Friday, 29 March 2013

Colonial Charm & Mystical Mayans ….. Mar 2013

Touring the Yucatan Peninsula – Part One:  07 – 15 March 2013

P3080018Isla Mujeres to Chichen Itza

We decided on a mid morning departure from Balvenie to start our weeks adventure touring the Yucatan Peninsular.  This meant that we would have the afternoon to travel from Cancun to Chichen Itza and then also have the morning on our last day to get our hire car back, perfect. 

Without a map of Cancun we had an interesting time getting on the right road.  Driving down 3 and 4 lane roads without any lane markings certainly kept us alert, but soon enough we left the hustle and bustle behind and moved into rural Mexico.P3080054  The roads were straight and flat, the countryside covered in scrubby bush and this was to be our view over the next 7 days with little variation, not unpleasant but somewhat monotonous.     The small villages enroute were very modest, but most were clean and cared for. 

We arrived in Piste, the closest town to Chichen Itza, late afternoon.  Considering the thousands of tourists that visit this major Mayan site every year it seems Piste has done little to make itself attractive to the passing hoards.  We stayed a couple of miles out of town at the Hotel Dolores Alba and decided to wait for the cool of the early morning to explore the ruins.  We drove to get our tickets for the evening Sound and Light show, but no, it would not be on tonight, we lost in translation the reason why not!

P3080062   P3080064  

We were at the ruins by 9am, just one coach and 8 other cars in the car park.  We walked into the ruins with hardly another soul insight, the main showpiece of El Castillo stood prominent and bold in front of us, this ancient stone pyramid rising proudly to the sky.









We spent nearly three hours wandering through the grounds,P3080068 wondering what it was like when the Mayans first started to settle here and build these outstanding structures around 600AD and what mysterious circumstances then transpired to see them abandon this amazing location in the 14th century.        

By the time we left the crowds were gathering in force,  several tour groups were on the move – follow the red umbrella for one, the orange sombrero for another - tour guides rattled off history lessons in several languages, cameras snapped away, videos whirred.  We were glad of our early start.   Hundreds (yes actually hundreds) of souvenir stalls had set up within the grounds selling some seriously tacky products, the hawkers hounded us as we ran the gauntlet past them.  The variety was limited, the quality poor, the vendors desperate – too many people trying to eek a living by selling the same things.  Tourism is big business but there were no signs of anyone getting rich from it here.P3080040 

Chichen Itza to Izamal

We left Chichen Itza behind us in the dust and headed west, intended destination Izamal.  We continued on the local road in preference to the toll road, but somehow we missed the turning to Izamal and ended up of the 2 lane highway, whoops.  Eventually we did find an exit and decided to retrace our steps and visit Izamal, it was worth the extra miles.P3080081 

Just a small town , nicknamed the Yellow City (easy to see why when you look at the photos), Izamal really did display ample colonial charm.  There were large treed central plazas on two sides of the cathedral, handsome buildings were set back with overhanging colonnaded sidewalks, just a couple of cafes plied for our custom (not quite European!!) and pony and traps awaited the few tourists.

This once was a major Mayan centre of worship, then along came the Spanish who conquered all, most of the Mayans were killed or put into slavery,P3080070 their buildings were dismantled and up popped the Spanish alternatives, stones already pre-cut, how convenient!  One pyramid remains, albeit in rather a sad state of repair, but it is free to enter and we were even allowed to climb it so up we went, the view was excellent, you could see flat lands for miles and miles.  We stayed the night at San Miguel Arcangel Hotel a delightful hotel set in the corner of the main square, it even had some Mayan ruins in the garden, a great choice.

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beaten up Beetles and mellow yellow IzamalP3090098

Izamal to Uxmal

Next morning we took to the road again, this time we got adventurous and took the highway and ring road around the large city of Merida, somehow we succeeded in getting in the correct lanes amidst some somewhat dodgy Mexican driving! 

