Bahía Concepción: the islands, mountains and peninsulas blend together.
Leaving Bahía Concepción the orange islands are inaccurately
charted. The purple radar image shows the correct locations.
The red triangles identify accurate GPS locations of the islands.
Our boat is the size of a city block.
Dangerous pinnacle rocks.
Pinnacles dot the Sea of Cortez landscape.
La Ramada Cove.
Strolling the beach at La Ramada.
Perfectly clear water.
Caleta San Juanico.
Groovy catches the wind and
Dolphin swims underwater next to Groovy.
Brightly colored cliffs near Loreto.
Hidden beach at Isla Coronado.
Vivid colors at our private beach.
It's just us and the
Private islando oasis at Isla Coronado.
Waterfront civilization just outside of Loreto.
Walking towards Loreto's town square.
Inside the Hotel Posada
Hotel Posada de las Flores.
Loreto's "Misión de Nuestra Señora."
Inside the cathedral.
Capturing the antique cathedral on
Puerto Escondido's marina docks.
Groovy waits at the fuel dock.
A boat is lost on a pinnacle rock.
Mark catches a Skip Jack Tuna.
La Ramada, Isla Coronado, Puerto Escondido, & Loreto
Late October, 2011 - It was hard to leave Bahía Concepción, but the time finally came and we headed out of the bay to
continue our trek south. Looking back over our shoulders we were reminded once again what a miracle GPS and electronic
marine navigation systems are for sailors today. In his Log of the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck talks about how hard it was to
navigate these waters in 1940 when the only tools the captain had were some sketchy charts and a coastal pilot book. The
islands are often indistinguishable from the mainland mountains and peninsulas, and the rugged coast often becomes a
A glance at our chartplotter shows just how confusing this
landscape can be even today, but for different reasons.
Unlike navigating in the US where electronic charts are
accurate down to individual slips within marinas, the
survey data used in Mexico's modern electronic charts
was collected not long after Steinbeck's voyage. Although
it gives a general idea of the layout and depths, it is often
inaccurate by a half mile, mile, or more. Islands that don't
exist feature prominently on the charts, and islands that
are a true threat in the water are nowhere to be found on
the charts. Fortunately the boat's radar tells the story as it
really is, and the electronic chartplotter overlays the radar
image onto the chart. You get used to sailing through
charted obstacles that aren't actually there.
The thing about the Sea of Cortez is that there are lots of pinnacle rocks
that stick up out of nowhere. Most are fifty feet or more in height, making
them easy to spot with radar and with bare eyes. But you still have to stay
on your toes, as many of them don't appear on the charts and can loom
Fortunately, the guidebook Sea of Cortez by Bansmer/
Breeding lists the GPS coordinates of every danger and
destination in the Sea, so for a boat equipped with a GPS
chartplotter, navigation is actually an easy paint-by-
The prevailing winds in the Sea of Cortez generally blow either from the north
or the south, and in autumn you get a few days of one direction alternating
with a few days from the other as the summer's predominant south winds give
way to winter's predominant north winds. We caught a ride with a big north
wind that swept us south to our next destination, La Ramada Cove.
spot is protected
only on its southern
side, but we got
lucky and the winds
shifted to the south
for the next few
So we were able to enjoy the isolation, peace and quiet of this idyllic
anchorage while staying just out of reach of the south wind that howled
outside the cove.
The water was beautifully clear and warm,
and sitting on the edge of the cockpit we
could see fish of all kinds swimming under
our boat, flashing in the sun as they zipped
this way and that.
One night we came on deck to see the most unusual bioluminescence. Brilliant little sparkling "eyes"
seemed to be looking up at us from the black depths all around the boat. One at a time they would
wink a few times and then suddenly burst and fade away into the black depths. As each light
exploded and dispersed it seemed to take on the shape of a jellyfish, but our flashlights revealed
nothing but ordinary fish around the boat. After a while the glittering stars disappeared. We still don't
know what they were.
One afternoon we hiked the
short distance from our beach
at La Ramada Cove to the
scenic cove of San Juanico on
the other side of a small hill.
We had spent several
languorous days at Caleta San
Juanico last spring, but now the
anchorage was deserted
because its mouth opens to the
south, which would have made
it very uncomfortable in the
current south wind.
However, the osprey were still
there, perfectly content with nature's unpredictability,
not worried in the least whether the wind was from
the north or south.
We caught the next north blow to carry us a little
further south to Isla Coronado outside of Loreto.
A pod of dolphins spotted us underway and came
leaping over to greet us. The water was so clear we
could see them perfectly as they swam under the
water alongside the boat.
Our route followed the contour of the mountains that make up Baja's
shoreline, and in places they were dramatically striated in shades of
red, black, brown and grey.
This is the magic of the Sea of Cortez. It is a rugged, remote, barren,
harsh land, but if you look beyond the surface it reveals a dramatic
beauty and is teeming with life.
Last spring Isla Coronado had been the scene of some of the
worst conditions we had experienced in seven months of cruising
Mexico when an unexpected post-season Norther blasted the little
north-facing anchorage. Fortunately, when we arrived this time
the bay was tranquil and inviting. We shared our island oasis with
just one other boat, Valkyrie, a small sloop captained by a friendly
There is a
away from the
and we took the
dinghy over to
out in sharp relief
rocks in the
We felt like we were standing on our own
private island, a world away from reality.
Our footprints joined those of
the herons that had been
walking on the sand earlier.
But there were hints of
civilization. After several
days without contact, we
were now able to get internet
access via the cell phone
tower at Loreto just a few
miles away from our island.
Soon we were lured across
the water to visit the town in
person, and we anchored outside
Loreto's tiny harbor.
It was a great feeling to
return to a town we had
come to know and love
last spring. We saw it
now with fresh eyes.
The town was celebrating
its 314th anniversary
when we arrived, and a
portion of the town
square was decked out
for the weekend's festivities.
We returned on the big night,
and the place was hopping
with music, fun, food, and stage events. If that
is how Loreto celebrates turning 314, imagine
what will happen when they hit a round
The ornate Hotel Posada de las Flores and the Mission
of Our Lady Church dominate the town square.
In a wonderful juxtaposition of the modern and the
antique, I watched a man lining up a photo of the
historic cathedral on his iPad. After he got his shot, a
group of us all stood around and admired his wonderfully backlit 8x10
photo. It was beautifully accented by the iPad's white frame and
made me realize what a long way we've come since the days of
A few days of big north winds and accompanying steep waves sent
us into hiding nearby at Puerto Ballandra, one of the few truly
protected anchorages in the Sea. Last spring it had been nicknamed
"Bee Landra" because of the abundance of fresh water seeking bees
that harassed all the boats. We decided a few bees in a peaceful
anchorage would be better than rolling around in big seas and winds somewhere else. As
it turned out, the bees were few and manageable, due, in part, to the really good fly
swatters we brought down with us this season! With the Sea of Cortez bees we have
found that the best defense is an aggressive offense. None of that pansy "leave the bee
alone and it won't bother you" stuff. We go all out in our attacks, swatting the air, the boat
and each other to kill the scout bees. They are slow moving and must be a bit delicate, as
they are easy (and very satisfying) to kill with a swatter. (I tried asking them nicely to
leave, but they refused).
While in Puerto Ballandra one
afternoon we were idly watching
a boat sailing towards the entrance when we noticed that by dusk it
still hadn't made it into the anchorage. Mark hopped in a friend's
dinghy and they motored out to see if the boat needed help. It turned
out that along with a broken engine and a sail that was stuck partially
raised, the fellow sailing the boat could not find the entrance to the bay
and had been drifting back and forth looking for it all afternoon. He
was confused by the mirage of rocky peaks, and didn't have any
electronic navigation gear on board. Darkness fell, and Mark and his
buddy guided the boat into the anchorage, nudging it forward with the
dink, and helped him find a place to drop the hook.
When the north wind diminished to a manageable scale we
continued moving south, making a quick fuel stop at Puerto
Escondido, the only place with fuel for a hundred miles or so
in either direction.
As we sailed towards Puerto Escondido there was a lot of
commotion on the radio about a boat that had gone up on the
rocks nearby. There were no injuries, but the singlehanding
captain was rapidly unloading all his belongings onto the
rocks and examining a six inch wide hole in the bottom of the
boat to see if there was any way to salvage it. We listened as
a group assembled to lend assistance and bring out sheets of
plywood, bilge pumps and moral support.
The next morning as we left Puerto Escondido we could
see something glinting in the sun on the horizon ahead of
us. Soon it morphed into a sailboat on its side in front of
a towering pinnacle rock, and we realized this was the
boat we had heard about the day before. This pinnacle
rock was one of several in the area called "Los
Candeleros" ("The Candlesticks"). We later sadly
discovered the boat was Valkyrie, the one we had
anchored with at Isla Coronado a few days earlier.
Tragically, the captain had driven straight into the
pinnacle rock and nailed it head on. Ouch. Thank
goodness the only loss was material.
Taking a deep breath and forging ahead, we made our way south
towards Agua Verde. With no wind and nothing to do on board as
we motored along (just one pinnacle rock for 40 miles), Mark threw
out a fishing line. Last year all the cruisers complained of bad fishing
up and down the entire west coast of Mexico. So we were stunned
when within half an hour Mark had landed a fish. Wow! Yikes!! What to do? We were totally unprepared for a fish actually
biting the lure. I ran around excitedly, trying to be helpful, "Are you going to stun it by pouring alcohol in its mouth like our
friends suggested? What kind - rubbing alcohol? Where do we keep that stuff? Are you going to slit the gills to kills it? Do you
need a knife? A cutting board? Gosh, you gotta do something with that flopping fish, and quick!" I must have run up and down
the companionway stairs six times. At least I didn't cry this time.
Mark was much more level headed. He calmly threw some ice in a bucket and put the bucket and
the fish in the dinghy off the back while we continued on to Agua Verde.
One of the weird things about
fishing is figuring out what you
caught. Fish don't come with
labels and a lot of species don't
taste good and need to be
thrown back. Mark looked up his
catch in a book, and it was a Skip
Jack Tuna, rated as "good
eating." Sure enough, once we
were anchored he filleted it like a
pro and barbecued it. We
enjoyed it for three absolutely
yummy meals over the next few
days as we made our way south
towards the beauitful island anchorages near La Paz.
Find La Ramada Cove, San Juanico, Isla Coronado, Loreto, Puerto Escondido and Agua Verde on Mexico Maps.
**While in Acapulco we read an article in their yacht club magazine about the salvage and recovery of the yacht Valkyrie!
Roads Less Traveled
Villa del Palmar resort in Ensenada Blanca (Bahía Candeleros).
Isla Carmen's "Painted Cliffs."
Isla Carmen's Punta Perico.
The turquoise water reflects off
A turkey vulture looks for carion on the beach.
A seagull perches on a
Buses wait in a dirt lot to take the resort
Jose holds up a cabrilla for us.
Jose fillets the cabrilla in his panga.
View from a Villa del Palmar 7th floor balcony.
The resort pools are creatively laid out.
A golf course is going in behind the resort.
A spa and restaurant will grace one end of the resort.
The pool bar overlooks the bay.
Dining in the desert by an open fire -- reminiscent of
the finest resorts in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Groovy sits quietly at the resort's front door.
Isla Coronado & Ensenada Blanca, outside Loreto, Mexico
May, 2011 - At Agua Verde we really began to
relax. All of a sudden the exertion of seven
months of cruising the Mexican coast had
caught up with us, and there in that little oasis
of tranquility we unwound until we became
blobs of jello. We went to bed before sundown,
got up after sunrise, and stretched out for naps
in between. For 17 days the Sea of Cortez
gave us a life without the distraction of the
internet. The world beyond our immediate
surroundings on the sea seemed very far away.
As we sailed north and turned the corner to pass inside Isla Danzante
our eyes popped out of our heads when a massive resort suddenly
rose out of the mountains, overshadowing a cove and filling our view.
"Holy mackerel, what is that?" Civilization. Land of plush vacations.
We could almost hear the air conditioners throbbing, the fresh water
pumping, the workers scurrying. We could almost see the elegant
meals being served by uniformed waiters on linen tablecloths while
patrons gazed at the expansive view of the Sea and its desert
islands. Our guidebooks called the bay "Bahía Candeleros," and
mentioned only that a resort was under construction there. Well, it's
open for business now!
We weren't ready for all that quite yet. We pressed on, weaving between
the islands and taking a detour around the eastern side of Isla Carmen.
Here the colorful towering cliffs and crying gulls took over once again. We
stopped at Punta Colorada, and again at a place the guidebook called
"Painted Cliffs" and finally at Punta Perico. Besides one other sailboat and
the hum of cruisers talking on the radio, humanity disappeared once again.
A few days later we arrived at Isla
Coronado, an ideal little aquamarine
cove where the water is such a bright
turquoise that it reflects off the gulls'
wings as they fly overhead. We relaxed
into jello once again. Between swims
and kayak rides I began reading John
Steinbeck's Log of the Sea of Cortez while Mark played guitar.
Visiting the Sea in 1940 on a personal quest to study life in the
coastal tidepools, Steinbeck gives hilarious descriptions of life afloat
on a chartered California sardine boat. Packed in with six other
guys, he took a six week voyage from California to Cabo, and then
along the inner coastline of the Sea of Cortez and back. Endless
jars of pickled specimens that the crew collected from tidepools
filled every available space on the boat: crabs, worms, sea
cucumbers, and much more.
I laughed out loud at his wry tales. They
were all the more poignant because
certain aspects of traveling the Mexican
coast by boat have not changed since
Steinbeck's time. His skiff's cranky outboard engine, which he derisively nicknamed the "Sea-Cow,"
quickly became an eighth grumpy personality in the mix, running only when it wasn't needed and
leaving the men to row their dinghy in the most challenging conditions. The crew bickered about
whose turn it was to wash dishes, harassing each other with practical jokes. And they got caught by
surprise in the La Paz Coromuel winds which "sprang upon us" and "seemed to grow out of the
evening." By the end of the trip they were all thickly encrusted in salt, as they had long since given up
using fresh water to wash their bodies or their clothes. In fact, from the start they found the quality of
the fresh water they were able to get for their tanks so dubious for drinking that they endeavored to
consume as little water as possible and live on beer instead.
As I read Steinbeck's Log I found myself pondering the many changes, both
subtle and dramatic, that have taken place in the last 71 years in this remote
part of the world. Cabo San Lucas, a raucous, pricey, resort-filled party
town today was, in Steinbeck's time, "a sad little town" whose road in from the
bay was "two wheel-ruts in the dust." At La Paz he bemoaned a new
"expensive looking" hotel going up, as it spelled the end of the town's unique
character and isolation. "Probably the airplanes will bring weekenders from
Los Angeles before long, and the beautiful bedraggled old town will bloom
with a Floridian ugliness."
In several different parts of the Sea he described seeing schools of leaping
swordfish. Swarming the boat in thick schools, they "jumped clear out of the
water" and "seemed to play in pure joy." In other places the schools were
tuna, and they too leaped around the boat with total abandon. The tuna
would shimmer silver in the sun as they rocketed out of the blue depths and wriggled in the air. On the Pacific side of Baja
between Magdalena Bay and Cabo San Lucas, he wrote: "We came upon hosts of...red rock-lobsters on the surface,
brilliant red and beautiful against the ultramarine of the water...The water seemed almost solid with the little red crustacea."
We haven't seen any of those things, and we haven't heard of anyone else seeing them either. However, the leaping manta
rays Steinbeck describes are still here, doing somersaults and slapping the water in loud belly smacks. We had first seen
them 500 miles south in Las Hadas in Manzanillo. They cruised Isla Coronado's cove in huge schools, fooling us when we
first arrived into thinking we had accidentally anchored next to a rock. Jumping in with masks and snorkels, we searched
everywhere for that rock only to realize it had been a school of rays floating past.
Steinbeck vividly describes
the Japanese shrimping factory ships that filled the Sea in 1940.
He and his crew spent time on one of these ships and watched in horror as the massive nets scraped
the bottom clean of all sea life. Fish from every level of the sea came up in the nets: sharks, turtles,
pompano, sea horses, sea fans and more. All were discarded overboard in a sea of death, except the
shrimp which were processed and packaged to be taken home to Japan. He bitterly lamented the
waste of a massive food source that could feed the Mexican people indefinitely. At the same time he
conceded that none of the dead fish were wasted, as the birds scooped up every morsel that had been
thrown over the side.
A Spanish speaking cruiser told us he had talked at length with some lobstermen on the Pacific side
of Baja as he sailed south from San Diego last January. He learned that these men work in
cooperatives for Japanese ships that wait in Ensenada and sail once the holds are filled. The
lobstermen have a quotas that the cooperative must meet -- some 20,000 tons of lobster
per month was a number he was given -- and all the lobstermen are paid equally if the
quota is met.
While Steinbeck and his crew got progressively grubbier, drinking warm beer and eating
spaghetti twice a week, they felt a stab of jealousy when a sleek black yacht sailed by. The
passengers, dressed in white, relaxed in chairs on the shaded back deck sipping tall cool
drinks. Today we see the enormous power megayachts and can only wonder what that life
is like. The upper crust passengers are usually hidden behind large tinted windows, and
the sliding glass doors are usually closed to keep the air conditioning in.
Eventually our curiosity about the resort we had sailed by earlier overtook us and we
doubled back. "Bahia Candeleros" seems to be the name that was assigned to this bay by
the earliest cruisers and nautical charts. But we soon learned that everyone in the nearby
village -- and even Google Earth -- refers to this bay as "Ensenada Blanca."
Whatever the name, it is a fascinating convergence of the old Sea and the new. At one end
of the cove stands a small fish camp where drying clothes hang out on clotheslines and
cisterns hold water on the roofs of rickety shacks that look like they would collapse in a
storm. A tiny village half a mile inland has a small church and store, reminiscent of Agua
Verde a few miles south. Pangas on the beach bring in small boatloads of fish.
A friendly fellow at this end of the beach named Jose sold us a
"cabrilla" (bass) that had been caught and laid on ice that morning. He
filleted it expertly on the seat of his panga and rinsed the flesh in the
seawater at his feet. The gulls and pelicans gathered in a noisy crowd
nearby and fought each other over scraps.
Jose explained to us
that the well built
fiberglass pangas we
have seen on every
part of the Mexican
coast are built in
Mexico using molds
made in the US. These
rugged boats have replaced the common
fishing boats that Steinbeck described as "double-ended canoes carved out of a single log of
light wood, braced inside with struts...seaworthy and fast." Today's pangas are driven by
powerful outboards whereas the canoes were "paddled by two men, one at either end."
The eldest Baja citizens, whom Steinbeck called "Indians," would have been small children
when he was here. He wrote: "When we think of La Paz it is always of the small boys that we
think first." They swarmed his boat, curious and eager to help him collect sea creatures when
he offered a few centavos per specimen. Those boys would be old men now, and they may
still be telling tales to their grandkids of gathering clams and worms and crabs for some crazy
gringos in exchange for a few centavos each. Not even a full lifetime has passed.
Wandering down to the other
end of the cove it seems like
centuries must have gone by.
The gargantuan resort is called
Villa del Palmar, and the guards
were happy to arrange a tour for
us. What a place. Only the
finest materials have been used,
the highest end appliances fill
each suite, and the layout of the pools and gardens, as viewed
from a seventh floor balcony, is an artful pattern in the shape of
a sea turtle. It is Scottsdale, Arizona on the Sea.
We learned that this resort is just the first of three similar hotels
planned for this small bay. "Villa de la Estancia" and "Villa del Arco"
will follow. A golf course will line the base of the mountains and
condos will be built in all of the nooks and crannies in between.
We looked out over the construction in awe. Backhoes clawed
the dirt while cement trucks flowed to and fro. Uniformed men
with clipboards checked the progress while workers nodded
confidently at them, wiping their sweaty brows with dusty
hands. The air was filled with purpose and excitement.
Our tour guide, Gabriel, lives in Loreto and he couldn't stop
smiling throughout the entire tour. He is thrilled to have this
job, working in a beautiful place in handsome clothes and with
what he believes is a fine future ahead. He told us the resort
employs 250 people. About 50 guests were there during its
second month of operation. We had seen the buses that the
company uses to bring the employees in from town. The road
to the resort is not yet paved and the buses park behind the
fish camp in a large dirt lot.
In the afternoon Mauricio, the music electronics whiz who sets up
the karaoke machines at the pool bar, told us he transferred in
from Mexico city. He is being housed in one of the beautiful
condos set back in the hillsides while he looks for a home so he
can transfer his family from the mainland. He likes the school
system in Loreto and is pleased there is a university there. His
wife, a bank manager, may find work at the hotel too, and he hopes
his kids will be able to continue the after-school activities they now
enjoy in Mexico City: horseback riding, swimming and soccer.
The entire resort pulsed with the feelings of opportunity, promise
and the future. This is the new Sea of Cortez that Steinbeck
knew was coming, tamed and gentrified for well-heeled tourists.
Along with the classy resort came an internet signal, and what a
surprise it was after so long adrift from world news to find out that
Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. This mirrored
Steinbeck's experience too. He discovered that while he was in
the Sea, "Hitler marched into Denmark and into Norway, France
had fallen, the Maginot line was lost -- we didn't know it but we
knew the daily catch of every boat within 400 miles."
We stayed for several days, enjoying
placid, clear water and lovely views as
Groovy slowly swung at anchor. Finally a
need for provisions pushed us into the
busy ports of Puerto Escondido and
Find Isla Coronado, Ensenada Blance and Loreto on Mexico Maps