In fact, the ports that lie along the Sea of Cortez, which separates the Baja peninsula from the Mexican mainland, are far more heartland-like (and less touristic). Towns have a real-world feel.
There's La Paz, the bustling capital of Baja, whose seafront, or "malecon," has been buffed up for visitors -- but otherwise, the city's real appeal is the authentically Mexican feel of its cathedral, shops and cafes. Small, charming and quaint pretty much describe Loreto in a nutshell; it too boasts a historic mission, but its biggest appeal is a lovely courtyard ringed with bars and cafes.
The dual-identity Cabo San Lucas, a mainstay on Mexican Riviera itineraries as well, is an exception to the "whole other world" rule. Consider it the Cozumel of Mexico's west coast: a hustling, bustling tourist center.
But the real reason to visit, says Jen Martin, a former expedition leader for Cruise West, which offered Sea of Cortez itineraries for years, is this:
"It's one of the most magnificent places in the world because of its remoteness, its desert that hasn't been spoiled, the dramatic mountain spines," she says. "The Sea of Cortez -- and the land that bounds it -- is an unknown wonder. It's not the Mexican Riviera, it's not necessarily Americanized and the fact that the big ships haven't discovered it so much, is what keeps it protected -- and special."
Choosing an Itinerary
Initially, the most intriguing appeal of a Sea of Cortez cruise is the chance to combine wildlife spotting with water sports. Kayaking, snorkeling and diving are huge for on-the-water fans, and whales, California sea lions, dolphins and tropical fish are plentiful. The beaches, too, are appealing and vary greatly in personality. Some have broken-shell sand, others consist of rocks and still others are made up of crystal-fine sand.
Another major draw is the plethora of uninhabited islands scattered throughout the Sea of Cortez. Most of them are protected -- there are no villages or towns -- and feature an incredible biodiversity precisely because they are so isolated.
Whether your primary interests are wildlife, arts and culture, or history, this region offers plenty of variety. There are three primary types of cruises from which to choose:
Mainstream Cruising's Sea Sampler: For those who want to give the Sea of Cortez region a "try out," Carnival's seven- to nine-night trips aboard Carnival Spirit, which sail out of San Diego, are the best bet. These itineraries stop at two Sea of Cortez ports -- La Paz and Cabo San Lucas -- and additional Mexican Riviera ports (including Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta). The ship's shore excursion department offers activities like kayaking and snorkeling, ATV and 4x4 rides, and fishing expeditions. Onboard, the ship offers a casino, numerous lounges, multiple dining venues, pools and other distractions.
A Little More In-Depth: From December - April, prime whale-spotting months, Holland America offers an expanded look at the Sea of Cortez. The 10-night itinerary on Zaandam features calls in Guaymas, Loreto and Cabo San Lucas, as well as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Topolobampo, the gateway to Copper Canyon. A visit to Copper Canyon is worth the trip itself. The Mexican equivalent to America's Grand Canyon, Copper Canyon is four times larger and about 1,000 feet deeper. The trip, offered as a shore excursion, is not for the faint of heart; it's an 18-hour expedition by train.
Complete and Total Immersion: American Safari Cruises combines the pampering elements of a luxury yacht experience with off-the-beaten-track eco-tourism. Safari Quest carries just 22 passengers, and its itineraries focus on the flora and fauna of the area, with many opportunities for wildlife-spotting and activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, beachcombing, hiking and even meeting with locals.
High season in the Sea of Cortez runs from January to April because that's when migratory whales arrive in the area after their sojourn from Arctic and Alaskan waters. One prominent species is the blue whale. These hugest of mammals (they can reach up to 33 meters and weigh more than 150 tons) are easiest to spot in the waters near Loreto. The California gray whale, which "winters" at Baja's Magdalena Bay, is best seen in February and March. And fin whales, which spend the longest period of time here -- December - May -- can be found around the sea's numerous islands.
Beyond the Whales
Other sea life on tap in the Sea of Cortez includes dolphins and sea lions along with frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and teams of pelicans. For snorkelers, views of manta rays, sea caves and reefs, and brightly colored tropical fish are highlights.
Not all of this region's appeal is limited to the water. The towering and volcanic Sierra Giganta Mountains create an astounding backdrop of cliffs and coves. The desert thrives with huge cacti and other plant life, and hiking and mountain biking offer great ways to experience the landscape.
Baja's Towns and Villages
Baja's port cities offer plenty of variety, with their historic missions and colonial charm. A handful of off-the-beaten-track villages offer a fantastic experience, blending desert beauty with a genuine art and culture scene. One favorite is San Jose del Cabo. Just a 20 minute drive from Cabo San Lucas, it was inaugurated as a mission by the Jesuits in 1730, and much of its colonial charm is centered around the peaceful yet vibrant Plaza Mijares.
Another jewel is Todos Santos. Virtually equidistant from both Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, it is known for its art galleries and excellent restaurants -- not to mention the Hotel California, once thought to have inspired the famous Eagles song.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief