Sunday, 11 July 2010

... Mexico: Adiós México

It seemed that almost as quickly as I arrived it was time to leave. This time though I was adamant that my return trip to Cancún was not going to require me to take out a second mortgage. I had already done my research prior to this trip and I triple checked a day or so in advance to make sure I could indeed avoid a repeat performance of being ripped off.

The ADO Aeropuerto Bus runs a frequent service between Cancún and Playa with only 40 minutes between buses during the peak times. My only complaint would be if you land later than the last bus from Cancún like I did upon my arrival then you'll quite possibly run into the same problems as I did.

It was a glorious morning the day of my departure. After having a rather lush breakfast of freshly baked bread and tropical fruit in the garden of my guest house it was time to leave. I walked all the way from one end of Playa to the other in the sweltering heat loaded up with two backpacks only to find out later there was a bus station 4 blocks from where I was staying....Oops.

Driving back north to Cancún is about a 1hr drive and considerably cheaper than the rip off taxi/mini-vans (by about 10 times!).  It cost me 110 Mexican pesos (approximately $10 USD) and the ride was very comfortable, so comfortable that I fell asleep for most of it.

My itchy feet had been scratched once more and before I knew it I was on board my US Airways flight to Vancouver via Phoenix, Az. 

Adiós México. Gracias por algunos maravillosos recuerdos!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

... Mexico: Don't Go Into The Water?

Durrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr dun......

Durrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr dun......

dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun....

Yes... That. Is. A. SHARK!

You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
And I was planning to get into the water with one....

.... or two....

Actually, make that +40 of them!

Today I went into the water. I'm not talkin' about pleasure boatin' or day sailin'. I'm talkin' about workin' for a livin'. I'm talkin' about sharkin'.

Today I went swimming with the largest living fish species, the Rhincodon typus a.k.a the Whale Shark. This distinctively-marked slow-moving filter feeding shark inhabits all tropical and warm-temperate seas and it was a pre-crack of dawn start for me to head back up to Cancún to take a boat out to a site where they were known to frequent.

The boat ride itself was fantastic. I saw lots of dolphins and the occasional turtle all whilst topping up my tan. When the Captain killed the motor I knew this was about to become an experience of a lifetime. And there they were. We were literally surrounded by dorsal fins.

One came right up to our boat but we were not plankton and so he gently swam away. I was awe-struck. This was a dream come true especially as I had just missed this opportunity two years ago in Utila, another place where they are known to visit at certain times during the year.

Whale sharks conservation status is listed as vulnerable. I had deliberately picked a company whose main goal was conservation & ecological study. In fact we were all asked that when we went into the water in our groups of 2 to keep an eye out for any sharks with special tags along with any signs of any damage which would have most likely come from propeller injury from boats who saw dollar signs as opposed to what these creatures should really represent. The reason we were going into the water in groups of 2 was so as to not overwhelm these gentle giants but we were assured that we would get several turns to go into the water if we did so wish. It was time to get into the water.

I couldn't quite believe I was snorkeling towards this but I was! Of course you had to remind yourself of the huge tail fin still to come from behind you.

I was able to get so incredibly close to this beauty. It was absolutely amazing. It soon got bored and swam away after almost knocking me half a mile with its tail. I turned around and saw a giant dorsal fin coming right towards me...

There was one particular theme tune playing in my head and no it wasn't "It's a small world after all"... I screamed like a little girl.

"Large mouths but eat plankton. Large mouths but eat plankton," I silently chanted as it gently swam past me probably more annoyed that I was in its way than thinking "ooooh food".

Another close up. This one moved surprisingly fast and had a couple of remora tagging along for the ride! These fish are so incredibly graceful, so beautiful with their checkerboard markings and so bloody huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge! The smallest one I saw was 20 ft long!?!

What more can I say? This is an experience that I simply cannot do justice with words & pictures! It was quite simply out of this World and the cherry that topped this trip's icing. I returned to Playa for a final night filled with dancing on cloud 999!

Friday, 9 July 2010

... Mexico: You'd Better Knock On Wood

"it's like thunder.... lightning...."

Today's reef dive took place south of Playa namely because, given the normal northbound current, most diving in Playa is drift diving. Drift diving is as the name suggests - you are transported by the current and your boat follows you. The area where we were going to had a nice combination wall slope with plenty of caves and several swim-throughs formed when the sea level was lower. It was also a prime area for turtle and tarpon spotting. Sounded like a fanstic dive package to me!

The day had started out beautiful. The sun was shining and even early on it was already pretty hot. Nice. Our small group of 4, including the DM, were soon loaded onto the boat with our gear and zipping down the coast. Bring it!

When I dive I take on the look of a Troll Doll
I convinced myself to ignore the dark ominous clouds in the distance that we appeared to be heading towards - it was still gloriously sunny where we were and that quite simply was all that mattered to me. "We'll soon be going in the opposite direction."

