Rhonda and I are still too new at this cruising lifestyle to be able to articulate exactly what we’re hoping to get out of it. We started with no particular destination in mind, just vague notions of an endless vacation in exotic locations with nice beaches, warm tropical breezes, and comfortable, affordable tiki bars. But we’ve come far enough in our travels to start forming opinions about places we enjoy. I guess it’s a case of “hard to define, but we’ll know it when we see it.” And we definitely felt very comfortable on the island of Isla Mujeres. It seemed to offer a near perfect mix of the exotic, the interesting, and the affordable that made it a great place to linger for a month.
One of our favorite places on the island was Hidalgo Street. Closed to traffic, the street is an eight to ten block long promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants. It would take weeks to work through all the possible drinking and dining opportunities on this one street.
I’d originally wanted to take the boat down to Cozumel for a few days. It’s a place we’re very familiar with, as we’ve visited it numerous times on Carnival cruises. I thought it would be fun to spend a bit more time there than a cruise allows. But after experiencing Isla Mujeres and the street life that is Hidalgo, I lost interest. This was so much better. The prices were lower, the atmosphere was less hectic, and we didn’t have to share the streets with thousands of cruise ship passengers. There wasn’t a Diamonds International, Del Sol or shop hawking Tanzanite to be seen. No Carlos and Charlies or Senõr Frogs full of crazy drunks. Just blocks and blocks of authentic Mexican island life.
Saturday, June 11th was Rhonda’s birthday, and she was craving Pescado Frito, or Mexican fried fish. After considering many of the options, we eventually found ourselves at Don Chepos on Hidalgo Street.
After a bowl of sopa de lima (which we’ve really grown to love), a great meal of fresh fish, and some four dollar (75 peso) margaritas, we then started ambling back towards our marina. But we hadn’t made it very far when the beautiful sounds of jazz guitar drew us into Sardinian Smile. Here’s a taste of evenings on Hidalgo Street.
And to put a perfect finish on the evening, while we sat sipping our Jim Beam con hielos, the guitarist starting playing this. Those who know us well understand this song’s significance for us.
As often happened during our time on Isla Mujeres, we set out with no specific plans, and the island delighted us with an enjoyable and truly memorable evening. We look forward to the time when we can return once again to this Caribbean jewel.
We dropped anchor in the Garden Key anchorage off Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas after spending 48 hours crossing 300 miles of open ocean from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. A welcoming committee greeted us.
The Dry Tortugas are a wildlife sanctuary, and you could tell from their behavior that it never occurred to these guys that maybe we weren’t to be trusted. Even if you tried to shoo them away, they’d just squawk and flap a bit and then settle right back down.
To say that we were weary doesn’t begin to reflect how bone-tired we felt. But a quick check of the weather upon arrival showed that if we didn’t continue moving eastward soon, we might end up being pinned in the Tortugas for three or four days waiting out 20-25 knot east winds. So to reach our intended destination of Boca Chica Key and the marina at Key West Naval Air Station, we needed to exploit the predicted remaining day of settled weather and press on the following morning. That meant we only had 24 hours at Garden Key. And I really, really wanted to see the fort. I’m a bit of a history buff after all, and who knew when or if we may ever pass this way again. So in a supreme act of mind over matter, we pushed through the sleep deprivation fog and launched the dinghy to go ashore.
So let me stop you before you say anything. No, we were not supposed to go ashore. We hadn’t yet cleared back into the country. For that, we had to visit the Customs and Border Protection office in Key West, and that was still 70 miles and a full day’s sail east. But our American flag was flying and our “Q” flag wasn’t, so I calculated that the odds that anyone would even notice that we had just arrived from Mexico was extremely remote. Besides, a large high-speed catamaran and several seaplanes from Key West had just disgorged a hoard of day-trippers onto the island. So who’s going to notice two more tourists, we thought.
Yes, he did actually land that close to us!
