We arrived here on Christmas Day, after a nice sail around Cabo Corrientes, under the light of a gloriously full moon. Full moon brings with it a whole different set of thoughts than a dark and windy night, especially when it’s Christmas Eve and you can imagine a world full of people looking for Santa’s sleigh silhouetted on the very moon we’re watching.
They like to call this the Costa Alegre, alegre meaning cheerful. Happy, joyful, maybe a little drunk, says one dictionary.
When we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, there were a handful of Big Mexican Motor Yachts, who left within hours. And there were just two other cruising boats in this capacious bay. Everyone else had gone to the next bay for a Christmas pot-luck dinner. Out came the swim ladder and into the warm salty pool we slid. The water really was 84 degrees. I don’t even remember the dinner, but I’m sure it was pot-luck too. And alegre.
Since then a cruising community has slowly been evolving, to the point that there were 40 other boats here last week, although now half have moved on.
There’s a half-mile of beach, punctuated by all-inclusive resort, Los Angeles Locos, (formerly Blue Bay) at the far end. The hotel suffered damage during Hurricane Patricia, but is up and running. The vegetation is recovering and the sand has been pushed back down onto the beach. Behind the road was a shrimp farm owned by the hotel, but that’s still being rebuilt.
At the near end there’s a palapa-roofed restaurant called La Vena, a tent campground, and the barred mouth of a small river which wanders back into the mangroves for a couple miles. There are herons and chacalacas (turkey-like birds) and terns and no doubt much else upstream, even some small crocodiles. Don’t molest them, say the signs. Don’t worry!
Supplies, groceries and the like, are available not too far away, but not too close either. The small town of La Manzanilla is three miles across the bay by water, when it’s not too rough, or half an hour by taxi. The bigger towns of Barra de Navidad and Melaque are in the next bay, about 14 miles southeast. And a cell phone tower twinkles, although it sometimes seems that’s all it does.
The Mayor and his constituency
Tenacatita is the kind of place some people stay for months, and come to year after year. So perhaps it’s fitting that there be a Mayor; Robert aboard Harmony of Alameda is the latest, and maybe the longest serving too, although I suspect that the First Lady, aka “The Lovely Miss Virginia” is the real Mayor. Being a background Empress myself, I recognize the signs.
They keep the morning radio net going, and the social calendar up-to-date, and generally know what’s going on. The Mayor also hosts a Friday afternoon raft-up.
The hotel ‘rescues’ sea turtle eggs, holds them until they hatch, and then involves the hotel guests, particularly the children, in the ‘launch.’
Boys at play
“Bocce on the beach at 2 PM” is the main item on the social calendar. It’s usually followed by drinks in the palapa. It’s not always all men playing – anyone is welcome. But the women tend to walk the beach or sit in the shade and chat while the men knock bocce balls around.
Several years ago I read a book called Beautiful Minds, which compared intelligent animals, particularly primates and cetaceans. I was struck by the authors’ observation that, because of the environment in which they lived, their anatomy, and the tools not available to them, dolphins and whales have few options and many limitations when compared to the great apes. Backscratchers would just be the start of the list.
In the spring, we left Galivant propped on stands, out of the water, in Guaymas for the summer, as we had done the year before. We drove back across the country to Maryland, smelling some roses on the way, to finish some house projects. And then in October we drove back in a minivan loaded with boat bits, arriving again in Guaymas at the end of the month, about when the Sonoran summer weather began to cool down to the 70s and 80s.
Flooding in Guaymas
We had seen photos of flooding in Guaymas, the result of over a meter of rain in just a couple hours on October 2, which left thousands at least temporarily homeless and roads washed out, according to thenews.mx. So we weren’t sure what we’d find.
Everyone we asked in the downtown area pictured above just shrugged. In short, downtown was dried out and back in business with no problems readily discernible to the outsider.
But there is a lot of new, and necessary, road work going on. There is major work on the road to the boatyard, involving an extensive excavation one foot over and three feet down from every passing tire. New water pipe awaits installation nearby. There were numerous shifting detours through pot-holed and puddled neighborhoods. Washed-out dirt-rock side roads are gradually being graded, even paved. Poles, piles of rocks, and other eclectic markers keep the alert day-time driver clear of missing manhole covers. Driving in town was quite the adventure this year.
The new gobernadora* may be the one responsible, or maybe it’s been in the mill for years, brought forward by the big rain. Certainly, everyone, –drivers and water users, roadside business owners, bus passengers and cyclists– anyone who uses the roads or depends upon those who do — will breathe a huge sigh of relief when the holes, ruts, potholes, and ditches are finally filled in and evenly paved.
We spent a long month out of the water at Gabriel’s Marina Guaymas working on things. We still like it there, finding it a friendly and straightforward do-it-yourself yard. What’s to Like about living in the shipyard tells you more about that! Nonetheless, we’re not motivated to linger longer than necessary when there’s so much to see and do over the horizon.
Finally free to move, we faced a decision: should we head back to familiar places on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez?
Last winter we stayed in the Sea of Cortez, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We found the rugged Baja scenery striking, and liked the exotic emptiness of the landscape. I read as much as I could about the area (a lot about geology), and would like look around some more.
It was nice, but it was also – well, cold would be an exaggeration, perhaps an offense to those under the chilly mantle of actual winter. In fact, despite the occasional dips of overnight temperatures into the low fifties, the days were usually sunny and seventy plus – pretty pleasant in my book. But I do like to don my snorkel and mask, but not my wetsuit, and swim along the shoreline looking at whatever there is to see. And the water temperature never got above the mid-sixties, which is – cold! Too cold for a whiney woman in a lycra suit, anyhow.
So this year, lured by daily morning radio reports from other boats of balmy temperatures (“water in the pool 83 degrees”), we turned south from Guaymas.
The trip out of the Sea of Cortez can be broken into comfortable legs with stops along the Baja peninsula, but we took the straight-down-the-middle approach, which made for a roughly 600-mile trip to Punta de Mita at the mouth of Banderas Bay. It took us five days.
The winds at this time of year are almost always northwest or some variant thereof, which, since we were going southeast, might be considered a fair breeze. Driven by systems ‘across the fence’ (that’s how Geary the weather guy refers to the US and Canada), the northerlies can be strong and persistent. Those steady 20+-knot winds that send us south (and keep us there!) also chunk the seas up into short square blocks. “Seas five to eight feet at five seconds” is not an uncommon weather report, and one that makes for uncomfortable sailing conditions.
So when you wish your friends “fair winds”, make sure to add on “smooth seas” too. Also, by the time we got moving, the moon was in its last quarter, rising after 2 am and dimly, when not clouded over entirely. I seem to have spent a lot of time in my life waiting for a moon to rise, then being surprised by it when it does!
The trip south was a mix of screaming along downwind at the northern end and drifting along in not-enough wind at the southern end. We’re a little cautious (or is that lazy?) about sailing efficiently in the dark of night. It’s a complicated rig of hardware, poles and guys, that keeps the sails from crumpling as we roll off the waves. We mainly don’t want to have to spend much time on a rollicking foredeck when we can’t really see all that’s happening. So we tend to reef early and accept compromises to speed in the name of comfort.
Afloat in the universe
The occasional freighter bound for Guaymas or Topolabampo passed at a distance but otherwise, it was just us and our modest red, green and grey navigation and instrument lights. While one of us sleeps, the other sits alone in the dark in the middle of the sea contemplating the universe. I suspect there is sometimes napping as well.
Anyhow, there’s plenty to think about. The firmament, for one, beneath whose dome only we two know that we are here, a minuscule moving mote. I think about the generations long gone who studied and named the night sky, and of the eons beyond counting that the stars have endured, and will endure, beyond whatever we can do to our planet. So, alone, even melancholy, and yet exhilarated too, by the luxury of real darkness in this age of artificial light.
The heavens may be “empty” and silent, but the nearer world of water, ceaselessly sloshing inches away, is anything but quiet or still. The waves do the same thing over and over, only differently each time. It’s mesmerizing. The laws of physics seem quite reliable, gravity in particular.
Breathing metaphors come to mind, heaves and pants, hisses and sighs. It does seem wrong to associate the ocean with breath, because of course it’s the last thing you can do in it. So stay on the boat, keep the water out and maintain buoyancy throughout at all costs!
We always think these shortish coastal passages are harder on the crew than ocean passages lasting weeks. On the short haul, it’s harder to find the rhythm of sleep and watch-keeping, and closer to land, there are more ways to get into trouble. But short trips end soon enough, and then you’ll wake up to find someplace new and different.
*There was a nationwide election in Mexico in June 2015, and the winner for governor in the state of Sonora was the PRI candidate, Claudia Pavlovich, the blonde woman on the political posters which sprouted on roadsides throughout the spring. Although she lost Guaymas proper to the PAN, she won statewide with about 47 percent of the vote.
One of the nicest places we sailed to in 2015 is the bay called San Juanico on the Sea of Cortez. On the chart it’s also called Punta San Basilio and lies about 26 22 N, 111 25.7 W, halfway up the Baja California peninsula. This is not to be confused with San Juanico the surfer/fisherman town at Scorpion Bay on the Pacific side. Please see the Photo Gallery at the bottom of this post – more pictures than words this time!
Squint or zoom and you’ll see a couple of empty houses on the far shore, fancy by some standards (swimming pool!) but realistic in terms of the ten or fifteen miles of dirt road that separate this spot from the highway, and the thirty or so beyond from Loreto, the nearest town.
Here’s how it looks from the sky, courtesy of Google Earth.
You might see a couple of RV or pickup truck campers on the beach. Only the relatively intrepid people make it this far. The smart ones come year after year and stay for weeks on end, driving out occasionally for water and supplies. It’s muuuuy tranquilo here.
But for the most part San Juanico is visited by boaters like us. It’s one of the better anchorages, with protection from the prevailing winter northwesterlies and the summer southerlies. Although, I can testify that an uncomfortable swell can and does roll in around that northeast point when the winter winds are up.
You can walk along the roads, or on some trails along the estuaries or atop one of the ridges. If you try to walk all the way to the highway (and don’t bake or desiccate first) you’ll pass a small encampment where a family sometimes has vegetables to sell. We also heard of a place with petroglyphs but never stumbled upon it. Maybe next time…
Between the hikes and the beaches and excursions by dinghy for fishing and whale-watching, you won’t even notice that there’s no word from the outside world. It’s as distant as the occasional con-trail overhead.
Our second visit coincided with Easter week, Semana Santa. The handful of RV people had gone back north. They were replaced by Mexican families, from Loreto and beyond, celebrating what must be the biggest holiday week of the year. Fishing, popup sleeping tents, shade tents, kids playing in the sand, it was all great to see.
By the end of the week they too were gone.The beach again belonged to the seagulls, the bay to the yachts moving north toward their summer homes.
San Juanico Photo Gallery
So without further ado, let’s look at some pictures of the bay and the land around it.
Santa Rosalia is unusual among the towns of Mexico, because it was designed and built from scratch, mostly from wood, more than a century ago, by the French, specifically by the French mining empresa Compagne du Boleo. Plus, all the mine’s industrial buildings were right in town. And they still are, deteriorating scenically to this day. For some reason, century-old dereliction is more appealing than the modern type.
The Compagnie du Boleo to Minera Boleo
The story is that a local rancher, José Villavicenio, found a “crumbly blue-green rock” which assayed out to very pure copper, a boleo.
So, with the encouragement of the Mexican government, the Boleo Company created the town of Santa Rosalia out of nothing, and brought in 6,000 souls to run the port, smelter, railway, and mines.
Mining took place in four arroyos, named Inferno, Purgatory, Solitude and Providence, the arroyo where the town was located. (An arroyo is a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region.)
By the way, most of this quick overview is based on the writings of Graham MacIntosh in his entertaining book Journey with a Baja Burro written in the late 1990s, and Joseph Wood Krutch, The Forgotten Peninsula, published in 1960, and on the reader boards at the Boleo Museum, which were not in any way improved by my sketchy translations and imperfect memory of them.
Eventually there were 370 miles of tunnels and 25 miles of railroad track, 7 locomotives I think, and over a hundred ore cars.
The company closed in 1954. Wikipedia says a government-owned company took it over and ran it with the original technology (!) until the 1980s, when it just became too impractical.
In addition to interesting-sounding mineral-ites, “even turquoise”, MacIntosh says there are old dolls, miner’s lamps, broken pottery and the like lying around settlements that existed at some of the mine entrances. We started out on our bicycles for an inland excursion, but between a surfeit of rocks and ruts on the dirt roads and a deficit of space on the highway, we gave up.
Nowadays there is a Korean-Canadian consortium ramping up for renewed production of zinc sulfate, copper, cobalt and manganese. In early 2015, we heard that operations had finally commenced on an open smelter several miles north of town. The proposed underground operations have perhaps hit a snag or two, but hiring is taking place.
Surely conditions will be better than those for the workers at the turn of the century.
In addition to conditions in the tunnels, somewhere I read that between 1900 and 1910 some three thousand lives were lost because of gas explosions and poisonous vapors from the smelters.
In an attempt to solve this problem, an “extension chimney” was built from the smelter downtown to a new chimney higher up.
An often-mentioned attraction in town is the Eiffel (as in Tower)- designed church, remarkable perhaps not for its delicacy and grace, but for its prefabricated utility. The story goes that the women of town wanted a church; a mine official found this one languishing in a warehouse somewhere in Europe and sent it over. I like that it is named for Saint Barbara, patron saint of miners. And Santa Rosalia was a religious hermit who lived in a cave on Mt. Pellegrino, Palermo, Italy, and died there in 1166.
Meanwhile, in today’s Santa Rosalia, home to almost 12,000 in the 2010 census, many of the accommodations built for the workers still exist, including the Mutualist Progressive Society and a nicely sky-lit market. There is a ‘celebrated’ French bakery, but the bread, sadly, is not French. Government agencies seem to have appropriated the nice wooden bungalows of the managerial class in the Mesa Frances, while down in the arroyo some of the wooden houses have grown comfortable under the shade of a surprising number of trees.
There has been architectural ‘re-muddling’ of course, but also some maintenance sensitive enough to pattern the new concrete walls to match the former wood siding. There is also some curious re-roofing that looks like sprayed on closed-cell foam with a heavy coat of paint for sun protection.
Hurricane Odile, September 2014, lifted a number of roofs, including parts of the Boleo museum. And it killed the Korean manager of the mine and his assistant when their car was carried by a torrent of water into the harbor.
Another casualty was one of the two marinas in town. By all reports this place was ‘funky’ and nearly derelict, but ‘fun’. But to the distress of the half a dozen or so boats tied there when Odile’s winds and rains came through, the docks broke apart, pilings broke or crumpled, and not a boat went unscathed.
An especially sad story is that of Gold Eagle, formerly a well-tended wooden 1977 Murray Peterson schooner.
There is a campaign to raise funds and help him get the boat to a better situation, such as a place where repairs could proceed. If you Google around you’ll find more about the troubles he had even after the storm. https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/5ssRf
Gold Eagle aside, Santa Rosalia felt like a reasonably prosperous place. There was traffic, often consisting of late model pickup trucks. There was a gym with people exercising, a store selling clothes for dogs. There were even a couple ‘fancy shops’ selling things like lamps and other home decor items, and stylish clothing.
Entropy in Action
It’s perverse of me I know to admire the aged and falling-down industrial plant. I can’t recognize what anything was, but I like the big pieces of lumber, the lacy roofs, the rust, the skeletal frame remains of ??? – all so atmospheric. I’d like to integrate it into a cool hotel. It would take a billionaire, I guess, an interested and well-connected one, and a town that needed such a hotel. In the meantime, I guess it will just sit as is, awaiting developments.
The other Santa Rosalia
No visit to town for me is complete without a visit to its shadow town, the cemetery. I was looking for graves of some of those thousands who died in the mine’s early days, but there were none, at least none with headstones.
We did meet people who disliked Santa Rosalia. For one thing. apparently the town dump is on the main highway, the first thing you see coming by road. Not everyone is a fan of falling-down mining equipment. However, for me, I suspect that when I finish with Baja California I’ll still agree with Graham MacIntosh, who finds Santa Rosalia to be its most interesting town.
Here’s a gallery of photos that didn’t fit into the post. More to follow perhaps. I’m also still working on the map plug-in, but for now, Santa Rosalia is about halfway down the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja California peninsula.
From our sailboat-centric point of view, Guaymas has a lot going for it, despite a relative dearth of ‘pretty’ or ‘colonial’ or ‘quaint’. The Snapshot Gallery at the end of this post may tell you more about the Guaymas that we have come to appreciate and feel comfortable in.
It’s a working city with plenty of parts and services, if you can make do with not-yacht stuff. And if you can’t, well, shippers deliver to Arizona, only a few hours/250 miles away on the Tufesa bus. I would say it is also a city of entrepreneurs and small businesses, some rising and some waning. As befits a port city, there are numerous skilled mechanics and welders and machine shops lurking behind those unmarked doors.
Probably you could have anything done, if you could find someone to tell you where to look. Can’t get the right sized zincs? The guy at the foundry down the road (really? there’s a foundry there?) will custom mold them for you this afternoon. It’s another advantage of being in a place with a fishing fleet, with people who both know how to do things, and how to improvise. You just have to be clear in your mind what you want.
A Thumbnail Sketch of Guaymas
One thing that makes Guaymas tick is its port, the main port of the state of Sonora. The port serves a fishing fleet; the fleet serves some canneries, and of course seafood is on the menu everywhere. Ships move Pemex (the government oil company) products around, bring in coal for the power plant, trans-ship grain and other agricultural products, plus copper, gypsum and other extracted resources.
Googling around I find reference to potential port expansion, and hopes of closer commercial ties with Tucson and beyond using the existing rail line and more containers, plus a plan for Guaymas to take up the slack as California ports suffer from overcrowding. The harbor will need some dredging in spots but it has a fine natural location.
