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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November 18, 2016

Panama City: it's better than you think!

Until recently, Panama City often brought to mind the global shipping industry and the imprisoned cocaine-trafficking dictator Manuel Noriega. While for us it brought back memories of our 1996 stay in an unsafe city, just a few years post-US invasion. As well as the most terrifying taxi ride we’ve ever had to endure (no, we’re not paying you extra for getting hopelessly lost and taking us through a slum where the car was menaced by locals…)
An old colonial mansion in Casco Viejo which has yet to be developed
the ruins of an old convent now house a museum of religious art
 But the oceanside capital has re-emerged with a glittering new skyline to rival Miami’s, Casco Viejo, the colonial-era quarter where centuries-old ruins are being transformed into boutique hotels, art galleries and cafés, and one of the liveliest waterfronts we’ve had the good fortune to explore. In short: Panama City is incredibly cool.

Exploring the Calzada de Amador
No one is more surprised by this than us.

When our line handlers, Russ and Diane, told us they had settled in Panama City after exploring a huge range of expat communities, I was pretty sure they should look around a bit more. But then we set off for our first day of exploring.

Once considered too dangerous to visit, the old quarter has found a new life

a boutique hotel expanding into the adjacent building
Casco Viejo turned out to be that traveller’s fantasy of a neighbourhood just on the cusp of becoming the next hip thing. It’s also a photographer’s dream of impeccably renovated colonial mansions tucked between ruined buildings that are still adorned in wrought iron and faded pastel paints. The streets are populated by shaved ice vendors, musicians, and kids playing soccer. It’s picturesque and delightful without being overtly touristy--yet.
ceviche at the fish market
From the Old Quarter it’s a short walk to the seafood market. I loved the look of the traditional fishing boats with the glittering backdrop of a modern city and made a b-line there to photograph them—but it was the seafood restaurants that made us determined to return. A big serving of fresh (and oh, so yummy) ceviche and glass of sangria came to less than $5. The people watching was free.
a freaking adorable sloth who graciously opened his eyes for us
Each outing has been a treat. We read mediocre reviews of the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra nature center—but looked like the best place for us to see sloths (and the island is across the street from the ‘dinghy dock’ where we go ashore). Happily the center was well worth the $5 entry fee. We spotted three sloths and the young volunteers were eager to show us the marine exhibits. Even though we somehow missed the signature frog exhibit—spotting sloths in the wild was enough to make me happy.
The Frank Gehry designed Bio Museo
 Every Panamanian we’ve spoken to is thrilled with how their city has evolved—and rightly so. We should all live in places that become not only more beautiful but safer, cleaner and more welcoming. Our stay here was extended by the uncooperative weather and Ev’s uncooperative heart and we’re happily making the best of it.

November 17, 2016

The Best Places in the World for a Heart Attack—a roundup of international healthcare

Okay, there really isn’t a good place for a heart attack, or any medical emergency. But with almost eight years of international travel under our keels, we’ve now experienced medical care in far-flung destinations that ranges from the biopsy and diagnosis of skin cancer, to treatment for ear infections, eye infections, pneumonia and whooping cough, to the ongoing management of Evan’s heart issues.

What we’re found is that in most places, basic health expenses were easy for us to cover out of pocket. But short of full travel insurance, having some sort of back-up plan; whether it’s evacuation insurance, catastrophic insurance or self-insurance (aka a credit card with a very high limit and the ability to pay it off)—is also pretty essential. What we’ve done has varied depending on where we are, but for the most part we’ve relied on self-insurance and paid expenses out of pocket.

Curious about the standard rate for an EKG and visit to a cardiologist? Read on:

Mexico is one of the countries that’s considered great for routine healthcare. Both La Paz and La Cruz are popular for check-ups and prescription updates. Typically treatment is excellent and modern—my skin cancer checks (I went for two, Ev had one) were accurate and affordable ($125 for a full screen and biopsy with Dr Alma Vargas in PV). Treatment for pneumonia was straightforward--two doctor visits ($30, $50), x-rays ($25), inhalers ($50).

During our 18 months we also visited local dentists every six months—basic cleanings were around $30, fillings another $30 and Evan needed a root canal which ended up in the $600 range. Keep in mind Mexican dentists rarely use x-rays and rely on physical signs of decay. So our rule of thumb is to visit the same dentist at the same time as another family. If too many cavities are found we know we’ve hit on someone who’s too enthusiastic with the drill and we all move on. (Note this was five years ago so prices have likely gone up some.)

Crossing the South Pacific we carried DAN evacuation insurance which has evolved into DAN Boater. This insurance can evacuate us to a place we can be treated—but it doesn’t cover treatment costs once you’re there—so having a plan about where to go is vital. We did get some prescription drugs—anti-malarials in Vanuatu ($20), cream for a skin infection in French Poly ($30) and free vaccinations in the Marquesas.

In Australia we were required by Ev’s work visa to buy basic insurance (from $150/per month per family). Dental was out of pocket—Ev and I went to the local dental school and had checkups ($60 each), Maia went to a local dentist and her check-up and cleaning ($200 and a filling was $210). But before our insurance went into effect we paid out of pocket. I had a ‘well-woman’ check-up ($110) and a skin check ($185). Evan saw a Dr. for sore knees ($75 plus $133 for x-rays).

We left Australia with updated vaccines including jabs for rabies. These were all out of pocket and the total cost was about $1000. We also updated our First Aid kit with new antibiotics.

Our first medical experience in Malaysia was when Evan began having heart problems. He saw a private cardiologist in Penang ($80), then a short while later ended up in the emergency room at the public hospital in Lankawi for blood work, and an EKG ($20).

Crossing the Indian Ocean we opted for insurance with Skymed, which evacuates you to the country of your choice, a detail that made it preferable to DAN. Some sort of evacuation insurance was also a requirement for visiting Chagos (and later St Helena and Ascension Islands).

In South Africa we looked into visiting both a cardiologist (Ev) and a skin doctor (me) both had long wait lists and high fees ($400 for the cardiologist) as well as questionable records (one friend paid to see a well-regarded skin doctor then returned to Australia for surgery, only to learn the skin check had missed a melanoma). Evan did see a doctor to get prescriptions (about $50) and Maia saw an optometrist for new glasses ($50).

In St Helena, Maia developed an eye infection and visited the hospital—where her care was free because of her age. In Suriname I had an ear infection treated (two appts at $45 each + prescriptions) and Evan had his suspected heart attack: three days in Cardiac Care Unit an angiogram and other tests: $2800.

Since the episode in Suriname Ev has required ongoing cardiac care. Luckily both Curacao (Bloodwork $70, EKG and Cardiologist visit $70) and Panama (EKG and Cardiologist visit $125) have well-trained, English-speaking cardiologists who he was able to get next-day appointments with.

So all this said—there really is no one medical insurance answer. It varies according to how long you are away from your home country and where you spend your time while away. Our basic plan has been to stay up to date on all preventative healthcare—we vaccinate for whatever the locals are vaxing against (assuming we may be even more susceptible), we get check-ups, we don’t let things linger (too long…) and we buy insurance when we're in more expensive countries.

What we’ve learned though is in countries of mid-level affluence, healthcare options are usually often both excellent and affordable.
* all amounts USD

November 8, 2016

We’re in the Pacific, Man: Panama Canal Transit

The lock gates close on the Caribbean
Transiting the canal is a highlight for most yachts and we’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice, in two different boats. Both times were mostly drama-free (we’ll get to the minor moments of excitement) and for far less effort than going around Cape Horn—after two days in the Canal we’re again back in the Pacific.

Unlike traveling by cruise ship or tourist boat, on a yacht it’s all hands on deck. Transiting can be a fairly busy experience. To transit we’re required to have a skipper (me), four line handlers (Evan and Maia + two volunteers, Russ and Diane) and our advisor.

The first time we transited advisors were still pilots—the same guys who take the big ships through. But with pilot wages reaching up to 1k per day, yachts were costing the canal money. So ten years ago a new system was put in place and canal employees who were interested could apply to train as advisors. 400 people applied for the gig and 60 were selected and trained. Both of our advisors do the transits on their days off and both call it the best job in the world. Their expertise and enthusiasm made our transit a joy. They really understand that yachtees are not just moving a boat—but transporting their hopes and dreams.

