Category Archives: Latin America

Travel stories/tips from Latin American destinations

Wowed in Oaxaca

Twenty years ago Russell and I honeymooned in Mexico, traveling for two weeks between Huatulco, on the coast of Oaxaca, and Mexico City, and so to celebrate our anniversary we decided to revisit the Oaxacan Coast seeing how much the cities of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido had changed.  We also planned to stay in the village of Mazunte, where we had never been before, located between the two cities.

Whereas the first trip to the Oaxacan Coast took place in June of 1997, when it was so humid you were sweating in the pool, we did this visit in March when it was still 90 degrees everyday but much drier.  When I asked the manager of the hotel when it rained last, she replied, “November?” The result was a landscape that looked like one spark away from a forest fire.  Definitely not the lush, rainy season look I had recalled.

We flew into Huatulco on a nonstop from Minneapolis and were transported by Best Day to the Hotel Santa Fe http://hotelsantafe.com.mx/  on Zicatela Beach in Puerto Escondido, about two hours west.  We had stayed here 20 years ago, solely based on its sign boasting aire acondicionado.  I remembered the area to be rather desolate around the hotel.  Not anymore! Playa Zicatela, an internationally known area for surfers, had exploded into a community more happening than Puerto Escondido itself.  We settled into our room at the Santa Fe and grabbed some lunch from their restaurant, recreating our photo from 20 years ago.  The hotel had expanded with a new wing of rooms, adding a second pool and patio area.  It was so colonial and beautiful and very peaceful as we were surrounded by travelers from Europe and Canada that were mostly of the 40+ demographic.

The first night we walked down the beach to dinner at a restaurant called Fresh, and arrived just in time for sunset.  Maybe it was the people watching on the sand, maybe it was the sun painting the sky, or maybe it was the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, but for some reason I forgot to photograph any of the food we had there, even though it was some of the best.  The Mussels Rockefeller made me want to cry.  We were stuffed when we declined their offer of dessert, but miraculously about two blocks later I found myself buying a Magnum ice cream bar from a mini-mart.  Funny how the stomach works.

The following day began with yoga on the patio overlooking the Pacific and then a trip to the breakfast legend of Playa Zicatela, Cafecito.  We made the mistake of both ordering chilaquiles  when we probably couldn’t have even finished one order.  That, paired with great coffee and huge glasses of fresh orange juice, made us sleepy enough to head back to the hotel for a mid morning poolside nap, disguised as reading.  This day we were joined by a new friend, a large iguana whose family pretty much had the run of the place. I alternated between watching him, reading, and swimming in the pool with my new favorite toy—the noodle doughnut!  I loved this thing and basically claimed it as my own the first day I arrived, only to be greatly annoyed later when it went missing, only to be discovered in the other pool around a small child.  I was really proud of the restraint I exercised by letting him have it so I rewarded myself with a detour to the bar and a piña colada, which, like my lost toy, made the pool more fun.

That night, which would be our last in Puerto Escondido before heading to Mazunte in the morning, we decided to walk the beach into town to the Adoquín a pedestrian street in the heart of Puerto.  I figured we would stroll around here before dinner for awhile, visiting shops, and hanging out.  However, the street was a heat filled canyon cluttered with junk vendors that after one lap had us searching for a cool (temperature, not ambiance) restaurant to escape to.  The winner was a French restaurant mentioned in many guidebooks called Pascale.  The tables on the deck overlooking the main beach had a glorious breeze, thank God!  With great music playing in the background, we shared a terrific meal of mixed grilled seafood with grilled vegetables and a nice bottle of wine.  We even splurged on a crème brulee, that was outstanding.  I was thinking it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had, but as I said earlier, funny how the stomach works.

That night I was awakened by that stomach at 4:00 am. I won’t get into the ugly details but let’s say I either had food poisoning or cholera.  Luckily Russell was fine, except for having to be in the room with me.  This sickness lasted the next three days.  Luckily I survived the taxi ride to Mazunte, but the three day “flu” could not come at a worse time.  You see, in Mazunte we had booked three nights at the Hotel Zoa Secreto http://zoahotel.com/ .  This exclusive property had just five private cabanas set on the side of a hill with infinity pool and everything one would ever imagine in a getaway in paradise.  But most importantly, we had booked a honeymoon package that included all of our gourmet meals.  While we were there, there was only one other couple two of the nights and we were the only guests one night.  So basically we would have a private chef.  For a foodie like me, this was going to be a dream stay!  Yes, the place was gorgeous, but it was All. About. The. Food.

So one can imagine my disappointment when I had zero appetite and an unwelcoming stomach the ENTIRE time we were there!  The chef would come out and tell Russell all about the fresh catch of the day options, detailing his preparations—all the things I live for on a vacation.  Russell would make his selection of a shrimp Diablo or grilled seafood tostada and I would request either a boiled chicken breast or a plate of plain cooked spaghetti, or when even those didn’t stay down, “tea, please, yes, just tea”.  The chef felt bad, but not as bad as I did.  But once I had resigned myself to not eating, I just went with the flow (no pun intended) and enjoyed myself to the fullest.  Lounging by what was basically our private pool, requesting hibiscus water, lemonade, tea, and ice water all day was still pretty great.  We would lie and read in the hammock area and I ventured down to the tiny beach/cave area.  I even felt well enough to do yoga on the deck of our cabana every morning.  I just couldn’t eat.  Russell would rave about the food and it smelled and looked great, but the urge to eat was gone.  I even asked Russell one day, “Will I ever be hungry again?” (the answer is yes—in two more days) One upside was that I was the thinnest I’d ever been half way through a vacation.  I wished I’d brought a scale!  Ha, ha.

On the last day of our stay, after we had lovely massages near our cabana,  I was feeling good enough to venture into San Agustinillo, where the hotel manager said I might find a nicer artisan shop than in Mazunte.  We walked into town to the shop and then along the beach which is one of the best that I have ever been on.  During our walk back to the hotel, UP the hill, I begged Russell to let us take my new favorite transportation, pasajeras, which are small pickup trucks with benches in the back and a tarp over the top.  These are how the locals get around and we saw them all over Oaxaca.  I love this kind of thing, but Russell just gave me that look and we kept walking.  Drats.

Back at Zoa, the chef and staff were busy preparing for our special private dinner.  All efforts were being made to create a private area away from the main dining area (even though we were the only guests that night, so really the whole place was private!).   That evening we were greeted by the chef at the end of the swinging bridge and led down the stone steps, now strewn with flower petals and lit by candle luminaries.  The hammock area had been transformed into a private, candlelit dining room and it was spectacular.  After being served our wine and an enormous appetizer of mahi mahi and octopus Carpaccio, I was determined that I would eat even if wasn’t hungry.  After we polished off the appetizer clearly meant for eight people, the chef brought down the main entrée—an entire salt encrusted red snapper.  And a bowl of whipped potatoes.  My stomach had shrunk to the size of a raisin, but I pressed on.  Even Russell looked like he might pass out.  And so we ate more and it was fantastic and the ambiance made it a really special evening.  If you have the chance to visit this amazing hotel, please do it.  They sure know how to treat their guests.  They really cover all the details.  They even greet you when you arrive with a wet washcloth that was in the refrigerator and an ice cold glass of hibiscus tea. Nice!

The final morning there, my appetite returned so I not only had a gluttonous breakfast, but Russell spotted three whales in the distance so that was awesome.   A few more laps in the pool, sighs on our deck, and we were out the door headed to Huatulco.

Huatulco can best be described as a “created city”.  The Mexican tourism department known as FONATUR used a computer years ago to identify the next big tourist area.  This is also how Cancun was created in the 70’s.  When we visited back in 1997 they were still setting up the infrastructure for the area and it has changed greatly.  Because of the “inorganic” way it came to be, Huatulco lacks the soul of other towns on the Oaxacan Coast, but it has the best airport in the area and nine bays of beautiful beaches, so a person could do a lot worse on vacation.  After spending three days feeling like celebrities we pulled into the Hotel Quinta Bella in Huatulco http://www.quintabellahuatulco.com/ on  Playa Chahue.  The beach was great and the hotel was nice but it is tough to go from a chill place like the Hotel Santa Fe and the Shangri-La that is Hotel Zoa to the 20 room Quinta Bella.  All of the rooms have private plunge pools and all overlook the pool and beach.  It is very beautiful but there were a few families there and it was the first real “kid noise” we had experienced in days so that took some adjustment!  The infinity pool there was great for gazing out at the bay and all of the boats coming and going from the nearby marina.  The restaurant served really great pizza, which I inhaled now that I was back to normal.  That paired with an afternoon of sipping cheladas (beer over ice and a squeezed lime) was pretty fantastic.  The hotel is quite new and is nice, with the exception of some of the tacky room décor including this lamp–WHY?

However, one of my complaints here was one of the parents by the pool.  She had two small children that she basically left unsupervised all afternoon.  Oh, she was in her chair, right by the pool, but her nose was stuck so far into her phone for hours that she failed to notice her daughter shrieking for no reason every three minutes and her son climbing over the side of the infinity pool, falling onto the sand of the beach, rolling around in it, and climbing back, sand and all, into the pool.  Mamá of the Year!

That evening we taxied down to the Zocalo area of La Crucecita, which is essentially the “town” of the Huatulco area. We had a nice time strolling around, watching an impromptu break dance performance, visiting the church with the largest image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the world, checking out local vendors on the plaza, buying a bunch of tiny alebrijes, Oaxacan wooden folk art, and just soaking it all in, including this sign outside a bar.

The best meal we had in Huatulco was at a little Italian place overlooking the marina called 7 Tavoli La Taverna.  On the way there, we passed by a construction site and I’m guessing it’s been awhile since they have showed up to work!

Anyways, back to 7 Tavoli–they had a great menu plus specials on a big chalkboard they would drag from table to table.  We had a stellar dinner of a gorgonzola crostini, mixed seafood pasta,and shrimp pasta, the meal topped off with tiramisu and cappuccino. It was probably flavor-wise our best meal of the trip so it was a nice end to a trip that really was supposed to be all about the food, even though sometimes, stomachs do not cooperate.  Oh well, at least now I can join all the others who “went to Mexico and got sick.”

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Isla! Just the Two of Us….no?

Upon booking our spring break to one of our favorite Mexican hideaways, Isla Mujeres, I had to text one of my friends to rub it in that we were heading back to Isla.  Imagine my surprise when he texted back that he and some other mutual friends from our small town had also just booked a vacation there during the same week! Their group of six soon grew to another group of six and so our private getaway became the best of both worlds–relaxing beach days for two followed by fun evenings out with friends. Like the never-experienced luxury of being on a tropical vacation in your own town!

And so we were off!  Russell gets so excited at the airport when we go on vacation.  russell-airportGlad to see the TSA didn’t crush all of his joy in the security check point.

Once in Mexico, typical days on Isla consisted of a morning beach walk and breakfast at our hotel, NaBalam http://www.nabalam.com.  A few days I went to yoga, once at Na Balam by a true yogi–a, dare I say, shaman?  This spiritual little guy made for a nice alternative to my usual yoga.  He even gave Russell an hour of yoga therapy during the week.  Another day I ventured down to yoga class on the skydeck of Cabanas María del Mar.  That yoga instructor was more California surfer than Indian guru, making me chuckle every time I was in a pose and he would prompt in his Zen-stoner vibe, “Relaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaxxxxxx”.

After the morning workouts, we would settle into our daily routine of sunbed surfing while overlooking beautiful North Beach.  After a regimen of read, swim, repeat, I waited until it seemed an appropriate and judgment-free time to order my afternoon bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and some lunch. isla-16 The new restaurant at Na Balam has fantastic food, like these octopus tostadas and fresh seafood ceviche. There’s just nothing better than lying in “bed” all day on one of the best Caribbean beaches while people bring you seafood and pour you wine.  Ahhh…..p1060398

As hard as it was to break up that lovely daytime routine, we agreed to go with our friends one day on a ride around the island on golf carts.  We’ve been to Isla several times and know the golf cart route well.  Our morning began with a ride along the windy, rough side of the island where we stopped to walk around awhile on the rock formations.  My friend Ron, doing his best impression of James Franco from 127 Hours.  Luckily he did not have to saw off his arm…p1060363

After working up an appetite from our climbing, we continued south to Colonia La Gloria, the neighborhood housing most of Isla’s residents.  Here we would find Mango Café, one of the top rated restaurants on Tripadvisor.  www.facebook.com/mangocafeisla

It seemed the word was out as this place was packed so we were told it would be about a 25 minute wait for a table.  We made the most of our wait by strolling around the neighborhood and befriending some little girls.  Some of them decided to use Russell for their hide and seek spot.  “Hey, let’s hide behind this big, white guy!”p1060366

And so our playdate was interrupted by a wave across the street signaling our table was ready.  ¡Adiós, chicas! The Mango Café did not disappoint!  Do not come here looking for a “light breakfast”.  Some of us ordered breakfast quesadillas while the others ordered the Stuffed Poblano Chile which came out as large as a deep fried football!p1060370An hour later we all waddled out of the place and continued further south, passing the Crayon Housep1060375and making our way to one of the island cemeteries.  If you’ve never visited a Mexican cemetery, it is a must.  Nothing scary here, looks more like a mini-golf course than anything from a Halloween movie. p1060380p1060376 The tiny mausoleums are interesting and made for a nice little digestive stroll.  *Side note, one should not consume 3,000 calories before noon. And so we were off again to Punta Sur, the southernmost point of the island, where conveniently there was a bar in a judgement-free zone so many in our group partook in a piña colada.  Nothing goes better on top of a deep fried football than a 600 calorie frothy drink! Ahhhh……vacation.

