We’ve been back in La Paz a month and four days. We accomplished almost everything we set out to do:
take Spanish classes
get our residence cards from Ensenada
socialize with other boaters and boat kids
visit friends from Washington vacationing here
get a few blog posts and a video up
download lots of new books and apps
provision and prep for two and half months out in the Sea
and, of course, complete a whole host of boat projects: clean the hull and the deck, fix the forward head, do engine maintenance, fix broken windows, better organize the cockpit, install fishing pole holders and do fishing research, wire up new fans and a charging port, and install a new bilge pump.
Whew. All that is to say that we’re tired. Our month here was full. Full of chores, full of projects, full of people. And it’s been wonderful. Kind of hot, but wonderful.
And now we’re ready to hit the islands again. To slow life down. To explore the underwater world. To catch some fish. To pretend boulders are spaceships. To be back out In the Wilderness.
We’ve just stuffed the boat with food, filled up the fuel tanks, and are now headed north in a beautiful 14 knot wind. The kids are giddy, we are excited, and we’re all looking forward to the turquoise waters, red rocks, and marine animals awaiting us!
I’ll post updates as I can, but data and cell coverage is pretty scarce out there. At least know that I’ll be writing, even if it takes a while to appear online. In the mean time, here’s a link to a video of our trip down the Pacific Coast of Baja. I look back on that difficult trip and realize just how far we’ve come as a family since then. Things still aren’t easy (is parenting young children ever easy?), but I think we’re slowly finding our groove… 10 months in. And that is certainly a reminder that life is all about the journey and how we develop and change as part of that journey. So, here’s to the journey of the next few months and everything that time will bring!
Glassy calm, dark gray backs Spouts abound in morning chill Children’s shrieks of joy
In late February, while the wind blustered and blew through the gaps in hills and islands and was making its mind up which way to blow, we made our mind up to get off the boat and go exploring. We got a mooring at Puerto Escondido, rented a car, and drove back across the wide peninsula to the little town of Puerto Alfredo Lopez Mateos, a community that clearly loves its whales and particularly comes to life during baby whale season. Ironically, we had passed near here not more than a few months before as we made our long trek down the Baja coast. But there weren’t whales there then. At least not babies. Gray whales leave the cold waters of the north and arrive at these warm water bays and protected estuaries on the Pacific coast of Baja in the winter to give birth and raise their calves until it is time to head north again in the spring. In mid-November as we headed south, we had seen only a few of the first few whales to arrive.
We made our whale watching reservation and rented a little “Casita” through Cheri, a native Alaskan who has been in Mexico for decades (she can be contacted via her AirBnB site). We joined her and a friend for a dinner at a gem of backyard “cafe” that we never would have found on our own. We followed Cheri down a long, narrow alley to a house with three plastic tables set up. Dogs ran back and forth along the alley, and three little girls shrieked and giggled at the sight of our two kiddos. The semi-outdoor kitchen off the alley is where the owner does her cooking and once a week opens up her doors to guests. She cooks up a huge pot of spiced, slow-cooked shredded beef, and offers a choice of tostadas, sopas, and flautas. While I had a little difficulty getting her to believe that I didn’t want any toppings on the kids’ flautas, their orders came out perfectly, and they proceeded to eat…almost nothing. Ugh. I myself chose a large tostada, and I can say that it was hands down the best tostada I have had here in Mexico.
We retreated to the charming Casita, and, with the coffee pot set for an early morning, we tucked the kids and ourselves into bed and crashed. We awoke early, gulped down our hot coffee and were out the door at 7:30 to make our 8:00 appointment at the docks. We met Jimmy, our guide, who took us down to our awaiting panga, the ubiquitous open boat that is used for everything in Mexico from fishing to touring to mail-carrying to hauling fuel and provisions.
With the kids gripping the gunwales with white knuckles, we sped off into the estuary, our panga skidding and bumping loudly over the otherwise glassy, calm water. After only a few minutes, we saw a large dark back break the surface of the water. Jimmy cut the engine, the bow dropped down, and we rode the remnants of our own wake as we peered into the the silence for another glimpse of the large, dark whale.
And there she was, dark and barnacled in front of us, gliding and bending her back so we could see the full length of her beautiful body. We stayed with her for a few minutes, and Jimmy drew our attention to some of her markings and idiosyncrasies. We saw ahead of us another female surface, followed by a smaller back right behind her. A baby! We went forward very slowly and traveled in sync with the mama and calf. Mama breathed and dived, and baby breathed and dived. Over and over, they worked their way north. Jimmy explained that the mother was exercising her calf, having him swim into the incoming current to build up his strength in preparation for their eventual migration up the coast. The estuary, which provided strong currents but calm, shallow water was a perfect place to get the babies strong enough for the long trip.
Eventually, we left the mama and baby to themselves in order to head out to the mouth of the estuary (Estero de Soledad). Jimmy revved up the engine again, and we went at light speed through the still-chilly morning wind, zipping past sand bars and other whales out for their morning swims.
Jimmy told us about the gray whale pods and some of the behavior of male and female whales. He asked us about the orcas in the Pacific Northwest and their migration patterns, diets, and general health. We learned that the whales arrived very late this year and that it was a low season for gray whale babies in the Estero de Soledad. As Jimmy spouted off numbers of babies this year and in past years, I began thinking, “wow, this guy’s pretty knowledgeable.” So, it didn’t surprise me when we later learned (through Cheri, not soft-spoken Jimmy) that Jimmy was the only naturalist/biologist in Lopez Mateos. We had hit the guide-jackpot! I only wish I had come more prepared with some more astute questions, because I have a feeling we would have been able to learn even more if we had thought to ask the right questions. Though, we were so overwhelmed with what we saw, that I probably would have forgotten all my questions anyway.
When we arrived at the mouth of the estuary, we were astounded at the sight. From a distance, we could we could see miles of rough surf breaking on the shallow sand bars, but as we eased closer to the mouth, the more spectacular sight was the dozens of spouts all around us! One here, another there, then another, then five out in the distance, then one to the right, another to the left just a few yards away! And there’s a breach, and one over there diving, and another breach! And another breath and a dive. Which way should we look?! Photos simply couldn’t capture the stunning experience of being surrounded by these grand animals. Jimmy explained that most of the whales out by the mouth of the estuary were the males, who tended to stay out here while the mamas and calves went further into the protected waters. We stayed out there admiring them and taking it all in until our brief hour was up and it was time to head back.
We arrived back at the whale watching dock exhilarated and amazed by the experience. Though we had seen whales all along the Pacific coast – orcas in the San Juans, dozens of humpbacks all the way from Cape Scott down to Cabo San Lucas, and a blue whale and a few (we think) pilot whales here in the Sea of Cortez – it was still magical and overwhelming to see so many whales so close up. To see calves exercising. To see males breaching in the distance. To see huge, dark backs constantly emerge out of the water all around. To hear their breaths.
If Andy wasn’t already excited by whales, this experience launched his passion, and he has continued to have his head buried in our “Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises” book non-stop. When he didn’t know I was listening, I have heard him trying to slowly sound out their names in his little 4-year old whisper: “L-o-n-guh F-i-nn-ed P-i-l-ot Wh-a-luh-, Bu-ll-oo Wh-a-luh.” What a perfect way to learn to read! He correctly identified that Tom had seen a short-finned pilot whale when he described it to Andy, and if you ask him what a pygmy killer whale eats, he will surely tell you and proceed to talk your ear off about it for the next ten minutes. And while Dylan’s love of orca whales will never be usurped, he was also deeply affected by the experience of seeing the gray whales and the proximity to these amazing beings.
So the value in this short trip back out to the Pacific Coast has been far more than in just the knowledge and the experience, but in the inspiration it has sparked in our children. I hope that their fascination and their love of marine animals and the ocean will just continue to grow and that the intense memory of these whales never fades. Even if they don’t become marine biologists, if we can raise two people who care deeply about the health and preservation of the whales and the ocean and take action to protect them, then we will have succeeded.
Addendum: For more information about gray whales, their near-extinction, and their rebound after anti-whaling conventions and protections were put into place, National Geographic has a short and useful summary.
We’ve never been parents to hover. Well, to hover too much. Okay, we may have hovered a little. And living on a busy street in Anacortes while the kids were toddlers, we were understandably relieved when we finally got a fence built to keep their wandering legs away from speedy, distracted drivers. But I did look forward to the day when I could send the kids across the street to the playground on their own and not have the police called on me for being a negligent parent. That moment never came while we were in Anacortes, because we set sail when the kids were only 3 and 5 and proceeded to make the Pacific Ocean and its sandy shoreline their playground.
We may have hovered a lot at first as the kids found their footing on rocky shores and a rocking boat. And we may have hovered a lot when they were anywhere near water, because they hadn’t mastered that essential skill of swimming that we had tried so hard to instill before we left. But in time, we lengthened their leads when appropriate (i.e. not when there were bears or deep water around). As they get older, they get more and more bold and more and more skilled. Sometimes, we have to rein them back in, but we also have to celebrate when they’re ready to take that first little leap out of the nest on their own (and actually do it). Agua Verde will always represent for us a special moment in Dylan’s life, a moment when our safety-conscious, anxious child had the confidence to take the leap.
All that we knew of Agua Verde was what we had heard from the owners of a Mexican restaurant in the U-district in Seattle: that they had been there on a kayaking trip, it was beautiful, and they loved it so much they ended up naming their restaurant after it. We did not know what to expect, except the existence of a protected nook that our guide books said was a suitable anchorage in strong north winds.
We sadly left the beauty of Los Gatos and began to motor straight into the north wind. We cursed the catamaran out there with us, which, with all sails up, bashed straight into the wind and gained ground on us (we were relieved to find out later that day – over a few laughs – that they had also had their engine on the whole time). We puttered slowly past Punta Marcial with its extensive reefs lurking just below the surface, and slowly saw Roca Solitaria emerge as we rounded the corner, marking the entrance to the famous Agua Verde.
We pulled up behind the catamaran we had been cursing, found our depth and distance, and dropped our anchor. Before we had even finished setting and backing down on our anchor, a dinghy with two kids aboard came over and welcomed us to the anchorage. An invitation was extended to Dylan to come kayaking with them, and we hardly had our anchor snubber in place before Dylan had donned his lifejacket and – with our blessing and encouragement – was climbing into the kayak that the kids had returned in. The oldest was 8, the youngest 6, and we didn’t know their parents’ names yet.
Such is life of a boat kid – or perhaps of boat parents. While the three kids in their fluorescent green kayak disappeared amid the five boats in the sheltered bay, we parents shared a few beers together and occasionally looked over our shoulders and wondered where the kids were. It turns out they had befriended a lovely man simply called Tio (Uncle) and his friendly dog, skittish cat, and fierce kittens, who all lived in his small shack on the beach. They had, unfortunately, invited themselves into his house and made the complete tour, but Tio seemed to be all smiles and happy to have the kids enjoying themselves.
It was a special thing to see our solitary and young-for-his-age 6-year-old connecting so well and so immediately with other kids and enjoying the freedom that that companionship gave him. He would never have done that alone, but in a group he felt the security and confidence of the others. He reveled in the chance to run around, to play with other kids away (ish) from the watchful eyes of parents, and to explore the way he likes to explore. The kids returned to the boat and continued their exploring there, though the parents’ conversation was now disrupted every two or three minutes by at least one of the four kids now running around on board.
The free range parenting we engage in and the quick trust we have in fellow cruisers might be alarming to someone peering in from the outside, but we are not the only ones. Another kid boat once invited our kids over for a play date the day after we met, while Tom and I went ashore for a presentation. We had another 4-year-old over for a play date not two minutes after we had met him and his mom, who was headed into town to do some shopping (better to do that task without a kid in tow!). And the other night, a number of fellow-cruisers of the self-described “grandparently sort” offered to watch all 17 of the boat kids while the parents had a night out. In the world of cruising families, there is a common understanding among us that we need to support each other. We are each other’s tribe.
So many of us are raised to believe that the world is a scary place and that all strangers are dangerous, and sure, we’re not encouraging our kids to take candy from random people on the street or get in their cars (duh). But we are finding that most people we meet – cruisers and locals alike – are open, friendly, caring, inquisitive, and have their eyes open for our kids and all kids. We’re finding that we’re surrounded on all sides by a welcoming community, and while a healthy dose of caution and street smarts is important everywhere, we like that we can raise our kids in an environment where there isn’t pervasive fear but rather pervasive support and pervasive encouragement for kids to gain the skills, confidence, and smarts to take responsibility for themselves and each other.
