Tag Archives: Byron Bay

(welcome to the) Hotel California

After another long day on the road, I arrived in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca all hot & sweaty. I fell straight off the bus into the nearest hostel. It was totally lacking in personality but it was cheap. And convenient.

I had a few happy hour beers, a feed & a jibber with the cute bartender at the local reggae bar. Later, back at the hostel I met a few fun Aussie lads who were leaving the next day & were playing a drinking game with dice called ‘Chase The Ace’. Yes: I know I’m probably too old for drinking games. No: I don’t give a rat’s. Shits & giggles!

The next day, I had a chat to the local dive operator (shit visibility & not really worth going out). Still, I quite liked the feel of this place so I decided I’d stay on for maybe a week anyway… party a bit, explore a bit, chill a bit.

I went to check out Rocking J’s – a hostel recommended by LP, but to be perfectly honest – it was just a big backpacker’s barn. At the bar, I ran into someone I had met on Little Corn. A nice enough Aussie who was (motorbike) riding from Canada to Argentina with a couple of mates. I made plans to come back later for beers and maybe dinner.

A group of us went to a beautiful Japanese restaurant which promised “edible art”. All you can eat sushi for $20. Expensive feed in Central America but I was super excited. Turns out, some of the best sushi I’ve had.

However the meal was almost ruined for me by two of Easy Rider’s yobbo mates. They got hammered, spent the whole time swearing like they were at a cage fight, and complaining really loudly about the food. They’d never had sushi before. They didn’t know how to use chopsticks. Which is fine. But they were just stupid ignorant fucks about it.

These were the sort of boys for whom Japan = snowboarding & pussy. And Central America = cocaine & pussy. And I don’t have a problem with that if it’s coupled with an open, inquisitive mind that wants to learn something about a different culture. But I don’t believe these imbeciles had the capacity for learning anything. To my mind – these are the sorts of Australians who shouldn’t be allowed passports. They give us a bad rep.

It made me miss Todd & Piers (the lovely smart Aussie men that Pinky brought to Little Corn with him). Anyways, needless to say I paid up quick & got the hell out of there as soon as dinner was over. I over-tipped by way of compensation.

The next day I went to look for a different hotel – having been subjected to listening to a couple having sex in our dorm. It just wasn’t worth saving a lousy $4. I wound up at the Hotel Puerto Viejo, on the recommendation of the dive shop owner.

Kurt the owner, was a quietly charismatic Californian. He was tall & fit with dark moppish hair and a strong jaw line (which I’m always a bit of a sucker for). He was aging well for a man in his early 50s. Think Richard Gere meets Kurt Russell.

Evidently, he’s the nephew of a pioneering big wave rider and has surfed Pipeline, himself. I asked him if he’d ever surfed in Australia. He told me when he was ready to die – he’d come & give Shipsterns Bluff a crack.

The place was teeming with half-naked men. Men waxing boards in the yard. Men rolling Jamaican goodness. Men getting into Jeeps to go ride the legendary Salsa Brava. A mix of Caribbean men, Ticos, and imports. All of them with those perfect surfer boy backs. And beautiful brown skin. Man that stuff is addictive. I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The rooms were pretty basic and a bit dark truth be told, but the place had a good ambience about it. And besides, a private room with a fan for $10 was a deal in this town.

I came back with my pack and watched in amusement as four men & a teenage boy tried to check me in. It was a shit show. I think largely because they so stoned (except the lil tacker). And probably because they had better things to do (see above).

Kurt told me he was one of the first foreign business owners in Puerto Viejo, having arrived some 24 years ago. He’d built the place himself. It was a huge rabbit warren of a place – 70 odd rooms cobbled together with lots of mismatching pieces of timber.

It amused me how he answered the phone with the almost arrogant, “Hotel”. As though he was the only one, still.

When he found out I was travelling solo, he reassured me they would take care of me there. And taken care of I was. Morning, noon & night 😉

Puerto Viejo reminded me a bit of Byron Bay 15 years ago. Just a whole lot blacker. And a whole lot cooler. Great waves. Perfect weather. Good reggae. I felt like I was on set of a TVC for an über cool beer.

