Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rio Secreto - An Unforgettable Underground River You Must See

Close your eyes.  You hear nothing but silence and the faint sound of trickling water in the background.  Imagine you are 80 feet below ground with your eyes open in the pitch black.  You are one with Mother Earth.  You are somewhere along an 800 meter stretch of a 14 kilometer underground river that originates in the interior of the peninsula and empties into the sea.  The lights come back on.  Look up and see thousands of jagged-edged stalactites pointing towards your head like the tips of poison Mayan arrows.  It looks like you are either on another planet or on the set of a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  This is Rio Secreto.

Good friends of ours, Jim and Janet, won free passes to Rio Secreto while Jim was volunteering at Mayakoba. We have been talking about us all going for months, but could never seem to coordinate our schedules.  Then unfortunately due to medical problems Jim and Janet could no longer use the tickets and gifted them to us.  Not wanting the passes to go to waste since they expire this winter, we arranged a trip this past Friday.

We really did not know much about Rio Secreto other than it was another cave/underground adventure, and that the likes of Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel and other famous figures had visited the eco-park. Despite our lack of familiarity we were game for another wild experience.

Our day began like any other Friday in recent memory: we packed the car with friends, drove to the park and proceeded over extremely bumpy roads several miles into the jungle to the entrance to the cave.  At the park we were provided with complimentary wetsuits, life jackets, water shoes and helmets with lights. Then we walked a few hundred feet back into the jungle to what looked like any other cave we've seen on the peninsula.

We were soon surprised at how different Rio Secreto is from other caves we've been in.  Rio Secreto is like stalactites on steroids.  I have never seen so many in one place.  Then the cave is completely dark - there is no artificial lighting, other than the light on your head, and no other groups - just you, your guide, and your group of up to 10 or so people, wandering through an underground river 80 feet below the ground.  The path was quite treacherous: up and down, in and out of water sometimes above your head, crouching down to fit below low underpasses.  Luckily the terrain was not slippery.  It is certainly not for the faint of heart or for anyone with health problems.  This is most definitely for those with an adventurous spirit.

At one point we entered a cavern that was filled with giant coral formations which were so large, I felt like a spec drifting among a reef in the sea.  This was all ocean at some point millions of years ago.  We trekked along this river for approximately 1.5 hours, exploring just a minute part of this gigantic subterranean aquatic highway.  I can say we have never experienced such an amazing cave system so far in our time in Playa del Carmen.

What's striking is that Rio Secreto was discovered only 4 years ago when this 80 year old man saw water vapor rising from the ground.  He began to dig, discovered the river, and then mapped the 1st kilometer himself, before opening the river to the public 2 short years ago.  To preserve the system they have 3 tours which cover different routes along the river, and alternate them over time, shutting one off and opening others to prevent wear.  Lack of lighting helps prevent the growth of algae and maintain the authentic underground experience.  By arranging small tours at 9am and 1pm, they stagger the river's visitors aiding in making you feel like you and your group are alone in the river, rather than running into other people multiple times.

We highly recommend Rio Secreto to all our Playa del Carmen rental guests.  At present we are going to rank it among the top 3 greatest activities we've experienced in Playa and the surrounding region.  At only $59 USD per person or $250 pesos for locals with valid proof of residence, it's a real deal.  You should call the park ahead of time and make a reservation.

Playa del Carmen vacation rentals condos

At the start of our adventure: Mary Lou, Allan, Carla, Jane and me
Our group before the big event
Look at those stalactites
Admire the large coral ceiling formations
Either we are in a Gothic castle, Hollywood movie or hell
Another pretty formation

Allan floats down the river

We're going to have to visit Rio Secreto again

Just before the exit

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cenote Tamcach-Ha and Dinner in Tulum

This past Friday we took a road trip to the Tamcach-Ha Cenote in Coba and spent a wonderful evening dining under the stars on the beach in Tulum.  Unfortunately Allan was feeling sick and bowed out at the last moment.  However, he encouraged me and six of our friends to go and enjoy the day.  Guiltily I still went, and had a simply amazing day.

We left Playa del Carmen at around 1pm in our spacious SUV with convenient fold-down third row, allowing for up to 8 people including the driver.  We headed 45 minutes south to Tulum and stopped at a road-side restaurant just before the turn-off to Coba for delicious fresh fried fish and shrimp tacos with a multitude of self-serve toppings.  Our friends, John and Diane, stayed at the restaurant with plans to walk around Tulum for the day and meet up with us later as Diane does not swim and is deathly afraid of water.  The rest of us (me, Marge, Neil, Marilou and Jane) boarded the SUV and drove 1/2 hour west to the sleepy town of Coba.

