The June 2016 issue of Sailing Magazine is featuring our article about cruising Mexico’s sweet Costalgre coast. This 50 mile long stretch of Pacific coast shoreline has 10 or so anchorages that vary in size from tiny to enormous and that vary in spirit from an immersion in nature to fancy and elegant resorts.
The seeds for publishing this article in Sailing Magazine were planted over two years ago, but the opportune moment didn’t strike until this month. We are very proud to be contributors to this outstanding magazine and to have our story and photos appear in its pages.
Many of our readers know us only as RVers, so I thought this would be a nice time to reflect back a bit on the life altering years we spent on our sailboat Groovy in Mexico between 2010 and 2013 and to share some of our photos from Mexico’s Costalegre in a larger format than is available on our older blog pages that were written while we were there.
The Costalegre (a concatenation of the words “Costa” (coast) and “Alegre” (cheerful or happy)) is situated south of and around the corner from Puerto Vallarta.
Most of western Mexico’s cruising grounds are very spread out between Ensenada, just below San Diego, and Puerto Chiapas down by the Guatemala border some 2,000 miles away. However, in the Costalegre region it is possible to daysail from one anchorage to the next, rather than sailing overnight as most destinations require, which is part of what makes it so popular.
Manzanillo Bay lies at the far southern end of the Costalegre, and it is home to several anchorages that are within an hour or two of each other by sailboat. Manzanillo Bay has incredible sunsets and sunrises — or it did when we were there — due in part to the power plant at the south end of the bay that spews soot particulates into the air!
Construction was underway to convert the power plant to natural gas when we were there. Once it’s up and running, the sometimes polluted air will improve, but it may be the end of these reliably gorgeous skies!
Next door is the Las Hadas Resort where the movie 10 with Bo Derek was filmed. This is a charming resort full of crazy architecture decorated with funny gargoyles. It has a decidedly Mediterranean feeling to it.
The bay is big enough for about 15 or 20 boats and is a great place to stay a while.
One of the most unexpected pleasures of cruising Mexico’s Pacific coast was that so many of the anchorages are in front of resorts. We hopped in and out of lots of resort swimming pools — what a life!
Occasionally the resorts ask cruisers to pay a day use fee to enjoy their resort facilities. Other times, buying a beer and snacks at the pool bar will suffice.
Manzanillo Bay is anchored by the city of Manzanillo at its south end. We met an adventurous RVing couple from Cuba (he) and Mexico (she), and at one point we jumped in their truck together to go get propane for our sailboat and for their rig. This took us into downtown Manzanillo, which is quite colorful but very urban.
One of the things that took some getting used to, but that we found very fun, was the open air markets. There is lots of street food available as well as fresh veggies and sometimes deliciously fresh orange juice that enterprising people sell from carts in the street. And there’s nothing like grabbing lunch from a taco stand — the trick is always to buy this kind of food where there is a long line of locals. That means it’s good!
Another thing that taught us a lot about Mexico, about our own ability to be resourceful, and about how to speak Spanish, was going to the hardware stores in search of parts to fix broken things on the boat. RVs often need repairs and maintenance, but boats need a whole lot more because they are more complex vehicles and the salt air and salt water is extremely corrosive.
Once we learned how to say the word for hardware store (“ferretería”), we were off and running.
Carrying the broken boat part with us, we’d hunt down a hardware shop and throw around some beginner Spanish and some slowly spoken English.
Invariably, we’d get a lot of sympathy as well as directions to another ferretería that might actually have what we were looking for!
Usually the directions were off by a few blocks one way or the other, so after a bunch more walking (and a bit of sightseeing, of course) we’d arrive at the next place and do it all over again!
It was a hoot and we met a lot of really wonderful people that way.
America is very efficient, but keeping a boat maintained and in tip-top working order in Mexico gave us endless heartwarming experiences and chances to get to know a little about our neighbors to the south.
And whether or not we got the part we needed to finish our repair, there was usually a fabulous sunset at the end of the day that would light the sky on fire.
We found that in the wintertime much of Mexico’s Pacific coast has murky water that is often plagued by red tide. However, one spring we stopped in the tiny bay of Paraiso on the Costalegre and found ourselves surrounded by crystal clear jade colored water. What a delight! Let’s jump in!
Well, jumping off the boat to play in the water always included 15 or 20 minutes of scraping the barnacles off the bottom of the boat! That was a chore we did frequently, but how wonderful to be able to do it in such beautiful water!
In the Las Hadas anchorage in Manzanillo, we needed to fuel up. There is diesel available at a boat dock, but it was very challenging to get a big boat up to that dock easily. We managed that tricky maneuver in our third year when we were seasoned sailors, but in our first year we hauled diesel in jerry jugs from the fuel dock out to our boat in the dinghy, and we used a Super Siphon to get the diesel from the can into the boat’s fuel tank.
Another jewel of an anchorage on the Costalegre is Careyes. This is a tiny cove tucked behind an island, and all the homes have been painted vibrant primary colors. What a backdrop!!
It is rumored that Heidi Klum has a home here. Unfortunately, we didn’t see her!
Careyes is a very difficult place to anchor because there are contrary currents and tides and winds that all join forces to set every boat off on a wild dance. So, very few boats go there. We were the only cruising boat in the anchorage the whole time we were there.
A stern anchor is an absolute necessity to keep the boat pointing in the right direction. We chose a Manson because it had no moving parts to bite our shins and had a nice handle to hold onto!
But it is worth the effort to get the boat anchored in Careyes. What a lovely view of the palm tree lined beach!
Swell is part of the everyday picture when cruising Mexico, and for boaters whose experience is cruising the protected anchorages of the Pacific Northwest or Maine (like me), it is a real surprise to discover just how much a boat can roll. I wrote a blog post about the joys of swell here and it shows the action of the swell on a huge tanker near the Las Hadas anchorage in Manzanillo— yikes!
The waves are wild because Mexico’s Pacific coast is wide open to the Pacific, and there is nothing stopping the waves or slowing them down as they come in from the open ocean!
So, landing a dinghy can be a challenge. And getting the dinghy launched from the beach to go back to the big boat is an even greater challenge!! But the beaches themselves are wonderful. The beach at Pérula in Chamela Bay is filled with fishing “pangas” (the open boats the locals use…all made in Mazatlan).
We wandered into Pérula (known to cruisers as Chamela) a little ways, and found a delightful little restaurant with a tiny kitchen and two or three tables.
Of course, almost every beach has plastic chairs and tables set out, and you can always plop down and dig your toes in the sand and enjoy the view with a Corona.
Since Mexico’s Pacific coast is filled with high end resorts, there are plenty of places to find more elegant beachfront dining. In the tiny Costa Cuastecomates (once known as the “Secret Anchorage” because the entrance is hard to see from the open ocean — until the GPS coordinates were published in a guidebook (and a great book it is)), we found a beautiful resort at one end of the beach.
In front of Las Hadas Resort there are tables set up to enjoy the beach and a view of the sailboats anchored in the cove.
With its Mediterranean flair, Las Hadas (which means “the fairies”) also has very cute pairs of beach chairs lined up facing the bay.
One of the all-time favorite destinations for cruiser’s on the Gold Coast is Barra de Navidad. Unlike all the other anchorages which are merely indentations in the land that are not protected from the open ocean, Barra de Navidad is in an estuary that is entirely enclosed.
Lots of cruisers settle in here for a few weeks or months, not only because the boat is unaffected by swell and sits flat on the water, but because the entire bay is lined with fun little eateries, beach bars and watering holes.
The only downside to anchoring here long term is that the water is too silty and dirty to make water with a watermaker and you can’t discharge the holding tanks unless you hoist the anchor and weave down the shallow and narrow channel to go out for a day sail on the open ocean.
