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Want some salt with that?

3 Mar

One of the disadvantages of settling into our campsite on Rattlesnake Beach is we do way less travelling in Baja than we did originally.  One of the advantages has been making some very good friends of the folks who make up the beach community. Quite a few of them have fairly large motor boats and as I’ve mentioned before, due to Richard helping them out with launching and retrieving the boats, these wonderful people have kept us in fish all winter long. They have also taken us out on trips we wouldn’t normally have managed on our own, with our kayak, wonderful though it is.

Over the last couple of years we have been squired to out of the way areas where we’ve experienced abandoned buildings, sea caves, pristine white sand beaches and hot springs. These wonderful folks have taken us fishing on occasion, when we’ve opted to go, and put us into Dorado, Roosterfish, and Cabrilla, shown us the sites and acted as tour guides.

A view of Carmen and Danzante Islands

None of the places we’ve been taken to could we have reached in our kayak unless we wanted to overnight and if you know me, you know how I feel about camping, especially since it requires sleeping on the ground and these days, that just isn’t going to happen.

Our latest adventure was sponsored by our closest neighbours on the beach who asked if we’d ever been to the salt works in Salinas Bay on Carmen Island, a spot about 15 miles from us on the far eastern side of the island. We had only heard and read about it but not visited it, so a plan was formed to spend the day with them exploring this historic area.

This is part of the old village. These buildings were work spaces.

The view from our campsite encompasses both Danzante and Carmen Island. Danzante is the small island directly in front of us and Carmen is the large island north of and behind it. It is 18 miles long and on average about 2 miles wide, consisting of approximately 37,000 acres. From the northern end of the island, a narrow peninsula extends 4 miles to the southeast forming the northeastern end of Salinas Bay. The island is actually privately owned and has been since the 1800’s. Currently it is owned by the Salinas Pacifico Company, the last company to operate the Salt works. It’s considered part of the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which was formed in 1996, and Salinas Pacifico Company works with them to keep it an ecological reserve.

The Private Island

A herd of 500 Big Horn Sheep are kept there and a hunt is operated every year as long as there are enough Class 4 rams (older than 8 years) that are excess to the health of the population. You too can come and stay at the resort that has been built beside the old salt works, and hunt one of these big animals as long as you can afford anywhere from $58,000.00 US and up depending on the size of animal you wish to shoot. For example a Ram that has an overall Boone & Crocket rating of 165 points will cost you $58,000, and one that rates over 174 will cost over $74,000 and so on. If there is no hunt scheduled you can still stay there and indulge your desires for big game fish at a commensurate cost. The resort is first class and quite beautiful and makes full use of the ruins that it sits beside. One can spend quite a lot of time wandering around the old buildings, salt ponds, and machinery graveyards, not to mention the bits and pieces that have been cleaned up, repaired, and preserved. The only real sad note in this is with the poor economy and the price of scrape metal, slowly but surely the old pieces of machinery are being broken up and hauled away, removing much of the history of the place.

This is just a small part of the machinery graveyard

The beach that fronts this place is probably one of the most beautiful we’ve seen on the Sea of Cortez. It used to be full of turtles, but over the centuries, the workers who harvested them as a greatly desired delicacy wiped them out and so far, no attempt has been made to reintroduce them.

How's that for a gorgeous beach?

When we arrived in the Bay we stopped at a wreck lying on its side. The prevailing wind comes from off the land and the bay as I said before is quite shallow so with storms and poor anchorages there are remnants of a number of freighters laying on the bottom, slowly disintegrating. Once we anchored, with a stern anchor and another off the bow running onto the beach we jumped into the crystal clear water and proceeded to the resort, looking for the caretakers. Once found, we obtained permission to land and explore, as there were no guests and no active hunts going on.

This is the road that was built to access the salt flats. There's a sign at it's start saying that it's 6 kilometres to the other side.

Off we went and as you can see from the photos, we had a great time looking at everything; we even walked the length of this gorgeous beach.

A small breakaway salt pond.

One of the things I’ve always strived to do when I see something interesting is find out more about it and once we were back at Rattlesnake I proceeded to do just that. So here’s a fairly condensed version of the history of Carmen Island and the salt works.

The original Spanish settlers in the area were Jesuit priests who arrived in the early 1600’s, they founded the original, formal salt works, an extremely small operation, thanks to information garnered from the local natives. The mine was worked sporadically and natives were exploited as workers, who could be worked to death as long as their immortal souls were saved. This was done simply by baptizing them and giving them Christian names. Since there was more work to be done on the mainland of Baja, building, expanding and maintaining Missions to the glory of God, not to mention political and religious machinations that replaced the Jesuits with the Franciscans, the mine was only occasionally worked with most of the salt exported to Spain.

Some of the original workers homes were made from available materials. This is lumps of coral, cemented together then plastered over.

Starting in the 1800’s the mine was operated continuously, though through a number of different owners, eventually being sold to a British firm for $86,000.00, which included the entire island. Each owner expanded the works, brought in new equipment and increased the tonnage exported. At one time it was the largest employer in the town of Loreto, with staff living on the island as well as being ferried back and forth by boat to the western side of the island and continuing the trip over the spine of the island by mule.

The view out the front window of one of the offices. Pretty nice isn't it?

Salt is graded according to its Baume rate and from what I can find, the salt coming from Carmen Island was considered some of the purest salt in the world. It is called an evaporite deposit (a natural salt or mineral deposit left after evaporation of a body of water) and began with a north trending Graben, (an elongated block of the earths crust lying between 2 faults and displaced downward relative to the blocks on either side) which formed a bay about 1 mile wide and 3 miles long. A broad, flat-topped reef then grew along the shoreline and eventually closed it off, isolating the saltwater lagoon, which evaporated. As salinity increased, calcium sulfate, halite and probably potassium magnesium salts were precipitated, leaving the lagoon filled with evaporite sediments. Over the centuries water trickled through the reef and continued to evaporate while the Graben continued to grow, eventually reaching a size of 2 miles wide, 4 miles long and about 2 miles deep.

These are pillars of salt formed when the salt slurry dripped through the conveyer belt system as it was moved along from the ponds to the dryers near the beach.

Mining continued apace until it became apparent that the companies couldn’t compete with other salt works. As I mentioned before, Salinas Bay is shallow, so the salt would be mined, then moved to the workings on the beach shore where it would be dried and bagged, then placed in Pangas or small boats, which would carry the loads out to the bigger freighters.  These in turn would transport the salt to either Baja mainland or the mainland of Mexico where it again would be unloaded and reloaded into either bigger freighters or trains and shipped again. Each time the salt was moved an additional expense was added to it, pricing itself out of the market. The last salt exported from Carmen Island was in 1983. It seems when they decided to close it, they simply walked away as a great deal of the day to day paper work is still there from invoicing sheets, expense tallies and even pay stubs.

The old loading dock, looking out into Salinas Bay

While we were there, I grabbed a large salt crystal and plan on taking it home to my daughter who writes a well know food blog, Guilty Kitchen.com, I’m sure she’ll appreciate having some of the purest and rarest salt on the planet. Maybe I’ll get her to cook me something wonderful with a tiny bit of Carmen Island salt in it, after all this blog is supposed to be about travelling and eating well, on a budget, and well, the salt was free!

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On the Sea of Cortez

21 Dec

I’ve told you about our kayak. One of the great things about it, is it allows us to go further, faster. That means we can decide we want to head out for a leisurely paddle over to Danzante Island, stopping here and there to explore the many coves and beaches that abound on it’s shores, and still get home in time for Happy Hour!
The water here this year, due to a slightly lower than normal temperature, is crystal clear and even in depths of 20 feet the bottom is clearly visible and so are all it’s inhabitants.
Over the years, we’ve had problems with dust getting into our cameras, so last year we purchased a couple of small, digital cameras capable of underwater shots and movies. This not only does away with dirt and sand getting inside them, it also offers us a new perspective when out on the water.
We headed out last week to explore the coast of Danzante, cameras in hand, hopping for a few sightings of fish and fowl to record for posterity, and to get a little exercise. As we headed out past Coyote Point we could see a great deal of splashing ahead of us, so we aimed for it, then stopped paddling to wait and see what it was. What it was was Manta rays, hundreds of them! They were doing an intricate dance around one another that included leaping clear of the water, moving back and forth around and under us, in a fabulous mating display. It was like watching a carefully choreographed ballet and continued for as long as we wanted to watch.

Manta Rays mating dance

While I was shooting in every direction I could think of and getting quite a few good photos, I inadvertently got a shot of this fellow. They’re called Needlefish, they run about 2 feet long, and are a major predator in the waters here. The name describes both it’s body shape and the multiple needle sharp teeth in it’s jaw. They are also a very pretty blue colour as are it’s flesh and bones.

Needlefish investigating us

Coasting around a bay towards a sandy spit which we intended to land on, we became aware of a California Sea Lion, feeding in the deep drop off at the end of the spit. We watched him for a while enjoying his antics, then noticed a pod of Dolphins, either Roughtoothed or Bottlenosed, on the other side of the split, playing. They had quite a few young ones with them and seemed to be doing nothing more than having fun, leaping and splashing about.
Both animals remained in the cove, seemingly keeping us company as we explored the beach and surrounding area. Just as we decided to hit the water the dolphins disappeared, but we realized that the Sea Lion hadn’t. As a matter of fact it had gone to sleep on the surface about a 100 yards off shore, so we snuck up on it. We got quite close before it noticed us and simply slipped below the surface with barely a ripple to show where it had been.

Wakey, wakey!

We turned our boat back towards the shore we live on, but a fair ways further south, intending to work our way up the coast and check out a few of the small Islets on the way. The weather held, warm and calm, just another beautiful day here on the Baja!
There was unexplained slashing going on just ahead of us, in close to shore, so we paddled over to see what it was. Imagine our surprise when the head of this came out of the water. It was a 20 foot long Whale Shark, a plankton feeder, sieving through the huge volumes of Krill that had appeared in the Sea over the last week or so. It swam with it’s top jaw above the surface, pushing massive amounts of water through it’s gills, turning constantly to keep within the waves of Krill. This was a once in a lifetime happening! Most never experience the thrill of seeing one of these massive creatures. It swam so close beside us we could touch it and a couple of times it went under the kayak and it’s dorsal bumped us as it went past. We sat with it for a good 20 minutes just enjoying seeing one of the oceans largest and gentlest creatures. When we returned home and told our neighbours about our exploits, they told us we were very lucky, they had sailed the world’s oceans for 25 years and had never seen one nor did they know of anyone else who had had a similar experience. We felt extremely privileged to have been witness to one of natures rarer displays!

Heading under the kayak

The next day we were invited to go out on a friends motor boat to see more of the coast than we can reach with our kayak. They were also planning to take us to one of the numerous hot springs in an area we have difficulty accessing in our vehicles. We headed out early, tossed the lines overboard just for fun and started to learn more about this beautiful and rugged area.
Rounding a point south of Ensenada Blanca (White Cove) we spotted a net pen in the bay. Our hostess explained that the women of the small village in the cove had a business Cooperative, diving for Angelfish and selling them into the Aquarium Market in the US. They didn’t take many fish, just enough to make a little money. The business was successful enough to buy clothes and school supplies for the children of the village as well as a few other necessities.

Cortez and Queen Angelfish

Over the next hour both our host and Richard caught, fought and released small Roosterfish, both under 10 pounds and lots of fun, both for those doing the fighting and those who watched. We had just released one when another pod of Dolphins appeared off our bows and played around and under us as we made bow and stern waves. Eventually they grew bored with us and went on their way as did we.

 

Dolphins toying with us

We rounded a point into a crescent bay with a spit of rocks leading to a small island. During high tide the spit is underwater. We anchored in the middle of this rocky spit and both of our friends made comments about hoping we had made it here during the right part of the tide. Richard and I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about until we got off the boat and up onto the spit. Right there in front of us, in the middle of this rocky finger was a pool. a hot springs! The only time it can be accessed is during low tide and it’s obviously been in use a long time as patrons over the years have pulled more and more rocks out of it to make the pool larger. It reminds us that the Sea of Cortez is just an extension of the San Andreas fault and that volcanic activity isn’t very far below the surface. It was a most welcome respite and we were loath to exit it, but there were others who had shown up to use it and we vacated to let them enjoy the warm waters as well.

It's nice and warm!

Heading into the last bay, a place called Agua Verde, (which mean Green water and it’s a very apt name as the water has an almost emerald colour to it) our host noticed fishing activity and dropped the gear, almost instantly we were into a large fish and the rod was handed to me. I fought it for a good 10 minutes before we even sighted it and even then we couldn’t figure out what it was. We’ve come to realize that even those who fish this sea all the time are often surprised what appears on the end of their rods. Another 10 minutes went by before we caught enough of a glimpse to identify it as a big Roosterfish. Finally after another 10 minutes I managed to wear it out enough to get it to the side of the boat for assessment and photos, where it was promptly released. From past experience I figured it to be between 25 and 30 pounds and it was one hell of a fun fight!

A great fight then a quick release.

We headed back home after that, thanking our hosts for another memorable day on the Sea of Cortez and wondering what more it holds in store for us the next time we venture out on it! Sights and experiences never to be forgotten!