Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico

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Entries in mexico (65)

Monday
Sep152014

hurricane odile slams into la paz, baja sur

Hurricane Odile's eyewall an hour approaching the Baja coast. The outer bands were already lashing La Paz.Last year, when we spent the summer in the Sea of Cortez on Rebel Heart, we left La Paz and spent some long weeks up in Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido is, delicately speaking, a dump. But right or not I had it in my head that I didn't want to experience a strong hurricane in La Paz. In truth no sailor wants to experience a strong (or weak) hurricane anywhere, and even a "safe" hurricane hole in a strong upper category storm is going to be various shades of extremely dangeorus.

The weeks that followed for us became one of the more hilarious weather moments. "Dangerous" La Paz got a few drops of rain while up in "safe" Puerto Escondido we got slammed by half a dozen cyclones.

Hurricane Odile however decided not to play favorites and slammed directly into Cabo San Lucas, marching directly over the peninsula, laying waste to everything in its path in all directions. As I type this up in San Diego, a thousand miles north, we're having a hot and humid night because of the magnitude of this storm.

I finally got some first hand info and pictures tonight. These quotes, the text below, and the pictures are from Shell Ward at La Paz Yachts.

The big thing is that we are getting the Navy to help us search for 4 missing people. Gunther on Princess, was last heard from last night with water up to his knees saying he was leaving the boat.

 

Our good friends Paul and Simon on Tobasco II are missing as well. Their boat sunk sometimes in the night and all we can see the masts sticking up. 

 

There are at least 20 boats up on the shore incliding my old one EROS.
 We also saw an 8 man liferaft on the beach which we hoped belonged to Paul and Simone. No one was in the liferaft, so we are hoping they went and found a place to stay on the Magote. 
Believe the winds were worst at 2am when Autum said her anchor chain parted. 
By some miracle I have Internet. No phone and 110 only because we are running a generator. So this is the only way to get a message out. We are OK, and my boat is fine, but a lot of people are not. There are at least 20 boats up on the shore incliding my old one EROS. The big thing is that we are getting the Navy to help us search for 4 missing people. Gunther on Princess, was last heard from last night with water up to his knees saying he was leaving the boat. Gabriel on Damiana, which is a Mexican kid on a steel boat, have not found him or the boat yet either. Our good friends Paul and Simon on Tobasco II are missing as well. Their boat sunk sometimes in the night and all we can see the masts sticking up. When wind laid down some, earlier today Mike and I went out in the dinghy (wearing lifejackets!) and picked up 2 people stranded on the beach, Autum off of Rascel and Doug on Starduster. We also saw an 8 man liferaft on the beach which we hoped belonged to Paul and Simone. No one was in the liferaft, so we are hoping they went and found a place to stay on the Magote. There are some people over there in their houses, but we have not been able to reach anyone because the cell phone service is down. Tom on Colisto and Tim on Rock Bottom are both on the beach but OK as well as several other people. Tichard on Toloache and Paul on Cementress are both stranded on the sandbar without dinghies (blown away during the night). Believe the winds were worst at 2am when Autum said her anchor chain parted. 
We could use some help down here to get things cleaned up. It will be a long week! Thanks for all your prayers and please keep them coming for our missing friends. Over and Out.

 

Wednesday
Mar122014

we're [eventually] going to leave soon!

We're still sitting here at the dock, moving bulky gear around the over-stuffed cabin, ready to cross an ocean. Why are we sitting in a slip, holding our collective johnsons, you may ask? Well unfortunately for us the weather does not share our state of readiness. Instead it has decided to be light and flukey.

Slow sailing isn't necassarily bad. In fact, with a light swell, it's down right enjoyable. We have a big drifter. 8-12 knots of wind can be a downright pleasure.

But 4 knots true when you need to move downwind? Well, that's a little different. And that's the wind speed I heard on the SSB this morning for a boat that's sitting a few hundred miless off the coast. Looking at the forecast it's just going to get softer and softer over the next week, eventually blowing lightly from the south (ie: the wrong way entirely).

