Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mazatlan to La Paz

Our week in Mazatlan flew by ever so quickly. This was due in part to the repair project I spent some time on but mostly because whenever I wasn't working on the boat there was lots of fun to be had. One evening we did Mazatlan's version of PV's Southside Shuffle, only here there was a lot less art and more wine tasting. On a couple of days we simply strolled along the malecon and up the streets to the Plaza Machado in the heart of Old Mazatlan. Like all cities in Mexico, the public transportation system is excellent, with buses, taxis and other forms of transportation easily available. In La Cruz we often traveled by "collectivo" which is a small van with lots of seats, usually crammed full of people. It's not exactly fun, but they got us pretty much where we wanted to go very inexpensively. In Mazatlan they have a unique and much more fun mode of transportation called "Pulmonias". These are small open topped cars with air-cooled Volkswagen engines that are everywhere in this town. They are cheaper than a taxi, much less claustrophobic than a collectivo and simply fun to ride around in.


"Pulmonia" means pneumonia in Spanish.  When these open cars first showed up in town back in the 1960's, the local taxi drivers were outraged and warned people not to ride in them because they would catch "pulmonia", so people started calling them Pulmonias and the name stuck.

Iguanas are a fact of life in Mazatlan. Around the pool at  El Cid they would gather around people who were eating and wait, with prehistoric patience for a handout.

In the past, whenever we've stayed in Mazatlan, it was at Marina Mazatlan. It's a nice place as marinas go, but we were very happy that we chose to stay at Marina EL Cid this time. It is connected to the El Cid resort, so it also has beautiful swimming pools, private beach, an excellent restaurant and a staff that is always eager to assist you with every little thing. We had a great time basking in the luxury of the place.

Looking east toward Isla Cerralvo in the predawn light.
Just before the sun rose over the horizon a pod of dolphins passed by.
Pelicans roosting on the rocks at Puerto Balandra

After that week of luxury, and with the boat all put back together, it was time to say adios to Mazatlan and head for La Paz, the gateway to Sea of Cortez cruising grounds. So on April 8th, Finisterra cleared the breakwater under a sunny sky and an easy ten knot breeze out of the southwest, perfect for a close reach on port tack to the northern tip of Isla Cerralvo. But within half an hour the wind began to veer and before long we were headed north-northeast instead of our desired course of northwest. We sailed in this direction for about ten miles, basically skirting the coast north of Mazatlan, then tacked.  This put us on a course about 40 degrees south of where we wanted to go, but by evening the wind had veered far enough that we were back on course on starboard tack in about 15 knots of wind. We sailed this way for the next 120 miles of the 230 mile passage. Then the wind disappeared and I started the engine.  We motored the rest of the way in three to eight knots of breeze out of the northwest.

Pelican in La Paz

After passing Isla Cerralvo we were approaching the San Lorenzo channel, which separates mainland Baja from Isla Espiritu Santo around 0300. I slowed down to about four knots as we reached the entrance to the channel. It's fairly narrow and there was a lot of ship traffic passing through it, and I didn't want to arrive at our destination of Puerto Balandra in the dark. We transited the channel around 0700 and by 0800 we were anchored in the southwest corner of Balandra and settled back to enjoy a couple of days of snorkeling, sunning and just relaxing. It was hot during the daytime but at night the Coromuel wind showed up, bringing cool air in from the Pacific which lies not far to the west.

Nesting gull

Our next stop was Marina Costa Baja, which lies at the entrance to the channel leading into the inner harbor at La Paz. This is a 5 star resort with a marina.

The bulwarks fold outward on both sides of the hull to provide more lounging space on deck. There are lots of videos of this boat on youtube.

In a luxury marina full of large and very large mega yachts, Galeocerdo, a Wally 118' motor yacht stood out. It's like a Ferrari of boats, with a top speed of about 70 knots and a price tag of $30 million. With its dark, stealthy gray/green paint and styling reminiscent of an F-117, it looks kind of dangerous. I don't know why anyone would want to spend $30 million on a boat like this, but there you have it.  Galeocerdo is the scientific name for Tiger Shark.

Tomorrow we'll head north to some of the beautiful coves of  Isla Espritu Santo and Isla Partida. This area is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We're looking forward to some awesome scenery and snorkeling.

File:Espiritu santo partida.JPG
Isla Partida, on the left is separated from the larger Espiritu Santo by a narrow channel.  We'll anchor in Ensenada Grande, the large cove near the left end of the islands.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Banderas Bay to Mazatlan

Finisterra finally sailed from La Cruz around 0900 on Sunday, March 30th bound for Mantanchen Bay and then Mazatlan. It was a beautiful morning with a light offshore wind early and the promise of a nice beam reach to Mantanchen in the afternoon. We motored out around Punta de Mita and turned northward in almost no wind, but by noon we had enough wind to sail. We hoisted the main and set the jib and settled down on the reach to Mantanchen in about 10 knots of wind. It was looking like a beautiful day-sail all the way.

Mantanchen Bay sunset

Shortly after we got the sails set and trimmed, I heard a strange creaking noise coming from somewhere down below. This was a new noise, not the typical creaks that I was accustomed to. I searched around the boat in all the likely places that creaks might come from, but couldn't find the source of the noise until I opened the starboard lazarette hatch. When I looked down into the compartment I noticed that the bracket for the autopilot ram was moving back and forth in an unusual manner. Then I realized that the bulkhead was flexing and the joint where I assumed Beneteau had spliced or scarfed together two pieces of plywood to make the aft bulkhead was not a joint at all. It was not lapped or scarffed, or even glued together. Nope, Beneteau apparently saw fit to just butt the two pieces of plywood together without the benefit of any adhesive or mechanical fasteners. Then whoever installed the autopilot ram drilled the mounting holes less than a quarter inch of the edge of this imaginary joint. The bracket was mounted with massive 7/16" bolts and a stainless steel backing plate so it looked like a proper job, but looks can be deceiving.

By mid-afternoon we were gliding into Mantanchen Bay and got the anchor down in about eighteen feet of water three quarters of a mile from the beach, which I hoped was well beyond the range of the no-nos that live around here. Then we had a decision to make: We could go back roughly 50 miles to La Cruz or continue on to Mazatlan, another 130 miles north from here. After looking at the weather forecast we decided to press on to Mazatlan. The wind would be on the nose the entire distance but it would be light most of the way. We would be motoring into it and that would put the least stress on the wobbly bulkhead.

Mountains behind Mazatlan at dawn.
To put this little problem into perspective, we were in no danger and the worst that might have happened to us was that we might have to hand steer if the bulkhead failed completely, which was very unlikely. But it certainly annoyed me as a boatbuilder that the boat was built in this manner. And of course the problem needed to be fixed before we ran into any real weather, which is always a possibility in the Sea of Cortez.

View from the aft side of the bulkhead.  When I replaced the autopilot ram back in 2012 I assumed this joint was lapped but it's not.

View from the forward side of the bulkhead.

The repair was easy enough. I went over to Marine Services Mazatlan, which is located in the shipyard next to Marina Mazatlan and had them cut out some plywood reinforcements that I bonded to both sides of the bulkhead with WEST epoxy. Once the epoxy cured it was a simple matter to reinstall the bracket and ram.

Both sides of the bulkhead were sanded and prepped.  

Plywood reinforcements bonded in place. The screws were used to clamp everything together while the epoxy cured.

Bracket and ram reinstalled and ready to go.
With the repair completed, we were able to spend some time around the pool at the marina and wander around the beautiful city of Mazatlan. In a few days we'll head northwest across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Road Trip: Patzcuaro and Chapala

We left Morelia around mid-morning on March 24th, headed toward Patzcuaro.  We'd heard that the lake of the same name is a beautiful place, dotted with islands and that the town is something of a hangout for American and Canadian expats. We had also read about the recent trouble there but locals in Morelia told us that all of that is in the past, and the town has been peaceful since February.

We arrived in Patzcuaro around noon and discovered that the town isn't really built on the lakeshore and isn't quite as picturesque as we had expected. The place was crawling with Policia Federales, Policia Estado, Policia Transito and Policia Municipal though. No shortage of guns here.

After about 20 minutes in town we decided to head north along the eastern shore of Lake Patzcuaro in search of beautiful vistas and perhaps a margarita as well. We found the vistas but no margaritas. So we continued on to Lake Chapala another couple of hours up the road.
Isla de Jinitzio rises from the lake. It is topped by a 140 foot statue of Jose Maria Morelos, who was a hero in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain. You can climb a spiral staircase up the inside of the statue and look out over the lake from windows in the raised fist of the statue.
Patzcuaro is said to be an upscale town, but here on the eastern shore of the lake there were few signs of wealth. This fisherman told me that things were bad now because the lake is low and the fishing's not good. 
Tools of the Patzcuaro fisherman's trade
We stopped at a small settlement where there was a pier for panga-sized island ferrys and a few fishing boats. This was about halfway between the towns of Patzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan (pronounced zin-zoon-ZON, I like the name). Aside from these places, the countryside was farmland on the right and the coffee colored lake on the left. With that we left Lake Patzcuaro and headed northwest toward Laguna de Chapala.

Lake Chapala is Mexico's largest freshwater lake. It is about 50 miles long in the east-west direction and 8 miles wide in the north-south direction, and lies at an elevation of 5,000 feet above sea level. We headed toward the north shore of the lake with plans to stay in the town of Chapala and visit the neighboring town of Ajijic the next day.

We took the back way into town and were rewarded with several miles of rough cobblestone and dirt roads before we got into town but it was worth it to see the working farms up close as we bounced past. Chapala, with a population of about 45,000 is a good sized town and sports a beautiful lakefront malecon. We took rooms at the beautiful Hotel San Francisco, just across the street from the water's edge. After getting our bags stowed in our rooms we went out to the the hotel bar which is situated in a beautiful garden and ordered a pitcher of margaritas (Ed and I are still searching for the perfect one), but believe it or not, the hostess informed us that the hotel was out of tequila! So off we went downtown searching for a meal and a drink. We found what appeared to be a good restaurant and ordered dinner and a pitcher. The meal turned out to be mediocre at best, and we're still looking for a decent margarita.

White pelicans on Lake Chapala

This area has long been a haven for American and Canadian expats, with at least 15,000 of them living here. The weather is said to be among the best in the world and we were certainly blessed with beautiful, mild weather while we were there. One of Chapala's claims to fame is that the famous playwright Tennessee Williams set up shop here for a while in the late 1940's and banged out one of his most famous plays, "The Poker Night" from the shores of this beautiful lake. Never heard of "The Poker Night"? Neither have I, but somewhere along the way it was renamed "A Streetcar Named Desire".

Ajijic (pronounced ahi-HEEK), just a couple of miles down the road from Chapala, is the center of the expat community. The place is crawling with gringos, American stores, restaurants and other trappings of the US and Canada. The homes here are mostly beautiful places surrounded by high walls topped with electric fences or shards of glass embedded in the tops of them. I do not find electric fences attractive even if they are attached to beautiful handmade stone walls. We stopped at a waterfront hotel and were warmly greeted by the staff even though we had no intention of staying there. The place was beautiful and I was tempted to try one of their margaritas, but the sun wasn't nearly over the yardarm yet so instead we got back in the car and headed out on the last leg of our journey back to La Cruz.
Beautiful pool at a waterfront hotel in Ajijic. The place was nearly empty.

We arrived back in La Cruz around 7:00pm and found Finisterra just as we left her. The next day we started getting ready for a quick passage to Mantanchen Bay and then to one of my favorite cities, Mazatlan.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Road Trip: The butterflies of Morelia

After three days in the fascinating city of Guanajuato it was time to reluctantly say goodbye and get back on the road. Our first stop was San Miguel de Allende. This town is renowned for its arts and culture, and is home to two prestigious schools, the Instituto Allende and the Instituto de Bellas Artes. These schools, founded in the 1940's by artists and writers, attracted American WWII veterans who could attend classes on the GI Bill. Many of them stayed in town or later retired there, and soon the town had a large and vibrant American community. But San Miguel also has a rich history dating back to the days when Mexico was fighting for independence from Spain and it is known as the first city to throw off Spanish rule.

Unfortunately we had time only for a quick tour of downtown and an hour or so for lunch. We wandered around the central plaza and admired the architecture of the buildings and the diversity of the tourists that crowded the area. The church is one of the most beautiful we've encountered and I couldn't help being impressed by it.

It is not difficult to see how this architecture could inspire 18th century Mexican peasants. 
These church bells are incredibly loud and can be heard for miles around. Notice the bell on the left, it's actually tolling while this fellow calmly surveys the crowd below.  He reminded me of Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame".
Street musicians. This bongo player didn't miss a beat while acknowledging a passerby. 
After a couple of hours in San Miguel it was time to continue on to Morelia. Rolling down the highway we passed through rich farmland and crossed into the state of Michoacan, home of the notorious Knights Templar drug cartel. Here the conflicts between the cartels, the locals and the government are real, and we saw more than a few heavily armed soldiers and police manning checkpoints and driving around in big trucks. I know very little about this complicated situation but one aspect of it is that in some towns in the region, local citizens have taken up arms against the "Templars" that have terrorized and extorted money from them. Anyway we were careful about where we were at all times and were tucked into our hotel well before dark whenever possible.

We really didn't do much in Morelia. We had come to see the Monarch butterflies, but it turns out that they don't actually hang out in Morelia, but in the mountains about 80 tortuous miles east of the city. So we got up early and drove out through mountains and high valleys toward the town of Angangueo. From there it was another ten or fifteen miles up a steep mountain road that ended at a small settlement that marked the entrance to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, which was at roughly 10,000 feet elevation. We parked in a deserted parking lot and hiked up to the entrance of the sanctuary. The entry fee was about 35 pesos per person, which included a guide. As we hiked up the trail, which consisted of a nice footpath and in some areas staircases, he told us about the butterflies and their migrations.

The countryside is a beautiful forest of spruce and pine and it was a nice walk up to an elevation of about 11,000 feet. The guide told us that the path to the top included 700 stairs. We knew we had arrived late in the season so we expected to see a few butterflies and then head back down the road. Sure enough on the way up we encountered a few and thought they were beautiful. We told the guide they were nice and said he didn't have to walk all the way to the top with us. But he encouraged us to go on. I was a little concerned for our companions, Ed and Connie, they are both a bit older and not accustomed to hiking. But they were game and we continued on up to a small pass where we encountered some horsemen who offered their horses to us, which we declined.

The country around Angangueo is beautiful and rugged.
First butterfly

As we headed down the trail on the other side of the pass, the forest canopy closed in and the guide dropped his voice to a whisper. We walked on in silence, deeper into the forest. Then we arrived in the heart of the sanctuary and found ourselves surrounded by millions of Monarchs. They flew all around us, landing on us, posing on flowers and clustering by the thousands on branches above us. It was at once magical and awe inspiring to stand in silence and hear the sound of thousands of butterfly wings. We spent an hour or so with them, then it was time to go.

Butterflies in flight
Ed's ride down the mountain

We hiked back up the trail to the pass where the horsemen had patiently waited. Ed and Connie decided they'd had enough walking and accepted the offer of a couple of horses while Lisa and I accompanied the guide back down the trail. Soon we were back in the car and headed for our hotel in Morelia, we arrived in the early evening tired but still enchanted by the butterflies. It was a perfectly beautiful experience. The next day we got an early start toward the troubled city of Patzcuaro, where local vigilantes had recently taken their town back from the Templars.