One day, I hired a bicycletta & rode 15ks to Manzanillo on a nice flat road with the jungle rising up on one side and pretty beaches all the way on the other. I stopped for a swim at the picture perfect Punta Uva. A pretty lil cove with some amazing snorkelling.

I also took some surf lessons with a Rasta, who failed to get me up surfing, but did manage to put me on my arse with some seriously good hashish. Smoking is just a way of life here. People were wrapping up on the bar & smoking openly in the calle. I literally saw a bloke wave to a cop as he sparked up a spliff. Now you don’t see that everyday.

I would have stayed a lot longer had everything not been damn so expensive. And besides – Ometepe Shannon & I had transgressed from just chatting about meeting up with Pinky who was in Panama, to sail to Colombia – to actually making proper plans. Well, one of us made proper plans.

I left Puerto Viejo to catch a bus across the border in the vague hope I could buy a ticket for the plane trip from a one horse town called Changuinola to Panama City. Of course there were no more seats left. And so I ended up on a 10 hour overnight bus trip instead.

I arrived at 330am with no reservations for a room. I was lucky to get a decent taxi driver (not quite ready to take back everything I’ve ever said about taxi drivers yet though) who drove me around town to 4 different places before i found one that would stick me in a hammock until a bed became available. They made one up for me, and at 5 in the morning i crashed out absolutely filthy & absolutely spent.

By mid-morning, I had linked up with Pinky & was having the first beer of the day in a new country. Hello Panama!

Little yellow spider

I hired a golf cart so i could get around and see the rest of the island. The island is some 7 km long and 650m wide. You could feasibly cycle or even walk / run it. The only issue is, the average tempature at the moment is around 30 degrees with anywhere between 60 – 90% humidity, so you can add 5 or 10 degrees to that which makes for pretty hot exercise weather.

I took my time, poking around in various small beaches and some of the grander hotels with their lifestyles of the rich & famous type pools. One such place being the elegant Casa Zama where you can drop your swag for the night, if you’ve got a cool USD$800 to blow.

When i first arrived on the island, I met an older French man by the name of John in the cafe / hotel which he owns. John is essentially a sweet older gentleman (although I did get the sense he thought he was in with a chance when i accepted a couple of dinner invitations from him.)

I’m glad I did though, because I got to hear some interesting things about Isla Mujeres, including a story about a man who had built a floating island made entirely out of plastic bottles and other recycled materials. I came across it on my little golf cart expedition. The man-made island is the second one built by an eccentric British artist (the first was destroyed by the 2005 hurricane). It’s 25m in diameter and made from some 100,000 bottles. It has 3 beaches surrounding a house with a garden (including a solar powered waterfall).

I also visited Punta Sur (the South Point) to stand on Mexico’s most easterly point, having done the same thing in Byron Bay, Australia on many occasions. Not sure why but i get a kick out these sorts of things.

The remains of the only Mayan ruin on the island stand here – the structure was largely destroyed by a hurricane.

And there is also a lighthouse which is surrounded by some seriously strange rusting structures which are supposed to be art. The lighthouse also housed the temple which was built for the Goddess Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of fertility, reason, medicine, happiness and the moon.

There’s a ‘modern day’ statue of her standing there today, which is accompanied a handwritten sign warning those who touch her, to do so with caution. I tentatively touched her hand, asking if I could have the love part before the baby bit, please. I don’t really fancy the idea of being a single mum, if I can possibly avoid it.

A little bit of history… When the Spanish landed here in 1515, they found many female shaped idols and this is how Isla Mujeres came to be named. For the next 300 years, the island was completely uninhabited. In 1821 following the Independence of Mexico, a small village of Mayan fisherman begun to form. At the end of the 19th Century, there were 650 people living here. There is now nearly 13,000. Fishing remains one of the main sources of income for the island, with Tourism being the biggest. My friend Fausto a descendant of one of the original fisherman.

I returned to Centro but not before stopping in at a place which promised me “beer so cold it would make your teeth hurt”. I had to buy the stubby holder. My first so far. I think I’ve been incredibly restrained given my penchant for collecting coolers.

I picked up my laundry and had a chat with Rogelio (pronounced with a lot of rolling Rs upfront… Ro-heh-lee-oh. Love it.) He’s a super lovely bloke. We started chatting about tortugas (turtles) and he gave me a tip off about the fact that they were currently in season, laying their eggs. He told me where to go look for them and suggested the best time would be sometime between 9 & 10pm. The next day was a full moon, so it would be a well lit night.

I met up with Dahlia and her two houseguests, Rachel and Mike and invited them to come along. They were all dead keen. We got some dinner, had a couple of drinks and headed off in the golf cart.

About 1/2 way up the island on what is referred to as the Caribbean side, we came across some locals standing near the side of the road on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We called out to them, “¿Tortugas?” “Si! Si!” they responded, waving us over.

When we looked over the edge we saw 2 guys on the beach carving out what I initially thought were channels to make it easier for the mammoth old girl to leave. Dahlia thought it was more likely they were collecting the eggs for the Tortuga Farm, which has been set up to protect the eggs from being stolen. Apparently, despite being considered an endangered species, there are still some locals who like to eat the eggs (and turtle meat).

Talking to a local lad on the cliff, who volunteers up there and doing a bit of my own research, I learned that she was a green turtle, probably about 40 years old when she hauls her 300 & something kilogram arse up on the sand to lay her eggs (to give you more of an idea of her size, turtles can grow up to 150cm in length. I stand at 163cm.)

Using her hind flippers, she digs a circular hole around 45cm deep. She’ll then start depositing anywhere up to 200 soft-shelled eggs one by one. She then ensures her babies are protected by covering up the hole so it’s relatively undetectable. This entire process can take anywhere up to an hour. Which I thought was relatively speedy work. She then returns to the ocean, leaving the eggs to fend for themselves. Incubation takes about two months. Once they hatch, the baby turtles head for the sea (usually) at night. Apparently they all go their separate ways. And they are usually greeted by a variety of sea life who want to eat them. They must be good eating I guess.

So this is the reason why they set up sanctuaries to allow the hatchlings to grow up and make their own babies.

Anyway, so we saw the first turtle just as she was starting to head out to sea. It was like being in our own personal National Geographic documentary. It all happened in under 1/2 an hour. We were all there willing her on, in a shared sublime silence. When she got to the shoreline and swam off into the night sea, I felt awash with a sense of relief… It was truly a spectacle to behold. Awesome in the truest sense of the word. We all stumbled over a bunch of ridiculously inadequate accolades such as “Wow!” and “That was amazing!” as we climbed back in the golf cart.

We proceeded up to Punta Sur for a night walk. The moon was big and bosomly and lit up a big black sea. We walked to the end, Mike pissed over the edge, and we admired the view until clouds crept over, giving us all the chills. We scurried back to the golf cart with a quick step. A chain which was cordoning off the pathway when we walked down to the point had been dropped, when we returned. We couldn’t see anyone around. We were all a bit jumpy when a car alarm went off in the carpark.

We set off for home back down the same road we came up on, and saw the same group of locals but in a different location. Again they waved us down. It felt a bit special that we were the only gringos there.

This time we saw a grand old mama turtle coming in to lay her eggs. We stayed and watched her for about 1/2 an hour, maybe more. She moved slowly from one part of the beach to another and began digging, but the rate she was moving, it looked like it was going to take her all night, and we couldn’t rally see as much from our vantage point on the cliff. We decided to leave her in peace.

I drifted off to sleep that night, counting my blessings. I felt so incredibly lucky to have witnessed such a thing, and am so glad Dahlia (and her friends) were there with me. I love traveling solo, but it’s these sorts of moments you absolutely want to be recalling with a friend in years to come.

Thurs 14 July