Loc: Denver, CO
[picture and video links at the bottom]
I have just returned from 10 days sailing the beautiful Sea of Cortez in Mexico's Baja California Sur, as well as another 4 days spent in Cabo San Lucas.
Our bareboat charter was aboard a Moorings Jeanneau 494, 4 cabin 4 head layout. Sailed with 8 friends as usual. The Sea of Cortez is amazing! It is remote and desolate and has a certain stark beauty that you find when the endless desert meets the sea. La Paz and the surrounding areas are a world away from the hussle and bustle of Cabo San Lucas to the south. On most days we were the only boat in an anchorage, and on a couple of days we saw no other boats at all!
Our charter began at the Moorings base located at Marina Palmira in La Paz. Of our 8, three flew directly into La Paz, and the remaining five of us flew into San Jose Del Cabo and drove up from the south. For the drive I rented a VW Jetta from Europcar at the Los Cabos airport. The drive up is just fine and can actually be a lot of fun. It takes about 2-2.5 hours and is all highway from the airport until you reach the outskirts of La Paz. Be warned however, I do not recommend that you do this drive at night. There is no shoulder on the highways, many places don't have any lane markings, and there are quite a few unannounced detours to dirt roads. You also need to watch out for livestock all over the roads. Still it is a fun drive with some great views as you go through the mountains, and there are a number of small and interesting towns that you will pass through along the way.
Driving in the cities can be a little more interesting. There are mostly no lanes and stopsigns are often ignored. Just be aggressive like the locals and you'll do just fine.
For our first night we opted to sleep onboard our boat at the docks at Marina Palmira. "El Shaddai" had shore power A/C which was nice in the 100+ degree daytime temperatures, but we wouldn't get to enjoy that once we left the docks. The Marina facilities are very nice. There is a marine supply and fishing store on site, and the Moorings also runs a small provisioning shop where you can stock up on last minute items as well as water and ice (don't do your provisioning here though). There are showers on shore accessible with a keycard, and the docks are gated as well. The Moorings operation itself is small and personal. I love these smaller bases compared to the charter madness in the BVI. Our briefer, Kevin, gave us what was by far the best and most in-depth chart briefing I've ever had, and he was always spot on with his inside knowledge. We also rented a kayak through the Moorings, and we rented fishing gear from the fishing store on site.
As is our normal custom, we self-provisioned once we arrived, but we had pre-ordered most of our drinks through the Moorings to cut down on having to carry the heavy stuff. If you have a car, your best bet is to drive in to town to the large and modern "CCC" supermarket to do your provisioning. DO NOT SKIMP ON PROVISIONS! You need to plan as if you will not have any opportunity to buy additional supplies for the length of your charter. There are essentially no services once you leave La Paz until you arrive in Loreto. Loreto is going to be too far away for most charters, so you are pretty much on your own. In particular bring way more water than you think you'll need!
After our chart and boat briefing the following morning, we left the docks to begin our charter. We sailed north to Isla Espiritu Santo and our first night's anchorage at Puerto Ballena (about 15 miles from the Marina). Puerto Ballena is a beautiful anchorage, but as with all locations on Isla Espiritu Santo and within the Bay of La Paz during the summer months you need to choose your anchorage and your exact location within the anchorage wisely. This is because of a weather phenomenon known as the Coromuel wind. The wind picks up in the evenings and we found that it could last until aprox. 10-11am the next morning. It blows predominately out of the southwest although we experienced dramatic wind shifts almost every night and you need to allow for 360 degree swinging room on your anchor. It was often howling at around 20kts by 3 or 4 in the morning. To counteract the coromuel, it is generally best to anchor tucked into the southern shore of the anchorages within the Bay of La Paz, and to avoid certain anchorages as night stops altogether. The wind actually is not that unwelcome. It provides a great cooling breeze, and can give you some good sailing weather in the early morning hours. Just be sure your anchor is set well for the night. I always put a snorkeler in the water to dive the anchor and help set it manually if necessary. The good news is that the holding is excellent generally in 15-25 feet of water. If you go shallower, just be aware that the tidal range in the Sea of Cortez is greater than many other charter destinations. Moorings should provide you with current tide tables.
The following morning we woke up early to do the first couple scuba dives of the trip. All 8 of us are divers, and we dedicated four days on the boat to diving. I will cover those seperately later in this report. We then headed north until we reached Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida, where we found an excellent anchorage along the southern shore in about 15 feet of water. Ensenada Grande is a convenient location because you can find some protection from the coromuel, it is close to the very cool sea lion colony at Los Islotes, and it is a good jumping off point for the crossing up to Isla San Francisco.
