Isla Mujeres isn’t very large. It’s only a bit over four miles from the northern tip to the south end, and at its widest, it measures less than half a mile. Most of what a typical cruiser or tourist would want to do, like grab a bite at a restaurant or do some shopping, is concentrated in and around the town center at the north end of the island, where the streets tend to be extremely narrow. So a car just doesn’t make much sense as personal transportation. Most locals get around via golf cart or scooter, which for us seems a little fun and exotic due to its novelty. There are quite a few taxis on the island to shuttle the day-trippers around who ride the ferry over from Cancun, and the usual delivery vehicles and occasional large truck, but everyone seems to share the road without problem. Just keep to the right if you’re slow, and let the faster vehicles go around you. And watch out for speed bumps!
After being on Isla for several days, we’d explored everything within comfortable walking distance, and we wanted to see the rest of the island. We also planned to make a provisioning run to the island’s big grocery store, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to hand-carry everything back to the boat. So we decided to rent a golf cart for a few days. The price was about right at 700 pesos for 24 hours, which came to about $38 USD including gas and insurance. So we picked up our rental ride and off we went.
Did you notice our sophisticated parking brake in the picture above? 🙂
So for your viewing pleasure, here’s a little taste of what it’s like to get around on this tiny jewel of an island.
Our alarm went off at 5AM. Now this is not typical for us. Being retired and on permanent vacation, since arriving here in Isla Mujeres we usually get up a little after 8. The Isla Mujeres cruiser’s net is broadcast on VHF channel 13 each morning at 08:30, and we like to be up and making our morning lattes while listening to the day’s news and social events for the local cruising community. But today we had a tour booked that required us to catch a 6:30 AM ferry to Cancun. So that meant an early reveille.
A couple of days previously we had rented a golf cart, which is the primary means of getting around on this little island. Two thirds of the traffic on the streets is made up of golf carts and scooters, interspersed with taxis, delivery vehicles and the occasional large truck. Our first stop was to drop off the cart before catching the ferry. The rental business wasn’t open at 6AM, but we’d made arrangements to park it out front and drop the keys in the door slot. Isla Mujeres is just that type of laid back place.
Then it was across the street and down a few blocks to the UltraMar passenger ferry terminal. These ferries are high speed catamarans that continually cross back and forth from Cancun to Isla Mujeres from early in the morning till late at night.
We arrived at the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal north of Cancun, where the bus that would be our ride for the rest of the day was waiting for us. After swinging through more hotels than we could count to pick up additional passengers, we then headed west toward Chichen Itza.
About two and a half hours later, we stopped for lunch. It was included in the tour, and while we ate, dancers entertained us with traditional Mexican dances.
Finally, in the early afternoon, we made it to Chichen Itza, described as one of the world’s seven man-made wonders on par with places like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. Our guide spoke excellent English, and his enthusiasm for the Mayan culture and history was clearly evident. WIth his words he painted images for us of how things would have looked and sounded if we had been there a thousand years earlier during the pinnacle of Mayan civilization.
After an hour’s guided tour, we were free to wander around at our leisure to take it all in.
The heat began to really wear on us after a couple of hours, with temperatures over 110°F. But I circled back one more time to re-visit the ball court, where Mayan warriors once battled in life-or-death competitions. The game was played with a natural rubber ball a bit larger than a baseball, which the contestants attempted to pass through the goal stones using only their arms, legs, and torsos. To remain in play, the ball could not bounce on the ground more than once, and the use of hands, feet, or the player’s heads was forbidden. As our guide explained, the game was probably often played for sport, but at times it was also used as a surrogate for warfare. While spectators lined the tops of the court walls, opposing tribes or factions would field seven man teams composed of their best warriors, who would battle until one team scored a goal. It is believed that the losing team was not automatically condemned to death, but would rather beg to be executed than have to return to their tribe in defeat, having lost whatever cause they played to defend. Stone carvings lining the court depicted scenes of losing players being beheaded by the victors.
