Archive for the ‘Yucatan’ Category

Where the hell are we?????

9 January 2010

As I have been somewhat remiss in keeping this blog up to date, I will give you a quick rundown of what we have been doing. We are now in Antigua, the old beautifully-restored colonial capital of Guatemala.

Marilyn went to Puerto Aventuras, south of Playa del Carmen on December 6th. I joined her 4 days later on the following Thursday. We mainly hung out on the Mayan Riviera waiting for my bank card, including some snorkelling on the reefs in Puerto Morelos,

visiting the Mayan ruins in Tulum,

Chichen Itzaand Coban,  replacing the toilet seals in Sophie’s apartment, etc.

We left for Belize on January 2nd. Stayed in Corozal and then headed to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. (Described in the Belize Part I posting).  The next day, we went to the baboon sanctuary to see (and hear) howler monkeys, and to the wonderful Belize Zoo. After that, we drove to Flores in Peten department in Guatemala and visited the magnificent Tikal Mayan ruins. The day before yesterday, we went to Finca Paraiso (a working farm and tourist resort) on Lake Izabal in  southeastern Guatemala. We had a wonderful experience swimming in a hot spring waterfall in the middle of the jungle.

Last night we got to Antigua.

I intend to write up a few more blogs in the next little while. A second on Belize about meeting our monkey cousins, one on our tourist adventures on the Mayan Riviera, a major one on Maya culture once I get out of the Maya country, and one on impressions of Guatemala.

That’s all for now folks. Stay tuned.


Belize: Part I

5 January 2010

We finally got on the road to Belize on Saturday, January 2nd despite our best intentions. It is hard to leave a idyllic spot like Puerto Aventuras. I received my new bank card on Monday which the Bank of Montreal branch in Whitehorse couriered to me. So, in theory we could have left on Tuesday, but Marilyn was sick, so we couldn’t leave. Wednesday was a day of recuperation for Marilyn. Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Sophie had asked me the day before to try to get the flat fixed on her car, but it turned out she needed new tires according to a local tire repair place. I believed them since they don’t sell tires. So I went and bought a couple of tires in Playa del Carmen and installed them on the car. By then it was too late to leave, so we stayed in Puerto Aventuras for that night, but we did go to bed early. Actually, we were just planning for a short nap, but we woke up in the New Year. In the morning, we talked to Helena about the keys and giving her the money to get the apartment cleaned, and we started shooting the shit. But that turned into lunch, and late in the afternoon, we decided to stay for supper. Helena’s eyes lit up when I mentioned spaghetti aglio e olio, so that’s what we had for supper.

Luigi with raw borrego in front of the restaurant

Finally we left on Saturday morning for Chetumal and Belize after tanking up at the Pemex station in Puerto Aventuras. I found out the gas jockeys only make 70 pesos a day and depend on their tips. According to the president of Mexico, that is enough money to live on, one of the gas station attendants told me. I would like to see these right wing politicians live on the amount of money they think is enough for others. I’m sure Calderón lives on much more than 70 pesos a day, and I don’t think he ever had to. One other point Helena brought up is that the policemen are also grossly underpaid, so it is not surprising they try to get bribes: they do want to feed their families. We stopped for lunch in Felipe Carillo Puerto, between Tulum and Chetumal. Absolutely excellent barbequed lamb (barbacoa de borrego)!

We got to the border around 3:30, but by the time all the formalities (surrendering the Mexican tourist license, getting the vehicle sprayed with disinfectant, getting the Belizean tourist permit, then going through customs and finally buying insurance) were done, it was 4:30. Since it gets dark before 6:00 PM, we figured we better not go too far. So we went to Corozal, the first town after the border.

We stayed at Tony’s Inn and Beach Resort (slogan: “For those who like the best”) on the south side of town. We walked into Corozal looking for what the tourist guide claimed was the best restaurant. On the way, a couple of teenagers playing basketball asked us how we liked Belize and welcomed us to their country. I think I can warm up easily to that kind of people. It was just a pleasant, warm experience, and put Belizeans in very good light. But Belizeans create Christmas light decorations that rival anything in the Yukon for their fantastic kitsch.

We finally found out that the restaurant had been closed for a few years, but recommended another two. We met a young English couple who were also going to eat. The first one, Patty’s, was closed, but Vamps’ Chill and Grill was up. So we went there and had a couple of Belikin beer. I drank my first one to Tony DeLorenzo’s health: may his arm and wrist heal perfectly. Tony and Sierra went to Belize for their honeymoon, and asked me to drink one for him. So I drank four. It’s actually a pretty good beer for a commercial product, much better than the Belizean Lighthouse lager and the run-of-the-mill Mexican beers. The guys had rice and beans and chicken while the girls had fajitas. The couple both worked in operations research (i.e. heavily mathematical applied economics), and Marilyn said she felt out-numbered.

Sunday January 2, 2010

We had a good breakfast (eggs for Marilyn, fruit plate for me with “jacks”). “Jacks”, a specialty of the hotel, were absolutely wonderful wheat tortillas folded over and deep fried, which puffed up when fried. With papaya jam, they were absolutely great. Reminds me very much of the gnocco fritto of Modena, and equally good.

On the road again I was happy to see there were no more topes. Instead, there were f…ing speed bumps all over the place! Can’t these countries find ways of reducing speeding in towns other than those damned suspension-destroying bumps????!!!! Also, Belize still operates in gallons (real Imperial ones, not the wimpy US ones) and miles per hour. When I first tanked up, I was taken aback by a pump price of eight dollars something for gas. But then I realized it was Belize dollars per gallon.  The Belize dollar is worth $US0.50, so that translates to about a dollar a litre, about the same as in Canada.

We then decided to head for the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We had lunch there in the camper, and walked along one of the bird trails. We came across the Birds Eye View Lodge right on the lagoon. As the rooms are air-conditioned and it’s a really nice and relatively inexpensive hotel, we decided to stay here. Excellent supper of conch and chicken, accompanied by the rice and beans the Belizeans are incapable of surviving without. And more Belikin to keep me from drying out.

Great Egret and Wood Stork

Mad dash to the Yucatán

24 December 2009

Tuesday 9 December, Morelia to Orizaba?

Carlos called me around 10:00 AM to let me know the truck was ready. After going to the bank, getting a cappuccino, I took a cab and got in the truck. I tested it and I don’t think the truck ever ran smoother with the camper. My faith in Mexican mechanics was fully justified, I think.

I drove towards Toluca, southwest of Mexico City, but decided to go around Mexico City rather than go through Toluca. It looked like that road would take me right through the city and I wanted to obey Karyn Armour’s admonition to avoid Mexico DF. It looked like there were major roads that would bypass Mexico, but to the north. So at the end of the Autopista, I set my GPS to go to Tula, which was on the Mexico-Queretaro Autopista. Once I get there, I figured I could head south to Texcoco and then to the Autopista to Puebla.

Of course, I miss a turn on and end up in a small village with topes (speed bumps), which I take a little fast. A few minutes later, I see flashing lights behind me, and the Policia Estatal (State police) of the State of Mexico (There is Mexico the country, Mexico the Mexican State, and Mexico Districto Federal, the Capital city) stops me. They tell me I don’t have a front license plate and that I was driving without sufficient care. I try to explain that I don’t have a front licence plate because the Yukon doesn’t have one. They tell me the fine is 230 dollars. I think, “Wow, this is pretty steep!” So I ask where can I pay it and how long do I have to pay it. They say a week, but I have to pay it in Toluca. So then comes the game of nudge-nudge wink-wink.

They say we can come to an arrangement since I am a tourist. I act dumb (actually not deliberately because I don’t get it at first) and think what the hell, I’ll pay the fine, I did go a little fast inadvertently. So I tell them I will follow them to the station and offer them my passport so they don’t have to remove my license plate (which is what the cops do in Mexico to ensure that the fines are paid: you get your plates back after you’ve paid the fine). The one cop, white European looking, tells the other cop (Indian or mestizo): “¡Explicale! (Explain to him)”. So the second one says: “Lo que el jefe dice es que … (What the chief said is that …)” and I missed the rest, but it was pretty clear that a bribe would have got me off. So I think, should I give them anything?

I decide not to. After all, I don’t think I should undermine the mainly successful efforts of Mexican governments to eradicate corruption. I also think back about a story I heard many years ago from my ex-wife’s cousin (Ricardo, IRRC) who lived in Mexico City for a while. He insisted in paying the fine rather than giving the cop a little mordida and eventually got off. So I say; “No, prefiero pagar la multa. (No I prefer to pay the fine.)” This goes on for a little while and I repeat a few times that I’d rather pay the fine. Finally, the jefe says: “¡Paganos una comida! Just pay us a meal)”. I smile and say: “Si, tengo hambre también. ¿Donde vamos? Le sigue. (Sure, I’m hungry too, where do we go? I’ll follow you.) This is where they give up on the stupid Gringo. The jefe shakes my hand, tells me to drive carefully and wished me a good trip. One little win against corruption!

A little while later, I end up in another village, with a GMC or Chevy SUV in front of me. We end up at a point where the street is blocked because of construction. He turns around and opens his window and tells me to follow him. We go on a dirt track to get on the other street parallel to this one and then the driver stops and signals me to stop. We end up chatting, and the two guys ask me where I’m going. I tell them Cancun and that I am trying to avoid Mexico City. They agree it is an excellent idea and start giving me directions on how to get to the Autopista. I also tell them about the incident with the cops and they totally approve of me not paying, with some nasty comments about bullshit cops. Then another friend shows up. This last guy drives quite often to Cancun, so we pull out the maps and he tells me the best way there. He confirms what the other two guys told me, and tells me what exits to take to get to Texcoco (East of Mexico) and the Arco Norte, a major new highway from Veracruz to the Pacific, which is still partially under construction from Texcoco to Puebla and not clearly shown on the maps. He also suggests that I try getting no further than Puebla that night and states that it will take me at least another two days after that as some of the highways after Villahermosa are in pretty bad condition because of truck traffic.

So I try to follow the directions. I manage to get to the Autopista and I get to a toll booth where government employees hand me literature on Mexico City and a circulation permit that allows me to drive on all days and not only on odd numbered ones, to match my license plates. In an effort to reduce the massive smog in Mexico City, cars are only allowed to drive on certain days depending on whether their license plates end up in even or odd numbers. Then an ambulante tries to sell me a map of Mexico so I don’t get lost and I tell him no thanks, I am going to Puebla. He tells me I am going the wrong way and that I missed the exit to Texcoco and that I have to turn around immediately, before paying the toll. Despite my hesitation, the ambulantes and the young government tourist guides all team up to stop the traffic and guide me as I turn the truck around and drive to the other side of the highway. Making a U-turn in massive traffic at a toll booth and nobody getting excited or pissed off or honking their horn. ¡I love Mexico!

I stop for gas, ask how far the exit to Texcoco is, get the information as it is a little tricky on this side of the highway. I get the exit right this time. After a while, I see the exit to Puebla I am supposed to take, except it is blocked off. At the nearby toll booth, I ask the attendant if I should turn around. He tells me to continue to the end of the Autopista. Well, that ends up 17 kilometres further southwest (instead of east) and I have to go through traffic. My GPS confirms the route. Then I decide to turn back, stop at a store to get some water and snacks (it is getting dark and I have had nothing to eat since the porridge in the morning at the hotel). They tell me to turn back around in the direction I was originally going and to continue on, as it would be too complicated to go through Texcoco. Well, I continue until the GPS tells me to make a left. Big mistake! Had I turned left just another few blocks I would have immediately got on the Autopista to Puebla.

Anyway, I start going on narrow city streets full of topes, followed by a narrow road full of animals on the shoulders, and then another village. As it is getting to the feast of the Guadalupe, there are fireworks everywhere. I go through one village where the traffic slows down considerably where there is a crowd watching the fireworks and partying to loud music. I am sorely tempted to park the truck, pull out my bottle of tequila and join the party. But I think that I need to get to poor lonely Marilyn, so I continue on. At one point I say to myself, one more tope and I will scream. Aargh! Lots more topes.

I finally get to a major street where the stupid GPS tells me to turn left, but there is a median and it is impossible. I continue for a few hundred metres and ask some cops where I can get the Autopista. They tell me a few hundred metres to the left. I, of course, miss the damn entrance to the Autopista. I decide to follow the GPS which tells me to turn right on a street. It then recalculates and tells me to continue for 37 kilometres to the Autopista. I debate whether I should listen to the GPS or turn around. As there is no space to turn around, I continue.

I eventually end up on this narrow mountainous road full of hills, twists and turns for 37 kilometres, driving at about 30 to 50 kilometres per hour, with steep cliffs on one side. Luckily it was dark and my vertigo did not take hold. For the last 10 kilometres or so, I am frustratingly driving right next to the Autopista.

I finally get on the Autopista, and drive past Puebla without incident. I regret that it was dark because I wanted a picture of the factory where our Volkwagen Jetta was born, but, hey, you can’t have everything. At around 10:30 I decide to stop at a truck stop, have some quesadillas, call Marilyn and sleep in the camper. It was a comfortable cool night since the elevation was at about 2,500 metres.

Wednesday, 9 December, Orizaba to Ciudad del Carmen

I woke up around seven, and after a Noescafé at the truck stop, I got on the way. I was just west of Orizaba. There was pretty spectacular scenery, going downhill from the heights of central Mexico to the coastal plain. Volcanoes and hills. It also gets much more humid as I descend and the pines are replaced by palm trees.

I reached Villahermosa without incident and as my friend in that village (I wish I could remember the name) had said, some bits of the road were pretty bad. I changed some travellers cheques and asked for directions as to the best way to get to Playa del Carmen, south via Chetumal or north via Mérida and Cancún. I asked an SCT (Federal government road agency) employee who happened to be in the line-up behind me and he told me to go by Ciudad del Carmen (not Playa), in the Bay of Campeche. He also offered to show me the way as it was a little tricky to get to the highway and he was going that way anyway. So I followed him until the turnoff. At the border with Campeche state, there is an agricultural “aduana”, where they ask me if I am carrying any fruit. I hand over oranges and mandarins, which they do not allow into the Yucatan peninsula for fear of disease transmission. I tell the inspector that there are also orange peels in the garbage bag, which he takes and throws out for me. I also tell him of how, in Canada, they actually wash cars when you leave the island of Newfoundland for the same reason.

I drove on quite a bit and it was dark when I got to Ciudad del Carmen. I decided I did not want to deal with driving in the dark with animals and other dangers on the road. I went to the first hotel I saw. It was a bit of a dump, but for $350 it claimed to have what I wanted: air conditioning and internet. Well neither the air conditioning nor the internet worked in the first room I tried, nor in the second.

So I got a refund and wandered around the city for a bit until I saw a taxi stand. I asked one of the taxistas to show me a decent hotel with internet and air conditioning and I would follow him. He mentioned the Fiesta Inn, and I said OK. We can’t get to the Fiesta Inn because of traffic, so he takes me to the Holiday Inn express. It’s pretty expensive, $1,580, so I pay off the taxi drive and decide to go to the Fiesta Inn. That one is even more expensive. After asking if they knew of a cheaper place, I realize I am too tired, don’t really want to go around the city some more and decide to stay there. I have supper at the hotel restaurant: chicken tacos, but they are rolled up like a cannolo, crispy and packed full of chicken meat.

Thursday 10, Ciudad del Carmen to Puerto Aventuras

The next day, I leave Ciudad del Carmen after breakfast at the hotel. Thin oatmeal and bad coffee and a fruit plate. Past Ciudad del Carmen, there is a very nice mostly deserted beach, with a few hotels and restaurants. I stop to take pictures of pelicans on pilings. After that, a long causeway takes me back to the mainland. Straight roads in flat country. I eventually turn right to go to Escárcega on the main Villahermosa-Chetumal highway, which ends up being pretty good at this point.

Since Tuesday, I see a whole lot of trucks filled with teenagers and young people in sports uniforms, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadelupe attached to the vehicle. They all act as support vehicles for either runners or bicyclists carrying a torch for the Virgin, and they obviously relay each other. I wave and honk at most of them, and, of course, slow down when I am passing them.

I drive almost continuously, hoping to make it to join Marilyn as soon as possible, just stopping to pee. I don’t think I really miss much as the countryside is pretty flat jungle. After I turn to the north just before Chetumal, the highway turns very touristy, with resorts advertised all over the place. Around Chetumal, I call Marilyn to let her know I will get there around 7:00 PM, and I do get to Sophie’s apartment in Puerto Aventuras just after 7:30.

View from Sophie's condo