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Cruising Mexico: Baja and The Sea of Cortez

Written by Cathy Siegismund
November - December 2000


We were now cruising Mexico, which would be our home for the next 5 months until we left for the South Pacific. We would explore the West Coast of Mexico; perhaps we'll have a chance to explore the east coast if we continue on a circumnavigation.

Sunday, November 9, we said our farewells to John - our first and greatly appreciated crew - and the rest of the Seattle contingent. Early the next week, we started on the usual cruiser's errands. Monday, we checked in and out -- actually we caved and used an agent to do this for us as we had a lot of other errands to run. Each port in Mexico with a Port Captain requires you to check in upon arrival and out upon departure with your destination stated. If you're making a short stop, you have the option to check in and out at the same time. You then have a 48-hour grace period to leave the harbor. We chose this, as we'd already spent the weekend in Cabo and the rolling anchorage and swarming jet ski's were getting on our nerves.

 

Lands End in Cabo San Lucas

Crowded Cabo San Lucas Bay with the 2000 Ha Ha fleet

Looking up at Amy's condo from the bay

Over the next two days, we got fuel, did a HUGE pile of laundry, visited several Internet cafes and did some grocery shopping at the less-than-spectacular supermercado. The store was actually quite good for canned goods and dry goods, but the fresh food was a little lacking.

We also attended the entertaining awards ceremony of the Ha Ha, where we predictably got third place. We also had a nice dinner in the palatial cockpit of Raven, a Deerfoot 64, with Wendy and Garth on Velella and another Seattle cruising couple and their son. Jan and Signe are planning to keep Raven in Mexico through the winter and spring and then return her to San Diego during the Mexican hurricane season. They had originally planned to head to the South Pacific this year as well, but their son is getting married in the summer of 2000, so they'll join the Ha Ha 2001 and head to the South Pacific in 2002.

Wendy and Garth are great as well. They too have a 31 foot boat, but Velella and Felicity couldn't be more different. Felicity is a very comfortable full keel and rather slow cruising boat. Velella is a fin keel Wylie; more Spartan below, but a lot quicker. This however, suits Wendy and Garth just fine, and they are both excellent sailors. Garth circumnavigated as a teenager with his family in the 1970's and later became a naval architect. Both Wendy and Garth were avid Northwest racers, who were members of the Thunderbird fleet before they purchased Velella.

In the following days, the Ha Ha fleet thinned as about 2/3 of the fleet headed toward Mazatlan and other ports on the mainland and the other 1/3 headed toward La Paz. There were also a few token boats who were headed back to California in the less than enviable Baja Bash, named due to the prevailing Northwest winds..

On Thursday, November 16, we left Cabo headed for La Paz with two planned stops, one at Los Frailes (The Monks) and a second at Ensenada de Los Muertos (Cove of the Dead.) We set out of Cabo and set the sails in a light but Northern wind. As the day progressed, the wind stayed a fairly steady 10-17 knots, but it was right on the nose and the seas where short and steep, often reducing our progress to less than 2 knots. As they say, you either have too much wind, too little wind, or just the right amount from the wrong direction. Today, the last was our situation. We tacked back and forth a few times, and finally started motor sailing, angling East and offshore where the waves were longer and more even. However, when we finally tacked back in towards shore it was late afternoon, and with our slow progress it didn't look like we'd make it to Los Frailes before nightfall. We kept going, figuring if we couldn't enter the bay, we could keep going toward Los Muertos.

As we neared the bay and the sun was setting, we called Jan on Raven. They had left Cabo that day as well, but in their 64' boat had completed the trip by mid-afternoon. Jan told us there was lots of room in the bay, and the entrance was wide and clear. They also said when we approached they and the rest of the boats would turn on lights for us to guide us in.

