Travels from May 15 to May 20, 2000:
La Paz is a unique if not fabled town. It is said that many cruisers head to Mexico but once they stop in La Paz they never leave. This was hard for us to imagine prior to our first visit.
La Paz is as close as you can get to an oasis - there is nothing but sand, cactus and desert mountain peaks pressing the town to the water's edge. The streets are well paved. There are traffic lights at many intersections. The tourist part of town is filled with shops and stores. The streets are shaded by trees that look as they have been there forever. No where in Mexico have we seen fuller, shadier ones,
This is La Paz, a name that has always sung a song of the Spanish days for me. Only a little more than 40 years after Columbus found the New World, the Spanish first landed just a few miles away in Pichilingue, then called Santa Cruz. Today this is where the Mazatlan-to-La Paz ferry docks and the channel into La Paz begins. La Paz was first settled in 1683. Pearl fishing was the prime interest in the area for over the first hundred years the Spanish were here.
Entering the La Paz channel is nothing to attempt at night and troublesome during the day, for the first-time pilot. Buoys numbered according to international rules mark the five-mile channel. This is good because the colors are not always consistent. The markers/channel begin very close to shore and moored ships. The first buoys are small and blend into the shoreline. At first I had Nancy steering for the second set which would have put us aground, but finally I was able to distinguish the numbers and recognized my error. Nancy corrected the heading and we avoided an "oops". Once in the channel, we were very pleased that the chart and its soundings were extremely accurate. Nancy did her usual excellent job at the helm while I monitored the buoys through the binoculars and called out depths for her to compare to the fathometer. A boat ahead of us strayed out of the channel and was momentarily stuck in the sand bar, reminding us of the dangers of not staying in the channel.
There are a few options for mooring in La Paz. One is to go to one of the marinas. The other is to anchor or moor (to a buoy) in the "virtual marina" just west of the commercial pier. The other is to go across the channel from town, over to the other side of the bar, and anchor off El Magote, a low sand peninsula protecting the channel on the north. The "virtual marina" was pretty well filled, so we opted for El Magote.
Luckily, we had met another cruiser in Mazatlan who had given us the tip for passing through the sand bar to the anchorage area safely. This was the sand bar we had just seen the other boat get stuck in. "Go to the Commercial Pier and turn toward the white cross on El Magote," he had said. "Once you get back into water over 12 feet, turn left and anchor anywhere."
We easily recognized the Commercial Pier but couldn't see a cross. There were about 20 boats anchored in the area we wanted to get to and there were some buildings on the peninsula near them, so maybe that was where the cross was. We kept looking at the buildings. Just as we were getting abreast the Commercial Pier, my eyes strayed back up the peninsula toward us. Out in the brush, atop a low dune, was a small white cross. That had to be it. All the boats were anchored left of that point. So Nancy swung Nanjo around and pointed at the cross.
The depth got as low as 2.8 meters. As always we go slow in these situations to make a recovery easier. We anchored in about 18 feet, but put out about 120 feet of chain. We had also heard about the La Paz Waltz - the dance the anchored boats do as the tide and wind changes, each vessel reacting in its own direction. The tides create currents around 5 knots and the winds are strong Southerlies, around 25 knots. These winds are called Corumuels and seem to effect only the waters local to La Paz. Nanjo "danced" for 6 days.
Since it had taken us a little longer to get in, we decided we would do the official paperwork the next day. While we relaxed we recognized the unique colors of Departure and called them, getting the "skinny" on where things were and making a tentative date to share their swimming pool (they were in the virtual-marina, with rights to a pool) with them. Later that same evening, the skipper of the boat just beside us came over to declare his concern about how close our boats were (the La Paz Waltz was doing it again). His visit turned into a budding friendship. He forgot about his original objective to get us to move and ended up giving us his pointers for La Paz. He said he liked our attitude - we could stay.
