Sandy Beaches



"Sandy Beaches" by Delbert McClinton 

Delbert is an old school, Texas roadhouse blues rocker and perennial workhorse from my high school days. Coincidentally and fortuitously for you kind reader, he sings about Mexico frequently. This is an old song that someone has added cheesy shots of people 50 years younger than Delbert (40 for me) but you'll get the idea.

So on November 12th we left New York and flew to Yucatan this time because frankly Mexico was one of the few countries open to perpetual wanderers and had low Covid cases. We ended up this apartment in Cancun. We like to stay just inside the Mexican neighborhoods on the the far border between the tourist and the local areas....but not too far.

Obvious price and cultural differences (we get to practice Spanish in real time and frequent more authentic markets and restaurants) meant that the Punta Sam neighborhood fit the bill. The apartment complex was located on the lagoon opening up to the Caribbean Sea, with a view of the popular Isla de Mujeres and the Cancun Zona Hotelera district. It is a quiet local scene of fishermen, kid's beaches and mostly Mexican tourists.
Didn't do much swimming in the lagoon though. Just in case.
After a grueling month stay, we headed out to Cozumel to take a little early spring break. The island of Cozumel is largely undeveloped. Most of the interior and many of its coral reefs are some type of state/national/UNESCO nature reserve and is said to offer some of the best scuba diving in the world. We found that to access these places involved a ~30 minute cab ride from the main town...it is not like you just cruise to the beach like in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Although Cozumel is quiet and family orientated compared to Cancun, it is/was a major cruise ship port before Covid. There are two gigantic embarcaderos that looked like they hadn't had a ship dock there in a while. Once you debark from the nearly empty ferry you have to run a gauntlet of touts selling tours, hotels, jeep rentals etc. One the main drag there are dozens (hundreds?) of shops selling carved coconuts, blankets, sombreros and various Mexican themed bric-a-brac. 

The kind of knickknacks that seem like a good idea in Cozumel but go into the closet when you get home from the cruise....until you can drag it out for your nephew's Cinco de Mayo frat party. I have yet to see anyone wearing a sombrero anywhere in Mexico.

This strip counts on thousands of cruisers coming ashore for a port-o-call. Business seems to be down 80%. It was deserted for us and I feel for the locals are that 100% tourism reliant, but I won't want be here when it is back to 100%.
Speaking of Spring Break and who doesn't think of Cancun as the capital of Spring Break Abroad?

Senor Frog's is a Mexican themed franchised restaurant chain that offers "an infamous party scene", a place to go when you are on vacation and want to get crazy and nobody will know you. Started in Mexico in 1963, it now has locations in many parts of the world. There was one on the ferry pier and was a good as any place to hangout while we waited for the ferry; especially seeing that we had all our worldly possessions with us. We forwent the yard long Margarita....probably the only people in the place that did. We also had very good fish tacos and guac.

Which brings us to the subject of lobsters on Cozumel.

At my son and daughter in law's rehearsal dinner in Bumpass, Virginia this fall, the featured menu was a Tidewater crab picking. While the rest of us shared a Virginia crab boil, the staff had prepared a four pound lobster for the lucky couple. 

A few days after the wedding, Lilly said "I am a jones-ing a for a lobster dinner with nothing but clarified butter". So off to Wegman's we went and became the proud owners of three large lobsters, clarified 2 pounds of Charlottesville farm to table hippie butter and had a great lobster fest back at the Airbnb.

After the wedding, the newlyweds flew off to Tulum for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, there was a run in with Montezuma that may or may not had something to do with a lobster dinner.

I guess the reason I was never a huge lobster guy was the price of lobster/joy ratio were inequitable. Before all this recent lobster to-do, I can't remember the last time I had a lobster: a perfectly decent lobster roll from a food truck around Deltaville, Virginia comes to mind. There also must have been a lobster a time or two during my five years in Hawaii, although I probably would have gone for poke or seared Ahi tuna in the few times I found myself in a high end seafood situations.


I do seem to remember a night at  Mama's Fish House on Maui a few years ago and I had something like the above dish (pic from their website), I recall either Ahi or Kanpachi with a lobster tail. (Mama's prints the names of the fishermen that caught the local fish on the menu, but I don't remember anything about the lobster tail).