Not so much a labyrinth as a merry-go-round, the process of applying for temporary residence in Mexico has been a lesson in patience. After reports from countless cruisers that Mexico was one of their favorite places in the whole world – not to mention my intrigue with it due to Mexican students and friends and our interest in learning Spanish – we decided we wanted to spend at least 18 months in Mexico. If we had entered on a 180 day tourist visa, it would have meant schlepping two adults, two small kids, and possibly a cat back across the border at least twice on schedules dictated to us. The appeal to have permission to stay in Mexico on our own timeline is obvious. But hindsight is 20/20, and I can now say I would not do it again (or I at least would have done it from La Paz). Would I recommend it? Only if you work in a lot of flexibility and do it from a office that you can easily access in a city that doesn’t have thousands of migrants camped on its doorstep.
We started at the consulate in Seattle, where we were interviewed, fingerprinted (remember this: we had fingerprints done in Seattle), and asked to submit a slew of forms and bank statements and (gulp) all our passports. We came back a month later with pretty visas stamped in our passports that would allow us to apply for temporary residence here. The rub, unfortunately, was that we only had 30 days upon entering to start our application process. Not wanting to have to hurry down to La Paz in 30 days and rush through the Pacific Coast of Baja, we opted to apply in Ensenada instead. The consulate had told us it would take two to four weeks to process, our insurance wouldn’t cover us south of Ensenada until November 15 anyway (the end of hurricane season), and Baja Naval marina had an awesome monthly rate. We would spend a month in Ensenada killing a number of birds with one stone; it would be perfect!
It was not perfect. I fumbled through the paperwork, all in Spanish, which I did not speak. I walked all over town trying to find a place to make copies. I had to research and find a place to take our photographs and schlep the whole family there. I had to navigate the process of taking all my paperwork to a bank, paying the fee at the bank (in cash, I learned), and then bringing the receipts back to the Instituto Nacional Migratario (INM).
So, I came back to the office, except that I had made mistakes on the online forms and had to do everything again. And because they wouldn’t allow me to be the parent to sign for the kids, I had to drag Tom to the INM office and have him sign for the kids. The process of just submitting the application took over a week and no less than three visits to banks, two visits to copy places, and five visits to the INM to finally complete. My feet hurt. My back hurt, having thrown it out again walking over Ensenada’s broken sidewalks and sitting for hours daily in INM’s uncomfortable chairs. I expressed through very poor Spanish my nervousness about our timeline and was assured that it would all be done in time. Now we just have to sit back and wait to be called, right? Wrong.
I got a call about 10 days later and was excited to get the message that we could all come to get our fingerprints done. No. Apparently, because the kids hadn’t signed their new passports (they don’t write, after all), the copies could not be used. So, we fixed that problem. But that meant that the paperwork still hadn’t been processed. I began to panic, realizing that we were going to be hard-pressed to get our residence cards before leaving. But we already had our fingerprints done at the Mexican Consulate. Doesn’t that count? No. We have to do them again. But I was told that after our fingerprints were done, we could leave and return later for the cards. Somewhat mollified, we waited. And waited.
I finally got an official email through the electronic system that Andy was able to come in for his fingerprints. I waited two more days until I called to find out about the rest of us. “Another week,” I was told. “Maybe next week.” But next week started with a holiday, and we all know how weeks like that go. “We have to leave to get down the coast,” I explained in a crackling voice as I held back tears. I had done the math on how long we needed to get to Puerto Escondido for Christmas, and it was beginning to push it.
“You can leave,” came the sympathetic reply. “The documents you now have allow you to travel within the country. You will just all need to come back for your fingerprints.” Huh. I guess that’s something. We’re not stuck here. We just need to come back.
And so, we bid good-bye to Ensenada, took our weather window and headed south. The emails indicating permission for us to come and get our fingerprints trickled in over the next three weeks. I began to look into the cost of renting a car and doing the math on how long it would take the drive to Ensenada, and a lump began to get stuck in my throat. It was untenable and expensive. Damn. From our Christmas location in Loreto, I began to research flights to Tijuana from La Paz. Also untenable and expensvie. While Tom was still in La Paz working on the boat, I asked him to pose a few questions to Baja Paperwork, an agency near the marina that helps travelers with a range of documentation. They spent some time on the phone with the INM and got answers to the following questions:
Can we transfer the whole application process down to the La Paz INM? No. Can we have the INM mail our cards when they are ready? No. Can we just get our fingerprints done in La Paz? No. Can we get our fingerprints done and pick up the cards in the same trip? No. It will take 5 weeks after the fingerprints are done to get the cards. (What?! Why did nobody tell me this before? The answer to that question relates to the backlog of work due to the thousands of refugees on Mexico’s border near Tijuana.) Can we cancel the whole application? Yes, but then you have to leave the country within 30 days and come back as tourists. Is there a place where we can renew tourist visas within Mexico without having to leave the country? No.
So, we began to do the math. It would still be cheaper for us to travel back to Ensenada to get the residence permits than to have the whole family leave the country multiple times. Ugh. I finally began to search for flights on dates after the holidays. Bingo. The flights dropped hundreds of dollars, and I was able to snag flights from La Paz to Tijuana for about $170/person. Not great, but not bad. We booked a cheap hotel and flew up to Ensenada in mid-January. I wisely arranged it so that we could be there for two business days if something went wrong. Something always goes wrong.
Arriving only shortly after their opening time, we still had a full line of people in front of us. Two hours later, when we were finally called up, Tom and I were able to do our fingerprints, but we were informed that the boys’ photographs would not be accepted because you couldn’t see their foreheads. I was livid! They have had these pictures for months, and no mention was made of the pictures being unacceptable. And now we had only an hour and a half to get them done before the INM closed. So, off we went to get new pictures made for the kids. A nice couple in line told us where we could get pictures done close by, and we rushed off to do that and to find some food. I poured water on my hands and slicked down my kids’ hair so their foreheads and ears were as plain as day. We ran back to the INM, sneaking in the door 6 minutes before they closed for the afternoon. But at least we would be seen. An hour later, an official came out with paperwork, and the kids finally could provide their blurry and totally useless fingerprints. And the bonus is that the new photos are really much cuter than the old ones.
But I would still have to go back to Ensenada to pick them up later. We debated whether to go by car or bus, but then when we did the math (again), we realized that it would actually be cheaper to fly than to take a bus (oh yeah, and the bus was an 18 hour trip from Loreto, nevermind the additional 5 hours from La Paz). So, I began to search for flights from La Paz, confirmed with the INM that they had all our cards, that only one person needed to come to pick them up, and that they would be open on Wednesday. So off I flew again to the north end of this long peninsula, caught a bus down to Ensenada, wolfed down two amazing chicken tamales at the Ensenada bus station, and headed to Ensenada Backpacker Hostel to settle in for the night.
I woke up too early, nervous that something would go wrong. Something had gone wrong every single time I had been in this office. And, alas, this trip was no different. I arrived at the office at 8:30, a full 30 minutes before opening, and was still the second person in line. By 9:00, there were six people waiting. I signed in and made sure that everyone knew I was just here to pick up my cards. It would just be a matter of being handed the cards, right? Wrong. Turns out that whole issue with Tom being the only parent who was allowed to sign for the kids came back to bite us. As they dangled the cards and all the completed paperwork in front of me, they said that Tom would have to come in person to pick up the kids’ cards and sign for them. Except nobody mentioned that when we left the last time. Nobody mentioned that on the phone when I called. I had been assured numerous times that only one person would need to be present when we picked up the cards. Nobody ever mentioned that Tom would have to be that person.
And so I lost my shit. In a tirade of angry, mixed Spanish and English, I said that I flew here from La Paz (again), that nobody told me that Tom needed to be the one to pick up the cards, and that I confirmed a few times that the cards were here and that I could pick them up. I refused to take no for an answer. I was probably the dreaded ugly American in that moment. The entitled traveler who is loud and complains and throws tantrums. But I wasn’t complaining about Mexico. I love Mexico. I want to be here legally. I just don’t want to keep making expensive trips back to Ensenada for piddly bureaucratic hurdles just to be told every time that there is some else they need.
The issue was taken quickly to the deputy director, who simply asked if it would be possible to talk with Tom. I put him on the phone, and I believe I heard Tom say at least three times, maybe four, that he gave his full permission for me to pick up the residence cards for the whole family. He thanked Tom, gave the phone back to me, told his staff to process the paperwork, and after another twelve signatures (I’m not joking), I was given my paperwork and the coveted, long-awaited residence cards and sent on my way.
I spent far too much time at the INM in the morning to catch the 9:30 bus to the airport, so I quickly called an Uber and asked him rush to Tijuana. I arrived at the departure terminal and checked in 30 minutes before my boarding time. Plenty of time to spare, right? And when I passed through security, I proudly displayed my residence permit along with my boarding pass. After five months of paperwork hell, I am now, after all, a Mexican resident.
For all the agony that this process has been and the expense it has brought about, I actually feel somewhat guilty complaining. It is nothing compared with someone who has to deal with the American immigration system. I think of so many people I’ve known who spent years in paperwork purgatory to get refugee status, green cards, and citizenship. I think of the smiles and tears of happiness I saw from some of my students when they got their official documentation or American passports. It took them years, sometimes more than a decade. And I think of people I’ve met who put in years of work and residence only to have their papers revoked and told to return to Mexico and start all over. And so I appreciate that it is so easy for us to cross borders. To travel the world. I don’t for a second take it for granted. And if it has given me even the tiniest of glimpses into the frustrating world of immigration documentation, then I appreciate the opportunity to have that glimpse as an immigrant myself.
Migration and the movement of people has been happening for as long as there have been humans on earth. It is how we have populated the world. Migration is driven by economies and opportunities, by war and desperation, by adventure and wanderlust, by persecution and cautious hopes of a better life. Migration is what has grown our own beautiful country and has given it a diversity, a strength, and a uniqueness I am proud of. But I am not proud of the hate and exclusion that has become so pervasive in the United States in the last few years. Walls will not stop migration, nor should they. I don’t (and won’t) often veer into the political, but I find myself drawn to express this as I am now an immigrant to a country where I have received nothing but smiles and welcomes. Where thousands of refugees from Central America are being taken care of and offered residency and jobs. Why is it that they still want to cross the border to the U.S., where they are likely to experience far more hate and prejudice, driven by myths and stereotypes. But paperwork purgatory or no, what all of us migrants have in common is that we’re willing to take a chance. And the more we travel and migrate, the more we learn that we have more in common than different.
Each new place we anchor offers something new to explore or notice or learn. And there is always the eager anticipation for the moment when we can drop the dinghy and putter ourselves onto an unknown shore. In some places, the excitement wears off in an hour, others in a day. And in others, you find yourself looking forward to returning even before you’ve even left. Puerto los Gatos became one of those places for us. We arrived shortly before dark after a long day’s trek from Isla San Francisco and a two-hour provisioning stop in San Evaristo. We were greeted with glowing red rocks that looked like they had been plopped from above like thick pudding. Red pudding.
We were so desperate to get the kids and ourselves ashore that we dropped the dinghy, loaded the kids up in only their underwear and lifejackets, and sped over to the closest beach, which gifted us with a landing that allowed us – almost – to get ashore without getting our feet wet. The kids sprinted up the smooth rocks in their bare feet and explored the ups and downs of the rounded bumps and crevices, smearing their soles and skin with red powdery sand.
On hands and knees, the kids explored the beach, rich with hermit crabs, lobster carcasses, smooth pebbles, and seashells of all sizes and colors. They found water-smoothed rocks that they turned into fishing pangas and drove all over dark beach, racing and betting on who would catch the most fish.
Barely an hour after arriving, we already felt that pang of regret that we would have to leave this beautiful place the next day. We had fast learned that the winter northerly winds in the Sea of Cortez are not to be taken lightly, and we knew we needed to seek a more protected anchorage before the winds moved in.
