Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal #14 - Getting Ready - Larry Widen

I'm in the end stages of making plans for an August 12 return visit to Cancun and the Riviera Maya region. My daughter's heading off to college in a few weeks, and we thought this would be a great place for what might be our last big vacation as a family. The kids have been wanting to see Mexico for a while now, and the timing is right. Even though we're staying in a remote area north of Playa del Carmen, we're renting a car for the week so we can visit Cancun, Chichen Itza, Cozumel and a number of attractions in the region. There's a Mayan village near where we're staying, and I plan to see that as well. It's a 45-minute drive straight into the jungle and quite removed from the modern world. I'm told the elders speak only Mayan, but the younger people speak Spanish. Should be interesting. Watch for some new posts toward the end of August. I'll include stories and photos!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Vacation at the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort

In June my sister and I went to Riviera Maya for a 5-night vacation, and it was great. We stayed at the all-inclusive Barcelo Maya resort just to the south of Playa del Carmen. We went to the ruins of Tulum, and spent part of a day in the eco-park of Xel-Ha. We really enjoyed this hotel and would recommend it to anyone. The rooms and grounds were very clean and the shows were great.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal #13 - Cozumel - Larry Widen

Stroll the Malecon in Cozumel and you never know what you'll find. The Malecon, the avenue that runs along the sea, is the equivalent of Main Street in a medium-sized American town. From late morning until around midnight, the street is a busy thoroughfare for cabs and cars going in and out of the hotel zone. It's also loaded with people, both residents and tourists. The Malecon is lined with diamond merchants, jewelers, souvenir shops, and popular nightclubs like the Hard Rock Cafe. As a visitor comes off the ferry, he or she arrives at the spot where the Malecon intersects with Plaza San Miguel. This is truly the center of the tourist zone in Cozumel. Expect to see the traditional Mayan dancer or mariachi singer performing here as you relax at a sidewalk cantina. Then circle the Plaza and continue walking along the seaside during a wonderful afternoon or evening in Cozumel.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Funjet's vacation guarantee

Funjet’s got a new program that that refunds your money in the event that a hurricane ruins your vacation. It’s called “Fun for Sure” and you can buy the plan at the same time you buy your tickets. “Fun for Sure” is inexpensive travel protection for anyone who’s worried about traveling to places that have a history of late summer / early fall hurricanes. It’s a good way to make sure your trip goes off as planned. There’s some additional information about this on Funjet’s website. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal #12 - Shopping - Larry Widen

Although there are many areas in Riviera Maya to shop, the beach community of Playa del Carmen is probably the largest single concentration of boutiques, shops, stores, restaurants, nightclubs and other vendors. Homesick visitors will take comfort in knowing there's a McDonald's and a Johnny Rockets in Playa, but to tell the truth, I didn't see many Americans in either place. The majority of diners at both restaurants sounded European.

Playa's main drag is called 5th Avenue, and unless you're a marathon shopper, you won't be able to see it all in one visit. It seemed to me that many people came for an early supper and then spent the rest of the evening strolling up and down the streets. After a while, I started to recognize some of them, and each time they were carrying another bag! Surprisingly, many merchants along 5th Avenue maintained fixed prices in their stores. The time-honored Mexican tradition of haggling over the price of an item is less apparent in Playa, so unless you've got unlimited funds, you may want to visit the marketplaces in Cancun or Cozumel where bargaining is alive and well.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal #11 - Shopping - Larry Widen

For people who love to browse in markets and boutiques, Riviera Maya offers an endless array of places to do just that. When you need to get out of the sun for a few hours, you'll find a number of opportunities to go shopping.

As you leave the archaeological park of Tulum, there's a fun little enclave of merchants who operate an open-air arts and crafts market right along the road that leads in and out of the historic district. Some of the goods are unique to the area while others can be purchased at a number of places. Wood carvings, native jewelry, serapes and blankets are in abundance. As in all other areas of Mexico, prices fluctuate from item to item, and you may find one thing is cheaper here while another is more expensive. Let the bargaining begin!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Riviera Maya Journal #10 - Weddings - Larry Widen

In addition to its allure as a vacation destination, Riviera Maya is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for weddings and romantic vacations. In a recent survey, 57,000 travel agents nationwide were asked to rank the other most popular destinations for weddings and romantic getaways. Not surprisingly, Cancun topped the responses, along with Las Vegas, the Caribbean and Hawaii.

Although just a short distance from the nightclubs and nonstop fun of Cancun and Cozumel, brides-to-be are attracted to Riviera Maya because of the solitude and tranquility. “There are 80 miles of unspoiled white sand beaches,” says Tammy Lee, Vice President of Marketing for the Mark Travel Group, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based firm that books destination wedding packages for thousands of brides and grooms each year. “After you’re done partying in Cancun, Riviera Maya offers peace and quiet.”

