Trip Coach: December 11, 2007

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Zora O'Neill, co-author of 'The Rough Guide to the Yucatán' and owner of RovingGastronome.com, answered your questions on Yucatán.

Zora O'Neill: Hello—this is Zora O'Neill. Thanks so much for joining me for this chat! I've been visiting the Yucatan since 2003, and every time I visit, I'm given one more reason to think it's a fantastic place—nice people, tasty food, good weather, cool culture and loads of variety... So whether you're looking to veg out on a beach or hike around in the jungle, send your questions along. I'm looking forward to hearing what you're planning!

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Hi, Zora! My wife and I love Playa del Carmen. We've heard that they'll be building an international airport there within the next couple years. Have you heard about that? And what's the best way to keep track of news from that area?

—Mitch

Zora O'Neill: Hi Mitch!

Playa is great! Even as it develops, it has kept a really mellow, hip flavor. As for the airport, I've heard talk about this too—the alleged plan, first mentioned by politicians a couple of years ago, is to overhaul the airstrip at Tulum and make that into an international airport. But there's no evidence of this on the ground yet, and I doubt it will happen anytime soon—especially because Cancun's airport has just added a new terminal. The plan also doesn't help or change Playa substantially, because Tulum is also an hour away.

The website playa.info has a really active set of forums, with a lot of Playa residents contributing—this is definitely the first place to go for gossip.

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Mountain View, Calif.: Hello, Zora. I am looking for a good deal to go to Cancun with my family over the holidays for a week—2 adults, 2 kids. Round trip flights from San Jose, CA are around $1k+ now. I'd like to know if this is inflated. Are there good and bad times to go?

Where would be a good place to stay? I've looked at several hotels—north, nr, downtown looks like it's just hotels after hotels. South looks less congested but would it be difficult to get to town if we wanted to (shopping?)? How do Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen compare to Cancun?

Zora O'Neill: The holidays are a tricky time to visit Cancun and the Riviera Maya—all the hotels charge their highest rates at this time (even higher than the late winter and spring beach season), and they usually require that you book for the whole week between Christmas and New Year's. As for airfare, the price you're quoting sounds high, but I'm not surprised—this really is the premium time of the year. If your schedule can handle it, you might just have to wait to see if any last-minute discount deals are available.

As for where to stay in Cancun, don't worry, as there are buses that run every few minutes up and down the full length of the beach area and into downtown, and the price is only 65 cents! Aside from Punta Cancun, where most of the bars and clubs are, everything is so spread out anyway, you'll have to take a bus regardless of where you stay. I'd say pick the hotel you like, and go from there.

But in general, know this about the beaches: The hotel zone is a barrier island shaped like the number '7'. The north section—the top of the 7—faces the bay and usually has calm, totally waveless water. But the closer you get to the bend in the 7, the more rocks there are, and some hotels have some creative "beaches" that are more like sand over breakwaters. On the other hand, the beach at the Presidente Intercontinental (and its neighbor, Ambiance Villas at Kin-Ha) is one of the most beautiful in the whole hotel zone, as it's especially deep.

Once you go around the bend in the 7 and head south, you're right, the feel is less congested, and the beaches feel a bit more open. The water on this side is the open Caribbean, though, and the waves can be high and occasionally too dangerous to swim in. But the scenery really is gorgeous. One other note about the beaches in this section: in many cases, the hotel towers are so tall that they cast shade all over the beach by mid-afternoon—so if you're staying on this side, you should be an early riser! (Or book at the Westin or the Club Med, which have west-facing pools.)

As for Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Riviera Maya, there is a lot of variety there. Playa is great for nightlife that's not as party-hardy as Cancun's, and Tulum is extremely mellow, but staying on the beach there is really for people who have money but don't care about not having electricity (and a/c, and TV and all that) all the time. And there are scores of individual resorts in between these towns and Cancun.

You probably are more likely to find a good package deal in Cancun proper, but you could also keep an eye out for other options down the coast—these will mostly be all-inclusive deals.

Hope that helps—and have a great holiday, wherever you wind up!

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Anchorage, Alaska: My two twenty-something daughters and I are vacationing in the Yucatan during the first week of January. We will be renting a car at the Cancun Airport and driving to Tulum where we will be staying for seven nights. We will be driving around and sightseeing in various places in the area. Are there any safety concerns we should be aware of as three women traveling by ourselves? Thanks.

Zora O'Neill: You are in for a great trip! Having a car will open up some great opportunities for you—there are some nice hidden-away spots that you can visit.

In terms of safety, do not worry at all! The Yucatan is generally very low in crime, and the roads here are all in very good condition. And you won't encounter that stereotypical "macho" Mexican vibe in the Yucatan either.

A couple of general pointers, though (not just for women!):

First, road rules. The most important is that a left-turn signal most often means "Pass me on the left"—a trucker might put his left blinker on if he's going slow. So what do you do if you want to make a left turn? It's a little tricky: you should not do it from the left lane unless there is a designated turn lane (on the coast highway, there are left-turn bays, but not many other places). Instead, put your left blinker on, but slow down and pull over as far to the RIGHT as you can—ideally the shoulder—and wait for the traffic to clear. This sounds convoluted, but that's the way it's done. Also, when someone passes you, you're expected to pull over to the right if you can, and even slow down a little to make everything easier.

Second, keep alert at gas stations. I hesitate even to mention this, because in general people in the Yucatan are honest and do not take advantage of tourists. But I have had a couple of small scams pulled at gas stations. One is the "Hey, lady, you gave me 20 pesos instead of 200 pesos" line. The other is that one guy will stand near the front of your car, chatting with you to distract you, while the guy filling the tank will siphon off some of the gas (to resell later)—this way, the total on the meter reads, say, 200 pesos, but you wind up with only 150 pesos worth of gas. For the sake of the 99 percent of the people who are honest, try not to act paranoid and distrustful at the gas station—but do keep track of what money you're handing over, and if someone does start chatting with you, occasionally look back at your tank being filled. Many guidebooks warn you about attendants who don't reset the meter to zero before filling your tank, but now that stations have digital pumps, this isn't really an issue.

Other than that, just take the normal safety precautions that you would anywhere—which really boils down to: Don't drink too many margaritas!

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Minneapolis, Minn.: 3 friends and I, all women in our early forties, are going to Akumal, Mexico for a week on January 24. We are flying from Minneapolis to Cancun. One burning question is whether we should rent a car or rely on public transportation. The second query is recommendations for markets, restaurants and activities in the vicinity of Akumal that are not to be missed. Of course we will check out the cenotes and go to Tulum. What else? Thank you! Julia

Zora O'Neill: Whether you want a car will depend on just how much you're interested in seeing outside of Akumal. If you're planning on going to Chichen Itza or some of the other inland ruins (maybe Coba, which is neat because it's still partially unexcavated), then I'd definitely get a car for that day. But if you'll just be staying on the coast, then you can rely on buses and colectivos, which are the white shared passenger vans that run between Playa and Cancun and Tulum. Basically, you can walk out to the highway and flag down any colectivo or second-class bus—if it has room, it will stop for you.

And you may have ambitious plans for your vacation now, but I'm sure once you get there and see the beach, your to-do list will instantly get a lot shorter. If I were you, I'd either make a rental reservation now for a couple of days when you might go sightseeing, or just wait till you're down there and make the reservation. (You'll always get a better deal booking online with an international agency, rather than walking in off the street. And you can often make online reservations just a few hours before you need the car. Double-check what insurance you get from your credit card before you go.)

As for restaurants: I could go on for hours! You should definitely get some shrimp tacos: there's a place called Urge Taquitos in Tulum, on the highway just north of the turn for the beach, and there's another called La Floresta on the highway in Playa del Carmen. For nice, almost-gourmet Mexican food, there's a great little place called Cetli in Tulum—it's one block west (inland) of the main street, about midway through town. The chef-owner is a woman who trained in Mexico City and she is just lovely. Cetli is open for breakfast and dinner—no lunch. Akumal, as I remember, has a couple of good cafes (I'm sorry—I don't visit Akumal much because it's mostly rental houses!), and you can easily spend an afternoon and evening in Playa del Carmen, where there are lots of great restaurants and bars.

The best local market is in Cancun—if you happen to have a few hours there, go to Mercado 23 (not 28), which is just a few blocks north of the bus station downtown. But you could also go to the Jungle Market in Puerto Morelos—it's every Sunday during high season, on the far edge of the inland side of town. It's a really fun get-together of local Maya women selling crafts and food—sure, geared to tourists, but very low-key, and lots of fun. To get there from the highway, get a cab and tell the driver "Calle Dos en la colonia"—most of them now know the place just by the English name, Jungle Market.

And other activities: Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal is an amazing place to snorkel, so definitely try that. You can also snorkel at Paamul, just south of Playa del Carmen—the restaurant there has good food, too.

And you're right—don't miss the cenotes! If you have the energy for it, visiting some of the cenotes by bicycle is a great way to go: Hugo at Iguana Bikes in Tulum runs tours. You can reach him at 011-52-984-871-2357, hugo_bike@hotmail.com, or eventually through the website iguanabike.com (it's not up quite yet).

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Rumson, N.J.: Is there any good Mexican food on the Cancun hotel strip, especially near the old Convention Center?

Zora O'Neill: There sure is! A lot of people think Cancun's hotel zone is a for-tourists-only kind of place, but in fact, there's some great food here that's really popular with locals too. Definitely look for El Fish Fritanga, a cute little seafood place on the lagoon side around Km 12.5 on Paseo Kukulcan—actually, look for the Domino's Pizza sign, as that's more prominent. You go down the stairs behind the Domino's, and there's a cool little bar and sandy beach. The place is open only till about 7pm, though.

Closer to the convention center are a couple branches of Checandole, a really old local restaurant downtown. One branch is in Plaza El Parian, which is just north of the convention center, and the other is in the food court Plaza Flamingo—neither have any ambience at all, but the food is really tasty (and cheap!). The menu is pretty pan-Mexican, so you should find a range of stuff to eat. (Oh, and speaking of Plaza El Parian, there's also a funky little Japanese café in the interior called K's Café that serves a mix of Mexican and Japanese—think tamales with Japanese-style curry filling.)

You can also head way down to the end of the hotel zone, to a place called Rio Nizuc—look for a sign off the road just after the Westin, when you cross the first bridge. It's a really casual beachy seafood place—also not open late. The thing to get here is tikin-xiik, the Yucatecan-style fish baked in banana leaves.

Oh, and (I keep thinking of new tasty things!) look for Ty-Coz—it's a French baguette-sandwich place, but they serve all their sandwiches with pickled jalapenos and chipotle chiles! Delish. There's one branch of the place in a little strip mall around Km 7.7, I think, on the lagoon side of the road, next to Calle Quetzal.

Have a great time, and eat some fish tacos for me!

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Trivoli, Ill.: What is the future of Progresso as a travel destination?

