We didn’t plan to spend seven weeks in Mazatlan. In fact, we planned to be there for only one week, but life is like that… plans change and flexibility is the key to new opportunities. We stayed longer to have a boat project completed (to be covered by Wags in a separate entry), which turned into another boat project and a quick trip back to the States to renew our Mexico visitor permits.

The extra time in Mazatlan gave us the chance to make some new friends, volunteer with the local animal shelter (Amigos de los Animales),

and see and do so much that this city has to offer. There are beautiful plazas and the basilica:

The public market with its fresh produce and yummy street side food vendors:

Stunning natural scenery:

Architectural and cultural sites:

And every thing in between:

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to slow down. This time we did.

Carnaval Mazatlan is one of the most popular carnival celebrations in Mexico. We were excited to be in town as we had heard it is a must-see. The week leading up to Ash Wednesday is a constant stream of events, from pageants and concerts to fireworks and parades. We decided the main parade on Sunday would be our best opportunity to join the festivities.

Getting into town from the marina was painless. We caught the bus and 40 minutes later we were downtown and twenty pesos (about one US dollar) poorer. We walked to the malecon, the oceanside street where the parade takes place, and with a half hour to start time the crowds were filling in fast.

After choosing a spot to stand, we quickly discovered we would be able to see only the higher aspects of the parade as neither of us is above average on the height scale. Wags noticed several people with small wooden stools and, leaving me with my promise to stay put (so we wouldn’t lose each other), he headed off to find the enterprising person selling them. Upon his return we stepped onto our new, 2-foot-high, extremely wobbly viewing platforms where we would spend the next two hours taking in the sights and sounds of Carnaval Mazatlan 2017. Luckily, there was a temporary, slightly more stable, metal fence just behind us to assist in our balancing act.

The parade began as the sunset provided a beautiful backdrop. With this year’s theme, “de Alebrijes y Dragones,” very colorful dragons dominated the floats and dancer outfits.

As darkness fell and the parade progressed, the floats became bigger and more vibrant and confetti filled the air.

The crowd was massive, the mood festive, and the energy contagious. It was a blast to see people young and old alike sharing in the celebration – everyone was there to have fun. We even got to practice our Spanish with a man standing next to us who was there with his wife and daughter.

After the last float and the brigade of dancing horses brought up the rear of the parade the crowd dispersed and we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. A few stragglers stayed behind enjoying the warm evening, one señor taking a much-needed rest on his own wobbly stool. By the time we were finished with our dinner, the brigade of sweepers had already erased much of the evidence of the parade.

The celebration continued, however, on the side streets and in local homes, restaurants and clubs, for two more days and nights, until the beginning of Lent brought an end to this year’s carnival.

 

 

El Chepe

The main reason for our trip to the small working port of Topolobampo was to stretch our legs and venture inland. We left the boat in the secure marina and headed to nearby Los Mochis, where we caught the train, “el Chepe,” and embarked on what is hailed as one of the most scenic train rides in the world. The route winds its way into the Copper Canyon, Mexico’s version of the Grand Canyon in the US (but an area four times larger).

With 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and even a full 360 over itself to gain altitude, the train ride itself is spectacular. Stops in several small towns give a glimpse into local life along the way.

One of the stops is Divisidero, a stop without a town, where you can hop off the train to see the canyon (Clark Griswold style), grab a quick bite to eat – numerous vendors sell gorditas (tortilla pockets stuffed with cheese and other yummy fillings) – and browse the local handicrafts.

Our end point in the canyon was the town of Creel, located at 8000 ft. This area is home to the Tarahumara Indians, who are known for their ability to run extreme distances. We found them to be shy and reserved but friendly people. The weather was cool and beautiful and we took the opportunity to visit one of the nearby Tarahumara communities and the 18th century San Ignacio Mission.

On the way back we spent the night in El Fuerte, founded in 1564. It is the birthplace of Zorro and home to one of Latin America’s last remaining dry tropical forests. Its location by the Rio Fuerte makes it an oasis in the midst of the surrounding dry, arid landscape. In town are numerous old mansions that have been turned into boutique hotels, each quite charming and unique.

Our visit coincided with that of a regional dignitary, too, so we got to catch the local parade in his honor, complete with caballeros and dancing horses!

el-fuerte-caballero

One thing we took away: 3 days was too short. We would love to return to explore more of the towns and spend time hiking and biking in the canyon. This was a tasting menu of a trip, for sure.

We’ve Been Around

As the number on the depth finder started rapidly decreasing, I tried to reassess my route while asking Wags for a sanity check. 7 ft… 6 ft… 5 ft… “It’s getting shallow quickly!” 4… 3… 2… Gadabout slid to a halt in the soft sand bottom just outside the channel. We were aground.

After an overnight crossing of the Sea of Cortez to the mainland, we arrived at Topolobampo where we planned to leave the boat while we took the train inland to explore the famed Copper Canyon. To get to the marina we had to leave the main channel and negotiate a secondary channel. There are channel markers in place but the channel is not depicted on the electronic charts, only in one of the guidebooks showing the general path, a path which appears to cross areas much shallower than our 6-ft draft. We were motoring along between the channel markers at about 5 knots. I was at the helm with the next set of markers firmly in my gaze (I thought) and Wags was focused on shore, trying to identify the correct marina through his binoculars, when we came to our abrupt halt. I immediately put the engine in reverse and, luckily, was able to back off without any damage, other than to my ego, as a panga full of fishermen pointed out our error – I had missed a right-hand turn in the channel. Adrenaline still pumping, I guided Gadabout back into the channel and proceeded, SLOWLY, with Wags on the bow keeping a close lookout, until two shrimp boats – yes, they also got to witness the entertaining scene – passed us and provided a clear picture of the way ahead. To our surprise, there were a couple of times the shrimpers went outside the channel markers, their local knowledge serving as a proof point of the constantly shifting bottom.

An hour later, securely in our slip at the marina, we toasted our good fortune – a sand bottom, helpful locals and no damage. There’s a saying that goes, “You haven’t been around until you’ve run aground.” Well, now that we’ve been around, there’s no need to do it again.

— Paula

topo-channel

From La Paz, we headed north to explore some of the islands and anchorages along the east coast of the Baja California peninsula. Each place was beautiful and unique.

Isla San Francisco offered turquoise blue water, a fun hike and a nightly display of jumping manta rays:

San Evaristo was a charming fishing village with Lupe Sierra and Maggie Mae’s, a wonderful little watering hole where we enjoyed fresh ceviche and cold cervezas while watching the waterside activities and painting a seashell to be hung in the bar for posterity:

In Timbabiche we explored the beautiful mangrove lagoon and snapped a few pictures of the once majestic Casa Grande:

Aqua Verde was a treat with roaming goats, a quiet fishing village and a tienda (store) selling queso fresca (fresh goat cheese):

Puerto Escondido provided a stopover for laundry, provisioning and a place to park the boat while we took a day trip to nearby Loreto:

Our last stop was Isla Carmen, the main attraction of which is Bahia Salinas, where a now defunct salt mining operation once thrived. There is still a caretaker and an active hunting lodge on the island, and the remnants of what once was make for an interesting walk ashore:

There’s much more to see in the Sea of Cortez and we could spend years exploring the area but it was time for us to make the jump to the mainland.

 

Discovering La Paz

It is our last night in La Paz, Mexico. After a long day of pre-departure errands, we’re on the boat with a glass of wine, watching Pete the Pelican, a nightly visitor, fish from the dock. We’ve spent the last six weeks in La Paz, which is actually about four weeks longer than we originally planned. Plans change when you’re cruising, however, and as we got to know La Paz, it was an easy decision to stick around longer.

With a population of approx. 200K, La Paz is the capital city of Baja California Sur (the southern half of the Baja peninsula). It offers a great blend of culture, art, restaurants and activities, while maintaining a laid-back feel. The people we’ve met are friendly and welcoming, always willing to lend a hand or help us with our “muy malo” (very bad) Spanish. The town’s main tourist draws are the whale sharks – swimming with them is an amazing experience – and trips to the Espiritu Santos islands 20 miles off the coast. On land, one of the best activities is a simple stroll along the malecón, the town’s waterfront. With shops and restaurants on one side of the street and a tiled pathway on the other side, it is alive with people jogging and cycling, children playing, and families and friends enjoying time together.

Another of our favorites in La Paz has been discovering the art around town. Here, it’s not as simple as going to an art gallery and gazing at the paintings and sculptures. The paintings and sculptures are everywhere – some out in the open, some tucked away on a side street, some disguised as graffiti covering entire walls, and some hidden in plain sight in vacant lots turned parks that are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.

This is a special place. There’s a saying that “the La Paz bungee cord is strong.” We get that. By boat or by land, we’re certain we’ll be back again someday.

