“We always knew that at some point we both needed a break from Sänna, but Mexico wasn’t the best place for this to be. Sure, it’s an interesting and nice part of the world – there’s incredible historic culture which makes a refreshing change from the US. In America, anything old or historic is either a Disney-like recreation or has been knocked down to create yet another modern shopping mall. But we just love the many American friends we’ve made, the yanks are an incredibly friendly loyal bunch and the treasured memories we have of these ex-colonials will forever stay with us. Mexico though… for sailboats it’s an American playground. It’s not that spectacular nor is it idealistic in the way we had expected, the Sea of Cortez is picturesque enough but the marinas there are stunningly expensive in their relentless hunt for the US dollar. And don’t ever get me going on the subject of melted cheese…”
South to the Sea of Cortez
The first thing that struck me about the fabled Sea of Cortez is how similar it is to the Red Sea. As well as being almost identical in climate, the Sea of Cortez landscape is much the same – although nothing like as remote or spectacular. But there is stunning Mexican culture – fantastic four-hundred year old monasteries and incredible churches abound everywhere, though there is a degree of basic poverty which becomes the ‘attraction’ for us first-world westerners in our fancy sailboats, who like to think we are intrepid explorers able to mix it with the locals. So nothing much changes there then.
In March, I returned to Ensenada to ready Sänna for the long relentless cruise south – at entirely the wrong time of the year as this put us right into the Pacific hurricane season. And did we go through it… nineteen named hurricanes made 2018 one of Mexico’s most prolific years for these deadly storms. But the spring weather in Ensenada was something of a shock, it was cold and wet. My first two days looking ridiculous in shorts and flip-flops soon gave way to more suitable dress that made me somewhat less conspicuous.
Marie had arranged to join me in early April, with her having stayed around in England to arrange for the transportation to Mexico of our new English cat. What a tumultuous and expensive experience that turned out to be… you can read all about Nellie, our ship’s cat and our bizarre endeavours to get her over the border from San Diego in our blog post ‘How To Smuggle Your English Cat Into Mexico’. Needless to say, Nellie’s experience of Mexico and then El Salvador soon turned her into an intrepid traveller in her own right, but life onboard an English sailboat was a severe test of feline survival that I’m not sure is best revealed to an unsuspecting pet-loving public. In any event, she eventually returned to England to live her preferred lifestyle with a discerning aloofness that suggests no lasting emotional damage. Not so me, a cat that has a burning desire to catch large cockroaches and then return them aboard as a master’s present is something of an emotional experience.
We finally got away from Ensenada in mid-April, we made our way southwards to La Paz which is best described in our blog Southwards to the Sea of Cortez. Almost immediately we had problems, our head-sail furling gear jammed, though we were able to continue without undue problems under the power of our main sail – the northerly winds were reliable enough to keep us moving at a fair rate of knots. We anchored in good order in Turtle Bay, an ubiquitous stop used by most American and Canadian sailboats heading both south and north… the Baja Ha Ha rally fleet stops here – it’s hard to imagine over three-hundred yachts anchored in Turtle Bay but this annual pilgrimage from San Diego promises safety and protection based upon the ‘wildebeest’ theory of the African Serengeti… safety from predators in numbers.
We ourselves experienced none of the infamous Mexican problems we had been warned about. The officials were always courteous and helpful, costs were well controlled and we came across no corruption whatsoever. There is nothing like the official corruption we found in Thailand or the Philippines, nor the ‘baksheesh’ of Egypt and Yemen… given that we speak next to no Spanish, we found Mexicans spontaneously friendly and always willing to assist. Mexico is an easy and safe country to sail, we never felt threatened at any time except maybe in Acapulco. Entry and Customs procedures are simple and straightforward, harbourmasters always forgave our feeble attempts at Spanish and hardly ever collected fees from us. Why the Baja Ha Ha exists, to me, is difficult to understand.
In La Paz, which is a good location but a poor anchorage, we were in collision with another sailboat that had dragged its anchor. It seems that it’s a common occurrence there so we tied up in Marina La Paz… which wasn’t cheap. Even so it’s a nice place with clean water on the dock that’s drinkable… something which we learned is a bit of a rarity as we continued our way south through Central America.
From La Paz, Marie flew back to the UK to be with her son Henry, the beginning of his school exams means that his mother needs to support him through this important part of his life. As Marie flew out my intrepid and reliable crew member flew in – my step-brother Gary has proved a proven sailor and an exceptionally good friend. And so we would sail north up the much talked about Sea of Cortez, up along the eastern shoreline of the Baja peninsula which is the western side of the Sea of Cortez. From Santa Rosalia we would cross the ubiquitous Sea to San Carlos, where Marie and Gary would swap out out and Marie and I would make our way southwards along the Pacific shoreline of Mexico. Our experience of the picturesque Sea of Cortez is described in our blog North To Santa Rosalia… San Carlos though, is a noisy hot dump of a place, I myself was eventually glad to leave.
The saving grace for me in San Carlos was the World Cup! That’s the FIFA World Cup… football, only the yanks in the whole-wide-world call it ‘soccer’. In any event, the Mexicans are football fanatics and Mexico were there in the finals in Russia. England too. But no USA this time, which was a shame. So it was a football carnival there in San Carlos, the Hammerhead bar showed every game live – it was fantastic! There were only two problems… the local American ex-pat community tried hard to get the football World Cup off the Mexican TV bar screens, to be replaced by baseball and their version of football which is similar to rugby football but with protective body-armour. The Mexicans were having none of it… Germany v Mexico delivered a Mexican victory with a fantastic carnival atmosphere, interrupted only by an early-morning police raid because the Hammerhead bar were showing the game live without a ‘before hours’ drinking permit – the 7.30am kick-off contravened local alcohol drinking laws… though the winning Mexican goal enticed the police to celebrate too. I personally danced on the table with two female police officers who had no thoughts of closing the bar down as they downed their tequila in wild celebration. The next day though, the Hammerhead was closed for a 24-hour punishment period.
England progressed to the semi-final stage… and Hurricane Bud progressed up the Sea of Cortez to dump enormous amounts of rain and chaos on to San Carlos. High winds were a timely reminder that Mexico suffers an inordinate amount of heartache from annual hurricanes. Our new good friends Andy & Rob from South Africa, wild-man Tor Hermannsson, originally from Iceland, and Tony Peacock, a pony-tailed football loving freak from the US, made this a truly memorable occasion. By this time Marie was back in San Carlos and, with our new friends Tony and Tor, we watched England dumped out of the competition by Croatia. The whole bar staff of the Hammerhead commiserated, we sank beer and tequila on the house which was actually a really nice way to say goodbye to San Carlos. If you read this Tor and Tony, raise another glass to your English drinking friends…
To the Mexican Border
The long voyage south from San Carlos took us back along Baja shoreline to La Paz, the great cruiser’s base where so many American sailboats had been left for the hot summer whilst their owners returned to the US. This meant that many of the anchorages were empty and we enjoyed the quietness of some spectacular locations – but we found the costs extremely worrying. Port Escondido… eighty bucks a night in the marina there and twenty-six bucks just to pick up a buoy! But this incredibly scenic Anchorage was not to be missed, we rented a car to drive into the mountains and the Misión San Fransisco Javier monastery, at over three hundred years old it was easily the highlight of Mexico so far. From La Paz we crossed to Mazatlán, the port harbour anchorage was now out of bounds, we were once more forced into an expensive over-charging marina. But the historic centre of Mazatlán was well worth the visit. By this time Nellie, our illustrious English cat was settling in to life onboard, recovering from her wounds after having been kicked into the air by some Mexican thug in San Carlos. Mexican veterinary care is both superb and cheap. And, right now, we were making for pure paradise…
The huge Banderos Bay is home to a number of anchorages and colourful Mexican ports. We headed for Puerto Vallarta and Paradise Marina. This wonderful location offered a good nightly rate in a marvellous holiday setting, we had access to five swimming pools and an extremely nice beach. It was that good we stayed nearly a month! Decadent living yes, we made more nice friends in Tom & Gail onboard Impossible Dream, Eric and Ana on Dances with Winds and Gagi & Rudi on Prairie Fox. We partied a lot whilst searching for a Mexican veterinary to sample blood from Nellie… we now had a bad cat problem that we desperately needed to resolve.
For Nellie to leave Mexico, and also return to England, she needed her blood testing to check that rabies antibodies were present from her initial rabies injections given in the UK. The EU only recognised one Central American test facility and that was in Mexico City. So it was a simple matter of drawing a blood sample to send to Mexico City to get the necessary certification… except that we could find no Mexican vet that would do it. In Paradise Village we struck lucky… they had a zoo. In their zoo were two tigers and their resident vet was required to send monthly samples of tiger blood to this same facility in Mexico City. Easy peasy, or so we thought. Not until much later did we find out that the vital certificate we eventually obtained was incorrect.
We said a sad goodbye to our new friends who stood around on the dock to watch us leave. Once more we left good friends knowing full well that, despite all the well meaning promises we made, we would never see them again. It was sad to leave but we needed to make our way south to Acapulco. And what an experience that turned out to be.
By now we needed to keep a keen eye on the hurricane situation. Six category two and above hurricanes had already formed and spun off into the Pacific, it only needed one to track along the Mexican coastline, as they generally do, and we would be in trouble. First we made for Manzanillo and then the wonderful island anchorage of Ixtapia. The long stretch south from there to Acapulco put us at great risk, there were no hurricane-holes and nowhere to hide. Furthermore, we’d left behind the dry arid Sea of Cortez and we were now going tropical the further south we sailed. Torrential rain and lightening storms were now our greatest danger and so it proved. The two-hundred mile stretch of coast down to Acapulco is also notorious drug-running country, we had been told to keep a keen eye out for pangas, small fast vessels loaded with god-knows what and not to get in their way. In any event, we made Acapulco without mishap but what a crazy place that turned out to be.
Certainly, it’s a scenic location basking in its former glory years. It’s also a violent place, whilst we were in the process of picking up a harbour buoy there were gunshots not a few hundred feet from us. We later learned of another gangland shooting and were advised to use an escort whenever we went ashore. But Acapulco is a picturesque port and we needed supplies, we also needed propane gas and diesel. So we went ashore anyway, not having the remotest possibility of finding anyone to escort us, we found a taxi with a friendly driver who explained where we could go and where it was too unsafe. We really loved Acapulco. Then there was a sudden curfew, we were told not to go ashore – there was extensive gunfire everywhere. Later we learned the Mexican army had entered the city and arrested the entire police force, they’d disarmed every policeman in town. It turned out that most of the police are in the pay of drug-lords – the new president of Mexico had vowed to clean up the city – and we were anchored right in the middle of it. Then we were warned that someone was watching us, it might be best to leave. So we left during the night and made south to Bahías De Hualtulco. That’s the story of our four day stay in infamous Acapulco, though we still had the hard part to come…
There is a dangerous part of the Mexican coastline, well known to both southbound and northbound cruisers, called the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Here, the winds blow almost continuously through a gap in the mountains from the Caribbean Sea. By the time they reach Tehuantepec they are more than gale force with a deservingly bad write up. The trick, to cross this wide dangerous gulf, is to use the ‘one foot on the beach’ technique, which means sailing the two-hundred miles or so only fifty feet from the beach. You still get the winds, but the sea is calm and flat. It’s wonderful sailing unless you get it seriously wrong, we were tempted to make the passage straight across the gulf but soon realised the soundness of the advise we had been given. We got caught in mulching seas before quickly heading for the shoreline… and that’s how we reached the Mexican border with Guatemala in Chiapas.
