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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.

 

 

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.

Snorkeling Tips for Beginners

Snorkeling Tips for Beginners: A few things we’ve learned about underwater adventures on our travels to the tropics

If you can swim, you can snorkel. It’s pretty easy, and it’s one of my number one favorite activities when we travel to the tropics. We’ve snorkeled in Hawaii, Tahiti, Costa Rica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Thailand. Each experience was different, and we learned some things. I lived on Oahu, Hawaii for a year in college, and snorkeled quite a bit. Here are some snorkeling tips from our experiences:

snorkeling tips for beginners
Photo by Bora Bora Photo Lagoon

1. It’s okay to totally freak out the first time.

It’s okay. I did too. Those fish swimming around you aren’t minnows, some might be closer to the size of cats. And what is that thing down there?! With the…..things? It’s not our world. My first time was at Hanauama Bay on Oahu back in 2001. I’d just moved to Oahu, rented my snorkel mask and fins from “Snorkel Bob” on the beach, waded  into the water and stuck my face in. A giant  parrot fish swam right by my nose and I freaked out and ran back to the beach. I calmed down for a few, gazed out at the sea of snorkelers splashing around in the bay, and went back out there. After an hour, I had decided that snorkeling was my favorite thing in the world. My roommate that year had the same reaction. She was from Missouri, and I took her back to Hanauma Bay a couple weeks later and she panicked. It took her longer to get back in the water, but she did, and she didn’t regret it.

snorkeling tips for beginners
Me, age 20. Snorkeling in Hawaii 2001
snorkeling tips for beginners
Taha’a coral gardens, French Polynesia 2010

 2. Get the “dry” masks.

If you have a choice, spend the extra money on a dry or semi-dry snorkel. A standard traditional snorkel has an open ended tube, which means that if a wave crashes over your tube or you dive down below the surface, you have to blow a big mouthful of sea water out the snorkel.

Traditional snorkel with open top
Traditional snorkel with open top

After many snorkel experiences with these tubes (if you’re traveling and going on a snorkel tour or renting them, most of the time that is what you’ll get) we were sick of mouthfuls of seawater. So we invested in our own snorkel gear including semi-dry snorkel masks.

Dry and semi-dry snorkel masks aren’t exactly completely “dry,” as you have to be able to breathe, but they have a covered top with air vents that prevent large amounts of water from going down the tube. Trust us, it’s way better.

semi-dry-snorkel
semi-dry-snorkel

3. It’s impossible to walk in flippers.

If you’re venturing out into the water from the beach, wait to get into the water to put your flippers on if you can. They turn you into a fish, and moving about on land becomes really awkward.

snorkeling tips for beginners
My friend Keith at Hanauama Bay, 2002

4. To keep water out of your mask, make sure no hair is under the mask.

My biggest pet peeve while snorkeling is water in my goggles. Leaks tend to happen, as the human face has all kinds of curves and muscles causing it to move. You can keep this down to a minimum though by making sure all your hair is out from under the goggle edge, which compromises the seal. Another snorkeling tip for a tight mask–once you have all your hair out of the way and the mask on tight, take a breath through your nose to suction the mask further onto your face.

snorkeling tips for beginners
Snorkeling in Bora Bora, photo by Bora Bora Photo Lagoon
Snorkeling in Bora Bora

5. To keep your mask from fogging, spit in it.

We don’t know why it works, it just does. Spit in the lenses, rub it round, rinse, and you’re good to go.

6. If you don’t see any coral, you’re not going to see any fish.

Fish eat coral, and plants and organisms that live on coral. If you are attempting to snorkel at a beautful sandy beach with no coral in the water, you won’t see much.

Snorkeling tips for beginners
Taha’a coral gardens, French Polynesia 2010
snorkeling tips for beginners
Snorkeling in Costa Rica, 2008

7. Don’t stand on the coral.

Coral is fragile, and it grows at a slow rate of 5 to 25 millimeters per year. If coral is broken or damaged, it takes a very long time to regenerate. There are also organisms living on the coral that are an important food source for fish and other animals. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid in shallow areas, but do your best not to touch or stand on coral. Some coral can also be very sharp, and will cause cuts and scratches if you bump up against it.

