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Archive for the ‘Trip Report’ Category

What were we thinking?!

Posted by Tony & Cheri on August 26, 2011

Tony and CheriWe are coming up on an anniversary. On August 27, 2005 we pulled up in front of the Zanzibar Hotel (soon to be renamed the Luna Blue Hotel) in Playa Del Carmen to start our new life in Mexico. Six years ago. Wow.

People ask why we did it. The truth is there really wasn’t any one reason. Like many people, we spent a lot of vacations on the beaches in Mexico. We would often would sit there margarita in hand and say to each other, “We should live here.” But we never really thought it would happen. We would just listen to those Jimmy Buffet songs and dream.

We had a good life in San Francisco. Tony had been a lawyer for over 30 years and Cheri was an IT business analyst with a large international corporation. We had a nice home and many good friends. Yet, as we had grown older and more established, we felt that perhaps a little mid-life adventure was in order. Our son was grown and had started his own life, and we felt that we now had a chance to do something…well…a little crazy. Perhaps we were feeling what singer/songwriter Michael McCloud calls “middle age madness.”

Whatever the reason, we decided that a few years living and working in another country would be a great adventure, and so we bought a run down little hotel on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen.

We had found the Zanzibar Hotel in the spring of 2004, almost bought it, then almost bought something else, then came back to the Zanzibar and finally reached an agreement with the sellers in December of 2004. We took over on February 1, 2005. We spent the next six months preparing for our move, and then in August we started out for the new life.

No, we don’t regret doing it. Sure there have been rough spots and some difficult times: Hurricane Wilma, dishonest contractors, local ex-pat con men, dengue fever, the swine flu hysteria, and a world wide recession, among others. And we do miss being near our family and friends in California. We also miss San Francisco, one of the truly beautiful cities of the world. Still, our life here has been rewarding, often lovely and never dull. Most of all we got what we wanted…an adventure.

To celebrate this anniversary we thought we would re-post our very first blog entry, which recounts our drive from San Francisco to Playa Del Carmen in August of 2005. We hope our readers will enjoy hearing about it (again). And we hope it might inspire others to seek out their dreams. So here it is:

The Ultimate Road Trip

The Journey Begins
Monday August 15, 2005

We had planned to leave San Francisco on Monday, August 15th, 2005. And we did…by about five minutes. The day had been insane. We had been up all night finishing the packing and cleaning. In the end, we were hauling things out the back door as our new renters were coming in the front door.

Mexico border at TexasWe were moving in a 15 passenger Chevy van with most of the seats pulled out to make room for our important stuff. What we decided to take or not take led to some interesting “discussions” between us. “You want to take that? Well, if you’re taking that I’m taking this!” This explains why we have a suitcase full of Cheri’s favorite cosmetics and shampoos and also have Tony’s favorite carved wooden trunk from Belize featuring voluptuous bare breasted mermaids, Amazons and angels (you have to see it to appreciate it). Just think about it. If you were leaving the country and could only keep a 10 ft by 5 ft by 4 ft square container of everything you own and have accumulated through the years, what would you take? We found the answers very surprising.

We dubbed the van “the Big Bastard” in homage to the world’s best (only) Aztec Priestess/Vampire/Erotic Dancer Action Movie, “From Dusk ‘til Dawn.” Those who have seen this classic will remember George Clooney commandeering Harvey Keitel’s RV and telling him to “point this big bastard” towards Mexico. It seemed appropriate. At 11:30 at night we were tying our 12 ft sea kayaks to the roof. With three cats and an English bulldog in tow we finally…FINALLY…rolled out of San Francisco around 11:50 that night.

We were sad to be sure. SF had been our home for thirty years. We had met here, married here and raised our son here. Still, we knew this was the right choice and so with our hearts in our throats we headed out for the 4000 mile journey to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. That night we got as far as Sacramento. We were bone tired. We had not slept in almost forty-eight hours, and so we decided that safety required a rest stop. We crashed at the Sacramento home of Cheri’s brother Don and his son Curtis. We spent two days sleeping and resting up. We also got a lot of help and attention from another of Cheri’s brothers, Dean, and his wife Ali. Thank you, guys. You were all great.

Thursday August 18, 2005
Our boy HuggybearOn Thursday afternoon we figured it was now or never to get this trip really started. We hugged and kissed the family, climbed into the cab of the Big Bastard, put Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” on the CD player and pulled out onto Highway 5 heading south.

Before going any further, let’s talk about the pets for a moment. We were traveling with three cats, Shammy (world’s fattest cat), Carib (bitchiest little princess of a feline you will ever meet) and Belle (tiny, sweet and almost twenty years old). We were also taking our English Bulldog, Huggybear. Have you ever been in an enclosed space with a Bulldog after it has eaten? Enough said.

We had originally planned to put the cats in carriers and put them and Huggybear in the cab with us. Did NOT work. Not only was there no room once the carriers were inside, but the cats hated it. They howled, they sprayed, and they generally turned the cab into a feline hell. By the time we left Sacramento we had abandoned the carriers and let everyone loose in the cab with us. We put in water, food and a litter box. Everyone liked this better except for Carib the Princess who threw up…twice. But eventually even she got the hang of it. In preparation for the trip with the cats, we had gone to AAA and bought “Traveling with Your Pet,” which lists pet-friendly hotels by state. After we bought it, we realized we could have gotten the same information from the free (for members) state “tour guide” books. (This was the first money we spent needlessly, but certainly not the last.) Reviews of hotels in AAA’s tour guides list whether or not they take pets (look for the little dog symbol). A lot of hotels charge an extra fee for pets, and others will let them in for free.

In preparation for our trip, the consulate in San Francisco told us we needed an International Health Certificate and a rabies certificate for each pet. We read on the internet that these documents had to be dated no more than 72 hours before crossing the border. However, other sources said this was not the case, and the consulate in San Francisco said they simply needed to be a couple of weeks before our trip. We got ours approximately two weeks before we reached the border. We got these certificates from our local SPCA for a grand total of about five hundred bucks. We put these documents in our “important papers” folder to have them ready for anyone who asked to see them at the border or in Mexico. Of course, no one at any time ever asked to see them or concerned themselves about our pets. More money we could have avoided spending-again, it wasn’t the last.

One final point on the mascotas (pets): at the Consulate’s office in SF, they told us without question that we could take no food of any kind into Mexico, including pet food. We therefore budgeted the pets’ food with the idea that it would be gone by the time we reached the border and that we would buy more food (at more expensive Mexico prices) on the way. At the border, although we planned to throw the rest of our pet food away, we changed our minds at the last minute. Let’s see what they do, we decided. What they did was nothing. We could have brought a years supply along and nobody would have cared it seemed.

All right, enough about the animals. Now, back to the trip.

We spent the next several hours on the road and expressed our relief that we had not been attacked by banditos, rabid dogs or heavily armed Federales. Of course we were still in California’s central valley, but we felt encouraged nonetheless. Around midnight we pulled into Pasadena and stopped at a motel that AAA had said took pets. We unloaded the animals into the room and called Domino’s Pizza (the only thing still open at that hour in Pasadena). Once the pizza arrived (pepperoni and mushrooms) we popped open a bottle of fine champagne given to us by our dear friend Walid in SF. Thus, the first day of our new life in the tropics ended in a Super 8 motel in Pasadena eating bad pizza and drinking great wine out of plastic cups. We knew then this was going to be one hell of a journey.

Friday August 19, 2005

The next morning we headed out on Interstate 10 going east. This part of the trip can best be described as tedium interspersed with Denny’s and IHOPS. We crossed over into Arizona and began to take note of interesting road signs such as the ones that announced a prison area and suggested that drivers not pick up hitchhikers. DUH!

We passed through Phoenix while playing Isaac Hayes’ 20 minute version of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” (“Hot Buttered Soul” 1969, possibly the greatest R&B Album ever made-editorial comment by Tony) and continued southeast on 10. Since Tony is a HUGE history buff and an absolute fanatic about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, we decided to stop and spend the night in Tombstone, site of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Leaving 10, we found the road to Tombstone was a dark, narrow two-lane highway that seemed to go on forever. Actually it was only 20 miles, but it turned out to be good practice for Mexico. We even saw a new sign: “Watch for Animals next 114 Miles.” We checked into the Overlook Best Western in Tombstone. It was a real find. Clean, pleasant, with a friendly staff. They took pets and had a large outdoor fire pit which guests sat around in the desert evening.

Saturday August 20, 2005

Tombstone ArizonaThe next morning we stepped out of our room to an unbelievable vista. Tombstone is in a quiet desert valley surrounded by towering mountains. In these mountains the great Cochise united the Apache nations and Geronimo raided the valleys below. You can feel the years past seep into your skin just standing there. And of course, just down the road was the OK Corral.

Tombstone is a tourist attraction with period piece restaurants and shop owners dressed as gunfighters. Still, it was fun. Most importantly, Tony got to take Cheri on the exact same path the Earps and Doc Holliday took to the OK Corral. (“Whoop-de-doo”- editorial comment by Cheri). The actual site of the gunfight was a small alleyway now surrounded by a fence. They have these hokey animatronic robots standing where the actual participants were, but it was still pretty cool.

On the way out of town we stopped at a small store for snacks and water. A group of nice folks sat around the stove (yeah, just like on the Walton’s). An elderly lady spoke up and said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but can I ask where you are going with those kayaks?” They thought it was pretty funny to see ocean kayaks in the middle of the desert. And when we told them we were on our way to the Caribbean Sea they really cracked up. They wished us well, but it was pretty obvious they thought we were crazy!

We returned to Highway 10 and continued southeast. We passed through the rest of Arizona, a small patch of New Mexico and on into Texas. On the way we stopped at a Quicki-Mart type place for provisions. A friendly cashier asked “Where y’all from? “ San Francisco,” we answered. “And where y’all going?” she asked. “Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast of Mexico,” we answered. She stared at us for a moment wondering if we were lost or just nuts. She finally responded, “Y’all know you’re still in Arizona, don’tcha?” We assured her we knew where we were and then continued on our way. We drove to El Paso which was much bigger than we expected. We also noted a number of pawn shops and gun stores confirming our presence in the Lone Star State. Late that night we stopped in Van Horn, Texas which did not seem to be any more than a truck stop with multiple hotels and fast food places. We chose a Best Western only because the one in Tombstone was so good. It was the right choice. And while checking in we discovered that the owners were from San Francisco. Cue puppets to sing “It’s a Small World After All.” There were friendly exchanges and then to bed.

Sunday August 21, 2005

The next day we took 10 into San Antonio. Did anybody mention that Tony is a history freak? Of course we decided to stay overnight in San Antonio so that Tony could visit the Alamo the next day. That night we had dinner on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. Well done renovation, great restaurants and pretty surroundings all on the bank of the river. A lot of fun, if a little pricey. We stayed a few blocks away at the La Quinta. Good motel. Reasonable, clean and secure.

Monday August 22, 2005

The next morning we went to visit the Alamo. We expected something a little touristy but found instead that the preservation and presentation were really well done and very moving. The grounds are beautiful, tranquil gardens. The only remaining structures of the original fort/mission are the “Long Barracks” which is now a museum and the church which is now the Alamo Shrine. Even Cheri who is not a big historical site fan was impressed. Its combination of history and referential honoring of the dead reminded us of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was well worth the stop.

After leaving San Antonio we said goodbye to Highway 10 and we headed south to the border on 87. We figured to spend one more night in the U.S. to avoid crossing into Mexico late in the day. We knew we wanted to cross the border early in the morning to give ourselves as much time as possible with Mexican Customs and Immigration, and to still allow us drive time to avoid spending the night in Matamoros because of the reports of increasing border violence and crime. Our plan had been to stay in Brownsville, Texas that night, but while looking at the map we saw how close South Padre Island was to the border. Hmmm, let’s see. Spend the night in a trucker hotel on the border or find a beach front place on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. No brainer.

Wanna WannaSouth Padre Island is about 30 minutes from the main highway south. The island has a Gulf side and a bay (mainland facing) side accessible by a bridge (upon which traffic stops if pelicans are crossing). There are tons of budget hotels as the island makes its living from crazed college students during spring break and crazed suburban families during the summer months. The summer season was over when we got there so we had the place to ourselves. We stayed at a nice Travelodge and finished the day drinking Margaritas and eating fried shrimp and oysters at a beach front bar called Wanna Wanna.

Tuesday August 23, 2005

We started out this day with whoops, hollers and high-fives. We were on our way to Mexico. We cruised down highway 49 from South Padre Island to Brownsville and asked directions to the border. We were sent to a small bridge called the International Bridge (very original) which we crossed after paying our two dollar toll. We drove into our adopted country to fanfare and celebration. Well, not exactly. Actually we drove in without any sign of Immigration or Customs. We were in Mexico and nobody seemed to care. For one brief moment we thought, “Hell, let’s just keep driving,” but saner thoughts prevailed (Cheri’s of course) and we did a u-turn back to the border, parked the Big Bastard and went into the Mexican Border Patrol offices.

We found the appropriate customs office and presented our manaje de casa. Mexican law allows families moving to Mexico to do a one time only transportation of their household goods tax free. This requires the creation of a comprehensive list of all items being transported known as the manaje de casa. There are certain restrictions (only one computer per person, no new items, etc.). The list is given to the local Consulate who then approves and stamps it. The stamped list is then to be given to Customs at the border who then verifies that the approved list matches the actual items being imported and then the tax is waived…in theory.

