Sunday, September 22, 2013

Swim in a Mexican cenote at Akumal's Xel-Ha Water Park

There are tons of things to see and do in Mexico's Akumal region.  While staying there in May, my husband and I figured this fact out right away. Snorkeling, exotic beaches, ruins, pool parties - the entertainment options are endless.  I don't know if many people realize this about the Akumal area.

Part of the Riviera Maya region on the Yucatan peninsula, Akumal is more famous for its natural beauties and wildlife than it is for tourist sight-seeing opportunities.  On the opposite end of the peninsula is Cancun, the more popular tourist destination and more populated area.  As you move up the peninsula from Cancun, the beaches become less crowded and the resorts less frequent.  Akumal, located on the tip, is an outpost when it comes to destination standards.  But I loved it.

Akumal resort, things to do in Akumal
The beauty of Akumal, Mexico.

Just because Akumal is not a 'hot spot' for tourists doesn't mean there isn't anything to do in the region.  As I have already mentioned in my blog, we spent part of a day touring the beautiful ruins of Tulum and its spectacular beach.  That was a great way to spend a morning!  Even better was how we combined that tour with our afternoon adventure - exploring the water park of Xel-Ha (pronounced Shell Ha).

animals at Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Getting to know the wildlife at Xel-Ha water park.

Xel-Ha is basically a giant natural aquarium on the Mexican coast, designed for family outdoor adventures and tons of swimming activities.  The water park offers experiences such as ziplining into the water, cliff diving, riding an inner tube down a river, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, and much, much more.  We only went to Xel-Ha for an afternoon after visiting Tulum, but I know we certainly could have spent an entire day there.

Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico, Marti Ingram
That poor iguana was cooking - his tongue was hanging out and he was panting!

Prices to attend the park vary according to how you acquire tickets - you can purchase online, at the door, or through a tour package, which is what we did.  You can also purchase half day tickets or full day tickets.  You can ALSO choose all-inclusive or less.  Rather than listing out all the prices, you can check out the website for yourself.  With the tour package we purchased, we received an all-inclusive half day ticket - that meant food, drink, and most experiences were part of our deal.  (There were still some activities that cost extra - I'll explain that later.)

We arrived at Xel-Ha around 12:30 p.m. which gave us about 4 hours to enjoy the park.  Our guide led us into the building, explained the rules about included and non-included activities, gave us a map of the park (and the park is huge, so take a map if you go!), and led us to the locker area.  Lockers are included in the entrance fee, and it is recommended you use them - you can go back and forth into them to grab cameras or shoes or whatever at no extra fee.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The beautiful bicycle pathway leading to Xel-Ha's River Run.

Once we had donned our swimsuits and were ready to roll, Joey and I decided to try the inner tube ride down the river first.  There are three ways you can reach the river entrance from the locker area: a trolley, a long hike, or a bicycle ride.  We chose the bicycle ride.  It was very peaceful and fun to whip our bikes through the jungle canopied pathway (I think most people take the trolley).  Once at the inner tube pick-up area, we parked our bikes, grabbed life jackets, and packed our stuff into bags, which were sealed with a lock and then transported to the end of the river to await our pickup.  It is a very nice system they have to prevent you from losing your belongings in the river.

The beginning of the river run is pretty cool - you must go one-by-one down a narrow creek that has been carved out of some thick, woody bushes.  There is absolutely no current here, so you have to launch yourself from branch to branch like a water-logged Tarzan in order to get out of the wooded area.  It was quite fun.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Swinging from branch to branch at the beginning of the River Run.

Unfortunately, once you escape the woody creek, there is not much more current to project you along on the so-called river.  The river run took absolutely forever, and I nearly exhausted myself paddling frantically to get... anywhere.  Often you'd drift to the edge of the 'river' and get tangled in the jungle vegetation.  Joey had to come rescue me more than once.  I was so pooped by the time we hit the halfway point that we ditched the tubes and swam to shore to try something new.  That was my only low-light of Xel-Ha.  It was a nice way to see what there was and how the park was organized, since the river runs through the middle of the park, but man, it is a slow and tiring process to make your way downstream.

