San Blas

After an incredible day at Isla Isabela we had a mere 41 nautical mile passage ahead of us to the small town of San Blas on the Pacific Mexico coast. Like many other previous ports the entrance to San Blas is a narrow, shallow entrance that can be treacherous in the wrong conditions. Determined to not repeat our poor timing reaching the entrance to Altata, I studied the tide chart and calculated our arrival time. Unfortunately a daylight passage would have us arrive in the afternoon either on an ebb tide (possible strong bar conditions) or at low tide (possible grounding). The best time to arrive was around 9:00 am on the tail-end of the flood tide. This meant we would need to depart Isla Isabel between midnight and 1 am.

We got everything ready to depart and went to bed early to get some rest so we could quickly get underway when the time came.

natuical chart showing route from Isla Isabel to San Blas

By 12:30 we were motoring once again under light conditions under a moonlight sky. Kristin took the first watch and we motored for the first few hours. By the time I started my shift at 3 am the wind had filled in just enough to let the headsail out (we already had the mainsail up for stability while motoring) and turn off the engine. By the time Kristin took over again at 6 the winds had lightened again and we were back to motoring.

white rock island lit by a pink sunrise

By sunrise Piedra Blanca was in sight and glowing pink in the morning light.

A couple of hours later, we were arriving at the entrance to San Blas under very calm conditions.

Kristin was using Active Captain to look up information about the area and see if there was anything we missed about the entrance. In addition to our cruising guides, we also use Active Captain which is sort-of like Yelp for boaters. Users create and submit information and reviews about everything from good places to anchor to marinas and fuel docks to harbor entrances and everything else that would be of interest to boaters.

“This is weird. There’s a marker in Active Captain way in the middle of town.” Kristin commented as she scrolled through the map on her iPhone.

“Sometimes they’ll post marine-related business in town in addition to the marinas and anchorages,” I reasoned.

“This one just says, ‘churro stand.’ It must be really good if someone took the time to put it on Active Captain. We must find it.” Kristin declared.

According to the cruising guide, the entrance at San Blas is very shallow and subject to constantly shifting shoals, making any chart only a best-guess as to the entrance depths. I based our approach on the depths shown in the cruising guide showing the deepest water closest to the right side of the channel. Since it was approaching high tide, we should have seen a shallow bar of around 12 feet outside the entrance, then depths of 15 to 18 feet as we passed the breakwater.

“Be on the lookout for bleach-bottle markers,” I mentioned to Kristin recalling our experience arriving in Mazatlan. But no such markers were to be found here. I watched the depth sounder gauge and compared the depth gauge to the depths shown on the chart. “Still 17 feet here,” I reported as we passed over an area that should have been been 12, “maybe that’s a sign that this has been dredged.” I said hopefully.

As we neared the breakwater where the chart indicated deeper water the depth gauge steadily fell. I slowed Sonrisa to idle speed, ready to throw the transmission into reverse any second. Sonrisa draws just over 6 feet.

15… 13… 12… 11…

10… 9… 10…

My hand hovered over the gearshift lever as the depth gauge steadied at 10 feet for several seconds, then quickly recovered back to 17 feet.

“Whew, we made it!” I exclaimed. “We’re in.”

Looking over Sonrisa's bow toward San Blas coastline

Once inside the harbor we found that the cruising guide chart was very accurate as we followed the channel markers past the fleets of fishing boats toward the marina.

fishing pangas tied to the beach at San Blas
half dozen larger rusty fishing boats docked tightly together along the shore

I tried to hail the marina on the VHF, but it was likely too early in the morning for someone to be monitoring.

“No response from the marina. I think it’s too early for anyone to be working.” I said as we motored up the channel.

“Should we cruise by the marina and see if we can see someone?” Kristin asked.

“I think we should just go anchor. The guide says there’s a big sandbar between the anchorage and the marina, so you have to come back down the channel to go around the sandbar.” I explained.

As we approached the fuel dock where we needed to decide whether to go to the anchorage or the marina, we saw two other boats nicely anchored in the channel opposite the marina.

“Yeah, let’s just anchor over there.” Kristin agreed.

I studied the chart in the cruising guide and picked a spot just past where the other boats were anchored.

“Let’s try up here,” I said pointing at a lone “16” depth marker on the chart, presumably the deepest spot in the anchorage, “we’ll see if it’s actually that deep up there and if it is we’ll drop the hook. It’s almost high tide, so we’ll need to figure that we’ll lose around 4 feet at low tide.”

“Sounds good.”

Sonrisa putted up the channel still at idle speed past the anchored boats as we were now both glued to the depth gauge.

13… 11… 12…

“Still ok, just a bit further,” I said.

13… 11… 12…

“I don’t think it’s going to be any deeper up there,” Kristin lamented.

Then just as the triangle representing Sonrisa passed over the “16” on the chartplotter.


“What?!? That’s amazing! Quick, drop the hook!” Kristin exclaimed.

I brought Sonrisa to a stop and scrambled up to the bow. Pulling the quick release on the anchor tie-down our trusty Rocna Vulcan plunged into the murky water. I returned to the cockpit to ‘set’ the anchor by slowly backing the boat up, forcing the anchor to dig into the bottom. I really like our Vulcan as even in soft muddy bottoms it gives positive feedback when it ‘catches’ on the bottom, giving the bow a noticeable downward tug. Once I feel that tug I progressively increase the throttle in reverse until we’re pulling at 3/4 throttle for at least a full minute. After such a set it’s usually takes a game of tug-of-war using the anchor windlass at 1:1 scope to get the anchor to break free again.

Once settled in, we assembled our nesting dinghy and headed over to the dock to tie up and explore the town. By the time we arrived at the dock the marina staff had arrived and collected our 30 Peso ($1.50 US) dinghy tie-up fee which also gave us access to the restrooms.

Greg smiling while driving the dinghy

Unfortunately the marina staff needed exact change and we only had larger bills. The staff was very friendly though and through our broken English-Spanish conversation it was apparent that he trusted us to pay when we came back with change.

Since it was nearly lunchtime and we didn’t know how far it would be before we found a place to eat in town, we decided to just get something at Tunabreak which was right there at the marina. We saw people setting up tables and figured they were likely opening for lunch. Oh my am I glad that we did. The food here was amazing. Kristin had the fish ceviche and I had the shrimp flautas. Both dishes were elegantly presented and absolutely delicious.

After a longer than expected lunch, we paid our dingy fee and wandered up the road from the marina. We passed through some industrial lots and down Avenue del Puerto toward the central part of town.

main street of San Blas
old woman loading a cart at San Blas market

Downtown San Blas was very quaint and friendly. The narrow streets were busy with bicycles, motorcycles and 4 wheelers zooming around alongside the typical cars and trucks. Kids played on the cobblestone side streets. Neighborhood dogs and cats roamed freely and often took up a warm spot in the middle of the road or sidewalk for a siesta. I found these scenes oddly reminiscent of memories of growing up in Southeast Alaska. Of course the language and the climate were completely different, but the community, isolation, and ‘make do’ attitude of self sufficiency were strikingly similar.

Our first stop in town was the zocalo and the cathedral. Before arriving in San Blas I had not realized that this was the same San Blas from the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The Bells of San Blas. So naturally we had to go find the old church whose bells he was lamenting had been silenced.

old and new church at San Blas
Old and new church in San Blas

From there we hiked up to the old Spanish fort that overlooks the town. While the view from the fort was impressive, the church ruins were equally impressive.

Fort canons and wall
inside fort courtyard
canon pointing out over town
panorama of view of San Blas from above at the fort
stone ruins of old church
Church ruins at the fort
stone arches inside church without a roof
stone doorway inside church
Greg standing at the ruins of the church entrance

After visiting the fort, our last mission for San Blas was to find the churro stand. Remarkably, we have yet to have churros since we’ve been in Mexico which suddenly seemed like a grave oversight.

“I didn’t see anything that looked like a churro stand on the way up to here.” Kristin lamented as we descended the hill from the fort back towards town.

“It seems like it should have been right around that Pemex station we passed at the edge of town center,” I reasoned. “Maybe we should try a block over from there.”

We backtracked to the triangular intersection and found the Pemex station again and scanned around for something that looked like churros.

“There! That’s it!” I exclaimed pointing to what appeared to be a man with a large crab cooker on the street corner. There was no sign. Just big pan of hot oil on a large propane-fired burner and a card table. We crossed the street and found someone already waiting for hot churros. He was a grey-haired American probably in his seventies, perhaps another cruiser.

“Have you had his churros before?” I asked the man.

“Oh yeah, this guys an institution here,” he replied enthusiastically. “I come here way too often for fresh churros.”

“So you’ve been here a while?” I asked, curious if he was a cruiser or a resident.

“Eighteen years,” he replied.

We chatted a bit more while waiting for our churros. I asked him what drew him to San Blas and he indicated that the relaxed vibe just feels right to him and he could afford to retire here.

churros maker filling the dough press
churros cooking in the fryer

As we waited for our order more people started queuing up for fresh churros. A couple of cars pulled over to the side of the road, obviously waiting their turn.

We collected our bag of hot churros and continued strolling back toward the marina, munching on what was undoubtedly the best churros we’ve ever tasted. They were perfectly fried to a light and airy crispy consistency. It was like cinnamon sugary air. If you’re ever in San Blas, you have to find the churro stand.

cobblestone street with smoke from cooking fires wafting over
Avenue de Puerto

As evening approached, we made our way back down the cobblestone Avenue del Puerto toward the marina. We passed by several families tending to wood-fired outdoor grills, people walking the avenue and children laughing and playing in the street. Again I was impressed with the sense of community here.

We returned to the Sonrisa at sunset and began putting the dinghy away. This entails pulling the outboard off, hoisting the dinghy using a halyard winch up onto the deck, then disconnecting the two halves and storing them upside-down on the foredeck. The whole process takes maybe 30 minutes or so.

But in those 30 minutes we discovered the side of San Blas that has probably most protected it from ever becoming a tourist destination – the jejenes. Again the comparison to Southeast Alaska seems appropriate. Growing up there I was used to swarms of mosquitos and no-see-ums as we called them. But the jejenes of San Blas are in a category of their own. Given the right conditions (still air, morning or evening after a full moon – all of which were in effect that night) they viciously come at you in swarms and if you’re unfortunate enough to be in the 25% of people who are allergic to their bites, a single jejene encounter will haunt you for several aggravatingly itchy days.

As we worked on the foredeck to put the dinghy away, I found that I could not remain in one place for more than a few seconds before I became engulfed in a swarm of jejenes. I was literally breathing them into my nose and mouth as they painfully stung every exposed inch of skin. I ran below and doused myself with bug repellant but even with that I had to constantly move around the foredeck while putting the dinghy away to avoid the swarms.

Kristin and I both growled in frustration as we hurriedly finished putting everything away before retreating to the cabin hoping that our screens would be enough to keep them out.

Whether it was the onset of darkness or the screened windows, we fortunately had a peaceful jejene-free remainder of the night.

The next morning we were up early to make an early start for a 62 nautical mile passage to La Cruz in Banderas Bay. Since the channel entrance at San Blas was a bit tricky, I didn’t want to risk a pre-dawn departure and if we left right at dawn we would arrive in La Cruz just before dark.

Unfortunately, this also meant that we would be leaving just after low-tide, but it was only a 0.5 meter low which meant that there should only be maybe 2 feet less depth than when we arrived at a 1.0 meter high. Plus on a rising tide if we did get stuck we shouldn’t have to wait long to float off with the rising tide.

Firing up the motor we raised anchor and slowly made our way down the channel, using the chartplotter to exactly backtrack on the path we took when we arrived.

green channel marker buoy leaning over as it rests on bottom
Even the channel markers run aground

As we neared the entrance I could see that some of the channel markers were sitting on the shallow bottom which seemed like more than a 2 foot difference from when we arrived.

As we exited the breakwater on the exact path we used to get in, we were once again glued to the depth sounder as Sonrisa crawled at idle speed toward the open ocean.

14… 12… 9… 8… 7…

A low, soft “Thump!” came up from the cabin below as we felt Sonrisa come to a stop.

“Was that…?!?” Kristin exclaimed as I threw the transmission into reverse and throttled up to quickly back Sonrisa off the sand.

“That was bottom.” I confirmed.

6… 7… 8…

Once safely off the sand I brought Sonrisa to a stop. Now the problem wasn’t that we had run aground. The conditions were calm and we were able to back off the sand and then had 3 feet of water under our keel. The problem was that there was less water than I thought there would be on our original track and I really had no idea if or where the channel might be deeper.

I studied the chart and the place we touched sand was shown on the chart as the deepest portion of the channel. Obviously the shoals had moved around since the chart was made.

“Now what do we do?” Kristin worried. “Should we wait for high tide?”

“I’m just going to slowly make our way across the entrance and see if we can find a deeper channel,” I reasoned. “The place we touched bottom shows on the chart as 15 feet deep, so the channel has obviously moved. The question is if we can find it.”

west breakwater rock wall

I put the transmission back into gear and Sonrisa slowly made her way across the entrance from the eastern breakwater wall toward the western breakwater wall.

9… 10… 9…

As we approached the west side of the breakwater entrance I started angling a bit to the south to try to find deeper water.

9… 10… 10…

Both Kristin and I were holding our breath watching the depth gauge as Sonrisa made it further away from the breakwater entrance.

9… 10… 10…

It seemed like a very long time until we finally saw depths of more than 12 feet. At 19 feet we both breathed a sigh of relief as we felt that we had finally cleared the bar and were safe in open water.

depth gauge showing 19 feet

Next stop La Cruz!

Kristin on deck staring out at the calm ocean

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