Archive for December, 2010

Salida Nueva

Marilyn said that they were looking forward to a little adventure…

Looks like there is an exit now!

We finally made it to the Cancun airport to scoop Natalie’s parents after our late start on Christmas day. Glenn and Marilyn weren’t too upset and we pushed La Bestia to her limits and cut our tardiness to just about an hour. We spent the night near Puerto Morelos, about half-way between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, nestled between two mega resorts at Acamaya Reef, a small little trailer park and cabañas that is holding strong against the all-inclusives that shadow it from the sun for most of the day. We rolled out the next morning in search of the port town of Chiquila were we would catch the ferry to Isla Holbox (Ol-Bosch). We turned from Mex 307 onto the Cuota towards Merida and Valladoid, a remarkably expensive toll road but one of the better paved highways in some time. Only in Mexico would they think that a toll road without any exits whatsoever would be a good idea. The complete and utter lack of exits all the way to Valladoid was a surprise to us. Only when we rolled up to the toll both at the Yucatan/Quintana Roo border did we realize that we had gone too far and that our road north was some 15 km behind us. Opting not to go through the $MX220 toll booth we asked everyone on the Quintana Roo side where the exit was. The answers didn’t vary, there are no exits, you have to drive all the way back to Cancun (80km) and come back on the Libre. Seriously? WTF?

2:30 in the afternoon and we think the last ferry to Holbox leaves at 5:00 (actually at 7 but we had no way of knowing). An hour back to Cancun, and hour and a half back on the free road, and an hour north to Chiquila puts us at the terminal at exactly five. I didn’t think we had any chance of making it. I decided that there had to be some people living along the Cuota who had cut their own exits to dirt roads along ranchos providing access to the local ejidos. I was right, but I wasn’t the only one who had surmised this, as the government had gone through extensive efforts to find all these jungle turn-offs and concrete barriers in front of them. We found at least 10 in the first 20 km back towards Cancun, all of them closed off.

Glenn surveying the damage

I had remembered a few locals sitting under an overpass hiding from the midday sun, they had bicycles and something larger which turned out to be a bike with a cart on the front for collecting firewood. They had to have got there some how. Maybe it was a foot trail, maybe they had climbed down from the overpass, but if anyone knew where an illegal exit was, they were my best bet. I flicked on the hazard lights and ran across the 4 lanes of traffic to find out. Of course they knew where one was; but no one had used it in some time so it would be pretty hard to find. The young Mayan man and his abuelo (grandfather) followed me back across the freeway and hopped in the front seat. With Natalie, Glenn and Marilyn in the back of the van, and our two new friends in the front seat, we made a couple laps complete with some extensive reversing on the freeway and some equally illegal retornos until we finally found what they were looking for: a small barbed wire fence with a well hidden dirt track behind it. Apparently the highway authority had found this little turn-off before and had constructed a concrete and steel barrier, but that didn’t stop the locals from opening it back up with a some partial barrier destruction.

Smoke = Fire

I’m guessing the van was the largest vehicle that had ever attempted this particular turn. Eventually I got the van wedged between two concrete posts and one wheel past the remnant steel barrier post with the other wheel unable to turn past it. I managed to get the loop step high-sided on the steel post and had no choice but to break it off with a little bit of acceleration. Two down, one step to go. Think I can break the third step by the time we get back? Worse, the exhaust was buried three or four feet into the jungle brush, I left the engine running while we figured out how to twenty-point turn her out of the predicament and on to the dirt track. Have I mentioned before that the van is one giant power plant? Power plants give off a lot of heat in exchange for horsepower or torque or whatever else they are generating. Enough heat to ignite flammable materials and start a little brush fire under the van. We shut off the van before it got too big and the brush was mostly green so it really just smoldered and smoked for a bit.

By this point we have concluded that the turn is impossible so one of the locals retreated to the rancho and returned with a sledge hammer to finish the job of concrete barrier removal. After about twenty strikes to the steel pillar and it was obviously not going to give way, at least with the tools at hand. So instead they decided to just take out the concrete post of the fence. A few quick shots to the base of the post and the concrete crumbled leaving a minor obstacle for the van to power over.

