May 31, 2010

Jo from Endless Tours on

On Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Amigo Rodrigo of KMex Radio. This is an English language radio station for expatriates from anywhere, who are living now in Mexico. It's also good for those who wish that they were in Mexico, now that the home skies are darkening and paradise seems a billion miles away.

Amigo founded KMex Radio as 'something to do while in Mexico'. He does have the day job too. He's a professional voiceover artist. Originally a native of Minnesota, USA, Amigo has travelled all over the world. He and his wife have lived in California and Wisconsin, USA, as well as Wellington, New Zealand, before heading out to Mexico. They know the pitfalls, challenges and pleasures of setting up home in foreign climes.

KMex Radio seeks to address these. It brings together people from America, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa and dozens of other places, creating a community of ex-pats. Amigo found that they all had something in common. While most people arrive in Mexico looking for beaches, cheap beer, cheap shopping and all of the other superficial delights, those who live here find that there is so much more. They share their newfound love of the country, while exchanging tips to counter some of its challenges.

One of these major issues was the language barrier. In the tourist areas, like Cancún, English is spoken everywhere. Most ex-pats can get by with little or no Spanish at all. However, everyone would like to learn the language. Being able to order your food in the restaurant is all well and good, but the best local newspapers are in Spanish for a start! KMex Radio is doing its bit to address this need. There are links on the website for the best Spanish language literature. Meanwhile, on air, there is the Spanish word of the hour. Liliana Ayende, better known as the weathergirl on NYC's CW11 Morning News, introduces a different word each hour, covering a host of diverse subjects.

In addition, the programme has tips, advice, English language Mexican news and 24 hours worth of upbeat music to have you dancing in your chair.

If you wish to hear the interview that Amigo Roderigo did with Jo from Endless Tours, then you need the May 29th 2010 show. Please click here to find that.

May 28, 2010

Sharks in the Mexican Caribbean

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Caribbean Sea is: will something eat me? You can almost see the vision playing out behind people's eyes. There they are, meandering along the white sands in their new, trendy beach outfit. Admiring looks follow them, as they enter the water, sunlight gleaming on their tanned, sea soaked skin. The crystalline Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles of turquoise, each wave sparkling like gems. Beautiful, stunning. And then a shark eats them.

Great White SharkThat's one way to ruin a lovely daydream. Let's see if we can get it back on track. The truth is that the above scenario is all very feasible and extremely likely to happen, with the exception of the ending. There are sharks around the Yucatán Peninsula, as evidenced by the fact that the word shark itself is Mayan in origin. But the chances of them eating you range from highly unlikely to extremely improbable. You are far more likely to get hit by lightning than attacked by a shark, let alone eaten by one.

Most shark attacks occur because of mistaken identity. Sharks haven't got good eyesight and therefore may mistake you for a tasty snack. However, the oceans around the Yucatán Peninsula are crystal clear. The shark is more likely to be able to see you very clearly and therefore won't bother you. You are more likely to see a shark by the coral reefs, but even then it will be a rare sighting. No-one has ever died of a shark attack in the Yucatán, though someone did get bitten in 1941.

In April 2008, news spread across the internet about a vicious shark attack in Cancún. While it is true that there was a dead man and there was a shark, the reality wasn't quite as the social panic would have it. The whole story is recounted in more detail over on Annet van de Mortel's blog. The short version is that he got drunk and drowned. The shark was nowhere near him at the time.

The trouble is that everyone has watched 'Jaws' and so sharks are now forever categorised as 'very dangerous to humans' in our mind's eye. In reality, out of 360 known species of shark, only a handful are dangerous. The Great White Shark, the Tiger Shark, the Bull Shark and the Oceanic Whitetip Shark are responsible for the majority of fatal attacks on humans worldwide. By majority, we're talking about 5-15 attacks globally each year, often in self-defense. The other 356 species of shark, for various reasons, are simply not interested in you. Even amongst the dangerous ones, it's rare for them to attack; and divers have been able to swim right alongside without becoming dinner.

So which sharks are swimming in the oceans around Mexico? Loads of them. It's where a lot of those species live. However, you're probably mostly interested in the 'baddies'. Let's look at them:

Great White Shark. This is the species made famous in the 'Jaws' film, however it doesn't visit Mexico. The closest it comes is in the northern Gulf of Mexico, bothering those in the American South. How to avoid being eaten by them: come to Mexico.

Tiger Shark. This one does live here! However, the chances of it attacking are ridiculously unlikely. For a start, they've been hunted close to extinction, with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) having it listed as 'nearly threatened'. While the big game hunters are out getting their trophies, the tiger shark consequently not out there in any great numbers. Even should one turn up, the likelihood of it attacking is very low. Nevertheless, it should be treated with respect. How to avoid being eaten by them: look them straight in the eye, so they know they've been seen and so can't ambush you.

Please note the complete lack of any tiger sharks eating the divers in the above video.

Bull Shark. These sharks do live in the Mexican Caribbean. Again they are the targets of big game hunters and are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as 'Near Threatened'. However, they've been responsible for only 17 fatalities worldwide, since records began, none of which were in Mexico. How to avoid being eaten by them: punch them in the snout to avoid close contact.

Oceanic Whitetip. This is the shark of shipwreck legend. It lives well off-shore and descends upon sinking ships for its supper. Though it does live in the Mexican Caribbean, it's nowhere near the beach. It's in the really deep waters right out at sea. You are more likely to encounter it on your plate, as this is the shark that commercial fisheries catch for sharkmeat. As a result, it is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as "vulnerable". How to avoid being eaten by them: punch them in the snout to avoid close contact.

So that's the four biggies taken care of. In the extremely rare situation that you see a predator, then look it in the eye and punch it in the snout, if it gets too close. That's all. But the majority of sharks in the Mexican Caribbean really aren't that interested in you. Your most likely shark sighting will be with a nurse or whale shark, both of whom eat plankton.

Back to the daydream...

... meandering along the white sands in their new, trendy beach outfit. Admiring looks follow them, as they enter the water, sunlight gleaming on their tanned, sea soaked skin. The crystalline Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles of turquoise, each wave sparkling like gems. Beautiful, stunning. So they have a little swim, then get out of the water to lie back on the sun lounger. Their biodegradable sunscreen is reapplied between sips of rum and sangrita; and all the world is great.

May 27, 2010

Time, Brian Cox and Chichén Itzá

Professor Brian Cox is a British particle physicist. Before that, he was in chart-topping pop band D:Ream. Next time you're bouncing around, at a Cancun beachparty, to 'Things Can Only Get Better', raise a glass to Brian Cox's keyboard skills. Though he's moved on from his synthesizer to the solar system, he's still on the television. He makes documentaries explaining, in layman's terms, the science behind the workings of the universe.

For one of these documentaries, 'Do You Know What Time It Is?', he visited Chichén Itzá. Against a backdrop of the stunning views from the top of its famous Mayan ruins, Prof Brian Cox discussed time. Specifically he used the buildings and the landscape to show how the Maya saw the passage of the sun; and how that understanding shaped their architecture.

The pyramid that Prof Cox climbed is El Castillo; while other scenic shots showed El Caracol (the observatory), the Temple of the Warriors and an iguana. The building that he walks into is El Caracol again.

This is only a snippet of the full documentary.

Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá
Various tours, to suit every wallet or time-frame, to the most famous of all the Maya ruins.

May 26, 2010


You will be approached by Timeshare representatives on your holiday. This happens wherever tourists flock and so isn't peculiar to Mexico, but it is here too.


You can say, 'no gracias', then keep walking or you can agree to their '90 minute' presentation. Some people are able to secure free meals, cheap tickets to attractions or other gifts in this way. You may even want to sign the contract. Whichever your strategy here, it is worth understanding what timeshare is; along with the bonuses and the pitfalls.

Timeshare - The Basics

Timeshare is a concept which was introduced in the French Alps in the 1960s. It was a time when the resort industry was depressed and the developer, Hapimag, came up with the idea as a way of filling rooms throughout the year. It worked extremely well and was quickly taken up world-wide.

There are two variations on timeshare:

Fixed Time:

The general premise is that a hotel or other property is divided up into rooms and time within that room. Typically it is a week per room that a timeshare buyer will purchase. So room one will have 52 owners, each with the right to stay in it for one set week. Owner one can only use week one; owner two can only use week two etc. However, this is a right to use. It does not imply ownership of the property at all, even as a share-holder.

Floating Time:

In Mexico, this system is the most commonly found. Timeshare buyers are given a certain number of weeks, which they can use in a certain hotel or affiliate hotels, rather than a set week every year. This can be problematic if the desired week is not available; and they are often given out on a first come, first served basis.

The Costs

dollarsAs well as upfront costs, which run into the thousands, there will also be mortgage payments, travel costs, broker fees, maintenance fees, property taxes and finance charges for your room and/or weeks. The monthly maintenance fees are likely to increase every year, as they are linked with inflation. Some timeshare properties also employ someone to look after your interests there and you will be contributing to that person's wages.

