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Eclairs, ruins and falls
03/18/2012, Chiapis

After our benign crossing of the Tuhuanapec we spent a week at marina Chiapis. The Marina is on the verge of opening, so the docks are in place, the water and electrical lines are in place, but there is no electricity and the water is intermittent. While things are under construction we can use of the slips, for free. Once things get going this will be a nice marina. Enrique is welcoming and enthusiastic. He hopes Tapachula (the city nearby) will become a tourist destination, and the Marina a boater's haven.
We took advantage of the free docks to head inland again. The state of Chiapis is the home to San Cristobal de las Casas, the waterfalls at Agua Azul, the cascades at Misol-ah and the ruins near Palenque. The Morelia team (Serendipity, Swift Current and Taking Flight) were joined by Hotspur (with the delightful Carolyn) for the trip. This brought the number to 11. It felt like we needed a sheepdog to herd us along. For such a big group, things went surprisingly well. The hardest part was finding places to sleep and eat. Anne on Serendipity took most of that pain away by researching possible eateries ahead of time. We had incredible Italian food in San Cristobal, because Anne had walked by the café in the morning and saw a crowd. Dinner was their slow time, so we had the great food, and a relaxed atmosphere. We didn't stay at the hotels we had scoped out on the internet, but found clean, cheap spots near the bus stations. The other challenge of this trip had nothing to do with the number of people, just the size of Chiapias and the state of the roads. It was nine hours to San Cristobal, not the six we were told, and it was another five and a half to Palenque. When we got to Palenque we completely changed our return itinerary. We decided to have a driver return us San Cristobal, and stop along the way to the various sites. Then we took the night bus back to Tapachula. This worked well, although we would have enjoyed more time at the ruins, but it saved us about five hours in bus time.
What we saw? San Cristobal is packed with museums. This part of Mexico is known for weaving. Each indigenous tribe has their own patterns. San Cristobal is in the mountains, and cold. The women wear skirts made of llama wool to keep them warm, but we had our cruiser garb, and just wore more layers. Palenque is not as high, so was much warmer. The trick was to stay cool in Palenque, yet not freeze in San Cristobal or the night bus. Jade and amber were found in abundance, so there were museums for each. The best part of San Crisobal for our family was a pastry shop, that reviled Madame Dumas in New York. They must have a better butter source than I have ever found, and the éclairs had the proper consistency, not tough but solid. We went three times, including just before the night bus.
Palenque is a famous archeological site. It was the center of the Mayan golden age. We got a guide for the ruins and learned so much, but my retention was tested. I want to learn about these built huge burial pyramids, figured out ways to bring light into huge structures with small windows and white walls, which used an accurate calendar for centuries and had an intricate religion that focused on the underworld and corn. I can't explain all the details, but I really want to learn more. Our guide, Edgar, recommended a documentary by the Discovery Channel.
The waterfalls were spectacular. Misol-Ah is a huge cascade with a path in the back. There is a cave under the falls that Kara and Caroline explored. Agua Azul is over 2 km of waterfalls. There are three swimming pools, and water a tropic blue. When the sun came out it was breathtaking. The pictures in the photo gallery almost do it justice.

The anchorage less traveled
03/14/2012, Huatulco

We spent ten days in the Huatulco area. We arrived two day before a weather window to cross the Tehuantepec. Well, that was too soon, so we decided to hang out in some of the outer anchorages until just before the next weather window. We can always go into the Huatulco anchorage or marina later. Sometime later never happened. We spent four days in La India a tranquil spot behind a reef. Every day from 10 to 2 tour boats arrived and spouted out their passengers who snorkeled and played on the beach. So Serendipity and Taking Flight had the white beach to ourselves each morning and the late afternoon. We would swim ashore and sit at the water's edge. Kara has perfected her snorkeling, not by studying the reefs, but by shell hunting in the surf. Hotspur, who have Jim, Meri, Tim (age 17) and Carolyn (a delightful age 12) joined us for a day.
After La India we went to Maguey (five miles away) that is populated by a dozen palapa restaurants. More tour boats come here, but with no electricity they close at sunset. Here we met Gabriel, who worked at Casa del Abuelo. Gabriel fed us, serenaded us and offered a new freedom. He suggested we taxi into Huatulco for fuel and provisions, and wait out the weather window in his beautiful bay. After checking out the rolly anchorage by the fuel docks we saw wisdom to his suggestion. One day at the marina would cost more than four taxi rides. We did Gabriel one better by staying in the anchorage next door, Organo, which was out of the Tehuantepec swell. It was a five minute dinghy ride to Gabriel. Again we had the tour boats from mid morning to late afternoon, but not as many or as big.
I should write about the Tehuantepec. Dave and I have been hearing about this stretch of water for ten years. We have feared the forty knot winds that come up quickly with 18 foot seas to roll the boat like a cork. We know a boat that was turned back, because they didn't think it would be that bad. We know another boat that screamed along in 30 knot wind with one foot on the beach (you stay less than a quarter mile to shore in 30 feet of water so there is no swell.) We had none of this. We wished for more wind, but were satisfied to motor calmly across. No great sea story here.

What happened to our anchor?
03/06/2012, Bahia Organo

I don't want to brag about our anchoring skills, but I will. Dave and I are very good, I might even say masters at setting the hook. We use hand signals instead of yelling, and have never had a serious problem with dragging. So what has been happening? We were pulling up the hook in Puerto Angel and immediately the windless strained. Hugh, thank God for Serendipity, dove down and found our chain wrapped around a little anchor that was tied to something under the sand. I'm so glad we have a hooka!

Our next anchorage was La India, one of the bays near Huatulco. This is an idealic spot behind a reef. When we arrived there was a seventy foot powerboat with bow and stern anchors. We always try to anchor in a similar way as other boats, so we hauled out the stern hook. Two days later our friends on Hotspur joined Serendipity and Flight. We are enjoying a picnic on the beach, when Dave watched our boat turn into the wind. So much for the stern hook. In the process of resetting our stern anchor we hooked Hotspur's anchor. So both boats started fresh.

Next day we set off for another Huatulco bay, Maguey. Here we caught up with Craig and Bruce on Gato Go. When it is time to go We start to pull up the hook, and again the windless is struggling. She slowly hauls up a big, billowy, brown mass. Ever the optimist I grab the boat hook, and poke the thing. Under the brown is metal. We tie the thing to a halyard and haul it just out of the water. Dave jumps in and starts to unwind the mess. The brown is an old boat cover tangled on a hundred pound fisherman's anchor - an octopus like thing with four arms coming off a center post. Unwrapping the chain went quickly. We tied the mess with an old, chaffed halyard, so we cut it at the chaff and sent one foot of red halyard to the bottom of Maguey bay.

I hope that was our run of anchoring bad luck. I count three mishaps.

Alcapolco Rocks
02/16/2012, Alcapolco

Okay we were going to skip Alcapolco, or spend a night at in the anchorage, but once again we succumbed to peer pressure, and tied up at the marina. I'm so glad we did. The marina is under construction, so we are in a brand new slip, built for 100' yachts. You could put two boat between Serendipity and us. They didn't charge us for the first night, because we came in at 4:30. They are building condos to go with the marina, and of course built the pool first. We got permission for Kara to use the pool, and then they agreed that her extended family should act as lifeguard. Lynn and Howard are the self-proclaimed grandparents, and Anne and Hugh stepped in as Aunt and Uncle. Dave and I are left to act as parents. The pool is incredible, with fountains and shallow lounge areas. There are no showers in this new marina, but I feel better after soaking in the pool. Across the street is a supermarket that reminds me of the old Larry's markets in Seattle. The produce is fresh and beautiful. I found hummus, which Kara devoured. The only sightseeing we really wanted to do was to see the cliff divers that I remember from Wide World of Sports. This is a family tradition, where fathers teach their sons. They dive from 105' above, and depending on the tide land in 12 to 20 feet of water. They jump after the water has retreated, so they will land when the basin is full. The young divers climb the rock face to the top of the cliff, a feat in itself. We went our second night, and watched these men dive into the black water highlighted by foam. The next day Hugh, Anne and I returned, and in many ways it seems harder in the day. Then you can see the sharp rocks, and the height is more apparent. We walked around the cathedral and city square, which held a surprise. The cathedral is square on the outside, but round on the inside. No corners for dark spirits to lurk. The square was alive with Valentine's balloons and flowers. What a nice surprise to find in Alcapolco.

