Rio Dulce, Guatemala: Quebec-ian youth

•07/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

A new post, and yet we are still in Guatemala…take that TREE! ‘Beta’ (Tree’s term for information) is the wind that fills the sails of the good ship SprinterLife. Tree is always 3 steps ahead of the game intel-wise. This works out great for us, since we are the lucky beneficiaries of Mr.Trujillo’s detailed research. Our usual modus operandi is to let SprinterLife get a couple day’s head start and then gently breeze through town in their substantial wake. This particular course has led us into the beautiful river town of Rio Dulce.

Our own ‘Beta’ (Lonely Planet), had led us to the Backpacker’s Hostel/Restaurant. This place is right on the river and helps support a local orphanage. We had heard that travelers could work out an arrangement to stay for free at the hostel in exchange for volunteering at the orphanage. It turns out that this is not necessarily true. You can volunteer at the orphanage, but not in exchange for lodging and you must also pay for a boat to take you down the river to the orphanage…which ends up being about $90. Emily was really into working with the kids, but unfortunately this involved a decent amount of money, a full day’s commitment (because of the boat trip) and on top of all this Luna was starting to act lethargic again. A trip to the vet was now a possibility. We decided to stay put for a while to monitor Luna’s condition as we started her back on the Doxicycline regimen.

We were the only people in our dorm-style room for the first 2 nights. Then, we were joined by a group a backpackers from Quebec. Many Canadians had crossed our path during our journey so far, but this was our first encounter with French Canadians. Definitely a different breed. The group consisted of 2 girls and 2 guys. They were in their late teens and full of energy. They offered us much in the way of constant entertainment. They were into poi spinning, Edith Piaf, pot, journals, dreadlocks, tall cans of beer, jumping into the river, pushing people into the river, singing in French and playing guitar. Awesome. One of the girls had recently ‘liberated’ herself from a Christian work camp in central California, and was now heading still south. They were a trip and made me wish I had done more traveling when I was a younger man.

It was nice being on the river, except for our close proximity to the main thoroughfare bridge. We heard the wonderful screech of tractor trailers applying their air brakes all night long. It rained a lot while we were on Rio Dulce, whuch made for lazy days just sitting around writing, drinking, and watching the spectacle of Quebec-ian youth. The uneventful days breezed by and before we knew it, it was time to head to El Salvador. We had been away from the coast for too long and I needed some waves.

Luna was in a bad way, and at some point in the night before we were to depart, she tore a hole through the sheet and well into the foam of the ‘mattress’ of the bed she was on. We apologized to the hostel and offered to pay whatever they wanted to make everything ok. They charged us a whopping $9 for the sheet and mattress combo and we left on good terms.

We didn’t know what to expect as we headed towards El Salvador, but surf was on the agenda. Everything I know about the country I learned from Oliver Stone’s movie “Salvador”. I only hoped that we wouldn’t get mistaken for press and get riddled with bullets from a low flying fighter plane.


I Hear Guatemala Is Very Dangerous

•04/16/2011 • 1 Comment

Guatemala Is Dangerous?

We thought were prepared for Guatemala. This was to be the REAL danger-zone of the trip. We take everything we read in the mainstream media with a grain of salt; there are just too many agendas that shape the information before it reaches us to be taken at face value. Our most reliable information comes from fellow overland travelers and people with whom we are connected living in the area. But, even the overland forums had something to say about the dangers of Guatemala, not the least of which was the Zetas, and other cartels that had recently become a presence in Guatemala, and not just in the big cities. Car-jackings during traffic jams have become so prevalent in Guatemala City that one woman was robbed at gunpoint twice while waiting in 20 minutes of traffic. With all of this in mind we hid our electronics, brought out our ‘dummy’ computer (+cell phone, ipod), placed our self-defense can of Raid wasp spray within arms reach, and headed for the border with Sprinter Life.

This border was actually pretty easy. Leaving Belize was more of a hassle than entering Guatemala. At the Guatemalan checkpoint all the windows and counters you needed to visit were located under one open-faced structure. Everything was so lax that no one looked in the van or even saw Luna, and we therefore didn’t even have to declare (or pay for) our dog. This was definitely one of the more pleasant border crossing experiences. The caravan of SprinterLife and PleasureDevice had now entered infamous Guatemala, and we were all headed down towards Tikal and El Remate.

We followed SprinterLife directly to gates at Tikal, hoping to see the ruins before it got dark. At the entrance some guy started making a big deal about Luna, who was in plain sight up near the front in her ‘driving’ position. They said that dogs weren’t allowed in the park. There were no signs to this effect, but all the attendants there seemed pretty adamant about it and hostile towards us, as if we had been trying to smuggle Luna in. We pulled over to the side to talk about it with the guy. He didn’t just immediately turn as away, which gave us the impression there was some ‘room for interpretation’ of the no dogs thing if we slip him some money. We told him that Luna would stay in the car and we would not be camping in the park overnight. That didn’t work. We told him there were no signs saying that dogs weren’t allowed and asked him what we could do and he just got more agitated. It was weird, and the opportunity for a bribe never really presented itself, but he also never really flat out turned us away. So, after 5 minutes of discussion, we turned around and left the park entrance just as pissed-off as the park employees seemed to be. None of the guidebooks or blogs about Tikal mention this, but apparently DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED AT TIKAl. I understand the reasoning, it’s a national park with lots of wildlife and an ecosystem they don’t want disturbed by other animals, but a sign somewhere before the 20 min drive to the entrance would be nice. SprinterLife had gotten down the road into the Tikal park a bit during all this and we had no way to let them know what was going on. They had a dog with them too, but had gotten through ok. We figured they would go ahead and explore the park and we’d meet up later somewhere in El Remate. A few minutes later they actually pulled up behind us down the road. We told them our story and they decided to wait and do Tikal early the next morning. For now we were off to find lodging in El Remate.

El Remate is a sleepy little ‘town’ on the northeastern corner of Peten Itza, a lake between Tikal and LasFlores. Lots of horses and little docks lined the shore. The water was the most amazing teal-green color and the perfect temperature. The first place we checked was  MonAmi Hotel. At $70 USD per night, this place was not an option for us, but Tree had heard that the only internet in the area was to be found at MonAmi, so he and Stevie were staying put. There were plenty of little hotel/restaurants down that little stretch of road that curved around then lake. We stopped at Casa De Ernesto’s (casadernesto@hotmail.com/ (502)5750-8375…5164-8862) to ask about camping or their cheapest room option. When we pulled up, the restaurant was in preparation for a baby-shower that evening. One of Ernesto’s daughters, Gloria?, was very much pregnant and told us we could camp for free if we purchase our meals at the restaurant. She also invited us back for the baby shower. Everyone there was really nice and we were actually looking forward to coming back to the baby shower later. Our camp spot was just up the driveway on a level piece of land between the restaurant and cabinas. We were surrounded by trees and plants, and had only a short walk to the restroom/showers. It was perfect.

We walked the short hike back to where Tree and Stevie were staying to get in on some internet action and let them know our whereabouts. The restaurant at MonAmi had a really cool vibe and we stayed a while to have some wine with our friends. The food, we were told, was not very good and very much over-priced, so we stuck to drinking. By the time we made it back to Ernesto’s, the baby shower was pretty much done and the restaurant was closed as they cleaned up in the aftermath. They did, however, let us drink some beers and gave us each a plate leftover from the baby shower. Babyshower cake served alongside a homemade chicken tamale is a genius combination. I could have had 3 plates, easy.

The next morning we had our first ‘tipico’ Guatemalan breakfast plate: eggs, black refried beans with cream, cheese, plantains, and tortillas. The tortillas we encountered in Guatemala, were more like small pancakes. They were very thick and substantial. You could only eat one or two of these things, and don’t even think about trying to fold it over taco-style, it’ll never work. So far, the food in Guatemala had been amazing.

