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
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
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
Los Frailes with the self-dubbed 'Frailes Fleet' who waited
out the Norther
Our second anchor spot, near the dinghy landing in Los
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
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
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
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
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
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
Sunset at Sea