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

July 11, 2006

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

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