Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico Trip Report —
© 2010 Tone Garot.
I received an E-mail from Peter Sprouse in
September of 2010
stating that he would be skipping Muzquiz over Thanksgiving
because of current
border issues. Instead, he was putting together a small trip
Quintana Roo, Mexico, which is on the Caribbean coast. The
"First two people who buy plane tickets get to come along!"
minutes later, I was ticketed from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun, a
via Spirit Airlines for only $365 USD. (I later found that
this price was
deceptive—two checked bags, round-trip, added an additional $120
USD to this
price—but a direct flight can't be beat.)
Over the next several weeks, I procured gear and planned how to get it there. While a "dry" cave in Quintana Roo requires no SCUBA equipment, it doesn't mean there is no water. I purchased a shorty wetsuit, snorkel, mask, flippers, Darren drum, and a waterproof light. I hoped I was prepared.
Peter Sprouse — Texas
Paul Bryant — Texas
Joe Datri — Texas
Tone Garot — Florida
Shane Fryer — California
Cyndie Walck — California
I flew from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Cancun,
Roo, a neat, tidy direct flight. Apparently TSA hadn't yet
new, and controversial, millimeter wave and backscatter imaging
Nor was I patted down.
Mexico customs hassled me a little when I showed them an existing FMT tourist permit that I had gotten in Nuevo Leon some five months past. The official at the desk stated that, although the tourist permit is good for 180 days, I must return it each time I go back to the USA. I had never done this via land travel. Looking around the web, this seems to indeed be the required procedure.
Having secured my luggage, I headed out of the airport when suddenly a young woman stopped me, "do you speak English?" "Yes." At this point, I thought she was peddling transportation. She caught me off guard by saying, "Is that your wife?" "Um . . . no." She laughed at the way I answered. We started a brief conversation. When she asked if I was even married I replied, "not that I know of." When she asked if I was on vacation and I answered that I was going caving. She naturally assumed the tour caves, and said so; after which I smiled and replied, "no, we go into the wild caves—we're professionals!" She said that sounded like fun and asked how she could get involved. She took my E-mail address and told me that she would write—"expect a message from Curly Carla."
Fernando Dorantes, who represented Easy Way Rent a Car, met me outside and drove me to the office. Since Easy Way Rent a Car was out of Tsurus (which I reserved), I was upgraded to a Suzuki Grand Vitara. The representative at the desk told me that Easy Way would arrange to pick up this Suzuki in Akumal, at our convenience, around Sunday or Monday. (This never did happen. Had we known, Shane and Cyndie wouldn't have needed the second rental car.) Easy Way Rent a Car had me sign a blank credit card slip, at which point I balked, stating that this made me very uncomfortable. I had never signed a blank credit card receipt before. Unfortunately, I was pretty much over a barrel, so I signed. I looked the representative square in the eye and said that if anything happened, I would be looking for him. He laughed saying, "you can look for the company, my friend." I said, "no. I'll be looking for you." That probably didn’t sound good.
Since this vehicle was slightly larger than our intended, we were able to use it exclusively for most of the trip. I became the designated chauffeur. One of the interesting points the Easy Way Rent a Car representative cited was that "partial theft" was not covered by the outrageous insurance ($25 USD/day) we were paying. When I later mentioned this fact to the guys I added "so . . . if our hubcaps are stolen, I'll be driving the truck into a cenote."
I drove the 66 miles south along highway 307 to the Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA). This took about two hours due to construction and rush-hour traffic. Our group was given dorm-style lodging for the very reasonable rate of $12 USD per person per day. This included electricity, Wi-Fi, and a communal kitchen. Nearby was a reasonable little restaurant, Loncheria Akumalito, at which we breakfasted most days. It was a quick walk from the room to a beautiful beach!
When I arrived in Akumal, I was introduced to Carlos, the accountant for CEA. Carlos showed me around the CEA campus, and we eventually happened upon Cyndie and Shane at Loncheria Akumalito. Cyndie and Shane had arrived the day before from California.
I mentioned to Carlos that I needed to pick up the rest of our assemblage later that evening, so Carlos asked if he could catch a ride as far as Xcaret. The pronunciation of this Mayan word is interesting. The "x" is pronounced “sh”, but has the briefest of an "i" sound because a consonant follows the “x”. Since there are only two syllables, it’s closer to say (i)shka-ret rather than ish-ka-ret.
After I sent a quick E-mail to my parents
letting them know
I had arrived safely, Carlos and I departed. As luck would
Carlos had an extra ticket to a wine tasting and concert at
Xcaret, and knowing
that I had some time to kill, he invited me. It was called El Bicentenario
con el Vino
Mexicano. I felt a little under-dressed in my caver
c'est la vie. After about an hour, the wine stopped so that
could give a short speech. Multiple contiguous "short"
combined to a long time, thus, it was announced that one of the
songs would be
clipped from the concert. Carlos said that this is the way
it is in
We watched the concert inside a cenote! I do admit that, due to the fatigue of travel, I fell asleep during portions of the concert. The concert was very well received, so, as an encore, it was decided to add back the removed song. Carlos and I did not stay for that song since I really had to get to the airport. Carlos tagged along instead of catching a bus back to Akumal.
We met Peter, Paul, and Joe at the airport at Terminal 2.
Our entire group went to Río Secreto
to meet with Gustavo
Vela Turcott, a caver whom I had met only a few weeks prior at the
Reunion (TCR). Apparently Gustavo had just finished mapping
cave. Unfortunately, Gustavo's status as cave-mapper did not
admittance to his friends for free; however, we did receive
treatment—a tour twice the normal duration! It was well
worth the $20
USD. Our tour guide was Tania Ramirez, who graciously gave
up her day off
to show us around. We also met Fátima Tec Pool,
Carlos Duarte, and
Roberto Rojo who joined us on the tour. We donned our
wetsuits and went
through the cave.
Initially, Río Secreto was dry, so the walking was warm. Soon we reached a point where our leader zipped up her wetsuit, thereby indicating that we were going to get wet. From this point on, there was much wading and some swimming.
Río Secreto Skylight
After the underground water tour, most of us met at a beach restaurant in Paamul. The price differential between a beach restaurant and a restaurant west of highway 307 (opposite the beach) was substantial. This was true in most every town we visited. During dinner, we met Gil Harmon who discovered Río Secreto. He would later join us in our adventures.
Speaking of highway 307, it was a most unforgiving highway. If you wanted to take a left turn, or turn around, you might go two to five km before an opportunity presented itself.
That evening, we went to Soriana—a large grocery chain in Mexico— in Playa del Carmen for a few goods. Playa del Carmen was a fairly progressive town for the area, sporting a Soriana, a Wal-Mart, and multiple fast food restaurants. I still hadn't converted dollars to pesos yet, but when I saw a cambio in the Soriana mall, I didn't do the exchange. I guess I had a moment of incredible non-lucidity, figuring that I could do better than 11.6 to 1. I should have changed money at the airport.
That night, most of us went for our first night snorkel. Later, Paul mentioned that something went wrong with his Sten light—probably due to the corrosive nature of salt water on the wire connections. My Underwater Kinetics flashlight performed admirably.
Night snorkel with helmet
Before the trip began, Peter had secured a project from the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey, QRSS, called Sistema Del Tercer Ojo. This survey had begun by a caver named Jim Coke who mapped the initial 370m. Our on-site contact was a really nice guy named Armando. Steps led into the cave, then it was immediately necessary to swim.
Shane traversing Sistema Del Tercer Ojo; Joe’s camera in a waterproof bag
After initial searching for prior station
Shane, Joe, and I went to the lake room to start our survey.
Carlos, who had joined us for this day of survey, assisted Peter
The lake room was quite interesting—waist deep at the deepest with substantial roots from ceiling to water. Thus, the lake room was dubbed "El lago de las raíces." We had been told to avoid the roots as they caused itching, similar to Mala Mujer. In addition to roots, the lake room also had a skylight called the Venado entrance. Little fish loved to swarm a person. Although the fish didn't bite flesh, apparently the fish did nibble through Joe's waterproof bag, containing a camera flash, thereby compromising it’s waterproofness.