 

Gentle Giants

The whale shark (tiburon ballena, in Spanish) is the world’s largest fish, reaching lengths of 40 feet or more. Whale sharks have very large mouths and are filter feeders. They feed almost exclusively on plankton and, therefore, despite their size, are completely harmless to humans. They also play friendly host to other fish, such as the remora, or suckerfish, which often hitches a ride. We recently had a unique and amazing opportunity to swim with these creatures in La Paz. Be sure to check out the video!

 

 

Feeding Frenzy

We were sailing south about 15 miles off the California coast when we saw a huge group of sea lions splashing in unison in front of us… there must’ve been over a hundred. It appeared they were herding some sort of bait fish. We slowed the boat to watch. We didn’t need to move closer as the whole group shifted and swam toward us. It was a phenomenal sight, a sea lion feeding frenzy — then suddenly, several whales surfaced in the middle of the melee. We watched, transfixed, as the sea lions and whales broke up the bait ball, herded it back together, and feasted over and over again. Another amazing day as we explore the world on our sailboat, Gadabout.

Be sure to check out the video, too!

Those who know us well know that we’re fairly social people. They also know, though, that we don’t seek out large group social activities and we typically like to do things on our own program. For instance, when we wanted to snorkel with the manta rays in Hawaii, did we sign up for a tour with its easy transportation and group fun? No. We took our own snorkel gear, rented a dive buoy and light, and slipped into the dark depths of the ocean to swim around a point at night for our own adventure. And it was awesome (except for nearly being dashed on the rocks and the slight sea sickness due to the rough water). For our first foray into Mexico via sailboat, however, we decided to sign up for the annual Baja Ha-Ha rally and make the trip from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas with 530 of our closest friends (or rather, strangers).san-diego-start

Leaving San Diego harbor with 135 other boats was a sight to behold. As darkness fell that first night, it was a surprising sight, in fact. Most offshore overnight passages produce very few encounters with other boats. Our busiest to date had been in Oregon when we saw about 10 fishing boats throughout the night, but that was nothing compared to the number around us on the first Ha-Ha leg. Night watch required constant vigilance to avoid too close passes or worse, collisions. By the second day boats had dispersed enough that these close calls were less of a concern. The benign weather of past Ha-Ha rallies refused to appear, however, and any hope of a relaxing passage disappeared in 25-knot winds and 10-15 foot seas, making for a very uncomfortable ride and a diet of pretzels and water. Day three brought a reprieve from the rough seas in the lee of Isla Cedros before we headed through Dewey channel to round the point toward Bahia de Tortugas (Turtle Bay), the first official anchorage of the rally. Making good time and with only an hour more to go, Wags saw a flash of light and we heard the distress signal from a fellow rally boat that had run aground very near our position. Our “one more hour” became four hours as we diverted to assist with the search and rescue effort (see “Disaster!”). We finally dropped the hook in Turtle Bay and settled down in the cabin with a drink and dinner in the wee hours of the morning, thankful to have the first leg behind us and a couple of relaxing days ahead.

With the Ha-Ha fleet present, Turtle Bay was abuzz with activity. The normally tiny town with dirt streets and only a few fishing pangas in the harbor was transformed into a bustling scene: over 100 anchored boats dotted the bay; Ha-Ha participants visited each other via dinghy; pangas in their temporary roles as water taxis screamed past carrying passengers to and from the beach. In town the few restaurants were full of people eager for cervezas, tacos and wi-fi. As we wandered the streets to get a feel for the town, the elementary school let out and several children took the opportunity to practice their English with the gringos, one little boy asking if we were going to the baseball game later that afternoon. “Si!” we replied. Turtle Bay, thanks to a wealthy benefactor, has a first rate baseball field, complete with artificial turf and grandstands. Each year, the Ha-Ha rally hosts a just-for-fun baseball game. There are no teams, no score, just the requisite people covering bases and the outfield – several decide only at the last moment whether to put down their beers to shag a fly – and a LONG line of batters made up of rally participants and local residents. In the stands, people cheer on the spectacle, reserving their loudest cheers for the local kids, some of whom are, no doubt, the best players on the field. An all-day beach party and picnic the following day gave us a great chance to get to know some of our fellow cruisers.

Leaving Turtle Bay, we continued south for two more days to Bahia de Santa Maria. Perfect conditions on day one yielded great sailing and our first fresh fish dinner. Lack of wind on day two forced us to motor, but the calm seas were still a welcome change from the first leg. Bahia de Santa Maria is a beautiful, remote bay. There is no town, only a smattering of small shacks used by the fishermen during the season. We spent two days there, working on our tans, doing a few boat projects and socializing – a dinghy raft-up/impromptu jam session the first night and a beach party with a live band (that traveled 12 hours to get there) the second night. The best part of Bahia de Santa Maria, though, was the surf break. The waves weren’t big but they were fun, and we were the only surfers on them.

One more overnight brought us to Cabo San Lucas. We continued on for another 20 miles to Puerto los Cabos in San Jose del Cabo, a much quieter and more laid-back atmosphere than the late night party scene and rolling anchorage of Cabo. (Based on feedback from other cruisers we made the right decision.) Transportation was a challenge being so far from the immigration office and rally activities, but we quickly remedied that with a rental car. The Ha-Ha rally officially ended with two more parties and an awards ceremony.

Following the rally wrap-up, most boats immediately headed to the Sea of Cortez. We opted to hang back for another week. We were in no rush and wanted to take a little extra time to enjoy the area before moving on (and to allow Wags to recover from the first food-borne illness of the trip). One day we strapped our surfboards to the top of the car and headed north. An hour and a half later, with bellies full of scrumptious shrimp tacos at non-Cabo prices, we bounced down a mile-long, rutted dirt road to Punta Pescadero and spent the afternoon surfing. Afterward, we headed to Todos Santos, one of our favorite Mexican towns, for a post-surf cerveza and snack before returning to the boat.

Traveling as part of the rally had its positives, including learning from the challenges faced by 135 other boats and the opportunity to meet a lot of great people we’ll cross paths with again in the future. After 10 days of crowded anchorages and large group fun, though, our social meter was pegged at overload. We were ready to get back to our own, fairly social, program.

Disaster!

It was a pitch-black night after three very rough days of being offshore. We were nearing our harbor and being very careful to ensure we gave the entrance point plenty of clearance. Normally we try to avoid entering unknown harbors at night, but the entrance was straightforward and half the Baja Ha-Ha boats were already there providing a good idea of where to anchor. Suddenly a loud alarm started blaring and a red light flashed to my port. I immediately turned away from the land/light while Paula went down to check on where the alarm was coming from. My initial thoughts were that someone was trying to warn us of a hazard, and it was quite unnerving in the inky blackness to not understand what was going on. P silenced the alarm—it was a distress signal coming from the VHF radio. Whew! At least we knew it wasn’t something we had triggered. The alarm blared again, this time with a “Mayday” call. It was garbled, but something about “we’ve gone aground.” Then, silence.

The distress signal automatically transmitted coordinates so we were able to plot it and see that the signal had, in fact, originated where I saw the red flash, probably a flare. The radio was filled with chatter with the rest of the fleet trying to make sense of what was showing up on their systems. Since we were closest to the transmitted coordinates, we became the de facto “on scene commander” and headed toward the location. For the next several hours we circled off shore scanning the darkness for indications of signal lights, wreckage or survivors in the water, relaying radio transmissions and being careful not to put ourselves in the same predicament—the first rule of a SAR (search and rescue) is don’t become a SAR yourself. Another boat that was assisting was able to go closer to shore where a fisherman came out to meet him. There was a language barrier but the crew was able to determine that an American sailboat had run aground and that the passengers were now on shore and being attended to by the Mexican Policia. We stayed on station a while longer until we were able to verify that all occupants were safe and accounted for, then resumed our pitch-black harbor entrance; it was now one thirty in the morning.

The next day we were able to piece together some of what had happened. The boat that went aground was a US sailboat (SV Summerwind, a Newport 41) and part of our rally. There had been three people aboard, the 58-year-old owner, his 22-year-old son and a 75-year-old crewman. No one was injured, but the boat was a total loss. Initial reports indicated that they had tried to navigate by the wrong scale of chart. This has not been corroborated but based on the benign conditions at the time (other than darkness) and the fact that no mechanical difficulties had been reported, it likely was human error. It was a late night after several very rough days so fatigue may have been a causal factor. Paula and I were certainly knackered when we finally dropped anchor. I’m sure it was a devastating blow to the owner and his crew, but on the positive side, no one was injured. Boats can be replaced, but people can’t.

— Wags

summerwind-grounding

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gad·a·bout ˈɡadəˌbout/ noun a person who travels often or to many different places, especially for pleasure.

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gad·a·bout ˈɡadəˌbout/ noun a person who travels often or to many different places, especially for pleasure.

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