After a walk about and some photo ops on the lovely south end, p1060386

we were back on the carts and northbound up the calm, eastern side of the island.  With no agenda, we decided we would make stops as they called our attention so it was no surprise when our lead golf cart pulled into the Ice Bar.  A tourist trap if there ever was one, we went for it and donned our yeti-esque parkasp1060390 in the 90 degree lobby and entered the solid ice bar and its freezing temps.  I loved that we paid thousands of dollars to escape the cold and then paid money to be in the cold.  p1060395We Americans are so strange! Anyway, it was a fun thing actually and I know we really did need two more margaritas on top of the deep fried football.

After the Ice Bar, we stopped for lunch(????!!!!) at Playa Lancheros, a requirement when on the island.  It is a great spot to take a swim, which we did, and chill out for awhile before making the final journey north back to town and the hotels.  Of course we went out to dinner that night, don’t really remember what or where as I think my clothes were so tight it blocked circulation to my brain.  No more 10,000 calorie days on this trip I said the next morning.  Through sheer will power and restraint I was able to keep the rest of the trip below 5,000 a day.  I know, you are thinking about my sacrifice and I appreciate it.  A “diet” on vacation—what??

Anyways, the week went on with more sunning, swimming, reading, and wine, with a little snorkeling by the bridge mixed in for cardio.  Nights were a whirlwind of one great seafood dinner p1060416after the next at places like Rolandi’s Pizzeria, Asia Caribe, Muelle 7, Olivia’s, and Jax.  There were also some nice breakfasts at the market stands behind Na Balam and, of course, the out of this world Lobster Eggs Benedict at Rooster Café.

There were a lot of celebrations too that week on the island.  While sitting at a bar one evening, we watched the set up of a child’s birthday party in the street and restaurant next door.  Russell was instrumental in helping them hang their piñata p1060412and it was great watching the kids smash it in the street as tourists walked by.  We also got to celebrate our friend Karen’s birthday one night.  I think her birthday wish was to not get back on the ferry at the end of the week!  We started her big night in style with sunset cocktails on the balcony of their room at Ixchel Hotel.  It was so romantic watching the sun go down from that vantage point, till our friend Andy photo bombed our big moment….or did we photo bomb him?  Whatever.p1060441

As we had come to the last day of our trip, we decided that since we did originally book the trip as a romantic getaway that we should have one intimate dinner just the two of us, so we headed back to the south end where we dined at Maria’s Kan Kin. This was a truly memorable evening with patio seating overlooking the infinity pool.  We were there in time for sunset, which made for an even better view looking across the bay at the lights of Cancún. We started out with a shrimp appetizerp1060450 and finished up with a seafood pasta and this beautifully prepared grouper. Fantastic!p1060455

And so ended another great week on Isla Mujeres.  You just can’t go wrong with a vacation here.  And you never know what new friends, or in our case this time, old friends, you’ll run into!

As a parting note, whenever I go to Isla I try to think about jobs Russell and I could get here and maybe stay awhile.  I found that my translation skills could be needed at this supermarket. Mmmmmm….nothing more refreshing on a 90 degree day than a “cool” beer!

p1060348

Who Hid the Volcano?

Imagine that you had spent months planning a trip to Mount Rushmore and after driving several hours you arrived to find it hidden by clouds for the entire time you were there.  You might understand our feelings during our trip to Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica then!  Over the week that we spent in the Limón Province of Costa Rica visiting our teacher friends Ashanti, Miguel, and Yerlin, we made arrangements for a mini-trip to see the volcano.

We made our way to La Fortuna, passing through grazing land with my favorite “field friends”, Costa Rican cattle and their ever-present  BFFs, cattle egrets.  Respaldo fotos USA 229From the lowlands of Limón,  we curved through mountain roads hitting some construction IMG_0251along the way and also much needed roadside snack standsIMG_0258 (2) before eventually pulling into town three hours after leaving Guácimo.  All of the research I had done on the area showcased over and over the magnificent views of the volcano from every area.  Our plan was to do some hiking around the base of Arenal over the lava fields of previous eruptions.  So many internet photos showed not only the volcano smoking, but also visible lava flowing.  I was so excited that our hotel, the Volcano Lodge http://www.volcanolodge.com/en had perfect volcano views and I was picturing myself in the pool with a nice drink watching the action, resting after my mountain hike.Respaldo fotos USA 333

But alas, fantasy did not touch reality on this excursion.  As we pulled into the town of La Fortuna, our friend Miguel shook his head.  Where I only saw a sky full of fog, he told me the great volcano usually towered over the city.  IMG_0190

Ever the optimist in cases of inclement weather, I thought it might burn off so we ventured on toward the volcano.  As we approached the entrance to the hiking trails in the park, our bad luck continued.  It began to rain.  Hard.  As we pulled over and took in the rain forest shower, the fog began to envelop us as well.  As I sat disgruntled in the car thinking about no volcano views and no hiking, I started munching on some chips and was joined by feathered friends who would have loved to have taken refuge from the rain in our car and share my snack.IMG_0202  I didn’t realize that would end up being our only nature encounter of the day.  So sad.

As we drove around the base of Arenal, waiting for meteorological change, we came to terms with the fact that there would be no hiking in the rain so we returned to the hotel.  The grounds of Volcano Lodge were gorgeous and would have been so amazing to stroll around if it were dry out.  The massive wall of fog reminded us constantly that it was just not our day.  After playing cards on the patio of our room for awhile we ventured over to the restaurant and bar.  It looked like our luck was about to change.  Not only were there some very interesting drink specials going on, but on the TV of the bar, the Green Bay Packer/Minnesota Viking game was on!  We had certainly never expected this as American football games on TVs outside the US are not exactly common.  As so we spent the next three hours cheering on the Pack and sipping rum concoctions.  But as I said earlier, it was not our day, and we ended up watching our Packers fall to a terrible Viking team.  Talk about adding insult to injury!   The only thing that helped make it better was the terrific meal at the hotel restaurant that night of seafood fettuccine and filet mignon with an espresso sauce.  Not exactly the rice and beans we associate with Costa Rica!

The next morning as we prepared to head to San José and then back to the US, the sun shone brightly Respaldo fotos USA 325and we thought for sure the fog would lift as a beautiful goodbye to us.  No such luck.  The best view we got was still about a third hidden from view.  Respaldo fotos USA 330It did make for a great morning though for strolling the grounds, using the pool, and lounging under the world’s largest fern.Respaldo fotos USA 320

It was disappointing that our whole trip’s purpose was crushed by the weather, but I guess they don’t call it the rain forest for nothing.

