Cruisers are notorious for stocking their bookshelves to the max with books of all kinds, and Groovy has her share. During our cruise of the west coast of Mexico we found that some of our reference books and other resources were so valuable that they were basically “essential cruising gear.” Following are descriptions of resources we would recommend every cruiser headed to Mexico consider carrying on board:
There are four major cruising guides for the west coast of Mexico, and each is wonderful in its own way:
Mexico Boating Guide by Pat Rains
Charlie’s Charts – Western Coast of Mexico & Baja by Holly Scott et al.
Pacific Mexico: A Cruiser’s Guide by Sean Breeding & Heather Bansmer
Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guide by Sean Breeding & Heather Bansmer
In recent years, the Mexico cruising guide industry has become quite competitive, which is fantastic for today’s cruisers. Two of the guides have new editions for 2013. Pat Rains has released the third edition of her Mexico Boating Guide, and Charlie’s Charts has been revamped by Captain Holly Scott to include the work of its original authors and that of Sea of Cortez cruising guide author Gerry Cunningham as well.
In addition, Baja Bash II is a specialty guide for sailing the outside of Baja California between Cabo San Lucas and San Diego. Unlike the other guides that include chapters on Baja as part of an all-Mexico guide, this book focuses specifically on springtime northbound voyages.
If you buy only one guidebook, we recommend the new Mexico Boating Guide (3rd edition) by Pat Rains. It covers the entire western coast of Mexico and has all the data needed to cruise the entire region between the California/Mexico border and Mexico/Guatemala border with confidence.
However, our own preference in our cruise was to carry all of these cruising guides on board Groovy. In many cases, before approaching a new area, we read each guide book’s description, picking up different bits of wisdom from each author. It might seem like carrying all these guidebooks would be redundant or might get confusing, but we found that in each area one book or another shone above the rest, and we liked the reassurance of being able to get multiple opinions about the dangers and hazards, how much swell there might be in a given anchorage, where to shop, etc. We can think of examples for each guidebook where their description led us to an anchorage we were delighted to find — and would never have found if it weren’t for that book.
Mexico Boating Guide (3rd edition) by Pat Rains
This cruising guide is the most well-rounded cruising guide for western Mexico, and the new edition is better than ever, with more photos and more mini-charts and updated info everywhere.
The two areas where we relied on this guide most were at opposite ends of Mexico: the northernmost 800 miles during our initial cruise south from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas along the outside of Baja California and the southernmost 800 miles between Zihuatanejo and Puerto Chiapas (Puerto Madero) at Mexico’s Guatemala border.
Pat Rains describes hazards and approaches and their GPS coordinates extremely well, although the last edition had some errors in waypoints and descriptions of “east” versus “west” that I’m sure have been rectified. Unlike the guides by Sean Breeding and Heather Bansmer below, she gives few specific waypoints for exactly where to drop the hook in each anchorage. Instead, she offers traditional sighting methods like depths, landmarks and an anchor symbol on a mini-chart. This book is backed by the author’s decades of boat delivery experience on this coast, and we all become more confident at anchoring — and don’t need those exact anchorage waypoints quite as much — as we drop the hook in more and more places.
For cruisers heading south of Zihuatanejo, the Mexico Boating Guide is invaluable, because it has by far the most detailed information of any of the guidebooks for cruising the Bays of Huatulco, our favorite part of Mexico. It also gives detailed info for passages and anchorages along the extensive stretch of coast between Zihuatanejo and Puerto Chiapas (Puerto Madero) on the Guatemala border.
There is a revised chapter at the end on the new Marina Chiapas in Puerto Chiapas (Puerto Madero) including photos and mini-charts. However, no waypoints are given for the tricky, twisty channel that leads to the marina, and there is little information for how to see the spectacular ancient Mayan ruins and colonial cities that are MUST DO inland trips from there. So, for cruisers headed to Chiapas, we recommend having a look at our Marina Chiapas Guide, which includes waypoints, notes for provisioning and getting around as well as notes for the really magnificent sights that are a (long but worthwhile) bus ride away.
Pacific Mexico: A Cruiser’s Guide by Sean Breeding & Heather Bansmer
Besides the beautiful photography in this book, perhaps the best feature of this guide — and of its companion book Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guide — is the very well organized system of numbering and presenting the waypoints for approaches, anchorages and hazards.
The waypoints and their presentation is so good that this guide allows blind “sail-by-numbers” cruising. Simply flip to the back of the book and enter all the logically numbered waypoints into the chartplotter and away you go. Drop the hook on the anchorage waypoint in whatever bay you choose, and you know you are sitting where Sean and Heather anchored.
