Mexico's Sea of Cortez, the body of water bordered to the west by the long finger of Baja California and to the east by the coast of Mexico, has been variously described as "the world's aquarium" and "the Galapagos of the Americas." Only a handful of expedition cruise companies operate there, including National Geographic Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures. The scenery is beautiful but stark: metallic-blue sea, rocky islands and mountains, bleached-out stony (and sometimes sandy) beaches and millions of giant cacti marching over the scrubby hills. Under the water, it's a different story, with vast numbers of dolphins, whales, tropical fish and stingrays.
Cruises follow only a loose schedule; these are real (if luxurious) expeditions, and the captain will follow the wildlife. There are no ports of call as such, just anchorages and one tiny town, Loreta. Say goodbye to your mobile phone signal, Internet and TV for a week. These cruises are about total immersion in the environment and, as we were to find, more than a little interaction with the wildlife.
If you love the outdoors, the starkness of the desert, aquatic wildlife and gentle water sports, the Sea of Cortez really is a paradise. You won't find any culture to speak of, and there's zero shopping or nightlife. The week is a complete escape, with the bonus of like-minded souls for company, superb service and new experiences in abundance.
My week was spent on UnCruise Adventures' Safari Endeavour, a smart little expedition ship shown here with its water sports platform down. Onboard, there's a lounge and bar, where lectures are held every night; a dining room with sociable tables seating four or six; a couple of hot tubs on the aft deck; a sunbathing area on the top deck; and non-powered water toys like kayaks and paddleboards to take in the water. Everybody flew into Los Cabos and transferred by bus across the desert to La Paz, where the ship was waiting. My fellow passengers were all from the U.S. and Canada, middle aged, adventurous and well traveled. There were a few solos and one alumni group onboard, who mingled happily with the other cruisers.
Cabins are mainly compact, like this one, although there are some larger staterooms with double beds. Mine had plenty of storage and a small but functional bathroom with a shower. The biggest bonus was the door that opened out onto the deck; sleepy-looking folks emerging every morning in their pajamas to lean on the railing and take in a dazzling Baja sunrise was a common sight. But this really is one cruise where you spend virtually no time in your quarters; we were out pretty well all day and in the bar after sunset for cocktails and lectures.
A wetsuit and snorkel gear is provided for every passenger. The first day of the voyage was quite a fashion show as everybody tried to find the right size and struggle into it. We were grateful for the warmth, though; the sea is cold in January. Although I had one dip without my suit, snorkeling for an hour or more would have been uncomfortable, and, besides, there were things with spikes and stingers down there. Every night, the suits were hung up and hosed down, with a strict "no wet stuff in the cabin" rule. At the aft of the wetsuit deck, the crew kept a big tub of reef-friendly sunblock; the environment is so pristine there, it's essential that it's protected from any foreign chemicals.
Beach landings (essentially all landings, as there are no jetties in such a remote place) are by skiff. Some are "wet" landings, where you have to jump in and splash ashore, but most are relatively easy, and you don't usually get wet. (Bring a pair of jelly shoes or waterproof sandals, though, as some of the beaches are pebbly.) A basic level of mobility is needed to climb on and off the skiff, but a couple of passengers on my cruise had walking sticks and still managed every beach landing with the help of the crew. Every beach we visited was empty; in fact, during the whole week, we only encountered a couple of private yachts and a few fishermen.
One of the advantages of having four qualified naturalists as guides is that every piece of beach litter has a story to tell. Here, Melissa is holding up a rather pungent-smelling dolphin skull, pointing out the enormous brain cavity. We did these guided walks in small groups on several days; the skiffs would pull up on the beach, complete with a cooler full of soft drinks, and the various groups would set off at their own pace. Some walks involved beachcombing, while others took us up into the hinterland, through the cactus forests and over rocky ridges. One particularly grueling walk involved scrambling over huge boulders. We were lucky enough to see the desert in bloom, as it had rained recently. Some of the flowers were so rare that even the guides needed books to identify them.
Onboard, the salon is without question the focal point of the ship, with an extensive library at one end and the bar at the other. Jen, the bartender, was particularly imaginative, sometimes setting up on the aft deck with hot toddies when we came back from snorkeling, or serving iced raspberry vodka one sunny lunchtime. Drinks are included in the cruise fares, and her excellent and thoughtful mixology added a certain decadence to the expedition.
What's so incredible about the Sea of Cortez is the sheer abundance of wildlife. We spotted this pod of dolphins from some distance and followed them for an hour. As we got closer, it became clear that this was an enormous pod, numbering hundreds of mammals. When there are this many, you don't just see them; we could hear them chirping to one another and smell their fishy aroma.
One day, we booked an excursion (the only activity to incur a fee) that took us west across the Baja Peninsula to Magdalena Bay, a rich grey whale breeding ground on the Pacific side of Baja. Magdalena Bay used to be a whale hunting area, but now that Mexico protects grey whales, the local fishermen have turned to conservation and take visitors out in their boats. The whales are incredibly unafraid, and the mothers push their babies, each one the size of a small car, up to the fishing boats to show them off. Even the most somber adults were turned into squealing kids at the excitement of touching a whale.
Because there's no phone signal for most of Baja, and nobody really lives there anyway, planning activities can take on an unpredictable nature. But at Agua Verde, a gorgeous bay, a ranchero, Alejandro, arrived with a string of burros or donkeys. (Apparently he shows up every time the ship is due in, although there's no guarantee.) He took us for a bumpy ride along rocky trails up into the hills, from where we had breathtaking views back to the ship. The ride was straightforward enough, as we went only at a walking pace, but those who had not sat on a horse or mule before were understandably apprehensive. We had a certain sense of the burros being in charge, rather than their riders; luckily, they were gentle and well behaved.
The Sea Lions
Swimming with wild sea lions was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip for most. We donned wetsuits, masks and snorkels and plunged into the water just off Los Islotes, the southernmost breeding colony of the Californian sea lion. The juveniles, like boisterous teenagers, were desperate to play and buzzed us, nipped us, dunked us in the water and tried to pull off our masks with their teeth. These two climbed onto the skiff and hitched a ride all the way back to the ship, refusing to move.
Food is fresh, healthy and delicious, using a lot of locally sourced ingredients. Breakfast is buffet-style with hot dishes to order, while lunch is a light, three-course meal and dinner a more substantial affair. Wine is included in the price. Being outdoors all day, you work up an enormous appetite, and some of the larger gentlemen onboard soon learned to ask for seconds, or two mains, and the waitstaff cheerfully obliged. I particularly loved the crisp salads and the spicy Mexican dishes. Our group included gluten-intolerant and vegan passengers, and their needs were met beautifully, with the chef even whipping up gluten-free cookies to accompany desserts.
The Water Sports
The final day was dedicated to water sports, so I decided to try every activity available, which included snorkeling, kayaking in a double, solo kayaking in a sit-on-top and paddleboarding. (For me, paddleboarding was the least successful; it's much harder to balance than it looks.) With the ship's sophisticated water sports platform, you could launch kayaks and paddleboards by sliding them down a short ramp. The crewmembers were always happy to offer instruction, and nobody was obliged to try a sport alone, although most people seemed pretty confident in a kayak. Water sports activities were offered on most beach stops, although I usually opted for the snorkeling. On one day, a few of us swam off the back of the ship, leaving the wetsuits behind for once. In January, the water can best be described as bracing.