Gluttony and Sloth in Cozumel

Normally we like to choose destinations that are somewhat off the beaten path.  My favorite response when I tell people where we are heading next is “Where’s that?”  However, with the price being too good to pass up and a recommendation of great diving, we picked the Mexican island of Cozumel for this year’s Spring Break.  We prepared ourselves for the throngs of cruise-shippers that we knew would fill the island daily by avoiding the town of San Miguel and southern part of the island during the day.  Usually by nightfall, ships pulled out and the island was a nice mix of locals, vacationing Mexicans, and even some Americans venturing out now that the coast was clear.  Pun intended. P1050321Days were spent being pampered and lazy at Hotel B Cozumel www.hotelbcozumel.com .  This boutique hotel of 44 rooms set on a beautiful coral shore and lagoon was just what we needed.  Starting the morning with yoga class on the pier P1050342over the water or with a brisk walk down to the marina (here is the tarantula I almost stepped on during one of these walks) IMG_0282 was the perfect segue to hours on a sun bed reading, sunning, and feasting on lunches of calamari and ceviche.  Throw in two days of scuba diving and another two days of excellent snorkeling right in front of the hotel, and it made for the idyllic tropical vacation. The only negative about the hotel was that it offered “day passes” to cruise-shippers, so during some of the days, there were a few more guests at the hotel than we would have liked.  Most of the time, the clientele of the hotel was European and Middle Eastern—lots of different languages, which I love.  The mood of the hotel was very zen, with spa-like music and a really “chill” vibe.  With the exception of the day I was lounging by the pool and I experienced the American Invasion!  A family of four came to the pool loungers and upon setting up camp on the chairs, proceeded to play out the stereotypical Loud American Tourist.  “I SET YOUR TOWEL HERE!”  “DO YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?” “COME GET YOUR SUNSCREEN!” and other phrases were screamed across the outdoor area.  It was awful!  Prior to their arrival, there were about 25 of us at the pool and while it was by no means silent, people were using normal speaking voices.  Please, my fellow Americans, let’s not be “that guy” when we travel! I was really impressed with the behavior with my fellow hotel-mates, so the only other issue I noticed was also by some day pass cruise-shippers.  The selfies!   Make them stop.  We were in one of the most gorgeous settings in the Caribbean and experiencing perfect weather and the group of 20-something girls visiting one day spent no less than four solid hours doing nothing but taking selfies.  If you have a “selfie-stick”, please go near the water and hit yourself in the head with it so you can join your mythological Greek twin, Narcissus! My favorite hotel-mates were the friendly male couple from Ohio that were there the first part of our stay.  I was sunbathing near them one day and of course, eavesdropping.  A tall guy came up and chatted with them about their evening plans.  “We’re going to mass tonight—it IS Palm Sunday, you know,” said one of the guys, and then his partner added, “We actually met in church!”  As a fellow Catholic this made me smile, so when I heard the tall guy start to respond, I figured he was going to address the elephant in the room.  Tall guy: “You two are going to church………three sheets to the wind?”  THAT was his question.  Chuckles from me on my beach chair.  Their response: “We’re Catholic—drinking is the 11th Commandment.”  I just love conversations like these! Other excitement during the week at the hotel was the day we got yacht-neighbors.  The Lumiere spent the day moored just off our shore.  P1050344Why didn’t I bring my binoculars?  We had a lovely day watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  I was able to Google the yacht and found out it can be chartered for the bargain price of about $225,000 a week.  Plus expenses.  At least this yacht had a better captain than the Fiesta, a yacht that washed up on shore right in town and spent most of the week with locals pointing at it until we finally watched it being towed away and almost swamped. IMG_0275 I think I will be content to just stay on land. But when we were at sea for our scuba one day, we had yet another of our many “It’s a small world” moments.  On a dive boat of nine people we ended up sitting across from a family from the Twin Cities who not only had heard of our small town of 2,000 people, the husband had spend a decade of summers there with his family as a child and the wife shared with me that her death wish is to have her and her husband’s ashes mixed and spread over the lake two miles from my house.  WHAT?  This is the kind of crazy stuff that always happens to us.  We can’t go anywhere without running into someone who has some connection to our small town.  I don’t know how people have affairs or think they can do anything secret, even far away on a vacation.  There is always someone you will run into! The last thing that was noteworthy about our week in Cozumel was the food.  Prior to the trip I spent many hours on Tripadvisor to see what restaurants we would visit.  The research paid off in the form of a seven pound weight gain in seven days.  Nice!  By the end of the trip I could hardly fit into my plane seat!  OK, not really but my jeans were not too pleased.  I present my best “food porn” of the week: IMG_0204 (1)A seafood skewer with lobster, shrimp, octopus and shrimp in a mango glaze from Buccano’s http://www.buccanos.com/buccanos-at-night.html that could have fed an entire family! IMG_0200The appetizer of wahoo and mahi mahi tartare with green apple and avocado with fried plantains that we started with at Buccano’s and regretted after the skewer came and we had to roll out of the place. Items off the tasting menu at Kondesa http://kondesacozumel.com/, including an appetizer and dessert sampler.IMG_0208IMG_0213 The greatest sandwich ever created—the Lobster Bacon sandwich from Le Chef.  IMG_0225 We enjoyed chowing down on them while watching people working out on spinning bikes at the gym across the street. IMG_0228 Scallops, shrimp, and octopus over black squid-ink linguine IMG_0237from Guido’s. http://www.guidoscozumel.com/ A cafeteria-style tray loaded with conch, shrimp, prawns, and grouper from El Moro in the residential area.IMG_0258 (1) Ok—time to come up for air!  It’s hard to believe we only gained a pound a day!  Although we don’t plan to return to Cozumel—too many other destinations to hit—if we do, I will be sure to plan a colonoscopy for the day after we get home because missing out on this great food will not be an option and I don’t want to spend the following month in sweatpants.

Up all Night, Sleep all Day—Playa del Carmen

As far as beaches go, those of the Riviera Maya are hard to beat, but as an anti-all-inclusive gal, I pushed for Russell and I and our friends Coco and Tricia to stay right in the city of Playa del Carmen as opposed to the mega resorts that line the beaches to the north and south.  After weeks of research on Trip Advisor, we set our destination for El Taj Hotel www.eltaj.com, right on the beach and right in town.  I was so excited at the prospect of having the best of all worlds without depending on taxis or buses.  The “condotel” itself was a dream—excellent pools, restaurant (loved the sushi!), condos, drinks, and service.  Also great amenities like gym membership looked like all the makings of a perfect week.  There is nothing like a morning spinning class to erase all guilt about the previous evening’s mojitos and fajitas!

Over the week we had some great daytrips—the first arranged with Alltournative tours www.alltournative.com.   A typical tourist excursion of ziplining and cenote swimming,Cenote Jodi but loads of fun all the same.  I’ve only ever ziplined in Latin America and I like to avoid thinking of the safety of the activity considering being in the land of non-regulation and that just makes it all that much more fun. (Remember I said that when a cable breaks sometime) zip line Russell Another daytrip was down to the beachside village of Akumal—the place of the turtle.  Russell and I made arrangements to dive there, but after the rushed morning dive and bad wave conditions, nausea filled our entire day and the afternoon was spent on dry land trying to recover.  We didn’t even have the will to join our friend Coco doing offshore snorkeling with the sea turtles the area is famous for.  Probably for the best as when Coco sees signs that say things like “Absolutely do not touch the turtles”, he does not think they mean him so he was getting chewed out quite a bit and it was more entertaining to observe this from my beach lounger.