After survey, we stopped for a snack at Casa Cenote. I wasn't overly hungry, but since Paul wasn't feeling well, I received one of his chicken quesadillas. We then went for a snorkel in the Ocean just beyond the restaurant. This was an interesting experience because we swam near, and sometimes over, the interface between the ocean and the cenote. The current was minimal, but even if it hadn’t been, the current pushed instead of pulled. The water from the cenote was warm! After we departed the ocean, Cyndie and Shane decided to enjoy the cenote, and they paid $20 pesos to go inside. That’s just shy of two bucks—the price a cenote should cost!
Dinner was in Pueblo Akumal, on the non-beach side of the highway. The prices were much better than a beach restaurant; however, Peter noticed that even so, the prices had gone up since he had been there several weeks earlier. There were little stickers covering the original prices. Obviously, prices rise during tourist season.
That night, Joe and Paul photographed some of the creatures found in or near the cave. This included a scorpion and a tarantula. Cyndie was none-too-pleased that the photo shoot was occurring in the dorm room. While placing the critters in the refrigerator for 15 minutes slowed them, we were all entertained when the scorpion warmed and climbed up Paul’s glove. Perhaps Paul wasn’t as entertained.
Joe shooting a spider in our dorm room
Monday morning saw us at Casa Valentina to
potential cave leads. Casa Valentina is a resort get-away,
off the beaten
track and really quite nice and comfortable. After some
date for ridge walking was finalize for Saturday. We then
went back to
Sistema Del Tercer Ojo.
This was our second day of mapping. Cyndie, Shane, and I again went to the lake room to continue our survey while Peter, Paul, and Joe went to a different area of the cave. Most of the survey beyond the lake room was dry, thus my wetsuit was rapidly becoming a liability. Eventually I ditched it. The cave was warm enough to survey in only my swim trunks, although I certainly looked a filthy savage at the end of the day. No problem—we went through water to get out. Due to the low crawl spaces (think Airmans cave), elbow pads would have been useful in this particular cave. Kneepads were, of course, essential. I was fairly wiped out from scurrying in these low, tight passages.
Dinner was at a place in Pueblo Akumal (not Playa Akumal) run by a nice couple of Canadians. I was finally able to exchange money next door to the restaurant for 11.5 to 1—about as good as I was going to get in this region. Cyndie, Shane, and I had margaritas. The margaritas were not cut with any sweetener, so each sip was akin to biting into a lime. I referred to it as a "taste explosion." Cyndie went to the bar to do something about this battery acid cocktail. The proprietor added a syrup sweetener to cut the acid, and that made all the difference.
Evenings in the room at CEA were fairly typical: someone would read the day's survey data to Peter who typed it into Walls; I collated and sized images for Facebook that I posted each night; Joe and Paul photographed insects, spiders, or what have you. Having Wi-Fi on a caving trip shows a sign of the times. Some nights we had guacamole. Some nights we went for a snorkel. We quickly settled into an enjoyable routine.
The official length of Sistema del Tercer Ojos, as of this night, was 1490m. It was still growing!
Cyndie, Shane, Gil, and I continued survey in Sistema Del Tercer Ojo. Both groups entered the cave through an alternate dry entrance, which had us pass a pen, probably used for wild pigs. Peter jokingly suggested that the Alux’ob used it. An Alux (pronounced Aloosh; plural Alux'ob) are a type of Mayan sprite or spirit in the mythological tradition of certain Maya peoples from the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala. An Alux is a suggested to stand only 30 – 50 inches, having a furry body, and apparently like to steal your caving gear. I personally did not see an Alux this trip.
Paul entering the “alternate” entrance
Gil, who founded an NSS chapter in this region (Gruta de Paamul), and who doesn't wear a helmet while caving, seemed to enjoy scouting points for us. I switched from smart end to reading instruments. (Shane: that really was the worst “50” I have ever seen—you even dotted the zero!)
Peter's team finished surveying their part of the cave, but we didn't finish ours. It was probably around this time that Joe and Paul contracted purple spots. I later received several of these purple spots, but not to the degree that they did. While the purple spots weren’t initially bothersome, Joe requested information from Will Harris who wrote:
"I did get a bunch of spots (over 50) while down there last year. After 3 or 4 days, they started itching. After a few more days, they started scabbing over and hurting a little while still itching. They finally started to heal after about a month, but the spots didn't go away for several months."
