La Paz is a nice place, there’s no doubting that, the harbour sits forty miles or so up on the east side of Mexico’s Baja Peninsular and is considered by most sailors to be the gateway to the fabled Sea of Cortez.
This eight hundred miles of smooth sea that’s landlocked on three sides had been the subject of much conversation between ourselves and American sailors ever since we’d sailed our way south from Alaska, eventually reaching the San Juan Islands to the north of Seattle’s Puget Sound in Washington State. In the truly sublime North American harbours of Port Townsend and Friday Harbor every sailor it seemed had spent some time or other in Mexico’s most well-known sailing destination.
As we then made our way south down the US Pacific west coast, their enthusiasm and perfunctory advice grew in intensity, we were not under any circumstances to miss out the Sea of Cortez…
So here we were, anchored in La Paz with the gateway to the supposedly magical Sea beckoning just a few miles to our north. Marie had by now returned to England and my reliable support crew Gary, who was also my close friend and my step-brother, had flown out to Mexico to join me. Our previous voyages together just the two of us onboard Sänna, in Hawaii, Alaska and British Columbia had been immensely gratifying, allowing Marie to keep returning to England for family reasons. Now, Gary, Nellie our ship’s cat and myself planned an adventurous month or so working our way up along the east coast of the Baja Peninsula, through the dry-desert Islands, spectacular cliff-hanging anchorages and old Spanish settlements of this utopian sailing paradise. And believe you me, the Sea of Cortez, or the Gulf of California as it is named on most sea charts, does not disappoint.
The Baja Peninsula itself is the nine hundred mile mainly mountainous spine that runs from the Mexican border with the United States to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas at its southern tip. With the Mexican Sonora Desert forming the west mainland coast of the upper Sea the widest mid-section is only ninety miles. Our plan now was that my step-brother, Nellie the cat and myself would head north as far as the historic, formally French harbour town of Santa Rosalia before crossing the Sea to the opposite mainland coast for either Guaymas or San Carlos. In San Carlos, Marie would return and together we’d continue our exploration northwards to see out the hot dry summer before making our long way south through Central America to Panama. In any event, that was our plan.
First we had a couple of maintenance jobs to get out of the way and my handyman step-brother is always good for that. In the back streets of La Paz we tracked down a supplier of ropes and rigging so that we could replace Sänna’s mainsheet, mainsail outhaul and our headsail furling line. All our existing lines were suffering from over exposure to the dry desert air and their prolonged use in a salty sea-air environment – more and more it was like trying to bend stiff cardboard. Other than the eye watering cost of our new ropes – probably fifty percent higher than any rope purchased in the US or back in England, everything went well – including the splicing of a new rigid eye into the outhaul courtesy of a nicely informative YouTube video. The extortionate costs of marine parts in Mexico is down to the usual same old problem… too many sailboats with ample supplies of greenback dollars, with eager Mexicans more than willing to relieve them of as many bucks as they can… that and the supposed forty-percent importation tax applied by Mexican Customs which, it turns out, is a commonly misused myth.
But the real problem exists in the sheer numbers of US boats that make Mexico their home port. Mexican marina owners have long worked out that north Americans are perfectly willing to pay slip rates similar to those found in their homeland America, which are already in our experience amongst the highest we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. But often these Mexican harbours provide little in return for your hard-earned cash. Hardly ever is there potable water, there’s always extra costs added for shore-power at startling rates and there’s little in the way of clean toilet or showering facilities. Don’t forget that, as experienced round-the-world cruisers ourselves, we’re well used to questionable harbour facilities, particularly in the poorer countries – it is part of the circumnavigator’s lifestyle choice of turning native – but never do we expect to pay absolute top-dollar. One dollar fifty to two dollars a foot is not uncommon in Mexican marinas and it grates on our common sense that many sailors are generally more than happy to pay up rather than lose their umbilical chord to shore-power living. In any event, most of these marinas are consistently full.
Luckily for us, secure and free anchorages exist in the Sea of Cortez. Being a largely landlocked Sea the long Pacific Ocean swell disappears and any wind-driven swells are much less given the small wind-fetch. With the winds often being fickle this makes for generally smooth sailing with a choice of predominantly safe anchorages – providing one is diligent with wind directions overnight. Anchorages can and do rough up which often bellies the information in the most commonly used cruising guide. The prudent mariner hereabouts should always work things out for themselves, we found the predominant cruising guide for this area somewhat questionable in what constitutes a safe overnight anchorage. Many of the listed anchorages described in glowing style can quickly become untenable and, of course, from June to November the southern half of the Sea can be raked by violent Pacific hurricanes.
