December 23, 2016

Chiapas—Mayan Ruins, Waterfalls and the Christmas Spirit

 Twenty years ago, our bus ride from the anchorage in Puerto Madero to the Chiapas town of Tapachula went through multiple military checkpoints. At each one, soldiers wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons would check ID papers, looking for rebels. The people were the poorest we’d seen in Mexico—the countryside was stunningly beautiful, but it barely provided subsistence-level living. The Zapatista rebels, who were pushing for social justice and improved rights for indigenous people, were active throughout the region. And thanks to a broken ceasefire the big billboard reading “1996 The Year of Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas” was filled with bullet and mortar fire holes.
pretty Comitan
Despite the unrest, I wished we could explore. This was the land where ancient Olmec, Toltec and Mayan peoples had built huge cities; a place of colonial cathedrals, soaring mountains, wild rain forests, jaguars, toucans and rivers and lakes of brilliant blue.

locals enjoying the square
By the time our visit finally rolled around, peace had thankfully taken hold but the magical places I once wanted to visit had become tourist attractions. Nothing’s wrong with a tourist attraction. But if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to explore the ancient avenues of a forgotten city by yourself, it’s hard to go back to sharing one with hawkers and tour groups.

The centre of the square came with a fairly creepy nativity scene

Even if they still had been my dream, we didn’t have quite enough time to head to San Cristóbal and then Palenque and do them justice. Palenque is 10 hours away on roads that cut through several mountain ranges—a gorgeous, but exhausting trip. So instead of following the now-standard gringo trail from Puerto Chiapas, I did some research: Five hours away, I found the mountain town of Comitan, a favourite with Mexican tourists because of its historic central square and the surrounding Mayan ruins, waterfalls and multi-hued blue lakes.

It’s also popular with locals because international tourists haven’t discovered it yet, so it’s affordable even by local standards: A nice hotel room was $30 USD. Dinner at one of the town’s best restaurant came to <$40 including artesian cocktails, appetizers and Comiteca-style main dishes, while a more typical restaurant meal of chicken mole and enchiladas (with margaritas and rompope) was <$20 for the three of us. The parks we visited ranged from free to $1.50 a person.

one of the new pedestrian bridges to the villages on the other side of the valley and beyond
The route to Comitan was a reminder of all that the Zapatistas had petitioned for. Chiapas, with its large indigenous population, has historically been underserved by the Mexican government. But now, the road that winds through mountains of jungles and coffee plantations is studded with signs pointing out new schools, road construction, rural health centers and pedestrian bridges, which span deep river valleys and replace old rickety suspension bridges.

high in the Sierra Madre Mountains
Despite the improvements, the road is still a challenging one. But we were happy to discover drivers seem to look out for each other. The vehicle ahead of us would frequently flash his tail lights to alert us to car-sized potholes, locals on horse back or one of the routes more than 300 topes (we counted)—the dreaded speed-bumps marked every Pueblo, school, bridge and store. Entrepreneurial locals take advantage of each traveler’s need to slow at a tope by setting up market stalls beside them—while stopped you could buy honey, coffee beans, mangers (for Christmas) as well as the standard drinks and snacks.

Looking across from one pyramid to the next in Tenam Puente
Comitan was a lovely surprise. Most of what I had found about it was written in Spanish and between my bumbling efforts and Google Translate—I didn’t know much more than that town was historic and did Christmas well. What I hadn’t expected was how pretty and how blessedly non-commercial it would be. The only vendors sold food, drinks and warm clothes or shawls. That’s it.

some of the waterfalls at El Chiflon

Instead there was music, children playing and families strolling through the lit up square. We watched the posada—a procession of kids carrying a statue of Mary and Joseph. Each night before Christmas Eve they search for lodging, only to be turned away. In one shop we tried several samples of Comiteca—the local agave brew that’s sweetened with cane syrup and flavoured with various herbs.

$7 for the zip line seemed like a bargain until Evan's abrupt landing sent us to the pharmacy for pain meds
From Comitan we visited El Chiflon. The cascades are the big tourist attraction in the area and Mexican families travel here to be awed by the huge waterfalls and to picnic along the river’s edge. Evan and Maia decided to give the zip line a whirl and rediscovered that adventure in Mexico lives up to its name: the zip line’s ‘brake’ was a manual wooden one, and when it began to smoke Evan knew he might land a little more firmly than hoped. In fact, he hit the platform and bounced off, traveling back up the zip line about 60 feet.

The hike up to the acropolis at Chinkultin offered up a few of the valley and lakes below
as well as way down to a sacrificial cenote
Even with a sore neck and few bruises he was still up for our visit to Tenam Puente—the first of the two Mayan ruins we visited. Located on the outer edges of the Mayan empire, both Tenam Puente and Chinkultic are only partially excavated and rebuilt. There are multiple mounds around the sites which make you realize just how much archaeological effort went into making the sites look like cites again.

Still, there was more than enough excavation to imagine how the cities would have appeared in the past. And they were large enough and uncrowded enough that we were free to stroll through the forested settings and daydream in peace.

Back at the boat, we’re now preparing for Christmas. I never found ‘a few more gifts’ on our trip (no vendors selling stuff means it’s tricky to buy stuff) but somehow a family adventure seems like it will last longer in our memories than any trinket would.

So from Ceilydh to you—we wish all of you the very best of this season.

December 13, 2016

Hopping up the Central American Coast

From Panama to Puerto Vallarta its about 2000 gorgeous miles (and 15-20 travel days)

The immigration official was surprised we were checking out of Costa Rica after only ten days. And while it’s been an excellent ten days—I see her point. Most cruisers spend far more time in this pretty country. And we know we’ve only scratched the surface.

In fact we’ve spent our entire stay mainly in one anchorage. We’ve been in Bahia Culebra anchored off of Playa Nacascolo. We’ve swum ashore and wandered the beach—listening to howler monkeys and watching parrots cavort overhead. For two days we hired a car out of Marina Papagayo and went rafting on Rio Tenorio* and then explored Playa del Cocos—trying to recall how it looked 20 years ago (very, very different.)

It seems like we just arrived in Costa Rica--we've typically spent a minimum of a month in a new country and often 3-4 months
"Green Season" in Golfito
While we’d love to stay—we’ve hit the point in our journey where we’re not quite on a delivery passage but we are on a schedule. We passed a boat doing a delivery just outside of Golfito. They had left Puerto Vallarta two weeks earlier and planned to hit St Thomas for Christmas. That’s a serious number of miles. We’re not in that big of a hurry—but we’re also not keen to let a weather window pass us by.

For the most part, moving up and down this coast is pretty straightforward. There’s not much wind—so we’ve been motoring about 90% of the time. There is some adverse current, which has slowed us down and we have had some wind in our face. The two areas we need to time the most carefully are just ahead of us. The Gulfs of Papagayo and Teuhauntepec are both subject to ferocious winds.

Swimming to shore gave me this view
Twenty years ago when we came down the coast both winds were considered somewhat unpredictable. The trick was to sail with ‘one foot on the beach’ so that if the winds suddenly sprang up—you wouldn’t have the big seas. When we crossed the Teuhauntepec it was so calm we were lulled into cutting the corner. Then a puff of hot wind, which is said to precede the blow, came up and we headed straight back to the beach. The Teuhauntepecker never did blow up, but a few weeks later we got caught by a Papagayo. The rough seas were enough to hurl our pressure cooker across the cabin where it missed Evan’s sleeping head by inches.

These days, weather reports for the region are fairly accurate. High pressure in the Gulf of Mexico contrasted with lower pressure in the Pacific causes wind to flow into the Pacific. The land form of Central America: high mountains with only a few gaps, accelerates the wind through the gaps. The result is strong winds and steep seas across the two gulfs—something we like to avoid.

When caught in an unexpected traffic jam of hundreds of dancing horses it's best just to enjoy the spectacle
This week though both the Papagoyo and Teuhauntepec are calm—so it’s time to move on. If it weren’t for Christmas the window looks big enough to push on past Puerto Chiapas for Haultulco—but that’s where the part about not being on a delivery comes in. As much as we’re eager to ‘tie the knot’ and complete our circumnavigation among good friends in Puerto Vallarta we still have adventures ahead of us and memories to create.

*note to self: a class III IV river at the end of the euphemistically named ‘green season’ and shortly after hurricane Otto, the first hurricane in history to make landfall here, is a angry looking thing. Evan and Maia called the boisterous ride 'fun!". I called it a wee bit intimidating…

December 2, 2016

Costa Rica Bound

We took advantage of the calm winds to motor to Golfito, Costa Rica. Lots of adverse current and bumpy seas coming out of the Gulf of Panama--so we took a break and anchored off one of the islands. My zika symptoms shift a bit the way Maia's did- mostly I have a killer headache, sore joints, increased seasickness and an endless capacity for sleep. Perfect for a motorboat passage. Should arrive early tomorrow.

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