The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
In our cruising we alternate between anchorages and marinas. Larry feels like a stranded whale in a marina after a few days but I enjoy the change from anchoring. After a month or so anchoring, I am ready for long showers in the marina shower house (usually very nice), a washer and dryer at my disposal, restaurants galore, and lots of fresh food easily available without taking the dinghy. I do miss the peace of the anchorage, jumping in the Pacific to cool off, and sitting on my veranda (the cockpit) enjoying a nice breeze. After our sojourn south of Banderas Bay, we returned to Puerto Vallarta for several weeks to rest, enjoy the marina and do boat projects.
One benefit of being in the marina is access to the Internet. We have e-mail on board both to send and receive thanks to our satellite phone but we do not have access to the Web. While technically, Web access through a satellite phone is possible, on our phone it is very slow, and very expensive because it is so slow. The satellite phone costs a dollar a minute, and if it takes 40 minutes to get tied into Well Fargo banking system you begin to get the idea. Puerto Vallarta has a yacht club with wireless Internet access, and similar facilities are generally within reach of most marinas. We often spend an hour or so each day catching up on favorite Web sites when we’re in a marina. <Larry: This is also most convenient if one can do the work while sitting in the cockpit of one’s own boat, and least convenient—and most risky—if one must row ashore to do a surf-landing with one’s laptop in a backpack.>
<Larry: Then there are the boat projects, which often require multiple bus/taxi trips to ferreterias (hardware stores) to seek out specialized hardware, raw materials, hoses, or other gadgets.> During our Puerto Vallarta stay, one high-priority project was the engine. It was overheating, but only when we slowed down, which caused high tension when coming into a marina or anchoring <Larry: A boat is unlike a car in this respect. When the engine stops in a car, one can coast to the side of the road, set the emergency brake, and stop. A boat’s emergency brake is its anchor and, unless anchored, the boat will drift into mischief. In a harbor entrance, that will happen sooner rather than later. See the next installment for our experience in the entrance to La Paz.>. We had gotten very quick when anchoring but coming into the marina in Puerto Vallarta we just barely got into our slip as the overheating alarm went off. Problem-solving is a way of life in cruising. Both of us had jobs that were basically solving problems whether for clients, staff or bosses, solving the problem at hand was the challenge that kept us both interested in our respective careers for 25 or 30 years. We have found out that cruising is not so dissimilar. Problems arise quickly and must be solved quickly to assure continuity on <Larry: and “of”> the boat. So, the engine was now on the list to be solved or managed. Puerto Vallarta has many shops and experienced technicians to help. It was also time to see old friends and meet new ones, see some more of Puerto Vallarta, do the usual housekeeping involved on the boat, and provision for the next passage.
After much consultation and investment with engine techs, we set off on March 3rd, 2005, for ports north.
Our plan was to do a loop: head north to Mazatlán, stay for several weeks, see the Copper Canyon by train, then set off west across the Sea of Cortez <Larry: the politically correct term is now the “Gulf of California”> for a brief visit to the islands near La Paz, then south to La Paz, and southeast to Puerto Vallarta as of June 1. Our insurance company considers June 1 to be the start of the hurricane season, and blesses Puerto Vallarta as a “hurricane hole.” By returning to Puerto Vallarta we expect to be well-positioned to resume our journey in November <Larry: the nominal end of the hurricane season>. We plan to leave the boat in Puerto Vallarta, but not ourselves. It gets very humid and hot in this area of Mexico during the summer, so we will return to the States for July and August, then travel in inland Mexico where the temperature is more moderate in September and October.
The journey northwestward from Puerto Vallarta to Mazatlán can be done in one fell swoop (about 160 nm) with a passage of three days. We do about 100 nm in a 24-hour day if we average four knots <Larry: about 5 mph>. Alternatively, the distance can be done in daylight hops by going from port to port, stopping each night. We compromised by doing mostly daylight hops from port to port, Puerto Vallarta to San Blas, San Blas to Isla Isabela, then a final overnight passage to Mazatlán.