Overall our efforts saved us twenty minutes at most, but it was twenty minutes that we thought we needed to make the ferry. Of course we were wrong on that front too, but how would we have known? I decided that we’d give the locals some cash for their efforts and for the concrete post, they were incredibly appreciative and at least Marilyn got a little taste of the adventure she talked about!

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Blondy, chillin at the bar!

Back in La Ticla, Michoacan, we met an incredibly nice and friendly woman by the name of Lucy Andrés. Lucy is a biologist living in Guadalajara. Previously she had traveled and lived all along the Yucatan Peninsula. She turned us on to the town of Mahahual and her friend and dive instructor Yolanda. Yolanda’s diving business, Tortuga Azul is run in some conjunction with the spot we are camping: the Blue Bay Restaurant and Bar. We most likely would have ended up camping here with or without Lucy and Yolanda as it is the only spot listed in the Church’s Mexican Camping book. We have spent almost a week camped out here and have become friends with the proprietor Gerry and his band of friends and employees; Blondy being the most charismatic.

The very first post of this travel blog started in 2004 in Venezuela, on that trip, my friend Scott took me diving. It was the first of many rogue diving adventures, we tracked down the “dive master” and his half drunk bottle of rum in order to rent gear. After a 30 second conversation where I revealed I had never been diving before but Scott (who is a very accomplished diver) agreed to teach me, we had tanks and such and were off in search of someone with a boat to take us to the reef. Not exactly what PADI has in mind. Over the years Natalie and I have both engaged in some sort of non-certified diving, sometimes as part of a discover scuba resort course and sometimes not. We decided that this trip was the perfect mix of location and time to actually get certified and be able to dive legitimately whenever and wherever we wanted.

The certification is taking a bit longer than we originally had expected, Natalie is having a small equalization problem with her left ear, causing her to suck down the anti-inflammatory meds and dive only every other day. It has worked out pretty well for me though because I’ve got in a lot of extra dives tagging along with other divers on her days off. I had pretty much run out of excuses to dive more without shelling out some extra money by the 23rd. Instead I spent the day with Fo-Fo (Alejandro), one of a throng of Italians that has taken over the town, cooking it up for the Christmas Eve feast at the restaurant. My first job in the kitchen was to make the dough for the dessert tart. I think Fo-Fo was a little under whelmed with his sous chef when I had no clue as to what I was doing. While I know my way around a kitchen, baking is my Achilles; its just too exact for me, I cook with some of this and a little bit more of that, recipes are impossible to follow without a great deal of improvisation. My second job was totally in my wheelhouse though, as Fo-Fo and I cranked out some gnocchi that would have made the old ladies in Shelocta Pennsylvania swoon. I’m no beginner at turning and rolling the potato dumpling.

Christmas Eve itself was pretty fantastic. We woke around 7 to finish our final two dives. Natalie had a few final skills to exhibit at the start of the first dive and then we drifted through the current through the aquarium that is the Meso-American reef. Between the drift and our second, deeper, reef canyon dive, we saw parrot fish, angel fish, jacks, giant rays, sea turtles, coral, crab, lobster, I was totally stoked. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking and running errands throughout Mahahual for fresh bread baked by another of the Italian chefs in town and other assorted last minute sundries. Natalie, Fo-Fo and I, and then later some Chilean girls plated each and every plate, 19 of them, and then re-plated every plate when the final head count was 22. The international dinner festivities were incredibly fun and diverse, an orphans’ Christmas of attendees from North America, South America and Europe; English, Spanish, Italian and French being slung across the table regardless of whether the intended recipient  understood it or not. The tequila, vino and whatever else flowed well into the evening, probably the latest Christmas party I’ve ever been to as Natalie rolled into bed sometime after 3 in the morning. So late in fact that we were an hour and half late picking Glenn and Marilyn up in Cancun the next day. Whoops!

Happy New Year to all my friends and family. Love you all. See you soon! Less than one month left on the road… Also, there are a few more pics over on Flickr.

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Hurricane Dean was the strongest storm of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season and the 7th strongest on record. It made landfall as a category 5 hurricane, the third strongest landfall ever – by contrast Katrina, while slightly stronger at sea, smacked into New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast as a category 3. The epicenter at landfall

was the former fishing and diving village turned cruise ship stop of Mahahual, decimating the town and vast majority of its buildings. Most likely, the current version of Mahahual bears little resemblance to its former self. Driving into town the damageis evident even 3 years later. Fairly abruptly, the trees end and the dry, barren, twisted limbs of old growth mangrove give way to shorter, green, jungle undergrowth and miniature palms reaching out of the sand like a newly landscaped yard.

