Tequila!

There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.

empty glasses (2)

It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.

As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.

shooter girl (2)

My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.

Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.

It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.

Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):

…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.

And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.

With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.

mixing worm salt

Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…

margarita

but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…

smooth fire (2)

and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.

“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”

He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”

“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.

“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.

“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.

“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.

“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.

I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”

“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”

“How rich?” I asked.

“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.

Dinner was served–chicken fajitas for Leah…

chicken frajitas

and lobster tacos for me.

lobster tacos (2)

The food was delicious, but the tequila…

sipping tequila.jpg

OMG!…and worth every peso!!

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Flamingo Road

The Vindanta vacation resort in Riviera Maya maintains a habitat for flamingos smack in the middle of their property, and neither Leah or I had any idea that it was even there, despite a sign posting by the iguana-laden boardwalk…

boardwalker (2)

just outside our building.

grand mayan 3

We must have walked past the entrance to the preserve a dozen times or more, oblivious of the signage, probably thinking that Flamencos had more to do with a lounge or restaurant concept than the pink birds that occasionally keep company with gnomes and jockeys on people’s front lawns.

So imagine my surprise after learning of a conversation Leah overheard between two hotel guests who expressed such delight in watching these birds, that we had to see this unexpected treat for ourselves.

A short walk off the beaten path revealed a contained area at the toe of a foot-shaped lagoon,

bay

where a “pat” of flamingos (maybe 20 or more) were cruising around a contoured wading pool surrounding a small island of palms and mangroves.

bevvy of birds

These quirky birds couldn’t stay still for a moment. They mostly followed the leader of the pack–a five foot specimen that often craned its long loopy neck…

black beak

above the preeners,

pretzel neck

wings akimbo

and the feeders–

standing guard

beak dip

as his elongated legs wallowed through the rippled water…

4 birds

while keeping a watchful eye…

one stand out

on the humans who regulary monitor and manage the water conditions.

maintenance

Much of the pat’s time was spent trolling the curve of the pool with their immense beaks fully immersed in water, moving their heads backwards in an inverted position…

trollers and waders

with their beak sharply angled downward from the middle–the narrow upper jaw fitting into the lower jaw–intended for separating mud and silt from the food that they eat.

close-up

The filtering is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandible and a large rough-surfaced tongue, helping them extract the brine shrimp that constitutes their main source of food and the reason for the florescent color of their plumes.

Their fingers feature a webbing that prevents them from sinking in the mud they regularly wade through when feeding.

one leg

The Caribbean pink flamingo (American) reproduces on still waters, or on small islands within shallow salt water ponds and lagoons where it builds a mud mound with a small indentation for depositing its single egg (rarely two). The incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, and nesting is performed by both parents. Its offspring feed on regurgitated food for 75 days, although they can feed on their own after 30 days or so.

Flamingos reach maturity between two and three years of age, reaching recorded ages of 27 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

reflections (3)

No doubt, these fascinating birds have it made in the shade.

pat

The Other Side of Cozumel

My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.

My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.

The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.

In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.

As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.

We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.

After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.

At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.

We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.

With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.

I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.

My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.

My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.

Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.

Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.

Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.

For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 down the road.

Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse

Captured in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

super blood wolf moon eclipse

After a full day of sun, two stellar NFL Championship games, and a few beers, I was determined to stay awake to witness this special celestial event.

The stars were out.

The air was cool with passing cloud cover.

Oh, how I wished I had a tripod at the time!

