With the Ferry to the Mainland – a Real Mexican Experience

(29th – 30th March, 2016)

The ferry trip from La Paz to Mazatlan on the Mexican mainland was where the “real” Mexico started.  What that meant we didn’t really know at that moment, though we would soon find out.  We arrived at the La Paz harbor in the early afternoon so that we had enough time to complete all the formalities.  This time, however, there were a lot more people at the harbor than the last time we were there to buy our tickets.  The waiting area for foot passengers was already quite full and buses, taxis and overloaded autos arrived continuously disgorging loads more with all manner of baggage.  Slowly it dawned on us that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to be taking the ferry directly after the Easter weekend.  For some reason, we didn’t expect there to be so many locals travelling over the long weekend, and besides we thought that the majority would be heading home on Easter Monday, apparently we were sadly mistaken.

Departure “a la Mexicana”

In the blazing heat of the afternoon sun we lined up with all the other cars. Thus far, everything was running according to our previous ferry experiences, that was until the loading started.  Suddenly the passengers were not allowed to accompany the driver and had to proceed by foot over the loading ramp to get on board.  The driver then could continue as normal.  We weren’t the only people confused by this procedure and we heard indignant cries of “Porque?” (why?) from several.  However, our Spanish was nowhere nearly sufficient enough to ask questions so I got out and lined up with the rest of the co-pilots and passengers.  Luckily, I had packed my passport in my backpack as they checked all foot passengers once again – although there was a passport control at the entrance and no way to enter the terminal proper without first going through the control.  Subsequently, we had to follow the markings on the ship floor proceeding first through the loading area, through a door, up several steep flights of stairs until we arrived in the passenger area.  Not everyone had it easy with stairs and some struggled for breath and were covered in sweat in the hot sticky air fighting every step upwards. Arriving at the top chaos reigned… It was packed with people who seemed to aimlessly wander about not knowing where they were going or why. I met up with Gary, who had a rather revolted look on his face, at the “reception” – a small room where people who had reserved a room picked up their key. “That guy there”, pointing at a guy in the crowd not far from us, “just puked in the garbage can!” informed Gary rather disgustedly. Well this was all starting out fantastically… we hadn’t even departed yet and someone was already seasick; or worse still stomach flu, norovirus or some other contagious tropical disease was now on board! We could only hope that the guy was hung-over from all the Easter partying and not that the entire ship, including us, would soon be hanging over the railing feeding the fish. With key in hand we headed down one level to our cabin curious as to what awaited us behind the closed door.  The word cabin was in the truest sense of the word a complete exaggeration as what we had was more a berth with two 70’s style bunk beds – which also happen to look as though nothing had changed since.  The beds looked and felt at least somewhat serviceable in contrast to the bathroom. As we opened the door our senses were assaulted by an awful stink of aggressive chemicals with a moldy undertone that wafted past us and took up residence in our room. Clean it may have been, but the stink was almost unbearable.  There was only one solution available to us and that was to hold our breaths during our visit and to ensure that the door stayed closed, oh and avoid taking a shower at all costs! Never the less we were very happy to have a cabin as we soon found out the ship was completely full and all available seating booked, which meant that those who had a cabin had no place to sit.  Either you sat in your windowless cabin or you could stand, but there wasn’t much space for standing inside either.  Thankfully there was the outside deck “El Parque” with benches and a bar with sodas, water, alcoholic beverages, and snacks.  Even before departure the party was in full swing and everyone was having a good time. To blasting Merengue and Bachata music we set sail leaving La Paz and the Baja behind us.  A warm breeze tickled our noses as we contemplated the crossing and what waited for us when we arrived.

The boat itself appeared to be an old retired ferry from the Netherlands, which obviously saw its best years a few decades ago.  The power outlets in the cabin was the first give-away along with the all the signs and maps being in Dutch, although also written in English and German however not in Spanish.  As we stood astern and looked down to the loading ramp, which also acts as the rear door, we noticed something quite disturbing. The ramp wasn’t closed tight to the rear of the boat as one would expect. There was a huge gap between the ramp and the ships rear, at first, we asked ourselves if perhaps something, or someone, got jammed in the door, but upon closer inspection we realized that it was not the original ramp. Obviously, they had replaced the old door with a different one, and more obviously from a different class of ship as it only sort of closed!  We looked at each other and had to laugh: Welcome to the real Mexico! Thankfully we were “only” sailing across the Sea of Cortez and not onto the open ocean.  We just hoped that a storm didn’t blow in overnight as meter high waves would simply wash directly into the ship and flood it.

After a while on the outer deck we had enough new experiences for the time being and headed back to our cabin.  On the way there we were stopped by multiple desperate looking passengers who offered us money to share our cabin with them, and no wonder: The two or three available salons were packed with people and their belongings.  The AC was simply not up to the task and it was hot and sticky and anything but comfortable.  We did feel bad for them and their uncomfortable situation but overwhelmed as we were with the whole affair the thought of sharing our cabin with strangers was the last thing we were prepared to consider. So, we shook our heads no and were extra thankful that we booked early enough to get a cabin and have a means of escaping the circus above. We closed the door behind us and fell into our respective bunks closing our eyes for a while and letting the TOK TOK TOK of the ships engine and the gentle swaying rock us as snoozed.

“Come and get it!”

A real highlight waited for us in the evening: Supper time! Breakfast and supper was included in the price of the ticket so while we weren’t expecting too much we were nonetheless curious as to what would be served from the galley.  We had not, however, expected how the whole procedure would proceed. We were supposed to head to the cafeteria at 19:00, at least that is what we were told. As we headed up the flight of stairs towards the cafeteria a good 15 minutes before to take a look we were struck speechless: A huge line-up had already formed that wound its’ way through the cafeteria and out the main door into the adjoining saloon and along its outer wall curving back on itself and out into the stairwell! Not really realizing what was going on we tried to get into the cafeteria to see what was on the menu for supper and to see if the wait in the lineup was worth it.  However, as soon as we got near the entrance we were confronted by a baton wielding guard whose apparent sole purpose was to prevent people from jumping the line! Crazy! Not wanting to push our luck we headed for the back of the line. Naturally supper was not ready at 19:00 in fact we had a very long wait ahead of us before the first people headed out of the cafeteria with a meal in hand. Though, surprisingly no one seemed to be impatient for things to get moving.  In fact the mood on board was still really good despite the sticky stale air, the growling stomachs and the long line.  Apparently, everyone, with the exception of us, was used to such situations and it didn’t seem to bother them in the least. After about two hours of waiting we finally ended up at the front of the line and with plate in hand we received our fricassee (at least that what it resembled), rice, beans, nachos, and a stack of corn tortillas. There was no space left in the cafeteria itself so we headed up onto the top deck where we squeezed ourselves into the few available benches.  The food was surprisingly good, even though it came out of an industrial kitchen and a relief especially after the long wait as we were very hungry.

Party at sea

Out of sight of land and at night and we were still comfortable in our shorts and t-shirts, something we would never have been able to do anywhere but in the tropics. The breeze was mildly warm and comfortable and absolutely wonderful to be able to simply sit outside at night at sea with so little on.  With a cold beer in our hands we enjoyed the feeling and watched the locals occupy themselves on the crossing. The music had reached party volume and the number of boisterous people out on deck had increased quite a bit.  A game of “Rayuela” (pitching pennies) with several players had gathered a rather large audience with lots of shouting and laughing by both players and spectators. The vibe was at the level that it didn’t seem like it was going to end any time soon. After all the excitement of the day we were exhausted and soon retired to our berth and were gently rocked to sleep by the motion of the ocean.

“Mas o Menos”

With the experience of the previous night’s procedure we didn’t bother showing up early for the breakfast rush instead waiting a while for the line to get smaller. Though, as we climbed the stairs we noticed that the line hadn’t in fact gotten any smaller and had to endure the same procedure as the day before.  Breakfast had an amazing similarity to supper, though instead of fricassee we had eggs, everything else was the same. Once again on the outer deck we noticed that the air temperature was quite a bit hotter than that on the Baja despite still being out of sight of land, which gave us a taste of what we were to expect once we docked.  Apparently, the sticky air in the ship was a bit too much for some folks during the night as some were still dozing on the outer deck under their blankets.

As the scheduled arrival time neared we headed back out on deck to take a look and were not all that surprised that not a sliver of land could be seen in any direction.  We had guessed that something like this might happen, though apparently not everyone (a German motorcycle pair) was quite used to Mexican punctuality and were actually sitting in their suits with helmets in hand expecting to depart! In Mexico schedules, appointments, meetings, and arrival times are “mas o menos” (more or less) punctual, more less than more, actually. So, we headed back to our cabin for a snooze deciding to wait for the announcement before we bothered getting ready.

With a 3 hour delay we finally arrived at Mazatlan harbor excited and curious as to what awaited us on the mainland. Though, patience was the order of the day as the first thing was the extremely complicated debarkation process. Once again only the driver could drive the vehicle from the ferry, everyone else had to leave by foot.  Not only that, we were only allowed to go ashore once all vehicles had disembarked. So, everyone else packed into the cafeteria and waited for the signal, which seemed to take forever.  This time, however, the normally patient and relaxed Mexicans seemed to lose their patience and started loudly complaining all without success. After over an hour we were finally allowed to leave with the same procedure as the day before: A long queue of people moving at a snail’s pace down the steep stairs in the hot and sticky air into the belly of the ship and out over the auto ramp. Outside chaos reigned… Where were we supposed to go from here? Everyone seemed to assume that they would meet with the drivers, though there weren’t any cars to see. So, we all stood somewhat lost on the huge pier with no one really knowing which way to go. Finally, a harbor employee had the bright idea to direct the passengers and as one big horde we all moved in the direction of the indicated parking area. Though, at the parking area there weren’t any familiar vehicles to be seen and so everyone seemed to disperse in whichever direction seemed to them to be the most appropriate.  I met up with Gary at the main entrance to the harbor. He had to first leave the harbor and then circle all the way around to the main passenger entrance to pick me up! We both had a good laugh at the local Organization, though happy to have had the experience.  The last 22 hours were definitely a unique experience, one that we certainly wouldn’t have wanted to miss!

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