Dec. 21, 2012- the day the world ends. Or ended. We weren’t sure, as we were at about 32,000 feet flying over the Gulf of Mexico, and couldn’t really observe much going on below. However, we were aware that we were headed for one of the hot-spots for that supposed ending- Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Yeah, that Chichen Itza. The one with the snake descending the stairs of the pyramid during the Spring Equinox. The same place that would, likely, be mobbed by thousands of people on the fateful December 21st.
Of course when we’d planned this Christmas vacation we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the End of the World racket and media play. Our chosen dates were based on more prosaic concerns like joining 5 of our pals who were planning to vacation in Cancun, and on our work schedules.
Back in the summer, when our friends were planning this trip, they kept after us to join them. We dillied and dallied and by the time I got around to finding a relatively inexpensive Delta vacation package (air and all-inclusive resort stay for 7 nights), we ended up staying at a less-expensive, “kid-friendly” resort just up the beach in the Hotel Zone in Cancun rather than joining our pals at their rather more expensive digs.
Ever the conscientious shopper, I earmarked the money we thus “saved” for a rental car and day trips. My plan was to visit our pals at their resort and also schedule several day-trips OUT of Cancun (a destination I’ve always considered as Miami South, simply a place for air transfers) to visit Mayan ruins and other places I explored when I stayed in the Akumal/Tulum area in 1999.
Robin had never visited Mayan ruins or Mexico for that matter, and had been studying Spanish for a couple of years so, I thought What the Hell, Let’s Go, I’ll be tour guide and Robin can be Translator!
Well, as I was reminded, there’s a reason I’ve had this long-standing aversion to the All-Inclusive (AI) experience. Like cruise ships, to me the very idea of being “cooped up” with 2500 of my newest friends and people sharing their germs over buffet meals and SCREAMING, poorly-behaved KIDS and their I-don’t-believe-in-discipline-and-am-not-responsible PARENTS is, just, OMG, anathema. Hell. On. Earth.
True to the AI experience, resort “guests” were treated more like medium-security prisoners, and as a result we never saw our pals after we all got off the same arrival flight in Cancun. The resorts do not allow anyone to visit from another resort (without paying an $80.00+ fee, which I do understand, with food and drink being included but really, guys, there should be a way to ”tag” visitors who don’t want to eat or drink without paying for the privilege). The resort main reception phones aren’t answered, so you can’t leave a message for anyone at a hotel Reception desk. You can’t even leave an envelope or a message for a guest at Reception—there’s no cooperation to try to help anyone off the resort to communicate with any guest of the resort. In fact, the lack of cooperation is very emphatic and made quite clear.
Remember- this was 2012, before the advent of widely available WiFi at tourist destinations. We didn’t have the international plan from our telecom carrier, as we would routinely have for subsequent trips abroad.
At this time, it would have taken an international call placed from a one-off cell phone we would have needed to purchase simply to call one of the girls who had an international account with HER mobile carrier, and that was Way too complex cuz after all, hell, they were just like 4 kilometers from us! Believe me, both parties tried almost daily to connect with the other and next to pulling a James Bond-esque stunt, it simply wasn’t worth it to keep trying to find and visit our friends.
We were so happy to have the freedom afforded by our rental car “Sneezy”- aptly named due to the sneezing sound it would emit about every 30 seconds while the AC was running. We laughed about Sneezy, with Grumpy and Dopey, making the rounds of the Mayan Riviera! I swear, every trip we take that we rent a car, that car always has something weird and problematic about it. Stories about our rental cars would make up a blog in itself!
Thus, we were delighted to haul ass every day to get away from the seething mass of noisy people and the traffic of Cancun. A couple of different days, we headed down the coast some 2-3 hrs south to visit Tulum and Coba ruins and snorkel in cenotes and eat at some great restaurants on the beach.
Xmas eve was the day we chose to drive west some 3 hours through the jungle to visit Chichen Itza, avoiding the End of the World hoards of 3 days earlier. Turned out to be a smart move–we got there early in the morning, before the tourist busses arrived, and managed to see most of the sights that this awesome World Heritage site offers.
Our Chichen Itza photos here.
In the heat of mid-day, we drove a few klicks east to Ik’ Kil cenote, a spectacular cenote I had missed during my 1999 visit. The photos and video I took managed to capture a real sense of this place, which must be simply breathtaking when it isn’t mobbed with screaming kids.
In the early afternoon, on our way back to Cancun we wandered through the scenic, old Mexican town of Valladolid. We used our handy printed-out Google map to locate Taberna de los Frailes, a simply splendiferous restaurant I’d read about on Trip Advisor.
This place was everything reviewers had reported— a marvelous find lost in the maze of narrow, dusty alleys and back streets of the old town, next to a small park and nestled against the walls of a Spanish nunnery dating from the 1500s. The food was genuine Mayan fare, from scratch, inexpensive, fresh and totally yummy.
After our late lunch we drove slowly through narrow streets leading to the town square. It was late Xmas eve day, the sun was shining, the air was cool and dry, and the narrow and dusty streets were swarming with smiling, laughing crowds. People clutched all manner of bags and boxes and crossed the street willy-nilly, seemingly unaware of the traffic crawling past. All colors of the rainbow swirled in the rugs, serapes and clothing for sale hanging over the sidewalks and in shopfronts. An open truck pulled up to the curb next to us and people began to help the driver unload very large and colorful pinatas. The hurly-burly and energy were distracting, I was glad I was only able to roll the car along at a creep.
But we had to head on to Cancun, which after a two hour drive, we arrived in the city “centro”, once again caught up in the last-minute holiday shopping frenzy, this time in the main market area for the locals. This place was simply insane– traffic every which way, drivers doing pretty much as they pleased with dangerous aplomb and blowing horns frequently and with elan. I almost hit 2 pedestrians and we barely avoided being rear-ended. Even a cop who was directing traffic gave us a shrug after he stopped crosswalk traffic, gestured for me to move along and watched as a pedestrian ran right in front of me. That person just missed an ambulance ride on Xmas eve.
We made it back to the hotel zone, finally, nerves totally frayed but, for once, glad to be back in the room. Ah now for some rest. Well, not so much, with the boom-boom of the disco reverberating through the walls until 11pm. Earplugs were useless against this nightly onslaught. Another amenity of our lovely AI…
I was delighted to take Robin on an extended tour of the seaside ruins of Tulum and the extensive ruins of Coba nearby. I had spent a week in the area in 1999 (my blog post is here) , so I knew the area quite well, the roads, the best times to arrive at different destinations, and nearby restaurants, and cenotes to snorkel.
These places simply do not disappoint. They have many faces: mysterious, atmospheric, scenic, aromatic, spooky, exhilarating and quietly pensive. It’s well worth doing one’s homework to walk (or in the case of Coba, bike) the many ancient sacbeob (raised, paved roads) and paths that cut through the jungle or connect different buildings and sites.
Another day we caught the ferry over to Isla Mujeres, and rented a golf cart with a ridiculous governor on it that had us creeping around the island at a crawling pace. But we did find a quiet spot or two from the maddening Isla crowds.
Basically, we stayed the hell OUT of our medium-security resort (Oasis Palms Hotel), where the elevators were tiny, cramped, airless and slow (and only 1 worked for ½ of the total resort property!); the shower hosed down the entire bath area and was never repaired; we never got towels we asked for (we took them off carts instead), the reception/desk staff were uniformly rude and completely unhelpful (so we stopped talking to them), items were routinely stolen from the rooms (a young woman frantically reported a male hotel staffer using an electronic card to enter her room, uninvited, through her locked door while she was alone) — etc etc.
To be sure, Trip Advisor had provided ample warning, with simply dozens of “Run Now, Don’t Stay Here!” reviews, and they were right. The place was simply mobbed with tons (and I mean, tons) of Fat American Families knocking you down as you minced your way to the buffet to get a banana for breakfast or dodged running kids to get near enough to stab a bit of the mystery-chicken-thing at dinner. The noise from live music, drums and bass-back-beats clearly reverberated up the seven stories to our room from the plaza below, from 8-11pm every night, augmenting the nearby disco racket. Geez, and this was the BEST option Delta vacations offered, after the expensive digs! And let’s see…. No chairs at the pool or tiny beach cuz they were all grabbed by the people at the “Grand” sister property next door, whose guests had exclusive access to better rooms and food (for a price) but their pool was in shade all day so they took all the lounge chairs at the Kid-Friendly crap sister resort with the terrific pool.
I’m the only person I know who went to an AI resort, brought in my own bottle of rum and some cokes, drank 25% of the rum, left it behind with the too-sweet cokes for the maids, and only ordered soda water with lime from the (quiet, out-of-the-way bar) the few times we sat at it after a day trip!
So forget the resort experience: check out my page with Mexico Trip Pix , with helpful captions.
Trip Coda: We flew home after 7 days in Cancun, drove into the house from the airport Thu. night, tossed dirty clothes into the hamper, repacked our suitcases, woke up early Friday and drove 7 hours down to central FL to arrive at my niece’s wedding exactly on time, 30 mins before the music cued up. Missing this wedding truly would have been The End of the World!
Check out my lengthier, meatier blog entry from my 1999 trip to the Yucatan.
Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.
Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!
After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.
Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.
It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.
We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!
We were also recovering from a flu bug that was amplified by an extraordinarily intense spring that left our sinuses full of pollen and fine particulates. We were looking forward to having a week of breathing fresh sea breezes before returning to the not-so-balmy air of Atlanta, where Code Orange days are routine in the summer months. But I digress.
Flash forward as we each sip a first frozen concoction at the Pump Room, situated above the downtown ferry dock on St. Thomas, USVI. The almost-4-hr plane ride from ATL to STT was uneventful, and the fact that we didn’t check luggage facilitated a rapid transfer from the airport to the ferry dock and much-anticipated refreshment.
My body ecstatically soaked up the familiar tropical heat and humidity as we tooled over to Tortola on the, as it turned out, SLOW ferry. Not to worry, we arrived at West End in fine fettle, cleared Customs relatively painlessly, and greeted our rental car host, who tripped us over to his office nearby and, quick-as-a-bunny we were driving on the left and tooling up one of many steep, switchback roads, headed to the Heritage Inn, our home for the next week.
We made a quick stop in Cane Garden Bay to get water, rum, cokes and snacks, then doubled back over Windy Hill to the Heritage Inn, in ample time to check in, get a hug from Rosa, who remembered me from 2006, unpack a few items in our room, then down the stairs to the Banakeet Café, home of delicious food and drinks and the best sunset view from any eatery on the island.
Beautiful sunsets and gorgeous, virtually deserted beaches were hallmarks of our stay. We didn’t venture far on the island, as I had driven it a couple of times in 2006 only to discover that the best beaches were close to the Heritage Inn. However, a planned highlight was a day trip over to Anegada Island, rightfully famous for miles of pristine beaches, a nearby fringing reef and just a couple of small bar/restaurants on those beaches to serve the infrequent guests.
A 1.5 hr ferry ride, some of it across deep water (read: rough ride) took us to Anegada early of a morning. After a bite to eat at the only “resort” on the island, near the ferry dock, we shared a jitney ride across the island to Cow Wreck beach, one I had read featured great snorkeling.
The beach was simply awesome, curving away to both horizons, with nobody, no boat traffic, only 2 kite-boarders having a ball in 17-knot winds—which were blowing hard directly onto the beach. The surf was booming out over the reef, and the normally placid water inside the reef was dense with suspended sand. But hey, we donned our skins and got right in, before the winds could pick up any more, which of course they always do as the afternoon comes on…
Welcome to Olympic snorkeling, swimming against wind-driven tide and shallow water surge. We battled our way out toward the reef, carefully picking our way between coral heads that came close to the surface, and keeping our distance from patch reefs that were hard to see in the low visibility.
On our way out to the reef, I spotted a 5-foot nurse shark resting on the sand in about 15 feet of water. I pointed it out to Robin, who was tickled pink to see her first shark in the wild. We let the surge take us quietly near the critter, which glided away when it saw us. That left us with a large, curious barracuda, who kept turning toward us and disappearing in the turbid water, only to present its flank, as if to remind us that this was a sizable (4 feet in length) fish. We went on about our business and left the ‘cuda to its patch reef.
The usual reef denizens appeared in and out of the visibility curtain, and we soon tired of fighting the current and surge. A lengthy swim back to the beach provided ample opportunity for Robin to learn to ride the surge, resting as the wave return pushed us out toward the reef, waiting some 5 seconds, then catching the in-coming swell and kicking hard to take advantage of the ride. This was surely an exercise in patience, but also the smartest and most energy-efficient way to return to the beach safely.
As Robin learned, getting out of the water can be the most awkward challenge. My experience was: The surge rapidly took me in to the shallows, where the water became solid with suspended sand and I couldn’t see a damn thing. I reached out and down with one hand, prepared to fend off the bottom if necessary. I saw a few small chunks of rock sweep under me – my eyes adjusted to focusing on the rock then lost a focal point again as sand swirled. Vertigo reigned. I peeked above the water and saw I was still 30 feet or so from the water’s edge. Looking down, I saw a cluster of sharp rocks in what was suddenly very skinny water. Finning over these knee-knockers quickly, I came to the sand trench typically dug by strong onshore currents. Wallowing in the trench while getting battered by incoming waves, I worked quickly to get my fins off, before the next BIG wave, aided by a wicked undertow, could tumble me over those rocks I just crossed. Grasping my fins tightly, I danced two quick, steep steps onto firm sand and I was home free.
Behind me, Robin was tumbling in the surf, struggling with her fins. I gave her a hand and soon we were both standing, reeling really, on hard-packed beach, our snorkel skins covered with sand. The wind was blowing hard enough to threaten to snatch the gear out of our hands. Slowly we made our way back up the beach to our lounge chairs, where we collapsed gratefully.
The high winds attracted two kite-boarders, whom we enjoyed watching throughout the day as they flew across the bay, jumped the outer reef, turned flips and maneuvered skillfully around an inflatable anchored near the Cow Wreck beach bar. I struck up a confab with Bob-the-dentist-from-Texas, who proudly watched as his wife Cathy zoomed past. He explained she had taken the sport up a few months earlier. At 49, she looked every bit the pro to me, and I was amazed someone could master a sport that appeared tough to learn. Seems Bob and Cathy came to Anegada for 3 months every year to play on kiteboards—what a life! And a very nice couple.
The day flew by and soon it was time to head back to the ferry. On the way we passed a few skinny cows wandering around the dunes behind the bar. Cow Wreck, indeed. Poor things were bony, small and look half-starved.
Our next adventure was a day sail with snorkel stops aboard Kuralu, a 50 foot Catamaran I had been aboard in 2006. The day was windy—great for sailing but not so for snorkeling where I really wanted to go, which was at the exposed rocks called The Indians.
We almost called it off, especially since Robin was feeling a bit shaky after what we suspect were bad crab cakes she’d eaten the night before. However, she decided she should be fine aboard, as she “never” gets seasick, so off we went. Big Mistake. Not 10 mins after the sails unfurled, she hurled and kept at it for another 6 hours. She barely made it into the water for a brief snorkel stint at our first stop off Norman Island in protected waters.
The rest of the day she heaved every 20 minutes. She was close to needing rehydration via IV but she did manage to get enough fluids, including Gatorade, into her system to aid in a slow recovery. In any event, poor Robin remained off-her-food and listless for another 5 days.
Our final day of vacation was less adventuresome and allowed Robin to chill on a virtually deserted beach on a nearby island, Jost Van Dyke, a short ferry ride from Tortola. We caught a jitney over the mountain from the harbor to scenic White Bay and enjoyed a restful, quiet day swimming in clear, calm water and lounging in the shade in front of Ivan’s Stress-Free bar. Ivan’s offered delicious, if strong, Pain Killers, my favorite BVI drink. Robin sipped her Gatorade and we shared a delicious fish sandwich. A rain squall passed through, providing a welcome fresh-water rinse.
I had a nice chat with a somewhat waspish middle-aged Aussie woman who was the purveyor of a small display of driftwood, each piece crudely decorated with small shells, bits of colorful plastic and other curiosities apparently gathered from the high-water wrack line on the beach. Her story was interesting: she and her husband had suddenly, with-no-warning-to-the-kids-or-family, sold their home and furnishings in Sydney, provisioned their 35 foot sail boat, and taken off for ports unknown. Apparently the mid-life-crisis that brought on this abrupt change of venue took the kids by surprise, and months later the parents were still receiving telephone and email entreaties to “Come Home!” and to basically explain themselves! Mum and The Old Man were happy to be away from (apparently) a life of children-with-drama-issues, and they found themselves back on Tortola, where they had lived some 30 years previously (apparently before the kids came along!)
These days Mum made crappy sea crafts that she sold to passing White Bay tourists and The Old Man drove a cab on JVD. Nights were spent aboard their sailboat, she explained, pointing to a somewhat weathered mono-hull anchored out in the bay. I asked Mum if she and The Old Man had any plans, and she shrugged, admitting that they weren’t making any money and would likely head back to Sydney once they either managed to scrape up enough money to provision for the trip or if the kids would be willing to send some money along to help pay for the trip!
Of course there was more to the story, what with the kids holding the promise of money over the parents’ heads, contingent upon the parents selling “that damned boat” and flying back home. And of course the parents were refusing to give up the boat, their only valuable and the essence of their determined independence. In any case, the story was soon interrupted by the arrival of a large Windjammer sailing vessel to the bay, which vomited a crowd of loud, obnoxious, drunk or determined-to-get-drunk-rapidly American tourists onto the beach in front of Ivan’s. Their arrival signaled our departure, and so ended our bucolic day at Ivan’s on White Bay, JVD.
So many islands, so little time! This was my 2nd stay on Tortola, and as I watched it drift away under the wing of our Atlanta-bound Delta jet, I knew we’d likely not return. I determined that as soon as I got another job (having been out of work for 7 months in the Big Recession), I would start planning our 2010 trip to, lets’ see…Anguilla or Barbuda, those 2 islands keep coming up in conversation with seasoned, off-the-main-path Caribbean travelers. Hmmm – eeny, meeny miney, mo…
Talk about a bucolic Caribbean island! Bequia (“Beck-Way”) certainly meets that definition.
Located in the West Indies near Barbados, Bequia is a tiny, 7-square mile, volcanic-based oasis floating on a sea of cobalt, aquamarine, Copenhagen-and-all-manner-of blues and greens. With approximately 5,000 residents, Bequia is truly quite undiscovered- no cruise ships call and the somewhat arduous connections to get there dissuade casual vacationers or those looking for even 3 star accommodations. Yachties know it well but even so it is somewhat off the beaten cruising path, unlike, for instance, the Bahamas or the Virgins.
The island offers no hi-rise hotels, no resorts, just a few restaurants, 3 little stores, and very little shopping, primarily made of the same old T-shirts and mass-market crap in the few stores and sold by street vendors.
