Tough Life: A Week in the Yucatan

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LAST MONTH, I SNUCK IN ANOTHER VACATION, this one a weeklong mother-daughter event. Destination: Tulum, Mexico, on the Caribbean edge of the Yucatan peninsula, a place I’d first heard of years ago when it was a laid-back beach town known for yoga retreats and lack of electricity. It’s no longer quite as laid back, with development proceeding apace, and I had the feeling we got there in the nick of time.

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We flew into Cancun and taxi’d south, spending the first two nights in Akumal, about half an hour north of Tulum. There, we could afford a hotel right on the calm, crescent- shaped Bay of Akumal, top, above and below, known as a sea turtle habitat and very popular for snorkeling (to the detriment of the turtles).

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We stayed in a stone bungalow, below, at the Hotel Akumal Caribe, a circa 1970 all-inclusive resort that was the first-ever in the area.

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Now, the sole highway between Cancun and Tulum is lined with much glitzier hotels, but we loved the funkiness of the Akumal Caribe, and the convenience.

For two days, we found all we needed on the hotel property, including a yoga studio, below, and good food in several on-site restaurants of varying degrees of casual, all with views of the water.

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There’s a scuba dive center on the hotel grounds, and my daughter, Zoë, a scuba pro, went out to the coral reefs one day; another day, she dove at Dos Ojos, a nearby cenote, or cavern, of interest mainly for its geology. See her spectacular photos, below.

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On Day 3, we decamped for Tulum, a $20 taxi ride due south, and settled in for the next few nights at Posada Luna del Sur. We loved our studio apartment with its own lush garden, and the breakfast served on the hotel’s rooftop each morning.

The charms and limitations of Tulum immediately became evident. The seven-mile-long strip of beachfront, justifiably renowned for its beauty, is lined with low-rise resorts, architecturally modest and nearly hidden in jungle foliage, but with prices commensurate with their waterfront location ($400-500/night).

Like many visitors, we stayed instead in the pueblo, or town, where the real folks live, about three miles inland. The pueblo definitely has its own appeal and a slew of inviting open-air bars and restaurants. The main drawback is that one is beholden to taxis. They’re plentiful enough, and the drivers are polite and trustworthy (the hotel provided a helpful list of official prices). But the beach is just too far away to walk.

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Tulum is known, too, for its superb Mayan ruins, below, 800-year-old remnants of indigenous culture right at the water’s edge. Once painted bright colors, with fires atop the main structure to signal passing boats, the buildings are now weathered and populated mainly by iguanas. It’s a must-do in Tulum, and we did, on the first morning.

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We spent much of our remaining time at the beach clubs lining the sandy rim of the sea. All the beaches are public; each hotel has its arrangement of chaises and palapas (thatched umbrellas).

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You can settle in at any one of the beach clubs for the day, ordering from young waitstaff who run hither and thither to bring you towels, drinks, snacks. For lunch, we’d go to one of the many more or less interchangeable beachfront restaurants, to gaze out over the water while consuming our cocktails and shrimp fajitas.

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Had we not had our swimming and snorkeling time in the tranquil Bay of Akumal, we might have been more disappointed that the waters were too rough and the days too windy for us to swim in Tulum.

We got a lot of reading done and walked on the beach and along the boutique- and cafe-filled beach road, below.

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Our most special meal was at a restaurant called Kitchen Table, below, on the jungle side of the beach road.

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We left relaxed, satisfied, fulfilled. Yay for the Yucatan. Yay for vacations.

Last Look at San Miguel

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AS IF TO MAKE SURE I would leave San Miguel de Allende thoroughly in love with the place — as if to hammer home the point that it is spectacularly deserving of its perennial spot among the top few on Conde Nast Traveler‘s annual Best Cities award (#1 in 2013) — the sunset on my final night was a breath-taker.

As my friend and I rounded the corner where Calle Relox opens up to the Jardín on our way to my last SMA dinner, we both suddenly gasped and groped for our cameras.

The day had been balmy, and the cloud patterns produced the most dramatic sunset of my two-week stay. And they do know how to light those monuments.

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I had spent my last full day, finally restored to gastro-intestinal health, wandering the streets with no essential purpose but to absorb the atmosphere, have a last cup of coffee at Zenteno, a pleasant café where American boomers while away many an hour, grab a few final photos (such as that of David Kestenbaum’s brass bull in front of the cultural center known as Bellas Artes, below, which had become as much a symbol to me of SMA as the Parroquia) and pick up a few more gifts and souvenirs.

