Archive for October, 2010

Mazatlan is one of those places that we both relish and fear. The tourist resorts of Mexico are awesome places, a place to reconnect with civilization, re-supply, and find a decent mechanic that may or may not be able to fix the van. They are also places of high crime, high prices, high crowds (in the surf only – we are again the only ones at our current RV park. We haven’t even see the manager, we talked to him on the phone yesterday afternoon, he said he’d come by mañana morning. It’s officially tardes and no manager yet.

Isla de la Piedras is a good spot to capitalize on all the resort has to offer without many of the headaches. The “island” is set up much like Coronado “Island” in San Diego without the bridge. The peninsula comes rather close to Mazatlan proper and is only a 10 peso, 10 minute, water taxi ride away. Its still rather expensive per night and the beer is ridiculously priced but it has the feeling of a small fishing village turned tourist getaway. We don’t exactly have all the amenities we need though, the good mechanics are all on the other side of the water and since there haven’t been any guests here in a while the wifi is off. We might have to move back into town.

I think the reason it has retained its charm while Mazatlan has grown up around it is the eight mile road in:

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About an hour north of Mazatlan, along the Maxipista, is an unremarkable turn-off towards the puebla of Celestino Gasca. Past the six or seven street town of Celestino is a rather rutted dirt road that runs along the beach for a couple of kilometers. The road pings along until you reach a stretch of RV parks and the Cardone surf camp.

We made it just inside the gate to Celestino RV “Resort”. We checked in and fired back up the van to drive down to our spot for the night; the ignition clicked, the starter wound up, the engine fired and the starter wound up, again and again and again. Natalie turned of the key, the engine died, but the damn starter kept firing and firing. Frantically, the park host, Brian, myself, and really great snowbird character, John, scrambled with the nuts to disconnect the batteries. Finally she quit. We deduced that another solenoid had fried, electrical gremlins be damned.

Brian towed us down to our spot on the beach where we camped for the next few nights, we found a mechanic in Celestino who had worked in the same capacity for the last ten years in Santa Ana, Riverside and Temecula and had just moved back in the last year. For MX$400 he replaced various fusible links, fuses, wires, connections, and anything he found suspect for about three hours. He said that the main source of our problem was a short in the plug to the dash AC. He didn’t have one and said that we should get a new one in Mazatlan. I’m not convinced but everything appears to be working for the moment.

Celestino is a pretty cool spot. The waves were head high and the surf camp patrons said that it had been two to three feet overhead and should be again in the next couple days. I never saw it really work but could see how it would. The camp, Cardone, is US$1000 per night, all-inclusive, including transfers from Mazatlan. Seems like a good spot to spend a week on a south swell. The only problem is that reef goes dry (already lost a fin) at low tide and the evening never really glasses off. So you really only have three to four hours a day to surf before its blown out.

John, a really great expat, when he wasn’t shuttling us to town or giving the tour, regaled us with stories of a bygone era, most of which are unfit to print in a quality family publication such as this, but they were of the old-school, surfer/trafficker variety from the seventies and eighties – crazy stuff.

As we pulled away from Celestino we were once again optimistic that the van would cooperate. That lasted about half way to Mazatlan.

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Las Glorias, Sinaloa

Las Glorias is a tiny little puebla pretty far from the beaten track near Guasave. It was a stop of firsts for us. It was the first time we’d seen ride-able surf. Granted it was two foot closeout long board waves, but waves nonetheless. It was needed. I got a couple good ones and saw a few sets from time to time that looked pretty fun.

It was also the first opportunity for some fishing! I spent the day fishing with a local pescador who had wandered up to Mr. Moro looking for some change. Mr. Moro is a cool little beach side hotel with a pool, a swanky restaurant and an RV park surrounding the hotel. We got the choice spot in the shade of the hotel next to the pool with a ocean view. Because again, we were the only ones there.

The fishing trip with Roberto was pretty eventful. We saw some huge corvina get reeled in, we net casted for bait, we caught a few red snapper; which became dinner, and we had to take his boat out to rescue an over-turned jet ski. Having wrecked a jet ski or two in my day I helped the Mexican kids flip it back over and get the water out of it. We couldn’t get started so we towed it back to the beach.

We left Las Glorias in pretty high spirits; we hadn’t had any van issues in days.

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One thing that I really enjoy about working at enXco is the chance to get out of the office to project sites and cruise around on quads (ATVs) while getting paid. Pretty good gig right?


I really wanted to get “out into the canyon” our second day in Creel. It seemed like the best way to do that was to take a tour on quads (cuatrimotos – such a better word). So Natalie and I tandem-ed on one while our guide Omar led us around the spectacular Barranca de Tararecqua. The whole region is more Yosemite and less the Grand Canyon.

At the base of the canyon are some hot (luke warm) springs and some pools that the locals built to capture the spring for swimming. We spent the afternoon swimming, lounging, eating, and chatting with some other tourists before climbing back on the ATVs for the trip home. This time the tour turned out to really be worth the money as Omar led us to some vistas and overlooks that we never have found on our own.

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Creel, Chihuahua

Creel is the quintessential tourist mountain town. It kind of reminds me of Park City Utah, Mexican style. Small logging towns, local Raramuri indigenous settlements, and impressive rock formations surround the welcoming spot. After all the heat of the coastal deserts of northern Mexico, Natalie didn’t believe me that Creel was in the mountains, and cold. I managed to convince her to pack her thermals and warm clothes. The first night we declined our hotels offer to start a fire for us in the wood stove in our room. How cold could it really be? We should have taken a hint from the 5 blankets on the bed. By the end of the night we had on our winter hats, all our long underwear, sweat shirts and all five blankets. We had them light a fire the next night.

The problem with taking the train (other than the expense of the train itself – US $180 roundtrip) is that you become very isolated and dependent on your hotel or tour operators to see or do anything in the canyons. The tours are very expensive and generally have minimums as to how many people need to sign up in order for the tour to go. We really wanted to overnight in Batopilas but we needed four other tourists to make it happen. We quickly gave up on that idea. Both days in Creel we took tours with our hotel, really nice guys and probably the cheapest in town but they would bait us with an English speaking guide and the switch out the guide in the morning so the English speakers could stay and hustle more tourists for the hotel and the tours.

The first day we spent traversing the area around Creel, we visited various rock formations – the Valley’s of the Monks, Frogs, and Mushrooms. As well as Tortuga rock and something that looked like a tooth. In retrospect we should have just rented mountain bikes and explored ourselves. We also visited two late-fifteenth century Spanish Colonial Missions. The second mission, in the town of Cusarare’, was restored in 1973. Recovered from the original mission were several 17th and 18th century Catholic frescos by Miguel Correa. The depth of the collection, several other works have been acquired for the museum, was astonishing considering its location.

The bulk of the tourists that visit Cusarare’ primarily go there to see it’s waterfall. I decided to hike up the river and walk out the dry center of the river to the edge of the waterfall. It was a pretty spectacular view from the top looking over the edge.

Finally we visited a cave dwelling of one of the local native Raramuri. The Raramuri (also incorrectly called the Tarahumara) are a indigenous tribe of about 60,000 living in the Sierra Tarahumara. The women wear brightly colored, handmade clothing and sell impressive artesian crafts. The men are famous for their ability to run extraordinarily long distances at high speed, but you would see men, women, and children cover impressive distances on foot. The Raramuri were originally plains dwellers but were pushed into the mountains by the Spaniards. Many of them still live in cave dwellings but the majority have built rustic wood cabins adjacent to their still functioning caves. The cave we visited was obviously partially a tourist trap but we observed several similar active dwellings in the region.

Our last night in Creel, we ended up at a small café on the main drag in town. Café Leña is run by a small family that makes its own silver jewelry (there is no copper in the region despite the copper tourist trinkets – plenty of silver though), runs the café, and performs classical Mexican folk music. The man was incredible, I don’t think I’ve been as inspired by a coffee shop performance since the days of Jason Mraz at Java Joes in Ocean Beach.

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About ten years ago, I went to a presentation in San Diego with a friend, Chuck Cleeves. The presentation was about kayak trips through Copper Canyon. Ever since I have been a bit fascinated with seeing it. The guidebooks tout it as deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon. That is a bit of a falsification in my book. The term Barranca de Cobre, was first used by Spanish conquistadors who mistook the green lichens that covered the walls of the Barranca de Urique for copper. There are several canyons that make up the canyon system – in general the region is the Sierra Tarahumara, a subset of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. The quintessential picture of “the Copper Canyon” is actually the confluence of the Urique, Cobre and Tararecqua canyons from the Divisadero train stop.

Our original plan was to cross the international border at Juarez and drive through the Copper Canyon region to the coast. For more on why we didn’t do that, see the El Fuerte post. In my opinion the “right way” to really experience the canyon region is to drive from Chihuahua to Creel, explore the canyons including trips to Urique and Batopilas and then drive back out the way you came to Chihuahua. You need a light, but capable, 4×4 for this. A late 90s extra cab Tacoma with mountain bikes in the back would be ideal. We didn’t make it to the spots around Divisadero (the train stops there for 15 minutes) and the newly installed cable car. The government has massive plans to develop the region for tourism, perhaps you’ve seen the catchy “Ah, Chihuahua” ad campaign. I guess it is a reason to come back some day. You can’t do it all. While Chihuahua is a really amazing place, the government better take some action on the narcotrafficantes if they want more tourists – American and Mexican.

Considering we were on the coast the next best way to see the canyons is to stash your rig at an RV park or storage spot in either El Fuerte or Los Mochis and take the train. This is the main tourist circuit. At the train station we were greeted with a bus full of retirees from the US. One such gentleman asked us about our trip; he thought it was wonderful. He went on to talk about how all you hear about in the States is the violence at the border but once you get South of the border it is totally safe and the Mexican people are some of the most friendly in the world. I didn’t have the heart to ruin his trip and tell him that if he wandered away from the main tourist routes that he was actually in the most dangerous part of Mexico. Naiveté can be so much more rewarding. On the second part of his diatribe I agreed vehemently.

The train ride is the second best I’ve experienced; the first being the Alaska railroad from Anchorage to Denali. If you ever do that trip, spring for the Princess Cruise glass ceiling cars. If you ever take the Copper Canyon train, take the Clase’ Economica (second class) train. Don’t spring for the Clase’ Primera, (especially east bound) it is not worth the extra money unless you have a scheduling conflict.

The scenery from the train is awe-inspiring. The pictures really speak for themselves – as bad as they are: train photography is very hard. I’ve included a few shots here, but you can cruise over to my flickr page for the whole set. You can really see the varied ecologies and ecotones as you transition from lowland desert, through sub-tropical rain forest, to high alpine forest.

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We are currently holed up in a hotel/rv park in the small colonial town of El Fuerte. It has very cool 1800’s Spanish Colonial architecture and a fairly safe feel for where El Fuerte sits in the world. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the status of Mexican drug trafficking, the “Golden Triangle” is an area around the confluence of the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango. The Golden Triangle is the amongst the single most prolific marijuana and opium production regions in the world. And one of the most dangerous. If you want a good picture of the area, read Richard Grant’s book God’s Middle Finger, Into the Heart of the Sierra Madre. Grant goes looking for some serious trouble in the book. Based on my reading of it, he had a mild death wish. However, he was nice enough to converse with me about my plan to drive from Cuidad Chihuahua, through the Barrancas del Cobre region and down to Mazatlan. He suggested that we had a 15% chance of running into serious trouble going that route and if the 15% chance actually occurred there was a 99% chance that Natalie would be raped or worse. So we didn’t go that way.

El Fuerte is NOT in the Golden Triangle. It is however the western most edge of the narcotrafficante region. It feels pretty safe and the spot we spent both our nights in is a walled property. Although the town appears to be mysteriously wealthy. We stuck to the guidebook and ate some outstanding food at El Meison de General. The guidebook suggested the local fare of lobina (black freshwater bass) and pulpo (octopus from the Sea of Cortez). Both were excellent. One of the best meals we’ve had, by far.

On the way to the restaurant we ran into some German tourists driving the most bitchin Land Rover I’ve ever seen. It had a pop-top camper with a rocket box. It was amazing. It put the van to shame (no room for surf boards though!). Since they were the first other tourists we had seen we had to stop to chat (they both spoke excellent English).

They had shipped the Land Rover from Germany to Miami, driven across the southern U.S., down Baja, taken the ferry from La Paz to the outstandingly named Topolobampo, and were no headed through Central America to Panama. Sounded a bit familiar.

They had not read Grant’s book.

The Germans had received a few warnings about driving to Copper Canyon but had no way of determining the validity of those memes. In another language it can be pretty hard to decipher the seriousness of the locals messages. Especially the overdramatic and inconsistent Mexicans; today on the train back to El Fuerte I asked two Mexicana’s if the road in Michoacan near Caleta de Campos and Lazaro Cardenas is safe (we’ve heard mixed opinions). One said “yes, no problem”, the other “no esta’ mucho peligroso”. They then argued at a speed to which I could not keep up, the end result was that they both agreed that the whole country was not safe but that we’d be just fine. Awesome, thanks for that.

So the Germans decided to try to drive to Copper Canyon. They got about two hours west of El Fuerte, they slowed through a small town for the omnipresent topes and a man by the side of the road motioned like he was shooting their vehicle with an assault rifle and gave them the wagging, single-finger, no pase. They turned around.

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Long Time, No Internet…

Just a quick post to let you all know that we are fine. The internet connection here is pretty bad so only skype chat. No phone calls. We are at an RV park north of Mazatlan, pretty safe. A few gringos and some surfers near by too. We are, you guessed it – fixing the van. Mucho problemas electronico. I have lots to share and post and I’ll do my best to get everything up in the next day or so. Nat says thanks for the b-day wishes!!!

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I thought about changing the entire name of the blog to “Isolation and Car Repairs” because so far that seems to be about all I have to write about. We find ourselves in the tiny little beach town of Huatabampito, Sonora. We are again the only rig in the RV park. Still wondering whether it is the safety situation or it is still to early in the season (mucho calor) that has us so isolated. I’m guessing a little bit of both.

The AC unit is working great. It was really comfortable in the van last night but both of us had trouble sleeping for a variety of reasons…

The van is already acting up again. More electrical issues. Two more cables got changed today once it cooled off a bit. This time the electrical gremlins have manifested themselves in a short to the stereo (ghast) every time we hit a bump (its Mexico, so every 45 seconds or so), the headlights, and the in-dash AC unit.

Something akin to plastic or rubber hit something hot that it shouldn’t have in the engine compartment in the middle of Navojoa sending smoke billowing into the van and forcing an emergency pull-over. Not sure what it was, there were no signs of any problems when I opened the hood and it never happened again. I zip-tied the shit out over everything loose to try to prevent a repeat occurrence.

Also the house battery doesn’t seem to be charging like it should. Opened the dash and all the shaking and rattling seems to have seriously deteriorated a positive battery cable this time and a ground on the house battery. So el mechanico (me) made another appearance today and we’ll hope that solves it. It is beginning to challenge our resolve a bit. We have talked about potentially taking the ferry from Mazatlan to La Paz and driving home up Baja should it continue. Hopefully this repair will be the last of it and we’ll continue on.

We were able to test out our new shade and bug fortress today. The wind made for constant adjustments but it is pretty nice and we’ll get it figured out.

Huatabampito (or little Huatabampo) is a sleepy little spot, there are some locals on the beach today since it is Sunday but there isn’t much going on. We are here for two days, but we’ll be anxious to head to El Fuerte tomorrow morning. Huatambito isn’t somewhere we’d normally stay for two days but we have a new rule of the road: no driving on Sundays, because there are no mechanics open on Sundays!

Oh, and Natalie got stung by a sting ray today and never made it past 8 inches of water.

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A note about Guide Books

We are using two guide books as our primary sources of information. It is amazing how different they are. The Lonely Planet Mexico doesn’t even mention Hotel Playa Cortes in Miramar/Guaymas and its one of the “better spots in the area for travelers heading to points further South” as the Mexican Camping guide book eloquently put it. But the Mexican Camping book barely mentions El Fuerte as a better jumping off point for Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) while the Lonely Planet raves about the colonial mining town and how it saves you three plus hours over Los Mochis. The moral of the story is to have multiple sources of information and compare. Then, after you’ve digested all the advice, find your own way.

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