– by Capt. Pat Rains
-Updated from Mexico Report in SEA Magazine
The CUBAR Odyssey arrives in the Sea of Cortez as winter cruising season begins in Mexico. Winter and spring are perfect seasons to make the “Circle Route” of the southern Sea of Cortez.
Why now? Water temperatures are just starting to warm up, bringing with them the hottest fishing and clearest diving. Later in the summer, most boats will be safely berthed near their favorite hurricane holes, keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts and venturing out only for 1- and 2-day voyages. But until then, a powerboat with 275-mile legs can certainly explore the nicest anchorages and resort ports, the best fishing and diving to be found around the southern end of the Sea of Cortez.
My “Circle Route” of the southern Sea of Cortez eats up about 590 nautical miles, so you’ll be glad to know that this route offers dozens of short hops and tranquil overnight anchorages at uninhabited islands and a few resort ports, balanced by five fuel stops and three overnight passages.
My circle route starts at La Paz, then gunk-holes northward on the Baja Peninsula to Puerto Escondido and Santa Rosalia, crosses over to San Carlos, then coasts down the mainland to Topolobampo, and jumps back over to La Paz. (If you’re planning to head farther down on the mainland, say to Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, you’ll keep coasting southeast after Topolobampo.)
La Paz is the best place to prepare for the Circle Route, because it’s the gateway to the Sea of Cortez. La Paz had five marinas: Marina CostaBaja, Marina Palmira, Marina Cortez, Marina de La Paz, Marina Singlar La Paz. It has several good chandlers and haul-out yards. Tune into the Cruisers’ Net on VHF 22 at 0800 Monday through Friday for the latest weather and local boating news. Club Cruceros welcomes newbies, lists local services.
In my humble opinion, this first 115 miles of the Circle Route to Puerto Escondido is the best cruising grounds in Mexico, and the next 120 miles to Santa Rosalia is next best. If your schedule is too limited, at least take time to savor this part of the Circle Route.
Our first overnight stop is at the Espiritu Santos Islands, only about 12 nautical miles from Marina CostaBaja in La Paz. See the satellite image of the Espiritu Santos Islands and side story. Among nine gorgeous coves along the west side, the most reliable anchoring shelter is found in Partida Cove: GPS approach 24°31.5’N, 110°24.0’W.
Partida Cove is good even if a westerly Corumuel wind should develop. For tranquil snorkel diving you can visit the reef in the middle of Caleta el Candeleros, where you can also dive the Garden of the Sea underwater sculpture garden. For expert scuba diving and sea lions, I’d head to Isla Los Islotes at the north end of this island chain.
It’s only 30 miles from Los Islotes to San Evaristo Bay, so at 20 miles out you may stop for lunch inside “The Hook” on Isla San Francisco. This leg transits the San Jose Channel which acts like a funnel for marine life. Keep the camera handy.
Evaristo is an overnight anchorage off a small village only recently linked to La Paz by gravel road. The most private spot to drop the hook is in the hill-lined North Cove, but if any south wind threatens, pick the south end of Evaristo’s main beach. Besides fishing, the Evaristeños raise goats and run a salt-evaporation pond that you can visit by hiking over or anchoring in the next beach cove north.
Back out in the San Jose Channel, vast colonies of giant Humboldt squid and docile manta rays funnel through this narrow channel (and the Craig Channel farther north), so expect a few pangas to be fishing with nets, and with lights at night. At daybreak, if you can buy a few fresh squid from the pangueros, cut the calamari (sheath part) into strips and grill them quickly, lightly. Like abalone, they toughen when overcooked.
Cat and Bull Cove lies 31.5 miles north on Baja and is mostly uninhabited. In the north end of this 2-lobed spot, spectacular sandstone formations and ledges that surround the anchorage range from pastel pink to oxblood red, providing good north-wind shelter. This lobe and the Arroyo el Gato were named by locals for a family of puma or wild cats that live not far up the canyon. In south wind, one shallow-draft boat could anchor behind the flat-topped reef shielding the Toro lobe in front of Bull Creek.
To reach Agua Verde Bay (20 n.m. north), you need to round Punta San Marcial either within half a mile off the tall rocky point, or at least 2.25 miles out – in order to avoid Roca San Marcial, an offshore reef patch that runs north-south. Also called Marcial Corners, this rocky-bottom turning point is great for cabrilla.
Agua Verde means the color turquoise in Spanish. This bay’s three anchoring areas are almost as beautifully turquoise as others we just visited, but the panguero village behind the center cove is friendly and picturesque; Lupita’s is a new restaurant. On the isolated north beach peninsula, cruisers at anchor hold so many rendezvous and pot lucks in front of the cinder-block hut that it’s been dubbed the Agua Verde Yacht Club.
Ready for civilization? Tie up and plug in to one of Marina Puerto Escondido’s 90 new full-service slips in front of the tall glass building. They also have 35 slips in a sheltered basin reached by a channel behind the boat yard. The Ellipse sometimes contains docks & slips too. Or grab one of 75 moorings in Puerto Escondido’s main bay. Come ashore for showers, lunch and laundry. Cruisers sometimes organize a Sunday brunch on the balcony.
The marina operates the 300′ floating Pemex fuel dock. Next to it is a haul out yard for repairs and dry storage. Mini mart groceries and Pepergina’s restaurant are in the marina, and nearby at Tripui RV resort a mile inland is another restaurant and pool. The historic mission town of Loreto is 15 miles north by taxi. This is a good place for guests to fly down and meet you.
Many Cubaristas are planning a Rendezvous here at Marina Puerto Escondido in March, 2020.
Forty miles up the Baja coast, as you enter San Juanico Bay look for the Spires, the Lump and Isla Tercera, which are statuesque islets dotting the north-end anchorage. A couple lovely homes overlook this pretty anchorage. San Juanico has long been known for its fossils, crystals and other geological wonders, but please take only photos, not souvenirs, or you’ll destroy this ancient treasure. Instead, why not tie a ribbon or ornament with your boat’s name onto the “Cruisers Memento Bush.”
In south wind, you can go north (2 n.m.) around Punta Basilio to anchor in lovely Ramada Cove.
One of the most relaxing side loops in the Southern Sea of Cortez is Bahia Concepcion – Conception Bay – pictured above. This “sea within a sea” is 21 miles long, only 2 to 4.5 miles wide, formed inside a hilly peninsula that’s virtually uninhabited. The shores of Bahia Concepcion are chocked full of interesting little anchoring coves, beaches and islands the size of small city blocks. The eastern shore is mostly lined by Highway 1, so you’ll see a few vacation villages and RV parks. Coyote Bay and Playa Santispac are somewhat “crowded” on holiday weekends. Hint: to avoid flies and land tourists, anchor in the coves with no beaches.
To break up the 90-mile leg to Santa Rosalia harbor, you could opt to anchor off the south side of Punta Chivato, 60 miles up from San Juanico. Upon entering the Chivato area, use caution to avoid Inez Reef, a detached submerged unlighted reef patch that lays 1.25 n.m. west-northwest of lighted Isla Santa Inez.
The stone-arch building you’ll see on the southernmost point of the Chivato headland was formerly a hotel, but their flight of steps from the low-tide dinghy beach has given access to the cluster of vacation homes and airstrips. Punta Chivato is good to keep in mind, because it has five decent anchorages for different wind directions.
En route to Santa Rosalia (30 n.m.), favor the south side of the very tidal Craig Channel below Isla San Marcos.
At Santa Rosalia, the man-made breakwater harbor opens to the south. The Fonatur Marina welcomes yatistas to this small commercial harbor half way up the Sea of Cortez (240 n.m. from La Paz). In the southwest corner hard to port as you enter, this marina has a floating Pemex fuel dock, 15 slips, a 3-story blue-glass building alongside the Guaymas ferry terminal and port captain’s office. When cruise ships anchor outside the harbor, their passenger shore boats land at the ferry terminal.
You can anchor anywhere inside Santa Rosalia harbor not blocking the Navy docks in the north end nor ferry traffic. But in the harbor’s northwest corner, avoid the ruins of an older marina (destroyed by hurricanes) and a sand shoal south of it off the town seawall.
In 1885 a French company El Bolero built Santa Rosalia to mine, smelt and export copper ore, gypsum and manganese from nearby mountains. Imported lumber built the workers homes and shops that still fill the downtown canyon. Many of the wooden buildings destroyed in the Christmas fire have been rebuilt. Gustav Eiffel (as in the tower) designed the town’s unique church. Santa Rosalia has enjoyed new tourism prosperity with the reopening of the old mines. Baja’s most remarkable cave paintings and petroglyphs dot the Sierra San Borjita; hire a local guide.
Crossing the Sea of Cortez from Santa Rosalia on Baja to San Carlos, Sonora, is a 75-mile passage east-northeast. On landfall, when you see the landmark peaks Tetakawi, Marina Real lies just to the north behind Playa Algadones, and Marina San Carlos lies just to the south inside Bahia San Carlos. Both marinas have fuel docks, and Marina Seca has separate repair and storage yards. San Carlos is a friendly sportfishing resort on the edge of Sonora Desert.
Fifteen miles south, the small commercial port of Guaymas (pronounced “WY-mas”) spreads around a spectacular bay with coves and islands that provide excellent shelter for five boat yards. The Singlar marina and fuel dock in the NW end were rebuilt from hurricane damage. Shrimp and Sonora beef are the prime exports; it’s not unusual to see real cowboys ride through town.
Similar to La Paz, “Topo” as it’s called, is a pleasant harbor sheltered by sand banks and hills, reached by an entrance channel. My GPS approach waypoint is 25°31.275’N, 109°12.490’W. The main channel is well buoyed into the harbor. Marina Topolobampo lies at the end of the NE secondary channel, but get directions from the marina or port captain on VHF 16.
Side trip? A safe berth in Topo is the best place to leave your boat while you take the 3- to 6-day Copper Canyon train excursion, which starts at nearby Los Mochis. Purchase tickets in advance: book port side of the train going up, starboard returning, for the best viewing. A stop at Topolobampo breaks up the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez into easy pieces. Doing the Copper Canyon is an even better reason to visit Topolobampo.
Puerto Altata on the east side of the Sea of Cortez has relatively new Marina Isla Cortes 15 miles up inside Bahia Altata. Make a slip reservation to take advantage of their pilot panga to guide you safely migrating through shoals into the bay and up to the marina.
Mazatlan is the more popular boating destination on the east side of the Sea of Cortez, offering seven well established marinas, four boat yards, ample yacht services, good provisioning. My GPS approach to the rip-rap lined entrance channel into Marina District is 23°6.247’N, 106°28.250’W. It’s not unusual for 250 U.S. boats to summer over inside this large enclosed basin, though it’s not really a hurricane hole.
In Mazatlan’s downtown Centro Historico (about 20 square blocks) visit Plazuela Machado for great eats in lovingly restored Victorian Italianate buildings, ballet, opera, strolling guitars, cool culture.
The crossing from Topo southwest back to La Paz is about 110 n.m. From Mazatlan, it’s about 235 n.m. northwest. On an overnight passage, I hope you’ll be thrilled by sparkling bioluminescence, by stars that appear within arm’s reach and a cruise ship arriving at dawn as well.
Marina CostaBaja is a welcome place to come home to. It’s home port to the CUBAR Odyssey. For details on this Circle Route and many more destinations, please check out “Mexico Boating Guide.”