Thursday, March 23, 2017

Balandra - Waiting to Enter La Paz

[Kyle]After spending our first day at anchor being responsible to our pressing chores, and on the internet we achieved what would have taken fifteen minutes with a decent connection, and decided we could not face another day of staring at the “Wheel of Death” while waving our phones over our heads hoping for just one more bar of signal.

We dropped the dinghy for a tour of beautiful Balandra Bay. Surrounded by huge, crumbling walls of conglomerate, it didn’t look uniform enough to have been laid down as seabed, but instead like a pyroclastic layer that was the result of some massive volcanic calamity. Softer, weaker sections had fallen away, leaving lots of sea caves fronted by giant boulders, and between these areas again were dunes and sandy beaches.

Lovely weather to explore and way less frustrating than the internet!
The tourist view was completely hidden from our view at anchor

Deeper into the bay, the white sand of the bottom rose up to meet us. We slowed the motor way down so that if we touched bottom with it the propeller would just bump, bump, bump into the sand without hurting anything. (One of the nice things about having an electric motor is that there is no minimum idle speed, so we can slow it way down to where the prop is turning at just a few rpm, dramatically reducing the chance that it will be damaged if it strikes something unexpected.).

When we finally did touch bottom, we had maybe half of the bay still between the beach and us. We lifted the motor, I jumped over the side, grabbed the painter and towed the boat towards shore without even getting my shorts wet. When it got to ankle depth, Maryanne got out and helped. We were still 100 meters from the beach when the unladen dinghy grounded. We threw out the anchor and waded in without it.

Heading towards the promise of food!

What a great beach! The sand is as soft as sugar and almost the same color. The shallow water is heated by the sun and takes a long distance to get deep, making it the perfect wading pool where parents can let their kids wander anywhere within shouting range and not have to worry.

We walked to the snack shack in the corner of the parking lot, where we bought a smoked marlin burrito, a chicken tamale and an iced cold Coke for 100 pesos; that kept us going for the rest of our circuit. We walked the dinghy over to the next beach for the obligatory pictures of El Hongo – The Mushroom – a big rock on a narrow pillar left by erosion. There’s actually a lot of these around, but this one is famous, probably because of its accessibility to La Paz. Actually, it’s a bit of a fake. Vandals broke it off a while ago (It probably would have fallen over soon anyway), but it’s since been restored with a crane and some concrete.

And on to El Hongo!

Beyond El Hongo, the water became deep enough again for us to need the dinghy. We climbed back in and took a tour of the rocks and tide pools where the Balandra meets with larger La Paz Bay.

Poking around

Back at the boat - Kyle does one last chore up the mast

We had one more night of forecast strong Coromuel winds before the arrival of a strong Norther. That would likely turn Balandra into a dangerous, frothing mess. Once the wind died down with the arrival of morning, we pulled up anchor and headed south to Caleta Lobos, just a mile or so away. Caleta Lobos is well protected from three sides and seems to be a safe place to wait out the blow. When we arrived, it was just us and one other boat way in the other corner. By late afternoon, most of the other boats that had been anchored with us in Balandra showed up and started staking out their spots. It was a shame we had to leave. Caleta Lobos is not nearly as pretty as Balandra. The hills are soft and brown and covered uniformly with brown brush, making the whole area look like dried-up piles of dirt. There is just a bit of marshland tucked way up in the shallows. That and the guano on the nearby islands makes for a lot of bobos – those annoying little flies that seem to exist solely to drive people insane. The good thing is that there is a very slightly better cell phone signal. That and all of the power from the sun and wind will pretty much dictate the nature of our stay.

So, in the meantime, we attempt to be responsible and prepare ourselves with planning and research ready for both our stay in La Paz and pending passages beyond.

We have a reservation at a Marina in La Paz for the 27th March and it seems we were lucky to get that since there is a festival on in town.. Once we make it there, we will be full steam ahead in 'work' mode, but still hope for some fun along the way.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Shock to the System

[Kyle]Having decided that we had seen Bahia de la Raza in the one day, we pushed a tiny bit further south to Bahia San Gabriel, near the south end of Espiritu Santo.

The evening winds known as the Coromuel were forecast to be a little stronger over the next couple of days and the western corner of San Gabriel was the only place nearby that had even slight protection. We found a spot and tucked in as far as we could where we dropped anchor in the middle of a big patch of turquoise water. We checked our phones and found a homeopathic signal. That’s a memory of a signal with no actual connectivity.

Moving along the island - enjoying the strata and formations on show

We had just settled in for the afternoon when a patrol boat for the Park Service pulled up. We figured they were checking for permits, so Maryanne dug out our receipt from Bahia de Los Angeles and explained that they had no actual permits to issue. They understood and took us at our word without argument. One of them then asked the length of Begonia. When I told him, he apologized and explained that we would have to move, since we were above the size limit for anchoring in Bahia San Gabriel. We thanked them and assured them we would move.

{Maryanne: Embarrassing! We really DO try and follow all the rules, but in our defense, we'd spent over $100 on two sailing/cruising guides to this area and each one lists this as a suitable anchorage with no hint of length restriction.. Doh!}

We started everything up again, pulled up the anchor and headed to the next cove, Bahia Dispensa, which was one of the alternatives the ranger had suggested. It is much smaller and did not appear to be as well protected. If the chart was wrong (as they often are here) and we could tuck way in, we might be able to make it work.

As soon as we came around the corner, we saw another catamaran – a day tour boat, taking up the only reasonable spot. We inched around for a while, but could not find anywhere deep enough to allow us to be actually inside the bay where we could find any land to protect us from the wind. We had to choose between going around all of the way to the east side of the island, backing up as far as Caleta Partida, or leaving Espiritu Santo entirely and moving on to our next stop at Puerto Balandra on the Baja mainland. Feeling a little dejected about leaving the park way earlier than we had expected, we chose the last.

Along the way, we joined the procession of tour boats heading back to La Paz at the end of the day. We seemed to be the only boat that wasn’t carrying twenty people or towing three kayaks.

As we approached Puerto Balandra, one anchored boat after another appeared over the horizon until we could see that it was very full indeed. Puerto Balandra and the nearby beach at Tecomate are very pretty and very close to La Paz. Anybody that wants to go out for a nice weekend of water fun without making an expedition of it will likely go to one of those places, depending on the vehicle. If you don’t have a boat, you go to Tecomate. A look through the binoculars as we passed by revealed a thin white beach speckled with multicolored beach goers and topped with a layer of uninterrupted crushing humanity under restaurant awnings, taco stand tarps and beach umbrellas over its entire length.

Those with boats go out to anchor at Balandra. When we arrived, all of the available anchoring space appeared to be taken. We searched around for a bit before finding a barely big enough spot between a pretty little monohull and an obscene megayacht. There were also a few charter boats and the obligatory sport fishing boat with too-loud music, populated entirely by shirtless guys holding red Solo cups and shouting mostly, “Whoo!” or sometimes, “Whooo!!” Behind that was another, and another, stretching across the entire bay. After the peace and natural beauty of the islands, it was a bit jolting to find ourselves in the center of Spring Break.

After the sun set, the lunch hook crowd left – maybe about a third of the boats. The Coromuel started and the mood in the anchorage became more serious. People went forward on deck to check their anchors and their swing. Only the guests of the big yachts remained in full party mode while their crews could be seen looking everything over and having hushed conversations with each other while conspicuously trying not to spread their concern.

The wind increased until it easily drowned out the stereos and drove everybody indoors. All of the boats seemed to be holding well with the exception of the megayacht we had anchored ahead. The whole anchorage had swung 90˚, so they were now beside us. The wind was catching the big, flat topsides and blowing them from one side of their anchor to the other, yawing them through 180˚ each cycle. From the size of their swinging circle and the angle of their chain, which was a smaller gauge than ours, they seemed to have way too little scope out. Their anchor must have been huge, though, because somehow they held. Their chain was making all kinds of horrible creaking noises and we every time we heard a loud bang we thought it had parted. The one thing they had going for them was a big crew who were likely sober and able to stay up all night to be ready to start the engines at a moment’s notice if needed.

By morning, the Coromuel had increased to 21 knots. We were so glad we hadn’t stayed in the partially protected anchorage at San Gabriel. Even tucked in behind the headland at Balandra, we were bouncing around in chop and spray was being blown on deck. Our megayacht neighbor was still there. They appeared to have let out more chain and were staying pointed into the wind now like the rest of us.

