Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Los Cabos to Ensenada

We waited patiently for that weather window and it finally materialized on June 19th. We departed San Jose del Cabo at 0830, motoring into a 3 or 4 knot headwind under a gloriously sunny sky. It's about 17 miles from San Jose to San Lucas, and during that time the wind increased to about 17 knots and the sea temperature plummeted from 82 to 70 degrees.

We rounded the point at San Lucas around noon in a building breeze. By the time we reached Cabo Falso, about 4 miles further on, the wind was a steady 27 knots on the nose, with gusts to something over 30. Staying close inshore, we rounded Falso and headed northward along the coast and by 1500 the breeze had dropped to about 12 knots and the rough seas were replaced by easy westerly swells.  Late in the afternoon the breeze dropped even further, and we motored for the next twenty four hours over glassy swells and almost calm wind.

Route from Los Cabos to Turtle Bay.

We arrived at Bahia Santa Maria, about 200 miles from San Jose in the early afternoon of June 20th and anchored about half a mile off the beach in the northwest corner of the bay. We were hoping to go ashore here and explore the beaches and nearby sand dunes, but there was enough of a southerly swell running to make a dinghy landing untenable.  Instead, we got the anchor up and headed out of the bay and into a favorable wind. We sailed all afternoon and into the night until the wind shut off completely around 2100. We arrived at Turtle Bay at dawn on June 22nd. It was a pleasant, quiet day and we spent it catching up on sleep while we waited for Enrique to deliver some fuel, which he did in the late afternoon.

The favorable conditions we had been enjoying were forecast to end soon, so we got underway just after sunrise on June 23rd. Choosing to go up the east side of Isla Cedros, we motored into a very light headwind and flat seas as far as the Dewey Channel, which lies between Isla Natividad and the mainland. There we encountered rough, confused seas until we reached the southern tip of Cedros which provided protection from the northwest wind and seas. The easy conditions lasted until we reached the northern tip of the island. Once beyond the lee of the island we had 20-25 knots of wind on the nose and 5 foot seas for a couple of hours, then the wind moderated but the swells remained big and steep. We slowed to 4 - 5 knots for the next 50 miles to keep the boat from pounding in the unfriendly seas. Throughout the passage from Cedros to Sacramento reef we were bucking a current that sometimes reached a knot and a half.

On the morning of June 24th we passed about 10 miles west of Sacramento reef and found the counter current here to be around half a knot. The rest of the passage to Punta Banda consisted of motoring into 3 to 8 foot seas and overcast skies. We rounded the point around noon on June 25th. With a fair wind, we doused the engine and sailed the last ten miles to Ensenada where we took a berth on gangway A in the Cruiseport Marina. The plan is to stay here until after the Fourth of July holiday, then head north to San Diego for a few days.

Turtle Bay to Ensenada

A few miles south of Punta Banda we were joined for a few minutes by a pod of Orcas. I was so fascinated looking at them, I didn't get many photos.

These are females. Males have taller, more vertical dorsal fins.

While here in Ensenada we were immediately among friends and have been spending our time socializing and cleaning up the boat after the long bash from Los Cabos. A couple of days ago I decided to put a couple of coats of varnish on the cap rails. The first coat went on the starboard rail perfectly, but today, about an hour after I finished putting the second coat on, a squall passed through, dropping a sprinkling of rain. I thought my varnish job was ruined but luckily it survived intact.

Ensenada is our last destination in Mexico, so I've been taking some time to reflect on all we learned about this beautiful country on this voyage. We saw so many beautiful sights and enjoyed the company of lots of friends, both Mexicans and foreigners, it's hard to name one specific thing that stands out as special. I guess the main impression that I'm taking with me is that Mexico is getting better. The people seem to have a continuously improving standard of living. The roads, schools, cities and infrastructure all seem to be getting better. Economic activity and industry are vastly better than they were when we cruised here aboard Honcho five years ago. But one thing that hasn't changed is the wonderfully friendly people of Mexico. In my opinion they are among the nicest in the world.

When we arrived here in Ensenada we learned of the recent supreme court decisions in the USA regarding health care and gay marriage. Good health care available to everyone, and tolerance for diversity among our people are worthy goals, so it's a nice feeling to know that we are returning to a better USA.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waiting for a Window

We arrived at Puerto Los Cabos Marina a couple of hours before sunset on June 12th and were assigned to our old berth at the end of gangway L. The daytime temperatures here have been hovering in the high eighties, with light southerly winds and intense tropical sunshine every day. The humidity index has also been in the eighty percent range which makes life aboard a bit sticky and sweaty. So I broke out the air conditioner which brought the temperature and humidity inside the boat down to 78 degrees and 50% humidity. The air conditioner is a little 5,000 BTU window unit that fits neatly in the companionway, and stores in the starboard cockpit locker when not in use. It has made life bearable here while we wait.

The only problem with the air conditioner is that it makes you want to stay inside the boat from about noon to dusk.

San Jose is rapidly turning from a town to a city. In 2010 the town had a population of approximately 70,000. Combined with the tourist mecca of Cabo San Lucas a few miles down the road, this area hosted over 900,000 hotel guests in 2011. I remember visiting here in the 1970's when San Jose was a little town that no one went to and Cabo was just becoming popular as a sportfishing destination.

Marina Puerto Los Cabos. 

Here's something for the history buffs out there. Back in 1847, during the Mexican American War, a force of 24 American marines and sailors landed with a 9 pounder carronade and took up a position in the old mission San Jose. There, with a reinforcement of twelve men from California, they fought off an assault by a Mexican force under the orders of one Capitan Pineda Munoz. A couple of months later a larger Mexican force returned and laid siege to the American outpost. The seige lasted about a month and was finally lifted when a strong American naval force arrived. Nowadays we don't remember much about our 19th century conflicts, except for the Civil War, and a bit about the War of 1812. At least I've never seen anyone doing a Mexican American War reenactment.

9 Pounder Carronade. It fired a 4" diameter cannonball. As far as I can determine, this is a British gun dating form the early 1800's, but it's probably fairly similar to the one used at San Jose.  Photo courtesy of Gunstar.co.uk

As you can tell, we've had some time on our hands while we wait for that weather window to open, but it's been fun meeting new and interesting fellow cruisers. A couple of days after we arrived the pretty little Eastward Ho 24, named Molly, with Eric and Christine aboard tied up on our gangway. They sailed Molly down from Portland, Oregon and spent the season cruising in the Sea of Cortez. They left San Jose on Tuesday, June 16th, bound for Mag Bay, where we hope to catch up with them in a few days.
The Eastward Ho was designed by the venerable Walter McInnis and is a pretty salty seagoing vessel.
The weather forecast is for light southerly breezes for the next few days, so we will head out early tomorrow morning for Mag Bay.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

La Paz to San Jose

Fishermen head out at dawn from Los Muertos.

We planned to leave La Paz around June 6th but circumstances got in the way. The exhaust mixing elbow on the engine was showing signs of corrosion so I removed it for an inspection and, sure enough, it had deteriorated to the point where it could have started leaking salt water onto the engine.

Made of stainless steel, the elbow injects seawater from the heat exchanger into the exhaust, which is why water comes out of the exhaust pipe of your engine. The water is injected through the small tube and mixes with the exhaust gas in the larger tube. Photo credit: Marine Power Ltd.
I did not have an elbow among my spare parts so the only option was to repair the old one by welding up the areas where corrosion threatened the integrity of the part. It took about ten days to get it back from the welder, but when it was finished it was as good as new. While waiting for the elbow to be repaired another yacht transport ship arrived and Rob Cross and I delivered two more boats to be hoisted on deck and shipped to Canada.

The Tiberborg's deck was already half full of boats when it arrived from Panama. In La Paz eight more boats were loaded. It's becoming more popular to ship boats to Canada instead of bashing roughly 2,000 nautical miles up the coast, or sailing the clipper route.
Notice the diver in the water. His job was to position the slings under the boat. The last time we loaded a boat on a ship, there were two divers with SCUBA tanks. This fellow just had a mask and fins, yet he worked faster than the first two guys.
The Tiberborg's slings were lengthened to accommodate this 45' catamaran. I was told that the cost to ship a 35 foot monohull to Chemainus, BC is around $12,000. That might sound expensive, but if you factor in wear and tear on boat and crew, provisions, fuel, etc. for sailing there, its pretty reasonable. Chemainus is located on Vancouver Island, about 50 miles north of the city of Victoria.

By the time the elbow project was done, hurricane Blanca was bearing down on the Baja Peninsula. At this time of year hurricanes usually fizzle out or head out to sea before they reach Baja, so I wasn't concerned about Blanca. The folks that experienced last year's hurricane Odile were pretty worked up about it though. So throughout the harbor, people were taking down canvas biminis and awnings, securing dinghies and lashing down anything that looked like it might fly away in a wind. I didn't get concerned until I saw the local restaurants being stripped of sun covers and awnings. So we secured Finisterra for storm conditions, doubled up our dock lines and made plans for a hurricane party the night before Blanca was scheduled to hit La Paz.

Storm track for Blanca. In the last 24 hours before it arrived in La Paz it was downgraded to a tropical storm. Intrepid mariners that we are, we refused to cancel the hurricane party in spite of the downgrade.
Sylvia & Tom of S/V Cinnabar enjoying fresh blackened yellowtail at the hurricane party.

Saturday, June 6th, the weather was hot and still, with humidity hovering at about 80%. Sunday afternoon the wind began to blow out of the east, rising to about 20 knots.  By that night we were seeing a few gusts to 30 knots. The predawn hours of Monday brought the heaviest winds, with gusts up to 47 knots. We expected heavy rain but, surprisingly, none fell. Instead the air was full of fine dust and by the end of the storm Finisterra was covered with a thick coat of Baja real estate. Monday afternoon the storm left town and we surveyed the damage around the waterfront. In the marina there was little to report except a blown out window in a restaurant and one of the dock cleats that Finisterra was tied to came adrift. Closer to La Paz, a couple of boats broke free from their anchors and at least one fetched up on the beach on the Mogote Peninsula. Once the wind abated we got busy and washed the grime off the boat and made final preparations to head for San Jose del Cabo, about 150 miles to the south, our jumping off point for the trip up the peninsula to California. We departed on Tuesday morning, June 9th.

Our first stop was Puerto Balandra (again!) where we planned to do some snorkeling. The night before we left we went out for dinner with friends, and I picked up a mild case of food poisoning. So instead of swimming, I spent the day recovering. The next day I was feeling better and we left Balandra, bound for Ensenada de Los Muertos (Bay of the Dead). Over the last few years the local hotel operator there has been struggling to get the name of the place changed to Bahia de Los Suenos (Bay of Dreams) and I think the new name is beginning to stick.

We arrived a little before sunset on June 10th. The water was clear enough that I could see the anchor hit the sandy bottom 22 feet below the surface. For the next two days we snorkeled among the extensive coral beds on the southwest side of the bay, marveling at the variety and colors of sea life there.

Los Muertos is a beautiful bay with a rocky point to the northeast and a long sandy beach. You can just make out the coral beds in the southwest corner of this shot. Conditions here were perfect for snorkeling, with hot temperatures and plenty of sun. When we tired of snorkeling we hiked the short distance up to the Hotel del Suenos and sipped margaritas and swam in the pool.

On June 12th Finisterra departed Los Muertos at 0300,  and motored in calm wind and flat seas to the marina in San Jose del Cabo where we are making final preparations for the next leg of our journey.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Southern Sea of Cortez

Isla San Francisco

We didn't spend as much time up the Sea as we would have liked, but we savored every minute of it. Our travels took us from La Paz to Puerto Balandra, Isla Partida, San Evaristo, Isla San Francisco, Bahia Ballena and then back to La Paz by way of Puerto Balandra again.

Puerto Balandra.
The southwest cove offers good protection from Coromuels and has the best rocks and reef for snorkeling.

Puerto Balandra is our favorite place in the Sea. It's only a few miles from downtown La Paz but we have anchored there many times in tranquil isolation and enjoyed spectacular sunsets, great swimming and snorkeling, and fun exploring its beautiful beaches and mangroves. We anchored in the southwest corner of the bay on May 11th and spent a couple of days by ourselves swimming, snorkeling and exploring. Later we were joined by friends aboard Telitha and Ali'i'Kai, so the evenings were spent aboard one boat or another for sundowners and socializing. After a couple of days the other boats headed out toward Ensenada Grande while we stayed behind and had another day of solitude before heading north ourselves.

