Friday, December 25, 2009

A Year in the Sea of Cortez

After almost a whole year in the Sea of Cortez, and we are back to where we started, sitting out a 3-day northerly blow before we can get in to La Paz. Although it is less than 400 miles to the northernmost point we reached, and 75 miles across to the mainland, and despite spending 3 months on the hard in Guaymas, we managed to chalk up 1500 miles of sailing around here this year. Did we like it? You bet.

On first glance, the parched red hills seem unable to nurture anything but cactus. But any miniscule amount of moisture is sucked up and plants that appeared to be no more than a dead stick sprout the most beautiful flowers in gratitude. The seedpods and even the branches seem to belong to another planet, with spikes and thorns, patterns and colours that can’t be possible in the world I know. The cacti themselves are amazing – we saw some more than 500 years old, and visited one island where the barrel cactus (normally a squat little cylinder not higher than your knee) grew to 10 feet. Their sheer size compressed them so that they were as wrinkly as a pug dog’s face, and we imagined these prolific succulents hopping about in a sort of sack race on the hillside.

When you get out and walk around, you find the most remarkable things – crystals, geodes and obsidian apache tears, petroglyphs, 10,000 year old cave paintings, rocks that ring like kettle drums when you strike them (not just one but a whole mountain of them), salt ponds, oasis, birds and lizards and the most stunning views. My favourite walk was an 8-hour excursion to ‘Steinbeck’s Canyon’, a rocky slash almost straight up the 4000-foot Giganta mountain range near Escondido. It was after the hurricane had been through so the pools were running with clear cold water and everything was lush and green. At one point, the trail takes you through one of the ponds to a cave on the other side, then at the back of the cave you shimmy up a fallen log to emerge on the top of a huge bolder that sits wedged, 50 feet up, between the sheer rock sides of the canyon like a perfume bottle stopper. From there you enter another cave which leads to a chimney, where the rock face has split off, leaving a gap just wide enough to worm your way up the 20 feet or so to the next part of the arroyo, where we half expected to find Indiana Jones. The last part of the hike is a vertical set of catacombs with waterfalls. We scaled the first of these with some difficulty, sliding backwards on the smooth rocks towards the rocky ledges and pools below. Without climbing gear we were reluctant to make that final push to the top, where we would have seen the Pacific Ocean as well as the Sea of Cortez.

In the sea itself we were continually amazed by the abundance of fish. Gone are the giant manta rays of Steinbeck’s time, and the prolific invertebrate life of the intertidal zone. But the mid-range species are all still here and in vast numbers. We swam with a school of 70 baby eagle rays. We had numerous close underwater encounters with the beautiful and graceful whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean at 40 feet, although ours were babies of about half that size. Inquisitive sea lion pups came to play with us. We caught tuna and dorado and even a rooster fish (on Thanksgiving Day). The schools of baitfish are so extensive they ring the entire shoreline in some bays. Pelicans and boobies dive-bomb them, hundreds of dolphins pack-herd them, and the Mexicans string their mile long nets pulling unbelievable numbers out of the sea, along with all other life in their path. It is a wonder there is anything left. The rays are in trouble, and the carcasses left by the fisherman on the beach get smaller and smaller. The sharks are all but gone – we didn’t see one at all. The giant humbolt squid seem to have moved to California. The squid fishery this year was pathetic, and one fellow I spoke to worried that it was a sign that the squid would disappear from these waters completely, as they did for 20 years in the 1970’s. So the fishermen have set their sights on other species. In almost every bay, the drone of the hooka air compressor could be heard for hours on end as divers harvested bucketfuls of scallops, lobster and clams. Last year, apparently, they targeted the lucrative sea cucumber, which probably explains why there are none here now.

The big news here in the Sea of Cortez was not the swine flu, although people wandered around with masks for a few weeks when it first broke out. Or the election, which most people seemed to think was responsible for the flu. It was Hurricane Jimena, which cut a path of destruction across the central Baja and through the San Carlos/Guaymas area. We were holed up in the far north with 20 other yachts, including, coincidentally, Neil, another Kiwi who Rob grew up with in New Zealand. It was the place to be, and although we could see the lightning flashing in the distance, and the sky was blanketed with a heavy mist from the frothing salt water whipped up by 100-mile-per-hour winds to our south, it was a non-event for us. Not so for those folks in Santa Rosalia, Mulege, and San Carlos. More than 29 inches of rain dumped in 24 hours, and the flash floods took out roads and bridges and power poles, washed away the contents of houses submerged by 3 feet or more of muddy water, and everything including cars was swept into the sea. We visited these places on our way north, and again as we returned, more than 2 months after the storm. It was amazing to see how fast the Mexicans can rebuild after such a widespread disaster, although power and water had only been restored in Santa Rosalia a week before we arrived. Evidence of destruction was everywhere, and along the foreshore of San Carlos we were saddened to see the wreck of one of our friend’s boats. Fourteen yachts had sunk or washed ashore there, but most were salvaged. Only four remained on their moorings by the end of the storm.

For us, missing Jimena meant that we missed the rain. For the whole year in the Sea of Cortez, only a few muddy raindrops made it all the way to our decks without evaporating in the desert air. The last shower worth shutting our hatches for was on Christmas Eve, last year.

Magic Moments

Swimming with Whale Sharks
Swimming with Sea Lions
Skating on Salt Ponds
Full Moon parties....

Fishing - good and bad

Murex harvesting is no longer viable in this village

Spider Crab are a by-catch

The mighty Rooster Fish

The birds are friendly

Steinbeck's Canyon

Wierd Things in the Sea of Cortez

We found this guitarfish carcass on a beach

Flowers and Seeds

Our Favorite Cactus Photos

Cactus patterns

This is a five hundred year old cactus

The largest Barrel Cactus in the world grow here

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Our Chepe Holiday

The Ferrocarril Pacifico (also named Chepe) in Mexico is said to be one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, winding its way 650 km inland from Los Mochis to Chihuahua over 37 bridges, through 86 tunnels to a peak elevation of 2400 meters. Much of the journey skirts the impressive Copper Canyon.

Our journey began in Guaymas, with a 5 hour bus ride to Los Mochis. The bus was so comfortable that rather than finding a hotel there before our 6 AM train, we walked around the corner and boarded a local bus for the 2 hour trip to El Fuerte. This proved to be worthwhile, not only allowing us to catch our train at a more respectable 9 AM, but giving us a glimpse of a wonderfully quaint colonial village. The cobbled streets were lined with stone buildings. Our hotel was a series of little stone rooms around a flower-filled courtyard. A huge stone mortar in front of our door was planted with herbs - I would not be surprised if its age has a couple of 0’s on the end. We made it up to the replica of the old fort just in time for sunset, then set out for the tortillaria for dinner – less than $10 filled us up on gooey tacos of marinated meat and cheese. Wandering the back roads we tumbled into what can only be described as the locals pub. I am sure no tourists ever venture in there. We were lured in by the music, but the band packed up almost as soon as we entered. Everyone stopped to look at us. The room was filled with pointed boots, silver belt buckles and cowboy hats, and one large voluptuous woman in extremely tight clothes with many gaps swaying suggestively at the bar. We sat at a table and were immediately joined by one of the intoxicated patrons. He was very polite, shaking our hands and introducing himself and asking us where we were from. We ordered beer (there were no other options) and a second man came to sit with us, content just to nod and smile. A dominos game was taking place on a table in front of an enormous metal contraption. As I surveyed the room I saw several of these boxes, with ducting sprouting from both sides, apparently an air conditioner, possibly predating electricity. We extracted ourselves after one beer to avoid collecting the entire bar at our table and stumbled over the lady with one of her lucky customers having a quickie against the side of the building outside.

The following morning our intention to walk along the riverside was thwarted by the fortunate discovery that we were in another time zone. Had we missed our train, we would have had a 3-day wait for the next one, a fact that we were oblivious to until we discovered we had the wrong schedule for our return trip.

For the whole day, we were treated to stunning views as we rattled along. There were very few passengers. Without worrisome regulations about standing between the cars, we could hang out over the canyon for photo opportunities. Periodically, someone would come through the car with burritos or cactus fruit for sale, and at one stop we were greeted by the sight of the Raramuri Indian women selling their colorful baskets. Late in the afternoon we disembarked at Posada Barrancas with the owner of a guest house there who had also happened to be on the train.

We had chosen this place because it is right on the rim of the canyon. It is not a town as such, just a collection of houses with a couple of hotels and a small store. Our host was formerly a tour guide for the ‘fancy’ hotel, and spoke good English. He happily pointed us to the trail that took us along the rim to the hotel for happy hour, which we enjoyed with views across the canyon, surrounded by colorful birds. We returned in time for dinner cooked by his wife, and a pleasant evening fending off the neighbors who had jewelry, rocks and crystals collected locally, for sale.

The following day we succumbed to one of our host’s tours of the local view points and a visit to a cave dwelling. Looking out over the canyon, which is 4 times larger than the Grand Canyon and 1000 feet deeper, it was not just the majesty of the view that intrigued us. It was the spider web of trails that link the homes of the Raramuri. These brightly dressed people are the indigenous inhabitants of this rugged terrain. Their population stands at around 50,000 and even today they have resisted many of the trappings of modern life. This is more surprising given the notoriety they have achieved as runners, competing worldwide in their skimpy sandals laced at the ankles. They continue to live simply, using the many caves in the area as the basis for their homes, forming the rooms by tucking a mixture of wood and hand made bricks into these notches. They prepare the fields with hand made wooden plows pulled by horses. They weave beautifully designed baskets from pine needles and cactus fibers, dyed red with the bark of the Madrona tree, or colored like tea by soaking. Although most men have changed to western ‘cowboy’ garb, a few can still be seen with their traditional loin cloth, even in downtown Creel. The women are a flurry of color in flounced dresses of bright orange, greens, blues, pinks and purples. Their children are slung on their backs with an equally colorful woven scarf. We watched a tired kid walk up to granny as she sat on the curb, lean over her shoulders, and await the shawl to be slid under her bum and tied around granny’s front, effortlessly supporting her. The babies are apparently rolled in and flipped up and over. The tourist attractions we visited with our guide were all well attended by these ladies, with mats spread out to display their wares. Although they were clearly there to sell to tourists, they were so shy that if we approached them they would turn their heads. They quietly informed us of the prices only when asked. We had read that they are proud and private individuals, shunning contact with outsiders. Yet here they were, in the midst of all us gawking tourists, even allowing us to traipse through their homes. I felt an uneasy sadness for these people, who seem to be reluctantly seeking the money they need only to survive in our world, not theirs. Our tour finished with a ‘fast food’ lunch at Divisidero train station, 5 miles from our guest house. The excellent Gorditas and Chili Rellenos were prepared instantly, the vendors used to serving the masses that descend during their 15 minute stopover at the station. This is the highest point, the continental divide, with more spectacular views of the canyon, going on forever.

That afternoon was spent wandering the trails of the canyon. Eventually we found our way to the valley primary school, which we could see perched on a craggy outcrop of rock apparently miles from anywhere. As we picked our way carefully along the trail, we imagined the 20 or so children that attended here, running to school each day, from far and beyond in the valley. This trek into the surreal landscape was followed by another home cooked meal, which featured blue corn tortillas – a special treat!

We opted to spend more time in the canyon area rather than go all the way to Chihuahua. So we took another tour with our host, this time ending in Creel, 48 km further up the train line. Our guide once again showed us all the main attractions, including ‘the rock shaped like a penny’. He had mentioned this rock many times with a strange glint in his eye as he said it. The ‘penny’ dropped when we finally arrived at this location to behold a giant phallus, however you want to pronounce it!

We checked into a guest house in downtown Creel, and soon discovered that we would not be able to board the train the next day as planned. The economy class only runs 3 times a week. Posters in town advertised a program of events for the Creel Festival, so we decided to stay the extra day and take in one night of the 3 day festival. We spent the rest of the day generally wandering around, and visiting the little museum. A photo exhibition portrayed aspects of the Raramuri culture, with captions that were poignant for many of the indigenous races we have encountered in our travels. “It is wrong to say that Tarahumaras are not civilized, when their concepts are reduced to simple and basic physical needs and not to material amenities that they have always rejected.” Indeed some of the captions could apply to any culture. “Very soon our race will be sick. Time has grown too old for mankind. It can’t support us anymore.”

In Creel, as in urban areas everywhere, the Indians were more forthright about selling to tourists. Small children would run up to us first asking ‘Comprar?’ (buy) and then begging for one peso. Rather than poking though the multitudes of souvenir shops, we bought crafts from the mission craft store, whose proceeds would go towards education of the Raramuri children. They also have a program there to promote the preservation of the culture, and recommend purchase of the bright cloth for ladies dresses rather than donating used clothes. The dresses take 5 yards of material each, and the donor’s name is given to the lady who receives the fabric.

We went in search of someplace to sit and listen to music, and found a Mariachi band wandering the street. We asked where they were playing, and they replied ‘here’. It seems they would play for anyone, right there in the street, but did not actually have a venue. The only bar in town had sports on TV screens that could not be avoided. Finally we found a delightfully talented Latin/jazz band in a coffee shop and so finished the day with a cup of hot chocolate.

