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Cruising Mexico’s West Coast

Playing the paradise ports of Mexico's West Coast.

October 4, 2007

For many of us, the mythic cruising destination is usually full of images of an exotic land of eternal summertime, isolated anchorages and pristine white sand beaches. The borders of our dream are marked by palm trees with fronds swishing like the grass skirt of a dancer in a slow, sensuous hula to the rhythm of the gentle but consistent breezes. Here, one imagines, the living is as easy as it can get.

When it comes to the real world, cruisers think of the islands of Polynesia as coming closest to this mythic paradise. West Coast cruisers, however, also know that the Pacific Coast of Mexico has numerous anchorages that can satisfy the wanderlust in any of us. Better yet, the more experienced of these cruisers know that to savor much of the lushness of these tropical destinations, it pays to visit one of several marinas dotting the Pacific Coast, south of the Tropic of Cancer.

During our two recent cruising seasons along Mexico’s west coast, we’ve observed a growing number of folks who spend most of their cruising season in one or several of these marinas. It’s something of a tradeoff: You sacrifice a bit of the isolation that can make cruising such magic, but you’re still close to some pristine Mexican beaches, still living amongst an exotic culture, while basking in the comforts and conveniences of marina living.

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Now that we’ve moved further south, we’ve put together a short list of favorites. Each of these marinas is associated either with a luxury resort or a yacht club. They are private, can accommodate large yachts, are near international airports, and are generally well maintained and well run.

Mazatlan, directly across the Sea of Cortez from the tip of the Baja Peninsula, is the home of El Cid, the most northerly of the tropical marinas along this coast. Inside the mouth of Estero El Sabalo, the small Marina El Cid is in the attractively designed and landscaped five-star El Cid Mega Resort. Facilities include tennis courts and a golf course.

The attractions of El Cid include much more than resort access. At the marina are a small market, a chandlery and a fuel dock. North and south of the marina entrance, golden sand beaches stretch for miles and the estuary winding inland is full of shore birds. A short ride on the hotel shuttle takes guests to the city where an extensive malecon (“seawall”) gives glorious views of the seven-mile beach and the sparkling aquamarine waters.

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Cruisers to Mazatlan often occupy themselves for weeks sight-seeing in this large city and sunning and swimming at the numerous beaches. The dive shop at El Cid rents equipment and charters for most water sports, including surfing, snorkeling and diving.

The next luxurious resort marina to the south, Paradise Village in Nuevo Vallarta, lies tucked inside the entrance of the Rio Ameca, a few miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Most of the cruisers we met here spent some of each day at one of the three resort pools or at the beach. Bus service to Puerto Vallarta is also convenient.

Despite its reputation as a tourist hot spot, thanks in part to John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana, Puerto Vallarta remains a modest sized town of cobblestone streets leading to a colonial plaza and a cathedral topped with one of the loveliest bell towers we’ve seen-a recreation of the crown of Carlota, the queen of Mexico from 1864 to 1867.

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Beyond the city there are a host of wonderful villages and islands which are easy day trips from Paradise Village. One choice spot several miles from the city is the Tres Marietas, at the entrance to the bay. These three deserted islands have small beaches and reefs as well as underwater caves, tunnels and walls for the intrepid explorer.

With all the wonderful facilities of Paradise Village Marina and the plethora of natural and cultural diversions, many cruisers keep their boats here for months, if not years.

This marina is part of the large and elegant resort of Grand Bay Hotel. The marina lies below the sparkling white hotel, set among lush tropical gardens on a peninsula between Laguna de la Navidad and Bahia de la Navidad.

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The water taxi ferries guests across the channel to the village of Barra de la Navidad, its buildings spread along a narrow sandbar of the same name. The real attraction for most visitors is the wide beach beginning at the tip of the sand spit and curving around the bay to San Patricio Melaque, the commercial center for the bay. In January surfers flock to the great swells off Barra de la Navidad.

The restaurants, specializing in fish and seafood, draw a number of tourists as well as locals to this beach. Another attraction is the stunning snorkeling and diving area in the southwest end of the cove. This is known among the cruisers simply as the Aquarium. Here grottos of brilliant emerald-green coral shelter slithery, leering eels and tropical fish. A host of day excursions and adventures make this another worthwhile home base in Mexico.

This resort marina is on the far outskirts of Manzanillo-the busiest port in Mexico. The city has less charm than either Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, but the fantastic setting of the resort and marina more than compensates for the shortcoming. The Las Hadas resort could have come straight out of Fantasy Island. Walkways curve past chalk-white walls and boughs of purple and melon-colored bougainvillea. The same combination of white and warm color continues on the steep hillside above the walkways, where the Moorish-style villas ascend step by step to the top of Punta Santiago. It’s all very enchanting.

Ashore at water level are the restaurants and exquisitely tiled swimming pools lined with palm trees and palapas (thatch-roofed shelters). A small but lovely beach lies tucked invitingly into the most protected corner of the western end of Bahia de Manzanillo, behind Punta Salagua and the Marina Las Hadas breakwater.

Yachts here need to Med-moor; transients can anchor outside of the breakwater. For many visitors who are staying aboard for extended stays, anchoring is a popular option. The anchorage is cooler, quieter and more private. And strangely enough, there is often less motion at anchor than at the slips.

Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy have been cruising full-time for the past seven years and are currently in Costa Rica. They have written Destination Mexico, Cruising Guide to San Francisco Bay and Cruising Guide to the Hawaiian Islands.

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