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Caribbean Escapade

Caribbean Escapade

Riviera Maya, 3-Feb-2011

The Llama show is taking a few weeks break:  I need to attend 2 of my friend’s wedding in the Caribbean and the faster (and cheaper) way to get there is by taking a plane.  I debated a lot on if I should ride with Llama to Mexico but a few things held me back: First, the cost.  Not only the actual trip through Central America but also shipping the bike to Panama.  It’s a U$D 880 to cross the Darien gap by sea for both of us, more expensive if we want to fly.  The problem is exacerbated when you think that I have to ship the bike back to Colombia or Ecuador.  The other factors were the rough seas at this time of year: I met so many riders who had a miserable trip, sea sick and all, while crossing the ocean and a few of the bikes needed a tune-up once on land because of all the salt and waves hitting it.  And finally, time.  I hate being rushed, I don’t want to run crossing 7 borders and no way am I going to miss my friend’s wedding.

My first stop was Panama; most flights to Central America will stopover in Panama City’s airport, a huge hub in the region.  Otherwise it is via Miami and hell no, I am not dealing with the US immigration and airport security.  Imagine this: a Lebanese (these guys forget that I am Canadian too) travelling by motorcycle and now on a 3 week loop from Colombia to Mexico. Yeah, that sounds fun.  Beside, I will have the opportunity to visit Panama so let’s just forget American Airlines!  I took the early morning flight and my only comment is: nothing beat flying on Llama :).  I had one main destination in Panama: visiting the San Blas archipelago.  San Blas is a cluster of around 360 small islands on the eastern coast of Panama in the Caribbean.  The image of this archipelago is straight out of a beach paradise movie; most riders crossing south took a boat through the archipelago and their story pushed me to explore it myself.  So the next morning I hoped on the jeep heading to the Caribbean coast where a “lancha” (i.e. a ~12m long wood/fiberglass boat) would take us to the island of our choosing.  As we reached Miramar, we were met by severe winds forming a 4m high swell and the police’s marine unit closed the port… for tourists at least.  Locals can still come and go: the sea is their livelihood but then again we all share the same danger.  We later found out the reason of the port closure: a lancha cap-sized, luckily everyone on-board was unharmed.  Taking this into account, the police closing the port to tourists was more about not dealing with an international incident vs. safety; if local dies, no one is going to come after the marines.

Not all was bad though.  The (unique?) village hostel offered to take most of us in.  We were treated like kings: Special food was prepared for us and a few villagers joined us for lunch before being offered to go to a luxury hotel just off the coast: No one was there at the moment and we could use the beach front pool.  That was enough to convince us and we spent the afternoon chilling and laughing by the pool side: Our gang was made of 2 German girls Tamara &), a Swedish couple (Michael & Jessica), 2 fellow Canadians (Josh & Gaven) and a Spaniard (Blash).  At night, we got treated to a BBQ in the hotel courtyard, the cooler had cold beer and the music filled the air.

Next morning, the seas were “relatively” calmer and the hotel owner got a boat ready to take us to San Blas.  It was a very rough ride: the boat was riding up the waves before smashing down hard.  The boat might take it (although a couple of us were questioning it) but our backs surely didn’t; my whole back vertebra up to my neck felt as if it was squashed. Add to that plowing through 2-3m high waves meaning we were constantly splashed by sea water.  But 2 hours later, as we crossed the barrier reef and entered the archipelago, the sea was calm and serine.  The outer edge of the barrier reef act like a shield, a port’s harbor if you wish, blocking all the waves and offering us smooth sailing in between these palm filled islands.  San Blas belongs to the Kuna, an autonomous native culture who owns and manages the archipelago.  An island is owned by 1 or 2 Kuna families who live here and choose to build a few huts to cater for tourists: absolute basic lodging and 3 meals a day, mostly fresh sea food.  What else do you want? Oh yeah, rum :). How does $7 the bottle sounds like?  Entering the archipelago, we had the choice to go to any of the surrounding islands in the vicinity of Porvenir.  The girls chose to be dropped off at Iguana Island, a very small and isolated island with a couple of huts while the rest of us chose between a few other islands capable of receiving a dozen or so tourists thus offering a little bit more “life” but still being less than 100m in length.   I stayed at Senydup’s, sharing “my” island with several other cool tourists (Cray and Kate from Oz, Matheas from Deutshland, Marie, Andrea from Austria) all out here to relax and have a few drinks.  So what to do on an isolated palm island? Well first, watch out for falling coconuts.  Honest, these things can kill: 4 or 5 times a day a coconut will fall 15m down, the sound enough to send shiver down your spine. Second, just be :): Relaxation and fun are the motto here.  It’s truly a piece of paradise on earth.  Nights are even better:  we huddle around a bonfire, drinks are passed around, jump for a midnight swim (or skinny-dipping ;)) under the moonlight,…   During the day, I managed to organize a tour via lancha to a few surrounding islands so we can explore more of paradise, go snorkel, leave our footsteps on sandy shores and swim in different beaches.  We even visited the main community island to get a feel on how the Kuna go about their daily lives.

Unfortunately I had to head back to the mainland soon and due to the bad seas I wisely (read “reluctantly”) decided to have a 1 day buffer.  It will also allow me to continue my visit of Panama city: I wanted to check the Panama Canal in action at the Miraflores lock, visit Panama Viejo which was famously and ruthlessly sacked & burned by captain Henry Morgan (Ever wondered where Captain Morgan Rum name comes from?) and party in the trendy Uruguay street of new Panama.  BTW, new Panama City is a city of high-rises and wealth: A lot of money flows through these streets, not only because of the Canal but also because Panama is a major trade hub with all sorts of goods funneling through here (legally or illegally – and I am not talking about prohibited stuff!).   Even El-Donaldo (Donald Trump) is building one of his major Casino/Hotel complexes.  The sad part is new Panama stands next to the poorest slums I have seen.  The ironic part is that all of these skyscraper apartment buildings are empty: the 3 nights I spent in Panama City, the majority of these building had no lights… ghost town.  Inquiring with the locals taxi drivers and they are quick to point: these buildings are great money laundering tools.

Panama photo album

l left to Republica Dominicana the next morning and checked in into luxury.  Carol and Ravi will be getting married at the Paradysus, a prestigious beach resort.  Poor me, switching from hostels and dorms with skimpy breakfast to an all inclusive luxury resort.  Let me put it in another way: 1 night here will allow me to live almost a month in Bolivia.  At least Jaime and Kifa7 arranged that I share their room and soon after I was chilling on the beach with my good TO friends.  That alone was worth the trip.  During the 3 days leading to the wedding we hanged out by the beach, enjoying the tourist “scenery”, gouging on exquisite food, drinking Piña Colada, Mamajuana and CocoLoco before the group re-gathered for our nightly dinners and party.  As for the icing on the cake, well of course it was Carol and Ravi’s beach shore wedding.  The setting was truly magical and it was a sweet little ceremony surrounded by family and good friends.  These 2 were dating for more than 11 years and this ceremony was long in the waiting: you could see the joy exploding from the parents faces as much as the newly wed.  BTW, Ravi “was not worried” ;).

Carol & Ravi's wedding - Rep. Dominicana

I didn’t sleep that night as after the party I headed directly to the airport: my next destination was Cancun for Becky and Jason’s wedding that same afternoon.  All was going according to plan with the flights and timing… except I forgot about Jason’s cool and relaxed way of living :).  I was checking my e-mail at Panama’s airport to see how to meet-up with the boys prior to the wedding when I saw an e-mail from Jason.  It was sent yesterday, Thursday morning, informing us that the wedding day has been moved to “today @ 14:00”!  Oops, I missed the wedding :(.  The local weather channel predict a thunderstorm to lash Cancun on Friday and Becky made sure the wedding will still go ahead by having it moved one day earlier to Thursday. It was utterly disappointing not to be by Jay’s side on his wedding day and I felt disheartened, I really wanted to be part of this special occasion especially when you think the reception was purposely held to accommodate less than a dozen very close friends including family.

We made it up though.  The next 3 days, as the bride and groom’s parents headed back to Canada, I spent most of the days with Jason and Becky as well as Barry, Ryan and Sarah.  Becky even offered to wear the wedding dress at their beach hotel so I could be in the wedding picture.  The final day was spent chilling at their honeymoon resort before I let the newlywed enjoy their new life together (like their neighbors were ;)).

Becky & Jason's wedding - Cancun, Mexico

Now it’s time to stretch my legs – other than on the dance floor.  Since Cancun is an overhyped, rather anonymous and uninspiring beach city I decided to head south: my first stop was to head to Guatemala to visit the famous Tikal ruins.  Ever since I visited Palenque’s Maya ruins on the Mexican side I was eager to explore this other Maya marvel.  When I arrived to Flores, the base city to visit Tikal, I was in luck: a young British/Oz couple (Claire and Toby) were heading for a 3 day trek to reach Tikal (BTW, you can also directly visit Tikal via a 1 hour bus ride from Flores).  I happily joined them and the next morning, our guide Julian and ariero Carlos took us through the forests to our first campsite: Zots.  Zots means “bats” in the Maya language and the temples here, although overgrown by vegetation gave us a glimpse of the grandeur of the Mayan cities in current day Guatemala.  And the name “Zots” comes for the nearby cave where thousands of bats hide during the day before rushing out in a swarm at sunset.  Unfortunately for us (and even more for the bats) the cave crumbled a couple of days before we came.  But we still managed to see the surviving bats exit through a small whole in a furry buzz.  It lasted around 1 minute and we could hear the loud whistling sound and feel the wind resulting from this bat convoy.

At dinner time, we found out that Tikal actually lays 10hours away from Zots and our camp 2, the last permitted and safe campsite prior to entering the dense jungle is only a 3 hour walk from here.  That mean on our 3rd day, we will arrive late and tired at Tikal, only allowing us a few hours to visit the site.  We got tricked by the agency… and this was on top of finding (the painful way) that the food we got served at breakfast/lunch was expired! All of us, even the guides, spent the first night holding our stomach.  Next morning, feeling better  we decided to go for it: we will walk the 36Km separating us from Tikal (for me it will be a total of 43Km as I woke up early in the morning for a 1 hour walk to visit other Zots pyramids).  But Julian and Carlos were not in agreement with our decision and tried their utmost to make us stay at the 2nd camp.  Their fear was walking at sunset or in the dark in the jungle to reach Tikal: deadly spiders and snakes abound and incidents have been reported.  Carlos even “disappeared” on us for half an hour at lunchtime, leaving us with the task to light a fire and prepare lunch, otherwise it would have been impossible to carry on with our journey. Only by 14:00 we finally hit the road again.  We knew we had to rush and do 6 hours in less than 4.  And this was not your usual walk in the park: we where zigzagging through thick jungle, watching for overhead branches, avoiding spine filled tree trunks  (I grabbed one once trying not to fall… damn it hurts) or lianas littering the soil.  But it was a spectacular walk: the flora and fauna are stunning.  Every once and a while we hear the frightening (yet harmless) sound of howler monkeys and at other times we cross under a group of spider monkeys.  These guys were sometimes not too happy by our presence and start shaking violently the tree branches, breaking some of them and throwing them at us.  It’s even known that spider monkeys ill actually pee on you although it didn’t come to that today. We reached Tikal by sunset to the great relief and astonishment of Julian: he was really worried about us but all is good.  We entered the site and Toby and I even climbed the famed Temple IV to witness the warm sunset colors.  We then treated ourselves to a nice dinner, a good shower and soon thereafter we were fast asleep.

We woke up early morning to go witness the sunrise on Tikal.  Toby and Claire decided to go to Temple II to see the sunrise light up temple IV while I went to the later to see the actual sun rising.  None of us got their wish as it was a cloudy day.  Soon thereafter, Toby and Claire joined me on top of Temple IV and since we were alone, we took advantage of the moment, absorbing this magical sight, gazing at the complex in front of us while listening to howler monkeys and having our breakfast.  Once people started showing up we left to visit the site.  It’s really extensive, Tikal used to house an estimated 90,000 people.  Temples, platforms, altars and stelae abound and I strolled around the site up to closing time.  Pictures say it all and I really struggled to choose which ones to put.  A notable highlight was seeing and listening to howler monkeys when I returned (yet again) to Temple IV in late afternoon.

Tikal photo album

That night I had dinner with Claire and Toby and in the morning we said our goodbyes.  I was heading to Belize while they were further exploring Guatemala.  In Belize, same as in Guatemala, I only wanted to visit one site, this time the island of Caye Calker for some scuba diving.  During the Llama show I took pleasure in spending relaxed time and not rushing, enjoying my destinations to their fullest.  Belize with Caye Calker will be the same and I will spend 4 days here.  I first went snorkeling on the nearby reef, swimming with nurse sharks, rays and a multitude of fish before going Scuba diving.  On my first diving day, I went to dive the outside wall of the coral barrier before heading out the following day on a 2 hour boat ride to Turneffee Atoll for a 3 dive trip around some pristine coral reef and the oceans wall.  We saw turtles, sharks, spotted manta rays, moray eels,… but the best part was the astonishing coral floor.  It is an absolute marvel of submarine life and vegetation, in startling shapes and colors teaming with fish and small cretaceous.  I was joined by Perrine and Jocelyn, a French couple whom I met in Tikal.  It was an even more special moment for them:  Jocelyn just proposed to Perrine (congrats guys!) and the celebrations and photo taking was in full swing, even underwater.  I was lucky enough as Perrine took a few pics of me and shared her pics & videos!  Even if my scuba experience was remarkable, I have to admit that seeing a dolphin swimming freely in the ocean was a particularly special moment.

I decided not to dive the famous Blue Hole.  It was very expensive trip and diving 8min to a 40m depth after 2 hours of open water boat ride was not my cup of tea.  Instead, I decided to head back to the Riviera Maya to dive with Tiger sharks… although that didn’t turn out well either: the Tiger shark season ended a month ago (who didn’t do his homework?).  Ah well, next time.  But it really wasn’t all that bad. I went diving in a couple of cenotes off Playa del Carmen with Chac Mool internal air filled cavern full of stalactite being absolutely amazing.

Deep Blue photo album

And that’s it.  Tomorrow I will rejoin my baby and get my show on the road again.

Ride up!