Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson

Mexico - The Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Resort

The Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Resort

Work has been, shall we say, intense for quite a while now.  With both Chris and I feeling stressed and worn out.  So we took a break and ran away to Mexico.   There were some significant changes to our usual travels and they worked out beautifully for what we needed this vacation.

Things such as:

- we travelled in March instead of February; therefore places that are not quite warm enough for me in Feb, were now open options

- we went for as-simple-as-possible.  All inclusive.  I even fairly quickly gave up and called in the expert as to where to start - Kes Smith (find her here if you need or want to book anything - she put a ton of effort into solving a challenge we had while away, AND also was the one who recommended this resort, having been there herself, which we absolutely loved).   We had no plan for excursions although I'll admit I did a bit of digging after picking the location to find what I'd like to do if I were so inclined, but it didn't drive anything about the planning or selection.  (in the end, we only left the resort one day - I'll give it its own blog post.

This, or very close to this, was our view for most of the week.
With a *few* more people, but never crowded.

- we were on a HUGE resort.  By far the biggest we've done.  Usually I intentionally look for smaller ones / more personal / etc.  BUT - what this allowed was that even though they were full, we could always get a seat at either pool or beach, there were three different pools and each one was dedicated to a different preferred experience:  the games pool, the high energy music pool, and the tranquil pool.  One guess where we spent most of our time ;). Also, the tranquil pool was farthest from the accommodations, so it wasn't the one people would just "stumble" over first.  Which meant those with kids, those who just couldn't be bothered, etc ended up at one of the others.  It also had no swim-up bar and lots more trees.  Win all around.   It WAS closest to the beach, which was a win for me since every day I went there at least for a bit :) 

There were even hammocks available!

- it was comparatively far from the airport.   Usually we try to limit transit time - that sweet spot between not hearing the planes and not having to drive for hours to start your vacation.  But this time - I think it saved us a mountain of children.   SO many other resorts closer to the airport and closer to the excursions likely to appeal to families, that it wasn't a kid-heavy experience despite being March Break.  I heard also that they actively discourage "spring break" groups of any age.   Our room was in an "adults only" area, said on the booking 18+, but I'm not sure what that means since for at least a few days we had a baby in an adjoining room.  Not a big deal though.

I sat out on our balcony at some point pretty much every day.
Sometimes monkeys visited :)

So all of this made for a lovely vacation.   Our room was clean, a really good size, and generally kept up.  We were on the ground floor and still had a little balcony that faced trees where occasionally monkeys came to visit.   I would say the maid service was not quite up to the standard we've seen at other places, but it wasn't bad by any means.  It was also comparatively well located as we could get just about everywhere without too far a hike once we knew our way around.  

Running was the opposite of our objective, but this gives an idea of the size.
Our room was in the "Chac" section, "our" pool of choice was the horseshoe-shaped one.

That being said, the resort is huge, if you do the loop of only the main part of the resort it's about 3km.   I averaged 17.5k steps a day.   Now, I partially did that on purpose cause I like to walk and we were eating a LOT and at home if I don't make an effort I'll walk less than 3k (home office remember - and it's winter).   There are shuttles all day going all over the resort - electric golf-cart types, so they're quiet (although Mexico drivers, so slightly terrifying lol).  

Re food and drink, there were all the typical all-inclusive type things: many bars (incl swim-up bars in two of the pools), multiple buffet options, a la carte restaurants (pro tip: book them all the day you get there, they fill up fast), beach snack bar (hot dogs / hamburgers / nachos, etc), etc.   What it had that was awesome that I haven't seen before were:

  • the Italian a la carte restaurant would make pizzas at lunch (think medium size) - you could have 2 per room (C and I together couldn't finish one).  These were thin crust and surprisingly just right after several days of way too much buffet food.  Also, portable - you could easily eat them by the pool or beach or room.
  • there was a coffee shop (still included) that was absolutely lovely.  Multiple coffee options (both hot and cold, and of course alcohol addition options) AND hot chocolate (for she who doesn't drink coffee).  They also usually had light snacks (think tiny wraps,  breakfast pastries, etc).   Chris was there multiple times a day :).  But I really loved going there after dinner, where for at least a few nights there was a woman singing salsa music.   Very much outdoor cafe style, had our coffee at a little table and watched the woman sing and a few of the guests dance.

Even the sleeves of the coffee cup had words to make me smile.
  • my daytime spot which I'll admit I visited more often than Chris was the ice cream bar.   Ideally at the FAR end of the resort from where we were, so helped me get my steps every day.   The ice cream was really good, and they even had sprinkle options :)   Coconut became my go-to, but of the several flavours I tried, there weren't any I wouldn't do recommend.  It was by the loudest pool, so reaffirmed each day that we chose the right location
  • right next to our pool of choice was a smoothy bar.  It and the ice cream bar were the only two that had no alcohol at all.  The smoothies were actually healthy which means, of course, I did not partake as they all had some form of vegetable smuggled in. But Chris enjoyed them and they were always busy, so I have to feel the option was appreciated.
  • re a la cartes: this resort had WAY more options for a la carte than others I've seen.  We chose Steak, Brazilian, and Mexican.  Next time I'd pass on the first two; Steak we do better at home, while Brazilian was interesting and I'd recommend others try it, but too much meat for me.  The Mexican I'd do again and I'd love to try the Mediterranean and the Italian ones.   For real foodies there were lots of others too, but they appeal less to me since I am the extreme opposite of an adventurous eater with the preferred diet of the average 8-yo child lol.  But options include French, Japanese, etc...  I'm definitely forgetting at least one, possibly more.   
On the lazy river - "our" pool was attached via the cut through at the right.

Now - the true highlight was the lazy river.   It's NOT fully connected, it has a stop and an end and one lap is about 15 mins.  But it is extremely well done, very lovely, we never had a problem getting tubes and rarely even found it crowded (even when we knew fully well almost all the tubes were in use).  It twists and turns and most of the time you're under trees.   You go past the loud pool and hear the music for a bit, and other areas you hear more birds or critters.   We did many laps every day and it will be missed.

Gratuitous lazy river shot

That being said, because we knew there was a lazy river and that it was March Break, we were concerned about ability to get tubes so brought some of our own.  We didn't need them for the lazy river but did it ever up our general resort water enjoyment.   The days the ocean was safe (yellow flagged instead of red) we floated on the waves - paddle out, float back in, rinse and repeat (the beach was such that it had very easy/obvious stop points to ensure we didn't end up beyond a safe point).   Other times we floated in the pool (which was not crowded so this worked - other resorts we've been at floaties wouldn't have been a good idea at beach or pool but here it worked, and worked well enough they sold them in most of the shops on the resort).

There really isn't any better way to relax

The beach was stunning, broken naturally into three sections.  There was a lifeguard on duty but they were mostly hidden in the trees.  One of the three sections always had a ton of fish, so usually people there snorkelling or fish watching (super shallow so snorkelling was tricky there).  The other two were more likely to have people swimming.  We tended to go to the farthest one which tended to be smaller and have almost no people.

About half the week the beach was yellow-flagged and we went in.
The rest of the week was red, and we respected the warning.
The area we usually swam was the other side of the ruin from this viewpoint.

There was a ruin on the property that you could get to with just a short wade.  Thought that was really cool (if you squint or make the picture bigger, it's in the photo above :). It was tiny but still great that it's there and protected.

Also, it seems that the resorts here own property all the way to (and possibly into?) the ocean, which meant down-side: paying spa rates for a beach massage (that was *awesome* btw), but serious up-side, no hawkers trying to sell you stuff endlessly on the beach (looking at you Grenada) or just off the beach in the water (Jamaica comes to mind here!).  Potentially it's the tight security at the gate that keeps that under control too, but either way, was appreciated.

I would not want to get in-between these guys and their food
I'd consider them Mexican racoons, except they *also* had actual racoons!  Albeit skinny ones.
Probably because their daytime cousins ate all the food.

There were lots of animals on the resort; some of which I recognised ;). MANY of which would consume any food left out, which resulted in people being less sloppy than normal about leaving stuff around the pool.  lol the 30 or so Coati's swarming somebody's pizza box was fascinating - esp when they came single file from another side of the resort.  Well-organized critters.   Also many cats, monkeys (equally likely to steal food), racoons (dusk and evening), and Sereque.  Those were rat-type critters that I saw a few times but not as many of and know very little about.

Lots of learning opportunities around the resort

The people working at the resort were awesome - they're definitely hiring and/or training for friendly and customer-service oriented.  The resort IS a chain, albeit a small one, and I would definitely consider other versions of it.  I would say it ranks in the middle of the Riu type ranking - it's not top end by any means, but it's a lot better than many and we had a very lovely week there despite them being fully booked (I almost find it hard to believe they were fully booked because it never felt crowded.  If it was, they did something really right).   