Although we would have liked to see the bottom of the canyon, this would entail a multi-day journey down (and back up) winding roads of dubious condition in questionable transportation. We made the most of our extra day with a 20k bike ride to the Valley of the Monks. This took us through more Raramuri homesteads, up a relatively flat valley of farmland. At the end of the valley was an incredible landscape of pinnacle rocks (the Monks) perched on the edge of another part of the canyon. Until then we had nothing but bright sunshine, but as we sat to enjoy our lunch, the sky became dark and we could see thunderheads in the distance. Before we knew it, a noisy wind whipped up, and large freezing cold drops of rain pelted us. The shower was brief, but several more chased us on the way back down the valley. We learned that the area was desperately dry, having received no snow this winter. The hotels had to buy water for guests and the farmlands were withered and cracking. They needed much more than these few drops.
Back in town we were in time for the band music, which was first on the program for the festival. It went on, and on, and on. We don’t know what happened to the rest of the program. However, we did enjoy watching the kaleidoscope of colorful dresses whirling past – the pace of their walk seems incongruous to their simple lifestyle.

Finally the train arrived, an hour late, to take us home. We were surprised to find it completely full, but eventually we were allocated a seat. With the delay for the extra day, it would be a long trip to get back in time to move the boat as required. We planned to go straight through to Los Mochis then take the overnight bus to Guaymas. A couple of hours out of Los Mochis the train stopped. It was 11.30 at night. The conductor came though mumbling something but of course we could not understand what he said. It turned out there was some sort of breakdown. We were all herded off into the darkness, and made to stand on a dirt road with our bags until busses could be diverted to take us to Los Mochis. The comfortable seats on the train looked so inviting, sitting there empty behind us. The bus drivers must have felt as put out as we did, and for punishment they turned on the air conditioning full blast. We had all our clothing wrapped around us and over our heads trying to keep from getting frostbite for the rest of the way to Los Mochis. How infuriating to drive right through town and on another 22 km to the train station, then taxi back to town to catch the bus to Guaymas. Luckily, this bus was almost empty so we could spread out and get some sleep. But at 3 AM, I was awakened by a woman speaking urgently in Spanish to me. I was groggy and couldn’t understand a word. She said something else and a man’s head popped up from under my seat. He asked if I had any guns or drugs. I said no. I realized then that this was a police check. They were dismantling the toilet at the back of the bus. When they were satisfied the bus contained no contraband, off we went again.

We had only been away 6 days, but it felt as though we had been to another world, one far back in time.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Here are a few shots from our train trip up to the Copper Canyon...

woodpeckers and hummingbirds

views for ever

Canyon views

Copper Canyon

Check out the air conditioner behind these guys...

