Tuesday, November 11, 2014

After Trip Miscellaneous Thoughts

Pet dogs are a new thing here. In my past experience with Mexico it was unusual to see a cute dog on a leash (maybe a mean one on a leash). Most dogs were mangy, flea-bitten mutts running loose. Now it’s like Carmel. There’s tons of dogs, mostly small, with fancy collars and some are even dressed up. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but to me it’s remarkable. I never thought I’d see the day! 

Cats still run amuck, but they do it with more style, and they catch mice. A couple of stores have a pet cat. You can tell because they’re not skinny and they have all their fur. This cat met us at the door and seemed to be giving us a personal tour. It stopped at key points and looked up at us as if to say, “Here is the grassy area with tables for you to sit at,” and “this is the receptionist’s desk, she’ll be right back.

We first saw this man a couple of years ago. He was old then, now he seems ancient. The music he produces with his homemade instrument is mediocre at best, but you’ll occasionally see some kind people pay him to play. This scene touched my heart. The old man sitting exhausted off to the side while the young bucks garner the ladies interest.

Beach bars are a favorite for Joe and me. We love to sit and watch the world go by, especially on the sand. There are completely different styles and we like them all. Mamitas is the high-end, classy place where you sip your beer while sitting above it all on beautiful tile floors. Zenzi’s is great at night for their live bands and free Salsa classes and you can choose between sand and tile.
Canibal’s is a quirky sand bar with a little informal marina out front, but it’s a long walk from the old part of town.

As you know from past blogs, our other favorite past time is people watching from terraces. We found several with a great birds-eye view of the hustle and bustle of 5th Ave (Quinta Avenida). It can be a little overwhelming to be down on the street amongst the people.

Musicians wander the beach all day. Some are solo, while others are fragmented Mariachi bands. We normally tell them “No thanks,” but there is one artist we like a lot. His name is The Bronco. He has a romantic strong voice and can sing either modern or old songs.

Food! As stated before we loved the fish taco’s at Hotel All Riviera. Also liked Barbaqua del Tulum for their quesadillas and tacos. Aldea on 5th was excellent for their fajitas and amazingly romantic atmosphere in the jungle. Don Sirloin had great cheap tacos pastor on 10th ave. Breakfast at the Imprevist is a must . . . I loved their chicken enchiladas divorcados.

A highlight of the whole trip was our friends 30th wedding anniversary. We celebrated it at a Brazilian steakhouse called th near Coco Bongo. If you’re not familiar with Brazilian steakhouses, it is an all you can eat meat extravaganza. Ipanemas handled our party of 8 as though we were the only ones in the restaurant. The level of service was outstanding. Every time I sat back down after going to the salad bar, my chair was scooted under me and my napkin replaced on my lap. Water glasses never went empty. The meat was presented at table-side at an alarming rate. We had to remember they would be happy to return with the filet mignon, not to worry.
Ipanemas Grill. It is located on 10

I had told the manager, Santos, when we came in that it was their 30th anniversary. He treated them like royalty. At the end of the meal (hours later) they came out with two slices of cheesecake, side-by-side with some sticks on fire (presumably as makeshift candles). They wrote a charming little note on the plate. Then they placed a figure-eight made out of straws around the couple. A wine glass full of weird red fluid we were told to NOT drink was set before them with paper towel roses stuffed into straws. The edges were burnt slightly to give them a gilded look. All-in-all it was adorable, albeit hokey. We loved the effort.

On another note. Did you read my blog about bed bugs? It was an interesting battle won by a simple product called DE (diatamacous earth). I brought it with us on this trip in a little shaker. I was telling our friends about it and I demo'd how to sprinkle it on the floor in our room. That night an enormous cockroach ran across our floor and under our bed. After I asked Joe if they bite (they don't), I went to bed. In the middle of the night I went to the bathroom and took my flashlight because I was afraid I would step on the little monster. Guess what? It was dead next to the powder!!! So now I'll add cockroaches to the list of things DE will kill.
Girl holding baby monkey
Halloween Decorations
American Savages

We’ll talk next year sometime. Not sure yet where we’ll go, but I suspect it will be language school J

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hotel Comparison

We’ve changed hotels today. It was a bittersweet move. The staff at Hotel All Riviera has become friends, especially Antonio and Jose (or Gordo as they call him). They took good care of us, and kept us fed and hydrated. The ice chest of Negra Modelos would appear almost like magic next to our beach chairs. A hand in the air would bring one of them running to our side to take our order for fish tacos, or what they would jokingly call tacos Nemo. We even felt comfortable leaving our stuff on our chairs while we swam. During a downpour we’d all huddle under the giant umbrellas, laughing and talking.

There was some pretty hilarious quirks though. The skeleton key that fit through a hole drilled into the metal frame of the sliding glass door was bizarre. It was so unsafe because you had to leave the key hanging (visible through the window), or set it on the table near the door where you’d desperately fumble to get it in the hole right-side-up in the case of an emergency.

Even a good mattress is hard on a block of cement. And this wasn’t a good mattress.

The TV was fine, but made us laugh at the lack of concern regarding the way it looked.

At one point bags of cement were placed at the point where the tile patio met the sand because of erosion. Now it’s part of the slippery stepping stones (they’d long ago solidified) to get to the beach. Not really a good plan for the elderly who needed help from the staff to get down safely.

Our bathroom window had those old fashioned louvered panes of glass. Two of the five panes were missing, the bottom one being the most inconvenient to us. We rolled up a towel so we weren’t visible from the outside. This brings me to the other problem . . . Bad Boys Bar was next door. They had a large crowd for their live music night . . . right outside our bathroom. The cool part was they were usually great bands and we would just chill with a glass of wine and a beer. Even better was they stopped playing at 9:30 or 10:00. After that, all we could hear was the sweet sound of the ocean waves all night.

Then we moved to the fancy-pants part of town. El Taj is our new home. It was designed by an architect who greatly influenced this entire communities’ beach town vibe. His work can easily be seen by the rolling curvature of the balconies, and the narrow central space that creates a shady oasis from the blazing sun, and the unique pools.

The rooms are spectacularly decorated with unusual pieces of furniture and light fixtures. The kitchen has marble countertops and wooden cabinetry. Our condo takes up four floors; the entry floor with the front room/kitchen/guest bedroom (which is on the second floor of the complex), the second floor with the master suite and guest room, the third floor with a bathroom/massage table/huge deck with BBQ grill and large whirlpool, and the fourth floor has a loft bedroom with a half bath. Nate said it’s 46 steps to the loft . . . yep he counted them, but that’s not counting the steps just to get to our front door!

That brings me to an important travel point. When you pay rock bottom prices, your expectations are rock bottom too. 69 bucks compared to 233 dollars a night is a major difference. You should get what you pay for. Our new place is gorgeous, but functional it’s not. If you are planning on building a house or remodeling, come here first and get ideas for what to not do.

Our bathroom has no drawers and no shelf, so all our toiletries sit on the floor. Except the master suite each bathroom is outside of the room, so you have to walk out into the hallway in the middle of the night past ceiling to floor plate-glass windows (no curtains).

Two of the rooms don’t have a closet to hang up your clothes. There are really pretty lights in our room, but no bedside reading lights. The bedside table is concave so you can’t set a cup on it. The bed is amazingly comfortable though and that counts for a lot in my book.

Unfortunately hot showers are also pretty important, so the cold shower in the master suite didn’t go over well. They came and fixed it. Now my room’s air conditioner doesn’t work, so the maintenance guy is on his way. The stove isn’t hooked up to the gas line properly, so it has to be lit in a way that scares me. Maintenance has been busy with us J

At first we thought the rooftop Jacuzzi didn’t work, but it was operator error. We have enjoyed sitting in it more than I would have expected because it’s been a bit cold lately. There’s even a rinse shower up there and the view is awesome.

Did I mention the bed is super comfortable? They put a soft pad over the mattress. The down comforter is overkill, especially since our AC doesn’t work.

A great feature here is breakfast. You can choose from two restaurants and both are excellent. At the Imprevist I recommend the enchiladas. They also give you a complimentary beer or wine, and appetizer at the elegant restaurant, The Plank. A membership at The Gym is also included, and that’s a big deal because it’s a great gym. Really popular and has tons of good equipment and workout classes.

All in all I’d recommend them both, but to different people. Having eight of us stay in one place has been great. We all congregated in the pool and attached whirlpool today, which was awesome after a long day at the beach. Three of us got a massage today . . . an absolute must for a Playa Del Carmen trip. We chose El Faro hotel for our massage because the owner is Vicki’s daughter. We stayed with Vicki for language school in Oaxaca. I had Hugo do mine, and he was excellent. It was $30 and worth every penny.

Well, I’ll write an end-cap when I get home. Until then Hasta Luego!!!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Storm is Brewing

Here I sit watching a massive black cloud engulf Cozumel. The wind is whipping our direction. The workers here race out to retrieve the beach chair cushions. A waiter is shutting and latching the storm windows around me just as the first splats of rain hit the glass. Beach guests are laughing and running up the sandy incline to seek shelter. The forecast said 80% chance of rain . . . I guess we got the 80%. I sip my coffee, and let my ham and cheese omelet settle. A good day for writing.

*Oh wait a second! The rain stopped and the sun is coming out. 
*Psych! Now the rain’s back.

This morning I went for my walk on Fifth Avenue. This is one of my favorite things to do. The normally crowded street is empty except for early morning workers, walkers, and cats. Joe went running down the beach. He said it was great going south but coming back against the wind was a chore.

*Good grief, the rain's coming in sideways. This restaurant leaks.

Last night we ate at a nice little terrace restaurant on Fifth Ave called Los Rancheros. The waiter, Oscar, was excellent. He made our guacamole right at our tableside. We shared a platter of chicken fajitas. We were so full we joined the promenade to work off our food. The monkey people are figuring out that I don’t want to hold their monkey by my skittering sideways every time they come near.

*Man, is it humid in this café! Sun is coming out and it’s barely sprinkling.

I love this little cheap hotel. The majority of the guests are young couples with babies in pajamas. The older children play in our itty-bitty little pool. The grandparents sit at the poolside and watch the kids while the parents share a margarita on the beach. It’s a great system. It is a perfect place for kids to explore the ocean too because it is so shallow here. I can stand up 40 yards out. The waves break pretty far out.

Our hotel has complimentary beach chairs, which is good because otherwise you have to rent them for the day . . . about 15 pesos a day, which is a little over a dollar. But when you rent a chair you get food and drink service. Even if you don’t rent a chair you can flag down a server from your beach towel and they will run over to get your order. They’ll even bring out a little table.
Each series of chairs are different, so you should come prepared with your questions. Do you have bathrooms, showers, a pool, cushions for the chairs, is there a time limit, can my wife and I with our two kids share two chairs, is the rental price waived with the order of food and drinks, do you have ice chests for the beverages?

*It’s sunny and almost clear skies with couples walking on the beach holding hands again.

You know, a 60 min massage for $20 is really starting to sound good. I think I’ll hunt down Gabby at El Faro. Gabby is the daughter of Vicki from Oaxaca. We stayed at Vicki’s home when we were in language school in Oaxaca a couple of years ago. I have a feeling she will charge quite a bit more than twenty bucks

*Wow, it’s sweltering hot in here now. I’m gonna head out to the water pretty soon. The lounger cushions are being brought back out.

By-the way, Hello Ana, Rueben, and the kids. We know you guys are mad because we're in Mexico again and not visiting you! But we love you and will come to see you eventually :)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Which taxi van is ours?
I knew when we came this would be a vacation of contrasts, but it’s turning out to be loaded with things that make you think “Huh, that’s not what I expected!” Not bad, just things that make us laugh. First let me explain myself. We are in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico . . . yeah I know, we’re here again.

