Category Archives: Mexico 2011

Christmas Somewhere Else

I’m not very traditional and have the honor of being the change agent in our household, which means I’m usually the one saying “Why don’t we try this?” or “We’ve never done that before…” or “Let’s see what this is about!” Sometimes it’s met with tepid enthusiasm. Other times it’s met with cautious silence. This happened in 2007 when I suggested to my husband we spend Christmas in Brugges because Brugges looked like a gingerbread house village where Eurocentric Christmas traditions took root. Mike agreed, understandably wondering what spending a holiday so deeply intertwined with his childhood would look like in a foreign place. Turned out, he loved it. Christmas in Belgium was filled with charcuterie, world-class beer, everything dipped in chocolate, twinkling lights and ice skating.


We liked it so much we flew to London the following Christmas and spent a week there, again eating too much meat, cheese and chocolate, ice skating, hiding from the cold rain in awesome museums and—my favorite—the Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley Hotel with its chocolate-colored walls and gold ornaments.

A few years went by and then in 2013, I got it in my head that we should spend Christmas in Taos, New Mexico, and partake in the Christmas Eve bonfires at Taos Pueblo. This experience is unmatched. There’s still time, so if you’re anywhere near Taos on the night of December 24th, whatever your religious or cultural affiliations, go and see. Taos Pueblo is the only inhabited World Heritage Site in North America and during Christmas Eve, Santa Claus is nowhere to be found, which is refreshing. We attended mass at St. Jerome’s where we actually got there early enough to grab a spot on a pew. After the service, we followed the procession out into the hundreds of luminarias and three large bonfires taller than some houses. And then the procession proceeded without us because we got swept up in the crowds. That’s okay because we still felt like we were part of something quite old and very large. Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo is about light, a message to the sky. No Santa. No Elf on a Shelf. No glowing reindeer. “Magical” sounds trite and doesn’t even begin to describe how special this event is. Just go.


Lately, we’ve been staycationing at Christmas; flying during the hectic holiday season is sometimes just too much trouble and after 12 years of living in the New York metropolitan area, we’ve all grown hypersensitive to traffic. Even the word “traffic” makes us want to stay home, lock the doors and find something good on TV. We’re a small family so the holidays are just about us and whatever we feel like doing. Christmas Eve, we attend an evening church candlelight service (plus our church has a kick-ass choir) and our neighborhood puts on its own luminarias display. Christmas Day, we uncork champagne, open gifts, and watch vintage movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But if I were to spend Christmas somewhere else again, I’d love to do so in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, places where I think there might be a bit more Jesus and sunshine and a bit less Santa and cold. While the commercialism of Christmas bothers me every year, I do love all the lights and Christmas trees (the origami tree at New York’s American Museum of Natural History remains my all-time favorite and is worth braving the crowds) and I’m genuinely moved by the Nativity. I’ve never been very religious and although I was baptized Catholic, I never made Communion. But a story about a down-and-out couple wandering the desert and a baby and angels and people feeling hopeful is pretty cool. It’s not too different from what the Red Willow People at Taos Pueblo do every year—create light in darkness and tell the heavens “We’re still here, doing our best.”

Sprinting Toward Spring Break

It’s hard to write about the beaches in Cancun or along Southern California’s coast when it’s barely 40 degrees out and the sun is ignoring you. But I did it. As we all daydream about where to thaw out this spring, I thought a roundup of some favorite spring break destinations might be in order. You can check out my latest blog posts for CheapOAir, like the one about beaches in Los Angeles or the one about Cancun’s beaches or there’s also Cancun’s newest Mayan culture museum and it’s not-as-new underwater sculpture garden. My tropical wish list includes more of Mexico, and more of the Caribbean, especially St. Lucia. Both have been added to the ever-growing vacation destination list.

What about the Florida Keys? We visited Key West after the annual wave of college party goers had already swept through and locals had swept up the remaining detritus. By the time we arrived in April, we had a clean, quiet island of margarita-sipping grownups who had already partied hard years ago. I love the funky, artsy, “we-answer-to-no-one” vibe on Key West and we look forward to going back and visiting our favorite pools and cafes again.

If you prefer history over the beach, Washington, D.C. is a fantastic spring break getaway because so much to see and do there is free, plus it’s the one time of year the city actually looks like it’s in a good mood (as opposed to humid, stressed-out summers or deadline-driven tension throughout fall and winter as fiscal and calendar years come to a close). How can you be grumpy when everything is blooming pink? Also, the foodie scene is gaining ground and visibility in Washington. Book soon because cherry blossom season is just weeks away.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, our spring break this year will be in Japan, where blossoming cherry trees are treated with the same reverence as Buddhist temples. I’m buzzing with excitement, and really look forward to blogging, tweeting, posting and just spewing giddiness via social media while touring Tokyo and Kyoto. More to come!

The Beaten Path

Staying at a mega-resort located in a hot place like Cancun is like being at a mall in America but everyone wears fewer clothes. Like the mall, people trudge slowly and talk loudly. At a resort, our national struggle with obesity is accentuated during bathing suit season, which makes walking behind a trudger more painful. To escape this scene means going “off resort,” which few loud, overweight people do. I have no hard proof of this overstatement of mine, only my own anecdotal evidence; it seemed every time we went off resort–Isla Mujeres, Tulum, and Xel-Ha–we suddenly found ourselves among the more physically active, curious and less loud.

As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to stay at Isla Mujeres and hide among the artists and fishermen, but the package prices at Dreams Cancun were too good. For under $3,800, three people could fly there, stay five nights, and eat until they could no longer respectfully wear the bathing suit they brought for the trip. Kids could paint ceramics on the beach while parents sat in swings strung around a bar and sipped margaritas and “Carnivales.” The cherry on this sundae was that this resort had dolphins. We’ve stayed at many hotels around the world; never before have we stepped out of bed, walked out on to a balcony, and looked down to see dolphins jumping and playing directly below. This is indeed a great way to start the day. The resort offers a swim with the dolphins, which is a separate expense handled by another company. If you’re traveling with kids and can afford this luxury, it’s amazing–truly the eye-opening, wonderous, exhiliarting experience you hoped it would be.

A disadvantage to purchasing all-inclusive, packaged deals is that everything is…well…all there…and packaged…ready for immediate consumption. Resorts like Dreams strip decisions down to “chicken or beef?” or “hot tub or pool?” leaving little else to fret about. And that’s their goal–remove the anxiety of making all the other decisions you deal with day to day so that the decision-making is as distilled as fine tequila. There’s tremendous appeal to this–who wouldn’t want to stare into the Caribbean sipping iced liquor only worrying about which of the resort’s many restaurants you’ll try that night? Or whether you want a massage or a facial? People travel far and pay dearly to be pampered in this way.

But I’ll admit after about three hours of being a puddle on the beach, I missed the challenges of making my own decisions. This hadn’t been true the last time we stayed at a resort, which was in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2007. Coyaba was smaller, more intimate and I guess at the time I wasn’t seeking challenges of any kind. In Cancun, I didn’t have to decide if I wanted another margarita–I was about four or five sips into my first margarita of the day when Domingo (or was it Javier?) conducted his rounds on the beach and offered me a second. Perhaps he saw that my left hand was empty and needed something to do. I said “No, gracias,” and he eventually found some takers a few lounge chairs down and was able to lighten the load on his tray.

I don’t mean to bite that hand that serves me cool, refreshing cocktails. Sometimes during other trips, when you’re so exhausted you feel your bones crack from fatigue, when you can’t find a bottle of water or a ubiquitous red and white can of Coke to keep you going (overseas, Coke to me is always the sign that America is never far away), you wish for all that resort fluff, for someone to approach without judgment and offer to fulfill a need you didn’t know you had. What I learned from this trip is that escape and discovery are not found in the places I expected; I thought escape was off the beaten path, but it is not. Off the beaten path is about discovery–such as wandering into a sculpture garden at Isla Mujeres and spying an iguana scrambling across an ancient temple in Tulum. I wasn’t looking to leave anything behind, but to find something new. It’s the beaten path that is the escape–an escape from decisions big and small that gnaw at you. The problem is, to discover means to be on your own, which can be fun and tiring. To escape means you’re with everyone else.

Scenes from Dreams:


Chichen Itza is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and one of Mexico’s biggest tourist attracations. It’s also a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from Cancun and in the center of a hot, dry Yucatan Penisula. Closer to Cancun is Tulum, less-traveled Mayan ruins that stand on a cliff overlooking a cool, pristine swath of white, sandy beach. Tulum has a startling, unexpected beauty to it with architecture similar to Chichen Itza. Pass the actors dressed as Mayan warriors loitering around the Haagen Daaz ice cream stand and keep going–soon you’ll step back in time.

Tulum is said to have been first mentioned during a Spanish expedition in 1518. Decades later, the Mayans would succumb to European diseases and their city on the cliff would begin to crumble. Still standing are three major structures: El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God, which you’re allowed to view from a short distance. You can’t climb or touch the ruins even though there are iguanas everywhere doing just that. You can swim at the beach below the cliff, and people were. There’s no escaping the sun there; a number of people jumped in with their clothes on.

Tulum was a lovely surprise–worth the money and the 90-minute, relatively smooth, air-conditioned bus ride. After so many centuries, these ruins still stand despite brutal heat and noisy tourists. A hat is a must, for the sun beats down on this pre-Colonial city. It’s no wonder the Mayans were always looking up, worshipping the skies. Still, as we walked past those stone buildings and heard the surf pounding below, I wondered what it was like to live in ancient times, to be so strongly ruled by the cycles of the Earth, a rising sun, a quieting moon, the moods of the Caribbean below. Modern life is very much removed from anything cyclical, as we email vacation photos taken on our cell phones to friends and family who are unable to sleep in their own countries and continents because they, too, are wired and have forgotten how to be still. Even with hundreds of tourists drifting about speaking dozens of languages, Tulum is a special place to take in rhythmic stillness–as so many others did years and years ago.

Isla Mujeres Part 2

Think Mexico and you think pinatas, tacos, and beaches that disappear into the horizon. You don’t think of funky architecture or modern art. Nor would you think those things would be found on Isla Mujeres.

As I mentioned before, Isla Mujeres is a quiet place where people can be alone with their thoughts and pursue their creative dreams. This manifests in many ways, from the quirky houses facing the Caribbean to the Sculpture Garden on Punta Sur, the southern tip of the island. Admission to the Sculpture Park is $3 USD per person and completely worth it. The Sculpture Garden is a winding path taking you out to sea through a labyrinth of modern works, pieces of the industrial world jutting against the Yucatan Penisula’s natural beauty. The artists who created these objects come from all over the world, many from Central and South America, and a few from the United States. Sharp red metal objects pierce the sky. A stone figure stares. And at the end, the crumbling remains of an ancient Mayan ruin while the sea crashes against the cliff below–a reminder that these lands have seen artists come and go.

If you go to Punta Sur by golf cart, as we did, you will likely pass the Seashell House (also known as the Conch Shell House), another unique art form that pierces the skyline with its curvy, pointed roof. We passed it and unfortunately I didn’t capture any decent pictures. We were also crunched for time and didn’t know we could stop by and look around. The Seashell House can be rented out, and it seems visitors are welcome. In fact, there are a number of things I had wanted to do at Isla Mujeres and didn’t. I was thankful we stumbled upon the Sculpture Garden by accident, but I also would have loved to have toured the Seashell House as well as some other unusual art forms–the tombs at the municipal cemetery, another hot spot we passed and didn’t have time to savor. This cemetery is remarkably vibrant. Walk through this cemetery and you’re sure to believe it’s better on the other side.