Posts Tagged ‘mexico’

One Good Meal in Cozumel

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

On the Mexican island of Cozumel, all we really wanted was a good meal. Not a bargain on a snorkeling excursion or a bespangled sombrero for $50 USD, or a cheap rental car. This is what Cozumel promises in abundance when you first arrive, before your feet even leave the ferry dock. In the most touristed of places, a tiny island full of salesman hawking their wares to cruise ship day-trippers, we weren’t sure we’d find it.

We came to Cozumel, and its only major city, San Miguel de Cozumel, for the same reason that everyone comes—for the coral. Cozumel’s reefs are among the best in the world for diving and snorkeling, but what do you do—and eat—after you’ve peeled off your wet suit and drip-dried?

We decided to eat. Working on a tip from a guide book, we searched for a specific taco joint away from the main drag, but never found it. We did find, however, a quieter Cozumel. It wasn’t as glitzy as the tourist-centric fare on Avendia Rafael E. Melgar. We didn’t find a Margaritaville or Senor Frog’s pumping loud pop music onto the sidewalk or selling t-shirts. But this was, of course, was the appeal.

A five-minute walk inland and away from Avendia Melgar revealed low-key dive shops and tiny bars strung with lights. We also found La Cabana del Piolin, a restaurant so good that we went back two nights in a row.


At first glance, it looked less like a restaurant than a room full of plastic chairs lit with bare bulbs. (We didn’t find the sign bearing the restaurant’s name—hand-scribbled and taped to a back wall—until the second night.) But then a waitress offered us a seat and appeared with plastic-laminated menus and a tray full of appetizers to go with our Dos Equis, all arranged on little paper plates, and simply and impeccably prepared. There were cucumbers with chile and lime, noodles in a green chile sauce, stewed squash and onions, a white fish with chopped tomatoes, sausage in a spicy red sauce, and of course, a mountain of homemade tortilla chips.

And This Was The Best Meal We Had (In Our Whole Lives)

Dinner was tacos—maybe the best we’ve ever had. The shrimp came in a light sauce of cooked tomatoes and onions, and was seasoned with nothing more than lime juice and salt, while the beef and pork were chile-rubbed and perfectly grilled. The crispy fried fish was served over a puree of spicy black beans on a bed of lettuce and was topped with raw onion, tomato, and slices of avocado. For dessert, the waitress recommended the caballero pobre, a Yucutan version of a moist bread pudding topped with sugar, cinnamon stick and raisins that we devoured about as fast as she could set it on the table.

For a pair of travelers hungry for both a saner Cozumel and a more flavorful dinner than the cheeseburgers offered on the main strip, this was the exact place to be. All we had to do was step back.

Go there: La Cabana del Piolin, if it still exists, is located on Avendia 15 between Calle 3 Sur and Calle 5 Sur. Tacos, beer, and dessert for two will set you back about 150 Pesos.

Cozumel Minus Everything

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Cozumel in the Wind

The wind in Cozumel puts a stop to everything. It wobbles the passengers on the top deck of the ferry and hitches the snorkeling boats to their docks for the day. It blows the fronds of palm trees straight backward and pitches blood red warning flags on every beach.

On Cozumel, in the wind, there is nothing to do but sit and wait for the wind to stop. We try to sit on a beach. The proprietress of our hotel recommends Chankanaab, a snorkeling and beach club on the Western coast of the island.

When we arrive, a man stands waiting in the large circular driveway holding a clip board.

“Excuse me, do you have a reservation with some dolphins?”

We stare, a little slack-jawed and uncomprehending, until we realize that this is the place in all the brochures: At Chankanaab, you can swim with dolphins. We tell him that no, we just want to sit on the beach.

At Chankanaab, sitting on the beach costs $16.

We pay, trying not to grumble too loudly, and enter the club. There are no real beaches on Cozumel—just a rocky strip of shoreline that drops off to the island’s famous coral reefs. We don’t realize this until after we’ve paid our $16, and have walked along the shore in desperation, searching for a patch of sand to lay ourselves down, crack open a book, and wait for the gale to stop. Instead, we sit on picky wooden lounge chairs arranged on a created strip of sand. The plastic sheeting underneath it pushes through in places like stubborn little bald spots. Hunks of bleached coral make walking a challenge. Finally, we huddle in our chairs under towels and shawls. I joke to Brea that I look like someone’s invalid old aunt who’s been wheeled out for the day to get some fresh air. She tries to read. I try to sleep.

The wind pushes hard against our faces and backs. A blue-black bird takes off from his perch atop a grass-topped cabana and then careens sideways, landing right back where he started. He hoots and honks in angry protest, scratching with his feet.

We don’t really enjoy it. We try to, but the wind is too angry, the beach too barren.

Just downshore, a few brave tourists in wet suits brave the chilly air, and the dolphin pen. Were I a Cozumel dolphin, there are several other ways I’d like to spend my day than heaving tourists up and out of the water with my nose, their limbs flailing everywhere. The pen itself is depressing too—a square of concrete posts closed off with lengths of neon green netting. We are glad that we decided to forgo this particular attraction, even when we see a woman in a life preserver squeal with glee as her whole body rockets up above the surface with a great splash. We never see the dolphin, the thing that tossed her up there in the first place. He is hidden under the water where it’s warm, too busy with his work day and too occupied to preen.

We give up. We don’t want to, but the wind becomes relentless, blows sand in every crevice of our faces, our beach bags. We walk back to the entrance past empty booths that promise snorkeling tours, past empty bars that promise tequila, past an empty restaurant where a single Chankanaab employee—a man in his sixties in a baseball cap—snoozes peacefully in a chair, waiting for something to happen—something other than the wind.

Go there: Chankanaab National Park (It’s more like a resort.) is located on Cozumel’s West coast, just south of San Miguel de Cozumel.

Playa del Carmen Lost and Found

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Brent Parkins at El Bar

Playa del Carmen is a carnival, a screaming strip of souvenir shops and bars with names in English. A Starbucks obliterates an entire corner, obstinate and white like a citadel. Shop owners hawk Italian lingerie, plastic watches, and t-shirts with printed slogans and lists like, “10 Reasons Why a Beer Is Better Than a Woman.” For us and Playa del Carmen, it is hate at first sight.

We pour over our guidebooks for saving graces, for hidden gems among the bikini bars, but the one restaurant we’re dying to visit is shuttered and silent. We opt for a second that has a decent writeup, ascend the stairs to the second floor, and hope that the city will prove us wrong.


Richard is dark-haired and gym-ready and symmetrically tattooed. He introduces himself, shakes our hands, as soon as we enter.

“Where are you from?” asks Brea.

“California,” he says. “You?”

“New York.”

He seats us at a table near the edge so we can watch the endless river of people move up and down Fifth Avenue below in a winding, unbroken stream. Blur’s “Woo Hoo Song” blares over a speaker. The minimalist decor—white walls and hard plastic chairs, a neon-lit bar—isn’t exactly promising, but makes it seem like someone tried, at least.

Richard tells us that the restaurant has recently re-opened with a brand new menu, which explains why so little of what’s on it was mentioned in our guidebook. It’s a weird mix of sushi and other stuff—quesadillas, a pasta dish with shrimp, beef with a marsala wine sauce—that can’t seem to agree on which cuisine it is. We’re starving. Richard takes our order and steps back from the table.

“Do you like my jeans?” he asks. “I just got ‘em.”

Later, when he brings our water, he asks us about the weather in New York (it’s January; it’s bad), and chats about the endless sun in California.

“Yeah, I’m from this little town outside of Los Angeles called Long Beach. Have you heard of it?”

When the food arrives, it is reflective of what was printed on the menu in only a ballpark sort of way, as though the chef was in a mood to improvise, or only got half of the day’s scheduled deliveries. The mushroom-and-chorizo quesadillas contain no chorizo. There is nary an onion in our beef-with-onions-and-potatoes. This is only the beginning. Odd flavors abound. The shrimp in the pasta dish is covered in balsamic and is hacked into tiny pieces, as though to disguise what it actually is. The beef is marinated in something garlic-y and sour and barely gives under our sawing knife blades. When we finally succeed in hacking through it, the whole thing separates and flops over: The chef has folded it in half, like a napkin.

Later, we will discuss the purpose of this ad nauseum. Was the chef trying to make it look like a better cut of beef by making it into the shape of a better cut? Or is this an actual cooking technique? Or maybe one that he made up?

We walk away dumbfounded and speechless.

“Well,” I say, “At least it was cheap.”

“That it was,” says Brea. “That it was.”


On the street, the ATMs will only give us American dollars and the rare ones that give Pesos charge exorbitant fees. We are exhausted and annoyed and fairly desperate for a drink, but we can’t muster the courage for any of the famous bars, the ones that play “Macarena” at full volume for half-drunk Australian teenagers and serve margaritas dyed a toxic-looking blue. We opt instead for a tiny rooftop bar near our hotel that oozes music and laughter.

We climb the stairs and what we see immediately thereafter confuses us so completely that it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust.

I look at Brea. “I think we just got sucked into a worm hole.”

Thirty or so people are seated in ragtag plastic chairs, all of them drinking and laughing. The youngest ones are in their mid-fifties. They are all wearing faded, boxy t-shirts and Teva sandals. The number of hugs and cheerful hand grips between them gives the impression that they all know each other. Standing in at the front beside a lopsided Christmas tree, holding court, is a man in his sixties wearing a blue flannel shirt, a straw cowboy hat, and a smart pair of Buddy Holly glasses. He’s playing a blues song on a gleaming yellow Fender, and he’s really good.

I buy a round of Pacificos at the bar (20 pesos each) and we snag two open spots at a picnic table.

This is when I spot the beer coozie. It is sitting in front of, and presumably owned by, a gray-haired guy in a t-shirt that says Go Fishing or Die. And it is adorned with a maple leaf. Brea, almost simultaneously, spots another man in a maple leaf t-shirt. We look at each other in the same instant, eyes widening: These are not Americans. These are Canadians.

We have apparently stumbled upon an ex-pat bar, or a bar in which Canadian ex-pat night is well and truly underway. The accents around us suddenly become all too telling, all those flat vowels floating past.

A roundish woman named Linda makes a request and then joins the guy in the glasses up front to sing along, but she only knows one line of the song.

“The call her One-Line Linda,” he says into the microphone.

“I’ve heard her called worse!” shouts a man who had been sitting next to Linda at her table.

Later, we’re instructed to sing Happy Birthday to a pretty blond sitting near us. She’s surrounded on all sides by hopeful-looking guys in polos. Her name is Leslie.

Brea goes up to the bar to buy Leslie a glass of wine for her birthday, and I lean across the table.

“Excuse me, sir,” I shout over the din at the guy sitting across from me. He’s wearing a Minnesota Vikings t-shirt and has a bristly walrus mustache. “What’s that guy’s name?” I point at the guy with the guitar.

“His name is Brent Parkins,” he says, very matter-of-fact, “And he’s from Winnipeg. Are you from Minnesota?”

“No,” I say. “I’m from New York.”

“Oh,” he says, looking disappointed. “Well, what are you doing here?”

“We wanted a beer,” I say.

“These folks are mostly from Canada but a lot of people from Minnesota hang out here, too,” he says, waving at the assembled crowd.

Brea sets Leslie’s Merlot beside her and touches her on the back. “This is for you,” she says. “For your birthday.”

Leslie pops up out of her seat and throws her arms around both of us. She kisses me on the cheek.

Exhausted, we head for the door, but not before we find a Playa del Carmen that we can live with—the realest or the most unreal, either or both.

Tulum: The House of the Sun

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


Tulum Pueblo, a strip of buildings along a speedbump-heavy stretch of Mex. 307, is not much to look at. It is half-collapsed and dusty, all of its paint chipping. Rocks, hunks of cement, and leftover pieces of tin roof all crowd the tiny yards of tiny houses along with gnarled avocado trees, the occasional wandering goat or chicken, and little kids without clothes. Slogans and store names adorn the cinderblock walls. Bored teenagers wander the streets along with dirty-haired backpackers, skinny girls with yoga bags slung over their shoulders, boys with dreadlocks, and kids on bikes.

The written directions tell us that our hostel is four streets after the bus station and instruct us to turn right a guard rail.

The Casa del Sol is hidden behind an enormous black gate with a glowing orange sun welded onto the front. Its name is painted on a concrete wall directly next to it, the head of an unnamed Mayan god bearing his teeth at the letter C. Another handwritten sign on the corner promises a “yacuzzi” and a “Mayan steam room.”

We enter into a covered courtyard filled with towering green coconut trees, an abandoned tire or two, an herb garden, and a full kitchen where a bunch of artfully mussed teenagers mill about, cutting up fat slices of mango and cracking eggs as though they have lived here for a decade and not a night. They give the impression of having stumbled out of the ads for the current season of Survivor, or out of the Broadway cast of Hair. A tiny Mexican woman with a long braid offers her hand and welcomes us in Spanish.

Clustered around the courtyard are the accommodations themselves: bamboo and grass shelters with hard concrete floors. In the center is a bunker-like dorm room. A tin roof covers the entire compound, which makes the whole business look like a model home show for the jungle-and-tropics set. The yacuzzi is hidden in a dark corner, its water murky and stagnant. A bare length of PVC pipe descends from the ceiling above it. We never find the Mayan steam room.

A boy appears out of nowhere, sliding up next to us and asking for our passports. He is poufy-haired and shirtless and his jeans hang off his hips. He shakes our hands and says his name is Eric. The faint traces of mustache hint that he cannot be a day over 17. When we ask him questions, we get a similar answer each time: A glassy-eyed smile and a slow, deeply considered, “Yeah.”

Turns out that Eric doesn’t really want our passports. He just wants us to write our passport numbers in the sign-in book. He never actually says this. All he says is, “Can I have your passports?” like he maybe needs them for kindling.

Our cabin (number 3) is dark inside save a single energy-saver lightbulb that, when illumiated, makes the room look like a jail cell or a Civil War sick ward. We try to keep it off as much as possible. Later, we will hear the universe go bump in the night—a mouse nibbling something in some corner, roosters crowing, flocks of tropical birds whooping at each other, all just above our heads, just beyond the first roof and the second, reminding us that in Tulum, the outside is always in, that the line between nature and us is imaginary—a thing to leave at home along with your winter socks. You won’t be needing it any time soon.

Go there: The Casa del Sol is, as promised, four streets after the bus station (and right after the overpass) just off of Mex. 307 in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico. It is absolutely worth visiting.

Tulum: What Buzzed Along the Beach

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010


The bee stings me just as the man is getting to the part of his speech where he talks about how Italian is the best language for love. He pauses in the half-light for a moment, trying to decide what English is good for, his sentence trailing off. That’s when I get stung.

Looking back, it is difficult to tell how the bee got there in the first place. I have not seen many since our arrival in Mexico. A few roaches, smaller than any I’ve ever found in my apartment in New York, yes. The occasional buzzing mosquito. But bees, no.

My best guess is that he is perched, sinister and waiting, on the side of a bottle of hot sauce, hiding around the back, wily and out of sight. I touch the bottle neck and suddenly feel him wriggling, the faint buzz of wings, between my fingers. My first instinct, not being able to see him particularly well and thinking he is a harmless fly, is to squish him. And I do. Except that I also squish his stinger straight into the pad of my middle finger.

I yelp in pain. The Italian guy keeps talking, asks if all women in New York City are as beautiful as the two of us.

The perpetrator’s body falls limp to the sand under my feet, but his stinger stays, black and exactly perpendicular, in my finger. I yank it out and instantly wonder if that’s what you’re supposed to do in these situations. I remember jumbled information from first-aid classes of my youth: Maybe you’re supposed to leave it in there? Or maybe that’s something else, something having to do with a deep knife wound.

Until this moment, or maybe until twenty minutes before when the the Italian arrived, we have a splendid time in the grass-roofed, seaside bar. The raindrops pelt the sand out the window while we drink caipirinas by candle light. Our table is fashioned from dark drift wood. The waiter shakes our hands, brings us Mexican beer and a pizza. We dig our toes into the sand floor, feel all the weight tumble off our shoulders.

Brea rushes up to the bar to get me a glass of ice, but the Italian beats her to it. He returns to the table with a fistful melting ice cubes, drops them on the plate in front of me.

The Italian is thirty-five-ish and wearing a t-shirt with an illustration of a shark on the front, teeth bared, that says, “We Give You So Much to Eat” in English. His dark tan, the lines around his eyes, testify to his story: He’s Neapolitan, but has been living in Guatemala for the last six years. He spends a lot of time in Tulum. Doing what? He never says.

My finger throbs and swells and I wonder, somewhat futily as the Italian continues his chatter, if I’m allergic to bee stings. This one is officially my first, and given our less-than-fortunate location on a remote beach in Mexico, this could very well be my last. A few minutes later, when I realize that I am still fully conscious and breathing properly, I decide that I am not.

When the Italian realizes that I’m ignoring him in favor of my smarting right hand, he bends down for a look.

“My God!” he says in Italian. “What beautiful hands you have!”

In fact, he has been speaking in Italian the whole time, which is part of the reason why I humor him for so long. It is familiar and comfortable to me, and I just like to see, sometimes, how much I actually understand. As it turns out, I understand a lot—more than I would like, in this case. The Italian is madly in love with Brea, he tells me.

“Your friend,” he begins. “I saw her standing in the moonlight. I’ve lost my head over her.”

He volunteers to buy us beer, tequila, wine. To be our personal tour guide in Tulum. To call us a cab if we need one. To come back to our hotel with us. We refuse all of the above as politely as possible.

My finger still hurts, but I want to look at the moon. The rain has stopped. I excuse myself as humanely as possible and dart out the door, charge a ways down the sand.

It is a perfect yellow-white circle hanging over the black sea. The constellation Orion appears in the sky just to the right, all of its stars gleaming and distinct in a way that I haven’t seen in ages—the belt, the dagger, the beautiful angle of his shoulders, poised, the arrow drawn back.

Somehow, Brea and I escape. We pay our bill. We slip out to the shore and the Italian guy doesn’t follow.

The wind blows at our faces as we watch the dark cabanas under the palm trees, imaging sleeping in hammocks—a little cold but worth it. Hours before, in daylight, we watched the rain storm gather along the shore. It’s gone now, washed out to sea, leaving nothing but clear sky. No small injury, no buzzing bee, could distract us.

Go there: Tulum’s northern beaches are accessible from town by car or taxi. La Vita e Bella‘s beachfront bar serves Mexican and Italian food, among other things.

A Storm Approaches Tulum

Monday, January 4th, 2010

A Storm Approaches Tulum

The instant our feet touch the pillow-y white sand at Playa El Paraiso at Tulum, the clouds begin to gather in earnest. After a day of travel, of bus-switching and hotel-locating and mindless belly-filling, we are desperate just to get there, to see this thing that we’ve come to see. By the time we arrive, it’s nearly sunset.

The sand is so soft that the feel of it under our sandals makes us uneasy, as though we’re doing it wrong, so we hastily remove them, left hands balanced against the dragon-scale side of a palm tree.

We emerge from the line of trees to a beach that is Corona-ad perfect with its grass umbrellas and lounge chairs. It conjures visions of a million other somewheres, but not quite; it is boundless like a California beach but exploding with color, all hyper-saturated blues and blinding whites, like the Mediterranean. If the view didn’t stretch onward forever, if the complete circle of the sky weren’t visible in every direction, I would have guessed that it was a movie set awaiting the arrival of Leo DiCaprio in his swim trunks, of an eye-patched Johnny Depp.

The wind blows at our backs, mangling our humidity-inflated hair even further, nudging us toward anchored little fishing boats and enormous pieces of bleached driftwood, toward more grass-roofed cabanas and the ever-darkening sky.

To live in a city is to neglect the sky. Your eyes never wander beyond the tops of the buildings that brush up against it, and there’s not much of it to see, anyway. On the beach at Tulum, the clouds hang low and black, as tall as skyscrapers themselves. As we stroll, we pick out which beachside hotel bar will receive us when the rain starts and opt for one with a grass roof and candle light flickering from within.

“Is it dark because the sun’s setting or because this storm is moving in?” I ask, watching the black stripe gather just above the water.

Despite what we’re seeing, all the sand and water and skimpy clothes, it is still winter. It is still New Year’s Day. This is what winter looks like in this place. Back in New York City, I shivered on the jetway because it made no sense to get on the airplane with a wool coat only to emerge in Mexico with its useless bulk still in my hands. My seasonal clock is turned inside-out.

Just as the unseen sun slides below the horizon, the first raindrops fall fat and warm on our shoulders. Our umbrellas stand ready, tucked into the back pockets of our beach bags, but between the wind and the warmth, it’s not worth opening them.

We race toward our bar, toward its cave of light and its sheltering roof. There will be no sunning ourselves on this first day at the beach, no tanning or burning or lounging or forgetting all the gray and cold and work waiting at home. This is just a glimpse, Tulum in a dark mood so that we may appreciate her sunny days.

Go there: Tulum is the southernmost point on the so-called “Mayan Riviera” south of Cancun, Mexico.

New Year’s Eve: Cancun

Friday, January 1st, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Jellyfish...

The new decade arrives while I am sitting in the front seat of a van stuffed with eight people. An hour before at the airport, the ride is sold to us as a “private, direct taxi ” until we are told, with only feigning and half-smiling regret by a guy with a walkie-talkie, that there are “no more drivers.” We’ve already paid. It’s nearly midnight. We are cotton-headed from the flight and in Mexico, in the muggy holiday dark, there are no other choices.

Cancun in the dark is a square strip mall filled with lumpy ghosts of stucco and concrete, and dotted with the neon of 7 Eleven signs and hung with strings of colored lights. We sit up front with the driver while the German and Californian tourists in the back seat talk about Manchester United. The driver talks to us. He points out the window at things we might want to see—an enormous open-air church, a guy in a car next to us weaving perilously between the lanes.

“Too much tequila,” he says, and then teaches us the Spanish word for “drunk.”

Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” blasts on the radio.

We stop to drop off the Californian tourists at their hotel—a lumbering tower of yellow-painted cement near a highway underpass, and then to drop off the Germans at another. At midnight in the heat, the Christmas garland around the hotel entrance looks disingenuous, as though the proprietors have simply left it up too long.

We are the only ones in the van when the driver points to the horizon, to shimmering little clouds of fireworks puffing silently in the distance. Brea digs around in her bag and pulls out her phone, pressing a button. The LCD illuminates her smile in the dark.

“Happy New Year,” she says.

“Happy 2010,” I say.

The instant comes and goes, but my eyes stay on the fireworks. They are the kind that explode into soft, round chrysanthemums of gold and orange, that twinkle and hang for a few seconds before they disappear. They appear one after the other in a silent bouquet. We are much too far to hear the noise, and the music drowns it out anyway.

The driver sighs and points to the clock on the dashboard.

“My family,” he says. We’re all ready to go home, then.

Just before we arrive at our hotel, a collection of whitewashed bungalows hemmed in by walls of bamboo, I see fireworks in another direction. The are thin and low to the ground, and instead of bursting into grand circles of light, they streak across the sky like fast-moving little comets, and in only three colors: red, white, and green. It is better than any party, any shouting celebration—these tiny lights in the dark.

Go there: Cancun is located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.