We had heard of a book exchange in Barra de Navidad. We tried to locate it twice and failed. We asked locals to the streets we thought it was on and even had a person who had been there once try to lead us to it. Turns out it is not just a legend.
We found it walking, and there are just some ‘signs’ you cannot pass by.
Robert Leo Baham is gone now. He passed away in August of 2006.
And it is ‘managed’ by a local, who keeps it clean and is around at times to talk to visitors. It is amazing how ‘what we do,’ as Maximus would say, ‘echoes in eternity’. I am sure he would smile at this article. I may get parts of it wrong. If you know more of the story, add it in the comments and I will edit the content.
It goes something like this, older male, Bob, opens a book exchange many years ago in Barra. He is a resident all year and it is kind-of-a-hobby and kind-of-a-way of meeting people passing thru on the sailboats, the cruisers. The library got its name because, at one time, he served small beers to visitors. My guess is that custom got out of hand cost-wise … and it is now a memory from a bygone and gentler era. This is not a book store, it is a book lending center. You bring books in and you can take books out.
It is the simplest of ideas and simplest of implementations. It is literally a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ with a jail-style door, behind which books are kept. It is never locked because ‘who would steal a book?”
This picture is not distorted by the lens … the door is that small and narrow. I think it really came from a jail. Inside you find .. .in all natural light (with no electricity or light bulbs and no wi-fi or coffee maker) a series of book helves and boxes of unpacked book donations … of all things, BOOKS.
The books are free to all. All that is asked is that if you take, you give back. Return them and add new ones. There were actually some fairly recent and interesting books here. Carolyn (Lady Spiritus) spent some time looking thru the books as we have read everything on the boat that is not on an iPad several times. Tireless reverie as when you were a child … before the librarian started saying ….”shhhhhhhh” at your laughter and delight in learning from reading. And, unlike the iPad …. they do not require recharging.
There is even a small memorial to its creator. A wall with a simple obituary … that never mentions Beer Bob’s Books as one of his accomplishments. That is a pity … cause it has outlived its creator. So it and he have a kind of immortality. He is remembered as long as we keep coming and going and giving and taking … I just wish I had been there when there was beer … maybe we should have a day where beer is served in remembrance.
Funny how what we do touches even people who did not know us!
One of the best kept secrets for the sailing community in Barra is the three ‘canals’ or fingers of the sea that branch off from the main channel entering the harbor. You never hear much about them, and will never find them unless you go seeking them out. I chose to do so after kayaking into them one morning. They are very interesting . Dredged and built into the sand of the Christmas Bar that forms Barra de Navidad, they are home to an ex-pat community that has some ties to life in both the laguna and the marina. They appear to be mostly Canadian and American snowbirds (meaning – part year residents).
The easiest way to locate the canals is to find Barra de Navidad on Google Earth and zoom in on the area north and east of the entrance to the Marina. Go past the little island (Isle de Puercos – island of the pigs) and look for the canals. Go in as close as you can to get the scale. On Google Earth, as in real life, Barra de Navidad is 40 miles north of Manzanillo, Mexico. Just follow the coast north.
This community within a community is the only place in Barra de Navidad where you will not encounter tiendas (street side shops and stores); it is the only place where no venders, push carts, or drive by peddlers; the only place where there are no churches, no butchers, no bus stops, no taxis, and little poverty. This is not a gated community, at least in the sense of a physical gate. It does include one very large 400 room or so Hotel that is mostly empty as far as I can tell.
It includes docks lining the canals and at least one ultra-small Marina.
From the laguna or marina it is a 10 minute paddle at a leisurely pace, five minutes if you are using your dingy.
The ‘canals’ are deep enough to accommodate this 40 footer to its owner’s canal side dock. I am not sure that they keep these dredged and you have to applaud the sailor who got it in here, since this finger has no turning basin at the back. I am guessing he backed it in or had pangas help move it. But, this had to be the ultimate definition of a ‘hurricane hole’.
One of the fingers takes you to near the center of town with a walk of only a few blocks back to the beach.
One of the tree fingers has a small marina located at its terminus.
Note the small Coast Guard type Marine Rescue boat. The Puerto Capitain’s Office is not far from here. But this is not where you normally land when going to Barra de Navidad. Tight little marina with maybe slips for 20 boats. Biggest I saw looked to be a 36 footer (on the right of the picture).
There is no office, no phone number, and no one here to talk with, so I do not know how you would arrange to get a boat in here. Maybe you have to live on the canal.
One of the things you will notice when you pass thru the canals is the lack of Spanish being spoken. Both days I spent in here, the language of the community from the water seemed to be English of either the Canadian or American variety.
Most of the boats (if they had an ensign up) appeared to be American. Take that back, all of the pangas were clearly Mexican and most of the smaller outboard driven boats were Mexican. I also noted that there were parts of the canals where local fishermen had land. My guess if that there is a sense of ‘if you sell the land you have, you also sell your ability to get to the water on which both your job and ultimately, your way of life depend. So you hang on to it at all costs.
Below is a picture that hints at what I think is going on.
The stark contrast is that only a few feet away are homes like this.
Where even the unused land is gated, watered, and protected from use.
Like much of our presence in Mexico, the stark contrasts in lifestyles of American and Canadian visitors to Mexico leaves uncomfortable questions about what we bring along on our travels. It is clear that becoming a part of the community, or fitting in, or enjoying the local lifestyle is not a goal to be pursued. Mostly, you see growth, as in all small towns of Mexico in locations on the coast, that hint at coming development. Cabo San Lucas seems the template and measure of developmental success.
Real estate signs here are in English. Phone numbers are not Telcel but rather US numbers for who to contact. The good thing about this community is that you only find them if you seek them out. And, so far, the community seems to be relatively untainted by the influx of foreign wealth.
Seems that enough wealthy Mexicans vacation here to keep the town from becoming too Americanized. Barra has been a traditional place to take your family in Mexico since vacationing became a pastime.
We are just finishing Semana Santa (Easter Week) here and the town was busier than it has been since we got here. Thousands of Mexican families vacationing, swimming, boating, being dragged around the laguna, taking tours of the three canals, touring the marina and the Isla Navidad Grand Bay Resort (where our boat is now in a slip for the summer).
Haven’t heard a word of English in two weeks. Nice!
As I said earlier, you cannot talk about Barra without talking about Melaque. It is only 2 and 1/2 miles up the beach or 4 miles by taxi or bus.
It has a Banamex bank with an attached ATM that is safe to use. You will find this info useful because using ATMs that are not attached to an open bank is a request to have your money stolen. Countless blog entries in the Yahoo South_bound group will attest to this. A simple precaution is to only use an ATM at a bank, and only during hours the ban is actually open.
It has a great produce market. It has two full alleys of butchers and fish markets along with breakfast-taco places, and Mexican lunch counters in the covered alleys.
There is also a town market in El Ranchito on the outskirts of Melaque, which you’ll see if you ride by in the bus.
Melaque also has a Catholic Church (Saint Patrick’s) … we will talk about that later in this posting. The town is actually named San Patricios or alternately Melaque. You can find it on maps either way. But, the sign on the bus says Melaque.
In Melaque, there is an enclave of Canadians and Americans large enough that Mexico just added a INM office for immigration issues, because we cannot use the one 40 miles away in Manzanillo. We just stopped in and found out we can renew our Residencia Temporal status here in Melaque …. nice! Thank you government of Mexico. This solves a problem with not being able to renew your immigration documents in Manzanillo which is the closest office. The trip to Puerta Vallarta was a ways to go.
Every banking day, the day starts with a queue outside the bank as everyone waits to withdraw pesos to shop with. And across the street from the bank … a beloved (by expats) breakfast restaurant, called Rooster’s, where you can sit and have coffee and watch everyone else stand in line for the ATM across the street at the bank.
The vegetable and fruit market is a covered, on a concrete floor, old-style, honest vender … buy it from the farmer direct … kind of place … I believe it is a collective. See Lady Spiritus in her native environment …
Carolyn surrounded by vegetable goodness.
The Irish and Melaque
This is the church in Melaque. Yes, those are shamrocks on stringers over the entrance. It has just celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day. We learned that this rather unique connection between the Irish and Mexican Nation is based upon events which happened during Mexican-American War (1846-48).
Seems a number of American-Irish immigrants went south to Mexico to fight against the United States. They were formed into a Brigade (Artillery I believe) and were a formidable force on the field of battle. There was, at one point, a mass execution of these men when captured by the Americans. But, not before they had endeared themselves to the Mexican people for their bravery under fire in battles with the invading American Army.
Inside the church you find St Patrick in all his glory.
A very good explanation of the history of the Irish Brigade in Mexico can be found here … read it and wonder why you have never heard of them before.
I will come back to this page with more pictures as we get to know the town better.
I saw a form of fishing today that I have not seen since South East Asia in the late 1960s. It is, I believe, one of the oldest forms of fishing known to man. It takes a very small boat, a throw net, and a lot of balance. You also need shallow water. I watched in awe as he fished calmly, standing up, throwing, and retrieving the net in winds that I could not stand up, even in my 4 foot wide by 10-and-a-halffoot long inflatable dingy.
I have seen this form of fishing in National Geographic when I was a child. I have seen it in paintings from classical China, Japan, the Nile civilizations. It should have been no surprise to see it here , but it was. He did one thing that I have never seen before. Before tossing the throw net, he reached into the bottom of the boat and picked up two small stones and tossed them to where he would then throw the net. The purpose. The splash attracted fish.
The old and the new side-by-side in the same picture frame.
He does not have 40 fishing pole holders and two outriggers. He does–apparently–fish like this every day.
Fishermen and fishers of men.
The next blog posting will be about Melaque and its Irish Catholic heritage. It is a story you will probably never have heard. I am a fairly good student of military history, and like much of Americas actions in War with Mexico, I had not come across this story before.
Let me preface this with what I have said before … you bring a lot of baggage to Mexico. This may include what you think Mexico ‘should be’ or ‘will be’ like. With that said, we are asking ourselves if Barra de Navidad is not very close, or closer than we have yet seen, to the Mexico we came to see.
I will do at least three posts on this stop. One on Barra de Navidad, which is this one. A second post on Melaque, because any visit here of more than a day or two is absolutely incomplete without seeing both. And, a final post about an area called the ‘canals’, which are in Barra. I may also add a post on the fishermen and water taxis, since this place is very unique in both of these lifestyles.
BARRA de NAVIDAD
Used by the Spanish, who arrived on a Christmas Day, 1523, hence the name “Christmas Sandbar”, as a place to repair and build ships in the new world. Sailing vessels have been running aground here since then. Most cruisers know it as a place notorious for running your boat aground in the soft mud. Modern GPS and a certain guidebook with way points added have mostly taken the adventure out of entrance to the lagoon. Now most don’t sail in, they navigate in.
One blog I read called it a town of ship builders and buccaneers. I liked that description.
No narrative would be complete without talking about the Grand Bay Resort and Marina called alternately, used to be the Ritz Carleton Hotel Grand Bay Isla Navidad Marina, Puerto Navidad which includes the lagoon, and the Hotel Marina.
160 or so slips with many occupied by Mexican-flagged boats for a change.
Make no mistake there are sport fishing boats here that dwarf a cruising sailboat. I will give you an example below.
This is the view from our hatch. It has holders for 40 poles not counting the two outriggers.
The marina is relatively new, well built, and comfortable. Like most marinas down here … it costs about twice what a slip in Oregon costs us.
The other boats here are either headed north or south. Boats arrive and leave on a daily basis. The morning radio net is difficult to maintain, because everyone is leaving. We are just arriving.
The marina is across the entrance to the lagoon from the town. So, the only way to get across is by pangas that are outfitted and built as ‘taxi acuatico’s’ or water taxis. The ride to the town (24 hours a day) costs 20 pesos for a round trip. 25 pesos if you are out in the anchorage. Channel 23 is entirely devoted to the water taxi business.
Once across, you get a return token, and set out on foot across the very small town. It has a population of perhaps 7,000 people or so.
Superficially, the town is adapted to the business of surfing, hotel, sailing, fishing, and eating. Most of the larger businesses serve these interests. Do not interpret this to mean … serving North Americans … historically, this is a vacation and beach-going site for Jalisco and Colima. The hotel and businesses are for Mexicans on vacation. But, they serve a sailing, surfer, and retired ex-patriot population as well.
First and foremost, it is a small Mexican town. We are arriving as the sailing season ends and summer begins. Their peak season is apparently November thru April.
This is a town that you can easily walk in half to three quarters of a day. It is a gem. You can see everything from a person riding a mule to a modern health club –sometimes in the same frame of a picture.
The rest of the town is small tiendas or businesses selling fish, or meat, or nuts, or vegetables and fruits, or ice, or water. Notice that I did not say selling all of the above. Each business has a specialty. There are more modern enterprises like Kioskos or the ever present XOXOs. Both something like a 7-11 and with about as much personality.
Grade schools, but no school buses. Land taxis but only between towns. Bigger buses than La Paz collectivos but only 7 pesos to go between the two towns. That is 55 cents for a bus ride that takes 30 minutes and covers 4 miles or so.
There are bigger buses at a station that go to Guadalajara and Manzanillo. Manzanillo costs 53 pesos for the ‘economico’ class ride. It is curtained, has nicer seats than an airline, overhead storage like a plane, curtained windows, and a free movie. It arrives at a bus station in Manzanillo that is designed and operates like an airport. I love mass transit down here. Trip takes 35-45 minutes one way.
In Barra, there is a town plaza. Seems every small town in Mexico has a real plaza that gets used. This one becomes a covered market on certain days along with a couple of streets. It took about an hour to convert the plaza and streets into the bazaar of street fair or whatever you want to call it. We found a pound of shelled pecans … score!
The other place you immediately find is a large tree with an attached restaurant. It is a pizza place and bar but I liken it to ‘home tree’ in Avatar. It shows up in a Google map as blocking from above twin streets at an intersection. It is nostalgic, beautiful, whimsical, and considering the sun … immenently practical.
It also seems the center of morning life as the town stirs.
Back as the marina. Morning begins with a true treat. The waterborne “French Baker”. We heard this on the morning radio at 9:00 am. It’s a floating business, like the water taxis–only the French Baker’s wares taste better.
Ok. I have to admit that this part is not what we were looking for … but, after months without real bread? OMG ! (to steal a line from the news at AOL).
Like so many things I see here, this place resonates with my youth which was spent in South East Asia. It is tropical, has coconut trees, hot, humid. beautiful and peaceful … once you get away from the Americans. As Americans, we tend to carry our illness with us as we travel. We are busy, need schedules, make lists, shop in an organized manner … all this, while ostensibly ‘vacationing’ or ‘cruising’ Mexico. The neverending search for a bargain, a deal, a person who will work cheap … a call home to ‘close the deal’ while we sit on the john. If you can get away from those with this illness, you start to slow down. Life assumes a pace more reminiscent of grandma’s house than Walmart at Christmas time.
So, what is it we are looking for? A place with a harbor or bay or lagoon with no Chedraui, Mega, ACE, Home Depot, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Office Depot, or City Club. It has no Blockbuster (not even sure if it has a movie place) … no Pizza Hut … no Burger King or Dairy Queen. When you talk with cruisers, these topics of conversation about the availability of American stores, or American supplies frequently come up. Many cruiser guides list the attractions of a port or anchorage by how close it is to these types of stores.
The Mexico we are looking for is much more ‘rural’. It echos a society of an earlier time. That kind of time is passing into obscurity even in Mexico as it ‘modernizes’.
I will give you an example. Tonight. In the anchorage near this small town, it is incredibly beautiful …you can actually see the Milky Way, just like when we were kids. Went out and sat on the deck midships for almost an hour just looking up … like a kid. Listened to the pounding of the surf, which by the way is incredible here, like thunder and listened to the splashing of the small fish in the lagoon, watched the bio-luminescent shrimp and fish chase each other. Peed and the tiny luminescent shrimp scattered, making sparklies in the dark water off the side of the boat.
We wonder how long this will last … we are glad we are here now ! Is it possible for cruisers to visit or stay in places like this without changing them forever? How little of a footprint can you leave?
There is already activity to dredge the channel and lagoon and dig a new marina. Are cruisers causing this? Are we?
I actually know the answer to this question … no WE are not. Some developer either saw or has seen an opportunity to make money. More is always better. Especially at these prices. I always wonder if the local workers and farmers share in the great wealth that these developments generate. I know the answer to that as well.
The dredge is here for a year. It will widen the channel, dredge the lagoon, and (we think) make a channel to the ‘to be built’ second marina on the other side of the golf course. But for now, there are no nightclub drums in the night, no Brittany pounding out “Do it again!”
Roosters wake us to the new day each morning. One crows, then another, and another … like ripples in a pond, the still waters of the lagoon stir. We rise from sleep rested and watch the day unfold.
Not a bad way to live.