Sunday, March 20, 2011

Desert Plants of Baja California

While sailing down the east coast of Baja California, we were constantly surprised by the density and diversity of plants in what appeared to be essentially a desert. Up close and personal, there were times we regretted wearing shorts as almost all the trees, shrubs, and ground cover appeared armed with barbs, thorns or burrs. Chris seemed to be most Cacto-phyllic as he invariably stepped on or into these iconic symbols of the desert. While we recognized some of the more common plants, we really did not have a great reference book until this year. Our friend Randall of S/V Murre gave us the most valuable “ A Field Guide To The Common And Interesting Plants Of Baja California ” by Jeannet Coyle and Norman C. Roberts. So, now our hikes have become more interesting and occasionally we dare to taste some of the edible fruits and plants enjoyed by the indigenous people of the region many centuries ago.

Phytogeographic Regions of Baja

As you can see on the map copied from the field guide, there are eight phytogeographic regions in Baja and we have only accessed one of them during Ladybug's travels this year – the Central Gulf Coast Desert. This region extends from the Bahia de los Angeles to the Cape and includes most of the Gulf Islands. As you have probably seen in many photos from our blog, the land here consists mainly of volcanic and granitic rock. The rainfall is irregular and sparse, resulting in sporadic flowering and growth of vegetation. Arriving last year in October, we saw a much greener desert after the summer rains.

Mallow Family
The characteristics of the desert are low humidity, high air temperature, with great daily fluctuations, high surface and soil temperatures, low organic and high mineral content of the soil, erosion by strong winds and water, and poor drainage. Since water is essential to any life, desert plants have become highly adapted to preserving water. Examples are: a sprawling root system (creosote ), miniscule leaf size (ocotillio and cirio), thorns and spines instead of leaves (cacti) , resin and wax coatings for water-proofing (creosote ), leaf production limited to when water is available ( elephant tree ), bitter juices to avoid being eaten ( creosote, lomboy), tough seed coats and water storage tissue ( cactus, Agave ).

Hedgehog Cactus in flower

Tough, woody seed pod

Most desert plants are low in stature and are widely spaced, mingling with dissimilar plants – a lesson in harmony. Due to the limited nutrients and water, desert perennials grow very very slowly. The cardon is estimated to grow about one inch per year, so you can see why we worshipped the “old growth” sentinels which we encountered along the way.

This old grandfather must be over 300 years old!

Torote Blanco - Elephant Tree

The aromatic scent of the torote trees remind me of hikes in the pine and cedar forests of the northwest. The bark is used for tanning and dyeing.

Wild Lilac – leaves and flowers can be boiled into a tea. Fresh flowers make a lather when crushed and rubbed in water. Cattle, sheep and deer like it. Bees visit the flowers for nectar.

Garambullo ( Old Man Cactus) - the tips of the stems are covered in coarse, gray hair-like spines.

Cholla – Green, fleshy fruit was bitter to us but is popular with cows. We spent many hours trying to pick out the fine spines from our lips and hands after this taste test!

Devil's Claw – The woody seed pod has prong-like claws which attach to fur, clothing and skin for a highly effective dispersal method. The two claws often clamp into cattle nostrils or hikers' boots!

Juanita – Blooms continuously with pink flowers forming garlands over cacti and shrubs in arroyos and hills.

Desert Mistletoe
Desert Mistletoe ( Toji ) is a woody parasite that we see latched onto many trees. Its berries are eaten by birds or dried and eaten by Indians. Leaves and berries are also cooked with rice and the mixture used as a poultice to draw out pus from boils.

Pitaya Dulce
Missionary records state that the Indians spent the Pitaya Dulce fruit season in a state of euphoria. It was a dangerous period for young girls gathering fruit as the braves would try to catch them. The feasting lasted several months and allowed the tribes to travel and socialize together. If the fruit was not eaten fresh, it could be dried for future use. Interestingly, when the fruit was gone, the indians would gather their dried feces to collect the black seeds, then grind these into a meal – the “second pitahaya harvest”.

Blooming Barrel Cactus

Bursage ( Burro weed )?

Nopal - Prickly Pear Cactus
Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico, the spines removed and diced. Used to prepare nopalitos, they have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a sticky texture.


