SLOW ROUTE TO CABO

THE LONG TREK FROM SAN DIEGO TO CABO SAN LU­CAS SHOULD BE SA­VORED, NOT RUSHED

SAIL - - Best Boats - BY SUZY CARMODY

EEach 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 in 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 quailty 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 sand bar 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 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. s

When you see these rock for­ma­tions (above) you know you’ve reached Cabo san Lu­cas; the au­thor (above right) sur­veys the Pa­cific from Bahia Mag­dalena

Mak­ing good time sail­ing wing-and-wing down the Mex­i­can coast

Where it all be­gins when head­ing south: Ense­nada

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