I’m glad we made the effort. The fort was quite impressive. It should be, as it’s the largest masonry structure in the Western hemisphere. It’s so big that they had to quit building it before it was finished, because it was making the island sink. You can read more about it here:
It was very hot, and very dry. it is the Dry Tortugas, after all. It got the name because there isn’t any water there. None. Not a drop, other than seawater. And yet, during the fort’s construction, several thousand people made Garden Key home. So where did their water come from? We found out that the entire fort was actually designed to capture and store rainwater in huge underground cisterns. Unfortunately, the immense weight of the fort, which caused it to sink into the soft sand of the island, cracked the masonry foundations and allowed seawater to contaminate the cisterns. One still functions, however, located in the fort’s parade grounds, and it is this cistern that still provides drinking water today for the National Park Service staff that reside there. Being a Ranger at this park is not a job that you commute to, at least not on a daily basis. They work a multi-day shift, living on the island until relieved by another crew. As for we visitors, well, everything we need to eat and drink, we have to bring with us. There are no concession stands dispensing cheeseburgers and Cokes and water coolers providing ice cold water to drink.
And isn’t Garden Key an amusing name for such a remote and desolate place? Obviously there was a 19th century publicist involved. I can just see the recruiting posters luring brick masons to sign on for a tour of duty during construction. “Come live and work on Garden Key, the jewel of the southern Gulf!”
Anyway, did I mention it was hot and dry? We’re talking, take a deep swig of water and pour some on your head and neck every few minutes, hot and dry. As we approached the fort, we saw a sign that said “No food or drink allowed in Fort Jefferson.”
We were dumbfounded. “They can’t be serious,” we said to each other, each of us holding a big half frozen water bottle. But do you think that two tired, groggy sailors who had just violated a host of border control laws by dinghying ashore before formally clearing in would be detered by a silly sign? We were not. We boldly marched into the fort, our life-sustaining H2O discreetly secreted in Rhonda’s backpack. Yes, we be pirates, arrgh. 🙂
Here’s a bit more about how the fort was designed to capture and store rain water.
Beat down and spent from the heat and the fatigue of the passage, we returned to the boat just in time to wave goodbye to the Key West daytrippers. It was pretty novel watching this guy roar past our bow.
But before we finally called it a day, Rhonda spotted several enormous Goliath Grouper hanging out below our boat, and we just had to take a quick dip to get to know them. Unfortunately, they weren’t very friendly, and when they saw us coming, they disappeared into the murk. Very disappointing, these Florida waters. Them seemed so clear from the surface. But once the grouper sank about 25 feet, they just vanished. In Mexico, we could have easily seen them in much deeper depths. The water was so much clearer there.
Since arriving in Mexico in mid-May, Rhonda and I had contemplated our next step. The original plan was to head south for hurricane season, tucking into the Rio Dulce in Guatemala for July thru October to wait out the peak of the season. But over a period of several weeks, we had the opportunity to talk with cruisers who had spent time there, and the reviews were decidedly mixed. As we spoke with people, we felt that a pattern began to emerge. The ones who sang Guatemala’s praises seemed to be those who had sailed their boat down for hurricane season, hauled it out and put it on the hard, and then flew back to the States for three or four months. Those who actually stayed on their boats had a less flattering view. “Well, you’re in the middle of the jungle, so it’s hotter than hell,” they’d say. “And Fronteras (the nearby town) is pretty rough, and doesn’t offer much.” We heard tales of having to spend six hours each way on a bus to reach Guatemala City to get to a sizable grocery store or an airport.
Looking around at this little island of Isla Mujeres, with its hundreds of bars and restaurants, grocery stores and shopping all within a manageable walk or short dinghy ride, and Cancun just a 30 minute ferry ride away, we started to ask ourselves why we’d want to leave here to go there and basically become boat hostages for four months. Yes, we have about a thousand hours of movies and TV shows on our entertainment system hard drive, and I have about 30 books on my Kindle waiting to be read, but the thought of just sitting in the salon reading and watching TV for four months lacked appeal. There was only one good reason to go south—hurricane avoidance. We began to consider just staying on Isla Mujeres for the season. We could if we wished to, as our insurance doesn’t require us to leave the Caribbean during storm season.
But that option presented its own problems. There was a protected lagoon on the south side of the island that is a recognized hurricane hole, and we were originally told that if a storm approached, everyone heads into the lagoon to ride it out. But then some folks with more time on the island said, “Yes, but all the charter and fishing boats from Cancun also come piling into the lagoon and try to tie up to the mangroves with clothesline and undersized anchors, and you have to ride out the storm on your boat so you can fend off all the dragging boats bouncing around.
That was the point at which the teeter tottered. Maybe we should just go back to the Keys, we started asking ourselves. We’re from Florida, we’re used to living with the threat of hurricanes, and there are a lot more options for running or hiding from a storm there. Instead of just sitting on the boat watching TV, we could spend the summer exploring the Keys and Florida’s east coast, maybe even jump over to the Bahamas.
So a new plan was born. A plan that was finally settled upon when our neighbors Addison and Pat on S/V Threepenny Opera informed us that they were jumping over to the Dry Tortugas at the next good weather window. We’d met them a month previously in Marina Hemingway, Cuba, and finding out that we were all heading in the same general direction, had traveled together ever since.
Sailing from Isla Mujeres to the Dry Tortugas is a trip of over 300 nautical miles (that’s almost 350 statute, or landlubber, miles). That was over twice the distance we’d previously covered in a single jump, and would require spending two nights at sea. Such a trip was the next logical step in our progression as cruisers, but It sure sounded appealing to have a buddy-boat to make the crossing with.
And so that became our new plan. We had some discussion about whether we (mostly I) would regret passing up visiting the Rio Dulce, but I honestly felt that based on what we had learned, this was the better option for us. So at 0945 on the morning of June 15th, we untied from the pier at El Milagro marina that had been our home for four weeks and pointed our bow northeast towards Florida.
The conditions were perfect, with 10 knots of wind on the starboard beam and two foot seas. With Threepenny Opera in the lead, we rounded the north end of the island and steadied up on a course of 045°.
Several hours into the trip, we entered the Yucatan Channel current, the huge flowing river of Caribbean sea headed north to the Gulf of Mexico which eventually becomes the Gulf Stream. The current that we had fought and clawed against to make our way to Isla Mujeres now picked us up and hurtled us northward.
Yes, that’s right. Ten point two knots speed over ground in a 37 foot monohull. It actually hit 10.4 at times, but I was never able to catch it with the camera. We were flying! Florida here we come.
We sailed on through the day making excellent time, with mostly clear skies and steady winds. Unfortunately, as always seems to happen, things became a bit less pleasant as night fell.
Our experience here onboard the good ship Eagle Too has been one of miserable night passages. We’d hoped that this time it would be different. I’d loaded several movies on the tablet in hopes that while Rhonda or I stood watch, we could relax and enjoy a flick. But as darkness set in, we started encountering squalls that were building off the northwest coast of Cuba, the winds rose, and the seas became confused. In the early AM, after several hours of dodging storms, reefing and unreefing the sails and rolling about in the building swell, I felt we had once again managed to invert the suck-to-fun ratio onboard the boat.
But shortly before the sky started brightening in the east, things calmed down, and we were treated to a view of the night sky and the Milky Way that you can usually only find in an astronomy textbook. Thursday, June 16th dawned clear and mild, with a gentle ESE wind. It was only blowing five or six knots, which would normally mean a boat speed of three or four knots, i.e. time to start the engine. But the residual current in the Florida Straits was still adding several knots to our boat speed, so we were managing six to seven knots SOG in six knots of breeze.
Eagle Too photographed from Threepenny Opera
Being a bit longer at 42 feet compared to our 37, our buddy-boat would usually pull slowly away from us, having a somewhat higher cruising speed. When they’d get a couple of miles ahead, we’d start the engine and make a sprint to close the distance. As the second day at sea wore on, the conditions became more and more settled, and Rhonda and I took turns grabbing a nap in preparation for another night.
And finally, after almost three months and over 1500 nautical miles of cruising, we had our perfect night passage. Mild winds, flat seas, clear skies. More stars than you could possibly imagine, with the Milky Way boldly cutting a wide swath through the middle. No sound except the hissing of the foam from our wake, and an occasional quiet creak from the rigging, the sound of a contented sailboat in its element, being propelled by a gentle breeze. Rhonda watched Finding Nemo during her shift at the helm, and I enjoyed the classic James Bond film Dr. No, pausing every ten to fifteen minutes to scan the horizon, the running lights of our buddy boat still comfortably visible to reassure us that we weren’t alone on this enormous, dark sea. We even had company to talk to through the night. Shortly before dusk, when we were in the middle of the Florida Straits about 80 miles from land, this guy landed on our outboard crane and settled in for the night.