Torote Colorado - birds love this fruit
These berries looked enticing but we knew better!
Beautiful patterns on Barrel Cactus

Flowers of the Desert Agave

Cardon Cactus in bloom

Red chilli-shaped flowers of Palo Adan - a very common shrub in the Baja
Possibly Heronbill but I am not at all sure - comments?
Brittlebush - Sunflower family

Bird's nest with built-in spiny defense courtesy of Chain-Link Cholla

Mangrove tree at Caleta Los Lobos


Acanthus family

The underwater plants off the desert coast can be just as colourful! This photo was taken by Randall (sv Murre) while snorkeling at El Gato

La Cruz and Sayulita

The main purpose of our trip to La Cruz was to see off our friends Jo and Rob on Blue Moon. They are off to the Marquesas and will spend the summer in the south Pacific before returning to their home in New Zealand. After spending a couple of days here in La Cruz with them, we decided to take a trip together to the nearby surfing resort of Sayulita. The bus ride from Bucerias to Sayulita was impressively quick, the driver at times behaving more like he was at the wheel of a Maserati. I was standing at the back of the bus and had no illusions about where I would end up if we had to stop suddenly at these speeds. Still it was only $1 for a 25 km bus ride and we all arrived unscathed.

In Sayulita, the road bridge was washed out in a flood and as you can see from the picture below, so were other facilities. Jo from Blue Moon is to the right, Rani in the middle, and first time cruiser, Cathy on the left. On the plus side there was no one there to collect the normal 5 peso (40 cent) fee...

Line up for the washroom

We all went swimming and body surfing. In the picture below, Rob is coming out for a break while Cathy's husband Lindsey and I get ready to catch a wave. You can see how successful we were in the following picture.

Ready to catch the wave

The wave caught us instead

There is an iguana sanctuary in Sayulita and we were able to get up close and personal with the big fellow shown in the picture below. This iguana was at least 5 feet long including a three foot tail.

We ate our mid-afternoon comida at a little sidewalk restaurant, enjoying huevos rancheros and tasty vegetarian sandwiches with fruit juice for a very reasonable 50 pesos each ($4). After comida we went back to the beach for more swimming and surfing before catching the bus home. It was nice for a change to get away to an area where there were not so many sailors!

When we arrived back at the marina, we just had time for beer and a snack before watching a performance of folk dancing. The performers were young girls mostly between 12 and 16. They performed a wide range of dances, many of them involving tapping intricate rhythms with their shoes. Some of the dances were performed in costumes as old men with white bearded masks and canes. The young girls did a remarkable impersonation of wobbly legged bent backed old creatures and I could not help but think they might regard the majority of us cruisers as such!

We will be here in La Cruz or a few more days before re-crossing to La Paz.  

A New Tender

All last cruising season and the first 2 months of this one, we have been using our inflatable Helios Inova double kayak. This is a suprisingly seaworthy little boat with a capacity of about 400 pounds and we have carried a full load of groceries, 4 gallons of water, and the two of us without a problem, even in the rough chop of La Paz's anchorage. We sold our powered inflatable Apex RIB dinghy to cruising friends last season, primarily because I wanted to replace this with a hard dinghy we could row, similar to the small plywood one we had carried on Ladybug I. Because friends are visiting in a couple of weeks, we need some way to transport more than two people at a time to and from Ladybug, so our need has become pressing.

It has proven to be really difficult to buy a hard dinghy in Mexico. Most cruisers have inflatables down here and those who have rowing dinghies don't seem interested in selling them. However, we put the word out in La Paz that we were looking for an 8 foot hard dinghy and eventually found 3 possibilities. Two were Walker Bay plastic dinghies that are probably the most common hard dinghies now seen down here, being readily available from West Marine and quite inexpensive. The third was a hand built plywood and fibreglass boat. Kurt off Raven helped me evaluate the plywood boat and although it was well built, we agreed that it would be too heavy and awkward to bring aboard on Ladybug's foredeck. We don't like towing a dinghy as a rule, so wanted something that could be lifted on board without damaging our backs or Ladybug's deck.

We ended up buying an elderly Walker Bay with a sailing rig from Annie, who puts on yoga classes at Marina de La Paz. The dinghy needs a few repairs but should serve the purpose. The sailing rig (mast, boom, sail, rudder/tiller, and centreboard) has allowed us to sail the considerable distance to and from the marina dinghy dock here in La Cruz and have fun at the same time. We even took her out for a pleasure sail this morning and Rani said she enjoyed the feeling of skooting along effortlessly close to the water. We have named her 'Annie' in honorur of her previous owner.

Crossing to the Mainland

It is hard to believe, but this is our tenth crossing of the Sea of Cortez in two years. Every crossing has been quite different both from where we have departed from and sailed to and because of the time of year and weather conditions. This crossing was mainly in light airs and took a total of 8 days from La Paz to La Cruz.

We departed La Paz on March 8 but only made it as far as the Caleta Los Lobos anchorage, less than 10 miles from La Paz . We sailed down most of the channel, putting on the motor to avoid beating through the very narrow stretch between Marina Palmira and the entrance. We had tried to tack through this bit twice already this year and find that with our big jib and the inner stay of the cutter rig that such short tacking is unelievably strenuous. Unless the wind is strong, someone has to go forward to help the jib around the inner stay and then run back to the cockpit to grind in the genoa. By the time this is done it is time to tack again! I am tempted to remove the inner stay and tie it off to the mast but it is nice to have it in reserve in case we have a very strong blow. This stay is where we can set a small staysail or storm jib.

Baking banana bread underway

Before we turned on the motor, Kurt came barreling out of Marina Palmira in his inflatable, pulled up behind us and handed up a nice cold Negro Modelo cerveza – one of the best send offs we have had yet from any port! Kurt and Nancy on Raven were also kind enough to maintain radio contact and relay messages to Rani's relatives in England, so we could clarify a health issue with Rani's mother.

The sail to Lobos was a beat to windward and we soon had 2 reefs in the main and were doing a nice steady 6 knots. We were outpointing and outsailing a couple of other boats and feeling very smug until the wind dropped and we were left flopping around in an infuriating steep 3 foot chop. We have often seen strange wind patterns in the area of La Paz Bay near the entrance to the Cerralvo Channel and also north of the channel near Espiritu Santo Island. We wallowed around for a while and eventually lost patience and put on the motor to steady things a bit while we searched for some wind. It looked like we would have a very rough time in the channel, so we called it a day and bore off for Lobos in the mid afternoon. Sometimes it just makes sense to call it quits...

Booby riding a turtle

The next leg of our passage was a long day's sail from Lobos, through the busy Lorenzo Channel and down the Ceralvo Channel to Los Muertos. We sailed out the anchor and were able to make the passage entirely under sail. The commercial port of Pichilingue lies just south of where we departed and in addition to tankers and small container ships, the big Baja Ferries run from here across to Mazatlan. We had to alter course to avoid shipping a couple of times in the Lorenzo Channel. The wind was light in the morning and as we rounded the corner to run down the Cerlavo channel it came behind us and its apparent speed dropped to almost nothing. A big swell made it difficult to keep the sails filled, but we poled out the jib to reduce the slatting and about half way down the 20 mile long channel the wind began to build until it reached 20+ knots. By 3:30 pm, even with a reefed main and partial jib, we were seeing boat speeds as high as 9.9 knots down the face of the waves. Each time we have sailed this channel, we have experienced similar conditions, with light winds at the north end and more than enough wind as the afternoon arrives and we reach the mid-point of the channel. This was exciting sailing and our Monitor wind vane steering was barely able to control things on this almost dead downwind course. As dusk approached we made the decision to pull into Los Muertos rather than face a rough night at sea for the first night of our crossing.

The actual open water crossing began at Muertos and ended about 80 hours later at Isla Isabela. On day 1 we began our sail with a good breeze and swell left over from the previous day. We had a pleasant downwind run that day with Ladybug galloping along despite being thrown from side to side by 6 foot quartering swells. That night, as forecast, the wind died down and we were forced to gradually turn off our course and point up into it to keep the boat somehat steady in the big rolly seas.

Bringing down the cruising spinnaker

On Rani's watch at around 3 am, half a dozenn dolphins came to play around Ladybug, weaving glowing tunnels of phosphorescence as they passed across our bow. I was woken to the strains of classical music as Rani attempted to communicate with her new friends. On my morning watch I had to alter course radically when a humpack whale sounded immediately in front of the boat and maybe 30 feet away. The whale seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see it and immediately dived. In La Cruz we learned of another boat and whale that had not been so lucky. The sail boat struck the whale three times, the final strike leaving the whale pinned across the boat. The boat began to take on water and they transmitted a mayday, but were able to stop the flow of water (the propeller shaft had become dislodged) and made it to La Cruz, where they are currently hauled out.

The wind died entirely around dawn and we motored slowly for a couple of hours to reduce the maddening rolling. After checking in to the radio net and listening to the weather we put up our sails to catch 1-2 knots of wind and were able to sail for the remainder of this day and through the second night until about 8:30 the next morning. We then took down all sails to wait for some breeze, the swell having gone down enough to make this tolerable.

Anchorage at the Monas (Manequins) Isla Isabela. Sea Hobo is pictured here and we later met single hander, Andy at La Cruz. He is a boat builder from Vancouver Island.

The third day was a light air day, too, with some slow downwind sailing and a couple of hours of motoring when the wind disappeared entirely. We began to see thousands of jellyfish and other assorted gelatinous blobs – some with bright blue glowing spots. I guess we were in a current that must run up and down the coast. We began to see two to three foot turtles drifting in the same current as well as sea lions basking on the surface with their flippers cocked up in the air. Rani counted over two dozen turtles go by that day close to our boat, some with birds riding on their shells (see picture). The calm seas also allowed us to hear and see humpback whales and we had several decent sightings of these huge creatures. Shortly after I fell asleep after my morning watch, I was woken up by Rani's excited shout of “Killers, Killers!” and I ran to the cockpit in time to see a pod of killer whales or, more correctly, orcas off our port beam.

Panga fishermen at Isla Isabela

The fourth day was even quieter than the previous and we decided to fly our Spinnaker to make better progress, hoping to reach Isla Isabela by nightfall. 7 hours running with the big red and white sail up, 4 hours under white sails, and nearly 6 hours under motor, saw us arrive at Isabela at dusk, anchoring off the Monas to the east of the island. Due to time constraints we did not go ashore and left early the next day, enjoying a splendid Spinnaker run until mid-afternoon, when the wind swung ahead of us into the south and we switched back to our regular sails. The wind vanished altogether by suppertime and we elected to motor in to Punta Mita at the entrance to Banderas Bay. Navigating this stretch of coast in the dark is a bit nerve-wracking because the charts are so inaccurate and there are rocks and unlit buoys at the entrance to the bay. However, we had waypoints and a GPS accurate mini-chart in our guidebooks and also some recollections of last year's night time entry. We anchored succefully at Punta de Mita, moving the next day into the more protected anchorage at La Cruz, where we will visit with our friends on Blue Moon.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ladybug sails south from Puerto Escondido (Video)

Here is a short 2 minute video shot on Ladybug II as we sailed south from Puerto Escondido in a nice breeze.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Geology of Baja California

Note - I will be adding some pics and maps to this post eventually, so please check back soon.

View from the volcanic cone (828ft) on Isla Coronados
Photo courtesy of Kurt on SV Raven

For those interested in some geological background, I found the following information in " A Field Guide To The Common and Interesting Plants of Baja California " by Jeanette Coyle and Norman C. Roberts. In attempting to condense three pages down to three paragraphs, I may have omitted significant facts, so don't sue me!

The jagged finger of the Baja California peninsula is relatively young in the history of the earth. About 150 million years ago, a chain of volcanic islands existed between the modern day Sierra Nevada of California, USA, to almost as far south as Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. To the west of the island chain was the deep trench of the Pacific Ocean and to the east, a shallow sea. Over millions of years, sediments eroded into the west trench and the volcanic rocks built up in the island arc. Limestone and shale to the east of the volcanic rock accumulated in the shallow sea. Heat and pressure has resulted in the complexity of these "metamorphic" rocks. Rocks that were formed in the deep sea are exposed in the mountain ranges of the west coast of Baja California. The shallow sea sediments are found all along the coast of the Sea of Cortez.

