23 April 2017

Mexican Yucatan Coast

Milly sharing the anchorage with the only other boats in Cozumel.
Leaving Belize through the San Pedro cut was much easier than the previous time with the kids when the waves were enormous.  This time they were only moderately large and we were able to follow our charted track out - piece of cake.  We had thought we would stop in the only Mexican atoll and in a large bay on the way to Cozumel where we intended to check in to the country.  However, the atoll was described as an important commercial fishing station and navy base and at the writing of our guide, navy boarded cruising boats and did not allow anchorage.  And the bay is a huge completely undeveloped mangrove shallow with lousy charting.  After our experience with the fishing boat off the coast of Nicaragua, we were a bit leery of deserted anchorages.  Finally, we had a swift sail north and passed both locations in the dark.

Cozumel, the next place to check in, was a lovely island with a busy tourist-centered town.  To our surprise we were the only cruising boat - we had expected some company.  The anchorage was in beautiful sand.  There was no dinghy dock - we hauled TomTom onto the beach through a small surf to go to town.
The melacon was lined with kinda tacky sculptures.  This one featured the underwater world  and happened to frame Milly

Street art??

Checking into the country proved to be an expensive challenge.  The process is different in every country.  Unlike arriving on a plane with immigration and customs represented by one official and one booth, we usually must go to at least two, sometimes three offices.  Here's what we did in Cozumel:

  • Visit to port authority - closed for the day at 2 pm
Next day:

  • Visit to the port authority - copies of documents made and directions to visit immigration at the airport.
  • Walked to the airport.  Immigration at the airport would not deal with us.  Sent us to immigration office across town.
  • Walked across town to immigration office.  Forms completed.  Direction to meet with agriculture and fisheries representative in office.
  • Agric and Fish young man (very broken English) explained that he had to inspect Milly for produce - oh, oh.  This was most unexpected! and I hadn't prepared by either eating or hiding our produce of which only a pineapple and bananas were visible. We joined his partner in a dog catching truck.  Peter was directed to sit in one of the dog cages - hilarious, no dog - while I scored the front seat an the second official sat in the other dog cage.  They were nervous when I took a picture - this was strictly against the rules.
    This is no dog!  Still looking happy.
  • Drive to beach where TomTom was "parked".  The guy accompanying us had never been in a dinghy before.  He was obviously more comfortable with the Agricultural part of his job.  He pulled off his big leather shoes and socks and attempted to roll up his pants when he saw, to his surprise and, I think, displeasure that he would have to wade into the water before climbing into TomTom.  Peter and I have worked out a routine for putting TomTom in the water when there is surf.  I stand at the bow in water to my thighs, holding the boat out perpendicular to the breaking waves as best I can.  Peter clambers in, puts the engine down and starts.  I dive into the boat head first or, if I'm only up to my knees, swing a leg up and over as Peter goes into reverse.  This is not a delicate operation.  The official  became a little more chagrined.  As we slowly drove out to Milly, his knuckles whitened from holding on so tightly.  He took the centre bench seat, not trusting the inflated gunnels.  
  • On board Milly, he apologetically filled a large garbage bag, first with the visible fruit and then he opened the fridge and loaded it with eggs, cheese, cold meats, all fruit and veg, juice.  Unfortunately, I had stocked up in Belize because we thought we might stop at the deserted anchorages on the way to Cozumel.  Darn it!!  Even though Peter could drive in the dog cage against all rules, the official became officious when it came to confiscating our contraband.
    Offending oficina. 
  • Back to the beach with a full bag.  Back in the truck.  They offered to take us to the next office we had to visit.  Although I was giving directions, they circled over and over on one-way streets - perhaps it was my Spanish? - finally letting us off a couple of blocks away.
  • Walk to doctor's office where an approved doctor needed to sign a health form.  He was not available.
  • Back to Milly to recover.

Third Day

  • Return to doctor's office.  The doctor saw us immediately.  He looked at us, looked at the form, asked us what boat we were on and how long we were staying, signed the form and ushered us out.  Not a word about health was exchanged.
  • Walk to customs at airport.  A plane had just arrived. We could see through our teller-type window that the customs officials were busy.  After ten minutes of standing politely at the window a guy saw us, rushed over, stamped our forms, made copies of our passports, all in record time.
  • Walk back to port authority office to show off all our completed forms.  Directed to go to the bank to pay the fee.  Their credit card system was not working.
  • Walk to the bank.  Paid fee.  Easy process.
  • Walk back to the port authority where the guy who needed to put the final signature on our paperwork was unavailable.  Directed to return the next day in the a.m.
Fourth Day

  • Picked up completed forms, signatures intact.  
Quite an experience!  On our walks between offices, we saw a lot of the town , had lunch, restocked our fridge and were amused by the bureaucracy.
We rented a scooter to check out the rest of the island.

The driver.

The east coast of Cozumel was magnificent - wild and undeveloped.  The road edged the ocean and gave spectacular views of many coloured water.

