Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mazatlán Part 6: The quiet, palm-fringed beaches of Isla de la Piedra

Isla de la Piedra lives in a different world from the rest of Mazatlán. The beaches of Mazatlán are bordered by a nearly continuous line of businesses, hotels and restaurants. In back of these lies a very busy city. Carole and I heard about Isla de la Piedra (Stone Island) from our neighbors in Hotel La Siesta. They spoke of thatched palapas housing rustic restaurants along the initial stretch of beach, followed by quiet, palm-lined beaches stretching endlessly to the horizon. If solitude and serenity are what you want, just keep walking south along the beach and you'll quickly find it. It all sounded dreamy and we couldn't wait. To locate Isla de la Piedra in relation to Mazatlán, click here.

The journey to Isla de la Piedra

Frigate birds circle above fishing boats near the ferry dock. We embarked for Isla de la Piedra from a small, picturesque harbor filled with fishing skiffs. Clouds of frigate birds whirled above. There are several docks along the inner harbor where you can take a ferry across to Isla de la Piedra. We were looking for something quick and inexpensive, so we picked this dock. The cost is about $2.50 (USD) per person, and the journey takes about 15 minutes each way.

Our boatman and his craft. The boatmen are an efficient but easy-going bunch. The ride was smooth, with no untoward events. He graciously steadied his rocking boat so I could get a good shot.

More elaborate forms of transport are also available. These double-decker catamaran ferries are considerably more expensive, depending upon the tour you select. Some tours go around the inner harbor, and others out into the bay, stopping at some of the islands to view the wildlife. We didn't have time to do both a bay tour and Stone Island too, so we picked the island.

The Mazatlán-La Paz ferry gleams in its berth. This huge ferry crosses the Sea of Cortez to La Paz on the southeast coast of Baja California. The ship has cabins for passengers and space for their cars. The crossing to La Paz is one I would love to take, but since the ferry ride itself lasts 12 hours, it must wait until another time. 

Container ship Potrero del Llano. Mazatlán is not just the tourist-oriented beach resort envisioned by foreign visitors. The port is one of Mexico's busiest, and has been for 150 years. The ship's name means "Pasture of the Plains". 

About the island

A rustic palapa on a rocky hill overlooks Isla de la Piedra's crescent bay. After debarking at the dock, we followed a short path over a rocky hill to the beach. Along the way, we saw this picturesque dwelling. Palapas are open-sided structures, generally supported by rough wood pillars set directly into the sand. A ceiling of lighter branches is then roofed with inter-woven palm fronds. They are inexpensive and relatively quick to construct. Woven mats are sometimes put up as walls to protect from the breezes. On hot, bright days, they provide welcome shade. Often a woven hammock or two is strung up between the pillars

As we walked, Turkey Vultures swooped low over our heads. Known formally as Cathartes aura, these large birds are found throughout the Americas, the most widespread of the New World vultures. The Turkey Vulture consumes no live prey, being exclusively a carrion feeder. It possesses an excellent sense of sight and smell with which to find dead animals. While the body is relatively light (1.4 kg or 3.1 lbs) the wingspan is wide, ranging up to 183 cm or 72 inches. 

Thousands of coconut palms line the beach, their fronds gently swaying in the ocean breeze. Mexico's coconut palms, at least those on the West Coast, probably originated from coconuts drifting over from Polynesia. In any case, they were well established by the time Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. The trees are cultivated in massive groves all along the coast. The coconut palm is an extraordinary plant, supplying meat, milk, oil, and a variety of materials for building and craft products. 

Isla de las Chivas sits at the tip of the crescent bay. Isla de las Chivas (Goat Island) used to be a separate island, but Mazatlán authorities built a causeway connecting it to Isla de la Piedra. Stone Island itself is not a true island, but is a peninsula which can be reached by car from the mainland. However, it is less trouble and much more fun to go by ferry. For a map showing both Islas de las Chivas and de las Piedras, click here.

Beachcombing the endless sands of Stone Island. After the first 1/4 mile, there are few man-made structures along the shore. Mile after mile of empty sand beaches fringed by rustling palm groves stretches away into the distance. Am I looking relaxed yet?

The schooner Patricia Belle rocks gently at anchor in Isla de la Piedra's cozy little bay. Athough there are fully equipped marinas to the north, near the Golden Zone, if I were a sailor, I would choose to anchor here. The Patricia Belle is available for tours of the area, if you have the $54 (USD) fare--$18 for kids.

