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Mexico's Cruiser Paradise: Zihuatanejo

Pamela Bendall

Precious Metal
46 Kristen, steel hull, cutter rigged sloop
May 10th, 2015

It takes a little extra effort to venture down the Mexican coastline to Zihuatanejo, but you’ll be well rewarded when you arrive. There’s something for everyone in Zihuatanejo: a charming beach side Mexican community, fabulous beaches, several great anchorages as well as Isla Grande, ample snorkeling and swimming in surrounding areas, fascinating inland excursions nearby, thrilling beach bocci ball tournaments, adorable Mexican population, superb restaurants and nightlife, shopping, and the warm vibrant camaraderie of 35-50 cruising boats. If you decide to stay from late January to mid-March in this tiny corner of paradise you’ll be able to participate in TWO exceptional events: Sail Fest and Guitar Fest – which have been highlights of my cruising experiences since I departed Canada in 2008.

With the exception of one year when I was hit by lightning and was doing repairs in Panama, I have been Chairperson of the cruising activities at Sail Fest since 2008. I’m passionate about Sail Fest for two compelling reasons: it’s really fun, and offers a tremendous opportunity to give back to one of Mexico’s most impoverished regions. Sail Fest is an educational fund raiser whereby meaningful activities take place throughout the week – traditionally the first week in February – that all help to raise money, and this year we raised over $100,000 US. Yes, I repeat $100,000 US!

This amount of funding goes a long way in these regions. A dedicated group of land-based volunteers manage the money throughout the year (entitled Por Los Ninos) in support of building new schools as well as improving existing facilities. Sail Fest is 100 percent volunteer, and all proceeds are dedicated to the construction and operation of the schools. The local indigenous parents actually build the schools, the women operate the kitchens to ensure one good meal a day for each student, and the Mexican government provides the educational programs and teachers.

Now in its 15th year, Sail Fest is an amazing success story. Over 6000 young indigenous children have been educated by Sail Fest – who would not otherwise have seen the inside of a school. A number of our early students now attend university, and several are on full scholarships. I personally get the goose bumps knowing that our cruising community has changed the lives of these adorable children and their families forever.

An indigenous student at one of the schools.

An indigenous student at one of the schools.

Not a dry eye could be found in the audience of this year’s closing ceremonies when a young 16 year old student named Carmen related her powerful story in almost perfect English. Carmen’s family is located deep into the mountains surrounding Zihuatanejo. Her siblings are traditionally married and have children between the ages of 13-15. Carmen’s father was worried about her when she refused to consider marriage and begged for an education. Eventually she left home at 12 and was found sleeping on a park bench in Zihuatanejo. “I will do anything to have an education,” she said to the person who discovered her, and Carmen was promptly enrolled into one of our schools as well as boarding with a local family. Her struggles were enormous: feeding and supporting herself as well as learning and studying in both Spanish and now English. Remarkably, she was nominated Valedictorian for her graduating class this year and obtained the best marks ever at her school…not just this year but in the life of the school. Carmen’s story is one of many amazing testimonies validating Sail Fest.

While Sail Fest is a tremendous opportunity to “give back” it’s also a terrific social extravaganza. The week begins with a volunteer’s welcome party on the beach with an awesome local live band as we all dance barefoot in the sand under the stars. The cruising community is responsible for 3 events that raise funds: our Pursuit Race, Calcutta (betting on the race boats), and Parade. Guests – tourists and locals – pay a specific donation of 300 pesos to ride aboard our boats for both the Race and the Parade, and many return year after year for the worthwhile experience. We loaded over 250 guests aboard our 28 boats in the Parade this year and 65 for the 14 Pursuit Race boats. The betting in the Calcutta generally amounts to between $3000-$5000 US in rivalry amongst boats. Note that this is a fun race insofar as our vessels are cruising boats and laden with heavy non-racing gear. We have lots of fun prizes for both the parade and race.

Other Sail Fest activities include: chili cook off, concerts, live and silent auctions, school tours, children’s beach day, and a number of meaningful ceremonies.

Guitar Fest – which is staged in early March – is a “must” for anyone who is musically inclined. If you’re not musically inclined then Guitar Fest will likely impress you even more! Many of the best guitarists from around the world perform at Guitar Fest at open beach locations as well as fancy restaurants. I personally become a guitar “groupie” for the week which also requires becoming nocturnal since these amazing musicians jam and frequent local bars well into the early morning hours. The camaraderie among these artists develops throughout the week and by the end of the event they all play on stage together which is a monumental experience. Where else in the world can you listen to some of the greatest musicians and drink your favorite beverage under the stars with your friends while digging your toes into the sand – for less than $10.00?

Sail Fest is now a wrap for me after 7 memorable years. It’s time for someone else to add their creativity and talents. Naturally, it’s a bitter-sweet feeling. I am writing this piece from Bahia del Sol, El Salvador as I attend another terrific event: the Annual El Salvador Cruiser’s Rally. My immediate plan is to return to BC aboard Precious Metal in Canoe Cove and cruise throughout BC in the summers and sail aboard Rapscullion in the tropics (San Blas, Roatan, Columbia) in the winters. I consider this strategy the best of all worlds but I will sadly miss the magic of Zihuatanejo.

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