The first dive provided a great zero-G spacewalk as the scenery moved by. The water temperature was nice n' toasty and the viz fantastic despite the storm earlier in the week which we were told might have churned things up a little. Corals & marine creatures of every shape and colour implanted their image firmly on my personal hard drive... and of course lots of turtles & tarpon plus a couple of nosey barracuda.

However it was the second dive that provided quite the show. Whilst I was showing my dive buddy a beautiful spotted moray eel a flash bulb went off. My first thought was 'who is taking photos?' Then the flash happened several more times followed by a strange noise like someone shaking a jar of beads. It was then I realized it was a thunderstorm. Only in Mexico would you go out reef diving during a tropical thunderstorm in an aluminium boat on salt water!

NASA says lightning rarely hits oceans because the surface water does not heat up enough to cause the positive charge needed for lightning to occur. Still, I think I can safely say that I was glad we were at the end of the dive, the storm was still somewhat in the distance when we got back into the boat and we floored it in the opposite direction back to Playa.

It was certainly a very interesting experience. Nature can put on one incredible show in more ways than one. Not shocking at all.

It was time for post-dive eats.

Post-dive drinks... hibiscus
A habanero pepper chutney thing... yum!
Some sweetened rice drink thing... it was bloody good whatever it was

Thursday, 8 July 2010

... Mexico: Do or Dzonot?

The Yucatán Peninsula is famous for sinkholes with exposed rocky edges containing groundwater. They are called cenotes (Dzonot in Yucatec Maya) meaning "sacred well". A combination of various geological events and climate changes created this incredible and unique ecosystem. These caves and underground rivers were created naturally over 6,500 years ago. Over the past 20 years, experienced scuba divers have explored these caves discovering more than 480 km of interconnected passageways and caves that make up this amazing one of a kind ecosystem.

Sounded like an adventure to me!

Whilst I do not hold my technical diving certification for caves, what I do have meant that I could take on the adventure that is cavern diving in the cenotes. It sounded pretty adventurous to me and I was, needless to say, pretty excited. This was one of the reasons for this last minute trip and something I had planned for in advance.

What can I say? Diving usually leaves even someone like me pretty speechless. This 2 tank dive was just extra special - the opportunity to explore something totally different! Sure, I was a little nervous, I mean here I was as a slightly claustrophic diving in a bunch of caverns. But the sights that greeted me at Kukulcan & Chac-Mool cenotes..... wow.... well worth that initial panic! Even upon seeing the death sign warning me about how many people have lost their lives cave diving without the appropriate training!

The tranquil beauty of these pristine windows to the underwater world made me believe I was experiencing quite possibly the dive of my life floating through caverns full of crystal clear water, stalagmites and stalactites and the cavern that we surfaced within. The light effects are amazing, as sunlight penetrates the darkness. Then of course there was the phenomenon that is a halocline. Unforgettable.

Now here comes the Science: What is a halocline? Well, it's the density interface between the fresh and saline waters, meaning a sharp change in salt concentration over a small change in depth. Mixing of the fresh and saline water results in a blurry swirling effect due to refraction between the different densities of fresh and saline waters. Easiest way to think about it? Like mixing oil and vinegar. Basically it's bloody cool and diving in a cenote cavern is an unforgettable experience.

Post-dive eats were well deserved me thinks.

Todo se veía tan sabroso... Una vez resuelto lo que era en Inglés (Gracias Olimpia!).  Tortillas de cangrejo y camarón (Crab & shrimp tortilla.... delish!)

Tomorrow's "regular" scuba diving is going to have to be pretty special to beat this.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

... Mexico: Donde es Starbucks?

Believe it or not yesterday I spent all day sat in Starbucks because it absolutely rained cats & dogs.  Great... I fly all this way to do what I do back home. I had to find the hilarity in that, albeit somewhat delirious....

At least today I've had a change of fortunes.  Well.... kind of. The rains stopped and after a yummy breakfast at the guest house, I went exploring the 'hood. My planned first day of diving was alas postponed because it was still kind of choppy out in the water and no boats were leaving the harbour.  I guess that kind of poses a bit of a problem if you want to go out diving.

Most activity in Playa del Carmen is on Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) stretching from Calle 1 norte until Calle 40. Conveniently it is a pedestrian walkway located just one or two blocks inland from the beach and is lined with hundreds of shops, bars and restaurants. I also happened to locate all 3 Starbucks.

Despite the latter,  the local community and government have attempted to retain Playa del Carmen's charm as a small fishing village and artists' colony, without it becoming as large and busy as Cancún. Part of that bid has meant the city passed an ordinance limiting buildings to four stories. It does all make for quite a nice feel about the place even though it is now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo.

However, never fear. It also remembers that it's a tourist destination and still has a nice layer of cheese.

Nowt like a nice bit of Bimbo with your Cerveza!

