Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dispatch 6 Bienvenidos a Mexico

November 28, 2005 to January 1, 2006
We finally made it out of the US and into Mexico on November 28, after Thanksgiving. We ended up waiting for friends, one of our amazing helpers with the muffler problem, to visit us in San Diego and were very glad to spend the day hanging with them. We arrived after an overnight passage into Ensenada, Mexico, a port of entry.

In the past, there has been a complicated dance for boaters arriving and visiting in Mexico that involves visiting the port captain, Immigration and Customs in almost every major port. The rules were simplified this year so that we only need do this dance in our first port of entry. The experience in Ensenada was quite tolerable—all the relevant officials are now housed in the same office, but, given the language deficit on our part, the process was still mildly confusing. We still had to go take a just stamped document and walk a quarter mile to get it copied and bring it back to complete our process. They also asked for a document from our marina which was not required by others we spoke with, and, in general, it sounds like the check-in process was a little different for each of our cruising friends, so I don’t think the kinks are completely worked out of the new system. We ended up stopping there each of our three days in town to drop off one form or another for check in and then check out. However, it beats the heck out of the old system from what we’ve heard, so no complaints.

Ensenada is just 60 miles from San Diego and is a blend of US/Mexico.
It is a small city with all the major conveniences including a large grocery store (supermercado called Gigante) which had everything we could want. As we were all a little confused about which foods are allowed in the country (chicken is not due to avian flu concerns, even frozen chicken parts, but eggs are or not, sometimes, depending on the day, beef is not due to mad cow, but sometimes it is and so on), we depleted our food stores before we left just in case and stocked up pretty completely in Ensenada. The customs process in Mexico is ultra-egalitarian and we’ve always liked it. You push a button and, if you get a green light, you pass and, if you get a red light, you get searched. Lucky us, we got a green light and the customs guy couldn’t have been less interested in what foods we brought in. OK, so we contributed to their economy, no problema. We took a little time to visit their historical museum which outlined the history of the Baja with its native culture originally and its rich history of missionary occupation since the 1600’s.

The Baja peninsula, our next major hurdle, is over 700 miles long, and, all but the most southern tip, is still affected by the cold California current which kept our climate so, ahem, temperate all the way down the coast. The scenery is desert dry and starkly beautiful and the population centers are few, far between and often very poor. Tijuana and Ensenada benefit from easy exchange with San Diego and Cabo San Lucas and the southern cape benefit from a rapidly growing tourist trade and tremendous sports fishing. La Paz, the capital of the state of Baja California, is a medium sized city which is more “traditional” Mexican, less affected by the tourist trade, but modestly comfortable economically from what we’ve seen.

When we left Ensenda, we embarked on a 300 mile leg to the next major safe harbor, Turtle Bay. We actually stopped a couple times along the way, hoping to see elephant seals at a couple islands (but we did not). We had fantastic sailing for the 3 days and 2 nights that the trip required, often in the 20-25 knot range with the marginal seas that produces, but we were very happy to sail so much of the coast as several boats who were a few weeks ahead of us motored the whole way and getting fuel is not a simple matter in these tiny anchorage villages.

Turtle Bay is darling. It is a huge and beautiful anchorage with very good holding. When we arrived they were having Santa Ana conditions (strong hot dry northeasterly winds) that blew red dust from the nearby hills over all the boats. We closed up the boat and hid down below during the worst of it, but were secretly thrilled to find that our new solar panel and existing wind generator were producing so much power during these conditions we had to shut down the wind generator. Fantastic because that means that they are helping us re-power the batteries without using fossil fuels!

When the wind finally died out after about 24 hours, the residents of the boats that were anchored there were finally seen out and about—we had all been hunkered down and watching our anchors. Panga drivers (traditional boats driven by fishermen in this part of Mexico) started coming out to the boats to offer rides to shore, to transport diesel in jerry cans for us, to do our laundry or to pick up garbage. They have figured out the key needs of the cruiser population and they make a living on tips for these services. Most of us used their transport rather than our own dinghies and were happy to be helping out these hard working “entrepreneurs”. This bay is one of the stops of the Baja Ha Ha, the regatta of over a hundred boats I’ve mentioned before. Now with my eyes open to the point of view of this village, I could see how this invasion of boats is very welcome in the month before Christmas rather than being a drain or stress to the community. The boats have lots of welcome money to exchange for services so I think it’s a win-win for Turtle Bay and the Ha Ha.

We spent a couple days there and started to get to know the other boat residents who were our buddy boats by virtue of timing. Still, the weather was cool at night and the water was 59 degrees, so we still dressed warm and wore our jackets for the fast panga trips.

When we left Turtle Bay we planned to go directly to Magdalena Bay, 240 miles further south, a 2 day/2 night trip. Several boats left at once and we kept up radio contact through the passage which was reassuring to feel like others are nearby. We were in visual contact most of the trip as well. Rather than go into Mag Bay, we decided to stop in Bahia Santa Maria which is more exposed, but described as beautiful in the guide books—it is slightly closer than Mag Bay. Again we had fantastic sailing weather.

Bahia Santa Maria turned out to be a gem. For one thing, the water temperature suddenly went up just before we arrived to 68 degrees on our thermometer and another boat clocked 76 nearer the surface. The bay has a huge long beach on 2 sides and beautiful hills on the other 2. The water was a stunning clear turquoise—we could see our anchor on the bottom in 30 feet of water. So sports fans, I took the plunge and we have pictures to prove it.
I put on my farmer john wet suit and dove in. It was delightful. By then the air temperature had also climbed well into the 70’s to low 80’s so it was heaven all around. Both Richard and I swam over to another friend’s boat and checked out the bottoms on the boats. All the boats who anchored in this bay (there were about 7 of us on and off) started to act like kids at summer camp. There were dinghy rides to the beach, surfing trips, snorkeling trips, beachcombing trips and cocktails one evening for most of the boaters in the anchorage. I believe we have arrived at cruising heaven at last. It was obvious that we were all having such a good time, we didn’t want to leave. We spent 3 days playing there.

At last it was time to move on and accomplish the last leg of the Baja, the 180 miles to Cabo San Lucas, “Land’s End”, and another milestone for us. We have visited Cabo twice in the previous 2 years for various events and were so looking forward to arriving the hard way, in our own sailboat. Today, this AM at sunrise, we turned the scenic corner into this tourist/party town and celebrated with champagne. We have come more than 2000 miles so far, mostly at about 5 MPH, and we have arrived in the tropics, officially crossing the Tropic of Cancer just before Cabo. Again we had beautiful sailing weather and the bonus of a nearly full moon both nights we were out—another dream passage.

Cabo is a party town and we had planned the briefest visit to get some fresh food. Since it’s a familiar place, it is fun to know our way around and more efficiently take care of provisioning. We also went to one of our old haunts for lunch. Interestingly, that neon sign we are wearing that says we are cruisers has partially inoculated us from the local vendor scene—many fewer proposals as we walked the streets today than in past visits in our party clothes. As I wind up this dispatch, the not subtle booming base from the party bar on shore is blaring “Stayin’ Alive” and we are aiming for an early start for the next anchorage around the corner. One of the boats we have been traveling with called to jokingly ask us to turn down our radio, I only wish we could. I hope the young guys we’ve met cruising are out there enjoying this cause us old folks are heading to bed right after dinner.

So our latest plan includes heading 150 miles north to La Paz and spending the Christmas and New Year’s season there, hopefully visiting with Betsy’s brother’s family as they spend time in their vacation home with their kids here on the coast between Cabo and La Paz. Next we will do the “Southern Crossing” between the tip of the Baja and mainland Mexico (usually aiming for Mazatlan) and continue down the mainland coast to Puerto Vallarta for a rendezvous with Betsy’s parents in February and then continuing south. That’s as much as we’re willing to commit to for now.

We hope you are all well, happy, surrounded by loved ones in this holiday season. We miss our family and friends very much, but so appreciate the opportunity to have this lifetime adventure and feel we are learning and growing as sailors, husband/wife and hopefully as human beings through this experience. Certainly we are meeting new friends, but they can hardly replace all of you who we have left behind. Thanks to you all for your love and support and Happy Holidays!