A Kayak Story 03-09
by Ann Irvine
It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since we drove our first kayak down to the beach at Xcacel. Back then, a kayak on the rooftop of a car was cause for people to stop and stare, especially if you were driving through the highlands of Chiapas and Veracruz as we did on our annual trips to the Xcacel and the Akumal area back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
We had been camping at Xcacel for the last few winters, and in the fall of 1988, we were planning our second driving trip down when a salesman came by our bicycle shop in Des Moines. He told us he had just the thing for us to sell at our shop and gave us an Ocean Kayak VCR tape to view. He said it would be the most fun thing we had to sell. Being land – locked in Des Moines, we were a bit skeptical about the future of selling kayaks. However, these things looked very intriguing and the sit-on-top aspect really appealed to us. Plus, we knew the perfect place to use them! Since back then we had more time than money, we bought one boat figuring it was worth a try at the beach.
In January of 1989 we strapped the new kayak on to our old Jeep Wagoneer and headed south for a couple of months. When we arrived at the beach, and we took the boat for its maiden voyages, we knew that we had found the perfect thing. The only problem that year was that we only had one. Of course that would soon be remedied! Wave surfing in the kayak was an absolute blast, and great exercise as you had to navigate through the “wave treadmill” to get out. We quickly became very proficient at it. We also learned that for wave surfing you definitely needed a back-up paddle since they were easy broken if you got thrown out and landed wrong with paddle still in hand! The kayak touring aspects were great too. Suddenly the bay of Xcacelito, and that whole coastal area was opened up to us as were other places.
Going home that year, we took our usual detour through Palenque and San Cristobal and were able to explore the lakes of Lagos de Montebello up in the mountains along the Mexico – Guatemala border near Comitan. The mountain lakes with their cold water, blues skies and pine trees seemed more like somewhere in Colorado or Minnesota – not Mexico! We really got the stares driving around the little villages up there. The big yellow kayak was so visible we were hard to miss, especially along the black asphalt roads. Up in the mountains we looked quite out of place with the boat on the roof and the German Shepherd hanging his head out the window.
The next year, 1990, we arrived better prepared with 2 kayaks, and plenty of paddles. With a buddy system in place we were able to be even more adventuresome. Trips to Chemuyil were now possible as was Xel-Ha! At Xel-Ha, you would have to negotiate the waves at the opening, but after that it was clear paddling. There was no footbridge in place blocking the entrance, and you could slip in there along the south side almost un-noticed and head back to the river, which was also undeveloped at the time. It was truly one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen!
The kayaks were still an item of curiosity for many. Everyone wanted a try! This included the usual cast of characters along with the little guy who cleaned the bathrooms at Xcacel who was trying to impress his girlfriend, and a cute Japanese girl from one of the “green tent” tours. It was particularly entertaining when the waves were up and the surfing was at it’s best. We would sit up on top of the dune watching everyone take a turn in the waves, while the wind blew cooling us, and making us oblivious to the fact that, we were getting baked by the sun. By the end of the day we’d be tired, pleasantly fried, and full of sand from the waves and getting tossed onto the beach by rogue waves.
With two boats we had so many more options. We even tried fishing – one boat pulling the other and trolling – only problem was I always got stuck being the motor. One of the best things though, was just paddling out past the breaking waves and sitting in the boat and just looking down the virgin coastline and at the beauty of the area. That was long before some clever person coined the name “the Mayan Riviera.” We simply referred to the area as “the Akumal area or south of Cancun”.
For a while we had the only kayaks around in the area. That continued for a year or two until some folks from Idaho brought their enclosed fiberglass touring boats down. After they put on all of their gear, we had to help launch them off the beach and into the water. Watching them proved to us the sit-on tops were definitely the way to go, especially in the waves. In 1991, as we were getting ready to head back up north that year, we were in Tulum at the old battery filled Larga Distancia office. Now THAT was progress – we no longer had to go to Playa or Cancun just to make a phone call! While we were there, a couple of gringos approached us. They were going absolutely crazy over our boats. They tried to buy them right off the roof of the car – only problem we soon found out was that they had no money. Apparently they were building a house in Tankah and had no money to spare. The next day they showed up at Xcacel , offering us wedding rings and jewelry for kayaks. We finally struck a deal with them - they give us their Rolex and we will try to sell it – if we get it sold, we will bring them 2 boats the next winter, plus any change left. They didn’t know us at all but I guess they didn’t have any better prospects, and after all – we were from Iowa so we must be honest!
