The Airport Gauntlet

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 24, 2021

We should know better… Really we should. After an uneventful yet tiring 5 hour flight from LAX to Cancun we just wanted to gather up our belongings and find our booked driver to Playa del Carmen.

Entering the shuttle’s meeting area required maneuvering through what we affectionately refer to as “The Gauntlet”. This treacherous section is basically hall full of time share bandits disguised as transport services. Or maybe…. it’s alternate transport people trying to steal you away from your scheduled shuttle. Or perhaps they’re tour companies hitting you up for excursions??? Don’t know! Don’t care! But we did allow ourselves to be briefly hustled before coming to our senses.

(Google photo image pre COVID-19)

Our transport was scheduled directly through the hotel. Instructions were easy and said to look for the employees uniformed in yellow and blue. Easy except that seemed to be “the” color for most of the transport companies!

We finally found our “guy” who wasn’t holding a plaque with our name, but instead on a long list with other weary travelers. But hey, we made it through the gauntlet with our wallets intact and soon would be wisked away to Playa del Carmen. Life is good!

No Shuttle Required

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 24, 2021

Where to stay? Hmmmm?? With our planned escape to Mexico’s Xcaret park, the decision to stay at the Occidental Xcaret was an easy one with the park located literally next door …….. So no shuttle required.

As for the resorts rate we got an all inclusive deal of $169 a night, which was per room and not per person, that fit nicely into our traveler’s budget. We also got a discounted airfare of $300 from LAX to Cancun which made us feel like we’d won the lottery!

Since we planned multiple park visits it was nice that it took only 5 minutes to walk from the hotel lobby to the park’s ticket booth.

The ticket booth was also where we would get our wrist bands scanned and sign the “WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE IF YOU DIE” waiver.

As far as the Occidental Xcaret’s property goes, it’s located on a large chunk of land that encompasses several Mayan ruins with numerous paths and trails.

With lots to explore here Allan definitely came in handy as my “Human GPS” because I get hopelessly lost.

Being directionally challenged aside, it was fun roaming the resort and discovering all sorts of “mutant like” jungle critters that we couldn’t identify in addition to the domesticated deers, monkeys and innumerable iguanas the size of our cat.

Also throughout the property we saw multiple open air buildings housing the guest rooms and time shares. We stayed in building 19 which included its own concierge personnel who were very helpful in giving us directions and restaurant suggestions.

Our two favorite Concierge Hombre’s we referred to as “The Jeff’s” aka Pavel and Geoffrey, because each morning we would pop downstairs and say “Hey Jeff” not knowing which guy we were talking to. Ok so to our defense these guys really did look the same from behind…. and then throw in the mask. “The Jeff’s” were pretty cool though and didn’t seem to mind our lack of facial recognition and laughed at the joke.

On the resort there are 11 different restaurants which includes the snack bars. The food was good but not great with the exception of the seafood restaurant El Pescador, so needless to say this wasn’t our foodies paradise. It was a bit challenging too because the restaurant’s weren’t opened on the same days, making that concierge information even more useful.

Due to the COVID-19 restricted occupancy the resort wasn’t crowded making it easy to spread out when visiting the restaurants, swimming pools and lagoon.

My only complaint was the checking in process which may have been complicated by not purchasing the UXX (Unlimited Xcaret Experience) beforehand due to a glitch in the hotels booking system.

The UXX pass is a must which allowed us unlimited access to the Xcaret park. Unfortunately instead of paying $199 a piece the price had now increased to $250 at check in. So when I slapped down that $500 for our passes I felt a tad cheated and Allan’s face may have turned a bit green.

Stupid Gringos

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 25, 2021

Like stupid gringos we didn’t pack or even carry a water bottle and hiked to Xcaret. We walked along the man made river and 10 minutes later we were in the park. We walked around getting the lay of the jungle after reviewing the map at least a dozen times.

The walk ways cut through the jungle so you can’t see the area without a drone and we didn’t have that, or water. We could buy water you say? We would need money for that and well we were traveling light and idiotic. The humidity and the heat added to it but we walked around, did a river boat trip, saw some mariachis, a horse show and got our steps in. The Apple Watch said we walked 6 miles on this day including our morning walk about and swim (ocean and pool).

We got back at the magic hour of 5:00 where the restaurants opened at 6:00 requiring a dress code. We hydrated got suited and booted before heading back to La Hacienda restaurant which we were looking forward to. Of course La Hacienda was closed on this night so we hit the buffet where it was Caribbean night and had two servings of wonderful jerk chicken. A dessert knocked us out for the night.

Parque Xcaret

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 25, 2021

What is Xcaret Park? It’s a man made enhanced ecological park incorporating natural features of the land such as underground rivers. The park is dedicated to the preservation of the natural habitat and also a nature preserve of sorts for the rescue of wildlife and native plant species. Or, it’s Disney’s Jungle Cruise on steroids.

Originally the land was a 12 acre parcel of land owned by Miguel Quintana Pali for his personal residence. While clearing his property the owner, who was an architect by trade, discovered remnants of Mayan ruins along with underground rivers and lagoons. After contacting the INAH (Federal Institute of History and Anthropology) the land was found to be situated above an ancient Mayan city. Sr. Pali then decided the area would be better suited for public use and envisioned a venture creating an ecological park with a historical and cultural center.

Construction on Parque Xcaret began in 1984 and opened to the public in December 1990. The park now encompasses approximately 200 acres and is the first in a series of 6 parks between Cancun and Tulum in Quintana Roo.

We had planned on visiting 3 of these different parks on our stay in Playa del Carmen, but instead spent our entire time exploring Xcaret Park.

There are maps and colored pathways throughout the park which I found confusing at first.

The best way to visit the park is to choose the activities or things you want to see and then stay on the colored pathway that best corresponds to your choice.

For example, if you want to visit the aquarium stay on the blue line. If you want to see the aviary stay on the white. Swimming activities your thing?…. stay on the black line and so forth. Remember the park is huge and if you start crisscrossing you’ll end up chasing your tail!

In the beginning we didn’t have a game plan and only had a vague idea of what to do or see. With each visit we had new discoveries and as the days progressed we got this park down and came to appreciate what a jewel in the jungle this place is.

A Mexican Extravaganza!

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 26, 2021

The big show at Xcaret is in a huge enclosed arena that we walked by every day to and from the hotel. It has an open air design allowing the breeze to come in like a giant beach palapa, sort of, maybe a photo will help. So after a couple days of walking by we timed one of our adventures to end with the start of the show. The Browns got there about an hour early and found great seat right on “the fifty yard line” with our back up against a walkway and the row in front of us blocked off for social distancing. I had plenty of leg room and oh look… we were right next to a small side stage where the band played.

Before the big show, (for you Boomers The Really Big Show), there were some performers banging on glass bottles. Let me explain: two people playing glass bottles of different colors and sizes hanging from a rack tuned like a xylophone. One would play the higher notes and one the lower notes, and with their back to one end of the area there was another pair playing a duplicate bottle rack.

The two pairs of performers were churning out playful Mexican tunes while the audience was being seated. What my drummer brain noticed was that both groups were totally “N Sync” (a Millennial reference), this is extremely hard to do and note for note no less. It was though you were hearing one instrument being played.

Who cares? Read on about the freaking precision of the show.

This was a 90 minute show and was one of the more professional shows I’ve seen with real talent and without the glitz and show biz of a Las Vegas act.

The band appeared next to us wearing their sumo wrestler Mayan thongs and started banging drums. I was digging the primal rhythms and grooves. My drum brain, or dumb brain, noticed that the patterns were in 6/8 time, or two 3/4 times stuck together, or to dumb it down think of a polka or waltz rhythms- boom dada boom dada as the underlying groove.

Did I lose anyone yet? This factoid comes into play later.

So, the band of drummers started their primal Indian jungle grooving and nets started to arise from the floor on the side and ends of the arena. What? On the fifty yard lines faux stone rings appeared about 8 feet in height with a 2 foot hole. Ah! Remember all those scratchy black and white photos in your history text books of the Aztec and Mayan ball courts well that was about to begin as the players took the court.

What I didn’t know was that no hands and no feet are used to volley what appears to be a rubber dodge ball back and forth within the teams. The players would slide on their knees to knock the ball into play to get it bouncing higher and higher subsequently bouncing the ball off their chest and stomach to get the ball through the stone hoop.

Each team would get 6 tries to score and many of those shots came really close drawing groans from the crowd. The teams exchanged turns about 4-5 times each without a score…and then they were then all decapitated. No, sorry history books.

Throughout the show there were musical acts displaying the styles of the different Mexican states throughout history and they were all wearing masks due to the pandemic, many singers wore clear plastic shields and held their microphones underneath.

There were horses, dancers, mariachis and even a flaming lacrosse ball game played for those with short attention spans. All of these acts were tight, well rehearsed showing an appreciable level of professionalism.

My dumb drum OCD brain also noticed that all the songs were in 6/8 time as I drummed along in my head, after over 50 years of drumming I cannot not notice these things. Also there was no prerecorded music or singing, it was all live.

After the show’s climax and big finale the music dimmed and we were ready to leave. But no one was standing up, no one was moving and there was no farewell announcement. After a few minutes we noticed on the big screen that there were was an act performing in the far corner blocked from our view. A tall wooden pole had been erected and four men had now climbed to the top and started to descend on ropes while it was spinning without safety cables in feats of daring-do. Cool!

And then the big ass finale of performers started with the main singer that I’ll refer to as Freddie Mercury Mariachi Man. This dude could really sing and he had that Freddie Mercury strut to go with it.

Well done Xcaret!

Snorkeling Adventure

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 27, 2021

It was 9:30am and warm but not too hot and the palupas around the snorkeling area were empty. We had our pick of the litter so to speak and every spot was good. We quickly settled in and emptied out our packs with all of our stuff.

Well it’s been years since we’ve snorkeled and I’ve been looking forward to checking out this snorkeling lagoon in Xcaret. We were not disappointed!

As a matter of fact, prior to leaving on this swimming adventure Allan purchased some snorkeling gear off Amazon. Although you can rent everything you need near the lagoon, snorkel/ mask/fins, we didn’t want to take any chances on COVID-19 cooties.

There were also plenty of life vests which we understood are mandatory while swimming in the park. But here at this particular watering hole we ditched our vests to allow us more mobility. The life vest was also rubbing in my armpit causing a good deal of discomfort.

Yes there were plenty of colorful fish with the greatest concentration of these marine creatures found snorkeling near the seaweed.

I normally don’t get the Ebee jeebies … but as we snorkeled out further toward the shark netting that separated us from certain near death, we came across 3 Stingrays. Their size was startling as we briefly pondered whether they were nice while admiring their whip like tail. Steve Irwins freak accident came to mind though as we decided it more prudent to swim back to the other side of the lagoon.

Bird Aviary, or Polly wants a Slacker

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 28, 2021

After a nap and recharging our spirits we walked to Xcaret park. This time we headed towards the bird aviary and it was fantastico! Muey buen!

They really put a lot of thought into the layout and design of the park with all the twisty curvy walkways , bridges and tunnels incorporating the historic ruins with the ecological preserve.

Jaguar death trap

The butterfly enclosure was underwhelming but damn the puma and jaguar exhibits were great. Imagine two giant islands separated by a moat and waterfall for these regal beasts. There was a suspension bridge transversing the islands over the waterfalls for some added thrills that had that disconcerting sway and bob. Again, Mexico’s Fk you to lawyers and any lawsuits for accidental yet gruesome deaths.

There are some underground walks that lead to the underground rivers…..

….. and a cemetery (more like a hill with graves on it.) Big Brother Apple Watch said we racked up just under 8 miles on this day. Our feet showed it with bandaids, the blister preventing product Compeed and I lost a toenail, nice.

We had dinner at the Mediterranean restaurant, Los Olivos , having salmon and eggplant parmigiana which were excellent. We promised to take it easy the next day and maybe scale back our plans to go to the Xcaret Xplorer park for zip lining and riding ATVs through the jungle.

Easy does it…..

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 29, 2021

Today was our easy day and we decided to go snorkeling at the hotel’s beach and not do the walk to Xcaret park. We found a couple of lounge chairs in the shade and set up camp. We put on the snorkel gear and snorkeled around the cove for about 30 minutes before relaxing in the shade.

Within minutes the shade from the palm tree shifted leaving Marla out in the intense sun so we shifted over a chair to the left, and then the shade moved again. So rather than having me hold up a palm fond for my dear wife, which I would have gladly done, we moved again up to a another level on the beach and with a partial view of the cove but it had more shade.

I continued reading one of Anthony Bourdain’s first novels before Kitchen Confidential came out and made him a star. The book has some behind the scene kitchen drama mixed with a mob murder. Good fun and good dialogue. Bourdain encouraged people to get out and travel, let it leave a mark on you, embrace teetering on the edge of the unknown and his travel shows were aptly named Parts Unknown and No Reservations.

I recently saw a photo of Bourdain riding a tandem bicycle with one of his best friends and fellow chef, Eric Ripert, while they were filming an episode for his show in France. He looked happy however took his life two days later. He has inspired many, including us, to travel, and eat, with no reservations.

It was lunch time so we headed back to our favorite lunch spot at the hotel a buffet over looking a pool on top of a waterfall that hides a swim up bar.

The waiter knew our drink order of two Diet Pepsi’s and two waters, the place is quiet without the ambient loud bistro noise of the main buffet and most importantly the WiFi is good. This buffet overlooks the adult pool so there the occasional DJ playing house music and organizing exercises or water games, but that is usually earlier in the day.

Underground River

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 30, 2021

We walked to Xcaret park with our eyes on the underground river before the crowds hit. We were there at 9:00, bagged our belongings that get transferred to the end of the river, put on our river shoes, a life vest and jumped in.

The water was cool but we got used to it quickly as we doggy paddled onward. Soon we realized it was best to float on our backs and let the buoyancy of our river shoes float to the top and then do a breaststroke paddle. The river has a slight current to it and has a big fat rope on the right so you can pull yourself along which came in handy to pass the slower and /or annoying people who were narrating their adventure. Put the selfie sticks down and enjoy the moment people.

The river is mostly underground consisting of five sections from 200-300 yards to 600 yards at a stretch. You can bail out after each section if you wanted but would still have to walk to the end to get your bag of belongings.

The underground rivers are dark dimly lit and not for those with claustrophobia or fear of piranha.

It was nice and quiet for the most part this early in the morning but as we were walking back we could see the floating flock of humanity building up.

To our surprise at the end of the river we noticed people emerging from two other tributaries. When we first headed into the cave there were three choices of tunnels to take and we took the middle one but we did not noticed any signs… Mexico.

We highly recommend this adventure, relax, float and go with the flow.

Vamos al Aquario!

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
May 30, 2021

Ok, so Allan doesn’t like going to aquariums…. as duly noted in previous blogs, but I do and drag him along. Of course latter he typically professes “I sure had a good time!” So when I said “Let’s go to the aquarium!” He dutifully bowed his head in resignation.

With the heat and humidity it was refreshing to explore the Coral Reef Aquarium that we had missed on our previous visits.

After a short trek along the blue line we descended past doors into a cool and quiet exhibition room. Then as we listened to the sounds of soft music we found ourselves decompressing while being immersed in this aquatic world of jellyfish and coral. Ahhhhh…

Ok so this lasted about 2 minutes before a really really REALLY loud family of 6 or so entered our nirvana. Or to be more exact, it was like reverberating noises of screeching parrots! Should we let them pass? Should we speed pass them? There was no getting away. Should we say something? Silencio! Wow I’m thinking maybe Allan and I have become that “cranky old couple”? Of course our own children were perfect….

We finally parted ways with this noisy ménage as we headed down to the shark tank and where Allan snapped pictures of a sign reading “Sharks, a hands on adventure”. We’ll take a rain check on this one.

Next our trek led us to the stingray tank before the blue line took us through the gift shop and onward toward the tortugas. Unfortunately there was a construction zone that ended this line and we were curious about the next planned exhibit. All and all this aquarium is pretty great.

Before leaving the park we dropped by the Pueblo museum. It’s basically a traditional Pueblo where you can explore rooms filled with cool Mexican folk art. Again, I’m glad we didn’t miss this.