Thursday, December 13, 2012

3 Months from Home

Decorations for la Navidad are starting to appear
everywhere. The box at the base of this tree in the
San Blas town square was stuffed with handwritten
"carta para Santa"

December 9th -- I just noticed the date – it’s a 3-month marker for our trip. We left Seattle on September 9th. I find myself trying to keep an overall balance between being reflective and just being.

In hindsight I’d say the first month was characterized by exhilaration (pushing off, the wild ride, the ever changing conditions).

The second month I felt euphoric (hitting Mexico, the tropical climate, beaches, and rapid progress in language study).

The third month has been one of acclimation (to the day-to-day life of this kind of travel
-- decisions to move on or stay put, relative rolliness or calm of an anchorage, nurturing an appreciation of both nature and culture, and putting it in perspective when we’re a little tired of this or that).

Looking ahead, on some days a “year of travel” feels like a very long time. Certainly a long time to see one country, but maybe not too long to try to really experience another culture. We have both mentioned to one another at various times that we are glad we don’t have to hurry and that the pace of our travel is giving us a sense of Mexico and the spirit of the people that would be hard to know in a shorter time.

Things we notice are that Mexicans on the whole are open, with ready smiles and easy eye contact. The habitual greetings on the streets – Buenas dias, buenos tarde, o bueno noche – are universal, offered and reciprocated between all ages and demographics – which seems to break cultural barriers and make us, at least, feel welcome among strangers. When we can offer just a little bit more in Spanish, such as asking “Como esta ustedes?” or “A donde viva? Cuantos anos tienen los ninos? we are treated as a welcome friend. While our bad accents and grammatical errors are rampant, we are answered as if we were fluent. Our blank stares in return prompt slowing down and the patient use of preschool vocabulary.

Another cultural trait we notice and often comment on is the warmth and (apparent) health of the Mexican family. Across economic classes and geographics we see parents (often young looking couples) spending time with their kids… and enjoying it! Children are appreciated and included in whatever the parents (and often extended family) is doing, from eating in restaurants, walking the malecon, or playing in the surf. Somehow there is a good balance between parents attending to, smiling at, and interacting with their children, without being over-attentive or providing constant entertainment for them. Kids for their part, are along for the ride, and seem really good at making their own play, sans electronics. Whether from lack of accessibility or cultural tradition, kids here are not as “plugged in,” as we are used to seeing in the states. It’s nice.

Enough rambling… here’s where we’ve been and some highlights of the past week, as we came north from Bandaras Bay to explore the town of San Blas and several anchorages on the way.

This looked like the "perfect" private beach for a lunch stop.
A terrific bit of close reach sailing brought us around Punta Mita and about 35 miles north to Bahia Jaltemba. This is a series of sandy beaches, with tourist rich hotels, palapa restaurants, surfing and snorkeling concessions that are north of PV and of Sayulita. As we were headed in to check out the anchoring area that was prescribed in our guidebooks we looked to the right and both said, “That looks like the perfect beach…”  a small, sandy, deserted cove, with palms and lush tropical overhanging cliffs. It was noon, so we hung a right and found the depth and holding to be fine. Thirty minutes later we found perfection on “our beach,” and spent a couple hours swimming, relaxing, and taking it in. The water was back to being crystal clear, turquoise blue, and so inviting!

We anchored off Isla Pena, staying aboard rather than venturing to the hotel strip that night. The spot was rolly (what else is new?) and we seem to take turns being able to sleep through the swells. In the morning, I was awakened at pre-dawn by Lanham saying it was time to leave – we didn’t want to press our luck. During the night we had silently dragged anchor, closer to the island and the rocks off the island. The anchor had safely reset itself in 27 feet of water and we were holding fine. We have gotten more lax about using the computer anchor-watch alarm, partly because of false alarms (no fun) and partly because the holding is usually so reliable. We calmly, but quickly, pulled in the flopper stoppers and weighed anchor, getting a nice early start to head up to San Blas.

Some of the pangueros who guided us around their nets.

We mostly motored in very flat water, detouring around the fishing grounds in the early morning. We figured out the routine. The pangas have nets out, either between two boats or between a boat and a buoy. If our course is set to interfere with their net, they come racing out at full speed to guide us around the net with urgent hand signals and waving arms. We slow way down and follow their lead, yelling “Gracias!” as we finally pass safely. Quite entertaining… not something Sully (the autopilot) can do alone.

Early afternoon we arrived at the big flat water of Mantanchen Bay, where we had decided to anchor for our trip into San Blas. San Blas itself is another 4 miles around a point and up a long estuary. In addition to being known for its history as the main settlement and military hold of the Spanish colonialists, the anchorage at San Blas is known for its mosquitos and jejenes (biting no-see-ums). We dropped anchor about a mile out to keep the buggers at bay. We could have anchored up to 10 miles offshore, as this bay is Big and Shallow (about 20 square miles, all of it 20 – 30 feet deep). The shores are backed by lots of greenery – old coconut and banana plantations we read – and beautiful hills and mountains, the tallest about 8,000 feet. We inaugurated our full collection of bug screens – covers for all the hatches – just another fringe bene that came with Solar Wind, which we now fully appreciate.

The beachfront at Mantanchen Bay is populated with miles and miles of thatch-roofed palapas… almost all rather eerily deserted. In the evening, we saw a light and smoke coming from one and made our way in by dinghy for a cold beer and some ceviche. A couple other tables were occupied with locals, and the very effective method for deterring the jejenes was the smoking bucket of coconut husks that they position at the foot of your table. We met the madre de familia Rodriguez, who cheerfully cooked us eggs for breakfast the next morning, though she seemed not to expect customers. She was there on Friday morning it seemed, to get ready for the weekend when she said many people would come to the beach. She assured us it was fine to leave the dinghy on the beach all day, which we did with no problems. Dinghy wheels are the way to go, allowing us to pull it way up out of the tidal range.

Friday, we walked up the dirt road from the beach, choosing from the two dozen roadside stands for a refreshing “coco frio” and some of the local specialty, pan de platano (banana bread). We both enjoyed our first coconut milk, straight from the hull, then watched as our vendor split the nut, and spooned out the soft fresh meat. We carried it back to the boat and toasted it on the stovetop – yum!

We caught a bus. We love the Mexican public transport (at least along the coastal highway 200). They run LOTS of high speed, early model buses, with layers of aluminum nailed to the floor and roadway peeking through. The windows and doors remain open and polyester curtains blow in your face as you race around the turns. The bus stops are… wherever the passengers want to hop on or off. Pay your 12 pesos ($1), change is made efficiently by the driver, and off you go. Ahh, if only Seattle Metro could get it figured out!

You do have to watch out for the 8 inch scorpions at the bus stops!
So we caught a bus for the 6-mile ride into San Blas, getting off at the central plaza. Had a totally pleasant self-guided tour around town, finding the old cathedral that housed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “the Bells of San Blas,” published posthumously. We saw the new cathedral, the cultural center, and walked through a very lovely “petit hotel,” in a historic building. The Huichol Indians sell many of their arts around the plaza. Small beaded articles are a specialty. We had a beer and visited the book exchange at “BillyBob’s Cantina” known for its (very depressed) 60 year old crocodile in the courtyard (so sad!)

The courtyard of la Hacienda Flamingo -- an old and refurbished hotel in
San Blas Cento

The Flamingos front door knocker

Two hotel guests!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Bells of San Blas

One of the characteristics that dominate in San Blas is the variety of modes of transport used in the narrow cobbled streets. I wish I’d had the chance to do a photo-essay of people getting around the town. Bicycles were the most common, for young and very! old. Helmets were fairly popular, but clearly not required, and seldom strapped under the chin. Many bikes had wooden seats constructed for kids to ride behind the handlebars, and tiny ones who looked like they had just learned to sit up looked very comfortable helping to steer.  Some parents were toting one kid on the front and one on the back. There were three-wheelers, both motorized and peddled, motorbikes with cargo loads, and our favorite, the pick-up trucks with rockers or straight-back wooden chairs lined up in the back for the abuelas y abuelos, riding proudly through town. We also loved the mysterious-looking white delivery truck with its large hand-painted black lettering “PRECACION! EQUIPMENTO TECNICO!” You know they had some special stuff.