1992 rolled around, and that trip when we arrived at the beach, we were loaded for bear as they say- with 4 kayaks on the roof of the old Jeep. We had successfully sold the Rolex and had the kayaks for the Tankah people, plus, we had met a guy at our shop, who wanted to buy a kayak so he could explore of all places, the cays of Belize. The only hitch was he needed to get the kayak from Des Moines, Iowa to Belize City. Chuck thought it sounded interesting, and so we agreed that for a nominal fee, to transport the boat, Kirk would then fly in to Cancun, and we would all travel to Belize City.
After Kirk arrived at the beach, and a few days of hanging out, and Kirk getting used to his new boat, we loaded him up and headed to Belize. We had just been to Belize kayaking over in the Cayo District paddling on the Mopan and Macal rivers earlier that month so we knew the drill at the border, and there were no questions asked about the boat. When we got to Belize City it was looking really depressing, worse than the year before when Chuck had been there. There was Crips and Bloods graffiti all over, and while other parts of Belize were inviting, this did not look like anywhere we wanted to stay very long. We hunted around for a bit and found the place where he was to be dropped off and we unloaded his kayak and supplies and bid our farewells. Kirk’s adventure kayaking the cays ended up lasting for over 18 days with the supplies he had set out with. He went on to form a kayak touring company down there and had a small guide-book which he had written for people who wanted to tour on their own.
That year when driving home, we only had one kayak on our roof as the rest had found permanent homes along the Caribbean coast. The brightly colored kayaks on the roof of our car were our identifier to our friends – they could see us coming from a distance and we were easily recognizable. One of the most memorable times was when we were in the outskirts of some little town in Veracruz, and had gotten pulled over by the a truckload of PJF agents ( Federal Judicial Police). Apparently they had time on their hands, and thought it would be interesting to check us out. While we were talking with them, giving them our documents, and dreading a shake down, another vehicle approached. The next thing we knew, there was a face sticking in the driver’s window saying “Hey Charlie!” It was our old buddy Gustavo, who we knew from our trips to Tuxpan. Gustavo was this crazy Narcotics officer who we met at the hotel and went wild when he saw our Thermo Rest pad. He had to have it, because, he said, he could use that to make “ a lot of money” looking at the undercarriages of trucks. That whole episode is another story. As it turns out that Gustavo had seen the kayak and recognized the car and stopped. He immediately told the commandant in charge and the others that we were his friends and to leave us alone! Gustavo was kind of a maniac, he carried, among other things, a scrapbook of his busts in the car. If you ever wanted to think about doing anything illegal in Mexico – one look at the faces of people busted in that book, would change your mind!
Over the years, interest in kayaking has increased, and every year heading down, our vehicle is and was loaded with kayaks – and usually empty on the way home. In the early years, our Ocean Kayaks could be seen in Akumal at the dive shop, at various homes in Tankah, and other places along the coast. In 1995, after we moved our winter spot from Xcacel to Sam’s at Xpu Ha, we finally got smart and had a couple of boats that we could store with Sam so if we flew down during the year we would have boats to use. Over the year, our kayaks enabled us to explore places like the lagoons in Sian Kaan, put the boats in at El Pariaso and paddle up to the Tulum ruins, and paddle the caleta and huge cenote where the Xpu HA palace is now, along with other areas, which beckoned to be explored.
Kayaks are now everywhere, and no longer uncommon along our coast (like so many other things which were so rare 20 years ago- such as telephones!) Our kayaking is now done primarily in the Tankah Bay area near our house. Tankah has such a nice long, protected stretch to paddle within the reef it is just amazing. From in front of our house on the curve of the bay, you can paddle all the way down the coast to Dreams Tulum without having to go over the reef (which, by the way, is dangerous and not recommended). The typically calm waters of Tankah allow for easy and enjoyable paddling. There is nothing better than hopping in the boat for a late afternoon paddle and watching setting sun and the clouds from the bay. And every now and then, if the wind is up, we’ll head out looking to catch that one wave, the one that we race along with until we have it, and can surf it back in.
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