Paradise Found? | Robin Sparks

Paradise Found?


The beach at Villa Caracol

The Expatriate Scene In Xcalak, Mexico

It’s two days before Christmas, but in this thatched-roof restaurant on the southern tip of the Yucatan there are no Christmas trees, no blinking lights, no carolers. Just the sound of the low tide, the salty scent of the Caribbean coming in on a tropical breeze, and Jimmy Buffet crooning, “I never really been there, but I sure wanna go, down to Mexico….”

When I first began dreaming about life as an expatriate, Mexico was the country that came to mind–the Mexico, that is, that used to be, complete with a C & H sugar beach on the Caribbean and a cabana near a colorful Mayan village, where there’s nothing to do but hang from a hammock, drift in turquoise water, and marinate in Tequila.

I’d heard about a rustic resort in Xcalak, Mexico called Costa de Cocos. Run by Americans, Dave and Marie Randall, it was said to be the last hideaway on the end of the peninsula–as far south as you could go without getting your feet wet. I talked my Spanish-fluent friend Eddie into joining me and ran for the border, thrilled to be escaping the chaos of Christmas, even if for just one week.


The good life in Xcalak

In Cancun we headed south on Highway 307 in a rented Mexican-made VW, and resolved to keep going until we saw the waves breaking over the barrier reef and an iguana skittering over the road–just a few miles north of Belize.

Five hours after leaving Cancun, we arrived in Xcalak, just in time for dinner at the Costa de Cocos dining room, which in Xcalak, is the singular reply to “Where do you want to eat tonight?”

We chatted with resort owners, Dave and Marie while dining on a carrot, dates, and raisins salad, chyaote, and fresh conch.

The couple first came to Xcalak eleven years ago on vacation and decided to stay. Dave, a Jimmy Buffet alter ego if ever I saw one, described how he and Marie built the resort one cabana at a time. Due to a lack of infrastructure in Xcalak, Costa de Cocos was one of the first eco-conscious hideaways in Mexico. The resort’s electricity is windmill-generated and an on-site desalinization plant recaptures seawater and serves up solar heated water via a reverse osmosis purification process.

Hurricane Mitch had swept through three months before my arrival. “We lost six feet of beach,” Dave said, “and as you can see, the pier was swept away.” Marie pointed out that hurricanes and the resultant cleanups are part of life on the Caribbean coast.

These days It’s mostly divers and sport fishermen who go to the trouble to get to Xcalak — and the hardiest of American expatriates. The fishermen are lured by yellow tail, tarpon, tuna, and the silvery bonefish–prolific just about anywhere you throw a hook. Divers go for the underwater paradise that is part of the world’s second largest coral reef. And the expatriates? They’re lured by the call of the wild—with it’s cheap land, lack of people, and of course, the turquoise Caribbean sea lapping at their doors.

Eddie and I drove into town one day in search of some local color, but what we found was a hurricane ravaged ghost town set on the edge of paradise. It was as if Hurricane Mitch had blown through and taken everything with it, including ambiance. In the town of 200 residents, down from 1500 in 1958, many of the cinder block houses were boarded up and there were just two tiny tiendas, one selling T-shirts and the other chiclets and Sol beer. The town zocalo, located just across the street from a Mexican military installation, sat empty.

It was clear that the main action in Xcalak involved Mother Nature.

So the next day we donned snorkeling fins and masks and headed off to explore the world’s second longest reef delineated by a long white line of water breaking over its surface a half a mile offshore. Once there, our faces remained glued for hours to the liquid screen through which we viewed Dr. Seuss characters gliding through a swirl of coral in the blue-light terrain below. If Xcalak had proved a bit disappointing on its surface, its underwater landscape more than made up for it.

The next day, we rounded up eight Costa de Cocos guests and headed into town where Eddie had arranged with the normally empty Conchita’s Restaurant for a meal of fresh fish. We sat around a long rectangular table swigging shots of tequila and Sols with lime wedges while we waited–and waited. Bored, I stepped out the back door onto the brilliant white sand. A small boy was kicking a half deflated soccer ball and falling into the powdery sand laughing. Sailcloth clouds skidded across the sky. Sherbet colored boats bobbed like bathtub toys where they were tied to coconut trees. Jose, the restaurant owner appeared and with two fingers in his mouth, and whistled in the direction of a man and woman who were climbing out of a small boat. They lifted between them what appeared to be a large insulated bag.

