Monday, September 26, 2011

Cajón vs. Cojón

The following is a recent conversation I had with my employee in Spanish which emphasizes the importance of property pronunciation.  Cajón in Spanish means drawer whereas cojón means testicle.

(translated from Spanish)

Connie:  Where are the receipt books?
Me: They are in my office in the top cojón  (testicle) of my black filing cabinet
Carla: I think you mean cajón (drawer).
Me: (Smiling) Yes I meant cajón (drawer).

We all laugh.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sleeping in Hammocks

You might be surprised to find out that the maid who cleans your room in Playa del Carmen probably sleeps in a hammock at night.  I used to think of laying in a hammock as an outdoor activity on a lazy, summer day.  Now I realize hammocks have a long history in Mexico and Central America and are really part of the Mayan culture.

Ancient Mayans used to sleep in hammocks.  Hammocks are ideal for the tropical Yucatecan climate: they are light and airy, providing great ventilation for the user.  They allow the user to hover above the ground, away from whatever insects or crawling creatures which might otherwise find their way under the sheets of a bed.  Considering Ancient Mayans and many present day Mayan descendants live in conditions more akin to camping, sleeping off the ground was essential.  By the time Spanish explorers landed in Mexico they found hammocks everywhere.

Hammocks are also great space savers.  In the morning just unhook one end from the wall and hang it up on the other.  Potential buyers in Playa who are looking at very affordable accommodations, the type that appeal to local Mexicans, expect to find hammock hooks on the inside walls.  What might be a living room during the day coverts to a sleeping area at night with hammocks hanging off the walls.

Both my maids sleep in hammocks.  One sleeps with her daughter in one hammock while the other maid shares a hammock with her husband.  When it's time for intimacy my maids told me they move to the floor.  Although there is book and even a calendar on hammock sutra, the art of intimacy in a hammock, I guess my girls prefer a hard surface.

For purchasing your prized hammock, stay away from pricy 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.  Instead visit the hammock store on 30th Avenue and 50th Street.  You can purchase from a beautiful assortment of colorful hammocks at a fraction of the price.  They have single weaves, double weaves, single hammocks, doubles and even chairs.  If you don't find what you're looking for, submit a custom order from a wide selection of colors and have them make your own.

Although Allan and I have 2 hammocks and do manage to sneak a nap in them from time to time, we are not planning to trade in our bed.  Sleeping in a mattress is very much a part of our culture, just as being in a hammock is part of the Mayan culture. 

My maid, Zoila, sits in our bucket hammock with Mitzi.  Believe it or not we find this hammock more comfortable than the traditional horizontal kind.

Zoila in our second hammock.  Zoila sleeps in a hammock every night.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Isla Cozumel Day Pass Highlights Tour

Allan and I spent a wonderful working day exploring the island of Cozumel on the Isla Cozumel Day Pass Highlights Tour.  Certainly any day spent snorkeling, relaxing on the beach and touring a tropical island is bound to be a superb day in my book.  Although Allan and I have been to Cozumel before, we enjoyed reconnecting with the island after not having been in over a year and also appreciated the guided tour which revealed many facets of the island to which we were previously unaware.

We started the day with a leisurely stroll down 5th Avenue to meet up with the tour group in front of Sr. Frogs by the ferry terminal.  Round trip tickets (included in the tour price) were distributed by our tour leader, and we boarded the ferry for the scenic and thankfully tranquil 50 minute passage to Cozumel.  Being prone to sea sickness, I am not one for boats, but given the guided tour of Cozumel I was able to overcome the limited discomfort for a daytime of fun.

In Cozumel we boarded a safari type bus which was a mix between a cargo truck decked out in camouflage and an army transport vehicle. Our first stop was the famous snorkeling spot, Chankanaab.  Cozumel has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and Chankanaab is known for its snorkeling.  The water ranges from 10 to 30 feet in depth and is marked by large coral formations, bright purple fans and a kaleidoscope of colorful marine creatures.

