Saturday, January 22, 2011

Marina's in La Paz

Two questions we often get from friends and other sailors who haven't yet been to Mexico are: Is it safe; and, do you feel comfortable leaving your boat in the marina unattended. Much has been written about safety in Mexico and it has been my experience that it is nearly impossible to change peoples perceptions once they've decided that Mexico is the land of the headless corpses.

It probably speaks poorly to my credibility when I tell them that I feel safer in Mexico than when traveling in the U.S. That's not to downplay the tragic and horrible narco-violence that is a reality here in Mexico. However, virtually all of the violence is confined within the drug cartels or directed towards the federal authorities, politicians and proactive journalist. The violence is not endemic, but rather confined to the border areas and a few of the larger cities. It also must be acknowledged this problem is fueled and funded directly by drug demand in the U.S.

Marinas in Mexico are generally nicer and much more inclusive than what is found in the U.S.. In Mexico, as elsewhere, each marina has its' own personality. Since we're currently staying in Marina de La Paz, I will use this as an example of what to expect.

While the port of La Paz has offered shelter to sailors since it was first
visited by Hernan Cortez in 1535, the first pier in town wasn't constructed until 1863. By 1983, a handful of cruisers banded with a boat-builder (Max Shroyer) to develop a small marina along the waterfront that catered to cruisers. In the years since, it has grown to what it has become today, Marina de La Paz with 150 slips, and has been joined by a number of other marinas in town (Abaroa's; Don Jose's; La Costa; Palmira; and Costa Baja). As an historical aside, for those of you suffering from thalassoharpaxophobia, some of the last pirates to prowl these Mexican waters were Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish.

Marina de La Paz consists of a fenced and gated compound that
encompasses several satellite buildings and businesses, as well as parking for some of the marina tenants. There are the marina offices, which include administrative space and houses the high speed Internet server and WiFi connections. There is space for the reverse osmosis system (750gph) that supplies the marina's water needs and a large enclosed workshop space for the support staff and mechanics employed by the marina. Tenant amenities include spotless men's and women's bathroom and shower facilities (thanks in large part to Maria's efforts), a conference room above the bathrooms, the Club Cruceros Clubhouse (housing the charitable club, its' book and video exchange), and a small playground for children with slides, swings and climbing structures.

There is an on-site laundry facility; a yacht brokerage; a ships agent; a dive shop and a restaurant. Staff is on-site 24/7 to provide support and security for the tenants. The gates to the compound are closed and locked after 11 p.m. and reopened at the start of the next day. Security is always available to let you in if you're out after the marina is locked for the night.

The docks are floating and secured by pilings driven into the bay bottom. Slips range in size to accommodate 16-20 foot pangas, to 60' yachts. Side ties are available for multihulls and the several mega-yachts (150' plus) that spend time in the Sea of Cortez during the cruising season. We currently occupy one of the
40' slips. Several concrete barrier pilings have been constructed towards the entrance to the bay to help protect the floating docks and minimize potential damage caused by storm surge in the event of a hurricane.

The decking on the docks are composed of either ipe or treks. The newer additions seem to be going to treks. Each proper slip has 30 and
50 amp power, water supply (RO water) and a high speed Internet connection which are all inclusive with no additional charge. There is also diesel fuel available on one of the end docks. Pump out service is available at an extra charge and is handled by the marina staff with a portable tank and manual pump system. There is a permant staff of about 12 dockworkers, security and mechanics, along with an office staff of 4 in addition to the Shroyer family (Max, Mary and Neil).

Marina de La Paz offers a cruiser friendly marina to clean-up and provision. The staff is friendly and gracious as are the fellow cruisers who call Marina de La Paz 'home'. Using marinas is not for everyone who are out cruising. Staying at one, while inexpensive by southern California standards, still can put a big dent in your cruising kitty. It is another choice available that allows the cruiser to safely leave the boat to learn the language, to do more overland exploring and have an opportunity to get to know the people and culture of this beautiful country.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Return to La Paz

It's good to be back in La Paz and in the boat. After being in the slip since early November, the decks have accumulated some dust and the stainless some rust spots. Inside the cabin, we didn't perform an adequate interior cleaning when we left for San Diego, so Kathie spent time sweeping and vacuuming the cabin, as well as deep cleaning the head. I managed to do a preliminary hose down of the deck, but with the sun and warm weather I found it too warm (read: 'too nice') to spend much time cleaning the outside.

We met our neighbors in the Catalina 30.9, JUCE, Judy and Bruce. It turns out the following day was Bruce's 65th birthday and we were invited to join them for dinner followed by birthday cake.
The celebration began with cocktails at the Dock Cafe followed by dinner at La Fonda on Nicolas Bravo. We were joined by Ricky off of HOTEL CALIFORNIA and John of CORAL ROSE. After a few more cocktails with dinner, Kathie and Judy had a challenging walk back to the marina for home made chocolate cake and ice cream! Both Kathie and Judy survived their ordeal, but Bruce awoke the following morning with his back wrenched.

Kath and I checked out the new CCC on Abosolo. CCC was purchased by a new owner and has been refurbished. The layout is more open with a large selection of food, produce, clothing, sundries and housewares. We also checked out the Weaver's on the Abasolo. The inventory was much less than what it's been in years past. Tourist downturn and the poor economy were given as the reasons for the lack of inventory.

As soon as we manage to find a secure permanent parking space for our truck, we would like to get out to the islands for some anchor time. We've spoken to Neil Shroyer about finding a space at the marina, but so far parking has been impacted. The next try will be to see if Tomas and Anna have space for parking. In the meantime, clean-up of the boat continues.

As luck would have it, in a town of about 300,000 people, we ran into Tomas and Anna at the marine store located in front of Marina de La Paz. We caught up over the next 30 minutes and made tentative arrangements to use their compound to park the truck if nothing materialized at the marina. It was good seeing Tomas. Neither he nor Anna seem to change over the years.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Road Trip to La Paz: Loreto to La Paz

The last leg back to the boat started at 09:30 when we departed the Damiana Inn. Before leaving Loreto, we took a left at the first corner south of the Inn and drove the two blocks to the Malecon. The view across the water was of Isla Carmen. The sun was out, the air was clear and the island looked inviting. We continued north along the Malecon
before turning left back into the neighborhoods in town. The gardens were all in bloom with bougainvilleas being one of the predominant flowering vines. We made a quick stop at the Pemex on the outskirts of town. Once the tank was topped off, it was out to the highway and south to La Paz and Citla.

We continued south, past Puerto Escondido and skirted along the
Sea of Cortez for a few more miles before beginning our ascent west into the Sierra de La Gigante mountain range and across to agricultural communities of Villa Insurgentes and Constitucion along the Pacific coastal plane. The mountains in this area are steep, majestic and rugged. They're cut deeply with canyons and give rise to jagged, naked peaks. The climb lasted for the better part of 18 miles before starting the straight and gentle descent to the coastal plane.

The ride from Villa Insurgentes south begins as a straight and nondescript two lane tarmac that widens considerably as it enters Constitucion, with its traffic lights and cross streets, only to constrict again to two lanes at the south edge of town. The road continues to be straight for a few more miles before curving and undulating through the desert scrub, making its way southeast and back towards the Gulf of California.
Along this stretch, the road passes through a number of small pueblos and past several roadside monuments, some simple and others grand. Around 1:15 p.m. we got our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez since leaving its shores south of Loreto. There's just a few peek views of the water with La Paz spread out along it's shore. By 1:30 we've arrived at the entrance to town at the Whale Tail monument and a short 30 minutes later are pulling into the parking lot at Marina de La Paz and back to our boat.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Road Trip to La Paz: San Ignacio to Loreto

At this point, it must be clear to you, that our trip south was drawn out about as long as we could make it. Rather than the normal two long days of driving from San Diego to La Paz, we've managed to stretch our trip out over four days. Allowing more travel time made driving far less tiring. It also allowed us to stop at some of the places along the way that we enjoy. For the most part, the scenery along the length of Baja is a combination of gorgeous and spectacular; there are a few stretches, however, that do not live up to those superlatives. The downside to the beauty is that generally we're so busy taking it in, we forget about taking photos to share.

Travel between San Ignacio and Loreto has some of the steepest, longest grades of the entire route. The road from San Ignacio leads southeast across the mountains towards the Gulf of California. Kathie is not a fan of the long, winding down-hill descents with non-existent shoulders and very low guard rails to keep one from driving off into the abyss. Fortunately, on the drive south, the long drops into the arroyos below are in the north-bound direction. All the drama and tension seems well worth it when the first view of the Sea of Cortez comes into view just north of Santa Rosalia.

There was a strong norther blowing down the Sea producing wave crests and spume that was visible from our first glimpse of the water, several miles away. Once down along the shore and into the former French smelting town of Santa Rosalia, blowing dust took the place of the watery spume seen off shore. The wind was cool and, according to the locals, had been blowing for the past week.

Since we wanted to arrive in Loreto in time to make the trip south to the Singular yard at Puerto Escondido to arrange for boat-yard space in May, we didn't tarry in town, but continued on south. We skirted the beautiful and boisterous Gulf until arriving in Mulege, where we stopped for a lunch break.

Once on the road again, in less than 10-miles we were at the entrance to one of the jewels of the Sea of Cortez, Bahia Conception. There were several boats in the northern anchorage of the bay at Santispac, where a calm lee was provided by the rocky hillside just inside the entrance to this picturesque inlet. The length of the bay stretched out behind them, dotted with islands.
The waters surface was the same as what was observed in the Gulf. It was covered with pop-corn wave crests. The road follows the shoreline of Bahia Conception to its' southern extreme some 20-miles south, before heading inland and paralleling the coast until arriving at Loreto.

We turned off through the grandiose highway divider that fronts the western end of town and drove towards the Gulf and into the old-town area.
Our first stop was at the Damiana Inn to see if we could find lodging for the night. This is cozy little inn that is one of the old houses that has been converted into a small boutique hotel of approximately six antique filled rooms, each with their own private baths. Deborah, the enthusiastic proprietress of the property showed us to our room. Once we transferred some of our luggage to the room, we took our leave so we could make the 12 mile trip south to Puerto Escondido before the Marina office closed.

The Singular yard in Puerto Escondido is where we'd like to have Citla hauled out during hurricane season and wanted to make sure we would have space in May. Puerto Escondido, itself, is a recognized hurricane hole in the Sea of Cortez. The mooring field and anchorage is encircled by land, save for a very narrow entrance. To the west are the towering Sierra de La Giganta, rising but a few miles west to several thousand feet. To the east and south the Gulf is blocked by cactus covered hills, save for one small 'window' in the south which is divided from the Sea of Cortez by a high sandy berm about 500 feet wide. The boat yard is located at the southwest corner of the anchorage, closest to the base of the mountains. There are ample boat stands, chain and space. The yard provides power and water for any boats located along the southeastern fence line.

We parked outside the Marina offices and went to the second story offices to speak with Constanza Noriega about our future haul out. All the haul out and put in costs, as well as the monthly storage fees were given. Leaving the Marina parking lot and heading out, we saw one of our 2008 ha-ha sailing friends, Steve from s/v Sea Biscuit. We made arrangements to meet with him and his crewman, Jim, for dinner in Loreto later that evening. We met up with them later that night had a wonderful Italian dinner and strolled back to Damiana Inn for a comfortable nights sleep.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Road Trip to La Paz: El Rosario to San Ignacio

We made the left turn, just beyond Mama Espinosa's, and proceeded east along the valley at El Rosario to the bridge that spans the broad arroyo. Kathie and I both marveled how great the weather was; clear blue skies with a bit of nip in the air.

This part of the trip covers some of our most favorite areas and is some of the most scenic desert road one could imagine. Within the first hour we entered the magical land of the cirios (Cirio columnaris), or boojum trees. Wherever you look there are the odd boojum trees among the majestic cardon cactus (Pachycereus pringlei). Their growth patterns are random and whimsical, each one different from the next. Traveling further south we begin to see more elephant trees (Bursera microphylla). Many of these plant species have a very limited distribution and some, like the cirios, are only found here in Baja as well as a very small area of the Sonoran desert on mainland Mexico.

The amazing flora becomes punctuated with rollicking boulder fields
as we approach Catavina. The topography of this area is fantastic. The clear air adds to the spectacle by providing a backdrop of detailed mountains to frame the rolling boulder and cactus foreground. We make a pit stop at the Desert Inn hotel (formerly, the Presidente chain) before continuing south.

An hour south of Catavina finds us at the turn off to Bahia de Los Angeles. The flora begins to change once Catavina is left behind. Climbing onto the central plateau Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) begin to dominate the flora and the boulder fields of the north are left behind.

From the turn off to Bahia de Los Angeles, it's a relatively straight ride south, to Guererro Negro. Shortly after leaving the town of Rosarito, there are glimpses of the Pacific that can be seen between the coastal hills. Soon we find ourselves traveling the nearly linear highway along the relatively barren coastal plain towards the evaporative salt pans of Guererro Negro. While still miles to the north we can see one of the mega-Mexican flags that is flown on the highway between the border of Baja and Baja Sur California.

