Chip Review: Sabritas Stax Crema y Cebolla

Stax: Not Pringles

Let's break this one down a little bit. Sabritas seems to be the local Lays, possibly simply the Mexican branding for the same company and production chips. As Melissa put it, she wanted to try the "local brand" of chips.

Sabor means flavor or taste in Spanish, I suspect that Sabritas is a play on that. Crema y Cebolla is sour cream and onion, literally. Crema is actually Mexican sour cream, but it's much thinner than US tubs of sour cream, just barely pourable. If you've been to Chiplotle and had the giant spoon of sour cream, that's crema.

In my mind, Pringles are one of the best chips for eating on the road. Perhaps they're common on the road and packed lunches because the tube travels well, and so I associate it with that kind of eating. But it works well and these weird pressed potato saddle shaped chips just feel right when eating a cold sandwich somewhere remote.

We'd been planning to drive through the Sian Kaan bioreserve from Tulum and my plan was to get some pre-made tortas and Pringle-like chips for the road and have a nice picnic type lunch in the middle of a jungle road. It didn't work out quite like that but we got the "Pringles".

These were exactly what you'd expect from sour cream and onion Pringles, although with a bit less seasoning than I think you get in the US version. Really nothing to report here, we both love sour cream and onion and Pringles, and that's what we got.


Adam: 4/5
Melissa: 4/5

Chip Review: Ruffles Mega Crunch Salsa Roja

Most of the chips in this bag were already broken

I was really excited for this one; I love salsa rojas! And Ruffles is a brand we know and like. Plus any chip with that much seasoning color has got to be good!

This is not a chip I would buy again given the options out there. The roja/savory part of this was good, although not amazing. Sadly the dominate flavor on most of the chips was sour, way too sour. Kind of like lime juice but probably mostly just citric acid and generic sour flavor. This seems to be a bit of a theme in Mexican chips, they do like sour...

Meanwhile in Mexico


Adam: 2/5 - I've been snacking on them but wouldn't buy again
Melissa: 3.5/5 - I assume because she loves lime and sour

The Yucatan Plan

It's a bit to digest and people keep wondering where we are and what the next leg is. We're in Tulum right now, with a 7 day car rental on day 2. Here's our plan from here, lets see how it goes:

Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday (29-31 May) - check in and out of Tulum. We've just seen the ruins in Tulum and have yet to go to the Bioreserva "Sian Kaan"

Wednesday/Thursday/Friday - check in and out of Bacalar, visit the "Lagoon (or lake) of Seven Colors", so named because from certain views you can see seven shades of blue in this massive freshwater lagoon.

Friday/Saturday/Sunday - check in and out of Valladolid, most likely visit the Gran Cenote there and definitely Chichen Itza

Sunday - drive back to Cancun to drop off the car and take a bus to Merida, the kind of capital of the Yucatan, for three days. There seems to be lots to do in this vibrant sounding city.

After that it's probably a bus to somewhere in Tabasco or Palenque in Chiapas. Chiapas and Veracruz are the only states in Mexico known for their coffee, and Veracruz is known for its seafood and Veracruzano style of cooking (to me at least). Ultimately the next "can't miss" place will be Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, for the pozole, markets, mezcal and moles.

Comentarito: Damn, we just missed this!

1. The Noma pop-up in (near) Tulum. Last day was yesterday according to press from April. No, we wouldn't spend $1500 on dinner on this trip, that could easily be 2-3 weeks in Mexico.

2. This is the Yucatan spirit I had in my drink at the mezcaleria, Xtabuten. For sale in the liquor shops on the main street in town here.

Xtabuten, Tulum

3. The shops here are P R I C E Y. Its hard to compare a lot of things, but a few that stood out: a) postcards for 20 pesos ($1) b) swim goggles for $45 USD, c) the bottle of tequila I bought in Cancun was about 250 pesos / $12.50 USD. Here, the same bottle on a nice liquor store on the main town street was 1,700 pesos or about $85 USD.

Frustrations, and the Road to Tulum

Adios Cancun!
We checked out of our very comfortable Cancun Airbnb today, picked up our rental car and drove down to Tulum. Except it wasn't that simple at any step of the way. You expect difficulties when you travel, and the last 24 hours were a little trying.

First, after an interminable cab ride on Sunday back from our Westin day pass beach day, we ended up at the wrong Walmart. You see there are two in Cancun, probably a mile or two apart but not so close that we want to walk 30 minutes in dark in an unknown Cancun neighborhood. So we're at the wrong one, and no more than 5 minutes after watching a bus stop go by, recognizing it and saying hey we should have gotten off here, it would be even closer than Walmart!

So we tried to take a cab to the other Walmart, or really to the major intersection near the Airbnb that no taxi driver in Cancun seems to know. Seriously, it's the intersection of two well known roads but we've had two drivers get lost trying to go there. That would have been preferable to this driver though, who refused to understand where we wanted to go and took us to the other Walmart (10 minute walk home but at this point we'll take it). Then when we got out, he won't accept the 30 pesos we agreed on, he wants 50. Not that we can really understand him well.

I'll say now that even though any cab ride in New York is more expensive (quite literally, can you take a cab 10 feet for less than $2.50?) than any cab ride in Cancun, I'm not a fan of the verbal agreement system they use here. We agreed to 30 pesos before we got into this cab and when we get out he's getting angry and insisting on 50. He even pulls out some fare sheet and is saying we weren't inside the city so it's more? Maybe, but he agreed to 30 and I've never seen nor heard of a fare sheet in Cancun. In the end we paid him the extra 20 pesos, it's about $1 and what can we do? It's after dark and you don't want some angry cabbie following you home.

The principle of it is really frustrating, especially as pampered Americans who like our rules and predictability and consumer rights. But that $1 won't ruin the trip unless we let it.

The next morning, before we walk to the rental car place to pick up our vehicle, I double check that I have Melissa's drivers license. I don't. Where was it last? I gave it to the hotel clerk at the Westin when we checked in to use our day passes. I don't remember getting it back. It's nowhere to be found in our stuff.

This one really bothered me. We think of ourselves as reasonably smart and sharp people but we keep making dumb mistakes like this. Taking the wrong bus, forgetting ids, I almost left my credit card at the Westin sports bar... My take on it is that we're used to the level of trust and way things work in New York and are off our guard a little bit because we've been on the road long enough, but it's massively frustrating for these things to keep happening.

Satisfied that we must have left the ID at the Westin front desk, we walk to the car rental place where Melissa tries to handle the rental while I place a $0.20 / minute local call to the Westin to confirm they have her ID. I spent about 18 minutes on the phone, probably 15 of it on various holds. Dispatch > 3 minute wait > dispatch again because the front desk didn't pick up (seriously?) > 3 minute wait > a woman answers and cannot understand how to spell Santilli, she will check > 5 minute wait > she can't find it > 3 minute wait > a man picks up and wants to know how he can help me (as if none of the previous conversations had happened) > 4 minute wait > it's ringing out to some other number? > it hangs up on me.

Again, not a lot of money, probably $4, but really frustrating that we still don't know anything! Fortunately Melissa is able to rent the car with only her international driver's license paperwork and we're on the road. We were very careful to get all dings and scratches noted, ensure that the AC works and that all of the headlights, tail lights and turn lights work before accepting. Keeping tail lights in working order in Mexico is a concern very far down the list, but us being tourists, we'll get pulled over for it and have to pay a bribe.

After a few tricky intersections with absolutely no clear right of way, we get on the road to the Westin to try to get her ID. Fortunately, they have it and are very helpful in person. We're even able to recover my pink swimming goggles that I forgot there yesterday!

Driving in Mexico as a Tourist

We will refine our understanding of this as we accumulate miles, but the cautionary tales are a bit worrisome. Everyone agrees that you can do it and it's a great way to get around and go for it. Good.

The other part of it is that you may be pulled over for the smallest thing, like a few km/h over the speed limit, a hidden stop sign trap, or even nothing at all. And when that happens the thing to do is put a 200 peso note under your ID as you hand it to the policia to ensure that you don't have to deal with an easily avoidable ticket in Mexico, or worse. That's about $10 USD. Again on principle, very weird and difficult for us, but as long as it's not happening a lot and it's a simple interaction, it's an acceptable cost of doing business.

We'd heard that the hotel zone especially can be tricky for foreign drivers renting cars. Because of these stories, Melissa is driving (almost) exactly the speed limit and being extremely careful to obey every law and traffic directive that we can find. And they can be tricky. A crosswalk light may be a stop light that always flashes orange. Similarly a normal traffic light will flash orange before going to red. How do you know if you are approaching a traffic light or a crosswalk light? We haven't figured that out yet.

There is a final detail that adds a fun level of risk to renting a car and driving yourself in Mexico. You might think that once you're out of the touristy spots, you won't be much of a target because who can really tell the difference between a local and a tourist? Well, rental cars have a totally different license plate than local cars. It's red with white lettering rather than white with blue/green. I'm sure we're less of a target out of the hotel zone, but I feel like we're driving around with a target on our backs.

So I was thrilled to get out of there without being pulled over once. Count that as our luck turning around for a bit and get on down to Tulum, about a 2 hour drive down the cost. We dealt with the next frustration fine but it's just baffling. Melissa is trying to peg the speed limit to avoid absolutely all police attention and the requisite bribery. That's fine, but the speed limit changed on average about every kilometer for the two hours between Cancun and Tulum. Often it seemed like every 500 or 300 meters.

Imagine driving an hour on the interstate in the US, and having to change your speed limit by 5-30 mph every 1 to 2 minutes. How well would you do? Would that be fun? I'm still at a loss for why that was, my best, cynical, guess is to speed trap tourists, because the locals largely ignored the speed limit changes outside of cities and some key areas, and rode around 80-100 km/h. We, meanwhile, are speeding up and slowing down every few minutes to avoid a ticket or 200 peso "fine" with our red license plates.

Some of the speed limit changes did make sense, like when there was an exit or parking area or when the highway goes through a city. Some of them seemed outright malicious. Two or three times, we would see 80 km/h on the right side of the road, then 20 feet later 60 km/h on the left side of the road. That's about 2 seconds of travel where the speed limit changes twice. I don't understand it, maybe someone shipped the wrong signs to the wrong locations and crews just put them up anyway?

Thankfully (I word that is constantly redefined on this kind of travel) we got to Tulum in good time and with no police stops at all. And I'm quite glad we did, because as much as we liked Cancun (especially over Jamaica), we love Tulum a lot more. We didn't get to the ruins today (closed at 5, last entrance 4:30, our arrival: 4:10), but we did get to walk around a lot and see the core of the city.

It's like one of trendy walkable "areas of interest" in Brooklyn with tons of restaurants, shops (overpriced tourist gifts, but nice), tattoo/art shops, art/coffee shops, bars, dive shops, nursing dogs, etc. Really cool architecture at a lot of places, very fashionable and attractive crowd (immediate difference from Cancun there, which was just average Mexicans and American tourists).

Dinner was great (not cheap) at an open air diner place with a good vibe. Bright lighting for restaurants feels weird but helps enormously when taking food photos.

Tons of bikes here, everyone rents or has one it seems. These protected lanes are (mostly) for bikes apparently.

Popular street & restaurant in Tulum

There are A LOT of pizza places in Tulum. This one had tree balls decorating its dining area.

A bar that appeared to be run by the dive bums who owned the dive shop next door. Cool entrance.

Swings for seats and cerveza + mezcal = 60 pesos

After walking about here, we're a bit disappointed we've only scheduled 2 nights for Tulum, and most of that is sight seeing out of town, but I'd rather feel like we should have spent more time and have a reason to come back than immediately wish we had booked less time.

Old Friends in New Places

So when I sent my email out to everyone letting them know what we were doing, I got a reply from my college friend Katie saying to let her know if we'd be in Cancun for Memorial Day weekend because she would be there with her family.  Amazingly enough, we were and we were able to meet up with them for a few hours at the beach.

Now, all I've really wanted in Cancun was a proper lazy beach day.  When we were walking around on Monday or Tuesday afternoon, we stopped by a lot of hotels asking about day passes.  The Westin offered one for doing a timeshare presentation, so we went back there Saturday to see if we could do it that day.  As luck would have it, we were able to do the presentation on Saturday AND put off the day we used the day passes for until Sunday so that we'd have more time.  So Saturday was: breakfast at this adorable French patisserie that was delicious, bus to the Hotel Zone, Timeshare presentation at the Westin for 45 minutes or so, then walked down to Katie and Jason's resort and spent a few hours with them, their almost 5 year old twins Molly and Noah, and Jason's parents, Gene and Diane.  As soon as we got to the beach, Molly came right up and started chatting away with me.  What a love!  It was so nice to have an afternoon with an old friend who I haven't seen in probably 8 or 9 years (!!!) and meet her family.

When we left the resort, we headed back into town and went to Parque de las Palapas, had some amazingly good tacos, and wandered around.

Hippie Park

Best tacos we've had in Mexico - can't wait to get to Oaxaca and Mexico City for more plentiful street food!

We went to a Mezcal bar which had surprisingly good cocktails in my opinion (I do not like mezcal) and hung out for a bit.  The bar was completely empty - we were the only ones there - but the bartender said it picks up around 11pm.  I actually loved the music there.  It wasn't too loud, and it was pretty much Mexican electronic house music, which is not my typical taste, but it was great!  DJ Nicola Cruz mix Nomade Mixtape is what the bartender wrote on a piece of paper for us.  Will I be able to find it?  Probably not.


Round 1 - Mezcal cocktail for Adam (left), Margarita for me (right)

Adam's second drink that he loved.
It had two liquors in it that he'd never had.
See Instagram for what they were, because I have no idea.

My win for Saturday was having a small conversation in Spanish with the Venezuelan housekeeper when we got back to the Airbnb.  It probably wasn't the best conversation, but it was something.

Sunday I got my peaceful, relaxing beach day.  We got breakfast (chilaquiles!), Starbucks, and then hopped the quickest bus ever to the Hotel Zone and relaxed at the beach and pool all day.  I'll say this: the timeshare presentation was pretty interesting. While it's not for us right now, I can see why people do it, though I'm not sure at what point it becomes a good deal.  The Westin has a ton of properties that you can use, so while the Cancun one is VERY nice, you don't have to go to the same one every year - you can go to Hawaii, Cancun, Mauritius, Thailand, etc.  We had three different salesmen trying to sell us - one started, then brought it the next guy, and then finally the last gasp attempt.  I definitely found the first and second guys nicer and more effective than the last, but none were going to work on us anyway as we're not currently employed so we're not planning on spending such a large chunk of money in one shot right now.  We probably asked more questions than we needed to, but it was interesting!

View from the lounge chairs

Adam writing a blog post

This bird found a bag with food in it and was opening it and taking the chips and fries out of it.  
Very capable and smart.  And LOUD.

The Westin is beautiful, the pools are gorgeous, the beach is gorgeous, and I'm a pretty happy camper right now.  We head out tomorrow (Monday, right?  I'm not doing great with what day of the week and date it is.  Apologies for missing any birthdays in the coming months) for the rest of the Yucatan.  We've rented a car and are going to spend the next week in Tulum, Bacalar, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and playing in cenotes.  Wish me luck driving and Adam navigating!

Figuring out Cancún: Puerto Jaurez, Collectivos, Food Trucks and Beisbol

It took a while but we've finally started to figure out Cancun and get more things done during the days here. The main factor in planning is to leave early and avoid walking outside a lot from 12-5, when the sun and heat are relentless. A hard lesson to learn, but it's really impractical to walk for an hour in 90+ heat and reapply sunscreen when you're drenched in sweat.

We've packed the recent days with lots of activities, travel, and downtime. For Friday, we headed out to Puerto Juarez, about 10 minutes north of downtown.

Several locals told us that Puerto Juarez is a good getaway from the touristy beaches and bars in the hotel zone (although this time of year those aren't crowded at all). The main reason we wanted to head up there was tales of bars on the beach where you can order a few drinks and sit for hours, without being part of an all-inclusive resort for the day. That's all we've wanted, and while I'm sure it's possible in the hotel zone, the hotel zone is huge we can't walk miles to find the place that will allow it.

So on local advice we took a $50 MXN taxi to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal (cheaper ferries to Isla Mujeres leave from here), and happy that we got a decent deal on the first taxi we hailed, we started looking for Flamingos bar that everyone had been telling us about...and it's about an hour walk north of the ferry terminal.