The following morning, after another couple of dives, we headed north yet again to Isla San Francisco (aprox. 20 miles north of the tip of Isla Partida). The hook on San Francisco provides good southerly protection, and this is also just about the northernmost extent of coromuel winds. This is a very beautiful anchorage! There is a long beach, and the best part is the amazing hike you can find on shore. Follow the trail up the steep cliffs overlooking the Bay of La Paz and the surrounding islands. The 360 degree views are absolutely stunning. You can find great hikes like this at most anchorages, but just be sure to go prepared. Take close-toed shoes, bring plenty of water, and consider wearing very light weight long pants. The cacti are everywhere and they are beautiful but they can also hurt! Also keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.
After a couple more dives, from San Francisco we headed north and west, back to the Baja peninsula and our next night's anchorage at Punta Evaristo. Along the way, we made a day stop at Isla Coyote. Coyote has I would estimate about 20 residents, and that still makes it the second or third most inhabited island in the Sea of Cortez! Don't expect to find any services here, but you can walk around, explore the small village, and buy some jewelry from a woman's house about halfway up the big hill. This is basically your only gift shopping opportunity outside of La Paz.
The anchorage at Evaristo is about 50 miles north of La Paz and has a very small fishing village. Holding was good here in 15 feet of water right off of the town. There is a very small and basic general store here...so small it did not even have working lights when we were in town and we shopped with flashlights. You can also walk down the beach and buy fresh fish from the local fishermen. We bought excellent fish here. Whenever you see fishermen you can always ask to buy fish from them, and you might also be able to trade for fish with essentialls such as batteries. It is useful to speak some Spanish because most of these people don't speak any English.
From Evaristo we headed north on our second longest sail. Puerto Gato is aprox. 30 miles north of Evaristo, but with our tacking we sailed aprox. 50 miles. Boy was it worth it! This was by far the most spectacular and most remote area of the trip! Along this part of the peninsula the high, jagged mountains fall close to the seashore, with endless unspoiled desert in between. You will see the largest saguaro cacti that you have ever seen! Gato itself is also spectacular. There are 2 pristine beaches, a giant sand dune that you can climb up and slide down, and crazy blood-red rock formations that you can explore. Further inland, a dirt path leads into the desert and you can explore in here as well. Listen for the coyotes howling at night, and keep an eye out for what I think are either desert cottontail or jackrabbits, which you will see everywhere inland.
At Gato, my group placed our only geocache of the trip. It is called the "Cromwell Cache" and I think it is probably about 1/4-1/2 mile inland. Take sturdy shoes and sufficient water if you go looking for it. We also explored by kayak and snorkeled here at Gato.
However, the very best part of Gato is a local fisherman, I think his name is Miguel. Kevin at the Moorings told us about Miguel but I was skeptical that he would show up. There is literally no sign of civilization for miles around, yet sure enough about half an hour after we anchored a little boat comes around the corner with Miguel onboard. Miguel is a great guy, just offer him a cold beer or soda and you will become best buddies instantly. Miguel can also provide you with some delicious seafood. We bought 100+ chocolate clams off Miguel for next to nothing (best to get a cooler from the Moorings for all the fish you're likely to be buying/catching on the trip). We also bought 8 lobsters off of Miguel, and the best part of that was that he let some of our group come along in his boat to help catch them! That was quite an experience.
At night at Gato, we went ashore and built a huge campfire to cook our clams and feasted late into the night. That was really spectacular, cooking out under the brilliant stars in the middle of nowhere, eating an endless supply of fresh clams.
The next day we spent most of the day still exploring Gato, letting some of the crew work off the tequila from the night before. In the evening we slipped around the corner about a mile to Punta San Telmo, the furthest north we would reach on this trip. We experienced a beautiful, blazing red sunset over the mountains here, as we did just about everywhere in Baja.
The following morning myself and one other crew member woke up VERY early to get started for an epic long sail at the crack of dawn. On this day we sailed, motored, and motor-sailed 60+ miles south to Caleta Partida, an anchorage formed by the narrow cut between Isla Partida and Espiritu Santo. Along the way, we watched as a group of pilot whales swam only feet from the boat. We also saw multiple pods of easily 100+ dolphins, as we did just about every single day. Some members of our group even saw manta rays leaping out of the water! I really think that the marine life you can see above water in Baja is almost as spectacular as what you can see below. Keep your eyes on the horizon! You will see huge fish jumping out of the water all the time, you will definitly see sea lions and dolphins up close all over the place, and you may see a variety of different types of whales or even whale sharks.
Along the way down the coast to Caleta Partida, we made a day stop at La Amortajada on Isla San Jose. This is a great day stop, but don't think about spending the night here because we have heard that the mosquitoes in the mangroves come out in force. La Amortajada is beautiful though. There is a giant cactus forest here. There is also a huge beach, and the best part is a dinghy channel leading through the mangroves into a lagoon. Lots of opportunities to explore here, but we had a short stop because of the distance we still had to travel.
We arrived at Caleta Partida only about 45 minutes before sunset (fortunately sun sets late in the Baja during the summer months...we had sunset at aprox. 8:15pm) and quickly set our anchor. Partida is supposedly one of the most protected anchorages in the area, but we experienced fierce winds all night here. I stayed up most of the night checking and double checking the anchor alarm on my GPS.
The following day, after two more dives, we took off for our next anchorage at Caleta Enmedio which is essentially right around the corner. However, we had excellent wind and decided to take a few tacks out in the Bay of La Paz before heading in for the night. Enmedio is a great anchorage. We shared Partida with 2 other boats (a big crowd for the Sea of Cortez), but we were all alone here, and I found good coromuel protection tucked closely in along the southern shore.
The following day we headed south again for our final night's anchorage at Caleta Lobos. Lobos is a good option for your last night because it is about 6 miles from the Pemex tanks marking the La Paz channel entrance, yet it still has a wilderness feel to it. This was the only location we had any difficulty setting our anchor (it took three tries). Also exercise caution here because the southern bight (best choice) shoals very rapidly not very far in. You can find 15-20 feet further out, but then it rapidly comes up to a shallow sand bank that is easily visible in good light but not later in the day.
The following morning we returned to La Paz to wrap up another fantastic charter with the Moorings.
* SCUBA DIVING: Diving in the Sea of Cortez is a must in my opinion, particularly if you go during the summer when the water is relatively warm. Still, this is not tropical diving. We experienced surface water that averaged 80-84 degrees, just fine for snorkeling and boat showers, but then a series of thermoclines begining at aprox. 20-30 feet that dropped visibility and water temperatures down into the low to mid 70s. Water temperatures also swing dramatically at different times of year. I wore a 5mm wetsuit on my dives, but for some dives I would have appreciated a 7mm and a hood. Bring more exposure protection than you think you'll need. Underwater, you'll find an interesting mix of tropical and temperate species. Don't expect much coral here, but you will see huge schools of fish, large pelagic fish, and interesting rock formations. You also have the opportunity to dive with sea lions at Los Islotes and elsewhere. The sea lions are great fun and they'll come and the pups will come and play with you, tug at your fins, etc. Keep clear of the larger males. We also did a dive for hammerheads at the offshore seamount "El Bajo." Unfortunately the visibility was not very good and we didn't see any underwater, but I know they're there because I saw them from the surface. Recommend you give it a shot if you're in the area. I think the best part of diving around here is that you never know what you might see. Some of the dives are a little dull, but then you also might get the chance to play with sea lions or possibly see a hammerhead or a whale shark.
We dove with Club Cantamar, an operation located about 15-20 minutes drive north of the Moorings base at Puerto Pichilinque. Pedro at Club Cantamar is great. He helped us plan out our schedule to maximize our diving, and he even came to our Moorings chart briefing to help coordinate things on that end. Rendevous diving is not common in the Sea of Cortez, but Club Cantamar was more than happy to do it for us. They operate a fleet of large, well-equiped boats, and although they primarily operate in the Bay of La Paz they agreed to meet us further north at Isla San Francisco because of the amount of diving we were doing with them. If you are on a land-based diving vacation in the area you might also consider staying with them. They are a full-service diving resort and seem to have a lot of good packages. Their staff is professional and multilingual.
*FISHING: Fishing is a must here! Fishing, along with purchasing fish from fishermen if possible, is a good way to extend your provisions. We caught a big dorado (mahi mahi) our first day out, and it was delicious. We caught additional fish including a Bonito and a couple really huge fish that snapped our line. None of us would pretend to be good fishermen, and we never seem to have much luck, but we finally had some sucess here in the Sea of Cortez! This Sea is just brimming with life of every sort...as you'll see during your travels. You can rent a full set of fishing gear from Marina Palmira. Also, bring some gloves and rent a gaff.
* WEATHER: Overall we had good weather. During the summer months the wind is sporadic, but we expected that. Your best bet is to get up early to do your sailing and catch the last of the coromuel wind. Unfortunately we were diving many mornings so we had to motor-sail a lot, and we burnt through our entire supply of diesel by the end of the trip (something I've never, ever come close to doing on charter before). The weather is also extremely hot during the summer, 100+ particularly inland, though you will find some cooling breezes on the water. Baja may be at a higher latitude than the Caribbean, but believe me the sun feels stronger! I think this is because of the lack of cloud cover (we did not have one single drop of rain the entire trip). Bring adequate sun protection and drink plenty of water!