The next few days were spent enjoying Peten Itza. A short walk down the road from Ernesto’s was a wooden dock/walkway that extended out into the lake about 100ft with a small palm/thatch covered platform at the end. There were other similar setups all along the shore, but for some reason this one felt right to us, so we didn’t mind the short walk. We usually had the place to ourselves with the exception of the mom and two little girls across the street. They thought it was hilarious that Luna liked to swim. It was pretty nuts. Luna would literally swim for hours each day. The water was so clear and beautiful with a blanket of tiny, white shells covering the muddy bottom. The local men could be seen walking up the road with a mask and speargun. Apparently bass fishing is huge in this lake, although we never saw or ate one.

SprinterLife return from Tikal with the declaration that we simply had to go there. They admitted to being burnt out on ruins during this trip, but Tikal, they said, was not to be missed. We said we would go, but suspected we wouldn’t. I was definitely burnt out on ruins, and to be honest wasn’t all that impressed with Teotihuacan and Chitzen Itza. I was expecting more jungle and not so much tourist crap. Plus, there was the matter of what to do with Luna. We could leave her in the van and take a bus early in the morning, but the bus was expensive (when combined with the entrance fee to Tikal itself) and didn’t return until 3 in the afternoon. That was way too long to leave Luna in the car. It seemed like a lot of hassle to go through just to see a bunch of really old buildings and get hassled every 5 ft. by some guy wanting you to buy a ‘genuine Mayan chess board’ or t-shirt. Now that they had seen Tikal, SprinterLife was ready to head south towards Guatemala City and Antigua. We were not ready to leave our peaceful lakeshore post-up, and decided to stay for a while. It was cheap and beautiful. We said our goodbyes and figured on meeting up again somewhere on the road to El Salvador.

They next day, we decided to check out the local BioTropo. It was just a mile up the road and boasted a decent amount of wildlife, flora, and a stunning view of the lake from atop the hill. The admission price was definitely slanted in local favor. Locals paid $1 and everyone else had to pay $10. We gave it a go. It was a long, steep hike through a lot of greenery. We didn’t see any wildlife, except for one really big grasshopper. Not even a bird. The view of the lake was nice, but the hype on this place was a little over-done. At least no one tried to sell us anything, and we got some good exercise.

We were getting low on cash and it was time to head towards LosFlores and the nearest ATM. LosFlores was about 45 min. south, and we figured that we might just go ahead and continue on south towards Rio Dulce. We said goodbye to Ernesto and his nice family. They thought we were crazy to leave without visiting Tikal, but we just couldn’t swing it, we said. We were definitely going to miss it there and were a little bummed at the thought of leaving. The night before we met a guy named Robert Zoon who was headed that way and we said we’d give him a ride. Robert was backpacking alone and ElRemate was too quiet for him. He wanted to be around a little bit more of a social scene. LosFlores, he hoped, would fit the bill. On the road to LosFlores we were stopped at a Police checkpoint. The officer who was talking with us asked us how we liked Tikal. When we told him we didn’t go, and he looked genuinely sad for us. He said, “it’s so beautiful, you have to go”. The sincerity on this man’s face convinced us immediately that we needed to see Tikal.

LosFlores is an island on Peten Itza. You drive over a short bridge to this small, circular little town and there you are. It’s really pretty and very small. We had walked around the entire island in no time. We tooled around LosFlores for an hour or so, said goodbye to Robert, and happily headed back to Casa de Ernesto’s. We pulled in and told them that we missed them too much to leave. Then, we rented a cabina, with the intention of leaving Luna in the room the next morning while we drove to Tikal. Driving ourselves, we figured we could be back by 10am.

We arrived at the gates to Tikal at 6:15 am with another couple who hitched a ride with us to the ruins. Tikal cost us $20 each, not bad by ruins prices. It was beautifully silent in the misty early morning. It would be a while before the sun would penetrate the dense canopy of the park’s tree line.  As we got further into the huge park, we began to hear lone sounds that would echo through the cavernous jungle. This was finally the ancient ruins experience we had been hoping for. There was no one around and we were overcome by a silent reverence and awe befitting such a mystical place. The magic hadn’t been sucked out of Tikal by vendors and tourism. The jungle still ruled this place. We saw lots of birds and rodents, but we really wanted some monkeys. We could hear howler monkeys somewhere off in the distance with their eerie growl sounding like a demon in the mist covered ruins.

I stopped to mess with my camera, and behind me something splattered on the ground. I spun around and saw a bunch of green and orange-ish baby-food on the ground just behind me. Looking up I saw some movement. There he was, a monkey sitting up in the tree trying to crap on me. I don’t know my monkeys very well, but he wasn’t a howler or a whiteface, so I assume he was a spider-monkey. I called Emily over and we watched him for a while as he wandered the tree tops in search of more poo fuel. It was awesome. Emily was a little bummed that the monkey missed me with its fecal attempt. So now we knew the trick. We could search the ground for the droppings and then look to the trees for the culprit. We had seen those droppings before and definitely run into areas that had the smell, we just didn’t know that’s what it was. The smell was very distinctive: sort of like the cheese and olive section of a Whole Foods market.

Reaching the far edge of the park, we encountered some wooden scaffolding that ascended the side of one of the observation structures at Tikal. When we finally reached the top, we saw that view that you see in movies and postcards from this place. We were looking above the tree line back towards the rest of the park, with a few ruins structures poking out from the misty trees. This was still such a mystical place, even now in this age of technology and information it can still drop your jaw and leave you speechless. To our right sitting just above the tree line, almost 100 yards away perched a Tucan. His bright yellow beak standing out drastically against the green backdrop. It was a perfect day. We left believers. Tikal is not to be missed.

We could now leave El Remate feeling satisfied that we had seen what we needed to see. SprinterLife had been in RioDulce for a few days and was now headed towards Antigua. We wouldn’t see them again till El Salvador. As you can tell, Guatemala is really very dangerous.

Next RioDulce, Guatemala

Belize By Accident

•04/11/2011 • Leave a Comment

Belize.


We weren’t initially planning on going to Belize. The plan was to stay in Mexico, drop down through Chiapas, and take the southern route directly into Guatemala. We had heard that our dog Luna might be quarantined for up to 6 weeks depending on the mood of the official at the border on that particular day. The quarantine possibility and no surf combined with the fact that gas prices in Belize are significantly higher than Mexico had led us to the decision to skip Belize. But, we had to go to the border to get our vehicle permit re-upped for Mexico anyway, so we decided to give it a go at crossing.

The border crossing document we have tells you not to let any of the many ‘helpers’ that attempt to latch onto you at the border help you. This is easier said than done and 2 minutes after our arrival to the Mexico/Belize border we were saddled with a very large, insistent Belizian fellow. He basically just followed me around and instructed me in what to do either after or during my actual doing of it. It would go something like this:

I would hand over a document to a man behind a window.

My Belize border ‘helper’ would say, “hand your papers to this man”.

He would then pat me on the back and tell me all about how much help he was to me during this difficult process. Pain in the ass, but I was very much thrown by the fact that he spoke English with what to me sounded like a fake Rastafarian accent (as does everyone in Belize) and that the Banjercito was on the opposite side of the street from where my border-crossing-document had informed me it would be. Anyway, we were now out of Mexico and we just had to get Luna into Belize.

Apparently, Belize requires that you fax them a document 2 weeks prior to your pet’s entry into their country. It’s not a vet note or a document showing the pet’s vaccinations, it’s just a form to inform them of your intent to bring a pet, I guess. Anyway, we didn’t fax this document 2 weeks ago and now had to pay a fine of what amounted to $50 USD. All of these countries seem to have weird requirements about pets that in no way prohibit your pet from entering their country; they just use them to squeeze more money out of you. We were now officially in Belize. Now we just had to pay our ‘helper’ a ridiculous amount of money and give him a ride to Corozal. I am such a sucker.

Once in Corozal, we promptly checked our emails to find out where to rendezvous with Tree and Stevie. They were in Belize City, further south. We decided we would hit the road and see how far we could get before dark. We loaded up the cooler with some delicious Belizian beer called Belekin, bought some trees off a guy named ‘John’, and were on our way. We couldn’t find a place that sold apples, so we opted for a green pepper instead. The green pepper is a nice option since it isn’t as moist and is hollow so you get a chamber of sorts, but it’s not as tasty to eat afterward. Immediately after we went through 2 separate police checkpoints. Despite our being nervous as hell, they were actually rather uneventful. They pretty much just want to see that you have your license on you and that you have the Belizian insurance sticker on your windshield.

We took our time and drove the scenic route down Old Belize Highway toward the Altun Ha ruins. Belize so far had far exceeded our expectations and we couldn’t believe we almost decided not to go. Here was the lush, tropical greenery that we had expected of Central America and more. The guidebook said there were a few places to camp near the ruins and we made that our attempted destination. By the time we reached the gates of Altun Ha it was a bit late to try to see the ruins before dark. There had been a campsite a mile back, so we turned around to go check it out.

The campsite was run by a man from Texas named Bob Simons. Bob was from Brazoria county like myself and had a Belizian wife, 3 huge rottwielers, a couple of cabinas for rent, a restaurant, a butterfly garden, a few fish ponds, a howler monkey, spotty internet, and a distaste for cigarette smoking. Emily wrote him off immediately after he reproached her for her smoking. I rather liked Bob. He had quite a nice piece of land. Almost all the trees on his property bore edible fruit or leaves. He was farming tilapia in his fish ponds and since his property sat atop an underground spring, he was almost fully sustainable. We took advantage of the butterfly garden and the next day had lunch at the restaurant. We had a delicious Belizian-meal with a sort of jerk-style chicken, rice and a slaw made with coconut. We also bought some Cashew fruit wine. I love cashews and had no idea that the cashew nut grows on the outside of a fruit that resembles an elongated red apple.

We loved it at Bob’s, but Sprinter Life was just ahead of us and we needed to play catch-up. Our last contact had them in Belize City the night before, so off we went into the big city. The plan was to find an internet café and make contact with Tree and Stevie. We pulled into town and parked near a canal a few blocks from a café. Belize City looks like New Orleans’ more unsavory neighborhoods AFTER the flood. We were not at all happy about leaving the van parked where it was, but thankfully Luna is an effective car alarm. We made contact with SprinterLife only to find that they had already left Belize City and were now further south in San Ignacio.

When we returned to the van to get underway, it wouldn’t start. After a few attempts at troubleshooting, we surmised that the battery was dead. So now we were on a scavenger hunt through Belize City on foot for a new battery. Par for the course, no one that we asked had any idea of where one would get a battery. Not even the guy at the hardware store knew anything about his town, or at least didn’t want to tell us. Finally one fellow pointed us in the direction of a gas station that might be able to help.

On our walk to the gas station we picked up a barnacle. This guy passing out flyers on the corner of an intersection immediately spotted us as suckers and latched on to us. He was, at least entertaining. He looked sort of like a dreadlocked Mos Def. He told us all about Belize City and the changes happening over the last few years. Apparently there was a huge influx of MiddleEasterners buying up lots of property and opening up shops full of over-priced crap. He was not fond of the “towelheads” as he loudly referred to them as we passed in front of their storefronts. He tried his best to become a part of our buying a battery. He would act as though he were directing us to the gas station, even though we already told him that we knew where we were going. When we got to the gas station he even tried to get me to let him pay with my money. Presumably so he could either keep the change or charge me a transaction fee. Unfortunately, while I was paying he got his hands on the battery. Now he was carrying it for us. I told him that I couldn’t give him any money, so he should just go ahead and let me carry my own battery. He was not to be dissuaded. I finally agreed to give him a “little something”, but we would split time carrying the battery, because I couldn’t give him enough cash to warrant his carrying the thing all the way back. As we got near the car, I decided it was time tio part ways. I got the battery back and offered him the equivalent of $2. His demeanor changed real fast and he got at once offended and very agitated. I told him that was it. We only had a $10 or that $2, and we couldn’t give him the 10. We stood there arguing for a few minutes. He looked almost in tears he was so angry. I started getting pissed off aswell, and it began to look as though we were going to fight. I looked around and the neighborhood we were in gave me the distinct impression that in the end it would be cheaper to give him the $10 than have a fist fight with a local. Plus, I didn’t want someone to run off with our new battery in the middle of a scuffle. So, I gave in and Emily and I walked back to the van with MosDef still pissed off even though he got his fucking money.

We pulled into San Ignacio just before dark. It’s a small town so we just cruised the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Tree and Stevie wandering around. Sure enough I spotted the Sprinter parked in a small, dirt parking lot. We pulled in next to them, but there was no one home. We left the van and a note for SprinterLife and decided to continue our search on foot. The thing with SprinterLife is that if you need to find them, just look for internet. Eventually we found Mr.Trujillo and company cruising around the streets of San Ignacio town. They were soon to be camping in the parking lot of Hotel Tia Maria and invited us to join.

Tia Maria is a cool old hotel owned by an American named Travis James and his girl Miette. For $5 Travis let us camp in their parking lot, use the internet and have access to the bathrooms. Travis is a wealth of knowledge about all things Belize. (If you are heading to Belize check out his sites: www.sanignaciotown.com / http://www.facebook.com/SanIgnacioTown ) Travis told us about the Mennonite monopoly on dairy and copper pipe in Belize. He also told us about the $500 price on your head if you’re a foreigner. Basically, a local will sell you some pot, and then turn around and inform the cops of your weed possession. The dealer gets a kickdown for the tip-off and you get a $500 ticket. He also told us how to get to all kinds of cool, free attractions near San Ignacio town. SprinterLife and ourselves decided to try and explore some waterfalls outside of town the next morning.

It was raining as we left Tia Maria to head towards Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. All but the main highway roads quickly became muddy trails dotted with potholes full of brown water, making it impossible to tell how deep they were. After about an hour a slow going towards the forest reserve, SprinterLife called it quits and headed back just before the road conditions got significantly worse. It turned out to be a good call, because there were a few sections that were almost impassable for us in our more stable van. The vegetation transitioned from tropical to an almost Colorado-like pine forest filled in with ferns. We finally arrived at destination #1: the Rio On pools. This is a series of pools that line the area where a river rolls over a large rock out-cropping. There was no one big waterfall, but instead a bunch of small rapids that fell down varying heights connecting the series of pools. It was beautiful and we had it all to ourselves.

After some time at the pools we decided to go check out the Rio Frio Cave. For this portion of our journey we were escorted by some fully armed Belizian military guys on a 4-wheeler. They are assigned to protect visitors from bandits that sneak across the border from Guatemala. There is a big problem with Guatemalans sneaking over and illegally harvesting a particular type of fern that grows in the area. There have also apparently been a few cases of tourist being robbed at knife or gunpoint in the reserve, so there is now a small military presence around to deter any would-be bandits. As we walked in to the giant, dark expanse of Rio Frio cave flanked by two men with automatic weapons, I couldn’t shake the image of them shooting us and hiding our bodies in the depths of the cave. Fortunately, theses fears were unfounded and our escorts were actually very nice. It was getting late and we would be doing good to make it back before dark, so we hauled ass back through the mud and arrived at Tia Maria just after sunset.

The plan was to leave in the morning and cross the border into Guatemala by about 10am or so. Kiki, of SprinterLife, had begun displaying symptoms of the tick-borne disease Erlichia, so first thing in the morning Tree and Stevie took her to see the local vet. The blood work would take a few days, so they decided to err on the side of caution and start giving her Doxicycline to counteract the effects of Lickia. So, with both dogs medicated to the gills, we rolled up to the Guatemalan border ready to brave what we had heard would be the most dangerous country on our trip.

Our new life in Playa Del Carmen

•03/06/2011 • Leave a Comment

Playa Del Carmen.

The van needs a new transmission and Chad gets surf in the Caribbean.

At some point during the drive from Merida to Playa Del Carmen the transmission took a turn for the worse. The transmission had gotten pretty loose, and usually required me driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator at all times. I had to keep the engine revved up enough with the gas pedal so that it didn’t down shift out of gear. Alternately, I used my left foot on the brake to counter act the engine and actually stop us. Curiously, reverse was unaffected. By the time we pulled in to Playa Del Carmen, the transmission was in dire straits.

The first order of business was to find Casa Tucan. To recap, our friend Alfredo of Casa Peon in Celestun had told us to stop in at Casa Tucan and drop his name for a good rate on a room and anything else we needed during our stay. We found Casa Tucan rather easily and procured a room. It’s a really cool little hotel/restaurant/bar. There are lots of interconnected cabanas and palapas with beautifully landscaped pathways. The pool is surrounded by huge trees draped with vines and there are plenty of tables and chairs scattered throughout the grounds. Everyone there was really nice and they even gave us a good rate on one of their only rooms available during this, the busy holiday season.

After asking around, the man at the rental car booth in Casa Tucan gave us the number of a mechanic in town, named Don Toto. His name is actually Thornston

Bjorn Ziemek (Automotrizgt@gmail.com), originally from Germany, living in ‘Playa for 12 years now.  Don Toto agreed to take a look at the van’s transmission and do what he could. We left the van, which by now only worked in reverse, with Thornston and returned to Casa Tucan to await the diagnosis.

It was now Dec. 18th and Casa Tucan had been officially filled to capacity with reservations through the new year. Our room was now no longer available. We had to find other accommodations. We needed someplace cheap, with internet, and pet friendly. After many failed attempts, we stumbled upon the White Elephant Hostel. For $8 USD we had internet, a bed in a shared dorm, use of the refrigerator and kitchen, and Luna was welcome. The hostel was owned and operated by Ricardo Andres and Catarina Baceras. Ricardo hails from Mexico City and Catarina is Argentine. The two met a few years back in Playa Del Carmen and ended up pooling their money together to open a hostel. Ricardo’s mother, Andreas, was also there helping out the new business. Andreas and Ricky had built all the furniture in the hostel, and in general kept the place running maintenance-wise. They all loved Luna, and after hearing of our van troubles they offered Emily a job. They needed someone to help at the front desk that spoke English and Spanish. We could stay for free, plus Emily would get 100 pesos per shift. For my part, I was to build the White Elephant Hostel website for a yet-to-be-determined fee.

As the days went by, it was clear that finding a replacement transmission was going to be more time-consuming than anyone had originally anticipated. Don Toto was scouring the surrounding areas, including Merida and Cancun. The hostel was getting hectic and filling up rather quickly as Christmas was fast approaching. We decided to go ahead and rent an apartment through January. We would then have a retreat away from the craziness that was the hostel, and have a place to keep all of our stuff that was still currently piled into the van. As it stood, we had to walk about 40 blocks every few days to exchange clothes and get anything else we needed out of the van. An apartment was a quick fix for all our problems.

We found a little, one-room place a few blocks from the hostel with fast, reliable internet for $200 USD for the month. We were right behind where the ‘collectivo’ buses lined up every day along calle 2. The bathroom was quite moldy and the toilet had no seat, but at least it was ours alone. We grabbed everything out of the van and set up shop in our new room. Now that it was all spread out in the room, we could really appreciate the large amount of stuff we had been able to cram inside that van.

It was now almost Christmas and all of Playa Del Carmen was hopping. Every hotel, hostel and cabana was full and the streets were filled with tourists. At the White Elephant, the little crew of backpackers, hostel staff, and friends were preparing for the big Christmas Eve celebration at the hostel. There was to be a big dinner, drinks, games, and a night out on the town. By now we had become pretty close with Caterina and Ricky as well as their relatives living in Playa. Ricardo’s brother, Sergio, and his girlfriend Mari-Carmen were nightly fixtures at the hostel. They would stop by late at night on their way home from work. Sergio had been a finalist on the Mexican equivalent of American Idol (  ). He was currently working as a waiter at that cultural train-wreck of tourist gluttony known as Senor Frogs. This is the kind of place that has a dj announcing drink specials and the staff is required to sport lots of ‘flare’. When you do a tequila shot the waiter stands behind you, grabs your head with both hands and shakes you while blowing a whistle. This is apparently what gringo tourists look for in a restaurant. Ricardo was still pursuing his music dreams and was trying to get back to Mexico City or maybe even the ‘states. He and Mari-Carmen were both really nice and I hope for his sake, that no matter what else he does, he quits Senor Frogs.

Caterina’s sister and her fiancé also lived in ‘Playa. Their names were Flora and Maxi.  They were staying for a while to help out with the hostel, but were planning on returning to Cordoba, Argentina in the near future. Maxi was hilarious and really enjoyed practicing his unique brand of English on Emily and myself. Flora was nineteen, and a good bit younger than Maxi. “Floppy”, as she was known, was very sweet and soft-spoken.

Christmas Eve caught us a bit by surprise. It had always seemed to be still a few days away, and then it was suddenly upon us. This was the first Christmas Emily had spent away from her family. She got very emotional and was feeling the pain of missing her family that afternoon after her hostel shift. We still had a few hours before we had to be at the party, so while she tried to skype her parents, I went to the store. The apartment, I decided, needed some kind of decorations to help make it feel a little more like Christmas. I found some green and red streamer decorations, a Christmas tree nightlite, and some red and green candles. I also went to Walmart and bought us a few bottles of wine and a toilet seat.  Even though we had agreed to not exchange gifts this Christmas, I secretly bought Emily a dress she had seen and liked down on 5th ave., a ‘caguama bag’, and some incense. Merry Christmas!

The Christmas party at the hostel was well underway when Emily and I arrived. We had a nice Argentine feast and then played that game where each person has a name written on a piece of paper stuck to their foreheads facing out, so that everyone else can see who you are and then you try a guess your identity asking only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. It was great fun and we had a good bunch of people gathered for the festivities. Later, we all went out to 5th ave. to drink in the streets until quite late. Before heading home, we checked out the madness inside Coco Bongo. Coco Bongo is a crazy nightclub with thumping techno music, a lazer light show, confetti, glowsticks, tons of security wearing headsets, and lots of sweaty people dancing like maniacs. It was quite a spectacle of humanity and even though I was intrigued, I was ready to get outta that place and go home. After Emily got up and danced on the bar for a bit, we found our friends, said our goodbyes and headed home. It was a good Christmas and we all slept soundly.

The Van

We got a call from Don Toto saying that he needed about 5,000 pesos to go pick up a used transmission from some guy in Merida. If this transmission worked, we could be up and running in a day or so, for under $500 USD total. We met up, gave him the money and hoped for the best. The next day, Don Toto called to tell us that the new-used transmission was slipping and on its way out as well. This was not going to work. It looked like the only solution was to take apart our transmission and have the internal components replaced by a place in Cancun. This was considerably more expensive than the used transmission option, but still about half of what the same procedure would have cost us back in the states. We gave him the green light. We needed the van up and running soon since Emily’s grandparents would be in town in a week, followed immediately by a week-long visit by her mother and the van was to be their shuttle to and from the airport near Cancun.

A week later, I was at Don Toto’s picking up the van. The rebuilt transmission was working much better, but still not perfect. The real problem, however, was the rats. While working on the van, the guys at the shop had left the engine cowling off to have access to the engine and transmission. This allowed a group of rats to set up shop in the van for a few weeks. The rats had gotten into the food stuffs that we had left in the van. They ate through a box of tomato paste, a bottle of vegetable oil, our honey, a package of uncooked spaghetti, and several books. Another thing that rats do, besides eat, is poo. There was rat shit and rat piss on almost everything. Our pillows had to be burned, as did several clothing items. The futon mattress we used as a bed was on its way out due to mold anyway, but it also suffered at the hands of the rats. There were little rat pellets in every conceivable square inch of that van, and it took Emily and I an entire day to sanitize the insides.

The next day it was time to take Emily’s grandparents, who were wrapping up their visit to Playa Del Carmen, to the airport. We would then kill several hours at the airport awaiting the arrival of Emily’s mom on a flight later that day. We dropped off her grandparents near their gate and went to park the van, and were promptly pulled over by the police. It’s only about 30 feet from the drop-off zone to the parking lot entrance, but there we were: pulled over by the fuzz just the same. They wanted to see everything we had document-wise. They were very insistent about seeing the vehicle import permit documentation, even though the sticker prominently affixed to the front windshield contained all of the same, relevant information. We had just gotten the van back and therefore didn’t have our little travel document folder on hand. This meant that we had to dig out our back-up copies which were hidden under our bed platform inside a hollowed-out book at the bottom of a milk-crate beneath all our other books. After making us dig up our documents they then informed us that our vehicle permit would expire in a week. Apparently you can get into trouble just for being close to the expiration? This was actually news to us and were thankful for their pointing it out, even if it seemed irrelevant to the current traffic stop. They eventually let us continue on our way, and after parking, we headed into the terminal to have lunch with the grandparents before they returned to Arizona.

After doing a bit of research on the whole vehicle permit thing, I found out that you don’t even need a vehicle import permit for the state of Quintana Roo. As long as you stay in Quintana Roo, you can let your permit expire without fear of reprisal. But, don’t go to the airport. The airport is considered federal land, and you DO need the permit to be there. This explained why the cops had just sort of arbitrarily pulled us over. They are probably used to nabbing the occasional Quintana Roo residing gringo who let his permit expire and didn’t know to stay away from the airport. I also found out that despite what several forums say about the subject, you cannot renew your vehicle permit at Puerto Morelos or at Puerto Juarez in Cancun (Puerto Juarez does renew permits, but only FM3’s-ie:people now residing in Q.Roo). That was a fun day of driving around. The Banjercito at the border to Belize is your only option…or at least that is how it went for us.

The Truth About Travel Visas

After the trouble with our vehicle permit we did the math concerning our tourist visas. They were good for 180 days from July 23. That meant we still had a week or so left, but we wanted to skip Belize and go back down through Chiapas. There was definitely not enough time left for that. We needed a renewal or extension or something. The moment you start asking questions regarding this type of thing, you begin to receive all sorts of conflicting information…even from governmental offices. There is an immigration office in Playa Del Carmen on the second floor of the Azteca mall. There are, of course, no signs to this effect anywhere until you actually get into the building. The first time we visited the office concerning our visa extension/renewal, the receptionist said they do that sort of thing all the time and it would only take a few moments. The woman in charge in the back office, however, said it could not be done and we would have to go to Belize for a few hours, or maybe 3 days, and then return to Mexico at which time we would be given new visas. It would be nice to know if it was a few hours or a few days, we commented.  The lady said she had no idea. It’s only her job to handle tourist visas, and apparently the issue of extensions or renewals has never come up before. We were the first! Take that Bumfuzzle! Emily and I were the first American travelers to ever request a visa extension in Playa Del Carmen. We left the office and weighed our options before returning to the same office the very next day.

One neat trick when encountering obstacles of bureaucracy in Mexico is to just wait a day and try the exact same thing you did before. Don’t worry, the people involved won’t even remember it was you, AND the outcome is invariably different. It’s like traveling to an alternate, parallel universe. This time, a different receptionist was pretty sure they didn’t do that kind of thing in this office, but said she would check. Next, the woman we dealt with the day before waved us into her office. This time, she said that we could pay for an extension. The pay scale was a bit random and pricing based on the number of days you want your original visa extended by. For us, a 2 week extension was to run about 1,200 pesos apiece. We quickly ran some figures through our heads, attempting to compare the cost of extending our visas here at the office with that of a potential 3 day hotel stay in Belize. As we sat there discussing logistics, and what we would do with Luna if we went to Belize, our helpful immigration lady disappeared into another office. She returned a few moments later with exciting news. Apparently there is a way to extend our visas for up to 15 days, it can be done on-premises in a few minutes, and is completely free of charge. Well, hell, that’s the one we had been trying to ask for the whole time. She even had the forms in her desk and all of the necessary stamps, etc. We still don’t know what exactly happened, or what we did, if anything, to make it work. Did our annoying persistence foil an attempted scam? Did this lady really just find out about this crazy, new, free visa extension and help us out big time? Was it the Mexican alternate universe-thing? Perhaps it was all three. We’ll never know, but the form looks like this…

Surf in Playa Del Carmen

The Mexican Caribbean doesn’t get much swell to begin with, and Playa Del Carmen is sheltered from the open ocean by Cozumel and the surrounding reefs. So, ask anyone, there is no surf in Playa Del Carmen. One day, as Emily and I were having lunch with her grandparents at one of the many beachfront restaurants in ‘Playa, I thought I saw some waves. I stood up to get a better look. Sure enough, there were waves out there. I almost choked on my food. I quickly excused myself from the after-dinner card game and ran to get my board. The best spot looked to be a left rolling in just off the out-of-commission ferry dock at the end of Constituyentes. 15 minutes later I was paddling out into warm, light-blue, clean, shoulder-high Caribbean waves, with no one else out. After about 4 rides a guy on a stand-up paddleboard made his way out into the line-up. He said that Playa Del Carmen gets about 10 days of surf every year. We shared waves for a few hours, and once my arms were numb from paddling, I went home. The next three days had at least some surf, although by now the crowds were on it. There must have been 4 whole people out in the water at that break the next afternoon. It was good while it lasted.

Farewell Playa Del Carmen

The van was ready, our visas extended, our rent almost up, and the open road was calling. Just as much of her life is dealing with my many and varied idiosyncrasies, much of my life is spent waiting on Emily. Our last day in Playa Del Carmen was no exception. I had wanted to get on the road early in the day so as to have plenty of time at the border near Belize to renew our vehicle permit before heading back down towards Chiapas. By ‘early in the day’, I meant 9 or 10am. It was now 2pm and Emily was finally ready. Facebook can be a cruel mistress. The hitch was that even though Emily herself was now ready, Ricardo and our wonderful hostel friends were still waiting for our going-away-gifts to be completed. They were having White Elephant Hostel shirts made for all of us, including Luna. When the shirts finally arrived, there was a quick fashion photo-shoot, followed by a tearful goodbye. We all made plans to meet up again in Caterina and Flora’s hometown of Cordoba, Argentina in September.

There was still much to do before hitting the road to Chiapas, and by now we knew it wasn’t going to happen that day. We decided to make it to Chetumal, stay the night and start up fresh in the morning. By the time we pulled in to Chetumal it was dusk. We found none of the hostels promised in our 2007 Lonely Planet guidebook and were informed that no hotel in town would accept a dog. So, following the advice of one very helpful hotel concierge, we slept in the van in one of the many waterfront parking lots along ‘the Boulevard’. Apparently it’s safe and you are allowed to park there overnight. This turned out to be true, and in fact, the police rolled through our parking lot several times during the night.

The next morning we got coffee, had our spare tire fixed, printed up and laminated a substitute front-license plate, and decided to go through Belize instead of heading down through Chiapas. We had heard that Belize was really hard on dogs entering the country and there was the possibility of Luna being placed in quarantine for up to 6 weeks. But, we had to go to the border anyway to renew our vehicle permit. We figured that since we were right there anyway, we might as well give it a try. Plus, our friends, Tree and Stevie, were there now. We could meet up and have a caravan through to Guatemala. What could go wrong?

enjoy a few posts about the visit from Emily’s grandparents and mother with trips to Cozumel, Achumal, and Chitzen Itza.

Next: Belize Bound

Merida

•02/28/2011 • Leave a Comment

Merida. I love this city

Our friends from Mulege, Travis and Rosie, had told us they were planning on moving to Merida in the next few years. At the time we couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave Mulege for some town a few hours inland on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Now we understand. I’m not even sure I can put into words what it is about Merida that’s so appealing. The people are really nice, there’s a beautiful French-colonial aesthetic to the buildings, lots of great art and museums, good food, and of course the Hotel Trinidad, where we stayed. But, the total effect is much greater than the sum of its parts. Merida was my favorite city so far.

When we pulled into town we immediately set about looking for lodging. The first place we tried was a guest-house of sorts. The lady in charge was so nice to tell us that they were full to capacity, but could recommend a great place nearby that was cheap and accepted pets. She gave us a small map and guided us to Hotel Trinidad  (http://www.hotelstrinidad.com). When we walked through the front doors, we knew this place was for us. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe the décor. Apparently it used to be an art gallery and when the owner died, he left the property to his son with instructions to do what he wished with the property as long as he kept the art gallery alive. So now, it survives as Hotel Trinidad: part hotel and all art gallery. The collection definitely betrays about the owner a certain manic compulsiveness of obtaining. The place is crammed with every imaginable type of object that could in any way be described as art. Paintings, prints, sculpture, found object and photography all share space with beautiful plants, a swimming pool, and as small fish pond. It’s like some crazy, old eccentric widow living in the Heights in Houston cramming her place with must and second hand kitsch from so long ago that it passes from trivial to sublime by matter of age and tarnish. That’s exactly what the Hotel Trinidad reminded me of: that neighborhood-second-hand-store in an old, two-story house in Houston-type of place. If you’ve ever loved Houston, you probably have some idea of this type of place and the feeling I’m talking about.

We met a couple there, John and Jill, who were ex-pats from Oregon now living just east of Progresso, who come into Merida every couple of months to take care of those things in which you need a city the size and capacity of Merida to take care of. They were nice and said we could camp in their lot if we every decided to make the trek up that way. Good snorkeling, they said, and flamingos. I was ready before the words left their mouths, but we needed to check about Luna, and maybe the transmission.

Luna goes to the vet.

We didn’t make an appointment, but rather, just showed up at the vet’s office near us by way of foot. They agreed to see us, even though the main doctor was out at the moment. They weighed Luna and took her temperature rectally. Poor girl. She felt like she was burning up to Emily and the thermometer confirmed it. The vet and her assistant immediately had two bags of ice on her. We held her while they took some blood to test and gave her a shot. Luna was the smallest I’d ever seen her, in size and stature. The vet was great with her and seemed to have a hunch right away as to the problem. The dog version of Denguae fever, we were told. This meant 3 pills, every morning and two pills every night. One was for fever and pain, one was to keep her stomach together during the third and most potent pill, 100mg of Doxicycline. They also recommended that we get her some nutrient-infused dog food to help replenish her during recovery. The people there at Hospital Veterinario Peninsular were great with Luna and we couldn’t have asked for a better help. ( http://www.hospitalveterinariopeninsular.com.mx )It was a successful and expensive trip to the vet. Luna seemed to respond almost immediately and was acting ‘normal’ (relative term) the evening after her first morning dose. She was, at least, on the road to recovery.

Emily tries to mail presents for everyone she knows back in the states.

It was December 8th and Emily had decided that this was the last and final day she could wait before mailing Christmas presents back to the states so that they would reach their intended parties by the 25th. First, we had to buy a present for Mary Spear, her most-difficult-to-shop-for recipient. Next, it was off to find 2 boxes within which to pack all of the other, individual boxes, each containing a gift or two. The break down was that one box, containing the gifts for the Geiers, Emily (Other Emily) Griffin, her son Kai, Mary Spear and her Daughter Stella Rose Begonia Face, would be sent to the Geier’s address in San Diego. The other box would be sent to the Tarpley household in Durango, CO with gifts for Emily’s grandparents, brothers, sister Mary, and parents. We finally found some old candy boxes, stuffed them full of gifts, and taped them together with duct tape.

Next, it was off to the post office. It was surprisingly hard to find the Merida centro post office, even though it was fairly close to our hotel and right near a town square. Emily went inside, only to find out that to mail them to the states it would cost $450 pesos per box, no matter what the weight. That would set us back about $90 USD just to mail this stuff. Emily changed gears and began cramming everything into one box to ship home and have her mom dole out the gifts to their respective recipients, be they Durango or San Diego bound. Finally, the gifts were in the mail (or at least out of our hands and into others’) inside a precariously taped together with twice used duct tape cardboard box bursting at the seems, bound for Durango, CO, as they experienced one of the worst snow storms of the year. “They should get there by the 23rd”, she said as she emerged from the postal building for the fourth and final time.

The Hotel Trinidad was nice, but we reckoned that we wouldn’t be able to afford to stay there for much longer. It was time to save some money and camp for free on those miles of empty beaches we had read about to the South on the Caribbean near Tulum. We hit the road for Playa Del Carmen.

 

Celestun

•02/27/2011 • 1 Comment

Put Vera Cruz out of your mind because Celestun is beautiful.

The next day we made Merida and skirted around to Celestun, where we heard there was camping to be had. One of the many websites I found about camping/RVing in the Yucatan had described the area in detail and said there were many miles of uninhabited beaches on which to camp. That may have been true years ago, but now every possible inch of coastal property has been bought up, fenced off, and now serves as a billboard for its own sale. Some real-estate genius based out of Connecticut seems to have been the evil-mastermind behind much of this, or at least his signs are everywhere.

There was one trail that cut through the overgrowth between plots of land for sale and looked to be headed for the coast, so we took it. After a couple of minutes of off-roading through the jungle, we hit the sand. We also hit a wall of mosquitoes. Time, once again, for the mosquito net. The van was still a good 20 yards from the water, but the sand looked iffy and the transmission had been getting progressively worse since Oaxaca City. There was definitely no one around and it was quiet; too quiet. We hoped we weren’t trespassing or invading someone else’s getaway spot, but we were staying put, at least for the night.

The next morning I got up early and walked the beach. I’ve never seen so many cool things in the shallows. I saw huge starfish, horseshoe crabs, sea slugs, and the most beautiful shells. This must be where people come to collect shells to sell in shops. I probably stumbled over five or six huge, intact conch shells without even trying. When Emily woke up we made coffee and decided to head into town to look around.

Celestun is a really cool, old fishing village-turned-town. They have a gas station, an ATM, a grocery store, a box store (that sells bags, but no boxes), lots of small markets for beer/chips, and Casa Peon (www.celestun.com/casa-peon.html). Casa Peon (pronounced ‘pee-own’-there is supposed to be a hyphen above the o) is the new sister restaurant in Celestun to the Casa Tucan Hotel/Restaurant in Playa Del Carmen. We met ‘John from Germany’ walking the streets as we searched for the one Pemex in town. He told us that we could camp in the yard of the hotel under construction for free if we come have dinner/drinks at their restaurant, Casa Peon. Holy crap, the worm has turned! Emily, Luna and I exhaled a collective sigh of relief. After the last week, we were in need of a friendly gesture.

We parked the van, changed clothes and walked a few buildings away to Casa Peon. ‘John from Germany’ wasn’t there, but his partner Alfredo took good care of us. Alfredo had come from Playa Del Carmen and Casa Tucan to help John with the starting up of the new business. It was convenient for him, since his daughter lives in Merida, but he was anxious to get back to his beloved ‘Playa. Alfredo was great, he told us all about Playa Del Carmen and where to go when we got there. Later in the week, he lent us bicycles to ride around looking for flamingos. He would usually give us a couple of sangritas  at the end of our meals, even if we had already had a few. A sangrita is a mix a tomato juice, orange juice, worchestire sauce, lime and tobasco that you sip along with a shot of tequila. I hate tomato juice (not even bloody mary’s), but I loved this stuff. Alfredo made Casa Peon’s sangrita himself and was always ready to show off his handiwork.

Casa Peon was a bit slow, because of the rain that Celustun had been getting lately. Celestun is a fishing town, and if the men can’t fish, they don’t have any money to blow at the bar. Apparently, when the fishing is good Casa Peon is hopping. It is a beautiful restaurant with a really cool bar area and a room with a movie-screen projector system set up. We weren’t expecting that much electronic sophistication in such a small town. When we walked in they were showing Madonna in concert, talk about culture clash.

There are supposedly lots of flamingos around Celestun. In fact, the town is somewhat famous for them. Emily and I borrowed some bikes from Alfredo, a map of the local estuaries from ‘John the German’, and headed out in search of some pink birds. We rode around the back roads and muddy paths outlying Celestun for hours and never saw one flamingo. It was a fun excursion nonetheless. It was nice to explore on bicycles for a change. The van is too limited and hiking takes too long.

It was nearing the Christmas holidays and there were parades, pilgrimages, processions and constant fireworks starting Dec.12th. Luna is not a fan of Mexican fireworks and Celestun was a town in the grip of firework madness. Fireworks went off at all hours of the day and night. I almost didn’t hear them any more, as they were such a part of the ambient noise of the town during our stay. Luna, however, was not amused and began to act more and more withdrawn. Luna was once again not herself and we decided it was time to head into Merida for a vet visit. We said goodbye to Alfredo, had some coffee, and filled up on gas before heading to the big city. Celestun was a great town and we enjoyed our time there very much. Our experience also helped turn the tide on our bad luck from Vera Cruz. Yucatan was starting off on a good note.

VeraCruz and Beyond: the Kruger Chronicles

•02/26/2011 • 1 Comment

The Kruger Chronicles

You never realize what a good time you’re having until after the trip is done.

We headed down from the Oaxacan mountains and found ourselves on a busy trucking route. Mexican truck-drivers traveling at break-neck speeds passed us constantly. We finally arrived at a turning point in our drive, as we descended into the Mexican truckstop-hell town that is Tuxtapec. All we needed to do was cruise through town, cross the toll bridge and we would be on a fairly straight shot into Vera Cruz. It was 3pm and we felt confident that we could make it to the’Cruz by dinner. After making it through the stop and go traffic of Tuxtapec, we made it to the gate of the toll bridge only to be turned around because the bridge is under construction. No signs anywhere telling you about this, but there you have it. There was also no help to be had telling exactly HOW we were supposed to get to the other side with this being the only bridge on the googled map.

The solution, we found, was to turn around, drive back through the stop and go traffic of Tuxtapec, drive around Tuxtapec to Loma Bonita and wait in line with about 60 semi’s to drive the extra 30 mile detour. By the time we got to what amounted to the other side of the bridge we originally hoped to cross three hours earlier, it was dark.

No driving after dark in Mexico. Ok, but there is also something to be said about not staying in creepy, run-down-trucker-route roadside inns with borrachos spilling out of the bars all along the highway just to get off the roads of Mexico at night. We felt safer in a moving vehicle. Nighttime Mexico is vastly different than daytime Mexico. The coolest of towns can seem pretty intimidating when you are navigating its streets for the first time after sundown. Nothing looked the least bit savory all along that entire strip of road to Vera Cruz (145 hwy). We rolled in to Vera Cruz and saw nothing but mega-hotels, resorts, McDonalds’s, Walmarts and a Carl’s Jr. We of course ate at the Carl’s Jr.. Delicious. There were a few side-street hotels that wanted a lot of money for what they where and wouldn’t accept pets anyway. I looked up camping in Vera Cruz on the iphone and found a few possibilities outside of town. Planning ahead is for people that want to enjoy their time on the road. We are not those people.

At this point, we were loopy and not making good decisions. I was under the spell of some sort of frantic driving mania. No place was going to be good enough after all that driving, and I was prepared to keep on driving until daylight if need be. We drove for another hour or so until finally rolling up to the small beach community of Punta Real. We found a spot offering camping called El Manglar (pretty creepy name, but in Spanish it’s just “the mangrove”). There was nobody around at midnight, so we parked the van in an open area, locked up, and went to sleep. In the morning we could settle up for the night before. We all slept hard.

The heat from the blazing Gulf-coast sun woke us up in the morning. There were people moving about at the small eatery in the lot so we walked up to get some coffee, breakfast, and to pay for the night of camping. As we drank our cold coffee and choked down our cold, expensive breakfast, we were informed that we owed 150 pesos for last night. After the beautiful and cheap Oaxacan mountains (40 pesos a night), it was really painful to shell out 3 times as much to gruff people for 7 hours of sleep on the mosquito-ridden, humid, brown water coastline of the Gulf. We could have gone to Texas and camped for free. Yes, it’s true, I was not excited about Vera Cruz so far.

We left El Manglar and drove down the beach to some dunes near the point. The tide was coming in and prohibited us from going too far, so we headed back down the beach. There was a bit of trouble getting from the sand back onto the paved road. There were many alleys to choose as your path back to the pavement, but 80% were deep, fine, loose sand. We chose wrong. After 20 minutes and some help from about 5 local passers-by, we got the van going again. Emily was at the wheel, since I was pushing along with everyone else, with instructions not to stop if we did get the van moving, so as not to get bogged down again in the sand. I must have chased that van for 100 yards, running in flip-flops and holding a shovel, yelling for her to slow down. I’m fairly certain it was payback for something.

Well, the first order of business for us was to check the emails and get in contact with Prof. Robert Kruger. We found an internet café and set about our business. No response. He was probably busy or maybe out of town, plus in my previous messages we were still days away from Vera Cruz. Now that we were here it should be no problem to figure out a time and place to meet up. He is supposed to be an expert on ancient civilizations. I hoped to discuss the Mayans, among others, and possibly set up an actual interview for Cleversley’s documentary. I composed an email alerting R. Kruger of our arrival and proposed a lunch or coffee meet up over the upcoming weekend to discuss matters Mayan, etc. Now that business was out of the way, we could explore the city and then check our emails again later to see if we had a confirmation.

The city of Vera Cruz itself is quite a mix of aesthetics. Once again, comparisons to the Gulf Coast of Texas seem appropriate. Vera Cruz has the mix of old colonial architecture and modern high-rise resorts that reminds me of Galveston. But, in the wake of the hurricanes that had recently run along Mexico’s Gulf coast, Vera Cruz was in pretty bad shape. Trash littered the beaches along the seawall (again, Galveston comes to mind…the seawall, not the trash), and lots of buildings seemed to be unoccupied or in disrepair. The colonial parts of town were beautiful and I could certainly understand the appeal. Downtown, away from the water, was beautiful.

One thing is for certain: the people of Vera Cruz love to jog. They love to jog alone and in groups. They love to jog on the seawall. They love to jog on the seawall at all hours of the day and night. It was actually kind of nuts. There were groups with matching jumpsuits, like a sort of jogging gang. Lots of jogging in the city of Vera Cruz.

We checked our emails and came up empty Kruger-wise, so we headed for Boca Del Rio. This is more of a suburb of Vera Cruz than a separate town, but very cool. Boca Del Rio was, as the name implies, at the mouth of a river and had some amazing views. A vendor near the zocalo had elotes (corn), so we ate and weighed our options. We didn’t want to drive back to the out-of-town beach areas, but nowhere in town allowed camping and most hotels wouldn’t accept pets. We drove around for a while and finally decided to formulate our plan over dinner at a Japanese food restaurant. After dinner and a few beers, we decided to just park in a safe spot in the city and sleep in the van.

There was a street near the Walmart that was heavily parked with just the right amount of streetlights. It was the perfect mix of safety without too many passers-by. We settled in, and feel into an uneasy sleep. I woke suddenly and looked out the window to check the surroundings. The other cars parked on the street were all gone and we were all alone. This was not good. We didn’t see any signs to this effect, but maybe there was no parking on this street during certain hours of the night. Regardless, we stood out all alone, with California plates, obviously camping. I got into the driver’s seat and decided to move us to another spot. The problem being that our front driver’s side tire was completely flat. This meant a tire change at 1am on the deserted streets of Vera Cruz. I finally replaced the tire, only to find that the spare had some air, but not enough to drive very far. So, before we could set off to find a new urban campsite, we needed a gas station to fill the tires. About 2 minutes later I was being pulled over by a cop. Fortunately, they turned out to be really nice and directed me to a gas station. It’s now 3am and I am ready to sleep. Emily and Luna have not stirred much since I noticed the other cars had deserted us on the original street of sleep. I pulled us in to a residential street and parked. I was too tired to be picky and this seemed at least safe.

The sound of the garbage truck woke me early. It was only about 7am, but it was time to move. I drove us to the seawall and parked. Once we were all up and ready, Emily and I took Luna for a walk and then coffee. The coffee shop had wi-fi, so I checked my emails. No Robert Kruger. I was beginning to wonder if this Robert Kruger fellow was real, or if someone invented him solely as an entity on facebook. Vera Cruz was kicking my ass and I couldn’t even get ahold of the guy we came here to see. There was still time, it was very early Saturday morning. We decided to visit La Antigua.

La Antigua is a small town just outside the toll-road gate to Vera Cruz, so you get to pay a toll to visit this city. La Antigua was almost a ghost town. It looked like an abandoned river town in Louisiana, with a sort of Haitian voodoo vibe. I was certain that the chickens we saw running around were more for rituals de Santeria than consumption as food. I read that La Antigua is a good place to visit to see the local flora in all its splendor. The hurricanes must have really rocked this place, because it looked like it had been through an air-raid. It was still a pretty cool place, just kind of creepy. Lots of cool old trees and a neat bridge for crossing the river that splits the town. We liked La Antigua and wished we could have seen it before the storms.

As we were leaving La Antigua, I checked my emails one last time…Still no response to any of my messages from Kruger. I was not stoked about the prospect of either sleeping in the van on some shitty city street or paying outrageous prices at some seedy motel that probably wouldn’t allow Luna just for the pleasure of waiting around another day to see if mister Robert Kruger would grace us with even a response to one of my multiple messages.

We were all in agreement that Vera Cruz was not for us. It was time to leave. We also figured that if we DID hear from Kruger we could make plans and still make it back to Vera Cruz to meet up. But, either way, we were making trails once again.

Vera Cruz city was now in our rearview mirror, and we hoped now our luck would change. Camping spots were few and far between the last 3 nights; now, just an hour outside Vera Cruz on the coast to the southeast, they were everywhere. There was even an RV campground that boasted a huge banner that read, “mascotas are welcome”, with a picture of a smiling dog. The smart thing to do would have been to stop and stake out a nice spot for the night, but we wanted to put some distance between ourselves and that wretched city.

There were several signs announcing a waterfall area, so we decided to leave the main road and go ‘in search of’. It had started raining pretty good at this point and the backroads were quite muddy. There were also a hell of a lot of super-deep potholes. When we finally arrived at the waterfall area you would have thought we had rolled up to Acapulco in a ‘Benz. We were rushed on all sides by people selling stuff and offering to ‘watch’ our car for us, etc. We politely declined, explaining that we had a pretty good ‘ant-theft’ device in our dog Luna. They took a look at Luna’s smiling face and let us be. The waterfall was amazing. Between the rain and the spray from the falls, we were soaked by the time we returned to the van. One of the guys from earlier ‘helped’ me turn the van around in a huge, empty street. We paid him a couple bucks to be nice, it was raining after all.

Even though it only covers about 1 1/2  inches on our AAA map, it took us until dusk to drive to Acayucan.  The plan was to either stop before or after the Coatzacoalcos/Minatitlan area, because we had read that they were port/industrial towns with no camping in the vicinity. Acayucan became our spot due to daylight restraints. Well, we could only find two hotels in Acayucan, and only one with parking. El Oasis is what is known as an auto-motel. We found these little gems all over the place in the states of Vera Cruz and Tobasco. They usually have huge signs declaring their prices: $150 pesos! Siempre! These prices, it turns out are for three hour blocks. Just long enough to get ready, have some adulterous sex, and clean up before heading back home to the wife and kids. Each room comes with its own garage so that no one can see you entering or leaving the scene. They didn’t bat an eye about Luna (apparently some of the guests employ pets in their rituals), but they DID think it was weird that we wanted the room for the whole night. There was a lot of discussion amongst the staff and they finally agreed that 400 pesos was the overnight price. The gulf coast of Mexico is expensive.

To be fair, the room was beautiful, although there wasn’t much light. There was however, a weird sex-chair, an excellent shower, 3 different porno-channels, and a handi-wipe dispenser mounted on the wall next to the bed. It was nice to be locked safe inside our own little space for the night, even if it was kind of creepy.

The next morning we woke up and made good time all the way to Ciudad Del Carmen. Here began a series of low-lying bridges over the Lagunas De Terminos. After passing over one of the bridges, there was a police checkpoint at the other side. This was our first police checkpoint; every time we had been stopped before on this trip it was the military. The military guys are all really nice and no one tries to mess with you. We pulled over when flagged down, expecting more of the same.  We smiled and said, ”Buenos tardes”, to which he responded, “liciencia de manejar” (driver’s license). Ok, I handed over my license. The first thing he decided was that my license was expired, which it isn’t. The next thing he declared was that not only was my license expired, but it was a fake and he was going to confiscate it. We could pay the fine and retrieve my license next Monday when their offices were open. This is an obvious scam and a routine you read about time and again in travel forums, but at the time, in the moment, we had no idea. We were, at that point, supposed to ask how we could avoid sticking around till Monday to retrieve our license, to which he begrudgingly decides to ‘help out’, by allowing us to pay the fine directly to him. We were way to stupid to fall for a trick like that. We spent the next fifteen minutes patiently and sincerely trying to explain to him what all the numbers on a California driver’s license represent. “This is the date the license was obtained, not the expiration date. This one over here is the expiration date, see how it isn’t up until 2013? I understand that in Mexico the day comes before the month, but either way the 13 at the end should tell you that there is still a few years to go on this document.”

He was getting aggravated and starting to really sweat. We offered him some water, but our water pump wasn’t working properly, so I hopped over the front seat and started messing with our water supply. Emily was still talking to him about documents from the US, I was in the back taking apart our water pump, and behind us traffic was starting to build up. At this point, I think he realized that we were either too stupid or too clever to be caught in his little roadside charade and handed back the license. He shook his head as he waved us on. Only later did we realize what had been going on and decided that we liked the military much more than the police.

El Balneario Playa Linda was where we made camp that night in Isla Aguada. We drove all around the town looking for someone to let us park and sleep in the van. Everyone was very willing, but the prices ranged from 250 to 500 pesos. Jesus H. Christ our Lord and Saviour, these people are expensive. We settled at El Balneario Playa Linda for 250 pesos because they were the nicest folks and were set up for campers. It was actually a really nice set up they had there, and I’m sure it really goes off during the high season.

After sleeping on the streets of Vera Cruz and then paying more for camping the last two nights than we did for our week of a cabana in San Jose Del Pacifico, we were ready to get into the state of Yucatan.

So long Vera Cruz, Tobasco, and Campeche…if we ever see you again, it’ll be too soon. Admittedly, we were spoiled by our time spent in Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos, and Oaxaca. There probably ARE great places, good prices and fun things to do; we just happened to have managed to miss all that on our trip. Senor Robert Kruger still never did respond to my messages, but he IS my friend on facebook, so at least I have that.

This was all how I felt during our Vera Cruz trials, but looking back now, I truly enjoyed our little adventure to the Mexican Gulf Coast. I am also thankful to the people at El Manglar, the city of Vera Cruz, Walmart, the staff at El Oasis sex hotel, the police in Ciudad Del Carmen, and the venerable senor Robert Kruger for their part in providing us with an exciting life-drama in which to participate. Just as surely as we will remember all of the friends we’ve made along the way, we will look back fondly on these trying times as well. GFY.

The END?

Next stop: Celestun, Yucatan.