“………there is a genuine fascination of the city of La Paz. Everyone in the area knows the greatness of La Paz. You can get anything in the world there, they say. It is a huge place – not of course, as monstrous as Guaymas or Mazatlan, but beautiful out of all comparison. The Indians paddle hundreds of miles to be at La Paz on a feast day. It is a proud thing to have been born in La Paz, and a cloud of delight hangs over the distant city from the time when it was the great pearl center of the world. The robes of the Spanish kings and the stoles of bishops in Rome were stiff with the pearls from La Paz. There is a magic-carpet sound to the name, anyway. And it is an old city, as cities in the West are old, and very venerable in the eyes of the Indians of the Gulf. Guaymas is busier, they say, and Mazatlan gayer, perhaps, but La Paz is antigua.”
(excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez; by John Steinbeck)
The port entrance to La Paz is tricky, the bay is shallow and the currents treacherous. You have to be certain to stay between the buoy markers and within the dredged channel at all times, lest you risk running aground. The channel is shaped like a hockey stick. The entrance is the business end of the stick and is located a couple of miles north of town. From buoys 1 and two, it runs southeast close along the shore, past ship yards and the ferry landing, which shuttles people and commerce back and forth across the sea to Mazatlan. After about three quarters of a mile the channel begins slowly arcing right to run westward up the long length of the handle. Passing the small resorts and marinas which lie beneath over hanging cliffs. Eventually you arrive at the town proper and pass down the Malacon, which is always filled with a wide variety of people; joggers, roller bladers, skateboarders, bicyclist, families picnicing, lovers holding hands, old men playing dominoes. There are playgrounds for the kids, artisans pedaling their wares and panga owners hawking trips to the islands or outings to swim with sea lions or whale sharks. The street is lined with shops, bars and restaurants. At the end of the Malacon is an anchorage hard on the beach and past that, in short succession, are three marinas: Cortez, La Paz and San Jose. Immediately outside of the Marinas you will find the main anchorage, where fifty boats or more can usually be found at anchor. Finally, at the far end of the bay is the Mexican Navy yard and their warships.
We pulled into a slip at Marina de La Paz at 2PM on November the 26th. We were delighted to see our friends on Rejoice immediately in front of us. There were many other boats that we knew, especially from our time in San Diego. Rejoice threw a dock party and it was like old home week. La Paz is famous in the cruising community for taking prisoners, it sucks you in and takes a hold. No port that we have heard of, is more known for being the end of all cruising aspirations. Stories abound of cruisers, set out to circumnavigate the globe or at least intent on a thorough exploration of Mexico and Central America, who arrive in La Paz, never to depart again. It is home to a vibrant ex-pat community, many (if not most) of them, cruisers. There is a yacht club, complete with a club house, which serves as a social hub. And each morning, a radio net, to review comings and goings, tides, weather and offer assistance to anyone in need.
We spend our days walking the streets, exploring the town and shops. Christmas is rapidly approaching and the kids are out of school already. Vendors are setting up their holiday booths, which line the streets of the shopping district, closing the roads to automobiles. There is a lighted Christmas tree being erected on the Malacon. The tree has been paid for by the local beverage distributor and is decorated with soft drink branding, this year Christmas is brought to you by Coca-Cola……… But that is cynical gringo thinking, because it doesn’t feel insidious, and certainly the locals of all ages delight in the tree. The Holiday celebrating is already begun and will go on and on. The festivities will not conclude until Kings Day, on January 6th, when the children will finally be able to open their gifts.
We find La Paz is as advertised. It is easy to see why people settle in here. It is a small city that offers everything anyone would need. All of the goods and services one might want. The food is varied and delicious, the weather is fantastic and if you wanted to, you could live here comfortably for a long time and very affordably. The people are warm, gracious and generous. Quick to offer assistance, a greeting or a smile. A taxi driver quickly becomes a tour guide if you express any curiosity; notable buildings, favorite restaurants, beaches, local history. Julianne, in making conversation with one amiable driver asked , “De donde eres?” he immediately sat up straighter in his seat and, looking back at us in the mirror replied, “me? I am from La Paz, I was born here!”…it is a proud thing to be born in La Paz.
