Sunday, July 24, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 3: Tulum Cenotes, Mayan Ruins and Casa Jaguar Jungle Dining

Our excitement rose with the sun on the third day:  we were heading to Tulum for many firsts: first time diving in cenotes, first time visiting Tulum's Mayan ruins, and first time dining 'in the jungle'.

We started our hour and a half drive south from Cancun at 6:30am to make our morning dive call time.

Where Cancun is a mass of commercialism, mostly packed with tourists, day drinking, nightly debauchery, and sensory overload, Tulum (at least the parts we saw) was all beauty, authenticity and calm.

Aside from ancient ruins, gorgeous beaches and jungles, there are also thousands of cenotes (sinkholes created by collapsed limestone over ground water) that form a large and fascinating underground cave system in Tulum and Mayan Riviera.  We had chosen two that sounded amazing but would also suit our level of experience.

Despite a hiccup with our guide at Calypso Dive Center waking up with clogged sinuses (making it dangerous for him to dive), when he heard how far we traveled, he called in a favor from a dive master friend to lead us.

After a gear fitting and quick debriefing, Julio drove us north through the jungle to arrive at our first stop, which initially was difficult to tell was a destination at all.



What only looked like a small clearing from the road turned out to be a gorgeous shimmering pond of clear turquoise, framed by lush greenery: and the 'gateway' to Casa Cenote.

The entrance was actually underwater, so we slipped our gear on while sitting at the pond's rocky edges, then dove below gorgeous root forests to get to the start of the passages.

The inner sanctum of Casa Cenote was nothing short of transcendent. The way rays / panels of light shone down through the crystal clear water, through natural chambers and passages between towering limestone walls, with nothing but the sound of our breath and fins rhythmically fluttering, brought a sense of indescribable spiritual calm and peacefulness.


Click below to watch a video of our dive, captured with GoPro Hero Silver 4:

 

It was one of the most life changing dives I'd done so far - and I was grateful to have been able to experience this one as our first cenote dive - Casa CEnote was going to be extremely hard to top!

 Our second cenote was the better known Dos Ojos - the visitor center is also located there.

This was a more physically demanding dive, even before we hit water.

From the parking area, all visitors must haul their own gear (~50-60 pounds? for us including tanks) down flights of stairs to reach the dark lip of the cavernous entrance to the cenote.



We pulled our gear on, then scampered down a few underwater steps to the passage entrance.

Where Casa Cenote was mostly lofty turquoise and azure beauty and light, Dos Ojos was a lot more intimidating to a rookie diver - most of the dive was in the dark, flashlight required, and through narrow passages filled with stalactites and stalagmites, where you could not surface immediately if something were to go wrong.

Yellow rope threaded throughout the system helps guide tourists to stick to the known, safest route.  After completing this dive I would recommend other rookies work to master buoyancy before attempting it - otherwise, like me, you will struggle trying to stay in the middle of the passage and not get poked by the rock formations above or below.  When trying to control my buoyancy, I kept ping-ponging up and down wildly.  It was by sheer luck (and the watchful eye of our guide) that I think I got through that dive without incident or injury.

Another note about Dos Ojos: since it is a more frequented site, they've got more set up to support common tourist needs, like a camera with flash near the end of the dive like at an amusement park - and you can buy a print of the photo at the info center after; there are t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale at the center - but it is cash only so be sure to prepare accordingly (no ATMs there), USD is accepted as well as pesos.

As always starving post dive, we headed to El Camello Jr.  Seeing a long line wrapping around the block, and that we had to get to the Mayan ruins before the park closes for the day, we got food to go and scarfed everything down on a bench at the park entrance.

Here is the seafood ceviche.



Fish tacos.

And shrimp tacos.





It was a beautiful hike up to the Tulum ruins from there.

The only Mayan city built along the coast, and one of the few with a wall ("tulum" translates literally to "wall" and was designed to be a seaport), gorgeous architecture dating back to the 13th century overlooks sheer limestone bluffs and the impossibly blue Caribbean.





It was incredible to see these historical relics that stood the test of time.



For dinner, we ventured back into the jungle - a very unexpectedly chic stretch of it, minutes from the ruins.