The rehearsal dinner, our personal lobster fest and the newlywed's inopportune honeymoon lobster incident in Tulum, well, got me thinking about lobsters again. So after the ferry, a rip off taxi ride and settling into a very cool and discrete hotel a safe distance from the cruise ship zone, we decided to celebrate with what else, a lobster dinner.

Casa Mission was within walking distance from the hotel and had many good reviews, especially about their specialty: lobster.

The place was old school Mexico in the middle of many well kept gardens. There weren't many customers, but the ones that were there were old school Yank cruise ship/one foot in the nursing home types. There was a free tequila tasting before dinner, after which they wanted to sell us a bottle for $55. To put that in perspective, the Jim Beam level of tequila that we buy at the grocery store, El Cabrito is $7.80 with a free 250 ml bottle included with the 750 ml bottle. Nah, we're good amigo. Gonna take the $55 and buy almost eight bottles of El Cabrito at the SuperRama.

Guacamole was made at the table, lime tortilla soup with garlic bread were included, and it was served by a confusing abundance of attentive waiters.


The lobster salad could have been chicken salad.
The grilled lobster was fine to meh (ain't no Mama's Fish House). The price for those two dishes and one Sol beer was $50; what with the hacienda ambiance, guac, lime soup, the price was....fine to meh.

A return visit? Nah, we're good amigo. Next time we'll take our $50.00 and eat Mero fish tacos at a local place for a week.
On another note, things were getting kind of quiet, so when we got back from Cozumel I enrolled in a Taxi School for a month. Here I am graduating with my fellow compadre taxistas. The income should hold us over until the next stimulus check.
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Nothing Remains Quite the Same

I was sitting in my office above, perusing the morning papers the other day and I pondered that nearly all of those plants on the patio were also the same plants that surrounded my A-frame in Hawaii. Could Playa del Carmen's latitude have something to do with that? Sure enough:

Pahoa, Hawaii: 19.49 North latitude
Playa del Carmen, Mexico: 20.62 North latitude

You will remember from your 7th grade Earth Sciences class that one latitudinal degree is 69 miles, which puts Pahoa and Playa latitudinally within 78 miles of each other, albeit longitudinally 4369 miles apart.

If I may digress. I was making a call from my palapa to my son, who was quarantined in a hotel room in Singapore. We were catching up and there was knock on the door. Since we don't know a living soul within ~3000 miles of here, a knock on the door is potentially bad news.

  ANXIETY! 

An annoying Yank-ette Millennial  earnestly explained to Lilly that they were digital nomads and her husband was making a ZOOM call and my loud conversation was hindering *important* communication. She requested that I go inside and shut the door to the patio.

Let me fix that for her. What she was saying was that her lame husband's call was more important than my important communication. Since it was our first day in the apartment, I cut her a break and went inside. For a month now, these two influencers are constantly on the phone blathering human resource bureaucratese, prattling on in lofty abstractions about modalities.

Some mornings, it is all I can do not to go down and rap on the door: "ahem, could you two blowhards go inside and shut the door? We are importantly communicating up here". Not wanting to be the old grouch in the neighborhood yelling "hey, you kids get off the lawn!!"....I have let it slide.

Turns out, digital nomads are a thing here in Mexico. Hotels and other lodgings now offer shared workspaces and discounted long term rentals with nice kitchens and as such they are flooding the place. I guess I can see it: if you are going to work at home, and home can be anywhere, why not make that home the Mayan Riviera?

So before I was so rudely interrupted by the  bitch digital nomad downstairs, we were discussing latitudes.
After talking to Hunter, I looked up a map of Singapore and saw that the latitude was 1.35 North, almost at the equator.
Which led to a back and forth about crossing the equator and how far north and south each of us had been on this spinning lava ball.

Hunter: North: Copenhagen: 55.67 N             
Hunter: South: Cusco, Peru:  13.53 S

(I remember staying in a hostel many moons ago in Sumatra (near Bukkitinggi/Bonjol?) and the equator ran right through the middle of the lounge. So going from your room, through the lounge, to the kitchen and back....you crossed the equator twice).

Chef Ted: North: Amsterdam: 52.36 N (I thought it may have been Seattle at 47.60)
Chef Ted: South: Stewart Island, NZ:  a whopping 47.01 S (South Pole 90.00).


The changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same takeaway?

After ~45 years of changing latitudes, I think I prefer being between the Tropic of Cancer: 23.50 N and the Tropic of Capricorn: 23.50 S, at least in the winter months.

