Friday, March 2, 2012

Isla Isabel

Isla Isabel is known as the “Galapagos of Mexico” because of its large numbers of nesting birds and iguanas.  In 1981 Isla Isabel was given national park status and in 2003 was made a World Heritage site.  On January 1st we departed from San Blas and motored 40 miles northwest to Isla Isabel where we arrived shortly before sunset.

The next morning Mark went over to a nearby boat that was having trouble raising its anchor to offer assistance.  They said that they felt they could manage their anchor but could we go out and help the s/v The Rose that was trying to free a whale from a net?  We fired up the engines, woke the kids and headed out to the s/v The Rose that was about ¾ mile off the island.  John from The Rose had been in the water for at least an hour and was tiring quickly.  They were looking for a strong swimmer and Neil volunteered.  Two other boats also came out from the anchorage to assist.  The rescue operation had started the day before but had to be abandoned as daylight slipped away.  Fortunately the whale was found again the next morning and was still alive!

Mark, Neil and the whale

 We motored out to near where a marine specialist was directing operations from a dingy and John was in the water with the whale.   Mark and Neil paddled our dingy over while I stood off on Three Hour Tour and Lisa was our official photographer.  
Neil went into the water and an exhausted John was pulled into the dingy but before Neil could reach the whale it began to swim away and he couldn’t catch it.  A call came over the radio from one of the other boats that the whale appeared to be free which brought cheers from everyone.  Mark and Neil came back to the boat with a dingy full of fishing net and we headed back to the anchorage feeling pretty pleased even though our role had been somewhere between miniscule and non-existent.

On the way back to the anchorage a small pod of 3 or 4 whales came right up behind the boat.  During the videoing of their approach I sat down, not sure that they wouldn’t hit the boat.   You can tell from our dialogue on the video that we were somewhat concerned.  We know of a boat that was hit by a whale at anchor in La Cruz so it does happen.  Anyway, at the last minute they went around us.

Later that morning I took this video of a whale that was repeatedly slapping its tail on the water.  When he started slapping I didn’t get the camera because I was sure he would stop right away but as he continued I decided to try to get a video.  I estimate the whale slapped its tale in this fashion between 30 and 40 times and I was able to catch the tail end (ha ha) of it.  

 In the afternoon we went to the island to see the boobies, frigate birds and iguanas.  Even when they are nesting, the birds are not particularly afraid of people because there are few natural predators.  The boobies usually have only one egg but this proud momma had two.

The frigate birds nest in the small trees on the island 
and every tree had numerous nests.  The boobies nest on the ground.  The brown boobies build a nest with straw but the blue-footed boobies just make a slight depression in the dirt.

Proud brown boobie parents with their chick
Pair of blue-footed boobies with their egg

Frigate bird momma with her chick.  So cute!

Male frigate bird
Isla Isabel was formed by volcanic activity as evidenced by the geology (according to Neil).  The caldera of this extinct volcano is now a lake in the centre of the island. 

Lago Cráter

The kids opted to stay another day so the next day was spent collecting sea glass, snorkelling and walking the trails of the island.  We left Isla Isabel at 4:30 pm for an overnight trip back to Chacala.  The Quadrantid meteor shower was to be that night.  It is a brief shower and we didn’t see any meteors until around 4 am.  It was also very near full moon which may have obscured some of the fainter meteors.

We made a brief stop at Chacala and carried on to Jaltemba were we had lunch at Latitude 21, a restaurant owned by an American expat. 

Lunch in Jaltemba
From there we headed back to La Cruz from where the kids would fly home.  


The Past...San Blas

From Chacala we travelled 23 miles north to San Blas, arriving at about 5 pm on Thursday, December 29th.

In the mid 1700’s San Blas was the Pacific naval port for New Spain.  A fort was built on a nearby hill that served both as an armed fort and an accounting office for San Blas.  The town thrived as a port and as a centre for ship building due to its proximity to nearby forests until 1810 when it was overtaken in the Spanish-Mexican war for independence.  San Blas fell into decline after the war and shipping activity was moved further south to the deeper ports of Manzanillo and Acapulco.

Shrimp and lobster at the market

Today San Blas is a quiet harbour town.  A central market supplies all manner of produce, fruit, meat, fish, seafood and hardware.  
Home delivery
Limes are available everywhere

The traditional costumes of the Huichol

A nearby tribe of Indians, the Huichol, are well known for their beadwork and colourful tapestries.  They can be found selling their handicrafts in the square dressed in their traditional costumes.  