Many Mexico resorts have full-time wedding planners on staff to handle all the details. The seemingly endless list of tasks associated with planning a wedding are enough to push anyone to the edge of insanity. Multiple phone calls and in-person appointments with caterers, musicians, photographers, florists and the bridal shop are just the beginning. Guest lists swell to epic proportions and family members suddenly have opinions on every aspect of the event. Wedding packages in Riviera Maya usually include the minister (or non-denominational official), license, flowers, cake, champagne, photography and location for the ceremony.

Small wonder then, that a growing number of couples are choosing to be married in an exciting vacation destination surrounded by a select group of family and friends. It’s easier on the pocketbook and far more relaxing.

Riviera Maya Journal #9 - Relaxing - Larry Widen

One of the nicest things about Mexico is the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere that is permanently embedded in the local landscape. In the United States we're always on the go, always multi-tasking, because, hell, time is money. We make appointments to meet people at an exact time, in a certain place and always with some kind of expectation of achieving a goal or outcome. In the vacation destinations of Mexico, that kind of pressure just doesn't exist.

Here's an example: The hotel concierge has you set up to be on the 9:00 a.m. ferry to Cozumel in the morning. She's told you to be in the lobby at 8:00 to meet your taxi or bus driver for the ride to the docks at Playa del Carmen. Like any good American, you show up 10 or 15 minutes early, because that's what we do. So where's the driver? Shouldn't he be here a few minutes early as well? Actually, no. Turns out he's downstairs having a complimentary breakfast at the hotel buffet.

Now you're starting to get a little nervous, because you'd planned to get to the ferry dock a little early as well, just to make sure you get a seat and all that. Why is the driver meandering down the road, then? Shouldn't we be making better time? (Oh, the mindset we've got!) In the end, the whole thing works out. The 9:00 a.m. ferry doesn't actually leave until 9:10 or so, and everybody who's in line makes it on and everybody gets a seat. No sweat. Except yours. So what was all the anxiety about? Nothing, really. Remember, this is Mexico. Once you let yourself move in time to the rhythm of the country, you'll have a much more relaxing vacation.

Riviera Maya Journal #8 - Maroma - Larry Widen

The private beach complex at Maroma provides visitors with a morning or afternoon of fun and relaxation. This secluded beach area is right in the heart of Riviera Maya and easily accessed from all of the hotels. In addition to being a fabulous place to swim, Maroma offers a number of fun activities. The tropical reef offers some of the region's best underwater snorkeling. Those who enjoy horseback riding will love the ability to ride right on the beaches and into the surf.

For the action lovers, Maroma offers speedboat and jetski rentals. ATV Jungle Tours go away from the ocean and into the dense jungle that covers much of the region. ATV riders can expect to see Mexican wildlife such as exotic butterflies, iguanas and birds. Maroma also offers deep sea fishing charters from their private dock. Full and half-day excursions take avid fishermen far out on the Caribbean Sea to hunt for the big ones. Or you can troll closer to the shoreline for smaller game.

And when you've had enough fun and sun, stop into the restaurant for a meal or enjoy a beverage at the patio bar. There's plenty to do at Maroma!

Riviera Maya Journal #7 - Cozumel - Larry Widen

Anyone who's been to Riviera Maya recently knows that the reports of damage from Hurricane Wilma were exaggerated. The people of the region made sure the area rebounded quickly and efficiently so tourists could feel comfortable about coming back to this exciting vacation destination. But some travel agents who hadn't been there lately were hesitant about sending their clients to Riviera Maya. In an effort to better educate the agents and other travel professionals, Funjet spent a week on the island of Cozumel doing daily Internet broadcasts.

The television production crew set up their computers, cameras and editing equipment underneath a tent in Plaza San Miguel. From this base they generated a one-hour live show each day that was broadcast to thousands of travels agents across America. Tammy Lee, Funjet's Vice President of Marketing, hosted the broadcasts.

The response was amazing and swift. Travel agents saw the broadcasts that featured interviews with local merchants, hoteliers and other tourism industry representatives. Almost immediately agents began booking trips to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel.

Riviera Maya Journal #6 - Cozumel - Larry Widen

Playa del Carmen is the debarkation point for the tropical island of Cozumel de San Miguel, also known as "The Island of the Swallows. The UltraMar and Mexico WaterJet ferry lines make the 40-minute trip across the Caribbean Sea approximately every hour, and for a small charge visitors can travel to this island paradise via one of these high-speed boats. Most passengers seemed to gravitate indoors to an air-conditioned seat with TV monitors playing Spanish-language music videos. I opted to ride on the upper deck with the folks who enjoy salt breezes and the open sun. It’s a fabulous trip all by itself.

