For those of you yearning for a warmer clime, we thought it might be useful to make some notes on our experiences in the Sea of Cortez and Central American coast on Betty Mc over the last few years. The Sea of Cortez in particular is a fabulous cruising area.
We left the stomping grounds of the WWBA in 2014 and headed down the coast of the USA in May We largely day-sailed with one or two longer runs. This coast really surprised us. It was far more interesting and the towns far more enjoyable than we had expected. Many small fishing ports with super-friendly locals and plenty of places to await better weather or stretch the legs. We avoided the LA area, staying out in the Channel Islands, then headed for San Diego.
We left Betty Mc at Chula Vista, a little south of the main San Diego marinas which are very pricey. Chula Vista was excellent and has easy access to downtown on public transport or bikes.
We left San Diego in November 2014, avoiding the BajaHaHa madness (this is a “rally” where many many boats head down the coast together – some love it but not our scene!). We checked into Mexico at Ensenada. This is an easy port of entry with all the paperwork offices within one building. Mexico allows you to “temporarily import” your vessel for 10 years. Many North Americans make use of this by basing their vessels in Mexican waters for several seasons and flying home. We heard many estimates of the total number of boats left and they were all in the thousands – though like many places, most do not move far, if at all.
The Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula can be day-sailed with one or two overnight runs. It’s well worth stopping frequently along this coast as it is quite different to the “inside” with some lovely fishing villages and few tourists.
Cabo San Lucas sits at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula. Its geographical setting is fabulous, but unless you are into 100s of resorts, it is only worth a brief stop. Nevertheless, flights in and out are very cheap so a handy place for some purposes. From here you turn the corner and head north into the Sea of Cortez or head across to mainland Mexico. Our interest was the Sea – initially we thought only one season but that was 3 seasons ago!
We loved the area, particularly the eastern side of the peninsula north of La Paz. There are 100s of excellent anchorages, most without villages or towns. Yet the latter are never far away if we needed a cheap meal, provisions or Spanish practice. The sea life is outstanding with paddling and snorkeling in warm waters and loads of hiking opportunities in the semi-desert hills and islands. For us it easily matched, and in many ways surpassed, our experiences in the central and western Pacific Islands.
In 2014 we left Betty Mc over Christmas in La Paz then spent until May working our way slowly north and across to San Carlos/Guaymas for the 2015 Hurricane season. Technically this is north of the hurricane zone so many go there for insurance purposes, although a couple of years ago a number of boats fell over on the hard due to very heavy rain washing away supports! There are several options to leave boats both on the hard and in the water around the Sea. Many hundreds of boats are left each year in La Paz, Mazatlan, Banderas Bay and Puerto Escondido, all within the hurricane zone. There are some who cruise all summer since there are a number of “hurricane holes” and forecasts are generally excellent. It’s a bit hot for us though and in any case we have been busy in the Arctic over summers lately.
In 2016 we basically retraced our trip, this time with family aboard, then crossed to the mainland coast to Mazatlan and the Banderas Bay/Puerto Vallarta to look for somewhere to park Betty Mc for another summer. To be honest, the much vaunted Banderas Bay area was not to our liking – very “gringo” and resort-filled, although the marinas are very good (if a little expensive). But just to the north is a local town called San Blas which has a “Fonatur” marina (run by the Mexican tourism agency). There are several of these marinas around the Sea of Cortez and they are generally much better priced than the others and, in this case, in a lovely smaller “genuine” town.
In 2017, for various reasons our cruising season was short. We travelled the Pacific Mexico coast down to the Guatamala border, stopping at Puerto Chiapas for the summer. For us, this coast was not as enjoyable as the Sea of Cortez, particularly once south of Zihautanaeo. It provides great access to interesting inland trips and the anchorages are OK, though always associated with a town of some sort. Somehow the remote desert feel, spectacular ranges, outstanding sea-life and myriad of sheltered anchorages of the Sea of Cortez were, for us, hard to beat.
Its a long way to go for just a season, especially since the trip back north needs to be carefully timed to minimize hassles with the prevailing NW winds, but if you feel like some warmer cruising for a couple of years………….give it some thought! You’re also then in a perfect position to keep going south towards the Panama Canal or even loop back to BC via Hawaii…..
Some things to bear in mind if you are thinking of heading south and leaving a boat over a season in the Baja area.
– flying in and out of resort areas like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Loreto is inexpensive from Canada.
– while food, eating out and labour are cheap (and excellent) in Mexico, marinas, antifouling paint and boat parts are much like home.
– Wooden boats don’t like the heat when not being regularly used. Betty Mc’s topside planks opened up the first time we left her and it took 2 weeks of spraying with salt water to make her sea-worthy again! Since then we have improved the sun covers to include skirts that protect the topsides, complete deck covers and, most importantly, set up a salt water spray system that operates 30 min twice a day to keep the hull moist. This is a 110v submersible pump on a timer connected to a “black polypipe” garden sprinkler hose suspended around the gunwhale, with sprayers every couple of feet. It has done the job well, provided someone occasionally checks the heads for blockage
– If you have a fibreglass or metal boat, the hard is generally a lot cheaper than being in the water. Boats do get very hot though, so some preparation is necessary (there’s plenty of advice around as to what to do).
– The main cruising season is from November to June. There tend to be periods of strong northerly winds, especially in December and January. We are always home in Australia for Christmas around that time but some people we met get turned off the Sea by being there during this period (especially yachts trying to get north). Our most enjoyable weather has been from February to May/June.
– There are two excellent guide books for the Sea of Cortez, one by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer (B&B) and the other by Pat Rains. Both are worth having. B&B is more user-friendly and accurate than Rains, though the latter is based on extensive experience in the area and covers some things that B&B do not. It also covers the whole Mexico coast whereas B&B produce a second volume for the Pacific Coast south of Mazatlan (again worth getting if you’re heading south).
– If it seems too far or too much hassle to take a boat down there, there are 100s of vessels for sale at VERY reasonable prices!
– Many people worry about security in Mexico. We have had no personal problems whatsoever in the Baja area and neither have any cruisers we met. There are reports of occasional theft of a dinghy or things lying around the deck in the large towns, but we have not had a problem. We lifted our dinghy overnight and did not venture out into dodgy areas of towns in the middle of the night, but we wouldn’t do that at home either! There is gang-related extortion and violence going on, particularly on the southern Pacific coast, but unless you are looking for trouble, it is not an issue for cruisers.
In 2018 we cruised down the Pacific coast of Central America as far as Costa Rica. We enjoyed this coast, though many of the anchorages are essentially roadsteads and can be a bit rolly. Inland sojourns were excellent, but many of the seaside towns (especially those with marinas) are quite “gringo” with large developments and very expensive moorage (up to US$5/ft/night!). This makes travelling inland difficult, since leaving a boat at anchor unattended is asking for problems with theft. For us this was quite limiting.
After much discussion and tossing around options, we decided to head back to the Pacific Northwest. We still want to get to Patagonia at some stage, but now is not the time for us. There was a freighter chartered by a boat transport company, heading to BC and stopping in Costa Rica. It fitted our timing and commitments in Australia well and meant Betty Mc would be back in BC in 2 weeks rather than several months, potentially against the prevailing weather. Decision made! While Betty Mc was enroute, we explored inland Costa Rica by road – a fabulous country for wildlife and local culture once away from the west coast.
So for the next season or two Betty Mc will be somewhere between BC and Alaska. One of our favourite areas and one that is so super friendly for old wooden boats! At some stage we’ll have to part with Betty Mc…….but not just yet……