The Battle for Mexico’s Beaches

It hits you in the face the minute you open a door or window. A virtual presence that is so primal, your brain goes into full denial, telling you it can’t possibly be what you think it is. Perhaps that disconnect is made all the more dissonant by the fact that you are quite literally walking out the door into a verdant paradise, where as far as the eye can see everything is perfect and manicured and designed to delight the senses.

But there is one sense that is definitely not delighted….

People, let me tell you about sargassum.

Photo from the Mexicanist

Sargassum, also known as Sargasso, stinks no matter what it’s called. It’s a seaweed (or microalgae) that is choking beaches from Mexico to the Caribbean to northern Florida. Here’s what Chemical & Engineering News (not my regular literary diet, but, ok) says about it:

Sargassum wasn’t a regular sight outside its native arena in the Sargasso Sea until 2011. That year, enormous mats of the algae started brewing farther south, in the central Atlantic, eventually washing onto beaches on the eastern and southern coasts of many Caribbean islands. By 2018, the mats had grown into the largest macroalgae bloom in recorded history, an 8,850 km long mass extending from the central Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. Chunks of Sargassum, circulated by ocean currents, now regularly wash ashore in the Caribbean, where they rot on the beaches, giving off a strong, sulfurous stench.”

That is putting it mildly. We had heard slight whispers about the sargassum problem when we first started researching our last-minute, mid-summer trip to Mexico, specifically, the Secrets Maroma Beach. But we thought it was just a bunch of seaweed washing up on the pristine white beaches and making them slightly less Instagrammable. Since we planned to spend most of our time lounging on the patio of our swim-up room or under an umbrella around the thoughtfully designed pool areas, we didn’t think it would bother us too much.

(Basically, us. Photo from Secrets Maroma Beach website)

Other than an occasional morning walk, we really don’t spend that much time on the beach and we don’t pick our vacation destinations based on the quality of the beaches. But there is so much more to sargassum than aesthetics. There’s that smell.

I would almost call it unrecognizable, but that’s not true. It is instinctually recognizable. In fact, we live in the lovely suburb called Old Town, which has a river-adjacent sewer system dating back to the late 1800s. So we are very familiar with the occasional, river-flooding-induced smell of excrement around these genteel streets lined with historic, million-dollar townhomes.

But this sargassum is a whole other poop game. And it is growing, reaching approximately 20 million tons, according to one NPR report. In fact, Inside Science noted:

“This spring, the seaweed invasion was comparable to last year’s, if not worse. In May, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instructed the country’s navy to lead the beach-cleaning effort and to prevent the sargassum from reaching the coast. In June, the situation was so bad that the southeastern state of Quintana Roo — home of the tourist destination of Cancún — declared a state of emergency.”

And just like there would seem to be a disconnect between living in one of the most expensive areas in the Greater D.C. area and smelling sewage after every heavy rainstorm, so too, was it jarringly incongruent to smell the overwhelming stench of sulfide gas at the beautiful Secrets Maroma Beach, which happens to be in Quintana Roo.

Because SMB was gorgeous. Just beautiful. Here’s a description from Trip Advisor,

“Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun is tucked away on secluded Maroma Beach, voted the World’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel four years in a row. This unlimited-luxury heaven provides opulence to the most discerning traveler with a pure white sand beach, stunning ocean views stretching as far as the eye can see, elegant suites providing 24-hour room service, daily refreshed mini-bars and several of them with swim-out access to twelve smaller pools plus a shimmering infinity pool, gourmet dining options and chic lounges.”

Photo from the Secrets Maroma Beach website

And it’s true. You look at pictures of the beach (even recent ones) and it’s all white powdered sugar magical-ness. That’s because there are dozens and dozens of workers (aka: sargaceros) busting their butts to cart away literally TONS of seaweed around the clock. Trucks full of it. But they can’t cart away that smell.

Picture from a 2015 TripAdvisor review of SMB

Not to mention the fact that while sargassum might be bad for tourism in the region, it is even worse for coral, fish and other seagrasses. It smothers and destroys virtually everything in its path. Again from Inside Science:

“Since 2015, we have lost a significant number of seagrasses and they will take many decades to recover, assuming that the sargassum is controlled. If it continues to arrive, they will not recover. As of last year, we already began to record massive wildlife mortality — we began observing dead animals along the beach. Last year, we identified dead individuals of 78 species on the beaches, especially fish, but also crustaceans, lobsters, urchins, octopuses and others. As of May of last year, corals also began to die from a disease called “white syndrome.”