 

Colorful Cozumel

A display of vivid Christmas colors continues to shine brightly throughout Isla Cozumel during its holiday aftermath. But wait a Mexican minute! 

centro ornaments (2)

The holdover decorations from Christmas past are not an exception to the rule, 

holly decoration (3)

because Cozumel’s sun-drenched colors are omnipresent and everlasting, no matter what time of year,

centro square

or time of day.

carousel and clock tower

Consider the remnants of Mexico’s sacred Day of the Dead celebration that still prevail around town,

coca-cola calaca

with calacas (skeletons)…

floral bug

engaging tourists and shoppers at every turn along Avenue Rafael E. Melgar (named after one-time appointed governor of Quintana Roo)…

i scream

…with whimsical retail marketing, 

snorkel calaca

and characteristic Mayan flourishes.

tattoo calaca

Holidays aside, Cozumel colors are as transparent as the azure waters that lure destination divers,

diver' fountain (2)

or apparent as the tropical breezes that sweep through lush palms,

tropic seas (2)

and adamant as cruise ship passengers,

carnival cruiser

who return religiously…

san miguel stained glass (2)

san miguel parish

chabad

ark.jpg

to experience the culture,

villa dolores

coral mural

mayan culture mural

the hospitality,

dive shop

and the cuisine:

casa denis exterior

Culinary cognoscenti have been enjoying authentic Yucatan fare at Casa Denis since 1945.

casa denis placemat

Three generations of the Angulo family have been serving locals and international travellers alike…

casa denis kitchen

with a mi casa es tu casa sensibility,

casa denis interior

using fresh ingredients at reasonable prices.

casa denis dinner

Yet for all the expected colors surrounding this island gem…

seaweed, sand and chaises at sunset

some things are best expressed in black and white!

overfishing mural
Overfishing by Jack Fox (South Africa)

Many Happy Election Returns

Donnie is at it again and again–appealing to the baser instincts of his base by stirring up hate and fear-mongering against the “Others” during eleven “last-ditch” campaign rallies in the past week. He has put immigration front-and-center as a divider rod to ram home the difference between those who are searching for freedom, and those who are weaponizing freedom for themselves.

Trump has swung open the doors of his psychophant wards to fill arenas with thousands of cheering and jeering haters–poised to lap up his lies–in anticipation of the accolades delivered by his adoring acolytes.

Characteristically, even as the midterm elections have approached this fateful day after, I’ve discovered scores of emails from Donnie, Mike, Lara, Eric and Junior choking my inbox like a political virus (as I’ve highlighted earlier in Anatomy of an Email) in a mad attempt to pick my pocket for money in support of Trump’s lies and “Nationalist” agenda.

This time around, a new survey has landed in my account–a tribal and partisan survey that completely guarantees reverberating feedback that’s fit for a narcissist.

Trump email

Okay. So allow me to be the survey outlier–a voice that struggles to be heard above the “LOCK HER UP” din; a voice that refuses to be paranoid of a Latin American stroller brigade that is worn thin by hunger and oppression; a voice that decries the inhumanity of caged children ripped from their parents; a voice that is guided by science, not séance; a voice that still believes in democracy, not demagoguery.

28 sheepish questions that deserve 28 unabashed answers:

Survey 1 (2)

Survey 2 (3)

Survey 3 (2)

Survey 4 (2)

Survey 5 (2)

Survey 6 (2)

Survey 7 (2)

Survey 8 (2)

Survey 9 (2)

Survey 9 (3)

end (2)

I’m doubtful that my responses will be counted among other survey submissions. And I’m almost certain that my responses will never be shared with Trump’s campaign.

But I’m hopeful that I’m not the only person who feels this way. And I’m confident that others will continue to rage against the Trump machine.

Do you agree or care to disagree?

 

Tourist Attractions

When showing family the sights of St. Augustine the first time around,

there are so many tried and true options that abound.

Naturally, driving onto Vilano Beach becomes the main outdoor attraction,

where short legs wade long lengths across silky, sandy satisfaction.

wading out

The Alligator Farm is another familiar and likely choice,

where eager grandchildren are apt to rejoice…

Alligator lagoon.jpg

at a place where rescued reptiles and denizens…

Maximo (2).jpg

Galapagos tortoise1.jpg

albino alligator.jpg

savor a seasonal delicacy,

so good!

yum!.jpg

and feathered friends…

heron

are likely to take up full-time residency.

pretty bird

stork

The Castillo de San Marcos gunnery platoon…

soldier and kids.jpg

castillo model

provides a cannon blast from the past very close to high noon.

cannon blast

And Anastasia Beach State Park’s estuarine channel

egret on the shore1.jpg

offers a vigorous workout with a kayak paddle.