We had a beautiful sail from Balandra to Ensenada Grande, with 10 knots of breeze on a close reach and a flat sea. By early afternoon the wind had veered to the northwest, so we sailed into the bay on port tack and anchored not far from our friends aboard Telitha and Ali'i'Kai. The next day the beautiful Schumacher 52, Cinnabar joined our group in the north lobe of the bay. That evening the party was aboard Finisterra. In the late afternoon the wind backed around to the southwest, a sure sign of a Coromuel, so by 2130 our friends reboarded their own boats and we secured for what could be an interesting night. We had anchored on the north side of the bay because the forecast was for northerly winds. But the north side offers no protection from the southwest, which is the direction that Coromuels blow from. By midnight the wind was blowing about 20 knots out of the southwest accompanied by short, steep southwest swells. I stood a midnight to 0300 watch in the cockpit, ready to get the anchor up and relocate to a more protected spot further inside the bay if the situation worsened. But by 0300 the wind was down to about 12 knots and the only discomfort came from the lumpy southwest waves that lasted until dawn.

Ensenada Grande is on the west side of Isla Partida. We anchored in the northern cove for a couple of days, then moved to a spot just outside the small cove in the southeast part of the bay. You can see that the wind in this photo is blowing out of the north, which is the usual condition for springtime in this region.
Telitha at anchor in Puerto Balandra. 

The next morning we moved the boat further into the bay where we had some protection from the Coromuel winds. Later that day Cinnabar joined us and Tom, co-skipper of the boat dove into the water with his spear gun and shot a snapper and a goatfish, both of which Sylvia, the other co-skipper, served blackened that afternoon. I pulled my last bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio out of our wine locker for the occasion.  After four days in Ensenada Grande we got the anchor up and sailed for San Evaristo, about 28 miles away on the Baja mainland.

Dinner aboard Cinnabar.

Around midday Cinnabar, which had started half an hour after Finisterra rolled past us and anchored with our other friends in the main part of the bay. There was room for us to anchor near Cinnabar when we arrived half an hour later, but instead we chose a spot where we've anchored before in the northeast corner of the bay next to Punta San Evaristo. This is a snug little cove with steep hills coming down to the water's edge. The snorkeling here and around the point is excellent and the surrounding hills offer good protection from all but south and southeast winds.

Cin rolls Fin on the way to Evaristo

Bahia San Evaristo
The white area is actually salt pans. In southerly winds its safe to anchor off the gravel beach north of the pans.

We stayed in Evaristo a few days then it was time for us to part company with our friends. Telitha and Ali'i'Kai were headed north to San Carlos for the summer. Cinnabar planned to spend some more time in the central Sea and we were headed south to beautiful Isla San Francisco. We usually shy away from buddy boating, but hanging out with Joe & Kitty (Telitha), David & Toni (Ali'i'Kai), and Tom & Sylvia was really a lot of fun so we were a bit sad to part ways with them.

Isla San Francisco is only about nine miles from Evaristo and, with hardly a breath of wind out of the north, we motored to another of our favorite anchorages, the Hook on the south side of the island.
Isla San Francisco
We anchored in the south part of the bay about 100 yards NE from the tip of the hook.
Finisterra shares the anchorage with the 163 foot M/V Calex. It was interesting to watch the crew back this mega yacht into the shallow water and anchor bow and stern about 100 yards from the beach. 

The beautiful 82 foot R/V Martin Sheen spent a night at Isla San Francisco.
This vessel is operated by the Sea Shepherd organization and is in the Sea of Cortez on a mission to help save the endangered Vaquita dolphin.

We stayed three days at Isla San Francisco hiking, snorkeling and exploring. There were a couple of other boats in the anchorage when we arrived but they left and we thought we'd have the place to ourselves. But before long the Calex and Martin Sheen joined us. A rather incongruous assembly of conservationism, conspicuous consumption and cruising sailors.

The hiking on Isla San Francisco is spectacular.
Lisa poses before conquering the summit.
Dramatic cloud formation at sunrise.
We departed Isla San Francisco on May 22nd, bound for Bahia Ballena. It's a pretty set of three small coves on the west side of Isla Espiritu Santo about 20 miles away. There was no wind so we motored over a flat sea and anchored in the shelter of the bluffs on the northern side of the bay. No sooner did we get the hook down than we were swarmed by flies and bees. I quickly fitted bug screens over the hatches, but it was obvious that we would find no refuge from the insects at least until sunset, so we raised the anchor and proceeded another 12 miles south to bee-free Puerto Balandra.

At Puerto Balandra we relaxed and swam and enjoyed the afternoon and evening in solitude. Around 0400 the next morning, KABOOM!, we were awakened by a massive thunderclap.  And for the rest of the morning we watched as a thunderstorm rolled over us close enough to make us put phones and I-pads in the microwave. One bolt of lightning struck close enough that it stunned our wireless wind instruments, but later I was able to restart them, so no damage was done. By noon the rain had stopped and the lightning had moved off the the east and we got the anchor up and sailed the last few miles to Marina Palmira, where we've been slowly planning and provisioning for the long trip up the Baja coast to California.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Three Weeks in La Paz

Finisterra took a berth in Marina Palmira on April 24th where I had planned to do some routine engine maintenance, the most important of which was to service the fuel injectors. Rob from Cross Marine did the injector work and gave the engine a complete inspection while I replaced filters, tightened belts and generally puttered around the engine. In the course of his inspection Rob discovered a slight leak in the raw water pump. Fortunately I had a rebuild kit in my spare parts cache and within a day or two that job was done.
La Paz  with Marina Palmira in the foreground. It's a nice hike up a rocky trail from the marina to the top of the hill where these pictures were taken. 

La Paz is the only city on the gulf coast of Baja California. It boasts a population of around 250,000 including nearby suburbs. Mulege, Loreto, and Santa Rosalia are also located on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula, but I categorize them as towns or villages with populations of  4,000, 15,000 and 12,000 respectively.

Because of its location La Paz is the place where cruisers gather before heading up the Sea. Of course there is a fairly large contingent of cruisers who have become more or less permanent residents of this area, some of whom anchor out in the channel between the city and the El Mogote Peninsula, which lies between La Paz and the Sea. Hurricane Odile ravaged the Baja Peninsula last year, passing just to the west of the city and wreaking havoc ashore and among the boats in the anchorage. As we sailed down the channel on our approach to Marina Palmira, we could see evidence of Odile's fury in damaged buildings and torn up docks in the marina. Odile did almost one and a quarter billion dollars worth of damage in Mexico and took over a dozen lives.

The pilings in the upper left are all that's left of the docks at the entrance to Marina Palmira. Notice the boats in the storage yard.

One day I helped deliver a boat out to the Tramper, a heavy lift ship that was anchored in the bay. The Tramper was on a voyage delivering yachts from one place to another. After its stop in La Paz, it was headed to Ensenada, then British Columbia.

As far as I know, the Tramper picked up three boats in La Paz

This 40' racer/cruiser was picked up before our boat.
The boat comes alongside the ship, a couple of handlers descend the jacob's ladder and the slings are lowered aft of the boat. Then a pair of divers, which you can see holding the slings in this shot, align them under the boat, making sure they aren't touching the shaft, prop or rudder. 
Before the boat is hoisted aboard the ship, they do a test lift to make sure it hangs in the slings the way they want it. If all is good, the boss gives the order to load the boat.

Our little boat was up next. It has spent many years cruising in Mexico and is headed home to Canada for a rest and refit. It got shoe-horned between the dark hulled C&C and the white boat with the black stripe.
With the job done, we climbed aboard a panga and headed back to shore.
La Paz is usually a hot place this time of year, with average daytime temperatures of 92 degrees under a usually blazing sun. But over the last couple of weeks we've enjoyed temps in the low eighties with cool Coromuel winds blowing almost every night. It's made hiking and exploring the city quite bearable and we've enjoyed the place more than ever. Of course, friends are what really make a place enjoyable and we've spent a good deal of time socializing with great people.

