[050321; 2221 UTC; Bahia Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico;
17º 30.08 N/101º 33.19' W]
According to a guidebook by John and Patricia Rains, Zihuatanejo derives its name from the Nahuatl word for “Place of the Goddess Women” and was originally Cihuatlan, made diminutive with the addition of the suffix “ejo” by the Spanish to describe the smallness of the bay. We arrived here a week and a half ago, Wednesday March 9, 2005 after a spirited downwind sail along the Mexican mainland from Barra de Navidad (about 200 miles) in west/northwest winds which fluctuated from 20 to 30 knots. We left with these winds predicted because winds of this magnitude blowing night and day are rare; so many vessels motor all or a portion of this coast. We are now in the State of Guerrero Mexico, having left the state of Jalisco at Barra de Navidad and Colima at Manzanillo and having zipped past Michoacán at nearly six knots (average) with its marginal anchorages that require both bow and stern anchors (with the stern anchor placed right at the surf line!)
Before leaving for Zihuatanejo, we ventured from Tenacatita for two short stays in the lagoon at Barra de Navidad. Barra, if you recall is the sister town to Melaque-San Patricio where Irish mercenaries hired by the United States during (what we believe was) the Mexican American war, changed sides and began fighting along side the Mexicans. Since that time, and to honor the Irish men who died in that conflict, as well as those who survived and stayed behind to marry local women, the patron saint of this little corner of Mexico has been Saint Patrick rather than the Virgin of Guadalupe, the typical patron saint of Mexican towns. The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is said to be amazing here with unchecked fireworks displays and parties that last all night, all week, though we’ve never had the opportunity to experience it.
The town of Barra de Navidad is built (as you might expect) on a bar (barra) of land between Bahia de Navidad and the large, shallow, mangrove-lined and muddy lagoon. This lagoon has a narrow entrance marked with buoys, but only up to the turn a vessel would take into the posh Marina Isla de Navidad and the equally posh Grande Bay Hotel. After the marina the narrow channel into the lagoon is thankfully straight though lacking any aids to navigation. The descriptive materials instruct vessels to sight a prominent palm tree approximately 1 mile distant and head straight for this until almost reaching a small island before turning sharply to port. Still, many boats go aground in the soft gooey mud as they transit into the anchorage. Alongside the channel on your starboard side inbound is a crude net bait trap with about 6” of water while on the port side is a fish shanty built of found materials on stilts that keep the structure about five feet up above the muddy water. Anchoring in the lagoon involves altering normal perceptions of anchoring methods. The anchorage is small and boats anchor very close to each other in 7-14 feet of water in soft mud over clay. Surprisingly, the shallow water offers only poor holding and many boats use 100 feet or more of anchor rode as part of their anchoring technique. We anchored here twice and, on our second visit, we suddenly dragged anchor in about 25 knots of wind. This was two days after we had anchored and “power set” our oversized Bruce anchor (which was designed specifically for mud bottoms) with 100’ of chain in 8' of water! Luckily, we were aboard at the time, and were able to re-set the anchor without too much difficulty.
The lagoon side of Barra de Navidad is lined with open palapa restaurants built on stilts over the shallow water. There is a fish cooperative nearby along with the slowly deteriorating Sands Hotel which has a seawall and crude concrete bollards which are used to secure dinghies. Water-taxi pangas expertly shuttle locals, hotel, marina and lagoon-anchored residents to and fro at breakneck speeds over shifting bars. Those of us transiting the lagoon in small tenders must keep a sharp lookout in order to keep from being run over. The shabby stucco and wood Sands Hotel welcomes cruisers who roam its overgrown courtyard and swimming pool. Near the pool is a bar which is tended by an American woman whose husband reportedly died by falling off a balcony after tipping over his bar chair during a night of drunken revelry. Exiting through the Sands’ lobby onto the winding cobbled side streets of Barra you find dozens of tourists, including many who are Mexican, roaming the streets where a myriad of shops hawk trinkets and tee-shirts. There is also a healthy smattering of small local tiendas selling groceries (“abarrotes”) or street vendors selling cooked food. Favorite amongst the cruisers is “road-kill chicken” (“pollo”), roasted street-side and sold whole (“entero”) or cut in quarters (“cuarto”) or halves (“medio”) and supplied with rice, tortillas and hot sauce for only $60 pesos ($5.50 USD) for the “entero”! A whole chicken easily feeds four hungry cruisers. The beachside of Barra is a surfer haven because of the monster breakers that are refracted off an underwater wave deflector near shore and which hit the steep beach with ferocity. One day, we ignored our “to do” list and joined friends Jay and Danica (Alkahest), and George and Jan (Claire de Lune) and rented a beach umbrella and table where we ate “road kill chicken”, drank beer and played dominoes all afternoon before jumping into the waves, body surfing and getting tumbled while we laughed uncontrollably.
From Barra de Navidad, long distance first and second class buses travel to Puerto Vallarta in four hours for only $165 pesos ($15 USD) including a movie or two! Philip took one of these to rendezvous with Mary Beth O’Brien, a friend from Escondido, CA who came to PV with friend Carolyn, who is buying a house in nearby Sayulita. They also brought propane stove parts for Carina’s leaking galley stove. Leslie is still hearing Philip’s stories about the fun and tequila-filled lunch at Victor’s in Marina Vallarta. During the lunch he said he felt like “one of the girls” as far as being privy to the “women talk” about boyfriends and other Mary Beth/Carolyn escapades. While in PV, Philip bunked with friends Audrey and John (vessel Oz from Port Townsend) and then traveled back to Barra with them by bus where they were to meet a boat that they are delivering back to the US. Both John and Audrey have their 100 ton Coast Guard licenses; Audrey is such a whiz that she is one of three people in the last 20 years who have scored 100% on the Coast Guard license test.
Back at Barra de Navidad…even despite the poor holding, funneled afternoon breezes that whistle through your rigging and mucky water in the lagoon, staying here is easy and many boats stay for months. Here you are visited each morning by a French baker who sells fresh baguettes and croissants from a panga (yes, even Sundays) and then there’s Maria of the adjacent pueblo called Colimilla (“Coh-LEE-meeya”) who delivers high quality groceries (many from Costco or Sam’s Club), propane, purified water or even custom orders like marine batteries to the lagoon; all for a delivery charge of $25 pesos (about $2.25 USD). Maria is a tall, green-eyed beauty with fine features. Her family runs Fortino’s Mariscos Restaurant at the Colimilla panga landing. She and her husband Daniel are very kind, patient and hard working and joyfully helped us with our Spanish as we roamed their home/tienda on our numerous visits. We have posted a photo of Maria and Philip on our website in the “Our Friends” section. Maria is typical of many we’ve met in Mexico who live modest but very contented lives and who show only warmth to us as we ask silly questions in halting Spanish.
During the interim between our stays in the Barra we ventured back to Tenacatita to spend time with friends whose paths were going to be diverging from our own. It was especially difficult to part with close friends Glenn and Liz of Serendipity who are bashing north to San Diego to rejoin the rat race north of the border. Liz and Glenn were very kind to us while we were in San Diego and they’ve become like family to us over the last year and a half while we traveled Mexico together. Cruisers (and anyone you know who’s cruised beyond US waters can confirm this) tend to form stronger bonds more quickly than other groups; this makes parting company that much more difficult. Despite this, the cruising world is very, very small indeed. While in Tenacatita we met Terry and Tammy on a boat called Secret O’ Life who hailed from Eagle Harbor and Gig Harbor WA and Steve and Kay aboard Kavenga, both of whom we didn’t know but who know many people we do! Later, here in Zihuatanejo, we met Roger and Karen aboard Meridian whose son Todd and his wife owned and lived aboard our last boat, Aria!
One interesting story about Tenacatita again exemplifies the closeness and generosity of the cruising community. One day a boat, Paloma, ventured off to La Manzanilla for supplies, two miles across the bay. Departing to return mid-afternoon and putting the boat on autopilot, both crew became occupied with projects and the boat ran full speed through the Tenacatita anchorage and up onto the beach. The cruisers in the anchorage responded even before the boat hit the beach and many risked their own safety to pull the boat off the beach during the heavy surf that was running. Even the owner of a mega-yacht launched and piloted his own large and powerful tender to help affect the successful rescue. Paloma was damaged but was still able to limp back to Puerto Vallarta for repairs. Other boats accompanied them on their journey in case there were difficulties in steering or propulsion from the damaged rudder and bent propeller shaft.
Finally after nine weeks of cruising within 30 miles of coastline, we cleaned our bottom and took a favorable wind window and jumped off to Zihuatanejo (Zee-watt-ten-AYE-ho) but not before we spent hours and hours and hours saying our goodbyes. Our sail down was wonderful and faster than we anticipated, resulting in our arrival at Zihuatanejo just after dark. Preferring not to wait offshore in the strong winds, or to attempt to anchor at night off the city of Zihautanejo, we instead headed toward Isla Grande (6 miles north). Our thinking, based upon intelligence gathered from other cruisers and our guidebooks, was that it would be better to anchor near the island after dark. We don’t know how it might have been to anchor off the city at night but we can tell you that Isla Grande presented us with its own stressful moments; more on this later…
Zihuatanejo is a town of about 100,000 with a strong tourist trade, including a steady stream of cruise ships that, when anchored, nearly fill the mouth of the bay. Though it’s a tourist destination, most shops maintain strict siesta and close from 2-4 pm when the town seems to sleep and a hushed humidity reigns supreme. There is no marina here (though there is one in nearby Ixtapa) so most boats anchor either far from town at La Ropa Beach or nearer to town in the “Municipal” anchorage. We are anchored at Municipal in 25 – 30 feet of water. Occasionally, we deal with huge (4-5 foot) rolling swells in the anchorage which hit the beach and rocks behind Carina and throw white water 30 feet into the air; though at night the wind and swells diminish significantly. There is still a regular gentle breeze and most nights the temperature drops to 70 or lower, making for cool, restful, rocking slumber. Incidentally, late the other night (actually very early in the morning), Philip was awoken by the “anchor drag” alarm on the GPS instrument as Carina wound round and round on her anchor in the calm winds. We weren’t dragging our anchor but, while checking out the situation, Philip was intrigued to see for the first time the Southern Cross constellation. Coincidently, it was the previous night that we had been listening and singing along to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Southern Cross” (Philip’s favorite sailing tune).
The beach landing in Zihuatanejo is in the far northwest corner of the main bay behind a moored fleet of distinctive taxi-pangas with small hard-topped cabins. These pangas are colorfully named “Whisky” or “Borracho” or “Gringo Loco” or “Hawaiiana” or Albatros” and are adjacent to a black and yellow raised concrete pier used for cruise ship tenders and navy launches. Nate, a short but strong dark man with distinctive Indian features, meets cruisers at the shore and helps to drag their dinghies up onto the beach. Nate also watches over the dinghies, even far into the night, in order to make sure they are secure. For this service he accepts a cruiser-determined tip; some people pay nothing and others tip 10 pesos (about $0.90) at arrival and at departure. A local cruiser hangout called “Rick’s Bar” pays Nate a salary to perform this service at night but Nate works days AND nights six days each week to augment his income. Often Nate’s wife will accompany him and provide him with a makeshift meal during the day. She will also help with dingy landings and launches while Nate grabs a nap during siesta. Still, Nate is “on the job” approximately 16 hours each day, Monday through Saturday. It may be a generalization, but in our experience Mexicans are very, very hard working and honest. Today in fact, we were sitting talking with friends who were enjoying “desayunos” (breakfasts) at Rick’s Bar when Nate came striding in with the look of anxiety on his face. He came up to us and showed us a wallet that a cruiser had dropped onto the beach. He pulled the California’s drivers license out to show us the name and his face lit up when we introduced him to the woman whose husband belonged to the wallet!
Adjacent to the preferred dinghy landing is a public fish market located under the trees near the beach. These fishermen silently haunt Zihuatanejo bay at night with their nets. During the day, they spread their catches on bright plastic table coverings along the ground or on crude tables and mill around chatting with their wives and children as the day heats up. There’s also a basketball court where, once darkness falls, whistles can be heard as young men play for hours late into the evening. The downtown area is characterized by narrow red faux-brick streets, many of which are closed to traffic, and filled with potted flowers; or under construction with shops and galleries presenting colorful embroidered native clothing (“ropa”), bright beach paraphernalia, woven straw hats, vividly-colored talavera pottery and flashing silver jewelry.
Further inland and across the busy main road to Ixtapa is a wonderful public market with an extraordinary selection of stands selling everything from baked goods to hardware (“ferreteria”) items to veggies, fish, meats or “comida economica” (lunch stands selling modestly priced food). As with other central “mercados”, it’s a sensory and cultural experience as customers negotiate for different cuts of meat while beef quarters hang nearby; whole plucked chickens with only their heads missing sit in queue as flies buzz around and women tending booths, suckle their babies while waiting on customers. Friends Dana and Judy on Paradiso, a Valiant 40 from Ventura CA, showed us around the first day and brought us to a favorite stand of theirs where pristine veggies are sold, including a difficult to find bright green (Anaheim-like) pepper. This pepper is a favorite aboard Carina as we roast it with olive oil, garlic, mushrooms and onions. One of the women tending this stand quickly began handing us “bolsitas” (small bags) to make sure we kept selecting. Leslie thought she’d find out more about these difficult to find peppers and asked in halting Spanish what they are called. The woman handing us bags called over to her older companion and asked. The reply, as Leslie understood it, was “pimiento guero” (blond pepper), though the woman got a twinkle in her eye and then repeated it as “pimienta gringa”. Everyone laughed as Leslie said “ohh” and feigned being hurt by the “gringa” appellation, a word which can sometimes be used pejoratively.
Zihuatanejo is a favorite jumping off point for cruisers leaving for a Pacific crossing (it is 2700 miles to the Marquesas) and there’s much activity at this time of year for coordinating these “puddle jump” departures. In fact, we said many goodbyes this past week to friends with whom we’ve cruised Mexico during the past year and a half. Since we are heading to Central America this year, we are considered “southbounders”, though the course is really east/southeast from here. The southbounders have organized to share information via email and we’ve spearheaded a massive project to copy charts and books that are owned by us and other cruisers. Of the areas to cruise worldwide and because the area was not favored by cruisers during the years of internal political strife, the available information on cruising Central America remains limited to a few guides, so sharing information is that much more crucial. And share everyone does. We had the opportunity recently to meet Doug and Lisa of the boat Mamouna who had just returned from a few years in Central America and we can only describe the experience as having been incurably infected with the enthusiasm they exuded in describing their adventures.
So you don’t keep wondering about Isla Grande, we’ll simply tell you our landfall and anchoring were characterized by huge breaking waves as we slowly eased into the anchorage trying to use our radar that was affected by the sea-clutter of waves and swells. We were able to avoid a poorly lit but nasty reef a half mile north of the island and then could not find sufficient protection behind the Isla from the strong winds and large swells. We also scared ourselves by getting too close to reefs on the south end of the island. We finally anchored in 16 feet of water to the stern of a monster-sized (ca. 100 foot) motor yacht and went to sleep. After a LONG night’s sleep, we were thrilled to be at least anchored and settled into enjoying breakfast before taking off for Zihuatanejo.
A combination of breakfast dishes and unknown current ruined what had started as a lovely day of anticipation for reunions in Zihuatanejo with friends who’d traveled south ahead of us. Leaning over the side of the boat to dump the grounds out of our French press coffee maker, Philip’s zealous shaking dislodged the carafe from its handle and the carafe fell, open side up, and began bobbing near the boat. Knowing we’d just paid an outrageous sum for this pot in Puerto Vallarta, Philip stripped to his skivvies and jumped overboard to grab the bobbing glass carafe. He very quickly swam to the coffee pot which was by this time quite a ways behind the boat (that should have been his first clue) and turned to swim back by lying on his back and kicking with his feet with the carafe nestled on his chest. Oddly enough, after swimming a few minutes, he turned to see that Carina was even farther away (clue number two). There was a strong current coupled with a heavy swell that was taking him away from the boat. Survival mode kicked in and he let go of the carafe with an exasperated shout and started to swim in earnest against the current and swells but could make no headway. Leslie could only watch helplessly from the cockpit as our dinghy was nested on the boat and not available for deployment. Philip shouted to Leslie to get help as he was starting to tire of swimming against the current. Les grabbed the horseshoe ring on the stern and tossed it over the side hoping it would drift down to Philip’s position. He was already too far from the boat for her to deploy the Lifesling which is a type of retrieval float that has a long line attached. She then ran below to get an air horn that is activated by canned, compressed air. After two blasts on the horn in an attempt to hail either of two passing fishing boats, the horn was out of air (a case of “no good deed goes unpunished” since we had used the horn extensively to try to raise help to save some Mexican fishermen two months ago in Tamarindo – see our last passage note). Les ran below to get a new can of compressed air but found the can did not fit the horn. There were two cans; but Les unfortunately had grabbed the one that didn’t fit. She ran back up and shouted at the water taxis and sport fishing boats that passed by but no one seemed to notice. Meanwhile, Philip was able to swim to the horseshoe ring Leslie had tossed and was feeling somewhat more positive about surviving his dunking. He still couldn’t make any headway against the swells and current and a look behind him made him blanch; 300-400 yards away the 5-6 foot swells burst against the rocks and coral on shore. Passing pangas didn't respond to our air horn or Leslie’s shouts and, after radioing her situation to the Zihuatanefo anchorage, she was given the wrong frequency for the water taxis that operate in the area. There weren’t any cruiser’s boats close-by (most were in Zihuatanejo) but a few boats in the fleet got involved via VHF radio (thank you especially Sparky!) and helped Leslie to contact the port captain. Eventually a panga passed by close to Philip and he was able to flag it down. He climbed aboard and was quickly delivered (nearly shivering by this point) back to Carina. This was an experience that was scary for both of us and also for the fleet in general as it made everyone aware of the possibility of strong currents in the anchorages. Everyone feels like it was a learning experience at Philip’s expense. He is good-naturedly bearing the kidding from other cruisers and even received a bright, “Finding Nemo” inflatable child’s life ring as a gift from friends John and Lisa on Andiamo who were thankful he survived the experience.
We plan to remain in Zihuatanejo for about another week and a half enjoying the town and the buzz of "Semana Santa", Saint's week (or Easter week) with its influx of Mexican tourists. We also want to spend some time with our friends on Encanto practicing celestial navigation noon sights, especially with Gaby (age 11) and Sami (age 10) who coincidentally have been educating Philip in the finer points of vowels and teaching him to play hangman. Gaby has even taken to helping her Dad with radio nets and one day worked with Philip as controller of the Amigo Net. This net provides weather and cruiser information and often lasts an hour and a half with up to 50 boats checking in! Gaby’s maturity, presence and soft warm radio voice make her a dynamite net controller!
We’re also waiting to meet Sarah, the daughter of friend Bruce on the boat 5th Element, who is bringing a few boat parts to us and we may finally get to celebrate Philip’s 60th birthday with “the family” (as they call themselves) of 5th Element, Alkahest and Claire de Lune. The family tradition is that the person being honored is made to wear an outrageous hat creatively constructed to poke fun at the birthday guest’s foibles. We can only speculate at this point as to whether Philip’s hat will be decorated with coffee pots, water wings or pinched pennies! Meanwhile we’re continuing to seal all our crevices (stanchions, etc.), re-lashed our ratlines and undertake other repairs in anticipation of traveling to more remote areas and facing rainy season in Central America. There we expect to enjoy afternoon squalls that will bring wonderful soft water to fill our water tanks and allow us the luxury of washing Carina.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie y el gato supremo, Jake
Lying Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico