All posts by Jeanine Kitchel

New U.S. Consular Agency in Playa del Carmen

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Playa del Carmen now has a U.S. Consulate on Calle 1 Sur between Avenues 15 and 20 which opened in July. It’s located in a small palapa on the north side of the street and is open three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Consular agent Samantha Mason can perform as a notary, assist in matters such as lost passports, and even help you register to vote.

There is also a U.S. Consular Agency in Cancun at the hotel zone and one on Cozumel. The main consulate for the Yucatan/Quintana Roo area is in Merida and can be contacted through their website at www.merida.usconsulate.com. The email address for the Playa del Carmen consulate is playausca@hotmail.com. Mason can be reached by phone in Mexico at (984) 873-0303. Her emergency cell number is (984) 807-8355.

Travel to Mexico for a Cause

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Enjoy the Caribbean sea and yoga on the beach at Azulik Eco Resort in Tulum, Mexico, this winter and in the process help out yogaHope, a non-profit outreach program that’s been helping homeless women, victims of domestic violence, and women in substance abuse programs through rehabilitative yoga programs in Boston. The week long yoga retreat begins February 24.

According to Sue Jones, founder and executive director of yogaHope, yoga has been shown to produce motivation and change for underserved women by helping them regain their vital center of energy and stability. Jones, herself a survivor, along with 40 other yoga volunteer instructors have taught 450 women in 3000 classes in homeless shelters and substance abuse facilities in the Boston area.

This all inclusive luxury vacation, which includes food, lodging and all activities, has a $2500 fee, and $1000 of that will go directly to yogaHope. Airfare to Mexico should be purchased separately.

Along with daily yoga, activities will include going to the pyramids at Tulum, spa treatments, snorkeling in the Caribbean as well as in freshwater cenotes, and a visit to the 1.3 million acre biosphere of Sian Ka’an.

Azulik Eco Resort (www.azulik.com) is a small cluster of 15 private beach front villas, constructed in native hardwoods with large private decks and floor to ceiling windows to take in the spectacular ocean views. For further information or to register, check out yogaHope’s website at www.yogahope.org.

House-shopping weekends offered to hopeful Mexico retirees

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Livtopia, the U.S.-based international real estate company specializing in retirement and vacation homes for Americans and Canadians, has had such an increase in registration that they are expanding their free “on the ground” house-shopping weekends to 13 cities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Dominican Republic.

With the boomer boom causing greater interest in retirement options south of the border, Livtopia’s 2008 schedule includes seven locations in Mexico: Puerto Vallarta, Campeche, Mazatlan, Mayan Riviera (Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Merida), Baja California (La Paz, Los Cabos), Puerto Penasco, and San Miguel de Allende.

The surge in retirees has caused a demand for these weekend getaways to southern locales.  I haven’t read the fine print on the website, seems there’s always a snag, but check it out at: www.livtopia.com.

In addition to time at the beach or touring local attractions, weekend attendees learn specifics on legal and financial requirements when buying a home/condo in Mexico, local regulations, information on medical care and insurance, and more.

Happy house-hunting.

Leona Vicario-Cancun’s Arboretum

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Clouded skies threatened rain as I drove west of Cancun on the wide dusty avenue that turns into the Merida Road.  I was heading to Leona Vicario in search of plants for my Puerto Morelos garden and this trek would take me to the best place in the region to buy them.

Past a string of hotels more for businessmen than travelers, the dusty four-lane highway narrowed down to two-lane blacktop where Mayan rock walls and zapote houses with palapa roofs began to appear.  Larger fincas and sprawling haciendas dotted the landscape along with the occasional tienda selling beer and snacks.

Long known as Cancun’s garden spot, Leona Vicario becomes a pilgrimage for every Cancun homeowner with a green thumb.  Not only is this bucolic pueblo only 40 miles from Cancun, but prices here are irresistibly low.  Some common plants can be purchased for as little as five pesos.  More exotic flora is more expensive but ever present.  Tinier Cristobol Colon, jut past Leona Vicario, offers more nurseries still.

Hand painted wooden signs proclaimed we were near– El Valle Encantado (Enchanted Valley), Rancho Los Cocos, Ventas de Plantas (plant sales).  One by one the nurseries came into view.  Humble racks of plants tumbled off porches onto the ground, splaying into  yards and driveways.  Other nurseries displayed plants clumped in groups, covered by palapas.

Some viveros were simply Mayan houses with plants neatly arranged by color on front porches.  There were rambling nurseries with flatbed trucks parked nearby, ready to make deliveries.   There were tiny nurseries with only one or two rows of shrubs.

Most of the shopkeepers were Mayan women.  Occasionally a young girl would peek around a corner to say “buenos dias.”

Although hard hit by Hurricane Wilma two years ago, Leona Vicario appears to be reborn, complete in this incarnation with a traffic cop who directs the occasional car that passes by. Pedestrian traffic, however, is brisk.  Several stores sport signs for fruit and there’s a no-frills carniceria with hunks of meat hanging by hooks right next to a polleria where chickens are grilled over a mesquite fire.

Enroute to Cristobol Colon we drove too far and had to ask directions at a funky store.  We  turn around and stop at a no-name nursery heavy with shade cloth to screen the plants from the sun.  A fruit stand sits next store.  As our car pulls into the narrow driveway a mangy dog careens close to the covered plants and a stout Mayan woman, the owner, moves quickly from behind the counter and waves her hands at the intruder.  “Out!” she yells.

She then turns to me and says without apology, “Not good for the plants.”

I nod in agreement.  Dogs and plants don’t mix.

We buy four agave cactus, 10 “ti” plants which she calls Hawaiiana,  two dracaenas with  white stripes and a bunch of succulents with bright purple flowers.  She tallies the bill in her head.  As I hand over exact change for the purchase, I ask her how long she’s lived here.

Eight years, she tells me, but before that she lived in Cancun for 10.  It’s quiet here, she explains, tranquilo.  Nicer than Cancun.  But not so on Sundays; then it’s busy.  Lots of people.  Better we came today.

I thank her and we load our new plants into the car with the others we’ve collected and head back to that large metropolis that’s become our second home just 40 miles away.

Costa Maya Port Closure Creates Changes in Cruise Itineraries

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Due to Hurricane Dean in late August, the Costa Maya port at Majahual will be closed until September 2008, which means cruise passengers will be detoured to other Mexico and Caribbean ports in the meantime.

The Majahual port opened in 2000 and has become Mexico’s second busiest cruise ship port, following Cozumel. But since the class-5 hurricane destroyed much of the town, the pier, and the tourist complex, port officials say it will take a year to complete the reconstruction at the very least.

Other ports of call will be substituted, including Progreso, near Merida, Calica, just south of Playa del Carmen, Belize City, Belize, and Isla Roatan, Honduras.  For more details on what to expect at these other locations, check the site www.cruisemates.com.

The Morning Papers

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

About twice a week I pick up a Spanish language newspaper here just to see what’s really happening in my adopted homeland. I waiver between Novedades and Por Esto. Por Esto tends to run more photos, and not unlike the London paper with the daily photo of a girl gone wild, Por Esto never fails to have a daily shot as well, equally graphic but in a morbid way–one with plenty of blood–be it from a car crash, a murder victim, or a suicide. You can count on it.

A few days ago, Por Esto’s front page blasted the news of a plane crash in a small Mayan village east of Merida, Tixkokob, known for hammock-making. The plane, an 18-passenger handsome new Lear Jet, had crashed in the jungle there, with a cargo of six and a half tons of cocaine. The front page photos showed 135 black garbage bags lined up, neatly stacked aside the wreckage. The plane had broken into three parts.

The article stated the Lear Jet had been refused landing rights in two airports, Cancun and Merida, and was on its way back to Rio Negro, Columbia, when it crashed. The pilot survived, two passengers were killed on impact, and according to the pilot, a woman crawled away into the jungle. Great pulp fiction, no? But it’s fact.

Our coast, just south of Cancun, has been a popular landing spot in years back for black garbage bags (to put it nicely), and recently, for Cuban immigrants. Por Esto stated this crash and the cargo it contained could be attributed to the Gulf Cartel. (I never knew this cartel existed).

Every morning I see federales walking down our beach. Although our town has become more populated lately, we’re still patrolled regularly. Even we had our share of black garbage bags in years past, but now with better night lighting and more people, I hear the illicit night drops happen further south.

One of my neighbors, a local, tells me the reason there are so many Mexican drug cartels now is because tourism is so big in Mexico and the tourists want drugs. He’s originally from Cuernavaca and 40 years ago he’d drive the long treacherous road down to Acapulco on weekends to sail his 30-foot sailboat with his father. He said he watched as drugs slowly made inroads into Acapulco, because the tourists wanted drugs.

“They kept asking for it,” he explained. “They created the demand, the supply followed. And that’s what’s now happening with Cancun.”

“We Mexicans,” he continued, “we’re not big drug users.”

This I know to be a fact, but not so with many tourists. Also, Mexico’s Quintana Roo coast is a drug lord’s dream. Quiet, dark nights, few people, great for hand offs and the illicit rendezvous. It may sound rather romantic, but in reality, it’s a drag. Cancun is valiantly fighting off the cartels, but how long can it last?

As for Cuban immigration, that, too, is topping the charts here. Chalk it up again to the dark and quiet nights. Two days ago, the brother of one of the largest traffickers in illegal Cuban immigration was killed by police in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 100 miles south of Tulum. They’d hoped to nab Juan Carlos Reyna Molas, the best known coyote for Cubans here in Quintana Roo. Last year 9000 Cubans illegally entered Mexico by landing on its beaches.  Since the plane crash and the death of Reyna Molas’ brother, 200 military vehicles with federal agents have been sent to Quintana Roo to monitor the situation and keep an eye out for any suspicious activity.

As you can tell, life in Mexico is quite a bit different from that up north, overflowing daily with drama, but unless you read the morning papers, you’d never know it.

Sheltered from the Storm

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Cancun won the lottery this past Tuesday, or at the very least, its equivalent. It narrowly escaped the jaws of one of the top five category 5 hurricanes on record. Hurricane Dean is up there in the annals of the world’s greatest storms.

Although it hit 40 miles north of Quintana Roo’s capitol, Chetumal, on the Belize border, according to local newspaper accounts in Por Esto, it did little damage to the city’s infrastructure. But the brunt of Dean was felt in Majahual which was “pulverized” according to local news. Newspaper photos showed nothing higher than ankle-height with the exception of a decrepit lighthouse. I’ve yet to hear what happened to the little pueblo of Xcalak.

Majahual gets more press because of the large cruise dock, Puerto Costa Maya, which brought in over one million visitors last year. Photos showed it separated in pieces, and I’m sure cruises will be diverted for some time to come. But tourism here on the Riviera Maya coast is of utmost importance, and the government is addressing all issues instantly and with aplomb. Tourists coming to Cancun or Playa del Carmen won’t even know a hurricane occurred just 100 miles south.

Right now the concern is for thousands of indigenous Maya who lost homes from Hurricane Dean. Although the area where Dean arrived was the most desolate in Quintana Roo, if not all of Mexico, the Maya have made their humble homes there for a millenia and now their hand-to-mouth survival is being threatened.

The people in this area survive mostly on agriculture and the hurricane winds blew their wealth–mangoes, oranges, guanabanas and mameys–right off the trees just before harvest. Along with their fruit trees also went their huts made from chaca sticks and chit thatch roofs. Corn fields were devastated and farm animals lay dead.

Mexico will begin distributing cash grants to people who lost crops, according to Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas Jiminez.

“The poorest and smallest are those who we’ll help immediately,” he said.

In the glitzy land of Cancun, it’s business as usual. For those just 100 miles south, their struggle has just begun.