Friday, November 25, 2016

Splendid Xel-Ha

After getting a very early breakfast at our Azul Beach hotel, we were promptly picked up at 7:20am by the Xel-Ha shuttle and driven, for about one hour, to the Xel-Ha eco-park near Tulum, Mexico.

We arrived at Xel-Ha at 8:20am, right as the park was opening. We initially considered signing up for Sea Trek - an underwater walking adventure, but it was not available. Inna also considered signing up for "Swimming with Dolphins", but she re-considered due to the high price (Inna has done it twice before at Xel-Ha).

Once inside Xel-Ha, we stowed all of our gear in the convenient lockers in the Dolphinarium section of the park and applied sunscreen.

Since we decided to start with the river snorkel, we walked to the bicycle lot, where free-to-use bicycles were located. We rode our bicycles for about 10-15 minutes to the beginning of the river. For those who have items that have to stay dry, Xel-Ha offers a delivery service (you can place your items in a bag and have it delivered in the park). Since all of our items were waterproof, we did not need to use this convenience.

We picked up our snorkel, fins, mask, and lifejacket and entered the refreshing river. There were lots of tree branches all around, and not much to really see in the water except for rocks.

Eventually, we drifted toward the Cliff of Courage, where Alex and I dove in (feet first) from 15 feet (5 meters). Here is a video of our jumps.

I was the first to jump, and Alex followed me. It was an exhilarating jump and a lot of fun!

Alex liked the jump so much that he jumped a couple of times. Here is a view from the top of Cliff of Courage. It's not that scary!

We enjoyed jumping off the Cliff of Courage, and the subsequent jump as well.

After putting back our fins, mask, and snorkel, we continued our leisurely snorkel to the Trepachanga  - or the rope obstacle course. Alex and I both tried to walk on the two ropes, without falling in. Alex eventually succeeded (with lots of support from Inna).

Here is Alex navigating the rope course, or Trepachanga, as it is called in Spanish.

Here is a video Alex and me trying to walk on the Trepachanga.

Some of the other rope obstacle courses were quite challenging. Neither Alex, nor I were able to complete the next one.

Eventually, we turned our attention to the exciting over-water ziplines.

Both Inna and Alex were able to zip simultaneously, ending up eventually in the water. These ziplines were a blast to ride.

Here is a video of our ziplining fun:

Finishing with ziplines, we decide to return to the beginning of the river and try rafting instead of snorkeling.

We enjoyed the rafts but they were slow, unwieldy, and not as much fun as we expected.

After we returned back to the zip-lines, we decided to return back for lunch. It was close to 1:00pm and we were all getting a bit peckish.

On the way to lunch, we stumbled upon Manatee habitat. We stopped by for a few minutes to look at his wondrous creature. There are only about 1,000 species still remaining, majority living in South Florida and Mexico. Manatees are the only known vegetarian mammals, eating up to 10% of weight per day.

The manatees were not doing too much, so we decided to continue to lunch.

There was a ten minute wait to get into the main cafeteria. We were led to a table and offered drinks, so I ordered Margaritas for Inna and me. They were quite good, though they did not have much tequila (I could not taste any liquor at all).

The lunch buffet was acceptable - definitely of the same caliber as the on in Xplor or Xcaret. Nevertheless, I found some edible items, like Russian Oliv'ea Salad and ceviche. Alex's burger had not meat - apparently Xel-Ha ran out!

Three margaritas later, we decided we had enough to eat and decided to continue our Xel-ha adventure with snorkeling nearby. We were hoping to see some colorful fish.

Once we picked up all of our snorkeling gear, we entered the murky water. It was not as clear as we expected (the ocean looked a bit rough). There was not much that we could see, although Inna lucked out and spotted a stingray (we saw dozens of these in Bora-Bora).

Getting a bit bored with snorkeling, we decided to try the tarzan swing, also known as, Chuck Kay's Flight. Here is a short video of our exploits.

Alex had a real enjoyable time, swinging on the rope.

We had a lot of with the tarzan swing.

On the way back, we decided to stop by the famous Mayan Cave,

The Mayan Cave is reachable by swimming into an underground cavern, which has circular holes in its ceiling. The water is quite cold, as if it's coming from some underground river.

Eventually, we made it back to the Dolphinarium, near which were lots of hammocks setup. Both Inna and Alex wanted to rest from the day's activities.

We had a fantastic time at Xel-Ha, but were a bit tired. It was nearing closing time (6:00pm), so we changed and returned to the Hotel shuttle. The ride back to Azul Beach only took about an hour.

Xel-Ha Report Card
  • Fantastic ziplines
  • Fun snorkeling down the river
  • Chuck Kay's Flight (tarzan swing) is a lot of fun
  • Very relaxing hammocks
  • Mediocre lunch buffet
  • Water is quite murky near the floating bridge for snorkeling (and not much to see)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Exciting Xplor

How much fun is the new Xplor adventure in Cancun? We were about to find out.

At 8:40 am, the Xplor van picked us up from the lobby of our Azul Beach hotel. From there, we drove to another hotel, where we waited for twenty minutes for other passengers to show up. The driver almost left, but a Spanish speaking couple showed up, and after a lot of negotiation and plenty of phone calls, they boarded the Xplor park shuttle.

The drive to Xplor took another hour, with us arriving there at around 10:10am. (In retrospect, getting in an hour earlier would have worked much better). We were dropped off, given a wrist band, and were told to meet the van at 4:45pm (right before park closing). In retrospect, this time turned out to be too early for us, as we only finished up at 5:30pm.

We got in line for the park, to get our helmets and locker keys. Helmets were required to be worn due to all of the hanging stalactites and stalagmites.

Checking in took us almost half an hour, as the entrance was very crowded with long lines. We also pre-ordered our photographs and purchased a pair of water shoes for Alex, who was lacking them. The water shoes turned out to be very important, as walking on the rocks barefoot would have been painful.

Once we changed and stowed all our gear in the assigned locker, we decided to try out the Amphibious vehicles since the lines to the famous zip-lines were very long. (There was a sign showing wait times for all of the attractions. Zip-lines stayed perpetually RED).

The designated amphibious vehicles are John Deere mini-Jeeps. They were extremely loud  (they could use better engine muffling as they sounded like bad lawnmowers) and seriously underpowered (with only one forward gear and one rear gear).

Here is my GoPro4 Silver video of our ride:

Nevertheless, I enjoyed driving these Jeeps, splashing through a few mud holes, and through dark caverns. I think driving ATVs was much more fun at our previous Mystic River adventure, but these Jeeps was probably a lot safer. Unfortunately, Alex was not allowed to drive since he was under age (18 minimum). He probably would have enjoyed splashing through the creeks.

Our next activity was river rafting. We walked (it seems forever), through never-ending caverns of stalactites an stalagmites to an underground river, on which small single or two-person rafts floated. Inna chose a single raft, and Alex and I shared a double raft.

We were given small hand paddles to propel the raft forward or backward, and we chose the 30-minute route to explore.

The passages were quite narrow, and we had to watch our heads, to avoid hitting hanging stalagmites. It was a bit boring, and we quickly grew a bit bored with it. The paddle through the many caverns took a really long time.

After returning, we decided to skip the raft #1 route and switch to the river swim. Here, were put on life jackets and swam in a cold, underground river with stalagmites and stalactites everywhere. Despite being cold, it was  fun to swim around and explore all of the underground caves.

We were not even aware that there was a heavy rain shower above ground. Alex did hurt his knee on one of the rocks and was stumbling a bit afterwards. The last cavern on our swim was a giant Cenote, with water coming down on all sides.

It was a truly spectacular sight! Coming out we were completely wet and a bit cold, so we stopped by the lockers to get towels.

As we were cold and hungry (and it was past lunch time), we decided to get lunch. The El Troglodyte restaurant nearby had freshly prepared entrees, and we enjoyed trying out ceviche, salads, pizza, pasta, and countless other well-prepared dishes.

The freshness and quality of the prepared food was way better than most American theme parks.

After warming up with a hot mocha and hot chocolate, we decided to try out the famous zip-lines. We walked toward the entrance and stepped into a long line. Eventually, we put on harnesses and waited in another line to start the first zip line from tower 1.

From there, we zipped across to the next tower, sometimes singly and sometimes paired up. On some zip runs, Alex and I zipped in tandem; on other runs, Inna and Alex zipped together.

Some of the zip lines were very long and others a bit shorter. The very last zip line is unique, as the lines cross a falling stream of water and end up in the underground river, right in the water. We got totally soaked on our last zip line run.

Since zip lines were very slow, we ended up finishing at 5:00pm - right when the park closed, and 15 minutes past our shuttle time. We were not able to finish all of the attractions in the park, despite trying to be very efficient, but we hope to do better next time.

Here is a GoPro4 silver video of our ziplining adventure:

If we had to do it over again, we probably could have skipped the river rafting and the amphibious vehicles and done more zip lines.

When we finally made it back to the park's exit, our hotel shuttle was long gone. We had to scramble to find a taxi that takes credit cards. We were finally able to secure one, but his credit card machine did not work. We ended up going to our Azul Beach hotel and using the ATM there, which dispenses dollars - but the taxi driver wanted 700 pesos for the ride.

To top off the problems, my hotel room's safe, where I kept my ATM card, stopped working, so I needed to get hotel's help to open it. It took a while to finally open the safe, and I was finally able to withdraw cash to pay the taxi driver. It was all very vexing.

Perhaps, the lesson learned is to be prepared to take a taxi back and to stay in hotels that are closer to the main attractions, such as Xel-Ha, Xcaret, and Xplor.

Xplor Report Card
  • Fantastic ziplines (but with a very long wait)
  • Amazing underground caverns with stalactites and stalagmites everywhere
  • Swimming in the underground caverns (exiting in the large Cenote) is quite fun
  • Excellent lunch buffet 
  • Most of the activities are underground (so Xplor can be fun even when it's raining outside)
  • Amphibious vehicle driving is quite boring (and they are extremely slow and LOUD)
  • Rafting in the little hand paddle rafts is not very exciting
  • Photo package is expensive and takes photos randomly in places (many wrong photos)
  • Long wait times for some activities (especially ziplines)
  • Hotel Shuttle pick up at 4:45pm is too early, when Xplor closes at 5:30pm (we missed ours)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Adventures in Tulum and Mystic River

What does an authentic Mexican Cenote/ATV experience feel like? We were about to find out when we embarked on a combined Tulum and Mystic River adventure.

Exactly at 9:00 am, the Mystic River van picked us up from the lobby of our Azul Beach hotel. The driver stopped by two other hotels: Azul Sensatori and Valentin. From here, we drove about an hour to Tulum, where we would spend about 90 minutes, touring the archaeological grounds of the ancient Mayan city.

I thought about skipping to Tulum altogether, because I regarded the city as a minor archaeological site, but I was mistaken. There were significant amount of Mayan temples, houses, and other buildings left over.

There were also a lot more tourists than I expected to see (I would have expected such crowds at Coba or Chichen-Itza)

None of the Mayan buildings were very tall or large, and they pale in comparison to Roman (e.g. Pantheon) and French buildings (e.g. Notre Dame) built around the same time period (or even earlier).

However, it was interesting to see the construction methods of ancient Mayans. The uneven stones, and the use of cement to hold the stones together was  immediately evident. Most of the buildings were not very tall or grandiose and some of the door openings were very short - as if to imply that Mayans were not a very tall people.

Tulum was one of the main seaports of the Mayans, and was protected by walls, which surrounded the city on 3 sides. The walls were not very tall and were crumbling, but they were still standing erect. Ancient Mayans used to ferry goods such as jade to all parts of the Mayan empire aboard large canoes which hugged the coast.

After walking around the ruins, we returned to our designated meeting spot where some of the high-flying acrobats performed daredevil stunts. The would jump off a tall pole and spin around.

We headed for lunch in a nearby authentic Mexican restaurant in downtown Tulum. Alex ordered a "burger", Inna a "fish taco", and I had a "cheese quesadilla". The lunch entrees were well-prepared and the chips were good too, though the spicy sauces were something else. The spiciest sauce was out of this world hot hot hot!

After lunch, we finally arrived at our destination - Mystic River, Cenotes, and ATV adventures. The tour staff explained how to operate the Honda semi-automatic ATV, though Inna felt a bit intimidated. We initially thought about Inna driving solo, while Alex and I would ride together another ATV. However, Inna did not want to deal with the shifting, so she decided to ride on the ATV of one of the tour guides.

This Honda ATV has an automatic clutch, so up or down shifting can be done anytime. The left hand level (used as a clutch on most motorcycles) works as a rear brake (like on a bicycle). Here is a brief video of our ATV adventures:

It also had a separate rear-brake pedal (like all motorcycles), but we were told not to use it as it could lock up rear tires.

Initially, we rode the ATVs to the first public Cenote, where we enjoyed the cool, clear, refreshing water, and jumping off the cliff. After the hot, dusty ride there, it was nice to swim and relax in the cool water.

Alex decided to to a few jumps off the cliff and he enjoyed the sensation of falling into the cool, refreshing Cenote.

Here is a brief video of jumping and swimming in the beautiful Cenote:

After swimming around some more, we decided to get out and dry off, to prepare for the next leg of our adventure.

We continued our ATV adventure to the next Cenote, where there were also zip-lines setup. We rode two separate zip lines: the first as a trial zip line and the second into the bottom of a Cenote.

In the first zip line ride, Alex was adventurous and decided to ride upside down, like Spider-man. He enjoyed the sensation of being upside down (for about 6 seconds).

Both Inna and I rode the zip-lines in the standard position.

The second zip line ride was a bit more exciting. It was quite eery, riding into a dark cavern, where I could barely see anything, and then splashing inside. I wish I could have done it multiple times!

Here is a brief video of zip-lining on both zip-lines using my GoPro4 silver camera:

The crew also recorded a nice video of Alex, Inna, and I riding the zipline in high definition. It was a lot of fun!

After splashing, we got our snorkeling gear and snorkeled in dark, dimly lit caves, with stalagmites and stalactites everywhere.

It was quite amazing to be swimming with all of these sharp objects on the ceiling and all around.

There were even bats on the ceiling, as this area is normally dark, though the tour setup artificial lighting for us to see.

Finishing the snorkeling, we changed and got a snack at the nearby shack - some hibiscus flavored tea and authentic, Mexican banana-leaf baked tamales. The tamales were quite delicious and hit the spot after all of our ATV/Zipline adventures. The tour's photographer also showed us the photos and videos he recorded and we decided to purchase them, as they were reasonably priced (about $50 for all the photos and videos).

On the return trip, I asked to let Alex have a try on riding the ATV. He quickly adjusted to using the gas and brakes but had a more difficult time turning the ATV's handlebars. He really enjoyed driving the ATV and thought it was a lot of fun. He is now even interested in trying dirt biking.

Mystic River & Tulum Report Card

  • ATV Driving is a lot of fun!
  • Fantastic ziplines (but can only go once)
  • Amazing underground caverns with stalactites and stalagmites everywhere
  • Swimming in the underground caverns 
  • Authentic Mayan lunch buffet 
  • Staff Photographer is fantastic 

  • No tour guide in Tulum, to elaborate on the ancient Mayan civilization
  • Can only ride ziplines one time