Mazatlán has a tradition of fishing that dates back probably a thousand years: shrimping with hand nets. The gorgeous way the tarayas spread out and then splash onto the water has always fascinated me; it’s a very tranquil, rhythmic dance. Below are a couple sequences of the net throwing, to give you a better idea.
Riparian shrimp fishermen go out in small pangas in pairs. Reminiscent of the gondoliers of Venice, the non-fisherman sits in the back of the boat and holds a long stick (la palanca, made of mangrove wood) with which he pushes the boat through the shallow lagoon or estuary. The second person stands in the front of the panga and casts the net. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
Toño, “El Cubano”
Felipe, the fisherman who kindly let me join the group
Watching shrimp fishermen work in the estuaries and lagoons of Mazatlán has brought me joy since I first arrived here on La Bala train in 1979. Back then much of the Golden Zone was still covered with waterways (Laguna Gaviotas and Estero El Sábalo), as was the whole of the marina area (Salvador Allende). El Venadillo, Laguna del Camarón and Estero del Yugo were much larger. And there were shrimpers everywhere! We were all in shrimp heaven!
Just as we can hail an oyster diver or a fishermen to buy his catch today, up to a few short years ago we could buy the catch direct from shrimpers easily here in Mazatlán. But now? It’s a gorgeous and delicious tradition awaiting the final nail in its coffin. I posted a couple of photos on Facebook a few days ago of buying shrimp from the shrimpers in Estero de Escopama, and I immediately had about 20 people asking me privately (they don’t want others to know!) the secret to where they could go to buy such shrimp. Now that we’ve cemented over our waterways, we have to travel that much farther to see the beauty of the tarayas.
If Mazatlán were Patzcuaro, we’d be promoting the beauty of our traditional fishing methods as tourist attractions. There, of course, the “butterfly net” fishermen catch tourist tips much more frequently than they catch fish. In Mazatlán, however, we seem to have purposefully worked the past 50 years to kill our centuries-old tradition. At the same time we seek UNESCO certification as a Creative City in Culinary Arts, we lose the tradition for harvesting the shrimp for our famous aguachiles.
I was very fortunate to be welcomed into the last hand net shrimping cooperative in our city, The Veterans of the Mexican Revolution. They most kindly agreed to take me out with them while they fished. The first day I joined them, they caught 135 kg of shrimp that they sold to the owner of a pescadería at the Stone Island Embarcadero. The second day I joined the group they sadly caught far less: maybe 35 kg. They told me that was because it’s the end of the season, and because it was a cloudy day. Cooperative members share equally in their catch. Some may choose to take their daily pay in shrimp, others prefer cash. Either way, it’s equal: you fish, you get paid.
85 year old José Ibarra Rodriguez is the only surviving founder of the cooperative. In the video below he tells me that they started the fishing cooperative in 1967, and their first day of fishing was August 16, 1968. At the time, they purchased a 50 year federal concession to fish. There are currently 24 members in the co-op.
However, due to the government losing documentation, and to the emphasis on tourism and development over the environment, over the years they have lost most of the estuaries that they used to fish, and are currently fighting over the rights to everything between Escopama and Pozole (Dimas).
The estuaries and lagoons of Mazatlán used to be lined with mangroves, filled with shrimp and fish, and home to endemic and migratory birds. Our gorgeous bay, dozens of miles of beaches and the wetlands, with our view of the Sierras to the east, is what attracted the Who’s Who of Hollywood as well as so many renowned writers and artists to our city.
The sad thing to me is that very soon we will have to go even farther to see the beauty of the tarayas. Other fishermen in the group tell me they have lost their concession to fish the Escopamas, and that the Salinitas concession has also expired. Mazatlán’s centuries-long culinary tradition continues to die out at the very time we seek UNESCO accreditation.
I leave you with a few happier shots of the pelicans that gladly clean up the smaller fish that the fishermen fail to throw back in, as well as some cormorants fighting over a fish.
