Cruising with Cadenza

"I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." Steel Magnolias

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06 March 2017 | Ipala

Playa el Burro

03 March 2014
Terri Potts-Chattaway
February 26, 2014

Today we climbed a mountain. Shawn and Heather, authors of Sea of Cortez, A Cruiser's Guidebook, call it a “...hike, a beautiful trail...meandering...to the top of a hill.” Well, yeah, sure. But I call it a mountain. We aren't hikers, we're sailors. At least I haven't done a hike like this in years. The trail was mostly washed out – although there were rock cairns guiding our way. And it was steep and rocky and slippery. Jay called it a treacherous, ankle-breaking accident waiting to happen. But it was beautiful and when we got to the top, the views were absolutely incredible, as promised. Unfortunately, we never saw the petroglyphs, but we did see the reddish brown rocks they call bell rocks. That is because if you throw a rock at them and hit it just right, they sound like bells – due to their high iron content. After we threw several rocks at various larger rocks we heard the bell. Not really a highlight of our day.

Not to mention it was high noon and hot! We always mean well when we start out in the morning. And today was no different. We were aiming to leave early to get our hike in before the heat of the day. But after we listened to the weather at 0745, had breakfast and cleaned up the galley, dropped the dinghy, and went into shore it was already after 0930. By the time we actually got to the bottom of the mountain to start our hike it was ten. That meant we hit the top of the mountain around noon. We reached the road again at 1400, or two pm. Needless to say it was a long, strenuous trek. At times it felt like we were doing a balancing act on the rocks, and at others, we were sliding down the hill on the little pebbles that performed like a sheet of ice. Great fun. In the end, there were no ankles broken although we both took a fall. A couple of bruises, a few scratches, brushed the dirt off and got up again. I guess we are hikers, after all.

So much of cruising is about the natural beauty and being in nature. But it is also about the people we meet along the way. Here in El Burro we have met several interesting personalities.

After we found level ground, Jay wanted to head over to the tienda, about a quarter mile up the road, for some Gatorade. No tienda. Not there, anyway. We did find JC's, a a palapa that housed a restaurant/bar. We had a bottle of water and a cold beer. Ahh, refreshing. And shade too!

In some areas of Mexico, particularly the remote areas of Baja, life can be rugged. Raw. In El Burro, there is no piped-in water. The residents take big barrels to the river in Mulege to collect water. There are lots of dirt floors and outside bathrooms. When there is toilet paper, it never goes in toilets, and sometimes you flush with a bucket of water. Solar is their form of electricity. Solar and car batteries and generators. They cook, mostly, with propane and as there is no cell tower, they communicate via VHF radio. Dogs and cats wander in and out of restaurants. I found two kitties in the back of a restaurant kitchen, sleeping on the carrots. Cute, but not too clean. There are no screens to keep out the flys. So the flys often find us, as well as the food. But Mexicans take what they have and they make it work. And they make it attractive. And they try to keep things clean.

JC's is a quaint palapa alongside Highway 1, just across the road from our anchorage. There is a bright, shiny firetruck sitting under a carport next door. The entrance to JC's is dirt but lined with plants. The dining area has about eight plastic tables covered with brightly colored cloth. There is a take-out window on one side of the kitchen and a bar on the other. The “walls” or rather, sides, are shaded with cloth, protecting us from the sun but still allowing the breeze to get through. The floors are beautiful. Stones set in dirt. In the dining area there is a cactus garden off to the side. Someone takes great care in the landscaping. The open-air room is decorated with an eclectic array of visuals . There are some burgees and flags. There are little stuffed animals hanging here and there. There are fish heads, and turtle shells and even a full skeleton of a dolphin. Quite the display.

When we arrive there is only Manuel, the bartender, and one lone man sitting at a table drinking a beer. His clothes are worn and his fingernails are dirty. He wears an emergency radio on his left belt loop. His skin is weathered by the sun and his teeth are in need of repair. We would find out later that his name is Alex and he is an Englishman who dropped out from the “normal” way of life; pursing a career or working oneself to the bone just to survive. Instead, he moved to Mexico and is living quite simply on very little money. He is very happy he says. He doesn't want for much. We are told he is an expert on solar and was into electronics in his previous life. This is how he earns a living here in Mexico. He helps people throughout the neighboring area with their solar; sometimes for money and sometimes for trade. And sometimes just as a favor. He also watches houses in summer for the winter residents. He is a volunteer fireman and thus, wears the emergency radio.

Manuel is short and probably in his mid-fifties. He has a quiet demeanor and a warm smile. He is the consummate server as he stands at his command post, behind the bar, anticipating our every need.

Two more men arrive, both Mexicans in jeans and tee-shirts, order a beer and join Alex, at his table. In a matter of minutes another man, not unlike the others, enters and orders a vodka tonic. One of the men lifts his glass in a toast. “Salute!” he says to the room. The five of us lift our glasses up. “Salute!” Mexican folk music plays in the background.

