A Travellerspoint blog

Flamboyance in Celestun

semi-overcast 30 °C
View Mexico 2021/2022 on millerburr's travel map.

What do you call more than one flamingo? A flamboyance! Apparently, at the height of the fall and winter breeding season, there can be over 30,000 flamingos to be found in Celestun, situated on Yucatan's Gulf coast. I can't think of a more apt word than flamboyance to describe the sight of these extravagant bright pink birds, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

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We are now in Merida (much more on this beautiful city in a later blog), and Celestun is an hour and half drive away. The flamingos are reached by boat, and a tour incorporates about a half hour watching the birds, followed by a glide through a mangrove where other birds, mammals and crocodiles can also be seen.

This is not an inexpensive proposition if you hire a private boat - about CAD$120. However, we met up with a German couple waiting to buy tickets and split the cost with them. And away we went - four non-Spanish-speaking tourists ripping up the estuary at full speed with our enthusiastic Spanish-only guide.

Much of the water is a distinctive reddish hue - filled with a concentration of the carotenoids that the flamingos feed on, and the sustenance that is responsible for turning their feathers that vivid hue.

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The water is very shallow - in parts just inches deep, and otherwise no more than a few feet. We passed by groups of white egrets, and several fishing boats. Then, on the horizon, our first glimpse of a thin pink line.

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As we grew closer, the noise became louder and louder - thousands of flamingos honking and calling. Our guide was very careful about approaching them, so as not to alarm them. There was just one other boat when we were there and he was the same - respectful and cautious.

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Gradually we crept closer and closer, until we were just about 25 feet away from them and we shut off the motor and drifted, just watching them. It was quite incredible. They took no notice of us and went about their business.

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The babies are born white and it takes several years before their feathers take on colour. Flamingos are monogamous, and raising the kids is a family effort. They build the nests together and take turns incubating the eggs. And then they all live together in this massive community.

And they eat! Flamingos spend up to 10 hours a day with their heads upside down in the water, filtering the food as it passes through their beaks.

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It's fun to watch them move -they glide along like old-fashioned couples at a skating rink - one leg thrust out and propelling them forward.

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And they fly -they lift off in a rather ungainly fashion, looking like they won't quite make it, but then they're airborne - awkward and graceful at the same time.

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We were just entranced watching the flamingos and could have stayed much longer. But it was time to check out the mangroves. A mangrove is a tree that puts its roots down in coastal brackish water and is tolerant of tidal flow. Their dense root systems provide a nutrient-rich home to many fish, birds and mammals.

Sliding into the entrance of a mangrove forest is like going into the heart of darkness.

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Although they live here, we did not see a crocodile. Nor did we see many colourful birds, other than this egret.

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Back out through this narrow hole and out to the estuary again.

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We tied up our boat at another site; one that allowed us to walk along a boardwalk for a different perspective.

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This part of the mangrove featured the Ojo de Agua - the "Eye of Water", which is a freshwater spring bubbling up from the ground and producing crystal clear sweet water. This small spring was filled with little fish and was perfectly fine to swim in, if we had known to bring our swimsuits. It is hard to see in this photo, but the water literally bubbles up at the surface.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our experience; more so now that tourism is not at full throttle. It was peaceful and incredibly moving and felt like such a privilege.

We headed into the town of Celestun for lunch. This was our view as we ate shrimp empanadas and drank freshly squeezed limonada.

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I'll be sending out another blog posting within a couple of days, telling you about our day at Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site. Finally, a third posting about the city of Merida. We're here for another four days, so lots to tell you.

Posted by millerburr 23:45 Archived in Mexico Tagged celestun flamingos egrets mangroves gulf_of_mexico boat_tour Comments (13)

test post

Hi all

Having issues with Travellerspoint - my last posting on Cozumel showed as published, but no-one, including Stephen and I, have received it.

Hope you don't mind this test posting to see if perhaps the last one was a technical glitch and everything is back to normal again. Obviously if you don't get this, I'll know I'm in trouble. If you do, no need to respond!

Ginny

Posted by millerburr 23:23 Comments (14)

Cozumel: Home to Cruise Ships, Shipwrecks and Crocodiles

sunny 28 °C
View Mexico 2021/2022 on millerburr's travel map.

After a rather harrowing 30-minute high-speed catamaran ferry from Playa del Carmen, in which many of us emerged nauseated, if not actually vomiting, we landed into the welcoming arms of Cozumel's many, many vendors, tour operators and strangely, diamond salespeople. Big tip for travelling by catamaran? Sit in the middle of the boat and keep your eyes on the horizon. Big tip for avoiding vendors as you emerge into a new place in a state of confusion and disorientation? Keep your eyes on the horizon and do not engage.

In spite of my finely-tuned resistance to the sales pitch, on our second day in Cozumel, I found myself whisked off the street and into a salon where a dazzling young woman patted cream onto the bags under my eyes and clucked sympathetically as I held a small dryer to allow the serum to set. For just US$180, (normally $800), I could solve the problem of my baggy eyes; and in a critical error of judgement, she elicited an opinion from Stephen, who had just wandered in with his rumpled hat, eating a bag of chips. Nonplussed, he stared at my eyes, trying to guess which one had been worked on. To give the salespeople their due, they had a good-natured laugh about it. We were so clearly not their target market.

Honestly, although the streets are lined with shops, the vendors are not aggressive. They welcome you in to their shops and when you decline, give a smile as you walk by.

So, on to the cruise ships - part of the reason these shops exist in the first place. I can't tell you the numbers in 2021, but Cozumel is the busiest port of call in the Caribbean, and they average between 25-35 ships every week, spilling out up to 100,000 guests in that space of time.

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We were dreading their impact on our visit: anticipating the "sidewalk shuffle", long lineups for restaurants and beaches packed to capacity. We don't know where they all were, but those thousands of passengers were simply not in evidence. One restaurant owner told us that the larger cruise lines have specific shopping plazas and attractions that their passengers are steered toward, and the overall economic benefit for smaller businesses is not that great. He told us that many business owners and residents would be much happier if the cruise ships were not there.

Cozumel's malecon is scenic - running for a few kilometres along the west side of the island. One side is lined with shops and restaurants, and the other runs right along the water.

Sculptures line the walkway.

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This boat was wrecked in a hurricane and became permanently beached. It has since been painted and is now something of a tourist attraction.

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Cozumel has a large number of resorts that line the northern edge of the island; many of them fully contained with pools, restaurants and amenities.

This leafy boulevard runs through the hotel zone.

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There are a number of small hotels right in town, but we opted for an Airbnb located in a pretty Mexican neighbourhood. This is the gate to our second-floor casita.

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Our studio was well appointed and designed, with a small deck in the front, and windows that let in light and breezes and birdsong. Our host is a cellist with the Quintano Roo symphony, and she and her architect dad designed the space.

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We really enjoyed wandering the streets in Cozumel - an architectural feast for the eyes.

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We discovered a few great little spots to eat. This one was just around the corner from us:

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Our host recommended Novena Ola, so we had our final lunch in Cozumel there today. It was such a delightful surprise, for many reasons. First of all, prices were in pesos, not US dollars. Most shops and restaurants in Cozumel are priced in US dollars. Secondly, we were the only non-Mexican guests there, which is often a good sign - eat where the locals go, or at least where the Mexican tourists go. Everything clicked - the setting, the service, the view...

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...and the food. Chilaquiles - so delicious.

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We really liked Cozumel and it was way more laid-back and less touristy than we had thought it would be. It has a very Caribbean feeling to it - so lush and slightly different even from Puerto Morelos. However, beach access and getting around the island can be a costly endeavour. There are no buses, and unless you are staying at a beachfront resort, there are no beaches within walking distance. You have two choices - taxi or car rental. We had plans to go to a few different beaches, but one day we stayed home because Stephen was not feeling so well. Yesterday we did not go to the beach because we had a full day the day before and were a little sunned out. So, we cannot give a full description of beaches and particularly of snorkeling options, as we really only had the one day.

We chose to go to Punta Sur, which is an ecological reserve right at the south end of the island, featuring swimming, snorkeling, a lagoon that is home to crocodiles, and a lighthouse. After that, our plans were to drive up the east coast of the island, which is far less-visited and far more wild.
For that, we needed to rent a car (US$55). What $55 buys you in Cozumel is a tiny white high-mileage vehicle with mountain-bike sized tires, innumerable scratches and dents and a resident ghost. I was hearing indistinct voices and then our radio kept flashing on and off until I gave it a good bang. Still, it took us where we needed to go and once we were out of town, the road was practically empty.

Once we arrived at the Punta Sur entrance, we still had four miles to go down a dirt road in hilariously poor condition; an obstacle course that meant we drove at 20 kph the whole way. This photo does not begin to show the axle-bending potholes. Still - a change of scene and a reminder that much of Cozumel is uninhabited and rugged.

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Along the way, we saw signs warning that swimming was prohibited due to the rough waves. Then we spotted the lighthouse - the signpost that indicated the road was leading us back into the calm bay.

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We had our almost-new snorkeling gear to try out, and no sooner were we settled into our sunbed and chair than we were heading for the water.

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Pure heaven, this water, but although we have developed a much higher comfort level with snorkeling, we did not see anything more exciting than several schools of fish, some fan coral, and an eel. We needed to swim out a little further to see the big "catches", but the water was a bit bouncy. It is a shame really, as Cozumel has a reputation for some incredible snorkeling and diving.

Still, we had a fantastic day enjoying our beautiful surroundings, and the nearby wildlife reserve. We had an up-close visit with the Great Egret, who watched us closely, but stayed still for a photo.

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We saw this Roseate Spoonbill, who did not cooperate with me by lifting up their beak for a photo op.

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As we were leaving the beach, we noticed a couple taking photos and there they were - the pygmy raccoon that is endemic to Cozumel. So adorable (not a word I normally attribute to a raccoon), but these little guys are a bit shy, with ropy tails and curved snouts. The restaurant owner had tossed down a coconut at the end of the day, which coaxed them out of hiding.

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We had the opportunity to take a boat ride into the lagoon, but decided against it as the boat was just crammed with people. Also, I had forgotten my mask back at our beach site and wouldn't have been allowed on the boat anyway, so it was a moot point.

Luckily for us, on our way out of the park, we stopped at the lagoon lookout point.

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And as is always the case in wildlife sightings, timing is everything. Just as we were walking up the boardwalk, this large fellow slid out of the shallows and went for a languid glide into deeper water. I grabbed a couple of photos and a minute later, he was gone.

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We drove back up on the east side - largely uninhabited and home to rough surf-y water, and large parties of Mexicans, who want to get away from the tourists.

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We wish we were here a bit longer, to more fully explore the other beaches, but time to move on. We will be in Merida for nine days, using this city as a base to explore other sites in the Yucatan interior.

Posted by millerburr 02:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches cruise punta sur ships swimming snorkeling malecon cozumel novena _ola Comments (6)

Playa del Carmen: Well that was a surprise!

semi-overcast 27 °C

We are accidental tourists in Playa del Carmen - here for two nights to cover a gap in travel plans before we set sail for Cozumel tomorrow. At the risk of sounding like travel snobs and alienating half of our readers, it must be said that we really do not love going to tourist-infested destinations. And yes, we know that Cozumel, so beloved of the mega-cruise ship industry, is hardly off the beaten track. And...yes, we are aware that we are tourists.

Still, that still doesn't change our aversion to Mexican beach towns that largely feature Senor Frogs and Hard Rock Cafe, and attract street scenes like this one:

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The main tourist hub is not all bad. This centrepiece sculpture frames the beach and provides a focus for some pretty fascinating people-watching.

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Shopping is a big draw in Playa del Carmen - everything from sunglasses and flip-flops to high-end American brands. So much stuff and not enough buyers, and yet, the vendors can be fun to kid around with. Obviously tequila is a Mexican souvenir of choice, but Ginny on tequila is not a good thing. If I took some hard drugs, ate a bucket of cotton candy and then spent 20 minutes on a Tilt-a-Whirl, that would approximate the reaction I have every time I drink tequila. The folks at this outlet had a good sense of humour, even offering me chocolate tequila as a possible option.

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We are staying in a leafy residential neighbourhood about a 15 minute walk from the beach. We chose it because it was quiet, which is a rare commodity in Mexico, and one we try to capture every chance we get. Our small inn is set behind a high gate, with suites opening out to a lush garden.

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A typical building in this area. I love how Mexicans can make concrete soar and appear weightless.

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Just a couple of streets past our neighbourhood things begin to change. The houses are more modest, there are fewer trees
and the garbage piles up.

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This sign implores residents to pick up their garbage, pick up after their dogs, and take more pride.

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We had read about El Hongo (the mushroom), a restaurant/cultural centre in this neighbourhood that offers up fabulous food and creative opportunities for the area youth. We were disappointed to discover the restaurant was closed, but very fortunate to have the chance to speak with the owner and creative force, Goyo, who happened to be outside. His photo below, followed by a painting of him on the wall across from the restaurant.

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As Goyo explained it, he is upset by the misconceptions the world has of Mexico; that it is all about crime and danger and drugs. And yet, he sees the garbage on the streets and the poverty and the children who are often left alone while their parents work long hours in the hotels and restaurants.

He is a huge fan of street art "art that is available to everyone" and he enlisted some well-known street artists to enliven the area. He also created classes for kids and his hope is that their exposure to art will make a positive difference to their lives, as it did to him as a young person. It was inspiring to meet this humble and passionate man, and this is when we realized how much more there is to Playa del Carmen.

Below, a collection of some of the incredible art we found in a five-block radius.

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Now there is a reason why razor wire, embedded glass shards in fences, iron gates and triple locks exist. In a country of extremes, where poverty can be dire, it falls to the individual to protect themselves and their property. This sign is the Mexican version of Neighbourhood Watch.

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This dog, operating as an Early Warning Device, just about lost his mind as we strolled by and barked at us the entire time we were in his sight. Since he is on the second floor, I assume we would be safe if we tried to enter when the owners were out. Much like car alarms, I question the usefulness of having guard dogs - who even hears them anymore?

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So, our day and a half in Playa del Carmen was useful, illuminating and much more enjoyable than we had imagined. Stephen had to replace broken readers and a frayed phone cord, and we walked for miles discovering yet another hidden corner of Mexico.

Off to Cozumel tomorrow and see you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 21:59 Archived in Mexico Tagged art street mexico dogs del playa centre el guard carmen cultural tequila concrete hongo goyo Comments (5)

Learning to Swim in Puerto Morelos

semi-overcast 28 °C

You learn a lot from a two-year-old. You discover that overcoming the frustration of learning a new language (in my case Spanish) requires total immersion and constant practice. The two-year-old knows this. They speak in incomprehensible syllables for months and then one day...out come complete sentences and amusing observations.

We've been together with Alex, Alanna and Leo in Puerto Morelos now for just under a week, and in that time, we have become schooled in Leo's version of English. Our fiercely independent little grandson has to keep reminding us that "my do myself". He watches us all closely and then mimics what he sees, and does not feel he needs any assistance with his new-found skills.

And so it goes with swimming. Armed with a sunhat, sunscreen and a fancy flotation device, Leo has developed an impressive confidence in his swimming abilities.

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Of course, he is not really swimming, but he is getting the hang of moving his little arms and legs around, and was hugely proud of being able to tell me, "I don't need you Nanny".

Thank goodness, he doesn't always mean that.

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For those of you who are grandparents, you will understand the need to present the following gallery of photos. For everyone else, please bear with me, or just scroll down a bit.

