SOUTH AMERICA

DISCOVER LA PAZ, MEXICO

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STORY BY RICHARD THIEL     //   

There are very few places left in the world that remain essentially as they were when they were discovered and yet are still accessible by boat. The one that comes immediately to mind is the Galapagos Islands, but of course they are off limits unless you have a hard-to-get cruising permit.

There is another area that is while not so famous is equally preserved and protected, offers an immense diversity of flora and fauna, is much larger and is available to any boat with the means to get there. It’s the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) and the Baja peninsula to its west, both of which remain much as they were when Francisco de Ulloa first explored them at the behest of the eponymous Hernando Cortez in 1539.

Cortez’s Sea, which separates the peninsula of Baja California from the Mexican mainland, is a natural cornucopia, home to some 900 varieties of fish and more than twice as many species of marine invertebrates. Simply, it is the richest body of water on the planet. A length of more than 700 miles, an area of 68,000 square miles, some 2,500 miles of coastline, and 37 islands, the majority of which are uninhabited parkland, make this a cruising area that you could explore for a lifetime. And in doing so you’d be mostly alone.

One major reason why the Sea is pristine is that the land around it is so sparsely populated: The western shore is devoid of cities and is home to just four small towns. Neither are there large cities on the mainland, the tourist hubs of Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta being well to the east and south. Indeed, the one city in the entire sea worthy of the designation is La Paz, a quaint, somnolent town redolent with the flavor of Old Mexico. It lies well south, on the eastern shore of a protected bay about 90 miles north of the southern tip of Baja and the frenetic, and decidedly more famous, settlement of Cabo San Lucas. Despite its siesta-like nature, La Paz has marinas, restaurants, clean and comfortable hotels and marine support services. For the lucky few who keep a boat here, La Paz is the ideal jumping-off point from which to explore the natural wonders of the Sea.

One of those lucky inhabitants is the owner of the Princess 32 Ohana, which is moored in Marine Costa Baja, a hurricane-proof facility carved out of solid rock and just a few miles north of the city center. Senor A (for security reasons he prefers not to reveal his last name) lives in Mexico City but spends most of his free time during what the locals term the prime Baja boating season, April through September, on his boat cruising the Gulf. (Norte Americanos fleeing the cold come to the Sea of Cortez in October through March, which is also when whales and other pelagic fish arrive to give birth to their young, but these months are too chilly for locals.) A lifelong owner of both powerboats and sailing yachts, he has explored most of the southern Gulf and parts of the north as well.

To say Senor A is an aficionado of the Gulf risks understatement: Last year he spent 75 nights aboard, virtually all of them away from the marina and all with his family. Ohana is Hawaiian for family, and it’s obvious that for this owner, boating is a family activity. Besides his wife, his seasoned crew includes daughters 24 and 23 and sons 19 and 17. Senior A says that despite Ohana’s modest length, the family is very comfortable aboard her, even on longer trips, although he does allow that as a concession to his children he felt compelled to upgrade the stereo and install a karaoke system.

Such amenities are considered necessities in an area where amenities ashore are nonexistent. The nearest fuel stop and marina for a boat of any size is Puerto Escondido, 115 miles from La Paz. Says Senor A, “Many times we will be out for 10 days without seeing a light on land, and because of the fuel situation we cruise slowly and often spend a lot of time in one anchorage.” Indeed, the Sea is not a place where you can readily raise a towing company or marine mechanic on the radio, and boat traffic can be so sparse it’s difficult to raise anyone on the VHF. Consequently, the prudent cruiser stocks his vessel carefully, with everything from spare parts to extra provisions. Given the desert-like conditions ashore a watermaker is a virtual necessity. “I’ve also strengthened my anchoring system, and I have backups for everything—VHR, sonar, radar, even two watermakers. You have to be prepared because you are on your own here. I even carry 180 bottles of wine aboard!”

Given the area’s abundant sea life, lunar landscapes, and isolated anchorages, veteran boaters here usually bring other equipment as well. The list of activities Senor A’s family indulges is akin to what you’d expect on a cruise ship: “We like to swim, scuba dive, fish, and kayak, and so our boat is equipped for all that, but we also tow a 27-foot center-console fishing boat. We have two paddleboats, two kayaks, and spearfishing equipment. We catch only what we can eat, which includes lobsters, clams and shellfish, but also sailfish and marlin. And our days on the water are long: We may start fishing at 7:00 in the morning and go for lobsters around midnight. All in all, we can generally catch enough that we don’t have to restock for 10 days.”

Even when you’re loaded down and cruising at modest, fuel-efficient speeds, 10 days can take you a long way on the Sea of Cortez. Isla Tiburon, about 300 miles north of La Paz, is at the extreme. The biggest island in Mexico, it has been a nature preserve since 1963, and is still inhabited by its original residents, the Seri Indians. As with many park-islands here, you must obtain a permit to go ashore but it’s easy to get and worth the trouble. The spearfishing on the east side of the islands is rumored to be among the best in the area. Farther south are Isla Carmen and Isla San Jose, also uninhabited and protected parkland. While only half the distance to La Paz, their anchorages are either deserted or occupied by just one or two boats even in high season.

The towns along the Baja coastline offer a different attraction. Although small, bucolic, and devoid of the nautical amenities common in La Paz, they are picturesque and unspoiled. Loreto, 125 miles north of La Paz and just west of Isla Carmen, is a frequent stop on Senor A’s itinerary. Unfortunately the town marina is suitable only for small boats, although there is an open anchorage for larger craft. This is a fairly common occurrence in Baja, which is why most cruisers carry some sort of tender. Loreto has good restaurants specializing in freshly caught seafood, but it closes up early. Senor A says he often anchors Ohana off the town because it’s so peaceful. “We’ve been there for eight days and not seen a single light at night. You don’t even know there’s a town ashore.”

But the beauty of the Sea of Cortez is that you don’t need to travel far to escape civilization. Just 20 miles north of La Paz lie Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, both national parks and separated by a passage so narrow that the two islands are all but one. The protected passage, Caleta Partida, is a favorite kayaking spot for Senor A’s family and also home to a small, peppery clam considered a local delicacy. Most of the islands’ many inlets have small beaches with good snorkeling just offshore, and their sand bottoms offer good holding ground. Yet, anyone planning on spending the night at anchor here or anywhere in the Sea must be cognizant of the winds. In the wintertime, they usually come out of the north, but spring and summer can bring a southwesterly nighttime wind called the coromuel that exposes otherwise protected anchorages. Isla Espiritu Santo also requires a permit for anchoring.

Just off the northern tip of Isla Partida is Los Islotes, home to a famous seal lion rookery. It’s a favorite cruising stop—day anchorage only—not only because here you can view the sea lions in their natural habitats, but also because you can get so close to them. “This is one of the amazing things about Baja and The Sea of Cortez,” says Senor A. “Not only can you see an incredible diversity of marine life, but you can get near them—actually swim with them—and not scuba or snorkel but actually swim in their groups! You can do this not only with sea lions, but also orcas and whale sharks. In this area we also have five types of whales and numerous types of sharks, plus all kinds of corals. Most of them are protected so they’ll always be there for everyone to enjoy.”

Being such avid boaters Senor A and his family do not restrict their boating to The Sea of Cortez. In the chilly winter months they take Ohana south to the warm resorts along the Mexico mainland, and they also regularly charter boats in the South of France, Italy, and the Greek islands. Yet for them nothing can compare with the Sea of Cortez. “We love to travel all over the world, but we always come back here. For boaters like us, this is truly heaven on earth.”

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