Thursday, December 29, 2016

Recap, Reflexion and Looking Ahead

The Mode
We chose to drive through Mexico because we knew we couldn’t put our dogs in the cargo compartment of a plane. At first, we thought we’d buy a big-ass vehicle like a Chevy Suburban and motel hop through Mexico. Not speaking Spanish and trying to find dog friendly motels all along our route seemed like an insurmountable task so all that was left was the even bigger-ass RV option.

I didn’t even like driving Laurie’s Quest minivan. It was too damn big for me with too many blind spots. The only two dents in the thing are, of course, attributed to me and this fact. But, if we wanted to go to Belize with our dogs, the RV seemed to be the only option.

We plotted our course based on RV parks we found in the universally accepted, although quite antiquated, go-to guide book for RVing Mexico. To fill in the gaps where there weren’t sufficient parks, gas station parking lots and Wal-Mart lots were options, but they didn’t seem very appealing. About two-thirds of the way through our travels it dawned on us that we could park in motel/hotel parking lots for as little, if not less, than RV park rates (we learned many things late in the game). As a result, we also learned that most motels would accept the dogs. Even if they weren’t welcome in the rooms, they were fine on the grounds and could sleep in the RV

This was the eye-opening experience that showed us we could have, in fact, done the trip in much less time, and likely at less cost, in a big-ass (albeit, tiny-ass compared to the RV) Chevy Suburban-type vehicle. The dogs would not have had nearly as much fun and our entire trip would have been more hurried and less adventurous, but in retrospect, it probably would have been a faster, more efficient way to go.

The Route
Should we ever decide to drive through Mexico again, we would route around all major cities at all cost. Those were our most unpleasant experiences. The altered, more suburban route would undoubtedly add days to our travel, but would spare us the stress of the big cities. If we weren’t driving a 26-foot RV towing a truck behind, the big cities would likely have been more tolerable, but still, not worth the added stress. Besides, seeing more, smaller villages would have been much better than the mayhem of Culiacan, Guadalajara, Mexico City, & Puebla. Just not our cup of tea.

The Roads
Need I say it again? The roads – all of them – are terrible. This is not a complaint. It’s just that, based on numerous statements online, we underwent our journey with the expectation that the roads weren’t that bad. If you know in advance that they are, you won’t be as frustrated as we were. Expect the worst and you will be pleasantly surprised 30-40% of the time.

The people are warm, welcoming and hospitable. We only had two bad experiences and they were both with big-city cops. Food, gas, accommodations, and booze are incredibly inexpensive. We didn’t thoroughly research land and rental prices, but suspect there are plenty of deals to be found on those fronts, as well. If only we spoke Spanish. We were able to communicate, but not being able to actually converse, is enough to keep us from being able to live in Mexico. We want to be part of whatever country we settle in and conversation is a critical component. We could, and will, learn Spanish, but becoming fluent enough to be comfortable conversing will take way too much time at our age. Regardless, after spending two months in Mexico, it was hard to leave. We already miss it and we will return.

The Numbers
Granted, taking two months to traverse a nation en route to one’s ultimate destination is not typical. The longer travel time increased accommodation and shopping costs accordingly, but that being said, prior to crossing the border into Belize, gasoline ran us about $1,650, RV park fees/hotel rooms were about $1,300, tolls for 2 vehicles were about $465, and dining, drinking, shopping, etc. was about $3,500. So, a two-month run, with all kinds of new sights & experiences, including several weeks of “vacation” stops for about $7,000 – about what we’d spend for a typical 3+ week vacation or for just staying at home for the same two months.

And Now, Belize
Tomorrow we move into our first little rental house. We’ve been at Hanna Stables for just shy of 3 weeks. While we’re sick to death of living in this little box and very much looking forward to spreading out and settling in, we’re also sad to be leaving our temporary home here. We’ve gotten to know most of the family and the staff and get to see everyone daily.

