Andele, andele! ~ Isla Mujeres

Isla at last

April 9, 2015; Isla Mujeres, Mexico; Amy

We finally cast off the loving shackles of Marathon, FL, on March 21, and headed southwest. It wasn’t easy to get out, as it seemed the Gods really wanted us to stay in Marathon. The week leading up to our departure, our smart charger for our boat batteries, fizzled out and died so, Kenny ordered a new one and installed it. Then, two days before our intended departure, we started having outboard motor troubles on our dinghy. Thanks to our friend “Diesel Don,” it was repaired over a two day period. It would’ve been quicker if we’d had a spare impeller on hand. Then the night before leaving, I misplaced my bloody cell phone. I figured a good Samaritan had picked it up from the restroom where I had last remembered using it, and I was correct. The next morning it was returned to me by a young cruiser named Alex, on Beats Working. As soon as I got it back, we bolted from the harbor before anything else could go wrong.

[FYI from Ken: Amy wrote a terrific article about some of the more interesting folks we met while hanging out in Marathon and we’re happy to say that Cruising World magazine will be publishing it sometime in the future.]

We spent the first night anchored off a key just a few miles south of Marathon at a place called Bahia Honda. For some stupid reason, we anchored on the north side of the island instead of the south, which meant we had to back track nearly all the way to Marathon the next day in order to go to Key West. We were so anxious to get on our way, we hardly consulted the charts. Had a fine time anyway since our friend, Corning, came for a visit toting some red wine. We drank and chatted on Bahia Honda til it was time for him to go. Kenny and I took a long walk on the lovely beach feeling very liberated.

Don’t get me wrong–we loved our time in Marathon, but we’d been talking about going to Central America for a long time and didn’t want our goal to slip through our fingers. Five years ago we’d had our sights on Grenada or Trinidad and never made it out of the Bahamas. We didn’t want to revisit the same scenario.

We arrived in Key West the next day and took a mooring ball in Garrison Bight, which is a bit out of the way and rather bouncy in a norther. The moorings are solid however, and the prices reasonable. Our time in Key West was very busy with preparations for our upcoming cruise. After completing some paperwork at Customs and Border Patrol, we sat down to a healthy lunch at a (mostly) vegetarian cafe. We then commenced drinking our way through Key West.

At Meson de Pepe, a Cuban restaurant near the water’s edge, we ordered some excellent mojitos and then bought cigars and pretend we were in Havana. Feeling rather jolly after our second mojito, we wandered over to see the street performers in Mallory Square, that perform every night around sunset. ( We’d been told to check out the “Catman.” Dominique, a very eccentric French (or maybe Canadian) man uses house cats in a circus style lion act. I loved the concept and it was amusing for a little while, but his pacing needs work.

Sauntering around the crowded square, we checked out some of the other performers. It is the unfortunate habit of many street artists to drag out the last bit of their act to ensure they get tipped. They talk at great length about how fantastic their final stunt is, which they won’t perform until the hat has gone around. I find this ploy annoying and would gladly pay them more to wrap it up in good time. Because we couldn’t tolerate their soliloquies, we clearly missed some amazing stunts. C’est la vie.

The morning of our scheduled departure, Corning’s wife, Tita, dropped him off to join us on the first leg of our journey south. We intended to visit the uninhabited Marquesas Keys and Dry Tortugas on our way to Isla Mujeres. Corning was planning to take the ferry back from the Dry Tortugas. This little archipleigo 70 nautical miles to the east of Key West is known for its enormous fort and fabulous snorkeling. Tita might have come as well, but she was deeply involved in her oil painting, which she had sadly neglected for several years. She is a huge talent and does beautiful work. Her recent cabbage triptych is brilliant.

The brief sail to the Marquesas was delightful – a sunny day with a moderate breeze off the stern. We dropped the anchor three times before we got it to hold, which was kind of a drag. After a late lunch we all fell fast asleep in the heat of the afternoon. Upon waking, Corning and I decided to go check out the island and go snorkeling, while Kenny remained behind to explore deeper realms of REM. Our snorkeling revealed nothing but sea grass and the key was home to nothing but mangroves. And “Marquesas” sounded so exotic… oh well.

My maternal grandmother always maintained the weather never interfered with her plans. She was not a sailor. Of course the weather interfered with our plans. A storm was brewing, so we decided not to continue on to the Dry Tortugas, as the anchorages there are rather exposed to the north. The next day we returned to Key West and Tita came to fetch us. We waited out the storm in their comfortable house in Summerland Key. Nothing like a little land-lubbing in the midst of a storm. They are such wonderful and generous hosts.

Two days later, Corning dropped us back off in Key West. We readied the boat and took off the next morning at sunrise. It was hard to believe we were FINALLY on our way to Mexico. The trip was a lively one to say the least. Apart from a bit of a lull the first night underway the winds were primarily 17 to 22 knots off of the stern quarter with seas in the 5 to 8 foot range. It was fun being on watch, looking out at the waves and letting the auto pilot do most of the work. It was not much fun trying to make sail adjustments or sleep or make coffee. If you didn’t hold on, you risked being thrown from one side of the boat to the other. We vacillated between complete enchantment and dismay.

Although we sailed close by Cuba’s north-western point, we never saw it. The sweet smell of forested land however, was rather amazing. We never saw any Cuban patrol boats nor were we warned by the US Coast Guard not to visit Cuba. Several cruisers we had chatted with had told us to expect either or both.

The whole voyage was pretty cool until the last eight hours when we had to cross the gulf stream in the Yucatan Channel. The winds were a steady 18-22 knots directly behind us and the seas over 6 feet. We cranked up the diesel engine and motor sailed for our mark at the south end of Isla Mujeres. It seems a shame to motor when there’s so much wind, but sailing would’ve meant tacking back and forth downwind in the confused seas of the gulf stream and our weather guru, Chris Parker, said it was just going to get windier. We preferred to make a beeline for our mark.

The trip went more quickly than expected putting us in Isla on April 2 at 2:20 a.m. Eastern time and 1:20 a.m. local time after a 67-hour passage. Although the visibility was pretty good with a nearly full moon, we elected to drop our anchor just to the west of the island rather than go into a possibly crowded anchorage in the dark. We dropped the hook with great relief and it held the first time. We settled into a couple of adult beverages and patted ourselves on the back–bliss–and soon after fell hard asleep.

After about five hours of sleep, we arose with the knowledge that we needed to get ashore to go through the rather complex customs and immigration process. The stories are legion about the difficulties and the amount of time it can take to check in Mexico, so we opted to go to Marina Paraiso and let Chepo, the dock master, take care of our paperwork for us. We’d heard good things about him, and although it cost us $80 (his fee + tips for the officials) it was well worth the ease and peace of mind. All we had to do was give Chepo our passports, paperwork and a million copies of everything and then plop down at the beach bar.

Chepo gives new meaning to the word expedite. I’ve never seen anyone operate so efficiently. He brought all the officials to us and we only needed to step away from the beach bar occasionally to sign something and get our copies stamped. Half the time we had no idea which official was from what department. We just did whatever Chepo told us and it went very smoothly. Only one official asked to come to the boat. I guess she was from the department of agriculture or something like that. She wanted to see what was in our fridge. So, I pulled out a few items and practiced my Spanish vocabulary. Just don’t take any meat or produce off the boat and you’re fine. No problemo.

After two days at the luxury marina with swimming pool and showers, we moved out to the anchorage. A few days later we had to take the ferry to Cancun and pay a temporary importation fee for the boat, which is good for ten years. Because we’d never heard anything glowing about Cancun, we decided to return to Isla immediately. Besides, it was just too hot to navigate a new place and I figured we’d just end up eating at some stupid tourist trap and getting all cranky pants.

There’s a very friendly boating community in Isla Mujeres. Every Friday night, Tim and Reba invite people to come to the dock by their boat, Tropical Fun, for happy hour and then move on to Oscar’s for pizza. We went last Friday and we’ll probably go again tonight. We met a whole slew of cruisers including Douglas, on Gillean, our new BFF from Madison, WI. (Go Badgers). His boat is parked near ours in the anchorage. He and I went to see the Badgers in the NCAA championship game at Jax. The bar was packed. Who knew there were so many Badgers fans in Isla Mujeres.

This is the farthest west and south we’ve ever been on Mary T, so we feel like we’ve crossed a new frontier. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but it’s starting to wear off as we’ve been here for a week. The water is turquoise, the sun shines almost all the time and high speed ferries packed with tourists  zip in an out of the harbor constantly. Sailing cats blaring dance music jammed with more tourists, zoom past us in the anchorage on their way to snorkeling sites. We sit here smugly on our sailboat, knowing that we are “travelers” not “tourists.”

We happened to land here at the busiest time of year as Mexicans are enjoying their Easter vacation/Semana Santa. To mark the event, there was even a small procession on Good Friday with one man dressed as Christ and several others as Roman soldiers. Some of the tourists are gringos, but the vast majority are Mexicans from the mainland. The ambiance is very safe and jolly and if you move in the right places at the right times, there are no crowds at all. Most of the tourists are packed into the north beaches, snorkeling sites and the street along the water where the ferries drop their passengers. Consequently, we haven’t done as much beach time or snorkeling as we’d like.

There’s no end to cute beach bar/restaurants and we’ve visited quite a few. The fish is always fresh and the prices reasonable. Ice cubes are made with purified water so you can get a margarita if you like. We stick mostly to light beers and fish tacos. We only got the “tourist” treatment once at our first restaurant, called Ballyhoo. We each ordered a margarita and they were huge. Later the waiter told us they were doubles, which he admitted we hadn’t ordered, but we ended up paying for them. They were rather delicious.

The other day we took a cab down to the south end of the island to explore the beach and do a little snorkeling, thinking it would be less packed than the north beaches. It was indeed less crowded, but the reef was too far away to snorkel, but the water was delightful – crystal clear and cool. We met a nice couple there in the beach chairs next to ours. Doug and Marsha from California, were visiting their son (who married a Mexican) and their three grandchildren. They were delightful company and were very curious about our live-aboard lifestyle.

After eating a picnic lunch with their brood, they started to strike camp. I asked where they were headed. They had rented two golf carts for the day and were headed to the north beach. So, I asked if we could hitch a ride and they obliged. It was a fun way to observe a part of the island we hadn’t yet seen. Lots of amazing mansions combining traditional architectural elements with a modern flare dot the east side of the island overlooking the ocean. Doug was a fine driver and taught us the Mexican word for speed bump: “tope.”

We all hung out together in a beach front restaurant from which we could make forays into the water. Beautiful, white sandy beach with swimming-pool-blue water. We didn’t let the “tourists” interfere with our fun.

April 12, 2015
The weather was perfect for a little sail south so, on April 11, we weighed anchor and left Isla Mujeres with Puerto Morelos as our destination. We’d heard that there were free moorings off the town’s beach near the reef in a national park. So, after a perfectly lovely six-hour sail, we meandered into the marine park and picked up a mooring. No sooner had we tied up than the Guarda Parque came along and told us we could not stay on the mooring for more than a few hours. It was reserved for boats taking paying customers to see the reef. We were not allowed to go snorkeling without being part of a guided tour… Well then, we asked, what were these other sailboats doing on the moorings? We didn’t understand the response, but it was clear that they didn’t want us there.

Off we went to El Cid Marina where we understood there were cheap moorings as well as docks. After struggling to pick up the mooring at El Cid, which had a very short pennant, Kenny managed to secure it to our bow. As soon as we had tied up, we were approached via dinghy by the only other people on a mooring. “You’d better dive on that mooring and make sure it’s okay. They don’t really maintain them.”

Screw it. We’ll just take a slip. We untied from the mooring and motored over to the docks. Settled at last, we checked in with the dock master and were issued the requisite plastic bracelets allowing us access to the whole resort. As we were hot as all get out so, our first stop was the pool. We were totally unprepared for what we would find–a swimming pool the size of a football field with faux rocks and slides, a swim-up bar, basketball hoops…OKAY, for $23 a day not bad. And, we can use the gym, go to yoga classes, jacuzzi, beach access. Not really what we were looking for, but what the heck, here we are. Might as well enjoy!

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