After survey for the day was done, Gil directed
us to a
cenote near a house with a multitude of dogs. Although it
was late in the
day, we were still charged $30 pesos to see a small, rather
cenote. Joe composed some photographs at the back of the
who was in the water, said that it was fairly gross back there.
Back at Akumal, we went for another night snorkel.
The Brothers “Pock”
The Easy Way Rent a Car guy didn't show up at 7
a.m. as was
previously stated. Unsurprised and undaunted, Peter called
again. Apparently, they hemmed and hawed that the switch was
happen on Thursday at 9, then they said Thursday at 8, then
finally they said
that we could keep the Suzuki Grand Vitara for the rest of the
week at the original
After breakfast, we went to the CEA office to pay for our lodging. Carlos the accountant was there, and he took care of this for us.
Peter, Paul, and I set out for a morning snorkel but were distracted by a very karsty coastline with tidal pools. There were interesting creatures, flotsam, coral, and even a few holes that acted as geysers as the waves rolled in. Photographic opportunities abounded, and I wished I had something better than a point-and-shoot.
Gil was waiting for us at Río Secreto when we arrived. Canadians had already mapped the first cave to which Gil brought us, so we didn't bother to go in. The next cave that Gil wished to show us was tricky to find. We all did a bit of ridge walking—“jungle” style. Ridge walking, of course, yields new cave leads, and eventually someone happened upon a cenote with rather insistent bees. Having had several bad interactions with bees, I kept clear of that lead. This cenote might have been dubbed "Cenote Snake Pliskin," except that Peter later determined that it was already name “Cenote Recovery,” named because a snorkeler died under the overhang. So, the name “Snake Pliskin” is still available if you have a cave to name.
Gil and Cyndie looking at the sketch
We finally found Gil's cave, which he had named Gruta Escondida de Tara, and we started mapping around 3 p.m. with the premise to stop at 6 p.m. for dinner. This cave was very, very nice containing decorations, an abundance of cave pearls, and much walking passage.
While surveying the cave, Gil suggested that we simply follow the road East to return to the highway rather than the longish drive we had done. He said there was a chain across the road, but normally it was down in the evenings. Although the sun had already set, sitting in the dark were a man and woman at the chain. Peter talked with the man—or rather listened to the man—for a good ten minutes before he finally let us through. The conversation, in Spanish, apparently dealt with us getting permission or going back.
We went to Playa del Carmen for dinner. Peter suggested a restaurant within a cave, and this seemed unique and fitting, so we all agreed. The place was named “Alux,” named after the aforementioned Mayan mythical creatures. As I descended into the restaurant, I soon realized that it was fairly posh, and I was hopelessly under dressed in post-caving attire. It was definitely the most expensive restaurant to which we went on this trip. Entrees were $280 pesos and up. After some consideration, it was decided that we would instead go to the bar for a drink; then we would find dinner elsewhere. Seated in the lounge on couches and beanbag chairs, a waiter gave us all bar menus. When the waiter hadn't returned after 15 minutes, we decided to skip the drink after all and find a different venue. It was an interesting place, to be sure, and I was glad to have seen it and snap some photos.
Joe and Cyndie in rather posh surroundings
We tried a little restaurant across from a Zoomba gym, which added some flavor to our entertainment. Peter procured a few king-size bottles of beer from a nearby tienda. I had the chicken mole, the sauce of which was amazingly delicious! I do so much love good mole! The total price for my dinner, including a soda, was only $40 pesos! Plus, it was the best meal I had on the trip. This is one of the reasons I love Mexico.
Finally, we stopped at Soriana for a few more groceries including avocados and onion for guacamole. You simply must have guacamole while in Mexico! Joe picked up a few blank CD-Rs so that we could have alternate tunes from the sole Meatloaf CD Peter brought. There was a request for variety.
We met Gil at his place in Paamul. He and his wife have a pretty tricked out palapa/mobile home there. After he and Peter discussed computer related caving things, we left to continue mapping Gil's cave, Gruta Escondida de Tara.
That evening, as I drove back to the highway along the non-chain-route, I nearly ran over a snake. I stopped the vehicle, drove in reverse, and uttered the single word: snake to appease the curiosity in the vehicle. Several peeps got out to take a look while I put on my flip-flops. As I approached the snake, Peter said, “someone should get a camera.” Fortunately, my cave pack was toward the top of the gear pile, so I was able to snap a few shots of the rather sizable snake before it slithered into the jungle. The snake was a Fer de Lance—the first (and only) that I have ever seen. I had heard that these snakes are dangerous, so I looked them up. The Internet (which is always reliable!) suggested that the Fer de Lance is the most dangerous snake of Central and South America, causing more human deaths than any other American reptile. Yesterday we were clomping through the jungle—it sure makes you think.
My first Fer de Lance!
That night we ate in Puerto Adventuras. I had quesadillas with chicken.
Shane, Cyndie, and I went for a night snorkel. We saw: a lionfish, a parrotfish, a flounder, and a sting ray. How cool is that?
Friday morning I had some issues with one of my
lenses. The left eye progressively got worse as I drove
Finally, I tried a trick of which I had heard, but had never yet
tried: put the
lens in your mouth, then back in your eye. This actually
well, except that, shortly after, my eye started to burn. It
been residual habanero from breakfast. I tossed the lens—the
day would be
a day with glasses.
At Playa del Carmen, Peter obtained permission to see caves near an all terrain vehicle (ATV) tourist place. We drove to the ATV campus and met Gil there. The business model of this place is to explore a rather largish jungle estate and see certain destinations such as a cenote (we didn't see) and a cave (we did see) with a skylight, archeological “throne”, and lake room.
With the proper permission, the man onsite, Diego was very friendly and hospitable, giving us a map and telling us where things were. He said we could go anywhere we wanted as long as we were out of sight when the tour occurred, between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
Diego informed us that the caves in this area weren’t named. I believe Peter called the overall area Sistema Kana Kiwi. We scouted a few smaller cave offerings, and then we decided to map the largish cave with skylight, throne, and lake room mentioned above. There was a large electric light, just inside the cave, undoubtedly to illuminate the lake room for the tour. I would have liked to see it in operation, but there was no battery when we went inside.
Skylight. The throne is on the left.
Peter's group surveyed the entrance area while our group started past the lake room. There was a lot of passage. Since our group was a little light on sketching paper, Cyndie erased some data already entered to free up paper. We had fun labeling our points with an “X”, using the Mayan “sh” sound. “What point am I at?” “sh-twelve.” I guess you had to be there.
Dinner was at “Tu Parador,” a restaurant that served bread instead of corn chips and salsa. A caver friend, Vickie Siegel, once told me that any restaurant that had paintings of the food they served painted on the side of the building would necessarily be good. The largish margaritas were in plastic tumblers—only one was needed. This restaurant was a little more upscale than some—a man took the napkins apart for us!—but the prices were reasonable. I had to admit that, although the ambiance and presentation was excellent, the food wasn't as delicious as the $40 peso mole I had two nights before.
Peter had heard that there was a cave entrance somewhere nearby, so he asked the owner of the restaurant about it. The owner told us he knew of the cave, and it was just a quick walk down the sidewalk. After dinner, we went in that direction to take a look. Our caving gear was still in the vehicle, so no one had a light, thus our search was ineffective. Still, we poked around anyway. It was at this time that a woman, apparently waiting for a bus, gave us the third degree regarding getting appropriate permissions, etc. She was a very officious, meddlesome, sour woman whose attitude brought me down.
The decision was made that Gil would take
several of us
cavers back to Casa Valentina to meet a guide and ridge
walk. I opted to
go back to Sistema Del Tercer Ojo with Cyndie and Shane to mop up
passage we hadn't finished. We thought this would take only
a few hours,
then we could do touristy things: Tulum to see ruins and/or
snorkeling. The cave, however, just wouldn't stop!—and it
was all tight,
twisty passage. We didn't finish our survey until 3:45 p.m.,
and then we
hurried to get out of the cave. Needless to say, we never
made it to the
ruins at Tulum, and although we made a dash to hit a cenote, there
were none to
our liking in the immediate vicinity. One of the cenotes we
checked, Labna-ha, cost $30
USD to do one of the
tours, or $70 USD for all three (snorkel, dry cave, and zip
balked at the tourist prices. Mexico isn't like it used to
Driving back to CEA in Akumal, we continued farther to see the bay beyond. We found the Yal-ku Lagoon, which was really quite beautiful with interesting sculptures. Having only 45 minutes before they closed, we asked if we could take a look at the cenote. The guy said we could, “but don't go in the water.”
Our peeps had already returned when we arrived back at the room. They had seen six or so caves.
After a quick shower, I made an enormous batch of guacamole in the kitchen. Carlos, the accountant, was there frying fish in a curry-flavored oil. I shared some tequila with Carlos while we both prepared our food. After I was done making the guacamole, Carlos gave me a fish fillet to share with my group. His generosity was incredible! I invited him to join us for guacamole, and that he should bring the fish since my hands were full. When we reached the room, he invited the group to join him in his room where he added tortillas, rice, carrots, etc. to the fare. He put on some chill tunes, and we had a nice time munching and conversing.
Carlos the accountant
My hunger was sated, but the rest of the group
went to get
Toward the evening, I noticed that I was starting to get poison ivy. Foo. Little did I know what was coming.
Peter, Paul, Joe, and I awoke much too early at 3:50 a.m., finished packing our gear, and then hit the road. Around Playa del Carmen, we were tapped ~$40 USD for not having the rear window visible. Of course, the officer only saw this after he had pulled us over—he was looking for an excuse. Originally, the officer wanted $3000 pesos, stating that the judge mandates this amount, but thankfully Peter was able to talk him down. This is just price of going to Mexico, I suppose; but I can't help but think that this is bad on many levels.
After dropping Peter and Paul at Terminal 2 of Cancun International, Joe and I drove down to Puerto Morelos for breakfast and to kill some time on the beach while waiting for our respective flights. I had huevos a la Mexicana once again, and it was good. I was a little unsure of the location of Easy Way Rent a Car, so Joe tried to get a Wi-Fi signal at different points within Puerto Morelos. Joe later showed me an E-mail that stated the data rate for his AT&T phone: $19.95 USD / MB while in Mexico. That is why we searched for Wi-Fi. He finally got a signal from a beach house. I was able to captured a few interesting pictures at the beach before the rain started—then we headed back toward the airport.
Joe — At Journey’s End
It turned out that Easy Way Rent a Car was very easy to find. One exit past the airport I recognized the nearby Pemex and turned in. I put only $50 pesos into the tank, which didn't really raise the needle much, but the rental car guy didn't charge us. He was a nice guy who didn't speak English. There was no charge for a dirty vehicle either. He dropped us off at the airport where I made sure to get back the blank credit card slip I had signed when I rented the car. At the airport, Joe and I parted ways, at least for a few hours.
It turned out that Spirit Airlines doesn't allow check-in until three hours before a flight, so I made my way to Starbucks for a grande coffee—$36 pesos. There was Wi-Fi, but I had no pressing need, so I sipped my coffee and fleshed out this trip report.
A few hours later, I checked my bags and passed through security. It is my general practice to bring an empty bottle through security so that I can fill it at a drinking fountain before getting on the flight. Oh yeah, I was in Mexico. I tossed my water bottle and decided to simply buy a liter on the other side. This was the MOST EXPENSIVE WATER I have ever bought in my life. $59 pesos. That's a $5 USD liter of water. Dios mío!
The flight was rather uneventful (in my opinion, the best kind), and I slept for about 45 minutes. An hour later I was back in Florida, and a few hours after that I was back home.
On the downside, I contracted the worst case of poison ivy I have ever had. Some might remember my perpetual oozing/crusty pant-leg from my last Laguna de Sanchez trip. I would trade that episode for this one in a heartbeat. Still, I can't complain too much. There is a saying, “you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Similarly, you can’t make huevos a la Mexicana without breaking a few eggs.
I asked Joe about the purple dots, and he stated:
“The doctor had some fancy name for them, and said they could be many things. Though, since I had no other symptoms, and everyone else got them, he says they are most likely bug bites. I have been calling them Mayan chiggers or the stay the f*** out of our caves curse. They are doing exactly as Will said they would and are quite annoying.”
It is unfortunate that border issues between the US and Mexico exist and have impacted caving, and tourism in general. Over the past several years I have gained not only an appreciation for Mexico, but also a certain fondness. Like many adventures to Mexico, this was rather unique and novel. I am happy to have gone, and I am thankful that cavers persevere despite obstacles.