Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The Coveted Chaises
After three days of snorkeling, rappelling and zip lining, we were ready for a day off.  We decided to spend Thursday enjoying the beach near our hotel and exploring the Playacar neighborhood.  The Viva hotels have a nice VIP area for timeshare owners.  This area features nicer chaises and a cocktail server.  Competition for this real estate is fierce.  It is not the case that all or even most of the places are actually occupied, but all of them are always "reserved."  The hotel has attempted to handle this problem by posting signs forbidding reserving spaces.  Prior to 9:00 am, the staff actually removes any towels they find spread across unoccupied chaises.  After 9:00, however, it becomes harder to tell who had "reserved" a spot by spreading his or her towel there and going back to breakfast and who has just gone for a swim.  The rules are not enforced after 9:00.

We had been enable to find free places on any of our earlier attempts, so had resorted to using chaises that appeared to be unoccupied (no shoes or sunscreen present) and just moving if somebody showed up.  Some people were nice about it and others were nasty.  We had begun to refer to the situation as La Batalla de las Toallas (The Battle of the Towels.)  On this particular morning, I had an appointment to chat with the member services folks, so Erika headed down to the beach, full of righteous indignation and prepared to do whatever was necessary to secure a place.  Luck was with her and she found spots without incident.  While lying there, she observed that, not only were people reserving places, some were "reserving" one in the sun and another in the shade. By the time I showed up, Erika had a conflict free spot waiting for me and all I had to do was slather on the sunscreen and guard our territory while Erika went for a walk.  We hung out on the beach until lunchtime and then cleaned up and went to lunch.

Viva Maya is located in the hotel zone within a gated community called Playacar.  Besides hotels, this community also contains many very nice private homes and a couple of shopping areas.  After lunch, we walked over to a bird sanctuary, but declined to pay the still entrance fee.  We could peek through the trees and see that there were flamingos, spoonbills and scarlet macaws in there.

I am in the process of working with an architect to design a major remodel of my home which will include a complete reworking of the exterior, so I spent some time photographing the houses I liked to share with my architect.  I found more houses I liked in that one afternoon than I had in years of looking at houses in California.  I guess it's safe to say that I like modern Mexican architecture.  Fortunately, my architect does, also.

We strolled through the shopping area on the way back and bought some earrings for gifts.  Erika headed back to the hotel for a siesta and I hung out at the Starbucks so as to take advantage of the internet connection.  On my way back to the hotel, I started to experience intestinal cramping, which is not the thing you want to feel when travelling in Mexico.  I ate very little for dinner and Erika went out to the bar before bedtime and brought me some hot chamomile tea, which helped enough for me to be able to sleep most of the night.

Hidden Worlds Vehicle
I felt a little better in the morning and the dreaded Montezuma's revenge had not materialized, so we got up early and went to swim in some more cenotes and snorkel with turtles in Akumal Bay.  I got to practice my Italian, as our guide, Alessandra,  and the rest of our party were Italian.  Our first stop was a park called Hidden Worlds.  This park includes access to Tak Be Ha,  the third largest cave system in the world and the largest wet cave system.  At Hidden Worlds we were provided with wetsuits, masks and snorkels.  We climbed down through a small opening to find ourselves in an underground cavern.  

Access to Tak Be Ha
Tree Roots
While Rio Secreto had amazing formations above the water, the wonders at Hidden Worlds were mostly below the water.  They had done an admirable job of lighting the underwater features and it was cool to swim past and get an idea of just how deeply those caverns reach into the earth.  There were numerous little fishes that came to nibble on our skin when we paused for more than a moment.  Roots from the trees above grow down through the rock until they reach the water level and then they stop.  We snorkeled from chamber to chamber through narrow passages.  Once again, I bemoaned the lack of an underwater camera.

Akumal Bay
By the time we were good and chilled, we climbed out of the water back in the main cavern and walked back through the jungle to our van.  If we had not come with a tour group, we would have made the 20 minute drive from the park entrance to the actual cenotes in one of the very retro vehicles belonging to Hidden Worlds.  We, however, traveled in a four wheel drive van.  Everyone in the area refers to these drives through the jungle on lousy roads as, "Mayan massage."  Once back to the highway, we backtracked about 10 minutes to Akumal.

