Welcome to Travel Diaries, a Refinery29 series where we tag along as real women embark on trips around the world and track their travel expenses down to the last cent. Here, we offer a detailed, intimate account of when, where, and how our peers spend their vacation days and disposable income: all the meals, adventures, indulgences, setbacks, and surprises.
This week’s travel diary: A 28-year-old bartender and freelancer goes solo in Cozumel to complete her diving certification.
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Occupation: Freelancer copywriter and bartender
Salary: Approx. $55,000
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Trip Location: Cozumel, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Trip Length: 9 days
Annual # Of Vacation Days: Freelancing means I can take however many days off I can afford without alienating both sets of bosses and coworkers.
Costs: It would have been $521.97 but I redeemed 34,798 Chase Ultimate Rewards points towards it instead.
Costs: This trip was arranged by my dive shop, Scuba Network, in Manhattan. A five-night stay at Casa Mexicana was included in the package. It also includes hotel accommodations, transportation to and from the dive sites and hotels, breakfasts and lunches on dive days, three days of two-tank boat dives (six dives), a whale shark snorkeling trip, marine park fees, and one dinner. ($1,195)
I added a few more days to my trip without the dive group, so I had to book accommodations for myself in Playa del Carmen. By booking my flight through Chase’s travel portal, they sent me a bonus offer for an extra discount for hotel accommodations. I booked a room at La Tortuga for three nights at 13,480 UR points (the equivalent of $202.20).
Miscellaneous pre-vacation spending
$23.98 – The divemasters recommended getting some reef-safe sunscreen beforehand because it can be very overpriced on the island. Took to Amazon to get a bottle of Sun Bum and a small dry bag to keep my non-diving things dry (obviously) on the boat.
$63.23 – Normally I don’t buy travel insurance, but there’s going to be a lot of physical activity on this trip. I’m new to diving and didn’t want to take any chances. Bought trip insurance from WorldNomads.
$64.42 – Tequila and I are not friends, but as a bartender, it would be a missed opportunity to not attend a tequila tasting. I signed up for a tasting with Tequila Academy. They were nice enough to offer a food pairing upgrade if I switched to a time when a food-pairing tasting was taking place.
$195 – I also needed to pay an additional $195 for the scuba certification referral, which is typical when you want to finish your certification somewhere outside your dive network.
$58.18 – In terms of scuba gear specifically for the trip, everyone had to get an inflatable diving signal to deploy when we are ready to ascend to the surface. Cozumel is known for its drift diving, which means you float with the current. And since the boats aren’t allowed to drop anchor, they come to pick you up. The boat crew knows where you are, but the signal indicates you need to be picked up. I also get a few miscellaneous hooks to keep my gear properly secured.
$171.97 – I had to get a dive computer to keep track of personal dive information like depth reached, decompression time, etc.; a buoyancy compensator device (BCD), a vest used to hold the air tank and to assist in ascent and descent through the use of weights and inflating or deflating air into it; and a regulator to, you know, breathe.
5:45 a.m. — Of course my period comes. I don’t know why I do this to myself. I am not a morning person. I had a night shift at the bar the night before. I’m running on three hours of sleep because I was trying to back up my phone all night… I haven’t done it in a year. Whoops. I get up 15 minutes before my car comes. I brush my teeth and meet the driver downstairs. The drive to LaGuardia is actually kind of nice. It was smooth sailing for the most part. The sun turns the night clouds into cotton candy; I’m suddenly not annoyed about the early call-time. The ride costs a little more than anticipated. The driver thinks it’s because I’m in Sunset Park, not Park Slope, where the car company is based. $50
6:20 a.m. — I check in at a booth and pay to check a bag. This is my first ever American Airlines flight, so this will be interesting. I was slightly worried they would say something about my dive fins being strapped to the outside of my duffel, but it passes through security perfectly fine (yay TSA pre-check). I feel bad for a family of teen girls and their mom, who are at the wrong airport. That is my worst travel fear. $30
6:35 a.m. — I fill up my Nalgene with water but I’m in desperate need for a coffee. Tall dark roast (black) from Starbucks and a morning bun. $5.99
7:56 a.m. — Flight takes off on-time. I put on my noise-canceling headphones, play some movie scores, and snooze.
10:04 a.m. — Fantastic nap. We land to clear skies in Dallas. I have a few hours to kill before the next flight. I’ve never been to Texas so I head to Whataburger to see what the fuss is about. My bestie tells me to get a sausage breakfast taquito, a honey BBQ chicken strip sandwich, and all the sauce. I switched out fries for two piece hashbrowns (still in a breakfast mood) and a small sweet tea. Everything really is bigger in Texas. It’s absolutely bonkers that the meal comes with a 32 oz. cup, which is considered a medium. I’m missing my hashbrowns, so they give me 4-pieces instead. Super sweet of them. $14.75
11:30 a.m. — I’m what they call a human trash can. I ate pretty much everything but a sliver of the sandwich. It was delicious, but now I need to be rolled to my gate. I’m surprised I’m not getting more looks for having scuba fins strapped to my duffel bag.
12:19 p.m. — This plane’s crowd is definitely a lot younger and in party and/or in vacation mode. It’s a short flight. I spend it on reviewing some of my diving course notes and listening to music. This is finally happening, I’m getting my scuba certification! I started my academic coursework back in November of last year and completed the pool work with flying colors last month. This last step is to finish my open-water certification dives. Then, I can have fun in the ocean and dive some cenotes!
2:53 p.m. — Cozumel International Airport is pretty small. While waiting in line for customs, I find two couples from my diving group. We pass through customs, including the many, many sniffer dogs, and through to a reception area where we try and fail to leave without talking to someone trying to sell us a timeshare. They manage to get us into a 15-minute conversation about the island before they realize we don’t actually know each other. We get into a van to the hotel. $4.55
3:30 p.m. — We get to our hotel Casa Mexicana, which sits along the beachfront. I was supposed to share my room with someone else, but she dropped out at the last minute because of a medical injury. I’m ecstatic to have a room to myself.
4:15 p.m. — We meet as a group downstairs with the divemaster, N. from the NYC dive shop and the local affiliate Divemaster, K., who runs the dive shop Carribean Divers. Excluding Divemaster N., there are 10 of us visiting from NYC, nine of whom are diving. Someone brought their mom along, but she’s terrified of water. We take cabs to squeeze in an introductory dive to get our feet wet (haha). Cab fare to and from the marine dock and hotel is included in the trip’s package. We meet the boat crew and take our first trip out into the ocean. There’s less current at this spot they chose, which makes it less nerve-wracking as your first-ever dive. You must always swim with a buddy in case something happens to your air supply. Most people came here as a couple, so they are naturally buddies. I get paired up with solo guy T. and the solo girl (of the daughter-mother duo) is paired with N. My first descend is a bit daunting and my heart is pounding. Once I figure out descending in the ocean, I relax. There’s so much life here! Notable critters are a huge lobster and a spotted moray eel.