I liked the greenery of the volcanic hills, all the Bougainvillea, every kind of Bird of Paradise and all sorts of Hibiscus and of course orchids everywhere. The fragrances were heady. Not to mention the brightly-hued little Quits, a species found throughout the Caribbean and the ubiquitous ground Dove, a smaller bird than the Mourning Dove found in North America.
Our digs were simply sublime- a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home with plunge pool, situated on the crest of a hill, offering sweeping views of the coast and steady breezes. We rented a 4X4 drive jeep which was barely adequate to climb the steep, rough road to the house.
Several mornings we sat out on the villa patio and watched a squadron of hummingbirds work over a large, flowering tree that hung out over the steep ravine below. Finches, and Magpie-like members of the Crow family called and chatted, flitting about from tree to tree all day. Two mornings we heard a throaty, raspy loud series of calls that sounded to my ear very parrot-like. I don’t know if the threatened Amazon Parrot found on nearby St. Vincent makes a home on Bequia, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, as the islands are a mere 9 miles apart.
The other major boon of Bequia is all that fresh, salt-sea air, a balm to those of us who live in cities with poor air quality.
Caribbean vacations are each different, in the context of the “sameness” of Caribbean travel- heat, inefficiencies, airport hassles, sullen locals, iffy and limited food selections, slow service, high prices for all goods brought to the island. But hey, one becomes more tolerant with age and experience, especially if assisted by a rum punch or two.
However, those rum punches nearly proved my undoing, as I tooled around in a right-drive Jeep on the left on extremely narrow, winding and steep “roads”, with no shoulders, just steep drop-offs on one side to the ocean and a concrete ditch between the pressing hillside and the narrow, switch-back roadway. The ditches were about 2 feet wide and 4 feet deep- just enough to capture your tire if you slipped into one, which I did when avoiding a cement truck that came whipping around a bend. I was careful to avoid snatching the tire back on the road (without power steering that was a trick!) and send us careening off the hillside. Such near-misses soon became routine and the subject of somewhat breathless giggling.
Water-borne activities included snorkeling from shore and from a dive boat. The latter trip to Shitten Bay (no kidding) featured a view of Moon Hole, an old, quirky stone home battered by too many hurricanes and abandoned in its crack in a volcanic hillside.
Near Moon Hole, we snorkeled Shitten Bay, which didn’t offer much in the way of reef structure or fishes. The divers on the trip saw more fish, but at depths beyond our reach.
Robin had a moment’s hesitation when we were sailing over to Isla a’ Quarte, a nearby undeveloped island. We were in 6-foot seas, fairly big in that small boat (32 feet) and it was quite windy so as we came up on the wind the boat heeled very steeply. Robin found herself on the lee side, sitting in cockpit facing to the stern with her elbow on the combing. Her elbow got dipped in the ocean and she asked if the boat was gonna tip over.
I laughed and Nikki, our skipper, was kind enuf to just grin. He was perched with one foot on the high side and another on the low side of the cockpit, his bare toes curled to grip the edges of the bench seat, looking very piratical. I braced my feet across from my seat to the edge of Robin’s and enjoyed the wind. This was Robin’s first sailing adventure, and she decided she likes it, even under very brisk conditions.
The stars were right down on our heads every night. Lotsa meteorites! We’d turn off the lights in the villa and that was a DARK night- no light looms from towns or cities, and headlights from a car traveling the shore road miles away lit up the night like a spotlight. A campfire on the beach over 2 miles away appeared as clear as a bell, and could see people moving in front of the light cast by the flames.
One day we were hanging on the beach. I swam out to a patch reef offshore and in about 30 feet of water watched a large Spotted Eagle ray feed for 20 minutes. Its wing span equaled my own, its tail was like 3X the body length. Elegant and magnificent. It ignored me above and grazed the top of the flattish reef and nearby sand and grasses. Too weird- they have a pointed snout but when they feed they deploy these membrane-like flaps on either side of the mouth. The ray rooted in the sand or grass, digging up crustaceans no doubt and kicking up a cloud. Then it gulped once or twice, folded in the mouth flaps and swam to another likely patch and repeated the procedure. Way cool to watch.
The marketer in me wants to trumpet this not-so-discovered corner of the Caribbean to the world, but the weary, salary-slave-seeking-respite part says “Shhh! Keep it a secret!”
Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas (STT) by plane can, on a good day, put you at the downtown (STT) ferry dock, awaiting one of the ferries for Tortola in about, oh say, maybe 8.5 hours – not counting the drive to the ATL airport or the 15 min taxi ride from the airport to the ferry dock. But, it’s the full moon in May, 2006, the Saturday afternoon sun is bright, a steady breeze blows dust and dirt along the streets of St. Thomas and ruffles the amazingly blue and clear waters surrounding Charlotte Amalie.
We are already, in our minds, on Tortola, sipping a cold something and watching the sun set from the outer edges of the Banakeet restaurant at the Heritage Inn – our home for the next 7 days or so. It will be a short, adventurous, pleasant, and somewhat painful stay. But first, the hour ferry ride over to Tortola, which gives us plenty of time to slowly get into limin’ mode, which is slang for, well, limin’. Think of it. A lime. A drink. Sittin’ in the shade on a breezy beach – limin’.
Clearing customs in any port is no joy but the standard operating procedure at West End, Tortola, treated us gently, and so we made our way out of the breezeway and into the sweltering sun to ask around for Denzyl Clyne, who showed up, as agreed, to take us 2 minutes down the shore road to his car rental shack, where we yakked with other eager vacationers doing the same paperwork drill to secure the must-have 4WD jeep capable of negotiating the steep, winding, treacherous hills and switchbacks of this 59 sq. mile chunk of the British Virgin islands.
Tortola is located some 90 miles east of Puerto Rico, a stone’s throw from the USVI’s St. John and a world away from the stress of work, household upkeep, lawn chores and other bothers. Officially, some 22,000 humans call the island home, about 2/3 of them living in and around the capital and seat of commerce, Road Town, which we steered clear of as we went up, up, up and over and down, down, down one of what would be many “hills”, to cross to the side of the island where the tourists tend to congregate.
Driving along the North Coast Road (a fairly flat section), we enjoyed the water views, the pelicans and frigate birds wheeling, flapping and, in the pelicans’ case, diving. The driver, Lynn, managed to negotiate narrow streets, parked cars, stopped cars, chickens and the odd goat and wandering pedestrian with aplomb, while driving on the left of the skinny road. Luckily, driving on the left is like riding a bicycle, (for those who have done it before, I should say) – although here it’s not recommended one falls off – it can be a very long, very direct way down to sea level.
Soon, it was time to shift back into 4WD and head way up, up and winding and up and switchback (4 of them, keep count) and here we are, home for the next week. Park the jeep and walk toward the edge of that precipice just under the Tamarind tree and, oh my gosh. Look at that view. From over 400 feet up, on this breezy hill, where you can smell the salt sea air, the loamy soil, green growing things and the singular tart odor that always reminds me of the jungles of Mexico and Belize. The islands to the north are clearly etched against a soft, dusty blue sea way below. Boats sailing between us and the nearby island of Jost Van Dyke make tiny white scratches on the surface of that incredibly blue Caribbean Sea. I don’t have enough names for the different hues of blue I’ve seen these waters reflect – it’s been a few years since I’ve been in this section of the Caribbean and I’m almost overwhelmed again by the intensity of the sight and my reaction to it. Or maybe I just need a pina colada. Time to unpack and head for the bar of the Banakeet!
The sunset was awesome, the food and drinks at the Banakeet lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. The room at the Heritage Inn was rather small, cramped really, but we didn’t spend much time in there – well, except for the days it poured rain and threatened to wash the place off the mountain. Speaking of which, Sage Mountain, the highest point on the island at over 1,700 feet rose directly behind the Heritage Inn. The peak was often shrouded in mist and light rain during our stay, except for the one day we managed to hike the trails in the Mt. Sage Nat’l Park. It was dark and cool under the canopy of huge fig trees and other, rampant growth. Birdcalls surrounded us as we trekked through the jungle-like greenery- it was a tiny piece of rain forest on an otherwise rather arid island that boasts mostly cactus, succulents and other moisture-hungry plants.
During our stay we drove to various beaches, discovering chilly waters and interesting snorkeling at Brewer’s Bay, as well as a delicious meal at Nichol’s beachside grill there. At Brewer’s Bay, cattle were resting in the deep shade of the sea grapes well above the high water mark and chickens pecked through the leaf litter. A small village of tarps sagged in the deep gloom of the shade. More like a hobo camp than party destination, the place was abandoned (except for the cows and chickens) and gave me the willies as I curiously poked around.
Another scenic and out of the way beach is Smuggler’s Cove, way down at the west end of the island. Negotiating the very rough and steep track is made worthwhile when you arrive – no real facilities here but you can buy a t-shirt or sarong from the ad-hoc beach vendor or even get a frozen drink, mixed to your specs with the assistance of a car battery.
