THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2007

Jacaranda Passage Notes #14: Butterfly Magic and Malarkey in Melaque

While we were in Zihuatanejo with friends Elise and Jerry from Salt Lake onboard, we took what turned out to be a most awesome inland adventure to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve (El Rosario) with stops in Patzcuaro and Morelia in the neighboring state of Michoacán.

The Santuario Mariposa Monarca was such a magical experience that it could be out of a fairy tale: Once a upon a winter time, in a fir forest way way up in the mountains of Michoacán, 200-400 million monarch butterflies make their way back to the trees of their ancestors in one of the longest migration of any species on earth. They congregate together in clumps so thick that tree branches hang down vertically and the bark on the trunks is covered. The forest is painted in splashes of tangerine and the tiger-striped patterns of black veins on white underwings. Then, in the afternoon when the day starts to warm and shafts of sunlight reach the clumps through the forest canopy, the butterflies start to release themselves and fly away, filling the air like an orange snowstorm. It is really a sight to behold, especially if you reach the top of the arduous trail and can sit in the silence of the trees and fluttering wings. They land in your hair, float by your face, and litter the ground around you. Halfway up the well-trodden pathway we passed an open meadow where the monarchs blanketed the grass, fed on yellow wildflowers, and drank water in hoards along the edge of a small stream.

The science of these creatures is amazing, especially when you realize that the butterflies returning each year to hibernate are the 3rd or 4th generation born of the butterflies that left the previous year. The males die after mating and the females lay their eggs in the feeding grounds of milkweed plants in the southeastern U.S.; their offspring then fly to points north as far as the Great Lakes and Canada where a new generation is born. So the butterflies we were now watching had never been here before. It is not known how they find their way south but it is thought that it has something to do with the sun and the magnetic force in this part of central Mexico. It took 40 years of observing and following the butterflies to locate where they were headed - the 5 reserves in the oyamel and pine forests of Michoacán. Our required guide, a young man from the local ejido, accompanied us up the moderately difficult trail (640 steps with numerous seating areas along the wayat an elevation of 8,000 feet - boy did we feel the altitude!), answering all our questions (no English here) and helping to corral the hundreds of schoolchildren straying from the path.

Although the Sanctuary is protected as a Reserva de la Biosfera, the habitat has been threatened by illegal logging as well as land clearing for agricultural and grazing. The communities here are very poor and their buildings are all built out of wood of course. The Mexican government is making the ecological protection here a priority by intervening with economic incentives to local farmers; we also saw thousands of tree seedlings that were part of a reforestation project. We hope this will ensure the existence of this special place.

www.picasaweb.google.com/chuckhoulihan/ButterflyReserve

We had rented a car at the Zihua airport to drive to the Sanctuary (an 8 hour trip if driven directly) and took the toll road to Patzcuaro, only stopping briefly in this picturesque town for lunch before going on to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. We fell in love with Morelia and were sorry we couldn't spend more time in this sophisticated city with its gorgeous colonial architecture and street scene vitality that comes from being a university town. We checked in to the classy Hotel Virrey de Mendoza and when we stepped out of the elegant lobby to find a restaurant for dinner, it felt like we were in Spain! We'll make it a goal to return and explore more of this very cultured European city.

Back in Zihua, after Jerry and Elise departed for the snowstorm (!) in Utah, we began getting the boat ready for the trip back north again. Our fridge had been leaking salt water for a week and we were hoping to make it back to Puerto Vallarta to have it repaired (we thought the copper coils surrounding the pump had corroded through). Also, the engine temp had been running a bit too warm so we removed the heat exchanger and had it cleaned. We cleaned the bottom, the anchor chain and stern rode (Oh those damn barnacles!) and departed north bound (actually from Ztown it was westbound).

Our plan was to do a direct shot from Ztown to Barra or Tenacatia but once again engine problems forced us into Caleta de Campo (déjà vu from last year). I thought the clutch was slipping so I adjusted it and then headed out the next day to Maruata only to find it doing the same thing. I adjusted the clutch again - this time forcing it tighter than normal in a desperation move. Now we were looking for a 10-15 knot breeze to be able to sail north 78 miles to Manzanillo because we felt the clutch was still slipping. Our friends on Adam Cara left and experienced 50 knots on the nose trying to get into Mazanillo Bay. They have a 48-foot Choey Lee powerboat and were taking spray over the top of the bimini. We waited a few more days for a bit calmer weather.

The trip up to Manzanillo was in southerly winds (we were so surprised because it's usually out of the north on the nose) so we really enjoyed the sail! About 4pm when the wind began to lighten, we motored and then the engine stalled! It quit completely and we thought the transmission went belly up. I spent some time trying to get it started without any luck. By 7pm the wind died completely and we just drifted for 5 hours with a slight current pushing us towards our destination. We would have to wait hours more for the morning land breezes to start. Luckily for us, our friends on Elenoa were coming up from Ztown and when we called them about 12am they were only 4 miles from our position. They offered a tow and we gladly accepted. 13 miles later found us anchored in front of the Las Hadas Hotel just as the sun was coming over the hill. The next day I dove into the engine and found that the problem was air in the line caused by a bad primer squeeze bulb. I replaced it and - voila! - it appears to be working fine now.. (fingers crossed)



We moved the 20 miles to the Barra de Navidad lagoon making the passage at 4:30am from Carrizal (the engine ran fine) due to strong wind predicted later in the day. We arrived in the lagoon around 8:30am just in time to flag down "Zee French Baker" and have warm almond croissants and a baguette delivered to the boat. What a luxury!! We provisioned for food at Maria's Tienda and found a good source for block ice for our newly deceased refrigerator from Maria's uncle who runs the fish market.

Melaque, next to Barra de Navidad, is a quaint town known for its annual blow-out St. Patrick's Day celebration in honor of their patron saint. The festivities are a week long. We took a bus over one evening with Paul and Susan of Elenoa and wandered around the town. We enjoyed watching the small procession of locals carrying a statue of St. Patricio and waving their glittery green cardboard shamrocks around the zocalo headed for the church. The priest, dressed in a green robe, stood at the entrance under a canopy of shamrock streamers sprinkling them with holy water. We returned for the big party on Saturday night - St Patrick's Day - with Eric and Terri on Miha along with most of the cruisers in the anchorage. The town was packed with people and the huge 80ft tall fireworks tower, a lacy bamboo structure with spinning wheels and disks topped with a wood crown, was being assembled when we arrived. The structure is laid on the ground horizontally while all the fireworks, wiring, and fuses are attached and then raised up vertically in front of the church. A 17 piece band (horns, tuba, drums, singers, etc) blared from the raised bandstand in the middle of the zocalo while numerous mariachi groups wandered through the crowds playing music. Crowded food stalls occupied many of the closed streets. A raucous carnival with games and rides (probably old condemned U.S. amusement park machines) was in full swing adjacent to the plaza. More and more people crowded the zocalo as 11pm approached. Suddenly, with a roar, sections of the large tower began to spin faster and faster like pinwheels, shooting fireworks and sparks everywhere! Underneath the tower, children played in the sparks, running back and forth with cardboard on their head. OSHA would have loved it. Just before the grand finale when the crown on the top of the structure becomes engulfed in flames and shoots into the air, we found the only cab we had seen for hours and luckily 4 of us were able to pile in. Stuck in traffic, we enjoyed the rest of the show before leaving for Barra de Navidad.

Funny thing, though, not a green cerveza in sight all night!!

http://picasaweb.google.com/chuckhoulihan/MelaqueSaintPatricksDayFiesta

A few days later we headed out of the lagoon with Elenoa. We were headed to Chamela and up to PV and Susan and Paul were headed directly to La Paz. The breeze was light and we planned to head the 35 miles to Chamela and if the wind was favorable continue the 75 miles additional miles around Cabo Corrientes (Cape of Currents) into Banderas Bay. As we moved up the track the wind was about 10 knots and slowly started to swing towards the NW but we decided to keep on moving. The closer we got to Corrientes the more confused the seas became and our speed kept dropping as we punched into the seas. For hours we were barely making 2.5 knots and the track seemed to stand still. Finally it eased enough to increase speed and early in the morning we rounded the cape and headed into Bandaras Bay. By noon we were anchor down in La Cruz and relieved that the engine ran perfectly.

That afternoon the anchorage in La Cruz was being buffeted by 20+ knot winds when a shrimp boat towing a huge barge wove his way in and around the 20 anchored boats into the inner harbor that was under construction. Everyone was on high alert ready to slip their anchors and bail if the captain of the shrimper lost it and started to crash into the boats. There was a panga on standby ready to push the anchored boats out of the way if needed. Well he made it through all the boats safely but either he could not get into the inner harbor due to low tide or the workers told him they were not ready for him so out he came once again zig zagging between all the anchored boats. He went out and anchored for about two hours and then transferred the huge barge to two small pangas(small Mexican open fishing boats propelled by an outboard) and the two proceeded to pull the barge into the inner harbor! Once again everyone was on alert. Nothing like a little excitement to make the windy afternoon really interesting.

We were lucky to snag a spot in Marina Vallarta as people had been waiting for weeks for marina space in Bandaras Bay. Our friends on Mai Tai Roa arranged for us to move into their spot as soon as they left. We fixed the fridge, used massive amounts of fresh water washing everything in sight, saw lots of friends and when a pile mooring(cheap seats) became available in Nuevo Vallarta we moved the 3 miles up to our old neighborhood.