|Ambergris Cay, Belize; Isla Mujeres, Mexico
& Arrival in Key West, Florida
November 12-29, 2008
When we left off in our last report, we were in Belize, sitting at anchor just off the beach from the town of San Pedro on the eastern shores of Ambergris Cay. We were waiting for a good weather window to head out of the barrier reef just offshore and turn to port so as to head northward on a non-stop passage to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Having had enough of the hostile weather of the northwestern Caribbean that season, I was determined to wait out Mother Nature. She’s a tough poker player, though. You really have to stay still and take a deep breath and just wait. Just about the time it seems that there will never be a break in the weather, Mother Nature will become distracted . . . I don’t know what happens . . . maybe she needs to pull up her socks, or heat up water for her tea, but she looks away for just a moment and we sneak out the door!
Local boaters in the northwestern Caribbean are quick to opine that it is impossible to get a decent weather window headed north out of the Yucatan and back to the U.S.A. until March or April.
But, we were lucky to be sitting in Belize in November and watching a weather window shape up that would be a “walk in the park” to Cancun and Isla Mujeres. And we were ready to move on, that’s for sure. Hurricane Season 2008 had been our least favorite by far. Significant security problems and friction on the Rio Dulce marred our good times in Guatemala, and unusually bad weather ruined our attempts to enjoy Belize as well.
As I watched the sunset the evening before our departure from Belize, I gave thanks that we were in great shape, all things considered, and finally making a major move northward and out of that region.
After three years in the Caribbean, we were really getting excited about the prospect of the Florida Keys and U.S. waters anyway. The “Good Old U.S.A.” was calling, with all its fantastic attributes dangling before us, including but not nearly limited to: affordable FedEx for parts and mail, no import duties on boat parts, readily available high-quality parts and materials for the boat, super high-quality food and pharmaceuticals, and many other priceless advantages, not to mention a return to a Rule of Law environment where cruisers seldom use locks and quite simply never, ever go to sleep with worries about pirates boarding their vessels at anchor.
Basically, after three years in El Caribe, the allure of high-end civilization itself was becoming irresistible.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Not so fast! We are not heading back to the U.S.A. just quite yet. We still have a stop to make in the Mexican Yucatan where we'll visit yet another famous tropical cruisers’ destination in the northwestern Caribbean: the “Island of Women” known as Isla Mujeres.
This island, situated at the very tip of the Mexican Yucatan, just off the beaches of Cancun, has historically been either the very first stop in the Caribbean experience for those heading south into El Caribe from the Gulf Coast, or it has been the opposite: the final punctuation mark of the entire Caribbean experience and the last stop before returning to the U.S.A.
As such, Isla Mujeres was naturally the very last stop for us as we headed closer to the Florida Keys.
So let’s get going to Isla Mujeres and check out this very famous cruising destination that we will surely enjoy exploring!
II. San Pedro, Belize, to Isla Mujeres, Mexico
As we departed the anchorage at San Pedro, Belize, the conditions were perfect . . . very light winds and ultra-calm seas would make for easy motor sailing upon cobalt blue waters.
After all these years in the Caribbean, motor sailing has become a prominent mode of travel simply because the best weather windows seem to require it.
We have discussed it before. As offensive as it sounds to the die-hard sailors and sailing purists, the most attractive way to transport your only home is in calmness, not romping along with full sails in five to eight foot seas or more and bashing and crashing with all your belongs being thrown about.
That is the paradox of the Caribbean. The wind is often binary by nature: blowing in the twenties or harder and kicking up big seas, or becoming very light with calm to smooth seas when the trade winds get momentarily interrupted by a passing weather system.
We will pick calm, smooth and motoring one hundred percent of the time over sailing in rough weather and picking flying fish our of our teeth.
People often ask us how much we get to sail. A fair estimate is twenty-five percent of the time we sail, twenty-five percent we motor with no sails, and fifty percent of the time we are using a combination of sails and engines. Many of our cruising friends report the same general ratios.
Of course, all of that flies terribly in the face of what dreamers (including me) thought cruising would be like: “Oh, the majesty of it all! Can’t you just see it?! Riding the wind for free and sailing along wherever we go!” . . . well not in El Caribe you won’t be doing that very much. Maybe crossing the Pacific on long downwind legs doing four knots for weeks and praying for land, but you will not sail along peacefully and manage the Caribbean. It can eat your lunch for you.
But, I have long ago given up on explaining these things to weekend sailors and Sunday afternoon sailing purists. Also, there is always some true-grit sailor who will quickly come forward and claim they sailed everywhere in the Caribbean and prove you wrong.
And I can stipulate that: there are in fact a number of cruisers who, for whatever reason, do try to sail everywhere in the Caribbean and subject both their persons and their vessels to much longer time periods at sea (especially going to weather) to make the same passages that would be much faster with engines, or both engines and sail.
The die-hard sailors often require time periods that exceed weather windows, more-often encounter severe conditions that are not fun (and can in fact be down right dangerous), and by the nature of their habits visit excessive, undue wear and tear on the sails, rigging and their vessel in general.
Conversely, we personally enjoy the pure freedom to pragmatically and commonsensically pick super calm weather windows and relax and enjoy our happy home at sea, all without having to apologize for breaching some unrealistic pledge to always be sailors.
All that said, this leg from Belize to Cancun would be calm and smooth, as if made to order, with some wind, but not nearly enough to strictly sail, nor enrage the seas either.
The fishing lines went out. With lots of physical energy to spare at the beginning of passages, I always drag fishing lures for the first day. And it paid off this time with a nice little Mahi Mahi that would become grilled-fish tacos for lunch upon our arrival in Isla Mujeres the next day.
The passage itself is a little over two hundred miles, so that’s about a 28 to 30 hour trip under normal circumstances. We would be getting help, however, from the currents in the Yucatan Channel. So, we figured it would take a lot less time . . . more like 20 hours.
Wow! It is not often that we have a nice big moon on night passages, but this one will surely be an overnighter with lots of moonlight!
As enticing as the call of civilization is, it has its burdens too. While underway on the calm seas, I decided to spruce up the registration numbers on the dinghy in anticipation of once again plying U.S. waters where the U.S. Coast Guard and State waterway patrols require vessels, including little rubber boats, to comply with boating regulations.
By the way, keeping registration numbers on the bows of a rubber dinghy has always been a challenge for boaters. There are stick-on number kits, but those stick on letters and numbers just don’t stay stuck.
Some people make little plaques out of plastic and stick numbers onto them and tie that whole mess onto the dinghy.
I finally just started using a permanent marker to free-hand draw the information right onto the rubber of the boat. That can’t come unstuck or fall off, but it fades in the tropical sun and has to be spruced-up now and then.
We had a wonderful day at sea. As usual, such a passage closes the chapters on previous cruising experiences and ushers in a hightened anticipation and excitement of brand new horizons and fresh experiences to come.
As the sun set, it was time to pull in the fishing lines and get ready for the overnight segment of the trip. Just another perfect sunset: we enjoyed the sensation of nightfall at sea. It’s a special time. Still, after five years of cruising, it is an experience that strikes emotion.
Think about it, for most recreational boaters, something is really wrong if they are still far offshore after darkness falls. Most of us have been conditioned that way, and seeing the sky go dark at sea while out of sight of land on your own little boat always causes a multi-layered emotional response . . . a mixture of cautious awareness that one is “crossing a line” coupled with an appreciation for the opportunity to experience the unusual.
It’s quite a “gumbo” of sensation that floods into one’s mind at sunset offshore.
Depending on the sea state and weather conditions when darkness falls, and the weather forecast for the next 12 hours, the overall emotional tone regarding nightfall at the helm can range from hopeful terror to cautious euphoria, and everything in between. Nightfall: it's a passage all its own.
On this trip, we enjoyed a nice and easy night at sea.
There was a lot of light from the moon and very good visibility. Also, there was a bit of traffic to contend with in the form of shipping and also one mid-size cruise ship.
While on watch, I passed within two miles of the cruise ship and gawked through the binoculars at a HUGE, seemingly three-story tall television screen that faced the middle upper-deck section where vacationers surely lounged in the pool and Tiki Bar areas and enjoyed a movie on a multi-story LED screen.
What an odd sight it was to have my usual sense of nighttime remoteness on the vast sea interrupted by such a massive display of light, color and what seemed to be alien technology passing by.