6:31 p.m. — We head back to the hotel to shower before meeting back up at the lobby. I’m a little early and I chat with Divemaster N. over a beer. He used to live on the island for five years, so I go with his recommendation of Dos Equis Amber Ale. He buys my beer but I insist on leaving some cash for tip. $2
8:05 p.m. — We have our first meal as a group. Divemaster N. takes us to El Moro, a family restaurant away from the main strip. Our server greets him with a bear hug. He’s known the server since he was a kid bussing tables. We settle into margaritas (the biggest I’ve ever seen), beer, conch and shrimp ceviches, and guacamole before the main course. I have the pork chop Yucatan style, which is delicious. Divemaster N. really is well-liked on the island. The family brings us shots of xtabentun, a honey and anise liqueur. $16
10:05 p.m. — We head back to the hotel and stop by the 7-Eleven under it for some bottled water. All in all, a great start to the trip. $1.18
Daily Total: $124.47
6:45 a.m. — Get up for breakfast but all I really want is coffee. As far as complimentary breakfasts go, it’s really good! There’s a big spread of fruit, hot dishes, and omelet and waffle stations. I gorge myself on fruit, eggs, bacon, and mini-waffles. Coffee could use some work, but it’s free. I meet a fellow diver from another group — he notices the dive watch I’m wearing, and we chat about our plans. After breakfast, our group meets in the lobby to take cabs to the marine dock. The cabs are part of our trip package.
8:30 a.m. — We set off for our first official certification dive at Palancar Gardens. Based on the confidence of my dive instructor during my pool training, I think I’ll be able to do everything in the ocean, but I’m still nervous going into the open ocean. I ungracefully fumble over my long fins while doing my entry into the water. Great start. We do a partial mask flood (purposefully letting water in half our mask and clearing it out) and practice buoyancy control before enjoying the reefs. I’m the first to spot a southern stingray!
11:30 a.m. — We get back on the boat and head to the next destination. Fun fact: Cozumel is unique because of its current along the island, which makes for great drift diving. We’ll have a dive specialty in drift diving by the end of this trip. We have lunch on the boat. It consists of ham and cheese sandwiches, pineapple with chili, and beverages.
12:34 p.m. — We prepare for our second dive at Tormentos. We show the divemasters that we can do a full mask removal and clearing. I hate it. I also accidentally knocked my regulator out of my mouth, so I had to clear both my regulator and mask. While I didn’t feel very panicked, K. must have seen something and makes sure that I am calm before moving onto the next person. There’s a moderate current here. It’s amazing how fish and coral work create such a beautiful ecosystem. We spot a huge blue parrotfish and a huge grouper. They have a face only a mother could love.
2:40 p.m. — After our dive, we head back to the hotel to clean up and meet in the hotel lobby; we’re taking a tour of the hyperbaric chamber at the hospital nearby. Divemaster N. and I have a beer at the hotel bar. I buy his beer since he bought the last round. $5.70
3:15 p.m. — We walk to the hospital. A hyperbaric chamber is used if a diver experiences decompression sickness (AKA “the bends”). It’s rare but it occurs when divers ascend too quickly and do not give the body time to slowly adjust to surface-level pressure. They let us peek inside and give us a rundown on what happens in case you get the bends. This facility has two chambers, a big one that fits multiple people and a smaller chamber on the off chance the big chamber is being used. The medical workers pressurize the chamber until the sick diver is not in pain, then slowly reduce pressure until the person’s back to normal. Apparently you can watch movies and eat in it too! This hospital gives you sandwiches, which Divemaster N. says are quite tasty. It’s comforting to know divemasters can also get the bends.
3:45 p.m — We’re pretty hungry but it’s too early for dinner. We head to Casa Denis for some snacking and margaritas. I have a mango margarita, a horchata, and share some guacamole with a couple I’m getting chummy with, G&T. ($8.60) G. is a neurologist and T. is in pharmaceuticals but used to be a nurse. It’s nice to know there are medical professionals on board. They’ve been together and diving for 25 years. A guitarist comes by and plays a few folk songs for us. I love La Llorona, even though the lyrics themselves aren’t very romantic and the legend is creepy. I don’t have small peso bills, so I tip a dollar per song request. ($2) $10.60
5:30 p.m. — We have some downtime to roam. A lot of the younger couples go about their business, Divemaster N., G&T, and I stroll around some shops to find souvenirs. G. and I buy a few things; I get a bottle of vanilla extract for myself and an onyx pig figurine for my father. We eventually head back to the hotel to rest before dinner. I swipe a bit on Tinder… just for fun. I’m not expecting to do anything because of the tight schedule, but it’s fun to look around. $11
7:30 p.m. — We agree to dine at Los Otates, a local taco joint. It is hot! Mexican restaurants don’t believe in AC, which I don’t mind, but wow it is humid. Divemaster K. joins us, he lives around the corner. This guy is famous; everyone’s greeting him, including the people eating. He manages to plead for an extra fan from the restaurant’s extension bar across the street. I love that the menu has odd cuts. I really want to try cow eye muscles, but they’ve run out. I settle on one each of cow cheeks, chorizo, skirt steak, and al pastor. Don’t forget my two Bohemia amber ales and some guacamole. The solo guy can’t finish his last taco (I think it is cheek?), so he offers it to me. $9
9:18 p.m. — We wander around the town square. G. wants ice cream, but the closest thing we find is raspado made with shaved ice and condensed milk. T. and I each buy one with strawberries. It’s a bit sweet for me and I’m still pretty full from dinner. I toss the melted third away. $1.67
Daily Total: $37.97
6:45 a.m. — Coffee. I don’t feel as tired as I thought I would, but the act of drinking coffee is ritual. Divemaster N. is already at our table; I have a Western omelete and fruit. Solo guy sits next to me, even though there are nine empty chairs. I have a feeling he’s into me. How do I slide in that I’m a lesbian? He’s super nice, but a bit awkward, too. Sometimes it’s hard to have a conversation with him. Most of the other couples aren’t up. G&T join us and I chat while N. freaks out about his credit cards. He can’t find them and he wants to take all of us out for a celebratory dinner tonight at La Choza, a family-run restaurant. G&T volunteer to help him out while he figures things out. They’re really cool. We talk about the different spots they have dived at.
8:30 a.m. — Before I leave for the morning, I leave $2 for housekeeping. N. is glued to his phone texting his wife to cancel his cards while all of us wait for Divemaster K. in the lobby. My period is in full-force and I irrationally hope sharks don’t try to eat me. We pile up in cabs. I take Advil for my cramps and G. gives me Sudafed to clear up my congestion. It’s not good to dive congested. Similar to when you fly congested and experience pain in your head, diving while congested is unsafe because there’s no way to clear pressure from your body and descend properly. Also, in case you need to clear your mask of water, there’s no way to blow your nose to let water escape. While I think it’s just morning congestion, I don’t want to take the chance. Taking decongestants is also not encouraged, but divers do it all the time. If Dr. G the neurologist does it, I think I’m okay. $2
10:30 a.m. — N. thinks I’m carrying too much weight in my buoyancy compensator device (BCD) because I’ve been using a lot of air to adjust my buoyancy. Weights are needed to “sink” you when you’re descending; however, too much weight isn’t good either. We swap my 12-pound weights for 10-pounders. I make friends with Dr. D, a hyperbaric chamber specialist who’s joining the advanced divers group. He gives me tips on what type of gear to get should I decide to continue with the hobby. Today, we go to Palancar Gardens and explore our first swim-through, a tunnel in the coral formations. It’s so cool! I get a bit nervous about hitting the formation but I see it as practice for the cenote. I swim through it perfectly.
11:30 a.m — We see a trumpet fish and barracuda before K. and N. test us on controlled emergency swimming ascents and BCD removal and replacement. Emergency ascent occurs when you run of of air, you can’t find your swimming buddy, and and must ascend immediately. The test is to ascend in one breath while humming (to indicate to instructors that you are exhaling), with an arm out like Superman to protect your head, and the manual inflator in the other hand. I pass with flying colors. I spy a spot-winged comb jellyfish while I wait for everyone to finish. Really need to pee. I try to pee while I float and wait, but it’s a lot harder than you’d think. You’re strapped to gear, the neoprene wetsuit is compressing your body. Now I know why the guys at the dive shop told me to get my own suit: People pee in the rental suits all the time.
12:10 p.m. — Back on the boat, the first thing I do is take care of business. I wonder how the smaller boats go through diving without a toilet on deck. We take in our usual lunch while we motor down to Yucab. The current is really strong here. The last and final skill we need to show the divemasters is the procedure for shared emergency air. For this, you signal to your buddy (in a beheading, “you’re dead” movement) that you are out of air. You take your buddy’s emergency regulator and replace your “out of air” regulator with the emergency one. You float for a bit and signal that you are okay. And just like that, we are certified! K. is very impressed by our improvement and progress.
2:54 p.m. — For such a lazy sport, you burn a lot of energy. Take K.-sponsored cabs back to the hotel, shower, and meet again in the lobby for a quick bite. Some of the group will be doing a night dive tonight. It’s an optional add-on dive that I opted out of. Don’t laugh but I’m slightly afraid of the dark. I’ll try a night dive on a future trip, but not this one. Plus, I’ll be diving cenotes in Playa del Carmen, so that’s my add-on diving excursion. Solo guy is trying to convince me to do the night dive and I don’t know how many more ways I can say no. I get the octopus ceviche and two Bohemia beers. $14.50
4:38 p.m. — The night dive crew head back to the hotel to prepare for the dive. N. tells G&T and I to grab a table at La Choza at around 9:00 p.m, and he’ll update us with their whereabouts when they’re finished with the night dive. G&T and I spend the rest of the day wandering around the town center a bit. They aren’t doing the night dive either. They don’t particularly like them, which makes me feel a bit better for not doing it. G. is in search of specific Mexican-style blankets and I want to find some candy for the cooks in my kitchen. Being illegal immigrants, they can’t go back to Mexico. I think it’d be nice to find some candy to bring back for them. I don’t find any candy but I found a cute snow globe for my sister at a small shop more inland. I walk back to the hotel to relax a bit. I take a quick nap, which was glorious. I match with a girl on Tinder who lives in Playa del Carmen. We chat a bit. She’s a manager at a dive shop there. $3.79
8:30 p.m. — G&T and I meet in the lobby to walk toward La Choza. The night divers are a bit late; T. and I start drinking Bohemia amber ale. The mom and daughter duo join us and recommend that T. and I check out a spice shop near the water. We munch on chips and salsa until everyone else gets here. N. orders a huge spread of ceviche, guacamole, whole red snapper, fajitas, and bean soup. We’re all so hungry, we order a second round. A mariachi band comes through, and we tell them it’s the mom’s birthday. They play a song for her and in retaliation, she has them play a romantic song for her daughter. We all give the band a $1 each. This meal is on N. as a congratulatory dinner. $1
11:31 p.m. — Before we head back to the hotel, some of us go to the 7-Eleven under the hotel to get some bottled water. I take my second shower of the day before bed. $1.18
Daily Total: $22.47
6:45 a.m. — It’s getting easier to wake up this early. I have such a messed up sleep schedule back home that when my internal clock experiences some semblance of normalcy, it’s a piece of cake to wake up at a designated time. It seems like the young couple crowd is having a really hard time with it. Divemaster N. said he requested a stronger pot of coffee; I give it a try. It still sucks. G&T attempt to get coffee at 7-Eleven downstairs. They say it’s a notch better, but only just. I have my usual omelet and fresh fruit. I spot my breakfast buddy from my very first breakfast here; he’s leaving tomorrow afternoon and we’re leaving at the crack of dawn to swim with whale sharks. We say goodbye before heading back upstairs to get my stuff.
8:30 a.m. — The biggest difference between this dive day and the previous days is that we’re officially certified divers with a specialty in drift diving! I bring my GoPro along. Dr. D and I chat on the rooftop. We are at Palancar Caves this time. As we’re descending, we’re gifted with the sight of a spotted eagle ray digging for clams! Most don’t get down fast enough to catch it on film, but K. does and gets a bit for his future YouTube channel. We’re still equalizing our ears. Safety first! As soon as I’m adjusted, I finally see my first turtle! I love turtles, they’re one of my favorite animals. Mr. Turtle is descending from above, but we’re moving with the current, we can’t really stop in time to see him up close. It’s a really cool dive with more swim-throughs. We see another grouper, some conch, garden eels, and a group of newly-born fish before starting our ascent.
12:30 p.m. — We eat our typical boat lunch while we drive to the next site, Paso de Cedral. It’s our longest dive yet. The current is really strong in this area and we were moving fast. You can learn a lot about yourself while diving and it’s interesting to observe the other divers as well. You notice who is more mindful of their surroundings as we are not allowed to touch the reef, fish, or ocean bottom. It’s also a great reflective period, especially with the strong current. You don’t have to do much, kind of like going with the EAC in Finding Nemo.
2:40 p.m. — I’m coming out of this with a few points: I don’t use a lot of air and I have great buoyancy control, two important aspects that N. is pleased with and reasons why he thinks I’ll excel in the cenotes. I have a lot of energy left in me as I’m de-gearing, but it seems like the rest of the group needs a nap. I don’t know what it is, but for me, diving seems to be more energizing than not. We pass by a group of stranded divers who ask us to radio their boat. It turns out their one-engine speed boat broke down and is drifting out to sea. We locate it and tug it toward the dive group before tugging it back to its port. Dr. D mentions this is the reason he will always stick to K. and his boats. A bunch of us sit on the roof deck and enjoy the sun. This is our last day on the boat, so we pack up all of our gear and say goodbye to the boat crew.
3:22 p.m. — We head back to the hotel to freshen up before going to a bar called Chendos, where K. sometimes sings with the mariachi band. Obviously, we hear him sing and they are fantastic. We take cabs to the bar. Solo guy takes care of the fare. The bar provides you with some snacks: conch ceviche, chips and salsa, and a pumpkin seed dip. I see a kid selling some weird fruit and ask K. about it. He buys a bunch of the fruit called huaya. They’re lychee-sized fruit with a pulpy flesh on a large pit. I pay for my a Sol Micheladas and chip in for the mariachi band before leaving. $8
5:51 p.m. — We take cabs straight to dinner at an Italian restaurant with a gorgeous view of the bay. One of the young couples take care of most of the fare. We’re missing $1, so I throw one in there. ($1) I get two Sol beers and the guajillo shrimp. It’s a bit pricey. Might be because of the ocean front view ($42). $43
8:52 p.m. — I head over to the Mega supermarket to buy some candy for the kitchen guys. Not a great selection, but I get some anyway. G. also asked me to pick up some fresh milk for him. This man definitely needs coffee and milk to function. $12.58
10:30 p.m. — I go to N.’s room to get his signatures for my dive logbook. With such a packed itinerary, it’s difficult to write everything down each day. We go through the dives using his dive computer since it’s a lot more detailed than the rental I’m using. It’s best to invest in your own, but I didn’t want to buy a $300+ computer and then hate diving (now proven to be impossible, I love it). I have to send screenshots of the certification pages to the cenote guide, J. Now it’s officially official, I’m a certified diver! T. comes over later to pick up the milk. She insists on paying, but I tell her it’s on me since she paid for our guacamole one day. I shower and get ready for our ridiculously early day tomorrow. We need to wake up at the crack of dawn to snorkel with whale sharks!
Daily Total: $63.58
5:10 a.m. — FML it is early. Whale sharks today, I am so excited but very tired. This has been on my bucket list for as long as diving has. They’re the largest fish in the ocean and despite having “shark” in their name, they’re gentle giants. They’re filter feeders that eat plankton, small fish, and fish eggs. It’s still a bit daunting to get into water with something that large, but I’m determined to do it. We have a 5:45 a.m. ferry to Playa del Carmen. It’s just Divemaster K. today; N. gave up his spot on the boat to allow the mom to come with us. It’s a 10-minute walk to the ferry. We lug our gear (wetsuit, fins, snorkel, and mask) with us. We get antsy, we don’t see K. anywhere.
5:40 a.m. — K. gets to us in the knick of time. He buys our tickets, which are included in the trip package. We have to pass through security at the ferry dock. Oddly, backpacks must be scanned but not carry-on luggage? G&T and I sit together on the open deck. We brush on politics and what’s next in our lives. I’m tired of this double copywriting-bartending life. There’s no time for love or friends and I ask T. how she transitioned from nursing to pharmaceutical marketing. G&T ask where I want to dive next and I’m not sure. At one point, we enjoy the amazing sunrise in silence. For the first time in a very long time I don’t think about anything, happily. It’s so peaceful.
6:30 a.m. — We arrive at the ferry dock in Playa del Carmen and walk over to a taxi stop to charter a taxi van that will take us from Playa del Carmen to Cancun. Once we load up, I eat a sad ham sandwich the hotel packed for us. I wish it was an omelet. We take an hour-long drive to Cancun to meet the whale shark crew that will take us passed Isla Mujeres, an island off of Cancun, to the whale shark feeding grounds. I take a great nap the entire way to Cancun.
7:45 a.m. — The taxi drops us off at a dock in Cancun where we will load up in a small boat that takes us to the feeding grounds. The boat ride is a little more than an hour long. We drive through huge patches of sargassum seaweed; the seaweed and brown algae blooms exacerbated by global warming. When we get to the whale shark site, I realize it probably doesn’t help that there are 30+ boats doing the exact same thing we’re doing. Each of us gets two to three turns with a whale shark. We jump off the boat in pairs along with either K. or the boat guide. All of the swimmers who are not guides are now required to wear life jackets to ensure that no one tries to swim underneath the whale sharks. I guess a lot of people were doing that to touch them, which is strictly prohibited.
In the diving coursework, we learn that touching animals or plants is highly discouraged because as much harm as we can be to them, the wildlife can be more harmful to us. Think about it: they’re equipped to fend off predators in the ocean. We are not and if something goes wrong, an emergency procedure may be required.
9:08 a.m. — Oh my god, the whale sharks are spectacular! There are no words to describe how incredible swimming next to such an amazing fish is. It’s both humbling and inspiring, truly an eye-opening experience that I will never forget. But ow, this first run with them proves that it hurts to swim with them. All of us jump into the water with cameras in efforts to catch the beauties on film. They’re such fast swimmers, and the guides yell at you to swim with them, but not to touch them. It’s kind of hard to do both when they’re moving. At one point I get too close and the big guy almost whips me in the head with his tail. It’s awesome!
9:38 a.m. — They really don’t want anything to do with humans. On my second run, the other guy (of one of the young couples), the guide, and I are trying to find a shark to swim with. All of a sudden, everyone on the boat yells at us to turn around. Oh my god, I have to dodge a whale shark! The other guy is a barely two yards away from it and couldn’t react in time. The shark dives to swim under him! This experience is such an adrenaline rush. The guide beckons us back on the boat. We’re both out of breath when the other guy tells everyone the heart attack he nearly had when he saw a wide-open mouth coming his way. I check the footage on my GoPro. I didn’t catch our mad scramble on camera.
11:16 a.m. — We take another hour-long boat ride to a beach in Isla Mujeres. The captain sees dolphins so we stop for a few minutes to see if we can find them. Sadly, we don’t see them again.
12:05 a.m — We anchor at the beach and jump off to wade in white sand and crystal waters, with a beer in hand of course. The crew prepares lunch, which consists of mahi mahi ceviche, guacamole, chips, and the sweetest cantaloupe I’ve ever had. Life is good.
2:49 p.m. — After our wade in the beach, we load back onto the boat for a shorter boat ride back to the docks in Cancun. We tip the crew before our trek back to Cozumel. At the dock, we take a quick cold-water rinse to get the salt off our body and wetsuits. A quick headcount and we’re in the taxi van for an hour-long ride back to Playa del Carmen. We share our whale shark footage. Turns out I have the best camera rig-up, and everyone passes around my GoPro to take a look. The mom is both terrified and amazed at the video. $10
3:55 p.m — We hop off the taxi and K. hands each of us our ferry ticket that’s included in the package price. But K. tells us that he will divide the cost of today’s chartered taxi and add it to our outstanding bill with him at his dive shop. The ferry ride isn’t as peaceful. I think I’m starting to feel a burn coming along.
5:30 p.m. — We have some time to kill before our 7:15 dinner reservation. G&T and I go to K.’s dive shop to take care of our diving bills. It’s a very practical shop and should be considered more of a repair shop. No frills, which I appreciate. He charges me for the extra orientation dive on our first day ($50) and the taxi transport for today ($23). I include a tip for C.’s crew ($38.14). The rule of thumb is to tip at least $5 per tank and we went on seven dives. I wish I could tip more but I’m not sure how much cash I will need in Playa del Carmen. $111.14
We walk to the farther edge of town to check out the Spice Market and to find G. some blankets. T. and I geek out over some mole blends and spices. We end up purchasing a bunch of cooking pastes and mole. $45
7:15 p.m. — We meet the others at Guido’s and we’re absolutely famished. I want more Mexican food, but we’re going with Italian again. The table splits garlic bread, sangria, and bottled water. N. and I split the tuna carpaccio and I have the osso bucco as my entree. For some reason, the restaurant doesn’t split checks, and it becomes complete chaos. $33.30
10:31 p.m. — I’m leaving early tomorrow for Playa del Carmen for the totally solo portion of my trip. Most of the group will depart on various days so we say our goodbyes and wish for safe travels. I head back to my room to pack. I chat with Tinder Girl before heading to bed. I tell her I’m thinking about going to Tulum, but I’ll have time for a drink at night.
Daily Total: $199.44
6:15 a.m. — The day starts out without coffee because the breakfast bar is not set up and I’m too lazy to juggle 7-Eleven crap coffee with all of my bags. Let’s see how I do without caffeine. I check out of the hotel and head down to the ferry dock to catch the 7:00 a.m. ferry to Playa del Carmen. $10
8:00 a.m. — The ride is about an hour long. When we dock, I try to find one of those luggage tricycle guys to bring me and my luggage to my meeting point with my cenote guide, J. at a nearby park. I fail to find a tricycle guy and I lug all of my gear up a gradual hill until I’m at the park. I find J., a super-petite Japanese woman with explosive energy. She’s going to be fun, I know it. We shake hands before loading up in a hired taxi. We drive about 20 minutes to our first destination. We will be going to three different cenotes today: Cenotes Kulkulcan and Chak-Mool, which are right next to each other, and Cenote Tajma Ha. Cenote-diving is essentially cavern diving, with a natural light source that’s visible at all times.