The ferry docks at the main pier leading into downtown Cozumel. Diamonds, fine jewelry, watches, cameras and electronic devices can be purchased at one of the many shops along the Malecón, the island’s seafront boulevard. Cozumel is a duty-free port, and as such, is an international shopper’s haven. It’s not unusual to see at least one Carnival, Disney or Norwegian Line cruise ship anchored in the bay.

Directly off the Malecón is Plaza San Miguel, the center of Cozumel’s tourist zone. Strolling mariachis and costumed dancers frequently perform traditional Mayan songs and dances in the plaza, and a number of sidewalk cafés and restaurants do business around it. Popular nightspots such as the Hard Rock Café, Fat Tuesdays and Seňor Frog’s are just steps away. Plaza San Miguel is a great place to people-watch, simply because every visitor to the island invariable passes through it. The Plaza is also home to countless shops and boutiques, many of which are located on Avenida 5, the main shopping street.
As a rule, the majority of tourists don’t stray too far from this area. But I'm a writer and photographer, and I’m always curious to find out what’s on the next street, and the next street, and the street after that. Invariably this is where one discovers the reality of a town or city. And the reality I encountered on the back streets of Cozumel was more beautiful than I’d anticipated. What’s more, the people were genuinely warm and friendly, even to a stranger who spoke little better than elementary school Spanish. I walked the streets early in the morning and late into the night. Unlike other Mexican cities I’ve been to, Cozumel exuded a sense of safety and security, even on darkened streets well after midnight.

Riviera Maya Journal #5 - Playa Del Carmen - Larry Widen

At the center of the Riviera Maya is the port town of Playa del Carmen and the neighboring beach resort community of Playacar. Playa del Carmen is the region’s number one shopping district. In the evening, Avenida 5, or 5th Avenue, comes alive with strolling musicians, singers, street performers, artists and more. The multitude of sidewalk cafés, bars and restaurants hum with activity long into the night.

Carlos ’n Charlie’s is just one of the many hot spots along the strip. Americans are usually in the minority here and it’s common to hear conversations in German, Italian, Portuguese and other languages in addition to Spanish. Playa del Carmen is also popular with travelers from South America. This is also where you’ll find an unparalleled assortment of imported cigar stores, dive shops, international boutiques and vendors selling items from local artisans that include jewelry, black coral, pottery, masks, wood carvings, paintings, blankets and apparel. And the side streets off the Avenida are home to lower prices and bargains galore.

Shoppers who are willing to compare prices before buying will invariably get a better deal. Playa del Carmen is also the debarkation point for the tropical island of Cozumel. The UltraMar and Mexico WaterJet ferry lines make the 40-minute trip across the Caribbean Sea approximately every hour. For a small charge visitors can travel to this island paradise via one of these high-speed boats.

Riviera Maya Journal # 4 - Xcaret - Larry Widen

Xcaret. It's part zoo, part aquarium, part adventure park. This fabulous place on the Riviera Maya defies description only because it’s so unique. Xcaret is located on a caleta, or natural inlet, off the Caribbean Sea.

Imagine spending the day in a series of fabulous natural swimming pools or snorkeling along a trail inside an ancient underground river. Xcaret was once a Mayan city, and the ruins are everywhere you look. Seamlessly intergrated into this historic site is a man-made aquarium like nothing else you’ve seen.

Wind your way through natural rocky caves and view giant sea turtles, sharks, hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish and more. See manatees in their natural environment and butterflies the size of a pie plate. Encounter the sacred jaguars of Quintana Roo.

Enjoy lunch or dinner in this tropical eco-park and spend some time relaxing on one of the area’s most beautiful unspoiled beaches. In the evening, stay for the fabulous stage show that relives Mayan history from the days of the conquistadors to the present.

Riviera Maya Journal # 3 - Xel-Ha - Larry Widen

With attractions such as the underground Mayan Cave, Dolphin Swim, and unlimited snorkeling in the huge inlet, Xel-Ha is truly one of the world’s most amazing natural water parks. It's a 190-acre natural aquarium with more than 75 kinds of marine life for visitors to encounter. It's not unusual to see hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish while snorkeling around the inlet. At Mundo Delphines, the Dolphin World, participants spend a full hour in the water with these amazing animals. Xel-Ha has 17 highly trained and extremely visitor-friendly dolphins that will swim right up under a swimmer’s hand and beg to be petted.

Other activities include the ability to feed the dolphins and be taken for a wild ride around the lagoon on their backs. This up-close and personal encounter with these gentle, intelligent animals is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Xel-Ha has several nice restaurants and areas where visitors can relax in the sun after swimming or eating. Be sure and visit this natural amusement park during your vacation.

Riviera Maya Journal #2 - Tulum - Larry Widen

Just a few miles down the road from the hotel properties are some of the Yucatan’s most incredible attractions. Vacationers who want to get off the hotel grounds and see some of the real Mexico are in for a treat.

Tulum, an ancient Mayan city, has been deserted since 1300 A.D. The temples, government buildings and other ruins of the city have been preserved as an archaeological park. Visitors are free to stroll the ground at their leisure, or, for a small fee, a knowledgeable guide can be engaged to tell the story of this magnificent Mayan seaside port.

Don't be surprised to see 4-foot iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks. They've had the run of the place for the last 800 years! And Tulum’s not just about history. Bring your bathing suit and towel and head down the slide of the cliff to the incredible private beach. Swim, loll in the gentle surf, or explore the rock formations that support the ancient city above. There are no concessions inside the park or on the beach, and that's part of the beauty. However, it can get pretty hot here, so be sure and stay hydrated. A vendor sells chilled bottled water outside the entrance to the park.

Riviera Maya Journal #1 - Cancun - Larry Widen

As soon as the plane lands at Cancun International Airport, it’s obvious this place is special. Friendly men, smartly-dressed in turquoise shirts and white slacks greet you in that uniquely Mexican patois comprised of some English, some Spanish and something in between. Part of the fun of traveling in Mexico is the utter lack of pretensions on the part of the residents. They know their English is as bad as your Spanish, but everybody smiles and has a good time making themselves understood. “Welcome to Mexico,” says Ricardo, an employee with Lomas Travel.

It’s Ricardo’s job, along with several dozen of his co-workers, to make your stay in Riviera Maya as comfortable and hassle-free as possible. Within minutes this professional corps of guides has you in a car or on a coach bus and headed down the 307 freeway to your hotel. There are a number of outstanding resort complexes that offer beachfront access to Riviera Maya’s beautiful white sand shores. I was shown the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort, a lovely all-inclusive property with a number of world-class dining facilities right on site. I also looked at the Iberostar Paraiso Beach Hotel with its amazing interconnected swimming pool that everyone in the family will love.

Ultimately, I stayed at El Dorado Royale, one of Riviera Maya’s many outstanding hotels. The choice of food was incredible. I had lunch at JoJo’s, the Caribbean grille at poolside. Later I had a dinner of Lobster Carpaccio with grilled bell peppers and all the trimmings. Since El Dorado hosts an average of 250 weddings each year, it's not unusual to see a bridal party in full dress strolling one of the many beachfront trails. While I was there, a seaside wedding took place at La Pax chapel and the adjoining La Isla restaurant. The onsite wedding planner, Pearl, told me El Dorado is consistently voted one of the world’s top romantic hotels. “Many brides are choosing the Riviera Maya as a wedding destination,” she said. “Most of the larger resorts have fulltime wedding experts to help the guests with all the details.”

Although I'd only been there for a half a day, my initial reaction was, "What hurricane?" The tourist areas and hotels were running at 100% efficiency and the beaches were beautiful.

Riviera Maya journal from Funjet's Larry Widen

Hi. My name is Larry Widen, and I work for Funjet. Several weeks ago I traveled to Cancun and the Riviera Maya to check out the condition of this warm-weather tourist destination and any residual hurricane damage. I visited extensively in the area and took several hundred photographs. I also talked with shopkeepers, restaurant owners, taxi drivers, hotel employees, tour guides, and even travelers like myself, just to get a good idea of what the Riviera Maya is really like these days. I've been a writer and photographer for 30 years and have traveled extensively in Mexico. This was my first trip to the Yucatan area, however, and was able to experience everything in the region with no preconceived notions. I visited the ruins of the Tulum, the island of Cozumel, the eco parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret and a number of other fun places. I'll try to post some pictures and a journal installment every few days, so check back often. Please feel free to write back if you enjoy the stories.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Photo update of the Hotel Marina El Cid

The following photos were taken at the Hotel Marina El Cid on Thursday, March 9th, 2006.

Hotel exterior


Beachfront Palapa Restaurant


View from a passing boat

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Photo update of Paradisus Riviera Cancun

The following photos were taken at the Paradisus Riviera Cancun on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Photo Update of 5th Avenue

The following pictures were taken at the Riviera Maya's popular 5th Avenue on Monday, February 13th, 2006.