Volcanic activity stopped around the age of the dinosaurs and tropical rains eroded the mountains to expose granitic cores created earlier. Some of these mountains eroded completely and a plain extended hundreds of miles eastward. Rivers flowed down the current peninsula carrying away gravel and sand to the Pacific. About 25 million years ago the San Andreas Fault split California and northwestern Mexico apart and everything west of the fault began moving northward. Movement is still occurring at a rate of about one inch a year and has displaced Baja California by 450 miles since inception.

The movement was not uniform and stretching of the peninsula was accompanied by more volcanic activity. The Sierra de la Giganta is formed from the accumulation of the volcanic rock. Lava flows and ash layers has created the colourful black and pink layered landscape of these areas. The rivers that flowed from north Mexico were stopped by the separation of Baja California and the plain lifted up and tilted in the east. This surface can be seen today, rising from sea level of the Pacific to almost a mile high in the Sierra Juarez and Sierra San Pedro Martir. Scattered on the surface are river gravels, some gold bearing, evidence of old river systems.

The east side of this highland area is the " Gulf Escarpment", east of which is the San Felipe Desert, with some isolated mountain ranges. Between the desert ranges are valleys filled with sediment.

Baja California is still geologically active.

Hiking in Baja California Sur

This blog entry is dedicated to my fellow hikers and great friends in the Cowichan Outoor Group, Vancouver Island.

View over Balandra Cove, north of La Paz

Chris above The Hook, Isla San Francisco

I am still a hiker first and foremost, using Ladybug II for access to some of the most unspoilt and sometimes challenging terrain in Baja California Sur. The rugged range of the Sierra de la Giganta provides a stunning backdrop to the pristine beaches and arroyos of the little bays where Ladybug rests while cruising down the east coast of the Baja. We have not yet managed to hike into the sierra but are content to scramble up the canyons and bluffs or wander down arroyos created by the summer rains.

Exploring a large arroyo on Isla San Jose

Panorama of paradise

As soon as we drop anchor, we usually rush to cover the sails, turn off the instruments, tidy up the deck, splash our inflatable kayak into the water and paddle to shore. If we arrive late in the day, we hike for an hour or more, often watching the sunset from the beach or bluff. Usually we linger at most places and explore for 3 to 4 hours at least each day.

Sometimes "we" read the tides wrong before we go ashore

Setting off from the beach, we follow arroyos (dry river beds), canyons or simply scramble up the cliffs to plateaus or peaks. There are no marked trails, except one on Isla Coronados, since it is a popular day trip from Loreto. Our cruising guides for this area have some suggestions, especially if other adventurous sailors have been out and about in the past. However, in most anchorages we create our own trail, taking care not to disturb the flora, especially if the flora has barbs! Scrambling up slippery scree at steep angles is not my cup of tea as I feel safer on solid rock, even if the jagged edges are lethal to my boots.

Dennis and Chris scrambling and sliding on Isla San Francisco

The Serengeti of El Gato - hiking with Randall (S/V Murre)

Along the way, we stop often, photographing the plants, admiring their tenacity to survive in the dessert conditions. Sometimes we find fossils, embedded in rocks from the river beds of past millenia. We stop to think about the people who lived in these lands. How did they live in such a harsh environment? The sea was plentiful in its bounty and even the dessert has edible plants. We found shell middens along the shore at several islands but also mounds on higher ground, evidence of land rising up from the ocean. Along the top of Isla San Francisco we found rocks that were shaped for grinding the cacti seeds or fruits.

Fossil found in river bed on Isla San Jose

Our pace is different from the usual club hikes as we have the time to wander at leisure. The climate has been perfect for trekking and the sun has shone every day since we arrived in Mexico. Chris has only gotten sunburned a few times and my tan is getting darker! The temperature varies from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius during the day now but was a little cooler when we first arrived. It is normally breezy on shore but can get quite hot during the hike as we venture inland. As all good hikers, we carry plenty of water and some food. I have to confess that we have been forgetting our first aid kit ( Sorry, Del and Dave ). Thankfully we have not encountered any rattlesnakes, scorpions or poisonous plants so far! Both Chris and I have had the occasional encounter with spiny cacti but other than a bout of swearing there is not much one can do in that situation.

Coyote foot prints on beach at El Gato

Vulture skull

Pantomime time at high noon

Desert valley and mountains near La Paz

Never get too close to wildlife!