All timeshare companies will be affiliated to an exchange company, who will be lauded as the people to sell on any unused weeks on your behalf. You will also be paying them a fee for doing so. You will have to pay these extras regardless of whether you are able to use up your weeks on vacations. You will also be paying these extras long after the initial mortgage on your timeshare property is paid off.

The average cost to a buyer of a timeshare property, taking into account all extra charges, is: $1,150 USD per year. This figure does not include your travel fees to the property nor your spending money whilst there. Also, should a natural disaster befall the property, like, for example, hurricane damage in Cancun, then you will also be charged part of the clean up and restoration costs.

Before making a purchase, you should ask if there is a price cap on the amount that you will ever have to pay. Compare this cap against the costs of just ordinarily booking a room in the same hotel and location. If it's favourable, then timeshare might be worth it.

Many timeshare sales representatives will inform you that you can reimburse yourself of these costs by renting out your week. This can result in a 'free' holiday for yourself, where you will only have to pay your travel fees and spending money; while your other weeks are generating you money. You will often be told that they will find people for you, who will rent your weeks. However, a critique of this is that, for this to work, those people renting will be paying well over the odds. They could get a cheaper holiday just by booking it directly with the hotel. There will also frequently be clauses, in the small print of your contract, which states that you have to wait a certain amount of time or else pay a set amount of your overall money, before you can rent out your weeks.

Please note that if you default on any payments, you may be served a foreclosure notice. This will revert everything back to the timeshare operative, but will damage your credit rating for up to seven years.

The Hard Sell

resortTimeshare representatives have a job to do and that job is to sell you timeshare. You will be approached at the airport, in the mall, on the street or, for the truly desperate, via a call to your hotel room. They will be friendly and may not be honest in their position. They may say that they represent your hotel and just want to give you a tour of it, so you can become oriented. They may say that they represent any company but a timeshare one. They may deny all hint of timeshare, even if directly asked. Others are more honest and will immediately state their position. If you aren't at all interested, then a simple 'no gracias' at this stage is perfectly alright. Then walk away. If they follow you, tell them that you live in Mexico. They aren't allowed to sell to you then.

There will be incentives to buy. Some tourists actually rely on timeshare representatives in order to secure free tickets to local attractions, spending money, a free rental car or a whole host of other gifts. There will often be a free breakfast or lunch and a tour of a luxury hotel. There will almost certainly be free alcohol, usually tequila in Mexico. The object is for the representive to induce such a feeling of friendliness and obligation (or intoxication) in the potential buyer, that you sign on the dotted line and a sale is made.

Typically, the timeshare representative will ask for 90 minutes of your time. If you agree to this and take the gift, then you should give them 90 minutes. At 91 minutes, you can walk away. However, you should agree in writing as to when this time period begins, as they may class it only as the presentation at the end. If they have driven you to a resort, it might not include the journey time. Therefore the proposed schedule is usually for 3-6 hours, not 90 minutes.

In short, they wish to keep you there for as long as it takes for you to sign the contract. The first part of this will usually be a tour of a hotel and a meal. The latter part will be a presentation about timeshare. This is a business meeting. Write down or record on a dictaphone (or similar) every word stated. If you are serious about buying, then don't touch the tequila. Do you really want to sign a contract worth thousands of dollars whilst drunk?

You will often find that you have three people in front of you. Your friendly salesperson, who is hovering like a concerned parent, only wanting what's best for you, ie signing this contract; the financial expert, who is doing lots of calculations and showing you how brilliant a deal this is; and then the manager, who takes a very hard-nosed, business attitude. Once all of the promises and information has been exchanged then you have two options.

The first is to say 'no gracias' and walk away. If this occurs, then the representatives might not be so friendly anymore. You may be insulted and accused of wasting their time. You may be told whatever is needful to pressurize you into staying and signing. This can be anything from sob stories to, in extreme cases, threats. You will almost certainly be left feeling like you are the world's most horrible, irreponsible person. Even the most secure and hardfaced person will be unsettled by the situation. It may cast a long shadow over your holiday.

Wet'n'WildOn the other hand, you will probably have the incentive as a gift, so if this is the only way your family can afford to enter an attraction, then you've secured that. Please note that timeshare representatives are paid by commission. This isn't very much money, so they need to make several sales to earn a living salary. Their nastiness at this junction is completely due to the fact that they've just worked for the past 90+ minutes for free. This is not putting food in their children's bellies, even if it is putting Aquaworld tickets in your children's hands.

The second option is to buy the timeshare. This should never, ever be done on the spot. You may be told that it has to be, as this is a once only opportunity and if you don't sign the contract now, then you never can again. This is almost certainly incorrect. The timing of the purchase is up to you and you need the opportunity to check some facts:

* An evaluation of the location and quality of the resort, as well as the availability of weeks;

* An investigation into the track record of the sales developers and management companies;

* A search of resales to see how easy it is to sell a week at your resort to other buyers;

* A study of various documents. You should be asking them for a copy of the current and projected maintenance fees and other costs of the properties; all policies on management repair, replacement furnishings and ground maintenance; and a list of properties covered in your timeshare agreement (it doesn't necessarily include the hotel you have just toured. A popular deception in the Yucatan is for buyers to tour the Royal Hotel in Cancun, only to discover that the property they can stay in is the Royal in Playa del Carmen).

* A check on any complaints issued against the company or their hotels with the Attorney General and Better Business Bureau;

* A legal reading of your contract. At the very least, you should take that contract away and read it outside the sales situation, with a cool mind. Does the contract include all of the things that you were promised? You need to check that against your notes and audio recording.

* A contract, including all terms and conditions, from their affiliate exchange agency.

You also need a lot of information from your sales representatives and more questions will emerge over the weeks that you are evaluating your purchase. You should therefore ask for a name and contact details of someone who can answer them for you. You should also ask about your right to cancel, aka 'a right of recission'. If they state that there is none, ask for one to be included in your contract. They will be lying anyway, because all business deals in Mexico can be cancelled within five working days, as long as a certain procedure is followed.

Finally, please remember that the laws of your own country do not protect you here. If you sign in Mexico, then that contract is subject to Mexican law. Please research that before committing to anything.

Reselling Weeks

VeniceOne of the major lures of timeshare is the ability to swop weeks with other owners in different locations. While another family is using your timeshare allocation in Cancun, you are using their allocation in Venice. That sort of thing.

Please note that while this may look like a straight swop, it will incur an additional fee, if done through your operator's exchange system. You may also have to have paid into your timeshare, and banked points, for up to five years before this even becomes an option. There may also be an additional points scheme, which will cost thousands of dollars, to pay into an exchange, before any swops can occur. Also certain locations are rated differently, so the exchange may not be like for like. You will still be paying all the fees liable to your own property, even if you've rented a week in a lesser property in a different country.

You may also be approached by other reselling agencies. Please do your homework on those too before any contracts are signed.

Reselling the Whole Timeshare

You will first need to acknowledge the fact that the value of a timeshare decreases rapidly, in the same way that car purchases do. Very few people get back more than 15% - 35% of the price that they paid. Most people discover that they cannot sell their timeshare on at all.

If you do find a buyer, then there is a lot of paperwork involved. Please consider hiring an attorney to ensure that you are completely covered against all of the legal and financial requirements.


By Mexican law, you can cancel without penalty any timeshare agreement within five working days. This is still true even if you signed a contract and you cannot be liable to pay any administration costs. However, you must contact PROFECO (Mexican trading standards agency) for this to happen. Cancellations from the timeshare companies or your hotel alone is not sufficient and may well be a stalling trick to ensure that you go over the five days. A PROFECO certificate is the only valid piece of paper. It is also worth notifying your bank/credit card agency to cancel any payments.

Here is the English language version of the form needed to report a cancellation to PROFECO: Federal Consumer Attorney Service Directorate General of Complaints and Conciliation file.

May 25, 2010

We Have FiveTripAdvisor Winners!

Every year, TripAdvisor examines the millions of reviews left on its site and selects the 10 best vacation destinations.

The reviews are the result of approximately 35 million people giving their honest opinion of the places that they personally visited. They aren't professional travel agents, they are ordinary people. They can just as easily write, 'I got food poisoning and the service was rubbish', as 'OMG! That was the best experience of my life!' They are you and I, telling us as it is.

With a jury like that, it renders it all the more amazing when a location wins anything. To get into the Top 10 Beach & Sun Destinations in the World is nothing short of spectacular. This year, Tulúm and Huacatula managed it. Go Mexico!

The full listing is:

1, Provindencials, Tuscany, Italy
2, Tulúm, Mexico
3, Byron Bay, Australia
4, Cook Islands
5, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA
6, Huacatula, Mexico
7, Negril, Jamaica
8, Culebra, Puerto Rico
9, Boracay, Philippines
10, San Diego, California, USA

The prestigious site described Tulúm thus:

Tulum is relaxation and romance with an ancient angle. Guests can enjoy modern takes on traditional Mayan massage and spa treatments, or sunbathe on gorgeous Yucatan beaches within site of well-preserved ancient ruins. A rare mix of beach, archaeology and village, Tulum is a romantic getaway like no other.

While Huacatula was summarized as:

With nine bays and 36 beaches, Huatulco is ideal for anyone who loves the sun. It's not an overdeveloped resort town, but the hotels are comfortable—even luxurious. Ecotourism is gaining in popularity, so take a break from sunbathing and try river rafting or a hike through the jungle.

But that isn't all. Todos Santos came 7th in the Top 10 Emerging Destinations in the World. The site had this to say about the town:

Sitting at the point where the Sierra Laguna mountains meet the desert and the Pacific, Todos Santos is a piece of Baja you don’t want to miss. But get here soon—Todos Santos is transitioning from a quiet, dusty Mexican seaside secret into the bustling hermanito of Cabo San Lucas, so you'll want to visit before the crowds are permanent.

Ixtapa came 8th in the Top 10 Family Destinations in the World.

This resort town on Mexico's Pacific coast boasts five great beaches. Families will especially like Playa La Ropa. Want to spoil the kids (and make them want to become marine biologists)? Swim with dolphins at Delfiniti.

There was also a Mexican placing in the Top 10 Relaxation & Spa Destinations in the World category, Playa Mujeres came 6th.

Just north of Cancun, this seaside resort community is a far cry from the spring-break crowd. Bordered on one side by the Mexican Caribbean and the other by a wetlands wildlife preserve, the vibe in Playa Mujeres is one of laid-back luxury in a natural, untouched landscape. Unlike many other such tranquil places, Playa Mujeres is not a pain to get to. It's an easy ride from Cancun airport.

Didn't we do well?

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

May 24, 2010


Some places or countries are forever associated with a certain alcoholic beverage. Guinness in Ireland; saki in Japan; the wines of California, USA; single, malt whisky in the Scottish highlands; champagne in France; the list goes on. One drink will be forever Mexico and that is tequila!

The further away you go from Mexico, the more likely that you haven't tried real tequila. It's exported just fine, but it nestles on supermarket shelves right next to cheap imitations that probably aren't 100% agave plant. Therefore it tastes coarse and can only be consumed without gagging by talking extraordinary measures. First you line the glass rim with salt, then you dip your index finger into a pile of salt and lick it. Immediately gulp the burning, bitter liquid back. Alcohol burn gorges a route through your throat. Then, while your taste buds are desperately trying to divorce themselves from your mouth, you suck on a lemon or lime to nullify the flavour. Alternatively, there are some methods substituting the salt for cinnamon and the lemon with orange. If you have had to resort to any of these things, then you have never drunk true tequila.

True tequila is to that stuff what Cognac is to brandy; what Laphroaig is to whisky; what Grey Goose is to vodka; what Gordons is to gin... you get the idea. It is sipped from a clean tequila glass with nothing else added. It's a very smooth flavour. It doesn't hurt your mouth to drink it and you will not have to flail around looking for something to take the taste away. Unless, of course, you're reaching for the bottle to refill your glass after you've savoured the last drop.

Tequila was first produced in the 16th century, in a Mexican town called, ahem, Tequila. It was (and is) distilled from the blue agave plant. It wasn't until around 1600 CE that a man named Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle worked out a way to mass-produce it. The Spanish conquistadors started sending it home to Europe as another Mexican export and the world found out about it. It's been exporting it ever since.

JaliscoHowever, that hasn't been without controversy. The blue agave plant, from which tequila is distilled, is only found in limited places in the world. All of these places are in Mexico, but even there it's only in a tiny region. The blue agave can be found in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Mexican law states that if the alcohol hasn't been distilled in these places, then it's not tequila.

This, of course, hasn't stopped other areas and countries creating their own brand, but they don't taste the same. As the drink began to be globally associated with the coarse, bitter, non-authentic stuff, the Mexican government took action. It has claimed exclusive right to the name 'tequila' for a start and does take action against others using it. One such casualty was JB Wagoner, in the USA, who ultimately changed the name of their drink to JB Wagoner's Ultra Premium after a legal challenge. But even within Mexican, the name is protected for those regions with the proper plant. The Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico ensures that it is so.

In a bid to raise the reputation of the drink, so damaged by cheap imitations, tequila ambassadors were sent out around the world. From the early 1990s, armed with examples of real tequila, their remit was to re-educate international connoisseurs of fine spirits. This tequila had been prepared by traditional means and was proofed to the correct standard.

The blue agave had grown for 8 - 10 years in the fields, in the approved regions, before being cut with old-fashioned machetes. The 'jimadores', agave farmers, have a very specific way of harvesting the plant. It has to be at precisely the right time, or else the taste is affected. These secrets have been passed down from generation to generation, because, frankly, they are way too valuable to be shared with just anyone! Their produce had been distilled, at least twice, and then left to mature in oak kegs for at least four years. The yeast used in this differs from distillery to distillery and is another closely guarded secret.

The tequila ambassadors aboard were triumphant! Suddenly, amongst those in the know, tequila rose through the ranks to claim its rightful place alongside the greatest spirits in the world. Sales of authentic tequila went up steeply, as connoisseurs rushed to stock it.

Unfortuately, the demand soon outstripped the supply. We're back to the fact that the blue agave plant only grows in limited places; plus it has to mature in the ground for up to a decade. The jimadores simply didn't have enough of it to harvest in order to fill all of these orders. The price of proper tequila soon rose, until only the rich or uncompromising chose it. The cheap imitations flooded back into the market to fill the breach for everyone else. That hard-won reputation started to sink again. But the news was out there. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records tells us that the most expensive alcoholic drink ever bought was a tequila from this time. Tequila Ley .925, based in Tequila, Jalisco, sold a two-liter bottle for $225,000, in July, 2006. Apparently to someone who knew what tequila was supposed to taste like.

The good news though is that the crisis happened ten years ago. All those jimadores, at the time, planted millions of extra acres with blue agave. They are just now coming to maturity. In short, we are living in a decade where authentic, beautiful, smooth-tasting, proper tequila is more plentiful and much cheaper. And buying it actually in Mexico makes it even cheaper still.

So how should you drink it, now that you can dispense with all that nasty salt, cinnamon, lemon, lime and orange malarkey? There is a trick to get the best flavour from tequila. Just get yourself a good tequila and follow these steps:

Riedel glass1, Choose your glass well. Most spirits have the correct glass to use and tequila is no exception. Riedel or Caballito glasses are the things to own.

2, Pour in your shot. In the Riedel glass, that's to the point where the sides straighten (pictured). While the Caballito will usually have a line engraved on the glass to show you where to fill it to.

3, Let it settle while you prepare your taste-buds. You don't want to influence the taste with whatever you last drank or ate. Some experts recommend a glass of water, just to wash your mouth out. However, the true Mexican experience involves a glass of sangrita at this point.

4, With a fresh, clean palate, you are ready to enjoy your tequila. Pick up your glass and give it a little swirl. This will release the bouquet; close your eyes and raise the glass to the level of your chin. Inhale the scent of agave and oak. (Don't shove your nose in it, you'll just smell alcohol, which isn't so pretty.)

5, Take the tiniest sip, a mere taste of it. This prepares your tongue for the full flavour coming up. You may feel a slight jolt here, but no more than your first sip of whisky does. Contemplate the flavour. Savour it. Let your mouth adjust and want more.

6, Tequila time is now. Go for a proper sip and enjoy!

May 21, 2010

El Rey Ruins (Zona Arqueologica El Rey), Cancún

El ReyThe remains of a once prosperous Mayan city lie within the southern hotel zone of Cancún. It is an ideal destination for those who wish to sample the historical delights of the area without travelling for hours. The whole site can be covered in half an hour, though many like to take their time amidst the peacefully magnificent surroundings. Animal lovers and children alike will adore the wild iguanas and exotic birds, which make their homes there.

The ruins of this Mayan city lie within the grounds of the Hilton Cancún to be precise, though it is open to the general public too. Stretching over two plazas, visitors can stroll amongst 47 structures, reading plaques in English and Spanish, which describe precisely how it would have looked in its pre-Hispanic hey-day. Existing murals show life as it was when this was a bustling city; while a glyph has been identified as Ahau, denoting nobility. The most stunning feature is the temple. The largest building remaining, it is shaped as a pyramid, topped with a platform, and it was here that the site's most significant discoveries were made.

The original name of El Rey is unknown. Its current name derives from the greatest artifact found there, El Rey (The King), which now resides a short distance away in El Museo Arqueológico de Cancún (The Archaeological Museum of Cancún). The eponymous sculpture depicted a human face complete with an elaborate head-dress. It was buried along with several precious stones, jade, ceramic pieces, copper, shell and bones. As recently as 2006, the skeleton of a Mayan male was uncovered in the outskirts of the park.

El ReyResearch at the the El Rey ruins suggests that the town was first settled around 300 BCE, but there is little evidence left of those wood and palm buildings. Between 200-1200 CE, the area was home to several small settlements, which possibly traded salt and fish throughout the Caribbean Sea. The ruins seen today date from 1330-1500 CE, the Late Post Classic era, when trade boomed, bringing wealth along the Eastern Coast of Mexico. El Rey was now a small city, boasting of three palaces.

However, the 16th century brought Spanish invaders and the dismantlement of the trade routes. It is believed that El Rey was left to the mercy of pirates, in the unhabited, unprotected ocean. Western visitors had also brought with them plague and other unknown viruses. Survivors would have fled further in-land and their city was left to ravages of nature. This ancient jewel of Cancún was only rediscovered in the 20th century, when developers took their machetes to the jungle and found the ruins underneath.

Nature still has its place in El Rey. The site is home to wild iguanas, those number can rise to over 100, depending upon the time of year. They are friendly and visitors with children may wish to bring food to feed the iguanas.

Recommended items to take:

* Money. It costs approximately 37 pesos ($3) to gain entrance. A optional extra is the hiring of a tour guide within for 148 pesos ($12), who can give a detailed history of the area, as well as demonstrating a vast knowledge of the Mayan people generally. Tours last for around an hour. Without the tour guide, the site can be easily covered within half an hour by reading the plaques in front of each of the ruined buildings. There is no time limit on how long you can stay in there, so rush around or wander to your heart's content.

* Camera. The site has amazing views over the Caribbean Sea, stunning archaeological remains and iguanas. You might want to take a picture.

* Refreshments. The ticket shop does sell bottled water, but there are no cafes nor tourist shops. There is a free public washroom though.

* Treats to feed the iguanas. The Green Iguana Society has an excellent food chart to advise on the best fruit or vegetables to take. Many sites advise bananas, but while the iguanas will flock to devour these, they may not be the best choices for their on-going health. Especially if every tourist feeds them with banana. Better choices are: Alfalfa; peeled, cored and shredded butternut or kobocha squash; chopped catcus leaves (pickly pear); chicory greens (escarole), endive leaves, turnip or dandelion greens cut into strips with their stems discarded; chopped collard or mustard greens; green beans; crushed mango; dahlia or nasturtium flowers and leaves; chopped okra; shredded papaya or parsnips; chopped snap peas; mashed yucca root (cassava); or whole wheat bread. Choose one and take it. The iguanas will love you forever.

* Sunscreen and/or a hat. The site can be quite exposed, so if you are prone to sunburn or overheating, please pack some protection. Sheltered areas do afford some respite from the sun, if you are getting too hot.

* Bug spray or insect wipes. The site has been hewn out of a jungle and nestles now amongst the mangroves, therefore there are mosquitos.

Accessibility notes:

The site does contain some reasonably steep steps, which may be problematic for those with young children in prams or the mobility impaired. However, once the steps are conquered, the lower plaza is relatively flat.


El Rey
Blvd Kukulcan Km 17
Zona Hotelera Cancún 77500

What Is This Reef Tax?!

'Reef Tax' and/or 'Port Tax' seems to crop up a lot. Unsuspecting tourists pay their money for a fishing, snorkeling, diving or sight-seeing trip into the Caribbean, then turn up on the day to be hit with an extra charge. It's not much. Between US$2 - US$5, depending upon the destination, but it's there. Some just shrug and pay it. Others stamp and scream out, 'scam!', as is their wont. But what are these charges and where is all that money going?

Nichupte Lagoon

Your tour companies and guides are not receiving that money. Both taxes are imposed at a federal level. They are used to maintain the environment in which you are playing nicely. The 'port tax' is common throughout the world, so it isn't peculiar to Cancún. It levies funds from which the ports and beaches themselves can be maintained; as well as paying the people to staff them.

The 'reef tax' is more properly called 'The Federal Marine Park Tax' and can be viewed as your entrance fee into a marine national park. It was imposed after a study instigated, by the Mexican and the World Bank, into the effects of tourism on sea life in the area. In particular, the report was concerned with investigating the condition of the coral reef, which stretches parallel to the Yucatán Peninsula all the way down to Belize.

The report, published as 'The Economics of Managing a Marine Park in Cancún, Mexico', in 2001, was committed to 'attaining an equilibrium between enironmental damage to the coral reef and generating maximum social welfare.' In short, how could we have fun without killing the reef? Unfortunately, it found lots of cause for alarm.

Just consider how many boats and people are out in the strait between Cancún and Isla Mujeres at any one time. There are the speedboats on the Jungle Tours; fishing trawlers in the sea; the party catamarans and passenger ferries; the yachts of the rich and famous; the Caribbean cruises; the snorkelers and the divers; not to mention the navy and the emergency services. The report estimated that, in 1997, approximately 1549 visitors every single day crossed the Punta Nizuc section of the coral reef area. As a result that reef was already showing signs of wear and tear. It highlighted five causes of this:

1, Human contact - visitors diving down to break off pieces of coral to take home as souvenirs;
2, Boat collisions with the reef formations;
3, Hydrocarbon pollution - oil and gasoline leaking from boats;
4, Sunscreen pollution - coral viruses caused by swimmers not using biogradable sunscreen with non-contamining ingredients;
5, Sewage - human waste being discharged into the water, particularly in the Nichupte Lagoon.

The result was that the level of hydrocarbons in the water was ten times higher than that recommended by UNESCO; nutrient levels were too high; and the diversity and populations of marine species in the region had sharply declined.

Something clearly had to be done. What followed was legislation. Article 198 of the Mexican Federal Law states that 'visitors who practice aquatic activities within the National Marine Park' have to pay a tax of US$2. This money is used exclusively for protecting the waters and the coral reef areas. There are many and varied ways that this money is spent. These include:

* The building of an artificial island for the mooring of speedboats over the Punta Nizuc coral reef. There are only a few mooring spots, hence that limits the number of people over it at any one time. It also stops boats colliding with the reef or damaging it with their anchors.

Punta Nizuc

* Staff to monitor the water levels and the condition of the coral reef. Plus staff to inspect all tour operators to ensure that they are complying within the new rules and recommendations.

* The construction of bigger sewage processing plants, better able to cope with the sheer number of tourists.

* All repair work and preventative work, as necessary.

Other measures which came into force included:

* The banning of non-biogradable sunscreen in the Caribbean Sea. Visitors intending to head out on aquatic activities are likely to be checked and all non-biogradable sunscreens taken off them. All tour operators are required to sell biogradable sunscreen, with non-contaminating ingredients, as substitutes.

* A licence required for all boats in the Caribbean Sea. Though there is only a nominal fee for this licence, it can only be gained if the captain/guide has undertaken a two day course in reef ecology and care.

* Restrictions upon the type of oil and petroleum that boats are allowed to use.

* All visitors to the Punta Nizuc coral reef are required to wear lifevests. In addition to being lifesavers, these vests have the added bonus of being buoyant. Those wearing them will find it difficult to dive underwater to break off pieces of coral for souvenirs.

In short, the recommendations and your payment of the reef tax is ensuring that there will still be such beauty, in the lagoons and the sea, for many generations to come.

May 20, 2010

Dollars versus Pesos in Cancún

Everywhere you look, especially in Cancún, you will find the prices given in US dollars and pesos. Bars, grocery stores and tour operators will accept the US dollars in payment. Even the drivers and waiting staff will accept tips in dollars, so why bother using pesos at all?

US Dollar

This is a phenomenon that generally only affects American vacationers. Those from other countries have to exchange their currency anyway, so do so into pesos, as this avoids having to pay charges twice. Many Americans quite happily spend their whole vacation in Cancún without once having to handle a peso. However, this does limit them to staying in the Hotel Zone or else visiting Downtown Cancún. Elsewhere in Mexico, outside the main tourist areas, dollars would not be accepted.

There are obvious benefits for the American tourist here. The inconvenience of having to mentally calculate the exchange rate, or work out what coin relates to what, all goes away. They can just relax and get on with their vacation in paradise. If the area accepts your own currency then why not use it? Arguments that Mexican tourists in DisneyLand couldn't pay in pesos are neither here nor there. DisneyLand doesn't accept pesos; but almost everywhere in Cancún does accept dollars.

For the Mexican locals, the situation is slightly murkier. For workers, the minimum wage is the equivalent of about $4 USD a day. Their tips are viewed as a portion of their wages, therefore they are relied upon in order to take home a living salary. If they didn't accept the dollars, then they'd have no tip at all. It's a case of necessity. For those living outside of the tourist areas, they have to shoulder the exchange charges themselves, as they change your dollars into Mexican pesos. For those living and working in Cancún, then its slightly less problematic, as they can just do their own grocery shopping in dollars. Unfortunately, they can also see the Mexican prices, which will work out at less.

Therein lies the crux. While everyone from the large stores to the roadside taco vendor will accept American dollars, it will not be at a favourable exchange rate. By handing them a US dollar, you've effectively passed on a charge. They will reciprocate by ensuring that the rate is included in the price of whatever you're paying for. In fact, many people with calculators and knowledge of the current exchange rate have noticed a tendency for merchants to round down the rate. This means that you are paying more in dollars than you would have been had you just changed it to pesos in the first place.

At the time of writing, the exchange rate is $1 USD to $12.8 MXN. However, you will only find vendors willing to accept $1 USD to $10 MXN. In short, each time you purchase something in dollars, you have lost out on $2.8 MXN; for every $4.5 USD handed over in Cancún, you have lost $1 USD. This can very easily add up, over the course of the vacation, to a huge amount of money just thrown away. Let's compare them. In this scenario, you've saved up $100 USD as spending money for your Cancún vacation.

$1 USD = $12.8 MXN: $100 USD = $1280 MXN - 2% bank charges (25.6) = $1254.4 MXN
$1 USD = $10.0 MXN: $100 USD = $1000 MXN

= Loss of $254.4 MXN (nearly $20 USD) in your spending money by paying in dollars on your vacation.

Now multiply that by amount that you're really taking. By the time you hit $500 USD, you will have thrown away nearly $100 USD. Fair enough, if that is the price that an American tourist wishes to pay for convenience.

However, this equally leaves your waiter, with your one dollar tip, with a dilemma. (S)he can now use it to buy items at higher prices than the same in Mexican pesos; or else go to an exchange booth and pay the charge to have it transferred. (They don't do this at a bank, as a Mexican cannot have a US dollar bank account. But no-one worries about this, as the booths often have a better exchange rate than the banks anyway.) A tip, by its very nature, cannot include a mark up price to negate this charge. What many do to resolve this is to hold onto their dollar tips until the exchange rate is extremely favourable. By doing this, it might take weeks to end up with money in their pocket, but they may well gain a couple of extra MXN pesos when they do cash it in. For those with financial savvy, this can end up being quite a bonus, as the peso is usually weaker in comparison with the American dollar.

Mexican Peso

One of the main criticisms of changing money into pesos is that the banks and ATMs don't give out small bills. You want to tip in pesos, but your trip to the exchange has only left you with $100 peso bills and you're not tipping anyone with that! It is worth noting that there is a trick to this. When you request money do so with an uneven amount. The tills and cashiers will try to match the highest amount that they can, but that is reliant upon you making it easy for them. If you've asked for $99.99 pesos, instead of $100, then you will receive a portion of that in coins or smaller bills, because it can't be rounded up into a large bill.

For those rich enough to still insist on paying in American dollars, then please note that they have to be crisp ones. It is best to contact your bank several days in advance to arrange to collect dollars. Most banks just recycle whatever comes through the cashier's till, which can include folded, torn, dirty, written upon or otherwise vandalised dollars. Once a week, banks tend to have an influx of pristine bills and these are what you will need to take to Mexico. The reason is that many of the exchange offices there will only accept pristine bills, therefore these are what the vendors will accept too. The nicer that your bill looks, the more readily it will be accepted. Also most vendors in Cancún will not accept American $100 bills. This is because there has been a recent outbreak in fake bills at that amount.

For those who wish to have extra spending money by switching to pesos, then the exchange rate is fairly uniform across Cancún. The airport is traditionally unfavourable, while Walmart, in downtown Cancún, traditionally offers the best exchange rate. Otherwise, everywhere is much of a muchness.

May 19, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Fermin Mundaca

Mundaca's tombFermin Anonio Mundaca y Marecheaga was born, on October 11th, 1825, in Santa Maria, Spain. He was well educated, but as soon as his studies were completed, he crossed the oceans to make his fortune in the slave trade. He raided Mexico, in search of Mayan people to abduct and sell. He also undertook voyages to Africa, where he bought people to ship to the Americas. Both Mayan and African slaves were destined for the sugarcane plantations and mines of Cuba and the Antillas. There were rumours that he was also a traditional pirate too, but no actual anecdotes to back this up. He certainly called himself a pirate and none of the other pirates around at the time challenged him on the nom-de-plume.

By 1858, the British Navy had started to crack down upon the slave trade. Mundaca decided that it was time to retire, signalling the act with a symbolic torching of his own ship. Mundaca was wealthy enough to settle down and so bought half of Isla Mujeres. This was his tropical island retreat and he had money to spend, so he spent it. His hacienda was based near to Playa Lancheros and took over 40% of the island. It exists today and was called 'La Vista Alegre' (Joyous or happy view).

Mundaca had plenty of people to whom he could show off. In 1847, the Caste War of Yucatán had begun and, by 1858, around 250 people fleeing from it had populated the Isla Mujeres village of Pueblo de Dolores. These included fellow pirates, who no doubt looked with envy upon his hacienda. Between them, these pirates owned the other 60% of the island, upon which also lived local fishing communities. Amongst them was an emerald eyed, Mayan woman, Martiniana 'Prisca' Gómez Pantoja. She was eighteen years old, willowy, with pale skin bronzed by the sun and her beauty was already attracting interest amongst the young men of her community.

Hacienda MundacaMundaca fell in love. He called her La Trigueña (The Brunette) and had a great archway built, as the northern entrance to his estate, in her honor. El Paso de La Trigueña! The Gateway of the Brunette! He built a two-storey, palatial home overlooking a shallow valley. He created stone terraces with carved stone benches, each bearing a hand-carved plaque. He made a massive sundial for her called 'La Rosa de los Vientos' ('The Rose of the Wind'). You could tell the time by seeing upon which flowers the shadow of the dial fell, during any hour of the day. He dug a well and constructed eight walled gardens around it in an octagon shape. He extended his gardens and added a menagerie of livestock and exotic birds. He had ploughed and sown a huge vegetable garden. A second archway, as the south-eastern entrance to his estate, had the words etched into it, 'Entrada de La Trigueña' (Entrance of the Brunette). He plundered the local Mayan ruins and brought back ornately decorated stones to be used in his own hacienda. He created a warren of small pathways, lined with sea grapes and icaco, lit with torches and leading down to the bay. Coconut palms and chitale were planted for their milk. All for her.

Unfortunately for the pirate, Senorita Gómez Pantoja was having none of it. She was 37 years younger than Mundaca and already had a sweetheart of her own. She was also Mayan and he was Spanish. Three centuries of Spanish conquest was culminating even now in the War of the Castes over on the mainland. She, along with the rest of the Mayan population of Isla Mujeres, hated his guts. There was also the fact that Mundaca hadn't quite finished with his slave trading. Between 1858 and 1870, he continued to rent boats to the Government of the Yucatán, which were used to capture rebel Mayans and sell them to the Cuban plantations. Mundaca took his cut of the proceeds and he became referred to as the Spanish Consul on Isla Mujeres by the same government. He also captured Mayan people from the mainland coastline and used them as slaves to build his sprawling estate. They were made to dismantle the ancient temples on the island and use the stone for his own constructions. All in Pantoja's honor. Mundaca seemed to find no incongruity between his trade of her people and the fact that she didn't want a thing to do with him.

Prisca married her own love, Senor Martinez, and Mundaca went a little crazy watching her from afar. He became a recluse inside his hacienda, walking endlessly and stuffing his pockets full of random stones. These stones were piled up around the well, almost as a cairn to his lost love. He planted hundreds of flowers in his gardens. Except for two male servants, Mundaca saw no-one and traded with no-one. He allowed his vegetables and fruit to ripen in the ground, then fall and rot. His animals were given free rein. They frequently escaped and trampled over the crops and groves of the rest of the island. He never attempted to control them, even when they ruined the food of his neighbours.

Mundaca's tombMundaca also went to the cemetery, in the north part of Isla Town, on the island and created a tomb for himself. The granite tombstone is peculiar. It was carved by Mundaca in 1877, the date which he added to the stone. It is intriguing to ponder upon the date. Did he intend to do away with himself in order to render the date correct? Or did he consider this the moment when his life was over, despite himself still moving and breathing in it? The tombstone shows a skull and crossbones as its icon. There is also a message for his disinterested love:

Lo que tu eres, yo fui
lo que lo soy, luego seras
-As you are, I was - as I am, you will be

In the end, he couldn't stand watching Prisca getting on with life, raising a family and making her home any longer. He left the island, in 1880, and travelled 200 miles away to Mérida. There he died within weeks. Some say that he contracted plague; others say that he just withered away alone in a brothel. His body was not returned to Isla Mujeres, to the tomb which he had already prepared. It lies empty.

* Hacienda Mundaca, Isla Mujeres: The ruins of Vista Alegre are on the south side of the island. The entrance fee is $20 pesos.

* El Cementario, Avenida López Mateos, Isla Town, Isla Mujeres: Mundaca's empty tomb with the tombstone carved by himself.

* Mérida: Mundaca died there.

May 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Jean LaFitte

Jean LaFitteJean LaFitte (pron. La-Feet) claimed to have been born in France and some biographers believe him. Others point out that French nationality helped greatly in avoiding the enforcement of American law at the time. And the Americans had a lot of reasons for wanting to enforce their law upon this notorious pirate.

If Jean LaFitte wasn't born in France, then it is likely that he started life in the French territory of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), in 1782, and moved to Louisana, USA, as an infant. He grew up exploring the wetlands and bayous south of New Orleans, until he'd memorized every inlet in the Gulf of Mexico. By 1805, LaFitte was running a warehouse in New Orleans, though which he trafficked the goods smuggled into the country by his brother, Pierre. Life was good until 1807, when the Embargo Act banned any American ship from docking at a foreign port. Lousiana had become part of the United States of America only three years before, but this meant that the brothers could not ply their trade as openly as before.

The brothers LaFitte decided to set up a private port on the island of Barataria. It was sparsely populated area and so small boats could slip beneath the watchful eyes of the custom officers. Business boomed again, as many privateers began to use this port, unloading their large cargos there, then ferrying the goods via barges into New Orleans. The brothers were soon bored though and so brought themselves a schooner, in October 1812. They were ready to become fully fledged pirates in the Gulf of Mexico.

The USA authorities tried, on several occasions, to arrest the brothers. However, this was difficult as the US navy was in its infancy, so was often overwhelmed and outrun at sea; while the people of New Orleans refused to testify against them, as they brought in goods and luxuries far more cheaply than the official sources could. Finally, in 1814, a high ranking citizen did give evidence at a trial against Pierre LaFitte. He was jailed for piracy, leaving Jean LaFitte to run amok alone on the high seas.

This was the time of the American War of Independence and the British were quick to see the strategic value of being able to use the port at Barataria. From there, they could launch naval attacks upon the American colonies. LaFitte was approached with both a carrot and a stick. If he agreed to let the British navy use his pirate port, then he would be given British landholdings, great wealth and the use of the British navy as personal protection. If he refused, then the same British navy would destroy the port. LaFitte asked for 15 days to consider it, then copied the letters and sent them to the American authorities in New Orleans. Within two days, Pierre LaFitte was allowed to escape from jail.

The Americans were taking no chances though. Gunships set out from New Orleans and found the Baratarian port. A battle took place, which the pirates lost. Many were arrested and taken back to New Orleans, but the LaFitte brothers both escaped. However, General Andrew Jackson had arrived in the city and he was horrified at how poorly defended it was. In particular, despite having a swollen fleet filled with captured pirate ships, they had no-one skilled enough to sail them. Forever opportunists, the LaFitte brothers struck a deal whereby any pirates fighting the British, on behalf of the Americans, would immediately be released with full pardon. Jackson accepted and the LaFittes, along with many pirates, received commendations for their 'courage and fidelity' in the Battle of New Orleans. They all received full pardons on February 6th 1815.

This, of course, did not stop the piracy. He took hundreds of ships and their cargo throughout the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, Jean LaFitte openly admitted to piracy in his later years, though he took care to keep his ports outside the USA. His most notable settlement was on Galvaston Island, in Texas, which was under Spanish, then Mexican control at the time. This was effectively a new and improved Barataria, until he was run off it in 1821. Then Jean LaFitte moved operations to Isla Mujeres, in the Yucatán, where he set about building his third and final base. However, it wasn't as large as his previous ports on Barataria and Galvaston, but is significant as he died there in 1826.

The manner of his death has passed into legend, with many different accounts. No-one knows for certain how it happened or where his body lies. Some say that he was killed by a Spanish warship out at sea, but his official biographer, Jack C Ramsey, wrote that Captain Jean LeFitte died of fever on Isla Mujeres. On the island, local oral history concurs and, furthermore, states that before he died, he buried treasure on their beaches. Tourists have been looking for it ever since.

* Posada del Capitan LaFitte, Playa del Carmen: A beachside resort overlooking an inlet which LaFitte used during his piracy.

* Hotel Petit LaFitte, Playa del Carmen: Another hotel in the same inlet used by LaFitte.

* Dzilam de Bravo, Progreso, Yucatán: Plaque commemorating him placed there by CEDAM. There is a tombstone in the cemetery there with the legend, 'Jean LaFitte ReExhumed'.

* Look out to sea. There have been numerous reports, from oil workers on platforms and fishermen in boats, that occasionally a ghostly fleet of pirate ships can been seen around the Gulf of Mexico. This has been credited as being Captain Jean LaFitte and his crew.

* Lord Byron's poem, 'The Corsair': Some scholars say that it's not about Greek pirates at all, but it is about Jean LaFitte.

O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limits to their sway—
Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.
Ours the wild life in tumult still to range
From toil to rest, and joy in every change.

'The Corsair' by Lord Byron, 1814

May 17, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Laurens 'Laurencillo' de Graaf

LaurencilloThe Dutch born Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf was better known to the Spanish as Laurencillo or El Griffe. To the Dutch themselves, he was Gesel van de West, the scourge of the West. He was born in 1653, in Dordrecht, Dutch Republic (modern day Netherlands), but was captured by Spanish slavers as a child and taken to the Canary Islands. Around 15 years later, he escaped his captures and turned pirate. Now married, to Francois Petronilla de Gurzman, Laurencillo sailed to the Caribbean as the captain of a French pirate ship.

Laurencillo was reknowned as a very handsome man. He was also extremely well-read and cultured by the standards of the day. He always carried a violin and trumpet, which he would play to entertain his crew. He also knew huge sections of Shakespeare off by heart, which he could recite in Dutch and Spanish. His favourite play was 'King Lear'.

One of Laurencillo's first recorded pirate attacks was a terrifying assault on poor, beleaguered Campeche. This town suffered several such attacks during the 128 of high pirate activity, but Laurencillo's, in March 1672, was one of the worst. After setting fire to a frigate and ransacking the town, the pirates stayed on. They were still there when an unsuspecting merchant ship sailed into the harbour and was soon relieved of over 120,000 pesos worth of silver and other cargo.

They eventually left to sail the Caribbean Sea, causing such fear and outrage that even contemporary pirate, Sir Henry Morgan, sent a fleet to stop them. Their adventures to this point were legendary. Laurencillo's men had taken a 28 gun Spanish galleon, which he renamed 'Tigre' and used as his flagship; they had taken the 'Princesa', a ship carrying the entire payroll for the Spanish colonies in Puerto Rico and Santo Domigo, which in turn became his flagship; they had succeeded in open sea battles with Spanish fleets sent to capture them. Sir Henry Morgan certainly sent his frigate, 'Norwich', in pursuit of Laurencillo, but there is no record that he actually found him!

One pirate who did find Laurencillo was a fellow Dutchman, Nicholas van Hoorn. The two fleets joined forces to attack the Mexican city of Veracruz. Their enormous armada was led by two captured Spanish galleons, to lull the population into a false sense of security. Once in the harbour, on the morning of May 18th, 1683, the pirates descended on all sides. Laurencillo attacked from the sea, while van Hoorn led his men overland to attack from the rear. This was an audacious raid, as Veracruz was protected by force of at least 700 soldiers, plus 300 soldiers its fort, San Juan de Ulúa. Nevertheless, it worked.

Catedral de la AsunciónThe citizens were rounded up and 5,000 of them were locked into the Catedral de la Asunción (the largest cathedral in the city). This wasn't the easy option for the people. They were packed in like sardines, in searing heat, with no food or water. Their ordeal lastest for three and a half days. Some climbed to the top of the belltower and leapt to their deaths, rather than stand it any longer. The wealthiest, most important citizens were abducted for ransom. The governor himself was taken and a payment of 70,000 pieces of eight (eight-reales, the currency of the time) was required to secure his release. Also taken were thirty of the prettiest local girls that the pirates could find. They were taken to the pirate's base, in Laguna de Terminos, for the pleasure of the men.

All was not well between the pirate leaders though. Van Hoorn wanted more money. He was willing to behead a few captives in order to apply the pressure. Laurencillo refused to allow this and, in the fighting that ensued, van Hoorn received a slash to the wrist, which later turned gangrenous and killed him a fortnight later. The people of Veracruz were only saved when Spanish warships were spotted on the horizon. With their wealthy captives already sold for ransom; the pirates just abandoned the local girls, who were left without food nor water for five days before they were rescued. Meanwhile, the pirates sailed out, slipping past the Spanish, to land around the peninsula on Isla Mujeres. Here the spoiled were divided, with each man receiving 800 pieces of eight.