The good news is that there appears to be a season for sargassum. It’s not a year-round thing. The sargassum season runs roughly from April to August. And, the government, science community and resorts from Mexico to Florida are studying the issue carefully and trying to find solutions, everything from literal barriers in the ocean to finding alternative uses for the seaweed. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something before next year’s sargassum tide comes rolling in.  

How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

birthday champagn

So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

Sri Lanka temple
Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.

Revisiting Vieques, Puerto Rico

Hi there! Things are chugging along at a very busy pace here at Poe Communications and Cat Box Management Engineers. New clients, new projects, new contracts…all very exciting stuff.

It’s been almost a year since I picked up my lemons and struck out on my own and the transition has been surprisingly smooth. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, the work to dry up or some other scary situation to arise, but so far…so good. My good fortune continues to freak me out on a daily basis.

To keep all the balls in the air, I’ve neglected my little blog here, which makes me very sad. BUT, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have been and quite a bit, actually. Just not necessarily here.

One of the projects nearest and dearest to my heart has been the Project: Time Off blog. I get to work with my friend Katie and the rest of her fantastic team AND I get to write about travel, which is a dream come true.

I recently wrote about our trip to Vieques over there. Well, sort of. I wrote a “Splurge v. Steal” post about Vieques, but I’ll admit, I’m more of a “splurge” girl.

We did enter “steals” territory when it came to spending time beach hopping. Still, hands down our favorite thing to do in Vieques. We even got in a bit of snorkeling, which was surprisingly good. And they’re opening up new parts of the island every year, so we got to explore a few new places this time.

Vieques beach life

And then, there’s our second favorite, budget-friendly activity: chasing down food trucks. We made sure to stop by Sol again for the the best empanadas and we discovered the most amazing mofongo at a new-to-us food truck that, unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were only able to track down once while we were there. I didn’t even get a picture of it!

Another new-to-us, “steal”-type activity was bunker hunting. As a former, U.S. military stronghold, Vieques is littered with hundreds of bunkers that were used for all sorts of storage. These concrete warehouses are nestled in the hills and jungles of the island and are covered with grass on top, so they can’t be seen from the air. It can also make for some fun off-roading. A lot of them are locked up, but a few are open, probably to dissuade people from busting the locks on all of them. They’re full of trash from the 1980s and 1990s, things like busted up old computers and educational manuals. Very spooky stuff.

Vieques bunkers

We also upped our “splurge” game by staying (and eating and drinking) a couple of night’s at Vieques’ newest hotel, El Blok. Review in summation: Gorgeous hotel, excellent service, great location, miniscule bathrooms and the hardest bed I’ve ever attempted to sleep on. We were definitely ready to move over to the W and their Dream Beds after a couple of nights. Also, the restaurant at El Blok is amazing and definitely worth a visit (you can read a full review from this blog here). We definitely felt that El Blok was a great restaurant that just happened to have a cool hotel attached to it, as opposed to a great hotel that has an above-par restaurant.

El Blok Vieques

Go over to PTO’s Upside of Downtime blog to read more about things to see and do in Vieques. It was a great trip and just reconfirmed how much we really love the laid back vibe of the place. By the last day, we were sitting on one of our deserted beaches talking about buying property on this tiny little jewel of an island.

Recovered wreckage in Vieques.
Recovered wreckage in Vieques.

Hvar: Island of Hvarguments and Hvangovers (Part II)

(To read the gripping first part, click here.) 

We awoke the next sunny day, admitted how stupid the fight was, and moved on. We had big plans that involved laying in a cabana on a private beach club on a tiny uninhabited island. Carpe Diem not only has the most thumping open-air dance club in the Hvar harbor, they’ve also co-opted a small island nearby and turned it into a daytime beach club where one can rent loungers or cabanas and eat and drink all day while a DJ spins music.

We sent an email to reserve our cabana ages ago (a serious bargain at only $40 for the whole day) and received instructions on which water taxi to take and who to find once we reached Carpe Diem island.

Carpe Diem party island, Hvar Croatia
Our view of Carpe Diem beach from our cabana.

What they did not communicate to us, however, was the fact that (a) although this is a beach club, there will be no towels in your cabana and, therefore, you needed to bring your own, and (b) they only accepted cash. Oh, and obviously, there was no ATM.

