PANASURF: THE ULTIMATE SUNSET SUP
After having to leave my motorcycle in Mexico at the border for not having the right paperwork, I boarded a chicken bus headed to Lake Atitlan, my next SUP destination. 6 hours and 4 chicken buses later, I knew I made it when we started winding down the mountain, descending to a 1500 m (above sea level) mountain lake surrounded by volcanoes and character rich villages. A chicken bus is an old school bus used for long distance travel in Central American countries. You can pretty much carry anything you want on them, including chickens!
It took me a couple weeks to explore the surrounding villages of the lake and carve out a little existence there. Before I knew it, I was living in a mansion on the water with a new hippie family and an adopted street dog. We would do Yoga on the dock in the mornings and have healthy vegan cooking parties by night. Something was missing: SUP. Seeing the local fishermen go by, standing in their canoes, reminded me and even taunted me daily.
I had done some research before showing up and managed to find the only SUP outfitter on the lake: PanaSurf at Casa Colonial, Panajachel. My friend Melissa and I took the next day to find the place and take little Luna, our adopted dog, for a day adventure and potentially a new home with Juan Carlos. JC, as he likes to be called, goes back and forth between California and Guatemala running his business which he built from the ground up.
Not only did JC take us for a beautiful experience on the lake at sunset, he also adopted our dog. No shortage of good people here. The views were stunning; the air was crisp and fresh. I wish I had taken more care when trying to capture it, for when I was reviewing my shots on my phone, I fumbled and it fell in! I went in after it. After me came Luna. And that's when my day shifted from having a beautiful spiritual experience to being a man who felt like he lost everything and soaked his dog in one swift action. Of course I didn’t get the phone and just ended up being cold and wet.
After JC and I had been diving down for half an hour with a snorkel, we gave up. Luna and I kept each other warm on shore as JC ran to the military base to find a SCUBA diver. Really?! He found a guy and supervised him late into the night so that Melissa, Luna and I could head back home on the last ferry. The next day, JC regaled us with a tale that when the diver came up after 3 hours of searching, he clicked the button and said, “That’s a good phone.” He found it. The LifeProof case kept it relatively safe for 3 hours at roughly 4 meters depth.
I had been at the lake for a long time and sadly it was time to move. First, I needed my motorcycle which was still in Mexico. So I grabbed the next shuttle to the border leaving at 7 am. I made it there by mid-day but didn’t get on my way out of there until about 3 pm. 3 hours at the border, waiting, going through the paperwork, trying to communicate with very little Spanish, finally the official says the only thing in English he said all day, “Welcome to Guatemala.” Yes! But my excitement was halted quickly when I realized I was behind schedule. Was I going to make it back to Casa Colonial, Panajachel by sunset?
The whole trip back was worry, and as the sun dipped down behind the mountains, it got cold. Really cold. My worry came from the numerous voices of friends in my head who had repeated the phrase, “Don’t drive at night.” Hardly 2 weeks earlier, a friend of mine was robbed in his car just outside of town at the lake. I was 2 km above sea level curving in and around mountain peaks, ridges and occasionally hitting sunny spots which slowed my shivering only briefly. The sky stayed a vivid pink for 360 degrees and deep blue overhead for about half of an hour after setting. I was stopping every 10 minutes to stick my hands down my pants to regain warmth and feeling as I took in the raw beauty. I made it back to Panajachel 2 hours after sunset as a freezing and nervous wreck.
A phone repair left me behind schedule to get to Costa Rica. I had 12 days to meet some friends for a festival in Uvita which left me racing through most of the region. A dog attack which could have been much worse would have kept me in Panajachel much longer. Luckily the owner was there and was quick to pelt the 3 dogs with rocks as I fended them off with my boot. A nip in the thigh but all he got was my pant leg.
A close call and enough of a push from the universe to get a move on!
With my bags packed and my bike and phone fixed the next day, I was about ready to depart when JC threw on “On the Road Again” by Willy Nelson. I made my way curving back up the mountain roads on Rocinante, my bike, and said good bye to the life I left behind at the lake.
Huge thank you to JC from Casa Colonial and PanaSurf! Paddling with you on the lake was an amazing experience. You run an incredible outfit and I'll definitely be back one day.
