Posts Tagged With: lizards

Tortugas, Tacos and Total Bliss

We recently escaped from the dreary rain of Victoria to the brilliant sun of Mexico – namely to the Yucatan. Not only did we get some serious sun and sand, we had a few other surprises come our way, which tends to happen on our trips. It might be a simple language barrier, a missed turn, or getting locked out of the villa the first night… whatever the case, the unfamiliar and unexpected is exactly the reason I love to travel.

And travel we did. After 12 hours of assorted trains, planes and automobiles and a stop at the Mega in Playa del Carmen for groceries, we finally made it to our sweet, sweet condo overlooking Half-Moon Bay in Akumal Norte (about an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Cancun). Akumal translates to ‘place of the turtles’ in the Mayan language. Seems fitting, given the amount of tortugas we saw (but did not touch, because we didn’t really want to get arrested – or lose a finger). Of course, it was pretty much dark when we arrived at the condo, so we could scarcely make out what awaited us view-wise. But the next morning we woke up to luminescent turquoise water and sweeping views of a curving bay, giving way to a brilliant, glaring white shore. Yep, it’s what we signed up for.

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Urchinville, USA
Warning! This relatively calm, beautiful bay is not as tranquil as it seems. Take the first day we step into the water, clad in our reef shoes, essential for the rocky terrain. Fortunately, most of the time the water is quite clear so you can spot where the spiny black sea urchins are. Until you don’t, and you step on one. Case in point: Cam. We’re in the water no more than 15 minutes, when he simply brushes by one and howls with pain. Losing his balance with the shock of it, he almost falls ass-over-tea-kettle in a whole big patch of ’em. I look at the injury and see it’s just a little blue spot, kind of like an ink stain, near his ankle. But it was enough to become a running joke of sorts from then on.

Losing Keys on Day Three
You’ll notice that a lot of the glitches that happen on our vacations are courtesy of my (most excellent) travel partner. Me? I just go with the flow. Anyway, this particular incident is no exception. After the traumatizing urchin episode on Day Two, we decide to brave the waters once again, this time for some snorkelling. Despite minor annoyances, such as his mask filling with water every five seconds (turns out it was because he hadn’t shaved – don’t ask), and the snorkel bag riding up his back (we had to take it to store said reef shoes, because we didn’t want to step on more urchins…), Cam trudged on like the true trooper he is.

All is well until we surface after some pretty decent snorkelling to get our surroundings. Cam grabs the sealed valuables case – that annoyingly kept riding up the cord around his neck and whacking him in the face – which stored our condo keys. As he does, the latch flips open, revealing – nothing. To this day, we’re still not sure whether the keys fell out at that moment or while we were swimming. It doesn’t matter – they’re gone. After searching the area to no avail, I helpfully offer, “Oh well, we’ll just get another set of keys.” Cam counters with, “That’s great, but one of the keys just happens to be the safe key.” Let’s just say that images of spending the rest of our stay waiting for someone to come and drill the safe open motivated me to seek help – fast.

(When I asked Hector, one of the resident concierges, for another safe key, he asked, “Where did you lose them?” To which I replied, “At the bottom of the ocean.” He shook his head and silently handed me another key. I’d rather not guess as to what he was thinking.)

What Time is it, Akumal?
You may recognize this title to an older blog post of mine from Sayulita, back in ’12. Technically, we knew that Cancun was two hours ahead, which means Akumal would be the same, being just down the coast. Well, technically yes, but not when we got there. Our many digital devices told us that the local time was only one hour ahead. Temporarily confused, we manually change said devices to two hours forward. Then, through a series of confusing two-hours-ahead-and-one-hour-back-incidents (including my iPhone waking me up at what it thought was 7 am, but it was actually 6 am and pitch-black), we took a time risk and made a reservation at a local fancy place on the beach for 6:30 pm. We arrived for dinner at what we thought was 6:30. The waiter greeted us and then nervously explained that it is actually 7:30. I was so unconvinced (and embarrassed) about this that he had to help us change the iPhone setting. Doh!

The full moon in full view by 7:30 pm.
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Emergency Cashola in Chemuyil
The great thing about Mexicans is they are incredibly helpful. Yes, I know I am speaking from a tourist perspective, but I think it’s an inherent trait. Case in point: we’re in Akumal Playa (the beach ‘town’ – a few kms from where we were staying), when we discover it’s time to replenish the peso supply. Yet all ATMs in Akumal are closed. We’re talking about five of them. Closed. No service. We ask another one of our condo concierges named Alfredo – ‘Freddie’ for short – what to do. He tells us there’s an ATM close by in a teeny town called Chemuyil that we could go to. He asks us if we have a car. We say no. “Take mine!” he exclaims, reaching in his pocket for the keys. We contemplate this for a moment, and after he gives us painstaking directions of the take the first left at the halfway tree, then follow the road until you get to the scarecrow at the Anderson farm variety – we say no. Instead, we ask “Can you take us?” Freddie nods, closes his notebook and says “Let’s go right now!” So off we go, do a few loop-de-loops to the highway, zoom past several Pemex’s, and then finally pull up at a dusty, worn grocery off some random side street, complete with ATM. And it was open. Now that’s helpful.