Incidentally, there is a story told in Veracruz that the Mexican folksong, 'La Bamba', which was later made famous as a rock'n'roll song by Ritchie Valens, dates from this period. The arrogance of the pirates is commemorated in the song, with its refrain, 'Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan!' ('I am not a sailor, I'm the captain!') The word 'bamba' comes from the Spanish 'bambarria', which has a meaning similar to the English phrase, 'shut the stable door after the horse has bolted'. It's a wry commentary on the efforts of Veracruz's officials to fortify the town after Laurencillo's attack, including numerous drills, which the citizens had to drop everything to participate in. The second verse, not often sung, talks about the people shut into the cathedral, climbing the ladder to fall to their deaths.

By now, several nations were vying with each other to enlist Laurencillo into their own private service. The king of Spain certainly sent a message requesting that Laurencillo joined the Spanish navy; while the English managed to solicit an acceptance. Laurencillo didn't actually do much for them though, other than sending a captured Spanish ship, laden with sugar, to the English colony in Jamaica.

In September 1684, Laurencillo set sail in his latest flagship, Nepture, from Isla Mujeres. He had his wife on board and he was heading into Cuban waters to see what piracy could be found there. However, they hadn't got far, when a Spanish fleet of warships was spotted. One of his ships was taken, with the crew and captain made prisoner, but Laurencillo wasn't prepared for this to happen to him. He jettisoned guns and other heavy equipment into the Yucatán Strait and managed to outrun the Spanish, despite being 'only a couple of spars shot away, even though he was being attacked from both sides within musket range.' He made it to Isla de Pinos, in Cuba, where they could dock and lick their wounds.

Whether it was this or the whole catalogue of events during their marriage, but, in 1689, Francois Petronilla de Gurzman formally divorced her pirate husband. The documents were registered in Tenerife, with copies found in Seville. By now, Laurencillo was finally back in France, where he received a hero's welcome for all of the wealth diverted from the Caribbean into his patron country. He couldn't settle there though and soon headed back west. He had been awarded the position of governor of Cap François, a French colony in Santo Domingo (modern day Cap Haitien, in Haiti). Not that this slowed him down much. Even with such a respectable title, he still sailed out on pirate raids.

It was here that he met the woman who was to be his second wife, Marie Anne Le Long, who was better known as Marie Dieu-le-Vent (Marie, God Wills it), after her commonly heard catchphrase. She appears to have been a firebrand herself. After Laurencillo publicly insulted her, Marie took a pistol and marched into his quarters to demand an apology. She got one. In fact, he asked her to marry him as his apology and she accepted. Whatever the quarrel had been about, it might be worth noting that she was pregnant with their eldest daughter at the time. She often sailed out with him, earning the reputation as a 'lioness'. In 1698 though, she was at home in Cap François, with their two young daughters, when the port was raided by the English, as revenge for Laurencillo's attack on Jamaica the year before. Marie and the children were taken, but Laurencillo paid the ransom to get them back.

Laurencillo died in 1704, but there are two contenders for where this occurred. Some say that he passed away quietly at home in Cap François; others reported that he was involved in creating a French Colony in what is now Biloxi, Mississippi, and it was there where he died.

* Isla Mujeres: A frequent place to dock, take on supplies and share out the spoils of their plunder. Nicholas Van Hoorn was buried there after Veracruz.

* Baluarte de San Carlos Museum, Campeche: This museum is built in the wall of the fortress built to protect the town from pirates. It contains a lot of exhibits documenting the raid by Laurencillo's men. It is located at Calle 63 and Calle 8, Presidia Circuit, Campeche.

* The Pirate Ship “Lorencillo”, Campeche: This replica ship travels around Campeche Bay during the evening. The cruise lasts for an hour and affords stunning views of the night sky, the oceanscape and the city lights. The entertainment includes a pirate show and on-deck salsa dancing, with audience participation. Naturally, the rum flows throughout. It sails from the exit of the Pier of Lerma, daily, at 5pm.

* Veracruz City, Veracruz: Taken by Laurencillo in 1683, the fortification of the city began in earnest afterwards.

* El Pirata Lorencillo, Ricardo Flores Magón, Veracruz: A statue of the infamous pirate, Laurencillo.

* Roca Partida, nr Arroyo de Lisa, Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz: It is in a cave here, under a modern lighthouse, that Laurencillo reputedly stashed his personal treasure.

Pirates of the Caribbean - Jean-David 'L'Olonnais' Nau

L'OlonnaisJean-David Nau was born in Les Sables-d'Olonne, in France, circa 1635, and brought to the Caribbean as an indentured slave. White slavery was harsh, but had a limit upon it. After seven years, the 'servant' was free to leave and Jean-David Nau did just that. But his life thus far, under the ownership of Spanish masters, had left him with a hatred of all Spandiards. He renamed himself François l'Olonnais and embarked upon one of the most brutal of all pirate careers. Bertrand d’Ogeron, the governor of Tortuga, gave him the ship upon which to do so.

Within a year or two, L'Olonnais (El Olonés to the Spanish) was lying shipwrecked on a beach in Campeche, Mexico. The Spanish soldiers which had destroyed his ship began the systematic approach of killing all survivors. L'Olonnais managed to smear himself in the blood of his fellow pirates and lay amongst the dead. He was overlooked and escaped once the Spanish had left. He walked into Campeche and persuaded slaves to flee their masters, in order to become his crew. The next Spanish ship to attack was overtaken. All of the crew, but one, were tortured and beheaded. The survivor was sent to Havana with a message for the governor: 'I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever.'

L'Olonnais joined Sir Henry Morgan's fleet, as captain of his own ship, and so was there at the sack of Maracaibo, Gibraltar and Panama. He later commanded expeditions of his own, attracting 700 pirates into his fleet to attack Puerto Cabello, in Venuzuela, and San Pedro de las Colonias, in Mexico. However, even amongst such bloodthirsty company, L'Olonnais's cruelties stood out. Alexander Exquemelin, author of 'The History of the Bucaniers of America' (1684), wrote,

'(L'Olonnais) drew his cutlass, and with it cut open the breast of one of those poor Spaniards, and pulling out his heart with his sacrilegious hands, began to bite and gnaw it with his teeth, like a ravenous wolf, saying to the rest: I will serve you all alike, if you show me not another way.'

His other favourite tortures included cutting out tongues, slicing off bits of flesh with his swords or 'woolding', which involved tying knotted rope around his victim's head and tightening it until their eyes popped out.

In the end, it was not the Spanish, but a native tribe in Panama who defeated L'Olonnais. The Kuna lived around Darién and captured L'Olonnais while he and his men foraged for food there. Exquemelin wrote,

'(The Kuna) tore him in pieces alive, throwing his body limb by limb into the fire and his ashes into the air; to the intent no trace nor memory might remain of such an infamous, inhuman creature.'

* Campeche, Mexico: The beach is where L'Olonnais lay shipwrecked taken for dead; the town is where he formed a crew out of deserting slaves, circa 1662.

* San Pedro, Mexico: L'Olonnais raided there in 1667. It is here where he reputedly cut a Spaniard's heart from his chest and ate it raw in front of his victim's eyes.

Pirates of the Caribbean - Sir Henry Morgan

Sir Henry MorganHari Morgan was born, circa 1635, in Llanrhymni, Wales; he was reputedly the son of a squire. He became known by the English version of his Welsh name, Henry. In 1658, he arrived in Jamaica, where his uncle was the Lieutenent-Governor. He married his cousin, Mary Morgan. It was from Jamaica that he began life as a sailor, progressing quickly to becoming a pirate around the Caribbean Sea. His attacks included ports along the coasts of New Granada, Honduras and Mexico.

By 1661, he was in command of his own ship and soon had permission from the governor of Jamaica to attack Spanish ships on behalf of England. One of his first acts was to capture several Spanish ships just off the coast of Compeche, on the Yucatán Peninsula. Morgan and his men also over-ran the Spanish owned Island of Providence, destroying every settlement and all but one of the forts. This briefly turned into a pirate owned island, but the Spanish returned with greater forces and managed to reclaim it.

When word came that the Spanish were going to attack Jamaica, in retaliation for Providence, Morgan assembled a fleet of 500 of the most notorious pirates active in the Caribbean at the time. In order to do this, he dressed in fine silks and decked himself out in expensive jewellery, then trawled known pirates haunts to find the best. They saw his garb and assumed that there were rich pickings aboard his ten ships. Their remit was to find and capture Spanish citizens throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They began in Cuba, where they planned to attack the Cuban town of Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe (now Camagüey). However, bad weather forced them to dock early. A Spanish prisoner managed to escape and warn the residents of Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, who all fled with their valuables. Those who remained were captured and tortured for information about where their neighbours had gone. It was all to no avail though. Morgan's men managed to recover very little wealth from the town; far too little to pay his pirate horde.

Clearly there was going to have to be another raid. Morgan thought big and set his pirates towards one of the most prosperous cities in the New World: Porto Bello in Panama. What followed was fourteen days of pillage, torture, rape and murder. The city was stripped of its wealth. The pirates stayed for another month and a half, which was the time it took to transfer all of the valuables from the city onto their ships. All told their two raids brought them over 200,000 pieces of eight (the standard currency of the time, which would later evolve into the peso). By modern standards, the booty would have been worth millions. It certainty boosted Morgan's reputation. The governor of Panama itself promptly sent Morgan an emerald ring, as a bribe not to attack his own city; while the English crown sent Morgan the 34 gun HMS Oxford, a much superior ship, to help him with his career.

Despite the gift of a ship, the English could not officially be seen to endorse Morgan's behaviour. They were supposed to be at peace with Spain at the time. The governor of Jamaica was sent a message to recall Morgan and stop his piracy. This was duly ignored. Instead, Morgan sailed out with a fleet much inflated by pirates flocking to his banner. Word of mouth was a powerful recruiting tool, when the riches of Porto Bello flowed so freely. Eleven ships filled with 900 pirates set out for Cartagena, in Colombia, but first they paused for a party on Isla Vaca, in Mexico. This resulted in a rum fueled disaster, when a fuse was accidentally lit on the HMS Oxford. This ignited explosives which destroyed the whole ship with a massive loss of life on board. Morgan was one of only ten men to survive, after he was rescued from the water.

Some pirates took this as a bad omen and deserted immediately. However, there were still ten ships and eight hundred men, which set out along the Yucatán Channel towards Cartagena. Unfortunately, the wind was against them and some ships simply weren't strong enough to fight against it. Already rattled by the loss of the HMS Oxford, some crews gave up easily, so only five hundred pirates reached Colombian waters. This wasn't enough to take the heavily fortified city of Cartagena. They decided to take the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo instead. A nearby fort spotted them and gave warning in time for most of the residents to flee, taking their valuables with them. Nevertheless, the pirates stayed in the city for three weeks. They were as merciless as they had been in Porto Bello. Any remaining people were tortured and many killed, though some were kept as messengers. Then the pirates moved around Lake Maracaibo to attack the neighbouring town of Gibraltar. Here no-one had had warning, so the town was filled with its people, all of whom were tortured to discover any hidden wealth. It was all carried away.

On the way out, three Spanish warships intercepted them. But Morgan had spotted them in advance. He ordered one of his own ships to be packed with explosives. Logs were dressed up as pirates and placed around the riggings and on the decks. This fire ship was sent straight onto a course with one of the warships and the resulting explosion destroyed both of them. A second warship was captured and the third, now isolated amidst a fleet of pirate ships, was set alight by its own crew, rather than allow it to fall into Morgan's hands. The fleet managed to escape and carry its booty back to Jamaica.

Two years later, Morgan did return to Panama, despite the bribe of an emerald ring a few years previously. He took 1,400 pirates with him and the attack was so vicious that the whole city was nothing but smoldering ruins at the end of it. The modern city of Panama is located a short distance away, because the whole place had to be rebuilt. The majority of the citizens were killed, all of them tortured first for the location of their valuables. Despite all of this, there was little wealth to be carried off. Much of it had been put into safekeeping aboard a Spanish galleon anchored out in the Gulf of Panama. The pirates didn't know it was there.

Though initially arrested and taken to England for the sack of Panama, Henry Morgan defended himself in court and ended up with a knighthood instead of execution. In 1674, it was as Sir Henry Morgan that he returned to Jamaica. He took the opportunity to retire from piracy and settled down on the island. He became its deputy governor, then acting governor. He gained a reputation for drunken rowdiness and died of cirrhosis of the liver, on August 25th, 1681. He was buried in Jamaica's Palisadoes Cemetery, which sunk beneath the sea during the 1692 earthquake.

* Isla Vaca, Mexico: Morgan's ship, HMS Oxford, lies on the seabed just off the coast of Isla Vaca.

* Campeche, Mexico: Raided by Morgan in 1662. He sacked two forts and took away fourteen Spanish ships.

* Vilahermosa, Mexico: Raided by Morgan in 1663.

* Yucatán peninsula, Mexico: Morgan's ships were once stolen by the Spanish, during a land raid. He used canoes to sail around the Yucatán peninsula in order to escape.

* The drinking establishment of your choice: Captain Morgan rum is named after Sir Henry Morgan.

Captain Morgan Rum

May 14, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Sir Francis Drake

Francis DrakeFrancis Drake began life as a humble farmer's son, in 1540, Plymouth, England. He grew up to become one of the first sailors to circumnavigate the globe; and his piracy made him feared and loathed along the coastline of Mexico. There he was known as El Draque (The Dragon) for his reign of terror. It was not just ships that he attacked, but towns and cities too.

When he first set sail, in 1567, it was the young Drake who was traumatized. He was aboard his cousin's slave ship, when they were attacked by pirates in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa. After a four-day battle, the English lost all of their human cargo and one ship from their fleet; but Drake and his cousin, John Hawkins, both escaped. Those who had been captured were treated mercilessly by the pirates. Many were dead. It was all too much for Hawkins, who made this is last voyage. But a nautical life was only just beginning for Drake. It was a life filled with hatred towards all Spaniards and all Catholics. Drake was a Protestant; it had been an English Catholic Uprising which had forced his family off their farm, back home in Devon, England. Now it was Spanish Catholic pirates who had attacked their ship. Hawkins and Drake limped back to England in severe hardship, as they hadn't been left adequate rations to make their return voyage. They had dreamed of making their fortune in the slave trade, but now they had nothing. Drake wanted revenge.

Three years later, in 1570, Drake was given a commission by his queen, Elizabeth I, to sail back into the Caribbean and harry Spanish galleons. Hawkins had given him three ships and Drake had hired 70 men as his crew. They descended upon the Spanish colonies, attacked the ships and returned home with a vast wealth in gold and silver. In fact, there was 20 tons of the stuff and that was too much to carry on board their ships. Drake buried what he couldn't fit in his hold, but managed to take back the equivalent of millions of pounds worth. Elizabeth I was thrilled. However, she had just signed a peace treaty with the Spanish and so couldn't openly reward him.

Drake waited until 1577, when the political winds of change meant that he could sail out again with the queen's blessing. This time he took five ships and many more men, with the intention to sail down the coast of Africa before heading towards South America. A mighty storm, at Cape Horn, convinced most of his crew that they wanted to go home, but Drake's own ship carried on. Sailing on the Golden Hinde, Drake and his pirate crew terrorised Chile before heading north.

In 1579, they took a Spanish ship, Manila Galleon Cacafuego, off the coast of Peru. The cargo taken from its hold took four days to transfer to the Golden Hinde and was enough to pay off England's national debt at the time. He returned home in September 1580. Queen Elizabeth I was very pleased with him. She knighted him a year later. Drake immediately bought a manor house and became a member of parliament. His crew received nothing.

Queen Elizabeth I knights Francis Drake

Elizabeth I commissioned Drake to sail into the Caribbean and raid all of the Spanish settlements along the coastline. Drake set off in 1585 and destroyed three Spanish towns, in Spain itself, before heading across the Atlantic Ocean. On New Year's Day 1586, the fleet reached Santo Domingo, in the Caribbean, and plundered of 25,000 ducats. They set off again, heading into Cartagena, where 110,000 ducats were taken. Then up to St. Augustine, in Florida (now USA), which was utterly destroyed.

In 1587, Drake was back in Europe. He entered Cadiz Harbour, in Spain, and proceeded to capture and sink 24 Spanish ships. A year later, the Spanish Armada sailed into English waters, in a bid to invade the country. Bad weather and bad luck stopped them. A mighty storm paused them north, always within sight of the coast, but never able to land, as that would mean sailing against the winds. Just when they'd crested the north of Scotland and were able to use the same winds to reach the shore, the weather changed. Now the same strength of storm pushed them south in the opposite direction. Many crashed on the coastline of Ireland. The remainder were harried all the way by an English fleet commanded by Drake. Even in British waters, he was not above piracy. He attacked the Spanish payship, the Rosario, and succeeded in taking off with her wealth.

Drake's piracy continued unabated. He persuaded his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, to return with him into the Caribbean in 1595. There they found that their luck had run out. The Spanish had fortified many of their coastal towns. Then fever struck aboard the ship. Hawkins died first then, on January 27th, 1596, Drake died of fever aboard his ship. His body was thrown overboard into the Caribbean Sea, at Portobelo, Colón, Panama.

* San Juan de Ulúa, Veracruz: The place where Spanish pirates attacked Drake on his first voyage.

* Campeche: Drake raided the town twice during his pirate career.

* Hotel Francis Drake, Campeche: This hotel, named after the infamous pirate, can be found at Calle 12 No. 207 | Entre 63 y 65 Centro, Campeche C.P. 24000 For more information, please visit their website.

* Huatulco, Mexico: A port ravaged by Drake during his pirate days.

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