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'Ola! Que Tal?

After spending November 2005 in Marina Mazatlan sprucing up and fixing up (and waiting for a certain someone to arrive at El Cid, and you know who you are), we headed out to explore the Mexican mainland.

We began at Matzatlan (N23.2, W106.5) and are now at Huatulco (N15.75, W96.11) having traveled about 850 nautical miles south-east down the majority of the Mexican mainland Pacific coast.

Our first stop, after a full day and night of sailing, was Isla Isabel; also known as “bird island.”

Isla Isabel is a sanctuary for an untold number of birds. On approach to the island, you see a cloud of birds in the sky before you see land.

There were thousands of birds in the air,

birds in the tree foliage,

birds in tree limbs,

birds under the trees,

birds on the rocks,

birds in the grass,

and birds on the beach.

Old birds and young birds.

Have we made our point? There were a whole lot of birds! They let us get up close, but still let us know whose home this was! Clysta and John, you would have loved it!

The birds are tolerant of humans because, being accessible only by private boat, Isla Isabel has few human visitors. Other than the cruisers who stop by (including Jacque Cousteau), there’s a rotating group of fisherman from San Blas who live in a few huts along one of the coves, and two students conducting bird studies.

Many years ago the Mexican government declared Isla Isabel a bird sanctuary and built a large study facility. For whatever reason, the building was either never finished or finished and not maintained. Dedicated researchers now live in tents in the decaying structure.

Even without governmental oversight, we were sensitive to the needs of the birds and the pups. We took the boys ashore only on an area of the island without nests and kept them at the surf zone.

Our next stop was San Blas, back on the mainland and made famous by the last poem written by Longfellow in 1882: “The Bells of San Blas.” (Did you sleep through that class in High School?)

The anchorage for San Blas is up a river, accessible by following a set of range markers to keep you in the deeper water in mid channel. However, you also need to call ahead to make sure that the deep water hadn’t moved relative to the range markers. In our case, we were told to “stay slightly to the right of the range markers."

The good part about anchoring up river is calm water. No swells, just the gentle flow of the river with its rising and falling tide

Looks picturesque, and it is very beautiful, but being that close to mangroves means a whole lot of bugs, especially no-see-ums, a bug so small you cannot see it. Debi is always a particular target. No-see-um bites appear as small hard lumps 24 hours after the bite. They are itchy beyond belief. If you don’t itch they will go away in a few days. If you scratch or even hit them you will have a nasty wound that takes weeks to heal. The only effective way we've found to deaden the itch is to cover the bump with nail polish. We had red fingernail polish on board (used to soften the white lamp in the compass), and after just 3 days, Debi began to look like she had the measles!

Our next stops were off the small coastal towns of Chacala, Ayala and Jaltemba, the first of many coastal mainland towns.

Mainland coastal towns differ from coastal towns on the Baja in one major respect: you can always find a long row of palapa (open air, thatched roofed) restaurants lining the beach.

Punta de Mita, La Cruz and Puerto Vallerta, were within Bahia de Banderas (Banderas Bay), the largest bay on the west coast of Mexico (its mouth is more than 20 miles wide and it has an indent of more than 15 miles). Banderas Bay is an international tourist area and here we began to see more gringo influence in the seaside towns. At Punta de Mita at the north end of Banderas Bay, there was an interesting mix of local fisherman pangas

next to large condominium projects.

We arrived in Banderas Bay in the middle of December, fully expecting to grab a slip at one of the 3 large marinas in the Puerto Vallarta area. But there was not a slip to be had anywhere! So, we found ourselves instead at anchor, with about 60 other boats, off the little town of La Cruz about 15 miles outside of PV. In the end, we were glad it worked out this way.

La Cruz is (for now) a typical small Mexican fishing town with cobble streets and little tiendas (stores), of which our favorite are the "Depositos" from which cold beer is sold.

La Cruz has convenient and inexpensive access to PV by bus ($1.50US, about 30 minutes). This enabled Debi to get in to the Puerto Vallarta Yacht Club to take her Ham license tests. And she passed all 3 (Morse code, Technician and General) in one morning. Thank you volunteers for being there to administer the test!