Russ and Diane adjust the lines as the lock fills
For boats that travel under eight knots a Canal transit takes two days. You transit the first three locks up to the lake, anchor in the lake over night and then transit the next three locks back down to sea level.

On the first day of our transit we were told our advisor would join us at 2:30pm for a 4:10pm lock time at the first of the three Gatun locks. So we arranged to pick up Diane and Russ—who were joining us for their 10th yacht trip through the Canal. We were super fortunate to get Diane and Russ (who run the Mad About Panama website), not only only are they self-confessed Canal geeks, but they were great company.

Our advisor Moises joined us once we moved to the Flats anchorage. He arrived tight on time--a shock to everyone (Canal transits are all about hurry up and wait). He asked us if we’d transited the canal before and we told him it would be our second time. “That’s great!” He told us, “This is my third time.”

near the top of the lock after rising 30 feet--you can see the current in the water
In truth—he stopped counting at 500 transits. So between him and Diane and Russ we were in good hands. Because this is low season, not many yachts are transiting and we went centre chamber behind a small freighter (yachts are often rafted together and side tied or put centre chamber as a group).

To get secured in the centre of a lock I first drove us to one side of the lock—where men threw down two messenger lines which were attached to our heavy mooring lines. Then I drove to the other side of the lock and got the other two messenger lines. After we had the messenger lines I drove into position at walking speed—because the guys who threw us the lines also walk our lines into position.

Maia watches her line and adjusts it to keep us straight
Once we were in place the men at the top of the lock walls pulled up our heavy lines and secured them in place. As water floods into the chamber (we were lifted about 30 feet in each lock) the line handlers pulled in the slack.

In many ways while going in the centre chamber alone is more work it’s the safest for a yacht. Especially when you’re going up. There are a lot of currents in the locks and boats get pushed around. Having a line handler on each corner helps to keep the boat straight and centered.

Even still—the mixing of the salt and fresh water in the first lock combined with the prop wash from the boat ahead of us meant that when our lines were released and we first got underway we skewed sideways and were headed directly at the lock wall. We had rented eight tire fenders for our transit—so were fairly well cushioned, but the bigger risk of getting turned around in the lock is needing assistance to get out and slowing down the locking process—something yachts can be charged for. Luckily we missed hitting the wall and I straightened us out.

The next two locks were drama-free. Russ and Diane were expert line handlers and we felt really fortunate to have them aboard. They’ve seen all the things that could go wrong and offered tips as we went.

After exiting into the lake we anchored for the night. Moises went home and we shared a nice dinner with Russ and Diane. The next day dawned with a bunch of work boat wakes as the Canal sprang back to life. Roy, our new adviser for the day, arrived. The day also dawned with heavy cloud and by the time we were underway at 9am, the rains had started.

I haven't worn these foulies since Vancouver
By 9:30am, it was clear the rains were unusual. Roy was advising me on how to make my way through the lake. We were traveling from buoy to buoy—which are fairly closely spaced, but the rain was so heavy we often couldn’t see the buoys. We also couldn’t see the ships, and they couldn’t see us.

Q&A session with tourists
In low visibility conditions (fog) all shipping in the Canal stops and when one big freighter was caught broadside by a squall and skewed sideways across the channel (requiring a tug to straighten him—and driving us well out of the channel to avoid him) the command went out to stop all the big boats.

It was strange to drive though the lake alone. Occasionally we’d catch sight of an anchored freighter—but for the most part the rain was so heavy we only caught the odd glimpse of shoreline.

Our advisor assured us he wouldn't crush us, but if he did, we'd be compensated
Roy let us know we’d likely be three or four hours behind schedule once shipping started again. The rain had been so heavy—they needed to spill excess water from the lake to lower it. In the end, when we reached the lock at Pedro Miguel, we were able to enter the lock almost immediately and were side-tied to a tourist boat. We waited about a half hour (and were subject to an extensive Q&A with the tourist boat passengers) and then a big Ro-Ro (car carrier) showed up behind us. Meanwhile the lock started to buzz with excitement when a bunch of US military boats arrived and a submarine pulled into the chamber beside us.

an unexpected lock mate
Down locking was almost anti-climatic—but when those big Canal doors opened on the Pacific I had to wipe away a few salty raindrops.
The Pacific!