But in Chiapas we had a problem, well two problems really. First, we were expecting delivery by DHL of the vaccination certificate for our English cat Nellie from the Mexico City test facility, we needed to get this so that she could leave Mexico and so that she would be able to return with us to the UK. The certificate arrived ok but they had the date of her original vaccination wrong… it was transposed the wrong way around, written in the American format of month, day and then year. This may seem a minor thing but it meant her rabies vaccination was technically out-of-date, even though it was not. Marie checked with the Live Animal Import centre back in Heathrow and, yup! Nellie would have to go into six-months quarantine once she arrived in the UK… at eighty quid a night!
We made frantic calls to the zoo veterinary back in Puerto Vallarta, who didn’t speak English, but through an interpreter we got him to talk to the test facility up in Mexico City. They promised to produce an amended certificate, then send it by courier to the port office in Chiapas. The other problem was that my Mexican visa had expired. So Marie waited in Chiapas for the new veterinary certificate whilst I made an illicit visa run over the border into Guatemala. On the Mexican border I was told by Mexican officials that I would need to stay in Guatemala for at least seventy-two hours before arriving back in Mexico to get a new visa. Three hours later I presented myself back at the Mexican border post and asked the same official for a new visa. He went berserk, then went to see his boss who told him it was ok to issue me with a new visa and to let me back into Mexico. A forty-bucks ‘payment’ to some hidden face in Guatemala had resolved the problem satisfactorily. We never received the amended rabies certificate for Nellie though, not the original that we’d need anyway.
We left Chiapas after a thorough onboard search by the Mexican navy. There’s no safe port of call anywhere in Guatemala so we made the three-day voyage to Bahiá Del Sol in El Salvador. It was fraught with terror, both nights we encountered severe lightening storms as Hurricane Rosa made its way northwards towards the Sea of Cortez. Nellie tried to jump overboard. In any event, we were all three ok. Bill & Jean, the amazing American couple who run the El Salvador Rally, arranged to get us over the sand-bar of the estuary entrance and got us safely tied up on the docks of the Bahiá Del Sol hotel, where the Salvadorian customs & immigration were waiting for us. We got a rum-punch welcome and everything was dead easy. This was a mighty fine welcome. ‘Why have you bought an English cat to El Salvador?’ the Salvadorian customs & immigration asked. ‘We’ve already got three million cats in El Salvador.’ Which is exactly what the Mexicans had said.
So we arranged to leave Sänna in Bahía Del Sol for Christmas and over new year. Whilst Marie flew ahead back to the UK I stayed a while to get Sänna fixed up to leave. I had Nellie with me still, because our ‘cat’ paperwork even now wasn’t in correct order. In the meantime Nellie learned how to catch cockroaches on the dock, then bring them back onboard as ‘master’s presents’. I tell you, she drove me crazy. At the time I was ill with Dengue Fever from a mosquito bite, with a high fever and severe sickness that lasted nearly two weeks. I was cared for by two exceptionally nice American nurses, Sam from Islena and Victoria onboard Taliesen Rose, meanwhile Nellie ritually caught cockroaches and I crawled out of my pit each night to catch and kill them – I had to find boric acid to get rid of the infestation. Back in England, to give me a break, Marie arranged for Nellie to be taken to a Salvadorian cattery in San Salvador (cat hotel) who would keep her for a couple of weeks at only five dollars a day, then transport her to the airport to be flown back to Heathrow in England. In any event, it turned out that we still had the wrong rabies certification paperwork.
Showing a great deal of logical sympathy, Bill offered to re-home Nellie with some local Salvadorian fishermen living on the island. I told him it was ok, Nellie was now safely ensconced in a cattery in San Salvador, they even came to the boat to collect her. Bill looked puzzled. ‘There are no catteries or cat hotels in El Salvador,’ he said.
Feeling like death with Dengue and not much sympathy, I didn’t care anymore.
Dave – December 2018
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