Towns At The End Of The Road

By Douglas Bernon
April 27, 2001
San Pedro, Ambergris Key, Belize
17 54.750 N 087 57.720 W

I just plain fell in love with Xcalak. She was our last stop in Mexico before proceeding south to Belize. She is the sweetest, dustiest, end-of-the road-little burg, not quite big enough to be called a one-horse town. Her few short roads aren't paved. There's no diesel or water for sale. Spinning over the little population, a half dozen enormous windmills stand sentinel; none work. An impressive grid of 300 Siemens solar panels are no longer connected to anything. There are a couple of restaurants, one inn — named Mike's Marina — and a handful of teeny "groceries" that specialize in one or two items: mangos and avocados in one, cherimoya and cabbage in another, cookies and tortillas over there, veggies and a few bananas over here. A supply truck comes to town several days a week at around 5:00 pm or so and circles through the streets, stopping when beckoned. The slow-moving truck reminded me of Iggy the Vegetable Man, who, when I was a little boy in Cleveland, would dingle his bell while driving unhurriedly through our neighborhood with fresh fruit and greens. That was in the days when dry cleaners delivered, and a standing order of milk, bottled in glass, was placed inside a compartment on the side of our house every other day.

In Xcalak (pronounced ISH-ka-lack), there's a port captain's office and an immigration office; the latter is actually the front room of the immigration officer's house. The often cheerless task of clearing in and out of a country was not only painless here, it was friendly and fun. The whole affair took 30 minutes, 10 of them spent walking through town and the other 20 schmoozing with the officials. No one seemed the least interested in inspecting the boat, and the whole event was more perfunctory than precise.

Photo of the Mexican Navy
The Mexican Navy is a friendly yet ubiquitous presence all along the Yucatán coast. This young man was part
of the boarding party that inspected Ithaka while we were underway to Cayo Norte and the Banco Chinchorro.

The Mexican navy maintains a base in Xcalak with a fleet of six 20-foot launches that in the four days we were there never budged from their spots on the beach. There must be about 30 navy men there, and they either sit at their sentry box on the main street, talking and playing cards, or sit on the cement pier with their fishing poles or wander around town just like we did — except of course they were dressed in heavy, dark clothing, and for some bewildering reason they carried rifles. It's as if the Delta Force had been assigned to guard Gilligan's Island. But they're friendly guys — mostly kids really — and happy to talk about our boats and where we're going. In addition the navy has donated to the town dozens of old, thick, blue hawsers, so that when laid on the ground and stretched across the sandy, rutted road, they serve as speed bumps, an unlikely addition with dubious purpose, as we almost never saw cars passing through. But the local children seem to love them for the challenge they present in making bicycles jump in the air.

Xcalak is my kind of place. The coconut-palm beaches are soft, white sand, and there are few people anywhere. If you want an out-of-the-way place to get away, no hassles, and a magnificent throw-back to the '60s, you ought to hustle down here soon. Mike's may be the only hotel (and a pretty nice one at that), but there are lots of places to string hammocks and peg tents; plus, many families offer the option of sleeping on their floor. There are two dive shops more or less struggling to make their way and a couple of restaurants. We hung out at Conchita's, run by a tall, handsome Mexican man who spoke perfect English, and his gorgeous American wife who'd grown up in Southport, North Carolina, both of whom were assisted by the exquisite Niella, the man's eight-year-old daughter. Watching this young couple in their pretty restaurant on the beach, we wondered what was the tale that had brought them together, and we wished we were staying long enough to unearth it.

You walk into Conchita's and extract what you want to drink from the cooler; everything's on the honor system. A shelf of used paperbacks are yours for the picking. There are no menus; they let you know what they've got that day when you sit down. It's all great. One night it was the choice of grilled fish in a garlic sauce or chicken fajitas. Another night, it was pork fajitas with an avocado and tomato salsa. A third night it was pasta with grilled venison, served with the comment "Okay, amigo, here's Bambi." The appetizers were yummy, the food terrific, the prices modest, and the beer ice cold. On our last night there, we were the only customers. Actually, on our second night, that was also true. So day three, the owners pulled out the stops: extra appetizers, a special yellowtail sauce on the pasta, and some sort of local liquor as an after-dinner drink. Gratis.

Illustration of houses along the Yucatan coast The price of houses and land along the coast of the Yucatán is now said to be doubling and tripling every three years.

Sadly, Xcalak is not likely to remain in amber for long. There are real-estate signs everywhere — and most are in English. Wealth is on the prowl, and it's likely that before too long Conchita's will be a changed and busy place. Mike, of Mike's Marina, told us that the beachfront is being scarfed up lickety-split at American-level prices. We'd been steered to Xcalak by a nice guy who e-mailed us a while back, saying that he'd been reading our logs, and he thought we might like it. Mucho mucho gracias. Your description of this village was right on the mark.

We'd intended to remain in Xcalak only overnight, just long enough to check out of Mexico, but the springtime trades, which have been very strong, started howling through at 20 to 30 knots, and there was no way to make it back out through the reef cut into deep water in that kind of wind. So we resigned ourselves to the inevitable, let out loads of scope on our anchor, and headed in to dinner at Conchita's. It would have been so easy to get bummed here, especially as the delay days were adding up from two, to three, to four, and maybe more, but instead we began to get into the place. A reminder that there's a fine line between having a good time in a place and being morose about being stuck there. Meeting good people, usually, is what makes all the difference.

Photo of Frank and Douglas finishing up the alternatectomy Frank and Douglas finishing up the alternatectomy.

The anchorage, inside the reef, and exposed to the north, was sometimes worrisome and much less than ideal. We had a current of at least 2 and sometimes 3 knots, so Ithaka, as well as the other boats here, Simba, Sunday's Child, Britican, and Nomad lay more to the current than the blow. For two days, instead of seeing our chain stretched out in front of us, our anchor line pointed an unnerving 120 degrees BACK from our bow. In effect we had anchored in a river. But everyone was safe, and as things turned out, it was just as well we were there. On the second day, I started our engine, and for reasons completely unknown to me, our high-output alternator never heated up to its usual hand-scorching temperature. Functioning alternators fall into the "important" category, so I'd hoped it was just a case of stuck brushes. But no, that would be too easy; the problem appeared to be in the windings, not something repairable on board. This puppy was dead. So, with the boat rolling and rocking in the anchorage, Frank Cassidy, from Simba (an electrical engineer and physicist by training — thank you, God) spent the day helping me remove the useless beast and replace it with the spare we were carrying. Frank claims I could have done this entirely on my own if he hadn't been here, a generous and iffy confidence. But now that he's helped me through this round, if it should ever happen again (nothing surprises me now) I could replace the alternator myself. I'm enormously grateful to Frank for his friendship, expertise, and teaching skills.

Photo of Statue of Patron Saint of fishermen, Saint Peter We hoisted the Q-flag and made landfall at San Pedro, Belize, named after the patron saint of fishermen, Saint Peter.

By dinnertime, Ithaka's new alternator was charging her batteries again. This episode is an ideal example of the community among cruisers. I don't know what Frank had planned to do that day, but he gave that time to us. There's a real brotherhood out here, and often one is blessed with anchorage-mates who are highly skilled in a variety of ways and enthusiastic about being helpful. Cruisers rely on each other continuously, and the ethic is direct and simple: If someone needs help with something, you put aside what you're doing and help. One hand washes the other; your efforts will come back to you down the road.

This reminds me of an e-mail question we received recently from someone reading our logs. He said he was planning on going cruising, too, and asked us if everything really breaks on board boats as much as we say it does, or "should you guys have been better prepared before going?"

That would be Yes, and Yes. I wish we were more competent, and better prepared, and I wish I had been exaggerating. But the reality is that things do wear out and break out here. They break a lot. They break at night. They break at the worst times. They break when you need them most. To be sure, our being novices and committing any number of what we call "OEs" (operator errors) increases the speed and frequency with which we break things. And it's true that if we'd owned our boat for a few years before we left (instead of one year), we would've learned some of these things in the comfort of our home waters, and we could've gotten some of this stuff sussed out earlier. But, hey, this is the way it is. The alternator, however, was the bad luck of the draw, and probably not caused by us. These bastards just wear out. Period.

When things go wrong for us and we feel like nincompoops, we're reminded by other cruisers that it's not just us. Friends of ours here in San Pedro reported yesterday that their drinking water smelled, in their words, "very peculiar ... in fact, downright rancid." It turns out they'd filtered a large quantity of penny-sized brown jellyfish through their watermaker. Their high-pressure reverse-osmosis pump had forced these soft-body critters through the cleaning membrane, which became fouled in the process, soured their water and generally gummed up the works, demonstrating yet another advantage of a high-tech system: You gain the capacity to suck up thousands of small gelatinous sea creatures and mush them through tiny screens.

Anyway, back to Belize. We're learning what a satisfying feeling it is to haul down one nation's courtesy flag and hoist a new one, along with the yellow quarantine "Q" flag, which each country requires you to fly until you clear immigration. Halfway from Xcalak to San Pedro, as we crossed an imaginary line, while the Autohelm steered and Bernadette stood witness, I put on my official baseball cap (the globe-like, orange-slice insignia makes it the closest thing we have to official head-gear) marched forward to the flag halyard and, with ceremonial majesty, made terrific trumpet noises, lowered the Mexican colors, ate a corn tortilla, and raised the national flag of Belize.

Photo of downtown San Pedro Downtown San Pedro bustles with shops and great eateries.

The opening in the reef for San Pedro used to have an impressive white buoy, but the hurricane last year uprooted it. These days it rests just off the beach, out of the way and useless. So, to cross inside the reef, you use an offshore lat/long waypoint, approach on a course of 318 degrees, cut between the two reefs (depth 9 to 12 feet — not ideal in a rolling sea) and once around the southern edge of the northern reef, cut a hard dogleg to the right to avoid another smaller reef just inside the entrance, line up with the radio tower, and bear 355 degrees. Then it's 7- to 9-foot depth and a whole bunch less wave action.

Lots of cruisers suggested to us that San Pedro is the ideal northern point to clear into Belize, much superior to the more bureaucratic capital city of Belize City, 35 miles to the south. This was good counsel. Customs was quick and simple. Maybe 10 minutes. When the customs officer saw the queue at immigration was long, he suggested we go have some lunch and come back later, after which he'd come out to the boat and inspect us. After conch ceviche and meat pie, washed down with a Belikan dark (the fine local stout), we returned. By then the wind had picked up, though, and the official didn't fancy a wet dinghy ride, so he suggested instead, "You don't look like you'll misbehave. Enjoy beautiful Belize, and stay out of trouble, OK?" With that we were official.

Photo of Frank and Douglas spent all day ferrying jerry cans Our last chance to get fuel and water for a month or more, Frank and Douglas spent all day ferrying jerry cans of both to Ithaka and Simba, topping off the boats' tanks before we take off to the outlying cays.

San Pedro has an air of what I fear Xcalak may become. There still aren't any paved roads, yet, but there's an airport, and hotels, and plenty of cars, and swarms of rent-a-golf-carts, and busy hardware stores, and construction going on everywhere. There's a slew of PADI dive operations and an internet café; lots of restaurants; keen competition among the bakeries as to who can make the best cinnamon buns (the kind of unofficial contest in which I enjoy officiating); and beautiful beaches. There are two modern and large supermarkets; oodles of booze stores, and the Belizean rum, especially the brand called One Barrel, can hold its head high. All in all, San Pedro is a terrific place to provision while avoiding Belize City. To be sure, the harbor is busy. TMM has a good-looking charter operation here. Parasailers hover unnervingly above your mast, sailboarders scoot everywhere, and dive boats race through at a bazillion knots. It's a happening place, right on the doorstep to the cays, and we're having a ball here.

The depth around the diesel and water dock, unfortunately, is too skinny for Ithaka, which meant seven drenched hours of dinghying jerry cans back and forth across the boisterous harbor to the boat. But, at least I felt a kinship with my ancestors, the schleppers. However, here in San Pedro, there remains the promise at the end of the day of grilled grouper and red beans on the beach at Cannibal's Restaurant Bar, while we plan our trip south to the outer atolls and inner islands. The weather's letting up, so it looks like that might happen tomorrow. Best of all, here in Belize, I get to practice my English.