The furthest forecast I can see, including on Fleet Numerical's models, shows the Pacific High establishing itself (finally) eight days from now and hopefully a low pressure trough gets shoved down on us from the Gulf of Alaska. If those two things line up, that will create enough power to get off the coast (courtesy of the storm's remnants), and the Pacific High should be sitting there allowing the trades to operate at a good strength and extend far enough to the east that we can "hook into them". Mike Danielson at PV Sails went over some of this with me and I felt better finally having someone explain to me what the monsoonal trough really f'n is.

That's a lot to wish for and it's at the outer edge of a model trying to predict global weather, but every week or two conditions look better than they did a week or two before.

So, here we sit. On many cans of chicken and pork, we sit, waiting for the winds to align so we can shove off in a nice breeze towards Polynesia. 

In the mean time we've implemented a "chill the f out" policy onboard. After weeks of scrabbling to get ready, we're as ready as we can reasonably be. We've crossed the threshold whereby anything stressful or onerous at this point doesn't have a major impact on our success. 

And as anyone who's prepared for a big journey knows, it's a lot of work and sometimes you need to stop and remind yourself that the whole thing is supposed to be enjoyable, not just bearable. 

Thursday
Mar062014

getting ready to say good bye to mexico

Just me and my shirtless male friend touching each other.

I've lived in Mexico now for a year and a half. My Spanish has improved and I can accomplish most anything I need to, albeit I probably have the equivalent grammar and vocabulary of a four year old. But still, I have a dual citizen Mexico-United States daughter. I flipped through my passport and saw that in the last sixteen months I've accumulated eight re-entries to Mexico. I've written a book about my experiences here.

I've singlehanded Baja and the Sea of Cortez, and sailed across it twice more with the girls. I drove a van from Tijuana to San Diego, then back down the Baja peninsula to La Paz. I flew in a twin engine prop plane across the Sea of Cortez, twice, missed a flight in Cabo, and have collected every type of passport entry method aside from a train (which I'm not sure even exists in the US-Mexico border). 

I've surfed, paddleboarded, scuba dived, hiked, ran, snorkled, crewed a race boat, gotten drunk, ran into old friends, met new friends, did other things I can't put on this blog, lived in two apartments, and raced down a lonely Mexican highway in the middle of the night with my wife in labor as a police pickup escorted us.

A possible route for us, in manly pink.

A weather window has materialized allowing us to sail the 3,000 miles to the South Pacific, meaning that multiple days of decent winds have shown up as far as the forecast models will go. This, coupled with the pilot charts and general sailor-wisdom pointing to mid-March through mid-April as being optimal times to cross, means that no matter how you slice it our time left in Mexico is pretty short: possibly only a few more days. 

I'm not sure how I feel about Mexico. Because my daughter was born here, both Charlotte and I are eligible for permanent resident status. For most of my friends back in the USA, the idea of living long term in Mexico might seem rather absurd: it's a narco cartel ridden back water that's dirty, dangerous, and poor, right?

Well, not really. Talking about "Mexico" is a lot like talking about the "USA". Can you really compare Detroit, San Diego, Manhatten, and rural towns in Appalacha and Wyoming? They're incredibly different and most of the people living in one of those places probably wouldn't get along well with the folks from the others. Mexico, while certainly not as culturally or racially diverse as the USA, still has many layers and it's frankly ignorant to imagine a country so large and involved as being nothing more than our backwards and poor neighbor to the south. 

Zooming down the highway with Charlotte in labor, some unknown woman's car, police escorting us.Still, it will be nice to leave, but for me personally it's because I have a fair case of wanderlust. As you travel around by boat, in every harbor or bay someone will undoubtedly tell you that their little slice of the world, the one you're in at that moment, is the best.

I know seven people who've sailed around the world, and they came back here and said it was the best they'd ever seen.

I've heard that above line (with startling little deviation) in San Diego, Catalina, Puerto Escondido, La Paz, Mazatlan, and Bahia de Banderas. Personally I think the various boosters and self proclaimed admiralty of whatever bay are well meaning, but their attitude is akin to a townie who views any departure as treason, sensing the threat that if people want to leave the spectre is raised that perhaps that little slice of Earth isn't really all that special. Or at least not so special as to keep you from finding happiness somewhere else, albeit on a different set of merits.

More to the point, the only reason I've seen so many amazing places and done so many amazing things is because we got off our asses, pushed ourselves hard, and went into unknown (to us) territory. Sometimes the results were spectacular: La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and San Blas come to mind. Sometimes the results were mixed: Mazatlan and La Paz. And sometimes the place was an absolute dump that should be used for storing nuclear waste: Puerto Escondido. 

Despite Mexico's faults, and like any nation it has a long list, it has treated myself and my family well. The people have been warm, generous, and kind. I've traveled in the USA and returned to Mexico over a half dozen times, and right along with the knock-down heat I get a smile on my face and feel at home.

So Mexico, thanks. 

Monday
Mar032014

me and my little buddy

My friend Carlos gave us a ride to a store that sold "panga tanks". If you'e sailed in Mexico, you know these things. Five bucks, fifty liters, surprisingly durable.

Where I go, she goes: me and Cora. 

Cora and I have been glued to each other for the last year or so. Ever since Lyra showed up we, like many parents I would assume, divide and conquer. It's hard working on a boat project with one small child, it's virtually impossible with two. So when I need to go somewhere or do something I bring Cora because otherwise Charlotte would be dealing with two kids while I get to haul ass around and be independent: kind of a dick move.

Fortunately, I really like Cora. She's funny, nice, and tries really hard to always do the right thing. I think because I do so many grown-up projects with her that I sometimes forget she's three years old. I caught myself getting frustrated because she didn't know the difference between a socket and a box wrench. It's odd sometimes to traverse adult-level challenges and then hear a no-punch-line joke about poop from someone with hand-drawn tiger stripes on her knees. 

She routinely walked miles with in the Baja summer heat. She's been on bouncy bus rides, airplanes, multiple boats, and slept in a dozen beds. She always wants to help me. She loves her mom. She really loves her sister and those two are adorable together.

In the last year if you've seen me for more than five minutes, chances are good that Cora was there with me. Possibly picking flowers, telling you about her day, or asking if you like her dress. 

Cora and I zooming out to Rebel Heart in Puerto Escondido.

Cora and I have been to parties together. We've gone to the beach together. We've had take-out on the sand together. We've gone paddleboarding together. Surfing together. Swimming together. To a waterpark together. To movies together. To the plaza together. To workout together. To my job together. Worked on the boat together. She sailed through a gale at four months old and has crossed the Sea of Cortez twice (as has her sister and mom).

So little buddy when you read this in the future, just know you've been a dynamite kid.

Monday
Feb242014

the bamboo whisker pole

I try not to run dead down wind, but instead take it a bit on the quarter, enough that the staysail fills and isn't blanketed by the main. If we must sail dead down wind we will, and especially in calmer sea states that's just fine. 

When waves start breaking and seas start heaping up, the ride is a lot more comfortable if you're broad reaching and in my personal experience the risk of broaching is much lower. Less end-of-the-world-ish, broad reaching tends to heel the boat a bit instead of just letting her roll around on her longitudinal axis. 

Regardless though, the 3,000 mile / 4 week Pacific crossing will be primarily a down wind affair, and if the trades don't beef up here very soon the wind will be in the 10-15 knot range. With conditions like those we have a drifter for a jib (thanks to my unpopular move of trashing the roller furling) and I really wanted to get a pole.

A whisker pole, basically, is a pole that lets you "push" the clew (bottom/back corner of the sail) out over the water and hold it there. In light airs when the sail might otherwise collapse and flog itself to death, the pole forces the sail to keep its shape, sort of. 

The problem with whisker poles is that we don't have one and the "right" ones cost a lot of money, but fundamentally it's a pole, right? I mean, it's a friggen pole. Yes it has to perform under load, yes it needs to be corrosion resistant, and yes it needs some fittings on the end. But other than that, it's a pole. 

Images danced in my head of two long 2x4's with some overlap, thru-bolting them together. Then someone mentioned a long piece of thick-walled PVC. 

But then I saw the geniuses over on SV Lilo that were using bamboo for a dinghy mast and I got excited. 

We got the scoop that some bamboo stalks were growing next to the wall near the primary school in La Cruz, so off Cora and I started on our hike.

Protip: if you do this, make sure you realize you'll need to cut the bottom and the top. The canopy at the top is way to intertwined to just haul down a stalk you chop at the bottom. Worse for me, there was a power line running through it all and I didn't want to be the guy who started a fire at the school or knocked out someone's power. 

Fast forward thirty minutes of hiking back with it and then sawing off all the little nodules along the stalk and I'm the proud owner of a new soon-to-have-fittings whisker pole. 

Yes, boat nazis, I know it isn't as good as aluminium (or carbon). But you know what? It's free. I got a nice little walk out of it. I got a chance to cut down a bamboo stalk and make a whisker pole out of it. 

And when we roll into French Polynesia with our balling-out-of-control bamboo pole you know everyone will be jealous. 

Thursday
Feb202014

dodging the el nino bullet

An "El Nino event" (in the ENSO) is basically the term for the Pacific getting warmer than normal near South America. When that water gets warmer, things change. The water temperature is always changing but during an El Nino event it changes so much that more dramatic weather impacts are felt. More moisture comes into South America. Australia can experience drought conditions. Cyclones can range farther and pack more punch. The trade winds weaken, or even reverse. 

That last aspect there has had me a bit worried for the last week ever since a client prediction center said there's a 75% of an El Nino event happening in 2014. In a worst case scenario that would mean you're sitting in the middle of the ocean with no wind: a bad place to be.

Fortunately though if you look at the data and forecast models, the general consensus is that if an El Nino event occurs in 2014 it will be around the time that we're hoping to already be out of the trade winds, although there is certainly an El Nino impact on New Zealand which we'll take into consideration. 

It's also worth pointing out that NOAA, which is no slouch, will only issue El Nino warnings six months in advance of increased likelihood and they have not (as of now) done so. They have however indicated that some models are suggesting El Nino activity, although they point out that those models might just be responding to normal seasonal variation. 

For those of you looking for some absolute truths, realize that climate models are built by software developers and as a software developer I assure you that we are generally a lazy and error prone bunch.

On a personal note, I've really enjoyed getting to know the weather. It's one of several aspects to sailing that really helps ground you to the world we live on. At a micro level you're paying attention to wind direction, but at a zoomed out macro level things like global warming (seasonal, man made, or natural) really do have a material impact on our plans. I've never had that kind of connection before. 

In our previous land life bad weather was this thing that while inconvenient was rarely a truly life threatening event but here on the big blue ocean it's different. Taking the time to learn about the weather and to care about meteorology can be the difference between happy and well timed passages versus bobbing around with no wind or getting the crap kicked out of you. Both happen anyway, but you can avoid those extremes as much as possible by making smart weather decisions.

Know your boat and know the weather, and nine times out of ten you'll be zipping along happy as a clam. 

Sunday
Feb162014

hydrogenerator sea trials: completed

I've been reluctant to write about my hydrogenerator for two primary reasons. First, it's hardly a new idea. There are commercial versions (that cost a grand or two) and hundreds of sailors have built DIY versions for decades. Second, I hadn't tested my little creation yet so it seemed a little presumptuous to wax on about something that might not work at all. 

But today, halleluiah, I sea trailed the whole mess in the dinghy with great results.