As darkness eventually surrendered to the sunrise, we were already passing between the island of Cozumel and the mainland of the Mexican Yucatan, catching the rushing northward currents and keeping an eye on several cruise ships. At one time there were five in view. Cancun and Cozumel are very busy cruise ship destinations and there was quite a bit of chatter between them on the VHF radio.
By mid-morning we found ourselves turning to port, into the channel between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. The waters were with very busy with a good number of charter catamarans underway. Some of these boats were huge and loaded down with tourists on half-day trips from the beaches of Cancun out to snorkel and swim near the small reefs of Isla Mujeras.
After about forty-five minutes, we made it into the channel at Isla Mujeres and anchored out behind the inner reef for lunch. I grilled up every scrap of that fresh Mahi Mahi we caught the day before, and Melissa made the fixings for tacos. We enjoyed a huge lunch of first-rate decadently-appointed fish tacos. As the saying goes, they were “made for pleasure, not for profit.”
Not long after lunch, Tom Boylan, manager of Marina Paraiso, came out in his outboard powered launch. I had hailed him on the VHF, looking for dock space. Tom came out to greet us and said he would have a spot for us in a couple of hours. Another boat was pulling out and we would be able to come in to the docks after that. So we kicked back, enjoyed our lunch, and relaxed.
By sunset, we had our spot at the marina and were tucked in under the bow of a big steel fishing trawler.
And it was a good place to be! A frontal weather system was due in and we were in a good spot to be protected.
III. Isla Mujeres
Now, before we go further, I know that most of us know a lot more about Mexico than other countries south of the boarder (at least the “man on the street” in the U.S.A. can probably locate it on a map). But in keeping with our format of providing a little history, and considering that most people probably do not know where Isla Mujeres is without some clues, here is a little bit of information (I found it at http://www.isla-mujeres.net/history.htm):
“Isla Mujeres has a long and colorful history. In Mayan times the island served as the sanctuary for the goddess Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of fertility, reason, medicine, and the moon. The Temple was located at the South point of the island and was also used as the lighthouse. The light from torches was shown through holes in the walls, which could be seen by the navigators at sea.
The Mayans also came to the island to harvest salt from the salt lagoons.
In March of the year 1517, Francisco Hernandez Cordova discovered the island. When the Spanish expedition landed, they found many female shaped idols representing the goddess Ixchel, thus Isla Mujeres (The Island of Women) got its name.
During Lent of 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba with three ships to procure slaves for the mines... (some say he sailed to discover new lands).
For the next three centuries Isla Mujeres was uninhabited. The only visitors were fisherman and pirates who used Isla as a refuge and left their women on the island "for safekeeping" while they sailed the high seas.
Famous pirates like Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte walked the shores of Isla and as legend goes, buried their stolen treasure under the white sands.
After the Independence of Mexico, a small village began in what is now downtown Isla Mujeres. Over the years, many Mayans took refuge on Cozumel, Holbox and Isla Mujeres. Mayan fisherman found the waters around the island to be a fisherman's paradise and the village slowly grew.
Long before Cancun was even a glint in developer's eyes, Isla Mujeres open it's arms to tourists from around the world. Some older residents of the island tell stories of tourists signaling from a make-shift dock near where Puerto Juarez stands today. Son's of local fisherman would take small launches over to the mainland and pick up visitors for their stay on the island. Eventually, Isla established a regular ferry service, making runs to Cancun’s Puerto Juarez once or twice a day and in the last few years, every half hour.
Isla Mujeres is the easternmost point of Mexico, the frontier of eastern Mexico, and the Mexican Navy base was established in 1949.
Fishing was still the main source of income; it wasn't until recent years that Tourism became a large part of the island. In 1967, the Mexican Government and its water department (C.A.P.A), with the help of many local divers, install an under-the-sea purified water piping system, the first in the world. The 6" pipes were replaced with 8" pipes in 1988 the same year Hurricane Gilbert hit the island, which partially destroyed the Mayan temple on the south point.
The last few years have seen tremendous improvements to the island including an extensive drainage and sewer system, electric and phone service and paved streets.
If you are lucky enough to be vacationing on Isla Mujeras on December 31st, it is a tradition for Isleños to greet the first rays of the sun at the dawn of each New Year at the south point, the most eastern point of Mexico.
The people of Isla Mujeres are proud of their history and hold in their hearts the magic of their island and the promising future."
Here is a map of the island:
Now that we have our bearings, let’s look around and enjoy the experience of Isla Mujeres! What better place to start than the Marina Paraiso.
It did not take long to feel an incredible difference between this area compared to Belize and Guatemala. Unlike Belize, there were no rude people in general to deal with in Isla Mujeres. And there was a total absence the scores of shotguns and pistols always on bristling, public display in Guatemala. In fact, I went days without seeing a single firearm anywhere, even at banks and ATM machines. The contrast was striking.
From a safety and security standpoint, arriving at Isla Mujeres was the cultural equivalent of coming out of the other side of a bad thunderstorm for us . . . the skies cleared, the sun came out, and once again we had not a care in the world.
At Marina Paraiso, Tom and his Man Friday, Miguel, were obscenely accommodating . . . need the golf cart to go to town? Just take it, “the keys hang right here on the wall all the time.” Need to check in? “Miguel will take you and make sure it goes properly.”
It was indeed a fantastic feeling to have such a fabulous “homecoming” to a place we had never been before. In fact, we kept declaring how surprised we were that we liked Isla Mujeres so much. We even considered spending a whole season there.
In the midst of our glee, we did have a little weather move through soon after our arrival, and it brought a brief period of rain and strong winds.
There was really nothing whatsoever to complain about, except one thing: every morning at 5:00 a.m. sharp, an old diesel powered ferry cranked up right next to our cabin and it sounded like a Sherman tank until the exhaust system primed with seawater and quieted down. It was an alarm clock that shook our whole boat!
And while we visited Cancun and did other things by day, Tom was always plotting something for cruisers by night. One night he just decided to up and BBQ some ribs for all the cruisers in the marina. Not for sale, mind you. He just felt like cooking ribs.
Let’s go on a walkabout (well, a golf-cart-about) and see some of the island! One day Tom took us all the way around the island just for fun. We also did some walking and riding on our own. Here is the photo journal:
All these boats pictured above have the same attributes: very fast, equipped with radar, and easy to steal. They were all stolen in South Florida, where thieves then used them to swing by Cuba and pick up refuges (along with gasoline) and then cross to Isla Mujeres or Cancun with the illegal aliens.
The boats are abandoned here and are eventually sold dirt cheap to local Mexicans who bid on them (allegedly within a “good old boy” system as to who gets to buy a one hundred fifty thousand dollar boat for a few grand or less).
Cuban refugees allegedly have, by law, 30 days to leave Mexico and by that time they blend into the landscape and make their way to the U.S.A. easily enough. It’s quite the money-making industry, we were told, and the stolen boats are simply disposable goods in the process.
There is yet another very interesting feature of the island and that is its old graveyard. It’s a look into the culture of Mexico with the importance of family and the use of bright colors on anything and everything . . . it’s the one place you’ll see an electric-orange Jesus watching over a family’s deceased.
Here is a look around a very compact and very old graveyard that is one more facet of the personality of Isla Mujeres
The more we walked around little Isla Mujeres, the more we liked it. Quaint, tropical, relaxed, carefree, fun, picturesque, safe, clean, friendly . . . the best adjectives just kept bubbling up to the surface.
And remember, our impressions at the time were set against having been to almost every top destination in the entire Caribbean. The oddest thing about it all is that Isla Mujeres is so isolated geographically, and such an anomaly in its region, when viewed through our eyes as cruisers on the go.
To the north of Isla Mujeres lies the entire Gulf of Mexico . . . a long and often rough ride of a week or more offshore from Texas or Louisiana, or a few days going against the current and the Gulf Stream if you head there from the Florida Keys.
To the South lie Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which present a gauntlet of either significant piracy and Rule of Law issues and/or challenging sailing grounds.
As we have articulated before, way back in 2007 in Bonaire, we deeply struggled over whether or not to go to the Western Caribbean at all . . . it was plain to see that there was a ludicrous amount of mileage involved . . . hundreds and hundreds of miles . . . to reach a tiny number of cruising destinations that were truly attractive to us.
Well, after being in Isla Mujeres for a week or so, we finally had all the information to draw a conclusion on whether or not the western Caribbean was a good destination overall for us in the end.