It’s nice to have friends who love photography, and who are birders. I’ve lived in Mazatlán all these years, I’ve made how many trips out in our bay in a boat, but I’ve never seen one of our famous blue-footed boobies. I have been longing to see them as they look so incredibly geeky in the pictures I’ve seen.
As of this morning, and thanks to friends with good eyes and birders’ instincts, that is no longer true! Below are a few photos of the funny little guys, out on Dos Hermanos Islands. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
My friend John retold a legend I had heard several years ago and forgotten about. Do you know why the two white islands off the lighthouse are called “Dos Hermanos”? There were identical twin brothers, and both had girlfriends. They were both happy and healthy, and one day the brother proposed to his girlfriend. When she accepted and he told his brother, he also decided to get married, and they planned a joint wedding. On the wedding day they discovered—oh dear—that they were dating the same woman! She thought she was dating only one man, not realizing they were two brothers! The brothers became enraged with each other and challenged themselves to a duel, during which both died and fell into the sea. The woman then cursed them both to a life stuck in the sea, having birds defecate on them everyday. Poor guys. And that’s how we got our two white islands, lol.
This morning was rather foggy, which made for lots of changes in the light depending on whether the sun made its way through the fog or not. It seems to be sea fog, with plenty of blue sky above it, so when it clears it is nice and clear. I fell in love yet again with the rock formations out in our bay. The sedimentary layers, the colors, and the shapes are mesmerizing. In addition to Lion’s Head and Laughing Face, our guide today also showed us Trump Rock: complete with yellow cowlick above his face!
You will recall that for several years the sea lions abandoned Mazatlán. I fear they might do so again, as they get so harassed by fishermen and tourists. Today our boat pulled up pretty close to them, which scared me, but they didn’t seem in the least perturbed by us, fortunately. I do love these creatures, and I loved how the sky and the light kept changing as we went around Turtle Island.
Behind the lighthouse we found a whole bunch of fishermen catching baqueta, which is a fish new to me. Online it translates to “ramrod,” which I don’t know in English, either. When I asked a guy to hold up one of them, he held up a pargo, as you can see. So, I guess I’ll have to google the fish.
All in all, a great hour spent this morning with some good friends on the water, followed by a warm cup of cappuccino. Life does, indeed, get worse!
I just had to get to know the guy who’d put the two easy chairs on the beach by the fishing pangas in Playa Norte; talk about a room with a view! Turns out his name is Guillermo, and he’s the same guy you may have seen raking the beach and picking up trash, as he regularly does. He is thirty years old, lives with his parents about a block away, and comes to the beach every day to, in his words, “do God’s work, clean the beach, be in nature and enjoy life.” Sounds good to me!
Guillermo has a stand with several different rakes and brooms in it, ready for beach cleaning. He’s fashioned himself a Mexican flag, he has a cross in the sand “because he loves God,” and he’s made a sofa out of a heavy log he dragged into place. While I was there with him he got up several times to kick around an old soccer ball. He invited me to sit in the recliner and enjoy the view. He also has a second easy chair, located a bit of a distance away, that he pulls closer when he wants to visit with someone. Originally he had the extra chair right next to his, but “then you get guests you don’t enjoy visiting you,” he told me. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
The sofa/chair made out of a log
Guillermo says many of the fishermen don’t like him, because he urges them to keep the beach clean and to pick up their trash. Some of them clean their work areas, he says, but some don’t. “The ocean is their livelihood; you’d think they’d want to take care of it,” he tells me.
After my visit with Memo, I took a little stroll around the fishing pangas. The fishermen were scaling and fileting fish to take home with them for lunch, as most of them had already sold most of the day’s catch. I watched a couple of last boats come into shore, and the tourists enjoying feeding the birds. As usual, the pelicans were hanging around enjoying the fishermen’s scraps.
Our three islands are best enjoyed while riding a bike on the malecón, IMHO.
Fishermen bringing in a panga for the day.
Catching some zzzz’s.
Just as I finished, Greg and Danny came with Danny’s new ADULT residente permanente card for the young man, a ballena for them and a New Mix for me. We sat on the edge of the seawall in the shade of a tree celebrating for an hour or so. The view, people watching and birding are so pleasant. If you’re looking for something to do late morning, I highly recommend pulling up a chair in Playa Norte.
My heart goes out to all the fresh water shrimpers and shrimp farmers in our fair state. As you have no doubt read, “Early Mortality Syndrome” has killed 90%-98% of the estuary shrimp in Sinaloa, robbing so many local families of their livelihoods. It is heartbreaking. This is the same disease that has decimated shrimp populations in much of Southeast Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam) as well as Sonora and Nayarit.
This is not the first time such a disaster has occurred. White Spot Syndrome and Taura Syndrome are two diseases that have previously wiped out the year’s shrimp harvest, and such aquaculture diseases seem to be increasingly common worldwide.
Let’s hope the deep water shrimpers do better! I know we all thoroughly enjoyed the “necklace on the bay” when all the boats headed out to sea on Friday night.
Here’s the original Frasca post:
We had a FANTASTIC afternoon and evening learning about shrimping with a cast net/atarraya in the estuaries of Agua Verde, which is between Caimanero and El Rosario. We returned home with heartfelt smiles, new friends, 5 kilos of huge fresh shrimp (for which we paid about 7 bucks), a bunch of fresh crab (which our new fishermen friends gave us for free), and a bucketload of end-of-season mangoes ($4 for a crate full). ¡¡Viva Sinaloa y los Sinaloenses!!!!!!
We set out late Saturday afternoon with our compadres, Jorge and Silvia, to attend the first annual “Festival de la Frasca.” While Jorge told me “frasca” is not a word, and that I surely must be trying to say “zafra” or “open season,” local people tell us it is a southern Sinaloan term meaning “to capture shrimp from the estuary.”
The Festival de la Frasca was supposed to be a food fest with live music. But as usual they were running late setting up, and before we could really get into the party we found much more exciting things calling us.
Just one month ago we had driven this very same road, but shrimp season is now open, and it was an even more wonderful place! I HIGHLY recommend you visit during shrimping season! While the season lasts 6 months, the first few weeks are supposedly the best, as the shrimp and the shrimpers are the most plentiful.
As we drove in we saw men with cast nets (atarrayas) everywhere. Though mango season has finished, it is now the height of the shrimping season, and they have already planted tomatoes. After tomato season will come chile season, and so goes the year here.
Shrimp season is huge. We were told that opening day is like Carnaval—wall-to-wall people everywhere, with families fishing, picnicking and partying all night long. Family members come from all over the region back to Caimanero and Agua Verde to help with the shrimping, and to perform their obligations under the cooperativa(to work a minimum of so many hours and to capture a minimum of so many kilos). Women and children hang out with the fishermen, so it feels like life transfers from town to the estuary during this time.
Beside the road that just two weeks ago looked so very different we saw little houses or shelters, many of them housing the shrimpers. A standard shelter like the one shown here has one or two lights powered by a propane tank, a plastic shelter for rain, chairs, a way to cook (usually a fire pit), a radio and a cell phone. As you can see, they sit just off the road. Can you imagine spending the night there with cars, trucks, and motorcycles coming by a few feet away from you all night?
We greeted one of these guys, Rodolfo, at one of the stands, and he urged us to pull over and join him. So we did. The night crew, including Marco (who lives in Mazatlán but returns home for shrimp season), his 8 year old son and his 17 year old nephew, plus one other man, were just pulling up as we arrived.
Rodolfo proceeded to feed us a whole mess of fresh crab and shrimp, beside the road, in the fresh breeze, looking out over the estuary. La vida dura. While I well know, from living in Japan, how to crack open a fresh crab, scrape out the lungs, and eat the juicy brain and meat, this fisherman really enjoyed teaching us, and my comadre, Silvia, really enjoyed learning.
Here we also ate shrimp crudo with salt and lime (my all-time favorite—huge prawns, still wiggling; oh yum!), but he also cooked some for Silvia in a pot of broth.