Essentially you toss the black prop (connected to the stainless shaft there) into the water. It's connected by a shackle to some single braid line, and then goes taught, the other end of the line being secured to a shackle on an Electro-Craft E722 permanent magnet motor's axle.

At 300 RPMS, which seems to happen around ~4.3 knots, the motor makes about 12.5 volts. The faster it goes the more amperage and voltage it creates. I'm not worried about a voltage regulator because the amperage is low (about 5 amps at 12.5 volts, to maybe 12 amps at 90 volts), but to reach the upper threshold of voltage we would be doing double our hull speed so at that point over charging our batteries will be the least of my concerns. 

I had a local machine shop drill a hole through the generator's shaft so I could put a shackle through it.I only lost about 1/4 of a knot in my testing, so if I double that (to be a pessimist) and do some math it means a 20 day passage would now take 22 days. But that's 22 days of making 5 amps continually, which means we don't need to haul as much gasoline or diesel. And as anyone who's sailed downwind knows, it literally stinks to run the engine because the exhaust fumes blow into the cockpit and cabin. 

For the motor I had a few criteria. One, it had to be a permanent magnet motor. Two, it had to be fairly low horsepower because I wouldn't have a lot of rotational torque (generated by the prop) to work with. Three, it had to hit charging voltage (> 12.5 volts) at a low RPM. The Ametek models are definitely the most popular, but I re-read the specs on the Electro-Craft E722 and felt it would do the job as well if not better. Both of these motors were originally designed to spin large disk drives around and as such are frequently found on Ebay. The good news is that a lot of people are building wind generators these days, the bad news is that it's raised the price considerably on the motors. I was lucky and got mine for $50 but $100-$200 seems a bit more common.

The other thing I had the machine shop do was build a shaft for the prop with an eyelet on the end.For the prop I'm sure there are better options than what I got, but I was pressed for time and saw a $400 prop on sale at West Marine in San Diego for $40. I figured that was better than whatever else I'd be able to find so I tossed it in my checked baggage and called it good. 

I had a machine shop drill a hole through the motor shaft that would accept an 8mm shackle so I could secure that to a thimble in the tow line.

I also had the machine shop use a solid stainless rod, thread it, and pop a nyloc nut on for the prop. Also, they put an eyelet on the end that I could likewise shackle to a thimble on the end of the tow line.

When testing I was happy to see that the line doesn't kink at all: the rotational twist builds up in a few seconds and then starts happily spinning the motor. The drag on the prop causes the line (at least my single braid) to not kink, and any twist is transferred as kinetic energy to the motor's shaft. 

The only other thing you want to make sure to add is a blocking diode. Otherwise when there's more voltage in the batteries than the motor is making, either because the boat is slow or possibly because your solar panels are putting out a lot of juice, the motor will start consuming electricity rather than generating it, and you can watch the prop as it tries to spin itself away from your boat.

My machinist showing me the fastener assembly he built for the prop shaft.All in, rounding up, I spent $50 on the motor, $8 on a blocking diode, $40 on the prop, $100 at the machine shop, and $40 worth of line and thimbles. So that's $240 and possibly another $30 for a soft shackle to make a fairlead, call it $300 all in to hopefully have a sizeable heap of clean energy for our passages. I'll report back with more info but I've got high hopes that in addition to being quieter and more environmentally friendly it will also end up being cheaper as $300 worth of gas and diesel really doesn't go that far.  

Regarding fish eating it. Personally I think that's cruiser-folklore (a.k.a. "sea stories"). The stainless steel shaft is two feet long and it's 1/2" single braid which is pretty tough to slice unless you hack it to death in multiple attempts. I'm of the personal belief that the loss of towed props is due much more to common and less dramatic reasons like forgetting to mouse a shackle. Either way though, the electrical connections and line that secures the motor to the boat will be sufficient but intentionally the weakest link so that if a school-bus sized sea monster bites hard it wont rip the transom off.

Monday
Feb102014

weak el nino year possible for 2014

I just spent the last hour combing through forecast models and am slightly bummed to find out that there is a better-than-zero chance of a weak El Nino event happening in the middle of 2014.

2/6/2014 - (Reuters) - U.S. weather forecaster Climate Prediction Center (CPC) said on Thursday there was an increasing chance of the El Nino weather pattern after expecting neutral conditions through the Northern Hemisphere spring 2014.

That represented a change from the CPC's previous outlook of neutral conditions through summer 2014.

In its monthly report, the CPC maintained its outlook that El Nino was unlikely through the spring, but noted that a change in temperatures "portend warming in the coming months."

The good news about that is three fold:

1) It's possible that no El Nino conditions will happen at all.

2) If an El Nino does happen in 2014, it looks to be weak. 

3) If an El Nino does happen in 2014, it looks to happen in the summer time which although still not great for Pacific sailors at least leaves the big Americas->French Polynesia route relatively untouched. 

Reading through the NOAA forecasts you really a strong taste of all the phrases like "might", "could", "possibly", "waiting on data", "still being determined", etc. If you peel back the layers further you'll see that budget cuts to oceanographic warning systems have been chiefly responsible for the lack of finality in recent forecasts. 

Apparently the $3,000,000 USD needed to fix NOAA's buoys was simply not available. To put in context, that's the cost of two Tomahawk missiles. I don't think it's a reach to argue that knowledge of global weather patterns that affect crop production, transportation, and so much else might be slightly relevant than what two cruise missiles can accomplish. In 1998, damage from El Nino weather conditions caused over twenty five billion dollars in losses to the US economy. 

 

Saturday
Feb012014

last night in the you-ess-of-ay

It's been a little... interesting... here on our blog. With all the talk of child molesters and abuse, my regular banal contributions to the Internet have seemed slightly out of place. But perhaps no one is looking and I can squeak out a nice mundane blog post that is not emotional, gripping, or even that interesting to be honest. 

Today is February which has special signifigance in our household (or boathold?) because we're planning on leaving in March. That means we have roughly a month and some change to get ready to cross three thousand miles of open ocean, spending perhaps thirty days underway. With two small children. 

What we're waiting for, basically, is for the area inside the black circle to look more like the area inside the red circle. Those hockey-stick looking things are the wind, with the handle (the long part) being the direction the wind is going towards. The blades on the end indicate the strength. One long blade is 10 knots, a half a blade is 5 knots. So a long blade with a short blade is 15 knots, two long blades is 20 knots, five long blades is 50 knots, etc. 

These are the trade winds and they strengthen in the spring, but it's not an exact science. Some years they start early, some years they're stronger, and some years they're weaker. Some years (el Nino), they're backwards. 

(above: my day job. conference is over, business clothes packed, waiting for a car and subsequent flight to another city)

It's funny because I have the same disbelief about leaving for the South Pacific that I did before we left for Mexico almost a year and a half ago. I don't really believe it will happen, but I make a list of things that need to get done and I start doing them. Then, you turn around and they're all done, or more likely, done-ish. The weather is good, the provisioned are packed, and there's not much else to do but slip the lines and take off. 

30-45 days to go. I've been up in the USA for a week on business and it's a really weird feeling to know that the next time I come back it will probably be on jet airplane that has to cross over the Pacific.

Friday
Nov292013

the safety of mexico for a cruising sailor

A typical cartel raid. Military grade weapons, armor, and uniforms.I received an email the other day from someone who, understandably, is worried about going to Mexico in light of the violence and crime that is so widely reported. Anyone traveling to Mexico probably, hopefully, has at least asked themselves "is it safe?".

An excerpt of the email is below, and as always any identifiable info has been removed to protect the innocent, less their friends and contemporaries know that they associate with me:

I am actually planning on heading down south as I too have a Hans Christian 36 :)  I am planning on doing Mexico and want to surf Baja and eat lobsters down there, but was getting a lot of grief from family about it being so unsafe these days... I almost decided to bypass Mexico and go to Hawaii, missing out on Baja altogether.

Then I found your blog and looked at the great photos and thought Mexico is still safe - just look these people are totally doing it!

Please, if you have a little time, please give me your opinion of the overall safety there now.

When we lived in San Diego some South Korean friends were at our boat for dinner and expressed how they were not going to Los Angeles because of the violence there: they had seen the homeless man who was set on fire and burned to death, they had heard the gangster rap music of the 90's, they had seen the movies, and they knew the drive-by attack rates.

Charlotte and I tried to explain to them that there are many people living quite safely in Los Angeles and that they were really far off in their threat assessment. Personally I'm much more worried about getting into a car accident driving back and forth from San Diego to Los Angeles than I am ending up in the crossfire of a gang war. But people as a rule generally have terrible skills at identifying and prioritizing risk, usually magnifying the unknown threats and minimizing those they have already come to terms with.

Cartels have hired young women to work as assassins because people are less suspicious of them.To answer your question, dear reader, the reality of narco cartels in Mexico is multifaceted, nuanced, and quite far from the typical US image of the situation. To be fair, it's also pretty far from Mexico's image of the situation.

First and foremost, the number of your typical-westerner-bystanders being involved in cartel violence is quite low. These are not gangs as much as businesses, and nearly everything they do is fueled by the desire to protect and expand their revenue. The ballpark income of Mexican cartels is $64 billion dollars annually: these are not motorcycle meth gangs in leather jackets.

Before I came to live in America's southerly neighbor I definitely had the (egregiously wrong) paternalistic view of Mexico where whatever they built could never be as good as what America has done and whatever their problems are it's nothing that some Predator drones and a few DEVGRU guys couldn't wipe out. This is simply untrue and anyone who thinks along these lines does not understand the depth or breadth of narco trafficking. 

Ending up in the crosshairs of a cartel can happen in a number of ways: you could be a politician, a rival cartel member, a business operating in controlled territory, or even simply someone with skills a cartel has deemed helpful and wants to employ. But the odds of that happening to you as a barely-Spanish-speaking tourist on a boat is remarkably slim. The reality is that you (and I) have little to offer them in terms of benefit or threat. Note that when looking up "American citizens killed in Mexico", you will be wading into the sea of Mexican-American nationals. The twin daughters of the world's most powerful narco cartel are in fact Americans, born in Los Angeles: immeadiatly after they returned to Mexico so now you tell me, are they Mexican cartel affiliates, American citizens, or do they exist in some nebulous in between?

Cartel murders are often public, with signs informing would-be rivals to think twice.There are places you can go, most of which aren't on the Pacific coast (or on any coast) that will crank up your odds of problems. If you emailed and said you were going to backpack through the trafficking corridors of Durango and then set up a drug rehab clinic in Juaraz, yeah: there's a decent chance you're going to end up in a bag before the year is out.

But to provide a parallel in the United States, there's a difference between working in the San Diego golf course industry versus being in San Bernadino county creating bulk pseudoephedrine: both of those paths set you at wildly different courses of running into a rather violence prone set of individuals. To the untrained eye however, someone might simply see the entire state of California as dangerous because if you can get into trouble making a meth precursor then surely maintaining the putting greens in La Jolla is equally as terrifying. 

One of my favorite books on the subject of Mexican narco cartels is Ted Carpenter's The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America. That sets up a pretty good base of knowledge for understanding the violence spurring aspect of the Mexican-American "head hunting" campaign where rather than introduce systemic solutions to narcotics trafficking, the current enforcement model targets cartel senior leadership (a.k.a. "king pins").

These senior cartel leaders generally are the least violent (of very violent people), and when they are removed from power intense fighting follows in their wake: lieutenants fight each other for control, splinter groups form, and rival cartels smell blood in the water and move in to capitalize on perceived weakness. This is precisely what happened in Tijuana with the decapitated Tijuana Cartel, and in Juarez with the also aptly named Juarez Cartel. In both instances the violence spikes were directly tied to the fall of the senior leadership.