We also made several visits to Puerto Vallarta for sightseeing.

As with most other major Mexican cities, there was lots of civic artwork, although it was more modern and fanciful in PV than in other cities.

The cathedral was traditional, though.

We were glad to be anchored off the small town of La Cruz where the atmosphere was more relaxed, crowds non-existent and where we could meet with other “at anchor” cruisers for informal music nights.

But even this will be changing soon. They are already dredging in La Cruz to put in another full service marina – the 4th for Banderas Bay and at US prices as well. Why? The change in California state tax law regarding offshore deliveries (the old 3 month exemption now upped to 12 months) has increased the number of vessels waiting in Mexican waters for entry into US waters. Marinas are packed and prices are going up as a result. Another case of the law of unintended consequences: the California legislature in an effort to increase revenue for the state has provided increased revenue for the Mexican economy!

The south end of Bahia de Banderas is marked by Cabo Corrientes (Currents Cape), the Mexican mainland equivalent of California’s Point Concepcion. We had the confused seas we expected but just the perfect amount of wind for a nice early morning sail around the point. And from then on, the winds have been predictable land and sea breezes at the standard times, usually between 10 to 20 knots. The days have been sunny, in the mid 80 degrees Farenheit with the humidity in the low 80s. Nights get down to a chilly 70 degrees Farenheit. It has been very easy living weather-wise!

We stopped at several small coastal towns after rounding Cabo Corrientes: Ipala, Chamela, Paraiso and Careyes. Of these, our favorite was Chamela.

In Chamela, tourism and fishing live side-by-side. Not always an easy mix, as we discovered when we anchored over the net set out by these fishermen. (“OH! So that’s what the floating bleach bottle meant! Sorry guys!”)

We were in Chamela during Christmas week. All the lights and decorations so common in North America are fairly rare in Mexico. But we did enjoy this large (Mary and Joseph were each over one foot tall) outdoor crèche, complete with cacti, goats, roosters, chickens, a duck pond, a wishing well,

even . . . . !

Further down the coast were the two anchorages of Bahia de Tenacatita. On the outer anchorage is the small tourist town of Tenacatita.

Not large like Banderas Bay, but its anchorages do offer protection from the ever present Pacific Ocean swells. This beach, on the Pacific side of the Tenacatita point and its outer anchorage, gives a taste of just how large those swells can be.

The Tenacatita inner anchorage is much more protected and where many cruisers (50+ at times) gather to spend several weeks or months at a time.

There is no town on shore at the Tenacatita inner anchorage, just a long beach with a hotel at the far end. Cruisers hang out here and make the short journey to Barra de Navidad to reprovision and fuel as needed. The Tenacatita inner anchorage's major claim to fame (beyond being protected) is the entrance to a jungle river which you can explore by dinghy.

Ending up on the backside of the little village astride the outer anchorage.

It was on our own jungle tour that we met Daniele and his family, on vacation from the interior town of Queretaro. We have been corresponding with Daniele via email since then and have really enjoyed his insights, observations and stories!

Barra de Navidad was a real favorite of ours, but getting there the first time can be a bit nerve wracking. You enter a shallow lagoon, pass by the fish traps and anchor in about 10 feet of water at the back side of the lagoon. The channel with deeper water (about 15 feet) is extremely narrow and local panga owners have made a cottage industry of rescuing grounded cruisers at $100US a pop! We were advised to take a bearing on the left side of the roof of the building on the little island at the back of the lagoon.

There was no grounding for us, but this boat had some problems. Easier to put up a nav light than try to remove the wreck. But the fact that it was identified at all was pretty remarkable.

We loved the quiet little town of Barra,

particularly the French baker who came around in his panga each morning selling fresh baguettes and croissants (almond, chocolate and ham) and taking orders for other specialties to be delivered the following morning.

Continuing south, was the Bay of Manzanillo where there are several anchorages (Carrazel, Santiago, Miramar to name a few) and a marina at the posh resort community of Las Hadas where the movie “10” was filmed.

