Monthly Archives: December 2009

We got a Balcony! Roatan the second time around

Vent update for NCL-We just kept trying to get them to pay attention to our irritation about room assignment. They paid attention and really came through!

This is a typical local Honduran home by a pretty bay on Roatan

We took the northeastern route this time in Roatan, heading toward French Harbor. We have been unsuccessful trying to stay in the same room for the second cruise, so we moved Sunday to a room on the tenth deck (that’s the tenth floor for you landlubbers), and our bicycles moved with us. It is not quite as convenient but our steward Ahmad put them in a storage locker for us on Sunday and pulled them out today after breakfast as we got ready for the ride. We had to negotiate the elevators to get the bikes down to the fourth deck from which the gangway connected us to the pier, but it turned out to be no big deal.

Incidentally, we were at the pier this time around and we took the bikes ashore ourselves. The same Garifuna band and dancers greeted us on the pier and it was less crowded because there were fewer customers from other ships to compete with us. We took the required photo with the pirate and negotiated the rows of shops to get out of the port area and onto the streets. A tour guide in the port told us French Harbor was fifteen miles away and that there were hills. I reminded Marilyn that it was she who had recommended the route.

This time we stayed to the right and worked our way through the shops of Coxen Hole. These are second and third world entities with hawkers out front, few amenities, second quality merchandise, but very colorful and seemingly fun, with music playing everywhere and kids everywhere. We had to work through about a half mile of Main Street, including a challenging hill at the end before it reached Monkey Hill Road and then onto the highway leading past the airport to French Harbor.

Again for Roatan, this turned out to be not the kind of route favored by Marilyn—flat. But the hills were manageable and Marilyn has really been looking buff lately since her workout efforts on the ship’s gym for the past several days. I must admit that she really surprised me, making it up all but one or two of the most challenging hills. I mean the hills are not that high or long, but they come frequently, if not relentlessly.
With the comparison of Costa Maya and Belize City at hand, I realized how pleasant this countryside is. Trees and shade abound as the road weaves along the coast and occasionally moves inland to avoid coastal hills. The same black vultures/hawks circle above in groups of 1 to 5 and I can hear other birds in the forest, probably parrots, I would guess. As we passed the Roatan airport, I saw large white egrets in the ponds of the wastewater treatment plant nearby. This positioning of the plant near the airport is probably not a good idea if it attracts large birds like this. I know the dangers of bird-aircraft strike hazards.

We passed a multitude of bays, some with fishing boats docked, some with housing for locals surrounding them, and some with real estate signs indicating future or continuing development. We passed a bay with a harbor for another cruise ship and the taxis were lined up for half a mile ready to take passengers to the various dive sites around Roatan. We passed Lizard Lizzy’s on the outskirts of Coxen Hole—a place recommended in one of the blogs, but it looked closed this morning as we passed. We stopped for a water break at the top of one of the hills which Marilyn didn’t manage to ride through. The traffic wasn’t too bad, but I was a little worried because the two lane road was a little narrow and I know Marilyn prefers a lot of room to ride in.

The rate of development in Roatan is obvious from the real estate development signs, the trucks carrying building supplies, and the groups of workers at all of the building sites. I spied several new office buildings being furnished and filled with tenants on the outskirts of Coxen Hole and even more as we approached French Harbor. We also spotted several upscale houses on the way. One of them was really a mansion—broad and white in two stories with a circular driveway to the street. One of the bays on the water side of the road had police and security guards directing traffic—Mahogany Bay. I later learned this was a cruise development.

Bob and Marilyn with the owner at the Bakery

As we pulled into the outskirts of French Harbor, I spied an upscale building on the right side of the road with a sign indicating “The Bakery”. I read about this establishment in one of the tour blogs and thought this might be a good place to stop for coffee and a snack and make further plans. We turned in and locked the bikes and negotiated this two story building looking for a deli/bakery. The building included and upscale furniture store and the HSBC bank in addition to at least one real estate office. A large Texaco gasoline station (the only one I spotted in Roatan) lay across the street. The Bakery looked dark, but we spotted two customers inside and entered ourselves. Marilyn immediately spotted a bagel in the bakery goods case and I ordered one from the attendant. Across the way, another man worked at a cash register before he turned to watch us. Guessing that he was the owner, I asked if he was Jewish. He said no but that he was the owner and he was from NY City. We struck up an extended conversation about Roatan, about Honduras, about the local and national government and their histories, and about income taxes in the US. He was a fascinating guy, the likes of which I hadn’t met before.

He and his wife are software engineers who left the US several years ago when the economy went south and they began to worry about the future of the US economy. They originally found Roatan for the diving sites, but eventually decided to relocate to Roatan and set up a small business. He talked about the dependence of the Roatan economy on the cruise ships, about the Jackson family who dominate the island and owned most of it at one time. The patriarch was recently voted out of office as the Mayor. It was his personal residence that I had spotted earlier along the road. I began to remember all of the businesses with the Jackson name attached to them. Apparently, he was deemed to be somewhat corrupt and the population decided to replace him.

Our host was also effusive in his dislike for the US tax system, particularly the income tax. We spent at least an hour in the bakery, finishing our bagel and the two Coke Lights we had ordered, and discussing world matters. But after that time, Marilyn and I decided we must leave to get back to the ship.

We left the store, remounted the bikes, and headed back. I recommend this route to anyone wanting to learn about Roatan. We certainly enjoyed it and learned a lot. The riding is challenging but manageable. The scenery and wildlife are very pleasant to see. And the weather was perfect. Upon returning to the ship, we talked the ship’s crew into storing the bikes on the fourth deck where we stored them last week. We stopped in the Garden Café for a sumptuous late afternoon meal of fresh fruit, olives, cheese, and artichoke hearts, wonderful cold soup, along with a plateful of mussels and shrimp. We stopped to watch the ship undock push off from the dock and turn out to sea before we returned to the room to write this blog. An excellent day, If I do say so myself!


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Costa Maya; The second time

The Costa Maya Mahahual tower and the boardwalk

Again, the difference between our first trip’s impression and that of the second trip was like night and day. This time we turned south on the main road after exiting the port area and headed toward a white tower on the horizon. Upon reaching the tower, we spied a beautiful white beach reaching south as far as the eye could see with a paved boardwalk-like path fronting it and shops lining the landward side. A small shop/bar fronts the tower and the women greeters were very pleasant and helpful, indicating the beach extends for miles and the concrete path extends for several miles itself. A Mexican Army outpost at this end of the path indicates security is a problem which the Mexican government wants to nip in the bud. Even the soldiers behind the fence bordering their compound seemed friendly and greeted our “Hola” calls with a “Hola” of their own.

The sun was hot and the sky clear over this late morning and we looked forward to a pleasant ride along the beach under the floating seabirds. There were only two cruise ships in port today, versus the four ships in port last week, and the path had many walkers but left plenty of room for our bikes. The hawkers in front of each shop called to us and indicated they were unused to bicycles on the path, although we spied a few other bikes on the path over the course of the next three hours. Some belonged to the workers, but at least one or two other bikers were cruise patrons who had rented bikes at a rental site in the port area. I believe the rental fees came to $15 per day. The bikes were serviceable if not new, but the riders were helmetless, indicating the bike rental shops have a few things to learn about handling bike patrons.

This place is beautiful. A reef about 200 yards offshore protects the beach from breaking surf. This day had a sea state with one to two foot waves splashing the piers, but the waves at the reef were still gentle and the water inside the reef was almost calm. I spotted workers cleaning the beaches for most of the morning, collecting seaweed and other flotsam. The beach sand was very inviting. I noted fingerlings at the beach along with several stickle fish, 6-15 inches long.

The shops along the path sold trinkets including musical instruments, Mexican hats, and t-shirts along with leather goods, shells and jewelry, and colorful clothing and blankets. Music was playing everywhere. The beach was about 30 yards deep and lined with tables and chairs (some with umbrellas) and grass-roofed cabanas and huts. Routinely, the restaurants and bars deliver food and beverages directly to the tables and lounge chairs on the beach at no extra cost.

Marilyn on the beachside massage table

Further along the path, scores of massage tables lay under the palm trees and Marilyn was tempted by a “professional massagist” named Nancy, although we demurred until we had ensured we saw everything in the area and had ridden far enough to use up the calories we were sure to intake during the next 24 hours here and on the Jewel.

We rode the entire length of the existing paved path before turning inland for a block and heading in the opposite direction one block off the beach. Here we saw the back side of the shops and the homes used by the local workers. This was clearly less attractive than the beach path. The inland side of the road contained the mangrove swamp-habitat with which we were familiar from our ride a week ago. Most of the trees and bushes appeared dead or dying—a product, I assumed, of a recent saltwater inundation of the area as a result of a hurricane sometime in the last few years. I spotted several types of birds and a curious set of mud balls built 10 feet off the ground in trees every 100 yards or so. I stopped a passing biker/hawker carrying ice cream and asked whether the balls were bird’s nests or insect nests. Using his Spanish and my own hand signals, we determined that the nests were built by insects. I would guess these are wasps, although I saw only a single wasp during the entire riding day.

As we circled onto the beach path for the second time, Marilyn began looking for Nancy among the hundred or so massage therapists, eventually finding her although several of the male hawkers tried to rename the therapist they were representing. Marilyn bargained with Nancy and settled upon a price of $20 for one hour. She settled down on the massage bench under a palm tree just off the beach while I locked her bike to a nearby bench. Since she carried no cash, I broke out a $20 bill for her and watched for a minute before I took off to explore the rest of Mahahual beach.

The red tide in Mahahual?

I rode to the end of the paved path and continued onto a rutted dirt road, still lined with shops. Along the beach, the tourists and locals were spread out along the beach, swimming and snorkeling. There were a few fishing boats, some small boats carrying the divers out to the reef, some jet ski vendors, a parasail outfit, a banana boat ride carrying 8 riders at a time, and the seabirds including big pelicans, wading birds of several sizes, a few gulls, and an occasional outlier bird—one of a kind.

I shared the road with three or four four-wheel ATVs rented from the cruise port, two or three golf carts from the same source, and a few walking workers. The vehicles contained two or three people including a family with a 5-year old child and a family with a 75-year old parent. I expect the Mexican plan is to extend the paved path along this area. The hotels and beach rentals extend for at least six miles along the beach. I also found many groups of thatched huts along the beach identified with beach club signs, but with few or no people using them yet. I don’t know whether this thatched hut style comes from the natives or is imported to simulate those in other resort beaches. At the 30-minute point I began to think about returning but I encountered an old man picking up something which I soon recognized to be a bird. Although I first thought it dead, the way the man was handling the bird led me to believe it was alive. I stopped and approached the man when he stretched out his arms to show me the injured small black and white seabird. Using Spanish and hand signals, he got across to me the idea that the bird was unable to fly and he was going to take care of it. I thanked him and he started on his way before I remembered to ask him for a picture.

I then returned to pick up Marilyn. On the way I passed through two deep sand spots on the road which almost caused me to fall. I vowed to be more careful. Also, I noted a beach area with red-brown water all along the beach. I don’t know whether this is from rotting vegetation trapped near the beach or from something like a red tide.

Junch of conch and snapper at El Delfin

I returned to find Marilyn’s massage almost finished. As she reassembled her clothes and paid Nancy, I unlocked her bike and checked out the nearby restaurants, particularly looking for a conch sandwich which I believed to be a local specialty in the Yucatan area. Neither of the immediately nearby restaurants provided the appropriate fare. Marilyn carefully climbed aboard her bike and we set off slowly down the path looking for somewhere to eat lunch. We settled upon “El Delfin” a sparse bar/restaurant whose hawker, Ricardo, promised conch. Ricardo also became our waiter. El Delfin also takes credit cards. Several tables on the first floor were occupied by bar patrons, so we asked to sit upstairs. Upon reaching the second floor, we spied a large group at a u-shaped table loaded with food, including two large plates containing whole fishes with various condiments encircling the 3-pound snapper. This was a group of reveling Philippine young people celebrating a birthday with singing and drinking many, many shots from a bottle labeled Agavera, then another liquor when the Agavera disappeared.

We settled upon a table for two along the open front and ordered lunch. I ordered conch and Marilyn ordered snapper filet. I ordered a $1 Margarita and a bottle of Dos XX beer and Marilyn ordered the requisite Coke Light. This was a perfect place to have a Margarita, but Marilyn thinks bicycling without any liquor is challenge enough. The waiter tried to shift me up to the $5 Margarita which would contain better Tequila, but I demurred. The food was excellent. The conch came sautéed in a thick garlic sauce while the snapper was sautéed neat. Both were accompanied by rice and beans. I noted how I preferred the Dos XX beer to the now more common Corona. A guitar-playing troubadour provided background music for the adjoining group and us. The view of the beach and ocean was perfect and reminded me of our favorite place to take visitors to Hawaii-the Mariposa restaurant at Neiman Marcus in Ala Moana Center. This has great food and tables on the second level overlooking the Ala Moana Beach and the Yacht Club. We sought Key Lime Pie for dessert but found none and settled for an excellent flan provided by a beach-walking vendor with the dessert fare in a case he carried at his waist. This was altogether a very pleasant lunch.

The return to the ship was uneventful, except that the security guards were careful to not let us ride our bikes once we entered the secure area. Several cruise passengers also stopped us to talk about the bikes. We returned happy and anxious to try this route again next week. I know Marilyn looks forward to another massage.

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Belize City; the second time around

Cruise ships in the distance at the harbor tower.

Belize City took on a world of difference with our second choice of routes through and around the city. This time we took the route toward the Northern Highway out of the city and towards the airport and Baboon Rescue facility. We were directed right immediately out of the cruise complex and found a route with fewer people and cars competing with us on the road, newer and upscale buildings all along the route and an impressive Oceanside drive for almost four miles.

We were immediately introduced to a 100 member marching school band practicing on the road adjacent to their school. I realized later that the coolness of the ship’s staterooms had chilled my camera lens and the humidity easily fogged it. I dried it off temporarily but I knew it would take some more time before the glass warmed up and the condensation subsided. Pardon the photos in the meantime. A horse drawn cart carried 2 cruise passengers on their own trip along this route. An armada of gliding swallowtail seabirds floated 20 feet above our heads as we enjoyed what was clearly the Kahala of Belize. We stopped to take a few photos of this picturesque seaside setting, catching the two cruise ships five miles out to see in one direction and a bevy of clean three story hotels and restaurants along along the road on both sides in the other direction with the Caribbean making a perfect backdrop.

A few miles on we passed the microwave laden tower for the local cell phone company just outside their headquarters and then the local TV station. The electric company on the right provided two large new buildings as I remembered to notice the structures carrying power around the city and into the countryside.
This route also took us past an old soccer stadium with workmen building a wall to begin construction of what was to begin to become the Marion Jones Sports Complex as was identified by a large billboard. We then moved into a very upscale neighborhood of large two story homes, most with bars on the windows and fences around each property. The lawns were well landscaped and workers could be seen regularly making improvements to many of the homes.

More upscale Belize City

Next came the clean, well kept, colorful buildings of the St Johns University where the road became divided and two roundabouts marked the influence of the University on the neighborhood. Apparently, this is a school beginning for 16-year olds. Next door was the Nazarene High School and another school identified as the Belize branch of the West Indies University. Students could be seen moving between classes, waiting for city buses, and being dropped off or picked up by friends or parents in newer autos.

We turned at a nearby roundabout where a sign indicated the direction toward the airport. The neighborhood turned more industrial, but this was still identifiable as an upscale area. The businesses were building supply stores, architect and engineer offices, auto sellers and many gasoline stations. The Caribbean was a little bit further behind the buildings and a residential neighborhood lie between the backs of the businesses and the ocean, but the waters regularly peaked through. Several bars and restaurants also popped up on each passing block, ranging from local food to Indian, Chinese, and Italian food.

The P Market inside.

I began to think about a convenient rest stop when Marilyn spied something and suggested we stop at a large warehouse-like store identified as the P Market. We parked the bikes outside and entered what turned out to be a grocery store somewhat like those I’m familiar with from the US. The aisles were wide, the goods plentiful and recognized by familiar manufacturer names, and a bakery/coffee shop even could be found in the front corner with 5-6 small two person tables. We took the opportunity to walk around the aisles and noted that everything seemed to be available, ranging from fresh vegetables to pet food and even frozen foods. Some of the products were from European or South American manufacturers, but the store seemed to supply choices for anything one needed. Customers were sparse, however, and the dozen or so workers busied themselves stocking shelves or checking out the cash registers at the ten check out counters. Marilyn used the rest room while I sought a cold soft drink at the coffee shop. The counter person indicated this was the wrong place for sodas and pointed to a checkout counter refrigerator which contained what I have become familiar with here in the Yucatan, Coke Light. I purchased one for $1.25 Belizean dollars ($0.75 US) and Marilyn and I shared the bottle at one of the coffee shop tables. The place wasn’t air conditioned, but the many fans were well placed and I began to feel comfortable even in the heat. We left to to begin our journey a few minutes later.

The Riviera of Belize City

Our route took us past more businesses for the next 3 miles or so. I noticed a development of homes on the seaward side which reminded me of ones I had seen at Pinehurst in North Carolina in the early 1970s. They were two stories high and circular, about 40 feet in diameter with a walkway completely around the outside on the second level and the lower level with a smaller diameter, leaving the homes somewhat like gigantic mushrooms. There were about forty or so of these homes, each painted a distinctive color typical of the Caribbean. I could also see the Caribbean peaking through between the buildings.

Lunch at the M&G

I began to look for somewhere to have lunch and Marilyn insisted we find a local place. We passed a very nice hotel cluster with what must have been a nice restaurant, but we continued on looking for something more typically Belizean. I passed one called the Atlantic but continued on, seeking another choice. Soon, I spied a sign identifying the “newly opened” M&G restaurant on one of the side streets. We searched for another half mile and then turned around to try the M&G. The side road turned into a dirt road bordered by churches and child care facilities, but eventually revealed our target, a tiny one or two room single-story wooden building. We stepped up through the door after verifying that the empty room was available for lunch. We were quickly followed by two other customers, one of whom sat at a table and the other of whom greeted the cook before leaving on another errand.

With no menu, we asked the cook what was available and she identified various stew meals. Marilyn asked about fish but we settled upon the chicken stew and the pork stew, both served with mixed rice and beans, although white rice and bean soup was also available. I ordered limeade and Marilyn had water. We began a conversation with the other customer (who had also ordered chicken stew). She ran a hotel nearby and ate here frequently, saying the fare we ordered was both good and authentic Belizean food.
We spent about 45 minutes at the M&G, learning that the owner was a graduate of the Nazarene High School we had seen. We talked about the grocery stores and learned there were at least 5 large ones like the one we had visited, and that the busy time was late in the afternoon after the workers left work. We learned that the bars of home or business windows were a correct indication of a high crime rate and that this area was somewhat safer than downtown, where most people would not venture out at night. The entire time was very pleasant and the food just right both in flavor and in quantity. We took a few pictures and headed back.

I was a little concerned about getting lost but ticked off the familiar buildings as we rode and noted the microwave tower I recognized on our way out. It appeared several miles in the distance, and although there were other towers and even microwave towers, I was convinced this was a proper landmark because of it’s location in relation to the coast. I made one wrong turn but corrected the path quickly and quickly returned to the Princess Margaret Drive as it passed the schools. The ride was entirely pleasant. We returned to the cruise ship tender landing area and were greeted by the security guards who remembered that we had told them last week that we would return for a third cruise. The tender operators loaded our bikes on the tender and we returned to the ship uneventfully. We were questioned by at least a dozen passengers at the tour center and on the tender about the bikes and several of them remarked that this was a smart way to travel and they would consider this method the next time they took a vacation. I think they will.

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Time to vent!!

For any of you who know us, you’ll immediately understand that this post is from Marilyn. We are cruising THREE times on NCL’s Jewel. So, how do they thank us? The Jewel demands that we move EVERY time. We need to move twice in three weeks. A bit much after not having moved for 30 some odd years. It doesn’t make sense, and it certainly is an inconvenience. Good thing that the food is generally yummy, but insufficient to make us move. All the best!

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Costa Maya Report

Costa Maya is sunny and hot. We tied up at the pier early this morning and our bike storage area was used as a second gangway. Thus, our bikes weren’t at the usual place when we were ready to depart but the crew found them within a minute or two and brought them to the gangway.

Costa Maya port area from the pier

I should say something about the NCL operations here. They have really made everything easy. We’ve been writing this blog on their network and they have been very helpful explaining about how to use their system and to complete email and printing operations,. They have consoles in one area of the ship and have several wifi hotspots. They even lent us a network cable so we can use our laptop in the room. There have been several operator errors on our parts, but the effort has gone extremely well overall. I’ve found all of the crew aboard the NCL Jewel to be helpful, courteous, and competent. The gangway crew seems anxious to get us our bikes, to help get them off the ship, and to learn what we did during the ride when we get back. The restaurant servers know how we like our meals and also ask about our rides. We also brought our own French Press coffee makers and coffee aboard and the servers are both fascinated and anxious to get us the required hot water. Many are also coffee “snobs” like we are and ask about our coffee varieties as well as our grinding methods. I’m very pleased with the room layout, the furnishings, and the ship location. The entire operation so far has been entirely enjoyable. We have had to live with the boarding rules affecting the elevator and stairwell usage since our room abuts the main gangway. This also means we can hear the gangway preparation evolutions each morning as the gangway doors bang and the ramps clang against the ship but this is a small price to pay. We walked off the ship with the bikes and started to ride off the pier until three uniformed soldiers pointed out “No riding” signs and we dismounted for the walk off the pier.

Marilyn and our friend at the alligator pit

The port area was very colorfully painted and filled with dozens of shops ranging from Mexican curio stores to bars, diamond and gem stores, real estate offices, and stores fronted by toucans, monkeys, Mayan dancers, etc. We ran the gauntlet and entered the road fronting the harbor accompanied by an occasional tourist bus and taxi. We passed a number of blocks obviously laid out to hold a planned community. Workers and prospective workers ambled about ready to begin the five year or so effort to turn this empty quarter of Mexico into a thriving tourist community. They aren’t there yet.

I have thought about the native use of this land area and come up with more questions than answers. I don’t see evidence of Mayan use of the coastal area. Most of the beaches throughout Yucatan are rocky rather than sandy. I don’t see that many gulls which would indicate availability of clams or other crustaceans for food. They say that the tiny city of Mahahuel nearby was traditionally a small fishing village, but I don’t see many small fishing boats anywhere in the area. The entire area seems very sparsely populated. Oh, the Mayan ruins are nearby, perhaps 30 miles away, mostly inland. But the habitat nearby doesn’t seem well served to provide most of the foods humans eat. Not much fish, not many small animals, too swampy for most grain and vegetable growth, and no fruit trees, neither bananas nor coconut palms nor citrus. It appears the national planners are trying to set up vacation communities, but I fear the local weather may eventually discourage that. It is clear that hurricanes ravage this area more than occasionally. The tops are blown off most of the trees and even bushes over 6 feet tall. The saltwater inundation seems to be killing large blocks of vegetation, likely over the past 5 or so years. The planners will have to ensure that the buildings are built to withstand annual 100mph and higher windstorms and that evacuation or some other defenses against hurricanes. Not impossible, but not easy or inexpensive either.

After a 2 km ride on streets paved with special patterned tiles, we entered the main highway and turned to the northeast to see how far we could get toward a hotel I hoped might provide us a turnaround point and a stuffed pineapple lunch. Marilyn and I discussed the possible stuffings for the pineapple as we passed occasional gas stations and construction material stores scattered among the low mangrove swamp habitat lining the highway. Occasional larger tree clumps dotting the horizon on both sides of the highway revealed high grounds capable of supporting trees not susceptible to salt water damage to the roots. Although Roatan and Belize City sprouted topical plants, Costa Maya were more swamp-like. The difference is likely because the hurricanes killed plants that stick up too high. A few birds circled 30-300 feet above, mostly vultures or hawks. We could hear only the occasional chirps of either a sparse smaller bird population or ones taking to roosts early to avoid the heat. The seashore was not visible, but dark brown stained water could be seen on both sides of the street in ditches from which the highway fill had been taken and also peeking through the low brush off into the distance. We passed some bushes familiar to us from Hawaii like the ones we call Halekoa.

Marilyn's kind of biking road again

The highway marker read 56km as we turned onto the road to Cancun. Trucks, buses and taxis passed only occasionally as we began to understand the loneliness of this sparsely populated area. The diving beaches were behind us and the Mayan ruins lay out of reach today, so we realized we would be lucky if this ride didn’t turn out to be only a four or five hour exercise period. We stopped about seven km along the road for water and to demonstrate to you all that this was another “Marilyn route”, flat and smooth as far as the eye can see. The ride was sunny the whole way, leaving tired earlier than we usually would have been. So what distance should we choose next week?

We did see occasional large white egrets, two pencil thin six foot long snakes slithering in the road, and a few butterflies, but the late morning heat began to get to us and I started to worry that we would outride our water supply. The wind was blowing gently behind us to keep us from overheating immediately, but we decided to make a go/no go decision at a white feature way off in the distance on the right side of the road. When we got there after two hours of riding, it turned out to be an “oasis” store whose owner was just opening the store for three customers. We pulled over, welcomed the sight of sodas in two refrigerators, and settled for two Coke Lights. Marilyn settled in a chair on the porch in the shade while I struck up a conversation with the owner, beginning with a question about the hotel we were heading toward. In Spanish, he indicated there was no hotel within 20 km ahead, sealing my decision to make this our turn around point. He began trying out his English while I began trying out my Spanish—nonexistent in both cases. Nevertheless, we developed a liking for one another. I asked about hurricanes in the recent past which I believe had devastated the area recently. He verified my belief by indicating he had hunkered down in his blockhouse style cement house behind while nearly everything else was blown away. That was the reason for the absence of trees taller than 5-8 feet.

He then mentioned alligators and showed us around the side of the store, revealing a circular walled area filled with brown water and a one tree island in the center. Near the side, he showed us a six feet long board barely floating just below the surface and a one foot diameter turtle swimming lazily alongside. He looked around and indicated the alligator was probably lazing in a channel beneath the path alongside the pond. Meanwhile, Marilyn discovered a small dog stuck underneath the porch alongside the store and she and the owner spent a few minutes releasing it. It turned out to be a three month old boxer whose leash had been stuck on a stick. Upon his release, Marilyn and the owner played with him while I searched the pond for the alligator. Eventually, I discovered the alligator on the island in the pond center. About 4 feet long, it was brown and barely moved. The owner came over and pointed to the carcasses of three or four chickens which he had fed to the alligator over the past month or so. I tried to tell the owner how much this area reminded me of Louisiana. He indicated the alligators do live in the swamps all over the area. By now, I had finished my soda and began to nag Marilyn to drink her entire bottle of soda because I was worried about dehydration. She did a pretty good job but then handed me the bottle with a few swigs left in the bottom. I finished it and we remounted for the return trip.

Still not many cars or trucks. Still not many clouds. Still the swamps on this side of the street. But I did notice the wind was now blowing in our face. My bottom began to feel numb as I thought about the two hour ride back. Marilyn was not any better. She slowed down in the slight wind. But she was still riding nicely so I began to concentrate on the birdlife. I saw the occasional vultures and egrets and began to notice a few yellow butterflies. But Marilyn was really slowing down and I began to work on her to make sure she forced down a whole bottle of water the next time we stopped. That occurred at the nine km point as I noticed motion behind a bush on the side of the road and spied a very large brown bird take flight, floating eight feet off the ground for 100 yards before settling in a grassy, watery area. I stopped and handed Marilyn the water bottle while I tried to get a good photo of this bird. I took ten shots, eventually getting one, but noticing how hard it was to find the bird in the viewfinder after zooming in to max zoom.

The last nine km wasn’t easy, but Marilyn sped up with the end in sight and we rolled back into Puerto Casa Maya and through the gate into the tourist traps again. Almost five hours without shade. But the lunch on the ship really hit the spot after I drank six glasses of water and iced tea. Next week, we’ll try the other direction. The other direction is fine, but not quite so far—unless there is shade!

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Costa Maya Plans

Costa Maya is the third stop on this cruise. It lies on the Mexican Yucatan Coast. Cruise comments indicate there is not much around this barren region. Maps show a road somewhat inland along the coast. It goes past a village of Majahuel about three miles south. We’ll head that way.  There appear to be both paved and beach roads both to the north and to the south.  We’ll visit the beach roads to see if they are navigable by bike and revert to the paved roads if we decide they are  not.  The Mayan ruins of Xcalek are 20 miles south. I don’t know whether we can make that distance at our present level of training, but we may head off to see how far we can get in time to return to the ship within six hours. Some folks speak of a hotel on the way and we may try lunch there. I hear the stuffed pineapple is good. The beaches may be pretty and good for diving. Neither Marilyn nor I are much into diving, but we may get wet and enjoy a day on the beach. I don’t think we have many choices for this port visit unless we want to take a bus or taxi.

I notice a monkey reserve lies at Uyumil Che within five miles to the north.  We may try to get there too.  And there seem to be several archeological Mayan sites around here.  They lie at Chacchoben and Limones to the northwest and Xcabasl around the bay due west.  I don’t think we can reach any of them without a bus or taxi.  The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve  also lies to the north just outside our reach for this trip.

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Belize City Report


Belize City was not nearly as difficult as I feared. In fact, I really enjoyed the day. We began the day carrying the bikes to the tenders which were not NCL vehicles but private boats from the Belize City fleet. There were several different kinds of boats and we found ourselves on a large catamaran which seated about 100 people. The boat crew loaded our bikes for us and handed them to us on the pier in Belize City when we got there. There were four large cruise ships anchored 6-8 miles offshore from Belize City served by about 20 tenders. The trip to shore took almost 20 minutes at relatively high speed, about 25-35 knots. I saw dozens of seabirds and gulls and a few large brown pelicans flying low over the water or floating between the low waves. Those of us who didn’t opt for NCL excursions had to wait until after 9am while the dive boats and tour boats came directly to the ship to pick up their customers. We made it off the tender and through the maze of the tourism shops to the outside where we ran another gauntlet of t-shirt salesmen, artists, and hair braiders to the Belize City’s narrow streets filled with hawkers, cruise passengers, tour buses picking up passengers, and vehicles ranging from trucks to taxis to horse carts.

I was looking for Orange Street which turned into Cemetery Avenue and the Western Highway for our trip to the Southeast to see what Belize was all about. I knew that the inland blue hole was probably not reachable because it lay almost 30 miles out, but I was willing to see how far we could get while we studied this part of Belize. Unfortunately, I found out after only 50 yards that Orange Street was one way in the wrong direction and we had to walk against traffic for a block or two before I thought of moving over a block to find a street moving in the right direction. The cars on the streets accepted our ignorance and allowed us to move at a comfortable pace past a succession of third world shops selling items I opined to be of barely adequate quality. The buildings were one and two story cinderblock construction and reminded me of those I had seen in Hanoi ten years ago when I visited.

We moved carefully across a bridge and road into a gas station where I asked first an employee and then what I presumed to be the owner where I could find Western Avenue. He seemed confused at first and then corrected me that the street was called Western Highway. He gave me directions and then asked what I was looking to do. He suggested that I ride out to “Old Belize” and visit the Marina and try the restaurant. That sounded good to me and we headed a few blocks down the street to a stoplight, turned left to a roundabout and headed right onto Cemetery Avenue as the blighted city began to transition into homes with yards and businesses ranging from auto parts stores to architect offices, dentist offices, plastic fabrication businesses, and bus barns. The potholed city streets also changed to a two lane paved road and the cars immediately began speeding up to as much as 60 mph. Yet we still felt safe riding in the occasional traffic. It seems as though the people in Belize know that tourism is critical to their survival, and they are careful to ensure tourists safety. After a few miles we entered the namesake for Cemetery Street with crypts above ground like I have seen in New Orleans. Most showed crosses over them and many had stone versions of open books with names and stories of the dead. The cemetery was several blocks long on both sides of the street and a block deep on both sides. Beyond the crypts, I could see some newer buildings which looked like two story apartments and I saw several people taking short cuts through the cemetery as they apparently returned from their early morning efforts—probably some had jobs and some had been shopping.

Cemetery Road quickly transitioned into the Western Highway as the businesses on the side of the road became further apart and I could see miles of black water-filled ditches lining the Highway in front of Mangrove forests. This was perfect bike country for Marilyn—flat as far as the eye could see with just enough room on the side to allow her to feel comfortable as big rigs approached from the rear tooting their horns and passing as they accelerated to 60mph.

Western Highway in Belize City

I didn’t see any passing of vehicles until our return trip but I’m sure the drivers were all opening up their vehicles as they tried to make good time getting to wherever they were going. Does Belize have a speed limit? I think not, which is kind of nice, actually.

Above, a variety of large birds circled, ranging from Hawk-like birds to narrow-winged seabirds. Most were dark in color but I also saw white egrets in at least two sizes, usually walking or wading on land. We passed a large iguana venturing to within 10 feet of the road in short grass before skittering back to the safety of the deeper brush. We saw a sign indicating tapirs nearby, and I began to think we might see a crocodile or two because the habitat looked like the Louisiana alligator habitat on the roads between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But I never saw one, although the signs indicated there was a crocodile park on the Northern Highway 25 miles out of town. Perhaps we’ll try that route next week.

The day was hot but the sky cleared from the haze of the city to a perfect cloudless blue. Looking back, I could see the quartet of cruise ships on the horizon behind us as we pushed through many miles of this forest and business habitat. I was impressed with the variety of businesses which led me to believe Belize was close to digging out of the present near-squalor. I don’t know whether there are enough trained workers to staff some of these businesses properly, but they indicate someone is interested in the future and planning for bigger things like better construction and export industries. I saw a lot of what I thought to be unemployed young men and women but I hoped they would soon find a better future.

We stopped after about 1 ½ hours of riding at the Old Belize shop and Marina area. Marilyn had some trouble navigating the potholed entrance but we moved on through a large open parking area past a few dozen boats in the marina and locked the bikes to one another at a rack in front of a museum-like 1 to 2 story wooden building and found the bar-restaurant looking out over a beach with a simple amusement park.

If you look very closely on the horizon behind Marilyn, you’ll see the four cruise ships including our NCL Jewel on the horizon behind Marilyn from the restaurant.

We planned to replenish liquids before taking off for another hour or so before returning for something a little more substantial. This time we each had a “light” coke ($1.25), and shared a yummy key lime pie. It looked authentic—it wasn’t green. The rest felt good. The menu seemed encouraging.

We took off for another bit of riding but Marilyn began immediately indicating this was not going to be a full hour out and back. She suggested a half hour out and I agreed. We passed a short stretch of road improvement and a bridge while I looked for a lagoon or lake I saw on the map when I was searching last night. First I only spied some rivers or drainage ditches carrying water to the ocean from the lowlands inland and then I actually saw what the map was indicating. Apparently it is a salt water lake. I was reminded how low this entire area really was and how susceptible it was to hurricane-blown surges of the salt water. I realized how much it took to build here, first filling in the land to mitigate the near-surface water table, and then constructing with hurricanes in mind. The place looked a little like Guam which frequently gets hit by 200 mph typhoons, blowing the tops off all trees reaching up too high. Here in Belize I saw few trees stretching more than 10-15 feet high. I had heard that this place has been decimated several times in the past ten years and now I could believe it. I saw several homes built or being built on cement columns stretching at least 10-15 feet above the surface. This is reasonable planning for Belize weather.

At one point, I called back to Marilyn that we might turn around at a red and white radio tower off in the distance. But less than thirty minutes out from our rest stop we passed the tower and I kept going. After about 1 or 1 ½ miles, I looked back and found no Marilyn to be seen. Quickly I figured out she probably stopped and I made a u-turn, explaining to a couple waiting at a bus stop that my wife seem to have been lost. Seeing the red and white tower, I figured out what had happened and eventually spied Marilyn’s bike standing along the road. As I approached, I could see her waiting under another bus shelter talking to someone waiting for a bus. As I approached, Marilyn broke off her conversation and mounted her bike heading back toward Belize City.

We returned to “Old Belize” after a half hour ride. Marilyn seemed to be slowing down and I was concerned that she was getting dehydrated under the hot sun. When we reached the restaurant, I made sure she took in plenty of cold liquids, and she agreed that she felt much better after the drinks. I ordered a diet coke and a Belikin beer and Marilyn also had a diet coke. The Belikin beer, which is advertised throughout the area, is small, just 9 ounces. Odd. We ordered an appetizer of ground fish and corn meal called panades along with the special of whole fish with coconut topping. They brought a bowl of tortilla chips and a bowl of beans for dipping. This really hit the spot. When the waiter brought the food, he apologized that they were out of panades and set down the fish platter.   We have to get better with the pictures.  Here is the residue of our meal.    We’ll try to have a before picture in the future.  It looked and tasted wonderful. Served with rice and beans, this fare rivaled whole fish I have had at some of the best restaurants in Hawaii. The outside was crisp and the flesh moist. The food was accompanied by a duo playing a marimba and a turtle shell. The music fit in perfectly. As we were ready to leave, Marilyn visited the rest room and I looked out to sea just in time to see a brown pelican diving into the ocean offshore. I thought that this combination of music, food, and nature was just what I was looking for in Belize—perfect.

We remounted our bikes for the trek back, refreshed and satisfied. On the way back through town, we stopped to see if Marilyn could find a replacement for her riding/running shoes which were dangerously close to their end of life. Yesterday, the heal came off. We had seen a few shoe stores in Belize City on the way out and decided to try one. We got a suggestion which took us off the original route but needed two more sets of directions before we found a lane of shoe stores. Marilyn tried first one, then another, but couldn’t find anything to her liking. I must admit they seemed to have a limited selection of women’s shoes and an even more limited set of sizes. She actually tried on shoes at a second store while I watched over the bikes. A tall man who had suggested the first store began a conversation with me and I felt comfortable telling him about Hawaii and our bargain on the cruise package. I think I would have been comfortable having dinner with him, although I was reminded of my earlier searches about Belize and unsavory characters offering help to travelers. I think my good impression was much closer to reality than the bad impression left with the commenter.

We returned to the cruise ship tender area and found several persons interested in our bicyclecruising. These people ranged from security guards to vendors and many cruse ship passengers. In the tender and back on the ship, the interest in our bicycles and our use of them continued, leaving me with the impression that several people may try this their next time out. I hope they check this blog!

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