We enjoy Santiago’s visits as he passes by checking on his guests or heading out on tours. He joined us for dinner one night and has regaled us with many interesting tales of the farm, the ranch, and his life. He loves his horses more than anything and is the consummate host when it comes to leading horseback riding tours. He likes sharing the quote: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man” and lives it to the fullest.

We will miss seeing Santiago’s brother, Dominic, move his cows from pasture to pasture every couple of days. He doesn’t herd them, he calls them - “Come girls” - and they follow him like pets – all 145 of them. I told him that was convenient and he agreed, except, he says, when he doesn’t want them to follow him and they do anyway.

We’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of the horses as they wind down in their stables at night and start their tours in the morning. We like greeting Rudy, the patriarch of the ranch, as he makes his daily rounds in his pickup. Fortunately, we are only moving across the street and we will get to continue to enjoy everyone’s company as neighbors.

Starting January 1st, we begin to see what our day-to-day life and our monthly budget will be like here. We wear no rose colored glasses. Too many wannabe expats sell everything on a whim and move to places such as this assuming their two-week vacation is reflective of life in the long-term in these beautiful, yet radically different, environs. We shall see. It could be a life-long change or a very long vacation. We hope for the best, but wait to see how we adapt and what we can afford. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Small "Town" of Belize

Fresno, California, the city from which we hail, has a population of 500,000 people. We have relocated to a country of 367,000 people, in a district (the Cayo District) of 74,000 people, in a city (San Ignacio/Santa Elena) of 18,000 people (the second largest city in Belize, by the way).

In two brief afternoons of wandering through the streets of San Ignacio we have bumped into Allen, a new expat we met a few days ago in Corozal, Belize, his real estate agent, Ginny, who is now at the forefront of finding us a house, Marcus and Mr. G, our friends we met 3 years ago and have stayed in touch with since, and Eli, a Fresno transplant who recently arrived. Laurie also met a local farmer who set her up with her first batch of dark greens since leaving Fresno and we’re parked at one of the highly respected organic farms in the region. Belize is welcoming us.

It’s really great walking the streets of S.I. The population is very diverse and we don’t really feel like tourists here. Everyone blends together and this is one of the reasons we chose Belize. It’s a lot more expensive than Mexico, but, for the most part, less expensive than the states. Beer, however, is over a buck a bottle – and that’s not even a 12 ounce bottle.

As I mentioned before, our current digs are Hanna Stables. Our host is Santiago, a dashing, third generation rancher/rider/farmer. Santiago is one of 7 siblings who live on the 400 acre spread along with their parents. Santiago oversees the operation. Cattle farming, dairy, horseback riding for tourists, organic farming, a dozen little cabins rented out to tourists, and his first RV – us. Here is the view from the front of our RV.
In about the center of the picture, at the peak of the "mountain," just
to the right of the palm tree is the top of the pyramid, Xunantunich. 

Pretty hard to take.

We have arrived in Belize at the beginning of tourist season so houses are a bit scarce. Additionally, we have 3 dogs – not a popular thing in Central America. That being said, Ginny seems to have found us a nice little place and it is literally, right across the road from where we are currently staying. The downside is it’s a bit more than we wanted to spend (it rents for $600 a month when we were hoping for no more than $500) and we can’t get in until December 28, but it’s cute, quiet and has a great open space for us, the RV, and the dogs. Plus, it’s near our new friend, Santiago. Since we can’t move in for a couple of weeks, we’re going to continue the search, but knowing we have a good, solid option takes the edge off the stress of house hunting.

In the meantime we continue exploring the area. Thanks to our new friend, Gordon, we found a great source for meats and chicken today. We've also been exploring the surroundings of our temporary home. We walked down to the river today and discovered as many glorious areas down below as up above.
Our host, Santiago. If you click on the photo and zoom in, you
can see our RV way in the background at the top of the hill.