As for the Las Hades Marina, we decided to anchor outside the marina when we saw it was all close quarter med mooring and experienced whole lot of surge which required extra bracing for the floating docks. Who wants to pay US prices for surge?!

After getting our fill of the populated Manzanillo area, it was back to the small coastal towns. The next two being Maruata and Caleta de Campos.

And then another overnight sail before we arrived in the Ixtapa area, which include Isla Grande and Zihuatenejo (“Z-town” or “Z-what”).

We arrived in Zihuatenejo at the beginning of February. We were here to meet up with Karie from San Diego who graciously brought down a delivery of parts and supplies from Downwind Marine in San Diego. Thank you Karie, you are awesome!

That’s Karie on the left and Nancy on the right. This was a great dinner of tamales wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. We celebrated with a bottle of red wine, chilled and presented in a plastic water jug covered with tin foil! (Wish you could have been there too, Julia.)

We were all in Zihua at the same time to take part in the 5th annual Zihuatenejo Sail Fest, a cruiser get-together to raise funds for schools that teach Spanish to Indigenous Indian children. The Mexican government requires that all children be proficient in Spanish in order to attend public schools. No “SSL” in Mexican state-funded schools!

The Sail Fest is coordinated and organized by the good folks at Rick’s Bar. You can check out the school at:

Sail Fest activities include seminars where more experienced cruisers share their knowledge with newbies like us,

a for fun pursuit race,

a dinghy poker chase,

a chili cook-off,

a silent auction and raffles for prizes donated by local businesses,

a beach party for the children of the sponsor schools

with sandcastle competitions

and a gigantic tug of war

With everything topped off with a beautiful sail parade with over 60 boats. The parade was a major money raiser, as non-boaters were invited on board to participate in the parade for a contribution of just $250 pesos (about $25 US).

Serenity participated in the parade and had on display every flag and burgee we carry on board, even our quarentine flags!

Our last night in Zihuatenejo was a great dinner out with Karie and Nancy. Ending with an elegant and impressive Bananas Flambé!

And thank you so very much, Nancy, for that beautiful hand-painted plate!

Leaving Zihuatenejo, we had two small anchorages (Potosi-Petatlan and then Papanoa) before another all night sail to Acapulco.

Acapulco is a BIG city with several million people.

Some of our favorite residents of Acapulco were Martha and Angel (pronounced "Mart-ah" and "An-hel") who live on their boat "Eternauta" in the bay and offer valuable services to visiting cruisers as well as act as go-betweens for the fisherman who own moorings and the cruisers who rent them during the mild winter months.

Martha and Angel helped us find Max’s vet, cool shorts for Paul and David Valencia (David is pronounced "Dah-veed" in Spanish), who helped Paul work on the starter motor for the windlass and shared with us some music from his native Bolivia. You are wonderful people and we were blessed to have met you!

We hadn’t planned to stay in Acapulco very long, but our plans changed when Angel & Marta found Dr. Eusebio Gomez-Duque who could do surgery on Max’s knee.

Dr. Gomez is starting a foundation to treat stray and abandoned animals in Acapulco and he would appreciate any donations to his cause.

While Max was in the hospital we repaired and repainted the windless. David taught Paul how to replace the brushes in the windlass motor. Paul replaced a few O-rings and oil seals on his own and Debi sanded, primed and then repainted the whole thing.

We also checked out Acapulco, starting with the famous Acapulco Cliff Divers.

You can see the divers before the show swimming around the dive spot looking for and removing any trash in the water.

And they are very serious about nothing extra getting in the water. While we were there, work was in progress to renovate the viewing area around the cliffs.

To make sure nothing fell in the water, there were men with shovels and bags picking up stray and loose rubble.

Yes, they do have protection. But would you trust your life to polypropylene rope tied around your waist and secured to a piece of rebar? (Ah Mexico, the land of no liability and no workers comp laws.)

But back to the show. After clearing the water, the divers climb the cliff (barefoot and without protection).

At the top, 125 feet above the water, they pay their respects to the Madonna and wave to the crowd.

And then they take turns diving into a mere 9 feet of water. What a sight!

We also spent a fun day at Acapulco’s historical museum in the old San Diego Fort.

