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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Passage to Mazatlan

Dawn off Mazatlan

While we were in La Cruz I was able to dig further into the charger/inverter malfunction and confirmed that the charger part of the unit stopped working. This is a big deal because though we have solar panels on the boat, they are not sufficient to keep the batteries charged over the long term. The charger/inverter, a Newmar 1800, has been in the boat for about nine years so I can’t complain too much about it.

Charger/inverters are not easy to find here in Mexico and it was beginning to look like we’d be stuck in La Cruz for a few more weeks while we went through the hassle of shipping the unit back and forth to Minnesota for repairs. But as luck would have it, John Pounder at JP Marine in La Cruz happened to have a brand new Magnum 2000 in his shop that had recently become an orphan. It was ordered for a boat in Puerto Vallarta that burned up before the unit could be installed.  It took about three hours to replace the unit and another couple of hours to wire in a new remote display at the chart table. Total cost for the new unit was about $2,400. We’ll take the old one home, have it repaired and then sell it.

With that little project completed we were ready to leave La Cruz for the last time this year. Finisterra cleared the breakwater at 0810 on March 31st, bound for Bahia Matanchen, the correct pronunciation of which is Ma-tan-CHEN. We arrived late in the afternoon and dropped anchor about ¾ mile from the beach. This area has always been known for its vicious noseeums and, more recently, dengue fever carrying mosquitos. The best defense for these pests is anchoring well out in the bay, screens on hatches and ports, and DEET laced insect repellant. We spent a peaceful night at anchor and the next morning took the dinghy ashore and hitched a ride into the town of San Blas. It’s the holiday season in Mexico, with Semana Santa (Easter week) followed by Semana Pascua (Resurrection week), so the town and beaches are full of Mexican vacationers. We wandered around the town for a few hours watching the festivities, then got back aboard Finisterra around noon.
Matanchen Bay. San Blas is surrounded by one of the largest mangrove ecoregions in Mexico, encompassing 770 square miles of what we might call swamp land. No wonder the place is full of no-no's and mosquitos.

We departed Matanchen at 1330 on April 1st and headed out around the rocks that lie off Punta Camaron before heading northwest toward the beautiful city of Mazatlan. There was only about three knots of wind all afternoon and most of night as we motored over glassy northwest swells. A big waxing gibbous moon was already well above the eastern horizon when the sun set so it was a beautiful night on the sea. We arrived the following day at the anchorage off Isla de La Piedra at 0830 and anchored a couple of hundred yards east of the Escollera de Las Chivas in about 15 feet of water. People call this place Stone Island anchorage.  The last time we anchored here, the place was deserted and the palapa restaurants that line the beach were mostly closed, victims of a combination economic recession and narco-violence. Since then the cruise ships have returned and the restaurants are packed with Mexican vacationers, and a few gringos as well. 
Finisterra at anchor off Stone Island.

We spent a couple of days anchored off Stone Island and hiked to the top of Isla de Las Chivas, which is actually not really an island anymore, but is connected to the mainland by the "escollera" or breakwater that was built years ago to make Mazatlan a suitable deepwater port. There was just enough of a south swell running to make beach landings in the dinghy dampish at best so on Saturday, April 4th we got the anchor up and motored around the small islands that lie just offshore from Mazatlan to the El Cid marina where we will stay for the next couple of weeks.