Quiet Marina Chiapas -- just Groovy and two sport fishing boats.
New thatch roofed palapa
restaurant under construction.
"Combi" or "Colectivo" van.
New train tracks will take cargo inland.
Puerto Madero market
Backwards tricycles take people around town.
We get a ride.
This little girl thought Mark's face was
worthy of a photo.
Sunrise in Marina Chiapas
Andrés catches a Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)
"Greyhound" type buses for inland travel.
Twisting mountain roads
We drove through countless busy little towns.
There were lots of military
In town, the streets are for strolling.
We had to get through this!
Swinging footbridges connected the towns on
both sides of the river.
Our road clings to the mountainsides.
Watermelon stalls fill one mountain peak.
Scenic views on our route.
A landscaped sidewalk connects many towns.
We share the road with
travelers of all kinds.
We pull alongside a horse and cart.
High school kids try to flag down the bus.
We stop dead in our tracks while a
transformer is replaced.
We discover San Cristóbal is full of life…and nightlife.
Puerto Chiapas to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
March, 2012 - We were very happy to return to Mexico after
visiting Antigua, Guatemala. Groovy was waiting patiently for us
in the brand new Marina Chiapas, and the construction around
the marina was still on-going.
A new palapa building that will soon house a marina bar and
restaurant was getting its final rafters, and Groovy was one of just
three boats that had taken up residence at the still-not-officially-
One day we took a crowded combi van to the big
nearby city of Tapachula and made the half-hour
trip scrunched up against a young family with a
toddler. The husband excitedly told us all about
the improvements coming to this small seaside
community of Puerto Chiapas. Besides the new
tourist marina, which is the pet project of ten of
Tapachula's captains of industry, the waterfront
is rapidly metamorphosing.
Once home only to a large shrimping fleet,
Puerto Chiapas has cleaned up the filthy shrimping process and now
has a cruise ship dock, a growing malecón, and plans to become a
major cargo shipping port with new train tracks that head to the inland
industrial hubs. This young dad was so thrilled by the prospects for his
small town that he nearly jumped out of the seat of the van as he
described the growth and what it would mean to his community. He
was most excited that the endless construction all around us was
supported by Mexico's President Calderón and the political power base
in Mexico City. His feelings of hope and anticipation for his hometown
and his young family were palpable.
That same joy filled the air in Puerto Madero, the small
town that fronts the harbor of Puerto Chiapas around
the corner from the new marina. This is a gritty small
town that bustles with color and noise, pungent smells
and spontaneous street music. It isn't a pretty town --
dust fills the air and, at first glance, it is dirty, decrepit
and run down -- but it hums with an inner vitality.
Smiles were abundant and all the streets were filled with crazy three-
wheeled backward tricycles that shuttled people from place to place.
Some of these trikes are made from the back half of a bicycle and
others are made from the back half of a motorbike, but all have a
skinny seat up front that is shaded by a flopping awning.
Passengers hop into the front seat and get a bumpy ride.
Mark couldn't resist trying one of these carnival
rides, and all of a sudden I was squeezing in next
to him and asking the driver to take us around
town. "Where?" he asked. "Oh, just up and down
the streets so we can look around!"
He was more than happy to oblige, and for 15 minutes or so he drove us up and
down all the narrow streets, waving to his friends while we giggled like little kids in
the front street. What fun!
Whole families would pile into these things, mom, dad and three kids hanging on;
old ladies would settle their shopping bags on the seat next to them; and
businessmen would spread out, relax, and fill the whole seat. In back, the driver
would pedal or roll on the throttle, and the little jalopy would jiggle and rattle
This is a tourist town for locals from Tapachula, the big city of half a million people
about 15 miles away, but it is far from an international destination. All the tourists
are weekenders and day-trippers looking for a few hours on the waterfront in a
small seaside village. Gringos are a rarity. So we got a great laugh when a little
girl pointed her camera at Mark -- from the safety of her seat next to her mom in
a combi van -- and took Mark's picture. We definitely stood out in this crowd.
Music played everywhere, mostly from
stereo speakers, but we rounded one
corner to see three men playing a
xylophone. They were totally in sync with
each other as each took one section of the
xylophone, and the music was lighthearted and fun. I later discovered that this long
legged xylophone was called a Marimba, an instrument that is prized and beloved
throughout the state of Chiapas. This one on the streets of Puerto Madero turned out to
be one of the first of many that we would see both here and further inland in the state in
the coming weeks.
to blow hard out in the gulf,
preventing other cruising
boats from crossing to
Marina Chiapas from
Huatulco, although many
boats were waiting on the
other side to make the jump. This meant life was very quiet for us
at night, as the two of us and Andrés, the captain on the sport
fishing boat parked a few slips away from us, were the only three
people actually living in the marina.
There was still no power or water at the marina, and soon we had
to make water to refill Groovy's water tanks. We invited Andrés to
accompany us on our excursion into the bay, and he grabbed his fishing pole and happily came along. There's no equivalent
Spanish expression for "A bad day spent fishing is better than a good day at work," but he knew exactly what we meant. He had
already finished his boat work for the day, so off we went.
It turned out to be a fantastic day fishing. After tooling around in the bay for just
a little while, Andrés caught a beautiful dinner-sized Sierra (Spanish Mackerel).
Back at the dock he cleaned it expertly and I made us all a dinner from it. We
had lots of fun chatting away in broken Spanish and broken English over a
gringo style meal, comparing notes on some of the crazy expressions that fill
both languages. Where we'll call a nice person a peach, Mexicans call a loved
one a mango, and where we sing "Happy birthday to you" they'll use the same
music and sing "You're a green toad." Seems funny, but it fits the music
perfectly, far better than the long words for "happy birthday:" "feliz cumpleaños."
In the afternoons of these
pleasant days at the
marina, the cabin of the
boat was hitting 90
degrees, no matter how
we shaded the deck or
cockpit. So we decided it
was time to head inland
into the cool mountains
We caught a combi van to Tapachula, and from
there took a large Greyhound style bus 200
miles inland to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a
quaint colonial town perched high up in the
What a ride that turned out to be. We had
front row seats to an incredible show.
If an interstate existed, the trip would be just
a few hours. But not so on this route. The
tiny, twisting, single lane mountain road
crosses two mountain ranges. "Topes," or
speed bumps, are planted along these roads
every few miles and traffic slows to a crawl as
each vehicle spares its shocks and creeps
over the steep bump. Every ten miles or so a
town crowds the road into a chaotic traffic jam.
And in between all this mayhem, the military bring the whole road to a
halt at strategically placed military checkpoints. At several of these
checkpoints we were all herded off the bus to oversee the inspection of
our luggage in the baggage compartment.
I counted seven bus
stops, seven military
checkpoints, and an
infinite number of
"topes." All this
would have made us absolutely crazy with
impatience, but the spectacular scenery
and lively towns we passed through made
it all worthwhile, despite averaging 22
mph for the entire trip.
For many miles we paralleled a river that
had communities living on both banks.
Little swinging footbridges connected the
towns on either side.
At the summit of one mountain we saw endless watermelon stalls, and for many miles
every town was connected by a bright red brick sidewalk trimmed with large, brightly
colored flowering bushes that flanked the highway.
This highway is traveled by vehicles of all kinds, from our huge bus to
cars and trucks to horseback riders to walkers pushing carts. Uniformed
high school kids stood in the middle of the road trying to raise funds by
waving cars down. The bus driver hung out the window and bantered
with them as we drove by.
When we pulled into one
town the bus had to
negotiate some very tight
turns. We were just
commenting to each about
how hard it must be to drive
a huge bus on these tiny city
streets when the bus turned
a corner and suddenly faced
a complete roadblock. Some electrical workers were replacing a transformer
on a power pole, and their truck blocked the entire road. Oh well! Our bus
parked in the middle of the road, and we all piled out onto the street yet again.
This time rather than watching men with machine guns rummage through our
luggage, we all descended on the local convenience store to get snacks and
drinks. What a hoot! We hung around in the street munching chips and
getting to know each other while we waited for the workers to complete the
transformer installation. At long last they came down off the power pole,
moved their truck out of the way, and we continued on.
We enjoyed this drive a lot. The last two
towns, Comitán and Teopisca, looked so
appealing we were tempted to hop out
and stay a while. But San Cristóbal was
our destination, and at last, after nine
hours of climbing and descending, we
finally pulled into the charming city set at
bags off at the
dashing out into
the night we
found little kids
and parents, teens, tourists,
lovers and old folks all filling
the streets. The air was brisk
and everyone was in jackets.
A chocolatier lured us into his
shop with the most delicious
fresh chocolate treats, and a
few doors down the mellow
tones of saxophone blues drew
us into the middle of a photographer's opening exhibition at an art gallery.
The wine flowed, the hot tamales were passed around, and the crowd spilled out of the gallery
and down the block. We shivered in the bitter mountain air, but the spirit of this town was warm
and inviting. It was easy to settle into San Cristóbal, and we ended up staying for 10 days.
Find Puerto Chiapas and San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.
A "Tehuantepecker" blows at 50 knots.
On another day and in a better mood.
We make our crossing in dead calm.
A cute pooch waits to sniff the next boat.
Colonial architecture and ornamentation is Antigua's
Pretty cobblestone streets get much needed repair.
Antigua is nestled in the mountains.
Mayans sell colorful weavings in front of a
The most popular form of transportation is small
"McDonalds is my kind of place..."
"...my kind of happy place."
A sleek Porsche sets up the view of the cathedral.
The town lives for tourists.
Handmade chocolate bars.
Steel doors with viewing windows
protect the inhabitants inside.
The open air market.
Musicians set up street-side.
A bike shop where we picked up a pair of
awesome Guatemala jerseys.
A display of antique bikes.
Painted schoolbus that tourists are advised to avoid.
Our bus back to Mexico weaves through a bicycle race.
Late February, 2012 - We returned to Huatulco from our inspiring days in Oaxaca, and focused our thoughts on crossing the
dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 250 mile stretch of coast between Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas that is prone to horrific storms
affectionately nicknamed "Tehuantepeckers." During these vicious blows the wind howls from the north in the Gulf of Mexico,
then crosses Mexico's narrow isthmus and finally accelerates to gale force once it hits the Pacific on the south side.
The trick to crossing this gulf is timing, as the Tehuantepec blows and calms down at regular intervals all winter long. Armed
with today's sophisticated weather forecasting and a bit of patience, it is not too hard to find a good time to make the jump. The
Since the crossing takes a typical cruising boat anywhere from 32 to 48
hours, this allowed us plenty of time. Cruisers are advised to follow the
coastline with "one foot on the beach" (very close to shore) in case all
hell breaks loose unexpectedly, but we shot nearly straight across the
gulf in 36 hours of flat calm water and still air. We arrived at the brand
new Marina Chiapas rested and smiling.
We were now just 16 miles from the Guatemalan border, and the
check-in process included a boarding by four members of the Navy
and a cabin check by a drug-sniffing dog. The dog arrived with booties
on his feet so he wouldn't scratch up the boat. Very polite.
This marina is a great place to leave the boat for inland
explorations, and after a few days we packed our
backpacks and took an 8 hour bus ride to Antigua,
Guatemala. The distance isn't that far, but the bus
probably averaged 30 mph at best, as the roads were
twisty and there were lots of "topes," or speed bumps,
plus we made lots of stops.
The most important
stop was at the
where we all shuffled
off the bus, checked
out of Mexico,
walked across the border, and then checked into Guatemala. In the distance we saw people
crossing the river that defines the border, wading waist deep in water from one side to the
other, perhaps in an effort to avoid all the official border crossing paperwork. The border
area was chaotic with vendors filing the streets and money changers approaching us
constantly with wads of Mexican pesos and Guatemalan Quetzales clutched in their fists.
Our bus conductor shuttled us through the mayhem and we re-boarded our bus on the other
side, suddenly conscious that we were no longer in the familiar land of Mexico.
As the bus climbed and descended the mountainous terrain, we
crossed endless streams and rivers where women were
washing their families' clothes on the rocks. As the day wore
on and the washing was finished, each river we crossed was
strewn with clothes lying on the rocks to dry. We passed men walking alongside oxen and horses
carrying heavy loads, and we saw vast fields of sugar cane stretching into the distance.
Well after dark the road widened and the lights grew thick as we
approached Guatemala City. Suddenly our world was transformed
from extreme rural poverty to the glittering glitz and glam of new
wealth. Our fast, wide, multi-lane highway carried us at top speed
between flashy new buildings, and we watched in awe as all the
chain stores we have ever known flew past our window. The bus
station was deep downtown, however, and our driver had to slow to
a crawl and creep around sharp turns on narrow colonial streets
between crumbling antique buildings. We got stuck at one turn
where a parked car made it impossible for the bus to get around the corner without damaging
something. The driver hopped out, enlisted the help of a nearby cop and, to cheers from the
passengers, bent a large metal street sign back to allow the bus to pass without getting too
Once at the terminal, our bus conductor helped us negotiate a taxi ride
to Antigua, and soon we were being whisked along those same decrepit
inner city streets in a cab. At a red light the driver reached over and
manually locked each of the four doors of the cab. Mark and I
exchanged a look of surprise as we both us silently acknowledged that
we were truly in a new country.
Quetzales are currently about 7.7 to the US dollar, and I began
thinking about quick ways to handle this new exchange rate in
my head. I calculated and recalculated the gas prices I saw
posted at the gas stations, stunned by the prices. Gas was
nearly $5 per gallon, a far cry from the $3.30 or so that was
typical in Mexico. After about 45 minutes we arrived in Antigua.
It was around 7:30 pm, and we were surprised to find the
streets nearly empty. We had to ring the doorbell next to the
sturdy steel front door of our hotel to be let in. After dropping
off our bags in our room, we asked for suggestions of where to
get a bite to eat.
The hotel manager shrugged noncommittally and suggested we'd find something
within a few blocks. We took off into the night and walked a star pattern around our
hotel. The only people we saw on the streets were a handful of loud gringo tourists. It
took a good bit of walking before we found a restaurant that was open. A single gringo
patron was at the bar drinking a beer. The waitress was sullen. We ate in silence in a
room full of empty tables. Where the heck was everybody? The tab for two beers and
a small plate of french fries came to over $10. This was definitely not Mexico.
By day the mood
filled the streets
and we found them
peopled with tall
English in various
accents and tiny
Mayans selling woven textiles. The
architecture was wonderfully decorative
and old, and the narrow streets were all
cobbled, many in need of repair.
Antigua is known for its immersion
Spanish schools, and we had come hoping to take a week or two of classes
while living with a Guatemalan family during our stay. Apparently that was
why most other people were in town as well. There is a Spanish school on
every corner and several more on every street in between. There must be a
hundred Spanish language schools in this small town.
The teaching method is tutorial, and the price is generally $100 per week for
4 hours a day of tutorial work and $90 per week for a home stay that includes
meals with the family. All over town we saw pairs of people walking, sitting,
pointing and talking. Each pair was made up of one Guatemalan teacher and
one gringo student actively engaged in Spanish tutorials. Many solitary
gringos carried books around town, and students could be spotted
everywhere crouched over homework, their dictionaries, textbooks and
notebooks spread out on bistro tables next to their cups of coffee.
We took photos freely, trying to get the warm
and fuzzies for this odd place. After an hour
or so, however, Mark commented that he felt
really uncomfortable wearing his camera and wouldn't bring it out
again on our explorations around town. He found it attracted way
too much attention -- people were staring at it.
One of the best things we found in Antigua was its amazing
McDonald's, definitely the prettiest one we have ever seen anywhere.
It has a beautiful outdoor seating area with cushioned seats and sofas
(very popular for tutorial Spanish lessons). Its delightful shaded patio
looks out onto a lush garden filled with flowers. Ronald McDonald sits
on the park bench in the middle of the garden, his arms outstretched
on the back of the bench, inviting folks to take a seat and get a photo
with his iconic figure.
We stopped in and filled our
gringo tummies to the brim.
How awesome it was after
months of tacos to savor
one of the new Angus
burgers! We sat back and
relaxed for a moment, until
Mark noticed that a little kid
had made his way into the
bushes next to us to within
arm's reach of our table and
was eyeing up my camera
in front of me. "That kid is really interested in your
camera…" Mark commented. I grabbed it and
put it in my backpack. There was a creepiness
to this town that we were not accustomed to
feeling in Mexico.
The church ruins around town were lovely in a
way, but most had an air of abandonment.
Antigua is situated in a zone rich with
earthquakes, and each glorious cathedral and
church has been gutted repeatedly by
centuries of tremors and shakes.
The tourist map shows numbered streets that
are laid out with avenues in one direction and
streets in another. The street signs, however,
harken back to an earlier era when the streets had names that weren't numbers. So we felt our
way around town by becoming familiar with landmarks. However, because all the streets look
somewhat alike, the best landmarks turned out to be the people that inhabited the streets. Take
a left at the guy in the white shirt with no legs who lies on his back and holds out a tin cup (he's
on that corner everyday). Take a right at the man in the dark blue jacket who's missing both a
foot and an arm and reaches his good hand towards you clutching a shiny Quetzal coin in hopes
that you'll give him another.
In stark contrast, parked a few feet from the old woman in the tattered shawl who was hunched
over her begging basket was a brand new Porsche with Guatemalan plates. A few cars
down was a glistening BMW. Big shiny Range Rovers were common. Between these fancy
cars, over at one of the town's large public fountains, a line of women washed their families'
clothes in the outdoor pools under the
ancient church's stone arches. Tiny
tuk-tuks zipped all over the place,
ferrying people on bumpy rides up
and down the matrix of streets.
On our third day, in an effort to get
comfortable in this rather inhospitable
town, we moved from one hotel to
another a few streets away. We tried
to take one of these tuk-tuks so we
wouldn't have to carry our bags.
The hotel matron had told us not
to pay more than $1.50 for
the ride, but none of the
drivers would go that low,
and all drove off in disgust at
the idea of taking us a few
streets for less than $3. We
walked instead and were
glad for the exercise. In
Mexico, five mile taxi rides in
real cars were routinely just
$2 or so. Our sticker shock
in Antigua just didn't stop.
We had narrowed down our
school choice to either the highly rated (and new)
Antigua Plaza or to tutorials and a home-stay with a woman who taught
independently and had been recommended by a fellow cruiser. Both seemed
like they could be wonderful situations for improving our Spanish. But in
discussing life in Antigua with the school director we were strongly advised not to
go out at night, not to carry more than a few dollars in our pockets at any time,
and never to show our cameras in public. We were assured the school was safe
behind it's solid locked gate (and the outdoor setting for class tutorials in the
colorful garden was absolutely lovely), but the director confessed that she
preferred not to go out much herself.
An older woman walking her dog in a stroller caught our eye that afternoon and
we struck up a conversation. She had lived in Antigua for as an ex-pat for 12
years. "Don't go out at night," she suddenly said. "Don't carry more than $10 in
your pocket. And don't let anyone see your camera!" Here was the same
unsolicited advice again!! She explained that tourists and business people have
been targeted by "express-kidnappers" who zip up on a scooter
and either run the victim around town to ATMs to empty their bank
account, or strip them of their belongings at gun point. A woman
who refused to give up her bag in a recent robbery in
Antigua had been shot in broad daylight. "Things have
gotten really bad in the last six months," she told us.
Both of our hotels were barricaded by large doors that
were locked at all times. Guests were not given keys to
these front doors but instead had to ring a doorbell to be let
in. At night each hotel had a second steel door that
provided extra protection. When you rang the bell the
manager slid open a small window and peered out at you
before letting you in.
Antigua seemed to wear a superficial veil of prettiness over
a dark inner core of of fear.
We looked for signs of normalcy around town, for people who lived and worked in
Antigua outside of the tourist trade. We found few. There were none of the typical
Mexican tienda convenience stores or fruit stands or grocery stores or hardware
stores or clothing stores or pharmacies that make a community livable. A handful of tiny closet-sized stores sold
Budweiser-equivalent beer for $2 a can ($12 a six-pack) and expensive packaged snacks. Spontaneous smiles from the
locals were almost nonexistent.
The only place that offered a feeling of
congeniality was the large open air market at one
end of town. Here we saw imported fruits
(Washington apples) and local fruits and
vegetables of all kinds. Heading into the large
tents at the back of the market we discovered
where American designer clothes end up once
they've been marked all the way down. Racks
and racks of brand new clothes filled the back of
and a few still
showing their original
store tags, these brand new
designer label clothes were strung
up alongside used duds. We were
amazed to be able to buy a brand
new pair of Levi jeans, tags and all,
for $4 and several pairs of new
name-brand shorts for even less.
The economics in Antigua baffled
us. If the folks on the street had
seemed happy it would have been a
lot less unsettling.
We left Antigua after four days never having
gotten comfortable enough anywhere in town
to stay for a whole week of Spanish classes.
Other cruisers who had been to Antigua in
years past thought we were crazy not to have
fallen in love with the city, and other travelers
will surely have different experiences. But for
us it was a place we were very glad to leave
behind. Upon crossing the border back into
Mexico we both looked at each other and
laughed, saying, "Thank goodness we're back
The homes seemed better kept, there was a lot less trash on the roads, and
in no time we saw the happy grins and heard the exuberant laughter of the
locals that make Mexico so much fun.
Upon our return to Groovy in the marina at Puerto Chiapas, I researched the
travel advisories from the UK, Canada and the US to Guatemala, El Salvador
and Honduras to try to find out whether the scary vibe we felt in Antigua was justified. I discovered the warnings to each of
those countries are not only severe but are expressed in a totally different tone than those to Mexico. Even with the terrible
drug wars, the murder rate in Mexico in 2011 was 18 per 100,000, about the same as Atlanta. In Guatemala it is 41, a little
higher than Detroit (34) but less than St. Louis (45) which is the highest in the US. El Salvador's murder rate is 71 per 100,000
(the second highest in the world) while the rate in Honduras tops it, for first place, at a whopping 86.
Unlike Mexico where tourists have not historically been targeted by violent criminals (until
the recent bus robbery in Puerto Vallarta), tourists in these other countries have been
targeted along with business people because of their perceived wealth. Although each
advisory was quick to point out that the vast majority of travelers never have any trouble,
they also helped us come to grips with the unnerving sense of danger that we felt while we
were there. An El Salvadorian on the bus with us back to Mexico told us there had been 20
murders in his small village in the last two months. Not mincing words for a moment he
said quite plainly, "El Salvador is a beautiful country, but I wouldn't recommend that you
travel inland there now."
We settled back into life in the brand new Marina Chiapas for a few days. We were one of
just three boats staying there, as construction around the marina was still in full swing and a
dredge blocked the entrance to the marina. Not sure which direction to head with Groovy,
we decided instead to take another inland tour, this time on the Mexican side of the border
through the intriguing Chiapas countryside to the charming colonial city of San Cristobal
de las Casas.
Find Antigua on Mexico Maps.
Santa María del Tule
Home of the "Tule Tree"
The "Tule Tree," 190' around!
The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.
What fantastic creatures lurk here?.
"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.
Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan
All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.
Our sea turtle rug.
Hierve el Agua is a unique,
A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.
Kids play in the water.
A thin film of water leaves a
microscopic layer of minerals behind.
Waterfall frozen in time.
Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.
Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..
Our charming tour companions.
Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.
Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.
Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.
Massive lintel over a short doorway.
One of the interior rooms.
Impressive dovetail corner joinery made
of precisely cut decorative stone.
No two patterns on the buildings are alike.
One of the underground tombs.
Mezcal makers!! The king of Matatlan.
There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.
Young blue agave plants.
Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.
First they are cooked over a fire.
Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.
The duration of the fermentation makes all the
difference in the taste.
Here, try this one!!
Mitla Tour, Oaxaca, Mexico
Mid-February, 2012 - We enjoyed the Monte Alban ruins and history so
much we decided to take another trek out to the other side of Oaxaca to
see the ruins at Mitla. The easiest way to do this was with a van-based
tour, and our day-trip included several colorful stops in addition to the
tour of the Mitla ruins.
The first stop was in the cute town of Santa María del Tule, home
of the famous "Tule Tree." The funny thing about an organized
tour like this is that you follow the pace of the leader. Our
designated stop here was just a half hour or so. But it was such an
appealing little town that I'm sure if we had been on our own we
would have probably stuck around for a day or two!
The Tule plant is a grassy reed related to cat tails that was used by the
indigenous peoples to make mats, shelters and boats. It grows in
abundance in and around Santa María del Tule. The "Tule Tree" is
actually a Sabino (Montezuma Cypress) tree, totally unrelated to the
Tule plant, but it is affectionately known as the "Tule Tree" because it
was once surrounded by tule reeds.
According to the sign in front of the tree, this monster is
over 2,000 years old, 190' in girth around the trunk, 138'
tall, 28,846 cubic feet in volume and 636,107 tons in
weight. It is considered to be the widest tree (the one with
the largest girth) in the world. Our tour guide suggested
that if we couldn't fit the whole tree in our cameras we
could always buy a souvenir postcard instead!
Just around the corner stands the offspring of this famous tree. It is a
mere 1,000 years old and not quite as large -- and it was all by itself
without a crowd around it elbowing each other to get a photo! Of course
neither of these trees is quite as humongous overall as the giant
sequoia named General Sherman that stands 275' tall and has a
volume of 52,000 cubic feet. Nor is either quite as old as the bristlecone
pine called Methuselah which has had its rings painstakingly counted to
total 4,841 years of age.
The trunk is
see all kinds
in its depths.
Scooting around the streets of town we saw these funny looking three-
wheeled vehicles. These tiny taxis, called "tuk-tuks," buzzed all over the
place, not just in Santa María del Tule but in other towns we passed along
Our next stop was at Teotitlan del
Valle, home of about forty families of Zapotec weavers. We had met the son of one of
these families in the harbor town of Santa Cruz in las Bahías de Huatulco where he had set
up a loom and quietly turned out one brilliant woolen rug after another. Here we were
given a demonstration of the traditional methods used by the Zapotecs to spin and dye
The demonstration started with the
original Zapotec method of spinning
wool which involved a balancing a
spool precariously on one knee.
