Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 23, 2010 - Corozal, Belize

Hi Everyone,

Last time you heard from us we had just checked into customs in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Isla Mujeres is a slender, three-mile-long touristy island with nice beaches. After Cuba the stores seemed to burst with fruits, juices, and cookies! Internet was everywhere. The main road running the length of the island buzzed with cheerful locals on scooters, wearing colorful plastic helmets, but it also carried countless golf carts loaded with sunburned North Americans in beach attire.

Isla Mujeres is also a yachting center. Twenty or so cruising sailboats remained in the harbor and in the connecting lagoon, but they were thinning out. Every morning the cruisers conferred by VHF, just like in Marathon. Each day more sailed north to Texas or Florida or south to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Finally they canceled the net due to lack of participation. We tried tying to pilings where we could wade ashore but ended up anchored in the harbor for better breeze and privacy. Our neighbors at anchor became friends. We learned where to buy supplies and get things made out of metal. It was a good place for more boat work. We replaced the second of our flexible solar panels with a hefty 20 watt panel which provides more power than we know what to do with. We also made a new tiller tamer and spent an inordinate amount of time ordering replacement items on the internet for our parents to bring down to our wedding.

We had finally escaped winter. The 90-degree heat was bearable only due to the constant trade winds. We wore light-colored clothes and Keens sandals. Our tarp kept out sun as well as rain. We no longer needed a cover over us at night. Isla Mujeres is across the bay from Cancun, so it was an easy sail for us to return to our old hangouts in Puerto Juarez and see our friends Mark and Javier. We spent about three weeks in the Isla Mujeres/Cancun area, then began our descent South.

We started by sailing through the large mangrove lagoon that lies behind the hotel zone. We came out south of the hotels, behind the coral reef. The following days we sailed south, sometimes in front of the reef, sometimes behind it. There are gaps in the reef, but in a larger sense it is continuous. The beach was endlessly lovely. The forest behind was flat and bug-infested. Houses and tourist facilities dominated the coast but miles of undeveloped shoreline still remained.

In Puerto Morelos we spent a night at anchor in the lee of a wrecked ferry hoping for extra shelter from the waves, the reef being a highly imperfect breakwater. It didn´t help much. At another place we pitched our tent on the beach to avoid the bouncy anchorage, and stayed three days refinishing our oars. We passed the a mega-tourism center of Playa del Carmen without stopping and continued along a coast of rough, low rock with sandy bays. We slept in reef-protected coves and snorkeled amid surf-spumed coral and erosion-sculpted limestone. Mangroves often fringed the shore, their cloven roots dipping into the water like sharp, slimy fingers. In one cove Steve found the mouth of a subterranean river: cold, blurry water that filtered up through a bed of sharp rocks to lie in a layer over the heavier salt water.

Needing supplies, we entered Puerto Aventuras, a tourist resort the size of a city, with thousands of rooms and a large marina. The locals servicing the complex made up a large community in their own right; their homes and stores were on the other side of the coastal highway. We tied to a dock across from pens where tourists were paying to “swim” with dolfins and mannatees, but we never paid anything because the dockmaster´s office was closed. We got our supplies from the cheaper stores across the highway. In our wanderings Ginny found a baby great-tailed grackle (a sort of crow with a raucous whistle) in the street being batted about by a pair of cats. She brought it to the boat, made it a nest in the cabin, and fed it sugar-water from an eyedropper.

At Tulum we sailed up to the beautiful Mayan ruins, on a cliff overlooking the sea. The central tower was once a lighthouse marking an entrance through the reef; we entered where the Mayans once entered with their trading canoes. We had spent a lot of time in Tulum in 2008 when we toured the Yucatan by truck and canoe. Then we camped in our truck. This time we tried sleeping aboard. The water was too rough. So we pitched our tent on top of a wooded sand dune and waded through surf whenever we needed something from the boat. Our neighbors, also in a tent in the woods, were a lovely young Mexican couple. They were supporting themselves, barely, as street musicians. Steve got out his accordion and shared music with them. Tulum was the last sizeable town before we crossed into Belize, so we provisioned and used internet shops.
We went to a veterinarion, who advised Ginny to feed the baby grackle bananas and apples! Sadly, “Grax” did not survive her traumas. Ginny buried her in the upper beach and Steve drew a heart in the sand over her resting place.

After a week in Tulum we continued down a less-populated part of the coast. At a river mouth we took down our masts and rowed under a bridge to reach a series of lagoons that run parallel to the coast. We navigated these calmer waterways for a change in mood. We were told thehy were filled with crocodiles! Narrow, winding passages connected the several lagoons, the last of which widened to become Bahia de la Ascension, a vast bay with reefs and islands at its mouth. At the northern entrance to the bay, at the end of a long dirt road, was the town of Punta Allen. We stayed three days, to get a metal part fixed and to spent time with a couple travelers, a Swiss named Chris and an American guy named Goyo. Goyo we had met a couple weeks earlier, he was “Walking for Peace” along the coast, camping with his dog and spreading the word of a simpler, spiritually aware lifestyle.

After exploring the eastern reaches of Bahia de la Ascension a bit we sailed into open sea for the transit to the next big bay. This was our roughest day to date. We reefed way down and for the first time found it prudent to leave the drain plug out of Thurston’s stern. The waves broke in with such frequency and volume that we couldn’t bail fast enough, so we removed the plug and let the water around our feet find its equalibrium. We bashed away on a near reach and were glad to anchor in the next mammoth bay, Bahia del Espiritu Santo.
Our anchorage this night was typical of many along these shallow coasts, and was possible only due to Thurston’s mere six inches of draft. The reef broke up the big waves, but considerable fragmented wave energy got through. The lagoon behind the reef was four feet deep, The distance to the beach was sufficient for new waves to supplement the residual waves. But the lagoon shoaled evenly, the last hundred yards being under eighteen inches deep with a bottom of eel grass. The shallowness kept toppling the little waves until none were left where we anchored, in less than a foot of water. There is virtually no tide here so we never grounded out. Thus we enjoyed a still night though the trade wind blew directly onshore. We walked for miles along the unoccupied beach, opened coconuts for their water, and visited a couple of tiny fishing villages.
After Bahia del Espiritu Santo we followed a straight coastline, sometimes inside the reef, sometimes outside. Inside was calmer and we could stop whenever we wanted. The downside is that coral heads barely reaching the surface can appear anywhere inside the lagoon. We kept a constant lookout and often swerved at the last second. Once we had to get out and walk the boat through a labyrinth, careful not to touch the living coral.

We reached Mahahual, another town we had visited two years before. It stands by itself, a southerly outpost of the touristic Costa Maya. The last time we were here Mahahual was recovering from a hurricane. This time the cruise ship pier had been rebuilt and the “malecon” (seaside pedestrian thoroughfare) had been finished. While we walked the malecon the hucksters at the restaurants and artesan shops bonbarded us with invitations and attempts at shallow friendship; is it polite to simply ignore them? But the water was really clear! From Mahahual south the visibility was usually at least 40 feet. We saw turtles, nurse sharks, and barracuda most times we snorkelled, not to mention the countless colorful little reef fish which hang out, each over their own little niche in the coral rock. We renewed our acquaintance with familiar species and happily noted new ones. We rarely knew their names, but we remembered their faces.

The last time we were in Mahahual we heard about a massive offshore atoll called Chinchorro Bank, seven miles wide and twenty-three miles long. The problem is it lays eighteen miles to windward. To reach it, and similar atolls in Belize, could be the Mount Everest of our current voyage. They say these are the only atolls in the Western Hemisphere. What does such a place look like? And how crystalline and teeming with life must the water be? Finally we would find out! Knowing it may be prohibited to go there we didn’t inquire about permits or tell anyone our plans. The bank lay east, and our boat is mediocre to windward. Also, a branch of the Gulf Stream flows north at two knots through the deep straight between Mahahual and Banco Chinchorro.