We packed a bag with books, sunscreen, cameras, and hats. We paused in our packing to query as to whether we needed towels. Me, ever the pragmatist, said, “No, that’s silly, of course there will be towels. Surely they wouldn’t let us pay for one of their top-line cabanas at a remote beach club and not have a couple of towels sculpted into towel swans awaiting us. Pshaw. What kind of beach club wouldn’t have towels?”

Carpe Diem party island, Hvar Croatia
No towels, but pretty amazing views.

(In hindsight, I agree, that was quite silly of me to go to a beach with no towel, but in my defense, IT WAS A BEACH CLUB!!)

There were no towel swans. Nor were there any credit card machines. Which meant one of us—poor XFE graciously volunteered and I put up a mildly pitiful counter-offer—had to make the 20-minute trip back by water taxi and procure the essentials, then make the 20-minute return trip to Carpe Diem island. Which just freaking sucked. To put it mildly.

Water taxi to Carpe Diem party island, Croatia
One of the water taxi drivers. XFE became quite chummy with these guys on his multiple trips.

However, it was also during his multiple boat rides that XFE found out that the last water taxi from the island was at 7 pm. Again, something that was not conveyed to us in the numerous email exchanges. Kinda important information to know, since I had no desire to be abandoned on a scary remote island.

So, when XFE got back from his stupid excursions-in-bad-club-director communications, we proceeded to drink lots, and lots, and lots of lovely cold drinks, which led to a very jolly time all around. We read and sunbathed and participated in our favorite vacation activity: people watching. We tried again to dip our toes in the Adriatic (yep, still too cold for me). We had salads and a bottle of rose for lunch, then retired back in our cabana and drank more caipiroskas which are like caipirinhas but with vodka, and infinitely easier to pronounce.

Carpe Diem party beach, Croatia

We finally made our way back to the water taxi and Hvar Town, and decided to check out the beaches in town. A short, 10-minute walk from the harbor brought us to Hula Hula, a very popular outdoor beach club in Hvar.

Hvar Town, Croatia

Since the sun was slowly setting, we decided to hang out for a bit and found a small bench near a group of guys. Turns out we had stumbled into the private party areas, sorta of like the private bottle-service booths you see in Vegas. But no one kicked us out, so we just kept sipping our drinks and bopping along to the music while avoiding eye contact with our unwitting hosts.

Hula Hula, Hvar Town, Croatia
Absolutely we’re supposed to be creeping over here by the bottle service tables.

And that’s when it turned a bit into a scene straight out of a rap video. The wait staff kept bringing the various private bottle-service parties (VPBSPs) bottle after bottle of pink champagne, which the VPBSPs then proceeded to shake up and spray at each other in what can only be described at pink champagne fights.

Hula Hula, Hvar Town, Croatia

Each group would try to spray their champagne the farthest, douse the most people, and shoot the most bottles. At one point, I saw a guy in Gucci sunglasses and a popped collar shaking and shooting two bottles at the same time! And the wait staff just kept on bringing them more. We couldn’t believe it. It was insane.

It was also, clearly, time for us to go. Drenched in pink champagne and just a wee bit tipsy, we made our way back to our hotel, for pizza and French fries and bed.

The next morning we woke up ready to drive to Split. Now, the most direct route would be to catch the car ferry at Stari Grad, which is only a few minutes from Hvar Town. That ferry goes directly to Split. But we had had such a great time at our little lazy beach the day before we decided to drive back to the Sucuraj-Drvenik ferry so we could check out some of Hvar’s other, undiscovered beach areas.

Beaches of Hvar
Lot’s o’beaches.

Sunscreen applied and beach plan in hand, we liberated a few hotel towels, and got on the road just after 10 a.m. or so. About 45 minutes later, we ran into a road block with a lone construction worker leaning against a plastic orange temporary barrier. You see, that new asphalt we had so enjoyed the first day we drove through Hvar has to be laid at some point. And that point would be between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Daily. And, of course, there is no alternate road or route through the island. No more beaches for us that day.

When this information finally sunk in, we quickly backtracked to Stari Grad, disappointed and furious that no one had told us about the daily road closure. We drove up to the car ferry terminal just in time to be the first people to be refused entry on the already full 11:30 ferry that was just pulling out. We could be first in line for the next ferry at 2 p.m. Oh. Goody.

bye ferry
Please come back, Mr. Ferry Driver. Soon.

The ferry terminal at Stari Grad is not….let’s see…how would I put this? Glamorous? It’s not sketchy or anything (believe me…I’ve spent more than a fair amount of time in some bus terminals that should have been condemned), but it’s not very exciting either. Nor should it be. I mean, it’s where trapped people are killing time, waiting for their escape, ie: the next ferry. It’s not a destination hot spot.

Stari Grad ferry terminal, Hvar, Croatia

They have a couple of big box-type stores with very sad looking merchandise in them (cheap children’s toys and plastic shoes, primarily). There were, of course, several take-away ice cream shops, including one that did not have any plastic spoons, something that I would think would be an important feature for a take-away ice cream shop. Instead, she gave us metal spoons that we could borrow and bring back after eating our ice cream.

Honestly, if it had been me and I had run out of plastic spoons, I probably would have just closed up for the day, or just let people keep the metal spoons and closed when I ran out. Sorry, boss. I’m not doing dishes for 10 kuna ($1.76) scoops of ice cream.

There was also a pub-type place where we sat glumly and had large beers and hot dogs. Well, I had a hot dog. XFE had a despondent little burger. Quite a difference from our lovely fresh salads and rose of the day before, let me tell you.

Layover at Stari Grad ferry terminal, Hvar, Croatia

By the time our ferry had come, we were quite ready to shake off the Hvar Blues and get into the Split Spirits. The ferry ride was much longer and more boring than our previous short jaunt from Drvenik. There were also lots more rambunctious children on this ferry, or so it seemed to our Pity Party of Two.

Something had to be done to get us back into our cheerful vacation mood.

We were in luck. As we pulled into the Split harbor, a young man came slowly strolling through the cabin of ferry, spraying Ax Body Spray all over himself as he walked. It was seriously, just “psssst pssst pssssstttttttttttttttttt” as he walked through a crowded, enclosed cabin. Even children sitting nearby wrinkled their noses and fanned the air in front of their noses.


Someone had serious plans for the afternoon and he needed to be FRESH.

XFE and I busted out laughing and like that, the mood was alleviated. We began making jokes about what the most popular Ax Body Spray scent might be in Croatia. Would it be Carpe Diem Party Musk? What about Hvar Lavender Slate? Maybe Split Sexiness?

Here’s the thing about vacations: you don’t want to waste a whole precious day with mundane things like getting from point A to point B. You’ve only got so many days and you want each one of them to be full of wonder, or relaxation, or special memories; and things like logistics and boat schedules and road crews and credit card machines just put dents in your bright, shiny holiday dreams. But they’re also a very real part of travel.

Not every day will be full of pink champagne sunsets and suntanned skin. Sometimes you’ll miss a ferry. Sometimes you’ll get a face full of Ax Body Spray (this actually is especially true in Italy, by the way).

Ice Fight

Sometimes you’ll get in a fight with your loved one over ice. ICE.

But. You’re still on vacation. And a vacation fight beats an average, ordinary at-home fight pretty much any day of the year.

Five (or so) Fascinating Facts About Vieques

This is our last full day on the island. Yesterday we rented a Jeep and drove all over the island, stopping at one gorgeous, white sand beach after another to snorkel or just sit and read. Today’s plan is some pool time and then a trip to the W’s spa, then dinner at Mix here at the resort.

It was one gorgeous beach after another, all to ourselves.

It’s been a great trip, and me and my travel buddy XFE are thoroughly enamored with Vieques. It’s beautiful, interesting, and a bit undiscovered. Since most of the island is a nature preserve and not open to the public, there’s a limited amount of development. Here are some other interesting things we learned in our week here in Vieques:

Vieques was used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing and testing range until 2003. And there are apparently lots of undetonated explosives on parts of the island, which leads to interesting signs such as this one.

I think this might be a bad place to snorkel.

The oldest tree on the island is more than 300 years old. It’s a ceiba tree, which is the state (? territorial?) tree of Puerto Rico.

Only slightly older than me.

The leatherback turtle, which can be seen in these waters, is gigantic and has to eat its weight in jellyfish every two days. Too bad we never saw one, especially on the day that XFE got stung by a jellyfish while we were diving.

There are 20,000 horses and 8,000 human inhabitants. These horses are everywhere. They’re like the Puerto Rican version of Irish sheep. If you know what I mean. What I’m saying is, they’re everywhere. Along with chickens. There are chickens running wild in the streets.

Vieques traffic jam.

There are no stop lights on the whole island. People just pay attention and stop at intersections to give way to oncoming traffic. It’s madness! Madness, I tell you!

Also: mofongo is the most delectable and delicious thing ever. I’ve eaten it everytime I’ve seen it on the menu, and might eat it again before I leave Vieques.