One of our favorite places is Mercado Nicolas Bravo or “Bravo Market”. The Bravo market is a collection of food vendors all housed in a single building. It is not unlike the Pike Place market in Seattle. There are butchers, carving their cuts of meat to order; bacon sliced right from the belly; fresh sausages and ground beef; and of course, whole pigs heads, tripe and chickens feet. Fish mongers, have every imaginable ocean creature, shrimp, scallops, tuna, whole octopus, mountains of whole red snapper. The produce stands are an cacophony of color and smell and goodness. The market offers canned goods, fresh baked breads, handmade tortillas, ice creameries, prepared food to go and a couple of small restaurants. It is an authentic and wonderful place. At the center of the market, there is a particular open air kitchen with a counter for sitting that became a favorite spot. Piles of freshly made tortillas, tostadas, chili rellenos, empanadas and fried fish line the counters. There are piping bowls of pozzole and birra and menudo. Rice and beans and salsas. Once, inquiring at the counter on the cost of the chille rellenos, one of the women screwed up her face in concentration before saying in english, her face beaming proudly, “thirty pesos?”….. All of the other women screamed with delight and slapped her on the back, none of them spoke any English and it was a marvel to them (and to her) that she had produced the words.
Goods and services are both readily available and imminently affordable in La Paz. We decided to have some additions made to Epiphany while we were there. The impetus was the need to produce more electricity. We wanted to add solar panels and we would need someplace to mount them. We discussed several options and finally decided on one that would provide the greatest overall benefit for the cost. We replaced the cable life lines on the port and starboard sides of the cockpit with stainless tubing or “hard rails”, which tied in with the hard rails at the stern. Onto these we added extensions with hinges to support the solar panels. The panels fold up when in use, and down by the side when in port or heavy weather. This choice also gave us the added benefit of being able to move our dodger (canvas cover that provides protection from rain and sun) up and onto of the new hard rails; removing it from the interior of the cockpit and creating a ton more usable space. The work took a couple of days and our boat was a mess, but it came out great and we are really happy with it!
La Paz takes prisoners. Sixteen days had passed and we had no idea where they went……”we just got here!’. Our friend Revecka was coming to visit us. She had purchased a ticket at the end of the month, into Cabo. So we couldn’t up and leave for the mainland. But we fretted that we might find ourselves permanently weaved into the fabric of La Paz if we didn’t get out of there. We decided to sail north, island hoping our way to Puerto Escondido and spend Christmas in Loreto; maybe we would even get a hotel room! Our cruising buddies on Agatha, feeling the same way, asked if they could come along. And so, bright and early on the morning of December the 12th, we fired up our motor and headed back down the long handle of the hockey stick that is the La Paz channel. It was important to make haste. A norther was brewing and it was going to bring strong winds and uncomfortable sailing conditions with it. Our first stop on the journey would be the anchorage at Caleta Partida, twenty five miles north east of La Paz. Our plan was to spend a few leisurely days at multiple anchorages, swimming and hiking as we made our way to Loreto.
Caleta Partida is a geographical anomaly; and difficult to articulate. It is neither a bay nor a cove, although that is what it appears to be both the naked eye and on a chart. It is actually a sheltered body of water sandwiched between two islands; Partida and Espiritu Santo. Large boats can only enter through the southwest entrance, but pangas and dinghys can also come and go via a cut which empties northeast. Formerly, Caleta Partida was the crater of a volcano and these were a single island. The water is a make believe color of aqua marine and the surrounding cliffs are magnificent. There is a white sand beach which is home to a couple of small fish camps. It is a popular anchorage, not only for it’s beauty, but because it offers wind and wave protection from nearly every direction.
We arrived in early afternoon and dropped our hook in twenty feet of water. You could easily see the anchor come to rest on the bottom. I watched, as the chain stretched out across the sand floor while Julianne backed the boat down. A few hours later, Agatha joined us and we all enjoyed dinner and games aboard their big Benateau. Later that night a sea lion pup came over to play. He spent a couple of hours frolicking around and under our boat. He would lay, on his back, right against the boat and we would reach over to try and scratch his belly. We hung our flashlight overboard illuminating the water. The bottom was easily visible as were the multitude of fish. Our sea lion dove excitedly along and under our boat, doing summer saults and twist, occasionally he would grab a fish and break the water to proudly show us his bounty. But our new friend wasn’t the only thing that visited that night.
The dominant winter weather system in the Sea is driven by pressure built in the deserts of the American southwest. The four corners area lies directly north of the Sea and, when the damn breaks, will send howling cold wind pouring out of the Great Basin into the Sea. Mainland Mexico is to the east and the peninsula to the west, both areas are mountainous, so there is no where else for the wind to go. It is a funnel, akin to passing an open alley way in a Chicago storm, a long narrow one way street to the Pacific.
We knew that the storm was coming and almost immediately we knew that it was going to exceed predictions in its ferocity. It was soon more than 25 knots sustained and the gust were considerably higher. Even though the high cliffs offer us protection, there is enough fetch within the crater to create some waves. Soon we begin hobby horseing. Worse, our new Bimini is not locked down and has transformed into a sail behind us. At two in the morning our anchor drags. I go up into the cockpit to set watch; Julianne soon joins me. We are dragging slowly, inching closer and closer to Agatha who is anchored directly downwind. It is a dark night and we are pitching as the wind gust around us. Not an ideal time to haul up your anchor and reset. So we wait and we watch. Finally dawn breaks and the wind abates, if only for a moment. We pull up our anchor and reconfigure our stern kite back into a bimini. This time we edge right up to the shoal and anchor as close as we dare to the protective cliffs. For three more days this will be our home. We cannot put our dinghy in the water, it takes an effort just to walk the deck topside and check on things. The wind is relentless. We read books, play cards, bake a pie. It doesn’t help, we are on the fast train to Cuckooville, trapped below deck on our suddenly much smaller sailboat!
Finally, on the fourth day, the wind begins to ebb. The storm is not over but it has lost its punch. Forecast showed it continuing to dissipate over the next few days. Agatha was keen to go ashore and explore. They have a much bigger and roomier boat; more conducive to hunkering down and riding out a storm. They hadn’t visited Cuckooville; I had been elected mayor! We told them to catch up when they could and left immediately for Isla San Francisco; a picture postcard little island with an expansive cresent shaped beach. We spent two nights in San Francisco and ran into some folks that we knew from the Baja Haha; Desperado on their beautiful Choy Lee. Agatha caught us up on the second night and in the morning we hiked up the ridge on the south shore of the Island. That afternoon we left them again, beating into the northerly swell as we made the quick 12 miles across the Canal de San Jose to San Evaristo.
San Evaristo, became a favorite anchorage. The Northerly had spawned a second life, and continued to blow, but it was not nearly as problematic. We sheltered in a small cove just outside the main bay for four days. But we were able to put our dinghy in the water and to go ashore. The place is exceedingly remote and desolate. There is a small town with about twenty five families living there. The village is home to a small bar/restaurant and an even smaller tiendita, which occupies a room inside of a family home. We purchase cookies, water and beer. There is a salt mine a short distance from town and, in between the mine and town, a small school. The town is very sleepy; partially because we are very close to Christmas and people are off to La Paz or elsewhere to visit family; but also because…..well there are only 25 families living there!
We go ashore. Hiking and exploring with the crew from Agatha and new friends Susie and Don, on the 36 foot Catalina, Cambell’s Sloop. One day, Julianne and I discover a partially deflated basketball in the school yard. We play an impromptu game of horse; Julie is winning the game when I make a shot and turn to her and say “horse”! Defensively she says “thats not horse!” “Yes it is!” I retort. Catching on, she whips around to see a large horse coming down the hill toward us. The large horse is not alone, he is ridden by an old Vaquero named Mario. It’s a tossup who is more surprised by this encounter; us to see a real live Mexican cowboy appear out of the dusty cactus filled hills; or him, to find a couple of Christmas gringos playing children’s games and trespassing on school grounds. The fact that we were playing with a flat ball doesn’t do a lot to recommend our intelligence or ease his misapprehension! We chat for a bit and when he leaves, we can’t stop laughing at ourselves. We really liked San Evaristo.
We were running out of time quickly. We had hoped to be in Loreto for Christmas. Finally, at 6AM on December 21st, with the Northerly blown out, we pull anchor and motor out into the San Jose Channel. Agatha, pulled anchor with us and is right alongside as we leave the anchorage. It is a full day to get to our next stop at Aqua Verde and we want to sail as much as possible. Agatha takes the rhumb line and motors the whole of the day. We swing out to the east, hoping to find a broad reach back in during the afternoon. We put our fishing line out and can’t keep the fish off. We catch six that morning! All are skip jacks and not great for eating, but it is fun catching them. And….we calculated correctly, in the afternoon we find a nice angle and decent wind and are able to sail. We arrive at Aqua Verde just before sunset. There will be no time for exploration here. We are anxious to make our way into port. Puerto Escondido is just twenty three miles north of us, an easy four hour trip! The marina at Puerto Escondido is where we will leave our boat as we venture the last 14 miles into Loreto by car. I cannot improve upon Steinbeck’s description of Puerto Escondido. “…….Puerto Escondido, the Hidden Harbor, a place of magic. If one wished to design a secret personal bay, one would probably build something very like this little harbor. A point swings about, making a small semicircular bay fringed with bright-green mangroves, and only when one has turned inside this outer bay can one see that there is a second secret bay beyond……”
We arrive in the harbor just after 2PM on December 23rd, and tie up to a mooring ball, just outside of the marina. The sun is out and we are in high spirits as we arrive at port. The discomfort of the relentless northerly is already a receding memory. What does Loreto have in store for us? What new discoveries? Anticipation, hope and wonder are the order of the day. Our trip north had been yet another great adventure. And tomorrow is Christmas eve!