BITW Podcast Episode 038: breakintotravelwriting.com/bitw-038

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sunrise at casa magna hotel in Cancun, Mexico.

Sunrise from hotel balcony at Casa Magna.

Hi Everyone. I haven’t done a solo episode in a while and thought it was time I caught up with all of you and shared my most recent travel adventure.

For any of you who have been listening to my podcast since the beginning you know I had a goal of visiting Colombia and Panama in August with my son Roland. Sometimes life changes your plans. This is exactly what happened when my father was told he need heart surgery in May. Without getting into too much detail, It got problematical because the surgery he needed was complicated and he needed a specialist that his insurance company didn’t want to approve.  This turned into a lot time fighting with the insurance company and my sister and I spending most of May and June working on this– but the good news is he was finally approved and had his surgery in July and is doing great.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in a position to plan my trip to Colombia and Panama because I had no idea when his surgery was going to happen. My intention for that trip was to work with multiple destinations, hotels and PR. So, July came and went and 3-4 weeks is a bit too short to plan a 30 day trip working with PR. In my experience, when working with international PR it’s good to begin reaching out at least six weeks in advance.

When my dad was healed and recovered from his surgery, Roland and I began looking for another adventure. Alaska, was top on my list and still is …. Simply because it didn’t actually happen for us this summer. Again – by the time I reached out to the PR people at Visit Anchorage, we had about 2 weeks to plan the trip – which isn’t enough time for them to work with their vendors. Anchorage is interesting because it also has such a finality to it’s tourism season. Literally all the tours stop by September 15, if not a bit sooner and coupled with the fact that, I think it was Jet blue that had some amazing flight deals, there was extremely low availability for hotels. So, the tourism rep I was working with at visit Anchorage and I decided my visit will have to be next May! Something to look forward to, but I have to admit I was a bit disappointed.

We were now in mid August, but I was determined to have a fun adventure with my son. It was clear a media trip (unless we stayed local) was going to be hard to pull off.

We started looking for good airfare. If you haven’t checked out Googleflights, it’s a great resource for getting a starting point for basic fares from your destination.

Head to https://www.google.com/flights and enter your departure city and then scroll down a bit and click on the map that says explore destinations. You can use your mouse to move the map and see airfares to destinations around the world.  Wow, I can fly from San Diego to Shangai right now for $662. That is a great fare—oops getting off track.

If you are a travel geek like me, this Google Flights map can put you into a tailspin of research. So, we looked for airfare for a few days and finally decided on Cancun as a destination with the goal of visiting the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Of course, It’s pretty hard for me to not reach out to PR on some level for a trip. It’s just part of how I plan a trip, but I also made a conscious decision that this trip would be more of an adventure for us. I wanted this to be about travel, not a vacation.

We booked our flights on a Monday evening and flew out that Wednesday.

I did reach out to PR Company for the Marriott in Cancun – which is Diamond PR and they offered Roland and me a two day stay at the CasaMagna, which sits adjacent to the JW Marriott Cancun Resort in Cancún’s Hotel Zone. This was our one and only hotel reservation for the two week trip.

CasaMagna is a 450-room beachfront resort and is ranked by U.S. News as one of the Best Hotels in Cancun for 2015. We had an ocean front room with a view of the amazing crystal clear Caribbean Sea. The hotel is beautiful, with a huge lobby offering views of the grounds, poos and beach. The resort offers just about everything you could want or need from a luxury hotel. Everything from casual to fine dining, a gorgeous pool with swim up bar and of course, beautiful white sand beach stretching out to Caribbean sea with it’s truly amazing hues of blue and green.

Caribbean sea in Cancun, Mexico

The hotel is in the midst of a remodel and we stayed in one of the newly remodeled rooms. It’s really spacious, 423sqft with two queen sized beds that were super comfortable, air conditioning, marble bathrooms and a large balcony. It was hot when we visited and while we did venture out several times a day to take a peak at the amazing view and sunrise, I would imagine I would spend a lot more time there in the cooler months. The resort does offer a kids’ club and children’s pool, although now that Roland is 13 – he doesn’t really use them anymore.

The breakfast buffet at La Capilla Argentine Steakhouse offered a large variety of stations and delicious selections. Standouts for me were the Mexican hot chocolate, salsa and guacamole bar, chillaquilles, and delicious fresh fruit. Roland loved the freshly made pastries and the fresh fruit.

Our first day at the resort, the number one priority was to swim in the Caribbean sea. The waters were as still as a lake and as we swam further and further out we realized we could still see the white sand at the bottom of the ocean. It was amazing. Not every day is as this calm, as we found out the next morning. When the waves are coming into shore, they bring seaweed and the visibility completely changes. That is not to say, it isn’t still fun to swim in the warm, beautiful water, but to see the Caribbean during a day of calm is really magical. That first morning we decided to swim out to a line of buoys they have – Id say it was several hundred feet from shore. Roland and I each leaned over one of the buoys, talked about life and just stared at the bottom of the ocean floor amazed at how absolutely clear and beautiful the water was. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.

There were many standouts for us during our stay at CasaMaga, but what truly made the stay memorable was our opportunity to see the baby turtles. I think we had a bit of luck on our side. The second day at the hotel, I woke up early to head to the beach and take some sunrise photos and I ran into a couple who showed me the turtle tracks all over the beach and the protected area the turtle eggs are kept in on the beach at CasaMagna. As we were standing there two employees came over and began checking the different areas to see if any of the turtles had hatched.

baby turtle release at Casa Magna in Cancun, Mexico

What I learned was in the evenings during egg laying season – the females will come up on the beach and lay eggs and then go back in the water. One the female turtle heads back to the water, Marine biologists or employees will move the eggs to the protected area and leave a marker with the date. So, when the two employees that morning were looking for groups of eggs at the right hatching dates. I got to watch them gently dig in the sand until they came upon a group a baby turtles that had hatched and then they took them one by one in a large bucket to keep them safe until they would release them in the evening. The babies and in danger from birds, during day light hours, so they keep them secure and safe until a release in the evening. While they were in the midst of gathering the new baby turtles from the sand, Roland just happened to walk up. Perfect timing and I was so glad he got to the turtles. They even let him hold one of the turtles for a quick moment.

On top seeing the babies that morning, it turned out they were doing a turtle release that evening that was open to guests. While they let turtles go most evenings during this time of year, they only allow guests of the hotel to take part in the release every 7-10 days. We just happened to be there the night of a release. At dusk that evening we gathered on the beach with about 20 other hotel guests and patiently waited for the birds to ‘give up waiting’. They actually won’t release the turtles if there are any birds in eyesight. While we waited two hotel employees shared information about the turtles and answered questions. We also had a quick photo opp with a few of the babies.

When the birds finally gave up – we headed to the shoreline and they released about 300 turtles into the sea. It was a really beautiful moment watching these tiny turtles instinctively know to head out into the water to start their life in the sea.

Here is a short video of Roland with a turtle the night of the release:

What is really cool is that In the Mexican Caribbean resort town of  Cancun, turtle egg-laying season is between May and September and I was fortunate to visit with my son during August and experience eggs hatching and baby turtles make their way to the ocean.

For most sea turtles, making their way onto the beach at night to lay eggs can be a risky situation. In Cancun, a few of the hotels located on the famed ‘Hotel Zone’  have created sea turtle protection and release programs. I recently visited CasaMagna Marriott Cancún Resort, where in conjunction with their adjacent property, the JW Marriott have implemented a sea turtle protection and release program that protects and preserves this endangered species. CasaMagna and JW Marriott Cancun Resorts save an average of 3,000 endangered baby turtles each year.

When the female turtles make their way onto the beach to lay their eggs, they are guarded from a distance by a marine biologist or hotel employees to make sure they are not disturbed. The females, then head back to the Caribbean waters, leaving their eggs to incubate. Once the female turtle heads back to sea, the marine biologist or hotel employees  will relocate the eggs to a protected area to ensure that nesting sea turtles go undisturbed. Once the eggs have been moved and buried in the sand, the mound is marked with a sign designating the date, the species of turtle – Blanca (Green), Carey (Hawksbill), Caguama (Loggerhead) – and the number of eggs. Average hatching takes 60 days, but can be faster depending on the temperature of the sand.

My first morning at CasaMagna, I headed to the beach for the sunrise with my son and we ran into two other hotel guests who showed us the turtle tracks in the sand and the protected area the turtle eggs are kept in on the beach at CasaMagna. As we were standing there two employees came over and began checking the different mounds to see if any of the turtles had hatched.

Nest of baby turtles at Casa Magna in Cancun, Mexico

We watched them gently dig in the sand until they came upon a group of baby turtles that had hatched. They took them one by one and placed them in a large bucket.  The babies are in danger from birds, during day light hours, so they keep them secure and safe until a release in the evening.

On top seeing the babies that morning, it turned out they were doing a turtle release that evening that was open to guests. While they let turtles go most evenings during this time of year, they only allow guests of the hotel to take part in a release every seven to 10 days. At dusk that evening we gathered on the beach with about 20 other hotel guests and patiently waited for the birds to ‘give up waiting’. The hotel won’t release the turtles if there are any birds in eyesight. While we waited two hotel employees shared information about the turtles and answered questions. We also had a quick photo opp with a few of the babies.

When the birds finally gave up – we headed to the shoreline and they released about 300 turtles into the sea. It was a really beautiful moment watching these tiny turtles instinctively know to head out into the water to start their life in the sea.

They have implemented this sea turtle protection and release program that protects and preserves this endangered species and  it saves an average of 3,000 endangered baby turtles each year.

Yeah for the Marriott! If you travel to Cancun – support the Marriott and this amazing program they have implemented! And make sure to spread the word about this great cause.

Our last night at the Marriott, Roland and I had some serious decision making. We arrived in Cancun with a general idea of things we wanted to do – visit some of the ruins, swim in the Caribbean, snorkel and visit some of the islands, but as I said, we had no itinerary and no other hotel reservations. Enter, hotels.com, which we used for all our reservatons for the trip. This is not a sponsored plug, in fact I was interested in using hoteltonight, but I decided to give Roland the responsibility of choosing our hotels and where we would head next. Roland did his research and decided hotels.com and then once we started using it, we wanted to continue because after 10 booked nights, you get 1 free.

Having only ticked one thing off our to do list, which was swim in the Caribbean, Roland wanted to head to an island for snorkeling.

So, from Cancun, which is located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quinta Roo, Roland and I headed to into town to Isla Tortugas to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, which is 8 miles from Cancun across the Bahia de Mujeres. The ferry took about 30 minutes and offers some really fun people watching and some entertainment – a man who did a song and dance routine on the upper deck of the boat.

Arriving in Isla Mujeres, which is only 5 miles long and half a mile wide at its widest point, you can see quickly that the golf cart is main mode of transportation. I don’t know if this island had an ‘island vibe’ because it’s an island or because of the boat ride over, but this is one cute little island. The downtown area, known as ‘Centro’ is just four by six blocks and while our hotel was close, we ended up spending a good chuck of our time at our hotel, Mia Reef. It is the best location on the entire island. It sits at the northern tip of Isla Mujeres. We stayed in one of the villas, a mini kitchen and patio with a view of the ocean in all directions.

Casa Mia hotel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The hotel was all inclusive, and has a art deco look to the lobby and exterior. The hotel has a reef on the backside for snorkeling near the villas as well as a naturally formed pool on the front side of the hotel. It’s surrounded by rock and reefs allowing for very calm and clear water for snorkeling. There is also a wood boardwalk that is another great spot for snorkeling located at the furthest northern point of the hotel and the island.

