November 5th to 16th 2016
Ten Year Travel Anniversary
This was the tenth anniversary of my November solo dive trips. Back in 2005, we had just bought a new townhouse. It was much larger than the house we had owned in Minneapolis. It’s not huge but it was large enough that my wife thought it was too big for two people and didn’t want to buy the townhouse until I said “If we buy this house your entire family can come and visit”. I had no idea what I was about to unleash.
My wife’s extended family had been getting together for Christmas shopping in November for over a decade by then. They usually went to Chicago or Kansas City and stayed in a hotel. My wife had joined them several times.
In 2006 my wife offered to have shopping-weekend at our one-year-old home. The thought was that we could comfortably sleep eight or ten women in our house and everyone else could stay in a hotel. It didn’t quite work out that way, everyone wanted to give up the comfort of a hotel for a sleeping bag and air mattress at our house.
With a bunch of women due to arrive, we had to decide what to do about me. The initial thought was I could stay at home and dodge all the women but that didn’t seem like a good idea for too many reasons to mention. Option two was I could get a hotel room near work. I didn’t like that idea either.
I had a much better idea. We had bought a ticket for our niece to visit us the previous Thanksgiving but she was unable to use it. The ticket was about to expire so this was the perfect storm of chance and opportunity for me to go diving in Mexico.
I had heard many good things about Isla Mujeres. It is an island just north of Cancun. It was supposed to be laid back and cheap with beautiful beaches. I saw this as my chance to escape a house full of women (who are all very nice) and check out the beaches and waters of Isla.
I wasn’t completely sure about a solo vacation especially one to a foreign country but Karen and I had been to Mexico several times before and loved it.
The trip started out rough, I had a really crappy room that had cockroaches. I changed my room and the vacation was great after that. It was so good that Karen and I went to Isla the following July.
It turned out that I would use my November trips as scouting trips. I would check out a new location and if it was any good Karen and I would go there on our next vacation.
Many times over the last ten years I thought that I had the better deal by going to warm latitudes and beautiful beaches in November. I would call Karen during each trip, I was usually at a beach bar sipping a beer and having lunch after scuba diving. Karen was usually slightly frazzled trying to help everyone with their day. Both of us were happy with our choices.
I had a 9 am direct flight to Cancun. It was nice to sleep in for a change. I usually get a 5:30 am departures so I have to get up at 2 am. Since I had a later departure my wife was able to drop me at the airport before she started her work.
Our flight arrived early but no gates were available so they parked the plane on the tarmac and drove stairs out so we could deplane. They loaded us on buses for the short ride to the terminal. The nice thing about arriving midweek is the short lines so I cleared customs and immigration quickly.
The agent from Avant rental car was late. A representative from one of the other car rental agencies saw that I looked lost and came over to help me. I don’t know if he was angling for a tip or was just being helpful but I didn’t care. He took out his phone and called Avant. I gave him a tip for the help. The Avant representative was there shortly.
By 12:40 I was heading to Tulum in my rental car. I was driving under the speed limit to avoid tickets so it took me about an hour and 45 minutes to get there.
Having read the forums on Trip Advisor about driving in Mexico the one thing that everyone agrees on is do not drive at night. Not for your safety but there are animals and people who cross the highway in the dark.
I could not make Mahahual before sunset and worse yet my last hour would be on a side road in the dark. I found out the next day that there huge potholes in the road. I barely missed them during the day and I am sure I would have blown out at least one tire if I hit one at night and I would have been stranded.
I decided my best option would be to stay in Tulum for the evening. I stayed at Pavo Real. It’s an all-inclusive resort and I only paid $70 for the night. I was a little wary because of the low price. It turned out to be a nice resort. Nothing fancy but decent.
The air conditioner didn’t work in my first room but that is not why I changed rooms. The roof in the room was thatched and I could see light through the thatch. There are a lot of insect-borne diseases that I am a little paranoid about getting so I upgraded to a room without a thatched roof.
The upgrade cost me $20. I got a larger room on the first floor with no thatched roof. However, there were huge gaps below the entry door and patio door. I decided to take my chances in the room anyway.
Other than the huge gaps around the door and window the room was nice enough. The food was good and the beach was beautiful.
I had breakfast and checked out the following morning. I was on the road before 9 am and it took nearly three and a half hours to get to Mahahual.
I bought 400 pesos worth of gas the previous day and I am glad that I did. Once I got south of Tulum it was mostly jungle. There were several towns and only a few gas stations.
I was worried about getting another speeding ticket in Mexico so I was careful to follow the speed limit. I was in the middle of nowhere on hwy 307 an hour south of Tulum. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a police truck approaching. I was doing the speed limit but I slowed to let them pass. They stayed on my bumper for an agonizing minute before passing. As they passed I saw six blue-clad officers riding in the back of the pickup (they do that in Mexico). Blue uniforms mean they were federales, the federal police of Mexico. I probably wasn’t important enough to pull over. As they passed I waved and gave a nervous smile to the officers riding on the back of the open pickup. They waved back.
I was glad that I had downloaded off-line Google maps. I couldn’t get data to work on my 4g tablet or my cell phone. I wanted to take the bypass around Philipe Carrilo Puerto. The signs were confusing and if I didn’t have offline Google maps I would have gone into town. That would have slowed me greatly. Plus I read about speed traps in town on Tripadvisor.com.
I had two cappuccinos and a bottle of coke that morning. I made it over two hours before I had to pull over.
I found a small town just before the Mahahual turn off called Limone. I stopped my VW Pointer rental car at a convenience store and asked for the los banos. I was told they were next door. That store had a sign stating banos 25 pesos. I paid my money and used the facilities. Twenty-five pesos is about fourteen cents. It was the best fourteen cents I spent that day.
I made it to my hotel, Koox Quinto Sole, by 12:30 pm. It is really a nice hotel. It is fairly new and in really good condition. The room was large, the bed was actually comfortable and I had a balcony too. It was in a great location on the Malecon.
They let me check in early. I unpacked and walked next door to the dive shop and booked diving for Monday and Tuesday.
I walked to Ibiza Sunset restaurant and had a Montejo and great shrimp tacos for lunch. I had dinner at the hotel. It was awful. I ordered a burger and it was not hamburger. It appeared to be sliced beef that was blackened and slimy. It looked terrible, smelled terrible and tasted terrible. I couldn’t eat it.
I had breakfast at the hotel. There was some confusion about how to use the voucher for breakfast that I received when I check in but we eventually figured it out.
Mar Adentro was the name of the dive shop and it was just north of my hotel. We had a Brit leading us and the owner brought up the rear on our dive. We had two dive masters for three divers. That is really odd. Usually, it’s one dive master for four or six divers.
I dove with Alex from Germany and a French man. I didn’t know it until the ride back to the dive shop but Alex wasn’t feeling well. He had thrown up three times, once underwater. On the ride back I was sitting next to him and he was getting sick during most of the short ride back. He was definitely tougher than I am. I would be done if I started throwing up. It seemed that there might be food safety issues in Mahahual because I had some issues later in the vacation.
The dive shop only went out on night dives once every two weeks. It just happened one of the nights I was there so I told them I was in. That meant no cervezas all day long (on vacation even!) until after the dive.
I had lunch, really good fish tacos. I was wiped so I went back to the room for a nap. I was out for over an hour. I set an alarm to make sure I wouldn’t miss my night dive but the noise from the bar next door woke me up first. It’s a bar where tourists from cruise ships party for the day.
I was at the dive shop by 5:30 pm for the night dive. I was diving with a German couple. The night dive was part of the advanced open water certification for the woman diver.
Mar Adentro Dive Boat
I was about to get into the boat when I felt Montezuma’s revenge coming on. I went to the public bathroom at the bar next to the dive shop. I had never taken a dump with my wetsuit on. When I sat down the strap that I use to zip my wetsuit (it’s on the back) fell into the disgusting toilet. I immediately pulled it out. When I left the restroom I zipped my wet suit and then washed my hands really well. I wasn’t too worried about the strap being contaminated because I was going to be in the water for the next hour. Anything it was exposed to should wash out in the ocean.
It was one of my best night dives. The conditions were perfect. The sea was calm, no current and we had a half-moon, so it wasn’t too bright. I was afraid I was going to be cold because I was cold at the end of the last day dive. The water isn’t any colder at night it just feels cooler. Luckily I was warm through the entire dive.
We saw an octopus. At first, it seemed a little irritated by our flashlights but I think it was feeding on something. A very friendly trunkfish came right up to my camera. I think he was feeding on the tiny sea critters drawn to the light. There were two very large cleaner shrimp just hanging out on a piece of coral and a large crab was inside a barrel sponge. Usually the crabs are hiding in the reef.
We finished the night dive, I rinsed my equipment, showered and walked to the Malecon to find an open restaurant. I was starving.
I ended up back at Ibitha. The outdoor part of the restaurant was closed. I ate at the main restaurant across the Malecon. I had the same waiter as the previous night. He gave am a free starter. It was bread with zucchini, tomato and cheese on top. It was toasted to melt the cheese. It was very good. I had penne arrabbiata. The restaurant didn’t disappoint. It was spicy and very good.
I had something really weird happen after I finished dinner. A young man who worked at the restaurant and was very, very drunk sat down at my table and started talking to me. He seemed edgy and one eye was really red so I don’t know if he had been smoking pot too.
Like anyone who is that obliterated he made no sense and when you add in the language difference, he made even less sense. I could see the waiter and the other staff at the restaurant keeping an eye on him. I wondered if he was the owner’s son or if they were afraid he would cause a scene if they stepped in.
He left and just as I paid the bill he sat down again. This time he had a glass of wine. I could see my waiter ready to intervene if something happened. I told the kid I had to call my wife, which was the truth, and I left.
It was a really weird experience. You could tell that he was working himself up to possibly fight but I didn’t give him a chance I left before that happened.
I easily had fifty pounds on him and I try to keep in shape so I wasn’t worried. I am still curious why the waiter or someone at the restaurant didn’t step in and tell him to go back to the kitchen.
Trump had literally just won the presidency so was the kid pissed at Americans? It hardly seems fair, I didn’t vote for the idiot. I had two or three not so friendly things happen this trip which is a first. In the past, we might run into a rude salesperson or waiter but I have never experienced someone as volatile as this person.
The next day I ordered a ham and cheese omelet for breakfast They still brought out the basket of rolls, a large bowl of fruit and orange juice. I saved room for the omelet. As I was leaving she gave me the bill so I signed it and left a tip.
I wasn’t sure if Alex was going to make it since he had been so sick. but he was there ready to go. We had Tao for one of the dive masters and I didn’t catch the name of the other one.
The two dives were good. On the second dive the dive master had warned me to watch my no deco time. Without getting too technical this the time left before you do a decompression stop. As a rule, you plan your dives so you do have to do decompression stops.
If you don’t do your deco stops you can get the bends. It’s what happens when the nitrogen that has built up in your system starts to boil out of your blood and collect in your joints and elsewhere. It is very painful, even fatal.
Most of the time the second dive is either shallow or you start deep, seventy feet for example, and quickly move up to forty feet.
Since I had a dive computer the dive master told me to watch my no deco time. We stayed deep for the whole dive, about seventy feet. About twenty minutes in the dive master indicated that we should surface. I wasn’t sure why he wanted to surface, we still had thirty minutes of air left. Then it occurred to me that I needed to check my no deco time. We had only been down 20 minutes but it was already calling for a safety stop. For our deco stop, we went to fifteen feet and stayed there for eighteen minutes before surfacing. That is a long deco stop.
Once we were on the boat I could see that the dive master was cold. He took the blame for not paying closer attention to his no deco time but I should have been watching.
One afternoon while exploring the Malecon I walked past a bar with a sign out front saying they had craft beer. This is almost unheard of in a small Mexican town. I stopped in for a beer. The owner was from Texas and liked to talk. He gave me a sample of a local tequila called El Compadre, not what I originally walked in the bar for but it was literally the best tequila I have ever had so I bought a bottle. I wrapped it in my wetsuit for the return flight. Luckily it survived the trip.
The following morning I had breakfast, packed and left for Playa. It took almost three and a half hours to drive to Playa del Carmen. It was a simple almost enjoyable drive. I kept to the speed limit. If someone wanted to pass me I drove part way on the shoulder to give them room. It is the Mexican way. A lot of cars blew past me but I stayed at the speed limit. No speeding tickets for me.
I got to my Club Yebo at 1 pm. I eventually found a parking spot on the street near the hotel and checked in. The nice thing about Avant car rental is the representative meets you at a prespecified time and location to pick up the car.
He arrived when I was checking in so I gave him the keys and told him where the car was parked. After I dropped my bags in my room I met the agent at the car. He gave me my paperwork and drove off. It was very simple, much nicer than trying to find the rental car office located somewhere in Playa. I would use Avant again, even though they were late picking me up.
I unpacked and walked to Dive Mike to book a dive for the following day. I walked into the office and several of the dive masters recognized me. That was nice, I almost felt like a regular. I booked three days diving- Thursday, Friday and Sunday with an option to add another day if I felt like it.
I walked to Club de La Cerveza and bought a Gouden Carolus Tripple. I had a conversation with the waiter about our favorite beers- Belgians. I went back Saturday night and the same waiter took my order. I brought up Belgian beers, and we had the exact same conversation but he did not realize we had had the conversation before. I guess they wait on a lot of people,
There is a Thai restaurant called Gluay Maai on calle 38 and 5th Avenue. I had Thai food several years before when I was in Playa and it was some of the worst Thai food I have ever eaten. One of the dive masters recommended Gluay Maai. It was almost as good as the Thai food in the states.
I’m not a morning person and I’m not a big breakfast person so I decided that I would have yogurt, cereal and bananas for breakfast in my room before diving. I could sleep later since I wasn’t going to a restaurant. I walked to the Mega. It’s like a Mexican Super Target and bought my stock of breakfast supplies.
I got up at 7 am the following morning so I could be at the dive shop by 8 am. I was perfectly happy with my Zucaritas (Mexican Frosted Flakes), yogurt and a banana for breakfast.
It is nice to be able to dive with a dive shop several times a year. I went to the desk to let them know I was here. Jorge the shop owner recognized me and said hi. Fidel the dive master from our dives in March remembered me too.
Francois was the dive master and there was a married couple that went out with us. She was from Chicago and he was from England. They hadn’t dived in a while so they were doing a refresher dive. The Brit officially lived in England but he worked on an oil rig and would get a month off at a time and he would spend that month in Chicago. That is an amazing long-distance relationship.
I thought it was interesting that he owned a flat in England and he rented it on Air B and B while he was gone to make the mortgage. This was the second Brit I dived with that listed their flat on Air B and B.
The diving in Playa was better than the diving in Mahahual. I was a little disappointed that I spent four and a half hours driving when all I had to do was take a shuttle to Playa for the better diving experience. You take what the ocean gives you, next time I might have better diving in Mahahaul.
We saw an eagle ray, five turtles and three southern stingrays on the two dives. I saw something that I had never seen before. We had a group of tangs school around us. It was odd because they are generally indifferent to divers. My theory was that the sharks were back and the tangs schooled around the largest animals they could find. I found out two days later that the sharks were indeed back.
It was after 2 pm by the time that I rinsed and stowed my equipment, went to my room and showered and changed.
I remembered some restaurants that were on the way to Mamitas Beach Club that looked like they could be good enough for a quick lunch. I walked there to check them out. The first one I saw was Burro Playero. I ordered the fish tacos. They were 89 pesos and a Victoria was another 35 pesos for a total of 124 pesos. The was roughly about $6.60 plus tip. What a steal and the tacos were great.
The next day I got up and had my usual predive breakfast of cereal, yogurt and a banana. I was at Dive Mike by 8 am. I was talking to some people in the office and I overheard a group of Russian divers talking to Jorge the shop owner. They were asking if they could fit one more person in on the morning dive.
Jorge asked me if I would dive in the afternoon instead of the morning. It’s vacation and I don’t really care if I dive in the morning or afternoon so I agreed. The only issue with an afternoon dive is I can’t have a beer with lunch but Mexican Coco-Cola is good too.
Instead of diving, I walked on the beach south of the ferry pier. The beach is beautiful, white sand, shallow, warm, blue water to wade and swim in.
I had lunch at Sabor a Mar. It is about a block away from Dive Mike. I had more good tacos. I seem to be on a taco binge.
I usually don’t eat much before I dive but it would be after 4 pm by the time we got back and breakfast would not hold me over for that long. As I was eating I was thinking of the poor German diver that puked pretty much through all four dives. I was hoping that eating this close to a dive wasn’t a mistake.
Fidel was my dive master. My wife and I dove with him in March. I had given him a video that he took with my GoPro of a pipefish. He still had it and he showed it to me before I left.
Let start out by saying that I don’t have anything against Russians. We have friends that are Russian. A group of Russians that had been diving with Dive Mike all week. They were cave diving most of the time but they decided to ocean dive today.
There were five Russians, Fidel and myself on the dive. Normally I would pair up with one of the Russians but once we were all in the boat Fidel leaned over to me and said “you’re diving with me”.
What I figured out later is some of the Russians were dive masters and none of them spoke English or Spanish. they ignored Fidel and did what they wanted.
On the dive we saw another eagle ray to keep the streak alive. They are so cool looking. Unfortunately, they are never close enough to get a decent picture with my GoPro.
For the second dive Fidel gave us the option of doing a shallow reef or going to see if the bull sharks were here. Female bull sharks arrive off Playa in November to give birth. I did the shark dive several Novembers before and it was life-changing. It would have been really cool to see the bull sharks again. The Russians understood the word shark and said no. Both Fidel and I were disappointed.
The second dive was a shallow dive at a reef that basically circular. We hit the water and the Russians were gone. Fidel and I were diving by ourselves. Splitting up underwater is frowned upon but at least no one was alone. Fidel expected that they would leave us.
When we surfaced we saw the Russians getting picked up by the boat. While we were waiting for the boat to come over to us I asked Fidel what happened, why didn’t we stick together? He wasn’t too specific but I could tell he was frustrated. He indicated that the Russian’s wouldn’t follow him. On the boat ride back he mentioned that they got angry easily. The dive shop had made a lot of money off the group of Russians during low season but it sounded like they had earned every cent.
I wasn’t diving the next day so I went to the clubs that night. The people watching was good. I was back to my room before 1 am.
I needed to exchange some money the following day so I went to the cambio by Ah Cacao, exchange money and had a chocolate croissant and a latte for breakfast. I love Ah Cocao.
I spent my day off exploring the beach south of the ferry dock. As I was walking south I saw the dive masters from Dive Mike getting out of their boat. One of the divers had a chain mail suit on. They had come back from feeding the sharks. They didn’t have any customers with them, they were doing a dry run for the shark dive so the new divemasters knew what to expect. I talked to them for a while and then kept walking south.
I walked about forty-five minutes, all the way to the rocky point where the beach ends, at least temporarily. I swam for a while. The water was bath water warm and I could walk out fifty yards easily. The beach and water reminded me of North Beach on Isla. Once you get south of the last resort there are only a few people.
On the way back I stopped at Zenzi beach bar for an Indio beer. They had a band playing so I enjoyed the music and the beautiful beach. Indio is my new favorite Mexican Beer.
Sunday was my final day diving for this trip. Fidel was my dive master and there was a Mexican woman diving with us. She was a veterinarian from Tijuana. The was here for several months helping with the manatees at Xcaret.
The streak was kept alive, we saw another eagle ray. For the second dive we were going to see the bull sharks but the current was really strong so we weren’t able to swim out to the dive site.
Once I finished the dive I went to my room, showered then went to the End Zone to watch the Vikings play the Redskins. They lost. The Vikings may not be any good but at least I was watching the game in Playa.
I hadn’t had pizza yet so for dinner I went to Piola. I had a great diavola pizza and salad.
I got up, had a quick breakfast in my room, and walked to Dive Mike to settle up and get my dive equipment. I left it the shop overnight to let it dry, at least a little.
I was done diving. I usually try to dive four or five days during a seven-day vacation but I noticed that if I dive more than two days in a row I start to feel crappy. One of the problems of getting older. I decided to dive just three days this trip.
I spent the next two days on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean water. On Monday I found the beach bar that I had stopped at when I came to Playa for my first November trip. It was nothing fancy, it had plastic chairs and tables and the waiter could speak English but he preferred not to. I still remember sitting in the plastic chair, drinking a cheap Montejo beer and enjoying the sunset.
The restanrant is called La Tarraya. It is next to Wah Wahs, which is one of the better known beach bars in Playa.
My shrimp tacos at La Tarraya were 20 pesos each. Normally 20 peso tacos would be a little sketchy for me but these were excellent. The habanero was some of the hottest that I have had in Mexico.
I enjoyed my last two days of doing nothing on the beach. You might think it would get to be boring but when I got tired of the beach I would have a beer at a beach bar, or a coffee at Starbucks. There is plenty to keep you busy in Playa.
I only spent one day in Tulum. I like Tulum but my one complaint is it will cost you all most $100 a night for a basic room on the beach. That room will probably not have air conditioning and most likely there will be mosquito netting for the bed.
Pavo Real is just north of Tulum. It is a nice resort. The beach is beautiful. The food is good. However, the gaps at the bottom of the doors and around the windows were large enough to give me the creeps when I think about how many bugs could crawl through them. But that is just me.
I liked Mahahual. My $50 a day hotel was great, there were some good restaurants. the Malecon was nice and the dive shop was good. The night dive was probably my favorite night dive that I have ever experienced.
On the other hand, dive diving was just average. The Malecon where all of the businesses were located was small, I would have run out of places to eat if I had been there a week. Everything closed early, I skipped dinner one night because I left my room too late and just about all of the restaurants were dark.
My biggest issue was the food. I had Montezuma’s revenge several times and upset stomach from the food. The German diver was throwing up and he thought it was from what he eaten.
Taking all of that into account I would go back to Mahahual– if it wasn’t such a long drive from Cancun. Maybe when I retire I’ll go back.
Playa del Carman
I realized on one of my trips to Playa last year that it is my favorite place to vacation. It has just the right mix of diving, restaurants, and beach bars. I never get bored when I am on one of my solo trips and Karen likes Playa almost as much as I do.
What is Wrong With People?
After ten years of solo travel people at work have started to wonder if I might be cheating on my wife during my trips. I actually got some pretty blunt questions after I got back from this vacation.
Two things amazed me. First, that it took them ten years to decide I might be having too much fun on vacation and second why would think that? I’ve never come back with stories of debauchery or even stories of wistful debauchery. I may have mentioned the topless women sunbathers that you happen across on the Mexican beaches but it is a huge stretch from that to cheating.
My answer to them is I love travel, scuba diving and my wife (not in that order) and I wouldn’t want to screw up my marriage for a little fun on vacation.
I told my wife about their questions and she asked why they didn’t wonder if she is unfaithful while I am gone? Equal opportunity!
I think it takes trust from both partners and I am glad that my wife and I have that.