Monday, February 10, 2014

San Blas Part 2: Aticama Beach

An ultralight cruises along just above Playa Aticama as the sun drops toward the horizon. To the right you see the end of one of the palm-roofed palapas that line the beach for miles. Carole and I stayed in a B&B just north of the town of Aticama. This was the view out the back gate. Playa Aticama is one of several long beaches that form the rim of Bahia Mantanchen south of San Blas.  We picked this beach for our winter get-away because, in addition to sunny, balmy weather, we were looking for a serene experience. To find Aticama on a Google map and see its relation to San Blas, click here.

Our "backyard" beach

Playa Aticama viewed from across Bahia Matanchen. Immediately behind the beach are palm groves, farmland, and mangrove swamps. A couple miles further back are what seem like sizable bluffs when viewed from the beach. However, from the distance this photo was taken, the bluffs are dwarfed by the mountains in the background. The high mountains are part of the range that parallels the southern half of Mexico's Pacific Coast from Los Mochis to the Guatemalan border. In some areas the mountains crowd in and seem to drop right into the ocean. In other places, they rise many miles further back, leaving broad, flat areas suitable for agriculture.

A long string of palapas lines Aticama Beach for a couple of miles on its southern end. About the only company we had on this early morning stroll was the seagull standing at the waterline. We came to the right place for serenity. Every winter, hordes of foreign tourists flood some Mexican beaches, but our beach was almost totally empty this January morning.

A close look at a palapa reveals a very simple structure. A regularly spaced line of bamboo poles is sunk deeply into the beach sand. More bamboo poles are laid across the top as rafters, then palm fronds are woven together to form a rustic roof. A bit of twine here and there holds everything together. As you can see, during high tide, this area is covered with water. The poles must be sunk deeply to keep everything stable while the water moves in and out. Surprisingly, for a structure with such a flimsy appearance, it seems to work.

A Mexican family unloads kids and beach gear into their newly rented stall. Plastic tables and chairs are also available for rent by a local person who lounges under another palapa.  Given the number of stalls available, this area could accommodate hundreds of people and their vehicles. Fortunately for our peace and quiet, there were never more than a handful of stalls occupied during our visit.

A man and his dog, out for a ride on the beach. This young guy tooled along on his 4-wheeler ATV while his little dog stood on its hind legs and helped him steer. It was hard to say which one was enjoying himself more.

Looking south toward the Aticama bluffs

Looking south toward the bluffs where the town of Aticama begins. The long stretch of beach beginning at San Blas ends at these bluffs. As you can see from the tracks, vehicles are allowed on the beach. However, most of these tracks were made by only a handful of cars, ATVs or motorcycles. In the morning, after the tide has swept through here, the beach will be smooth again.

A mansion perches on the edge of the bluffs at the end of the beach. There are a handful of these opulent spreads in the area, but most of the homes and hotels are much more modest. Fortunately, this area is not yet overrun by the McMansions that have spoiled the simple beauty of so many other coastal communities.

The fishing village of Aticama is built right up to the rocky shore. Beginning at the bluffs, the shore becomes very rocky. To the south of bluffs, the land flattens again and this is where most people live. The rocky shore is lined with rustic, open-air restaurants. Not surprisingly, the main items on the menus are seafood.

Lucy's Restaurant, the best place to eat in Aticama. Our B&B owner recommended Lucy's, and he was absolutely right. While the food of the seaside places was acceptable, it was also surprisingly expensive given the rustic accomodations. Lucy's is located on a side street away from the water. The menu is filled with traditional Mexican dishes, but the house speciality is pozole. This dish is a sort of thick stew made of maiz (corn) and pork, among other ingredients. When done right, pozole is scrumptious, and this place served the best I have eaten in Mexico. The prices were very reasonable, and much lower than the shoreline places. A chico (small) bowl of pozole goes for $30 pesos ($2.26 USD). I was totally stuffed by a chico serving and can't imagine attempting a grande ($40 peso or $3.00 USD). 

South of Aticama, the bluffs drop directly into rocks lashed by the ocean waves. There are some stretches of sandy beach, but most are very short, and often can be found in tiny coves between rocky points. We expected the water to be chilly, as we had experienced in previous winters at Puerto Vallarta to the south, and Mazatlán to the north. To our surprise, it was almost bathtub warm, making it a pleasure to wade along the beach while the gentle waves washed around our legs.

Looking north toward San Blas

The wide beach stretches mile after mile to the north, finally curving west near San Blas. Two people, so tiny as to be almost invisible, can be seen walking near the water far to the north. They may be the owners of the only car parked in the palapa on the upper right. I included this otherwise unremarkable photo to show you just how quiet and empty this beach was during most of our visit. In the far distance, where the beach curves to the left, you can see a low hill. San Blas is located in the low, flat area to the right of the hill.

In front of a palm grove, a palapa restaurant awaits customers. A Mexican flag tops the rickety bamboo lifeguard station. It was unoccupied the whole time we were in residence. People not wishing to be served in the restaurant can receive their food at one of the red plastic tables you can see under the palapas lining the beach.

A strolling group of young Mexicanas giggled when they saw my camera. Behind them you can see several piles of freshly dumped sand. According to our B&B owner, the local government is building a cement malecon (shoreline walkway). It may eventually extend most of the way from San Blas and Aticama. While the shoreline property owners think this may increase tourism, which they welcome, they are also unhappy that the new malecon may cut off their view of the ocean. Progress is always a double-edged sword.