As for weather reports, reliable reports are pretty much non-existant for the charter sailor. Reports MAY be broadcast at 8am on the local cruisers net, VHF 22. If you are concerned, your best bet is probably to try hailing local cruisers to see if they have any info, or give the Moorings a call. Moorings VHF range is limited, and because of the distances on this trip I decided to rent a satellite phone just to be on the safe side. I was glad that I had it.
* GPS: Well, everyone uses them these days, but you need to take care with your GPS here. Basically, the charts are totally inaccurate! If you follow your GPS you will probably end up aground your first day. GPS is great to find anchorages and guage distances with the waypoints alone, but don't trust any electronic charts. I recommend picking up a copy of the Sea of Cortez mini-guide chart packet by Gerry Cunningham. These are essentially the same paper charts that the Moorings has on the boats, and they are good for planning purposes. They are a good reference if not extremely detailed. Things seemed to be a little better charted around the immediate La Paz area because of the US Navy's use of the area during WWII.
* MOORINGS/MARINA PALMIRA: Once again a fine charter with the moorings. A few very minor issues with the boat but nothing you wouldn't expect on a charter yacht. Our boat had a working anemometer which is unusual on a charter boat. The Marina also is very nice. In addition to the Moorings shop and the fishing shop there is a restaurant on site that we did not use. There is ample parking if you rent a car or drive down from California. Be sure to let the Moorings and the marina know if you have a car. You need to register it, and they will keep an eye on it while you're out on your trip. The Marina will also take care of your Port Captain's Clearance which is required in the Sea of Cortez.
After our charter, our three crewmembers that flew directly into La Paz headed home, and the five remaining crewmembers drove back down to Cabo San Lucas. On the drive back we took an alternate route along the pacific coastline, with expansive views of the crashing surf below. This route will also take you through the town of Todos Santos, which has a bit of a touristy/artist colony feeling to it but it worth exploring for awhile to do some shopping, get lunch, etc.
On arrival in Cabo San Lucas we checked into the Cabo Inn. The Cabo Inn was a great find...a perfect little budget hotel! It is not on the beach, but it is a 10 minute walk from the main beach, and it is only about 2 blocks to the center of town with all the shopping, dining, marina, nightlife, etc. The Cabo Inn has a lot of character (check out the open air, rooftop palapa suites), a funky little pool and library on the roof, and a really friendly staff. Stanley, the manager, helped us with all of our sightseeing arrangements and got us some great deals on tours.
In Cabo, we drove dune buggies through the nearby desert, which was very cool and not for the faint of heart. I also did four scuba dives in Cabo. I dove through Amigos del Mar, a first class operation located about a 15 minute walk from the Cabo Inn. I wasn't expecting much of the Cabo diving but was pleasantly surprised of the 2 dives I did at Lands End and at the Sand Falls. These are worth doing, and it is cool to be diving at what is literally the underwater tip of the peninsula. My other 2 dives were 2 hours away at Cabo Pulmo. Cabo Pulmo is a great site, although the conditions were difficult when I was there because we were diving off very small boats in large ocean swells. This is probably as close to a real coral reef as you will find in Baja. There had been some whale shark sightings in the area as well but we didn't see any on our dives.
Overall Cabo is a fun town, but it is pretty touristy and after 4 days I was missing the solitude of the areas further north. Crazy bars and nightlife aren't really my thing, but if you like that then you will love Cabo. One other thing worth doing is walking over to the pacific beaches as well as lands end, which was about a 20-25 minute walk from our hotel. Lands End has amazing rock formations that you can climb through and explore and reach some more secluded beaches. I enjoyed watching the huge pounding surf over on the pacific side as well.
As for dining in Cabo, we mostly stuck to the local establishments in the immediate vicinity of the Cabo Inn. You can put together a big meal at these places for $5-6 with some of the best tacos you've ever had (my mouth is watering just thinking about the carne asada tacos). You'll pay at least double or tripple that at the touristy places.
This was another incredible trip, and I'm already missing Baja a lot. I love the desert southwest in the United States, and I love sailing too, so this trip really had the best of both worlds for me. We also got to experience the craziness of Cabo and the isolation of the Sea of Cortez. Moreover, the people in Baja are friendly and inviting. This area is nothing like Tijuana with all the crime and corruption further north. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Fair winds and following seas!
Photographs from the trip