By Capt. Scott BuckleyLet me start out by saying that I like Xcalak however as you read further you will undoubtedly wonder why. It will become clear near the end of this story.
We last left Ascension Fleet on our exit from Bahia Espirito Santo, Mexico and our trip to Xcalak to check out of Mexico before sailing to Belize. Checking out is a vital part of travel from one country to the next and is a bit alien to North Americans. You must show that you legally left the last country you visited and that your stay was without criminal incident. It seems reasonable until you actually have to do it. So far the only place we had been outside the USA by sailboat was the Bahamas and the country we went to after the Bahamas was again the USA which does not require that you checkout of the last country you visited. So checking out was new to us. Like I said we had declined to checkout of Mexico when we were in Isla Mujeres for a couple of reasons.
1. When you checkout of Mexico you have 48 hrs to actually exit the country.
2. There were places in Mexico farther south than Isla Mujeres that we wanted to visit.
3. After we left Isla Mujeres it would likely be many weeks before we actually left Mexico so we required a place to check out further south.
Sounds reasonable but actually finding a place farther south that would facilitate a sailboat and crew checkout proved more difficult than imagined. There were conflicting information, iffy port and anchorages, the incredulous looks from the Mexican port authorities, but that did not stop us from thinking we could figure it out. The first plan was to checkout in Mahahual where a new cruise ship dock had been constructed. They obviously checked those cruise ships in and out so some of us (I was not one of them) reasoned that those that took care of the cruise ships would welcome the extra pain and suffering of dealing with tight fisted penny pinching sailors. A couple of us did not like this plan due to the anchoring conditions at the cruise ship dock and what we did not like was there was no protection from the seas driven by the almost constant trade winds. This would mean anchoring off a lee shore (a big no-no for any sailor) and would mean landing a dinghy in the surf. Landing your dinghy is a surf is the stuff YouTube videos are made for because such a launch from or landing on such a shore is often a spectacular disaster. There was a small port about 4 miles away but the stated draft (read water depth) in this port was 3 and 4 feet. While this is plenty for the local fishing boats it was woefully insufficient for most sailboats. Add to that we would need to figure out a way to get from the port up to the cruise ship dock.
Our next option was Xcalak. Xcalak had a decent harbor with sufficient depth and the narrow cut through the reef, while terrifying seemed doable. What was in question was if any facilities existed for checking out. You know like customs and immigration. Baring that was there a taxi we could get and drive up to Mahahual and checkout with the cruise ships?
So armed with all these doubts we confidently sailed out of Bahia Espirito Santo in route to Xcalak. Well of course the best laid plans don’t always go without a hitch. When we woke up early the next morning there were some squalls to the east of us. Some in the Ascension fleet expressed nervousness about leaving. I wanted to yell on the radio; “to put on the big boy pants and pick up your anchors ladies”. however I had not put on big boy pants so I remained silent but pointed out if we delay then it would mean getting into Xcalak late in the evening and trying to come thru the reef cut with bad light. That the right course was to delay our departure all day and sail overnight and get there in the AM. Oddly enough they all agreed readily (The 1st mate and I exchanged surprise looks) provided I could predict no squalls the following morning. Even though I or anyone else for that matter could not predict such small localized weather event like squalls that pop up and die out quickly I said; “Sure.”
Given the additional time in Bahia Espirito Santo Tamera and I moved the boat over to another reef and went snorkeling. At 4PM that evening we hauled anchorage and set sail south.
We sailed on thru the night and passed Mahahual at around 4 AM. It was difficult to make out much in the dark. This location is also known as Costa Maya and is a brand new cruise ship terminal. While it makes a good location for cruise ships to tie for the day it is not so hospitable to anchored sail boats because it is open to the sea.
We arrived at the cut in the reef off of Xcalak, Mexico the next morning at around 10AM. We sailed up to the waypoint and lined our boat up with the range marker on shore and sailed into the harbor at Xcalak. Once anchored we called the port Captain on the the VHF radio and got a short response to report there the next day with our documents. We jumped in our dinghies and went ashore. We landed the dinghies near the big concrete municipal dock on a seaweed choked beach that smelled really awful. There was no way to get to the beach without walking thru about 20 ft. of this fetid water. Did I mention it was also hot.
|The only map of Xcalak we had which turned out to be horribly dated|
|The Port Captain's office in Xcalak|
|The main drag in Xcalak|
We walked around a bit and the town looked mostly abandoned. There was a very dusty tienda which seemed as surprised to see us as we were disappointed the stores contents which was mostly dust. We kept walking on and I could tell the groups spirits were falling. Did I mention it was hot and we did not find any place for a cool drink. We did run into a resident expat that indicated there was more going on on the southern end of the town. We also happened to see the Port Captains office. The guys wanted to check and see what was necessary to check out of Mexico. It was only about noon so there was time to start asking. Besides it might be a chance to get out of the sun. It was starting to get hot or did I already mention that.
The office looked abandoned but the door appeared open so I called out to see if anyone was there. A young man came out named Alberto and beckoned us to come in. Being the only one in the Ascension fleet group to speak any Spanish I began explaining our desire to checkout of Mexico so we could sail on to Belize. Alberto was a bit surprised to find out we had not already checked out in Isla Mujeres. Surprised that we did not already have our “despacho”. I explained the 48 hr rule and said we had intended to check out of Mahahual. Could we get a taxi or hire someone with a car to drive us to Mahahual so we could check out. Alberto said it was likely to be a bit more complicated than that as the official there would likely want to see our vessels there. I then explained the bad anchorages and the shallow harbor. Both things Alberto readily agreed with. While Alberto was part of the Mexican Navy he reported to the Port Captain and they conferred on the situation. I can’t say I understood much of what they said as my Spanish in very rusty and I was sweating buckets in there nice office. Alberto made some calls to various officials and even to the immigration agent in San Pedro, Belize to try and figure out what to do. I brought up Mahahual again and Alberto explained there was no immigration office in Mahahual. While they had customs there was no need for immigration since the cruise ship don’t carry people that immigrate. They only carry day trippers that show up the late morning and all leave by 3 PM the same day to their air conditioned staterooms with their trinkets, sunburns and a belly full of watered down drinks.
Alberto said he would look into the matter however it was likely that someone would need to make a trip to Chetumal. Chetumal is on the northern border with Belize and is a port of entry into Mexico. Chetumal had the required immigration and customs facilities. So you ask; “why did you not check out there, oh wise Captain Sir? Well, there is no way for deep draft sailboat to sail there and Xcalak was the closest Mexican port to Chetumal without going thru Belize (by the way can the sarcastic attitude, thank you). Checking out of Mexico was still the prerequisite to checking into Belize so we ended up right at the beginning again. Did I mention it was incredibly hot.
So we left the Xcalak Port Captain’s office while Alberto did his checking and began our search for something cool to drink like beer. We started walking towards the southern end of town in search of “Toby’s Restaurant”. The friendly expats we had met earlier had said Toby speaks English and pretty much knew everything about the area. I was really hoping to run into Toby. While my Ascension fleet comrades were quite sure that me and Alberto would figure out some way to checkout of Mexico they all had the distinct advantage of not understanding anything that was said. I on the other hand I had the distinct disadvantage of only understanding about half of what was said and I cannot say I was bubbling with confidence. Our alternatives if this did not work would be to sail north and return to Isla Mujeres and checkout there and then south again to Belize. I did not share this concern with the rest of Ascension fleet.
So south we walked and sweated our way to Toby’s. We got there and ordered beer. It was so hot that when the beer arrived I did know whether to drink it or pour on my head. I inquired if Toby” was about (remember my extreme lack of confidence) and found out he was away in Chetumal and would not return until tomorrow evening. Crap…..double crap. My Ascension fleet comrades peppered me with questions that I tried to answer honestly as best I could. They wanted assurances that it would all be OK. When we ordered a second round of beer we were informed they were now out of beer. Triple Crap…should have poured it on my head.
|The Ascension Fleet Gang from L to R: Candy, Scott, Greg, Pam, Rene, Don and Michael.|
|1st Mate on Kooky Dance (Tamera)|
So we left Toby’s and started wondering back the fetid beach but before we get to the dinghies that were floating peacefully like turds in a punch bowl (remember the smell when we arrived well it had not improved and the day got warmer) we ran into Alberto. Alberto want me to go with him to Chetumal with all 4 boat’s documentation and passports. I asked that another come with us and Greg from SV Arawa volunteered. The rest of the folks from Ascension Fleet would go back to the boat to get the required documentation, money and passports and meet us back on the beach in 20 minutes. Chetumal is 250 km by road from Xcalak. As it was going on to 4 PM it did not seem possible to get there before office hours ended. So we waded thru the poop soup where the dinghies waited and pushed them off with their crew to go and collect the required papers while Greg and I waited on the beach in poop water soaked shoes. It was still hot but there was an on shore breeze that wafted in the various aroma bouquet from the decomposing seaweed and fish that was piled a foot thick on the beach. The heat was still high and it accelerated the bacterial grow rate in our wet shoes which was a plus.
|Chetumal and Xcalak are geographically close by road they are 250km apart.|
But on we went and as we approached Chetumal the countryside gave way to small towns and then a modern city. Chetumal was pretty amazing and after our travels in the small backwater of Mexico and was pretty overwhelming at first. Alberto was driving around looking for something and we stopped and a very upscale shopping mall.
Alberto was talking to someone on his mobile phone and walking towards a dark section of the parking lot at the mall where there were some men waiting for us in the shadows. I stopped short of going into the shadows and beckoned the men out into the light where I could see them. They came forward and Alberto introduce us to one man from immigration and another from customs. Alberto again explained to these men what we were trying to do and what was planned. The immigration and customs guys would take our passports and money and process them. We were instructed to wait here at the mall for their return. We waited and Greg and I joked that we may have just pulled off the most non violent and exceedingly cordial mugging in history. But they did return with our stamped passports and documents. It was actually a bit cliché when they finally returned. We were walking around the parking lot looking for them and a car flashed their headlights at us like in the movies. We made the exchange and we quickly left the area.
We still had other things to do apparently and Alberto now drove into some very questionable sections of town. Alberto got lost and appeared to be way too nervous for my liking. He was so busy trying to find his way he was ignoring my inquires of; “what is going on?, “Where are we going?” “will my death be quick and with minimal pain?” The fact that Alberto was not answering did not sit well and I was waiting for some toughs to jump out from the alley and pull us from the car. It was at this time that I was glad the Greg came with me. While he may not have been able to do much (we were both retired engineers so while we could design brilliant and efficient defense weapons, developing personal hand to hand self defense skills had remained on both of our “to-do” lists) it would be good to have some company as we bled out from the numerous mortal wounds inflicted on us in some darkened alley. The other bright spot in my consternation of our present situation was if they stole our shoes as well they would be wondering, for a while, what that smell was as they drove their get away car off the scene of the crime.
We finally spotted a guy out in the street talking into his mobile phone and Alberto excitedly exclaimed “That’s him” but in Spanish and pulled over to the side of the street under and dim little street light. Under this dim little light we met a guy from the Chetumal Port Captain’s office. He looked through our vessel papers and and took the ones he would need. I did bring up the crew list at the time but they did not seem interested with my concerns. I wish they had heeded them a bit more. This guy would process these documents the next day and Alberto would return to Chetumal on his own to pick them up.
So after our clandestine parking lot meeting and the dark street meetings we were on our way back to Xcalak. I was about 10:30PM or later and we still had 250 km to go. We had not been able to call Ascension Fleet to let them know our whereabouts and ETA so they were undoubtedly worried. Alberto dropped us off at the beach and we called the fleet to pick us up at the dock in a dinghy. It was about 1AM. There were a lot of questions and we promised to give them the full debriefing the next day.
We went into town the next day and found if we landed the dinghies away (about 200 ft) from the municipal dock the beach and water was not smelly or so thickly choked with rotting seaweed. This was actually closer to the part of town we were more interested in anyway. There were small stores to provision in, laundry services and beer. The folks were friendly and I was really beginning to understand what I liked so much about Mexico. Mexico can and does most things for itself. I can get Mexican goods and services for almost any need. What I like about this is for one it is cheap and more importantly that they are not so dependent on the USA.
What I saw in the Bahama’s was a total dependency on imported goods from the USA. Almost all the food (with the exception of conch) came from the USA and that included fruits and vegetables. The same was true in Belize where any goods you needed came from the USA or Mexico. But in Mexico you could buy what you needed from Mexico. This means if the USA were to wither away the Mexicans could and would go on without them. I cannot explain why this endears me to Mexico so much but it does and in places like Xcalak that is so far off the tourist foot path that USA products don’t stand a chance of competing with Mexican this market but the wants and needs of the residences do not go unfulfilled. Another surprise was basket ball. In this area (as far as I know) basket ball is a lot more popular than soccer. In fact every school has a basket ball team but may or may not have a soccer team. The basket ball courts in town are new and freshly painted and well maintained while the abandoned soccer fields are overgrown and falling apart. I also noticed the basket ball courts are right in the middle of town where the soccer fields our on the outskirts of town as they are generally too big to locate in town. As we were spending the rest of the week in Xcalak waiting to check out and get some good weather for moving south we did some snorkeling on the reef and enjoyed the town.
|Greg and Candy SV Arawa|
|Don and Pam SV Rainbow's End|
|Rene SV Sea Mist|
|Michael SV Sea Mist|
|Xcalak from the Anchorage|