Saturday, May 28, 2011

Puerto Escondido and Loreto

Puerto Escondido is a nearly landlocked harbor fourteen miles south of the town of Loreto. “The hidden port” features a small but modern marina and a large number of mooring balls that can accommodate over one hundred boats. It provides excellent protection from the winds and the seas that can make many portions of the Baja peninsula rolly and uncomfortable. The marina complex also features a small store, restaurant and cruiser club house with a large lending library and DVD exchange. We booked a one week stay on one of the secure moorings giving us the opportunity to catch up on a few boat projects and tour nearby Loreto and the surrounding area by rental car. Anne and friends were pleased to hear of a large, open-air produce market that operates every Sunday and a group of us combined a shopping run there with lunch at one of the town’s quaint restaurants. A few days later, while sharing a rental car with friends Howard and Lynn, we drove for nearly two hours up a steep road into the nearby Sierra Gigante mountains to visit a large Spanish mission built in the 1600’s. It was from this impressive facility that missionaries ventured north establishing the many missions that are currently found north of the border in California. Little else of interest was found in the small community near the mission and we found ourselves amazed that such a rugged remote location would have been chosen so many years ago. The next morning, Howard and Lynn joined us for an exploratory hike up a canyon near the harbor written about in John Steinbeck’s “Log of The Sea of Cortez”. What started as a hike quickly became a rock scramble and then a more serious climb requiring careful hand and foot placements. At times Mark wished he had brought one of his climbing ropes that he keeps aboard “Blue Rodeo” for ascending its mast. The beauty of the canyon was truly amazing and, even though it was the dry season, we could clearly imagine the raging torrents of water that sculpted the canyon during the summer thunderstorms.

One of the unexpected pleasures of our stay in Puerto Escondido was the opportunity to connect with three of Mark’s old friends from the Ventura marina. Anne and Jeff aboard “Outrider” and Ken aboard “Bungee” have been cruising Mexico for a number of years and were happy to answer many of our questions about their travels and favorite places. After an enjoyable stay in the area, we topped off our fuel tanks and headed east across the channel to the Bahia Marquer anchorage on Isla del Carmen. There we found the clearest, warmest water to date and, unfortunately, hundreds of pesky bees. While lounging in “Blue Rodeo’s” cockpit, we had to laugh at the irony of the first bees arriving while our stereo played the Beatles song “Let it Be”. From now on, in our minds, the word “Be” in the song title will always be spelled with two “e”s. The next day, after listening to weather forecasts that warned of possible strong northerly winds within two days, we studied the charts and agreed on a strategy to move along to another anchorage better suited for north wind protection. As we conclude this blog entry, we are anchored off the town of Loreto itself where we will visit the produce market one last time tomorrow morning before continuing up the coast. The wind is currently blowing from the south and we find ourselves rocking and rolling a bit with no protection from that direction. We’ll see what the rest of the night has in store for us.

Isla San Francisco to Agua Verde

While at Isla San Francisco we joined forces with other cruising couples for a climb up a rugged ridge overlooking the picturesque anchorage. In places the arete narrowed to just a few feet in width with precipitous drops on both sides. Even though it was hot and arid, Mark said the view of those climbing ahead of us conjured up images of Mt. Everest’s Hilary Step. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the sea around us and our boats anchored peacefully a thousand feet below.

With so many recommended places to visit still ahead of us to the north, our wanderlust prompted us to move on after our second day and motor sail across to the Baja Peninsula and the quiet, little fishing village of San Evaristo. The little community there is inhabited by about twenty full time families and has a school, desalination plant and a small tienda (market). Even though we did not need much in the way of provisions, it was fun visiting the small store. Housed in a tiny concrete block building, the market had an ample selection of the basic needs including a few boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables. We even found Best Foods mayonnaise, an item on our short shopping list. We visited the store with several other cruisers and we all discussed the need to be conservative in our purchasing so as not to deplete the stock for the local families. Across the peninsula from the anchorage is a small cattle ranch and salt evaporation ponds where sea salt is harvested. As our group hiked over the hill to explore that area, we came across numerous grazing burros and skinny cows. The ranch itself was located in a small canyon with a water source and many large date palm trees. We could only imagine how hard the ranchers must work to tend to their livestock and make a living.

From San Evaristo we continued up the Baja coast to Bahia Los Gatos, another incredibly scenic spot that features red sand stone and pock-marked, volcanic rock formations. After settling in at anchor, we felt a little like we had sailed “Blue Rodeo” into Utah’s Lake Powell. It was here that we were first bothered by what would become a pesky nemesis. Before long, dozens of honey bees began swarming our boat in search of even the tiniest drops of fresh water. Fortunately, the bees had no interest in us and, even though they covered the stern of our boat near our exterior shower, any articles of damp clothing left out to dry and even our sink faucet and sponges in the galley. We did our best to co-exist peacefully with the critters but eventually closed the screens on all of our hatches and took refuge below. The next day, after exploration on foot along the rocky shore and some snorkeling in the crystal clear water, we chose to continue our journey in hopes of escaping the bees.

Another short sail brought us to Bahia San Marte, an anchorage protected by a reef that extends well off shore. As we approached, we used our GPS to carefully monitor our progress and proximity to the reef. We have often commented about how modern electronic navigation aids make adventures like this so much easier and safer than just a few years ago. Howard and Lynn, our friends from the vessel “Swift Current” joined us in the anchorage and, anxious to cool off and enjoy the cool, clear water we all inflated our swimming pool-style lounge chairs and drifted about the anchorage with adult beverages in hand. The company was splendid and the scenery around us sublime. What a great way to end the afternoon! Before leaving the next morning, we took our dinghy to a portion of the reef about a mile away and snorkeled among an array of multi-colored fish. Mark carried with him his pole spear and managed to get a shot off at a fair sized candidate for our dinner but sadly, the wily fish was too quick and the spear bounced harmlessly off its gill plate as the fish darted away. Though not as bad as Los Gatos, fresh water-seeking bees prompted us to leave the anchorage early and continue to our next stop, Bahia Aqua Verde.

Aqua Verde is a lovely spot and cruiser favorite that features a protected bay, a shoreline mixed with rocky cliffs and white sandy beaches and clear, emerald green water. We anchored there with added excitement over the news that cruisers had the opportunity to swim with a large whale shark just the day before. These amazing plankton feeders can approach 30 feet in length and, though resembling other carnivorous sharks, are harmless to humans and seem unafraid of sharing their watery world with us. The next day, we joined friends for a trip ashore to explore the village. What a treat! Although less populated than it once was, the community of Aqua Verde features many simple homes, two schools, two tiny markets and a cinder block police station with a tiny jail cell. As we explored the town, the guys in the group took great pleasure being photographed behind the jail cell bars while being guarded by the local sheriff. It appeared as if the sheriff had as much fun posing for the pictures as did the guys. After buying a few things at the small markets, Anne led the way to the home of a women who made fresh tortillas to order. While some of the group waited outside the small house, Anne visited with the woman while she worked just a few steps from where her fisherman husband napped, fully clothed on a simple bed. As we have experienced everywhere in Mexico, the local people were charming, warm and friendly. The high point of our walk through town for Anne was seeing the numerous goats, cows and pigs. In fact, the town is known for its two goat milk dairies and we were able to buy a large chunk of fresh cheese from one of the tiendas. Later that evening, while relaxing in “Blue Rodeo’s” cockpit, Anne became aware of the bleating of a goat coming from a shoreside cliff. Being the animal lover that she is, she feared that it was in distress and sped off to the rescue in our dinghy. She returned to our boat after determining the cries were coming from one of three goats high on a cliff and it appeared to be in no danger. In fact, it’s probably a nightly occurrence as the goats venture around the area nibbling on tiny plants that somehow manage to grow in the inhospitable terrain. Our days at Aqua Verde were filled with snorkeling, swimming and socializing. One evening, couples and families from most of the nearby anchored boats gathered on a beach to share snacks and beverages. Its hard to imagine a better life than to be sharing such an adventure with so many great people. Our next stop would be Puerto Escondido, another cruiser favorite, where we would be able to explore the town of Loreto and the surrounding area.

La Paz northbound

Our first stop north of La Paz was the rugged and beautiful island of Isla Partida. The largest bay, and most popular anchorage on the island, Caleta Partida, was formed by the erosion of a portion of the walls of a volcanic crater. The beach at the head of the bay features a small fish camp where local fisherman live for days in tiny, crude huts and speed off each morning in search of fish. Often, the sound of their outboard motor powered pangas can be heard as they returned well after dark.

We spent several enjoyable days there snorkeling and exploring by dinghy and on foot. One morning, we joined friends Karen and Larry aboard their boat “Phanta Rei” and traveled a short distance to the island of Ispiritu Santo. Our guide book told us of two ship wrecks there and we were anxious to explore them using SCUBA gear. Another friend, Dave from the vessel “ Taking Flight” came along to tend to the boat while the four of us dived. The wrecks were medium size cargo ships intentionally sunk to create artificial reefs after being confiscated by the Mexican government while attempting to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants into the US.

After anchoring at the GPS position of the first wreck, Mark and Larry jumped into the water with snorkeling gear in hopes of finding the wreck and marking its position with a buoy. Mark made numerous free dives to over 50 feet in depth but unfortunately, due to limited visibility in the water, was unable to located the wreck. We all soon agreed that the reported position might be off a bit so we motored a short distance to the coordinates of the other one. This time with Dave’s guidance from a hand held GPS receiver, Mark was able to locate the wreck on his first dive. Soon after, he had secured one of our dinghy’s anchor lines to a piece of the wreckage about 35 feet below the surface. Along with Larry and Karen, we quickly donned our SCUBA gear and spent an enjoyable 45 minutes exploring the wreck. The sunken ship had become home to a large variety of fish and we occasionally parted huge schools of them as we swan through the structure.

After another day in beautiful Caleta Partida, we motor-sailed 6 miles north along the island’s rocky shore and anchored alone in a delightful cove barely large enough for 2 boats. Our plan was to leave “Blue Rodeo” in the cove and travel by dinghy to nearby Isla Islotes, a couple of small, rocky islands where we were told we’d find a sizable seal lion colony. When we reached the island, we were greeted by scores of the cute and inquisitive animals and we quickly jumped into the water to swim amongst them. What a thrill! The sea lions treated us to quite a show as they performed their acrobatics around us. Most of the young ones seemed friendly, but a few of the 800 pound males made it known that we weren’t entirely welcome with high speed passes just a few feet from us and by barking, grunting and displaying their teeth as they surfaced. We kept a respectable distance and, when we started to feel the chill of the water, climbed back aboard our dinghy and zipped back to our floating home. As we continued the short distance to Isla San Francisco, our intended anchorage for the night, we reflected back on what and extraordinary day it had been. The Sea of Cortez is world famous for its rich and diverse marine life and we knew that the weeks to come would provide more opportunities to interact with its inhabitants. Ah, if only we had gills!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ups and Downs of Cruising

Our 3 day stay at beautiful Bahia de los Muertos included several long beach walks and snorkeling on the nearby coral reefs. One afternoon, our group of 8 took our dinghies ashore to a charming, modern hotel and restaurant. Before treating ourselves to a delicious lunch on the hotel patio, we toured the facility’s mezzanine that featured, of all things an enormous model train layout with scale model towns complete with working lights. We all felt our “inner child” surface as we stared in awe at the amazing display. After lunch, and before another snorkeling session to burn the calories we consumed, we had a nice conversation with 4 friendly folks in the restaurant lobby. Dennis, Susan and Bill were cruising sailors from La Paz and Brian was a La Paz resident who owns both a helicopter and Cessna Citation jet. They have flown in for lunch and a tour of the beautiful bay. We had a nice conversation with them about sailing and flying. We shared with Brian the fact that we were retired airline pilots and happy to have left that part of our lives behind. In a few days, this chance encounter would prove to be quite fortuitous for us.

