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Return to Mexico…

Arriving at the dock at Isla Mujeres... *gulp*

Arriving at the dock at Isla Mujeres... *gulp*


It was inevitable. It was bound to happen sometime. Though I had been able to successfully dodge the subject for over five years, it finally happened. I got pulled back to Mexico. Not only was I slickly cajoled to Mexico. A place that until now showed up as just as one big black, non-existent spot on the map of my “world” as I saw it. No, on top of that I was called to a specific place there that shows up on that black hole on my map as my undisputed “epicenter of pain and sadness”. That would be… Isla Mujeres.

Over the past five years, I have had countless opportunities and invitations to head back up Mexico way. Most were for crewing on other boats for deliveries, or even lucrative charter offers. Others were to meet friends traveling there overland that invited me to meet up with them. Each and everytime, virtually automatically, my response was an immediate yet polite “no”. There was no reason or any real desire for me to ever go back to Mexico.

This time around, don’t ask me what happened. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Early October had been incredibly slow for trips on Andiamo. It’s traditionally one of Panama’s slowest months tourism-wise. But this year’s was far slower than usual. In the meantime, a longtime friend invites me to join her in Mexico while she’s there on vacation the first two weeks of October.

Just like everytime before, my answer was the usual polite and fast “no”. But this time, I was strangely connived into going along with the idea. I found myself reluctantly agreeing to join up with her for 10 days. Moving on to the planning stages, I ask her where in Mexico she plans to visit. That’s when she springs the spine-chilling name of that one dreaded island, Isla… Mujeres.

Of all the places she could have gone in Mexico, she picked the absolute LAST place I could see myself going to. After coming to the grim conclusion that she was just plain evil and sadistic, I found myself trudging onward with my travel plans. Again, not really knowing what was happening.

Me hanging at Picus' my fave ceviche spot on Isla...

Me hanging at Picus' my fave ceviche spot on Isla...

Ok, what’s all this about Isla Mujeres? For those of you who don’t know, here’s the short story:

When I bought Andiamo in 2004, I was married. My then-wife and I had been together for over 13 years by that time. We sold our house in LA, business, and everything we owned basically to move aboard her in Miami. The plan was to start outfitting her for what was to be a minimum two-year Caribbean cruise. It was to be the start of a whole new chapter of our lives. A welcome chapter, considering we had been spending most of the last 10 or so years working hard, really hard, to get to the point where we can have some freedom.

After five or so months of hard work, sea trials, and as-you-go repairs, we had made it to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We were to spend a couple of months there, and then go on to bigger and better things on a Caribbean Adventure. At least that was the plan.

But things didn’t go as planned, unfortunately. A couple of months after getting to Isla Mujeres, things came apart in the worst possible way between us. She left the boat in shambles in Isla Mujeres, while I was away in LA to put my other boat up for sale. and I was left to come back alone to pick up the pieces. The level of pain and despair that I felt during that time was unimaginable. I had gone from the happiest I’d ever been to the saddest I’d ever been up to that time in seconds flat. I was left alone, with the pain of having to deal with the boat, three cats (that ironically, I didn’t even want to take along), and all the emotional devastation that came along with it. It was NOT a good time.

There were other painful aspects to all this that just added insult to injury. Stuff that no decent person should have to go through. It was bad enough that my marriage had imploded, I didn’t need it to be rubbed in my face on an almost daily basis. I could not leave fast enough. Thanks to the kind help of a lot of people I made it out. With the help of my crewmember Raf, a Belgian backpacker who happened to be at the right place at the right time, and another crewmember, I finally sailed out of Isla Mujeres in November 2004, vowing never to return.

Jump back to the present, five years later, almost to the day. I’m landing at Cancun airport. My friend, who had arrived the previous day, is awaiting my arrival to bring me to the hotel. I was on Mexican ground, and felt pretty numb about it. The next morning, after breakfast, we make our way to the ferry port. This is where we would catch the fast ferry to Isla Mujeres. I oddly remembered being in and out of that ferry dock so many times all those years ago. I cringed a little. It helped that they had built a large parking garage in front of the dock. It didn’t look the same.

Ah... cold Sol's on the beach

Ah... cold Sol's on the beach

The weather was beautiful and sunny. There is a nice breeze blowing from the northeast. The waters clear and blue, although a bit less than I had become accustomed to sailing in San Blas. Less than 30 minutes after leaving Cancun’s Puerto Juarez, we’re tied up and docked at Isla Mujeres. Coming into that bay and getting to the dock, I felt a strange, chilly sensation come over me. It was surreal, I didn’t know what to expect next. Though I was fairly ok, I admit that I was a bit uneasy.

After getting a hotel room lined up, we set off to check out the island. Tourism had been EXTREMELY slow in Mexico as well. The shitty economy and the swine flu hysteria had taken its toll. People dependent on tourism were hurting badly. Prices were so low I couldn’t believe it. The island, however, was rather quite nice, and there have been lots of improvements since I was last there. After having two major hurricanes pound the island in 2005, the island had been rebuilt and improved. Streets were nice and cobblestoned with storm drainage put in. Flooding used to be a big problem during heavy rains. Homes and buildings were rebuilt, rehabbed, painted pastel colors and brought back from the dead after the devastation. Despite the repairs and improvements, you can still see lingering signs of the hurricanes’ wrath everywhere. Gutted buildings, roofless houses, and other remnants were still easy to spot.

Despite the rough times, the people were still friendly and outgoing. I had forgotten that most Mexicans are genuinely pleasant, helpful, and happy people. It was a welcoming contrast to what I’d seen in many places in Central America over the last few years. The next three days were all about swimming, lounging, having great food, more lounging, having beers on the beach, relaxing, more great food, and exploring the island. I got to revisit all my old haunts where the food was especially good and cheap. One in particular, Picus, a waterfront cocteleria, looked almost exactly the way it did back when I was eating ceviches there on an almost daily basis. In some cases, I was glad to see some things stayed the same.