Next stop: Dominical Surf Lessons and Pineapple Tours in Dominical, Costa Rica
Unmatched calm and nature in the Boga Yoga SUP Yoga studio.
I met Nancy on the dock that juts out into Laguna Ka'an Luum, a beautiful, calm and turquoise body of water near Tulum, Mexico. She had a beaming smile from ear to ear that said, "I love life." It's a contagious demeanour that I adopted within 5 minutes of talking to her. She was excited to tell me all about her operation. This was one of a few locations that SUP Yoga Tulum operates in. They've recently attained the rights to run tours in a secluded part of the Sian Ka'an National Park by working with the local indigenous people and are the only company allowed to do so. SUP Yoga Tulum acts as the official Boga Yoga SUP Yoga studio.
When our SUP Yoga instructor arrived, along with her enthusiasm and grace, we set out for the first adventure: SUP Yoga. I, along with the 3 others in the class, anchored in a gorgeous shallow area where we could see and hear a number of bird species and small fish swimming and jumping around us. In terms of birds there were Rosette Spoonbills, Herons, Egrets, Kingfishers and more. These bodies of water, called cenotes (sen-oh-tays) are very special and only exist in the Yucatan Peninsula. There are thousands of discovered and undiscovered cenotes, all with their own unique ecosystems. Put your feet in the water in most cenotes and they will be gently nibbled clean by small Cichlids and other fish species.
Our lesson was about 1.5 hours and included a short intro to SUP to make sure everyone was up to speed. We cycled through the poses which were adapted for our vessel. The balance factor worked our cores and gave us a sense of gentle movement. The environment was spectacular. I really felt a sense of unity with my surroundings especially when we were in Savasana at the end. We dipped our hands in Laguna Ka'an Luum, listened to the wind in the trees and watched the birds soar overhead.
I got to hang out with Nancy and the gang for the whole day. I was lucky enough to be there when Jim Gilligan was running a SUP Acro Yoga workshop (www.supacroyoga.com). Nancy does her best to bring in new talent and offer exciting workshops throughout the season. This new phenomenon is based on Acro Yoga, which pushes a pair of brave souls to practice acrobatic Yoga postures done while balancing on top of and beside one another. This all happens on a floating board to add a few degrees of difficulty disguised as fun.
We started out basic and worked our way up to some more advanced moves. Since I showed up alone, I was paired up with Valentina. We ended up being a great pair and were able to get some of the more advanced moves after falling in... A lot. Don't worry! The lagoon was warm, shallow and inviting under the warm mid-morning sun. We found as much joy in falling in as we did in finally getting a sequence down with the one to one guidance of Jim.
After a few hours on the water, the group returned to the dock to lounge about and munch some delicious treats and fresh, healthy juice, compliments of SUP Yoga Tulum.
I quickly discovered that this lagoon was a gathering place for all kinds of people and activities. The Scuba divers were getting ready to explore the 85 meter hole into abyss at the end of the dock and the water massage practitioners were offering free massages as we baked in the Mexico sun.
Tulum is truly a dream come true with a unique set of natural phenomena, wildlife and wonderful people. I must mention again, that these types of lagoons (cenotes) exist nowhere else in the world. You could explore them and the surrounding Natural Reserves for a lifetime and still see something new every day. SUP Yoga Tulum is the place to be for adventure seekers, SUP enthusiasts and Yoga practitioners.
Check out SUP Yoga Tulum
Next stop: PanaSurf, Panajachel, Guatemala
An accidental visit to Isla Holbox may end up being the highlight of this Central American odyssey.
I'm in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico waiting... waiting for a week for the mechanic to show up and fix this motorcycle that wasn't done thoroughly enough the first time he came. I'm planning on taking this machine through parts of Central America to find the most unique SUP and water sport activities in the region. So better than sitting around at my host Gonzalo's place, I head to the beach where I meet Anna, a Mexican girl visiting her family here. After lunch at a local vegan place, La Senda Vegana, she invites me to Isla Holbox on the north point of the Yucatan Peninsula with her family to celebrate her birthday. Perfect! This is just the thing to get my mind off machines and just go with the flow for a while. She tells me it's a chill place where you can just set up a tent anywhere on the beach... and there's stand up paddling. Now I'm really hooked.
We get there around noon the following day and after a little tour of the island by golf cart, I lose my surrogate family and decide to find my own way. I start with a contact that Gonzalo had put me in touch with, Veronica. She's around. Whew!
She walks in the door of Colibri, one of few places with wifi and approaches with a big smile and a sparkle in her eye. It turns out to she's a very interesting woman who came to the island for a 4 day trip and stayed a year (so far). I have a feeling I'll be meeting lots of people here with stories like hers. She is also one of the partners at one of the 2 kite surfing & SUP schools on the island. Of course, after long discussions of our passions for the outdoors and water sports, we make a plan to head for the mangrove lagoons the next day.
The adventure begins around mid day as we set out on our Starboard SUPs from Kukulkite. The boards are new and in excellent condition. Their shop is right on the water and a short paddle to the entrance of the lagoons. The excursion lasts about 6 hours and Veronica is a great guide. We start by walking and SUPing on kilometers long sandbars to get to the mangroves. She knows the spots to find huge flocks of flamingos and gets us just close enough as not to disturb them in their natural habitat. As we wind around left and right through the tortuous paths of the waterway, she points out Spoonbills, varieties of fish below and even Goliath's favorite basking area. They've given that name to the biggest crocodile in the area but is apparently no threat to humans. Cool!
We have an easy cruise back around sunset with the wind behind us and make it in time to join up with some of Veronica's friends on the beach for their daily sunset gathering, a beautiful tradition that many of the island expats and longtime locals attend. This is when everyone comes together and this is where I met many of the kitesurfers and stand up paddlers. The topic of the evening is wind. "There should be wind Friday and Saturday," Veronica mentions and shows me the forecast. Later on that evening when deciding how long I'd actually be staying, the wind is the deciding factor. "I'll stay for the week if that's alright with you," I say and won't ever regret it. She has a spare room and it's apparently the only free bed on the island as high season kicks off.
Friday comes and it's epic. The wind is howling and the kitesurfing community really comes alive. There are not more than 20 people on the beach and there's plenty of space for everyone. It's an environment where everyone is helping one another set up, learn, and occasionally rescue a kite from the mangroves. We spend the whole day out on the water and finish off the evening with amazing food and drinks at a great dinner spot with traditional local fare.
Holbox has this beautiful and expansive mangrove wilderness bordered on the north side by kilometers of untouched white sand beach. The wildlife is incredible and plentiful, they have a beautiful local culture mixed with an international expat scene of kitesurfers, artists, SUPers and all round great people.
The island is growing quickly and there is a fight against the same corporations that have made the tourist strip of Cancun what it is today. Luckily the island is part of the protected area of Yum Balam. This is where you can see the incredible Whale sharks from April to September and is one of the reasons people work so hard to keep it as is.
There is a new highway from Cancun which makes it hardly more than an hour from the airport. If you're looking for something different, you can find cheap flights to Cancun but skip the saturated tourist scene there and head to Isla Holbox.
I make it out as promised a week later and am happy I didn't get sucked in to the Holbox way... for now. Back in Playa Del Carmen with Gonzalo, we voice our frustrations with the mechanic who keeps standing us up. The bike still isn't fixed so we decide to take it in ourselves. As we are getting the bike ready to haul into the back of the truck, Gonzalo gives the bike a try himself. We have a disagreement about a knob here and a knob there and he adjusts the idle. 10 minutes later it's running like a dream. It turns out I had the choke backwards and the gas line off. The fault was in the carelessness of the rider, not the machine. But if I had been more meticulous in the first place I never would have found Holbox.
Next stop: Tulum.
It took months of planning but the TISUP pilot project with Asia Outdoors is now live. They are the first outfit to offer stand up paddleboarding lessons and tours in Lan Ha Bay, giving group lessons and tours around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Cat Ba Archipelago.
This project coincides with the release of the new Asia Outdoors website. AO staff are being trained up in the ways of SUP and the sport continues to be one of the fastest growing activities globally.
