Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cozumel Quick and Dirty

Oh Cozumel, my first home in Mexico. Small town life on Mexico's biggest island, after the cruise ships leave, the flashy diamond stores close down and the island breathes. The economy thrives on the cruise industry and the flocks of scuba divers who arrive to explore the magnificent Mesoamerican Reef. Most people who live on the island have always lived there, families of fishermen going back generations. The island is still a vast stretch of natural eco-systems, most visitors only see a small portion of Cozumel, and definitely not my favourite parts. 

Last weekend a group of friends who work in social media marketing got together under the leadership of Miguel, "La Vida es Viaje", who arranged a whirlwind visit to the island with the local tourism board, the #aventuraencozumel (we are Twiteros!). It was going to be quick and dirty, in and out, we only had two days to pack as much in as possible. This was no luxury tour, but so much BETTER. I packed up my car, my tent, my kid and my buddies and we hit the road at 5:30 am to get to the car ferry on time. First time driving across the sea, way cool. Of course taking the car ferry instead of the passenger ferry adds a few hours to the journey, but it was worth it to have a vehicle to get us around.

Ok, so maybe we had a little bit of luxury, the fine folks at Casa Mission invited us to breakfast in their beautiful Colonial Hacienda.

After a stop at the supermarket for goods for the night, we were off to "The Other Side", the east side of the island which is rough and tough and gorgeous. We stopped a few times for photo ops (car full of bloggers and social media freaks? Uh yeah, we're going to stop) but we had a destination in mind and a schedule to keep so we kept on moving.

We were greeted at Rastas by these regal beasts, the reggae lions of peace.This little beach bar at the edge of the world is legendary. We chilled out with a couple of cold beverages and watched the waves and began our withdrawal and recovery from being WITHOUT SIGNAL. No 4G, no wifi and we survived with only a few minor incidents. And we began to enjoy it. Really really enjoy it.

Sweaty and covered in sea spray and sand, we kept to our quick and dirty plan and entered Punta Sur, a protected park area at the southernmost tip of the island. First stop was the lagoon for a chat with a biologist and local school children about the ecology of the area, SMART kids, they totally inspired my nine year old. Punta Sur is home to a diverse variety of flora and fauna, a jackpot for bird watchers and snorkelers and lovers of lizards big and small. We climbed the Faro Celerain, the lighthouse at the tip and were treated to a view of the lagoon, the island and the great big sea before setting up our tents on the shore before it got too dark.

Our Cozumel host Pablo invited us to travel down a way to a hidden beach to see the sunset. When we arrived, the biologist and the kids had a surprise for us, they pulled out a cooler full of baby turtles that had just hatched and were waiting to be released to the ocean. We all took turns letting our babies go and (best part!) got in the water to swim with them as they started their journey. Damn good moment. Sunset wasn't bad either.

The fun didn't end when the sun went down! It's turtle nesting season of course, we were not going to miss the "desove", the nesting of a big mama on the beach. Around 1 am, we got our chance, a big turtle joined us on the beach under the milky way (it was ridiculously clear, I could have taken a bite) and laid her eggs. Life changing moment and another great lesson for Max and for all of us. By this time I was zonked and ready to crash, but oh no, the night tour of the lagoon to look for crocs and bioluminescence was ready to go! I threw in the towel, but Max ran off on the expedition. (Didn't see any crocs but was excited to stay up until 3:30 am and camp on the beach). 

We woke the next morning, opened the tent and saw the sunrise. There are no words.

After a breakfast of cochinita tortas in a local greasy spoon, we were off to visit the other end of Cozumel, the north point where the Cozumel Pearl Farm resides. There are no roads to this point, the only way to get there is by lancha, boat. Our lovely hostess Isabel met us at the marina and we were off in "La Ostra" to seek treasure. Arriving at the private beach (I couldn't help myself, I sang both the "Gilligan's Island" and "Fantasy Island" theme songs), we were met by the resident Labrador Gaia, swimming out to greet the boat. Now that is service. We got the tour of the facilities and laboratory on land before exploring the underwater pearl farm. There were some coral formations and fish and a statue of the Virgin that Isabel's father had sunk for protection (according to Isabel, it works!) 

After an arduous (snicker) snorkel, we were definitely ready for the cold beers served up at The Wet Bar, a sand bar with an umbrella and chelas frias. Nobody, I mean nobody wanted to leave.

Unfortunately, this was the quick and dirty tour and we could not choose to live at the Pearl Farm, so we sadly said goodbye and sailed back to the mainland. The closer we got, the hungrier we were so we were happy to know that La Mission was waiting for us for dinner. Good food, great company and total exhaustion and it was the first time in a very long time that my kid with an endless battery fell asleep at the table. Well done Cozumel, well done.

The drive home was spent raving about what a great weekend we had, the new experiences, the encounters with nature (and with ourselves, no Internet? Introspection time!) I'd like to offer my enormous thanks to Miguel for organizing, to Pablo for being a fabulous host, to Professor Benavides for being so knowledgeable and to the folks at the Mission Restaurants in Cozumel.

And special thanks to my kid, Max, the fearless and tireless nine year old who can hang with a group of 30 adults like he is one of the gang. Adventures are so much better when he is leading the way!

More Cozumel Quick and Dirty Photos

Monday, June 2, 2014

Travesia Sagrada Maya 2014: From a Canoeros POV

The Travesia Sagrada Maya is an annual event presented by Xcaret Park in the Riviera Maya,a recreation of the ancient crossing of the Maya from the mainland to the island of Cozumel to make offerings to the goddess Ixchel. It is an homage to culture, history and the perseverance of the human spirit, rowing more than 30 kms in open sea and returning again the next day. I am always humbled and moved by the experience (I always cry!) and this year was even more emotional for me. Someone very important in my life participated as a "canoero", his journey inspired me so much that I thought I would share his story instead of mine. Here are his words...

It all started when I was present at the arrival of the canoes in the 2013 edition. All that passion, the families awaiting their loved ones, the amazing energy they brought from the sea...I just felt like I had to be part of it no matter how.

(not a real canoe)

Training for the TSM was without doubt one of the most intense experiences in my life, our coach led us with discipline and experience, letting us discover new limits of our own bodies, minds and spirits everyday, and he did it for one fact that turned out to be true: the stronger we trained, the more we would enjoy the Sacred Mayan Journey when it happened. 

It is amazing how by breaking a physical limit, like rowing when I thought I couldn't row anymore, from soreness or exhaustion, I also unbound myself from previous conceptions I had about myself in other aspects of my life. 

Canoes loaded with offerings for Ixchel

It was a collection of very deep, strong feelings and thoughts before, during and after the journey. 

Before the crossing, there was this immense amount of energy collected through six months of training, my mind and soul only asking one wish to God and myself: to row as hard as I could, without stopping, without leaving a drop of energy unspent: to give everything. Fortunately, that wish came true.

A blessing before the journey begins
We were in the open sea rowing through what we called a "blender" sea: waves constantly reaching the canoe from the side making it advance sideways and shuffle intermittently. That meant we rowers had to constantly shift our weight to avoid tipping, while the coxswain had to exert an immense amount of strength to keep the canoe on course.

Despite the effort, many canoes tipped, including mine. We recovered quickly once, and a second wave hit us making us tumble again just seconds later. We recovered as we did dozens of times during training: we had that already embedded in our physical memory. One thing I can clearly recall is me crying in happiness, rowing as hard as I could, as we managed to recover from that tumble, encouraged by words from our coach given providentially from the support boat, and reaching the main group, even passing some other canoes. We were not competing, but that simple feeling of recovering, giving everything and making up for almost ten minutes of delay (which translated to almost a quarter of a mile in distance from the group) was just overwhelming. 

The canoes depart at dawn

The arrival to Cozumel after six hours of rowing was mostly physically intense, as I arrived very conscious, stable and aware. I made my offer to the goddess Ixchel, for I embraced the reasons and the traditions that engulfed the Sacred Mayan Journey itself, and went to rest for that night. But nothing prepared me to the arrival back home, to the port of Polé, at Xcaret. I did not realize how much energy I had contained throughout all the time we trained, all those hours rowing, until we approached, full speed ahead, rowing with strength and spirit that came from an unknown place, and arrived to meet a cheering crowd, the rumbling drums, the dancing men, women and children at the shore, and my family, reunited after months of not seeing them. It is something I won't ever, ever forget.

Canoeros return (photo by my son Max)

I desire to do it again, if the universe allows it. Maybe this time I will take the challenge of being the fore rower, who has to set the pace for the rest of the canoe and aids the coxswain in the navigation. For the ones who want to participate, I can just give one piece of advice: commit and embrace it as a way to discover themselves, so it has the effect that Mayans expected from that spiritual pilgrimage five hundred years ago: one person goes, and a greater, different person returns.

Emotional return (photo by LisaLove)

Mike Garcia is a talented illustrator and artist, originally from Mexico City and now living in Cancun. He is one of the finest human beings I have ever known. :)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sustainable Tourism - Xelha Park Riviera Maya Receives EarthCheck Gold Certification

"Sustainable tourism -Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities"  (via UNWTO)

Anyone who has visited Cancun or the Riviera Maya on more than one occasion has certainly noted the massive growth of the region and the rapid development of new hotels, condos, entertainment parks and housing. In my ten plus years of living here, I've witnessed huge changes in my little piece of paradise. Each time I see a new building going up, it makes me a little sad to wonder what effect it will have on the future of the Mexican Caribbean's environment and communities. Many companies like to throw around the terms "eco-friendly" or "sustainable" in their marketing, so it is always a pleasure to witness real dedication to these important matters and not just the use of the words for publicity.

Press conference Xelha Park

In my work in social media in Cancun, I have had the good fortune to collaborate frequently with Xperiencias Xcaret in all of their attractions (Xcaret Park, XelHa Park, Xplor, Xoximilco). Spending time at each of them and meeting their teams of environmentalists and community outreach specialists, I can say without hesitation that this is a company that is walking the walk of sustainability and responsible tourism. My opinion is one thing of course, but what sets the organization apart is the world-wide recognition it is receiving for its dedication to sustainability.

EarthCheck Gold Award

This past weekend, I was invited to XelHa on World Water Day to celebrate the park's latest award, the EarthCheck Gold certification. XelHa is the first theme park in the world to receive this distinction, a great honour and highly deserved. What is EarthCheck you say? 

From the Xelha blog

"For starters, EarthCheck is a international certification program for tourism businesses to promote best environmental and social practices that specifically evaluates ten lines of action: 

-greenhouse gas emissions 
-energy efficiency 
-drinking water 
-ecosystem conservation 
-social and cultural issues 
-administrative land use planning 
-protection of air quality and noise control 
-wastewater management 
-solid waste management 
-storage of substances harmful to the environment"

Xelha Park meets and exceeds the standards of EarthCheck in each of these categories, going above and beyond to ensure the future of the ecosystems and the community. For the "eco-conscious" traveler, this means you can rest assured that a visit to Xelha will not only provide you with a fabulous encounter in paradise, but that you are supporting an organization that truly cares about being responsible to the planet. Muchas felicidades, big congratulations to the team at Xelha!

Please take a moment for a virtual trip to paradise by watching this video, it's magnificent! For more photos of my day at Xelha (of course I enjoyed the park after the press conference!), please see the Xelha Flickr set.