Zora O'Neill: Good question! Progreso—a small town on Mexico's Gulf coast, directly north of Merida—has been getting a lot of attention since Hurricane Dean wrecked the port at Mahahual. Some of the ships that were going to Mahahual are now being rerouted to Progreso. Until now, Progreso has just been a vacation town for local Mexicans—mostly people who live in Merida and make the half-hour drive up to the coast on weekends, or who come to summer homes. In the winter, Progreso has a significant snowbird population, but so far it's still a really quiet place. The Yucatan state government is putting a lot of money into the town right now, to help it deal with the influx of cruise-shippers (though I haven't been up there yet to see the changes).

A great place to keep track of this story online is at the website Yucatan Living. The editors have been following the news in Progreso and have posted a lot of stories about it.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Buenos dias, Zora. Would you please recommend hotels and restaurants in Playa del Carmen that are preferred by middle class Mexicans and not frequented by Gringos or other foreigners? Adios.

Zora O'Neill: Buenos dias to my hometown! Non-gringoized hotels are a little hard to come by in Playa—or nice ones, anyway. Things can get pretty dingy on the low end, and anything that's clean and nice is usually geared to foreigners. There are about four or five distinctly Mexican hotels on Avenida Juarez in the blocks west of the bus station—varying degrees of cleanliness, but definitely geared to internal tourists, not foreigners. Check them out...see what you think. But I won't blame you if you wind up at one of the more typical tourist hotels.

Restaurants are quite a bit easier: You basically just have to walk away from the beach—by the time you get to Avenida 15 or 20, you'll have loads of places to choose from. El Fogon is really popular—amazing grilled meat of all kinds, and get some grilled green onions on the side. There's one on Avenida 30 at Calle 6 bis, and another on Av 30 around C 26, I think (just follow your nose—you can smell the meat from blocks away!). Also, La Floresta, which I've mentioned previously, is where every single cab driver stops for shrimp tacos and fresh ceviche. It's out on the highway—a trek, but worth it.

People in Playa del Carmen definitely seem to appreciate good food—almost every random Mexican place I've stopped in has been good. If you want a few more specific tips, you could also check out the forums on playa.info—there's a section called "Changarros y mas" where people discuss their favorite Mexican places. Sure, it's mostly expats doing the discussing, so you might see them at the places they recommend, but that's OK—they usually have good taste!

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New York, N.Y.: We are going to Tulum for a week during Christmas week. Any good places to eat that you can recommend along the beach? Thanks.

Zora O'Neill: Lucky you! There are more and more tasty places to eat in Tulum, so you should have some great meals.

First, Posada Margherita—fantastic Italian at this hotel of the same name, cooked by a really intense Italian chef. You can get cheaper Italian on the beach, but not tastier!

Also, you'll want to go to Mezzanine for the bar scene—and the food there (mostly Thai-ish) is really good. The same people own La Zebra, and I've heard the food there (all Mexican) is quite good as well.

If you feel like planning ahead a little (and spending a bit more), go to Hechizo—it's a tiny restaurant way down at the end of the beach strip, right before the entrance to the biosphere. Really amazing gourmet goodies, with a menu that changes frequently. I know they're doing a special Christmas dinner, and are also open every other night during that week. You can reach the owners at hechizo@Bigfoot.com to make reservations and get a sample menu.

And it's not on the beach, but definitely stop at Teetotum, on the road connecting the beach with the highway—great little café with amazing breakfasts especially. See if you can get some of the pineapple-chaya jam, or whatever the chef is concocting that day.

Also scan some of my other answers in this chat—there are some good places to eat in town too. Cetli and Urge Taquitos are two of my favorites.

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Beverly Hills, Calif.: Hi, Zora. You may not believe it, but there are some of us in Beverly Hills who are cost-conscious. Please recommend a luxury all-inclusive resort in or near Playa del Carmen where we would feel we got our money's worth. Also, could you explain why the name of that charming resort is called del Carmen. As I understand it, Carmen is a female name and it therefore should be de la Carmen. Hasta luego.

Zora O'Neill: A hotel question and a grammar question! I love that! First, for the resort: I have to admit, I don't know the all-inclusives well enough to say 'This one is leagues better than that one.' My experience with some (though not all) has been less-than-stellar food and slightly cramped quarters. I can't name names of the two exceptions here, due to Budget Travel's policy about comped trips, but think 1) French-run and 2) no wristbands.

But honestly, if you're thinking about value but aren't too concerned with how much you spend in total, consider going with a regular hotel or resort, not an all-inclusive. You don't get that ahhh-I-don't-have-to-think-about-cash-at-all feeling, but the overall quality is just leagues higher. Also, if you want to eat out in Playa del Carmen (and there are so many good places to do so!), then you're wasting your all-inclusive fee for that night. There's a handful of really excellent, small luxury places on the coast—which one you pick just depends on your taste. See Luxury Latin America for reviews (ahem, written by me) that have more detail than I can give here.

As for the name Playa del Carmen... For some reason, in Spanish, there's a little category of certain saints' names that take 'el' even though they're feminine. Carmen is one of them. Or at least that's what I'm dimly remembering from one of my Spanish classes! Now excuse me, while I go run off and investigate...

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I do not like Cancun, however, I think I would like quieter parts of the Yucatan. Can you recommend some more laid back, less populated, more rustic areas of the Yucatan where the US footprint is not so prevalent?

Zora O'Neill: First, let me just defend Cancun for a second: the downtown area, while not historic or pretty (unless you're really young and think the 1970s are ancient history!), is really great—good food, nice people, great atmosphere and a taste of what modern, middle-class Mexico is all about. There are also some neat little hidden spots in the hotel zone (see one of my previous answers for this). That said, I can see why you might want to plan your vacation for elsewhere in the Yucatan...

If you're looking for mellow, rural Mexico with a gorgeous historic backdrop, I would definitely recommend the smaller towns of Valladolid and Izamal. Valladolid is perfectly situated between Chichen Itza and Ek-Balam (definitely go to these latter ruins—they're cool, and there's rarely anyone there!). Izamal is especially beautiful, with a giant colonial convent in the center and old Maya pyramids in everyone's backyard—plus it's a great crafts center, where you can visit people's workshops. And if you want really rural, visit Genesis Retreat in the village of Ek-Balam—it's not just a beautiful place to stay, but a neat opportunity to visit a Maya village and meet some of the neighbors! You will feel very far from the US footprint here.

If you want to stay close to the beach, but not feel like you're part of a million Americans' package tour, then I recommend Puerto Morelos. This little fishing village just south of Cancun (in fact, it's quicker to drive here than to some of the Cancun hotels!) is really relaxed and not built up at all. Thanks to concerted efforts by the town residents, its reefs are protected, and development has been very limited.

I think you'll really like all three of these places...

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Amsterdam, Netherlands: Hello, Zora. We are used to smoking joints in Amsterdam. Would you recommend doing that in Mexico? How strict is the Mexican police about enforcing laws regarding drugs in general and marijuana in particular?

Zora O'Neill: Well, it's good that you're upfront about this! I have to say (because what else would I say, really?), you just shouldn't mess with the drugs in Mexico. Laws are strictly against them (all kinds of them), jail is not a pretty place to end up, and you don't want to ruin your vacation over a joint, right?

All that said, you probably will encounter a little bit of a drug scene in the beach towns (or so I hear—what is it about me that no one ever offers me drugs?). Still—don't bother. Just enjoy your joints when you get back home!

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Bisbee, Ariz.: Zora, Two couples in their forties plan to stay two weeks in Cozumel in January, after the holidays. I would like to know how much money we would need to stay in a somewhat comfortable hotel, yet sticking to our shoe-string budget. Thank you.

Zora O'Neill: Ah, Cozumel—thanks for bringing it up! What a great island! I assume you're going there to do some diving or snorkeling (most people do), so that will probably use up a big chunk of your budget. I'd allow another US$90 or US$100 per couple per night for a comfortable hotel in San Miguel, the main town—a place with a/c, TV etc. There are also a couple of good B&Bs for a little less—they're a little farther from the center of town, but quite good places. You can get cheaper—maybe down to about US$40 per night, but this is pretty simple stuff (though you'll still get a/c at this price). In fact, a new hostel just opened in San Miguel (previously there was none)—it's called El Hostelito, and it has private rooms in addition to dorms. I gave it a quick tour just last month, and it looked very nice.

Likewise, eating is not such a bargain in San Miguel. You can get some good cheap lunches—about US$6 or so per person—but big dinners are usually for tourists only (Mexicans usually eat lighter snacks), so most of those restaurants serving full dinners are going to be a bit more expensive—figure US$12 per entrée at the low end. If you can adjust to having your big meal at lunch, this is a good way to save money—although it might be a little hard if you're out on dive boats at that time!

You should also factor in the price of renting a car for part of your stay—maybe only a day or two, but you'll need it to get out of town and explore the east coast of the island. (See my answer earlier in the chat about how to save money by booking ahead online.)

If you really want to save money, look for a suite hotel with kitchenettes, or even better, look into renting an apartment or condo, so you can go grocery shopping and eat some light meals in. There's a local market in town, as well as a big Chedraui supermarket—both are a fun way to get to know the local culture!

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Ouray, Colo.: Zora, Where would you go and stay in the Yucatan if you had ten days and wanted to get away from everything? What is your favorite place and when is your favorite time to visit? Thank you.

Zora O'Neill: Maybe because I'm so used to traveling around for my job, I can't imagine staying in one place for ten days. Although maybe once I let myself do it, I'd be hooked! For people who prefer cities, I recommend Merida—it just has a wonderful romantic feeling, and there's something cultural to do every night of the week. It's also close enough to the Gulf coast that you can run up there for a day or two to get some beach time in. And there are neat Maya ruins nearby as well.

Since I'm always in the Yucatan for work, I do have a short list of places where I'd really love to come back to and veg out on vacation. One is Puerto Morelos—there are enough good restaurants there to keep me happy for a week, at least. I also fantasize about Isla Holbox, during the spring, when it's not crazy with whale-shark tourists—not that anything on teeny Isla Holbox ever gets crazy exactly, but relatively speaking...

As for the time of year, some of my best trips have been in mid-November—the rain is usually over, the weather is very mild and not very humid and there are very few tourists around. I also kind of like May—it's hot and humid enough to scare off a significant number of tourists, but it's not wet enough for the mosquitoes to start up yet!

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Skala Eressos, Greece: Re: Euros and Pesos—Is it really advisable to exchange money at a bank in Mexico or is there a black market that gives you a better deal?

Zora O'Neill: Sorry, for all those people who like a little intrigue in their finances—there's no black market! In fact, if you don't exchange at a bank, you're likely to get a less favorable exchange rate, as business owners will just round down to the easiest multiple. The best way to go is just to use your ATM card to withdraw cash as you need it—but do check what fees your bank will charge (mine charges 1 percent of the total withdrawn). Mexican ATMs currently charge about 75 cents (US) for a withdrawal.

Lots of business owners accept US dollars (but again, usually not at a great exchange rate), and some guidebooks recommend changing euros into US dollars for easy exchanging or use in a pinch. But this just seems like a waste—you pay twice. Just go with the old favorite: cash.

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Cherryville, N.C.: At age 57,I'm more of a history/culture/nature/archeology fan than beach and sun type, and on previous trips while based at Playa del Carmen have made side trips to Chichen Itza, Rio Lagartos, Ek Balaam, Coba & Tulum; to see more of the Mayan ruins would it be best to forgo the beaches entirely and book a tour, rent a car, or continue making day trips from a different base city, such as Merida? If I rent a car, and plan a loop about the peninsula, do I need to prebook all my hotel stays, or can decent/clean rooms be had without prebooking? I do not need luxury resort quarters, but a decent bed and a hot shower can be welcome. Thanks, Jim

Zora O'Neill: I'd definitely recommend renting a car—it's not expensive (especially if you have a credit card that will cover the insurance) and it gives you a lot of flexibility. Many of the coolest ruins are off on tiny roads that only get bus traffic a couple times a day. And driving, you can cruise through so many neat small towns and stop for a snack or a peek in the church or whatever. But be sure to spend some time in Merida to get acclimated first—it's a wonderful city.

If you're touring around, you should probably book hotels a day or two in advance if you have a strong preference—there are a couple of nice places in Santa Elena, near Uxmal, that can get filled up in high season, for instance. But you don't have to map your whole trip out before you leave.

The only area I've found to be short on nice accommodation is Xpuhil, the village many people use as a base for exploring the Rio Bec ruins (and definitely go down here!). There's a very cute but basic place just up the road in the village of Zoh-Laguna, though, called Cabanas Mercedes. Or stop at Rio Bec Dreams, west of Xpuhil—the owners there are archaeology buffs, and he always has good information.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Zora, Traveling in big cities anywhere one has to be streetwise. However, I understand that Mexico City has become worse regarding crime. What about the Yucatan? Should crime be a concern traveling along/staying at the Mayan Coast? How about away from tourist areas? Thank you.

Zora O'Neill: I don't want to tell people to throw caution to the wind, but the Yucatan is fine. If you read the newspapers, you may think Cancun is the new narco-traffickers' capital of choice, but that certainly isn't evident on the ground. Frankly, I've felt less safe in parts of the US and Europe than I ever have in the Yucatan.

And if anything, the risk of crime goes down the farther you get from tourist areas. On the beaches, you might be at risk of someone stealing your camera from your bag on the beach, but inland, that just doesn't really happen. I'm not saying leave your belongings lying around for all to see, but you don't need to be stressed out about it.

The first time I went to Cancun, I took a shared van into the hotel zone. I was dismayed to see some of my fellow passengers frantically craning their necks around to check on their luggage every time the van stopped to let someone off. After a while, the van driver just rolled his eyes—but I couldn't help sympathizing with this guy who had to deal with people all day who just assumed they'd be robbed because they were in scary Mexico.

So...what I'm saying is: don't worry. Take the normal precautions—don't leave cash lying around your hotel room, don't drink so much you lose track of yourself and your stuff—and you'll be fine. And the locals will appreciate your relaxed attitude.

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Evanston, Ill.: Zora, Please comment on the following: Some people shy away from traveling to Mexico because of the drinking water situation. But on the other hand we eat the produce imported from Mexico. That produce was certainly treated with water in Mexico. Should that not be a concern as well? Thanks.

Zora O'Neill: Well, I'd certainly say we in the US should be washing all our vegetables very well, and not just because they might have Mexican tap water on them!

In my personal experience, which includes getting violently ill in many lovely parts of the world, I have not gotten sick in Mexico, ever. Which I admit is strange, and maybe not the norm.

The fear of Mexican tap water is justified—even the locals don't drink it, if they can afford not to. (Actually, you can drink the water in Cancun, thanks to some heavy-duty treatment—but you might not want to.) But for tourists, it's not much of an issue: pretty much every business uses filtered water for everything, including ice. The level of hygiene is typically quite good too.

In fact, your own level of hygiene is the best way to keep healthy: wash your hands every chance you get! Most restaurants have a separate sink set up just for this.

And if you know you have a sensitive stomach, start out with well-cooked food, ideally that has been cooked in front of you—contrary to the usual anti-street-food warnings, taco stands are great for this.

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Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Hola Zora. Our family of are returning to the Yucatan once again this summer. Last trip we ventured all the way out to Xcalak five hours south of Cancun—what a memorable trip to Mexico. This is where we ask for your help. We would like to see if you could recomend another place as family friendly as Xcalak without the drive. We are looking to find a really nice and safe area to stay, on the smaller scale, at family prices, and close, if not on, the beach. We will vacationing in July through August. Thanks in advance for your help. Brian

Zora O'Neill: Puerto Morelos seems to be my answer to everything. Super-close to the airport, not chi-chi and expensive, and you can probably arrange to rent an apartment or house for the length of your stay. The atmosphere is very family-friendly—it's not just a bunch of singles on vacation here. Unfortunately some of the businesses (including the great bookstore there, Alma Libre—although you can email the owners for leads on apartment rentals) are closed in the summertime, but I sent my good friends down there in July and they still loved it. As my friend said, "It's great to be the only game in town!" They got to know all the restaurant owners right off the bat, and were practically the town stars by the time they left...

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Washington, D.C.: I've been scuba diving in Cozumel several times. Are there any other places on the Yucatan that have good diving?

Zora O'Neill: Wait—are all these questions from the Puerto Morelos business bureau?! Seriously... Puerto Morelos also has a big, protected chunk of reef very close to the coast, so you don't spend a lot of time on a boat getting to the good spots.

You should also look inland, into cave and cavern diving—the Yucatan is one of the best places on earth to do this. An underground river system filters through the peninsula's limestone bedrock and through some gorgeous caves with elaborate rock formations. You enter the water through sinkholes called cenotes. The water is spookily clear—even just snorkeling, it feels like you're floating in air. Cavern diving doesn't require any special training, but you'll need further certification for proper cave diving, where you go into enclosed tunnels.

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Santa Monica, Calif.: !Hola Zora! What precautions—if any—do you take to prevent Montezuma's Revenge? Would you dare eat salads and would you deprive yourself of tempting unpeeled fruit? Are you worried about ice cubes in your Margarita? Gracias.

Zora O'Neill: This is a popular question, and with good reason—who wants to spend their vacation being sick? See my earlier answer, and also consider before your trip eating a lot of good-quality yogurt—this builds up the helpful bacteria in your gut, so you can make the transition to the less familiar family of Mexican bacteria more easily. (I've also heard grapefruit-seed extract is supposed to be good for your gut, but I haven't tried it.) My pre-trip consumption of yogurt bordered on the obsessive for a while, but now I've slacked off—and I still don't get sick. So who knows?

I think a lot of people blame dirty food or water for their Montezuma's Revenge when actually they're just:

1) eating a ton more fresh fruit than they're used to—hard to resist, when it's so good!

2) eating more spicy food than they're used to—one accidental hit of habanero salsa can wreck your insides for the night.

or 3) drinking a lot more margaritas than they're used to. This is especially common among people who are going to the beach to party, and just drink the cheap stuff—cheap tequila can do some bad stuff to your system!

So, my advice is eat yogurt and drink expensive tequila!

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Vienna, Va.: Zora, my husband is turning 60 next April and he wants to tour the historical ruins in of the Mayan and Aztec cultures in Mexico. This is my gift to him for his birthday. We both still work and can take about 10 days for our trip. Can you recommend what to see and also if a tour package would be better for us since neither one of has Mexico travel experience. If so, do you recommend any tour companies with good reputations. Our budget level is to stay under $4,000 for everything including air. Thank you all advise is greatly appreciated.

—Lisa and Ken from Vienna

Zora O'Neill: Hi Lisa! Would you consider focusing just on Maya ruins, and leaving the Aztec for a later trip? In just 10 days, I think you'd be very hard pressed to see everything and have a trip that didn't feel like a forced march. (In fact, I'm not even sure you could pull it off on that budget—it would require some internal flights.)

In 10 days in the Yucatan (and Chiapas, for Palenque), you can see all the biggies and still have time to stop and just soak up some culture. You could fly into Merida and do two loops—one to Chichen Itza and Ek-Balam, and the other down to Palenque and back via Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc. If you can swing it, time-wise, you could drive back via the Rio Bec (look for Xpuhil on the map—there's a road that goes straight north from there, and eventually works its way over to the Ruta Puuc; it's usually shown as dirt on some maps, but it's paved and was in good condition last I drove it).

My bias is always toward muddling around on your own—you meet more locals that way. If you know even a tiny bit of Spanish and don't mind driving yourselves (roads are in good condition, and for the most part, people don't drive like maniacs), you should be able to get around perfectly well. And even if you don't speak Spanish, but have some travel experience, you should be fine—the Yucatan in particular is not a difficult place to travel.

But you might want to arrange guides for the ruins themselves, because it's just more interesting than reading descriptions in a book. Alberto Morales of Peninsula Tours in Valladolid would be a good contact for the Chichen Itza leg of the trip—you can reach him at peninsulatours1@yahoo.com.mx.

For Palenque, I'm actually not sure who to recommend because that was my co-author's beat on the last edition (but it's mine for the new edition—I'm going in February). But contact the lodge Rio Bec Dreams—the owners know their area and farther south quite well, and they might have some recommendations. And if you do drive back up to Merida via the Rio Bec, theirs is a great place to stop for the night.

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Venice, Fla.: We will be spending 2 weeks in Cancun early Feb. We like to explore ruins, natural sites, snorkeling, less traveled areas (ie: fewer tourists!) and authentic Yucatecan dining/foods. We are OK with staying overnight in a different area if travel etc. makes it necessary. We enjoy learning about the different cultures, meeting the people of Mexico and are reasonably adventurous—any suggestions for us? Thanks! (PS: we are active retirees.)

Zora O'Neill: I would definitely suggest planning a few nights in either Valladolid or Ek-Balam. You'll want to visit Chichen Itza, I'm sure, but it is a bit of a tourist zoo, and the actual hotels and restaurants at the site aren't great. It's far better to stay in Valladolid, about half an hour east, which has a real colonial history and a great atmosphere—also, there are some excellent value restaurants here, especially the Hosteria El Marques right on the plaza, which is the fanciest game in town but still a bargain.

While you're there, you should also visit the ruins of Ek-Balam, just north—they're usually empty, and there is an amazing stucco sculpture there. Also visit the cenote (swimming hole) right nearby—a great refresher after touring the ruins! There's usually someone in the ruins parking lot selling tickets to the cenote.

I also strongly suggest you either stay at or arrange a tour with Genesis Retreat in the village of Ek-Balam. The owner runs a truly eco-friendly operation—and that includes forging a strong relationship with the surrounding community. She runs a "get to know the neighbors" tour that basically tours the village visiting her Maya neighbors—it's interesting of course to visit people's houses and learn to make tortillas and weave hammocks...but it's also a ton of fun! You can do the tour as a non-guest, but you might also want to stay at her place. If you have a car, it's as good a base for touring ruins as Valladolid.

For nature tours, Lee (the Genesis owner) might also have something going at her second property by then. If not, contact Alberto Morales (mentioned earlier in this chat)—he's based in Valladolid and does a great tour to Rio Lagartos, where there's a big flamingo colony.

And if you do go north to Rio Lagartos, definitely stop at Tres Reyes restaurant in the town of Tizimin. There's pretty much no other reason to go to this town, except for lunch at Tres Reyes, which is some of the most delicious and authentic Yucatecan food I've had anywhere! I'm getting hungry just thinking about it...

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Grand Prairie, Tex.: Could you please suggest a good map (or maps) for the Yucatan Peninsula, something accurate, detailed and easy to use. Thanks.

Zora O'Neill: Well, I'm a little biased, but Rough Guides does publish a good Yucatan peninsula map. The current edition is not entirely up to date, but it's still as good as any map you'll find (the Mexican government has been on a tear with the highway building!). Also, it's printed on rip-proof, waterproof paper, which I have found extremely useful!

If you're going to the beach areas, definitely get a map from Can-Do Maps. These guys do totally meticulous mapping of the coast, marking nearly every hotel and restaurant as well. The maps are very handy if you've rented a house, say, and want to see what else is nearby. They've also started doing a map to Chichen Itza and Valladolid, which is handy for people taking trips inland from the coast.

Yucatan Today is a handy publication too—they have maps (both online and in their free flyer) of a lot of the smaller towns in Yucatan state. They're not always kept up to date, but it's a good place to start.

In Mexico, Guia Roji is the main map brand, but I haven't found them to be great. Half the time, they're very out of date. Just check the copyright date on whatever map you're looking to buy.

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Coyle, Okla.: Are the beaches in Cozumel recovered from the hurricane? It's our favorite place to vacation, but we have been waiting for the beaches to be recovered.

Thanks,

Deanna

Zora O'Neill: Hey Deanna! I was just in Cozumel last month, and everything looked fine. Hurricane Wilma did a lot of damage back in 2005, but that was mostly to buildings and the cruise-ship piers—the beaches weren't wrecked in quite the way Cancun's were. (Cancun's beaches, by the way, are completely fine now too—thanks to an elaborate beach-rebuilding effort.)

This past summer's big storm, Hurricane Dean, didn't even hit Cozumel in any serious way—it did a little damage to parts of Tulum (the beach is a little eaten away in a few spots down there) and a lot of damage farther south.

One nice thing to come out of Wilma is that both Cancun and Cozumel have rebuilt in very nice ways—lots more palm trees, parks, etc. And now the beaches on the east side of Cozumel are getting cleaned regularly—they look much nicer.

So go for it—Cozumel looks great!

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LaGrange, Ill.: We like to pack our trips with a different adventure every day. What are the must do adventures to include in a January 2008 trip with Cancun as our base location?

Zora O'Neill: Let's see...oh, wait, I was dozing off in my beach chair... As I warned someone else in this chat, you might very well readjust your must-do list when you get down there and see the beach.

But you should plan on the following things:

Chichen Itza (well, of course).

Coba—much more 'adventurous' feeling ruins, where you can still climb the main pyramid, and rent bikes to get around the whole site.

Cenote swimming: these natural springs are most prevalent around Tulum—the Hidden Worlds park on the highway north of Tulum is a good place to make your first visit. They're great places to snorkel or dive, to see the underwater rock formations.

You could also do a tour in the village of Ek-Balam (see earlier in this chat for info about Genesis Retreat) and a visit to the flamingos at Rio Lagartos (see earlier). These are great ways to learn about the Maya heritage in the Yucatan, and the wildlife.

These are all inland things. Back on the beach, I would currently not recommend doing the standard 'jungle tour' in Cancun, as the mangroves are still pretty beat-up from the hurricanes. You can do much better snorkeling, for less money, just down the highway in Puerto Morelos, or, if you want to make the trek down there, in Cozumel. If you're a diver, of course, the reefs at Cozumel are also a must-do (must-dive).

And also around Puerto Morelos are a number of cenotes—Boca del Puma is one—on a road running north from the highway. Several of these cenotes have zip-lines and other fun stuff to do, in addition to the swimming. Look online for info about La Ruta de los Cenotes—or there's some info in my book. They're paving the road now, and it was about halfway done when I drove it in November.

That should keep you busy for a while!

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Hilliard, Fla.: Zora, I try & watch Rick Bayless & his Yucatan cooking show every week on PBS. The dishes he prepares and scenes from Merida are intoxicating. Can you suggest any budget conscious places to stay for a few days in Merida, authentic restaurants and/or paradores located on old haciendas that are more in the youth hostel mode than luxury spa/resorts, perhaps on the outskirts of town. My wife & I, mid-fifties are planning to fly to Cancun in late March, early April and take a bus over. Thank you.

Zora O'Neill: I love Rick Bayless—he's done so much to spread the word about Mexican regional cooking! Merida has heaps of great places to stay, all gorgeously restored colonial homes. I would recommend Las Arecas guesthouse—probably the least expensive of the colonial homes (or last I checked—I haven't updated the Merida chapter yet!), and very well kept. Also, Casa Mexilio is wonderful. And look into Luz en Yucatan—a very quirky guesthouse. It was being renovated recently, and I haven't seen the changes, but I imagine they will be positive.

As for food, just remember that Mexicans eat their big meal as a late lunch, so many of the best, most authentic restaurants shut by 6pm or even earlier. If you want to sample the good stuff, you need to change your eating habits. That said, you can always get great Yucatecan snacks in Merida in the evening—head especially to Parque Santiago, west of the plaza. There are a bunch of food stalls there serving panuchos and salbutes and other goodies—and it's very popular with Mexican families. During the day, also look for El Marlin Azul, for fantastic ceviche. You can also poke through Yucatan Living, which has some good restaurant commentary.

