Letter from Acapulco, Feb. 9, 1997


Please pardon me for not writing sooner. Impressive though the reach of the internet is, it doesn't yet reach everywhere, so I haven't been able to write since we left La Paz. Well, that's not true: I could have written from Puerto Vallarta; I just didn't. I am, after all, on vacation.

We're now in Acapulco, a big city of some 2 million souls. It's a nice place, as cities go, with a beautiful harbor. It reminds us of San Diego.

But first...

Way back in mid November we were in La Paz. We had to stay an extra day there because the 20th of November (Independence Day, or more specifically, the revolution that overthrew the nobles who took over in the years after the Spanish King was thrown out) celebrations closed the government offices with whom we had to check out. The parade down the waterfront was quite colorful, and we're glad we stayed to see it.

We spent some considerable time trying to buy hardware for the boat. We really wanted to replace the broken piece of the spinnaker pole. "No Way," said the locals, "will you find something like that here. Maybe in Puerto Vallarta." We did, however, find a lot of smaller stuff: switches, bolts, an AC pilot light, on and on, 'til you'd think that we left the US with no spares at all. Not so, but it's not until one gets 24 hours by bus from the nearest big US chandlery or hardware store that one realizes how very many little bits of stuff we routinely use, and especially, how easy it is for us to get _just_the_right_ little thingus for a particular job.

La Paz is a nice place. It's not big, but it has the things a city should have, without having too much traffic or noise or other problems. One local described it to us as "sleepy", and said he hopes it doesn't wake up. I agree.

The time came to say goodbye, and we hauled up the anchor and motored the 17 miles to Caleta Partida. We got there a little later than we expected to, but the full moon was coming up as the sun went down, so we had enough light to pick a nice place to anchor. The anchorage is between two islands, with a narrow entrance channel to the west and a tiny, 3' deep channel between two sand spits to the east. In between, the anchorage is quite a wide bowl, with crystal water and a white sand bottom. The first night, as we were putting the anchor down, we were astounded to be able to see the bottom 18 feet below -- by moonlight.

In the morning, I got to jump right in and enjoy that crystal water. We had, um, er, sort-of, well, forgotten to bring in the fishing line when we came into the bay, and, in the process of finding the perfect little spot to pitch camp, we turned sharply enough to run over it. Did it get into the prop? Of course it did. Fortunately, just as we had the anchor down, I noticed the line getting taut at the boat, so we got into neutral before anything really forceful occurred.

So, like I was saying, as soon as it was light I was in the water with a knife, cutting an amazing amount of fishing line out of the tiny, tiny space between my prop and cutlass bearing. It didn't take that long, really, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to check the zincs, the set of the anchor, etc.

This detail attended to, we set out to enjoy ourselves. We kayaked to the several beaches. We took short walks and long hikes. We read, played in the water, played music, dinked to a good snorkeling reef, stared at the stars at night then watched the moon rise over the island.

The hiking was particularly good. The islands are very rugged and arid. With one's back to the water, it was hard to remember that we were not hundreds of miles from shore, in some interior desert. Each of us took a different route scrambling up the tallus and cliffs to the top of the island, then back down the dry stream bed to the beach.

We also had to patch the dink, as a patch from many years ago had come loose. We ran the watermaker long enough to fill both tanks, so we had to run the engine several hours a day. These and other chores gave us a sense that we were still working at least for the first several days of our playing.

While we were there, we got a two days of strong north wind. In retrospect, this would have been a perfect time for us to broad reach over to the mainland. We were, however, not ready to leave paradise yet, so we redoubled our pursuits of happiness and hoped the wind would still be good a few days hence.

As we left Caleta Partida, it seemed that we might really be that lucky. We ran south in light air between the island and the Baja peninsula. The radio weather predictions, which are pretty good considering that they're the amateur work of yankee cruisers piecing together a pattern from weatherfax and shortwave reports from boaters around the region, suggested that the worst we might see was wind that was too light to sail in. We turned east throught the San Lorenzo channel in decreasing but still northerly wind in the afternoon. We beat to clear the island east of the channel, and then fell off to a broad reach toward Chacala. So far so good.

In the wee hours, the wind started shifting: northeast, east, southeast. By about noon we were looking at big, menacing thunderclouds coming up from the south. When the thunder and lightning started, we spent about a half hour trying to dodge the most active lightning clouds, then the rain and wind suddenly came up.

A south wind was actually good for going where we were going, or at least it wasn't too bad. We were able to hold a course directly toward Chacala for the rest of the trip. We were also forced to reef the sails in the gathering gale, as the wind built. By sunset we were using a double-reefed main and a brand new storm jib. It was a rough, wet ride, but we were making good progress. We saw peak winds of around 35 kts. during the night, and the seas built as the gale matured.

Morning allowed us to see what was happening around us, and we weren't sure we liked that. Morning is also cruiser's radio roll-call time, with weather reports from various boats around us. It turned out the weather was, in fact, quite calm everywhere, except for one low pressure disturbance that was working its way up the mainland side. If you picture the Sea of Cortez as a great, big pasture, we had stepped in the one wrong spot.

Anyway, it got better. The wind slowed and moved clockwise, so every hour brought easier sailing. The storm jib got put away, the reefs were shaken out, the crew changed to dry clothes and rinsed the salt out of their hair, and all was grand.

On Thanksgiving, we had Turkey chili over rice. It wasn't like what Mom makes for Thanksgiving, but Mom doesn't sail. We liked it.

The last day approaching Chacala, we ran in light air over calm seas with just the spinnaker up. What a difference.

The sunset was amazingly colorful, and we hoped that the moonrise would bring enough light to slip into the cove at Chacala. No such luck. We approached tentatively, eyes, GPS, and radar eagerly straining forward, but the shore was too much of a single dark lump. We turned back out to sea, and sailed slowly back and forth until dawn.

The lump of Chacala resolved itself into a beautiful jungle scene. As we motored in, we were awed by the lush tropical vegetation, so different from what we had left in Baja. We anchored near the beach, close by our friends Dave and Linda on Irish Melody.

Dave and Linda are the water-side organizers for the Chacala Project. In summary, we spent that day and the following week helping townspeople build two brick houses. As the week progressed, more boats arrived, and the combined efforts of the locals and the cruisers got a lot done. By the following Saturday, one house was nearing completion, and a second was well underway.

The town itself is very pretty, but very poor. There's one store, no phone, sporadic water and electricity, and a subsistence economy of fishing and gardening. There are a half-dozen restaurants along the beach that are happy to see the cruisers arrive, but that get most of their business on a few weekends a year when Mexicans from the inland cities come down to camp and enjoy the peaceful beach.

The people were very friendly, if somewhat shy. The food in the restaurants was excellent, although it was usually limited to local products: fish, salsa, tortillas, etc. Even chicken was available only from the freezer of the store, so it had to be ordered a day in advance. We discovered that the fish was delicious, with a variety of spices, so we stuck to that.

Our work-day routine was: up early & eat hearty. Dink to the beach, and work from 8:30 til 1:30. By then, everyone was pretty wilted by the heat and the labor, so a two hour lunch was barely long enough to recover. Back to work from 3:30 to dusk. Back to the boats; wash, eat a little, and sleep.

Our final two days in town, we took some short hikes in the area, and rested.

By now it was early December. We had a date to keep down south, so it was time to get moving. On Tuesday (Dec 10?), we set off for Banderas Bay, just 60 or so miles to the south. We were able to sail most of the way, in moderate wind. We motored into the anchorage at La Cruz an hour after dark.

One thing I haven't mentioned specifically: our garbage. There are no full-time inhabitants at Caleta Partida, and Chacala is far too small and remote to have garbage collection. (The locals burn their trash). What I'm saying is that it had now been quite a few weeks since we last saw a trash can on shore. It's illegal to dump it at sea until you're farther out than we were, and besides, we didn't want to dump trash in the ocean. Some of our trash old enough to be rather ripe. That night in La Cruz, the garbage bags we'd tied to the fantail came alive with maggots. Oh yuck. I spent the last few hours before dawn trying to keep them out of the aft cabin, spraying them and the bags, and flicking hundreds overboard.

When sunrise came, I was off like a shot in the kayak, with the trash, looking for a can. I was motivated.

La Cruz at dawn is a pleasant place. The climate is drier than Chacala, and the town is much smaller that La Paz, so it was rather dusty, but charming. There wasn't much activity, except right on the waterfront, as the early-rising fishermen began to returned with their catch. There's a nice big brick cathedral and a big town square near the harbor.

After breakfast, we set sail for Puerto Vallarta, a few hours away.

As we sailed, we saw that our lifestyle was about to change radically again. P.V., even from a distance, is obviously a big city. Nuevo Vallarta, which we passed enroute, is obviously a high-rise tourist enclave. We saw boat-towed parachutes (they're called parasails here, but that's not accurate), jetskis, and lots of sport fishing boats. "Oh, no," we thought, "Cabo again, but bigger."

That's true in a way, but it's not fair. Puerto Vallarta was a real city for years when Cabo was still just a fish camp. There's a lot to see, and a lot of charm in the old part of town.

There's no longer any good place to anchor in Puerto Vallarta, so we checked into Marina Vallarta. Well, fresh running water and all the electricity we could eat would be some consolation for being surrounded by condos.

There's good bus service into town from the Marina, and we used it most days. I did my Christmas shopping, and sent a batch of mail home. Marc & Anna & Dave & Linda & I had a particularly interesting outing into town for the parade for Our Lady of Guadeloupe (celebrating an apparition of Mary in a town just north of Mexico City), which was quite a big event. There were bands, floats, fireworks (OSHA would have had a fit! The bursts were almost _in_ the crowd), mini-parades from local churches, lots of food, very many people, and energy.

This was our first exposure to a biggish modern Mexican city. We had heard that we would find supermarkets, not just the (medieval style) small shops and open market that we'd seen elsewhere. The traditional stuff was there, too, but we were surprised by how big and well-stocked the supermarkets were.

I've mentioned that we've become friends with Dave & Linda, but I didn't say how or why. Dave plays Irish fiddle. Anna plays violin. Back in Cabo, they got together to play, and the boats bonded easily. They practiced some more while in Chacala, and by the time we were together in PV, they were ready for their public debut. They played for the dinner crowd at Angela's, an Italian restaurant in the marina complex. The audience loved them.

Puerto Vallarta has it's nice side, but it's wearying. As soon as we could, (having determined that there was no spinnaker pole here either, nor dinghy wheels), we set sail for Zihuatanejo.

The trip down was mostly quiet, except for about five hours near Cabo Corrientes when the wind came up on our nose, and we beat back and forth with great energy and only made good 8 miles. If the wind hadn't changed, we'd still be there. After that died down, we alternated between light-air sailing, and motoring.

We got a little bit of adventure as we passed Manzanillo; right after dawn, and fortunately under sail, we ran over a fisherman's long line. This looks on the surface like a mile or more of small floats. Strung between the floats is a single long fishing line; every five feet or so, there's a short leader and a baited hook. Some lines have buoys with flags on poles at the ends, but others don't, and since the lines can be more than a mile long, the flags can be tough to see.

So, we snagged one. I had just awakened prior to my watch, and the duty crew (name withheld) informed me that we seemed to be dragging a buoy, possibly a crab pot. Closer inspection revealed that there was a Vee of buoys behind us, and a panga racing from the seaward horizon toward us.

We dropped the sails, and the panga arrived just as I was ready in trunks and mask to hop over the side. The old fisherman was very nice, and signaled his willingness to cut his line to let us go. He was happy to wait, though, to see if I could get it loose. I think he thought we'd been motoring, and that the line would be a hopeless tangle on the prop. Since we'd been sailing, I had some hope, correctly as it happened, that it would be a simple snag.

Into the water, easily unhook the line from the bottom of the rudder post, back up on deck, and yacht and fisher both were all smiles and waving goodbye.

Our last evening at sea was another glorious light-air spinnaker run. We don't go very fast, but it's very comfortable. Earlier, when there was no wind we stopped motoring for half an hour to swim. That was quite a pleasant break on a hot day.

We arrived off Ixtapa well after dark, and drifted offshore looking at all the lights. We'd heard that Ixtapa would be big and bright, but that Zihuatanejo would nonetheless be small and friendly. The night was filled with anticipation.

Dawn came, and we motored in. It's a biggish bay, with two turns in the entrance so the ocean swell is largely kept out.

I'll admit that there are far more hotels in Zihuatanejo than I'd been led to expect to see, but they're not mega-highrises, and the town is as friendly as we'd hoped. We anchored at the town end of the bay, (not the hotel end, La Ropa Beach), and settled in for the Holidays. It was Sunday, around Dec. 20.

Our first mission, after checking in, was to get some stuff shipped from the States; we believed that we would be there long enough for packages to reach us. (NB: vernight delivery is just a concept outside the US, Japan, and the European biggies.) On the phone, calling Santa. I wanna spinnaker pole, dinghy wheels (to move the inflatable, which is heavy with motor on it, up the beach beyond the high tide line), and snatch blocks (blew one up in the gale), more dinghy repair goop (the dink has gotten more use this year than the previous 6 combined), a used 1.5 oz. spinnaker, and, and, and, mail! I wanna box of mail from home!

Jumping ahead to the end of our stay, some observations: for shipping to Mexico, DHL is definitely the one to use. FedEx and UPS understand the concept OK at the US office, but the machine doesn't work smoothly.

Final score:

Charts of the Galapagos and Marquesas arrived (DHL).

The wheels and misc. arrived OK (DHL).

The pole arrived bent. (DHL) They took it back, insurance claim, no problem. That was at least graceful. It takes a lot of force to bend a 3" aluminum pole in a shipping container, but OK, maybe Customs did it, not DHL. It looked to me as if it had been run over by a car or light truck.

The spinnaker got hung up in Mexico City in Customs. (UPS) Even when I provided the paperwork to get it through customs, UPS "couldn't" pick it up. They said I had to hire a third-party agent to get it out, but even the US 800 number folks couldn't say why, or how to find an agent. After WEEKS and many dollars on the phone, I told the seller that it hadn't arrived, where it was, and that he should have it called back if possible and claimed as an insurance loss if not. UPS made him PAY to get the sail back.

Some mail got through (FedEx), but only the shipments that were truly only documents. One box also contained gifts, including some storebought cookies, which (we learned) require an import permit. That's not FedEx's fault, but it would have been nice if they'd contacted me or the shipper, rather than waiting for us to declare the package MIA. That shipment is supposed to be on its way back to the sender, but it hasn't arrived yet. It may yet be MIA.

The conclusions: Plan ahead; try not to need merchandise shipped to Mexico. If you do, use DHL. They cost a lot more, but they deliver, and that's the point.

After the whirl of ordering stuff by phone, and while we waited for stuff to drift in, we settled into Zihuatanejo's social whirl.

There were about 40 boats in the bay on Christmas day. Throughout our visit, some boats left for other ports at about the same rate that other boats arrived. Ashore, there were Christmas and New Year's parties, featuring the music of the crews of Gumbo Ya Ya, Bigfoot, other boats, and a land-side tourist who got swept into the cruising community. For boaters, the place to meet is Noemi's restaurant, a block in from the water.

From just after Christmas until a week after New Years, we were joined by my sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Tommy. We had a busy two weeks of walking all around the town, taking the bus to the nearby inland town of Petetlan to see their new cathedral, snorkeling, riding horses on the beach, eating well, and just hanging out. It was fun to be able to share "our" Mexico with folks from out of town.

We had, in fact, come to consider Mexico "ours." We had learned how to get around towns, filled out our Spanish with essential vocabulary, and generally felt comfortable going about daily life here. We began to get the itch for new adventures. Before we could go, though, we had to wait for our packages to come (or not).

I filled some of the waiting time studying Morse code in preparation for another amateur radio exam. There are enough HAMs among the US boaters in PV that they have exams periodically in Marina Vallarta. When the time came, I took the bus up to PV: 13 hours to go 350 miles. The road was like California Highway 1 going through a more arid version of Big Sur. A recent earthquake had caused some biggish slides onto the road as well. I had a cold, and I was trying to study enroute. The trip developed a dreamlike tone. We got to PV around midnight; I found a hotel, studied myself to sleep, and got up early and took a cab to the Marina.

I found the test site, helped set up, registered, and easily passed the written part of the test. Next came the hard part: receiving Morse code at 13 words per minute (WPM). I'd been practicing daily, from tapes and listening to the shortwave, but I didn't feel very confident. Five WPM had become easy, so I was sure I could pass the Novice class exam; up to 10 WPM I was pretty confident. But 13 WPM was FAST, and that's what I needed to copy to pass the General exam.

I failed on the first try, missing one question too many. The test givers looked at what I had successfuly received and declared that they would NOT let me wimp out and settle for Novice Class; they were determined to make me retake the General Class test until I passed. The third try was the charm. Whew! and a big thanks to Ron, Susan, et al., for their confidence.

After a lunch and a few beers with the HAMs, I took the bus back to my hotel, and began planning my return to Zihua. The bus didn't leave until the next morning, so I walked into old PV, to the plaza near the Catherdral, and up to the third-floor PuertoNet internet office. They had a room full of computers for walk-in use, and a very fast connection to the net. I checked my mail, and uploaded a bunch of web-page additions. That done, I went back to the hotel and dropped into a nearly comatose slumber.

I was back up at 5am and at the bus station before 6. This bus station was not well organized. They refused to sell tickets until the bus arrived (an hour late), so a whole room full of people wanted to get tickets at once, right away, and not miss the bus. It was a pushing, shoving mob. We did all get on, with some standees, and got underway.

I should mention that that's not typical. Intercity busses in Mexico are called First Class busses, and for the most part that's deserved. You can buy your tickets in advance, like an airline. The seats recline, and there's decent legroom. They show movies enroute, though their tastes run toward "Explosion Man", and "Bloody Revenge of the Justly Indignant". It was fun, though, to see the mild Spanish subtitle translations of the profanity in "Die Hard." Diablitos! Demonios! Back to busses: they also usually run on time. This one from PV to Zihua was an exceptional mess.

By the time I got back to Espire, around 11pm, I was quite tired and quite ill. I spent the next day asleep. Anna made me get up to eat something. I wasn't back to a decent energy level for a week, and I still have a cough. Many of us cruisers got colds which we attribute to the influx of Northern air travellers during the holidays, each with a carefully cultured snow-city cold to share with the innocent tropical denizens.

On advice of some of the cruisers leaving the bay, we started cleaning the growth off the bottom of the boat well before departure. Zihuatanejo bay is a pretty healthy ecosystem, and we had a lot of barnacles to scrape. We spent a half hour or so at it every few days. Boaters: the only bottom paint that people down here are really happy with is Petit Trinidad. The Micron CSC that lasted me for three years two different times in SF bay is losing effectiveness here after just four months.

Finally, the day came. All the packages were present or accounted for, and each of us had fulfilled our tourist desires. We bought some fresh bread, fruit, and veggies, filled the water tanks (6 pesos, just under a Dollar, per 5 gallons of purified drinking water), patched together the spinnaker pole using the long part of the broken piece, and got the boat ready to go. On Feb. 2, weraised anchor, loaded up on fuel, and set off for Acapulco. We had a nice trip, mostly sailing, with a favorable current boosting us along. The jury-rigged spinnaker pole works fine for 99% of what we want it to do. The middle of the next day, we pulled into Acapulco Bay on a spinnaker run, looking good, picked up a mooring near the Yacht Club, and sat down to a dinner of skipjack that we'd caught enroute.

Acapulco is a nice city, as big cities go. The weather is wonderful. The water is clean. The transit system works well. The people have cosmopolitan energy and Mexican charm. There are museums and an old town that dates back to the early days of the Spanish colonization of the New World.

There is also Shopping. That sounds so materialistic, but we've learned the attraction by living with the absence. We were able to replace a lot of the food that we've used. We won't see this sort of variety again until five months from now when we get to Honolulu. I was able to find a replacement for the oil pressure switch on my 31-year old diesel, thus staunching an annoying oil leak. We still hope to find a source of solar panels; the ones we brought don't put out enough for the amount of electricity that we use. That puts the load on the engine, to keep the batteries topped up.

Another errand here is to try to get a bit of the currency for each of the Central American countries that we'll visit. That may not be possible, but today I'll take the bus out to the airport to give it one more try. If that doesn't work, then I'll settle for taking a lot of US cash, as many cruisers do.

Tomorrow or the day after we'll leave for Huatulco, probably our last stop in Mexico. After that, it's Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica, then off over the big blue to the Galapagos, the Marquesas, and Hawaii.

I may not be able to email again until we reach Hilo, though we'll try to talk our way into the computer rooms at any Universities we find in C.A.

Best wishes. Take care,


point left Back to Espire's voyage of discovery.