We wanted to get there for Steve’s birthday on June 11th, so we got underway early on the 10th despite the east wind and started bashing into the waves. All day we were soaked and seemingly getting nowhere. After nine hours and only about 18 miles later the water finally changed from deep blue to shallow green. After two more hours we anchored in the lee of Cayo Centro, a mangrove island a half mile wide and two miles long in the center of the bank. How good the stillness felt!

In the morning we found ourselves in the midst of a vast marine wilderness. We swam along the mangrove shore past an unoccupied fishing village on stilts, and later sailed out to the the rough, eastern edge of the atoll. A strong current setting west across the reef complicated this swim, but we also explored several of the hundreds of the coral clusters scattered over the interior of the bank. Each was a little almost-island rising from a depth of perhaps twenty feet nearly to the surface. We sighted all the standard reef denizens, and some new ones.

We saw only a few fishing launches and Navy boats until the fourth day, when a Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) official approached us to say we were in a biosphere reserve. We’d have to leave in the morning and refrain from further swimming! We complied with the first request but not the latter. The next morning; as we sailed back across the west dropoff, we couldn’t resist seeing what it was like. Quite different from the east side, where waves break, the western edge was calm and scenic, with a floor dropping from ten feet rapidly into great depths. Coral rocks with a high coverage of live coral studded the sandy flanks. Visibility was seventy feet!
We returned to the mainland and followed it to Xcalak, the tiny port of entry near the Belize border. Here, on June 16, we got our clearance and said goodbye to eight lovely weeks in Mexico.

To Ginny the five miles to Belize was excruciating. At one point a Mexican Navy boat came racing towards the side of the boat, but turned off.

We entered Boca Bacalar Chico and made our way wiggling west through the mangrove channels, we got lost down dead ends and sometimes had to paddle. Ginny kissed the first mangrove we crashed into on the Belizian side. So good to be back! We entered San Pedro harbor near sundown and anchored in some slimy weeds across from the fishing boats on shore. In the morning we made our way to immigration. We were early and the officer kept saying “oh man, you guys, it’s so early. Oh man. What, have you been waiting here since six? Oh man, it’s really early you guys.” Our first Belizian faux pas. The customs guy wouldn’t even come out to our boat, he said it was too early to get wet. They both said “Welcome to Belize”. That’s all we wanted to hear!

We enjoyed a couple days in the bustling city of San Pedro. The golf carts run wild in the streets, driven by tourists holding drinks and Belizians with noise makers celebrating soccer games. After learning our Oregonian friends who have a home in Corozal would be leaving for the states in a few days we decided to sail to Corozal to say hi before they left. We had a beautiful, relaxing, mind numbingly slow sail and met up with them a day and a half later. This is where we write you from today. Our time in Corozal has been peaceful, despite all the rushing around we’ve been doing trying to get our marriage papers done.

Oh yeah, did we mention we are getting married? We’ve set the date for July 1st and some of our favorite people are coming down to celebrate with us in Caye Caulker. It’s going to be excellent! Last minute attendees are welcome, especially if you are willing to play love songs on the spoons.

As you know we are very non-materialistic people who also happen to be quite short on space so if you want to give us a wedding present we request one of the following:
  • Adopt an Elephant in our name: http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/asp/fostering.asp
  • If you know one of the people who came down for our wedding donate some money towards their expenses.
  • Imagine we are normal people who want normal things, decide what you want to get us, then take whatever amount of money you would have put into that item and spend it on some activity or gift for yourself which will bring you real joy. A trip to the aquarium to see the seahorses or even just an ice cream cone. Then imagine we are the ones who gave you the item or experience. Your gift to us will be the opportunity to make you happy! So, if you choose this one be sure to tell us about it.
We have posted new pictures in our Mexico album and a few in our new Belize album. After the wedding we’ll update the blog with more pictures, though we won’t send out another mass email for a month or so. In other news, Steve's articles should have begun to appear in Small Craft Advisor so check them out if you get the chance.