23. August 2023

Mystery Mexico

After more than three days of crossing, exhausted and satisfied, we drop anchor in the bay on the northwest side of Isla Mujeres. The anchorage is calm with a light breeze. Here we want to clear in to continue sailing south in Mexico later. We go ashore and first of all have dinner in a marina. The island is a tourist hell, but after Cuba Mexico seems to us like a gourmet temple: guacamole and tacos, fresh fruit juices and juicy meat.

Strengthened, we make our way to the Capitaneria to clear in and do the paperwork. Little do we know that it will take eight days and about as many visits to the Capitaneria to get our and Mabul’s papers in order. “The doctor is not in. Come back tomorrow at ten o’clock,” the official tells us on the first day, before slamming the office window shut with a jerk. On the second day, the doctor is there but doesn’t arrive until just before noon, so we wait two hours. The doctor – grossly overweight and with an unhealthy complexion – briefly takes our temperature, declares us healthy and tells us to use mosquito spray and sunscreen.

Sailing in Mexico - Mañana, Mañana - das ist die häufigste Antwort, die wir in der Capitaneria bekommen.
Mañana, Mañana – this is the most frequent answer we get in the Capitaneria.

The doctor is followed by the plague check – “Do you have meat or cheese on board? No? Then all is well” -, the customs officer who lifts every floorboard on Mabul, the immigration office and finally a visit to Cancun at the army bank. Here we are supposed to buy a temporary import certificate (TIP) for Mabul, since we want to be sailing in Mexico for more than five days. So this concerns almost every cruiser that arrives here. We take the ferry to Cancun, go to the bank where a woman is busily leafing through the documents we brought with us. “There are two missing, I can’t do anything without them,” she says, handing us back the stack of papers. The Capitaneria has not handed us all the documents. So we take the ferry back again.

The next day we are back at the Capitaneria. I need several attempts to wake up the sleeping official. He says that the official who is responsible for our documents is not there today. So another day passes. Before the next trip to the Capitaneria, I have to consciously take a few breaths to exhale the anger that is already beginning to form in my stomach on the street. This time the right official is there and he hands us the right documents, which we then have to copy several times. The TIP is now only one ferry ride away. After eight days we and Mabul are finally legally registered in Mexico. Mexico could learn a lot from socialist Cuba, at least in terms of bureaucracy. There, clearing in had taken an hour and the officials themselves had apologized for it and smiled kindly.

And yet we would do it again. Mexico is simply great! Not only the food, but especially the Mexicans (officials excluded), the jungle and the breathtaking dive sites. The introduction to Mexico is made easy by Mirko and Tillmann, two Germans we meet by chance via LinkedIn. Both emigrated to Mexico a few years ago, where they live in Cancun and work as freelance diving instructors. Mirko Friebe (www.mirkofriebe.com) offers diving and snorkeling tours around Isla Mujeres and Cancun, Tillmann Steinberger (www.frogman-diving.com) is a certified cave diver and takes us into the magical world of caves.

Mit Tillmann und Mirko erforschen wir die Cenoten
With Tillmann and Mirko we explore the Cenotes

The first cave Tillmann takes us to is the Cenote Zapote, a sinkhole at the bottom of which lies a historic fossilized animal. But this animal – a kind of mixture between a dinosaur and an oversized rat – is unreachable for us, because it lies at 70 meters below the water surface, but we only dive to barely 35 meters. There are quite different, wondrous formations there: a kind of bell stalactites that grow out of the wall and are so big that you can hide under them.

Unterwasserbild von den Fächern in der Cenote Zapote
Underwater picture of the bells in the Cenote Zapote

Diving on the Yucatán Peninsula is a new experience for Alex and me. Not only is it our first cave diving experience, but the whole setting is different. We don’t take a boat to a reef, but drive with Mirko’s decrepit minivan Pancho right through the jungle and stop directly in front of the cenote. Under the green canopy of the jungle we prepare our diving equipment. The entrances to the cenotes are mostly just small ponds filled with crystal clear, 24 degree cool water. Nobody would think that there are tens of thousands of these cenotes all over the peninsula. They are connected by an extensive cave system and are the freshwater reservoir of Yucatán. For us, they are a magical world that embraces us with darkness and coolness.

Der Tren Maya ist ein gigantisches Bahnprojekt, das schwerwiegende ökologische Folgen haben könnte
The Tren Maya is a gigantic railroad project that could have serious ecological consequences

However, as Tillmann tells us, this fragile ecosystem is also under threat. The central government is planning a rail line around the entire peninsula, the Tren Maya, which will involve massive construction, vibrations and drilling. Experts fear that many caves could collapse and drinking water could be tempted. We cross the aisle where the railroad track is being built, which goes right through the jungle, on our way to Cenote Zapote. It looks like a gaping brown gash, in the deep green of the jungle. Tillmann also tells us more about the Tren Maya project and about the cenotes in our BoatCast “Die magische Welt des Höhlentauchens in Mexiko“.

Karin und Alex in der Cenote Kin Ha
Karin and Alex diving the Cenote Kin Ha

In the cenote Zapote, however, we do not yet feel anything of this man-made development. Packed up with our diving equipment, we step down the stone steps to the cenote and dive down. I need a few moments, a few deep, calm breaths to steady my pulse as the bright opening above us gets smaller and smaller and we are finally completely enclosed in the black of the cave. Only in the cone of our lamps do the thin orientation rope appear, and the bells that stand out from the walls like oversized mushrooms growing away from tree trunks. In some places we see fossilized shells and sea creatures that remind us that the whole area was once washed by sea water. The bustle of the underwater world, where excited fish defend their coral reef, does not exist here.

Only occasionally a small catfish swims past us, a gray spirit creature, after which everything is silent and empty again. It’s as if we’re diving into a time long gone, a memory in which there were no people, only animals that were a mixture of dinosaurs and giant rats, until they themselves fell into a hole, remained lying and were washed over by water. I feel a little like I do in a cathedral when the choir intones the Hail Mary and you furtively wipe away a tear because the music releases an emotion from your soul. For forty minutes we dive along the cave wall into the heights. Forty minutes of silent magic, then I get cold and the devotion is over. Diving at 24 degrees Celsius is different from diving at 30 degrees.

Die Cenote Kin Ha wirkt wie eine Kathedrale
Cenote Kin Ha looks like a cathedral

After cenote Zapote we drive to a cenote where we are allowed to dive as the first tourists thanks to Tillmann’s contacts. Mayan relics are said to exist here under water and already we feel like explorers on their maiden voyage to Antarctica. The cenote is far hidden in the jungle and we drive for half an hour over gravel roads full of potholes. When we arrive, we see that the water surface of the cenote is covered with a film of pollen and the water is murky. Tillmann makes a test dive to check the visibility.

He can barely see his hand in front of his eyes, so we abort our expedition and head to Cenote Kin Ha. It is spectacular! A wooden staircase leads into a cave that resembles a large vaulted dome. On the walls it is covered all over with unusual formations. The water is a bit colder than in Cenote Zapote, but it is crystal clear and a deep blue. We descend to 24 meters, first seeing a large cone that seems to grow from the underground, then we dive along the walls, which are also full of different shapes and fossilized shells.

Das Lichtspiel in den Cenoten ist magisch...
The play of light in the cenotes is magical….

The silent world of the caves enchants both me and Alex and so we return to the caves again with Tillmann and Mirko on another day. This time not into sinkholes, but into a cave that stretches like a fat worm under the jungle. In some places light penetrates through small openings and sends a bright beam, like a spotlight, through the water. One of these light beams hits a round stone, which in the light looks like the holy grail.

und manchmal glaubt man, den heiligen Gral gefunden zu haben
…and sometimes you think you have found the holy grail

Mexico enchants us and at the same time makes us despair, not only because of the bureaucracy. One day we take the ferry again from Isla Mujeres to Cancun, where Mirko drives us for one day with his Pancho through Cancun. We are looking for a mechanic who can fix the broken alternator of our engine or has a suitable one for sale. I don’t remember how many car stores we visited, but there were definitely too many. In the end, hungry and overheated, we find ourselves in front of a small store crammed with engine parts. For two hours the mechanic – according to Mirko’s neighbor, a cab driver, the best mechanic in town – tries to fix our alternator.

It doesn’t work and so we pack it up again and hope for better luck on another day, another place. We spend the rest of the day in boat stores, looking for screws, filters and pumps, until Pancho stops in the middle of the street between two such stores, doesn’t make a sway and our shopping tour is over. At least this comforts me a little. It’s not only at sea that something seems to be constantly breaking down in the world of machines, Pancho shows that it’s no different on land.

Isla Mujeres ist eine Betonwüste mit Amerikanern auf Golfcarts
Isla Mujeres is a concrete desert with Americans on golf carts.

After getting over the culture shock we had when we arrived on Isla Mujeres, we give the island another chance and rent a moped. Our verdict, however, remains the same even after the two hours it takes us to drive once around the island, eating overpriced tacos and swimming on a crowded beach: Isla Mujeres may be paradise for Americans who want to ride in golf carts from one beach to the next – or one margerita bar to the next – but the island is too touristy for our taste. After our administrative course is finally over, we weigh anchor and continue sailing south in Mexico.

We are sailing off at dusk to Puerto Aventuras in Mexico
We sail off at dusk to Puerto Aventuras

Our destination is the Marina Puerta Aventuras on the Yucatán Peninsula. Knowing that we will have to fight the Gulf Stream again and will therefore need more time, we sail in the evening to be able to enter the marina in the morning at daylight. The coast is illuminated by countless hotels and also the moon casts its white light on the sea. Mabul sails beautifully through the night on a beam reach course. Early in the morning we see the entrance to the marina and are startled. The entrance is narrow. On the port side is first a large reef and then large rocks, on which the waves crash violently. The wave comes from astern and builds up amazingly high here. So we surf towards the entrance. A mistake must not happen here. For a moment I think that the waves will wash us up on the rock and smash us – “happens once every month”, the marina employees tell us later – but then we just make it around the bend and glide into the calm marina water and the protected basin.

Die Einfahrt in die Marina Puerto Aventuras ist risikoreich mit dem nahen Riff und den einlaufenden Wellen
Entering Puerto Aventuras Marina is risky with the nearby reef and incoming swell

The Puerto Aventura Marina is a kind of Disney World Tex-Mex style. There is a pool with seals and several pools with dolphins, around which a restaurant mile is laid out. If you pay $150, you can be kissed or carried by a dolphin and, of course, have your picture taken. Normally we avoid such artificial places, but we needed a protected place on the coast and an address where we could have various spare and boat parts delivered again. Logistics in the Caribbean…

With Mabul safely moored, we also made several trips into the jungle. At Cenote Chok Ha we meet Mayan Pedro, who discovered the cenote when he let his cows graze in front of it. We visit Mayan villages scattered throughout the jungle and we climb the pyramid Ek’Balam, from which we have an endless view over the green canopy. The trip also takes us to the small jungle hotel Ekumal, where we get a glimpse of another mystery with the help of psychoactive plants and under the guidance of an attentive guide. You can learn more about this in our BoatCast „Das Mysterium des Dschungels“.

Versteckt im Dschungel liegt die Pyramide Ek’Balam
Hidden in the jungle lies the pyramid Ek’Balam

After jungle days on Yucatán we leave the marina Puerto Aventuras again and with perfect wind we are sailing in Mexico in two hours the eight nautical miles to the island of Cozumel. Most of the area around the island is a marine reserve and we are not allowed to anchor, so we lay down just off the main town of San Miguel next to the three cruise ship docks. After a few days we are no longer the only ones in the bay, but have neighbors: The superyacht V6, the smallest superyacht on which the helicopter can be stowed below deck. I dinghy over to say a neighborly hello and am greeted with a beer. You can learn more about V6 and Boris, the chief engineer of the superyacht, in the BoatCast „Die Superyacht V6, unsere Nachbarin vor Cozumel“.

Sailing in Mexico in a different way
Our new neighbors off Cozumel: Superyacht V6

Cozumel is not only popular with cruise tourists, but also with divers. We dive with the small, family-run dive store “Eco Divers” run by Jorge Nataren, who built the dive store with his family 28 years ago. Diving in Cozumel is spectacular, he said: “The reef off Mexico is one of the most beautiful in the entire Caribbean. The water is around 28 degrees Celsius and the visibility is 30 to 40 meters, which is absolutely incredible. Because we have current all the time, it’s also one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean.” The reef is part of the second largest barrier reef in the world and because of its orientation there are hardly any waves. The corals grew and grow in height, forming a kind of underwater coral forest. We see what this means at the Palancar dive site, where we dive between and under the corals like in an underwater cave. Nurse sharks snooze on the sandy bottom or giant lobsters peer out of caves with black googly eyes.

Cozumel bietet eine spektakuläre Unterwasserwelt
Cozumel offers a spectacular underwater world

Cozumel, quite different from Isla Mujeres, pleases us right away. There are no drunken, loud Americans on golf carts here, but lots of greenery and street music in the town square of San Miguel. We make friends with Angelo, a local musician, and his friends.

In the past, they say, Mayan couples rowed over from the mainland in their canoes once a month to make love on Cozumel during the full moon. For here lived Ikschel, the goddess of fertility. You can still feel this special energy today, says Angelo. Cozumel is a kind of healing place. You feel that when you get off the ferry and he is happy to be able to live here.

Beim segeln in Mexiko lernen wir schnell überall Leute kennen
Our new friends from Cozumel

And how happy are they about the cruise ships that disgorge thousands of tourists every day? Not at all, say the islanders. Most of the cruise guests have already booked all their excursions in advance, they are sent with packed lunches and water bottles to restaurants and tourism providers who have made deals with the cruise companies. The main beneficiaries are the three big families that control the island and the central government in Mexico City, which collects the money for the docks.

However, the only thing that remains for most of the pubs is the dirt caused by the giant steamers. Jorge, the dive operator, says something similar. He calls the guests of the cruise ships, grandmothers, they do not really exist, even if you can see them. In the past, he says, the cruise ships stayed overnight. But when the providers realized that guests were going to local bars and restaurants instead of spending money on the ship, that changed, he says. Now, everyone departs as early as late afternoon.

Bei Kreuzfahrtschiffen ist Cozumel beliebt - bei den Inselbewohnern sind die Kreuzfahrschiffe höchst unbeliebt
With cruise ships, Cozumel is popular – with the islanders, the cruise ships are highly unpopular

After a month in Mexico, it is also time for us to move on. The hurricane season has long since started and most of the sailors we know are already further south in the shelter of Grenada or Guatemala, which are rarely hit by hurricanes. We check the National Hurricane Center, website every morning to make sure no hurricane is heading our way – or to quickly sail south into Mexico in case of emergency. There, further south on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, our friends Martin and Riki have long since arrived with their two girls Kira and Naya. They have moved into a little house in the jungle and hauled their boat onto dry land.

Both a jungle cottage and a place in the Ram Marina shipyard on the Rio Dulce are also waiting for us – and a lot of boat work. So we set off for the last three-day passage of this sailing season. We have to arrive at the sandbank off Livingston exactly at 6:30 am under full moon. Only then we have a chance to glide with the high tide over the sandbank and enter the Rio Dulce… if we don’t make it, Hector comes, grabs us by the mast, lays us aside and pulls us over the sandbank. We still hope that we and Mabul will be spared this…


Distance covered: 186 nm
Time traveled: 1 day 12 hours
Average speed: 4,9 kn
Engine hours: 6 hours

More photos from Mexico can be found in these galleries:

Isla Mujeres and Cancun
Puerto Aventuras and Cozumel
Diving Cozumel
Diving Cenotes Zapote und Kin Ha
Diving Cenote Tajma Ha

Related Boatcast episodes:

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