Monday, 22 September 2014
Business and pleasure in Cancún at the TBEX travel bloggers' conference
[San Miguelito archeological site in the hotel zone, Cancún]
I was in Cancún last week for the TBEX conference of travel bloggers.
Blogging is a fairly solitary activity, and not everyone understands what it means to be a professional blogger or travel writer. I write about independent do-it-yourself travel, so I have no reason to go on on the escorted group "familiarization" tours and junkets which provide opportunities for travel writers who cover packaged and pre-arranged travel to meet and hang out with each other. "FAM" tours wouldn't tell me anything about what services are available for travellers who arrive without reservations, how much they cost, or how easy and/or cheap it is to find them without a guide. Only by doing it myself can I give meaningful advice to do-it-yourself travellers, whether backpackers or business travellers, who aren't in a group and don't have a guide.
So it was nice to have a rare chance at TBEX to talk to other people who share my peculiar profession: who know what it means, for example, to always be working when you are engaging in activities that for most people constitute "vacation", or often to find oneself spending one night in a hostel, the next night in a four or five-star hotel (because you've been given a discounted or maybe even free room), and the next night back in a hostel. Or to have people who are paid far more than you be jealous when they hear what you do to eke out a living.
Overall, I was pleased at the extent to which the organizers of TBEX allowed issues of ethics -- both the ethics of travel and the ethics of travel blogging -- to be raised at the conference. But I was at times disturbed, at times puzzled, by some of the discussion. I came home feeling that we had only scratched the surface of some of these questions, and that they deserve more time and emphasis at future TBEX events and throughout the travel blogosphere.
Aside from the issue of responsible and sustainable travel, this lengthy follow-up post is mostly directed to my fellow TBEX attendees and other travel writers, especially those who told me, "You should be a speaker at the next TBEX." It includes a lot of "inside baseball" about the business of travel blogging. If that's not of interest, you should probably skip the rest of this post.
But if you are a wondering, "What does ethical travel (and ethical travel writing) mean?", or "How does anyone hope to make a living as a professional travel blogger?", read on.
What is "responsible" or "sustainable" travel?
TBEX in Cancún opened with an on-stage keynote interview of Dr. Martha Honey (founder and co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel, and former journalist) by blogger Bret Love of Green Global Travel on the subject of "responsible travel". (Back story of how this came to lead the TBEX program.)
Dr. Honey began by "thank[ing] the dolphins for raising the issue of the role of travel media in responsible travel," while noting that before she was alerted to the TBEX controversy, she hadn't thought of the treatment of animals as a major issue in responsible travel.
Dropping the formal association of captive-dolphin tours with TBEX "defused the the immediate crisis," she said. "But we have larger issues to discuss" concerning how travel and tourism affect people, and not just (other) animals.
The test for TBEX, I would argue, is whether these issues reappear on the agenda of future TBEX events, now that the organizers of TBEX no longer face the immediate threat that the captive-dolphin controversy will sink their Cancún conference.
TBEX started out as an informal event organized by travel bloggers themselves as a side event to BlogHer, the conference of women bloggers, in 2009. (The overwhelming majority of travel bloggers and TBEX participants, as of travel writers in general, are women.) Since then, TBEX has been sold to the BlogWorld event production company.
In response to my questions, Dr. Honey strongly endorsed two of the three concerns I raised: Conditions for workers in the tourism industry, and the impact and ethics of all-inclusive travel packages. She noted and welcomed the campaign by Tourism Concern in the UK to get tourists not to give their business to all-inclusive hotels and resorts.
I was disappointed, though, to discover that Dr. Honey stayed at the Moon Palace resort where the TBEX meetings were held. It's the largest hotel in the world where all rooms are rented on an all-inclusive basis, and the epitome of that particular flavor of unfair trade in travel. I assume that Dr. Honey's accommodations were chosen and provided by the TBEX organizers and/or sponsors, and that she would have had to pay out of her own pocket to stay anywhere else. But I also assume that her honorarium would have been sufficient to cover the cost of food and lodging downtown, where there were plenty of local hotels with clean, comfortable rooms with private bathrooms available for US$50 per night or less, even with air conditioning.
The representatives of Hostelling International-USA attending TBEX also stayed at the Moon Palace, rather than at either of the two Hostelling International hostels in downtown Cancún. I and at least one other blogger at TBEX stayed at one of the HI hostels, while several more TBEX attendees stayed at others of the hostels in downtown Cancún rather than at all-inclusive resorts or in the "Zona Hotelera" tourist ghetto.
During their keynote and in subsequent conversations, both Honey and Love strongly resisted my third suggestion that the impact of air travel on global warming should be a factor is assessing whether, or to what degree, a particular trip qualifies as "responsible" or "sustainable".
The problem, as I see it, is that much of the industry that has come to be called "ecotourism" depends on air travel to distant destinations. That creates heavy pressure on those who support local economic development, fair trade, North-South exchange, and wildlife and ecosystem preservation funded by "ecotourism" on the ground -- including some of those who are seen as spokespeople for, and experts in, ecotourism and responsible and sustainable travel -- to also support continued (and even subsidized, to keep it affordable for the "ecotourists") air travel to those destinations.
"Many countries in Africa depend on tourists who arrive by air. If you tell tourists they can't fly to these countries, what will they do? Destination countries would suffer tremendously if people didn't travel," Dr. Honey told me.
That's true, but it's missing the point, and says nothing about whether such travel is sustainable. You don't have to tell people they "can't" travel by air to tell them that air travel as we know it is not sustainable and has huge negative ecological impacts. Those are facts, and factors that must be considered in any ethical calculus.
Rising fuel prices and/or inclusion of air travel in emissions trading or carbon tax regimes may greatly reduce the number of people who can afford to fly to Africa or some other distant place for an "ecotour", regardless of what anyone thinks about the ethics of the trip and regardless of what impact their spending might have on people (and animals) in their destination.
The sooner countries that currently depend on airborne tourism -- and their supporters elsewhere -- start to plan for a sustainable post-air travel future, the better chance they have of surviving that inevitable transition. (For more on what this might mean, please join me at SXSW Eco next month.)
There's an argument that spending on long-distance airborne "ecotourism" sometimes has benefits in redistributive economic justice and local environmental preservation that outweigh its negative effects on global warming. But that's far from an open-and-shut question, and those who care about travel ethics should encourage travellers to think about it. Each time we decide to fly, as I did to Cancún, just as each time we decide to drive, we should first consider whether the benefits outweigh the substantial ecological costs.
And I still want to see more discussion of the ethical and environmental implications of the choices we make on the continuum from all-inclusive prepaid packages to independent travel.
Throughout the remainder of the conference, TBEX continued to raise questions for me -- and I hope others -- about the ethics of travel writing as well as about the ethics of travel.
Are you blogging for business or for pleasure?
On the form I had to fill out to enter Mexico from the USA, I had to characterize the purpose of my visit as either "business" or "tourism". That's a typical dichotomy, but one that can't easily be answered (at least not with complete candor) by a professional travel writer. For someone who writes about how to travel, it's always a busman's holiday.
The letter of the law in many countries would require professional travel writers to obtain business visas or, in some cases, even more specialized journalism visas. In practice, few do so, and few countries (other than the USA) object. A law that all visiting foreign journalists violates is convenient for a government that wants to control what foreign journalists say: Those who say things that the government likes (which usually includes most travel writers) can be allowed to stay. Those who make trouble or offend the government can be deported for lying on their visa applications, without the need for any overt criticism of the content of their writing.
Foreigners are rarely expelled from China or India on the overt basis of what they have written about self-determination or human rights in Tibet, East Turkestan, or Kashmir. Rather, they are kicked out for practicing journalism or engaging in other commercial activities (writing for paid or income-generating publication) in violation of the terms of their tourist visas.
I used to be able to state, truthfully, that my primary occupation (in terms of income) was as a travel agent, and not mention "travel writer" on most visa and entry forms. But I can't do that any more, since leaving my full-time travel agency job. Some countries will accept vague descriptions of my occupation such as "consultant" or "self-employed", but some want more detail.
My work for the Identity Project doesn't help: If there's anything more likely to attract special scrutiny than saying you are a journalist when you are seeking permission to enter a foreign country, it's saying you are a human rights advocate. I've sometimes mailed my business cards and press credentials home before trying to enter sensitive countries.
Even as a self-identified "travel writer", however, one can usually, but not always, get a visa or be allowed to enter as a tourist -- sometimes with a wink and a nod. I was once coached by an immigration inspector at Heathrow Airport to say I was just a tourist when I entered the UK to take part in a BBC travel show. After I declared my occupation as "travel writer", both Brazil and India required me to sign statements that I would be travelling purely as a tourist and would not write anything about my visits to their respective countries before they would approve my applications for tourist visas.
India would probably say, correctly, that limiting the visas issued to foreign journalists and documentary filmmakers as well as academic researchers preserves writing and film jobs and academic opportunities for local writers, filmmakers, and researchers. It also allows Indians to speak for themselves, in travel guidebooks and other media, instead of having India's image defined and interpreted by foreign Orientalists.
These visa rules have, however, been exceptionally effective in shaping foreign coverage of India, since the Indian stringers who provide reporting from India for most foreign news organizations are less likely than foreigners would be to report perspectives that challenge domestic Indian nationalist consensus on issues such as Kashmir or caste.
For someone like me, getting business visas for every country we visit would be prohibitively costly and time-consuming. Where special visas are required for journalists, these are typically even more difficult to obtain than regular business visas, if they are available at all for freelancers or self-publishers.
Most travel writers are at least somewhat troubled by this "don't ask, don't tell" norm, and accept it only reluctantly, as a necessity of doing their work.
Since I had a chance at TBEX, where most attendees had come from outside Mexico, I polled as many people as I could about how they had answered this question on the entry form, and how they felt about their answer.
For what it's worth, the Mexican entry form, unlike those in many countries, had an "other" option. I checked the "other" box, and wrote in "conference". Many countries have special entry provisions for foreign business visitors attending meetings and conference, on the theory that by their presence they are spending money and supporting local jobs in the conference travel industry, rather than competing with locals for employment opportunities. That worked for me, this time. But I wasn't planning on blogging about my trip, unlike most of the destination bloggers at TBEX who planned -- and were being encouraged by conference organizers, sponsors, and hosts -- to combine their usual blogging about the destination with their attendance at the conference.
I wasn't surprised that almost everyone I asked had checked, "tourism" and not "business" -- including those who said they were earning a living in some way from their blogs, and were members of the Professional Travel Bloggers Association. I was surprised that hardly any of them had thought about their answer, or found it uncomfortable or dishonest. Most of them seemed to find my question odd.
That seemed to me to be characteristic of a widespread disjunction among bloggers at TBEX who want to be taken seriously as "professionals" in a business sense, but not to be taken seriously (or not to take themselves seriously) in terms of professional standards and ethics.
Are you (a) a blogger, (b) a writer, (c) a journalist, or (d) all of the above?
A related surprise for me was the frequency of remarks that seemed to presume that bloggers, journalists, and writers are separate, non-overlapping, and perhaps opposing categories.
A blog is a category of publication defined by medium (Web-based) and format (date-based). Journalism is a category of content. What I write, and perhaps the fact that I write for publication, is relevant to whether I'm a journalist.
But the fact that some or all of my writing is published in blog format -- rather than in some other format(s) such as in books, print or online magazines, or Web sites with non-blog formats -- is completely irrelevant to whether I am or am not a journalist.
Some (but not all) bloggers are also journalists. Some (but not all) journalists are also bloggers.
Many bloggers, including me, write articles or blogs that include both journalistic content and other content. Blogs can and do include journalism, opinions, advocacy, storytelling, fiction, fantasy, memoir, infomercials, and/or advertising, in any combination, sometimes in the same and sometimes in separate articles.
Many journalists, myself among them, publish some of our our journalistic writing in blog format, and some (including some of the same articles) in other formats including in print or on non-blog Web sites.
I find efforts to oppose "bloggers" and "writers", or "professional writers", equally muddled.
Most bloggers are writers. (Those bloggers who who aren't writers are photo bloggers, video bloggers, and/or audio podcasters.) Some bloggers are self-publishers (as well as writers) of our own blogs. Other bloggers write for blogs published by third parties. Some bloggers, like me, have our work published both on our own self-published blogs and on other blogs.
None of this has anything to do with whether we are writers or bloggers or journalists or all three, or whether we are, or aspire to be, professionals earning a living from writing.
But the extent of the confusion about this in the minds of so many travel bloggers themselves suggests an answer to a question posed by Gary Arndt, writer/photographer/publisher of the Everything Everywhere blog: Why haven't travel bloggers won more Lowell Thomas Awards?
Sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Foundation, these are the most prestigious honors in the USA in the profession of travel writing. Gary Arndt has won several Lowell Thomas Awards in recent years for his photographs. This year he was also the grand prize winner in SATW's separate photography competition.
In 2003, when I added a blog to my Web site and when I was the first person to win a Lowell Thomas Award for work self-published online, it wasn't entirely clear that work self-published online was even eligible in most of the award categories. It took some chutzpah for me to submit some of my articles for consideration. But since then, it's become more explicit that travel articles published online (including in self-published blogs) are eligible in all of the same categories as articles published in print.
The awards are judged blind: The judges know neither the names of the writers and photographers nor those of the publications in which the works being judged were published.
So bloggers are free to enter the contest, and should get equal consideration by the judges.
Why, then, are there so few winners among bloggers, and most of those for photography rather than writing? I think it comes down to the fact that these are the "Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards", and are judged as such by a panel of journalism school professors.
As a blogger who defines myself as a self-published online journalist, I was especially pleased to receive my Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award in the most unequivocally journalistic category in the competition: "Travel News / Investigative Reporting". That's also one of the categories that typically gets the fewest entries, perhaps indicating how few travel writers even in traditional media really practice serious investigative journalism.
If, as seemed to be the case at TBEX, most travel bloggers don't think of themselves as journalists or of their writing as journalism, nobody should be surprised if they aren't winning awards that are judged by professors of journalism according to the writing and publishing criteria applicable to journalism. And it's equally unsurprising that most of the awards won by bloggers have been for photography, where the boundaries of "journalism" are less clear, or in the separate SATW photography competition, where "journalism" isn't in the judging rubric.
Bloggers can't have it both ways. There are plenty of other legitimate business models and editorial philosophies for blogging than "journalism". But it should go without saying that if you eschew any aspiration or intention to practice journalism, you can't expect to win journalism awards. There are other awards for excellence in advertising and marketing copywriting and design, but advertorials won't (and shouldn't) cut it as journalism, no matter how well written and illustrated they are and how effectively they serve their sponsors' marketing goals.
How can you make a living as a travel blogger?
There's no one answer to this question. Self-awareness is critical for any self-publisher. Without an editor or boss to tell you what you are doing right and wrong, having an accurate self-image is essential to formulating a successful personal business plan.
My strength, for example, is in analysis and insights, not in the words in which I express them or in narrative description. "Other people write about what they are doing or feeling", one of my most perceptive friends said years ago. "You're the only one of my friends who writes to me about what you are thinking." I take time to collect and organize my ideas, and I write slowly. I have a hard time writing on deadline (although for 13 years I've disciplined myself to publish a weekly column about The Amazing Race reality-TV travel show) or to length (which suits the Web, where each article can be as long or short as I like, without concern for page counts or printing costs). I've crafted my personal business plan accordingly.
Of the relatively small minority (myself included) of the participants in TBEX who are making a living, in one way or another, from travel blogging, every last one I talked with had a different personal business model and revenue mix.
Most of the speakers at TBEX were explicit in telling their audiences, "This is what works for me. It might not work for you. You need to be flexible, take advantage of as many sources of income as possible, and be open to new and unanticipated opportunities."
I'm not sure, however, how well that message had gotten across to many of the newer bloggers, not yet making a living from their blogs but hoping to do so, who appeared to be the majority of the attendees at TBEX.
Over the years, a series of fads have dominated blogger business plans.
At first, there was an emphasis on the elementary mechanics of how to set up a blog, on the theory that what was important was first-mover advantage in getting online and that some way to monetize successful blogs would eventually appear, even if what that might be was not yet apparent. ("Just do it. If you build it, money will come -- somehow.")
Then the focus shifted to blog monetization through advertising, affiliate links, search-engine optimization, and other ways to build traffic and increase ad click-through rates.
Now the professional blog business model du jour seems to be "sponsorship". There was hardly any discussion of advertising at TBEX, but large blocks of time were allocated to meetings between bloggers and potential sponsors, and several companies in attendance were competing for the business of brokering paid sponsorships of bloggers and blogs for brand marketing.
Most of the bloggers I talked to at TBEX who weren't yet making a living from their blogs, but who hoped to do so, seemed to assume that the best way to do so would be to sign up sponsors who would pay them a stipend not just (or primarily) for advertising in their blog, but for them to produce content (articles, photos, etc.), published in their name on their blog (and probably also on social media), on topics the brands see as serving their commercial interests.
During his on-stage conversation with Martha Honey, Bret Love pointed out the greater freedom that self-publishers have to express controversial views. "There's no editor who's going to tell you, 'You can't write that.' What responsibility comes with that kind of editorial power?"
Personally, as I say on my How to Pitch Me page, "To the extent possible for a one-person operation where the writer/editor is also the advertising salesperson, I maintain a separation of advertising and editorial content." Upholding that journalistic norm and turning down inappropriate pitches isn't necessarily any more difficult for a self-employed self-published blogger than it has always been for a traditional small-town newspaper editor who is also the publisher, ad sales manager, and principal owner. Newspapers have travel sections and fill them with "editorial" (journalistic) content to attract eyeballs to travel advertising, not because readers are clamoring for hard news about travel.
Other bloggers do things differently, which is perfectly legitimate as long as their financial interests are clearly disclosed to readers. (Kudos to Matt Villano for pointing out at TBEX that both ethics and the FTC require such disclosures -- yes, even in Tweets.)
But if the dominant business model for travel bloggers is sponsorships paid for out of travel marketing budgets, and judged according to their return on investment for those marketers , does that leave an economic niche for critical reporting and investigative journalism in travel blogs? Or will we end up with a travel blogosphere that's the equivalent of cable television with 200 channels of infomercials -- but no news?
Other business models for travel blogging were oddly absent (or at least invisible) at TBEX.
The first gathering specifically of travel bloggers that I attended was the inaugural Travel Bloggers Show hosted by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) as a side event to the 2010 ASTA convention, where I was invited to speak to both bloggers and travel agents about relationships between travel bloggers and marketers.
Those two groups overlapped: Many of the bloggers who attended the 2010 Travel Bloggers Show were staff bloggers for travel agencies, tour operators, and other providers and distributors of travel services.
Almost every travel business or travel-related nonprofit organization has a blog. Most of these entities pay somebody to write their blog, either as all or part of the job of a salaried employee, or contracted out to a freelance writer for a monthly stipend.
Since 2006, for example, my largest single source of income has been consulting for the Identity Project, part of a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization active on travel-related issues. The largest "deliverable" of my contract work is writing the Identity Project blog at PapersPlease.org.
I suspect that far more travel bloggers are making a living as employees or freelance contractors producing travel blogs for travel corporations or travel-related organizations than as self-publishers of their own blogs. But I didn't hear anyone else talk about this at TBEX.
Also absent from the menu of business-model possibilities laid out for aspiring travel bloggers at TBEX was the relationship of blogs to other content on your Web site. There was plenty of discussion of a writing and publishing mix that includes both blogging and publishing on social media platforms. But I heard no discussion of Web sites that include both blogging and "static" content.
The unstated assumption seemed to be that the most important posts in your blog are the most recent ones, and that your blog is your Web site. That's not true for me, however, or for most of the other travel writers I know who have both blogs and other content on our Web sites. Some of the most visited (and, in advertising, most profitable) pages on my Web site are articles that were posted in my blog years ago, but that said something of ongoing interest, and other static (although periodically updated) answers to FAQs and other "evergreen" content. Most new readers of my blog don't arrive on the home page or start with the latest post.
The best travel blogger I know is Wayne Bernhardson, who writes the deeply insightful Southern Cone Travel blog. I suspect it would be a shoo-in for a Lowell Thomas Award if Wayne bothered to enter it in the contest. But I don't think he has, just as he doesn't appear to have tried to optimize his ad revenues from his blog. Wayne's blog is a labor of love, a place to share field notes and updates from his guidebook research, and an advertisement for the superlative Moon Handbooks to Argentina and Chile from which Wayne makes his living in royalties.
That's not a business model I would choose if I were starting over today, but it's one that remains possible if you are good enough (and efficient enough) at research, writing, and business. I don't regret having chosen to sign a royalty contract with a traditional travel book publisher, given the difficulty I would have faced at that time (1995) in producing, marketing, and distributing a self-published book. Now, there's no need for a new writer to give a publisher a share of the revenues for your book that's so disproportionate to their investment (considering the value of your research and writing time). Standard royalty publishing contracts make no sense for authors, if you evaluate them the way you would any other business joint venture agreements. As I've said before, the biggest thing I would do differently if I were starting over as a writer today would be to self-publish, both on paper and electronically.
Tom Brosnahan, the most successful self-publisher of Web travel content I know (he's said publicly that he makes a six-figure income in US dollars, more than he ever made in royalties from licensing essentially the same content to publishers of printed guidebooks), doesn't even have a blog -- just a static Web site.
Tom has been a generous and astute mentor to me and many other travel writers, and I highly recommend his advice about online self-publishing and the economics of guidebook writing for third-party publishers. I also recommend the National Writers Union for contract and business advice for writers. I'm co-chair of the Book Division of the NWU, but the NWU also includes writers (including bloggers and self-publishers) who publish in many other formats than books. See the links here and in the sidebar of this blog for more travel writing resources.
I went to TBEX in spite of, not because, it was being held in Cancún. It was an interesting anthropological opportunity to experience a place I wouldn't otherwise have visited.
I wasn't surprised to find that Cancún shares many of the dystopian (to me) attributes of those other constructed travel destinations, Orlando and Las Vegas. I was surprised to learn that Cancún -- if one considers the entire Riviera Maya greater metropolitan tourism region served by the Cancún airport -- has more hotel rooms than either the Orlando or Las Vegas areas. I was also intrigued to see where those tourists come from: Not just from the USA, Canada, and wealthier parts of Mexico, but from throughout Latin America and Europe.
TBEX wasn't an anomaly as an international conference in Cancún, either. It's far easier to get visas or visa-free entry for delegates from throughout the Americas, or throughout the world, to meet in Mexico than to meet in the USA. Cancún has become the preeminent site of pan-American gatherings, as Addis Ababa is for pan-African events.
And I wondered how many of the Russian tourists arriving on the regularly scheduled nonstop Transaero flight from Moscow that was listed on the arrival board at Cancún airport would have taken their vacations in Miami Beach (or Orlando or Las Vegas), instead of in Cancún, if they could have gotten visas to the USA.
Fortunately, the boundaries of the tourist ghetto in Cancún are so sharply defined that you don't have to go far to escape many of its worst aspects. Closest and most convenient if you have to attend meetings at the hotels or resorts are the numerous hostels and budget hotels just off the barrier-island beach strip in downtown Cancún. Despite the hostel scene and backpacker presence, it doesn't dominate the downtown area. Most of the businesses downtown cater primarily to locals, and that's mostly who you see on the streets.
There's excellent local bus service (click the route numbers or descriptions to display them on this interactive map) along the Blvd. Kukulkan strip through the Zona Hotelera, between the hotel zone and downtown, and throughout the city.
The frequent, cheap buses make a bicycle (or a car) unnecessary for getting around within the city, but if your hostel, hotel, or resort doesn't provide bikes, you can rent beach cruisers for use along the strip or around town, or mountain or road bikes for excursions farther afield.
The mainland portion of the city of Cancún is divided into "superblocks" ("SM" in addresses), a system used in some other planned cities including Islamabad and Brasilia. If a gringo asks the way to a market, you'll probably be given directions to the Mercado 28, the souvenir and handicraft market that occupies most of SM 28. If you are sightseeing rather than shopping for souvenirs, make your way to the Mercado 23 (SM 23) instead. Just a few blocks away, but off most tourist maps, it's the main local downtown market for fruits, vegetables, bread, cheese, meat, fish, and so forth. It includes numerous breakfast and lunch counters, and is surrounded by more local restaurants supplied with ingredients fresh from the market. It's all out in the open, making it easy to see which places have drawn a crowd and to apply the "happy eater test": (1) Are there people at the restaurant or food stall? (2) Are they eating, and not just drinking or hanging out? (3) Do the people who are eating look happy?
You can even get to Mayan archeological sites and a superb cultural, historical, and ethnographic museum on a city bus, without leaving the Cancún hotel zone.
Addresses in the Zona Hotelera are specified according to the kilometer posts counting up from downtown along Blvd. Kukulkan. Blink and you could miss it between the high-rise hotels, but at KM 16.5, on the ocean side between the highway and the Omni Hotel, you'll find the beautiful new Museo Maya operated by the Mexican National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH). It's small but very well presented and uncrowded, featuring artifacts from throughout the region, not just those found on the site. Most of the exhibits are at least partially labelled in English (and many also in French) as well as in Spanish.
At ground level below and beside the museum galleries, which are raised on cement stilts, you can walk out into one of the few small sections of the hotel strip where, because of the Mayan ruins, the virgin mangroves have been undisturbed: the San Miguelito archeological site, also maintained by INAH. The Mayan stone temples, houses, and other structures in the forest are a bonus, of course, but what I found best was being able to have this shady and secluded-seeming patch of jungle in the middle of the hotel strip almost entirely to myself for a couple of hours.
About a mile further down on the opposite (lagoon) side of the highway at KM 18 is the Sitio Arqueológico de El Rey. The El Rey site has some larger Mayan structures, but most of the site has been cleared, so it doesn't give the same feel of escape from the surrounding development as the San Miguelito site next to the Museo Maya.
There's also a nice free public beach (one of the few such along the Zona Hotelera strip), Playa Delfines, across the highway from, and just before the entrance to, the El Rey archeological site. There are umbrellas and beach chairs for rent, toilets, and showers, but no lockers at the beach.Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 22 September 2014, 07:54 ( 7:54 AM) | TrackBack (0)