In this area, the difference between sailing south (really, southeast) and sailing north (really, northwest) is due to the direction of the wind, typically out of the northwest at this time of year. Our trips south of Puerto Vallarta had been generally down wind. The saying is, “Gentlemen don’t sail upwind.” It’s generally faster and more comfortable to go downwind. However, going northwest usually means traveling upwind in this area and season, which is a very different prospect: often slow, wet, and frustrating. If the wind is coming from the direction you want to go, sailing toward your destination requires pointing the bow not at the destination, but 45 degrees or to either side of it, and proceeding by indirection, which of course adds to the distance to be covered. It can be very rough. I have now learned to call these passages “rollicking,” not rough! If the weather cooperates, it is possible to pick up a southerly wind <Larry: i.e., a wind out of the south, rare around here in the Springtime>, and then the passage north becomes downwind. However we didn’t get lucky going north, and we got the full experience of upwind sailing. The wind was not too ferocious but there was a current against us in several areas as we worked our way up to Mazatlán, so we were often going sideways, slowly.
For those poets among you, note that we stopped in San Blas, memorialized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “the Bells of San Blas”. When he wrote the poem (1882), the town’s doors were closed to foreign trade, the ships and tourists were gone and was perhaps even dustier and quieter than it is today. The bells, though silent, are still in the old Nuestra Señora del Rosario church, little changed to this day. San Blas is about 10,000 folks in size and flourishes during the winter season, particularly over Easter. It has the best corn tortillas we have tasted so far in Mexico and is very welcoming to cruisers. Case in point: we anchored in Matanchen Bay, just east of the town. As we finished anchoring, our VHF radio came alive with an American voice saying “Moira, Moira. Welcome to San Blas.” The voice belonged to an expatriate who, along with a Mexican partner, owns a restaurant on the shore of Matanchen Bay. He lives with his wife above the restaurant six months of the year, and returns to the States for the remainder. He welcomed us to the Bay, invited us to his house for some cold beers and drove us into town so we could run some errands <Larry: The overheating continued, and we were searching for some new engine belts that might improve the effectiveness of our engine’s water pump>. Another day, we took a panga to explore the estero (estuary) of the Bay which winds several miles upstream into the jungle. The channel quickly narrows into a dark tunnel of tree branches edged by great curtain like swaths of mangrove roots. Snowy egrets peer from the leafy branches, startled turtles slip off their perches into the river, the crocodiles resemble big submerged roots. Riots of luxuriant plants, white lilies, ferns and orchids hang from the trees and line the banks.
It all sounds too good? There is a catch. The town is on a lovely bay but has not developed, perhaps because of the proliferation of jejenes (“no see um’s”) a tiny gnat-like insect with huge appetite for human flesh. These little devils only come out from about 4:30pm until dusk, but in that time clouds of them can bite and leave one with an intolerable itch. By the time we left San Blas, my arms and legs were covered by small itching red bites, which of course I scratched and caused infections. Fortunately I had some appropriate medicines to control the itch and soreness. I will refrain from visiting San Blas again, though I will remember the delicious corn tortillas.