One night’s dinner at Myett’s in Cane Garden Bay, the main tourist center on the north side of the island, gave us reason to avoid the place and try Coco Plums in Carrot Bay- a much tastier proposition. In spite of the resident and voracious no-see-ums that hang out at Coco Plums, we ate there several times and came away delighted with the quality of the food, service and atmosphere. Funky place, great prices, decent service and the seared pan mushrooms were a much-anticipated appetizer! Just don’t hit that big fig tree when you go to back out into the street…
Early in the week we caught the 8am ferry for a 20-minute ride over to nearby Jost Van Dyke island. Frequent Caribbean travelers know that early morning ferries are mostly peopled with workers, and so we weren’t surprised to discover no taxis waiting at the other end to take us across a steep hill to White Bay, a well-known gorgeous beach area with a string of bars and small boutiques along the white sands. So we grabbed our stuff and hiked into town, which we could see just around the curve of the harbor. Found a taxi driver awake and secured a quick trip over to Ivan’s on White Bay, where we set up camp for the morning under the shade of yet more sea grapes. A handful of sailboats, mostly 40+ foot catamaran’s, rode anchor or mooring balls on the beautiful, crystal clear water, providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
After swimming and limin’ for a coupla hours, we hiked down the beach and around a pointy-and-jagged ironshore headland with the aid of a slippery goat trail. We stumbled, sweaty and hot from our trek, down the soft beach sand to the famous Soggy Dollar bar. Party boats had made their way to anchor just off-shore by then and a crowd of rowdy high school kids were raising a ruckus, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a delicious lunch, a couple of pain killers, a couple of beers, and taking pictures.
Dinah used her Blackberry to call back over to our hostess Rosa at the Heritage Inn to follow up on arrangements for a sail/snorkel day trip for the morrow- all was set!
Wednesday (the morrow), we were up and at ‘em early to drive back down the North Coast Road, through Carrot Bay and around Apple Bay, across the mountain on Zion Hill Rd., shifting out of 4WD again and tooling over to Soper’s Hole in West End, the yachting mecca and upscale shopping area catering to folks with a lot more money than sense. Just kidding- Soper’s Hole is scenic and justifiably famous for something or other. Lotsa slips at the marina, anyway. One of them hosted our skipper Robin’s catamaran Kuralu.
After a bite of breakfast at the little Pisces restaurant, we joined 4 other folks on board Kuralu for a terrific day of sailing, snorkeling and enjoying the company of our skipper, his hunky son Tom, Kaley-the-wonder-dog and fellow passengers. Just enough wind to push us along, so off we tacked to the Indians, some tall rocks sticking up out of the ocean bottom, swarming with more soft corals and fish life than I’ve seen for years, outside of the reef off Ambergris Caye in Belize. Cool water didn’t keep us away from almost an hour communing with the fishies – I was in heaven. Snorkeling the Indians was just like snorkeling a wall, except one could move from one wall to another. Depth to the sand was approx. 40-50 feet and lotsa sun shining down lit everything up beautifully.
This stop proved to be the highlight of this snorkel trip and provided a potent visual that is indelibly etched into my memory. One of those magical moments unfolded, simply out of nowhere, when I swam around one of the rocky outcrops and encountered a huge school of silversides. Thousands of 4-6″ long fish formed a large ball, approximately the size of a car, creating a dazzling, shimmering display in the rays of sunlight spearing the blue water. As I swam toward the ball, it parted just wide enough to let me into the center, and then the gap closed behind me. I found myself in the core of a solid vertical tunnel of fish that stretched from a foot below the ocean’s surface down to the sandy bottom below. I held my breath as long as I could and slowly corkscrewed toward the surface, mesmerized by the fishy envelope around me.
I lost track of time, but likely only enjoyed a few minutes of this amazing swim before the fish shoal moved out into open water, leaving me behind, where I floated, dazed and grinning from ear-to-ear.
Back aboard Kuralu and drying off, we were entertained by Kaley, who would leap off the stern with a big SPLASH and swim like mad to fetch the Frisbee that Tom tossed overboard. Once Kaley had it in her mouth, she’d turn around, swim back to the stern and board the boat using the swim ladder! Truly a wonder-dog!
The cobalt blue of the ocean slipped astern as we headed over to anchor off Norman island for a fantastic lunch aboard Kuralu and some desultory snorkeling in a somewhat brisk current over mostly boring, half dead and fishless reef. That swim didn’t last long, although the two nubile sisters from Miami Beach did spot a turtle. Darn, we missed it.
The sisters got to show off a bit more skin than previously displayed around their miniscule “swim suits” when we headed around the corner to another bay, where the infamous “pirate ship” (think Disney with rust stains), the “Willy-T” lay at permanent anchor in an almost pristine setting of soaring green hills.
The old scow of a boat was anchored in about 40 feet of crystal clear water over a white sand bottom, with a few, long and dark shadows lurking just under the surface in the shade of the boat. I thought the fish were Jacks. I’m sure they and other critters are accustomed to eating anything that falls or is tossed off that boat.
Anyway, the thing is, if one jumps off the upper deck of the ship into the water some 30 feet below, er, naked, one Gets The T-Shirt. Of course the girls went for it.
A few fellas were hangin’ at the bar and happy to provide an appreciative audience. The girls were concerned that the impact of hitting the water might damage the investment they had in their superstructures, but a self-entitled “surgeon” who claimed he had “done a million of them” (I doubt he meant jumps) suggested the girls might hold onto their attributes tightly as they struck the water. Some fellas thought this was bad advice, as it might ruin the view. The women all encouraged the girls to protect their investments. I was given the task of capturing the seminal leap, using their digital camera, which I managed to do, quite to their satisfaction. They decided that was one shot they weren’t going to share with Dad and StepMom…
Post-leap and the donning of “swim suits” in the pellucid waters, we all (Kaley included) piled into the dingy for a quick run back to Kuralu and headed back to port, where the beginning of what was to be a day and 2 nights of torrential rainfall awaited us.
The Big Rains caught us at breakfast at Rhymer’s down in Cane Garden Bay the next morning. Like the 15 or so other patrons, we were stuck there for well over 2 hours, with no letup in sight. Finally, we headed out in the rain to the Suzuki and carefully made our way toward the Heritage Inn, crossing the bridge over a “ghut” (large gully that drains water from the steep hills around) that was filling faster than it could drain into the bay.
Half way up the first of several steep hills, we could go no further – the road in front of us was awash with fast-flowing, muddy water with boulders and rocks tumbling along, easily as deep as the tires on the Suzuki. Turning around, we were stymied when arriving back at the bridge over the ghut – the bridge was under water and there we sat, waiting for the water level to drop. It was about an hour later that the rains let up and we slowly picked our way past rocks, boulders, holes in the road and hillsides washed onto the roadway, to arrive back at our room.
At some point I managed to slip on wet tiles on the stairs to our room and damaged my leg rather severely, which laid me up with ice and Ibuprofen for an evening or two, but didn’t keep me from snorkeling and, luckily, had no direct affect on the articulation of either elbow.
Our last full day we drove down (up?) the island, getting lost along the way and finally found Lambert Bay – a very scenic place with the added attraction of Lambert’s Resort. We hung out on the resort’s beach loungers, which allowed us to put the little sand chairs we’d packed all the way from the ‘states back in the Suzuki (later we donated the sand chairs to the Heritage Inn, which had none for guests to use.) Lunch at the resort’s restaurant and a coupla pina coladas later and soon it was time to head back to our room and head back out for dinner.
On our ferry ride back to STT, I overheard someone say that he preferred to take the slower route to and from Tortola (vs flying in), because it gave one the time to slowly either wind down (upon arrival) or wind up (to get ready to clear Customs and Immigration and deal with the hassles of modern-day air travel). I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I watched Tortola and St. John slip astern and, later, as I got my final glimpse of those incredible blue Caribbean waters just before the plane rose above the clouds.
Off-season Caribbean island travel has its rewards…like less expensive stays, fewer people at the popular spots around the island, a personalized rain forest tour and having restaurants to yourselves.
It was May, early off-season for our destination, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. These sister islands can be found in the Leeward Island group in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, to the west of Antigua. Perusing the Internet in preparation for our trip, we discovered that just 2 miles separate the islands at their closest point, and according to official websites, offer visitors …” a relatively authentic island experience, (with) luxuriant mountain rain forests; uncrowded beaches; historic ruins; towering, long-dormant volcanoes; charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis); intact cultural heritage; friendly if shy people; and restored, 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant, if sometimes eccentric, expatriate British and American owners”.
Thus adequately prepped by our research, we arrived on St. Kitts with realistic expectations. As seasoned Caribbean travelers, we’re accustomed to traveling off season (southern natives don’t mind the heat and humidity), quickly adjusting to the slower pace of life that typifies most cultures in the Tropics.
After clearing Customs at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on St. Kitts, we were met by a helpful employee of our car rental company and, before we knew it, we were tooling merrily along (on the left, of course) toward the brilliant sunset, headed for the Timothy Beach Resort (TBR), our home for the next week or so. Having arrived on a Saturday, we looked forward to a delightful introduction to the island via the highly-recommended Sunday Brunch at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a lush, tropical oasis on the Atlantic side of the island.
Ottley’s was virtually deserted when we visited on that windy, rainy morning. Heavy mist swept across and obscured the peaks of the rain-forested mountains in the near distance, leaving behind large dewdrops on the flowering bougainvillea and carefully tended lawns and ornamentals.We were enjoying the silence and solitude accented by bird calls when we were approached by a large, friendly, wet and smelly golden retriever, who greeted us with a gentle tail-wag and a wet nose then led us down the royal palm-lined track that skirts the main building.
Our canine host paused to munch on a ripe mango then followed us as we explored the rainforest trail located behind the property.We spent a few minutes quietly stepping over fallen mangoes and looking up at the towering trees festooned with ferns and liana vines, then made our way back to the swimming pool area, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and served one of the most outstanding meals we enjoyed during our stay.
Noon is a bit soon for us to be drinking alcohol, but the rum punch or mimosa comes with the meal, so we threw all caution to the wind and went for it!
