Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Aktun Chen Zip Line and Cenote Park - An Amazing Company Outing

Last Friday Allan and I brought our 6 employees to the adventure park, Aktun Chen, just south of Akumal.  It's owned by our attorney's family, and we've heard great things about it, so it was time to check it out for ourselves.  Additionally we felt the need to give back to our employees for their loyal service, and to share with them the most fun part of our job: exploring the Riviera Maya's many enjoyable activities.  Aktun Chen certainly did not disappoint, and offered many a first time opportunity to ride on zip lines.

Aktun Chen Cenote
After a 45 minute drive south of Playa del Carmen we traversed winding dirt roads through roughly 5 miles of jungle until we reached the unassuming entrance to Aktun Chen.  We were greeted by a friendly guide who led us to lockers where we could store our belongings.  Visitors can pick and choose which activities they would like among zip line, cave tour and a cenote swim.  We opted for the all inclusive combo entrance pack which includes all 3 since after all we are expected to provide an expert review.

Allan and Claudia acting like monkeys
We were then given hard hats and led further into the jungle to this massive cave.  The guide led us on an amazing subterranean tour through stalactites, stalagmites and underwater rivers.  It was like being on planet Mars - the views from every angle were incredible.  Furthermore the informative guide helped us to better understand the history and geology of the region.  I can comfortably say that everyone in the group was impressed.  The waterways passing through the cave connected directly to the sea and provided a crystal clear view of the bottom 12 - 100 feet below.

The cave tour ended will an above ground walk through the jungle and past a flock of white tailed dear, which were close enough to almost touch.  This is when the guide began telling us the cave was discovered 30 years ago by farmers searching for gum trees.  Centuries ago the Mayan used the cave system as a hurricane shelter and also believed it was a pathway of the Gods.

After the brief hiatus at the snack bar we were stripped of our hard hats and led back into the jungle past a family of spider monkeys kept in a large enclosure.  We stopped for a few photos, but hurried excitedly on as the one hour zip line tour was next.
The NAS team gets ready for the zip line

The zip lines were certainly the most exciting part of our adventure, especially because none of my employees, except Claudia, had ever been on one before - they had never even worn a harness.  I have been doing this since I was a child at gymnastics camp.  Although many were nervous, everyone went, except for Connie, who is 6 months pregnant.  The zip lines were not as high as those at Xplor, but certainly allowed you to get closer to nature.  The 10 zip lines at Aktun Chen snake through the jungle at about mid-tree level and pass rather close to the trees whereas at Xplor they essentially cut down most of the trees, and you are traveling above the tree tops.  For at least an hour you do not touch ground, but rather take off and land on sturdy make-shift tree forts, and even traverse 2 suspended bridges.  At every stage we were securely attached to a cable to prevent an accidental personnel plummet.

I love this photo of Allan
Although the first one or two zip lines required some encouragement and prodding on the part of my employees, by the end of the 6th zip line, people were becoming more adventurous - going backwards and even upside down.  We enjoyed seeing these humble yet hardworking people open up and expand their experiences and test their courage.  Our maintenance man Luis commented that he didn't want to come back to work - that he was going to work at the park.  Very funny, I mused.
Allan enters the cenote
The last part of the adventure involved a 10 minute drive into the jungle to a below ground cenote with spectacular ceiling views of the jagged rocks above.  The water, although cold, was this pristine blue color, that made the whole cave sparkle.  We brought our own snorkel equipment (you can rent it there), and were forced to wear life jackets.  I probably should also mention they sprayed us with a cold hose before entering the water to wash off any sweat and sunblock.  The cenote is definitely worth it, especially as a way to cool down after a long but enjoyable day.

Although Aktun Chen is a ways from Playa del Carmen compared to Xplor, it is less expensive as does offer a more authentic experience, as Xplor is more like a theme park (albeit an amazing one).  Furthermore Aktun Chen is also part zoo, allows you to become familiar with the native wildlife and offers a guided cave tour.  I would definitely say this employee field trip was a success, and is certainly a step up from our employee party last year which involved my pool and a BBQ.  Aktun Chen will definitely make it on my list of activities provided to our Playa del Carmen rental guests.  Akthn Chen can be found at

Cool and calm I glide down the zip line

Allan and his relatives, the spider monkeys

I rest after a long day

Allan in the cenote

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Learn How Not to Get Ripped Off at the Pump in Playa del Carmen Mexico

In the USA I'm used to the ease and painless procedure of refueling my vehicle.  The only real concern is finding a station with the lowest price and the shortest line.  In Mexico the rules change.  Although lines at the pump are short and the price is fixed by the government and only changes monthly, there are many other factors at the pump that can make your experience in Playa del Carmen, Mexico less than pleasant.

