Scuba Diving in the Kukulcan and Chac-Mool Cenotes Was One of the Coolest Things I’ve Ever Done!

January 4, 2018

I shared many parts of my Christmas vacation in Mexico in my last post, but I saved the best for last: Scuba diving in cenotes! And I have gorgeous photos to prove it.

Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is full of underground rivers that wind through limestone caverns. You can access these rivers at places where the ceiling of the caverns collapsed. These access points, called cenotes (pronounced ‘sin-oh-tays’) are all over the Yucatan, and look like flooded sinkholes. Some are Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas in Cozumel

December 28, 2015

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! My Christmas was muy excellente – I spent the week with my entire family in Mexico. It was a fun-filled, busy, active week… although there was still plenty of hammock time.


We all met up in Cozumel, an island near Cancun. There were 13 of us, and we Read the rest of this entry »

Cactus Salad. Yep, Cactus.

July 5, 2011

How was your Fourth of July weekend?  Mine was quite nice, thank you very much for asking.  I got some stuff done around the house, saw a movie at the $3 theater in my neighborhood (we saw Fast Five, and I’m glad I only paid $3 for it), and yesterday, went to a lively and fun BBQ at my friend Jen’s house.  Since I don’t like coming to events empty-handed, I told Jen I’d bring along a salad, and after some thinking, I knew exactly what salad I wanted to bring.

A few months ago, my aunt Annie made a delicious 3-ingredient salad (which you can read about here).  It had onion, cilantro, and the star of the dish, cactus.  Yep, cactus.  It was the first time I’d ever eaten cactus, and it was delicious.  I’ve been wanting to make the salad ever since, and Jen’s BBQ gave me the perfect opportunity.  If you know me at all, you know that I can’t make a recipe without tweaking it here and there and making it my own, and that was the case yesterday as well.  So this is no longer a 3-ingredient dish.  It’s a 7-ingredient dish.  It’s still easy-peasy, and the guests at Jen’s BBQ confirmed that it’s a crowd-pleaser (and conversation-starter).

So what do you need to make my cactus salad?  For starters, cactus:

Not all cactuses (cacti?) are edible.  The edible kind are called nopal, and they’re native to Mexico, where they’ve been eaten by the indigenous people for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.  In fact, in the 14th century, the Aztec people were told by one of their gods to build a new city on an island in a lake, and they would know which island, because when they went there, they would see an eagle, perched on a nopal, eating a snake.  The Aztecs found the eagle, and built their city, which grew and eventually became Mexico City, and the story of the eagle, snake, and nopal is immortalized on the Mexican flag.

Nopalitos, or “little Nopals” are the tender cactus pads of the Nopal cactus.  I’ve seen them whole and raw in the produce section at Mexican supermarkets in Los Angeles, but that seems like such a hassle, because you have to trim the thorns off them, and that seems like an engraved invitation for me to get 10,000 puncture wounds in my hands.  I think I’ve also seen them trimmed up, thorn-free and raw in the produce section, too, which would be a big help, but you know what’s even easier?  The jarred version I ended up buying.

The 30-ounce jar of  Dona Maria-brand nopalitos pictured above cost me $2.99 at Superior Grocers.  The nopalitos have been trimmed, cooked, and pickled, and for this recipe, I used two jars, which I drained in my colander, and rinsed under cold water, to remove the excess vinegar and salt.  Then, they went into my bowl:

Some people say that nopalitos taste similar to okra, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had okra (it was years and years ago), so I can’t confirm or deny that.  I think they taste (and look) quite like green beans.  They’re very limp and a little on the slimy side, but then again, they’ve been pickled.  Nopalitos are a good source of fiber and vitamins A, C, and K.  They’ve been shown to reduce the glucose in diabetics’ blood, so you can find nopal-based supplements and pills.  My jar of nopalitos says that a serving only has 5 calories, but a serving is only 2 tablespoons, and I suspect the serving size is so small because the pickling process adds so much salt – those 2 tablespoons have 560mg of sodium, or 23% of your recommended daily intake, which is precisely why I drained and rinsed them for the salad – hopefully I washed some of that sodium away.

Back to the salad.  Ingredients 2 through 5 are all vegetables, which I uniformly diced pretty small, so they’d be smaller than the nopalitos:

From left to right, I used:

  • 1/2 of a white onion.  I would’ve preferred to use red onion, because of the color, but I had a white onion in my fridge that I wanted to use up.
  • Tomatoes.  I used 3 small Roma tomatoes and 1 regular tomato, because that’s what I had lying around.  I scooped out the seeds and core of all of them them before dicing, to limit the amount of liquid in the salad.
  • 1 cucumber, deseeded and diced.
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced.