Next up, Joey and I tried our hands at cliff diving.  Please keep in mind I had no idea I was a month and a half pregnant at this point, but no harm, no foul.  Joey leapt right off the cliff, fearless and bold.  For myself, I let about 10 people butt in line in front of me, pretending to be outraged but secretly relieved as my knees were literally knocking I was shaking so bad.  Finally, two tiny little kids jumped the cliff right before me, and I knew I couldn't chicken out then.  When it was my turn, I took a little run and leapt from the escarpment.  The fall took about a millisecond and then I was plunging into the cool waters, unscathed.  I was pretty proud of myself - but I didn't go twice.  (If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you'll know I have a love/hate relationship with heights.)

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Joey mid-leap at the Cliff of Courage in Xel-Ha water park.

We tried the rope walk, but some overgrown idiot was hanging in the middle trying to knock everyone off by bouncing and flipping the rope. He made me very angry, so I let go and just swam away.  About 30 seconds after that, the lifeguards kicked the moron off.  Some people's children...

The main area of Xel-Ha near the river run was quite crowded as this is where most of the family activities are located.  Joey and I wanted to experience the beauty of the area without the roar of screaming kids and splashing noises, so we took the long hike around the outer edge of the park and headed to the cenote areas.  There are about five cenotes in a row, possibly connected by an underground water source, that offer snorkeling and swimming.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The peaceful cenotes of Xel-Ha water park in Akumal.

The cenotes were basically deserted.  We encountered only two other families while swimming in them, which made it very peaceful.  My favorite was the Aventura cenote that allowed you to swing on the "Flight of Mo" rope swing and jump in, then swim down a narrow crevice to a small passageway that led you through the rocks and back to the main path.  I felt like Indiana Jones.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
The rope swing of Aventura cenote in Xel-Ha water park.

Further down the trail, we snorkeled through the Mayan Cave, where you can see beautiful rock formations carved out by the sea and get your photo taken through a hole in the cave's roof.  You exit the cave right into the lagoon, and can snorkel across the lagoon to get back to the main park, or shed your snorkel gear and walk across the precarious pontoon bridge, called the "Path of the Wind".  We chose to walk the bridge, which was difficult since it sways so much due to the ocean waves.

things to do in Xel-Ha park, Akumal water park, things to do in Mexico
Inside the Mayan Cave at Xel-Ha water park.

There were a few activities that I wanted to do, but due to the extra cost that Xel-Ha tags onto them, we opted not to try.  (Of course, these are all the really fun and exciting ones!)  Extra cost activities included the 'snuba' excursion, which is a snorkeling trip using scuba breathing tubes that connect not to a tank on your back but to tanks up above, controlled by people who actually know what they are doing.  That way you don't actually need any scuba experience.

One of the experiences I didn't get to do - the Dolphin Sea Walk.  Image via.

I also really wanted to try the Sea Walk adventure, where you get to wear deep-sea helmets and dive down to the ocean floor, where you can interact with dolphins or manatees.  That excursion looked amazing, and I was a little bitter that we couldn't afford it at the time.  Oh well, maybe next visit.

Possibly the best part of Xel-Ha was snorkeling inside the interior of the lagoon.  Due to the lagoon being a giant outdoor aquarium, there were myriads of fish schooling and swimming about, oblivious to their human guests.  No matter where you snorkeled, you could find some pretty exotic species going about their daily business, and in a few places, literally schooling in massive clumps.  You could swim right through them.  It was pretty amazing.  Rather than me attempting to describe the experience,  I have put together some video footage that says it all.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Experiencing Skogar and Skogafoss in Iceland

Want to travel around Iceland on a tight budget?  Websites like Trip Adviser and Huffington Post Travel offer advice such as "shop at local grocery stores" and "avoid guided tours by exploring on your own".  Both are things my husband and I did during our recent stay in this picturesque nation.  Another really great way to experience the beauty of Iceland is to avoid the overpriced hotels and to instead choose to camp your way across the countryside.

Skogafoss, one of Iceland's most powerful waterfalls.

Camping is cheap and easy in Iceland.  Most tourist locations with sight-seeing hot spots offer camping areas with quite nice amenities.  It is common to have clean washroom areas with flush toilets and hot water showers.  A lot of the places we stayed at had camp kitchen areas with stoves, microwaves, and kettles for public use.  