During our meal, we were amused by the black and white cat that slept on a low wall of the open-air dining area. A quiet older couple dined right next to the cat, which snoozed quietly. Four businessmen showed up and started a loud conversation, which startled the cat and grated on our ears, formerly accustomed to the sound of the wind through the rainforest. The cat sauntered over to us to extend greetings, which we cordially returned. The reception it received at the loudmouth table, however, was a rude kick. We decided to steer well clear of such dismissive and arrogant interlopers.
After the meal we walked the grounds some more, as the sun came out and bathed the hillside in heat and a white-gold light. We ran into the operations manager, who greeted us warmly, inquired about our stay, where we were from, and offered to take a photo of us with our camera, which we accepted. The manager inquired if we were enjoying our stay, and indeed throughout our time on the island, we were continually asked by servers and others we met “How are you enjoying your stay? Are you having a good time?”
Thoroughly stuffed with excellent food and mellowed from the serenity of Ottley’s, we hit the shore road and continued our island tour, counterclockwise, a direction that friends on the island suggested would help us to unwind. We passed numerous sugar processing ruins that dot the island.
After a couple of photo ops, we came to Black Rocks. Parking the car at the top of the headland in what appeared to be a small park, we dodged a flock of the ubiquitous goats that inhabit the island. The goats had more sense than we did — they didn’t even get close to the loose, steep track that led down the dangerously sheer hillside to the volcanic rocks below.
At Black Rocks, huge waves crashed all along the shore, as far as one could see in both directions, tearing themselves into spume and mist against the jagged, massive volcanic rocks below. The scene was one of immense energy and I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. Normally, I readily clamber over rocks and boulders encountered on hikes and tramps, but this place engendered in me a caution that kept me well away from the edge. Besides, the wind was blowing so hard that it I was afraid of being blown overboard, so we hung out, snapped a few shots and returned to the car.
Further along we came to Dieppe Bay, passing the Golden Lemon Inn, which we aimed to visit for a luncheon later in the week.
Around the top (northern end) of St. Kitts, we spotted Brimstone Hill fortress on our left– a Must See and, on a clear day, you enjoy the most magnificent views available (unless you do a rainforest hike — more about that later.)
We typically bring along a small, collapsible cooler on our trips, and this visit was no exception. Fortified by bottled water, a Yoohoo, local soft drinks and Carib beer (potable if Very Cold), we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy digs at Timothy Beach Resort early every morning to spend the day exploring the island. Power bars and other snacks kept us going until we chose a time and place to stop, eat, and chill.
One day we drove over Monkey Hill just below TBR, and made our way down to Turtle Beach. The rusted A-frame of a destroyed building, litter and the overpowering smell of cattle crowding around a fresh water tank greeted us at Turtle Beach. It was a holiday, and large groups of partiers were having their revelries.
We bumped along through the soft sand, skirting the shore, to a quiet place where we could get out of the car, hoping to enjoy the view of Nevis across the way – only to be scoured by sand whipped up by the gale blowing across the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts. Oh well, not much snorkeling here today! In fact, it was difficult to keep one’s feet.
As to snorkeling – I’m a SCUBA diver from Way Back but do enjoy exploring island shorelines for snorkeling. Having done my homework by reading posts on the St. Kitts/Nevis message board for several months, I determined we might head to the southern end of South Friar’s Bay area for snorkeling. Hmmm. Not much to see, except a couple of coral-encrusted canon which we were told had been recently “studied” by students from I-forgot-where. When we snorkeled over the canon, which were lying in about 10 feet of water approximately 70 feet from shore, we spotted dozens of small plastic Zip-Lock bags strewn all around the site. Each bag had a white, flat plastic “stake” in it. Each plastic “stake” had cryptic writing on it. Some of these bags were tucked in among the surrounding rubble, but most of them had floated free and were lying on the sandy bottom. It wouldn’t take much of a sea to scatter these bags all along the bay bottom and onto the shore, or out to sea. This “research” effort struck me as little more than litter, for certainly those plastic bags and tags would only add to the flotsam and litter we found everywhere piled above and below the high-water mark. Not to mention the danger to turtles and other animals, fish and coral reef structures. Not to mention the half-life of plastic litter.
The best off-shore snorkeling we found was the shallow, man-made reef structure that parallels the shoreline along the northern end of South Friar’s Bay, from the Shipwreck bar north. This “reef” is located approximately 25-30 feet offshore (depending on the tide) and in about 8-10 feet of water. We found the structure best suited to early morning exploration, before the winds and seas kick up.
One can ride the gentle current that slowly pushes you northward, drifting and peering under the shallow ledge for shy critters like boxfish, trumpet fish, damsels, blennies, angelfish and all manner of juvenile reef fish. If the waves kick up, the visibility gets pretty low, so we learned to stick with the early morning dip for best results.
We were dismayed by the amount of garbage and trash piled up behind the Shipwreck bar, at the base of the hill. Rusted out beach chairs, boxes, broken wooden seats and every manner of plastic container were heaped with no consideration for aesthetics or safety. As a commercial photographer, I am typically careful to crop such eyesores out of lovely beach scenes, but I did take several shots of the “alternative” views. On one hand, I can’t help but believe this is a sign of laziness and Not My Job attitude on the part of people who own and operate these beach-side “businesses.” On the other hand, throughout my travels across the eastern and Western Caribbean, over the past 25+ years, this sort of visual has been all too common and reflects the difficulty of solid waste disposal on islands, the lack of infrastructure, funds and planning for such disposal, the dismal attitude of poor and struggling islanders and the nonchalant attitude of tourists who are, for the most part, completely oblivious to their contributions to the plight of these closed ecosystems.
But, back to the travel log flavor of this story: We made a point of visiting Romney Manor, the 350-year-old estate once owned by a British earl, and the home of Caribe Batik.
What gorgeous surrounds, lovingly cared-for, well- tended lawns and exotic plants and fruiting trees! The batik goods at this tropical “factory” are breathtaking – we just had to buy a gift for ourselves as well as family and friends back home.
However. Once again Reality bit us in the butt. Like the approach to Ottley’s and the Golden Lemon and other destinations, we passed through horribly run-down and poverty-stricken areas, with sights like a huge sow sleeping underneath a wrecked and rusted truck carcass and the troubling sight of a naked toddler wiping herself clean (and dropping the rag) after defecating in the bushes across from her home (a shanty, really), which apparently sported no running water or sanitary facilities. Such scenes do not hearten the tourist, however enchanting some areas may appear.
Leaving such painful sights behind, we opted for a rainforest hike so early one morning we met our erstwhile guide Hugh Rodgers for a personal, guided hike on Mount Liamuiga, the dead volcano that is such a massive feature of the island. Over the course of a couple of hours, we were guided up and down well-tended (but not well-worn!) trails under and through the triple-canopy as Mr. Rodgers shared with us his prodigious knowledge of the fauna, flora and history of our surrounds.
We appreciated that Mr. Rogers could strike just the right balance between informational chat and allowing periods of silence to stretch out so that we could enjoy the sounds of the animals, insects and the smell of nutmeg on the wind– an enveloping, sensory experience.
After our rainforest hike, we decided to spend a day visiting Nevis. This smaller island is just across a deep water channel from St. Kitts but, in many ways, seems slower and much more a reflection of the imperial era of European influence.
Small as it is, Nevis almost proved more than we could see in a day, even though we were perfectly mobile in a rental car. Our research unearthed key points of interest, so after a quick early morning bite to eat at a cute restaurant overlooking the ferry dock in Charlestown, we set off on a day-long drive around the island, taking in the Botanical Gardens (beautiful and worth banging down a rough track, with little signage to point the way) and places to stay, several of which are built around historic sugar plantations.
By the time we’d visited the Golden Rock Estate’s one hundred acres nestled high up in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, the all-inclusive Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778 and the home of Fanny Nisbet, eventual wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson), the Four Seasons Resort Hotel with its extravagant pool and exorbitant drink prices, and a few smaller, out-of-the-way beach properties, we were satisfied we’d pretty much “done” Nevis. Tired but happy wanderers, we turned in the rental car, boarded the ferry for the short trip over to St. Kitts, and a lovely dinner at one of several restaurants near the center of Basseterre.
Segue to the town of Basseterre, one of the oldest in the Eastern Caribbean, which retains much of the Georgian character of Nelson’s days. The town is the main commercial and industrial center of St. Kitts, and features bustling port traffic, ferry traffic, foot traffic in and out of stores and along narrow streets, and animal traffic in the form of goats and chickens that wander about, dodging, well, traffic.
Driving to, from and about in Basseterre proved a challenge, even for this driver accustomed to tight spots in and around Boston and squeezing into tiny parking places on the streets of Atlanta. Roundabouts do little to sort traffic but do provide picturesque distraction as one attempts to avoid being side-swiped while negotiating the myriad of 90 degree turns that define the entrance or exit of these somewhat dysfunctional traffic managers.
Of particular interest was the center of a roundabout featuring a half-size concrete statue of a faintly Victorian lady, clad in a (as-best-I-recall) diaphanous, wind-blown gown. Adopting a Statue-of-Liberty stance, the figure, situated on a chipped concrete pedestal, held what once must have been a light fixture. Somehow, through the years, the light had been lost, the fixture broken and replaced by what appeared to be, yes, a rusted metal drainpipe! Just as our island-dwelling, ex-pat Brit friend had informed us, “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” stood forth for all to see, but try as I might, I could only capture a wildly tilted image of her outside the widow of our car as we furiously went around and around. Tiring of the life-threatening adventure, we soon bailed from that roundabout and headed to one a bit more genteel.
The centerpiece of Basseterre’s evocative Georgian architecture is its Circus, a positively spacious and well-organized roundabout modeled in proper Victorian patriotism after Piccadilly, in London. In the middle of the Circus stands the bright green bronze of the Berkeley Memorial Clock, an ornate, cast iron tower with four clock faces and more than a little architectural decoration. Decorously immobile, it posed for several pictures, much to my satisfaction.
With one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis reflect some of their pre-Columbian past and a great deal of their European history dating from the 1400s to the Spanish, French and British periods. Whether you choose a little bit of history, a lot of local color, ancient volcanoes surrounded by rain forests, wind-swept hillsides dotted with the ruins of old sugar mills, modern romantic getaway resorts, or a mix of them all, St. Kitts and Nevis offer a variety of material from which any visitor can craft a unique Caribbean vacation.
Experienced Caribbean travelers generally prefer to avoid heading toward the equator in the heat of July. However, the timing of our visit was determined by our Bahamian friend from the States, who invited us to join her for a family reunion on the island. The event was scheduled for the week of July 4, so off we went, in planes that decreased in size and became hotter and more cramped as we traveled from Tampa, Florida to Miami to Nassau, and then on to Long Island.
On our previous visit, we’d experienced Long Island in the heat of May, which is off season, where we had enjoyed the relative luxury of the Stella Maris Inn resort situated at the northern tip of the island.
This trip we looked forward to “Livin’ Like The Natives Do”, discovering local hangouts and foregoing expensive resort amenities.Our destination was one of only two airstrips on the island- the one closest to Cartwrights, the settlement named for our friend’s family, where I hoped a rental car awaited us.
Arriving on Long Island during a torrid summer mid-afternoon afforded a small taste of the heat and sun we were to endure for the week. But hey, we were used to the heat so we came prepared. Of course the (high-mileage, beat-up, standard shift) rental car had no air-conditioning but it did have fairly new tires, very critical to getting around on the extremely rough, boulder-strewn and potholed limestone roads that crisscross the island.
It is worth noting that the island is a bit over 100 miles long, with one major asphalt road (The Queen’s Road, which our friend’s uncle helped develop in the 1960s) that runs the length, along the leeward shore of the island. In places the island may be six miles wide. Rough roads that connect from the Queen’s Road to the rocky, windward shore are few and far between, due to the cost of bush hogging and putting in a (typically very steep) road. A consequence is that the beaches are deserted. It also helps that, the year of our visit, less than 5000 people were living year-round on the island, which made it rather sparsely populated.
After we collected our little Geo-type car at the tiny airport, we managed to make our way “up island” to hook up with our friend at the new Shell station, one of only two gas stations for many miles.
Numerous family members had turned out to meet our friend at the airport, and at least five adults and four kids were piled in the family pickup truck, squeezed in the rusting cab and packed into the open bed. After hasty greetings in the broiling sunlight, we formed a caravan and headed down the road, looking like a vanguard from the Grapes of Wrath.
We soon arrived at the Cartwright family compound and the home that our host and his wife shared with their 2 pre-teens and Maw-Ma, the 85-year-old matriarch of the clan.
The three photos illustrate a 20th century homestead, the remains of a home circa late 1800s; and the ruins of a home from the early 1800s.
The family home was quite 20th century: a small, unfinished cinderblock house, like most homes on the island, situated close to the Queen’s Road and surrounded by several acres of banana and fruit trees. Across the road squatted the little community store, which, during our stay, the clan cleaned out of chicken, soft drinks, bottled water and Vienna sausage until the next arrival of the island supply boat. Next door was an uncle’s house and down the road was Aunt So-and-So and Cousin so-and-so and on it goes.
Living on an island means making-do and learning to live with little or no access to services and amenities to which we in the States are accustomed. One must wait for the weekly mail boat to arrive, which brings car parts and machinery and doors and furniture and the like. There are finite limits to what the boat can bring, and to what people can afford. Thus, it’s very expensive to purchase many items that we take for granted, like clothing or shoes or floor mats or nails. Example- a plastic patio chair retailing here for $4.99 is over $17.00 there.
Most of the vehicles are pretty old and beat-up. It costs thousands to ship a vehicle to the island, after having bought it typically very used, in Florida. Upkeep is sporadic, parts unheard-of and very expensive, so many vehicles are cobbled together and in extreme states of wear and tear. In fact, the family truck broke down trying to climb one of the steep, rocky, rough-hewn tracks on the windward side of the island. Luckily, we were following the truck in the little rental car, and were able to run “up island”, or south, to find a relative with jumper cables. Once underway, the truck had to be backed up a steep incline in reverse because it only ran forward in third gear. With a few people pushing, the truck got over that hill. That was the end of visits to the rocky shore in the truck!
As for their homes, island residents build as they can afford, so it typically takes a few years to complete a house. We observed many cinderblock shells about the island, overgrown and apparently abandoned, but we were informed they were merely “under construction”.
This was the first time our friend had been back to her home since she was ten years old. She was excited to be back and to show her own children where she had grown up and attended school. A real treat for us was to watch her interact with her family and revisit her childhood haunts and activities, like clawing around in the cave system that, for generations, has protected island families from hurricanes.
Our friend managed to locate carvings and scratching made by members of several generations of her family, and we even teased her uncle about a decades-old carving we discovered that advertised his attraction for a long-forgotten schoolgirl. We found a goat skull in the cave, and many bats, spiders, salamanders and land crabs. In places it was pitch black, and the damp limestone floor was uneven and slippery — thankfully we had our flashlights.
We spent our days and evenings with the clan, providing transport for the beach-or-blue-hole-of-the-day expedition. Because of the heat (and non-air-conditioned homes and businesses), the goal was to find a swimming spot with some shade and to relax for a few hours during the heat of the day, or at least until 2:00 pm when the truck was needed to go to the Shell to pick up Auntie from work. The truck also was needed at 4:00 pm to pick Uncle up from the construction site where he worked, a few miles from the house.
While Uncle and Auntie worked during the day, Maw-Ma sat in a breezy, shaded spot by a door or out back near the banana grove, weaving palmetto into strips that she would eventually use to weave hats or straw bags. Her handiwork was beautiful, and a source of income for the family.
Maw-Ma would often have visitors, including her elderly sister and her sister’s daughter. The sister was wheelchair bound, toothless and fond of snuff. She wore a John Deere baseball cap and, like everyone else, she wore threadbare clothes (folks wear their clothes ’til they literally fall off their bodies).
The elderly sister and her middle-aged daughter were intimidating when we were first introduced– I suppose because we were unaccustomed to being stared at, but we soon realized this is the way of the locals, who apparently find visitors an infinite source of interest and amusement. We soon came to know these women as gentle, simple folk — and hearty! The daughter typically wheeled her overweight mother down the sun blasted Queen’s Road for several miles, to and from these daily visitations. Plus, the daughter was always barefooted, as are all the kids and most of the adults we encountered. We were told that shoes were saved for church, work and school!
I have now digressed well beyond our first evening, which found some thirteen of us piled into the truck and the car, slowly making our way to nearby Clarence Town to one of the few restaurants on the island, and the only one open after 7:00 pm on a Saturday. It took a couple of hours for the friendly staff to cook and serve food (chicken, grouper or conch) for the clan, but time flew by as we all chattered and laughed and did our best to decipher the range of accents represented. It wouldn’t be long before we Floridians were speaking in the soft patios and deliberate delivery common to the island.
The stars were close overhead and the almost-full moon high in the sky as we caravanned home along the dark Queen’s Road. We were invited to bunk in at another uncle’s nearby house, which proved to be a sleepless night. Amenities like a shower head, a light in the bathroom, a toilet that flushed and screens on the windows were conspicuously missing. We were hot, tired and dirty from a long day of travel and didn’t sleep a wink as we tossed and turned on an ancient, soggy mattress and were devoured by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. Yikes! Tough times for even us, who camp in mosquito-infested areas in the tropics! Of course, we use a tent with fine mesh screens — no such luck here.
Sunday dawn found us on the Queen’s Road, having unceremoniously abandoned our host’s home. I drove slowly along the Queen’s road, blearily looking for one of two fishing resorts I knew were in the area. Before too long we managed to locate our home-away-from-home at the Greenwich Lodge. We spoke with the proprietress as she was cooking breakfast for her only other guests, a rowdy group of high-school students from Washington State on a church outing. She was happy to have us check in right away, as we were to be the only guests in this 8-room facility the rest of the week, after the kids departed. Once she knew we were on the island to visit with the Cartwrights, we were treated as family.
We were soon happily showering in a brand new motel-like room, one with air conditioning. We caught the morning’s breakfast, which we soon discovered to be grits and something, usually dry scrambled eggs and greasy bacon or, interestingly, tuna salad. No bread. Coffee or juice but not both. Then we took a long nap.
By mid afternoon, we were ready to go play with the Cartwright clan. Everyone piled into the car and truck and off we went to what turned out to be one of several fantastically picturesque beaches. Maw-Ma rode with us in the rental car and we had the chance to hear of her stories of being raised on the island with no electricity, before her son put in the Queen’s Road.
We learned how many of the settlers, white and black, including her grandparents, arrived at the island. They jumped from their convict ship as it stopped to provision en-route from Puerto Rico to Nassau. Many of these people were poor and had been incarcerated for petty theft (food, mostly). Some were escaped slaves. They eventually populated the island and turned it into what is now the breadbasket of the Bahamas. Nearly all of the fresh fruit and most of the veggies served in the Bahamas come from Long Island, which has numerous sources of fresh water, including cave systems, springs and blue holes.