If it were just for our swanky hotel, great days on the beach, Playa 8and fun daytrips, it would have been a trip without event.  However, the problem came at night.  Remember, El Taj is right in town and every evening we walked to Avenida Cinco for dinner, drinks, and shopping/people watching.  Playa 7-2That part was great, however sanitized from real Mexican culture it really is.  What became an issue was the period between midnight and 5 a.m. when the clubs came alive.  These clubs lined the area about 2-3 blocks from our hotel and many of them were open air.  That said, we were rocked to sleep nightly by the lullaby of bass—boom, boom, boom, boom…

Sleep was not an option.  One morning on the balcony outside our room door, a bag mysteriously appeared.  It contained cold beer and three bottles of chilled booze—all still cold!  We never did find out the story behind this abandoned bag, but we did a great job taking care of the contents.  Perhaps a token of apology from one of the DJs?

On the last morning—Easter Sunday, as we were getting ready to leave for the airport it was 8 a.m. and the club music down the street was still pounding.  Surely the club had to be empty, we thought.  Why don’t they shut the “music” (boom, boom, boom…) down?  And so we sent Coco down to check out if anyone was in the club.

It was packed. At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  Easter Sunday morning.  That was our sign to head home.

A new meaning for the phrase: Location, location, location…

Finding Yourself in Lake Atitlán

During my grad class in Antigua, Guatemala, we headed out on a weekend trip to Lake Atitlán.  This sacred lake of the Mayans is the deepest in Central America at over 1,000 feet and is surrounded by volcanoes.  The only word as you first see it, descending the hill to the town of Panajachel, is breathtaking.  100_0425We settled into cabanas for a night in this hippie town on the shore of the lake before our real destination—San Pedro—the next day.  I was not a huge fan of Panajachel as I felt it was a little “touristy”.  Don’t confuse this to mean Cancún or anything!  I just mean that there were too many English signs for my liking and too many American twenty-somethings sitting on sidewalks “finding themselves” and letting their dreadlocks blow in the wind off the lake.  An enjoyable night was spent walking the town and finding a spot lakeside to sip Gallo, my Guatemalan beer of choice, and watch the sun go down.

Bright and early the next morning our group of Spanish teachers headed down to the pier to jump on a boat that carried us across Lake Atitlán, bound for San Pedro La Laguna.  Just before boarding, I was able to take a couple great shots of the volcanoes across the lake.  It is such a talent of mine to time the clouds just right so it appears that I am experiencing a volcanic eruption.

100_0435My next job will be shooting covers for National Geographic100_0437

Upon arrival to San Pedro, we hiked up the road to where our coordinator had booked our rooms for the night.  After staying in the adorable cabanas in Panajachel, we figured we would have more of the same in San Pedro.  Not quite.  We came upon a rundown place a few blocks up the hill and all looked at each other when the coordinator said this was it.  As my friends and I went into our room, we were in disbelief.  It was by far the worst room I had ever been in—dark, a non-secure door, and the bathroom was the worst with no toilet seat and no door!  I tried to compose myself by thinking, “calm down—this is an adventure and only one night,” but after congregating with the other teachers over lunch in the same rundown area, we started to get leery of San Pedro and decided to return to the hotel and revolt against our excursion coordinator.

Luckily for us, the revolt was a success and we threw our luggage into the back of a pickup truck and all piled in and we were off to another section of San Pedro, which despite its roughness, 100_0467became known as “the nice part of San Pedro”.  There our coordinator found us rooms at a lovely little inn for $15 a night, making me wonder what the other rooms had cost.

Once we got the room situation under control, we continued on with our plan, which was to walk to a neighboring village and visit a cooperative of women weavers. 100_0459 These women were amazing and showed us how they made all their own dyes from plants and were responsible for making and selling all of their work, enabling the women to support themselves.  It was a fantastic idea and we all left with many purchases.  I still use my cloth napkins made by Nacha (on the right).

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I really don’t know how it happened, but as we were leaving the weavers, a pickup truck appeared and we were told it was going to drive us back to San Pedro.  We were having the real Latin American experience!  Standing in the back of a pickup truck TWICE in one day!  All I needed was a machine gun and I could have been mistaken for a local.  My favorite part of that ride, not counting the curves and hard braking, was when our driver made a turn instead of following the way we had walked from our hotel.  All I can say is What a bunch of teachers!  We started banging on the roof to get his attention—yes, that’s right, we teachers who had been in San Pedro all of three hours were telling this man who lived there how to get back to town.  Nice.  Luckily for us, he did not kick us all out of the truck, but rather yelled out that this was a different way back.  Satisfied, we shut up for the rest of the ride and enjoyed our trip through the side roads. 100_0452

That night we went out to dinner and more Gallos in the nice part of San Pedro.  After dinner and using the worst bathroom I’ve seen in all my travels, we joined up with some younger teachers from our group that had befriended some locals and some hippies at the bar next door.  I began to suspect their new friends had had more than Gallos judging from the herbal scent of them so it was easy to decline the offer when they started talking about some festival in the next village that we would get to by boat.  No gracias.  I was too old for that kind of adventure and I only wanted to make my way back to my luxury $15 room.

If you ever decide to go off and “find yourself”, Lake Atitlán seems like the place to do it.  And if you get lost on the way to yourself, maybe some teachers will tell you where to go.

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Yes, Virginia, There is a Lake Titicaca

A weekend excursion to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca (okay—go ahead, revert to your middle school self and laugh—it is a funny name!) on the border between Peru and Bolivia began with a stop in the city of Copacabana.  Copacabana, Bolivia—not to be confused with Brazil—is famous in its own right.  Every day, the town is flooded with proud car owners hoping to have their car blessed by the Virgin of Copacabana.  We strolled though jammed streets of vehicles decorated to the hilt102_0462 and watched a priest do rounds sprinkling the holy water, followed by the owners pouring alcohol over the car, lighting incense around it, and even lighting off fireworks underneath it.  Safety first!

After taking in this spectacle and the rest of this touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca, our group of Spanish teachers got back on our motor coach and headed out of town toward where we would depart for Isla del Sol.  On the way to the pier, we had to have our bus ferried across part of the lake to connect with a short cut.  We all had to leave the bus while it ferried, while we were transported on a small passenger boat. 102_0391 Thankfully bus and passengers made it across the water safely and after reboarding and traveling another hour or so, we arrived at the pier to load yet another passenger boat that would bring us to a small dock on Isla del Sol.

Upon arrival to the island, all we could do was look up, because the island is like one big hill.  We were then informed that a pack of donkeys 102_0449would be delivering our backpacks to our lodging for the night: Ecolodge—La Estancia  www.ecolodge-laketiticaca.com.  After saying goodbye to our belongings, we learned that we would be hiking to the lodge. Uphill. For around two hours.  At over 13,000 feet above sea level.  Awesome!  I was really glad I had taken the baggie of coca leaves from our guide because the leaves are the ultimate remedy for altitude sickness and like so many t-shirts in Bolivia say “Hoja de coca no es una droga” (coca leaves are not a drug).  And so with that in mind and coca leaves in my cheek I began trekking up the hillside paths toward the ecolodge.  The views on the hike made the whole thing worthwhile102_0420 and the bottle of Malbec waiting for us at the lodge was an excellent reward as well.  Some of those who did not have coca leaves and were not quite in shape had a much more difficult time arriving to the lodge and they promptly crashed for the night upon arrival.  The rest of us enjoyed our wine, some coca tea, 102_0432a delicious meal of traditional Andean cuisine, and the beautiful views of the lake and the Andes.

The small cabanas of the ecolodge scattered about the hillside102_0422 made for the perfect accommodation and the complete silence overnight after the big hike made for a great night.  I did, however, set my alarm clock early to get up and capture some photos of the most beautiful sunrise of my life.  102_0437After going back to bed for a few hours, we started our day with breakfast at the lodge dining room and set off for a morning hike to the official peak of the island—another hour above the ecolodge.  More beautiful views welcomed us along with a feeling of…accomplishment?  We felt like explorers.  After the standard photo ops at the peak, 102_0452we descended to the lodge and then continued on down the hill (much easier downhill!) to the dock to board the small boat and head back to the motor coach on shore.

The trip to Isla del Sol had been perfection, with views of a lifetime, and I was all smiles as we neared the dock.  Just before the steps down to the pier, I was approached by the cutest little girl with a small alpaca.  What a beautiful parting memory of my time on the island!  I greeted her and she asked me to take her picture.  102_0456Adorable, I thought to myself.  Perhaps she has never seen a photo of herself on a digital camera like the school children I had encountered in Guatemala.  So sweet!  And so I took the photo and as I showed her the screen, she demanded money!  What??!!  I’d been had by this little scammer disguised as a precious Andean child.  Grrrr… I handed over the only coins I had and walked down to the pier.

She may have ruined the moment, but let’s face it, she needed the coins more than I did.  And I’m not holding a grudge, because who knows–the next time I visit, my backpack might be on the back of that alpaca.