Sunday, February 13, 2011

San Blas - Part One - February 1 - 6

We had a wonderful time in San Blas. Little did we know, we had arrived during the week of the town’s Saint’s Day, so there was a lot happening. On our first day, we headed into the centre of town to explore. San Blas is very different than Mazatlan. To begin, it is not a city and there is not a lot of gringo tourism going on. There are few fancy houses and the streets are all cobbled, but life seems good for the inhabitants. The central plaza and cathedral are beautiful and there are one or two other historical building still intact, but for a town that has its roots almost 500 years in the past, there is not much evidence other than a fortification, and an old church on a little hill on the outskirts.

San Blas church in front of the plaza - the one in the foreground was closed, the beige coloured one is actively in use.  There are four belfries, but only one bell.  Where are the bells of San Blas?

Throughout the town you can find ruins - this one was behind the customs house

Lush courtyard inside an old hotel

We wandered through the town and first came upon the customs house which is now holds artwork and some historical artifacts.

Custom house in San Blas

Are these the Bells of San Blas?  Inside the custom house we found some historical artifacts.

Afterward, we went looking for the bridge where we were told we could hire a panga to take the famous La Tovara Jungle tour. We found it easily and discovered that all we had to do was show up at 7am the next day. The tour along the estuary, through the river winding through the mangroves to La Tovara Springs and the Crocodile Preserve would take at least 3 hours and cost 560 pesos (about $45.00) for four people. We determined we would talk to the crew of Picara, Mike and Marnie, to see if they would like to join us.

Panga line-up for Jungle tour (we were on Aida)

From there, we noticed a winding, cobble street leading up to the hill fortification called La Contaduria, built in 1770 to protect the port and act as a counting house for trade.

Who is that gringo on the way to the counting house?

Imagine having these in your garden at home!  These bananas were in a front yard on the way up the hill.

Little dog along the way - still shivering in his winter coat.

Old gatehouse to the fort (it cost 10 pesos each to visit)

Behind the fort is the crumbling Templo de la Virgen del Rosario church, built in 1769 and used until 1872 when its bells were removed.

But where were the bells removed to?

Beautiful interior - we figured later that there had been a recent wedding

It inspired the famous poem The Bells of San Blas by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – though he, himself, never visited the place. ( The whole area is now like a garden with stunning views of the town and sea. The stations of the cross are set up throughout the grounds indicating that during Lent and Easter, the area is still used for Christian rituals.

One of the Stations of the Cross

Approaching La Contaduria

Fort interior - looked like a clean up after a big party - the wedding reception?

One view of San Blas from the fort - notice the masts in the background - this is the Singlar Marina - conveniently located to everything we would need.

While up there, we met William, a Mexican musician who wrote ballads about San Blas history. When he found out we were on a sailboat, he related a story about three San Blas fisherman who were lost at sea for over 200 days when their motor died. Two were rescued from the panga on the other side of Hawaii. (And I worry about a 21 day passage to Hawaii aboard a well appointed blue water cruising boat!) Unfortunately the language barrier made it difficult to get all the details from William, but it made for a fascinating story nonetheless. Interestingly, Carl and Cristina from Bombiliero relate an incident in their blog that occurred when they sailed from Isla Isabella to San Blas a couple weeks ago. It was a foggy day and they were approached by a panga with two fishermen aboard. They were lost. They had no navigational instrumentation – no compass, no GPS and had no idea which direction to go. Luckily for them, Cristina and Carl were able to set them on their way.
William - holding the book of the sailors' Pacific misadventures

We headed back down into the town and stopped at one of the little fish restaurants we saw along the way. Most of them had grills set up in the front and were smoking a variety of fish.

Smoking fish

We tried a smoked marlin filet that was served with all the trimmings (and a couple cold cervezas as well!) for under $10. The fish was strong flavoured and dense – Doug loved it, but I found it a little overwhelming. It reminded me of kippers.

Yet another feast and another taste experience - the marlin is in the upper left corner

We had been told that there would be a fishermen’s procession through the town that evening to celebrate the Saint’s day and all yachties were invited to join in. We were sure we didn’t want to join in, but were curious, so we made our way down to the plaza were we joined Mike and Marnie. There was a festive feeling in the air and many stalls were set up selling all kinds of treats and goods. The cathedral was alight. I found a churro man on the corner, cooking up those delicious Mexican donuts over a butane heater in a steel bowl full of oil. I bought enough for the four of us for 2 pesos.

I asked permission to take this shot and I got such teasing in Spanish, much to the amusement of the people around I wondered if I should ever ask again!

We waited for a while, but the procession did not happen. I asked a local in the square and they told me it would happen tomorrow, so we walked down one of the side streets to McDonalds (not of hamburger fame) to grab a snack and swap stories. As we were sitting there we heard a great commotion outside and discovered it was the procession! Colourful dancers with masks on their faces and clicking clogs on their feet, jumped and circled down the narrow cobbled street followed by a small truck with a man dressed up as the saint standing in the back.

Leading the procession

Obviously there is a lot of symbolism here, but I did not know the significance of it.

To me, he looked like the pope or a cardinal all dressed in red. Effigies of fish were placed on either side of him and he looked very serious and unblinking. I imagine being chosen for this role must be a pretty big deal.

Not a great picture, but you get the idea

Behind the little truck were crowds of fishermen and their families carrying little candles and behind them a big brass band gustily playing the same bit of music over and over. They wound their way by us, into the square and then the cathedral, where a mass was presumed to be said for them. We returned to our cold ones and later wandered into the square where the celebration had turned to Banda - a type of loud and boisterous music somewhere between rap, hip-hop, latin, and rock and roll.

Banda in the Plaza

Next day we were up before first light to have breakfast before walking the kilometer to the bridge to catch the panga for our jungle tour. As we walked through the dim, 6:30 am streets we could hear music and fireworks and wondered if the procession had continued all night. When we arrived at the cathedral there were several hundred people milling about and a brass band playing. We realized it was February 3 – the actual feast day of Saint Blas – and many of the townspeople were there to mark its beginning. We watched for a while before continuing down to the river.

I was curious to know why San Blas was chosen as this town's name and saint.  I discovered that Saint Blaise (his proper name) was martyred by the Romans in the 3rd century for not renouncing his Christianity.  He had been a physician and people pray to him when they have throat problems.  Apparently Saint Blas had magically removed bones from a child's throat on the way to his execution.  Additionally, he is also recognised by wool workers because of the way he was martyred - steel combs were taken to his flesh - so I guess there must have been some connection to carding? But what is the fisherman connection?  At any rate, the poor man suffered a gruesome death for his beliefs and he is remembered each year, quite passionately, in this little town.  (check here for more info on Saint Blaise

We were the first to arrive for the jungle cruise. We had been told to try to get the first panga in the morning as we would likely see more undisturbed wildlife.

Dawn on the estuary - notice the kingfisher perched on a rock in the lower right corner

We woke up Ricardo, our panga guide, and within minutes we were aboard Aida, his beautiful 8 passenger panga.

Egret waits quietly as we wait for Ricardo

The powerful engine purred quietly along the water and we were in awe as the light of day filled the sky and the mist skiffed off the water. It was very romantic being bundled up in our sweaters, cuddling close together on the seats, as we watched this stunning scenery float by.

We did tip Ricardo well.

Sleepy Heads - Doug, Mike & Marnie - Ricardo looks thrilled to be making this early morning trip!

Very quickly we branched off the main estuary into the narrow and winding river. The mangroves were dense here and we could feel the chill of morning through the air.

Deep into the mangroves

The birds were starting to wake up and they were everywhere.


 One guidebook I read said there were more species of birds along this river than there were names for them and I wasn’t surprised.  I didn't have a clue about most of them - other than they were beautiful and we felt very privileged to see them in their natural habitat.

pretty bird

Our guide knew the names of most of the birds and picked them out long before they came to our attention.

Egret - I know this one!

Unfortunately our Spanish was only good enough to get basic information, though hundreds of questions about this unique and gorgeous place came to my mind as we cruised along. We had to be content to just sit back and be amazed as Ricardo stopped the boat to point out some species of bird and try to explain its habits while we took pictures.
bird - I think it is a stork

The narrow river began to open up, and we saw signs of other flora – huge dripping orchids became apparent, hanging on to large tree branches.

These huge parasitic orchids were plentiful

I did not know the names of the many huge trees we passed – many of them looking banyon-like with sinewy gigantic root structures. Large fan palms, bananas and other palm-like plants surrounded us, unknown bushes, clumps of lily-like flowers, vines, panda-like grasses and so much other greenery it was overwhelming. The water, initially murky and brown, began to clear and became warm to the touch. The air became more sultry. We started seeing signs of primitive cultivation and suddenly, we found ourselves in a round clearing, surrounded by white, guano covered trees and hundreds of cormorant- like birds bustling and calling to each other.
As this magic sank in, we floated to a small jetty and found ourselves at the crocodile preserve.

Entrance to crocodile preserve - note fence to the right

The river was fenced off here and we entered a gateway and walked down a cobbled path.

Doug, Marnie and Mike head down the path - seen any crocodiles?

 Inside were many different pools behind fences housing various ages and sizes of crocodiles – one male and one female. They all looked dead they were so still, except for their eyes which seemed to follow our progress.
Crocodile stare

 As we walked through a couple crocs very slowly meandered out of their pool to sun. You’d wonder how these beasts could ever attack anyone they were so indolent – though I have seen the Youtube video of a crocodile attacking a cow! (he wasn’t slow!). I expected they might acknowledge us – hiss or lunge – instead, they kind of burrowed their bellies down, very slowly opened their mouths (which were very yellowy/orange – no tongue – couldn’t see their throat) to display their teeth.

Crocodile snooze

We learned later that this mouth-opening trick had nothing to do with aggression, but was merely a way to regulate their body temperature.
Crocodile conversation 

We did see one crocodile couple copulating in a more natural environment – very slow motion and I sure hope the female could hold her breath!  Sorry, no pictures, this is a PG rated blog - but here is a picture of the results:

Perversely, there were other animals here in cages – parrots, little pigs, many deer, a wild cat and other creatures I didn’t recognize. It was obvious they were fed by the visitors as they congregated at the fences as we came by. I felt a little sorry for them, but their cages were clean and they looked well taken care of. After a while of wandering in this shady glade, we returned to our panga.

Do these look like nervous smiles?  What me worry?

Ricardo then took us to La Tovara Springs, a side steam off the river, fed by a very warm spring.

Beautiful, manicured garden pathway to the springs.

La Tavora Springs

It too was fenced off and had a little pool – very warm for swimming, but protected from the crocodiles.

Croc fence - Doug keeping guard at the extreme right

 There was a little restaurant in the shade and a small generating station. Mike and Marnie had brought their bathing suits, so they enjoyed a relaxing swim while we sunned on the side.

Brave swimmers - little cafe in background - can you see Doug?

Our trip back to San Blas went by much faster and as the panga wended its way through the river I was reminded of the movement of slalom skiing.

Time speeds up

Under the bridge!

Abandoned movie set eerily appears along the way

We saw many wild crocodiles of various sizes on the way back. Ricardo told us this was because the sun was up and the crocs like to stay warm.




Thinking of lunch

Baby - Do big crocodiles eat little crocodiles?  Perhaps that's why he is in this bush, high above the water!

There were also lizard-like things, including this iguana

 I was very glad we were in a big, powerful boat and not our little dinghy! 

Day is done - Thank you, Ricardo!

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