The Start of A Travel Adventure – Playa Del Carmen

*I’ll start this post by sharing one of the joys of travel. Though the post itself will be presented chronologically – it’s currently the 26th of December.  I’m sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio on the Belize/Guatemala border and relaxing. Not 5 minutes ago a friend I made during a 3 day sailing trip I was on three days ago walked in and sat down on the computer next to me.  It truly is a small, delightful world full of new friendships and great adventures.   Now back to the story…

In typical form I haphazardly kept my packing list in the back of my mind as the days raced by.  Checking average weather reports for the region, trying to fathom how they might be accurate and debating what the true temperature would be.  After all – mid 80s in the heart of winter?  Would it truly be that warm?  Would it be a humid heat or a humid cold?

As I entered the final 24 hours before the trip I finally committed myself to packing.   I turned the living room into a war zone.  Bags laid out, clothing piled on top of clothing, shoes tossed about and items mixed into yes and maybe piles.  Eventually, I paused and recorded the video of the final packing list I’d come up with.  In retrospect I packed for too cold a climate, but more on that later.

With my bags packed, destination confirmed and brother sleeping on my sofa ready to give me a ride to the airport at 7 in the morning i crawled into bed; nervous, excited, eager.

The flight itself was what i’ve come to expect.  In typical form US Airways managed to blow it. After several phone conversations and assurances that I was A) Not on a bulkhead and B) not next to a bathroom I ended up A) Against a bulkhead (no reclining seats), B) immediately next to a bathroom (I couldn’t have been closer), and just for S&Gs C) Next to a mother/father/toddler combo.   Taking things in stride I plugged in my ear buds, turned the volume up to hide the young child’s shrieks and zoned out for the 5 hour flight.


The view during the landing was compelling.  Beautiful beaches along the coast, intense looking jungle so thick that it looked almost uniform – as though it was scrub brush – not tall trees and lush jungle.  The landing was anything but white knuckle and the blast of hot, humid air that hit me as I crossed from the plane to the terminal a delight.

Before I knew it I had been ushered through customs and security and found myself over dressed, sweating and delighted by the weather bathed in bright sunlight and with flowerbeds full of vibrantly colored blooming flowers.  I’d arrived in Cancun.  My visit was to be brief.  Within minutes i’d found the bus stop, booked a $8 ticket to Playa del Carmen and settled in for a brief wait.

Playa Del Carmen

The bus ride was easy.  As I wondered where I was, staring out the windows periodically trying to catch a street sign, i soon realized locating my hostel wouldn’t be overly difficult.  The bus dropped me off right in the heart of the tourist district and after misreading my directions once I found my hostel.  At first I was completely put off.

Located up a stairway sandwiched between two bars the reception was a small room set off the stairs.  I paid, checked in and was ushered to the dorm room.  A cement affair that provided a pillow, clean under sheet and sheet. I was rather concerned and put off – despite the heat – by the lack of a blanket.  In retrospect, i’ve come to realize that most hostels in the region don’t provide blankets as they’re completely unnecessary.  A cover sheet is typically more than sufficient given the hot, muggy nights – even in December.  The hostel lounge, common area, kitchens and bars I’d expected were all missing as well.  More than a little disappointed I headed downstairs for a beer.  It was only on returning that I continued up stairs and realized that the hostel was all around quite decent.  I’d just missed the hallway to the two rooftop bars, pool, kitchen with free internet access and social area. All of which were a major relief, especially for any hopes finding travel friends and social connections.

Despite discovering the social areas of the hostel, things were fairly quiet.  I set off again for food – locating a taco stand by the bus station.  Six delicious tacos and Coca Cola later I was stuffed, happy and starting to settle in and relax.  I strolled along the bustling main avenue as it bled tourists, hawkers and locals onto the side streets and delighted in the white sandy beach and warm water.  It was already dark, but my spirits had already started to lift – any concern I had over picking Mexico and Belize instead of Europe was already being driven out by the joys of a new adventure in a new region.

Feeling tired I made my way back to the hostel and settled in at the hostel bar where I quickly got to know the local barman. As I picked his brain a group of guys from one of the other rooms settled in at one of the tables.  Before long I joined them – an American from the east coast, a German from the norther part of Germany, an Aussie and two Israelis.  We got acquainted, ran through the usual howdy-dos and before long were exchanging stories and advice.  As time progressed the group grew – and before long we included an American girl and her Australian travel companion.

The Israelis had taken a cab and done their own trip to Dos Ojos and Akumel for snorkeling earlier that day and spoke highly of it.  Zeno (the guy from NY) suggested we consider renting a car at a local place he’d found during a previous trip as well as snorkeling gear from a local shop on the cheap.   Thrilled at the opportunity to bypass th $90+ trips to Xel-Ha and other tourist aquatic Disneyland-esque destinations I jumped at the shot to join them.

With a car and gas split 4 ways and a $5 snorkel/mask/fin rental we were able to start the trip for less than $25 a piece.   That story, however, needs it’s own post – so stay tuned.

After setting a 9 o’clock start time for the following day I paid the $8 for a pub crawl which left the hostel a bit after 11 and headed to a new club re-opening.  The club itself was fairly unimpressive.  Over packed, hot and humid it lacked a decent dance floor and had obnoxious security guards.  That said, the did had a show shortly after we arrived which was quite impressive.  The performers dressed in extravagant outfits inspired by the UAE and Dubai performed a series of aerial acrobatics while suspended from two hanging ropes – much like what one would expect in a cirq-de-sole (sp) performance. About an hour after the performance I grew tired of the heat and excused myself – a few of the others joined me and after a quick stop back at the hostel to drop off one of the girls we struck back out to explore the rest of the city’s night life.  By two it was time for bed, and time to prepare for the following morning’s adventure!

As I crawled into bed I only paused briefly to pinch myself and reflect – some how it had only been a few hours since I landed.

The Packing Video – Belize and Mexico in December


***Update as of 1/13/09 I have returned to the states and will be doing a re-cap. The above list needs significant commentary as I overpacked/packed for a climate that was far colder than what I encountered. Things like the polos and wool socks should be avoided***

My anticipation is palpable.  It’s been slowly building since September when I found a cheap ticket price, decided to leap at the opportunity and selected my destination. I’ve sent the past months fighting the urge to wander, dreaming of far off places and sorting through old travel photos from trips past.  Now I can finally embrace the energy and anticipation!  The raw nerves of a new experience in a new place, embraced on my own, in new territory and with new wonders yet undiscovered.  Each trip pushes me outside my comfort zone, each trip helps me learn more about who I am and who I may yet become. This trip is another large step forward.  I’m traveling solo for 20 days in a part of the world I’ve never experienced before.  I’m excited, i’m nervous…i’m anxious.

I’ll begin by confessing that I don’t know much about my destination.  I prefer it that way. In fact, though it embarrasses me to admit it – when I booked my ticket to Cancun, Mexico with the intent of then spending the lions share of my time in Belize I was under the impression that the natives spoke Spanish.  It was only in exploring the Wikipedia profile for Belize that I realized the country – formerly British Honduras – actually spoke English. You should have seen my face!  In the months since my original booking, I’ve done some minor research.  I’ve reached out to my friends and contacts for advice on what to see, and explored the country briefly via google maps.   That said, I’ve largely avoided organized guides. As I prepare to fly out tomorrow you’ll notice one rather obvious item missing from my packing list: A travel guide. Frankly, I don’t especially care for them.  Even those geared towards my travel style (like Lonely Planet) seem too polished…too – dare I say pigeonholed? I’ll travel based on word of mouth, booking my hostels a day or two ahead of time as I go. Over the years this approach has made for some interesting situations, especially since I refuse to travel with a cell phone – but all in all they’ve been well worth it!

The Packing List

I’ll let those of you curious about my itinerary and general trip information read my previous post on the subject [here].  For the rest of you – here’s a quick break down of what i’ll be taking – if you’re interested in more in depth explanations of the items, please check out my packing list site – The Ultimate Packing List.

Despite it being December temperatures are expected to be in the mid-high 70s and low 80s.  Water temperature should be about the same.  Despite that, I’ve made the decision to over pack slightly – just in case it gets colder.  I’ve also added several more shirts than I ordinarily would, and an extra pair of shoes to accommodate my Salsa dancing/night clubs.

What I’ve packed:

-1 Cheap Walmart school/sport backpack to serve as my daypack

-1 Cheap Walmart full sized backpack with hip and chest straps

-1 Dopkit bag

-1 Water proof rain jacket

-1 North Face wind blocking fleece vest

-1 Warm scarf (actually an old airline blanket)

-2 Polo t-shirts

-2 Graphic t-shirts (one from a Scottish tour company to serve as a conversation piece)

-2 Button up evening shirts (one of which will double as swimwear for snorkeling)

-5 Pair of cheap Walmart athletic hiking socks

-1 Pair of standard ankle high, light weight socks

-1 Swimsuit

-1 Pair of Shorts

-1 Pair of dark jeans

-1 Belt

-3 Pair of Ex-Officio Travel Boxers

-1 Black English Driving Cap

-1 Passport and Passport Carrier

-1 Inflatable neck pillow

-1 Sleeping mask

-1 3.75 inch collapsible tripod

-2 8 GB high performance memory cards

-1 Canon G11 Digital Camera and battery recharge station

-2 Lithium Ion batteries for Canon G11 Digital Cameras

-1 Old Nikon 6 MP point and shoot w/ 1gb card

-1 Flip Ultra HD 120 minute video camera

-1 Underwater housing for Flip Ultra HD model video cameras

-1 Mini USB cord to transfer files and recharge my mp3 player

-1 Converter plug for British Colonies

-1 4GB Sansa mp3 player with earbuds

-7 weeks of Malaria medication

-30 probiotic pills to improve digestion

-10+ sports powder packets high in B vitamins, C Vitamins, Potassium and Electrolytes

-1 Old pair of glasses

-2 Books to read

-1 Old pair of Skechers that I use as dance shoes

-1 Pair of Keen Targhee IIs

-1 Pair of Sandals

-1 Lock and key to be used to secure hostel lockers

Curious about what/why I packed one of these items?  Feel free to ask about it in the comment section below this post.  All of these items will be split between my two bags based on use/security/regularity of use. You’ll notice a guide book and pocket knife are missing from the list.   Most people will opt to add a guide book – I suggest going with Lonely Planet or a similar publication. For those checking their bag, I highly suggest a pocket knife.   I hate not having one on the road, but prefer the carry on approach which mandates that I leave mine behind.  I also suggesting putting the shoes you won’t be wearing in a plastic trash bag to keep things clean.  Also, consider taking a handful of plastic ziploc bags and a garbage bag if flying into a rainy destination.

Depending on what time permits, I hope to blog periodically from the road and will be providing a break down of how this packing list worked for Belize/Mexico upon my return.  Stay tuned!

Belize Bound – What Should I See?

My next trip is booked. Well, the airfare and time off work is at least!  I’m now in that month(s) long stage of tantalizing anticipation as I eagerly wait to throw my gear in a backpack, fold myself into a crappy airline sardine can and kick off another adventure.

The Trip

I’ll be departing Phoenix on December 16th with a round trip ticket to Cancun, Mexico with a return date set for January 4th. Wait, why Cancun? Airfare! The cost of a round trip ticket to Cancun was some $200-$400 cheaper than airfare into Belize proper and having never been to Cancun before, I figured why not kill two birds with one stone! The unfortunate thing about travel between Dec. 15th and January 10th is that it’s holiday high season.  Which means all of the airfares skyrocket. If i’d been able to extend an extra 3 or 4 days on the front or tail end of my trip i’d have knocked some $150-$200 more off of my airfare at least.

Total cost of the airfare with insurance was $530 ($488 sticker price) for a direct flight from Phoenix->Cancun on US Airways.  Interestingly, the price for a direct flight was about $100 cheaper than a flight with a layover.  Also noteworthy – the direct flight/route prices didn’t show up in Orbitz’s general search results.  Only search results that requested direct flights only. This caught me off guard as conventional wisdom is that more layovers = cheaper airfare.  It was also peculiar, since sites like Kayak etc. missed the cheaper airfare (probably for the same reason).

The Plan

My current plan is to arrive in Cancun and bunk up in a hostel for a day or two before catching a Bus towards Belize.  I’d like to explore Cancun in greater depth but am thinking about doing it on the tail end of the trip (around new years) when I head back to Cancun to catch my flight back to the states.

This is my first trip to Central America, so i’m expecting it to be significantly different from my previous trips which have mostly focused on North America/Europe.

Tips and Suggestions

So, here’s the deal. I know a lot of you have done Cancun/Belize and the surrounding areas and have a lot of tips/tricks/warnings/suggestions to share. In an effort to centralize all of your suggestions I’ve created this post which I’ll be able to access while on the road.

So, let’s hear it! Must see/must avoid places?  Good hostels to stay in? Incredible ruins, natural wonders, or spots to see/dive/snorkel?

Please post them in a comment below! I treasure your wisdom and suggestions.