We rented a golfcart one day and drove everywhere with it. We got to see some of the nicer parts of the island. Even some that I didn’t get to see the last time I was there. The beaches were clean, and the water was cool and inviting. Only problem was that the whole beach was mobbed by vendors who were trying to get you to stay on their part of the beach, rent beach chairs, and use their showers, all for one “low price”. That got old fast. Beer prices on the beach were staggeringly expensive just like I remembered, but still cheap in town.

There was a lot of my talking about old memories, and even some funny ones that somehow managed to seep through despite all the other crap. I was able to recount the many crazy nights at the Poc-Na Hostel and its beach bar, with Steffen, Freddy (two fellow sailors I met while there, German and Dutch, respectively), Raf, my Belgian crewguy, and some other people who ended up becoming great friends like Steffenie, a South African backpacker, and Jodi, a regular Isla visitor from Minnesota. All of whom are still my friends to this day. I remembered how I was able to get through that really dark time on the island because of the great people who were around me. They kept me fed, moving, and entertained. I didn’t forget how lucky I was to have that. I don’t even want to imagine what things would have been like had I been going it alone during those darkest of days.

After four rather pleasant days and nights, we were headed back to Cancun to catch a bus to Valladolid. The worst was over as far as I was concerned. I had dealt with my Isla Mujeres demons, and was now ready to re-discover some other places in Mexico. Once we got to Valladolid, I found myself barely remembering any of it. I must have been a real zombie when I was out here before. Valladolid was a charming colonial town with wide streets, beautiful old architecture, and had a nice buzz to it. We checked into a nice older hotel right by the central plaza, across the street from the town’s cathedral. The hotel was a nice deal too, and the rooms were ok. Only problem was, everything was so damn itchy. We decided that it wasn’t bedbugs, but rather some harsh detergent that the hotel uses to wash the sheets. That was annoying.

Valladolid and its clear streets and pastel buildings

Valladolid and its clear streets and pastel buildings

From Valladolid, we made a day trip to Chichen Itza, home of Mexico’s most famous Mayan ruins. I had been here before as well, but again found myself remembering next to nothing about it. That whole “zombie” thing again, I guess. I did remember, however, that there were FAR less vendors hawking souvenirs around the ruins before than there were now. It was disturbing.

feeding myself to the feathered snake... Chichen Itza

feeding myself to the feathered snake... Chichen Itza

There were FAR more vendors than tourists. And of course, prices were “muy barato” with the overwhelming competition and market saturation.

Our bikes on the desolate beach... Tulum

Our bikes on the desolate beach... Tulum

Despite this, and some rather icky weather, we still ended up having a nice time there. We headed back to Valladolid for the night. The next day, we were on the way to Tulum, a Mayan ruin that lies on the Yucatan coast south of Playa del Carmen. The bus ride was fast and non-eventful, and we arrived in Tulum in good time. We checked into a hostel/hotel that was down the road from the ruins. Only to find that it was rather overpriced and the rooms were not so nice.

The next day, we moved to a hotel in town that was a MUCH better deal, had great rooms and a great restaurant. The owner was Italian, and it showed in the food. Very, very nice. My travel mate could not stop going on about how much she loved her pasta dish. I found Tulum’s town to be much more pleasant than it was last time I was there, and the people just as friendly. We rented bikes and biked over to a beach after visiting the ruins, and then found a nice quiet beach to hang out at for the rest of the day. I had forgotten how “tranquilo” Tulum was. We would spend three days there. It would be easy to spend three more weeks.

One of Tulum's oceanfront ruins...

One of Tulum's oceanfront ruins...

The trip was almost over for me. We had to head back to Cancun. I was going to catch my flight the next day. My travel-mate on the other hand, was going to stay another two days before heading off. We got lucky and found a really nice Eco-hotel in downtown Cancun right by the bus terminal. My last day was spent hanging out by a pool nestled by trees, with new-agey music playing. That night, we went down to the main drag of downtown Cancun to get some good seafood, tacos, and a few beers.

While we were there, I remembered walking around these streets many nights back then. I was spending a lot of time in downtown Cancun (well away from the cheesy tourist traps in the Hotel Zone) while I had the boat docked in a marina there (to get away from what was happening in Isla Mujeres). I spent a lot of nights just wandering those streets, almost aimlessly. I’d find myself picking out a bar somewhere along the strip where I can get a few beers, eat a few tacos ala pastor, and just try to forget things long enough to get back to the boat. I just wanted to get through one more day of whatever it was I was going through at the time.

That evening, my travel mate asked me if I was glad I came. Besides being glad to see her and spend some long-overdue quality time, the answer was clearly yes. I strangely needed to come back, though I suspect I had to wait this long to do so. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a fuss this time, and I was able to actually go through with it. Coming back gave me new memories, rekindled my old good feelings for the country, and even opening doors to some interesting new prospects for the future.

It was nice to have Mexico back in my “world” again. In color.

6 Comments

  1. Lynn Leonard says:

    Glad you had a healing and enjoyable time. 2004 was my Shit year too!

  2. Jodi Kaseno says:

    I’m glad you faced the demons my friend….and glad we met way back then. Someday we’ll have to meet again under far better circumstances!

  3. Dan Stamey says:

    Good for you Tony…So ….Mexico on the next trip???

  4. Tony says:

    Hehe, you never know… 🙂

  5. Tony says:

    Most def Jodi, can you believe it’s been five years since then????

  6. Jodi Kaseno says:

    Hard to believe fer sure…lot’s of changes since then! 🙂