Monday, May 12, 2014

Stuck in Mexico

15th April - 4th May 2014

The wind gods were not playing fair. Strong southerly winds kept us in Isla Mujeres for another two weeks. That was actually no hardship at all as it’s such a great little town. We had plenty to keep us busy. There were cruisers meet-and-greets, dinners at the local marinas, live music at night at any number of waterfront establishments and a little bit of barefoot dancing on the sand thrown in for good measure.

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One of our favourite spots to hang was the Bahia Tortuga which served excellent food, great Margaritas, a guitarist on Wednesday nights, fast internet and a free dinghy dock. What more could we want?

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We caught up with our Canadian and Aussie friends, wrote more blog postings, scrubbed the bottom of GWTW, read a few books and waited  and waited for the weather to turn to the north and blow us south to Belize.

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All things come to those who wait and eventually that day came around and we did our checkout formalities and headed out in company with Muneera for an overnight passage to Chinchorro reef, our last stop in Mexico.


The reef is true atoll, similar to those found in the pacific. No sooner than we’d arrived than the boys from the Navy came to check our papers. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues with lovely suede boots and brandished M5 automatic rifles. It was an interesting look. After they left, we hit the surf, it had been a long day. The snorkeling looked good out near the reef entrance so along with the gang from Muneera we loaded up the dinghies and headed out. Within minutes we spotted the tell tale signs of lobsters and temporarily  forgot the lobster season was now closed. Nick, Adrianna, Millie and Ella had never seen lobbies in the wild or eaten them fresh, so Liam caught a couple which we cooked up  and shared later that evening. Tomorrow we would be in Belize where a new adventure awaited us

But for the time being it was Hasta Luego Mexico!


Mexican Moments

14th –24th April 2014


After leaving Puerto Frances, Cuba with a fresh breeze from the southeast, we had a fast sail to the island of Isla Mujeres in Mexico, 200 miles to the west. As we neared the coast the wind really kicked in and we rounded the northern tip of the island with gusts of over 20 knots. The anchorage was on the lee side of the island away from the wind and the waves, it was good to arrive and drop anchor in the protected bay .

Sitting just off the coast from the mainland resort town of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a very popular place for day-trippers. They flock here in droves on the high speed ferries to enjoy the beaches, bars, snorkeling and scuba diving on the plethora of day-charter cats that cruise these waters. It was certainly a culture shock after being in Cuba, having that well-oiled tourist hot spot feel catering to night owls and sun worshipers alike. And, unlike Cuba, the supermarkets and souvenir shops were overflowing with just about anything your Mexican peso could buy. Quite a refreshing change indeed.

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The anchorage was pretty busy at this time of year, with most boats heading either south to Guatemala or north to the States to avoid the hurricane zone. We shared the bay with another Aussie cat “Out of the Bag” who’d we known for a number of years and with new friends from Canada on “ Second Wind”, and yet another Aussie boat “ Munerra”, we all got on really well which made for some fun get together on the boats and ashore.

A few months earlier I’d read on the net about a group of underwater statues that were just of the coast from where we were anchored. It was a large collection of  400 life-size statues  commissioned by Jason de Caires Taylor, the same guy whose sculptures we’d snorkeled on in Granada a few years ago. So we all jumped aboard Out of the Bag and headed out  to the site which was easily identified by the numerous pleasure boats all grouped together. It was an interesting sight spread out over a few acres. Many of the statures were  now covered in algae but a few had been cleaned. It was a shame really as it would have been great to have been able to see the expressions on their faces.

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 P4180018 Other than a very brief visit to Tijuana on the west coast many years back, we’d had very limited experience with Mexico, though we were aware that one of the main attractions on the Yucatan peninsular were the Maya ruins. They are  famous for being one of the seven wonders of the new world and we felt we shouldn’t leave this area without a little land travel to check them out. So we caught the ferry over to Cancun, hired a car, booked a few nights accommodation and set off exploring. The largest group of ruins are at Chichen Itza, a three hour drive from Cancun. As we arrived at our hotel  in Piste, the town closest to the site, late in the day we decided to chill out and hang the pool and hit the ruins early next morning before the heat set in. Just a five minute walk from our hotel and when the gates opened at 8 am we strolled through with only a handfull of people.


Not far from the entrance was the marvelous centre piece, the pyramid named El Castillo. Castle-like in appearance it was designed to represent the Mayan calendar.  An imposing structure standing smack bang in the centre of  vast field, it had ninety one steps on each of the four sides and along with the platform at the top the step count adds up to 365, the number of days in a year.  The site was quite spread out and it took a couple of hours to see it all. Along the way we hitched up with another Aussie couple and shared  the cost of their guide. That  turned out to be a bad decision as we could have easily done the whole place just by reading the signs and our guide book. Some of what he said was informative, though very long-winded and he did tend to ramble on a bit at times. There's something very mystical about ruins like these, and  it makes you wonder what motivated  those ancient civilizations to build them. Just as an aside, one of the very early calendars originated here, as did the use of a zero in mathematics, they were very clever people the Mayans.

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Uxmal was next on our list of ruins to visit and along the way we stopped for lunch at the “off the beaten track” town of Izamal, referred to  in Lonely Planet as “the yellow city”.  Nearly everything was painted yellow. It was a cutesy sort of place with some charming buildings, a lovely square and plenty of brightly clad ponies pulling their tourist buggies. After a yummy lunch of local cuisine, we had a good look around the cathedral (every town has at least one) and along some of the streets. It would have been nice to have stayed longer but Uxmal beckoned and we still had a long drive ahead of us.

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We arrived  too late to visit the ruins that afternoon but the sound and light show was on about 7pm, so that was a goer. We’ve been to these shows before in Egypt and they are always excellent. Well, this one was  just ok, it was in Spanish, we were in Mexico after all, and although we had headsets with an English translation we thought they milked the show a bit. Still at least we now had an idea of what the ruins were all about.



Next morning Liam bowed out and decided to stay by the pool to read and drink coffee instead, so I  trooped off alone.The Uxmal ruins were much better, in my humble opinion, than those at Chichen Itza. They were in much better nik and the setting, surrounded by dense jungle, was spectacular. There were no tour buses or their patrons, no tacky souvenir stalls in the grounds and the site was more tranquil and  much smaller than it’s big brother.

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With a five hour drive back to the coast, we left Uxmal late morning and headed for another popular spot, Tulum, just a bit south of Cancun. While the roads in Mexico are generally quite good, the signage is just the opposite, thank heavens we had our trusty ipad, complete with  GPS and maps with us. Several times we’d get to a decent size town, usually with dozens of intersecting streets, and  there’d be absolutely no signs directing you to the way out. I know it sounds a little crazy, but the road would suddenly go from a four lane thoroughfare to narrow streets, many  of them one-way. In Tical we drove in circles for over half an hour with no idea where to go, until we found a friendly cop who pointed us in the right direction. We might still be there if not for him.


Eventually we got to Tulum and found our little hotel just off the main drag. It had a  very well equipped kitchenette, big rooms, ceiling fans (no a/c), a little balcony and a modest pool.  There was a easy going vibe about the place with hammocks for lounging in and friendly staff.  Before dark we took a drive down the seafront where the beachfront hotels were cheek-by-jowl, this was one busy town. Sadly the Maya ruins had closed for the day and the next morning we needed to be on the road early to have the car back to the rental company.  Oh well, you can’t see it all.

The drive back to Cancun was a breeze. After dealing with a traffic jam, then a diversion on the outskirts of the city and getting lost (again!) we dropped  off the car, picked up a few essentials at Wal-mart and caught a taxi from there back to the ferry terminal. We’d had a hectic couple of days and by now were a bit frazzled. With the ferry in sight we trooped down the jetty to join the queue. Just before we boarded I asked Liam where his Ipad  was as I couldn’t see the familiar yellow bag hanging off his shoulder.  F**k!  he said and we broke ranks and ran back up the ramp but the taxi was long gone and so was the ipad.We both felt sick at the thought of loosing that magic little machine. Apart from the all the gucci stuff that it does it was also a major part of our navigation system on the boat.  What followed can only be described as an intensely stressful couple of hours for both of us. But it’s never over ‘till the fat lady sings.


Liam stayed at the jetty just in case the cab driver came back and I took another one back to Wal-mart as we’d been told that our original taxi would be returning there. But along the way my taxi broke down, just great I thought, can this day get any worse?.

After getting out and stopping three lanes of traffic so the driver could roll the disabled car back down the hill to a side street, he then asked me if I knew how to drive and put me behind the wheel to clutch start it while he pushed. Pretty soon it was obvious that this taxi was not going anywhere, anytime soon. If I was frazzled before, now I was definitely at breaking point. Here I was in the middle of peak hour traffic in a place I didn’t recognize, speaking no spanish and trying to find an empty taxi and there were none. I waved down a local minibus and a kind lady who spoke some english told me what the fare was and  where I’d have to get off.

An hour later I made it back to the original taxi rank outside Wal-mart. I searched the faces of every taxi driver waiting in the rank hoping for a glint of recognition but there was none.The taxi was nowhere to be seen. With that the flood gates opened and I burst into tears, a blubbering mess standing on the kerb.Two very kind drivers waiting for a fare came to my aid, it was changeover time and I was told that a new driver would have taken over the car. Eventually, one of the other drivers on the rank recognized me, tears and all, and he and his friend remembered  the name of the guy who drove us to the ferry, it was Pedro.


The nice man called the company boss and explained what had happened. At last some progress. Except the message relayed  back to me was that Pedro had gone home, did not have a mobile phone and his home phone was not answering. I pleaded with them to find out where Pedro lived, maybe I could go knock on his door.

Then just as I had given up hope and was in another taxi about to head back to Liam a call came from the company boss, Pedro had been reached and although now off duty had agreed to return to the rank. Twenty minutes later he appeared with that precious yellow bag and it’s contents intact. Was I relieved or what!  I hugged them all, thanked Pedro for his honesty and gave he and my helpers a handsome tip. Meanwhile, back at the ferry terminal Liam had been attempting to get the security people to view camera footage to identify the taxi number.  He’d had absolutely no luck. When I did  finally get back to him two hours later and scrambled out of yet another taxi, Liam couldn’t believe what I was holding.

Our inland travels had been fun but  with such an “exciting” end to the trip it was definitely time to go home and have a well earned drink or two.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cienfuegos to Puerto Frances : The south west coast.

2nd –13th April 2014


Our bus trip from Havana to Cienfuegos  took just over four hours and the time passed quickly as we skirted  rural farmland and sugar cane fields. We saw only two tractors working the many fields that  flashed past our windows. Abandoned and rusting parts lay by the roadside, weeds slowly engulfing them. A stark reminder of the many hardships brought upon the Cuban people by their government’s ideals.

Arriving back, GWTW was a welcome sight. It’s nice to get away for a bit of land travel but always good to come home. We were a little nervous leaving her at anchor, alone for a week but she was fine, just a bit grubby from the industrial fallout further down the bay. Nothing a good wash-down wouldn’t fix. We stayed one more day in Cienfuegos doing a quick bit of sightseeing around town and a little provisioning before heading off towards the west coast islands. Cienfuegos has some beautiful buildings and they have been much better preserved than those in Havana. It was like night v’s day wondering the streets of such a pretty city compared to that of the nation’s capital.

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 IMG_0680 With a lumpy seaway and a southeast wind, GWTW stretched her legs for the 40 mile sail to Cayo Guano del Este, an isolated rocky outpost staffed by two lighthouse keepers and their pets, two dogs and a goat, who followed them everywhere they went. The Cayo had a very grand lighthouse and we’d planned on going ashore to say hello and explore the surrounding reef, but the surge and strengthening winds kept us onboard. As the anchorage was becoming a little uncomfortable we spent only one night here before moving on to Cayo Sal the following day. Cayo Sal afforded much better protection from the prevailing southeast winds and the clear water and sandy bottom  gave us peace of mind that our anchor was well dug in.

