Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Terra Incognita – March 13 to 24

Last year Abracadabra’s southern-most destination was Bahía Tenacatita, so when we left there this year, mid-day on March 13, we were looking forward to exploring new places.  What we found on our trip south included two secluded bays, a grand hotel with three pools, a rough-around-the-edges port town, a French baker who delivers croissants and quiches by panga, and several interesting religious celebrations.  To spare both the authors and readers from the tedium of a too-long (even by our standards) blog post, we’re going to parse out this trip into three different posts.  This post will cover our pre-Semana Santa (Holy Week) travels. 

Cuastecomate (the “Secret Anchorage”) – March 13 to March 15

Cuastecomate is a little bay about 11 miles south of Bahía Tenacatita, named after a tree with huge round gourd-like pods.  If you’ve traveled in Mexico you’ve seen these gourds - hollowed, brightly painted and polished - for sale at street markets. 

The bay at Cuastecomate is sometimes called “The Secret Anchorage”, and after a pleasant and gentle sail, when we arrived at the GPS way-point we had been given for the entry to the bay, we learned why.  From the GPS way-point we couldn’t see the bay at all!  But because both of the cruising guides we have been using agreed on the way-point as the entrance to the bay, we headed (slowly) toward the shore . . . and watched as a lovely little bay appeared to us from behind a spit of land.   

As an aside:  If you are cruising Mexico, or just want to think about it, we highly recommend the two cruising guides written by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer: Sea of Cortez: a Cruiser’s Guidebook and Pacific Mexico: a Cruiser’s Guidebook.  We have found these books to be accurate and very well organized.  The Mexico Boating Guide by Patricia Rains is a good back-up, but not nearly as well written and, unfortunately, in the experience of some friends we have talked to, not as accurate.

We were the only sailboat at anchor in Bahía Cuastecomate.  After we anchored at around 15.45, and we cleaned up a bit, Bryce rowed us to shore in search of dinner at one of the several enramadas (an informal little beach-side restaurant) along the beach.  Cuastecomate is a very tiny village - there is no real abarrote (grocery store) for example.  It is primarily a day-stop for tourists from hotels in other bays.  Thus the quiet.  Thus the restaurants that have no cooks after 16.00! 
We were able to talk one proprietor into serving us the last two cold beers of the day, but by the time we had finished he had cleaned up all the other tables and stacked all the other chairs for the night.  It was clear we were going to have to go back to the boat and forage for our dinner. 

Melaque/San Patricio.  The next day we hiked over the hill separating Bahía Cuastecomate from Bahía de Navidad, to purchase fruit and check e-mail in the town of Melaque.  Melaque is unique in that it is the only town in Mexico claiming the patronage of the Irish saint, St. Patrick (as opposed to the some hundreds of San Juans and San Joses) and is often referred to as San Patricio.  The town holds a week-long Festival de San Patricio the week up to and including March 17, and what we found when we visited was a very, very quiet place.  It was suggested that we would find a very different scene if we returned at night. . . more on how the Irish saint is honored Mexican style in a moment.

We thought about staying in Cuastecomate for a couple more days, but the growing pile of unsavory laundry beneath our bed drove us on to a destination that didn’t require a row to shore and a taxi to get to a laundry service.   

Bahía de Navidad (Christmas Bay) – Grand Bay Hotel Marina – March 15 – 25
           Barra de Navidad (Christmas Bar – as in land bar – often called simply Barra) has been a bohemian-ish hangout for gringos for decades, and is also a popular destination for more bohemian Mexican tourists (a large group of Mexican Harley-Davidson riders were visiting when we first arrived).  Barra is full of shops offering beach wear and wares (string bikinis, boogie boards, plastic buckets and shovels, beer coolers, etc.) and restaurants that range from fancy to tacos.  The town is also home to a couple of good fruterias (fruit and vegetable markets) – Fruteria Ixtapa was our favorite -- and abarrotes (grocery stores) which make it a convenient place to provision.    

The Grand Bay Hotel is across the entry to the Laguna de Barra de Navidad from the town of Barra.  The hotel is a very large, beautiful property operated by Wyndham hotels.  The marina adjacent to the hotel accommodates boats as small as Abracadabra and those five times as large.  The marina is a separate business from the hotel, but the hotel permits marina guests to use the hotel’s facilities (including three lovely pools) on the same basis as hotel guests.  In past years the marina has been prohibitively expensive for many yatistas (e.g., about $100 a day for a 36-foot sailboat) but, fortunately for us, dock fees were recently lowered to bring this marina in line with other high-end marinas in Mexico (e.g., about $30 per day for Abracadabra).  So we spent ten days at a beautiful beach resort for about $30 a day (well, we did have to hike some distance to use a shower room so our experience was somewhat different than that of the hotel’s guests . . . ). 

The Grand Bay Hotel's Malecon
The Marina at The Grand Bay

We spent a lot of time reading by the pool and enjoyed daily yoga on the beach.  For dinners out we travelled across the entry of the laguna by water taxi (slightly less than $2 a round trip) to one of the many good restaurants in Barra. 

The laguna and the marina are favorites of yatistas for a number of reasons --- but one unique service provided there is legendary.  A French baker makes boat deliveries of wonderful European-style baked goods!  Around 08.30 the baker arrives in the marina in his decorated panga and rings a bell to announce that he is offering baked goods for sale.  We were particularly fond of his mango-ginger-chocolate pie and almond croissants.  Unfortunately, he closes up shop in early May and won't be open when we head back north.

The French Baker Delivers to Abracadabra
A “best memory”: sitting under our boat shade in the cool of the morning drinking fresh squeezed orange juice and fresh-ground Chiapas coffee and eating almond croissants, watching the local fishermen ignore the “no fishing” signs in the marina. 

Net Fishing in the "Fishing Prohibited" Zone
Luck O’ The Mexicans.  On the night of March 16 we decided to visit Melaque/San Patricio to experience the penultimate night of the week-long Festival de San Patricio for which Melaque is famous.  In a word, the experience was:  Wild. 

We arrived by taxi about 19.30 and were dropped off several blocks from the main square because the crowds in the street were beginning to clog traffic.  For several hours we wandered the streets around the square taking in the sights:
  • food stalls selling homemade potato chips, churros (fried dough covered in sugar and cinnamon), shaved ice, beer ,and rum and tequila drinks;
  • street of stalls selling t-shirts, hair ornaments, cds and (probably bootlegged) dvds;
  • rows of tables of people playing lotería (a bingo-like game using cards with squares showing  tarot card-like images);
  • groups slowly circumnavigating the plaza including young families pushing strollers, young men in cowboy regalia drinking beer, and young women dressed in breath-taking fashion (as in “how can she breathe / walk wearing that” fashion) giggling and checking for text messages;
  • the devout going to and from the church honoring San Patricio;
  • restaurant and bar waiters hustling to make the biggest week of the year profitable; and, at the center of it all -
  • the Castillo (castle), a 60-foot high wire mesh structure located in front of the church from which, we had been told, fireworks would shoot near mid-night.

And they did. Starting around 23.30 the fireworks began.  Four-foot wide pinwheels attached to the lowest level of the Castillo twirled and spun fireworks into the air.  It was as though the little pinwheels that are sold in California to be tacked to a back-yard fence had been given steroids and placed in the middle of town.  People stood near the Castillo holding their children.  Little boys and little old ladies ducked and screamed as sparks flew over and toward them.  Everyone laughed, and screamed and ducked some more.  Once the lowest pinwheels were exhausted, the pinwheels on the next higher level of the Castillo would begin to spin and shoot fire.  All-in-all there were five levels of pinwheels that shot fireworks into and over the crowd.  We ducked and laughed along with the rest of the crowd, though we did move further and further from the Castillo as the evening went on. 

The Castillo wasn’t the end of the excitement.  Shortly after its fireworks were exhausted a young man burst from the building next to the church holding aloft the framework statue of a bull, called a torito.  He ran through the square, waving the torito above his head, and fireworks began to shoot from the statute!  He ran toward groups of people and then turned and dodged towards others.  Groups of young men ran toward the man running with the torito, ran with him . . .  and away from him.  One man’s shirt caught fire.  The man holding the flaming torito returned to the building next to the church when the fireworks attached to the statute had finished.  Over the next hour four more toritos were carried into the square.  We could not tell if the runner was the same man, but we think not.

All of this apparently takes place every night of the week-long festival, with the amount of fireworks increasing over the week. 

We didn’t get pictures that made any sense of this event, but someone captured its essence in a video posted on YouTube.  This video is from the 2012 festival, but we can attest that we saw much of the same thing this year.  So, if you’re interested, take a look at this short video at the following YouTube link: 

As far as we could tell the only casualty on the night we attended was the shirt. 

Manzanillo.  We took a bus into the port city of Manzanillo one afternoon and wandered around a bit.  We watched a big ship, similar to those we had seen pass us along our trip down from Tenacatita being secured to a dock and we had a good lunch at a restaurant along the malecón.  But Manzanillo didn’t strike us as much of a tourist destination – more likely a good place to buy hardware and plumbing supplies.

Passover.  The other religious event of this portion of our trip was the beginning of the Passover holiday.  Marina guests were informed that there had been a "buy out" of the Grand Bay Hotel for the period beginning on the Sunday prior to the commencement of Passover through April 4.  Marina guests would not be permitted on the hotel grounds during he "buy out" period.  We ultimately learned that the "buy out" meant that the hotel had been "sold out" (direct translation not always being effective) or fully booked by a Mexican Orthodox Jewish group.  For the third year in a row this group had purchased the exclusive use of the entire property and, in order to protect their families' privacy, would erect screens around the exterior of the hotel and temporarily lay off much of the hotel staff.  An interesting and very Mexican way to celebrate this week (more on the Mexican celebration of Semana Santa in a future post).
The hotel offered marina guests the opportunity to take a shuttle to what was described as a nearby “boutique hotel” during the  "buy out" period.  We had seen the little hotel perched over the bay when we sailed in and were interested to see it up close.  The “boutique hotel” offer wasn’t exactly a seamless extension of the Grand Bay’s services, but our one day there was interesting.  The hotel 
Doña la Paz was a lovely hacienda-style building that had once been operated as a hotel with fourteen rooms, but was currently not open for guests.  Because Molly is a born snoop, we wandered around and found a concierge desk with disconnected phones, dry fountains, and a huge, empty restaurant kitchen. 
The former hotel’s beach-side restaurant was reopened for marina visitors but it offered a very limited menu and, unfortunately, the pool had not been cleaned and the temporary staff had not been equipped with a way to communicate with the marina.  When we asked for a van to return us to the marina, everyone seemed to have no idea how to call the van back!  One waiter suggested that we walk back, until he was reminded that we were not supposed to enter the hotel property -- that was the whole point of our being at the Doña la Paz.  Staff finally used a waiter’s personal cell phone to call for our return shuttle van. 

So – it was interesting to see this little “ghost hotel”, but in the future we will avoid the Passover period at the Grand Bay marina. 

Off Again – March 25. 

We left Barra on the 25th to travel further south . . . more on that in our next post.

1 comment:

  1. Your trip sounds so amazing! The yoga on the beach and isolated bay... wow! Please mail us a mango-ginger-chocolate pie, as we can get almond croissants here in Port Townsend, but no pie. ¡Buen viaje!