Friday, May 26, 2017

Mexico Visa & TIP Process at Chetumal/Belize Border

I had not been looking forward to this but since we only have a month left on our visa and we are as close to a border as we are going to be for some time, we headed to Chetumal (Belize border post town) to try to 'renew' our visa and TIP (Temporary Import Permit for the car).  When we originally got our TIP back in December, we never got the sticker for the windshield but it hasn't been a problem for us except that it has been concerning me for the 'renewal' process.

We arrived at the border post and spoke to a man in a booth, explaining that we want to renew our visa and TIP and he told us to go into the building where Banjercito is (that is the bank that handles all the immigration and other such government money matters).

When we went to the 'immigration' window and explained again what we wanted, we were sent to the Banjercito window.  Another explanation and the lady there took our papers, kept our existing TIP and started making a phone call. They explained that they cannot renew our visa, we had to go to the Immigration window - the immigration window lady told us that they cannot renew it and waved vaguely outside (all of this was in very broken English and very broken Spanish - we just kept trying to communicate with each other as best as we could).

Outside, we realized that we needed to go back to the man in the booth at the roadside - his English was much better and I dropped my attempts to speak Spanish and told him quite clearly that we wanted to renew our visa (once we have a new visa, we can get a new TIP) but that I did not want to have to go into Belize first.  We were then invited to step out of the road and to come into his booth. He carefully explained that the process (the legal process) is that we have to leave the country (go into Belize in this case) for 72 hours and then when we come back into Mexico we can apply for a new Visa.  I asked him if there is no other way of doing this because we just want to spend more time visiting places in Mexico and we don't want to go to Belize - he almost blushed I think and then quietly and slowly told me that there are always choices.  My first choice is to leave the country and return after 72 hours but that I do have another choice, so I asked him what the other choice was.  He told me that I could get an exit stamp and then we could proceed with a new visa application but of course that would cost - I told him that I understand that there is a fee as nothing is for free, how much does it cost.  The cost of this alternative process costs 2,500 MXP each and asked me if I understood and if I wanted to follow this other process and so it would cost 5,000 MXP for the two of us.  I made it very clear that I did understand and wanted to do it this way - Gerald looked into his (carefully pre-arranged wallet) and said that he only has a little over 2,000 MXP.  It was very obvious that this was not an acceptable offer but the official told us that he understood our situation and did not want to hurt our wallet so he could get this done for us for only 4,000 MXP.  I asked Gerald where we could get more money and come back and he magically found this other 2,000 MXP.  I gave the official our visas and passports with the money below the paperwork and he rolled back the date on his date stamp, stamped our passports and made a call to his supervisor to bring new visa forms.  We were invited to take seats and wait while the visa forms were brought to us, we completed them and they were quickly finalized and returned to us.

Once we had the new visa forms, it was back inside the main building to the immigration counter where we spent a few minutes getting our passports stamped for re-entry and the last step of the visa finalization.  Once we had our new visas and stamped passports in our hands, it was off to the Banjercito window where the very helpful lady there worked through cancelling our previous TIP (and saying that the Piedras Negras people had made a mistake and given us the wrong part of the form so we just had to sign a declaration about having lost the sticker).  We were told that the deposit will be automatically returned to our credit card on Monday (first business day after today/Friday) and we were then charged for the new TIP and it's associated costs on our credit card.

Fortunately there were very few people there at this time - we had chosen to go to the 'new' border post which can be found just north of Laguna Negra between the actual town of Chetumal and the southern town of Chetumal that is around the actual border.  If you look for 'border crossing near Cheumal' on Google maps you will see both the new (northernmost) an the old (more south) border posts.  The whole process took us only a little over an hour.

Unfortunately I walked out of there feeling a bit like a villain but very relieved that this process is now over for the next 6 months - I also get a nice warm feeling and a smile every time I see that hologram sticker on our windshield because I knew that we were meant to have that all along.