Snorkeling equipment and mandatory life vests are included, but the vests can be inflated or deflated depending on how adventurous you are.  I prefer to keep mine deflated so I can plunge down and explore things like the large statue of Christ which is probably 20 feet tall and the head is still about 10 feet below the surface.  It is really sometime to behold.

After roughly an hour in the water we dried off and boarded the safari bus for a scenic ride into the Faro Celarain Eco Park.  I never knew this part of the island existed.  I thought Cozumel was all sand, trees and buildings.  However the southern end of the island is covered in pristine mangroves, marked by large brackish ponds and marshes.  We stopped at a nearby white sandy beach for a delicious all you can eat buffet lunch of fajitas, beans, nachos and beverages, including beer.  The respite lasted about an hour, half of which we spent lazily lounging on beach side hammocks while another part of the group decided to go for a dip in ocean.

Then it was back in the safari bus for a tour of the rocky eastern side of Cozumel where we stopped at a beach side cart for some adult beverages made and served in fresh coconuts and photo shoots on the large rock out-cropping.  Our friendly and informative tour guide talked about the area and how Cozumel got its name.  In Mayan the word "Cuzamil-Pectin" means "Land of the Swallows," and Ixchel, Mayan goddess of fertility and love, was said to have sent swallows, her favorite birds, to the island in thanks for dedicating temples to her.   Spanish explorers then converted the name from Cuzamil to Cozumel.  Likewise the state of Yucatan got its name from the Spanish.  After having landed in the Yucatan they asked the Mayans what this place was called.  The Mayan replied "Yuk ak katán" meaning I don't understand you.  The Spanish took "Yuk ak katán" and made it Yucatan.

At the end of the trip we were dropped off in downtown Cozumel for about an hour of shopping before it was time to board the ferry again.  Instead of shopping Allan and I opted to feast on ice cream and enjoy the scenery of a nearby park.  We boarded the ferry to Playa at about 5pm and were pleasantly surprised with live Latin music on the boat.  Being someone who likes quiet I was initially resistant to having my peace disturbed, but I must say the music was really good and by the end I was listening intently.  It certainly made the time on the water pass much faster.

The Cozumel Day Pass Highlights Tour is certainly a worthwhile activity for the whole family.  Allan and I are used to planning and running activities, and it was nice to actually sit back and have an informative guide take us around and do all the work, and even serve us lunch!  We're looking forward to when family comes and visits so we can take them on the tour.  If you'd like to book the tour please contact our concierge Claudia at

Live music on the Cozumel Ferry

The Cozumel Ferry

Allan, Randy, Claudia and I at Senor Frogs

Allan and I in front of the jungle bus

Randy gets ready to go snorkeling at Chankanaab

Allan, I, Claudia, and Randy before our snorkel at Chankanaab

I'm snorkeling at Chankanaab
Big fishie!

Submerged statue of Christ

I come up for air

Walking among the mangroves

Beach side hammocks after the all you can eat buffet

I'm trying to sleep after a big lunch

Relaxing in a beach side hammock after a wonderful buffet lunch
Allan and I on the jungle bus

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dining Out in Playa del Carmen

Dining out is one of Allan and my favorite past times.  While living in Boston we frequented as many affordable and ethnically diverse dining establishments as possible, splurging for the more expensive ones on special occasions like birthdays.  Having since moved to Playa del Carmen we have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the local cuisine.  Although it's hard to compare the dining options with a major metropolitan and ethnically diverse city like Boston, Playa del Carmen has certainly not disappointed us with its dining options.

One of our local favorites in Playa del Carmen is Da GiGi, located on 5th Avenue between 32nd and 34th Streets, with other locations in the Riviera Maya.  Owner and operator Gigi and his master chefs have been serving up delicious Italian food and pizzas for over a decade.  They make a point to personally check on diners and socialize with them, making the dining experience more personalized.  It has become the place to see and be seen as many local politicians and celebrities dine here as well.  The 5th Avenue location has both outdoor and indoor dining options.  If you choose outdoors make sure to pay a visit inside to see the amazing restaurant decor and layout personally designed by GiGi.