Night anchoring is really taboo in cruising, but the thought of a continued bash North all night was not very appealing either. We proceeded toward Los Frailes in the dark, and soon saw what looked like a small city of anchor lights. With the help of Jan on Raven, and Keith and Kelly on Scalawag (another Ha Ha boat, a couple with two boys from Edmonton, Alberta) we were safely guided to a spot to anchor. It was toward the outside of the bay but with the sound of crashing surf we weren't comfortable going deeper into the bay. We dropped the hook in 60 feet of water, and were in over 100 by the time we backed down. We've anchored in deep water before in the Northwest, but not knowing what the bay looked like, we decided to stay up a while and keep an eye out. We set up the big screen and watched a couple movies, periodically checking our position. We continued to get up every few hours until daybreak, it was tiring, but still easier than the overnight bash to Los Muertos would have been.. We held just fine with our oversized 45lb CQR anchor, and in the morning we moved much closer to the beach and anchored in just over 20 feet of water.

The next morning we listened to the Chubasco Net (a HAM net that covers Baja and the West Coast of Mexico) and heard that a Norther was coming through. A Norther is a weather pattern that forms in the Northern Sea of Cortez and blows down the Sea, building up to gale force winds and very short steep seas. These Northers are influenced by the weather patterns in the Southwest US and are often heralded by the occurrence of Santa Anas in Southern California. Northers blow down the Sea of Cortez in the fall and winter and depending on the year can happen very infrequently to almost weekly.

Since we are officially cruising with no schedule, we and the rest of the boats in Los Frailes decided it was a perfectly good bay and we'd enjoy it until the Norther blew through and everyone could proceed to La Paz or Mazatlan. A number of boats head North to Los Frailes from Cabo before heading to the mainland as it makes a shorter crossing.

There were over twenty boats in Los Frailes, which is a nearly deserted bay. There was a small palapa hotel, a fish camp, and a few RV'ers from the US and Canada.

Los Frailes with the self-dubbed 'Frailes Fleet' who waited out the Norther

Our second anchor spot, near the dinghy landing in Los Frailes

We didn't blow up our dinghy, as we thought we would only be spending a night or two in Los Frailes. After we moved the boat, we got a call from Jan and Signe on Raven, who were heading to shore to explore and wanted to know if we wanted a ride. We joined them and walked the long white sand beach. The beach was lined with pangas, fishing huts, and a small herd of rather large horned cattle. Here as we saw on the outside of Baja, the Mexican fisherman fish from their pangas and live in 'fish camps' which can be anything from a hammock, to a sleeping bag to a crudely built hut. They live in the fish camps for a period of time, and then return to their homes and families usually in one of the nearby towns. At Los Frailes, refrigerated trucks visit the bay to pick up the fish and take it to San Jose del Cabo or La Paz.

We met and chatted to a Canadian couple who for the last ten years, spend all winter in Baja in their RV. As we neared the Southern end of the bay, what had looked like a modest palapa hotel, started to look quite nice, so we decided to explore further and maybe grab some lunch. The hotel ended up being wonderful, and hardly a bargain at over $200 -US dollars per night. The hotel was beautiful with private bungalows covered in bougainvillea, had elaborate carved doors and colorful tile. We had an excellent lunch of fresh fish and cervezas. We sat and enjoyed the peace of this remote bay, a refreshing change from the tourist Mecca of Cabo only 46 miles to the South.

We headed back to the boat in cool weather, and hunkered down to watch movies for the rest of the day. The next day, the weather forecast had not improved as the Norther was predicted to continue through the following Monday. A few of the boats that tried to leave were turned back by headwinds and building steep seas. Other boats continued to take refuge in Los Frailes; we even were joined one night by a group of fishing boats.

With the wind howling at around 20 knots in the anchorage, we spent another day comfortably below, I made lasagna and Ken baked cookies, the aroma of which wafted through the crowded anchorage and brought a few dinghies whose grown occupants where looking for treats.

Jan and Signe continued to kindly shuttle us to shore periodically when we started to get a little cabin, or I suppose boat fever. The four of us did some of the best snorkeling we've seen so far in Mexico. The visibility was 30-50 feet, but was somewhat limited by the masses of schooling fish more than by breaking waves. Jan and Signe, with the help of Keith and Kelly on Scalawag, organized a Frailes Fleet potluck onboard Raven. It was great to get to know some of our fellow Baja Ha Ha'ers.

Raven left Monday afternoon for Mazatlan, and we hoped to catch up with them on the mainland. Most of the fleet, including us, decided to wait until Tuesday morning, November 21, hoping the seas would have further settled down. We left very early on Tuesday morning, while it was still dark, to make the 47 mile trip North to Los Muertos. It has been an adjustment for us coming from the Northwest, where we're used to summer cruising with 16 hours or more of daylight. In Seattle, a 47 mile day would be a piece of cake in the summer, here as we move South and the days are at most 12 hours, we have to be careful to plan accordingly to ensure daylight arrivals into new anchorages.

We sailed and motored North to Los Muertos on a hot and beautifully sunny day. We arrived just as the sun was setting. The bay looked lovely, but with another Norther predicted in a few days, we decided we should press on to La Paz and forsake enjoying Los Muertos.

The following day, November 22, we set off again at dawn for the final 50 or so miles to La Paz. We had very calm weather and motored the entire way. We had more favorable current and flat seas so were making surprisingly good time. The route to La Paz takes you inside the beginning of the islands of the Sea of Cortez. We continued North and by noon turned West to go through a channel between the mainland and Isla Espiritu Santu and the mainland and South toward La Paz.

Following Scalawag, a Transpac 49, on the way to La Paz

We followed Scalawag toward La Paz through the long dredged channel that leads to the protected bay in La Paz. There are several good marinas in La Paz including Marina Palmira and Marina de La Paz. Marina de La Paz is run by a woman named Mary Shroyer and her husband Mac, who in the 1960's came to Mexico with a number of other hippies and ended up revolutionizing the local pangas by building them out of fiberglass rather than wood. Mary and her husband settled in La Paz, the capital of the state of Baja California Sur, raised a son who is a senior official in the Mexican government in Mexico City. However, most relevant for us, Mary is the local den mother for all wayward cruisers who make La Paz their temporary, seasonal, or permanent home.

There is rather large US expat community in La Paz all which seem to consider themselves cruisers even if they haven't owned a boat in years.

There are also a number of excellent anchorages in La Paz. There is a virtual marina - an interesting concept. It is a rather tightly packed anchorage, where you pay a fee, but have access to showers, a pool, etc. We opted for another anchorage across the channel in an area called El Mogote. El Mogote is technically an island, but is really more like a large sand spit that wraps around the bay at La Paz. We dropped the hook, which set immediately (like it was in concrete) at about 1500 and started cleaning up the boat for our week or so stay in La Paz. We were next to Scalawag and a number of other familiar boats from the Ha Ha. We blew up the dinghy and motored the rather long trip across the channel to Marina de La Paz to dump garbage and get the lay of the land.

We joined Kelly and Keith and their boys Kris and Kyle (8 & 10) for dinner and a great ice cream at the polka-dot tree ice cream. I really don't know if that's what it's called, but there's a big tree painted with polka-dots outside and it's a must-stop for ice cream.

The Marina de La Paz really is wonderful set up for cruisers. For a 10 peso/day dinghy dock fee, you can dump your garbage and used oil, drop off your propane tanks to be filled, use the coin laundry and be at the location of 'Club Cruseros' (cruisers club.) The Club has a book swap and mail room. They hold mail for cruisers and have a mail drop for mail going to the States, or to other ports in Mexico, and whenever a boat or crew leave they often offer to deliver mail. This may seem odd for those of us in the US, but sending your mail with other cruisers is often faster and more reliable than the Mexican post office. The marina also has a restaurant called The Dock where cruisers and locals hang out, and as it is across the parking lot from the laundry it's rather nice to enjoy a cerveza or margarita while doing laundry.

There is also a morning cruisers VHF net. This was our first experience with this wonderful concept, although we have since found these to be quite common in the larger ports in Mexico. There is a rotating net controller, with check ins for new boats, departures, local assistance, mail call, weather and tides, swaps and trades (often items for sale, but as you can't sell things in Mexico the common phrase is trade for another item or a few coconuts), and any other questions you might have. It really makes coming into a new foreign port very easy, you turn on the net and get all the info you need as a boater.

The next day Ken and Keith headed into town to check in and I went to work on a thorough boat cleaning. The check in process was painless, and much less expensive than the agent we used in Cabo. It is a healthy walk from Immigration to the Port Captain's office and both are required stops for any check-in or check-out.

We enjoyed the El Mogote anchorage and stayed there comfortably for a week. However, the first full day on the boat while Ken was ashore I was introduced to the famed La Paz Waltz. The circumstances that create this interesting phenomenon deserve explanation. Since we've entered the Sea of Cortez, we have had to again contend with stronger currents and tides. Something we were very familiar with in Seattle, but not something we'd had to worry much about since we got to central California. In La Paz, the prevailing Northeastern winds blow during the day, but these shift around to offshore Eastern winds each night called Corumels. These are nice cool evening breezes but the daily 180 degree shifting winds combined with the tides and resulting strong currents 4 times a day generate what is called the La Paz Waltz. When the wind and current are heading the same direction all of the boats are set strongly against their anchors and all facing the same direction. However, when the current shifts and the wind does not, all of the boats start swinging in different directions until the wind and current catch up to one another and are again in synch. This makes for a few edgy moments the first day at anchor until you've survived the first current change and realize you won't go crashing into your neighbor. It did make for a most interesting spectator sport with VHF commentary when the monohulls and catamarans anchored well in front of us all started to swing wildly differently due to their different hulls!

We celebrated Thanksgiving by having pumpkin pie aboard Scalawag with Keith and Kelly and the boys. For the next week, we explored La Paz and enjoyed the laid-back town which is larger than Cabo but much more relaxed. The days were hot and dry, but the nights were actually quite cool. Ken explored the local marine stores which are not quite like West Marine, but are some the best in Mexico. We caught up with Wendy and Garth on Velella and got to know Paul and Suzette on Altair, a Cal 35. Paul and Suzette were also in the Ha Ha and from Seattle. They have been friends with Wendy and Garth for some time, and are also heading to the South Pacific in March. Both Velella and Altair are going through the Galapagos, but we hope we will again have the opportunity to cruise with them in the South Pacific.

I explored the CCC Supermercado, which is like a giant Fred Meyer and a treat after the available shopping in Cabo. In La Paz, we were also introduced to the saying "Cruising is fixing your boat in exotic locations." Our propane sensor, which 'sniffs' for propane leaks and if found shuts down the propane lead to the stove, went on the fritz. There was no propane leak, but regardless about two minutes into cooking the alarm would sound, and the system would shut off the propane. Ken started the ultimately successful scavenger hunt for parts while I worked on varnish, which was already showing signs of wear in the hot weather and extremely salty conditions in the Sea of Cortez.

We enjoyed some laid back socializing with other cruisers including a eighth birthday beach party for Kris on Scalawag and we hosted a quesadilla and wine night with Wendy and Garth.

Wendy and Garth enjoying our somewhat exuberant wine night on Felicity

After about a week in La Paz and with good weather forecasted, we decided if we were going to get up to the islands North of La Paz we had better get started. The weather turns quite cold, quite quickly in the Sea and we also had the self-imposed deadline of being in Zihuatanejo for Christmas.

Thursday, November 30, we left La Paz for the Islands, although we did get a rather late start as Ken had to finish up at the Port Captain's office - we'd missed the closing time by five minutes the day before, and we had to stop at Marina Palmira for fuel.

We finally headed out the channel at about noon, and motorsailed into a fresh North wind toward the two islands North of La Paz, Islas Espiritu Santo and Partida. Isla Espiritu is the larger and Southern of the two. The two islands were once one land mass, but a volcanic crater which formed between them subsided and was filled by the sea that now separates them. This narrow pass between the islands with a sand shoal almost enclosing the gap on the Eastern side is actually a large anchorage called Caleta Partida and our first planned stop.

Approaching Caleta Partida

We arrived just before sunset in the anchorage and enjoyed a quiet dinner. We had only a short 20-mile hop to our next planned stop on Isla San Francisco, so we had a relaxed morning enjoying the scenery.

Sunrise at Caleta Partida

Anchorage at Caleta Partida

Fish camp at Caleta Partida

By mid-morning, December 1, we had a lovely warm, though light air, sail to Isla San Francisco. A deserted island with a huge sand beach and clear water.

Isla San Francisco and the larger island to the North form a channel with the mainland. As we neared this channel, the seas got rather short and steep and we had to motor through it to make it to the island in daylight.

Approaching the bay at Isla San Francisco

Sailboats anchored in Isla San Francisco

Narrow sand isthmus separating the two rocky ends of Isla San Francisco

We pulled into the large half moon bay in Isla San Francisco with about five other sailboats and were pleasantly surprised to see Scalawag and Altair there. We were greeted by Kelly and Suzette who had made rum punch and were headed toward the beach. We joined the crews of Scalawag and Altair for potluck appetizers and rum punch on the beach until sunset.

Sunset reflects on the striated mountains on the mainland across from Isla San Francisco

Burying Kris on the beach (Clockwise: Kyle, Kris, Wendy, Paul, Suzette, & Kelly)

The next day, I unfortunately came down with a rather bad cold. This pretty much killed our plans to head farther North, although I did enjoy the luxury of laying around in bed until I felt better. Something I never was able to do while working. I holed up in the boat with movies, books, tea and Nyquil while Ken, who escaped the nasty Mexican bug hung out with Scalawag, Altair and later Velella who also joined us in Isla San Francisco. Ken enjoyed snorkeling along the cliff and a hike to the top of the island's ridge and to the other side of the sandy isthmus.

Large half moon bay of Isla San Francisco

South end of Isla San Francisco

View from hiking onto the rocky ridge of Isla San Francisco

Kelly, Wendy, Garth, Suzette, Keith and Paul (right to left) hiking on Isla San Francisco

The intrepid hikers continue

Hiking the ridge along the Southern end of the island

Kyle, Garth, and Ken made it to top!

We ended spending about five days in Isla San Francisco. We regretted missing more of the Sea of Cortez, but warmer weather and Zihuatanejo were on our minds, so on November 7 we pulled anchor and returned to La Paz. Much of the time we spent in Isla San Francisco was dominated by quite strong Northern winds, blowing up to 25 knots in the anchorage. We had thought this would provide a fast and fun downwind sail back to La Paz. We discovered, however that this wind was localized, and when we left the bay, we had flat calm seas, and almost no wind. We ended up motoring all the way to La Paz, but did make good time. We arrived in La Paz in the early afternoon with enough time to pick up fuel Marina Palmira for our upcoming trip across the Sea of Cortez.

We again dropped anchor in El Mogote and headed into The Dock for dinner and some laundry. We were pleasantly surprised to see Pretty Penny tied up at the marina as we hadn't seen them since Catalina Island, CA.

We had dinner with Bob and Penny and Paul and Suzette. The next day I did a final provision at CCC and Ken checked us in and out of La Paz bound for Puerto Vallarta (PV) and ultimately for Zihuatanejo about an 800 mile trip. We and Altair both left La Paz the next day, Saturday December 9. The weather had predicted a Norther blowing through on Sunday. It is recommended that boats use the wind at the beginning of a Norther (before the seas build) to help them across the Sea. When you start to reach the Eastern side of the Sea the mainland starts to turn Eastward and the winds become light and variable. We motorsailed North into a fresh Northern wind and turned toward the Northeast through the pass South of Isla Espiritu. We were hoping for a nice beam turning to broad reach as we turned Southeast toward PV.

Unfortunately, by sunset our wind had died, and as the Norther ended up being another day and 1/2 away we motored the almost 400 miles across the Sea of Cortez which was as calm as glass. We were, however, still treated to some beautiful sunsets.

Sunset at Sea

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