The headhunting enforcement model is roughly akin to hoping that by killing the CEO of Coca Cola and Pepsi, you will thereby stop people from making and drinking soda. Undoubtedly the supply will be disrupted temporarily, but a lower supply and maintained demand only causes prices to soar and bolder actions by those who can manufacturer and sell. But people don't like nuance, and voters generally root for the guy who managed to put a bruised up "drug kingpin" in front of the cameras with a pile of narcotics and gold plated weapons on the table in front of him, flanked by scary soldiers in ski-masks.

Why this matters and why you should be aware of it, dear reader, is because traveling through Baja and the Nayarit area, you're going to be smack dab in the Sinaloa Cartel's operating range. The Sinaloa cartel is the largest narcotics organization in the world and easily the most powerful in Mexico. Formerly the Pacific Cartel, it controls the territory these days that a typical Mexico-Pacific sailor will encounter from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta. 

So with all the corpses dangling from bridges and faces sewn onto soccer balls and kicked into government buildings, here's a less ghoulish tale that shows some nuance. 

Every Wednesday there is a market here in sleepy La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and there is always the pirated movie stand. $20 pesos for a movie, buy 5 and get your sixth for free. Last year I picked up Shrek, Act of Valor, and some other titles from the stand and walked away. One of the kids working there chased after me and hauled me back, explaining that I hadn't picked my sixth free movie and that he still owed me one. Even better, he said if any of them didn't play to make sure I brought them back next week for a refund or exchange.

I bring this up because my money, and the money of everyone who's purchased a pirated movie in Mexico, goes directly into the coffers of the area's predominant narco cartel. The police don't turn a blind eye to pirate movies because they like Toy Story 3 and want others to get it at a fair price, these illegal markets exist (and are operated with terrific customer service) because of the powerful cartel influences. The cartel gets its cut and as a result the pirate movie vendor doesn't have competition in that area and doesn't get hassled by the local police. 

Narco trafficking is a major aspect of Mexico: you simply cannot have a conversation about business or politics without the subject being brought up. In some places the effect is obvious, in others the impact is more subtle. It's incredibly naive for anyone to imagine they are immune to the footprint of cartels, but likewise it's Chicken Little-ish to think you personally are that relevant to a cartel or that the razor thin chance of ending up in a cross fire, which can happen in Kansas City as well, is anything more than distantly remote. 

The take away points I would offer up, and I wrote this in my book as well (cough cough), are:

  • Be careful if you buy drugs. Lots of people buy weed in Mexico, and honestly the cartels are there to sell and make money not to hassle or endanger their customers. But the local shit-head taxi driver you ask might try to fleece you for some cash before he takes you to his connection. If you want to score some weed, make friends with a local first. 
  • Until you know areas well, stick with remote villages or well trodden areas of cities that have a defined gringo footprint (La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Turtle Bay, Loreto, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, etc). 
  • Don't get caught with drugs in Mexico. It's actually not as illegal as people think: most states have legalized minor posession but the Mexican military has wide latitude and the local municipal police can still hassle you. There is quite a bit of distance, especially on the mainland, between what's on the books and what happens in the street.
  • Lookout for enforcement actions that rattle cartel leadership. If El Chapo Guzman were ever caught or killed (and we were in a Sinaloa area) we wouldn't leave town instantly but I'd be much more alert and avoid sketchy situations than I otherwise might.
  • Read some books on the subject and familiarize yourself with the patterns, targets, periphery, and cycles of narco violence. 

Mexico is neither safe or dangerous, and it is obtuse to oversimplify such a complex country into those definitions. Your safety and experiences are entirely dependent on where you are and the choices you make. With a bit of light reading (that is actually pretty interesting), staying up on the news, and having a genuine interest in learning about the situation you can make the danger of Mexico be as remote as that of your own home town.