With Finisterra well provisioned, fueled and ready to go, we're heading out tomorrow for the islands to the north of us. The rough plan is to spend a day or two in Puerto Balandra, then a few days in the coves of Islas Espiritu Santo and Partida before heading further north to Isla San Francisco and beyond.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Passage to La Paz

As usual, we enjoyed Mazatlan more than we expected to. Every time we visit this city we find new and interesting places to visit, and meet new and interesting people . This place is working its way up toward my top five favorite places to visit in Mexico. But all things come to an end, and our time in Mazatlan ended at 1100 on Monday, April 20th as Finisterra cleared the breakwater at El Cid, and headed northwest along the mainland coast.

The forecast was for light northwesterly winds so we motored in that direction, keeping about 10 miles off the coast, with the idea that we would be in a good position to make a quick passage across the Sea once the wind veered around to North. We wanted to pass to the north of Isla Cerralvo and avoid the Cerralvo Channel, which has earned a reputation in my mind as a frequently unpleasant stretch of water.

By dusk we were some 50 miles northwest of Mazatlan, still motoring over flat seas in 2-3 knots of wind. Later that night we bent our course further toward the west, expecting the wind to shift north and build to a forecasted 15 knots. That shift didn't happen and we continued across the Sea under power through a beautiful night with a sliver of waning moon hanging low over the western horizon.

We motored along all the next day over the same glassy seas. By late afternoon, Isla Cerralvo was off our port bow. About ten miles before we passed the rocks that lie off the northern tip of the island, a wind came up out of the south. It wasn't what I expected but I was glad to have it and quickly unrolled the jib, thinking that if it lasted more than ten minutes I'd hoist the main and we'd have a nice close reach across the north edge of the Cerralvo Channel. Instead the wind, a Coromuel, piped up to 25 knots and veered SW and then WSW, bringing a lumpy head sea with it and erasing my thoughts of a pleasant passage through the San Lorenzo channel.
The San Lorenzo Channel lies between Isla Espiritu Santo to the north and the Baja Peninsula to the south.

San Lorenzo is a fairly short and narrow channel with hazards to navigation on both sides, and it didn't take long to get through it in spite of the Coromuel wind and rough seas. I knew that once we passed through the channel the wind would back around to SW and continue all night. So as soon as we were well clear of the channel we turned and headed southeast to Puerto Balandra. The wind was still blowing 25-30 as we approached the bay in pitchy darkness. We could see the lights of a few boats anchored there, but as we approached closer we were able to pick our way between them and came to anchor at 2330 in the southwest corner of the bay, about 100 yards off some low bluffs that offered good protection from the waves, if not the wind.

With the big Rocna anchor and 120 feet of chain down in 20 feet of water, we had a quick dinner and a glass of wine. Then Lisa turned in and I sat for a while in the cockpit watching the stars twinkling in the moonless night. I kept an eye on the GPS as well, just to make sure the anchor was doing its job, then turned in myself around 0100.  I was up again at 0300 and 0600, monitoring the GPS but the anchor, as always, kept us in place.

The next two days were spent in lazy solitude in Puerto Balandra, the Coromuel wind blew both nights, giving way each day to lighter northerly winds and overcast skies. After two peaceful days we got the anchor up and headed into Marina Palmira in La Paz, where we'll stay a couple of weeks.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Copper Canyon

Since we first visited Barranca Del Cobre (Copper Canyon) back in 2011 we've wanted to return and explore more of that fascinating place, so we started planning the trip as soon as we arrived in Mazatlan. We were joined by friends Jamie and Elaine of S/V Tardis and boarded a bus for Los Mochis on April 9th for the first leg of our journey to the high country.

Express buses in Mexico can be luxurious. Ours was equipped with individual monitors built into the big reclining seats and offered a variety of entertainment options as well as a USB charging port. As we boarded we were each handed a bottle of water and lunch bag with a sandwich and cookie.  It reminded me of an elementary school field trip. The landscape between Mazatlan and Mochis is mostly farmland and looks similar to California’s Central Valley. This year corn is very popular and we rolled past mile after mile of sweltering cornfields in air conditioned comfort.

