, Elio is already digging the stragglers out. There was not pictures of these hatching. It was pitch-black, and even though I still had the red filter on my camera, there was no way I could reach the level of photographic clariry I got the first time. So my camera stayed in my pocket and I was just busy enjoying myself and swatting mosquitos. After the excitement dies down I ask myself: What were the odds of having two nest, 100 meters apart, hatching simultaneously? It’s not the time of day. The first one happened at 6:30pm, the one last night was at 10 pm, and those two were around 8pm. I wonder if they were not listening to some unknown message. I’m sure we still have a lot to learn from those fabulous creatures.
There was no wind last night, so for the first time we had to turn on the air-conditioning. The morning was clear but a little chilly. We had heard that an open-air market was in Akumal on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so we went to have a look. It was neat, but it became very hot with no wind, and the children and I became dehydrated. So we retreated to the condo and lounged in the pool. My wife stayed on a little longer, even in the heat. If I ever hear her complain that it’s too warm, it would have meant aliens had abducted her and swiped her brain with somebody else’s. When she got back, I was free to roam HMB. I saw a big stingray and a turtle in the usual spot (Turtle City). On this dive, I pushed all the way to the northern reef wall. I had not been to that section before since it is usually inaccessible. However, the tide was high, the sea was very calm (remember, no wind), and you could swim close and above the reef without being ripped to shreds. It was pretty fun and I managed to see three more turtles there. That made for a new record of four turtles in one dive. Still, my wife held the record with five in one dive, although I do hold the title for total sightings (18 to date). In the afternoon we went to El Paraiso Beach Club in Tulum, with a beautiful beach with sand of talcum consistency. The sea was turquoise with little waves. There was a bar with swings, music that was not overbearing, and fantastic pina coladas. It was your typical dream vacation spot& my wife and kids just loved it. I had arranged for dinner at Gringo Dave’s and got the table at the far end of the rocky encampment. The view there is absolutely stunning, and with the sun going low, the light was just perfect. The margaritas were the best I have tasted in a long time. The last time they were that good was in 1992 on the terrace of a small Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs on a 110°F day. I had the Mexican octopus and my wife had the fish filet. We concluded with the banana flambé. The only sour notes were that the vegetables were clearly of the frozen kind and the coffee cups were really dirty, just as if he had just picked them up from another table. Overall, it was as good as Oscar Y Lalo, our best restaurant meal to date.
Elio had kept a few baby turtles in a sand box from yesterday’s mega-hatching because their yolk sacks were improperly closed. Those usually have a high risk of getting infected if they are released immediately, so the procedure is to keep them for a day and to release them at dusk. We got back just in time for this and said our final goodbye to those baby turtles that so brightened this vacation.
There are two days to go before heading back. There is no more manana left for Xel-Ha, so it has to be today. We got in the gate at 9am, just as they opened, but already three tour buses were disgorging their hordes. However, by the time their guides had corralled them into line and given them useless instructions, we were through the gates. There were other groups ahead of us, but they had to get their snorkeling gear and all stopped at the first gate (as mentioned in other posts). We already had all our gear and moved to station three to get a locker. We got a nice quiet section of beach chairs close to the children playground and dropped our stuff there. A few minutes later, we were all in the lagoon, not the first ones in but very close.
The water in the lagoon is divided into three parts. The first two feet are greenish/brown and cold! Then there is a blurry section between two and three feet deep that has an oily appearance from the mixing of fresh and salt water. Finally, the deeper section is clear and warm — too bad you need to hold your breath to get there. The bottom is mostly silt, so my guess is that within a couple of hours of being stirred around, the visibility will go down to nearly zero. Oh yeah! The fishes& lots of them and they are BIG! They must be spiking the lagoon with steroids or something, because these babies are the biggest I have ever seen. There are even these tri-color parrot fishes of a species I have never seen before, red being the dominant color. There are these schools of two- to three-foot jacks that let you swim among them as if you belonged there. Those fish are really used to human presence. We swam all the way to the floating bridge, where you had even more of these fish. There was this huge grouper with a big set of teeth that scared the hell out of my daughter, the one who laughed in the face of a two-foot barracuda a few days ago.
We got back to our spot, hunted iguanas (there were as big as the fishes),and finally, took the little train to the tubing/river ride. I would have rather taken the bikes, but they were too big for the kids. So we rode lazily down the river, proved our courage at the cliff, and eventually made it to the other side& eventually. Dinner was a very expensive cheeseburger. We slept in the hammocks, watched the dolphins, did some shopping, and ended up buying one of those pictures they take during your visit. (We don’t have that many of the four of us). There were way too many people for my liking. We counted over 30 tour buses on our way out. Clouds had been gathering since mid-morning and thunder had rumbled for the last 3 hours. As we made our way to the parking lot, the first drops began to fall.
We got home, made some margaritas, and finished up the barracuda. I made a small excursion to the Cyber Cafe for my first reintroduction to the world since our vacation. Apparently, the Earth has not stopped spinning since we got here.
So then, Xcaret or Xel-Ha? We liked both of them, but I think we appreciated Xel-Ha more. Xcaret was a lot more expensive, and you pay more for things you will not have the time to do. Both are actually very good at separating the tourist from his money. So here is my advice for your vacation: Pick one, go on a weekend, and arrive as early as you can. You’ll be back to do the other one eventually. If you love snorkeling or it is very hot, go to Xel-Ha.
The rest of the evening was spent sitting on the veranda, listening to the sea and watching the thunderstorms.
This was our last full day. Tomorrow morning we have to be at the airport at 9:45am for our flight home. We awoke to a gorgeous sunrise and walked to Turtle Bay Cafe to get breakfast. We snorkeled HMB with the kids, hoping to see a last turtle with them. We did see one, but the visibility was not good on that day and it kept zipping at the edge of our vision. My son wanted also to see some squids, so I took him in the part of the bay with the biggest waves. We got beaten up pretty bad, but he was a trooper and finally got his wish and saw four big ones in formation. The squid turned out to be my favorite encounter after the turtles. On the way back we saw a big scorpion fish, a first encounter in this bay.
After lunch, my wife wanted some real beach time, so we went to Caleta Tankah. We almost had the club to ourselves all afternoon. The setting is beautiful, the sand was almost perfect, and the waves were perfect for the kids. The waves were a little moderate for my taste, but I spent hours putting the kids on my board, standing at the break point, waiting for a good wave to come, and zipping them to the shoreline, screaming with glee.
Caleta Tankah has an interesting natural pool where a subterranean river disgorges into the sea. It was okay for swimming (the water was cold and there were rocks), but with a mask, it was a lot of fun. The water was either extremely clear or oily from the mixture of salt and fresh water. There was a lot of fish, some of them over 2 feet long. The current was strong, I would hang on with my feet and hands — sub-aquatic rock climbing I called it.
When we got back, it was late afternoon, but I wanted one last dive while the wife and kids took their shower. The waves were pretty strong, but the visibility was relatively good. I saw a big turtle, but it was just swimming too fast. I guess they are not that good at goodbyes. Then, by a reef, I saw a small 1.5-foot one. The young ones are usually nervous, but this one let me get really close. I followed him for a while when suddenly, BAM! He was gone over the reef like a missile. I looked around and noticed I had never been in that particular place before. That little turtle had led me into a 30-foot area with the reef on three sides. I had noticed that place before from the veranda but had never found my way into it. On the sea floor were about 100 fish of half a dozen species (blue tang, surgeon fish, parrot fish, blue-striped grunts) free-floating in the waves. I felt as if Bahia Media Luna was saying goodbye. As a parting gift, right in the middle of that depression, was the biggest urchin shell I have ever seen, the size of an orange and in perfect condition.
On my way out, that little turtle was there as if waiting for me. I swam with it for a few minutes, thanking it telepathically for the wonderful discoveries I had made in the last couple of weeks. I stopped and stood there, watching it slowly go away, going up for air, and disappearing into the deep-blue sea. Then I turned around and went home.