One of the services La Paz isn't endowed with is its bus system. Checking in became a major hiking exercise. We had brought along a bag of laundry to drop off at the first chance. That brings us to the second shortcoming at the Oasis - lavenderias. Nancy carried the bag for the first mile . . . I took over for the return to central La Paz. We finally found one! The dividend was that it offered one-hour service. We rushed back to Nanjo and picked up a second bag.
Another of our Mazatlan cruising friends, La Paloma III, a member of our Carnival 2000 "conga-line", called us to get together before we left and to offer to help us get supplies or help in any way. They drove us to several stores, pointed out the best lab for me to go for a thyroid test and took us to their favorite restaurant out of La Paz, in a dusty little town. Without their "wheels", our chore would have taken several days. It was a fun farewell - they were going back to Idaho (they leave the boat here) and we were continuing our cruising adventure.
At a dive store in La Paz, I added a fishing spear to my diving equipment, giving me the hoped for tool to allow me to become an effective underwater hunter. Until then I was merely a recreational snorkeler, a looker. Look out lobster and fish!
One day I turned on the stereo and found a lite-jazz station without any commercials. It was like having KKSF with no interruptions in Mexico! I didn't know how the station could afford to stay on the air, but decided to enjoy it while I could. It was something new, a variation from the tapes we brought.
All in all La Paz is a town unique to itself. On one hand it has so little to offer other than itself, yet that is a lot. In other words, if you get tired of La Paz there is little else. For a small town it is quite modern and improved. As one person explained, La Paz has only two classes of people - upper and lower (whether local or gringo). That is why there isn't a bus system (locals have cars), neither a plethora of laundries nor the usual beggars. Within a day or two of La Paz are some nice anchorages, a few hours drive south will provide the glitz of Cabo San Lucas and a jet can whisk you back to California quickly. Some have said that La Paz is a throwback to the Mexico that used to be. I saw a town that was ahead of the rest.
Yet the more I think about La Paz I realize it isn't a small town. Rather a large one, with all the benefits that come with the size (with the exceptions I've already mentioned), yet with a small town feel. Prices are higher than on the mainland (except PV) but lower than Cabo. However, you can find many USA food items (low-sugar canned fruit for better diabetes management) and russet potatoes in La Paz's three supermarkets - things not seen before in our travels in Mexico.
La Paz could be a place for non-cruisers to get-away-from-it-all. I didn't see the typical timeshare hustlers; the beach along the channel was decent and has few people on it, and there's stuff to see, shops to browse and cafes to relax in. But if you are a go-go type, try somewhere else. This is, after all, mainly a cruising port/town.
The Port Captain's office was reported to be less than friendly and very demanding. Recently they had initiated a mandatory boat inspection before granting departure authorization for boats having remained in La Paz longer than 30 days. This drew the ire of the cruisers and the war was on. We didn't have any problems even though I made a few mistakes on the entry and exit papers. We had heard that the Captain would demand you to start over or leave and get some "missing" document in such instances. He made no effort to speak in English, so I/we were doing our best to discuss the requirements and understand the mistakes (in Spanish). That must have helped because the Captain pointed the mistakes out each time and then made the correction himself. Naturally, I thanked him profusely for making the corrections. Although he always had a stern look on his face the two times we visited him, after he gave us our salida papers, he smiled and wished us, "Que le vaya bien." I felt like we had REALLY been thanked for being just a little different.
Finally we had all the provisions we wanted, the deck-mounted diesel jerry jugs were filled, the propane tanks filled, a new engine ventilation fan was installed, e-mails had been received and sent, mail dropped off and goodbyes made. It was time to begin the "best part" of our cruising adventure, as it is reported to be by others preceding us.
We left with hopes that provisions and communications wouldn't be as difficult as we had been told they would be. We hoped the summer temperatures would be warm enough to get Nancy to finally proclaim, "It's too hot!" - But then not any hotter. We hoped to find past cruising friends and make new ones. We hoped to become foragers of the sea. And we hoped to have wind, for cooling as well as sail-power. But not so much wind that would give us the added experience of riding out a NAMED STORM!
Crew of Nanjo