Our panga in the mangroves

One of the highlights at San Blas is the jungle tour on the Río Tovara.  The tour company where you can rent pangas to take you up the river is a short walk from the beach.   

 The first half of the approximately four mile trip is through mangrove forest where we saw a few small crocodiles basking in the sun.  After breaking out of the mangroves, the landscape was one of rushes and isolated trees often covered with bromeliads and Tillandsia sp. or air plants.  We saw several species of birds and many turtles sunning themselves.  

Turtle sunning

The river ends at Camalota Spring where a local family runs a crocodile refuge.  American crocodiles are endangered due to poaching and loss of habitat and are protected in Mexico.  

On the way back we took a side trip to La Tovara Spring where we had lunch and a swim in the beautifully pristine water.  The pool for swimming is fenced off to prevent crocs from wandering in.  A large school of cichlids and catfish are resident there and we amused ourselves by throwing leftover tostada chips Frisbee style into the water and watching the ensuing feeding frenzy reminiscent of the old Tarzan movies where the hapless native enters piranha-infested waters. 

The swimming hole.  Note the fish near the bottom of the photo

The next day Mark, Lisa and I went up to view the old fort and abandoned church.  Neil was not feeling well and opted to stay on the boat.  Sometime around the late 1990’s the fort was repaired with a new roof, complete with a new steel I-beam running the length of the building, and missing sections of the walls replaced.  Many of the original cannons are still on the site.  

A short walk from the fort is the old Templo de la Virgen del Rosarío church which was built in 1769.  The removal of the bells from the belfry in 1872 was the inspiration for the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write his famous poem, The Bells of San Blas.  


San Blas is also notorious for its jejenes or no-see-ums.  These tiny bugs are voracious and are able to fly great distances to hunt you down even on your boat.  Their bite itches for days and the warmth of bed particularly sets off the itching.  Nothing feels as good as scratching the skin off your ankles.  In town, this sign painted on a wall acknowledges the presence of the little beasties.  I’m sure that if you looked at one under a microscope you would see those sharp little teeth and that evil grin.  

The Happy Jején

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Present...Neil's visit


Riding the bus in Manzanillo

Manzanillo is a large seaport and a steady stream of tankers and freighters is constantly entering and leaving the bay.  There are usually also a few ships at anchor waiting to go into the inner harbour.  The bus travels along the edge of the inner harbour and huge cranes and stacks of containers stretch for blocks.  

Shipping containers at the harbour

At the waterfront near downtown Manzanillo there is a huge sculpture of a sailfish as a symbol of the city as a world-class sport fishing centre.   Neil is at the centre bottom of the sculpture giving an indication of the sheer size of it.

Sailfish Scupture

On the way back to the boat we stopped for a meal at a little pollo asada (grilled chicken) place.  Grilled chicken is available absolutely everywhere in Mexico and I can only imagine the huge chicken farms that must exist somewhere.  The larger restaurants and take-out places have large rotisserie machines while the place at which we had lunch grilled the chicken on a propane-fuelled grill about the size of a kitchen table.  A few doors down I took this photo at a restaurant where they use this wood-fired cement trough to cook the chicken skewered on wooden sticks. 

We went on a bit of a wild goose chase the next day looking for a Volvo Penta dealer that could hopefully replace our leaking cooling-water pump but it turned out that he doesn’t exist.  I guess our first clues should have been that neither the e-mail address nor the phone number worked.  We’re more optimistic about the dealer (allegedly) in Puerto Vallarta and decided not to let the engine problem affect Neil’s visit too much.  We went back to the boat, filled up with fuel and water and headed to Ensenada Carrizal 6 miles to the north. 

Ensenada Carrizal
Ensenada Carrizal is a small bay that can hold about 10 boats.  There is no town on the shore which makes for a relaxing stop away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Three Hour Tour and Cat at Ensenada Carrizal
We arrived at about 5 pm on Friday, Feb. 24th and Neil swam ashore to check out the snorkelling.  He snorkelled for a while but spent most of his time inspecting the geology of the rocks on shore and when he returned to the boat he regaled us with an account of all that he found and declared the snorkelling to be excellent.

The next day we all went ashore to inspect the geology and gather samples although my sample bag was at least half sea shells.  I tend to gather rock samples in the manner a magpie might e.g. Ooooh! shiny, pretty, while Neil goes into raptures over something I would use as a door stop.

We had drinks with the neighbours, Thomas and Allison, aboard their catamaran aptly named “Cat” and set off for an overnight trip to Tenacatita where arrived at 7 am on Feb. 26th.

The purpose of our trip to Tenacatita was to go on a self-guided river trip up a brackish, mangrove-lined river where there was reported to be good bird watching.  The river started out looking like this:

Then narrowed to this:

And just before it became impenetrable it looked like this:

We were not able to get to the lagoon but did see some interesting birds.  Of course we have no idea what they are. 

All the way along the river, the mangrove roots were host to colourful crabs that scuttled away at our approach.

My gondoliers
Back on the beach we had a fantastic lunch at a palapa restaurant.  A local specialty is “Rollo del Mar” which is a breaded fish fillet wrapped around bacon, shrimp and octopus and covered with an almond cream sauce.  Neil and I have been scheming about how to recreate it at home.

The next morning we began the return trip to Manzanillo where Neil would be taking a bus to Zihuatanejo for his flight home on the 29th.

We left Tenacatita at 8 am on Feb. 27th and travelled 11 miles south to Cuastecomate, also known as ‘Secret Anchorage’.  I’m not sure how secret it is anymore since it’s now written up in the new guidebook that all the cruisers have.  

Neil kayaked to shore to snorkel and check out the local geology while I made bread.  He came back about an hour later and we all went ashore in the dingy.  Neil went to collect some rock samples, I went snorkelling (which was excellent!) and Mark walked around both blocks of town and then settled himself under a beach umbrella to have a beer where Neil and I joined him later for a drink.  I had one of those drinks they serve in a green coconut and was disappointed later to find that green coconuts have only a thin layer of soft tissue inside, not the coconut meat I was hoping for.  

Three Hour Tour at Cuastecomate

We hoisted anchor again and went a whole 3 miles south around the point to Melaque where we dropped anchor for the night.  

Tuesday, Feb. 28th was to be Neil’s last day on the boat with us.  We motored back to Manzanillo, went out for dinner and put him on an overnight bus to Zihuatanejo for his flight home the next day.

So this morning I’m hoping that everything went ok with the bus and that he makes his way to the airport on time.  Once a parent, always a parent...   Happy Leap Day!

Sunset at Tenecatita

The Past...Chacala

As we made our way north to Chacala, the passage of time did its magic and both the hung over and the seasick recovered their equilibrium.  Ok, maybe a bit of Gravol helped, too.  Chacala was not a destination as much as a conveniently located anchorage on our way to San Blas, which is another 22 miles, and was a bit far for us to reach before sunset, especially with our late start.   

Neil saves the day
In the middle of the afternoon we felt the distinct shudder that we’ve come to associate with kelp wrapped around the sail drive and/or propeller.  Since we were at least a couple of hundred miles south of the last of the kelp we suspected that perhaps we had run into a fishing net although we hadn’t seen any sign of one.  Neil donned the snorkel mask and swam down to check things out.  He reported that we had some ¾” yellow polypropylene rope wrapped around the prop.  He was able to cut it loose fairly quickly and we arrived in Chacala at sunset.

Chacala Beach at Christmas
 In the morning we were surprised to find this usually sleepy little beach town completely transformed from when we were there a week and a half previously.  As it turns out, Chacala is a favourite destination for Mexican families living inland who want to enjoy the beach between Christmas and New Years.  They arrived in the morning by motor coach armed with beach umbrellas, coolers, food and inflatable beach toys to spend the day.  Parents and grandparents generally stayed under the umbrellas but the kids played on the beach and in the water all day until they left, again by bus, in the late afternoon.    

The huge influx of people has clearly caused some problems as addressed by this sign. 

We left Chacala around 11:30 am on Thursday, December 29th and had an uneventful trip to Matanchén Bay at 
 San Blas.

Chacala Sunset

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Back to the Present... Zihuatanejo

We were hoping to get as far south as Zihuatanejo this winter but at the pace we were moving it wasn’t going to happen so on the spur of the moment we decided to go to Zihuatanejo and take part in the annual Sail Fest festival.  Sail Fest is a fund-raising effort by an amazing group of local volunteers to raise money for the education of Zihuatanejo’s poorest children.  Some of the events are sailboat races, a silent auction, a benefit concert, chilli cook-off and boat parade.  You can check out their website at

We left Puerto Vallarta on Feb. 1st and went directly to Zihuatanejo, arriving on Feb. 5th.  The winds were favourable and we were able to sail about one third of the way.  On the morning of the fourth day, shortly after Mark had gone to bed, I found myself surrounded by probably the largest group of dolphins I have ever seen.  I could see pods of them in all directions; there had to be several hundred.  It seemed that they all came to swim along with the boat for a little while and we had an ever-changing escort for about 45 minutes.

We spent the Sunday of our arrival catching up on sleep and ventured into town on Monday.  We found Zihuatanejo to be a friendly, clean town.  A few streets have been closed off to vehicular traffic and they became our preferred routes.   

Pedestrian-only street

The town/city has a population of about 70,000 persons.  It is only a few miles from Ixtapa with which it shares an airport.  The bay is lined with small condos and hotels and the town is geared up to handle the vacationers that come to Zihua, Ixtapa and cruise ships on occasion.  It abounds with silver shops, restaurants, gift shops and a surprising number of pharmacies.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Zihuatanejo street          

Meat and sausage stall

The Mercado covers a whole block and is nothing short of a maze.  Narrow corridors are flanked by vendors selling produce, fruit beef, fish, chicken, clothing, baking etc. in a claustrophobic setting.   

Fruit and produce vendor

Nothing goes to waste

On the street that surrounds the market, more transient vendors sell flowering plants, song birds and fruit from a wheelbarrow. 

Like most places in Mexico, gentlemen come around offering to play traditional Spanish music, often on instruments they have made themselves.  


A healthy fleet of pangas line the shore of Playa Principal.  Late each afternoon the ice man delivers large blocks of ice which the fishermen put into coolers on the their pangas before going out to fish until morning when they bring their catch to the fish market under palm trees on the beach. 

Sail Fest started on the evening of Feb. 8th with an auction at the Barracuda Bar, Sail Fest’s headquarters. We managed not to buy anything.  On Wednesday morning we participated in a sailboat race around Roca Negra, a distance of 3.5 miles.  The Sail Fest organizers sell crew spots on the racing boats as one way to raise money.  Our first challenge was getting over the starting line in the almost windless conditions.  From there, all eight boats in the race crawled at a snail’s pace, tacking back and forth towards Roca Negra.  It was as exciting as watching grass grow.  The crew of one boat went swimming while underway and another boat light-heartedly cried foul, accusing them of pushing the boat.  Anyway, we suck at racing and came in second last.

That night there was a benefit concert featuring a variety of mostly local artists.  The music was recorded and will be sold as a CD at next year’s Sail Fest and we decided we had to come back for sure next year to get the CD.  Fabulous music!

Chili cook-off

Thursday was the chilli cook-off and Friday the sail parade.  In a zodiac, the port captain lead the boats on one lap of Zihuatanejo Bay and then over to Ixtapa for one lap of the bay there.  Again, seats on boats were sold to fund-raise. 
Sail Parade
The Sail Fest experience was very positive for us and we were proud to be part of an event that raised 430,000 pesos for education.

Neil was scheduled to fly down on Feb. 18th for reading week so we had a few days between the end of Sail Fest and his arrival.  We thought we might go down to Acapulco but in the end inertia set in and we just hung out at the anchorage in the interim.

Our plan was to leave Zihua the morning after Neil’s arrival, stop in Ixtapa for fuel and water and carry on north to see some of the nice anchorages that we missed on our hasty trip south from PV.   However, there was no water at the fuel dock at Marina Ixtapa and no slips available for a catamaran.  We decided to nip across from the fuel dock to one of the slips to get water but were quickly shooed away by a guy in an official-looking uniform.  We went back to the anchorage in Zihua, had some water delivered the next morning and left just after noon.

We arrived in Manzanillo this morning after travelling for two days and two nights and are anchored off some pretty fancy schmancy resorts.  Along the way the starboard cooling water pump began leaking quite badly so we’re going to have to do something about that.  Good thing we have two engines!  

Sea turtle seen just outside of Manzanillo


Manzanillo Resort