Lobby at Casa Mia in Isla Mujere

If I’m being honest – you are paying for the location. The food was not spectacular and there is only one restaurant to choose from. The staff as amazing, the location specatular – but at the prices we paid, you could easily head into to town for dinners and still feel like you are getting a great deal.

One other thing I should say about this hotel, is that it attracts fun people. Everyone we met, was friendly and we made some good friendships in our short stay.

We did rent a golf cart one day and headed to the other side of the island with one of the families we met at the hotel. We were in search of iguana park, which is supposed to have an amazing view and home to large iguanas. We never made it to the park, because we found Garrafon Park – which is an all inclusive zip lining, kayaking and snorkeling resort. One fee and a full day of activities, food, drinks, and fun. It was Roland’s first ziplining experience and it was over the Caribbean! It was a 3 zip line course over the most beautiful water ever! There is also a large reef here and some great snorkeling.

Ziplining at Garrafon Park in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Oh, quick Side note – don’t let your 13 year old son drive the golf cart. The police in Isla Mujeres don’t like it. Upside, it only a $20 bribe and not a visit to the police station.

Once back at our hotel after an day of fun at Garrafon, it was time to decide where we would go next. We decided, after a few beach days, it was a good time to visit some of the ruins in the Yucatan. Roland jumped back on hotels.com and booked us at  Hotel Villas Arqueologicas in Chichen Itza. We took the ferry back to Cancun, jumped on a bus to one of the many malls where we rented a car. Now, I think the car cost about $150 for 8 days, but I know we could have got a better deal if we had booked this online and in advance.

Chitchen Itza, which is located in the Yucatan state is about two hours from Cancun. When we were looking for the hotel for Chitchen Itza, several hotels popped up for nearby town called Valladolid.

Valladolid is a Spanish colonial town, that was named after a city in spain by the same name and was at one time the capital of Spain, The town is quaint and full of great photo opps. Buildings are in hues of yellow and pink and the streets. Lot’s of shops and friendly people. We parked and walked in and out of shops. We had lunch at a quaint restaurant, visited a Mayan chocolate shop and museum and an amazing tequila shop.

My suggestion if you are in this part of Mexico is to stay at least a night here. I would love to go back and have more time to explore. But, for us this was just a pit stop on our way to Chitchen Itza. We arrived at Hotel Villas Arqueologicas in the late afternoon and it was great. It was a two story hotel built like hacienda. The rooms, surrounded the pool and there was restaurant adjacent to the pool for indoor or outdoor dining. The rooms were simple and there was no TV. I’m pretty sure our maid was our waitress, but this place had so much charm. There was also a game room with pool table and large screen TV.

I can stay in lodging like this all day long. I love the quaintness and authenticity. The major plus, was it was a 10 minute walk to Chitchen Itza. We met a group of men who were doing a ‘ruin’s trip’ – traveling a little the same as us – a bit on the fly. They were the perfect people to bump into, because they were near the end of their trip and had some great suggestions for us and even told us about a fourth ruin site we didn’t know about called Ek Balam.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Yucatan, Caribbean

Roland and Alexa exploring Chichen Itza

We ended up sharing a private guide with the guys as well, for our trip to Chitchen Itza the next day. That was a gift, because the cost went to a fifth of what I thought it would cost! If you are going to visit the ruins in this part of mexico or anywhere, a guide is great for at least one of your visits. I really wanted to have the guide for our first ruins, as it gave us so much of the mayan history and allowed us to appreciate all the ruins we were about to explore in the next few days. Plus Chitchen Itza has so much detail with it’s connection to the calendar and secret passageways and special sounds – like if you clap at a certain spot it echos like the sound of a bird. I could go on and on, but I don’t want this to turn into a history lesson.

I think we spent about 2 or 3 hours at Chitchen Itza and when we got back to the hotel we were hot and hungry. After a quick dip in the pool and lunch we decided to visit a nearby Cenote.

Ik Kil Cenote in Yucatan, Mexico

We went to Ik Kil, and if you have never been to a cenote, they can be underground or open. This cenote is open to the sky. As a writer, I shouldn’t say this, but worlds don’t adequately describe a cenote, but I’ll try.  As you enter Ik Kil, which has some regular tourist stuff like a gift ship, food vendors and such, you then walk up to a railing and look down hundreds of feet into the Cenote. There are vines which reach from the opening all the way down to the water along with small waterfalls. We walked down the carved stone stairway, to the pool which is 150 feet deep.

You can simply take the wooden stairs down to the pool and swim or you can climb the stairs on one side of the cenote and jump or dive in. I jumped from the lowest platform – I’m not good with heights, but roland worked his way up stair by stair until he jumped from the highest point into the water. I actually have a really cool slo-mo video of him jumping in I’ll also put in the show notes.

Cenote Ik Kil is sacred to they believed cenotes to be portals to the underworld and a way to communicate with the gods.Cool, huh!

The next day we decided to visit Ek Balam – the ruin site our new friends told us about, which was on the way to Coba, and were the ruins we had planned to visit that day as we headed to Tulum. Roland jumped on the internet and chose a glamping tent at Harmony as our accommodations in Tulum. If you have never glamped – it’s basically glamour camping, which in this case meant a really cool canvas tent with a queen bed, night stand and fan.

We were a bit worried when we arrived in the height of afternoon heat.  Since, it was a bit hot, we headed to the beach for dinner and an ocean breeze. The beach area was super cute and I’d love to head back and have more time in Tulum.

When we arrived back to Harmony, we were thankful for the fan in the tent and the fact that sides of the tent had mosquito net windows we could open, and that it did cool down for a good night sleep.

There were 4 or 5 glamping tents in the outdoor space, a communal bathroom, hammocks and bikes for use. It was really cute and quite affordable. I think we paid $25 or $30 dollars.

So, back to the ruins – we did end up visiting Ek Balam and Coba one day and Tulum on our way out of town. Each ruin site was very unique and interesting in their own way. At all of the ruin sites, there are available guides, but we didn’t do another guided tour. At Ek Balam, an 8th-century Mayan village with a temple & pyramid, I met a man who worked at the site – he didn’t speak English, but my Spanish was improving by this point of the trip and he shared a lot about the location and why it was different from Chitchen Itza.

Currently at Ek Balam and Coba you can still climb the structures—while at Chitchen Itza you can not. Roland climbed to the top of both – I made it about half way. Again, my height thing and the stairs are big and steep. Going up is fine and I wasn’t the only coming down on my butt.

At Coba, we rented bikes to visit the different sites – Coba is  8th-century ruins of a Pre-Columbian Maya civilization,and spread out over a big area and it’s easier and more fun to explore on bike.

The ruins at Tulum are a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city located on a 39 foot cliff on  on the Caribbean Sea– making this picturesque in totally different way than the other sites.

Our last adventure on this trip was a visit to Playa Del Carmen, which is located about ½ way between Tulum and Cancun on the Riviera Maya. These last couple days were more about a few more days on the beach and relaxing. While we wanted to make it to Cozumel for snorkeling, we ran out out of time – but it’s just a great reason so head back and I’d also love to visit Merida, another Spanish colonial town and more cenotes. Belize is just short trip as well. There is no shortage of things to do on the Yucatan Peninsula and it is a beautiful part of mexico. I felt completely safe traveling there on my own with Roland and in fact, should say that literally every local we met was helpful and kind.

The biggest takeaway for me during this trip was watching Roland turn into a traveler. Not everyone can embrace a 2 week trip with no itinerary and this was a great test for us. He loved the excitement factor of planning as we traveled and it allowed him a lot of responsibility for this experience. Next summer trip will be 4 weeks.

Hope you enjoyed this episode. Head to the breakintotravelwriting.com/bitw-038 and let me know about a travel adventure that changed your perspective. What was the trip that turned you into a traveler and not a “vacationer”? Let me know!

And until next time!