[050201; 2341 UTC; La Manzanilla, Bahia Tenacatita, Jalisco, Mexico;
19º 16.99 N/104º 47.44' W]
Bienvenido! Welcome to the Mexican “Riviera” where the water is warm and the breezes are (mostly) light; off the land in the morning and off the sea in the afternoon. Where’s the “Riviera”? It’s the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico south of Banderas Bay (Puerto Vallarta). There are fewer anchorages on this coast than in the Sea of Cortez resulting in long passages off unforgiving windswept beaches that provide no haven for cruisers. This also makes the popular anchorages quite busy during this peak winter cruising season, so many friends come and go and there’s a constant supply of new things to learn and people to meet.
Since our last note, we have been bustling around with projects and chores and socializing but haven’t really made much in the way of distance traveled. From our idyllic anchorage at Chamela, we motored in flat calm to Bahia Tenacatita, perhaps the most popular bay along this coast. The bahia (pronounced “Ba HEE ah”) is actually quite large with four separate anchorages. The first, called Las Escolleras (a.k.a. the aquarium), is near the north entrance off a long, sugar-sand beach with many palapa restaurants with nearby sea stacks and submerged rocks. We spent last evening there and were thrilled at the dramatic underwater scenery (including a school of hundreds of dazzling surgeonfish, well over a foot long, that were swept back and forth with the surging water in the coral covered rocks)! While motoring slowly towards the beach to anchor there, Philip spotted a huge manta ray in the gin-clear water. This monster looked to be at least 12 feet long but they can reach 18 feet and 2,300 pounds!
Tonight we’re in the SE corner of the bay and are rocking gently in the afternoon swell just off the beach at the tiny pueblo of La Manzanilla. Brightly colored homes, many with the traditional palm palapa roofs nestle into the steep hills that fall precipitously down to the palm-lined beach. Tomorrow before the onshore breeze and concomitant surf pick up, we’ll dinghy in and pick up a few fresh supplies for Carina and a few friends and move back to our corner of the main anchorage along with approximately forty other boats.
This main anchorage is tucked way in the NE corner around behind a prominent hill called Punta Chubasco. We’ve been promised by those who know, that the hillside there will glow purple when the jacarandas bloom in February, covering the now bare trees. The pelicans that perch on these trees look like vultures hanging over the cove. This is a varied anchorage with a steep rocky hillside on its western edge that ends abruptly at a reef that protects the mouth of the Boca de Rio Las Iquanas, a mangrove-lined tropical river that wanders for two miles, narrowing often to less than ten feet wide. The mangrove branches form a dense canopy overhead and the river eventually leads to a landing at the back side of the beach behind the anchorage at Las Escolleras.
Entering the river by dodging rocks in breaking surf is tricky and often at low tide the only way to enter is to drag your dinghy across the bar. Moving further east in the main Tenacatita anchorage is a beach that stretches for about ½ mile, ending at a small, all-inclusive resort that sits below a clothes-optional sister resort that dominates the rocky hillside. The anchorage easily holds forty boats, though more than fifty were anchored here one night when a violent though brief squall created some tense moments as anchor sets were given their first true test. Most of the boats, including Carina, had no trouble but a few boats dragged their anchors and had to re-set them in the dark and blinding rain. One trawler hauled their anchor and circled the anchorage waiting for the storm to subside.
Bahia Tenacatita continues east and south to La Manzanilla and then west to Tamarindo where anchorage may be taken in southerly weather off the exclusive Tamarindo golf resort with its extraordinarily-beautiful palms that stretch well over 100 feet in the air and gracefully undulate above the pristine grounds and impressive, palm-roofed facilities. We anchored here one night when southerlies were blowing and ended up rescuing some kids who’d let their panga slip away (more on this later). Moving west, the extreme southwestern entrance to the bahia is protected by a steep rocky point and there are many off-lying, keel-crunching rock hazards that provide the right environment for dorado, sailfish and other large game fish.
Bahia Tenacatita is just north of the twin towns of Melaque-San Patricio and Barra de Navidad (“Barra”). Although we haven’t ventured there yet, Barra’s shallow lagoon is also a popular anchorage because there are many fine restaurants, a good marina and fuel dock, a tienda that delivers orders placed by VHF radio and a genuine French Baker (his business’ name) who makes boat deliveries. Many boats stay in Tenacatita and occasionally make the twelve mile trip to Barra for fuel, water, propane, ATMs, internet cafes or to splurge in the $1.30 per foot, per night marina, probably the second most expensive marina in Mexico (behind Cabo San Lucas). As a contrast, we paid approximately 12 CENTS per foot, per night for our slip in Kingston, WA.
Tenacatita is like no other place we’ve ever cruised. The lure of this anchorage is its protection from the predominant NW winds and ocean swell and good holding for your anchor in soft sand. The reason boats stay (sometimes for months) during the winter is the camaraderie of other cruisers who warmly welcome all comers. There are many activities to enjoy such as afternoon swims to the beach followed by walks to the hotel and back, bocce ball and volleyball games, an upcoming rodeo in La Manzanilla and a planned baby turtle release from the beach at the Blue Bay hotel. One evening recently Kumi and Doug on the boat Kanaloa (anchored nearby Carina) set up a keyboard and drums and filled the early evening air with brilliant music. A score of t-shirt/shorts or bathing suit-clad cruisers quietly paddled their dinghies around Kanaloa. The setting sun provided a warm glow and a gentle breeze blew through the swaying palms while everyone took in the magic of the impromptu concert. (Incongruously, a few minutes later a boat from Maryland checked in via HF radio to the Bluewater Net and reported a temperature of 14 degrees accompanied by snow!) Activities here thankfully do not always require crowds. There is the jungle river, where a tour up the mangrove-lined estuary (crocodiles live here) is a must, plus snorkeling, fishing or just hanging out in the very primitive palapa “restaurant” where dominoes, card games and cold cerveza and margaritas are served.
Each winter, the position of “mayor” of Tenacatita is filled by appointment or coercion; this year the mayor is an incumbent returning from last year, Robert Gleser. Robert along with his wife the “Lovely Miss Virginia” have spent four seasons in Mexico on their Islander ketch, “Harmony”. Robert and Virginia helped to start the famous commune “The Farm” in Tennessee back in the 1970s. With six kids and no assets, they moved to CA and became capitalists and entrepreneurs, starting a tie-dye business that has allowed them to retire in their late 50s. Robert is a quick wit and warm welcoming force in the anchorage. Each Friday he hosts the mayor’s raft up of dinghies off “Good-Dog Beach” where as many as forty-five small boats tie off to each other and stories, potluck munchies, boat cards, books, videos and DVDs are exchanged.
One day early in our stay, we joined Robert and Virginia on Harmony along with three of their six grown children (Olivia, Audrey and Saul as well as Irene, a friend of Saul’s) for a short trip to La Manzanilla where their kids were anxious to reach a telephone and internet cafe and to buy souvenirs. We towed our respective dinghies behind Harmony and made wet but successful surf landings off the village. We then split up and we went off in search of the fenced-off crocodile sanctuary (crocs are called “caimanes” here) before shopping the one cobbled main street for veggies and Controy, a necessary ingredient for margaritas. (Interestingly, about five years ago, the beachfront of La Manzanilla was destroyed in a tsunami. Luckily, no one was hurt because the residents sensed the imminence (or had been warned) and fled to the escuela (school) on high ground.) At one point during this visit, Philip ventured off by himself to go to a tienda and was walking back when he walked right into a pole joist of a palapa roof that extended over the sidewalk. As you all know, Philip is not considered overly tall so you can guess the height of the obstacle he hit. Anyway, he was knocked off his feet, his purchases went one way and he another. A local rushed over to him, helped him to dust off, asked him if he was all right and then stated the obvious by warning him to “be careful”. Philip now sports a lump and scar on his forehead. Mexican streets are hazardous (it’s hard to know whether to look up for roofs or down for uncovered and sometimes DEEP holes). We cannot imagine being disabled and trying to survive in Mexico; we have seen very few wheelchair-bound people and pedestrians face constant perils in the form of holes in concrete sidewalks, missing sidewalks, rebar sticking up out of sidewalks, etc.
We haven’t spent the whole last month just here in Bahia Tenacatita, but took a side trip south about 35 miles to the city of Manzanillo in order to renew our “no immigrante visitante rentista” or year-long FM3 visas. It was during this little side trip that we anchored at Tamarindo. We had planned to leave Tenacatita on a Thursday but we got a late start and also learned that strong contrary winds were predicted (blowing in the direction we wanted to travel). Therefore, instead of venturing south we stayed within the bahia but moved to Tamarindo. Tamarindo, while protected from the prevalent winds this day was not protected from large NW swell that we later assumed was generated by the strong NW winds at Cabo Corrientes and the Sea of Cortez to our north. After dropping anchor off the lovely beach we settled in to assemble a potpourri soup lunch as we listened to the wind singing in the rigging. It was over the wind and while eating our lunch that we heard loud and desperate shouting. Leslie ran to the deck to see a large (25-30 foot) panga, the Karla Gabriela, floating by without any crew. Frantically swimming after the panga as it headed out into the main bay were three young Mexican men who were quickly tiring of their swim against the swell and who were losing the race for the rapidly accelerating, high-freeboard boat. Philip dove into the water to try to catch the panga (as it was close to Carina) but it quickly became apparent that even with a head start, Philip would not catch it with the strong winds pushing it faster and faster away from shore. Philip swam back to Carina, retrieved a life ring, and swam towards the swimmer who was the farthest out to sea while Leslie lowered the swim ladder and brought the other two young men aboard Carina. A call by radio and a blast on our air horn failed to raise the other vessel in the anchorage which had a dinghy and outboard at hand (our dinghy was nested on deck and would take 25-30 minutes to deploy). Another call to the boats anchored to our north (where the panga was headed) brought offers of assistance from many cruisers. Harmony pulled anchor and took off south towards the panga while Dwight and Eric from Mija and Mira took off in a fast inflatable. Philip was slowly able to bring the last young man back to Carina, both men using the life ring to rest as they struggled against the strong winds. The anxious and exhausted young men sat wrapped in towels on Carina, occasionally using the VHF to try to reach the nearby resort or a pescadero offshore near the drifting boat. Finally, the pescadero (in only a canoe) noticed the boat and stopped it just short of an off-lying reef. After what seemed like eternity to our handsome young friends, the pescadero was able to get the situation stabilized, the panga motor started and the boat returned to its anxious but grateful crew. We notified Harmony, Mijia and Mira that the panga had been recovered, and relieved the crisis was over, they turned back to their anchorage.
We left Tamarindo the next day and motored in light and contrary winds to Ensenada Carrizal, a small anchorage which is reminiscent of the types of intimate anchorages we experienced in the Sea of Cortez. As we approached the anchorage with Philip on “rock watch” on the bow, Carina suddenly began to vibrate violently and emit a low but loud grating sound. Leslie reduced engine speed and shifted into idle and the noise disappeared only to reappear even louder when she again engaged forward speed. Philip said, “Uh, oh, transmission problem!” Leslie again shifted into idle and we unfurled the genoa sail in the very light onshore breeze and radioed the only boat in the anchorage (Legacy) to let them know we would be sailing in to anchor near them without the benefit of our engine. Legacy (Chris and Heather) offered to launch their dinghy and to stand by for any assistance we might need and we gratefully agreed. While ghosting in under sail with the engine in idle, Leslie once again tried to shift into forward gear and, this time, there was no noise or vibration. We were pleased but puzzled. We partially furled the jib and told Legacy of the newest development and told them we would now attempt to motor into the anchorage under low power. We dropped our anchor in the cove beside Legacy and then tried to analyze our problem. Thinking we might have picked up some debris on our propeller, Philip dove over the side to inspect the propeller and rudder. Nothing seemed wrong. We checked our transmission fluid and that seemed okay though we decided to drain the old fluid and replace it. Through the intervention of the local SSB Picante Net, we contacted a mechanic in Puerto Vallarta who gave us some ideas and suggestions for diagnostics. Having exhausted our list, we took Carina out the next day for a “sea trial” to see if we still had a problem. Again, nothing seemed wrong as we circled outside the anchorage, so we came back and re-anchored. Everything continues to be normal and we’re thankful. This situation exemplifies the extraordinary care cruisers take of each other. In Tenacatita one morning recently, three vessels asked for help with problems varying from refrigeration to a transmission to a fried electrical system. All the boats were able to get expertise and even parts to address their problems just from other boats anchored here.
Ensenada Carrizal turned out to be a rare, lovely, rural haven very near the industrial city of Manzanillo. The steep surrounding hills look like southern New England in early spring when some trees have leafed and splotches of brilliant lime green interspersed with bare trees and pinpricks of newly emerged white flowers dot the hillsides. Rock cliffs line the bay, colored in the many shades of copper exhibited by pennies – brilliant new ones to soft, oxidized old ones. A blow hole on the western wall growls like a grizzly bear during certain tides and the sound echoes off the hills. There is a small steep beach at the head of the anchorage with a trail to a small clearing and palms – presumably the site of a former dwelling. But large swells that break on the steep, rocky and boulder-strewn beach precluded any attempt to land. Below the water there are extensive coral beds of green, browns and yellows with the occasional brilliant blue section. Exotic fishes predominate; we only saw a few food-sized fish, including one sierra about two feet long, that (like other food fishes) seem to follow Philip and his spear just outside of his range of vision. For the first time ever we saw a few, incredibly lovely Moorish Idols (remember the “bad boy” fish in the aquarium in the movie Finding Nemo?). There were also Goldrimmed Sturgeonfish (black with a golden yellow tail and swooshes of yellow outlining their shapes), a pair of Panamic Blenny, a few dramatic, heart stopping four foot long trumpet fish, Bluechin Parrotfish, small King Angelfish, Barberfish, a few small (edible) Mexican Hogfish and Orange-sided Triggerfish and a small but brilliant Giant Hawkfish (green spots surrounded by bright blue borders) and finally, dozens of Guineafowl Pufferfish (purplish-black with white spots).
We stayed four days in Carrizal and were reluctant to leave but since our visas would expire in a few weeks and we had concerns about the renewal process; we knew we needed to move on. We motored (wind in our faces) the short 9 miles from Carrizal to Manzanillo where we anchored off the dramatic Santiago Peninsula near the extensive Las Hadas (the Fairies) hotel. Near the hotel is a steep hill with a winding cobblestone road that leads to the main highway and then to the prosperous, booming seaport town of Manzanillo. The Las Hada hotel and condominiums are of Moorish design and remind us of the stacked cascading residences in the Cinque Terre of Italy, though Las Hadas is painted brilliant white. Interestingly, Las Hadas was where the movie “10” was filmed. Philip kept looking for Bo Derek and occasionally thought he saw her, though each time it was because Les had appeared in his field of view. Skip, a retired physician and med school professor sailing on L’ Esperance, claims to have had the real Bo Derek swim up to and board his boat (at his request) while he was anchored off Los Frailes, an anchorage just south of La Paz. Skip’s wife Mimi and a couple of guests were also aboard, so they all got to meet her and take her photo. Philip asked Skip if “Bo” actually admitted to being Bo and he said that, no, she gave a different name. “But”, he said with an impish grin, “You know Bo Derek when you see her!” Mimi just rolled her eyes.
Once safely anchored in the tiny Las Hadas anchorage, we sought out J. Efrain Vargas R., whose name was given to us by others as someone who would assist cruisers with official paperwork. After checking with other anchored boats for local knowledge, we dinghied into the marina which was filled with Med-moored fishing boats, tied “Bacio” to the dinghy dock and waited near the locked office for Efrain to appear. After a short wait, Efrain showed up and we explained we needed him to check us in with the Captainia de Puerto but were more concerned with renewing our visas. After a couple of calls, Efrain had us talk directly with a helpful English-speaking woman in Immigration and then helped us with faxing financial information and letters showing a marina domicile there at Las Hadas. After all that, Efrain said he had to go downtown, so he’d DRIVE US to Migracion. At Migracion, Rita was a joy. She is a public employee who seems to truly care and take the time to help everyone (thus there’s a long wait to see her). When we finally got the chance to see her, she gave us some forms and said if we came back in the morning with the completed forms, photos, etc., they’d expedite our visas. Imagine that in any country! Efrain had other business so he asked if we’d taxi back; we said no problem we’d take a bus to Comercial (a grocery store) and then back to Las Hadas. Laden with groceries and standing in the hot afternoon sun waiting for the bus an hour and a half later, Efrain drove by, saw us and stopped and picked us up! The generosity of the Mexican people seems more pronounced with every interaction.
Other cruisers had advised us not to expect too much of Manzanillo, a large, bustling industrial city, but we really liked the people and the city. It’s perhaps a little dusty but the downtown is alive and bustles with pedestrians that crowd the narrow sidewalks. Downtown Manzanillo seemed to us to be more “authentic”, refreshing in that it didn’t seem to cater to tourists. In the slightly shabby historic downtown waterfront area with its building-sized stylized blue marlin statue, there’s a Mercado Centro where warm, friendly (and honest) vendors sell everything from chicken feet (yes, you can buy just the feet though we don’t know how one would prepare them) and vegetables to digital watches. A mezzanine filled with pozole kiosks looks down upon the busy mercado (pozole is a thick spicy concoction of hominy and pork and other ingredients we haven’t yet identified – maybe chicken feet?).
One of the sights we’ve witnessed in every large Mexican city is the presence of HEAVILY-armed, serious looking policemen/women, all dressed in black, riding in the beds of police pickup trucks. In Manzanillo, the policemen sported the words “Delta Groupa” (Delta Force) on the back of their black tee-shirts. We haven’t yet been able to determine the target for these high profile law enforcers as we’ve found in general that Mexicans are honest and law-abiding (so much so that we never lock our boat except occasionally when in a marina where there are more gringos than locals). Clearly though, there is another side of Mexico that is not readily visible to the non-Spanish speaking foreign visitor. Another interesting sight is the behavior of the guards accompanying the armored cars delivering and picking up cash at banks. These guys (always guys) wear uniforms and flak jackets and carry their pump shotguns in the “port arms” (ready to deploy) position during their stops. The guards’ demeanor can only be described as “exceedingly tense”. We’ve been told that the robbery attempts on armored cars in Mexico can be quick and very violent. We do not dawdle in the vicinity of an armored car delivery when we encounter one.
Thankfully, our visas were renewed as promised in Manzanillo, we checked out with the Port Captain and moved north to Bahia Santiago for a few days before coming back to Tenacatita. At Santiago, the anchorage is shallow and sandy off a long beach and lagoon and is very near the wreck of a large steel ship that offers wonderful snorkeling. Santiago the town (a short bus ride away) was a wonderful little place filled with a wide variety of well-stocked tiendas including La Casa de Pescador (House of the Fisherman). Here we stumbled upon Sopes (pronounced “so pays”), a deadly treat composed of a thick flour tortilla, cooked and then dented with a spoon to create a shallow shell. Into this media crema (the consistency of sour cream but not sour) and grated soft cheese are spread and the shell is put back on a griddle to melt everything. Before serving, your choice of meat (barbacoa, arrachera, etc.) is spooned onto the melted creamy cheese before it’s served with the usual condiments (fresh tomatoes/onions, salsas, etc.) Philip is a good eater but two of these filled him well beyond full (though he couldn’t stop eating)!
With this we will close and resume our stories when we’ve moved onto our next port of call, Barra de Navidad. We’ve been assured this is an extraordinarily wonderful and tiny little town and we’re looking forward to spending time there. Our plans haven’t changed: we will begin our migration south sometime around the end of February, visiting Zihuatanejo and Huatulco before heading across the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantapec and into Central America sometime in April, weather permitting.
Su amigos del velero, CARINA
Lying Tenacatita, Jalisco, Mexico