Facilities for Cruisers 2004
[Submitted to SSCA Bulletin Sept. 2004]
Carina, with my husband Philip and I aboard, left San Diego and entered Mexico in November 2003 intending to round the tip of the Baja peninsula at Christmas and immediately enter and explore the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California). Winter northerly winds predominate in the Sea and they can be quite ferocious and blow for a week or more at a time, making difficult the trip north into the Sea during this time of the year. These conditions are reflected in the southward mainland migration of most of the cruising fleet and we eventually caved to this wisdom and postponed our exploration of the Sea of Cortez until March 2004 when we returned to the Baja peninsula from the mainland after having explored as far as Ipala, just south of Banderas Bay.
Few boats actually spend the entire summer season in the Sea of Cortez; we have counted approximately 38 this year but there are probably a few more that are cruising incognito by not checking into radio nets. That is very few for an area that is approximately 800 miles long and 150 miles wide and makes finding oneself alone in a gorgeous anchorage a common occurrence. The weather here has something to do with this paucity of cruisers: it’s hot, chubascos with up to 65 knot winds are not uncommon and one or two late-season hurricanes visit each year. Facilities for cruising boats are scattered widely throughout the Sea, though the extent and quality varies significantly. Our intent here is to provide an overview.
When crossing from the Baja to mainland Mexico or back, the preferred and shortest passage is between Mazatlan on the mainland and the anchorages at Los Frailes or Muertos on the Baja peninsula, weather depending. Mazatlan offers three marinas (all monitor VHF 16) tucked well into an estuary that is entered through a narrow, breakwater-protected, but often swell-engulfed entrance. (Note: charts do not show this channel, dictating use of guidebooks.) A dredge works six days per week mid-channel when operational and only two short periods of rest allow boats in and out between 8 am and 6 pm. Calling El Cid marina on VHF Channel 16 or moored boats on Channel 72 is advised before entering the narrow channel, especially for multihulls. Off season rates at all marinas are competitive but during the cruising season, Isla is the most modest, followed by Marina Mazatlan with El Cid costing you the dearest sum. For the truly budget minded there’s a dock within the estuary that is not connected to land called “Gilligan’s Island” that’ll put you back about $6 per day. The quality of facilities follows pricing, though all offer helpful, friendly staff and a veggie truck and a beer truck even visit marinas regularly. Mazatlan offers full provisioning services for cruising yachts; propane, fuel, bottled potable water (though we filtered, treated and refiltered marina water and found it fine), boat and sail repair and maintenance, canvas/upholstery fabrication, haul out facilities, garbage disposal, internet. Notable though is the dearth of general marine supplies; a limited redistributor near the marinas and an importer on the far northern end of town (two bus trips from the marinas) can both order supplies, though at a substantial mark-up and with a time delay. Shipping marine parts from the US may also be difficult and though stories of success and failure abound, many cruisers choose to refit in La Paz on the Baja side as the result. Provisioning is inexpensive in Mazatlan due to the large selection of supermercados including Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. Mazatlan offers a full service airport, comprehensive and inexpensive local and long distance bus service, immigration, port captain, customs, etc. The port captain has imposed an anchorage fee that is just below the cost of the least expensive slip in the estuary and insists on clearance through the marinas. Anchorage in the “old” harbor is therefore no longer preferred.
Cabo San Lucas is poorly prepared to support transient cruisers that migrate through. Facilities and services seem designed to support the luxury mega-yachts and sport fishers that are ubiquitous there. Transient slip rates in the marina were approximately $2.35 USD per foot PER DAY in 2003. Marina staff also showed no interest in providing information to cruisers who are not staying in the marina. The anchorage off the beach on an unstable sand shelf north of the inner harbor offers only marginal protection and dinghy landing involves traveling through the narrow entrance into the inner harbor made dangerous by a continuous stream of racing pangas, tour boats, jet skis, etc. It’s mayhem throughout the anchorage and especially in this passage. Panga water taxis are available from the anchorage into the inner harbor for a charge of $60 pesos (about $5.45 USD) one way, plus tip! Fuel is available at a dock in the marina but getting water and propane is problematic. We eventually did get water at the fuel dock (only after insisting) and found a ride out of town about 8 miles for propane. Supermercados abound including the ever-popular Costco warehouse and banks, including ATMs, are abundant and reliable. Cabo offers an airport (at San Jose Del Cabo), port captain, immigration, customs, API and many internet cafes. The anchorage fee charged by API that we paid for one week was approximately $6 USD.
