Each November, cruising boats start leaving California for “a winter of fun in the sun down Mexico way.” And having spent the summer and autumn on a leisurely passage down the West Coast on board Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458 sloop, my husband, Neil, and I were now in San Diego and ready to do the same. Not only that but after cruising for a few months in Mexico we planned to hop along the Central American coast to Costa Rica and Panama, where we would spend the summer cruising safely below the hurricane belt.
The west coast of Baja California is a rough and rugged out-of-the-way corner of Mexico that only yachtistas, fishermen and 4WD explorers get to visit. Unlike the eastern coast, where tourist development has restyled the cities to accommodate gringo tastes, there are no towns and few roads along the Pacific side. Many cruisers, therefore, choose to take the fastest route south, stopping at Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria, then pushing on for a last run down to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the peninsula.
As we found, though, there are a number of other anchorages where shelter can be found from the relentless Pacific swell. Not only that, but these unspoiled coves with their barren, rocky landscape and simple fishing villages are well worth taking the time to explore.
The first port of entry on Mexico’s west coast is Ensenada, 70 miles south of San Diego. It was early November and the days were getting shorter when we set out, so we planned to make an overnight passage to arrive there during daylight hours. At the same time, we were worried about sailing at night because of the many crab pots in the area—spotting the floats is tricky enough during the day, but almost impossible at night, and wrapping one around the propeller was a constant worry—so we compromised by leaving San Diego in the late afternoon, giving us time to navigate out to deeper water beyond the crab pots in daylight.
Casting off lines, we enjoyed a great beam reach under a clear sky right up until the wind veered and died just before sunrise. A few hours later we tied up at Baja Naval Marina, right in the center of Ensenada. It was a Sunday and the good people of the city were in a fiesta mood: families promenaded along the waterfront in their Sunday best clothes, restaurants overflowed with people and wandering bands crooned and strummed, their trumpets blaring out discordant brassy notes. It was a boisterous, jubilant welcome to Mexico.
Next day we completed the customs and immigration formalities and were grateful to the staff at Baja Naval for its help in preparing all the documentation. Mexico is renowned for its complex and sluggish bureaucracy. But Ensenada has a one-stop-shop with all the necessary offices in one building, which makes the process easy if not very quick. By noon we had cleared in with the port captain, had our TIP (Temporary Import Permit) and had purchased our fishing licenses, which are obligatory whether you plan to fish or not.
Strong northerly winds predominate in the Sea of Cortez at this time of year, but not much seems to get across the Baja Peninsula, and the wind on the Pacific side was patchy and unpredictable. While we waited for good weather to head down the coast we also saw the departure of the Baja 1000, a mini Paris-Dakar off-road race that crisscrosses the spine of the Baja Peninsula from Ensenada to La Paz. The town was throbbing with buggies, bikes, Beetles and customized race vehicles with huge tires, massive engines and mammoth suspension: it was like a scene out of a Mad Max movie.
Soon afterward, we left Ensenada on the first of a three-day run of 15 to 20-knot northwesterlies and had a beautiful sail to Isla Cedros, a dry and rocky island off the tip of Punta Eugenia. Once there, we anchored in the southern bay as the sun was setting, highlighting the rugged hills, and then set off again early the next morning for Bahia Tortugas (Turtle Bay): a beautiful circular cove about 20 miles to the southeast that is open to the southwest, but protected from the westerly swell by two rocky headlands, forming a haven of calm water like a duck pond. Several other cruising boats were in the anchorage when we arrived, but there was room for plenty more, and we dropped the pick about a quarter mile from the village. That done we took the dinghy to the beach where we met Pero who, for a small stipend, kept an eye on the dink while we had a look around.
The village has several shops, a couple of restaurants and a cantina on the beach where Wi-Fi, cold showers and colder beers are available. In all we spent three days there, stocking up on supplies and exploring. In the evenings, cruisers gathered at the cantina for sundowners and to chat about anchorages, the weather and anything and everything else sailors talk about.
From there, between Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria, there are several sandy bays nestled behind small hooks of land where it is possible to tuck away from the northwest swell, including Bahia Asuncion, where we found the water to be incredibly clear. We later discovered that harvesting abalone is one of the main sources of income for the community, so no discharge is allowed in the bay in order to maintain the clean water and preserve the high quality of the abalone.
Wandering along the beach, we watched the fishermen packing their catch into iceboxes and stacking lobster pots in their pangas ready for the next day’s work. Gulls squabbled over scraps, and scruffy kids chased tatty dogs between the boats. We enjoyed the simplicity and self-sufficiency of life in the village. That evening we feasted on chilli rellenos stuffed with prawns, crab, lobster and octopus. It was a delicious tribute to the outstanding seafood in the village.
Alas, but that it was here we also first fell foul to Mexico’s infamous beach surf landings. With the swell from the west, waves were breaking on the beach, which made getting the dinghy ashore quite an adventure. The key was to wait, figure out the pattern of the sets and then catch a wave before it broke and ride it in. All good. Unfortunately, when leaving the beach we were not paying attention, and two waves broke across the bow of the dinghy, flooding it. We eventually managed to get clear of the surf without being rolled, but it was still an expensive mistake, as it cost us a laptop and a phone.