More later when we get settled, plus – a summary/reflection on the trip down for those considering a similar journey or just interested in the overview.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

At Long Last - Belize

The plan had been to depart from our last stop in Mexico, Yax-Ha, prior to the weekend so we went on a final supply run Friday and stopped at our favorite taco joint downtown for one last feast. When we got back in the truck it wouldn't start. I was convinced it was the starter so I crawled underneath and banged on it a few times to no avail. I took my greasy up to the elbows arms back to the taco joint and hand gestured my way into getting three of the young gents to come give us a push start and off we went to Autozone to get a new starter.
Success at acquiring the starter and, with only two interruptions from two new, French speaking arrivals, managed to get it installed before dark. Only to discover that the problem was the battery, not the starter – thanks Philippe (French speaking interruption #1 – I know, I don’t mean to be insulting, but Philippe will understand, and he prides himself on being a bit of a smart ass anyway, eh Philippe?).

Our newest friend/family member – Philippe. There’s something about someone who gives you shit right out of the gate – and can take it equally well – that I admire. Philippe is a traveler of the Americas. He started in Panama and has been on the road for years. He also captains private vessels from time to time to earn money to continue his travels.

We very much enjoyed our time with him and are hoping he chose to adopt the sweet, young street dog who adopted us while we were at Yax-Ha. She slept under the RV every night, hung out with our dogs, and acted like she was the newest member of the pack. We, unwisely, fed her a bit too regularly and were sad to drive away as she watched on from our spot. Philippe was in town when we left and emailed that she was waiting for him when he returned. He said he has now been cooking for two, him and Pepina, and we think they would be a great team. We’re also hoping they will visit us soon in Belize.

Oh, the other French speaking interruption? French Canadians from Montreal. Huge, expensive RV, unsocial occupants. Au revoir.

Monday departure for Belize. 40 minutes to the border, relatively painless, 2 hour, border crossing, and then another 30 minutes into Corozal, Belize. Corozal is a super friendly town. Lots of little shops and eateries. Accordingly, we dined and shopped, but there's not much else happening there.

The primary business at Caribbean Village RV park in Corozal is transfer services – i.e. driving folks to and from all the surrounding areas via a small fleet of mini vans. At one time, this park was geared up for at least 100 RVs at a time, but those are the foregone days of RV caravans. These companies are partly to blame for their own demise by encouraging folks to RV in large groups to minimize the risks of “dangerous” solo traveling in Mexico and Central America. Alas, they have left RV ghost towns in their wake. On our second night at Caribbean Village we met Martin and Janet from Switzerland. Another very nice, adventurous couple on a long holiday, driving the Americas. They wanted to do some ocean swimming in Mexico so we sent them to Yax-Ha.

The skies in Central America are always gorgeous.

3 nights in Corozal – one too many, but we needed to do laundry – and then off to San Ignacio. Or, so we originally planned. We discovered the Community Baboon Sanctuary web site the night before we left. The sanctuary was about halfway along our route and decided we needed some monkey time. We read on that we could park next to the hub of the sanctuary, but it was a small, uninviting parking lot right next to the road. Right behind it, however, was the Nature Resort. After a bit of chatting with the neighbors we were ushered into Roy’s place where we settled in for a couple of nights.

Roy has slowly built a gorgeous little complex of about half a dozen cabanas that accommodate travel groups of all sizes and needs. His wife prepared a few wonderful meals for us and Roy was kind enough to give us a tour of his facility and explain how it developed. He also gave us an education on building cabanas and I was fortunate enough to get a first-hand lesson on how to construct a thatch roof and how to detect termites. Invaluable lessons for potential, future, Belize inn owners.

We were also treated to a wonderful, fried chicken dinner prepared by Geraldine who seconded as our tour guide to lead us to see a troupe of howler monkeys, and sold us her handmade, “horsetail” fly swatter. The group of 7 villages that make up the baboon sanctuary is suffering a bit now due to a re-routing of cruise ships arriving in Belize, but  they have an incredible project going and their community is well worth a visit.