8:21 a.m. — We turn into a private driveway and pass through dense jungle via a dirt road at a snail’s pace. Apparently most cenotes reside on private land. Once a cenote is explored and properly mapped out, the landowners can decide whether or not to open them up to the public. As we slowly drive through the jungle, I fill out paperwork on my health record and a disclaimer that says it’s not her fault if I die (yay).
8:27 a.m. — We’re the first ones at the cenote! J. is very thorough in her pre-dive briefing. Before we gear up, she leads me from the parking lot to the cenotes to show me the route I will take. She mentions the steps leading into the cenote are very slippery and to hang tight when I have all my heavy gear on. Since freshwater and saltwater have different densities, she will test how much weight I need to use in my BCD in the open-air area of the cenote. She also wants to make sure that I can swim in a way that won’t kick up sediment. The water in the cenotes is predominantly still, which means it takes longer to sediment to re-settle, therefore inhibit visibility for other divers. I feel a bit more at ease when she says she’s going to test my weights and swimming technique. I hope I don’t disappoint. She leads me back to the parking lot and shows me the map of Kukulcan. All cenotes have mapped out routes and she explains exactly what to expect along the route so I am not surprised by anything. She notes that we must exercise more caution to not bump into any formations, which are thousands of years old. We must stay above the guide rope laid on the floor of the cenote and I must always swim behind her, never next to or in front of her. We also have to be more conservative with air consumption. As a recreational diver, I must warn her when I have used up one-third of air, which is significantly less than the warning I had to give in the ocean. I’m not allowed to bring my camera for these two cenotes.
8:43 a.m. — I prep my gear as she looks over my dive log. She also shows me essential hand signals for cavern diving, which are different from signals used in the ocean. Her rig-up is also different from mine: She has two side-mounted air tanks. Cenote and cave guides are required to bring two tanks into the cenotes in case of an air emergency. So comforting… It’s not like the ocean, where you can easily perform a controlled emergency ascent. Cenotes are essentially mazes. There are no shortcuts and there are a limited number of ways out.
8:58 a.m. — F@#$%^&%$ the water is cold. J. tests my weights and swimming technique to make sure I don’t kick up sediment. I end up using two pounds in my BCD, which is significantly less than the 10 pounds I used in the ocean. She preps me with a high-powered flashlight and down we go. I see a fresh-water turtle within minutes of entering the cenote — I think it’s good luck. There are also orange crystal formations within the rocks. Believe it or not, the water is clearer than in the ocean. I take in the panoramic view. It’s a whole other world. The light refraction is absolutely beautiful. I don’t know what else to say except that you have to be there to understand the beauty of it all. The haloclines (a phenomenon where layers of salt and fresh water meet and cause visual distortion) are fascinating and eerie. You hear this weird, creepy roar that sounds like if you put your ear against a seashell to hear the ocean. The water is also shockingly warmer in this area. J. proceeds to take me away from the guide line to show me a sign with the Grim Reaper and a message that says, and I quote: “Prevent your death, go no farther.” Oh gee, thanks! She beckons me closer to the sign, but I want to stay above the guide line and signal with my flashlight “OK”!
9:38 a.m. — We ascend and prep for the next dive in Chak-mool. Again, she lays out what to expect in the cenote and the path we’ll take. When we get into the cenote, the water does feel refreshing, but the cold sets in quickly. Oddly, being fully-submerged feels warmer than being on the surface. This cenote has shell and coral fossils embedded in the limestone. We pop up into an air pocket, where she explains what cenotes are and its significance to the Mayan people. I’m not really surprised to find bats in the dome, but I wonder how they got there… I’m cold. I want to go back down. I notice that while I have good control over buoyancy if I stop to hover, I ball up and have the urge to orient myself upright. It’s not ideal in a cavern because you run the risk of bumping into a formation. This is a relatively easy diving cenote with a lot of wiggle room, but some cenotes have narrow spaces that require a flattened body posture.
10:48 a.m. — We ascend and quickly pack up to drive to the next cenote, Tajma Ha. As we go through the jungle, J. and I talk about the cenote when all of a sudden, the driver says “Oh my God, a baby jaguar!” He stops the car abruptly and we look out for it or its mother. He says it ran across the road. I think it’s definitely a good omen considering jaguars have significant meaning in Mayan culture. The Jaguar are considered the rulers of the underworld and represent power. We don’t see it again. We check out of the property and head onwards.
11:42 a.m. — We prepare to dive Tajma Ha, the largest cenote I’ll dive today. In Mayan, “Tajma” translates to crystal clear and “Ha” translates to water. It doesn’t disappoint. Once we’re in the water and pass under the snorkelers, I see multiple light beams, which are bright and vibrant. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Think “Beam me up, Scotty!” Tajma Ha actually three cenotes connected together: Tajma Ha, Sugar Bowl, and Esmerelda. We surface in Sugar Bowl, named aptly for its round dome that lets in the most astonishing light. I make friends with small catfish while J. explains more about the cenotes. Esmerelda, as you can guess, is named for the green light it scatters. Towards the end of the dive, I start to get congested from the cold. It makes it more difficult to equalize my ears, and I need a good moment to do it properly. I give J. the “equalizing issue” signal; J. signals back to take my time before we continue. Soon after, I give J. the warning sign that I’ve used up a third of my air, but it turns out we’re really close to the exit anyway. No need for alarm.
12:43 p.m. — I can’t believe I did cenote diving. It’s not a beginner activity and I was terrified that I wouldn’t have enough control on buoyancy to do it. I’m so happy I did. We de-gear, change into normal clothes, and take in lunch (which is included in the package). It’s only now that I realize I haven’t eaten a single thing all day. I scarf down the box rice, ground beef, and scrambled eggs. For something so simple, it tastes really good, or maybe I was that hungry. We debrief on what I loved and didn’t love. J. is very impressed with my buoyancy control and air consumption, but she points out my hovering-balling up issue and I promise to work on it. She observes that she sees it more often in women, postulating it could be associated with the curves of the female derriere and or ab strength. While she and the driver gets the car ready to head back to Playa del Carmen, I buy a Tajma Ha skull tank and T-shirt, and some diving stickers for my travel journal. $27
2:56 p.m. — I give K. payment for the day. For such a one-on-one tour and taking on a newbie, I include a substantial tip for her and the driver. They drop me off at my hotel, La Tortuga. I check in quickly. I can’t wait for a shower. I take out my gear to let it dry, but I realize my wetsuit isn’t in my bag… I text J. and hopes she has it. I hop into the shower to cold water… I wait a bit for the hot water to kick in but it doesn’t. The cold shower does feel kind of nice, but I want to wash my hair. I do what I can for now — I want to explore the town. I let the concierge know about the problem before I leave. I get a text from J. confirming she does have my wetsuit. The driver had accidentally packed it in her gear bag. She says we can meet up and if I’m free to join her for dinner. I gladly agree. $250
5:26 p.m.— I’m looking for a michelada—you know, for bartending research. Sometimes people ask me if I can make a michelada and in theory, I can, but it’s better to learn straight from the source. So far, the micheladas have been brown in color, and not “like bloody mary mix and beer” as I am often instructed. Very confused. I sit for a breather at Las Miches De Playa for a Sol con Michelada, eat some nuts, and stave off a hungry pigeon in the process. $3
6:30 p.m. — I meet J. at El Pirata, a seafood restaurant away from the main strip. She apologizes for the wetsuit mishap and I assure her it’s not a big deal. The staff greets her with hugs and jokes with us throughout the meal. I get a horchata and we share a mixed seafood ceviche and grilled octopus. ($15.50 with tip) We go into the dives, her virgin cave exploratory dives the following week, and what’s led us to this point in our lives. She’s a free spirit and as an older, single woman, she does not fit into Japan’s mold of what a woman her age should be doing. Mexico suits her better. $15.50
9:17 p.m. — We part ways and she recommends that I walk the main strip to find the candy for my Mexican friends. Looking at the shops, I don’t think I’ll find it in the touristy area. I head back to the hotel for my second shower of the day. While the water is warmer, it also had an odd metallic smell with it. I make sure not to open my mouth. Tinder girl and I arrange to meet up for a drink tomorrow night. I try to turn in early but I can’t sleep until past midnight.
Daily Total: $305.50
6:30 a.m. — There’s something about diving that has me energized, not fatigued. I want to sleep a tad more but fail. I get ready for my complimentary breakfast at the restaurant, Como Como Osteria, that’s connected to the hotel. I get the eggs motulenos and black coffee. So far, it’s the best coffee I’ve had in Mexico. I text G&T as a small taunt. I didn’t realize breakfast would be serviced and I feel terrible for not bringing cash for the tip. I promise my server I’ll be back and rush to my room for some cash. To confirm how much I should give them, I poke my head by the front desk to confirm how much is appropriate before heading back to the restaurant. I overtip because of guilt. $1.40
9:07 a.m. — I want to head to the Tulum Ruins today. Based on instructions from both J. and Tinder Girl, I head to the general area for the colectivo vans and stop to get a bottle of water. ($1.11) A colectivo is a type of public transport with a set fare. You tell the driver where you’re going, and they’ll stop along their route for you. I hop into the van and get a solo seat. It’s a smooth, quiet ride all the way through to the Tulum Ruins. When we get to my stop, I realize too late that the driver overcharged me by five pesos. Converted to the dollar it’s not much, but it’s the principle! ($2.50) $3.61
9:49 a.m. — Get my ticket into the ruins. ($4.20) I sneak around and subtly join in on the English tours here and there. I opt out of buying access to the beach; judging by the brown water and seaweed that’s invaded it, I made the right choice. $4.20
12:11 p.m. — My god it is so hot. I cross the highway in an attempt to wait for a colectivo van to take me into Tulum Centro, the town center that’s considered a different stop from Tulum Ruins. Before a colectivo can show up, a taxi pulls over and convinces me to get into his cab. Back in Cozumel, N. assured us that cabs are clearly marked as cabs and the drivers wear uniforms, so I’m not worried about getting into a car alone. There are other taxis coming my way, probably looking for a fare. I tell him I only have 20 pesos (the price of a colectivo ride) and can’t afford a private taxi, he takes me anyway ($1.10) I’m starving after all of that walking. I find Taqueria Honorio, a taco joint that came recommended by my bestie. I want a taco of each variety, but they ran out of the blackened turkey. I stick to the three available tacos (cochinita pibil, lechón al horno, and carne asada) and an apple soda. ($4.70 with tip) $5.80
12:37 p.m. — I just want to chill out a bit. It’s a miracle that I find a coffee shop, Ki’Bok. I’m very excited for a decent coffee and to do some writing. I order a cortado and even though I’m lactose intolerant, I brave it and go with regular milk. I take a Lactaid pill just in case. I chat with the manager whenever she’s free; she thinks I’ll find my michelada answers at the bar a few blocks down at Hermana Republica. She also gives me a potential cocktail recipe that’s a “swankier, more delicious Long Island Iced Tea”. $2.78
1:21 p.m. — I walk two blocks over to Hermana Republica to find this michelada. The bartender is super nice and explains the differences between all the beer mixes: chelada, michelada, and ojo rojo. I order a flight of four in-house beers while we go into the different mixes. We move onto our travel goals, our hometowns, Mexican candy, etc. We offer each other advice on our corresponding cities. He’s from Mérida, the largest city in the state of Yucatán. He loves Mérida and urges that I visit it one day. He thinks the food there is a much better and has more Mayan influences than anywhere else in Mexico. I tell him it’s definitely on my list. He wants to visit Seattle, where his girlfriend is from. I’m not sure where I want to go after this trip, but I’m thinking Germany. He thinks I might be able to find some candy at a market a few blocks down. Before I leave, we find each other on Facebook for when he visits NYC with his girlfriend. $6.39
2:33 p.m. — I walk a few blocks to the market he pointed out, but the candy search was unsuccessful. I do buy more water, it’s unbearably hot. ($.50) I walk around the area a bit before heading to the Colectivo stop. Correction: I get lost along the way and peer into some shops. I find a bike shop and ask for instructions to the Colectivo heading back to Playa del Carmen. I finally find the van and find a seat in the back. The Colectivo trip back is not as comfortable as the morning trip. There’s a crying baby, I’m wedged between two larger people, and we’re all sticky despite the air conditioning. Part of the experience I guess. It’s an hour-long ride back to Playa del Carmen. I hop off near a mall. Once again, the driver overcharges me. I try to fight it but the driver stands firm that it’s 45 pesos, not 40. I’m too annoyed to fight for a quarter and accept it. ($2.50) $3
3:42 p.m. — Before I head back to the hotel, I go into the mall to take a look at Europa, a liquor store, and pick up some liquor that’s hard to find in the states: Tierra Noble Añejo tequila, Agavero tequila liqueur (a must according to the hyperbaric chamber specialist), and xtabentun liqueur. Along the way back to the hotel, I stop into Mia Spa and make an appointment for a three-hour spa day tomorrow. So excited for a shower. Tinder girl has not texted, so I give up on the potential hook-up. I relax in the hotel room for a bit before heading out for a stroll. $50
6:43 p.m. —There’s a kid selling mangoes, and I’m getting hungry ($2.50). It seems pricey for mango slices, but I chalk it up to being in the touristy area. Most of the slices are unripe and I chuck it. I walk in the opposite direction of the touristy street, pass through a strip of the park with street food, and stop to watch a volleyball warm-up. I reach the end of the park, where there’s another corner of food carts and a candy stand. I find some candy to bring to the guys. The adorable candy lady and I get by with images of candy and my broken Spanish. I pretty much buy out her stock of certain lollipops and tamarind candy. ($2.50) $5
7:34 p.m. — There’s a small crowd gathering around a taco stand next to hers, so it must be good. I ask for one of each carne asada and chorizo and a Coke. The tacos come out topped with cactus and beans, which are delicious. The teenager next to me mentions that I can get the meats mixed if I want. We chat a little before he heads home. $2.50
8:27 p.m. — I take out a mango and tamarind lollipop (that’s nestled into a plastic spoon?) and enjoy it on the way back to the hotel. I walk the touristy street again since there’s more light. Surprisingly no one tries to coerce me into their store — probably because I’m the weird girl sucking on a plastic spoon. I stop into a store to buy a pack of shot glasses for friends ($5). The café J. recommended, Ah Cacao, is on the way back and I sit down for a Mayan hot chocolate. It’s a tad spicy and not crazy sweet, which is great because I’m not a huge chocolate fan to begin with. ($3.20) $8.20
10:10 p.m — I speed walk back to the hotel and run to the toilet. Montezuma is getting his revenge. I wonder what caused it. I have a feeling it’s the crappy mango. Once I feel somewhat better, I pack up my scuba gear and liquor before heading to bed. I also pop some Asian medicine to help with my stomach.
Daily Total: $92.88
8:02 a.m. — I “sleep in.” Aside from a three-hour spa day and tequila tasting later on, I have nothing concrete planned. I go to breakfast and try the eggs Mexicana. This server explains that in addition to the coffee fresh juice is also included, so I go with papaya. Oh my god, I could drink this all day, it is phenomenal! I tip. $1.10
9:18 a.m. — I head back to the hotel and get ready for the day. I want to check out this glass studio, Fabrica de Vidrio Soplado, that sells hand-blown glass. I used to do glasswork, so it will always have a special place with me. It’s on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen; Google says a bike ride takes only five minutes longer than a drive. I think biking there will be a fun adventure! I leave the hotel and walk down the avenue; I’m pretty sure I saw some rental bikes when I was walking back from the colectivo yesterday. The shop isn’t open — I try another shop I saw. Nothing’s open yet. It takes me a while to find some some tourist attraction guys to help me out. They say I’m really early and the bike shops don’t open until later on. They attempt to sell me on a tour to Chichen Itza and I politely decline as I cross over to a quieter avenue. I scour Google and find that Playa Bike Rentals is opening soon. I walk towards the shop and admire the vibrant flowers on the trees. Clearly I look lost when I hit a cul-de-sac, because a guy in biking attire asks if I am looking for a bike shop. Turns out he manages the shop, which is run out of someone’s house… no wonder I couldn’t find it. He rents me a bike at the minimum 24-hr bike rate. $13
10:09 a.m. — Bike guy recommends a different route to the glass studio from what Google Maps is suggesting. He says Google’s route runs through an iffy part of town. I thank him and peddle off. I didn’t realize how far this place is. Am I on a highway or a really big street? It is so hot. I stop at a convenience store for water ($.80). It’s interesting to see a part of town not plagued with tourists and new buildings. I find the brightly-painted glass studio, and precariously fall off my bike. There’s my workout for the week. The store is anything but bare. There’s glassware, plates, Christmas ornaments, and more, lined against the walls and hanging on fixtures. It’s beautiful. I take a good moment to catch my breath and realize how gross I am before looking at shot glasses and tumbler glasses. I buy two tumblers and two shot glasses (one for my sister). ($12) I watch the glassmakers in the studio for a bit before heading back towards downtown. $12.80
12:00 p.m. — I find a grocery store out of a warehouse/garage space stocked with candy. I get a piñata candy pack and some water. I ask if they have elote paletas (the chef of my restaurant asked if I can bring some back after he saw my candy haul post on Instagram). The lady shakes her head but says something about the candy I’m buying being good. $7.20
12:30 p.m. — Biking at peak sun time is not fun but it’s a good adventure. I ride to Mia Spa drenched in sweat, check-in and plead for a quick shower before we start. I thought I would be sorer after diving but I’m actually okay. It’s been years since I’ve gotten a massage and I will be broke soon, due to apartment renovations. Treat yourself! A three-hour package includes an hour-long massage, facial, body exfoliation, chocolate body wrap, foot massage, moisturizing foot mask, refining hand mask, and tea. $201.29
3:52 p.m. — I definitely feel rejuvenated and I am also starving. Since I have a bike, I go back to that park corner for some more tacos and pray the tacos were not the source of my stomach woes ($2.50 with tip). While the tacos cook, I ask the candy lady if she has elote paletas for Chef, and what do you know, she does! She’s my favorite person here. ($2) $4.50
4:23 p.m. — It starts to rain. Hard. Not great for the candy, but I can’t help it and laugh as I ride through puddles. I stop by the hotel to drop off the day’s haul and shower. I make sure to grab both an umbrella and a lightweight rain jacket before turning in my bike. I ride through more puddles and back to the cul-de-sac to return the bike. In hindsight, it probably would’ve been cheaper to take a cab to the glass studio, but where’s the fun in that? Bike guy asked if my glass hunt was a success. Very much so!
5:50 p.m. — The bike shop isn’t far from the tequila tasting, so I walk. It’s taking place at Axiote, a warm, modern restaurant. It’s so cute.
6:00 p.m — The host for the night greets me. I’m the first to arrive and we talk about how, as a bartender, I’m trying to be more friendly towards tequila. We’re joined by two drunk girls and a couple from Chicago. The host goes through the history of tequila while we taste six tequilas and eat food prepared by the restaurant: a passionfruit and coconut juice, cucumber and jicama soup, tomato and pumpkin salad, cricket tacos, and mango mousse. While the couple and I enjoy it all, the drunk girls seem too preoccupied with finding one of their friends and too picky to eat most of the food. It kind of puts a damper on things. The air clears once they leave and the remaining four of us talk. The host invites me to the mezcal tasting the restaurant is hosting after our tasting. As much as I’d love to, I have to pack. Since he moved my initial tequila-only tasting to the tequila-and-food tasting free of charge, I give what little cash I can spare as thanks. $2.20
8:11 p.m. — Feeling slightly dehydrated and stop by a 7-Eleven for water and soda ($1.28) Right outside, there’s a little cart selling marquesitas, a crispy crepe-rolled dessert. They’re all over the city and I give in for one with Nutella and banana. ($1.61) I eat it on the little step and reminisce about the day and my trip overall. $2.89
9:08 p.m. — I find Eurphoria dubbed in Spanish on TV. Hello, Zendaya in a suit. I’m somehow able to shove all of my purchases into my bags. I do a good sweep of the room before turning in.
Daily Total: $244.98
7:23 a.m. — Last papaya ju— I mean breakfast— in Playa del Carmen! I go back to the eggs motulenos ($1.10 tip). I do one final check of my room and leave some cash for the maid before checking out ($2.15). I grab a taxi to take me to the bus terminal ($3.33). The taxi driver recommends that I take a Colectivo taxi to the airport; it’s a little more than the bus but a lot faster. He find a colectivo to the airport and directs me to it. There’s already a couple in the back; we wait until there’s a fourth person to fill up the car. $6.58
8:30 a.m.— I spend the hour-long car ride going through my pictures and video. I end up paying the Colectivo driver $13 since he doesn’t have change for my larger peso bill. It’s about a $2 loss, but I’m not butthurt. It was a long drive, he helped with my bags, and there’s the currency exchange to account for. $13
9:32 a.m. — I check-in to my flight and pay for a checked bag ($30). American Airlines offers me an upgrade to business class for $200. Thinking it will be a six-hour flight, I do it after much deliberation. I talk to the representative at the counter and ask for a refund for the bag I had already checked. She says there’s no way to issue a refund on her end and I have to request a refund through AA’s site. This will be a hassle, I just know it (but I do get it refunded in the end). I pass through security easily. I text my sister before I board to give her an estimated ETA. She’s visiting NYC for work and staying at my place. $200
10:34 a.m. — This legroom is amazing. We’re up in the air in no time, and the flight attendants pass around warm a warm towel and nuts as a starter. Lunch includes a smoked salmon side, a fruit salad, and beef and mashed potatoes. The luxury. Dessert is some sort of banana dessert I can live without. I try to watch John Wick but am quickly annoyed by AA’s UX design. I try to take a nap as we’re already descending. It’s only now that I realize I’m an idiot and the flight is actually only three-hours long. I have no idea why I thought it was longer. I blame it on the lack of sleep.
2:00 p.m. — Landing at JFK. I call a car while I wait for my bag. The priority luggage tag is a very nice touch. It’s one of the first bags on the carousel and it gives me such relief that I don’t have to stand and wait all day. Find my car in the chaos and text my sister when I’m close to the apartment. She lets me in and we debrief on my adventure. $45
Daily Total: $264.58
How did you prepare for this trip?
Originally, I was supposed to go to Honduras with a friend who’s already certified— she bailed, but my dive shop had this trip posted on their whiteboard. This trip was born out of necessity to finish my scuba certification within the time restrictions set by the diving associations. I decided that I was in a good position financially to start learning diving, and I bought a Groupon for a diving course. The course involved an academic portion that can be done online at your own pace. It’s followed by a review with an instructor before you head for pool classes that are led by a divemaster who will test you on skills and evaluate whether or not you’re ready to demonstrate these skills in the deep blue. Some people need more pool time than others. Once you get the go-ahead, the final step is to do 4-5 open-water dives in the ocean with a divemaster. If you can demonstrate your understanding of crucial skills, you are certified on the last certification dive! My dive shop organizes several trips a year to varying dive sites around the world. I played around with several destinations before choosing this trip.
As a safety rule, you shouldn’t fly 24 hours after the last dive because of the extreme pressure changes. So, I decided to tack on a few days to myself in Playa del Carmen. Since I was already there, I figured might as well dive some cenotes. My instructor told me to contact Scuba Freedom, which specializes in cave and cenote diving. The owner, J., suggested some easy-diving cenotes and requested that once I was certified, to send her screenshots of the certification pages in my diving logbook. As proof that you are certified and to keep track of your diving record, divers keep a log in case future dive shops want proof you are capable of diving their destination. Each instructor has a stamp or stickers as a personal seal. It’s also a way to track equipment and weights used, weather, depths reached, instructors’ notes, and wildlife seen at certain areas.
My best friend visited Tulum a few years back. She recommended Taquiera Honorio, El Camello Jr., Antojitos La Chiapaneca, and Burrito Amor. She advised that I not bother with Hartwood considering that it is ridiculously expensive and there’s an abundance of cheap food in Tulum.
Did you use credit card points or miles to pay for parts of this trip? If so, please explain further:
I use credit cards exclusively for the purpose of accruing points. I use predominantly Chase Ultimate Rewards, via the Freedom Unlimited card and the Sapphire Reserve card. The flight was 34,798 points ($521.97) and the hotel was 13,480 points ($202.20) for a grand total of 48,278 UR points. Overall, I only paid $200 for the business class upgrade. On my other cashback card, I applied $36.46 in cash back credit to my spa transaction.
Do you have credit card debt as a result of booking this vacation? If so, how much?
No, I pay my credit cards off in full each month. It helps me keep track of my spending and prevents accruing unnecessary interest. That’s just money down the drain.
When did you book your flights? Do you think you got a good deal?
I booked my flights a month out. I had to wait for confirmation from the dive shop that this trip was booked by enough people to follow through. I think it could’ve been cheaper, but I don’t usually keep track of multi-city flights. Considering the fact that most of the group had flight itineraries with multiple layovers and paid significantly more than I did, I’d say I lucked out.
What was your favorite part of the trip?
I’m not sure if I can pick out one thing. I’ve always loved the ocean and it was humbling to finally dive and see that part of the world. Diving and snorkeling with whale sharks will be something I will never forget. I also love the friendships I forged— with G&T, M. the divemaster, the bartender at Hermana Republica…
What was the best meal or food you ate while you were there?
That papaya juice at Como Como Osteria. I think about it to this day… Dish-wise, it’s a tie between the red snapper at La Choza and the food pairings at Axiote — most likely because both were different from the tacos and rice plates. The snapper was just caught and came in after we sat down. It was so flaky and moist. Perfectly cooked. The dishes at Axiote were refreshing and nothing like the other meals I had on the trip. And I had cricket for the first time!
Is there a tourist trap you wish you had avoided?
I don’t think it’s right to say I wish I avoided the Tulum Ruins, but it was the one time on this trip when I really wished I had someone to share it with. I’m a solo traveler all the way, but I felt like the Ruins would have been more fun if I had someone to discuss points of interest and to goof off with.
What advice would you give someone who is traveling to the same location?
Reef-safe sunscreen and bug spray. Even if you’re just dipping toes into the water, there’s so much wildlife and reef there, be kind and use reef-safe sunscreen.
In Cozumel, avoid the main strip along the water. It’s catered to the cruise ship people. Walk the streets deeper in, it’s a lot more interesting and cheaper.
Is there anything about your trip you would do differently in retrospect?
It was a nice mistake, but I absolutely would not have upgraded to business class. I don’t know why I miscalculated the flight duration and the shorter flight was not worth the $200 upgrade. Not only that, American Airlines took almost two months to refund the initial baggage fee. On top of that, they tried to play it off like a refund is not allowed, despite what the representative at the Cancun Airport said. I will definitely think it through more thoroughly the next time I consider an upgrade.
Would you stay at your hotels again?
In Cozumel, definitely. I loved Casa Mexicana. It was conveniently located on the water, had a spacious room, and the breakfast was great. In Playa del Carmen at La Tortuga, probably not. While the concierge and the waitstaff at the restaurant were very nice and hospitable, the lack of good hot water was frustrating sometimes. It might have been in just my room. It’s a very first world issue, I know, but it was so humid and muggy every day. I really needed a good hot shower to feel clean. Hotel and Airbnb prices are comparable. As I did with this trip, I’d weigh the pros and cons and look at the benefits of both before deciding on where to stay.
Where were you located in the specific city and would you recommend staying in that part of town?
In Cozumel, the hotel was in Centro. There’s really no other place to stay in unless you’re at an all-inclusive resort. The island is predominantly green. The hotel in Playa del Carmen was also in Centro, borderline Calica area. I liked the area. It was well-lit, lots of shops around but slightly touristy. As a petite, solo woman, I wouldn’t mind staying in the area again. If I go back, I might ask J. for recommendations on where to stay that has a more local-vibe and is still safe.
Is there anything you wished you had time to do, but didn’t?
I wish I had time to do the San Gervasio ruins on Cozumel. I also wanted to do Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins near Playa del Carmen but G&T advised that I trek it another time, when I have at least two days devoted to it.
In my search for things to do, I learned about Temazcal ceremonies, which are Mayan body purification ceremonies performed in sweat lodges. Participating in a Temazcal is now on my bucket list. I tried really hard to work it into my itinerary, but a lot of places require a two-person minimum, or my dates did not align with group ceremonies.
Do you feel like you were there for the right length of time? Would you have come home sooner or stayed longer given the chance?
I think I had the perfect amount of time to do what I set out to do. I came home rejuvenated and happy. I probably could’ve used two more days to do Chichen Itza, but I’m not sure if my mental state at the end would be the same.
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