Thursday, April 21, 2011

Copper Canyon to Baja Peninsula

Day 2 at the Posada Barranca Mirador Hotel on the rim of Mexico’s spectacular Copper Canyon began with an excellent breakfast in the hotel’s dining room that featured enormous windows facing the canyon. We had made arrangements the day before to take a tour of the nearby village of Divisedero, ride the zip line into the canyon and take the newly completed aerial tram back to the rim. Knowing that we couldn’t possibly do it all, our group of 6 split up with Mark, Anne and Howard doing the zip line and Dave, Marisa and Lynn taking the land tour. Our zip line adventure was quite a thrill as we sped along the steel cables suspended high above the canyon and crossed several suspension bridges on foot (think Indiana Jones or old Tarzan movies) to connect the 7 legs of the ride. We couldn’t help but squeal with glee each time we left the loading platforms on the cliff edges and rocketed toward the opposite side at speeds that filled our eyes with tears. After our morning adventures, our group compared notes over lunch at the hotel and made plans for an afternoon hike. Before we knew it, the day was done and a restful sleep in our rooms awaited us. After breakfast the next morning, part of our group took another hike into the canyon before packing for the train and bus trip back to the coast. While checking-out, we made a special effort to thank the incredibly friendly staff at the hotel. It was, once again, a great example of the genuine warmth of the Mexican people.

While waiting at the platform for our train down the mountain, we were able to observe several Tarahumara Indian women and children selling beautiful, hand-woven baskets made from pine needles, tree bark and cactus. The appear to be a very solemn people, rarely smiling and unwilling to socialize with outsiders. Once aboard the train, we found the ride to be quite comfortable, aside from the occasional banging and clunking of the train car connectors as the engineer applied the brakes. We had made to decision to take the train all of the way to the town of Los Mochis and spend the night there before continuing by bus back to our boats in Mazatlan. Our Copper Canyon hotel staff made reservations in las Mochis for us at one of their sister hotels (Hotel Santa Anita) and upon exiting the train, we found the hotel’s bus already waiting for us. We looked at each other in disbelief, again amazed by how smoothly this entire trip had gone. Surely, someone’s compound fracture must be lurking around the next corner. After another pleasant hotel stay we walked about 10 blocks to the bus station confident that busses to Mazatlan would be running every hour. We arrived at 8:40am to find that a 9:00am bus was available and that the next one was not until 8:00pm. How long was our luck going to continue? Prior to boarding the bus, we had just enough time to scurry to a nearby taco stand for chorizo, scrambled eggs and fresh tortillas to go, yum.

Our bus ride took just over 6 hours and we were treated to 3 terrible movies with dubbed Spanish dialog. Even though the movies were awful, it gave us all a chance to improve our limited Spanish as we strained to understand what was going on. By mid afternoon we were stepping off the bus in Mazatlan and within moments climbed aboard a waiting “red truck” for the ride back to the marina.

Wow, what a great trip... good friends, spectacular scenery, delicious food, warm Mexican hospitality and flawless logistics. It could not have worked-out better. And no, there were no compound fractures.

Even though we all had a marvelous time, we were happy to return to our boats and get underway on the next leg of our journey, a crossing of the Sea of Cortez to the Baja Peninsula. We all hustled the next day provisioning and doing pre-departure boat chores. When the following morning’s planned departure time arrived, we found the harbor shrouded in fog and would wait 90 minutes until we had adequate visibility to safely negotiate the harbor’s narrow entrance.

Our overnight crossing to the Baja was quite pleasant due to smooth seas and a brilliant full moon. In the evening after dining on Anne’s homemade chili, we took turns standing watch while the other napped. Our only complaint was the the winds we so light that we had to motorsail all but 4 hours of the 28 hour trip. By afternoon of the following day, we were safely anchored in crystal-clear water off the beautiful, sandy beach at Ensenada de los Muertos (Bay of the Dead). The bay features a modern hotel and golf course in a development called Bahia de los Suenos (Bay of Dreams). It’s easy to imagine why the resort’s marketing people changed the name as foreign travelers would likely be a bit put-off by the literal translation of a name that is characterized by a celebration in Mexico.

We spent a peaceful night anchored there while planning our next-day’s snorkeling and hiking activities. Like many nights before, we drifted off to sleep, gently rocked by the ocean swells feeling so fortunate to be living this dream.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mazatlan to the Copper Canyon

On Sunday April 9th we departed Marina Mazatlan for our bus/train excursion to the“Barranca del Cobre” (Copper Canyon). The system of canyons is located in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. Our group of 6, including Dave and Marisa from the vessel “Pacifico” and Howard and Lynn from “Swift Current”, arranged for one of Mazatlan’s ubiquitous red trucks to pick us up at the marina at 6:30am and take us to the downtown bus station. Red trucks operate as taxis with bench seating in the bed and room for up to 8 passengers. While probably not the safest or most comfortable means of transportation, the trucks are inexpensive and efficient. We were pleased to find it waiting for us at the appointed time and by 6:50am we were at the bus station, arriving in time to catch a bus one hour earlier than planned. The ride to the agricultural and industrial city of Los Mochis took 6 hours with a few stops along the way. It was a first class bus so they showed movies in Spanish and the seats were quite comfortable. We noted that they were more comfortable than airline seats and had considerably more leg room. Arriving in Los Mochis, we walked several blocks to another bus station where we would connect with a local bus for the short ride to our planned overnight destination, the quaint town of El Fuerte. Arriving in El Fuerte, we strolled along a few quite streets looking for a hotel for night. Before long, we came upon the Rio Vista Hotel on a hill next to a replica of a Spanish fort. Nacho, the hotel’s proprietor gave us a quick tour of the facility and we all agreed it was a perfect place to spend the night. We quickly settled-in and were soon enjoying beverages and a snack on the hotel’s patio overlooking a meandering river. Nacho (Mark confessed that he was very uncomfortable calling a person “Nacho”) was a perfect host and made our stay very enjoyable. The hotel itself was built into the old fort so it was very unique and had wonderful views of the river and surrounding valley. We would later stroll into town in search of dinner, finding the town to be extremely quiet, perhaps due to the early hour or lack of tourism this year. Later, back in our rooms, we concluded the evening by watching a few minutes of, always entertaining, Mexican TV. Our rooms had two double beds, air conditioning, a nice shower, 2 geckos and a rather large spider. We chose to ignore the other occupants until sometime after midnight when the geckos started barking at each other. It’s hard to imagine that such small reptiles can produce such a substantial bark, loud enough to wake us from a sound sleep. The following morning, Nacho served us a delicious breakfast on the hotel patio and provided us with a ride to the train depot where would catch the first class, Chihuahua-Pacific Railways train up into the mountains. So far, everything about the trip had gone so well that we began to joke that it was all too good to be true and that some major misfortune, like a compound fracture was waiting for one of us around the next bend. Traveling with such good friends that share our warped senses of humor is truly a delight and we often find ourselves laughing until our sides ache. We found the train to be very comfortable and managed to all get seats together. The journey to the canyon took 6 hours as the train climbed from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet. We wiled away the time reading, conversing and looking at the scenery along the way. We rode for hours in the nearly empty dining car enjoying the view from its larger windows. Our intended point to disembark was Posada Barranca and, upon arrival, we were surprised to find just a train platform. While the train made a short stop, we quickly gathered up our bags and stepped down onto the weathered, wooden platform. As we stood there, looking wide-eyed and rather lost, were approached by a gentleman from a nearby hotel who asked if we had reservations. When we replied that we didn’t, he gave us a questioning look but responded, “no problem”. He offered to drive us to his hotel where could check it out with no obligation. When we reached the hotel, we were immediately taken by its spectacular location, right on the rim of the canyon with views that were absolutely breathtaking. Upon seeing the Hotel Pasado Barranca Miradorl, we realized that it was the same one highly recommended to us by other cruisers that had been there just a week before and where we had planned to stay all along. Normally, arriving here as we did, without reservations, would have been foolish but, like most other areas in Mexico, tourism here is way down and we would find that we were among just 25 total guests at the hotel. Once again, our good fortune was making everything fall into place. While checking in, we were a little taken aback by the price, as it was beyond our budget, but it proved to be a good value. As it turns out, all meals were included and they were of excellent quality. By the second day, we agreed that if we were to stay there very long and continue to eat the 3 course gourmet meals, would could roll back down the mountain rather than take the train. After checking- in, we headed up to our rooms and, upon entering, noticed our private balcony. When we stepped outside onto our small deck, hanging over the canyon’s rim, our breath was taken away by the majestic view. We quickly settled- in and excitedly scampered downstairs to check out the rest of the hotel and the surroundings. We met up with David, the gentlemen who had rescued us from the train platform, for a guided walk into the canyon and around several “Tarahumra” Indian residences. According to history, the “Tarahumara” retreated into the canyon when the Spaniards invaded Mexico and have been there ever since. The “Tarahumara”, or as they call themselves “Raramuri”, meaning “foot runner”, dwell in caves or under rock ledges with wood or adobe houses attached to them. They are known as extraordinary long distance runners and for generations have used narrow footpaths in the canyon to travel swiftly between villages. Wearing only huarache sandals, the men have been known to beat ultamarathon runners in the States while even stopping to take a smoke during the event. After our short hike, it was time for “happy hour”, which we enjoyed on the hotel’s large deck overlooking the canyon, followed by a delicious dinner. Plans were made for more canyon exploration the next day and 3 of us signed up for a zip line (steel cables strung between canyon walls traversed by riders wearing climbing harnesses and suspended from a pulley attached to the cable) and, before retiring to our rooms for bed, we had another good laugh thinking that maybe that activity would lead to the compound fracture that was waiting for one of us. Pretty sick sense of humor, eh?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

La Cruz to Mazatlan

Our trip to the States was a whirlwind of activity including administrative chores, visiting friends and family and shopping for boat parts. We spent a total of 9 days in McCall, Seattle and Los Angeles and found the weather to be rather depressing. After so many months of sunshine south of the boarder, we were unaccustomed to the overcast skies and cool temperatures in the northwest and were soon anxious to get back to the boat. Upon returning to La Cruz, we quickly set about readying “Blue Rodeo” to continue our migration north. Our friends from the boats “Swift Current”, “Pacifico” and “So Inclined” were ready to depart and we were looking forward to traveling as a group with them. We quickly provisioned and completed a few boat chores before setting out for our first stop, the small but bustling resort town of Guayabitos. Departing Banderas Bay, we were treated to a great view of a small humpback whale calf frolicking near it’s enormous mother. By afternoon, were anchored in the scenic, but somewhat rolly, anchorage just off the town. We stayed two nights there and enjoyed walking the beach and a dinner ashore with our friends. The town was alive with tourist activity, most of them Mexican, and we were entertained, but a bit annoyed, by the outboard- powered pangas pulling banana boats (long, inflatable banana-shaped tubes ridden by soaking-wet passengers) as they screamed by our anchored boats. We were close enough to shore that the loud music and announcements from activity leaders at the pools of the nearby hotel soon had us longing for the quiet and solitude that we’d find at our next stops. Many beachside resorts here are suffering greatly from the poor US economy and the exaggerated fears many from the States have regarding travel in Mexico. It was nice to see that, although it wasn’t quite business as usual, this area appeared to be doing fairly well. Our next stop was Matanchen Bay. We had stopped there on our way south and, once again, spent two nights anchored in the beautiful area. One day, we took our dinghy ashore with friends and visited the town of San Blas, finding it to be very quiet this time of year. San Blas/Matanchen Bay is famous for it’s pesky mosquitoes and, despite being anchored well offshore, the noseeums (nearly invisible relatives of mosquitoes) found us aboard that night and ate us alive. By the next day, we were suffering from their numerous nasty bites. The morning of the third day found us headed for Isla Isabel. This would be our second stop at the island and we were looking forward to seeing what had become of the blue-footed booby eggs we had seen there in December. We dropped our anchor at a spot next to the rock pinnacles off the east side of the island after threading our way into the shallow water through the usual maze of fishing nets rather poorly marked with plastic floats. As we anchored, Howard and Lynn, our friends from the sail boat “Swift Current”, took some excellent photos of us next to the rocks. The next day, the “Swift Current “ crew, along with Mike and Karen from “So Inclined”, joined us for a dinghy trip to shore and a bird watching expedition. We were delighted to see all of the down-covered chicks, most peeking out from under their mother’s feathery skirts. They were at the awkward stage of having grown almost as large as their protective mothers but were still lacking feathers and looking somewhat gawky. We got quite a few chuckles out of watching them. Later that day, we snorkeled and swam and Mark finished the boat bottom cleaning that he started a few days earlier and replaced “Blue Rodeo’s” sacrificial, below-water zincs. Plans were made for a “first-light” departure for Mazatlan the next morning and we finished the evening by watching a few episodes of “24”, the TV show that Mark hates but can’t stop watching.

The next day, after a pleasant, 13 hour sail, we motored into the Stone Island Anchorage just south of Mazatlan Harbor’s main entrance. We dropped our anchor in the fading light and watched with interest as swells, rolling in from the southwest, formed breaking waves in the shallows not far from us. “Swift Current” had already arrived and, after dark, we were joined by “Pacifico” and “So Inclined”. The next morning we awoke to see two surfers riding waves close to our boats. After a quick “pow wow” with our boating friends, we raised our anchors and motored about 7 miles up the coast to the narrow entrance to the channel leading to Marina Mazatlan. With a fairly large swell still sweeping -in from the southwest, we had to time the arrival into the mouth of the entrance because large waves were occasionally breaking all the way across the channel. It was rather sporty as we watched “Swift Current” abort one entry attempt and finally make it in after being lifted several feet by an overtaking wave. Taking advantage of the same lull in the waves, we followed close on their heels and managed to make it in without incident. We would later find out that a dredge is often working in the shallow, narrow channel, making entering even more exciting. After checking-in to the marina, and giving “ Blue Rodeo” a thorough fresh water bath, we joined the gang for dinner at a harbor-side pizza restaurant. Our group had decided to take a highly-recommended bus/train trip inland to see the spectacular Copper Canyon, a natural wonder much larger than our Grand Canyon. The next day, we would travel by bus to downtown Mazatlan where we would do some site-seeing and purchase bus tickets. That day ended with hurried packing after a peel-and-eat shrimp feast hosted by Mike and Karen aboard “So Inclined”.