Outdoors: Lazy in the Yucatan
November 9, 2012
PLAYA del CARMEN, Mexico – Midway through my trip to the Riviera Maya last week, I started to feel guilty.
For three days, I had done very little in terms of outdoor activity. Basically, with the beachfront weather cloudy, humid and mild, I was treating Playa del Carmen as though it were a satellite of New Orleans. Which is to say, I was gambling on horses, drinking in touristy clubs and meeting all sorts of colorful strangers, listening to live music well into the morning hours, eating fatty foods and sleeping until noon – the same things I do when I vacation back home in Louisiana.
On Wednesday morning, slightly disgusted by my relative inactivity, I mustered up the energy to take the ferry ($25 round trip) from Playa del Carmen, where I was staying for most of the trip, to the island of Cozumel. My plan was to follow my Aspen friend’s advice and rent a scooter ($40 per day) and roam the island’s eastern and southern coasts, where beachside tiki bars are plentiful and American tourists, at least this time of year, are scarce.
Dragging a bit after having too many Dos Equis Cerveza Lagers ($4 each) at the Tequila Barrel sports parlor in Playa the night before, I was about an hour late getting to the Cozumel port city of San Miguel, on the island’s western side. But it was only about 11:45 a.m. I hurried to the scooter rental place, went through the safety drills with the good-natured salesmen there and soon was on my merry way.
Advice for anyone planning to scooter around the island of Cozumel: Don’t dally in San Miguel. Get on the main mid-island highway headed east as quickly as possible. There is too much to do and see on the eastern beaches. On the mid-island highway, you will pass thick tropical forests and even some Mayan ruins. There are a few colorful stores and cafes and native islanders cutting the thick brush of the forest with machetes who might make for interesting conversations. Time is money; skip all of that and only stop when you reach the sea.
Once the highway hits the ocean, there are two small beachside restaurants. They are nondescript and inexpensive. I tried fish tacos at one and flautas at the other, eating basic lunch items like a Texas gringo. Both meals were quick and excellent, not to mention cheap ($10 each). Within 45 minutes, and after two strong margaritas ($6 each), I hopped back on the scooter and made my way down the coastline. It was 1:30 p.m., and time was running short.
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My destination was the Bob Marley House, a reggae-themed restaurant and bar, on the southeast corner of the island. To my surprise, the name had changed, and I passed it. Finally, I stopped, and someone told me to go back a few miles: The venue now was called Rasta’s. Upon pulling into the parking lot, I had the good fortune of bumping scooters (it was a minor accident, and I’m not sure who was at fault) with a tall beauty from Uruguay named Pamela.
Pamela was sweet, and her English was not so bad. We had a couple of beers together and made small talk while walking along the exotic rocky beach near Rasta’s. She told me she had moved to Playa to work as a dancer at one of the clubs there. She didn’t really like it, but it was a way to earn a living. I enjoyed my time with her, and the iguanas that seemed to be following us, and we made plans to get together on the mainland within the next few days. I could have spent much more time at Rasta’s, but the sun was starting to drop, and I had to turn in the scooter by 6 p.m. With many more miles ahead of me to get back to San Miguel, I bid Pamela farewell.
Don’t try to turn in a scooter in Cozumel at night. The roads in San Miguel become fierce. I nearly had several collisions with people whizzing by on scooters and motorcycles and beat-up cars. For a town of 60,000, the traffic is an urban nightmare. Somehow, without a decent map, I reached the drop-off spot in the nick of time: The cheery salesmen were locking their doors. A few hours later, after finding a restaurant run by some people from the U.S. (Bob’s), I boarded the ferry and returned to Playa.
On Thursday, I wanted to do something else outdoorsy that required minimal skills. Essentially, I wanted to lay on a sunny beach but not in Playa, where the surf is a bit placid and the small strips of sand are somewhat crowded, even during the offseason. I asked the friendly clerk at my hotel, Aventura Mexicana ($65 per night), where I should go. He suggested Akumal Beach, about 15 miles south and a mere $20 cab ride away.
I was glad to have found a place like Akumal, where I could get away from the crowds (and obnoxious salesmen) along the Fifth Avenue shopping zone near my hotel. I wandered away from the village toward a private area, with many empty timeshare condos, and found a rocky beach with a small strip of sand where I could lay down my towel and styrofoam ice chest. Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” never sounded so good. I slept for an hour, with the cool spray from the ocean occasionally hitting my back, and then decided to hit the water.
The surf rolls into the beachfront fairly violently. I got pounded while wading in about three feet of blue-green surf. From my spot, less than 20 yards from my towel, I could see all sorts of marine life: turtles, blackfin tuna and other creatures I couldn’t identify. After about 40 minutes, when I saw what appeared to be a bull shark a mere 30 feet away, I made a beeline for my towel.
They say Akumal is a great place to scuba dive and snorkel, but I was satisfied with a few hours on the rocky beach. I slept a little longer and woke up to find some local kids pointing at me and laughing. I think I was the “great white whale” to them. I collected my garbage and some other bits of refuse (plastic bottles) that had washed up on the beach and walked back to the village, where many Mexican tourists were eating at the Lol Ha restaurant. Not feeling like a meal, I caught a cab back to Playa.
Mexico is cheap if you do it right. I probably spent $150 for a day in Cozumel, scooter and ferry included, and $70 in Akumal, round-trip taxi included. The prices for everything on the Riviera Maya will go up from December through February (their version of the high season), so if you’ve got the time and the inclination, book a trip for before Thanksgiving or after the winter ski season.
And don’t spend the majority of your days sleeping until noon, betting on races at Santa Anita and haggling with the smarmy salesmen on the Fifth Avenue pedestrian mall in Playa. The outdoors are where the action really is.