The grounds of the fort have been restored.

And each of the rooms within the fort have been devoted to a particular aspect of Acapulco’s history, including the first Indians who settled there, the role Acapulco played in Spanish trade with the Philippines and day-to-day life in the fort.

The fort was built by the Spanish to protect the goods Spanish galleons brought back from the Far East from marauding pirates like Sir Francis Drake. The fort is shaped like a pentagon and provides a stunning view of the Bay of Acapulco.

And, of course, Acapulco has a cathedral that we visited.

What Acapulco did not have was a lot of civic art. But the public buses make up for this!

As near as we have been able to figure out, each bus is privately owned. (David, who worked with Paul on the windlass motor, owns two buses.) Bus owners drive traditional routes and all collect the same fee ($4 pesos, or $.36US for non-air conditioned or $5 pesos or $.45US air conditioned) but everything else is left up to them. Drivers love to personalize their rigs and the results are spectacular with several thousand dollar airbrush scenes ranging from cute,

to cartoon,

to a tad bit risqué for this conservative country.

And when the sun goes down, there is always the neon!

It’s that little bit of risqué which has galvanized the residents of Acapulco to pass a law dictating that all buses will be painted in one of 4 colors, the color denoting the bus line. What a shame we say! At the very least, the unique paint jobs let us know what buses to avoid (like “Demon” which, when we were passengers the one and only time, had a drag race through town against another bus).

Acapulco is also the home of Mexico’s first yacht club: Club de Yates who will let cruisers use their dinghy dock for a mere $30US per day (extrapolate from that and you can imagine the slip fees).

So we decided to stay on a mooring outside the Yacht Club for a mere $80 pesos ($7.25US) per night. However, we did discover that we could come and go at the yacht club as long as we acted like we belonged there and flashed our San Jose Sailing Club name tags. (Thank you DeWayn!) Loved their showers too!

We enjoyed our time in Acapulco, but we were really glad when Max (and all his meds) came home from the hospital so that we could be on our way again!

From Acapulco, it was a 55 hour, 230 nautical mile sail to Puerto Angel, another small coastal town that mixes fishing with tourism.

As we post this update, we have moved further east along the coast to the Bahias de Huatulco ("Wah-tool-koh"); an area designated as a national marine park. We are still discovering this area so we will include it on the next update.

What are our overall impressions of the mainland Mexican Pacific Coast?

On the mainland, we first started meeting the Indigenous Indians who create and sell handicrafts in the town squares and along the beaches. And that has been a special experience for us.

In Chamela, we shared our lunch with Pablo. Pablo and his family live about 4 hours outside Acapulco. While at home, Pablo makes hammocks. He then travels up and down the coast selling his wares at various towns and villages.

Juana, makes bead jewelry. She and her children walk through the beachside restaurants selling their wares. Yes, Debi now has several necklaces and bracelets. More special to us was sharing cokes and the time to hear her story.

One of the things we have grown to appreciate about Mexico is the regionalism, particularly in food. On the Baja, flour tortillas were the usual fare. On the mainland, it is corn tortillas, often made on the spot. (Notice Coke in the bottle? It sure does taste better than cans.)

Ceviche is available in many places, but appears in many forms – from a topping on a tostada to a soup. Our favorite was as a soup in the small town of Papanoa. (And notice how salt is provided on a plate with limes rather than in a salt shaker. And you always get at least 3 different types of hot sauce.)

In Acapulco, we stuffed ourselves with Tacos al Pastor. A spit is stacked with rings of pineapple, layers of pork and then more rings of pineapple. The spit rotates in a vertical position in front of a brick and flame. As the outer edges are cooked, thin strips are cut off into tortillas along with a bit of the pineapple. Like gyros from Greece. And wicked good!

At this restaurant in Barra de Navidad, we had fresh cucumber and coconut served with a variety of hot sauces and beer.

Typically, everything is fresh made on the spot. So many beachside palapa restaurants provide hammocks for napping while you wait for your food to be prepared.

At the north end of the Pacific Coast it was Pacifico & Modelo beers. As we headed south, we found a new beer: Victoria.