This guy was just hanging out on the lagoon side - waiting for an unlucky tourist to slip in the muck

After a few days in Cozumel, we headed toward the mainland looking for a sheltered anchorage where we could ride out an expected "norther" and explore the area of Talum.  As we approached, we read that boats were no longer allowed to anchor in the one sheltered bay but were expected to stay at a marina south of where we were.  Onward to Isla Mujeres where there was a very sheltered lagoon.  We got there and anchored in the muck just in time.  The norther blew for a couple of days, boats dragged anchor around us but Milly's rocna held firm.
Leaving Cozumel, we crossed paths with Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior.  Very cool!

We had discovered that the east coast of the Mexican Yucatan peninsula is not at all set up for cruising.  Isla Mujeres, the jumping off point to the US or, alternatively, the first port of call leaving the US or Cuba on the way south, is the exception to this.
The whale shark is a big tourist draw here.  We didn't visit during the season when you can swim with these giants but a local insisted on taking our picture with this one.

Mother Nature shares the altar here.

The pedestrian street in the tourist centre was full of souvenir shops but even these added colour and liveliness.

Again, the east shore offered gorgeous blues.

Peter and I tend to seek out cemeteries.  The styles of the graves are so different from place to place that they offer an insight into the culture and history.  These were particularly decorated.
Note the lighthouse, and the two churches.

Isla Mujeres was easy living.  Many cruisers come for a brief rest on their way north or south and never leave.  We biked and hiked.  I went to a yoga studio.  We had dinner with a large group of cruisers twice a week and often socialized with those we met.  For the six weeks we stayed in Mexico, with a very pleasant standard of living we spent less than $1500US.  Amazing.

This estancia was built by a seƱor for his lover but he was rejected.  Maybe the steps were a touch to steep. 

And we waited and waited for a weather window to sail to Key West.  The northers blew through every 5-7 days so timing was difficult.  Life was getting a bit too comfy - I had visions of staying so long that Milly would grow a beard of seaweed like we saw on other boats in the anchorage.  Finally, we set off for what ended up being a 36 hour sail because we left at the wrong time.  Oh well.
Sunset as we left Isla Mujeres.  For the first time it was at the stern of the boat.  

15 April 2017

Belizean Impressions

 The map, although not the best, gives you an idea of how Peter and I spent our time in Belize.  Sailors could easily spend a season exploring offshore and inland.We saw all the featured animals on the map except for the whale shark - it was not the season.
Milly with proudly flying Canadian flag last flown in Rio at the Olympics. 
 Peter and I spent six weeks exploring Belize, mainly the cays and the atolls.  The barrier reef extending from the north end to the south end of the country was phenomenal, the second longest in the world after The Great Barrier Reef.  Huge ocean waves crashed on the outside and on the inside the water was flat and calm.  You could see the breaking line of waves from miles away - a white line on the very blue sea.  The atolls warmed us up for the Pacific one day - large areas of water completely enclosed by reef. Belize boasts three of the four atolls in the Atlantic. The water inside is every conceivable shade of blue and is dotted with coral heads and reefs, loads of fish including shark and magnificent spotted rays.  It was glorious.

After several days delay, we finally checked into Belize at Placencia, a sweet town with gorgeous white beaches, dirt roads, great ice cream and friendly people.  Checking in involved a dinghy ride, a bus ride on, yes, the Hokey Pokey across an enormous lagoon and a taxi ride to three different offices.  And then back in reverse order.

The Hokey Pokey is the local bus.

Lobster fisherman go out to sea in these traditional, now motorized, sailboats with very long booms.  They pile many dugout canoes on top.  Men spread out from the mother ship over the sea surface in the dugouts and dive from them for their catch.

Milly and TomTom

Tobacco Caye sitting right on the barrier reef was lovely.  We snorkelled and for the first time swam with very large black spotted eagle rays.  So majestic and graceful.  The tiny island, 200 m long and 100 m wide, had a couple of "resorts" and guesthouses.  Didn't take long to explore.

Oops.  Hurricane Matthew which we had evaded in Curacao did some damage here when it headed north.  Many docks were demolished including the main marina in Belize City where we had intended to stay.  Gone!
English Cay.  We dinghied ashore and were given a tour of the island by the lighthouse keeper.  He was 25 and happy to be living on the island where his family had been caretaking for generations.  

Construction in Caye Caulker to water access only site.  Nothing is easy.   The sand on this barge was shovelled from the sand bar in the middle of the bay by one older man up to his knees in water.
For the first time since Barbuda in the Eastern Caribbean, the land was flat as a pancake.  If sailing close to the coastal mainland, we could see large mountains in the western haze but the coast itself and certainly the cays were flat.  The cays are largely undeveloped mangrove islands.  The occasional palm usually marks a fishing camp or tiny resort of palm roofed huts.  The view from the boat was of blue sky spotted with cumulus clouds, spots of flat green cays and sea of beautiful blues.  

