[040817; 2214 UTC; Ensenada Alcatraz, Baja California, México; 29º 09.71’ N/113º 36.84' W]
We left you last at the inner harbor of Bahia San Francisquito where we were looking forward to relaxing a bit before moving on. Bahia San Francisquito is a large, wide bay on mainland Baja formed by Punta San Gabriel. The bay offers only a little protection in its extreme SE corner from the summer prevailing S/SE winds so that anchorage off the wide white sand beach means dealing with uncomfortable swell. It is preferable to squeeze into the shallow, narrow, sandy finger (the inner harbor) that juts south for about a quarter mile from the main bay and is formed by a low isthmus to the south and two steep, rocky, scree-covered, (ca.) 100’ high hills to the east and west. At the head of this inner bay, at the isthmus, is a sandy beach and beyond it are rolling sand hills covered with the usual sparse Baja vegetation. There are two dwellings; the one sitting high near the SW corner of the beach dominated by a large window belongs to Beethoven, the landowner. Another somewhat hodge-podge dwelling near mid-beach belongs to a friend of his who’s only a seasonal visitor. While we were there, there was also an encampment of navy personnel on the eastern end of the beach who, according to those cruisers who preceded us, were ill-supplied and had been seeking basic supplies from boats.
While San Francisquito is lovely and secure, we never did get the chance to get in the water to snorkel, hunt for “pez comestible” (edible fish in the water; caught fish are called pescado) or to explore the larger bay as we were buffeted during our entire stay by strong winds that came right over the low isthmus to our south and intensified as they were funneled down the bay by the steep hillsides. We did enjoy a two-session marathon of “Mexican train” dominoes with friends and certainly enjoyed getting caught up on our reading and sleeping.
From San Francisquito, we ventured north with the tide up the Canal Salsipuedes (salsipuedes translates as “leave if you can”) towards the stark, magnificent island of Isla Partida (meaning split or divided island). Along the way we were thrilled to pass through a pod of hundreds (!) of dolphins who were moving as if in a procession from our starboard (in this case east) to our port side. These animals didn’t seem to care we were there and ignored us, to our disappointment. Leslie, as usual, stood at the bow whooping and calling to try to get them to swim along with Carina. Just as we were approaching the island we had an exhilarating encounter with a fin back whale that passed close to our stern¾these guys are 40-81 feet in length and weigh 128,000 lbs. while Carina is only 34 feet and 16,000 lbs.
There is only one reasonable anchorage on Isla Partida and it encompasses nearly the entire north side of the island. A south anchorage has been described but it involves trying to find a tiny patch of sand near the base of a 300 foot cliff with just enough depth to allow you to let out anchor rode and allow your boat’s stern to float right at the edge of horrible tide rips. We hiked up the hill and looked down at the spot and although we’re adventurous, we decided that if we were faced with a need for protection from north winds near here, we’d probably just keep heading south. The north anchorage however is over one half mile wide and ringed by bizarre volcanic rock formations in sometimes bulbous shapes (think of a giant sized pile of black beans) and in many colors including black, yellow and red. The two main sections of the island are really 400’ cones that are connected by a high, ca. 100’ rock dam. Baja itself is stark but this place is almost purely stone with only a few very hardy cactus hanging on to the hillsides to break up the bleak, guano dabbled vistas. Thankfully though, the bay has an abundance of sand and teems with fish. We’d heard there were scallops here but we found none at depths accessible with our snorkeling gear. Isla Partida may sound ugly, but it’s really not; it’s eerie and starkly beautiful.
From Partida, we traveled NW about 20 miles to the very eastern edge of the Bahia de Los Angeles, giving wide berth to the reefs that jut out from Punta Don Juan and slipping through the doglegged passage into Puerto Don Juan on July 27. Don Juan is just six miles from the town of Bahia de Los Angeles and is the premier secure anchorage in the north Sea of Cortez and our chosen hurricane hole, should we be faced with a storm this season. Don Juan is nearly land-locked with mountains east, west and south. It sports an extensive, sand bottom that gradually shoals to three separate beaches with clams and oysters (and numerous stingrays) and offers commodious anchorage. This place is big but we recently learned that 40 boats were packed in here for hurricane Marty in 2003 and that would be very, very tight. Many other boats were in the bay while we were there and all were doing as we were doing, that is checking out the accommodations anticipating we might be rushing here seeking cover in the next two months. Given the concentration of boats, Philip got the inspiration for a potluck which he organized for one evening at the base of one of the mountains on a tiny beach. We had all gathered around sipping our drinks chatting with one another for the first 40 minutes or so when Amy, who at age 8 was the only child there, sidled up to Philip, said she was hungry, and asked when we would eat. Philip said conspiratorially, “You know, I’m kind of hungry too. Do you think if I call out to everyone: ‘Amy’s hungry; it’s time to eat!’ that everyone will stop talking and start eating?” With wide blue eyes, Amy seriously considered this for a moment, then she shook her head dramatically so that her cropped blond hair swept back and forth across her freckled face. “No, I don’t think so” she said sadly. Philip said (sotto voce), “Let’s give it a try”. Of course everyone laughed at the proclamation and we all launched into the food, including, of course, a beaming Amy. Two cruisers brought along guitars to supper, others brought their singing voices and everyone lounged about on dinghy pontoons munching, singing and watching the sun set as it illuminated the boats bobbing at anchor behind us. Later that same magical evening, the full moon rose and flooded the bay with brilliant light.
Puerto Don Juan is a great place to get oysters and steamer clams. We collected some of each and, after waiting a day for them to flush their systems (depurate is the technical term), Philip proceeded to open some of them with an oyster knife. Unfortunately, the knife slipped while he was opening a clam and he drove the knifepoint into the palm of his left hand. It was a nasty, ragged edged, classic puncture wound which became infected and swelled up alarmingly within a few days moving first to the adjacent finger and then to the whole hand and lower arm. At 03:00 one morning, Leslie was busy consulting our medical manuals for the cause of infection and remedy. Diagnosis: erysipeloid or “fish handler’s disease” caused by Erysipelothrix rhusopathiae (for Leslie’s microbiology buddies). Treatment: antibiotics and painkillers. Leslie cheerfully considered, in her best bedside manner, that the infection could be caused by Vibrio, a nasty bacterium that is endemic in seawater, but ruled it out much to Philip’s relief. (We don’t have the proper tools on board to perform an amputation though friends told Philip a hook might help his image.) The wound has since healed though Philip’s hand continues to have some pain and numbness which will hopefully diminish over time.
We stayed nearly a week at Don Juan but ventured to the town (pueblo) of Bahia de Los Angeles one day for supplies. While there, we met Jacques, French by birth but an ex-pat Canadian. Jacques and his family left Canada in 1989 aboard a home-built ferro-cement ketch, called Oceanis II. A small, fit, learned, multi-lingual, self-described shy man and former news photographer, he shunned the “cruising social scene” and moved to BLA approximately six years ago and lives in a RV at the beach overlooking his boat at anchor. We were introduced through mutual friends of the boat Serendipity and were the recipients of generous help as we traveled about town lugging jerry cans and seeking fresh veggies in near one hundred degree temperatures. In the end, Jacques drove us all over, gave us excellent advice and lively conversation. After a pleasant beer under his awning, we reluctantly pulled away from shore in our dinghies, pulled up anchor and began our trip back to Don Juan as darkness was rapidly falling. Upon arriving and settling in, Philip discovered he’d neglected to return Jacques’ keys!!! A quick call on the VHF confirmed the worst, he had no spares. We promised to go back the following day to return them and Jacques seemed content but concerned. The next morning we heard a fellow cruiser on the boat Isla Encanto on the VHF radio saying he was planning to bypass Don Juan this day on his way to BLA. We quickly made contact and established that he’d bring the keys if we would deliver them out to Punta Don Juan and meet the boat as it went by. All went well with the key transfer and delivery and thankfully Jacques remains our friend. We’ve since been back to town twice and each time made contact and deepened our friendship.
At BLA, anchorage can be taken in the enormous mountain-ringed bay right off the town but it is an open roadstead with only limited protection and with miles of fetch for waves to build. Notably, BLA sits near a gap in the peninsula’s backbone mountain range that when conditions are right allows westerly winds called elephantes to blast through the gap and down the mountains into the bay. These winds have not been studied and cannot be forecasted accurately and are so named because the roiling cylindrical clouds that presage them look like elephant trunks. Caused by the same phenomenon as santanas in Southern California, a gust of an elephante episode was described to us by Jacques as capable of putting the spreaders of his 40 ton ketch in the water as it sat at anchor with bare poles!
The town of Bahia de Los Angeles (BLA to the locals) is dusty, small and difficult to access. Dirt streets perpendicular to the waterfront run up the gentle slope to the base of a high (thirty five hundred foot) dust-brown mountain range. The road in from the central Baja highway (and to the closest bus service) is over 50 miles long and it’s nearly 400 miles to Tijuana. There is little vegetation except for a few struggling palm trees and there is no attention to esthetics in homes, buildings or landscaping. What appears to us to be “junk” surrounds most dwellings, even those owned by the prominent business owners. Jacques showed us the local cemetery and described to us how graves are dug by blasting the rocky soil with dynamite.
BLA residents are very resourceful. Though no hard-wired phone or electrical services reach the town, a small power plant generates electricity (at least most of the time) and the VHF radio serves as the local telephone with the international hailing channel 16 filled with constant personal chatter. There are two tiendas with satellite phones in town, two internet cafes that are also connected via satellite and three tiendas selling groceries. One of these, called Xitali (ksee-taah-lee) brings in fresh veggies in its own truck Tuesday evenings, so most everyone shops Wednesday mornings to be sure to get the produce before the flies begin nibbling them or the heat wilts them. As with even the smallest of Mexican towns, filtered, purified water is readily available and relatively inexpensive, e.g., one 20 liter jug, or about 5 gallons, for $10 pesos or about 90 cents US.
Fuel is also a limited commodity here. There is no Pemex station (government-owned and seemingly ubiquitous in Mexico), though one is promised and the modern building is partially complete. Fuel is currently sold by two resourceful business owners who drive the 125 miles to Guerrero Negro for supplies. The rumor is that these business owners by pressuring the government have, to date, kept Pemex out. One of these businesses is run by the Diaz family, who also run a small hotel and fishing charters. They dispense gas or diesel, when available, for $3 US per gallon. Their establishment is the only place in BLA for diesel and the supply is strictly limited. “Mañana”, accompanied by a shrug, is frequently the response to inquiries concerning availability. Before heading back out of BLA on our last provisioning run, we stayed put and waited until “mañana” finally arrived and returned to the Diaz family to buy a jerry jug of diesel to ensure our supply envisioning finding little or none available at a later date.
BLA is in many respects a frontier town and many services which are unadvertised can be had if you ask around politely. For instance, we are again experiencing problems with our high output alternator and swapped it out for our spare. The owner of the auto parts store, while unable to offer a diagnostic and repair service, offered instead to take it along with him to Ensenada in a few days. Also, there are no operating lavaderias (laundries) in BLA. However Hortensia, who runs a tiny unfinished tienda on the edge of town will wash your clothes and line dry them. To find her, you walk nearly to the north edge of town and enter her junk-filled yard through a gate with a sign saying “Sodas y Dulces (sweets). Her tienda/home is unfinished with no windows, doors or foundation. A table and very modern thin electronic calculator serve as her checkout. Another wooden table to the left is a counter and cooking surface with a propane burner. Shelves with basic supplies soap, shampoo, some canned goods, pasta, dried beans, etc. line the back wall. An attached lean–to protects a refrigerator and shields the limited produce from rain and sun but does little to reduce the omnipresent flies. Behind the wooden table holding piles of stacked eggs are cots for sleeping. When Leslie returned to pick up laundry, Hortensia’s young son quickly joined the conversation with phrases in English he wanted to practice. Through much gesturing and massacred languages, the three enjoyed a pleasant discussion of our trip, the surrounding islands and the (yikes) snakes and stingrays that you have to look out for.
After leaving BLA, we turned Carina north with the goal of exploring isolated island anchorages nearby. Our first stop was Isla La Ventana (island of the window – so named because a large rock on the southeast end has a large opening or “window” in it). We anchored in a small bay on the northwest corner and stayed five days enjoying the natural beauty and splendid isolation merely five miles from BLA. Besides the snorkeling and spear fishing, while here we also wanted to do some hiking and one morning after gathering sunscreen, straw hats, water and our camera we headed into the high hills to explore the Sonoran desert landscape that is typical of this region. We had been warned repeatedly by locals and other cruisers to keep a sharp lookout for rattlesnakes or scorpions that inhabit these islands though thankfully we have never seen either critter. Halfway through our hike, Leslie yelped out and jumped. She had been bitten! On her calf there were the fang marks from … a cactus!! Philip laughed while Leslie simply whined as she disentangled herself from the barbs. As it turns out, there is a particular type of cactus called Cholla cactus common here that have segmented limbs that break off the main plant and lay almost camouflaged ready “jump up” if you step near. Much relieved that it wasn’t something venomous, we dabbed off the blood and continued our hike to the far end of the island where an enormous concrete cross (cruz) dominates the mountaintop, carefully avoiding the cholla plus the tall, graceful but barbed ocotillo trees and the equally-barbed barrel cactus as we tried to follow the spare trail. Later we fished off the boat in the bay and trolled for fish in our dinghy. Leslie caught a number of Mexican barracuda and even some yellowtail; Philip caught nothing, though he got to fillet Leslie’s catches and enjoy them for supper.
Baja is a geologist’s dream. Rocks of every possible variety and in every geological class are present and accessible because there’s so little soil. At each anchorage we’re amazed to find new and interesting rocks. Too, many islands here were formed by volcanic action as is evidenced by the numerous outcroppings on the hills and mountainsides resembling cascading, multi-colored rivers of rock. Many beaches too have a line of “floating” rocks that are rounded, porous pumice stones of pink, tan and cream that will float in seawater! Honestly, we’ve done the experiment and confirmed the rumors!
From Ventana we moved onto Isla Coronado to Rada Laguna (lagoon anchorage). Here we felt much more exposed as we couldn’t tuck in very far due to extreme tides and rocky hazards in close proximity on three sides. We were intrigued by this spot though because we’d been told that there were what appeared to be petrified old growth trees on a steep hill overlooking it. This island seemed to be even more extreme a desert than Ventana, though only a few miles north. Above the lagoons with their dwarfed mangroves, only a few cardon cacti (similar to saguaro of the US SW) cling to the scree of primarily shale and quartz. We did hike (or crawl in some instances) up the steep slope to the site of the reputed petrified wood and we agree it seems probable. All the specimens lay in the same orientation and truly look like old growth trees. While enjoying Rada Laguna¾the vista west to the mountains was spectacular, whales frequented the passage behind us and we were able to get fish for dinner each evening¾we picked up again trying to learn celestial navigation. Competence still eludes us but at least we’re making progress!
From Rada Laguna we ventured north about 10 miles escorted by numerous fin back whales to a mainland anchorage called Ensenada Alcatraz (Pelican Cove) from where we write. In three large segments, this anchorage offers excellent protection in its SW corner from S/SE winds with good sand one half mile in, a brilliant white sand beach and dunes, good clamming and even more wonderful snorkeling and fishing. Yes, pelicans are here and they line up on the rocks on the water’s edge near the base of the off-lying rocky island like commuters waiting for a bus all looking this way or that and seeming to be bored as they watch their quarry in the water below. This bay is subject to those same elephante winds described for the BLA but with 15-25 feet of water, sand bottom and room to run if necessary, we’ve settled in to enjoy its magnificence.
Carina is doing well though like every other cruiser we have gear failures. For instance, we’re still having some electrical anomalies…our high output alternator seemed to be failing again and we have a persistent buzz in our VHF when the engine is running that we have yet to diagnose. Also, with the summer desert temperatures our power utilization has risen, primarily due to our refrigeration. We are getting some wind which helps us to generate power but it has not been enough to keep up with our usage, requiring that we run our engine every other or third day. Thus, we’ve reached the conclusion we need to augment our power generation by adding solar panels. Friends visiting the ‘States and Canada who are returning with a large load of items for their own boat have graciously agreed to allow us to piggyback on their marine supply order. How we’ll actually get them to Carina or where we’ll be to install them is still up in the air.
Jake continues to flourish; his senses are continuously stimulated and his hunting instincts are fed by seabirds and by large moths with six inch wing-spans that frequently visit the boat at night. We try to prevent him from hurting the moths but he’s often too fast or we’re fast asleep and find only fragments of moth in the morning. When we catch fish, Jake is the first to the scene, prancing around making noise expecting and receiving a morsel of two of sushi during the filleting process.
In a few days or a week, we’ll circle back to dusty BLA for supplies, veggies and water and then head back out to the islands to explore new anchorages and islands, remaining always a day or less from Puerto Don Juan.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie and el gato guapo, Jake