Once the wind abates we can enjoy the views - and even the occasional distant whale

Behind the bay at the top of a hill was the first cell phone tower we had seen in ages. Oh, Joy! It turned out to be the one everybody else from La Paz was using on the long holiday weekend (Monday was Benito Juarez’s Birthday). Data came in at about an email per minute (sometimes two, sometimes five), but at least we had a chance to start chipping away at our internet list.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

La Raza

[Kyle]Next on the itinerary was a trip three or so coves down to Bahia de La Raza. We had heard from a very nice couple we met on the beach at Isla San Francisco that it was one of their favorite spots on Espiritu Santo, so we decided leave a little earlier than we had originally planned so we could have more time there. We had also been completely without cell service for almost a month. We were hoping La Raza might be just enough closer to La Paz for us to be able to get a signal.

More Mobula Rays on the short route to La Raz

It wasn’t, so we decided to content ourselves with the scenery. La Raza is backed by the highest terrain on Espiritu Santo, which tumbles down to a beach that’s half sand, half mangroves. After that, there is a long, shallow stretch of turquoise water over white sand leading up to the deeper water of the anchorage.

We mounted the electric motor on the dinghy and headed for the beach. We had the usual sights along the way plus we spotted a few small schools of barracuda, which were way too fast for us to chase down.

Exploring the immediate area

On the beach, there were lots of shells and pieces of coral as well as lots of fossils embedded in the rocks. We found lots of crabs and snails and gazillions of scurrying bugs in the surf called sea roaches – isopods that seem to be half rolly poly, half cockroach. They’re pretty revolting, but at least they seemed terrified of us and would dart into any nearby crevice as we approached. I had the thought that if they had any parasitic tendencies toward us like leeches do, for example, walking on the beach would be something we would almost never do.

100s of these Sea Slaters/Sea roaches (a species of Isopod) move on mass to avoid you as you walk along the splash zone - very disconcerting!

The mangroves are an important habitat for a lot of animals, most notably insects. When given a choice, we tend to avoid anchoring anywhere near them because, at the very least, unless there’s a lot of wind, they’ll drive us too crazy to be able to enjoy the evening. We were quite a way out from the beach, but we still ended up being pestered by a handful of tiny non-biting flies. They didn’t drive us inside and they mercifully all vanished right before sunset.

Since we hadn’t yet hoisted the dinghy, we took a big tour to the next anchorage and around one of the islands so that we could get a break from flailing around in an unsuccessful attempt to discourage them. It mostly worked. We were able to focus on the amazing geology and the wildlife. Above us, about a hundred Frigate Birds were circling in the thermals over the warmer land. By the time we made it back to the boat, others had joined in and the flock was probably numbering a thousand.

A dinghy tour of the rock points and nearby island

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bahia Candelero

[Kyle]After Mezteño, we went around the next corner (still on Isla Espiritu Santo) to Bahia Candelero, named such because the rocky spires in the center of the bay kind of look like candlesticks from certain angles if you squint and there’s a little tequila involved. The outcrops of hard rock are the last bit of the crumbling ridge that starts at the top of the hill behind the bay and bisects the white sand beach before plunging into the sea. On either beach are two halves of a fancy campground run by a company in La Paz that caters mostly to kayakers. They are spaced such that it is possible to rent a kayak for a multi-day trip that spends each night in a different camp along the way. There were several boats anchored in the bay and lots of people milling around on various water toys. After quiet Mezteño, it was a bit of a shock to be in the midst of so much activity.

The Candlestick... Hmm...

We rowed to the northern beach with the intent of taking what was reported to be a short semicircular trail going behind the rocks to the opposite beach. One other option was a longer trail that went up one of the arroyos to some nice rock formations. We were more than a little wary of arroyo “trails” by then, so we decided in advance to just stick with the short loop.

That was the plan anyway until it became apparent that our trail seemed to be showing no signs of looping back around. We continued a bit further and then a bit further until we found ourselves standing in front of the cave at the end of the long trail. That trail wasn’t bad at all. We had only been walking for twenty minutes. There is just no understanding this place. {Maryanne: This trail, like others in the area also has wild fig trees with amazing root systems, here the fruit is fertilized by bees (rather than wasps), but we were in the wrong season for fruit unfortunately.}

The trail took us into a deep grotto between towering walls of pink and yellow sandstone eroded into abstract shapes. We followed it back to the beach, where a little exploring revealed a narrow passage in the rock leading to the southern beach. That was just too easy.

Exploring Bahia Candelero

With more time to spare, we did a long dinghy tour of the rocks in the center of the bay. It was very early in the nesting season and just a few birds were starting to claim their nesting spots amidst all of the cliff’s nooks and crannies. The bay turned out to be a lot larger than it initially seemed from aboard Begonia and by the time we got home during the worst of the day’s heat, I was pretty wiped out from all of the rowing. Maryanne was so good. I had barely staggered into the cockpit when she handed me a half-frozen drink from the bottom of our fridge.

As sunset neared, something curious happened. All of the other boats in the anchorage pulled up their anchors and left. We were now getting close enough to the tourist center of La Paz to be encountering charterers and day trippers on sunset cruises. From where we were, boats that had their anchors up just before sunset could be pulling into the dock at La Paz by the time the nightclubs start hopping. We ended up on the trampoline with the whole night sky to ourselves, listening to the cracking fireworks of the rays splashing all around us.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Happy Anniversary to us - and a hill to climb

[Kyle]Mezteño has a trail leading up to a viewpoint overlooking our previous anchorage - Caleta Partida. We decided to make our anniversary fun by going for a hike. (I know, but there are no B&Bs or romantic restaurants to choose from, so we decided to pretend we had been dropped off at a romantic beach for a hike)

In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, we got up so early that we were already walking away from the beached dinghy at seven o’clock. The trails here aren’t really trails. They just head straight up the arroyos, probably because the flow of water has already cleared away most of the brush. What remains is a field of boulders of various sizes to traverse. This makes the going very slow. It is necessary to concentrate fully on the next three steps. Only every now and then, when we would find a nice, flat, stable rock, could we briefly stop. Then we could look up and scout the next section of trail and enjoy the view before resuming staring at our own feet. Initially, there were a series of cairns to mark the way, but as the trail progressed, they gradually thinned out to nothing.

We didn’t really know what to expect from the Mezteño trail. I was hoping we would be back to Begonia by mid morning, but as we progressed, it became more and more apparent that that was not going to be the case. The trail went on seemingly forever. It turned out that the trail in Ensenada Grande would have been a good warm up trail for this one. We kept getting to where it looked like we just had one more curve of the arroyo to negotiate. When we got to the end of that, there would just be even more. We would arrive at yet another vista of a thousand more boulders to traverse. It did this over and over again until we both just wanted it to be over. We could see the ridgeline. We were just below it, but it just seemed to parallel us on our climb.

One little diversion from the relentlessness of our climb came when I came around a corner and spotted a little ball of fur. In front of me stood an adorable little animal that looked like 50% mongoose, 50% raccoon and 50% fox. It sounds like a kitten mewing, of which it is also 50%. When these two creatures saw me, rather than spooking and diving for the nearest hidey-hole like the lizards do, it actually got curious and came closer to see what I was. For a second, it looked like it might want me to pet it. {Maryanne: later research identified it as a Ring-Tailed Cat - a member of the raccoon family}

The ring-tail cat was a great distraction on an otherwise tough hike

Don’t tempt me. I’m the guy who has patiently embarked on a twenty-year mission to befriend Jonesey, our friend Kate’s cat. She and her husband Mark are saints for raising her into old age despite the fact that she’s made it clear that she hopes to outlive them so she can feast on their remains.

Two things kept me from doing it: The thought of the infamously painful treatment for rabies being administered in a Mexican hospital (“What!? $10!?”) AND the fact that I have never seen a chupacabra (or have I?).

It studied us for a bit and then wandered off, completely unconcerned. It’s a good thing. If it had come any closer, I would have had to adopt it. That would likely have caused problems with Customs at the next port, “Well, officer, I don’t know what it is either, but it’s really soft and it likes to be scratched behind the ears. Its favorite foods are scorpions and cactus needles and possibly the tears of orphaned children.”

Back to the trail: Eventually, and quite irritatingly, it ended with a natural Do Not Enter sign made by cactus and other thorny things growing in a completely impenetrable semi-circle across the trail. By then, we had been boulder scrambling for three hours and we were in no mood to just turn around and go back. We had been looking forward to a rest and lunch. Maryanne backtracked a little and then scouted a path up the steep rocks to the top. Well, this isn’t crazy. Up we went.

Ahh - but the view made it all worthwhile

At the top, we got the sweeping view we had been hoping for. The Caleta Partida anchorage was WAY down there. We could see all of the way across the Bay of La Paz to the Baja mainland. We rested for a bit and then got on with the dreaded business of getting back down.

It was exhausting work, which caused our balance and dexterity to suffer, which we had no choice but to compensate for by slowing down. That made everything take longer. The canyon walls, which had shaded us on the way up, were now the sides of the big Mexican solar oven. We were so glad we started early. We never could have made it both ways through it. When we finally arrived back at the beach, we both just marched past the dinghy and waded up to our knees in the cool water. Back at Begonia, we both needed a swim before we could even stand in the shadow of the bimini.

Back at the boat we supped wine and enjoyed the show.

In the evening, to get us back into Anniversary mode, we opened a bottle of wine and went out on the trampoline to watch the stars come out and reflect on the years we have spent together. The rays were putting on a fireworks show of loud splashes and it was hard not to feel like we were having the most special Tuesday night of anyone. I guess being married has worked out for us pretty well so far.

We slept in as long as we wanted the next morning. Once we were out of bed going about our morning routines, a dinghy came around the corner from Caleta Partida and landed on the beach. We watched as the two occupants pulled their boat above the high tide line and then disappeared up the trail without packs. It was ten o’clock and it was already starting to get hot.

I don’t want to wish anybody will fail, but I was hoping they would give up before they got too committed. After they had been gone for a couple of hours, I realized that, as the last people to see them alive, we probably had some sort of moral obligation to mount some kind of rescue effort.

I was just starting to figure out how late I could leave and still cover a reasonable portion of the trail before it got dark when they reappeared on the beach. They hadn’t been gone long enough to get to the top, much less get back. They weren’t staggering and didn’t skip their dinghy for a soak. When they went by, they refused our offer of cold drinks. Apparently, they just wandered around for a bit, decided the trail looked too tough and gave up. You can do that?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Caleta Partida

[Kyle]In the morning, we left Ensenada Grande while listening to the ricochets of the early riser rays. We passed three bays and then pulled in at Caleta Partida, a big anchorage that once upon a time was a much bigger volcanic crater. Since then, it has worn down to where it can be entered from the west. On the eastern side, a thin channel runs between sandbars, thus separating Isla La Partida on the north from Isla Espiritu Santo on the south.

We set anchor in the northern lobe of the bay just shy of the shallow turquoise water of the beach there. We deployed the dinghy and took a roundabout course to it along the shoreline. There were lots of caves to peer into and rock formations to enjoy. The water was down to two feet deep about a half a mile from the beach, so we were able to watch crabs run for cover and the grass waving in the wavelets as we passed overhead.

From Begonia with binoculars, we had seen a sign on shore. One of our guidebooks indicated there was a short trail there, so we were keen to see where it went. Once we were standing in front of the sign though, we could clearly see that it was the only indication of a trail. We poked through the growth on one dead end after another before giving up and deciding it must have been reclaimed by nature. We gave up on the trail idea.

Since the water was so shallow leading up to the beach, it was necessary for us to anchor the dinghy out and wade in to keep it afloat. Once we had finished our search for the elusive trail, the tide had gone down another foot or so, requiring us to drag it a quite a ways before it would float with our weight in it. I rowed almost all of the way back to Begonia with the oars touching bottom on each stroke. Along the way, we spotted lots of porous, fragile (dead) marine skeleton that looked like they could be made into loofahs if dried very carefully.

Exploring Caleta Partida

We got back to Begonia just in time for the hot-part-of-the-afternoon-hide-from-the-sun time, which we used to do all of the stuff the rays kept us from the afternoon before.

The other big thing to do in Caleta Partida is to take a dinghy through the channel to the eastern side of the islands outside the bay. At low tide, the channel turns into a sand spit connecting Islas La Partida and Espiritu Santo. High tide the next day was at 0932, which would give us a chance to do a little exploring before it started to get crazy hot. The channel is a big S weaving between two opposing sand bars, each topped with fish camps. In my mind, the East Spit and West Spit camps are locked in a bitter rivalry.

There are fish camps everywhere in these parts. Most are accessible only by panga and seem to be built out of recycled materials like road signs and used banners. They are lashed together just strongly enough to last until the next tropical storm blows them away. Most have no electricity, although we do see occasional ones with a solar panel and a satellite dish. The most durable structures are usually the port-a-loo outhouses.

We didn’t want to invade anyone’s privacy, so we landed near one at the end of East Spit that seemed to be unattended. We had a short walk along the beach and then made it about thirty steps up the hill before the growth got too thick. It was just enough to give us a little overview of the scene before we had to get back while the tide was still high.

The day was still young when we got back, so we decided to head to our next anchorage around the corner at Bahia Mezteño a day early. We ended up being the only boat anchored in the little bay. A white sand beach fronted by turquoise water had a tour boat hosting some day-trippers who were gone a few hours later, leaving it to just us.