The most interesting stop of this passage <Larry: “interesting” indeed: it is disconcerting to be 10 miles offshore with the water only 50 feet deep, but the whole ocean is shallow in this area> was Isla Isabela, a national park and wildlife preserve. The island is about 1.5nm long and 1nm wide and has two anchorages, “south” and “east,” which are good in decent weather <Larry: and a third anchorage, “west,” which can be useful in bad weather. In February, the wooden sailboat “Maxine” was caught in the “south” anchorage during a blow and sank due to a combination of factors and decisions by her crew, though her crew was rescued by local fishermen after a harrowing experience. So when we sailed up to the island, the south anchorage was haunted by the fairly young ghost of the dead boat. As a result of that, as well as the fact that the water in the anchorage was rather rough, we opted for the “east” anchorage. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs: the south anchorage is more enclosed, which can give protection from incoming swell, but can also focus and amplify the swell, and limits one’s options if it becomes desirable to leave in a hurry, especially in the dark; the east anchorage is more exposed from the south and east, but prevailing winds are from the north and west at this time of year, and escape is easier.>
The island is the home to numerous species of birds, in particular the “café” (green-footed) booby, frigate birds, and iguanas. <Larry: The wildlife is totally unafraid of humans. I could approach within a yard or two of any of the birds or lizards to take a picture without causing any apparent distress.> There is a small fishing camp on the south side, occupied by eight or ten families occupying lean-to’s or open-sided huts. The huts are built cheek-by-jowl along a short stretch of beach, sheltered by rocks, that provides a calm place for them to beach their pangas. The fishermen maintain a small capilla (chapel) on one promontory. Their faith, and their skills, are their only protection from the forces of the ocean. We took our little 8’ dinghy ashore there, dragged it up on the beach, sank the anchor into the coral sand to make double-sure, and went exploring. No supplies are available. There is a ranger on the island who asked us to sign the guest book but is not there to conduct guided tours. <Larry: There is a really nice concrete park headquarters building on the island, well built, as you’d expect to find at Yosemite, say, with a theater and all. However, while the shell is complete, the interior has never been finished, and the building is, effectively, a big concrete lean-to, with the winds blowing through it. Such a big investment for so little return, a scene we see so often in Mexico.>
<Larry: The passage from Isla Isabella to Mazatlán was not remarkable, except for three things. First, we hoped for a continuation of the winds we had been experiencing from behind us, i.e., out of the southeast. NOT! We were approaching the change of seasons after which the winds would come more often out of the northwest. Gotcha! This instability during the change of seasons would bite us again. Second, we encountered an adverse current, i.e., from the direction we wanted to go. The combination of #1 and #2 meant that we were approaching our destination at nil speed. If you look at the chart under “passage planning,” you’ll see a “notch” off of Barra Teacapan that shows us going back and forth and, basically, going nowhere. Along with our natural wimpiness that meant that we turned on the engine. Finally, as we approached Mazatlán, we needed to pass through the shrimping fleet. This fleet typically operates in waters shallower than about 100’, trailing nets several hundred yards behind and on either side, and proceeds at very slow speeds, say 2-3 knots. We had to “tiptoe through the tulips” of 20 or 30 of these vessels in the dark (a nod of thanks to Winston Churchill for RADAR).>
We arrived in Mazatlán on March 17th. Mazatlán is a town of about 1 million people. Just 13 km south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlán is Mexico’s principal Pacific port for fishing and trade. The city is also known for its beer and shrimp. Marina Mazatlán, where we stayed, is blessed with a shrimp truck and vegetable truck which arrive three mornings a week in season <Larry: and a beer truck that arrives on the same schedule>. The shrimp were fresh and varied in size from 1 inch up to 5 inches. A kilo of 5 inch shrimp, the sweetest and most delicious I have ever tasted, cost 200 pesos or about 18 dollars. I bought enough veggies and fresh bread from the veggie truck to last several days for 100 pesos (9 or 10 dollars). The city has an exuberance and vitality unlike any of the other cities we have seen so far. Prosperity abounds. Construction, including home building, is everywhere. Cars are abundant, which so far has not been true in other cities we have visited, as cars for Mexicans are very expensive. A typical Toyota which may cost $16,000 in the US will cost $26,000 here.
The city has considerable charm. There is an historical district which is partly renovated. At the heart of old Mazatlán is the 19th century cathedral with its high yellow twin towers and beautiful statues inside. It faces the Plaza which has large towering trees and a Victorian bandstand. Close by is the Teatro Angela Peralta. Angela Peralta was a famous opera diva dubbed by a Spanish journalist as the “Mexican Nightingale” during her European tour in 1863. She eventually returned to Mexico, inaugurated the Mexico City Opera season in 1873 on a pinnacle of fame. She died of yellow fever along with 76 of the 80 member touring company in 1883. The Teatro in Mazatlán was built in 1860, fell into ruins over time, and after a five year restoration project reopened in 1992, with a number of public events each month. A lovely and opulent interior is open for viewing every day for a charge of 12 pesos (about 1 dollar) which revenue is used to repay the restoration loan from the federal government. <Larry: On the second floor is a small museum that shows photographs of the theater at the worst of its ruin, and contains artifacts discovered during its reconstruction. Don’t miss.> The historical district of Plaza Machaca reminds me of New Orleans both in style and design of construction. <Larry: And visit the restaurants, museums, and artisan shops around the Plaza Machaca, just a step away from the Teatro Peralta. As Susan says, “an historical district which is partially renovated.” Crouching among the lively centers of activity in this district are multiple structures that were, in their heyday, magnificent, now only precarious adobe shells owned by real estate speculators, awaiting buyers.>
Bus transportation in the city, as with most Mexican cities, is convenient and cheap. One or two bus fares of four pesos (40 cents) will get you anywhere in the city. An alternative form of transportation unique to Mazatlán is the small open-air taxis called pulmonías (literally, “pneumonia”), large golf carts seating two to four passengers. The average pulmonía ride costs 40 to 60 pesos (4 or 5 dollars), where a taxi right might be twice that.
Mazatlán has its own aquarium. While the construction quality and detail do not come close to Monterey or Long Beach, it gets the job done. The exhibits were of very good quality, and gave a good overview of the Mexican and South Pacific ocean areas. It had open-air exhibits of birds and crocodiles. There was a really excellent seal show, about the best seal show I have ever seen.
Mexicans do like to party, with national vacation times set aside at the usual Christian dates, with some unique to Mexico. Easter is called Semana Santa (“Holy Week”). We were in Mazatlán during Semana Santa, and watched an amazing transformation take place. The entire town was spruced up and the population increased by easily 50 to 60,000 people, including not only students but families from all over Mexico, who came for the Spring time weather along the beach. Once-passable roads through downtown became impassible: we found that we would wait in traffic for forty-five minutes if we came downtown. It looked and felt like Spring break in Fort Lauderdale, with cars of students stopping in the middle of the road to chat, and sleek convertibles with five or six very busty girls in the back seat. Even the tour buses give up the downtown during the four days around Easter. <Larry: Besides the official holidays, Mexico unofficially also recognizes San (or Santa) Lunes. After a weekend of hard partying under the auspices of some holy day, some folks have a hard time showing up for work on the following Monday, and declare for themselves a new saint’s feast day, resulting in a new three day weekend. “San Lunes” translates as “Saint Monday.”>
<Larry: Our Single Sideband (SSB) radio had never really worked properly: we could receive well, but could transmit only weakly. I finally got fed up and, while in Mazatlán, got on the telephone and called the local Mexican guru-of-repute. He told me to take out all the relevant parts (the transceiver and the antenna tuner) and he would take them in to his shop to bench-test them. I winced at this, because the antenna tuner is located at the very stern of the boat, in quite an inaccessible spot. Nonetheless, I proceeded to disassemble the stern of the boat, and retrieved the necessary parts, damaging some of the wiring in the process. While waiting for Sr. Gurú, I fixed the cabling connectors I had destroyed in the removal process. The appointed hour for Sr. Gurú’s coming came and went, and it became apparent that he wasn’t going to make the scene, at least on the appointed day. Ah, well, mañana.
So I sez to myself, I sez, sez I, “Self! You know that problems in boat electronic systems are usually in the connectors between components, not in the components themselves. You’ve just replaced a bunch of connectors. Hmmm.” So I put the whole thing back together again, and hala!, everything worked wonderfully! Actually, almost too well: the transmitter pumps so much energy into the air now that when I trigger “transmit,” nearly everything electronic in the boat lights up, whether I want it to or not!
The punchline to this story is that, had Sr. Gurú shown up on time to retrieve the components, the bench-testing in his lab would quite correctly have shown nothing wrong with them.>
We traveled by bus out of Mazatlán to see two colonial cities established around 1550. These cities were built by the Spanish, and each has an elaborate church with a baroque facade and elaborately decorated columns. These towns were established to support the silver mining trade but are now known for the furniture making, high quality ceramics, and other crafts.
Copala is a small town of 300 people, complete with cobblestone streets and elegantly decorated and colorful one and two story colonial houses. Of course it had the obligatory church and school. Even very small towns usually have a small school of one or two rooms. It’s not until mid or high school that kids in rural districts may have to travel far or go to a boarding school. In remote areas like this the government provides free schooling through age 14. Parents pay a school fee for supplies and must provide uniforms. Mexicans tell me that school attendance is close to 95-98%. In Copala we found a mask maker who worked in leather. We bought a beautiful bright orange mask that we prominently installed on our forward bulkhead <Larry: “bedroom wall,” to you landlubbers>. Our plan is to decorate the boat with art purchased along the way.
Another town we visited was Concordia, where we watched a talented ceramic artist hand make tiles used for decoration and floors, using a huge mechanical press driven by a 15’ steel lever arm and his body weight. We also visited a bakery and enjoyed the best pan dulce (“sweet bread,” think like doughnuts or éclairs) we’ve tasted so far in Mexico <Larry: To visit the actual bakery, we walked through the living room of the proprietor’s house, with the TV to one side of us, and a number of adolescent TV viewers on the other>.
<Larry: One of the things we have remarked upon in Mexico is the effort that the government, at all levels, makes to instill common values in the population. It’s common to find a wall with a slogan exhorting parents to play with their pre-school children, or reminding rural mothers to disinfect the water they drink. Anti-drug slogans are common. In the US today, we emphasize pluralism, which is to say, the lack of common values. We found this mural on the wall of a schoolyard in Concordia. The slogan on the mural says “There’s always a way out.”>
Mazatlán is a good stepping off point from which we could visit the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon). Located about 5 hours northeast of Mazatlán, the name Barranca del Cobre refers specifically to the very beautiful and awe inspiring canyon of Río Uriquesoutheast of the village of Divisadero, and more generally to a cluster of 20 canyons carved out of the Sierra Tarahumara by a least six different rivers. These canyons had their origin 40 million years ago as the area went through an intense volcanic activity for 15 million years. Thousands of volcanoes erupted everywhere, covering the region with lava and ashes, whose deposits formed plateaus, some of which have a thickness of three kilometers. At the same time tectonic activity was prevalent. Earthquakes gave rise to huge geologic faults which left fractures in the plateaus. The fractures filled with rainwater and formed the network of rivers in the canyons. These canyons are four times larger than the Grand Canyon and nine of them are deeper than it is. At the deepest point (1879 meters) the climate is subtropical, while the peaks above are 2300 meters above sea level and home to conifers, evergreens and the occasional aspen.
One of Mexico’s most numerous indigenous peoples, the Tarahumara <Larry: the politically correct term is “Raramuri”>, still retain a traditional life style at the bottoms of these canyons. The Tarahumara number about 50,000, which we were told was the same population as they had about 300 years ago. The men are known for their remarkable running skills. The women wear bright, colorful, bulky dresses; much of the bulk is due to layering needed because of the cold. In March, it was 40 to 50F in the early morning until the sun rose above the mountains. The traditional shelter for the Tarahumara is a kind of cave carved in the canyon wall by the flow of a river, often with a lean-to added in front of the cave. They farm corn and beans and some livestock. Their craftsmen produce beautiful beaded jewelry and colorful intricately designed rugs, blankets, and lariats, and the women sell baskets woven from local grasses.
Our trip to the Copper Canyon was built around travel on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (CHEPE). The CHEPE line was completed in 1961 and is considered one of the engineering marvels of the world, with 86 tunnels and 37 bridges along its 406 mile route. <Larry: One of the tunnels curls around over the top of itself inside a mountain!> The train’s route starts in Los Mochis, near the coast, and ends at Chihuahua City. The ride is scheduled to take 14 hours if done nonstop. We took 15 days, including travel to and from Mazatlán, our starting point. The train loops back and forth across <Larry: and often through and inside of> the mountains. The development and construction took 90 years and $90 million to complete . It is a marvel that it was completed because it seems to serve the tourist trade exclusively, both internal and external to Mexico. We found the train to be slow (patience counts outside of the USA), and often late, with pleasant interior spaces but marginal food. The slowness and lateness are mostly due to the poor quality of the track in some areas. Now that we are back in the States and traveling a lot by Amtrak we look at track more often. Now, I would not say Amtrak is necessarily better than CHEPE in all areas, but the track sure looks better!
Privatization has come to Mexico in a big way, including CHEPE. In 1999, the private rail franchise, Ferromex, took over CHEPE from the government and has made a significant investment in a large-scale modernization program, including renovation of the train stations, repair of the tracks, and investment in remodeled passenger cars and new dining and lounge cars.
We did most of trip planning by ourselves, making reservations by telephone or by having the hotel we were staying in make a reservation for the next night. We visited American Express to see if they could help us in the planning stages. Their trips were too short and trite for me but we did listen to their advice regarding timing… they said not to do the trip until April 1st to avoid Semana Santa (Holy Week, i.e., Easter). This good advice allowed us to travel without crowds and eased our way with hotels.
We got to El Fuerte by Mexican bus from Mazatlán. The bus system in Mexico is excellent. Riding the first class bus is similar to airplane transportation in the States, only more comfortable. And very cheap. We spent about 26 dollars each to travel the seven hours from Mazatlán to El Fuerte.
El Fuerte is a lovely Spanish colonial town. It was founded in 1564 along the El Fuerte River by the Spanish conquistador Don Francisco de Ibarra, the first explorer of the western Sierra Madre mountains. In 1610 a fort (“el fuerte”, i.e., “the strong place,”) was built to ward off the fierce Indians who constantly harassed the Spaniards. So El Fuerte was the gateway to the last frontiers of the northern Indian territories of Sonora, Arizona and California. We stayed in a beautifully restored colonial mansion called the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, in the shadow of the fortress. The Posada del Hidalgo is one of a group of hotels in the Copper Canyon owned and operated by the Mexican hotel chain Balderrama Hotel.
Our trip started normally for the CHEPE train... 2 hours late leaving El Fuerte. It appears that the tracks are not in the best state of repair so in the bad areas the train goes very slowly.
We spent two nights at the Posada Mirador just before Divisadero. This beautiful facility is located at the rim of the Canyon with a stunning view. We felt lost among two large tour groups <Larry: The hotel is clearly set up to cater to large groups, and individuals or couples that are not traveling with a group are “not in their model.” For example, dinner seating is at long tables seating thirty or so>. Also, by this time we were at 7,500 feet and feeling the altitude: we attempted some short hikes, but quickly found our balcony overlooking the canyon a marvelous addition to the room.
During our trip we crossed paths with folks from the cruising community, some of whom we had originally met at the marina in Mazatlán. For example, we met several cruisers as we all were hurrying from the train to the bus at Divisadero <Larry: a point where several of the tributary canyons meet>. This was the day after a derailment which blocked the tracks, so the only way to get past the derailment to Creel was on a school bus. <Larry: On the leg to Creel we saw several freight cars that had tumbled down the canyonside to the river at the bottom.>
One of the more unusual places we stayed was the Sierra Lodge outside of Creel. The Lodge is entirely run by the Raramuri Indians who also live nearby, and who are by the way very good cooks <Larry: we commented that the food was about the best hotel food we’d had in Mexico>. Very pleasant place, lit only by kerosene lamps. The margaritas were good, the walks to Indian caves and waterfalls unusual, and the company fun.
We were able to walk to the beautiful local church, located a mile or two away in Cusárare. The church once housed a magnificent collection of 18th Century religious art by the painter Miguel Correa. His paintings plus others collected from other missions in the Sierra Tarahumara have now been moved to the Museo Loyola, an art museum located by the church. The museum is a simple but beautifully-designed building which now houses a significant collection of religious art. What was amazing was that this collection survived all this time in this little village and was not destroyed by the elements or ripped off during almost two hundred years. <Larry: When we visited, the church was almost in ruins, and was being reconstructed by native labor. The more things change.… One disappointment of the walk was the large amount of plastic trash that had collected in the riverbed. Much later, it was explained to us that the Tarahumara are still a stone-age people, who understand a world in which discarded things of hide or wood or grass quickly return to the earth, but who don’t yet understand that discarded plastic is forever.>
The high point of our trip through the Copper Canyon was a visit to the former mining town of Batopilas, at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon (one of the canyons that together make up the “Copper Canyon”). For our trip to Batopilas, we enlisted the help of “The Three Amigos,” a travel agency in the town of Creel, in the center of the Copper Canyon area. Three Amigos is owned by a young couple, one a Mexican, the other an American expat, who were very helpful in getting us into the real countryside of the canyons and to the bottom of the canyons. We rented a Toyota pickup truck from them. <Larry: The truck was fully stocked with a picnic lunch, folding tables and folding chairs, for a refreshing repast at the midpoint of our descent into the canyon. They delivered the truck to the lodge where we were staying, outside of Creel, the night before our trip down to Batopilas.>
Batopilas is located more than a mile below the rim of the canyon. The history of Batopilas is linked with silver mining and its supporting commerce. Batopilas played the same role for silver mining in Mexico that San Francisco played for gold mining in the United States. Much of the development of Batopilas came about because of the efforts of an American, Alexander Shepherd, and the politics of the then Mexican President, who provided monetary and political support to Shepherd to undertake the mammoth job of extracting silver from Batopilas. Interestingly, Shepherd was heavily involved in the development of Washington, DC until he was ‘asked to leave’ the job by the American Congress over financial irregularities. As an example of his industry, Shepherd built an aqueduct of ingenious design running parallel to the river. The aqueduct was built to provide much-needed water to a hydroelectric plant, to provide the town and mines with electricity. As a result, Batoplias was the 2nd place in all of Mexico to have electricity. Before the mines were closed in the 1950’s, over $1 billion of silver was removed from the mountains.
When Shepherd went down the canyon it was by wagon train with mules or on horse back. Our trip was in Toyota pickup truck, perhaps not so different from mule train, based on the bumps and shudders of the trip down the canyon. There were 2-1/2 hours of paved road to warm you up, then 3-1/2 hours of dirt road to wear you out. It was not the worst dirt road we have ever seen and used but very close. It does get some maintenance, mostly grading, but it was exhausting. <Larry: As one person put it, “Not for the timid.”> On the other hand, the scenery was incredible, pristine, dramatic, and much better than the Grand Canyon. Batopilas itself was a silver mining community for almost 50 years, with a top population of almost 10,000, but now has little more than 300 people. Many beautiful buildings remain, but many are in ruins. One building has been restored as a twelve room hotel, where we stayed, once the mansion of one of the successful retailers in town. A lovely plaza with a fine Victorian gazebo gives the impression of a town stuck in the 1890's, never to be let into modern times. Most amazing. <Larry: A town of pickup trucks. We saw over a hundred pickup trucks, and exactly one sedan.>
While we were in Batopilas, we drove out of town to see Satevo, a magnificent mission built by the Jesuits between 1760 and 1764. It is beautiful and certainly one of the masterpieces of the entire Sierra, all the more impressive because it is isolated in the middle of the canyon. The local residents (not more than 50 or so) have a sign-up list inside of the mission to clean and maintain the building. <Larry: The church building at Satevo carries a historical mystery, in that it was originally designed to be a cathedral (two towers, with archbishop attached). Why anyone felt the need for a full cathedral in this wilderness is unknown. As finally completed, it is a church, one tower, not a cathedral.>
On CHEPE we went all the way to Chihuahua, which we found to be similar to but much larger than Colima. Both are middle-income towns, very prosperous, in which the future of Mexico looks very good. There is the older area of Chihuahua with a healthy retail area downtown, and in the suburbs the new development looks like the area around Phoenix or El Paso. Every American store desired is there and thriving. <Larry: One tour guide told us the story that a number of central-American illegal immigrants, transiting Mexico to enter the US, abandoned their van and began running when they saw one of the malls in Chihuahua. They thought that their navigation was off, and that they somehow had already arrived in the US.> Much new infrastructure gives good access to all. There were more cars than I have seen in other towns. Our tour guide told us that northern Mexico is the most desired living area of Mexico.
We had a very good trip and would highly recommend this trip in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
To continue our story, we are now (April 27,2005) in Altata, about 120 miles north of Mazatlán as the crow flies, but almost 200 miles with a 20kt north-west wind and chop pounding on our bow, requiring many tacks. To put it mildly, it was a rather rough passage <Larry: It was uncomfortable, not threatening. But look at the chart at the top of this article. See all the zigs and zags? That means “wind on the nose.” See where the track becomes straight? That’s where we turned on the engine.>. I was delighted we had a strong boat and wanted to kiss and hug the Monitor <Larry: wind-vane self-steering> for its persistence and never-ending performance. To say the least I was glad to reach Altata, even though the entrance channel to the harbor is about 10 miles long. <Larry: A hurricane a few years ago had washed away the buoys that mark the entrance channel, and the buoys had not yet been replaced. We got a panguero to guide us in using his handheld GPS and still went aground, fortunately in the inner channel, inside the estuary. Just lost a little bottom paint from the keel.> It's a charming small town with no paved streets but an overall look of prosperity. <Larry: Altata is a resort community for the city of Culiacan. One downside of this status is that a waterfront disco runs until 2AM or so on Saturday nights. Disco’s are one of the unholy trinity, along with no-see-um’s and jet ski’s.>
All this, and the restaurants sure can cook. <Larry: La Perla restaurant has dedicated a wall to enable visiting cruisers to memorialize their visits. The owner of La Perla came out in a panga to where we were anchored in the harbor, to invite us to lunch as his treat!>
<Larry: Altata is “off the beaten path” for cruisers, who generally shoot across the Sea of Cortez from Mazatlán. The direction of the wind during the winter months is usually out of the northwest, so anyone wanting to fetch up in, say, La Paz, will have a beat to windward, which is often wet and uncomfortable, and can result in arriving in Baja California well south of one’s desired destination. I thought to maybe “load the dice” a bit, to give us a more favorable slant on the wind, by trying to find a port north (well, north west) of Mazatlán. It didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story. The cruising guides (think AAA tour books for sailors) gave one to believe that there were no harbors on this coast, and cruisers are not immune from the ‘herd instinct’: if it’s not in the cruising guide, they don’t tend to go there. However, by looking at the charts of the area, I found several indentations that looked as though they might be harbors. I went into my archive of Commodore’s Bulletins from the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA.ORG) and found that Altata is a fine small harbor that sees—get this—one cruising boat about every six weeks! It was too good to pass up. It’s so true: sail 24 hours to windward, and you’ll find unspoiled places where few other cruisers go.>
By the way, one of the interesting things about Altata is that there is a Nuevo Altata under construction about six miles outside of town. This is not dissimilar from Nuevo Vallarta about ten years ago. Mexico has an economic development plan, including which areas of the country will be developed, e.g. with marinas, ocean front development including hotels, houses, retail. Well, Altata is on the list. The bridge connecting the mainland and the large sand spit to be developed is already constructed, and some housing units are under way. The family that runs the La Perla restaurant downtown gave us a guided tour of the new development. So in another ten years Altata will be quite different. The community seems quite proud of this addition. <Larry: We had a lengthy discussion with the owner of La Perla and his son on this topic. We tried to communicate that cruisers are less interested in marinas than they are in dredged and buoy’d channels.>
Next step for us is the passage across the Sea of Cortez, with a landing projected for Isla Espiritu Santo, just north of La Paz.
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