Category Archives: ADVENTURES IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN

Barbados 2018: Sea Turtles, Shipwrecks, & the History of Rum

One week in Barbados 2018: Gorgeous beaches, delicious Caribbean food, and snorkeling over shipwrecks with sea turtles

 

Barbados is the most southeastern island in the Caribbean island chain, not very far off the coast of Venezuela. When we told our friends in the US that we were going to Barbados, the reaction was usually excitement, followed by “where is that again?”

Barbados was colonized by the British, and remained a British colony until 1966, when it became a sovereign nation. The original Arawak and Carib native population was sadly decimated by colonization, and sugarcane and slavery were introduced to the island in the 1640’s. The majority of slaves were imported from West Africa until slavery was finally abolished in the 1800’s. The resulting culture in Barbados today is a mix of British, Caribbean, and African cultures that is uniquely Bajan.

Barbados
Image from https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/bb.htm

There are a couple things about Barbados that make visiting this beautiful country easy for American travelers. The first is that the national language is English, so there is no language barrier for English-speaking travelers. The second is that the Barbados dollar is tied to the US dollar, at a rate of $2.00 BBD to $1.00 USD. This makes converting prices super easy–just cut all the prices in half to convert the rate to USD. No need to exchange currency, just withdraw cash from a bank ATM with your debit card on arrival (be sure to give your bank a travel notification before you leave the country). Many stores and restaurants and all taxi drivers take cash only, so be sure to have some cash on you while you are there. There is an ATM at the airport that you can use. US dollars are also widely accepted.

In addition, the water is clean and safe to drink, the crime rate is one of the lowest of all the Caribbean islands, and the beaches are some of the best in the world.

When I was a high school exchange student in Denmark in the 90’s, two of my fellow exchange student friends were students from Barbados, and this trip was our first time reuniting in 20 years. In addition, another of our mutual exchange student friends from Turkey came to join the reunion with her boyfriend as well. It was a fantastic week and an awesome experience to have our local friends show us around and share their island and culture with us.

 

Day 1:

We took JetBlue overnight with an early morning layover in New York. When we arrived, the line through passport control was long but it was a quick 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel from the airport once we got through.

We stayed at the Butterfly Beach  Hotel on the south coast. Our room was a reasonable price and included a small balcony with a partial ocean view and a mini fridge and hot water kettle. Butterfly Beach hotel also offers more expensive rooms with full ocean views, and rooms with kitchenettes for self-catering.

Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados
Butterfly Beach Hotel Barbados

Butterfly Beach Hotel is on the beach, but the waves were pretty rough so we didn’t go swimming here. They do have a nice pool and plenty of lounge chairs with ocean views.

We were starving when we checked in at 3:30, so we unpacked our stuff and headed down to the hotel bar for a little snack and a beer. We had Banks Beer (local beer in Barbados), Bajan fish cakes (deep fried balls of salt fish mixed with dough), and chicken wings. We loved the fish cakes.

banks beer barbados
Paddy enjoying his first Banks beer in Barbados
Bajan fish cakes
Bajan fish cakes

We had thought we were going to dinner at 7:00 and would have some time to rest a bit, but my friend Damien messaged me and told me the only reservation he could get was at 6:00 and he would pick us up at 5:45. It was 4:45, so we rushed back to the room to shower and get ready to go. No nap time for us.

Dinner was at Shakers Bar & Grill in Brown’s Gap. According to Damien, this is one of the favorite local restaurants on the island.

Shakers Barbados
Shakers Bar & Grill

We met with Damien’s wife Kyesha and his son Dimitri, and my other Bajan friend from my AFS Denmark exchange year, Monique.

I had blackened lionfish with grilled potato and salad, and Paddy had BBQ chicken. It was delicious and reasonably priced. I tried the rum punch, which is the national cocktail. It was strong! Rum punch does not mess around.

I had never had lionfish before. Damien and Kyesha told us that lionfish are an invasive species and are devastating the fish population and coral reefs in the area. Fisherman have been fishing them and encouraging people to eat them as an effort to control their populations. I had only known of lionfish as a fish to stay far away from when snorkeling, due to their venomous stinging spines. But apparently, once you take the spines out, the fish are safe to eat (and delicious).

lionfish
Lionfish. Image from http://oceana.org/blog/invasive-lionfish-are-delicious-%E2%80%94-it-safe-eat-them-6
Blackened lionfish at Shakers, Barbados
Blackened lionfish at Shakers, Barbados
Shakers Barbados
First night dinner at Shakers

If you want a truly local experience and great local food, Shakers should be on your restaurant list for your trip to Barbados.

After dinner, Damien’s wife and son headed home and Damien and Monique took us out for drinks in St Lawrence Gap.

St Lawrence Gap is where the party is at. Tourists and locals mix in the bars and restaurants along this little strip on the south coast. It is the most touristy area, but also the number one spot for nightlife. We went to Damien’s favorite spot, Hal’s Bar–a low-key open air sports bar with strong drinks and continued to catch up on the last 20 years.

We had to call it a night around 11:00 , we were tired from traveling. Before we went back to the hotel, Monique insisted that we had to try the BBQ pig tails from the street vendor outside Hal’s.

At first, I was picturing the long, curly part of the pig tail and wasn’t sure what eating that would be like. But BBQ pig tails are actually the tail bone of the pig with the little nub of a tail at the end. The long curly part is cut off and not used. They are slow cooked and tender, and were kind of like a pork rib. They were delicious! Don’t be afraid to try the pig tails, or you will miss out. Be sure to grab extra napkins.

BBQ pig tails in St Lawrence Gap
Street vendor selling BBQ pig tails and macaroni pie in St Lawrence Gap

 

Day 2:

Our first full day in Barbados was Sunday, and Monique and Damien had plans with their families, so we took the day to relax and recover from traveling.

We started our day with breakfast at the Surfer’s Cafe, a 10 minute walk down the road from our hotel. We snagged a two person table overlooking the gorgeous beach.

The prices weren’t super cheap, but not crazy expensive. The view was worth it. We each had the Barrel, a breakfast sandwich with egg, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. It was the perfect amount of food. Coffee was great.

The service was on island time (a bit slow), but we weren’t in a hurry. Be sure to come here if you have time to relax, if you have limited time it is not the best choice.

Breakfast at the Surfer's Cafe, Barbados
Breakfast at the Surfer’s Cafe, Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
Surfers Cafe Barbados
View from our table at Surfers Cafe Barbados

*Tipping in Barbados: 

According to our local friends, tipping isn’t expected in Barbados. It is nice to leave 10% for really good service, but not expected as in the US. Often there will be a 10% service charge already added to the bill.

After breakfast we walked across the street to Massy grocery store to stock up on water, bug spray, and beer. I bought a loaf of whole wheat coconut bread in the bakery section which was pretty good– a bit sweet. We always love going to grocery stores in other countries to see what people eat.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel.

Pool at Butterfly Beach Hotel

That evening we wanted to eat at Brown Sugar, a restaurant serving upscale Bajan fare. Looking at the map, it appeared to be next to Brownes Beach, and we figured there were probably some beach bars nearby that we could have a drink at beforehand.

We hired a taxi to take us within the vicinity of Brown Sugar. He was surprised that we didn’t want to go to one of the fancy tourist restaurants on the beach. He wanted to make sure we knew that it was more of a “jungle” setting and not on the beach. We were fine with that. Having reviewed a lot of the popular upscale restaurant menus online, they all seemed like a lot of money for food we could probably get at home. We wanted to try local flavors, and a beach view wasn’t a priority.

We were dropped off on Brownes Beach, the sun was starting to set. We walked up the main road towards Bridgetown, searching for a beach bar or anything interesting. Unfortunately, there was nothing along this stretch of road. There were a few small restaurants that were closed, but not much to see or do. We walked about a mile, thinking there had to be something around the corner, but there wasn’t. We turned back and went to the restaurant.

Our taxi driver said that Brown Sugar was popular for their Caribbean lunch buffet with cruise ship tourists and locals. Dinner is more relaxed. We had no problem getting a nice table without a reservation.

Brown Sugar, Barbados
Brown Sugar, Barbados

Brown Sugar isn’t really in the jungle, but once inside the restaurant you wouldn’t know that. Lush tropical plants surround the restaurant and frogs and crickets chirp, giving the open-air restaurant a tropical ambiance.

Brown Sugar, Barbados
Paddy at Brown Sugar, enjoying the jungle ambiance

We both ordered the Stuffed Roast Pork Caribe, which was pork stuffed with bacon and plantain stuffing and Bajan gravy. It came with potatoes and vegetables and was delicious!

Stuffed roast pork Caribe at Brown Sugar
Stuffed roast pork Caribe at Brown Sugar

They had tempting starters as well, but we weren’t starving and the entree alone was the perfect amount of food. Prices here are a little spendy, but not nearly as expensive as the tourist restaurants on the beach. We couldn’t pass on the dessert menu. I had the orange coconut cheesecake, and Paddy had the Caribbean coffee, which had brandy and Bajan falernum (sweet syrup with lime and spices), topped with whipped cream.

Orange coconut cheesecake at Brown Sugar
Orange coconut cheesecake at Brown Sugar
Paddy with his Caribbean coffee at Brown Sugar
Paddy with his Caribbean coffee at Brown Sugar

Dinner at Brown Sugar was one of the highlights of our trip. We were worried it would be touristy, but it was romantic and the food was outstanding. We would definitely recommend this place.

 

Day 3: 

After a day of relaxing, we were ready for a day of adventure. I had booked a snorkel tour with Stiletto Catamaran Cruises. I get seasick, so I opted for the three hour tour instead of the full five hour tour with lunch, hoping for minimum time on the catamaran. It was still a roll of the dice, but I wanted to see turtles and shipwrecks!

We were picked up at the hotel  in a shuttle bus and dropped off at the canal in the capital city of Bridgetown. I had sunscreen, acupressure bracelets for motion sickness, and had taken two Bonine tablets. I was doing well and hoping for the best. It was hot, but there was a nice breeze.

Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal
Bridgetown Canal

The canal was calm, and it didn’t take us long to sail to Carlisle Bay to snorkel with some sea turtles. Carlisle Bay is very sandy, so don’t expect beautiful coral gardens teeming with fish. However, we saw turtles and sting rays and that was plenty exciting. Paddy had never seen a sea turtle before and he was pretty stoked.

Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados–sting ray

The sting rays we saw appeared to be a mother and a baby. They were swimming around on the sandy ocean floor looking for food. Paddy said they are kind of like the “roombas of the sea.” The baby sting ray was bright green and zipped around much faster than it’s mother.

After we had enjoyed the turtles and sting rays, we got back on the catamaran and sailed a very short ways across the bay to a shipwreck. From the boat, it just looked like a big dark shape under the water. But as soon as we got in, it was right there, very close and a full marine ecosystem with lots of fish. Damien and his wife told me later that they have purposefully sunk some ships recently to try and create a faux coral reef to promote new coral growth and help sustain the local marine life.

Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados
Snorkeling in Carlisle Bay, Barbados

This was our first time snorkeling over shipwrecks, and it was pretty interesting. There were quite a few fish. We saw two wrecks that were right next to each other.

After we finished snorkeling, we got back on the boat and I started to feel woozy. I would have liked to get off at Carlisle Bay and head back to the hotel at that point, but the rest of the tour was an hour long sail up the west coast of the island, where we would be dropped off and the rest of the group who was on the five hour tour would continue sailing and have lunch. I ended up throwing up twice off the back of the catamaran while we sailed up the coast. It was not a fun way to end our adventure, but still worth it in my opinion. I did have a great time snorkeling and  I’m glad we did it.

**Tip for people who get seasick and still want to snorkel:

The Boatyard at Brownes Beach offers quick snorkel trips from the shore, included in the beach club price. We didn’t find this out until later in our trip–see details below on day 6.

Back at the hotel later that afternoon, I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from seasickness and resting.

My friend Sinem from Turkey and her boyfriend Hakan had arrived early that morning, had spent the day resting, and were ready to meet us downstairs at the hotel bar for a beer before we were all picked up for dinner by Damien. It was my first time seeing her in 20 years since our exchange year in Denmark, and it was a happy reunion.

Damien took us to his favorite Italian restaurant on the island, Buzo. We met Monique and had a nice dinner catching up on the last 20 years and reminiscing about our high school year abroad in Denmark.

Dinner at Buzo,Barbados
Dinner at Buzo,Barbados

Buzo was pretty fancy and the food was great. It is easy to rack up a large bill here, we ended up spending more here than we did at Brown Sugar. It was very nice Italian cuisine though, and the cocktails were outstanding.

After dinner we ended the night with a couple drinks at Sharkey’s, a very touristy bar in St Lawrence Gap. It was pretty quiet for a Monday night, and a fun place for a nightcap.

Drinks at Sharkey's in Saint Lawrence Gap
Drinks at Sharkey’s in Saint Lawrence Gap

 

Day 4: 

 

On Tuesday, Damien took part of the day off to show us some of the island. We started the day off with a rum tasting and history lesson at Mount Gay Rum. I had recently learned prior to our trip that rum originated in Barbados, and Mount Gay Rum is the oldest rum distillery still in operation, since 1703.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

Rum is a lot more complex than I realized. In the Pacific Northwest, rum is something you put in a mixed drink such as a mojito  or rum and coke, and we don’t think much about the type of rum or where it comes from.

In Barbados, rum is extremely complex. There are rums made from molasses or different ranges of sugar that produce very different flavor profiles. Barbados is proud of their Mount Gay Rum (as they should be), and they consume quite a bit of it–most commonly in rum punch.

The tour was $20 per person, and included tasting three rums.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Old rum still, Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

The tour doesn’t actually happen at the distillery, which is located on the North end of the island, due to safety and sanitary concerns. Instead we were given a short overview of rum production and a rum punch to enjoy in an air-conditioned room, and then went to a different building to watch a short film about the history of Mount Gay Rum.

At the end, we were given three rums to taste in the tasting room: The Eclipse, the Black Barrel, and the XO (extra old). Our favorite was the Black Barrel, which was spicy and full bodied, able to be sipped or mixed. XO is aged longer and meant to be a sipping rum.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

We weren’t able to taste the 1703 rum, which is the oldest and rarest variety and double-distilled and aged 10-30 years. However, for $15 we could pay for it in the bar downstairs. Paddy’s curiosity was peaked, and he went for it. It was very smooth.

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Paddy and Damien at the bar, Paddy tasting the 1703. Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados
Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

You can buy some delicious cocktails at the bar there, as well as bottles to take home. The prices of the bottles are a bit high though, and we found Mount Gay rum for a lot less at the local grocery store. They also sell it at many liquor stores in the US, including BevMo.

After all that rum tasting we were ready for lunch. Damien took us to one of his favorite lunch spots, Rolli’s Bar and Grill in Pelican Village, where we met up with his wife and son for lunch.

Rolli's restaurant, Barbados
Rolli’s restaurant, Barbados
Rolli's restaurant, Barbados
Rolli’s restaurant, Barbados

Rolli’s has an affordable menu of classic Bajan and Caribbean fare, and it was delicious. I had flying fish with potato and salad, and Paddy had pulled Caribbean jerk pork with salad and fries. Paddy’s pork dish was really tender and flavorful.

Jerk pork dish with fries at Rolli's
Jerk pork dish with fries at Rolli’s
Flying fish with salad and potato at Rolli's
Flying fish with salad and potato at Rolli’s

Be sure to try the Bajan pepper sauce —it is a yellowish color and on every table just about everywhere. It has mustard and turmeric and a fantastic unique flavor. We stocked up on this sauce at the grocery store before we flew home. It is delicious on fried flying fish. You can get different varieties but the standard yellow one is fairly mild.

After lunch it was beach time. The best beaches in Barbados for swimming are on the West Coast. The sea is calmer and the sand is powdery white.

Damien took us to Sandy Lane Beach, where we parked across the street from Rihanna’s house (!!) and used the beach access next to her property.

Rihanna's house, Sandy Lane Barbados
Rihanna’s house, Sandy Lane Barbados

Technically, this giant mansion isn’t all Rihanna’s house. It is comprised of six apartments, the other five of which are owned by other rich and/or famous people as well.

Sandy Lane Beach is where the fancy people swim. Lots of private houses and B&Bs and fancy hotels. It isn’t a huge beach but looks kind of exclusive. We tried to set up our towels in one spot only to have the owner come out and tell us we had to move. We found a spot nearby—but be prepared for snobbery to the general public if you visit this beach.

Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados
Damien and Dimitri swimming, Sandy Lane Beach, Barbados

The shore is a tiny bit rocky at first, but drops off pretty quickly to soft sand. It wasn’t the best beach for kids because it gets shoulder to neck deep on adults very close off the shore. The water felt really good.

By the time we got back to our hotel on the South Shore that evening, it was about 7:00 and we were salty, sandy, and hungry. We quickly showered and changed and went with Sinem and Hakan in search of sustenance nearby.

Just a block or two up the road we found Breezer’s Bar & Grill, a local spot serving British pub food and blaring hits of the 80’s.

We sat outside and had some Banks beers and pub food, as well as a shared appetizer of Bajan fish cakes. It was casual and the food was great. Paddy had a curry dish that he really enjoyed, I tried a chicken mushroom pot pie with mashed potatoes and veggies. The prices were very reasonable.

Mushroom pot pie at Breezers Bar & Grill Barbados
Mushroom pot pie at Breezers Bar & Grill Barbados

 

Day 5: 

 

Wednesday was Safari Tour day. Both Damien and Monique said we absolutely HAD to do an island safari tour while we were here, and they came along on the tour for the day as well. Damien made a group reservation for us with Island Safari Barbados, and they picked us up at the hotel in the morning. We did the Adventure Safari, which was $98.00 USD per person, and includes a five hour tour of the island, hotel pick up and drop off, and a buffet lunch with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Typical Barbados chattel house. Island Safari Barbados

There aren’t many countries that you can see all in one day, but Barbados is one of them. We drove all around the island and saw many sights and viewpoints, with stops for photo ops and rum punch.

Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Sugar mill, Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Bathsheba beach–full of seaweed. Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados
Island Safari Barbados

The safari tour ended with a Bajan buffet lunch, including chicken, flying fish, macaroni pie, peas and rice, salad, and desserts. Wine and beer are included as well.

 

That evening Sinem and Hakan were too tired and jet lagged to go out, so we decided to see what Oistin’s was all about down the road.

Oistin's Barbados
Oistin’s Barbados

Oistin’s is a small south shore town where the fishermen bring in and clean their fish, known most notoriously for their Fish Fry every Friday night. All the vendors are open on Fridays and it turns into a big street party with locals and tourists alike.

On a Wednesday, it was pretty quiet. A lot of food stalls were closed but quite a few were open, serving different varieties of grilled and  fried fish and Bajan dishes. We were hustled into Pat’s Place by a woman with menus pulling people in off the sidewalk. We took a look around at the other stalls, and then decided Pat’s Place looked just as good as any other, and there was plenty of open seating.

Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados: Fried chicken, breadfruit, macaroni pie, and peas and rice
Pat's Place, Oistins Barbados
Pat’s Place, Oistins Barbados: Kingfish, coleslaw, grilled potato, and macaroni pie.

There was table service, and our agressive but friendly street hustler/server brought us some Banks beers and took our order. For $15 USD  we could order a meat or fish and three sides. We decided to order some different things and share. I ordered fried chicken with peas and rice, macaroni pie, and breadfruit, and Paddy ordered kingfish with grilled potato, coleslaw, and macaroni pie.

Holy huge portions, Batman! We easily could have shared one dinner between the two of us. Fortunately our hotel room came with a fridge, so I ended up eating the leftovers for breakfast for the next two mornings.

The kingfish was grilled in a flavorful sauce, and the macaroni pie was delicious. Macaroni pie is pretty much like macaroni and cheese in casserole-form, with a bit more tomato flavor and spices mixed in than just cheese. Everything was fantastic. It was some of the best food we had our whole trip.

If you want real local Bajan food, go to Oistins. If you’re on a budget, two people can easily share one $15 dinner.

 

Day 6:

Thursday was Sinem and Hakan’s last day, and both Sinem and I wanted some more relaxing beach time before heading home. Damien suggested The Boatyard, a beach club on Brownes Beach, which is the best beach on the island. Extremely touristy, but $25.00 USD per person includes a beach chair and umbrella for the day, bathrooms and showers, and $20 credit towards food and drinks at the bar. A sun umbrella is essential for Paddy and I with our fair skin, and I wanted to relax somewhere with amenities like food and drinks and changing rooms.

Also, the Boatyard offers free snorkel trips out to the bay a few times during the day. Just sign up for a time after you pay your entrance fee. These are quick trips right to the shipwrecks and sea turtles in Carlisle Bay from  the dock at the boatyard, so there is very little time spent on the boat. Had I known this before, this definitely would have been the best option for me with my seasickness issues.

We took the local van shuttles, which is the best way to get around if you don’t have a car. They come down the road about every 2 minutes, and you can just wave at one to flag it down. You pay $2.00 BBD when you exit, just tell the driver where you are going and he or she will stop at the closest place on their route.

The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach
The Boatyard beach club, Brownes Beach

The Boatyard is very close to downtown Bridgetown, and Paddy wanted to check out the city. While we set up to relax on the beach, he went for a walk around town. He came back after a couple hours saying he saw a lot of tourist shops, and when he tried to get off the main drag people thought he was lost or trying to buy weed.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

According to our local friends, Brownes Beach is the best beach on the island, and I would have to say that it must be. The powdered sugar sand was so soft and there was hardly any coral or rocks in the water. The only other beaches I’ve been to so far that compare are the ones on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico: Tulum and Isla Mujeres. The beach is very long, with the north end being more for tourists as it is closest to the cruise ship pier, and the south end being a bit more of a locals beach.

I think we were the only people at the Boatyard who weren’t off a cruise ship. It was REALLY touristy, and the party music (UB40 anyone?) was a little obnoxious, but the beach was so beautiful I was able to tune it out. Paddy had a more difficult time with it.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

For lunch I had a fish sandwich (or “cutter” as they are called in Barbados). It was good, and reasonably priced. There were two for one cocktail specials going on so we ended up getting a few drinks and lunch for me (Paddy wasn’t hungry) and didn’t end up using more than the total $40 USD worth of food and drink included in our entrance fee.

There were one or two times where “free shots” were offered to whoever wanted them, during which a really obnoxious song about shots was blared and the bartenders got up on the bar and poured bright colored liquids into people’s mouths. Sinem and Hakan went for it just for fun. I don’t know what was in those bottles, but I didn’t think that neon high-fructose corn syrup with a tiny bit of alcohol needed to be in my body, so I opted out.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

Damien and his son Dimitri joined us for a bit in the afternoon, and we stayed until closing around 5:00 PM. It was a good day and I would definitely make Brownes Beach a top priority when visiting Barbados. If  beach chairs and amenities aren’t a priority and you can’t handle cruise ship tourist free-shot UB40 time, head further south down the beach for a more local experience.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados

That evening, we went back to Shaker’s for dinner again, as Sinem and Hakan hadn’t been there yet and it was their last night before heading back to Turkey. Damien’s wife and son met up with us for dinner and we had a nice evening. This time Paddy tried the steak and I dried the grilled shrimp. The shrimp were good, but I liked the blackened lionfish I had the first night better.

Brownes Beach Barbados
Steak at Shakers, Barbados
Brownes Beach Barbados
Grilled shrimp at Shakers, Barbados

After dinner we went out for a few drinks in St Lawrence Gap, where Monique joined us. We started off with some upscale cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen.  The cocktails were a bit pricey, but delicious. I felt like I needed a little kick along with my drink, so I had the Espresso Martini. The espresso shot and the vodka made the drink just the after dinner pick me up that I was looking for, and tasted like dessert. Damien had the classic Zombie tiki drink, made with Mount Gay black barrel and silver rums. He said it was good.

Cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen in St. Lawrence Gap, Barbados
Cocktails at Cocktail Kitchen in St. Lawrence Gap, Barbados: Zombie and Espresso Martini

After starting with a few nice cocktails, we stopped back off at Damien’s favorite bar (Hal’s Bar) again for some beers. It was busy with locals getting their Thursday night on. We had a few drinks and celebrated Sinem and Hakan’s last night.

Drinks at Hal's Bar in St Lawrence Gap, Barbados
Drinks at Hal’s Bar in St Lawrence Gap, Barbados

 

Day 7:

 

Our last day in Barbados, we took it easy. We had a mediocre breakfast at the hotel (the breakfast buffet isn’t that great at Butterfly, but we didn’t feel like going anywhere else). We walked down to the Massy grocery store to pick up some rum, jerk seasonings, and Bajan pepper sauce to take home. We then packed, read books, and lounged by the pool.

That evening, Damien picked us up and took us to the Oistin’s Fish Fry, a Friday night tradition in Barbados. If you are in Barbados on a Friday, you MUST go to the Fish Fry. It’s a great way to get a full dose of Bajan food and culture all in one.

The Fish Fry was BUSY. Traffic on the main road was bad so Damien took a back hills secret-squirrel route. Parking wasn’t too hard to find in the lot across the street, but it was filling up fast.

We weaved through the food stalls and stands selling souvenirs and crafts until we got to Damien’s favorite fish stand, Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, where there was a line. The line didn’t seem that long, but it wasn’t moving very fast. Damien got us some beers from a rum shop next door to drink while we waited.

Of course, it started pouring rain while we were in line. We ducked under the overhang of the rum shop for a bit, but had to jump back in to claim our spots once the rain got back down to a drizzle.

Oistins Barbados
Waiting in the rain for Uncle George’s fish stall at Oistins

Uncle George’s was selling all kinds of fish. You chose your fish and it comes with a couple sides: macaroni salad, peas and rice, coleslaw, fries, or potato. The line took about an hour (good food takes time I suppose) but it was worth it.

Uncle George's Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George's Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados
Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, Oistins Barbados

Once we had placed our orders, we realized we had a conundrum–where to sit. The place was packed. We finally saw some people getting up to leave so we gave Damien our money and went with his son Dimitri to hold the table while Damien waited for the food. Paddy got another beer and a rum punch from the rum shop –the rum punch was STRONG. Delicious, but I couldn’t finish it as I didn’t want to be hungover for our 6:00 AM flight the next morning.

Dimitri and Paddy holding the table at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Dimitri and Paddy holding the table at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Whole red snapper, Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Swordfish, Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados

Monique joined us and after we ate we watched some of the dancers on the stage for a bit. The first three weren’t that great, but then a Michael Jackson duo started up and they were fabulous. One was doing an 80’s Michael impersonation and the other was 90’s Michael. Their dance moves and facial expressions were spot on. 80’s Michael was my favorite.

Michael Jackson dancers at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados
Michael Jackson dancers at Oistins Fish Fry, Barbados

We wanted to stay late but we had an early flight the next morning. If you go to Barbados, try to make a point to arrange for a Friday night at Oistins. It was pretty fun.

 

 

Barbados is a beautiful country. A lot of people only see it for a day on a cruise ship stop, or spend most of their time at a mega resort. There is a lot more to see away from the tourist trail, but some of the touristy things are still pretty fun. We would definitely recommend the island safari as a great way to see the country, Oistins Fish Fry, and snorkeling with turtles and shipwrecks. The best beaches are on the west coast, but staying there can be pretty pricey. We liked staying near Oistins and being able to walk to a grocery store and good local food.

It was great to see my long lost exchange student friends again, and we felt fortunate to have local guides to show us what they love about their country. Damien and Monique showed us a great time and we are thankful for their hospitality on this trip.

 

 

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.

 

This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.

Tulum beach
Evening stroll on the beach, Tulum 2009
tulum beach bungalow
Our beach bungalow in Tulum in 2009
Tulum ruins
Tulum ruins beach, 2009

Read about our first trip to Tulum and the Yucatan here.

Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.

This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice  sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).

We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.

**Excerpt from original post Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. Read about the rest of our adventures in the Yucatan here.

Day 1:

When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.

**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.

The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.

Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella–view from the beach bar

In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.

Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo: shrimp, octopus, and fish
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo

When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.

We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.

We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.

Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum

We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.

La Vita e Bella Tulum
La Vita e Bella Tulum
Tulum
Tulum

For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.

**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.

kitchen-table-restaurant-tulum-mexico (25)

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Day 2:

Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.

Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.

La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum
La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum

We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.

Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach

That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…

We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.

That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.

We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.

Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans

One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).

When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.

Mateo's Mexican Grill Tulum
Mateo’s Mexican Grill Tulum

Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.

Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum

The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.

Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
"Chocolate Salami" at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
“Chocolate Salami” at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum

After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.

Day 3:

We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.

Tulum sunrise
Tulum sunrise

In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.

In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

tulum-beach-mexico (24)

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Our first trip to Tulum was a bit more rustic, romantic and remote. This time around we enjoyed spending a little more time checking out Tulum Pueblo and some of the restaurants on the Boca Paila beach road.

Tulum is a great home base for seeing Mayan ruins, snorkeling in the Cenotes (fresh water underground caves and rivers), and shopping for souvenirs. Our last trip we were a bit more active, seeing the Mayan ruins in Tulum and a day trip to Chichen Itza. This time around, we ended our Yucatan trip in Tulum and were happy to just relax and enjoy the beach before heading home.

We will definitely be back to Tulum again. We have yet to find a better beach with soft sand and electric blue water in all our world travels. Our next trip I think we may try to stay down at the end of the Boca Paila beach road again near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. We liked the remoteness of it, and the rustic jungle/beach atmosphere. We weren’t super impressed with La Vita e Bella.

We would also like to explore the Cenotes in the area, and take a day tour in the Biosphere. But above all, we would come back to Tulum to relax and enjoy that magnificent beach.

Valladolid, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Valladolid, Mexico: Two nights in a charming Spanish colonial city in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula in 2016. An artsy eco-hotel, lots of history, and a day trip to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam

 

Valladolid is an often overlooked Spanish Colonial town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most tourists spend their time in the beach towns of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. While Valladolid isn’t on the beach, it has a lot to offer.  In addition to it’s Spanish colonial history and architecture, it is a prime location for touring Mayan ruins in the area. If Mayan Ruins and history are of interest to you, you might consider a few nights in Valladolid. Tours to the ruins from the coast involve hours on a bus with lots of other tourists. Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba are all very close to Valladolid and make for easy day trips. In addition to ruins, the flamingos and wildlife of Rio Lagartos are also an easy day tour away.

When we reflected on our last trip to the Yucatan, we wished that we had made more time for Valladolid. We will absolutely be back again.

Excerpt from original post Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. Read about our full trip to the Yucatan Peninsula here

Day 1:

 

We left Isla Holbox in the early morning and had pre-arranged a private taxi from the Isla Holbox ferry to Valladolid through our hotel on Isla Holbox. Buses are possible, but would take the whole day. (It is easy to get a bus from Cancun to Valladolid, however if that is where you are coming from). The drive to Valladolid with our driver Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way,  and he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.

Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.

Valladolid street, Mexico
Narrow, colorful streets of Valladolid

Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.

We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.

Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid

There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.

Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel-zentik-cave-valladolid-mexico
Hotel Zentik Project cave pool, Valladolid

Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.

hotel-zentik-project-valladolid-mexico (12)

Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid

The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I had come down with a mild cold the night before, and  wanted to crawl right in.

We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.

We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour that we had booked for the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square. When we arrived at the front entrance Meson del Marques was full of tour groups and not looking very enticing. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up.  A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.

Valladolid
Valladolid — old Spanish colonial church
Valladolid
Valladolid –old church
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid

When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.

For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well.  The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.

Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Ceviche verde, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Steak, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Octopus fried rice, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid

The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.

Day 2:

MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.

Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.

Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos

We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.

Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos

The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.

rio lagartos mexico
Rio Lagartos

After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.

He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.

Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos

We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.

black hawk Rio Lagartos
black hawk Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos

We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.

mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”
mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”

After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.

Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but  I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid,
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid

Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.

Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.

Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam
Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam

It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins

The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).

Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Harvested blue agave “pineapples” at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid

We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.

When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.

For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.

La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.

La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Pavo en relleno negro, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Longaniza Sisal, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Flan, La Taberna del los Frailes

There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.

Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid
Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid

We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.

 

In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.

Valladolid was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico, and in retrospect we wished we would have done one more night in Valladolid and one less night in Tulum to give us more time to explore the city. If you are interested in Mayan history and a more authentic Yucatecan experience, don’t miss Valladolid.

Isla Holbox, Mexico

Isla Holbox, Mexico: A laid-back sleepy little island with vibrant culture, beautiful beaches, and fresh, delicious seafood.

 

We traveled to Isla Holbox during a week long trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in March 2016. While it is a bit more of a trek from the Cancun Airport than Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, it is worth it. The island vibe is very low-key, not the place for rowdy spring breakers and raucous nightlife. If you want to relax, enjoy some amazing fresh seafood, and lay in a hammock by the sea for a few days, this is the place to do it.

 

Excerpt from original post https://childfreelifeadventures.com/mexico-2016-isla-holbox-valladolid-tulum/

Day 1:

We stayed our first night in Mexico in downtown Cancun, as the ferry to Isla Holbox is a two and a half hour drive from the Cancun airport.

We had arranged a taxi pick up at 9:00 AM with our hotel at our next destination, Isla Holbox. We sat and waited until 9:30 with no driver, after which I was able to have the front desk lady call our Isla Holbox hotel to contact the driver for 20 pesos. After a few minutes, the front desk lady received a phone call back and we were told that the driver was stuck in rush hour traffic and expected to arrive at 10:00 AM. One thing to keep in mind in Mexico–you are often on Mexican time. Just relax.

Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun Mexico
Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun

I had done some extensive research on how to get from Cancun to the Chiquila ferry terminal with service to Isla Holbox, and the bus options were all at odd times and took a while to get there. Had we had a lot more time in Mexico, we may have figured out the bus, but since we only had a little over a week for our whole trip, we opted for a taxi. The taxi our hotel on Isla Holbox arranged for us was much cheaper than the shuttles that I quoted out. Total price was $110 USD, payable to the hotel in cash at check in.

At 10:00, our driver Pedro showed up, and we all crammed into his sedan. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to make small talk with our limited Spanish. He was very friendly.

**Note: It is very helpful to know some basic Spanish when taking taxis, most taxi drivers don’t speak a lot of English in our experience.

Two hours later, we arrived in Chiquila, right when the 12:00 ferry was departing, which we missed. We thanked Pedro and walked across the street from the ferry to find a little restaurant called La Sardina Enamorada (The sardine in love?).

La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico
La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico

Ferries depart once every hour, and often you can get a shuttle to the island from some independent boat drivers at the ferry dock. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and we were hungry. So we relaxed at La Sardina Enamorada and had some beers and delicious and very inexpensive food.

Ferry tickets are 120 pesos each way per person, which is about $7.00 USD. The ride was very smooth and only 30 minutes.

isla holbox ferry mexico
Isla Holbox ferry terminal in Chiquila

isla holbox ferry mexico

Upon arrival on Isla Holbox, the golf cart taxis line up at the dock to take you to your hotel. There is a large sign at the terminal near the taxi pick up that says what the price should be from the ferry to each hotel, which was helpful. The taxi was only 30 pesos (less than $2 USD) to take us the half mile to our Hotel La Palapa on the beach. It was totally walkable, but our bags were heavy so we opted to take the taxi.

Isla Holbox ferry
Isla Holbox ferry

Isla Holbox, Mexico

**Note: Bring cash with you to Isla Holbox. There is an ATM in town, but I have read that it is sometimes out of cash. Very few restaurants take credit cards.

Hotel La Palapa is right in town, but also right on the beach. It was probably one of the most convenient locations of all the hotels that we saw. We paid cash at check in (as requested in our confirmation, I think they do take cards but said that sometimes their machine wifi isn’t working so well) and were shown around the hotel and to our room. We had booked a balcony room which was small but very clean, had a balcony on the second floor and air conditioning.

Isla Holbox Mexico
“street” leading to Hotel La Palapa
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (2)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
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Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (6)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (7)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (8)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

The hotel had a nice beach with a bar and restaurant, and a very nice roof top deck with hammocks, lounge chairs, and a great view. The bed in the room was comfortable, the only issue we had was with the toilet not flushing very well. They sent maintenance up to fix it when we talked to the front desk. Overall we would totally stay here again.

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Roof top deck, Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

Heather and Stephen were staying down the road at Hotel Takywara, which they were very pleased with as well. Their hotel was slightly more expensive than ours, but included a mini fridge and kitchenette and a breakfast basket delivered with fresh baked bread daily. The beach on their end of the island is very quiet and the hotel had a very relaxing vibe, including nice beach loungers and a meditation area. It was not a far walk from town at all.

Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox

Once we settled in and rested for a bit, Paddy and I took a walk around town. We pretty much saw it all in an hour. There was a lot of really awesome graffiti art on the buildings, and the streets are not paved, only sand. There were lots of little shops and restaurants.

Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox graffiti art Mexico
Isla Holbox

We met up with Heather and Stephen around 4:30 and ended up at Restaurante Bar Villa Mar for drinks. There was no one there but us, and the town was pretty quiet. I think 3-5 PM is siesta time. The bar had swings for seats and there were panties hung sporadically around the bar, alluding to a raucous late night party atomsphere.

We ordered a snack of guacamole, chips, and ceviche that the bartender said was small, but it was huge. It was fantastic mixed seafood ceviche, but pretty much ruined our appetite for dinner. If you come here, get the small ceviche. The large feeds a family of four.

I also tried the Rojo Ojo, which is a beer with clamato and spices. Kind of like a bloody beer with Caesar mix. It was pretty good.

Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
coconut fence at Bar Villa Mar
Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
Bar Villa Mar

The town was slowly waking up as the sun was setting, so after we finished as much ceviche as we could, we walked around a bit and poked around in the little shops on the sandy streets. In the center of town one block from the beach was the “Hot Corner” bar, which was advertising their “soft opening” that night at 8:00 PM with live music. Paddy wanted to check it out, but we had about two hours to kill. So we had a beer at another little bar and then picked up some tequila, beers, and a citronella candle at a convenience store and headed to our hotel rooftop. No one was up there, and it was nice with the light from the candle we bought.

Eventually we made it down to the Hot Corner, which had its soft opening now in full swing. There was a band and drinks were 50% off, and they were handing out free samples of some tuna tartare appetizers with chopsticks. I bought a round of four beers for 50 pesos, which is less than $3.00 USD.

The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/
The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/

Around 10:00 Stephen had hit the tequila a little hard, so Heather and I decided it was time for some tacos and tortas at Taco Queto kitty corner across the street. After that we found Paddy, who was nodding off at the Hot Corner, kept awake by a conscientious German woman. Perhaps we started drinking a bit too early.

Day 2:

In the morning we had a fantastic breakfast of empanadas at Las Planchas next door to our hotel, three for 30 pesos (just under $2 USD). We over-ordered a bit due to the low price, we thought the portions would be a bit smaller. They were delicious.

Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox
Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox

The weather was overcast, so we decided to rent a golf cart and tour the island. There are no cars on Isla Holbox, just golf cart vehicles. The island is actually quite large, but much of it is undeveloped. There is only so much you can see in a golf cart, but we thought we’d check it out.

Isla Holbox Map Mexico
image from http://www.beyondtheseastudio.com/isla-holbox-map.html

We walked down the main street between the beach and ferry and walked into the first golf cart rental place we saw, which advertised a four hour rental for 500 pesos (about $30 USD). It was probably the easiest vehicle rental I’ve ever done–just pay cash up front, sign a piece of paper saying that you will bring it back in good condition by the four hour point, and that was it. No deposit, no ID, no hassle.

Four of us fit on one cart with two in front and two in the back. We first drove toward the east of the island, past many beach hotels. It seemed that the beach east of town was the most popular and had the most hotels, but all the beach loungers at those hotels were not actually on the beach–they were in front of the hotels behind the road the golf carts travel on, and you have to cross the road to get to the water. In addition, you have people driving by you on golf carts all day. I was glad we stayed at Hotel La Palapa and would recommend the west end of the beach from town for peace and quiet.

Isla Holbox road heading east
Isla Holbox road heading east

We finally reached the end of the road, where we saw a sign telling us not to drive on the beach and to respect the wildlife. We parked and walked down to the sandy beach. It was a shallow sand bar that went on for miles, up to Punta Mosquito on the eastern tip of the island. You could walk for a long ways in the water without going much above your knees.

Isla Holbox Beach Mexico
Isla Holbox Beach
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
punta-mosquito-isla-holbox-mexico (5)
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
punta mosquito isla holbox mexico
Baby sea star in the sand bar
dead puffer fish on the beach isla holbox mexico
Dead puffer fish on the beach

The overcast sky made the shallow sea blend right in with the sky. I’m sure it looks beautiful when the sun is out and the clouds reflect on the water.

After our stroll on the beach, we headed west to see what was on the other end of the island. We drove inland a bit on the main road past the airport (a landing strip in a loosely fenced pasture) and ended up at a very pretty cemetery.

Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
iguana Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana
iguanaiguana Isla Holbox Mexico Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana

There wasn’t much past the cemetery besides what looked like a dump. Looking at the map again now it looks like if we back-tracked and took a left and then another left, we might have found the road leading out to the west tip of the island, looking out at Isla de la Passion. We’ll save that exploration for the next trip.

We did back track and turned north back onto the northern beach road. The west end of the norther beach is very quiet and peaceful, there was barely anyone around.

It wasn’t long before we were back in town, and only ended up using two of the four hours of time we booked. We considered driving around a bit more but Paddy and Heather were getting a little motion sick from sitting backwards on the back end of the cart. We dropped it back off and walked around town a bit more, then went back to our hotels to relax a bit.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach
Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach

Paddy and I went back to the beach at our hotel and ordered some very delicious blended margaritas from the bar. We also ordered lunch there, which ended up being the only bad meal of our trip. The restaurant is Italian, with some beach bar items like burgers, sandwiches, etc. He ordered a quesadilla which was very oily and had no cheese on it that he could see. My club sandwich with avocado came on wonder bread with no avocado. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t come as promised. If you want to eat lunch on the beach and are feeling lazy, I’d recommend seeing if you can get some food to go from Las Panchas next door and stick to just ordering drinks from the Hotel La Palapa bar.

We read books and relaxed until evening.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico

That night we went to Viva Zapata for dinner. A touristy, albeit fun restaurant themed around Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. It is a fun, ambient place with murals of scenes from the revolution on the walls, and swings as bar stools.

Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox

The Zapata margarita was outstanding, with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. For dinner we ordered the grilled seafood platter for two, and Heather and Stephen ordered the grilled seafood and meat mix platter for two. Paddy ordered an additional steak skewer which he thought was just a skewer, but came with rice and was actually quite large. It was a lot of food, but so delicious.  If you come to Holbox, don’t miss this place.

viva zapata isla holbox
Seafood and meat grill platter for two at Viva Zapata
viva zapata isla holbox
Steak skewer at Viva Zapata
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata isla holbox Mexico
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata

After dinner Stephen was feeling a little tired and called it a night, and Paddy, Heather, and I decided to walk around and have a couple more drinks. We opted for the roof top bar at The Arena Lounge Bar in the center of town.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico

There was a great view of the town at the open air bar (it is also part of a hotel) and the drinks were very good.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
View from The Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox

After that we stopped for another drink at a little reggae bar down the street, but our night out ended when everything shut down at 11:00 PM. It was fine, we weren’t out for a crazy night. Isla Holbox isn’t a place for raucous nightlife, there are bars but everything is very laid back and quiet.

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Day 4:

Paddy and I had breakfast at La Isla del Colibri, a Pepto-pink little restaurant in the center of town. It was a very cute little spot, with bright colors and art everywhere. Service was great and the food was good as well. I had the chilaquiles verde, and Paddy had Mexican style scrambled eggs with rice and beans. The orange juice was fresh squeezed.

La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox

It had been steadily overcast since we arrived, and we were hoping for sun breaks that afternoon so that we could enjoy time at the beach. We spent the warm, gray morning souvenir shopping and reading in the room and on the rooftop deck of the hotel.

We finally got some sun breaks and I took a walk down the beach before catching a little bit of sun in a beach lounger at the hotel. Heather and Stephen joined us for some margaritas on the beach for a bit. Next door to us on the beach was a little palapa where fishermen were bringing in their daily catch. There was a lot of conch and a small tiger shark hanging from the palapa roof.

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Isla Holbox Beach
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Pelican
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Isla Holbox Beach

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Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Conch shells for sale
Conch shells for sale
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox

The clouds finally began to disappear as the sun sank lower in the sky, and we decided to head further west down the beach to watch the sunset in front of Heather and Stephen’s hotel. There were only a couple other lone individuals on the beach, and the sunset was spectacular.

Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
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Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset

For dinner that night we went to Los Peleones, a Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) themed restaurant in the town. The food is Italian/Mediterranean/Mexican fusion, and it is a fun little spot.

Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
“wrestling ring” lamp and comic strip place mat at Los Peleones Isla Holbox

The place mats included a little comic strip about Luchadores rescuing a sea turtle and the importance of caring for the environment.

The food was great. I had the lobster chalupitas, (which were outstanding) and house-made spaghetti with anchovy, chili flakes, and garlic. Paddy had a mole dish that was a bit sweet for my taste but he really enjoyed it.

Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones
Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones–highly recommended!

After dinner I was feeling a bit under the weather and Heather and Stephen were tired so we called it a night. Paddy stayed out for another Zapata Margarita at Viva Zapata, he wasn’t quite ready for bed yet and the Zapata Margaritas are just so damn delicious.

Viva Zapata
Viva Zapata

 

Isla Holbox is an amazing gem of an island, and we hope it doesn’t get as over-run with tourism as Isla Mujeres. We did see a lot of construction going on, so there is expansion on the island, and it seems to be less and less of a “best kept secret” spot in Mexico. We would love to go back in the summer to snorkel the infamous whale sharks, and will most likely be staying on the beach on the west side of town again where it is quieter. No matter what, we will be back. Especially now that Alaska Air now offers direct flights from Seattle to Cancun.

Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum

Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. A quiet laid-back island, the Mayan Ruins of Ek Balam, Flamingos and wildlife at Rio Lagartos, and the beautiful beaches of Tulum

 

This trip was our second trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Our first trip was in the low season in September, and while it was one of the best trips Paddy and I have taken, it was also a bit too hot for our comfort. This time we went in the high season in March, and it was a much more comfortable temperature.

This trip we opted to visit the laid-back and a bit off the beaten path Isla Holbox in the north, the Spanish colonial city of Valladolid, a day trip to Rio Lagartos and the Ek Balam Mayan ruins, and finally south to Tulum for our last few days. Our friends Heather and Stephen joined us for most of the trip, they have also traveled with us to Thailand and Las Vegas.

The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico remains one of our favorite vacation spots, and there is still so much left to see.

If you’ve never been to Mexico before, here are a few basic travel tips:

 

  1. Don’t ever drink the tap water. Don’t even brush your teeth with it. Don’t open your mouth in the shower, don’t get it in your mouth at all. Stick to bottled water (with an intact seal) and bottled beverages. Make sure cocktails are made with purified ice (hielo purificado).
  1. Eat cooked food only, raw veggies and fruits that don’t have an outer peel may not always be washed with purified water, so eating raw veggies can be a gamble. It’s a gamble we’ve taken, and not had a problem. The more upscale or touristy a restaurant, the better chance the veggies have been sanitized. If you are at a little local joint, stick to cooked hot veggies only.
  1. Don’t flush your toilet paper. This is hard for Westerners to get used to, but Mexican plumbing is not equipped to handle TP. Throw it in the trash.
  1. Credit card theft is common, don’t allow your card to disappear from your site when paying. We typically use a credit card to pay for our hotels, and use our debit cards only to withdraw cash from ATMs to pay for everything else that way. Cards aren’t accepted everywhere, especially small shops and restaurants so paying with cash is the safest bet.
  1. To get the best exchange rate, pay directly with your card or withdraw cash from an ATM. Paying in dollars or exchanging dollars when you get there will get you a lower exchange rate. Try to only get cash from ATMs at banks, not stand-alones. If possible, use ATMs when bank hours are open, so if the machine eats your card, they can assist you.
  1. Don’t forget to call your bank and credit card companies before you leave the country! If you don’t let them know you will be using your cards internationally, they will most likely block your transactions.
  1. Ask taxi drivers for a rate and agree on a price before getting in. If it’s too high, negotiate or ask another driver. It helps if you speak some Spanish with drivers.
  1. If you don’t speak Spanish, get a travel dictionary and learn some basic phrases and numbers.
  1. Don’t be afraid. Mexico is a friendly country and the Yucatan is one of the safest places in Mexico right now. The drug cartels don’t target tourists and the drug violence is not going on in the touristy areas. Just be smart, don’t flash your money around, be wary of scammers, and you’ll be fine.

 

 

Day 1:

We arrived in Cancun at 4:40 PM (Alaska Air offers a direct flight from Seattle to Cancun now, which is awesome). We had booked a shuttle for the four of us to our hotel in Cancun Centro (downtown) with Eduardo at MyCancunTransportation.com. After a little miscommunication with the pick up spot in the ground transportation area, we met up with our driver and arrived at our hotel El Rey Del Caribe. The cost of the shuttle for four adults was $40.00 total.

We would have opted to bypass staying in Cancun altogether if our flight hadn’t had a late afternoon arrival. We were not interested in the all-inclusive resort culture in Cancun, which is mainly out on the hotel zone peninsula a ways from downtown.

After some research, we opted for the eco hotel El Rey Del Caribe based on it’s stellar reviews and ecological conservation practices. The cost was about $100.00 a night US, and it was a very nice little hotel. We would absolutely stay here again.

Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico
Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe Cancun Mexico

The rooms were very clean and comfortable, and the main courtyard of the property was like a mini jungle. A beautiful pool, lush vegetation, and hammocks in various nooks and corners to relax in. All of the staff were very friendly and helpful.

The hotel is in walking distance of the heart of downtown Cancun, and I had all these grand notions of walking around the downtown area and parks, having dinner here, drinks there, etc. However, after getting settled in, finding a nearby convenience store for water and an ATM, we were all starving and tired.

We walked a short ways down Av Carlos Nader and stumbled upon Restaurante El Pescado Ciego. It was empty, which isn’t usually a good sign, but it was early and a quick consult with Tripadvisor on our phones confirmed good reviews.

El Pescado Ciego restaurant Cancun
El Pescado Ciego restaurant Cancun

There are few things better than stumbling upon a hidden gem of a restaurant that your guidebook didn’t tell you about, and that is exactly what happened. The food and service here were excellent. We were brought some fried bread crackers and a dip, and an amuse bouche of a crab soup. We ordered beers and top shelf tequila shots.

Paddy and I had the tuna appetizer, and it was delicious. Our friend Stephen had the octopus tostada, which was phenomenal. Paddy and I also had the Octopus Flanders entree, of which we weren’t exactly sure what to expect but it was outstanding. The octopus was flash fried and crispy on the outside but just the right texture on the inside, and came with a tasty adobo-like sauce on top. It was some of the best octopus we’d ever had.

Tuna appetizer at El Pescado Ciego Cancun
Tuna appetizer at El Pescado Ciego Cancun
Octopus Flanders at El Pescado Ciego, Cancun
Octopus Flanders at El Pescado Ciego, Cancun
El Pescado Ciego Cancun
El Pescado Ciego Cancun

The restaurant was filling up by the time we left (we were there early at 6:45) and it was one of the best meals of our entire trip. Dinner for four including tip with appetizers, and a few rounds of drinks ended up being about $120 USD. If you are in Cancun for a night or two, we definitely recommend dinner at Pescado Ciego.

After dinner, we were too tired to go out and had to be up early the next morning, so we got some beers at the 24 hour convenience store and hung out back at the hotel.

**Tip: Bug spray with DEET recommended in the evenings/night at El Rey Del Caribe. The lush garden vegetation is a haven for mosquitos.

 

Day 2:

Breakfast and coffee/juice were included with our room, a choice of four different egg dishes made to order. We had arranged a taxi pick up at 9:00 AM with our hotel at our next destination, Isla Holbox. We sat and waited until 9:30 with no driver, after which I was able to have the front desk lady call our Isla Holbox hotel to contact the driver for 20 pesos. After a few minutes, the front desk lady received a phone call back and we were told that the driver was stuck in rush hour traffic and expected to arrive at 10:00 AM. One thing to keep in mind in Mexico–you are often on Mexican time. Just relax.

Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun Mexico
Huevos Rancheros at El Rey Del Caribe Hotel Cancun

I had done some extensive research on how to get from Cancun to the Chiquila ferry terminal with service to Isla Holbox, and the bus options were all at odd times and took a while to get there. Had we had a lot more time in Mexico, we may have figured out the bus, but since we only had a little over a week for our whole trip, we opted for a taxi. The taxi our hotel on Isla Holbox arranged for us was much cheaper than the shuttles that I quoted out. Total price was $110 USD, payable to the hotel in cash at check in.

At 10:00, our driver Pedro showed up, and we all crammed into his sedan. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to make small talk with our limited Spanish. He was very friendly.

**Note: It is very helpful to know some basic Spanish when taking taxis, most taxi drivers don’t speak a lot of English in our experience.

Two hours later, we arrived in Chiquila, right when the 12:00 ferry was departing, which we missed. We thanked Pedro and walked across the street from the ferry to find a little restaurant called La Sardina Enamorada (The sardine in love?).

La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico
La Sardina Enamorada restaurant, Chiquila, Mexico

Ferries depart once every hour, and often you can get a shuttle to the island from some independent boat drivers at the ferry dock. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and we were hungry. So we relaxed at La Sardina Enamorada and had some beers and delicious and very inexpensive food.

Ferry tickets are 120 pesos each way per person, which is about $7.00 USD. The ride was very smooth and only 30 minutes.

isla holbox ferry mexico
Isla Holbox ferry terminal in Chiquila

isla holbox ferry mexico

Upon arrival on Isla Holbox, the golf cart taxis line up at the dock to take you to your hotel. There is a large sign at the terminal near the taxi pick up that says what the price should be from the ferry to each hotel, which was helpful. The taxi was only 30 pesos (less than $2 USD) to take us the half mile to our Hotel La Palapa on the beach. It was totally walkable, but our bags were heavy so we opted to take the taxi.

Isla Holbox ferry
Isla Holbox ferry

Isla Holbox, Mexico

**Note: Bring cash with you to Isla Holbox. There is an ATM in town, but I have read that it is sometimes out of cash. Very few restaurants take credit cards.

Hotel La Palapa is right in town, but also right on the beach. It was probably one of the most convenient locations of all the hotels that we saw. We paid cash at check in (as requested in our confirmation, I think they do take cards but said that sometimes their machine wifi isn’t working so well) and were shown around the hotel and to our room. We had booked a balcony room which was small but very clean, had a balcony on the second floor and air conditioning.

Isla Holbox Mexico
“street” leading to Hotel La Palapa
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Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
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Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (6)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
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Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox
Hotel-la-palapa-isla-holbox (8)
Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

The hotel had a nice beach with a bar and restaurant, and a very nice roof top deck with hammocks, lounge chairs, and a great view. The bed in the room was comfortable, the only issue we had was with the toilet not flushing very well. They sent maintenance up to fix it when we talked to the front desk. Overall we would totally stay here again.

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Roof top deck, Hotel La Palapa, Isla Holbox

Heather and Stephen were staying down the road at Hotel Takywara, which they were very pleased with as well. Their hotel was slightly more expensive than ours, but included a mini fridge and kitchenette and a breakfast basket delivered with fresh baked bread daily. The beach on their end of the island is very quiet and the hotel had a very relaxing vibe, including nice beach loungers and a meditation area. It was not a far walk from town at all.

Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox
Hotel Takywara, Isla Holbox

Once we settled in and rested for a bit, Paddy and I took a walk around town. We pretty much saw it all in an hour. There was a lot of really awesome graffiti art on the buildings, and the streets are not paved, only sand. There were lots of little shops and restaurants.

Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Isla Holbox graffiti art Mexico
Isla Holbox

We met up with Heather and Stephen around 4:30 and ended up at Restaurante Bar Villa Mar for drinks. There was no one there but us, and the town was pretty quiet. I think 3-5 PM is siesta time. The bar had swings for seats and there were panties hung sporadically around the bar, alluding to a raucous late night party atomsphere.

We ordered a snack of guacamole, chips, and ceviche that the bartender said was small, but it was huge. It was fantastic mixed seafood ceviche, but pretty much ruined our appetite for dinner. If you come here, get the small ceviche. The large feeds a family of four.

I also tried the Rojo Ojo, which is a beer with clamato and spices. Kind of like a bloody beer with Caesar mix. It was pretty good.

Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
coconut fence at Bar Villa Mar
Bar Villa Mar Holbox Mexico
Bar Villa Mar

The town was slowly waking up as the sun was setting, so after we finished as much ceviche as we could, we walked around a bit and poked around in the little shops on the sandy streets. In the center of town one block from the beach was the “Hot Corner” bar, which was advertising their “soft opening” that night at 8:00 PM with live music. Paddy wanted to check it out, but we had about two hours to kill. So we had a beer at another little bar and then picked up some tequila, beers, and a citronella candle at a convenience store and headed to our hotel rooftop. No one was up there, and it was nice with the light from the candle we bought.

Eventually we made it down to the Hot Corner, which had its soft opening now in full swing. There was a band and drinks were 50% off, and they were handing out free samples of some tuna tartare appetizers with chopsticks. I bought a round of four beers for 50 pesos, which is less than $3.00 USD.

The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/
The Hot Corner Bar, Isla Holbox. Image from https://www.facebook.com/The-Hot-Corner-772690436196916/

Around 10:00 Stephen had hit the tequila a little hard, so Heather and I decided it was time for some tacos and tortas at Taco Queto kitty corner across the street. After that we found Paddy, who was nodding off at the Hot Corner, kept awake by a conscientious German woman. Perhaps we started drinking a bit too early.

 

Day 3:

In the morning we had a fantastic breakfast of empanadas at Las Planchas next door to our hotel, three for 30 pesos (just under $2 USD). We over-ordered a bit due to the low price, we thought the portions would be a bit smaller. They were delicious.

Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox
Empanadas at Las Panchas Isla Holbox

The weather was overcast, so we decided to rent a golf cart and tour the island. There are no cars on Isla Holbox, just golf cart vehicles. The island is actually quite large, but much of it is undeveloped. There is only so much you can see in a golf cart, but we thought we’d check it out.

Isla Holbox Map Mexico
image from http://www.beyondtheseastudio.com/isla-holbox-map.html

We walked down the main street between the beach and ferry and walked into the first golf cart rental place we saw, which advertised a four hour rental for 500 pesos (about $30 USD). It was probably the easiest vehicle rental I’ve ever done–just pay cash up front, sign a piece of paper saying that you will bring it back in good condition by the four hour point, and that was it. No deposit, no ID, no hassle.

Four of us fit on one cart with two in front and two in the back. We first drove toward the east of the island, past many beach hotels. It seemed that the beach east of town was the most popular and had the most hotels, but all the beach loungers at those hotels were not actually on the beach–they were in front of the hotels behind the road the golf carts travel on, and you have to cross the road to get to the water. In addition, you have people driving by you on golf carts all day. I was glad we stayed at Hotel La Palapa and would recommend the west end of the beach from town for peace and quiet.

Isla Holbox road heading east
Isla Holbox road heading east

We finally reached the end of the road, where we saw a sign telling us not to drive on the beach and to respect the wildlife. We parked and walked down to the sandy beach. It was a shallow sand bar that went on for miles, up to Punta Mosquito on the eastern tip of the island. You could walk for a long ways in the water without going much above your knees.

Isla Holbox Beach Mexico
Isla Holbox Beach
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
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Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito Isla Holbox
Shallow sand bar near Punta Mosquito
punta mosquito isla holbox mexico
Baby sea star in the sand bar
dead puffer fish on the beach isla holbox mexico
Dead puffer fish on the beach

The overcast sky made the shallow sea blend right in with the sky. I’m sure it looks beautiful when the sun is out and the clouds reflect on the water.

After our stroll on the beach, we headed west to see what was on the other end of the island. We drove inland a bit on the main road past the airport (a landing strip in a loosely fenced pasture) and ended up at a very pretty cemetery.

Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
Isla Holbox Cemetery
iguana Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana
iguanaiguana Isla Holbox Mexico Isla Holbox Mexico
Iguana

There wasn’t much past the cemetery besides what looked like a dump. Looking at the map again now it looks like if we back-tracked and took a left and then another left, we might have found the road leading out to the west tip of the island, looking out at Isla de la Passion. We’ll save that exploration for the next trip.

We did back track and turned north back onto the northern beach road. The west end of the norther beach is very quiet and peaceful, there was barely anyone around.

It wasn’t long before we were back in town, and only ended up using two of the four hours of time we booked. We considered driving around a bit more but Paddy and Heather were getting a little motion sick from sitting backwards on the back end of the cart. We dropped it back off and walked around town a bit more, then went back to our hotels to relax a bit.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach
Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico
Hotel La Palapa beach

Paddy and I went back to the beach at our hotel and ordered some very delicious blended margaritas from the bar. We also ordered lunch there, which ended up being the only bad meal of our trip. The restaurant is Italian, with some beach bar items like burgers, sandwiches, etc. He ordered a quesadilla which was very oily and had no cheese on it that he could see. My club sandwich with avocado came on wonder bread with no avocado. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t come as promised. If you want to eat lunch on the beach and are feeling lazy, I’d recommend seeing if you can get some food to go from Las Panchas next door and stick to just ordering drinks from the Hotel La Palapa bar.

We read books and relaxed until evening.

Hotel La Palapa beach Isla Holbox Mexico

That night we went to Viva Zapata for dinner. A touristy, albeit fun restaurant themed around Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. It is a fun, ambient place with murals of scenes from the revolution on the walls, and swings as bar stools.

Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox
Viva Zapata margarita, Isla Holbox

The Zapata margarita was outstanding, with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. For dinner we ordered the grilled seafood platter for two, and Heather and Stephen ordered the grilled seafood and meat mix platter for two. Paddy ordered an additional steak skewer which he thought was just a skewer, but came with rice and was actually quite large. It was a lot of food, but so delicious.  If you come to Holbox, don’t miss this place.

viva zapata isla holbox
Seafood and meat grill platter for two at Viva Zapata
viva zapata isla holbox
Steak skewer at Viva Zapata
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata isla holbox Mexico
Seafood grill platter for two at Viva Zapata

After dinner Stephen was feeling a little tired and called it a night, and Paddy, Heather, and I decided to walk around and have a couple more drinks. We opted for the roof top bar at The Arena Lounge Bar in the center of town.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico

There was a great view of the town at the open air bar (it is also part of a hotel) and the drinks were very good.

Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox Mexico
View from The Arena Lounge Bar Isla Holbox

After that we stopped for another drink at a little reggae bar down the street, but our night out ended when everything shut down at 11:00 PM. It was fine, we weren’t out for a crazy night. Isla Holbox isn’t a place for raucous nightlife, there are bars but everything is very laid back and quiet.

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isla-holbox-bar-mexico (2)

 

Day 4:

Paddy and I had breakfast at La Isla del Colibri, a Pepto-pink little restaurant in the center of town. It was a very cute little spot, with bright colors and art everywhere. Service was great and the food was good as well. I had the chilaquiles verde, and Paddy had Mexican style scrambled eggs with rice and beans. The orange juice was fresh squeezed.

La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox
Chilaquiles at La Isla del Colibri restaurant Isla Holbox

It had been steadily overcast since we arrived, and we were hoping for sun breaks that afternoon so that we could enjoy time at the beach. We spent the warm, gray morning souvenir shopping and reading in the room and on the rooftop deck of the hotel.

We finally got some sun breaks and I took a walk down the beach before catching a little bit of sun in a beach lounger at the hotel. Heather and Stephen joined us for some margaritas on the beach for a bit. Next door to us on the beach was a little palapa where fishermen were bringing in their daily catch. There was a lot of conch and a small tiger shark hanging from the palapa roof.

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Isla Holbox Beach
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Pelican
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Isla Holbox Beach

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Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Fisherman with a tiger shark, Isla Holbox
Conch shells for sale
Conch shells for sale
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox
Tiger shark caught for food, Isla Holbox

The clouds finally began to disappear as the sun sank lower in the sky, and we decided to head further west down the beach to watch the sunset in front of Heather and Stephen’s hotel. There were only a couple other lone individuals on the beach, and the sunset was spectacular.

Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Watching the sunset from Hotel Takywara
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
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Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset
Isla Holbox Sunset

For dinner that night we went to Los Peleones, a Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) themed restaurant in the town. The food is Italian/Mediterranean/Mexican fusion, and it is a fun little spot.

Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
Los Peleones Isla Holbox
“wrestling ring” lamp and comic strip place mat at Los Peleones Isla Holbox

The place mats included a little comic strip about Luchadores rescuing a sea turtle and the importance of caring for the environment.

The food was great. I had the lobster chalupitas, (which were outstanding) and house-made spaghetti with anchovy, chili flakes, and garlic. Paddy had a mole dish that was a bit sweet for my taste but he really enjoyed it.

Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones
Lobster chalupitas at Los Peleones–highly recommended!

After dinner I was feeling a bit under the weather and Heather and Stephen were tired so we called it a night. Paddy stayed out for another Zapata Margarita at Viva Zapata, he wasn’t quite ready for bed yet and the Zapata Margaritas are just so damn delicious.

Viva Zapata
Viva Zapata

 

Day 5:

I went to bed with a sore throat the night before, and woke up with a mild cold. I had brought all kinds of remedies for gastro-intestinal distress with us, but no cold remedies.

We had to catch the 9:00 ferry back to Chiquila to meet our taxi driver to Valladolid, arranged by our hotel on Holbox for $110.00. Not many breakfast places are open early on Holbox, so we had breakfast at the Hotel Palapa restaurant on the beach which opened at 7:30. Breakfast was good, and the beach view is always pleasant.

Upon arrival at Chiquila, we saw a few taxi drivers with signs for people, but not ours. We walked to the parking lot and waited about 20 minutes. Finally I walked to the store across the parking lot and the young girl at the counter graciously let me use her cell phone to call the hotel. While the hotel had me on hold calling our taxi driver, Pedro (our previous driver from Cancun to Chiquila) came dashing down the parking lot to locate us. I’m not sure if he fell asleep in his car, or was late, but either way it was fine and we headed toward Valladolid. Mexican time.

We had split up from Heather and Stephen for two days while we visited Valladolid, and they headed on to Tulum. The drive to Valladolid with Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way, he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.

Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.

Valladolid street, Mexico
Narrow, colorful streets of Valladolid

Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.

We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.

Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid

There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.

Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
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Hotel Zentik Project cave pool, Valladolid

Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.

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Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid

The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I wanted to crawl right in.

We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.

We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square, but when we arrived at the front entrance it was full of tour groups. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up.  A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.

Valladolid
Valladolid — old Spanish colonial church
Valladolid
Valladolid –old church
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid

When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.

 

For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well.  The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.

Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Ceviche verde, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Steak, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Octopus fried rice, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid

The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.

 

Day 6:

 

MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.

Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.

Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos

We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.

Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos

The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.

rio lagartos mexico
Rio Lagartos

After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.

He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.

Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos

We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.

black hawk Rio Lagartos
black hawk Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos

We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.

mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”
mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”

After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.

Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but  I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid,
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid

Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.

Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.

Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam
Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam

It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins

 

The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).

Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Harvested blue agave “pineapples” at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid

We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.

When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.

For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.

 

La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.

La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Pavo en relleno negro, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Longaniza Sisal, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Flan, La Taberna del los Frailes

There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.

Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid
Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid

We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.

 

Day 7:

In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.

After breakfast we explored the nearby market and then checked out and had the front desk call us a taxi to our next destination, Tulum. The taxi was $50, which was much more than the local ADO bus would have cost, but we only had three nights left in Mexico and we wanted to get to Tulum quickly, without a long bus ride and hauling our bags around in the hot sun.

I really wished we had another day to explore Valladolid, the city has so much more to offer. I would recommend staying here at least three nights if you plan on doing some tours to allow enough time to spend in the city itself.

The drive to Tulum from Valladolid is about an hour. On the way we texted with Heather and Stephen and learned that Stephen had gotten Montezuma’s Revenge and had been violently ill the last two days. He thinks it may have been a glass of tamarind water he had at a taco stand on Isla Holbox before heading to Tulum.

**Tip: It’s best to stick to bottled beverages and sealed bottled waters.

When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town for lunch.

This was our second time in Tulum. The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue. There are parts of the Tulum beach that are rocky, however. Last time we were in Tulum we stayed at the end of the Boca Paila beach road by the entrance to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. The beach down there was outstanding, but it was a bit far from the town and other restaurants on the beach road, so we decided we wanted to try the other end of the beach this time. I chose La Vita e Bella after looking at Google Maps satellite view of the beach, and deciding that it was on one of the best sandy beach areas in the northern part of the beach road. It was.

Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella
Tulum Beach in front of Hotel La Vita e Bella–view from the beach bar

In the Tulum pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.

Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo: shrimp, octopus, and fish
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo
Seafood tacos at La Barracuda in Tulum pueblo

When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.

We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.

We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.

Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum
Junior Suite at La Vita e Bella, Tulum

We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.

La Vita e Bella Tulum
La Vita e Bella Tulum
Tulum
Tulum

For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.

**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.

kitchen-table-restaurant-tulum-mexico (25)

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

 

Day 8:

Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a good deal for them.

Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.

La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum
La Vita e Bella breakfast Tulum

 

We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.

Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach
Tulum Beach

That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…

We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we couldn’t eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.

That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.

We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.

Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans
Tulum fisherman being harassed by pelicans

One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).

When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get bit by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.

Mateo's Mexican Grill Tulum
Mateo’s Mexican Grill Tulum

Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.

Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum
Mi Vida Tapas restaurant Tulum

The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.

Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Pulpo y garbanzo at La Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
Mini brochetas, Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
"Chocolate Salami" at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum
“Chocolate Salami” at Mi Vida Tapas, Tulum

After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.

 

Day 9:

 

We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.

Tulum sunrise
Tulum sunrise

In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

tulum-beach-mexico (24)

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and carmelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.

Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Deviled avocado, Kitchen Table Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Arugula salad, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Pan roasted octopus, Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Seared ahi tuna steak, Kitchen Table Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum
Kitchen Table, Tulum

Overall, it was another great trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I wish we’d had a bit more time in Valladolid. I don’t think we’d recommend La Vita e Bella in Tulum, the service was bad and the mattresses were old and uncomfortable. I think our next trip to Tulum, we’ll stay back down on the quieter end of the beach road again like we did the first time (near the Biosphere). If something a bit more rustic still exists on that part of the beach, we’d love to find it.

On a future trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, we’d like to snorkel the underwater sculpture garden at Isla Mujeres, and go back to Isla Holbox in the summer for a whale shark tour. We loved Isla Holbox’s laid back vibe and that it was a bit more off the beaten path than Isla Mujeres. If we go back to Isla Holbox, we would definitely stay at Hotel La Palapa or Hotel Takywara again.

We’d also like to see some of the west side of the Peninsula, particularly Celestun and Merida. The Yucatan is one of our favorite places we’ve been in this world, and I’m sure we’ll be visiting many more times in the future.

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic: a tiny beach town with some great food, a gorgeous beach, and a good home base for tours to the National Parks

 

Bayahibe was the second stop on our trip to The Dominican Republic in 2013. I was looking for a quiet little beach town in between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana similar to the ones we’ve been to in Mexico where we could enjoy a nice beach and some local culture. After extensive reading, I decided that Bayahibe might be a good fit. In addition to having a nice public beach, it was a good departure spot for tours to Isla Saona and the National Parks in the area. Overall we enjoyed our stay here more than at the resort we went to afterwards, despite one bad tour.

Excerpt from original post: Domincan Republic 2013: Santo Domingo, Bayahibe, and Cap Cana

 

Day 1:

We had reserved a shuttle to the town of Bayahibe from our hotel in Santo Domingo with Domincan Shuttles for about $120.00. I’m sure that there are less expensive ways to get to Bayahibe with the public bus, but we were willing to pay the extra money to go on our own schedule with direct service to our hotel.

The shuttle driver was very friendly, and the ride was about 2 hours. He made sure that we were let into the gate at our hotel by the owner before he left, which was much appreciated. We had booked three nights at the Hotel Villa Baya, a small and inexpensive mom-and-pop hotel in the town. The room wasn’t anything fancy, but very affordable at $40.00/night and had everything we needed. It had a double bed and a twin, a small table and chairs, ample closest space, a tiny TV, an outdoor patio, and a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, dishes, and a mini fridge. No A/C, but there was a fan. We were on the ground floor, and I think requesting an upper floor unit might be a little better with a more private deck.

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 090

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 089

The hotel also has a locked gate to the property that you need your key to get in and out of, providing extra security. There wasn’t a safe, so we hid our valuables that we didn’t take with us in socks deep in our backpacks in the closet, and made sure to leave a tip for the maid each day. We had no problem.

We walked around the tiny town, getting extra cash at the ATM at the grocery store, and water, beer, and wine to stock our mini fridge. We found the grocery store souvenir prices to be best here out of anywhere we went. They all had price tags on them too–a rarity in DR.

Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 088
Road back to the hotel from town
Bayahibe Harbor Domincan Republic 087
Bayahibe Harbor

That evening we ate at a little beach restaurant near the harbor, Chiky Blue. It was a super cute little beach spot with a grass roof, Christmas lights hung around for ambiance, and very friendly staff. I ordered a fried fish with rosemary potatoes, and it was the best whole fried fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 092

Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 093
Whole fried fish at Chiky Blue Bayahibe
Chiky Blue Bayahibe Domincan Republic 095
Chiky Blue Bayahibe

At night there was a congregation of locals around a bar/convenience store near the grocery store in town, partying, socializing, and listening to Dominican bachata music.

We picked up some milk and cereal for the morning, as we were getting up really early the next morning to leave on a tour. Having a kitchenette in our room was definitely a convenience.

Day 2:

We had booked two tours with Seavis Tours, an eco-tour company based out of Bayahibe. Originally, I had wanted to do the Jungle Tour in the Parque Nacional de Este, but it wasn’t offered on Mondays. They said the tour they had available on Mondays was the Monster Truck Safari, operated by a third party tour provider. We looked it over, the words “monster truck” and “safari” setting off major red flags of a horrendous tourist experience. It promised an educational tour of rural country life, a farm, and a rural school. It sounded interesting enough, so we deliberated a bit and decided to go for it.

We were picked up in front of the police station near our hotel by a shuttle driver, and then made a few stops at some resorts to pick up several other tourists, all European. When we reached the nearby town of Higuey, we were loaded into a hideous “monster truck” that made us cringe.

Monster Truck Safari Domincan Republic 134

We climbed aboard and monstered our way out into the countryside. If there was one thing I enjoyed about this tour, it was driving through the country. We passed houses and farms, getting a chance to view the vast diversity of country living.

Our first stop was at the home and farm of a middle class Dominican family. We were given a tour of the farm and it’s fruits and vegetables. The family who owned the farm was going about their day in the house, doing laundry, cleaning, watching TV, etc. We were told to go in and see the house, but Paddy and I didn’t feel very comfortable going in and gawking at a family in their home. I know the family was getting compensation for the tour, but it just felt weird and intrusive.

Next, we were led down the road to the family’s small store, and told that we were going to be visiting a Haitian village where the kids were very poor later in the trip. We were told that we should buy school supplies or candy to give them. Here’s where things got gross: They had TWO spiral notebooks and TWO pencils for all of us to buy for the kids, and a giant amount of candy. All sold by the family who owned the house at expensive American prices, not Dominican prices. We bought a small bag of candy and a notebook and pencil. None of the other tourists bought the remaining school supplies, all candy.

Now, had we known this was part of the tour, we would have stocked up on school supplies, food, toothbrushes, and other necessities from the grocery store in Bayahibe to give out to the kids. (At the end of the trip, we realized that this was all part of a big show put on for the tourists so that the family with the farm could make money. None of it was about helping poor Haitian kids. )

Next, we visited a rural country school. It was spring break, so the kids were gone but we were shown the classroom and told a bit about Dominican schools.

Rural school Dominican Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

Before we left, our guides brought out some ugly safari hats with “Monster Truck Safari” on them, and told us that if we bought one (at $20 each) the proceeds would go to helping the school. No one bought one, until the guide put some pressure on us and one of the Europeans finally forked over $20.  My suspicion is that very little goes to helping the school, and that most of it goes to the Monster Truck Safari people. Had there been a teacher there talking about the school with a donation jar, we would have donated. Instead we felt a little put off.

Next we stopped at another “farm” where a family was selling jellies and fruit leather. More pressure to purchase, and not much in the way of a tour.

We then continued through the road, and past a sugarcane plantation with a giant mansion up on the top of a big hill overlooking the sugarcane fields. We turned a corner and approached the “Haitian village.” Kids were waiting for us, and we gave them our candy. They were jumping and grabbing for it, and we were told not to toss the candy to them because they fight. It was like feeding animals. I handed the notebook and pencil to one of the few adult women with the kids, who grabbed for it and gave it to a specific little girl. I’m sure she knew which kid needed it the most, and that was the only part that made us happy.

Domincan Republic 133

Domincan Republic 132

Domincan Republic 131

As we drove away, monstering over a river and up a hill, the whole picture became clear. This wasn’t a “Haitian village,” it was a migrant farm-worker community who work the sugarcane fields for the rich guy on the hill with the mansion, who obviously pays them next to nothing. Their houses were shanties built with whatever scraps of building materials that they could find, and the “village” was just a section of the plantation owner’s land that he lets them live on.

The Monster Truck Safari people do this tour once a week, help the family with the farm make some money off the tourists by selling them candy at high prices, and then show the tourists the “poor Haitian kids” as a tourist attraction, like animals in a zoo. Those kids don’t need candy once a week. They need necessities, things that won’t rot their teeth.

We were pretty disgusted and bummed out by the whole ordeal. The guide tried to get “party time” going on again as we headed back to Higuey, trying to interest us in rum and cokes and beer. We weren’t interested.

Our last stop was in Higuey, where we walked through a market and then were brought to a store where we could buy souvenirs (big surprise) at “the best prices in the Dominican Republic.” (They weren’t the best prices.) For the resort tourists, they might have been as the resort gift shops charge exorbitant prices. We got most of our souvenirs at the Bayahibe grocery store instead for very reasonable prices.

Market in Higuey Domincan Republic
Market in Higuey
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Higuey

When we got back to Bayahibe, they dropped us off first, in front of the dirt road to our little hotel. Kids and chickens were running around the road, and the resort tourists in the van with us were somewhat horrified by our digs. We bid them goodbye and good riddance.

For dinner that evening we went to Bamboo Beach, another grass-roofed little spot with a view of the water. It was owned by French expats, and most of the customers appeared to be French tourists. The food was good and the atmosphere was nice.

Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 140
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 139
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 138
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
Bamboo Beach Restaurant Bayahibe Domincan Republic 137
Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe

 

Day 3:

The next day was a lazy beach day. Bayahibe has a very nice public beach, with beach chairs for rent for $5.00 for the day.

**Tips:

1. You get a better deal paying in pesos for beach chairs instead of dollars

2. Stock up on water, beer, snacks, and toilet paper at the grocery store before you head to the beach. The public restroom is a bring your own TP type of situation, and the beers at the beach are ridiculously overpriced.

3. Take the back beach trail, not the one along the water to avoid the aggressive souvenir stands.

We had breakfast first at Cafe La Marina, an open air restaurant right in front of the main harbor. I think the owners were Italian. There were a lot of Italian style baked goods, and I got a very good foccacia bread with tomatoes. Coffee was tasty.

We took the back trail to avoid the touts at the souvenir stalls, and passed a small beach cemetery.

Bayahibe Beach cemetery Domincan Republic 142

Bayahibe Beach cemetery Domincan Republic 143

The beach itself was really nice, with soft sand, minimal coral, and bathtub warm water. My sunscreen expired a little before we left and I got a tiny bit burnt. Remember to re-apply!

Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 144
Bayahibe public beach
Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 145
Bayahibe public beach
Bayahibe public beach Domincan Republic 146
Bayahibe public beach

**Bathroom tip: Don’t use the “bathrooms” near the beach parking lot. They are the grossest outhouses I’ve ever seen. Head back to the public restroom near the town–make sure to bring your own toilet paper.

When we’d had enough sun, we walked back to the main marina area and had lunch at the Saona Cafe, a little bar and grill owned by French Canadian expats right in front of the harbor. We had some very tasty fish burgers and ice cold Presidentes.

Later that evening after a rest in our room, we went looking around for a place for dinner. There were a few interesting little spots on the harbor, but we ended up getting pizza back at Chiky Blue again. It had such great atmosphere and view, and the food and prices were great.

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Bayahibe Harbor
Chiky Blu Bayahibe Domincan Republic 153
Chiky Blu Bayahibe
Chiky Blu Bayahibe Domincan Republic 154
Chiky Blu Bayahibe

The next day we did a tour to Isla Saona with Seavis Tours, which was much better and the highlight of our trip to the Dominican Republic. I would definitely recommend Seavis Tours, but avoid the “Monster Truck Safari” tour operated by a third party.

I would recommend Bayahibe for budget travelers or people who want to get out of the resort bubble  and still enjoy a nice day at the beach. There are a variety of tours to do from the town as well, and it is a great location to use as a home base to explore.

Read about the rest of our adventures in the Dominican Republic here

Our Top Food Experiences From Our Adventures

Our top food experiences from our adventures 2008-2015: Our most memorable meals from our travels around the world (so far).

10. The Winding Stair in Dublin, Ireland

Given that everything in Ireland is expensive, we couldn’t eat out at many upscale restaurants on our two-week trip. The Winding Stair was our one big splurge in Ireland, and it was worth it. It is located above an affiliated book store (one of the oldest independent book stores in Dublin) overlooking the River Liffey. It was cute, quiet, and romantic. The food is fresh, organic, and locally sourced.  If you’re in Dublin looking for a fantastic Irish meal with ambiance, this is a great little spot. Definitely one of our top food experiences in Ireland.

River Liffey, Dublin
River Liffey, Dublin
Winding Stair Dublin Ireland top food experiences
Duck breast with fingerling potatoes at The Winding Stair
Winding Stair Dublin Ireland top food experiences
Pork loin at the winding stair

9. Kèköldi Indigenous family farm, Costa Rica

Our friends Sarah and Julio took us to a farm owned by the indigenous Kèköldi people near Cahuita, Costa Rica. Our host gave us a tour through the rain forest surrounding his home and told us about all the medicinal plants and foods found in the area that are used by his family. Afterward, we were served a typical lunch of chicken, plantains breadfruit, and sweet potatoes served in banana leaves, which are used as plates and bowls. The chicken was some of the best we’d ever had and it was a very interesting and educational day. If you are interested in taking this tour, you can book it through Sarah and Julio’s tour company, www.boyerotours.com.

Kekoldi indigenous tour costa rica top food experiences
Lunch at the Kèköldi farm: Chicken, breadfruit, plantains, and sweet potato
Kekoldi village costa rica top food experiences
Julio and our host at the Kèköldi farm, Costa Rica

8. Argentinian cooking at Tierras Del Sol, Tulum, Mexico

When we were in Tulum, Mexico in 2009, we stayed at a little place on the beach called Tierras Del Sol (unfortunately, it looks like it is now closed). The beach was the best we’ve ever seen in our travels to the tropics, and because it was the low season we usually had it all to ourselves.

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Tulum Beach

It was located at the very end of the Boca Paila Rd, about 12 miles from the center of town and we had no car. They served dinner and breakfast, and the manager/cook was from Argentina and cooked amazing food every night. It was pretty much the same menu: three salads, grilled vegetables, and then grilled meat or fish with an Argentinian marinade. We stayed for four nights, and ate three dinners there it was so good. Each night the grilled meat or fish was whatever looked fresh at the market that day. One night we ventured further down the road to a neighboring bungalow resort and ate at their restaurant, but the food was small, pretentious, and not nearly as good.

Simple and delicious, served with a side of peace and quiet, the warm sea air, and plenty of beer and margaritas. It was one of our top food experiences for sure.

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Top food experiences –Tierras Del Sol restaurant/lounge area

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Tulum-Mexico-top-food-experiences (12)

tulum-mexico top food experiences

7. Kuma’s Corner, Chicago

Paddy maintains that one of the best burgers he has ever had (perhaps THE best burger he has ever had) was at Kuma’s Corner while we were visiting a friend in Chicago in 2008. Located in the Avondale neighborhood, Kuma’s Corner is all about two things: amazing burgers and heavy metal. And burgers named after heavy metal. What more could you want?

It sounds gimmicky, but the real rock star here is the food. Most of the burgers are served on pretzel buns, and really are in a league of their own. If you go to Chicago, don’t miss Kuma’s.

Kumas Corner Chicago top food experiences
At Kuma’s Corner, Chicago
Kumas Corner Chicago top food experiences
The “Slayer” burger at Kuma’s Corner. Served with ANGER!

 

6. The Jam Cafe, Victoria B.C. Canada

We spent a holiday weekend in Victoria BC in 2014, and we were surprised to find so much great food! It was tough to choose which one of our meals that weekend would wind up on our top food experiences list, but we decided it must be the Jam Cafe. We had pulled pork pancakes (large enough to feed a family of four) and the fried chicken benedict and shared. The bloody marys were also fabulous and are served with a piece of candied bacon and a seasoned salt rim. It was one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had, and worth the 20 minute wait in line.

A close second of our top food experiences in Victoria: Red Fish Blue Fish. It was almost a coin toss.

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The Jam Cafe, Victoria B.C.
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Bloody Mary at the Jam Cafe with candied bacon
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Pulled Pork pancakes with jalepeno sour cream and pickled cabbage
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Fried chicken benedict with roasted corn salsa

5. Atchafalaya, New Orleans

Atchafalaya New Orleans
Atchafalaya restaurant–brunch highly recommended!

We spent Halloween 2015 in New Orleans, which I’m sure you know is home to some pretty spectacular cuisine. The winner from this trip was definitely brunch at Atchafalaya in the Garden District. They had a delicious-looking breakfast cocktail list, but we couldn’t pass up the bloody mary bar where you can build your own bloody mary from two different types of mixes, and an array of hot sauces and house pickled veggies to go with it. The bartender gives you a glass with your choice of vodka and you make it however you want it.

Atchafalaya bloody mary bar New Orleans
Atchafalaya bloody mary bar
Atchafalaya bloody mary bar New Orleans
Atchafalaya bloody mary bar-green tomato bloody marys!

The breakfast menu made for a tough decision. I eventually decided on the duck hash with blackberries, mangos, duck confit, potatoes, hollandaise sauce, and bacon vinigarette. Paddy had the shrimp and cream cheese grits with smoked tomatoes and andouille sausage. Our friends tried the fried chicken and biscuits and gravy, the bananas foster french toast, and the truffled eggs with spinach. It was all amazing. They also serve dinner, and we will definitely be back on our next visit to NOLA.

Chicken and biscuits with sausage gravy at Atchafalaya New Orleans
Chicken and biscuits with sausage gravy at Atchafalaya
Duck confit hash at Atchafalaya in the Garden District
Duck confit hash at Atchafalaya in the Garden District
Shrimp with cream cheese grits at Actchafalaya New Orleans
Shrimp with cream cheese grits at Actchafalaya

4. Chiky Blu Restaurant in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

On our first night in the small beach town of Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, we ventured into a little unassuming open-air beach restaurant with reasonable prices and ordered up some dinner. I had no idea going in that I would have the best whole fried fish I’d ever had that I still think about to this day. It was simple, but full of flavor, and very crispy without any greasiness. It came with rosemary fried potatoes on a bed of lettuce with three tomato slices on top and a lime wedge.

Paddy had gnocchi which was also excellent. We went back for dinner again on our last night and had the pizza which was also good, but I still think about that fried fish. I haven’t had one live up to that one since.

Chiky Blue Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Chiky Blu Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Chiky Blue Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Chiky Blu Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Chiky Blue Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Chiky Blu Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Fried fish chiky blu bayahibe
Best fried fish I’ve ever had at Chiky Blu

3. Hotel La Pirogue, Taha’a, French Polynesia

We spent our honeymoon in French Polynesia, traveling to Tahiti, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. On Taha’a we stayed on a remote motu island off the coast of the main island of Taha’a at a little resort called Hotel La Pirogue. It was completely remote, so we did the breakfast and dinner meal plan. Breakfast was standard European continental style, with muesli, yogurt, fruit, and baguettes with cheese and ham cold cuts.

hotel la pirogue tahaa
View from our bungalow porch at Hotel La Pirogue on the Taha’a motu

Dinner, however was unexpectedly some of the best food we’ve ever had. The little resort was owned by a French couple who were very welcoming. The husband was an outstanding chef and cooked dinner for the guests while his wife waited tables. We could choose a starter, main course and dessert for dinner each night.

The fusion of French cuisine with local Polynesian ingredients like vanilla, breadfruit, spices, and local fish, and shellfish was innovative and unique. It was some of the best food we’ve ever had.

We spent our days reading books, swimming in the beach in front of our bungalow, kayaking around the lagoon, and day touring the island of Taha’a. At night we would stuff ourselves silly at the restaurant and waddle back to our bungalow to sit on our porch and drink wine in the moonlight. It was a great four days.

Coconut curry shrimp
Coconut curry shrimp
Duck breast
Duck breast
Grilled shrimp at Hotel La Pirogue
Grilled shrimp at Hotel La Pirogue
Seared Ahi tuna
Seared Ahi tuna
Rack of lamb at Hotel La Pirogue
Rack of lamb at Hotel La Pirogue

 

 2. Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland

While in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2015, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.

Iceland-Dill
top food experiences –Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland 107

Iceland-Dill-Restaurant
top food experiences –Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland

We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.

Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.

The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. It was a two-hour ordeal, and the most high-end culinary experience we’ve ever had. I hate rutabagas, and the rutabaga course with cream cheese foam, sweet and sour dill oil, and toasted millet was so delicious I almost licked the plate.

Dill Menu
Dill Menu
salt cod course dill restaurant reykjavik
Salt cod course
scallop tartare dill restaurant reykjavik
Scallop tartare course
Iceland-Dill-Restaurant
Pork belly course with kale and black garlic
Dill-Restaurant
Rutabaga course with cream cheese, sweet and sour dill oil, and toasted millet
Dill-Restaurant-2
Icelandic Skyr with celery sorbet and roasted oats

Nothing could really top that dining experience in Iceland, but I will give the lobster soup at Salthusid Restaurant in Grindavik a second prize.

 

1. Farm Pu Nim (Softshell Crab Farm) in Chanthaburi, Thailand

I don’t know where this is or how you get to it, but try to find out if you find yourself in the Chanthaburi province of Thailand. Farm Pu Nim (translates to “softshell crab farm”) was host to the number one of all our top food experiences in our travels to date.

We were visiting a Thai friend of mine and her family in Chanthaburi, Thailand, and they wanted to take us to lunch here. We drove a little ways outside of Chanthaburi town, and then parked and got in a small boat ferrying customers to the restaurant.

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
top food experiences –Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

It was busy with Thai tourists and locals (no westerners that I saw), and our friend said it is somewhere that they take visitors or go to on special occasions. They ordered a bunch of dishes for us all to share.

The restaurant kitchen was visible from the path to the bathroom, and was totally chaotic. Piles of sea shells, plastic tubs, and tanks of fish and crabs were everywhere.

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
The kitchen–Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
The kitchen–Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Our food arrived in courses, and it was a seafood feast. The food was amazing, and there was so much that we couldn’t finish it all. Oysters, shrimp, squid, a spicy fish soup, fried soft shell crab, soft shell crab in curry, and a whole fried fish with garlic. We’d never seen such a spread.

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
fried soft shell crab

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Shellfish Farm in Chanthaburi Thailand
Shellfish Farm in Chanthaburi Thailand

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand

Soft Shell Crab Farm restaurant in Chanthaburi, Thailand
Oysters

We squabbled over the bill at the end– we insisted on paying as they were taking us around Chanthaburi and being fabulous hosts, and after some arguing we were allowed to pay. For seven people (albeit two were small children), the total for all that food and a couple beers was $45.

A large part of what makes this number one of our top food experiences was the amazing food, but another part was being able to share in something uniquely Thai that our friends wanted to share with us. We would have never found that place on our own, and being able to share it with a long lost friend from my exchange student days and her family was very special.

 

Food is a huge part of our travels, and we hope to add many more meals to this list in the future. A meal doesn’t have to be expensive to be amazing, it just needs to be made with love and either talent or a good recipe. Stay tuned for more of our top food experiences in the future.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

 

Two days in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: A city with vibrant culture and history, welcoming people and fabulous food

Excerpt from original post Dominican Republic 2013. Read about the rest of our adventures in the Dominican Republic here.

Most people go straight to the resorts in Punta Cana when they visit the Dominican Republic, and they are missing out on almost everything great about the country itself. There is more to the Dominican Republic than pretty beaches. We spent our first two days in the capitol city of Santo Domingo, and we wished we had more time there. We were lucky enough on this trip to meet up with some locals to take us to their favorite restaurant and show us some local nightlife.

Day 1:

We arrived in Santo Domingo from a night flight around 11:00 AM, withdrew some pesos out of the airport ATM, and met our shuttle driver in ground transportation. He was very friendly and we made conversation as best we could with his limited English and our limited Spanish. He dropped us off at the Hotel Frances, a beautiful hacienda-style hotel in the Colonial quarter of Santo Domingo. The hotel building itself dates back to the 16th century Spanish colonial days. Our room was on the ground floor with a door opening to the courtyard restaurant.

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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 038
Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo

We were exhausted and promptly drew the shutters and crashed for a couple hours. Around 3:00, we forced ourselves to get up, shower, and go out. We walked around the colonial quarter, still exhausted, and decided some caffeine was in order. We found a little cafe on the main shopping street of Calle del Conde with outdoor tables, and sat and had some cappuccinos. It was good people watching, and about all we could muster for the moment. After a good sit and some great cappuccinos, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

**Tip regarding clothing: Dominicans don’t often wear shorts, so tourists wearing shorts will stick out like a sore thumb. Also, shorts are often not allowed in upscale restaurants or night clubs. Jeans are way too hot, don’t bring those. Paddy has some linen pants that he wore out at night that he loves. (Shorts are totally acceptable at the beach, just make sure you have some pants for going out to dinner).

Our guidebook strongly recommended Meson de Bari, which we later found out was also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The atmosphere was colorful and lively, and the service was great. Unfortunately, we ordered the wrong things and they were a bit bland. Stick to the house specials of stewed goat or crab, or lambi (conch) empanadas. Outside of the house specials, the food seems to be a little on the drab side. We recently watched the No Reservations episode, and whatever Tony was eating looked a lot more interesting that what we ordered, which was shrimp and beef with creole sauce. If we make it back to Santo Domingo, we will totally be giving this place a second chance.

Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 062
Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo
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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo

After dinner we had a few drinks at the bar in our hotel, which was a tiny little bar off the corner of the courtyard. If we’d had more time in Santo Domingo, I would have liked to have dinner at the hotel courtyard restaurant. It was dimly lit and romantic. The entire atmosphere of the Hotel Frances was upscale and historically charming. I would definitely recommend it.

Day 2:

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go out and actually see some stuff. We headed down to Calle del Conde and found a little cafe on the edge of the Parque Colon, a square named after Christopher Columbus. The park features a nauseating late 19th century statue of Columbus, with a naked Taino slave girl worshipping at his feet. Santo Domingo was the first successfull Spanish settlement that Columbus established in 1496, and the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in the Americas. The settlement was then governed by  Nicolás de Ovando from Spain during 1502-1509, during which the native Taino population was brutally decimated down to roughly 12% of what it was when Columbus arrived.

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Parque Colon
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Parque Colon

We ate breakfast outdoors in the shade and watched several groups of cruise ship tourists walk by with cameras, shorts, and socks with sandals. Breakfast was standard American fare and a very tasty Spanish omelet (“tortilla”). The Dominican coffee was dark and delicious.

After breakfast, we explored the colonial quarter. It was interesting to see old Spanish-style buildings from the 1500’s here in North America. That’s definitely not something you see on the US west coast.

Up the hill from our hotel were the ruins of El Monasterio de San Francisco. It was constructed in 1508, suffering setbacks of hurricanes and later earthquakes in the 1600’s and 1700’s. It later became a mental hospital in the 1880s (I can only imagine what that entailed….my guidebook said that some of the shackles that patients were chained up with are still attached to the walls). Another hurricane severly damaged the building in the 1930’s, and it has been in ruins since.

Down the street from the ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco are the ruins of the Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, constructed in 1503. It survived many hurricanes and earthquakes, but finally succumbed to a hurricane in 1911.

Hospital San Nicholas de Bari Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 061
Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, Santo Domingo

Next, we visited the Fortaleza Ozama, a Spanish castle built in the 1500’s overlooking the Ozama River. It is the oldest European military building in the Americas, and weathered the natural disasters better than the hospital and monastery. The building served as a prison in later years until the 1960’s.

We bypassed a random guy asking us for money for a tour (the site is free) and did our own tour.

Fortaleza Ozama Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 066
Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo
Fortaleza Ozama Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 067
Fortaleza Ozama
Fortaleza Ozama Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 068
Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo

We were getting hungry, so we made one last quick stop at the old church in Parque Colon.

Parque Colon church iglesia Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 064
Parque Colon

For lunch, we went to the El Conde Hotel restaurant on the corner of the Parque Colon. It was busy, with shaded outdoor seating and indoor seating. We had some American-style sandwiches, lemonade, and Presidente beer.

After lunch, we did a little shopping on Calle del Conde and ran into a small parade. It almost seemed impromptu, as it was really small and no one was lined up along the streets watching it. It was a nice surprise. We asked a local what it was for and were told “spring.”

Parade Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 071

Parade Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 073

Parade Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 072

When I was an exchange student in Denmark in high school, one of my closest friends was a fellow exchange student from the Dominican Republic, Ramses. Ramses had moved to Colombia a few years prior to our visit, but hooked us up with his younger sister Stephania and his mother Violeta. I got in contact with them before our trip and they were more than happy to show us around for the evening.

Stephania and Violeta picked us up at our hotel and we went to the restaurant that Ramses said we absolutely HAD to eat at, Adrian Tropical. It is a Dominican restaurant featuring the popular Dominican dish, the mofongo. The mofongo is a dish made up of fried plantains, pork cracklings, broth, garlic, and other lovely items mashed up together with a mortar and pestle. If you go to the Dominican Republic, your trip won’t be complete unless you’ve had one. They are delicious and they seem to be the favorite food of every Dominican I’ve ever met.

Mofongo Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 076
Mofongo
Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 079
Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo

Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 078

I had the shrimp mofongo, called the “camarofongo.” It was also delicious.

Camarofongo Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 077
Camarofongo

After dinner, it was a special night in the colonial zone and all the museums were free and open until late. We had a difficult time finding parking on the tiny streets, and when we finally found a space the museums were closing. Stephania and Violeta sweet-talked the man at Alcázar de Colón into letting us in really quick before they closed. Alcázar de Colón is the former home of Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus’ son.

After the museum, we walked across the square to El Patio del Canario, a bar owned by a local salsa music star. It is a tiny bar, and super charming. We got to see some locals dancing merengue which was quite impressive. Violeta tried to teach me some salsa dancing, not sure how well I did. The Presidente beers were frosty cold. They drink their beer colder in the Dominican Republic than anywhere we’ve ever been to. They come with a layer of white frost on them, and are said to be wearing a  “vestida de novia” or wedding dress. It was a hot night and that beer couldn’t have tasted better.

We called it a night around 1:00 AM and thanked Violeta and Stephania for a great evening.

Day 3:

The next morning we had a very nice (albeit expensive for Dominican standards at $15/person) breakfast in the Hotel Frances courtyard. It was worth it–there were a lot of options, eggs cooked to order, and a beautiful courtyard to sit in.

Hotel Frances breakfast Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 085

After breakfast, we caught a shuttle to the town of Bayahibe to continue our Dominican adventure. Overall we felt like we just got a small taste of Santo Domingo, and really wanted to see more. If we make it back, we’ll spend more time exploring the capitol city. If you are considering a trip to the Dominican Republic, I would highly recommend making Santo Domingo part of your visit. You can even fly into Santo Domingo and out of Punta Cana, or vice versa if you want to see both.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Two days/three nights on Isla Mujeres, Mexico–just a short shuttle and ferry from Cancun. A laid-back island with great beaches and plenty of culture

 

Excerpt from original post Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico 2009: Isla Mujeres, Chichen Itza, and Tulum

This trip to Mexico in 2009 was one of our favorites, and Isla Mujeres is a place we always talk about going back to. I always recommend it to people looking for a quick and easy tropical vacation on a budget. It was so much less expensive than Hawaii or the Bahamas, and you can get a beautiful white sand beach and a little Mexican culture (without the mega resorts) only a half hour shuttle and a quick ferry ride away from the Cancun Airport.

 

Day 1:

We arrived in Cancun in the morning after a night flight with a layover in Miami, on the day of Paddy’s 40th birthday. Our first destination was Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancun. I had scheduled a shuttle with Best Day shuttles for $8.00 each to the Isla Mujeres ferry dock, and everything went as planned.

**Tip: People accept US dollars here as well as pesos. Bring some $1 bills with you so that you have some small bills to tip with when you arrive. Tipping in Mexico is a big part of the culture and will be expected. This began the second I got off the plane and went to the restroom–there was a lady handing out paper towels for tips. Tip your shuttle drivers, hotel maids, bartenders, and your restaurant servers. We always tip at least 20%.

After a 30 minute shuttle to the Isla Mujeres ferry, it wasn’t long before the next boat arrived. We purchased our tickets and got some cash from the ATM at the ferry terminal (the guidebook told us that sometimes the island ATMS occasionally run out of cash to dispense). A short ferry ride later, we walked off the pier to the town of Playa Norte and found our hotel.

Our hotel on Isla Mujeres was Suites Los Arcos in the center of town. After reading Tripadvisor reviews about street noise, we had requested a room at the back of the hotel and they honored our request. Check in was easy, and the room was immaculately clean. It was a great deal for $60 a night, with a deck, air conditioning, a mini-fridge, coffee maker, and microwave.

Click on any image below to view larger

 

Suites Los Arcos Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres–Suites Los Arcos

Above: Suites Los Arcos from the street

Below: Room interior and deck

Suites Los Arcos Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres–Suites Los Arcos

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Suites Los Arcos Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres–Suites Los Arcos
Suites Los Arcos Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres–Suites Los Arcos

**Note: Stock up on bottled water the second you arrive. Don’t ever drink the tap water and brush your teeth with bottled water. If venturing outside of a touristy area, don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables as they may not be treated to remove the bacteria that makes foreigners ill. Also avoid ice outside of tourist areas. You can always ask your server if the ice is purified. Be wary of crushed ice, the purified ice usually comes in the tube cubes.

After a shower and a nap, we headed out into the humidity to find some food and walk around. We had dinner at a little beach bar by the pier, then ended up having some celebratory birthday margaritas and shots at a little Tequila bar not far from our hotel. If you like tequila, I recommend Aja Toro Anejo. It’s a top shelf tequila that is very expensive in the US, but is reasonable in Mexico. It’s so smooth you can sip it.

Isla Mujeres

We arranged a snorkel tour with a guy offering snorkel tours across the street from our hotel. We had to put $20 down and then pay $20 the next day, and he wrote us a voucher. We weren’t sure what to think, but his shop was right in front of our hotel and we figured at worst we would be out $20.

Day 2:

The next morning we had some huevos rancheros at the little cafe across from our hotel and met up with the snorkel tour, which was completely legit. They took us out in a boat with some other tourists down the coast of the island, and we snorkeled back along with the current.

**Tip: I bought a waterproof waist pouch online before this trip, for storing money and keys so I didn’t have to leave valuables in the empty boat with the guides. I’m sure they were trustworthy, but you can never be too careful. Also a good idea for going into the water when at the beach. You don’t want to leave your valuables on the shore.

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

One of our guides was feeding the fish tortillas, which is why there are so many of them in this video:

Snorkeling Isla Mujeres Mexico

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

Isla Mujeres snorkeling

Snorkeling Isla Mujeres Mexico

After seeing lots of colorful fish, we got back in the boat and I promptly got a bad bout of motion sickness while we waited for everyone to get in the boat. Fortunately I didn’t puke, but spent some time with my head between my knees when we arrived at the beach. We stopped at a beach on the southern part of the island for a delicious barbequed  fish lunch before heading back.

After we arrived back to Playa Norte and took a rest in the air-conditioned oasis of our hotel room, we walked around the town a bit.

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres

I was in love with the local cemetery. The colors, individual trinkets and offerings to each person’s resting place were so personal and endearing.

Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Cemetery

Below: Handcrafted “Catrina” dolls for sale in our hotel. I really wanted to buy one, but didn’t think it would survive the trip home.

Catrina dolls, Isla Mujeres
Catrina dolls
Catrina dolls Isla Mujeres
Catrina dolls

I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I do remember that we only spent about $15 each including drinks. I was nervous about consuming ice but whenever I asked our server if the ice was purified,(hielo purificado) it always was. We never got sick.

Day 3:

The next day was our last full day on Isla Mujeres and we weighed our options of what to do. We could either rent a golf cart (there are no cars on the island except the few owned by locals) for $40 and see the rest of the island, or we could spend the day at the gorgeous beach in the town. We opted for a beach day.

Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Most of the beach chairs were owned by some of the beach front hotels, but we found a row of them that were owned by the proprietor of a small restaurant on the beach. We approached the chairs and he came dashing over to explain the deal. We could sit in the chairs as long as we wanted, as long as we spent $11.00 over the course of the day. No problem at all.

Below: the view from the water facing the distant bar/restaurant that owns the beach chairs

Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte

Getting a chair and umbrella was imperative. The September sun was so scorching hot that even with SPF 50 sunscreen on we felt like we were going to burst into flames. When we weren’t in the water, we would move our chairs along with the shade and pull all our extremities into the shade like vampires.

Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte
Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte
Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte
Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte

We spent the late morning and early afternoon reading and swimming and taking in the beautiful powdered sugar beach and crystal blue water. It is truly one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been to. The fact that it is in the town and in walking distance from everything is a huge plus as well.

Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte
Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte

The guy from the restaurant came around a few times in the morning to take orders. We weren’t hungry yet or ready for a beer and he didn’t pressure us. Around noon we asked for menus and ordered some fish tacos, nachos, beers, and margaritas. We each had a couple drinks over the afternoon, and as more people arrived we watched our poor waiter hoof it back and forth across blazing hot sand in the midday sun to fetch food and beverages for everyone. When we were ready to leave, we asked for the bill. All that –drinks, food, service, and use of beach chairs for a total of $25.00. You sure can’t get that in Hawaii. We made sure to leave a fat tip for our hard-working friend for his excellent service.

fish tacos Playa Norte Isla Mujeres
Fish taco and nachos on the beach

 

That night we found an Argentinian restaurant where Paddy had a perfectly cooked filet mignon for $15.00. Gotta love Mexico.

Isla Mujeres restaurants

 

 

We will definitely be going back to Isla Mujeres. While the off-season in September was nice without the crowds, it was a bit too hot for us. Summer and early fall are the hottest months. I would like to go in June, however because summer is when whale sharks are in the area and you can take a tour out to snorkel with them. It sounds terrifying to be in the water with such huge animals, but for that kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience, I’d suck it up and go for it.

Isla Saona Day Trip in The Dominican Republic

An amazing day trip to Isla Saona, Dominican Republic: Red sea stars at La Piscina Natural, the village of Mano Juan, and swimming in paradise

Excerpt from original post Dominican Republic 2013: Santo Domingo, Bayahibe, and Cap Cana. Read about our entire trip to the Dominican Republic and all our travel tips here.

Isla Saona is a small island off of the south east coast of the Dominican Republic, and is part of the Parque Nacional del Este. There is one village on the island called Mano Juan, with only 400 inhabitants, no cars, and only solar electricity. Isla Saona has some of the most post-card worthy beaches in the world, all protected by the government through the national park.

Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Harbor in the town of Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

We were staying at the Hotel Villa-Baya in the little beach town of Bayahibe on the south coast of Dominican Republic. We checked out of our hotel and walked down to the Seavis Tours office on the public beach, and were met by the Dutch couple that helped us make our reservations for Isla Saona. They were very accommodating, and stored our luggage for us in the office for the day. We also pre-arranged a shuttle with them that evening to our next destination in Cap Cana.

Our tour guide was another Dutch expat, very sun-tanned and blonde with a well-traveled look about him. We got in the boat with our fellow tourists, slapped on our national park bracelets, and set out towards the caves and Rocks of Penon. The rocks were a former home of the native Taino people who inhabited the island before the Spanish conquistadores brutally desimated their populations.

After a quick stop and explanation, we moved on to the Piscina Natural, or the “natural pool”. It is a shallow sand bar pool a ways out from the coast where you can find red sea stars. There were a couple other tours there as well. Our guide was very careful about making sure that no one took them out of the water, and explained their life cycle.  (If they are taken out of the water for more than about a minute, they die. I read in my guidebook that many guides aren’t so careful about this, unfortunately.)

PLEASE DON’T TAKE THE SEA STARS OUT OF THE WATER.

Piscina Natural, Dominican Republic
Piscina Natural
Piscina Natural, Dominican Republic
Paddy with a rum and coke and a sea star, Piscina Natural
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural, Dominican Republic
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural, Dominican Republic
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural, Dominican Republic
Red sea stars, Piscina Natural

Complimentary rum and cokes were also offered, even though it was 10:00 AM. Why not.

After we spent some time learning about the sea stars, we went by some mangroves, and a driftwood log with pelicans scanning the shallow water for lunch. Our guide explained the environmental impact of the resort building in Punta Cana, which included mangrove and seagrass removal on the coastline. This lead to the loss of habitat for marine life in the area, as well as increased sediment runoff into the ocean and increased water pollution. The good news is that there are environmental groups working on a mangrove reforestation project in the area.

Mangroves, Dominican Republic
Mangroves
Pelicans, Dominican Republic
Pelicans
Pelicans, Dominican Republic
Pelicans

 

After we bid the sea stars and pelicans goodbye we headed to the main attraction, Isla Saona. Isla Saona is in the Parque Nacional de Este, and has one small village on it called Mano Juan. No one is allowed to live or move to the island, only the approximate 400 locals who have been there raising families for years. The only electricity in the village is through solar panels, and the community thrives on subsistence farming and tourism.

Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Church, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Church, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Mano Juan, Isla Saona
House, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
"Gym" Mano Juan, Isla Saona
“Gym” Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona

We walked past a tree with a ladder. Our guide explained that this tree was the only place on the island where cell service signals were available, so when islanders want to call the mainland, they climb up the ladder to sit in the tree and talk on their phones.

"Cell phone tree" Mano Juan, Isla Saona
“Cell phone tree” Mano Juan, Isla Saona
"Cell phone tree" Mano Juan, Isla Saona
“Cell phone tree” Mano Juan, Isla Saona

 

We walked through the village, looking at the happy, laid back lifestyle. It made me want to run away and live there. We visited a  sea turtle sanctuary and learned about sea turtle conservation. Their numbers are decreasing as predators prey on their eggs. Unfortunately sea turtle eggs are thought of as an aphrodisiac in the Dominican Republic and Latin America, and are sold for thousands of dollars. This group on Mano Juan is trying to educate and protect the turtles. It was refreshing to see.

Paddy and the piglet, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Paddy and the piglet, Mano Juan
Free-roaming piglet, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Free-roaming piglet, Mano Juan
car door fence gate, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
The best fence gate I have ever seen
car door fence gate, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Car door fence gate, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Houses, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
House, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Main street through town, Mano Juan, Isla Saona

Mano-Juan-Isla-Saona-Tour (25)

We visited the local hospital, which had no one in it at the time. They receive a new doctor doing a year of community service after finishing school each year to work at the hospital. Some of the other tourists were horrified at the primitive facility. It didn’t look bad to me, just simple. One lady said, “being here really makes you appreciate what we have at home.” Being there for me made me want to leave home. What do people really need? Family, friends, health, and happiness. It seemed to me that the villagers in Mano Juan had all of those things.

Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Hospital, Mano Juan, Isla Saona

 

After the village tour, we went back to the main beach for a buffet lunch. The food was excellent. While we ate, some local kids came and played music for us and sang for donations for their school. The tour guides explained that kids begging tourists for money end up making more money than their parents, and wasn’t teaching kids a good work ethic. They are teaching the kids music in the school and that they need to do something to earn money, not beg for it. The kids looked super happy playing their instruments and singing. We made sure to make a donation for their school.

Lunch buffet, Mano Juan
Lunch buffet
kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Local kids playing music for donations for their school
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona
Kids playing music, Mano Juan, Isla Saona

 

After lunch, we headed out to the other end of Isla Saona, with a beautiful uninhabited beach for some swimming and snorkeling. It was truly one of the most picturesque beaches we’ve ever seen.

Isla-Saona-Beach
Isla Saona Beach

Isla-Saona-Beach (2)

Isla-Saona-Beach (9)

Isla-Saona-Beach (10)

Isla-Saona-Beach (12)

Isla-Saona-Beach (15)

Isla-Saona-Beach (16)

Isla-Saona-Beach (17)

Isla-Saona-Beach (19)

Isla-Saona-Beach (20)

There were a few patches of coral, and some fish but the snorkeling wasn’t great. It was enough of a good time just to sit or walk along the beach and swim. It was so beautiful.

Snorkeling Isla Saona, Dominican Republic

Snorkeling Isla Saona, Dominican Republic

Unfortunately this was also the trip that my water bag for my camera decided to no longer be waterproof. It was my old camera, and fortunately I had my regular camera still. The camera bag had been on many snorkel trips, but this was it’s last one. (I now have a waterproof camera instead of a bag).

Our guides brought out a little dessert of pineapple cake, and shortly after left Isla Saona and headed back to Bayahibe. We arrived back, collected our luggage and were sent with a shuttle driver to our resort in Cap Cana, a smaller area south of Punta Cana.

The preserved beauty of Isla Saona and the rustic charm of Mano Juan were one of the highlights of our trip to the Dominican Republic, and we would definitely recommend Seavis Tours. If you’re headed to the Dominican Republic, try to make Isla Saona one of your priorities if you are staying in the region.

Continue reading about Bayahibe, Cap Cana and the rest of our Dominican Republic trip here