Reflections by Kirk - 3/19/16
19 March 2016
Photo: Impromptu collaboration of Manan Gupta, Maneli Jamal and Catherine Capozzi - Zihuatanejo Guitar Festival
We are now into the second year of our exploration of western Mexico. During the first year which started in the fall of 2014, we traveled down the west coast of the Baja Peninsula, rounded Cabo San Lucas and went north into the Sea of Cortez to La Paz. We crossed over to the mainland and cruised between Manzanillo and Mazatlan, then back to La Paz and then went into the northern Sea for the summer and most of the fall stopping in La Paz again for the winter holidays. For us, this was really a good plan as the air temps, and particularly the water temps, are warmer on the mainland during the winter and then the Sea of Cortez begins to warm up in the spring. Water temps in the Sea during winter are a bit cold for us to play in the water being in the high sixties to low seventies (we are getting a bit spoiled). During that year, we visited dozens of different places from the big cities, to small towns to even smaller fishing villages, to remote anchorages. In general I would have to say that we like the small towns and remote anchorages the best. Fondness for Mexico and things Mexican continues to grow. Acceptance of the fact that we are in a place with a different language, different customs, different food and such is pretty much necessary to enjoy the place to the fullest. We run into people that are ready to find fault with Mexico, basically because it is different than the United States or Canada. People with this type of mindset should just stay home.
Now, about three months into the second "tour," we are revisiting many of the same places as the first time around. La Cruz in the north part of Banderas Bay still remains a favorite, small town with lots of "flavor" and access to the big city life of Puerto Vallarta. The bay of Tenacatita and the small town of Barra de Navidad are within a few miles of one another and this makes for a place that we went back and forth between for well over a month last year. This is also one of our favorites. This year we also explored the town of Melaque in the same area. As nearly all of the towns and villages in Mexico, Melaque has a patron saint, which will be the cause of at least a one-day festival. Melaque's patron saint happens to be Saint Patrick and there is indeed quite a festival, but we will come back to good old St. Paddy in a bit.
Ever since I watched the movie The Shawshank Redemtion, I have wanted to visit Zihuatanejo. In the movie, Tim Robbins tells Morgan Freeman to go to Zihuatanejo when his prison time is finished. I just loved the way the town's name rolls off the tongue and knew that someday I needed to be there. This was going to be the time and we planned to be there for the annual International Guitar Festival, about which we had heard many very good reports. We left Barra de Navidad for a short 20-mile trip to Ensenada Carrizal. This is the only anchorage that we have visited on mainland Mexico's west coast that has a shoreline devoid of any buildings or lights at night. The snorkeling is also very good with reef areas on both sides of the bay and very good water clarity. Panga type tour boats visit the small bay daily, bringing people from nearby Manzanillo to go snorkeling. We suspect that they must drop some food to attract the fish, because schools of King Angelfish appear as soon as we anchor the dingy and follow us around as we snorkel the reefs. There are scores of other colorful fish around, but these six to twelve inch fish are the only ones that follow our every move. The trip from Ensenada Carrizal to the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area is about two hundred miles. So we leave at first light and hope that we can make good enough time to arrive before it gets dark the following day. We really try to avoid getting somewhere after dark, especially a place that we have not been before. Luck prevailed, wind and currents were in our favor and we arrived at Isla Grande (aka Isla Ixtapa) late in the afternoon. This small island is a very busy place during the day. It is maybe only one-quarter mile from the island to the mainland, where there is a road and loads of parking. There is a regular water taxi service that runs folks to and fro the island all day long. The soft sand beach is lined with palapa restaurants, serving good food and frosty beverages. There is something special about sitting under an umbrella with your feet in the sand, looking out at the ocean with a bucket of iced beer and a bowl of fresh ceviche. The water was warm and clear, so frolicking in the ocean is good.
One day we decided to take the dingy over to the mainland beach, as there is a crocodile sanctuary nearby. This entails a "surf" landing. We found a nice calm section of the beach in which to land the dingy without event. The sanctuary was very good with a raised platform from which one can observe several huge crocodiles. Getting back through surf is always more of a challenge than landing and we had an easy launch before things went a little haywire. This beach is one where powerful speedboats attach a long line to a parachute and give people an aerial tour. Unaware were we that one of these boats had a floating line directly in our path of travel and we ended up getting tangled in it. During the drama of working ourselves free of this rope we drifted over to an area where the waves were bigger and we started getting closer to the breaking waves. Heart rates started to accelerate as we worked feverishly to get ourselves free of the rope. Just as we got free the biggest wave yet approached. I could tell that it would break over us and flip the dingy with outboard and a few things we had purchased on the beach. Not good. Kris was handling the outboard and gunned it just in time. The wave was started to break and the dingy went nearly vertical before safely crashing back into the water on the backside of the wave. The adrenaline was really pumping and we made a slow trip back to the boat. We spent a couple of nights there and then went into Marina Ixtapa.
Ixtapa is an interesting place. I forget the exact dates, but forty or so years ago the Mexican government came up with a plan to boost tourism. A public/private consortium was established to build the resort areas of Ixtapa and Cancun simultaneously. Cancun turned out to be a roaring success and Ixtapa not quite as much. There are many high-rise hotels and more are under construction, but we did not see as many people on the streets as the abundance of rooms would suggest. We discovered that the hotels are "all inclusive," so I guess that guests are too busy taking advantage of the "free" food and beverage in the hotels to get out and about. Either that or the guest rate is really low. The marina is interesting in that signs abound warning you not to go in the water and to watch your small children and dogs as crocodiles frequent the water in the marina. We did not see any. Ixtapa has a very long and beautiful beach. While in Ixtapa, we took the bus over to Zihua in order to reconnoiter. Our plan was to scope the venues where the Guitar Festival would be held. We had studied the schedule online and found that there would be two shows every evening for a week. One show would be from six to eight in a restaurant or bar and the other from eight to eleven would be in the brand new Cultural Center. Reservations would be required at the early shows due to limited seating and we wanted to get an idea of what the venues were like. What we found excited us. The early shows promised to be very intimate experiences, although the price lists for dinners were amongst the highest we have seen in Mexico. Even with that, we figured that diner, drinks and a show would probably cost less than one hundred dollars for the two of us and decided to make reservations for most of them. This was going to be a special time for us. The Cultural Center venue was an open-air place where we would be no more than one hundred fifty feet from the stage, also pretty darned intimate compared to most of the concerts we have ever attended. Things are close enough that we could catch both shows every night. So we returned to the Marina very stoked.
We traveled the five miles from the marina to Zihua Bay and got settled down on the anchor. A giant storm up in the Gulf of Alaska sent big swells all the way down the coast and into the bay. We experienced five to eight foot swells, but they were spaced far enough apart that the result was just a bobbing up and down without a lot of uncomfortable motion to the boat. Still, it was impressive to see the hull of a boat only 200 feet away disappear when the swell passed between us. We had a few days to wander around before the start of the festival and discovered what is now my favorite place in Mexico. Really glad I watched that movie. The central downtown area is quite nice. It is kept extraordinarily clean. The streets and sidewalks are all made of reddish pavers or stamped concrete. In all of the places previously visited by us, the sidewalk, if there was one, would be up to the adjacent landowner to build and maintain. This results in an incredible mish-mash of design, materials, construction and maintenance. In Zihua the sidewalks were uniform and beautiful. Nearly all had some type of cover over them to provide welcome shade or cover during the rainy season. The downtown or Centro area is a combination of shops and restaurants that cater to the local population as well as places that very tastefully cater to the tourist trade. There are several pedestrian-only streets, although people on motorbikes and scooters tend to ignore the signs. But that was OK. We poked into bunches of shops offering a plethora of beautiful artisan wares, tequila shops, food shops and the like. The central market is a trip. It is all under one roof with seemingly hundreds of different stalls connected by a labyrinth of pathways. Very easy to get a bit disoriented. Stalls with fresh produce, fresh fish, piles of plucked chickens, fresh meat, household goods, clothing, bulk bins, baked goods, food courts and pinball machines were attended by friendly and helpful people. Never did figure out what the pinball machine thing is all about, but they were scattered about the Centro as well. We went back to the market several times just because it is so interesting and we were likely to find most foodstuffs that we needed. However, this is Mexico and there is always the necessity to go to multiple places before you can get everything. During our wanderings we would often get tired of walking and develop a thirst. We ended up having some great times just sitting around over a beer or two and meeting interesting people, both from the cruising community as well as gringos who live here either seasonally or year around. Options of where to eat or drink abound and the variety of options is large from high end to taco stands. There is a very good "feel" to this area and we have discussed the possibility of spending maybe a few months here next year.
So what about the music? It was awesome. There were a total of only eleven artists representing five countries on three continents, so we had the opportunity to see all of them on more than one occasion, in more than one setting. All of the artists played the guitar with no accompanying instruments. Some added voice or other sounds produced by mouth, but this is truly a guitar fest. All have some type of international acclaim, although none had names with which I was familiar. The venues and the settings of the venues were extraordinary. One was a small stage set on a beach with the ocean and the sunset as a background. Tables with white tablecloths were arranged under the palms on the beach surrounding the stage. Another was in a rooftop restaurant high on a hill overlooking the ocean. Another was in a smallish lobby, the walls of which were covered with beautiful paintings. Another was in a covered patio, just yards from the water and one was the elegant open-air courtyard of a fine restaurant. And then there was the Cultural Center, which was open air, but mostly covered with two humongous white tarps very artistically rigged up. It had all of the nice lighting effects and a prodigious sound system. Tables and booths in the back offered food, beverage, festival mementos and the artists CDs. The artists all stayed in the same hotel, hung around and jammed through much of the days. This resulted in my favorite part of the festival. As the week advanced, the artist scheduled for that night would invite one of the other artists to join him or her on the stage. These mostly unrehearsed collaborations resulted in some outstanding music. We were always so close to them that we could see fingers moving on the frets and facial expressions. It was awesome to be able to see these talented artists connecting with one another through their guitars up close and personal. These positive connections were transferred to the audience and the whole scene was alive with good vibrations. In the end, five hours of music a night and the after show happenings eight nights in a row took its toll and we were worn out. The Guitar Fest ended on Saturday, March 12. We had to spend the next day to restock some provisions and then go back to Isla Grande where the water was clean enough to jump in and scrub the bottom of the boat. Zihau Bay was not terribly clean; and that, combined with the warm water, fostered growth of all kinds of interesting things on the bottom and propeller. Little fish were very happy with all of the stuff that we scraped off the bottom and had quite a nice feeding.
Lingering a little bit longer, as is our normal travel mode, would not work if we were to have a chance of getting back to Barra de Navidad and nearby Melaque in time for the Saint Patrick's Day celebration. In the early afternoon of March 17, we pulled into the marina at Barra de Navidad, did all of the check-in stuff, showered and caught the bus for the ten-minute ride to Melaque. Turns out they had already been celebrating for the previous four days and nights with this night to be the grand finale. These people know how to celebrate. The main area was the town square, a full square block with the church across the street on one side. A large carnival was just about three blocks away and had all of the carnival stuff, rides, games designed to have you part with your money, popcorn and cotton candy. Kris and I did two turns in the most fun bumper cars ever. When we finally made it over to the square, night had fallen and that is when things generally come alive. The square was jammed with people. Mariachi bands were strolling around and a few of the typical Mexican street bands consisting of a couple of drums, a tuba, trumpet saxophone and clarinet were set up and making merry music with people dancing all around. The streets around the square were all blocked off and food venders filled the space preparing wondrous things both spicy and sweet. On the street directly in front of the church were two large metal towers with lots of firework-filled contraptions attached to them. I have always loved fireworks, so Kris and I hung around the Church front waiting for things to get started. There were maybe 20 to 30 feet separating us from the towers of fireworks. This may have been a mistake. Shortly after 11:00 a man in a yellow shirt walked up to one of the towers and lit a fuse. On one side of a tower fireworks ignited and wheels of spinning fireworks started throwing bits of burning stuff of many colors about the tower. As they started to fizzle out, the man in the yellow shirt shook the tower causing several of these incendiary devices to bounce about the pavement with several zooming off and spinning around through the crowd. The crowd roared with delight. Many of the older folks, us included, moved away a bit, but young men and boys jumped into the "danger zone" and danced amid the bouncing, spinning fireworks. There were probably eight or ten different sets of this type of fireworks display with the same sequence of events each time. The only difference was that the fireworks dislodged from the towers ended up going in any and all directions both horizontally and vertically with some bouncing off of the now closed doors of the church.
When it appeared that the fireworks were over, the distinctive whumph of firework launches came from the roof of the church and giant aerial displays appeared in the sky over the church and the square. Kris and I were directly underneath of this and the fallout started to drop on and around us. There was really no escape from the fallout unless we moved a block away and that was nearly impossible as the crowds were dense, so we stayed put and watched fireworks from a much closer vantage point than I have ever been. The giant aerial displays went on for about 15 minutes, now about one half hour since the whole show began. After a giant cluster with a bunch of really big booms, the aerial display ended. What a great show. The square was still full of people and music continued, so we wandered back into the crowd just to soak up some of the festive atmosphere. With no warning that we could discern, the crowd in one corner of the square started moving in mass and then spinning, bouncing fireworks started happening over in that corner. We saw this happening in different places all around the square once every few minutes. Suddenly, the crowd started moving in our direction and a vista opened up to where we could see this new and totally crazy source of fireworks. A man with a large contraption about his head and shoulders, sort of like the head of a bull with horns, was shooting fireworks out of his "horns" into the crowd. Again most of the crowd moved away very quickly, but young men and boys jumped smack dab into the middle of these fireworks and danced about. Totally nuts. Maybe this is a right of passage thing, we still do not know. This all ended sometime after midnight and Kris and I were able to catch a cab back to the marina returning sometime after 1:00 AM after one wild and crazy day and night.
The last month has been filled with new and wonderful experiences for us. We will soon begin lollygagging or way back north to Banderas Bay, where we will catch a plane from the airport in Puerto Vallarta for a trip back East to visit both of our families. It is almost embarrassing to admit how great this lifestyle is for us. It is not without some trials and tribulations, but the good vastly outweighs the bad. Life is good and appears to be getting better.
La Vida Es Buena