The first week we are sorta roughing it by staying at a place only Joe and Heidi would think to stay. The second week is staying at a fancy place with 3 other couples who probably wouldn’t think to stay here.

So here’s the cheap place. Hotel All Riviera (We use LocoGringo.com for a lot of our Riviera Maya plans. Scott is fantastic). We picked it for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is on the beach, as in I can hear the waves at night. Secondly, it is popular with Mexicans and that’s why we’re in Mexico . . . to hang out with Mexicans.

Our room is exactly what we expected; cement block for a bedframe, freezing cold air conditioner, and a poolside room complete with a sliding glass door that took ten minutes to figure out how to lock. I bought two souvenir blankets to fold up and put under my side of the bed because the mattress is so hard.

We sat out on the beach and got a contact high from the local employees sitting around smoking pot before they started their day. Then we became friends with a Mexican couple who live in Texas. I illegally bought an anklet from a girl who later ran and hid from the police. We walked up the beach to Mamitas and had 50 people ask us if we wanted to have a massage, or go on a jet ski. We came back via the famous 5th Ave only to have 50 more people ask us if we wanted to buy cigars or hold tiny little monkeys.

Later we went to dinner and stumbled across a massive crowd around a stage that had a Michael Jackson look-alike teaching a line dance. As we elbowed our way into the onlookers we could see the audience was mostly kids and teenagers dressed like monsters and strange creatures covered in fake blood.

After dinner we came across the race of all the monsters right down 5th Ave. A bevy of witches laid in wait for the runners and chased them with wicked laughs (as wicked as cute teenage girls can laugh).

Zenzis beach bar had Mexican rap music playing, Bad Boys Bar had old American Rock’n Roll, and the Sports bar was packed with Canadians watching ice hockey and screaming in French. All pretty much at the same time.

We’ve only been here one day!

Sunday, October 26, 2014


This is intended to help travelers and anyone who has the misfortune of acquiring the dreaded bed bugs. These little critters are as small as a flea when hungry and as big as a fruit fly when bloated with blood. At any hotel, no matter how cheap or fancy, clean or dirty, you must look for these guys. But that being said, if you see one, it’s too late.

Whether you see one or not you should assume the little bugs are hiding out in your bags. When we get home we leave our luggage in the garage. All of our laundry is washed and dried at a high heat. The bags sit out there for a week. We take our clothes off in the garage and put those in the washer also.

When we travel we put our clothes in plastic bags inside our luggage for two reasons. First you know some security guy is going to rifle through your stuff. This keeps his/her paws off your undies. Secondly it keeps the bugs and critters out of your stuff until you feel confident enough to unpack at the hotel (which occasionally never comes).

This last trip was a done in the usual manner, but bed bugs still got in. The hotel in Novato had a bug crawling across the bedding in plain sight, which is a very bad sign because they are usually shy of light. This one splatted a lot of blood when killed. Another sure sign it was a bed bug… a big one. We knew we were in trouble.

Karina came out of her room one morning a week later and showed me the famous cluster of three bites (breakfast, lunch and dinner) on two different places. By-the-way, she hadn’t washed the clothes she’d been wearing and had brought her suitcase into her room before we asked her to bring it back out to the garage. We hoped the bites were fleas or mosquitoes, the next morning she was covered in bites.

I called in sick to work (thank goodness I have such a good boss) and went to work on stripping my guest’s room and ours, going over her mattress with a hairdryer on high heat, tipping the top mattress on its side, setting off bug bombs, and doing a ton of laundry. I would rather have been at work!
Then we held our breath for two days. On the third day she came out with three new bites and she was in tears. The latest bites seemed to have thrown her into an allergic reaction and she was put on a regimen of antihistamines with excellent results.

So I stood in the kitchen and began to google bed bug bites and I stumbled across a medical site that had horrible testimonials from people who’d spent untold thousands on their homes, throwing away mattresses, carpet, wood baseboards, bed-frames, the cost of exterminators, and finally the cost of relocating. In the midst of this was a short and up-beat note from someone who’d used Diatomaceous Earth (DE).

