Saturday, February 25, 2012

Carnaval in La Paz

We have been tied to Dock 4 at Marina Palmira in La Paz for the past two weeks, where we have been finishing up our project list and moving on to phase two of provisioning for our Pacific crossing. (We did some initial provisioning at Costco in San Diego.) This marina is about two miles from the downtown center--and an additional half mile from the nearest supermarket--which makes grocery shopping a chore (we usually walk in and taxi back); but it is cheaper than the downtown marina, Marina de la Paz, and we suspect there are fewer distractions. An added bonus is that we have been able to sleep at night during the last week, when the town of La Paz has been celebrating Carnaval!

Carnaval is derived from the Old Italian carnelevare, the removing of meat (carne, meat; levare, to remove)*, in reference to the period of Lent that begins after this celebration. The indulgences which people enjoy at this time have also given Carnaval the connotation of a celebration of the flesh. *The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Patrick and I took a break from the project list to check out the festivities. La Paz can definitely put on a good party! Although Carnaval in Mexico was surely not the spectacle you would find in Brazil or Trinidad (Mexico has a more modest culture), it was just as creative. The theme of this year's Carnaval was Myths, Legends, and Characters.

Medusa float

We attended opening night. I was hoping to see the coronation of the Carnival Rey y Reina; however, the artistic program that was supposed to start at 6:00 was just starting at 8:00, and we faded before the reigning king and queen were appointed. We did see some belly dancing troupes and indigenous dancers. We also explored the main thoroughfare along the malecon (waterfront walk). There were all kinds of food booths, carnival games, an amusement park, and tropical drink stands. It was fun to be among the many excited Mexican families out enjoying the evening. 

It was interesting to note that the drinking establishments for the festival were not cordoned off like the beer gardens in the states, and people could walk along carrying their drinks. This fact, coupled with another difference between Mexico and the states---more pedestrian hazards---made for some interesting navigation off the boat. Here, one must be constantly vigilant of the uneven streets and sidewalks, curbs sometimes two feet high, random steps leading to nowhere, and gaping, open holes in the middle of the sidewalk.    

Most evenings during Carnaval started with a Carnaval parade. On Sunday, Patrick and I knocked off work early and found a sidewalk table at a local cantina to watch the parade from. Some of our dockmates from Dock 4 wandered by and joined us for drinks and nachos while we watched the parade. A good time was had by all. 

Many children were represented among the Carnaval floats.

At least one Brazilian-themed float was in evidence.

Fake beards and moustaches were on sale for 10-15 pesos, and some of the Mexican women sported them.

This cowboy's skills...

....were not exactly matched by this cowgirl's. 

One custom that appeared to be both traditional and frowned upon was the lobbing of eggs full of confetti at the parade participants. Many vendors were selling these eggs (real egg shells with confetti inside) along the carnival route. Children along the route had huge stockpiles of them, which they threw at the floats and costumed participants. Yet, there were also people walking alongside the floats carrying signs that said "Please don't throw objects of defilement" with pictures of the eggs on them. Perhaps this is a Mexican tradition in flux?

We enjoyed our first experience of Carnaval in La Paz! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Los Cabos to La Paz

 Los Cabos

We thought Los Cabos deserved a new post because they are a transition zone between the Pacific coast of Baja and the Sea of Cortez, and they have a totally different feeling than anything that comes before or after. If someone visiting Mexico used the line, “Show me the money!” Los Cabos is where you’d take them.

Our cruise from Bahia Magdalena to Cabo San Lucas was uneventful, so we spent a lot of the trip obsessively focused on food. (Those who know me, stop laughing!) Patrick had his birthday, and there were chocolate brownies to be made and eaten. Although we trolled a great portion of the time, we caught nary a yellowtail or dorado. We ran out of our second loaf of bread since leaving San Diego (one purchased in San Diego and one loaf of the famous Mexican “Bimbo” brand bread), so I baked some.

We could see Cabo Falso (the name is self-explanatory) from miles away. It is quite a striking feature, even from a distance. 

After awhile however, Cabo San Lucas (the true cape) juts out behind Cabo Falso, and one’s jaw drops. To two people who had been at sea for two weeks, only experiencing small Mexican villages, this was total culture shock.

It was very intriguing how some of the buildings seemed to spring out of the rock itself. 

We were also blown away by how steep a slope our neighbors south of the border are willing to build on. 

We passed by the famous arches at the southernmost tip of Baja.

Since we did not have time to make our intended destination, San Jose del Cabo (the other Cabo) by dark, we decided to anchor in Cabo San Lucas for the night. We arrived just before sunset and had time to take in some of the excess which the harbor at Cabo San Lucas epitomizes. We had read about the huge variety of vessels rushing to and fro in this harbor on the blogs of other boats traveling south. While we were there, we saw fishing boats (both small and large), glass bottomed boats, water taxis, water skiers, other sailboats, mega-yachts, parasailors, and cruise ships in the outer harbor; while buildings that looked like the glitziest casinos Vegas has to offer lined the shore.

Note the helicopter on the stern deck
The best way not to part with your money in Cabo San Lucas is not to get off the boat, and that is exactly what we did. We anchored for the night and headed for the marina at San Jose del Cabo (Marina at Puerto de Los Cabos) the next morning. We spent a day there resupplying
and another day, just because we liked it.

Puerto de Los Cabos was one of the most nicely landscaped marinas I’ve ever seen. It was more expensive to stay there than at most Washington marinas, but it was still a lot cheaper than Cabo San Lucas.

Sculptures and paintings by the Mexican artist Leonora Carrington were on display along the walkway in the marina. Although her vision is somewhat dark, and I didn’t care much for the attenuated figures in most of her paintings and sculpture, I did like these two pieces:

These hooded figures....

...were placed alongside these boulder forms. Someone had a nice sense of symmetry.

Upon closer inspection, this harpist....

...reveals his intensity. Is he calling people across the River Styx?

We thoroughly enjoyed the people and hospitality of the town of La Playita, which in fact, is closer to the marina than San Jose. La Playita used to be a small fishing village, but development springing up is transforming it into a tourist resort. We patronized the three eating and drinking establishments next to the dock with their three different sets of proprietors and staff. If the United States is a melting pot, than Los Cabos must be the melting pot of Mexico. We met Ali (a bellydancing aficionado from the Sahara via Koln, Germany); Gustavo, a native of La Playita and a fountain of information on the local fishing, who worked at Tommy’s Barefoot Cantina (where “happy hour” lasts from one ‘til six); and George Armstrong (an affable American who owns a hotel named La Marina and whose passion is golf.) All of them took the time to talk with us and share their philosophies. We particularly enjoyed the international photos at Ali's, the two-for-one house margaritas at Tommy’s, and the live music, chef, personable wait staff and patrons at the hotel. After two weeks with little outside social contact, San Jose del Cabo was a lot of fun. 

We also learned about some of the negative impacts of tourism in this region. The Marina at Puerto de Los Cabos is situated across from a beautiful estuary, and we learned from a local that the estuary is slated for development for more hotels. 

The local man told us that people from outside the area are happy about it because it means more opportunities for work, but that people who’ve lived in La Playita all their lives are unhappy about it. Our friend explained that all the work in Los Cabos revolves around tourism, and he made the following wry observation:   “If you can’t speak English, you toil under the sun all day; if you speak English, you work in the shade of a palapa.”

Beating to La Paz

The trip started off with a bang. Immediately after leaving the breakwater in front of Puerto de los Cabos, Patrick noticed a flurry of pelicans diving for fish. Before I had even finished reeling out line, I got a strike. The first fish took some skin off my finger, when the line started whizzing out from underneath it, and my lure. The second fish broke my line and took another lure. We had just lost our two best lures. We were fishing with only 20 lb test, so Patrick got out the big guns (some actual small diameter ship’s line and a leader) and trolled yet a third lure behind the boat. He was rewarded with another large skipjack (10-20 lbs) but chose to release it because it was too big for our needs.

The next excitement came when we passed through an entire pod of whales. We are in humpback country now. On the way from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose, we had spied a mother humpback nursing her calf very close in to shore. Today, we observed a very active pod of humpbacks tail slapping and occasionally  breaching. It was the first time I had seen a single whale repeatedly slap its tail against the surface of the water. (For those of you old enough to remember The Flintstones, think of “Bam-Bam.”) The humpbacks also waved their enormous fins from the surface. 

We thought we were keeping a respectable distance from the whales, but two whales suddenly surprised us by surfacing right in front of the boat (and diving again just as quickly.) Luckily, we didn't hit them. 

During the time we were whale watching, the wind had come up significantly, and we put up sail. The wind and waves built quickly, and we experimented with a couple of different sail combinations until we settled on a reefed main (one reef) and the staysail. That combination seemed to give us the best combination of stability and speed. The progress was slow, now that we were beating to weather instead of running down the Baja coast.

That night, we anchored at Los Frailes, the most beautiful anchorage of our trip thus far. 

Los Frailes anchorage
There, we saw our first manta rays catapult from the water and flap their “wings” in the air. What an amazing sight! The next morning, we were treated to this display as dozens of manta rays appeared to greet the morning sun. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the manta rays plopping back into the water. 

Silhouette and Shadow (our dinghy) at Los Frailes 

The flora is starting to change along with the climate
After a layover day waiting for the wind to settle down, we continued on to the “Bay of the Dead,” Bahia de los Muertos. There was nothing in particular to recommend this anchorage, but it was a logical stop before proceeding the remaining 52 miles to La Paz.

The next day, we started out with a forecast for ten to fifteen and high hopes of reaching La Paz by evening. The picture below shows our intended course (solid line) as well as our actual track (dotted line) after leaving los Muertos. 

I took that picture before we got back to the anchorage; otherwise, it would have been a complete loop. When we got to the entrance of the Cerralvo Channel, we had been forced to reconsider our plan. The wind was 24-27 knots on the nose with gusts up to 32 knots. Since we didn’t have to do it, we decided we didn’t want to beat ourselves up trying to make La Paz, and we went back to the anchorage. Mother Nature seemed intent on dealing us some discomfort however, because the wind shifted from the north to the south (That would have been sweet if we were still in the channel!). Bahia de los Muertos is well protected from the prevailing northerlies but not winds from the south or east. We spent an uncomfortable afternoon and evening pitching in the anchorage. You know it’s bad when you start to feel seasick at anchor! 

The wind had died down by morning, so we started out again. Initially, we had twelve to fifteen knots (still on the nose) in Cerralvo Channel, and it was exhilarating being under Silhouette’s full complement of sails. We pointed as high as we could and tacked back and forth across the channel. Then, the wind built yet again; our angle of heel became too much; and we had to reduce sail. We again furled the headsail, put a reef in the main, and kept up the staysail. Silhouette was more balanced under this combination, but her speed slowed to only a couple of knots. We decided we wanted to get to La Paz that night, so we ended up motor-sailing the rest of the way. 

Our progress was interrupted temporarily when the engine overheated. I continued steering the boat on our tack, while Patrick went below and investigated. He found a blown impeller. We had most likely picked up some of the fine "mermaid's hair" type seaweed in our last anchorage, blocking the sea water flow cooling the impeller. Patrick put in a spare impeller and solved the problem. The wind and waves in the channel continued to increase as the late afternoon and evening wore on. Our faces tingled with salt spray as Silhouette bucked the huge swell. (I can imagine what the Cerralvo Channel could throw at you on a really nasty day.) We finally dropped anchor in La Paz at 10:00 p.m. on February 9, after a fifteen-hour trip.  

(You may have noticed our blog is lagging behind real time. We have a slow internet connection at the moment, and it took us awhile to get this post together.)   



Saturday, February 4, 2012

Baja California Sur

Asunción to Abreojos

“Fish on!” We were less than an hour out of Asunción when I got a strike and called to Patrick to help me bring the fish aboard. As we were leaving this anchorage where many living creatures—dolphins, sea lions, seals—created splashes as they porpoised in and out of the calm, I saw a large splash resembling the one a fish makes leaping out of the water. Soon, I saw another one—and the actual fish this time. A short time later, there was a third splash. As soon as we were underway and it was safe to do so, I got out a pole and put my fishing line in the water. At first, there were no takers, but after letting out a little bit more line, I got a strike. I was able to reel the fish in under my own power (it was a perfect size for us on a boat with no freezer and a tiny refrigerator:  two meals for two); and Patrick gaffed it when I brought the fish alongside. Our first catch of the trip turned out to be a skipjack tuna!

We followed the coastline to our next anchorage, Abreojos or “Open Eyes” under sunny skies and variable winds. The weather has finally warmed up enough to wear jeans and T-shirts in the cockpit during the day, donning a fleece only when the wind kicks up a notch. Off the boat and away from the sea breezes, the temperatures are warm enough for shorts (though we haven’t worn any out of respect for the customs of the small villages we have been visiting.) As we arrived at the anchorage, we were greeted by the blows of some large black dolphins, dorsal fins knifing slowly through the water:  “smooth, like butter.” We have seen these black dolphin—that actually look like small whales-- several times, but have not gotten a close enough look to identify them.

Traveling by sea, it’s amazing how many land dwellers come along for a ride. On the way to Abreojos, we saw a dragonfly, a butterfly, and a bee, all taking a wee rest on Silhouette. Shortly after anchoring, an osprey landed on our solar panel! (We are the tallest thing around on the water and probably an inviting fishing perch.) Patrick also captured this beautiful moth resting on our deck:

Before sunset, a couple of guys came along in a panga and spoke with us. They said they were “guarding the coast.” I asked why that was necessary. They replied that people from outside the area come and steal lobster from their traps. We told them we weren’t after any lobster; that we were here to see the gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. (Abreojos is the closest you can anchor to this biological preserve. You are not permitted to take your own boat or dinghy into the lagoon but must go on a guided tour.)

The next day, we went ashore to try to arrange for a panga ride over to the lagoon. On the way in, we spotted our first frigatebirds:  a sure sign that we are headed towards the tropics! On the beach, they were using a small tractor to haul the incoming pangas above the tide line. The pangueros would roll a pair of wheels (attached with a two-by-four axle) under the panga and the tractor would tie on to the boat and drag it up the beach.

The tractor driver offered to haul our dinghy—which was too heavy to drag with the outboard on it—up the beach for us. We tipped him for the service.

Once in Abreojos, we were directed to a fisheries cooperative, where we agreed to a price for a panga to pick us up at Silhouette at eight the next morning. The panga would take us to a landing nearby the lagoon, where a tour boat from the reserve would pick us up and guide us through the lagoon. The panga (also not permitted to enter the lagoon) would wait for us at the landing and return us to our boat after the tour.

While ashore, we wandered through town. The first thing that struck us about Abreojos was its stunning osprey population. Looking down the main street bordering the approximately two-mile strand of beach, we could see atop the utility poles half a dozen osprey nests! Walking through the backstreets of town, we encountered still more osprey nests. The fishing must be very rich to support such a huge osprey population with such small territories.

An osprey sizes us up
Many, if not most of the nests, were occupied by mating pairs. We observed one or the other member of a pair entering or leaving the nest, and we think we even observed one pair mating. (One osprey—we assumed the male--flew in and landed right on top of another osprey!—we assumed the female. He appeared to be attempting to mate with her, but his advances did not seem welcome as the encounter was brief and he soon flew off again.)

The nests were of fascinating construction and comprised their own microhabitat, which Patrick described as condominium-like Most nests incorporated local grasses and plants as well as man-made elements (such as the scrap of blue plastic sadly shown in the nest above.) We noticed a variety of sparrow and warbler sized birds flying in and out of the osprey nests and concluded that they had their own dwellings underneath the osprey’s perch. Since ospreys are fishers by nature, the smaller birds are well protected there from seagulls and other interlopers who might steal their eggs. The nest below has old fishing lines woven into it, a choice befitting its occupant. If you look closely, you can see a sparrow-sized bird perched under the left side of the nest:

Bird condominium

As we were looking at the outside of the village church, a panguero (still in his fishing gear) came by and saw us, opened up the church, and invited us in. As we viewed the beautiful stained glass windows from the interior, he explained that the completed church was only two or three years old, but that it was built little by little, with contributions from all the local fishermen.

Abreojos iglesia (church)

One of the most interesting things about Mexico has been the mix of old and new technologies. Note the compact fluorescent bulb above the stained glass window:

In Asuncion, many of the storefronts on the main street were closed and out of business, yet the internet café was thriving, abuzz with children playing video games. Another example of the mix of old and new is the packaging (or lack thereof) in the markets of the smaller villages. If you want fresh meat while grocery shopping, you open the refrigerator and take out an unwrapped portion of raw beef or an unpackaged chicken leg; if you want eggs, you bring your own container and choose from unrefrigerated flats of 36 fresh eggs; while in the same store, there may be two dozen brands each of boxed cereal and brightly packaged chips, and your groceries are rung up on a computerized cash register.

Returning from that tangent, Abreojos has been our favorite stop so far. The people there seemed busy and content, and we immediately noticed the marked pride and the level of upkeep in the village. Upon further reading, we discovered that the sense of cooperation and community we experienced in Abreojos was no mere accident.

The skipper relaxes into the cruising lifestyle
"Guardia de la costa"

Whale Highway (Carretera de las Ballenas)

You won’t find that name on a map of Mexico. I coined it this morning on the way to San Ignacio Lagoon. As we approached the entrance to the lagoon, we could see a procession of whale spouts, in almost single file, also approaching the entrance. It was an amazing sight and reminded me, as so many of the sunset colors in Baja do, of a picture in a Dr. Seuss children’s book that I haven’t thought about in years:  McElligot’s Pool.  

McElligot’s Pool is the story of a daydreaming fisherman who begins to wonder what he might catch at the bottom of the local fishing hole (McElligot’s Pool) and where his catch might have come from. His imaginative journey eventually leads him out to sea. The story is an allegory for all fishers—and sailors too, for that matter—who drop their hook into the unknown.

After an exhilarating panga ride across the water (during which Patrick and I did not let go of our grips on the boat), we were transferred to a motorboat for a tour of the lagoon. During the ride, our panga operator explained that many sea turtles also live in the area, and that now they are protected like the whales.

Our guide, Ramiro, explained that he was a motor guide and not a naturalist because it was the off-season. Ramiro said the trained guides and naturalists start arriving at the peak whale-watching season in February. However, Ramiro was able to answer all our questions as well as enrich our experience with his local knowledge of the whales.

Our guide, Ramiro

There is not much that can be conveyed in words about being in the presence of great leviathans and our mammalian kin.

There she blows

Dolphin also visit the lagoon

Blowhole or spiracle

Lado al lado (side by side)

Eyed by a whale

The back of a gray whale looks like lichen covered basalt

Where's Waldo?

The action commences

Petting a whale


Returning to the vortex

As we rode in the panga back towards Abreojos after our tour, passing more whales and dolphins leaping out of the water on all sides, we couldn’t help but feel extremely lucky to be doing this.

End of the rainbow

Note to Fellow Cruisers:  We had been following the information in Captain Rain’s Mexico Boating Guide which stated that the number of whales in the lagoon is at their peak from mid-December to February. Local knowledge indicates that the largest number of gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon occurs around February. There is a protected area in the reserve for mother and baby whales (calves), where even the tour boats are not allowed to enter. However, we were told that the best time to observe the whales is when the tide is going out:  Since the protected area is very shallow, most of the whales exit that area of the lagoon on the ebb tide. We were told that the best time to see breaching whales is also at that time.

The Captain Rain’s guide also states that a visitor spends four hours in the lagoon on a park tour. That may have been true at one time, but the tours now last 90 minutes. Our guide told us they try to be consistent and give all clients the same experience in that regard. All of that being said, we had a phenomenal whale-watching experience while visiting before the peak season (and not during ebb tide). The advantages to visiting early are that there are very few tour boats in the lagoon (there were only two other boats besides ours), and that there is more opportunity for a close encounter with a whale (all of the boats during our visit had at least one whale come alongside them.)   

Bahía Magdalena (“Mag Bay”)

En route to Bahía Magdalena, one of our questions about the gray whales was answered:  Does their range extend past San Ignacio Lagoon? We had been traveling with these great whales since we left the Strait of Juan de Fuca and would miss them if their breeding grounds were the end of their range. Departing Abreojos, we passed many more whales headed into San Ignacio Lagoon on the whale highway. Additionally, as we traveled further south, we continued to see many grays, including those foraging in the entrance to Mag Bay.

The winds between Abreojos and Bahía Magdalena had diminished to light airs, and we were able to fly our asymmetrical spinnaker. Unfortunately, the winds were not behind us enough to make this the ideal situation (we more on more of a beam reach), but it allowed us to sail instead of motor.

We did end up motoring at night when the wind died to almost zero. We passed to the west of the rich fishing grounds ironically named “Uncle Sam’s Bank” in the dark, so we did not get a chance to try our luck. It was one of the calmest nights I’ve ever spent at sea. The Milky Way in the water (composed of a multitude of bioluminescent organisms in Silhouette’s wake) mirrored the Milky Way in the sky. Shooting stars---including one of the biggest meteors I’ve ever seen---arced across the heavens. After the moon set, I noticed that planets give off beams, like moonbeams, on the water, while stars do not. Why had I never noticed that before?

Late the next afternoon, we approached Mag Bay. The scenery on the way and the entrance itself were spectacular.

Bahía Magdalena is the second largest bay (being second only to San Francisco Bay) on the west coast of the Americas. The topography encircling Mag Bay is, in fact, reminiscent of the Marin headlands, and allowed us to see what this area of our own country might have looked like to the first explorers.

We are seeing many frigatebirds now.

We spent our first night anchored on the south side of Belcher Point, a calm anchorage sheltered by neighboring Mt. Isabela. The next morning we were delighted when, instead of going to the market, the market came to us. A panga with its bottom full of fresh shrimp, fish, and lobster pulled alongside Silhouette, and we purchased a half kilo of the freshest shrimp you could ever hope to find—just pulled from the water--for our dinner that evening.

We moved on to Puerto Magdalena. Puerto Magdalena is located in an idyllic location for a village, nestled in snugly against the hills in a cove facing a bay plied by sea lions. However, we did not see the town pride exhibited by Asunción and Abreojos displayed here. The village has no systematic method for dealing with their waste, and trash was seen everywhere thrown on the ground or in burn piles. Most of the populous makes a subsistence living, but almost everyone has a satellite T.V. dish. The church was, as usual, one of the key features of the village; however, this church was not as well maintained as the ones in the villages farther north.

On the way out of Mag Bay to continue our trip south, we came across a large school of feeding dolphin. They crossed and re-crossed our bow, herding fish one direction and then the next. After this incredible display, we passed five gray whales:  two to starboard and three directly across our bow!

Stay tuned for the video!

The wind stayed light as we continued our trip south, and we were able to fly the asymmetrical again, this time with the wind behind us.

Our new best friend

We arrived at the southernmost tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas, on February 2, 2012---but Los Cabos are a story in themselves...