The Everyday Challenges of Living in the Yucatan

by Lou Pintkowski

It was the start of what I thought was going to be an easy day. We only had to prepare breakfast for four guests at La Selva Mariposa, and they had plans after their meal to leave in different directions to explore for the day. My only chores that had to be done that morning involved a leisurely drive to Tulum to take and pick-up laundry and a little money exchange. I was not even concerned about banking since it has become easier with fewer tourists in the area due to the Swine Flu scare.

While I was at the bank, I got a call from my wife, Mari, who was at the house in Macario Gomez. She wanted me to know that Julio, our caretaker, had alerted her to the fact that it was becoming very windy and that there was a lot of smoke in the air. She said that when she looked from the 4th floor mirador, she could see a fire blazing about 400 meters away near the fence line of Villas Bamboo. I told her to call 066, the police emergency number, to report the blaze and I would drive by the fire house in Tulum to follow-up on the call. I departed the bank and drove the few blocks to the newly constructed fire station where I was instructed to fill out a report that included my name, phone number and information on where the fire was located. They said they would follow me to the scene of the fire. I pulled out slowly as their truck started to move forward, but to my surprise when I glanced in the mirror a few minutes later they were not behind me. I pulled over and waited at the main highway intersection for 15 minutes and they never came.

Macario Fire
I decided that I needed to get back to our house in Macario to survey the situation. I called Mari and she let me know that Julio had called his father to come to the house to help. I suggested that she have Julio's father call 112, the fire house number, and report the fire as well. On my way back, I passed up a police pick-up truck who was responding to the first phone call. They were having a hard time seeing the fire from the road, so I took them to Villas Bamboo where they could get a better view. They called the fire department to tell them to come. I waited with the policemen for the fire fighters to arrive, but when I realized that 30 minutes had passed, I began to get nervous. I could see that the 50-mile-an-hour gusting winds were blowing the fire closer to our house. I made a mad dash for the house, and from our 4th floor mirador I saw that things were getting worse.

A wall of flames was headed toward us. I sent Mari and Julio back to the street to get the policemen so that they could come and see from the mirador exactly what was happening in the jungle just beyond their sight. While I awaited there return, I adjusted my irrigation system located on top of the wall that borders two sides of our rental casitas. I turned the sprinklers so that they would spray water out into the jungle beyond the wall. I got a hose up to the roof of the casita and another one to the 3rd floor deck of the house. I also turned on the irrigation system on the back side of the house and brought two hoses over along the fence line. I went back up to the casita roof and started to hose down the zacate on the palapa roof. Julio and Mari finally returned with the policemen and a handful of other people from the pueblo. I sent Julio to the roof of the casita, Pipo (another of our young workers) positioned himself up in the mirador with a hose to protect the house and keep us updated on how the fire was spreading. As more volunteers showed up, I got them started clearing a fire line along the fence and watering down that area of the jungle.

Macario Fire
The fire truck and fire fighters showed up about that time, and I immediately took the Chief up to the 4th floor mirador to survey the scene of the fire. It did not take him long to realize that this brush fire could escalate into a big problem. I was more than a little surprised when he asked, “Can we use your pool?” I thought it was a bad time to go for a swim, but said OK anyway. Thankfully, going for a swim was not what was on his mind, and instead they got their sump pump set up to drain water from the pool. They threw a the three- inch hose that was positioned in the pool over the wall and started connecting a couple hundred meters of hose together with hopes of stopping the fire from spreading further west toward La Selva Mariposa and the pueblo of Macario Gomez. On the Tulum-Coba highway, about 200-meters east of us, their fire engine and a 10,000-liter water truck were working to bring more hose in from that location. At this point I would guess we had about 50 men working to get the blaze under control.

setting up pump    firemen by pool
It took all afternoon to subdue the fire that had spread within 50 meters of our property, and even closer to two other houses and one business that bordered the Coba road. The pool had completely drained even though the well continued to pump water into it the whole time. The well has only a 1 ˝- inch line going into the pool while a 3-inch line was pumping the water out. The truck on the street was out of water as well and the sun was setting, so for the time being we decided to call it quits. Mari and the fire fighters were taking pictures, and were proud of the job they had done. I graciously thanked them and asked about hot spots? They said it would be too dangerous to be in the jungle at night, and assured me that they would be back in the morning to check for any problem areas.

Macario Fire
I mentioned already that I had thanked them, but I also wanted to let them know that if they had arrived when they were first called, the problem would have been much less severe. I wanted to know why it took over two hours to respond. The Chief told me that they needed to change the oil in the truck before coming out, and since they only have one fire truck, the fire would have to wait. I asked what happened to the other two trucks they used to have before they built the new fire house, and as near as I could figure out it sounded like they had gone to Playa del Carmen when Tulum became there own municipality. The fire fighters did not seem to like my questions, and perhaps that is why they did not come back in the morning or respond again a week later when the hot spots started to flare up.

The next morning, I went up to the 4th floor mirador, and could hear flames crackling and saw smoke no more than 60 meters away. I went to investigate and ran into Lemos, one of the neighbors who had helped yesterday. I thought he owned the house on the road that might be affected by the fire. He thanked me for helping and for getting the fire department. He said he needed water, so I gave him two five-gallon jugs of water and started to fill a couple more. He ran them out to the fire and I refilled them as fast as I could with the one hose I had set up. When Julio and Jose showed up for work at 9, they also went into the jungle to help. I started to once again assemble the hose line. In an hour or so, we had the initial problem under control. But, a couple of hours later I smelled smoke and was able to verify that indeed it had flared up AGAIN. This time I put together five more hoses and drug them out to the hot spot where the five of us, coming from two opposite directions, were able to get the blaze under control again. This time it seemed that the fire was out. The winds had been gusting to 50- mph daily, and there had been no rain for the last eight weeks, so we knew it would take constant monitoring.

Julio told Mari that he had a dream on Monday night that was identical to what happened with the fire on Wednesday. He had forgotten about his dream on the day of the fire until his brother said, "Su sueno!" I told him that perhaps he has a gift to predict the future, but next time maybe he will remember and share his dream before it becomes a reality.

Mari and I talked over the problem of limited fire trucks in Tulum, and wish we were able to find out more information, or maybe find an organization like the Rotary Club to raise funds to help buy a truck? The new municipality has limited resources at this time, but needs to be made aware of the importance of Fire Protection, not only for the beach and town properties, but also for the neighboring pueblos and open land located on the road from Tulum to Coba that are now part of the Municipality of Tulum.

Who will take responsibility to educate the people about the dangers of burning plant basura that has accumulated when land is cleared for building or planting during the driest months of the year? I recently spoke to a developer in the area about the problem of not only the fires, but the smoke pollution in the air that the residents, including the children, have to breathe. I pointed down the road at the smoke sitting over Macario Gomez, and he told me he had lent out his wood chipper and had no other choice but to burn the trees and bushes. It seems to me that there are a lot of new “ECO” developments being built along the highway without enough attention being paid to “ecology.” Tulum, in its infancy, has a big job ahead.

By the way my new friend Lemos, who helped me fight the fire for the next ten days, turned out to be the culprit. He had started a small fire to clear an area to build his house. He religiously checked on his property for eight days straight and thought the clearing- fire was out, until that smoky Wednesday when he came by to work on his land and saw the blaze out of control. He hid that fact from me, until I finally asked him if he started the fire to begin with. This time he answered, “Yes,” and spoke to me in English for the first time in the ten days.

casita pool

Lou Pintkowski and his wife Mari live in Macario Gomez and operate their B&B, La Selva Mariposa. Mari is a regular writer for

Akumal Villas

Cabanas Tulum