Fresh water is what brought Christopher Columbus to the island on a number of his crossings, which is why the west tip of the island and the harbor there are named for him and a monument erected.
The harbor goes on for miles and is one of the most hauntingly picturesque and pristine areas I’ve ever seen. Except for flotsam and some litter, I doubt it looks one iota different from when he visited. No homes, no boats, no people, no power lines, and only one narrow, dangerously rutted, track of a road. We were captivated by this area on our last visit and were delighted to return, even if the drive was 1.5 hours to the north, or “down island”.
Subsequent forays took us to a couple of the island’s blue holes, including our favorite, Dean’s Blue Hole, located on Turtle Cove, which we had visited on our first trip to the island. Unbeknownst to us on our first visit to Long Island, the property surrounding Dean’s Blue Hole is owned by yet another Cartwright family member, so of course this visit we had permission to access this place that the world-famous Jacques Cousteau had made famous by featuring in one of his TV specials.
These blue holes are found throughout the Caribbean, but this one is the deepest in the Bahamas, well over 600 feet. Fresh water wells up from below and mixes with salt water flowing from the adjacent protected lagoon, which I thought looked exactly like a pirate stronghold!
One day we adults slipped away from the kids and spent the morning at this wondrous place. Our friend and her brother were brave enough to climb up the razor sharp rocks that tower some 50 or more feet above the blue hole. After much egging-on by those of us on the sandy beach at the edge of the blue hole, they each jumped into the crystal clear, cold water below, scattering tropical fish and startling the large Nassau grouper that hung about in the depths below the cliff wall.
Another day and another incredible beach, named Lowes Beach.
This one was tucked into a small cove which was protected by a 30-foot high wall of the typical sharp iron shore rock. Here, a section of the wall had been worn down over the centuries, so the ocean waves poured through an opening approximately 40 feet wide. The tumble of rocks found on the lee side of the rock fall had formed a small reef that featured a swim-through at about 15 feet of depth and was festooned by colorful corals, urchins and small tropical fish.
This horseshoe shaped, protected lagoon with its gently sloping sandy bottom and crystal clear water was a perfect place for the kids to swim, snorkel and jump off the rocks. We all spent an entire afternoon there. Some folks walked over the dunes to the next cove, and the next, each uniquely beautiful. I sat in a small patch of shade and drank cold beer, avoiding the sun and enjoying the wind and the crashing of the ocean just over the wall.
Another day trip took us up-island to a very large, deep blue hole. This one was tucked into a large cove. The cove was protected from the open ocean by an outer ring of reef that was about a mile away. Again, the sand was white and fine, the sun hot, the water crystal clear. But here, the edges of the blue hole dropped away to 50 feet and more, mere inches from the edge of the water. One could sit in waist-deep water, with their feet on the steep slope and see clearly through the pellucid water. A mere 20 feet from the water’s edge, the bottom was 60 feet down, and it just kept going. Fear of sharks and other unknowns seemed to keep people away from the depths here. It was a spooky place. Only one home was built on the cove. Otherwise, the entire area was deserted.
July 4 was the full moon, and plans were underway for 18 clan members to camp on the beach! Uncle and Auntie took the day off (remember, Independence Day is not a holiday in the Bahamas!). Fresh Bahama bread and mac n’ cheese (a staple) were baked, a huge coleslaw salad whipped up, chicken prepared and hotdogs purchased, in case the men were unlucky in spearing fish at the camping beach.
Late afternoon found the caravan at the windy, rocky beach. The men grabbed snorkel gear and spears and buckets balanced in tire inner tubes and swam out to the nearby reef. The kids played in the shallows in the lagoon. Women prowled the rocks, prying large “whelks” and “curbs” (we’d call them barnacles) from the rocks for steamed appetizers.
In a little over an hour the guys had speared a variety of fish and had grabbed a large slipper lobster and a larger crawfish. The lobster and crawfish were out of season, so they were referred to as “hush-your-mouth crabs”! A search party went out to find some land crabs (ghost crabs in other parts of the Caribbean) but none were found. That’s because they had migrated to the other side of the island, a fact we determined the next day when we ran over scores of these large-as-your-hand crustaceans as they crossed the Queen’s Road, heading back to their spawning grounds.
The fire was quickly made in a hole among the rocks on shore. As dusk fell, the kids were brought in from the water: (“Don’ let the shaaks get ya’! Com-in now!”). Foodstuffs in cardboard boxes and small coolers were placed among the rocks. The fish and veggies and spices were prepared and wrapped in foil and thrown on the big grate that served as a grill. Whelks, curbs and the lobsters were placed on the grill and soon we were all stuffing ourselves as the full moon drifted in and out of the clouds hanging low on the horizon. The evening ended as clan members settled into sheets and ground cloths above the high-tide mark. We soon left for the comfort of our air-conditioned motel room.
On Tuesday night, we were invited to join the adults at Doc Mel’s “club”, to drink beer and play pool. So off we went, caravanning in the two vehicles. Turns out that Doc Mel’s place was less than 2 miles from the clan compound, and years away from anything Americans might call a “club”. A simple, concrete building painted a bright lime green, Doc Mel’s neighborhood bar features open doorways sporting unfinished 3/4′ plywood “doors”, windowless openings without screens, a bare and unfinished concrete floor and two small toilets, each with its attendant sign crudely written on the unfinished plywood door: “Ladys” or “Mens”. The proprietor himself is a gentle, ageless black man who seemed old to our friend when she was 10!
Count on the atmosphere at Doc Mel’s to be warm and friendly. In fact, count on it to be hotter than Hades, with barely a draft of breeze moving across the shrunken and beat-up pool table. But what did we care, we could barely see the balls anyway because the one bare bulb over the table was blown. So we opened the doors to the toilets and used the light spilling out to guide our pool game. A rusty fan tried to move the heavy air around but lost the struggle. Mosquitoes nipped. We passed around the one available roll of paper towels and gamely mopped brows, arms and necks as we slugged cold beer (Heineken or Kalik, awful island brew, or Bud, before we drank it out of stock.) We laughed and played dominos and visited with the one or two locals who stopped by to see what all the commotion was about.
The next day, word came to us that special preparations had been made at Doc Mel’s for our entertainment and comfort and we were asked to return. This time, the bulb over the pool table was lit and another fan added to the anemic airflow. A few more locals showed up to laugh at our behaviors, and someone had brought a boom box. Next thing you know it was Electric Slide time and we tore the house down! I’m sure our antics provided fuel for many a story passed through the community.
So, yes we had a great time, being embraced as part of a large and extended family. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Having traveled the Caribbean, we were not put off by running on island time, the inevitable delays, or silly questions. We learned a lot about how to live on a sparsely populated island with limited resources and were reminded that we are very fortunate to enjoy our standard of living.
All too soon it was time for us to head home. Aboard the Bahamas Airways flight, I watched Long Island grow smaller and drop below the horizon and I thought that, of my many trips throughout the Caribbean, this one would linger long and fondly in my memory. PHOTOS HERE
Click, whirrrrr. The camera shutter closes on yet another brilliant moment. To the west, the setting moon dangles on a deep blue background while eastward the rising sun guilds the facades of the scattered buildings below, highlighting the edges of palm fronds. Magenta, bronze and azure streak the sky overhead. Caribbean colors. Maya colors. The colors of our dreams.
It’s our first morning on the playa (beach) in Akumal, Mexico. From our balcony, we enjoy the breathtaking view of Half Moon Bay, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of birds, the tropical fauna. Akumal, “the place of the turtles” is located on the Yucatan peninsula, one hour and ten minutes drive south of Cancun.
At the time of this post, Akumal was still very much a secret getaway, discovered only by those who ventured south of Cancun along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Here, the “Mundo Maya” steeps the intrepid traveler in a small, primarily Mayan seaside community with sandy white beaches, swaying palms, sun, surf, and serenity. Check out pix Here!
The “Mexican Riviera” of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen (“PDC”) are left far behind in Akumal. Instead of casinos, hotels and high rises, Akumal offers a friendly, village atmosphere complete with a local vegetable market, eateries and a delightful muffin shop. Resorts are non-existent (until the developers arrive!). Instead, visitors stay in local “casitas” and small condos that rent by the week.
On our arrival day, we rented a car at the Cancun airport and drove south along highway 307, a seemingly endless, dry, limestone-dusted concrete umbilicus that ties Cancun to the Belize border and beyond.
We had monitored Akumal message boards on the Web for months and knew to stop at the San Francisco market in PDC for cheap groceries and cervesa (beer!). We found an open Banco, exchanged dollars for pesos and left the hurly-burly. Soon we passed through the lovely arches at the entrance to Akumal Centro (village central) and were unpacking in our room at Hacienda De La Tortuga.
Our third floor view encompassed Half Moon Bay and a world class beach at Akumal Bay. A reef line just offshore tantalized these snorkelers–we planned to join the fishies after lunch!
On Sunday, we pack a few drinks in our collapsible cooler, we head 23 Km south to the ruins of Tulum. We roar along at 110 kilometers/hr, the jungle a blur on either side of the road. We pass infrequent landmarks like Aventuras Akumal (rental condos) and Aktun-Chen dry cave (tours!). We whiz past the community of Chemuyil and, further south, Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha), a Disney-esque water and eco park. Before you know it we’re at the entrance to the ruins at Tulum.
