Just 24 hours before our scheduled charter in the Bahamas, the government clamped down again on visitors from the United States. Having endured two Covid-19 brain swabs in preparation, I looked at my packed bag on the floor and reached for the rum. I could, at least, pretend I was in the islands.
The next morning, realizing rum alone had solved exactly nothing, I decided to pivot. “Where do I want to go that’s open?” Why Mexico, of course. One of my favorite land destinations, it was now calling with enticing sailing, good food and vibrant culture, and I wasn’t about to let it go to voicemail.
Dream Yacht Charter (DYC—dreamyachtcharter.com), which offers a combination of power and sailboats for hire in Mexico, is ideally situated in La Paz at the bottom of the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau once called the “Aquarium of the World.” Having previously sailed there in winter, I remember watching whales breaching for hours and pods of dolphins playing off the bow. Now, it was summertime, the temps were pushing triple digits, and the whales were up in Alaska getting fat. On the plus side, the place wasn’t going to be crowded, the sometimes brutal northerlies were turned 180 degrees, and there was plenty of aquamarine water to jump into any time I wanted. I wouldn’t have to unpack after all.
The flight to Cabo was full, but everyone behaved except for the woman next to me who pulled down her mask and then picked her nose before swiping through the movie selections on the touchscreen in front of her. I decided to just read my book.
Back on land, I organized a private car and driver to take my crew and me the three hours to La Paz and the DYC base at Marina Costa Baja. It’s a top-notch facility at the entrance to the Bay of La Paz, so in minutes you’re out and headed for the islands of Esperitu Santo and Partida, which in 1995 became part of the local UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The following morning, our Nautitech 46 Open was still being readied, so we took a taxi into town to walk the famous Malecon. La Paz is a neat place, much more charming than Cabo, a hub for cruisers who wind their way down from the United States and Canada and then get stuck there, in the Sea of Cortez eddy, for years. The boater mix is eclectic. You’ll see superyachts anchored next to 40-year-old classics, haute couture aficionados mingling with guys who generally sail naked.
We noticed two things immediately. First, that the Mexicans we met had Covid-19 seriously dialed in. Everyone wore a mask, your temp was taken before stepping inside every store, where you also got a mandatory squirt of hand sanitizer by a greeter. There was even a shoe wash in each entryway, which left you with wet shoes on slick tiles. But hey, Mexico isn’t as litigious as we are.
Second, we learned that the 20ft-wide Malecon was closed, even though the 6ft-wide sidewalk on the other side of the street was open. Go figure.
After that, we provisioned at a giant Chedraui grocery store, and the crew set about putting everything away while I ran through the tech checkout and chart briefing. That’s when I learned Esperitu Santo was also closed. Another charter skipper next to me was equally surprised. Our DYC checkout guy, Ernesto, was unfazed.
“Go to Isla San Francisco, then north and you’ll be fine,” he said. Presumably, although the beaches were technically all closed, only Esperitu Santo was being patrolled. Time to pivot again.
Finally, we cast off lines and went around the corner to Caleta Lobos, where we all immediately jumped in the water to cool off after a sweaty first day. The chromed latches of the engine room hatches were toasty enough to serve as great microwaves; we defrosted vegetables on them in minutes. That night, we enjoyed a show of rays jumping and pirouetting off the bow during cocktails on the foredeck.
You can’t really go north from La Paz without running into Esperitu Santo. And since there wasn’t much wind, we decided to circumnavigate the little area at the top known as Los Islotes, a sea lion rookery. Normally, there’d have been dozens of hotel pangas swinging on moorings there, not to mention crowds of snorkelers. But on this day, the only company we had was a pair of monster power yachts circling the weather-beaten, guano-covered rocks, ringing with the hoots and barks of crowds of pinnipeds. Having swum with them in the past, I can tell you the babies are curious and will nip at your fins as they play. The big males, on the other hand, tend to be protective of their harems and will rush you and blow bubbles to make sure you remember you’re only a guest there and by comparison, a poor swimmer.
From Los Islotes we picked up a light westerly breeze and motorsailed northward. Raising sails, the mainsail resisted mightily. I checked everything—reefing lines, toping lift, mainsheet, you name it—trying to figure out why it was such a struggle. Only after we finally got it all the way up did we notice the halyard turning block on the cabintop had disintegrated. The sun is harsh down here, and exposed hardware takes a beating. We solved the problem by using a bit of fishing line to messenger the halyard and restring it around the block for the third reef, which we figured we wouldn’t be needing anyway. It worked beautifully. That done, raising the main become a much more pleasant experience.
Arriving at the bay of Isla San Francisco, a postcard-perfect anchorage ringed with white sand, I was surprised to see a dozen boats. But since the anchorage can hold 10 times that many, it wasn’t even close to crowded. As we were anchoring, I noticed the chartplotter had us positioned on land. Hmmmm…
In a moment of madness, we decided to hike up the nearby ridge line for the view. But while short and not particularly strenuous, it was like hiking in a sauna, and we scurried back down soon afterward. Donning snorkeling gear, we found a huge school of angel fish flowing by in a long languid ribbon. On the swim back to the boat, we also found ourselves caught in the middle of one giant bait ball after another. It’s kind of terrifying looking up to see a pelican careening down out the sky and then come splashing down only a few feet away from you.
The next day proved a busy one, despite the relatively short distances we’d planned to cover, as it quickly became clear our chartplotter had gone walkabout. This in turn meant pulling out the paper charts and binoculars and coming into the various anchorages we wanted to explore at a snail’s pace. Our first stop was Isla Coyote, a bizarre fishing encampment on a large rock bordered by a reef to the north. With its population of about 12, this is where you go to live when the Baja peninsula itself gets too crowded for you. We anchored, jumped in the dinghy and headed for shore, where the cruising guide said they welcomed people for tours and cervezas. About 50 yards from the rocky beach, though, we were waived off by a guy in a mask. Covid rules: No visitors.
Our next stop was on the other side of the reef at the bottom of Isla San José at Bahia Amortajada. After anchoring we hunted around in the dinghy until we found the channel into the nearby lagoon. There must have been a dozen species of birds there, and with the exception the superyacht tender we saw, we had the place to ourselves. Waves were breaking over the lagoon’s southern shore, but inside, the water was glassy calm with a sea turtle meandering by every few minutes.
From there we headed for the bay at San Evaristo another seven miles up the peninsula. Suddenly, it was “fish on” as our shipmate Mervyn hooked a dorado. It put up quite a fight and even threw the hook. But by then we had it in the cockpit and were able to dose it with tequila to calm it down. It was just enough for a dinner of “kedgeree,” a recipe we’d found in the guide.
Anchoring in San Evaristo just before sundown, we put our Spanish-speaking shipmate, Monika, in the kayak and sent her ashore to ask if we could come for dinner at Lupe’s. It turned out Lupe was “out of town” (there are about five houses in San Evaristo), but we were welcome to come for a beer on the beach. We dinghied over wearing masks and found a cold Pacifico waiting on a table set up just for us. You can’t beat a happy hour like that!
Nights in the Sea of Cortez can’t be adequately described. The glassy water reflects so many stars you almost get vertigo as the sky blends with the water. Moonrises defy description and had there been any cell coverage, we’d have been busy for hours with stargazing apps. As it was, we remained completely out of touch the entire week, a real blessing. No Covid-19 case counts, no political bellyaching, no neighbors crazy-posting on NextDoor. The idea that there was no way to get any kind of real assistance for snafus like the chartplotter was even, in a way, comforting. Creativity, along with necessity are the dual mothers of invention. It felt good to be truly self-sufficient.
The following day, finding Los Gatos cove proved to be our greatest challenge. The breathtaking rock formations lining the Sea of Cortez are a geologist’s dream. However, they can also make it hard picking out landmarks. After a 20-mile passage, we anchored in what we thought was Los Gatos, a gorgeous anchorage with red rock formations and sand beaches. But after taking another closer look at the photos in the cruising guide, we realized we had passed Gatos two miles back, putting my dead reckoning off about 10 percent. We had, instead, found San Telmo, another unbelievable spot. Not being pressed for time, we explored both and enjoyed another calm night.
Our northernmost stop and turnaround point was Agua Verde, literally “green water,” a spot that lives up to its name and is often packed with cruising boats. Once again, though, we were almost alone. Approaching the anchorage, we picked our way carefully past two reefs, which added a bit of excitement due to our lack of chartplotter. After that, having run out of Pacifico, we dinghied ashore in search of a tienda. A local led us to a nearby store in the middle of a set of goat pens. The owner put on her mask and left lunch on the table in her backyard to open up for business. No beer or wine were available, so we bought a couple of avocados and went for a swim.
That night, our evening entertainment began around 1900 as dozens of pickup trucks pulled into the village and backed up with the trailers they were pulling to launch a small fleet of pangas. The men then went out to fish for the night, while the women and children had a beach party. Before heading out the next morning, I noticed our charterplotter was back, and the cartography was loading again. Why? Who knows! It had been kind of fun running around like Captain Cook, but I’ll take accuracy whenever I can get it.
Our run back to Espritu Santo was 75 miles, but we managed it nicely. The big cat was great and could move when we needed her to. Eventually, we pulled into Ensenada Grande on Partida around 1930 and dropped anchor in the northern lobe, because my now week-old forecast called for westerlies. We also had a nearby white sand beach all to ourselves. Mervyn, new to sailing, remarked on what amazingly calm nights we’d had. Of course, he had to say that.
Everything went well until about 2200 when the winds started gusting out of the south at 22 knots. This in turn left us on a lee shore in the pitch black with the waves hitting us on the bow and refracting off the sheer rock cliff astern. On a happier note, the anchor held and the stars were as dazzling as ever—as I can attest after having sat anchor watch the better part of that night.
Sleepy and cranky we weighed anchor early the following morning and motored south, poking our nose into the many striking coves lining Espritu Santo, a protected island and wildlife refuge both on land and in the water. In Las Cuevitas, there’s a rookery for blue-footed boobies, some of which we could see flying overhead. During mating season, the males do high kicks and show off their bright feet to impress the females. It’s the boobie equivalent of, “You wanna see my sports car?”
The weather was hot and still, as we snuck into the cove that divides Partida from Esperitu Santo. Two boats were heading out, but a third was still there, so we dropped anchor about 300 yards from shore to go for a quick swim. We weren’t even in the water, though, before the flashing lights of a patrol boat came up with two masked guards telling us the island was closed. We acted dumb, which probably didn’t seem like a stretch, and they let us go. Apparently, according to officialdom south of the border, Covid-19 was capable of swimming a quarter mile to an uninhabited shore. Our poor neighbor didn’t fare any better, as we noticed he was in the process of being boarded as we made our way back out into the channel.
Although we had our main up, there wasn’t a sneeze of a breeze. When I tied a fender to a line to trail behind us so people could go swimming, even the fender tucked itself up between the hulls as if to hide from the sun. During lunch, though, I felt just a nudge of air, and in no time we had a steady 20 knots to play with, and Mervyn was able to spend the afternoon learning about telltales and sail trim as we tacked back and forth.
With the wind still rising and the sun setting, we pulled into Balandra cove near La Paz. This is a gorgeous beach, beloved by the locals, but it too was closed despite the dozen or so yachts anchored there. This is also the home of El Hongo, the mushroom rock, an icon of La Paz beach life.
After fueling up on the way to the marina the next morning, we were welcomed back by Ernesto at the dock. He didn’t blink an eye at our encounter with the patrol boat, but was delighted to learn we had caught a fish, navigated without instruments, found a workaround to the mainsail and gotten as far north as Aqua Verde. “Que bueno!” he said. We couldn’t have agreed more! s
Cruising Tips: Mexico & Sea of Cortez
Chartering in the Sea of Cortez is unlike anywhere on earth. It isn’t tropical, but rather desert beauty you’ll encounter. The geology and sea life are unmatched, and its remote nature provides a respite from touristy bars and jaded locals. Chartering is available year round, but it can be blustery between December and February, and hot in August and September. Hurricane season is June through November, but Pacific hurricanes aren’t as frequent as those on the Atlantic, so just about any time is good. The area is full of cruisers, making it fun to mingle and swap stories. Although La Paz has an airport, Cabo San Lucas (SJD) offers more flights and better prices. From there you can take a bus or a private car north. On the way home, opt to stay in San Jose del Cabo. Not only is it more Mexican than Cabo, it’s closer to the airport.
Photo by Zuzana Prochazka