Our offering to Neptune worked. He must be a Havana Club rum fan because our exit from Cuba and the transit across the Yucatan channel was uneventful. We were now on our way to Isla Mujeres, a place we’d been wanting to sail to for a long time.
After fueling up, checking out and topping off our water tanks, we left the dock at Cabo San Antonio around 2pm. At approximately 2:15 pm, the wind went SW so we were close hauled in about 9 knots of wind for the rest of the day and through most of the night.
Once through the traffic zones just west of Los Morros, were able to relax a little. The tanker traffic was no longer an issue and cruise ship traffic wouldn’t become a factor until several hours later as we got closer to the Mexican coastline.
That evening, the moon rise was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. The iridescent, grapefruit-like moon popped up on our stern and kept watch over us all night long. As it crept behind a wisp of clouds, it became a creamy, ball of light so bright I could almost read under it. It calms me when the moon shines like that on night passages.
The reason we had been pushing through Cuba for this weather window was because the Yucatan current, which normally runs quite fast and can make a boistrous ride), was predicted to be very light at just 1 knot. That’s a big deal.
We talked to a few friends who had done the passage in the past, and the current was pushing them at over 4 knots! They said that with their main up and their engine running, they were making only 1.3 knots… to the NORTH! It took them almost forty hours to do the one-hundred and ten miles or so. We didn’t want any part of that mess.
Sailing a course of 247, we arrived in Isla’s north channel after approximately twenty-two hours. The current didn’t really touch us until about twenty miles outside of Isla Mujeres when we went from 6.2 knots to 1.9 knots. It didn’t last long. We were back to 6 after about ten miles.
Now, whenever you say the words Isla Mujeres to someone who’s been there, their eyes will gloss over a little bit and a faint smile will overtake their face. It’s a special little place. And I completely agree. But as I see it, Isla Mujeres (or “Isla” as we often call it) is really like two completely different islands in one. With two different identities.
The north end, Playa Norte, is surrounded by lovely beaches. It’s full of trinket shops, tiki bars, restaurants, and tour operators. You’ll see tons of sunburned gringos who had too much to drink and paid too much to rent that golf cart their swerving down the main drag. You’ll pay 30 or 40 pesos for a taxi instead of the local rate of 15.
You’ll be approached by vendors who want to sell you a catamaran cruise or a dive excursion to the famous underwater statue site. That said, it’s still a lovely section of town. Some great little breakfast shops are tucked back off the Rueda Medina and if you’re changing dollars to pesos, the north end is where you’ll find the banks. When we were there, the exchange rate was about 18 pesos to the dollar. Not too bad.
Isla’s main anchorage is where we landed first. It’s notorious for being incredibly busy and a bit exposed with bad holding. With our Mantus, We never really worry about holding issues but the busy and exposed was no joke. Tour boats fly by and wake you with aplomb. Overloaded catamarans pumping hip-hop into the sky will just about sideswipe you if are too close to the channel. It’s a bit unnerving at first but it settles down at night. The only thing to really concern yourself with would be a passing front.
With V bobbing contently on her anchor, displaying her bright yellow “Q” flag, we launched our dinghy, Chicken (as in Chicken Tender) and headed over to El Milagro Marina and Hotel. On the advice of many friends who checked in on their own, they strongly suggested we use Julio at El Milagro as our agent to ease the process. It took one friend of mine almost four days to complete the process on his own. For seventy-five bucks, it was well worth it to hire Julio. He’ll contact all the required agents and have them come to you at the hotel while you relax, drink coffee and get acquainted.
All in, it took us a few hours to complete the process with the total cost of $158.00 USD. That included our visas.
ATTENTION CRAZY PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO CRUISE WITH DOGS
Almost every forum you’ll read says, “They never looked at our dog’s papers.” We had a different experience. In Cuba, they scrutinized Jet’s paperwork closely. In Mexico, the agricultural fella did the same. The USDA Health Certificate we had for him was dated January 18th and technically good for 30 days, although most cruisers report that they just use the same certificate throughout their entire travels with no problem. We arrived in Isla on March 14th. The Mexican official wouldn’t accept it.
We had to take Jet back to the boat immediately and he was to remain there until a new certificate from a Mexican Veterinarian in Cancun was issued. It took another two days to get and cost us an extra $45.00 US. We didn’t have to take Jet anywhere, but an official did make me dinghy him to the boat to inspect Jet in person. He was kind and very understanding about getting soaking wet in our tiny dink as we transited the chop of the main harbor.
Back at El Milagro, Julio took care of all the added paperwork that went along with this little glitch as well. We were nervous about leaving our original copy of the health certificate with him, hoping he wouldn’t destroy it, but in the end, we got our original back and a new health certificate from the proper Mexican official.
When all is said and done, even if you use an agent, you will still have to make a trip to Cancun to get your TIP (Temporary Import Permit), for the boat. The TIP is basically a permit (a decal) that allows you to keep your boat in Mexico. Once your check-in is complete, you have five days to get your TIP decal. Take one of the ferries across. We chose the car ferry because it was only six dollars each way versus eighteen dollars each way for the speedy ferry.
If you take the car ferry, you’ll need to cab it to the Port Captain’s office. You’ll need copies of all of your check-in paperwork, and they won’t make them at the office, so bring your own. If you don’t, as we didn’t, you’ll need to cab it to the small market down the road to make copies (1 peso each). Cost for the TIP was $60 US. It’s good for 10 years, and one of the benefits is that you can import parts for your boat duty-free.
Another good thing about the getting the TIP is the taco shack adjacent to the parking lot where the ferry drops you off. And trust me, it’s really a shack. Corrugated tin roof, crooked wall studs and rusting Coca~Cola signs mean you’re in the right spot. The guys who owns the joint is an absolute joy to speak with and he loves Americans. You’ll get the best tacos you ever had along with a Coke for about $2US.
Once all of our boat logistics were settled, we moved V to the back lagoon. With a nasty norther predicted, we didn’t want have to launch the dink to get Jet ashore in the three foot chop of the main harbor. We found a spot at Marina Del Sol, which is basically just a dock. A somewhat rickety dock with wide spaces between the boards and somewhat questionable power. But… it has some of the best people you’ll meet anywhere. Cruisers from Spain, Germany, New York, Wyoming, and Canada. They’ve been all over the world, landed in the Laguna Makax and got stuck. None of them seemed to be complaining.
Gualberto (the owner) is a sweet man who speaks very little English. He loves dogs and pets in general. He was leery about Jet being there amongst his cats, lizards, birds and two dogs of his own.
One of the residents at Del Sol, Robbie, was instrumental in getting us a spot on the dock, which was becoming a difficult endeavor since everyone in Isla was seeking refuge from the coming weather. Robbie walked me along and said, “Flaco (Gualberto’s nickname which, in Spanish means ‘skinny’) has three rules. Follow them and you’ll be fine.” As I concentrated on not busting my ass on the dock, Robbie continued, “The birds come in to nest in these trees at night and he doesn’t like them disturbed so don’t use the bathrooms late. Don’t fuck with his iguanas, and don’t catch his fish.”
See, Flaco regularly feeds the small grouper under his docks. Catching them is a no-no. He runs a tight ship. The bathrooms are spotless. The patio is hosed down every morning. His brother Omar is a gem and once they know you’re not the nightmare gringos, they warm up to you in short order.
Our dock mates, Vlad and Carmen, Tommy and Karen, Bruno, Doty and James were so welcoming, we felt like we’d been there for months. The cruiser net on channel 13 starts at 8:30 in the morning and Tim on Tropical Fun did a great job connecting cruisers with needs. There are pizza nights, happy hour gatherings on the dock at Oscar’s, and Taco Tuesdays if you’re so inclined to join in. It’s a tight community that has it dialed in to help cruisers enjoy their time in Isla.
That second “island” I mentioned is the south end of Isla Mujeres, where Marina Del Sol is located. You’ll discover the local joints, the tiny markets and lavenderias where you can get your laundry washed and folded for around $10. Discover the small tienda where two Heinekens will cost you 34 pesos (about a $1.50 USD) verses 40 pesos each at the gringo bar in Marina Paraiso or Oscar’s. Two plates of tacos, rice and a couple of cold cervezas cost about 150 pesos or around $9 US. They speak only Spanish and they greet you with only smiles.
Mel and I did the touristy thing one day and took a trek down to the Turtle Sanctuary (Tortugranja) and Punta Sur. The turtle exhibit is small and some feel that it’s not worth the trip. It’s there to educate and inform people about the struggles that go hand in hand when tourism slams into a small island and exacts its toll on the ecological resources. It was only a few bucks and while it kind of felt like more of a “zoo” than a conservation effort, we still think that it’s worth tossing them a few pesos. While we were there, we treated ourselves to some Mexican ice cream (we chose the coconut flavor) in the parking lot and it was absolutely delicious!
Punta Sur is Isla’s easternmost point and the first place the sun touches every morning. There’s an old temple, and it’s the place where the natives used to worship Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon.
We were struck by the huge statues of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, and a very large iguana. Footpaths weave through the many artist sculptures perched among the bluffs. Still more paths and walkways led us down the cliffs to the waters edge where crystal-clear surf misted our faces with salty kisses.
After a long day of walking, we rewarded ourselves with a cold Modelo and some incredible tacos at a little place near the lake, but not before we made a little cairn of stacked rocks on one of the easternmost points and made a wish in the hopes that Ixchel would provide continued safe passages and adventures.
We fell in love with Isla Mujeres. It has everything a traveler or cruiser could want. It’s easy to understand how people go there, intending to stay for ten days, and end up staying for ten years. After just eight days at Del Sol, Melody and I were feeling the roots pushing out the bottoms of our feet. The friends we made after nights grilling and sharing beers and stories on the dock were sucking us in. We had many enlightening discussion about politics, art, and music with people from Serbia, Spain, Germany, and Mexico. Their viewpoints were interesting. Their delivery was calm and hopeful.
We talked about the battle for Isla to retain its identity while it fights off the assaults from developers. I hope she’s up to the challenge. One need not look further than the Florida Keys to see what “progress” really means. Just my personal opinion. I know, I’m full of opinions these days.
The last three days we spent in Isla were spent swinging on the hook in the lagoon. While only a few hundred yards from our friends at Marina Del Sol, our spirits felt the dock roots retreating. And on one morning, when it felt like it was time to go, we checked out.
We elected to check out of Isla and not Cozumel. Checking out in Cozumel would require us to take a ferry or our boat across. Both seemed like a lot of extra effort if you’re not already wanting to see Cozumel (we didn’t). We were also told checking out in Cozumel is more expensive. In Isla, they charged us 270 pesos to check out. Once you pay at the bank and return to immigration with a receipt, they’ll stamp everything and you’ll be on your way.
It’s nice to arrive, settle in and learn what a town is all about. Then, it’s just as nice to weigh anchor and get on with it. Travel. It’s travel for the sake of travel I guess. It wears you down and builds you up at the same time.
The next morning, we tuned in to the net and said our goodbyes as Punta Sur faded from our stern. We were headed for the small towns south along the Yucatan coast. It’s strange how quickly things change out here. The Mexican coast was the unknown. As we were about to discover, it would prove to be incredibly beautiful and more challenging than even Cuba. The Yucatan Channel would have much to teach. Until next time…
Porter McRoberets says
My first visit to your site. Searched for cruising to Cuba and you guys popped up. Looks like an excellent adventure.
We’re (wife and 2 girls) about to shove off from fort lauderdale in a month for a very similar route.
Can you recommend a good cruising guide to northwest carribbevn other than the Nigel Calder one? Thats great but pretty dated.
Porter and Helen
HI Porter and Helen.
Thanks for the kind words. Glad you found us. There aren’t too many cruising guides for the Western Caribbean. If you’re planning on going to Cuba, I would recommend the Waterway Guide to Cuba written by Addison Chan. I think there is a link in the body of one of my posts. Also in the post about sailing to Cuba I give details about the charts and books we used.
If you’re not going by way of Cuba, the Freya Guide to Belize and Mexico is what we used. It’s also dated but the information gets updated regularly. We had no trouble with this guide. It’s full of great info. It will get you all the way to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. Our Garmin Chart that we purchased for the Western Caribbean was pretty much useless. I think Navionics and a couple others have released a newer updated version. Not sure what you’re using. There are few guides to Panama and the western Caribbean but we didn’t get that far. I was going to purchase all of that stuff once we got to the Rio and decided which route we’d take out of here.
This past month, we unexpectedly sold the boat so I didn’t go any further with those guide books. If you google the Freya Guide, you’ll find many reviews in favor of her book. It’s pretty much the bible of the area. Everyone we knew used it to get to as far as the Rio. Good luck. Stay in touch and let us know how the plan develops.