The car guy had Vince's name on a board, so when we saw him, he grabbed our bags, and we climbed into the shuttle van with an American 4-some and drove us to the nearby office. Renting a car in Mexico is slightly tricky - you really need to make sure you purchase all of the additional insurance, which in this case cost more than the actual rental charges, which were pretty cheap. You should also make sure you ask for a tourist card to show if you get stopped for some minor infraction. Theoretically, they cut you some slack.
After all of the papers were signed, they gave us a little fold-out map of the Riviera Maya, which what the northeast coast of the Yucatan peninsula is called, and sent us on our way. It's really just a straight shot along the coastal highway. Though it's coastal, you can't see the water, which is hidden by dense jungle and denser resorts. The coast is lousy with big resorts - dozens, if not hundreds of them - but we sped on past them towards the little town of Tulum. Since the Rental place (American Rentals - don't forget, Mexico is part of North America!) only left us with 1/8 tank gas, we had to stop for petrol pretty quickly. Having just picked up our pesos at an ATM poor Vince wasn't quite attuned to the money yet, and almost got ripped off by the gas station guy - got 100 pesos less than he should have in change. When he questioned the attendant about it, the supervisor came over, and suddenly the attendant spotted a 100p note under the car (it was pretty windy, and I really don't think it had fallen there). At any rate, the situation was resolved, and on we drove. As we drove south during rush hour, I resolved not to drive at all in Mexico - it looked tricky, risky and .... hard. Nothing I was interested in exposing myself to. One of the important speed control mechanism consists of "topes" (In English, this means "teeth rattling speed bumps"). We really had to keep our eyes open for them, as not all are marked, and if you hit one at the posted speed limit, you'll rue it. If you read on, you'll see that overall, the driving wasn't so bad, and I eventually took my turn.
We arrived in Tulum as darkness fell, and realized we had NO idea how to find the hotel - this was my slip-up. I had assumed it was a tiny easily navigated place, and that we would easily find our hotel in the Zona Hotelera. The hotels in town were all tucked into the neighborhoods, though and the town wasn't quite so tiny (or well-organized) as I'd assumed. We quickly spotted a tourist info place and pulled in - the girl there had no idea where Hotel Residencia la Mariposa was, but found it for us on a map tacked to the wall. We were able to see the street intersection - just a few blocks away. It was the only map she had in the tourist information office (really? yes), and we couldn't take it. As we tootled off, we noticed belatedly that there were few street signs, and we were still lost! Eventually, we found ourselves in the right area, a residential neighborhood on the south end of town. A friendly neighbor pointed the way, and there was our place. The Hotel Residencia la Mariposa is Italian owned, neat, clean, reasonably efficient, and cheap ($41/night). The rooms are spare and color coordinated. Ours was mint green, so the butterfly on the door, the very basic wood furniture, and the shelves were all painted that color. The floors were a clean, shiny grey tile, and everything else was white, including the coarse cotton curtains. The bed, sadly, was pretty uncomfortable - just a mattress on a plank bedframe - but we were usually so tired that it didn't matter. there was a portable a.c. unit over the window with a remote control (Daewoo made - it was kind of slick). Our view was of the neighborhood was of typical small town Mexico, I think. There were palm trees, coconuts, oodles of plants of all types, plus clothes lines, people's projects and junk in the yards. We could hear all the neighborhood noises, music, people calling out. It was very homey and fun, I thought. The first couple of nights we kept the windows open, but it became too loud and too hot. The hotel had a breezy little veranda on our floor (3rd) with big green tropical plants, rattan furniture, and cool red tile floors. During the week, we sat out there several times - it was delightful.
That first night, we walked a block or so to El Camello (the Camel) a delicious, cheap pescado place (fish) - we had sopa pescado the first night, guacamole, tortopels(sp? - tortilla chips). Sat in little cheap plastic chairs at a cheap plastic tables right in front of the parked cars and trucks. We had a great, swift waitress who spoke no English (thanks Vince, for all the translating!). The clientele was a mix of locals and tourists. We ended up eating here several more times, and especially liked their ceviche (we got mixto - pescado, camaron and pulpo - delish! - that's fish, shrimp and octopus.
Next morning, we went exploring in the little town of Tulum, but first we took advantage of the "continental breakfast" included in our room fee. Tea or coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and toast with jam and butter. The toast was white bread, Bimbo brand. I had forgotten people even ate white bread anymore. It sort of held us until lunch time - we always took advantage of it, though, as it WAS included!
Our first task that day was to purchase some bottled water - it's true that you should NEVER drink the tap water in Mexico. The restaurants typically make their ice cubes from bottled water and wash the produce the serve in bottled (or at least purified) water, too. I'm pleased to say that neither of us got so much as a twinge in the gut - we were very very careful. (except for one time, which I'll tell you about later - that time, we were just plain lucky). When we purchased fresh fruit at the markets, we washed it in bottled water - scrubbed the skins (and then peeled them)
We found a little grocery and bought a couple of large bottles, then headed for the beach! It was just about a mile away - there was a long straight road to the beach, which t-intersected with a long straight beach road from which you could access the beach hotels, restaurants and little businesses, as well as small plots of personally owned land. The road from town to the beach looked as if it was undergoing some up-sprucing - there were new palm trees planted, a wide bike/walking path, landscaping, etc. Tourists were up an down this path in groups and alone. Some backpackers and wanderers hike along here and there.
Now, the reason we headed to the beach first off was to locate the kite-surfing school we'd signed up with. We had scheduled 3 1/2 days of lessons, and the first lesson was scheduled for 2pm that day. We drove along the beach road looking for the "Extreme Control" sign. It was on the right a couple of miles down, next to a high dark wooden fence. There were a couple of cars parked. We pulled up next to them and went to the gate - it wouldn't open for us, and we were afraid the place was locked up tight. While we sat and dithered a couple of people popped out of the gate, and we figured out how to pull the latch and get in.
Once we stepped over the bar, we were surrounded by a jungle of palm trees growing from the sandy beach and knolls. We spoke briefly to a fellow who appeared to have a shade-tree mechanic business right inside the gate, and he gestured beachward. Over hill and dale we went, shoes off, toes in the sand. We passed a dozen or so small dome tents, and several colorful hammocks. It seems that people stay or live there for days or weeks on end, roughing it. When we arrived finally at the school, we spied a few more permanent buildings - the kitchen was in one, the toilets were in another, and the kite school office was in a one room lean-to. Everything else was in the open air. Mario and Heather, who run the kite school greeted us, and introduced us to our instructor, Julien Kepski. They'd apparently had a cancellation, and suggested that we begin right away. Seemed like a good idea. We covered ourselves with spf 70 (me) and spf 30 (vince) and stepped through the fence to the Caribbean beach.
Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh. It was all I could think of to say. wonderful warm breeze, blue sky, bright sun, and aqua waters lapping beaches of fine white sand. How could anything be more perfect?
Then we turned around and stepped back to the school, because we were required to wear a kite harness, life jacket and helmet during the lesson, so we had to don and figure out how to use all of these things.
Once safely outfitted, we headed back out with our friendly instructor, Julien. More in the next installment.