Since sailing across the border into Mexico, we’ve covered 2,225 miles and stopped in 23 wonderful places. And now, after four incredible months, here we are at our last port in Mexico: Marina Chiapas, just a few miles from the border with Guatemala. (Yes, it’s as hot and humid as you’re imagining.) Tomorrow we plan to leave Mexico, and I predict that there will be some tears as we lower the Mexican flag and sail south to El Salvador.
By any measure, four months is a long time to spend in a foreign country. It’s an incredible luxury. When I traveled for work, four hours of free time was a gift. But we’ve found that our time here hasn’t satisfied any ambition we might’ve had to “do Mexico.” Actually, the opposite is true—our months in Mexico have only stoked our desire to come back. In other words… we are leaving Mexico too soon, and that reality is sinking in.
As we departed San Francisco, we were interested in making our way toward Panama, transiting the Panama Canal, and continuing in the Caribbean. The exact route and timing would depend on how we split up the seasons. For cruisers, a “season” is actually the time between hurricane seasons (or cyclone seasons if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) when we can freely navigate without those pesky storms to worry about. Many cruisers in this part of the world use July through October to return home, travel on land, or complete major projects while storing their boat somewhere safe. And that’s roughly our plan too, to store the boat for about four months while we return to the U.S.
We had a big decision to make: Where should we store the boat for hurricane season? Our options were 1) to leave the boat in Mexico (in a well-protected “hurricane hole,” because Mexico is affected by hurricanes) or 2) continue far enough south to store the boat outside the path of any dangerous storms.
As you can guess, we rationally listed all the reasons for and against each of these options: spending our entire first season in Mexico versus covering more ground to reach Panama in the same amount of time. It was a great debate for us in December and January, as Mexico’s charms were already luring us in.
But, if you can believe it, we made our final decision with our hearts, no spreadsheets involved! We wanted to sail this boat to exotic places, visit more than just one country, and look at a map after our first season and feel like we accomplished more than visiting every beach in Mexico. With few external markers of success in our life anymore, reaching Panama was a distance that pushed us out of our comfort zone. It gave us a healthy challenge, to balance making miles with staying safe and enjoying the adventure. Plus, with our life suddenly focused on short-term pursuits (where do we catch the bus? where’s the best spot to anchor?), we liked the idea of working toward a long-term goal.
Option 2—Panama—was our choice, and it’s still our plan. That means we have a timeline to stick to! In order to put the boat into storage by early July, we need to arrive at the Panama Canal in June. Here’s how the timeline looks:
- November through February (4 months) in Mexico, leaving now
- March in El Salvador and Nicaragua
- April in Costa Rica
- May in Pacific Panama
- June in the Panama Canal and preparing the boat for storage on the Caribbean side
With so much of Mexico’s Pacific coast to see, and only four months to do it, we knew we couldn’t linger too long in any one place. We didn’t want to follow a rigid (and arbitrary) calendar, but eventually settled into a planning routine that maximized our enjoyment while keeping us moving.
When we arrive somewhere new, first we evaluate what the boat needs. This can be anything from routine checks and maintenance, to cleaning the exterior, to fixing a problem, to taking on fuel. Then, we ask ourselves what we need: Laundry? Haircut? Provisions? Or maybe just a day to slow down and catch up on email or other stuff… you know, like taxes! Fun! Finally, we look at how much time is left over after we’ve taken care of the needs. We try to make the most of that time by playing in the water, exploring on shore, seeking unique experiences, or hanging out with friends.
Until recently, it was a very fine plan. But while we were having a blast in Northern Mexico, extending our stops a few days here and an extra day there, we were setting ourselves up for disappointment, not leaving enough time for our final two stops in Huatulco and Chiapas. We are missing out on a huge portion of Mexico that we were super excited to see. And we feel pretty crummy about it.
So, what are we doing about the situation—other than whining? 🙂
We’re enjoying our final days with some excellent sightseeing! We called in the professionals—and enjoyed the services of Enrique (in Huatulco) and Luis (in Chiapas) for day trips to the inland mountains at each stop.
Huatulco (in Oaxaca state) is the newest development by the Mexican government’s department of tourism (FONATUR). But instead of cramming a beautiful beach with mega resorts like, say, Cancun, the style here is eco-tourism. That means more untouched beaches and more boutique hotels. Bike racks and hipster coffee and great pizza give the town a younger vibe. The airport is small. The national park and nearby mountains keep the area lush and green. If I was planning a vacation in Mexico today, it would probably be here. (And if you like your Dreams or your Secrets, they do have some all-inclusive resorts in Huatulco too).
We had a fantastic day with Enrique and our friends Michelle and Grant from Wildest Dreams. We visited two beautiful waterfalls in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains and stopped for a memorable lunch (mole!) at a coffee plantation. Along the route we saw the agriculture that made Oaxaca famous: coffee, avocado, banana, tamarind, and mango.
Light roast or dark roast?
Then in Chiapas, Luis took us (along with Wildest Dreams and our new friends on Octopus Garden) to visit a chocolate “factory” (actually, it’s just a single-room outdoor kitchen with a few lovely ladies processing cacao by hand) and a few mountain villages.
Roasting cacao beans:
All beans are then de-shelled by hand:
Grinding the beans once the shells are off:
And I had to capture this grill made from a Pepsi refrigerator:
Tuxtla Chica Catholic church:
Coffee break in Union Juarez:
These baby coffee plants are waiting to be planted in the mountains:
Our last stop in Santo Domingo was maybe the most interesting. This house belonged to the family of Eva Braun, who was Hitler’s mistress (and eventually his wife). Built before WWII, the local lore is that Eva and Hitler were regular visitors along with other members of the Nazi party. There is no documentation to prove they were here, but the house itself provides some evidence: The basement is built like a bunker, and there is a 40-mile underground tunnel leading from the house. This area was largely settled by Germans who initally developed the world-famous coffee industry in Chiapas, but who knows if this particular piece of history is true. Information on the Internet is scarce. The Mexican government purchased the house in the 1990s and it is now a restaurant and museum.
On top of our ambitious tourist agenda these last few days, we’re making time to reflect on how we feel about leaving Mexico too soon, and how those feelings fit into the bigger picture. Moving too fast has really caused us to pause (ironically) and think about what’s important to us. And I’m actually excited to figure this one out, because it means we’ve entered a new phase. We know we can survive and thrive in this lifestyle. And that gives us a certain flexibility to extend our timeline, settle in to a slower pace, and try to avoid these feelings of “too soon” regret in the future. We can choose to spend more time traveling inland, more time connecting with the people we meet, and more time on projects like this blog, improving my photography, or properly learning Spanish.
While we’ve committed to our plan for this season, we’re looking forward to reflecting on our cruising pace when summer rolls around. Whether we decide to slow down or maintain our speed, this reflection puts us face-to-face with a new set of emotions and experiences. Thinking about travel in this way is a luxury we’ve never had before. On a weekend trip or a 7-day vacation in our old life, “enough time” wasn’t on our minds—we had the time we had, and we did our best to make the most of it. So we’re grateful to even be having these feelings and this opportunity to reflect on them.
Above all, here’s what stands out so far: It seems our relationship to time and place has changed. Long gone are the days of being done and ready to move on. Now, the more time we spend in a place, the more time we want to spend. We’re already having conversations about where and how we’ll come back to Mexico. For now, we are savoring our final tacos and starting to miss Mexico already. But tomorrow is a new day. We’ll be ready to snap out of it and remember that excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism (“next time…”) are perhaps the most rewarding emotions of all. On to El Salvador!