One afternoon, an impromptu late afternoon beach party was organized and couples from most boats in the anchorage dinghied ashore to share appetizers and drinks. While meeting new friends and engaged in lively conversation, the subject came up as to the date of Anne’s birthday. Not wanting any special attention, she tried to bluff her way past the subject but our friend Lynn put 2 and 2 together and asked Mark to confirm that it was April 19th. When Mark glanced at his watch and realized that it was already that date and that he’d forgotten it, he became the subject of some good hearted ribbing. The next morning, Lee, Kathy and Bob from the boat “Sirocco” came by with a David Letterman “Top 10 List” of things Mark should do for forgetting the event. In the Letterman style, they had managed to come up with suggestions that made us laugh out loud like “ standing Anne’s watch (lookout) during passages for a whole year”.

We left Muertos later that day bound for our next stop, the anchorage at Puerto Ballandra, not far from the city of La Paz. Ballandra was another beautiful place with dramatic terrain and long, white sandy beaches. We enjoyed our time there snorkeling in the clear water and paddling our SUP surf boards. Ballandra, like many areas near La Paz is often subject to fierce southwesterly winds called Coromuels that can blow during the night. They are most common in spring and early summer when the waters on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula are still cool and the interior deserts begin to heat up. The temperature differential can fuel the extreme winds. These winds blew hard through our anchorage both nights that we spent there. Even though we were protected for the wind-driven swell, the gusts sent us swing to a fro and caused one of our snapped-on, cockpit sun covers to blow away during the night. The next morning, we were disappointed to see the important piece of shade gone and spent over an hour snorkeling around the bay looking for it. Knowing how strong the wind had blown and the potential for the fabric to fly a great distance, we eventually deemed the search futile.

From Ballandra, we motored the short distance to the city of La Paz and took a slip in Marina Palmira. This gave us the opportunity to give “Blue Rodeo” a fresh water bath and provided a base of operations from which to explore. Many of our cruising friends joined us and we shared dinners in the local restaurants and many long walks through town. We also took advantage of the opportunity to re-provision at what will be our last large shopping venue for a while.

It was here that our chance encounter with Brian, the helicopter and jet pilot proved fortuitous. A call for “assistance needed” went out one morning on the cruiser’s VHF radio “net” (sort of like an audio news paper/ want ads) for a commercial pilot to help fly a jet to California. Mark responded by radio and within moments, he and Brian remembered their previous meeting. After a brief discussion, it was agreed that Mark would fly as co-pilot and Anne would come along for the ride. This gave us a perfect opportunity to make a quick trip to the States to visit Mark’s family and pick up some boat parts and supplies. The trip north began in style when Brian picked us at the marina with his helicopter and gave us a scenic tour of the area on our way to the airport where the jet was parked. 4 friends of Brian joined us there for the first leg to San Diego where we cleared customs. The flight was smooth and enjoyable and Mark had a great time sharing memories of his corporate flying days with Brian. As it turns out, they had a number of common friends and acquaintances from those days From there we flew the remaining 40 minutes to the Van Nuys airport, just 8 miles from Mark’s mom’s house. After parking the jet there, Brian kindly drove us to the house where we arrived feeling a bit like we’d just be featured in an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”.

After returning to La Paz and finishing provisioning and projects, we topped-off our fuel tanks and headed out of the bay toward the spectacular desert islands to the north. Unfortunately, we had gone just 5 miles when Anne commented about a subtle change in our engine’s sound. Mark went below and quickly discovered that a threaded stud on one of the four motor mounts had broken. Disappointed, we had no choice but to return to the marina where Mark quickly removed the broken mount and set off into town with the help of a friendly, local sailor to try to find a replacement part. After 2 unsuccessful stops, they located a threaded metric bolt that was long enough to cut off and be used as a replacement. After 3 hours of sweaty labor, Mark had the motor mount repaired and we headed for the showers and a trip into town for dinner. As we write, we are preparing to depart La Paz once again and will be in remote areas for a while. Hopefully, our next blog will feature photos and stories of swimming and diving with the diverse marine life that the Sea of Cortez is know for.