There is a water taxi service in Barra de Navidad that can take you from your boat to anywhere on the shore for a few pesos. There is even a baker who hails from France and who sells his fresh croissants and quiches from boat to boat every morning!!
Gosh, will it be a chocolate croissant or an almond croissant this morning??
I just have to show another sunrise shot from Manzanillo Bay. It is so amazing to peek out the window and find yourself on a sea of pink!!
Some spots on the Costalegre are busy and full of people, like the estuary of Barra de Navidad, the beach at Santiago Bay, and Las Hadas Resort in Manzanillo.
And in a lot of places we found there were RV parks that backed right up to the beach.
In the years we were there, the biggest ongoing story in the media was about all the violence in Mexico. We never saw any violence in all the years we were in Mexico.
The rumor among the many travelers who love Mexico and the one million ex-pats who live there was that the media smear was a ploy to keep Americans in the US spending their vacation dollars on American soil rather than in Mexico. After all, we were at the height of the financial woes that followed on the heels of the the banking meltdown of 2008.
The few RVers that we met were enjoying their RV parks all by themselves all winter long. Many had taken their RV to Mexico each winter for a decade or more, and they told us those same RV parks had been booked to overflowing by mid-November in prior years.
At the end of our cruise, the owner of a pretty villa in the Costalegre village of La Manzanilla invited us to stay at his place for a week.
It turned out that he was German and his parents had raised him living in a motorhome full-time as they traveled throughout North and South America from Alaska to Cape Horn.
His unique tales and photos of growing up in a motorhome and boondocking on the beach in the 1980’s are told in these two blog posts:
RVers in Mexico saw a lot more of the country than we did, since our travels were restricted to the coast. We did take some phenomenal trips inland on long distances buses, though, visiting the colonial cities of Oaxaca, Guanajuato and San Cristobal de las Casas and visiting the Mayan ruins of Palenque and Monte Alban.
However, there are sights to be seen in Mexico that RVers can’t easily reach because they require the use of a privately owned boat. One of these is Isla Isabel (Isabella Island). This tiny island is a bit north of the Costalegre but is a definite “must see” for any cruiser sailing Mexico’s west coast.
There’s nothing there but a few fishermen and lots of nature. And blue footed boobies!
We were there in the spring, and a mixed flock of brown boobies, masked boobies and blue footed boobies were all nesting on the island. The chicks were full sized but still covered with down. The parents let us get close, but they made a point to stand in front of their babies as we walked up.
There is lots of other unusual wildlife to be spotted along the Costalegre, and we watched a group of frigate birds hanging around a partially submerged shipwreck in Santiago Bay.
Around the bend in the Las Hadas Resort anchorage we were greeted by a flock of adorable little birds that perched on our lifelines. These guys know cruisers and boats quite well, and each time we went through that area we found them chirping and flying on and off our lifelines!!
Out in the open ocean along the Costalegre we also saw lots and lots of sea turtles. Mexico has done a great job of protecting these guys, making sure their nesting sites are not disturbed and that the little babies can get down to the ocean without human interference. Of course, after their dangerous scramble down the beach to the crashing waves, they are met with the eager beaks of waiting birds that circle and fly low over the water to snatch them up as yummy snacks.
Birds like to land on the sea turtles, and the turtles don’t seem to mind. So we often saw “turtle-birds” when we went out sailing. On more than one occasion we saw a particular turtle-bird on our way out on a daysail, and the same turtle-bird was floating there when we came back three hours later!
Perhaps the most exotic animal we saw on the Costalegre (and in the Sea of Cortez) was the flying mobula rays. These guys fly out of the water and flap their wings like mad and then land on the water with a big smack. It was loud enough that if you were down below in the cabin, you’d come running up on deck to see what made the noise.
The funny thing was that these guys seem to do this jumping thing out of sheer joy. They don’t just jump up and down. They do somersaults and back flips!!
One day while we were out day sailing in Manzanillo Bay, we saw a whale breaching. We saw whales in quite a few places in Mexico, and sometimes they breached near us, but this was really unusual because the heavily populated shoreline was right there!
On another occasion, while dinghying between the small town of La Manzanilla (a favorite ex-pat hangout for Canadians) and the anchorage that cruisers call Tenacatita (and is actually known to the locals as Blue Bay or Crazy Angels Bay), we saw a mother whale and her baby playing in the water. It was early morning and the water was as still and clear as glass. The mom flopped around on her back and waved her fins around, and the baby did the same thing right next to her. Sweet!
Mexico’s Pacific Coast is a tourist destination, and there are tourist oriented activities of all kinds. One afternoon we looked out from the cockpit of Groovy in Santiago Bay and saw horseback riders walking along the sand.
But perhaps the best thing about cruising Mexico and taking it slow in the Costalegre was getting to know a little about the Mexican culture. Young girls celebrate their 15th birthday with a huge party called the Quniceañera, and we often saw beautiful 15 year olds in photo shoots dressed in very pretty and flouncy dresses.
In the final weeks of our Mexico cruise when we were staying in a marina in Ensenada, a thousand miles north of the Costalegre, we ended up hosting a Quinceanera photo shoot aboard Groovy. What fun!
For more detailed info about each of the anchorages on the Costalegre as well as Puerto Vallarta and Ensenada, we have created a video that makes it easy to get the lay of the land with a bowl of popcorn!
This video (the first in a series of three videos) shows what there is to see and do in each anchorage and also gives insights into Mexico’s weather patterns and climate and suggests an overall itinerary for getting the most out of your Mexico sailing cruise.
We also have a two page series chock full of tips for cruisers heading to Mexico:
- Mexico Cruising Tips 1 – Navigation, weather, tide info, adapting to the culture, learning Spanish
- Mexico Cruising Tips 2 – Costs, Checking In, Provisioning, Money, Internet, Laundry, Finding Boat Parts
If you are an avid sailor or are curious about the cruising lifestyle, I highly recommend checking out Sailing Magazine. It has been inspiring sailors for decades and was on my family’s coffee table in the 1960’s as I was growing up, fueling my dad’s secret cruising dreams. Even if, like my dad, you never have a chance to fulfill those dreams, Sailing Magazine has endless stories from folks who have had the good fortune to sail off over the horizon, and it makes for fantastic escapist adventure reading.
The June issue is on newsstands now and has lots more of our photos and info from the Costalegre. You can buy a subscription here:
More info for cruisers sailing to Mexico can be found on these pages:
- Planning Your Cruise – Tips plus Cruising Guides, Field Guides and Travel Guides
- What To Expect On Your Cruise – Living on a boat in Mexico is crazy and fun, but there’s an adjustment period!
- Maps of Mexico – Lots of maps that show what’s where on Mexico’s Pacific Coast and in the Sea of Cortez
- More links and info below…
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Map, geography and cruising info for the Costalegre and Isla Isabel:
- Costalegre on Google Maps – Helpful for RVers as well as boaters
- Location of Isla Isabel on Google Maps
- Mexico Boating Guide – The “Bible” for cruising Mexico’s West Coast by Capt. Pat Rains
- Charlie’s Charts: Western Coast of Mexico and Baja – An excellent cruising guide for Mexico by Holly Scott
Other blog posts, links and webpages from our Mexico sailing blog:
- Our sailing blog posts from the Costalegre and Puerto Vallarta
- Our cruising itinerary with chronological links to the highlights
- All of our sailing and inland travel posts from Mexico by region
- Hello Groovy! – How We Came to Own a Sailboat
- Why We Ended Our Sailing Cruise – Perfecting “The Dream”
- Goodbye Groovy! – Our bittersweet farewell to our awesome sailboat
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