Friday, October 31, 2014

By Michael

When you just can't take the talking
any more, the ChipClip is
an effective tool.
“Are you sure you’ve got it?”


I pointed out into the afternoon sunlight, “You’re gonna cross this street, go one block that way, and then turn right on the next street, and just keep walking until you see it—right?”

“Yeah.” Then after a pause, “Wait, what’s a block?”

We were sitting at a street taco stand, about four blocks from the little food market we frequent in Santa Rosalia. Frances wanted to walk there and share some of her food with the two dogs that were always outside (I can’t remember the names she’s given them).

“Tell you what, I’ll go with you, but I won’t be with you, I’ll be following behind, keeping an eye on you, but you won’t see me or know I’m even there. How does that sound?”


And off she went, looking both ways before crossing the narrow, one-way street and then purposefully heading down the side street, a plastic bag of gristle swinging in her little hand. I followed behind.


It’s hard to illustrate or explain Mexico to you. Much of its culture still eludes me, and I’ve spent a lot of time here. I work on my Spanish every day, I talk to many people, and I’ve read a couple excellent books about Mexican culture (Mañana Forever by Jorge Castañeda and The People's Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz). But the more I learn, the more I learn how much there is I’ll never understand. My friend Tim, who lives here, has the same sense and he has an explanation for everything: T-I-M. It’s simply an acronym for This is Mexico, a universal explanation for whatever baffles us. Windy and I say it to each other at least once a week.


“Yep, T-I-M.”

But then there are the aspects of Mexico that are different, often endearing, but not necessarily baffling. This story is about one of those.

Recall, I’m following Frances, out of sight, on the streets of a busy little Mexican town…


One of two types of rays we
see often on the bottom. These
are about the size of dinner plates.
My little sprite glanced over her shoulder periodically. I knew she couldn’t see me; she continued with determination. Then she hit the gauntlet: two teenaged girls, still in their pale pink school uniforms that made them look like nurses from a 1950s hospital. They got animated as Frances approached them on the sidewalk. I couldn’t hear them. Frances likely didn’t know they were talking to her until the one girl stepped in front of her and bent down, the other crowded, they were trying to communicate. Frances was then turned around, a little person clutched tightly by one girl who beamed at her friend with the camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

Then they switched, passing their new plaything between themselves for more pictures.

Finally they released their prisoner and waved and smiled. Franny continued on, in the opposite direction she’d been headed. One of the girls ran to her and turned her around, pointing up the street.

When I approached the girls a minute later, their backs were turned and they were chatting, their eyes on the little girl disappearing into the street scene ahead, no doubt wondering about her.

“She’s practicing walking to the store by herself,” I said in Spanish as I passed. They nodded and went on excitedly about how cute Frances was.

Also the size of a dinner plate,
we see these guys a lot.
As much as an attribute can be applied to a group of 100 million people, Mexicans love kids, they just do. I often highlight this for other gringos by pointing out that there is no concept in this country of ‘family friendly restaurant.’ None. The very idea of insulating adults from kids for the adults’ sake just wouldn’t register here.

Strangers often lightly touch my girls lovingly as we walk down the street. I hear whispered terms of endearment like, “preciosa,” or “cariña,” or “muñeca.” I think this happens to a lot of foreign kids in particular.

But this village mindset can be a bit overwhelming too. Earlier this year, in downtown La Paz, I was trying to teach both girls to safely cross streets by themselves. “Go ahead, I’ll wait here mid-block. Just remember everything we’ve practiced: look both ways, make sure you have eye contact with the driver, and cross with purpose.”

We couldn’t do it. Every time we tried, a another pedestrian or shopkeeper would appear from no place and grab my daughter’s hand protectively and walk her across, before returning across themselves to resume whatever they were doing. Sometimes one of the girls would point me out to the kind stranger, probably in response to a question about where their parents were. The stranger’s smile would often fade when they saw me. I'd give a weak wave, “Yeah, I know,” I’d say under my breath, my face flushed, “T-I-M.”


Eleanor with a booby while underway. These guys are
pretty tame (sometimes letting the girls touch them)
and their feet and plumage come in all colors.
A pretty Mexican sunset. You never get tired of them.
All of us swimming with sea lions at Isla Angel
de la Guarda, near Bahia de los Angeles.
That's Frances in the foreground.
We've been seeing lots of whale sharks lately. This guy
swam by us in the water at Puerto Don Juan. A week
earlier, anchored in Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, Windy and I
saw the biggest one ever, nearly the length of Del Viento,swimming right alongside. They're kind of like
shark-shaped manatees.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Las Cuevas
By Michael

Frances silhouetted on the dinghy
bow as we motor out of another cave.

This past May, sitting in a Guaymas boat yard with the mercury showing 111 degrees Fahrenheit and with blast furnace-like winds filling the air and the inside of the boat with dust and with mosquitos toughing it out just to suck us dry, we wondered aloud how we were going to survive a summer in the Sea of Cortez. I mean, this was still springtime and Guaymas wasn’t even as far north as we planned to sail. All the superlatives we’d read and heard people use to describe the summer Sea suddenly carried great weight. We were doomed.

Yet for all the dire warnings and our own apprehensions, we also knew people who’d intentionally spent multiple summers in the Sea and they didn’t seem totally nuts.

We remained steadfast to our plans, we would subject ourselves to a summer in the Sea and judge it for ourselves.

This was our favorite cave, a big, cool
cavern in the Sea that few seem
to visit or know about. It's on the eastern
side of Islas Espiritu Santos, just south
of Caleta Partida.
Back in September, on a still-hot day in the northern Sea of Cortez, Windy said how she wished we had time to spend at least next summer in the Sea too. We all agreed. Every summer day seemed better than the last. And it wasn’t just a matter of acclimating and good preparation.

The fact is, nearly everyone eagerly warned us of the heat and of the lack of services in the northern Sea, but few said anything about the positives, the things that overwhelmingly make a summer in the Sea something especially wonderful. Following are four of those positives:

  • Especially up north, summertime is a paradise for solitude lovers. We saw increasingly fewer boats north of each big milestone (Loreto, Bahia Concepcion, Santa Rosalia, Bahia de Los Angeles). Take the Refugio anchorage at the top of Isla Angel La Guarda. The water was clear and warm. Rock spires jutted out of the water, their cragged faces glowing warm reds and browns and oranges. We swam with members of a small, nearby sea lion colony. We dropped the hook anyplace we wanted and spent a few days snorkeling, eating, and reading without seeing another boat.

  • We lived with the critical, ever-present threat of hurricanes, but using the shortwave radio nets, they were easy to track from anyplace we were—so that we could be in a protected place when they threatened (and as evidenced this year, the northern Sea is statistically safer). And threaten and strike they did this year, but even storms that never reached the Sea tended to generate unsettled conditions that brought welcome relief from the relentless, clear, blue skies and the penetrating sun. We spent whole days under the cover of high clouds. Some days thunderstorms brought wind and rain. The clouds provided shade and the rain could drop temperatures by fifteen degrees.

  • The water is exceptionally nice. People told us the Sea would get so hot that jumping in would offer no relief. This just ain’t true. This year, water temps in the Sea were hotter than normal, and yet we all enjoyed every cooling minute we spent bathing, swimming, and snorkeling.

  • And there are caves. The pictures say it all. What a great place to spend a day, either exploring them or hanging out inside of them with a cooler of snacks and cold drinks—beautiful, primitive, cool respites.

If you’re looking down the road at your Mexico cruising itinerary and you have a summertime window you could spend in the Sea, reconsider fleeing to Banderas Bay or booking it back north to the States. Steel yourself for the heat, prepare for the bees, make lots of shade, pay strict attention to the weather, and have the time of your life in one of the world's best cruising destinations.


Snorkeling paradises are along every shoreline.

Not a bad way to spend a day.

Natural playgrounds, see Eleanor?
My little spelunker.

The crew in our dinghy.

Eleanor feeling her way.

This photo is right-side-up. Look at all the good-sized and disparate
rocks that appear glued to the ceiling of this cave. Some of those are

Thursday, October 23, 2014

By Michael

Windy and I aboard the first
Del Viento, early 1997, motoring
along the then undeveloped Cabo beach.
I’m 45 years old and exploring the Sea of Cortez’s islands and Baja aboard our 40-foot sloop. I take in and process the beauty and wonder of this place and I can’t get away from an awareness that my impressions are simultaneously dulled and heightened by my past.

I’ve been here before, age 31, in a small plane, an engagement ring hidden in my pocket. She said yes, on the beach of Punta Chivato. I was here in my late 20s too, aboard the previous Del Viento, with my girlfriend, Windy. We came up only as far as the islands north of La Paz before we crossed the Sea for Mazatlan and continued on to Panama and eventually, Florida. I was here as a teen, again and again in my folks’ small plane, landing on sandy strips that would be awash with the tide hours after we touched down. We’d siphon fuel through a chamois and eat huevos rancheros that made my mouth sing.

For thirty years this peninsula has woven in and out of my life. Today, as we sail around and I watch my girls process all of the Baja I am able to show, I share snippets of memory with them as places emerge familiar. It is a cruising ground both exotic and familiar. Is it any wonder we're here?