The water is very “skinny” as they say in the sailing world, meaning shallow.  It is so treacherous for sailboats that we had to pay an extra premium of over US$1000 to sail in Belize.  We were lucky if the depth was 1.5-3.0 meters - our draft is 1.2m.  At several points there was someone on the bow to look for coral heads that loom from the bottom making the shallow sandy bottom a maze of hard and sharp obstructions that regularly put holes in the bottoms of boats. 
The barrier reef as we approached the narrow cut to get to the wavy side - the Atlantic.  Breakers as far as we could see.  A  beautiful sight but not so pretty to negotiate.

Getting through the reef line to visit the atolls on a windy day was a nerve wracking adrenalin rush.  There are several cuts that are well charted, some wider than others.  Getting out into the sea is especially challenging on a windy day when the waves are breaking.   When the kids were with us we had one especially exciting exit through a very narrow cut at Ambergris when the waves were huge and breaking.  Tom and I were on the bow, uselessly looking for coral heads as we bounced from trough to peak, holding on for dear life.  We made it only to suffer a change of wind direction which necessitated a trip by motor.
Canadians are everywhere!

Caye Caulker - going to market.
Unfortunately, and despite Belize being an “eco-tourism” destination, litter in the sea was a disturbing sight.  Plastic bottles and styrofoam take out dishes were regulars in the sea and lost and battered flipflops, plastic cigarette lighters and bottle tops scurry the beaches.  In Belize, there is a real effort to rake and tidy the beaches in front of the resorts and in town but once off the beaten tourist track, the litter plagues the beach.  I'm sure much of the garbage is from boats and far away islands.  There are signs, many hand painted, to keep the region clean but it does not yet seem to be part of the island culture.  Granted, the islands have a real challenge to dispose of garbage responsibly and a lack of funds to do so, but …..
We rented bikes on Ambergris to explore the island to the north of San Pedro, the only town.

This guy had found his very own mangrove island to fish from.

San Pedro on Ambergris with lovely shades of blue water.

We went on two tours: A snorkelling tour from Caye Caulker with a local young business owner.  He led us through beautiful patches of coral and wonderful schools of fish including nurse shark.  Definitely worthwhile.

Nurse shark.  We swam with many on this trip.  At first a little hesitant but they paid no attention to us at all so, although we kept a healthy distance, we followed them around with confidence.  Nurse sharks suck and slurp crustaceans, sea urchins and bony fish from crevices.  Felt pretty safe as we were a bit big to slurp.

Beautiful colours although this is fire coral which stings like crazy if you touch it.

Lettuce coral.  Very delicate looking.  One of my favourites.

Sea horse.  They always look like they have very stiff necks.

The fishermen consider pelicans pests, but this goofy one is hard not to like.
 A second tour was to the mainland by small boat to a fishing village, a bus ride inland, and a second river boat ride to a water access only Mayan ruin.  Fantastic.  Although we snorkelled almost daily, we did not dive which necessitated a tour and a voyage in a small boat outside the reef in the super rough waves.  We were sorry, though, not to dive at Lighthouse or Glover's.
Our inland trip was to Lamanai, a Mayan ruin.  After an hour small boat ride at 6:30 a.m. to the mainland and up a river, we were served a local pastry and egg breakfast in this village, population 68.  It had only recently had a road put in so now the children can go to school although high school students have to travel 2 hours one-way.
Unfortunately, our bus, that took us from one river boat ride to another, broke down in the middle of nowhere.  To get the spotty cell phone connection, our tour guide had to climb on top of the bus.  Another bus arrived about 20 minutes later.  All part of the adventure.  The next boat was a long, traditional river boat with an enormous engine.  We scooted along taking narrow turns and passing slower boats.  Not sure how we could go so fast without hitting oncoming traffic but there must be a system - there were no close calls.  Our driver had been on the river for years and new where to stop to view monkeys, iguanas and birds.  We also passed a Mennonite community where the best farming in the nation takes place.

Part of the charm of Lamanai was it's setting on the river in dense rainforest.  It was inhabited at least as early as 1500 BC reaching it's peak around 100 BC to AD 700 with a population of around 35,000 and continued being used until about 1500 BC when it was decimated by an epidemic, probably smallpox.   It boasted large temples,

Howler monkeys added to the aura of the ruins.

At the top of the first temple.  We were the only ones of our group who climbed!  Weird!  Peter and I always have to get to the highest peak around.

Most of the excavation began in 1974 by David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum!  Strange for us to have a hint of home in the middle of the jungle.  Made us proud!

A little steep.

A ball court, no less.  Unknown how the game was played but indicates that there was time for fun and games.  A very sophisticated civilization.

The original sculptures on this temple were being ruined by the likes of us, shamefully.  These cement replicas covered them to keep the originals safe.

We explored Belize at a pace dictated by the weather.  We holed up in Caye Caulker during a strong “norther”, not leaving the boat for a couple of days and had to leave Glover’s atoll where we had planned to dive prematurely to find a sheltered anchorage for another high wind system.  At this time of year, northers from the North American continent seem to come through about once a week.  This became an important feature in finding a weather window to head north to Mexico.  

I would like to have spent more time exploring inland, especially the mountains, and gone for a dive or two.  So I guess it’s yet another country that we will have to return to.  Seems to be a growing list.