We heard from friends that it is possible to obtain the waypoints in electronic form from the authors or the publisher Blue Latitude Press and download them directly into your chartplotter if you are technically savvy. We found it was easy enough to enter them manually, a few at a time.
We relied on this guidebook between Mazatlan and Zihuatanejo. South of Zihuatanejo, however, we turned back to the Mexico Boating Guide by Pat Rains because the authors of Pacific Mexico did not take their boat south of Zihuatanejo. So, while their information on the anchorages south of Zihuatanejo is generously offered, it is not backed up by first-hand experience.
Charlie’s Charts Western Coast of Mexico & Baja by Holly Scott
This guidebook has been revamped and greatly expanded since the last edition by Capt. Holly Scott who has taken the guidebook and data that was gathered by both Charlie & Margo Wood and Gerry Cunningham and compiled it all into this one hefty tome.
It still retains the hand-drawn mini charts that set this guide apart. It also now includes some anchorages on the outside of Baja that are not in the other guides. In addition, much of the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by Gerry Cunningham during his decades of sailing the Sea of Cortez has been incorporated into this book.
We used the previous edition of this guide mostly while sailing the outside of Baja, headed both south and north, and for parts of the Costalegre and Sea of Cortez. For us it was usually backup confirmation of what the other guidebooks said. We also appreciated being able to see yet another set of mini-charts of each bay, and sometimes what was confusing in one guide’s mini-chart was easier to understand from this guide’s mini-charts (and vice versa).
Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser’s Guide by Sean Breeding & Heather Bansmer
Scanning the yummy photos in this gorgeous cruising guide makes me want to go cruising. Each anchorage is lovingly described and documented. The only downfall is that sometimes the descriptions are more beautiful than the anchorages themselves.
This was our primary guide in the Sea of Cortez, although we turned to both the Mexico Boating Guide and Charlie’s Charts on occasion, especially when a norther was coming and we wanted to see if the other guides described any lesser known hiding places where we could seek refuge.
Baja Bash II by Jim Elfers
We read this guidebook prior to our sail south from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. It is extremely helpful for pointing out the nasty capes and other areas that make this coast a challenge, even if you are going in the easier southerly direction. We used it exclusively when we did the Baja Bash three years later.
In our opinion, this guide is essential equipment for anyone doing the Bash. It is the only guidebook that assumes you are sailing north up Baja and not south. It lists the anchorages in that order, and it outlines a strategy for tackling each portion of the coast. It also has little jewels like the author’s favorite anchorage in the northern Baja coast which is tucked just south of Ensenada and is not mentioned in any of the other guides.
Inland Guides, Flora and Fauna and Other Resources
In the excitement of getting ready to go cruising it is easy to forget about non-boating related things you might need. We sailed off to Mexico with just the above cruising guides on board, thinking that that would be all we would need. We were going cruising after all. Why would we need any ordinary guidebooks for our voyage??
Little did we know that the image we had in our mind of cruising was just a tiny facet of what the experience would eventually be all about. Once we figured out how to get from anchorage to anchorage safely and easily, our interests changed and we began to look more closely at the world we suddenly found ourselves inhabiting.
This is most effectively accomplished with guidebooks and reference books that explain that world.
Our first season we didn’t have a general guidebook to Mexico, and what a mistake that was. Our first summer back in the US I spent two hours in the bookstore studying all the different guidebooks to Mexico, and concluded that for me, the best one is the guide from Lonely Planet.
What is helpful about this guide is that it gives an overview of what this magnificent country is all about. Up front is fifty pages or so of excellent general information. From a Top 25 list of Mexico’s best sights, to a discussion about immersion Spanish schools, to talking about how to explore the Mayan ruins, to reviewing the various regions of the country and what they are known for, this little book helps you get your hands around the very large and varied country of Mexico.
When I first got to Mexico I was baffled and overwhelmed that this entirely different world existed just miles from the city I had most recently called home (Phoenix, Arizona). Who were these people, why were they so different and where did they come from? The “Understanding Mexico” section at the end of this book goes a long way to helping figure that out. Mexico is nothing like the US, and for many people, it is nothing like they thought it would be before they got there.
Once we started traveling inland, our first conundrum was where to stay. While the printed guidebooks have suggestions, we’ve found that TripAdvisor is an even better resource because it is a compilation of reviews from many travelers rather than from a single person. Granted, the objectivity of a professional travel writer is lost, and the comparative scale between places is gone, because travelers of all experience levels and with all kinds of tastes and budgets are writing reviews. However, in our experience, the reviews are surprisingly accurate.
Even better, many hotels respond to the reviews, giving the reviews even more depth. Complaints are addressed, compliments are thanked, and for small boutique hotels and hostels you can get a sense of what the hosts are like.
For me, after looking up a hotel in TripAdvisor, I like to go to the hotel’s website (sometimes it’s given, and sometimes you need to do a Google search), and then I email the hotel directly. We actually decided against staying at the most popular B&B in Guanajuato because the host seemed a little crabby in his TripAdvisor replies — and during our email correspondence with him, he confirmed his crabbiness in spades!
Besides lodging, TripAdvisor is very helpful for figuring out what to do when you get wherever you are going. Each city/state has a Things to Do section, and that is an excellent place to find out what you might be doing in a given place, and whether those are the kinds of things you want to be doing.
Sitting on the boat in various anchorages, and strolling the streets on shore, we often found ourselves staring at birds we didn’t recognize. If you enjoy exotic flora and fauna, consider bringing along some guidebooks so you can look them up. Our first season we didn’t have a bird book, and I had to resort to crazy online searches to satisfy my curiosity about what some of the birds were that we saw. That’s really hard!
I’ve hunted for an outstanding book specifically about Mexico’s birds and haven’t found one yet. However, this book on North American birds has been around for decades and proved pretty darn good. The only drawback is that the authors don’t seem to realize that all of Mexico is in North America. For some inane reason, they think that only the northern half of the country is on the North American continent.
Geographical confusion aside, many birds of northern Mexico (and the US and Canada) also live in southern Mexico, and only a few truly tropical birds that we saw way down south seemed to be missing. For the most part, the birds we saw were all in this book, and for us, it’s really nice to put a name to a bird and to read a little about its range and its habits.
Fishes of the Pacific Coast by Gar Goodson
Lots of cruisers try their hand at fishing, and some become really good at it. For us, the hardest thing about fishing was recognizing what we’d caught and knowing whether it made for good eating or was better returned to the sea unharmed (some of the easiest fish to catch taste really terrible!).
This little book — which sadly appears to be out of print (hopefully just for the moment) but is still readily available used — was a godsend for us after a preliminary season of laboriously gutting, filleting and marinating fish only to serve them and have us both pinch our noses and say “Yuck!”
Not only does it have good color images which simplify the identification process, it also describes them in detail, including all the forms from young fish to gender differences to adult fish in various seasons. It lists the range of each fish — very helpful if you think you’ve identified your fish only to find out it lives 1,000 miles south of where you are. Most important, it lists the edibility. Wouldn’t it be great if the next edition included a recipe for each yummy one!
Reef Fish Identification: Baja to Panama by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach
We did not do nearly as much snorkeling in Mexico as we had thought we would before we began our cruise. The water in the Sea of Cortez is cold in the winter and spring, and the water is murky and often full of red tide on the mainland during the winter. However, when we did find great snorkeling — in summer in the Sea of Cortez and in winter in Huatulco — we sure wished we knew what we were looking at.
We did not have a reef fish guidebook onboard Groovy. However, we have heard that this book is the one to get. If we were returning, it would be on our bookshelf. One of the photos in this book was taken by veteran Mexico (and Caribbean) cruiser Geoff Schultz on the Freedom 40 Blue Jacket.
Without a guidebook, it was frustrating to come back into the cockpit breathless with excitement and start talking to each other about the fish we’d seen, and be reduced to saying, “Did you see the ones with the yellow tails?” “The big ones, or the little ones?” “I don’t know, they were kind of medium sized…” Or to have a cruiser anchored nearby say, “Have you noticed all the damsels swimming around our boats?” What? This sent Mark flying to get his binoculars to check out the babes, but of course these damsels were blue and had fins…
Spanish for Cruisers by Kathy Parsons
I have written a post about the books and resources we used for improving our Spanish beyond the typical cruiser’s starting point of “cerveza” beer and “baño” bathroom. I highly recommend reading that post if you are going to Mexico and want to maximize your experience.
If you don’t have the time or interest in taking a conversational Spanish course, either in the US before leaving or in Mexico once you get there, this little book covers an awful lot of ground. Besides being a fabulous glossary for all those technical boat terms like “bow” proa, “hull” casco, and “stainless steel” acero inoxidable, it will help when you carry a little broken part into a ferretería and need help repairing or replacing it.
One of the features we found most helpful was the chapter on sentence starters. Sometimes just getting going with the Spanish that you already know is a bit daunting. Having a few pat phrases to get those first words out of your mouth really helps.
Of course, most Mexicans who assist boaters speak good English, or can grab a friend nearby who does. But the smiles, raised eyebrows, and genuine appreciation we get when we muddle through a few words of Spanish is priceless, and often forges a special bond between us and these good people who have taken the time themselves to learn a lot of our language and are more than willing to speak it on their own soil.
When we first got to Mexico, the only maps we had were in the cruising guides and whatever we could find online. Yikes!! It’s a huge country with lots of states, and it was much easier to get a feel for where things were once we got a proper map aboard Groovy.
