Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Salt Mining and Bighorn Sheep

While on our kayak tour we stopped at Salinas Bay, the location of the old salt mine. It’s an interesting place with both history and renewed life. Unfortunately, I can’t agree that it’s all good!
Approaching Salinas Bay & the old salt mine.
Isla Carmen lies within the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto but it’s privately owned by a subsidiary of a large company called Grupo Vitro which specializes in glass products. The island has been used since the middle of the 19th century to produce salt for a variety of purposes and Grupo Vitro bought the island in 1944 for the salt it needed to produce glass.
The salt mines closed in 1984 due to declining extraction rates and salt quality. But, have no fear, Grupo Vitro found a more lucrative use for the island!
In 1995 and 1996, bighorn sheep were introduced to the island and corporate executives now pay $58,000 - $74,000 (depending on the size of the sheep) for a permit to kill a bighorn. There are now about 500 sheep on the island.
On one of our diving days we stopped at a beach between dives. Someone spotted this bighorn on a nearby ridge. Luckily, Andrew had his camera out and managed to get this one shot.
Because the island is private property, and because of the hunting, public access to the island is limited to the beaches and camping areas. Joel asked permission for us to have our lunch at Salinas Bay and wander around a bit – which was granted.
Lunch under a shady tree.
The church is still in usable condition.  

An innovative use for an old rail car that once carried salt from the mine to the dock. 
Joel providing a lesson in types of cactus. Luckily there was no exam at the end!
Another unique cactus planter.
Accommodation for hunters and other tourists.
This warehouse as seen better days!
Anyone else remember what this is?  :-) 

Abandoned rail line and dock.
Here are two of the internet articles I used as reference for this article. The first is a tourist's blog and the second is an academic dissertation on protecting natural environments in Mexico. The part about Salinas Bay is on page 209. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Paddling the South Islands

Warm (hot!) weather, calm seas, good food, great company, amazing wildlife and absolutely stunning scenery. That pretty much sums up our 6-day kayak trip to Carmen and Danzante Islands, just south of Loreto (Baja California Sur, Mexico).

Joel from Baja Kayak Adventures was our guide for the trip. We’d been on a 4-day trip near Gabriola Island with him and another guide, Hilary, a few years ago with the Canadian side of the company, Silva Bay Kayak Adventures, and really enjoyed their company and relaxed personalities.

Different from many adventure tour companies, rather than full service, their philosophy around meals and food is a shared task with setting out a meal plan a couple days ahead and each participant or guide being responsible for particular meals. This cuts down on costs for the participants and, personally, I think it’s more fun! But with only three of us, we shared responsibility for all the meals albeit with Joel doing most of the actual cooking. And we ate what we felt like eating at the time rather than sticking to a strict meal plan, which you couldn't do with a larger group. 

Coming from a mountaineering background where everything you take with you is usually carried on your back, the weight of every item is of critical importance and everything is packaged as small as possible to fit in your backpack, buying food for a kayak trip was a humorous experience for Andrew and I. Joel was clearly experienced at this! As he raced around the little grocery store piling food into a basket, Andrew and I tried to help. My first task was peppers. I picked one of each color – green, red, yellow.  “More,” said Joel. I went and got a couple more and showed him. “No, we need more.” I went and got more. “Some poblano as well,” he said the third time.  A large bag full of peppers and a couple packages of cookies later from me, a few items from Andrew, and Joel had us set to go.  No repacking or drying of food required! We wondered what was going to happen with the huge bag full of little limes but between squeezing it in our beer (yes, beer!) and on other things, we came close to using them all.
Big bag of peppers and carrots!
The next day a taxi van with three kayaks secured on top took us to the drop off point, just south of Puerto Escondido. Only a couple weeks after a tropical storm and a couple days after a hurricane, washed out roads were still being made passable but the day and the forecast for the next week was sunny skies and calm seas.
Trying not to get sun burned!
Most of our days were quite relaxed, a few hours of kayaking, an hour for so for snorkeling (and to cool off!), and even time for a short hike in some locations. Again, the advantage of a small group to meander, or not, as you wish. 

One longer paddling day took us to the old salt mine closer to the north end of Carmen Island. (This deserves, and will get, a separate blog post!)

Wildlife sightings included dolphins casually swimming by while we were standing on the beach, a couple turtles sticking their heads up to check us out (Andrew saw another one under water), sting rays, a preying mantis and lots of sea gulls, pelicans, blue footed boobies, frigate birds, and turkey vultures. And more mosquitoes and annoying little bugs than you can shake a stick at! We really do not like using mosquito spray but this time we were thankful to have a good supply with us!

These guys actually cooperated for a photo shoot!
Sea life was also good and my little camera, for the most part, performed well while snorkeling. (This too will require another blog post!)

Sunsets and sunrises were colourful!
 Rugged coastline! 
A little spit of land on the north end of Danzante Island.
East side of Carmen Island
East side of Carmen Island
Looking out from a large cave.
A natural arch in the rock.
Joel celebrated his 29th birthday during the trip. He baked the cake himself in the outback oven and Andrew & I secretly brought candles to put on it. I think he was pleasantly surprised! We had to put the cake on the ground and shield it to try to keep the candle flames alive til he could blow them out.

At our first campsite, on the south end of Carmen Island, these two lone palm trees provided shade. Unfortunately they didn't keep the bugs and mosquitoes away! We escaped to our tents the minute supper was done! 
While Andrew and I went snorkelling, Joel set up the sun shade. 
Campsite on the west side of Carmen Island.
Andrew & Joel on summit of a small peak near our campsite on the east side of Carmen Island.  From the pass you could see over the west side of the Island.
View from hiking peak.
As a result of the hurricane, one of our campsite had a freshwater stream coming down the valley. We all rinsed our hair in the tiny waterfall you can see just to the left of Joel. 
We had a great six days! If you're ever looking for a kayak excursion either in Baja or near Vancouver Island we would highly recommend Baja/Silva Bay Kayak Adventures! 

Friday, 26 October 2012

A Dining Guide to Loreto

One of the reasons we love Loreto, and keep coming back here, is that it's small enough not to be a huge tourist destination (it has one traffic light in the whole town!) yet big enough to have some great places to eat.

Our morning coffee hangout (when we're not diving) is Latte Cafe. (See Andrew's humorous blog post.) There are a couple other coffee places nearby (Fandango Coffee and Sea Coffee) but neither are open right now. Likely due to it not being high tourist season yet and, for Sea Coffee, because they're along part of the malecon that is under major construction. Sadly, I think the construction is hurting a lot of the businesses at that end of the street.

Popsicles in a variety of flavours and colours!
Post diving afternoons alternate -- one day ice cream, the next day beer or wine. La Michoacana Paleteria y Neveria is the place to get fresh fruit juice, fresh fruit popsicles in a wide variety of flavours, chocolate covered frozen bananas, and very yummy, good-quality ice cream. Andrew tried a jamaica popsicle and it was very flavourful! (From the hibiscus flower and pronouced ha-MY-kah.)
Chocolate covered frozen bananas and more of the popsicles. 

For beer/wine days we had two favourite spots depending on the weather.  The really smokin' hot days (or the rainy days) would find us in the air conditioned comfort of Agave Cantina on the second floor of the fancy La Mision Hotel, looking out over the water and marina. This had the added benefit of being able to move onto the outside deck as the afternoon sun went down, get pizza from the Mezquite Grill, or have supper at Los Olivos Restaurant. 
La Mision Hotel
On the not so smokin' hot (and non-rainy) days we'd wander to the town square and sit outside the lovely Posada de las Flores Hotel at El Bohemia bar.
Looking towards the gazebo in the town square.
Posada de las Flores Hotel -- El Bohemia bar on the left. 
Inside the lobby of the Posada.
Three other good restaurants line one side of the town square.

We've always glanced at Mita Gourmet's menu and, as vegetarians, have never been that thrilled. But one very rainy evening at the beginning of the trip, while we were staying at the Posada with Andrew's sisters, it was the only one close that was open and we ran across the square trying not to get too wet. We were the only customers at the time and the very friendly chef himself helped us choose a yummy curry vegetable pasta. (When we went back a second time, he assured us it would taste even better with bacon!) The chocolate crepe is also well worth mentioning!
At Mita Gourmet
1697 is the year that Loreto was founded. The restaurant named 1697 has some family affiliation to Joel, our kayak guide, and is where we first met Hilary (another kayak guide) and learned about their Baja and Canadian companies. The owners of 1697 are in the process of opening a second restaurant in Nopolo (about 7 km south of Loreto) called El Cardon Cantina Mexican Restaurant.

El Papagayo Cantando (the colorful parrot) is just around the corner from Mita Gourmet and is definitely a colourful place with lush vegetation! There were several very good vegetarian choices on both the appetizer and main course menus and the staff were very friendly.
El Papagayo Cantando
Colourful plates on the wall at the Colourful Parrot!
Another restaurant with a great view of the Sea of Cortez is Loreto Islas. Apart from a thick, just-the-right-amount-of-spice black bean soup and a selection of salads, it doesn't have a lot of vegetarian choices. But if you're looking for seafood, this seems to be the place!
Loreto Islas
El Pizacon is a 10 km very bumpy drive north of Loreto. It also has a reputation for great seafood and, despite the distance and road condition, does a good business. This was the start location of the swim race so we headed out there a couple of days ahead of time just to make sure we could find it. The cool breeze off the water and the views over to Coronado Island made it a great place to relax for a couple hours. You can also swim or snorkel from the beach right in front of the restaurant.
La Picazon Restaurant with view of Coronado Island.
The white stuff on the plate is not potato salad! It's jicama salad with a cream and pepper dressing. It's crunchy like an apple and very good!
Grilled veggie wrap & jicama salad.
Because we had a place with kitchen facilities and had to get going early on dive days, we most often had breakfast and lunch there. Pan Que Pan is a bakery where we found good bread & buns. They also serve breakfast and lunch.

Cafe Ole is a popular breakfast place. The Giggling Dolphin and Orlando's are a couple other options for lunch.

A good place to find imported and better quality groceries is Dali.

Nopolo has a couple good coffee places. El Corozon, which is run and partly owned by a Canadian lady, makes great coffee and their unique food specialty is wide variety of waffles with both main course (meat/veg) and dessert toppings. We also had the most awesome cookies there!

Macchiato, in addition to coffee shop offerings, has good quality ice cream and shares their location with a pizza kitchen.

The Inn at Loreto Bay was our one big disappointment of the trip. It was ok for lunch one day but our visit for supper was tasteless and the service was less than stellar. Especially when compared to the amazingly friendly and attentive staff at almost every other place.

There are a few other eating establishments that were closed for the season and I'm sure even more to choose from in other areas of town. But, with the exception of La Picazon and the ones at Nopolo, these are all very nice places within easy walking distance if you're staying in the central area of Loreto.

Sadly, we had to start heading home and leave Loreto the day before the 2do Evento Gastronomico!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

2do Cruce a Nado

The 2do Cruce a Nado (2nd Swim Crossing) was held yesterday. It's a 5.5 km (3.4 mile) open water swim between La Picazon Restaurant (about 10 km north of Loreto) and Coronado Island.

Joel (our kayak guide for next week's adventure) was in charge of safety kayaks and getting kayakers to paddle the course along with the swimmers so he asked Andrew and I if we would be interested in volunteering. We eagerly agreed and it was great to be able to get involved in a local event like this.

The first year they had about 25 participants, with the vast majority being from the Loreto area and a handful from California and one from Canada. Very likely, people who have winter homes here.

This year there were 140+ registered with people coming from all over Mexico, many more from California and other parts of the United States.

On Friday a north wind started coming in and we knew from Joel that they were looking at other possible options. Having organized many races ourselves, Andrew and I knew the extra stress that weather can put on the race organizers. But at the supper and briefing meeting the night before, everything went on as usual, the main organizer telling everyone not to worry about the weather until morning.

There is a small island between the mainland and Coronado Island. Last year there was a strong current on the south side of that small island so this year they were telling everyone to swim on the north side of the island.

Saturday morning was again very windy but it was emphasized this was an expert level race and away we all went. It was challenging just getting into the kayak with the large swells of water coming into shore. I couldn't imagine trying to swim in this!

Waiting for the race to start.
Beautiful sunrise.
Some of the racers had paid extra for a kayaker to be beside them. The idea was that the kayakers go out a couple hundred meters from shore, the swimmers who had asked for a kayaker would stay to the right hand side and a kayaker would pick them up as they went by.

Well, it was total chaos!!! Not even "organized chaos".

On the water, waiting for the race to start.
I didn't take any photos once the race started and as the waves got bigger!
The swimmers got really spread out right from the get go. The race course was still set up to the south of the small island so some of the swimmers were going south, some were going north.

As a kayaker, it was pretty much impossible to tell which swimmers wanted a kayak with them and which didn't. Luckily for Andrew, he picked up a swimmer right away who clearly wanted him there and who also spoke English.

I picked a swimmer and was trying to head him south where the route markers were but he didn't speak English and insisted on going to the north. With my extremely small vocabulary of Spanish, it was impossible to explain. I kept by him for a while but then there were three swimmers behind him who were certainly more vocal and, once we got around to the other side of the little island, asked me a couple times where the finish line was. Luckily the language barrier wasn't quite as big this time!

However, it was difficult even for me in the kayak, knowing the beach I was looking for, to actually see it or to see any sort of markers. I pointed in the general direction and hoped like hell I was actually pointing them in the right direction.

By this time, the waves were at least 4-5 feet high. Craziness! Even in a kayak, not to mention swimming! I have a lot of respect for the 100 or so people who actually did take part in the race. They ranged in age from teenagers to 65+ years.

At the finish line swimmers had to run up onto the beach and ring the bell. 
This lady and her daughters took part in the race. The family were cheering her into the finish! 
Ringing the finish line bell.
After 2 1/2 hours the swimmers I was following made it to the finish line. There were several swimmers already there and many more to come. In the end, they had trouble finding four of the swimmers; three were located fairly quickly but one lady was in the water for five hours and was located on the other side of Coronado Island. Scary stuff!

As a race organizer, you learn something each and every time. And then you try to improve upon things the following year. There's no doubt the organizers learned many things from this event. A couple big ones would be:

1) Be ready to cancel if you have to. You have no control over the weather. (They did sort of have a plan B idea at Puerto Escondido, a sheltered harbour, but didn't put it into action.)

2) Make a list of who starts the race! It was due to friends not being able to find friends that they knew there were people missing.

There was supposed to be a kayak race back from the island but no one was up for that! In fact, most of the kayaks were left there and Joel and friends went back and got them the next day. The boat ride back to La Picazon was a roller coaster ride adventure in itself. There were a couple times I thought for sure we were going in the water!

Despite the conditions, everyone we spoke to seemed in fairly good spirits. The racers had an incredible challenge! It's the type of event they'll be talking about for years to come!

Here's Andrew's blog post about this same event.