I remember this stuff from when I was a kid and my dad used it in the pool filter. It’s fossilized insect remains. It looks like greyish beige powder. I researched it and found that one of the main uses for DE is to physically kill exoskeleton insects such as fleas, ants and bed bugs . . . yippee! It isn’t a chemical or poison. NOTE; It is often mixed with poison, so beware! Be sure you purchase “Food Grade” or “Human Grade” DE. Big hardware stores usually sell the poison powder with DE as a minor ingredient. If your pet or child eats it, it could be lethal. They sell DE for pools, but I don’t know if that is safe for consumption. If anyone has a definitive answer to that I’d love to know.

Go to a feed store or pet store where it is pure and used for animals. If your cat steps on it and licks its paw it will only kill any insects it may have consumed. NOTE; You should wear a mask while dusting your house with it because the dust can irritate your lungs and eyes too.

So we bought a $17.00 bag of powder (and only used a fourth of it). Once home we pulled everything away from the walls, tipped the mattress on its side again, donned the masks, and using a powder sugar sifter we coated the perimeter of the room and the mattress (we just put the sheets right over the powder). I had to put drops in my eyes because they got itchy. We sprinkled up and down the hallways on the carpet and along the baseboards. I emptied out a small spice shaker and put the DE in it for the smaller spaces. NOTE; if it gets wet it is useless and messy (like outdoors near sprinklers or dew in the morning).

Karina volunteered to be bait. The idea is for the bugs to walk through the powder. It gets into their joints and shreds them . . . like walking through a field of machetes. Physical, not chemical death.
She has not had a bite since. It’s been one week. We’ve vacuumed and reapplied once, with the majority of the powder under and on her bed. We also followed the feed store’s advice and put some around an ant hill in our yard. There’s still a few straggling ants because it keeps getting damp from the morning dew.

Try DE before you spend thousands of dollars, and risk poisons in your house.

Friday, October 10, 2014

California Tour

Day One: San Francisco

We have a guest living with us for four months. Do you remember last year we went to Guatemala for our godson’s wedding? Well we talked his sister, Karina, into coming to California for a visit. She’s turned it into a semi-business trip by studying English while here.

A trip to California wouldn’t be complete without San Francisco! So, this morning we left Sacramento with an ice chest full of sandwiches and goodies. It saves so much time, money, and decision-making drama to bring your own food. We came down I-80 and crossed the new Bay Bridge. It’s really pretty, but I didn’t feel very safe because the side rail is only about 3 feet high. Today was a perfectly clear warm day in SF. Alcatraz and Angel Islands were easy to see, as was the Golden Gate Bridge. We took the first exit and made our way down to Embarcadero St. It wasn’t overly busy because it was a Friday.

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the Ferry Building and the different piers. Karina took about 50 photos.
I just can’t get over how warm it was! It felt like it was 90 degrees, and for SF that is very, very warm.

We finally decided to head over the Golden Gate Bridge on HWY 101 to our hotel in Novato. You know I think I’ve only been over that bridge a couple of times in my life. It’s a spectacular view of the bay on the east side and the open ocean on the west.

We found our cheap little hotel thanks to smart phones. I must digress for a moment. Booking a night in a hotel in the Bay Area is a nightmare. First of all, the websites drove me bonkers. I typed in ‘3 people’ and ‘1 room’. It would give me a room with a king size bed, charge me extra for the 3rd person, and not provide any place for her to sleep. I called the 800 number (big mistake because it’s just a call center and they know nothing about the hotel they represent, I highly recommend finding the local number for real prices and info) and the new quote would be as much as $100.00 more per night. One place said they had a king bed, charged $12.50 more per night for Karina, but didn’t actually have any place for to sleep. I questioned this and he said “Oh, they have a rolling bed they can bring in for her.” “Oh so that’s what the $12.50 is for?” “No the bed is $15.00 more.” “Really? What’s the $12.50 for?” “For the third person,” was the reply. Talk about crazy!

So for your reference, Novato is an adorable little town in Marin County between San Francisco and Napa Valley. The hotel we got is small and simple, but most importantly it’s dirt cheap. We even have two queen-size beds . . . Yay! American Best Value Inn, only 89 bucks a night, with no extra fees. The desk clerk, Gary was incredibly helpful. We went straight to the pool and cooled off.

We ate at Mi Pueblo on Grant St. Great family atmosphere and good food. We wolfed down a massive platter of chicken nachos. Tomorrow we plan to go to Muir Woods redwood forest and Stinson Beach.

Day Two: Muir Woods and Napa

There is a saying that Joe and I live by; “Go with the flow.” When traveling one never knows what will actually happen, it’s best to just adjust. We set off on our little day trip this morning to Muir Woods Redwood Forest with the plan to go to Stinson Beach afterwards. As we approached the HWY 1 exit we saw the sign saying; “Muir Woods parking lot was full—take the shuttle bus.” We found the shuttle bus and hopped on as it was pulling away and off we went. Problem is that Muir Woods is halfway to Stinson Beach, so we’d have to retrace our path after we got back to our truck. The decision was clinched when we saw 2 miles of stop-and-go traffic at the beginning of HWY 1. Stinson would have to wait.

Karina loved the massive redwood trees and the ferns. It was a warm day, which is why it was so crowded. The trail makes a series of loops going from baby-stroller-easy to hiking boots. We went for the middle one. Our luck was with us because we got to see a doe and her baby. They were separated by the trail crowded with whispering tourists. The fawn began crying for its mommy by making little sounds almost like a cat’s meow. The doe ignored it and kept eating. We moved on.

This tranquility was interrupted by the sounds of war. Two little boys came running around the corner shouting, “The dinosaurs are coming!” They both turned and shot their imaginary machine guns at their attackers, and dashed past us. I was only slightly nervous about what would be around the corner. Dad was strolling along calmly. Shortly after this came Mom with a little girl in a pink tutu talking nonstop.

After we saw the traffic jam on the way back to the shuttle parking lot we decided to head over to Napa. I love it when random choices pay off. Napa was roped off for the New Orleans Marti Gras festival. They had bands playing jazz with a Cajun flare.
It was great! They even had a little parade. We finished the night by sharing a platter of BBQ meat at Bounty Hunters. They have a great wine and beer selection. On the way home I asked Karina which she would prefer; Stinson Beach or going back to Napa. She chose Napa! I was a little surprised because she actually prefers dark beer. So tomorrow we will experience Napa.

Day Three: Napa

Slept in, then headed over to Starbuck’s in downtown Napa for breakfast. As we drove away from our little dumpy hotel, that Joe made fun of, I felt compelled to comment on hotels in general. As you all know, we’ve stayed in a lot of different types of places. Some expensive, fancy places that were dirty and some immaculate cheap little places. So let me make a general statement. If you pay a regionally low price there’s a reason. The owners have less expenses than the fancy places . . . ie, the décor is ancient, the quality is horrible, the staff is inadequate, or the location is bad. This place is right next to the highway and a wood yard, but that’s why I bring ear plugs. The décor was old and worn. The towels threadbare, sheets too small for the bed, and the shower curtain tattered. BUT, it was all clean, the beds were super comfy, had a flat screen TV, free WiFi, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, and they didn't skimp on staffing. So I’d probably go back, if in the area.
I digress, we went to Silenus first because one of our best buddies is an investor in one of the wineries they feature in their tasting room; Modus Operandi. Hannah in the tasting room was very helpful. 

We went to Yountville next and wandered through the shops, said hello to the sleepy cat, and shared a glass of wine. Next we drove up through the beautiful Napa Valley and ooh’d and awe’d at the gorgeous wineries. 

We circled the parking lot of Castello di Amorosa. We were too cheap to go in, but I’ve been there before and it’s worth it once. We cut across the valley and stopped at Rombuaer Winery. The lady at the counter was so nice. Afterward we wandered through their gardens.

When we got home we watched Bottle Shock J