Holy Boat Hulls and The Shipping News:

    Portaging the Mexican Mainland


Rats! Throughout the ages vermin have been the harbingers of plague, famine and all sorts of bad luck. We left La Paz Baja after Stage 1 to visit friends and loved ones, and do a monstrous amount of work. Jean-Philippe had days and nights of website work ahead of him and my to do list was three pages. We didn’t want to have to worry about our gear and were secure in the knowledge that our equipment was safe and sound under lock and key. However when I arrived back in La Paz in mid-February after a month away and went to retrieve our equipment from storage I received quite a shock. Our gear which had been in a warehouse with all sorts of boxed cereals and other delectables was the victim of a rat orgy. All the rubber dry bags had been chewed through and our hypalon fabric kayak hulls turned into swiss cheese. The cornflakes and pancake mix boxes on the other side of the room were untouched. Even the little dry bag containing our campstove and bottles of fuel had a large tunnel through the side. I’ve heard of people in voodoo trances eating shards of glass, metal, nails, but this made no sense to me. We finally came to the conclusion that they had gotten into the stove/fuel bag first, and high on the fumes just went on a rampage. I definitely was in no mood to deal with it right away so I packaged the kayaks and all the heavy stuff up, brought it to customs (Baja is considered a frontier state and cargo to the mainland has to pass customs first), and shipped it to Yucatan via Aero Mexico Cargo Express.

The charge for our 165 kg (350 lbs) of equipment ended up being double their estimate. "La tarifa de seguro, sabes?" the guy said to me, "the insurance charge, you know?" I should have taken this as a sign of things to come, but it was definitely a case of out-of-sight-out-out-of-mind, and I was happy to have them out of the way. Besides, we still had half a dozen bags remaining to deal with ourselves.

We boarded the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan a few days later with six large bags and 4 sets of paddles. We did our best Leo DiCapprio imitation and yelled "CASKE 2000 Stage 2 On the Water!", to the few deck hands loosening bow and stern ropes on the dock. 16 hours across the Sea of Cortez was very relaxing. The cafeteria food was inedible, and there was no sleep to be had on the tile floor of the economy salon, but the stars were incredible and the sunrise better.

The connection in Mazatlan from ferry terminal to the bus station was smoother than expected. We hustled a cab driver for a low fare and stuffed his car with our bags. We were on a bus headed to Mexico City a mere hour and a half after landing in Mazatlan.

The Mexican bus system is efficient, reasonably priced and impressively comfortable, inversely proportional to the domestic air system. For an eighth of the price of a flight, we bought tickets on an air-conditioned, TV/VCR equipped coach and settled in to relax.

The scheduled arrival in Mexico city was 5:30 AM. We arrived early. This is both good and bad. It was nice to get out of the impossible-to-sleep-in bus seat and have more time to deal with making connections. However, our bus driver had put the bus through the wringer and us in peril by roaring through the twisty mountain roads up into Mexico City. To take my mind off the terror unfolding through the windshield ahead of me, I kept my eyes glued to the TV screen above me through hours of bad B action flicks and Mexican comedies.

We had to take a cab from the north terminal to the south Terminal in Mexico City. The cab driver was as crazy as the bus driver, fortunately we were on empty roads at 4:30 in the morning. We stumbled into the antechamber of the Grand Central Station-sized south terminal, piled up the bags and took a nap on the tile floor waiting for the ticket booths to open.

If the station is any indicator, Mexico City is a pricey and unclean place with bad food. The cleaning guy was using a dirty mop, spreading gray/brown water the same color as my coffee around the floor of the cafeteria. We boarded the bus unsatisfied but happy to be in a relatively clean environment. 23 more hours on the road and we’d be in Cancun..

The Miami Beach of Yucatan during Spring Break week was actually the last place we wanted to be, but it’s the furthest south Aero Mexpress Cargo goes. We avoided the hotel zone. and staggered Dripping with sweat and reeking with 3 days of BO, we staggered to a cheap room in the center of the city 3 blocks from the bus station. First priority was arranging a way to get our 225 kg ( 500lb) of gear and ourselves to the Belize border. Second priority was to go get it.

Bus was our first thought. It was quickly discarded as an impossibility due to our mountain of bags. Our only option was to rent a car and drive the 400K to Chetumal just north of the Belize border. We looked into 8 different agencies for one that also had an office in that city of 130,000 so we could drop it off. No luck. Chetumal is definitely not a tourist town. There was no way out of driving the round trip in one day, dropping off the gear and one person, getting the car back to Cancun by the next morning and hopping a bus back down. We found a company with a special promotion offering an evening free, meaning a day and a half for a one day rate. We reserved a little Nissan four door and felt good about having a little leeway.