Guaymas is also touted as a city with a manufacturing tradition, and its backers are proud to mention an industrial park, Roca Fuerte, as a “better choice for offshoring than China”. They mention competitive pricing, that location again, and strong connections with the local community, leading to low rates of employee turnover and absenteeism.
On the outskirts, as the highway north goes through town, you’ll find what you find everywhere these days, the chain store sprawl zone, albeit in somewhat smaller boxes. Walmart, (and the Mexican supermarket chains, Soriana, and Ley), Autozone, Home Depot, Burger King, McDonalds, they’re all in a jumble out there. On my personal map of north Guaymas is the ice plant, just before the airport, and the turn off that will take you on the back road along the water, or the road via Miramar, if you want a more natural view.
A very short and possibly inaccurate history
This area was first explored in 1539 but it sounds like there were only occasional small settlements, for example, in 1821, “one house, occupied by a thief.” Then the pace picked up, to the point of battles with Americans in 1846 and French in 1865-66. Mexico’s history is complicated, and told by those, generally, who won, or at least lived to fight again. But three of Mexico’s presidents did come from this area, and are memorialized in a large, and largely empty, plaza near the waterfront, centro and marina.
In the late 1800s…
A monthly steamer visited from San Francisco, and “quality goods” came from Germany. [Don’t they still?] I’d like to know more about this German connection. The mayor of Guaymas has a German name. And the music all over the country sounds like Bavaria, full of accordions and tubas and a yodel-y, oompah, polka-ish sound.
Wikipedia tells me that there were a number of Catholic Germans in Texas who sided with Mexico during the Mexican-American war of 1848 and resettled in Mexico afterwards. The Emperor Maximilian I brought in some German settlers around 1865. Later President Porfirio Dias and the German Prince Otto von Bismarck conspired to bring more Germans, mainly to the south (coffee plantations we saw). A wave of Mennonites came to some northern areas in the 1920s. [Wikipedia says that by their community rules, the men may speak Spanish, but the women must continue only in PlattDeutsch – I wonder if this is true?] And finally, there was a lot of German immigration during and after World War II.
So maybe that’s why so much music around here sounds so German (and the beer is good!) Now, back to regular programming….
The Santa Rosalia Connection
The railway line construction began in 1880; in the night, across the bay, you can sometimes hear the whistle blow. Eighty miles across the Gulf of California in Santa Rosalia, copper production began in 1885; that copper was shipped to Guaymas and thence overseas.
“In 1890, the population of Guaymas was 10,000. These people were proud to live in a city with modern services: electricity, telegraph, urban railroad and especially a communication with the principal ports of the world across big shipping companies. The economy of the port was of great importance.” (from puertodeguaymas.com.mx)
So Guaymas is a working city, with an economy whose reasons for being have little to do with the visitors/tourists, except as they need support in the satellite town of San Carlos. We visitors are barely a blip among the (possibly) 150,000 metropolitan inhabitants. The fact that people hardly notice us may be my most favorite thing of all about Guaymas. It’s a real relief not to be the lynchpin of the economy. And yet, look lost or ask a question, and you’ll almost invariably be met with a smile and real help. We’ve become quite comfortable here!
What about San Carlos?
San Carlos, a half hour bus ride to the north and west is much more a gringo zone. When we crossed the international border, San Carlos is where they assumed we were coming. There are two marinas with dry storage yards, and a nascent resort town with hotels, restaurants, curio shops and the other sundry accoutrements. There’s a big RV park; but I’ll bet most of the visitor population lives in the several housing developments (aka ranchitos ) you can see spreading back into the hinterland. To me they look kind of mono-cultural, but at least they’re not in Alberta!
Of the San Carlos area, the Lonely Planet guide said something to the effect of “beautiful desert-and-bay landscape presided over by the dramatic twin-peaked Cerro Tetakawi” and “full of norte-americanos from October to April.” Somewhere else I read that these winter people only spoke English and didn’t bother to exchange their dollars for pesos.
We are them, I guess. We went to Hammerhead’s, a sports bar in San Carlos, several times as U of Alabama moved towards the (US) national collegiate football championship; spent pesos alright, but spoke English. And fit right in. But Alabama didn’t.
When I repeated the remark, I was tartly reminded that many norte-americanos also did their best to support the economy and numerous of them supported good works, in particular the local orphanages and animal shelters. Point taken.
A friend who likes to play basketball pointed out that he looked in vain for courts in San Carlos. Finally he realized that basketball courts are usually at the schools, and there are no schools in San Carlos because the locals mostly live in Guaymas and take the late bus home.
Enough of the lecture. Here are some random photos of Guaymas over the course of several months.