Carrie, Devin, Dan and bird

The Aikens, Grammy, and Kayak

Or how ’bout a free ferry crossing Matanzas Bay…

ferry crossing.jpg

to inspect Fort Matanzas,

inside out

and its cannon array.

Fort Matanzas gun station.jpg

Then again, not withstanding the two-hour drive to Kennedy Space Center,

Kennedy wall.jpg

there’s a universe of exhibits to explore,

a walk on the moon

ISS.jpg

and The World’s Largest Space Shop to enter.

spaceman and kids

But when summer’s heat and humidity just…won’t…allow…another…step,

and when it’s subsequently rainy–as most afternoons are likely to get–

the chosen activity must absolutely meet

the standards of two curious kids, and satisfy their sweet teeth.

hairnet family

Happily, such a happening exists for the young and the grown,

and can be found at the artisan chocolatier, Whetstone.

Whetstone greeting.jpg

The tour informs you of its elaborate process and technique…

chocolate process

But realistically, we came for the chocolate samples we could eat.

Yet unlike the follies of Lucy and Ethel…

our guide served five tastings,

and each one was special.

 

For seven days our family wandered throughout St. Augustine town,

with plenty leftover to experience for the next time around.

At Your Service, 3

It’s hard to imagine going away to a resort to relax, and then being sidelined because of a cold. But after a day of Ubers, planes, and transport vans, we finally arrived at Hacienda Tres Rios–north of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya–for a week of fun,

by air (2)

and all I could muster was a trip to the hotel convenience store for antihistamine pills before I was ready to collapse. It seems that running around the continent for nearly ten months had compromised my resistance, and was now threatening to compromise my vacation.

Saturdays at the resort have always been a busy day of transitioning, as the staff warmly welcomes new arrivals with chocolate-covered strawberries and mimosas, while firmly ushering last week’s guests through the check-out process and out the door.

After checking in, we killed time at the buffet, waiting for our room to be ready. It was an excellent opportunity to people-watch and predict who among us would be the chosen people we see again and again throughout the week. Of course, it’s always the loudest guests who make a lasting impression, and this week would be no exception. Sitting at the farthest end of the room, three overweight, middle-aged woman were easily heard above the dining room din, kibitzing with the waiter, and on their way to getting shit-faced with yet another round of drinks.

Eventually, a bellman escorted us to our accomodations–a top floor room with an ocean view, or so we were told.

1st terrace view (2).jpg

Standing on the balcony, I strained my eyes past the clearing where the last building stood, and that’s when I discovered the deception; the hotel had determined that the miniscule ribbon of gray beyond the mangrove canopy qualified as a view of the ocean.

But I was in no shape to argue. All I could think about was getting into bed with a small hope of shaking this nasty hand that was reaching past my scratchy throat and squeezing my sinuses. That’s when our next-door neighbors arrived, and headed straight for the balcony. I immediately recognized the drunken cackling and the pitchy singing. Standing on my side of the dividing wall, I peered around the other side unnoticed to have a peek, and sure enough, each one held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, confirming my worst nightmare.

“This can’t be happening!” I quickly re-entered the room, and shut the terrace door to keep the cigarette smoke from seeping through the opening. “With 272 other rooms spread out through the resort, this is where they’re staying?” I moaned in resignation.

“Well, not if I have something to say about it,” declared Leah.

She grabbed the phone, and dialed the front desk downstairs.

“Tell them about the smoking,” I coached, “because obnoxious is too subjective.”

Leah asserted, “I’m calling from 1307. We just arrived, and already the cigarette smoke from the people next door is drifting into our room from the balcony, and it’s intolerable. So you need to find us another room.”

