Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

Sleep

We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

Do

Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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Finding Paradise in Phi Phi

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An early start and a smooth taxi ride saw us ready to fly to Krabi in plenty of time. From the airport we bussed to the pier where we had lunch whilst waiting for the ferry. It was so hot and sunny on the ferry across to Phi Phi – we were relieved to finally arrive. We stayed at Stone’s Hostel – new, modern and on the beach; a definite party hostel – we could feel our beds vibrating at night from the music downstairs. I was incredibly broke (as I’d left my credit card with James in Bangkok) so was very lucky to have Summer virtually empty her pockets in order to enable me to go diving with Island Divers. For dinner we indulged in scrumptious pizza at Cosmic before enjoying the fire show at Stone’s.

The following morning we climbed the Koh Phi Phi viewpoint. It was hard work, but needless to say the view was incredible. After we went our separate ways – Summer came back down into town and around to Long Beach – I took a more rugged track through a small village and coming out at the far end of Long Beach. We spent the day reading, swimming and dozing in the sun – it was glorious.

The cost of my diving meant that Summer and I were forced to move to a cheaper hostel for our last two nights. We did a full day cruise – met at 10.30am and cruised around the island and it surrounds. First stop was Shark Point (just out from Long Beach); no sharks, but plenty of colourful fish which made snorkelling a lot of fun. Next we saw Bamboo Island – white sand, clear blue water and a jungle backdrop – literally, my kind of paradise. We also visited a beautiful lagoon, Monkey Beach, saw Maya Bay (which is where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach) and then watched the sun set from the boat.

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The next morning I had to get up really early (I had a restless sleep panicking about what I couldn’t remember about diving) where I grabbed some breakfast before meeting my instructor (Darrius – an over the top, stereo-typical Australian who was just awesome) and the rest of our group. Everyone in our group was really experienced, and were all really kind to me about my nerves. We kitted up for the first dive – 27m down through a ship-wreck. It was awesome. As we were moving to our next location, rumours rippled through the water to the surrounding boats that there was a whale shark in the vicinity. Just like that, our crew members jumped ship. Everyone had snorkels, fins and a massive rush of adrenaline as they kicked their way to the shark. A few of us girls waited for the boat to get slightly closer before we took the plunge. We swam for as long as we could – it was incredibly hard work; but entirely worth it. I felt like I was swimming for my life as the whale shark just glided effortlessly through the water. The entire experience was magnificent. Our second dive saw us hit 30m, as well as the spotting of a TURTLE. I was over the moon. My lack of funds meant I couldn’t do the afternoon dive, but I was quite happy to sunbathe on the boat’s deck in the sunshine. My buzz carried me through my tiredness and well into the night, where we headed to Stone’s Bar for a few drinks with some of our room-mates. These drinks turned into a few more buckets and I think a fun night was had by all.

We both woke up feeling a little seedy; so we checked out, grabbed some breakfast-to-go from the bakery and hit the beach past the port. I finished my book; Summer dozed in the shade, until eventually it was time to get some lunch before boarding the ferry to Phuket. On arrival we caught a shuttle to the airport, where we then asked the driver to just drop us at some nearby accommodation – and although we struggled a bit (it was overly expensive as we seemed to be in quite a fancy area) we eventually found somewhere right by the beach. We watched the sunset, before spending up a storm at dinner – I felt sick and couldn’t decide what I wanted, so I ordered everything and ate nothing.

We caught a taxi to the airport where we flew to Don Mueng airport – caught a free shuttle bus to Suvarnabhumi airport and then the airport train in to the hostel to collect our bags. We found a little market, where we accidentally spent the last of our money – bags, wallets, mortar and pestle – we ended up having to withdraw more money for lunch! We had our last Thai massage before heading back to the airport for our departure. Bangkok to Sydney saw us arrive in Sydney for a day of exploration. We caught the train into town where we wandered around the harbour-side, before I crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and ate a fresh, healthy Western lunch. Back onto the plane – this time New Zealand bound – it was home sweet home, baby.

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