Nov 30, 2008

Why are we here...

Over the last several years of rv’ing in Mexico, I have sent out periodic newsletters, relating many of our experiences with some explanation why we like returning to Mexico.
And now we are committed even further, building our winter station here on the Caribbean coast.

For those who have not been to Mexico, I am sure you have many impressions from media reports and other second hand sources.
Some of you have traveled to a resort for an all-inclusive holiday, as we did about 20 years ago, or visited border towns near California, Arizona or Texas. For 8 years, my folks wintered in Yuma and when we visited them we would cross over for a couple of hours to San Luis or Algadones.
I would suggest thad neither of these types of visits gives a very real or positive impression of Mexico and Mexicans. “Hey mister, want to buy a .... good price”

Along the way, I have surfed the web for all kinds of relevant information and am always interested in other’s experiences. I have become a regular reader of a blog by Jonna, who is an rv’er with her partner Mimi, 3 dogs and a cat. They also have two homes that they have renovated - one in Akumal, a beach community about 12 kms south of here. The second is a newly renovated house in the city of Merida, a colonial city 3 hours drive from here. We have been interested in spending some time in Merida, but so far, have only passed by on our way here.

Recently Jonna wrote two postings detailing her reasons for traveling to and living in mexico. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Check them out at:

Nov 28, 2008

First fitting

Monday morning, we backed the trailer into the palapa to see if the measurements were as we had hoped. Yes, it cleared the rafters above the trailer roof. Yes the slides came out between the posts close to where I had planned.
Then we were going to take it back out to our outside spot, but it felt so good to be under shade, and to be in progress at our new home.
Then the cement crew started measuring the foundations and the next day began to put up the cement block wall for the platform.
A regular topic of discussion asked by everyone who comes by is “why don’t they use a cement mixer?”
Mixing cement is different here in Mexico. Not just here in PaaMul but everywhere in the towns and villages where we have traveled.
First there are a couple dumps of material, coarse gravel, sand, a stack of blocks, and a pile of cement bags. Then a spot on the street in front is chosen as the mixing site, and the sand, gravel, and cement is mixed by shovel, leaving a little ridge around the edge. Then a water hose is pulled over and the centre is soaked. Once again, the shovels go to work mixing the ingredients, and thus is made concrete.
One advantage might be, is that this way you can make a big batch or a small batch. And it uses manual labour, a tradition for sure, but also keeps more men on the work site. (Notice that all the shovels used by the local guys are the short handled type. We gringos use the hard to find long handled shovels for our work.)
As a bonus, when the work is done, you have a patch of cement added to roadway in front of your place.

Nov 23, 2008

Everything, including the kitchen sink

Over the years, we have owned a few houses, 3 of which we renovated extensively. I often wondered if I had the courage or vision to do a build from the ground up. So many design choices... so many options...
But here we are building our new winter home in the land of the sea, sun and sand.
Mind you, our design options are not unlimited. Each palapa site is typically 22 x 44 feet. Our second floor will be a loft of about 300 sq ft, plus a balcony of about 6 x 22 feet.
Our trailer in which we have lived for more than two years, is about 350 sq feet so this will quadruple our living space.

The “outdoor” space (under the palapa) will have a full bathroom, a kitchen with a regular gas stove, and a regular fridge (a big step up from our little RV stove & fridge); a bodega (storage room), a washer and dryer, dining and living areas; and stairs leading to the loft and balcony.
So we have been shopping for a bunch of stuff. Fortunately, there are quite a few places to look.
In Playa, 15 minutes away, we have a variety of big stores. A WalMart plus 4 Mexican versions: Mega, Soriana, Chedraui, and AurerraBodega each with all the same stuff and more. We also have a Sam’s and a City Club. And in Cancun, just over an hour away, we have a Home Depot and Costco.
As well there are plenty of local furniture, appliance and building supply stores. As I have mentioned, this is a rapidly growing area, and there is lots of competition for all the customers.

It has been fun looking at floor and wall tiles, counter tiles too, as well as fixtures of all kinds and appliances. In all my previous projects, I have never bought a new stove or fridge. I am shopping with my camera, documenting all kinds of items from the bright, rustic mexican-style to the most modern available anywhere.
First we found some beautiful glass blocks with bubbles, and brought home several boxes.
Then we found a stacking washer dryer on discount at City Club, sale ending the next day. So with our neigbours, Bob & Dot, both each bought a set. We now have the two complete laundry units standing outside our trailer, under a tarp, waiting for our places to be built. Funny thing is -- when we decided to do this palapa life, Susan declared that a W&D was the most important thing she looked forward to getting for our new place. Hiking our clothes back and forth to a laundry for these last two years of full-time rv’ing will soon be over, at least for the winters.

Yesterday we went into town again and ordered our main floor tiles. They’ll take three weeks to get here, they say... We met up with Bob and Dot (our new palapa neighbours) in at our favorite fish taco restaurant to compare notes. With so many decisions and choices to make it has been very helpful to have another couple to bounce ideas around with.

Nov 18, 2008

Week 4 - Dreaming and Drawing

Every morning I wake up when it is still dark, and my head starts turning with thoughts and ideas for the palapa. Then as the sun comes up, I can see the building site a 100 meters off. While it is still cool I usually walk through the site and lean into the shovel for some landscaping and before the palaperos arrive for work about 7 am.
For this past week, I have been drawing and redrawing the details of the next part of the build -- the cement deck and the rooms on the deck. Just where exactly are the baño furnishing going to be placed. This has to happen soon as the cement work starts in a couple of days and the electrics, plumbing and drains are integrated into the cement. Also, we have to choose places for the hot water system and the gas lines.
I was talking to a Mexican fellow the other night about the history and genesis of this particular building style. He claimed that design of the palapas of PaaMul are not widely used elsewhere.
Another of our neigbours, Gill, has been coming to PaaMul since 1984, making him the oldest continuous winter visitor. When he first came here, there were 7 makeshift parking spaces, sharing a single 15 amp electric cord. Then some shade shelters were built and then more, and PM evolved season by season. Each year the experience and methods of the palaperos are developed, the buildings are built better, and more sophisticated.
Dreaming, drawing, learning as we go.

Nov 11, 2008

Week 3 - Raising the Roof

Once the framework is up, the “grass” roof is added. This is perhaps the most distinctive feature of palapas. PaaMul already has over 100 of these grass roof buildings and now are getting several more.
The grass (“guana”) are fronds of several leaves that are interwoven into the lattice frame.It is fresh cut out in the country, arriving green and aromatic. However it soon dries and turns grey. The roofs typically last 8 to 10 years or until we get a hurricane through here.

Hmmn... Hurricanes...
Many of PaaMul’s palapas have been through at least three -- Emily in July 05, Wilma, October 05 which both skirted this coast and did some serious damage in Cancun about 100 kms north of here and Dean, August 07, which came on shore about 300 kms south of here. When we drove though the hotel zone of Cancun last winter most hotels were fully operational, but there were a couple that seemed derelict over 2 years later. Probably poorly built in the beginning or under financed. We were also through Chetumal last spring, site of Dean, and there seemed little visible hurricane evidence just one year later.
Here in PaaMul, the hurricanes blew off some roofs, but the palapas sustained little other damage of note.
Lest you think we are crazy to build in this hurricane zone, previous storms in this area were Roxanne in 95, Gilbert in 88 and then all the way back to Charlie in 1951. This last few years have seen a bunch of storms, (global warming?) but it is also been the period of rapid growth and development in the whole Mayan Riviera.
So far I have met several people who have been here for more than ten years and a couple that have been living the palapa life for at least 20. We are not alone...

Nov 10, 2008

Week 2 - Posts and Beams - digging into the limestone.

Bob, Larry and I met with David our builder and his father, Benficio “Pappy”, who is the foreman of the building crew. He’s the fellow standing next to the crowbar. We gave them our floor plans and each site was measured out with string and the positions of the post holes marked and dug by hand. The top layer is dirt and rocks, but just a little way down is solid limestone, the foundation of this whole part of Mexico. What they couldn’t dig out by crowbar and post hole digger, they attacked with a jackhammer. Each hole goes down about three feet.
On Tuesday morning an big old flatbed arrived loaded with huge posts and beams. This load was the bulk of the material to build the framework for our three palapas.
With ropes, pulleys, levers and manpower, each pole is raised and put in its hole. Secured there with braces, they add a cement mix.
By the next day, they are climbing the poles, adding pulleys and raising the beams.
Notice in the photos that nearly all workers wear only plastic flip-flops, with the odd one in running shoes. No one wears hard toed work boots, hard hats, gloves or any other conventional safety equipment. When they are up the ladders or up in the framework running chain saws and big drills to fit and bolt the frames together, they are barefooted. Below them are the piles of building material, rocks and mounds of dirt and cut off debris. Aiyee!!

