A Travellerspoint blog

Tulum: A Tale of Two Towns

sunny 33 °C

As I mentioned in my last blog posting, Tulum has three distinct areas: the ruins, the town and the beach. Ruins - self-explanatory. The town - straddling the highway, and located about 3 km. from the beach. Those without cars rent bikes, take taxis, or walk to the beach. The beach - one half is populated by beach clubs and the public beach, and the other half is built-up with hotels and restaurants, and with a bio-reserve at the end.

The law in Mexico states that ALL beaches must be accessible to ALL citizens, but try telling that to the security guards whose job it is to keep their particular establishments clear of riff-raff non-patrons. This spot did not have a guard, but left a no-nonsense sign by the entrance.

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We set out last night to explore the area, known as the Zona Hotelera, stop for a drink, and perhaps have a bite to eat, and quickly discovered that security guards are not the only obstacle to joining the fun. The entrance to this area is guarded and the road is heavily patrolled by police, and dotted with topes about every 100 metres. The road is just wide enough for two lanes of traffic, leaving cyclists and walkers to dodge the steady stream of cars. There are no public parking lots, and parking on the side of the road is fraught with peril, as spots large enough to squeeze your car into are few and far between. Large banners welcome "Dear Drivers" to park, but warn that cars will be towed if they are on the road. When we finally found a spot, we realized that our front tire was about 6 inches on the pavement. We locked up with a bit of trepidation, wondering if this mis-park would result in being hauled to the compound.

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By now, all of my buttons have been seriously pushed, and I am starting to feel annoyed. Where's the hospitality? Where is the spirit of customer service? Why do we have to park in an inconvenient location because we arrived here with NO IDEA of where we might want to eat, or drink, or purchase something? We decided to cut through an eco-lodge (surely they would be nice to us) to check out the beach. Since there was no-one around to stop us, we just walked through. Am I imagining that we strolled through because we are white, older and respectable-looking?

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This was their view of the beach, and will give you an idea of the build-up. Every business is linked by fences, so there is absolutely no way for the public to get to the beach unless they are staying in a hotel, or eating at one of the restaurants. There is a small public beach at the beginning of the strip, which is rocky and rough, with no amenities.

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Before I go on, let me say that in spite of the petty annoyances, I REALLY like Tulum and the area around here, and would happily come back for a holiday, stay in the Zona Hotelera, rent a bike, and dive right into that vortex. Tulum does have a spiritual energy, borne by the stunning abundance of nature, sun and the very interesting mix of people who have been drawn here to build businesses. That old-school spirit of "travel with a dog and a drum" is alive here - this campground and its groovy entrance sign no doubt hosted the 60's and 70's wave of hippies who discovered Mexico long before the idea of all-inclusives were dreamed up.

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Now, take it up a notch, and add numerous really beautiful zen-like retreats and yoga studios. Pure bliss.

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Food is great (so we are told, we didn't stay) - definitely pricier than in town, but for the most part, still reasonable, and fresh, local, organic, and inventive. A number of chef-transplants from the U.S. have switched life priorities, moved here and set up shop. Raw food restaurants and juice bars are just as abundant as wood-fired pizza, and line-caught grouper.

What threatens Tulum's future, to my mind, is the untrammeled growth that surrounds the area, as well as the trend toward being a bit of a "scene". Gwyneth Paltrow- types have made their languid presence felt, and establishments are cropping up to suit that clientele. I have a question though - are you hip if you proclaim yourself to be?

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Let's zip over to the other side of the tracks - the town of Tulum. It's spunky, busy, noisy, full of life and messy - just like Mexico. The main street is filled with restaurants, bars, and shops. There are a number of small hotels, and hostels - the bus station is a few blocks over. It is not pretty, but it's not ugly, either, it is just lively and interesting.

Here is our 'hood - one block off the main drag. We are staying at Posada Tulipanes, in a very Mexican neighborhood, filled with modest homes, modest posadas, grocery stores, and the usual cast of characters - men hanging out drinking beer, vendors riding by selling ice cream, kids playing in the dirt, dogs sleeping in the road. It's not unsafe, but it's not necessarily safe - it is simply typical.