The rulers of the city would watch the game from their pavilion atop the court wall.
It’s mind boggling to consider what a spectacle it must have been.
Our time at Chichen Itza drew to a close, and we re-boarded our bus for a trip to a cenote, or a collapsed limestone cavern filled with water. There are no rivers in the Yucatan; surface water flows instead through the permeable underground limestone. In certain places, a sinkhole will form, allowing access to this subterranean water. It is believed that there are over 4,000 cenotes in the Yucatan, and many became the central water source for a village, town or city that would be established nearby.
An hour was allowed for swimming, and then we headed to our final stop, the 16th century Spanish town of Valladolid.
The sun now getting low in the western sky, it was time to once again board our bus, and return to Cancun. We were deposited at the ferry terminal, where we caught the UltraMar back to Isla Mujeres. Back on the island and now sans golf cart, we walked the 20 minutes back to our marina, arriving back onboard our boat at about 9:30 PM, over 15 hours after our departure. We wearily peeled off our shoes, poured ourselves a nightcap, and recounted the events of this amazing day.
We have one more adventure here on Isla Mujeres that we want to undertake before we start preparing Eagle Too for heading further south. Whale sharks are making their annual migration through the Yucatan Channel, and it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go swimming with these enormous creatures. Hopefully we’ll have some pictures soon… 🙂
In our previous post A Walk Around Havana, we briefly mentioned that the city is truly a feast for the senses. Here are a few clips of some of the music we encountered on our self-guided tour about the city. A quick listen will do much more to help you get a sense of Havana than any amount of prose we could write. Enjoy!
It was the summer of 1998 when I ran afoul of the Baltimore Mob. I was executive producer for a video crew shooting training films for the Navy. We were on location onboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which at the time was moored at a dock on the Baltimore waterfront. Not the scenic, trendy and very touristy inner harbor, with its fine dining and night clubs. No, I’m talking about the seedy commercial docks, which looked like a scene straight out of On The Waterfront (or a recent Batman film for those lacking an appreciation for film noir). We’d wrapped on 10 days of location shooting, and the crew was now setting up to get some final establishing shots, showing the ship from the head of the pier.
Just as the director ordered the cameras to roll, a huge black Lincoln sedan with deeply tinted windows pulled up. The driver’s window whirred down, and a voice with a thick Jersey accent said “Who’s in charge?”
“Me,” I replied.
“Get in,” the voice said, as the rear door opened.
Well this should be interesting, I thought. “Keep shooting, I’ll be right back” I told the director as I climbed into the car.
The driver deposited me in front of a featureless block building. “Get out. Upstairs,” were my only instructions. Entering the building and climbing the stairs, I found myself in a large, mostly empty room, facing three men seated behind a long table. Ham fisted and thick-necked, they could have easily been extras from Goodfellas.
“Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?” the one in the middle wearing the biggest gold pinky ring I’ve ever seen asked.
I gave them my smuggest smirk. If you know me at all, you know I’m quite an accomplished smirker.
What does any of this have to do with Marina Hemingway? Well, I’ll tell you. When we were in Marina Gaviota Varadero, the atmosphere was very professional. Everything was run by clean cut men in neatly tailored uniforms sporting friendly smiles. But when we tied up to the bulkhead in Marina Hemingway, we could immediately tell that it was operated in an entirely different manner. Every cruiser there had their “guy,” who manages their interactions with the broader Cuba. We were still tying off our lines when our “guy” introduced himself. In less than five minutes, he had attempted to sell us cigars, lobster tails, and a tour of Havana. He let us know that if there anything we needed or wanted, anything at all, to let him know and he’d arrange it. He said it in a way that implied that if we wanted anything, we were expected to arrange it through him. We were in his territory, and for all intents and purposes, we belonged to him.
And it felt just like the day that I found myself standing in front of those three charming gentlemen in that empty second story room on a dock in Baltimore.
Hemingway Marina Entrance From The Water
Hemingway Marina Entrance, Land Side
Typical Canal In Hemingway Marina
We were actually able to make a little game out of dealing with our “guy.” Once we had recovered from our rather unpleasant overnight passage from Varadero and had out wits about us again, we started looking for ways to subvert the system. You don’t need your “guy” to arrange a car into Havana at his price of $25 CUC if you’re willing to walk into town and flag down a mechina (hop on hop off taxi) for $5. You don’t have to end up at the restaurant your “guy” strongly recommends (because it’s probably owned by his cousin) if you take the time to meet some of the other cruisers and ask for suggestions. Remain deliberately vague about your departure date, and your “guy” doesn’t really know when he has to come lean on you to buy those cigars you said you’d consider before you left. Our guy usually showed up at our boat about 0900 to see if we wanted anything that day. So we cleared out late the night before, well after he had left for the day, and threw off the lines at 0800 the next morning. I’d have loved to see his face when he saw the empty spot after he arrived.
Our Spot In Canal 1
In short, Marina Hemingway has quite an air of racketeering about it. Operators control their turf, and you’re expected to play along. Did it bother us? Not unduly. But we really didn’t like it, which made it easy to leave.
Dinner at El Cucalambe Outside Marina Hemingway
A Nearby Marina For Cubans
And how did my encounter with the Baltimore Mob turn out? Well, once I explained to them that I was with the Government doing work for the Navy, they became my new best friends. Across the pier from where the USNS Comfort was docked, they were apparently running some sort of scrap metal salvage operation, an operation that I surmised involved the Russians based on the flags flying from the ships that were being unloaded. An operation that they didn’t want anyone paying any notice to. They initially thought my film crew was with 60 Minutes, and seemed willing to break a few legs to discourage publicity. But once they learned that I could care less about their little scrapyard, it was all handshakes and “what can we do to help.” They even offered us the use of a boat if we wanted. I politely declined. Something about a boat ride with a Baltimore mobster just felt a little… unsettling.
Our passage from Cuba across the Yucatan Channel was 26 hours long, and all but the first six hours of it absolutely, completely, totally and without question sucked to high heaven. Imagine being a marble in a tin can that’s rolled down a steep hill while someone throws buckets of water in your face occasionally just for laughs, and you’ll have a bit of an idea. And that was with a favorable wind and calm weather. The whole bloody Caribbean Sea is trying to flow north to the Gulf Of Mexico to join that wild and crazy party called the Gulf Stream, and the waves and currents that are kicked up are something we’d just as soon never experience again. I can’t tell you the number of times the thought “what the hell are we doing?” entered our minds during the long, long night. But nobody got hurt, and nothing got broken, so ultimately, it was a good adventure and will make for great stories in the future. So enough whining. After two weeks in Cuba, we’ve made it to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and have re-entered the modern world with its WiFi, ATM machines and toilets that actually have toilet seats. For the next week (or two or three), our home will be Marina El Milagro. Our goal is to hang out long enough to correct our Suck to Fun ratio, which right now is heavily skewed toward the Suck end. It looks like this may be just the place to correct that imbalance.
We’ll have more soon about our trip west along Cuba’s north coast from Havana to Cabo San Antonio. But for now, we just wanted to let you know that we’ve arrived safely in Mexico, where we’ve already met some fun and interesting people and have begun exploring the local area. In an amazing coincidence, we just happened to sail into town the day after the boats from the Regatta Al Sol race from Pensacola, Florida to Isla Mujeres arrived. We’ve often thought in the past that we’d love to participate in that event. Now we find ourselves here amongst it all, and we’ll post some pictures soon of the crazy regatta-related antics that go on here on the island. Only they’re all leaving on Sunday, while we can stay as long as we like… 🙂
A great deal of it looks like Berlin at the end of the Second World War.
Some of it was just plain confusing.
A nude, bald woman with an enormous fork, riding a giant one-legged rooster? No idea what that was supposed to be about. But the architecture, the art and the music; it was all a feast for the senses. At some point we hope we have the bandwidth to be able to share more of the sights and sounds of this fascinating city. But a weather window has opened, and we need to continue pushing westward. We’ll be leaving in the morning, headed to Cabo San Antonio on Cuba’s western tip. We intend to make the trip as a series of day sails, stopping each night to anchor along the north coast. It should take us three or four days to make the trip. From there, we’ll be jumping across to Isla Mujeres, Mexico once conditions allow. Unfortunately, we don’t expect to find any WiFi again until we make the jump to Mexico, which should probably be sometime early next week. So I’m afraid you won’t be hearing from us again for a while. But rest assured that as soon as we’re able, we’ll check in. In the meantime, please feel free to send us all the prayers and positive energy that you are able to spare! Eagle Too out.
We’ve been enjoying the resort atmosphere here at Marina Gaviota. In this part of Cuba, the government requires that you stay in a marina (where they can undoubtedly keep a close eye on you). We won’t be able to start anchoring offshore until we’re well west of Havana and in an unpopulated area of the country, probably late next week (and even then we won’t be allowed to dinghy ashore). I must say that if you have to stay in a marina, this is a pretty darn fine one to be in. Our marina fee of $39 CUC per day (about $45 USD, including moorage, power and water) includes access to many of the amenities at the neighboring Club Melia Resort, an all-inclusive vacation destination that borders the marina. Wandering around the property, you hear German, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian and even some English (those Canadian guests) being spoken. It’s a very international feel.
Among other things, we’ve been able to crash the free evening shows that are presented on the patio in front of the resort. There aren’t enough of us Yatistas here for them to have figured out how to manage us. We act like we belong there, and they bring us free Mojitos during the show, because it is an all-inclusive resort, so you’re not expected to pay for drinks. It’s comfortably cool in the evenings, enough so that we can wear light sweaters, and therefore the staff can’t see that we’re not wearing the appropriate “I get all I want for free” yellow wristbands. They don’t ask. We don’t tell. Life is good.
But after a couple of days, we were all rested and recovered from our passage, and it was time to escape the reservation. We left Eagle Too secure at the dock.
Passports and Visas in hand, we hopped over a short wall at the back corner of the complex (our new English friends on the boat across the pier told us where) and crossed the street to the bus shelter, where we caught the double-decker shuttle into town. We’re not captives here; we could have left via the front gate. But it was a long walk to the gate and then back to the bus stop, and a significant shortcut to just jump the wall when no one was looking. And it’s easier to say “Lo sciento” than to ask permission, after all.
Varadero was much nicer than some places we’ve been to in Mexico or the Caribbean. It’s very much a tourist town, but it’s more a local’s destination than the all-inclusive resorts out on the peninsula where we are staying. The beach was beautiful, the streets were pretty clean, and most of the buildings, while older, appeared to be reasonably maintained.
After hopping off the bus, we wandered through a market, where we picked up the perfect souvenir for the boat.
We where then approached by a horsecart driver who wanted to give us a tour of the town. We really had no idea where we were or where we were going, so $15 CUC for an afternoon buggy ride (less than $20 USD) sounded about right to us.
We learned that when you see the upside-down anchor symbol on a house or building, it represents a Casa Paticulares, or basically a privately run bed & breakfast, one of the few independent enterprises Cubans are allowed to operate. A blue background indicates it is for tourists, and a red background shows that it is for locals.
It could be because Varadero is a tourist town, but we lost count of the number we saw, as they were quite common. From what we’ve read, a stay is approximately $20 to $35 CUC a night, and usually includes a welcome drink and a meal.
The local traffic was a mixture of everything from busses to tractors, scooters to bicycles (ridden by two or even three people at once).
And then there were the classic cars. My God some of them are beautiful! From what we could tell, they’re not private transportation, and aren’t used by Cubans as their daily rides. They’re all used as Taxis for the tourists. Sort of a natural resource that they exploit, if you will. Many emit a cloud of black smoke, which tells me that while they may look like a 1955 Chevy from the outside, there is a Russian diesel tractor engine residing under the hood. But never mind, just look!
Our cart driver Eduardo was delighted to hear that we were American. He said he had never had Americans in his cart before, and was happy to have us. We told him there would probably be many more in our wake. But for now, we’re somewhat of an oddity. A few vendors asked if we were Canadian, and were quite pleased when we told them we were from Florida.
Eduardo took us by Al Capone’s house, who was apparently one of Varadero’s more famous past residents, and then in response to our request for a good local restaurant (i.e. not a tourist place), he dropped us off at El Galeon, where we had a delightful afternoon.
What began as lunch turned into an early dinner, as we arrived around 2PM and didn’t receive our order until 3:30. Apparently the meal I ordered needed to be baked in the oven, which decided to quit working at that particular moment. It took the chef a while to get it re-wired to finish cooking lunch. Seriously, that’s what we were told by our server, Ray. But no matter. We weren’t in a hurry, and Ray provided us with several helpings of amazing Cuban bread accompanied by an exquisite egg and cream sauce, and then two bowls of Cuban brown beans, and then a mouthwatering daiquiri, none of which appeared on our bill when we ultimately received it.
Ray’s English was very good, and while waiting for our meals we had a fascinating discussion about life in Cuba and Ray’s hopes and dreams, which deserves a post all its own at some point.
The extremely short version is that life in Cuba is not as officially described (if you want quality, then the free health care isn’t really free, nor is the free education) and he would leave tomorrow if he were able in order to provide a future for his children. He hopes to one day own his own gym, but realizes it will never happen unless things change dramatically. But he obviously loved his country and his home in Matanzas, so I wished for him that those changes would soon come so that he could pursue his dreams in his own country rather than long for escape to another.
Our stomachs full and the day growing late, we hopped back on the bus for the 45 minute ride back out to that part of Cuba that people like Ray can never experience, the part reserved for foreign tourists. Cuba is a country where people earn $15 to $20 CUC a month, and a single can of Coke costs $1 CUC, or more than a day’s wages. Spending a day at an all-inclusive resort? It could never happen. Perhaps soon, I’ll have time to expand a bit on some of the things we’ve experienced that illustrate that what you see on the surface is not a true reflection of what Cuba really is today.
With the wind now shifting to the east, our time here in Varadero is growing short. Our plans are to head west to Marina Hemingway, outside Havana, late Sunday afternoon. It’s a trip of approximately 90 miles, which will require us to sail through the night. A dinnertime departure should put us off the entrance marker to Marina Hemingway at about 0800. As has been the case for all our nighttime passages so far, it will be another moonless night. Funny how it keeps timing out that way. We don’t really enjoy the utter darkness, but we’ve grown resigned to it. Say what you may about how beautiful the stars are on a moonless night-we’d rather be able to see the ocean around us than just feel and hear it as it moves and rocks the boat. We’d really prefer to make the trip as two shorter legs that we could sail during daylight hours, with a night at anchor in route, but the authorities here have told us no, we have to go directly from here to there, with no stopping allowed. Such is the way of things here in Cuba.
One final note, before signing off – it can be extremely hard to get online here, and the clock is ticking the entire time. For those of you who have commented, we appreciate that you follow along with our adventure, but I’m afraid there just isn’t time for individual replys. Perhaps when we make it to Mexico and we have a bit more time…
It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot today. After a 20 hour motor-sail, we’re now docked at Marina Giavota Varadero, about 70 miles east of Havana. Choosing comfort as our primary concern on what we knew would be an overnight passage with no moon to light the way, we opted for flat seas rather than favorable winds for our trip across the Straits of Florida. If you’ve ever done an ocean passage on a moonless night, you know how unsettling it can be to not be able to see beyond the edges of your boat for hours on end while it charges along through the darkness at five or six knots. Throw in confused seas that produce a wallowing roll and you have a most unpleasant ride. So we picked a day to cross that offered little in the way of good sailing because of extremely light predicted winds, but promised only 1 to 3 foot seas. We left Boca Chica Marina in Key West a little after 1 PM yesterday, and while the winds clocked through 360 degrees over the next 20 hours, the Gulf Stream stayed calm due to the light and variable breeze blowing mostly at 6 to 8 knots.
Sunset Crossing The Gulf Stream
Crossing the main shipping lanes along Cuba’s north coast in the middle of the night created some anxious moments, but we used our radar and AIS to the maximum, and only had to slow down and alter course once to avoid a collision with a freighter in the darkness. A dazzling lightshow above the Cuban coastline also created some concern (you mean we have to sail into that?), but the storms finally broke up at about 3 AM, several hours before we arrived off the coast. I never was able to make contact with the Guarda Frontera on the VHF, but we were eventually able to raise the marina, and the dockmaster was waiting on the pier to take our lines as we arrived.
Our First View Of Cuba
The check-in process was painless, although it still took over an hour to complete the paperwork. The only person to come below was the doctor, who spent about a half hour onboard while we completed forms. We handed our passports and ship’s documentation to the Custom’s officer on the pier, and the dockmaster sat with us in our cockpit when everything was done to have us sign our contract and brief us on the marina facilities. We received our passports back with separate stamped visas. Even though the rules are being relaxed for travel by Americans to Cuba, they still don’t stamp your passport. Old habits die hard, I guess.
We had nothing confiscated, not even Rhonda’s herb garden. It might have helped that we offered everyone who came onboard a nice cold Coke, which was accepted with gratitude. But everyone we dealt with seemed professional and quite friendly, and we never felt at all as if something “extra” was expected to smooth the way. We were soon pulling down our quarantine flag and hoisting our Cuban courtesy flag, and then it was off to find the money exchange so that we could convert our US dollars for Cuban Peso Convertibles (CUCs), the official tourist currency, and then purchase our first arrival celebration adult beverages.
People we know who have visited here recommended we come as well. But our first impression of the area is that it’s just too nice. Marina Giavota Varadero is a resort, with pools and bars and shops and restaurants, a spa and even an espresso stand. Imagine a nice hotel complex in Orlando (except with only 1% of the crowd) and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the feel. It’s lovely, but it just doesn’t feel like Cuba. It’s not the sort of place that regular Cubans would or could afford to visit. So we’ll probably only hang here for a few days while we scope out what sort of tours are available for this part of the country before we move on to Marina Hemingway and Havana, further west.
Huge Facilities, Very Few Visitors
The Mythical Classic Cars Of Cuba!
I don’t know how much we’ll be able to post about our travels while we’re here. As the dockmaster said to us, “WiFi is pretty new here.” To access the internet, you must purchase internet access cards for 2 CUC per hour (about $2.20 USD). They’re similar to Starbucks gift cards, as they have a scratch off area on the back that reveals a code that you need to go online. Until we have a chance to test the bandwidth, I have no idea whether we’ll be able to upload pictures to Facebook or our blog. It sort of reminds me of AOL in the mid-90’s – you plan and prepare everything offline hoping that once you connect, you can quickly post everything and then disconnect before you’ve used up your precious allotment of connect time.
But please know that we’re here safe and sound, and have already briefly met a couple from Canada and another couple that have sailed here from England who we’re looking forward to sitting down with to pick their brains about their perceptions of this most interesting country. It’s early to bed for us tonight, as we’re exhausted from our overnight passage, but tomorrow we’re thinking about jumping on the bus that runs into the town of Varadero so that we can start to see more of the “real” Cuba. Until then…