Archive for the ‘Quintana Roo’ Category

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Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar might be the best swimming lake on the planet. The plunge into the warm, clear, sandy bottom lake ended up being a substitute for a much-needed shower but would have been just as rewarding regardless. I don’t think I’ve had a more enjoyable lake swim ever; the conditions were perfect. We had originally intended to stop here before Mahahual but we never made it. I thought it was going to get skipped but the diversion back to Playa del Carmen from Mérida (we originally planned on driving south to Campeche) caused us to route back through Quintana Roo. In general we try not to drive the same road twice, our earlier van repair mandated forays back and forth to Tucson from Sonora, this stretch from Escarcega east and then north to Cancun, and later the stretch from the San Blas turn off north to Mazatlan being the only backtracking we’ll do. We would have liked to have stayed in Bacalar a bit longer and do some kayaking but we are on a bit of a schedule push and the camping facilities we selected were pretty lacking. We did manage to take a few photos in addition to our lake swimming. In the nighttime, long exposure shot of the tree in front of the lake, the light pollution streaming up from the horizon across the lake is the city of Chetumal.

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Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is everything I hate about Mexican resort towns; huge masses of fly-in tourists, cheap Chinese knock-offs pretending to be authentic indigenous art crafts sold at boutique prices, ridiculously over priced food serenaded in front of you as if to masquerade it as cuisine. And yet, I loved the place. It is by far my favorite Mexican resort town. It’s nouveau chic blended with Mexican fanfare is only missing surf-able waves to make me pack it in, jettison my real life and move permanently to become yet another expat restaurateur gouging tourists and underpaying the locals. The white sand beaches and warm, clear, snorkeling waters give the Mexican Riviera something truly special, Cozumel and world-class diving up the anty. Mix in the occasional topless euro, some daytime cocktails amongst the throbbing, pulsating, sand dance party at Mamitas Beach Club and I’m hooked. Love it. There are some other pictures over on Flickr, including a bunch of snorkeling pics taken with my new underwater camera, my excellent Christmas present from Glenn and Marilyn.

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Cenotes are cool… there are no lakes or rivers on the Yucatan, the seasonal rainfall seeps into underground aquifers and rivers, filling cenotes, grutas, cavernas and creating fascinatingly diverse and nearly circular formations throughout the Peninsula. The caverna cenote made for some refreshing swimming after our camping spot near Valladoid while the other pit looking cenote is one of the ceremonial cenotes from Chichén Itzá.

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Isla Holbox

Chilling (literally) on the beach.

Isla Holbox (Ol-bosh) was kind of a bust… I mean, it’s nice and all, but considering that it was nearly impossible to find a place to stay over the holidays and the place we did find, while clean and well kept, would have, elsewhere in Mexico, run in the realm of US$50 a night instead of the seemingly astronomical US$120. Having been mostly on the frugal side we were more than willing to splurge; considering we had a little over a week with Glenn and Marilyn and a little beach time with fru-fru, blended cocktails seemed like the right thing to do with the family. It wasn’t just the accommodations though, everything on the island (seeing as how its an island and all) had to be imported and was wildly expensive, not just Mexico expensive but US standards expensive. Seeing as how we were dropping several weeks worth of travel cash I had images of long afternoons of snorkeling in crystal clear, eighty degree water, lounging in the white sand, scanning through the sunglasses for the occasional topless, euro, twenty-something strolling the beach.

Apparently I didn’t do enough research. Holbox sits at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The combination of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Caribbean currents provide for the perfect habitat for migrating whale sharks through crystal clear waters… in the summer. In the winter, the combination of warm and cold-water ocean upwelling produces bone chilling, murky, and generally uninviting conditions. When combined with the even colder wind and clouds, unendingly rolling off the Atlantic, it yields hotel bar inducing conditions for all but the hottest hours of the day. Not exactly your quintessential Mayan Riviera vacation… we left the who-knows-why and seemingly vacant but still “sold-out” confines a day early.

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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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