After passing our list around to several people with obvious confusion as to its purpose, we were told that we would have to enter Mexico at the other point of entry in Brownsville/Matamoros, which is the Veterans Bridge (not the bridge we had taken). We were then sent back into the U.S. (paying another toll of course, both to Mexico on leaving and to the US on entering).

We found the Veterans Bridge and crossed over. Another toll payment, please. Again, the Customs office. Again no one seeming to understand why we were there. Eventually after an hour or two and several people saying they could not help us, a nice Customs official with reasonable English (better than our Español), told us we needed to hire a customs broker.

Customs brokers are licensed businesses who assist in the importation of goods to Mexico for a fee. In San Francisco, the Consulado staff had told us we did not need a broker since the amount we were importing was so small. Wrong! How much would the broker cost we asked. The fee for the broker would be about $400.00 to have him assist us in gaining a “tax free” entry into Mexico. We asked if the tax would be cheaper and we were assured it was, about $200.00. Great, we said, we will just pay the tax. Lo siento, that is not possible. Since we were entering with work visas, a broker, according to this customs official, was required by law (a law the SF Consulado knew nothing about). How long would this take we inquired. About three hours unless we wanted to return tomorrow morning in which case our papers would already be processed by the broker. So back to the States we went, paying one more toll. We went back to South Padre Island, back to the Wanna Wanna. And back to the shrimp, oysters and margaritas. Hasta mañana.

Miercoles 24 de Agosto, 2005

Mexico border at TexasThe next day we returned to the border. We had been told that our papers would be completely processed by 10 a.m., so we arrived at 11 just to give them more time. Of course the broker did not even start our papers until 30 minutes after we got there. The work of the broker, which took another two hours, seemed to be no more than issuing a single document saying that we were responsible for the accuracy of the manaje de casa, not him. He asked us no questions other than our estimation of the value of our belongings, and he examined none of the contents of the van. Finally we were told that the process was done and that we were required to pay $400 cash, which we did. We were then told by the broker that the paper work still did not guarantee our passing through Customs. The agent told us that the Customs officials would now go through all of our things and that it would take several hours. HOWEVER, a small gift of $100 to the customs official would avoid this difficulty. We paid. We were then told that there was a $10 “processing fee.” We paid. The customs inspectors then came to our van, opened the doors, glanced inside, closed the doors and waved us through. Our tax free entry across the border had cost us a mere $510 plus two days in a motel and numerous bridge tolls. Welcome to Mexico Mr. and Mrs. Head!

We headed south for Tampico. The map from AAA said the road was 180. The map from Walmart said it was 101. Road signs seem to use both designations. We learned that in Mexico one highway may have several different names or numbers. Sometimes two roads or even three roads going in several directions would have the same highway number. It may have been that the highways were going in different compass directions, i.e., 180 south or 180 north, etc. But there was nothing on the signs to indicate the direction. You had to pick one of the roads and hoped you picked the right one. We also found that there is an amazing lack of reliable maps for Mexico on both sides of the border. Our maps omitted most towns, added some we couldn’t find, misrepresented the types of roads and generally couldn’t be trusted.

Outside of Matamoros we hit a customs inspection stop where they verified that our manaje de casa had been processed at the border. The agents were polite and professional. We headed off again. We simply followed the signs to Tampico and Ciudad Victoria. It got a little confusing at one point when the road split in two and used the same directions and numbers for both roads. We figured it was a “business loop” and that the roads would reunite. We were right. Eventually the highway offered us a split where we could go to Ciudad Victoria or Tampico. We chose Tampico. It was our plan to travel down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and on into the Yucatan. That may have been a mistake. What followed was several hours on a narrow two lane highway with no shoulder. Buses, trucks and other cars passed each other and us at will all going about 85 mph. It was on this stretch of road that we learned for the first time that the yellow lines on the highway and the road signs (like the ones that say “no passing on the dangerous curve ahead”) are actually just considered suggestions in Mexico. Drivers can follow the signs or not as they wish. Mexicans, having a strong sense of pride and independence, generally seem to choose not to follow these “suggestions.” We thought we were going to die, not once, not twice but every few minutes for hours on end.

Eventually the road widened as we neared Tampico. It took us about 6 hours to drive from Matamoros to Tampico, the last hour or so in the dark. We decided the national game of auto “chicken” made driving at night just too crazy so we looked for a place to bed down. We chose the Best Western recommended by a friend. It was just before Tampico in a town called Alta Mira. It’s right on 180, and the well lit Best Western sign can’t be missed. Normally we try to avoid American chain hotels when traveling in Mexico. We like the adventure of smaller local hotels. However in this case, with the pets and the van full of our belongings we decided on the Best Western. We were very glad we did. It was clean and modern. Parking was in a locked courtyard (a must for us with the van) and it had a cozy little in-house restaurant and the last wireless internet connection we were to find on our trip. It met all our needs so we checked in and called it a night. We had done it. We were in Mexico!

Jueves 25 de Agosto, 2005

We hit the road (still 180 heading south) with high hopes for a wider if not better road than we had seen the day before. Neither proved to be true. The road from Tampico to Veracruz was smaller than the road from Matamoros and was so badly filled with pot holes we feared not for the undercarriage of our van but for the fillings in our teeth. At some point the highway divided (no name change for either direction) and we picked one. We ended up in a tiny pueblo where the streets were in worse shape than the main highway if possible. As we crawled over topes (speed bumps) and car sized craters in the street, Tony saw a Veracruz security officer standing by the side of the road and then he made the mistake. He made eye contact, smiled and waved. “Careful, don’t draw attention to us,” Cheri warned from the driver’s seat. Too late. Whistles, pointing and commands to stop. The officer came up to the van grinning. He explained that he stopped us because Cheri wasn’t wearing a seat belt (something he could not have seen while standing on the side of the road.) She showed him that indeed she was wearing her belt. He then said she had been speeding. She protested that she had been barely moving, certainly no more than 10 mph because of the road conditions. He responded that she had to go slower because of the “niños” (children). He placed his hands together in prayer (seriously) raised his eyes to heaven and said that his job was to protect the niños. Of course the street was empty except for us and no child could be seen in any direction. After concluding his prayer the protector of children asked us for fifty U.S. dollars. We pretended not to understand and he repeated it a number of times. Each time we said how sorry we were but we did not understand. Tony then held up a five dollar bill which he took, smiled, thanked us and motioned us to move on.

We were now truly lost. As we headed through this unknown town we passed a Municipal Police Station. Cheri pulled the Big Bastard over and Tony went inside-not without some concern after the Veracruz state cop. It turned out we had nothing to worry about. Inside were two local cops, one old and one young, in a room which was bare except for a single desk where the two of them sat in their shirtsleeves. In Tony’s broken Spanish and their broken English they were able to understand the problem. They gave Tony directions back to the highway and even drew a map to get us to Veracruz. They could not have been nicer. They followed Tony outside to meet Cheri and wished us luck. Before going Tony showed them our AAA map of Mexico and asked them to show us their town. They laughed loudly at the idea that their little town would be on a map. They did show us where it would be IF it were on the map. Then handshakes, “Adios,” and off we went. In a few minutes we were back on 180 heading south again.

The road eventually smoothed out and we passed the Costa Esmeralda which is a stretch of the Gulf Coast which seems to be a resort/vacation area much like South Padre Island. Lots of little budget, seaside hotels. We headed on, planning to spend the night in Veracruz. We occasionally stopped for gas. Pemex, (the national gas company) had stations everywhere. We also would stop at small mom and pop restaurants. No McDonalds out here. We would leave the van running with the air conditioning on for the pets, and lock it up with another set of keys. After we ate we would walk Huggybear and count up the cats to make sure nobody got out. At one stop we sat in a restaurant when Tony said he was going back out to the van to get the maps. Cheri said, “If you come in here with those maps people will think you’re a tourist.” Tony looked around the room of entirely brown faces speaking Spanish and began to laugh. Up until that moment of course nobody there suspected that the pale Irish guy with the white beard and the blonde girl talking English were anything other than natural born Mexicans. He left the maps in the car and our secret identities remained safe.

We reached Veracruz early that evening. If we had it to do over again we would have skipped going through Veracruz. The city is a large port town with a giant malecon along the Gulf Coast. There is a very large, unbelievably busy tourist/resort area. Some day we will come back to visit Veracruz. We hear Carnival here is the best in Mexico. But on this trip, just trying to get through town, maneuvering through the traffic was a nightmare. Friends from Mexico City have told us that this is only a fraction of the people and traffic we would see there. No thanks, this was bad enough. 180 goes right into the center of town and follows the ocean front from commercial port into the hotel/resort zone. We saw only high rise style hotels, generally of an upscale type. We knew this would not work with pets. After driving all the way through Veracruz we entered a section (town?) called Boca del Rio which appeared to be the cheaper part of town. We saw few hotels but none we could stay in. We finally saw a Best Western sign and went for it (which means we had to drive out of town on a two lane street for a few miles until we could turn around and go back). No problema!

The Best Western was perfect if pricey. It had a secure locked parking area and all of the rooms were suites with two bedrooms and full kitchens. The animals finally got their own room for the night. There were two upscale restaurants adjoining. We ate at the Italian one. The hotel did not allow pets, but when the desk clerk heard we were from San Francisco, he made an exception. He was the first openly gay person we had seen in Mexico. He was very nice and did a small curtsy when we gave him a tip. So far this trip Best Western had really come through for us. We decided we would spend the next night at a Best Western too. Oh, how wrong we were.

Viernes 26 de Agosto, 2005

Mexico border at TexasThe end of this day found us drinking cold beer and eating quesadillas in an extremely nice whorehouse a few miles outside of Villahermosa. It had been a long day.

The day started out with much promise. We decided to make this a short travel day and go no further than Villahermosa, about a six hour drive away. We figured we would find a hotel in a city that size (we knew they had a Best Western). We thought that with a day of “rest,” we could start early from Villahermosa the next morning and make the long haul to Playa in one day.

We put our cats and Huggybear back into the Big Bastard and rolled out of town. We didn’t even get lost. At this point we decided to take toll roads instead of continuing on 180. We followed the signs out of town on toll road 150, which took us southwest for a short period of time before intersecting with toll road 180 marked by signs to Villahermosa. Of course, the toll road and the regular highway several miles away were both designated 180. We discovered to our delight that the toll roads from Veracruz to Villahermosa were all well paved, multi-lane divided highways. The tolls were expensive (about $40 US for the day), but after the previous day’s nightmare of narrow two-lane pothole ridden roads, we figured it was worth every penny. We were in great moods and actually were able to go 65 mph for the first time since leaving the US. Woo hoo!

The countryside was muy hermosa. Lush green jungle, beautiful valleys and lots of farmland. Mostly cattle ranches and pineapple farms. Unfortunately we also saw some extensive flooding from the tropical storm which passed through earlier this week. The toll road was elevated above it, but we could see fields and the occasional house submerged. This went on for miles and miles in several different places.

When leaving Veracruz, we also saw some of the largest and most painfully poverty-stricken shanty towns we have seen in Mexico. This on the edge of one of Mexico’s most successful port towns. No, it isn’t fair.

On the way out of town we stopped at a small roadside restaurant/tienda next to a Pemex. The food was okay, but the highlight of the stop of Cheri’s discovery of a nearly life-sized plaster statue of a bulldog. Despite the fact that we had a live specimen of that species waiting in the van, she insisted that we purchase it for our new home in Paamul. At $180 pesos, she said we couldn’t possibly pass it up. Can you say “trailer basura?”

We then spent the day driving towards Villahermosa, arriving late in the afternoon. Before getting to town, we noticed a good sized “auto hotel”/motel on Highway 180 just before Villahermosa. It looked nice, clean and secure. However we passed it by with the expectation that Best Western would come through for us once more. Little did we know.

Although not as large or insanely busy as Veracruz, Villahermosa was still a good-sized town, and took a bit of maneuvering to find the Best Western. We were hoping it would be a regular motel where we could park our van right outside our door, but instead it was a fancy high rise. Knowing we could never smuggle the pets into a hotel of that sort, we asked if they accepted pets. Not only were we told in no uncertain terms that they would not allow pets, but that we would find no hotel in Villahermosa that would. On the way out of the hotel, the doorman suggested we try the El Camino Real and gave us directions. When we worked our way across town to the El Camino, we found it to be a luxury high rise. They didn’t want our type there, either. This desk clerk not only said no to the pets, he literally turned up his nose and walked away.

It was now getting late, and we still hadn’t found a place for the evening. Our choices were to 1) sleep in the Big Bastard with the engine running all night to keep the AC on for the pets, 2) drive back to the auto hotel we had seen on Highway 180 just before Villahermosa or 3) keep on heading out of town and hope to find something on the other side of the city. We decided on #3 with the expectation that there would hotels and/or motels more suited to us on the outskirts of town.

Unfortunately we saw no hotels at all except signs to the Hilton, which we followed diligently until we realized it was a mountaintop citadel of conference rooms and luxury high rise rooms. We knew without being told that we would not be welcome there. After all, we had already been tossed out of better places than that.

At the last (and possibly 12th) toll booth of the day, we asked the toll taker if there was a hotel “cerca de aqui.” He smiled, actually smirked, and said we would find one 30 km ahead near the town of Estacion Macuspana. Buoyed by this news, we drove on. About 20 minutes later, we remembered we had forgotten to stop at the banco and counted up all of our pesos and dollars. We were sure we wouldn’t see another ATM until probably Chetumal. Now our concern was whether we would need to spend all our money on gas and not have enough for even a cheap hotel. However, we pushed on with our fingers crossed. Outside of Villahermosa 180 reaches a junction with 186. 180 goes north, and 186 goes southeast. 186 is what we wanted. However, once we turned on to the highway we still saw no hotels or, at this point, even towns. The road at this juncture will, at some point in the future, be a wonderful divided highway. Unfortunately, now it is a narrow path through a very long construction zone, with only one lane of traffic going each direction.

We were just about to give up and return to Villahermosa and try a second time for a motel when we saw a bright, big and beautiful compound on the side of the road. It was set back somewhat on a hill. It appeared to be surrounded by a wall with interior rooms. It seemed perfect.

We pulled in through the front gate and were immediately met by a very attractive young chica wearing tight jeans, heavily made up, with a streak of purple in her hair. We pushed the dog down so he wouldn’t be seen and got out of the car to ask her about availability. We were nervous because not only the dog but two of the cats were now peering out the window, and we didn’t want to be rejected yet another time because of the animals. Our young hostess seemed nervous, too-we thought because of her inability to understand our broken Spanish. Regardless, we negotiated a room for the night for $35 US, the cheapest rate we had seen yet!

We began to have some questions about our lodging when we saw our room for the first time. The room had no key. The entrance to the room was a private garage which could be closed electronically once inside. From the locked garage, guests entered the room. Unusual, but we assumed it was a security measure. Of course, the Big Bastard, with kayaks on top, was about an inch too tall to fit into the garage. An ancient toothless stooped caretaker in a cowboy hat told us to park out in the open and guaranteed that the compound would be secure through the night and that our vehicle would be safe.

We then went into the room. It was brand new with very nice furnishings. The main room was divided into the bedroom area and separate sitting area with an overstuffed half-moon couch. The bed was quadruple normal size. This made us happy, as the animals had been sleeping with us in a double bed, but it did raise the question of why a hotel with such luxurious furnishings charged such a minimal rate. The bathroom was equally interesting with an extremely large walk-in shower behind a totally glass wall suitable for a party of ten or so. The toilet was in a similar glass enclosure across the way. This also seemed a little unusual for a $35 a night trucker hotel, but still no alarms went off. We then found that the mammoth dressers were just blocks and contained no drawers. Atop one of them was a TV which, when turned on using the controls built into the headboard of the bed, provided nothing but non-stop American hard core porn channels! We then found the notice on the back of the door indicating that rooms rented by the hour, and that if “services” provided were inadequate, guests should speak to the “manager.” We began to suspect that we may have just booked a room for the night in an “adult” motel at best and possibly a very upscale house of ill repute at worst. Just as the light bulbs went on in our heads, the lights went out in the hotel. It seems there was a regional power failure. Our lights, our air conditioning and our American hardcore porn all shut down. We stood there in the dark room of a Mexican whorehouse and simultaneously said “Shit!”

After a few moments, we took a flashlight and walked up to the reception area to see what the situation was. We found a number of young ladies of all shapes and sizes sitting around an electric lantern and joking and laughing in Spanish. With our appearance, they quickly faded back into the interior of the building. We were told that power was out for the whole area and there was nothing they could do. They sold us some ice for our cooler, and we returned to our room. A short time later, the power returned after a few false starts. We then considered our circumstances. Here we were, spending the night in what just might be a Mexican whorehouse, albeit a very nice one. The room seemed secure; however, our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities of the dangers of spending the night here with an expensive van full of our things parked outside. Our location out on the highway many miles from the nearest city made it unlikely anyone would hear our cries of help if our hosts decided to help themselves to our van, our belongings, our virtue or our lives. However, the only alternative was to hit the road in the pitch black night on unknown highways. We decided to go with the devil we knew and hunker down for the night. We reminded each other that every time we had traveled in Mexico, the people we had met, regardless of the circumstance, had almost always been helpful, protective and nice. There was no reason to think that this young group of entrepreneurs would be any different. After all, they had waived their normal $25 per hour fee and charged us a ludicrously low amount for the entire night! Besides, we had Huggybear to protect us. And they had 24 hour room service. A telephone call would produce any number items from a room service menu including full dinners, snacks, condoms, various delicacies and expensive alcohol, including American whiskey, or, if you were feeling particularly generous with your “date,” a bottle of Moet and Chandon champagne. We decided to stay and opted for quesadillas and Coronas.

Food and drinks arrived through a rotating drum in the wall. A knock was given on the wall, and the drum rotated with our food and drinks on the inside. Our dinner was removed and payment placed back inside the drum, which was rotated back towards the unseen waitress. Much to our surprise, some of our money was returned as it turned out management wanted to buy our beers as an apology for the power failure. Tony felt that a more generous offer could have been made by management, but Cheri was happy, pointing out that if they had planned on murdering us in our beds, they probably wouldn’t have bought us beers.

We settled in for the night with our guard dog snoring loudly on the couch but not loudly enough to drown out the enthusiastic sounds of the couple in the next room. We tried to ignore them and practiced our Spanish for a while by reading the subtitles provided by the porn channel. However it occurred to us that we had no idea where we could ever repeat the phrases we were learning! Oh well, time for lights out.

Sábado, 27 de Agosto, 2005

We left early from the maybe-brothel with a wave from one of the girls. As we drove we counted our money one more time and hoped we could get to Chetumal for no more than $100. After gas, this allowed little for food and none for bribes in case Cheri got stopped yet again. We were still on 186 heading northeast, following the curve of the Gulf of Mexico. The road is paved but under construction to make it a larger highway. There were hardly any cars on the road going either direction, which was great for us and allowed us to pick up some speed, despite the fact that the road was uneven, like most roads we’d seen.

Mexico border at TexasHighway 186 runs from the state of Tabasco, briefly skims through the top of the state of Chiapas, comes back into Tabasco for a short time & then crosses into the Yucatanean state of Campeche. Every time we entered a new state, there would be a toll booth where we’d have to pay a small toll. Near the border of Chiapas we saw a number of military stops and inspections. However, they either ignored us or waved us through each time. We were finally stopped at the border of Campeche. Our military inspector was Ernesto, who was born in Anaheim, California (four blocks from Disneyland), had friends in Gilroy, California and occasionally worked as a tour guide in Playa del Carmen for English and Italian tourists. We gave him the name of the Hotel Zanzibar and promised we would all meet up again in Playa. It seemed that the stop was less about inspecting the van & more about giving Ernesto a chance to practice his English. And, of course, as with most bilingual Mexicans, his command of English far outdistanced our command of Spanish.

At Francisco Escarcega we stopped at the Pemex and found to our delight an ATM! Our first prayer of the day had been answered. Now we could afford gas, breakfast and bribes! Francisco Escarcega had a number of hotels, which we filed away for future reference. At this point, 186 moves sharply to the east across the Yucatan peninsula towards Chetumal. The farmlands starting being replaced by jungle, and we were feeling more at home. This was the Mexico we know and love. 186 took us through Xpujil (little sister of Xpu-Ha, we joked), which is a sizable town. We hadn’t seen a Pemex since Francisco Escarcega and were getting a little concerned, given how the Big Bastard guzzles gas. Within five minutes of that conversation there appeared a Pemex – our second prayer of the day answered! Life is good, and we’re almost home. Just past Xpujil, we finally entered our home state – Quintana Roo. Unlike other states, they didn’t charge us a fee to enter. QR rules!

A few miles down the road, we were pulled over at a military inspection point and surrounded by a group of four or five young men in camouflage with automatic weapons. One of the soldiers asked us to open up the doors to the van, and he found himself face to face with Huggybear. He asked in Spanish if he was friendly, and after we understood him, we said yes. He petted him hesitantly. The other soldiers gathered around and soon they were laughing at and playing with Huggybear. Cheri said “Huggybear” to one of the soldiers about 20 times before he got the pronunciation right. After we explained the name came from the movie Starsky & Hutch (remember Snoop Dogg as Huggybear?), the soldiers laughed & made the connection. They had obviously seen the movie. By the time Cheri offered them some revistas de chicas (Playboys)-a suggestion we heard about on the Playa Info board-we were all good friends. One thing we learned is the best way to travel through Mexico is to bring an English bulldog. People can’t seem to resist them.

We headed on our way and 186 opened up to a wide, smooth paved road with little traffic all the way to Chetumal where it intersected with 307 north. We were happy to see the intersection outside of the city limits. Thank God we didn’t have to go through another big city to get home. We’ve been lost in Chetumal before, and it wasn’t fun.

We took 307 north . At this point our journey was practically finished. Four more hours.

No stops now, we could almost see Playa del Carmen in the distance. The road north from Chetumal began as a wide and well maintained road. Unfortunately, it turned into a heavy construction zone where the road becomes a narrow two lane highway with no lights. Continuing north we passed through Felipe Carrillo Puerto. 307 divided to go through town and we once again chose the wrong fork in the road (business loop again!), but it eventually re-joined the main highway. The road became the standard Mexican highway…no lights, two lanes and mad man drivers all about. We kept going. Muyil. Tulum. Akumal. Around 11 p.m. we pulled up in front of the Hotel Zanzibar in Playa del Carmen. We unloaded our pets into one of the larger rooms and headed down the street to see our friends Karent and Alex at their restaurant, La Quinta Pasión. Hugs, kisses, bienvenidos. They fed us margaritas and fish tacos and then we went back to the hotel to get some sleep. After thirteen days and 3903 miles, we were home. Now the work begins. And the fun.

“I don’t think I went where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I intended to be.” Douglas Adams

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Luna Blue Then and Now…Four Years and Counting

Posted by Tony & Cheri on August 28, 2009

Happy Anniversary to us!

It was four years ago today that we arrived in Playa Del Carmen, completing the ultimate road trip: a 4000+ mile journey that began when we left our home in San Francisco to start a new life in Mexico.

To mark this occasion we have been looking at old photos of the hotel the way it was when we arrived, and comparing it to the way it is today. There is quite a difference. We thought people might enjoy knowing of the changes that have taken place over the years.

When we moved into the empty Hotel Zanzibar (with our four cats and Huggybear our faithful English Bulldog) in August of 2005, the eighteen rooms of the hotel were in pretty bad shape. Floors had been tiled in whatever had been cheap and available resulting in a rainbow of different colors, sometimes even in the same room! Cheap worn out bathroom fixtures like toilets, sinks and showers didn’t match and often didn’t work.

Most of the rooms had no furniture to speak of other than worn wood platforms holding broken mattresses and a few planks nailed together as shelves. Only about half of the rooms were air conditioned, and most of those units were failing. Rusty, noisy industrial ceiling fans were the way the rooms were cooled. And the rooms advertised as having “kitchen facilities” turned out to contain a gas tank hooked up by a hose to a hot plate!

The electricity was spotty, the water was often unheated and the sewage had a nasty tendency to overflow the tanks and spill into the yard. The walls, inside and out had not been painted in years, and the cenote “garden” was a swampy pile of rocks and a non useable pool of black water.

We knew we had our work cut out for us, and we jumped right to it. Truthfully the work and the changes have been non-stop ever since.

After repairing or replacing most of the water, electrical and sewage systems, we attacked the rooms. We stripped walls and floors bare. We put down new matching tiles; retiled the bathrooms; replaced the fixtures; put new air conditioning in every room; built entire kitchens in our deluxe rooms; hung new doors; bought new hand built furniture from Guadalajara; bought new mattresses, linens and towels; designed our own shelving and storage units and had them built and installed; painted and repainted; had special lamps and lighting fixtures made; redesigned the reception area; built new palapa awnings on the decks and porches; put down outdoor tiles; rebuilt stairways; installed four new water heaters; enlarged the on site laundry; joined two of the rooms with an interior staircase; arranged for two beach clubs for our guests; cleared out the old cenote and built a garden with walkways, decks and a waterfall. Let’s see… was there anything else? Oh yes, we built a bar.

And we aren’t finished yet. We take pride in the fact that we are constantly looking for new ideas to improve our hotel. There are many plans for more improvements in the future which we think will make a stay at the Luna Blue Hotel the best experience possible for our guests. But for today we wanted to take just a moment to reflect on all the we have accomplished and to offer our thanks to the many, many friends and guests who have had a part in making our little hotel such a giant success. Thank you all. We promise in the future to maintain the high standards you have come to expect at the Luna Blue Hotel.

And now here are some “before and after” pictures which you may enjoy:

The Bathtub in Room 9 Before:


The Bathtub in Room 9 After:

A Typical Kitchen in the Garden View Deluxe Rooms Before:

A Typical Kitchen in the Garden View Deluxe Rooms After:
Room 9 Before:

Room 9 After:
Room 31 Before:

Room 31 After:
The Deck Outside Room 36 Before:

The Deck Outside Room 36 After:
The Sundeck Before:

The Sundeck After:
The Reception Area Before:

The Reception Area After:
Treetop Terrace #36 Before:

Treetop Terrace #36 After:
The Cenote Garden Before:

The Cenote Garden After:
Garden View Deluxe Room Before:

Garden View Deluxe Room After:
The Bar Before:

The Bar After:
A Typical Bathroom Before:

A Typical Bathroom After:
Courtyard Nook Room #2 Before:

Courtyard Nook Room #2 After:

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 11, 2009

Nothing too exciting or important in today’s blog. We went to the Blucacao Beach Club today and just wanted to share. It was a stunningly beautiful day. Enjoy.

View from the Blucacao Beach Club balcony
The beach in front of Blucacao Beach Club

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Buddha, Target and the Blond Giraffe: Our Spring Break

Posted by Tony & Cheri on March 17, 2009

Tony in a garden Cheri at the Heron House with the beautiful Crown of Thorns plant

We don’t often travel without each other. It’s more fun when we do things together, and over the years we have defined our travel roles: Tony maps out where we are going; Cheri arranges the details of transportation and schedules; Tony packs for the trip out; Cheri packs for the trip back, etc.

However recently Tony took off on his own. His growing interest in the practice of Zen Buddhism had lead him over the past year to correspond and visit with Reb Anderson, a Zen Master, or Roshi, who lives and teaches at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Northern California. Reb, whose Buddhist name is Tenshin (meaning “naturally real”), is a renowned teacher who often travels to speak at other Zen centers and address groups around the world. A couple of weeks ago Reb was leading a four day Zen meditation retreat in southern Florida, and Tony decided to attend.

Zen is not a religion (it does not worship Buddha or anyone else) but is a discipline centered on meditation. And meditation is simply sitting quietly and looking within yourself, at your life and at the world around you…which can be a good thing whether done at the end of the day with a glass of wine, walking on a deserted beach or at formal sitting in a meditation hall under the guidance of a teacher.

The retreat was held at a small conference facility. Attendees spent approximately four hours each day in meditation and another three hours attending lectures on the teachings of Buddha. Attendees could also have private discussions with Tenshin Roshi if they wished. Meals were vegetarian (quite a change for steak-loving Tony), and the entire retreat was conducted under a vow of silence. No speaking except for exchanges with the teacher. Wow! What a difference from working at the hotel and bar where we spend the day talking with guests and friends.

The retreat ended on Sunday, Cheri’s birthday. We planned that she would fly to Miami that day and Tony would pick her up at the airport. Starting the next day we were going to drive through the Florida Keys to Key West for our own little spring break vacation. But on Cheri’s birthday we were going to be in the Miami area. To celebrate, Tony suggested a night at a fancy South Beach hotel and dinner at some hip new restaurant…or any other thing Cheri might want. Cheri’s choice? She wanted to spend the night in Florida City, a small town that is the last stop south before entering the Keys. Why? It had a Target store and a couple of malls!

Key West: the end of Highway 1Life in Mexico is a life without the commercial rat race of the States. In some ways that is very good. We have learned to slow life down and to put “things” in a proper and less important space. Yet we still miss being able to go shopping for whatever we might need or want without traveling from store to store or even town to town to find it. And we miss the selection of items not often available in Mexico (clothes, personal items, English language books, meat marinade, cement screws, etc). So Cheri’s birthday wish was to spend some time shopping, starting with her all time favorite store, Target.

After emptying Target’s shelves we headed for our hotel, the Florida City Travelodge. Yes, the Travelodge. Again, Cheri passed on some expensive place in Miami and went for the Tripadvisor #1 recommendation. The Florida City Travelodge is not a vacation destination but is a clean, comfortable motel for those traveling to or from the Keys. The next day there was a “little” more shopping (Macy’s, the mall, Office Max, Target again, JoAnn’s Fabrics and a few others) and then we were off to the Keys.

We know of two beautiful vista-filled roadways. The first is the Pacific Coast Highway in California as it winds along the ocean side through the mountains and forests of Big Sur. The second is Highway 1 in Florida as it meanders through the 100 miles or more of the islands known as the Keys.

The highway crosses the biggest keys first. Key Largo and Islamorada are large islands with plenty of development. Houses, stores and people are everywhere. It’s a strange combination of architecture and cultures. There are numerous strip malls, fast food restaurants and souvenir stores. But because of the nearness of the ocean and the gulf, there are also many dive shops and marinas. There are funky little docks filled with sailing boats and weathered cottages everywhere. The sense of being in a tropical, almost Caribbean, part of the world is added to by the sight of palm trees waving in the winds everywhere and the bright colors seen on buildings, boats and most of all on the art and crafts work that seems to be for sale everywhere.

Once past the largest keys the islands begin to shrink and the bridges between them start to lengthen. At this point you begin to have the sensation of driving on the water. To the left is the great darkening blue of the Atlantic Ocean while to the right is the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. As we drove along in the late afternoon the setting sun bathed both bodies of water in a soft glow. If you are looking for a road trip with spectacular scenery, this is it.

The Heron HouseWe followed US 1 until it ended on the little island of Key West…the end of the road, the line and the rainbow for some. We had reservations at the Heron House, a very delightful Bed and Breakfast one street off of Duval, the main drag through the tourist zone of “Old Town.” The “other” Tony and Cheri recommended it to us as they stay there every year during Fantasy Fest. (BTW there will be a Tony and Cheri convention at the Luna Blue Hotel this August when the “other” T&C come to Playa for the first time!) And the management of the Heron House was nice enough to offer us an industry discount when they found we were also in the hotel business.

Our room at the Heron was ground floor and opened via French doors onto the central patio and pool. In the mornings they would fill a sideboard with breakfast foods (one hot dish…eggs one day, waffles the next… and fruits, cereals etc.). It really is a beautiful place. The staff was friendly and attentive and the location couldn’t be beat. Duval Street was just around the corner in one direction, with quiet walks through neighborhoods of lovely homes and flower gardens in the other direction.

In fact the Heron House was such a nice place some people just can’t leave it…ever! Cheri was talking with some of the staff about a beautiful plant in the garden (a Crown of Thorns it is called) when they mentioned that it grew over someone’s grave site! It turns out there are four people who, after cremation, have had their ashes buried in the garden there because they loved it so much. Now that’s customer loyalty.

We had last been in Key West in October for Fantasy Fest, the town’s crazy, adult, semi-dressed weeklong version of Halloween. This time we were looking forward to a less hectic, more laid back trip to visit some of our favorite spots. It was Spring Break, but even with lots of college kids wandering from bar to bar the town still kept its laid back vibe.

Duval Street is the heart of Key West’s “Old Town” with several blocks of stores, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Duval ends on the west side of the island at Mallory Square, a large open area dock/deck where each evening the crowds gather to watch the as the sun settles into the ocean, spraying the clouds and water with a pink coral glow. Food vendors, fortune tellers, craftspeople, acrobats, performers and hustlers of all kinds fill the Square to entertain, and make a little money from, the tourists. Stopping by Mallory Square for sunset is a must whether it’s your first or fortieth time to Key West.

In addition to long walks along quiet streets, we did some shopping on Duval where we got some great decorations for our bar and Cheri picked up what seemed like a dozen little sundresses perfect for Mexico’s coming summertime. We also dropped in a couple of times at the open air dockside Schooner Wharf Tavern to see one of our favorite musicians, Michael McCloud. Michael is old school Key West. He has a huge repertoire of songs including many he has written himself which he delivers with an easy patter of wry humor and comments. We have tried for some time to lure him to Playa to play at our own Luna Blue Bar, but Michael says he likes his quiet life in the Keys too much to disturb it. His wife jokingly says she can’t get him past the ballpark in Miami!

We also spent an evening sailing on the schooner Western Union. An aged sailing vessel, the schooner was built in the thirties and used to make runs between Key West and Cuba. Now it takes tourists out in the evening to watch the sunset from the deck of a rolling ship. The night we went the sea was calm and the sky clear. It was peaceful and sweet.

When we weren’t relaxing we were going to some of our favorite eateries. We ate at: Fogarty’s (which hosts “Red Night” during Fantasy Fest); Cheeseburger in Key West (a sister to another of our favorite places, the Cheeseburger in Paradise on Maui in Hawaii); Kelly’s Caribbean Grill (owned by actress Kelly McGillis and set in a lovely tropical garden…and home to Kelly’s Kinky Carnival during Fantasy Fest); Mangoes Restaurant ( right on Duval with a sidewalk level view of the nightly promenade); and Blue Heaven (the funky chicken roost of a diner made famous both by its breakfasts and the Jimmy Buffet song “Blue Heaven Rendezvous”). Tony also enjoyed stopping at the Five Brothers, a small grocery store out in the neighborhood that has a lunch counter known for its Cuban style coffee. Local workingmen gather there at 7 in the morning for the dark, thick, mud consistency espresso loaded with several heaping tablespoons of sugar and equal portions of steamed milk. What a great way to kick start your heart in the morning.

And of course, the Keys are not only famous for being one of America’s craziest and most beautiful places, but also for the Key Lime fruit which is used to flavor drinks, pastries, candy and above all else…the legendary Key Lime Pie. After much investigation and research on our part, we decided that the best Key Lime Pie in Key West is to be found at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Cafes. There are several in the area, and they all offer the same sweet but tart, flaky-crust piece of heaven. Sometimes we overindulged and ordered the Pie on a Stick version: a slice of Key Lime Pie, frozen on a popsicle stick, dipped in chocolate which then hardens. OH…MY…GOD. Believe us, it’s very, very good!

After thoroughly relaxing (and gaining more than a few pounds we suspect) it was time to head home to Playa Del Carmen. While we had been on vacation, two of our dearest friends, our almost daughter Sarah and her new husband Adam, were in Playa staying at our home and housesitting our many pets. After returning home we got to spend a couple of days with the “kids,” which was a wonderful way for us to end our spring break. Now it’s back to work, even if work means running a hotel and bar in paradise.

The other Tony and Cheri on “Leather Night” at Fantasy Fest
The other Tony and Cheri at Fantasy Fest

A typical Key West garden
A typical Key West garden

The garden at the Blue Heaven restaurant
The garden at the Blue Heaven restaurant

The Heron House
The Heron House

Michael McCloud at the Schooner Wharf Bar
Michael McCloud at the Schooner Wharf Bar

The crowd at Mallory Square waiting to watch the sunset
The crowd at Mallory Square waiting to watch the sunset

Chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick. Mmm Mmm Good.
Chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick

Sunset over the Atlantic
Sunset over the Atlantic

Cheri on the sailing vessel Western Union, dreaming of key lime pie
Cheri

Early in the morning at Five Brothers Coffee Shop
Five Brothers Coffee Shop

A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun, taken from Mallory Square
A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun, taken from Mallory Square.

By the way, HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!!! And if you’re in town tonight, be sure to stop by the hottest party in town, the Luna Blue Bar’s St. Paddy’s Day Party. 7pm to midnight.

St. Paddy's Day Party at the Luna Blue Bar

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A Quick Jaunt to Belize

Posted by Tony & Cheri on February 17, 2009

Early mornings on a long boat dock
Drinking coffee as the sun comes up
Lazy days spent napping in a big deck chair

Walking home underneath the stars
Music coming from a Front Street bar
Seems like a dream we live down here.

~Jerry Jeff Walker
singing about Ambergris Caye

A view of the Caribbean

Our dear friends Jan and Eric recently came from San Francisco to visit us. They have been to Playa several times over the years and as it was Jani’s 50th birthday, they wanted to celebrate by doing something different this time. We all decided a trip to the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize was just the thing.

Ambergris is one of the islands, or keys (spelled old English Style as “cayes”), which lay off the coast near the border of Belize and Mexico. A little jewel floating in the Caribbean Sea, it has one town, San Pedro, and a whole lot of natural beauty. It’s a perfect place to get away and relax for a few days.

We began our trip in the Big Bastard, the Chevy Express van which brought us to Mexico, driving four hours from Playa Del Carmen to the city of Chetumal, Mexico which sits on the border with Belize. The border between Belize and Mexico has the feel of a Bogart movie to it with dusty border town buildings on each side of a bridge which crosses a muddy river. Rusty trucks, aged cars and people carrying luggage wander back and forth over the bridge between the two countries, while hustlers and con men looking for a handout or a quick buck wait eagerly on both sides of the border.

Once we drove over the bridge into Belize we hit a snag. Belizean Immigration would not let our van in without the original vehicle title (we had a copy with us and kept the original back home in a safe). At first there was talk of sending us back to Mexico, but after a little bargaining it was agreed we could leave the Big Bastard in the Immigration office parking lot for a “daily fee.” Right. Money changed hands and off we went in a cab to the airport. Well…kind of like an airport. At least it had a runway. Kind of.

The Tropic Air office in Corozal, BelizeTropic Air (“The Official Airline of Belize”) runs a small 12-person propeller plane back and forth from the island several a times a day. The “airport” is a small hut on the outskirts of a poverty stricken town, Corozal, where you can buy tickets and leave packages for shipping to San Pedro. The “food court” is a wooden stand across the dirt road where you can get a cold beer and maybe some nachos or chips.

In a short time the plane landed on the small runway (at least it was paved…last time we flew Tropic Air it was a dirt road!). The plane pulls right up to the building, people jump on and in a few minutes is airborne over the flatlands of Corozal. Fifteen minutes later the plane is over the blue waters of the Caribbean and heading in for a landing on Ambergris Caye.

Once on the ground in Ambergris we headed for the hotel. We had booked at a Bed and Breakfast called Changes in Latitudes. It had high marks on Tripadvisor and sent us friendly emails in response to our questions. It turned out we had made an excellent choice.
Changes in Latitudes“Changes…” reminded us of our own Luna Blue Hotel in many, many ways. It was very small (only six rooms) with a central common area of bougainvilleas, plants, hammocks and chairs. They even had Radio Margaritaville playing over the hotel speakers…just like home! The rooms were small and tropical island funky which suited all of us just fine. But best of all were the owners. Renita and Cindy had moved to Belize from the States a few years ago to start a new life much as we had and created their own adorable little tropical getaway. They were friendly and welcoming. And it turned out that Renita, who was in charge of breakfast each day, was a fantastic cook. A perfect example of her skills was the banana pancakes made from scratch and covered with a homemade caramel sauce. OH….MY….GOD! We cannot recommend Changes in Latitude Bed and Breakfast highly enough.

The next couple of days seem like a soft and relaxing blur. There was Renita’s breakfast each morning of course. And incredible Cuban coffee espresso shots with sweetened condensed milk at a little place called Mojitos Cuban Café. And as “Changes” offers free use of the pool at the Belize Yacht Club right next door, there was plenty of time spent snoozing on loungers, swimming, or sitting at the swim up bar. We rented a golf cart and cruised San Pedro’s three …count ‘em… three… streets and drove around the beautiful jungle roads outside of town. For three days we wandered about, went sightseeing, shopped, strolled on the beach, swam and ate. Boy, did we eat. Eric at the swim up bar

On Renita’s suggestion we went to a number of different restaurants…all them excellent. The favorite of our little group was the Wild Mango’s Café. Remember that the four of us are all from San Francisco, one of the restaurant capitals of the world, and as such we can be pretty demanding about our food. Yet we all agree Wild Mango’s presented as good a meal as we had seen back home, and served on a deck overlooking the Caribbean. Hard to beat. And later in the evening we would take the golf cart and wander down dirt roads to a little place called Casa Picasso for coffee, rum and an unbelievable dessert named “Cracked Coconut,” a molded chocolate shell covered in toasted coconut and filled with coconut ice cream. We might have made that trek more than once. 😉

On Jan’s birthday we went out to the edge of the jungle to a delightful restaurant called Hidden Treasure. And boy, is it. Open air with a palapa roof, it was lit by candles and torches. It was like one of those Survivor episodes where the winner of a challenge gets sent to some exotic place for a banquet. Jan said it was a great way to turn 50.

Cheri, Tony, Jan & EricWe had hoped to either get over to Shark Ray Alley, a great snorkeling spot where you can swim among harmless nurse sharks and rays, or maybe get in a dive on the reef while we were there. However the day we planned for such fun ended up being a windy rain day…so it was reading in the hammock instead. Not so bad.

Ambergris was certainly bigger than the last time we were there several years ago. Condos are being built left and right, and the old dirt roads are now paved and have a fair amount of traffic. Yet the island retains its sweet Caribbean charm, and the people are as friendly as ever. Every one seems to say hello; everyone seems to have a smile.

Our last night on the island the four of us went out searching for some Belizean Rum. Belize is very strict about its liqueur. You can only get beer made in Belize (Belikin), and most booze is heavily taxed so that alcohol from other countries is very, very expensive. As one local jokingly told us: “It’s easier to get a brick of cocaine onto the island than a six pack of Budweiser”! However the rum made in Belize is high quality, and Eric, being a bit of a rum connoisseur, wanted to get some of the local hooch.

We went to a store recommended by Renita. When we got there we found the local rum sold in various ages and proofs ranging from a clear moonshine-like form of pure cane alcohol to more subtly aged rum. The good stuff is sold under the name of One Barrel or, if appropriately aged, Five Barrel. The young man running the store that night was named LeRoi and seemed happy for the company. He was anxious to pour samples of whatever needed to be tasted. He chatted with us about where we were from and wanted to know if we liked his island home. We assured him we did.

Eric & LeRoi, after switching hatsAs we were making our purchases, Tony noticed that LeRoi was wearing a One Barrel Rum baseball cap. He pointed it out to Eric who always wears ball caps. When Tony asked where we could buy one, LeRoi took the hat off gave it to us. Eric immediately put it on and gave LeRoi his own Hermosa Beach hat in exchange. We took pictures of the two guys with their new headgear. Everybody laughed and thought this was great fun. LeRoi insisted that we take his email and send him a copy of the picture so that when his wife wanted to know why he came home with a different hat on than he left with, he’d have proof of his story!

The next day with hugs and promises to write we bid the girls of Changes in Latitude goodbye and headed home. A Tropic Air plane took us back to the mainland where we picked up the Big Bastard and headed back into Mexico.

On the way home we decided to make a stop for lunch at Lake Bacalar, a natural lake next to the ocean about three hours south of Playa del Carmen. Lake Bacalar is known as the Lake of Seven Colors. Its expansive waters contain multiple shades of blues and greens reflecting the sky and the jungle around it. Some parts of the water are deep blue, some are pale, and some contain multiple shadings. Words can’t describe it. We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Laguna Bacalar. Structured like a funky old 50s-style motel, it sits on multiple levels on the hills overlooking the blue water below. We had a great Mexican lunch at a decent price and then wandered the grounds awhile admiring the view before heading home.

When we moved to Caribbean Mexico is was our hope and intent that we wouldn’t be held captive in just one place. We love Playa del Carmen, but the Caribbean Sea is a big front yard and borders many magical places that have a strong draw for us. Last year it was Jamaica. This year it was Belize. And of course there’s still much of Mexico we haven’t seen yet. The journey continues.

Here are a few more photos from our trip:

Some local school girls walking home on the beach
Girls on their way to school

The Mayan Princess, and looking out at the Caribbean
Mayan Princess

Tony looks amazingly like his shirt, don’t you think?
Tony looking like his t-shirt

Renita, Cheri, Tony, Eric & Jan -saying goodbye at Changes in Latitudes
Saying goodbye at Changes in Latitudes...Renita, Cheri, Tony, Eric & Jan

Beautiful Lake Bacalar
Lake Bacalar

The view from the Belize Yacht Club
The view from the Belize Yacht Club

Changes in Latitudes
The sign at Changes in Latitudes

San Pedro, Belize, seen from the airplane
San Pedro seen from the air

The Caribbean reflected in Tony’s glasses
The Caribbean reflected

Looking out at the Caribbean
Catamaran & Palm

A typical San Pedro view
A view of the Caribbean

Posted in Living the Dream, The Love of Travel, Trip Report | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Christmas by the Bay

Posted by Tony & Cheri on December 16, 2008

“It’s Christmas by the Bay, time to celebrate in a San Francisco way.”
~Tim Hockenberry

The holiday tree in Union Square, San FranciscoWe spent thirty years in San Francisco, and even though we now live in Mexico, we still return to California as often as we can to see family, friends and the beauty of one of the world’s truly great cities. And since that beauty is enhanced when the holiday season comes around, we decided a little early December trip was in order to help us get in the Christmas spirit. Here is a trip report about our “Christmas by the Bay.”

As always, we stayed at the Chancellor Hotel. It’s an old style San Franciscan hotel, built in the early 1900’s, and owned by the same family for years. It sits right at the corner of Union Square, the heart of the shopping district. It is comfortable, with wonderful service from a dedicated staff which has been there for a long time (some for as much as twenty years). We always get a room on the street side. From our window we could see the City’s official holiday tree, the ice skating rink and the various stores decorations. At night we would leave our window open to hear the clickety-clack of the cable cars that run past the front of the hotel and the street musicians below playing Christmas carols.

Once we got to the Bay Area we had some personal stuff to take care of. Middle age brings a fair amount of doctors poking and probing on occasion. However it turned out all was well and a clean bill of health was issued. Yay!

Then it was a couple of days visiting family up in Sacramento. We saw Cheri’s mom’s new house (of which she is very proud) and got to hang out with the rest of the family, including Cheri’s brothers, sister & nephews. When we first left San Francisco and started our long drive to Mexico, Cheri’s family up in Sacramento took us in for a few nights so we could get our bearings. It always feels a little like home away from home when we go back to visit, but we wish they would come to Mexico and visit more often. Sadly, our son Chris couldn’t join us as he was in the middle of a faculty presentation for his Master’s Degree in Digital Media down in San Diego. But there were lots of phone calls and birthday wishes (he turned 26 on December 6th!).

Tony with poet Gary SnyderWhen we got back to San Francisco we tried to make the most of our visit, experiencing as many of the unusual and fascinating places and things the Bay Area has to offer as we could. Here are some of the fun things we did:

….We went to a book reading by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder. Snyder is a renaissance man. He has by turns been a scholar of Chinese and Japanese literature and art, a logger, a fire lookout in national forests, a university professor, a sailor in the merchant marine, Chair of California Arts Council, an adamant spokesman for the environment and the author of a couple dozen books of poetry. On this evening Snyder was talking about his friendship with the late Beat poet and icon, Allen Ginsberg, and reading from a recently published collection of their correspondence. At 78 Snyder still dominated the room with the power of his voice, his intelligence and his personality. He was warm, funny and friendly, taking time to sign books and chat with the crowd of about fifty who came to see him. It was a very special evening with a true national treasure.

…We attended an afternoon Christmas concert at Grace Cathedral featuring the Cathedral’s Men and Boys Choirs. Grace Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic structure of stone and space and is one of our favorite places to have a few minutes of peace in the middle of the City. The Choirs sang Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a string quartet and the church’s massive pipe organ. The sounds echoed around the candlelit church as the day’s final rays of sunlight shone through the giant stained glass windows above us. It was a wonderful way to start the holiday season.

Our good friends Jan & Eric…We went to a tree trimming party at the home of our dear friends Jan and Eric. They are about as perfect a couple as you ever want to meet. They are smart, funny and loving to each other and to their friends. They are also gourmet cooks and have made their small Russian Hill apartment our favorite restaurant in San Francisco. That night there was great wine (Eric’s a wine connoisseur …or snob as we tell him) terrific food (baked panko- and cayenne pepper-encrusted prawns among many other goodies) and old friends gathered about the tree in the living room telling new stories and re-telling old ones all night long. Thank you guys. It was a delight.

…We went to restaurants. Lots of restaurants! It being San Francisco we of course ate waaaayyy too much. This trip we discovered some new treasures. We ate at Brenda’s French Soul Food Restaurant on Polk near Eddy, a miniscule dining room serving the best Creole cooking outside of New Orleans French Quarter. We had the Andouille Sausage and Crawfish bread pudding as well as the beignet assortment. We also ate at Puccini & Pinetti on Ellis Street, a warm, modern Italian eatery with a great bar and unusual menu. We loved the filet set in a bed of warm spinach with cherries and gorgonzola. Of course we hit some old favorites including Firenze by Night on Stockton. Sergio has made his classic Italian restaurant a must for visitors and home to many locals. It’s the best pasta in town. We also ate pretty regularly at Luques which is in the Chancellor Hotel. They have wonderful breakfasts and afternoon snacks with a Cajun flavor. One night we had a North Beach Pizza (our favorite pizza in all the world!) delivered to our room. One afternoon we indulged in Dim Sum (Chinese Tea Lunch) at Yank Sing. Oh, and In -N Out Burgers. And Pasta Pomodoro in Noe Valley, our old neighborhood. And Egg Nog Lattes at Starbucks. And hotdogs from the Stanley Steamer Cart sitting beside the skating rink. And don’t forget Ghirardelli chocolate. The list goes on and on. We are going on a diet the minute we get home.

Entrance to the Green Gulch Zen Center…We went to the Actor’s Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) for their annual musical production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They stage it every year and it has become, along with the Ballet’s Nutcracker, a San Francisco performance tradition. It is a close call as to which is more adorable, the kids in the production in their 18th Century costumes or the little ones in ties and frilly dresses for a special evening out with Mom and Dad, or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad (it is San Francisco, after all). Of course everyone knows the story, and by the time Tiny Tim calls out “God bless us everyone” the whole place was cheering and clapping with the Christmas spirit. No Scrooges allowed! We went home through the streets to the hotel with big smiles.

…Tony went to the Green Gulch Zen Center to meditate and have a private interview with Roshi Reb Anderson. The Zen Center sits near Mount Tamalpais in Marin, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. A small Buddhist community lives and farms there in a fog-covered valley filled with towering Eucalyptus trees. It is a place of absolutely magical physical beauty. Tenshin Roshi (Tenshin is Mr. Anderson’s Buddhist name, and Roshi means ancient or wise teacher) is the head Dharma instructor at the center. Tenshin Roshi’s teachings mean a lot to Tony, and he was greatly honored to be able to spend some time with this special person.

…We experienced Christmas San Francisco style. There were lights and giant decorated trees in Union Square, in front of the Bank of America building and at City Hall. The Embarcadero Buildings were, as always, outlined in lights like giant presents. There were choir groups singing carols across from the hotel at night (“Merry Christmas San Francisco” they shouted). The legendary cable cars were decorated with wreaths and greenery. Macys’ windows were filled with kittens and puppies up for adoption from the SPCA. And on our last night we experienced an “only in San Francisco” event…Santarchy! Early Morning in Muir WoodsThink Santa and Anarchy and you have your first clue. The word went out over the internet and hundreds of people, mostly young, showed up downtown dressed like Santa in some fashion. There were traditional white bearded Santas, Viking helmeted Santas, Mexican masked wrestling Santas, pretty girls barely dressed as Frederick’s of Hollywood Santas, and even biker Santas on motorcycles completely covered in Christmas tree lights. It was a internet-sponsored gathering combined with a parade and a bar crawl (“Santa needs Beer!!” was the cry of the evening). A great time was had by both the participants and the observers. San Francisco is still a wonder!

…We went early one morning to hike the trails in Muir Woods, a national monument located in Marin. Muir Woods is a protected forest of old growth redwood trees. The park has canyons, streams, wildlife and hiking trails all spread for miles beneath a dazzling canopy of evergreen. We have always loved hiking there, particularly in the early morning before the tour buses arrive. At that time of day the forest is perfectly still, with no sound except the water tumbling over rocks, the wind in the high branches and the occasional caw of a crow. Walking beneath the gigantic redwoods makes one feel insignificant and a part of the natural setting all at the same time. After our hike we emerged from the woods into the crisp cold air with a sense of renewal, which is what nature is all about we guess.

…We also experienced one more San Francisco tradition, one we wish would disappear: homeless people living and sleeping on the street. Some are poor, some are mentally ill, some are addicted to drugs or alcohol. All are cold, hungry, sick and alone. There aren’t enough shelters to help, and some wouldn’t go to the shelters even if there was room because they are afraid of being locked up or abused. So they beg on the street and live in doorways, alleys or in camps which materialize at night in dead end streets and under freeways. We wish there was an answer we could give, some help we could offer, but sometimes the problem seems too big and too complex. So this year, as in years past we made a small gesture by joining San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll’s Untied Way. For a full explanation of how you can join the Untied Way in your town, please read Mr. Carroll’s column which is set forth below. It has been part of our Christmas for a couple of years now, and we hope it can be part of yours too.

A San Francisco traditionFinally it was time to go home…and we were glad. It was a great trip. We love The City and always will, but we missed our little home in the tropics, we missed our Mexican street cats and dogs, we missed our friends and the folks who work for us. And we missed being warm!!! So we are happy to be home now in Mexico and are getting ready for Christmas here. We will blog again soon about our holiday plans down here at the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar on the edge of the Caribbean. In the meantime, Happy Holidays Everyone.

Jon Carroll San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, December 7, 2006

The sleigh bells are tinkling, if you happen to live in a heavily sleighed area, and the snow is falling (according to reliable rumors), and avatars of Santa Claus are coming to town, indeed have already arrived in town, as the gift-giving giant SanClauInc (formerly Santa Claus’ Elf Factory) works out its naughty-nice ratios adjusted for morality deflation.

Which means it’s time again for the Untied Way. The Untied Way is a nontraditional charity. It has no officers, no headquarters, no brochures, no regional offices and no guidelines. It is not a tax-deductible organization because it is not an organization at all. It issues no receipts, nor do letters come in the mail thanking you for your generous contribution.

The Untied Way does not have a Web site. The Untied Way does not sponsor a fun run, a masked ball, a gourmet dinner, a silent auction, a noisy auction, a turtle race or a runway show. It does not have buttons, badges or stickers. It will not send you address labels in the mail. The Untied Way has no overhead at all, and 100 percent of its donations go directly to those in need.

The Untied Way supports and embraces all other charities. The Untied Way urges you to give generously to all of them, or the ones you always give to, or maybe some new ones. The Untied Way exists to care for those people who, as is so often said, “fall through the cracks.” The Untied Way is all about the cracks.

The Untied Way is not so much an organization as an idea. Really, it’s hardly an idea — it’s really more of a plan. Untied Way volunteers follow the plan. Only they know how well the plan works; only they can say what benefits are derived. Untied Way volunteers are self-selected; no records are kept. Untied Way volunteers are not bonded, carry no special identification and do not solicit funds. Untied Way volunteers give money away. That’s it.

Here’s how it works. This is the age of ATMs, so the ATM is the centerpiece of the Untied Way. Go to your ATM and take out some money. How much money is entirely your business, but the sum should be sufficient for you to notice its absence. It shouldn’t hurt, but maybe it should pinch a little.

Take your money to an area of town where there are people who seek funds from passing strangers. Coincidentally, BART serves many of these areas, the result of an unprecedented BART-Untied Way collaboration, of which BART is unaware. Then you take your fistful of $20 bills and stroll down the avenue. When someone asks you for money, you give him $20. You repeat this until you are out of $20 bills. You are now an official Untied Way volunteer and are entitled to all the rights and privileges adhering thereto, including perhaps a no-host ride on a monorail back to your home.

You might expect gratitude from your clients, but you may not get it. Some of your clients may not process the denomination of the contribution, and therefore your special virtue will go unremarked. Sometimes, alas, your clients will say insulting or incomprehensible things to you. Other times, they may be overly grateful, and follow you down the street asking in stentorian tones for God to bless you. The Untied Way is not a particularly comfortable charity.

Sometimes people ask: Won’t the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won’t they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.

Sometimes people ask: Are the Untied Way clients worthy of these donations? What does “worthy” mean? How much suffering would you want them to have? How much virtue do you feel is appropriate? It’s like this: You can spend your time determining the eligibility of clients, asking them to fill out questionnaires and describe what other kinds of financial assistance they are receiving, or you can give them money and move on. The second way is more efficient.

It is the assumption of the Untied Way that people on the streets who ask for money need the money. It is not an occupation that people aspire to. The people on the streets are not middle managers seeking to supplement their incomes. They need money, and you have money. Maybe they are reduced to asking for money because they made foolish choices, but again: There but for the grace of God go you.

Here is a way to help the underserved in your community and get a heart-healthy walk at the same time. If your community does not have underserved people, other communities will lend you theirs.

Posted in Activities, Trip Report | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

What a Long, Strange Trip it Has Been

Posted by Tony & Cheri on August 27, 2008

Three years ago today we pulled up in front of the Hotel Zanzibar in the Big Bastard, our dream of living in paradise waiting to unfold. We brought with us three cats, an English bulldog and a van full of things we thought we couldn’t live without. (To read our trip report of that journey, click here.) Tony & CheriNow here we are three years later. The Zanzibar is now the Luna Blue; two of our old cats have passed on; and many of the things we thought we couldn’t live without have never been unpacked. And life here south of the border continues to be a series of surprises and amazements.

We came to Mexico with certain expectations. Some of those expectations ended up dashed on the rocks of reality, but some of them were fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams. On the plus side, the little backpacker hotel that we took over that day became a huge success. When we bought the Hotel Zanzibar, it was barely making a profit. When we left for Mexico, Cheri admonished us both that we would have to be very careful with our spending and pointed out that we wouldn’t be able to afford even such luxuries as paper towels. This year the Luna Blue Hotel & Garden closed out high season occupancy at 99%. We still laugh about the paper towels. 🙂

Tony & CheriDuring our trip to sign the papers for the hotel in February of 2005, we bought a small place in Paamul. We envisioned mornings swimming and kayaking in the Caribbean and then wandering into the hotel mid-day. As it happened, we never spent a single night there and ended up selling the place almost three years later. Turns out we were far busier than we ever imagined, and even the short commute to Paamul was way too long to make sense to us. Not to mention the cleanup required there after Hurricane Emily and later Hurricane Wilma. Luckily, it was the only really big mistake we made along the way.

Life in Playa was quite different in early 2005 than it is today. On our trip to sign the papers in February of that year, one of the questions we struggled with was: where would we find good fruits and vegetables? And what about pet food? At the time there were only a couple of supermarkets in town and their selections were very limited. So our plan at the time was to drive to Costco in Cancun every week with a cooler and stock up. When Walmart came to town, life changed drastically. It’s funny, we never set foot in a Walmart in the States; down here we can’t live without it. On its heels came Mega. Soon afterwards we were spending far less time traveling from store to store to find the most basic needs. Life sure became easier at that point.

Tony & CheriAnother change in our lives over these past three years has been our self-sufficiency in matters of basic housing. Back in the US, if we had the smallest leak under the sink, we called a plumber. We could change our own light bulbs, but any problem bigger than that required an expert. All we knew was the certainty than when you turned the tap, water came out and when you flipped the switch, lights came on. It was magic to us. In Mexico, we found out that things weren’t so certain, and that the magic didn’t always work.

Since moving to Mexico, we’ve had to become our own magicians. We’ve installed our own ceiling fans and air conditioners, learned the intricacies of wiring and plumbing and understand where water comes from and where to get it when it doesn’t. We’ve hauled a water tank to the top of our hotel with ropes and pulleys and soldered broken pipes in the middle of pouring rain. We’ve even had the “joy” of shoveling out the sewage trap both at home and in the hotel. We sure never did that in the States!

The bureaucracy of Mexico’s government was something else we had heard about but weren’t quite prepared for three years ago. You can read about the corruption, but you can’t really appreciate it until you have to live with it every day. Whether or not to pay bribes, called mordidas (literally “little bite”), is a problem everyone faces down here–Mexican and expat alike. The system built on offering little “gifts” runs against everything Americans are used to, i.e., direct access to a somewhat efficient and honest government. The prevalence of bribery here has frustrated us and sometimes scared us, but other times it has been a welcome opportunity to get things accomplished in a relatively quick and easy fashion. Good or bad, it’s something that is now just part of life in paradise.

In the past three years we’ve had plenty of ups and downs. During that time, we survived the largest hurricane in history, months of hurricane relief in Mahahual, an architect who stole lots of money from us, the loss of three pets, several large construction projects, and the extra tortilla weight each of us found along the way. And sadly, we’ve been disappointed by some people we thought to be our friends.

Tony & CheriBut on the plus side, overwhelmingly the people we have met on our journey have been good to us and in many cases as anxious to see us succeed as we were ourselves. We’ve made several very good friendships, learned a lot about living in another culture, adopted three new pets from the streets, found that we were tougher than we ever imagined, and managed not to strangle each other even when the stress was more than we thought we could bear. And life here is never boring, as no two days are ever alike.

We don’t get to the beach nearly as much as we thought we would, our Spanish still leaves a lot to be desired, and we still struggle with the mañana attitude sometimes. But the past three years have been an adventure we wouldn’t have traded for anything the world. To those of you who have encouraged us along the way and have seen us through some of the low points, thanks from the bottom of our hearts. We’re looking forward to more adventures and maybe…just maybe…we’ll finally find some time to really enjoy this magical place we call home.

Tony & Cheri

P.S. Happy birthday, Don. You’re the best brother (& brother in law) one could ever wish for.

P.P.S. VOTE OBAMA IN 2008!!!

Posted in Living the Dream, Trip Report | Tagged: , , , , | 10 Comments »

A Mexican Tradition

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 10, 2008

Last Saturday night Tony and a few friends went to Cancun to see one of the world’s great matadors in a special bullfighting event. As a number of people, both in person and on the internet have expressed to us an interest in the traditions and practice of bullfighting, we decided to post Tony’s review of the evening.

We know that many people are strongly opposed to bullfighting. We respect those views and ask that you skip this blog entry if you feel it will upset you. It’s not our intention to offend but simply to inform those who are curious about this tradition.

Bullfighting is part of Mexico’s heritage and culture, and in many ways says much about the country. We hope this little essay may add to your understanding of this wonderful place we call home.

Wearing his brilliant suit of lights, Joselito strode into a half filled arena in Cancun last Saturday night accompanied by cheers and the occasional female scream. The thirty-eight year old matador is as well known in his home country of Spain for his rock star looks and attitude as he is for fighting bulls, and a number of young ladies in the audience voiced their approval at his appearance. Slight of build and sporting a Euro-hip spiky hair style above the traditional matador’s “pig tail,” Joselito exuded confidence as he led his entourage of assistants, bandilleros and picadors into the ring.

Cancun is not part of the regular bullfighting circuit in Mexico, and the appearance of a world class matador is a special event. Unfortunately this event had been twice rescheduled due to illness of the matador. The lack of public announcement of the changing dates (no money for additional advertising was likely) may have accounted for the small turnout. Yet, the experienced bullfighter played to the crowd from the start, acting as if he were in the packed Plaza in Madrid instead of Cancun’s small ring. He waved, smiled, and flirted with the crowd as he accepted their applause.

Instead of the traditional corrida of three matadors fighting two bulls each, the evening belonged only to Joselito who would fight four bulls in succession. He quickly acknowledged the judges and moved into the center of the ring with two assistants as the first bull was released. The bull was good sized and aggressive. Unlike many matadors in Mexico Joselito took the major role in the initial running of the bull through the ring. When the bull chased the capes of the assistant matadors, he watched intently. When the bull came towards him he would proceed to a number of dramatic veronicas, passing the bull through the large cape he held with a flourish that had the crowd screaming ‘Ole” with each pass. He would follow this pattern throughout the evening.

After satisfying himself that he was familiar with the bull’s movements, he called for the lance carrying, horse back mounted Picador to enter the ring. The bull charged, striking the heavy padding which surrounds horse and rider. The Picador placed the tip of his lance into the heavy neck muscle of the bull, which showing his strength, refused to back away but instead lifted the horse almost throwing it and the Picador to the ground until distracted by the Matadors assistants. Generally the Picador will invite more charges with resulting strikes from the lance to weaken the bull’s neck muscles and lessen the danger to the Matador. Often a second Picador will be called in to meet the bull. However this evening after the one well placed lance, Joselito waived the Picador out. The crowd loudly showed their appreciation of his bravery. Then the Picador rode out of the ring to great whistling (boos). The Picador is always they object of derision in a bullfight as he fights from horseback covered in padding. He is the cowardly clown as opposed to the heroic matador.

