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Taninah: Our Big, Fat, Mexican Vacation

Whether snorkeling an underground river,climbing a Mayan pyramid, or sipping Margaritas, Taninah on the Riviera Maya offered something for everybody in our family

By Hal Higdon

MARINO'S DIRECTIONS WERE PRECISE: "Drive south from the Cancun airport 20 minutes past Playa del Carmen until you see a Pemex gasoline station. Exactly 1 kilometer further, you will spot an ugly billboard perched on a rock. The billboard says Se Vende Este Terreno in red letters. Turn right and follow our bumpy dirt road for 3 kilometers. You have arrived at Taninah."

Taninah recently provided our family with its Big, Fat, Mexican Vacation. The private jungle retreat is owned and operated by Marino and Kathy Tomacelli, who describe it as, "a spectacular retreat whose essence is rooted in a harmonious and balanced coexistence with the environment, while at the same time providing our guests with unsurpassed comfort, exotic beauty, unparalleled privacy, blessed peace and delightful tranquility."

Peace? Privacy? Tranquility? That sounded good to us, since my wife Rose and I had been searching for someplace where our family could gather and celebrate her seventieth birthday, simultaneously spending some of her Individual Retirement Account funds. We had done the same two years earlier when I crossed that same age barrier. Seventy is when the U.S. Government requires us Old Folk to begin liquidating various retirement accounts, paying taxes as we take the money and use it for necessary expenditures, such as prescription drugs from Canada.

But Rose and I still have regular incomes based on my writing and her managing my Web site book sales. We could set aside cash for college educations for grandchildren, but we've assigned that task to their parents. We'd rather spend the money with our grandkids now rather than on them later. Several years ago, I decided to run seven marathons in seven months to celebrate my 70th birthday. We offered our three children and their families the opportunity to join us, all expenses paid, at one of the marathons. They looked at the list (which included marathons in Duluth and Indianapolis) and chose Honolulu.

Seeking more than Sea-And-Surf

A jungle palapaThat trip proved so much fun, we decided to do it again for Rose's seventieth birthday. With her planning no marathons, we began to consider other vacation ideas. I favored a Colorado ski vacation, but as we began to discuss getaway destinations, Cancun caught our eye. Luxurious hotels. Pristine beaches. Great food with a Latin beat. Nevertheless, living as we do in Long Beach, Indiana during the summer and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida during the winter, Rose and I sought more than Sea-and-Sun. We shifted our attention to the area of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula below Cancun called Riviera Maya, the Mayan Riviera. Archeological ruins. Underground rivers. Numerous beachfront resorts, but also rental houses tucked back in the jungle. The word "eco-tourism" began to enter our vocabularies. Rose went surfing on the Internet and discovered http://www.taninah.com/ and Marino Tomacelli.

Marino had been born in Mexico City, but moved with his parents to Texas then California, where he and his wife Kathy first met. Later, he returned to Mexico to work at a resort owned by his father in Playa del Carmen. He and Kathy eventually began to develop Taninah, hacking it out of the seemingly impenetrable jungle. "At that time, the access road had not yet been put in," Marino recalls, "so getting to the property meant hiking through dense jungle on narrow surveyor's paths while carrying whatever tools and supplies were required."

Taninah consists of ten acres of land, five of which have been landscaped around four palapa, or thatch-roofed guest houses, perfectly sized for our family of eight adults and nine children, aged one through fifteen. Beside a duck pond stood a hut with a padded floor, also suitable for sleeping. A large open-air palapa served as the cooking area overlooking a pool in which a plastic alligator floated. A cushioned enclosure nearby provided space where a toddler could frolic with toys or watch Sponge Bob videos on television. If you wanted to shoot baskets, hit tennis balls or play soccer, you could do that, plus there was a cenote, an underground cave with a water slide. A 900-meter jogging path circled the property, appealing to those in the family who include running as their recreation. For those less into training for their next 5-K, there also was a game room and library. If you wanted to escape from your children, you could do so for hours before they tracked you down. Ample adult eyes provided security. Taninah had a staff of a half dozen Mexican workers, who seemed to enjoy watching us enjoy ourselves.

Something for everyone

Sliding down the cenoteRegardless of interest, Taninah offered something for everyone in our family, plus the size of the property was such that the seventeen of us could occupy it exclusively. (Taninah does not offer individual guest houses for rent; you reserve the entire place or nothing.) Yet the total cost proved less than if we had chosen one of the exclusive beach resorts nearby. Back in the jungle, we were less than ten minutes away from the beach and also within reasonable driving distance from other Riviera Maya attractions.

Choosing Taninah solved only the first planning problem. We needed to arrange transportation for families coming from three locations. Our son Kevin and wife Camille live in Long Beach, Indiana near us. Our son David and wife Sharon live in Jacksonville, Florida, near where we spend winters. Our daughter Laura and husband Pete live near Minneapolis. We eventually found seats on four separate airlines with flights landing within a few hours of each other.

We used e-mail for most planning, between members of the family and Marino. David reserved rental cars for everybody. Rose reviewed menus and ordered groceries, since we planned to use a caterer for several of our meals. Pete arranged several golf dates with Marino. We debated which attractions and activities to select. Would it be snorkeling down an underground river or viewing archeological sites? Take the ferry to nearby Cozumel or lounge on the beach looking for our long lost shaker of salt? We planned to both spend time together and time apart, depending on our varied interests.

Flying from Jacksonville through Miami, Rose and I arrived first and found long lines of travelers waiting to clear customs. One by one other members of our families arrived, picked up their rental cars and headed south from the airport along a four-lane expressway that eventually narrowed to two lanes-- although that didn't seem to make much difference to Mexican drivers. Lane straddling is the norm south of the border. If you see a faster car looming in your rear vision mirror, you move onto the shoulder so the car can pass straddling the middle line. Approaching cars also shift to the shoulder to avoid head-on collisions. If you want to turn left, you first pull over to the right shoulder and wait for traffic to clear before making your left-hand turn. Madness, certainly, but I experienced less rudeness during a week driving in Mexico than I would expect driving five minutes on Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway.

Listening to the jungle come alive

Scaling the pyramidMarino and his wife Kathy greeted us when we arrived and offered a tour of the property, which proved every bit as charming as shown on the Internet. Several animals were permanent Taninah tenants, including a cow and a pair of deer plus three donkeys, whose braying awakened us each morning just before dawn. The palapa Rose and I chose offered hardwood slat shutters for walls. It was like sleeping outdoors. I loved to lie awake in bed and listen to the jungle come alive, the piercing whistles of birds accompanied by the trickle of rain on the thatch roof. Worrisomely, rain had been predicted for the first three days of our stay, but Marino promised that it seldom rained all day, plus it could rain heavily here and be clear a few miles away. He was right. The only day it rained for a long period, half our group was several hours away at the archeological site Chichen Itza, suffering no precipitation except during the drive.

In the best spirits of eco-tourism, there was no air conditioning, but none was needed, not even in summer, claims Marino. The nights were cool, so we cuddled under blankets. The toilets were ecologically designed with compost piles rather than plumbing. Back home, several of the women in Rose's exercise class wrinkled their noses when told this, but there was no smell. The younger grandkids appreciated the compost toilets most. "You don't have to remember to flush," we overheard one boast to another. Bugs were no more than we might have anticipated in Florida, although we did encounter one tarantula that looked like a not-too-smaller version of the spider in the last part of Lord of the Rings. I pleaded to spare the spider, but got outvoted. Squish!

Having spent Saturday traveling to Taninah, we used Sunday mostly to get used to the property, heading late afternoon to nearby Playa del Carmen for shopping and dinner at La Parrilla, a rooftop restaurant. Monday, we all drove to Tulum, an archeological site south on the coast not far from our resort. It reminded me of Greek ruins I have seen in Albania. Our stay was short to give us time to stop on the return at Xel Ha (say "Shell-Ha"), an ecological park. Too late to swim with the dolphins, we tubed down a mile-long river. The brave among us did Butch-Cassidy-and-Sundance-Kid imitations, jumping off cliffs into the river. Further downstream, two ropes stretching parallel over the water reminded Kevin and David of Boy Scout days at Camp Topenepee near Michigan City, Indiana. You stand on the lower rope and hold onto the upper one. The object is not to get from one end to the other as much as it is to shake the ropes so others fall off into the water. All the older grandkids handled the ropes well. Toughest was 10-year-old Jake who made two trips. Indelible will be my memory of 11-year-old Angela, who at one time dangled in a horizontal position, close to tears, yet gamely hanging on.

Back in the compound, three-year-old David amused us all driving a battery-operated car on the grass. David drove well straight ahead, but hadn't quite figured out steering. When he came to a tree or other object, one of the other grandkids had to turn him around. We enjoyed the interplay between children from three families; the older getting along with the younger and vice versa.

Luna met all challenges

A 900-meter jogging track circled the compoundEach morning several groups would go running, more often on the dirt road leading into the property rather than the path around it. Kevin trained with his son, 15-year-old Kyle, who runs on his high school track team. Although David is more a tennis player, he ran regularly too as did Laura. I brought up the rear. Best runner was Taninah's dog, Luna, who met every challenge. After returning with one group, if another was heading out to run, she would turn and join them too. There were also two cats, who Luna terrorized if she found them intruding on her territory. Rose normally cares little for pets, but was ready to take Luna home after several days in her company.

Tuesday, two of the families decided the three-hour drive to the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza might prove too long for the youngest children. We piled the older ones into two cars, following a two-lane highway where every few miles, and while passing through small villages, we encountered topes, that being the Mexican name for speed-bumps. But topes were unlike speed-bumps you might encounter in a typical American suburb. Huge ridges, or sometimes metal balls imbedded in the pavement, they seemed designed to bring even a Humvee to a screeching halt, or maybe they were planned to slow traffic so roadside peddlers could hawk their wares.

"Chicken Pizza," as our nine-year-old grandson Nicholas renamed Chichen Itza, proved the high point of the trip for me, both literally and figuratively. Central to the ruins was a single pyramid that screamed to be climbed despite warnings in both English and Spanish that anyone over the age of 60 should think twice before doing so. So steep was the slope that I felt like Spider-Man clinging to a skyscraper. On top, the view was spectacular, but gusting winds threatened to suck me into space. I descended fearfully, sitting on each step and praying to whatever Mayan gods remained for salvation.

Enthralled, we stayed too long, then got lost returning through the town of Valladolid. It grew dark. We navigated the topes safely, but banged into a pothole so deep it dented a tire rim, blowing one tire. I lay down in a puddle trying to figure out where to position a jack. It was inky black, and we had no flashlight. Marino later told me that banditos sometimes roamed the side roads looking for prey, but when a Volkswagen Beetle stopped, it contained a Mexican caballero with his child. He helped me change the flat, then refused an offer of pesos in payment.

A shower of candy

Jake takes a swingWednesday's destination was Xcaret (say "Esh-car-ate"), another ecological/recreational park, where we snorkeled down a half-mile-long underground river, then stayed for a musical extravaganza that included a field hockey game with fireballs. One by one, the younger grandchildren fell asleep and were transported home early. After three hectic days of touring, I needed rest myself, so chose Thursday to do nothing much, content to lie around the compound reading a book and sipping Sol Beer, a local favorite.

To help us celebrate not only Rose's birthday, but February birthdays of Sophie (seven), Holly (10) and Holly's mother Camille (undisclosed), Marino appeared with a piñata. He hung it from a zip line, normally used by the grandkids to streak through space from one tree to another. With Marino tugging the piñata up and down, each grandkid except one-year-old Daniel took turns swinging away with a bat until the piñata exploded in a shower of candy.

The beat at AkumalThat same afternoon, Kyle and his younger brother Wesley, 13, got into a barefoot soccer game on the lawn with two of the Mexican workers. It was a friendly game with a lot of passing back and forth and shooting through goals marked by beach sandals. Afterwards, I noticed Kyle favoring a bruised toe. "Your track coach isn't going to be happy," I scolded him.

We spent most of Friday on the beach at Akumal, a few miles down the road. Returning to Taninah, we made one last visit to the cenote with its slide into the underground river. Marino seemed impressed that Grandma Rose and Grandpa Hal made the biggest splashes. That night after dinner, we sat around beside a blazing fire next to the duck hut talking, telling and retelling stories, both eager to head home, yet wishing our big, fat, Mexican vacation would never end. Saturday, it was time to head for the airport even though I still had not found my long lost shaker of salt.

Related Content:

- Taninah Home Page

- Go Guide to the Riviera Maya