“I’m very sorry that you are being inconvenienced, ma’am” the desk clerk regretted, “but we are unable to accomodate you because of the volume of registrations at the moment. However, if you could be patient with us, we should be able to make other arrangements tomorrow after check-out time, when we’ve had a chance to review our room inventory,” the advised.

“What time, tomorrow?” Leah zeroed in.

“If you come to the desk at 9:00 am, we will be happy to help you,” she elaborated.

Meanwhile, a slurred rendition of Shape of You vibrated through the shared door between the rooms.

“Damn! I used to like that song,” I aired, “and now it’s ruined forever.”

The clatter of their high heels on marble floors resonated throughout the night, and imprinted on my sinus headache. As I lay awake in bed with a box of tissues by my side, I wondered how many costume changes they could go through in one evening, and cursed the day Ed Sheeran had become popular.

A new day for a fresh start, Leah and I packed the last of our belongings and shlepped our bags to the front desk. We previewed a room on the top floor of another building and unconditionally accepted the exchange.

Not too shabby–an ocean view with a whirlpool tub on our new balcony, and a chance to reboot our vacation. Ahhhh…

…choo!

terrace 1 (2)

Feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, Leah and I consulted the concierge to schedule enough activities through the week to balance my boredom with my recovery.

After settling into room 4302, we met up with Salvador, our trail guide who escorted us through the Nature Park on mountain bikes.

bicycles and nursery

We wove our way around the mangrove forest through a labyrinth of sandy trails recognizing white, red, black, and buttonwood mangroves–the four distinctive varieties that flourish in this tropical environment. On the way to the many cenotes,

cenote pathways.jpg

we identified a plethora of termite burls, several songbirds, a vulture and an iguana.

iguana and orchids.jpg

Of the ten cenotes on the property, we visited Cenote Tortuga;

cenote tortuga.jpg

Cenote Hondo;

cenote viejo.jpg

cenote Hondo.jpg

Cenote Viejo;

cenote river.jpg

and Cenote Orchideo…

cenote orchideo1.jpg

cenote orchideo.jpg

where we were greeted by a small school of Garra Rufa,

getting a pedi.jpg

eager to perform ichthyotherapy for free.

guppies and foot.jpg

On Monday, we spent our morning with sales agent, Ricardo (At Your Service, Too), and our afternoon with Manuel, who guided us from Cenote Aguila,

kayaking1.jpg

down the Rio Selva…

kayaking.jpg

to the ocean.

palapas (2).jpg

On Tuesday, we took a behind-the scenes-tour of the kitchen with Celia, the kitchen supervisor. She invited us into her casa to showcase the operation and preparation of all food within the hotel:

guest capacity.jpg
by the numbers…
walk-in
Walk-in
cleaning shrimp
Fish Prep
butchering
Butchering
carving garnishes
Deli and garnish
bakery
Bakery
soup prep
Soups
pasta station
Pasta
grilling veggies
Grilling and frying
bartending
Bartending
china and crystal
China and crystal

Celia’s staff works hard–six ten-hour days every week–and is committed to ensuring a healthy and tasty experience with fresh ingredients and a variety of international cuisines. She acknowledges us by placing her hand on her heart–a sanitary salute of sorts to thank us for the opportunity to serve.

On Wednesday, we travelled by hotel shuttle to Playa del Carmen,

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for a stroll up and down 5th Avenue–a pedestrian marketplace stretching 20 blocks, and lined with fashionable shops,

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Where’s Leah?

eateries, tequilarias, t-shirt mills, modern malls, massage stations, tchotchke kiosks, tourist stands, Mom-and-Pop Mexicana, and pharmacias, etc.

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I’ll have a week’s worth of Cialis, and a half-pound of hard salami, por favor.

By Thursday I was dying. After five days of dosing Sensibit D (an antihistamine decongestant), my body had betrayed me, turning my free-flow nose into a gripping sinus headache.

But that didn’t stop me from touring the Cancun Brewery with Leah and The Ed Sheeran Trio. Hiding behind the green wall of an unassuming building,

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a shiny brewery has taken shape in the middle of Tres Rios jungle. According to Brandon, brewmaster from Michigan,

Brandon

a Sunset Group partner bartered a warehouse, utilities and unlimited clean water in exchange for craft beer supplied to all Sunset Group hotels.

diesel

Additionally, production runs of Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, and Pilsner are crafted in short batches of kegs and cans to satisfy Riviera Maya’s thirst from Cancun to Tulum.

brewery

To some extent, I felt sorry for Brandon, as he was peppered with ridiculous comments, questions, and suggestions from my ex-neighbors, yet good-naturedly responded to everything that came his way. Then I stopped myself when I realized that here is a guy who otherwise, would still be living in Michigan, but instead comes to work in shorts and flip flops, and gets to drink cerveza for a living.

Adios, Cancun Beer.

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Friday was a good day to lay low and do nothing in preparation of an early departure on Saturday.

Lounging by the pool, I reflected on the past week, thinking about the activities I’d missed out on: snorkeling at Yal-ku in Akumal; diving Santa Rosa reef at Cozumel; and exploring the ruins of Coba or Tulum. While all of that would have made for an exciting itinerary, it wouldn’t have made for a relaxing vacation, and maybe that’s what my body was really craving.

Every day discovering something brand new

The sun felt good on my face, as I moved in and out of consciousness–half awake, half-asleep–my body floating through a cenote abloom with fragrant orchids,

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In the distance, a hypnotic song was playing–a lilting melody of love that grew louder and louder with every new verse–until I snapped awake. The Three Little Mermaids were at it again, wading in the pool with a drink, and killing me softly with an execution of Shape of You.

No matter. It was time to rise, and the perfect segue to a late-afternoon hot-stone massage we had scheduled as our reward for enduring Ricardo’s two-hour spiel (At Your Service, Too).

By evening, we were totally relaxed and ready to celebrate our mock 13th anniversary over a langoustine dinner and a special treat from the pastry chef.

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It was everything I needed to forget about the miserable cold that plagued me through this vacation.

Many have asked, “Why on earth do you call it a vacation, when you’ve been on a vacation for the past ten months?”

To which I answer, “Who cares what it’s called!”

Come on now, follow my lead
I may be crazy, don’t mind me…

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Cheers, from Mexico!

At Your Service, Too

Leah and I sat in beautifully hand-carved, yet wildly uncomfortable rattan chairs over a Mexican buffet breakfast that could best be described as Meh-ican. Sitting across the table from us was Ricardo, a familiar host and representative of the developer, who was writing upside down with his Mont Blanc pen, while presenting all kinds of facts and figures about the local hospitality game.

“40,000 hotel rooms in Cancun and 40,000 hotel rooms in all of Riviera Maya stretching from Puerto Morales to Tulum,” he regaled, “and here we are, at Tres Rios, right in the middle of this amazing paradise.”

Ricardo was finding his groove. He was flashing pages of a promotional real estate magazine and rattling off stat after stat as he actively drew a map of the Quintana Roo coastline on the backside of a resort brochure. For every detail added, Ricardo would reinforce his point by circling the Riviera Maya caption at the top of his masterpiece, until it resembled a paddleboard floating on a cartoon sea. With bold retraces and multiple underscores from his pen, he emphasized the unprecedented low, low prices that wouldn’t last unless we acted today!

Ricardo’s presentation was polished and professional, needing only one new breath of air every five minutes or so to sing the virtues of founding membership privileges, and the accorded rights and benefits granted to ground-floor go-getters who were willing to take advantage of a great deal when they saw one.

Ricardo has been honing his razor-sharp delivery skills for the past 25 years, having moved from Jalisco in search of an opportunity, and finding sponsorship with the Sunset Group, a controversial band of land speculators and developers from Mexico, who have since built four resorts from Cancun to Playa by selling timeshares to curious vacationers who couldn’t resist the notion that a Mexican vacation would fulfill their sun-starved lives.

Hacienda Tres Rios has become their biggest venture to date. Once an active Nature Park, the preserve fell on hard times after the devastation of Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and ultimately closed. In exchange for the right to convert the dormant property into a resort, the Secretariat of the Interior secured a commitment from Sunset Group to  restore the mangrove habitat and preserve the original eco-park concept.

Ten cenotes (some fresh water, and some brackish) are scattered throughout the property, with miles of bicycle paths carved into the jungle, providing access to swimming and snorkeling, while a short hike to Cenote Aguila offers a chance to kayak or snorkel down Rio Selva to the sea.

Eagle Cenote

Subsequently, steps have been taken towards self-sufficiency: with completion of a mangrove and orchid nursery, a water desalination plant and inverse osmosis system, solar panel installations for sustainable energy production, and a local farm-to-table concept that cultivates flowers, fruits and vegetables for all resort restaurants. Sunset World has transformed Tres Rios into Mexico’s first green resort years later, and is now the standard-bearer of all future hotel development in the vicinity.

Green Globe certified

As members of a sister resort in Playa del Carmen, Leah and I were invited ten years ago to inspect the property at Tres Rios and sample the spa hospitality. We returned the same evening to enjoy a Mexican fiesta on the beach, but not before we were spritzed with organic mosquito repellant, which really seemed to keep the bloodsuckers away. It was great fun at the time, and seemed like an experience worthy of repeating.

Subsequently, Ricardo and I negotiated on a one-bedroom suite for a one-week share that for many different reasons has been visited only four times in the past ten years.

Today, the Sunset organization prepares to finance Phase Two at Tres Rios, promoting luxury interval ownership, and beyond (future development of single unit residencies, and a marina with ocean access), so Ricardo sits across from us, giving his all–dazzling us with his artful cartography and adroit calligraphy–with every intention of leveraging our single week of ownership into a one-month obligation, which will help to defray the cost of the elaborate June Quinceañera his daughter has been planning for nearly a year.

But Leah and I never had any intentions of upgrading. Never. We were there for the sole purpose of exchanging our two hours of attendance for an hour of spa treatments. While our massages are presented as a gift for our precious time, realistically, it’s little more than a simple lure that’s part of a much larger marketing strategy.  

It was a monumental match of wills: Ricardo’s relentlessness versus our resilience. After an obligatory walk-thru of the newly appointed model apartment (which was roomy, luxurious, and fashionable) we moved through a display and awards room to reach an open conference room populated with small tables surrounded by high-back leather chairs. This was to be the setting for Round 3. While the chairs were more comfortable, the air temperature inside was rather chilly, prompting a request from Leah for a blanket before she bolted.

When Ricardo sensed that things weren’t going his way, he called for an assist from Patrick, his manager, who from gracious introductions revealed himself to be a 40-year old Irishman with a Mexican accent. The sales pitch devolved even farther after he further explained his unusual heritage: his Irish father met his Mexican mother while vacationing. They subsequently married; lived in Dublin until Patrick turned four; and under duress from his mother, his father returned to Mexico, where Patrick was schooled and his parents eventually divorced, although on good terms.

His father currently lives in Ireland, where he crafts granite fountains with Mexican stylings, and has sold one of his designs to Bono for his home on Killiney Hill. The conversation turned to our love of U2’s music, our mutual excitement of seeing them entertain live on stage, and Patrick’s fascination with my look-alike appearance to Bono.

Out of the corner of my eye, I knew that Ricardo was defeated. Unable to participate in our repartee, he sat silently and sulked, perhaps wondering if he could ever recover. I signaled to Patrick that we were passing on the offer, and just like that, the transaction was finished and so was Ricardo’s energy.

In a last ditch attempt to win the sale, he severely undercut his original bid. And like a Hail, Mary pass floating into the endzone, he threw in all kinds of extras with no charge to us, but we stood strong; we would not be swayed.

In the end, we shook hands as friends–Ricardo, the fallen gladiator, vanquished in the sales arena, and me, the victor with my wallet still intact.

At Your Service

The descendents of the Mayans are a happy people. Who wouldn’t be, with 300 days of sunshine per year, average temperatures of 75°F/24°C during winter,

Average-Temp-Cancun

and ocean swimming available all year round in turquoise waters that hover between 79°F/26°C and 84°F/29°C.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before money interests would step in to capitalize on a tropical paradise that was ripe for the picking.

Today, Cancun International Airport connects with 122 airports around the world, bringing over 5 million tourists to the Riviera Maya in 2017, and making Playa del Carmen and Tulum the fastest growing cities in Mexico.

But it all started from humble beginnings. Some say that Jacques Cousteau, the celebrated oceanographer first realized the potential of this area in the early 1960s. After anchoring the Calypso off the nearby island of Cozumel, he shot a documentary film that captured the wealth of sea-life thriving across the Palancar reef, the second largest coral reef biome on the planet, which resulted in an unintended flood of underwater activity from diving enthusiasts around the world, thus becoming the premiere scuba destination in the Western Hemisphere.

My earliest experience in the Yucatan Peninsula dates back to June 16, 1975, when I bounced across cratered jungle roads from Merida to Chichen Itza and Uxmal in a battered VW beetle, in search of Toltec truths once touched upon in college curriculum. This excursion/honeymoon–an elaborate anthropology and archeology tour arranged by a Mexican travel agency that rented cars and booked hotels–came with a fine-print disclaimer that later took on significant ramifications when our Bug broke down on the edge of a coastal clearing that became a colossal construction zone known as Cancun.

At first, the challenge of finding someone/anyone who could speak English was resolved after discovering the bilingual General Manager of the Sheraton Hotel (Cancun’s first and only hotel at the time) sitting in the town’s only restaurant enjoying his tamales. He negotiated a time for us to use one of two known local telephones connected to civilization–one in the restaurant, the other in the pharmacia–so we might call the Meridan agency to report our breakdown.

Several construction contractors were already patiently waiting their turn to call Mexico City for payroll and supplies, all the while drinking shots of tequila and trading gossip while their road crews were laboring 24/7 to carve the future streets of Cancun. The drone of heavy machinery and the scent of hot diesel hung in the humidity amid the occasional peal of electronic church bells tolling away the hours.

Eventually, our Sheraton translator secured a line to Merida, where we further learned that we were responsible for the VW no matter what. The car had to be repaired; it could not be abandoned, and no replacement would be available.

The new challenge was to identify a Mayan mechanic in the middle of nowhere who was VW savvy, and had a surplus of makeshift parts that could be gerryrigged to fix a transmission stuck in reverse. By now, the moon was rising over the mangroves, with little chance of making Akumal by daybreak.

The GM excused himself to network around the restaurant on our behalf, while we finished our simple meal, and to our astonishment located a local Mexican versed in lawn mower repair who offered to examine our 1965 Clasico.

Amazingly, we were on the road by 4:00 am, barreling through the dark night, charging toward our next reservation south of border, trying to make up for lost time, when I reflexively slammed on the brakes in just enough time, with just enough road to spare, and just enough tread to wear, to come bumper to bovine, narrowly avoiding a black cow lounging in the middle of a two-lane highway.

Steering clear of the cow provided an adrenaline rush that would last throughout the day, notwithstanding the bottle of Tequila we drained after finally arriving at the Place of the Turtles by dawn.

Once we checked into our room, we spent the entire day at the beach, watching in awe as leatherback hatchlings emerged from the sand and found their way to the sea.

Playa beach

That’s the moment I feel I fell in love with the Mexican Caribbean, and continue to return to this day.

More on Mexico later…