North of Cabo San Lucas the anchorages at Los Frailes and Ensenada Muertos offer good protection from the north and some protection on their north faces for southerly winds. After passing through the San Lorenzo channel into Bahia de La Paz, there are many anchorages both on the mainland and in the islands of Partida and Espiritu Santo. La Paz is a cosmopolitan town that is the center of yachting in the Sea of Cortez. La Paz offers the best facilities, services and supplies for cruisers in the Sea, but has a history of hurricanes making it a less than favorable spot to store a boat for the summer season. Three marinas exist; Marina Palmira, Marina de La Paz and Marina Santa Cruz; another is under construction. All marinas monitor channel 16. Marina Palmira is a bit out of town but is protected by a breakwater; it has been reported that a breakwater is also under construction at Marina Santa Cruz. Up until this time Marina Santa Cruz has been known as the “virtual” marina offering only buoys and landing and some shore side facilities for a modest fee (ca. $3 per day). Marina de La Paz is right downtown and has completely renovated facilities that were damaged by Hurricane Marty in September 2003. Marina staff are friendly and helpful and there are two reasonably well stocked chandleries within a block of the gate and two others a few blocks further south and west. Anchored boats pay a modest fee at Marina de La Paz for dinghy landing, garbage and shower services. Fuel, propane, water, laundry, garbage disposal and paperwork services are offered at Marinas de La Paz and Palmira. Club Cruceros de La Paz has an office on the Marina de La Paz site and holds mail and packages securely for members ($10 per year per person to join). Direct Express, a small freight forwarding and expediting company, imports through a CA-based freight agent, making La Paz the easiest place in the Sea to get parts deliveries. Four boatyards operate in La Paz; two Abaroa yards, Berkowitz and Coastal Marine. Yards can haul even multihulls depending on beam. We used the “little” Abaroa yard (Alejandro Abaroa G.) for minor repairs to our epoxy bottom and bottom painting and were pleased with services rendered though the cost of the yard-provided bottom paint was a staggering $ 225 USD/gallon so if you have room to carry it, buy your paint before leaving the US and bring it with you. La Paz has an international airport, limited local but good long distance bus service, immigration, a port captain, customs and API; the latter agency charges a small anchoring fee under the aegis of “environmental impact”. There are at least three supermercados, an ISSTE government store and pharmacy, numerous internet cafes and banks with ATMs dispensing pesos or (rarely) dollars. La Paz cannot be properly described without a mention of La Fuente (also known as the polka dot tree) on the malecon where you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with locals and tourists trying to get some of their fabulous ice cream. (Try Limon Crema and you may never leave La Paz!)
North of La Paz, no facilities exist on the peninsula side of the Sea until you reach the Puerto Escondido/Loreto area, about 100 miles north. A few tiny pueblos, such as San Evaristo and Agua Verde, offer limited supplies of food only. Puerto Escondido is one of two true hurricane anchorages in the Sea of Cortez. In 2004 mooring buoys were installed throughout the anchorage and fees were reported to be forthcoming. Anchorage can still be had in many parts of the bay, though the stagnant water encourages lush growth on even the best painted hulls. Puerto Escondido is the site of an uncompleted development that in our opinion makes it a bit dreary despite its spectacular location beneath the Cerro Gigante mountain range. Recently this area was also struck by a devastating fire that destroyed the Tripui RV Park nearby. Well water access and garbage disposal are available for $20 pesos each (about $1.80 USD) and diesel fuel in significant quantity can be arranged. A small internet café offers dial up service only. Up the road approximately one mile is a small store called Willy’s offering provisions, laundry service and a taco stand. Taxis are available from Pt. Escondido to Loreto for more extensive provisioning (ca. $50) but we found that anchoring off the town of Loreto was preferable in settled weather.
Loreto is an immaculate town with a healthy economy centered on sport fishing, diving and other sports supported by the Loreto National Marine Park. A small breakwater-enclosed port for fishing pangas offers a dinghy dock, though wake from pangas can be hazardous. Loreto offers purified water (jerry jug), diesel, gasoline, garbage disposal, full provisioning including a small but well-stocked mercado plus an ISSTE government store and tiendas offering fruits, veggies, cheese and meat. Propane requires a taxi but we shared the $200 peso charge (about $18 USD) with another cruiser and negotiated stops for propane, fuel and water. A small airport supports limited jet service plus long-distance, first class buses run north and south. Offices for immigration and port captain are within walking distance of the waterfront. There are two banks, at least one ATM and three or four internet cafes. The islands of Danzante, Carmen and Coronados surround this area and offer many anchorages.
North of Loreto, Bahia Concepcion offers excellent protection but few services to cruising yachts. Many vessels anchor at Santispac and hitch a ride along the Baja highway to Mulege, approximately 12 miles north and 1 mile up a river. Taxis are pricey (ca. $40) but many opt for this for the return leg to facilitate carrying provisions. Open roadstead anchorage has been reported at the river’s mouth inside the bar but few if any boats we encountered tried this option. Fuel, laundry and limited provisions are offered.
Santa Rosalia is the next small city north that offers comprehensive supplies to cruising boats. The town was built by a French mining company in the late 1800s and offers unique wooden architecture, a historic hotel and an Eiffel-designed church. Some mining activity continues (reprocessing) and flecks of metallic dust settle on everything, including your boat. A large breakwater-protected basin supports limited ferry and cruise-boat traffic and a large number of pangas involved in the squid fishery. A 10 slip marina that was mostly destroyed in a hurricane and then neglected by its owners does, however, offer many services to yachts. Its manager, Ricardo, will arrange for propane, fuel, water, laundry, etc. to be delivered to the marina for boats in slips or anchored off. Ice, soft drinks and beer are available on the honor system. Water, electricity and garbage disposal are available for the remaining marina slips though panga traffic in the late night/early morning can make life aboard a bit lumpy. Long distance buses service the town making this the northernmost port on the Baja shore offering easy access for cruisers to the US via Tijuana. Customs, port captain and immigration offices are a short walk from the marina. Small tiendas provide provisions though the selection is limited and numerous stops are required; internet cafes are readily available and competitively priced. The ISSTE government store offers the best price for paper products, canned goods and alcohol. This is the most northern town in the Sea of Cortez that offers ATM service so it’s advisable to leave Santa Rosalia with sufficient cash to get you through the rest of the summer.
From Santa Rosalia, it is about 160 miles to the tiny frontier town of Bahia de Los Angeles (BLA). Upon approach to the bay from the south, land-locked Puerto Don Juan is passed. This is the second and final anchorage offering full protection in the event of a hurricane. Most boats cruising in the north Sea remain within 1 day of the refuge of Don Juan, especially during September and October when NE Pacific hurricanes have a greater likelihood of “recurving” and threatening the Sea of Cortez. Remaining in proximity to Don Juan dictates utilizing BLA for supplies. There are no marinas in BLA though rumors suggest one is planned despite local opposition. Anchorage can be taken in the bay right off the town but it is an open roadstead with only limited protection. Westerly winds called elephantes can blast down from the mountains into the bay, though holding is good. VHF radio serves as the local telephone with channel 16 filled with constant personal chatter (cruising yachts use channel 68 for hailing). Two tiendas offer satellite telephone service, three offer satellite internet connections and at least three small tiendas sell veggies and groceries. Laundry service can be arranged while garbage disposal requires using one of the barrels found scattered throughout the village. Filtered, purified water is readily available, though fuel is limited as there is no Pemex (Petroleum Mexico) station in town. Two separate entrepreneurs drive 125 miles to obtain fuel for resale though only one sells diesel . Obtaining propane is problematic because only one vendor supplies this and he utilizes a tank-exchange system. Cruisers with friends who have homes south of town have coordinated propane refills with a home delivery truck but this option is unavailable for most cruisers. There are no banks or ATMs in BLA though most vendors accept USD readily. There are no port captain, immigration or customs offices. A visit to the town’s small museum is highly recommended. BLA is approximately 50 miles to the central Baja highway and it’s nearly 400 miles to Tijuana; no bus service supports the town. Taxi service to the highway to pick up a bus can be arranged, though returning to BLA from the highway is problematic since the intersection in the road is rural and the north/south bus passes by before sunrise.
San Carlos, Sonora on the mainland side of the Sea is subjected to significant convection during the summer that originates in the Sierra Madre Mountains to its east. This results in a climate there that is more humid and rainy than other ports in the Sea. San Carlos is however only 8-10 hours from Tucson, Arizona by multilane highway and first class buses are available in nearby Guaymas, making it a favorite spot to put up a boat for a trip back to the US. An airport with international jet service is located in Guaymas about 20 miles from the marina. San Carlos offers two marinas, though Marina Real is approximately 2 miles out of town and personal transportation is highly advised especially during the hot summer months. Slips in Marina San Carlos are difficult to get and reservations are not accepted, though mooring buoys are generally available while waiting for an opening at the dock. A fuel dock is available for gasoline and diesel, though propane requires meeting a delivery truck at a small café near the marina. Paperwork services (e.g., port clearance) are provided by the marinas. An internet café is available in the marina with banks and ATMs and additional internet access nearby. Limited provisioning is available in San Carlos but bus service to Guaymas (approximately 5-7 miles) makes available large supermercados, ferreterias, etc. Filtered purified (jerry can) water is available though cruisers report that water taken at the fuel dock at Marina San Carlos was safe to drink when treated and filtered. A boatyard and dry storage facility, known as Marina Seca (dry marina) is part of Marina San Carlos and arrangements are made with marina staff. This facility hosts hundreds of boats and has recently been expanded. Boats are hauled at Marina San Carlos onto a travel trailer and driven ½ mile down the road to Marina Seca or placed on trucks for shipment back to the US. (This is a popular way to complete a cruise, as it is preferable to doing the “Baja Bash” upwind and north along the Baja to California.) Professional boatyard services including bottom painting, etc. are available and limited supplies can be arranged with the marina though there are two modest chandleries in the region.
Cruising Mexico requires a visa (free 180 days or six months visas are readily given) but for longer stays an FM3 is advised (120 USD). This is a non-tourist one year visa that importantly can be renewed without leaving the country. Most marinas will provide assistance in completing the paperwork for this visa and once documents are submitted visas are issued in about a week.
Each port region within Mexico is managed by a port captain and paperwork requirements vary by jurisdiction. We have learned to simply show up at the port captain’s office with our salida from the last port (after you’ve been through one port you have a salida), many copies of our crew list in Spanish (guidebooks provide a template) and our documents and ask for specifics. You may have to go to immigration and customs or not. We have also found that by having our captain, my husband Philip, present our boat card as a means of introduction and show of respect helps to get things done more easily. It has been reported for quite some time that these onerous check-in/ check-out procedures have been eliminated by the Mexican legislature though there is some technicality concerning review/approval that is delaying implementation. We’re not confident that these regulations will be eliminated before we leave Mexico.
Charts of the Sea of Cortez north of La Paz were developed in the late 1800s and in many instances are up to two miles off register with GPS data. Longitude errors are particularly egregious. Guidebooks and good radar are therefore important supplements to charts for safe piloting though many guidebook diagrams repeat lat/long data errors from the charts. The preferred guidebooks include those by Gerry Cunningham’s Cruising Charts ( www.gerrycruise.com ), available spiral-bound or on CD and supplemented by chart packs with detailed drawings of many anchorages, and the Baja Boater’s Guide by Jack Williams. Charlie’s Charts of Mexico (www.charliescharts.com) by Charles and Margo Wood and Mexico Boating Guide (www.mexicoboating.com) by Pat and John Rains offer limited, additional but important information.
Tides get larger as you move up the Sea with a maximum range up to 21 feet. Accuracy of tide charts and software programs vary widely though those by Cunningham (Cruising Charts), the British Admiralty and Cicese (developed in Mexico to support scientific research ) seem to be the most reliable. Secondary stations are few and current guides are non-existent, though currents can be 5+ knots in channels or at headlands.
Chubascos are a real threat due to significant convection cells that form in late afternoons and evenings and can propagate downdrafts that generate up to 60+ knot winds. Hurricanes are rare but are a real threat during September and October. Weather information is best obtained by listening to Summer Passage radio (Don Anderson, N6HG) who supports both the Mexico-focused morning Amigo and evening Bluewater SSB nets and the Baja California Maritime ham net (frequencies and times vary throughout the year). The Sonrisa (ham) net is an excellent source of local knowledge from other cruisers.
Much of the appeal of cruising in the Sea of Cortez is the interaction with locals who are generally warm and gracious, albeit of modest means. English is rarely spoken in the rural towns of the here so we strongly recommend that you buy yourself a copy of “Spanish for Cruisers” by Kathy Parsons (www.spanish4cruisers.com) before leaving the US and, most importantly, carry it and use it. You’ll be surprised how much the Mexican people appreciate your efforts to speak their language and how sharing your struggle with the language breaks down barriers and enriches your experience.
Detailed information on San Carlos provided by Liz Adams and Glenn Haddick of Serendipity; SSCA commodores Liz Johnson, KG6NQZ and David Osborne, KG6NQY of Isla Encanto; and Maria Abel and Earl Hopkins of Dos Brisas.