It is readily apparent that the government of Quintana Roo invested a considerable sum in order to rebuild the infrastructure; a local pedestrian and bicycle malecon runs the entire length of the beach along seemingly unending construction projects. New 75 kVa transformers dot the road and vacant lots while new manholes suggest minimal sewage flowing on to the sensitive and second largest barrier reef in the world.

Many residents fled to Chetumal and further north to Playa del Carmen and Cancun to build a new life. But many remained are rebuilding and the diving is supposed to be amongst the best on the Mexican Riviera. We are camped at the far northern end of the redevelopment at a restaurant turned dive shop and future RV park, while resources are scarce, even for paying customers, the determination is obvious and it seems like a good time to buy real estate if you are so inclined. I would, except I don’t have the money and there are no waves except in hurricane season.

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Plans seem to change daily on this trip. Maybe its not so much that plans change but that they aren’t really plans, more a rough outline of what you expect you are going to do. Back in Palenque we met some very cool Canadians from New Brunswick that were on a similar, albeit longer (jealous), sojourn. Ryan and Janelle have the first rig that I’ve envied on the road. Generally speaking I wouldn’t trade the van for anything else we’ve seen so far even considering the electrical problems. But I have to admit, they have a bitchin setup with their roof top, fold away tent that transforms their somewhat normal looking 4-Runner into a camping machine.

Straight from the Cazadores label

We first chatted with them after returning from the ruins and over a cocktail later on. The next day we compared battle vehicles and talked about stops so far and the next one down the road. We were heading to Mahahual or maybe Laguna Bacalar while they were going to fang it straight to Belize. Our 2:30 departure made it impossible to even make it to the state of Quintana Roo, much less to the Mexican Riveria coastline. We spent the night at a campground near Escarcega. It turned out to be an excellent stop as the owner showed up sometime around 10:30 a took us on a jungle hike to see “cat-monkeys”, throngs of deer, including one that was more mascot than wild animal, and the rest of the property. He and I climbed the tallest and rickety-est deer stand ever constructed. It was incredibly unnerving as the whole thing swayed in the wind with our 350lb~ish combined weight gave its 35 feet of Mexican engineering all it could handle.

The next morning we rolled out at the reasonable hour of 11:30 only to be derailed in Chetumal by the need to track down some groceries, supplies and most importantly propane refills. By the time we had managed all the errands it was pushing dark-thirty again and we opted to track down the campground just north of Chetumal. Over an uninspiring and relatively expensive platter of not-really-paella, Ryan and Janelle rolled into the campground, so at least we aren’t the only ones who can’t go more than a couple hours a day. We camped next door and set up a massive combined kitchen, tranquillo-ness and general laziness caused a one night stopover to turn into a two night stay and Emilie made us all crepes the second morning. We left Emilie in Chetumal and finally slogged it to Mahahual where we met our dive instructor and set up the full, proper, camp for the first time since the Pacific Coast.

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The ruins at Palenque are incredible, not better or worse than Tonina, but definitely larger in land mass and quantity of structures, although Tonina is far more imposing especially from a distance. Hidden amongst the dense trees and vines, Palenque is composed of several groups of progressively larger complexes and structures ascending up the jungle hillside. The incessant wail of the howler monkeys gives the place an eerie haunted feeling as if the Mayan gods have been disturbed and are watching your every step, ready to release some mythical horror conjured up to keep their civilization in line and then regurgitated and twisted by the Hollywood machine. In Palenque you can see amazing examples of the way the Mayans redirected and channeled water, mastering the rivers and streams to protect their settlements and feed their agriculture. They incredible visages of ancient efforts and technology considering it was 1500 years prior; modern day Mexico still seems to struggle with controlling water and protecting their civilizations. Incredibly, the guidebook suggests that just a fraction of Palenque has been excavated. Unfortunately it doesn’t expand on the statement; it is possible that it just means the existing ruin complexes, since it is obvious that much of the visible ruins still lay under jungle and earth. But it is easy to imagine considerably more ruin structures snaking their way up the jungle ridglines, buried beneath hundreds of years of growth. Here, like at Tonina it is hard to fathom the reason for abandoning such sophisticated structures in favor of the wood thatch and dirt floor confines that the Mayans retreated to. While western civilization and archaeological academia were unaware of Palenque and for a longer period Tonina, the local indigenous cultures knew of their existence, it is thought continually since their abandonment. Why not return to an ancestral home and rebuild rather than toil in less modern housing that provides little more than daily sustenance? I can only surmise that religion played some massive role in this decision: most likely, some faulty superstition that would be replaced centuries later by the equally faulty religious superstitions of the Judeo Christian control complex of the conquistadors.