It’s still a very close call if we simply ask ourselves “was it all worth it?”
Nonetheless, we are glad we saw it all for ourselves. It was a happy time in Isla Mujeres and we knew very quickly that we were in probably the coolest overall destination in the northwestern Caribbean. We made the best of this great location.
And more: it happens every year in November . . . Melissa’s Birthday! Again, in what is uncharacteristically wonderful family-type behavior for Marina staff, when Tom found out it was Melissa’s birthday, he bought a cake, ice cream, and invited other boaters! Since when does any marina do that?!
Also, our great friends Steve and Sue O’Connor aboard the Manta 42 Evensong put on a great dinner party for Melissa.
Here are some pics:
We had a lot of fun at the marina and on sleepy Isla Mujeres. But there is so much more to the region that makes the stop so great.
Just a fifteen minute ferry ride across the bay and you are in Cancun, a world-class resort destination with major developments. There is a Super WalMart, numerous franchise restaurants like Outback, Bubba Gump, Hooters, Hard Rock, and all the “usual suspects” are there.
In fact, it is hard to fathom that poor Belize and even poorer Guatemala can be located next to a country with these types of billion-dollar developments.
That is part of what makes Isla Mujeres so cool. It has all the charm and rustic feel of an undeveloped Caribbean island, but when you need a “fix” of modern amenities, Cancun is “just right there” across the bay. It’s a perfect combination for cruisers.
So, let’s take a ride over to Cancun and check it out!
Before we jump on the ferry at Isla Mujeres and head to Cancun, however, let’s learn a little bit about Cancun’s history.
Sure, everybody knows that in the last forty years Cancun has become a world stage for College Spring Break events wherein television producers with networks such as MTV and Entertainment Television come and film masses of scantily-clad college students bombed out of their minds on a week-long tropical binge.
You may not know that Cancun is technically two places: 1) Cancun Island; and, 2) Cancun City.
Only a few shallow lagoons separate the so-called island from the mainland and major roads connect the island area to the city so seamlessly that you don’t perceive there is an island.
As for Cancun’s history, the question is: what was there before tourism exploded?
The answer: nothing.
Cancun sprung forth from pure speculation and sand, much like Las Vegas did. Cancun is yet one more “build it and they will come” phenomenon of world tourism. Here are some facts (derived from wikipedia):
Originally known as Ekab ("Black Earth"), the area where Cancún is located is now the northern district of the state of Quintana Roo. That region was also Mayan, just like Guatemala, Belize and the rest of Central America. The great Mayan Civilization collapsed due to droughts, food shortages, wars, and over-population.
Already in decline when the Spanish arrived, the Mayan population in the Mexican Yucatan area either died off or left as a result of disease, warfare, piracy, and famines, leaving only small settlements on two islands: Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.
The city of Cancún was virtually non-existent prior to a 1967 study by Bunco de Mexico to determine the feasibility of capturing more dollars and other foreign exchange through tourism development.
Although rumor has it that Cancún’s location was picked by a computer, it was actually selected after extensive research and exploration by a team of researchers. Banco de Mexico obtained a $27 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to install the first infrastructure.
When development was started on Jan. 23, 1970, Isla Cancún had only three residents, caretakers of the coconut plantation of Don José de Jesús Lima, who lived on Isla Mujeres.
There were only 117 people living in nearby Puerto Juárez, a fishing village and military base.
Foreign investors would not bet on a completely unproven and undeveloped area, so the Mexican government financed the first nine hotels. The first hotel financed was the Hyatt Cancun Caribe, but the first hotel actually built was the Playa Blanca, which later became a Blue Bay hotel, and is now Temptation Resort.
The entire project was master-planned, with the island (soon connected to the mainland by causeways) devoted almost exclusively to tourism facilities, while workers housing and service areas were located on the mainland in what became the Cancún City.
There are now about 150 hotels in Cancún with more than 24,000 rooms and 380 restaurants. Four million visitors arrive each year in an average of 190 flights daily.
The Hotel Zone of Cancún is shaped like a “7” with bridges on each end connecting it to the mainland. Hotels on the vertical, long side of the “7” tend to have rougher beaches and beach erosion can be a problem. Resorts on the horizontal, short end of the “7” tend to have more gentle surf because the waves here are blocked by the island of Isla Mujeres which lies just off shore.
The Hotel Zone offers a broad range of accommodations, ranging from relatively inexpensive motel-style facilities in the older section closest to the mainland, to high-priced luxury hotels in the later sections, great malls, theme parks and even “swimming with dolphins” activity.
On the opposite side of the island from the Caribbean Sea is the Nichupté Lagoon, which is used for boating excursions and jet-ski jungle tours.
Cancún is also the gateway to the “Riviera Maya” referring to the attractions of numerous Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza and Tulum.
The estimated annual revenue from tourism in the Cancun area alone is an amazing eleven billion dollars annually.
I had already visited Cancun long, long ago, so I was in a position to see how much it had grown. Way back in 1980, I was living in Slidell, Louisiana, and won a radio contest . . . the prize was a trip for two to Cancun . . . three days and two nights.
There was really not much there except for the few big hotels that, based on what I know now, were the initial seeds of the Cancun tourist project.
There was a main road along the beach, a few big hotels on the beach side of the road, and nothing built at all on the inland side of that beach road. No ancillary businesses were even there yet, just those few, lone hotels and it was a little strange to see them so isolated on the beach.
Still drinking alcohol at that particular time in my life, I spent most of my waking hours in Cancun discovering Corona Beer . . . over and over again . . . marinating myself in Mexican beer and Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil.
I did manage to get up enough ambition to rent a Hobie Cat, though. I already owned a Hobie 16 at the time and was indeed a skilled Hobie sailor . . . all of which I brashly announced to the rental guy on the beach (who merely wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing before turning me loose with one of his boats).
Just about the time I got cocky and indignant that anyone would question my stellar Hobie skills, a gust of wind hit, jibed the boom of the Hobie I was standing by, and the boom hit me in my drunken head as deftly as a street cop’s nightstick, leveling me flat on my back in the sand!
When you are young, you can shake those incidents off. Within five minutes I had my bearings and managed to rent the boat and sail out into the clear waters with no further embarrassments. At the time, I remember noticing the little island “just over there” but did not know it was in fact Isla Mujeres.
So, it’s been a while . . . almost thirty years since I’ve sailed these waters. And a lot had changed. This time I will remember a lot more about it.
Life is so very unpredictable. Back then, thirty years ago and downing beers on the beach, I never dreamed I would own a big catamaran and tour the whole Caribbean one day.
Fast forward to Isla Mujeres: as we boarded the ferry to Cancun, I thought about my trip to Cancun decades ago and wondered: What will it be like? Will I remember anything, or see anything remotely familiar, except Corona beer signs?
Let’s go check it out!
Steve and Sue O’Connor from Evensong came along with us to investigate Cancun. As I walked around I saw absolutely nothing whatsoever that looked familiar.
And those open lands of sand dunes and scrub trees I saw inland of the beach road in 1980, it is all a huge city now!
Miles and miles of “big city” have sprawled out in all directions and I simply couldn't believe it had all been built, every wall and roof, within the last thirty years. I’ve never seen anything else like it in terms of sheer mass built in such a relatively short period of time.
Only a tsunami of money could have produced anything like that!
The farther we walked the bigger the developments and it did start to feel a little bit like Las Vegas: huge night clubs, risqué adult entertainment and money, money, money.
Here’s more of what we found:
It was all overwhelming and a universe away from the poverty-stricken lower Central America we had just come from.
Cancun is the precise opposite end of the spectrum from Isla Mujeres. Cancun is fast, loud, big, and hyped to the max!
The reasons people go cruising are many, and getting away from the Big City and all its perceived ills is certainly on the top of the list. It doesn't take long in the Third World, however, to remember that some things about big cities are wonderful.
By the time we reached Cancun, it had been years since we had access to a Super WalMart, for example. It was awesome to find high quality meats, U.S. brands and inventories, and be able to stock up on goods of a quality we had simply gone without for a long, long time.
Bottom line: Cancun is great, because you can go there quickly and inexpensively on the ferry and get your modern world “fix” and then “retreat” to the sleepy little island of Isla Mujeres. It is, quite frankly, an unbeatable combination for cruisers. That night, really good ribeye steaks from WalMart would be sizzling on Indigo Moon’s grill.
I must admit that I was surprised at one thing that was a little lacking in Cancun and that is marine parts stores. They were still somewhat Third World in inventories and available parts.
For one thing, I needed some biocide to treat diesel fuel and prevent algae from growing in our tanks. A taxi driver took me all over town to several marine stores looking for diesel additive to no avail.
Then I got creative and asked if there were any heavy equipment dealerships in the area. That did the trick! We found a Hyundai excavator dealership and with a little “Tarzan” Spanish, I asked for some fuel additive: “Buenos Dios. Pregunta . . . Tienes additivo por diesel tanque por limpia diesel?” I think that means “Good morning. I have a question. Do y’all have diesel additive for the fuel tank to keep fuel clean?”
Sure enough, they had some algaecide for diesel fuel and did not even make fun of my pitiful Spanish. Plus I got to look at some new excavators on the lot.
I laughed out load to see that the Hyundai Corporation named one of their excavators a “Rolex” model. They sure know what turns on the Big Shots in the earth moving business!
Here is the additive! It is “todo en uno” . . . an “all in one” treatment for fuel.
Melissa and I stayed late one day in Cancun to walk the streets and eat out. It was a lot of fun to be back in an area where we could venture out at night and enjoy an evening out in the city, like we did in Cartagena, Colombia.
We made several trips to Cancun during our time at Isla Mujeres, and on one occasion it was “just passing through” to see more of the Yucatan.
We decided to go see the old city of Mérida and spend a few nights there, and then go to the famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza as well. It was to be a fantastic trip wherein we were amazed by the modern, fancy bus lines, great service in the hotels, and the overall high quality of our travel experiences in the Yucatan.
Mérida is a grand Latin American City that we loved instantly: the laid-back people, slow pace, and most importantly the centuries’ old culture of art, food, and atmosphere that are top-notch, easily rivaling our favorites Cartagena and New Orleans.
Let’s check out Mérida’s story (gleaned from wikipedia):
Mérida is the Capital of the Mexican state of the Yucatan and its population is about 750,000, making it the 12th largest metropolitan area in Mexican. It is also the largest of the four cities of the world that share the name Mérida, the other three being located in Spain, Venezuela and the Philippines.
Mérida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo "el Mozo." It was built on the site of the Maya city of T'ho (also known as Ichcaanzihó or "city of the five hills", referring to five pyramids) which had been a center of Mayan culture and activity for centuries.
In fact, some historians believe Mérida to be the oldest continually occupied city in all of the Americas.
Carved Maya stones from ancient T'ho were widely used to build the Spanish colonial buildings that are plentiful in downtown Mérida, and are visible, for instance, in the walls of the main cathedral.
Much of Mérida's architecture from the colonial period through the 18th century and 19th century is still standing in the “centro historico” of the city.
From colonial times through the mid 19th century, Mérida was a walled city constructed to repel revolts by the indigenous Maya. Several of the old Spanish city gates survive, but modern Mérida has expanded far beyond the old city’s walls.
It is a city with a history of great wealth. For a brief period, around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was home to more millionaires than any other city in the world. The result of this concentration of wealth can still be seen today. Many large and elaborate homes still line the main avenue of Paso de Montejo, although few are occupied today by individual families.
Many of the old mansions have been restored and now serve as banks and opulent office buildings. Mérida has one of the largest historical districts in the Americas, surpassed only by Mexico City and Havana, Cuba.
In August 1993 Pope John Paul II visited the city on his third trip to Mexico. The city has been host to two bilateral United States – Mexico conferences, the first in 1999 (Bill Clinton – Vincente Fox) and the second in 2007 (George W. Bush – Felipe Calderon).
In June 2007, Mérida moved its city museum to the renovated Post Office building next to the downtown market. The Museum of the City of Mérida houses important artifacts from the city's history, as well as an art gallery.
Mérida has been nicknamed "The White City", though the exact origin of this moniker is not clear. Some explanations include the common color of its old buildings painted and decorated with "cal" (though anyone visiting modern Mérida can see that buildings are not all white nowadays) or the fact that the residents keep the city particularly clean.
As the state and regional capital, Mérida is a cultural center, featuring multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, movie theatres and shops. Mérida retains an abundance of beautiful colonial buildings and is a vibrant cultural center, with music and dancing playing an important part in day-to-day life.
At the same it is a modern city boasting a comprehensive range of shopping malls, auto dealerships, top quality hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities. The famous avenue, Paseo de Montejo, is lined with original sculpture.
Each year, the MACAY Museum in Mérida mounts a new sculpture installation, featuring works from Mexico and one other chosen country. Each exhibit remains for ten months of the year. In 2007, sculptures on Paseo de Montejo featured works by artists from Mexico and Japan.
Mérida is also home to the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra that plays regular seasons at the Jose Peon Contreras Theatre on Calle 60 and features classical music, jazz and opera.
WOW! What a city! Just reading about Mérida pretty-much guarantees a fabulous, not-to-be-missed inland travel experience for cruisers visiting Isla Mujeres. It was easy for us to do “the math” and see that Mérida’s historically wealthy population had invested a significant portion of disposable income over the centuries to develop the arts, music, and a unique soul and flavor that instantly won our hearts.
It had been a year since we had been to a truly celebrated Latin American City (Cartagena, Colombia), and we had already accumulated a very wide range of “Latin American City experiences.” So, we knew what to expect from Mérida . . . and we were ecstatic! Barring some intervening, freak stroke of bad luck, we knew it would be a guaranteed Latin American love affair with a fabulous city the likes of which we had not enjoyed since Cartagena.
Hey! Enough of all that! We are still in Cancun! Let’s quit all this jibber jabber and get going or we will miss the bus to Mérida!
Yes, it was really unbelievable. Bus travel from Cancun to Mérida absolutely defies all negative “bus travel stigmas” and it was nothing short of an opulent, comfortable, enjoyable, relaxing trip the likes of which we have not experienced on any public mode of transportation in a long, long, time. What a great way to start out our inland travel.
In fact, the whole journey so far was a cruisers’ dream of convenience: a free ride by golf cart from the marina to the ferry dock in Isla Mujeres. Then, a very fast and economical ferry ride to Cancun, followed by a short taxi ride to the bus station and we were on our way . . . effortless, modern, clean, reasonably priced . . . there was really nothing not to love!
And so, while we were whisked along the countryside, we grinned and watched the movie “Airbuds” . . . wherein Disney made a kid’s movie with talking golden retriever dogs. Of course, it was over-dubbed in Spanish, though, but that’s nothing more than another opportunity to try and recognize just how much Spanish I still don’t know.
One thing you’ll not see on this bus ride, however, is any striking scenery. Flat, hot, desolate: much of the Yucatan is a “parking lot” of a flat landscape that hosts only brush, scrub trees and the scenery was monotone compared to, for example, the bus ride from the Rio Dulce to Guatemala City that took us through stunning, jungle-covered mountain ranges.
By midday we were in Mérida and got a hotel room about ten blocks north of the old city square and Cathedral. We had no reservations, which was very unusual for us. We decided to “walk on the wild side” and simply showed up and shopped around in person per information in our of the Lonely Planet guide we had in-hand.
Once we were installed in a room, we went on a walkabout.
Within a block of our hotel, there was live music playing and it lured us in for a closer look. As in all big Latin American cities, there are many plazas and squares where locals congregate. In a small square very near our hotel, “Sunday Afternoon Fun" was in full swing.
I am certain we were the only tourists there. It was an afternoon of neighborhood live music and dancing. Couples, in what appeared an age group from fifties to eighties, were out for music, dance and romance.
We were conspicuously out of place and obviously intruding on an exclusive neighborhood event. I almost could not bring myself to raise a camera for fear of being rude, but I took a few shots.
It was delightful to see such authentic emotion from the city’s personality. The endearing expressions on the couples’ faces while dancing, the way they were dressed and carried themselves, and the dignified choreography of the whole affair was awesome to see.
The bright, tropical sun sporadically penetrated the canopy of trees and illuminated the scene on the dance floor . . . such interesting characters, all with penetrating eyes catching a glance with me now and then, with a smile.
It was a display of Latin art, culture and family of the finest kind . . . and as gringos “fresh off the bus” we just stumbled right upon it. Basically, it took less than thirty minutes for my Mérida expectations to be fulfilled . . . it was awesome.
Here are some photos:
It’s hard to describe but so obvious to see. Latinos have a phenomenal ability to be simultaneously dignified and whimsical. It is, in itself, an art of the highest form if you ask me.
After watching a few dances and enjoying being “flies on the wall” and taking in the dynamics of a totally non-tourist experience, we wandered off toward the Cathedral and the old city plaza.
We asked many questions about safety and security before leaving the hotel, and we were very happy that the area really is actually safe in the usual "big city" sense. Like New Orleans and Cartagena, Mérida is yet another “Big Easy” where we felt instantly at ease.
There were no admonitions against walking the streets, even after sunset. Also, just like in Isla Mujeres and Cancun, I did not notice one single shotgun or armed guard, even at ATM machines and banks.
Here are some street scenes on the way to the main square:
We were hungry and stopped for a late lunch. Sitting outside at tables with nice umbrellas we watched the Sunday afternoon comings and goings of locals and tourists alike.
After lunch, it was on to the main plaza . . . a whole city block that is surrounded by amazing, historical structures including the old Cathedral, the Governor’s Palace, Independence Hall, and Montejo’s House that dates back to 1540. Built by the Montejo family, the original structure covered an entire block.
All that remains of the original Montejo house is an original façade that is the finest example of "Plateresque" architecture in Mexico. It is an amazing piece of artwork that depicts the Spanish Conquest of the Mayan Civilization and includes images such as Captains standing on the heads of their conquered. It really is unlike anything else we have seen in Latin America
And, of course the Cathedral is grand. The layout of the block is as follows: the Cathedral is situated across the plaza from the Independence Hall. On the other two sides of the plaza the Montejo’s house lies across the plaza from the Governor’s Palace. So, those four structures form the square around a huge park and plaza that includes fountains, trees and all sorts of statues and the like.
Of course, there are horse drawn carriage rides available here, just like Cartagena and New Orleans, the clippity-clop of horses’ hoofs are part of the city’s “soundscape.”
Just down the street, only a few blocks from the plaza is the Universidad de Yucatan. So, add a vibrant college scene to the mix of old Mérida and it’s all that much more engaging. We poked our heads into the courtyard of the college and were immediately greeted by a student who wanted to practice some English.
While we were strolling around, we noticed that there was something big going on over by the Independence Hall. There were large canopies stretching across the street and the street was blocked off. Rows and rows of folding chairs were set out, and bleachers faced the Hall from across the street.
WOW! They are dancing! It’s a Mexican favorite called El Vals de la Escoba which translates into “the dance of the broom.”
It’s great! All you need is: 1) six handsome muchachos, well-dressed with matching western apparel of cowboy boots, jeans, western shirts and hats, 2) five beautiful senoritas in matching western style laced-dresses; and 3) an old broom.
This is how it works: the six men and five women each form a line-up facing each other. On the signal, they men run to take a dance partner and there will be one odd man out. He then has to pick up and dance with the broom for a minute or two.
Then, for the next dance the couples line up again, except that the fellow who got the broom keeps it and sweeps the pavement in between the two rows of re-aligned dancers.
At his whim and without warning, the broom dancer throws the broom down and runs for a girl and that signals all of the boys to run again too, leaving a new odd man out, who dances with the broom until the next cycle.
It is so unexpectedly entertaining.
It has all the elements of competition, romance, and humor. It’s the “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” but with such a fabulous romantic twist. Also, to see the young man dancing with the broom adds a Cinderella class-wars aspect that surely must be very appealing in the Latin culture . . . to be left dancing with only a broom and "dreaming" of instead being in the arms of a Senorita!
As it turns out, the city of Mérida likes having this party every Sunday! You see the banner in the photos above that says “Mérida en Domingo” (Mérida on Sunday), and features the images of dancers. Yes, they do this every week, and the broom dance is but one feature of an afternoon dance festival.
It is indicative of the high level of culture here as opposed to some Central American countries. Most “dance exhibitions” in poor Latin American counties are events sponsored by beer companies that trot out and sexy young girls who writhe around in hot pants and tight t- shirts while the local guys leer and drink the beer. I guess that is a “cultural” event too, but not the kind that indicates any contribution whatsoever to the arts.
In short, we were in heaven to be immersed in such an epicenter for art and culture. There is a fabulous vibe that you can feel in any community that supports art and education. We were tuned-in and turned-on . . . and loving it!
Now, back to our tour of the old city!
The entire plaza area at the Cathedral is a fine destination to spend an hour or the whole day. Locals can be heard chattering while lounging on the park benches. Couples hold hands and spend romantic time. Children run and play as all children do. And, a new activity: young people surf the wireless internet on laptop computers . . . an odd sight indeed in such an ancient setting.
Here are some images of old Mérida’s central plaza:
Well, we have now seen the Cathedral, the Montejo House, and the Independence Hall, that leaves the Governor’s Palace to complete the block that surrounds and faces the plaza.
The Palace is quite regal and most notably includes a courtyard wherein very large murals have been painted on opposing the walls of the first and second floor balconies.
The artworks were painted by famed Fernando Castro Pacheco and include motifs such as the social evolution of man in the Yucatan.
Here is a look around:
You are probably getting the feeling that Mérida is one big “artistic canvas” and that is true.
If you know anything about Mexico’s famous artists, then you surely know who Diego Rivera is, not to mention his wife, Frida Khalo, a very famous artist in her own right.
Diego Rivera is the famous muralist who studied in Mexico and ultimately took his talents (or perhaps his talents took him) to Europe in the early 1900’s.
Rivera had exhibitions in Paris, Madrid and New York City. By the 1920’s he returned to Mexico and was commissioned by the Mexican government to paint huge murals that focused on Rivera’s communist political views. However controversial his political views were, one thing was not debatable: his talent as an artist.
Adding even more sparks to the story of his life, Rivera married Frida Kahlo who was twenty years younger. Married initially in 1929, Frida divorced Diego in 1939 for his notorious infidelities (he had an appetite for sleeping with nudes who posed for him). Despite Diego’s famous indiscretions, Frida remarried Diego later in life.
Captured in the motion picture “Frida”, starring Selma Hayek, their high-amperage relationship was to become as famous as their artwork . . . wild, turbulent, passionate and wholly unconventional.
Diego’s artwork caused a stir in the U.S.A. when, in the 1930’s, he painted a mural at the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan . . . it included a portrait of Communist Party leader Lenin. It got Diego fired and the mural was destroyed.
In the 1940’s Diego painted a mural in Mexico that included the phrase "God does not exist" and the mural was covered up and kept out of the public’s view for nine years.
Basically, Rivera is one of the most influential artists in the history of the Americas and one of Mexico's most beloved painters.
You can see original works by both Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo in the fine arts museum of Mérida. And more: there are unusual displays of many types of art. It’s a center pulsating with some of the better art displays we found in Latin America.
Here are a few images:
Wow, there is so much to do and see! It can take a lot out of you and at some certain moment you will want to go back to your hotel and relax. Maybe take a swim and have a nap.
There are scores of small, independent hotels and some are spectacularly luxurious (and price accordingly . . . one was over $300. 00 per night).
We stayed in a mid-quality hotel and enjoyed it immensely, especially the long hot showers with lots of water pressure and no need to conserve water. After you live on a boat for five years and either have to “make” or “go get” water and have only 150 gallons maximum “in stock” at any given time, finding yourself in a location where water just comes out of the shower “forever” . . . well, it is as if you have died and gone to heaven.
I also enjoyed a traditional Mexican breakfast that was included in the price of the room. It was very unusual: two tortillas, one topped with a fried egg over beans, with the second tortilla on top of all that and covered with green peas, bits of ham, and cheese. It looked kind of scary, but I was begging for another one the next day! It was a fabulous breakfast.
Much like Cartagena, luxury hotels in Mérida are situated in old residences with inner courtyards, all located right in the heart of the old city.
We decided we wanted to see more of Mérida than was possible by foot. So, we waited for a sunny day and took a double-decker tour bus ride to see many of the sights including miles and miles of old mansions situated on the Boulevard Paseo Montejo.
Also, the famous and intricately ornate “Monument to the Fatherland” is located on the Paseo Montejo.
So, hey, grab the sunscreen and let’s go!
We had a wonderful time in Mérida. It is securely on the “go back there one day” list. A perfect hub to explore the Yucatan, we would like to return and see more. Probably not by boat, because Isla Mujeres is so far from anywhere else we would ever return to via sailboat, but we would surely consider flying into the Yucatan and foresee spending a lot more time in the region one day.
But as to this particular trip, our time was getting short. Or next Indigo Moon voyaging mission was to cross over the Yucatan Channel to the Florida Keys and be in Key West for the Christmas Holidays!
But, before departing Mérida and heading back to Isla Mujeres and readying Indigo Moon for that fabulous “homecoming” crossing, we wanted to visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Famous for some of the most ornately carved Mayan structures it is a very popular landmark of the ancient Mayan world.
There are also much smaller ruins right on the northern coast of the Yucatan at Tulum, but we would not be able to fit that in. Reports are that the ruins at Tulum are not very impressive, but it is the allure of seeing them situated directly upon the seashore and adjacent to brilliant turquoise waters that makes them unique.
Anyway, here is the plan: we’ll check out of the hotel in Mérida very early, catch a tour bus to Chichen Itza and spend the whole day. We’ll catch the last bus from Chichen Itza to Cancun and then hop the ferry at night to Isla Mujeres and take a taxi the last two miles to the marina. It will be a long, adventurous day!
VI. Maya Ruins at Chichen Itza
Before we arrive at Chichen Itza, we need to read up a little on the ruins and get calibrated with its history, lest we settle for being merely “t-shirt-shopping rubes” passing through.
There is a “mountain” of information about the ruins, so I’ll try and condense some of the reams of descriptions on wikipedia:
The Maya name "Chich'en Itza" means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza." The name is believed to derive from the Maya word “itz”, meaning "magic," and “(h)á” meaning "water." Northern Yucatán is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground.
Natural sink holes, called cenotes provided water at Chichen Itza and one of them, the "Cenote Sagrado" (sacred cenote), was used in pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed that included objects and human beings being thrown into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god “Chaac.”
Explorer Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery and incense, as well as human remains evidencing wounds consistent with human sacrifice.
Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence in roughly 600 AD and roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands, such as Tikal in Guatemala. Archaeological data indicates that Chichen Itza fell around AD 1000.
While Chichén Itzá “collapsed” (meaning elite activities ceased and the site rapidly depopulated) it does not appear to have been completely abandoned.
In 1526, Conquistador Francisco de Montejo successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán.
His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort just south of where Cancun stands today.
Motejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and took Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.
Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers.
The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived.
Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining forces. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.
Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.
The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings are connected by a dense network of formerly paved roads. Archaeologists have found that almost 100 such roads crisscrossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city.
Tourism has been a factor at Chichen Itza for more than a century. In 1972, Mexico enacted the Ley Federal Sobre Monumentos y Zonas Arqueológicas, Artísticas e Históricas (Federal Law over Monuments and Archeological, Artistic and Historic Sites) that put all the nation's pre-Columbian monuments, including those at Chichen Itza, under federal ownership.
In the 1980s, Chichen Itza began to receive an influx of visitors. Now, each year on the equinox, a crowd of thousands gathers to witness the light-and-shadow effect on the Temple of Kukulcan. The alignment of the heavens during the equinox produce shadows and light that allegedly cause the image of a feathered serpent god that can supposedly be seen to crawl down the side of the pyramid.
Chichen Itza is the second-most visited of Mexico's archaeological sites and, in 2007, Chichen Itza's El Castillo was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World after a worldwide vote.
Despite the fact that the vote was sponsored by a commercial enterprise, and that its methodology was criticized, the vote was embraced by government and tourism officials in Mexico who project that, as a result of the publicity, the number of tourists visiting Chichen Itza will double by 2012.
Over the past several years, INAH, which manages the site, has been closing monuments to public access. While visitors can walk around them, they can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers. These closures became more prevalent after a San Diego, Calif., woman fell to her death from one of the ruins in 2006.
Okay! There a LOT more to know, but we need to get going of we are going to see Chichen Itza and get back to Isla Mujeras before midnight!
Here is the photo journal:
Wow, this place is the opposite of the Maya ruins at Tikal in Guatemala! At Tikal, there were no vendors and you really did not see many other people on the trails. Here, at Chichen Itza, it’s like Disney World: chock-a-block with people and trinkets for sale every ten feet of the way!
Also, at Tikal we were able to climb on all the temples and monuments and there were hardly any restrictions. It is easy to see why those rules are necessary at Chichen Itza, with crowds that would mob and probably damage the ruins by simply putting too much pressure on them.
But, what the ruins at Chichen Itza lacked in solitude and intimacy, they certainly made up for it in grandeur, ornamental detail and interesting history.
At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding plant.
This is a good place to introduce more-specific information about these ball games. Derived from wikipedia, here is an overview of the Mesoamerican ballgame:
Archeologists and historians estimate that the ritualistic sport known as the “Mesoamerican ballgame” was played upon sacred ballcourts for a period of over 3000 years by the pre-Colombian and Maya peoples of Mesoamerica.
These ancient ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as far south as Nicaragua and even possibly as far north as the State of Arizona. The ballcourts vary considerably in size, but are of the same design that provides a long alley with high-sided walls against which a ball would ricochet back into the field of play.
The precise rules of the ballgame are not known, but scholars envision the rules were similar to raquetball or volleyball wherein the aim is to keep the ball in play.
In the most widespread version of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips.
The ball was made of heavy solid rubber. Ball sizes differed greatly over time or according to the version played, but the heaviest and largest are estimated to have weighed over nine pounds.
There were different versions of the games. In the hip-ball version, most popularly considered the purest form of the game, researchers believe that the event took place within ballcourts with masoney walls. Archaeological evidence also points toward games where the ball was struck by either wooden sticks, bats, batons, handstones, and the forearm, perhaps at times in combination. The various types of games each had its own size of ball, specialized gear and playing field, and rules.
Human sacrifice, particularly decapitation, is associated with the ballgame – severed heads are featured in much Late Classic ballgame art. There has even been speculation that the heads and skulls were used as balls in extreme cases.
Even without human sacrifice, the game could be brutal and there were often serious injuries inflicted by the solid, heavy ball. Modern day players of the game (now known as “ulama” games) strike the balls with their hips and are "perpetually bruised."
Spanish records from 500 years ago Spanish indicate that routine bruises from the game were so severe that they had to be lanced from time to time and that players were even killed occasionally when the ball "hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines".
In modern-day ulama games, each team is confined to one half of the court. The ball is volleyed back and forth using the hips alone until one team fails to return it or the ball leaves the court.
The Maya began placing vertical stone rings on each side of the court, the object being to pass the ball through one. In the sixteenth-century Aztec ballgame, that the Spaniards witnessed, points were lost by a player who let the ball bounce more than twice before returning it to the other team, who let the ball go outside the boundaries of the court, or who tried and failed to pass the ball through one of the stone rings placed on each wall along the center line.
Points were gained if the ball hit the opposite end wall, while the decisive victory was reserved for the team that put the ball through a ring. However, placing the ball through the ring was a rare event—the rings at Chichen Itza, for example, are set 6 meters off the playing field—and most games were likely won on points.
With that overview of the ballgame in place, let’s get back to the trip report and see more of Chichen Itza!
We had a great day: the weather was perfect, it was an impressive attraction, and it was a carefree environment. But, after seeing the remote ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, Chichen Itza was so commercial and so crowded . . . it hardly seemed authentic at times.
It was much more like we had just been to well-done Disneyland or a Busch Gardens attraction: surely very fun, impressive, and worth the trip, but not nearly as thought-provoking, spiritual and mysterious as was our visit to Tikal.
It was a wonderful experience nonetheless and it was time to head out on our bus ride back to the Caribbean coast.
We had a nice trip back to Cancun, all while quietly reflecting on our inland journey.
The sky to the west went ablaze with the last bit of setting sun and we soon found ourselves zooming through darkness. Only an occasional oncoming vehicle’s lights would break the ink-black darkness of the Yucatan's countryside.
Then, unpredictably, the blackness would be interrupted now and then by our rolling through a small town, where we made momentary stops at bus stations.
Passing slowly through these little towns in the early evening, we could see into homes through wide-open front doors and windows gladly inviting the cooling night air into living rooms that had been heated all day under the scorching tropical sun . . . the glow of televisions and soft yellow glow of lamps revealed the inner features of these homes and their occupants too, curiously giving me the feeling that they were intentionally illuminated displays of Mexican culture to be purposefully shared.
