Our 2008 Mayan Christmas Adventure

Here’s a quick overview of our 2008 Christmas adventure in Mexico. Since our February wedding will be held at the same hotel we stayed at during that trip – Aventura Spa Palace, I thought I’d make an overview of our last trip there. Hopefully you’ll see what made us enjoy it and want to come back.

Click on the links for more in-depth accounts of each. Click on the links by the accompanying images for our photos and descriptions of each place. More information will surely be added as I remember it! I also included the guidebook we used and some study materials I liked. If you can think of anything I left out, please add it in the comments below!

Day 1: Cancun

Jen and I flew into Cancun a day earlier than what our Aventura reservations called for. It was much cheaper to fly out of Charlotte on a Thursday night and stay in Cancun for a day than to fly out on Saturday morning. I know, I know, how stressful, right? Such a pain to have to go on vacation a day early.

Day 2: Adventura – Where James Bond Would Vacation

Mom and Dad had been telling us about this hotel for years but we never really believed them. It should have dawned on me that any place Dad chose to go to, willingly, multiple times had to have great service. I just didn’t believe them.

Why didn’t I just listen to my parents sooner?

Other Days

To be honest, the rest of my Christmas week is sort of clouded in a rum-induced haze. Here are a few of the trips we did in between sunbathing, playing poolside volleyball, kayaking, and eating ourselves silly at the hotel.

Tulum

You can about the history of Tulum here. For me, it was a great chance to wander around ruins – my first since returning from Israel in March of 2008 AND to go swimming in the Caribbean sea -something made exceedingly difficult by the hotels on the Yucatan for some reason.

Now, until the end of my days I can talk about going swimming with my brother and father alongside Mayan ruins on Christmas!

Chitzen Itza

Again, Chitzen Itza has a long and storied history. More on that here. We decided to forgo the free tourist bus and instead rent our own car and make our own way to the iconic Mayan pyramid. Like they say, getting there is half the adventure. We drove through many villages and the city of Merida along the way.

Coba

We visited Coba on the return trip from Chitzen Itza. This is a far less visited city than Chitzen Itza and on a direct path from there en route to Tulum. It gave me better insight on to what the Mayans were all about plus you could climb on things! You can really get a sense of the jungle from on top of these giant pyramids! This was my favorite site that I visited in Mexico. More on Coba’s history here.

Xpu-Ha

Xpu Ha is a jungle-themed hotel owned by the Palace group – the same people running the hotel where we stayed, Aventura. The great thing about this was that intra-hotel transfers were free as were all of our food, entertainment, activities, and of course drinks.

Stuff that Helped

I didn’t really study up on Mexico like I have done before my other trips. Still, there were a few items that helped me out along the way.

Lonely Planet Guide to the Yucatan

Lonely planet does a good job finding places for the young and adventurous. The history overviews in this book beat the hell out of what passed for education in my 8th grade American Studies book. And the cultural overviews gave me a pretty solid grounding in what was going on around me. The Yucatan (Regional Guide) really influenced our choices on going to Chitzen Itza, Tulum, and Coba and I hope to use it again this year when we visit Isla de Mujeres and any ceynotes that we decide to scuba dive in. Of course we didn’t check the hotel listings but the book gets 2 thumbs up!

The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire

I love the Teaching Company. They just make great stuff. For those who don’t know, they get the world’s best professors teaching their favorite course and then tape them. It must be what college was like for liberal arts majors; you just sit and learn about stuff you are interested in. Awesome.

For me this course was more a bridge of our 2006 trip to Spain. There, we got a sense of Imperial Spain. This video series began with the reconquest of Spain and the discovery of the new world. Professor Ruiz does an excellent job of presenting history in an all-encompassing manner explaining how events would be seen by multiple cultural groups. Very enlightening.

Maya Riviera Wedding – February 2010

2009 was awesome. It will live on forever in our hearts. But it’s time to let it pass. We will never recapture the glory that was there. Appreciate it for what it was, and let’s move on. We’re moving on to our wedding in Mexico. And I’m incredibly excited for this one.

The wedding will be at the Adventura Spa Palace Hotel. We chose Adventura because my parents have been several times and it made such an impression on us. Don’t confuse Adventura in the Mayan Riviera with the spring break legends you’ve heard of Cancun. You can read my recounting our first day in Cancun here. Contrast that with my first impressions of Adventura here.

The hotel is great, but there is only so long you can sit and do nothing in perfect weather as people wait on you hand and foot. We chose this hotel for it’s ease of access, sheer comfort, and for all of the available entertainment options.

Here’s a list of outside adventures you can do that come free with your hotel stay:

Some Available Activities

Chitzen Itza

Adventura offers a formulaic guided bus tour of Chitzen Itza. Matt, Christina, Jen and I decided to try this one on our own (read about that, here.)

If you aren’t up for renting your own jeep and driving into the heart of Mexican darkness with nothing but your inoperable iPhone, then take this tour. It is the iconic symbol of the Yucatan and worth seeing at least once. Watch out for the Topes along the way!

Wet n Wild

The 4 of us did this one. It’s a water park where they serve drinks. I will definitely be doing this again if for no other reason to enjoy the lazy river while Matt & Christina win the dance competition.

Tulum

Adventura offers a tour to Tulum. It’s an archaeological park on top with a pretty awesome beach below. No matter if you like Mayan ruins, or clean, clear ocean without lifeguards, go here. Tulum has both.

You can read about our trip to Tulum here.

Coba

We visited Coba as part of our own jeep tour but Palace offers a bus tour to Coba as well. This is the amazingly tall pyramid. For a time as she stood on the top, Jen was actually the highest point in Mexico. It is entirely unsupervised fun. You can rent bikes and go through partially excavated remains of a pretty important nexus city. Want to walk around ball courts where people were summarily executed, come here? By the way, look out for the gators in the swamp. They’re known to eat children. My favorite part of last year’s trip. I’d do it again.

Zip Line

Didn’t do the zipline tour last time. Will this time around. Looks fun. Plus, you can fill your backpack with all the drinks you can carry from your room.

Ek Balam / Valladoid

Have not done the Ek Balam trip yet. But you know I’m a sucker for ancient buildings. The Valldoid trip might be entertaining as well.

Other Tours

There are other tours. They cost money. I was really disappointed with the snorkeling tour. The snorkeling was free. The hemisphere’s largest living organism, the coral reef looks to be about dead. It was a tourist trap to get you to pay to hang glide, ride horses, atvs, etc. It felt slimy and after a few hours of waiting for a cab, we went back to the awesomeness of the hotel. Luckily, that tour operator’s website is long dead.

Other Palace Hotels

You get free admission & everything else when you visit other Palace resorts.

Xpu-Ha

I had a great time at Xpu Ha. It’s a jungle theme and they have monkeys, gators, deer, etc along side their grass huts. This is where I snorkeled in the estuary (first time since boy scout camp) and saw some pretty big fish. Lots of fun.

There are also other places within a cab ride of fun stuff to do. Matt tried to search for the true Mexico-the one with authentic food and no tourist. We were told to head north through Merida and on over to Tabasco country. Sounds like a great road trip to me, but not likely something I will be doing this trip. If you go, pick me up a hammock.

One other thing I would strongly consider would be cave diving in those ceynotes. Did you know those ceynotes are the remnants of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? Thanks to Discovery channel for that one. Either way, what could possibly go wrong cave diving in limestone caverns in Mexico a few days before your wedding?

Things to do at the hotel other than sit in the sun and drink all day

  • Eat – tons of 5 star restaurants.
  • Kareoke
  • Gym – preferably before the tequila.
  • Rock Climb
  • Scuba Certified (costs, but you can do it)
  • Tennis
  • Multiple hot tubs the size of pools
  • Watch the super bowl!

That’s it! We look forward to hanging out with the people who are coming. We’ll miss everyone who isn’t.

Any questions? Suggestions? Leave them in the box below!

Chitzen Itza

There’s a lot you can read about Chitzen Itza. The pyramid itself is a spectacular tourist draw and the iconic image of the Yucatan Peninsula. So much can be said about the heritage, history, and cultural impact of this long-lost city. This article isn’t about any of those things. It’s about 4 fools and a quick, off the beaten path adventure.

