Friday, February 26, 2016

Bird watching . . . sort of

We are not avid birdwatchers but every morning a joyful bird song comes drifting through the open companionway.  What is that bird?  I think it is the Melodious Blackbird (or Pi’lch in Mayan). This midsize songbird resides from the East Mexican Coastline to the Yucatan and south to Costa Rica. It sings, whistles and calls around here all day.

Melodious Blackbird

That got me thinking about identifying other local feathered wildlife. These three species appeared by the boat this morning:

Frigates: These fabulous flyers have a 90” wingspan that combined with their light body weight and forked tail, enables them to easily reach high altitudes. They can swoop down and snatch small fish from the water, dipping only their bills into the sea. They can not walk or swim and spend all their time in flight or perched on mangroves.

Brown Pelicans: Richard and Murray both enjoy pelican-watching. Even with those enormous bills,  they have no problem making short, dramatic dives into the water.  We frequently hear loud splashes beside the boat that sound like someone falling off the dock . . . pelican.

Brown Pelican keeping us entertained
Cormorants: Apparently these birds are everywhere we go and are not among my favorites. Amazingly, they can dive over 80 feet to grab fish and are known for spreading their wings and standing still for hours waiting for their feathers to dry.
Cormorants seem to be everywhere?

Exotic birds I’m keeping an eye out for (but probably won’t see):  Yucatan Parrot and Blue crowned motmot.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Welcome to Mexico's Yucatan

We are at the El Milagro Marina on Isle Mujeres off the coast of Cancun thoroughly enjoying ourselves and soaking up as much Mexican culture as possible. We are only a 20 minute ferry ride from Cancun so we have spent the last two days with Ann and Tony in a rental car touring the area including two Mayan ruins.

Mayan Temple at Coba
First, we headed to Cobá. The ruins at Cobá (“Water Stirred by Wind”) are graceful and impressive. Cobá may have once had the largest population of all the ancient Mayan cities. This vast Mayan archeological site dates from 600-900 A.D. and there were an estimated 55,000 - 100,000 people living there. It was the heart of a large metropolis composed of many cities within the eastern Yucatan.

As many as fifty sacbes (ancient roads) led into this huge Mayan city center, one of them over 62 miles long, the longest in the Mayan world.

Temple at Ek'Balam

The steepness of the Nohoc Mul pyramid (the tallest in the Yucatan at over 126 feet) and the building techniques employed here are characteristic of the Petan region of Guatemala. There are stories that indicate a ruling queen here married a priest from Tikal, which may be why the architecture of the two sites is similar.
Tony, John and Richard

Climbing the 120 stairs to the top of the Grand Pyramid at Cobá is worth the effort it takes. The view from the top is breathtaking and you need to take a few deep breaths after the steep climb up. The climb down is also a bit challenging since a tumble would be painful at best.

The next day we again traveled by taxi, ferry, car and foot.  This time we headed to a cenote. There are hundreds if not thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan. Cenotes are underwater sinkholes formed when limestone caves collapse, revealing undergrounds pools. The Mayans thought the pools were sacred places to communicate with gods of the underworld. As such some were sites of human sacrifice. We visited X’Keken which is completely  underground. After making our way past the parking lot attendant, admission booth, souvenir vendors, photographers, snorkel rentals, and tour guides, we were led down a narrow stairway and into the cave-like structure where we could swim in the fresh water pool. Tony, Anne and Richard all agreed the water temperature was comfortable enough so Kay was tempted to go in until the guide explained that the water is filled with bat excrement which the catfish feed on.

After changing into dry clothes, we drove to Valladolid located halfway between Cancun and Merida. This colonial city founded in 1543 reminded us somewhat of Ponce in Puerto Rico. There is a main plaza surrounded by stucco buildings painted pastel colors. We ate lunch at El Meson del Marques in a building dating from the 17th century. 

Local foods were featured on the menu and Richard and Kay tried the cochinita pibil - meat marinated in achiote and spices, wrapped in banana leaf and baked underground. To eat you squeeze a bitter orange over it and sprinkle with a powder made from dried local peppers.  It was excellent and so was the limon margarita.

If we return to Valladolid, we will visit Case de los Vends (House of the Deer) an 18,000 sq.ft. private home/museum with over 3000 pieces of Mexican folk and contemporary art collected by an American couple over the past 50 years. 

Next it was on to Ek' Balam (“Black Jaguar”) a Yucatec-Maya archaeological site within the municipality of Temozón, Yucatán. The site is noted for the preservation of the plaster on the tomb of Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok, a king buried in the side of the largest pyramid. Dating from 100 BC to its height at 700-1,200 BC, Ek’ Balam was located about 32 miles northeast of better known Chichen Itza. Ek’Balam has only been fairly recently opened to visitors.

The most striking building on the site is the Acropolis, at once a temple and a palace. It features ornate carvings about two-thirds of the way up, decorating the exterior of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Many of these have been restored, but you still get an excellent sense of how grand and unusual it was originally. Rising over 100 feet and measuring about 540 by 210 feet at its base, the Acropolis dominates the area and rises well above the surrounding forest. It was up here that the king and his family lived, with a 360-degree view of unbroken horizons.

A recurring motif in the carvings is the jaguar–Ek Balam itself means “dark jaguar.” Large stone teeth create the impression of a massive jaguar’s mouth protecting the tomb, and frescoes and carved warriors remain uniquely well preserved (and reconstructed) among modern-day Mayan sites. To get there is a very steep climb on uneven steps without a handrail. It’s only a matter of time before Ek Balam follows several of the other Maya sites in banning visitors from climbing the structures, but for now one can freely scale the temple and not only see the fresco up close but also get a spectacular view of the surrounding region with unbroken views to the horizon.

Groceries at Chedraui.  Gotta love a supermarket where you can buy not only the usual edibles but also motocicletas (motorcycles)!   

Mexico is very different than what we anticipated in many ways.  It is beautiful, which we expected but it is also has excellent infrastructure, is clean and orderly and the people are very friendly and helpful.  In Isla Mujeris where we are docked, we have reunited with old friends from the eastern Caribbean including Ted and Barbara from Vermont on Rosa Dos Ventos, Tony and Ann from GB on Argosea, and met new friends as we settled in. 

Eating is a major sport in Mexico.  One meal that was very memorable was at Lolo's. Dinner at Lolo Lorena is a fabulously unique experience. A few evenings a week Lolo opens her home to 10-15 guests for dinner served at communal tables, under the stars, in a private outdoor courtyard behind her home. Lolo is chef and hostess, welcoming everyone, explaining each course and telling tales of entertaining life. During our visit we found that she was still wheelchair-bound after a fall and had died her hair green. She began with each guest introducing him/herself and amazed us by then reciting all of our names. Lolo is Belgian although her cuisine begins with classic French cooking. She puts a spin on recipes by shopping locally when possible so dishes depend on what is fresh at the markets and what she is in the mood to prepare. Usually there are no choices - it’s what Lolo feels like serving. We all brought our own wine and lovely wine glasses were set out on the table. Our waiter came around with jars of glitter and sprinkled the tablecloths with glittery designs. The meal was both interesting and delicious and included tuna tartare, a salad, tomato bisque, and shrimp with risotto. Desserts are spectacular. That’s plural. A large plate with seven small portions of different desserts for each diner. Most were chocolatey and all were delicious.

While Mexico has been a delight, there is one issue that seems to touch many.  Payoffs to traffic police are known as “mordidas” or “little bites.” Yup, our rental car was pulled over for allegedly running a red light and the officer made in clear, without speaking English, that we either pay him $1800 pesos ($100USD) or accompany him to the police station.  To pay or not to pay? That is the question. Without knowledge of local laws or customs, we opted to pay the bribe and be on our way.  This is apparently a common issue with rampant police corruption.  As we acclimate to the ways of Mexico, we will become more astute at how to avoid these situations.

 John Creelman, an “old” friend from Vermont, has been on board since before we left Key West.  He was interested in experiencing a passage and joined us for the 400-mile trip to Isla Mujaris.  Passage making, especially relatively short ones (4 days or less) can be a bit tiring.  Nevertheless, they give you a unique appreciation for your destination, one that you don’t have when you step out of an airplane after 6 hours. You also don't experience 20 foot waves in an airplane!  

Our next weeks will be a continuation of our exploration of the Yucatan with a side trip to Merida.  Stay tuned and let us know when you plan to join us.

Thanks for following
Richard & Kay

Some additional Pics

Ek' Balam

Dinner at El Milagro
Our Marina Home

Richard and John atop the Temple at Coba