Yucatan Adventure: A Tale of Two Peninsulas (Part One)

By June 12, 2017Spring 2017

By Bill Waddle
I have never quite been able to get over the Collegiate Spring Break – Mexico thing. I ran the circuit in Cabo throughout my undergraduate and post-graduate years. I always fished, some years fortunate to have enough money to charter a panga, others very grateful to be on a yacht. Fast forward many years.
This Spring Break I went with my wife and kids to the other peninsula of Mexico, the Yucatan. While we Californians tend to be Bajacentric, the other side of our southern neighbor offers high adventure and a whole other ocean with different kinds of fishes.
Travel with young children has its set of challenges. Travelling five plus hours to another country ups the ante. The Uber car came mighty early and I had already dropped the dog off at the boarding kennel by 7:00 a.m. (my parents’ rescue cat has chosen our beagle as his mortal enemy!) Taking Uber was essential because we flew out of Orange County airport and returned to LAX. Almost to the airport and I realize, oh crap, I forgot my two-piece spinning rods at the house that fit perfectly bundled up at the back of an overhead compartment. Yes, I got my Phenix blanks and had the rods built with this exact application in mind. The reels and mixed tackle bag of Krocodiles, poppers and swim baits made it. Oh well.
Make the flight. Run into my buddy Tom, who is heading south to Puerto Vallarta for another ocean odyssey. We plan on comparing notes two weeks later when we are fishing on my boat, Options. We had a pretty good flight to Cancun, via Phoenix, with some sketchy turbulence over the central Mexican Highlands. My ten year old boy, Blake, is sitting next to me and asks if we were going to crash. Do I say “of course not” or give him the honest “I hope not” because we got thrown around pretty good. The remainder of the flight was fine and shortly after we cleared customs we were aboard our rented Dodge Durango heading south toward Playa del Carmen. Our destination was the Vidanta resort complex just north of Playa.
As inclined as I am to being a hard charger, after a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep, I though day one was best spent with the kids doing beach and pool time. After sleeping in a little, we get our stuff together and head to the beach. What is all of this %$#@ in the water? The white sand beaches of the Yucatan were covered in vegetative rot and the aquamarine water was brown and it smelled. Ok…pool day and a swim-up bar. Looks like I did not need the surf casters anyway!
La Semana Santa in Mexico, or any other Latin American country for that matter, is always an interesting affair. I have spent many Holy Weeks in Mexico and have a series of rituals that I follow, like tossing coins into the sea at the beginning of a maritime voyage. There are other as well…
After the seaweed day we got in out transport and headed south toward the Mayan ruins at Tulum. It was Easter, hot and extremely crowded when we arrived at the parking lot of what is a major tourist destination for Mexicans and gringos alike. I was getting major multi-generational blowback but I trudged them onward, praying that there would be a way to financially encourage our way into a more timely experience. I hired a guide and gave him a buen propina y todo se cambia. Tulum is awesome and I do not say that lightly. Major Mayan temple complexes, pyramids and other significant structures are spread along a ridge that stands prominently above the Caribbean shore. Our guide did a great job and spoke English quite well but he left after the tour was over. Tulum is magnificent but I was a little freaked out by the volume of people…asi es La Semana Santa. Thank God I rented a vehicle and did not come in a bus with all of the other people, but now I have to find it. The pathway along the ridge that edged the Caribbean had multiple ingresses and egresses. I somehow put us on a southerly route but we had the fortunate happenstance of running into a popsicle vendor with a variety of tropical flavors. As mentioned earlier, it was hot and the coconut, mango and pineapple treats were enjoyed by all of us though they were melting quickly as we walked along a coastal scrub jungle roadway. As a taxi passed by, I quickly enlisted his services realizing that a forced march would lead to stiff resistance.
Back to the car, now heading south toward the town of Tulum and the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. This place is at its zenith. While we were there Rene Redzipi of Noma fame in Copenhagen is doing a pop up restaurant here to the tune of $600 per person. I would have loved nothing more than to experience what his forage centric menu would do with the existing Yucatan approach to food and the local flora and fauna but…three kids! We slipped along the tragically hip strand that along the beach. Cool looking restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels. They don’t really have running water, sewer systems or reliable power other than generators but it is really cool. We stop for killer burgers at a place called Mateo’s. The kids play a little foosball and we have a cold beverage before heading south toward the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve and realize that this place definitely deserves a return visit.
The next day we are back in the car and drive north from our resort to a little town called Puerto Morelos. We talk to a guy about chartering a boat for the next day and I liked his operation so a deposit was given. Victor Reyes runs the fishing and diving operation for Marina Pelicanos and he was very helpful. We decide what the heck let’s just charter one of the pangas right now and go snorkeling.
The Palancar Reef is the second longest reef in the world and runs from the tip of the Yucatan peninsula all the way to Central America. Within half a mile from the beach it has excellent snorkeling and the seaweed was not a problem. The five of us climbed aboard our panga with the captain and divemaster. Within no time we were in the water and seeing tropical fish everywhere. Parrotfish, Sergeant Major fish and mutton snapper were among the multitude.
“Dad look there’s Dory,” was what sealed the deal, Dory is a blue tang and one of the fish characters from Disney’s Finding Nemo.
This was the first real snorkeling experience for my kids from a boat. No, we do not snorkel from Options at Catalina. I used to do it years ago but the spike in our great white population keeps us in the boat! We had a great time and dove two different sites. Even my little girl, Blaire, who just turned six gave it a try but she got frustrated because the life jacket kept riding up on her. At one point the divemaster got ahold of a ray by the wingtips and the boys got to touch it, way more wild than the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. When we got back to the pier the boat we would be fishing on the following day was tying up as well. They made quite a haul with some big amberjack, king mackeral and barracuda. The next day, April 19th, was my son Bryce’s birthday and though he gets seasick he was willing to deal with it because he loves to fish and was quite excited with the prospects when we saw the dockside bounty.
We were scheduled for an 8 a.m. departure, yeah right! Kids being kids and my wife’s insistence on adding more and more stuff to our backpacks delivered us to the dock around 8:30. We quickly got aboard and were making bait shortly thereafter. I am not exactly sure what the baitfish were but it looked like some type of scad. We caught them on these little hoochie type rigs while trolling near a commercial pier but it was slim pickings. We moved up the beach to the north and used the throw net to no avail. We had a little over half a dozen along with some dead ballyhoo and octopus. Off we went running offshore to some high spots.
While the swells were not very high, there was a fair amount of wind…Bryce got sick. Poor kid but we talked about it prior and he still wanted to go. I used to get sea sick as a kid but grew out of it. I am hoping for his sake that he does because he loves to fish and is a huge seafood fan. The kid eats raw oysters with me and any other thing found in the sea for that matter. We were having a good time on the water but I was starting to get a little nervous. We had been trolling ballyhoo in a spread covering the water column; downrigger, outrigger and one on a flat-line clip. Nothing, not even a knock down, for three hours. The captain signaled for the deck hand to crank in the gear, so I started winding in one of the trolling rids to help get us out of the area even faster. I am not one to sit around on a boat and let the mate do all the work. Besides owning a six-pack charter vessel and being an avid angler I used to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska so getting involved is what I do.
The area we moved to was on some numbers the captain had about four miles to the south and east. When he backed off the throttles I noticed that the water was not as blue as the zone we were in before but whatever, we certainly were not catching anything where we were. The first live bait went on the downrigger and before we could get the outrigger bait set we were on. I directed Bryce to the chair and we got the rod into the gimbal. He was fatigued from being sea sick but he gave it his all and was rewarded with a nice amberjack that looked to be a little better than thirty pounds.
The captain re-positioned the boat and shortly thereafter we were on again. This time Bryce started out in the chair but told me to take the rod. Cookie cutter fish was in the ice box next and I showed the deckhand how we bleed our fish and flush them out with the raw water hose before getting them on ice. He was at first a little baffled but when I explained how much better the table product was he said he would be doing it from now on.
The day ended with a little king mackeral but that fish represented one more off the species list for yours truly.
As we tied up at the end of the Marina Pelicanos pier the sky got really dark, a squall that we had been watching on the way in settled down along that stretch of the Yucatan and the sky opened up. Perfect timing because we were now settled into the Marina Pelicanos restaurant with drinks in hand. As part of your charter with this operation, they prepare your catch for lunch or dinner. I love hook it and cook it and they did not disappoint. The fish came out five ways; blackened, tempura battered, al mojo de ajo style, Veracruz style and my favorite was achiote rubbed and cooked with onions, garlic and peppers. Bryce had recovered from being sea sick and we all gorged on mariscos.
We had another pool day the next day but the day after, our last for the trip was another highlight. We were headed to Chichen Itza but stopped in Valladolid for lunch on the way. We did a little research and found a restaurant called Taverna de Los Frailes that we wanted to check out. When we got there we realized that they did not open for another 45 minutes. Fortunately, there was a very old church next to the restaurant from which it derives its’s namesake. It had just been Easter a few days prior and the church was adorned with beautiful flower arrangements and the smell of lilies perfumed the air. We were the only ones there and had a great time exploring this beautiful structure that had been originally started in the 1550s. I highly recommend a visit to the church and the adjacent restaurant that specialized in Yucatecan cuisine, a truly authentic experience.
Chichen Itza freaked me out. I thought Tulum was crowded and I am averse to crowds. Package tour bus hell is the best way it can be described. Now mind you archaeologically speaking this place is amazing and I love visiting lost cities of antiquity, but it was hot and we were ready to go as soon as we got there.
Heading back to the coast we made a detour north from Valladolid and went to a cenote just north of Tizimin called Kikil. The Yucatan Peninsula has over 2,300 cenotes, which are freshwater filled sink holes, that served both as a freshwater source for the Maya but also as ceremonial sites were sacrificial victims were tossed. The Yucatan is composed primarily of limestone and has no above ground rivers because of the porous nature of its bedrock. We had our swim trunks and after paying the family that runs this particular swim hole we were headed down the ladder to the water’s edge.
“Daddy you go first,” was my daughters request so I did. The rest of the family joined me and we were halfway across when Blake started in. “Dad are there any crocodiles in here?” was his first question. “No Blakey,” came my response. “What about snakes?” came next. “No,” was my guess. Then – “what about chupacabras? I did not respond and just as we got to the far side where the limestone outcropping created a grotto a bunch of bats that had been hanging upside down decided to leave en masse. My wife freaked and would not let go of me as we swam back to the other side with the whole family in tow.
What an adventure and I left out a lot of details. I can definitely say that we shall be returning to the Yucatan and it might even be for Spring Break 2018. Viva Mexico!