Also 1997, sitting on our Avon Redcrest in front of the
Hotel Palmilla before crashing the pool, San Jose del Cabo.
Still 1997, Windy swimming with a sea lion at
Los Islotes, just north of La Paz.
Windy newly engaged, 1998, Punta Chivato.
Sailing a friend's Lido 14, Punta Chivato, 1997.
With my dad, 1993, Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
With my dad, 1988, Punta Chivato.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, plane touching down on the airstrip,
Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
Me, 1997, aboard the first Del Viento, La Paz waterfront in the

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Santa Rosalia
By Michael

The girls in front of an old locomotive
in the town plaza. The base
translates roughly,
"Give before considering."
The places of Baja, where the people live, are surprisingly diverse. Whereas the peninsula may appear to be painted with a single brush of sand and cactus, geographic, political, and economic influences spanning decades—centuries—have resulted in mining towns, fishing villages, tourist meccas, and gringo enclaves. There are communities of dozens and cities of hundreds of thousands. Some places are connected by highways, some by rough roads, and some by panga. There are hubs of affluence and education and outposts where essential knowledge is passed down and there is very little money. This year, traveling the 500 nautical miles between Cabo San Lucas and Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, we’ve met people—all of the same country and all of whom speak the same language and all of whom call this desert place home—who live completely differently from one another.

Santa Rosalia is one of the bigger towns along the eastern Baja coastline. Nearly twelve thousand people live here and the main, transpeninsular highway passes right through it. Santa Rosalia features internet and phone service and a ferry from mainland Mexico calls here, but the nearest big airport is in Loreto, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south.

What caught my eye right away is that Santa Rosalia is a wooden town, like something out of the Old West. All the buildings are made of lumber, yet there are no forests on the Baja. The city is a former company town that came into being in the 1880s. The streets are narrow and the buildings feature porches and tin roofs. It’s easy to imagine hitching posts were once everywhere.

It was the French who founded Santa Rosalia (employing Native American and Chinese laborers). The mining company, Compagne de Boleo, set up here to get at the rich copper ore buried in the hills. They built an extensive operation, sophisticated for the time, that included reverberatory furnaces and metallurgical converters and custom-built locomotives that moved dirt and ore. Much of this machinery is still in place, though rusting and collapsing under the weight of time and neglect.

It's a nice library, again, all wood.
The French left in the 1950s, all the easy-to-get copper was gotten. But during the seventy years they were here, much of the ore was loaded onto square-rigged sailing ships and sent south, down around the tip of Baja and then north, all the way to Tacoma, Washington for smelting. On the return trip, the ships would carry lumber from the Pacific Northwest, to build this industrious town in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, the French departure didn’t create a vacuum that spelled doom for Santa Rosalia. A Mexican mining company took over the infrastructure and continued operations for another 30 years. By the time that operation ceased in the late 1980s, the Santa Rosalia economy was multi-faceted, benefiting from traffic on Highway 1 and a massive squid fishing industry that had blossomed.

My friend, Alex aboard Maitairoa, tells me that several years ago, every night, the waters offshore of Santa Rosalia were ablaze with the bright lights of hundreds of squid fishing boats. He told me this weeks ago, staring out at a black Sea. Apparently, after Hurricane Jimena passed over the city in 2009, the squid population left and hasn’t returned.

This is just one challenge facing Santa Rosalia. I’ve heard that there are plans to divert Highway 1 away from this city in a more direct route to the metropolises down south. Too, the current mining operation, owned by a Korean company, is 10 kilometers north of town and is self-contained, contributing little to the local economy.

Eleanor’s birthday is at the end of this month. We heard from a Mexican friend last night that kids here walk the narrow streets in groups chanting in Spanish, “give us our Halloween.” In response, shopkeepers and homeowners emerge to deposit treats in bags. There is a big cemetery atop the hill that promises a lively Dia de los Muertos celebration.

Eleanor plans to be a jellyfish. Frances will wrap herself in LEDs to become bioluminescence.


This church is probably the most noted aspect of Santa Rosalia. The all-metal
structure is said to have been exhibited at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris and then
acquired in Belgium and shipped here. It is said to have been designed by
Gustav Eiffel, the tower guy. 
Here is an old picture of the church, shortly after it was erected
in Santa Rosalia.
Everyone raves about this bakery. My guess is that it was good back
when the French were here, but that when they left, all the bakers
went with them--and they didn't leave any bread-making instructions

I think this abandoned building (among several) was a power generating
plant for the mine. Note the French influence in the metal trusses.

Eleanor trying to turn the power back on. Can you imagine a place like
this in the States, just sitting open to explore?

One of the most appealing aspects of the town is the changes in
elevation. From the water it is built deep into a natural arroyo
and then up and over the surrounding hills.
Typical street view.

From this waterfront street you can see the old mine shafts cut into the hill.

This is the Santa Rosalia Marina office on the malecon. The entire marina and
the half-dozen boats in it were wiped out in the recent hurricane.
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