The Bags

We found out the hard way that Aero Mexpress is NOT Fed Ex or UPS! When I shipped the bags I made sure to have them delivered to the officina centro in Cancun, not the airport office 20K’s out of town. When I called our first night in town I was told that the bags had arrived in Cancun 4 days prior but were still at the airport office. I called mid-morning the next day and was told that the delivery truck had made its one daily trip into town and my bags were not on it. My Spanish is far from perfect, but it’s definitely functional and I asked them to get my bags to me by the afternoon as was contracted on my paperwork. Three calls later, the manager finally said the only way possible was to put them on another company’s truck, and I could pick them up at that company’s office. I expressed some doubt and said I would call back to confirm. I called back an hour later, with the aid of a translator from a tourist info. office, to tell them that we’d rented a car and would get them before the office closed (7:00) at the airport on our way out of town.

At 6:00 we picked up the car and motored out to the airport. We walked in and showed our paperwork and were ushered into the manager’s office. Our bags had been put onto another company’s truck and delivered to the center of town in the late afternoon! We were furious! In between conniptions of anger I found Spanish I didn’t know I had and explained and lambasted the manager for the incompetent communication terrible service in his office. I explained that I had spent hours finding a car company and paid a high price for the day and a half rental, we were on our way out of town and my bags weren’t even in the care of an Aero Mexpress Employee. $12,000 worth of equipment with no-one accountable for it! The manager was totally flustered and he blubbered, and stammered that his company’s legal contract was to deliver to the center of town, they had done that and were under no obligation to offer any compensation or further assistance.

We ended up insisting that he come with us and take personal responsibility for our shipment. The three of us returned downtown, retrieved the bags and JP and I set off into the night for southern Yucatan. Steaming anger was replaced with sarcastic laughter. We had done quite a good job letting our displeasure be known to everyone in the office and then we calmed down and joked with them on the way out. Patience and a good sense of humor are necessary tools in Latin America.

We drove 350K’s through thick lowland jungle, the heart of the Mayan homeland. Signs for ruins and theme parks, at first regular, thinned to a trickle and we pulled into the small town of Bacalar after midnight. We camped near the ruins of a Spanish fort on the shores of a fresh water lagoon.

We were worried about the border inspections and exorbitant import duties so we were up shortly after sunrise and at the border before 8:30. We’d heard horror stories of various countries customs officers charging up to %80 duty on sports equipment and electronics and were sweating bullets. However when we stepped into the Belize customs house, there was Barry White and Motown Soul playing on a stereo and a couple of the agents had jazzed up their starch white uniforms with garish necklaces and Ray Bans. We felt instantly at ease. The chief officer asked us a number of questions about our gear and our trip and let us through without paying a dollar. Our kayaks alone could have cost us a few thousand in duty.

I dropped JP off at a bungalow complex in the rustic town of Corozal a few miles past the border and a couple hours later was headed back across the border and up to Cancun. My new friends at the border waved me through, their Mexican counterparts didn’t seem to care, and I was motoring past Chetumal and the lagoon by late afternoon.

JP spent the afternoon working in the sweatshop of our bungalow patching the hulls of our kayaks and breathing glue fumes. I sped along a narrow asphalt channel through the endless expanse of thick jungle vegetation, sweating in the hot pungent air.

I arrived in Cancun an hour after dusk and on a whim cruised the hotel zone strip set up along a gleaming neon lit isthmus of sand framing a lagoon off-shore of Cancun city. Thousands of Spring Breakers filled the discos, Planet Hollywood, All-Star Cafe and chain restaurants. I stared wide-eyed and incredulous and imagined the souls of Mayans turning in their graves.

With only the next morning’s bus ride remaining, I pulled the car off onto a narrow road running out to a little spit of land jutting out into the lagoon. Away from the lights in a dirt turnaround tucked into mangrove at the end of the road I reclined the seat and went to sleep.

We’d be on the water soon, back into the tough loving embrace of the natural world. The thumping beat of dance clubs echoing off the 10 story hotel walls across the water would be replaced by the rhythmic sigh of waves, and the confounding problems of moving through the developed world would be forgotten and lost in the open empty expanses of sea and sand.


View the Kayak Repair Photos

Read Jean-Philippe's Belize Journal

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