For now, I am going to try to let go of the fact that we are going to have to do this again in November and try to enjoy an evening in Chetumal.  We drove back the way that we had come in because we just had to visit Bacalar while we are in the area, it is a beautiful little funky town with lagoons all around and we had a lovely little lunch in a very local restaurant several blocks away from the main tourist zone.

Arriving at our hotel in Chetumal was quite easy and we got checked in and drove round the block to the hotel parking behind the hotel -  The internet connection here is very, very frustrating as it keeps dropping and disconnecting every couple of minutes but we managed finally to make a booking for a couple of nights in Palenque for tomorrow night and Sunday night. Another item off the list and we are now confirmed for somewhere to sleep for a couple of nights.  It is really humid here and even with the air conditioner on I am feeling horribly sticky and concerned about sleeping tonight - I still remember the feeling of the sheets sticking to me and waking up every time I turned over during the nights and the sheets moved with me.. think that was back in Zihuatanejo several weeks ago.  For now, we might as well go out and explore town and be damp outside in the warm air as be damp in the cool air conditioned room - lets go and explore and get some supper. :)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ek Balaam and Valladolid

We were able to get up early enough to go to Ek Balaam and then spend a great day in Valladolid which is in the northern center of the Yucatan peninsula.

On the road out to the ruins we passed by the usual vendors at the side of the roads and thought about life in Mexico and the fact that these vendors are not just there for the tourists, this is the way that the locals shop.  If we were to buy a house and need to furnish it, we would be stopping at these roadside furniture 'shops' and buying the furniture that they have on offer or even putting in an order for furniture made to our own design.  The wood furniture here is just that .. it is made of WOOD .. good solid wood with the most beautiful grains and color ways.

We planned on getting to Ek Balaam (the Black Jaguar) ruins before the crowds and before it got too hot.  No sure what time we would have to be there before it got too hot because it was already almost 90 when we got there at around 9:30.  There were already bus loads of tourists (yes, yes I get it .. we are tourist too but not the kind that get there on a tour bus).

I spent more than five minutes lining up the perfect shot of the main temple only to have a couple more tourists walk right past me (in spite of my asking for a moment) and start walking up the stairs - there was never another opportunity to get the shot without groups of people crawling all over the stairs.

Ek Balaam got it's name from the fact that the main building is the temple in which Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' was buried, called El Trono (‘The Throne’). The doorway is in the shape of a monster-like mouth, possibly depicting a jaguar.  This very impressive and well preserved building is the biggest that we have seen yet.

The teeth of the alter

Teeth above the door at the alter

This is a little less than half the length of the temple 
There are 117 steps to the top of the main temple and it is an impressive sight especially when you break through the jungle and see it head on for the first time.

There are three main floors on the temple, the building appears to have been started in the Middle Preclassic period and finished in the Postclassic period.
The second floor to the right of the stairs - the alter is to the left of the stairs.
We were actually able to go into one of the arches under the stairs - at Edzna, we saw the arches from a distance but were not able to get close to them.  You can see one of the arches above.

The carvings, painting and hieroglyphics are incredibly well preserved and it is obvious that a lot of work has been done to restore the area around the main alter.

Winged Mayan Warriors protecting the alter

A winged warrior (or angel) is at both corners on the wall above the alter doorway 

Some perfectly preserved painting showing the strong red and blue used throughout.
Once you finish climbing (yes it is climbing because each of those steps are more than a foot high) the 117 steps to the top of the temple,  the view is amazing and you can see for miles and miles in all directions.

We met a young couple from England who were taking a vacation between pre-med and the start of their medical studies and hung out at the top with them for a while before taking the hazardous trek back down the steps.  OK hazardous for Rosalind because as we all know, her and heights are not the best of friends.
OK it may not look pretty 
but I did it 

Did I mention that it was hot?  this hot dog found one of the few cool (??) places to rest.

One of the distinct characteristics of this site (apart from the fact that is has 3 walls around it), is the mix of square and curved walls on the buildings.

I think that Gerald may think that he has found our new home?  it is amazing how cool it is within the shade of these walled rooms.

This piqued my curiosity as it looks like a huge fire pit but later I found out that it might be a steam bath.

After this adventure, we still had plenty of time to head off to Valladolid to investigate the chocolate factory. The first part of the adventure was trying to find a space to park the car, then we couldn't find the chocolate place but that was fun because I asked a police woman (in Spanish) for directions and she understood and answered me immediately :)  It is those small successes that really make this adventure even more exciting.

When we got to the chocolate factory there was already a lady there and the history of cacao chocolate was being explained (mostly in Spanish) so we joined in and got to hear about cacao with a tiny smidgen of information about the chocolate making process.  It was a little disappointing because there wasn't actually anyone there making chocolate and we didn't get any information about the process.  We did however get a little nib-let of each of the chocolates that they make and got an explanation about what each one contains.  For example there was cacao with honey, cacao with honey and chili or with oregano, there was one with sea salt and another with milk or one with stevia instead of honey, there was also one with anise (Rosalind's favorite) and another with tequila (Gerald's favorite).  They were all good and so very different from the sugary, creamy type of chocolate that we are used to.

After the 'tour' and tasting, we moved off to the 'restaurant' that I had heard about where you can get chocolate drinks and we each ordered a different cold chocolate to drink - once again, so much better than the sort of chocolate that we are used to.  The chocolate is served in gourds seated on a little leaf 'rope' ring.

By now we had made friends with the other lady there (Diane from Ireland) and we all wandered off together to take a look around Valladolid and to look for the Convent that she had told us about.

When we got to the Convent of San Bernadino de Sienna, the church part was closed and there appeared to be studies going on so we hung out in the cloisters and cooled down a little before going to Yerbabuena del Sisal for lunch.

This is such a beautiful little restaurant and we went in past the kitchen to the garden in the back.  It was lovely under the trees and they even put box fans out for you to cool yourself.  The food was really good, healthy, fresh with lots of vegetarian options and very fairly priced. I had chayote which was smothered in a lovely tomato based sauce and Gerald had chili rellenos filled with cheese and vegetables smothered in the same tomato sauce - they also have gorgeous fresh juices and we felt so lucky that Diane had found this place, we never would have been there otherwise - thanks Diane!

After lunch we walked back to the square and sat on a bench there for a while people watching.

Miraculously the church (Cathedral of San Gervasio) opened and we were able to go inside and have a look.

The cathedral is typical of many that we have seen in Mexico, it is not ornately decorated with lots of gold and expensive glitz, it is a solid fairly plain building with the decorative concentration on the main alter area and the stations of the cross.

Well that was almost the end of a terrific day but one more little adventure waited for us - when we finally got back to our car and headed for 'home' in Tulum, ,leaving our fate/route to to Waze, she decided that the toll road was best so we ended up going all the way to Playa del Carmen and back down the coast road to Tulum - having left at a little after 8 in the morning, we ended up getting back to our place in Tulum after 7:30 in the evening .. but (and there is a reason for everything) .. this meant that we actually got a snapshot or two of those monkey bridges that we had previously told you about ;)  I even got to see a monkey hanging out in a tree a little way off the road.  Remember, this is all jungle here, the jungle goes right down to the beach and the town of Tulum is in the jungle though a lot of it has been cleared.  You actually need a special (very expensive) permit to cut down some of the trees such as the Chechen.

Monkey bridge across the highway.
For more info on the Myan legend of why the Chechen (Black Posionwood) and Chaca trees always grow next to each other see . And yes, the Chechen is toxic, similar to poison ivy but worse.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tulum Archaeological Site

We went a couple of miles up the road to the ruins of Tulum - it was hot and humid (as it usually is here) but it was literally only a couple of miles from where we are staying.  I had been planning on investigating an interesting sounding little shopping place near there but when we arrived at the parking area (160 pesos) we found that the shopping area was a huge collection of vendor stalls where you buy tickets catch the transport to the ruins.  We grabbed an icy cold creamy frapucino at the only Starbucks that we have seen in quite a while (though the Italian Coffee Company makes better coffee and frapuccino than Starbucks in my opinion) and climbed aboard the tractor pulled train.