Suddenly, a young man about thirty years of age appears, standing in the kitchen doorway. He too is unkempt. His black curly hair is disheveled and his clothes look like he slept in them. He wears jeans and his shirt is half tucked in and the bottom button is unbuttoned showing off his chubby belly hanging over his belt.

The woman behind him, however, presents a flawless appearance. She is beautiful with long, dark, wavy hair flowing down her back. She wears a tan knit sweater that clings close as do her tight jeans. They flatter her tiny but curvy body. She wears make-up and heels. Low heels, but heels nevertheless. Curiously, she is an exquisite addition to this motley group.

There is yet one more person in the kitchen, behind her. I only catch a glimpse of him. He looks older than the other two. JC maybe? JC is reportedly the cousin of Bertha.

Who are these people and what role do they play in each other's lives?

The young man about thirty years of age is Bertha's son. The beautiful woman by his side, his wife. She too, is called Bertha. Mama Bertha owns JC's and Bertha's Beach Club & Restaurant in El Burro, and Bertha's Tiende & Pollo Palapa in El Coyote. Looks like mama has the restaurant monopoly in the area. This Mexican family runs a tight business.

We finish our beer and ask for the check. Before we leave, Alex tells us we should come back for the fish tacos. “JC's has the best I've ever tasted.” he says. We make note of that and leave for Bertha's Beach Club & Restaurant, as we had planned earlier, to have a bite to eat.

Bertha's has a completely different vibe. When Jay and I were sitting in JC's with Mexican folk music in the background and our new friends making a toast, I looked at him and said, “Now I really feel like I am in Mexico.” It was a palapa, a bar, a hang. Bertha's feels more like an official restaurant. It is a real building made of stone and wood and has Isinglass windows with bright blue framing. There is a lovely view of the bay. It probably can hold eighty or more people with seating both inside and outside. It is colorful like JC's. They have a huge Mexican flag hanging across the ceiling over the bar. A Canadian flag hangs over the tables. Two weeks later, Valentine's Day decorations are still hanging from the ceiling. Hearts of various sizes and a few cupids. There is a bookshelf in the corner that is used as a lending library. But the most telling difference is that, by the end of the night, Bertha's will feel more like a gringo hangout than the Mexican JC's we just left.

It is around 3pm when we arrive and there are no other customers yet. This time the bartender's name is Amelia. She is a heavy-set woman with a pretty face made up with make-up. She wears her straight hair short. In the corner sit two other women. Young girls maybe in their twenties. One is the cook and one is Coco, the daughter of the manager. They are friends.

Amelia speaks English fairly well and rattles off the menu. There is no written menu. We can't seem to remember all the items so we ask her again and again to repeat them. Each time the menu changes and there are fewer and fewer items. We finally give up and order the last thing she said, Carne Asada. With that we add a beer and a vodka tonic.

A truck pulls up with a woman and a dog riding on her lap. The dog quickly jumps out of the truck and comes running inside. This dog has been here before. The woman makes a rather obvious entrance as she trips over a rock and swears. She quickly apologizes for swearing. This is Karen. She is an American and, if I were to guess, mid-western. She is partners with the manager, Celia, who will enter shortly. She says a quick hello and mentions we should come back later. There will be music.

Celia arrives. She is another pretty Mexican woman who dresses well and is extremely vivacious. Her personality lends itself well to managing a restaurant.

Before long, all five of them are sitting around the table in the corner; Amelia, Coco, Celia, Karen and the cook. They are eating a meal before the dinner crowd arrives. They are gabbing and laughing and suddenly break out in song. This is not unusual in Mexican restaurants and by now, Jay and I are used to it. We go over to ask if we can film them.

Three hours later we are still at Bertha's. We have learned that Celia leased Bertha's for five years and her lease is up this summer. She was born in Mexico, spent twelve years in Canada raising her two girls, Coco and the one who is still in Canada, and moved to Mulege with Coco about six years ago. She is happy to be back in her homeland. When Coco was fifteen her grandfather gave her a restaurant as a gift for her quinsenera. Now that she is twenty-one she can legally own and operate it. It is in El Coyote, next to Bertha's Tiende and Pollo Palapa. Now that their lease will be up at Bertha's, Celia and Coco intend to open up this new restaurant in El Coyote. Look out Bertha, competition is coming to town!

It turns out Karen is not mid-western but from Virginia. In her previous life, she was a conductor in both Illinois and Nashville. She is a flautist. A rather good one as we heard her play at Bertha's. She left America when things fell apart in her business and she found it difficult to find work. She sold her house and practically everything she owned and picked up and moved to Mulege five years ago. She picked this place because of how inexpensive it is to live here.

The DJ arrives and so do more customers. There is a table of eight and a table of one. All are gringos. Celia flutters about, smiling and making everyone feel at home. Amelia is busy working, as is the cook. Coco is back in the kitchen helping.

Karen goes up and talks with the DJ. She brings out her flute. It is a Haynes flute with a gold mouthpiece and she is very proud of it. She sits down on a stool and her dog jumps on her lap, lying there while she plays along with Diana Krall's, “It's Wonderful.” She is very good. We stay for a set, say our goodbyes and go for a sunset walk along the beach.

Four doors down we run into Geary, our weather guru, sitting on his porch with a friend. We finally get to meet the man behind the voice. He is welcoming and reminds me of Kris Kringle from “Miracle on 34th St.,” complete with the kind twinkle in his eyes. We chat for a while, telling him how much we appreciate his work, take a few photos, and then head back to the dinghy. The sun is going down and it's time to get back to the boat.

February 27, 2014

It is 0800 and we have just listened to Geary's weather report on the Sunrisa net. I hear something outside.

“Jay, stop. Wait. Listen. Can you hear that?” I say as I climb up the stairs to the deck.

“What?” he asks, not hearing anything due to the SSB static. He is turning off the radio but still has the VHF radio on.

“Turn off the radio! I think I hear bagpipes!”

In fact, I did. It is the beginning of “Amazing Grace” blaring loudly out from shore. I guess it is coming from Geary's palapa and I am right. It starts out as a solo and then a full orchestra joins in, and then ends, again, with a solo. All I can do is smile.

It is a spiritual moment.

This happened yesterday. And it happened again today. Evidently, Geary plays this every morning at 0800. We never asked him why. But then, does it really matter?

Today is a water day and we take the dinghy cruising to explore the six coves of what they call Bahia Coyote. The sea is flat and calm. I think this is one of the most beautiful places we have visited yet.

Noon arrives and it is time to taste those great fish tacos they are serving at JC's. Manuel is there and so is Alex. No one else at the moment. We order the fish tacos and beer and have to agree with Alex. These are the best fish tacos we've had– at least since we've been in Ensenada.

It is Thursday, movie night at JC's. They have a big sheet stretched against the back fence, outside the palapa where they will show “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” along with serving Carnitas. Will we be back? Manuel asks.

Hmm, had we known.... But tomorrow we set sail so tonight we must tuck in early after boat chores. Now it is time for provisioning. Such as it is in these parts. We head to Bertha's Tienda.

Mama Bertha sits inside her tienda, hand sewing, while waiting for the next customer. That would be us. There is a surprisingly decent selection of staples. We buy boxed milk, canned mushrooms, four tomatoes, an onion, garlic, four empanadas; two apple, two cheese, flour tortillas, a dozen eggs, and a six pack of Indio beer. At the last minute we throw in two small packages of Oreo cookies.

Jay asks about the chicken. Bertha doesn't understand our English. I direct Jay next door where the Pollo Palapa is. It is a take-out or eat at the table, casual, kind of place. Jay asks the man behind the counter how the chicken is served.

The one man at the table speaks English and offers to interpret. He tells us the chicken is flattened out and grilled, served with french fries and salad for 55 pesos. It is a very large portion, he says. Just look at the semi-empty plates on the table over there. And, yes, it can be ordered to go.

Jay orders two chicken platters to go. That will be our dinner so I don't have to cook. We sit down not far from the gentleman who helped us and had a beer.

Errol is his name and he moved here six years ago. He lives on a ranch back in the hills. He, too, is weathered from the sun and has a mouth in need of repair. His eyes twinkle with mischief. He has a good sense of humor and regals us with tales for the next hour while we have not one, but two beers. He is interesting company. He points out Bertha's son and daughter-in-law as they get out of their truck. They are here to gather supplies for movie night.

“Carnitas are ready!” The man yells to Errol.

“Okay, I will be there in a bit.” Errol responds as he looks at his watch and pours more of his beer into his glass.

He explains that the beautiful woman is the man's wife and they have a son about ten years old. Later that son delivers his Grandma Bertha, dinner. It is carnitas, from JC's. I find it sweet to see that kind of love and respect for his elders coming from a child. This is the Mexican way.

Soon it is time to cart our groceries ¾ of a mile down the dirt path in a hot desert sun back to our dinghy. We make way to our boat, put the dinghy to bed, and prepare for tomorrow's journey. It has been a wonderful visit here in Bahia Conception. Despite my introduction to The Real Sailor's Club, I am so glad we came.
Comments
Vessel Name: Cadenza
Vessel Make/Model: Hardin 45' Ketch
Hailing Port: Malibu, California
Crew: Jay Chattaway, Terri Potts-Chattaway
About: Jay has owned Cadenza for over 20 years. He originally bought her in La Paz, Mexico (known as Mercury One and before that as Mar y Vent) and brought her up to the Channel Islands. Terri fell in love with sailing and Cadenza over ten years ago and she has been a labor of love ever since.
Extra:
The Plan: We are to leave Channel Islands Harbor the beginning of September, 2013 and head to San Diego for a few months of prep and family time. Next, we leave for La Paz (we love it there) the beginning of November. We will winter out of La Paz, exploring the Sea of Cortez. This is the first [...]
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