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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.

Location on our Map

-Video and photos taken with this Underwater Camera

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

A Trip to Tulum

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We saved Tulum for the final road trip of our stay on the Yucatán Peninsula. Everything we’d heard had suggested that this city perched on the edge of the Caribbean would blow our minds. And everything we’d heard was exactly right. Tulum is paradise.

Tulum Beaches

You know who Tulum will appeal to? Rich, retired hippies. Paradise doesn’t come cheap, and to get the most out of it, you’re going to need both time and money. And you’re going to need the right mindset. Tulum isn’t for golf-playing former executives and their mascara-laden wives. It’s for your kooky Aunt Janice, who discovered yoga in her sixties and believes in the healing power of the moon. Seriously, Aunt Janice is going to love Tulum. She’s going to swim with turtles and meditate on the beach. She’ll take a young lover and later torture you with the details of their passionate exploits. Aunt Janice shares too much, and you cringe every time she uses the word “lover”, but look at her. She’s glowing. Good for her.

You know who else Tulum will appeal to? Poor, young hippies. If you don’t need comfortable lodging and beach-side massages, you can enjoy Tulum on any budget. There are cheap accommodation options in town, and good, inexpensive restaurants. The sun, the ocean, the party atmosphere, they don’t cost anything, and you’ve got your dreadlocks and your guitar. I’m sorry: your ukulele. You’re going to find tons of people to jam with on the beach. Keep your hands off Aunt Janice, please, but otherwise have fun, young hippie. You’ve found your place.

Tulum Beaches

I’m being too snarky, but there are a lot of hippies in Tulum, and hippies get my snark juices flowing. Tulum is the kind of place where you’re more likely to see someone dressed as a harlequin than in a suit and tie. I mean that literally. We literally saw more harlequins than businessmen in Tulum. And I don’t mean, they were going to be performing on stage or something. I mean, they were dressed as harlequins because this is how they choose to live. Clown-trannies. Hey, I respect it.

So yes, it’s hippie paradise, but you know who else Tulum is going to appeal to? Everyone. I seriously can’t imagine anyone disliking this place. It’s absolutely magical. The amazing beaches, the restaurants and the hotels. The beach clubs. The town itself, the ruins up on the bluff. The crystal clear water and, yes, even the hippy-vibe. By the end of our five days in Tulum, I was more in touch with my spiritual side than I’ve ever been. I felt closer to nature. I had experiences in Tulum that made me reflect on what was really important in my life. And I’m being completely serious.

Tulum inspires a kind of relaxed state of inactivity, but we resisted the urge to spend all day on our balcony at the incredible Azulik Hotel, and kept our schedule pretty full. Apart from the beach, there’s so much to do in and around the city that we didn’t have a moment to spare.

Location of Tulum on our Map

Cheap Flights To Mexico

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February 7, 2014 at 10:05 pm Comments (2)

Progreso – Mérida’s Beach Town

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Talking to expats and reading online accounts had led us to believe that Progreso was a humdrum place, and when we finally visited, it was more out of a vague sense of duty than any personal desire. But while we had braced ourselves for boredom, what we discovered was a friendly, likable and unpretentious beach town. Chalk it up to the miracle of low expectations, if you wish, but we loved Progreso.

Progreso Yucatan

As we learned while trying to reach Maní, the Yucatán isn’t exactly blessed with speedy and efficient public transportation. But getting to Progreso from Mérida couldn’t have been easier. Direct buses leave frequently from the city center and arrive at the beach in less than an hour. I had become accustomed to painfully slow bus rides, but the trip to Progreso was so brief that I barely had time to dig into my bagful of “Mexican Bus Distractions” (books, music, sudoku, food, comics, needlework). I was almost disappointed when we arrived so quickly.

Besides a pleasant main square, a prominent lighthouse and an entertaining covered market, there isn’t much to the town. We didn’t visit any fascinating museums, upscale art galleries, or beautiful old churches. But that’s not the point of Progreso. The point is “beach”. We spent most of the day strolling along the promenade, sitting under the shade of a coconut tree, lounging at a bar and people-watching.

Part of the reason we so enjoyed Progreso was due to the dumb luck of visiting on a day without cruise ships, which anchor at the end of an insanely long four-kilometer concrete pier. Apparently, the town changes its flavor dramatically when the boats arrive, becoming much more commercial and obnoxious. But we didn’t experience any of that. Our trip to Progreso was perfect. Relaxed, easy and fun… just the kind of atmosphere a beach town should have.

Location of Progreso on our Map

Hotels In Progreso

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January 23, 2014 at 1:49 pm Comments (3)

Isla Mujeres

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After 24 hours, we’d seen enough of Cancún and made our way to Isla Mujeres, just a half-hour by ferry off the coast. This island of around 12,000 people has made a name for itself as a sort of anti-Cancún. A place to relax, escape the crowds and bask in the simple joy of being on a gorgeous Caribbean island.

Isla Mujeres

Named for the numerous Maya goddess statues which the Spanish found here, Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women) isn’t exactly off the beaten path. In fact, we found it to be even more crowded with tourists than Cancún. But the vibe is totally different. People don’t hang out in their hotels, but at beach bars and cozy downtown cafes. There are fewer drunken frat boys and more dreadlocked rasta boys. Isla Mujeres is just a lot cooler, a lot more relaxed.

The island is small enough to comfortably handle in a couple days, but most visitors stay longer. And plenty end up staying forever. Isla Mujeres is popular with wealthy American expats, which comes with both positive and negative aspects. Better restaurants and services, perhaps, but there’s a palpable sense of pretentiousness. This isn’t Cancún, but you’ll still hear more English than Spanish on Isla Mujeres and, for all the hippy vibe, the best locations and properties are in the hands of rich foreigners. The locals have been shunted off farther south, farther inland.

We spent three nights on the island, which gave us plenty of time to see the highlights. Unfortunately the weather didn’t play along; we had torrential rains and a lot of our sightseeing had to be cut short. But overall, we came away with a positive impression of the tiny island.

Location on our Map

Great Hotels On Isla Mujeres

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January 9, 2014 at 6:43 pm 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.

Location on our Map

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

The Cozumel Pearl Farm

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It was as though we’d left reality and entered an advertisement for Bacardi. A group of friends taking a leisurely boat trip across the turquoise water of the Caribbean. Anchoring and carrying a cooler full of drinks onto a private beach. Snorkeling out into the water, lounging on the sand, drinking and eating pineapple burgers. This was our excursion to the Cozumel Pearl Farm… just another day in paradise.

Cozumel Pearl Farm

The only pearl farm operating in the Caribbean is found on the little-visited northern end of Cozumel. It’s a small enterprise for now, focused on sustainable and eco-friendly growth, with an eye toward tourism. Caught between the ocean and a mangrove forest, the farm is completely inaccessible by car.

Once we had arrived and enjoyed a cold beer with a stunning Caribbean view, we visited the small museum, housed in a palapa. The pearl farm was established in 2004… unlucky, since it was just a year later that Hurricane Wilma struck. The storm devastated Cozumel and utterly destroyed the small company. The winds were powerful enough to pick up the one-ton anchors which they’d moored deep in the water and throw them back onto shore, where they still sit today.

We toured the laboratory where the pearl implantation takes place. Until now, I’d never given pearl farming much thought. I had just assumed that the process involved cracking open a bunch of oysters until you find a pearl. But there’s a lot more to it than that. At just the right moment in an oyster’s life, you have to plant a round “seed” in its membrane, in order to grow a pearl which can be harvested years later. A naturally-occurring pearl is exceedingly rare, let alone a perfectly round one. Even with the implants, only a small percentage actually succeed.

Cozumel Pearl Farm

We snorkeled out to the underwater farm, and saw the vertical cages in which the oysters are kept, protected by a life-sized underwater statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Next to her, there’s an artificial reef which after just a couple years is already home to a surprising amount of life. The brother and sister team who run the Cozumel Pearl Farm are clearly environmentally conscious; in fact, he’s an engineer by trade, and has designed a new style of anchor fitting which is far less damaging to coral than the industry standard. It’s an invention which is being deployed throughout Mexico.

This was one of the best days we’ve had in ages. The day-long tour costs $110 USD per person, which might seem expensive at first, but considering the beautiful boat rides there and back, the snorkeling, the lunch, the beer on the beach, the tour of the farm, and the chance to see an almost entirely unknown side of Cozumel, it’s a bargain. And besides, the farm itself is so small, with such incredible owners… you’ll know immediately that this is a project worth supporting.

Location our our Map
Cozumel Pearl Farm – Website

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December 10, 2013 at 10:49 pm Comment (1)
Swimming with Sea Turtles at Akumal 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.
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