My husband and I returned to Isla for the fourth time, second time with our daughter (22 months). We had two glorious weeks and our goal was just to recharge and relax so I won’t write about every day, just some highlights and things that might be helpful to other families coming to Isla with small children.
Arrival – Had to wake up our sleeping daughter at 6:30 a.m., which was really hard to do! Arrival and departure involved a litany of mistakes, mine and DH’s. We always traveled with just carry on bags but when our daughter arrived, I went out and bought the largest suitcase I could find, on the thinking that if you’re going to check a bag, check a bag. The problem is the darn thing is always 8-10lbs overweight even when it’s nowhere near full, so we either pay extra (or more commonly, do a mad redistribution of stuff and rejoin the check-in line). For the trip down, redistribution worked. The other problem is that I chose a red bag, thinking it would be easier to spot on the baggage carousel. Almost immediately, it acquired a number of greasy stains from the holds of the various airplanes we’ve traveled in.
I packed lots of toys for the flight but DD was mostly interested in watching Treehouse on the seatback TV and in playing with my iPhone. I put it on airplane mode and disabled data roaming to ensure I didn’t get a giant phone bill. I forgot to pack a change of clothing for her – she soaked her pants and ended up in her t-shirt and a diaper for the last hour of the flight until we could collect our bags. Big lines, but an easy trip through immigration and customs in Cancun.
We used USA Transfers instead of Best Day this time because USA Transfers offers car seats. We waited around 30-45 minutes for our private van due to heavy traffic at the airport. They arrived with a newish Evenflo car seat, which was great.
Had a few minutes to hang out at Puerto Juarez and noticed that the McDonalds that used to be on the back end, near the ferry is gone. (Why eat McDonalds when all the great spots on Isla are so close?) We took the 4:00 p.m. ferry and our daughter loved the buskers and the wind sweeping through her hair on the deck.
We stayed at Color de Verano again and Teresa greeted us warmly, even though we were late. She provided a high chair and cot, which was really helpful. Twice we’ve stayed in Apartment 1 on the second floor. It has a full kitchen, living room, balcony with hot tub, bedroom with king bed and satellite TV, bathroom with walk-in shower. They also provide two beach chairs and a beach umbrella. The building has wifi and there is access to a washing machine. Teresa provides a lovely bottle of red wine and excellent coffee with Splenda – the brand is Café Garant Regular 100% Mexican in a blue foil bag with gold lettering. I think it is the same coffee served at Cazuela M&J. It’s delicious. (And all for $125 USD per night. I think it’s a terrific bargain. The trick is getting in – we booked months ahead and still only got in because of a cancellation.)
We set up a mattress in the living room for DD and spent the first half hour child-proofing (mostly moving breakables and ceramics out of reach). The only part that we couldn’t change is the balcony railing, so we minimized DD’s time out there and locked the glass doors when we weren’t in the same room with her. Overall, this is a great spot for families with a small child.
Our first stop was going to be Roma, as we’ve enjoyed Massimo and Claudia’s food and hospitality since they first had Maximum, but Roma was gone (Ski Crepes in its place) and when we asked around, we learned that they’d gone back to Italy. We will miss them. Still jonesing for Italian, we stopped at Rolandi’s and had very good lasagna and the veal ravioli. Meant to go back for one of their thin crust pizzas but didn’t make it this trip.
Stopped to chat with Annelise at Asia Caribe and Lori at Lola Valentina on the walk back to the hotel and had our second disappointment of the night – Rooster Café is no longer open for dinner. (Talked with Sergio later, turns out he has taken over the pool restaurant at Ixchel (now called Kalak) and is pretty busy.)
There’s a neat little souvenir shop in Privileges Aluxes that DD loved, as they had a children’s table with crayons and all sorts of colourful Mexican toys on a low table. Everything was marked with prices, which gave me a good idea of what I should probably be paying on Hidalgo. I expected prices at the shop to be higher, but found they were quite reasonable and we bought some toys for her and for a friend’s boy back home. DD insisted we stop in here four or five times – we walked past every day to/from the hotel - I am sure they were sick of us but as always on Isla, the proprietor was gracious with us and DD. DD also loved the small waterfall fountain outside Privileges.
Week 1 – We got up around 6:00 or 6:30, thanks to DD but quickly realized that’s too early for breakfast at most places. Our second day, we got to Alexia y Geovanny at 7:45 a.m. and helped set up their tables. It’s my husband’s favourite breakfast spot on Isla (he loves the Geovanny omelet). We settled into a routine of having coffee at the hotel while DD did puzzles and games on the iPad. We made her an egg and toast at the hotel, then ventured out for our breakfast around 8:00 or 8:30 and hit the beach by 9:30 or 10:00 a.m.
Our favourite spot at the beach was to stake out some shade under a palm tree between Tarzan and Buho’s, usually closer to Tarzan. Once in a while we rent beach chairs from Nalam at Tarzan. The going rate when we were there was 100 pesos for the day, and he provided an extra umbrella for our daughter to play in front of us at no charge (he also has beach toys, but we had already bought her some on Hidalgo – 80 pesos). (We went to Chi Chi’s another day for a change of pace but they wanted 150 pesos, so we trekked back to Tarzan. Cabanas Maria del Mar also wants 150 pesos, I think.)
Had a wonderful time watching a couple from BC who set up in front of us – the husband spent each day crafting intricate sand sculptures; one day, Chichen Itza, another day, an octopus.
Bought three necklaces from Pedro (who used to work at Cazuela M&J) on the beach. He told us his wife Norma has a white table on Medina where she sells more of her necklaces, but we never did find her.
I was delighted to see that the beach is in good shape. The sand bar has filled in since last year – it is huge. I never did manage to walk out to the end of it. It makes the water that gorgeous turquoise (and keeps the larger boats from getting too close). There is a small drop-off at Ixchel (maybe 1-2’?) but the rest of the beach is in better shape than last year, I think. It is still quite small in front of Na Balam, but bigger than last year.
My husband and I decided to alternate responsibility for getting up with DD, nap and bedtime, so around noon, one of us would take DD back to the hotel for her nap and while away a few hours on the balcony reading a book while the other person puttered around town or enjoyed some extra time at the beach. Whoever didn’t do nap would do bedtime. This worked wonderfully as we both got lots of one on one time with DD and also some time for ourselves. Last year when DD was 9 months old she could nap on the beach, so we were able to stay all day, but no such luck this year. We tried once and it didn’t work at all.
When DD woke up around 4:30 we’d feed her and have a family soak in the hot tub. The hotel empties and cleans it between guests so we felt comfortable letting DD use it. She loved it. Then we’d head out for a walk on the Posada del Mar beach and watch the sunset before going for supper. What a wonderful, relaxing way to finish the afternoon. DD loved the play structure on the beach (sort of hidden, but you can find it by cutting in from the street adjacent to Privileges Aluxes – it’s near the conch weather station). (Thanks to Tiffany at Barlito for telling us where to find it). DD also really liked the playground adjacent to the town square, and loved the little push cars and tricycles for rent there (20 pesos for 25 minutes).
I noticed that the party boat that used to dock near Caribbean Queen doesn’t seem to be coming anymore, and the dock and walkway and palapas have all fallen into disrepair.
We’d have supper in Centro and hit the playground or have gelato (DD developed quite the ice cream habit). My long-time favourite is Gelateria Montebianco (especially coconut and banana). A small cup costs 30 pesos and they will put two flavours in. My second favourite is the new(ish?) Panna y Ciocolatto on Hidalgo – really intense chocolate flavours, but sadly, only one flavour per small cup. One night when we were here, a guitarist from Jason Mraz’s band was desperately trying to point out to the server that it was him! playing guitar! on the song on her iPod! I don’t think she understood his English and he eventually gave up.
Last year, DD would sleep in the stroller and we were out many nights past 10:00 p.m. but this year she didn’t seem to be able to sleep in it, so around 8:00 p.m. (or whenever DD started shouting “nap! nap!”) we’d head back to the hotel. We thought the stroller was a godsend last year – it really gave us freedom, but this year we hardly used it. I wouldn’t bring it again. Maybe just an umbrella stroller for navigating the airport.
One day early in the trip, we hopped a cab to Chedraui (40 pesos) to stock up (and also to check the place out). When we arrived a baseball game was in full swing across the street and we should have stayed to watch, because it had finished by the time we left. A cool magnetic ramp at Chedraui takes people and carts up to the second floor to stop. (DD loves escalators, so we went up and down about six times.) Chedraui has a huge dairy department, bread and pastries, international foods, meat, produce, alcohol, water toys, baby things, scooters, coolers, towels, clothing. It’s about half the size of the one in Cancun but huge for Isla. We picked up some food and a Winnie the Pooh beach towel for DD. The only part I was disappointed with was the produce – lots of bruised, overripe, marked specimens. The avocados and strawberries were so overripe we didn’t buy any. Overall, I think it will be a great addition to the island and will cut down substantially on Wal-Mart runs. I noticed later though, that the little Mertita on Juarez has closed. There was construction going on inside, but no sense of what might be replacing it. I don’t know if it was competition from Chedraui but was sad to see it go – it was always a great place to get coffee and cheaper sunscreen.
Stopped in to see Vivian at Qubano and DH and I shared a delicious Cuban sandwich and a plate of tostones, with some of her watermelon water. We learned that she is moving to the space across from Angelo’s on Hidalgo – she should be in there now. It’s a much bigger space, but it was still empty when we were there and hard to visualize what it will look like. Vivian told us that Jesse (an artist who did beautiful paintings of Isla – we have one of his prints) has left the island.
One of my favourite moments of the week was having a lemonade at Buho’s swing bar and chatting with the other people there. Realized we’d gotten to Day 6 without having chips and salsa or guacamole. How did we let that happen?
Came across a couple of interesting new hotels on our walks. Hotel Isleno on Guerrero has new rooms (many with small balconies) and the usual amenities (plus keycard entry) for 600 pesos per night. Apartments Trinchan behind the market offers 1 bedroom apartments with full kitchens and wifi (some with roof deck views) for a nightly rate of 400 pesos (fan) or 500 pesos (A/C). They were simple and dark, but seemed to offer good value for those looking for a place to sleep and prepare a quick meal – there are very few spots offering a separate bedroom under $125 US and these were only $40. I wrote down the phone number: 044 9981 66 69 67.
Had some work to do this trip and divided my time between lattes at Café Mogagua and downloading what I needed in the town square (decent, fast wifi) and decamping to Café Hidalgo, which has – bar none – the best cappuccino on Isla, but no wifi.
Week 2 – Rented a golf cart at Gomar II through Allan Alvarez (who has a booth on Hidalgo); standard price, 500 pesos for 9-5. (Omar, who has the tour desk closest to Lopez Mateo (the Playa Norte end of Hidalgo) and speaks great English, offered carts for 350 pesos from 9-5 and 500 pesos for 24 hours. That was the cheapest price we found. He only has a few so they were in high demand.) We debated getting the cart for 24 hours so we could get an early start and have breakfast at Mango Café and dinner outside Centro but in the end went with just 9-5.
It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of putting DD in a golf cart or a cab without a car seat, but in the end we did both once. She sat between us and I felt quite secure with her there. She didn’t squirm. She did get injured though – that evening we realized that the sunscreen had rubbed off part of her left thigh as she sat between us in the cart – she had a sunburn about 2” wide and 4” long that blistered the next day. We were using a special chemical-free barrier sunscreen (Badger brand). It was the only burn she got on the trip but it was a nasty one and we both felt terrible for not reapplying sunscreen sooner.
We started our golf cart tour at Hacienda Mundaca (which we’d never been to). I thought there was kids’ yoga there on Saturday mornings but it wasn’t on the Saturday we were there. We paid the 20 peso entrance fee (DD was free) and wandered around for about 45 minutes.
I enjoyed the old photos of Isla in the Hacienda and the statue of a Mayan woman giving birth on her knees near the entrance. The gardens were pleasantly overgrown and the photos came out lovely, but it wasn’t a place to dwell because even at 10:00 a.m. it was airlessly hot and tiny insects nipped at our ankles. As reported, the animals are long gone and there are only empty cages. The pond is overgrown.
Our next stop was Tortugranja, where we paid 30 pesos each (again, DD was free) to look at the turtles and other creatures in the aquariums (an octopus, sea horses, lobster, crabs, various fish, including the clownfish in Finding Nemo, which would be huge for an older kid.)
On to Punta Sur for some fantastic coconut ice cream, then explored the trails. DD was very interested in a small cave on the Cancun side, but soon there were cries of “nap! nap!” and our plan to eat at the stunningly situated restaurant were dashed. Just as well – letting her walk on her own there was nerve-wracking – too many cliffs. DD fell asleep in the golf cart as we putted back to the hotel via the Caribbean side.
DH did nap duty so I took the cart back to explore La Gloria. Carnaval had begun and everywhere there were dancers and people working to finish floats. Found the Little Yellow Schoolhouse (great playground) and the Parque des Tortugas (even more awesome playground, with structures for different age groups from toddlers to tweens, but closed on a Saturday afternoon?) I didn’t realize there was a second, larger, Super Express in La Gloria, with much the same wares as the one in Centro. Debated between Mango Café and Da Luisa for a late lunch and chose Mango Café, where I had two delicious fruit waters (mango and tamarind, 25 pesos each) and finally got to sample the famous coconut French toast, with real shredded coconut and toasted almonds. Delicious.
Another day, I took a walk on the Malecon and was sad to see no positive change in the series of derelict hotels facing the Caribbean. At least a handful of people are squatting in them now. A graffiti artist painted a series of faces on the walls of one hotel. I normally become homicidal when people speak of graffiti and art in the same sentence but these were phenomenal. DH said he’d seen the artist completing one of them a couple of days before and he worked very quickly. You can see his work at www.spearart.be, including the photos from Isla.
We chatted with Ariel at Brisa Mexicana on Hidalgo. He does sport fishing and DH has always wanted to experience it in the Caribbean (he was once a commercial fisherman at home). Brisa Mexicana put in a self-serve taco bar that looks amazing, but eliminated most of the rest of the Mexican portion of their menu, including the enchiladas I used to enjoy. We both had taco envy after seeing the tacos at the table beside us.
Also chatted with Pete, who was just opening Droppin’ Some NYC Deli across from Qubano. He’d only been open a week and his business partner was in Cancun as he and his wife just had a baby. DH popped in for a pastrami on rye with potato salad the next day and pronounced it “very tasty.” (They smoke their own meat and offer all sandwiches with a side at 95 pesos).
The next day was my day for nap duty, so I picked up a Rooster salad and muffin to go. It was as delicious as I remembered, with a mild gorgonzola dressing and fresh berries. When DH did nap time he typically got a half or whole chicken from the Rostacceria (70 pesos for a half chicken, 100 pesos for a whole roasted chicken with side dishes – and they will deliver to the beach). While at Rooster Café, I signed up DH for one of Sergio’s cooking classes at Kalak later in the week.
Stopped in to see Hortensia at the market and DD chose a cute green sundress. There was a little girl there, slightly older than DD (Hortensia’s daughter?) and she and DD were fascinated with a table of nodding toys. Hortensia gave DD a tiny nodding turtle as a gift.
On the second last night we had dinner at La Lomita. Greeted by the friendly host who enthusiastically pointed out the specials on the white board. (I don’t think he was the regular server – at least that’s what I overheard from diners at another table.) He forgot our cervezas and guacamole and brought us water we didn’t order, but happily consumed anyway. The prices were higher than I thought they’d be (80-100 pesos per entrée) but the portions were huge and the food was delicious. DH had pasta soup and coconut fish and I had the enchiladas suizas and took half home for lunch the next day.
Spent the last morning hanging out at the pool at Ixchel while DD did his cooking class with Sergio at Kalak. He got a one-on-one class as the other person who’d registered cancelled. They made ceviche, chicken satay skewers (DH ate both of those) and a mango chicken salad with pistachios (I got that one). It was incredible and we’ve got the recipes! Surely this is the best deal on the island? Only 200 pesos and the food alone was worth considerably more than that. DD liked the pool (especially the shallow end, which is only inches deep) but lost her footing on the slippery deck and fell and bumped her head. That put me off pools for toddlers and I took her back to the beach, where it didn’t matter if she fell down on the sand.
Took in the 5:00 p.m. sunset yoga class at Na Balam on our last night. They have daily 90 minute classes at 9, 11, 5 and 7 in one of their two palapas for 150 pesos or $12 US. The class started gently but included some challenging poses, such as headstand, boat, and some backbends. I didn’t catch the name of the teacher. Another instructor, Meg DeClerck, does classes M-F at Elements of the Island and Tues/Wed/Fri mornings from 8-9 at Ixchel. I took a class from her last year and really enjoyed it.
On the way back to the hotel I discovered Fenix. I thought that Fenix took over Zazil Ha’s space at Na Balam, but it is actually on the other side of the hotel, near Hotel Villa Kiin and the bridge to Avalon. It looks amazing – a bar overlooking the beach, tables interspersed between shallow pools, tiny lights, low tables in the sand. It’s not at all a kid-friendly place (DD would have fallen into the shallow pools in 30 seconds flat) but I wished I’d found it earlier.
We had some amazing meals this trip. Among the most memorable:
- Vivian’s Cuban sandwich and tostones with watermelon water at Qubano (we must have had naptime takeaway from Qubano four times. Love her new trio (mini toston, Cuban sandwich, and pulled pork) and always love her salad);
- Picture perfect cappuccino, fruit bowl, and a sugar-lime crepe at Café Hidalgo;
- Ridiculously good pork tacos (15 pesos each!) in the town square for Carnaval;
- The coconut curry quesadilla with a lime margarita at Dopi’s;
- Coconut fish, enchiladas suizas, and guacamole at La Lomita;
- Coconut French toast at Mango Café;
- Breakfast Panini and homemade toast at Barlito;
- Geovanny omelet and banana pancakes at Alexia y Geovanny;
- Rooster salad at Rooster Café;
- Mango chicken salad at Kalak;
- Amanacer cazuela with tortillas at Cazuela M&J;
We noticed that food prices are up all over the island. Our breakfasts (for two) ran about 200 pesos, lunches on the beach or take-away were about 100 pesos per person and dinners 400-600 pesos for two, with a drink apiece. (We generally fed DD beforehand or she nibbled from our plates.) We were still able to keep our daily spending the same as last year by alternating more expensive restaurants with cheaper ones. We budgeted $120 USD per day for the three of us, and that included meals, beach chairs, a bit of shopping, and everything else.
Maybe we are alone here, but DH and I both felt that the food wasn’t quite as good as previous years. We had lots of great meals, but it wasn’t knock-it-out-of-the-park good every time, as we remembered from 2008 and 2009 and to a lesser extent, 2010. Has anyone else noticed this? Or perhaps this is a function of enjoying dinner with a toddler?
Departure – a last breakfast at Barlito and we ordered a couple of sandwiches to take away (meatball and grilled chicken) so we could avoid Cancun airport food. (We also picked up two pieces of Aluxes delicious banana bread for the plane.) The wind had come up and a change in the weather was coming. I was annoyed that a taxi driver charged DH 40 pesos to drive our bags from Jax to the ferry, but couldn’t let it dampen my mood. The ferry ride was actually rough (“too much!” said DD, who must have been a little seasick.) USA Transfers arrived about 10-15 minutes late, with no car seat. We didn’t really have time to wait for one, so we went ahead. I emailed them later about being late coming and going and not having a car seat and they graciously offered us 50% off our next transfer, which I appreciated.
DH was doing the automated check in at the airport when DD said, “I pee big,” and she had – all over her pants and all over me. Emergency diaper and wardrobe change. When I got back, DH had already checked the bags (which cost $60 US) and paid a whopping $90 US because the big red suitcase was 10lb overweight. (I am shameless, so I probably would have redistributed again or chucked a few things. Either way, that suitcase is going to charity and I am going to buy a smaller one for our next trip.) We couldn’t get the suitcase back but I had a light sweater with me so I changed into that. We’d already used the spare outfit we brought for DD and we weren’t even through security.
We were flying US Air through Philly this time and it turns out the US Air departure area is WAY better than the one that Westjet flies from – the circular terminal where there is virtually nothing to do. Who knew? DD was a dream on the flight (she did have another big pee, and once again spent a chunk of time in her diaper until we could retrieve our bag in Philly and get a change of clothing for her). We got home after 3:00 a.m. tired but very happy.
So, what did I learn about vacationing with a toddler? I think it’s still very viable, if you adjust your expectations. Day trips are out. (I was amazed at how many people offered us trips and excursions even though we had DD with us.) I got my work done and read two books and a handful of magazines in two weeks, which was pretty good, even if it was only a fraction of what I could get through before we had DD. We both had nice chunks of ‘me’ time, but couple time was scarce. (Tiffany at Barlito offered us the contact info for her babysitter and we seriously considered it but DD is at an age where an unknown caregiver can be upsetting to her, so we didn’t.) I was happy to settle into a routine of going to the beach and not trying to cram different activities into each day. The downside is that without new experiences, the days run together.
With a toddler, just like at home, there are two windows for activity each day, one from about 8 a.m – 12:00 p.m. and another from 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. We didn’t try to push the envelope and only had to deal with two tantrums the whole trip, one on the plane on the way down (which made us really popular) and the other mid-morning, when we wanted to move to a different spot on the beach and DD didn’t want to go.
A hotel close to the beach is key. I love Rocamar, but I am really glad we could leave the beach at naptime, grab takeaway, and hit our hotel in minutes. I also really appreciated having the separate bedroom, and balcony. A view to enjoy at naptime would be even better.
Having kitchen facilities was a big plus. We made DD an egg, toast, and fruit every morning and often an early dinner after her nap. When we went out to dinner she played with the iPhone or her tea set or coloured. She sometimes nibbled from our plates but usually wasn’t hungry. By making her dinner at the hotel, we didn’t have to worry about ordering something she’d eat and it saved on the expense as well. Barlito was awesome for kids. They offer eggs at 10 pesos each and Tiffany will even throw in some Melissa and Doug wooden toys to play with while Mom and Dad are enjoying their meals.
The best toys we brought were DD’s stuffed Curious George and a stuffed Piglet I bought for her at a flower shop on Isla (George and Piglet had tea parties), her plastic tea set, a reusable sticker book, and the iPad and iPhone. We used the iPhone away from the hotel since it had a protective silicone case. I probably could have gotten away with all iPad or iPhone and no other toys, but we limit her screen time at home and I didn’t want her to have too much access away.
Our daughter’s language development exploded while we were away and she is now talking in long sentences and seems to have learned dozens of new words (like ‘hola mom! and ‘tortuga’). I don’t know if we just happened to go during a window for language development or if it was being with us all day, or maybe having new surroundings, but her daycare teacher was astounded when we got back. She went from saying things like, “I make picture” to “Look! I have a book about babies.”
All the great things we didn’t get to this time:
- beach chairs and lunch at Sunset Grill (they have a new menu);
- renting bikes for a leisurely tour around the island;
- snorkeling at Garrafon de Castilla (DD would have liked all the lizards);
- dinner at Poc Chuc (have been meaning to go here for three years now);
- a yummy papaya shake at Alexia y Geovanny;
- drinks at La Terraza and Fenix, both of which look super cool, but in very different ways.
I am already planning and dreaming for 2013… Happy to answer questions if anyone is planning a trip with small children and needs more info about something.