Saturday, October 23, 2010

Most Like Me

Last night I visited the little fishing town of Puerto Morelos, located just south of the bustling tourist city of Cancun, and known for it’s spectacular coral reef just off the coast. One of my Mexican friends, an aspiring distributor of Mexican Mezcal was on his way there for business and invited me along for the ride - a thirty minute ride north of Playa del Carmen.

I first visited Puerto Morelos last June with my daughter. We arranged a snorkelling excursion through the Snorkel Shop in Playa, and into the minivan we climbed for the ride to Puerto Morelos. I’m told that the residents of this town are very protective of their area - preserving the coral reef and limiting developments. It was nice to see a city that looked as though it was still pretty much in its natural state. You’ll find no glitz or glam here - the feel is more small, natural, real. I loved it. The beach was beautiful.. and empty. Quite the contrast from the crowds along the beaches of Playa del Carmen and of course, Cancun. Small, colourful fishing boats lined the beach as we sat and ate lunch that day.. It was lovely and the snorkeling excursion off the coast, with the beautiful schools of fish, conch, barracuda and many other wonderful underwater creatures, was definitely the highlight of our trip.

As we pulled into town last night, we passed a park where families were milling around, their small children chasing each other and happily playing. We stopped at La Panza es Primero for dinner - a chain restaurant housed in a large palapa-style building that sits facing the beach. (Click on the link to see their very cool website.) Even before I stepped out of the vehicle I could smell the fish (it is a fishing town after all). Decorated in the Mexican wrestling theme, we took our seats in the restaurant on blue and pink plastic chairs, facing the peaceful ocean. The service was friendly and attentive, and the fish fillet I decided on (I had to have the fish!) smothered in mango sauce, rice, beans and vegetables was delicious and filling. A mojito complemented the meal nicely (don’t they always?). My friend ordered a caramel cake dessert but I was too stuffed to partake.. He finished it off, no problem.

We were soon off to our second stop of the evening, a little bar called Bara Bara. Filled with what looked like locals, there was a real community feel to that bar which made you instantly feel at home. For such a small out of the way bar, I was struck by a few men sporting stylish hats.. It somehow felt out of place but at the same time fit perfectly. Bara Bara reminded me of some of the bars I visited years ago in Trinidad - a local neighbourhood bar that pretty much stays the same, year after year. (I have to make mention of the service, which I have found all over Mexico - while I was sitting and happened to reach down and scratch an itch on my leg, a man quickly came over to me and offered me bug spray. Can’t say that has ever happened to me in any other country I‘ve visited!) While a couple of patrons played foosball just outside the entrance, I enjoyed another mojito and some good conversation with my friend. A perfect bar on a perfect evening.

Earlier in the week my Canadian-living-in-Mexico girlfriend asked me where in Mexico I would choose to live , if given the opportunity. I gave it some thought, and although I have visited some really beautiful and special spots in Mexico over the past year and a half, I couldn’t pinpoint one particular area as my favourite. It wasn’t until last night that I could answer her question. Puerto Morelos feels most like me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Three Things I Learned from a Trip to Mexico with my Daughter

Last June I took my fifth trip to Playa del Carmen, this time with my nine year-old daughter. I was excited to show her the Mexico I loved and I fully expected my trip to be the same as the past four had been when I visited alone, maybe minus the nightlife. Yeah, not so much. These are just a few of the things I learned on this last trip.

It's okay to change plans.
I had fantasized about what our days would be like, and was excited to show her the spots I liked to frequent and spend my time. It didn’t turn out that way though. On our first day we walked the many blocks to Kool Beach Club. I love everything about this club - the food (their fish tacos are to die for), the ambiance, the tunes - it’s a fine way to spend a beach day. Taking my daughter there, however, was a different story. On the morning we arrived, ready to spend a fun day at the beach, the ocean was quite rough with huge waves so my girl wasn’t too comfortable swimming in there, even with me. Kool has a pool, but it’s for adults only, which was unfortunate. Also, I realized that sitting on a lounge chair while she played in the sand just wasn’t going to work out too well.. it's just the way things are set up there. I could see that my fantasy of replicating my trips to Playa with her was not going to be possible, so I needed to be flexible and come up with a new plan. We ended up walking back to the beach in front of Fusion restaurant, which was located pretty close to our hotel (Hotel Azul) - a hotel with a lovely pool set among the trees, in case we needed it. It turned out we did need it and spent most of our days between the pool and the beach. No lounge chairs on this trip - just our towels on the sand. It was perfect.

There's more to buying a hammock than meets the eye.
My girl had brought money she had been saving. I showed her how to exchange it at the airport into pesos, and the whole currency exchange sort of amazed her. The first night in Playa, walking down 5th Avenue, among the many shops, my girl spotted the hammocks in among the merchandise. For whatever reason, she has always loved hammocks. We once decided on one hotel over another because one had a couple of hammocks on the property. Every chance she got, she could be found relaxing in one of them. So there we were, walking along the main strip with hammocks on either side of us, in different styles and different colours. We bargained with a few vendors (she loved this as well) and in the process learned more about hammocks than I ever cared to know. Cotton, nylon, silk, double stitched, single stitched, chair style, laying style - who knew there was so much to know about hammocks! Armed with the knowledge of a few days of asking questions and bargaining with various vendors, my girl decided on an orange and yellow, laying style hammock made of silk, double stitched. She spent about $30 for it. And she wants to hang it in her room. I haven’t quite figured out that one yet.

Eating ice cream EVERY night after dinner is a fine tradition.
That’s right, every night. I don’t think I had ever eaten ice cream in Playa before that trip, but this quickly became a new tradition while we walked up and down 5th Avenue after dinner. This is how it would go - first stop was Haagen Daz for two scoops in a cup for me, and then across the street to the gelato place for my girl. They got to know us there. Pretty funny that my girl’s first gelato experience was in Mexico. She teaches me every day to take pleasure in the little things.. guilt free.

I experienced so much with her on that trip - we often talk about it even now, four months later. She loved Mexico as I do, and in fact, didn’t want to leave. She loved the people, the culture and the food (chicken tacos at either Fusion at the beach or El Tulipana at 5th and 16th were a favourite - if it were up to her, she would have eaten them every day). The photo above was taken at Fusion - dinner right on the beach. Her favourite excursion was snorkeling at the reef off the coast of Puerto Morelos with the Snorkel Shop - they took such great care with her and gave her the experience of her life. She loved the butterfly conservatory, giant turtles and (of course) the hammocks at Xcaret Eco Theme Park. We walked 5th Avenue every night and enjoyed the artists who sell their wares each week off of 5th Ave. one night each week. The trip I had envisioned for us was quite different from the one it turned out to be, and I’m so grateful - we had more fun than I could have ever imagined or hoped for.