Everything was beautifully lit at night.  This was "our" pool after dark.

The only challenges we had on this trip were with Sunwing/Nexus and, well, at least Sunwing has been bought so hopefully service will be better under new ownership.   I would just book the resort and flight directly next time to get around that.  

Random Mexico things :)

So our March Break escape lead us to the Riviera Maya and except for one day, we didn't leave the resort we had booked.  So I can't by any stretch say we experienced the "real" Mexico, but we did experience a lovely dream.  But some random things I learned:

- "Retorno"s are terrifying part of highway life 😂 and I would have a very hard time driving without dying in Mexico.   So this situation occurs because their divided highway has no overpasses, so if you need to reach something on the other side, you drive past it, and essentially pull a u-turn at a designated space so that then you are pointing the right direction to reach your destination.  Except this means you're turning from fast lane to fast lane, and - to add to the drama - cars will do this two deep.  Now - technically the speed limit in the fast lane drops to 60 right before each retorno, however - when speedlimits were clearly just suggestions at best and is 80 or 100 before, definitely nobody was slowing down simply cause other people were trying to merge from a halt. And of course, all the resorts are on the same side, so either going out from the airport (our situation) or coming back (if you were the other direction), this has to be done at every resort you go to, and then again to get back out.   Speedbumps are also an extreme sport in Mexico (at least this region of it) but, fortunately, only a couple of them on the highway at police checkpoints.  On the side roads though they were significant.

- People also cross the highway on foot, on bicycle, carrying an infant...   It is beyond terrifying.   Our taxi driver sadly acknowledged "there are lots of accidents" - uh, you think?!?!  

- Heavily armed police everywhere and nobody seems to think anything of it.  I found it a jarring reminder that we clearly were not experiencing the reality, but rather a carefully structured tourist experience.  And honestly, I was grateful for it - although some day I would very much love to see Mexico City.  Not this trip though.   

- Safety is an interesting contrast:  lots of people riding seatbelt-less in the back of a pickup truck on the highway (incl armed police with sirens blaring), people crossing said highway on foot, construction zones that would make and health & safety inspector cry (hard hats are definitely not a thing), and yet...  my can of coke had health warnings on it (too much sugar and caffeine apparently - shocker!). 

Somehow this just encouraged me to drink more ;)

- Likewise, security at the resort was more than we've seen at other places.  No difference at all once we were in, but every time we crossed the gate the driver's name was written down and they needed our names (and room number after we were checked in).   Even when we left the resort-proper to go for a brief walk to a convenience store (still in the broader gated community which included a lot of condos) we had to show our armbands to go back on the resort property; we were on foot, past the first check point, wearing nothing but beach wear and coverups, but still proof required.  That being said, we had zero security issues.  Even in the airport, there were constant messages, in English, of how and where to book a "safe" taxi and not to get in a car that wasn't explicitly airport-approved.  We had our ride pre-booked so less of a concern there but I was aware of it.

- I'm not bad at math for figuring out Canadian currency in USD, GBP, and even usually the Euro (advantage to having to manage multi-country budgets for work).   I failed horribly at trying to calculate Peso exchange rate; thankfully Chris took on that responsibility for us ;)    In Tourist Mexico, USD is accepted everywhere, but peso rate is sometimes cheaper.  Also, if you pay cash with USD, odds are you'll get pesos in return (this was actually helpful as I failed to acquire pesos before we left due to timing and living far away from anywhere likely to keep them on hand).

- People - across the board - were incredibly friendly, positive, and - importantly to me - patient with my efforts at Spanish, even when they were fluent in English.   Picture trying to speak intermediate French in Paris and what a horrible experience that is (if you have't had the pleasure, trust me on that one) -- this was the extreme opposite.   Again, this could be Tourist-Mexico rather than real life, but I have met enough other people from there to suspect it might be fairly wide-spread.

- the pace of things is slower, but not slow.   I didn't ever feel like we were on "island time" or "tico time" (the Costa Rica variant).  Again though, IDK if that's Mexico or Tourist-Mexico.  That being said, organisation was a bit of a flexible thing.  I would not want to have to deal with anything government-based (passports / visas / etc).   

- tacos come with pineapple!!!   I wondered if this was just for tourists 😂 or to cause a war like pineapples on pizza, but a Mexican friend confirms it's legit.   And while I was a little unsure of the concept of it (fruit and meat aren't usually two things I combine), I actually loved it.   Also, if you haven't had real Mexican tacos before, what you're thinking of is not the same.  I hated tacos all my life till I had *actual* tacos and they are now a favourite food.  Yup, that's right, I'm a taco snob.  lol. But only because North American tacos generally make me physically ill.   Although I admit I really do like cheese and sour cream on my tacos which is definitely not the Mexican take on them ;).  There's a taco truck near our house that makes amazing tacos and the ones we had in Miami last year were, not surprisingly, fabulous.  So they can be found, but you've got to be committed to the search *g*

    Mmmm tacos...
- that being said, I found all food had less flavour than I'm used to, and I never quite figured out the difference.  Sweets obviously have to do with the amount and type of sugar, but other things?  I'm really not sure.  Was still good, and arguably healthier since I wasn't inclined to keep eating just for taste, but curious.  I know with a lot of things the locals season with super hot/spiciness which I'm sure is awesome if you can eat it without dying lol, but just the scent of most of that does me in.  So plausible, at least with the meats, is the issue is I need an in-between level of food that doesn't exist (I tried the tiniest drop of 'hot' on a nacho before starting in on the above tacos - wow.  I swear my eyes start to water at just the thought of it now).  But not sure about things like eggs, cheese, grapes (?!?! - the grapes were huge, but again, less flavour).   Or maybe it's all just me.  Fully plausible.

- I googled whether or not Mexico was considered a developed country and found a really interesting read that for the life of me I can't find the link to right this second.  The 2-second summary is they're considered a Newly Industrialised Country (NIC) which means they're growing fast financially; however, there are still some pretty significant human rights components that have a ways to go.

- overall, I had a great time; I really loved getting to speak Spanish; I would 100% go back to both the country and / or the same resort; and I feel like there's a whole lot we didn't experience that was probably very different, but I don't actually have any thing to base that on.  I think I'd go back here again before returning to Ocho Rios in Jamaica -- and I truly didn't expect that going in.  The people made all the difference.  

TIL: Even adults can "earn" participation awards ;)

If I can't pat one, maybe I can learn to draw one?

I don't even really know where to begin.  Okay - well I'm definitely chuckling that I got a legit participation award for a free online course.  But hey, I'll take what I can get ;).   And it made me and some of my friends laugh, so obviously it had SOME benefit.   And, to Jael's point - somebody, somewhere, for sure has this participation award on their LinkedIn ;-P

So, as those who follow this blog will know, I've been playing with the idea of learning to draw, and recently discovered that "coloured pencils" isn't as simple a concept as I'd thought.  And while most of the YouTubers tend to use primarily "normal" (in my head) coloured pencils (eg wax or oil based - not that I knew either were a thing until very recently), the pros who do primarily animals seem to like pastel pencils.  Which are, of course, even more expensive ;). 

But I like animals...   I don't remember how exactly I ended up there, but I found the Colin Bradley School of Art -- and he had a free "for complete beginners" class that only needed 6 pastel pencils to create an impressive looking tiger.   Hmmmm potentially I could justify that for a new experience (they're about $3 each!  At least at the only place I could find to buy them individually - which was conveniently less than a 20 min walk from work on a week I had to go to the office anyways).

Well.  The top thing I learned is this is NOT the medium for me.  Ugh.  Sad.   Which is a shame cause I LOVED the class.  And while he does have a handful of classes for coloured pencils, the things I'd really love to draw are all pastels.  Blah.

So - first of all - things I loved about the class.   It is friendly, patient, calm.  It's kinda like sitting with  a storybook grandfather teaching you the basics (if your grandfather happened to sound and teach like  David Attenborough lol).  Patient, relaxed, and once in a while unintentionally made me laugh (eg "you don't have to follow my way."  *pause*  "But I suggest you do.").  They tell you up front what you'll need, including the exact brand and colour of pencils, paper, etc (easier to follow if you have the same materials).  I'll admit, I only got the pencils - mostly cause none of the rest was easily available around here, but I did at least get "pastel paper", if not the specific brand, having learned my lesson about impact of paper before!   I believe the whole site is run by the artist (who my guess would be in his 80s?   Said he didn't start learning to draw until he was in his 30s) and his either son or grandson (I think son, but not 100% sure on that) who seems to take care of the online portion of the business while the artist does the drawing and teaching component.

He provides a sketch to start you out and suggests printing it directly onto the paper (like with an actual printer) which was my first indication of the difference in medium because, of course, you can't erase those lines!   However, A - my pastel paper wouldn't fit in the printer, and B - I also would like to actually learn how to draw so...  I did my best to copy his example and sketch it myself.  I used a grid, so that certainly helped.  It wasn't perfect by any means, but I would argue it was close enough (hey - when I took a pic of my finished work, my phone identified it as a tiger, so I'm deeming that a win!)

Probably kinda hard to see, but my attempt at copying his sketch.
So that I could *start* lol.

Now - this course is 1.4h long.  I know from prev YouTube to double or triple the time depending.   This one...  We're not even going to discuss it.   I was likely an hour in before he started (aka with getting the sketch in place!)  Probably a good life choice to go back to learning some sketching basics first!

I came to learn pretty quickly why pastels wouldn't be for me...  The first thing is, part of learning to draw was a hobby I could do on the couch while C was watching TV.   Pastels kinda need a desk.  I already have lots of "in my office" hobbies - piano, Spanish, handstands...   So that in itself wasn't a strong start, but could certainly be worked around fairly easily if it were the only blocker.   The next was enforced structure.  Because of how smudgy pastels are, you really do have to fully complete one section at a time.   There is no agile to this approach ;).  You can't stop in the middle and have a usable project.  So I'd have part the was amazing and I loved and part that I hadn't even started yet.   I'm not great a lifetime commitment projects ;). I'm here full for the quick wins.  I have a lifetime commitment stabby that I'm working on - one is enough!

Great ears!  But that's a lot of work to still have the rest look like...  Well this ;)

One thing that made this course more of a course than just a follow-along video is the nature of the picture lends itself to repetition.   So he'd teach how to do one ear, and then let you go off and do the other.   Teach how to do one type of fur, and then let you extrapolate that to the rest.  Super frustrating if you just want a pretty picture at the end but actually awesome for teaching you to figure it out.   And after the face, it was pretty much a DIY approach with a "you don't need to watch me do this, I'll meet you back here when you're done". Again - great for learning, less good for successful results 😂    Although I certainly could've replayed the video from before to help refresh that for sure.

I think the above picture is about where I stopped on day 1 (or day 2 actually - day 1 was the sketch, day 2 I started with colours).  I was now a couple hours into a 1.4h video ;)

The eyes were my favourite part by far.   I'm so amazed at them, I loved doing them, and they were totally worth the effort for the results.  It really helped me to pay attention to details of colour and the impact of shading = realism/depth.  And I know that's really 101 level, but come on - I AM 101 level lol.

Even after all was said and done, the eyes remain my favourite part.

They warn about smudging, and keeping a piece of paper over any work you've already done.  What I didn't clue into was the paper itself could cause smudges 🤦‍♀️, so I found that an added degree of stress that wasn't necessary for a complete beginner ;).  Now normal pencil crayons do the same, but nowhere near the same degree.

The layering of colours I still don't entirely understand why it works in areas that you don't need or want to ever see all the colours, but I definitely appreciate that it does ;)

Part way through a technique was introduced that I could *not* replicate.  SO far beyond my skill and capability level it was laughable.  So I gave it a go, but yeah.  A definite miss.  And combine that with a complete inability to get my pencils sharp (apparently the trick is whittling them with a knife - which, thanks to C, I have a knife.  Alas, I have no skills).  And now smudgy paper and colours being flattened, my frustration level was definitely growing.   The smudgy paper was easy enough to manage once I knew about it - so that's simply a newbie mistake.   Skills it's fair not to have on day one, but still sad :( 

And then I had to disappear for basically two weeks for work.   lol so when I came back, I finished off what I could, decided not to include the background mostly cause I didn't have the patience for it today and I wanted it done, and partially cause I'd have to tape the paper and I wasn't sure that would be a good life choice at this point ;)  Whiskers were pretty much a complete fail lol.   I got one or two that I think looked right, but man are they a risky edition - the same skill I had 100% failed throughout the whole drawing, but has to be done fast, in one stroke, with confidence or it doesn't work AND risks a complete redo of significant parts of work (plus side, I now know it's reasonably easy to redo pastels - far more than coloured pencils).  So not sure how I'm feeling about that atm, but I'm calling the tiger done.    

I'm gonna take this as a win for a first effort!

First experience with pastel pencils taught me a LOT, I *loved* this particular school and would 100% sign up for their paid stuff too if it were graphite or coloured pencils.  But likely again some day.  We shall see :).  After all, they did give me a participation award!   Nobody else has done that in decades ;-P.  But I can't imagine how long one of the LONG videos would take me!  lol.  This was pretty close to the shortest option.

I'm not even kidding! ;)