The drive was rather uneventful but interesting. There is a neat but pricey Talavera pottery store on the way, which we passed by as we've already been several times.  A few small Mayan towns with prominent speed bumps serve as make-shift mile markers, reminding us of where we actually are in the middle of the jungle.  It's always interesting to see how the locals live in road-side towns buried in the Yucatan interior.

The town of Coba is most remarkable for its beautiful lagoon which filled with crocodiles and the spectacular Mayan ruins of Coba.  On the outskirts of town nestled in the jungle below 20 feet of solid ground is a make-shift winding wood staircase down to the Tamcach-Ha cenote.  The domed roof is marked by stalagtites and looms 30 feet above the clear water.  Adventurous types have 2 jumping platforms - one around 8 meters (26 feet) and the other at 5 meters (16 feet).  The water reaches a depth of 40 feet, although the bottom looks to be only about 10 feet since the water is so clear.  The entire cenote resembles an indoor football stadium with the cenote's rounded shape and oval domed roof.

Although I did jump off a 32 foot (10 meter) Olympic height diving board once in Florida while training for spring board diving in college, the 8 meter cenote platform seemed much scarier.  I stuck to the 5 meter platform, which is daring in itself.  Water shot up my nose each time I hit.  The impact was quite intense, even though I kept in my arms and legs.

In terms of snorkeling there is really not much to see except for a few rocks.  The cenote is artificially illuminated by a couple of lights, but really does not allow for much to be viewed under the water.  Although the bottom can be seen from above the water's surface, under water seems rather dark.  The roof and walls of the cenote are most remarkable with notable stalactites and phallic looking stalagmites. 

We finished swimming after an hour or so, and then headed back to the lagoon at Coba feeling very refreshed by the cool, crisp waters.  At the lagoon we saw a sign indicating we could pay to see crocodiles.  Anxiously we stopped and paid a local store owner/guide $10 pesos ($.80 USD) per person to watch him feed raw chicken to a crocodile from a stick.  For me it was the first time seeing one in it's native environment and probably was the most exciting part of the day.  Although the crocodile was still young (roughly 4 feet), the guide showed us his finger which had been bitten off by a similar-sized one.  It did not stop me from foolishly putting my hand in the water and tempting the gator closer.  I am very practical in many senses but do have my moments of stupidity.

We left Coba as darkness was setting in, picked up John and Diane in Tulum and headed to the open air Zebra restaurant on the beach in Tulum.  Amid cool ocean breezes we dined on delicious fish and meat dishes and spectacular Margaritas and other mixed drinks.  For dessert we relaxed on beach chairs along the shore and ate up the night sky which was littered with bright stars and vibrant views of the Milky Way.  It was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.  As an extra treat on our way out of Tulum we dodged blue crabs scurrying across the road.

Next time we return to Coba to visit the other 3 cenotes, we would certainly love to revisit Cenote Tamcah-Ha, especially so Allan could partake.  We highly recommend it to any of our Playa del Carmen rental guests.

The Sign Indicating the Coba Ruins and Cenotes

Me at the Tamcach-Ha Cenote

The Roof at the Tamcach-Ha Cenote
The Tamcach-Ha Cenote

Me at the Tamcach-Ha Cenote

Marilou, Neil, Jane and Marge at the Tamcach-Ha Cenote
Neil and I at the Coba Lagoon

Me at the Coba Lagoon with Crocodile in the Background
Neil at the Coba Lagoon with Crocodile in the Background
The Gentlemen Who Feeds Crocodiles Shows Us His Missing Finger
Crocodile at the Coba Lagoon
Blue Crab Running Across the Street in Tulum

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mexico's New Prescription Drug Law - Good or Bad?

The Mexican government passed a new law a few months ago requiring that all consumers who purchase antibiotics must present an original prescription from a certified Mexican doctor.  This means no citizen, resident or tourist in Mexico is allowed to just walk into a pharmacy in Mexico and buy whatever antibiotic they choose without first visiting a doctor.  Although this new decree makes it more difficult for many to treat simple illnesses like travelers diarrhea by simply purchasing Cipro (ciprofloxacin - an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections), the law appears to be well-intended and may actually do some good.

A couple of months ago while we were in the US Allan's American doctor recommended Allan take Cipro for a week to cure a minor medical condition.  Allan decided to pick up the drug when we returned to Playa del Carmen as it was less expensive (and we were unaware of the new law). When Allan sent me to the pharmacy in Mexico I was stunned that the pharmacists would not sell it without a prescription.  They mentioned a new law passed and pointed to a sign explaining the new legislation.  I unsuccessfully tried 4 different pharmacies, hoping one would ignore the law.

