Cruising mainland Mexico – Part I – Puerto Vallarta, La Cruz, Barra de Navidad

I absolutely love Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I love the music, the lights, the food (of course!), the traditions and the happy spirit that floats around the holidays.  When we were in Seattle, the Christmas Ships would bring tears to my eyes.  I am that corny.  Growing up, my parents and my grandparents made Christmas into this special, magical time.  I have fond memories of dancing around my grandparents’ living room with my grandfather, singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.  Or of my mother blasting Christmas music early on Thanksgiving morning, as the season had arrived!  With our own kids we established the tradition of “Tropical Christmas” where we flew to Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean each year as a giant family gift/vacation. Mele Kalikimaka!  Feliz Navidad!

The holidays didn’t really feel like holidays this year. It was a fun season but a very different feeling season.  We now live in Mexico!  So what did we do?  Let’s rewind slightly…

We had a weather window open to leave San Jose del Cabo a good bit earlier than we had originally thought.  So we geared up to leave.  Before leaving of course, we needed to soak up a bit of Puerto Los Cabos and have a few fiestas with the Taco Runners and the good folks of the Selene, Pairadice.

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Red Rover and N57 Audrey Mae
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The cool and artistic Hotel El Ganzo, which is part of the Puerto Los Cabos development
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Zoe appreciating art
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Enjoying Flora Farms (incredible place) with the gang – in this photo, Pairadice, Red Rover, Epoch, Audrey Mae and Igloo’s crews
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The drinks were fabulous
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I love pom poms.  And this man.
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Everything used at Flora Farms is grown on site or in the case of meat, at their nearby property

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Not only was the food at Flora Farms amazing, it was beautiful too
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Hanging on the flybridge at Puerto Los Cabos
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Football day out
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Go Hawks!

With Rich, our awesome weather router promising smooth seas Red Rover and Epoch made the 42 hour crossing from Puerto Los Cabos to Puerto Vallarta.  It was a gorgeous passage with star-filled skies, flat seas, whales, nighttime dolphin visits, sea turtles and of course, cruise ships to navigate around.  This run was also our first “open water” passage where we were not cruising near a coast.  It was a pretty cool feeling to look around about 24 hours out of Baja and not see any land.

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Gorgeous conditions for a sea cruise
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Dawn rising

In the past I felt nervous about offshore cruising, with a bit of anxiousness as we would depart and a bit of overthinking around the possibilities of what might happen.  That pattern has finally passed.  Offshore is our world now.  And I’m really enjoying it. Zoe who had some hesitation in the past with swells and seas, is now an Ocean Pro Dog. Max has never seemed to notice…. And Kevin of course has always loved it.

We have spent many vacations in Puerto Vallarta and arriving there on our own boat was another tear-jerking moment.  Max, who is a rescue from Puerto Vallarta sniffed the air as we cruised into Banderas Bay and with lit-up eyes, “told” us in his doggy manner – I am home.

There are three marinas in Bahia de Banderas (Banderas Bay) and we planned to stay at two of them.  We spent Thanksgiving and the first eight days of December in Marina Vallarta, which is within the Puerto Vallarta city limits and closest to downtown and the Zona Romantica in Vallarta.  A primary driver of this was the upcoming birthday celebrations for my business partner Jim, who was turning 50!  And he is fabulous at 50 for sure!

Coming into Marina Vallarta was nuts.  Two cruise ships, which we had the pleasure of navigating around in the night, had just tied up in port.  Accessing the marina requires transiting the cruise ship terminal. Epoch went in first and was bombarded with day tour boats coming from all angles.  We followed only to find ourselves just a few feet of the pirate ship.  Radios were blasting from boats, the ship yard and docks with music turned up to 11.  It was 8:45 am.

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Red Rover pulling into Puerto Vallarta – a lovely friend of SD Captains provided the photos.  So nice!
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Note the close proximity of the tour boat… one of many

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Moving through the cruise ship terminal chaos
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Pirate ship!  Ah, the dreaded Mexican Pirates people keep asking us about.  Ha! 

After finding our slips and enjoying breakfast in a marina restaurant with margaritas to celebrate a safe passage, we set out to complete the Port Captain process and to buy everything for Thanksgiving dinner.  This was made more difficult by our general level of sleepiness and the fact that the temperature was in the low 90s.  Melting temperature for Pacific Northwesterners is around 82.  Puddle on the ground temperature is about 92.  Needless to say we were HOT!

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The Puerto Vallarta Port Captain office

Until our arrival in Vallarta, we had not really completed a full Port Captain experience (except of course checking into Mexico in Ensenada).  We took a taxi to the Port Captain’s office, which was by the cruise ship terminal, and found a disorganized “line” of people wishing to speak with the gentleman.  A very kind Mexican man took pity on us and created order, telling each person what number in line they were.  The two cruise ships were ahead of us with three-ring binders full of paper.  Kevin and Scott eventually talked with the Port Captain, provided our boat and personal paperwork, filled out more papers and happily received stamps.  Lots of stamps.  We’re not sure what the Mexican marinas and government does with all of these forms, or how much ink they go through in stamps, but they have certainly perfected the process.  And we’re getting better at it too.  At each port, we are finding that the Port Captain has a unique set of things they would like to see.  Marinas also require significant paperwork to even make a reservation.  Once on-site all of the paperwork needs to be inspected, copied and stamped.  More stamps.

We have a desktop electronic folder and a physical accordion folder full of originals and copies of all of our various documents that could be requested.  These include:

  • Red Rover’s Mexican Temporary Import Permit (TIP)
  • Red’s USCG documentation
  • Certificate of Mexican liability insurance
  • Our regular insurance policy
  • Our passports with our Mexican tourist visas
  • Our LLC documents (we own Red Rover in a LLC)
  • A certified letter giving us “permission” to operate Red Rover and noting that we own the LLC
  • Our official entry/exit paperwork for Mexico
  • Check-out paperwork from our last destination’s Port Captain (with stamps)

We thankfully haven’t had to show absolutely everything everywhere, but we have pulled out all of the pieces of paper at one point or another.

With the Port Captain process complete, we headed to La Comer and Costco to find Thanksgiving dinner fixins.  Walking into Costco was awesome.  AMERICA!  It was like being home. So much American stuff.  So easily accessed.  WAHOOO!  We bought a turkey, a pumpkin pie and some asparagus.  That was about it.  😊

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Groceries.  And schlepping.  Something we do a lot of.

Epoch and Red Rover split the duties on cooking dinner with the turkey roasting on Red Rover.  This required four zones of air conditioning and two 50 amp power cords plugged in to ensure the people didn’t roast as well, but we made it.  Dinner was amazing.  We’re thankful for the ability to celebrate it with our friends that we have cruised with for months.  After dinner (and before dessert) we wandered the Night Market at the marina, shopping our way around the promenade that winds its way around the entire marina.

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Isn’t the chef festive??
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A wonderful Thanksgiving dinner on Red Rover with good friends.
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As is the tradition in our family, the dogs have Thanksgiving dinner too!

Jim, Jim and Max arrived on November 30th and the 50th birthday party celebrations began!  The guys stayed with us the first night and then moved into their villa in the Zona Romantica with the rest of the birthday party attendees a day later.  We loved seeing our friends from home.  While we only left Seattle on September 11, we have had so many experiences since then that it feels like years.  Seeing our friends and hearing about life in Seattle was wonderful.  The week long birthday party included amazing dinners, fun gatherings and a day out fishing and cruising on Red Rover complete with a barbecue and swim anchor stop off of Punta de Mita.  One very special night included a new celebration, the engagement of two friends.  Congrats Tim and Laurie!!  So happy for you!

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Jim and Bud with Max in the background.  Happy birthday!!
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The birthday boy with his new 50 year old celebratory dancing shoes

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The birthday party at Hacienda San Angel
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This gorgeous boutique hotel and restaurant is lit with candles

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The professional mariachi band singing the Mexican birthday song to Jim
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This 50th birthday party keeps going!  Dinner on the beach.

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What a spectacular evening celebrating our wonderful friend

Also while in Marina Vallarta, the crews of Epoch, Red Rover and Last Arrow (who were staying in nearby Paradise Village), engaged in a little tourism, attending the Rhythms of the Night show.  Super fun!

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Three captains not driving the tour boat – Scott, Kevin and Vincent
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Arriving at the private beach for the show – candles everywhere.
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Performer in the show

We left Marina Vallarta on December 8 and cruised around the bay, making water to prepare for our stay in La Cruz.  Water is an issue as most Mexican marinas do not have potable water.  We make all of the water we use with our on board watermaker which includes a separate UV filter to kill off any micro-organisms that are not removed during the reverse osmosis process.

La Cruz is the commonly used name for both the marina (Marina Riviera Nayarit) and the adjacent town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle.  This is a cruising mecca with a full fleet of cruisers anchored in the bay and tied up in the marina – very different from Marina Vallarta. Marina Vallarta hosts mostly boats with absentee owners, charter vessels and mega yachts.  Epoch, Red Rover, and for a short time, N46 Salish Aire (hello Gregorys!) were really the only cruising vessels in the marina.  Why?  We’re not sure.  It offers access to Vallarta, almost brand new docks, super secure access with 24-hour security at each dock and a friendly team.

One of our primary drivers to come to La Cruz was to see our friends the Shanafelts on MV Noeta (a N50). Happily our friends Larry and Gwen also arrived on N50 Miss Miranda, with their daughter Miranda prior to New Years. We were also delighted to find Jeremy and Hilda on N76 Seacret in the house.  With the addition of Red Rover and Epoch we were a mega Noodle!

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Marina La Cruz
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More of Marina La Cruz
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Pizza on the street with Abby, Scott, Pat and Alexa
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Love this place and the family that owns it – our Seahawks watching spot!

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Zoe is digging Mexico, dinghy cruising west along the beach
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La Cruz town square
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Just some cows in the back of a pickup truck

La Cruz is a bit like summer camp. There are organized activities and friendly cruisers, a Kids Club for cruising kids, a VIP lounge with AC, WiFi, showers, events and more.  There are Spanish lessons (which I have LOVED participating in), pickleball games, outdoor movie nights, beach clean-ups, bonfires, presentations on cruising and safety, writer’s groups, Mexican Train happy hours, yoga, and more.  We can see why people get a little high-centered here.  It is lovely.  At the same time, it makes us feel a little bit like we are in a bubble.  A happy bubble I might add with amazing people, but still a little bubble like.   This is not a negative on La Cruz. We love it here.  But we’re also looking forward to balancing our cruising with more remote locations.  The town of La Cruz is also wonderful.  Small restaurant owners know your face and smile, welcoming you back after just a few days.  Dancing horses grace the street on Friday nights.  There is live music everywhere.  The Sunday Market is incredible.  Residents are kind, friendly and open.  And everyone loves Max.  Seriously.  He’s like a celebrity dog.

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Part of the VIP lounge
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Spanish class in the VIP lounge
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Learning!
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The entrance to the marina with pickleball courts to the left
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La Cruz Sunday Market
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The painting we had done by an artist at the market – this is Mike and Jenny’s dog Andy.  Merry Christmas!

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Zoe is pretty sure these creatures are super ugly cats
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Fishing pangas in La Cruz
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Buying super fresh tuna at the fish market
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Night out listening to music and saying hola to this bull

The La Cruz cruising community is so supportive of one another, and of the local residents as well.  We have witnessed people helping others that they barely know, from medical emergencies to parts to sharing knowledge and technical expertise.  Perhaps most impactful was the toy drive for the local orphanage.  Forty-one kids are in this orphanage, from very young children to 18 year olds.  Cat, an incredible woman who organizes all of the fun and meaningful activities at the marina, worked with 17-year old Hailey Shanafelt (N50 Noeta) to create a Christmas tree adorned with cut out hands.  Each hand was for one child, and their Christmas wish from Santa.  The cruisers purchased the presents the kids wished for.  The kids were then invited to the marina for a hot dog lunch, a pool party and a gathering with Santa to receive their presents.  We “adopted” two children, both ten years old, a girl and a boy.  The boy wanted soccer cleats and liked the color red.  The girl wanted roller skates and a jewelry making kit.  We added a bunch of other fun things for them as a surprise. Loved doing it.