Sundays, entrance to Mexican national parks is free for Mexican nationals. We’re here early, at 8:00 am. It’s already hot. We head into the remains of the only major ancient Maya religious center on this coast. Tulum looks just like the books and documentaries–mysterious and magnificent. This walled ceremonial site was ancient when the Spaniards first spotted it in 1518. Numerous buildings are scattered throughout the site. The most prominent structure is The Castillo (Castle), which sits atop a 90-foot cliff overlooking the ocean below.
Gazing out over the layered blues of the Caribbean from the heights of Tulum is a peaceful reverie and a terrific photo op! We walk around, taking pictures and reviewing the history of this ancient citadel. We notice local Mayan families coming in and, behind them, the tourist buses. We take the tram in and out–it’s only 10 pesos, and worth avoiding a mile-long walk to the archaeological site in the heat. Hire a guide if you’re so inclined–we did our homework and didn’t really need or want one.
We head a few miles north from Tulum to Casa Cenote to swim and chill and join the famous Sunday BBQ. The turn-off to Casa Cenote is easy to spot, so we bangity-bang in second gear down the rutted and potholed track toward the beach, follow the curve to the left and we’re there. The cool, fresh water cenote is on the left, restaurant on the right. We dunk in the cenote then duck under the thatched roof of the restaurant to get a seat, enjoying the very welcome breeze and the exquisite view of the Caribbean. Whoa! There’s Kootie, the resident coatimundi (South American raccoon) jumping from her hammock to a nearby table as her human “mother” chases and admonishes her charge. Everyone in the place is cooing and laughing at this wonderful, friendly and mischievous creature. We shoot pictures like fools…
Early evening, and we’re back on the beach in Akumal, sitting at the La Buena Vida, swinging in the swings at the bar, drinking a cold one and trailing our toes in the sand. We witness an awesome rise of the full moon–orange, then yellow then white, hanging over the horizon like a spotlight. Click, whirrr. I take a mental photo of the moon with a silhouette of a coconut palm frond waving to and fro, a streak of white moonlight dusting the darkened ocean in front of the restaurant.
Bushed, we retire to H. de la T. to discover the sleeping accommodation–a raised cement slab with a four-inch mattress. Oh well, we’re tired and crash without further discussion.
Noisy birds in the nearby jungle wake us at dawn. We pack for a trip around the corner to Yal-Ku (“Chal-Ku'”) lagoon.
Snorkeling in the most gorgeous and pristine setting imaginable, we are amazed as we watch fresh and salt water being mixed by our movement, turning the formerly crystalline view into Jell-o, and blurring the view of brilliant juvenile tropical fish. After a day in this fantastic setting, we find ourselves back in the swings at the bar, laughing and reliving the day. We have another drink then head back to our unit, where we sip beer and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to go out to dinner, but hungry. Oh well–it’s vacation! We kill off the entire package of cookies and head for bed.
The next day, we’re off to world-famous Chichen Itza, a couple hours through the jungle by car. Up before the sunrise, we find the Coba road and head west through the awakening jungle. I jump out of the car to take a picture of the ribbon of concrete piercing the endless green. I hear roosters crowing at a nearby ranchero, the only sign of life for some miles. The mist is rising off the jungle, insects are droning in the background. I hear no engines, no airplanes, no voices, no human sounds. Just the jungle and my own breathing. The camera shutter sounds unusually loud.
An hour or so west, we come to the quaint town of Vallodilid. We eat breakfast at the buffet advertised on a big sign on a hotel on the southwest side of the town square (zocola). Decent food for a few pesos and a clean el banyo (restroom). Onward to Chichen Itza!
We catch the toll road out of Vallodolid and twenty minutes brings us to the Chichen Itza parking lot. We arrive early, as the place is opening. We get our tickets, stop in el banyo, hire a guide (350 pesos but be prepared to tip a lot more!). Juan is knowledgeable, in a rote way. Clearly he knows little beyond the script. This place is everything we expected, everything we’ve seen on TV and read in magazines. We’re riveted. We learn about the “acoustics”, apparently deliberately designed sound effects created by clapping in certain spots on the plaza between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Warriors. A single clap causes an echo of 7-11 claps, clearly heard. The same clap, if one tunes one’s ear toward the pyramid, brings forth a wonderful, mystical birdcall or whistle. We wonder why the ancients designed these effects and to what purpose.
We carefully climb the scary, steep stone steps up 90 meters to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in time to observe two large rainstorms sweeping across the jungle toward us. I stay and shoot film while people scurry to get down those steps before they get wet and slippery (not to mention the steps!) We enjoy the energy of the approaching storms, breathing in the smell of the rain mixed with the dank damp of the temple interior. Luckily, the storms hold off long enough for us to make our way gingerly down the steep decline to a timely rendezvous with our car, just as the sky and another tourist bus unloads.
On the way back to Akumal in a rainstorm, we get lost and nervous, watching the road practically wash out from under us. We drive past a totaled SUV being pulled out of the jungle by a wrecker in the middle of nowhere. Dodging two large fallen trees across the road, we see a few scattered huts and some pigs out in the rain. We finally get directions from a young boy riding his bike on the road, oblivious to the rain. We tentatively make our way back to Akumal…
The following day, snorkeling at the Gran Cenote is on our schedule, so we drive south along highway 307 and park in the shade of the grounds. We tromp down an ill-defined “path” among limestone boulders and loose rock that threatens to turn an ankle at every step, arriving at a large, uninviting hole in the rocky ground. Large, shy iguanas dart from our path. Soon, we arrive at rickety, narrow wooden steps that lead straight down into the cenote. We carefully haul down cooler, backpacks and snorkel gear, arriving some 40 feet later at the bottom of the opening. Narrow “walkways” have been roughly crafted from short lengths of tree limbs- watch your balance! Butterflies flit in the sun, birds swoop from unseen nooks and caverns, chirping crazily. Grey iguanas race across sun-bleached limestone rocks then freeze, posing just long enough for a quick photo, then off again, chasing moths and other breakfast tidbits. Small trees and stunted greenery accent this wet, strange place. We follow one “walkway” to a platform over crystalline waters.
We manage to get into the water of the cenote without slipping off the hand-hewn rough ladder that leads some five feet to the surface. Small fish swim placidly around us. We paddle around in clear, cool water looking at the rocky bottom some 15 feet below. The sun pours down from the hole in the trees above, spearing ribbons of light through the mirrored water surface.
Snorkeling into the deep shadow under the cavern overhang, we drift through a litter of bat guano and bird droppings on the water’s surface. We think positive thoughts like protein treatment for the hair. However, we will put hydrogen peroxide in our ears later!
We change clothing at the el banyo on the property and head toward Tulum pueblo for some planned shopping. The 90-plus degree heat of May fails to wilt our enthusiasm for bargain hunting at the “Stop and Shop,” located near the bus station. The lady proprietor is really sweet and kind to gringas who speak terrible Spanish!
The next day we tour the dry cave at Aktun Chen.
If you are claustrophobic, as we are, you will probably do okay as there are few tight places. Generally the cave is very open, with lots to see and learn about. Just look out for the “road” into the attraction. Go slow. Speaking of road conditions, the track through the jungle to Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) cenote is treacherous, a series of crazed limestone moguls, twisting and potholed and crumbling at the edges. The cenote itself is isolated and spooky and seems to emit attitude, as if it’s waiting patiently for something. We had the place to ourselves and snorkeled in the gloom of the overhanging cavern, watching swarms of swallows swoop around the circular opening to the cenote.
Then it was on to Zamas restaurant on the beach south of Tulum pueblo for lunch. What a magical place! Beautiful scenery, a windswept coastline and rocky crags reminded us of the coast of Maine. We enjoy a very nice meal in a paradisiacal setting, with the onshore breeze whipping through the stunted coconut palms that surround the restaurant. No Kootie here–just acres of peace and the roar of large breakers thundering upon cliffs.
Some afternoons we snorkeled over the shallow reefs at the mouth to Half Moon Bay. One day we spotted a school of giant parrotfish, each as large as a calf. The loud crunching sounds of powerful beaks pulverizing their coral snacks could be heard distinctly underwater.
Our last day we saved for the Mayan ruins at Coba. We arrive early, just as the archaeological site opens. Coba is serene and magical, with mist hovering around the tops of huge trees that sprout from the rubble. Mayan workmen rested from sweeping and raking leaves from temple steps–we could hear their quiet voices drifting through a grove of trees. Something about this place encouraged hushed tones.
We walked softly for several kilometers along an old sacbe-ob or road, wondering how many ancient feet had trod the very path we now walked. After hiking through the jungle for four kilometers, we came to the Great Pyramid, all 138 feet of it. Taking a deep breath and a large swig of water from our packs we clambered up the rough-hewn, awkward steps to the top. The view of the jungle from the temple summit was spectacular! We walked around the edges of the small temple at the top of the pyramid. The only sounds we could hear were bird calls and the background drone of insects. Looking across the sea of green, we could see lumps along the horizon and just below it, near the two lakes that are part of the archaeological area. We pondered if these were un-excavated ruins, like the numerous mounds of rubble we passed on our hike to the Great Pyramid.
All too soon it was time to leave the Mundo Maya. We have so many stories to tell: of leaf-cutter ants creating endless trails through the jungle, of hermit crabs tickling our toes while we ate dinner on the beach, of moonrises over the sea, of sunsets over the jungle and the faint sound of palm fronds clacking in the warm night breeze. Some day, we will return to the mystical, serene Mundo Maya.