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Yucatan Adventures – Tulum and Bacalar

A mid-December holiday beckoned us to sun and fun.  Wanting to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, a friend from Mexico said, “Let’s go to Bacalar!” 

Relatively quick and cheap flights from the southern U.S. to Cancun make travel easy.  Leaving the Cancun International Airport, it’s about an hour and a half drive to Tulum barring delays due to construction or accidents.  New to us were roads having a lane and a half going each way.  Luckily, our friend was driving, but you quickly learn how to drive and pass by watching the other cars navigate. 

Larger and busier than expected, Tulum still offers pleasurable walking.  Bicycle paths through much of the city provide a great way to avoid the traffic and to see life passing by at a slower pace. 

An early morning start to see the Tulum Ruins pays off in avoiding the crowds that arrive by mid-morning.  Spectacularly located overlooking the rolling, blue ocean, paths lead you around different ruins that you view from a distance. We stumbled (almost literally) over several iguanas here.  They are masters of camouflage!  

As part of the fee to the ruins, you can also buy entrances to the cave tour and cenote at Aktun Chen.  To find this nature park, you drive a dirt road through a jungle for about 20 minutes.The guided cave tour is an easy, dry walk with an underground lake as its grand finale.  

Another short drive leads to the cenote.  Upon arrival, locker rooms, showers and life jackets await.  Step down a few stairs and, voila, you enter a pristine lake nestled within a cave.  For some, it takes a bit to get used to the cool water, but once you do, exploring the two large caverns is exhilarating!  Visits are not time limited.  We spent over an hour with just our group and one other couple.  Another small group joined us just before we left.  (TRAVEL TIP:  Bring a small dry bag for your camera.  It will make taking pictures more enjoyable.)

Nearby, Los Primos in Chemuyil delivers a welcoming atmosphere and excellent ceviche and tacos for a late lunch. 

A recommendation by our waiter, the tranquility of Akumal beach creates a perfect setting for a memorable sunset walk.

Vibrant nighttime streets in Tulum buzz with street food vendors, fruit stands, restaurants and shops.  We bought glazed clay bowls for guacamole and small musical instruments for patio fiestas at home.  The Argentinian restaurant, El Sudaca, charms with a breezy vibe to go along with its tasty chimichurri! 

On the drive south, the Muyil Mayan Ruins let you feel like Indiana Jones discovering lost civilizations.

Also at Muyil, book a boat to take you into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This saves time for those who don’t want to drive to the bioreserve’s main location in Punta Allen. A twenty minute jungle walk on a boardwalk takes you to the embarkation point on Laguna Chunyaxché.  Once on the boat, the captain smoothly navigates across the lagoon and into the mangrove canals.  Ultimately, you can jump into the canal and let a slow current take you and your life jacket for a 30 minute ride through the mangroves where the Captain meets you at the end.  (Although a small crocodile was spotted along the way, the Captain gave assurances that “most” don’t come out until nighttime!) 

Driving another couple of hours south takes you to the town of Bacalar, about 50 kilometers north of the Belize border.  For our stay with a group of six, our rented house also included a guest house and a private dock with kayaks.  Only a ten minute drive to the plaza made for a convenient location. 

The town of Bacalar welcomes with a large central plaza for strolling and admiring the blue-green lagoon.  Busy restaurants and cafes line the streets.  We didn’t venture  far while taking nighttime strolls but were able to find everything in close vicinity to the plaza.

In the mornings, stop at Mercado Municipal de Bacalar to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade tortillas and fresh fish from Pescaderia del Guero.  (They also have a second larger store that is not in the center of town.)  What a treat to cook and eat fresh fish!

We packed ceviche, guacamole and maduros from El Taco Loco for our boat outing on Laguna Bacalar, known as the Lagoon of the Seven Colors,  The boat picked us up at our dock for two and a half hours that included swimming at three locations and visiting three cenotes.   Unlike the boat trip at the protected biosphere reserve, this lagoon had several boats and jet skis although not overwhelmingly so.  If you visit Bacalar, you’ll definitely want to reserve a boat excursion!

Walking through the forests at the Mayan Ruins of Kohunlich rewards the visitor with canopies of large, vibrant tropical foliage.  Amazingly, we experienced these ruins practically by ourselves with only a handful of other guests in the whole area.  Walking through these timeworn structures inspires awe.  We almost missed the Temple of the Masks when we were trying to outrun the mosquitos  Glad we didn’t!

To access the ruins at Dzibanche, it’s necessary to pay locals for use of the road.  The government still maintains the ruins and its nearby roads, but the outer road between the main highway and the park road is not maintained and makes for slow driving.  But, it is more than worth it!!  Again, we found ourselves as adventurers stumbling upon undiscovered treasures…crossing paths with practically no one at the whole site.

Closeby at Kinichna stands the tallest pyramid in the area, the House of the Sun.  It’s built in four levels which means you climb for a while then have a grassy terrace then more steps to climb up to the next level.  Standing on top of this towering, hallowed pyramid, with the vista of the jungle encircling you, is one of those moments you breathe slowly and try to capture the image to last a lifetime.

Stops Along the Way:

Yes to Puerto Moreles!  A 30 minute drive from the airport, this cute and lively town invites you to spend more time.  We stopped by both times that we passed by it.  Check out the restaurant El Merkadito Seafood and Beach Club.  Hope to return to Puerto Moreles on future trips!

No to Mahahual!  What probably used to be a quaint seaport now welcomes cruise ships and its throngs.  While we were there, four ships were docked.  The walkway with a beach view is comfortable, but the constant contact with vendors selling souvenirs, massages or places to sit is not relaxing.  From here, our friends hired a boat for an incredible snorkeling trip to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world. Find a less touristy location to depart for snorkeling and avoid this stop if you can. 

Serendipity Notes:

Unplanned, joyous moments always pop up during travels.  To wait out a downpour before visiting the Mayan Ruins Kohunlich, we backtracked to the only sign of civilization we had passed.  Luckily, The Explorean Kohunlich welcomed us to watch the FIFA WorldCup finals with guests, coffee and croissants.

Rainy Days in Charleston, SC

(For full disclosure, this trip was made pre-COVID in 2019.  We are currently at home, dreaming and planning for future travel after the pandemic becomes history. Now is the perfect time to remember past adventures.  We are so grateful for the places we have experienced!)

Are the charms of Charleston´s people, history, and cuisine lost when summer rains set in?  Do showers and storms mean that a trip becomes a wash-out?  We found the answer to be “no way” during a short, three-day visit.

With seemingly never ending rain, indoor dining was a must during this trip.  The Five Loaves Cafe had a local, homegrown feel.  A unique, culinary message handwritten on each tabletop greeted us while the relaxed ambiance and friendly staff invited us to stay a while.

The creamy, shrimp gnocchi and  steamed mussels immediately transported us to coastal dining with fresh seafood.  

A few drizzly, damp walks rewarded us with up close views of this city’s masterpiece homes.  Although they can be imposing, they remain friendly and welcoming with their balconies and gardens.  Each one displays its own personality and hints at the stories that have played out within its walls.

We escaped a deluge of rain one day during the inside tour of the spectacular Nathaniel Russell House.  The staircase is amazing!  Their website can say it better than we can…”The home’s graceful, free-flying, three-story staircase is an architectural marvel with each cantilevered step supporting the one above and below it.”

Who in their right mind orders beets on a pizza?  Turns out, if you take the beet plunge at Dal’s Pizza you’ll be rewarded.  Their Beetnik with mozzarella and goat cheese, bacon, golden beets and rosemary removed all childhood fears of beets!

With a break in the rain, we drove to nearby Tybee Island for lunch at The Crab Shack.  This dock-side patio, including cool mist from the overhanging trees, provides the perfect spot to enjoy a low country boil of shrimp, crab, corn, potatoes and sausage. 

Magnolia Plantation opened its gardens to visitors in 1870, making it the oldest public garden in the US.   The designers created a magical space by fully incorporating the swamp into the gardens and successfully resisting any attempt to tame the natural setting.  This was a place we didn’t mind to return to for a repeat visit.

We weren’t able to eat at Basil, but we loved the sign at night!

Beijing in Spring

We were fortunate enough last Spring to visit one of the world’s oldest cities, Beijing.  Now, we’re fortunate to have some time at home to write and share it with you. We visited Beijing last April as flowering trees provided fragrance and color to an already enchanting place.  Our flight over departed on a Saturday and we returned the following Saturday. We found this to be the perfect amount of time to experience the history, art, food and, of course, the people in the world’s most populous capital city.

We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore (figuratively speaking) when we navigated the narrow, pedestrian, street-signless alleys of the hutongs to find our hotel! Kelly´s Courtyard Hotel was highly recommended by friends and we loved it!  Our host, Dean, spoke great English and assisted us with everything that we needed.  Each morning we started our day with a breakfast in their cozy, enclosed courtyard.

Although travel weary, we wanted to explore at least a little that first night.  We only had to walk down a few alleys to find a small, neighborhood park. It was a welcoming first experience to see the neighbors meeting for weekly dance and karaoke sessions.

The following days we easily walked and used the metro to explore all corners of central Beijing.  An early morning walk through Beihai Park led us to a large garden surrounding an urban lake. Here, we watched older Chinese move together in tai chi as well as others dancing in traditional clothing.  

Beijing’s Drum Tower, built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan, houses 24 drums which were used for music and to announce the time.  This continued to be the official timekeeping method until 1924 when the Qing Dynasty ended with Puyi, The Last Emperor (see footnote below!)

We were surrounded by school children on a field trip at The Temple of Heaven.  Each student wore a light-blue uniform and assembling a wooden model of the temple.  Emperors visited this temple each year to offer prayers for a good harvest.

Tiananmen Square, famous for the 1989 student protests, seemed quiet for its expansiveness and its importance.  A few families were ordering food from a food truck parked in the plaza. On one side of the square stands the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

The Forbidden City is one of those places that takes you back to another world.  One palace falls behind you to open up yet another and then another. Side courtyards beckon.  You get butterflies in your stomach thinking about the events that have happened here and how those events changed the world.

Our first encounter with The Egg was at night after a long day of exploring.  What an amazing view to end the day! The titanium and glass structure houses the National Centre for the Performing Arts.  We were lucky enough to have an inside tour another day, entering via an underwater passageway that opens up into the cavernous lobby.  The experience inside is as wondrous as from the outside.

A metro to the outskirts of Beijing took us to The Summer Palace.  Architecturally reminiscent of the Forbidden City, it was (and is) a quiet retreat from the city.  A large artificial lake anchors the buildings, some of which were like a backlot “Main Street” where the royals pretended with their courtiers to be normal citizens shopping in markets.

We wanted to avoid the heavy tourism of the closest segment of The Great Wall. So, along with others in our hotel, we hired a driver to take us for an all-day excursion to Jinshanling.  Here, a gondola took us up to the wall. It’s a bit tricky to walk with uneven rocks and steep stairs, but it’s definitely an experience of a lifetime to take in the views and ponder the history of this country and its people.

A musical performance in the courtyard of the Beijing Confucius Temple was enlightening in its artistic commemoration of Confucius.

The prior year, we observed the holiday of Qīngmíng (Tomb Sweeping Day) in Hong Kong.  It was interesting to observe the day again but this time in China.  It’s a day of remembrance for ancestors similar to our Memorial Day. One tradition is to burn fake paper money and you can see huge bags of the colorful paper money for sale at the stores.  Although we were told that it is forbidden to burn the money in the streets or parks now, we observed some older residents still lighting theirs on fire in the alleys of our hutong.

For a thoroughly modern artistic experience, we visited the 798 Art District.  Similar to other art districts we’ve enjoyed, it’s housed in an old industrial complex. This destination attracts a younger crowd with its art galleries, murals, installations and coffee shops.

Amazingly incredible!  That’s the only way to describe Beijing’s cuisine.  From the street food (like scorpions on a stick) of Old Beijing Custom Street, to the terrific everywhere Kung Pao chicken, potstickers and noodle bowls… to the unforgetable Peking Duck experience, it was all so delicious!

With our current COVID19 quarantine situation, we are more content than ever that we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to travel.  While at home, we are reliving amazing moments in places like Beijing and dreaming of the adventures that await us. Hope you’re planning your own explorations as well.  Comment to let us know your recommendations for our post-quarantine travel! 


For an at-home travel fix, we recommend that you watch The Last Emperor.  Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s still a great movie to transport you to another place.  It was actually filmed in The Forbidden City.

Did we feel safe in China?  Yes! The people are friendly and helpful and there are cameras literally everywhere!  In the neighborhoods there are local police at intersections and lots of security in the metro and airports.  Even though it’s a large city, driving is still somewhat of a free-for-all. So, that is definitely best left up to the locals and watch carefully before crossing any larger streets!

Christmas Lights and Tapas in Valladolid, Spain

There’s something special about Christmas lights when traveling.  It makes the discovery of far away places even more magical.  

While the medieval city of Valladolid is always captivating, when decorated for Christmas it becomes even more enchanting.

In north-central Spain just one hour north of Madrid by train, Valladolid is an unknown gem.  In 1469, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon married here.  Later, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Castile and ultimately the capital of united Spain.

The Plaza Mayor was the first great plaza in Spain and the model for others in Madrid and Salamanca among others.

During the holidays, the plaza becomes a winter market for gifts and treats like churros with warm chocolate for dipping and roasted castañas (chestnuts.)

Stretching across the city’s cobblestoned streets, illuminated decorations create a festive ambiance radiating outward from the plaza.

Plaza Mayor and Calle Santiago, Valladolid (Spain) December 2019

Each year, various belenes (Nativity Scenes) are on display throughout the city as a way to share the craftsmanship and history of these cultural traditions. 

Many families visit the same belenes each year as part of their family’s holiday celebrations.

This belen, Belén Monumental, is on display in the Sala de Exposiciones de Las Francesas. Interestingly, its theme this year is based on the movie, Avatar.

As you wander through the illuminated streets, tapas await around every corner. 

Fodor’s describes this Spanish region as:

 …the “Tapas Capital of The World,” thanks in part to the success of the National and International Tapas Competition, which takes place in Valladolid during the first week of November every year. It’s a place that takes its food just as seriously as its wines…

In our opinion, La Tasquita at Calle Caridad 2, serves the city’s best calamari. Order it along with una clara (Spanish lager draft beer like Mahou mixed with carbonated water) and you won’t be disappointed!

More of our favorites to try are Los Zagales, Vinotinto, and La Taberna del Herrero.

While you’re in Valladolid for the holidays, we also recommend that you visit Manuel Iborra for their high quality turron.  Almond and Yema Tostada flavors are our favorites.  With their compact size, these make unique gifts to take back home as well!

For lighthearted insight into what exactly is turron and what are the most common flavors, we enjoyed reading this post:

To view more photos of the belenes (nativity scenes) visit this page.