Fresh fruits and vegetables have been much more available on the mainland. Sold from pick-up trucks in Barra de Navidad

or street side as in Santiago Bay.

In fact, provisioning has been much easier all around as a result of the major cities.

With a wide selection of wines, the most reasonably priced and best tasting from Chile.

We even found a Home Depot and Sears store in Acapulco!

Doggie cookies are still pretty rare, however, so the boys say “thank you very much Grandma W for sending those cookie recipes and cookie cutters to us.”

And we still prefer to visit local carcinerias (meat stalls) to buy beef for Max & Myer’s dinners. (Erick, you're on the internet!")

Other things remain the same no matter where in Mexico we are, as well.

Children are treasured and the family unit remains strong. Parents take their children to work and keep them occupied with their own activities while they work.

There are always children nearby ready to play with Max & Myer.

We still have to sign in with the local Capitania de Puerto (Port Captain).

We have not been in a marina since November (4 months ago). So we have become quite proficient at utilizing whatever is available for dinghy landing on shore. In San Blas, it happened to be the stern end of a navy boat.

At Barra de Navidad, the dinghy landing was next to the outdoor pool at a small hotel.

At the Sail Fest in Zihuatenejo, there were so many dinghies we needed a local, Nathanial, to coordinate landing and parking! (Nate also helped Paul carry the clean laundry.)

Dinghy landing at the little coastal towns can be quite an adventure when the surf is up!

We have also become quite proficient at scoring fuel and water from local panga owners.

And we try to keep our eyes open for pay phones to call home (and the Brat at the Union Hall).

The fishing hasn’t been that good. Debi has wrestled (and released) one booby and 3 toros.

Paul’s catches (rocks in the anchor) have also been put on our release program.

The distances between anchorages are much greater than up in the Sea of Cortez. Making for several overnight

and full day sails which bore the pups to no end.

But for us, the time flies by when we sail with the dolphins!

One of the most difficult things to get used to are anchorages beset by Pacific Ocean swells, as seen by the waves crashing on shore behind us – even in the sheltered anchorage of La Cruz in Banderas bay. We have become quite adept at putting out both bow and stern anchor to keep us facing into the swells.

Sometimes, to give Myer exercise, we just let him swim off the side of the boat rather than brave the surf trying to get him to shore in the dinghy. He has no fear and loves to take flying belly flop leaps off the dinghy.

On these days, poor Max, with his bum knee has had to content himself with chew treats on deck.

Another surprise has been how built up everything is, with lots of new construction going on. At Bahia de Marquez, around the corner from Acapulco, we were serenaded with dynamite blasts preparing the foundation for new buildings.

With a gigantic billboard on the beach to entice us to stay and buy a condo.

As an aside for the construction workers out there, the typical wall materials are Styrofoam sheets sandwiched in a metal framework, set in place inside the frame work and plastered over. With such a mild climate, that is about all the insulation they need!

Still, even with the most modern of improvements, there are local fishermen trying to maintain a living in the only way they know how.

We wonder how long they will be able to last. We do know that, for us, all the construction and development was a big disappointment. No quiet anchorages to get away from it all with no one on shore and only one or two other boats swinging on the hook. We are hoping that a move further south will bring those experiences back to us.

So what are our plans? We’ll visit the Huatulco area for a few more weeks (with a very special visiter we hope) and then we’ll make the final two day passage across the Tehuantepec to the Mexican border (a distance of about 300 miles). We’ll sail past Guatemala (no protected coastal anchorages and the only port, Puerto Quetzal, charges $1.50 US per foot per night to either be at anchor or in a slip and this is on top of the $160 US fee to enter and leave the country). Our first stop will be at Puerto del Sol in El Salvador. Here we will have the boat hauled for a new coat of bottom paint. And then we just might make the long sail to South America to spend the summer in Ecuador, returning to Central America in the more benign winter months of 2006.

Of course, we are cruisers and cruiser plans are etched in sand. Who knows what the wind will do to our plans?

Not all who wander are lost.

Copyright © 2006 Shaimas. All rights reserved. Last updated 18 March 2006