"Cat Ba archipelago bears the exceptional natural values with its tropical forests covering the limestone system and the mangrove wetlands. These vegetation layers form spectacular and scenic landscapes and make the site home of all Vietnam's typical ecosystems." -UNESCO
We get a different perspective on the boards and are able to see under the surface quite a bit easier. We see massive jelly fish, schools of fish, colorful coral and all sorts of marine life on a regular basis. Cat Ba is also home to one of the worlds most elusive and endangered primates, the Cat Ba Langur. We regularly visit the habitats of these beautiful animals and occasionally get glimpses of their aerial maneuvers while jumping from tree to tree and their charismatic faces poking out of the lush canopy.
Check the Asia Outdoors Facebook page for updates and photos to come.
We all had the day off since the typhoon, the day earlier, had scared our potential customers away. After exploring the market and grabbing a 5000 Dong breakfast, four of us decided we’d adventure that day. I would be introduced to rock climbing in Butterfly Valley otherwise known as the Hive. Grant and I saddled up on the company scooter and followed Marcus and Lauren for 20 minutes to location. The roads started out in decent condition and then disappeared into rubble then reappeared as a sidewalk sized jungle path that lead up and down hills through the village of Lien Minh.
The farm house at the entrance was surrounded by jungle and hundreds years old Bonsai trees. They were massive and gnarly things, at least 12, that made me feel like I had gone back in time. Chickens ran around everywhere and the yard was strewn with comfy looking hammocks made from old fishing nets where we would later take a post lunch siesta. After a ten minute walk through lush jungle, we arrived at a massive crag that overlooked the local farmer’s field which was flooded this time of year. Grant taught me everything I needed to know for my first climb out here. Up and up I went from under-story to above the canopy, where I enjoyed my million dollar vista. Once at the top, I had a chance to look out and down at what I had just climbed. I was seeing the top of the trees, the farm and the mountains in the distance. I took it all in and then called out to my belayer to lower me. Colorful birds and butterflies were amongst me and on my way down, I could see where this place got its name. Every butterfly I saw was different and more exquisite than the last. There were white lacey ones with translucent wings, some that were similar to monarchs back home but with deeper oranges & reds and, my favorites, the black ones as big as my hand with incandescent blue markings on its fringes.
At the bottom, I started to notice the variety in frog and insect life which was abundant and obvious. This place I had found was a true paradise. I drank the last few relieving drops of my water when I got down but I got no sympathy from my new friends when I stated I was still thirsty. I didn’t want to be that Canadian guy who is unprepared and runs out of water. We stayed until nightfall, clambering around until we couldn’t see our feet without the help of a headlamp. When we did finally call it, I was exhausted and had a hard time thinking straight, after all I was still jetlagged and very dehydrated at this point.
I followed the lead of the guides back to the motor bikes and saddled up once more. We stopped on a dark road to observe the milky way for a while then Grant and I took off to give Marcus some romantic time with Lauren. It wasn’t long after that we had gotten flagged down by a small posse of drunken Vietnamese men. They looked unintimidating with their ear to ear grins so we parked our bike with the 50 or so others that lined the road and heard what they had to say. Using a combination of grabs, charades and enthusiastic howling, we took it that they wanted us to come to their party about 100 ft. up a small walkway. Marcus and Lauren caught up and we updated them on our newly made plans. The traditional music drew us in and we were shown seats immediately replete with good company and rice wine. One man even said to me as I sat down, “You be here for long time.” It was hardly a minute later when Lauren pointed out the stern looking man behind us. “You have to go” he said. We scoped the place again but this time realized the candle covered shrine with a picture of an old Vietnamese man on top. There was incense burning and the people were in traditional dress. This was a funeral and we weren’t welcome. We had inadvertently crashed a traditional, sacred Vietnamese ritual. With our bright red cheeks, we got up and quickly walked out where we came from without looking back at the mourning party. The men from the street must have had a laugh.
We did finally get back to the dorm and got to shower up… one at a time. I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t a hot shower. The cold water was actually wanted at this point.
Later on, Chris, our GM, brought us booze and we all gathered in the hotel lobby for a talk from the researcher leading the local Cat Ba Langur conservation project. Some of us fell asleep on the floor and some of us stayed awake long enough to make it to our cardboard beds.
Cat Ba Island, Hai Phong City, Vietnam is the third island as well as the third country I've lived in in my life. My time here has since been thrilling, nerve racking, frustrating and most of all has been a rewarding and trans-formative experience.
The highlights of this experience, so far, outweigh the struggles of daily life here. If it were any different, there wouldn't be 18 of us who reside and work under the banner of Asia Outdoors. The team is made up guides from USA, England, Canada and Vietnam who've all found their way here through some interesting means or another. The karst islands and emerald green waters hooked us in but it’s the community of climbers and all round good people who make this place magnetic and livable.
So far I’ve had the opportunity to climb in some of the most picturesque locations in Asia, I’ve swam the waters of Ha Long Bay, I’ve gone cave exploring on remote islands & jungles, I’ve woken up to sunrises in Lan Ha Bay and have met travelers from all over the world.
I’ve found myself on mission and it’s been inadvertent up until now. Paul Theroux said we travel to find a better version of home. It’s true to a point and maybe that’s why I’m on another island. I don’t know if I can say this is a better version of home but it’s certainly different. It’s places like this that make you appreciate what you’ve got. Here, you can truly sit back and enjoy the moment.
I tried doing life a different way when I was dropped off with a French couple at Bova’s fish farm, a floating home in the bay. We watched our boat motor away back to Ben Beo Harbor without us. I waved a hand good bye to the group I had taken kayaking that afternoon and they returned it along with enthusiastic howling. An old Vietnamese man signaled us to come over to join in drinking green tea. The tea was warm in our hands. It was nice as the evening breeze picked up and chilled us. The rice wine that came out after was harder to get down. Guillaume, unfamiliar with the tradition, kept drinking his 2 oz. glass like a shot every time it was refilled. Somewhere between Mue’s halting hand motion and my roaring laughter, the message to drink it slower was lost. Soon Mue joined in my amusement and we watched his face turn bright red after a few more, “Mot, Hai, Ba, Zo! (One, two, three, drink!)” You cannot refuse rice wine. Aurelie seemed disinterested in Guillaume’s predicament and pretended to drink hers.
We couldn’t all converse with words, apart from the few Vietnamese phrases I knew, so we did as much as we could with our gestures. Guillaume spoke English well and so translated most of the conversation to his other half.
Drunk and fuzzy headed already, we were offered a tobacco bong. Mue showed us how it was done and passed it along. When in Rome… I tried my best to copy him but started coughing uncontrollably immediately as I inhaled. It took two more tries before I got it right and about that much for Guillaume.
After watching one of the crew kill and prepare our dinner, the meat eaters enjoyed it and we laughed through dinner. We talked of the Langurs (a kind of monkey endemic to the island) we saw that morning, the temples we explored and plans for the adventures that lay ahead. Guillaume learned how to drink properly then brought it up. It seemed he was too late. We watched the stars for a bit and fell asleep to the sweet lullaby of the squid boat generators.
4:15 am came and I was awake for some reason. The squid boats shut off and I was happy. I could enjoy some silence, I thought, and possibly get some sleep. Not 10 minutes later, a rooster sounded his call and, right on cue, the sun started to rise. I was awake but happy. The sight was unbelievable. The sun peaked between two karsts and lit up the bay with an orange glow. We watched it rise for hours and enjoyed it. The bay slowly filled with basket boats and rowers off to get their morning catch. They all rowed the same way, focusing on the last push in a very small range of motion.
Mue was sitting at the table with a glass of something and raised it to me. I first thought this may be rice wine and that I may have to find a way out. It was 8:00 am. Luckily it was green tea and I was also joined by the couple. We drank our fill and the crew signaled us to the boat to get going back to the port in Cat Ba Town. Mue wouldn’t have it and filled our cups again. It would be rude to decline. We drank the tea as quickly as we could without burning our mouths. The captain now had his head out the window and was yelling something in Vietnamese. Mue shrugged him off and continued to fill our cups. The engine was running and the crew was untying lines. I stood up and began to move away from the table. Guillaume held a puzzled look on his face and was reluctant to move. He glanced from me to the crew to Mue and then made slow movement towards his belongings that he still needed to gather before leaving. The captain seemed agitated so we grabbed our things and left. Mue held his hand outstretched with my glass in it but I hopped on the boat. It was hard to tell if they were just monkeying around or actually upset.
The cruise back completed our overnight experience and left us feeling relaxed and carefree. The couple chatted in French the whole way back. I sat back and enjoyed the moment.
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