We skipped San Hipolito, the next southbound anchorage is behind Punta Abreojos, a rocky headland scattered with reefs. It is wise to take heed of the name, which means “open your eyes,” and we gave the breakers there a wide berth. After that, we anchored about five miles east of the village where we were less exposed to the swell, but still had a rolly night.
Fishing for spiny lobster and abalone are the mainstays of the village at Punta Abreojos, although some tourists also pass through for the legendary surfing there or to visit nearby Laguna San Ignacio, which is frequented by pods of gray whales during the winter months. As we looked around and picked up a few provisions in the store, the people greeted us with a cheery “buena!” and seemed genuinely pleased to see us. These small friendly communities capture the spirit of the wild west coast of Baja at its best.
From there the wind was patchy for the overnight passage from Punta Abreojos to Bahia Santa Maria, and we had a mix of good sailing and drifting so slowly even the turtles were able to overtake us. On the morning of the second day, we were about 50 miles from the coast when a panga appeared from out of the blue and the crew came alongside to ask if we had any sugar, which we traded a for a yellowtail jack. They chugged off to enjoy a sweet cup of tea while we filled our freezer with fresh fish—a good deal!
Bahia Santa Maria is a large crescent-shaped bay that lies just south of Cabo San Lazaro. It is defined to the north and south by rocky islands and bounded to the east by a narrow strip of sand ridges that separates it from the huge lagoon of Bahia Magdalena behind. The bay is well protected from the swell, and we were happy to find our friends Justine and John on board Rhythm also anchored in the tranquil water at the northern end of the inlet.
There is no permanent settlement in Bahia Santa Maria. However, a dinghy ride up into the channels among the mangroves revealed a cluster of fishing shacks with brightly coloured pangas tied up nearby. From November to May itinerant fishermen stay in the bay to fish for tuna, jacks and dorado, which are prolific in the coastal waters. In such a remote and beautiful place it was a big surprise to find we had great Wi-Fi. If we’d also had a supply of freshwater and veggies, we would probably never have left!
From the southern end of Bahia Santa Maria, it is either a one-mile walk across the sandbar or a 25-mile sail to reach the small community at Man-o-War Cove in Bahia Magdalena. Strong tidal flows drain this enormous lagoon, so we made sure we rounded Punta Entrada and entered the bay on a flood tide for an easy ride up to the village.
The settlement of Puerto Magdalena at Man-o-War Cove boasts about a dozen houses, a restaurant and an abarrotes (grocery store) that sold candy, soap powder, phone cards and—luckily!—a few fresh vegetables. Surprisingly the village has a desalination plant, but (not surprisingly) it ceased to function years ago, so freshwater for the village is brought across the lagoon by boat from Puerto San Carlos on the “mainland.” Behind the village, we found a couple of paths that follow the dry, rock-strewn gulches up to the windswept crest of the peninsula. So we scrambled up to a stony peak and watched the sun going down into the vastness of the Pacific.
Several birds of prey make the arid rocky landscape of the Baja Peninsula their home, and we enjoyed watching a pair of ospreys building their nest on top of an electricity pole in the village. Although it was large and messy, made from sticks and twigs, bits of rope and plastic bags, they seemed very proud of it. Turkey vultures were also a common sight hanging around the garbage dump: large brutal-looking birds with chocolate-brown plumage, pink skinny heads and hooked white beaks.
Punta Belcher is a sandy spit lying about five miles south of Man-o-War Cove, where we dropped the pick on the south side and went ashore to explore the old whaling station there. During the 19th century, Bahia Magdalena was the center of the U.S. whaling industry on the Baja Pacific coast, and whaling continued there until the 1920s. A dilapidated wharf, some rusting tanks and a few giant bones on the beach are all that remain as a testament to the thousands of whales that were once slaughtered there.
There are no decent anchorages along the 170-mile stretch of coastline between Bahia Magdalena and Cabo San Lucas, which meant another overnight passage. As we departed Punta Belcher we checked the weather GRIBs and found that the forecast promised reasonable winds with a favorable south-setting current, at least for the first part of the journey. We, therefore, had some good sailing running goose-winged before a light northerly breeze and later a beam reach when the wind veered to the northeast. After that, we had some frustrating motoring sessions but finally rounded the famous granite arch at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. A deep east-west channel bisects Bahia San Lucas, and we dropped anchor with the other cruising yachts and pangas that crowd the narrow shelf to the north.
When John Steinbeck visited Cabo San Lucas on his exploration of the Sea of Cortez in 1940 there was just a tuna cannery and a few houses there—and so it remained until the 1970s, when the Mexican government decided to develop it for the low-end tourist market and gringos looking for a second home in the sun. Today the town is brash and brassy, with jet skis plaguing the anchorage throughout the day and party boats with throbbing lights and pumping music plaguing the night. Fishing is still one of the main draws to Cabo, and every morning at least 30 charter boats bristling with fishing rods leave the marina and can be seen trolling off the arches and sea stacks where the cape tumbles into the sea.
In total, we spent a month cruising down the west coast of Baja California. The journey gave us some great memories. We enjoyed meeting other cruisers in the well-known haunts of Turtle Bay and Santa Maria, but also relished the isolation and rugged beauty of magical spots like Isla Cedros and the crystal-clear waters of Bahia Ascuncion. The slow route to Cabo San Lucas is, indeed, a rewarding and unforgettable experience.