For our second day of sightseeing in the area, we made an appointment for a panga ride up the Rio Tovara, a “jungle tour,” that we had read much about. We showed up at 8 am for our early morning start, only to find out from the nice hombre cleaning up that it was 7am. We have been crossing back and forth between the two time zones along this part of the coast, not bothering to worry about the hour difference. This day, it meant we had our coffee at 4:30 am before leaving the boat at daylight. Our driver showed up early and by 7:30, Juan was taking us up river on a most relaxing and beautiful ride. He drove a quiet Honda 4-stroke, had a keen eye for the wildlife and birds that we might have missed, and artfully stopped the boat and idled so we could get pictures. He taught us the Spanish names of many of the birds. Most common were the Anhingas (we thought he was saying “Kingas” until we looked it up later) They were awkward flyers, but looked like great swimmers, and would open their wings to dry them, displaying their beautiful patterned feathers. Others we saw included hawks, herons, white egrets, magpies, and several smiling crocodiles. The fauna changed dramatically as we went from the salt-intense mangroves at the beginning toward to eventual fresh water spring at the end of the ride. At the turn around spot there is a small restaurant (not open in early morning) and swimming area (they just warn you to swim within the pen to keep the crocodiles from bothering you). We traveled the 45 minutes back and thoroughly enjoyed our jungle trip! Here are a few of our best photos.

From our anchor
Our next anchorage was a smallish bay off the town of Chacala. We joined 3 or 4 other cruising boats for a couple of nights. It’s a beach town, with a growing tourist economy, but not yet overgrown. 

Here are some around the town scenes from Chacala:
A wall much older than the trees

Up the main street from the beach

A beautifully maintained elementary school yard

Tree in front of the church

One of the many rooms for rent

Tidy residences 

with signs of the season
Lots of up-scale accommodations seen on a walk through the town, and internet at the beachside restaurants, but also fisherman delivering their morning catch at the pier with no interest in marketing to gringos, and local teenagers showing up after school to ride their boogie boards in the surf. Sunday afternoon brought more Mexican families than touristas to the beach. A group of young people gathered in a circle with some musicians for a type of spontaneous copoera, clapping and chanting. They looked happy and like they were having fun – we didn’t join in, but thought that Anna and Ellie would have been right there with them! We did do some great body surfing, riding big waves and coming up with sand in our hair, ears and swim suits. Chacala was a good stop and we had a nice beach afternoon. Some beach scenes... wish you were here too...

A final highlight of our week’s venture north was sailing along with two gray whales. They were about the size of the boat. We had been motoring with the jib out (making water and topping up the batteries) when we spotted one. We turned off the motor and they seemed comfortable going along at our speed (about 3 kts) while showing us their blows, fins and tales. Magical. Majestic. Mesmerizing.

but hard to capture on camera

Our freezer is finally emptying. We hadn’t caught a fish since the Baja Peninsula. We trolled two lines on our way south from Chacala and caught two small fish! We don’t know the variety, but do recognize them as the same kind that the pangeros were bringing in (from nets) to Chacala. We BBQ’d the 4 small fillets -- quite a few bones, but a texture of tuna. Nice to be eating from the sea again.

Another overnight stop at Punta Mita (there is something very relaxing about a familiar port) and then we headed back to the marina at La Cruz. We have gotten a slip and our exhaust pipe has arrived! Tomorrow we will install it, get caught up on laundry, groceries, and a couple nights’ sleep without the giant waterbed underneath us.

Next up?
We are revamping our plans as we continue to read up on the southern destinations. We think we may only go as far as Tenacatita Bay, maybe to the small town of La Manzanilla at Christmas. We think we prefer the drier, more rugged, less populated anchorages that we expect we will find in the Sea of Cortez. The truth about going far south is that with our itinerary, we will have to come north again – mostly into the wind, adding distance. We will see, it’s day to day living, but we both like to have a few scenarios in our minds. To that end, we have added the structure of a couple of firm dates. Melinda is going to come to Seattle for a week at the end of January (anyone want to fly to La Paz and hang out with Lanham and the boat). My folks are moving from their home of 50+ years so I want to help a bit. And we will meet Anna and Ellie in La Paz the first week of March, for a family Spring Break.

Thanks for your messages and for surviving the winter weather whatever it may be where you are! Happy Holidays!! We'll be in touch. Love, M & L


  1. What a great blog entry!! Such a wonderful combination of descriptions, experiences, thoughts, observations and heart. Miss you but always feel closer reading these and continue to be so happy for you and all that you're doing! You're certainly making the most of each day and this amazing time. Thanks for sharing it with us. Love you, J

  2. You both are looking so good! Love, Weeze

  3. What incredible experiences you recount from your wind driven adventure! We missed you all at Vodka Latke. Sending hugs from 6016 which expands as we come to know its secrets. xo n m a & l

  4. I have loved following your journey! Your text is so descriptive and interesting and the accompanying pictures enhance your story. So happy you two can take this time to see the world - thanks for sharing it with the rest of us!

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and many blessings as your travels continue in 2013!

    Love, Susan