We usually look these things up before we go or at least before we get out of the taxi, but just trusted the local advice this time. It's always a conundrum to just wing it and go on what you've heard, or to try to plan ahead more at the risk of overplanning travel. In this case we should have planned a bit more.

Avoiding some sun on the trek from Puerto Juarez ferry to Flamingos

Oh well, we walked for a while and looked at the menus at several Puerto Juarez restaurants. Seafood is popular in this port, and every place had ceviches, cocktails (e.g. a giant glass of shrimp and ketchup water, as Melissa put it), aguachiles and other seafood dishes. Not liking the prices at the restaurants closer to the ferry terminal, and walking north on an hour long trip as the worst heat of the day approached, we checked out a hole-in-the-beach place that wasn't on google maps but did smell amazing.

Restaurant Club Nautico

The dining room

We continued our streak of accidentally over-ordering food here because of massive portion sizes. Some of the best guac we've had here, garlic shrimp with shells on (we ate a lot of shrimp shells because they were impossible to peel), a huge plate of shrimp/fish/octopus ceviche and one of the regional specialties here: a half order of fish fillet prepared "tikin xic."

Tikin Xic. Only in the Yucatan in Mexico, 'x' is pronounced like 'sh'

The host explained that this fish preparation is a traditional Yucatan preparation that we had to try. According to Wikipedia, this is traditionally prepared with a marinade of adobo de achiote and sour oranges and cooked wrapped in a banana leaf under a wood fire. I think ours was broiled but the rest sounds right, we're guessing the filet of the day was grouper. Tikin xic was great, although the half portion was so big we were convinced the waiter didn't understand and we'd be billed for the full portion. We were wrong, the half portion is just huge.

A well priced lunch of regional specialties accomplished, we were resigned to paying for another cab to take us the rest of the way to Flamingos, still at least a 45 minute walk. However, talking to the restaurant's host outside (who had excellent English), we learned that the collectivos run up and down this street and could take us straight to Flamingos for $8 MXN, or about fifty cents USD.

Collectivos are like route taxis or route buses in Jamaica. They're cheaper than buses and taxis but can be far less comfortable, especially when they get full. Here, they don't seem to wait to get full before leaving, and based on the detailing on the vans they seem to run on the same route as the local buses. The ones we have been in are 15 passenger vans with the seats removed and benches circling the back, with rods hanging from the ceilings for stability.

I love figuring out the cheapest mode of transit (within reason) available to me when traveling, and was very pleased when our collectivo dropped us off right outside Flamingos 10 minutes later for less than a dollar total.

Flamingos turned out to be everything that was promised. Not cheap but not too expensive, pina coladas for about $4 USD, and once we made it clear that we just wanted to sit outside and order the occasional drink they were happy to have us and didn't hassle is at all. Melissa really enjoyed the palm tree suspended hammocks and scenic, tiny beach. The restaurant had a live DJ for the entire day it seems, activities for kids, and food that looked excellent. Families came and went, ate their spiny lobster and chose postres from the dessert trays, and we sat outside facing the beach, working on the Rubik's cube and ordering the occasional pina colada.

Flamingos from the front

Flamingos from the hammock

Day half over. Next up, we wanted to try a food truck court back in Cancun that an expat told us about and go to a game of the the well loved local triple-A baseball team. Collectivo back to the city center, taxi down to a shopping center and a short walk until we found the food truck court that wasn't really on the maps so we had to trust that we'd find it.

Graffiti en route to the food truck scene

Felt like home

Craft Mexican beers. This is actually pretty cool because the macro beers really dominate here: Sol, Pacifico, Tecate, Corona, Dos Equis

The food truck court was really cool, similar to what we've seen in US cities, but much more night life oriented. There was a DJ working the entire time, trying to get some weird videos playing on a projector, a mezcal bar, a normal bar and a small craft beer stall. The trucks were diverse, from memory we saw: Mexican, Argentinian, amazing looking burgers that we regret not getting, brick oven pizza (Melissa's immediate choice), Hindi food (basically Indian from what I could tell), a ceviche and oyster stand (I still need to try an aguachile), a meat focused taco stand and a truck that didn't open, advertising "Arabian tacos".

Melissa's pizza: Argentinian (onion, sausage, skirt steak) and Margherita pizza

My short rib tacos from the meat stand

Oddly, like many things here, we were practically the only people there. It was clearly built to handle a crowd, they had a guy in an orange vest to direct parking! We would have loved to stay longer but had a baseball game to make. Some people were just starting to show up when we left after dark.

Some chef's house on the walk to baseball. Not sure if it's a restaurant or some other format I haven't heard of.

Going to sporting events when traveling is always a way to dramatically boost the amount of local culture you're consuming. In Tokyo, the Tokyo Giant's baseball game was fascinating: shockingly coordinated cheers from the fan sections with giant flag waving routines, beer girls walking the stands with mini kegs strapped to their backs to serve fresh beer on tap, and octopus balls as one of the snack food options.

One of the cool things about baseball, as an American, is that so much can be the same and so much can be different when seeing this sport abroad. The park felt exactly like my hometown minor league stadium. The rules of the game are the same, baseball players look like baseball players, the scoring used English words for the most part and the giant scoreboard screen flashed ads, team mascots and kiss cams just like any game back home.

For me, the coolest differences were the food and drinks. The only overlap between what was offered here and at the American baseball games I've been to may have been the beer and the nachos. We couldn't even figure out what most of the food on offer was, but we have some guesses.

From the cheap seats. Los Tigres de Cancun vs Toros de Tijuana

Definitely sold by hawkers in the stands: tortas wrapped in foil, nachos, Pizza Hut personal pizzas sold out of the insulated delivery bags, marquesitas, churros, beer (only Tecate, often sold as two cans in a souvenir cup, and often as michelada or chelada), fried plantains trips and giant potato chips

Other things sold that we can only guess at: one man carried a giant transparent box filled with what looked like very darkly fried empanadas and deep fried habaneros. On a closer look later, the habaneros may have been some kind of dumpling, but the box had lots of raw orange habaneros mixed into the fried balls so who knows. The "oddly shaped orange pasta" that I saw at Mercado 23 showed up here as a fried, puffed up chip type food. These were sold in plastic bags and hot sauced poured on top to mix in with the snacks.

The game itself had good pitching and defensive fielding, so boring but competent baseball. We stayed about 3 and a half innings and saw a couple of hits and runs towards the end. Melissa thinks she recognized a former MLB player, to be confirmed (confirmed, Jorge Cantu). We left before the end to walk home, and oh yeah, the bleacher seats were $1.

Isla Mujeres

This post is a few days late, but I promised Adam I would write it eventually.  So, while we're sitting at the Westin (we sat through a timeshare presentation for a day pass), I figured I'd knock this out so he can get going on the next post or so.

We're not really big on tours, but our Airbnb hosts said that the Isla Mujeres one was worth it because it included the ferry price ($15-$20 for just the ride), lunch, snorkeling, parasailing, kitesurfing, etc.  We took their word for it and booked the one they suggested for Wednesday without looking into it, which wasn't the smartest thing we did.  While it was fine, there was no parasailing, kitesurfing, etc.; just the ride, lunch, snorkeling, and some beach/exploring time.  All in all, while it was fun, probably wasn't worth the money.  We'll learn from that!

Our day started pretty early -  we had to be at the ferry station by 9:00-9:30 for our catamaran.  While the ferry location would take less than 10 minutes without traffic, it took 50 minutes during the morning rush - Cancun traffic can be pretty miserable.  Once we got to station, we checked in, got our tickets, and waited for our color to be called.  We got onto the boat pretty quickly, got a great location that we kept for the day, and headed out.

Waiting for our color to be called.

Mistake #2 for me was not putting my seasick patch on that morning.  I thought about it before we left, but then forgot to put it on, and I paid for it at times.  HOWEVER, they did have a guy taking pictures that you could buy, but because I looked pretty miserable, he didn't even push it with us :).

The first stop (well, second.  The first stop was to pick up more people) was snorkeling.  It was just bad luck, but the current was REALLY strong that day, so people kept crashing into each other and it was hard to stay incredibly calm.  All things considered, it could've been worse.  We did get to see some pretty fish and barracudas, so it wasn't a total loss.


After the snorkeling, we got back on the boat and they started coming around with drinks - rum punch, tequila sunrise, beer, etc. - while we headed to a beach on Isla Mujeres for lunch.  Lunch was a pretty nice spread, including this green sauce that was HOT.  There was sign there that said muy picante, and they kept telling everyone this, but A LOT of people were using it like guacamole!  For the record, it did NOT look like guacamole, nor did it taste like it.  It was yummy, but SPICY!  We had another 30 minutes or so after lunch, so we grabbed a hammock and a chair and just relaxed for a bit.

View from lunch.

We got back on the boat and made one more stop, where we had an hour and a half to hang out.  We walked up toward Playa Norte, had a drink, and went swimming.  They had chairs and umbrellas for rent, but it wasn't worth it for the hour we would be there so we just took turns swimming and sitting at the bar.  The beach was beautiful.  After this, we headed back to the boat and set sail for Cancun.  It got pretty dark and overcast on the ride back, but we were somehow able to get back to shore, hop on a bus, stop at Walmart and grab a frozen pizza, and walk back home before the skies opened.  That's actually been the most rain we've gotten in Mexico so far, which is a nice change from Jamaica.

Playa Norte

For those wondering, the frozen pizza hit the spot.  It's probably what I miss most from the states (people not included) - pizza.

Adam will have to add pictures - I'm not sure where they are and he's swimming right now.
**Photos added on November 6 while in San Diego.

Upcoming Chip Review: Melissa eats a whole bag of Que Totis

Seen at Mercado 23

Chip Review: Doritos (diablo flavor, orange bag)

Not even worth my time of writing a review.  Boring, tasted like chips we could make at home - corn chip with lime and chili powder, but not as good as it sounds.

No picture!  We had another bag of chips to review, but you're not allowed to bring any food or drink into the baseball stadium, so I had to throw them away at "security."

Melissa: 1.5 out of 5
Adam: 1.5 out of 5 (and he LOVES doritos and was so excited for them!)

Chip Review: Papas Toreadas Sabor Chile Habanero

Since I love spicy foods, I was really looking forward to trying these chips. Habanero taste to me should be spicy, but with a ton of flavor. 

These chips were bordering on bland. They had a bit of sour/vinegar flavor but with very, very little heat. A very middle of the road chip.

Chip rating:
Melissa: 3 out of 5
Adam: 3 out of 5

Next up: Doritos!

Cancún Days 1-3

Our stay in Cancun has been surprising in many ways so far. I don't think either of us had really thought much about what we'd find here; we just knew that it's a popular spring break and vacation destination, especially for the eastern half of the US (west coasters tend to go to Cabo San Lucas instead), there are nice beaches and hotels, and it's in Mexico. Personally I'd pictured a Senor Frogs-dominated scene with sloppy, waterproof bars and hotels.

And while some of that does seem to exist, it's like 10% of the story here. What we've seen has been a lot nicer than the US cities that we grew up in, upscale without being gaudy or lamely tourist-driven. The hotels on the beach are modern and almost understated, e.g. the opposite of a Las Vegas in Mexico. And the town itself is just really... nice.

First some geography:

You can divide Cancun into two main parts: the Hotel Zone (Zona Hoteleria) and Downtown. The Zona Hoteleria (red box) is a long stretch of land in the shape of a 7, about 12 miles in length from the start to the end. So that's a bit too long to walk the entire thing or have access to all of the beaches in a single day.

Downtown is very roughly the green circle above, and is really just a nice Mexican city. Totally different feel, no beaches or fancy hotels. This is where we're staying, you can see approximately from the blue dot surrounded by stars (places we're planning to visit nearby).

To oversimplify, the hotel zone is where most tourists and probably every all-inclusive visitor heads to immediately and stays at for the duration of their trips. Downtown is where the locals and expats live, and where the city of Cancun exists in its own right.

Far to the south of town is the airport, and to the north just a bit, on the water, are Puerto Cancun and Puerto Juarez, from which ferries leave for Isla Mujeres, and I'm sure where cruise ships dock.

So far, we've spent nearly all of our time in downtown and have visited the hotel zone once for half a day. We had expected to spend more time in the hotel zone, it's tricky to do so on a budget when you're not staying at an all-inclusive or timeshare. Let me explain.


All of the beaches in Cancun are public by law. They are protected from the water to something like 20 meters back, so none of the hotels can build or claim rights to the beach for that 20 meters. However, after 20 meters, the hotels can and do own land, which means that much of the beach access is not public at all, even if the beach itself is.

We tried for over half an hour to walk through hotels to the beach, or to sit at a bar in a hotel and grab a drink before continuing through to the beach. It seems reasonable that if we spend some money there we should be able to walk through to the public beach right? We tried at three hotels and couldn't get past the lobbies, often not even that close. When we asked about the bar, we got looks like we had three heads and polite refusal. They didn't even want to take our money for the trivial privilege of walking through the lobby.

The reason for that turns out to be that these are mostly all-inclusive resorts or timeshares. Although I would consider doing one some day, I'm starting to hate the phrase because these are practically hostile to backpackers. All-inclusive means several reasons that we can't just walk through or buy a drink.

Lizard friend en route to the beach

First, because it's all-inclusive, nobody there is paying for their drinks at the bar. I'm not even sure if you can pay for a single drink at the bar, we may find out later. Second, if you're on an all-inclusive, it means you get everything for free, so the staff needs to be able to tell who is included and who isn't. Seems like wristbands are one mechanism for this. We're not included and we don't have wristbands. Lastly, I think the inclusiveness extends to not wanting strangers who haven't bought into the program, and *gasp*, may not even be able to afford to, there. Even if that's not a major reason, we had no luck getting beach access through the resorts.

We ended up walking a mile or two to one of the several public beach access points in the zona: Playa Marlin. It was a hike and it's not exactly obvious if you don't know what you're looking for, but the results spoke for themselves.

Looking north up the zona hoteleria from Playa Marlin

We took some government provided beach chairs on Playa Marlin for a while to sit and enjoy the beach and surf before someone came by to tell us we had to rent the chairs from him, $200 MXN a day. Oh well, we got at least half an hour for free.

One interesting thing about the beaches in Cancun: the sand doesn't get hot. The sand here is white crushed coral, which because of its composition doesn't absorb heat from the sun in the same way, and release it back into your feet.


We stayed two nights at La Morena hostel in downtown, very close to Parque Las Palapas, a lively and central public space with street food and events and good neighborhoods surrounding it. La Morena was pretty nice (once the AC was fixed for night 2), although Spanish was by far the predominant language there, which is a little surprising for a hostel, and made it difficult for us to be social until we met the commonwealth travelers.

After landing and getting situated at La Morena, we found an Airbnb in town for about the same price (~20/night total), but a private room, owned by a New York couple, in a great part of town, with a pool, etc, etc, so we booked 7 nights there. It's been a great decision so far; the hostel was nice and certainly more social, but having a private room and being able to unpack things a bit is a game changer (plus: TV and near exclusive use of the wifi). Our hosts are expats who know a ton about the attractions in the Yucatan and how to get by here, which helps immensely.

Surprisingly, near the Airbnb there is a Walmart, a Sam's Club and a Costco, all about a 10 minute walk. We've been to the Walmart three times already (cheapest sunscreen around) and it's really cool to see something so familiar and so different.

Look at that chile section!

It's nicer than most US Walmarts that I've been too, but the idea is the same. Bulk foods & goods, cheap foods & goods. Apparently the government sets or guarantees some of the prices here, such as water & tortillas, so that the average worker can afford them.

The average american could navigate this Walmart very well. It's laid out like you'd expect and there are many bi-lingual signs, but even ignoring that, a 3L bottle of orange juice is unmistakable. I loved the fresh, daily tortillas counter. You simply can't get this in the US and it's a small part of the reason why cooking Mexican in the states is simply not the same as visiting.

Tortillas are a labor of love, or at least just labor. If you've never had fresh corn tortillas, or never liked them, it's because it's just not something we do right in the US, despite the quality of the Mexican food. Fresh tortillas are like fresh, handmade pasta, but with a much shorter shelf life - they don't freeze well, and the quality difference between day 1 and day 2 is substantial. If you don't have some abuela making them daily, you're not getting why the basis of many Mexican dishes is the corn tortilla.

There's a popular taco shop in Chelsea Market in New York that would sell us same-day tortillas if we waited in the long, long line for them. Other than making them by hand with masa harina, that was our best option, and even that we only exercised once or twice for top notch home-cooked Mexican.

So it was amazing and expected and surprising when the Walmart here had a tortilla counter, selling (what I presume are) fresh, daily tortillas. Even more surprising was the price, 1 kg corn tortillas for $12 MXN, or a bit less than $0.70 for 2.2 lbs. Do you know how much tortillas weigh? That's a huge family meal's worth for less than 70 cents a day. We intend to try them and are just looking for the right inspiration that we can cook on a stovetop here.

Store bought esquites? Amazing and sad?

Pre-made chilaquiles. I didn't check to see what you have to add.

Walmart aside (and it is a focus here), we found an amazing shop that is: liquors and wines (ok), butcher (what?), and specialty foods (really?) that I loved. Why is this combo non-existent in New York? I got what looks like a very nice bottle of tequila for $250 MXN, or about $12 USD. El Jimador, a nice mid-range brand that I like in the states? $7.50 for a bottle here.

What kind of tequila is this? I don't know, delicious

Other than frequenting Walmart we've been trying to explore downtown Cancun on foot. We ended up at a local/ex-pat cafe recommended to us by our hosts. This is notable because they served (and I ordered) a Horchata Frappe. It was amazing.

Horchata frappe from Cafe Con Gracia. Holy shit did this hit the spot.

This post is getting pretty long so I'll skip the park and its wonders and let Melissa cover the Isla de Mujeres.

Comentarito: British lemonade

Comentario is Spanish for a comment or observation, so based on my crude understanding of the language I will call tiny updates comentarito.

While hanging out at the Cancún hostel, we got into a conversation with a Brit, an Australian, and a Kiwi about "lemonade". See for the latter two, lemonade and Sprite are the same thing, i.e. Sprite is called lemonade.

The Brits also called Sprite lemonade, but had never heard of what we called lemonade. At first he insisted it was the second thing, but when I explained that it's just lemon and not carbonated, it was unfathomable. He kept repeating "It's not fizzy...?"

We thought we knew a lot of the naming differences between the English speaking countries but this one shocked us all.

Chip Review: St. Mary's Cassava Chips

Anyone who knows me knows my love for anything carb-y, salty, potato-y.  While in Jamaica, Adam came back from the store with a surprise for me: sour cream and onion cassava chips. We didn't get a chance to have them until today. The sour cream and onion flavor was a bit too mild for me, and the cassava chip was a bit firm. Adam found the texture to be better than Lays and on par with Ruffles; I have to completely disagree. The texture to me was more like a plantain chip, which is fine, but I always feel like I'm going to break a tooth on them.

Melissa: 2.5 out of 5
Adam: 3.5 out of 5
Mike, the British guy we were hanging out with: 2 out of 5

Coming up: Papas Toreadas Savor Chile Habanero

On to Cancún

I love Cubano sandwiches, which Miami is known for popularizing. In fact I don't think the Cubano exists in Cuba, but was the product of Cuban immigrants settling in South Florida and adapting to the new culture. I don't know that any of that is true but it sounds right.

We had a very successful day of air travel from Montego Bay to Miami to Cancun today. Successful because our flights were on-time and drama free, and because we managed to get into airport lounges before each flight. I've had Priority Pass for years from high-end credit cards, but I've literally only been able to use it once, in Berlin, at a pretty-weak-but-technically-still-a-lounge lounge. The airports I fly through never, ever seem to have any Priority Pass lounges at the terminals I need, which is maddening over the course of 4-5 years. I think I checked once at JFK and the second closest Priority Pass included lounge to me was in Montego Bay.

So I was rather excited when our PP cards actually were worth something today, and the lounge was pretty nice! Free breakfast when backpacking is always welcome, plus generally nicer seats and bathrooms.

In Miami it was Mission: Cubano. We booked a 4 hour layover in Miami instead of two, primarily so that we'd be assured enough time to get through immigration and possibly customs to recheck our bags (they ended up checked through). Secondarily, I wanted the extra time to find the best Cubano the airport had and eat it.

We chose the Cubanos at Cafe Versailles because I think I've heard of it before, and after failing to gain entrance to the Admiral's Club (didn't have the correct American Airlines credit card) we were able to get into the Amex Centurion Club thanks to Melissa's platinum card. These lounges are nice... it got a little ridiculous when we couldn't call home for a bit because we had to finish our Cubanos, free mojito, and get to our complimentary 15-minute massage. We've lived rougher than we're used to for the last 10 days so that big, if temporary, bump in comfort and hospitality was really nice.

BTW the Cubano was fine, I've had better at chains in New York. Is it so hard to avoid dry pork and to use enough mustard? #cubanosnob

After having a rougher than anticipated go of it in Jamaica, we'd been really hoping that Mexico would be easier to adapt to and more enjoyable. On the way out of the Cancun airport we kept saying this is promising but too early to say we like it better than Jamaica. The very nice, air conditioned bus from the airport to downtown Cancun was about $3.50 USD per person but we said let's reserve judgement until we've been here a bit. Clearly marked prices doesn't mean the rest of this trip is going to be a breeze.

We got off at the bus depot and were only hassled once by a cabbie (to take us in the wrong direction for $30?), who backed off immediately after hearing we weren't interested. Still too early to compare to Jamaica, we haven't even seen the hostel yet.

10 minute walk to the hostel, it's not in a jungle, which is promising. Spanish is the dominant language at this one, the first I've experienced that but surely not rare on the Central/South America circuit. We get checked in, and although our room is pretty warm the place has most of the usual amenities. We head out for dinner.