We stayed here about an hour, chatting, feasting and just generally relaxing. We bought our first few kilos of shrimp, as well as receiving a huge bagful of cooked crab.
There were also many changueros, who we’ve heard about since arriving in Mazatlán, but this was the first time we met a few. They are estuary shrimpers who are not members of a cooperativa. They catch shrimp but legally are not supposed to be doing so. Many of the changueros used purina (shrimp chow) to get the shrimp up to the surface. None of the cooperativa fishermen we met used purina. They were very proud to explain to us that their shrimp were the purest.
Below is a video of one shrimper casting a net, and his wife helping him take out the shrimp and put them into a bucket.
After getting back in the car, we made the rounds of several cooperativas. At the first one the view was spectacular.
Rodrigo, a man we met there, sold us some more live shrimp. At left is his photo, and below a video of some of the shrimp wishing they could run away.
We had arrived here just in time for sunset. The sky and the water glowed. People were all so friendly, open and hospitable that it was amazing. Everyone was eager to talk, to explain this long Sinaloan shrimping tradition, and to share their catch of the day with us. To me this frasca tradition is soooo important; it’s Sinaloa’s history, and the if not some of the best shrimp in the world. And tons of it are harvested BY HAND here each year and shipped worldwide. I know such shrimping used to happen right here in Mazatlán; even next to Hotel Playa was an estuary (no wonder Zona Dorada floods).
The fishermen brought out packets of salt, fresh limes and bottles of salsa, and urged us to eat from their catch to our hearts’ content. Alfresco dining overlooking the estuary with friendly, happy, relaxed, knowledgable people; it was a wonderful afternoon. Every boy we met knew how to cast a net. They seem to start as young as seven or eight.
“Girls just wanna have fun…”
We also sat here for quite a long time, again feasting on raw shrimp (no cooked ones this time), and watching the guys cast their nets in the scenic little harbor.
The video below shows a guy casting his net from a panga, so you can see that as well as the earth-bound approach shown above.
The pangas or small fishing boats go out with two guys normally, one remero or rower, and one atarrayero or net caster. Most of the estuary is only hip- or waist-deep, so the remero carries a long stick or remo and basically pushes the panga along, similar to the movement of the gondolas in Venice.
Below is a short clip of the gentleman at left rowing.
There are various cooperativas to which the shrimpers belong. This drive out to one of them was really something — estuary on either side of the road, with loads of lit pangas all around.
Below is a video, so you can get a better feel for this road-with-water-on-both-sides drive.
After visiting some very cool places and meeting lots of wonderful people, we ended up spending another couple of hours sitting with Marco and his family. It was so peaceful there, and so very pleasant. Excuse the poorer quality of the photos from here on. The batteries on our camera died, so the remaining photos are taken with our phone.
On the way out we stopped at one last cooperative, this one the largest we’d seen. Here they had a large building or warehouse, surrounded by dozens of pangasfishing. Families were sitting and standing everywhere, waiting for their husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers to come in with their catch.
A semi-truck full of ice was waiting nearby.
A group of men with a scale and ledgers was registering incoming shrimp.
After dipping the bins full of shrimp into ice water, they placed the bins in the refrigerated truck where they are covered with ice and then taken to Mazatlán for sorting, packing and export.
It was at this last cooperative that we also saw our youngest atarrayero, this boy of about eight, at left.
We kept telling our friends that this was an otro mundo, or other world, that most guests in Mazatlán don’t know anything about or understand. We learned a lot about how the cooperativas function and about the life of a shrimper. We all got to eat live shrimp and enjoy some great company. The festival probably happened, but we know we had a lot more fun hanging out with our friends and meeting new ones. We already have plans to go back. We will definitely go opening night next year for the carnaval de cameron, and will head out some month just before the full moon when the really large shrimp are said to be much more plentiful and easier to catch. To be able to find Rodolfo and Marco’s shelter, we put their spot into our GPS and got their cell phone number. Stay tuned.
We very much wanted to see the islands on Lake Patzucuaro, especially the ones that aren’t quite so popular, that are a little more local. Since yesterday we needed to go back to Capula to pick up our Catrina from Juan Carlos and his wife, we decided we’d drive from there along the eastern side of the lake, hope for a view, and try to find a boat launch that didn’t require us to go all the way back into the Semana Santa crowds of Patzcuaro. It sounded rational enough.
NOTE: the map above, which is very typical, shows the three Urandenes and Jarácuaro as islands. They are now landlocked. The four islands are Pacanda, Yunuén, Tecuena and Janitzio.
The trouble is, in researching on the internet, every site tells you that the only boat launch on the lake is in Patzcuaro. Very hard for me to believe that on that huge lake there would be only one boat launch, or that we wouldn’t be able to find someone with a boat who’d like an extra 500 pesos to take us on a tour, so off we went.
DRIVING THE EAST SIDE OF LAKE PATZCUARO
In Tzintzuntzan we drove toward the lake, then headed south along it. This was a road that was not on any of our maps; it was way closer to the lake than the eastern perimeter road. The views were great. At points south of there the road became very washboard-like. We began to lose faith. Worse, everyone we met said there was no way to get a boat out to the lake other than to go to the launch down in Patzcuaro. So hard to believe….
And then, suddenly, pavement appeared. The road was incredible! Smooth, easy; the views along this lakeside road are spectacular! It ran right along the lake, and did not appear on any of our maps nor on our GPS. But, it is most definitely there, and well worth the drive! We were told that the federal government had built the road, the northern portion of it had washed out, and despite the repeated pleas of the local residents to the government, no one has ever returned to repair it. It is passable; just the first 30 minutes of it on the northern end are not exactly easy riding.
In Ucazanastacua we found a terrific restaurant (Huenan) overlooking the lake, run by a wonderful family who live in several houses down the hill on the lake itself. They had incredible views, fresh caldo de trucha (trout soup), caldo de camarón (shrimp soup), mojarra cooked any way you like it (crappie), corundas (small tamales), a gorgeous rose garden, and some of the most intricately embroidered blouses I’ve seen.
Anyway, everyone we had asked said the only way to get a boat on the lake was to depart from Patzcuaro. We must have had 20 people tell us this. Then, finally, as we were eating lunch, the owner told us that 1-1/2 km south of his restaurant was a boat launch. He advised us to use it.
“You don’t want to go to Patzcuaro; it’s crowded there. You’ll wait in line and they’ll put you on a huge tour boat and rush you over to Janitzio. Take a boat from here. There will be no line, you can take your time and enjoy your day. Plus, the boat launch here benefits our local community. The drivers share the earnings.” Man after my heart! He said to me just what we had been thinking! Yeah!
Lo and behold, there was absolutely no wait, no crowds, and we could even rent a private boat and driver! Hooray!
If you, like us, are visiting Patzcuaro during a holiday (Semana Santa, Day of the Dead, etc), and you want to avoid crowds and help a local coop, definitely drive north to the embarcadero/boat launch in Ucazanastacua!
Our boatman was fantastic—Alfredo, the man of the big smile. I’d smile, too, if I had to shuttle these waters amidst this gorgeous scenery every day. We told Alfredo we wanted to cruise around the lake, seeing all the islands, but avoiding the crazy crowds. He told us how there originally were eight or more islands, depending how you counted, but that the lake waters had dropped over 3 1/2 meters, and now there are only four islands in Lake Patzcuaro.
Above you can see a short video taken from the boat.
We first drove around Pacanda Island. It was gorgeous—lots of green, plenty of space.
We saw so many cranes! Pacanda was just gorgeous! And so peaceful!
I asked Alfredo about the teleférico/cable car that I’d heard about, that was supposed to connect the islands of Yunuén and Pacanda. He told us that while the comunitarios on Yunuén had wanted it, the comunitarioson Pacanda had refused; they didn’t want to have tourists visit. When he said this, I thought what a shame it was, because a scenic ride between islands would be so beautiful, and surely they could control the tourist influence, no? In a minute you’ll see how wrong I probably was.
Alfredo next let us off on Yunuén Island, which the comunitarios there have decided to develop slowly, in an eco-friendly fashion. This island was gorgeous as well. There were simple cabañasat the water’s edge, and a more deluxe yet simple development at the top of the hill.
Yes, this is what was possible. These people were developing eco-tourism in a way that was sustainable, pleasurable, that enabled them to keep a lifestyle and a pleasant place to live. Surely Pacanda could do this as well?
The view from the top of the island, overlooking the town and the lake, is spectacular.
The ladies on Yunuén love to embroider, and I absolutely fell in love with their aprons!
Unfortunately I was too cheap to pay the US$100 or so that I was asked to pay for this one. The handwork was so beautiful. This whole trip has amazed me, the intricate embroidery that we have seen!
The cabañas on top of the hill are gorgeous. One for two people rents for 500 pesos per night. The cabañas have baths and bedrooms but no kitchens. There is a shared kitchen, and a restaurant.
The gardener on the premises has a whole lot of fun, as you can see.
The staff, and the local people, were all very joyful, friendly and hospitable. I would love to come back here, either to stay up top or
in the cabañas down at the lake level.
Yunuén had a good feeling. You could even sense it in the tilework on the sinks!
The comunitarioshere seem to know the value of place, and they are, thank goodness, dedicated to protecting it.
After Yunuén, we rounded Janitzio. It is so gorgeous to look at from the lake; you’ve seen the photos. The large statue of Morelos at the top distinguishes it.
As you get closer, however, you notice just how overbuilt and crowded Janitzio is. There doesn’t appear to be much available space anywhere.
There were tour boats plying the waters back and forth from Patzcuaro to Janitzio, all of them filled with tourists during this Semana Santa holiday.
Once arriving in Janitzio, it was a solid line of tourists walking up and down the hill, as if we were ants going to an anthill. It reminded me of the entrances to some of the major temples in Kyoto, though there when you arrive at the temple proper there is usually calm.
Solid tourist shops, from water’s edge to the top. Houses on top of one another with no room to breathe, no place that I could see to relax. THIS is surely why the people of Pacanda do not want development! Oh so clear! They don’t want their pristine island to turn into this!
At the top, the wait to climb the statue of Morelos was one hour, so while we stood in line for about 20 minutes, we then gave up and left.
The view from top of Janitzio was very nice.
Though I preferred the view from the winding trail up, if you could get out of the line of traffic, that is!
Though Janitzio was not my favorite island, there were two things I loved about it. One was the very cool boathouse, at the far end of the embarcadero, where the pangasput in.
By far my favorite part of Janitzio were the demonstrations by the butterfly-net fishermen.
Above is a short video of the fishermen using their nets. I am so very sad to know that the people in this area no longer really fish this way. Alfredo told us that the lake has been heavily over-fished, and nowadays fishermen don’t really make a living using those beautiful butterfly nets we see in photos. Rather, these days, they put on “exhibitions.” Luck was with us and we were able to see one of these demonstrations up close and personal. Thank goodness the tradition lives on, at least for the tourists!
It was an absolutely gorgeous day on the lake, and we felt extremely blessed. We found our “secret” boat launch, which I most highly recommend; we ate at the best place on the lake, I am sure (the caldo de trucha/trout soup ROCKED); it was sunny and clear; we had the lake’s happiest boat driver; and we got back to Morelia in daylight in plenty of time for the Procession of Silence.
We highly recommend that, if you travel to Morelia, you spend a couple of days on the lake if you can. Visit the many pueblos that line the lake; they each have a style of dress and unique handicrafts in which they specialize. It has been by far our favorite aspect of our time here. Morelia is GORGEOUS, but the Lacustre, the lake region, is a far too hidden treasure!
Addition on April 9: we drove around the west side of Lake Patzcuaro today. There is also a boat launch on this side of the lake, making at least a total three. At left is a photo of our GPS, showing that the road we were on used to be lakeside. You can definitely see that it no longer is.