Sunday, March 05, 2006

Baja & Sea of Cortez

As it turned out, we made it across the Sea of Cortez to Santa Rosalia, just in time to avoid a really nasty Norther that blew for several days.  When a high pressure system moves in from the Pacific and sits over the Four Corners area (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico), the wind blows straight down the Sea at speeds of up to 40 knots.  For three days the “White Horses” or “Buffalos” were running downwind.  That’s what sailors call the big white-capped seas that build up during an extended blow.


Even though Marina Santa Rosalia is old and rickety,  its steel pilings were well set and we had no qualms about leaving Kavenga for trips into town for groceries, internet access, and sight seeing. 


Santa Rosalia is definitely not a major tourist destination, although it is trying to change that.  It is still a dusty ex-mining town whose mining operations have shut down.  A French company virtually built the town many years ago when they established a copper mine and smelter here.  They also built the breakwater that creates the protected harbor and anchorage that we were then enjoying.  The French imported clapboard lumber and it is about the only town you’ll see in western Mexico where the buildings are constructed out of wood instead of bricks or blocks.


Other than the mining museum, the main tourist attraction is the steel church that sits in the middle of town.  The church was prefabricated out of steel in France and displayed at an exhibition in 1889.  The owner of the Santa Rosalia copper company saw it and decided to buy and have it shipped there for reassembly.  The church was designed by Carl Gustav Eiffel, the same man that designed the Eiffel Tower of Paris.  That certainly gives dusty little Santa Rosalia something to be proud of.  The stained glass windows were very pretty and the one picture on our website does not do it justice.


A day or so after we arrived in Santa Rosalia we were reunited with the crew of Elusive, Dick and Carol, whom we had not seen since last year in Zhuatenejo. We hadn’t really gotten to know them that well down there, and being a captive of the weather here gave us a chance to get better acquainted.  They also had a crew person on board, Bobby Rohrer.  We didn’t know it at the time, but we were to share many anchorages with them as we finally got a change in the weather and headed south.


Elusive left a day before us but we quickly caught up with them at the huge bay, Bahia Concepcion.  Although the bay itself is open to the north, it has many smaller bays and coves within that provide good protection from the winter Northers that seem to crank up every few days during the winter months.  The vast majority of cruising boats that had spent the summer hurricane season hiding out in the northern Sea of Cortez had already fled south to Banderas Bay and the Mexican Riviera to get away from the Northers that bring cooler temperatures to both the air and water.  It’s amazing how rapidly it goes from being a bit too warm to a bit too cold in the Sea.


The positive for Kavenga and Elusive of being left behind and playing catch-up is that we had anchorages that were normally crowded, all to ourselves.  Our first anchorage in Bahia Concepcion was at Santispac Beach.  A lovely crescent of sandy beach that is packed with RVs and palapa-style vacation homes.  The US and Canadian “campers” pay about $7.00 a day for the right to live on the beach in what is called the Zona Federal; i.e. government lands.  The only services here were a couple of restaurants, one of which had a small grocery store attached.


We moved further south into the bay and anchored at El Burro Cove.  This stop was notable for a couple of reasons.  The first was that we met an American named Gary who had built the first palapa at El Burro.  Now the beach was almost totally lined with them.  Gary is well known to Sea of Cortez cruisers as he is also an avid ham radio operator and provides a weather report for the middle Sea every morning on the Sonrisa Net.  He also has an internet wireless hub that he gladly shares with anchored boats.  By anchoring directly out from his palapa, we were able to send and receive emails and access the internet from the comfort of our cabin.  My, my, cruising sure has changed since we were down here in 1991.


The other reason this stop at El Burro was notable, was the hike we took.  We could see a trail with a series of switchbacks going up the steep hills behind the anchorage.  It looked as though we would be able to get some good photos of the anchorage, which proved to be the case, however the interesting part of the hike was the petroglyphs that we stumbled upon when we accidentally got off the main trail.  They weren’t as impressive as the ones we’d seen near Capitol Reefs National Monument in Utah, however these were unique in that we found these on our own.  The clearest one was of a long, striped fish, similar to a mackerel or wahoo.


We moved from El Burro to the Punta Santo Domingo anchorage near the entrance to Bahia Concepcion for one night before continuing on south.  Although this anchorage offers less protection than other anchorages in the bay, it is less populated and was covered with scallop shells of all colors and many other sea shells as well.


We motored out of Santa Domingo while still dark the next morning and were treated to a spectacular sunrise.  We motored at first to get north around the point, but as soon as we were able to turn south, the wind had already gathered enough strength to let us raise sail.  By the time we reached our day’s destination in the afternoon, the wind was gusting to 20 knots and higher.


Punta Pulpito is a massive volcanic headland that rises from a low neck of protruding land to several hundred feet.  It’s shape gives it its name, “Pulpit Point.”  We appreciated its protection as we sailed in to its lee and furled our sails in relative calm.  Only one other boat lay at anchor, Shadowfax, a Canadian sailboat.  Soon after we had our anchor down and set, Elusive arrived and anchored between us and Shadowfax.  The wind continued to blow at Force Five and the low isthmus that connects Baja to Punta Pulpito does little to protect the anchorage.  It does however provide excellent shelter from sea and swell.  So although the wind whistled through our rigging, and kept the wind generator cranking out the amps, Kavenga remained steady, not healing to either side.


With Dick and Carol from Elusive, we went for a hike, which consisted of scrambling up a dune-like sandy bluff and then walking a jeep track to the cove on the windward side of the point.  We all found the little pieces of obsidian called Apache Tears, and Carol found, and gave to us, what appears to be the lower jaws of a dolphin.


We would have liked to hike the trail leading up to the top of Punta Pulpito, but we decided to continue on south the next morning to San Juanico.  It is a more protected anchorage, with more attractions to explore, and in addition, we knew from radio contacts that our friends Robert and Virginia of the ketch Harmony were there and due to leave soon, so we wanted to catch them first.


It’s only nine miles from Pulpito to San Juanico, so the engine barely got warmed up and we didn’t bother with sails.  The anchorage offers several possibilities, but during the winter season with its prevailing northerly winds, most cruising boats prefer the northern anchorages on either side of a small island known by two names:  The Lump, and Prudential.  We preferred the latter as when seen from entering the bay from the south, it looks like the Gibraltar logo of the insurance company of that name.


In addition to Harmony, a powerboat that we remembered from Marina Real in San Carlos was also at anchor: Claudacious.  Shortly after Elusive arrived, we took their crewman, Bobby, with us on a dinghy excursion to one of the beaches to the south.  It turned out to be a relatively good beach for shelling, and in addition to the ubiquitous Veined Olives, we also came up with a couple of nice Two-Banded Moon Snails and Bobby found and gave Kay a beautiful Ornate Auger in perfect condition.  That shell now has special significance as we just recently (3/4/06) learned that Bobby had died in a car crash while driving his truck home to New Mexico from San Carlos.


San Juanico is one of several cruising destinations around the world like Horta in the Azores, and Musket Cove in Fiji, that has a tradition of boats recording their names for posterity.  Just up from the water is a gnarled, stunted tree that has become the site of the San Juanico Cruiser’s Shrine.  Boat crews come up with various clever means of leaving their names in, on or around the tree.  Our friends Brian and Marilyn had left the name of Icarian spelled out in lettered scallop shells hanging from a horizontal stick wedged among the tree’s branches.  Joan and Jason of Mildred Kane had found a red brick somewhere and neatly chiseled their name in it and left it at the base of the tree.  Others had spelled their name in script with lengths of small rope tacked to a board, etc.  We elected to follow Mildred Kane’s example and used a cold chisel to etch “Kavenga” into a piece of flat granite rock.  We then filled the letters with dark red paint.


The day before we left we went on another dinghy excursion and hike to another of the beaches to the south.  Behind the beach we found a mangrove lagoon and a well-worn cow path leading inland.  While Kay and Carol combed the beach for shells, Steve, Bobby and Dick followed the cow-path to a small rancho with a hand-dug well with one wall slanted outward at a shallow angle so that the cows could walk down and sip the water.  Although we were followed by several curious cows, we saw none of the cow hands that must come around occasionally to check up on their herd.


One of the joys of cruising is making new friends.  But then sadness often follows when it comes time to sail in different directions.  So it was with the crew of Elusive.  They needed to return to San Carlos and we needed to keep making our way south.  We wished them well as we both hoisted our anchors and departed for our separate destinations.


The winds were too light to sail until, of course, we reached our next anchorage at Isla Coronados, a large island that sits just barely off the Baja coastline, north of Loreto, one of the more significant towns along Mexican Highway 1.  The anchorage on the south side of Isla Coronados is little more than an open roadstead in the lee of the island’s central peak.  Nevertheless, it gave us adequate protection from the sea and swell that continued to build on the leading edge of a new Norther.  We launched the fiberglass Ranger Minto dinghy rather than the Tinker inflatable because it was a relatively short distance to shore that we could row, and because the beach was very rocky and appeared unfriendly to inflatables.  We also found the bottom to be littered with spiny sea urchins near the shore.  A thousand boats could anchor here but we were all alone.


Although the Norther had generated winds close to 30 knots over night, we had a brief lull in the morning and figured we could make it to a more protected anchorage on Isla Carmen before they picked up again.  We easily motored the 8 miles in 4 to 6 foot seas to a small cove with the lofty name, Puerto Ballandra, on the west side of the large island, Isla Carmen.  Although it is small, it is relatively deep and we had to snuggle up close to the northern beach in order to get into a reasonable depth (40’) for anchoring.  Once again, we had the anchorage to ourselves, which, considering the size of the cove and limited anchorage depths, was just as well.  The only signs of life were a small fishing shack and a large sign proclaiming the island as an ecological park and wildlife refuge.  Upon dinghying ashore we found numerous heads and other parts of small hammerhead sharks in the shallows and on the beach.  Vultures were cleaning up those that were out of the water.  It was quite obvious that shark fishing is big business around here—and, that the sharks are numerous.


The strong winds kept us aboard Kavenga all the following day, but the day after that the Norther had finally blown itself out and we headed for Puerto Escondido.  We passed Loreto on the way, and although it is a good-sized city by Baja standards, it does not have a protected harbor for boats bigger than fishing pangas.  One can stop there in calm conditions and simply anchor off the beach, but if the wind should suddenly crank up, it would necessitate a hasty departure and might involve a very wet dinghy ride getting out through the surf.


Puerto Escondido is a very large and protected anchorage.  At the time we were there, except for the anchored boats, it looked a bit like a ghost town.  A failed development from several years ago has left roads, canals, curbs, sidewalks and lamp posts waiting for houses that were never built.  The drab, gray concrete and rusty rebar of a half completed condominium sits in the middle.  However, a new company has come in and has begun the construction of a new fuel dock and marina.  Much to the disappointment of local cruisers, they also filled the inner harbor with their own mooring buoys and now everyone has to pay them to anchor or moor in that area.


We chose to anchor outside in what is called The Waiting Room.  Although it is almost free ($1 per day) to anchor there and it has better protection from the Northers, it is very deep, requiring the use of a lot of chain or rope to anchor.  We stayed for about five days and it was very calm the whole time.


It was 15 miles back to Loreto with its grocery stores, internet cafes and restaurants.  Fortunately we were befriended by two different ladies who gave us rides there in their cars.  The first was Tina.  She and her husband are apple farmers from Eastern Washington and started coming to Baja a few years back by van and trailer.  They now have a permanent house here at Puerto Escondido.  Our other ride came from Susie on the trimaran Sparta.  She and her husband Jim have two boats, and Jim was currently sailing the other down to El Salvador.  Susie gave us the complete tour of Loreto and we had her over for a movie.


Our last full day at Puerto Escondido was Christmas.  Three of the local boats rafted together and hosted a potluck dinner for the rest of us.  Kay made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. We have to admit it doesn’t seem very “Christmassy” when it is 85 degrees and none of your friends or relatives are there.


It was still calm the next day when we left and so we motored the whole way to our next stop, Agua Verde.  This is a very pretty anchorage, but without a lot of room, so we were pleased that no other boats were there when we arrived allowing us to take the prime spot.  A big trimaran, Manta, and a powerboat came in later and had to anchor further out and closer to the reef.


Agua Verde has a small village, but it is far from the main highway and lacks many modern conveniences.  The locals mainly exist by fishing and herding goats.  They are well known for their goat cheese.  Steve had a flat tire while riding the dusty dirt roads that seem to cross at all angles through the village.  While he was pumping up the flat tire, a large herd of curious juvenile goats surrounded him and sniffed the bikes.  We also rode the bikes to a palm oasis and deserted beach.  The slough at the oasis looked perfect for crocodiles but we didn’t see any.


Not everyone is able to stop at Los Gatos, which was to be our next anchorage.  It offers even less protection from northerly winds than Agua Verde.  Although we had a good north breeze and 3 to 4 foot seas when we arrived, once again no one else was there and we were able to tuck way up behind the small headland and reef.  Like we said earlier, being late in the season had its advantages.  At Los Gatos, like much of the Baja coastline in the Sea of Cortez, the color and geologic formations are amazing, approaching the Grand Canyon in…well, grandeur.  The name means “The Cats” and according to local legend, the area was once the home of a pair of mountain lions.


After we left Los Gatos we took an especially long look at the coastline between there and our next destination, Punta San Evaristo.  When we were in Mexico in 1991, Evaristo was the farthest north we traveled before turning back south.  We had just recently made the decision to ship Kavenga back to Puget Sound this coming Spring.  Consequently, we had the feeling that this stretch of coast was the last bit of “new land” for us to “discover”.  Henceforth, everything we would be seeing would be areas that we had cruised before.


The anchorage at Evaristo was much as we remembered it from 1991, but now there was a “town” on shore, whereas before there had been one loan ramada (4 poles and a thatched roof) that provided shade for the fishermen’s freezer chest (generator powered).  Now they had about 20 houses, a desalinization plant, power lines, a slightly better gravel road to La Paz, and that badge of civilization, a green road sign that proudly stated “San Evaristo.”  We were there on New Year’s weekend and it appeared as though the entire population must have gone to La Paz.


Isla San Francisco, undisputedly one of the most beautiful anchorages in Mexico, was also much as we remembered it with one exception.  We weren’t used to the wake boarders, kayakers, hikers, snorkelers and sun bathers disgorged by the smaller excursion cruise ships that are nowadays plying the waters between Cabo San Lucas and Santa Rosalia.  We were glad we had seen it in, alas, the Good Ol’ Days.  On the other hand, for those of you who would like to experience cruising Baja but don’t want to do it in your own boat, the opportunity now readily exists.  Sea Lion and Sea Bird were the two ships we saw the most.  Their crews were quite friendly and often apologized to us for invading “our” tranquil settings.


This pattern was repeated a few more times as we revisited Isla Partida and Isla Espiritu Santo.  We anchored in a couple of the same anchorages as we had in 1991, but we also had the time to check out some new ones such as El Cordenal and Puerto Ballena (another one).  We had another Norther blow through while we were in these islands and anchorages, but we always managed to find a protected spot and a bottom that provided good holding for our trusty Bruce anchor.


We were starting to run out of a few supplies, cheese in particular, and so we started looking longingly toward the supermarkets of La Paz.  Just north of there we stopped for one more night on the hook at a lovely little cove called Caleta Lobos.


The following morning, as we headed into La Paz harbor, we passed the industrial port of Pichilingue.  We made note of Bahia Falso (False Bay) just outside the port.  We will probably anchor there the night before Kavenga loads aboard the ship that will carry her to Vancouver B.C. in June.


From the water, La Paz looked much the same as it did in 1991 with the exception of the brand new Costa Baja Marina and also the relatively new Marina Palmira.  We had reservations at the “old” Marina de La Paz, which is now somewhat new in that it had to be practically rebuilt from scratch after hurricane Marty.  We were also a little surprised to find a restaurant and several shops built within the marina compound that had not been there a “mere” 15 years ago.


The Northers continued to blow and we had to keep the portholes and hatches closed and wear long pants.  This is not our idea of Mexico.  So once we had a taste of civilization and had reprovisioned, we were ready to head for the warmer waters of Banderas Bay and Puerto Vallarta on the mainland.  We’ll pick up on our way there in the next edition of Kavenga’s Wake.  Thanks for coming along.