Nov 9, 2008

Week 1 - Clearing the site

Since we left here last spring, the grass had grown up, and the jungle behind had burst into a huge thicket. I first had the grass hacked down and raked it out. Then 7 cubic metre load of gravel was dumped which I put my back to work spreading to define our site boundries.
There are several grades of gravel used here. The 3 most common are Calica, (also called relleño - “fill”) which is a mix of fine gravel and a clay-like substance. It is always delivered somewhat damp and when it is placed and packed down, beomes cement-hard. It is the cheapest at about $10/M. For a better drainage you can use coarse gravel. Pea gravel is used for walking paths. They go for about $20/M.
Our site is one of three new palapas being built side-by-side. Next to us will be Bob and Dot from Gibsons, BC. They live on a boat all summer up there. And next to them will be Larry and Jen, from Calgary. We won’t all be Canadians in this new section. Our neigbours on the other side are Doug and Darla, ex-Californians, who live here full time. Then William, also from California, the Nelsons from Colorado, followed by three more Canadians families.
This section is on the edge of the park property and will be the final row of palapas going up. Thus we back on to the jungle green-belt. Last spring, we had seen some other palapas on the jungle side which had developed small back yards by pushing back the jungle and were looking forward to doing the same. However, over the summer, our neigbours to the north set a new standard of jungle recovery and had all cut back a deep swath and started some very nice gardens. So us three ‘newbies’ got together, hired a tractor and truck to clear the brush form our back yards. We were able to save a few decent trees so we have some shade already. Then we dug out the swampy mud, and replaced it with coarse gravel. I have been busy with shovel and wheel barrow, moving dirt and rocks, as Susan is trimming the bushes and planning her tropical garden.

Nov 8, 2008

Some other PaaMul palapas

PaaMul as we found it...

October 26, 2008
We arrived here in PaaMul two weeks ago brimming with excitement. This is our seventh winter camping trip in Mexico. Since 2000, we have traveled through much of this country, exploring the Baja, the Pacific coast and much of the interior, and even then, there was much more to see. However, as we were enjoying some months here last winter, we came to realize that this was a terrific destination. This could be a place we would be happy to return to many more times. In the meantime, we will be driving across nearly the entire country (even the shortest, most direct route from South Texas is over 3000 kms), so we will have many more oportunities to explore more. We decided to join this unique community -- left a deposit with the camp manager, secured a palapa builder, and have been dreaming of our new winter home.
First, some basics. What is PaaMul?
PM is an RV park and a resort right in the middle of the Mayan Riviera. We have a beautiful stretch of Caribbean beach with a protective reef off shore. We are 15 kms south of the rapidly growing city of Playa del Carmen and about an hour south of the Cancun airport. The island of Cozumel is visible on the horizon. There are dozens of popular large resorts along this coastal highway and many more are being built. PaaMul is unique in that is one of the few, and the only RV park of any size along the coast. Over several decades it has grown to include a small hotel, a good restaurant, a popular dive shop and a collection of palapas that are built over travel trailers. Building in this area is controlled as our PaaMul Bay and the bay next to us are turtle sanctuaries. The jungle between us and the highway, 1 km inland, is a protected mangrove area.
So what is a palapa?
Of the nearly 200 spaces in the park, more than a half are these permanent structures. Each one is unique, but they have some general similarities. A palapa is a post and beam structure, approximately 22 x 44 feet (6.7 x 13.5 M). They all have grass roofs. Under that is some sort of RV - travel trailer, 5th wheel, or bus. Most of these rv's become permanently absorbed into the structure. Under the grass roof, along side the rv there is usually a tiled patio which can have a kitchen, bath, and other "outdoor" living areas, and then stairs leading to lofts and balconies.
As I have tried to describe this to various people over the summer, I have been repeatedly asked to send more details and photos. And as we are starting ours from scratch, you will get a "ground-up" report.