From High Up

Flying and Travels

Category: Mexico

COPA 2020

This was already the 7th COPA trip to Mexico. This year, with a trip name México diverso we chose three very different locations, the description is under the link above.

The group met in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday 2/15/2020 for a dinner and departure to Ciudad Obregon on Sunday morning. Tucson is normally a rather quiet class C airport, but we choose to depart at the same time as the morning airline rush hour. Twelve Cirrus airplanes calling clearance and ground created lot of confusion.

I sent all the required documents ahead of time to the Commandante of Ciudad Obregon airport and when we arrived, multi-entry permits and flight plans were ready. We were in an out under an hour – for 12 airplanes – what a change compared to the mess last year in Oaxaca.

Alamos

Dinner table at Hacienda

After 20 minutes flight, we all landed in Alamos and settled in Hacienda de los Santos for well deserved margaritas and roof top party before dinner. Dinner at the Hacienda is always magical, with live music, beautiful tables and great food.

The following day, those who didn’t fly it before, went for a Copper Canyon flight. Barranca del Cobre consists of six distinct canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental. The overall canyon system is larger and portions are deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The canyons were formed by six rivers which drain the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara. All six rivers merge into the Rio Fuerte and empty into the Gulf of California. The walls of the canyon are a copper and green color, which is where the name originates.

In the afternoon, I had a talk about our flying in Africa and the infamous fuel cap and Jim gave his great tequila class, always a favorite.

Extra fuel before leaving Alamos

The next leg was about 760 nm to Puebla, which was putting us at the edge of the range, considering that we already burned about 7 gallons coming from Cd Obregon. While it would be possible to do that flight non-stop, it is always better to be conservative when flying in Mexico, so we split the group in two halves. Those who flew Copper Canyon, flew to Durango and those who didn’t, to Zacatecas to refuel. Since refueling and paperwork is done serially, processing all 12 airplanes would take too much time if we all went to the same place.

I refueled rather quickly and got the flight plan filed first, but when we got back to the airplane and tried to start the engine, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. Zero fuel flow. All the tricks and methods for dealing with hot starts that I knew didn’t have any effects. We started to think that we might need to spend the night (or more) in Zacatecas. Finally, after 1.5 hours, fuel lines cooled enough so that the fuel condensed again and the engine started. Our electric fuel pump was recently replaced and I suspect this had a lot to do with that, plus the fact that Zacatecas is at 7,200 feet and it was 20 deg C.

Puebla

There was a SIGMET around Puebla for volcanic ash due to volcano eruption, but it turned out to be less severe than anticipated. While the visibility was reduced due to smoke, it didn’t create any flight difficulties.

Popocatépetl volcano

Two vans drove us to Azul Talavera hotel (ex Rosewood Puebla), a beautiful, modern hotel with excellent service. We walked 10 minutes to Casa Reyena for a fabulous mole poblano dinner.

Azul Talavera rooftop swimming pool

The next day we set up to explore the city with a visit to Capilla del Rosario located in Iglesia de Santo Domingo, which is considered a jewel of Mexican baroque. Its construction dates back to the 17th century and is the first in Mexico dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. The sumptuous decoration onyx, gilded plaster, paintings and tiles lined with 22-carat gold sheets, make the chapel a unique property of its kind, which has been considered the eighth wonder of the new world and named as reliquary of America by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

Capilla del Rosario

We continued to the Cathedral on the Zócalo. Built piecemeal over almost two centuries, beginning in 1575, the church has an unusual altar and magnificent choir stalls with Moorish-inspired inlay.

Biblioteca Palofoxiana – gorgeous 17-th century library, designed to rival Europe’s greatest, is recognized by the UNESCO for being the first and oldest public library in Americas. It has more than 45,000 books and manuscripts, ranging from the 15th to the 20th century. In 2005, it was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

Biblioteca Palofaxiana

The last morning stop, Museo Amparo‘s permanent collection traces Mexico’s development over its history. It has one of the most important collections of pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern art in Mexico, with dates of pieces ranging from 2,500 BCE to the present day. The museum is housed in two colonial-era buildings that date from the 17th and 18th centuries, which were popularly known as the Hospitalario.

El Restauro

After another exquisite mole at El Restauro, we boarded the bus to drive to Museo Internacional del Barocco, which is housed in an iconic building designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Toyo Ito and which opened in February 2016. The museum presents art and culture of the Baroque age (from the early-17th century to the late-18th century) in European and Latin American societies.

Museo del Barocco

The next day we drove to Cholula and started our visit at the Church Santa María Tonanzintla. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word Place with our Lady Mother. This is one of the most viewed churches in Puebla for its indigenous Baroque or New Hispanic baroque style, consisting of an exuberant indigenous decoration; angels with feather tufts, with flower garlands, with horse attire Eagle and with fruits and plants, the church is a splendid mixture of pre-Hispanic and Christian influences.

Cholula main point of interest is the Great Pyramid with the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sanctuary on top. At first glance, the pyramid looks like a hill as most of it is overgrown. The south side of the pyramid has been excavated and there is a network of tunnels inside, we walked part of it. Building of the pyramid began in the pre-Classic period and over time was built over six times to its final dimensions of 390 ft on each side at the base. This base is four times the size of that of the Great Pyramid of Giza and is the largest pyramid base in the Americas.

Model of Great Pyramid in Cholula, with different layers and church on top

After lunch in a local whole-in-the-wall eatery, the bus drove us back to the airport. This is the first time I experienced a true a**hole Commandante. The guy refused to take our printed flight plan, because he needed four copies and not one, refused to copy it and refused to give us blank forms to hand-write flight plans. I had a bunch of blank forms exactly for such just-in-case situations and we managed to file our flight plans to Zihuatanejo.

Arrival to the Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa airport was epic, late afternoon is the most busy time for commercial flights and between our now 13 airplanes and half a dozen airline jets, some of us had to draw doughnuts in the sky for quite a while.

Holds approaching MMZH

Ixtapa

The last two days of the trip were designed with only one objective; relax and do nothing. Cala de Mar resort has beautifully appointed rooms, each with individual plunge pool and stunning views of Pacific Ocean. I am happy to report that we not only fulfilled, but also exceeded that objective – we stayed one extra day.

View from a room at Cala de Mar

The price to pay was the return back home, perhaps foolishly I decided to do it in one day, about 1,650 nm, with landings in Los Mochis (fuel) and Calexico (fuel and immigration). That plan was only half stupid, but it became really crazy with 30 knots headwinds. I tried 10,500, 14,500 and 16,500, the ground speed remained stubbornly between 150 and 160 knots. We landed in San Carlos at 7 pm.

Mexico 2020 group

6th COPA Mexico trip

Flying there

I’ve been organizing COPA trips to Mexico for a while now, and this was our 6th. We had 11 airplanes and 24 participants flying to Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, you should check out the itinerary.

It didn’t start well. We were planning to leave on Friday afternoon, but when I checked on the airplane on Thursday, battery #1 was dead. Given that’s the one that powers the starter, it didn’t seem wise to fly. Searches of nearby shops came empty, so I looked online. and found an outfit in Texas, that was shipping overnight for $280. A bargain. Battery came in at 2 pm on Friday. I run to the hangar, installed it, checked voltage and all look good. As I was closing the hangar, I realized I didn’t have my cap. Open the door and look everywhere, I couldn’t find it. There was only one place it could have been. I opened the cowl and sure enough, my cap was on the intercooler.

This is another example how important it is to walk around the airplane before starting the engine and examine engine compartment for foreign objects before closing the cowl. Particularly if in hurry or stressed.

We left before 4 pm for Phoenix.  I was watching weather all the week and it didn’t look good. However, skew-T diagrams along the route were showing that tops where below 17,000 with freezing levels around 3,000. It was unstable environment with some convection activities building up. I decided we should be able to climb on top with TKS on and indeed, the wings got trace ice before we climbed on top.

Next day, we flew to McAllen, TX, to meet about half of the group. Mighty tailwinds made it possible to make that flight without a stop, but we wanted to stretch our legs, perhaps also grab a bite and decided to land in Fort Stockton. Coming in on short final I saw barriers on the runway, at about one third.  I added power to go over, but the rest of the runway looked fine, so we landed. It turns out there was indeed a NOTAM for runway resurfacing, luckily only the first third of it. Lesson learned: RYFN (Read Your Freaking Notams). Airport was deserted, so we took gas and a granola bar and left.

There isn’t much to say about McAllen, other than it is a convenient launch point for Mexico and allowed us a direct flight to Oaxaca, our first destination. On the way, we could admire Citlaltépetl volcano, the highest peak in Mexico.

Oaxaca

To say that Oaxaca is a slow AOE (Airport of Entry) would be polite. First, they directed us to custom and immigration, which was reasonable, but then we got to the operation office where they told that we should have first closed our flight plan so that immigration and customs can apply required stamps. Than they proceeded to laboriously fill in seven Multi-Entry Authorizations, each of 8 pages. It took about 2.5 hours and we left disgusted without authorizations, which they promised to have ready for the next day.

The city itself is however wonderful. First, the food, this is a culinary capital of Mexico and if you ever visit, make sure to stop for mole at El Catedral and for tacos de lechón at Pitiona. Then, the city itself with its 16th century Church of Santo Domingo, the central Zócalo square, Palacio de Gobierno, with coloful murals depicting regional history. We wondered to Mercado 20 de Noviembre and couldn’t resist to stop at Chocolate Mayordomo, a museum and a tasting room with classes where you can learn to make your own chocolate drinks.

Monte Albán was founded in 500 BC on the top of a mountain dominating Oaxaca and functioned as the capital of Zapotecas from the beginning of our era until 800 AD. At its time of greatest development, Monte Albán had about 35,000 inhabitants, who lived mostly on the terraced slopes of the mountain devoted to agriculture.

Tuxtla and San Cristobal de las Casas

It was a short one hour flight from Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutierrez, where we boarded a bus for a half an hour drive to Chiapa de Corzo, lunch and a boat ride in the spectacular Cañon del Sumidero. The canyon’s creation began around the same time as the Grand Canyon, by a crack in the area’s crust and subsequent erosion by the Grijalva River, which still runs through it. Sumidero Canyon has vertical walls which reach as high as 1,000 metres (3,300 ft), with the river turning up to 90 degrees during the 13-kilometre (8.1 mi) length of the narrow passage.

San Cristobal de las Casas was the capital of the state Chiapas until 1892, and is still considered the state cultural capital. The city’s center maintains its Spanish colonial layout and much of its architecture, with red tile roofs, cobblestone streets and wrought iron balconies often with flowers. We checked into Hotel Casavieja, a very simple but adequate place very close to the center and went out for dinner.

The most interesting and intriguing place to visit is actually 6 miles outside of the city, the Tzotil town of San Juan Chamula and its Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. The church is filled with colorful candles, and smoke from burning copal resin incense, commonly used throughout southern Mexico. Along the walls of the church are Catholic saints resting on tables posted in the church, but they represent Mayan gods. Candles are lit and the people sit on the floor and pray below the saints. The local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Maya customs, Spanish Catholic traditions, and subsequent innovations.

It is forbidden to take pictures inside the church, so you will have to come and see yourself.

Palenque

It was even a shorter flight from Tuxtla to Palenque, but it turned out that the destination was overcast and unlikely to clear up. We didn’t want to file IFR and suffer through 16,000 feet MEAs, so we launched VFR planning to request a pop clearance at the destination. The overcast layer was only few thousand feet and we cruised in VMC on top. Arriving over Palenque we dutifully request IFR clearance for the VOR/DME Rwy 10, but a relaxed controller replied simply: “roger, report turning inbound”. I think this was the first time I flew an IFR approach in actual conditions on 1200 squawk code, but come to think about it, what’s the point of having a discrete squawk code if there is no radar?

We checked into our hotel Piedra de Agua and the next launched for a visit of the Palenque archaeological site. The city was founded during the late pre-classic, which corresponds to the beginning of the Christian era. After several centuries, about 500 A.D., the city rose to be a powerful capital within a regional political unit. The total area of the archaeological site is about 1800 hectares and 1,400 buildings have been recorded, of which only about 10% have been explored. Older than the ensemble at Tikal, whose major monuments were constructed a hundred years later, the group of ceremonial buildings at Palenque is an outstanding example of a ceremonial and civic site corresponding to the middle of the Classic period in the Maya area.

It takes about half a day to visit a day to visit the site and in the afternoon we drove to see and take a dip in Agua Azul waterfalls. These waterfalls consists of many cataracts following one after another, taken from near the top of the sequence of cascades. The larger cataracts may be as high as 6 meters (20 feet) or so. During much of the distance the water descends in two streams, with small islands in the middle. The water has a high content of calcium carbonate and other minerals, and where it falls on rocks or fallen trees, it encases them in a thick shell-like coating of limestone and gives them unique color.

It was refreshing to take a swim in one of the natural pools. On the way back, we stopped to admire yet another waterfall, Cascada de Misol-Ha.