Living his dream. The operator of Patricia Belle came on deck as I was photographing his boat. He looks pretty relaxed, himself. The boat seems to be of an older type, with little of the modern fiberglass and other synthetic materials used on newer sailboats. More beautiful, but harder--and more expensive-- to care for. As someone famously said "a boat is defined as a hole in the water into which you pour money."

Where to find something to eat or drink

Palapas on a grand scale. The initial stretch of beach was lined with palapa restaurants. We stopped in one for lunch. The floor was the bare sand underfoot, and a hammock was strung just behind our table. The fare included a variety of freshly-caught seafood, plus various Mexican dishes and other things like hamburgers and club sandwiches. In front of the restaurants was a line of small palapa umbrellas with lounge chairs underneath.

Quirky decorations covered the bamboo walls of the restaurant. Above, two colorful ceramic lizards appear to explore a piece of driftwood. 

Our waiter flagged us down as we walked by his restaurant. The perfect English spoken by this very amiable young man led us to inquire where he learned it. He grew up in the United States living with his Mexican parents, then decided to move down to Mexico and live on the beach. No doubt his employer makes full use of his English skills. Cruise ships dock just across the narrow channel and groups of passengers visit Stone Island on a regular basis. 

And now for a little tune (or two?). As always in Mexico, we encountered a group of wandering musicians. Since the day we visited was very slow for business, we took pity and ordered up a song. They played quite beautifully and were glad to pose for picture with Carole.

Whatever is there to do?

Roaming vendors also stopped at our table periodically. Many folks like to shop. Lolling in your chair, sipping your margarita, as the merchandise is brought to you is a pleasant, and very laid-back way to do it. Occasionally, I hear people gripe about the ubiquitous Mexican vendors in resorts. We have always found that a polite "no, gracias" sends them on their way, if we are not interested. We treat them with respect because they work very hard for very little.

There were a variety of modes of transportation available. I have read occasional reviews of Stone Island that claimed the horses are starving and mistreated. None of the ones above looked in bad shape, and I didn't see any that I wouldn't have rented, had I been inclined. Not that there aren't mistreated animals out there. We just didn't see any.

For those wanting a bit more speed. Vendors rent both motorcycles and ATVs. If I had been ambitious to explore the far reaches of the beach, this would have been the way.

And then there are the "banana boats". These are long inflated tubes with handles along the top. They come in various sizes and are towed by a boat. Above, two women are launched into the surf by the vendor. They appear to be grasping the handles for dear life.

And they're off! A banana boat speeds across the bay with its passengers clinging on as waves and the speedboat's wake buffet them. In the foreground, two children pause in their beachcombing to watch the show.

There is always the simple pleasure of digging in the sand. A toddler hugely enjoyed herself making holes as her mother looked on. She was so engrossed in her excavations that she never looked up while I took several pictures. Overall, we found the beach very clean, considering the amount of use it gets.

And, for the complete slug, there are always the lounge chairs under the umbrellas. As I grew sleepy in the warm afternoon sun, this particular activity looked increasingly appealing. 

The end of the day

Patriotic pelicans. As the day waned, we caught the ferry to mainland Mazatlán. Back in the small fishing harbor, I noticed this flock of brown pelicans hanging about under a Mexican flag flying over  one of the boats. I couldn't resist a photo.

Yet another spectacular sunset, as we finished our last day in Mazatlán. Intense bands of reddish-orange stripe the sky above two cruise ships setting out on a night-time voyage to another exotic seaport.

This completes my 6th and last post of my Mazatlán series. I hope you have enjoyed it, particularly those of you who have been happily frolicking in the snowdrifts up north. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or by return email. 

If you leave a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. As usual your articles and photos are great. The photo of the sunset is AMAZING.

  2. Jim, I relaxed just looking at this. And I agree with the above comment about the sunset photo. How blessed you are to see and appreciate such beauty. Thank you for sharing. Tom

  3. I loved the pics! seems you had a great time in Mexico. Makes want to visit the country! Thanks for sharing it with us!
    Madison Compton - riviera maya tours riviera maya resorts

  4. Great blog on our city of Mazatlan. We've made this our home for 4+ years now. You've described Stone Island (gringo translation) perfectly. Not much has changed on this 'island'; really a peninsula. There is a resort of a grander size being worked on, Felix, the lad you met is no longer at Lety's and the cost of the panga to take your from the ferry dock area to Stone Island is no 25 pesos RT, less the $2. We enjoy Maz 100% except from July - Oct. when it's unbearably humid.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim