May, 2011 - At Agua Verde we really began to
relax. All of a sudden the exertion of seven
months of cruising the Mexican coast had
caught up with us, and there in that little oasis
of tranquility we unwound until we became
blobs of jello. We went to bed before sundown,
got up after sunrise, and stretched out for naps
in between. For 17 days the Sea of Cortez
gave us a life without the distraction of the
internet. The world beyond our immediate
surroundings on the sea seemed very far away.
As we sailed north and turned the corner to pass inside Isla Danzante
our eyes popped out of our heads when a massive resort suddenly
rose out of the mountains, overshadowing a cove and filling our view.
"Holy mackerel, what is that?" Civilization. Land of plush vacations.
We could almost hear the air conditioners throbbing, the fresh water
pumping, the workers scurrying. We could almost see the elegant
meals being served by uniformed waiters on linen tablecloths while
patrons gazed at the expansive view of the Sea and its desert
islands. Our guidebooks called the bay "Bahía Candeleros," and
mentioned only that a resort was under construction there. Well, it's
open for business now!
We weren't ready for all that quite yet. We pressed on, weaving between
the islands and taking a detour around the eastern side of Isla Carmen.
Here the colorful towering cliffs and crying gulls took over once again. We
stopped at Punta Colorada, and again at a place the guidebook called
"Painted Cliffs" and finally at Punta Perico. Besides one other sailboat and
the hum of cruisers talking on the radio, humanity disappeared once again.
A few days later we arrived at Isla
Coronado, an ideal little aquamarine
cove where the water is such a bright
turquoise that it reflects off the gulls'
wings as they fly overhead. We relaxed
into jello once again. Between swims
and kayak rides I began reading John
Steinbeck's Log of the Sea of Cortez while Mark played guitar.
Visiting the Sea in 1940 on a personal quest to study life in the
coastal tidepools, Steinbeck gives hilarious descriptions of life afloat
on a chartered California sardine boat. Packed in with six other
guys, he took a six week voyage from California to Cabo, and then
along the inner coastline of the Sea of Cortez and back. Endless
jars of pickled specimens that the crew collected from tidepools
filled every available space on the boat: crabs, worms, sea
cucumbers, and much more.
I laughed out loud at his wry tales. They
were all the more poignant because
certain aspects of traveling the Mexican
coast by boat have not changed since
Steinbeck's time. His skiff's cranky outboard engine, which he derisively nicknamed the "Sea-Cow,"
quickly became an eighth grumpy personality in the mix, running only when it wasn't needed and
leaving the men to row their dinghy in the most challenging conditions. The crew bickered about
whose turn it was to wash dishes, harassing each other with practical jokes. And they got caught by
surprise in the La Paz Coromuel winds which "sprang upon us" and "seemed to grow out of the
evening." By the end of the trip they were all thickly encrusted in salt, as they had long since given up
using fresh water to wash their bodies or their clothes. In fact, from the start they found the quality of
the fresh water they were able to get for their tanks so dubious for drinking that they endeavored to
consume as little water as possible and live on beer instead.
As I read Steinbeck's Log I found myself pondering the many changes, both
subtle and dramatic, that have taken place in the last 71 years in this remote
part of the world. Cabo San Lucas, a raucous, pricey, resort-filled party
town today was, in Steinbeck's time, "a sad little town" whose road in from the
bay was "two wheel-ruts in the dust." At La Paz he bemoaned a new
"expensive looking" hotel going up, as it spelled the end of the town's unique
character and isolation. "Probably the airplanes will bring weekenders from
Los Angeles before long, and the beautiful bedraggled old town will bloom
with a Floridian ugliness."
In several different parts of the Sea he described seeing schools of leaping
swordfish. Swarming the boat in thick schools, they "jumped clear out of the
water" and "seemed to play in pure joy." In other places the schools were
tuna, and they too leaped around the boat with total abandon. The tuna
would shimmer silver in the sun as they rocketed out of the blue depths and wriggled in the air. On the Pacific side of Baja
between Magdalena Bay and Cabo San Lucas, he wrote: "We came upon hosts of...red rock-lobsters on the surface,
brilliant red and beautiful against the ultramarine of the water...The water seemed almost solid with the little red crustacea."
We haven't seen any of those things, and we haven't heard of anyone else seeing them either. However, the leaping manta
rays Steinbeck describes are still here, doing somersaults and slapping the water in loud belly smacks. We had first seen
them 500 miles south in Las Hadas in Manzanillo. They cruised Isla Coronado's cove in huge schools, fooling us when we
first arrived into thinking we had accidentally anchored next to a rock. Jumping in with masks and snorkels, we searched
everywhere for that rock only to realize it had been a school of rays floating past.
Steinbeck vividly describes
the Japanese shrimping factory ships that filled the Sea in 1940.
He and his crew spent time on one of these ships and watched in horror as the massive nets scraped
the bottom clean of all sea life. Fish from every level of the sea came up in the nets: sharks, turtles,
pompano, sea horses, sea fans and more. All were discarded overboard in a sea of death, except the
shrimp which were processed and packaged to be taken home to Japan. He bitterly lamented the
waste of a massive food source that could feed the Mexican people indefinitely. At the same time he
conceded that none of the dead fish were wasted, as the birds scooped up every morsel that had been
thrown over the side.
A Spanish speaking cruiser told us he had talked at length with some lobstermen on the Pacific side
of Baja as he sailed south from San Diego last January. He learned that these men work in
cooperatives for Japanese ships that wait in Ensenada and sail once the holds are filled. The
lobstermen have a quotas that the cooperative must meet -- some 20,000 tons of lobster
per month was a number he was given -- and all the lobstermen are paid equally if the
quota is met.
While Steinbeck and his crew got progressively grubbier, drinking warm beer and eating
spaghetti twice a week, they felt a stab of jealousy when a sleek black yacht sailed by. The
passengers, dressed in white, relaxed in chairs on the shaded back deck sipping tall cool
drinks. Today we see the enormous power megayachts and can only wonder what that life
is like. The upper crust passengers are usually hidden behind large tinted windows, and
the sliding glass doors are usually closed to keep the air conditioning in.
Eventually our curiosity about the resort we had sailed by earlier overtook us and we
doubled back. "Bahia Candeleros" seems to be the name that was assigned to this bay by
the earliest cruisers and nautical charts. But we soon learned that everyone in the nearby
village -- and even Google Earth -- refers to this bay as "Ensenada Blanca."
Whatever the name, it is a fascinating convergence of the old Sea and the new. At one end
of the cove stands a small fish camp where drying clothes hang out on clotheslines and
cisterns hold water on the roofs of rickety shacks that look like they would collapse in a
storm. A tiny village half a mile inland has a small church and store, reminiscent of Agua
Verde a few miles south. Pangas on the beach bring in small boatloads of fish.
A friendly fellow at this end of the beach named Jose sold us a
"cabrilla" (bass) that had been caught and laid on ice that morning. He
filleted it expertly on the seat of his panga and rinsed the flesh in the
seawater at his feet. The gulls and pelicans gathered in a noisy crowd
nearby and fought each other over scraps.
Jose explained to us
that the well built
fiberglass pangas we
have seen on every
part of the Mexican
coast are built in
Mexico using molds
made in the US. These
rugged boats have replaced the common
fishing boats that Steinbeck described as "double-ended canoes carved out of a single log of
light wood, braced inside with struts...seaworthy and fast." Today's pangas are driven by
powerful outboards whereas the canoes were "paddled by two men, one at either end."
The eldest Baja citizens, whom Steinbeck called "Indians," would have been small children
when he was here. He wrote: "When we think of La Paz it is always of the small boys that we
think first." They swarmed his boat, curious and eager to help him collect sea creatures when
he offered a few centavos per specimen. Those boys would be old men now, and they may
still be telling tales to their grandkids of gathering clams and worms and crabs for some crazy
gringos in exchange for a few centavos each. Not even a full lifetime has passed.
Wandering down to the other
end of the cove it seems like
centuries must have gone by.
The gargantuan resort is called
Villa del Palmar, and the guards
were happy to arrange a tour for
us. What a place. Only the
finest materials have been used,
the highest end appliances fill
each suite, and the layout of the pools and gardens, as viewed
from a seventh floor balcony, is an artful pattern in the shape of
a sea turtle. It is Scottsdale, Arizona on the Sea.
We learned that this resort is just the first of three similar hotels
planned for this small bay. "Villa de la Estancia" and "Villa del Arco"
will follow. A golf course will line the base of the mountains and
condos will be built in all of the nooks and crannies in between.
We looked out over the construction in awe. Backhoes clawed
the dirt while cement trucks flowed to and fro. Uniformed men
with clipboards checked the progress while workers nodded
confidently at them, wiping their sweaty brows with dusty
hands. The air was filled with purpose and excitement.
Our tour guide, Gabriel, lives in Loreto and he couldn't stop
smiling throughout the entire tour. He is thrilled to have this
job, working in a beautiful place in handsome clothes and with
what he believes is a fine future ahead. He told us the resort
employs 250 people. About 50 guests were there during its
second month of operation. We had seen the buses that the
company uses to bring the employees in from town. The road
to the resort is not yet paved and the buses park behind the
fish camp in a large dirt lot.
In the afternoon Mauricio, the music electronics whiz who sets up
the karaoke machines at the pool bar, told us he transferred in
from Mexico city. He is being housed in one of the beautiful
condos set back in the hillsides while he looks for a home so he
can transfer his family from the mainland. He likes the school
system in Loreto and is pleased there is a university there. His
wife, a bank manager, may find work at the hotel too, and he hopes
his kids will be able to continue the after-school activities they now
enjoy in Mexico City: horseback riding, swimming and soccer.
The entire resort pulsed with the feelings of opportunity, promise
and the future. This is the new Sea of Cortez that Steinbeck
knew was coming, tamed and gentrified for well-heeled tourists.
Along with the classy resort came an internet signal, and what a
surprise it was after so long adrift from world news to find out that
Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. This mirrored
Steinbeck's experience too. He discovered that while he was in
the Sea, "Hitler marched into Denmark and into Norway, France
had fallen, the Maginot line was lost -- we didn't know it but we
knew the daily catch of every boat within 400 miles."
We stayed for several days, enjoying
placid, clear water and lovely views as
Groovy slowly swung at anchor. Finally a
need for provisions pushed us into the
busy ports of Puerto Escondido and
Find Isla Coronado, Ensenada Blance and Loreto on Mexico Maps