Parque Las Palapas is about 10 minutes walk from where we're staying and known for its events, night time music and street food. After the complete lack of street food in Jamaica (except fruits from the back of a van), and general lack of cheap or varied food there, the Mexican street food scene was our line in the sand. If we can get a good, cheap meal here, things are looking up for the trip going forward.

We can't get ahead of ourselves because this leg of the trip is really just starting, but we think we're going to like Mexico.

Wrapping up Jamaica: Montego Bay

Travel (blogging) can be kind of punctuated with periods of dramatic change and steady states. Our last few days in Jamaica were not super interesting, although Montego Bay was pretty cool.

After finally wrapping up (surviving) our third night in the jungle/bug/powerless/remote hostel we headed to Montego Bay on a $50 shuttle (can't you get to JFK for that?) and landed at our last Jamaican hostel, Mobay Kotch. We should have taken pictures, it's a really stunning old building, possibly historic, with beautiful hardwood floors, high ceilings and spacious rooms.

We booked the 7 person dorm because the room looked nicer than the 6 person dorm in the online pictures. Unfortunately so did the only two other people staying at a hostel with capacity for maybe 20? Didn't matter, they were fine and the guy was a historian by trade that was visiting sites relating to his research in the African diaspora and slave trade. It was fascinating to hear what he'd been up to and the local's response to his work on Jamaican history.

I really regret not getting pictures of the Market Square in Montego Bay too, which is historically relevant (even to that guy's work) and was a neat, bustling, Caribbean & colonial town square. Our hostel was about three minutes from here.

Sam Sharpe Square Montego Bay (Expedia)
Expedia's picture of the square, with far less bustle

So the excitement for the day was our great victory: making it to Scotchie's (beloved by expats and tourists, scoffed at by locals) on a local budget. Getting anywhere in Jamaica on a local budget was one of the real challenges of our stay there, and one of the biggest frustrations. While we haven't figured out the finer points of route taxi vs chartered, route bus vs local, etc, we managed to get this one right.

We were sent from the hostel with vague instructions to take a couple turns from the square and start yelling "falmot bus" (?) until we found someone to take us to Scotchie's for $200-$250 JMD each. From those vague instructions we managed to get close to the intended destination, got a little help from a cabbie who insisted that "Jerkie's" was way better than Scotchie's and that he'd take us there for a couple hundred, and finally found the guy yelling "Falmouth bus" on a corner.

Our destination

We yelled "falmot bus" back at him and he got us into a Falmouth bus (what we were yelling became clear at this point) headed to Falmouth. After frantically trying to get a price out of someone before we were ushered onto a bus and trapped, we heard $300. I tried to negotiate down to $250 before we realized they only wanted $300 for the both of us -- we got a better price than the Jamaican woman at the hostel thought we could!

If you've ever heard of a dollar van, or similar concept, that's what this was. Slightly bigger than a 15 passenger van, it goes between two fixed points - in this case Montego Bay and Falmouth, at high speed, making rapid pick ups and drop offs along the highway on its route. A friend has confirmed that the Flatbush dollar vans that run up and down Flatbush Ave at nights for a dollar in fact originated in this Caribbean mode of transit.

This way of getting around was unique and exciting to us for a few reasons. First of all they cram as many people in as possible - since you're not paying much. I sat on a square ottoman that was cut to fit between two bench seats. Second, it's super local: people going to work or coming home from school. No tourists, just everyday folks going about their everyday business. That was really refreshing because nobody on the bus cared about us or where we're from or what they could try to sell us. Finally, there's an "expediter" that rides in the bus, often standing in the door well, who handles the money, flagging down people to get on the bus and coordinating the stops, all so the driver can just drive. It's a well oiled machine and was cool to see in action.

There was a bit of concern if they'd remember that we have to get off at the tourist jerk spot 5 minutes out of town, or if we'd end up in the city half an hour down the road. They did remember and let us off onto the highway median right across from Scotchie's.

So that was a bit of an adventure getting out to this place, but for me that's one of the best parts of travel. Heading out, not fully knowing how you're going to get where you're going but figuring it out successfully without necessarily understanding how you did it. That sense of accomplishment is a hug part of the thrill of travel. So when we got off at Scotchies only about $2.50 USD poorer I was pretty happy, but when we saw the rows of chicken and pork cooking directly on pimento wood under sheet metal lids, I knew it was worth the trip.

Meat cooking!


Clockwise from the top left, we had:
1/2 pound jerk pork, conch soup, 1/4 jerk chicken, festival and roast breadfruit.

It was pretty damned good, although the difference between fast food jerk and Scotchie's isn't as great as say, cheap sushi and destination sushi. It didn't change the way we thought of jerk or take it to heights unimaginable. Really good though, and probably the best festival we've had. I'm not sure if festival is better described as a meatless, stickless corndog, or a hush puppy breadstick.

Oh, and breadfruit tastes like bland bread. There was almost no flavor or texture to speak of. It may have some nutrition but I have little interest in finding out. I had to try it though, some actually grew near our shed at the Negril hostel.

Seating area - it was really nice!

With that done, we avoided expensive taxi ride offers ($20) and took the route bus back to Montego Bay; coincidentally the guy who put us on the first bus was riding as expediter on this one.

We would have loved to do more in Montego Bay but limited ourselves to one night there based on literally every recommendation that we got about MoBay vs Negril. The thing is, we actually liked what little we saw of MoBay and weren't crazy about Negril. Oh well. I got to try something called "June plum" juice in my rum that last night and Melissa has a bag of unique chips she will be reviewing from Montego Bay.