They all went into the bowl.  Then, this guy:

A jalapeno pepper!  I thought it’d be nice to add a little heat to the salad.  You can leave it out if you want to – it’s no big deal.  Jalapenos (and all other hot peppers) hold a majority of their heat in the ribs and seeds, so be sure to remove them before chopping it up (and don’t touch your eyes!).  I chopped it up as finely as I possibly could, because I didn’t want anyone getting a big bite of jalapeno:

I went ahead and minced the entire jalapeno.  Why not?

The 7th and final ingredient?  A handful of cilantro:

Then I tossed it all together (for a long time, to make sure that jalapeno got distributed everywhere evenly), and here’s the end result:

Because of the lingering brine from the nopalito jars, there’s no need for a dressing of any kind, which makes this salad even easier!   I did, however, make it a few hours before heading to the BBQ, so it could all marinate together for a while.  And I did serve myself a little sample, because I couldn’t wait until the BBQ to give it a try:

Mmm-mmm!  It was flavorful, and the mix of tender napolitos with crisp fresh vegetables provided a nice variety of textures.  And for anyone weary of the jalapeno, it wasn’t very hot, either – just a nice hint of heat.

Hopefully you’ll give nopalitos a try – this salad is an easy way to introduce a new food to your family and friends!  And if you liked this recipe, check out some my other recent lettuce-less salad ideas:

One more fun fact about the nopal cactus – it’s also called a prickly pear cactus, and the prickly pear fruit (sometimes called cactus pear) comes from the same plant.  I tried prickly pear for the first time last fall, and they’re dangerous (read about them here)!  It’s pretty cool that one plant provides both a vegetable and a fruit, and I’m glad that I’ve tried both products.

Keep it up, David!


January 1, 2011

Feliz año nuevo y un próspero 2011!

Ayer fue mordido por un tiburón con dientes afilados. Eso no es cierto. Lo que realmente pasó fue que tiene un pequeño corte en la pierna de una roca bajo el agua.

Yesterday, five of us headed out to some cenotes, this sprawling underground river system that’s unique to this part of México.  There’s underground rivers everywhere, and, in places, there’s holes in the earth that provide access to them.  They look like flooded caves, and the Mayans thought they were sacred places, portals to the underworld.  They go on for miles and miles, cavern after cavern, with these amazing underwater rock formations and tunnels.  My sister Laura, who scuba dives, planned this entire trip because she wanted to scuba dive in cenotes, and the other 4 of us tagged along today and snorkeled.  Laura raved about the scuba dives she did, but I’ll leave the details for Laura to describe in her blog, which she doesn’t have, so why don’t you just go to her website (and, while you’re at it, why don’t you pass it along to all your family and friends that need to find and hire an architect).

First step:  Putting on a wetsuit.  I tugged and pulled and squeezed into mine, and immediately felt more like a superhero than I ever have before in my life.   Here’s me doing my best superhero pose:

It was very snug, but it really wasn’t uncomfortable, although I’d be annoyed if I had to wear something like this while climbing in and out of a Batmobile or fighting hoodlums.  The truth is, I’d be annoyed if I had to climb in and out of a Batmobile or fight hoodlums no matter what I was wearing – I’m sure the Batmobile, like Mazda Miatas, aren’t designed for 6’4″ occupants, and, well, I prefer running from confrontation.

My wetsuit was a size XL, and I’d venture to bet that a year ago, when I was 153 pounds heavier, I would be larger than the largest wetsuit they had.  And while you can snorkel without a wetsuit, there’d be no way in hell I would’ve worn just a swimsuit in front of anyone, including my sister.  Which means that this is an adventure I couldn’t and wouldn’t have taken.

I don’t have an underwater camera, so you’re not gonna see any fantastic underwater shots in this blog, but here’s a little taste of what the cenotes are like (photos taken by either me, Laura, or our friend Lisa):

That’s the entrance to a cenote.  The water is so clear and still that while it looks really shallow, you can basically jump into the water from the step at the end of the railing and not hit anything.  Within feet of the railing it’s 10 feet deep.  A few feet beyond that, it’s 40 feet deep.

We were at Chikin Ha cenotes, but this is a different one that we saw but didn’t snorkel in.  The vines are actually tree roots from the trees above, that penetrated the rocks on their quest for water.

This is me climbing out of that cenote – it literally looked like a big sinkhole (that they had cut steps into, for the tourists).

I’ve never snorkeled before, but thanks to my swimming background, took to it quickly.  It was beautiful.  While cenotes do have a few fish and a few turtles, the reason you go is for the jagged, stunning rock formations, and to swim in these caves where sunlight punches through the rock, providing shafts of light that illuminate everything underneath.  I found an arch about 12 or 14 feet underwater and challenged myself to dive down and swim through it, which I did, and that’s how I got the little cut I mentioned in Spanish at the top of this post.

One of my favorite moments was watching Laura and her diving partners descend into the cave.  There was four of them, and I floated above them as they sank deeper and deeper into the cenote, into the darkness, slowly disappearing from view, until there was only the beams of light from their flashlights dancing on the rocks around them, catching metallic glimpses of each others’ tanks, until the beams became only glowing dots as the darkness enveloped them, until the dots stopped dancing and vanished completely, and they were gone.

A little later, a different group of divers entered a cavern tunnel another way, directly beneath where I was snorkeling, which I realized when the rocks around me started simmering with their air bubbles – bubbles escaping around peaks and edges, fighting their way through piles of boulders.  As more divers swam through, the simmer turned into a full-blown boil, bubbles everywhere, surrounding me, bursting through hairline cracks and cascading around ledges, and after the divers passed, it stopped almost immediately, a return to stillness.

I found this YouTube video that gives you an idea of exactly how otherworldly and magnificent these cenotes are (the music is a little much, but I watched it on mute):

Later today I’m back on an airplane and heading back to Los Angeles.  First, though, I’m heading to the gym.  I bought a 5-day pass when I arrived here, and this is my 5th and final day.  Then, it’s adios, Playa Del Carmen, México!  I hope to come back after I get certified in scuba diving – maybe that’ll be a New Year’s Resolution!

Keep it up, David!

“Quieres Blow?”

December 30, 2010

I’ve been in Playa del Carmen 3 days and so far I’ve been asked twice, on the street, by the same guy, if I wanted any cocaine.  Um, no thanks, I’m good.

The three days have been wonderful.  I’ve been able to take a much-needed break from the mountains of stress caused by being unemployed in Los Angeles (sarcasm) and this is a nice change of pace from the snow and cold of Michigan (not sarcasm).  All I keep hearing and reading about is how there’s rain, rain, rain, rain in Los Angeles, so it sounds like I’m not missing tons, except the friends and family I have there.

My eating in Mexico has been pretty good.  I’m proud of myself.  It hasn’t been easy, especially since I’m dependent on restaurants for pretty much all my food.  But we’ve bought apples and bananas to keep in our hotel room, and our hotel has a continental breakfast (included with our room rate) that has fresh fruit, so I’ve taken advantage of that every morning.  At the restaurants, I’ve been pretty good at scoping out the healthier options, and balanced them with trying things I want to try.  I haven’t been carrying my phone with me, as I don’t get service here, so I haven’t taken photos of most of the food, but last night I brought my camera along to the restaurant we went to, so I snapped photos of everything I ate.  It turned out to be the best meal we’ve had so far.

Here’s the restaurant.  According to their website, it’s pronounced “Jag-Shey,” although I’m pretty sure the locals were pronouncing it more like “Yock-Shey”:

It was a Mayan restaurant, and the menu had icons noting the items that didn’t stray from the traditional old Mayan recipes.  I thought “when in Rome,” and ordered a couple of those.  But before they arrived, I tried a few other things.

The first thing out was a roll, with three dipping sauces – the black was the hottest:

I tried all three individually, but kinda liked it best when all three were mixed together.  It seemed like the green and black ones were salsa-esque, and the white one was sour cream-ish.

My sisters ordered a couple appetizer combo platters to share, and so I tried 5 bites of 5 different appetizers.  I have no idea what any of them are, but they were delicious:

The one at 5 o’clock was similar to a quesadilla, and the one at 3 o’clock was a pork-stuffed pepper that was terrific.  There are marinated onions on top.

For a starter (or, my next starter, I should say), I ordered Shecc (pronounced, I presume, “Sheck”):  It was pieces of pineapple, mango, jicama, and cucumber, marinated in lemon juice, paprika, and salt:

It was light and tasty – the salt and paprika added flavor but wasn’t overbearing.  The menu noted that this dish was “very refreshing!” and I have to agree.