Adios, Akumal
We had pretty much the perfect last day in Akumal. We went back to Akumal bay, where it was slightly less crowded (the first time was over Easter weekend – you can just imagine in a Catholic country). We swam past yet more tortugas to the small and largely unvisited reef. We bobbed under the ropes and discovered a bounty of fish: schools, angels, parrots, whistling needlefish (well it looks like they are), brightly coloured sea fans and huge coral heads. Add that to our turtles (complete with clingy remoras, as pictured on header of this post) and a rare stingray sighting, and we were sufficiently suffonsified.

Two hours later, we lunched at one of our fave places – aptly named Turtle Bay Bakery – where I had the BEST blackened fish tacos EVER. The day gets better: as we head back to the Akumal Norte area on our rusty yet trusty bikes, we discover that the tiny, hole-in-the-wall eatery we’ve been wanting to try but is never open, is actually open! In true carpe diem style, we order dinner for six hours in the future (to which we later bike back to pick up, natch).

Shar with Ol’Rust Bucket – literally. Note the painting of the local fauna imbibing in refreshments of the Mexican beach kind.IMG_2225
Once back at the complex, we received more good news. Hector informed us that someone found our keys, washed ashore four days after we lost them, at the complex next door. They figured the plastic ID tag kept them afloat. We were amazed, and Cam was (rightly) relieved. We left Akumal the next day with a clear conscience and a couple of Sols to refresh our sun-drenched souls.

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– S

Stay tuned for more funnage in Part 2 of our Mex vacay: Island of the Women.

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Categories: Beach, Dining, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Outback Odyssey, Part 1

One of the best and most memorable adventures I’ve ever had traveling was to the Australian Outback. The itinerary for our three-week jaunt down under offered some varied places to stay: a jungle hideaway in Byron Bay, a luxurious 5-star beach club on Hamilton Island, and a quaint boutique hotel in Sydney. To further add to the mix, I booked us on a 3-day backpacking camping tour through the Australian desert: day trip to the Olgas, camping in the Kata Tjuta wilderness park that hosts Uluru (aboriginal name for Ayers Rock), and finishing with a three-and-a-half hour hike through famous Kings Canyon. We figured since we were flying halfway across the world, we might as well go somewhere we would likely never go again in our lifetime.

Since this post could go on for quite a while, I’m going to take mercy on you and separate it out a little. Enter Outback Odyssey Part 1: The Olgas and Ayers Rock.

Approaching the Olgas

The adventure begins when we land in the tiny Ayers Rock airport, straight from the lovely cosmopolitan town of Alice Springs (no facetiousness there, really – it’s the bloody Paris of the Outback). As soon as we land, the heat smacks me in the face, full-on. It’s I-just-landed-on-Mars hot. Hotter than Melbourne. Hotter-than-the hoary-hobs-of-hell, as Cam and I like to often joke. Pure, unadulterated, 45-something-degree-dry desert heat.

We settle in to wait for our tour company to pick us up. A long time later, bored out of our minds in the tiny confines of the airport, we decide to brave the heat and go outside. There’s nothing out here besides the bare, unforgiving desert, red sand, the blazing sun, and a few taxis. Not much better, but at least it’s different.

We continue to watch the minutes tick by, with only the scrubby flora and the eerie silence to keep us company. Thinking we were going to be forever stuck counting shrubs and trying to wrestle a water bottle out from the broken vending machine, something happens. Actually, a few things happen, and in typical fashion, all at once. The airport gates open up, unleashing the next crowd of arrivals; the taxis come to life; and lo-and-behold, our tour bus appears, chugging, spitting and backfiring across the lot. Cam immediately snaps to attention, wrangling our bags.

Then, so close to me that I almost miss it, a giant red lizard casually crosses the parking lot. I’m not talking about some small commonplace gecko type, or even an iguana. This thing is huge; like Great Dane huge. And it’s not slithering along the pavement, either; instead, it’s walking on all fours. As my brain struggles to catch up with what I’m seeing, the bus pulls up, blocking my view, and I try in vain to catch another glimpse. But as fast as it came, it disappears, amazingly agile for such a large creature. This pic is pretty close to what I saw, camouflaging itself to blend in with the red sand desert:

Of course, being busy flagging down the bus and all, Cam completely misses it. So, I tell him that he’ll have to trust the that I’m not exaggerating (for once), and yes, it was as tall as a Smart Car. He’s dubious. However, I’m later vindicated when, en route, we stop for lunch at a place which happily is right beside a museum with dioramas with Outback flora and fauna.

It’s here where I learn what the small dinosaur I thought I saw (and find proof that I wasn’t completely losing it) is a Perentie, (you gotta watch this video), the largest lizard in Australia. I point out this awesome fact with pride. It’s my first Aussie freakshow animal wonder, the first of many to come. (Think: giant poisonous snakes, king toads, and plate-sized spiders. It’s true what they say: Australia is trying to kill you.)

Back at the airport, I am suddenly fueled with adrenaline as I help Cam throw our bags on the bus. After brief introductions, we find the only two remaining seats, one of which is right beside our guide and driver: Aussie born-and-bred Kyle, a young, amiable fellow, who looks like he walked straight out of Crocodile Dundee. Our small group consists of a smattering of Europeans, including a British family of Mom, Dad, daughter and son-in-law, a couple of Danes (natch), a young Spanish woman and her companion: a young Argentine fellow whose name we instantly forget, but upon whom we bestow the nickname “Argentina”. I have an instinct that this guy will no doubt be a constant source of entertainment for the rest of the trip, and sure enough, he doesn’t disappoint.

Olgas: up close and personal

Off we go to the Olgas, a group of large domed rock formations in the middle of the desert, a place where many spiritual ceremonies are performed. As we all clamber out of the bus and start making our way to the rock trail, we quickly notice a lot of tourists wearing funny hats with a mesh net draped across the front. How ridiculous, we think, sniggering to ourselves. It doesn’t take long before we realize why they are wearing them. Within minutes, we’re swarmed by black flies, who, attracted to sweat and the liquid protecting your eyes, literally cling to you. It’s a good thing it wasn’t more than 517 degrees out.

We then join the ranks of those who were stupid enough not to have purchased a ridiculous hat, and begin endless swatting motions, AKA the “Australian wave”. Let’s just say at that point, we would have paid $100 on the spot for one of those hats. The people wearing them certainly looked comfortable – well, in the sense that they were only melting rather than melting and being pestered to the point of insanity.

Next up is Ayers Rock for sunset, and a preview of what we’ll be hiking around the following day. Although we aren’t the cheapest tour group going; we’re not top-level luxo, either. Put it this way: when it comes time for the viewing, loads of massive air-conditioned coaches show up at the viewing spot and tourists spill out, quickly overrunning the place. They busy themselves with setting up lounge chairs and helping themselves to champagne, water crackers and brie; a supposedly perfect accompaniment to sunset over the rock. By contrast, we’re in a tiny lemon of a bus reminiscent of the 70s, the air conditioning being the windows, and chips, dip, and wine from a box at our disposal in case we get sunset-hungry. Chairs? I don’t think so. Turns out it didn’t matter; with a backdrop like Ayers Rock, you really didn’t need anything more. The sunset was, in a nutshell, out of this world (see above), just like the 10 million pictures you’ve already seen of this … rock.

Many oohs, ahhs and camera clicks later, it’s time to head back to our campsite in the pitch-black dark. When the sun goes down in the desert, that’s it; no lingering light, just complete, utter darkness. Definitely no streetlights. As we were the last people to be picked up (due to a scheduling error; don’t get me started), this is the first time Cam and I actually see our campsite.

Or not see, as was the case. Because we didn’t have the daytime advantage of the rest of the campers, things become quite tricky quite fast, especially since we can’t find our flashlight. I think it was at the bottom of our humongous backpack; the perfect place for it. We commence unpacking our gear in utter darkness, careful not to bump into a bilby, or God forbid, a Thorny Devil. As is the only sane thing to do, most Aussie outback animals tend to hide during the harsh heat of the day, coming out to forage at night. A comforting thought when you’re tiptoeing to the loo in the middle of the night with nothing but flip-flops on and armed with a roll of less-than-pointy paper.

A cool rock formation at Uluru

Pre-dawn arrives way too quickly. We rise to the sound of Kyle banging on a kitchen pot, our cue to move. Although slightly primitive, it definitely works, and I feel like I am 10 again, back at summer camp in BC’s interior. Rubbing our eyes, we trudge to the communal bathroom to wait in line with numerous other sleepy, crabby campers, brushing sand and picking dirt off their bodies. The line-up is out the door, and it’s survival of the fittest for a bathroom stall. As soon as I see a free one, I lunge. So does our good friend Argentina. Desperately having to pee means manners are out the window, so I swat him away and he grudgingly acquiesces. Machismo does come in handy sometimes, I think.

With less than 10 minutes to departure, there’s no time for modesty, let alone any kind of primping. All I can manage is to splash water on my face, run a brush across my teeth, check my clothes for spiders or other creepy-crawlies, and I’m done. The Fairmont, it ain’t, and that’s just fine with us.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Kings Canyon. For those of you who have seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, be warned that the only thing our experience has in common with the film is the geography.

– S

Categories: Adventure, Australia, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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