We arrive at Guererro Negro just before 1 p.m. and travel into town to top off our gas tank and to pick-up more pesos at the ATM. Besides being the site of the worlds largest evaporative salt ponds, some of the best whale watching along the Pacific coast of Mexico is found in the lagoon at Ojo de Liebre (perhaps better known as Scammon's Lagoon). While tours can be booked from a number of places in town, it has been our experience the whale watching camp south of town is one of the best places to experience the Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population. The camp is located about 10 miles south of town, along Mexico highway 1.

There are signs indicating "Scammon's Lagoon" with a whale icon showing the turn off. From the highway, it is about a 15km drive over well graded dirt roads, through some of the salt ponds, until you reach the shore of the bay. An Ejido owns the rights to run this camp site, with a picturesque restaurant, chemical toilets with a view, and a couple of dozen well separated camp sites along the shore of the lagoon. The Ejido runs several pangas that take guests out onto the bay to observe the whales as they nurse, sleep and play. While there is no guarantee, there is always a very good chance to encounter "friendly" whales that will view the people in the boats close enough to be touched.

A few more hours of driving and we arrived at the oasis of San Ignacio. What sets this village apart from others in Baja is the presence of two large spring-fed lagoons and a large (and now somewhat neglected) date grove. Based on previous visits to San Ignacio and recommendations of our friends Ted and Alicia from s/v Tumbleweed, we stop at the B&B run by a engaging Canadian couple, Jerry and Terry. We reserved a large yurt next to the lagoon for a
night. It was spacious with a king and queen bed, a seating area and a large private bath. We went into town to explore and have a bite to eat before returning to the large, but cozy yurt that would be our home for the night.

After a breezy night in the date grove, we awoke to a beautiful morning and had a delicious breakfast in the dining palapa with an eclectic group of Baja travelers. We took our leave of the B&B by 10 a.m. and after exploring town for one last time, we hit the road again, heading south towards Loreto.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Road Trip to La Paz: Tijuana to El Rosario

We've finally wrapped up the house chores deemed necessary to complete before returning to Citla and cruising the Sea of Cortez. Now it's time to drive from our home in San Diego back to La Paz, where our sailboat is berthed at Marina de La Paz. We finished packing and loaded the truck the night before leaving. Early to bed for an early start tomorrow morning.

We made it to bed at 10:30 Monday night and then spent a fitful night fretting about not waking up early. At 4:30 a.m. the alarm went off and we got up, finished packing the last of our items and left the driveway by 06:30. We crossed the border at Tijuana at seven and drove south to
meet up with our old Baja buddy Dennis Seisun. When he heard we were heading south, he decided he needed a Baja fix and said he would follow us part way down the Peninsula. We met up with him just south of Playas de Tijuana, exchanged two-way radios and continued on south.

The road conditions between Tijuana and Ensenada were good along
the toll road. This sixty mile stretch has three toll plaza's each costing around $2.25 U.S. Traffic was relatively light all along our first driving leg. The roadway south of Ensenada was being repaired along many of the grades out of the various valleys. Still, we made the trip from the border to El Rosario, just shy of 200 miles, in six-hours, arriving at 12:30, in the afternoon.

We got a room at Mama Espinosa's before heading out in the Seisun's
Forerunner to visit Punta Baja, west of town. This place has special meaning to us; we spent the 4th and 5th of July, 2009 cold and wet, waiting out a blow from the north during our bash back from Baja on Citla. The weather today was glorious, with blue skies and blue water. A contrast to what we remembered from our last stay.

Fish, lobster and sea urchins are all taken from the waters in and around Punta Baja. We learned that the fishing cooperative just outside of town served as the processing plant for the sea urchin roe that is all shipped to Japan.

Road trips with Dennis are always an adventure, so we had to locate this cooperative and see if we could get a tour of the plant. With minimal directions we were able to locate the cooperative. Once there, we were shown the graciousness that characterizes our encounters with the Mexican people; we were invited into the Plant and given a
full tour,complete with a tasting of the fresh roe. While Kathie is not a big fan of uni, this was a hit with Dennis and I. Special thanks to both Daniel and Efren for their kindness and hospitality in sharing their operation with us.

What followed that day was dinner, margaritas at Mama Espinosa's and a good night sleep. We awoke to a gloriously sunny morning and enjoyedpumpkin bread and coffee with Dennis on the front patio. We took our leave by 9 a.m. and headed towards San Ignacio. Hasta pronto, Dennis, y bien viaje!