For my main course, I ordered Tikin Xic (pronounced, um, I’ll get back to you on that).  It was fish marinated in sour orange and axiote, wrapped with onions in banana leaves, and grilled.  When it arrived, it was still bundled up in the banana leaves:

And here it is unbundled:

I just looked up what axiote is, and it’s a spice blend, in paste form, that’s very popular in the region, that’s built around annato seeds, which come from a local flowering shrub.  There was also a small piece of corn on the cob, and about a half-cup of rice served in a boat fashioned from a corn husk.  When the plate was set down in front of me, I thought the stuff at 4 o’clock was fruit, but it was actually steamed (or roasted?) vegetables – mostly zucchini, carrots, and onions.  All of it was tasty.  It was delicate, and the fish was flaky and perfectly cooked (I don’t know what kind of fish it was), and I ate all of it.

There was 8 of us at the table, and some of the others ordered desserts.  I tried a bite of their pumpkin ice cream, which was good and tasted like pumpkin, but wasn’t spectacular.

OH!  I promised you gym pictures in my last post!  I have two to share.  Here’s the gym from the street:

It’s called “The Gym” and it’s about 5 or 6 blocks from our hotel.  Here’s their website.  They offer lots of classes (none of which I’ve taken so far), have a nice assortment of cardio machines, and a lot of weight training equipment, which I also haven’t used yet (mostly because I’m trying not to aggravate my healing shoulder).  Here’s the main room – cardio in the back of the photo, weight stuff towards the front:

It’s a gym, as you can plainly see.  It’s been nice to start my days here with a great workout.  Yesterday, I did 55 minutes on the bike, and today, 45 minutes on the Arc Trainer elliptical.

Keep it up, David!

PS – If I don’t blog again in the next two days (and I don’t know yet if I will or not) – than Happy New Year, and I wish you health and happiness in the new year!  KEEP IT UP!

Massage in Mexico

December 28, 2010

Bienvenido a México!

Yesterday I arrived in Playa Del Carmen, México.  Today is my sister’s birthday (Feliz Cumpleaños, Laura!), and she invited family and friends – 9 of us in total, I think – south of the border to celebrate.  It’s a fantastic idea, because with a birthday three days after Christmas (Navidad), she kinda gets the birthday shaft every year – Christmas/birthday combination presents, friends out of town because they’re with family, that sort of stuff.   This year we’re all together, and we’re together to be with her.  We’ve been here 1 day, and so far, so good!

It’s beautiful (hermosa) down here.  Here’s the view from our hotel room:

It wasn’t a great beach day, because it was cloudy (nublado) and a little chilly, but I love the beach here because there’s a little cliff between the sandy part where people lounge and the water’s edge.  I walked along it at high tide:

Besides being my sister’s birthday, today was also notable because I got my first ever massage.  There’s no good reason why I’ve never gotten a massage before – I just haven’t.  But I’ve been wanting to get one for the better part of this year (año), after hearing multiple friends rave about them, and you can’t throw a stone (piedra) here without hitting a massage parlor – or a sunglass store, or a T-shirt shop selling really hilarious t-shirts that say things like “I Heart To Fart” – classy!  So, earlier today, Sarah, my other sister, and I scouted out a couple massage parlors and picked the one that looked the nicest to us.  They offered 2 massages for $50 USD, which we bought.  We then explained that we weren’t a couple, because we wanted to be “separado.”

The massage parlor was tucked away a cute courtyard lined with shops, and we were led through a building into a second, lush, private courtyard with individual massage rooms with curtain walls and canopy roofs.  It was very peaceful and quiet.  The massage itself was really relaxing.  I was kinda thinking before it started that I wouldn’t be able to fully relax because I’m ticklish (cosquilloso), and I tense up when I get tickled.  Yes, I know the masseuse wasn’t going to tickle me intentionally, but the feeling might be similar, especially to a first-timer.  And that did happen a little bit, twice – when she was working on my neck and when she was working on my knees (mis rodillas).  I haven’t experienced other massages, so I don’t have a point of comparison, but she seemed thorough and it felt good.

Oh – another noteworthy part of the day:  A bunch of us joined a gym that’s only a few blocks from the hotel.  I bought a 5-day pass (the total number of days I’m here) for $30 USD.  It’s a nice gym, appropriately named The Gym At Playa.  I’m going back tomorrow, so I’ll take a few photos (fotografías) for the blog.  Don’t know if or when I’ll blog again from Mexico, but at some point I’ll post them!

And my workout today was 50 minutes on the Arc Trainer – I burned over 800 calories!

Keep it up, David!