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As a side note, the cruising community is primarily comprised of sailboats.  As I write this there are five cruising powerboats in the marina and in the anchorage.  They are all Nordhavns.  There are some other powerboats in the marina but they seem to be fishing boats, charters or Mexican family owned boats that are used for holidays and fun weekends.  So we’ve been taken in by the sailors who have offered to watch our boat when we are away, provided fresh-baked cookies, great conversation and friendship.

While we were in La Cruz, we were still excited to enjoy the procession associated with the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  This national festival honors the Virgin Mary and her role in Mexican culture.  It runs for 12 days and each night includes a pilgrimage/procession to the cathedral.  Families, employers, dance and music groups, children and adults walk together through the city.  In Puerto Vallarta, the procession ends at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe (of course!).  The biggest day of the festival is the last day, December 12th.  Kevin and I took an Uber downtown and walked along the procession route, eating the amazing street food found on every corner and enjoying the music, dance and pageantry of this important day in Mexican’s lives.  We love the Mexican people and appreciate their commitment to family and community.

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One group in the procession

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The cathedral.  Stunning.

Speaking of family, our kids arrived for Christmas on December 22nd, with the addition of Kirsten’s long-time friend (and our extra child) Delphine who came to stay on Christmas Eve. Zoe cried for 30 minutes when she first saw her human siblings and Max has decided that they are keepers.  The arrival of the kids made the holidays feel more like holidays.  We miss them and it was so fun to have them here and show them a bit of our new cruising life.

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Red Rover dressed up for Christmas!
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Hoping Santa will find our stockings
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As I forgot ALL of the stockings and Christmas stuff in Seattle, we improvised
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Kevin using his sign maker skills
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Max and the giant Christmas tree

We spent a day in Sayulita, anchored out and went swimming off of the boat, hung out at the beach, went to PV and ate as many Pancho’s Tacos as we could, had fresh fish from the market for Christmas Eve dinner, went to Tuna Blanca in Punta Mita for Christmas dinner and showed the kids the Sunday Market. Kirsten, Delphine and I even went “clubbing” with the other Nordhavn moms and late teen/twenty-something kids from MV Noeta and Miss Miranda.

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Zoe, Kirsten, Mike, Jenny and Max – our kids on the beach
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Max likes his sister. And the sun.
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Visiting a family favorite – Burritos Revolution in Sayulita

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Sayulita Godseyes

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Raising the new Seahawks burgee that Delphine brought us!  (Kevin and Delphine)
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Delphine and Kirsten 
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Bottle service with the other Nordhavn 20-something kids

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On Christmas Day we were treated to a fun and educational diversion.  Kevin and I have been looking to replace our AB tender, which is now 15 years old.  We are pretty excited about the new Walker Bay Venture 14. Jeremy, on Seacret, introduced us to the local dealer who in turn told us that there was a Venture 16 prototype in the La Cruz marina and that the CEO of Walker Bay was also in the area, doing testing on the boat.  We were fortunate to meet Steph and his wife Nadia while out on our AB who offered to introduce us to this new, incredible line of tenders.  On Christmas morning Steph walked over to Red Rover and handed Kevin the keys to the Venture 16, complete with tow rope and tube, and told us to have fun, beat the dinghy up, and report back with our findings.  Incredible is what we thought!  The kids cranked up their tunes, went swimming, tubing and generally had a super fun Christmas Day.  Thank you Steph – you are a kind and thoughtful gentleman.  Dinner in Punta de Mita followed some showers!

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Now this!  This is a tender!

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Mexican vacation is awesome.

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Siblings.  Prior to being thrown around behind the dinghy by their Dad.

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Kevin and Mike floating around
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Mike and Jenny riding the tube!

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Family Christmas dinner at Tuna Blanca in Punta Mita

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We were sad to see the kids go, and hope we will have them along for some actual cruising sometime very soon!

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Fam Bam.  Miss them.

After the kids left we did a 24-hour turn around with laundry and cleaning and greeted our good friends Matt and Carrie who have also changed their whole life – moving from Seattle to New Orleans and taking on grad school, cocktail book publishing (check out their great drink recipe and history book, Minimalist Tiki here) and cocktail wonkery.  We didn’t have as spectacular weather as when the kids were in town for Matt and Carrie sadly, but we had fun exploring.  Originally our plan was to cruise to Barra de Navidad together, but the wind on Cabo Corrientes was relentless.  Instead we day tripped to Bucerias and Sayulita, wandered La Cruz, hung out at the beach, caught up after about a year of not seeing each other and celebrated the beginning of 2020 with the Shanafelts – all good things to come!  Matt and Carrie left for Mexico City a little over a week later, just about when we were able to cruise to Barra de Navidad.

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Matt and Carrie exploring Bucerias
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The passage just off of the “kissing bridge.”
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New Year’s dinner with good friends!  Matt & Carrie and Pat & Alexa

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Zoe brought the champagne
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Another lovely day exploring Sayulita
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A day at the beach – friends, dogs and us!

On January 6th we checked out of La Cruz after of course saying goodbye and getting some stamps at the Port Captain’s office.  One of the pieces of excitement here was paying our bill at the marina.  We had pre-paid for a month of moorage, which was not too terrible at $1800 (that’s USD not pesos).  Mexican marinas are not cheaper than in the US.  This is more than we paid to be liveaboards at Shilshole in Seattle. The kicker was the power bill.  By some act of god, when we previously stayed at Marina Vallarta our electric meter was broken.  So they charged us a small amount (like under $100) for power use during our stay.  Now in La Cruz the power meter was sadly working.  We had a $700 power bill.  For one month.  Now we had guests so we were running multiple zones of AC for multiple hours of the day… and that is what seems to kill the bill.  Needless to say, we are now power misers.  The dogs still get one zone of AC if they are on the boat alone, and we still use it, but not as much.

That afternoon, we left with the Shanafelts on MV Noeta for a night run to Barra de Navidad.  Whales greeted us as we left, and the bright moon and stars made for an easy cruise.  Entering Barra de Navidad is pretty spectacular.  The Grand Isla Navidad Resort rises above the narrow entrance with swaying palm trees, white hammocks and beautiful architecture on one side.  On the other, the town of Barra invites a visit with sandy beaches and small brightly colored buildings.  We had visited Barra several times by plane/car in the past, but of course, we had never taken our boat there.  Exciting!

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Noeta!
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Sunrise
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Arriving in Barra de Navidad.  GORGEOUS.

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Red Rover and sistership, Gitana

Greeting us at the dock was none other than our fellow Taco Runner and friend, Hugo from N55 Gitana.  Together again!  Hugo’s wife Michelle was home in British Columbia with a family commitment so we missed her, but we know we will see her again soon!  N76 Seacret was also in the marina, as were our other friends and Taco Runners, Linda and Vince on N60 Last Arrow.  The Last Arrow crew arrived a few days into our stay, back from grandkid visiting and holidays in Vancouver, BC.

After checking in with the marina staff, we made our way to the pool, which marina guests have access to as well as all resort amenities.  YES! THE POOL!  A perfect destination for melting PNW people.  Barra was HOT.  With daily temps in the 90s we were drawn to cold things – beer, margaritas, pool, salt water swims.  On our second day, we trekked (with the dogs who were also very hot) to the Port Captain’s office.  This Port Captain is of course located inland, in a residential neighborhood nowhere near the marina or the anchorage.

We spent our time in Barra on what we noted to be a “vacation from cruising.”  It was lovely.  We went dinghy cruising in the lagoon (super shallow) and up the canals that dive into the town, checked out restaurants in Barra with our Nordy friends and some very friendly sailors, and hung out at the pool ordering food and drinks and simply floating away the days.

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Cruising a canal
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YUM – pineapple, shrimp, brandy, cheese, veggies….
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Churros – a late night habit.
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Zoe considering the town of Barra
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The marina as seen from the hotel

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The hotel lobby
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Wandering the hotel grounds

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The hotel and marina
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Our kids would likely prefer this boat with inflatable slide to Red Rover
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Walking Barra de Navidad
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Zoe is a Panga Riding Master
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The Port Captain’s office in Barra de Navidad
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Flybridge magic hour

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Me, loving the hammocks
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Rooftop bar in Barra
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Me & Pat
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Floral dress ladies – Alexa and I
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We’re pretty happy in Mexico!

One of the coolest things about Barra de Navidad is the existence of the French Baker.  YUM!  The baker arrives each morning in the marina, driving his panga and ringing a small bell to alert you to the goodness he brings.  Kind of like the ice cream man but way better.  We were addicted!

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Hugo and Kevin check out the goods.
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One of everything please!

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While we were luxuriating in our “vacation,” Red Rover was having a spa treatment herself.  Pancho, who is an all around super guy, and his team washed and waxed Red, cleaned her bottom and changed some of her zincs.  She’s looking mighty fine. Anyone who visits Barra de Navidad with their boat should absolutely look Pancho up!

Just before we left Barra we had a super fun happy hour and dinner with the Nordhavn gang on Red Rover, followed by breakfast on N76 Seacret, which is a stunning vessel.  We shortened our time in Barra because of course, WEATHER.  Weather is our boss.  When weather wants us to do something, we do it.  Alexa Shanafelt who is an awesome person and a connector extraordinaire found some dog sitters for us, which would enable us to go to Seattle for the first weekend of the boat show and to attend the annual Nordhavn party.  As we need to leave Mexico sometime before late April to restart our tourist visas, and we don’t want to leave once we get to the Sea of Cortez, we grabbed the opportunity.  And who will our amazing dog sitters be?  None other than the circumnavigating teenagers from the Bainbridge Island based sailboat, S/V Totem.  Back to the weather.  To get back to La Cruz and the dog sitters, we had to take the weather window that came earlier than we wanted, but we could still catch two nights of anchoring at Tenacatita and Chamela on the way back north.

When we pulled into Tenacatita we were… broiling.  HOT!  Do you sense a theme here?  So hot that we anchored and jumped right in the water.  The dogs seemed uncertain of what their crazy humans were doing.  Afterall, they were the priority after anchoring, right?  Get that little boat down humans!  After removing some heat, we gave into their demands, put the dinghy down and went to shore.  Much swimming and stick chasing ensued.  A beautiful evening in a beautiful bay.

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Swim step swimming!
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Zoe prefers to swim from the beach
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The Tenacatita anchorage
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Red, looking good

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The next day we took a 4 hour cruise up to Chamela where we caught up with MV Noeta and anchored just off of the small charming town.  A beach run with the dogs, a nice dinner on board and early to bed as we would be up before dawn to complete the cruise north.  Well somehow we managed to sleep in an hour past departure time.  So we never quite caught up with Noeta whose crew was wondering where we were!  We did have another friend come and join us for several hours – Seacret had decided to take advantage of the weather window as well and we had a few hours of fun photo shoots with our bigger sistership.

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Sunrise off of our stern
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Noeta anchored.
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So many thanks to Jeremy from Seacret for this awesome shot of Red!
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We were a little close.  🙂 
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Had to get those photos though!

The trip back to La Cruz (about 12 hours) was uneventful except for a couple of interactions with fisherman using long lines for fishing.  These lines are secured on not-easy-to-see coke bottles and float in a disappearing fashion between the waves. The presence of a panga with four men waving frantically is what generally gets your attention.  Fortunately for us, and for the fishing lines, the panga drivers lead us to the end of their lines each time, waving us around as we reached the end buoy.

And now, here we are, back in La Cruz, enjoying this town that feels so familiar, and getting ready to head north on Thursday to Seattle where we will surely freeze. 😊

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Dinner a few nights ago with the Nordhavn gang – N76 Seacret (Jeremy & Hilda), N50 Miss Miranda (Larry and Gwen), N50 Noeta (Pat and Alexa), N47 Epoch (Scott and Abby) and us at “Tacos on the Street” in La Cruz

6 thoughts on “Cruising mainland Mexico – Part I – Puerto Vallarta, La Cruz, Barra de Navidad

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