Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sea of Cortez Part 3 - April 4 - 8 : Los Gatos and Aqua Verde

Los Gatos

We weighed anchor early the next morning in flat calm conditions and motored out of the bay.  We saw no wind whatsoever that day as we puttered along at 5 knots enjoying the stunning scenery unfolding before us. 
Travelling with Witte Raaf in calm conditions on the Sea of Cortez
We travelled about 30 miles and by early afternoon had arrived at Los Gatos, rumoured to be named thus by puma sightings in the distant past.  This anchorage is fairly open and is really only suitable in calm conditions, so we were only able to stay one night.  What a pity, as I thought this was one of the loveliest anchorages we had found yet, and that is really saying something in this landscape of beauty!

Looking south - Ka'sala in the middle

Looking west
There are two crescent shaped beaches here – one pebbly and one sandy, but both covered with shells of all shapes and sizes, many of which are intact.  Along the points at either end, reefs stretch out and we could see colourful fish and small fish in abundance. 

Notice my kayak on the pebble beach - crescent shell beach in the distance, reef in between
The water is perfectly aquamarine and we could easily see our anchor and chain below.  Stacked along the north end of the anchorage waves of rocks roll up a rounded hillside, their sandstone sides textured by the wind and striped with many shades of coral and pink.

When investigating this area I found the remains of a small whale being picked clean by buzzards. 

Whale carcass - looks to be a baby

Buzzard  investigating the whale head
On the other end of the bay, craggy cliffs fall into the sand, fist sized, crystal filled rocks embedded into the crumbling sandstone like old concrete.  Joanneke and I spent the afternoon in the brilliant sunshine gathering perfect shells destined for her jewellery collection.

The spoils of our shell collecting at Los Gatos
Beware the shell monster!
Like San Evaristo, the ever present Gigante Mountains were in the background.  Here, they ranged from pinnacles and crags, cliffs and mesas, all lined with variations of clay pot colouring.  As the sun set and rose the next morning, they changed so much as the light passed by them that they seemed to be moving. 

Sunrise - worth getting up early to see
At night the stars were intensely bright on that moonless night and the smell of the desert wafting very strong on the night time breeze. A new fragrance for me and hard to describe as I have no yardstick to measure it by – perhaps burnt mesquite, smoke and desert bloom?  It was a pity we moved on so quickly.

Strange cloud formations above the Gigantes
Aqua Verde

The next morning we left at 7am, bound for Aqua Verde, 18 miles north.  A northerly blow was due to start that afternoon and Jan wanted us anchored well inside the bay before the wind picked up. 

Witte Raaf sailing along the coastline between Los Gatos and Aqua Verde
The sky became overcast and the air humid, but by 11 a.m. we were tucked in and secure again, ready for the 30 knots of SW gusties we would experience later that night.  We motored the whole way, encountering many dolphins who joined us to play on our bow.  

This is how clear the water is in the Sea of Cortez
We spent four wonderful days in Aqua Verde and I could have easily spent longer.  On the second day we experienced an unusual phenomena – rain!!  It began with a patter in the middle of the night and by early morning we had a steady sprinkle that lasted throughout the day.  What a treat to have salty Ka’sala cleaned from stem to stern without having to lift a finger!  The flora on the hillsides surrounding the anchorage also got a wash, and when the sun came out a day later, the whole area just sparkled.

Anchorage at Aqua Verde under cloudy skies
Same anchorage on a sunny day - we had the whole bay to ourselves (note Roca Solitaria in the distance)
On our first afternoon, we went into the village to explore.  It is a tiny place, almost invisible from shore, with small square cinder-block homes spaced far enough apart that each could have a small garden.  Each place seemed to have a variety of outdoor “rooms” covered with palapa or metal shetting.  Many kitchens were outdoors and had wood burning, stone stoves with blackened pots.   Most were surrounded by rustic fences to protect anything growing within from the hundreds of goats who were roaming the dirt tracks. 

The ground is sandy and rocky – most of it looks like dry riverbed.  Dotted throughout are rough hewn circular stone wells with small pumps and black pvc tubing snaking throughout the buildings. 

Nope, not a lot of water down there - but if you look behind Doug, you can see from the flood plain that when the summer rains come, there will be plenty of it!
Chickens, piglets and puppies roamed among the goats and their offspring – even an enormous black turkey who gobbled ferociously and incessantly staking its claim as it strutted its magnificent ruffled plumage.

Throughout the village we saw many children running and playing.  Several of them followed us around practised their English with us as we tried our Spanish with them.  Many homes had elderly people sitting on a makeshift porch or near the kitchen.  Mothers and wives were busy as there didn’t appear to be many time saving devices.  In fact, there was minimum electricity, if any, to the little homes, and most cooking done from scratch.  We understood that many of the men were fisherman, but needed to supplement the family income by working during the week in construction in Loreto, several hours away.  If the older children progressed past grade 8 they also had to go to Loreto, returning home on the weekends.

This photo from the internet shows the way the ladies of Aqua Verde cook in their outdoor kitchens
One might expect that with so many goats that milk and cheese would be readily available.  There was supposed to be a dairy, but I never found it.  Instead, we bought a generous round of fresh cheese from a lady who was also making wonderful looking tortillas.  She made the delicious, mild pure white cheese by hand and strained it in a press.  A few days later we came looking for more and were disappointed to find out she did not produce a regular supply.

Where we bought the cheese (picture from Kialoa's sail blog)
There were two little tiendas.  One was not very well stocked and could have used a good clean, but the second one, closer to the beach was well stocked with plenty of fresh vegetables and chicken in a large ice-cooled chest.  Inside was a variety of sundries, sweets and supplies, including beer.  On our way back to the dinghy we stopped at a little palapa restaurant on the beach and arranged to return the following evening for fresh caught fish tacos.  Although the people of Aqua Verde did not seem as friendly as those in San Evaristo, they were pleasant and welcoming.

Well stocked tienda (picture from Second Wind sail blog)
The next day I launched my kayak and went for a paddle around the point and circumnavigated Isla Solidaria and back along the shoreline where I discovered a lovely, isolated beach only accessible by boat. 

As I paddled to shore, a great school of yellow tailed fish (tuna?) leaped out of the water en masse in front of my kayak, making me almost swallow my heart they startled me so badly.  Once on shore I wandered around interesting rock formations and green, frondy plants, feeling very much like some latter day Robinson Crusoe.  Breathtaking!

On another day, Doug and I snorkelled along the reef.  Although there were lots of rocks, there was very little coral.  However we did see sting rays and pipe fish as well as sergeant majors and a largish black reef fish with white and orange accents.  Off in the shadows we could see larger “eating’” fish.  Unfortunately, the water was still a bit chilly and we had to cut our exploration short.  However, we did still swim vigourously around Ka’sala every day and taking warm fresh water cockpit showers afterwards.

Inquisitive seagulls around the reef
Doug and Jan had fun trying to find a mythical anchor rumoured to be lost on a sunken panga or a large rock in the anchorage.  First Doug swam around in his 1mm shirt trying to locate it, then later Jan used his metal detector to try to find it.  I think they concluded it was a wild goose chase, even if it was a lot of fun.

On our last full day, Jan, Doug, Patrick and Celine (aboard Viola) and I, along with the local dog, Aqua, hiked up to see the cave paintings. 

Looking back to the anchorage and the village in the distance
We landed on the small beach at the head of the bay and followed a path over the ridge to an old cemetery.

We continued along to a muddy “oasis” with date palms growing around it.

Muddy oasis at Aqua Verde
 A herd of spiky horned cattle were grazing nearby as we approached the beach and wandered the pebbly shoreline to its end. 

A large stick marked another path which we followed along the base of another ridge to its far side.  Here the rising elevation was less acute and we traversed a rocky, shale covered track as it zig-zagged up the side and around to the front where we arrived at the wide opening of a series of shallow caves.

Looking out of the cave toward the pebble beach we traversed
We could smell that some kind of wild animal had used it – smelled like musky fox to me.  The floor of the caves were powdered white sand and we looked around in the contrasting light to find the paintings, wondering if we were in the right place. 

Eventually we found them above the cave entrance – we had been so focussed on the cave itself we hadn’t initially looked up.  We had lots of fun taking pictures and imagining how the painted hand prints had got there.  We took some time to also enjoy the view and wonder if any person had actually lived inside the cave.

Jan with paintings

We climbed back down the ridge and returned to the anchorage along a floodplain where we found two rustic ranchos.  These were where the cattle lived and we encountered many more of these splendid, well cared for beasts.  Of course there were more goats and I was most impressed with their guard dogs who protected them and kept them in line.  One mutt sat right in front of the gate to a pen, woofing and not budging – no one would pass by him!  Eventually we found the small, bumpy road that led back to the little beach.  Here we met Tio Jose, an elderly fisherman who lived right on the shore and whose dog it was who guided us on our walk.

Looking back across the flood plain to the cave on the ridge in the distance - above right
Later that afternoon we gathered wood and readied a bonfire for the evening.  After a refreshing swim we joined J & J aboard Witte Raaf for a wonderful Indonesian dinner that Joanneke had prepared.  Sateys, peanut sauce, nasi goring, beans, eggs and all the trimmings and sauces – so special and so delicious!  (I enjoyed the feast so much I forgot to take a picture!)

At sunset, Jan and Joanneke, Patrick and Celine, a Canadian couple who had arrived that day in their 4X4 from Vancouver, Tio Jose and his friend and family, as well as ourselves, gathered around the fire.  Patrick played his guitar and sang for us – he is a brilliant musician who favours blue grass and folk.  He had played with a bluegrass band in Bend, Oregon and entertained us with terrific songs, many of which he had created himself.  We drank rum, listened to Patrick, watched the flames licking the mesquite wood as the stars blanketed the sky, planets glowed and the ridgeline above us disappeared into the dark.  The anchor lights at the tops of the masts of the 8 or so boats anchored made an interesting contrast.  The fire crackled and smelled like the desert.  It wasn’t hot.  It wasn’t cold.  It was perfect.  The time literally disappeared, seeming like an hour, but more like three.  Doug gave his flashlight to the Mexican family so they could find their way home and we watched it flicker along the blackened road.  Eventually, we all stumbled into our dinghies and later slept like babies that night.  What a perfect, never to be forgotten, day!

Dinghy racing!  Faster!  Faster!

Bogie ahead!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Exploring the Sea of Cortez - April 2 to April 4: Isla San Francisco and Amortajada

The westerly winds finally calmed down and we back tracked to popular Isla San Francisco.  We sailed the ten miles downwind at 4 – 5 knots under jib alone.  In the distance, near Isla Partida, we could see a couple of large whales breaching again and again, before disappearing among the islets and reefs behind us.  The seas rolled us forward, but the sunlight sparkled off the waves, the skies a bright white blue. 

Witte Raaf - on the way to Isla San Francisco
We arrived at the main anchorage just before lunch and found it to be as picture perfect as the guide book promised.

Beautiful Isla San Francisco (Joanneke photo)
However, we were not to have it for ourselves.  As we approached, we saw four sailboats emerge and head north, yet when we arrived we found eight VERY large motor vessels with all their toys (jet skiis, paddle boards, kayaks, fishing boats) within.  If I plugged my ears to the buzz of the jet skiis and generators I could see a gorgeous pure white sand, crescent beach, rising to steep coral coloured hills.  Of course, I also had to blot out the elaborate sunshades with table-clothed dining tables beneath, attended by the crew and servants of the power boats.  Paradise found!
Anchorage at Isla San Francisco - you can see Ka'sala, dwarfed by power boats, in the centre of the bay (Joanneke photo)
Although the north wind blew strong the whole time we were at Isla San Francisco, we were protected from the seas within the anchorage and could see the white caps rolling by its entrance.  However, at night the wind died and we slept peacefully.  The first day we kayaked to the beach and played bocce ball with a set given to J & J by Waldy and Ria – another Dutch cruising couple, friends of J & J, we had met when in La Cruz in 2011.  We had a lot of fun bending the rules and reminiscing about our times together when both Dutch couples visited us in Comox in 2012.  Unbelievably, the next day we got word that Waldy and Ria had been drowned on a passage in the Carribean, their bodies washed ashore in San Andres.  Their sailboat, Talagoa, was found a couple days later, washed up on a reef without its keel.  We were shocked and saddened by this news and so sorry for their family in Holland.

Talagoa at anchor in La Cruz - 2011
The next day we hiked up and over the ridge looking over the south of the anchorage.  It turned out to be a bit more technical than we expected and, at one point, we were scrambling over boulders and a pinnacle, balancing on a narrow path as the rocks and shale sloped vertically on both sides.  Vertigo notwithstanding, the 360 degrees views were amazing, though the wind accelerated and howled to the point that I felt like I might be blown off!

Jan overlooks the bay

On the ridge (Joanneke photo)

Hold on to your hat! (Joanneke photo)

Brilliant clear water - we used the kayaks to go back and forth to shore - Ka'sala and Witte Raaf in the background (Joanneke photo)
The next morning we left after breakfast, threading our way through 7 miles of reefs and islets to the northern anchorage at Amortajada on Isla San Jose, just by the entrance to a massive lagoon.  We launched the kayaks and, while Joanneke combed the beach, Jan, Doug and I kayaked in the lagoon. 

The channel to the lagoon
 The tide was against us and the entrance shallow, but we made it through and into a mangrove lined, long channel that eventually dumped us into an enormous inner bay, dyked by a high berm of rocks and shells.  We paddled through the shallows while sting rays and other fish, warming in the sun and startled by our approach, darted away at phenomenal speeds.

Threading our way through a side channel
The light was incredibly bright and clear and the Gigante Mountains in the distance stood out against the sky, their red striated cliffs contrasting with the white blue of the water.
Buzzards soared overhead while little duck creatures paddled in the roots of the mangroves, spindly legged herons guarded their territory and seagulls strutted along the berm.  We paddled vigourously against the current for almost two hours, then turned around and flew back.  Unfortunately, as we came into the channel leading out of the lagoon, the wind came against us.  It had picked up considerably and so had the waves.  We had a very energetic paddle back to Ka’sala, also bouncing up and down in the waves against a lee shore, spray everywhere.  We got aboard safely and stowed the little boats.

Ka'sala at anchor at the entrance to the Amortajada lagoon before the wind picked up

 Our anchor was holding well, despite the conditions so we stayed put until later in the afternoon when they calmed down, then crashed across the channel to San Evaristo and anchoring again in 20 knots of wind.  Ironically, within minutes of dropping the anchor, the wind died completely – as if a switch had been turned off.  The buzzards would go hungry that night!

Joanneke, photographer extraordinaire - thank you so much for all the lovely pictures of our special journeys