Sailing south from Pacific side Ensenada to La Paz one month before, Marie and I had been blessed with consistently sweet winds from the north which meant we’d made rapid progress south. Now it was all reversed… Gary, the ship’s cat and myself would encounter relentless northerlies whilst making our way back north along the inside seashore. Then around June time, just when the hurricane season kicks in, everything switches around with the prevailing winds blowing predominantly from the south – straight in and up the Sea of Cortez.
With all our rigging work completed and having gorged ourselves on exceedingly cheap ‘Tacos Al Pastor’ most evenings – flamed pork carved off the stub, served with delicious flour tacos and traditional Mexican sides, we left the La Paz anchorage having watered-up in Marina La Paz, one of the few that offers clean potable water. Heading due north to the scenic islands of Islas Espíritu Santos was easy enough, fifteen miles or so of flat calm seas to first drop our anchor in Playa La Bonanza Bay. Staying there on the east side of Isla Espíritu overnight, having whisked our dinghy ashore for an afternoon of discovery, was no mean hardship but the next morning easterly winds threatened, so we pulled up our anchor to continue north along the more sheltered western shoreline of these idealic islands.
We next dropped our anchor in incredibly scenic bay Bahía Ensenada Grande with the explicit intention of heading ashore, there was a supposed trail that headed upwards through the rocky canyon to the high plateau on the eastern shoreline. But by now it was hot. With peak daytime temperatures touching the high nineties, trekking upwards through the sweltering canyon was no easy feat, but Gary and I were rewarded with spectacular cliff-top views over the flat calm Sea… once we’d eventually reached the far side of the Island. Back down the rocky trail seemed so much harder with our essential water supplies almost depleted. This, I tell you, was extremely tough going.
The first Spaniards came to the Baja Peninsula in 1533 to create a small settlement near present day La Paz. The expedition was at the instigation of Hernán Cortés through his sponsor the King of Spain and was captained by Fortún Jiménez. The Spanish at first thought the California Baja Peninsula was an island, not at that time realising the existence of the huge unexplored lands further to the north that are these days the United States and Canada. This first Spanish settlement had only a fleeting existence – they had little access to water or food and in 1536 the desperate settlement was quietly abandoned. In 1539 Cortés sent a new expedition, this time captained by the Conquistador Francisco de Ulloa who finally reached the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez and in the process discovered the mouth of the Colorado River. Having to return southwards, Ulloa realised the supposed island of California was in fact a Peninsula linked to some vast unknown northern land very recently claimed by the principality of Russia, which at that time was decidedly hostile to the territorial ambitions of the King of Spain.
We ourselves made our way slowly north to Loreto, Gary fished for Dorado and was rewarded with a bountiful catch that we barbecued baked in foil with fresh-cut limes and coriander rice. Along the way we anchored overnight in San Everisto Bay although it took several attempts to dig in our anchor before feeling secure, on one attempt we pulled up an old tarpaulin to the amusement of another yacht anchored close by. In the evening we rowed ashore to the small fishing village to eat freshly harvested shrimps cooked in homemade salsa at the only cantina in this out-of-the-way homestead community. Then twenty miles further north we anchored in exquisite Bahía El Gato before making an arduous sail thirty miles against the wind to the infamous reefs of Marcial Corners to eventually anchor safely in Bahía Aqua Verde (Turquoise Bay). By now Gary was in his element endeavouring to catch fresh fish to feed our hungry barbecue.
Fish catches used to be bountiful and plentiful in the Sea of Cortez but now, in these latter years, there’s been an exceptionally marked decline in fish numbers. The famed French underwater film maker Jacques Cousteau explored the Sea of Cortez extensively for his renowned TV documentaries and called the Sea ‘The World’s Aquarium’ but now that’s all changed. Local fishermen and captains of sports-fishing vessels vehemently blame a large influx of Japanese commercial fishing boats a few years back for the reduced fish catch but this hardly seems credible. Fish stocks are rapidly being depleted world-wide, talk to any native fishermen or commercial trawler skipper anywhere and they all say the same thing… some other nation’s fishermen are bitterly to blame for everything with little thought given to the real problem of the extensive overfishing which nowadays occurs just about everywhere. In simple terms the world’s fast-growing human populations’ need for seafood outstrips the ocean’s ability to restock and supply. Given that other fish, seabirds and sea mammals are all competing for the same food source then it’s easy to see why it’s a relentlessly downward curve that can only end one way.