We were happy for the company, and he didn’t seem to mind us chatting him up occasionally.
If at least one of our previous night crossings had been as pleasant as this one, we would have had much less anxiety about this trip. Now that we know that it’s not a requirement that night sailing has to suck, we feel better about doing more going forward.
With the rising of the sun on Friday, June 17th, we found ourselves within sight of our destination. Lightening winds had let us pass our buddy-boat, as we do a bit better in light air.
The lighthouse on Loggerhead Key hove into view, and we entered the channel to the anchorage at Fort Jefferson to drop anchor.
And exactly 48 hours after we threw off the docklines in Mexico, we were anchored in the Dry Tortugas. I told Rhonda we should be proud of ourselves, as not one person in a thousand could have taken a small boat and crossed three hundred miles of open ocean as we had just done.
A shot of Eagle Too anchored off Fort Jefferson taken from Threepenny Opera
It’s now the first week of June, and you know what that means—the 2016 hurricane season has begun. So it’s not surprising that we have a tropical low moving through the area this weekend. We had originally planned to start moving further south this week, but once this system appeared, we decided to stay put and see what happens. Lobsterfest in Belize doesn’t start until June 15th, so we have plenty of time.
Since it’s a bit blustery with intermittent rain outside and we’re just chilling down below, this seemed like a good time to acquaint you with our daily life here on Isla Mujeres. After over two weeks at El Milagro marina, things have definitely settled into a comfortable routine.
Let’s start with how we go ashore. A shallow bank just beyond our slip made it impossible to back in to the marina, so we’re currently tied to the pier bow-first. This means that unfortunately, we have to climb over the bow to get on and off the boat.
There’s just no graceful way to do this. The marina staff initially gave us a stepping stump to use, which you can see above behind our anchor. We’ve since upgraded to a small set of fiberglass stairs that we acquired when another boat recently departed. It’s not the best way to board a boat, as it really makes you consider your level of adult beverage consumption while ashore, since tequila and gymnastics aren’t really complimentary. But so far we’ve managed without major mishap.
Several times a day we’re climbing ashore to go here.
These are los baños, or the bathrooms, here at the marina. None of the marinas here have pump out facilities, but they do have very prominent signs stating that it’s illegal to empty your holding tank overboard. So in order to not fill up our tank, we’re usually going ashore to take care of business. It can be an interesting experience, as we share the facility with the local iguana population. From my favorite stall, when you look straight up, you see this:
A room with a view, sort of an indoor/outdoor experience. This guy is the occasional bathroom monitor, and when on duty keeps a close eye on the comings and goings.
Please don’t forget to tip your lizard on the way out. They apparently work for chicken bones.
Every few days we make a supply run into town. There’s a large grocery store about a 20 minutes walk south of here, but we’ve found it much more convenient to take the dinghy north into town, where there is a smaller Xpress Grocery tienda about three blocks from the dinghy dock. Even though it’s not much larger than a convenience store, we find it has everything we need, including a bakery.
It’s true what we’d heard about eggs—once we left the States, they’re no longer refrigerated. It took a little getting used to seeing shelves of eggs just sitting at room temperature. But now we take them back to the boat and leave them sitting on the counter for days before they finally make it into the refrigerator. We haven’t had a bad one yet! (This is actually a picture we took during a shopping trip to Cancun, but it shows you what I’m talking about).
Using our dinghy Eaglet as a taxi, it’s most convenient to leave her in the water tied to our stern, available at a moment’s notice. But it’s amazing how fast growth forms in these warm tropical waters. After about ten days, she was developing quite a shaggy green beard, and it did not suit her at all. So we beached her to scrub her bottom. It looks like this is going to be a regular chore from now on.
Fortunately refreshments are easily at hand. They’re literally falling from the trees! We tipped one of the marina staff 25 pesos (about $1.50 USD) and he delivered two fresh coconuts ready to drink.
While not our favorite way to spend a morning, cleaning Eaglet was a minor inconvenience compared to the problem our neighbor two slips down was experiencing. Apparently a colony of bees had made a home in their mast while they were recently in Guatemala, and the bees were no longer interested in sharing the boat. Since the people had no intention of leaving, an exterminator had to be called to deliver an eviction notice to the bees.
We popped a couple of beers and sat under the palapa onshore to watch the fun, wincing whenever we heard one of the workers swat and yell from being stung. The bees apparently liked their home very much and did not leave willingly.
With the weather forecast looking pretty dodgy, some folks decided to wrap up their time in Isla Mujeres and skedaddle south toward the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We waved goodbye to Jerry and Susan on Vita Dulce (a couple we met who were from the Seattle area and were fellow Seahawks fans) as they elected to use the few remaining days of predicted stable weather to make the passage. But that’s a big part of this cruising life. Someone is always arriving or departing.
We eat, we drink, we socialize with other cruisers. It’s amazing how often we decide that today we’ll cook something onboard for dinner, but come sundowner time we find ourselves at one of the numerous local restaurants instead. It’s just too hard to pass up a good meal for $10 or $15 for the both of us, avoid all the cooking and cleaning up, and have leftovers that will make a great lunch the next day!
Most of what we’re served is so well presented that we just have to take pictures before digging in. The server will set down the plates, and Rhonda and I will laugh and say “food porn!” and pull out our phones to snap some shots. We’ve accumulated an extensive collection of photos, a gastronomic record of our journey so far.
A funny thing though about the local food. Rhonda looked at me yesterday and said, “You know what I’m craving? Mexican food.” Now mind you, we’re in Mexico, and most of what we’re eating is definitely local food. But I knew exactly what she meant. We have a craving for the food we’d get at Cactus Cantina back in Pensacola, Florida. Good old enchiladas swimming in red sauce, crunchy tacos and chips and salsa. Stuff like that. They actually don’t eat dishes like that in Mexico, or at least, here in the Yucatan. I guess what we’re craving is the Americanized version of northern Mexican food.
So what’s next for us? Well for the time being, we’re going to sit tight a little while longer to let the weather sort itself out. We’ve found another couple headed to the Rio Dulce who might like to buddy-boat down, so we may end up leaving with them. They’re not planning to depart until the end of the month though, and we’re not sure if we should wait that long, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, the thought has crossed our minds that Isla Mujeres sure seems like a pretty nice place with lots to see and do, and maybe just spending the summer hanging around here wouldn’t be a bad idea. The hurricane risk here shouldn’t be any worse than the one we lived with for years back in Pensacola. But that’s the nice thing about being cruisers. With no particular place to be, and all the time in the world to get there, we can just change our minds to suit our circumstances. 🙂
Whale sharks—the world’s largest fish. Intimidatingly huge, these majestic creatures are actually gentle giants. They are filter-feeders, swimming slowly along straining enormous quantities of seawater through their mouths to extract plankton. There are a handful of places in the world where migrating whale sharks pause to feed reasonably close to shore. Isla Mujeres is among the best. The season runs from early June to late August, and we serendipitously found ourselves here on the island just at the season began. Swimming with these leviathans is a uniquely amazing experience, one we knew we had to partake of.
We were picked up at our marina at 7:30 AM, and were transported to town (by golf cart, naturally) for a light breakfast. Afterwards, we boarded Camila, our ride to the swim site. The sharks congregate at a shoal about 20 miles off the eastern coast of Isla Mujeres, and we traveled for about an hour to reach the spot.
Once there, we prepared to enter the water in pairs to swim alongside the feeding sharks. Our captain would position the boat so that once in the water, we could drift in the current while one or more sharks would glide slowly past. This video will give you a sense of the size of these creatures. Compare the length of the swimming shark to the swimmers alongside.
Finally, our turn came. I hope these videos give you at least a taste of what this experience is like.
After several hours taking turns swimming (we had ten passengers on the trip, and we would usually have four in the water at once), it was time to return to shore. The crew broke out sandwiches and refreshments (water, soft drinks, and of course plenty of cold cervezas) while we headed back toward the island. About a mile from shore, we paused to snorkel for about 45 minutes over a very pretty reef, while one of the crew diced up a red grouper to make fresh cerviche. We then anchored in thee feet of water just off Playa Norte, or North Beach, the popular tourist beach on the north end of the island, where we ate our cerviche and drank more beer from floating tables made of life jackets.
We reboarded the boat to return to the dock, arriving at 2PM, comfortably exhausted, and with our heads filled with exciting memories. The cost? $110 USD per person (plus tips). A bit expensive by local standards, but in our opinion well worth it for a truly unforgettable experience.