TRANSCRIPT

Trip Coach: October 7, 2008

Greg Benchwick, author of "Lonely Planet: Cancún, Cozumel & The Yucatán," answered your questions on trips to these Mexican destinations.

By , Tuesday, Oct 7, 2008, 1:02 PM

Greg Benchwick: Hi Travelers,

Greg Benchwick here, coming to you live from my friend's hilltop apartment high above the colonial Mexican city of Oaxaca. I've been reading through your great questions about the Yucatan and am thrilled to get this chat started.

Let's get chatting!

Greg

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Alexandria, Va.: I'll be travelling to Cancun on Oct 22nd for six nights. I'm going solo and not renting a car. I know I'll grow tired of the Hotel Zone and I'm looking to explore the real Yucatan. I've been to Playa Del Carmen and thought the place to be paradise. I'd like to see Colonial Mexico and enjoy a dining expierence of Yucatan flavors. I thought of taking the bus from the downtown Cancun bus terminal to Merida. What's your suggestion on soaking up culture outside of a trip to the ruins in Tulum?

Greg Benchwick: Heya Going Solo,
Sounds like an amazing trip. And you are definitely in luck. The Yucatan offers one of Mexico's richest, most vibrant cultures. From Cancun, you can visit many places in the Maya Hinterland. There's towns like Nuevo Durango and Yodznot that are just now starting to develop tourism. Then there's the colonial masterpiece of Merida. The one thing to keep in mind on such a short trip is that it takes a good four hours from Cancun to Merida on a first-class bus. So you may be better off looking for an authentic cultural experience closer to home. Halfway between Cancun and Merida are the towns of Valladolid and Izamal. Both have Maya ruins nearby, as well as some cenotes, limestone sinkholes, for swimming.
Another feasible day-trip would be to head down the coast to Tulum, then head inland to the massive Maya site of Coba. You'll feel like quite the Indiana Jones in Coba. There's jungle everywhere and many pyramids have yet to be totally excavated. Whatever adventure you choose, I think it's incredible that you are looking to get off the beaten path.
Buen Viaje,
Greg

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Paramus, N.J.: We are returning to Riviera Maya in Feb. 2009. We love to snorkel but are disillusioned with "group" tours because the large group seems to scare the wildlife away. Any suggestions on how to find a reputable snorkel operator or boat owner who will take us on a private snorkel tour (or a very small group)? Thanks for your help with this. Mary

Greg Benchwick: Hi Mary,
Yes, it's getting harder and harder these days to find good snorkeling spots along the Mayan Riviera. Big-time hurricanes over the past several years have done some severe damage to the reefs near Cancun, Mahahual and Cozumel, not to mention, there's more divers visiting these reefs than ever before.

This said, there's still plenty of fun spots for snorkeling, and you don't even necessarily need to contract a boat to get there. One of my favorite spots is the Yal Ku lagoon in Akumal. The lagoon is packed with parrot fish and interesting rock formations, has extremely tranquil waters, and nowadays, it even sports a tastefully designed above-water sculpture garden.

As for contracting a boat. If you really want to get away from the crowds, than you'll be better off chartering a private boat. Tell the captain your wants and needs, and who knows, you may just have the place all to yourself.

Happy Travels,
Greg

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Dubuque, Iowa: I would like to combine a short cruise with a visit to some of the temple ruins as a birthday present for my 13 year old daughter. She is currently studying the Mayan and Inca civilizations. How should we do that? We have never cruised or been in the area. Would it be better to be land based?

Greg Benchwick: Hello Super Parent,

Wow, a trip to the Yucatan, what an amazing birthday gift. That's one lucky girl. The good news is that there's tons of amazing things to see and do for a 13 year old in the Yucatan. Heck, even a 63 year old will be delighted by the cultural and natural treasures at hand. I must say, however, that I'm not a big cruise fan. While cruises are absolutely the perfect vacation for some, it will certainly take away from the adventure aspects of an on-the-ground "expedition" through this territory. Cruising also creates a serious environmental impact. Up to three times the CO2 emissions as a flight of the same distance!

From what you are saying, it sounds like an on-the-ground trip may be your best bet. I'd suggest starting your trip in Cancun. It's cheaper to fly here than to most places in the Yucatan. I would go straight down to Playa del Carmen from Cancun. That will put you within great striking distance of some of the area's Maya sites, as well as some amazing beaches, cenotes (limestone sinkholes) and great snorkeling.

From Playa, I would definitely try to take a day trip to Chichen Itza. This massive Maya site was recently named as one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. You'll also have easy day trips (or overnight adventures) to Tulum, Coba, and Cozumel (for snorkeling).

There's also a handful of natural "amusement parks" in the area like Xel-Ha and Xcaret, where you can snorkel in amazing waters, swim with dolphins and just let a kid be a kid.

Have a great trip. And happy birthday to your little girl!

Greg

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San Diego, Calif.: Hi, I have one day in Cozumel, what's the best excursion for me? (I have no physical limitations.)

Greg Benchwick: Hiya Cozumel Bound,

With one day on the island, I'd say there's only one thing to do: go diving or snorkeling. If you are already a certified diver, you'll be able to dive along some of the world's most amazing reefs. If you don't dive, then take a snorkel trip.

If getting wet just isn't your thing, then I'd suggest hopping on a moped and taking a ride around the island. There's a great reggae bar on the Eastern shore!

Have fun!
Greg

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Dunbarton, N.H.: Hi Greg, I'm taking a group on a Caribbean cruise in February over school vacation. We have a day in Cozumel. What shore excursion would you recommend that middle and high school students might use as a school project, such as an ecological program or historical site? Can you also recommend something for adults who might be interested in a culinary experience, such as a cooking lesson with a trip to a market or an agricultural location? Thanks, Lynn

Greg Benchwick: Hi Lynn,

Why didn't I get to go to Cozumel when I was in high school?

Anyway, those are some lucky kids, and there's plenty for them to do. For me, one of the most interesting school projects would be on reef ecology. Give the kids some snorkels and masks, and take them over to one of the reefs. From there, they can make a list of the species they encounter. Of course, with reefs it's important to encourage "look-don't-touch" ecological principles. There are no cooking classes in Cozumel, as far as I know, but a short ferry away (about 30 minutes) in Playa del Carmen, you can take cooking or dancing courses at any of the area's language schools.

Happy Travels,

Greg

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Stillwater, Minn.: My son and I are about to embark on a trip to the Yucatan. In fact, we are leaving next Tuesday, Oct. 14th and staying there for a week. We are going with his Spanish Class—7th and 8th Graders, along with two Spanish teachers and several moms are 'tagging-along' as well. My question is: what are the 'must not miss' places/sights/restaurants/entertainment that you recommend seeing/doing for this age bracket of children. Is there any meaningful type of souvenir/remembrance item that they can bring back that would benefit both the people in Mexico and the kids? Thank you for your time. Joy

Greg Benchwick: Hola Joy,

With a week, you definitely need to see some of the major archeological sites. If you are visiting the state of Quintana Roo (where Cancun and Playa del Carmen are found) then I'd suggest visiting Chichen Itza, Tulum and Coba. It'd also be great to take the kids to a cenote for an afternoon swim. There are tons of these limestone sinkholes throughout the region, and you can easily combine a day trip from Cancun or Playa with a trip to Chichen Itza with an afternoon cenote cool off.

The Maya are famous for their arts and crafts. But keep in mind that you don't want to buy anything made from endangered species like turtles of wild cats.

And, I must say that you are one brave lady to take an entire class of 7th graders on a weeklong trip. You may just deserve a cold margarita after your first day.

Have a great time!
Greg

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Salem, Ore.: My husband and I planning a trip to the Yucatan area for early May. As part of our trip, we are planning to drive from Campeche to Palenque (2 nights in Palenque) then drive to Calakmul and the Bio Reserve for two more nights. I'm nervous about two things—a place to get gasoline for the car and are there places to stop for lunch? Should we pack our own food? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.

Greg Benchwick: Hello Calakmul Bound,

I love Calakmul, and I think you're going to have a great time there. There are generally numerous places to stop for lunch anywhere in Mexico. Unfortunately, some of these roadside stands have extremely circumspect sanitary conditions, so if you have a delicate stomach, you may wish to pack a sandwich or two before you hit the road. When driving in Mexico, I generally try to keep more than half a tank of gas. It takes a bit more time to stop at so many gas stations, but it's good to stretch your legs, and will keep you from getting stranded.

Have a great time, sounds like quite an adventure.

Greg

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Grand Prairie, Tex.: I just purchased the 2008 Lonely Planet Mexico guide and am wondering whether it would be worthwhile to purchase the new Lonely Planet Cancun, Cozumel & Yucatan (which I haven't yet been able to browse in local stores). What are the advantages of using the regional guide rather than the all-country guide? Would it mainly be size and convenience or will there actually be additional and different information? Thanks!

Greg Benchwick: Hi Mexico bound,

Happy to hear that you bought the new Mexico book. I contributed to the Yucatan section, and also penned the separate Cancun, Cozumel and Yucatan book. If you are just traveling in the Yucatan region, I would suggest looking for the smaller regional guide. It will have about 200 more pages of information on the region. It also focuses less on budget travelers (though that's included too) and more on midrange travelers.

Happy Travels,
Greg

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Grand Prairie, Tex.: Visited the Mayan Riviera, Merida and Campeche this past January, after not having visited for about five years and was shocked by the changes! So much construction, mainly of giant resorts or condos! Roads to formerly secluded beaches now blocked by massive resort gates (or construction of same). Tourism up greatly and so were prices—which I could accept, but it seemed that glitzy "international" establishments are replacing the more authentic regional places I enjoy. Am I overreacting? How can the independent traveler of moderate means find an interesting and satisfying more local experience? Thank you.

Greg Benchwick: Hello Looking for an Authentic Experience,

Yes, it's become tough these days. And it can be quite sad to see so many resorts going up along these pristine stretches of beach. But the good thing about the Yucatan Peninsula is that it's a big, big place. In the middle of the Peninsula, you'll find "authentic" towns like Oxkutzcab, Santa Rosa and Ticul. One of my favorite off-beat trips is in the state of Yucatan. From the small town of Ticul, you can visit five Maya ruins along the Ruta Puuc. Most of the ruins are relatively small, but you're likely to have them all to yourself. The trip, which you can do in a day, ends in Uxmal, which is a massive site, complete with its own ostentatious sound-and-light show.

Along the Quintana Roo coast (that's the Caribbean Coast), the further south you get, the less development you'll see.

Xcalak is a small town found on the coast here. It's a bit difficult to get there—it's best to take a car—but you'll have the place pretty much to yourself.

Another key to finding authentic experiences is learning the language. With a bit of Spanish, you'll definitely get to dive a bit deeper into the rich cultural tapestry of this region.

Keep traveling responsibly. I love to hear people looking for these types of experience.

Happy Travels,
Greg

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Sarver, Pa.: Where is the best snorkeling, with the healthiest coral and lots of tropical fish in the Cancun/Riviera Maya area? The last time we snorkeled in Yalku Lagoon, 5 years ago, we were disappointed in the condition of the coral and dearth of fishes. Our trip is from March 14-21, 2009 and we will be staying at the Westin Resort.

Greg Benchwick: Yes, these reefs have taken a severe beating in recent years. First Wilma than Dean did some serious damage to the reef ecology. But it's important to keep in mind that hurricanes are an integral part of reef ecology.

The Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro may be a good bet. Reached from Mahahual or Xcalak, this reef may have sustained some damage at the hands of Dean, but last I heard there were plenty of fish there.

Buen Viaje,
Greg

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San Clemente, Calif.: What is the best place to go if you want to live in a hutch on the beach without tons of people? Also, thebest all-inclusive places? Would like to travel November or December and have three kids.

Greg Benchwick: Hello Castaway,

There are several good beach hutches along the coast. Tulum is certainly the most famous spot, with tons a spots along the beach and basic to high-end beach huts. Off the beaten track is Isla Holbox. There's some great beachfront cabanas here. The water is not as crystal clear as that of the Caribbean, but you get more of the place to yourself, and during certain times of the year, you might even get to snorkel with a whale shark!!

Have a great trip.

All the best,
Greg

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Greg Benchwick: Hi all,

Well, unfortunately our time is up. Thanks for all your amazing questions. It sounds like most of you are headed off on some amazing adventures. As you hit the road, please keep in mind the impact your travel may have on the culture and environment of the Yucatan. By following a simple "leave no trace" ethos, we can all contribute to a more sustainable future for tourism.

And, as for me, I'll continue writing my books, running my websites soundtraveler.com and monjomedia.com, and of course, I'll keep traveling. The latest edition of Lonely Planet's Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan book should be hitting shelves soon. I authored this guide, and I think that it should answer some of your questions.

But remember, the best adventures are always had by the seat of your pants. So put the guidebook away for a day, or even a week, and head out on your own. From the far-out Maya sites in Campeche, to the underwater wonders of the area's cenotes and amazing reefs, there's adventure to be had in every corner of the Yucatan. Enjoy every minute of it.

Happy Travels,
Greg