A newbie on the Playa dining scene is El Mero Negrillo, located right around the corner from our house on 26th Street between 5th and 10th Avenues.  Modeled after their sister restaurant in Veracruz, Mexico, El Mero serves fresh Veracruzano style seafood at reasonable prices.  We like to order as an appetizer the oyster sampler (be aware it is very spicy) and then randomly choose one of their many seafood offerings as a main dish.  When in doubt just ask their friendly and accommodating bilingual staff.

Our favorite restaurant, El Camello Jr. (Camel Jr.), is not even located in Playa del Carmen, but rather is 45 minutes south in Tulum.  Situated at the most southern end of Tulum on the eastern side of the main highway, El Camello sits in a very nondescript building with plastic tables and chairs out front.  It's always packed with locals, and has yet to disappoint us.  The fried whole fish was incredible, as well as the fish fillet with garlic and the grilled squid.  Quite frankly we have been ecstatic with every meal so far.  El Camello Jr. offers twice the quality at half the price.

Who would have thought two foodies like Allan and I could move from a dining hub like Boston to a sunny beach town like Playa del Carmen and be satisfied with our dining options?  I can comfortably say when dining out the food in Playa is fresher and costs a fraction of what it would in Boston.  Although the cuisine is not as ethnically diverse as Boston, there are a variety of ethnic establishments in Playa.  Even though we do miss some of the diversity in terms of food, we can always calm our cravings on trips back to Massachusetts.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cenote Chaak-Tun in Playa del Carmen

For the 3 years we have been living in Playa del Carmen, we never knew there was such a nice cenote in town.  Cenote Chaak-Tun is situated across the highway on Juarez, approximately 1 mile past where the pavement ends and dirt road begins.  It's frequented in the mornings by various tour groups and has proven to be most popular.  We arrived around 1pm after the crowds had left and enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the cool depths, worlds away from the blazing summer heat.

Pay only $50 pesos for locals or $100 pesos for foreigners at the main entrance, grab your hard hat and life jacket which are included in the admission price and take a pleasant jaunt back a few hundred feet down a well-maintained walkway through what remains of the jungle in Playa, among a variety of singing birds, lush green trees and canopy of winding vines.  My mind began to imagine what it would have been like for the Mayans living in the jungle.  How did they manage to navigate through the thick brush amid a myriad of crawling creatures?

The walkway continues to the mouth of the cave, past some low ceilings where one has to duck (hence the hard hats).  The cave opens to a center courtyard with tall trees rising into the jungle and a variety of singing birds which sound like monkeys.  The cenote then continues deeper, greeting visitors with a ceiling of stalactites, which almost looks like something out of a horror movie.

Janet, Marilou and I customarily explored the dry part of the cenote on the well-marked path, appreciating the intricate limestone formations, which are ornate and sizable.  However, my primary desire besides getting out of the office on a Friday was to take a cool dip into the very fresh crystal clear water.  We spent about 1/2 hour in the water which ranges from several inches deep to way over my head.  Snorkelers can appreciate a stone replica of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in the water at the bottom at the back of the cenote.  It takes a bit of luck and a bit of courage to actually find the carving, but it is well worth the visit.  The swim also affords the opportunity to better explore up close the limestone formations which are just as worthy as almost any other cenote we've visited.

After visiting the first cave, we exited the cenote, past the main entrance to visit a second one next door which is actually part of the same attraction.  The second one is accessed by a winding staircase that ends at a ceremonial alter which appears to be autentic.  The water in the second cenote was much cloudier.  (We could not see the bottom.)  Regardless, it was well worth the jaunt as the rock formations on the walls were this white milky color which almost looked haunting.

In short I'd say Cenote Chaak-Tuk is well worth the very short trip down Juarez for some local cenote fun.  We will surely be returning to help cool off during the hot summer.  As winter approaches us locals find the cenote water too cool, so we will have to visit now as we won't be going back until next summer.

Janet and Marilou at the entrance to Cenote Chaak-Tun

Marilou and Janet before entering the cave

The horror movie like entrance to the cenote

Janet and I posing with pleasure

Meaning through the water

The milky ghost-like limestone formations

The Virgin of Guadalupe carved into the limestone