Barra Navidad Air Force
February. Winter. Cirrus magic carpet. Escape. México.
Last fall the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association announced plans for this season’s group flight getaway to Alamos, Sonora, and Bajía de Navidad, near Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico. I jumped on the opportunity, paired up with a time that Cathy, the resident SDSU professor, had free from academia. It turned out to be a large and congenial group of forty-five attendees in twenty-two Cirri, flying in from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Come launch day on Sunday the 19th, a winter cold front was pummeling not only SoCal, but all of northwestern Mexico. Egads, doth we really have to file and fly under Instrument Flight Rules? The aviating began with a climb-out through low clouds and rain before breaking out on top over the San Diego county mountains heading first toward Mexicali, then southeast by airways paralleling the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez, en route to Ciudad Obregon as our Airport of Entry to clear customs and immigration. At MMCN we purchased our multi-entrance permit to fly our U.S. registered aircraft in Mexican airspace. Not to mention refuel and decaffeinate before a short second leg to our first destination of Alamos, an old colonial era silver mining town where we ensconced ourselves in the gushingly beautiful Hacienda de los Santos. http://haciendadelossantos.com/wp/
The views of the delights within the high periphery walls of the Hacienda immediately abutting our San Bernardo suite. I should mention the mesquite log fires set for us in our bedroom’s fireplace to warm the nighttime slumbers. Daytime temperatures in the mid seventies, nights in the low sixties. Yum.
For pilots, getting there is part of the fun, of course, and the leg to MMCN required sitting up and paying attention. Prior to effecting the hand-off to Mexican air traffic control, Los Angeles Center enquired of our desired cruise altitude, and I selected 11,000′ . This seemed a nice balance between what I anticipated as cloud tops and freezing levels, and not having to trundle on with oxygen cannulas. That worked out to have been a nearly prescient choice, but not without deviations left and right of centerline to avoid the ice-laden higher cumuliform tops.
That’s TKS anti-ice fluid streaming back along the windshield, above, for our occasionally unavoidable forays into cloud tops. The higher tops were above 13,000′, and all of them were ice-laden, with many being modest thunderstorms. At least our sashays left and right of course centerline averaged being on course!
The worst of the weather was between Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon, with the VOR DME 2 Runway 13 instrument approach a necessity. Then we had to proceed under Visual Flight Rules at a lowish 3,000′ MSL betwixt cumulonimbus bases above us and cumulogranitus tops below us, with partial success in dodging rain shafts to our landing at the MM45 (Alamos) strip’s runway 13.
Solid rain from a buildup washing the windscreen on an extended base leg leading to a straight-in final approach to Alamos.
We mostly dodged the worst cell between Obregon and Alamos, then headed down a river valley for a straight-in visual approach, lifting our skirts just above the rooftop of a house atop the knoll immediately off the approach end of runway 13, and clearing to the transient ramp, guided into our spot by a marshaller. Thomas Daniel, a Pole by birth, and longtime US resident, put this trip together for COPA, and he really outdid himself coordinating for mass arrivals and departures with the aerodrome Commandantes, immigration and customs, fuelers, surface transport. and luxurious accommodations at both stay-over destinations. Kudos, Thomas.
Newsflash—I’m a devotee of the visual, and this time of year in these latitudes of Mexico, the sun enriches the already eye-popping colors and textures of México, a land of warm and vibrant people. As I like to say, it’s a target-rich environment for all the senses sybaritic, and a relief to the soul in this contentious social and political time. Given the incessant tweets and shoot-from-the-hip emanations from Washington, it’s fair to wonder as to how Mexicans greet Gringos these days. I’m happy to report that our southern neighbor remains the land of “Bienvenidos,” of warm smiles, twinkling eyes and hearty, sometimes shy, salutations. Individual Mexicans know that not all of America is as dysfunctional and pugnacious as is D.C. Beltway chic. Our time was universally of a humanity in keeping with the warmth and beauty of the tropical milieu.
How did we spend our time? Abandoned to overindulgence, of course. The Hacienda has it’s own tequila bar with something like 500 different types to ensure a proper wasting away in Margaritaville, if not savoring fine sipping Reposado or Añejo. The group wasted no time signing up for Tequila 101, a graduate level afternoon slurpfest—everyone eschewing written exams by auditing the class.
The town of Alamos, population somewhere around 13,000, exudes the quiet small community vibe, where teenagers hang out on foot or bicycle in and around the town square zocalo, the community social heart, and always fronting the church, or iglesia. Families pass by on their daily meanderings, and seniors hold court, siting on tree-shaded benches.
For our second day antidote to epicurean overload we set out to explore an outlying area not encountered in years past, seeking trails up the tall mountain on the west side of town. Hacienda staff gave us some street-wise guidance, and then put us in touch with an eco-lodge operator who added trailhead input, and off we went. We got to the edge of town okay, but it took two salients to actually find the trail beginning near Parque Colorado. And, herein some backstories of just why following one’s nose can be such a splendid endeavor.
Speaking of which, emerging into our consciousness as if from a dream, we came upon a vision of Sancho Panza astride his faithful donkey, Dapple. Coming closer and into focus, a buenos tardes discussion revealed the wizened (there’s a pun, here) gentleman to be Ramón, astride Gaspár. Yes, he assured us, gentle twinkle in his eyes—the very same Gaspár of biblical three wisemen fame. I’ll wager he’s never heard of Donald Trump, nor bereft thereof.
Okay, truth will out. The above picture’s focus is neither the result of tequila, or of daydreams, but of the camera not resetting itself from Macro mode after the picture of the leaf-cutter. But hey, this is what unencumbered vacation is all about, right? To the errant walker, the spoils.
Back down the mountain, in what turned out to be a five mile hike, we followed our exploratory instincts and stumbled upon this delightful tiny cafe hidden behind yet another Alamos arched door set in a thick tiled adobe wall. Teresita’s was all it advertised on its doorway—a bakery and bistro celebrating its sixth anniversary. Everyone but us was local Mexican or expatriate. Cathy chose delightful soft corn tortilla carne tacos and I savored a truly awesome Monte Cristo with homemade dipping preserves as counterpoint to its tangy cheese and spicy mustard interior held in place by egg-battered French toast bread. Artisanal Mexican cerveza to wash down the trail dust, while savoring homemade cheesecakes, floured cakes, cookies and pastries. Boy, howdy.
Leaving Alamos on the way to Manzanillo (ICAO identifier MMZO), we elected to revisit the Barrancas del Cobre, (Copper Canyon) quite nearby in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Carved over the millennia by six separate rivers that combined, drain into the El Fuerte, which empties into the Sea of Cortez near Los Mochis. And this being no problema Mexico, we underflew the canyon.
The cockpit Primary Flight Display “Synthetic Vision” view of the canyon while descending into the main channel. That warning is the electronic Ground Proximity Warning System chastisement that we are below ground level. Well, duh. It’s driven by a worldwide database, probably originally satellite-derived, and corresponds remarkably closely to the actual view out the window. The system knowing our location, direction and altitude from onboard WAAS GPS. Scheiss Heiss. Hopefully you aren’t offended by German pilot expressions. I used the autopilot here so that I could wield the camera.
And then onwards, overflying Culiacán, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta en route to MMZO. Lots of mountainous terrain along the way, and we got a moderate turbulence arse-kicking on the last segment southeast of Puerto Vallarta. Tight seatbelts a must, and reduced airspeed to soften the bumps.
I can report that we never saw Manzanillo, which is the other side of the hills at twelve o’clock in the frame. Our destination was one of those absurdly over-the-top Mexican Xanadus behind us in the small Bahia de Navidad (Christmas Bay), so named by the Spanish explorer who arrived there to shelter his ship on a Christmas Day. Our lodging was yet another suite, of pretty nearly the square footage of our Del Mar digs, and overlooking the yacht harbor, strewn with vessels of J.P. Morgan’s admonition “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” ilk. If these belong to pensioners, they still have theirs!
Which is segue into a side discussion of some of the attendees, an interesting cross-section of the owner demographic. One other flight instructor chum with his lady friend, the granddaughter of a former assassinated El Salvadoran dictator. Her verbiage. Or the British developer of a Cirrus desktop flight simulator. The Indian computer PhD husband and wife team from the Silicon Valley. A farmer from Minnesota. An RV sales owner and sometimes flight training client of mine with his devil may care wife. The husband/wife team who’s retailing business turned out to be adult paraphernalia—dinner conversation turning on the benefits of the dual-motored vibrator. It gives new meaning to the common pilot preference of twins over singles. I’m not making this up. The money manager from Pennsylvania, a true gentleman of multiple years’ association from instructing at the Cirrus proficiency event in Williamsport, and his sweet as honey Mexican-born wife. In keeping with the last sentence in the paragraph above, the eighteen-wheeler owner/operator who matriculated into the Teamsters, and then ended up successfully litigating the union as a self-educated expert, on behalf of fellow retirees, regaining 80% of the value of their pensions, which had been dumped by Teamster shenanigans. He still has both of his knees, by the way, and is a stellar hero in my firmament of those who do the right thing.
After settling in at the Grand Isla Navidad Resort http://www.islanavidad.com.mx/site/US/index.php we took one of the 24-7 water taxis across the oceanic inlet to a typically Mexican low key “poor cousin next door to big cheese extravagance” pueblo—Barra Navidad (Christmas Sandbar) and wandered the village seeking meaning and enlightenment.
Well, at least enlightenment. Right echelon formation in late afternoon sun. Have I mentioned that Mexico is unafraid of color? Barra resonated easily with me, a smaller-dimensioned version of the Mission Beach of my youth—a sandspit jutting between the Pacific on the west, and the bay (bahia) on the east. Comfy.
The hotel staff member who golf-carted us to the water taxi, we being too tired to walk it, suggested Simona’s as a worthy alfresco dinner café. Excellent advice worthy of two evenings’ dinners. I chose seared ultra rare fresh-caught tuna the first evening, and Veal Scallopini the next. Simona is a German expat of seventeen years’ Sandbar experience. First a margarita rocas con sal, then an agreeable Chilean wine while taking in the sunset over our cena.
Barra Navidad street scene. Shades of my youth when we jacked up VW’s to drop the engine for a driveway overhaul. These guys are on a union contract—one worker underneath the well-loved pickup, one to hand him the appropriately-sized wrench, and two to kibbutz from their courtside seats.
After departing this maintenance event, and before partaking of our last evening’s dinner at Simona’s, we had another road less-travelled experience, coming upon a small community park between Barra’s two main streets. Cathy eyed two young gals of early twenty-something age, setting up a cookie stand. In my best, only partially stumbling loquacious Spanish, we discovered one was the new entrepreneurial head mistress of her own Xocolate panaderia (bakery) and she was proud to offer some freshly baked cookies. Seizing upon the opportunity to have some snacks on the next day’s long return flight to El Norte, we secured a bag of nut-filled cookies. Learning of our intention to consume them on our flight home, she insisted that we take another bag—of butter cookies—tambien. For the price of one bag. Eat your heart out Donald Trump.
Ol’ What’s Her Name trying to figure out the name of this pueblo or that rio. That’s when she wasn’t reading her book on the world’s refugee crisis, or playing electronic Sudoku or Solitaire. The mountainous air between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, where we’d had such a drubbing three days before, now sublimely somnolent.
It helps to engage one’s sense of humor or at least still the passions when in unfamiliar travel circumstances, it not life more generally. We had to dodge a modest immigration incident bullet as we passed through MMCN as our chosen AOE international departure station. When you process through México’s immigration on arrival, they issue a paper visa and place it in your passport. That visa paper is surrendered to them on departure. Cathy’s passport had her visa, but mine had gone walkabout AWOL from my passport, which had been snugged into a pocket of my pilot’s kneeboard (a holder of charts and other pilot necessities, usually strapped around your thigh for easy and secure access in flight). This produced real terror in the customs inspector, who had been the very gentleman who had welcomed us at MMCN at the beginning of the week. He remembered us both just fine, but was distraught because the process involves not only securing the paper, but entering data from it into the governmental computer system. After much handwringing and head scratching I remembered that I had taken out of my passport, where I usually keep it, my immunization record, which I had placed in my Baja Bush Pilots “Airports of Mexico” booklet sitting on the back seat of the Cirrus. I hurried out and found the visa hidden in the yellow record. I’m not sure if the officer or I was the more relieved—it was smiles all around, for sure.
And as icing on our departure cake, the computer link of the Obregon Oficina de Combustibles (Fuel Office) was down, and everyone purchasing fuel had to pay cash. Fortunately having occasionally experienced this elsewhere in Mexico on past trips we had held in reserve enough cash to fill ‘er up. No, this is not a subterfuge for corruption, it is just “the computer is down” that it appears to be. In fact, without exception, over the years, every time we’ve had anything to do with Mexican officialdom at the aerodrome interface, everyone has been completely professional, courteous, and welcomingly helpful. A bona fide treat.
Before signing off, perhaps you may find interest in a few technicalities? We flew on three days of our week’s getaway, covering 2284 nautical miles. An even 16 block to block hours in my pilot logbook, but 15.2 hours takeoff to touchdown, for an average economy power groundspeed of 150 knots. 213.1 gallons of avgas, for a fuel consumption of 13.3 gallons per hour. Altitudes ranged from around 1,000′ above ground level, to 11,500′ MSL. Some actual instrument flying on Day One, a little icing, a lot of deviating that day, and one non-precision VOR approach with a non-radar airways transition in actual instrument meteorological conditions, IMC, in pilotspeak.
Safely back home with a plethora of happy memories in the can. And unrelenting rain again today, as I write. Oh, for the warmth and blue skies of tropical Mexico. Next year, once more with feeling.
Hasta Luego, Tomás