We headed south on the “Hacienda Trail” but didn’t have a good success rate in visiting a hacienda.  P3090093We never found the first, the second was closed, didn’t spot another and then we  lost interest.  The henequen plant is a huge part of the Yucatan peninsulas latter history, sisal was made from the plant and supplied a huge portion of the worlds rope requirements until synthetics came on the market late last century.  This major industry then fell into rapid decline and just a couple of haciendas still operate as tourist attractions and small hotels, the remainder are crumbling into this dry, dusty and unforgiving landscape.

Next on the sightseeing itinerary was Grutas de Loltun, the largest cave system on the Yucatan Peninsular.  We hooked into an obligatory tour which lasted an hour, nice and cool underground, certainly an attraction when its 45c outside in summer.  Habitation of these caves dates back around 2500 years so very old for these parts. P3090102

The area around the caves is called the Ruta Puuc, it is littered with Mayan sites mainly small settlements with the exception of Uxmal, the jewel in the crown.  We passed a few, some could even be seen well from the road, The Palace of Masks at Kabah looked impressive even from the car park.

We found the The Pickled Onion B&B on the outskirts of Santa Elena, an oasis in the scrubby desert.  We stayed in a beautifully appointed cabana set in well cared for grounds and had the best meal so far in Mexico, excellent choice. P3090114   

It had been a long hot day but there was still more to see.  We drove to Uxmal for the evening Sound and Light show, unlike Chichen Itza this one was still operating and it played to an almost full crowd.  

The informative narrative told of a history of peace, war and battling the elements – not much has changed over the millenniums.  Historians believe Uxmal was finally deserted after prolonged drought and the jungle reclaimed the land.


More Colonial Charm and Mystical Mayans to follow soon

Friday, 22 March 2013

Time to Taste the Tequila ….. Feb/March 2013

27 Feb – 06 March 2013:  Isla Mujeres, Caribbean Mexico


Where did all these people come from?

Arriving in Isla Mujeres after weeks in sleepy uncrowded Belize has been a major assault on our senses.  This small, low lying island is about 10 miles off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula..  In the distance high-rise hotels line the long white sandy beaches of tourist laden Cancun on the mainland, that is where the bulk of the tourists stay.  However 100’s do the “island adventure” outing and pile off the regular ferries into the small town here daily – they get to fry on the beaches, eat in the cafes and stroll through an endless number of souvenir shops all selling the same things. P3220012 Few make it past the main streets and don’t get to glimpse the real Mexico – just a couple of blocks inland.

The anchorage here lies in the middle of the harbour, it’s a busy spot.  Several “day boats” ply the waters between Cancun and here, a couple seem to offer sedate tours with a running commentary, but most are party boats.  Well oiled bodies squeeze together for space, or bounce (possibly dance?) up and down on the trampolines of some seriously overloaded catamarans while music blares out – on a couple of these boats it seems clothes are optional – but all look to be having plenty of fun!

Getting Tired of Northers

We spent our first week in Mexico at anchor then moved into the cute one-dock marina at El Milagro Marina.  We wanted to leave Balvenie for a week and go off to explore inland plus there was yet another norther wind coming. P3220009-001 It seemed a good idea to combine the two, Balvenie safely tied up while we were off travelling.  But as the arrival of the norther drew closer it was apparent that this was going to be the liveliest of the season to date, sustained high winds from the north west and a big swell forecast for several days – maybe best to stay on board plus it was not going to be great weather for touring.

Our ever present list of boat jobs kept us busy while the winds howled through.P3220009  It was also very good to re-join the real world with internet access, we manage ok when we don’t have it but it is great to be able to catch up on news, sports, blogs, and do the chores like check the bank statements and pay all the bills.  There are free bikes in the marina for our use so we have had plenty of exercise cycling around - exploring the island, cycling to the supermarket and into the small in town.

Tantalising the TastebudsP3130308

We haven’t yet discovered the “best burritos” but have found a great local stall with awesome quesadillas around $2.50 NZD ($2 USD) each, the search for burritos goes on in earnest.

The task of finding the best Margaritas has been taken seriously indeed – even Mark who generally doesn’t indulge in cocktails has been seen sipping away on a lime Margarita before switching over to a Sol or Corona (with lime – of course).  I’m not even sure I actually like Margaritas, - the things one must endure in the name of research!!!

P3120292The winds finally abated and it was time to say farewell to David and Brenda off Bandit, they took the chance to cross the Yucatan Straits on the back of the norther and headed for Southern Cuba.  We hope to catch them again soon.

Meanwhile we extended Balvenies marina berth stay, tossed up between local transport or hiring a car – booked a hire car, filled up our day packs, closed up Balvenie and headed for the mainland.  It was time for a taste of Mexico and its history by exploring the Yucatan Peninsula.

Time for Ruins, Ruins and More Ruins P3080055

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Bye to Belize, Moving on to Mexico ….. Feb 2013

19 – 27 February 2013:  Isla Mujeres, Caribbean MexicoLocal trading boat, Belize  21 14N 86 44W

Time to Move On
After our bumpy sleepless night at Turneffe Reef, followed by strong easterly winds when we wanted to sail to Lighthouse Reef we decided it was time to reassess our options – again.  We listen daily to the in depth morning weather reports available via our SSB radio.  With a forecast of moderate winds out of the east for a couple of days then strengthening and clocking southeast we decided maybe it was time to give up on Lighthouse Reef and move on to Mexico.   We stayed a another night anchored off Turneffe Reef but moved further up the coast, slowly nudging our way north. 
best burritos in Belize at Placencia
What Happened to our Weather Window?
Time to finally move on – still in company with Bandit who had also given up on reaching Lighthouse Reef, we started making our way up inside the outer reef in relatively flat waters but the wind was from the north east, yep, right on the nose.  Having to tack at the beginning of a 250 mile journey did not get me in positive state of mind!!  We had planned to anchor off the top of Turneffe Reef for the first night but somehow we just kept going – heavens only knows why. soft corals at North Long Cocoa Cay, Belize

Once outside the shelter of the reef the sea state worsened dramatically but we were able to lay our course – just.  We were hard on the wind, bashing into it with plenty of salt water cleaning the decks, not much fun at all.   On the bright side it was just 50 miles until we got into the shelter of the next outer reef system so things eventually calmed down during the night and we got lulled back into a false sense of a comfortable sea state.
Most of the time we were trying to slow Balvenie down, she loves going to windward and would romp along at full speed ahead if we didn’t pull the reins in.  The wind just never did get around to the east, so with the north east wind over a couple of knots current from the south we were flying along, but oh the seas were messy and sometimes the flying resulted in a few crash landings!  P3080069

We Can Nearly Taste the Tequila
Around 9pm on night two we reached the lee of Cozumel.   We sailed up between the island and Mexican mainland once again in flat seas.   Finally at 1am on night two we headed towards land and anchored in flat water, it felt so good – just a shame about the all night disco ashore that we didn’t hear until after we finished anchoring!  Oh well, lights out and ear plugs in.   It was a short sleep however, by 7am we had a steady stream of local dive and sightseeing boats passing us at speed about 50 metres away kicking up an irritable wake.  There were 3 cruise ships in port and the local boats were enroute to collect passengers for their prebooked excursions – there would be no more rest or flat water for us!

P3060001Made it to Mexico
We had one more day before strong southeasterly winds were due, and even though we had had enough bashing to windward we were only 55 miles from our ultimate destination of Isla Mujeres so we went for broke and got it over with.  Just north of Cozumel we had some of the most uncomfortable seas ever, the current flowed like a raging  river and we were running the churned up rapids.   At times we galloped along at over 10 knots under double reefed main and a sliver of headsail, certainly not comfortable but at least we got there fast.  By 2pm we were entering the anchorage, there were day boats, kayakers, windsurfers, tour boats overflowing with scantily clad spring break holidaymakers, deep sea fishing boats, passenger ferries and a car ferry – all vying for space in this compact harbour behind the reef, good grief what a change to sleepy Belize!
Welcome Back to Civilisation

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Bumps, Bangs and Bashes in Belize ….. Feb 2013

10 – 18 Feb 2013:  Turneffe Island  17 10N  87 55WBelize

Some Days are Diamonds …

Sadly it was time to leave the crystal clear waters of the outer cays again and head for better coverage from a strengthening easterly wind that was forecast to hang around for a few days.  Southwater Cay was a favourite stopover and when we left the sail we had in light winds up inside the shelter of the Barrier Reef was just magical.  Because we were retracing our steps of a week before we didn’t even worry too much about the 4 metre depth, and we knew where to go to avoid hitting the shallows at Tobacco Cay, a lot to be said for travelling in familiar waters.  Also there was the double bonus of catching two fish, first a yellowtail snapper then a small barracuda, days don’t get much better than this.

Dinner - Barracuda, Lobster or Snapper?? We pulled into our overnight anchorage at Garbutt Cay and tucked ourselves up behind the mangroves.  A small white sandy beach ashore looked the perfect place for sundowners, but first we were visited by Harry, the unofficial major of this tiny group of cays.  Harry had lobster tails to sell but with two fresh fish in the galley waiting to be filleted we didn’t need lobster as well.  But Harry was desperate, Bandit had already taken some so we did the honourable thing and relieved him of the rest,  hate them to go to waste.  We did a fair trade of a hipflask of rum, a paperback and some crackers – oh and we threw in some coke so he wouldn’t have to drink the rum straight!!  Garbutt Cay

The small beach ashore wasn’t quite as picturesque up close as it looked from the boat but it was a great spot to feast on fresh sushi, while watching a Blue Heron wade slowly closer and closer to us as the sun faded behind mainland Belize.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

You Can Check Out …. but You Can Never Leave

Our one month visas were nearly up and the check out facilities further north were off limits to us because of shallow water.  We would either need to return to Placencia (again!!) or try and anchor off nearby Dangriga which would be an unprotected anchorage on a lee shore in the easterly winds.  Neither option was appealing, but Harry with his “local knowledge” assured us that the wind would die later in the afternoon and it would be fine to anchor off Dangriga, hmmm, we weren’t so sure.  Dangriga, with Bandit anchored So we covered our bases and left Balvenie at Garbutt Cay and the 4 of us went on Bandit the few miles across to Dangriga.

Harry’s promised easing of the winds did not eventuate so Brenda, Mark and I went ashore in the dinghy, negotiating our way in through the extremely shallow river mouth with a very choppy following sea, while David stayed onboard Bandit and motored around in circles awaiting our return.  Checkout was reasonably seamless (once the necessary staff turned up), fresh provisioning was conducted at a road side stall with a speed shown by those “on a mission”, then  it was a speedy zoom around the supermarket to spend the last of our Belizean currency.  

Dangriga definitely didn’t have that “cute” feeling of Placencia, it certainly felt more like a functional working town.  DangrigaThere were few cars, most locals were riding past on bicycles and everyone seemed to know one another.   I certainly had that “there’s stranger in town” feeling as I waited with the groceries while Mark and Brenda completed with formalities ~ several people stopped to ask me if I needed help.   The inhabitants are mainly Garífuna of African descent,  and on a glance around you would never have though you were in Central America.

With passports stamped and ships clearance papers in hand (sensibly stowed in dry bags!!) it was time for the return dinghy ride to Bandit. This could only be described as the WETTEST dinghy ride ever undertaken as we ploughed through the waves at the river mouth, at least it was warm.   Provisions were quickly passed to David and somehow the three of us managed to get safely out of the dinghy while bouncing up and down, dinghy was lifted on deck and we were off, back to Garbutt Cay and Balvenie.  All somewhat soggy but mission accomplished. under sail, Garbutt Cay to Middle Long Cay Belize with about 15-18 on the beam

Not Another Norther!

The next few days were spent in limbo, another cold front was forming in the Gulf of Mexico which would send more northerly winds our way.  There was nowhere on Turneffe or Lighthouse reefs for us to safely sit out a norther  so we filled a couple more days moving up the inside channel.  We snorkelled on a barge wreck in shallow waters at Middle Long Cay, it was teeming with fish and lobster but unfortunately the waters were very murky and there were mean looking barracuda lurking in the shadows.  Sadly the lobsters had many nooks and crannies to hid under, and although David persevered for ages trying to catch some, the lobsters survived to tease another cruiser!    

We found shelter from the norther tucked behind Robinson Island, just 7 miles from Belize City.  We sat there with Bandit during the weekend and didn’t see another boat ~ these waters are truly deserted.  After the norther had blown through ~ this one had brought over 30knots of wind ~ we had a forecast for light east to south east winds so decided to try once again to get to Lighthouse Reef before we headed for Mexico.  We stopped briefly for a snorkel at English Cay, a tiny cay at the entrance to the shipping channel.  The stag and elkhorn corals were magnificent and there were many schools of hundreds of fish, not a huge variety but the numbers sure made up for it.Sunken barge, Middle Long Island Cay

Our Worst Night Ever at Anchor

Turneffe Island lies directly on the path between the mainland and Lighthouse Reef so it made sense to stay the night there enroute.  We sailed on the wind in flat water, the skies were clear and all was well.  But as the afternoon progressed things started going downhill.  Our intended anchorage on the west coast was not now an option.   As we closed on the island the wind backed around making the anchorage exposed and choppy, so we decided to enter through the reef pass into the anchorage at Cay Bokel on the southwest corner of TurneffeThis was a very poor judgement call on our part and we should have rechecked the guide book as the anchorage  only had 8 feet of water, very very tight but it was nearly dusk and we had no other back up.   8 feet was in fact too tight ~ we anchored in just enough water but forgot about the tide. English Cay, Belize The tides are only 20 cms so we hadn’t really been giving them much thought for months now, but when you are nearly on the bottom 20cms makes a big difference.   As darkness engulfed us the tide started dropping and we felt the odd graze along the sandy seabed.  We looked at each other and weighed up the options * there was nowhere deeper in the anchorage to move to * it was not safe to leave through the narrow reef pass in the dark even with our incoming track * and a little nudging overnight wouldn’t do any harm.  

But then the wind switched to the southeast and built, small waves started coming over our reef protection, the tide dropped a little more, we swung to the wind and waves and started hobby horsing then found ourselves an even shallower spot – and there we stayed. English Cay, Belize No amount of forward or reverse thrust could move us, we were well and truly attached to mother earth.   At 2.30am still in total darkness there was a glimmer of hope when the depth sounder finally started to show an increase in water depths.  With Mark on the bow ready with the anchor control and me at the helm asking Olive our Volvo to give it all she had we finally managed to bash and bump our way off the hump and into water we could float in, what an immense relief.  We gingerly headed as close to the reef as we dared and found 10 feet, re-anchored, set the anchor alarm for 10 metres (we had NOTHING to play with) and managed to get a couple of hours sleep of sorts.

English Cay At first light we had anchor up and very cautiously nurdled our way back to the reef entrance,  then we bashed our way out through the shallow pass.  Never have we been so pleased to see a mere 4 metres of water in open sea!!    The winds were close to 20 knots from the east, Lighthouse Reef was around 20 miles just north of east.  After the night we had just had there was no debating whether we would head for Lighthouse ~ we turned around and headed to the now calm anchorage we had passed up the afternoon before.  We dropped anchor in plenty of water and collected our thoughts. 

Some Days May Be Diamonds …… but Some Are Just Dreadful

   French Angelfish, English Cay, BelizeJuvenile Blue or Queen angelfish Gray angelfish, English Cay, Belize