We originally intended to check out Hartwood, a World's 50 Best Restaurant, but as they do not accept reservations and were already full for the night, we skipped down the road to Casa Jaguar.  The kitchen was al fresco, with rustic touches like a wood burning oven and reclaimed wood everything.

We dined and toasted with craft cocktails to the sounds of birds in the jungle - such an incredible experience.  (But as a reminder, when in nature you have to be prepared for the bad with the good - be sure to bring an arsenal of mosquito repellent or you will become the thing that the buggers feast on!)



The food was fine dining quality, but not mind blowing like we imagined Hartwood would be.  It was upscale Latin American with influences from the chef's travels to Asia and Europe, using local ingredients, from grilled shrimp with garlic butter, guajillo chiles and mezcal, to plantains.

Tulum was an amazing day trip down from Cancun, but since we all loved the diving, food and whole laid back, small town vibe of Tulum - next time we visit we will definitely look to find a place to stay there.

It would be very difficult to pick a favorite day out of our incredible Cancun/Tulum trip - special thanks to @jennybawel for all the hard work researching and booking the dives and handling transpo logistics! - but if I had to choose, Day 3 might be it.

Check out my recaps of Day 1 and Day 2. Stay tuned for my recap of Days 4 and 5 coming soon! In the meantime, for more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog


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Tulum, Mexico

Ontime Car Rental
Blvd. Kukulcan, Km 11.5 Loc. 101-B
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77500
Ph: +52 998 883 0160
Website: ontimecarrental.com

La Calypso Dive Center
Tulum Quintana Roo Mexico 
Email: lacalypsodivecenter@gmail.com
Ph: +52 (1) 984 106 80 02
+52 (1) 984 100 73 85
Website: lacalypsodivecenter.com

Casa Cenotes 
Tulum 77780, Mexico


Cenotes: Dos Ojos
17km north of Tulum
Website: cenotedosojos.com


El Camello Jr
Carretera Chetumal-Cancun Locales 1 y 2 Lte 3 Mza 40, Centro, 77600 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Ph: +52 984 871 2036

Mayan Ruins Tulum
Website: tulumruins.net

Casa Jaguar 
Carretera Tulum Bocapaila km 7.5, Tulum, Quintana Roo
Website: casajaguar-tulum.com

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com


Day 3 costs breakdown:

  • Car Rental: $40 USD per day = $10 per person per day including mandatory liability insurance
    • Gas: 200 pesos per day = 50 pesos per person per day (~$3 USD)
  • Cenotes Dives: $130pp includes dive gear rental, entrance fees, transportation from dive center to dive spots, guide and water
    • Dive tips: $20 per person
  • Lunch at El Camello Jr
  • Tulum ruins: admission: 40 pesos per person (~$2 USD)
  • Casa Jaguar 
    • Dinner: 350 pesos entree + 150 pesos cocktail (~$27 USD)
    • Parking: 50 pesos (~$3 USD)
  • Hotel: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$195 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here, Day 2 here, and stay tuned for Days 4 and 5.  To see more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 2: Scuba Adventures: Underwater Sculpture Gardens and My First Night Dive!

Our second day in Cancun fell on July 4th!  We celebrated freedom and independence remotely, by spending most of the day (and night) immersed in underwater adventure.

Though I am not a morning person at all, waking up to this gorgeous white sand and clear blue ocean at The Westin could easily make me a convert.
And the service was also fantastic - even though we were there on a 'rewards' stay using Starwood points, the hotel still gave us complimentary breakfast buffet for two in their lovely sunlit beachfront restaurant.

With a planned morning dive, we couldn't completely indulge in the AYCE breakfast, but I loved the fresh fruit offerings including whole granadilla (first time I've seen / tried this fruit), guava, mango, as well as the made to order omelettes.


Our first dive of the day would be at the Museo Subacuatico de Arte ( MUSA), an underwater museum with over 1300 artificial habitats, an innovative project designed to counteract effects of climate change on oceans and reef systems by diverting tourism away from the national marine park, and creating new places for reef and marine life to colonize and thrive. 

It was a choppy 40 mins-long boat ride from Cancun to reach MUSA, just off the coast of Isla Mujeres (don't forget the dramamine, people!) - but once we were underwater, it was utter calm.

There were several galleries in the MUSA collection, at varying depths to allow those who are more into snorkeling or free diving to enjoy viewings as well.

Our tour brought us first to a reef teeming with smaller fish.  These locals were super friendly and curious, and one little guy even seemed to follow me around through several clusters of coral.



Then it was on to an actual MUSA site, Salon Manchones, about 8 feet deep and recommended more to scuba divers.

The installations consisted of various objects sunk to create habitats for marine life, from a Volkswagen beetle with a statue in fetal position on its windshield, to groups of statues like 'The Bankers', bodies only in prone position next to briefcases.
But the most haunting installation for me was a group of 400+ life-size standing figures in The Silent Evolution galleries, by renowned British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor: some faces uplifted with pleading expressions - as if souls abandoned to the sea, looking for salvation that never comes.

As we are relatively new to scuba diving and sought diversity of experiences to add to our PADI log book, this was an interesting one - but personally I find that I prefer dives designed around larger marine life (or cenotes, which was scheduled for Day 3 of this trip!).

In any case, apparently diving is a good form of exercise - we emerged from the sea starving, so very uncharacteristically opted for the closest seafood shack to the dive shop. This happened to be on the lively Disco Beach.  First things first at Paradise Restaurante, a tamarindo margarita with chips and salsa. 
Of course, what beach vacation would be complete without a pina colada or three?  And when served in a pineapple?  All the better.  Though, I wasn't into the crazy Gremlin inspired face they made with fruit.  But the cocktail was refreshing on a scorching day at the beach.
When seaside, we try to of course dine accordingly - focusing on seafood.  Even though Paradise Restaurante was chosen based on expedience, and clearly catered to tourist tastes, we tried to go with the fresher sounding seafood items on the menu.  And, we were amused by the banner over the kitchen's pass - I'd love to be on a #seafooddiet for sure.
I ended up with fried whole fish, while others at the table ordered seafood tacos.

We also shared a plate of crabs, which were tasty but on the smaller side, with not that much meat for the price.


We had such fun with Cancun Scuba Center during the day that we decided to return that evening for our first night dive.  This departs from a different dock, next to the Holiday Inn in hotel zone.  It's easy enough to get around in the hotel zone using public transportation - the buses that go up and down the strip are only $1 per trip!  But since we had Tulum on the itinerary for the next day, our travel planner / agent extraordinaire @jennybawel had planned ahead and secured a rental car - so while we did our night dive Jenny took care of the car rental.

To be perfectly honest, the night dive was nerve-wracking for me, especially as a newish diver and not a very strong swimmer - the first few minutes were every bit as disorienting as I thought it would be.  We were supplied with flashlights, and outside of the immediate foot or so that the light is able to reach, it was pitch black underwater.  I was glad for the light, but it was one more thing to need to worry about among the many necessary steps you had to take to descend underwater safely - I heard myself breathing faster and deeper breaths in my nervousness.

Only two things helped me not drain all the air out of my tank before I even reach sea bed - our guide, who reassuringly let me hang onto his arm the whole time, and a giant sea turtle, who showed up a few minutes into our dive, curious to see what these bubble-making monsters were that was invading  his territory.  He swam right up to us and alongside us for what seemed like 5 minutes, and was joined by another turtle friend for a bit.  It was thoroughly magical.  I was too nervous to bring my GoPro down for the night dive, so no videos unfortunately - but it was kind of refreshing too, to just be in the moment, or as yoga teachers like to say, to be "present" - instead of engaging from behind a lens.  And it was a beautiful one, that I will never forget.

After the dive, Jenny picked us up and we grabbed quick food - restaurant selection again based on convenience post dive - at Mextreme, where tourist-friendly chefs prepared guacamole for us tableside.  Thus wrapped a fun Day 2 in Cancun.

See my recap for Day 1 here, and Day 3 here.  Look out for recaps of Days 4 and 5 coming soon.  In the meantime, check out more photos from this trip on my Instagram 

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Cancun, Mexico
Westin Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com

MUSA
Salon Manchones
Website: musamexico.org

Cancun Scuba Center

Website: cancunscubacenter.com

Paradise Restaurante at Disco Beach
Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 6.5 Local 8, Playa Tortugas, Zona Hotelera, 77500 CancĂșn

Night Dive
Cancun Scuba Center
Website: cancunscubacenter.com

Mextreme Cancun
Zona Hotelera Km 9 | (Frente Al Centro de Convenciones), Cancun 77500


Day 2 costs breakdown:
  • Breakfast buffet: $0 cost, complimentary with hotel stay; $10 USD tip
  • MUSA + Reef dive $83pp + $20 tip 
  • Lunch: $30
  • Rental car: $120 for 3 days = $40 per day split 4 ways = $10 per person per day
  • Gas for rental car: 600 pesos for 3 days = 200 pesos per day split 4 ways = 50 pesos per person per day (~$2.64 USD pp / day)
  • Bus to night dive: $1pp
  • Night dive: + $20 tip
  • Dinner: $45
  • Westin Resort & Spa Cancun: 8,500 Starwood points
  •  Total: ~$221.64 USD per person 

(See my recap for Day 1 here, and Day 3 here.  Look out for recaps of Days 4 and 5 coming soon.  In the meantime, check out more photos from this trip on my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)
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Sunday, June 19, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 1: Chichen Itza, Wonders of the Kukulkan Pyramid and My First Cenote

Fiji was an amazing, bucketlist trip that set off our adventure travel bug - and last summer, I was excited and grateful to go off on another, this time in Mexico!

With two of us arriving early morning and fellow dive & dine enthusiast friends gourmetpigs and @jennybawel in the afternoon, the early birds decided to tour the ancient Mayan capital and UNESCO World Heritage site, Chichen Itza.

After a redeye from LA - we had just enough time to drop our bags at the hotel before the tour shuttle pulled up.

After an educational 3.5 hour ride (downside of guided tours: time spent rounding up guests from hotels; upside: knowledgeable guide: did you know "Cancun" was derived from Mayan words for 'pot of snakes' or 'nest of snakes'?), we arrived at Chichen Itza which translates to "at the mouth of the Iza well".

From ~550 AD-800 AD, Chichen Itza served mainly as a ceremonial center for Mayan civilization. Around 987 AD, two people, likely the same person, were believed to have brought Toltec beliefs and practices to the region: Kukulkan (Kukul means “feathered” and kan means “serpent”) and Quetzalcoatl (also meaning feathered serpent, but an Aztec god of wind and learning): including the practice of human sacrifice.

The iconic El Castillo or Kukulkan pyramid, a temple to celebrate the deity, was of course the first sight we visited, and it is rich with symbolism.  There are 4 sides to the pyramid with 91 steps each, representing the four seasons and days in the season, plus one extra step at the very top to total 365 calendar days per year. 

Not only is the pyramid imdued with meaning, it is an incredible meeting of poetic artistry with brilliance in math and sciences - especially in its ingenious design to interact with the sun at specific times of year: equinoxes and solstices.  On equinoxes the length of day and night are equal, while on solstices we have the shortest daylight and longest darkness of the year.  The location of El Castillo, the direction the pyramid is facing, and the steps and platforms on each side, interacts with the sun at different times of year so that light and shadow play off the pyramid (e,g. during solstices exactly half the pyramid is in light or shadow; just before fall equinox the sun seems to 'snake' down the side with nine triangles in the evening to hit the snake heads at its base) - which Mayans were believed to have used to plan harvests / plantings, wedding and burials.  Guess how many days between these events?  91, except for the summer solstice and fall equinox - which is separated by 92 days. Yes, this matches the number of steps on the pyramid to total 365.

We didn't get to witness the chiaroscuro during our visit, but all the more reason to come back again (for those interested, equinox dates are March 21 & Sept 22, and solstice dates are usually around June 21 & Dec 22, but this year it's tomorrow June 20). 

With the featured serpent god, sculpted snake heads were incorporated into the rich architectural detail throughout the site. 
We also toured the platform of eagles and jaguars (symbolizing warriors tasked with bringing humans to sacrifice to the gods), ancient Great Ball Court, and the plaza of a Thousand Columns (which stood the test of thousands of years apparently only to end up in service of modern music videos).

