Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Toilet Travel Tips, Laviators and other Weirdness

So I'm back after the wildly fun and intriguing Blogher and TBEX conferences. Fun because I got to meet all my travel tweeps in person and intriguing because the ideas and discussions flowed non-stop. One of my fave discussions was with Heather of Gadling's Galley Gossip and her Laviators mile high headshots club. You see, lots of activities take place in airplane bathrooms than just mile high club activities. Heather believes that I'll soon be joining her exclusive group but it's just not happening cause the fly in fly girl doesn't stand for sky trippin' bathroom antics. But when I spied the Poo-Pourri personal wipes (fresh and clean for in between!) pictured above in our TBEX swag, I figured that bathroom banter might make a helpful travel tip post. Because I'm surrounded by a crazy amount of anal virgo friends, I know that there are lots of travelers that dread strange public toilets, nasty sinkholes passing for restrooms and the hellish scene of porta-potties. I'm also married to a man who will go an entire day without using the restroom because he refuses to enter into any public toilet facility. So for all of you that face toilet trauma during your travels, I've created some great tips:

First of all, whether you're traveling domestically or internationally, check out Sit Or Squat. This nifty guide lets you plug in a zip code or city and the nearest public toilet will pop up, complete with map. Or if you find yourself stranded without any suitable amenities, try packing the Travel Loo shown above. This portable,unisex, device looks slightly kinky to me but if you're the type that can't stand the thought of strangers lurking outside while you do your business, this just might do the trick.

If squatting doesn't agree with your thigh muscles, a Travel Toilet Seat offers a cushy answer to your prayers. It folds up into a handy carrying pouch and supplies salvation for germaphobes anywhere.

For the all out-public-poo-phobes, consider a Travel John foldable commode/chair. A solid waste collection kit (EEW!) is included along with a padded seat and a top flap. The steel-framed chair weighs four pounds so it's not the lightest travel option but I can't think of anything closer to your own private bathroom than lugging a personal toilet with you.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

El Otro Lado :The Other Side of Cozumel

If your image of Cozumel involves cruise ships, hordes of tequila-drenched tourists and pushy t-shirt vendors, you're not alone. That was exactly my experience the last time I was in Cozumel but that was because I had never reached el otro lado. The other side is the undeveloped, east side of Cozumel. It's covered with a 20 mile stretch of coastline with huge waves, pale-sand beaches and exposed coral shelves.

Palm trees wave and pearly sand beckons you to sink your feet in. Blow holes push out shooting cascades of glistening water. Every weekend, locals go out on boats and call to dolphins by tapping the side of the boats. The dolphins appear and swim playfully along.

A cross guards Punta Morena and it seems to spread a tranquil vibe across the entire area. You can go hours without seeing anybody except a few surfers and divers. Cruise ship patrons rarely make it to this side of Cozumel because of the the time involved and lack of tourist amenities like resorts, WiFi or a Senor Frog's. Needless, to say, I didn't miss any of that.

You can rent a cute beach cabana with private bath on the beach. It just provides sleep and bath basics, which is enough for most surfers and divers.

Fresh lobster pizza and shrimp fajitas are served at Punta Morena restaurant while Spanish techno music floats in the background. It's a peaceful aura that charms you into relaxation. I sat on the beach and watched the crashing currents for eons, happy to be on the other side.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mexican Standoff

This living statue was the lively focal point of Cozumel's Plaza Central. Most major cities attract performers that spray paint themselves bronze or silver and stand stiffly like a statue, busting out with dance moves or gestures just when you thought they were real statues. This man presented some clever shimmies and turns to the live cumbia music playing by a band in the plaza. I really enjoyed Plaza Central, which is Cozumel's main downtown plaza. With colonial architecture splashed in vibrant shades of yellow, pink, orange and turquoise, the area oozes tropical charm. A cluster of shops sell handcrafted huipi les or traditional Mayan dresses, hammocks, Cuban cigars and fanciful figurines. Vendors hawk churros and cotton candy and kids skip and run through the square. What I liked most was watching the local teens dance and flirt under the dramatic Mexican sunset.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cozumel Comida

Mexican cuisine is rich and varied enough to warrant extensive culinary tours. And I'm not talking about tacos and tequila. Each region boasts its own dishes, spices and drinks. The Yucatan Peninsula, where Cozumel is located, displays a particularly diverse cuisine due to centuries of isolation from the mainland and influences from the Caribbean and Europe. I conducted some research on Cozumel cuisine on my plane trip down. Alex, my seat mate, supplied me with a list of all the essential Cozumel dishes including salbutes, pescado tikinxic and cilaquiles con pollo. More on those later, my first sample of the seafood-focused cuisine was heavenly grilled grouper with coconut and mango sauce with fried plantains pictured above. It was so delicious that I received Park Royal Hotel's very first doggie bag so that I enjoyed the rest for breakfast.

A tempting array of appetizer's at Park Royal's Mexican restaurant included salbutes, a popular street food of half-fried corn tortillas topped with chicken, cheese and pickled onions and cheese empanadas.

I'm a tortilla snob. Chicago has tons of authentic Mexican restaurants and I also have a Mexican sister-in-law who regularly whips up the real thing. So I never see any good reason to touch those awful packaged tortillas. Homemade tortillas and chips supply so much more flavor and texture. I almost died when this basket of fried corn tortillas was served at Punta Morena restaurant. Covered in habernero salsa and guacamole, these chips made me want to stay in Cozumel forever.

Bebidas or drinks offer an important counterpoint to meals. I didn't see much Margarita gulping or tequila swigging with the locals. Rum and Coke or Cubas, Micheladas or dark Yucatan beer mixed with lemon, soy sauce, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and my personal fave, Jarritos soda flavored with tamarind, seemed to be the local drink choices.

The region's most famous beverage is Xtabentun, a Mayan honey liqueur flavored with anise and traces of licorice.

At Punta Morena restaurant, the Xtabentun was served with pineapple juice. The taste was deceptively light and sweet, it reminded me a lot of Tej the Ethiopian honey wine.

During my trip I also sampled the pescado tikinxic, another flavorful Mayan specialty that features fish rubbed with achiote, a spice made from the annatto plant and baked in banana leaves. I also tried the chilaquiles con pollo, a dish of fried tortilla strips topped with chicken, cream and a red tomato sauce, along with Mexican turnip greens with tomatoes and peppers, for breakfast. I loved every morsel. But of course, one of my favorite taste sensations was every night when I returned to my room to discover a plate of decadent desserts waiting for me. This array of chocolate strawberries and a pear tart made me swoon before going off to a very sweet sleep.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rasta Love, Mexican Style

It's amusing to see the fascination with rastafarian culture on my travels. There seems to exist a universal pull towards Bob Marley, reggae, locks and Jamaican patois. Of course, the stereotypes can sometimes be irritating but I found the tribute to rasta culture at Cozumel's Paradise Cafe to be charming. Located on the quiet East side of the island, Paradise Cafe, often called Bob Marley Cafe, displays a pretty good painting of Bob, along with a laid-back vibe and tongue-in-cheek attitude.

This rasta sign kind of sums up the general feel of the cafe and beach. Freedom to lounge, surf, eat or sprawl in a hammock while reggae floats through the background, sounds like a reasonable idea for paradise. I didn't meet any rastas however and suspect they're scarce on tiny Cozumel.

Inside the cafe, the walls are scrawled with signatures, drawings, handmade signs and a big banner promoting the cafe's famous shrimp quesadillas. I'm allergic to shellfish so I couldn't try any but from what I glimpsed, they looked pretty tasty.

T-shirts from all over the world are draped along the bag walls and ceilings. To my frustration. I spotted shirts from everywhere except Chicago. Next time, I'm bringing a White Sox t-shirt to make sure Chi-town is properly represented.

The Bar is drenched in vivid colors and general cheekiness. Notice the "big tippers go to heaven" jar.

More cheekiness awaits outside, where this bench apparently attracts lots of topless men and women after free tequila. I don't do topless or tequila but I loved the beach view.

The red, gold and green stairway added to the liveliness of the place. With the sound of big waves crashing onto the shore, mingling with reggae rhythms and only a handful of surfers on this deserted stretch, the area was tranquil and spirited at the same time.

The cafe's two pet pigs were no where in sight but I thought the roosters strutting about were just as entertaining.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cozumel Bonita

Cozumel offers the quintessential island experience. Located on the eastern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the tiny island is just 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. There's nothing flashy or loud about Cozumel, it reflects a quiet beauty that encourages you to come closer. Covered in bamboo, cedar and palm trees, orchids, red ginger and plumeria as well as white sand beaches lining jade waters, the island glows with natural beauty. I've been to Cozumel (briefly) before and was not impressed. The beaches were rocky and crowded with drunk cruise ship tourists. I didn't appreciate the aggressive hawking of souvenirs or that all the locals spoke to travellers in English, not even a "Como Esta?" could be heard. It was like my worst Cancun nightmare on a smaller scale. But when I was invited on a Cozumel media trip for Royal Holiday resorts, I decided to give the island another chance and I'm glad I did. I saw another side of Cozumel that revealed it's Mayan heart.

Settled by the Maya over 2000 years ago, the name Cozumel means "land of the swallows." The island remains an important cultural site for the Maya and this is revealed on many levels that I'll be exploring in later posts. At the Park Royal hotel where we stayed, the lush grounds are accented with Mayan art like this fountain.

The beach overflows with vividly colored fish and palm trees for shade.

There's also a stunning infinity pool with a partially submerged bar and water that lets out into the ocean.

The open air lobby also displays Maya heritage with a thatched roof and several towering sculptures like this one.

But my favorite part was the family of peacocks that lives on the grounds. This is one of the males but we played with females and babies as well. They strut though the grass and the cafes, posing for photos and lolling in the sun. I think they demonstrate the loveliness and laid-back feel of Cozumel pretty well.