My visit to Puerto Vallarta, MX

Although Puerto Vallarta wasn’t high on our list, when you can get $86 flights and a nearly free place to stay, why not?

We’re glad we went. Collectively, we’ve been to Mexico 12 to 15 times, and Puerto Vallarta is officially each our favorite Mexico destination so far. (Videos of our cooking class, tequila tours, pictures and more later.)

One of our favorite activities was when we rented a car for the day and went to San Francisco (Nayarit), and Sayulita. Both are REALLY cute surf towns about an hour North of Puerto Vallarta (only 20 minutes North of Nuevo Vallarta) and are well worth the visit.

On our way back, we dropped in at Mayan Palace by Vidanta resorts because I occasionally have the opportunity to get vouchers for 5 or 6 complimentary nights. If I’m going to give them away to my subscribers, I may as well know the resort. (I have a voucher myself and definitely intend on redeeming on our next Mexico visit, but we had already booked our flight and room by the time I learned about free stays at the Vidanta.)

I must admit, home-made video testimonials from other recipients of these vouchers don’t do the resort justice so I wasn’t expecting much. And my wife (who goes on an annual trip with girlfriends where they stay at pretty posh places) was expecting even less.

 

 

Upon visiting, we were both pleasantly surprised. It’s the nicest place I’ve been to (as far as big resorts go – which we prefer when traveling with the kids. Since it was just us on this trip, we liked the intimacy of the smaller boutique resort we were staying at.) Michelle said of all the places she and her friends had been on girls’ trips – this was tied for 2nd with only the Grand Hyatt in Cancun being #1. The place it tied with was another Mayan Palace in Riviera Maya.

Observations about the Mayan Palace in Puerto Nuevo:

  • Plenty of restaurant options without leaving the resort (Which is good, because it’s massive (think Disneyland), and it’s at least a 10 minute cab ride just to get off the resort grounds, and another 20 minutes from town.
  • Never a problem at all finding a chair at the pool or the beach (at least not when we were there.)
  • Very well maintained grounds
  • And unlike almost every resort I’ve been to in Mexico – the majority of employees spoke excellent English. (Although it’s nice to practice our high-school Spanish, it’s better to know that when you don’t know how to order fresh towels, that they’ll know what you’re talking about and you’ll actually get fresh towels without having to call 3 times. Mexico travelers – can I get an “Amen?”)

I interviewed several people in management about why they give away such valuable rooms, and there were two main reasons.

  1. They have employees and other fixed costs to pay, so any time they are not completely sold out, they’ll gladly let visitors stay for free knowing they’ll eat & drink [their expensive resort priced food/drink], buy their souvenirs, pay for additional activities, visit their spa, and give tips their staff wouldn’t otherwise be getting.  It’s a win-win for everyone.
  2. Although no timeshare presentations are required at all, they know that some people will be interested in coming back. (I don’t endorse timeshare ownership in any way shape or form, but I certainly plan on checking availability of Vidanta properties any time I travel in Mexico, so their free lodging vouchers paid off on me.)

*Please note that I am not a travel agent, I have not been compensated in any way for this post, nor am I compensated if you ever stay at a Vidanta resort.

 

My $480 chicken bus tour through Belize

A few years ago, my wife, kids and I went on a cruise, and after hours of debate and discussion, we all agreed on doing the “Jungle river tour along with a 90 minute guided tour of the countryside” when we dropped anchor in Belize.  It was pricey at $120 each, but it had something for both adults and kids – so we bit the bullet.