Today, we departed the land of the Baboons (this is what the locals call the howler monkeys) and arrived at our final destination in Belize – the Cayo District. We’re about halfway between San Ignacio and San Jose Succotz at Hanna Stables. This is an incredible place – absolutely gorgeous. A beautiful horse stable, an organic farm, a cute complex of little cabins, and stunning views. We’re looking forward to spending more time with Santiago, the current caretaker and owner of this multi-generational estate. However, tomorrow will be a long, exploratory drive around the area familiarizing ourselves with things and doing some house hunting. It’s time to get out of the “tiny house” and nest in something a bit larger.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Final Pause in Mexico

We arrived at the Hotel Mirador Maya in Xpujil on Tuesday of last week. There's not a lot happening in this part of Mexico other than Mayan ruins, but there's a ton of those. In looking at Google maps there were at least 5 Mayan sites within a few minutes  of our hotel. A group of students were occupying the entire hotel when we arrived so we parked between the complex of rooms and the highway. They stayed up late and partied, but left the next day and we had the place to ourselves - a typical theme in our travels. We rented a room for night #2, but still opted to stay in the RV. 


Given our close proximity to so many Mayan sites we had to go check one out on Wednesday. It was Becan and was very cool. The pyramid here is higher than the much more famous pyramid at Chichen Itza, but this site is much less touristed (that's not a word, but it should be) - only four other people there. I checked out the sign-in sheet for the day and, as with the other stops we've made throughout Mexico, the site was mostly being visited by folks from Europe. The North Americans seem to be missing out more and more on the wonders down this way. 


While we were at Becan, Ian and Penelope (our Australian friends) caught up to us. We were returning from the site and heading into town (past our hotel) to do a little shopping when we saw Wiggy, their urban assult vehicle, parked by our RV! We were going to make a quick swing through town, but decided instead to swing around and head back to the hotel to see Ian and Pen. We got a bit bogged down in traffic and by the time we got back they had moved on and left a note on the door saying they'd see us at the park in Chetumal.

Hotel Mirador is a super cute little enclave of casitas, but not terribly relaxing so off we went on Thanksgiving morning to our final destination in Mexico, Chetumal. The drive was smooth and less than 2 hours - what a contrast to most driving days. We arrived at Yax-Ha just after noon and set up camp next to Pen & Ian. There were two other campers here from the states, but other than that, isolation in paradise. And Yax-Ha really does feel like paradise. It's right on the ocean, but no beaches, so way fewer biting insects. The entire complex is grassy and full of thick, low-lying palm trees. Truly gorgeous. The sun has been on again, off again, but in general, the weather has been beautiful. 


Pen & Ian needed to empty their fridge before crossing into Belize so we got invited to dinner with them for the next two nights. Great ribs and pork stew - not to mention the wonderful company. We had wondered where we would spend our Thanksgiving holiday and we can't think of a better way to do it than with our new, Australian family. It was a wonderful setting, a wonderful meal, and the best of company.


Ian & Pen set off for Belize on Saturday morning, the park filled up with local families over the weekend, our other two couples - long-term traveling brothers and their wives from the states, departed Monday morning and we were, once again, solo. That is until early that evening when the Swiss showed up. Who would have ever imagined we would be getting such an incredible European experience in Mexico? 

Erika & Andres, on the more typical, one-year travel plan, started in Boston, headed north and did the Canada thing and then down to Mexico and beyond. Tooling about in their vintage Peugeot van, they've been pleasantly delayed multiple times, but are trying to get as far south as possible in the four months they have left. They joined us for dinner at the restaurant next door, mezcal shots into the evening, and off they went Tuesday afternoon. Here we are, alone again.
Way North

We find ourselves dragging our feet, leaving Mexico. We really love it here, but it's lonesome not being able to speak meaningfully with the locals. We will be back, but we must move on. The plan is to depart before the next weekend onslaught of locals. Off to Corozal Friday or Saturday. Until then...