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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.