Muy borracho! Think being drunk in public got to be a bit too much for this fella

Lucha Libre

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

... Mexico: Eat More Carrots

You know signs are a lot more obvious in broad daylight.  It would appear that I wasn't the only one who had a problem with them last night. My driver didn't seem to have a bloody clue either. I certainly hoped he wasn't expecting a tip!?!

After landing in a tropical cyclone (as I found out today per the news), getting ripped off and driven around Playa in circles for at least 45 minutes, my luggage & I were dumped at the South end of the town with nothing more than a sheepish smile. He got sin punta from me.

Despite the risk of monstrous roaming charges I decided I needed the aid of Google Maps & GPS on my phone more than a Facebook status update. Finally, I had some kind of idea of where I currently was. At least it was Playa del Carmen - the driver had got that much right. I figured I should probably head north along Quinta Avenida, the main street. It was, of course, the walk that never seemed to end. The torrential rain was soaking me to the bone and I looked more like a drowned rat than a happy traveler.

"Must. Engage. Brain."

I dashed into a hotel and asked for help. At last a map even if at that moment in time, to me, it was the most confusing map I had ever set eyes on. Navigating this map to find my digs, loaded with two backpacks, in the downpour was no easy feat and I was only supposed to be walking a couple of blocks. Especially not when I quite possibly walked past my lodgings several times in the space of what felt like hours because I couldn't see a sign. I finally enlisted the help of the tourist police. I didn't bother attempting to translate the fact that I had been walking in a circle with a one block diameter for the last little while. I have some pride.

My host couldn't believe his eyes. "Oh you poor child." I was ushered inside, dried off & fed before settling down in my lovely room with a very comfy bed.

At last something positive!

Monday, 5 July 2010

... Mexico: I no hablan Inglés

I was told Cancún is a very safe city, "certainly safer than many cities in the US, Canada and the UK".  However, just like any other tourist resort throughout the World there are people who will try and pull a fast one even if you are, like me, leaving as quickly as you arrived.

It couldn't happen to me could it?! Despite the whole last-minute-ness of this trip I had still done my homework. I had been advised to pre-book my transport down to Playa from the airport not only because I couldn't be certain of catching the last regular bus but also because of the scam artists that flocked the airport offering over-priced transport. The legit companies were expensive enough (this is one of those times were being a solo traveler really does suck) so you can only imagine what these con artists would try to get away with. I begrudgingly pre-booked my transport prior to leaving somewhat seething at the fact it was about 9 times more than the bus that I may or may not be able to catch. All I had to do was meet them outside the arrivals.

Whilst attempting to exit the airport after clearing the security checkpoint, I was met by an 'official looking' uniformed man. He asked me the name of the transportation company I was using to get to my destination upon which I showed him my e-ticket. I was promptly escorted to a wall of similarly clad personnel. It appeared they were going to help get me to my transportation. After a welcome speech, one of them spoke into a walkie talkie and a mini bus pulled up. 

Intuition was screaming at me that there was something not right here. "Identification?" I was flashed something that looked official, had the company's name on but still something was amiss. You know those occasions where you should trust your gut? This should have been one of them. Their English suddenly got very poor and for all my flicking through a phrase book they played dumb.

How does one argue for 90 minutes over a transaction when one of you is pretending not to understand and the other one can't speak the native tongue? I'm not sure but that's what then occurred.

By now it was dark & raining and I was weary from traveling all day. "How much?" Ah the language of money. Utterly deflated and furious, namely at myself, I handed over $100USD and sat in silence for the entire journey lamenting "That's the cost of two dives."

Not exactly the welcome to Mexico I had wished for.....

... Mexico: Itchy Feet Take The Plunge

Somewhat uncharacteristically for this little Miss A-Type, I didn't plan this trip a few weeks ahead... try more like a few days. What on earth had gotten into me?!? Thank heavens I didn't need any shots or pills and that I had a valid passport. I had decided I need to get my itchy feet submersed in some warm water for a week and it was Mexico that I decided on. I figured it was my diamond in the rough covering the 4 C's: Cheap, Cheerful, Convenient and Carribean!

This trip meant I also had not one but two "kids" to take care of and ironically the newest addition is of Mexican descent. See! It was a sign. Gracie was in the usual excellent hands of very good friends. Chip, however, needed a little more thought especially as he is a rescued chihuahua from the mean streets of L.A. I discovered a wonderful family-owned & operated facility where I knew he'd be well taken care of and thrive during his stay. He was getting better digs than me!

The trip began in usual Nic-stylee through the US of A with a quick flight to DFW then onwards to Cancún. As quickly as I arrived there I planned to leave it and travel down the coast to Playa del Carmen to take a few steps off the pre-packaged path. There is good scuba diving in Playa and whilst it cannot compete with Cozumel the fresh water cenote diving more than makes up for it. It had me sold!

Oh and did I mention the sharks that I was planning to snorkel with?

My itchy feet were gonna need a bigger boat!