Next came the placing of Bandarillas, or two foot long barbed sticks. The bandarillas must be placed in the “hump” of the bulls neck muscle and must be thrown by reaching over the horns of the charging bull before leaping and twisting out of the way! Many matadors employ specialists in this art known Bandarilleros to place the darts. However some Matadors do it themselves as Joselito did in this fight. His smaller stature was a disadvantage in reaching up and over the horns but he did it beautifully twice, each time barely escaping the oncoming animal.

Now came the final of the three parts of a bullfight (Picadors, bandarillaros, and the matador) called the tercio de muerte. Joselito took the small red cape know as the muleta and the ceremonial sword used to spread and hold the cape and faced the bull. He proceeded through a number of dramatic passes and movements to show his control of the animal. The matador stood his ground, and unlike some bullfighters I have seen, showed his expertise and bravery by refusing to shuffle his feet and change his position to adjust to the bull’s charge.

Joselito made the same commitment to the meeting between man and animal that he asked of the bull. Once placed in motion neither deviated from the path or place they chose. As a result the bull came dangerously close to the man several times and brought the crowd to its feet again and again.

After showing his mastery, Joselito took the curved killing sword and faced his opponent. The killing of the bull is extremely dangerous for the matador. He must charge directly at the bull, delivering the sword thrust between the horns and down into the neck where it will sever the aorta. In order to do this he must lower the muleta as he charges so that the bull, following the cape with its eyes, lowers its head. If this is not timed perfectly, or if the bull instead charges with the head up, the matador is running into the oncoming horns.

Joselito performed the kill perfectly with a single stroke. As the bull swayed in its death throes, Joselito waived his assistants away and stood alone close to the bull honoring it as it collapsed in death. The crowd rose to its feet.

The judges who “grade” the bullfight awarded only one trophy, an ear. They could have awarded both ears or ears and the tail (for a perfect fight) or no trophy at all. The fight deserved an award of two ears at least. However the local judges may have wished to show they were not dazzled by the celebrity of their visitor from Spain and attempted to act nonchalantly in the first fight of the evening. The ear was cut and presented to Joselito who took the traditional promenade around the ring while the bull was taken away by a team of horses.

The next fight proceeded immediately. Again Joselito passed the bull with a series of beautiful veronicas. Again he limited a single Picador to one thrust of the lance, and again he placed the Bandarillas himself. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens the bull was not the equal of the matador. The animal in this fight tired quickly and was not aggressive, Such an animal is the true test of a bullfighter’s skill. Joselito met that challenge by slowly working the bull with the muleta to allow the animal to recover some strength and to build its confidence. He worked closer and closer to the horns to provoke the bull to charge.

Sadly, some of the small crowd in Cancun did not appreciate such work and continually rained whistling boos down upon Joselito. The spectators failed to understand that the quiet moments like the ones provided by this fight can require the greatest skills and be the most dangerous for the matador. They would be shown why before the evening was finished.

After a suitable time with the cape, Joselito again dispatched the bull with the killing sword. No trophies were awarded despite the excellent effort by Joselito with a substandard bull.

The third fight proceeded as the others. The bull was large and full of fight. Strangely its horns did not point forward as those of most fighting bulls but curved upwards. This slight difference in breeding may have saved Joselito’s life.

In this fight the Picador badly placed the lance, driving it too deeply into the bull causing severe bleeding. By the time Joselito began to work the bull with the cape it became obvious the bull was badly injured. The bull moved slowly and did not charge or respond to the cape. Since the bull sees movement (not the color red as is popularly believed), Joselito stepped closer and closer to the bull to allow it to focus on the moving cape. Suddenly without warning, the injured bull charged not the cape, but the matador.

The bull lifted Joselito upon its horns and tossed him into the air, catching him and tossing him again. The slight man fell to the ground at the bull’s feet and the animal attempted to drive the horns into the figure beneath him. However the strange upward curve of the horns kept the points from hitting home. The bull then stomped the earth about Joselito trying to strike him with its hooves.

As Joselito rolled into a ball and tried to cover his head, the assistant matadors surrounded the bull and tried to get it to move away. One even bravely, perhaps stupidly grabbed the bull’s tail and pulled as if he could physically drag the 1500 pounds or more of the wild animal away from prone bullfighter. As the bull circled above him Joselito managed to roll from beneath the bull and escape.

Joselito was obviously hurt. He attempted to pick up his sword but dropped it. When he finally was able to hold it he walked to the center of the ring with a limp on his right side. He was covered in dirt and the blood of the bull from head to toe. He refused medical attention but instead proceeded to finish the fight. He attempted to kill the bull but was unable to place the sword in two tries. Each time the weight of the charging bull pulled the sword from his hand and sent it into the air. It was obvious he was having difficulty with his right hand. The crowd began to boo loudly despite the injury.

On the third attempt he was able to drive the sword into the bull’s neck but not fatally killing it. The animal collapsed but did not die. Usually in this situation a special member of the Bullring comes forward with a sharp instrument which is then used to severe the spinal chord, quickly ending the bull’s life. However Joselito himself took the new blade, and killed the animal himself. It was an act of humility before the crowd and the bull that had nearly killed him.

The final fight of the evening was a repeat of the first one. The magnificent bull was full of energy, possibly more energy than Joselito at this point. The matador was obviously injured by the previous bull. He limped and was favoring his right arm. He did not place the Bandarillos himself, and rested on a chair until it was time for him to face the last bull. However despite his exhaustion and injury he held nothing back. He and the bull danced through an incredible series of passes and movements. At one point he literally had the bull circling him so closely that their bodies were touching as the bull passed continuously around him. It was a virtuoso performance. When it came time, he killed the bull quickly and skillfully. He was awarded two ears by the judges.

By the time Joselito was carried on the shoulders of his friends around the ring for his final promenade the crowd had sadly thinned out. Those aficionados and fans who remained cheered wildly. Men tossed hats and women threw bouquets of roses. I heard an elderly white haired gentleman sitting behind me sum up Joselito’s evening quite well. “Muy Elegante,” he said softly as the matador passed beneath us and out of the ring.” Muy Elegante.”

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Another Stamp in Our Passports….Jamaica, Mon

Posted by Tony & Cheri on January 21, 2008

Our front porch looking at the Caribbean Sea from the Country Country HotelWe have a big front yard: 1,063,000 square miles of beautiful crystal clear blue water splashing up against exotic lands and surrounding fabled islands. We call our front yard the Caribbean Sea, and a few weeks ago we took some time off from work to do a little exploring in it. Needing a break and a lot of rest, we wanted to go someplace new…Jamaica. We decided to go to Negril, which has a reputation for being relaxed, laid back and sensuous. Its seven miles of beaches, tropical rainforests and the promise of a new beach culture of Rasta and rum appealed to us.

Jamaica lies directly to the west of Playa Del Carmen. If your eyes were strong enough you could see it on a clear day. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get there from here. There are no direct flights to Jamaica from Playa. We had to fly to Miami and then to Jamaica, doing it in reverse on the way home. The funny and sad part was that each time we flew over Cuba, America’s nearest tropical neighbor. It seemed we could almost touch it as we flew by but were not allowed to stop for a visit. So strange.

Cottage at the Country Country Hotel in Negril, JamaicaWe landed in Montego Bay and were met by the hotel manager Domaine and Ernie, the hotel driver (more on Ernie later). They whisked us off for the hour and a half drive to Negril. We chose Country Country Hotel for our stay, and they treated us like VIPs since we were fellow hotel owners. We certainly learned a lot about hospitality from them. We chose Country Country because it seemed in our research to be a lot like our own Luna Blue Hotel & Garden. Our choice was perfect. The hotel is situated in the center of the Seven Mile Beach. The property has a narrow, clean beach with chairs and umbrellas and then proceeds back through walkways and gardens. Nestled among the garden are cottages and buildings with multiple units. Some have porches, some have balconies. The cottages are all wooden with brightly painted exteriors. The rooms are large, well furnished and spotlessly clean. The staff couldn’t have been nicer or friendlier.

However our first impression of the famous Seven Mile Beach was one of disappointment. We have been spoiled by living next to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world here in Caribbean Mexico. Our white sand and clear water can’t be beat. So while Negril’s beaches were very pretty, they didn’t take our breath away. The sand is grittier and the beaches less well tended than the ones we were used to. Some beachfront properties rake the beach in the morning (nice) but then leave any small trash on the edge of the water to be washed away (not so nice). Still it is a beautiful tropical seashore.

A typical Jamaican storefrontAs we walked along the beach we found it lined with hotels. The all-inclusives tend to be at the south end and the smaller places extend north from the central area. Just about every hotel had chairs and umbrellas for their guests to use and most had some sort of beach bar or restaurant. Even where there is a space with no hotel you will find bars, restaurants, and little shops. Sometimes the shops are well established with a permanent building, sometimes they are just a wooden lean-to, or even just a few planks of wood supported on chairs. And even when you are not by a “store” you won’t be far from the regular parade of locals walking the beach and hawking their wares, from juices, to massages, to cigarettes, and the ever present ganja.

We had heard about the heavy handed hustle of Jamaica and were prepared for an onslaught of various sales pitches from the locals. However, that turned out not to be the case. Certainly everybody wanted us to stop and “just look.” From our experiences in other third world countries we knew that honesty and directness was the right response. If we didn’t want to shop we would not ignore the person calling to us, but would stop, explain we weren’t buying today, wish them well, and then proceed. The response was always a polite “thank you.” We hear many people complain about the street hustle in Playa and other Latin/Caribbean countries as if it were a personal assault. The truth is, the people of the third world know with certainty that any vacationer from North America has more money and more luxury than those in the south will ever dream of having. The $10 dollar bracelet bought from a vendor will make an actual difference in the life of that local person. So we don’t mind being asked. We can always say no. And sometimes we can say yes.

Ganja, mon, ganjaThe most common “sales” item was ganja, the legendary marijuana of Jamaica. Practically every local you pass on the beach quietly asks if you are interested. And each offer comes with the absolute guarantee that the seller has exclusive access to the best, purest and most potent “bud” on the island. As neither of us are smokers we couldn’t verify any of these claims, but from the smell the claims could easily be believed. Ganja smoke is everywhere is Negril. Cab drivers, tour guides, and shopkeepers will casually fire up a giant spliff without concern. The air in Negril is permeated by the smell of ganja. Even the most dedicated non-smoker ends up with a pleasant contact high.

Another popular souvenir for sale appeared to be…sex. We had heard the stories about “Rent a Rasta” or “Rastatutes:” local men who would offer companionship and sex to foreign women travelers in exchange for financial favors or gifts. We did see a number of middle aged and older single white women in the company of young, black local men. And in fact, near us in the hotel were two older, somewhat dowdy looking American women who would each night return to the hotel with a different young local man. They would then proceed to drink, smoke and laugh on their porch until the three of them retired for the night. After a few days, we began to refer to them as “the Stellas” (as in “gets her groove back.”). Apparently the Jamaican steel industry has not suffered a recession.

In addition to being the place to buy sex, drugs and pre-fab “handicrafts,” the beach is also where you go to eat, drink and be entertained. Food at the restaurants in Negril ranged from basic Americanized tourist food to fantastic jerk (smoked and spiced chicken and pork). The tourist stuff could be pretty bad with food which was bland versions of basic chain restaurant menus at three times the price. It’s not all bad. The burgers are pretty good at Margaritaville and the Jimmy’s Perfect Margarita is a killer. But those are the exceptions.

Tony and a Jamaican Beauty, in 'Tony's Hut' bar We are huge Jimmy Buffett fans. Parrotheads and proud of it. We listen to the CD’s, read the books, wear the t-shirts and go to the concerts. And of course we stay tuned to the internet radio station. We even like some of the Margaritaville restaurants. The one in New Orleans is a French Quarter hangout for us. However, the Negril Margaritaville had not much personality and nothing to make you feel you were in Jamaica as opposed to Orlando. We sat in Margaritaville and asked ourselves “If Jimmy had a day to hang out in a beach bar in Negril, assuming no one knew who he was, would he go to Negril Margaritaville? Or would he look for a spot with more local color and feeling? We decided to do just that.

Down the beach was a bar called Bourbon Beach. It had a funky thatched roof bar, a few chairs beachfront, a big stage area for nighttime music and best of all, in the back, a giant smokehouse where they turned out the spiciest, most tender jerk chicken you could ever find. A couple of bucks got you a half a chicken, and a pile of fries. Throw in a couple of Red Stripe beers and you had a feast. Fitzroy did the cooking and Omar “the Steel Man” (don’t ask) poured the beers. Sitting in the sand licking jerk spices off your fingers and watching the sun set over the Caribbean is a pretty nice way to end the day. And once or twice a week they have live reggae music. The night we were there it was just two or three bands doing Bob Marley covers, but after an hour of two of second hand ganja smoke and some Appleton rum, you would swear you were down in Trenchtown hearing the man himself.

Ernie, proudly wearing a Luna Blue t-shirt, and CheriAfter a few days of swimming and napping in the sun we were anxious to see a little more of Jamaica. Unfortunately that’s not easy to do in Negril. There is no central town or shopping area. The beach hotels and restaurants are backed by a main road which travels the coast up in to the cliffs. It’s not easy to walk anywhere because of traffic, and even if you could, it’s discouraged because of crime. We had no problems ourselves, but there is a pervasive attitude of concern in Jamaica. Every time we left the hotel to walk down the beach or to head down to a restaurant or go shopping, the hotel staff would stop us and ask us to check in with them first, let them know where we were going, etc. The security measures were nice, but it made us feel a little uneasy about being out away from the hotel.

For our last couple of days we decided we needed to get out and see more of the country. We talked with Ernie, the driver who had picked us up from the airport, and asked him if he could drive us around so we could see a little bit of the “real” Jamaica. It took him a few minutes to figure out we didn’t want to go on some tour but just wanted to cruise the back roads and see a bit of the countryside. He responded with the Jamaican national motto, “Yah, mon. No problem mon.” So off we went, along the southern coast and then cutting inland into rural Jamaica.

It took a little while to get used to the fact that Ernie sat on the right side of the car as he drove on the left side of the road. And, Jamaicans in general seem to drive as if they were all very high. Duh! But we saw no accidents, and Ernie managed to always swerve out of the way of the ongoing trucks, the guy pushing a cart full of bananas and coconuts and schools kids running everywhere. With Ernie driving, we were free to watch the world go by. It was a world of extreme opposites. The interior of Jamaica is extraordinarily beautiful. It is lush and green and so thick with overlapping trees, bushes and plant life as to appear from a distance to be like a layer of green velvet. However, set among this green velvet are small towns and villages of heartbreaking poverty. Homes everywhere seemed to be made of wooden planks pounded together. Some were well kept and brightly painted; others were not. We saw many homes in the countryside with a grave or two in the front yard. Ernie explained that poor people had to bury their family where they lived, and that they actually liked it that way, keeping their loved ones near.

Typical Jamaican roadside storeAlternating with the clapboard homes, we also saw very nice, sometimes palatial, concrete homes. Ernie explained that the concrete homes were built when the homeowner also owned the property on which the house sat. If they only rented the property, the wooden homes, called board houses, were built so that they could be easily moved when the owner changed properties. What we did not see were neighborhoods of rich and neighborhoods of poor. The poor and the rich live side by side.

We also saw in the people of Jamaica a literal rainbow of colors. It is a small island whose population has descended from conquerors, slaves and shipwrecked sailors. Some Jamaicans are very black, some light brown and some white. Ernie told us he could take us to a town where, as he put it, “The people look like you and talk like me.”

We wandered mile after mile past towns with names that reflected Jamaica’s English heritage: Sheffield, Amity Cross, Petersfield, Ferris Cross, Bluefields Bay and many more. We drifted through greenery that would part sometimes on the left to show us mist covered mountains and sometimes on the right to show us the turquoise Caribbean. Eventually we stopped for lunch at what appeared to be a tiny abandoned wooden shack. It turned out to be a restaurant. Walking around the side we found half a dozen men sitting and eating their lunch. Inside the shack a man with a weathered mocha colored face stood over various pots sitting on steel wheel rims to hold them over smoking fires. Ernie explained that the restaurant had no name, but he introduced us to the owner/chef whose name was Indian. Indian, we were told, made the best jerk pork in the area. In a few minutes we had plates heaping with steaming, tender spiced pork and mounds of rice and beans. It was an incredible meal. It was here that Tony tried JB rum for the first time. The famous rum of Jamaica is of course Appleton, which is served everywhere. However, JB is the people’s drink. It is raw cane rum. It is not aged, probably because it would eat its way through any barrel it was put it in. It is 65% alcohol, and the first taste is probably what lighter fluid tastes like if you were dumb enough to take a swallow. According to Tony, it grows on you. The JB is supposedly initials for Jamican patois slang words meaning a buzzard’s butt. This is a drink for refined gentlemen of taste….NOT!

A palm tree growing in the middle of the Roaring RiverErnie also took us to the caves at Roaring River Park. Like our own Yucatan, Jamaica has a lot of limestone and, like here in Mexico, over the centuries rain soaking through the limestone has carved out caverns which are sometimes filled with water. At Roaring River, we explored some of those caves. They were mysterious and beautiful, but the differences between the caves in Jamaica and the cenotes in Mexico once again struck us. In Mexico, cenotes are protected and revered. Guides are knowledgeable, and people’s contact with the caves and the limestone which creates them is limited. In Jamaica, the cave interiors were covered in graffiti and carvings. The guide who took us through the caves was friendly but had no hesitation about touching the cave walls or the growing limestone stalactites. Neither was he shy about lighting up a giant spliff in the middle of the caves.

We did get to go swimming in a couple of the caves. One was like a natural jacuzzi, a small pool big enough for two or three people to sit with clear water pouring into the pool like natural jets. It was a little colder than most jacuzzis and very invigorating. We also walked through the cave to a very deep water hole—basically a giant well hidden within the cave. We climbed down a long straight metal ladder into the water far below us. A little freaky but still fun.

Ernie also took us down on a long drive along the seashore heading east in the direction of Kingston. We stopped in a small town and tried okra punch—a blenderized thick shake made of okra, peanuts and oatmeal. It sounds pretty strange, but it actually tasted really good, almost like a chocolate peanut milkshake. Then we were off to Parrotee, a tiny little town (and that’s being generous) on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. We stopped at a building on the water’s edge where several men sat around smoking ganja (of course). We hired one to take us in a wooden boat of questionable floatability out to a small dot on the horizon, far from the land’s end. That, we were told, was the Pelican Bar.

It took us about 15 minutes to skim over the waves for a couple of miles out to our destination. The Pelican Bar is a small hut made entirely of driftwood and stuck on poles over a sand bar in the middle of the Caribbean. Each day the owners haul ice chests full of beer and alcohol out to serve patrons who show up by boat. The thatched roof is half gone, due to Hurricane Dean. However, they’ve covered the holes with tarps. A nearby “room” where the owner once stayed was also swallowed up by Dean, leaving nothing but two or three poles sticking up out of the water. However, the garden of marijuana plants growing out of tin cans still survives on the back dock.

The Pelican Bar in the middle of the Caribbean SeaWe pulled up to the bar and climbed up the driftwood-made ladder onto the floor, which had as many openings and gaps as it did planks. We ordered a couple of Red Stripes, pulled off our shirts and jumped into the sea, swimming around the sand bar (depth of about four to six feet), and then climbed back out to sip our beer. Within a few moments it became one of our favorite bars in the world. That was the way we ended our Jamaica vacation.

After that, it was a race through the misty mountains from the south side of the island to the north side to barely make our plane at the airport in Montego Bay. The road through the mountain once again took us through incredible vistas of luxuriant jungle valleys and small colorful towns of abject poverty.

Jamaica left us with mixed emotions. Truthfully, as a vacation spot it pales beside our own Playa del Carmen. The beaches, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing are all substantially better along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. However, traveling is not only about what is the best vacation spot. Jamaica touched us with its extremes: its beautiful countryside, its poverty stricken people, and its incredible hustle for a dollar alongside its laid back “no problem mon” attitude. Jamaica is a mystery that’s worth further exploration. We loved our hotel, enjoyed the company of the people we met, and were intrigued by this island. We will probably return.

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A Mini-Vacation on Isla Mujeres

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 14, 2007

View of the Caribbean from Isla MujeresIsla Mujeres is often marketed in the tourist industry as Mexico’s Caribbean island, causing visions of lush tropical mountains and deserted beaches right out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And the name, “The Isle Of Women,” can create even more fantasy for the unsuspecting traveler. However the reality is that Isla Mujeres is a quaint Mexi-Caribbean town on a flat, largely underdeveloped piece of land not far off the beaches of Cancun. Exotic it is not. However it is peaceful, nice, friendly and relaxing.

When our friends from San Francisco, Jan and Eric, were in town recently they wondered if there might be some part of the Mayan Riviera they hadn’t seen yet. After several trips down here they knew Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum pretty well. They wanted to see something new. We suggested a few days in Isla Mujeres.

We left early in the day and drove up to Puerto Juarez, the ferry dock to Isla Mujeres located just north of Cancun. When we first started visiting this part of Mexico many years ago the ferries to Isla Mujeres were small little outboard motor affairs taking 12 or 15 people to the island. Now they are large, powerful double decker boats carrying many more people for the 15 minute ride across the straits between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. We parked the van in the secure lot at the front of the ferry building for only $60 pesos. The cost of the ferry was $65 pesos round trip per person—a real bargain.

Once we got to the island, we rented a golf cart so that we could see some of the outlying areas. Scooters are also readily available to rent. There are a number of streets in the little town and a surprising amount of traffic, mostly taxis. If you’re just planning on going to the beach and strolling around in town, you can do it on foot. Golf carts aren’t cheap – $550 pesos for 24 hours – but they are fun. They also move easily through the narrow streets, along the bumpy beachfront roads and even right onto the sand.

The sandbar on Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres, MexicoThere are two main beach areas, both within walking distance from one another. One is the waterfront which faces Cancun and has several boat docks (the western side of the island). During the day party boats from Cancun deposit day trippers to soak up the sun and tequila at the many beach clubs which line the shore. The water is pretty but the swimming area is small and roped in as currents and boat traffic make the deeper water dangerous for swimmers. The other beach area is Playa Norte (North Beach) which faces north towards Holbox Island and the Gulf of Mexico. This area is perfect for swimming as the natural sea bed is very shallow for many yards out into the water. Better still, a sandbar twenty to thirty yards wide sits just off the beach and stretches for much of the length of Playa Norte. You can easily wade out to the sandbar from the beach and literally sit in the blue green Caribbean Sea. The shallowness of the water makes it bathtub warm.

However the beach itself leaves a little to be desired. This is not Playa del Carmen or Tulum with beautiful clean white sand beaches leading down to the sea. Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres is a more natural setting. The beach is narrow, and the shoreline is lined with seaweed which flows in with the tide. In some places it piles up and can create a bit of an odor problem. However in most of the areas by the beach bars, the effect is minimal and a few steps into the water carry you past the vegetation. Swimming is discouraged on the eastern side of the island because of the strong currents.

Sunset on the CaribbeanWe went looking for a hotel and found again this is not Playa! Rooms were simple to the point of being sparse: no drinking water provided and no refrigerator…with a cost of over $200 USD!!! We found some rooms a little cheaper, but truthfully everything we saw on the beach was very overpriced when compared to Playa hotels. However we did see some very nice reasonably priced accommodations a block or two off the beach. Next time we will check some of these out and report back. This time we chose the Na- Balam resort. We thought the rooms were extremely overpriced, but the hotel surrounds a beautiful beach style garden with palm trees, rock walkways and well groomed sand. There are also two restaurants (one open in the day, the other at night—also very expensive) and two bars. It was beachfront, but the beach was pretty dirty with seaweed so we would walk a few yards north to cleaner areas to go swimming.

When on the beach we hung out down by Buho’s Beach club and another little beachfront restaurant next door. Buho’s is very nice with traditional swings at the bar. The day/evening we were there we saw a lovely sunset wedding ceremony at the water’s edge. Very romantic. Of course this being the tropics, as soon as the “I do’s” were finished it started to pour. From a picturesque sunset to rain shower in a few minutes. The wedding party handled it with much laughter and ran to join all of us under the palapa bar, carrying the wedding cake with them! In a few moments the rain passed and the wedding continued.

Eric on the sandbar in the rainWe also got some rain the next day when we were swimming. We sat in the two foot deep blue Caribbean water out on the sandbar and suddenly were drenched by a downpour. It was fun, although the rain was colder than the sea and we kept lying down in the water to warm up.

At night we went out to explore Hidalgo Street. Most of the in-town streets are filled with brightly colored Caribbean style wooden shops selling various souvenirs. However Hidalgo is mostly restaurants. At night the street closes to traffic and becomes a pedestrian mall. We walked along looking at various menus and listening to music (a number of places have live music). Eventually we stopped and tried to reach a consensus on what we wanted to eat. We all agreed Italian sounded good. At that moment the sky opened up with a bright flash of lightening, a roar of thunder and a deluge of a downpour. We looked up and saw an Italian restaurant directly in front of us. It was fate. We ran in and grabbed a table under the palapa awning. It was Angelo’s and it was TERRIFIC! As the rain poured down for the next two hours we sat and had one of those magical tropical evenings.

The food service and ambience at Angelo’s was perfect. The pasta was as good as we have had (and coming from San Francisco where pasta is an art form, that says something). We drank great Argentinean Malbec wine and topped off the meal with cappuccinos and Cuban rum. The cappuccino machine was in a sister restaurant across the street so when anyone ordered a coffee drink, Antonio our waiter would don a plastic garbage bag raincoat, roll up his pant legs and hold a tray over his head as he stepped into the flooded street and dashed over to get our drinks. He received much applause (and tips) for his bravery.

A pelican looking for brunch on Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres, MexicoThe next day was another beach day and then off to the ferry dock for the ride home. As we had time we stopped at the Miramar restaurant next to the ferry dock and had lunch. Again, a real find. Tables overlook the little marina while the efficient staff serves excellent seafood accompanied by two musicians playing Latin jazz. Very nice! And Miramar’s menu had some of those wonderfully hilarious translations to English that don’t quite make sense. Living here in Mexico, we’re always on the lookout for such things, and this was one of the best. “Snails to the butter,” “Fingers Fish” and “Octupus to the I garlic wet” were some of our favorites. Finally lunch was over and the boat was boarding. In less than an hour and a half, we were back in Playa del Carmen. We will surely return. Isla Mujeres is a nice break from the big city of Cancun and even from the quieter Playa del Carmen. It’s a little slice of laid back island living.

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