Parvo?” Jose shouted. “Si.” the young man shouted back. Llevarlo!” said Jose.

Dinner had arrived, fresh as ordered. We were as excited as kids waiting to rip into Christmas presents, as the aroma of char-broiled fish filled the restaurant. The wonderful smells were followed by a platter after platter of conch ceviche, parvo, octopus, snapper, rice, tortillas….. until, by the time the shoe-sized lobsters appeared, we were force feeding ourselves. Jose promised to give our left-overs to the locals.

The next day, we discovered Villa Caracol, a small hotel hidden in a clearing in the jungle, fronting a talcum powder beach. Darrell and Laura Campbell originally from Kansas City, bought the property thirteen years ago, cleared the land, got the required permits, and built their home. In the beginning, they rented out the two bedrooms on the second story to sport fishermen and divers. Since then, they’ve added four cabanas and several air-conditioned rooms.

We sat around a table under a palapa with Darrell, Mike–a fishing guide from Minnesota, and Stephen–an American expatriate from Sweden who vacations at Villa Caracol once a year for “the quiet and solitude.” Miguel popped open five Sols behind the open-air bar. I looked around and thought, “Is this real?”

The emerald Caribbean lapped at the scalloped edges of a bleached white beach, which was dotted with inward-leaning palm trees, and best of all, no people. There in the middle of paradise, the hours ambled by. Stories were told. Palm fronds crackled in the breeze, pelicans landed on the pier and lit off again, and the smell of the hamburgers Miguel was grilling filled the air.

Stephen told us about the time he went tarpon fishing and the fish jumped out of the water shoulder high. Darrell talked about the fertile soil in the area, and how almost anything grows in the area with minimum effort, especially pot. Mike talked about his difficulty in getting a VISA for his Mexican wife and their baby so that the two can return with him each year to Minnesota, where he works in construction for six months. “It’s great living down here,” he said, “but you gotta deal with the barracuda.”

Eddie asked the men, “What’s up around that point?”

“A lighthouse and then just more of what you see here,” Mike answered. “But word is, there’s a new 200 room hotel going up about ten miles north of here. They say it was paid for in stacks of bills.” He and Darrell exchanged looks. “Drug money laundering.”

Mike said, “I don’t think things are gonna change around here as fast as they’re saying it will. It’s not going to happen like it did in Playa del Carmen, I’ll guarantee you that. I know an Alaskan who bought a lot there eleven years ago for twelve grand. I heard he just sold it for $385,000.”

“What are lots selling for in this area?” I asked.

“Somewhere around thirty to forty grand for a 180 meter lot.”

Christmas morning I woke up to little boy truck sounds coming through the open windows of my cabana. It was 11-year old Daniel, Marie and Dave’s adopted son, pushing his new yellow Tonka Toy Trucks through the sand. In spite of Daniel’s worries, Santa had found him down here on the Yucatan.

That Christmas evening the Costa de Cocos restaurant filled early as many of Xcalak’s expats gathered to share roast turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Daana Urich and Jack Jacquemin from Carbondale, Colorado, were seated at my table. The two had been building their house piece by patient piece over the two years since their arrival.

“So, what does an Xcalakan ask for for Christmas?” I asked them.

“A toilet”, Daana said. “I finally got my Kohler toilet! It’s serving as a Christmas tree stand now,” she added.

“Tell me about the expatriates in Xcalak,” I prodded.

“They’re whole-ly independent and half crazy,” Jack declared.

As had become our habit, after the dinner plates were cleared , we moseyed up to the mahogany horseshoe-shaped bar and squeezed in among the other escapees from the north to schmooze and sing like grounded sailors, wishing we’d never ever have to go home.

Tim, originally from Florida, fell in with our unruly crew as well. The owner of a communications service in town, he came through the door every night right after dinner with a bottle of Meyer’s rum under one arm and a Martin guitar under the other. In an easy drawl, he regaled us with tales about life among the renegades, the mosquitos and the Mexican military. Nine years ago he was flying sport fishermen regularly into Xcalak in his Beechcraft King. One day the plane went down. “I didn’t see any sense in going back,” he said. “I’m treated with respect here. And I was fed up with the FAA and IRS.”

John (a.k.a. Bone Daddy), the fishing guide

John (a.k.a. Bone Daddy), the fishing guide

And then there was John (a.k.a. Bone Daddy), the fishing guide and bartender for Costa de Cocos. At 40 years old, the retired science teacher from Florida had come to Xcalak, he said, to live out of the right side of his brain for a change. Eddie and I gave him a run for his money when we decided to give bonefishing a try.
We floated silently through the shallow pea green water of the flats, watching and waiting. Suddenly John would whisper, “Bonefish!” and point to a spot where he’d glimpsed a silver flash.

At that point, as he had demonstrated, we were supposed to fling the fishing pole over our right shoulder, then without a break in motion, swing it forward, so that the fishing line snaked gracefully through the air, and landed gently on the surface of the water at the precise point where he had pointed. And then, if we’d successfully gotten that far, we were supposed to lightly jerk on the line to simulate a bug twitching on top of the water. It didn’t take me long to figure out why they called it “sport” fishing. When we motored around the point of the peninsula later that evening to speed back to Xcalak, we hadn’t caught a bone fish, but we’d definitely caught bonefish fever.

Eighty yards or so offshore from Costa de Cocos, the mast of a catamaran could be seen wagging back and forth like a metronome. It belonged to Richard Sugarman, who was a dead ringer for Santa Claus on a beach vacation. Only Richard wasn’t on vacation. He was a retired psychotherapist from Connecticut, who’d been grounded in Xcalak by Hurricane Mitch three months earlier. Richard and his crew of four were headed to Belize, where along with his wife Linda, he was planning to run a boat charter business. The crew met up unexpectedly with Hurricane Mitch and in 30 foot waves were forced to navigate through a 70 foot cut in the reef in a run for the shore. Richard’s best friend was lost to the sea in the struggle and his boat was pronounced a total loss by the insurance company. Richard was living in Xcalak until he could repair his beloved catamaran, the Ocean Gypsy, and continue his journey to Belize. I watched that week as he dislodged the 40-ton sea vessel from a cement-like sand bar and towed it to shore.

It happened like this: With the help of local men led by Felipe, pipes were rotated one by one, back to front under the boat after it was inched forward, pulled by a jerry-rigged pulley system consisting of ropes wrapped around palm trees, their ends attached to an old 4-wheel drive Bronco, in which Dave sat, revving the truck slowly forward, until the men in the water shouted, “Alto!(stop)” At which point, a pipe from the back of the boat would be moved to the front, and the whole process begun again.

When I left, the Ocean Gypsy was perched on the sand next to the dining room. Richard was making plans to purchase and install a new engine, repair the hull which looked for all the world as if a large shark had taken a bite out of it, clean up and repair the interior, rewire the electrical system, and sail on to Placencia, Belize.

As the week progressed, camaraderie grew between we nomad-footed outcasts, sequestered in what felt like the last place in Paradise. It dawned on me that I’d grown fond of scruffy Xcalak, not because of what the town had to offer, or because of the pesky mosquitos which had bequeathed me with over 50 bites, but because of the solitary beauty of the area and the eccentric, adventurous folks a remote place like this attracts.

If you who want to be among the first to settle at the end of the road, head to Xcalak. It’s one place where no one is saying (yet), “You should’ve been here ten years ago.

Join me in future issues of EscapeArtist as I share the individual tales of escape artists from Belize to Paris, to China and the Middle East, down to South America and beyond. I’d like to hear about other pockets of the world where are Americans are escaping–send me your suggestions.

Robin’s mother recalls that since she could walk, Robin has been escaping through the front door of her northern California home, headed into unknown lands (or neighborhoods). “She pretended not to hear me when I called… she would show up hours later, and regale us with stories about her adventures, making me forget I was mad at her.” Robin has been at it ever since as a freelance writer and photographer, with feature stories appearing in over 35 magazines and newspapers. She is writing a book about the American expatriate experience.

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