At its farthest northern extent, Bahia Matanchen ends at this rocky point. It was a bit hazy when I took this shot. As a result the sea seems to merge almost seamlessly with the sky. Overhead, a lone seagull floats on the gentle sea breeze.

The Sea Bird Convention

Several different species of sea birds convened at the water's edge. I found it odd that almost no other birds could be seen along the shore in either direction. Why all these different birds decided that this was the only acceptable spot to gather along miles of otherwise empty beach was a mystery to me. While, as the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together, these were birds of decidedly different feathers. It appeared to be a Bird Convention attended by delegations from at least 5 different species, all in close proximity. They didn't appear to be feeding and most just seemed to be resting. Perhaps someone familiar with bird behavior can enlighten me.

A Ring-billed gull looks me over. My friend Tom is an avid birder, and as such is one of my prime sources of bird identification for my blog. I have been very fortunate to obtain help in a variety of subject areas from very knowledgeable folks who, like Tom, have been glad to share their expertise.

Two Neotropic Cormorants dwarfed the gulls in the background. All the other species were light colored and somewhat smaller. Neotropic Cormorants have a wide range, from the Gulf and California coasts of the US, down through Mexico and over most of Central and South America. They can also be found in the Bahamas and the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Trinidad. An adult Cormorant grows to 63.5 cm (25") in length, with a wingspan of 101 cm (40"), and a weight of 1.2 kg (2.6 lbs). Cormorants are monogamous and tend to be permanent residents of the areas where they are found.

Sanderlings are light colored for most of the year, but darken in breeding season. They can often be seen scuttling up and down the beach, just out of reach of the incoming waves. While these Sanderlings are wintering here on the coast of Mexico, their summer breeding grounds are in the high Arctic. They are plump, but weigh only about 57 gr.  (2 oz.). They grow to 20.3 cm (8") in length, with a 43 cm (17") wingspan. 

A Royal Tern (foreground) stands regally erect.  Royal Terns have a wide range, including the coasts of both North and South America and the West African coast. The one seen above will breed along the California coast and then winter in Mexico or even as far south as Peru or Argentina. The Royal Terns like the saltwater of the ocean shore or the brackish coastal lagoons. They feed on small fish, shrimp, and insects. Terns have an average wingspan of 130 cm (51"), and their length is 45-50 cm (18"-20"). Their average weight is 350-450 gr (12-16 oz). 

The Playa Aticama Air Force

Three ultralights maneuver over the beach, watched by a handful of spectators. Late one afternoon, we heard a persistent buzzing sound coming from the direction of the beach. It sounded like an incredibly large and angry wasp. A bit of investigation found these daredevils zooming up and down the shoreline. Although the berserk snarling sound of their engines broke the serenity, I had to admit that they were quite entertaining.

With my telephoto zoom, I caught this fellow in mid-flight. He sits in a harness with what appears to be a lawnmower engine strapped to his back. He is protected from the 1 m (3 ft) blade by a light aluminum cage. He takes off and lands on his feet, in a somewhat hunched over position.  Upon close inspection, it appears that he is wearing a microphone attached to his helmet, probably to communicate with his fellow lawnmower pilots or the ground crew below. When he alights, he must make sure that his chute lands in front of him or it will become entangled with his propellor. One pilot experienced this misfortune and issued some mighty curses in Spanish while I looked on in amusement.

A more substantial machine is parked on a hotel lawn near the beach. This one has a fixed wing and tricycle wheels for landings and takeoffs. The engine is a much-more-substantial two-cylinder affair, and the prop is considerably larger. These craft can carry a pilot plus a passenger, who generally sits in front. 

The large ultralight breaks ground and soars up from the beach. I might be persuaded to try a ride in one of these, but I'll leave the lawnmower jockeying to someone else. I might be crazy, but I'm not nuts.

Sunset at Playa Aticama

Carole and I took a sunset stroll along our beach. The ultralights had departed, so our quiet returned. Only the shushing of the gentle waves broke the silence. As the sun dropped the slanting light took on a softer and more golden hue.

We sat on the sand to watch the last of the light. This turned out to be a mistake. Carole was immediately attacked by je-jenes (also called "no-see-ums), one of the few downsides of the beaches in this area. In a short time she was bitten a couple of dozen times. Tom, my bird expert, is also a retired dermatologist. He says that people get the itchy bumps after being bitten because they are allergic to the proteins in the insects' saliva. Apparently I am not yet allergic, because I got no bumps at all. This left Carole somewhat annoyed. 

The end of a gorgeous day was an even more gorgeous sunset. There were more sunsets to come after this first evening, but none could quite match this one. We are extraordinarily fortunate to live in Mexico and be able to enjoy places and sights like these. We hope that the frost-bitten folks in the northern climes can use these postings to remind themselves that somewhere it is balmy and warm. Try holding your feet close to the computer screen and see if that helps...

This completes Part 2 of my San Blas series. I hope you have enjoyed it. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you see "no comments" below, it means no one has commented yet. In that case, just click on "no comments" and it will open the window to the Comments section.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. I want to purchase a stock photo of the Olmec carving titled The Walker found on your website. Where and how do I do this?


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