Friday, January 28, 2011

The Very "Royal Resorts" of Cancun

For my final report on our trip to Mexico, we will deal with an unreal world I have chosen to call the Cancun Cocoon. There is a Mexican city called Cancun, which we visited on a bus trip to Wal Mart in order to stock up on provisions for the week. Then there is the Hotel Zone.  It is located on a long narrow barrier island.

The fronts of the hotels, condos, and time shares—each one more resplendent than the next, face magnificent white sand beaches and the oh so blue Caribbean.

 The back of the buildingss look out on a placid lagoon. Far in the distance on the other side of the lagoon (a world away in so many ways) is the real Mexican city of Cancun.

But back to the fabulous Royal Resorts.

 Each and every facility has its own complex of outdoor pools--some of them with swim up bars. Happy Hour may officially begin at 3, but in truth it is Happy Hour 24 hours a day if you are a guest in the Hotel Zone.

The Zone even has its own separate water  purification system. It may be one of the few places in all of Mexico where the tap water is perfectly safe to drink. We can vouch that we drank it all week in our villa and at various restaurants without Montezuma ever once paying a revenge call.  We were staying with friends at their time-share residence in the Royal Islander Resort.

Entrance of Royal Islander

Royal Islander from the Beach

Pool Area at Royal Islander from balcony of our villa
 We saw four other Royal Resort properties while visiting and one of the attractive benefits of staying in any one of them is that your access card and room key for one is valid for food, drink, or general purchases at any of the others. Three of the Royal Resort complexes are right next to each other and you can walk between them.

Our base resort was sleek, clean as a whistle, and posessed an impeccably trained and friendly staff with  good English language skills.  The front of house and concierge staff were especially fluent. Our villa had a small, well equipped kitchen, a nice living room with flat screen TV and DVD player, a spacious balcony overlooking the pools, and two bedrooms each with baths. One of the bedrooms is called a lock-off and has a separate outside entrance, lockable connection doors, refrigerator, and microwave so it can be used as a closed off unit if desired. Since we were were staying with friends the connection doors were kept open so we could access the living room and kitchen of the main part of the unit.  We could dine comfortably indoors or on the pleasant balcony.


A short stroll north along covered walkways was the Royal Carribean Resort and a bit further along was the Royal Mayan. We visited the Mayan for a meal at their up-scale gourmet restaurant called The Conquistador. It was not cheap, but each course was beautifuly presented and delicious. My fresh shrimp were cooked at the table and a chateaubriand for two arrived to be carved before our eyes.

A live guitarist added to the pleasure of the evening. 

At the Captain's Cove restaurant on another evening (just down the hill from The Royal Islander)  we were treated to a flaming after-dinner production of  four Mayan Coffees.

We took a hotel shuttle (free of charge) several miles south to sample the pleasures of one of the newer Royal properties, The Royal Haciendas. It is a massive complex with gigantic pools and a broad beach. We had a nice lunch on an ocean view terrace at their on-site buffet restaurant and lounged on the beach. 

and then in the afternoon attended a mini cultural fair that featured a talented corps of Spanish Folk Dancers.

On our final day we took the hotel shuttle north to the Royal Sands Resort where we once again did a pleasant walk-around before strolling out the front door and along the main Hotel Zone road.  We visited one up scale shopping mall

 and then a giant more carnival like mall that had an eclectic mix of entertainment , food emporiums, souvenir peddlars, clothing outlets at all price levels, and even a major Aquarium. Our final destination, as the sun set over the lagoon, was a perfectly ambianced Thai Restaurant that had tables in little palapa structures set on piers out over the water.

It was a most perfect way to end a most perfect stay. Our friends were the perfect hosts and we hope a return visit will be in the cards. We aren't water sport enthusiasts or bake on the beach folks, but the magnificent food and lush surroundings in tandem with easy access to exciting day journeys to sample the ancient Mayan historical heritage made our entire Cancun trip  a Royal Resort five star experience.

 And with that, "Hasta la vista amigos."


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cenotes I have Known--Chichen Itza, Suytun, and Las Mojarras

Typical Cenote (Las Mojarras)

Millions of years ago the Yucatan peninsula was under the ocean. Over the eons seabed deposits turned into layers of limestone.  When the seas receded the land became a mostly flat rocky plain.  Limestone is porous and surface rainfall does not collect into surface rivers or streams. Instead the water filters down into the  the limestone  ultimately dissolving some of it to create large water filled sinkholes, caves, and even entire underground rivers. The roofs of some of these holes often collapse over time creating open pools while others  have only small surface openings and exist as water filled caves. The ancient Mayas used these features as a water source (there are literally no rivers or streams in the Yucatan) or for their religious rituals. They called them “dzonot.” The Spaniards translated it as “cenote” (pronounced seh-NO-tay). Over 1000 cenotes have been documented in the Yucatan and there may be as many as 4000 in existence. When used for religious purposes cenotes were often thought of as pathways to the underworld and its Gods. Today many of them are commercialized  and cater to swimming and diving enthusiasts as well as the general tourist.  "Cenote" was a word I had never heard of before our visit to Cancun and the Yucatan earlier this month.

Sacred Well at Chichen Itza
 We visited three Cenotes during our stay. The first was the great sacred well at the Chichen Itza complex, which is an open cenote.  Its roof has fallen in and it now looks like a deep circular pool surrounded by steep rock walls. I discussed it briefly in a previous blog post. The name Chichen Itza literally translates as “the mouth of the well of the Itza people.”    Divers have found various precious artifacts and human sacrificial remains in the depths of the Chichen Itza well.  It was apparently used primarily for religious purposes.   

On our way back from Chichen Itza we stopped at the Cenote Suytun, which had a ranch like atmosphere with various fowl wandering about and a horse corral out back.

There was an inviting snack bar and a place to change into swimming togs. Cenote Suytun is more of a cave than the open well at Chichen Itza. There is a small outside opening at the very top of the cave which the owner has strategically put a wall around to keep folks from tumbling through and some 60 feet to the water level. It was originally explored from that opening by having someone lowered with a rope.Today you enter the space down a steep set of stairs dug into the rock.

Once inside you are perched on a ledge about 1/3 of the way down. From there you can view the magnificent stalagtites in the ceiling as well as the entire pool.

 Additional stairs then bring you down to some seating tiers near the shore and a nicely built platform juts out into the pool proper. Many cenotes do not have shallow areas; they just drop off to depths of 80 feet or more. Suytun has an extensive shallow area allows you to dip your toes even if you don’t wish to take a full plunge.
If you do, according to some of the younger members of our party, it was pretty pretty cold but you got used to it quickly.


The following day on our trip to the countryside we stopped mid-afternoon for a native Mayan lunch at the Cenote Las Mojarras. It is over 2 km off the main road and down a pot-holed dirt track through the jungle that would certainly have turned me back had I been driving. When we finally reached the parking area, there was only one other vehicle there and they left shortly—perhaps wanting to get out before the road became totally impassible. But what we found was entirely delightful.

Cenote Las Mojarras

Las Mojarras is an open cenote like the Chichen Itza well. There are some diving platforms and a zip line contraption that can carry you out on the water where you can drop yourself off and swim back to a ladder on shore. There is a lovely path that goes around the pool and many of the trees and bushes are labeled. In one section along the shore path hammocks beckon you to take a rest and at the far side there is a bit of a shallow section that sports a lovely collection of lily pads.

Close up of the lily pads

There are also rest-rooms and a large palapa with a concrete floor. This is where we took our traditional Mayan lunch. Our trusty guide first made us some fresh quaccamole.

 while an assistant manned the grill cooking chicken wings, flank steak, potatoes, and of course rice and beans.

It was a delicious meal and well worth waiting for.

 Dinner was well shaken down by the road from hell on our way back to the main highway, but then there was  a thankfully smooth trip back to our hotel in Cancun. 

A final entry on the miraculous hotels of Cancun will be forthcoming in a few days.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Leona Vicario--A Town to Remember

Leona Vicario, Mexico is a small town of around 10,000. That makes it just about the size of  my home town.  According to our trusty guide Rob,  the Mayans have started moving to more modern small towns so that their children can go to government schools and learn Spanish.  The native Mayan language is totally unrelated to Spanish and knowing only it means linguistic isolation from the rest of Mexico as well as the world at large. Leona Vicario has also just begun to look for tourist income and the residents are building a new palapa in the town center to serve as a visitor and craft center. 

We stopped first at a small market area where we saw a small tortilla factory (the sign out front called it a tortileria).  After we had a sample of their freshly produced wares we walked over to get some fresh squeezed orange juice from another vendor.

We then were bundled into a bunch of three wheeled pedicabs that Rob called “triciyclettes” for a rolling tour of the town.

A Swiss expatriot named Christian was one of the pedicab operators and a friend of our guide. He also came, stayed, and married a Mexican woman.  He is currently the only foreigner living in Leona Vicario.  

Native Mayans are fairly short and Christian (in red hat) is a good head taller.

Our route through the town took us down typical streets where people were going about their normal routines of hanging out laundry, shopping in the market, or escorting children home from school.

One of our stops was at the home of a young woodworker and his family. He constructed his two lathes out of spare parts and now turns out mortars and pestles, bowls, pots, and vases. His sons have started to help at an early age.  We admired the work ethic, but with no child labor laws or OSHA regulation here, the homemade machinery has no protective coverings and noone wears eye goggles.

Here are some of their finished products.

 There were lots of kids everywhere we went and as usual they were curious, coy, and always cute.  


With our town tour complete we piled back into our van and headed for a home-cooked Mayan  meal at the Cenote Las Majarras.  You don't know what a Cenote is?  Well we'll tell you and show you in the next entry.