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A woman in Zenteno’s happened to mention an exhibition of antique Mexican blankets at Bellas Artes, below, so off we trotted to see it. It was illuminating to compare the geometric designs of the locally woven blankets one sees in the markets with their more intricate antecedents.

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Adios, San Miguel, but not forever.

San Miguel de Allende: Nothing Not to Like

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MY TWO-WEEK VISIT TO THE MEXICAN FANTASY-VILLAGE of San Miguel de Allende is coming to an end. I have only good things to say, except in one regard: the drinking water.

It’s true what they say: don’t drink it. And I didn’t mean to, but there it was on the table in a restaurant frequented by American tourists, where we’d been before. Without thinking, I picked it up and drained the glass. At least, I think it was that glass of water that caused me to spend more than 30 precious vacation hours in bed, a plastic wastebasket by my side. BOTTLED WATER ONLY.

Fortunately, the bed is comfortable, the internet only went down for an hour, and today I’m feeling human again.

My release from stomach misery, today’s perfect weather and my impending departure have made me appreciate this place all the more.

The Spanish-style historic architecture, long vistas to the western mountains from the tops of hilly, stone-paved streets, rooftop gardens filled with thriving plants, the sophisticated Mexican modern aesthetic in certain galleries and restaurants — all that I was bound to like.

Other things have been more of a surprise. At first I was put off by there being so many North Americans present, and thought maybe there was something exploitative about it. Now I think it’s probably the best thing that could happen to a Mexican town, and I’m guessing most locals would agree.

San Miguel still feels thoroughly Mexican, at least to me. But there is a sort of comfort factor in there being so many Americans here. This entire hotel is made up of us, mostly 60’s and older. We meet in the lovely circular garden, and they’re Democrats, I can tell. How? The hotel’s community room hosts meetings of the Occupy SMA group and shows films about climate change. (The Texans who build mega-mansions up in the hills? Probably not Democrats.)

I haven’t seen so much hippie-style clothing on women since 1969 — oversized earrings, fringed shawls and scarves, floppy hats, long skirts.

How to spend the days hasn’t been a problem. After the photo workshop, there was an event billed as a “Beat” cantina crawl, and I feared hokum. It took us into places I’d have been afraid to go on my own: Gato Negro, the second-oldest bar in San Miguel, from 1929; El Cu Cu, the most attractive of them, from 1955; and La Cucaracha, a fluorescently-lit, scary-looking place where some seedy characters were already hanging around the bar when our group entered.

It is to their credit that I didn’t realize they were actors, about to impersonate and read the poetry of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Diane di Prima with great bawdy spirit (not all of them actually spent time in San Miguel, but… poetic license). At each stop, we drank mezcal, which I now think of as smoother tequila. Need I say it turned out to be loads of fun, and more authentic than hokey.

A word about the shopping here. It’s varied and abundant. Not just the high-end galleries under the arches of old haciendas, which are reasonably priced for the quality of their textiles, furnishings, pottery, metalware, etc. But also (my bailiwick) the street markets. They are sprawling — they just go on and on — and open every day under corrugated tin roofs. Even what may look at first like schlock bears scrutiny. Many of the vendors, like Patricia, below, who sells silver jewelry, design and make their own wares.

Market-shopping here is stress-free. The vendors are not pushy; in fact, it’s sometimes hard to get their attention. I’d buy more — rugs, blankets, pottery — but don’t want to acquire more than I can take on the plane.

The food, it seems, can be excellent or mediocre. My favorite so far: La Mezcaleria, a chic little place, for both food and design. But you’d have to be in San Miguel a lot longer than I am to run out of places to try. And with those American dollars, we can try the most upscale places in town.

Bottom line in San Miguel: you need do nothing but walk the streets. There’s aesthetic pleasure at every turn.

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La Mezcaleria on Correo, with their cucumber and cilantro margarita

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El Gato Negro

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El Cu Cu

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La Cucaracha, left to right: “Neal Cassady,” “William Burroughs” (in hat), bored bartender, the director, “Jack Kerouac”

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Textures of Mexico, Seen in San Miguel

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MY TIME IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE IS FLEETING BY and I have nothing to complain about. Certainly not the weather, balmy compared to New York’s (though my white pants and tank tops remain in the closet).

After ten days here, with just four to go, my attitude has shifted. Instead of ‘I’ve walked past this corner a dozen times,’ the complexities of the town keep opening inward — like little hole-in-the-wall shops I at first passed by, not realizing there were hand-wrought iron drawer pulls and hinges for sale beyond the religious artifacts and the woman shaving the spines off cactus leaves in front.