What luck the Spaniards showed up
way back when and brought the
familiar spinning wheel with them.
Even so, two daring members of our
group tried to spin a little wool using
this more conventional old fashioned
spinning wheel, and neither met with
much success as the wool kept
separating in their fingers.
It was amazing to learn what the Zapotecs used for dyes to create the vibrant colors of
their wool. Starting with either white, grey or brown wool right off the sheep, they get
bright blue from the indigo plant, using ash to fix the color. Green comes from moss,
using salt to fix the dye. Yellow is from marigolds. Most intriguing, however, was that
they squash an insect that makes a cocoon on prickly pear cactus leaves, and the
squished bug produces a vibrant blood red dye. How much trial and error did it take
over the years to perfect these methods?
Again, we could have lingered for a long time in this shop and in the town in general. I
love wools and yarns and weaving, and the intricate designs, both modern and
traditional, were fantastic. We did end up holding up the tour van for a few minutes
while we negotiated to buy a lovely small rug featuring sea turtles. It had been woven
from undyed sheep wool by Rafaela, whom I met (but didn't think to photograph--darn!).
In all the thousands of miles we have sailed our boat in Mexico, the most common
wildlife sighting we have had everywhere has been sea turtles. In places
there are literally hundreds of them. So this seemed a perfect souvenir.
Jumping into the tour van for more adventures, we drove a long way out to
Hierve el Agua ("boiling water"), a phenomenal oasis of pools and petrified
waterfalls out in the mountainous hinterlands.
until the mid-1980's, this grouping of shallow pools and
calcified deposits is reminiscent of parts of Yellowstone
National Park, except the water is cool.
In the distance three large waterfalls stand frozen in time,
suspended forever mid-fall. A thin trickle of water drips over the
edge, leaving behind a microscopic layer of mineral deposits to form
the next cascade. There is a mystical, ethereal quality to this place.
Kids played in the pools and
everyone crawled all over the site, testing the
water with their hands and taking endless
Just as the sun
started to come out,
giving the whole place
a wonderful glow, it
was time to jump back
into the van with our
tour buddies to make
the trek to the
Zapotec ruins of Mitla.
One of the highlights of this tour was meeting the other folks that
were along for the ride with us. Three charming young women
from England filled the back seat and an older Danish couple was
up front, giving our van a decidedly European flair. The English
gals were in their first week of a three month trans-Central America
tour, and we all bubbled with excitement as we talked about the
places we'd been and where we wanted to go.
Mitla's construction was begun by the Zapotecs in more or less
the same era as Monte Alban, a few hundred years BC,
although Mitla's first inhabitants settled there much earlier. And
like Monte Alban, Mitla was built by the Zapotecs but ended up
under Mixtec control. However, in the years between 750 AD
and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, Mitla was thriving
whereas Monte Alban was already in decline.
Monte Alban is built
on a hilltop while
Mitla is built in a
valley, and Monte
Alban was a city
made up of pyramids
whereas Mitla has
long and narrow
and appears possibly
to have been palatial
housing for the most
noble families as well
as a religious center. Mitla was still functioning when the Spanish arrived (the Zapotec
population in all the outlying areas was some 500,000 people by then), and after
determining that the high priest at Mitla was similar to the pope back home, the
conquistadors promptly took up residence, dismantled and sacked as many of the buildings
as they could, and used the stones to build a church on top of one end of the ruins.
Just as stunning as the massive
pyramids at Monte Alban is the
incredibly fine stonework of the
frescoes at Mitla. Each wall is
trimmed in intricately detailed
stonework patterns, all of which
were made by cutting perfectly
sized stones that fit onto one
another like jigsaw puzzle pieces,
held together without mortar.
Huge lintels lie across very low doorways,
and the corners of each room are made
with a dovetail style stone joinery, again
This construction is so finely and so tightly fitted, and
the walls are so massive, that a 1931 8.0 earthquake 50
miles away that damaged 70% of the buildings in the
city of Oaxaca didn't even make these buildings flinch.
"Mitla" means "Place of the dead" in the Aztec's Nahuatl
language, and the Zapotec name for the area has the
same meaning. The early Spanish conquistadors
interpreted the name as "Hell," and there are several underground tombs -- all
highly decorated with the intricately interwoven stone patterns -- where nobles and
high priests were buried and sent off to the afterlife, wether it was up to the
heavens or down.
I could have easily roamed
these ruins for quite a bit
longer, but the van was on a
mission, and this time it was
headed to a Mezcal tasting.
Actually, in hindsight, giving
up a few more moments with
the ancients for a quick
education in the art of
wasn't such a
Like France's Champagne which is made only in Champagne,
Mexico's Tequila is made only in Tequila, about 40 miles outside of
Guadalajara, and a few other areas designated by Mexican law. All
other identical libations made from the blue agave plant in other parts
of Mexico are called Mezcal instead. And there are hundreds!
We stopped at a little place that still
makes Mezcal the old fashioned way.
After about 7 or 8 years the agave plant
has a pineapple looking core that is
removed, trimmed and cooked over a
It is then crushed using a heavy wheel
going round and round, driven by a
horse who has the fun job of walking in
circles. This creates a stringy material
that looks like hay that gets boiled in a
kiln. Eventually it is strained and placed
in casks to ferment.
The effect of the length of fermentation
was the amazing part to me. Blanco
("white") mezcal -- the common, cheap
transparent stuff -- is aged less than two
months and burns a fiery path down your
throat and tastes terrible. Reposado
("rested") mezcal is aged 2 months to two
years in an oak barrel and is barely
tolerable. Añejo ("aged") mezcal is aged
for one to three years, barely tickles your
throat and has a pleasant flavor.
Extra Añejo ("extra aged") is aged for three
years or more, goes down waaaay too
easy, and tastes terrific. It's a good thing
they were serving this stuff in thimble sized cups.
We tried some "crema" mezcals too, that is, flavored mezcals
made with cream. The mango one was good enough that the
Danes purchased a bottle to take home with them, while we
and the English gals sampled the pineapple and some others I
forget now (we were having fun!). The folks at the counter
would happily have kept on serving, but we needed to be able
to find our way back to the van, so we eventually said
"Enough!" and staggered off.
It was a great day on the outskirts of Oaxaca and the perfect
conclusion to our inland travels. But Groovy was waiting for us back in Huatulco and it
was time for us to face the much feared crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and head
to Puerto Chiapas and then inland to Antigua, Guatemala.
Find Oaxaca (Mitla) on Mexico Maps.
Resort rides on Tangolunda Bay.
Fish swim around our legs.
Wonderful photo ops abound, but the little alcoves
aren't 100% private!
Coast Guard cutter at Huatulco's cruise ship dock.
Cute harbor town of Santa Cruz.
Zapotec weaver Martín
Ledí says a few
Zapotec words to us.
La India cove is tucked behind some rocks.
Tourists enjoy a day on the water.
Turtle tracks in the sand.
Wonderful walking path to town.
La Crucecita was built to
resemble a classic Mexican
The buildings are brightly painted.
The vibe in La Crucecita is not as
welcoming as we expected.
Thick green vegetation abounds.
Hardwood from the Huanacaxtle tree.
Zapotec artifact found in the
A small Zapotec pyramid temple in Copalita.
Mark loves these trees.
Could be Treebeard's buddy.
Beautiful stone walking path climbs
through the jungle to an overlook.
Looking down at the shore outside Tangolunda Bay.
A moth poses on a window at the
Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico
Early February - There are 7 main bays in Las Bahías de Huatulco and
an assortment of coves, making the total number of bays and coves
anywhere from 9 to 12, depending on what guide you read and who you
talk to. Each one is unique and has a charm of its own. Some are
protected as part of a national park, some are lined with a row of palapa
beach bars, and some have been developed for tourism.
Tangolunda Bay was set aside by Mexico's tourism
agency Fonatur for resort development, and we anchored
first at the west end of the bay and then moved down to
the east end where we found a little less swell and a lot
less noise from the resorts. There was lots of color and action on the beach, and even the fish made themselves readily
available for easy viewing if you stood in the water up to your knees.
This is a rocky and craggy coast, and we climbed over several rock
outcroppings to get from one part of Tangolunda's main beach to the next.
These rocks made perfect photo-ops for all of us tourists. One afternoon
we climbed around a corner to find a simmering scene: an amorous young
fellow was taking photos of his girlfriend nude in the sand. It wasn't quite as
private a spot as they'd thought!
These were quiet days that
rolled from one into the next
until we weren't quite sure
what day it was and couldn't
exactly recall what we had
done just two days prior.
Wandering the resort grounds
and watching the jet-skis and
catamarans zoom around while kids
played in the water were the simple
pleasures of our resort-side living.
One day we heard a very amusing
exchange on the radio between an
arriving US Coast Guard ship and
the Port Captain on shore. In
Spanish, the Coast Guard
announced their arrival and asked
permission to dock. The Port
Captain asked for
the name of the Coast Guard ship and the name of the captain.
The American speaker seemed to be confused by these questions
but when the Port Captain switched to perfect English he got no
response. Apparently the Coast Guard had gone in search of a
more fluent Spanish speaker on board and had left the mic
unattended. Finally a new Coast Guard voice began speaking in
rapid Spanish, and their business was completed. The Coast
Guard cutter made quite a sight at the cruise ship dock.
The charming waterfront harbor town at the heart of the Bays of
Huatulco is called Santa Cruz, or "Holy Cross." This cute
harbor is unlike any other we've seen on the Pacific Mexican
coast. Filled with small boats and surrounded by a tight ring of
condos, villas and restaurants, it is a great place to take a stroll.
This is a popular sport
fishing area, and a
guide had just finished
yet another successful
trip with a boatload of guests.
He was making quick work of
carving up three huge dorados to
send home with them.
Around the corner we met Martín, a Mexican of
Zapotec descent who is carrying on the weaving
tradition of his family. His parents, siblings,
cousins, aunts and uncles are all weavers in the
mountain town of Teotitlan del Valle 150 miles
inland. It is a place known for the colorful woolen
rugs the local families weave by hand. Bringing
his craft and his loom to the coast, he set up shop
in the artisan's area in Santa Cruz. We hadn't heard of these weavers and knew little
about Zapotecs, and were amazed to discover that not only was Zapotec a vibrant, living
language, but he could speak it. I asked if he'd been raised speaking Zapotec, and he
said that he'd learned it in school -- after he learned English!
As I struggle daily to converse in Spanish, speaking with less
fluency than a six-year-old, I am always impressed by anyone that
speaks a language other than their mother tongue. A young
Zapotec woman named Ledí whom we had met a few days earlier
agreed. Her parents and grandparents all spoke Zapotec, but had
never spoken it to her when she was growing up. She taught us
the few words that she did know. We later learned that Zapotec is
similar to Chinese in that it is a tonal language
where word meanings and tenses change with
After a few days of anchoring next to the little
harbor town of Santa Cruz and enjoying some
in-town activity, we went out to one of the more
remote bays in the National Park. La India cove
is a tiny nook tucked behind some rocks that
offers a calm refuge for two or three boats.
Every day the party boats would arrive from
town, bringing tourists out to walk on the golden sand beach and
snorkel the coral reefs.
They would disappear as the sun lowered in the sky and we would
have the cove to ourselves. Walking along the neighboring beach
Playa Chachacual one morning, we saw what looked like 4-wheeler
tracks running up and down the sand to the water's edge. On closer
inspection they were sea turtle tracks. At night the mother turtles
would paddle up through the sand to lay their eggs. One morning
some rangers with big sacks came to the beach to collect the eggs to
take them to a nearby turtle sanctuary.
The quiet and solitude of this pretty cove
made simple things seem very special.
Even the waves had a jewel like quality.
Before the string of bays was converted into
a tourism destination, the tiny harbor town of
Santa Cruz was just a fishing village and there was nothing else around. When the Mexican government
started their development project in the mid-80's, they relocated the villagers inland about a mile to a new town
they built called La Crucecita. This made way for resorts, condos and upscale living for tourists on the waterfront.
They also developed an estuary into a marina and built wide roads between the two towns and the marina. Along
the center of the roads there is a big grassy median with a
wonderful sidewalk that is shaded by rustling palms. We
moved Groovy into the marina for a few days and enjoyed
many walks into the two towns.
La Crucecita has been hailed by some tourists as "the
cleanest town in Mexico." It was built to look like a
traditional Mexican town, complete with a pretty town
square, band stand and park benches.
The buildings are cute and brightly painted, and every
restaurant has hamburgers and pizza on the menu.
Of course Mexicans love those foods too, although they
like them with a special flair. We had to laugh when we
read the ingredients for the "Kansas" pizza offered at one
shop: tuna, mushroom and onion. The "Arizona" pizza was
hardly better: ham, mushrooms & jalapeños. But it was the
"Texas" pizza that really
got our stomachs
rolling: bacon, beans,
jalapeños. On pizza?
The odd thing we
noticed in this self-
perfect little town was
that the people didn't
seem very happy or friendly. We have
grown used to the big smiles, warm
greetings and general contentment of the
Mexicans we meet on the street. It is a happy culture. But the towns in Huatulco didn't
seem so. Eyes were averted as we passed and greetings were non-existent. Too often
the mood was downright sullen. Fonatur built a town that has the right look, but a tourism
agency can't give a community soul.
However, although this
manufactured fantasy town is just a
few years old, it sits in a region whose roots go much further back. A few
miles out of town we found the Copalita Eco-Archaeolocal Park, a gem of
a park that features ancient Zapotec ruins and artifacts along with a terrific
jungle hike to some vast ocean views.
The vegetation here is
exotic and thick, and while
we waited for a taxi we
stared in wonder across
the street at the blanket of
green that lay in a thick
carpet over lumpy shapes.
The park's buildings and some walkways were
built using a local hardwood from the
Huanacaxtle tree -- the same tree for which the
very popular town among cruisers, "La Cruz de
Huanacaxtle" near Puerto Vallarta, is named.
The main building houses a small museum with
Zapotec artifacts that were dug up at the temple ruins
onsite as well as artifacts from Mixtec ruins nearby.
Outside we followed the walking path to the ruins of a
small pyramid-shaped temple.
Following the path further, it took us
through all kinds of crazy vegetation. Mark
is a born tree-hugger and a true man of the
woods, so he was in his element as he
stepped among the vines. Some of the
trees seemed worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien's
curious tree people, the ents.
Exotic bird calls accompanied us as we followed the elegant
stone path up and up and up until we came to a vast overlook
where the ocean crashed on the rocks below.
The path then took us back down into wetlands where we saw
huge, strange leaves, and tiny, colorful flowers.
Of all those beautiful wonders of nature,
my favorite sighting for the day was the
moth on the window back at the main park building.
Unlike all the gorgeous birds we had seen who refused to
stand still for the camera, this guy was totally relaxed on
his bit of window, and he stayed put for us.
After all of this low-key coastal activity, we tucked Groovy into her slip for a few days and
hopped on a bus to visit the dynamic inland city of Oaxaca.
Find Huatulco on Mexico Maps.
to see more cruising posts from this area!
Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.
A local school group is on a field trip.
The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.
Elaborate clay urn.
Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the
A vendor shows us his
The vendors are everywhere.
Zapotec ball court.
Monte Alban pyramid.
Looking across the central plaza.
"You are here" in Zapotec.
"Los Danzantes" - Captured
rival leaders castrated &
ready for sacrifice.
School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.
Now they can sit still for a class picture.
Restored pyramid building.
Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.
Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting
them in the walls.
Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo
Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.
Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.
Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.
Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7
Clay sculpted urn.
God of old age and wisdom (note
the wrinkled skin).
Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico
Mid-February, 2012 - Just six miles outside of Oaxaca are the
outstanding and thought provoking ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte
Alban. We took a public bus to get there and found the first museum
room filled with carved stones. The carvings featured crazy looking
animals and people.
We came in right behind a
school group, and I was as
intrigued by this group as
by the carved stones. It
was a Saturday and this
was obviously an exciting
field trip for them. A
museum guide gave them a rousing talk about the Zapotecs, the original builders
of Monte Alban (around 500 BC) and their gods who were depicted in the stone
carvings. All the kids were extremely attentive, taking notes and answering his
He explained what a lot of the carvings represented. Most were gods
of various things, recognizable by certain characteristics like a beaked
nose, a particular arrangement of feathers on the head or wrinkled
eyes. To my amazement, when the guide asked the group which god
a particular image represented, their hands shot up. They knew.
There were lots of little clay sculptures that to
us simply looked other-wordly. But most were
images of Zapotec gods which, like those in
other ancient pantheons, represented war,
old age, wisdom, fertility and other things.
We headed outside and found the Monte
Alban site is about the size of six football
fields and is situated within an overall archaeological zone of about 8
square miles. It sits on a hill at 6,400' elevation, and the Zapotecs
partially leveled the hilltop for its construction. It was the capital city of
the Zapotecs, built away from three other major valley communities of
the time (500 BC). Its population was 17,000 people between 100 BC
and 200 AD, and continued to grow until it reached its zenith between
200 and 500 AD, some 800 or so years after its construction.
Taking the path less traveled, we entered the ruins from a track that went around the back side.
While we were blocked from the sight of other tourists by the back of a large monument, a fellow
stopped us to show us some things he carried in his backpack: little clay copies of some of the
items that have been excavated here
and a few original chips from larger
artifacts. We looked at his stuff
quizzically and he explained that not only had he made the little clay
figures himself, but it was legal for local people to sell any artifacts
they found in their fields while farming. The artifacts in his backpack
were things that had turned up under his hoe in his fields, and he
pointed in the general direction of his
house in the valley.
It all sounded pretty good, until we
rounded a corner into the main plaza of
ruins and discovered that there were
guys like him at every turn. They all
had little clay replicas they had made
themselves, and presumably their
backpacks all held original artifacts they
had dug up in their farm fields. Hmmm.
We asked later at the museum and they
assured us it was definitely not legal to
sell anything original, no matter how
small, and that nothing those guys had
was a real artifact. Oh well, it had made
for an interesting conversation on the
back side of the ruins!!
The first ruin we came across was the
ball court, built in 100 BC. Monte Alban
was the first true Meso-American State
with a government run by the priestly
class. Its economy
was based on tributes
(taxes) paid by the
outlying communities in
the Valley of Oaxaca.
It is thought that the
ball game helped
resolve legal conflicts
and land and tax
disputes and that the
ball was hit with the
elbows, hands and knees.
We were intrigued by the difference between this ball court and
that of Wupatki outside Flagstaff, Arizona, built some 600 years
after Monte Alban. Wupatki's ball court is the northernmost
known ancient ball court, and it is elliptical rather than
rectangular. It is thought that the game there was played with a
curved stick. So it seems the southerners played a soccer-like
game which the northerners transformed, years later, into
The ruins are dramatic.
They squat in quiet
splendor around a central
suite of buildings, all
spaced apart by a large
flat open area.
Some of the
thought to have
Visitors from all over the world ran up and down the stairs of each
building, taking photographs and saying "Wow!" to each other.
Meanwhile the school
group got quite an
education that day. I
asked the teacher if the
kids were of Zaptotec
descent or were from a
nearby. He said no, they
were just from a local
school and the kids
probably had mixed
although of course
some might be
Zapotec. But these ruins are part of the rich legacy of all Oaxacan kids,
whether they trace their routes to the Zapotecs or the Mixtecs who moved into
Monte Alban once the city went into decline, or even the Spanish who came in
later and crushed all things indigenous.
Interestingly, the signs were all in Spanish,
English and Zapotec, including the little
phrase "you are here."
In one area we found the carved stone replicas of the
stones we first saw inside the museum. Created between
350 and 200 BC and now called "Los Danzantes," these
once formed a wall. Today the replicas stand side by side
out in the harsh elements while the originals are inside the
museum. Oddly, the characters are mostly heavyset men
who appear to have been castrated. It is thought that
perhaps they were the leaders of outlying communities who
were captured and then offered up to the gods in sacrifice,
perhaps using the stunning Meso-American method of
carving their still-beating hearts out of their chests and
holding them up to the sky.
Wonderfully gruesome imagery like that will get any kid excited, and the school children were
suddenly let loose and told to run around and get the wiggles out. They ran up and down the
stairs of one of the buildings, shrieking excitedly until they were all tuckered out. Then they
sat obediently for a class picture with their teacher.
Having walked up and down the
very tall stairs of these buildings all
day, we wondered why the small
indigenous people had made
buildings with such tall steps.
Watching the kids line up with their
teacher one possibility became
apparent: they make perfect stadium
seats. The stairs of all the buildings
face the main plaza, so perhaps it was
a good place to watch an event -- or
just eat lunch like the tourists do
As we left Monte Alban we passed one of the buildings that is still in the state in which it was first discovered, before the
archaeological digging and reconstruction began in the 1930's. It made a dramatic contrast to the fully restored buildings that fill
the site today. This suddenly made me realize that what we see at Monte Alban now, like Wupatki and all other restored
archaeological sites, is at best a recreation of its once former glory and is subject to the interpretation and knowledge of its
The center buildings were in the process of being restored, and it was amazing to see the
scaffolding, the pile of carefully numbered stones, and the newly restored wall filled with
numbered stones. It is a painstaking process to bring the site back to its original
magnificence, but you have to wonder at the same time if what we see today is really how it
looked in its heyday. Archaeologists claim the walls were covered with stucco at the time and
were smooth, unlike the raw rock facing we see now. But what else? Was there
landscaping, was the open plaza filled with market stalls and people? The silent stones are
coy with their secrets.
Back in Oaxaca we checked out the
Cultural Center that is located in a
former monastery in back of the
Santo Domingo Cathedral. The
building alone is worth the price of
It not only has a grand courtyard
but has an even grander double
staircase that, together with the
walls and ceiling, is ornamented
with gold leaf.
If you walk through the rooms of
this museum in the correct order,
you are taken through all of
Mexico's history -- from the
Oaxacan perspective --
beginning with the first
indigenous peoples and going
right through to the new
millennium. It is a terrific visual
presentation of the very
convoluted and confusing
history of Mexico, from its
indigenous states, to the
Spanish conquest, to the
revolution, the war of
independence and the world wars. Of course all of this happened
right alongside the technological advances that have brought
humanity to where we are today, and the domestic tools and weaponry of
the last 500 years are all finely displayed.
We managed to go through the
museum in zig-zag order, passing
through most rooms backwards, from
later years to earlier years, thus picking
up tid-bits of history in a rather jumbled
chronology. Oops. It really didn't
matter, though, as the museum is
absolutely fascinating no matter what
order you go through it.
Over at Monte Alban archaeologists
discovered several tombs that were filled with fantastic
Mixtec artwork. The word "Mixtec" comes from the
Nahuatl word for "Cloud People," which gives a
wonderful image of the people that moved into Monte Alban after the
Zapotecs. They remodeled some of the buildings and created lots of
delicate sculptures and jewelry. One tomb in particular, Tomb #7, was the
richest discovery of artifacts in Meso-America to date. The Zapotecs had
used the tomb in their time too, but the Mixtecs buried one of their most
prominent leaders in that tomb and sent him off to the afterlife accompanied
by a boatload of treasure.
From fine filigree gold jewelry to cut crystal glass to endless sculpted clay
urns, this leader met his maker surrounded by worldly wealth. What great
fortune that this one tomb was not robbed and emptied by the conquering
Spanish like so many other tombs in other places.
It was a dizzying day of culture and history and relics from an era and from
peoples we had known nothing about. I came away shaking my head, trying
to get it straight in my mind. "Okay," I said to Mark, "So first it was built by
the Zapotecs. Then they were later replaced by the Mixtecs. And those
guys eventually succumbed to the Aztecs…"
"Yup," he added. "And then came the Discotecs and
last of all the Village People."
So goes our anthropological education in Oaxaca,
which we continued with a trip to the ancient Zapotec
palace ruin, Mitla.
Find Oaxaca (Monte Alban) on Mexico Maps.
Cobblestone colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.
A band plays pops tunes.
Balloon vendor outside the
A marching band shows up out of nowhere.
Kids proudly show off brilliant
Not a hair out of place.
A street vendor strikes a deal on her fruit.
Schoolkids play McCartney's "Yesterday."
9-year-old Chiclet vendor
Julia has a priceless grin...
…but she has been taught it's
worth 50 pesos.
Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance.
Bird of Paradise.
"Sunburned Tourist" tree.
Organ Pipe Cactus.
"Marriage" has nasty thorns and poisonous fruit.
Valentine's hearts show up all
A wedding at the Santo Domingo
The gracious bride invited the
onlookers into the church.
This little Chiclet-selling girl was transfixed.
Oaxaca, Mexico (2)
Mid-February, 2012 - Oaxaca enchanted us. We were visiting during the
week that includes my birthday, Valentine's Day and our anniversary, and
it was a special treat to be staying in a delightful little hotel in such a
spirited and radiant city.
The Zócalo is where it's at in this town, and every time we wandered over
there we found something -- or many things -- going on, especially in the
evenings. A little orchestra was playing in the bandstand one night to an
appreciative audience. They weren't the Berlin Philharmonic, and they
sounded much like any small town band, but they played with enthusiasm
and did all the old standard pops favorites that get the little kids around
the bandstand jigging and jumping and running.
A few steps away, the balloon
vendors were lined up, and behind
them the juggling clowns had their
audience in stitches.
Suddenly we heard the loud music of
a marching band in the distance.
They paraded right past, sweeping
us and everyone else up in their
wake. The band in the bandstand
seemed to try to raise their volume a
little, but it was aural pandemonium
as the two bands played their
hearts out just 100 yards
Behind the marching band
came a dizzying array of
young kids in brilliant Mexican
costumes. The girls had
primped for hours, getting
every hair and ribbon in
place, and even the teenage
boys got into it, with brilliant
satin shirts and classic
sombreros on their heads.
Meanwhile the band in the
bandstand kept on going, and the jugglers did their
thing, and the street vendors bumped through the
crowd selling their wares. Fresh fruit snacks are a
popular item to sell, and across from us an old man
bought some munchies for himself and his wife.
