A Travellerspoint blog


10 years ago we visited Cancun and Playa del Carmen on Mexico's Mayan riviera for Shelly's birthday. Some months earlier Hurricane Wilma had come through and destroyed many of the hotels. More than half the resorts had been boarded up and were derelict.
The intervening decade has seen so much development we found it difficult to identify places we'd seen last time. We stayed at the Krystal Cancun resort at the top of the peninsula. It was an older resort but the room was huge, the pool big and the cocktails plentiful.

The restaurant and bar scene is dominated by US brand names but we found a little taco shop called Camerino a Tacos where we had the very best tacos we've ever eaten. Warning - avoid the habanero chilli sauce - it was so hot our mouths were burning for hours.
Last time we'd booked a 3 day Cuban trip from a travel agent booth on the strip and hoped to do the same again, but they were only selling the same xaret resort day trips (the Mexican Disneyland). We decided to to an excursion to the cenotes (caves) near playa de Carmen. We had no sooner paid our money, when we got a call that we couldn't be fitted on the tour the next day. As we were moving on the following day we asked for a refund and then the acrobatics started.
Next morning we received an early morning call advising we could be squeezed in - be ready in an hour. We were awake now so we decided to go. Two hours later we were still waiting. Calls to the agent weren't returned and visits to the booth always required me to "return when so and so gets back." This dragged on all day but after much harassment we did get our money back later that evening.
Playa De Carmen
Playa de Carmen doesn't quite have the white sand and turquoise water of Cancun, but it is a fairly pleasant beachside town. It's laid back charm of 10 years ago however has been replaced by somewhat aggressive and hassly tourist predation, where every single tout pounces on you to "buy this; exchange money; where you from?; taxi!; looking is for free" all the way down the street. It was relentless. There's more shopping to do here than in Cancun, which is good, but requires a thick skin.
We managed to find a travel agent to book the cenotes tour in playa de Carmen. The tour involved zip-lining, kayaking, snorkelling sand rappelling into 4 cenotes, which are collapsed caves. The entire area of the Yucatan is filled with caves due to the unique geological properties of the region. This was the epicentre of the meteorite strike that hit the earth 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs. The entire landscape was obliterated. The land is consequently very flat and the ground very porous. Rainwater penetrating the ground carves caves, which sometimes collapse to form the cenotes, or as the maya think of them - gateways to the underworld.
The tour was absolutely brilliant, although rappelling and zip-lining were nerve wracking.

After two days in Playa we flew to Havana from Cancun airport.

Posted by paulymx 00:55 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)


Hoe town

After our cruise we intending travelling the Caribbean independently. We'd assumed we'd be able to catch a ferry or local flight to Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas. We were wrong. To our great surprise there were no ferries and no direct flights to any of these destinations. All flights seemed to go via Miami and Fort Lauderdale and then on, basically adding 3-4 hours to what could have been a half hour direct flight. After exhausting all manner of complex and expensive itineraries we gave up and decided to skip straight to Cancun in Mexico - via Miami (Note - Puerto Rico to Cancun flights were extremely cheap).

Seeing as we were forced to fly to Miami we decided to stop off for two nights. Cost of accommodation was very high and there were few vacancies available so we lashed out a bit on the hotel. When we arrived we discovered this was because it was the Memorial Day long weekend (the US equivalent of Anzac Day), which is celebrated in Miami with the 'Urban Festival.'

"Thine eyes have been opened ."

Urban Festival is apparently a rap music and culture festival held in Miami over the Memorial Day long weekend to honour the veterans for their service. Basically it's just a three day debauch for the African-American community.
Like a couple babes in the woods, we set out that night with no idea what we were getting into. On the way to the hotel we'd passed a couple of prostitutes on the street wearing the street walkers uniform of ridiculous high heels and very skimpy bikinis or one-pieces that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Well, this is Miami Beach so no one bats an eyelid. When we reached Miami Beach Drive we saw more of them. In fact the whole street was filled with them. Then we realised, these aren't prostitutes - they were African-American girls here to celebrate the Urban Festival. Everyone was dressed like they'd just come from some rap video with their boobs and booty hanging out for all to see. And they was all like "I got it all goin' on!" with the sunglasses and swagger. And of course, this being the US, a lot of those ladies were... how do I say this..... the size of dump trucks so that swagger was not what you want to see. The girls were all dressed as hoes and guys were all dressed as gangsters with belt-less pants halfway down their thighs and it was like "Yo nigga! Yo bitch!" The aesthetics of the 'urban' community is very different ( but respect my choices! ).
To quote Roy Batty from Blade Runner, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

When we visited Miami 10 years ago we'd stayed on the beach in the fabulous Park Central art-deco hotel so we set out through the sea of wobbling flesh to find it. Sadly the hotel was boarded up. Hopefully it's just under restoration.
We settled into a beachfront bar to watch the freakshow and have something to eat and drink, where we were quickly reminded why we didn't stay long last time. Cocktails are extraordinarily expensive - $40 minimum! Food was also very average. We quickly moved away from the beach to the cheaper back streets. Besides, we looked rather overdressed and out of place amongst the urbanites.
We studiously avoided the Urban Festival the next day as there's only so many times you can say, "did you see that? What the fuck is that?" We found great places to eat the further from the beach that you went.
And then it was back to the airport to pick up our flight to Cancun

Posted by paulymx 06:21 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a relatively large as Caribbean islands go. It was a Spanish colony until 1898 when the US invaded and seized Puerto Rica and Cuba from Spain.
Few people these days realize that the late 19th century were years of economic depression with increasingly rapid cycles of boom and bust. Spain was obviously a declining European empire and US financial interests saw an opportunity to seize Spain's valuable sugar plantations for themselves. To ratchet up the pressure on the Spaniards the US government sent a battleship, the USS Maine, to Havana in Cuba. The Spanish government was shocked and demanded (as politely as they dare) to know why the US felt it necessary to send warships into their ports. The US did not deign to explain its motives.
Shortly after the Maines' arrival the ship exploded in Havana harbor, killing almost all aboard. The probable cause of the disaster was a coal bunker fire igniting a magazine (not an uncommon incident in old warships - and Maine was almost the oldest and most obsolete ship in the US fleet), but newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hurst, conspired with the US president William McKinley and other interested parties to blame Spain. Hurst's papers screamed false stories about Cuban terrorists and Spanish atrocities and mismanagement and called for war with Spain.
Spain on the other hand did everything it could to try and diffuse the crisis. Spain did not want a war and had no chance of winning. But that if course was the point. The US duly declared war and invaded Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The US victory over the Spanish was a walkover, but more US soldiers were to die during the occupation than in battle. Nothing really has changed.
Puerto Rico has retained its Spanish character. The majority of people still speak Spanish as their only language. Puerto Rico is not a state however but remains a vaguely defined protectorate where the people pay taxes but don't have the full rights of citizenship, such as the right to vote in US elections. Politic activists are still lobbying fruitlessly for the extension of democracy to Puerto Rico. This is a particularly sensitive issue given that the Puerto Rico government has recently gone bankrupt. What did those Englishmen in Boston say? "No taxation without representation? (If you're a white man)."
The great Spanish era fortress of Castilo de Felipe del Morro is now a major tourist attraction. Two of the bastions are now cemeteries crammed with elaborate tombs and the park in front of the fortress is filled with picnicking families and kite flying children.
Puerto Rican food is a highlight, especially compared to Cuban food (more on that later) and we are a little too well. It was a warning for our future US leg.

Posted by paulymx 06:03 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

Caribbean cruising


We decided to break up our south and North American legs with a Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean. We met our ship, Radiance of the Seas, in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the sailed for 7 nights visiting San Maarten, Saint Kitts, Antigua, Saint Lucia and Barbados. The ship was excellent, as expected and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. It's very easy to get used to unlimited food, cocktails and service.
The Caribbean islands were different to what I expected. All appeared to be quite impoverished. Transport costs were exorbitant, considering; although all fuel, parts and vehicles have to be imported, which makes them expensive. Tourism is a cash cow for some islands, although clearly the majority of profit ends up in the hands of Royal Caribbean and other international corporate giants.

Here is a summary of the islands:

San Maarten:
one side of the island is Dutch and the other French. It's a very small island and takes about 2 hours to circumnavigate. The French side looked poorer and more run down than the Dutch side (but that was splitting hairs as they were both pretty run down). The main tourist attraction is watch the planes come in to land at Princess Juliana airport , which is right on the beach. You can sit on the beach or at one of the beach bars and watch the planes fly over you. At 12.45 each day a KLM Boeing 747 direct flight from Amsterdam arrives. It's awesome.

There is also a popular nude beach on the French side.

St Kitts
The British and French fought for years over possession of this island due to its harbor. The British eventually held it and built a giant fortress - Fort Rodney - on the highest hill of the island. It's quite impressive. George Washington's father, who was a British sugar planter, is buried here.
The north of island is otherwise fairly dry.

We took a kayaking excursion and went swimming with sting rays. Wild sting rays know that when the boats arrive they'll get a free meal and they flock there in their hundreds. Some are about six feet from tip to tip! It was pretty scary climbing into the water with them but they are relatively harmless - just don't do a Steve Irwin and go grabbing them in a headlock. This was an amazing experience.

St Lucia
We went 'snuba-ing' which is like scuba but the tank is tethered to a raft and not on your back. I saw a sea snake.
We also visited a British fortress and appreciated the view. Antigua looked greener and more prosperous than any of the other islands we visited.

The home of West Indian cricket - which none of the 3200 Americans aboard the ship understood. We visited the cricket hall of fame and two botanical gardens. The gardens were simply stunning and a highlight of the island.
We were stiffed by the taxi driver, who overcharged us for the tour. This was pretty common throughout the islands. Be very very specific with taxi drivers as they will use the slightest variation to an itinerary to demand extra money.

Posted by paulymx 05:47 Archived in Bahamas Comments (0)


Lima doesn't have a great reputation with travelers but I've always rather liked the place. It's big, gritty, dangerous in some areas, but with a pleasant and charming old center.
Lima was the capital of Spanish South America since the 15th century. It's location is rather unusual as its set on a volcanic plateau, well back from the sea and port. It's also at the foot of the Andes and the northern edge of the Atacama desert. It almost never rains and the city is perpetually covered in fine gray volcanic dust. Why the Spanish chose to settle here, I don't know.
We stayed at the Hospedaje Dimar Inn near the Inca market in Miraflores. Miraflores is a flashy, modern suburb north of Lima proper. It's a very pleasant district with good restaurants, bars and nightlife. The room wasn't anything flash but the service provided by the owner, Snr Carlos was outstanding. He spoke no English but explained to us in slow, patient Spanish all the best museums to go to and how to get there. He made our stay very pleasant.
We took the local bus to plaza das Armas - a much longer journey than we thought. The bus was packed to the gunnels and, given the heat and lack of air conditioning, there were cries of mutiny from the passengers whenever the driver pulled over to attempt to pick up more - attempt being the operative word as more often than not no one could get aboard.

Limas plaza das Armas is a suitably grand affair. A broad rectangular park with fountain, surmounted by the presidential palace, cathedral and bishops palace on two sides, all in grey stone to symbolism the unity of church and state; counterposed with a grand promenade of ochre yellow arcaded palaces. With the exception of the cathedral, the buildings here were built in the early 1800s after the city was demolished by an earthquake. Inside the cathedral is the tomb of the conquerer of Peru, Francisco Pizaro. Pizaro was a poor soldier of fortune from Truillo in Spain who came to the Americas to make his fortune and hit the big time. Hearing tales of a rich kingdom south of Panama he recruited and army of mercenaries and marched south through what is now Ecuador until he met the inca emperor, Atahualpa at Cajamarca. The inca really had no idea what to do with the Spaniards, who had been promising to deliver gifts and messages of peace from the Spanish King and were completely unprepared when Pizaro and his Knights sprung an ambush. The Spanish slaughtered thousands of Incas in the square and took Atahualpa prisoner. Atahualpa quickly realized that the Spaniards were insatiably greedy for gold so promised to fill a room 6.5 by 5 by 2.5 meters with gold if they would agree to release him. The amount of gold was so enormous that Pizaro did not really believe it could be fulfilled so he skeptically accepted the offer. He was stunned to find that Atahualpa could indeed deliver on his promise and the room was quickly filled with golden treasure and sculptures. The Spaniards then pulled a fast one and began melting the gold down into ingots, which occupied a much smaller space. Atahualpa realized he was dealing with crooks but continued to fill the room until, finally the room was filled floor to ceiling with gold bars. Pizaro then decided to murder ataualpa, who pleaded for his life and offered to convert to Christianity. Pizaro agreed, but then reneged immediately after Atahualpa baptism. Ataualpa's last wish, that his body be released to his family, but Pizzaro's perfidy knew no limits and had his body burned.
Pizzaro then married Ataualpa's widow and led the conquest of the inca empire. His ruthless deceit was not limited only to the inca. He swindled his own troops, lorded it over his peers and attempted to murder his rivals. He was eventually assassinated by his own troops in 1541. They built a nice tomb for him in the Lima cathedral.
Running along the south side from the corner of the square is a long pedestrian shopping mall (about 6 blocks). At the end of the mall is another large square, surrounded by expensive hotels. We wandered endlessly around the centre looking for a suitably light meal but were thwarted. We settled on a disappointing lunch time menu at a tourist restaurant.
Later that evening we went on a food walking tour. The two other couple who were booked failed to show so it was just us and the guide. We sampled one of Limas specialty street foods - beef heart skewers, with a side serving of tripe (intestines). We were both game to try the beef heart - which tasted awful - but Shelly wanted nothing to do with gizzards - which were also awful. Not a trip highlight.

The next day we ventured around Miraflores. In the center of the district is an enormous archaeological park called Huaca Pucclana. This is the remains of a gigantic mud brick temple pyramid, one of the largest in South America. It doesn't look particularly exciting as its been weathered by the millennia ( mainly wind as it doesn't rain here ) and damaged by development. The site was once private property and the owner wanted to use the artificial hill as a base for apartments. After destroying part of the pyramid the government stepped in and excavations and restoration has been underway. We took the tour which explained the site and walked you across the top of the pyramid. It must have been impressive in its day as the landscape around here is very flat and the bright yellow painted pyramid would have stood out for miles.
To the west is a fancy shopping district overlooking the beach. Miraflores sits on a plateau of volcanic dust and debris which form enormous, crumbling cliffs. Below is the beach and coastal highway. It's a pretty amazing experience taking a cab from the airport to Miraflores with the sea on one side and cliffs on the other. Along the way you pass pedestrian overpasses labeled "Tsunami evacuation route." I don't know when the last tsunami hit here but the Lima authorities take the risk seriously.
But there were no tsunamis today and we whiled away the time with cocktails on the cliffside before we caught a taxi to the airport. We had a boat to catch.

Posted by paulymx 05:32 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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