Instead of, ‘We’ve already tried that restaurant,’ it’s ‘Let’s go back again and get the [name of different dish] this time.’

Of four people whose names I was given by friends back home, I’ve only managed to meet up with one, and see the dream hacienda she built, with a courtyard garden, an art studio and two or three roof decks, and have a local lunch of chilaquiles (something like nachos but softer and creamier) at a corner cafe that would probably have escaped my notice.

There’s plenty to do here, after all, and I’m not going to get to do it all. The once-a-month architecture tour I finally found out about happens the day I leave; I’ll be on my way to the airport.

It was fortuitous that our stay coincided with the San Miguel Literary Sala, a conference that attracts writers, would-be writers and high-profile instructors from all over the English-speaking world. I did not sign up for the five-day event (what they call the “whole enchilada”), as I did not come to San Miguel to sit in hotel conference rooms, no matter how inspiring the speakers.

But I signed up for a few 2-hour workshops anybody can take, and they have proved terrific. The results of one — billed as ‘Mindful Photography’ — illustrate this post.

We didn’t get the lessons I really needed, like how to take a photo of San Miguel’s magnificent churches and bell towers without their looking like picture postcards, and how to photograph the ice cream man or the lady selling calla lilies without offending them or causing them to go all self-conscious.

Instead, a group of 20 or so simply walked out of the Hotel Real de Minas, where the conference is being held, led by Dinty Moore, a seasoned Ohio-based writer and photographer, and strolled slowly and mindfully down a typical local street, taking time to absorb colors and textures and frame our photos carefully.

Some people had fancy cameras and long lenses. I had my iPhone, and that was just fine.

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Finding My Rhythm in San Miguel

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DOWN JACKET. Thick wooly socks. Cashmere and corduroy. Hat, gloves. If you’re thinking of coming to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in mid-winter, put those on your list.

They’re on my list for next time — and the good news is, there might be a next time, despite the unseasonable chill.

This place is pretty great. Church bells tolling constantly, for what I don’t know. Friendly people, both Mexican (buenos dias, buenos tardes, buenos noches — got that down pat) and American (hi, hey, how are ya).

I love walking the stone-paved streets in the early morning on my way to Antonio’s yoga class at Lifepath, admiring the local habit of sweeping and washing down the sidewalks to start the day off right.

A 3-hour-long historical walking tour, mostly of churches and the haciendas built around the central park, or Jardín, in the late 17th and early 18th century, was a great orientation. We ended at Bellas Artes, a cultural center in a historic convent, admiring social-realist and abstract murals by David Siqueros, one of the great Mexican muralists (along with Diego Rivera).

I had my boots shined in a park by an old-school shoeshine man, after a morning of walking the dusty paths of El Charco, the 200+-acre botanical garden on a dramatic site atop a canyon outside of town, where native plants remain untouched and cacti and other plants from elsewhere in Mexico are brought to be ‘rescued’ when sprawl or construction threaten their habitat.

Eating out three times a day is entirely possible here on a budget of $25 (including margaritas). We’ve discovered some good restaurants and numerous casual cafes, almost all of which have courtyards for alfresco dining and some of which have fireplaces for warming our frozen hands.

The best for classic Mexican food so far: Hecho in Mexico, with Toller Cranston’s circus-like paintings and Chihuly-like glass chandeliers in five gilded rooms. The most sophisticated: Aperi, owned by Mexico’s Top Chef winner, where we sampled sensational Mexican wines that deserve to be better known in the U.S., and I had glazed tomatoes with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

Other local spots where I could happily become a regular: Cafe de la Parroquia for breakfast and Lavanda for lunch.

As I type this, I’m sitting at Cafe Santa Ana in the open courtyard of La Biblioteca (the sun is shining and it’s warmed up a bit), a bi-lingual library that serves as a de facto gathering spot for the huge expat community. A guitarist is strumming unobtrusively, joined occasionally by a floating flute; the only other sounds are the stone fountain burbling and voices speaking American-accented English on all sides.

San Miguel de Allende is a bubble, as my travel companion put it. Though to outward appearances, it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, it was adopted by arty Americans after WWII, helped along by the fact that the Instituto de Allende, the town’s well-known art school, was accredited to accept the GI Bill, and both Esquire and Life magazines ran big spreads in the late 1940s (one featuring a nude female sunbather) that served as advertisements for the town.

And the weather, so they say, is warm and sunny.

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