Skogafoss is the highlight of the Skogar valley in Iceland.

Our first experience camping in Iceland was probably the most spectacular: we set up shop under a wide, roaring waterfall in a lush green valley next to the village of Skogar.  The Skogafoss waterfall thundered in the background, lulling us to sleep and muting the noises from the other campers in the area.

Joey and I enjoy the majesty of the Skogafoss waterfall.

To camp outside Skogafoss is much cheaper than staying in the village hotel.  For one tent with two adults we had to pay a whopping $26 CDN - you pay per tent and per person, plus tax.  The washrooms were clean, there were washing areas for our supper dishes, and there were hot showers available (for a price).  Hotels, however, run from $180 to $220 a night on average for the area of Skogar for two adults in one room.  Quite a difference!

Joey and I arrived in Skogar a bit later in the evening after a long day of driving from Reykjavik - we'd explored Seljalandsfoss, Keldur, and Seljaviller Valley, and had stopped at about 20 other different roadside beauties on our way from the capital city.  By the time we hit Skogar, I was tired and hungry, therefore cranky (being 4 months pregnant at this point) and all I wanted was dinner and a comfy bed to relax in.  We DID check out the hotel, just in case I got too cranky, but the cost was way out of our budget.  Off we went to the campsite.

Wanna keep it cheap while traveling in Iceland? Try camping and making your own meals!

Before we'd left for Iceland, Joey and I had hit up Mountain Equipment Co-Op, a Canadian outdoor supply store, and had bought a backpacker's tent, kitchen stove (it burns twigs and bark to cook - very cool), and some new sleeping bags.  We hadn't even tried them out yet, so it was an adventure in itself to set up camp! (Remember, my husband was setting up camp with a tired, hungry, cranky pregnant woman - he's a brave, brave man.)  In the end, it was a success and we were quite proud of our beautiful campsite.  We didn't even have the energy to explore the waterfall that night - it was dinner and straight to bed for us.

The view from our camp site in Skogar, Iceland.

I woke up in the middle of the night and had to use the facilities, as pregnant women are prone to do.  Joey accompanied me, and we marveled at the fact that at 3 a.m. in Iceland, we could see the amazing Skogafoss waterfall just as clearly as we could at 8 p.m. when we'd first arrived.

Skogafoss waterfall and campground at 3 a.m.

The next morning, after cooking a great breakfast of eggs, toast, and bacon using our twig-burning camp stove, we decided to hike up to the top of the waterfall.  Oh. My. Word.  Those stairs! Those steep, calf-burning, never ending stairs!  I had to take about five "sit down and start breathing again" breaks before hitting the top.  However, the climb was worth it (and probably really good for my heart) once we saw the spectacular view from the top.

Looking down towards the plunging waters of Skogafoss.

Once to the top of the waterfall, you can climb a little ladder over a barbed wire fence, and explore further up the river that supplies the Skogafoss waterfall.  There are several smaller waterfalls and rapids along the way, and it is a really pretty hike.  Honestly, we didn't get very far - that climb up those brutal stairs had pretty much done me in.  I was more than happy to go back down and enjoy the cool spray of the waterfall from the bottom.

Taking a small break to die just a little on my way up the Skogafoss waterfall stairs.

A view of the Skogar valley from atop the Skogafoss waterfall.

There is more to do in Skogar than just hike up the waterfall.  Joey and I spent the majority of the morning in Skogar perusing the very neat Skogar Museum, which focuses on early life in Iceland and features at least 10 restored turf houses, Iceland's traditional architecture.  The cost to enter the museum is 1500 ISK for an adult (500 ISK for children 15 to 12, 1000 ISK for seniors, free for kids 12 and under).  Depending on exchange rate, that isn't very much at all.

The interior of the museum has many artifacts from early Icelandic life - fishing accessories, household items, farming implements, and even some ancient boat replicas.  There is A LOT inside the museum.  I found it very interesting, but almost overwhelming there was just that much stuff to see.

Learning about Icelandic history in a turf school house in Skogar.