But to geek out some more on the architecture.  The quetzal bird, with males sporting resplendent tail feathers up to a meter long, is not only considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world, in ancient times it held special significance for Mayans and Aztecss - and was associated with feathered serpent king Kukulkan.

So it was, our guide pointed out, that a pyramid built in tribute to Kukulkan would incorporate this acoustic feature: stand on the West or North sides of the pyramid, facing the bottom of the steps, and clap: sound waves will travel up the limestone steps as if the steps were percussion strings, to echo through the empty chamber at the top to create a sound that mimics the call of the rare bird quetzal. (The only reason why this doesn't work on the south and east sides now is because of damage / missing blocks.)  An amazing architectural feat in any day, but especially astounding that Mayans were able to build with such precision in ancient times.

After our time at the pyramid and surrounding grounds was up, we took a short ride, 2.5km away to my first ever cenote.

Cenotes are sink holes, where the limestone roof over a body of water collapses - the ground water below is pristine and gorgeous surrounded by lush greenery rimmed openings. There are many of these in the Yucatan pennisula and they even form a vast underground system.  Mayans believed them to be 'sacred wells' (direct translation of name) which are portals through which they can communicate with the gods.

We planned to scuba dive through fresh water and salt water cenotes once our entire group arrives.  But, the one we visited our first day, Cenote Ik Kil was a nice intro to an all-access cenote that was easy for families to get to: it was even set up with a restaurant directly above.

After a buffet lunch (included in price of tour, but offerings to be honest are pretty basic, this is definitely not destination dining, but more of a utilitarian approach to service tourists - though the surroundings are beautiful.  If you are particular about your food I would bring your own snacks and water)...

...we were given an hour and a half of free time to enjoy the cenote.  I was glad Viator had given us advance notice to bring our swimsuits and our own towels - we changed quickly in the modern restrooms, and made our way down several flights of limestone steps to the swimming hole (note, bring dive shoes with tread if you can, as the steps are rough, wet and slippery pretty much all of the time).

In retrospect, after having dived through truly life changing cenotes that were more remote, beautiful and indeed spiritual, Cenote Ik Kil was not the best way to experience the natural phenomena - it was extremely crowded, and the water was actually quite deep and quite cold, so those like me who are actually not strong swimmers may have some hesitation.  However, it was included as part of the Viator tour, and great for larger groups and families where accommodations need to be made for different levels of mobility and interests.

Another few hours' ride back to hotel zone, and coming straight through from a redeye, we had absolutely maxed out our first day and fed quickly at the lovely ocean front Westin Resort & Spa before tapping out for the night.

With that wrapped our first culture, history and fun filled day in Cancun!

Read on to get the recap of Day 2 here and Day 3 here.  Stay tuned for my recap for Days 4 coming soon.  In the meantime, to see more pics from this trip, check out my Instagram.



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Cancun, Mexico
USA Transfers
Shuttle from airport to hotel zone
Email: reservations@entertainment-plus.net
Ph: (310) 909-8634 or local in Cancun: 914-0290

Chichen Itza
Kukulkan Pyramid, Yucatan Peninsula, in the Yucatan State; Mexico
Website: chichenitza.com
Viator day tour from Cancun
Ph: 1 (866) 648-5873

Cenote y Restaurante Ik Kil

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400
Website: starwoodhotels.com
 

Day 1 costs breakdown per person:
  • Shuttle from airport to hotel zone: $35 (total for up to 3 passengers, so individual cost for 2 of us came out to $17.50 + tip = $21 each)
  • Chichen Itza Kukulkan Pyramid with Viator tour: $69.99 + $15 tip
  • Cenote Ik Kil and restaurant buffet lunch: included with Viator tour, but bring cash for drinks which cost extra (USD accepted) 30 pesos (~$1.60 USD) + 5 pesos tip (~$0.25 USD)
  • Taxi to hotel: 250 pesos (~$18 USD total, $4.50 each)
  • Westin Resort & Spa Cancun: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$113 USD per person 

Read on to get the recap of Day 2 here and Day 3 here.  Stay tuned for my recaps for Day 4 coming soon.  In the meantime, to see more pics from this trip, check out my Instagram.


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