At first we viewed the law as a bit of an inconvenience.  We wondered why Mexico was focusing on antibiotics.  Although they are strongly regulated in the US, so is almost everything in America.  From our experience in Mexico things are a bit more laid back.  Why decide to control antibiotics now? 

Our opinion has since changed after speaking with a local Mexican doctor.  According to him the Mexican legislature was faced with a financial crisis and felt compelled to act.  Many sick were incorrectly self-medicating themselves with antibiotics, often with the wrong dosage or completely wrong medicine.  Consequently the state sponsored hospitals were seeing a rise in the amount of patients who required stronger, and hence more expensive, antibiotics because the bacteria was becoming resistant to the antibiotics.  Through improper use and dosage, the sick were essentially not killing the bacteria, but rather making it stronger.  Hypothetically 8 out of every 10 patients would now need the more expensive drug and the state would have to pay for it.  Additionally, by now requiring people to first visit a doctor the state would essentially help to control proper diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, thus also providing more public safety and cutting cost by hopefully having less sick.

Although the new prescription drug law makes it more difficult for us to treat minor illnesses on our own, it does help us to correctly treat our medical problems and hopefully stop the stem of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Hopefully the government will be able to cut costs and put the money to good use, like maybe fighting poverty in Mexico.  A routine visit from a doctor is probably a good idea anyway, even if it is not the most convenient.

The new law also has allowed me to experience the humor of living in Mexico.  Yesterday at the pharmacy the technician was pointing to a line item on the prescription and indicated that it was not in their system.  Written in English were the words "plenty of fluids".  I explained that it meant the patient should drink more water.  When the technician could not find in their system another item on the list I joking said it meant "kiss more girls".

Notice of the new law at the pharmacy.  Translation "Dear User, this commercial pharmaceutical establishment sells antibiotics only with a medical prescription."
View of the beach at Playacar Phase 1
Demi and Mitzi

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sunday Sailing and Snorkeling off the Coco Luna Catamaran

Sunday we spent an exquisite day sailing and snorkeling off the Coco Luna Catamaran.  Owned by our great friend, Scottie, and named after her condo at The Elements, it was one of the most fun days we have spent in Playa del Carmen.  I think you'll see us doing a lot more ocean activities over the next few months.

A few months ago when Scottie started mentioning to me about possibly purchasing a used boat, I skeptically went along with the idea.  How often would she use it?  Was it a good use of money?  Perhaps she was better off renting one.  However, since hearing the stories of how much fun she is having on the boat, I have completely changed my mind.  Scottie's purchase of the catamaran is quite possibly the best thing that has happened to humans since the advent of chocolate mousse. When Scottie asked us to join her for a sail on Friday, Allan and I made sure to first say "yes", then to keep our schedules clear and lastly to show up on time (a chronic problem for us) so we would not miss a single second.

We arrived at The Elements Beach Club on Sunday at 1pm (on time) to meet Scottie and her squeeze Jim.  For me it was just one of those perfect days with clear blue skies, shimmering turquoise seas and calm waters.  Sailors would wish for more waves and wind, but not me.  I get sea sick quite easily.  Regardless I was not going to let that stop me or anyone else from having a ball.

Scottie and Jim were already sailing when we arrived, taking a lesson from a local named Emilio whom everyone says is a complete hunk.  I will leave that judgment up to you.  (Photo is below.)  The free moment gave Allan and me time to relax a while - Allan chatted with our client, Carla, a condo owner who is down for the month, while I took a dip in the water to cool off.  In no time the Coco Luna pulled up to shore, and it was time for Allan and me to board.

The sail was an absolute joy - very relaxing.  We lazily chatted and soaked up the sun's warm rays as Emilio expertly guided us to the reef just off Coco Beach.  I marveled at the water's varying shades of blue - from the traditional turquoise color near shore to an almost glacial blue color in deeper waters.

The reef rests just below the water's surface in about 12 feet of water, 1000 feet out from shore.  It starts out where we were and then parallels the beach, stretching about 1/2 mile, reaching closer to the coast at its far point.  Donning our snorkeling gear, we splashed in for our underwater adventure and were amazed at how warm the water was.  We could have stayed in all day.

We gracefully glided through the water, past large brain coral, colorful fish and creative coral formations, trying not to trample on and damage the reef.  Fish darted in and out of view, acting as if we were predators searching for a meal.  Admittedly I did want to consume their aura in photos and videos, but I'll leave eating raw fish to sushi bars.

We stayed in the water for about an hour, then boarded the boat (some gracefully, others less so) and began our zip-zag sailing pattern back to The Elements, completely dependent on the wind.  On the way as we reached really deep water, the ocean turned a marine navy color.  Emilio pointed out this is where the ocean drops to past 300 feet.  It's a scary feeling to think about just how profound deep water really is.  Anchored close by a 83 yacht emitted cool electronic music as on board passengers waived to us as they jumped up and down to the beat.  Allan and I immediately fell in love with the streamlined structure, wishing we too could voyage on the open seas in such a posh vessel, even if I do get sea sick.  It would be worth it.

Our sailing adventure ended after roughly 2 hours of sheer joy.  We helped to pull the ship on shore, and then headed back to the Elements Beach Club where our friend Marilou met us.  Lounging around on the beach for another hour or so we read, enjoyed Scottie's salsa and chips and made plans with Marilou later that evening for dinner.

We've found the longer we stay in Playa, the more friends we make and the deeper our existing friendships have become.  Each week offers a new adventure whether it be sailing, snorkeling, a cenote or a surprise.  Contently we approach each day, happy with our lives and excited for what new encounters we'll experience in this sunny enclave called Playa del Carmen.

Jim and Allan and the Coco Luna Cat

Allan gets ready to jump in

Jim and I enjoy the ride

Emilio, our captain

Allan snorkeling

Brain coral

The reef and sea life

Colorful fish
I loved this blue fish with florescent dots

Another neatly designed fish
A view of where we snorkeled and the boat anchored next to ours

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Las Mojarras Cenote - Not Your Typical Cenote But Still Quite Fun

Yesterday we had the pleasant experience of visiting Cenote Las Mojarras on Cenote Road just outside of Puerto Morelos with 5 of our friends.  Although we only had 4 hours to travel from Playa, eat lunch, enjoy the cenote and then return to Playa by 5pm (so I could play tennis) we did manage to have a ball for about 2 hours at the cenote.  Cenote Las Mojarras is one I will certainly recommend to our Playa del Carmen rental guests.

On our way up to the cenote we stopped briefly in Puerto Morelos at a road side taco stand and ate absolutely delicious chicken and beef tacos for only $10 pesos each (~ $0.80 USD).  We would have preferred to have a nice sit down Thai meal at David Lao's on the square in Puerto Morelos but time would not allow.  The tacos were quick and easy, and no one got sick to my knowledge so that roadside taco stand passes my health inspection.

The most remarkable moment meandering the tortuous dirt road to the cenote was the flock of wild boars that ran in front of the car.  By the time I withdrew my camera from my front pocket they were gone.  Everyone remarked at what a splendid treat it was to see the animals as no one in the group had previously seen boars in the wild.  Additionally a couple of pheasants with shimmering blue tails ran across the road and then flew off, adding to the authenticity that we were really having a Mexican jungle adventure.

At the cenote entrance our passage was stopped by a rope across the road, which gave us pause to notice the sign to the left of the vehicle indicating we should disembark and ring the bell hanging next to the sign to be let in.  Now this was certainly unique.  However before I had the opportunity to get to the bell the cenote owner came out, collected the $100 peso per person entrance fee (~ $8 USD) and lowered the rope.

Once we exited the car and gathered our belongings surprisingly the owner led us on foot to the cenote and along the way provided us with a guided tour of the local flora.  He pointed out the Chechem tree, which is highly poisonous and will cause a rash on anyone who dares to touch its bark or leaves.  I thought we were done with such plants after leaving poison ivy behind in Massachusetts.  He then pointed out another tree whose name escapes me who's sap is fatal.  That is a shocker - growing in plain sight in the jungle.

Unfortunately we did not have time to traverse the whole 3km (~1.8 mile) nature trail which includes over 90 trees labeled and an accompanying map to help guests become familiar with the local vegetation.  Picnic tables are also accessible where we could have brought our lunch and booze instead of having to eat on the road.  Next time we return we are certainly going to bring a group, spend the day, picnic and meander along the tree trail.

The cenote itself is unique because it looks like a large open pond: the water is certainly not crystal clear.  However, it does have 2 zip lines allowing for splash landings into the water.  Both lines are rather slow and ideal for the less risky adventurous types.  The cenote also offers 2 diving platforms both 5 meters high (~16 feet).  The water is at least 14 meters deep (~46 feet) so there is no worry of hitting bottom.

We used the diving platform and zip line several times.  Even though I have a spring board diving background, I only jumped as Allan does not allow me to dive - too risky as we do have a business to run.  There is also a ladder down to the water for those who care not to dive/jump.  Unfortunately there is no shallow end so those afraid of deep water should use the complimentary life vests or partake in the nature trail.  We will certainly come back next time for a full day, so we won't be so rushed.  The cenote is about a 45 minute drive from Playa del Carmen, so it is best to rent a car or hitch a ride with a friend if you don't have one yourself.

The bell at the cenote entrance
The cenote owner in front of the Poisonous Chechem Tree