To get to the ruins you actually walk through entrance arches in the wall around the Mayan walled city.  The wall is about 20 feet thick and going through the wall was one of only 2 or 3 cooler spots that we found there - did I mention that it was hot and humid??

Once inside, the beautiful green field, scattered with buildings and with gray and black rocks where buildings once were, is both peaceful and thought provoking.

These ruins are pretty amazing, there are so many buildings and the information signs are in both Spanish and English so we were able to learn quite a lot about the culture and the ruins.  There is a lot of restoration work going on and we saw photos of volunteers painstakingly sorting flakes of the broken artwork that have fallen off the temple walls then gluing them back onto where they have fallen from - talk about a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, but there is no picture to guide you.

There are also pieces of buildings with the arches propped, waiting for the joint restoration work to be completed to prevent them from falling.

It is quite amazing how well preserved these ruins are considering the effects of the salt spray and the sea breezes.

If you look really closely, you may be able to see some of the original Red and Blue colors.

The whole combination of this ancient walled city with all it's history and majesty; the clifftop views of the beautiful Caribbean waters below and the white sands of the most beautiful little beach nestled  in the rugged coastline below the  old castle.  It is the only Mayan city built on the coast and one of only a handful that was enclosed within a wall.

I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in this beautiful city in such a prime spot, looking out over those clear aquamarine, warm Caribbean waters, feeling safe behind that great wall in this high location.

Once we reached the castle, at the highest point, we started seeing the sea and then we discovered that amazing beach and the joys of running into that lovely clear, warm water - warm as it was, it was still a brief cooling experience after walking around for a couple of hours among the ruins on top of that hot hill.

Lesson for today, don't go anywhere without a swim suit - or at least with underwear that looks like a bikini bottom - did I mention that it was HOT ??

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tulum and our life and some rambling thoughts

OK, a week off have given me inspiration to carry on blogging again so let me give you some general thoughts of our life here in Mexico.

Think about the mundane - fridges for example. Things are different here and it is really interesting. Since the water in Mexico is not potable, you can't just run a water line into the fridge to get ice and cold water.  Here fridges are made with a removable water tank on one of the shelves (fill it with 5 liters of purified water).  In the freezer there is an ice-maker that gets it's water from the tank and the door has a water dispenser that gets its water from the tank in the fridge.  The ice-maker (which is cool the way that it turns the ice tray upside down to empty it) doesn't need a hole through the door and the water dispenser takes up much less room than the traditional ones that we are used to in the USA.

This ice make happens to have two ice cube storage containers

Oh yes and the bottle of purified water that we are using has a nifty little valve hand pump thingy on it so there is no need to tip the bottle or have it upside down in a fancy stand with a tap.

Now that the 'vacation' weeks are behind us (really?  life is all vacation now isn't it?) and we are thinking about our future life and more routine/mundane things, grocery shopping.  In Playa del Carmen we went to a Mega grocery store (our previous visit to Meg was in Acapulco and we found such good fresh produce etc. there which was heartening) but it was not good at all.  The produce was mostly very stale (I saw beets there that had shoots growing out of them and were all wrinkled) and generally the store was not nice and clean or well stocked with good groceries.   Here in Tulum, the only real grocery store (apart from the OXXO or convenience stores) is a Chedraui.  We had to go and get some groceries for our two week stay here but it was very disappointing - I had so been looking forward to all the fresh fruits and veggies that I have been reading about in Mexico but this is definitely not the place to get them although the produce was better than that Mega in PDC.  We got the basics that we needed plus we also managed to pick up a double pack of Don Roberto tequila for only 110 pesos (less than 6 dollars or not much more than a grande 15 syllable name coffee at Starbucks).  We make our own type of pina colada (nothing like the real thing but we love it) using pina colada yogurt with some tequila.  I also have some left-over green juice that we bought at Mega in PDC - it is the only green juice that I have not been able to love drinking - Kale, Spinach, Cactus, Celery and Cucumber (too much grass and no sweet fruit) so we also bought a container of fresh pineapple juice and it is OK when mixed 50/50.

The little casa that we have rented in Tulum is quite comfortable and has everything that we need in order to be able to cook for ourselves etc.  We will end up doing laundry in the wash basin again and will try to dry it hanging it on chairs or the hammock or whatever outside - but with the humidity levels that we have so near to the beach, it will take a while - hmm that reminds me, I have not seen an iron or ironing board here so guess we will take on the beach bum look for a while.  Maybe a trip to the local Lavanderia is in order which means that we drop it off, pay a hundred pesos and then pick it up later in the day when it has all been washed, dried and folded for us ;)

Our car is really looking a mess right now, covered in sandy dirt from the dirt roads here and it also has a lot of salt on it from visits to the beach, I think that the best thing will be to take her to one of the local 'a man and his bucket' car washes on the way out of town on our way to wherever our next stop will be.  We need to get the sand and salt off so that she doesn't start rusting one day - it is the beginning of the rainy season right now (May through October) but that doesn't mean that we will get any measurable rainfall, even if rain is predicted every day for a week there may only be a couple of sprinkles on any given day but we haven't seen any yet.

The little town of Tulum and the beach area are very eclectic and make me think of a cheaper version of Estes Park by the beach.  Along the main road through town (which is the main highway between Cancun and Belize) there are little shops selling hats, leather goods, hammocks and all things tourist,  The shops are interspersed with restaurants (from the local Mexican family restaurants to the more upscale tourist restaurants) and bars, lots of bar/restaurant combinations.  Head down to the beachfront and the vibe becomes even more bohemian with a plethora of yoga, wellness and eco type vacation resorts in little cabanas and big fancy resort areas.  The access to the beach becomes limited as you travel along the narrow little road crowded with the tiny boutique style shops and restaurants - you can get to the beach in a couple of spots (if you can find somewhere to park your car).  Most of the tourists around here rent bicycles and cycle through town and out to the beach. Iff you walk through hotel properties you can get to the beach - yet again, if you buy a drink and/or a meal at one of the restaurants (including hotels) you can even get to sit on their beach loungers or chairs.  Most of the hotels, restaurants and shops are built with palm frond roofs and an open air design.

You can actually see mats of floating seaweed 
The blue Caribbean waters are sometimes clear of seaweed.

The warm Caribbean waters and sparkling white sand is beautiful but since 2014 Tulum (along with most of the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico) has been plagued with tons of seaweed.  The seaweed is raked up daily by the big expensive resorts, many of whom dig big pits and bury it when they can.
Pile of seaweed raked up by one of the beach front businesses

However a lot of the beach is affected by the seaweed both in the water and on the sand - when the seaweed hits the beach and starts piling up, water trapped behind it starts rotting the seaweed and the smell is overpowering - the seas themselves, filled with weed, are no good for swimming.  This place, once touted to have one of the world's best beaches is suffering along the water front but business is still thriving and people are still flocking here filling the restaurants, bars, shops and eco-tourism hotels and hostels.

We took a walk around town one evening after having a great supper at Los Aguachiles - the pita stuffed with grilled shrimp, gouda, sprouted sunflower seeds and some other yummy items, was out of this world.  While walking around, we came across a cultural festival going on (go figure we decided to walk town in the evening that this was going on) and we also saw a couple of fruterias and their produce was definitely better than what we had seen at the grocery store.  We picked up a lovely pineapple for only 30 pesos (just over $1.50).  Next time we need fruit and veggies we know where we are headed!

Later that evening we experienced our first storm here in Mexico - stepping outside onto the covered patio to enjoy the cool down while it was raining, we found out that it doesn't actually cool down.  All that happened was that the humidity climbed even higher and it was a sauna out there - honestly we could have sat outside and thought that we were in a sauna at a spa or something.  The shock of the heat and humidity took our breath away and we decide to escape back into the air-conditioning because we had just showered after our walk around town.

Still to explore are the Mayan ruins (here thee is a site on a 40 foot cliff overlooking the beach), some of the many cenotes, the monkey sanctuary and maybe Aktun Chen Natural Park and/or a Turtle sanctuary at Akumal.