Elephant In The Riviera Maya – Part 8

A Series On What It’s Like to Give Birth to a Mexican Elephant

Part 8: Hurricanes, Befuddlement, and More

Minimal damage to trees after hurricane Zeta.


‘Tis the season of hurricanes in the Riviera Maya.

Running from July to the end of November, the hurricane season in the Riviera Maya has the highest activity occurring in September and October. Rumour has it that when a hurricane’s trajectory hits a particular area in a season, a second hurricane in that same area is sure to follow. Whether this is an old wives’ tale, based on ex-pat observations, or scientific data, I have no idea – but I don’t like the odds for this year.

In 23 days of October, the Akumal area has had one major tropical storm nearing hurricane force and two full-on hurricanes. The whirling beast, Gamma, rolled in October 3 followed by the monstrous hurricane Delta (Category 4), four days later. Now, as I write this two weeks after Delta, hurricane Zeta (Category 1) is only a few hours away, pointed directly at Akumal, edging ever closer. The windows of my rental apartment are rattling, tree limbs are cracking, the rain is torrential, and it’s only going to get worse throughout the night.

Pools of water in every room after each hurricane and tropical storm. Thank goodness I have a squeegee!

Post-storms Gamma and Delta, I observed that my home under construction sustained no damage, although the floor of each room had a substantial amount of rain water sitting in pools. I did my best to squeegee it out, but it was more or less a useless effort. Water dripped for days out of the pot light holes which now have electrical wiring.

Pot light holes with electrical poured rain water for days after each storm.

A good indication of how much rain fell during each storm (12” or 30cm) could be seen in the brown water sitting in the pool which was perfectly dry not long before.

Pool proves the amount of rain fall from each hurricane.

I wonder if hurricane season is the reason developers do not put windows in until the very end of construction? If they get taken out by a storm, the developer is on the hook for replacing them – very expensive given all the sliding glass doors or windows in this house. 

Someone recently asked me if I was having hurricane glass installed. I was advised by my architect that it would be cost prohibitive and it would be more cost effective to get hurricane shutters. Given I won’t be living in the house until after the 2020 hurricane season ends, it is something I will definitely look into before the next season begins. If anyone knows the best type of hurricane shutters, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Of course, construction came to a complete shutdown in the days following each storm. Inclement weather is one of those delays that no one can predict – if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and there isn’t a darn thing anyone can do about it. Mother Nature always wins!



For those of us who have lived in Mexico for awhile now, we recognize the need for improvements to Mexico’s electrical system. To put it in a nutshell – the electrical grid fails a lot! Power outages are the norm, especially during storms, and sometimes when there isn’t a storm. Water pumps are hooked to electricity, so you might find yourself without water as well. This makes for a fun evening of hauling water from the pool to flush the toilet.

So in this new house I have taken the plunge and I am going full solar. The main reason is to negate the cost of  high electrical bills. I know what you’re thinking – expensive electrical bills with a poorly functioning, frequently failing electrical grid?

The second reason for solar was that when there is a power outage, I won’t care because solar will still give me power, or so I thought. I quickly learned I was completely wrong.

Impromptu meeting between solar company and head electrician.

Apparently, one needs a backup battery system to store the power you generate, and these batteries, as new technology, are cost prohibitive right now. I was advised by my solar company to wait and see what my consumption needs are, see if the price of batteries comes down in the next year or two, then make the investment when the timing is right. Sage advice! Then a friend suggested something else …

If you are planning to put solar in your new home under construction, be sure to connect with your solar specialist well in advance to get estimates. Meet at the lot preferably when the head electrician is on site so many of the numerous intricacies of this investment can be worked out in advance.

The day I met the solar company on site to go over my home’s solar needs, the electrician just happened to be running electrical in the house. The solar company owner was able to get immediate answers for important electrical questions from the head electrician himself. I couldn’t have asked for a better coincidence!

On several occasions now I have walked through the house with my architect and gone over all my electrical needs. You need to think in advance of where outlets should go for kitchen appliances, electronics, table lamps, tools, and even personal items like a blow dryer, razor, curling iron, makeup mirror, electric toothbrush, et cetera.

A devastating fall waiting to happen as that is a one story drop, on the electricians left, to a tile and concrete floor below

Think about how many outlets are needed in each room and where they are located to plug in a vacuum cleaner, floor fan, pet drinking fountain, wifi extender, floor lamp, and any other host of items. Know where you might want space saving ceiling lights and the best location for air conditioners. Note: do not put an air conditioner over an electrical outlet as in one rental I lived in. Every time the air conditioner leaked, it did so directly onto a live electrical outlet. In another rental, a waterfall rained on my head in the middle of the night when the a/c unit leaked because it was located directly above the bed. In this house I requested the air conditioners be off-set from things like my bed, the television, and electrical outlets, so if they leak, they don’t cause damage.

I recommend you plan every detail long before they start putting electrical in. I knew this from building previous houses in Canada; time and again I kicked myself for not putting in an extra outlets in certain places. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with this house. 

But, there is always something one doesn’t account for.

A friend suggested getting a back-up generator default system for when the power goes out. Smart idea — if only I’d thought of it myself!

It would be a matter of having a switch installed in the storage room that I turn on when the power goes out and everything will default to the generator, which could be located in the pool equipment area. Depending on the size of my generator I can run my fridge, some lights, and probably one air conditioner during any blackout, and I won’t lose my water supply. Luckily I caught this in time, thanks to my friend, and although some of the wiring needs to be run on the outside of the house in conduit that will be visible, it’s something I’m willing to live with in order to have this default generator.

So in the middle of a blackout when my friends are without electricity and water, I can saunter over to my back-up system, switch the generator on while staying dry, and voilà – let there be light, and a/c, and water! My friends without generators are cursing me now!


I recently asked my developer/architect about the rumored construction closing costs that acquaintances in Tulum had warned me about. Even though my house is in Solidaridad and not the Tulum municipality, I am still required to get what’s referred to as a Terminación de Obra or Termination of Construction License. And the kicker is you have to have this document in order to sell!

When construction is finished, a municipality official checks your house to make sure your developer has followed the construction permit and architectural plans. Not unlike what happens with new builds in Canada and the United States. In Mexico, once approved they issue the Termination of Construction License. In Canada or the U.S. though, there is a nominal fee for the license and that is all.

Even though my developer said I can wait to pay for it until I sell, whenever that might be, a realtor told me that it would be in my best interests to pay now. “You absolutely do need this. If it was me, I would not wait [to pay it] to sell, and the reason is that things can change in government, and it never changes for the better. They can give you a fine for delaying [getting the license] … They sign off saying the construction is complete to their satisfaction … Just get it done because I think it’ll cause you trouble later on if you don’t.”

Now, here’s the difference between Canada and the U.S., and Mexico. The realtor continued to explain that the municipality official will tell you, “This is the price of the permit and you need to give a donation to the [Solidaridad] municipality for which you will not receive a receipt.”   Donation . . .

Further to this, the realtor explained to me, “That’s how they do stuff … these things change all the time depending on who you talk to in the government and depending on which administration is in power at any given time.”




No, it’s not a sneeze, although that was the reaction a friend had when I told him the name of the wall treatment in the house.

Black chukum on guest bedroom wall looked dark and bleak to me.

Chukum is an ancient Maya wall finish technique that has recently revived in the architectural world. In Mexico, walls are typically completed with a painted stucco that may crack, peel, or get moldy with excessive rainfall and humidity. Being made of cement, stucco is porous, and lets water in. There is waterproof stucco available on the market today, but as a newly revived ancient technique, chukum’s many advantages are being appreciated once again.

Chukum being applied to exterior walls at far end of photo. Quite a difference compared to the stark concrete in the foreground.




A completely natural product, the main ingredient is a legume that comes from the semi-hardwood chukum tree (Havardia Albicans) found throughout the Yucatán. The tree’s bark is boiled to extract a water-repellent resin. Color additives allow for a black or off-white finish. Although I wasn’t thrilled with the black, the off-white looked naturally warm to me and absolutely stunning (pictures of it just do not do it justice). It literally feels like silk to the touch! Water-repellent and gorgeous – I’d say that is a win-win solution to our wet climate!

So why was this incredibly beautiful, affordable, and environmentally friendly technique almost extinct? Due to the near extermination of the Maya culture. It was rediscovered in 1996 and has made a remarkable comeback, and I can see why!

Chukum is being applied to all of the interior and exterior walls of my house.

Tiniest shower showing the first signs of the problem being rectified with a cut in the concrete to relocate the plumbing to the left.



I stood completely befuddled in my huge master bathroom staring blankly at the shower. There it stood – the tiniest shower I’d ever seen!

I had not noticed the mistake until a tall pile of concrete bags had been moved out of the way, and there is was – a master shower measuring 100cm x 160 cm (3’ x 5’). This would be a fine sized shower for a one bedroom condo, but this was a house with a gigantic master bathroom with a magnificently huge tub. There is a ton of space – it should have an equally magnificent shower!

I couldn’t help but notice how much bigger the shower would be if the plumbing were located on the adjacent wall – where it was supposed to be according to the architectural plans.

After a quick text to my architect, I noticed a day later the plumbing being rerouted to correct the error.

In my mind this mistake was equally as major as the electrical access panel being located behind the fridge. If I had not been on site every day to catch the shower mistake and the electrical access panel mistake, it may have been too late and I would have ended up with a tiny shower in a huge bathroom. Hence, the importance of being on site every day!

Rerouted shower. New size will be double the size of the tiny shower.


I can only wonder what it must be like for a person building from long distance! How could one possibly contend with the numerous problems that will inevitably be encountered when the first time one sees the home is on possession day? It boggles my mind.

Conclusion: I highly recommend being present for your build and not trying to build from another country.






For most Canadians, having a pool is a dream, so seeing the formation of my pool was extremely exciting. It also means we’re nearing the end of this construction process.

Pool encompasses two sides of the house with the largest portion at the far end of the living room.

One of the things I love so much about the design of this house is the pool. Instead of being the same old boring rectangular shaped pool, this one is angular, yet symmetrical at the same time.

It skirts two sides of the house (although the original design had pool on all four sides) and allows one to jump into the pool from the living room. Beware the inebriated guests – or dogs – that might go for an accidental swim. It could be fun!

My dogs looking from the living room into the large part of the pool.

The pool will be finished in black chukum, and when lit, is stunning! (See picture below of a black chukum pool in Tulum by the same architect.)

This is a black chukum pool in a home completed by the same architect in Tulum.

Steel beams that are structural support for the house, currently covered in a red anti-corrosive finish, are being painted black. A stunning contrast to the white facade of the home.

Red anti-corrosive paint on steel beams being covered with black finish for contrasting design detail.





I’ve spent nearly 28 months thinking about the design for this house, envisioning every detail down to the pillows on the sofa, yet have been so caught up in the never-ending problems that I didn’t realized I have no furniture to put in the house. Now I am 6 weeks away from moving in, assuming we have no more hurricanes, and realize I have forgotten to go furniture shopping – for some reason I subconsciously forgot to think about it.

I recently stood on the sidewalk of my property staring at this house and remembered that 28 months ago I truly thought it was never going to be built. The monumental difficulties encountered could not have been imagined, certainly least of all by me. 

I would never choose to go through this experience ever again, but if forced to, so many things would be done differently. A lot of learning has taken place – painful learning at times – lessons I wish I didn’t have to learn first hand.

If you plan on building in Mexico and have been following this series of stories, I hope your experience is better than mine. If you learn anything from “Elephant In The Riviera Maya”, of what to do and what not to do, and can avoid some of the pitfalls, then all of the time I’ve spent writing this series has been worth it to me – not to mention cathartic!

I will finish this series in the next couple months ending with my move in to the house in mid December. It’s kind of like bringing the baby elephant home from the hospital, don’t you think? And … I think I may have found a name for her!

[Haven’t read Parts 1-7? Simply fill in “Elephant in the Riviera Maya” in the search bar above for the entire series.]

Written by Brenda Calnan and Edited by Lucy James

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  1. You’ve come such a long way Brenda. It’s going to be absolutely stunning! Can’t wait to see the move in pictures. Have fun shopping!

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