Chilly February. In multiple winters and springs past we have journeyed south in trade of chilly for chillies and the warmth of near tropical Mexico. This year there was the additional motivation of a group flight rendezvous arranged by COPA—the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. Climate change reversal of fortunes. We departed a distinctly habanero San Diego (daytime eighties) for a decidedly minty (sixties) Baja California Sur, with rain showers en route and at our destination. The COPA planning had nearly two dozen Cirri arriving in Loreto from multiple western (and one Pennsylvania) departure point on Friday the 13th. Saddled up in N111TT we arranged an in-trail takeoff from either side of Montgomery Field’s Runway 28R centerline with chums Dan and Jackie. Whimsical happenstance, but nonetheless emblematic of our political roots (?), we took the right side of centerline, while N907DR rolled on our left. (Dan and Jackie have had active rolls in Democratic administrations.) ATC on both sides of the border was completely nonchalant as to our proximity underway. House of mirrors over the Sea of Cortez—Jackie taking a picture of me, taking a picture of her.
South of Bahia de Los Angeles we got our first look at the atypical winter Baja weather, a modest detour to the left of course providing a gentle lluvia plane wash.
We landed at MMLT three hours after takeoff, refueled and meandered the Byzantine pathways of Mexican Aduana (Customs), Migra (Immigration), and flight permits, in my case stirring up a tempest in a teapot because I had had the audacity to refuel first before attending to the formalities. Once the dust settled, Cathy and I were off to Item One on our adventure checklist—launching for the Matancitas (MTB) dirt airstrip at Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos abutting Bahía Magdalena. The strip extends to the edge of the water, at a port thriving on commercial fishing, and this time of the year, tourist ponga visits with the migrating baleen Gray Whales. The protected water of the bay is strewn with small islets and shoreline convolutions, making it an ideal winter nursery and the southern tether for the females, who give birth there and train their young on the exigencies of life involving the longest mammalian migration on earth.
We overflew MTB, then did a left-hand circuit to land on Runway 28, rolling to the west end next to the fishing fleet, and utilizing a handy concrete parking pad minimizing the amount of sandy dirt and seashells the prop would pick up on the subsequent pre-departure engine start.
By the time we deplaned, the local airport overseer met us to collect a landing fee and help us board a minibus that took us to the ponga fleet some :03 away. We donned our life vests and almost immediately felt the thrumming of the sea below us and the fresh salt air tugging at our hats at the outset of a very successful search for las ballenas.
Yes, you do get close to these wondrous creatures. Baleen whales lack teeth, and adults feed on krill and other tiny sea denizens by sucking in water and forcing it through sieve-like baleen bristles. The bay is filled with pairs—the recently born calves nursing on their mother’s rich milk, adding blubber as insulation for the oceanic cold. Adult females give birth to 15 foot-long, one ton calves in the bay this time of year, and are impregnated for next year’s birthing season. In the spring they depart for the roughly 6,000 mile journey back to their summer Bering and Chukchi Sea arctic feeding grounds. Surfacing gray whales affirm their mammalian credentials with a respiratory whoosh from their spiracles, visible at considerable distance, and damply, at close range. No detectable halitosis, by the way.
Mother and baby develop close bonds, aided by affectionate embraces.
Youth is always curious, and the infants gave us many look-overs.
Spy-hopping allows mom a different perspective on what’s happening in the neighborhood.
Following our whale visit, we returned on a :20 flight back to Loreto, which had us crossing the Gigantic Mountains. These are the peaks amidst which is located the lovely Jesuit Misión San Javier, established at its present site in 1702.
Clearing the peaks requires a steep descent to a left base entry to MMLT’s runway 34.
The COPA lodging choice was the Villa Palmar resort, a half hour south of the airport.
The Palmar is a very new resort with fine dining and attentive staff, but frankly Cathy and I prefer the quaintness of central Loreto, so on day two Dan, Jackie and we two taxied into town to snoop about, do a little window shopping and consume a “gigante” margarita.
The Palmar’s extraordinary view of the coast and offshore islands provided ample evidence of the unseasonal weather, which was the source of consternation and considerable careful planning for the next day’s intended flight across 100 nautical miles of the Sea of Cortez and on to the silver mining pueblo of Álamos, Sonora. There was rain this afternoon, and more the following morning, sometimes combined with lowish ceilings and reduced visibility.
This blog site belongs to a pilot. Sorry, that means you’ll get an inordinate share of pilot-speak and flight images. Deal with it. The pilots and passengers were forced to split into thirds because of transportation requirements between the resort and the airport. We four friends were in group two, which ultimately became group last, as deteriorating weather precluded group three from undertaking the crossing. Those pilots made prudent time-specific Go/No-Go decisions which allowed them adult libations at the Palmar and benign flying weather the next day. I commend their decision-making. Remember that the Cirrus is a single-engine airplane, so altitude is your friend when over inhospitable terrain or open water. The weather dampened the 11,500′ cruising altitude that I’d have preferred, and here’s what “Feet Wet” at 3,500 feet over the middle of the pond looked like on the flight deck instruments. In the synthetic vision display you can see the blue ocean beneath us, and what would appear to be blue sky above. Fortunately the engine hummed merrily along without a hint of the “auto rough” one anticipates with single-engine oceanic crossings.
In actuality, we were flying between layers, rain pelting the windscreen, and a building cumulus line ahead. I was ship one in group two, and decided to trundle on, giving time sensitive updates on flight conditions to the in-trail aircraft, which I’m told helped alleviate uncertainties for the group. Did I mention that we were operating under Visual Flight Rules? Were we able to stay uniformly clear of clouds? Whatever do you mean? Ahem.
The other side of the gulf also required some do-si-do maneuvering to avoid the worst of the budding cumulonimbus, first approaching a pre-planned group turn-in Initial Point and then the final approach to landing at Álamos (MM45 ICAO identifier). Proceed up to the reservoir, then a right 90º turn to final approach for…
MM45’s runway 13. Duck under and you’ll drop in on the casa just shy of the runway threshold.
Over the next few minutes, the birds of Group Two alighted and taxied to the ramp.
Álamos boasts a hacienda retreat that holds its own in luxury no matter your judgment standard. It is the many decades’ result of Americans (and Mexican residents) Jim and Nancy Swickard, who also recognize the benefit of a worthy hangar for guests’ private aircraft. We filled it to the brim. N111TT is the second aircraft back in the center of the scrum.
This field has the benefit of an on-site military garrison, which does mean you’ll be met with armed soldiers, and drug-sniffing dogs. It also means that your airplane is not liable to be stolen by narco-traffickers. Formalities complete, we were whisked away to the opulent retreat in the midst of the small pueblo.
Proceeding through town we passed a motor-driven vehicle, construed as a carriage “pulled” by a team of fiberglass horses. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the town was hopping with local holiday vibrance, including families in the carriage, and kids riding the horse team bareback. OSHA be damned. This marked our second time at the Hacienda de los Santos, and the understated elegance hits you right at the door.
The Hacienda is actually a melding together of multiple 300+ year-old haciendas from the Mexican silver-mining past, artfully restored and decorated to a fair-thee-well. If you don’t want to be spoiled and pampered, go somewhere else. De rigueur of Mexican haciendas, the outside is merely a high wall, hiding from view the delights within. Once through the portal, however…
… as well as the delights within the within. I think we had the finest room in the place. And I suspect everyone else felt the same. The rooms were each named for one of the saints (santos). As to our room, I could never decide if I liked St. Bernard’s bedroom, sitting room, fireplace or the outside poolside deck the best. Decisions, decisions.
Elsewhere on the grounds, amidst the flowering bougainvillea, there was a small grove of agave, the raw ingredient of tequila. Tequila in Mexico? Who knew?
We four chums struck out that afternoon and evening to take in the Álamos sites and sights, gravitating toward the zócolo, a square, central literally and figuratively to the fabric and life of Mexican villages, typically adjoined on one side by the church. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the community was festively engaged in all manner of pleasurable pursuits. The history of Mexican zócolos is as meeting place for the community, young people circling the square, boys and girls in opposite directions, sizing up each other in the ageless dance of the genes. Álamos’ zócolo boasts a delightful gazebo that provides lovely glimpses of the church spire.
The square is also a haven of calm repose amidst the tumult for more seasoned couples.
As might be expected in overtly Catholic rural Mexico, the church is a prominent and unabashedly faith-based part of the skyline and community life.
This evening, the square, and the nearby streets effused youth-engaging activities. There was a beauty pageant at the town administration building, which was lit in the national colors.
I was taken by this male-dominated happening, boys working on their upended trick bicycles while being “serenaded” by young guys doing mouth-based grunt and click timpani exhortations over warbling amplifiers and acoustically-challenged speakers. Such unassuming unbridled fun. Do you know where your kids are? At the zócolo.
A regional favorite is a mirthful activity of kids, using emptied eggs that the community women prepared, filled with confetti, which the youngsters would use, chasing their friends about the square to break atop their heads. Giggles, guffaws, and gleeful hoots and squeals everywhere. Eventually we returned to the Hacienda. The majority of the COPAns were savoring a fancy dinner, while we four chose to head for the tequila bar, giving our best to depleting the demon agave concoctions, vino and lighter dining fare. Let’s see, that is a Bohemia Oscura, an emptied shot of high-end Reposado, and a fine Sauvignon Blanc from Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley, with an absurdly delicious slice of carrot cake. No worries, I wasn’t flying anywhere the next day, and could crawl to habitación San Bernardo, it’s four-poster bed and crackling fireplace. Eat your heart out.
Notwithstanding the evening’s hedonism, I was up at the crack of early and investigating the morning light opportunities, camera in hand. If you know me, you know by now that I am gaga over color and light. If you know Mexico at these latitudes at this time of the year, it is a photographer’s target-rich environment. And this first image of a gloriously vibrant wall, is in shade, for goodness sake!
There are myriad stream beds in mountain-surrounded Álamos, arched bridges for passage, and rock foundations of adjoining structures. The near bridge was only for foot traffic, and there were many children and adults who crossed it on their way to their Monday morning school and work assignments.
A guileless elementary school girl, passing by, questioned if I might be looking for the trail up the Mirador (Viewpoint, in Spanish), which was nearby, but not immediately apparent. Following her directions, up the hill I went for splendid morning panoramas.
There were puddles from yesterday’s rains to reflect on.
And several women and men were sweeping up the confetti from the evening’s revelry.
Cathy, now up, joined me for breakfast and yet further random exploration.
In a bit of whimsy, I’ve processed this next image as a Van Goghish oil painting.
Not so ghoulish as it may sound, I often wander graveyards in places like this, a historical channeling of the lives and passings of its inhabitants. I’ve been humbled and embraced by epiphanies and emotions in places like Zermatt, Switzerland, Tombstone, Arizona, and now, Alamos, where the graveyard dates from 1703. In the afternoon, after returning from town and the graveyard, Cathy and I settled into chaise lounges and umbrella-shaded chairs around the pool next to habitación San Bernardo. I don’t normally write my thoughts underway, but let me share, word for word, the contemporaneously written thoughts I did set down in reflective savoring that afternoon of the day that was: “Warm earth tone hues of the hacienda, bold fuschia bougainvillea, bright sun and crisp shade alternating with the penumbral shadows of the drifting scattered cumulus slipping quietly northward, all a riot of contrasts to the impossibly blue sky. This morning the lad with his ‘coroneta,’ who played in the school ‘banda’, dressed in the tan slacks and blue sweater of his escuela, and the young girl in her uniform, proactively volunteering directions to the sendero leading to the Mirador. Unhurriedly meandering through the graveyard, the Espírito Santo guiding me to the headstone of Marcela Rodriguez, ‘dos mes,’ her forever youngness arresting me in tearful bittersweet recognition of the ephemeral nature of life. A day in Álamos.” Pilots need to stay up on their aviation Ps and Qs, the best pilots regularly studying flight issues. A case in point, Jim Swickard (looking modestly like the photo of revolutionary Emeliano Zapata on the wall below the rifles), maestro of “Tequila 101,” attended by all the COPA pilots and significant others, describing his collection of 500 tequilas, and all things agave and mescal in the Hacienda Tequila Bar. What? You don’t think tequila can elevate your thinking?
Tuesday, rested from a sumptuous dinner and sueños dulces beside the glowing fire, Cathy and I headed for the airport. The COPAns, minus us, heading back to the Estados Unidos, while we set off on the next aventura—ground exploration of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon. Step one, however, involved joining a few of the COPAns with an overflight of the canyon, well, okay, flight through the canyon, before peeling off and heading to our terrestrial starting point of the colonial town of El Fuerte, Sinaloa. Full disclosure, this is the second time that I have piloted an aircraft below the rim of a, shall we say, “grand canyon.” In my more youthful past it wasn’t strictly prohibido in Arizona as it is now. Well, here’s a glimpse of this next leg of our journey.
We had arranged pickup at the El Fuerte airport (FTE, or ICAO MM79), and the driver was right on time. We paid our landing fee to the airport overseer, filled out paperwork with the soldiers of the on-site military garrison, and headed the :05 into town. Drink in the colors. Yum!
Our lodging, the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo http://www.hotelposadadelhidalgo.com was the birthplace of El Zorro, and it is located on Cinco de Mayo street, right next to #55..
…which is a touch ironic insofar as Cathy’s 5/5/50 birthdate is strewn with an equal number of cincos. Maybe you had to be there. Access to the canyon is often by the Chihuahua Pacific (ChePe) train that runs from Los Mochis past El Fuerte to Chihuahua and back. We overnighted in El Fuerte for the early morning train departure, and had arranged canyon lodging first at Cerocahui, Chihuahua state, then Barrancas, near the town of Divisadero, essentially the apex of elevation, near 8,000′. Copper Canyon is actually six canyons that run together, ground by eroding rivers coursing out of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to combine into the El Fuerte, and eventually emptying into the Sea of Cortez. Billed as bigger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, we found them to be similar, save the fact that Arizona’s is arid red rock terrain, and the Barrancas is pine trees on top and tropical vegetation down low. The expansive vistas are very much cut from the same cloth.
Our lodgings near Cerocahui and at Barrancas:
In the morning we climbed into the hotel courtesy vehicle headed to the train station to board the ChePe…
… and struck up a conversation with the one other couple headed out from the Posada. Quick study that I am, I referenced the Australian lilt to the gentleman’s accent, but allowed as how his wife sounded English. She set me straight, as they are both Aussies. And had they come from Australia to visit the canyon? Well, actually they had come from only as far as Mexico City where they currently resided. A conversational trailhead worth following, it turns out that we were riding to the station with the Australian Ambassador to Mexico, the Honorable Tim George, and his spouse, Geraldine. Avoiding my usual churlish behavior and drooling with atypical aplomb, we settled in to enjoying each others’ company for the next four days of Barrancas exploration and sustenance-taking. Just a delightful time with kindred adventurous souls possessed of matching keen wit and senses of humor. Arriving in Cerocahui, an absurdly pugnacious chihuahua pooch barking his territorial claim to turf, Tim, in a delivery embellished with cat that ate the canary grin and eye-twinkle, dryly asserted that clearly we were now in Chihuahua state. As, indeed, we were. Geraldine, evidencing her fun way of looking at life, regaling us with the story of her inadvertent disembarking at a workman’s’ stop on Gibraltar and having to overcome her discomfort with heights amid the scurrying monkeys to reconnect with Tim and their son. What a hoot.
Perhaps you’re aware that Barrancas del Cobre is the home turf of the Tarahumara, known for the long distance running of their canyon trails? The remoteness of the canyon, and their small homes (sometimes caves) deep in the canyon were key to avoiding the worst of the Spaniards’ machinations in earlier colonial times. The indigenous people and hiking the canyon trails have loomed large on our many years’ motivation to visit this rugged place.
The canyon walls are strewn with trails, and while plying one, quietly merging with us on a separate trail in the opposite direction, we came upon this lovely teenager, dressed as the females do, in brightly colored attire with pleated skirts. “Quizás un foto, señorita?” “Sí,” answered so quietly that only her barely perceptible affirmative head-nod assured that I had secured her permission.
This lass was offering for sale a few woven items, each for a few pesos. A purchase and a photo? Yes.
It is no overstatement to share that my religious faith is buoyed by the extraordinary beauty of nature, and the Barrancas del Cobre only serves as further reinforcement. I am drawn to light and color, to shadow, shape and texture, to the creatures and other humans with whom we inhabit this planet, to the seasons, and I revere sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets.
And then, in what amounts to an exclamation point to our Fine Mexican Winter Trip, there is this glimpse of light in motion, and the rising of the Milky Way.
The Georges continued to Chihuahua, and we returned to El Fuerte, each headed back to our respective worlds of duties and responsibilities.
From FTE we flew to Ciudad Obregon (MMCN) in accordance with the Mexican legal requirement of departing the country from a Mexican Airport of Entry (AOE) and subsequently cleared U.S. Customs and Immigration at the grandiosely, nonetheless accurately named Calexico International (KCXL).
I like Calexico, because the formalities take something like five minutes, tops, and you’re on your way. And so it was on this trip, but nature turned the tables on us yet again, returning to a northern hemisphere winter more in keeping with the season than had been our SoCal departure. A cold front was arriving as we were, and I actually had to use the privileges of my airman certificate, climbing to on top of a cumulus strewn sky with strong winds and the potential for a turbulent thrashing about. On top it was smooth, but the rumbles joined a bit of mixed icing on our descent through the inclement weather to an instrument approach back where we’d departed at Montgomery Field. What wonderful opportunities Cathy and I have.
Hasta Luego, Tomás