Friday, February 29, 2008

Just the 12 of Us ... in the Riviera Maya

Paul and I just spent four days in the beautiful Riviera Maya with 10 of our friends -- no easy trip to pull off, considering all the different vacationing styles and schedules we had to mesh. In fact, it took no less than 50 emails and one all-night powwow to finally settle on this destination and time. I’m so glad we did.

We had reservations to stay at the Barcelo Maya Colonial, but upon arriving at that hotel, we were told that due to overbooking, we’d been upgraded to the neighboring Barcelo Maya Palace, which features all junior suites.

Fantastic, right? It would have been, except that the all-inclusive Palace had only opened this past December and was nowhere near running smoothly yet. The resort itself was gorgeous. I’ve never stayed at such a grand place. The grounds were extensive (it took us a good ten minutes to walk from our room to the front desk) and the pool was the size of a small lake. If Earth is ever destroyed in an apocalyptic future, aliens may very well mistake the Barcelo grounds for another Mayan city ruins. (Hey -- maybe Chichen Itza is just an ancient all-inclusive resort!)

Our room itself was fabulous: huge, with a rainforest showerhead in the very fancy bathroom suite. And I couldn’t get over that we could eat anything we wanted out of the mini bar at no cost. I even called the front desk to double check that it was okay.

But the service was quite horrible. Our electronic key was busted, and we had to do that ten-minute walk between our room and the front desk three times before it was fixed. Three times. This also happened to other people in our group; apparently there’d been an electronic malfunction with the key system so a lot of people were affected. Grr! At least I managed to memorize the convoluted route to the front desk by the end of that fiasco. I’d been worried I’d have to resort to bread crumbs if I ever wanted to go anywhere by myself.

After that was all sorted out, everyone hit the pool’s swim up bar. There’s nothing that encourages excessive drinking like an all-inclusive resort. I was drinking mango daiquiris for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and after dinner, and before dinner, and by the pool...) It was cool to hang out with everyone at the pool every day. When Paul and I vacation alone, we hardly ever go to the pool. Maybe because it’s hard to get a game of water football started with just two people.

Speaking of which, best ... game ... EVER! I suck at regular football and barely understand the rules, but in the water, where everyone runs at the same speed, I can keep up! I played in only one of the guys’ many games, and there was a lot of giggling while everyone tossed the football around like a hot potato and charged across the pool in slow motion. In the end, my team of Gene, Pat, and Phyllis won against Paul, Chris, Jay, and Carol. Chris accused me of cheating, twice, but he is obviously just a very sore loser.

We spent a lot of time by that amazing pool.

Did I mention that the pool was amazing?

Our second day there, Paul, Pat, Alana and I went on an excursion to Chichen Itza. First there was a stop at a very large cenote (or natural pool of water in a cave). Paul and I rented life vests to go swimming in it.

I made Paul jump into the pool from a couple of stories up so that I could take a video of him doing it.

After that, we had lunch at a restaurant and then went on to the ruins. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, breezy and about 85 degrees, but because there’s practically no shade at Chichen Itza, it was hot. I don’t know how people come here in the middle of summer, when it gets to be like 100 degrees. We had a tour guide who took us around and showed us everything from the sacrificial temple to the ball court. Just thinking about playing ball in those temperatures almost gave me a heat stroke. But the grounds are pretty impressive.

We stopped to eat a snack at the gift shop area, and Alana and I went a bit nuts buying these little bags of potato chips that came in all these interesting flavors, such as hamburger. The hamburger chips turned out to be the cutest thing -- little pieces of “bun” and “burger” that you had to stack into a delicious snack! It was a good thing we had some food, because the busride back was looong.

The next day, everyone minus Pat and Alana went on an excursion called “Extreme Tulum Ziplining.” It wasn’t all that extreme (except the part where they asked us to put on our own harnesses, which I’ve never been trusted to do before, so that was a bit scary), but it was definitely lots of fun to see everyone do a rappel, go ziplining, and swim in a dark cave! Paul and I do so much of this stuff that I often forget what it was like to experience it for the first time. There’s nothing like conquering your fears and trying something new. Just ask Amy, who sobbed the whole way down the rappel but was all smiles afterwards! Thank goodness our guide, David, was very, very patient.

Next was a swim in a beautiful cenote. We all participated, although Jason spent a lot of time clinging to a rock (Paul tried to get an underwater shot of Jay’s legs wrapped around the rock, but was unsuccessful). Guess it’s no secret that we’re city kids. We were given snorkeling gear because there were little fish in the water, and we had a really good time paddling around.

Here's me attempting to capture the experience (until lunchtime was announced):

After that came the ziplining, which was short (only three lines) but definitely fun. We all loved it. The guys really enjoyed wearing the harnesses.

Here are a couple of videos of the ziplining experience, which is easier to show than describe:

The morning of the tour was spent at the site of the Tulum ruins, which is situated right next to the water. It’s the most beautiful Mayan ruins out of the three I’ve seen (Paul and I had also visited CobĂ  on a previous trip).

Unfortunately, the tour guide that took us around was dreadful. His name was George and his fly was open the entire time. Our tour group was multilingual, and George kept shortchanging the English-speakers with an extremely truncated version of the explanations he would give to the Spanish-speakers. I guess it’s not really George’s fault that his English is so terrible, but that man really has no business being a tour guide. We spent most of the time entertaining ourselves. Cindy started twirling in the field, Maria von Trapp-style...

Corey made it his goal to pop into every photo...

Jay and Chris attempted to sneak into another tour group...

Phyllis started taking pictures of a stray dog...

And Amy turned Chris into a human chair...

After the tour was over, we wandered onto the beach of Tulum, which was as scenic as a postcard.

The next day, Paul, Gene, Phyllis, and I tried our hand at driving ATVs. This was the first time for all of us, and it was considerably more difficult to do than I’d imagined! My control over the vehicle was tenuous at best, and there were many times that I was going so fast, trying not to lose the guy in front of me, that I almost careened off the path and into the jungle. This actually did happen to one woman who was driving two cars ahead of me, and the guy in front of me stopped so suddenly that I slammed into him at about 20 mph!

I really think this activity is too dangerous for civilians, but Paul and Gene had a blast. Phyllis, on the other hand, did wind up in the trees at one point and was sent to the back of the pack for driving too slowly after that. I wanted to drive slower but didn’t feel that I had a choice about it so I just foolishly kept going at full speed. In the end, we were all covered in an inch of dust and dirt!

Back at the hotel, we refreshed ourselves in the pool, and then Cindy, Corey, Paul, and I decided to go kayaking in the ocean, since the resort provides free kayaks. Cindy had been raving about this activity (she’d gone on an earlier day), and her reviews did not disappoint. I’d never kayaked in an ocean before, and it was very different from kayaking in a placid lake. The ocean waves were so much fun to go over!

At one point, we tried to bring our two kayaks together so that I could pass my camera to Cindy -- and a near-disaster occurred. As Paul and I were approaching Cindy and Corey’s kayak, a wave unexpectedly pushed us forward and upward, and the crest lifted us over their boat. We were suddenly bearing down on their kayak and about to land right on top of it! I think Corey's horrified expression matched my own as the tip of our boat teetered on the brink of plunging down on his head, but luckily he was able to bat our boat to the side as it came down, and we landed right next to them instead. Whew! Crisis averted.

All in all, it was an awesome trip. I will sign off with a few choice photos.