The first step at a Pemex station (official gas station of Mexico) is to get out of your car and stand near the pump.  This may seem counterintuitive, especially considering all pumps are full service.  In the USA at full service pumps the attendant would wonder what the heck I was doing watching him or her pump my gas.  Is he crazy, they would wonder?  In Mexico one needs to make sure they turn the pump back to 0.  Stations were notorious for starting the pump where the previous customer left off, thus making you pay for your gas and that of the customer before you (who already paid).  In my experience now a days that happens far less.  However, it's still a good idea to watch them and to let them know you are doing it.  They even expect it.  Every time they make a point of showing me that the pump has gone back to 0 even if I'm not looking.

It's also a good idea to know how much gas your car actually can take.  Some stations have had faulty pumps which were intentionally set to pump slower than the meter, so you might be charged for 10 liters even if you only received 2.  If the meter indicates more gas has been pumped into your tank than physically possible you should obviously point this out to the attendant and refuse to pay the amount indicated.  I think the government is doing a better job in regulating the meters so this won't happen, but you really never know.

The next step is to make sure that gas has actually been put into your tank.  Although I've never had the experience, I've heard from friends who have filled up their cars only to notice once they left the station that their tanks were still on empty.  This has been reported mostly at the station outside of Puerto Aventuras.  The victims then returned to the station and started screaming at the attendant.  I don't recall if they were allowed to get more gas or not or if they were issued a refund.

One of the most important rules is to keep track of the money.  At the gas station on the highway outside of Chichen Itza, a friend gave the attendant $500 pesos for gas only to have the attendant claim he received a $50 peso note.  The attendant then showed the $50 note to my friend, as evidence of his claim.  My friend then argued with him, and then left.  In their rear view mirror they saw the attendant pick up the $500 peso note that he had dropped and hidden under his shoe.

Equally important is to know how much change you are supposed to get back.  Don't just trust that they will automatically give you back the correct change.  I bought some drinks at the gas station last week and the attendant acted like she was not paying attention, and continued talking with another worker.  She then rapidly told me it was something like $69 pesos.  I gave her $70 pesos and then she returned $1 peso to me without a receipt.  When I asked for the receipt I noticed the total was only $65 pesos - she was trying to pocket the other 4 pesos.  I protested, she returned me the correct change, and I left.

I would also recommend paying for gas in cash.  This past year I heard from a client who claimed the station created a duplicate copy of their credit card and then began using it almost immediately ringing up ridiculous charges online for electronic items.  As a safety measure we pay cash whenever possible.

As a side note, tipping is encouraged for gas station attendants. As a general rule I only do it if they wash my windows (and haven't pulled any of the above-mentioned schemes).  Most of them do wash the windows, so the few lazy ones are obvious, and get nothing extra from me.  A general tip at a gas station is 10 or 20 pesos.

When you do run into problems you can always report the issues to Pemex via email (  I'm not sure how much good it will do. I think at a minimum if you are aware of the potential rip-offs, and do prevent them, you can at least feel good that perhaps you were smarter than them this time.  We would hate for our Playa del Carmen rental guests to have a bad vacation simply because of an unfortunate incident at a gas station.  To my knowledge, I've never been ripped off at a gas station.  Perhaps I am woefully ignorant.  However, I think if you look like you are aware and know what you're doing, generally they won't mess with you.  That being said the intelligence level of some attendants is very questionable, so I would not put it past them.

The price per liter of gas is displayed at the pump above the handle once it has been engaged by the attendant.  This price is fixed by the government, is the same at every station, and changes monthly.

Allan and our housekeeper's son, Jose, do a language interchange, helping the other with English or Spanish.

Jose and Allan

Mitzi and Demi.  Demi is still wearing a ribbon around her neck with the Mexican flag colors in celebration of Mexican Independence Day.  Mitzi doesn't wear those colors after the 20th of September.

Mitzi and Demi Playing

Mitzi howling with my encouragement.  She was far more vocal, sounding like a wolf, before she lost most of her hearing.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Splashing into the Bottomless 7 Bocas Cenote

Yesterday Allan, I and the gang spent an adventurous afternoon visiting the 7 Bocas Cenote on Cenote Road outside of Puerto Morelos.  Although it may seem like we are goofing off, this is actually market research for us, and will help provide invaluable information to our Playa del Carmen rental guests.  I must say it is well worth the $100 pesos entrance fee and the time to traverse the approximate 1 mile circuitous dirt entrance road to the cenote.

Upon entering the dry-tropical, well manicured cenote parking lot and entrance I was struck by just how far back in the jungle we were.  How did they ever find this cenote?  From the surface the cenote does not look like much: 7 holes or mouths as they call them (bocas) provide a ground level birds-eye view of the water 15-20 feet below.  Three holes have steep stairs leading down to the cenote; 4 just provide visuals.  The last 2 holes are not accessible without scuba diving gear. The 3rd hole was the most exciting as they excavated around it so people could jump in.  When I asked a girl who worked there how deep it was she replied that it did not have a depth.  "Is is 30 meters (100 feet)?" I asked.  "No," she said "it's much deeper than that".  Apparently they had put a rope line down into it to measure the depth, but because of the acidic gases at the far depths of the cenote, the rope was burned, and hence the cenote may forever been known as bottomless.

We traversed down the stairs into the cenote and were amazed at its beauty.  Stagtites and stagamites protruded from every angle.  Although the cenote was quite dark, the water was refreshing and the ceilings a domed masterpiece of jagged rocks.  Through the second hole one could look up into the sky and see a massive tree who's root protruded down into the water.

From the second to the third cenote one has to pass through a narrow passage way with barely enough head room to reach the large opening where jumping is permitted.  On the side of the opening is a steep staircase to the top which I used many times.  Jumping into the cenote was actually quite scary as it was fairly high (15 - 20 feet down).  Each time my stomach dropped and water shot up my nose as I plummeted down into the water and was submerged at least 10 feet down.  Allan and our friend Janet were daring enough to try it once.  I of course jumped 6 or 7 times, each time feeling like it was the first.

I would highly recommend Cenote 7 Bocas to any of our Playa del Carmen rental guests.   A car is definitely required.  Life jackets are provided for free, and there are even guide ropes and surf boards inside the cenote to make the adventure a bit easier and safer.

Janet with Jim and Mary Lou in the background.

Jim taking a rest.

The gang.

The second hole with the tree growing out of it.

The first entrance.

Allan stands over the third hole where we jumped several times.



Janet explores with snorkeling gear.


Monday, September 13, 2010

A Local's Perspective of Cenote Verde Lucero in the Riviera Maya, Mexico

As part of Allan and my Playa del Carmen rental business, it's advantageous for us to possess expert knowledge of the area in order to pass this knowledge onto our rental guests.  Every week we have tried going to a new Cenote while it is still low season in order to increase our familiarity with the region.  This past Saturday Allan, I and our friend, Mary Lou visited Cenote Verde Lucero on the "Road of the Cenotes" heading out of Puerto Morelos.  For the most part we were quite impressed.

Saturday afternoon we worked until 1pm, the time when most Playa del Carmen management companies close.  We then packed the SUV for a day of fun, picked up Mary Lou and headed north to the town of Puerto Morelos for lunch. We have been dying to try this Asian restaurant there, and every time we go it's closed.  This time was no exception.  It was 1:30 and they do not open until 3pm.  Upon a recommendation from a local, we tried a local Mexican joint right on the water, which turned out to be perfect.  We sat facing the turquoise sea, amidst a sea of pink and blue chairs, giving the whole establishment a very cool, beachy feel.  I thought "this is the life".  The food was great, and then we were on our way to the Cenote.

About 20 minutes later we arrived at the Verde Lucero Cenote, a veritable hole in the ground that looks almost like a small asteroid struck 1,000 years ago.  It was about 100 feet in diameter, 20 feet down to the water and the water was between 10 and 30 feet in depth.  Large trees with massive roots protrude out of the depth and into the sky.  The best part of the cenote was the zip line.  Grabbing onto the handle of the zip line I rode down several times, plunging into the water.  After watching a local try it backwards, I did the same, and must admit it is much scarier not knowing where exactly you are heading.  There was also a rock ledge with a plunge of about 20 feet, which I also jumped off after gaining enough confidence.

Overall the cenote was a great experience, and is perfect for anyone looking for a bit of action - using the zip line and jumping from high depths into water.  The downside is that the water is a bit green, there are no good areas to sit around the cenote, and no snack bar.  However, Cenote Verde Lucero is definitely being added to my cenote list, and will be recommended to my Playa del Carmen rental guests.  This coming week we are going to try the 7 Bocas Cenote (7 mouths).  It's tough work, but someone's got to do it!

Cenote Verde Lucero

Me at Cenote Verde Lucero

Allan at Cenote Verde Lucero

Mary Lou at Cenote Verde Lucero

Me Zip-lining In

It's a Bit of a Drop

Ready to Take the Plunge

We Saw This Street Dog Nursing as We Came Home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tasting a Variety of Odd Tropical Fruit in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Recently a friend in Playa was telling us how she went to the local store and bought a bunch of fruit she had never tried before, just to see how they tasted. We thought it was a good idea, so we took up the challenge as well. Expanding one's horizons is always a good idea.  Why not try something native and local - maybe we'd really like it?

At the local grocery store, Soriana, we encountered a selection of fruits that we're not really familiar with and decided to buy one of each.  Do you recognize these fruits?

Once home it was time to go to work and try each one.  Luckily Connie, our assistant, was there to help us with the names of each one rather then having to try to find them online.  The first one we tried was pitaya:

I thought pitaya was the most gorgeous looking fruit I've ever seen. Taste wise I considered it bland, crunchy and tangy - not my favorite, but I didn't hate it either.  Allan loved it, and was quick to remind me we already tried it at a friend's place in Playa.  So much for the new and adventurous.

The next one we tried was mamey, and this by far was my favorite:

Mamey tastes and looks like cooked sweet potatoes with brown sugar and maple syrup.  Yum!!  Allan was very hesitant to try it, but loved it in the end.  Per Connie's recommendation we made a shake out of it with honey and milk.  Now I have my favorite concoction!

Third for us was guayaba, which is not really a new flavor for us since even in Massachusetts they have guayaba juices.  However, I've never actually bought or tried the fruit seen here:

Guayaba was disgusting.  Before I even tried it Luis our maintenance man told me not to eat the seeds since they would make me constipated.  Then Connie chimed in and said they would give me diarrhea rather then bind me up.  So much for consensus.  Connie said to eat the skin and everything inside; Luis said to not eat the seeds.  In the end I just took a bite, and it tasted like orange peel - disgusting as you can see here:

Next we tried tunas, also known as prickly pears.  Driving down through Mexico when we first came down we tried one.  It was time to try again.  Jorge our other maintenance man showed us to how to peel it with a fork and a knife so not to pierce our skin with the prickly outside.

I was hesitant to try it again.  When I did, it tasted like bland raspberry water - not too exciting   Here you can see me smelling it before trying it.

Lastly it was time to try tamarind.  We've tried the tamarind flavored candies but never the actual fruit which grows on trees inside large seeds.  At the store the clerk was laughing at us since we only bought one, and I guess traditionally they are purchased in bulk.

The tamarind was sweet and tasted like a mix between a raisin and a prune.  I much prefer the candy version.  Allan wasn't a big fan either.

In the end we're glad we tried all this new fruit.  We found our favorites: mine was mamey; Allan's was pitaya.  I'm sure our fruit bowl will soon look more colorful with these new flavor's we are going to add to our diets!

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Bank is Passing Out Counterfeit Bills

The other day our office guru, Connie, was given a counterfeit $500 peso note by the bank.  The electric company pointed it out to her as she was trying to pay our bills.  Luckily the teller at the electric company knows Connie, and just let her use another one instead.  However there have been cases where individuals passing counterfeit bills in Playa either knowingly or unknowingly have been thrown in jail.

It all started when Connie went to the bank to cash a check in order to obtain funds to pay our clients' electric bills.  The note was given to her by a teller along with a pile of other legitimate notes.  Connie then immediately went to the electric company. Apparently the teller at the electric company knew it was false since it did not pass the marker test where someone writes on the bill with a special pen and if the writing actually sticks then the bill is a fake.

Connie then immediately returned to the same bank to complain and get an authentic bill instead.  As a bit of background information going to the bank or electric company can be an ordeal with lines of up to an hour.  So imagine Connie has waited at the bank for at least a 1/2 hour, then 1 hour at the electric company and now has to go back to the bank and wait in line again.

When Connie spoke with the teller, the teller denied having given it to her.  The teller maintained that Connie could have gotten it anywhere and should have checked all the notes before leaving the bank.  The problem is that the lines in the bank are long, the tellers are impatient and to conceivably count out maybe thousands of dollars in bills can take quite a long time, never mind the risk of being seen counting so much money.

Connie then spoke to a manager, related the same story and was able to exchange the bill.  She scolded the manager and insisted it was the bank's responsibility to check all the notes being distributed.  Connie could have been thrown in jail for their mistake!  What if Allan or I had used the bill at a convenience store and then the clerk, having discovered the fake, called the police?!

Although I love living in Mexico very much, I am completely amazed that a bank would not check all the bills going out and coming in.  Did the teller do it intentionally?  Was it a simply a mistake?  I really don't know, but the fact that there is a risk of possibly being thrown in jail for unknowingly passing counterfeit bills certainly does not make me too happy.  I am aware that in the US there are many counterfeit bills still in distribution.  I would just think that a US bank would check all their notes first before giving them out to clients.  I guess I would expect the same in Mexico.  Regardless, I still think the risk is low, and does not concern me too much.  However it is certainly worth writing about!

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The beach at Tankah

The beach at Tankah

Allan at Casa Cenote

We watched this fisherman throw his net and catch a dozen fish

His catch

Me, Mary Lou and Allan at the Tulum Jazz Festival

Me before my tennis match in the most recent tennis tournament.  Unfortunately I lost this game.

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