And then, just as quickly as those small-town scenes appeared, they were gone again . . . and we would again zoom through the pefect blackness of the countryside.
I drifted off in peaceful thought the same way I did as a child on late night automobile trips home after some memorable sunny day . . . laying back and drifting away in my thoughts as I looked out upon features and non-features of the night, all magically streaming by. And soon I was asleep for a time.
A awoke to reality again in modern Cancun, and I soon found myself at its ferry terminal, where we waited on the next ferry to Isla Mujeres. Once aboard the ferry, it was only fifteen minutes later that we were back on Isla Mujeres and took a short, five minute cab ride to the marina.
We again marveled at how convenient and accessible all this modern and luxurious travel is in the Mexican Yucatan. In fact, the next day we had serious discussions about staying at Isla Mujeres for a whole year and waiting until the following November to return to the U.S.A. We really liked it that much.
But, after three years in the Third World, we were keenly aware that the U.S.A. was “just right there” north of us . . . and it was a powerful magnet that simply could not be resisted. In fact, truth be told, we were excited beyond description about the prospect of being back in the land of boat parts, FedEx, VHF weather reports, Coast Guard assistance, top medical facilities, Rule of Law, clean drinking water, high quality food, English speaking people, and a thousand other things that we had come to miss in the Caribbean.
So, with our inland travel complete, we made ready to head to sea for the passage between Isla Mujeres, Mexico and Key West, Florida.
The timing of our passage fell in such a way that it made sense to enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner at Isla Mujeres and then head to sea before dark on Thanksgiving Day. Such is the unconventional life of a cruiser.
VII. Fun, Food, Fellowship, and Thanksgiving at Isla Mujeres
We had a lot of fun with our cruising friends at Isla Mujeres.
One evening we had a nice “Last Supper” in the Third World with the crews of catamarans Evensong and Neos.
There are really good restaurants on Isla Mujeres and we all decided to go out and have a nice meal to say goodbye. Roger and Sue were heading out on Neos before Thanksgiving . . . they were on a mission to be in the Bahamas for Christmas.
Sue and Steve on Evensong were planning on “buddy boating” with us to Key West and spending time there before moving up the west coast of Florida to the Ft. Myers area.
As for us, we planned to stay in Key West a long, long time and really enjoy that area that we love so much.
Anyway, we had a wonderful evening with our friends from Neos and Evensong wherein we reminisced about all our adventures together.
Roger and Sue went to seas the next day.
We decided to wait for the weather to get a little calmer, and, in fact, the way the weather window was shaping up, the best day to leave was going to be Thanksgiving.
Tom, the marina manager went out of his way to cook a Thanksgiving ham and turkey, and cruisers brought side dishes. I made a spicy Spinach and pepperjack cheese casserole that is always a hit, and Melissa made pecan pies and deviled eggs.
We had a nice meal and then stood up, walked back to Indigo Moon and cranked her up, loosed lines, and made for sea! It was not your typical Thanksgiving!
While most folks are napping in their Lazy Boy recliner and watching football, we were heading out into some of the most notoriously confused seas (more on that later).
Let’s get back to Thanksgiving Dinner.
During our stay at Isla Mujeres, we met new friends Bob and Janice Ross, missionaries headed for Guatemala. Naturally, they had heard about, and were very concerned about, the piracy incidents and murder that had just occurred on the Rio Dulce a few months earlier. They wanted all of the advice and information we, and all the other cruisers who had been on the Rio Dulce that year, could offer.
I spent quite a bit of time with Bob over the days we were all in Isla Mujeres, encouraging him that they would be fine as long as they followed good, rational advice, accepted that going to a marina with armed guards was the responsible choice, and did not take unnecessary chances or underestimate the need to be vigilant and responsible for their own safety.
In fact, I still had my TIGO cell phone from Guatemala, complete with important numbers in the phone’s memory. I gave Bob the phone as a gift, along with some additional time cards I had purchased and never used.
I also provided Bob with waypoints I used to get across the shallows at the mouth of the Rio Dulce.
The last time we saw Bob and Janice was at Thanksgiving dinner at the Marina Pariaso. Bob said a nice blessing over dinner, and included prayers for the safe passage of Indigo Moon and Evensong to Key West. They were really nice people, focused on trying to make a difference amidst the severe poverty that plagues Guatemala.
It is heartbreaking that we eventually came to learn that nine months later, on September 2, 2009, Bob and Janice were both killed in a head-on car collision near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Although we obviously did not know them well, it was still crushing news and such a terribly unacceptable end to their generous efforts to try and help the poor and disadvantaged of Guatemala.
It was with heavy heart that we had to add Bob and Janice to the list of cruisers we have met who subsequently lost their lives during their adventures. These tragedies always underscore the precariousness of earthly life and the fact that none of us know what will happen next. We look back on our brief time with Bob and Janice and are thankful we got to meet them. They were very sweet people and I am sure they are terribly missed by friends and family.
With all our goodbyes said and with our weather window’s time ticking away, we did not waste any time getting away from the dock on Thanksgiving afternoon.
In fact, I think Steve already had their Manta 42 catamaran’s engines running and only one dock line on! Their getaway was so fast it seemed like they ran down the dock and jumped onto Evensong while she was already moving!
By the time Melissa and I got untied and underway, Evensong was already two miles ahead of us. Both vessels had two days of offshore work ahead of them and a distance of about 350 nautical miles to cover before making landfall in Key West.
VIII. Passage from Isla Mujeres to Key West
The first thing you need to know is that this is yet another one-of-a-kind passage because it requires crossing the Yucatan Channel. Through this narrow one-hundred-mile-wide straight, all of the currents and waters from the Caribbean Sea flow north into the Gulf of Mexico and continue on between the straights between Cuba and Florida, creating the super-powerful Gulf Stream that sends currents of up to four knots up the east coast of Florida and the Carolinas and then out northeastward across the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Europe.
As you can see, through the relative narrows of this channel, a tremendous volume and velocity of water flow occurs. And with any such current comes turbulence. Even when the winds are zero and it is dead-calm glass-flat, the waters in the Yucatan Channel can still render a “washing machine” ride of confused seas and current-induced turbulence ripping the sea surface into a perpetual obstacle course.
Considering our departure from Isla Mujeres will be at about 15:00 that means we will hit the mainstream currents after dark. That always adds to the excitement. Melissa and I always remark about how sometimes it can be really good to see what’s going on, and sometimes it is better NOT to see what’s going on.
Oh, another thing too: there is quite a bit of fast-moving ship and fishing vessel traffic in the Yucatan Channel.
Finally, there’s the “Cuba factor” and one must decide how close they are willing to pass by Cuba. A straight rhumb line from Isla Mujeres to Key West put me a little too close for comfort to Cuba. From all that I read, I decided it would be prudent to stay a minimum of thirty miles off the coast of Cuba.
So, I used the Dry Tortugas, the very westernmost island in the Florida Keys chain (uninhabited except for Park Rangers at Fort Jefferson) as a waypoint. We had even talked about stopping there first, but a strong cold front, a “Norther” was coming in three days and we would make the call while underway later in the passage on whether to stop at the Dry Tortugas, when the weather forecast would be more certain.
As we made way around the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, it was a “tip-of-the-hat” to the Caribbean and a bittersweet moment wherein we were absolutely ecstatic about having our bows pointed at the First-World yet sad to be leaving the "tropics proper" in our wake.
Steve on Evensong went his own way. He always does.
By nightfall, we were out of sight of each other, but I still had him on radar. At about 20:00 hours, I giggled while listening to Steve use the VHF to try and get a fishing trawler to respond. The trawler was obviously on a collision course with Steve and he was putting his cutting Massachusetts accent to work trying to get the other vessel’s attention.
It’s funny and not funny. Of course we don’t ever want our comrades to get into real trouble, but after cruising all these years, it does become a form of monotony-breaking entertainment on passages to hear one of your buddies “going at it” on the VHF radio now and then with the inconsiderate or dangerous captain of another vessel. And yes, in case you are wondering, I have provided more than my fair share of the entertainmen. But not tonight. It's Steve's turn.
Steve had numerous exchanges with some effing moron running a fishing trawler who kept promising to maintain course and speed but did not, evermore placing the vessels on a certain collision course. Steve managed to avoid the guy. But there were a few “words” in the process.
Steve decided to shave some miles by going closer to Cuba and soon we were out of radar contact. By the next day we were out of VHF radio range as well.
As the sun rose after the first night, things were going well for us. We were still making great time and, despite the very confused seas, we were managing to enjoy the passage.
Night number two would not be so easy. As the sun set, the winds were picking up and the seas were getting nastier and more confused still. We were picking up the Gulf Stream and hitting some turbulence that was not providing a fun ride at all.
It was at some point that second night that I got into radio range and picked up NOAA weather radio on the VHF and began listening to the weather forecasts. It was absolutely spellbinding! To be honest, I had forgotten about it being available and switched the radio over to the weather frequencies and there it was!
I had not heard the NOAA VHF weather radio for three years in the Caribbean, where, down there you can get weather from emails or the internet if you have a signal . . . but immediate, real time, 24/7 weather information right over the VHF . . . well that’s just nuts! It’s awesome!
I caught myself giggling like a kid entering Disneyland. How cool it was to be coming home to discover it all anew . . . a service that we totally took for granted before we left the U.S.A. was now remarkable in the extreme.
And while I was totally in awe and appreciative of the NOAA weather radio, I was not, however, liking the weather forecast broadcast that was coming in over it. An exceptionally strong cold front was due to hit the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys within the next 36 hours and the winds would remain very strong with high seas for several days.
As such, I decided to head straight to Key West, especially considering the complications of re-entering U.S. waters and being required to check in with Customs and Boarder Patrol (C.B.P.) officials within a certain time frame.
We had hoped the weather would hold and that we could stop in the Dry Tortugas and get a good night’s sleep before continuing in to Key West, but this weather system would pin us down there for several days, if not a whole week, if we stopped. That would mean re-entering U.S. waters from a foreign country and taking way too long before checking in.
We have read about horror stories from some cruisers who were hassled by C.B.P. upon returning from the Third World and we did not want to invite trouble or have any “explaining to do.” So, considering the immediately impending severe frontal system, it was a “no brainer” to head straight for Key West.
As the morning light came up, we began to hear more and more radio chatter. We decided to duck inside the reef once we got past the Dry Tortugas. By so doing we could finally enjoy calmer waters. That was a mistake.
We had been gone from Florida long enough for me to stupidly forget the severe gauntlet of crab and lobster floats that we would encounter inside the reef.
What a bummer! Crab and lobster trap floats prevent you from using the autopilot and they require constant steering adjustments to avoid snagging a float (and the float's line) in propellers and rudders . . . and constant steering is NOT what someone wants to deal with after two nights and day in the Yucatan Channel and the Gulf Stream!
Like all passage tasks, there was no use complaining about it. We sucked it up, persevered, and kept going. In fact that is the entire essence of cruising sometimes: persevere and keep going.
Ah, I hear Evensong on the radio! They are still on the outside of the reef. We were able to chat and we caught up on what our routes had been and where we were currently. Our routes could not have been any different, yet after 350 miles we were only five miles apart when we got to Key West! That’s pretty amazing.
Very soon we would be passing in front of Mallory Square in Key West. It was surreal. We kept laughing and grinning and talking about all our favorite places in Key West and how cool it was to finally be there on our own boat!
We continued on north to go around the tip of Fleming Key. There is a channel around the northern end of the key that continues down the western side of the key to a huge mooring field: the Garrison Bight City Mooring Field that contains well over two hundred moorings.
Gee, it was all too much. All I could think about was getting checked in and going ashore to a really good restaurant. During the passage, I had developed a terrible sore throat. I knew that with a throat infection this severe, I would soon have a "monster" cold that would prevent me from tasting anything good, so by sundown I wanted a great meal in my stomach and some First World cold and flu medicine in the medicine cabinet.
I remembered that while checking out of Isla Mujeres, a very taciturn and very sick Port Captain Official made me stay in his hot, dank office for an hour. He coughed on me, wiped his nose on his hand, and made me take forms and fill them out for what seemed all afternoon. So, I guess, he was feeling better now that he gave the bug to me.
Anyway, we made it in and picked up a mooring very close to Evensong. Steve already had a cell phone that worked and he came over and let me borrow it to call the Customs and Boarder Patrol.
Now listen up! This is very important.
There is a C.B.P. credential that is available to boaters called the “Local Boaters Option” and we had heard about it way back the in the U.S. Virgin Islands and applied for it there. You go into Customs and fill out forms and submit all required information and you, as a person, are issued a serial number written on a credit card-like credential.
Both Melissa and I have the Local Boater Option cards. We got them at Cruz Bay in St. John, because we were tired of the checking in and out when just going to the neighboring British Virgin Islands and then having to re-appear in person at Cruz Bay to check back into the U.S.V.I. every time.
This is the purpose of the card: all you do is call Customs, give them your Local Boater Card number, tell them you are back in U.S. waters and where you are and that’s it! You don’t go to any office and they don’t need anything further.
Steve lent me his cell phone, and, right from my boat, I called the number and gave the official the Local Boater Option numbers for Melissa and me and there were a few clicks on a keyboard and the officer said: “Okay! You’re all done! Welcome home! Welcome back to the U.S.A.”
How awesome is that? In about one minute, over the phone, we were checked back into the U.S.A., vessel included. It’s phenomenal. If you don’t have the card, you have to physically appear at the Customs Office and I hear reports that there is an occasional “Barney Fife” there who may want to inspect your vessel, or otherwise give you a hard time if you have been out of the U.S.A. So, the Local Boater Option is the way to go!
Alright! It’s time to hit the Bight and grab a bite. There are many great eateries in Key West but we wanted to hang out down in the old harbor at the Key West Bight and feel the ambiance we were so longing for.
Turtle Krals restaurant had just been refurbished and looked great. I ordered a full rack of baby back ribs, and I tell you, it was the best thing I put in my mouth in a LONG time. Soon after the first bite it dawned on me that other people in the restaurant were staring! I was like a wild animal, eating with both hands!
I had to calm it down a little and try to remember my table manners and not become too emotional about it all.
After finishing a great meal, we wandered down Duvall Street and to the Walgreens where I almost again fell to my knees with emotion: an array of top quality cold and flu medicines that I had not come across in over three years.
It is obscene, that’s what it is. I had not been in Key West more than four hours and it had already struck me as to why people risk everything to come to America!
And more “spiritual” experiences: sidewalks so nice, you can look up while walking on them without literally risking your life.
It really was a priceless experience to see Key West after being gone so long and getting numb to the low living standards of the Third World. It’s enough to have changed my perspective permanently.
And Boy, Oh Boy! I would need that quality cold medicine! By the next day I was feeling very poorly and then that weather front moved in too!
A ferocious front it was, with one of the scariest cloud banks I’d seen in years. When it hit, the winds in the mooring field went to 47 knots as the leading edge of the storm blew through.
It took a while for things to settle down, but after a few days, the skies cleared and the sun came out again.
As the weather improved, however, I felt much worse. I was coughing, sneezing, moaning, and lived in my P.J.’s for a week. It was so bad that a horrible cough would wake me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night.
I did manage to update one of our planning charts, showing our route all the way around the Caribbean.
All that was left was the short hop from Key West to Marathon to close the circle of an entire “circumnavigation” of the entire Caribbean!
My illness turned into a terrible respiratory infection and was obviously due to a regional viral strain in Mexico we were not used to and had no immunity at all. Soon Melissa had it too! We were very ill for two weeks.
On top of that, the weather front brought temperatures that were unusually cold for the Keys. For about a week there, we did not know if we would make it! We were sick and cold and I managed to take the dinghy in and hobble to the store and get more medicine still.
Being sick on a boat is just plain terrible and the inconveniences of everyday life, like having to drop down the dinghy and go to shore and then walk to the store become epic "life and death struggles" of pain and misery. One asks the question: what would be better, laying here on the boat and just dying, or going through all that hell to go get medicine? Luckily, I decided not to lie down and die. But it was nonetheless an awful, unforgettably miserable episode for sure.
Slowly the weather warmed, and our respiratory infections made the turn toward recovery.
In fact, I’m exhausted just remembering it and this is a good time to take a break. I’ll let my remembrances heal up the rest of the way and start the next trip log after we are rejuvenated and ready to show you why we love Key West so much!
In our next report, we will tour Key West and then we will head to Marathon for a reunion with great friends! We’ll enjoy a “Caribbean circumnavigation party” thrown just for us . . . a great time we'll never forget!
So, stay tuned! There’s still much more to come!
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