Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay

Banderas Bay is deceptively large, the largest on the west coast of Mexico. Entering the bay, we gave Punta de Mita wide berth and followed the suggestion of the cruising guide, passing close to Marieta East to avoid the shallows near the point and the three large pinnacles which come within feet of the surface.

While relatively shallow on its north end, Banderas Bay is also one of the deepest bays in the world. The southern end of the bay is encircled by high mountains (Cerros Moronades at 9,000'). These deep escarpments continue to plunge to depths beyond the waters boundary (with depths up to 2 miles).

The marina at the municipal harbor is entered through the ship channel, heading north after entering, past the cruise ship moorings and the Navy base and into the narrow entrance of the municipal marina, itself. Marina Vallarta is surrounded by condominiums which are fronted by shops and restaurants. The ambiance and charm provided by the promenade along the shop fronts and the water is in stark contrast to the disrepair of the marina.

We are now developing a routine when visiting a new port. We first reconnoiter the immediate area on foot to find all the essential services we may need before expanding our presence by becoming familiar with the local bus system. We have been impressed, not only with the efficiency and low cost of the bus system, but also the quality of the Mexican highway system. If you know your destination, traveling by local city buses becomes a matter of speed reading. Each of the older city buses has on their windshields a fairly complete list of destinations that particular bus services. By reading the hand painted route as the bus approaches, you know whether or not to flag that particular bus over to get to where you're going. Even if you're not sure, most of the drivers are very helpful in letting you know if they will be going to your destination.

The old city of Puerto Vallarta, bounded by high-rise resorts on either side, is still charming and beautiful. The narrow cobbled streets, hidden suspension bridges, stunning gardens and picturesque hillside enclaves all serve to enhance its seaside setting. By sticking to the back streets and avoiding the malecon and the main tourist shops we were able to avoid one of the distractions of the Mexican seaside cities, the time share hawkers.

The advantage to Marina Vallarta is its relative proximity to town. While the environment surrounding the marina was seductive, the shoddy condition of both the docks and showers induced us to begin looking elsewhere for slip space. We took the bus north to Nueva Vallarta to check out the marina there. It’s about 20km further north of the city and located in the state of Nayarit. The development was laid out as a planned resort. The streets were well manicured with landscaping, but the marina itself was made up of a series of unpadded, concrete floating side-ties. There were no support facilities close to the marina and no obvious shower or bathroom facilities. The clincher for Kathie was the billboard warning of the presence of crocodiles and suggesting no swimming, fishing, water play or allowing pets to run loose. Kathie couldn’t imagine walking along the dock at night and running into a crock lounging on the dock.

We knew of an anchorage even further north out of town at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Reading in a more recent yachting guide, indicated there was now a marina at that location. Kathie contacted them by cell phone and found they had space for us. The morning of February 16, we cast off from Marina Vallarta, stopped by the fuel dock to top off the tank and sailed up to the marina at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. What we found was one of the nicest marinas we’ve seen in Mexico or the U.S. It was had been opened since November of ’08. It has an artfully designed breakwater, yacht club house, second story palapa restaurant with an open air Sky Bar above that. The cruiser lounge, bathrooms and showers were architectural jewels. They even provide a concierge service. The facility is well staffed with professional, friendly staff. To top it all off, the slip rates were lower than the municipal marina at Marina Vallarta. The sunsets over Banderas Bay from the Sky Bar are hard to beat.

Besides a world class marina, the village that surrounds La Cruz has a more traditional Mexican character. While there are a few low-rise gringo developments nearby, the town is dominated by its local citizenry. The streets are narrow and cobbled and not all are paved. There is a once a week mercado on Wednesdays that takes up one narrow block in town. There are many fine restaurants and a great deal of live music opportunities to take advantage of in town. Between the highway (Punta de Mita to Puerto Vallarta) and the marina the town is about 5 blocks deep. From one end of town to the other may be another 5 to 7 blocks. It's all very compact and self-contained.

The morning of February 23, we said good-bye to friends we met while in La Cruz, backed out of our slip at the La Cruz Yacht Club and began making our way north, towards the Sea of Cortez.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta

We seem to get too easily settled and comfortable when we have dockside power, water and trash service, not to mention beautiful beaches, an historic old town and more enchanting sunsets over the offshore islands. Meeting people is the other draw that makes leaving difficult. After our trip to Guadalajara, we had more time to get to know the people at the marina in Mazatlan.

Hal and Kathy Moan on Airborne, a catamaran from Vancouver, B.C. had been in the marina for the past three years. They shared their knowledge of anchorages where they had stayed and their trick for extracting Citla from its tight slip. Also on A dock were Patrick, Laura and Jack Harrigan and their loveable golden lab, Rudy. They too were on a catamaran, a Lagoon 38. They had sold their house and cars in Port Gardner, Washington and purchased Just a Minute, their first sailboat, and headed south, learning along the way. They were having problems with their sail drives and the only marine railway wide enough to accommodate their boat was at the old harbor in Mazatlan. Their plan is to be out for at least five years or, as Laura points out, until the money runs out. Whatever unfolds for them, we’re sure it will be an adventure for all of them, especially their 11 year old son, Jack. We hope to catch up with them again in the spring in the Sea of Cortez.

The Friday before our planned departure, there was an informal sundowner get together on dock B. Everybody brought appetizers and their own libations. We met more of the local Mazatlan cruisers there, including Captain George (Krakie) who put together Captain George’s “OFFICIAL” Mazatlan Cruiser’s Guide 2009. For its diminutive size and equally low donation request of 30 pesos, we’re sorry we didn’t have it sooner during our stay in Mazatlan. It covers everything from places to visit, to services provided in the city, a complete city bus guide, and several pages of an English to Spanish translation market guide. The best part of the deal is that all the monies collected for the guide are donated to the two orphanages in Mazatlan.

Sunday morning, not too bright or early, Hal and Kathy shared their trick for extracting a boat from slip A8 against the current and we were off, out the channel on the outgoing tide. We motored west, rounded the north end of Isla Pajaro and headed south. The wind was light and variable, so we continued to motor sail with the main sail to maintain our boat speed at 6. The seas were running 2-3 feet out of the northwest.

In the afternoon we spotted the first of many humpback whales heading south. It was a pod of 4-6 individuals swimming in parallel to us, about 300 yards off our starboard side. They seem to swim faster than the Gray whales we’re accustomed to seeing. Also, they’re very fluid and graceful when they sound. We were to encounter many more of their species later as we approached the anchorage at Chacala. We were awed to see them breech, launching almost entirely out of the water before crashing down in an enormous splash visible from over a mile away. We also got to observe their fin splashing behavior. They would lay at the surface on their sides with one of their huge pectoral fins raised above the surface. They would then slap the surface of the water making huge splashes and, we suspect if you were close enough, loud sounds.

The other southbound excitement was provided by the shrimp trawling fleet out of San Blas. Having the misfortune of being over the flat coastal shelf that extends for miles off shore along the coast of Nayarit at depths of 120 to 140 feet, it is prime trawling grounds. Our course to Chacala happened to cross part of that territory just north of San Blas. At three o’clock on Monday morning found the crew of Citla dodging our way through a fleet of at least 60 aggressive shrimpers, rather than heading further out to sea and away from our destination. With Kathie spotting, using the binoculars, we attempted to determine each boats course and anticipate what their next change would be. For the next hour and a half, we spent a nerve wracking game of dodge ball with the fleet. In terms of actual distance travelled zigzagging our way through, it may have been more efficient to take an unfavorable tack out to sea into deeper water before heading back towards our destination.

All was better later that morning, after the sunrise greeted us in its warming embrace and we began to close with the jungle covered coastline. We arrived at the anchorage at Chacala by 11:30 in the morning and dropped anchor well outside of the surf line in 40 feet of water over sand. We shared the snug anchorage with two other sailboats. Later in the afternoon, we were visited by Sharon and Collin on Mamma Bird, an IP 38 out of Sausalito. They came by in their dingy to greet fellow Baja-ha-ha members. They had visiting family aboard who had to return to Puerto Vallarta to fly home. In addition, Sharon and some of their family were suffering from colds. They shared that the swell and change in wind and current at night caused rolling conditions. They were going to set a stern anchor and we followed their lead. While the stern anchor didn’t entirely keep us from doing some rolling, it kept us bow-on a majority of the time.

The anchorage at Chacala is situated between two rocky headlands with a half a mile of sandy beach connecting them. The panga landing for the fishing fleet in located in the lee of the north headland. The port captain’s office is located just east of the landing. There are several houses built on the north point, which peek out from behind the trees. The north end of the beach is filled with palapa covered restaurants. The coco palm lined beach extends itself southward ending at a high end hotel/spa and eco-resort. There are a few more palatial homes perched on the hillside of the south headland surrounded by jungle, just below a hilltop mango grove.

The town of Chacala is a modest village made up of a half-dozen cobble stoned streets, several small mercados and a couple of open air tourist tiendas selling the requisite shells, beads, tee-shirts and beach wraps. There was even one real estate office in town. The town is six miles off the coast highway and seems a popular destination for daily second class bus service bringing Mexican beach goers along with a smattering of gringo and Canadian tourists. There also is a small expat population living in this town of 350 people.

We spent three days at anchor there, the only boat at the anchorage for two of them. Save for the occasional rolling, it was a peaceful respite from sailing. The morning of the fourth day, we let out the bow anchor while hauling in the stern anchor. Once securing the stern anchor, all that remained was pulling up 250’ of bow anchor rode, 30’ of chain and our trusty 35 pound plow anchor. It was a peaceful birthday motor sail for my lovely wife, Kathie, sailing within view of the jungle hillsides and coves all the way to Punta Mita and into Banderas Bay. We saw more Humpback whales, caught two skipjack tuna (releasing one that was too small) and made our way to the municipal harbor in Puerto Vallarta, arriving at 6:30 in the evening. It was nice to be in a non-rolling slip without the worry of anchor watch. A couple of margaritas with Kathie’s birthday dinner and it was a sound night of sleep for the crew of Citla.