Loreto itself is an open roadstead anchorage entirely open to the elements. With this in mind and with another strong northerly blow threatening, we headed into the spectacularly scenic and entirely landlocked anchorage of Puerto Escondido, around a dozen or so miles south of Loreto. This prime anchorage, one of the most secure to be found anywhere in the Sea of Cortez, has been a haven for sailboats for many years with a large community of liveaboards setting down their anchors for the long term, a great many of these during the glorified hippy years when the Sea of Cortez was in its absolute prime as a sailing destination. These sun loving liveaboards built their own dinghy landing docks when several beachside communes establishing themselves to serve cheap Mexican tequila and local produce food. Puerto Escondido thrived to become a magnate draw for hundreds of American and Canadian sailboat hippy-dreamers. When this mythical community continued to grow in fame, Fonatur, the Mexican government agency that promotes environmental tourism, even built a small marina harbour in support of these ‘Yatistas’.
Then things changed. A Mexican billionaire backed by US investment funds saw a wonderful opportunity to build prime real estate around a luxurious marina in a truly spectacular location. Although mired in allegations of corruption and bribery, they purchased the entire anchorage from the Mexican government including the marina with its surrounding land and in the process they introducing extortionate fees to drive the sailboat community out. The marina was developed, they laid an extensive field of mooring buoys in the pristine anchorage then constructed the real estate infrastructure of roads and services to attract the monied residential American elite from north of the border… who never came. By this time the Mexican Peso had collapsed, the image of Mexico as a land of sun and opportunity had become tarnished by incessant bad press in the US and then came Donald Trump’s much vaunted wall. Nowadays, it’s all rather a sad mess, there are extortionate charges of over thirty US dollars or more just to pick up a mooring buoy and nightly rates of over a hundred bucks just to tie up in a largely empty marina. The remains of the Yatista community still lingers though, around a half-dozen or so diehard Yatistas still run their early morning radio net – but these days hardly anyone’s around to answer.
We ourselves argued vehemently in the harbour office, we said we’d rather drop our anchor in the more than ample anchoring space when faced with picking up a mooring buoy at those prices, but to no avail. Anchoring was now disallowed, they said, so we had no option but to cough up for three expensive nights. But through the marina we were able to hire an unbelievably cheap rental car to explore wonderfully historic Loreto, with its original Spanish-Mexican culture and three hundred year old Misión Nuestra Señora Church – now turned into a fabulously informative museum. And there was more, high in the mountains Jesuit Conquistadors in 1699 had subsequently built the Misión San Fransisco Javier Monastery in a lush cool mountain valley reached only by an arduous trail along the high plateau. With the remains of their famed water irrigation system still working perfectly, we drove our somewhat dilapidated and well-worn rental car up along the winding twisting road that reached ever higher into an entirely different world from the dry hot desert seashore far below. This was to become one of the highlights of our time in the Sea of Cortez.
Loreto itself was the first Spanish colonial settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula. The settlement was founded in 1697 by Jesuits searching for a steady supply of fresh water, they subsequently founded the Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto on the location of the sweet-water spring revealed to them by the indigenous Mayan population who were to pay dearly for their first offerings of friendship to the Spanish Conquistadors. Decimated by European diseases, vicious conquest and forced conversion to Christianity the first-nation population, as always, did not fare well.
In 1767, on the orders of the new King of Spain, the Jesuits were ruthlessly expelled with control of the Baja missions given to their rival Franciscans. In 1769, the Franciscans were themselves ordered to turn over the Baja monasteries to the Dominican Order and to then accompany the expedition of the Conquistador Gaspar de Portolà, who was to establish new missions beyond the unexplored northern frontier that eventually became modern day California. Much of old Loreto remains, a refreshing alternative to historic history north of the Mexican border that has long since been eradicated in the name of modern day progress. Old age culture doesn’t survive long in North America but right here in Mexico it thrives.
From Loreto and Puerto Escondido the ship’s cat, Gary and myself once more made our way north, this time a long daytime sail against the wind that took us to the huge landlocked bay of Bahía Conception. There we dropped anchor off Coyote beach, conveniently located to eat and drink at Jose’s family beachside cantina. We bagged a ride from their eldest son Milo into Mulegé, a colourful little town with one of the only rivers we encountered with any water in it. Getting a ride into town was easy enough but the fifteen or so kilometres back was a problem with no buses running along the Route One single-road Baja highway. You can easily hitch a ride everyone told us. Well, we stood in the sweltering heat of the highway on the outskirts of Mulegé for over an hour to begin with… then dread upon dread the first vehicle to stop by was a police car. Now Gary, being an ex-copper himself and an eager exponent of the doubtful ethics of the Mexican police force, became quite agitated and concerned. It’s a fact, he told me as the police vehicle slowed whilst flashing its blue lights, that hitchhiking is illegal in Mexico.
So we hitched a ride in the armoured police vehicle. The highly attractive and exceptionally friendly policewoman asked where we were heading, we explained that our sailboat was anchored in Coyote Bay, we’d been in Mulegé and now we were trying to get back before nightfall because we’d left Nellie our ship’s cat all alone onboard. The policewoman apologised, saying that she couldn’t drive us all the way, but she could take us to a Pemex fuel station along the route where there was a good roadside cantina, there we would get another ride easily. And so it proved. Gary, it has to be said, fell instantly in love – there must be something special with ex-policemen and a strikingly pretty girl in a blue uniform.
From Bahía Conception we were faced with yet another long beat against the wind though we anchored overnight twenty miles north in Bahía San Juanico. We wanted to get as far north as Santa Rosalia before crossing the Sea Cortez eastwards to the opposite mainland shore at Guaymas. Santa Rosalia itself has a small sheltered harbour with a government Fonatur marina that holds around a dozen or so small vessels. With much more reasonable overnight charges that are government controlled, these Fonatur marinas are usually somewhat dilapidated but entirely useable providing one is prepared to accept basic facilities. Fonatur managed harbours are very good value, usually these facilities are no worse than many of those found in the more expensive private marinas anyway – and Santa Rosalia itself is a real gem.
Hundred and fifty year old Santa Rosalia is different from the rest of Spanish Mexico in that it was built by the French. In fact, Santa Rosalia has the world’s only church constructed entirely of iron because it was designed and built in 1884 by a Mr Gustav Eiffel who subsequently built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The rest of Santa Rosalia is constructed in the fabulous colonial French style, it’s still enduringly French with typical bakeries baking fresh bread and croissants each morning to be consumed with coffee roasted and drunk as traditional French Roast. The French themselves came in the 1880’s and built the huge El Boleo mine to smelt copper, cobalt, zinc and manganese which then became the largest mine in all of the Americas until the 1950’s. From 1885 sailing ships came from all parts of the world to load ore from Santa Rosalia’s pulsating harbour which for many sailing ships from Europe meant arduously long round-the-world voyages with ensuing Cape Horn hardships in order to return to their home ports. Then came the age of steam ships and Santa Rosalia really began to thrive. The Mexican miners, however, were exceptionally poorly paid and their working conditions were atrocious. They organised themselves into unions to try to improve their lot, then went on strike for ten years which pretty much screwed everything because in 1953 the French simply packed up and left. Santa Rosalia nowadays is a little run down, poverty abounds just like in other parts of the world where big industries or conglomerates have closed their doors on desperate local communities, but new investment from Mexico, Asia and France have got things going again and there’s real hope for local miners who now see a good future ahead. But Santa Rosalia will forever be old-fashioned French – that’s indelibly etched into the town and it cannot be undone.
Worryingly, Santa Rosalia is also where our inquisitive ship’s cat fell into the sea. In the Fonatur harbour an American sailboat tied up in the next slip, they had a dog onboard which caught Nellie red-handed after she’d sneaked onboard their boat to find and then consume their dog’s left out food. A two way argument developed between them both which ended with their dog nursing a bloody scratched nose – a number of fast chases then took place through the harbour which both the cat and the dog appeared to enjoy but ended with Nellie climbing our headsail, partly to show off and partly to escape somewhat eager doggy attention before she lost her grip and fell headlong into the harbour. It was nighttime dark and a whole group of us searched the harbour waters before our ship’s cat was found hiding between the floating pontoons, sitting precariously on a partially submerged electricity cable. She’d swum an alarmingly long way but was heard meowing meekly by Mike, the skipper of the Yankee sailboat who was able to find her with his flashlight. Nellie was none the worse for her experience, purring endlessly as she suffered a wash-down shower with a prolonged towel rub dry. You can read Nellie Cat’s own somewhat colourful version of what happened here.
The next morning Gary and I untied Sänna’s lines to head the ninety miles eastwards across the Sea of Cortez to San Carlos. By now the eastern Pacific hurricane season was well upon us and San Carlos bay with its harbour there was considered a sheltered hurricane hole. Which was good, because only two weeks later Hurricane Bud made its relentless progress north, making landfall just to the west of Cabos San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula before passing over La Paz to then head north near to San Carlos. Bud degenerated into a tropical storm during its approach up the Sea of Cortez but, nevertheless, still produced much needed torrential rainfall and the high winds that raked Sänna for twenty four-hours tied up in San Carlos marina, another expensive facility that’s not a hurricane hole at all – seven wrecked yachts along the shoreline from previous hurricanes are easy testament to that.
But by the time Hurricane Bud came by, my step-brother Gary had departed to England. I had three weeks to wait in San Carlos for Marie’s return but, to my eternal good fortune, the Mexican cantinas in the marina resort were eagerly showing the FIFA 2018 Football World Cup (it’s still not really called ‘soccer’ folks). Both Mexico and England dominated these wonderfully exciting days ahead… only colourful Mexican dancing girls and their deliriously football-mad menfolk know how to passionately celebrate, especially with a lone excited Englishman in their midst.
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