Brain coral in Costa Rica, 2008
Brain coral in Costa Rica, 2008
Costa Rica 2008
Costa Rica 2008
snorkeling tips for beginners
Bora Bora, 2010. Photo by Bora Bora Photo Lagoon

8. Don’t touch anything or pick anything up

Don’t displace something from it’s home. You don’t want to harm anything, and you don’t want anything to harm you. There are many dangerous creatures in the ocean, and if left to themselves, they generally won’t hurt you. Spiny sea urchins, lion fish, stone fish, etc all have powerful and painful stingers. Don’t let that scare you though, you’ll be fine if you keep your hands and feet to yourself. If you have a tour guide, he or she may show something to you, but they are knowledgeable of the area and it’s creatures. Most (hopefully most) snorkel guides have respect for the ocean and it’s inhabitants, and know what they shouldn’t touch.

snorkeling tips for beginners
Our guide in Costa Rica with a hermit crab

9. Snorkeling is better in deeper water.

The best snorkeling experiences we have both had were boat tours where we were in deeper water, about 6-10 ft or so. This keeps you further away from the coral and the animals, so you don’t have to worry about stepping on anything or being knocked into the coral by a big wave. You are a bit further away from everything, but it’s a nice peacful view of the busy coral garden below.

snorkeling tips for beginners
Thailand 2014
Snorkeling tips for beginners
Snorkeling with reef sharks in Bora Bora 2010
snorkeling tips for beginners
Costa Rica snorkel tour 2008

10. Disposable underwater cameras are worthless.

Back in the day, disposable 35mm film cameras were your only option of taking a photo underwater. Unfortunately, like every disposable film camera, they take terrible photos. They also create lots of waste and are not the best for the environment. These days, technology keeps advancing and now you can buy a relatively inexpensive waterproof digital camera. I have a Kodak Easyshare Sport camera that cost around $60 and takes pretty decent underwater photos. Previously, I had a waterproof camera pouch that I could seal my regular camera up in and use the controls through the clear vinyl. It worked great for several years…until it didn’t. Fortunately it was an old camera that got ruined while snorkeling in the Dominican Republic. I like having a camera that is made to be waterproof a lot better, it keeps the mind at ease and it’s easier to use.

Bad disposable camera photo, Hawaii 2007
Bad disposable camera photo, Hawaii 2007
snorkeling tips for beginners
The only somewhat clear photo we took with a disposable camera in Hawaii

11. If you run into trouble, stay calm

The three scariest things that can happen while snorkeling are being caught in a current, being stung by a jellyfish, and finding yourself in the company of a large shark. None of these have happened to me (knock on wood) but here are some snorkeling tips for if they do:

Of the three, seeing a large shark is the least common. Big sharks prefer deeper water and don’t tend to make it into coral reefs very often. You might see some smaller reef sharks, but they are generally harmless as long as you don’t provoke them. Don’t swim with an open cut or wear shiny bathing suits or flashy jewelry while snorkeling. If you do see a big shark, it will most likely not be interested in you unless you call attention to yourself. Don’t splash, scream, or freak out. Calmly swim back to the boat or beach from whence you came. Avoid snorkeling at dawn or dusk, or when the water is murky. Sharks rarely attack humans, and of the rare attacks that do happen, most are to surfers. It’s usually a case of mistaken identity, as their boards make them look like seals from below.

Getting caught in a current is probably the most common scary situation. If you find yourself caught in a strong current pulling you out to sea, do not try to swim straight back towards the beach. Swim diagonally towards the shore, which will keep you from fighting the current directly. Flippers help you swim faster as well.

Jellyfish happen, unfortunately. If you see one, there are most likely going to be more. If they are on the beach, they are definitely in the water. I will say that I have only seen a jellyfish while snorkeling once in all my snorkels. It was in Thailand, and about the size of a trash can lid. I quickly went the other direction and saw another one. Not wanting to chance it, we cut our snorkel trip short. It was a bummer, because the bay we were in was a great snorkel spot.

The good news is that some species are predictable with the moon patterns. Hawaii has a jellyfish calendar you can check out, and often there will be signs on the beach if they are bad. They typically come to the south shores of the Hawaiian islands eight days after the full moon, and are around for three days. Portuguese Man-O-Wars, however, have no schedule.

If you get stung, pull off any tentacle pieces stuck to the skin. Some say to use vinegar, some say to pee on it, and some say that soap and water are best. I’ve never been stung (knock on wood), so I can’t speak from experience which is best. If your beach has a lifeguard, he or she will usually have something for jellyfish.

12. Your waterproof sunscreen will cease to be waterproof.

No matter how high an SPF or how waterproof your sunscreen claims to be, it will eventually wash off in water. I’ve come back from many snorkel trips with a painful sunburn on my back, even with my SPF 50 Coppertone Waterbabies sunscreen. A great way to avoid this is to wear a rash guard while snorkeling. A rash guard is a water shirt that surfers often use for sun protection and to prevent a rash from their surfboards. Paddy never snorkels without one.

Giant clam, Taha'a coral gardens, French Polynesia
Giant clam, Taha’a coral gardens, French Polynesia
Sting rays in Bora Bora 2010
Sting rays in Bora Bora 2010
snorkeling tips for beginners
Photo by Bora Bora Photo Lagoon

Snorkeling is an amazing experience, and one of my favorite things to do. I’m a bit of a marine biology nerd, and I find all the creatures in the ocean very fascinating. Don’t be afraid, just get out there and get in the water. Hopefully our snorkeling tips will help you have a good experience.

 

 

Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico 2009: Isla Mujeres, Tulum, and Chichen Itza

Our trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico in 2009: Snorkeling and sunbathing on Isla Mujeres, Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza, and remote beaches in Tulum

In 2009 we were on a tight budget but were craving a tropical beach vacation. We had also never been to Mexico (other than Paddy’s quick visit to Tijuana back in 1989). So we chose the Yucatan Peninsula during the low season in September.

Going in the low season definitely had it’s pros and cons. The pros were the low prices and lack of crowds. The biggest con was the sweltering humidity that ended up giving Paddy a heat rash towards the end of our trip. I wouldn’t go back in September again, but it was still one of our favorite trips.

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 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 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.

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
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
Isla Mujeres snorkeling
Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres snorkeling
Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres snorkeling
Isla Mujeres

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
Isla Mujeres snorkeling
Isla Mujeres

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
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
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres Cemetery
Isla Mujeres 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, Isla Mujeres

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

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

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
Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

On the way back to our hotel that afternoon we ran into the snorkel tour guy from the day before. He asked us what we were doing tomorrow and we told him that we were headed to Tulum. He asked us how we were getting there and we told him that we were planning on catching a bus in Cancun. He said there was a resort just outside of Playa del Carmen that pays him a commission to send tourists there to check it out. We asked if it was a timeshare deal and were told that it wasn’t. He said that in exchange for visiting the resort and hearing their sales pitch, he could get us a free personal shuttle to Tulum. After some deliberation we agreed. He gave us another voucher and told us his associate would pick us up at the ferry terminal in Cancun.

After we got back into our hotel room, I decided to re-cap the situation. We were going to meet a dude in an unmarked van at the ferry, who was to take us to some resort just to “check it out,” and then drive us to Tulum. I became convinced that we would be mugged and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Paddy didn’t think so. He said he had a good feeling and that the snorkel guy was trustworthy.

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

Isla Mujeres restaurants
Isla Mujeres

 

Day 4:

The next morning my apprehensions remained and I wrapped a credit card, my driver’s license, and a few pesos in a piece of a plastic bag and attached it to the top inside of my underwear band with the hotel sewing kit. That way I might still have something if my paranoia ended up being legit.

We met our dude in a white unmarked van who seemed to speak little to no English. My high school Spanish gets us around okay, but doesn’t do so well making conversation. So we drove for an hour in silence.

Finally we arrived at an immaculate mega-resort, and were “checked in” by a small kiosk in the parking lot that told us they would store our bags. We kept our small backpacks with our valuables with us and our driver left. Soon we met a very smooth talking man who took us to the breakfast buffet, and showed us around the resort and some of the empty “show rooms.” We politely shined him on and asked questions as if we were interested. After an hour the tour was over and we were led to a large room with tables full of salesmen and tourist couples. Yep, a timeshare trap. Well, at least it wasn’t being mugged and left out in the jungle.

We shined him on some more and let him know we were budget travelers and don’t take luxury vacations. He acted like he understood, then told us that he would get us set up to head out soon, he just had to have his manager come talk to us first. He left, and another guy showed up. This guy started getting really aggressive with the sales pitch. We stopped being polite and told him we were not interested and wanted to leave. He kept pursuing, telling us he could put the $3,000 down payment he was requesting on multiple credit cards for us if we wanted. We got irritated and he told us he would get us on our way. Then he took us to another table with another guy. The sales pitch went on. Finally I got really snippy with him and we were sent to get a voucher for our shuttle to Tulum. On the way out we shared a shuttle with a honeymooning couple who got suckered into the same deal. They were staying at a nearby resort and were promised a fifth of Cuervo for listening to the timeshare pitch. They were dropped off at their resort with their bottle of Cuervo, and then we continued another hour down the Yucatan Peninsula coast to Tulum. A waste of a day, but we didn’t have anything else planned anyway, and we got a free shuttle. We won’t be doing that again though.

We arrived in Tulum in late afternoon. Our beach bungalow at Tierras del Sol was far from the town at the end of a long road and our shuttle driver seemed lost. Fortunately my map showing our accommodation and my limited Spanish got us there. Once we arrived, the days’ trials and annoyances were forgotten. The beach was the most beautiful beach we’d ever seen, and our bungalow was perfect.

Boca Paila beach road, Tulum
Beach road, Tulum
Tulum beach
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum

 

Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum
Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum

I would love to tell you the website for Tierras del Sol, but unfortunately it appears to be closed. There are a lot of beach bungalows and accommodations on the Boca Paila coastal road in Tulum, however and the beach is the same gorgeous beach. Consult Tripadvisor for reviews on other accommodations on the beach.

We were hungry and thirsty, and town was a long way away so we thought we’d head up the road a ways to see what there was. We found a tiny little panini shop that appeared to be closed. Just when we were about to leave, a younger European guy came out and offered to make us a sandwich. There wasn’t a  menu, so we told him what we liked and he made us some paninis and gave us some ice cold Mexican beers with limes and a little saucer of kosher salt. He instructed us to rim the can with the lime and squeeze the juice in, and then sprinkle the salt on top, Mexican style. Whenever I think about the best beer I’ve ever had, none of the top-notch Northwest micro brews come to mind (and I do like me a good micro brew). It was this one, on a sweltering humid day in Tulum on the side of a dirt road, a cheap Mexican beer with a little lime and salt after a long day’s journey and obnoxious time-share pitches. I drink beer like that at home every summer now.

Boca Paila beach road Tulum
Tulum

We went back to the bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon/early evening at the beach. The sand was powder soft, just like at Isla Mujeres and there were no coral or rocks in the water at all. It was amazing. The best part though, was that we were the only people there.

Tulum beach sunset
Tulum
Tulum beach sunset
Tulum
Tulum beach sunset swim
Tulum
Tulum beach sunset
Tulum
Tulum beach sunset
Tulum

Mexcio--Tulum

Tulum beach sunset walk
Tulum

The electricity was off in our bungalow between 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM, which is common for Tulum. Soon the sun went down and the lights came on, and we headed up to the little restaurant for dinner. Our host was from Argentina, and he was the cook and the server. There was no menu, he just told us what meat and fish he had got fresh that day and we told him what we wanted. We were brought three different lightly dressed salads, one with radishes, one with corn and peppers, and one with just lettuce which we dished up family-style. The main entrees were Argentinian BBQ vegetables and meat or fish, and all of it was outstanding. Beer, wine, and margaritas were available as well. A small surprise dessert was served at the end. The price ended up being very reasonable and we were told just to pay the night before we left.

Mexico 163
Tulum
Tulum beach restaurant
Tulum
Tulum beach restaurant
Tulum
Tulum beach restaurant
Tulum
Tulum beach restaurant
Tulum
Tulum beach restaurant
Tulum

 

Day 5:

The next morning we wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum, so we got up early, had breakfast in the restaurant and asked our host to call us a taxi.

**Tip: Taxis aren’t metered, it is best to ask the price of the taxi (and your hotel host what price to expect) before you get in. Also, make sure to have plenty of small bills. Taxi drivers will often tell you they have no change, whether it’s true or not.

We arrived at the ruins around 10:00 and started a self-tour. The ruins were very interesting, but there was very little shade and even with Paddy’s hat and my sun parasol, we quickly began roasting in the hot sun. I literally had sweat pouring out of every pore in my face at a constant drip. There wasn’t any point in even wiping it off, it was just going to keep pouring out of my face non-stop.

Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins
Mexico 132
Tulum Ruins

The Tulum Ruins are definitely worth a visit. If we go back when it’s not so hot I’d like to spend more time there. The view of El Castillo on the cliff over the most brilliant blue water and white sand beach you will ever see was pretty amazing. When I planned this trip, I had thought we might go down to the beach below and spend some time, but as we were already sweltering, the thought of climbing back all the stairs in the midday sun was not very enticing. Especially when we had such a great beach back at Tierras del Sol. So we grabbed some water at the gift shop and went into town.

Tulum ruins beach
Tulum Ruins
Tulum ruins beach
Tulum Ruins

The town of Tulum is very nice, and if you choose to eat at restaurants there the prices are very cheap compared to the beach hotel restaurants. We walked around and looked at the shops and bought a couple tiny bottles of Aja Toro tequila for later that evening.

Still roasting to death, we headed to the main grocery store Super San Francisco to pick up some beverages and snacks to take back to our bungalow. The one large inconvenience of Tierras del Sol with it being so far from town was that there were no coolers in the room and no ice provided. (Drinking water was available to re-fill water bottles with for free in the restaurant area though). It was understandable that with no electricity during the day, a mini fridge was not a viable option to put in the bungalows. However, a cooler and some ice would have been awesome. (I believe the restaurant kitchen may have had a generator during the day).

Luckily, we found a styrofoam cooler and ice at the grocery store, and loaded up water, beers, and some bread, meat, and cheese for the morning as we had plans to get up at 5:00 am before the restaurant was open. The Super San Francisco is the local taxi dispatch as well, so walking out the door and right into one of many waiting taxis to take us and our cooler back to our bungalow was no problem.

We got back to our bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. Unfortunately, Paddy began to develop some small itchy bumps all over his chest that day, which we eventually realized was heat rash. We managed to enjoy the beach anyway, keeping up with our vampire routine of moving our beach loungers along with the shade of the palapa umbrella.

Tulum beach
Tulum
Tulum beach
Tulum
Tulum beach
Tulum
Tulum beach
Tulum
Tulum beach
Tulum

That evening we ate another amazing Argentinian BBQ of fresh fish and pork cooked by our host, and got to bed early.

 

Day 6:

One of our number one priorities while visiting the Yucatan Peninsula was seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but I could only find tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. After much internet searching, I found Wayak Bus, a company offering shuttles and small bus transport all over southern Mexico for a low price. They market mostly to the younger backpacking, hostel-staying set. I booked a shuttle with them to pick us up at our bungalow in Tulum and take us the three hours to Chichen Itza, and then another shuttle to take us back later in the afternoon. I was a bit nervous as the site said no refunds or cancellations, but it seemed to be the best option. Total cost: $100 round trip for both of us, which for such a long trip was a great price. Full day tours on a bus packed with other tourists would have cost much more.

The gods must have been smiling on us for Chichen Itza, because it ended up being a perfect day. The shuttle that came to pick us up was a very nice Mexican couple that didn’t speak much English, but were more than happy to make conversation with the limited Spanish I knew. We were the only people on the shuttle, which was a small air conditioned van.

We showed up at Chichen Itza at 9:00 AM right when it opened. We tipped our drivers and they confirmed to meet the next Wayak shuttle in the parking lot at 3:00 PM. When we walked away from our shuttle, however, they didn’t go anywhere. We wondered if they had other people to meet at the same location, but there was no one around. We headed into the ruins and we had almost the entire ruins to ourselves. It was hot, but not unbearable yet. It was amazing.

El Castillo Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

How many other people have a photo of the Kukulkan Pyramid with no one in it?

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza yucatan peninsula
Chichen Itza

Mexico--Chichen Itza (2)

At 11:30, we had seen all but one small part of the ruins, and only a few other people were in the ruins with us. We were getting hot and hungry, so we headed back to the main entrance area to get some lunch in the restaurant.

As we approached the main entrance, we were met by a gigantic crowd of people all entering at once. The tour buses had arrived. And now it was busy. We went into the air conditioned restaurant that had no one in it and had a quiet lunch by ourselves. When we came out, we stepped into sweltering humidity and massive crowds. We looked at the last part of the ruins, bought a couple souvenirs (the best prices on brightly painted ceramic sugar skulls and other mass-produced trinkets was actually here, of all places) and wondered what to do with two and a half more hours to kill in the heat. Paddy had a suspicion that our shuttle drivers were waiting the whole time in the parking lot and were the same ones who were taking us home. We decided to check.

We found our drivers relocated to a shady parking space, sitting and talking to another tour bus driver and fanning themselves in the heat. They had sat out there in that hot parking lot for who knows how long (maybe they left and went into a nearby town for awhile?) waiting for us for the last 4 hours. And they were planning on waiting two more. We couldn’t believe that they had been there all day just for us, and you can imagine their delight that we were ready to leave early.

On the way back, they pulled over in the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid so that we could take a quick photo of the Catedral de San Gervasio, which was very nice of them.

Catedral de San Gervasio, Valladolid
Catedral de San Gervasio, Valladolid

We learned that our drivers actually lived in Cancun, and had been up around 3:00 AM to drive two hours to Tulum to pick us up and would be driving two hours back after they dropped us off. We were glad we left early so they could get home–what a long day! We made sure to tip them well for all their trouble.

That evening, we decided to head down the road and see what other restaurants there were at the other nearby beach hotels. We walked down a ways and decided to try La Zebra. The place was packed with a wedding party but we were able to squeeze in near the bar. It was a beautiful property, but the food was way overpriced and pretentious. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember a tiny expensive side of guacamole with one chip standing artfully in the center of it like a sail on a boat. Seriously….ONE chip.

 

Day 7:

The next day was our last so we thought we’d try to see a little of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere next door. As we were on foot and it was hot, we didn’t really have any major objectives other than to check out the cenote near the entrance. Cenotes are large sinkholes that are the surface connection to large underwater lakes and are found all over the Yucatan. Many companies offer tours of swimming and snorkeling in the cenotes.

We signed in and paid a very small fee at the park station, then located the short trail to the small cenote.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Cenote
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Cenote
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Cenote
Trail to the cenote
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Cenote
Swimming in the cenote

We could see clear to the bottom, and it was very deep. The water was colder than the ocean, which was really refreshing. We didn’t stay long though. Maybe it was because we were there alone, but it was kind of….creepy. I think a larger cenote with people around on a snorkel tour would be a little bit more comfortable.

Mexico--Cenote

After that we had lunch at Casa Banana down the road and it was excellent. Very reasonable prices and great food.

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beach. As usual, there was only one other couple on the beach with us at any one given time. It was truly amazing to have such a big beautiful beach all to ourselves.

Mexico 238
Tulum

The last night we just decided to eat some fresh Argentinian BBQ again from our host. It was always excellent, and the price was right. We sat on the beach in the warm wind and watched the waves in the starlight, then fell asleep listening to our chirping gecko friends running around our bungalow.

Mexico 245
Tulum
gecko Tulum beach bungalow
Tulum

 

The next morning our Best Day shuttle showed up on time and drove us back to the Cancun airport. It was an amazing trip and we can’t wait to go back and see more of the Yucatan, hopefully when it’s not so hot. Paddy’s heat rash had worsened, and by then he was ready to go back home. We’ve been to a few tropical locations since this trip and his rash never re-appeared, giving real testimony to how hot and humid the Yucatan is in September. I wouldn’t recommend that time of year unless you can really handle heat and humidity.

 

On our list for a second Yucatan Peninsula trip in the future: Isla Holbox, snorkeling with whale sharks, Celestun, more Mayan ruins, and exploring bigger cenotes. Stay tuned…