But we allowed ourselves one more morning. We couldn’t resist the call of the trail that wound through the flat valley between the towering red hills. We wound our way on the rugged road, dodging cattle dung and low-lying cacti. We saw trees! Proper trees, complete with bark and branches and leaves. And we saw the biggest cactus we had ever seen. We wondered if the cattle ate the cactus fruit and whether woodpeckers had made the holes in the large green barrels. We circled back to the beach for a snack and play time with the rock-pangas, and we stayed until the breeze began to pick up. “There a few white caps out there,” I said to Tom. No time for a dinghy cruise to explore the reefs. The kids stowed their panga-rocks in a secret place, and we headed north to the more protected nook of Agua Verde.
We were so excited to return a few weeks later that we opted for a long 38-mile day under motor from from Puerto Escondido back down to the glowing Los Gatos rocks. And this time the calm weather allowed us three days. Three days of exploring, swimming, hiking, playing, and fishing. I dove below the water and saw new a host of new animals – a chocolate chip starfish, a bullseye pufferfish, a live lobster hiding under a rock, and countless new reef fish. Tom spent hours trying out new lures in fishing-approved waters. The kids retrieved their rock-pangas, which provided additional hours of entertainment (I love that rocks are their favorite toys). And in a rare event, we were the oldest couple of the three boats in the anchorage, indicating the increasing tendency of people of all ages to pursue an alternative lifestyle. We went hiking with our neighbors on the kid boat and chatted fishing and sailing with the young couple on the other boat. We enjoyed our time at Los Gatos. We were beautifully present at Los Gatos.
Puerto Los Gatos. Port of the cats. Even our cat was content there. Or maybe it’s just that we didn’t turn the motor on for three days. And Demon may not be looking forward to the time when we return, but we are. We are looking forward to a return to this red pudding playground teeming with life, sand, salt, and presence.
Our hiking adventures on the Baja got off to a rocky start. For that matter, they continued to be pretty rocky the whole time, just more literally than figuratively. And steep and rocky has continued to be the theme. For two lovers of hiking and backpacking trying to instill the love of hiking in two young kids with still-short legs, it has been a somewhat frustrating prospect. But the fun part is that we have found something new and unexpected around each bend, and the irony is that the extra challenge has made the successful attempts that much sweeter. Even the I’m-going-to-whine-about-how-hot-and-tired-I-am-even-before-we’ve-started Andy is now (sometimes) completing three hour hikes with nary a complaint. I call that success.
Our first attempt at hiking at a park on the outskirts of Ensenada resulted in our Uber driver turning us around after decoding a sign at the park that said something about noxious poisons and fumigating for bugs. Back to Ensenada we went. Our second attempt – on Isla San Martin – resulted similarly in a decision to stay on the beach because taking two young children on a rocky, cactus-strewn bushwhacking scramble up a steep mountain after an overnight passage required more energy and patience than we had that day.
Our third attempt – in the beautiful Bahia Santa Maria two-thirds of the way down Baja’s Pacific coast – was a little more successful. We walked along the trail and marveled at the array of purple, pink, and yellow flowers sprouting tiny and brilliant on hillsides that, from a distance, had looked so lifeless, dry, and endlessly brown. However, our efforts to get us all back to the boat safely after that short hike resulted in the children being ferried on my shoulders out past the crashing surf while Sara and Tom, chest deep in the water, tried to hold the dinghy steady in the swell (no pictures, we were a little busy and wet). The next day, despite a strong desire to go back ashore for a longer hike, we examined landing spot after landing spot and decided the surf was far too big for us to navigate safely. It was a disappointed afternoon we spent aboard the boat that day.
We were excited to land on the red volcanic islands of Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, which are part of Mexico’s National Park system and boast a few marked trails and plenty of unmarked scrambles. But our first attempt at the hike in Ensenada Grande showed us what to expect on those so-called “trails.” A cairn marked the start of a trail, and the first 50 yards offered a narrow and over-grown, but still clear trail through the brush. Then the boulders began. The remainder of the trail was marked with little posts, saying turn right, turn left, or go straight. Under normal circumstances, that might be useful, but when you’re facing an canyon full of massive red boulders, “go straight” isn’t entirely straightforward.
Much clearer was the similarly bouldery hike a few anchorages south in El Mezteno. Instead of vague signs, it actually was well-marked with cairns. Even an hour up my climb into the canyon, which I had ventured into alone armed with water, a half a packet of crackers, and a radio, there were still clear cairns marking the trail, or um, way. Only at one point, in a grove dense with brush and cacti and even a few trees, did I have to poke around a little and elevate myself on a rock to find the next cairn. Making a mental note of the landmarks around me at that unclear spot, I continued on and never lost the path again.
Our first real (i.e. free of boulders) hike came in La Paz. After weeks there and desperate for a little wilderness, we went in search of a nearby hike, which we found at Cerro de la Calavera (the trailhead is near Marina Palmira). We couldn’t find a bus that would go there, but we shelled out the $3 for an Uber to take us and gave vague directions that we had found online. The driver asked where to drop us. “Um… maybe there,” was my totally unsure response, looking forward at a dirt road that looked more like an entry into a private construction site than a trailhead. But the directions online said the trail started a little way down the road, and once we could see it up above us on the hill, we scrambled up a steep, rocky escarpment. The rest of the trail was fairly easy and pleasant, with the one exception that we had chosen to do the hike right smack dab in the middle of a 90 degree day. But the hike was short and worth the view, so I guess that means it was worth the whining.
Another proper hike came at Caleta Lobos, an anchorage just north of La Paz. It’s only vice being a colony of flies and bees, Caleta Lobos is a beautiful and fun anchorage with plenty to keep everybody busy. We could see the trail snaking up the hill behind us, and the way to get there was – you guessed it – a steep, rocky cut in the hillside. Sense the theme? We scrambled and climbed up it using all four limbs, then proceeded along a refreshingly normal trail that gave us a beautiful view over La Paz’s little peninsula in both directions as well as the deep green mangrove lagoon below.
Isla San Francisco, where we holed up for three days to wait out a northerly wind storm, offered plenty of fun exploring. We bounced our way across the salt flats, tasted salt from the salt ponds, and examined the vast array of cacti on this dry, protected island. As we meandered up a benign-looking hillside and neared the top, we heard Dylan scream “Andy, stop, don’t go any further! Andy get down!” And he grabbed Andy’s life jacket and made him sit on the ground. Ten feet from them, right where the trail continued along the ridge, was a cliff going almost straight down to the rocks and crashing waves below. Hurray for our safety-boy. We praised him for his quick thinking and automatic response, though it gave him nightmares for days. That hike was, however, very worth the view, as we could see the raging white caps in the San Jose Channel and our little Korvessa tucked into the protected (though not totally calm) waters of the big bay.
Not precisely a hike, but a long walk out to the salt pond on Isla Carmen proved a playground of rusty, sharp fun for all the boat kids. A salt mining operation on the island had shut down in thee early 1980’s, and the remnants of that once bustling industry sat rusting in the flat sand. For any of us, it may be a sad sight, but for kids it offers only hours of fun and play.
A day later, in the anchorage of Punta Perico also on Isla Carmen, we took a long walk up an arroyo (a wash, or small canyon), where we found a dead turtle and lots of bighorn sheep bones. The kids played “run ahead and hide then jump out and scare the adults” the whole way up. I didn’t see my little 4-year-old for most of the way up the arroyo. But Andy is learning to keep up with the big kids, and I saw that the rockiness this time was actually a help to him rather than a hindrance. Our big mistake on this hike was not bringing enough water. Even on a relatively cool day in Mexico, the midday sun can be scorching, especially when you get into the still air of a canyon. Yes, we were out hiking in the middle of the day again.
Our most recent hike was in Puerto Escondido, a port just south of the town of Loreto. We ended up having a little trouble finding the trailhead, so we started our hike from the end rather than the beginning (though I guess that depends on which way you’re facing). We saw a roughly drawn map showing that the “view trail” would be 1.3 kilometers. Sounded good to us, especially since we were only armed with 3 water bottles and a bag of chips. But we soon learned that that 1.3 km was only half the trail. Once we hit the end of that trail and had to turn, we still had another 1.5 or more km to go to actually get off the trail and back onto the road. Oops. And it was midday. Again. Why do we keep doing this? Seriously. The reality is that getting kids ready to go in the morning is as hard (if not harder) than getting them ready to go on land, and we inevitably are more focused on getting them out the door (um, hatch) with shoes and lifejackets on rather than thinking about the long term plan. And when what is supposed to be a one hour walk turns into a 3.5-hour steep hike, you just have to roll with it and stay positive.
But there were multiple joys in this particular hike. First, there was a rudimentary map with distance estimates. Even though it was a little misleading, it was still something! Second, Andy and Dylan delighted at finding painted rocks all along the view trail. It made it pretty easy to keep them moving. Actually, that wouldn’t have been hard. They both pretended to be the “Thunder Mountain Railroad” train as they raced along the beautiful trail with bluffs plummeting down to the blue water below. We trusted all the brush and cacti would halt their fall. Third, In the three and a half hours of hiking, I think I only heard one complaint from the boys. I heard more from Tom, who was hungry and hot. The kids just kept trekking along as we made our way up and down the rocky ledges to the safety of the valley below.
Hiking on the Baja hasn’t always proved straightforward. It’s not as simple as finding a trailhead, parking your car, and making your way up a nicely maintained and clearly marked trail. But the difference is refreshing. Even Tom was intrigued to see some non-reinforced steps on one of the trails that in the Pacific Northwest would have turned immediately into a waterfall, but here in this more barren land works pretty well. We see something new every time we venture up into each arroyo or canyon or salt plain. We’re learning to be prepared for rocks and boulders and to look out for snakes and cacti. And one of these days, eventually, we will learn not to venture out during the hottest part of the day!
We left La Paz on January 21 with plans to head north and meet up with another kid boat we had met earlier (they’re few and far between, so we tend to stick together or at least coordinate when possible). We knew there would be some strong north winds coming, so we staked out anchorages that would be protected and identified the calm(er) day that would allow us to make a big jump up to the next set of islands. But when cruising you need to write you write your plans in the sand at low tide. Our engine conspired against us to require a return trip to La Paz, and Tom will tell in his own words in an upcoming post the Saga of Our Engine and Its Oil. Stay tuned. In the mean time, here’s an overview of our eight-day escape from urban life.
Our first stop was Puerta Balandra, a stunning tourquoise cove with the famous mushroom rock tucked in under a tall bluff. Dylan and I jumped in the water straight from the boat the minute the anchor was set and swam to shore, followed by Tom and Andy in the dinghy. We all splashed and played and snorkled in the water while the sun went down until the evening cool drove us all back to the boat. It was picture-perfect until the wind piped up at 1:00 a.m. Balandra is not, as it turns out, a good place to anchor in north winds.
So we drove to a cove just a few minutes south, Caleta Lobos, which provided adequate protection from wind and waves, as well as plenty of to play. The kids loved the beach and the mangrove lagoon, and I loved the real hike (complete with trail and not just boulders to climb). It wasn’t a good place for swimming, because the head of the bay is simply too shallow, but it had more than enough on land to keep us busy.
We braved a slightly less windy and wavy day to head north to Isla Espiritu Santo, where we tucked into El Mezteno, a cozy cove with a beach, a hike, and a whole bunch of pelicans and sea turtles to watch. And decent protection from the swell building out in the Sea. We had planned to stay one night and make a big jump north to meet our friends. No such luck after Tom checked the oil. So we stayed put in Mezteno for a few more days. The boys dug holes in the sand and found a massive boulder they turned into their spaceship. I went swimming once and attempted the hike up the canyon. We couldn’t do much swimming because the wind made the kids far too cold to stay in the water long, but a calmer day would make this a kid-friendly splash park.
But eventually we were all itching to move again. We again faced the wind and waves to head around a point to Caleta Partida, a large bay that separates Isla Espiritu Santo from Isla Partida. It is actually the crater of an extinct volcano, which is very clear to see when you’re on the inside. There is only a shallow strip of water and long sand spits which separate the two islands, so protection from outside swell is good, though the wind funnels down the crater slopes and through the gap, providing a good fresh breeze to cool your boat and challenge your anchor.
Caleta Partida became a favorite. Though we only spent one night there, we enjoyed the time and made profuse promises to Dylan that we would come back. The kids found whale bones and pufferfish skeletons littering the east side of the rocky spit, and Dylan was fascinated by the fish camp (unfortunately, no one was there to buy fish from). We met a boat with a captain from Switzerland and a crew member from Taiwan, who had me over for a drink and and chatted about details of cruising Japan and the north Pacific.
We enjoyed the wildnerness again for the eight days that we were out, but La Paz and its marine stores were calling us back. Gray clouds do certainly have their silver linings, though, and one of the silver linings of returning to La Paz was that we met two more kid boats, one with a boy Dylan’s age and one with a boy Andy’s age. While the kids have become used to having each other as playmates, it’s still really good for them to meet other kids and learn to play together. Andy would gladly stay glued to my side all day, but that isn’t what I want, and he even told me that he is shy when he first meets somebody, but then later becomes friends.
We’re headed back out to the islands tomorrow, with hopes and plans to make our way north again to see if we can rendezvous with our friends and get a little more kid-time and wilderness time!
On a rainy afternoon last week, Dylan and I embarked on a tour of La Paz’s murals. Our guide, Amelie, led us along crumbling sidewalks and flooding streets to some of the murals of downtown La Paz. She explained the project that has connected international artists with local artists to encourage them to explore what they would like to express about their cultures and communities. She walked us through the symbolism in the paintings and the stories and inspiration behind them.
Without going into the details too much – because, really, you should take Amelie’s tour (in English, French, or Spanish!) – I will say that it was really eye-opening to see how the artists depicted people’s connection to the land and ocean and tried to bring into focus the influence of the indigenous populations, whose culture is so important to Mexico but whose social and economic status is still so low. Amelie’s anthropological background and her clear love of stories and histories made this a memorable and enlightening experience.
I wasn’t sure how much Dylan absorbed from the tour as he seemed more interested in savoring the cool rain than in looking at the murals or listening to the stories. But then two days later, as we walked past one of the murals, he was intent upon showing Andy the mural and getting him to find all the hidden pictures in the elephant. This kid absorbs and observes more than I give him credit for!
If you’re coming through La Paz, you can contact Amelie to arrange a tour. See her poster at the bottom of this post.
Perhaps there is something in its name, The Peace. Or perhaps there is something about a place that that has whale murals and puppy graffiti around every corner. Or perhaps it is that its streets are lined with trees and shade and old world cobblestones. Whatever it is, La Paz is calmer, the traffic less hurried, the people less harried. It has seeped into our psyche, too, and for the first time in months, we feel like we can take deep breaths.
But it didn’t happen immediately. We arrived in La Paz exhausted and relieved, but left after only a few days for Isla Espiritu Santo so that we could at least get a small taste of the islands of the Sea of Cortez, especially before Sara left to return to Denmark. We arrived back to La Paz only to do three hurried loads of laundry, pack ourselves up, and board a bus north for Loreto, leaving Tom behind to work on the boat.
My parents awaited us at the beautiful resort of Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto. The desert colored hotel blended into the towering brown and rust hills, dotted with Baja sand, trees, and cacti. I felt a strong “hurry up and relax” reaction as I looked down on the turtle-shaped pool and swaying palm trees. It was someone’s verion of Paradise, but as long as such strong anxiety and helplessness kept my brain hostage, I wouldn’t find my paradise. While you can’t argue with happy hour cocktails over a stunning view of red cliffs rising out of a tourquoise bay, there was no amount of forced relaxation that could keep me from wondering whether Dylan’s increasingly difficult behavior was a manifestation of some diagnosable problem or simply the reaction to his world being flipped upside down. Either way, I questioned everything about what we were doing and my ability to handle it.
A tear-filled late night discussion with Tom resulted in our agreeing to have a family meeting to establish a more regular schedule and expectations (long overdue, but it was so difficult with our intense travel schedule). We also agreed not to make any decisions about the future until we had had a chance to see if a modicum of stability would have an effect. And so we returned to La Paz for our Pause. As the bus concluded its five hour journey, meandering through the streets of La Paz and pulling into its parking spot along the malecon while the sun began to dip below the horizon, I felt hopeful that we could find something here that we had lost. Perhaps a little bit of peace not only in our daily lives, but in our minds. We sat down to set our schedule together, the kids deciding which day should be baking day and which days should be game night and movie night. And so we began our week and our new year cautiously hopeful.
By Thursday, Dylan was declaring that he wanted to do science every day including Saturdays, and by Friday he was explaining to Andy excitedly that they had to work together to sweep and vacuum the floor. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t still meltdowns and episodes of uncontrollable intensity (there are). It doesn’t mean that our kids are running through fields of flowers and bringing us bouquets of flowers with peppering us with kisses and hugs (they aren’t). And it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some work to be done on our own parenting, teaching, and acceptance skills (there is, and we are still working our way through some new books and resources). But it does mean that might be able to find a way to live together. It means we have a little hope.
It means we can enjoy exploring this city for a little while and discover all the little things that make us happy: shrimp tacos, craft beer, swingsets, pools with lane lines, wood fired pizzas, restaurants with playgrounds, bunnies to pet, and turtles to feed. So here are a few descriptive pictures of the La Paz that we are getting to know:
The 50 meter pool I found out in the corner of the city was surrounded by dirt roads and rickety bus stops and took a 15-minute walk and a 15 minute bus ride to get there. It was old, but clean, cool, long, and empty. I was so excited to be in my first proper pool since San Diego that I did far more than my aching muscles appreciated.
The kids are currently on their second trip to the Serpentario to look at turtles, snakes, and alligators and to feed a bunch of rescue bunnies and guinea pigs.
We’ve made multiple stops at an open air taco restaurant with wood tables and a grass hut roof that has shrimp tacos to die for. And nestled in the back corner of the restaurant is a treehouse and swingset that is the most welcome sight of all. Another restaurant has become a favorite: Harker Board Co, which has amazing wood fired pizzas and craft beer on tap. We hear perhaps more English there than we would like, but the atmosphere makes us happy, and the waiters are thrilled when we speak Spanish.
The malecon is a never-ending delight. There is great pleasure in being able to walk along the path, watching roller bladers, runners, walkers, cyclists, and tour boat operaters encouraging more recruits. Parents sit on benches while their children lick ice cream cones or crash tricycles into trees. Toddlers navigate the playground with overwhelmed and eager eyes as older kids climb and run circles around them. Bronze statues rise out of the concrete every few hundred yards, giving homage to a life that is connected to this Sea.
And so we pause and enjoy life here. The time will come when we will move on. But that is not today. And though there is a lot of planning to be done, this Pause in La Paz gives us time to remember how to live in the present. And this city of peace is the perfect place to do it.
An addendum about Christmas: Despite the change of the plans and Dylan’s increasingly erratic behavior, the almost two weeks we spent up near Loreto really were quite wonderful. The bus ride up to Loreto was uneventful, and the kids were over the moon to see their grandparents. Dylan spent the day getting his energy out by swimming and swimming and swimming, while Andy kept his water antics to the safe depth of the stairs.
We found a small Christmas tree at a Segundo in Loreto, decorating it with the small handful of ornaments that I brought.
The kids were also delighted with the opportunity to make gingerbread houses, though their favorite was the human sized gingerbread house in the resort’s courtyard.
We had a wonderful Christmas dinner in Loreto with family and friends and had time to explore this small city, which is almost exactly the same size as Anacortes, about 17,000 people.
We said goodbye to Sara, who had been with us for 3.5 months. It was a tearful goodbye, and the boys have already been asking when she is coming back! We hope she’ll be able to come out and visit us in the Pacific Northwest someday, so she can see a little of our neck of the woods.
Though the 12 days we spent near Loreto was angst-ridden on my part, it was really wonderful to spend time with family, to be away from the boat for a little while, and to begin the resetting process. We are hopeful and excited to start 2019, and wish all of you a very happy new year, too!
As we sailed slowly past Cabo Pulmo at the east end of Baja’s large cape, we gave a nod in quick recognition that we were finally in the Sea of Cortez. The Sea of Cortez. The goal we had had our sights on for so long. But as we dropped the sails, turned into the north wind, and started to motor the rest of yet another long day, we didn’t celebrate much. We were too tired, and there were more long days ahead of us. We didn’t celebrate as we anchored in beautiful Bahia de los Muertos, even as we enjoyed a little swim and an amazing view over dinner. We didn’t celebrate as we pulled into stunning Puerta Balandra, with it’s tourquoise waters and white shell beaches. We didn’t celebrate as we came into La Paz, though we gave thanks for the availability of a dock during the next round of north winds and another kid-boat to commune with. We didn’t celebrate as we reached the red cliffs and live waters of Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida. And as the tears began to flow day after day, we finally had to name our malaise: Exhaustion.
We initially blamed it on the physical exhaustion of coming down the long Baja coast, of the toll that all those overnight sails had on all of us. But we have realized that it’s so much more than that. It’s the forced daily routine of monitoring the weather and grabbing the right weather window. Of always having to press on because of that narrow window and impending dates ahead. It’s the constant worry about the state of the engine and the batteries but not being able to take the time to diagnose and fix them. It’s the challenge of pounding nose-in to the wind and waves for hours on end or even of motoring steadily into calm seas for hours on end. It’s the weariness caused by waking 20 plus times a night from the waves, wind, or swell knocking the boat around and never feeling well-rested. It’s the frustration with the severity of the northerlies that whip through here at this time of year and the sinking disappointment with the realization that we wouldn’t be able to make it to Puerto Escondido by boat for Christmas.
And it’s life beyond the boating. It’s the tedium of parenting a cheeky 4 year old and an out-of-sync 6 year old who’s acting like a 4 year old because he hasn’t had any other playmates. Of figuring out how to teach a bright, sensitive, intense daydreamer with no interest in reading alongside a precocious, know-it-all preschooler. It’s constantly trying to find the control to not yell, and to make gentle reminders over and over and over again. It’s the repetition of in-vain attempts to keep the boat tidy and finally(!)-not-so-in-vain attempts to get the kids to help (sort of).
Exhaustion isn’t a problem if you have the opportunity to recover. But with little room to recover in sight, my morale sinks lower and lower, and my confidence in myself and this whole adventure wanes. And if I didn’t know already that our kids absorb all our stress, Dylan announced to me this morning that he wanted to go back to the blue house (our house back in Anacortes) and have things the way they were. I promised I would write about the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is the ugly where the bottom feeders live. But it is the plain truth about our current mental states.
Winter is supposed to be a time of rest and hibernation, of retreat and silence and minimalism. So recognizing that we need rest and TLC, that the boat needs rest and TLC (see footnote), and that the cat is going to jump ship if we turn the motor on one more time, we have opted to get a dock for at least a month and stay put in La Paz for as long as it takes for us to feel rested and restless again. It will cost a lot of money, but our mental health needs it, including the mental health of our aging feline family member. Knowing this is the plan, and having a moment to walk alone down the long malecon and breathe deeply, I began to feel a little better, a little hope that there might be a chance to recover.
Something a therapist told me years ago was to look for and recognize ten beautiful things each day, a suggestion that has buoyed my spirits on more than one occasion over the last few years. And I feel it’s important to mention that our exhaustion hasn’t been so deep that we haven’t been able to appreciate the beauty that we are moving through. Red mountains dotted with green cacti and yellow and pink flowers. Blue waters so clear we can see our anchor 30 feet down and the wide variety of fish taking refuge under our boat. Our kids’ joy playing in the warm water and finding their own new confidence in salt water. White sand and shell beaches. Gorgeous colorful fish that we keep having to look up. Houses and buildings of all colors climbing up the hillside. Children screeching in delight as they ride bikes down the malecon. It is not lost on us. It is beautiful. We only need to rest a little – a lot – so we can once again look past our blurry fatigue to see and appreciate the beauty in what we are out here doing.
Footnote: The boat needs rest and attention as much as we do. The engine’s oil pressure has been abnormally low, and Tom’s continued diagnostics have not yielded satisfactory results. One battery charger seemingly stopped working, and though it is resolved, it has not resolved the fact that our batteries are draining quickly and that the alternator is not doing much to fill them up, even on long days of motoring. One of our bilge pumps is not working, and our forward head is out of commission again. Our little electric motor on our dinghy is beginning to be unreliable due to corrosion. In the first four years of owning our boat, we put in 250 engine hours. In the last 6 months, we’ve put in 500 more. The sails, the rig, and the steering have all been working harder, too. So, Korvessa needs rest and attention. Yet, she has continued to perform flawlessly for us and keep us safe, even in the short period 12-foot seas that greeted us as we left Isla Partida a few days ago. Time for some maintenance for all.