Return home

It is 2,000 miles from Palenque to San Carlos, our home base, so we decided to stop on Saturday night at Hacienda de los Santos, our preferred hotel in Mexico. The flight took us first to Queretaro for refueling and we then battled strong headwinds on the way to Alamos (MM45). All was however forgotten with the first sip of margarita!

Altogether, we flew about 4,500 nautical miles and visited three wonderful locations.

Whale watching in Baja California

In January 2018, I organized another COPA trip to Mexico, this time we visited Baja California. This the 5th year we are bringing gringos to Mexico. The official purpose was whale watching in Magdalena Bay, but everybody knew it was just an excuse to go flying.

We left home Wednesday afternoon and flew to KSAN (San Diego International), Lindbergh field. I prefer that airport to smaller General Aviation airports, such as Montgomery Field, because it is close to downtown. As class B airports go, this is one of the easiest in the country.

On Thursday morning, we flew from Sand Diego to Loreto. My preferred AOE (Airport of Entry) in Mexico is San Felipe (MMSF),  they are by far the fastest and most efficient, unfortunately San Felipe didn’t have fuel at that time. If you plan to use that airport, make sure to call ahead of time to check fuel status.

Loreto is a bit larger and unfortunately, quite more bureaucratic, it took as about 1.5 hours to fuel-up, prepare flight plans and go through customs and immigration. And one point, all immigration officers disappeared, because Alaska Airlines landed. One airplane in our group was asked to carry suitcases to the office for inspection. While the customs officers are perfectly in their right to request that, in my 15 years of flying in Mexico, I was asked for that only once. To return to our airplanes, one has to go through a ridiculously superfluous security checkpoint. In contrast, the large commercial airport in San Jose del Cabo, where we were in November 2017 does not require jumping through these hoops.

On Thursday  afternoon we met all the group in Rancho Las Cruces, a seaside beach resort located on a natural sanctuary of more than 10,000 acres and 7 miles of private pristine coastline. The hotel is situated along the beaches of the Sea of Cortés, about 15 min flight from La Paz.

Most important though, the hotel has its own airstrip. Part of the magic of flying in Baja is just that, park your airplane and walk to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of such places now, because security measures are often too expensive to keep strips open. The approach and landing at the strip are not particularly difficult, but they are interesting.

Most of the strips in Baja do not have any terrain around and just looking at Google Maps might suggest the same is true for Rancho Las Cruces. This is where it pays to be more thorough, because here how it looks on Google Earth, looking south-east, i.e from the sea.

Landing towards the West may be impractical due to rising terrain and prevailing westward winds. Landings towards the East requires flying close to terrain in what looks like a canyon, following a dry river bed.

All the participants were provided with information about the strip, with photos of terrain and a video of a Cessna Caravan pilot landing there. They were also advised the strip was challenging and if not comfortable, they should land at the commercial airport in La Paz, which is only one hour by car.

I decided to land at the Rancho’s airstrip and flew along the coast southband, to determine the wind and airstrip condition. Winds were generally from the east at 12-17 knots, depending on the altitude and this, together with the terrain made me decide to approach and land to the east. Here is the video of our landing.

The approach looks very flat in the video, but this is an optical illusion due to the position of the camera.

We spent the next day relaxing at the hotel, trying out local margaritas, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Friday morning, it was time to depart for Magdalena Bay and the winds were again favoring takeoff towards the sea. Since there were people filming our departure, I stayed in ground effect until the departure end, before pulling up. The video below offers the opportunity to admire my soft field takeoff technique from the ground and from the camera attached under the wing.

It was a short flight towards Magdalena Bay on Friday morning, only about 130 nm. Approaching the Pacific coast I became concerned we might be unable to land, due to low level bank of fog and low clouds covering the airstrip. That turned out to be a false alarm, a large hole in the clouds was open over the Bay and we landed without any trouble. In the video below, the camera was attached below the wing, as in the inset for the takeoff video, but it tilted in flight.

Notice a red cement pad at the begining of the airstrip, this is a runup area. You definitely do not want to touch down at or before the pad, unless you want to have your landing gear forcibly retracted.

You might also have noticed that I swerved to the right after touchdown. This was to avoid a flock of birds that were sitting imperturbable at the middle of the runway. I thought they won our little game of chicken and rolled to the right to avoid them, but somewhat predictable, they flew away after few seconds.