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This is our street, and our car, and our posada - a building with about 6 apartments. At night, when we sit on the back balcony in the dark to see the night sky, the bats swoop down beside us. We have a stray cat, missing half an ear, who visits us. We had two little girls come to our door the other night, looking for money. Despite Stephen's protests, I gave them some pesos, but the building manager Manuel, who lives downstairs, cautioned us against doing that. He told Stephen the girls are sent out to beg by their parents. This kills me - the older girl, maybe 8 or 9, already had a very cunning edge to her - childhood gone. Manuel and Isobel's children most definitely have a childhood. Here, Jesus, Luis and Allah, playing on their dad's truck. I discovered Steve can tease children in at least two languages. Little Jesus fell for the "tu nombre es Manuel" trick a few times.

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We went out for a walk the other night in our neighbourhood, and life unfolded in front of us. First, we saw these two posters - a campaign to stop domestic violence. We watch Mexican men with their families - they are so tender and loving - how does that jive with the effects of alcohol, machismo and the frustration of working so hard for so little? Not for me to try and figure out the root causes, but there does seem to be a push toward educating young men.

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Just around the corner, I saw a bush of tulipanes (our posada is named after them), so I stopped to take a photo.

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Too late, I realized a family was sitting in their yard, right behind the tulipane bush, and of course, they all looked out at me. The dogs started barking, and the best I could do was ask if these were indeed tulipane flowers. They were, we walked off, the dogs still growling and barking.

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Then, the lady called out to me. She had come out of her yard, plucked 3 flowers off the bush, and handed them to me. I was so touched - I gave her a big hug, and asked if we could have a photo. Like women everywhere, she pulled at her blouse, and patted her hair, and we moved in for the photo. A memory I will carry with me, and SO typical of the people we have met.

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This wall, just filled with bougainvillea - they are everywhere in Mexico, and so gorgeous - like silk.

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This is one of our favourite taco shops - packed all the time - we're heading there in a few minutes. On the way home, we will stop by the festival that has been set up about three blocks from our street. They have crammed in a bullring, a Mayan ceremonial centre, gambling, roasted corn stalls, and rows and rows of vendors . This festival will last for two weeks, and culminates EVERY night with music that reverberates for a 10-block radius, and does not end until 4 or 5 am, EVERY morning. Luckily for us, our bedroom faces a back wall, so there is a bit of a buffer, and between the air-con and earplugs, we mainly block it out.

Not to contrast beach Tulum ( touristy and self-contained) with town Tulum (real, authentic - aren't we the brave ones) - not at all. They both have their appeal. But the geographical divide has created another divide, and the comparisons are inevitable.

Not done with Tulum yet - we went snorkelling today for the first time and - as our son Alex is so fond of teasing me - there was an epiphany. Too much to go into here, and tomorrow (our last day here) we're off in search of parrots, so I'll send out another quick one in the next day or so before we begin our slow trip back up north.

Posted by millerburr 15:59 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Hogging the shade in Tulum

sunny 31 °C

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The beach at Tulum is just as advertised - water fans out from the palest turquoise to the deepest marine blue. The pale beige (it's not white) sand really is the texture of baking soda. Waves roll in gently, colourful boats bob by the shore - at first glance, this is someone's marketing dream.

But... there is the not insignificant matter of finding shade. You have two options. You pay $15-$20 a day for an umbrella and lounge chairs at the exclusive El Paraiso Beach Club, plus the cost of lunch and drinks (even water), as all outside food and beverages are prohibited. Or... you join the Mexicans - park on the adjoining road, walk in to the beach and stake out a spot. Naturally, everyone wants shade, but the palm trees in the background belong to the beach club - the lone palm tree in the foreground (the one we have come to think of as "our tree") is one of the few spots for shade. It is prime real estate.

The chair you see in this photo? That is one of our chairs. No idea who the man is - he was just sleeping peacefully when I arrived. By today - our third day at the beach - we have our strategy honed. We arrive before 10:00 am - just the joggers are out then. I run down the beach to grab that spot before anyone else can get to it, while Steve finishes parking the car, "tipping" the police officer, and struggles to join me, carrying our cooler and his chair. Once we are settled in, we position ourselves advantageously, so as to move with the shade, and not get boxed in by interlopers. I feel for all the world like my Aunt Edie, who could clear the food court at Granville Island Market, just by virtue of wanting that empty table. Seriously, though, we can't afford $50 a day to go to the beach, and we scoured Tulum to buy a beach umbrella (there are none to be found).

Anyway, decorum in Mexico and in Canada have two different meanings. Back home, we maintain personal space - here it is a free-for-all, once the crowds start arriving. People move right in, as they should, and it becomes a little party. I even rubbed sunscreen on the bald head of a very amusing Italian who was trying to talk to us in our mash-up of Italian and Spanish. The people-watching is just fantastic. Selfie-sticks are a dime a dozen and these two young women must have taken two dozen photos - peace signs, duck lips and all.

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"Our tree" is a magnet for photo ops - it swoops low and curves back up, so it is irresistible to climb up, hang off and pose beside. We figure we must be in at least two hundred holiday photos by now.

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There are no shortage of beautiful bodies on the beach, a number of topless women, and a whole lot more women wearing shoelaces for bottoms. Stephen looks with discretion, and I look with the detached interest of someone who has not been 20 years old for a very long time. Beauty is beauty.

We had a very funny thing happen yesterday. We had just pulled out our sandwiches, and were eating our lunch when the Corona Girls arrived. Four glorious creatures in Corona bikinis - posing and arching their backs and playing to the camera - about four feet from where poor Steve was busily chewing away on his sandwich, not knowing where to look. We had a good laugh at ourselves - and needless to say - there are no photos!

One phenomenon this year is the amount of sea grass that is in the water and deposited up on shore. Apparently this only happens once every 10 or 15 years - normally the beach and water are pristine. The beach resort next door has their employees working non-stop - wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow hauled away each day - only to have fresh sea grass reappear the next morning. Aside from that, which really isn't a problem, the swimming is fantastic - sandy bottom, lovely bouncy waves without currents or undertows, and a perfect temperature - warm, yet cool at the same time - very refreshing.

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If you look carefully at the horizon on this photo, you can see a wavebreak. This is a reef about 400 metres offshore, and apparently the snorkelling on either side of the break is great. Boats go out on a regular basis. We had some very entertaining folks from Summerland beside us today - they arrived late last night, and the men, still in that adrenaline-fueled holiday state, actually swam all the way out to the reef, snorkelled around for a good while, then swam back and stood around, drinking copious amounts of beer.

One thing almost everyone does say about Tulum is that "it's not Cancun." Not to cast aspersions on Cancun (we've never been), but apparently it is crazed with spring break revellers in March, and the tone here is way more laid-back. Good to know - I never enjoyed spring break, even when I was that age. I'd hate it now.

Water sports are the thing here, of course - cenotes, ocean swimming, snorkelling, boating, fishing and kite-surfing. It was really windy two days ago, and we had a lot of fun watching these two just flying along the water. Everything active and water-based reminds me of our boys, as in "The boys would love to try that", or "Wish the boys (and Alanna) were here to try this."

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So that is Tulum, the beach, as we have experienced it so far. Tulum is a bit different, in that it is not all contained in one place. The town is about 3 km. from the beach - imagine the letter H. The town is on the left side of the letter, the bar in the middle of the letter is the road leading to the beach, and the beach is on the right side of the letter. We drive along the bar, and turn left - that leads to a few resorts and the public beach. If you drive along the bar and turn right, you will drive along the Zona Hotelera. If we were just here for a brief holiday, that is likely where we would stay, as we would be able to walk everywhere and have the beach at our fingertips. There would be no unsightly jostling for shade. This part of Tulum is very attractive, has loads of interesting restaurants and shops - yoga studios, hand-made soaps, asymetrical linen skirts, that sort of thing. Hotels vary from very luxurious to basic, but even the basic hotels are pricey, so this time around, we just get to look.

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The town of Tulum is not especially pretty - it is small, with the highway intersecting it, but it has a certain charm. The streets named astrologically - Sagitario, Orion, Saturno - and the street art is quite outstanding. I want to research Mexican street art more when I get home (along with all the many other things I want to find out more about). It enhances the landscape so much and in the Yucatan, there are a lot of Maya symbols. I think about the fuss on Gabriola over our painted telephone poles, and it makes me feel a bit sad.

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No idea about these two - these are so familiar - the animal heads on the human bodies. Does anyone have any ideas - not of this artist, but of the artistic concept?
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Lots more to report on Tulum - we have booked another three days here - this will be our last ocean swim until Gabriola in June. I'll be back in a couple of days with stories about the dear people we have met here.

Posted by millerburr 15:07 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

Tulum: between a rock and a hard place

Back-to-back ruins

sunny 33 °C

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Tulum is considered by some to be a vortex - a mystical, magical blend of age-old ruins and New Age hippies. After two days here, we are starting to feel "the vibe". Actually, we have to drive everywhere to feel anything remotely New-Agey, but more on that in a minute.

First, a quick break from our regular program to introduce you to our Mexican version of road food.

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You know when you're on a road trip - part of you wants to drive 3 kilometres off the highway in search of a great diner. The other part of you just wants to eat up the miles, and since you a) haven't researched "great diners" before you left and b) haven't packed a lunch, you pull into the next rest stop and choose (pick one) - Subway, McDonald's, Tim Horton's.

In Mexico, we have OXXO. They are ubiquitous, often right next door to Pemex, the national gas station. They carry coffee and coffee products, slushies, a wide variety of processed food, and sandwiches that (this is true), have a one-week expiry date. Steve has developed a great fondness for these food-like products - white bread, 1 slice oily ham, 1 slice processed cheese. My lunch is a small package of fig cookies. There are eight to a package, and I have been known to eat six in one sitting. If we are in the car for one of our marathon drives, you can bet we will be making an OXXO stop.
Our VW is not the only thing that will need a tune-up once we're home again.

Back to Tulum. We are in Tulum for one week - we've rented an apartment through Air B&B, situated in a Mexican neighbourhood, which so far has had fireworks, live music until 4 a.m, drumming sessions, roosters, and all the other attendant noises we are almost immune to by now. I thought someone got shot yesterday, but it appears to be a gun designed to go off every 10 minutes or so - we're not sure why. It sets off the dogs each time. They bark for 6 or 7 minutes and then, just when they've calmed down again, another shot is fired, and so it goes. Our building is owned by an American, and managed by a young Mexican couple with two kids and another one almost on the way (I'd say she has about a month to go) , who live on-site. Our apartment is HUGE , we can cook, and we have a back deck, it is situated in town (which is about 3 km. from the beach), it is not as pristinely clean as it could be ( pregnant, tired manager), and it's noisy. But...we are paying $50 a night - which is at least $100 a night cheaper than anywhere on the beach, and fits into our budget. I think this is true for most of the Caribbean side - Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, etc. - they are pricey for long-term travellers like us.

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More on all of what Tulum has to offer in the next blog - this time I want to concentrate on the ruins in the area. I will try to inject a little colour into what promises to be a collection of monochromatic photos. We spent our first two days here visiting the local archealogical sites - we're saving beach time for the rest of our stay. The photo above was taken at the Tulum Ruins - which has a splendid setting on a cliff overlooking the sea. Located just outside town, very affordable, (about $5 entry fee), and not too crowded - this was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in. The entrance is lined with dozens of vendors, but they are restricted to being outside the gates. While there are a lot of European and Asian visitors, the vendors seems to gear their products to the North American market. On our way out, we could have stopped for Haagen-Daz ice cream, a Subway sandwich, or an Edmonton Oilers poncho.

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There were plenty of people at this site, but it never felt congested. All of the structures are roped off, so there is no climbing of stairs, which in the 32 degree heat, I was quietly thankful for.

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This plaque reminds us that while 2012 has come and gone without incident, we are not yet out of the woods.

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This beach was accessible to visitors, and there were plenty of swimmers; we chose a shady spot to cool off instead.

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The next day, we drove out to Cobá - an archealogical site about 45 minutes out of town. This site is set deep in the jungle, and where Tulum is all open and breezy, Cobá feels like a movie set, complete with tangled vines, swooping birds and a murky lagoon. There is this weird mix of Lost City with Portland, OR - bike lanes come to 1000 AD.

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There are bikes to rent and bike "taxis" for hire, as the site is laid out over several kilometres. The shady paths are called "sacbé", or stone-paved - they are smooth and white and inviting, by whatever means of transportation.

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Cobá's ruins are on a grand scale - buildings are enormous, grounds are really spread-out, and there are pyramids. There are stelae everywhere - they are very worn, but outlines remain. This one bears the date 730 AD, and a helpful modern drawing accompanies it to give you an idea of the original.

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Then, we turned a corner, and the Nohoch Mul pyramid appeared - a near-vertical climb of 42 metres, (116 steps), the second-tallest Maya structure in the Yucatan. I am not afraid of heights, but my stomach did a flip. "No way," I said. Stephen picked up the gauntlet.

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I sat in the shade with a group of very expressive French tourists who had all survived the climb and were now in animated conversation about their accomplishments. As I watched Stephen crabwalk the ascent, between you and me, I was imagining a bad end, and wondering if I could drive the car back to Canada by myself. The steps are shiny, worn and uneven (as they would be), and there is nothing but a single rope in the centre to guide climbers up and down. I tried to imagine this in Canada, if we had ruins. There would be waivers, there would be helmets, and there would be harnesses to that single rope.

Stephen stopped midway, and again at the top, as vertigo overtook for a bit. I lost him for a while - he was taking photos of the jungle, and trying to collect his nerve for the hardest part - the descent. Stephen took this photo of the view from the top. Luckily for him, he was preceded by two young women who went down step by step on their bums - the safest and calmest way to manage.

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I took this photo of the victory lap (last step)

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After all that, it was time for a reward - a swim in Zacil-Ha - one of the many cenotes in the area. This one is above-ground, but with an underground room to swim into. No little fish this time - just delightfully cool, clear water. That's me in the middle of the pool.

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And ledges to jump from. That would be Stephen, fueled by his climbing success

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See you in a couple of days when we get back from the beach.

Posted by millerburr 19:50 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

The Yucatan: From ruins to roseate spoonbills

sunny 31 °C

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While we were staying in Progreso, one of our intended day trips were the ruins at Uxmal, about one and a half hours drive away. Friends had told us about them, I had read a lot about them, and even forums re: Uxmal (UNESCO site) vs. Chichen Itza (UNESCO site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World) , weighed in favour of Uxmal (if you could only do one). These are two of the biggies in the Maya world.

So how did we end up in a minor ruin, Dzibilchaltun, instead? I'm ashamed to say - we slept in, then we felt disorganized and out of sorts and the idea of walking around ruins in 34 degree heat for hours, bracketed by 3 hours of driving, became more than we could bear. So, we left Progreso, and headed south, intending to visit Dzibilchatun, just 30 minutes away ( from this point forward known as Dzib ).

However, once we saw the signs for Uxmal, we thought " are we crazy?", and pointed our car in that direction instead. "This is better," we said. "How can we miss Uxmal?" Well, we did. We missed the turn-off, drove almost into Merida before we could turn around, and then could not find the sign to Uxmal again. "Rats!", we chorused, "let's go to Plan B." So off to Dzib we went, and we had a grand time. I'm still feeling annoyed at ourselves for missing Uxmal, but hopefully, we will make up for it with a number of other ruins we have on the agenda, including Tulum and Palenque.

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Dzib is a three-part wonder - ruins, museum and cenote. It shares with Chichen Itza the same significance of having the astronomical orientations that light up the temples with the sun rising and setting on the spring and fall equinoxes. The site is small, but well-kept, and has the usual massive central square, with several structures to climb up on, and a temple.

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I have been very keen to swim in cenotes, and this was our first one. Cenotes are fresh water sinkholes in the limestone shelf of the Yucatan Peninsula; considered by the Maya to be magical entrances to the underworld. In many cases, they are underground, accessible through caves and complete with stalactites and stalagmites. This one was above ground, very shallow at one end, and over 140 feet deep at the other. After our hot walk around, it was a real treat to jump in this cool, clean, crystal clear water.

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There were a pile of teenage girls when we first arrived, and about every 10 seconds, one of them would scream because the cenote is filled with tiny fish that "nibble" on you. It was quite hilarious - scream and laugh, scream and laugh - like teenage girls everywhere.

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This site has an amazing museum - modern, well-laid-out, everything in 3 languages (Spanish, Maya and English), and filled with Maya artifacts. The entrance is lined with statues and columns that were excavated from the site. Dad, I'm thinking of you a lot in this part of Mexico. You would love this museum.

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Some of the displays inside the museum

On to Rio Lagartos, in search of flamingos.

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There are two major flamingo sanctuaries in the Yucatan - both on the northern edge of the peninsula - one west of Merida, and the larger one, Rio Lagartos, to the east, within the Biosphere Reserve. This area has a huge estuary protected from the Gulf by mangroves, and it is a natural habitat for 58 mammals and over 395 birds, as well as crocodiles. While there are about 40,000 flamingos in the Yucatan, the best time to see them in terms of sheer numbers, is late spring - fall. This is the beginning of mating season, so we only saw a few dozen of them, but it was still an amazing sight. They did all the comical flamingo things - standing on one leg, tucking their long necks into the water, and sort of loping around. The water is very shallow where they gather - perhaps a foot at the deepest, closer to 6 inches. From a distance, it looks like they're walking on water.

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The little grey one is a youngster - they gain their pink colour from the crusteceans they eat, so it takes a while for the feathers to change.

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Pelicans hanging out with the flamingos - the white pelicans as well as the more common brown ones.

We booked our tour through a company called Rio Lagartos Adventures. The owner, Diego, speaks perfect English, and his sons, Diego Jr. And Jorge have trained as guides as well. They are all committed environmentalists and conservationists, and act like gatekeepers for this precious region. Jorge was our guide - an affable and knowledgable young man who made every effort to see as many birds as possible in our 2-hour trip.

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At one point, Jorge was angling the boat in to see a crocodile (who immediately dove under the water), but as we slowed right down, this fish jumped in our boat! It is a young tarpon - they are born in the ocean, grow in the mangroves in brackish water, then swim out to the ocean again to mature to up to 280 pounds. As Jorge noted, "they are fighters!"

After our flamingo sightings, we headed to the mangroves. These mangroves are incredibly adaptive - their tangled root system allows for twice-daily tides, and provides a safe home for so many birds and animals. The estuary is filled with narrow pathways - at times we had to duck our heads as Jorge steered through.

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Look closely, you will see a baby crocodile - perhaps 2 weeks old, already kicked out of the nest

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We saw a lot of birds - snowy egrets, cormorants, vultures, hawks, sandpipers, roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, great blue herons - managed to get photos of some of them. Gord - you would be in heaven here. Their land birding tours are pretty awesome, too.

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We had fun playing with the pelicans. They are food slaves - Jorge pretended to throw his sandal into the water, and that was all it took to get them excited. Jorge explained the difference in the colouring on the pelican's head - the yellow are the younger ones, the white are the older ones. "Just like you", pointed out my darling husband.

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We stopped by salt mines further up the estuary near Las Colorados. It is quite the sight - the incredibly salty Gulf water is fed through and extracted, and then shipped to North America for road salt. It goes through two extractions, and the one channel we were looking at has the salt concentration of the Dead Sea.

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Jorge told me I could swim in it, so I gingerly slid in (mucky bottom, kind of freaky), but it was amazing. I lay on my back like a flipped turtle - did not move a muscle - the water held me afloat. That is not a smile, but a grimace - still not sure that a crocodile might not sneak in.

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From there, we went for the mud bath - I told Jorge that women pay big bucks for this spa treatment. We slapped on white clay found in the area - Maya people used it as a sunscreen if they were outside all day. Very cool - we then found a beach close to the Gulf to jump in and wash it all off.

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There is no reason to visit Rio Lagartos except for these tours, but the town has a pretty malecon, some sweet little houses with a bit of a Caribbean look to them, and it was an extremely enjoyable stay. So many firsts in the past few days - cenotes, flamingos, mangroves, swimming in the Yucatan's "Dead Sea", white clay mud bath. Tomorrow - we're off to Tulum for a week.

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Posted by millerburr 19:10 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

When taking the road less travelled backfires

semi-overcast 33 °C

Our son Dan commented once that we don't seem to have a plan for life. Not sure if that observation was spawned by my many jobs, or our many moves, but he has a point.

Most of this trip has been "planned" to a certain extent, but somehow, after leaving Campeche, we got lost. Not lost in the fun and exciting ways we have been getting lost all through Mexico, but lost as in "we've lost our focus." With just a month left in Mexico, there is so much to see - so much to do - so little time. Sprung from that reasoning, we chose to drive past Merida, a delightful colonial city filled with museums and art, and head to the coast - to Progreso. We thought we could use it as a base for day trips, escape the steamy city streets and spend a little beach time.

To borrow Bette Davis's famous throw-away line - "What a dump."

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Mexican towns can be scruffy and dirty - we are well used to the rubble and the pungent smells and the noise. But with the taco stands and the techno-pop, we have always found friendliness and curiosity among the people, and bright spots in the towns. Progreso - this is a part of Mexico we can't relate to, and can't wait to leave.

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These fellows are charter members of the "start drinking at 10 am, and continue until you pee your pants or pass out" group. As sad as this is, even worse (and scarier) are the younger men in Progreso who appear to have little to do but hang out and drink - they look mean and angry. We have not seen such blatant hard-core drinking in other parts of Mexico, and we have never encountered hostility or been checked out in such a forthright manner. It is uncomfortable. We don't feel threatened, but we don't feel welcome, either. I have a theory, but first - a description of where Progreso is on the map. Progreso is at the top left of the Yucatan peninsula. There are not tourists in great numbers, except for long-term snowbirds parked in beach rentals just out of town, and the cruise ships.

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The pier leading out to that ship is seven kilometres long. Every two or three days a cruise ship docks here, and several hundred passengers are bussed into Progreso. They have the choice of taking excursions or of staying in town. There is very little to do in Progreso - walk along the malecon, or go for a swim. Beyond that, the beach is lined with vendors selling beach dresses and shell jewellery and restaurants pumping out loud music, 2 x 1 margaritas and cheap food.

Here's where my theory comes in. Progreso is a port town, with a fishing and container industry, so being pretty was never a goal. But in recent years, business from the cruise ships has brought in six-hour tourists, and while there is money to be made from them, these are not tourists that will likely be back. I think it has created some disrespectful attitudes, on the part of some people here, and to be fair, for good reason.

Not a pretty sight we day we arrived - hawkers vying madly for sales, passengers looking for stuff to buy, and a contingent of twenty-somethings just wasted in the late afternoon. Then we came across this sight - bodies lined up to be pressed and prodded in plain view. It is not the best photo, as I snapped it quickly. The words "Special Price" say a lot - it is vendor-speak for extracting money from gringos.

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On the plus side, the beach is broad, the sand is white, the water is murky, but it does the trick. The water is quite shallow, so even when the wind kicks up the waves (which it does in gale force most afternoons), it is fun to play.

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Yesterday, we took a collectivo to Merida, which is just about 40 minutes away. The collectivos are entertaining - 15-seater vans - 16 pesos a trip (less than $1.50) - rosary swinging from the rear-view mirror, music playing and driver just givin'er. Took away the fuss and stress of us driving in, parking, etc. Merida is a large city, with Sam's Club and Home Depot and suburbs ringing the edges, but the historic centre is lovely - with a spectacular plaza and cathedral - what I have come to think of as " The Mexican Twins".

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Before we began to make the rounds, we grabbed a cold drink and sat in the park to gather our thoughts. There are at least two fabulous museums here - both requiring several hours at least. We decided just to walk the downtown area,and see as much as we could in one day.

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We started with the buildings around the square. The Governor's Palace will almost always take up one full block in most cities - it is usually quite ornate, open to the public and well-guarded. I asked for permission for this photo, but could not get a smile. Maybe it's because they were in full regalia in 90+ degree heat. Stephen followed with his own macho stance.

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Inside, the walls are covered with murals by artist Fernando Castro Pacheo, telling the story of the Maya's clashes with the Spanish.

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So much of what we've been seeing - the art, the Maya ruins, even modern-day politics comes back to the sentiments on the plaque below.

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The Palacio Municipal was once a private mansion, with quite ornate carvings on the front door and windows. The interior has been refurbished to showcase rooms with 17th and 18th century antiques.

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The Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan was fun - explanations in English as well as Spanish. Display cases were filled with folk art found here, but also the rest of Mexico. However, there was no explanation as to why there were two magnificant jaguars guarding the toilet and bidet.

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Time for lunch - La Chaya Maya had come highly recommended, and as you know, we were keen to have a great meal. When we arrived - my heart sank a little. A table at the front of the restaurant displayed laminated menus and saran-wrapped sample plates - not usually a good sign.

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Great success! A delightful room, complete with inner courtyard jam-packed with flowers, shrubs and artifacts, very attentive service, and best of all - really good regional cooking.

We wandered the streets a great deal, enjoying the little parks, churches, and converted mansions along the way.

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We left wanting more, which is about the best approach for anything in life, I suppose. This rather inhospitable sign scrawled on a wall gave me pause.

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Are we the double-edged sword - us tourists? Or was that writer just having a bad day, and tourists were as good a target as any? A conversation that we frequently have - how do we travel without doing harm? How do we give at least as much as we get?

Back to our "plan". We leave tomorrow for Rio Lagartos - a breeding ground for flamingos, and a prime area to view dozens of other birds. From there, we're off to Tulum for a week - swimming, snorkelling, cenotes and ruins. It seems we've found our focus again.

Posted by millerburr 16:11 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

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