For some reason, I was expecting Akumal to be an estuary with a lot of mangroves, so I was unprepared for the gorgeous beach and beautiful blue water that greeted us when we arrived.  Akumal is a public beach and there is fabulous snorkeling right off the beach.  Green sea turtles come there to graze on the sea grass that grows on the bottom of the bay.  The turtles are numerous and fairly unfazed by the humans splashing about and gawking at them.  Turtles are not the only life in Akumal, either.  We saw a couple of different types of squid and lots of fish.  There is a coral reef very close to both the shore and the surface, so the visibility was good and we saw many types of fish.  The water was very warm and shallow and we were pretty comfortable snorkeling without wetsuits, even though we were pre-chilled from our swim through the caves.

Turtle with Remoras
Our guide would signal when she found a turtle and then we would form a wide circle around the turtle so that we could all see her without kicking each other in the face.  One large turtle decided she wanted to surface and swam straight at me.  I backed up as fast as I could, but she passed within inches of my face  I've swum with a lot of turtles, but have never been nearly that close before.  I could have easily touched her.

Perfect Place for a Nap
By the time we got home, I was tired and my ear was starting to ache.  I decided to nap in the sun by the adult pool.  I had about two sips of a MaiTai and I was down for the count.  I managed to make it back to the room when the sun went down, but I slept through dinner and all the way through until my alarm went off in the morning.  I had just enough time to pack, get some breakfast and catch my shuttle to the airport.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


Our Guide, Alfredo

Tuesday, we went on a tour to Tulum and a sort of adventure park where we rappelled, zip lined and snorkeled through cenotes.  Our guide was Alfredo, a very passionate and animated fellow with a master’s in biology and a background in archaeology, who reminded me of my friend, Paul.  He was so hyper that it was hard to get a photograph of him because he was always waving his arms around.  The van picked us up and we drove an hour or so west of Playa to the park near Tulum.  Before we could enter the underworld, we had to be purified by a Mayan shaman who smoked us with copal and blessed us in the Mayan tongue.  I found it very interesting how similar the ritual was to European pagan rituals.  He addressed the four cardinal points and the four elements.  We had to leave our cameras behind because we were swimming and ziplining and we declined to pay the $59 for the photo package they offered, but you can see pictures at http://www.cancun.com/Tours/jungle-maya/ if you are interested.

We rappelled down into a cenote and then snorkeled through to another exit where we could climb out.  There was a family with us that had two of the most timid boys I have ever met.  It took all of the adults in the group to get the youngest one to rappel down into the cenote and we had to repeat the process at the top of every zip line.  The adult women in the family weren’t much better.  Only the teenaged girl was truly adventurous.  Erika and I got to show off our rock climbing skills by zipping down the ropes during the rappel.  It was fun rappelling into water.  The first zip line that we did also ended in a cenote.  I really enjoyed the zip line until I made a clumsy landing in the water, skipped like a stone across the surface, and got water up my nose.

We then climbed into a Unimog and drove a short distance through the jungle on the craziest imaginable road.  A Unimog is a four wheel drive vehicle that can tilt up to 45 degrees in any direction.  We needed it.   It was raining quite a bit by this time and we were bouncing over rocks and up and down incredibly steep hills that I still don’t know how we avoided sliding down backwards.  None of us were prepared for how rough that ride was going to be.  It was quite an adventure.  We then climbed up a couple of tall towers and zip lined back to the starting point.  It was really exciting and not at all scary for us, although it was definitely pushing the envelope for the family from Pennsylvania.  The only bad part was that it was cold and raining.  We were glad to get back to the buffet and get some hot food, even if we didn’t get to change into dry clothes until after lunch.

Once we had eaten a lunch of traditional Mayan food, we climbed into the van and drove a few minutes to Tulum.  Tulum was a port city surrounded by a wall on three sides and the ocean on the fourth side.  The ocean side was protected by a reef.  This reef is the second largest coral reef in the world, surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The dominant structure in Tulum is actually not a temple, but a light house.  When mariners lined up the two windows so that light could pass through them simultaneously, that served as a range finder to guide them through the only gap in the reef.  There is a beautiful beach with turquoise water at the foot of Tulum but, unfortunately, it was raining and we were huddled inside rain ponchos that we had recycled from an earlier tour group.  On a different day, I would have liked to spend more time at Tulum, but Erika had been there before and I had been to other Mayan ruins, so I was glad to get back in the van where I could get out of the rain and put on a dry fleece for the drive back to Playacar.

The Beach at Tulum
The Lighthouse at Tulum

The Beach at Tulum

The Timid Family from PA

Tuesday night, there was a show of traditional Mexican dances from different regions.  Erika had been drinking hot chocolate for a couple of days and I broke down and had a cup with triple sec in it while we were watching the show.

Our guide from the day before, Alfredo, had told us that it was worth visiting the caverns at Rio Secreto, so we planned a half day excursion there on Wednesday.  They didn’t pick us up until 1:00, so we had time to go to the beach in the morning before we left.  I ran along the beach almost all the way to downtown Playa del Carmen.  That gave me a chance to check out the beach facilities at many of the other hotels.  I was pleased to see that the Wyndham hotels had the nicest setups.  Some of the others offered little in the way of shade structures, but the Viva Wyndham hotels all have both palm trees and palapas, which make for plenty of shade and also an attractive view.  Closer to town, there are some very nice villas on the beach.  Playa del Carmen would be a nice place to live if I could live there year round, but I have been cured of the desire to own a vacation home after having spent the past few years trying to care for three houses in three different cities.

The VIP Section at Viva Maya
Beach Bar at Viva Maya
Beach at Viva Maya

Rio Secreto is a park where you swim through an amazing series of cenotes that feature stalactites and stalagmites in fantastic shapes.  Some of them had been formed in surprising directions due to air currents.  I really felt like I was swimming through the set of The Hobbit and I half expected to see Golum at any moment.  We all had wetsuits and helmets with lights, which made the experience much more pleasant than the previous day’s cenote swim.  Our guide was Pablo, who turned out to be Alfredo’s best friend.  He and I both thought that some of the caverns looked like they had been designed by Gaudi.  Like the day before, we really couldn’t take cameras with us.  I usually shun buying photos from tourist attractions, but Erika and I decided to split the cost of a photo, since it was such a fantastic scene. You will have to visit http://www.ecoturismocancun.com/tours/rio-secreto.html?gclid=CKWqkaiygrYCFSmoPAod3BEAug if you want to see more pictures of Rio Secreto.

After our swim, we ate another Mayan lunch (yes, another four meal day) before they brought us back to the hotel.  The show that night was a French themed extravaganza, featuring CanCan dancers and even a pole dance by the choreographer.  There was a cute number where the women were all dressed as pink panthers and the men as Inspector Clousseau.  The costumes were like something out of the Ziegfield follies.  It was worth staying up late to watch the show and we had nothing planned for the next day.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


The Mendoza Family

Saturday, I got up fairly early and went to the beach.  I had hoped to get there before the wind came up, but it got windy early that day.  It wasn’t cold, so I did lie on the beach for a couple of hours, enjoying the sun, and then went back to Rossy’s for a shower.  I packed up my belongings, said goodbye, and trundled my suitcase a block and a half to Avenida Benito Juarez, where I found a taxi immediately.  My taxi driver was a friendly guy and he gave me a local’s perspective on nearby attractions on the way to the hotel.

Lobby of Viva Maya
Our Room
Main Pool at Viva Maya
Sun Shelters
Erika’s plane didn’t get in until 3:40, but I wanted to be sure to get to the hotel before she arrived.  Hoping to miss the temptation of the lunch buffet, I arrived at 2:45.  They met me with a glass of champagne.  The desk clerk gave me a wrist band, told me he would finish checking me in later, and hurried me off to the dining room because lunch was over at 3:00.  I managed to select a healthy lunch of fruit and salad, which was probably a good thing, since my room wasn’t ready and I downed a couple of pinacoladas while waiting in the bar.  I finally got a room around 4:00, although I had to wait a while longer for my very sweet chamber maid to finish making up the room.  I went back to the lobby to wait for Erika and spent a frustrating hour and a half trying unsuccessfully to connect to the internet.  The wi-fi seems to be overwhelmed by the number of guests trying to use it.  While I can connect to the network, I never seem to be able to get any internet on either my computer or phone.  Data roaming doesn’t function, either, so I am incommunicado.  Erika arrived just in time for dinner.  We had dinner, wandered around the complex, drank a couple of fruit drinks and then went to bed early because Erika had had a long day of travelling.
The Main Bar

Sunday we had breakfast and then went to the beach for a little while.  We swam in the ocean and then tried to lie in the sun, but kept getting thrown off our chaise lounges by people who claimed we had taken their places.  Finally, we gave up and went back to the hotel.  It was our intention to go downtown and check out the prices of excursions outside the hotel, so we ate an early lunch at the snack bar and then rode bicycles into town.  We explored a bit and talked to a couple of dive shops about excursions to Cozumel.  Unfortunately, the travel agency owned by Rossy’s friend was closed on Sunday.  We finally booked a snorkel trip in Cozumel for Monday.

The Adult Pool
After riding our bikes back to the hotel, we ate lunch again (fortunately, I was eating mainly fruit) and then lounged about, trying different fruit drinks until it was time for dinner.  We had dinner reservations at Hacienda Don Diego, the Mexican restaurant at the hotel.  We had tacos al pastor for an appetizer and I had a rolled, stuffed skirt steak with flambeed bananas for dessert.  We were served strawberry margaritas with dinner.  Then, just as we were finishing dessert, the manager came over to our table and slammed down a couple of shots glasses.  Next, he produced three bottles of tequila.  His hobby was producing flavored tequila.  We sampled mango, coconut and pineapple tequila.  I liked the mango best, so he then poured me a full shot of that.  Usually I suffer when I drink tequila shots, but these went down very smoothly.  Neither of us was in the mood to do much after all that alcohol, so we skipped the evening show and went to bed early again.

The Cozumel Ferry
The No Problem, Our Dive Boat
Monday, we walked into Playa del Carmen and took the 10:00 ferry to Cozumel where we had booked a snorkeling excursion.  We booked the trip through Scuba Playa and went with a company called Blue Angel.  The dive boat met us at the main ferry dock and then took us to their dive shop where we stopped for a few minutes while the divers got outfitted.  They have a small hotel, dive shop and restaurant.  It was a  pleasant spot.  Downtown Cozumel looks like any other place where cruise ships dock.  There were the usual expensive tourist traps and jewelry stores.  Cozumel is very flat and the coast is mainly rocky.  It is, however, surrounded by reefs and the continental shelf drops off sharply there, making it a famous dive spot.

Erika on the Way to the First Reef
The first place we visited was a reef that was fairly deep down.  We were the only snorkelers and we went with our own guide named Bernie who didn’t speak much English, but was good at finding wildlife to show us.  It was overcast, which made it hard to see a lot, but we did see quite a bit of large sea life including a nurse shark, three eagle rays and several large sea turtles.  The bubbles rising from the divers below us made a fantastic show against the cobalt blue water.  I think that was my favorite part of that first spot.

 The second reef we visited was much shallower and the sun came out at that point, which was a good thing because we were pretty cold after that first swim.  Bernie put a piece of pineapple in his pocket and we were mobbed with tropical fish of many types that followed him everywhere, even when he dove down deep.  We could see much better in the sunshine and I enjoyed swimming with all the fish.  I felt like I was swimming in Finding Nemo.  At times, fish would swim right up to my mask and look me in the face.
Blue Angel Dive Shop Complex

Playa del Carmen at Sunset
After our second snorkeling session, we returned to the dive shop complex and had a nice lunch of delicious grouper fillets.  Then we took the 5:00 ferry back to Playa del Carmen and walked back to the hotel in plenty of time to make it to our 7:30 dinner reservation at the Miramare.  The Miramare is a Mediterranean restaurant on the second floor near the beach.  The whole thing is covered by an extremely lofty palapa.  I had a cold avocado soup, followed by cheese ravioli with sage and chicken breast stuffed with cheese and spinach.  Dessert was strawberries in Grand Marnier over vanilla ice cream.

We went to see the show after dinner.  The theme of the show was a “Mr. Maya” contest.  The four contestants were a 65 year old Italian named Giuseppe, a Canadian in his early 20’s, another very attractive Canadian in his early 40’s and an 18 year old Canadian who often looked mortified, but was a good sport and always managed to make a good effort.  There were various contests, including one where the men worked with a female partner to pop balloons by smashing them between various body parts.  Giuseppe won by a mile.  His wife was a trooper during the balloons smashing contest, especially since they were slipped one filled with whipped cream.