Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Company Outing to Xplor

This past Saturday Allan and I took our staff to the theme park Xplor for a day of fun and excitement.  This was Allan and my second time and our employee's first time.  After having a very busy high season we felt the need to give back to the workers that have made our success in Playa possible.  Without a doubt Xplor is one of the best and should not miss activities for the adventurous traveler to the Riviera Maya.

Do you like zip lines?  If you've never done one and have always wanted to, Xplor is the perfect place.  Picture yourself flying above the tree tops enjoying a panoramic view of the lush green canopy.  Xplor has 2 different zip line routes, each of which consists of approximately 9 interconnected zip lines lasting about 1.5 hours total.  Although the activity requires quite a lot of stair climbing, it's a great way to get exercise and the views are certainly worth it.  Once you're above the tree tops you can see Playa del Carmen in the distance, the ocean and the vast jungle.  On two zip lines you actually fly through a man-made waterfall and glide into a water landing.  Another includes a full water slide between zip lines instead of stairs.

Most of my staff has been on zip lines before as last year we took them to Aktun Chen.  For most the initial fear of jumping off a platform hundreds of feet in the air was much milder than last year.  Regardless there is always a little apprehension having to place your complete faith in a harness and 2 cables suspended between two very tall towers.  That being said Xplor is extremely safety conscious and has to be the safest park I have seen thus far in the area. 

After the zip lines we enjoyed the delicious full buffet with a wide selection of food and non-alcoholic beverages (included in the price of admission).  The all access entry to the park is roughly $100 USD per person.  With proof of residence in the Riviera Maya (voter card or driver's license) you can get in at 1/2 price.  The park is open to 9-5, and I recommend arriving between 9 and 10 to be able to participate in all the activities.

Our group decided on driving the amphibious vehicles after lunch as our next activity.  There are several ATV routes, all through the jungle, one through cenotes filled with water.  The ATVs hold 2-4 people and are very exciting.  We drove through premarked paths through the jungle, over suspension bridges and through dimly lit tunnels, through water and around bends.  It's a circuitous path that often goes under the zip lines and then back out into the jungle.  After the cave route we did the jungle route which proved to be equally enjoyable.  I highly recommend starting with the cenote route and then choosing one of the jungle paths afterwards.

Our last stop of the day after the vehicles was to the water hammocks.  The water hammocks work like zip lines except instead of sitting in a harness strapped to a zip line you are just sitting in a hammock that glides down a cable and splashes into the water.  There are two short hammock lines and the stair climbing is minimal.  The hammock lines are very relaxing, especially considering the water landing helps to cool the body after the heat of the day in Playa del Carmen!

This trip there was not enough time to partake in the swimming nor rafting down the underground river nor the hike through the cenote.  It was just as well as most of my employees are not fond of cold water and we were really tired after all those stairs.  By cold I mean anything under 85 degrees.  I think the underground water is refreshing as would most any North American or European.  However, we are talking about locals who put on winter coats when temperatures fall below 65 F.

Allan and I did the underground river swim and canoe paddle and cenote walk last year along with Allan's grandson, Nick.  Meandering through the underground cave, admiring the stalactites, one almost feels like you are back in prehistoric time.  It's certainly an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Xplor in my opinion is a must do for any traveler.  Although the zip lines are a bit much for senior citizens, children, or anyone with limited physical capacity, the underground river, water hammocks and amphibious vehicles are sure to keep anyone amused.  Being bored at Xplor is not an option.  There is so much to do it's hard to fit it all into one day!

Carla, Zoila, Luis, Nori and Connie get ready for the zip line

Luis heads up the stairs to the zip line

Zoila prepares for the water slide

The NAS crew at Xplor: Allan, me, Carlos, Zoila, Carla, Connie, Luis, Nori and Erminia

Allan exits the water after the water hammock

Carlos and I on the ATV

ATV over the suspension bridge

Underground river

Underground river

Underground river

Friday, June 8, 2012

Visiting Isla Mujeres for the Weekend

Isla Mujeres (Isla) is by far one of Allan and my favorite spots to escape Playa del Carmen for a short weekend trip.  Besides having one of the most beautiful beaches we've ever seen, Isla posses this wonderful island charm that is hard to come by.  After having spent the past weekend exploring the island for the first time, both Allan and I are positive we'll be coming back again this summer.

Isla is only a 20 minute luxury, high speed ferry ride off the coast of Cancun at Puerto Juarez and only costs roughly $15 USD round trip per person. The ferries leave every half hour during the day providing a lot of flexibility for Allan and I, who tend to try to cramp a lot into one day are are usually running late for something.

Once in Isla the four of us crammed into a small taxi cab with luggage and within 4 minutes we had arrived at Cabanas del Maria del Mar ( on the north coast of the island.  Isla is only about 5 miles long and 1 mile wide, which make tranversing the island very easy.  Most people travel by golf cart!

The cabanas provided a no frills, comfortable option at an unbeatable price (roughly $40 USD for a double room per night).  The price is usually twice that but since we asked for a locals' discount we were able to secure the discount.  The hotel sits right on the beach and includes a small pool and free continental breakfast.  The rooms are nothing special but given the price and location, we will definitely be booking again!

Our arrival in Isla was greeted with heavy downpours and amazing thunderstorms which provided a wonderful light show.  The weather did not deter us from veturing out for a stroll and some dinner.  Low season (May - October) is a perfect time to visit since no one is around.  For dinner we enjoyed some Asian cuisine and great people watching.  The restaurant was located on what I call restaurant alley.  The street is charming yet a bit cramped with a myriad of ethnic restaurants from Argentian and Italian.  Between the outdoor dining, the pedestrians and the restaurant employees eagerly trying to solicit our business, I would think the street in high season would become quite crowded. 

Back at the hotel that evening Allan and I took a dip in the pool which was literally like bath water.  I guess there is something as a pool being too hot.  However, it was so refreshing enough and helped us to relax and sleep through the night.

We woke up next morning to a picture perfect day.  The water was this amazingly light colored blue that has to be one of the most beautiful beach sites I have ever seen. We ate our free breakfast of toast, coffee and juice under a thatched roof over looking the water, listening to classical music. What a way to start the day!

We decided to rent 2 golf carts for roughly $30 USD each from 9am to 5pm and used these to get around the island. One cart could have sufficed for the 4 of us but that would have meant 2 of us would be sitting on the back facing backward. 

Carting around the island was the ideal way to get around.  There are not a lot of cars and you really feel like you are on a Carribean island.  Isla is absolutely beautiful with gorgeous beaches and it seems people really care for their homes and shops.  Storefronts are well maintained and painted in bright Caribbean colors like light blue and yellow. Parks are well groomed and you don't see much poverty or rift raft.

Our first stop for the day was at a turtle farm where they breed and raise fresh water and sea turtles.  It was a great way to see the turtles up close and even observe other sea creatures in tanks like sea horses and octopuses.  You can pick up rays, fresh water turtles and conch, but not the sea turtles.  Then in the ocean in a decent sized enclosure was a nurse shark.  I'd say our local guide was one of the highlights as he let us break a few rules which I won't discuss here, and he added a lot of smiles and charm, always ready to help us or answer any questions (in Spanish).

After the turtle farm we went to vist the home of a very eccentric guy who built his home all from recycled materials. The base the home floats on is made from plastic bottles.  His home was originally in Puerto Aventuras, but it was destroyed in a storm, so he rebuilt in Isla.  We observed his make shift residence from the shore as it appeared he was not home.  We actually don't know the owner, nor have every met him and as he was not expecting us, I am not entirely surprised he was out.

For lunch that day we enjoyed an incredible meal at Pita Amore (  The menu is small and really only consists of pitas stuffed with meat like chicken or turkey and vegetables. However, the food is so delicious, it's not only highly rated on Trip Advisor, it's also been visited by celebrity Chef Jacques Pepin and is also now one of our favorite lunch spots in all of the Rivera Maya. The inside of the restaurant is a bit rustic, but the food is so good it doesn't matter.

After lunch we spent some time on the beach outside our hotel, as yachts moored not too far off shore.  The water was a warm 85 degrees and you could wade out hundreds of feet on the soft sand.  It was one of those days and places where we began to think how lucky we were to be living in such a beautiful spot.  We reflected back on our lives and what brought us to this point in our lives. We contemplated our friends and family who were all mostly back in cold climates not enjoying the warm waters of the Caribbean.  And it wasn't like this was just a rare vacation for us - we live only about an hour away, and Playa del Carmen is arguably just as nice.

Dinner that evening was scrumptious Mediterranean food at Olivias ( which consisted of pita, kebabs, salad and moussaka.  Olivias is also well rated on Trip Advisor. Without a doubt we'll be returning for dinner on our next trip this summer.

The following day was cloudy, but that did not prevent Scot and Allan from partaking in a small snorkeling adventure in a small inlet within walking distance of our cabanas at the Avalon Reef Club. From what I hear the variety and quantity of fish marvel that of Puerto Morelos.  Scot and Allan think the hotel must feed the fish to keep so many in such a small area.

After snorkeling it was time to leave the wonderful island.  Allan and I were already mentally planning another trip back before even departing.  Isla Mujeres is just so charming and beautiful.  We expect to return over and over!

Hotel Cabanas Maria del Mar

Night view of restaurant alley

Sea turtle at the turtle farm

Allan with a conch at the turtle farm

Our travel companions, Scot and Vicki

Allan and I with Cancun across the water

Allan and I on the north beach

View from the breakfast table

Snorkeling at the Avalon Hotel

Allan, Scot and I at the floating house

My and my golf cart

Monday, June 4, 2012

Finding Allan's Missing Iphone

Last night Allan returned home in a panic after running errands and visiting clients in Mareazul, maintaining he had lost his iphone.  On the way home he had briefly stopped by the beach at 110 Street, had used his phone momentarily, and then had exited the vehicle for less than a minute, and then turned the car around to head home.  Within seconds he realized the phone was missing and immediately stopped, searched the car and the beach but came up with nothing. Needless to say Allan was a bit stressed out and angry with himself when he came home and asked for my help.

We live by our phones, and to replace one would cost over $500 USD. I've often said if I could marry my phone I would. It not only keeps me connected to work in terms of email and telephone, it provides invaluable applications like conversion tools which I use for cooking and measuring since Mexico uses Celcius and centimeters and I'm used to Fahrenheit and feet. There's a Spanish dictionary which I use all the time, and when I have to sit in line at the bank for 1/2 hour there are games to keep me entertained.  Besides the internet our second most valuable tool for our business are our cell phones.  A loss of one is devastating to our productivity.

Luckily we have enabled on our phone the iCloud system which uses GPS to pinpoint its exact location.  As long as the phone is on, the iCloud program has not been disabled and the phone is in an area with cell service, I should be able to locate it within a matter of meters online at Unfortunately the phone could not be located online and was ringing directly to voicemail, a good indication the phone had been shutoff by someone who found it.   I decided despite the late hour both Allan and I should head back to the beach and look for the phone.

It was now dark, but sporting flashlights we searched the small area where Allan had been but came up empty handed.  As we were leaving the beach I tried calling the phone again and surprisingly a local Mexican man answered.  He sounded very uneducated in his language and manner of speech.  I explained in Spanish I had lost my phone and asked where I could find it. He immediately hung up and would not answer my calls. He sent me a text saying he would call in a minute, but he never did. I then sent a text explaining I would give him a reward for finding it and asked where I could pick it up.   He did not respond.

Now that I knew the phone was on, it was searchable online via iClould so we raced home, went online and sure enough we pinpointed the exact location of the phone. I could also remotely erase the phone or lock it, but decided not to as I did not want to alarm the person who had the phone. I wanted him to feel safe with it and not let him know I was coming for it nor that I knew where it was. It would buy me more time. For all we knew he could take out the SIM card which would disable iCloud, he could move from his current location or just shut the phone off.

Allan and I hopped in the car with my laptop and enabled the hotspot application on my phone so it could share the wireless connection with my laptop so I could stay connected. The address was not far from us, but was about 4 miles from where the phone was lost. Within 5 minutes we were at the location, a depressed city block in the Ejido, where mostly lower middle class Mexicans live. One side of the street was an abandoned lot and the other had several 2 level, run down homes. We drove slowly along the street, constantly refreshing the iCloud program until we were right outside the building. We contemplated calling the police but decided to give whomever had the phone a chance to return it.

I noticed outside this two story building there was an iron gate with 2 younger dark haired Mexican women sitting just inside. The gate was open but it was quite dark inside. The gate separated the street from a dark alley with apartments on either side and stairs at the far end which led up to a second level.

I was quite apprehensive as I approached and explained to the women that I was looking for my lost phone which my computer indicated was here. The alley I was in looked like it was out of some Kung Foo movie where the star enters a dangerous dark alley only to be confronted with trouble. I was a bit scared of possibly being attacked or robbed. It was dark and the location was very poor and run down. A chubby dark haired woman and a man with mustache and shaved head who had been laying in a hammock approached and in a very friendly yet concerned tone explained that it was all one family that lived there and no one had my phone.  I explained that the phone had been lost on the beach and I had a program to track the phone and it was definitely there. "Was there anyone who recently at the beach I asked?"

I kept calling Allan's cell phone to see if I could hear it ring, but it didn't make a noise. I clarified all I wanted to do was find my phone and that I would give a reward of $500 pesos ($40 USD) to the person that had it. If it was not returned I was going to call the police. I made clear I knew it was here, and I walked further into the dark alley, continuing to call the phone. As I approached a wall at the far end of the alley one of the women at the entrance said someone had my phone. She pointed upstairs to a dark haired Mexican man who said he had it. I was instructed to walk up the concrete stairs at the far end of the alley.

One of the women accompanied me to the top of the stairs but I would go no further.  The man was at the far end of the alley, about 20 feet from me, but there was no hallway up here. The side I was on was all roof, but the other was another level of apartments. Separating both sides was a large gap which was could only be crossed by jumping or walking across 3 boards which had been causally placed across. There were several faces peering out the doors and my instincts said not to go any further. The woman next to me told the man to come to us, that I was not going to do anything to him.

I got out of my wallet two 2 hundred peso notes and a hundred peso note and handed it to the man who passed me the phone. He then surprised me by giving back $100 pesos, acting like he didn't want it. The phone had been taken out of it's red case and then put back in backwards so the screen could not be seen. It was like they where taking off the case to see what kind of phone it had been and rapidly put it back on when I came by. The man said he could not figure out how to use the phone.

I checked the call log and saw he had made several calls, all to my friends. Was he trying to give the phone back or did he not know how to use it? How did he manage to text me? I asked where he found the phone and he said on the sand. He had been drinking on the beach and picked it up.

Allan got his cell phone back in perfect working condition. There were no long distance calls which might have run up his bill. I felt incredible, having used technology and satellites to track the phone and actually find it. I felt so proud and relived, it was if in one hour I had save us $500 USD, and that no matter what i did good or bad from hereon out I would be excused since I had found Allan's phone. Imagine loosing your phone in a city and being able to find the exact home where it was taken to and get it back.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how nice and accommodating everyone was at the apartment building. Without their help it might have not gone so easily. The gentleman that had my phone was also very nice. I think he probably would have kept the phone or sold it if I had not come, but in the end he took the easy $400 pesos from me. Considering where he was living and his admitted heavy drinking that's probably twice what he makes in a day. In the end everyone was happy - especially Allan!!

The screen shot of the location of Allan's iphone.  The green dot indicates its whereabouts within meters.