Beautiful but remote, the Mexican peninsula of Baja was often overlooked as a cruising destination, attracting mostly adventurous travelers and sportfishermen. But a recent trip has shown us that the region has become increasingly well suited to cruising yachts and luxury travelers, without losing any of its natural charm or its wilder side.
Story and photos Shaw McCutcheon
Pacific coast sportfishermen and adventurous cruising yachtsmen have long been aware of the Baja California peninsula’s nautical riches. This 1,000-mile-long finger of parched, khaki-colored land stretches south from the California border and the Sea of Cortez, a rich body of water separating it from mainland Mexico. Its remote location, lack of services and a disinterested government kept Baja off the list of favored cruising destinations for years, but much is changing. The G-20 economic summit held in Los Cabos, on the southern tip of Baja in June 2012, sparked a furious spurt of construction and landscaping. A prohibitive yacht tax has virtually been eliminated, making it easy for visiting yachts to enter the country; and a number of full-service marinas and repair facilities—some associated with high-end resorts—have sprouted up to service major yachts. Fortunately, the violence associated with drug trafficking that has affected other parts of Mexico has spared Baja.
The availability of good marinas and service facilities is crucial to any cruising grounds, and we came away impressed with several new and improved marinas along the southern Baja coast. Each has its own personality, ranging from an urban-style public facility in the center of Cabo San Lucas at the extreme southern tip of Baja to the placid, insular marina at Puerto Los Cabos, a gated residential golf community. Somewhere in between these two types is the resort-style marina at CostaBaja, farther up the eastern coast.
With a population of nearly 70,000, Cabo San Lucas is the peninsula’s largest city. The town developed around a natural basin that now houses a 380-slip marina, currently Baja’s largest marina. A wide promenade, lined with outdoor restaurants, tony shops and even a small shopping center, surrounds the marina, which welcomes yachts up to 375 feet. Its fuel dock is equipped with a high-speed pump delivering quality-controlled fuel, and its desalinization plant supplies the entire facility with up to 40,000 gallons of potable water a day. A fleet of more than 100 charter vessels is available for fishing. Until IGY Marinas, a global marina management company, took over the management fours years ago, the marina had a reputation for being very expensive. “We never were (the most expensive),” says Darren Carey, a British import who now runs the marina. “But there was a cachet to be in Cabo San Lucas,” and the prices reflected that. Carey says that under IGY management, the slip rates have dropped dramatically. “IGY is all about client service, providing a great experience and a great location, at the right price.”
About 22 miles up the eastern coast from Cabo San Lucas is Puerto Los Cabos. The sprawling development features dozens of high-end hillside homes, a superlative golf course, half designed by Greg Norman and half by Jack Nicklaus (more holes are on the way), and a 194-slip marina. Enrique Fernandez, the young, engaging marina manager gave us a tour. Sportfishing yachts, many owned by Americans, filled several finger docks. A half-dozen or so trained dolphins played in pens. At the opposite end of the marina, a 150-ton Travelift (the largest in southern Baja) dominated the repair yard. Expansion plans call for an increase to 400 slips, the addition of a commercial district and a marina hotel, a bigger fuel dock and an increase in shorepower capacity for yachts up to 200 feet long. As we sat in the small outdoor restaurant overlooking the marina, Fernandez described how a chance encounter with a high-ranking Mexican official, years ago, helped change the yachting scene in Baja virtually overnight. Until 1988, visiting yachtsmen had to post a bond equal to 150 percent of their vessel value, and marina managers were responsible for seeing that the yachts paid that bond. Fernandez, who was then running the marina at Cabo San Lucas, welcomed a group of friends seeking a day sail. He noticed one of men seemed to know the tax law particularly well and decided to invite him to go sailing. He soon discovered the man was a minister of the treasury and Fernandez, while sailing, told the official the existing law was killing yachting in Mexico and lobbied for change. Today, yachts are considered “temporary imports” for up to 10 years and only have to pay a small feel for a permit.
The third marina on our tour, CostaBaja, is a classic high-end resort located in a protected hook of land a few minutes’ drive from La Paz, 100 miles up the coast from Puerto Los Cabos. The 250-slip marina is a full-service facility for yachts up to 200 feet. Many of the slips even have their own pump-out stations. A five-star hotel overlooks the slips, and shops, restaurants and apartments are located all around. The hotel spa is first-rate, and golfers will love the just-opened 18-hole course designed by Gary Player. It was recently rated Mexico’s seventh best by a national golf magazine. The paspalum turf is immaculately maintained and blemish-free. But don’t hit a ball wide or it will likely land next to a cactus
Mexico has a love affair with cacti. Baja appears to be littered with millions of these thorny, untouchable bushes, yet they are protected. When developers want to move some earth—as did CostaBaja when it built the golf course—the law requires them to transplant all the cacti that are in their path. The ultimate tribute to the cactus may be the six-hectare sculpted garden close to the marina at Puerto Los Cabos. It contains hundreds of varieties of the plant, all lovingly tended to by Josef Schrott, a transplant from Austria who calls himself the king of the yellow golden barrel cactus, one of the most common varieties.
Around Cabo San Lucas and the extreme southern tip of the peninsula, fishing is the primary activity. Game fishing is superlative where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez, and some of the world’s biggest tournaments are held here. As one heads north, past Puerto Los Cabos and up to La Paz, it’s a different story. A great variety of bays and islands make cruising more interesting. The area also features a plethora of marine life.
Wanting to sample the cruising opportunities off La Paz, we hooked up with Scott Carnahan, a pony-tailed American from Chicago and a dive instructor turned charter-boat captain. “The good thing about the Sea of Cortez is that on any given day you can see anything. You can see orcas here, sea lions, humpback whales…” We cruised north out of the CostaBaja marina and headed toward Isla Espiritu Santo, a barren, mountainous island with nearly a dozen pristine, vacant bays with long sandy beaches—perfect anchorages for chartering. A hundred yards away, a dozen or so dolphins played on the surface of the calm sea. A half-hour later, manta rays leaped into the air, flapping their fins like wings before crashing back down. We finally came to a rock outcropping, which was noisy with barking sea lions sunning themselves on the rock and swimming around snorkeling tourists. Finally, punctuating the four-hour cruise, a humpback whale and her calf appeared just off our boat’s bow. It was, Carnahan said later, a slow day for marine life in the Sea of Cortez.
Afterward we sat down with Dan Anderson, who runs Centinela IV, a 137-foot Feadship based in CostaBaja, to get his captain’s perspective on the Sea of Cortez. Anderson is a real fan. Maintaining the yacht is easy, he says: The local machinists and craftsmen can produce most parts better, cheaper and faster than it would be to order them from the United States. Locally machined parts he’s used in his engines have lasted thousands of hours. If he needs to get dry-docked, there’s a marina in Ensenada to the north with an enormous Syncrolift. But it’s Baja’s history and extraordinary marine life that excites him the most. “There are hardly any foreigners here,” he said, his voice rising enthusiastically. “You go out to the islands and you can have anchorages to yourself, you don’t hear any other music, no other Jet Skis, boats…there’s good diving, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking.
“When I do trips in the wintertime we go up [the coast] and then we go in and see the missions and then we move to another bay. I have somebody pick us up and we go into caves and see cave paintings—9,000-year-old cave paintings. How cool is that?! Then you get back to the tender and you’re driving back to the boat and you see a bunch of whales on the way. This is like, ‘Cool! You can’t do that anywhere!’”
Warming to his narrative, he described an incident several years ago when he was cruising up the coast in a 19-foot yacht tender. In a bay, a huge pod of dolphin was chasing a swirling school of fish. As he drew closer, he saw a pod of killer whales approach. The whales organized themselves, two guarding the bay’s entrance while the others surrounded the dolphins in ever-tightening circles, until the circle got so small it just exploded and the killer whales started feeding on the dolphins. “We saw dolphins jumping out of the water and the killer whales taking them in the air!” For the next half hour the sea was a maelstrom of blood and foam until the whales, fully satiated, started to leave. Suddenly, a whale nosed up almost to the tender transom. The 40-foot animal leaped out of the water and over the stern of the boat, completely soaking Anderson and a passenger. The whale moved back to the stern and surged again over the vessel. He realized then that it was playing like a dolphin would play with a boat, having some fun after a good meal. “It was really wild.”
There are few places in the world where one can see such sights on a relatively regular basis. Now that Baja has acquired enough modern marinas, classy resorts with golf, spas, tennis and fine food to satisfy the most sophisticated travelers, one wonders when yachtsmen will wake up to the fact that the Sea of Cortez is becoming the best cruising ground on the Pacific Coast. It may be a long way from anywhere, but the trip is worth it. ■
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For more information on the resorts and marinas, please see:
Marina Cabo San Lucas: igy-cabosanlucas.com
Puerto Los Cabos: puertoloscabos.com
Marina CostaBaja: costabaja.com
Los Cabos International Airport (sjdloscabosairport.com) and La Paz have general aviation terminals. AMR COMBS/SACSA runs the FBO at Los Cabos.
Private planes also use Ensenada, San Felipe and Loreto airports.
Yacht Support Services:
C2C in San Diego provides support to superyachts in the area
Contact: Mark Drewelow, 619-630-4626 or visit c2csandiego.com
Temporary Import Permit (TIP):
Obtain this document in the first port of entry. It allows the boat to stay in Mexico for up to 10 years.
Explorer yacht SuRi:
Available for a limited time in the Sea of Cortez (to the end of September 2012).
Rate: $395,000 per week + expenses
Contact: 37South, email@example.com