A stunning young girl wandered towards us on the arm of her very
proud boyfriend. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos of her,
which she enjoyed, and then I asked her what the parade was all
about. She explained that it was the 50th anniversary of the
founding of her school, Instituto Eulogio Gillow. There was a
stage set up and proud parents filled all the folding chairs and
stood in rows behind and around them.
Suddenly some kids got up on the
stage, the girls with recorders and the
boys with guitars. The announcer said
they would play "Yesterday" by "John
Lennon" (apologies to Paul
McCartney). Mark's ears perked right
up, since he is a Beatles fan from way
back, and we were treated to a
charming rendition of the song.
Just beyond the
circle of school
madness of the Zócalo continued. The
juggling clowns had lost some of their
audience when the parade went by, but they
had won it back with their crazy antics. The
outdoor sidewalk cafes surrounding the
square were filled with happy folks imbibing
and eating, and the band in the bandstand
forged ever onwards, slightly out of tune but
so very charming to watch.
The kids from the school milled around in
animated groups, waiting their turns on stage. Once up there they danced, sang songs and made music, while the parents'
video cameras took it all in. It was amazing to me that a group of young teenagers would be so excited to wear traditional
costumes, strut around, and follow the instructions of their teachers who hustled them into groups and lines and got them up on
stage at the appropriate moments.
The vendors seemed well used to all this action. The Zócalo has stuff like this happening every night. Sure, it was a
Saturday night, but the press of people, the cacophony of music and noise, and the sight of couples ambling hand in
hand, kids smooching under the trees and prim and proper waiters serving patrons at the more elegant restaurants
around the square were all just part of the scene.
Many of the street vendors had their kids in tow -- kind of. The babies were strapped to
the moms' backs, alternately sleeping and looking around. The older kids were on their
own -- but with a job to do selling items out of their baskets. These ultra slick saleskids
are really well trained. They sell boxes of Chiclets, candies, bobble toys and cigarettes.
More than one patron at a restaurant bought a cigarette from an eight-year-old kid, getting
a light from the kid as well. Cigarettes are 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), and earlier
we had seen the moms buying the cigarette packs at the little convenience stores around
town. No wholesale pricing there, but they mark up their product pretty darn well.
Money is what its all about with these kids. A little brother
and sister stopped by our table as we sipped on a beer.
They were very cheeky and lots of fun. The boy was 9 (I
couldn't quite catch his name) and his little sister Julia was
7. They were absolutely insistent that we buy some of their
very grubby looking candy. How long it had been dragged
around town in their basket and handled by their dirty
fingers I have no idea. We snapped a few photos of them
and they instantly had their hands out. "50
pesos!" ($4). We laughed. I put my camera up to
take another shot and Julia covered here face with
her hands. I clicked anyways and she shoved her
hand at me again. "50 pesos!"
I teased her and said that she had to pay me 100
pesos for talking to me. Her little lopsided missing-toothed grin got even bigger and she
rolled her eyes in exasperation, laughing. I don't know if any other gringo tourist ever had
ever challenged her like that before, and she was stumped to find a response. "50 pesos!"
she said again, seriously, hand out. We went back and forth like that for a while, giggling. I
asked her when she was going to finish working in the Zócalo and go home to bed. She
shrugged. Things wind down around 9 pm, but she was a street urchin and was probably
used to staying out however long mom needed her to be selling Chiclets.
They hung at the edge of our table for a while, refusing to let go of a potential sale. Mark
finally came up with the perfect compromise on the 50 peso issue. He pushed the remains of our little dish of peanuts in Julia's
direction. "Have some peanuts!" he said. Like greased lightning, she leapt into action. She grabbed a napkin, spread it out on
the table, scooped up every last peanut with her sticky fingers, snatched a wedge of lime off another dish and plopped it on the
peanuts, wrapped up the napkin, and shoved it in her basket. In a flash she and her brother vanished into the night.
The Zócalo is the heart of the action at night, but all of Oaxaca's
historic district is wonderful by day too. We wandered through the
Zócalo the next morning and it was perfectly neat and tidy without a
single trace of the mayhem that had gone on the night before. The
stage was gone, the chairs for the audience had disappeared, the
entire square was completely swept, and just a few people milled
around with coffee cups in their hands. But by nightfall the whole
thing came to life once again. The stage was set up for a different
performance by a different group, chairs were set out for the
audience, and street vendors wandered through it all.
The Santo Domingo Cathedral has a beautiful botanical garden
behind it, and we decided to take a tour. Mark loves photographing
flowers, and he got some wonderful shots.
English tours are two hours long and happen just a few
times a week while Spanish tours are an hour long every
hour every day. We opted for a Spanish tour, but
because there was just one other gringo couple and an
Austrian who spoke fluent English (and Spanish and
French), the guide spoke to us all in English. What a
lucky break for us. When our tour finished there were 50
gringos waiting for the next tour which would be officially
in English. I wondered how this huge group would
manage on the tiny garden paths.
The Oaxaca region is very dry, so most of the
gardens were desert types of plants. The
botanists at the garden work hard to propagate the species, and
many of the plants they have are endangered. Those plants have
their flowers and seed pods wrapped in gauze so they don't
accidentally get cross-pollinated and hybridize with something else.
The best part of the tour for us was the funny nicknames of some of
the plants. The "Sunburned Gringo" tree has an outer layer of bark
that peels incessantly.
The "Monkey's Desperation" tree
looks like it would be a wonderful
tree for a monkey to climb. It is tall with long limbs
spreading wide. But the base is covered with hard
little thorns that would prevent even the hardiest
monkey from shimmying up.
The "Air cactus" is a "guest plant" (not a parasite or a
symbiotic plant). It arrives in the air and settles on a
tree, getting all its nutrients from the air without ever
bothering its host except for sitting in its lap.
The "Organ Pipe Cactus" is familiar
to us from Arizona, and in this
garden it had been planted as
fencing along two paths.
The "Marriage Tree" is a nasty
looking thorny thing. The needles
are razor sharp and plentiful, and it
produces poisonous fruit.
Everyone in our group got a good
chuckle out of that tree...
Speaking of love and marriage, we were in Oaxaca for
Valentine's Day, which is also our anniversary. Heart decorations
were everywhere, and love was definitely in the air.
As we came around the side of the cathedral we noticed a group
had gathered in front of the church. They were very well dressed
-- and there was a bride in the middle. "Wow!" I yelled, running
to get a good angle with my camera. A wedding in the cathedral!!
OMG. What a place to get married. For all you future brides and
past brides, this was the wedding many of us dreamed of at one
time or another, complete with a frothy, frilly white dress and the
grandest, most gold-filled, most magnificent cathedral imaginable as a backdrop.
I ran around like a madwoman taking photos. All the tourists on the plaza started
closing in on the church too. Most of us were enthralled little girls, seeing our princess
dreams unfold in front of us. Chiclet-selling girls, white haired heavyset women visiting
from foreign countries, and young girls on the eve of such an event themselves all
pressed towards the cathedral.
This was clearly a very wealthy family, and the father was the
image of pride as he shook hands with his guests around him.
The bride welcomed everyone warmly. Her friends, all of them
hot babes in stiletto heels and tight, short, brightly colored
dresses, emerged from fancy cars and exchanged kisses with
her. More than one was a young mom, walking up pushing a
stroller just to hand it off to an older lady waiting outside the
church, giving her instructions for how to keep the baby
entertained during the coming hours of celebration.
The music began and the group dwindled to just the wedding
party as the guests entered the cathedral. The throng of
enchanted women tourists and vendors hung back just enough
to give them a little space. All of a sudden the bride glanced
over her shoulder at all of us and waved us in. She looked
straight at me and motioned for me to come into the cathedral.
"Me?" I pointed to myself incredulously. She nodded
vigorously. I stepped over the threshold and received a strong
handshake from her dad. Holy Mackerel, I was in the middle of
a wedding at this cathedral, wearing shorts and a tourist hat.
The other tourists all filed in, many genuflecting as they entered,
and we filled the back half of the church. How totally cool. The
bride and her father made their way down this most splendid of
aisles and the service began. I didn't feel right about staying too
long, so I snuck back out once the priest got going in earnest.
As I left I noticed one of the Chiclet-selling girls outside the
entrance of the cathedral looking in. The invitation had been for
all of us to enter, but she had stayed back. The longing in her
face was touching -- and heartbreaking.
I found Mark at the
far end of the plaza
sitting on a wall. I
started talking a
mile a minute,
thrilled and amazed
by the whole scene.
He smiled and
He just didn't get
into weddings like I
did. The princess
thing is a little beyond him, although I tried my best to explain it. He hadn't
really known how when you're a little girl wearing a full skirt you have to
spin around and watch it flare out. He hadn't ever dreamed of being
Cinderella, parading across a grand room in an elegant dress, nor of being
Prince Charming for that matter. But then, I've seen him ooh and aah over
muscle cars from the 1960's like they were the sexiest of pinup models.
How many old cars can you look at and get excited about? Apparently, all
of them. How many princess weddings can make a girl's heart soar?
Definitely all of them.
Oaxaca held us tightly in its clutches and we still had more to see, espeically the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.
Our bus to Oaxaca.
Snacks for sale at a bus stop.
Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.
Poinsettias and tall trees in
Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.
Santo Domingo Cathedral.
We walk down towards the historic district.
Oaxaca is loaded with charm.
One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.
Flowers adorn many
There are great places for a snack and a view
all over town.
Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.
This church has two doors in its
The front of the public library.
The courtyard inside the public library.
Fancy stairs from the courtyard to
the second story balcony in the
Self-explanatory in every
Clusters of strange sculptures of
people spill all over the sidewalks.
Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.
Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!
The overriding theme is gold.
A portion of the ceiling.
Street performers abound.
Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.
Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.
Home of former president Benito Juarez.
Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.
Two tourists make a video of
themselves in front of the
Oaxaca, Mexico (1)
Mid-February, 2012 - We left the seaside life of Huatulco behind for a
few days to get a glimpse of the colonial mountain city of Oaxaca
(pronounced "Wahaka"). There are two ranges of mountains to cross,
and there are several ways to make the trek. A $12 ride in a small van
will take you on sickness-inducing switchbacks up treacherous single lane
mountain roads, but gets you there in six hours. A daytime $23 bus goes
around the worst mountain passes but makes a lot of stops, getting you
there in 10 hours. A $28 overnight bus makes the trip in 8 hours with just
one stop. Or you can fly for $100.
Preferring comfortable budget travel and
sleeping in a bed, we opted for the day
bus. This was a fun way to go with lots of
action. At one stop a lady with a basket of snacks on her head showed up at the bus and
started calling out her wares in a shrill voice. At another stop a security guard boarded the bus
and video-taped everyone's faces. At a military checkpoint the men were all herded off the bus
while the womenfolk were left on board. This seemed a little odd until we found out it was just
so the brawny guys could lift the heavy luggage out of the baggage compartment for inspection.
In the end they all re-boarded the bus carrying chips and drinks they'd gotten at a little roadside
stand. The womenfolk were happy about that! But the bus company didn't leave us hungry for
long. At lunch time the bus stopped for half an hour at a cute little roadside restaurant.
It was a long drive, but the views in
the mountains approaching Oaxaca
were quite nice. These mountains
are a major Mescal manufacturing
region, and many mountainsides
were a patchwork of agave cactus
We arrived in the early evening and,
after dropping off our bags at the
hotel, we dashed out to the Zócalo,
the main town square which is the
heart of the city. Huge trees
dominate this city park, and
poinsettias were planted thickly
The square is actually made up of two
squares adjoined at the corners, and all
the edges of these squares are lined with
outdoor eateries. As darkness fell the
place came alive.
eating, selling stuff,
buying stuff, talking
on the phone and necking.
You name it, it was
happening at the Zócalo.
Towering above it all, the
Santo Domingo Cathedral
lit up the night.
We stayed at the Hotel Casa del Sótano, a
charming little hotel built around a courtyard with a
pretty outdoor breakfast terrace. We drank our
morning coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice
looking out over the city as it woke up, and we
were utterly enchanted. This is a walking town if
there ever was one, and right after breakfast we
hoofed it straight down to the old town district.
Oaxaca oozes charm from every ornate balcony, wrought iron
gate and rooftop terrace. It is a city with a past and a soul.
Built in 1521 by the Spanish on an Aztec miitary site, the flavor
is both historic and hip at the same time.
We couldn't stop the cameras from clicking. Everywhere
we turned there was something begging to be framed
The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian
only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with
Flowers hung from the
balconies, and Mark was
fascinated by the crazy door
knockers on many of the
And there are a zillion places to get a bite to eat
with a view onto the city streets.
Many buildings have a very
large front door with a
smaller utility door cut into it.
The little door is the one you
use to get inside.
One of the churches has two utility doors cut
into its main front gate.
All kinds of things can reside behind these
imposing doors. Usually it is a courtyard. In
the public buildings we found the doors were
often open, and we wandered in and out of
quite a few. The city library has a lovely
One of the universities -- Universidad
Autónomo "Benito Juárez" de Oaxaca --
has a plain courtyard but a grand, curvy
staircase going to the second floor.
There are several universities in this city, so there are young people everywhere. It
is also a favorite international tourist destination, and we met folks from Austria,
Denmark and England during our stay. To satisfy these groups of people there are
enchanting little restaurants, coffee shops and bars everywhere. Just in case the
tourists visiting Cafe Brújulu don't speak Spanish, their bathroom signs need no
As we made our way over to the Santo Domingo Cathedral, we found little groups
of odd statues standing around in front of many of the shops. Hundreds of them
filled a huge area in front of the church and spilled over into the sidewalks all
We later learned that Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago
created these sculptures called "2501 Migrants" to
represent the 2500 people (plus himself) from his
hometown of Teoculcuilco that have left town to seek a
better fortune elsewhere. He first placed the sculptures in
his hometown as a spiritual replacement of the people who
had left. Then he lined them up in the desert between
Mexico and the USA along the most common migration route.
Now they stand around the Oaxaca's beautiful cathedral plaza.
intriguing statues for
a while we went
inside the cathedral.
Wow! Every inch of
the interior is
trimmed in fancy
gold leaf designs.
Some 60,000 sheets
of 23.5 carat gold
leaf were used in its
construction, and the
walls and ceilings
sparkle with gold.
I couldn't help but wonder, as the sunlight
glinted off the baroque patterns, whether this
gold had once been the artwork of the
Zapotecs or Aztecs or other indigenous people,
melted down by the Spanish to
decorate the church. Or had it
been mined by the Spanish
I asked several guides and the
consensus was that it came from
the local gold mines that had
originally perked Spain's interest
in Oaxaca and wasn't the result
of melted ancient treasures.
As it turns out, the Oaxaca area mountains are still rich with
gold, and the Canadian-owned mine Natividad is
busy extracting it today.
But the real treasure in Oaxaca is not the gold or
even the architecture but the funky spirit that
makes this city a fun place to be. Street
performers and artists strut their stuff on the
streets, and school kids hang out under the trees
by the cathedral.
There is an artisans district
where art of all kinds is for sale
on the sidewalks, along with
literary books in many languages
and hard-to-find music CD's.
These aren't the usual cheap
bootleg hawkers found in other
towns, but university types
selling off parts of their
collections for pocket change.
Wandering down a side street we bumped into the
boyhood home of Benito Juárez, Mexico's only
indigenous president (1858-1864). A pure Zapotec, he
is revered for education reforms that are still in effect
today and for spearheading the separation of church
and state in Mexico.
Being the capital of the state of Oaxaca
as well as a university town, politics play
an important role here. Strolling down
the street we suddenly saw a parade of
scarlet clad women marching towards us
They were the Triqui indigenous people, and they were staging a sit-in in front
of the governor's building in an effort to gain support from the recently elected
governor for their cause, which, from what we could gather, involved land
disputes and violence in their hometown.
There was a vibrance and an energy
here in Oaxaca that made the Triqui
protests, the migrant statues and the
brutal history of the Spanish conquests all blend together as brilliant facets of humanity's
unstoppable ambition and its dramatic quest for happiness and prosperity.
This town is so photogenic that we saw tourists everywhere whipping out cameras to
capture snapshots to take home. One couple got particularly creative and set up a tripod
with a video camera in front of the cathedral. They pointed the camera at themselves with
the church in the background and talked for quite some time about how much their travels
meant to them and what great experiences they had had so far in Mexico, ending their
conversation with a "hello" to friends and family back home.
We sure were loving Oaxaca's action and color, and there was no need for us to leave
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.
Highway to Mexico's cruising grounds
North Pacific mainland coast.
The bridge between the Sea of Cortez and the southern Pacific coast.
"Costa Alegre" - the "Cheerful Coast" - Chamela to Manzanillo.
The northern part of a popular Mexico cruising ground.
Costa Grande - the "Big Coast" - Manzanillo to Zihuatanejo.
The southern part of the premier cruising grounds on Mexico's Pacific coast.
Sea of Cortez.
Called "the world's aquarium" by Jacques Cousteau.
Southern Sea of Cortez.
La Paz Anchorages, Sea of Cortez.
Loreto - South Anchorage, Sea of Cortez.
Loreto - North Anchorages, Sea of Cortez.
Bahía Concepcion, Sea of Cortez.
S. Mexico / Guatemala / El Salvador / Belize
Maps of Mexico for Cruisers: Pacific Coast & Sea of Cortez Anchorages
This page contains detailed maps of the west coast (Pacific coast) of Mexico, including the most popular cruising anchorages
and destinationa. If you are planning a cruise to Mexico on your own boat, be sure to check out Mexico Cruising Tips (1) and
Coastal Mexico can be thought of as having four different primary cruising regions. As we traveled along the coast we
encountered them in this order (links go to our pics and stories):
● The Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula that runs down the western side of Baja from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas.
● The northern Pacific mainland coast between Mazatlan and Manzanillo, including the Costa Alegre (or "Gold Coast")
which extends along the Pacific mainland's southern coast below Puerto Vallarta
● The Southern Pacific mainland coast which runs from Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa to the Guatemala border.
● The Sea of Cortez where the majority of the beauty lies along the eastern shore of the Baja peninsula.
For cruisers, the 750 miles long Pacific side of the Baja coast is like a
highway to the prime Mexican cruising grounds. It is predominantly a
downwind passage, as the prevailing winds come out of the northwest.
However, these are not consistent winds, and we found ourselves on all
points of sail and frequently motoring because the wind was too light to
sail. The current and swell also move down the coast, so we were
swept along whether under power or sail. The trip back up this highway
is called the "Baja Bash" because it is against the winds and currents
and folks usually make the journey in the spring when the winds are
strongest, resulting in a very uncomfortable trip.
Mazatlan - Manzanillo
Mexico's best cruising grounds lie in the Sea of
Cortez to the north and along the Pacific mainland
south of Puerto Vallarta. Most of the northern
portion of Mexico's Pacific coast is like a bridge
between these two areas, bounded by a triangle
between the major cities of La Paz, Mazatlan and
Puerto Vallarta, each home to good marinas. The
scenery, layout and quality of the anchorages
relegate this region (in my mind) to being less of a
cruising destination and more of a cruising transit
zone to get between the Sea of Cortez and the
southern Pacific coast cruising grounds, or a "live-
aboard" zone where many cruisers spend months
at one marina or another rather than cruising
between anchorages. Unlike the Sea of Cortez
and the southern mainland Pacific coast, the
distances between the more charming anchorages
of this region are quite long, often requiring an overnight trip.
Most Sea of Cortez crossings take place in this region. The shortest distance is 165 miles between Los Frailes on the eastern
tip of Baja and Mazatlan. The longest passage is 330 miles between Cabo San Lucas and Chamela Bay on the mainland. The
seas in this region can be confused, steep and choppy, as it is the meeting place for the Pacific Ocean (sweeping around Cabo
and up from the southwest) and the Sea of Cortez (rushing down from the northwest). This is particularly true when you travel
the line between Cabo and Chamela, as we found out during 55 hours of being tossed about. In addition, there is a strong
"cape effect" of powerful winds and seas off the cape that juts out between Puerto Vallarta and Chamela, called "Cabo
Corrientes." Passage around this point is best done overnight or in the early morning and at least 5 miles offshore.
Banderas Bay / Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta is at the eastern end of the 60 mile coastline
of Banderas Bay that cuts into the mainland here. Four major
marinas dot this bay and there are a few anchorages on the
bay's north and south coasts. Further north, Mazatlan also
hosts several marinas and some anchorages nearby.
Costalegre / Gold Coast
An attractive cruising ground on the mainland Pacific coast of
Mexico starts in Chamela and continues southeast to Manzanillo. This
area is known to cruisers (especially readers of Pat Rains' Mexico
Boating Guide) as the "Gold Coast." The Costa Alegre includes about
ten anchorages in the fifty mile stretch between Chamela Bay and
Manzanillo Bay. Some anchorages are along beaches that have
little development. Some are on or near busy little tourist towns
full of boutique shops and restaurants. Some front posh resorts,
a few of which welcome cruisers.
In the wintertime the water can hover as low as the low 70's and
the air in the low 80's. Water clarity varies from year to year, with
some years having enough visibility to snorkel and others being
so murky with red tide that you can't swim or make water in the
anchorages. Many anchorages are near fresh water estuaries
that empty into the ocean, further muddying the water. However,
the exuberance and warmth of the local people and the wide
variety of sights to see make for a wonderful stay in this area.
SOUTH PACIFIC COAST - Costa Grande & Costa Sur
The Costa Grande runs south of Manzanillo with the major stops being at Zihuatanejo and its little vacation paradise island, Isla
Ixtapa (labeled "Isla Grande" on some nautical charts). The 200 mile distance between the wonderful anchorages in Manzanillo
Bay and Zihuatanejo Bay is broken up with three anchorages that most sailors skip because they are so rolly that sleep is nearly
impossible. Their logic: if you aren't going to sleep at anchor, you might as well be making miles on your way to your
destination. Although there are really only a few locations to drop the hook, the town of Zihuatanejo and its sophisticated big
sister city of Ixtapa offer enough to keep cruisers busy for weeks. Winter water temps hover in the mid- to high-70's and the air
in the mid-80's.
The Pacific Ocean crashes into the Pacific coast of Mexico (both Baja and the mainland) after traveling thousands of miles,
rendering all Pacific coast anchorages in Mexico (except Barra de Navidad) somewhere between "rather rolly" and "very rolly."
Ordinary walking and moving about the boat becomes a crazy duck wobble. The prevailing winds blow from the northwest,
parallel to the Pacific coast, and most anchorages are wide open bays with wonderful surf-filled beaches. In each one, a small
point juts out into the Pacific at the northwest end of the bay or beach. Tucking in behind this point gives some wind protection,
but the swell usually sneaks in, hitting the boat on the beam. Setting a stern anchor so the boat faces the swell can help, but the
easiest way to avoid the rolly anchorages is to stay in marinas. Many cruisers spend much of their winter cruising season
sampling the lovely Pacific coast marinas.
In this modern era of cruising, an easy way to find the finest
"vacation quality" cruising grounds worldwide is to see where
the Moorings has their charter boat bases. The Moorings
base in La Paz is at Costa Baja Resort Marina, officially
granting this cruising area the status of "excellent." The Sea
of Cortez offers clear turquoise water, abundant wildlife,
exotic desert scenery, and remote anchorages, but it is a
The Sea is most popular in
October/November and April-
June, when air temps are in the
80's to low 90's and water temps
are in the low-70's (spring) to
low-80's (fall). Winter is cold:
overnight low temps dip into the
high-40's and low-50's and water
temps fall to the mid-60's.
Summer is hot: air temps rise to
the low-100's and water temps
can reach the low-90's. It is
because of these extreme hots and colds of
summer and winter that most cruisers visit
the Sea of Cortez in the spring and fall. The
favored cruising area is from La Paz north to
Although the Sea of Cortez is very beautiful
in a rugged and wild kind of way, it is also
subject to severe weather. The saying goes
that for two days of paradise you pay with
one day of hell. The hellish conditions are
brought on by sudden winds and steep
waves that can overpower an anchorage,
either pushing the boat
towards a terrifying "lee
shore" or subjecting it to a
violent beam sea.
The La Paz area offers a lot
of beautiful anchorages within
a 1-4 hour sail of the city.
Most of these are open to the
west and southwest which makes them very vulnerable to the nighttime 25-knot
southwest Coromuel winds and steep waves that blow from dusk til noon in the spring
and summer. They are also subject to Westerlies that blow in during the night like
Coromuels. Light Westerlies combined with a north swell puts the swell on the beam,
creating a rolly night. Many anchorages are also subject to swell during Northers, as
the swell wraps into the anchorages from the west while the boat is held facing north,
making it hit the boat on the beam.
Northers are 3-day 25-35 knot winds that
occur between November and April. In La
Paz harbor a chop develops and boats do
the "La Paz Waltz" where they tend to
swing in different directions and
sometimes bump each other due to their
different responses to wind and current as the tide sweeps in and out of the long
channel. The best protection in a Norther is Bahia Falsa, as the swell tends not to
wrap into the anchorage.
The Loreto area is many cruisers' favorite part of the Sea of Cortez. The sailing
within the bay between Loreto and Isla Carmen can be truly delightful with good wind
and flat seas. The anchorages are scenic and they are close enough together and
varied enough in orientation that if the conditions are bad in one anchorage they are
bound to be better in another. In addition, it is easy to anchor off Loreto in light
conditions, walk into town, and do extensive provisioning for the boat.
Bahía Concepción is a very large enclosed bay that offers pretty and lightly
populated anchorages and flat seas. The ex-pat community is enormous. All of the
beach bungalows on El Burro Cove and Playa Coyote are owned by non-Mexicans.
It is still a remote area, however, where land dwellers get their electrciity from solar
power and wifi internet is hard to find. The bay can be very hot in the summer, as
there is much less breeze within the bay than in other anchorages elsewhere that
are open to the Sea of Cortez.
For cruisers, southern Pacific Mexico is defined by the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 200 mile wide bay between Huatulco (Marina
Chahué) and Puerto Chiapas (Marina Chiapas). Both marinas are ideal places to leave the boat to explore inland.
From Puerto Chiapas a tour of Guatemala
can also be undertaken, starting with an 8
hour bus ride to Guatemala City followed by
a 45 minute taxi ride to the colonial city of
All of these travels go through extremely
mountainous terrain which is why the bus
trips take so long. The distances are not
that far. For instance, it is just 200 miles
from Puerto Chiapas to San Cristóbal, but
the roads are tiny, full of hairpin turns and
speed bumps. Lots little towns crowd the
mountain roads at frequent intervals, most
buses make a lot of stops, and there are
many military checkpoints.
The colonial cities are in the mountains and
the temperature quickly drops from hot,
tropical coastal climes to cool days and
chilly nights in the mountains. The Mayan
region of Palenque and Yaxchilan is in the
jungle where it is very hot and humid.
If you enjoyed this page, you may also like the following pages:
To help you plan your cruise and get you inspired, we created the video series, "Cruising Mexico Off the Beaten Path - Volumes 1-3," shown below. This is a fun-to-watch and easy-to-digest introduction to Mexico from a cruiser's perspective, giving you lots of valuable information that isn't covered by the cruising guides. Each video is available individually at Amazon, either as a DVD or as a download. For discount package pricing on the whole series, visit our page Cruising Mexico Video Series.
Volume 1 (left) reviews the geography, weather and seasons in Mexico and shows you what the best anchorages between Ensenada and Manzanillo are like.
Volume 2 (middle) gives detailed info that can't be found in any of the guidebooks about the glorious cruising ground between Manzanillo and the Guatemala border.
Volume 3 (right) provides all the info you need to get off the boat for an adventure-filled trip to Oaxaca.Our Gear Store also has a boatload of ideas for your cruise!
Happy vacationers break into a chant for us as they pass Groovy.
The "Barrido Marino" sea sweepers take used
motor oil and household trash too!
Acapulco is Nahuatl for "Place of Reeds"
Sea horse on our anchor chain.
Eerie silhouette on the rising sun.
Mark checks our position on the
The sun sets into a moonless night at sea.
Dolphins greet us with great
Puerto Angel is cute but too crowded.
Puerto Angel lighthouse.
Our two boats in Jicaral Cove, Bahías
We share Jicaral cove with Osprey and Turkey Vultures.
This place is teeming with coral.
Neighboring Playa de San Agustín
Clear water and fun palapas at San
Snorkelers at San Agustín
Bahía de San Agustín has unusual rock
Life's a Beach.
Cruise ship "Statendam" takes up most of Santa Cruz Harbor.
View of Santa Cruz from the water.
Low buildings hug the shore against a mountainous backdrop.
Tangolunda Bay in Huatulco.
Tangolunda Bay, Huatulco.
This resort goes for $1,000 USD per night. Yikes!
Catamarans take advantage of the
afternoon breezes in Tangolunda.
We watch the "I Do's" of a young couple on shore.
Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico
Late January, 2012 - Our pretty little spot in Puerto
Marques on the outskirts of Acapulco Bay came to life
one evening when a boatload of young Mexicans
zoomed past in a boat labeled "Corona La #1". We
waved, as usual, becoming one of the sights for their
tour, and suddenly they started waving and chanting
what sounded like a team cheer.
Languid sunny days made us lazy and we kept putting off our departure
for our next 215 mile jaunt to Huatulco. Mark changed the oil in the
engine and transmission one day and at just the right moment the Sea
Sweeper boat ("Barrido Marino") showed up and asked if we had any
trash for them. What luck! They took the used oil off our hands along
with our trash, and then hit up the megayacht parked nearby to take
their trash too. How cool is that: a beautiful free anchorage with free at-
your-boat trash service. No wonder it was hard to leave.
The word Acapulco comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language and means "Place
of Reeds" or "Place where reeds were destroyed." to this day, floating beds of
reeds drift throughout the bay and coastline for miles. Judging by the pile on their
foredeck, the Sea Sweepers picked up more reeds than trash, it seemed.
One day when Mark hauled up the anchor before we went on a daysail he saw the
strangest thing on the chain. It kept swaying and moving around and suddenly he
realized it was a sea horse. "Look at this!" he yelled back to me. I ran up with the
camera just as the little guy unhooked his tail and fell off. But a few chain links
further on, up came another one. He had his tail tightly wrapped around one link of
the chain and he kept moving his body around, looking us over, until he finally
unhitched and fell back into the depths.
One night we were woken by loud, mysterious sounds resounding on the
hull. Going on deck we heard nothing. Back down below we realized it
was the haunting tones of whales singing in the bay. Mornings and
evenings we heard the creaking and scraping noises of equipment being
moved onshore or of a boat's engine or something. Finally on our last
morning we discovered it was the noisy calls of wild green parrots in the
trees next to us. They were flying and climbing all over the branches,
cackling at each other with grating noises. We were amazed there was so
much nature this close to a major city.
When we were finally ready to
leave Acapulco, we left in the pitch
dark before dawn to ensure a daytime arrival in Huatulco some 30+ hours later. The
sun rose as a pink ball in the lightening sky. A few minutes later it became an intense
bright orange orb which made the camera pick up the surrounding sky as black. Some
clouds obscured the ball of fire, and from a distance it looked a bit like a witch on a
broomstick flying across the sun.
This slightly ominous sunrise brought us a day that ultimately held one of the most
disturbing events of our lives. Around two in the afternoon, while motoring along about
10 miles off the coast, some 60 miles south of Acapulco, we were enjoying being
pushed by a two knot current that pegged the speedometer at a thrilling high-8 to 9+
knots. Suddenly Mark spotted something unusual in the water. We stared hard through the binoculars to get a better look.
With gut wrenching knots in our stomachs, we realized we were looking at a dead body.
We turned the boat to approach the body, feeling totally alarmed and freaked out. We were
both shaking as we neared the body. It was a heavyset middle aged or older balding white
man, lying face down in the water. He was wearing a mask and snorkel, fins and booties,
and a shorty type of wetsuit with swim trunks over it. He had on diving gloves and had
clearly been in the water for at least a few days, and probably a week or more. He looked
for all the world like he was peacefully snorkeling along in the middle of the ocean, except
his skin was decomposing and one arm lay limp and twisted at an odd angle by his side.
This is the last thing either of us ever expected to see while cruising. We were edgy,
terrified, and flummoxed about what was the right thing to do. The stench was significant.
We noted the GPS coordinates of the body and instantly began hailing the Mexican Navy.
We tried in English and we tried in Spanish, but there was no response. This is a remote section of the coast and we realized
we hadn't seen a boat or heard a peep on the VHF radio in 8 hours since we first pulled away from Acapulco Bay. There was
no safe anchorage that we could reach before nightfall; the next was 140 miles (21 hours) away.
We continued on our way, hailing the Mexican Navy periodically, to no avail. The sun set into the moonless void of a new moon,
and we moved along in pitch darkness, unable to discern the horizon. All was black in every direction. The canopy of bright
stars overhead faded into a misty, funereal veil all around us. For the first time it really hit us just how alone all cruisers are on
the ocean. If you can't take care of yourself, help will be a long time coming. I kept thinking about the man's family, his loved
ones who knew he was missing but had no idea exactly where he was or perhaps even how he had disappeared. He might
have been on a snorkeling tour, or snorkeling on his own, or perhaps he was in a boat that was sinking and he donned his
snorkeling gear as it went down, knowing he would be spending time in the water once it sank. It was impossible for us to know
those things, but the burden of knowing we were the only ones in the world who knew his whereabouts was enormous.
It was a long long overnight sail. Every time I tried to sleep, images of this
unfortunate man facedown in the water filled my mind. "Don't think about it," we
told each other. But how can you not? We talked about how unutterably tragic it
would be if either of us lost the other. Of course, we have friends who have died
riding their bikes, friends stricken with terminal diseases, and friends who have
died in car wrecks. But somehow being alone out on the ocean suddenly
seemed so much more fraught with peril than house-based everyday living.
We had heard a news report before leaving
Acapulco that the world was going to be
bombarded by extraneous solar radiation from a
large solar storm, and that it could potentially
affect GPS satellites. That got us busy with the
paper charts, parallel rulers and dividers, making
sure we knew exactly where we were at all times
throughout the night, just in case the satellite
giving us our GPS position quit working. Another
day dawned and we were very relieved to see the sky lighten around us.
Suddenly a pod of several hundred dolphins came leaping and bounding towards us. They
were truly exuberant, thrilled to be alive, and seemed to be jumping for joy. That was more like
it!! We snapped a gazillion photos of them as they cavorted around Groovy. They must have
come to cheer us up.
Near 11:00 in the morning we spotted a Mexican
Navy ship on the horizon. We leapt back on the
radio and hailed them in English and Spanish again.
No sooner had we reported what we had seen, than
the ship was at our side. Those Navy boats can
They tied alongside us and their young captain came
aboard Groovy. Stepping between the boats was not
easy: both boats were pitching wildly in the swell and all hands on the Navy
ship were attending fenders and lines to keep the two boats from mashing
each other. He had a look at our photos of the corpse, took down our coordinates for its position, and relayed the information
back to the Navy base in Acapulco. The encounter was quick, efficient, polite, and the captain seemed very grateful for the
report. He noted our names and our boat's name. When he was back aboard his ship and described the photos to his crew,
they all winced and shuddered. It was not a comfortable image for those tough young men either.
We pulled into Puerto Angel, the first good anchorage south of
Acapulco and found it pretty but overcrowded with moored pangas.
We anchored twice but couldn't find a spot where we had enough
swing room without being in the ocean swell, so we left and carried
on to the Bays of Huatulco 15 miles further south. Here we were
rewarded with stunning natural beauty and peace. Gradually the
disturbing emotions from our overnight sail began to fade away.
Last year while researching Huatulco I had come across an
earlier cruiser's online description of a bay here that he fell
in love with and nicknamed "Osprey Cove" because he
couldn't find an official name for it on the nautical charts.
After a few emails back and forth with him, I realized it was
now known and charted as Jicaral Cove, and we spent our
first night there.
This tiny cove, just big enough for a single cruising boat or maybe two at a pinch, is one
of several bays that make up the National Park of Huatulco. A line of buoys protects the
vibrant coral reef in the cove and small boats filled with tourists come in to snorkel the
reef every few hours.
The Bays of Huatulco sit
next to the infamous Golfo
de Tehuantepec, a vicious
200 mile stretch of water
whose mood swings make
the Sea of Cortez look
Every week or so in the
winter north winds from the
Gulf of Mexico between
Texas and Mexico
accelerate south across the
narrowest portion of the
Mexican mainland, and
race off into the ocean at
60+ mph, often creating 20' seas. In between these multi-day temper
tantrums the Gulf of the Tehuantepec lies down to take a breather, during
which time all the coastal cruising boats make a run for it.
When the gales are blowing in the Tehuantepec, the Bays of Huatulco can
get a little frisky too. But we arrived during a quiet spell and had several
glorious, peaceful days exploring Jicaral cove.
The ospreys for whom the
earlier cruisers named this
place "Osprey Cove" were still
here, along with a group of
Coral litters the sand all along the beach, a sight we
had seen only once before in Los Muertos on the
southeastern tip of the Baja peninsula.
We kayaked around the corner into Bahía de San
Agustín (also known as Puerto Sacrificios) and
discovered a long curving beach backed by unusual
boulders at one end and a cluster of lively beach
palapa bars and boutique shops at the other.
We wandered along the beach and
marveled at the calm beauty. This is a
Friends of ours were anchored in the main bay by the town of
Santa Cruz, so we sailed over to meet up with them.
We got so caught up in our breathtaking downwind sail in the
strong afternoon winds that we nearly missed the entrance to
Huatulco's main bay. It was the sight of the enormous cruise
ship Statendam parked there that got us back on course.
Like all cruise ships this far south, they were on a several month
trip between the east and west coasts of the US with a Panama
Canal transit as the centerfold stop.
Continuing our Reader's Digest quickie tour of some of the
Huatulco bays, we stopped in at Tangolunda, a large bay with
several anchoring options.
Huatulco is an official tourist
development created in 1986
by Fonatur, Mexico's
government tourism agency
that brought the world Cancun
and Ixtapa in 1974 and Los Cabos in 1976 and more recently Loreto/Puerto Escondido in the
Sea of Cortez and Nayarit near Puerto Vallarta.
Learning from their prior beach tourism projects, Fonatur is developing Huatulco with an eye
towards maintaining the area's natural beauty. In the bays where building development is
allowed, like Tangolunda, the buildings are low. Other bays are set aside as part of a national
park with boat-in access only.
hosts the requisite
tourist banana boats
and jet-skis, but
breezy bay most
One afternoon we
watched a wedding
in progress just off
the end of our boat.
What a spot to get
This first week in
Huatulco was just
the briefest overview of some of the lovely bays. This area is so
pretty, so relaxed, and so charming that we won't be running off
and leaving Huatulco any time soon, especially since the
intimidating Gulf of the Tehuantepec lies just around the corner.
Find Huatulco on Mexico Maps.
to see more cruising posts from this area!
Orcas play near Groovy.
Shrimper or bird taxi?
Sunrise begins over our bow.
Acapulco's mountains in the distance.
Villas perch atop cliffs on Boca Chica Channel.
Sailboats race towards us.
Acapulco's main beach.
Downwind spinnaker run.
The "fake" lighthouse at La Marina.
The Yacht Club grounds.
Club de Yates de Acapulco.
Racing yachts waiting for the next race.
Waterfront near the yacht club.
Looking across Acapulco's inner harbor.
Puffer and angel fish at the docks.
I took these from above water.
Wonderful daysailing in Acapulco Bay.
A few of the many highrises on the beach.
Navy warships and a tall ship.
Acapulco has several picturesque
Vacation homes overlooking Puerto Marques.
A little mermaid near our
The lightly visited resort where we anchored in Puerto Marques.
"Barrido Marino" - the "Sea Sweepers"
These cheap little taxis are everywhere.
The rock cliffs of La Quebrada.
Cliff Diver Alejandro scales the rocks.
Alejandro (left) and Aurelio (right)
A peek inside...
The Zócalo has amazing trees.
Acapulco's town beach.
Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico
Mid-January, 2012 - We finally pulled ourselves away from Zihuatanejo/
Ixtapa and resumed our travels south. Papanoa is a 35-mile daysail
away, and as we motor-sailed we were very surprised to see some
Shamu-shaped fins ahead of us. It turned out to be several small orcas
playing in the water.
Papanoa is a small shrimping village, and we passed a few
shrimpers trolling the depths as we approached the harbor.
Countless birds were catching a ride on the booms of one boat.
The frigate birds took most of one boom and the seagulls
spread out on the others.
We arrived in mid-afternoon and watched the activities of this quiet port
town. Several shoreside cantinas had the music going, and a group of
kids were laughing loudly and burning up energy as only kids can, diving
off a pier and cannonballing each other out of a small dinghy that was
tied to a piling.
Acapulco is another 75 miles
south of Papanoa, which
required us to get a pre-
dawn start. We were now
traveling more east than
south and we watched the
sky lighten ahead of us until
the sun rose over our bow.
Acapulco has a mixed reputation these days,
and we weren't sure what to expect when we
arrived. Our first glimpse of this legendary port
had us grinning excitedly, however, and set the
tone for a fantastic stay. We decided to enter
Acapulco's expansive bay through its narrow
westerly channel "Boca Chica" ("Small Mouth")
rather than through the main entrance further
east called "Boca Grande." We slowed way
down as the rock walls rose to wonderful
heights on either side of us in the channel.
"This is just like Cabo!" we said to each other.
The towering cliffs were
covered with fancy homes,
hotels and highrises.
As we emerged on the other side of the channel, Acapulco's
vast beach suddenly came into view. Our eyes widened in
amazement. The beach was backed by an endless stretch
of highrise buildings, and the hillsides were littered with
homes and communities that rose in waves towards the
horizon. There was more humanity in front of us than we had seen in months. Forget Cabo. This was like Miami. Or like
sailing into Las Vegas. It was a huge, massive city built for tourism. We puttered around the bay taking way too many photos
that all looked the same -- highrises on the water -- and then backtracked to a lovely little anchorage in Boca Chica next to a
small beach on Isla de la Roqueta.
Gazing across the bay at the mammoth city in the distance, we were
anchored in our own small paradise next to a busy little beach where
the Sunday crowd was swimming, snorkeling and imbibing at the
beach bar. Suddenly on the horizon we saw some incredibly sleek
sailing yachts headed our way in a race. Within moments Groovy
was perched in a front row seat of a spectacular sailing race.
The streamlined boats flew towards us at top speed. Ladened with
both skilled crew at the helm and winches and "rail meat" crew that
sat on the high side facing out, feet dangling over the side, the boats
bore down on us until I was sure we'd be broadsided. Just at the
last second each boat would tack, within arm's reach of our cockpit.
All hell would break loose as ten people scurried over the deck,
furiously turning winch
handles and wrestling the boat into submission on its new tack. A few commands
would be yelled here and there, but the most prominent sound was the creaking of
lines and groaning of each boat as it was tensioned and tuned for max velocity on its
These guys are really good at this stuff
and they do it all the time, so when
one boat looked like it was about to T-
bone another and Mark said, "They're
gonna hit!" I said, "Nahhh…" Then we
both heard a loud CRUNCH and the
sound of very expensive boat parts
grating against each other. Seconds
later the lead boat dropped its sails
and turned around to head home. I'm
not sure if they were disqualified or
had sustained too much damage to
continue, but none of the other boats
paused for one second!
In no time the race began its downwind leg, and one yacht after
another breezed past Groovy in the opposite direction, their
colorful spinnakers flying. As each boat slowly vanished
into the horizon of skyscrapers our hearts gradually
stopped pounding. What excitement, and what a
By sunset our little anchorage had whittled down to just
us and the noisy birds in the trees. Like Isla Ixtapa and
Las Gatas Beach in Zihuatanejo, this place is heavily
visited by water taxis, banana boats, jet-skis and
snorkelers during the afternoons, but by dusk it is
deserted and is an ideal, remote tropical anchorage with
no swell. We slept like babies that night.
The heart of the Acapulco yachting scene is the "Club
de Yates de Acapulco," or the Acapulco Yacht Club.
This beautiful marina and yacht club would be ideal for visiting cruisers, but
it is so popular with local boaters that there is seldom room for anyone from
out of town. Next door "La Marina" is being renovated and will soon
accommodate visitors, but it isn't yet finished.
We wandered into the Club de Yates and found all
the beautiful racing boats we had watched sailing
the day before already lifted out of the water and
put up in dry storage to wait for the next race. We
found out that hauling our boat would cost nearly
$600 US. Imagine having to fork that over every
time you wanted to race your yacht?! But this is a
place where money is no object. The captain of a
megayacht parked at an end-tie told us his owner
likes to zip from place to place burning a cool 180
gallons per hour at top speed. He laughed out loud
when we told him we needed to top off our 66
gallon fuel tank sometime during our stay here.
Getting fuel is not as simple as you might think in Acapulco. The fuel dock
is fairly short and has little turnaround room, and many megayachts come
calling, so you have to sign up to get fuel a day or two in advance. This
requires a trip to the Harbor Master's office where, to our surprise, he made
a copy of our US Coast Guard documentation papers as part of our fuel
registration process. The up-side of this minor inconvenience was that he
also issued us a temporary Yacht Club card which would allow us to come
and go from the pretty marina at will and use the dinghy dock and
swimming pool too.
The Acapulco Yacht Club exudes that noble air that wafts over
exclusive yacht clubs worldwide, and the whole place is dripping
with wonderfully elegant nautical decor. Trophies fill the trophy
cases, portraits of past captains and commodores line the walls,
names of local champions and legendery yachts are engraved
on beautiful plaques, and ancient bronze binnacles and helms
stand like museum pieces in the corners.
The little chandlery has goodies for boats, but the prices for
ordinary items are truly extraordinary ($100 US for four plastic drinking glasses!), but
the souvenir shop sold high quality ball caps with the yacht club logo embroidered on
the front for less that $10 US.
Acapulco is not a clean city, and we had watched the Pacific ocean transform from a
rich inviting deep blue to a sickly grey-green as we had entered Acapulco Bay. But
here at the dock the water was so clear that I could see angel fish and puffer fish
swimming just below the surface.
When we travel from place to place we always hope
to sail but usually end up motoring most of the way
because the winds are so light along Mexico's
mainland coast. However, Acapulco Bay is a terrific
spot for day sailing, and after watching the races the
day before, we got inspired to go out for a joy ride
ourselves. There were no other boats on the three-mile-wide bay, and we had just enough
wind, 10-13 knots, to put Groovy over on her side for a little romp in the breeze.
Exploring the outer reaches of the bay we saw more highrises (they are endless), and a Navy
dock that had two modern warships and a lovely old tall ship.
Other cruisers had found pretty anchorages
along the outskirts of this big bay, and as the
days of our stay wore on we
noticed that they weren't in a
hurry to leave Acapulco either,
obviously enjoying their time
here as well.
We left the inner harbor for
Puerto Marques, a small outer
bay, where we spent five
delightful nights. Billed in the
cruising guide as being open to
ocean swell, we got lucky and
enjoyed peaceful quiet nights
ancchored alongside a row of
nearly empty resorts. There couldn't have been more than ten
occupied rooms in the four resort hotels we were facing, but
new construction inexplicably seemed to be continuing.
Every day the bartender would arrive at the cute
dockside bar and serve perhaps one or two guests.
Every night the restaurant tables would be set and the
kitchen staff would get busy, all to serve just three or
Acapulco has a reputation for being past its prime, but there are
clear signs that its citizens don't want to let that prime slip away
too fast. Besides all the new construction, there is a fleet of
bright yellow boats bearing the words "Barrido Marino" ("Sea
Sweep") in large letters on their sides. These boats scour
the entire bay every day with nets to retrieve floating trash
and debris. At the far end of Puerto Marques a huge
project is underway with barges and cranes to install what
looks like a new pier or perhaps a marina.
Over in La Quebrada the famous dare-devil cliff divers began
flying headfirst off the cliffs into the sea back in 1934, and within a
decade or two were the superstars of Acapulco tourism. Eager to
see these guys, we took one of the little blue-and-white VW bug taxis and
zipped off to the cove of jagged cliffs where the diving action takes place. Both
Mark and I remember watching these divers on TV as kids, and we couldn't
wait to see them in action.
The cove is a spectacular craggy
coast of rugged peaks and
crashing surf, and the entire area
has been built up to show off the
divers. Elvis Presley's 1963 movie
Fun in Acapulco was filmed here
Restaurants overlook the diving gorge and trinket shops offer free
coke or beer for shoppers. El Mirador Hotel stands above it all,
having played host to many of the world's celebrities over the
years. There's a ticket sales booth at the top of a long set of
winding stairs that go down towards the water. Viewers can choose
any level for watching the divers. Five or so divers take the plunge
once a day in daylight and they dive again three more times after
dark (with torches). We opted for a daytime show and were thrilled.
To our surprise the divers start the show by walking through the crowd,
hopping over the fence to the rock face below, and then hot-footing it
down a ways and jumping into the water. After a quick wave to the
crowd above, they then free
climb the enormous cliffs on
the far side all the way to the
top. One young diver,
Alejandro, impressed us immensely
with his catlike agility as he zipped up
the cliff like Spiderman.
Once at the top, the divers each
offered a quick prayer to the Virgin of
Guadalupe, touched the shrine, or
even kissed the statue inside, and then
turned and waved to the crowd. One
by one they then took a position
somewhere near the top of the cliff
and, when the waves were right 125
feet below, launched themselves into
Alejandro warmed up for quite some
time, stretching, doing mock flip turns, and obviously preparing for some fancy twists and somersaults in the air. When
he finally soared off the rocks he rolled and turned and swiveled in the air like a shimmering fish, and gracefully slipped
into the frothing water below.
Another pair of divers leapt off the cliff together, one launching himself into a back
layout somersault before twisting and piking his way to the water. The last diver
climbed to the highest peak and flew over the rocks in a glorious swan dive.
Afterwards the divers mingled
with the crowd, happily posing
for photos with fans.
We were on such a high after
this that we nearly skipped
down the hill towards the
cathedral in the old town
square, El Zócalo. Acapulco is a grungy, busy,
crowded city, but there was something in the
earthy smells, the crush of people and the
sweat dripping down our temples and backs
that made it all very exciting.
A group of nuns emerged from the 1930's era
cathedral just as we approached, and the doors
were thrown wide for a peek inside.
Opposite the cathedral was a large, darkly
shaded city park filled with enormous trees
that have odd twisted trunks and roots.
Crabby old ladies sitting next to flowers
they were selling waved us off with nasty
frowns when we took photos of their
flowers. People sat on park benches
eating snacks or reading the paper.
Tourists and shoppers mingled in between.
Vendors sold everything everywhere and music pumped so loudly
from some speakers on the ground that an old lady put her fingers
in her ears as she walked by. Official tourism hosts wearing blue
shirts and numbered badges darted out from the crowd to help
bewildered tourists, and more than one suddenly turned up at our
sides asking if we needed assistance. It is not a warm, friendly
place, nor is it a place I'd want to hang around for more than a
brief visit, but we were glad to have taken a walk through that part of town, and equally glad to emerge back on the waterfront
malecón, or boardwalk, where the fresh sea breeze hit our faces once again, and the beach and boats filled our view.
Such is the faded lady of Acapulco. A previous cruiser's blog last
year described gunmen firing shots in a building near the marina at
night, and as we dropped our anchor in the city anchorage at ten in
the morning we heard a series of gun shots near the supermarket
where we had bought provisions the day before. But I've heard
gunshots in every city I've called home, and I've even watched a
well armed SWAT team take positions outside a house in a tony
Scottsdale, Arizona neighborhood. The anchorages on the fringes
of Acapulco Bay are all lovely, and we are glad to have experienced
the sweeter side of town. After a little more relaxing at Puerto
Marques we headed down the coast to Huatulco.
Find Acapulco on Mexico Maps
Visit Anchorages on Mexico's Southern Pacific Coast to see more cruising posts from this area!