Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bullies at the Belize Border Crossing

Since I started researching this trip I had heard stories about the Chetumal border crossing.  This is the main border crossing from Mexico to Belize.  It has a reputation for being sketchy despite all the official buildings and staffed by the biggest bunch of bullies in both countries.  Chetumal has gained its place in infamy with the Mexico exit tax border scam.  There is no registered exit tax to leave Mexico but the internet reports that officials often charge passengers leaving $20 for an exit stamp.  Unfortunately after years of scamming and no one to check these federales for being bad people, it's become an almost legitimate thing.  I had to get to Belize City to meet my friend Ryan and start the next portion of my trip and was in no mood to deal with border patrol.

My options as far as I could tell were to take the overnight bus from Tulum to Belize City or bus to Chetumal and then take another bus to Belize City.  Both options involve a border crossing at Chetumal. Joy.  I chose the overnight bus because I figured I was getting ripped off either way and at least that bus would save me a night accommodation.

The bus left Tulum at nearly 1am, luckily I met a couple of girls from England to chat with for a couple hours at the bus station. A very well air conditioned nap later and we reached the border crossing buildings at 4am in the morning.  It was raining and everyone was in a mood.  I pulled $20 out of my wallet, hoping that I wouldn't have to fork it over but not very optimistic about it.  I shoved my wallet back in my bag preparing to take it with me when they announced "no bags."  Annoyed, I dropped my backpack without thinking to put my wallet back in the locked pocket.  As we waited, I thought I saw a shadow rifling through where I had been sitting.  I convinced myself that it was my imagination colored by all the negative things I'd heard about this border crossing. Wrong.

I finally got into the border office, our rotund border officer was announcing 'veinticinco dólares o tresciento pesitos.' What?!  I grumbled back to the bus for another $5, cursing a system that I knew full well had bigger problems to deal with than scamming border guards.  I grabbed my wallet, flipping through the bills I noticed something was off. A 500 peso note was missing from my wallet.  Paranoid shadows my foot! 

In the grand scheme of things I made a rookie mistake by not securing my money and it only cost me about $45 and a chunk of pride.  It could have been a lot worse After dealing with the second most grumpy border patrol to enter Belize and a warning to take a cab for the half mile from the bus station to my hotel, I was exhausted and aggravated.  I had three more border crossing to make in the next 5 days and this was how it was going to start?!

Cavern Diving in Dos Ojos

I began this trip there were certain adventures that I had to do while I was traveling such as diving the Belize Barrier Reef and seeing some of the Mayan ruins throughout Central America.  Some adventures were decided NOT on my itinerary.  Cavern diving in cenotes was exactly one of these activities. I have seen the "Caves" portion of Plant Earth and other documentaries of divers passing through small underwater crevices, combined with minimal external light. I'm pretty sure several thriller/horror flicks have plots that include at least one of these elements. Doesn't that sound encouraging?

If there's thing I've learned while traveling it's that meeting new people leads to new adventures.  One of the most talked about activities at my hostel in Tulum was diving at Dos Ojos or the Pit.  I heard the stories of formations and an assortment of photographs.  I admit my curiosity was starting to peak but nothing rewatching the aforementioned BBC special wouldn't fix.

The next day I joined a group of two Canadians and an Australian for the afternoon.  Cenote diving was at the top of this groups' list of things to do.  I still wasn't keen on the idea of being surrounded by rocks but I was game for walking around the main avenue while they looked for SCUBA shop that would be willing to take them diving the next day. There were far more SCUBA shops offering cenote dives. I still think of cavern diving as a relatively new option to basic certified divers but looks like I'm behind my adrenaline seeking diving peers. While going over dive certification levels and dates of previous dives, two of the three potential divers opted to snorkel instead of dive.  My new friend Carrie had been the most gun-ho about diving in a cenote and was now the last man standing.  I saw all of this developing and began having a serious internal debate between wanting Carrie to not have to go diving on her own and not wanting to tempt a panic attack underwater and underground.  I finally pulled on my big shorts and told Carrie that I'd dive with her, plus it was starting to sound pretty cool.

We booked a two-dive trip to Dos Ojos for the following morning.

The next morning, four backpackers, a dive master, and a dog loaded into an old GMC pickup and headed for one of the most popular cenotes in the area, Dos Ojos. The cenote is named for the two giant sinkholes connected by a cavern that give the illusion of two eyes staring up from the underworld.  In reality it's part of one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world with dozens of sink holes and nearly 200 miles of passageways.

That white dotted line is our dive route
I have been incredibly spoiled on my diving adventures because I've never had to carry my gear very far.  Until I decided the go cavern diving.  Let me paint a picture for you,  a bright sunny day in the mid-80s (~30C), about 60% humidity, and a full length 5mm neoprene wetsuit. It was hot! Now you're going to carry all your gear down two flights to slight limestone steps.  I'm still surprised I didn't break my leg.  Some of the other operators brought your gear down for you but Carrie and I were not so lucky.  The nice thing about carrying the gear down is that the cool water was a welcome change.  Since there's little to no direct sunlight in the caverns the water stays pretty cool.  I was very happy to have a 5mm suit on by the end of the first dive.

When you first jump in the sinkhole, it's just like jumping into a themed resort swimming that could have been nicknamed "Pirate's Cove" or the like. Even the initial descent wasn't so bad.  When our dive master started off toward the base of the cavern wall and disappeared into the shadows, that's when I started to wonder what the heck I was doing?

Diving entrance at Ojo Este
The first few meters were like learning to dive all over again.  I had to remind myself to breathe and not hold my breath as we proceeded down the passage.  The sunlight disappears quickly but the limestone formations which appear in the light of your dive torch and distracts you from the encroaching darkness.  Four or five times over the course of the first dive, we would pass through a section of passage that opens to a cenote and daylight would flood into the turquoise water.  The silhouettes of the limestone columns were especially impressive in these areas.  Plus there was also the slim chance of getting a clear picture of the other worldly scenery.  Our first 45 minute dive had me spell bound, though mildly annoyed at how difficult it was to photograph the impressive stalactites and stalagmites.

Through the tunnel
I like to think I saw this shot in Planet Earth
The second round of diving started off a little cooler and much darker.  The formations were arguably more impressive than the first dive.  The spooky atmosphere of the spotlight lit crooked passages where you can't quite see what's beyond the bend or lurking below you that adds to the allure.  About midway through this dive we surfaced in la baticueva or batcave.  This cavern has a single shaft of light that serves as its entrance to the world above.  The ceiling is littered with tiny stalactites and it's namesake, bats.  I could have stayed there a while to poke around and take photographs.  I felt a little guilty holding up my companions so I settled for a few shots and we moved on to the rest of the dive.  Somewhere in the second half of the dive as we wove through formations and boulders, my secondary regulator came loose.  All of a sudden, there was a yank and I couldn't swim any further.  I'm trying to keep my panic to a minimum as I turned around fully expecting to see a frogmen resembling something from Scooby-doo.  It didn't help much when nobody was there because that meant that I was stuck on something.  A few adjustments and curse words later the line came free and I was back underway with a vivid reminder of why I was so hesitant to do this in the first place.

The Batcave
Intricate stalactite formations

After spotting the final warning that we had reached the end of our line, it was time to leave the caves and lug our gear back up the stairs to the truck. When we got back Carrie thanked me for saying I'd do the dive too.  I guess we ended up encouraging each other to try something new. 

End of the line

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Here Comes the Sun: Tulum Ruins

In a desperate search for the sun, I abandoned Cozumel for Tulum.  The only thing I really know about the town was its proximity to the ruins of Tulum and Cóba.  The town itself isn’t much, there’s plenty of restaurants and shops geared toward the tourists that use it as a base camp for the afore mentioned ruins.
After a day of rest and catching up on emails, I slathered on sunscreen, rented a bike, and took off to the Tulum ruins 2 km outside of town.  Only problem with this plan was that I initially took off in the wrong direction, adding at least an extra 5 km to my ride by the time I recognized signs for the cenotes located on the other side of town.  Passing through the entrance to the ruins I was greeted by a  thoroughfare filled with hawkers and at least six “official” information booths.  I stopped for a free map from one and was flat out lied to about some ruins not being included in admission.  If you bike, you can ride all the way to the actual ticket booth and lock your bike up there.  As soon as I stopped biking and walked to the ticket line, the comfortable light breeze from moving about turned into the soggy grossness of high heat and humidity.  It was the end of my sunscreen, although I would discover that until much too late.

My kickass wheels for the day
You meander down and path to what appears to be a plain stone wall with a narrow tunnel.  Avoiding the persistent two-way traffic and low ceiling, you emerge into the ruin complex.  There was a little bit of a ‘through the rabbit hole’ feeling passing through the tunnel.  Buildings and foundations of buildings are found at regular intervals. Buildings at the edge of the cliff face rise above the other buildings an air of importance.  I overheard a guide say that the excavated site only encompassed less than 10% of the former city.

Entering the ruin complex

I spent two hours wandering around the site which was way longer than I needed to see everything.  The most popular views are el Castillo and el Templo del Dios Viento looking out to sea and the beaches at the cliff base.  There are not a lot of buildings around the site but the view on the cliff is hard to beat. The combinations of blues and greens and grays just as vibrant as the postcards and desktop backgrounds suggest.  There’s a staircase that goes down to the beach by El Castillo which proved critical for cooling off a little mid-wander.

El Castillo
El Templo del Dios Viento
 One recurring source of entertainment was the spiked iguanas that roamed around like they owned the place.  Every few feet a new lizard came into view, often taking an unsuspecting tourist by surprised. Most of the lizards were pretty small, probably 18 inches from head to tail and skinny.  But some of them have surpassed the three foot mark and are as big around as my leg.  Despite one cocky twenty-something male's insistence that they don't bite because they don't have teeth (please don't say things like this people, you sound like idiots), I'm quite sure one of these bad boys could put a serious hurt on any fingers/hands that got too close.  Luckily they didn't seem to care about the tourist milling about and pose as some of the more interesting subjects on the grounds.

The sunburn on my shoulder took a week to heal - I don't even want to talk about the tan lines.  I was so ready to actually spend some time in the sun while in MEXICO that I didn't care.  An all day pass to the ruins is $5.  The view from the cliff alone is worth the trip. I didn't go on a tour or have any sort of guide for these ruins.  As I said before the site is pretty small, I'm sure the additional information would have helped me appreciate the buildings more but the price difference wasn't worth it to me.  This trip could easily be combined with an afternoon at the beach.  I strongly recommend packing lots of water and lunch if you do.  My crispy, splotchy shoulders urge you to remember to bring extra sunscreen, especially if you're there around midday.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: Thundering Niagara Falls

The American Falls from Niagara, Ontario
In the heat and humidity of Central America, the cloud of mist and breeze at Niagara Falls is alluring.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Level Up in SCUBA

I got my open water scuba certification last year and thought I would be set for a while.  When I started planning this trip and Belize popped into the picture, I began to check out getting my advance open water certification. The AOW cert is made up of 5 adventure dives; deep and navigation dives are required and then you get to pick 3 dives.  In my opinion, the main perk of getting your advanced open water is being able to go to 100ft instead of 60ft.  But you also get to try different things with an instructor present.  I ended up picking peak performance buoyancy, fish identification, and night diving.  That worked out to two dives per days plus a night dive.  I had a chance to try out my new underwater housing for my canon S100 during 3 of my dives. I had done the test of holding it in the sink for 15 mins to see if there are any obvious leaks.  There's a huge difference between 5 inches and 20, 60, 100ft of water.  I was so so nervous the first time I took it to depth.

Peak buoyancy and navigation were up first.  These were the most work intensive dives because I had to demonstrate control of fine tuning my buoyancy and navigate using three different techniques.  After I completed my skills, we were able to dive around the shore off the dive shop.  During one of these dives I some my first eel and a flounder and soon felt let I was in an aquarium tank.  There were live coral heads around as well as sponges.  That was also my first encounter with current.  I don't know if I'm too streamlined or too much like a sail because the current could pick me and move me along easily.

That night I did my night dive.  There's a general rule about night diving - Don't bring any new equipment.  So of course I brought my camera and also had a torch to deal with for the first time.  I was tempted by the lure of octopus, barracuda, eels moving about, and bio-luminescent plankton.  After a few initial flailing moments in the darkness of the water, I settled into another world experience of only being able to see what was lite by my torch.  Highlight of the dive was spotting three different octopuses.

The next day brought a deep dive to 100ft and my fish ID course.  We took the boat through the rain to two different dive spots. The problem with being the least experienced diver is that I burned through air the quickest so I spent the most time bobbing in the boat which didn't do any favors for my stomach.  Highlights from these dives included sea turtles, glimpsing a shark over the edge of the sea wall, and a pair of giant groupers.  The current was very quick on both of these dives which required some pretty good buoyancy control and patience.  My battery nearly died on the second dive of the day.  I would have brought my second battery to change out but I was way too nervous about getting a tight seal and preventing the housing from fogging up to risk changing it.  I understand why some people prefer video while scuba diving.  The photography takes a really steady hand and dealing with a flash is much more difficult than I thought it would be.  Granted my first night dive probably wasn't the best time to start messing with it.

My AOW course was a fantastic experience.  My first day I worked with the head instructor and a newly certified instructor and the second day I was with the head instructor and while the dive master coordinated the rest of the people on the dive.  Throughout all of the dives the professionals were pointing out interesting wildlife.  The ridiculous rains the island was experiencing hurt visibility at many dive sites, but the dive master was able to recommend places that were not overcrowded and you could still see a good bit.

General tips:  My recommendation for finding a dive shop on vacation is to go with one that will give you enough information that you feel comfortable up front in combination with good reviews on TripAdvisor and  I went with Blue Angels Dive Shop and Scuba School which is part of Blue Angels Dive Resort.  They are a little ways off the main plazas on San Miguel but I think it's worth the walk or taxi fare.  Everyone working there was polite and helpful.  My advanced course included instruction, materials, gear rental, PADI fees, and a t-shirt for $365 including tax.

Disclaimer: Blue Angels did not request a favorable review nor did they give me any discounts.  My opinions are my own.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Caught in the Rain at Cozumel

The thing that made the biggest impression on my first four days in Mexico was the rain.  Unbeknownst to me, Hurricane Barbara had hit the Pacific Coast of Mexico several days earlier and was slowly pulverizing Chiapas and the Yucatan with days of rain.  Never in all of my planning had I taken into account days of rain.

Arriving in Stormy Mexico
The island of Cozumel does not have the best drainage system. The locals said it's because the city grew too quickly to deal with everything properly.  As a result the streets flood like mad!  Every morning I waded to wherever I needed to go.  The first morning I was convinced my advanced water class would be cancelled because the water had come up over the sidewalk in front of my hostel.  Nope. The entrance to the resort where the class was being held resembled a kiddie pool but we were still going to complete two dives. 

Entrance to the resort

The next day morning I was woken by thunderstorms again.  This time I didn't question if the dive was going to happen or not.  I just braced myself for a rainy bouncy ride to the dive site.  That afternoon, the skies cleared for a few hours and the sun came out.  I contemplated sticking around for an extra day so I could actually enjoy Cozumel in the sun. 

Storm drain fail

The morning of the third day, thunder rang out at 7am and I know I would be on the 10am ferry off the island.  I went two hours down the coast to Tulum.  There's still a significant chance of thunderstorms here but at least there's a sun peaking out behind the weather icon.

Main Avenue to the Ferry dock
Have you ever called it quits on a place because of the weather?