Cenotes

If you wander and ponder around Quintana Roo like we do, not far from the Instagram cenotes, you can find ones hardly big enough to squeeze into.

There are over 7000 limestone sinkholes, cenotes if you will, on the Yucatan peninsula. Short geological history is that the bodies of trillions of sea critters, over hundreds of millions of years, settled to the bottoms of ancient seafloors, compacted under their own weight and became limestone. Plate tectonics raised these ancient coral reefs above sea level. Rain and wave action eroded the limestone into a vast network of underwater rivers and caves and then along came the comet.

A similar thing happened in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia creating many caves, the most popular of which being Luray Caverns. Similar does not mean the same. One of the differences between Luray Caverns and the cenotes is The Chicxulub Crater.

 The Chicxulub impact crater, ~200 miles from Playa del Carmen, is where a comet or asteroid, ~66 million years ago slammed into the Gulf of Mexico and killed the dinosaurs. Too complicated  boring to go into here in any detail, but the comet pushed the caves and tunnels below the water table, which filled them with fresh ground water, brackish and seawater. If any of you are armchair geologists and want to go further with this, you can follow the link.
However, on a practical level, millions of years later, all of these sea critter skeletons, plate tectonics and outer space phenomenon led to some awesome jungle swimming.

If you want more Instagramable shots of cenotes, they are available on line. We wandered several around private ones in the area of Playa del Carmen, a sleepy beach town about an hour South of Cancun.
If we went on a weekday, before school let out, we had these places virtually to ourselves.

Sometimes we would see scuba divers preparing to enter the caves and underground rivers.They say that some of these routes go on for miles....in absolute darkness. To say that the joy/risk/comfort level ratio wasn't our thing would be an understatement. What? Maybe I am missing something here, but put on all that shit to swim through underwater crags and crevices for miles in total darkness...and somehow you get joy?
This is a cenote at Punta Esmeralda, a nice beach where the locals go. It is the cenote endpoint of where the underground freshwater rivers finally empty into the Caribbean Sea. What a great place for kids: freshwater cenote, small sandy beach and then the Caribbean!

Kinda looked like a kid's pool and I thought it be a bit odd/creepy if ole Uncle Ted went in there with them so I didn't give it a try.

Go to some cenotes on a weekend...well, you'll see.


Mayan Ruins 

Like cenotes, there are Mayan ruins everywhere. There are of course the popular and celebrated ones like Chichen Itza and Tulum. While most beach go-ers may be unaware or uninterested in ruins in their own backyard, we have found that by just wandering around you can find smaller ones that once amounted to little more than way stations for Mayans on their way to bigger and better things. In places like Xaman Ha, iguanas outnumber people.
 Xamen Ha is on the way on the seven block walk to our go-to beach Playacar. It is small and only three of the original temples remain. Xamen Ha was probably established in the 13th century as a canoe port for launching  Mayan women out to the more important mecca of Cozumel's San Gervasio, a temple honoring Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility. The annual spiritual pilgrimage and the leaving of tribute at the altar on Cozumel was necessary for a successful pregnancy and child birth.

Which, unpunctually, brings us around to Sandy Beaches:
I got to pondering on Playacar sandy beach the other day about how Internet click bait articles have headlines with a list of "The Top Ten Beaches in the World"! 

So what beach makes the list? How come a beach in Denmark never makes the top ten?

Maybe we can construct a proprietary algorithm together to sort this shit out? 

1) Size: Does a small beach on a meadow pond get as many gold stars as a large beach on Lake Superior? When does a lake become a sea? Does a beach on say the shores of the Dead or Caspian Sea (actually not seas but saltwater lakes) get more credits than that meadow pond or Lake Superior? What is the grading criteria on beaches on say the York River, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean?
2) Water: Fresh, brackish or salt? Clear or cloudy? Monochrome or polychrome colors?
3) Sand: Boulders, pebbles, sand or silt? Composition of sand? Black lava, green lava, pink sands from crushed shells, white sands from silica and feldspar?
4) Waves: Placid, ripples, surf-able waves, or crashing monsters?
5) Safety: calm, pacific and peaceful or raging with riptides and drowning undertow?
6) Shade or Sun: palm lined shady jungle or scorching full on sun?
7) Popularity: Hot bikini butts, spring breakers, Coney Island crowds or you by your lonesome?
8) Accessibility: How easy/difficult is it to get to?
9) Cleanliness: pollution, litter, contamination levels?
10) Just to finish it out equally, to balance out 10 algorithms against 10 top beach spots, I will have to make one up: Sargasso: this is a seaweed/ algae that has been around forever. However, climate change and nutrient pollution have led to tons of the stuff washing up in Cancun. It can get so bad that it threatens the whole tourism industry here because those turquoise waters and white sandy beaches become so clogged with Sargasso that you can't go swimming or sit on the beach because of the smell. I understand that there is a season to it, and we are not in it, so the water quality is, for now, excellent.
I think about the beaches I have visited. My first beach was Virginia Beach. Full Sun, white sand, crowds on summer days, lame wave action. Second was on the York River in Virginia: stinging nettles, crabs, silty sand, but few people. There were other less impressive lake and river beaches.

College years brought Nantucket, Key West, Gulf of Mexico, the Outer Banks and Sullivan's Island SC, Lake of the Ozarks, Mallorca and the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
Post college travel brought beaches in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Middle Age: the Bahamas, France, Hawaii.
Senior Citizen: India, Mexico, Guatemala and more Atlantic Ocean beaches.

 Beaches are not exactly hard to find on this spinning water planet. But the top ten? Let's just take Australia for starters, which they say has ~12,000 beaches. It has two 90 mile long beaches, one in Victoria and the other in Western Australia (which is really 85 miles long). I camped on the latter, outside of Broome, facing the Indian Ocean, and we were the only people for as far as the eye could see. The surf was raging and dangerous and the beach was littered with real life ocean debris, like trees, old shipwrecks, dead birds and sea snake skeletons. Obviously no lifeguards. If you want to be alone, this would be the place for you.

Not so lonely and inaccessible would be the top tourist destination of Bondi Beach, outside of Sydney. Thousands of people visit everyday. On the south end, there is the infamous "Backpacker's Rip", named for it's proximity to the bus stop; a dangerous rip current that decade after decade, chews em up and spits em back on to the beach...dead. There is also are the matter of the deadly Box Jelly Fish (a bite can cause death in 2-5 minutes) and the sharks.

Then there is The Great Barrier Reef, which covers ~133,000 square miles, had 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands. I went to two.

Aussie neighbor, New Zealand has its own 90 mile beach (actually 55 miles long) Te-Oneroa-a-Tohe on the northern top of the North Island as well as Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Visitors often dig their own hot tub in the somewhat silty sand and let them fill with the geothermally heated water and then take a cool off dip in the dangerous South Pacific. Never seen it on any list.

Other most perennial winners: Bali's Kuta Beach with it's continual perfect wave set, although since I was there in 1981, reviewers complain of litter and pollution problems. The Bahamas' Harbour Island on Eleuthera with its pink sands, several in Hawaii, several in Thailand. South Beach in Miami often makes the list. 

But most of the winners seem to be somewhere in the Caribbean...various islands, Mexico (Cancun) and behind them, islands like Tahiti, Fiji, Bora Bora in the South Pacific. Which shows a bias in favor of sunny, safe, white sands, polychrome beaches.

After visiting many of these places for over 50 years?

My proprietary algorithm goes to Hawaii, Thailand and....
Sandy Beaches with Lilly on the The Mayan Riviera.
Fake News!

 As a tedious disclaimer.....

I did not become a taxi driver in Playa del Carmen.

 All taxistas in Quintana Roo wear these taxi shirts; I am thinking it is a requirement of some kind of union or government syndicate. I was wandering down the street one day and happened on a uniform store. Hanging discreetly amongst the chef jackets and nurse uniforms were these taxista shirts, so to add to my gag bag, I bought one.

The first time I got off the ferry from Cozumel and had to pass through the gauntlet of touts, people you should have seen the hoots, hollers and high fives the taxistas gave me. I don't think they have ever seen such an obvious tourist wearing one and wondered WTF the story was.

A young busboy at that lobster place, Casa Mission, thought I really was a Mexican taxi driver and asked me how a taxi driver like me was able to get a gringa like Lilly.

I have to be in the mood to be the center of attention, but when I am, wearing it while we are peddling down the bicycle lane on the main tourist street of Fifth Avenue, the joy is palpable. Block after block of tu-whit tu- whoo.  

And many offers to sell their taxi to me.

   

Thanks for stopping by








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