Raramuri Indians

Its a Hard Life

Guaymas is a fishing port of 134,000 people, about half way up the Sea of Cortez on the mainland side. The Lonely Planet advises, “Stopping here for any extended length of time had better be due to a catastrophic vehicle breakdown or massive coronary”. It has been our home for almost 3 months and we have enjoyed this friendly little city, most of the time. Blue Moon has a new coat of paint on the decks, topsides and bottom, a new dodger and lots of ticks on the maintenance list. We started investigating the various haul-out facilities 12 miles further up the coast, at San Carlos. A gringo magnet for yachties, RVs and condo dwellers alike, this beautiful area offers picturesque bays fringed with white beaches, tucked between red volcanic peaks. But one boatyard there would not allow live-aboards, and another dirt bowl in the middle of the desert that would not allow spray painting. So we got on the bus and headed for Guaymas. We pulled the bell when we could see masts, and tumbled out onto the curb as the bus slowed slightly, as one does on Mexico transport. As we were looking around to get our bearings, a fellow rode up on his bicycle and proclaimed, “You look like losers”. His English was ‘almost’ – a word that I would come to use often in the coming weeks. What he was trying to say is that we looked lost, and insisted that a visit his shop was just what we were looking for. That was how we came to eat lunch under a Mona Lisa smoking a big fat joint and acquire a bottle of almond massage oil. After lunch we found the brand new marina with a concrete hard stand. Previously there was no marina here and no real facilities for yachties so they had special deals to attract customers. We estimated about 3 weeks out of the water but the special rate for 3 months was about the same, so here we are, finally floating again after 8 weeks on the hard. Everything at the marina is still shiny and new but it’s all a bit like my grasp of the Spanish language - some days I can ‘almost’ communicate but a lot of the time the point is missed completely. The showers were awesome until they ran out of hot water. The new fuel dock has no license so is unable to dispense fuel. The finer points of electrical systems and drainage seem to be as elusive as Spanish grammar. The swimming pool and Jacuzzi were enticing features, but alas there is no functional heating or filtration system, and in reality it is a giant birdbath. When we hauled out there were only 3 boats in the yard. But as time went by, the yard has filled up and the travel lift operators gained some valuable experience, at the expense of one prop and shaft, one depth sounder transponder, one log paddlewheel, one VHF aerial, and most of the back end on one boat that slid out of the slings. It seems the entire waterfront is being transformed to attract tourism, with a new Malecon (boardwalk), benches in artistic shapes such as dolphins, crabs, and anchors, and a spectacular fountain with a light display set to music. Just outside the gate to the marina is an antiquated amusement park complete with Beebe gun shooting gallery, bumper cars, and rides that look as if they would have been condemned about the time I was born. The whole thing is parked on the construction zone for the partly completed Malecon, with the usual Mexican electrical wiring system snaking through it. If the rides aren’t exciting enough for you, there’s the thrill of avoiding personal injury from these hazards. I really like the marionettes – there is a mechanical bull ride, an accordion player whose foot stomps, and one with a bunch of dancing skeletons. The outlook from the pool deck overlooking the harbor is beautiful, and makes a great spot to do yoga in the mornings, surrounded by the birds. I have particularly enjoyed the Vermillion Flycatchers, who are so tame they will sit on the railing beside me and sing. We have been here so long that I have watched the whole life cycle of these cute little guys from courtship to hatching. One of our neighbors has a nest with 4 eggs in the back of their boom. We had our own wildlife on board - a type of bee put their eggs in the holes in our decks where the fittings were taken off. They are amazing works of art - skillfully wrapped little packages of bright pink bougainvillea leaves. It seemed a shame to destroy them when we put the fittings back on that I fiberglassed a couple and made earrings. Our spot was beside the canal where the fishing fleet is moored, bringing in shrimp and squid each day. It is fascinating to watch them flipping the Humbolt squid bodies up onto the dock. These huge squid grow up to 7 feet long, and have been known to attack divers and fishermen. In fact we were so close that one day a disabled trawler being towed out got hooked up on the rail behind our boat. To help support the mast while the chain plates were off, we had tied our halyard off to this rail, so there was a tense moment when we thought we would lose the rig. It was the first time we have had to fend off from a hard stand. We never did get used to the stench of the fish canning operation right outside our aft cockpit that assaulted us day and night, but we seem to be used to the noise. A popular form of advertising here is cars or trucks driving around with loudspeakers. There is a karaoke bar at the marina, at least 3 other sources of music from the fishing boats, security guards and the malecon, and we have the lights and sounds of the city and the amusement park to complete the cacophony. I remember going to ‘the ex’ in Toronto as a kid, and it pretty much is like living in there. As for the paint job – it’s … almost. We should have stopped our Mexican painter right at the beginning when he began attacking our hull with orbital discs. But we were relying on the recommendations of others, assuming he was a professional. Apparently he is occasionally capable of acceptable work, but not often. Since we have been here, we met another boat owner who is lucky to be alive after the keel repair Francisco did delaminated underway. We watch in horror, as he is butt-joining plywood onto gaping holes in another boat in the yard that was suffering from rot. Insisting he can spray paint without over-spray, no respirators are used, although it is not unusual to see one of the workers holding up a Mexican blanket with a cloud of paint billowing around him. His home-made trailer collapsed on the ramp as he was hauling out a 4-ton catamaran. It seems there is no end to the skills of this man, who happily will tell you he can do anything that involves your dollar bills. Right at the start of our job there was the loss of his glasses - first one lens, the next the other, so that for the duration of our job he turned up wearing just the frames, which he insisted he did not need. The quality of his work would suggest otherwise. Suffice to say that we had someone ask us if our boat is concrete! It would be easy to lose your sense of humor some days. In the words of Jimmy Buffet, “if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane”. But is there ever a good place to spend 2 months on a hardstand? As this chapter is drawing to a close, we have well and truly left winter behind us with temperatures in the 90’s most days. We had our first rain shower of the year (what great painting weather we have had!). While most of the boats here are hauling out for hurricane season to fly off ‘home’, we are making preparations to sail further north into the Sea of Cortez for summer, hopefully out of the hurricane area. Over the next few months we would like to see one of those giant humbolt squid, a whale shark, and maybe the vaquero dolphin. We have also ticked off one more thing on our list – a train trip up to the Copper Canyon.

New deck paint and dodger windows

Fishing fleet behind us, amusement park out front at Guaymas hardstand
....more photos from Guaymas...