Our first stop was Culiacan, about 140 miles up the highway.  It is the capital of the state of Sinaloa and boasts a population of over 675,000, making it the largest city in the state. It’s an old city, founded in 1531 by the Spanish mariner Nuno Beltran de Guzman. It was not much of a place until the 1950’s when the Mexican government started building dams in the region to stabilize the water supply. Now it’s the center of a vast agricultural area. It is also the worldwide headquarters of the Sinaloa drug cartel as well as the birthplace of famed dog whisperer, Caesar Milan.

We stayed in Culiacan only long enough for the driver to take a smoke break, and then got back on the road to Los Mochis, another 142 miles up the highway.  You may be surprised to know that the original colony of Los Mochis was founded in 1893 by a group of American socialists who hoped to establish a utopian society next to the seaport of Topolobampo. Needless to say, that project hasn’t worked out exactly as planned.

We spent a night in Los Mochis, then caught an early bus to the town of El Fuerte, which lies about 53 miles to the northeast on the banks of the river of the same name. Founded in 1563 by a gang of Spanish conquistadores led by one Francisco de Ibarra, the town struggled to survive because it was frequently beset by angry natives who didn’t appreciate the newcomers. In 1610 the Spaniards built a fort (“fuerte” in Spanish) and the place has been known henceforth as El Fuerte (The Fort).  For the next three hundred years the town was an important commercial center, but more recently it has evolved into more of a tourist town.  It is the gateway to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains and the Copper Canyon area, and a destination for hunters, birders and adventure seekers.

Civic buildings in Mexico are often decorated with impressive murals. The one at the El Fuerte city hall depicts town's history. In this view the native Amerindians are fighting against the invading Spaniards.

This view continues the story of defeat and subjugation of the natives. The Catholic priest brings religion and the natives switch from their traditional clothing to more "Christian" garb and are forced to work for the Spaniards. It's a sad but all to common story in Mexico.
Every room in the Hotel La Choza is equipped with a crucifix.

We arrived around noon and hiked uptown to the Hotel La Choza, where we planned to spend the night. It’s about two blocks from the central plaza, where the city hall and other official buildings are located. A couple of blocks further on is the Fort, which today houses the town’s water tank and a historical museum. After dropping off our gear at the hotel we checked out the plaza and fort, and then wandered over to the Hotel Posada Hidalgo where we knew we could find a good meal and a nice view of the sunset over the Rio Fuerte. 

The museum in the fort houses a collection of artifacts from El Fuerte's history. This exhibit shows the fashions that the natives wore around the time that the Spaniards showed up. The deer head on the woman's head certainly adds a bit of flair to her costume. El Fuerte must have been an interesting town back in its heyday.

Rio Fuerte runs placidly through the town. Before the dam was built north of town, the river often overflowed its banks.

Route of El Chepe from Los Mochis to Chihuahua.

hummingbirds are a common sight in El Fuerte.

Saturday morning we boarded the Chihuahua-Pacifico train. Affectionately known as El Chepe by the Mexicans, it’s a beautiful old train with about six passenger cars and a dining car that winds up the western slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains to the city of Chihuahua. I love that you can stand on the landings between the cars and hang your head out the side of the train and feel the air rushing by and watch the landscape change from rolling hills to magnificent gorges as you approach the summit at Divisidero, about 132 miles up the line.

The train

The weather forecast called for rain on Sunday so as soon as we arrived at Divisidero, we dropped our bags at the Hotel Divisidero Barrancas and hiked a mile or so up to the Parque Aventura, where the zip lines are located. The last time we were in Copper Canyon we missed the zip lines so we were determined to take a ride on them on this trip. Jamie and Elaine would be in Divisidero for only two nights so, with a storm approaching, Saturday had to be the day.

When we arrived at the zip line place, the weather was deteriorating, with storm clouds bearing down on us. There was a Mexican gal at the ticket counter who looked doubtful when we told her we wanted to ride the zip line right then, but she took our money and pointed the way down to the shack where you suit up for the adventure. We were surprised to find that the same girl, who was a good 30 pounds overweight, was going to be our guide. She looked like she’d be more comfortable working the candy counter at the concession stand, and she was clearly not happy about doing the zip line on a cold Saturday afternoon.  Anyway, we suited up and, somewhat puckered, we walked down to the first take-off point of the line. Figuring ‘What the hell…” I volunteered to go first.  I clipped in to the cable and the girl was just about to shove me off the platform when a guy came running down from the office waving and shouting that we can’t go. The weather was here and the thunder and lightning was rumbling nearby. I was relieved to climb down off the platform. We told the girl we’d be back after the storm passed and for the first time she cracked a smile.

It was raining by the time we got back to the hotel, and by nine the next morning the rain had turned to snow, a rarity in Copper Canyon.  We stayed indoors and watched the snow do its magic, transforming the desert-like landscape to a white wonderland. In the afternoon the weather cleared and almost as fast as it appeared, the snow began to melt.  By the next morning there were only patches of it on the ground. It was amusing to see the locals out playing in what was clearly a rare treat for them.
View from the hotel dining room. The rain was just beginning to turn to snow.
An hour later.

The conductor wasn't outfitted for the weather.
The crew climbed up on the locomotive and took lots of selfies to show friends and family the snow day at Divisidero. Notice the lack of winter clothing. 
The Hotel Divisidero Barranca is pretty basic as far as the accommodations go, but little details like hand carved fence posts add a touch of charm. This post shows the sandals that the Tarahumara Indians wear. These people are known for their running ability. You can learn more about them in Chris McDougall's book, "Born to Run".

Hummingbirds entertained us even at over 7,000 feet elevation.

A Tarahumara runner.

The beautifully carved and painted front door at the Hotel Divisidero.

Elaine and Jamie were scheduled to depart the next day so we got up early and hiked over to the zip line again, hoping we’d be able to do it before they had to board the train. This time the guides were professional and experienced and we quickly donned our gear and headed for the first take-off point.  The Copper Canyon zip-line is one of the fastest and highest in the world. At one point on the seven-leg line you’re flying at 68mph, 1,476 feet above the ground. I’m no zip-line expert but this thing was a pretty exciting ride.
Lisa and Jamie geared up and ready to go. Elaine chose the more civilized route and took the tram.

There is another zip-line at Divisidero called the ZipRider which opened just last year. Located within walking distance from the original, we decided to experience that one as well. It is reputed to be the longest single line in the world at 8,350 feet, with a vertical drop of 1,450 feet and a maximum speed of 65mph. Instead of a simple harness, you are strapped into a seat similar to a bosun’s chair. When you get launched out of the starting gate you are instantly a thousand feet or so above the canyon floor. Pretty exciting stuff.
Lisa on final approach at the bottom of the ZipRider.

Both zip-lines finish near the bottom of the aerial tram and we rode it back to the canyon rim after the last zip-line. From there we hurried back to the hotel and gathered Jamie and Elaine’s bags, but it turned out we needn’t have. The train stopped running that day because a locomotive had derailed a few miles down the track. Fortunately the road was open and later that afternoon our friends caught a bus to their next destination, which was the city of Creel, some fifty miles further up the line. After we saw them off, we wandered back to our hotel and spent the rest of the day watching the canyon change colors as the shadows shifted with the setting sun.

The Tarahumara Indians are known for their beautifully crafted baskets. This fellow found a good use for them.

By the next afternoon the derailed train had been cleared off the tracks, so we were able to board the southbound Chepe only about an hour late. We relaxed in the dining car while the train barreled down the mountains toward Los Mochis. We arrived there at 9:45pm and by eleven thirty we were safely tucked into our room at the Plaza Hotel.

We were up early the next day and caught a cab to the bus station where we boarded a Tufesa bus to Mazatlan. We pulled into town around five in the afternoon and were back at the marina well before sunset. Finisterra was in good shape when we got back, just as we left her. Being tired after a long day of travel, we decided to catch a pulmonia into town and had an excellent dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant. We’re back aboard the boat now, getting ready for the next leg of our voyage, which will take us northwest across the southern Sea of Cortez to La Paz, the gateway to the Sea’s beautiful cruising grounds. 

Last night we joined our friends Ed and Connie for dinner at Topolo's in old town Mazatlan. On the way, we had a drink at the rooftop bar at the old Freeman Hotel in the Zona Dorado. No green flash but it was magnificent.