We rented a car from Adventura Palace early in the AM an quickly ventured off the ranch. Boy do things change when you are no longer on hotel property. The guys with the Uzis don’t care so much about or for your Bracelet of Power.

I’ve already mentioned that the interstates in Mexico are what country roads are in the States. Their country roads are what our jungles would be. If we had jungles.

We drove south past armed checkpoints of the Mexican army checking cars for drug smuggling. Alongside the north south route you can see hotels popping up every so often and then some supporting villages. Actually, villages is too strong a word. Let’s call them dwellings. If that’s where the hotel staff lives, I have no idea how they can be so nice to us the visiting tourists.

Eventually we came to an intersection of sorts and headed due West into the jungle. Zipping by in our rented Jeep you can see breaks in the jungle brush that act as driveways. Sometimes a carton or a plastic jug will be upended on a stick marking the entrance way to a dwelling. Glancing into the jungle dwellings you begin to wonder if you could live like that. Are you tough enough? That reminded me of our Tulum guide’s quip about the Mayan supermarket; it’s the jungle. He related that people living there thought the idea of being so dependent on others for food was insanity. They may have a point.

We headed for the town of Merida, passing kilometers of jungle and more army checkpoints along the way. The road led directly into villages and towns along the way. Giant Topes, or speed bumps ensured you slowed your roll. That affords time for you to see village life as well as time for the villagers to see you and present their goods. These goods are all the same across the entire route. Obviously more expensive at the hotel and at the airport, I imagine there is some factory somewhere that spits these things out and it’s up to the villagers to weave stories about them being hand made.

Reaching Merida, what our guide book lists as a ‘sleepy’ little town, we look around for lunch. The road had simply stopped and turned into a mini city full of one-way roads, houses, shops, schools and mess of one-way streets. We had some confusion as a jeep of armed…were they militia? the welcoming committee? army? …. we didn’t know… started to follow us. They followed us up one way streets, down others. That ended any inclination to explore ‘sleepy little Merida.’ We eventually lost them, or they lost interest in us and we continued on to Chitzen Itza.

Coba

Coba is a ruined Mayan city set in the middle of the jungle. And as is typical of Mexico, there are no safety precautions whatsoever. A phenomenally fun time, in a sort of running with scissors kind of way!

We rolled into Coba on our way back from our Jeep side excursion to Chitzen Itza. Coba is another ancient Mayan city abandoned after the fall of that civilization. It stood directly on a trading route stretching from Chitzen Itza to Tulum. I remember there being several lakes in the region that supported the city. What is important here are not the lakes but the alligators in them. You can walk right up to the alligators. In fact, when we drove in, I saw a young mother and her toddler walking out to a pier on one of those lakes….. perhaps to feed the alligators? No idea.

After paying a fee, we were allowed into the park. The park is a massive network of dirt paths with tons of ruins interspersing them. Even with the minimal amount of archaeology training I have I could tell that the paths were bulldozed to make it easy for tourists to walk from one ‘big ruin’ to the other. The idea here, as it is in much of Mexico, wasn’t to preserve, understand, or learn from the past as it is to make a tourist buck. And that’s a shame. This by no means is limited to only Mexico. Most of the world does this. Remember, you vote with your dollars. Contribute to a dig site and you’ll get science. Visit these tourist traps and you’ll get more tourist traps. I’m pretty guilty of voting the wrong way here myself.

The Coba park is massive and winding. Bikes are offered for rent but we didn’t lease any. We should have as we spent way too much time walking around with sunset coming in.

There are a bunch of great sites in Coba. Basically, this is a collection of massive mound builders. Giant, multi-story towers dot the landscape and you’re allowed to crawl all over them. It’s fantastic! Couple chipped limestone with dense jungle growth and you’ve got scenes from Tomb Raider! It’s hard not to envision yourself being Indiana while climbing up these behemoths or running through the ‘death handball’ courts of the Maya. Remember, this is Mexico! Nothing is off limits!

The best part of Coba is the BIG, BIG, @#$ing BIG mound at the end. You can see some of the pictures I attached. It looks big from the ground but looks can be deceptive. It’s !@#$ing massive!!! You can climb up the temple, but don’t get too close to the sides! There are no guide rails and you will fall hundreds of feet to your doom.

Craziness!

Tulum

Some times I talk about building a resume for life. In short, that means having a bunch of experiences that shape your personality to a calibration that make you a unique and totally ‘you’ you. The set of event that you participate in, when described or set to paper, identify your soul the way a fingerprint marks you to the scene of a crime. This excursion, while short and sweet, was one of those for me.

I can now turn to my family and say ‘Remember that time we went for a swim below the castles and cliffs of the Maya at Tulum on Christmas Day?’ That was pretty awesome.

We took the Adventura Spa Palace tour bus from the hotel in the early morning and set out south. The ruins are not the best preserved in the world – after my training digging in Israel I could tell that some portions were patched up and moved around for tourist convenience. Still, Tulum was one of the first port cities that Spanish travelers (conquistadors, missionaries, explorers – call them what you will) saw of Mayan culture (you know, before they destroyed it). And it is exciting to try to replicate what they saw, and in turn what the Maya saw, hundreds of years ago in your mind’s eye.

The real highlight of Tulum wasn’t so much the ruins but the chance to walk down to the dramatic coastline and swim in the ocean with my family. Beautiful warm water + stunning scenery == good times that I’ll never forget.

After swimming we returned to the bus and were herded like animals to the slaughter to a crafts shop. That’s why I prefer going on my own rather than buses. You control your adventure. Not guides receiving craft shop sale kickbacks.

Xpu-Ha

This is a continuation of my 2008 Mexico Christmas Adventure. You can find a bunch of the other posts in this series in the links below this article.

Palace Resorts has many hotels. The Adventura Spa Palace, where I stayed in 2008, and where my wedding will be in 2010 is but one. It is an adults-only resort; nice for when you want to be away from the little screaming ones.

Xpu-Ha Palace is another Palace resort. It has a jungle theme that you can see in the pictures below. Complete with a full !@#$ing zoo. I mean, where else can you look at a monkey on your right, an alligator on your left, and then go snorkeling in an estuary 20 yards away?

Oh, and everything is of course free with your Bracelet of Power.

Where James Bond Would Vacation

“This is where James Bond would vacation.”

That was my impression of Adventura Spa Palace my first morning there. The sun had just rise. Dawn comes at an earlier time in the Mayan Riviera than it does on the American East Coast. Lucky for me, that meant an hour or two of solitude before my fiance or most other patrons awoke. I made my way from my room (anywhere else it would be called a suite) to the rocky Caribbean shore to collect my thoughts and welcome the morning.

After snapping a few pictures of sunrises in between palm trees in my iPhone and reading a chapter or two I headed for breakfast. The morning meal was a complete extravagance. You walk up to the hostess, show your wristband of power, and are seated in a gracious setting. A waiter comes to take your order, another pulls out your chair, another lays a napkin on your lap, while another asks you if you would like a coffee, some juices, or perhaps a mimosa or a screwdriver or a bloody Mary. Yes! Yes I believe I will have all of these things! It is, after all, just past 8am and I’ve yet to have any kind of alcohol… at least since 5 hours before, that is. My vodka to blood ratio must be getting low.

This is the place James Bond would vacation.

At about this time a waiter informs you about the various cooks they have positioned on the perimeter of the restaurant. Dutiful sentinels looking out, marking that line to ensure you have quite the satisfying breakfast. They can make just about anything you wish. The waiter also mentions the various buffets… as if you hadn’t noticed the glistening tables piled high with all sorts of manner of things the wealthy must eat for breakfast. Fucking phenomenal. And it’s all paid for, courtesy of the Bracelet of Power.

As I finish a breakfast over a few more chapters of my book, my fiance arrives for her breakfast. Can I believe how awesome this place is? Yes, yes I can. Will I stay with her while she eats? Yes, yes I will. And while I’m at it, the hobbit in me demands I have a second breakfast (and then a third when the rest of my family arrives.) Damn, it’s hard work rocking a power bracelet.

This is Cancun

Day 1 Cancun

The flight to Cancun was nothing special. The same kind of boarding you expect from USAir. Just throw in some passport shenanigans for fun-ski. Total travel time is nothing at all. 3 hours for us. Write some notes, read some books, do a crossword puzzle and you’re there. The waiting room for Paradise, though we didn’t know it yet.

We had a layover day in Cancun because the cost of a hotel + a Friday morning flight was significantly less expensive than the Saturday morning version. Ho, Hum, burn another vacation day en Mexico. Que dolor!

Customs was a cinch, much more relaxed than getting back into the States. Negotiating a taxi to the hotel was a supreme pain in the ass but we managed to do it. Next stop, the Mecca of Spring Break – minus the Spring Breakers, of course. A short ride later and we’re at the hotel. It’s nice. The other guests are boorish to put it politely. Drunken mid westerners, Texas bodybuilding lesbians, and all sorts of chatty Mexicans on holiday from the capital of Mexico city. Man this would be a nice place if they all would just shut up and stop acting drunk! Ah well, at least the sun is warm (hey, there’s a snow for the record books back in the U.S. at this point) and we did prove that their drinks do have alcohol in them. The Caribbean sea is an amazing blue – or is that azul? And the sand feels wonderful between my white pasty toes. I’m a million miles away from my job. So what there were no raises this year? I have a job and I’m in Mexico while unemployment is climbing past 10% So far, so good.

It’s time for dinner once the sun sets and we stupidly opt for the buffet. We choose poorly. The buffet sucks. The dinner entertainment is billed as ‘authentic Mexi-Caribbean dance.’ Fuck. If any of these costumes were worn back in the day by real Mayans, then I’m a virginal sacrifice. Can you say ‘exploited indigenous peoples?’ This hotel sure could. While tight, tanned and toned bodies writhe and sway to the syncopated beats echoing from the ‘authentic Mayan synthesizer’ other hotel staff set up a gauntlet of mass-produced (can I say ‘authentic’ again?) tourist souvenir trinkets. Watching a gaggle of 50 and over Ohio-ans stare at the dancer’s hips, I start to get the feeling that everything is for sale here. Did I just sign up for a week of this shit? Still, it’s better than a snowstorm, and I’m lucky to be here.

What I didn’t know at the time was how amazing the next few days were about to become.

We wake up early the next day and catch a taxi back to the airport to meet my brother and his girlfriend. They just took a red eye from Los Angeles to a Mexico City layover to here. And their flight was delayed a few hours. Recounting sitting in a stinking Air Mexico flight on the tarmac in what these world travelers regard as the foulest smelling city in the whole world (yes, that beat out Staten Island by their count), they are in no mood to play. Luckily, Paradise Resorts has arranged for a free, private taxi to take the 4 of us the 90 mins south to Adventura.

Our taxista is a genial older gentleman who lets us practice our Spanish with him. He’s delighted we know so much. Actually, he’s delighted that my brother is damn near fluent in Mexican. Of the 8 or so languages his girlfriend speaks, Spanish in not one of them (so she claims). My fiance and I get along OK with our preschool-level of conversation. For the first time I feel like we are in a different culture, a different country. After getting a refresher course on the language talking about weather, time, and the location of things, the conversation really picks up. For 90 minutes we talk about how life is here, what he does, and where he has lived, and what life is like here.

Driving south away from Cancun and all of it’s Spring Break-iness, the road starts to surprise me. Our iPhone / Google maps show our road in the thickness of an Interstate. The further we get from the smell of late night hook ups, and ‘what happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun’ the more the sites begin to change. There are shops all along the side of the road. Towards the coast you can see some hotels and some, for lack of a better word, I’ll call them villages. On the Western side, you see jungle. Real !@#$ing jungle. And there are people living in it. Crazy.

Once again distance does it’s trick. I’m now a million miles away from ‘authentic Mayan’ dancers and drunk mid westerners (does that mean I’m now 2 million away from work?) and I am loving it. All of our dispositions are greatly enhanced when he tells us we are traveling to paradise in hotel form. By the time we get there it seems all possibilities are open. And indeed, they are, for as we surrender our luggage to the hotel’s foot soldiers, the concierge directs us to check in. We are about to receive the Bracelets of power and all the privileges that come with it. Life is good.