And you may already know this, but there is a Yucatecan cooking school in Merida called Los Dos—you should definitely look into this while you're there!

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Grand Prairie, Tex.: What are some fun, off-the-beaten track places to visit? We will be flying into Cancun, renting a car, traveling to the states of Yucatan and Campeche, as well as Quintana Roo. Thanks

Zora O'Neill: I'd highly recommend Ek-Balam (the ruins and the village—see earlier in the chat) and, if you're willing to do the driving, the Rio Bec area. This is the strip along the southern border with Guatemala and Belize—there are some amazing Maya ruins here...and not much else. You feel very much on the frontier, especially when you climb up to the top of the main pyramid at Calakmul and see nothing but jungle all the way to the horizon. Even if you're not so into ruins, it's still impressive. And the jungle there still has so much wildlife—toucans, howler monkeys, parrots...

Also, the so-called Chenes sites (Edzna is the biggest) outside of Campeche are cool, and there's almost no one there. The city of Campeche itself feels very off the beaten track, because there aren't very many tourists there—certainly not many Americans. It's a beautiful city—not quite as lively as Merida, but people are exceptionally nice, and the food is great. Be sure to visit the archeological museum there too.

And back on the Caribbean coast, hidden in plain sight, is the place I keep praising: Puerto Morelos. See earlier for other details.

In general, it's easy to get off the beaten track in the Yucatan—once you're out of the few big cities and the major ruins, you'll feel very much away from the tourist route. Have fun exploring!

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Nevada City, Calif.: We are planning a Yucatan trip in February beginning in Tulum, traveling to Valladolid and staying for a couple of nights and then on to Merida, Celestun and that area. We will then travel back to the Caribbean side to spend a few nights at Isla Mujeres and maybe Isla Holbox. There will probably be 4 adults traveling. My question is this: Should we rent a car or do the bus travel thing?

Zora O'Neill: I think in your case, being four people, it's probably easier and maybe even cheaper to rent a car (though of course I'm thinking of the teeny-weeny tin-can car I always rent...which probably won't do for four people!). Still—much easier to have a car than to get four people to bus stations on time and the like.

You could easily drop off your car near the end in Cancun and then do Isla Mujeres and/or Isla Holbox. There's a bus to Holbox (Chiquila for the ferry) that runs twice a day, and then you won't have to pay for parking your car on the mainland. And Isla Mujeres has easy ferry connections right from Cancun.

One drag might be hauling your bags at the end of the trip—there's a luggage check at the Cancun bus station, if you want to leave some things behind. For several days, the rates would add up, but it might be worth it—and still probably cheaper than using your rental car as a storage spot.

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Berkeley, Calif.: We are middle-aged budget travelers heading for Yucatan for relaxing in nature. We will fly into Cancun on January 23, Wednesday and plan on taking buses south on the 24th towards Tulum, then straightaway to Merida on February 1.

Question 1: We weren't planning on hanging out in Cancun, but do you have a quiet hotel suggestion for Cancun convenient to beach, airport and the buses South?

Question 2: We have limited funds but want to do some snorkeling. What are your suggestions for best-bang-for-your-buck snorkeling?

Thanks from the working stiffs...

Zora O'Neill: In Cancun, book at El Rey del Caribe hotel—it's practically within view of the bus station, but has a really nice eco-friendly vibe, with a garden courtyard and a little pool. And definitely walk around downtown Cancun while you're there, and visit Parque de las Palapas, where everyone hangs out at night—great scene! Actually, the main park was being renovated when I was there in November—not sure when it'll be done. But there are smaller surrounding parks—all the food stalls are set up there. From downtown Cancun, you can also catch buses into the hotel zone and the beaches very easily—just jump on anything that says 'Hoteles' running south on Avenida Tulum.

Much as I like downtown Cancun, I should tell you that you could probably get to Tulum directly on the 23rd. There's a bus from the airport straight to Playa del Carmen (it runs approximately every hour), and it's an easy transfer in the same terminal to a Tulum bus, which takes another hour or so—the total trip would probably take three hours with transfers. But you would have to be arriving before 4pm or so to make this work smoothly.

And you probably know, but there's a bus from the airport to downtown Cancun. You'll probably come in at the new Terminal 3 at the airport, and the downtown Cancun buses don't go there—so they'll put you on a bus that says 'Playa del Carmen' just for the ride over to Terminal 2, where you'll move to the downtown Cancun bus.

Finally, snorkeling: Go to Puerto Morelos. It's just down the road from Cancun, the reefs are in great shape, and everything's close to shore, so you don't have to pay for expensive boat transport. And the place is not at all crowded. If you plan on Puerto Morelos, then you could actually just go straight there from the airport—the Playa del Carmen bus stops there as well, just about 20 minutes south of the airport. You then take a cab down to the beach and the hotels. In PM, I'd recommend Posada El Moro or Amar Inn (the latter is on the beach).

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Zora O'Neill: Thanks to everyone for all your excellent questions. The reason I'm a guidebook writer is that I can't restrain myself from giving advice—so thanks for giving me the opportunity! Keep an eye out for the new editions of The Rough Guide to the Yucatan and Cancun Directions (which covers Cancun and the Riviera Maya)—they'll be out near the end of summer 2008.

In the meantime, if you pick up the current edition of the books, be sure to visit the update blogs I keep for each title, at cancundirections.com and roughguideyucatan.com. Every time I take a trip or hear some news, I post the major changes on these blogs, so readers don't get stuck driving an hour to a restaurant that's been closed for a year.

Thanks again, and happy travels!

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