In a nutshell, the cruise line bought a couple dozen “tour company” t-shirts, gave them to a bunch of villagers who had never been out of their tiny town of 100 people, and bought a couple chicken busses. They then instructed the villagers to “Make some crap up to tell the tourists we’re going to send your way to pass the time on the 90 minute ride on the chicken bus we’re going to cram them into.
Seriously – I think the tour guides had bets on how much crap they could get away with making up.  Although I’d have been fascinated to hear about life in the village they lived in, they felt the need to embellish the most mundane, worthless information possible – just to fill the time on the 90 minute squeaky-as-hell bus ride.
  • And this is the gas station used not only by people who live in the community, but ALSO by people traveling through the town.” 
  • And do you see those tall trees with big green balls on them? Those are our country’s national tree – the coconut tree!” (Umm… No. Their national tree is the Mahogany (which is also one of the country’s main exports.)
  • “Our national language is Creole. So for example – instead of saying “Yes”, we say “Ya’mon”. Dude… That’s just wrong and I’m pretty sure you’re insulting the heritage of people from at least 4 different countries.
  • It reminded me of my first speech class when I had to speak for exactly five minutes and I ran out of material after one and a half.
  • Most painful “guided tour” ever.
Anticipation was building as we got close to the “Jungle river”, and as we pulled up – we saw a big stack of inner-tubes. Not even real inner-tubes. I’m talking about flimsy wal-mart inner tubes that could only be stable to float in by tying at least 8 together. Seriously? The “River” was a nasty-ass muddy creek about 4 feet deep, my kids are strapped between us and zinc-nosed tourists who insisted on telling bad jokes the whole time, and the guide we were required to be tied to managed to find every sharp eye-endangering branch possible for us to float through.  On top of that, the cruise line’s insurance required that they have employees along side the river every couple hundred yards. But they ran out of company shirts, and they refused to talk or smile. So instead of feeling safe and protected, it was just creepy. It felt more like the grubby t-shirt, cheap sunglass wearing thugs were there just to make sure we floated into the trap they had set for us around the bend – where we would be kidnapped and held for ransom.
Well, at least we had the “authentic Belizean lunch” to look forward to.  At the end of the ride, we were given juice boxes, and bean & cheese burritos in saran wrap. “Umm. My wife is gluten-free. Have you got anything she can eat without permanently damaging her intestines?” They gave us an extra bag of Cheetos, and shuffled us back onto the chicken bus for our ride home.
 
The best part of the day was when we discovered there would be no stories on the 90 minute ride back and we got to take a nap. (That, and finding out that what they were being paid was triple what most of them were earning before they started working as contractors for the cruise line, but come-on [cruise-line-omitted-to-keep-from-getting-sued]… Spend a few hundred bucks on a copywriter to give them SOMETHING to talk about.)
The moral of the story – Excursions can be fun, but whenever possible – do your homework in advance and talk to people who have actually been there.  If taking a cruise, make sure they’ve been docking at that port for quite a while, so you know they’ve had a chance to work out all of the kinks and adequately train the people running the excursions.
Got any funny travel stories? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments below.

Swimming with Sharks in Turks & Caicos

Before we get into the diving, let me say that if you’re just looking for a white-sand beach, there are plenty of places you can go for 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of going to Turks and Caicos. However, if you’re big on SCUBA diving, snorkeling, or deep sea fishing, Turks is an amazing location, and well worth the extra expense.

My family and I have been to a lot of exotic places, but I’ve got to say that Turks and Caicos was the best diving so far.

We were walking distance from Provo Turtle Divers, (who had several excellent reviews on several different independent sites) and they ran a very safe operation.

The Pros

    • Best pre-dive orientation I’ve been on.
    • Deepest dives we’ve gone on
    • Biggest (and most) lobster sightings ever
    • Biggest (and most) eagle ray and stingray sightings ever (even when snorkeling)
    • Most turtle sightings (even when snorkeling)
    • Some of the clearest water I’ve been diving in. (Visibility: 80 to 100 feet)
    • and we dove with gray sharks & reef sharks!!!  

 

The Cons

  • I’ve seen coral reefs in better condition. (Roatan & Cozumel were both amazing compared to the reefs in Turks)
  • I’ve seen more exotic fish in other destinations.
  • Dive trips are about 50% more expensive than most other places I’ve been.  (But that’s to be expected. Virtually everything on the island is 50% to 300% more expensive in Turks than in the 48 states.)

Back to swimming with the sharks… Contrary to what you might think, it was unbelievably serene, and none of us were nervous or panicked as several large sharks swam all around us during both of our dives.  At the end of our 2nd dive, my daughter and I hung out for 5 or 10 minutes at the safety stop watching a gray shark, a huge stingray, several barracuda bigger than the size of my thigh, and hundreds of schooling fish, calmly swimming around below us.

Coolest. Thing. Ever. We didn’t want it to end.

If diving or snorkeling is high on your list of things you like to do, I highly recommend Turks and Caicos.  Video below was put together by the dive company we booked our trip with.