Inland to Morelia
02/16/2012, Michoacan

I love taking inland trips, but we don't do it very often. It goes back to the cheap cruiser mentality. Things are less expensive once you leave the coast, but suddenly we have to pay for transportation and housing. This last trip was wonderful, and since we went first class a budget buster. For cruisers who want to make this trip, know you can save money at each step, but you wont have a tour guide who lived in Chicago for twelve years, or hotel run by a woman who lived in LA for sixteen years. In other words, we paid for English, not just comfort. We left Flight in a marina - we could have saved that money by having another boat watch Flight - and gathered our bag and backpacks for the four hour bus ride. I have waxed poetic about Mexican buses in the past, but those were second class buses. This time we took a double-decker first class bus. Each seat had a screen linked to 20 movies, plus music and games. The seat in front had a padded board that came down, so we could recline 5 degrees off supine. Kara and Dave moved to the front of the bus, and got the bird's eye view. Kara stood most of the trip, "surfing" along the highway. Our hotel was the first pick for TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet - Casanda Rosa. The building was built in 1640's, and has been lovingly redone. Maria greeted us saying "Mi casa es su casa", and she lived up to the these words. Maria arranged for Jesus to drive us for two tours - the Monarch butterfly sanctuary and to the artesian towns in the area. Morelia was a colonial city, and the city shows its history. The buildings are stone, the sidewalks narrow, and the stone roads barely wide enough for two cars. I became enamored with the doors in Morelia, they were ten feet tall and carved wood. It was a delight when a door was open, for then the courtyard inside was revealed. Tiny garden bathed in sunlight. I've always had a thing for secret gardens, so the tall walls hiding all these secret gardens touched my imagination. Howard kept saying "This is like Madrid. I could be back in Madrid." We spent Sunday walking around. They close off the main boulevard (Morelas) for bikes and pedestrians only in the morning. Every Morelian kid is there on their bikes, skates or push car - strangely no scooters, but I wish we had brought Kara's. It was wonderful to walk from the cathedral to the aqueduct, and have plenty of room. We stopped at the Museo de Dulce (Candy Museum), and learned how Morelia is the center for Mexican candy. The indigenous and melatto women kept the recipes for candy making and passed the secrets down. Eventually the nuns were told, and made chocolate to appease the monks. The first Mexican candy factories were in Morelia, and the mother or wife began to make a fruit leather - a bit gooier than the US version. I know I have botched this history, but I was self translating the Spanish, so I think I did pretty well. We also spent time at the Mercado de Dulce, which not only featured the local sweets, but the regional crafts. This was Superbowl Sunday, so we gathered in the evening for pizza (the best I've had in Mexico, and better than most I've had in the US) to watch the big game. Howard arranged a pool, and succeeded in losing. Hugh and Anne were the big winners, with Dave next. The rest of us were losers. Jesus drove us to the butterflies, which has their own blog entry, and then to the Platzchuaro and the neighboring towns. Each town specializes in a different craft, depending on the natural resources. I got all the town names mixed up, so I won't even try. The ceramic town is built on a huge clay deposit. The basket town is near the grasses that grow near the lake. The wood carving town is of course a wooded area. Santa Cruz de Cobre (the one we didn't visit, but I know the name) makes copper items. We visited the archeological site of Tzintzuntzan, where the royal family lived, and made decrees. Jesus was a wealth of information. He talked about his family, and the choices they made to move back to Mexico from Chicago. He talked about the elections next year, and Calderone. He shared his thoughts on the drug cartels, and why Michoacan is a central part of the drug trade. Jesus' incites were a great bonus for our trip.

Mariposa monarch
02/05/2012, Morelia, michoacan

I travel for those moments when my body stops and my heart fills, when my brain cannot categorize all that I see and my soul takes over to hold the moment. I will relive yesterday over and over again, because my heart and soul were nourished.

As we ( crews of Flight, Serendipity and Swift Current) walked in the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, we immediately saw butterflies beside the path. It was just like home, when a butterfly's bright wing caught your eye. We stopped and photographed them - identifying the males by the dots on the lower third of their wings. As we climbed higher the sightings became more common. Our guide, Ricardo, led us ever higher for 45 minutes, and then we stopped. We saw a dozen or more butterflies milling about. Clouds covered the sky, and we were told the butterflies awoke with the warmth of the sun. We would wait, hoping for more. The longer we were stopped the more we saw. Our eyes took time to adjust. Was that a clutch of butterflies clinging to that yellow flower? Were there butterflies on that tree above us?
The first patch of blue appeared in the sky, and more flashes of orange and black began to quiver. The trees, swathed in gray, in the valley below us were not covered in moss, for the moss started to move. As the clouds moved along the the gray and the green became background. First dozens, then scores of butterflies flew before us, as the scores became hundreds and then thousands. My brain tried to categorize the images. At a distance they were like bats dancing in twilight, up close they showed the acrobatics of hummingbirds. We listened to the wings beating, forewarned that it would sound like rain. Yes, the constant tapping on a tent roof, or the murmur of a fountain. It had a water quality. Then one inadvertently landed on me. I was kissed by a fairy. The delicate legs oscillating pressure as the wings beat. As we watched the air filled and the trees emptied. First at the top, and then as the sun's warmth reached lower, the pines turned from grey to green. The valley no longer empty, but filled with orange life.
The continent of North America is funnel shaped, somewhat. Canada and the United States are the open port and it narrows to Mexico, serving as the spout. The monarch butterflies live in this funnel. They lay eggs in the wide area, where the milkweed grows, and then migrate down through the spout to the mountains of Michoacan. They rest on the oyamel at el rosario (a pine tree) from November to March. A multigenerational trek, for those resting now are the great, great grandchildren of last year's inhabitants.
It was over a three and a half hour drive from Morelia to the car park, from there we walked a quarter mile up through an alley, bordered with souvenir and food stalls. The food vendors cook on grills, fueled with wood scraps. Grey-blue tortillas lay on griddles. The color coming from the blue corn of the region. The souvenirs include baskets woven from the pine needles and cloth mats with butterfly motifs. Hundreds of butterfly nicknacks, that I feared would be the best display. When we reached our spot on the mountain, we could hear the mariachi quartet playing below. "I hear the butterflies, and they have a Latin beat." the smell of wood smoke gave way to the tang of the oyamel. The car park was half full,and there were 14 tour buses parked at the lower level. I was dismayed by the crowds - it was the Saturday of a three day weekend. Our driver, Jesus (I'm saving that introduction for later) promised me it would be alright. He walked us to the park entrance and found our park guide Ricardo. Pointing to Hugh, who has a bad back that has never stopped him from hiking or zip lining, Jesus asked Ricardo to help us see the butterflies. Ricardo requested permission for us to use a side trail, that was only 45 minutes instead of the hour to the top. This is how we ended up above a valley alone, with waves of butterflies surrounding us.

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Taking Flight Adventures
Who: David Rhoades, Ann Sutphen and Kara Rhoades
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