My favorite part was exploring the turf houses.  The turf exhibits are outside and split into 'farms' - one section is an old farm depicting very early life in Iceland.  The second is a more recent but traditional farm, and the third is a modern and more wealthy type of farm house.  I enjoyed the first farm more, with its ancient wooden beams, dirt floors, and traditional interior design.  It was like stepping back into the past.

A replica (but built upon an original) Icelandic turf farm.

The second farm area was very similar to the first and older farm, but with a more modern design.  The stalls in which livestock were traditionally kept (yes, early families in Iceland lived with their livestock) had been converted into bedrooms - the advent of having a second story on one's house.

A tiny turf house at the Skogar Museum, Iceland.

The third farm was very swanky considering the times - hardwood floors, china cabinets, and paintings on the walls. It was interesting because all the wood used to build the planking on the walls had come from various shipwrecks which had washed up on Iceland's shore. It was a very narrow house, however, and after touring it for awhile, I began to feel very claustrophobic.

The Skogar turf houses are set in a beautiful backdrop.

Skogar was perhaps one of the least expensive places we visited in Iceland, but that certainly wasn't because it offered the least!  No wonder it is such a popular stop along Iceland's well-traveled Ring Road!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Iceland's Jokulsarlon Iceberg Lagoon Experience

things to see in iceland

Iceland is a nation of natural juxtapositions.  Glaciers rest next to deep green valleys, and barren lava fields are bordered by gorgeous black sand beaches.  Nothing seems to make sense, but it all comes together perfectly.  If you don't believe me, just go visit the area around Jokulsarlon.

iceland areas of interest
The beautiful "Iceberg Lagoon" in Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Jokulsarlon is approximately a 4 1/2 hour drive east of Reykjavik: it is an easy drive on the Ring Road, if not a long one.  Of course, Joey and I didn't reach Jokulsarlon until almost halfway through our journey exploring the southern coast of Iceland, taking it low and slow. But if you were really determined, you could reach Jokulsarlon in a day from Reykjavik.  Unfortunately, there is nowhere to stay overnight out at Jokulsarlon - it is a tourist / sightseeing location and nothing more.  There is a hotel 40 minutes west in nearby Skaftafell (but only one that we saw), or you could continue driving east for another hour to Hofn, which is what we did. We actually really enjoyed Hofn, particularly their town pool.  So relaxing!

Directions to Jokulsarlon, Iceland - Google Maps rocks!

So why go to all the trouble to visit Jokulsarlon?  Because it's AMAZING - that's why.

Jokulsarlon is most famous for its beautiful "Iceberg Lagoon".  This lagoon is actually the deepest body of water located on the island nation of Iceland, connected to the highest peak in Iceland's mountain range.  So it is the highest and lowest point on the island simultaneously.  Sliding down this giant peak (giant for Iceland - I come from the Alberta Rocky Mountain region so my idea of a giant peak is slightly different from that of an Icelander's) is a massive glacier, ancient and heavy.  Once the iceberg hits the lagoon, bits and pieces of it break off and thump terrifically into the water, creating majestic and mysterious-looking icebergs.

The Iceberg Lagoon with a view of the glacial mountain range in the distance.

The lagoon is full of these icy giants.  Some are a deep, spectacular blue, while others are a dirty grey.  All of them are fascinating.  They dwarf the rest of the landscape, trapped floating inside the lagoon's borders. Eventually, the icebergs melt and break into smaller pieces, and are then capable of escaping the lagoon through a small channel that cuts out of the lagoon and down into the North Sea.

Icebergs floating in the lagoon at Jokulsarlon, Iceland. 

To see these amazing sights is easy.  There are three methods: the first way is to just walk around the edge of the lagoon and enjoy the view.  That is free to do; simply park your car and go for a walk.  But I recommend choice either 2 or 3.  There is a small building beside the parking lot that features a small restaurant, washrooms, and information about touring the lagoon.  There they offer two types of water tours: a boat tour and a zodiac tour.  The boat tour is for larger groups, where you are transported on an amphibious vehicle across the land and into the water to pass through iceberg territory.   The zodiac tour is for small groups, and you get to go much closer to the icebergs due to the size of the boat.

We opted for the boat tour as the price was much lower than the zodiac tour.  The boat tour was 7400 krona for the two of us (approximately $63 to $64 CDN) versus the zodiac price of 11,800 krona (around $101 to $102 CDN).  The boat tour wasn't really that packed, either, so we didn't feel like we'd be missing anything by not going on the zodiac.  For those of you curious, all you do is stand in line by the boat walkway and pay at the gate with your credit card.  Easy peasy.

Beginning our amphibious vehicle tour of the Iceberg Lagoon.

The boats even come with an interesting history.  The tour company, 'Glacier Lagoon Tours', uses amphibious vehicles that were active during the war in Vietnam.  These boats were originally designed to be used on land and water in the tropical and jungle-like environments of Vietnam, not the freezing, ice-infested waters of an Icelandic lagoon!  Our captain even let me flip through the on-board manual that originally came with the boat, pointing out the page with instructions on how to avoid coral reefs and what to do if you hit one!

The amphibious vehicle that toured us around the Iceberg Lagoon.

The boat ride lasted about half an hour, which was just long enough since the day wasn't the warmest.  It was great cruising around the lagoon, seeing the icebergs from different angles and up a little closer.  Never did we get close enough to reach out and touch one, but that wasn't my goal so I didn't mind.  Unfortunately, due to the weather, we didn't see any seals, which the lagoon is also well-known for.  Our guide explained that when the water is choppy due to wind and rain, the lagoon isn't ideal for fishing, so the seals tend to swim out to the sea to hunt.

The vibrant colors of Jokulsarlon's Iceberg Lagoon.

During our ride, a helpful zodiac driver navigated to a nearby iceberg and chipped off a piece of ice the size of a human head.  He brought it over to our captain, and we learned a little history and information about the icebergs in the lagoon.  For example, the ice in the glacier is approximately 800 to 1000 years old, depending on the depth of the layer of ice.  Once the icebergs enter the lagoon, they make it their home for an average of 7 years before they can melt to a small enough size to enter the channel to the North Sea and float away to freedom.  The mixture of salt water coming up the channel from the sea prevents the lagoon from ever freezing over, while the temperature of the ice-ridden lagoon prevents the icebergs from melting quickly.  It is a natural phenomenon that is really quite fascinating.

Our entertaining and friendly captain holds a chunk of 800-year-old ice.

To slow the melting process even further, the icebergs are made of very compacted ice (they are, after all, glacial icebergs).  The lack of air bubbles inside the ice means that the icebergs can only melt from the outside in, not the inside out like an ice cube in your glass.

When our captain was done teaching us about the lagoon's history, he passed around the giant chunk of ice so we could all take turns holding it.  When everybody had had a chance to test its weight, the captain smashed the chunk of ice into small bits and handed them out.  I popped it in my mouth - 800-year-old ice cubes taste amazingly fresh and pure!  Hopefully it also does great things for your body health!  After this, the captain navigated the boat back onto land and we disembarked.

I hold the 800-year-old ice before eating a chunk of it!

But don't leave Jokulsarlon just yet! Before you are done exploring the area, head to the other side of the Ring Road, where the icebergs escape the lagoon and enter the North Sea.  The black sand beach stretches out before you, glittering in the sun.  The sand is actually crushed volcanic lava, bits of obsidian that have eroded into sand particles through the action of ocean waves.  It looks like someone poured black glitter all over the beach.  I've never seen anything like it.

Jokulsarlon's icebergs pile up on the beach before being washed out to sea.

Littering the beach like so many stranded sea creatures are remnants of the lagoon's iceberg giants.  Some pieces visibly rush out to sea, straight out in the great beyond without even a pause.  Some, however, get caught in the oncoming waves and are deposited on the beach to melt in the sun.  Some chunks are huge, some are small enough to kick around like a beach ball.  Everywhere, people are peering through the ice chunks, crawling on them, posing with them. It is a really unusual sight.

I climb aboard an iceberg on the black sand beach of the North Sea.

Remember to bundle up though - the wind that careens off the North Sea is far from balmy!  My eyes were streaming with tears as the wind stung them and whipped my hair into my face.  I was bundled up from head to toe, toque on my head and hood tied up tight, and I was still freezing.  Just a word of warning.  But definitely do not let the weather stop you from stopping by the Iceberg Lagoon in Jokulsarlon!