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Snorkelling at the Yal-Ku Lagoon

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After completing our Open Water scuba certifications, we expected the idea of snorkeling to lose its appeal. Why float on top of the water when you can dive right down into it? But at shallow sites like the Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal, snorkeling is just as good as scuba. Perhaps even better.

Yal-Ku Lagoon

Yal-Ku is a natural lagoon near the sea, not as large or expensive as the much more famous Xel-Ha, but big enough to comfortably occupy half a day. We visited in the afternoon, following an unforgettable experience swimming with Akumal’s sea turtles.

The big advantage snorkeling has over scuba is that you can spend as long as you want in the water. We swam around Yal-Ku for at least 90 minutes, which was easier than it sounds even without a life jacket. The visibility was a little blurry, especially where the fresh water mixed with the salty ocean water, but we saw a ton of fish, including barracudas, trumpet fish and a couple gigantic rainbow parrot fish, who led us on a chase around the lagoon.

Toward the end of our swim, we went through a tunnel in the limestone rock, and ended up in front of a school of thousands of silver fish, moving in perfect unison. Doing my best whale impression, I dove into the center of the school, making them dart away from me with such precisely synchronized movements, it seemed impossible that they weren’t sharing a collective consciousness.

You could spend an entire day at Yal-Ku, even booking a palapa. A stand at the entrance will rent whatever snorkel gear you need, at a reasonable price, so all you have to bring is your swimsuit and towel.

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I used this underwater camera!!!!

Yal-Ku Lagoon
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February 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm Comments (0)

Swimming with Sea Turtles at Akumal

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We were floating on our bellies in the waters of Akumal Bay while, just a couple meters below, giant turtles grazed on sea grass. It was an experience that instantly joined the ranks of my all-time favorites.

Turtles Akumal

We had been skeptical upon arriving in Akumal, a small town just north of Tulum. Yes, our friends and acquaintances had raved about it, but really: a place where you can swim with sea turtles? For free? I’ll believe it when I see it. We expected that Akumal would prove to be just another tourist trap on the over-developed Costa Maya.

At first, our fears seemed to be borne out. Akumal is swarming with foreigners, and to get to the beach you have to fight through an obnoxious lineup of salespeople hawking special tours and experiences. But the beach is free. And despite the crowd, we had no problem finding a relatively quiet area.

We spread out our towels underneath a palm tree. So far, so good. But still, we were distrustful. We’re just going to swim out into the water, and presto there will be sea turtles? Just like that, grazing and unconcerned by our presence? Yeah right! We grabbed our snorkel gear and swam out into the bay, and almost immediately we found sea turtles. Just like that.

So many turtles! And so big! I chose one and swam alongside it for awhile, watching as it ate. Occasionally, it would run out of air and slowly climb to the surface. Such moments which were exhilarating, since it truly didn’t care about my presence, and would come so close I could have easily reached out and touched it.

We stayed in the water for almost two hours. You might think that watching turtles eat grass would quickly get old, but it didn’t. While in the water, we saw some coral formations and families of colorful squid. But the stars of the show were the turtles… such beautiful, peaceful creatures, simply watching them made me content and relaxed. Akumal is a special place in the world. If you’re anywhere near the area, swimming with the turtles is an experience you shouldn’t pass up.

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-Video and photos taken with this Underwater Camera

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February 10, 2014 at 4:13 pm Comments (3)

The Howler Monkeys of Punta Laguna

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Found twenty minutes from Cobá, down a horrific road pockmarked with crater-sized pot holes, we found the natural reserve of Punta Laguna. This protected national park receives few visitors, despite its beauty and the irresistible lure of howler and spider monkeys.

Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna

After pulling into the park entrance, we agreed to a reasonably-priced tour of Punta Laguna. The primary focus of our two-hour walk through the woods would be tracking and finding monkeys. We followed our guide, Julio, into the jungle, tracing his steps through a bewildering network of paths that almost seemed designed to confuse. You can visit Punta Laguna without a guide, but I would caution against this — the jungle quickly becomes disorienting, and it’s unlikely we could have made it back to the starting point on our own.

Before long, we heard a rustling high in the trees overhead. A monkey-like rustling. “There,” whispered Julio. “Howlers.” A big group had appeared directly above us, eating fruits and leaping from one tree to another. Julio recognized the pack; it was a family who had recently welcomed a new addition. We spotted the mother as she was moving down to a lower branch, with her baby, just a week old, clutching on for dear life. She stayed on the lower branch for awhile, giving us a great look at the infant, who had crawled up and around onto her head.

We hiked to the lake which gives Punta Laguna its name, where you can camp and rent canoe boats. Humans rarely reach the jungle on the far side, so this is where the jaguars tend to stay. We visited a cave where a pack of spider monkeys congregates every evening, but it was too early and nobody was home.

So, we didn’t see any spider monkeys, but couldn’t complain much. With the sighting of the baby howler, the excursion had already been an unqualified success. Although it was fun to have the whole place to ourselves, we hope that word about Punta Laguna spreads. The more people who visit this amazing reserve in the middle of the jungle, the better.

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Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
Howler Mokeys Punta Laguna
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February 8, 2014 at 4:10 pm Comments (0)

The Legend of the Makech

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Jürgen and I aren’t the types to spend much time thinking about jewelry. Neither of us owns a single piece, not a ring nor a bracelet, and I very rarely notice the jewelry worn by others. But when the piece in question is a living beetle, it’s a little hard to ignore.

The Yucatan Makech

The Makech is the strangest fashion item we’ve ever seen. These large beetles, found only in the Yucatán Peninsula, have broad shells that can be decorated with gemstones. They feed on sporophores which grow on a specific type of wood endemic to the Yucatán, and can live for up to eight months. Attached to a golden chain, they’re worn as pendants by Maya women and kept as pets.

According to legend, a Maya princess was destined to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but instead fell in love with a noble warrior from her own village. Enraged, her father announced his intention to kill the warrior. The fear-stricken young woman wailed, and pleaded with the king for the life of her beloved. If he were spared, she swore, she would willingly marry the prince as had originally been the plan.

The king listened to his sobbing daughter and consoled her. Her handsome warrior would live. And the promise was kept… in a way. A wizard was called in and, before the eyes of the court, turned the handsome young man into a wretched beetle. Horrified, the princess scooped him into her hands and ran off to her room. She adorned the beetle with the most beautiful jewels she could find and placed him on her breast, so he would always be near her heart.

The Makech is a custom on its way out. Today, it’s exceptionally rare to see women actually wearing one, and finding a store which sells them can be tricky. We asked around Mérida’s Mercado de Artesanias, on Calle 65/58, and eventually tracked down a shop that had a few richly-decorated makeches stumbling around a little cage. I held one briefly. They’re quite large and powerful, and I couldn’t imagine it crawling around my chest all day, even if it were my lost beloved.

Location of the Mercado de Artesanias

Travel Health Insurance For Your Yucatan Trip

The Yucatan Makech
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February 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm Comments (3)

The Pink Water and White Salt of Las Coloradas

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The tiny community of Las Coloradas certainly picked an appropriate name for itself. Found at the end of a bumpy road about 30 kilometers east of Río Lagartos, it is a town defined by its colors.

Las Coloradas Salt Flat

Piles of white salt greet visitors on their way into Las Coloradas. They look just like mighty snowbanks, and it takes awhile to remember that you’re in Southern Mexico, and not Iceland. Since the days of the Maya, this area of the Gulf Coast has been known for its salt production, which remains by far the biggest industry in town.

These hills of salt looked so inviting and soft, we were sorely tempted to climb and perhaps lick them a little, but they were fenced off. Instead, we journeyed farther into town, drawn by the strange pinkish glow emanating from it. The estuary that surrounds Las Coloradas is rich in red plankton, and the water has a deep pink tint.

We didn’t stay long in Las Coloradas. This isn’t a touristy type of town, and besides admiring the strange nature from your car window, there isn’t much to do. But if you’ve got some time to kill, it’s worth the short detour from Río Lagartos.

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Las Coloradas Salt Flat
Las Coloradas Salt Flat
Las Coloradas Salt Flat
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Las Coloradas Salt Flat
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Las Coloradas Salt Flat
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February 1, 2014 at 5:26 pm Comments (2)

Crocs, Snakes and Flamingos at Celestún

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In the southeastern corner of the Yucatán is the Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a natural lagoon home to mangrove forests, flamingos, crocodiles and fearsome snakes.

While booking our tour on the Biosphere’s lagoon, we were the only tourists present. Normally, this is something we’d be pleased about, but not today. “If only some other people would show up,” we wailed. We even waited twenty minutes before buying tickets, just in case. Of course, we weren’t concerned about “sharing the glories of nature” with strangers or anything like that. We just wanted to save a buck. To take a tour at Celestún, you have to rent an entire boat, and it’s the same price whether you’re a group of ten or two. About $120 US.

Alas, nobody came. We cursed and paid up, but at least we’d have a private tour. For two hours, we cruised up and down the lagoon, just ourselves and our guide. Celestún is home to a healthy population of flamingos throughout the year, and we saw plenty of them. They were soaring in from the sky for a graceful landing, running atop the water while preparing for take-off, and wading in the shallows, bobbing for food like the keys of a big, pink piano.

Not far from the flamingos, and surely too close for their comfort, we spotted crocodiles. Well, our guide spotted them. Jürgen and I couldn’t see them until we got very close. A big mother and her son, partially covered by the brush and completely immobile. Shortly thereafter, near the edge of a mangrove formation called “Bird Island”, the guide suddenly stopped the boat and pointed into the bush. It was now that I began to suspect him of being half-eagle. Somehow, from fifty feet away, he had spotted a boa constrictor napping in the tree.

A boa constrictor! It had recently eaten, if its distended stomach was any indication. I’ve never seen such a big snake in the wild, and was mesmerized. Our guide tapped my shoulder and pointed to another boa farther up the tree. And then another a few feet away. I have no idea how he kept spotting them. Later on, while coasting along the river, I nudged Jürgen and whispered, “Watch this.” And then without warning I threw a sardine high up into the air, certain that our half-eagle guide would leap off the boat in pursuit. But he didn’t take the bait.

Midway through the tour, as we were cruising along the river at a rapid clip, we suddenly took a sharp left turn. It looked like we were going to crash into the thick brush, but instead we entered a mangrove tunnel. This was the most picturesque moment of the day, a natural passage through the dense growth, with sunlight filtering through the canopy and pelicans taking a break in the shade.

The long tour finished with a visit to the Ojo del Agua, a natural freshwater spring, and a trip down to the Gulf of Mexico, where we stopped briefly at a petrified forest which had died after the encroachment of salt water. This had been an expensive day out, but was ultimately worth the money. If you’re in a larger group and can split the cost, the boat tour is a no-brainer.

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We Rented A Car From Sixt For This Trip (No Hidden Costs!)

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December 19, 2013 at 6:22 pm Comments (2)

The Volkswagen Beetles Of Cozumel

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The Volkswagen Beetle was discontinued in its native Germany in 1978, but production continued in Mexico for an additional 25 years. And so one of Germany’s most famous automotive designs has become a Mexican icon. The low-cost Beetles were a smash hit here for decades, and you still see a fair share puttering down the roads. Especially, it seems, in Cozumel.

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December 17, 2013 at 12:59 am Comments (3)

Cozumel’s Punta Sur

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The Faro Cerlain Eco Park is the official name of the reserve which extends across the southern point of Cozumel, but most refer to it as the Punta Sur. Here, you’ll find one of the island’s best beaches, a lighthouse offering a tremendous view over the Caribbean, and a natural mangrove lagoon in which crocodiles dwell. We visited toward the end of our week in Cozumel.

The first (and last) thing you’re going to notice about the park is the horrifically pot-holed road which leads in and out. After fifteen minutes of neck-breaking bumps, you’ll find yourself at the Cerlain Lighthouse. Be careful if you decide to climb it… or at least more careful than me. I was jogging up, trying to beat Jürgen to the top, and smashed my head against the ceiling. So despite the bright daylight, the view I enjoyed from the top was full of stars.

After shaking off my concussion, we took a quick look into the small maritime museum on the bottom floor of the lighthouse, and then embarked on a boat ride around the lagoon. Just inland from the coast, a thick mangrove forest is home to a number of interesting birds, including kingfishers and pink spoonbills. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, but I was more concerned about watching the water, because the lagoon is filled with crocodiles. Just a few minutes after our tour began, we saw one… a huge beast, moving with terrifying agility.

The best part of Punta Sur is the beach found at the very end of the park, with great snorkeling at the nearby reef. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for this, and the water was too rough for swimming anyway. But we still had a great day out. It’s not the easiest place to get to, and that potholed road is no joke, but it’s worth the effort, particularly if you have an entire day to spend there.

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December 17, 2013 at 12:14 am Comment (1)

Say Hola to the Xolo

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Walking home after lunch in Mérida, we encountered a funny old dog nervously guarding the doorway to an antiques store. It was skinny, small and completely bald, save a few whiskers sprouting from its head, and I wondered aloud how old it must be. “A year and a half”, came an answer from inside the store. Wait, this thing was a puppy? Indeed, as I took a knee, it bounded over to me full of playful energy. I reached out tentatively and touched my first Xoloituzcuintle: the Mexican Hairless Dog.

Mexican Dog

Indigenous to Mexico, the Xoloitzcuintle (pronounced show-low-eats-QUEENT-lay) is the country’s national dog. Though certain varieties have a coat of short hair, most Xolos are completely hairless, and they were considered sacred by the native people of Mexico. Aztecs would eat them for their supposed healing powers, but most often they were valued as pets.

Intelligent and friendly, Xolos are highly active puppies, but mature into calm and sociable companions. And with a history of over 3000 years, they’ve evolved into robust and healthy dogs. After encountering our first Xolo at the antiques store in Mérida, we met a rambunctious family during our excursion to Granja Buenavista, all of whom accompanied us on our horse ride through the jungle. We had as much fun watching them as we did riding the horses.

Despite their prominence in Mexico, Xolos don’t have a high international profile, and had to wait until 2012 before appearing at the Westminster Dog Show. The leathery, bluish-black creatures are strange to behold, and even stranger to touch, but after a few minutes the weirdness evaporates. These are wonderful little dogs and, once you get used to the lack of hair, they can even be kind of cute.

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December 11, 2013 at 10:48 pm Comments (0)

The Parque Centenario & Mérida’s Zoo

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It’s a considerable hike from the center, but the Parque Centernario (Centennial Park) on the west side of Mérida certainly warrants the effort, or the cost of a taxi, if only to visit the city zoo, which hosts a surprising number of exotic animals.

Zoo Merida

The zoo in the Parque Centenario is free to visit, which made us a bit nervous. While I generally love free stuff, I couldn’t help but wonder how well animals could possibly be cared for in an open, public zoo. Indeed, Mérida’s isn’t exactly a glorious Garden of Eden in the vein of San Diego’s or the Bioparc in Valencia, Spain. No, this is the kind of run-down and cramped operation which will probably make you a little sad.

Luckily, we were squarely still in our honeymoon phase with Mérida, and the city could do no wrong. So the fact that the hippos were confined to a tiny muddy pool didn’t really bother us. But the fact that there were hippos… thrilling! I hadn’t come to Mérida expecting to see animals ranging from chimpanzees to African lions, crocodiles and Burmese pythons, but they were all here and we had a blast touring the exhibits.

The zoo is just one piece of the Parque Centenario, a popular place for Meridianos to spend a weekend afternoon with the family. Since it was a sunny Sunday when we visited, the park was in full swing. There were pony rides, trampolines, bouncy castles, food stands, and thousands of screaming children. It was chaotic, but completely entertaining. This isn’t a park with a lot of green areas. In fact, it’s not a “park” at all, in the way I understand the word. There’s no place to have a picnic or play soccer, but there are plenty of places to have fun.

Throughout the day, we didn’t see another foreign face. It’s a 20-minute walk from the Plaza Grande, which is apparently enough to discourage most tourists. If you want to visit a different side of the city and see how locals enjoy themselves, check it out.

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November 21, 2013 at 12:52 am Comment (1)
Snorkelling at the Yal-Ku Lagoon After completing our Open Water scuba certifications, we expected the idea of snorkeling to lose its appeal. Why float on top of the water when you can dive right down into it? But at shallow sites like the Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal, snorkeling is just as good as scuba. Perhaps even better.
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