Fun with Grandpa

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Leo was quite fascinated with the coconut palms, and kept picking up dirty old coconuts off the ground. Alanna bought all of us fresh coconut drinks and brought them down to the beach, but not before Leo had the chance to watch the coconuts being hacked off the tree and opened with a machete, and then served with a straw. Voila - the freshest coconut water ever. Obviously a big hit.

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There is no arguing with the pure joy of a chocolate ice cream cone.

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Of course, we are just as delighted to be with Leo's parents. Our days together are pretty simple - beach-focused, Leo-centred and relaxed. Swimming, snorkeling, building sand castles, reading, and snacks.

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We've rented apartments within a block of each other, and one block from the beach, which has worked out really well.

We've spent a few Christmases in Mexico in past years and we were always delighted to note that Santa does not need a chimney to visit little children in other parts of the world. In this case, while Frosty is still looking quite buoyant, Santa appears to have faded a bit - he can't quite haul his bag of toys over the balcony.

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Back home, we hang Christmas decorations on our shrubs and our coniferous trees. Here in Mexico, they do the same - only on their palm trees.

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The main square in Puerto Morelos is all lit up for the holidays, which makes it even more of a draw for locals and visitors at night. This is one of the things we love about visiting a warm climate in the winter. The habit of going out for a stroll after dinner is such a natural one - Mexicans don't have to spend months in the cold and the dark, bundled up inside. Every night that we have been here there has been something featured on the bandstand - music, magic acts - maybe a bit corny, certainly not flashy, but heart-warming and very entertaining.

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This Christmas tree ornament has set the scene for hundreds, if not thousands of photo ops. Naturally, we followed suit.

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We enjoyed a non-traditional Christmas dinner last night - steaks at an Argentinian restaurant. We thought about our friends and family members who were celebrating back in Canada - our son Danny and his girlfriend Hazel, and all our extended family and Alanna's parents and her extended family. Impossible for so many people to be together, but it is the season to want to be in touch.

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So back to Puerto Morelos. We were here two years ago and loved the low-key, not-Cancun feel of it. More Mexican than gringo by a long shot, with nary an all-inclusive in sight. Small, low-rise hotels and apartments, loads of great little restaurants, and far more family-oriented than girls-gone-wild. Here are just a few shots of the town to give you an idea.

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Every once in while, you will see a tiny cottage, with bright colours and tin roof, that could be found anywhere in the Caribbean.

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And of course, there is the main attraction - the beach. There are so many things going on.

There is El Faro Inclinado - the Leaning Lighthouse that tilted after Hurricane Beulah in 1967, and was impossible to move. There is another lighthouse that warns sailors of the MesoAmerican Reef, but this one remains as a tourist attraction.

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The military have always been a presence in Mexico, but after recent shootings in Tulum and Puerto Morelos, they have ramped up their numbers and daily beach patrols are a common sight.

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People-watching is the obvious attraction, and this family caught my eye. Very glamorous mum strolled down to the beach in her 5-inch heels and stopped to remove them before stepping down onto the sand. Her two little boys were adorable - a bit shy and both were wearing matching cowboy hats. I just couldn't resist a sneaky shot.

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Fishing boats are a PM fixture.

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So are snorkeling tours.

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Alex and Alanna have had great luck just snorkeling from shore. They go to a spot mid-beach, called Ojo de Agua (eye of water) that on top of having schools of brightly coloured fish, barracuda, and loads of coral, also has a 6-8 foot wide cenote that gushes fresh water into the sea. Stephen and I haven't tried snorkeling there yet, but we'll be sure to fit that in before we leave.

Finally, a couple of shots taken today at the beach. We had a typical early-winter Caribbean day - dramatic clouds, several short tropical downpours, and at least two extravagant rainbows.

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We still have one week left in Puerto Morelos. Alex, Alanna and Leo will be heading back home next Saturday and we'll be beginning to explore other parts of the Yucatan. We will keep you posted - what we're doing, how our trip is changing shape and any info we have regarding Omicron here in Mexico and how it is impacting on the return of tourism.

Posted by millerburr 01:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes beaches people children sky night boats rainbows mexico christmas swimming snorkeling storms Comments (10)

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