There is a short 15 min walk from the airstrip to the marina, but we got a ride in a car and we hoped on a small boat to cruise the lagoon searching for whales. And they were there.

After a quick lunch in a local eatery, we returned to the airplanes for the flight to Mulege, but due to lack of fuel in San Felipe, we stopped en route in Loreto. Without hassles of immigration and customs, refueling and flight plans took about 30 minutes.

The airstrip adjacent to the hotel is in good shape, just make sure you don’t land on or before the cement pad used for runups.

Hotel Serenidad in Mulege is a fixture in Baja flying, it was one of the first places welcoming aviators. Their Saturday night roast pig with live music was quite famous. I called ahead of time to make sure that the tradition is still alive, in spite of being assured on the phone this was still the case, we had a simple pork rib buffet and no live music. But the margaritas were as good as ever – the barman Román works there for long time and he hasn’t lost the touch with his tequila.

After a somewhat wobbly wake-up on Sunday and a delicious breakfast, we said goodbye to the whole group and flew away home. The stop in San Felipe was the fastest I ever experienced – 10 minutes for immigration, customs and flight plans. Hopefully, next time they will have fuel.

 

Thanksgiving in Cabo

I flew to Mexico for the first time in 2005 and we’ve been flying there couple of times each year. Baja California is the closest real beach place from San Francisco and I am always surprised how many private pilots are apprehensive about visiting.

To help alleviate fears, I’ve been organizing Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association trips to Mexico for the last four years. In 2017, we had 22 airplanes joining us on a trip to Alamos, Sonora and to Manzanillo. In 2016, we visited San Miguel de Allende, Guajanuato, Morelia and Guadalajara. In 2018, we will be doing whale watching in Magdalena Bay and landing on some fun dirt strips.

End of November starts to be chilly here, meaning temperature may occasionally drop below 20°C, so to escape the freeze, we decided to spend Thanksgiving in San Jose del Cabo. There are two towns at the most southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula: San Jose del Cabo is a bit sleepy, Cabo San Lucas is a party town and there are plenty of resorts in between. Having already passed the prime of our party time, we decided for a more calm place, mostly because of a beautiful hotel that opened there recently: Mar Adentro.

In 2014, we spent Thanksgiving in Acapulco in Hotel Elcanto,  built by the same architect: Miguel Angel Aragonés. This is a truly amazing place. We loved it so much that we stayed in the hotel all four days, without going to town even once!

When we found that Aragonés designed another hotel in San Jose del Cabo, we had to see it.

The flight to San Jose was a bit longer than usual, because we first stopped in Santa Monica to pick up our daughter’s boyfriend. Both were coming with us for a short family reunion. This was right before shortening of the Santa Monica runway started, the first step in the city plan to shut down the airport. It is a shame that such a beautiful airport will close, only because malls and commercial real estate pays more in taxes than an airport. The city council conducted a shameful campaign under false pretenses.

We spent the night in Santa Monica and flew to San Felipe for customs, immigration and fuel. Airports in Mexico are known for their bureaucracy and I used to budget 1 to 1.5 hours for a stop. San Felipe is a notable exception, it took us 25 minutes to refuel and take care of all the paperwork and we took off for San Jose del Cabo (MMSD). This is the large international airport serving both towns, while the smaller (MMSL) caters mainly to private aviators. The incoming formalities were surprisingly simple: take your luggage and go. Well, almost, because I wanted to get fuel and it took a bit of time waiting for the fuel truck.

Mar Ardento didn’t disappoint us. Here is the restaurant, appropriately called El Nido.

At night, the whole structure is illuminated in blue and red. At the bottom right, you can see El Nido at night, from high up. In between the buildings, there is water, with walkways connecting the hotel with the restaurant, pool and the beach.

This time, we were going to town for dinners, San Jose has some great Mexican restaurants, for example La Panga Antigua or  Restaurante Mi Casa.

On Sunday, we drove back to the airport, took care of all the paperwork, which again was quite fast and took off for Loreto. Being four in the airplane, I couldn’t take full fuel and I didn’t have the range to fly back direct to San Diego. But the stop in Loreto was also fast and we took advantage of it to grab a quick bite, before continuing to San Diego, Brown’s Field (KSDM), than back to Santa Monica and finally home, San Carlos.

Yes, it would be faster to fly commercial to Cabo and less expensive, but we would miss amazing views of Baja California and the adventure of flying ourselves in our little travel machine. It is only 6 hours one way.

 

 

 

 

 

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