First of all, let’s acknowledge the wonderful name of this town. Try it out – say it a few times. You can never say this name and be sad at the same time. Well, almost never.
Topolobampo was not an intended stop on our route; it is too far north for most cruisers crossing the Sea of Cortez from La Paz. Mazatlan, Isla Isabella or even Puerto Vallarta are the more common routes. But the wind wasn’t right for that 250- mile passage from our spot on Isla San Francisco, and we were ancy to cross the sea, to see a new environment, to provision and to have contact with the outside world.
So we hauled anchor and pointed the bow northeast, which felt counterintuitive, and had a wonderful 90-mile sail on a beam reach in calm seas, ghosting along at 6 knots in just 10 knots of breeze.
We’ve been to Topolobampo before, and I must admit it was a place I hoped I’d never see again.
The year was 2013 and we had procured two standby “buddy passes” on Alaskan Airlines from a pilot friend, excited for a vacation. I researched how to use these standby tickets and one phrase really stuck out. “It’s best to avoid using the standby passes at holiday times, like Christmas, to go to popular destinations, like Mexico.
So naturally we used ours to go to Mexico over Christmas.
We wanted to get to Puerto Vallarta to visit Adam and Rachel, good friends cruising aboard Moments. But that flight was booked. So we wandered to the next Mexico-bound gate at SeaTac and managed to snag the last 2 seats on a flight to Cabo San Lucas. We got on the plane, ecstatic our plan was working, but with absolutely no arrangements on the other end.
Cabo San Lucas, it turns out, isn’t very close to Puerto Vallarta. A bus, a hostel, a walk, a taxi, a hotel, a taxi and two days later, we found ourselves at the La Paz ferry terminal with tickets for the well overbooked ferry to – you guessed it – Topolobampo. The ferry to Mazatlan would have been much closer to our end destination, but it was booked. We were traveling 2 days before Christmas.
It was a terrible experience. The trip was 36 hours, or maybe it was 79, or 124, it doesn’t matter. There was more than twice the number of bodies than seats. People lined every wall, sprawled on the stairs, blocked doorways and covered the floors. The food options included a “pizza” (tortilla with tomato paste and a sprinkle of bland cheese in the microwave) or a “hamburger” (I’m still not sure what that actually was).
The seas were confused, the large ferry yawing uncomfortably, adding sickness and an unforgettable odor to the experience.
Knowing the ferry would be packed, we got in line early and bee-lined to a table on the upper floor. We settled in, pleased with our choice. The room was next to the food and had windows on two sides. But we chose poorly.
Sometime in the 4th or 110th hour of the trip, the karaoke began. I am actually not one who minds karaoke; I have fond memories of a careless summer of Tuesday karaoke with my then crush, now husband, long ago. But this was not the tolerable kind of karaoke. The speakers, large cheap portable things, surrounded us on three sides. The volume control must have been broken; it’s the only way my logical brain could explain the ear splitting sounds they emitted.
That sound, if allowed to roam in an open space, was loud enough to travel faster than light, I’m pretty sure. But it wasn’t free to roam; it was contained in a stifling room that veered back and forth unpredictably stuffed with hundreds of hot, sticky, exhausted nauseous bodies. Also, I don’t like mariachi music. In any setting.
13 days and 2 hours later… the ferry docked in Topolobampo and agonizingly slowly, we disembarked. I’m not too good at estimating big numbers, but there seemed to be at least a thousand of us equally anxious to squeeze through those two doors. It was sometime in the middle of the night as we crept forward, eventually pushing our own hot sticky exhausted bodies through the doors and into a corridor. That stretched into eternity.
The pack hardly moved forward, but eventually we shoved ourselves down the corridor and set of stairs and into a large room. From the stairs, I could see nothing but humans from wall to wall. I could smell nothing but humans from wall to wall. I could have lifted my feet and not fallen.
And then – we waited. For hours. There was a glass wall separating this room from the one next door and we could see our luggage, thousands of bags stacked haphazardly in a room. The process, it seemed, was to let a handful of people out of our room and into that room to find their bags, have their tags checked, and exit before letting out the next handful of people.
It took each handful a minimum of 5 minutes to find their bags in the mayhem, often closer to 10. A thousand people, 5 at a time, 5 minutes a piece. That’s 16.66 hours before the last group reaches freedom.
It was like a specialized form of torture, being able to watch the lucky few search slowly for one particular black roller bag in a sea of them. And it made the horde crazy. The mass of humans soon overpowered the two guards controlling the door and broke through in a stampede out the door and over the luggage. We squashed ourselves against a wall and waited for the turmoil to subside.
Finally, at least 3 hours and possibly 17 after we disembarked, we stood on a curb in the fresh air, bags in hand, shaken and stinky. A bus driver beckoned us to his already over crammed bus, but we shuddered and hailed a taxi. Our own personal taxi to take us away.
And then we left Topolobampo.
As we motor up the channel and glimpse the ferry terminal from the water, my gut involuntarily wrenches. I can’t believe we’re back here, I mutter.
The dock captain is friendly and patient with our kindergarten-level Spanish. We are the only sailboat and the only non-Mexicans in the whole town. The boat secure, we wander off in search of food. Rounding the corner from the marina, we are looking directly at the entrance of the ferry terminal. I ponder how our crossing had been infinitely more pleasant this time around.
The town is small, one main street with houses on the hill above it and a shantytown off to one side. There is trash in the gutters and stray dogs hiding behind flat tires in empty lots, as in most small Mexican towns. But there is obviously some money here too. There is a new malecon, or boardwalk, that is clean and lined with playgrounds, benches and trashcans. Some houses are larger with gardens and swept patios. We find a café that looks like it came right out of the PNW, with a well-dressed clientele toting briefcases and iPhones.
Nobody speaks English, but everyone is friendly. They stop us on the sidewalk to ask where we are from, smile and wave as we pass their shop, offer us fresh baked bread for 10 pesos ($0.50) a loaf. Soon, we’ve made friends.
The two grandfather figures selling chicken at the vibrant Friday market are obviously goof balls. They call us over, gesture to John to take their photo, teach us new words and throw in extra chicken to the bag we purchase. We take their last chicken breast and there is a hilarious exchange when, immediately afterwards, a young mother asks if they have any left.
The owner of the café, Eloisa, is young and kind, with a beautiful smile and a steady demeanor. She used to live in Arizona and her English is superb. Her grandfather owns the marina housing Halcyon and they just opened the café together. She sits with us for the better part of the day as we talk about business, taste test her espressos, and give her advice on marketing and operations. She is obviously smart and grateful for the help. It is refreshing to talk business, to feel helpful, to offer advice to a fellow business owner. We scheme about other ideas we should start together, with Eloisa. I can tell she would be game.
Outside, on the malecon, we find Hugo and Jose doing tricks on their skateboard and BMX bike. John snaps some photos and shows them, and we are instantly friends. They speak no English but we chat with incorrect verbs, motions and smiles. They perform a series of tricks so John can take their photos, and we arrange to meet the next day as well.
They take us to the skate park the next evening. They own the ring, with dozens of school kids watching, cheering, teasing and living life together. John takes pictures until the light fades to nothing, and then we sit, our legs dangling over a graffiti-covered half pipe, and laugh with them. A few younger kids are brave enough to introduce themselves. We tease them, ask them new words, and nod along to strings of rapid Spanish we don’t understand. It is a perfect evening.
Hugo and Jose stop by the café the next morning, while we are saying goodbye to Eloisa, so we can give them a thumb drive full of the photos and videos John took. Luckily smiles, snaps and fist bumps are universally understood, so we know they’re thrilled. This is why I still have a facebook account – so I can keep in touch with these wonderful humans spread around the world.
We check weather and decide to leave Saturday afternoon. But the day is beautiful, and we mill around with friends until well into the afternoon. On the way back, the light is great and John stops to take photos several times. In the parking lot of the marina, a pile of kids are playing soccer and we can’t help ourselves. John jumps into the game, as both goalie and photographer, while I chat with Omar, the marina manager. Finally we tear ourselves away and untie the lines.
But not 100 yards outside the marina, distracted by the beautiful sunset and fishermen collecting nets in the shallows, we veer outside of the carefully dredged channel and bury our keel deep in the mud. Apparently Topo doesn’t want us to leave either. We kedge ourselves off (setting an anchor behind us and cranking on it while in reverse), setting us back an irrelevant 30 minutes.
As we motor out the 14-mile channel, we look back with awe and affection as a lightening storm slides over the town. The front gives us the wind we are looking for and we set sails as we watch Topo dissolve into darkness and distance behind us.
Topolobampo is home to some of the friendliest people we’ve met in all of our travels. I am eternally glad the winds sent us here to rectify our long-held aversion to the place. Our experience proves the old saying true – never judge a town by it’s overcrowded ferry terminal.