Another good night sleep.  I could get used to waking up to the sound of the ocean.

The first tour today is was for the fish trolling or deep sea fishing tour.  Janice has a great description of the tour in her blog entries so I will not get into much detail here.  After catching our first Mahi-Mahi (Yes Janice, mine was smaller! J) we had to take a seasick Janice back to shore.  I went back out for another try and managed to catch a decent size barracuda.  All fish were returned to the sea in accordance with the environmentally friendly catch-and-release nature of the operation.
Professionals

Fish Trolling with the Professionals

Next we tried the kayaking tour through the canals and water ways of the bay among mangroves and in the vicinity of Bird
Island.  Gerardo, our guide, was eager to get our impressions on the tour and improve on it.  I really can’t see how he can improve.  This tour, as the others so far, proves to be well organized, informative, professional and thorough.  I only see that they may need better equipment and perhaps ways to store the kayaks in the point of destination.

Kayak

Still Life with Kayaks and Mangrove

The kayaks allow us to get in areas that boats would not and soon we navigate through mangrove tunnels trying to spot animals and, hopefully, a boa or even the rare manatee.  The tour is not strenuous and I could see families enjoying something like this as well as avid kayakers.I really feel the need to sit down with someone at CTSK to see their cost structure in order to help out with the pricing strategy.

Dona Irma

Doña Irma and I – she’s a huggable person. J

Late that afternoon, we head back to Tulum.  I’m exhausted!  You would think that this is all fun and games.  And it is to a point.  But after four days of getting up early, rushing out to meetings, taking off on tours for the entire day and coming together at the end of the day to debrief, discuss and plan next steps… your body and mind begin to feel it!  So I sleep for most of the trajectory back to Tulum in spite of the bumpy road.  We arrive at Maya Tankah early evening covered in sweat, salt and dust… a picture out of some adventure show.  Janice and I agree that a shower is in order before anything else and, unfortunately, because of some misunderstanding we miss a conference call with Laura and the team scheduled for that evening.

It feels good to be back together with team (all but Dustin who is touring the peninsula on a sales trip).  I feel we are growing into a cohesive group learning to work as parts of a whole.  We meet and discuss our parts… there are many questions on the table but we can see that something is starting to take shape.

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Punta Allen – Day 2: Jaguars, barracudas and – oh yes – more mosquitoes!!! (6/21/2006)

The morning is hot from the beginning.  Amazingly enough I slept better in our rustic quarters than in the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel in Tulum.  But I discover that Dustin has hardly slept at all and spent the night pacing the room trying not to suffocate or get devoured by mosquitoes (so much for the magic incense!).  Apparently, having slept near the window saved me from an uncomfortable night.  Still, I feel like a kid in adventure land! 

The sands of Punta Allen

The sands of Punta Allen 

I need to train for the Seafair Marathon taking place on July 09 back in Bellevue, so I force myself out of bed, spray myself in a toxic cloud of mosquito repellent and get out to start an 80 minute jog.  I’m skipping a fly-fishing class that our guide, Gerardo, is conducting at 7 a.m. so that I get a chance to train.  The first 10 minutes go well and the heat is not unbearable.  But then I get on the road that leads to Tulum and the mosquitoes discover that I missed a big spot when I sprayed repellent: my back.  They are relentless and attack my back from all points.  The only thing I can do to keep them somewhat at bay is to run faster.  I stop to tie my shoelace and feel bombarded by needles.  The thought running through my head: why didn’t I take that malaria shot when I could!!!  I try to make the most of the run and try to put my mind on something other than the stupid blood suckers.  It is then that I start noticing tracks.  Thousands of crab tracks mark the ground, then some that are unmistakably birds.  Later I find pizote (or coati) tracks – a tropical cousin of the raccoons – and finally a big set of jaguar tracks (now I have definitely forgotten the mosquitoes… well… almost!).  My friends “escort” me all the way down to my palapa.  In the mirror my back looks like it has been sand blasted.  The mind keeps chanting “malaria” and “dengue” like a broken record. 🙂

I rush to shower and meet my team for an early meeting with town representatives to be introduced and hear their views on our project.  The same concern keeps surfacing in most of our conversations: the need to bring levels and types of visitors who will not disrupt the balance of the local population and their environment.  Many of these people have lived here long enough to remember what Playa del Carmen used to look like before it was developed.  In time they have seen the claw of development closing around them and threatening their way of life and traditions.  They have also experienced recently the exploitation by foreigners without scruples representing themselves as good Samaritans ready to help their cause, only to disappear one day with the earnings of the co-ops.  Naturally these people seem suspicious at times of a big foreign corporation showing up to partner with them and requiring no share whatsoever of the profits.  Wouldn’t you?

Our first tour today is to Bird Island, a fantastic heaven on a mangrove islet.  Frigate birds cover the tops of the mangroves and our guide shows us how to distinguish the young ones by the white color that still covers most of their bodies – since by size they seem adults to my untrained eye.  Adults hover above the waters of the bay and over the mangrove.  To stay cool in their nests in the heat of the day, the young birds (who still can’t fly) open up their wings creating a draft around their bodies.  These birds fish in a similar fashion as pelicans spotting their prey from above.  But unlike pelicans, frigate birds don’t dive to catch the fish, they elegantly glide above the water surface and pick up the fish in one swift movement.  In that way, they keep their delicate feathers from getting damaged by the salty waters of the ocean.  Other kinds of birds cohabitate with the frigate birds and it’s hard for me to keep track of their names.  But watching the birds fly by as we float around the islands is mesmerizing.

After Bird Island we go out to the coral reef for a snorkeling expedition.  It’s bumpy and I get to the front of the boat to enjoy the “roller coaster” ride.  After tumbling around for a few minutes I realize it’s not such a good idea and return to the safety of my seat.  We get to the coral reef area and I’m a little apprehensive since this is my first try at snorkeling and I’ve heard that the infamous barracudas abound in the area.  It’s because of barracudas that we need to take off anything that shines since barracudas are attracted to the glitter (off with the rings and the watch!!!).  Our guide Marco is an experienced diver who really knows the trade.  He directs the tour in a very professional manner and puts my mind at ease to see how well prepared he is.  He also gives us instructions on how to communicate and behave in the water.  He is also very protective of the reef and tells us that under no circumstance should we touch the coral.  The touch of a finger – he tells us – could damage an area of the reef that would take a thousand years to recover.  As if that wasn’t enough, he shows us a scar on his stomach caused by a kind of stinging coral.  (Note to self: touching coral = very bad!)  For safety and to avoid the temptation to dive down to see the coral closely, we wear life vests.

As soon as we dive we are surrounded by a surreal world.  We are in 10 feet deep waters and the sun light shines all the way down to the white sand bottom.  Brightly colored fish swim everywhere and the coral adds even more life to the scene.  Marco starts to point out the main features of the marine fauna we encounter.  Soon enough we encounter our first barracuda swimming our way.  They swim with their mouths open showing plenty of needle-like teeth.  My heart starts pounding but with a quick movement the barracuda suddenly changes course and swims away.  Other barracudas we find do the same thing apparently afraid of us.  Phew!!!  The rest of the swim is fantastic and I see that both Dustin and Janice are also calmly enjoying the experience.

Barracuda Bait 

Barracuda bait

Reluctantly we end our snorkeling tour and head back to shore.  On the way we spot dolphins and slow down for a better look.  Some other tour guide is there with a group of tourists and he irresponsibly not only allows a tourist to jump in the waters but also starts dragging her by the arm along side the boat.  Marco looks irritated and he explains how he could never allow that.  Dolphins are known to be very docile creatures by nature but these are also wild dolphins.  They could be protective and hurt someone who tries to approach them.  Besides dragging a person along a propeller boat is obviously a bad idea.  I test Marco and ask him – what if I really like dolphins and decide to jump right now?  His answer is direct and to the point: “I would get you out of the water and it would be the end of the tour for all of you.”  I really respect that!

 Dolphins

Dolphins

We get to shore and have another delicious meal cooked by doña Irma.  Then it’s time for fly fishing.  I haven’t gotten the training so I will just go along for a look.  Janice and Dustin each is lead by a guide in some very shallow waters of the bay.  I’m not much of a fisherman, but I can see how someone would enjoy the quiet relaxation offered by this sport.  I stand alone far from the two groups so I don’t disturb the waters.  Fish keep swimming by and I even spot several small sting rays.  One of them calmly swims around me and settles in the sand no more than three feet from me.  The tour ends with no catches to speak of… well, Janice did manage to hook the back of her shorts a couple of times.

Dustin goes back to Tulum that afternoon and Janice and I stay behind to try out a couple new ideas for tours: Kayaking and Fish Trolling.  We meet in the evening to discuss our impressions so far and to begin creating a plan for our section of the project.Tonight I move to a different “cabin”.  I have the privilege to sleep in the “Little Titanic”.  A 30-plus feet boat on top of which the hotel owner built a “cabina” complete with a roomy bathroom.

 Mosquito Nets

Mosquito nets in the Little Titanic

 Little Titanic

The one and only Little Titanic

– Olger

Janice, Dustin and I came to Punta Allen to try some of the “products” offered here.  It still sounds strange to call these tours a product.  It’s almost irreverent!

We left Tulum in the afternoon of the 20th to travel south on a tongue of land that at times seems no wider than 50 feet with the Caribbean to our left and the waters of Bahia de la Ascención to our right.  The bumpy van ride took about 1 1/2 hours on a dirt road once wiped out by Hurricane Wilma and now rebuilt almost entirely.

Punta Allen actually sits on an island (at its southern-most point) connected to the mainland by a short bridge.  The town still gets its electricity from generators and we were warned that there would be no power between midnight and 6 a.m.  Considering that when there is no power there is no running water either, that could prove challenging.  But hey… a bag full of good humor!

When we finally arrived at Punta Allen we couldn’t believe our eyes.  This is a rustic town kissed by the most pristine ocean waters I have ever seen.  Palapas, traditional homes made out of wood walls and topped with grass or palm roofs, intermix with more contemporary cinder block constructions, a little church awaits with its doors wide open, a restaurant painted in bright purples and oranges seems closed for the season.  The town exudes a welcoming and relaxing air. 

 Traditional Palapa

Traditional Palapa

Palapa Penthouse

Palapa Penthouse

Restaurant

Colorful Restaurant

Faith

A Cozy Church

Our accommodations are palapas sitting on stilts above the ground which keeps some creeters out and allows for a more steady flow of air to keep the inside cool.  Oh yes… no air conditioning here!  Mosquito nets drape our beds and the rooms come equipped with matches, candles and citronella incense… we’re definitely in “mosquito land.”  It’s exciting to be here!

Sunset in Punta Allen

Sunset in Punta Allen

After a delicious dinner prepared by a charming sweet woman named doña Irma, we headed back to our rooms to turn in for the night.  The rooms are hot even at night and the welcome breeze is hardly enough to keep us cool.  I write a little in my journal and then get to bed after fighting with the incense to figure out how to keep it from burning the place down.

– Olger

It’s a wrap…

July 4, 2006

Well, I’ve been back for two days now.  I can’t get over what an incredible two weeks we had in Mexico.  We were able to help CTSK make a lot of improvements on their website, help them develop future product offerings and help them start to build relationships with more hotels.

All of this while working with an incredibly talented group of people from Expedia, Inc.  What a great opportunity to get to know some of the really smart, cool people within our company that I wouldn’t normally work with!  Not only that, but it was great to get to meet Kate and Art from the UN and all the really fantastic people at CTSK.

We’ve still got some wrapping up to do – mainly to ensure that we are able to learn from our experiences and apply them to future trips, but also to tie up some loose ends with our recommendations.

All in all, despite some of the bumps along the way (mainly the whole no power/water thing), the trip was a fantastic success and I hope the rest of the group enjoyed working with me as much as I enjoyed working with them.  🙂

Megank