Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gringos in Mexico?!?!? Who woulda thunk it?

So, what do people who spend most of their year messing around with boats, the ocean, and small desert islands do for a vacation? I know this might seem insane, but we just yesterday returned from a mini-cruise during which we messed around with boats, the ocean, and small desert islands. Ah, but we did shift a continent to the left...

That must say something about La Gringa and me. It pretty much confirms our dyed-in-the-wool status as lifelong water babies. We spent six of the past ten days living on a boat surrounded by the rugged wilderness of Baja. The other four days were spent travelling from Providenciales to La Paz, Mexico, and back. But before I get into all that, here's a sunrise photo. Ah, but this one is in the Sea of Cortez:

Neither one of us are the type of people to go on a 'cruise'. Not a cruise conforming to what our mental image of a cruise entails. Oh, we know lots of people who love the big cruise ships. We have met people who take a cruise every year. We get contacted now by people who are planning a cruise that includes the TCI. And we can understand some of the elements of those all-inclusive sea journeys that would be appealing to many. But not us. Neither of us like crowds, although La Gringa's idea of a crowd would be several times my own. To me, more than about six people is a crowd. More than two if the third one is a stranger. Neither of us are attracted to the orchestrated, scheduled aspect of it all. We are not into fancy dining rooms, casinos, or onboard swimming pools. We are not crazy about dealing with other people's kids except in short doses. We like maintaining the option of walking away from situations we would like to walk away from. Our idea of a vacation is not on a floating city making a set of predetermined tour stops in cruise terminals, with an itinerary and a guide. Nope, nope, nope. Not our style at all, and if you have been reading this blog you probably already know that. We prefer to set our own boat travels, and to take photos of scenes that may not have ever been photographed or written about before. Also, I realize that this blog is all about our lives in the TCI as expats, and really has nothing at all to do with being tourists in Mexico.

But this cruise was not like that. For starters, we spent the week on this boat:

That's the "Safari Quest", from American Safari Cruises. It's a small boat, as cruise ships go. It only has bunk space for a maximum of 22 guests, and 8 very competent, friendly, and professional crew. It only draws 8 feet of water, which means it can get into places the big boats cannot go. That part of it, we like.

Another reason this cruise worked for us is that except for the crew, we knew every single other passenger on board. Nineteen members of La Gringa's family. I guess another way to phrase that would be 'Gringo, along with La Gringa and seventeen of his closest in-laws'. We also already knew the boat, because two years ago we rode it for a week in Alaska. And we had a great time then, too.

It took us two days to get to the boat. We flew from Provo to Miami. Then from Miami to Mexico City, where we spent the night in a hotel near the airport. It was 78 degrees when we left Provo. It was 40 degrees in Mexico City. We were in shorts and t-shirts. We were two of the coldest gringos in town. Then we flew from Mexico City to La Paz, on the Baja peninsula. Ah, back to the warm. I did not take a lot of photos of the city of La Paz, but it sure seems to be a nice place. 150,000 people in one town. That seems like a lot to us, coming from a nation of 40,000.

We had to spend one night at a hotel in La Paz both coming and going on this trip. The hotel is located on a small marina, named the Costa Baja. When we checked into the hotel we headed for the cafe/cantina and got a good view of the marina full of boats...and guess which one immediately caught our eye on Day One here in Baja?

Yep, right there in the foreground, where it could not be tied up any closer if it tried, sat an almost exact duplicate of our recently departed panga "Cay Lime"..

I couldn't believe it. An Andros Boatworks Permit 22. Same boat, same builder, exactly. Minor differences in how it's equipped, with a Merc outboard, dodger, and different swim ladder, but otherwise, an exact duplicate even down to the t-top and hull colors. What are the chances of us finding the sister (hermana?) of our own panga tied up here in Mexico? A US-made boat here in the land of Mexican built pangas? What kind of coincidence would that be, if one believed in coincidences? When I finally finished my nostalgic crying jag, I was once again reminded of a universal truth I keep having to re-learn. The supreme being has a wicked sense of humor.

I was pleasantly struck by how many boats there are in La Paz. Power boats, sail boats, and even the odd Mexican Navy boats:

I didn't take too many photos of the military boats. In my experience, Latin American countries tend to get officially excited about people taking photos of their military installations. I don't know why that is. Nobody south of Mexico is capable of invading them, and there is certainly nothing about their Navy that would concern anyone north of them. But hey, their country, their rules. I also did not try to sneak any photos of the truck loads of armed Federales patrolling the streets of La Paz, nor of the armed Mexican Army personnel at the airport with a luggage-sniffing dog delaying a plane load of people while they went through their bags. (What the heck are you going to smuggle into Mexico??) I did whisper "Remember the Alamo" to the dog, but apparently he doesn't bark English. Or maybe he was taught a different and more recent version of who runs SW Texas these days.

We boarded the boat and got underway, dropping anchor a few hours later in a cove off of some rugged, deserted island somewhere or other. Got up the next morning to a Baja sunrise for a change:

I was actually thinking of writing a day-by-day trip log of this week, thinking I could even squeeze several blog posts out of it before I have enough TCI photos for another post. Then I realized that, this being a cruise and all, there was probably already a well written version of the itinerary available. And there is. I found one, for any of you who are thinking you might like to know more about this type of tourism. If you are really interested in a dot-to-dot version, please check out http://cruises.about.com/od/americansafaricruises/ss/Safari_Quest.htm

She did a good write-up, with lots of interior boat photos, descriptions, links, etc. That saves me from having to write about every little place we visited, and posting photos of the boat. With a few exceptions, I will stick to photos that we took.

One of our early side adventures was a snorkeling trip to a rocky little beach off one of the islands. I think this was basically meant to be a 'beginner's guide to snorkeling' excursion, since not everyone on these cruises is experienced in the water. Well, La Gringa and I certainly did not need any help determining which end of a snorkel goes where, but we wanted to try out the water here. So we went along.

La Gringa's first dip in Mexico! (not counting Yours Truly..)

I should mention that we got another camera for this trip. We bought a newer version of the Olympus pocket digital that we've been using for the past year. It's got more mega pixels. It's a convenient size, it's rugged, and it still claims to be waterproof to 33 feet, just like its predecessor did. Its predecessor made false promises about that waterproof part. So for this one we ordered an underwater housing as well. We figure that a camera claiming to be waterproof, buttoned up inside a housing that claims to be waterproof, might actually result in a camera that can handle getting immersed. We hope so. This is our fourth 'underwater' camera in four years. This Olympus doesn't seem to take any better photos than the previous one in low light. The telephoto still doesn't work very well, and the menu got even more complicated and harder to use with additional added 'features' that have nothing to do with recording nice images. It's that trade-off thing, I guess. We also got a silicone 'skin' for this one, to protect it from day to day bumps and scratches. That's working out real well so far.

Ok, I am writing entirely too many words here. I have a bunch of photos to get to. I took about 160 myself, and have copies of another hundred or so taken by the "expedition leader" on the boat.

Close in to the shore, the bottom of the Sea of Cortez is way different from the TCI. It's a combination of marine growth and boulders. The water is not as clear as it is where we normally dive in the TCI. There is a LOT more marine life in the Sea of Cortez, though. Everywhere you look there are sea urchins:

Those are the little round, spiney things in the photo. They look like this:

Some of them are black, some purple, and some are other combinations of colors.

We saw quite a few of these inflatable fish with spines:

I always knew them as Puffer fish, but the crew called them Porcupine Fish. Same animal, near as I can tell.

We have a similar version over here in the Atlantic.

We saw some kind of sea slugs, which some call Sea Cucumbers:

That one's about a foot long. It's skinnier than what we are used to, with a different coloration.

There are a lot of pretty fishies in the Sea of Cortez, some of them very colorful. They really stand out against the relatively drab bottom and (to us) murky water:

Those structures in the bottom of that photo are the closest thing we saw to coral on this trip. They remind me of the Brain coral we see a lot of on the reefs around the TCI. Here's another photo of one:

Once you get away from the near shore, the bottom changes to a mixture of sand and scattered rocks. The zones of different life are very pronounced, and I think that's because the soupy nature of the life-rich ocean here filters the sunlight out very quickly. This was taken near the first boundary zone, in about 8-10 feet of water:

I mentioned that this first little snorkel trip was geared toward getting inexperienced people comfortable with the idea of floating around with their faces in the water breathing through a tube. My new step-mother-in-law tried it for the first time here:

And NO, before you ask, my step-mother-in-law does NOT have four arms. (That would just be too much of a stereotypical fable, wouldn't it?) What the crew does for people uncomfortable with snorkelling without a life jacket is to use a "Noodle" floatation device to support them at the water surface. What a great idea. For anyone contemplating trying snorkelling for the first time, I would highly recommend it. You can see it better in this photo:

See? Doesn't she look pretty relaxed for her first time ever with a mask, snorkel, and flippers in a strange ocean full of squiggly fish with teeth? The crew also provided skin-suits, which are these thin nylon whole-body swimming suits. They help keep the swimmer warmer for longer excursions. They also help keep the swimmer from getting stung all over his or her exposed body by these absolutely evil little jellyfish called 'hydroids' (see http://www.scuba-doc.com/jelistngs.htm )

They are so small you can barely see them. I have heard them described as 'dots with legs'. I went snorkeling here without the skin-suit (macho man, yeah yeah I know) and can report that the stings are definitely uncomfortable, even for someone like me who is about as sensitive as pavement. Anyone whose skin reacts to these kinds of stinging critters should definitely obtain a skin-suit before swimming in these waters. The hydroids were everywhere. We don't encounter these in the TCI, by the way. La Gringa now wants to get her own skin-suit for our home waters. She gets cold a lot sooner than I do while immersed, and this would be just perfect for that. Will do a better job than sunscreen for UV protection too. An all-around good idea I think.

We saw a lot of starfish, all different kinds. Some of them look like this:

While everyone else was exploring along the shoreline, I took a look at the area where people would tend to anchor their boats. Wouldn't you know it, I saw a piece of metal just peeking out of the sand and when I pulled it free, ta daaaaa!!! I found another piece of scrap aluminum. About 18 x 24".

I don't know why scrap aluminum seems to have become a recurring theme in my life lately. I have a garage filling up with it, and now I can't even take a vacation from the stuff. Is this some kind of a sign?

This little mini-cruise ship is equipped with just about everything you need to explore coves and inlets. In addition to all the snorkelling gear, they carry a whole rack of kayaks. In one cove several of us wanted to give them a try, so they dropped some of them into the water for us.

La Gringa and I took the big blue one and headed out for some sightseeing. It was a good trial to see if we could be happy with both of us in the same kayak. We already know we probably would never get along on a tandem bicycle. Only one person gets to steer in a tandem toy and La Gringa and I each have our own cycling priorities. With the kayaks, the rear paddler operates the rudder. We are thinking we need to add some kayaks to our little fleet in the TCI. This was a good opportunity to try one out. In this case, it worked out fine.

See? She's smiling!

We wanted to get a good look at the rugged coastline in Baja. And we did. The wind and water erosion sculpts the rock into some fantastic shapes.

That little shoreline bluff is about 20-30 feet high. The surface hangs over it like a rock lace tablecloth, and the entire hillsides are honeycombed with caves. The geology of the area is fascinating, if you like that kind of thing. We do.

The bird life in the Sea of Cortez is amazing. We saw hundreds of pelicans, frigate birds, gulls, terns, every day and every where. And they are not afraid of humans. Or of Gringos, either, for that matter. We decided to see how close we could paddle up to these three without spooking them :

And the answer to that question is that they never did fly away. Even when the guy in charge of the rudder let the kayak bump into the rock they were standing on.

A couple of hours of kayaking and she's still smiling!

(YES it's a few hours later. Look at the background. All different. So there.)

I guess this means that a tandem kayak is still an option for us in the TCI. Unfortunately, the kayak I have my eye on doesn't come in a tandem model. (For a number of reasons including three methods of propulsion, stability, and load capability, I am still lusting after the Hobie Mirage Adventure Island models. But the little suckers are expensive)

Oh, see that little cross on the hillside just ahead of La Gringa in the photo? It's actually not that small, when you get up close. And we decided to get up close to see if we could see any more detail.

We still don't know the purpose of it, or why someone went to the trouble to climb up to erect a cross on this desolate hillside. We did think the buzzards were a nice touch. Added a Clint Eastwood sort of feel to the whole fantastic landscape.

The "Safari Quest" carries a full complement of water toys. They have two inflatable boats, in addition to the kayaks, etc. All of the shore and snorkelling excursions run the passengers from the anchored mini-cruiser to wherever they are going. This was during the first snorkel trip:

This a load of LaGringa's family headed ashore for a hiking expedition:

And another shot, headed to the beach:

The RIBs are also great for skiing, wake boarding, tubing, and all that adventurous watersport stuff. Like La Gringa's two eldest sons found out:

The idea is to hang on while the boat driver tries to make you fall off, I think. In this case he managed to turn two of my stepsons into the 'flying burrito brothers':

Actually, come to think of it, the burrito reference is appropriate in more ways than one. We ate a lot of Mexican food on this trip. I will let your imagination work with that one, without any further help from me.

And of couse, all good rides must eventually come to an end.

(yes, Hydroids were definitely harmed in the filming of this adventure. Probably swallowed.)

Okay, La Gringa just pointed out to me that long posts with a lot of photos will take forever to load for readers with slower internet connections. So I'm going to end this post here. This is about half of the trip, anyhow. And besides, I need to run to the grocery store to resupply Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard. Poor Dooley is out of dog food. And since he just got out of jail yesterday afternoon...he is sensitive to that kind of thing. So I'll end this one with a couple of Baja sunsets, and if anyone is interested I'll post the other half of this trip in a Part II. Got some sea lion photos, more underwater pics, more of the same sort of thing. It ain't the TCI, but it is pretty tropical. A change of scenery, anyhow.

And one more for good measure:


Cassie said...

Awww, poor Dooley had to go to jail. My dog isn't a fan of jail either! Sounds like you had a fabulous time. The pictures are FANTASTIC!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful area, looks very private like.
Only been to Mexico once and we had a great time.
Diving or snorkling does give back to you with what you come across under the sea.
Wish I could do it without the panick attacks. Oh well, some of us were meant to stay aboard.
Nice trip, will look for part 2.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone have trouble telling which one was Captain this time?!

Great shots, Gringo.