As I’m flying back to my daily life, with each second pulled away further from the deep blue ocean, scorching sun and liver-unfriendly cocktails, I’ll try to set my discontent aside and consolidate my discoveries in a user friendly format. This edition will be consisting out of two parts. Part one will contain short information about a number of topics related to my travel (food, drinks, history etc). In part 2 I will try to share the magnificence of some locations that I had a chance to visit.
About Brussels airport and flying
Fyling is awesome, right? Nothing beats that iron self-discipline of keeping you confined in a small space for a great number of hours. True, you can get places a lot faster, and flying with a light buzz always takes that edge off. Selecting an appropriate flight is the first thing that might (or might not) make your life a bit easier.
Charter flight vs regular line flight – yes or no? i don’t want to sound snobbish, but hell no! Why is that? Atmosphere would be my first reason. The calm atmosphere among frequent plane travelers, which makes you feel as a part of the aerial family is totally missing in charter flights. Most people are not used to take a plane, so you’ll see a mix of excitement, fear and increasing restlessness.
There is also a big chance that there’ll be a lay-over for a couple hours (empty planes don’t make money), but they won’t let you out of the plane.
2 hours lay-over in Cuba.
And then the delays….My God, those constant delays! There will be delays and they will be quite long. So when you are sitting in that cattle pen called waiting hall, sweating your eyes out because of the weak air conditioner, hours of delay ahead of you, just remind yourself that paying that little extra for the line flight would eventually save you a lot more.
And lastly, the quality of food. The food is horrible even to airplane standards, all kinds of non-alcoholic drinks/snacks are extra charge and you won’t be fed a lot (so make sure to stock up on cookies).
Enough nagging, I have a fresh travel tip to all of you. Long distance flights are exhausting, and since you can’t put yourself in a hyper sleep, you’ll have to make this trip as comfortable as possible. The main cause of the exhaustion is simply dehydration due to the sneaky plane air conditioner. So the main message is to stay hydrated: take that refillable bottle past security and start feeling it up. Continuing doing sol in the plan creates additional benefits: you get your movements (it’s well known that sitting for long hours without moving can have serious health consequences) as you refill that bottle or run to the bathroom.
As you can’t smuggle water past the security (I still think that it’s part of the scheme to make you buy that overpriced water/food while waiting for your flight), the refillable bottle will save you quite some money as every airport should have drinking fountains.
Brussels airport is clever about this, they’ve hidden their fountains in the bathrooms so don’t line up for that 5 euro water bottle but head straight to the nearest bathroom.
And buy noise-cancelling headphones, those things are life savers during the long flights.
About Yucatan (region and people)
The histroy of the entire region is as colourfull as nachos. Two periods can be roughly identified: pre-columbian (before the white devil landed on the shores of Yucatan) and post-colombian (after the locals were decimated and oppressed by the white man).
Before the spaniards arrived (16th century), the region was following it’s natural evolution as empires rose and collapsed. Different kingdoms were ruling the area. They waged wars, traded and created alliances for more than two tousand years. The Mayan civilization made great achievements in both science (astronomy) and architecture. For a civilization that didn’t have any metal tools or wheel, they were able to build magnificent cities and develop a very presice calender.
The blood cult was the corner stone of the religion. Mayans believed that blood is a gift from gods, so spilling it was justified as an honor to those gods. Yes, there were human sacrifices. And yes, the nobles did practice self-mutilation (they pierced lips, genitals and cheeks with a knife made from stingray) but this should be seen from their view on life and death. It was less important on how you lived your life, what really counted is how you have ended it. Depending on the way you died, you’d be joining a specific deity in the eternity. That’s why a lot of sacrificing was volunteering as people were hoping to rejoin the gods after an honorable death.
The genital piercing part sounds particularly fun. Basically, there was no party or any other social event without a blood of a noble. His royal blood would legally approve/justify any event that was about to happen. It’s hard to imagine in our days, that a politician would cut himself every time a football match needs to be played. But then again, they are not descendants of the gods, even though they seem to act like they do.
And all would go great for those guys (Mayan I mean), they would build bigger pyramids, develop more awesome and mysterious arts…but Spaniards came and all this went down the drain.
First Spanish explorers arrived at the end of 15th century lead by C. Columbus. Obviously, they were shocked by the sacrifices, and ankle deep blood rivers (like Spanish Catholic Church never killed anyone). So, after a short meeting, it has been decided that locals are bad and they should be turned to the good side, even if it will kill them. The bringer of light was Hernan Cortes, who basically annihilated all local power centers and downgraded the remaining population to the level of animals. Why there was no resistance? At first, the Mayan thought that Spaniards were gods, returned to their children as it was prophesied. And no one wanted to piss off the god (interesting that the gods were supposed to be white). By the time the Mayan realized what happened, the majority was wiped out either by Spaniards of by smallpox (also introduced by Spanish). The local population was heavily outnumbered and divided, but they still resisted fiercely.
But it’s thanks to Friar Diego de Landa that we only have bits and pieces about Mayan culture. The Maya recorded their history, customs and rituals in beautifully painted picture books (called Codex). The good inquisitor burned almost all of them (only 4 are now remaining), together with a load of scrolls and a bunch of people (just to make a point).
By the time Spaniards were done with the Maya, their culture and civilization was almost completely exterminated. Even now, remaining Mayan tribes depict those events in the ritual dancing, as the fall of their civilization left a deep scar in their collective memory.
The colonial period was fun as well, as the remnants of the once proud civilization were shunted to the bottom of the social pyramid. At the top were pure blood Spaniards, secondly criollos (pure blood Spaniards born in the colony), then mestizos (mix of Spaniards and locals) and then pure blood Mayans. A number of revolutions followed (independence war from Spain), The Caste War, Mexican Revolution, but somehow the original population got screwed over and over again.
Currently, around 30% of Yucatan population consists of predominately indigenous tribes, while the majority are mestizos. There are over 30 different tribes (and thus different dialects) that are still trying to survive in modern Mexico. Those communities are living in seclusion, trying to maintain their languages and culture for as long as they can. The economic situation in Yucatan is far from a stable one, and the local tribes are being hit the hardest as they don’t speak Spanish and there is no support from government whatsoever. Basically, tourism and crafts is the only source of income, so if you overpay heavily for that small souvenir, don’t cheap out and think about local people.
About local transportation
Sitting in hotel or lying on the beach the entire stay was not part of my travel plan. Discovering the region means being mobile. There are different options, ranked based on the level of expensiveness (aka “reap off”).
- Hotel shuttle service: probably the most expensive one, but also the most comfortable. It’s like you are leaving the hotel without actually leaving it.
- Taxi: in all countries taxi drivers are a special breed of people. In this harsh market one has to be tough and impudent. Taxis are not in the best shape but they’ll deliver. the more foreign you look like, the higher the price will become. In general, the prices is 3 times higher than colectivo.
- Colectivo: now this is my favorite. Colectivo’s are mini vans which are traveling between Tulum and Cancun whole day long, picking up people along the road. There are a number of stops where you can wait for one, or you’ll just wait near the highway and signal to the incoming colectivo. If there is a free spot (drivers will try to load those vans to the maximum – 15 people), he’ll stop. For a couple of dollars you’ll get anywhere you want in a fast and relatively safe manner. Prices are fixed and better to be checked upfront (30 pesos in average).
About tourists (not to offend any one, just making an observation)
At first, I wanted to catalogue different groups of tourists, but it doesn’t seem totally fair or objective. I’ll just mentioned what stroke me the most compared to my other travels.
* Beer/cocktail kegs: I know that people are lazy, and being lazy during your vacation is something that you just have to do. But huge (1/1.5 litters) mugs/kegs that are being filled at the bar? Especially women, oh so fragile, looked weird holding those monstrosities filled to the top with beer. I looked very puny with my regular beer glass compared to those suckaz.
* Large groups (tendency to make large groups): I’d say that lonely travelers or couples were in a clear minority. People arrived in huge loud tribes that absorbed the lonely couples (never expected Canadians/Americans be so chatty). Once caught in their gravity pool, the resistance became futile.
* No interest of going outside of hotel (no interest in local stuff): of course, not everybody wants to climb those dusty ruins, but I was a little surprised that majority showed no interest in local culture at all. Catching bits and pieces of conversations I was surprised at the ignorance towards locals.
* Tattoos: I’ve never seen so many painted people. I felt like an amateur at the talent show. The large majority of tourists were wearing some kind of ink, and the most tattoos, although without clear coherent meaning, were really a piece of art. I’ve seen people with a giant tattoo of crucified Jesus, holding a sign “In God we trust”, I’ve seen crying Maria covering almost the entire back, I saw entire passages written all over the body and pictures of their current/former lovers. In any case, what was missing in consistency was overly compensated in the quality.
* Going to the same place over and over again: I guess this one is just a personal preference.
About tequila (salud!)
There are many kinds of tequila (much like cognac or whiskey) and basically all are extracts of agave plant. But it’s by trying, tasting and comparing the different brands, a real appreciation of the beverage will be awaken.
The majority of tequilas are dark and only a few are branded as “white tequila”. White tequila comes directly to the market without aging and only fits for “shots”. While reposado and anejo (darker tequillas) are being aged first (6 months to more than a year). Anejo (more than a year) has a more distinct taste and should be really savored in order to unlock the true taste.
My favorite at this moment is “tres generacios”, it has a soft chocolaty taste and a very smooth complexion.
There is also a local type of tequila, called Mezcal. Each bottle has a worm or a scorpion swimming in it. I don’t know if it affects the taste, but this drink is quite enjoyable in a form of “shots”.
Mayan people have a drink of their own. The first one, balche, is a honey based drink which hold a very important mystical meaning, and it is impossible to purchase it. The origins of the drink tells a romantic tale of a young warrior that fell in love with the girl who was promised to a chieftain. Only by sharing the secret of this drink, the warrior could impress chieftain and return the girl he loved. This drink is still used in traditional weddings, where the bride is covered in balche as a promise of prosperity.
The second one, Xtabentun, is also honey based and can be purchased freely. The taste comes close to Mede or honey wine, but feels a little stronger (couple of those guys knock you off, despite lower alcohol percentage of 12%). To enjoy without ice and in small quantities because of its sweetness and proofing, sipping rather than shooting.
Local food depends on the region of Mexico, and takes the name of the cities and towns from where it was created. I’d classify it as a fusion of traditional Mexican food (Hispanic roots) and local/tribal cuisine. The region’s most popular dish is “Cochinita pibil”. In Maya “Pib” means a hole in the ground, and “al pibil” is a centuries-old regional technique for cooking all kinds of meat. The most preferred meat is piglet (hence “Cochinita”), but you’ll find version with chicken as well. It’s prepared by rubbing the meat in “recado rojo” (paste which is a blend of spices, originally used by the Maya peoples), which is thinned using the juice of sour oranges. The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground or in an oven for 8 hours. It’s usually served shredded, so taco-friendly for sure.
Rivier Maya is to be considered as one of the best diving location in the world (next to Australia and Egypt – Sharm El’ Sheikh). This mostly due to the good diving conditions (water clarity, current, waves etc), but also a very rich marine life and most beautiful coral reefs. It a very popular diving location which means that there is a big choice of diving schools. Do your research before signing up with one as not all of them are PADI recognized (if you really want to get the certification).
I had a pleasure to dive in Akumal (translated from local language: Turtle Place). And indeed, you’ll see those beautiful creatures swimming about even in shallow waters.
The conditions for the beginners might be a bit overwhelming, as the ocean can become less user-friendly (i want to save “wavy”, but I’m sure it’s not a real word). The first dive in open water was almost my last one. I’m not getting sea sick easily, but once you start ascending, the environment starts to change from calm weightlessness to a sense of being in a box which is held by an evil child. Closer to the surface I felt like a sock in a washing machine. At this point you forget all what you’ve learned about working together with your diving partners (buddy). You’ll just want to climb on that boat as soon as possible and whether the rest follows is not of my concern. The weaves were so bad some of our fellow divers refused to continue the course.
Fortunately the rest of the dives went smoothly. Ocean was calm (or maybe you do get used to it), and besides testing the limits of my instructor’s patience, all went well and I (and my dear wife) got certified.
There are hotels in all sizes and colors, and even though the number of stars doesn’t mean as much in our days, I’d still like to book my accommodation in the 5 star area. At least you know what to expect and there will be no cockroaches on a bed and rotten bathroom facilities.
I base my final discussion on tripadvisor and booking.com reviews. Over the years they proved to be correct and representative. I’d also go through the negative comments to understand the severity and nature of the complaints (individual vs structural cases issues).
From my end, I try to review hotels as objective as possible, being fair rather than negative. In any case the following is true: the more money you pay, the better known the hotel’s name is, the better quality will be. So look for the balance between the price, reputation and reviews.
My review of Gran Bahia Sian Ka’an is to be found on tripadvisor.
About tipping (European view)
I’ve done some research before going to Mexico and a lot of comments mentioned that you’ll have to tip every time (like in US) or the service would be bad. People advised to take around 500 USD (?!) tips money for two week stay. This didn’t seem right as tipping should be done in case service is outstanding (and not as a stimulation to get a better service). The trip was not cheap and the idea of having even more expenses made me feel uneasy.
Arriving in Mexico I did notice that in every place of service, a sign states that tips are not included. The main message is that local people do not earn a lot and tips are their main income….ok, fair enough. From the first day, I’ve noticed that tourists from US/Canada are tipping for EVERYTHING, and I really mean everything. Order a drink (all-inclusive bar) – tip, go to buffet – tip, room cleaning service – tip, check something with concierge – tip, take a golf card to the beach – tip. This tipping took really ridiculous proportions, basically you pay for the service already included in all-inclusive package. I was set to test whether tipping improves/downgrades the service. My findings showed that tipping does not have any effect on the service! The minority of waiters that were really doing their best were also genuinely grateful for the tip. The majority, however, were spoiled by the constant tipping and it didn’t really matter if you left a tip or not. In some cases, even after providing a horrible service the tip was expected.
About Cancun airport terminal 2
All charter flight are departing from terminal 2. Just few tips to those travelling back:
• Alcohol is cheaper here than in hotels/gift shops
• Souvenirs are not cheaper
• There is a Business center where you can buy a day pass for 38 USD per person (I think you can get drinks for free, wifi and snacks). This one is untested as we went for that TGI Fridays
There is a TGI Fridays which is also a valid alternative. In any case, try to stay out of the main waiting hall is much as you can. The place over there is limited and it’s hot.
About Time Sharing
I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one, even though I have a strong and elaborate opinion about the topic. This type of activity is very common in the areas closer to USA (Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico etc), and their techniques are sharp and aggressive.
What is time sharing? In theory, it’s an opportunity to rent something (house, apartment, hotel room etc) at a specific location for a cheaper price. First, you pay a solid lump of money (as a membership fee), which entitles you to a number of weeks that you can use for your vacation (annual payments are paid after the initial lump sum). The lump sum is very much dependent on how big of sucker you are or how resistant you prove to be (my fee went from 20k to 5k USD after 6 hours of “No, I don’t wanna”)
What is promised? Promise vs reality
- Exclusive privileges (free wifi, dedicated concierge, transport from and to the airport, stay at the Junior Suite, private beach with waiter service, transportation within the hotel)
- Free wifi, concierge and other stuff: all that stuff is provided to EVERYONE staying in the same hotel (part of all inclusive package)
- Transport Airport – Hotel: it’s not free, it’s roughly the same amount as you would book it your self
- Junior Suite: this one sounds fancy, but that’s the most basic accommodation. You can’t upgrade to a better room (Eventually, I had to book outside of the time sharing program). Remarkably, my penthouse suite price was the same as the price for the junior suite proposed by Time Sharing program
- Private Beach: small strip of the beach (separated indeed) at the cheapest part of the hotel complex (Those hotel chains have different hotel sections, rating from cheap to expensive). Which means that the quality is much lower than if you would take a higher class complex
- Transportation within hotel: granted, this one is an extra. But considering the total price….
- Cheaper rate on you (basic) room
- Reality: true, the rate is a bit cheaper. However, booking a better room directly via hotel’s website will cost you the same. The only part which is cheaper is an all-inclusive fee. Still, let’s say I can save around 1000 euro per 2 weeks stay (if we take ALL possible reductions), keep in mind that you already paid a lump sum of, let’s say, 6000 euro!!!! Which means that you’ll have to come to this place at least 6 time, just to break-even. Further more, you are forced to go to the same place/region every time.
- Free exchange of privilege weeks into weeks in other hotels chains all over the world
- Reality: at best the exchange will be 3 to 1 (3 of your weeks for 1 week someplace else). And again, only in specific hotels and for the cheapest rooms
- Buying the “cheapest” subscription entitles you to all privileges, but just lesser amount of weeks
- Reality: your subscription means nothing. They’ll come up with some BS excuse in order to sell you the upgrade (another 5-6K).
As frustrating as it is, I think I made my point. Once again, I just want to warn all those who want to listen, stay away from those time sharing folks, unless you feel comfortable spending your every vacation at the same place over and over again for the next decade to come.