This was especially true when we started traveling inland. Google Earth is great for getting quickie distances, but I also liked being able to pinpoint where each destination was on a large map I could spread out in the cabin. Call me old fashioned…
This cruiser-specific map has waypoints and lots of boating oriented details for Baja California. We relied on the chartplotter for passage-making, obviously, but it sure was nice to open up this very large paper map on the floor of the cabin and get a feel for what was where…
We used Google Earth a lot to estimate passage-making distances between ports and also between coastal locations and hot spots inland. For some reason, even in nautical miles, we found the estimates were always just a hair longer than our chartplotter showed. No matter, it was still very useful for planning purposes.
We also used Google Earth to estimate waypoints in anchorages where there were none given in the guidebooks. This was especially helpful when cruising the Bays of Huatulco and other less well documented points down south.
Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
This book is absolute MUST READ if you are heading to the Sea of Cortez. It is a light-hearted and hilarious account of a voyage John Steinbeck made from Monterrey, California, to the Sea of Cortez aboard a chartered shrimper during March and April of 1940.
Besides making any cruiser laugh out loud at his descriptions of the ship’s cantankerous dinghy and outboard and the hapless crew member who refused to take his turn washing dishes, Steinbeck paints a vivid picture of Mexico, the outside of Baja and the Sea of Cortez as it was nearly 75 years ago.
Things have changed dramatically — and yet they haven’t changed at all — both in the Sea and aboard cruising boats, and many cruisers find they can’t put this book down. One warning: there is a bizarre chapter in the middle that goes off on a philosophical tangent that has nothing to do with the Sea or Mexico or Steinbeck’s voyage. That chapter was written by a friend of his, and he included it as a favor. You’ll know it when you get there. Just skip to the next chapter…
The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz
This riveting book is a first-hand account of the beginnings of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Written by one of the men that was there on the scene when it happened, it puts you right in the middle of the action as Hernán Cortés barnstorms his way across Mexico in 1519, after sailing from Cuba to Veracruz on Mexico’s Caribbean shore.
I never really understood how radically different the arrivals of the Spanish and the English were in the New World, and reading this book gave me a much deeper understanding of who the Mexicans and other Latin Americans are today and where they come from.
Hernán Cortés was as smooth and wily and ruthless and volatile as the Sea that bears his name, and the political tactics and extraordinary savvy he used to decimate the Aztecs is truly astounding. Arriving from Cuba with just a few men, by the time he reached Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), home of the Aztec emperor Montezuma, he commanded an army of thousands, few of them Spanish.
Perhaps even more astonishing is to consider what those Spaniards must have thought when they first laid eyes on the intricate and cleverly engineered city in which the Aztecs lived. Built on a lake and incorporating canals, land bridges and extensive water travel, the population was some 200,000, while the biggest European cities of the time were a mere 50,000. It’s no wonder that by the time their tales of this incredible city reached home, the streets were said to be lined with gold.
Even with all these wonderful guides and books, it can still be hard to get a visual picture of what cruising Mexico will be like. What do the anchorages look like? What do the towns look like? Where are the best beaches and snorkeling? Even if you have sailed the US west coast extensively or done a lot of charters in the Caribbean, a cruise in Mexico is a completely different kind of experience.
To help folks get a better visual sense of what Mexico will be like, we have put together a DVD series. Chock full of maps, charts, and inspirational images, this series is presented as cruiser-to-cruiser. It’s as if you are sitting down with a cruiser who has been there and done that and hearing about what it was like. We share all the tips and hints we would have loved to have seen before we untied the dock lines and sailed south.
I hope these books and maps find a place on your boat’s bookshelf and that they are as useful in your cruise as they were in ours!! For your convenience, this page gives product links for all these great resources.To help you plan your cruise and get you inspired, we created the video series, "Cruising Mexico Off the Beaten Path - Volumes 1-3," shown below. This is a fun-to-watch and easy-to-digest introduction to Mexico from a cruiser's perspective, giving you lots of valuable information that isn't covered by the cruising guides. Each video is available individually at Amazon, either as a DVD or as a download. For discount package pricing on the whole series, visit our page Cruising Mexico Video Series.
Volume 1 (left) reviews the geography, weather and seasons in Mexico and shows you what the best anchorages between Ensenada and Manzanillo are like.
Volume 2 (middle) gives detailed info that can't be found in any of the guidebooks about the glorious cruising ground between Manzanillo and the Guatemala border.
Volume 3 (right) provides all the info you need to get off the boat for an adventure-filled trip to Oaxaca.Our Gear Store also has a boatload of ideas for your cruise!
If you are planning a cruise to Mexico, you might also enjoy: