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Vacation Journal
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Isla, Na Balam, July 2006

By: gfak (View Profile)
Date: 8/23/2006

This is a copy of my post from Trip Advisor. My email is gfak40 @ if you have any questions.

It's looooooooong!!!

The Hotel
I chose Na Balam for this trip. Overall I liked it a lot. Would I return? Probably not, but that’s mostly because we will probably want a kitchen next time. Read on to find out more.

Hotel - Communication
As usual I chose to use email. My feeling on email is if a business is going to publish an email address, they better use it. Most responses were “OK”, but the language difference was clear at times. And “island time” was evident in the delay of the responses. Sometimes it would take a week or more to get a response. Do I fault them? Perhaps not, especially for the clarity of the responses. I’m not the type that expects everyone in a foreign country to know English. Besides, between the web site and the emails, I got enough to get a feel for the place.

Hotel - The Room
We stayed in one of two junior suites, room 15. I chose a suite to try and get the best room possible. Was it worth the $200/night cost? Perhaps. Depends on what you want/expect. The room itself was basic but comfortable. The shower/bath was nice enough. The bed was a king…single mattress on a platform. Very firm. The outside was the disappointment. The main “sitting” area was in a basin, with a five-foot wall on either side, and a set of steep steps that led up to the “spa”.

The problem for me is that there was no place to sit and have a view, unless you sat on the edge of the spa and dangled your feet in the water. We did drag the chairs up there one time, but to be honest that’s dangerous. There’s not enough room for error (especially if you’ve had a few…not that we ever did).

The other issue is you’re in a fish bowl up there. The people on either side have full view of you. The rooms above you have full view. The people on the beach have full view. You feel like a celebrity.

The good points are that you get a nice sunrise view, and you *almost* get a sunset view. Plus, you get the ocean breeze. The majority of the units have patios that have their backs to the ocean breeze. Also, when it’s dark you can hang out in the spa and not feel so exposed.

If you tend to walk around naked, you obviously can’t go outside. You can’t even stand at the door because if the other suite to your left is occupied, and if someone is in the spa, they can look in and see you.

Unlike the majority of the beach units, the few rooms on this side face east, towards the ocean. This also means that your view is of a little side beach located on the “inlet”. Beyond the beach is the timeshare resort Avalon. How was the view overall? I loved it to be honest. The inlet is beautiful, the breeze is nice, I like the sunrises, and the best was perhaps the “locals”. This area of the beach is not the main area. It’s like a side-beach, and many locals used it. We’d get a kick out of watching the families spend literally all day out there, just having fun. They were never obnoxious or rude. But if your wish is to see a bunch of tourists in your view, you’ll be disappointed. I say that for the glimpse into the lives of some wonderful people, it’s well worth it. I wanted more than once to just go out there and mingle. I’m sure they would have accepted me readily.

There is a high wall between the room and the beach. In fact there’s no direct access to the beach from the room on this side. Overall I guess I prefer that, especially since our room was on the ground floor. Had it not been this way we would not have left the sliders open. Sad fact of life.

The spa itself is not heated, which is good. But for those of you that like the jets, we honestly did not see any manual controls. We found it running once midday, I believe after the maid had stopped by. It may be that it’s on a timer. Is it important? To us it wasn’t, but chances are that you won’t go in there first thing in the morning as it may have some bugs floating around.

Our room didn’t have a room safe, but I believe that was the exception. You can of course leave things at the front desk. I never felt that security was an issue

The electricity is kind of funky, but makes really good sense, especially when you consider the way your average tourist probably behaves. It goes like this – when you open your door there will be small light for illumination. There is a small box just inside the door. You place your room key in the box and “voila”, you have power. Of course this means you cannot leave the room and take your key with you without killing the power (ie, A/C, fan, outlets…the works). Why do this? So vacationing dummies won’t waste precious electricity. I’m all for it. The room never got stifling hot. In fact we often slept with the sliders open and just the fan running. It’s breezy on this side so that works. BUT…if you have things like rechargeable batteries, then you have to take care to plan your charging times. Not a big deal and I support the novel method of saving resources.

Be aware that if you sleep with the sliders open, they open the beach front kitchen before seven, so that’s when the exhaust fans come on. You will hear these.

The shower is nice as well, but it did not drain well. I’m not surprised as I suspect many people pay too little attention to what they put down the drains. However it wasn’t an issue because we didn’t shower long, nor did we run it at full power. You have to realize that a small island like this is fortunate enough to even HAVE water. When it comes to plumbing, I do not expect a Greek bath. Hot water existed, but as expected you might have to run the tap for a bit to get it. I only needed it for shaving…the luke-warm showers were fine by me.

Also there was no water smell, however as usual we drank bottled water.

There are plenty of big towels provided. We just kept re-using ours, hanging them up to dry.

There’s no fridge, which is a big disadvantage in my opinion. I realize it would mean setting up a constant circuit but they should consider it because this one reason alone is why we probably won’t return. It’s nice to have things like fresh juice handy, maybe a cold beer or two.

Hotel - Service
The service so far has been good, as has the food. I did read some bad comments about this, but then again we weren’t concerned with things such as reserving two beach beds, for instance. One day was very crowded, but they found us a spot, chairs, and an umbrella in no time. No complaints here.

In fact we had kind of an entertaining experience with our door lock. See, it would only work about every fifth try. We found this kind of amusing, until it turned into once every twenty tries. At that point we went to the front desk. The man there smiled (at my pathetic Spanish no doubt) and said we could move to another room. My face must have been funny. “Another room? Not unless you were going to refund all my money, bucko!” So instead they promised to replace the electronic lock by the next day. And sure enough when we came back from diving it was all set. So nice response.

The greeting was brief, but nice. They explained the way the electricity works, and the tickets for the towels. But that was it. And there was no in-room hotel guide except for the spa/massage service. At this point other than what I can recall from their website, I have no clue what they offer, times for restaurants, etc.

There IS a shared PC in the open-air “lobby” area, but there’s a charge for its use. I was unaware of this.

Hotel - Food
I was quite happy with the food, especially breakfast. Again I had seen some complaints. We had breakfast three times, and dinner at Zazil ha once. Dinner could have been better, but the setting was nice. Besides, nothing beat Casa O’s, or the seafood pasta at Sunset Café.

Hotel – Location
Hopefully you have invested in a map from mapchick. So you should know that the hotel is located at the north-east corner of the island. What’s important to know is that it is about a 10-15 minute walk to / from the ferry docks. I doubt many people do the walk with their luggage, although if you’re traveling light it should be OK.

OK, this is the tough part. Sad fact is that the beach at Na Balam took a beating in the hurricane. The real estate relative to the rest of the beach is tiny, but usable. It appears that they are working hard to try and recover some sand. This means there are sandbag “groins” there that I believe trap the sand. But they also trap the seaweed, so to get to the nice water you had to avoid the seaweed. Not bad, but the other sections of the beach to the left are gorgeous.

Also, I have seen two sets of pictures on here, one with minimal seaweed, the other with the beach covered. I was surprised to see the pics of the beach covered with seaweed. That was not our experience. There was SOME seaweed, but not like in the picture. Besides, they cleaned it up each morning (although I question the method of simply burying it on the beach…I’m not convinced this works best). Bottom line is that it wasn’t an issue for us, nor did it appear to be an issue for anyone else.

That said once you get in the water it’s fantastic. We loved the lengthy shallows and the soft sand. The fact that you could walk for yards and still be only up to your waist meant that even with a lot of people there, you could still find space. And if you wanted to all you had to do was walk a few minutes down the beach and you’d have perfection.

The Island
We ate at Bujo’s once, Zazil Ha once, Rolandi’s twice, Sunset Grill twice, and Casa O’s twice. Our favorite? Casa O’s. Good food, good service, but you need transportation to get there. Sunset Grill was very nice as well, but the atmosphere at Casa O’s was top-notch. It also helped that for both our dinners we happened to be the only ones there! And the view out over the ocean to Cancun was excellent. Rolandi’s was good but the central location on Hidalgo was sort of ruined one night due to a lot of smokers, and an annoying little person who would stand at tables with a portable stereo. He’d stand there singing in the worst William Hung voice ever, basically waiting until you got so annoyed that you paid him to leave.

I can’t say it enough – the locals are overall wonderful people, even with all the tourism. The exceptions are the vendors, of course. Especially on the waterfront and Hidalgo. We made it a point to only go in shops where they didn’t literally grab you on the street. After that we avoided Hidalgo all together. Not our scene.

As I mentioned above, the families at the beach were a riot. On our last day I gave a small pool toy to a little girl (with Mom’s permission), and the smile on her face was worth the entire trip. I made a vow to bring or buy as many toys as I can next time.

Most people we met thoroughly enjoyed it when we tried to speak Spanish. And try we did. Given that we ran into so many American tourists who could seem to care less about trying the local language, it felt that much better. I felt like it would be a blast to go to some out of the way place and sit with the locals, having a few beers and embarrassing the hell out of myself as I tried to speak. We actually did this a little here and there, and it was well worth it.

Another exception might be The Avalonians. What’s an Avalonian? These are the guys that are at the ferry dock (on the mainland) and at the entrance to the causeway at Avalon who will try and talk you into a timeshare “presentation”. We had no interest in this, but we still got “caught” a couple of times. We were nice enough and excused ourselves quickly.

We did three dives, all in the south west area known as Manchones. Had we seen more I might have raised this score, but two things hurt – the visibility and the current. We’re not world-class divers, but we’ve got a few under our belt, all over the Caribbean. The dive the first day was somewhat murky, even though it was shallow. This may have been due to strong winds and current coming around the southern point of the Island (aka Garrafon).

Then there was the current. It was difficult at times. Had they been purely drift dives it might have been better. Not a huge deal, but at times it made it hard to try and remain stationary to look at something interesting.

Although I must say it didn’t affect air consumption as our guide was careful to go slow (see below). We did see a turtle, but that’s not new. The reef itself showed some signs of damage, but not bad. And we did run into another set of divers. In general I’d say that the area was crowded, and that affected any plans our dive shop may have had for where they went (getting an earlier start may have helped – again, see below).

The dive shop was Sea Hawk, located just a minute from Na Balam. They tie their boats up at the inlet between Na Balam and Avalon. Eduardo was our dive master and Manuel our boat captain. Their English was OK, enough to get by. Again, you really should learn Spanish…it’s the respectful thing to do. These guys were nice, and we enjoyed their company. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, on both days we dove we left late. The first day was 15 minutes, the other was almost an hour, followed by a stop for gas. So needless to say when we got to Manchones, there were already a lot of boats there. Apparently the second delay was due to the fact that the owner had to take off for an errand, and the guys had to man the shop till the owner returned.

Would we use Sea Hawk divers again? Yes. Overall they are a good shop, and we liked the smallness and “friendliness”.

The fishing was excellent, which was a sigh of relief after not having very good luck the past few trips. However we did something unique – we fished the mainland, not the waters off Isla. When I first started to research fishing on Isla, I quickly realized it focused on offshore style, with trolling rods, etc. It was very difficult to find any information on light-tackle opportunities.

That led me to expand my search to the mainland, specifically to the area north of the ferry terminal. I ended up with TarponCancun, and we were quite happy with them. I dealt with a person named Elba Loredo via email, and it was a pleasant experience. From soup to nuts they were a good operation, and we’d return to them in a heartbeat.

Of course that meant we had to get up early, catching the 6am ferry. A representative from TarponCancun would pick you up in a van on the street outside the ferry terminal (they were on-time both days). It was then a 30-minute ride to the fishing docks. I have to admit it’s not easy because we got up at 4:30am each day to do this. Still, we’d do it again on our next trip, at least for one day.

As for the fishing, we did two days of flats fishing. During this time we saw plenty of tarpon sign. We both had tarpon on the line once (my wife for almost 15 minutes). This may sound silly, but for us amateurs it was a thrill to experience this. On the second day we were in a small cove area and the tarpon were surfacing all around us. It almost didn’t matter where you cast. We’ll never forget that.

We also caught some sea trout, and some Barracuda. But the bonefish and permit were nowhere to be seen. We actually did a run of almost an hour, reaching some of the most expansive and pristine flats I have ever seen. But they were literally empty of fish. I couldn’t believe it.

As far as Isla, I hate using trolling rods, so a goal for next year is to perhaps purchase our own travel spinning rods and then see who we can find who might take us out for some medium tackle fishing offshore. I don’t know how feasible this is, but I believe there are plenty of Barracuda in the waters, and I bet we can find some areas good for casting.

Hidalgo / Shopping / Dancing
This was perhaps our biggest (and only) disappointment. I was looking forward to strolling along Hidalgo (the main avenue going down the center of the town area at the north end). I knew it was pedestrian only, and that held a lot of appeal.

Unfortunately you can’t easily walk along without being accosted by the various vendors trying to sell you something. We’re definitely not into this. And we quickly discovered that a simple “No gracias” often wasn’t enough. At best you had to repeat it several times. In a few cases it seemed they got annoyed with us. This may be the norm in more populated tourist areas. To be honest I really don’t know. I’ve heard stories about places like Jamaica. To me it’s sad that it happens on Isla, and as a result it’s very unlikely that we will spend much time (if any at all) on Hidalgo (or on the streets along the dock/west beach area).

This also means that nice restaurants like Rolandi’s may not be on our list next time. But here’s one suggestion – walk along one of the streets that parallels Hidalgo, and then when you get near, cut over to Hidalgo and make a break for the restaurant you want. In other words, if you’re like us and want to eat at a spot there, pay attention to the cross streets. This means you will have to stroll Hidalgo at least once.

Then again if you don’t mind the vendors and you like to haggle, go for it. More power to you!

As for nightlife, we really didn’t see any, even past midnight. Maybe we missed it. The only thing that came close was a fairly decent band at Fayne’s. For a while as we sat and listened it was quite good. But then some woman from the crowd went up to the band, and next thing we know she was singing. Was she any good? Not really. The band was better without her! It got worse after that when some Shaun White wannabe also joined in. It’s too bad because prior to them basically taking over it was a decent band. There was no sign of any dancing at any other spots. We only went out that Sat night however.

The Ferry
The ferry is a modern fleet of cats. The ride is 30 minutes. On the mainland there are two lines – one for locals, and the other for the rest of us. It was kind of funky the way things would work…instead of people standing in lines, most seemed to mill about until almost the last minute. Then a line would form out of nowhere! It really didn’t seem to matter, unless the weather was hot or rainy, at which point you might want to make sure you got into the enclosed area instead of being on the top deck.

Oh, on the mainland there is a small bar to the left as you approach the dock area. In fact there will probably be a nice man steering you in that way. If you have time and want a quick drink, there you go!

Getting Around
We didn’t rent a golf cart, but on our next trip we probably will. Instead we did a bike tour of the island (on our own). I forget who we rented from, but they have a small shop right on the front street near the docks. They had about a dozen bikes on display in the street, none of which had gears. I think it was $20 US for the day for both bikes. The bikes were fine, but it was definitely hot (we circled the entire island). At the southern end towards Garrafon there are a few hilly areas where gears would have been nice.

There were no issues riding, but on the first leg out of town along the waterfront there was a constant stream of traffic. We were able to ride the sidewalk a lot. On a map this was on the south west side, and as we headed south to Garrafon the airport strip was on our left.

The roads are in good condition, so no issues there.

Garrafon Park
OK, here’s the deal with our Garrafon experience. As noted above we rode there on bikes. By the time we got there all we wanted to do was get into the cool water. When we were told the entrance fee was $50 US…for EACH of us…we balked. Apparently it’s a bundled rate that includes the cable trapeze, the kayaks, snorkeling, and even food I believe.

But all we wanted was to go for a swim. None of the other stuff interested us, and we already had plans for food at Casa O’s down the road. But they didn’t do a la carte pricing.

So reluctantly we put our sweaty bodies back on our bikes and did the short ride back down the road to a beach club sign we noticed earlier. I had heard this place mentioned by other travelers and it’s well worth it if all you want is to swim. Entrance fee was about $3 US for each of us…a very fair price. And if we had wanted to snorkel we could have rented gear (I saw plenty of fish while we were swimming). There is also a small café there.

To be honest I would have rather given money to help support and maintain Garrafon, but I was very disappointed by the pricing scheme.

Now, there’s also another point of interest out at this end. After we cooled off at the beach club, we got back on our bikes and went beyond the Garrafon entrance to the very end of the island. Out here there is another small shopping area (go in, get ice cream, cool off…you gotta do it!). Just a few shops but they have some good stuff I thought.

Past the shops is the rocky point that forms the end of Isla. There is a small shack there, and although it’s hard to tell there is in fact an entrance fee. It was $3 US each. It was worth it to walk the well-maintained paths at the point, including those that descend down to the water level. Hot but worth it.

Overall we enjoyed Isla very much and will very likely return. However we may stay at Nautibeach or some place similar so we can have a fridge, kitchen, etc.

One final note – we did take a walk over to Secreto to check it out. Very nice looking place. Nine units on three floors (three to each floor). Each has direct views out to the ocean, and corresponding views out back. The ocean-front porches are private with walls on either side. The exception are the first floor units which face the pool area.

Although the beach area seems nice, I do agree it may be tough to go into the water. I’d do it, although only to wade out a bit to get cool. I don’t think I’d attempt swimming.

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