P4050001We spent a lay-day here, doing boat chores, exploring the little cay and snorkeling the reef in the warm clear waters. It was a wonderful change after being land-bound during our recent travels. On the south side of the cayo we came across the ruins of what once would have been a beautiful yacht. A firm reminder of the strength of mother nature. nature. Laying forlornly on her side  badly holed and stripped of every last fitting both inside and out.

IMG_0009Our next stop was the island of Cayo Largo. We had a fast sail alternating between our jib and screecher as we crossed the  reef-protected blue waters of the shallow banks. We spent only two days in Cayo Largo. It’s a busy resort island that attracts a plethora of wealthy European travellers drawn by the calm waters, dazzling white sands and from what we’d read the fabulous and inexpensive scuba diving nearby. The place certainly appeared quite out of step with the rest of Cuba. At one end of the island there was a dolphin enclosure where the tourists could pay to have their photo with these wonderful creatures. It was upsetting to see these two beautiful dolphins locked up in the small shallow pen while all their relatives roam freely in the ocean just a few hundred yards away. By late afternoon strong southerly winds had kicked in but we were snug in our little anchorage sitting close inshore behind a long sandy spit.


Our main reason for stopping here was to complete our check-out formalities. The immigration staff were very polite as was the marina manager who came to our aid as a much needed interpreter.  When we had checked into Cuba weeks earlier on the east coast an official had neglected to stamp our tourist card (visa), and now when we wanted to leave the country it became an issue. The head of Cayo Largo’s immigration department was summoned  and after his very animated phone call to HQ in Havana it was apparent that heads would roll back in Santiago De Cuba when they ascertained who was responsible for this apparently monumentos oversight. We were assured that it was not a problem for us and that our departure paperwork would be ready by 11am the next morning. We are not lovers of going dockside but the Cuban officials had their rules. Before they would give us our departure clearance from the country they needed to inspect the boat for any hidden stowaways. The dock was pretty dilapidated  and we barely fitted alongside, a real tight squeeze with the wind pushing us onto it. Once again the officials were all very polite, they even put coveralls on their shoes before they boarded so as not to leave scuff marks from their black shoes.That was a first.

With papers in hand the next hurdle was to get GWTW safely off the dock. It ended badly. The maneuver was tricky with the wind pushing us sideways. As we let go the remaining port dock line and Liam thrust the throttles forward, the stern line found it’s way back into the water. After a loud bang, which had us puzzled for a moment, our port engine came  to a sudden halt. A mooring line had fouled the port propeller, snapping a staunchion in the process…bugger! We limped back out into the anchorage and after several attempts, cats don’t steer that well on one engine, we had the anchor set. Liam was straight over the side to investigate any underwater damage and remove the offending line that was wrapped firmly around our propeller shaft. It turns out that as the line gripped the spinning  prop shaft, it actually pulled the shaft and the engine aft causing the engine mounts to fail. They were still in place, albeit quite damaged. We could still use the engine, though we now had an uncomfortable level of vibration.  It was a given that our starboard engine would be in for a lengthy workout until we could  get the other one repaired back in the USA at the end of the cruising season.

After a crappy start to the day we chose Cayo del Rosario as our next destination, 20 miles to the west. It was a reef anchorage with good protection from the south, and we put the hammer down as we were now a couple of hours late and we were not keen on entering the reef pass in fading light. What transpired was one of our most nerve racking afternoons as we crossed the  shallow banks inside the reef. Half way across our depth sounder alarm started going off in stark contradiction as to what was on our charts, the  shifting sand banks were living up to their name. The wind had come up and now we also had short choppy seas making reading the water ahead of us nearly impossible. It was too late to retrace our steps so we furled the jib and pushed on. Our anxiety levels sky high with a possible grounding at any minute. Once we spotted a decent break in the reef we made a bee line for it and headed out to sea and  the safety of deeper water. It was a lot rougher out there but that said, it was still a good call. Cayo del Rosario proved to be an excellent anchorage. Arriving just as  a nasty squall approached we set the anchor as the rain and wind engulfed us, excellent timing!


The following day we just chilled out walked the beach and swam. Liam did some lobster hunting and scored a couple of nice ones after quite a bit of effort.They soon ended up on our plates for lunch. 

Just on dusk we had an amazing group of visitors stop by. A very home-built looking 30 foot open boat with bare wood planks for seats and an old truck engine as a motor pulled alongside. In it were eight guys and a  very pretty girl wearing a life jacket, they all looked to be in their all in their early twenties. The spokesman of the group, who had a good command of english, asked for directions to the next island which was only a few miles further on. It didn’t look like they had a chart or a compass let alone a GPS on board. They also asked if we could spare two AA batteries, we also gave them some packets of biscuits and  a box of muesli bars. Then they asked about the weather for the next few days and did we know how far it was to Mexico!.Our answer of around 300 miles didn’t seem to faze them at all. So what was going on here? Was this happy group making a run for a new life away from Cuba? We definitely think so. 


When we asked what their plans were, their response was “some adventure travel”.The seaworthiness of their boat made us think that they were unlikely to get very far. Feeling more than a little sorry for these guys we also gave them a big bag of clothes we no longer needed (you should have seen the girl’s eyes light up when she spotted a  couple of brand new bras in the bag!), along with some ropes and plenty of fresh water. They returned the favour with a few small lobsters, which was a really unnecessary but a nice gesture. Then they bid us a cheery farewell and motored off into the night. We often still wonder just where they ended up and if they made it to Mexico.

Next day we were on the move again, but stopped  for a few hours at another anchorage further west along Cayo del Rosario, a reef described by some cruising friends as a “lobster supermarket”. After 30 minutes and no sign of prey, we moved the dinghy to another patch of reef to try our luck again.Bingo, this time we weren’t disappointed. No sooner had Liam dropped into the water than he spotted a lovely big lobster sitting right underneath us. You beauty!  This spot turned out to be the best hunting grounds we’d ever had scoring five terrific sized critters in less than an hour. Liam might be the hunter but I quickly honed  my shills as a keen-eyed spotter, somehow I’d acquired the knack of seeing those fine, long whiskers gently moving in the waters below.


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Only two anchorages remained  for us before we left Cuba and headed west to Mexico, Cay Matiese and Puerto Frances. As we were preparing to depart Cayo Matiese the next morning a small fishing boat turned up with three aboard, keen to do some bartering. They dropped two large tuna on our transom and asked for coffee in exchange. We didn’t really want the fish but also didn’t want to appear rude and unfriendly, so we graciously accepted them and offered the coffee, some cigarettes, soap and beer. They left very happy with the deal. It’s really hard not to feel for these people. Two of the men were well into their 60’s, the boat was in a  very sad state and they wore dirty clothes, life is very tough for them indeed.

After a 50 mile sail in fabulous conditions we arrived at Puerto Frances, a wide-open anchorage with a reputation for excellent diving. No sooner than the anchor was down and set we both hit the aqua blue water for our last swim in Cuban waters. We had  been in Cuba a little over four weeks and had crammed a great deal into time here. While we missed out on some sights we did feel we covered the major ones and had lots of opportunities to get a very real sense of the culture and lifestyle of most Cubans. 


Cuba is so removed in so many ways from other places we have visited, the socialism being the dominant variable. Cuba is a third world country in most respects. Technology, communications, finance, agriculture and transport are decades behind most western countries, with no obvious improvements on the horizon. However, the most remarkable feature of the country is undoughtably the friendliness and warmth we constantly enjoyed from the people. They always made us feel really welcome and were genuine and courteous wherever we visited. Touring this country of contrasts was not always easy and might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but  for us, the overall experience was certainly worth the effort.