Thursday, May 20, 2010

Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Holbox

Last July we joined our good friends, Jim and Janet, on a weekend trip to the Island of Holbox to go swimming with the whale sharks. It is an event Allan has been anticipating for quite sometime being he is an avid animal and boat lover. July and August are really the best times to see and swim with the sharks, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

We drove 3 or so hours north on the Yucatan Peninsula to a small coastal town where one takes a ferry over to Holbox. The drive is very interesting through small towns and farms: children in uniforms marching off to school; small stores selling anything from rugs to towels to figurines proudly display their merchandise for all the world to see; brightly painted houses dot the roadside. Our journey was made even more interesting as we accidentally took the toll road from Cancun, which has no exit till Valladoid, over an hour past our destination. After traveling for 1/2 hour on the toll road we had to turn around and head back to Cancun and pick up the free road, adding another hour onto the trip. Apparently there is a shorter way out of Puerto Morelos which would have cut our journey by a third. Oh, well - next time.

After a short ferry ride we finally arrived on the small island town of Holbox. Roughly 7 miles long and 1 mile wide, it's home to approximately 5,000 inhabitants. There are almost no cars on the island and most people get around by golf cart. We hired one from the ferry dock to take us to the Hotel La Palapa, a quaint beachfront bungalow establishment ( All four of us shared one room with 2 queen beds, which was actually very comfortable and had a great view of the ocean. The beach was right outside our door. Fresh sea breezes wafted in through the windows. A hammock on our outdoor terrace was the perfect place to relax and watch the ships sail by.

For the whale shark adventure we took a friend's recommendation and hired a boat from Willy's Tours. Being prone to sea sickness, I took 2 Dramamine which prevented me from becoming ill. We sailed about an hour out into the open ocean on rather calm seas, which to me felt like 30 foot swells. In many spots the plankton was so thick it turned the water brown. Large manta rays swam and feasted on the plankton.

We did manage to see one whale shark, which was about 3 meters long, or 10 feet (just a baby). Whale sharks are part of the shark species and are known as the largest fish in the sea, and can grow up to 12.2 meters (or 40 feet). They feed on plankton (the smallest creature in the sea) and are completely harmless. Between July and August they visit the Yucatan coast to feed and then disappear only to return next year.

Sporting a wet suit with snorkel and mask, I prepared to jump in the water along with Allan, who chose to wear a life vest accompanied by the same snorkeling equipment. The boat positioned itself next to the shark, and the captain instructed us to "jump". Once in the water it was a challenge to keep up with the shark while snorkeling, and trying to take pictures with our underwater camera.

There were 9 other people on the boat not including the captain who took turns jumping in and swimming. I spent the most time in the water as I frequently asked for bathroom breaks (the bathroom is the sea). The cold water helped to calm my sea sickness.

I think jumping in the deep ocean was the most fun part; I've never been in water that deep. Although it was scary at first, after a while it became enjoyable and refreshing. It's actually a relief knowing one can dive in head first and not worry about hitting their head. Allan is already talking about swimming with the whale sharks this year. I think we'll go off Cozumel this time instead of Holbox as there are apparently lots more whale sharks. Hopefully the sea will be calm so I won't get sick!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

We rented a golf cart to explore the island.

Allan with Janet and Jim.

I loved how this house looks.

Allan relaxing on our hammock.

Enjoying the sun.

The water is just so beautiful.

Jim and Allan.

Allan takes in some rays.

I'm coming back from swimming with the shark.

Allan poses for the camera.

Our ship.

Another shot.

The whale shark.

Janet and Jim get ready to take the plunge.

Allan and I get ready to jump in.

The whale shark.

Another shot.

Yet again.

Allan and I.

Jim and Janet.

Allan, I, Janet and Jim.

A wedding in a golf cart no less.

A local girl sells necklaces.


I think almost anyone looks good in a wet suit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Visiting Punta Allen for the Weekend

Allan and I spent a short weekend visiting Punta Allen, a small fishing community located at the southern tip of the Sian Kaan Biosphere, an approximate 1.3 million acre wildlife and nature preserve. Ever since Allan discovered Punta Allen on Google Maps 2 years ago he has been talking excitedly about a potential visit. The 60 mile drive seemed like a quick and easy vacation, one we could do on a Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday morning we drove 45 minutes south to Tulum where the entrance to Sian Kaan begins. We paid the minimal entrance fee at a small office, and soon were heading south into the reserve. Quite quickly we were met with a barrage of pot holes which slowed our speed down to a mere 10 miles an hour. The poor road conditions persisted over the 20 mile drive, delaying the journey by at least an hour, and making us regret already that we would have to traverse these roads on our way back to Tulum.

There is not much to see on the road. Thick jungle towered on either side, masking any sort of interesting sights. We had come poorly prepared and really had done no research on the activities and events in either Punta Allen or in Sian Kaan. In retrospect it would have been nice to actually have a plan since we would only be spending less than 24 hours there.

By nightfall we arrived in the sleepy fishing village of Punta Allen. We were greeted by a small, rustic enclave, which is probably how Playa del Carmen used to look 20 years ago. The roads are made of dirt, and the buildings are very simple concrete structures. We opted to stay at the Serendiad Shardon, a small beach side complex with small cottages and tent rentals, which had come highly recommended by friends. The owner, Nicky, an American now living in Playa, was very nice and accommodating. The $150 USD/night price tag for a very small rustic beach side cottage seemed like a bit much, but we had already committed to staying there, and we weren't in the mood to search for other options.

We quickly accommodated our luggage in the small cottage and headed off for a wonderful rooftop dinner at a local restaurant. The only disappointment was the high price of the meal. Given Punta Allen's desolate location I think the cost of importing goods over those bumpy roads probably warrants the higher price. Luckily we had enough cash to pay for the bill, as the nearest ATM is 20 miles north in Tulum, and most establishments don't accept credit cards. After a nice meal we returned back to the cottage for a good night's sleep.

We awoke the next morning to the realization that Punta Allen has no electricity between the late evening hours and early morning hours. Unless establishments have their own generators, don't plan on taking a shower or watching TV till at least 11am. However, Allan and I are easy travelers, and decided to just roll with the punches and take a leisurely stroll down the beach.

Unfortunately the beach was littered with trash. As far as the eye could see the beach was covered with plastic sandals and plastic bottles. Some locals say the waste is from cruise ships who find it easier and cheaper to drop their garbage in the ocean rather than pay the hefty dock garbage removal fee. It is often less costly to illegally dump and get fined than it is to regularly pay for legal trash removal. If this is true it sounds to me like someone should significantly increase the fine. We also heard another theory, relating to Central American rivers overflowing with trash which empties into the oceans, which in turn floats north to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Regardless of the cause, one would think a little more effort should be put forth into preserving this natural oasis. After all with all the money coming into the Mexican Riviera from tourists one would think the Mexican Government would have a significant investment in the cleanliness of their beaches. Even a simple, local and regular beach garbage pickup operation would do the trick.

We ended our stroll rather quickly and decided to leave Punta Allen a bit early. We weren't looking forward to the drive over those roads and wanted to get it over with. We packed the SUV, had a quick, yet delicious breakfast and braved the awful roads for another 2 hours at 10 miles an hour. If we had planned correctly, perhaps we could have taken a snorkeling trip at the southern end of the peninsula, or a boat to the black lagoon where crocodiles roam. In retrospect, we should have done something more.

I think Punta Allen has a lot to offer to someone looking to explore a sleepy fishing village with a nice lagoon, great snorkeling and out of the way feel. It's certainly a place for the adventurous soul, since the roads do take a strong stomach to handle.

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

If I have to wear pants then it is too cold.

Stopping for a coconut break on the way back to Playa.

The deserted beaches between Punta Allen and Tulum.

The road between Punta Allen and Tulum.

The beach trash.

More trash.

A dock between the mainland and the peninsula.

Our trusty SUV being swallowed by the jungle.

Allan is happy that he's returning to Playa.

Allan is searching for beach treasures.

Enjoying a beach moment.

Posing for the camera.

The entrance to the town of Punta Allen.

The road south of Punta Allen.

Bonefish, the restaurant where we had breakfast.

Punta Allen's version of Starbucks. I had the best cappuccino ever - Chiapas coffee and liquid sugar from Venezuela all cooked with a blow torch under an Italian coffee maker.

Our cottage.

The Serendidad Shardon.

A bridge on the way to Punta Allen.

The same bridge, different angle.

Allan is excited as we travel to Punta Allen.

The only snake we saw. Unfortunately this one is barely alive considering I accidentally ran over it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Living the Dream

A few days ago my good friend Nigel commented that it must feel like Allan and I are living the dream. It's easy to understand why he might say that considering we work from home along the Mayan Riviera with turquoise blue water, palm trees, pristine white sand beaches, 85 degree weather with year round sunshine. Most people would love our lives. However, I don't look at it that way.

Although I do appreciate my profession and geographical location, I probably take it for granted. That being said about once a week I do stop and ponder "I can't believe this is my life." Last week for example I was drinking Mojitos in a beach club chatting business with a real estate developer and an investor. Looking out at the sea and feeling the warm sun on my face I did smile and think "I can't believe I'm here." Here I was a small business owner discussing the possible management of 15 more units, and I was doing so with 2 highly successful business men at a bar on the beach, and we were all wearing flip flops.

It wasn't until yesterday after Allan and I took the train from NYC to D.C. and then hopped on the commuter rail to Point of Rocks to meet my friends Monique and Bob that the impact of our very decided life choices really made an impact on my physique. Allan and I were sitting among the commuters on their way home from work and the cringed at the thought of the commute into work, feeling like just another number, working at a job that I was tired of, just sort of wasting away my life waiting for retirement. It's such a grind and for what? Unless one really loves their job and living in a cold climate, it seems to me like an existence rather than a living. There is not a day that goes by in my life now that I wish I had another job, lived somewhere else, had a different spouse or really wanted to change anything significant with my life.

As we rode the train it was fairly cold outside. We were both wearing heavy sweatshirts, and even then we were still chilly. I began to dream of being back in Playa del Carmen. The sunshine and warmth were calling. Luckily in two more days we will be returning to our tropical paradise. We can handle the temporary inconvenience of being chilled. The dreary weather did make me ponder what if we did live in the U.S northeast? What if we had waited all winter for warm weather and sunshine only to find it was 45 degrees F in May and cloudy? Back in Boston we would anxiously wait for those 3 summer months of good weather and then just dread the thought of the long winter approaching.

Sitting on that train I did realize we were living many people's dream. I think the reality of working all the time in Playa del Carmen makes it seem less like a dream and more like a working retirement. Additionally our presence in Playa did not happen instantaneously. We had to quit our jobs, sell our possessions, rent our condo in Boston, and pack our remaining items into an extended SUV and drive 4,500 miles over 3 1/2 weeks to Mexico. We cashed in our retirement accounts, pooled our savings, and once we arrived in Playa we started spending and working to try to make our business succeed. It was a decided risk but it payed off in the end. So the next time sometime asks me if it feels like I am living the dream, instead of denying it I will probably say "yes, but it took a lot of work to get here."

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Walking the Brooklyn Bridge

Washington Square entertainers

On the Brooklyn Bridge with the financial district in the background

The subway after a cold walk along the bridge. I am wearing 4 layers and am still freezing.

The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge with the Empire State Building in the background.

Washington Square entertainers

Getting a foot massage after a long walk around the City.

FAO Schwartz enjoying the excess.

Posing with a wizard hat at FAO Schwartz.

Getting a foot massage in China Town.

Getting a foot massage as I try on my future Halloween costume.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

Enjoying chinese food in China Town. We couldn't get enough of it!

The Halloween Store. This place was an entire NYC block long!