Saturday, December 18, 2010

San Gabriel, Isla Espiritu Santo - December 5 - 10

We’ve arrived! We’ve arrived! All the way down the Pacific coast of the Baja we felt we were on the way somewhere. People would ask us: “where are you going? We could only answer: “Mexico” or “south”. Even before we left Comox we really had no idea where our destination would be. We were old enough to know that the journey would be more important than the destination and we also did not want to be pinned down – to any place, to any time. This was our “year off” and the last thing either of us wanted to do was micro-manage it the way our “normal” lives seemed to be. But when we dropped the hook in San Gabriel, saw and felt the clear, warm waters (75 degrees), soaked in the heat of the day (85 degrees in brilliant sunshine), surrounded by white sandy beach, and ringed by a landscape with rosy hues – all to ourselves, we knew we were “there”. We knew that San Gabriel would become the yardstick we would measure every place else against.
Silas Crosby and Ka'sala in San Gabriel - in the distance is the head of the peninsula leading to La Paz

Interestingly, we had not intended to go to Isla Espiritu Santo – at least not at this time. We had been tossing around the idea of skipping the La Paz area and continuing right on to Mazatlan. We were worried that it would be too cold, relatively speaking, and it seemed that most of the other cruisers we knew were continuing on, with the idea of visiting the area in the late spring when it was purported to be warmer. But Steve, on Silas Crosby, managed to convince us in his gentle, informative way, that continuing to La Paz would be just the right thing to do. Additionally, Doug and I wanted to spend more time with the crew of Silas Crosby before they continued on their way to South America. In San Jose, we had provisioned for a few days, expecting to be La Paz very soon. What Steve suggested to us in Los Frailes, was to put off going into La Paz for a while longer and go to Isla Espiritu Santo instead. Better to turn right for a way after the Lorenzo Channel than to turn left, go three hours to La Paz, and get stuck there for a while, before having the chance to get out again. Good advice.

Isla Espiritu Santo - San Gabriel is the large bay to the right

The whole five days at San Gabriel were gorgeous. The temperatures stayed in the 80s during the day and dropped to the 60s at night. We swam every day. The sun warmed our shower bag so we had hot fresh water showers in the cockpit every day. Our skins darkened and we thought to ourselves that if this was “cold” what more could we want? We walked on the beach, we explored the hills and lagoons, and we pooled our provisions together so that we ate and drank like kings and, with the exception of a couple transient boats, we continued to have the place all to ourselves. Finally, we were flushed out on the fifth day because we had run out of fresh food, but most importantly - beer.

San Gabriel - looking north of the bay

On our first day in this lovely bay, we rowed the dinghies to the beach without really taking into account that the tide was high and the water was shallow for a long way out. We would pay for that oversight later on, but for now we were happy to have an easy landing. We strapped on our hiking shoes and headed up into the shale covered, steep hillside, scrambling up to the peak. As we ascended, I kept thinking about the snakes and spiders I had seen in the San Diego Zoo that were native to this place. We were all careful about where we put our feet and hands to avoid the many different types of cactus-like plants that clutched the nooks and crevices around the tossed rocks.

The scramble up

The view at the top was stupendous. We could see all around the island and pick out the various beaches – all gorgeous, yet all with their own special characteristics. Paradise!

View to the bays north of San Gabriel

We slithered down a rock slide and ended up at the back of one of the four lagoons lying behind the beach berm at San Gabriel.

The scramble down

Not exactly easy hiking

We removed our hiking shoes and forded the stream pouring out of the lagoon - our first unacknowledged clue that the tide was going out! I felt like Dora the Explorer!

Mangrove stream

We strode along the sandy beach, looking for detritus and finding shells, the skeletons of cactus and coral, as well as the ubiquitous bits and pieces of plastic and line, and an intact tortoise shell.

I enjoyed splashing my feet in the warm water and we continued along for about a mile like this until we came to a sign. The sign, written in Spanish, indicated that Isla Espiritu Santo is a nature preserve and that before us was a track we could follow to the other side of the island. It promised us we find petrified fossils of coral, black hares and a collection of flora native to the area if we took the path.

The expedition continued and we zigzagged through the bones of prickly bushes for over two miles through some very desolate terrain, but marveled at the rock formations and their warm colours as we went along.

Local flora

Steve and I got into a discussion about landscape. He told me that in the late 19th century there was a group of landscape artists who created “natural” parks in urban environments. People who lived in these areas assumed that the landscapes were “real” and many recreated the “look” in their own gardens. So now we get to the chicken and egg part. Today, in our modern world when we look at a wild environment, such as what we were looking at as we walked across the waist of the island, when we say: “Oh! Look at the way this place is. It looks just like a garden” – are our perceptions influenced by those landscapers as to what a garden should look like, or is the wilderness truly a garden? Then I got to thinking about all the mythology around the “Garden of Eden”. If mankind has, indeed, been expelled from that perfect place, do we have an ancient genetic memory that keeps us trying to find it again?

On the other side we came across another amazing beach – this one called Bonanza. Because it is on the north side of the island, it gets a lot more wave action and it is very deep just steps into the water. In fact, with your feet dry in the sand, you could dive right into it.

John on Bahai de Bonanza

We enjoyed a break before beginning the higgledy-piggledy walk back through the cactus bracken to return to San Gabriel. Back on the other side, it was a real treat for our feet to splash through the shallow water on our way back to the dinghies. Then we noticed just how far the tide was out. Steve and Doug did the lion’s share of trying to get the little boats afloat again but, in the end, we all struggled to get them waterborne. After a swim and a cold cervesa we were refreshed.

When we arrived at San Gabriel we had noticed a large powerboat moored in deeper water to the side of the bay. It was Mystic, the last Kristian yacht to be built in Sydney, Vancouver Island. We had first encountered Betsy and David, who are from California, in San Quentin. They had cruised sailboats in the past, but this yacht was their second powerboat in which they travelled extensively. Over the years they had repeatedly traversed the Pacific coast of North America and for the last few years had summered in the Pacific Northwest. This year they decided to winter in Mexico.

Mystic at anchor - San Gabriel

Betsy graciously invited the four of us over for a barbequed dinner. What a treat that was! We loaded up in Silas Crosby’s wobbly portable dinghy and, when we stepped aboard Mystic, it was like stepping into a luxury advertisement. Betsy had set the dining room table as though we were the most important of dinner guests – beautiful crockery, GLASS glasses, matching linens. Divine! Our toes sank into a thick carpet and we noticed the comfortable reading chairs. READING chairs! We enjoyed gin and tonics – with ICE! We had drinks on the fly bridge before returning to the beautifully laid table to enjoy an evening of delicious food, good talk and companionship. Betsy and David have begun a charitable foundation in South Africa called In African Shoes.  We didn't get much chance to discuss it that night, but you can find out more about their educational endeavors at: and at their website:

 It was pitch black when it came time to leave – no moon, but a blanket of stars – the anchor lights of the two little green boats seemed to join the firmament. A ripple of anxiety ran through me as we rocked our way back to them. What if we couldn’t find them?

While onboard Mystic I noted Betsy’s copy of The Joy of Cooking and launched into the story about leaving mine behind and photographing recipes out of Meredith’s copy. When she heard it, Betsy GAVE me her copy. I was completely overwhelmed and did not want to take it, managing to “forget” it when we left later that evening. But Betsy was not to be denied – the next day, when I was kneading bread below, Betsy dropped it off on Ka’sala, making a get-away before I could thank her. Their generosity was very much appreciated and was a real highlight of our stay at San Gabriel. Thank you, Betsy and David!

Betsy - beachcoming at San Gabriel

On another day, Doug dragged out the inflatable kayak, launched it and headed over to the far side of the bay to explore the “foundations” we had noticed as the sun set the night before.

 We had read that the bay had once housed an oyster pearl industry and thought maybe these were the foundations of the buildings.

 I was hugely intrigued and later, in La Paz, did some research about it. The Sea of Cortez was famous for its pearls. Cortez brought some back to Spain after his first voyage here and they became an immediate sensation. Like their desire for other exotic things, there was a huge demand for these pearls from the privileged European class. Over the course of the next several hundred years the pearls were pillaged from this area with no thought to conservation or protection and, like many other species in great demand, they almost completely disappeared. However, in 1893 Dr. Gaston Vives, a far sighted Mexican of French descent, realized if something wasn’t done, the oysters would become extinct. He built and operated the black-lipped pearl oyster nursery at San Gabriel from 1893 to 1914 when it was abandoned due to the Mexican-American war. In 2010 you can still see all the amazing stone works carefully cut and placed along the shoreline.

oyster "raceways" where the oysters were cleaned and protected

oyster "raceways" with palapa covers to keep the temperatures down

It is very eerie to take your kayak into the quiet lagoon and see these man-made works emerging here and there in the mangroves. It seems like they must be ancient Aztec ruins and at any moment you expect a ghost to rise up and you strain to hear the voices of the past in this silent place. If you want to know more about Mexican pearls and this special place check out:

In the lagoon with the pearl farm ruins, hundreds of frigate birds have nested. As you explore the old works, they circle and dive while others drape themselves in the mangroves.

Entrance to pearl nursery lagoon

These are strange looking creatures. Some have red throats, others have white, while still others have none at all. They puff out and vibrate these pouches making a funny whirring sound. Although some of the frigates sit on the branches wings tucked in like regular birds, some of them spread their wings full out with legs akimbo. They are a strange sight.

Nesting frigate birds

More frigate birds

Other birds surround them – various types of seagulls, pelicans and shore birds as well as ducks! There’s lots of guano, but the smell isn’t too bad. We agreed that our experience in that lagoon was a “National Geographic” moment.

Pelicans fishing

On another day I decided I would do nothing more than read a book. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, but once I started reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak I couldn’t put it down. Far from a Mexican island, it is the story told from the perspective of a young German girl who lived in a small town outside of Munich during the early years of the Second World War. It is a riveting tale that reinforces the incredible hardship and loss everyone endured during that unfortunate time in our history.

When I wasn’t reading I was being creative with our food stores, baking bread, muffins and quiche. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to feed us properly and make the meals appetizing as well.

Doug was eager to clean the bottom of the boat, so he dragged out his dive gear. He also took the opportunity to change the zincs. The water was clear, but after half an hour he was quite cold and needed to spend some time in the sun to get his circulation going.

Doug prepares to dive

Replacing the zinc

Yes, that's the bottom you see - that's how clear the water is
 A thin wetsuit would have been the answer. That was reinforced on another day when we took the dinghy to the reef at the side of the bay to do some snorkeling. We saw lots of fish around the pretty coral, but we couldn’t stay in the water very long without getting chilled.

Another bonus we discovered at San Gabriel was that my TelCel “dongle” worked. It was a very slow connection, but if I wrote my emails in word and cut and pasted them over, and was patient as I waited for the various screens, I could stay in touch. We were able to use it to make reservations at Marina de La Paz which was very useful.

We left after breakfast on the fifth day in utterly calm conditions. I was very sad to leave this bay and we vowed to return as soon as we could.. This was one of the first times that I didn’t start thinking about the next place we would be while raising the anchor chain – instead, I was thinking about what we were leaving behind!
This tiny little opening at the back of the boat leads to the large lazarette where the dive tank is stored.  No, it is not the doghouse!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, informative posts...fair winds, cold cervaza to you!