I am wondering if we will get “ruined-out,” since we are planning on visiting Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Xcalak, but we are going to take a break for some diving first. As always there are a few more pics from Palenque over on Flickr.

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We finally got some rain. You would think after 3+ months in a tropical locale that we would have been rained on at least once. We’ve driven through spots that obviously had rain moments before we got there and we have heard stories of downpours the night before but in our whole adventure not so much as a drop had touched La Bestia, the van’s new name, gracias para Emilie.

The Mayabel, Palenque is the perfect mix of hostel, cabañas, restaurant, bar, pool, hotel and  RV Park inside the gates of Palenque. It was a fabulous place to stay outside of the super grumpy order taker woman in the restaurant, let’s just say that she and I did not see eye to eye on customer service. Emilie has taken to camping in her tent under or near the awning in order to partake in movie night or to cook and kick it with her super cool new Americano amigos. After a good night of meeting some new international friends from Mexico, Belgique, and Canada we retired to bed eager to explore the Palenque ruins.

Sometime in the middle of the night the howler monkeys ceased their monstrous moaning   and drops of rain started pinging the metal casing of the van. It was slow at first but the frequency of the sound of water against the tin echo intensified. I finally willed myself awake; fighting off the night’s libations to run through the checklist of possible problems that rain might cause us that were flashing through my mind. All the boxes were closed and locked, we were parked level so that the water wouldn’t come pouring through the new air conditioning as it had last time we washed her, the various tables and chairs that make up our camp were securely locked beneath the awning.  Only Emilie’s tent crossed my mind as a possible issue, she had staked out a square plot a few meters from the van and probably would be better off under the awning but I figured that she could take care of herself and if she needed to move to stay dry there was no sense in both of us getting wet.

About 5:30 in the morning we jolted awake to a loud pop, both a physical and audible collision. Something had just hit the van. The side door, previously closed and locked, had come slightly unhinged; sucking in the cool humid air. I scrambled to find some clothes so I could manage some sense out of the situation, still groggy and nowhere near cognative. Emilie, in her thick French accent started calling my name. I wrestled the door open to see just her head peering out of her tent under a mess of metal, plastic-canvas tarp, and the remnants of our camp. We had neglected to lower one side of the awning resulting in the nights accumulation of water festering in the awning until the weight of it became too much and the awning exploded sending the water cascading onto Emilie’s tent and pieces of the wreckage everywhere.

Natalie yelled for Emile to climb in the van and the three of us spent the next couple hours pretending to sleep in our cramped quarters, totally preoccupied with fixing our newest travesty. In the morning everything was soaked and the rain continued to come. Emilie and Natalie spent the day hanging out our sundries under the various unoccupied palapas while I repaired the awning. An incredible amount of white duct tape later and amazingly the awning is fully functional. We spent the rest of the day gathering semi-dry wood and meticulously maintaining a smoldering fire until we used a little gasoline to hasten the matter. The awning isn’t exactly good as new but I’m betting that it makes back to San Diego.

Oddly the position of the center rack supports jumped about four inches, out of the eight, only two moved. The sliding door, which has become progressively more difficult to open and close, suddenly opens and closes with a lot more ease, meaning that there was a tremendous amount of torque on the van that was somehow related to the awning. Weird.

The trip has been hard on the van. The old girl has all kinds of new issues; most of them created by the various topes, potholes and hazards of Mexican roads. I’m struggling with what I want to do with her when we get home. Right now, I’m focused on purchasing a mid-90s diesel sprinter, converting it to 4X4 and pillaging the van for the stuff that is still usefull and building a new adventure-mobile from scratch… but that changes daily.

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Aqua Azul & Misol Ha

Cascada Misol-Ha

Advertised mostly as day trips for those in San Cristobal or Palenque who have exhausted or tired of the local sites, the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Ha make fabulous overnight excursions for those of us with our own transportation and accommodations. Agua Azul is a several kilometer complex of continually cascading falls that originate in a spectacular and inaccessible canyon – so inaccessible that it was virtually impossible to get a good photo of it – you’ll just have to take my word for it. Conversely, Misol Ha is a single 35-meter drop with a trail that wraps behind it and a rear-view cave that is eerily similar to Silver Falls in Oregon.

Agua Azul Falls

We stayed the night in a somewhat exposed and seemingly sketchy parking lot at Agua Azul with Emilie camped beneath the awning. Sadly, sometime between Tonina and here we had our first non-breakdown problem of the trip, our tarp was stolen from the roof, most likely in the Bodega parking lot as we re-supplied and Emilie shopped for her Kinder Bueno fix.

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At least that is the way the guidebook starts off its description. Tonina is one of those mystical Mayan ruin sites that no one ever sees. If it were four more hours from Palenque it would be a national monument and a mainstay on the tourist circuit. The Lonely Planet devotes little more than a page to one of the more imposing and impressive monuments of Mayan civilization. The archaeology guides tell another story, one of vastly more historically significant artifacts and importance to the rise and fall of the Mayan empire. We got our first sight of the pyramid complex the night before from the back window of a roadside comedor that didn’t have any food but let us use their sanitarios. I’m not going to make a judgment either way, Tonina really being my first exposure to true prehistoric

civilization ruins, but if Palenque is more impressive than we are even more stoked than I thought. We spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins and taking pictures with a Mayan group that was running the road between for the Virgin de Guadalupe, Emilie is a big hit with the locals. You can check out the rest of the pictures over on Flickr.

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This is amazing. Totally incredible. This app goes along with Shazam as stuff created by dudes WAY smarter than me. I have mixed feelings about it though. Learning a new language is hard and immersing yourself in the culture and really ingesting it is the only way for me to succeed. If I had this for this trip there is no way I would have learned as much Spanish as I have. In fact, with Emilie around I speak a lot less and my Spanish has suffered the last week.

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Emilie’s Mexico guidebook is the 1994, edition number 7, version of the Lonely Planet. Her version details many more camping locales than our more recent addition, version 10. Version 11 came out in October of this year. The construction of a more comfortable Mexican tourist infrastructure has the Lonely Plant team replacing the lower dollar camping spots and hostels with hotels and ecotourism complexes. Rancho San Nicholas in San Cristobal de las Casas made it into the 94 edition but was no where to be found 15 years later. Its hospitality towards the RV scene warranted its inclusion in the Mexico Camping book, which was the sole reason we ended up there.

You can’t travel through Chiapas without seeing the EZLN signs announcing the autonomy of Zapatista sympathetic villagers claiming autonomy from the federal Mexican government. For those of you unfamiliar with the Zapatista rebellion, read up here, and for the latest from EZLN and Subcomandante Marcos check this out. While it is not uncommon to pass through rebel communities the tourist track rarely enters the heart of the guerilla territory. The 1994 occupation of San Cristobal and the surrounding towns most likely altered many lives and changed the course of Chiapas forever. Two such victims were most likely an American couple that had purchased a ranch half way between the Mayan ruins of Tonina and Mexico highway 199. The Americans had selected this particular plot of fertile Chiapan valley as the perfect climate for the Macadamia plantation that they had always dreamed of. The picturesque valley ranch, named Esmeralda, employed many local townspeople and laborers from nearby Ocosingo (whom we met and gave rides to) while providing supplemental income through camping and cabañas for self styled amateur archaeologists.

The reason that Rancho Esmeralda wasn’t in our guidebook isn’t because Lonely Planet is abandoning the camping and hostel circuit. The real reason is that Rancho Esmeralda has been closed for at least 10 years; the owners either scared off or run off by the Zapatista uprising. Either way our venture down a dirt road to the now rebel encampment was met by more than a few curious stares from local villagers who haven’t seen a rig like ours in a decade, if ever.

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