Friday, May 27, 2016

Isla Holbox – a different kind of paradise

Isla Holbox Yucatan Mexico
Isla Holbox is a little island off the coast of Mexico, similar to the island in Mexico we call home.  

Just a twenty minute ride on the passenger ferries from Chiquilá on the mainland, Isla Holbox is nestled in the mint green water of the Gulf of Mexico.  As the crow flies it’s not far from Isla Mujeres, where we are surrounded by the turquoise Caribbean Sea, but it’s a world away in atmosphere.

Golf cart taxi on Holbox
Arriving on the island a bright yellow, golf-cart taxi drove us along sand covered streets to our beachfront hotel, Holbox Dream, on the eastern side of the island.  

Okay, we could have walked the six or so blocks dragging our suitcases through the mid-day heat, but this was our first time to Isla Holbox and we didn’t yet have our bearings.  A short inexpensive taxi ride was a great solution.   

Cool, clean and good staff!
We were warmly greeted by Benjamin at the front desk, and quickly checked into our rooms.  

Nice and cool.  Simple décor.  And clean.

After freshening up it was time to look for a good dinner location.  

Viva Zapata for dinner
The local favourite is Viva Zapata, just a short walk from our hotel.  

It’s an attractive location with traditional Mexican dishes, oodles of fresh fish choices and tasty steaks.

Ambling around the town after dinner we noticed the fun artwork painted on homes, stores, and businesses.  

One of the Holbox murals - L. Lock photo
Our friends Becky and Craig McHugh were recently on Holbox, and her blog Life's a Beach, features many of the colourful murals.  Here’s the link if you would like to see her collection of photographs:  

By the time our bedtime rolled around our hotel was quiet, with the assorted vacationing pre-schoolers tucked up in bed and snoozing soundly.  

Another one of my favourite murals - L. Lock photo
We had a restful night, even though I must admit the two small pillows on the bed were thin, and well, darn it, just too small.  I have a thing about pillows.  

Even though we didn’t take our pooch, Sparky, with us I still woke up at the regular walk-the-dog time of 5:30 and I was impatient to get going.  

Strangely enough my three travel companions, Lawrie, John and Maia, insisted on staying in bed until the sun was properly up and the smell of brewing coffee wafting in the air.  Hmph! 

Le Jardin Bakery - dogs welcome
Once everyone was up and dressed we walked two short blocks to the Le Jardin bakery for fortifying coffees, warm flaky pastries, and other delicious breakfast items.  Hugely popular with locals and tourists the line-ups start well before opening time.  Normal low season hours are 8:30 to 12:30 Wednesday to Saturday, but be warned, they close when they run out of their freshly baked goods.  They also have a communal dog water-bowl and welcome signs for the many furry, four-legged companions on the island.  We noticed several establishments with water bowls available for any passing dog, cat or bird.  It’s a thoughtful idea.

42 kilometres - primarily nature preserve
Mid-morning we decided to rent a golf cart and explore the island.  Isla Holbox is a mostly-undeveloped, low profile, sand-bar that is about 42 kilometres (26 miles) long and 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) wide.  That’s huge compared to Isla Mujeres at 7 kilometres long.  

Centro - Isla Holbox
We located a golf cart rental company near the square in centro, renting by the hour for $150.00 Mexican pesos: cheap!   We paid for two hours and off we tootled bumping over the sand-packed dips and hollows created by rain storms and vehicles.  Unlike Isla Mujeres there are not many fast drivers on Isla Holbox.  We actually had to speed up keep the golf-cart from stalling as we crossed over the one speed-reducing tope that we did find.  Most of the islanders get around on bicycles, motos, ATV’s and of course golf carts. 

Two choices of passenger ferries - same price

And then it was time to head back to Isla Mujeres.  We checked out of our hotel, and began our four hour arrival journey in reverse.  First the golf-cart taxi ride back to the passenger ferry.  Then a twenty minute boat ride to the mainland community of Chiquilá, where we walked two blocks to Don Patricio’s parking lot, to retrieve our rental car.  

One of several parking lots for Isla Holbox visitors

We didn’t take our Mini-Cooper convertible on this road trip.  We needed something a little bit roomier for four people and two travel bags.  Lawrie found an inexpensive rental car at Car-Flex located in the La Isla Shopping centre in Cancun.  Pepe, the customer representative, was amazingly helpful.  The total cost was $100.00 USD for three days including insurance.  Great deal. 

Car-flex rental - $100.00 USD 3 days
Next we drove via Highway 5 back towards the little community of Kantunilkin, through a bit of road construction that, in typical local fashion, lets the drivers decide which side of the work zone they would like to drive on.  

It was a bit of a free-for-all, but eventually we got through it.  From there it was another hour negotiating through numerous speedbumps and topes in three tiny unmarked villages.  Pressing on towards Nuevo Valladolid my bladder was starting to make suggestions that we find a rest stop, or baños soon.  Very soon.  

John's turn to drive, with Maia navigating
We turned south once we reached Nuevo Valladolid on Highway 180 and stopped at the PeMex outside the of town of Leona Vicario.  Closed for renovations, no baños!  Okay, then.  We continued on to the outskirts of Cancun, coming in on Avenida Lopez Portillo heading towards the UltraMar ferry docks at Puerto Juarez.  My bladder is now becoming quite insistent. 

Motorcycle based transportation in small towns

Lawrie parked the rental car in the UltraMar parkade.  He, John and Maia headed towards the boarding line.  I raced for the baños, and double-timed it back to the ferry dock.  We slid on-board as the ramps were being raised.  Headed home!

We enjoyed our quick visit to the quaint little community of Isla Holbox, but also really enjoyed returning to our little slice of paradise on Isla Mujeres. 

Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Centro - Isla Holbox

Friday, May 20, 2016

Topes – the speed bumps of life in paradise

Traffic police and raised tope on Rueda Medina in centro
Topes, the ever-present driving hazards in Mexico, are actually speedbumps designed to modify the Formula-1 habits of local drivers.  Topes come in many shapes and sizes, and in our opinion they are all annoying.  Necessary but annoying.
There are the raised yellow-and-white striped crosswalks, one of the few places in Mexico where the pedestrians have the right-of-way.  These are usually near schools, or busy areas such as the original exit from the passenger ferry terminal on Isla Mujeres.  Usually these topes are controlled by traffic police using hand gestures and several sharp notes of a whistle to snag the attention of drivers distracted by Smartphones, selfie-sticks, or bikini-clad tourists.  Afternoons on Rueda Medina can be bedlam with visitors disgorging from tour boats and passenger ferries.  The combination of well-marked crosswalks and traffic police reduce the number of close encounters of the painful kind, between people and vehicles.

Topes slow down the speeders - a little
Then there are the normal topes, the narrow, recycled-rubber contraptions that are bolted to the pavement.  These hard bits of latex can give drivers a nice back-shaking jolt when crossing.  The good thing about this style of tope is they are visible even on rainy nights as their distinctive yellow and black stripes are part of the rubber compound, not just painted on the surface. 

Hand-made tope sign on right
A nasty unpainted bump is located on the south-western side of the island, near the horse coral, and across the street from the construction site for a new house.  Rubber-necking the progress of the new-build is guaranteed to give you a sharp thump of surprise when driving on this stretch of road.  I’ve done it so many times the construction crew cheers when I actually remember to slow down and traverse the tope at a crawl.  Driving past the crew this morning they pointed at a recently installed hand-made tope warning sign.  That was good for a chuckle, and a photo.

Moto pathway through tope
In that same stretch of road near the never-completed Unik Hotel (Unique) is a series of half-sphere metal bumps.  There is no easy way to cross these teeth-rattling orbs, unless you happen to be riding a moto.  Someone has thoughtfully removed a bump, one each side of the road, creating a pathway for a narrow wheel.  Experienced moto-drivers give a little hip waggle, dodging to the right and then left, whizzing away.

Doesn't look that bad - but our Mini scrapes on this one
There are two extra high topes on the island that cause our low-slung Mini Cooper a bit of navigational difficulty.  One is the muffler-scraping lump in centro on Matamores just west of Olivia’s Restaurante.  With two people and one small dog in the car it’s a slow crawl for us, taken at a forty-five degree angle to get over the steep-sided speedbump.  When we have friends with us in the car we don’t drive on that block of Matamores.   The other problem tope for our car is near the bakery in the Salinas Grande neighbourhood.  It’s a slow, and noisy scrap over that one as well.

Moto slowing for unmarked and unpainted tope
But our absolute least favourite type of tope is the raised bump in the pavement: black and invisible.  The sharp bump will rattle your back teeth if you don’t have all the topes mapped out in your head.  These are the sneaky gotchas, where the original yellow cautionary paint has been worn away by vehicle tires and rainstorms.  The once visible metal warning signs are typically a victim of rust and corrosion, either laying on the ground or missing entirely.  The southbound lane of the double-wide Passeo de Aves, near the YZA Farmica has one of these invisible lumps.  No sign.  No paint.  You have to rely on your memory: or not!
Snoozing in paradise
And finally, there are the warm and fuzzy topes: sleeping dogs.  Snoozing on a warm street is a favourite pastime for local pooches.  
Keep your eyes peeled for these guys.  They are just enjoying a nap on their little piece of island paradise. 
Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Friday, May 13, 2016

May in paradise: What to do, what to do, what to do ……

North Beach - Playa Norte  L. Lock photo
It’s May in paradise and surprisingly there is still lots happening on the island, just at a slower pace.  

The weather is consistently warm, light winds and seldom any rain. 

In a few days’ time the Whale Shark season officially opens, allowing access to these beautiful forty-foot creatures as they leisurely swim and feed.  

My favourite Whale Shark photo - National Geographic
Misnamed, Whale Sharks are neither whales nor sharks, but fish with ginormous mouths.  They are filter feeders - sucking in a mix of macro-algae, plankton, krill, crab larvae, and small squid, then expelling the water through their gills, trapping the food against their scale-like dentils.  

They aren’t interested in eating the annoying critters that thrash in the water around them, faces squashed into diving masks, and words of awe bubbling to the ocean’s surface.   When I swim with these leviathans I lose my obsessive fear of the ocean, if only for a little while.  It’s amazing.

Sea Turtles mating at Punta Sur  L.Lock
Later in the month the giant sea turtles congregate at the southern tip of the island, enthusiastically mating.  The lineups for the available females are long as two, three or four males anxiously paddle along behind waiting for their turn.   It’s a pretty cumbersome business – with the smaller male piggybacking on the larger female.  I’m guess they are both probably pretty happy with the results because the process is repeated year after year.  A few weeks after fertilization the females will come ashore during the night and lay up to 180 eggs in a deep nest laboriously dug with her flippers.  If you are lucky enough, you can sit quietly nearby and watch the females lay their eggs.  Don’t touch or disturb them.  Just let the ladies do their difficult job, and then return to the safety of the sea.

Details for May 2016 Fishing Tournament
And for those of you who like a bit more action there is always deep-sea fishing, fishing tournaments, and just-plain-fun fishing.  On May 20th, 21st and 22nd is the annual Torneo Internacional Pesca that features prizes like $350,000.00 pesos for first place (About $20,000.00 USD).  The second place prize is a pick-up truck. 

Third place, won by island friends of ours in 2013 is $100,000.00 pesos.  Other prizes include a boat and motorcycles.  Judging by the happy faces at the end of the day everyone has a great time hanging out with their buddies, drinking beer, and catching fish.  Winning a prize is an added bonus.

Happy fishermen!  

Most of our Canadian and American friends have returned to their northern homes, looking forward to catching up with family news or gardening, golfing and fishing.  We have settled into a less hectic routine, fewer parties, more quiet evenings enjoying a good book and a glass of wine on our ocean-side patio.  Ah, May, in paradise.  Our favourite time of year.

Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Boating racing to check-in before tournament deadline

Friday, May 6, 2016

International Workers’ Day – Really getting into the job

Shoveling the sand back onto the beach
 It is not all sun, sand and cerveza in Mexico; there are long days of hard work for most Mexicans. 

May 1st is celebrated in many countries as International Workers’ Day, commemorating the establishment, in 1886, of a legislated eight-hour work week.  

However working hours in Mexico are not tightly regulated by laws, there are always ways to get around the official rules.  Most office job hours run from 8am to 6pm, although working hours often go until 7pm or later.   Tourism-related jobs by necessity include weekends, public holidays and frequently shifts for 24-hour staffing.

Fallen down a rabbit hole
 The islanders that we know are such hard working folks.  Recently we noticed a CFE worker was head first into a deep hole; he was really getting into his job.  The concrete power pole next to our house was in danger of toppling, due to a weakened centre of decomposing and rusted rebar.  

The electrical company employees were assigned to replace the pole but the worker needed to clear out a bit of rubble before it would sit properly.  From our upper balcony perch the visual perspective was humorous; a bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Alice fell through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world.  Fortunately he didn’t fall through the hole into a nightmare, he stayed firmly on the ground.

Wet policeman directing traffic
While the electrical workers battled with the pole a lonely policemen looked a bit forlorn with his thin yellow slicker rain-plastered to his body.  

During an intermittent torrential downpour, he directed traffic around the electrical workers’ equipment.  

The policeman stood guard on the roadway for several hours while the crane removed the old pole, and settled the new pole.  

Restoring power 
Then there was the transferring over of wires, and the restoration of electricity, all during the rainstorm.

 On the other end of the weather situation searing hot days, and swelteringly humid afternoons can make for difficult conditions especially for outside workers.  

We have lost count of the number of bottles of water, pop, and juice that we have handed out to labourers in and around our neighbourhood.  

New grouting for pool - hot hot day!
The thirsty street-sweepers, garbage collectors, mosquito control folks, and traffic police all get complimentary cool drinks when working nearby our casa.  It’s a small thank you for a tough job.

 Construction workers go about their daily jobs with little or no safety equipment.  Hard hats and safety boots are a rarity on most work sites.  The maintenance and repairmen work long hours in high temperatures, fixing and repairing houses and pools.  It’s not so much that the work is hard, it’s a combination of long hours in the heat without much regard to safety that takes its toll on the human body, prematurely aging joints and spines.

Safety equipment is a rare sight in Mexico
In Mexico wages are a lot lower than in Canada, the US and most European countries.  Unqualified jobs often paid the minimum daily wage of $73.04 Mexican pesos, which is about $4.25 USD per day.   

It’s barely a survival salary, not allowing for balanced meals that include protein.  

The more fortunate workers are usually involved with the hospitality trade of restaurants and bars, where their income is supplemented by tips from their clientele.

Filling in after new main water line installed
The next time you are enjoying the sun, sand and cerveza on our little slice of paradise, remember the folks who make it all possible.  

A little kindness goes a long way.

Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie