I am not a cruise person. My association with cruises has always been negative. They usually make the news when a virus breaks out, causing excessive diarrhea, and then the ship inevitably fills up with too much human excrement and starts sinking.
At least, that’s been my interpretation of the news.
Ultimately, it never sounded like my kind of vacation. Nothing seemed relaxing about cramming a small city onto an obscenely large vessel to be ushered around like cattle and call it “seeing the world.” For this reason, and the previously stated excessive excrement, I signed up for an Un-Cruise Adventures to the Baja Peninsula’s Sea of Cortez last December.
OFF TO LA PAZ
I know I just finished explaining why cruises aren’t for me, so allow me to vindicate myself.
Un-Cruise Adventures is billed as the cruise for people who don’t like cruises. That alone intrigued me. After all, I have nothing against sailing. In fact, I’d quite like to do a bit more sailing in my life. Sea air and I get along rather well, in fact.
Then there was the promise of reaching destinations that are inaccessible by other modes of transportation. This clashed with my image of thousands of tourists shuffling off at port to briefly infest a defenseless city. With Un-Cruise, we would be making port in only one city. For the rest of our time, we would be in rather isolated corners of the sea.
So in mid-December, my wife, Melanie, and I landed in Cabo only to be collected by Un-Cruise and swept away rather quickly to La Paz, Mexico. This also appealed to me as I have little interest in the resorts of Cabo.
The bus ride took a few hours, but we were promised it was a better option than sailing around the southern tip of the peninsula where the crashing waves provide a rocky experience. Traveling by bus allowed us to avoid making the entire ship seasick at the beginning of the journey and maximize our time enjoying the wonders of the Sea of Cortez.
Our first night was spent on the ship, running over obligatory safety procedures, meeting staff, and enjoying dinner. In total, they estimated 40-some passengers on board. This seemed completely manageable compared to the horrors I had heard of more traditional cruising services.
Then, it was time to start signing up for activities. The way this worked was the activities director would grab a microphone, talk everyone through their options, and simply walk around with a tablet to jot down everyone’s selection. Melanie and I opted for a hike on Isla San Francisco, billed as a moderately difficult jaunt. Although we had barely been at sea, stretching our legs on land was awfully appealing.
ISLA SAN FRANCISCO
Our morning began with pico de gallo on tostada with eggs, cheese and avocado before moving on to our hike, shuttled over to land by a motorized raft. The difficulty of the hike was, perhaps, oversold, but we were too excited to set foot on rarely traveled land to care.
So far Un-Cruise’s pitch was on point. This indeed felt like a place one could only reach by sea. This meant we were treated to beautiful views along flat desert plains and mountain ridges. Loose rocks on the descent were the only potentially perilous obstacles, though most everyone managed completely fine despite the ever present threat of running into the wrong plaIsnt, like a cholla — ready to stab any appendage that passed by too closely.
Our guide, a La Paz local named Paulino who had been attached to the region in some form since college, provided an extra dose of insight throughout the voyage. His knowledge of the history and biology of the area was as encyclopedic as Fernando Jordán, an author whose mid-20th Century “El Otro México” offered one of the first travelogue accounts of Baja California.
We still had a couple of hours to kill after completing the mile-and-a-half jaunt. Still thrilled to be on land after a rocky night at sea, we spent some time embracing the stillness of the ground and enjoyed a drink from the Un-Cruise pop-up bar. Though perhaps we should have saved the drink until after trying our hand at stand up paddle boarding with gusts of harsh wind rocking the open water. By the time I finally went bipedal, I noticed the wind had already pushed me much further than our instructor would have liked. Locked in an intense, frozen position, I stood still until my muscles were too tired to continue. I then retreated embarrassingly to my knees and spent the next 90 percent of my time in the water paddling back to shore. That mission in and of itself took care of the rest of our time at the beach before we were requested to make our return by the 5 p.m. boarding call.
That night, Melanie and I rested on the deck as we enjoyed a meteor shower into the early morning hours. We city folk hadn’t see so many stars in our life, not to mention Melanie who was treated to her first shooting star. The Big Dipper looked more like a lasso from this southern vantage point of the western hemisphere. For an hour or so, we pondered the incredible mystery of the cosmos and watched space objects dissolve before our eyes in the night sky.
Traveling again through the night, we awoke in Agua Verde for a morning mule ride. I admit I had my concerns. After all, I assumed the animals weren’t exact willing participants. Couldn’t I just hike the trail myself?
But we were told it was hosted by a local family and it sounded like just about our only chance to interact with people not on the cruise, so we obliged. Plus we later learned that the family suffered greatly in a relatively recent hurricane and depended on the income generated from these Un-Cruise trips.
Sorry, burro, I thought. You will get the wrath of my ass for this family. My burro went by Mamila, which translates to the rubber nipple at the end of a baby bottle. His feisty temperament suggested that the other mules must have made fun of him for his namesake. A Rudolph of the Mexican desert, if you will.
We started climbing a stone path with a smooth incline. The feeling of having an animal underneath was different to say the least. I can’t say I loved it or that I was enthusiastic about kicking her stomach to get her moving. I certainly wouldn’t listen to anyone kicking me in the gut.
Still, the views were as advertised. Unspoiled desert vistas, mountains, a small oasis and overlooks of the bay where you could see how the area got its name, agua verde or green water. But my derriere felt like I had cycled about 50 miles within an hour of riding the burro. Cowboys and rancheros must have backsides made of leather.
However, most of my concern was for Mamila when we came upon the steepest incline of the day. I don’t speak burro, but Mamila seemed to be struggling mightily, losing pace with those in front of us and holding up the line behind. I was seriously concerned he might keel over, but it’s just as possible his lethargy was a sign of boredom and not faintness.
Nevertheless, we made it back in one piece for lunch before heading off to the day’s second activity, kayaking. This proved to be far more within my comfort zone. We essentially did a lap of the bay over two-plus hours, stopping at a rocky beach that appeared to be a marine graveyard of sorts, covered in the skeletal remains of hammerhead sharks, manta rays, a turtle and even pieces of a sea lion. Though an interesting discovery and discussion with Paulino, it was ultimately sad from the conservationist’s perspective since the remains were remnants of illegal fishing.
Today was the day Melanie was most looking forward to, for it was the day we would be swimming with sea lion puppies. I, on the other hand (in my constant state of bravery), kept reassuring myself that Un-Cruise wouldn’t have us swim with wild animals if it weren’t completely safe. I also trusted that our wetsuits, as promised, would keep us afloat. After all, I have the swimming skills of an infant dropped on their head.
We were lucky to find ourselves in the first group heading out to meet the sea lions. The choppy water gave some concern that it would be canceled, but instead we plowed ahead. The sea lions were distant, yet visible dots resting on a flat piece of rock in between two larger mounds. As we approached, we saw some of the adults had managed to perch themselves onto the more perilous-looking corners.
By the time we hopped in, the sea lion pups were already playing. Groups as large as six or seven darted by us. Our guide said it best: they look like clumsy creatures waddling on the surface, but are ballerinas in the sea, twisting and turning with such beauty and precision, you’d think there was some sort of dance competition going on amongst the pups.
The experience lasted about 45 minutes or so before an encroaching bull let us know that we needed to back off a bit from the rocks and head back to our boat. I for one was flopping with as much uncoordinated speed as soon as I saw one pup dart underwater. Still, that time in the water proved what famed conservationist Jacques Cousteau said of the Sea of Cortez, calling it “the world’s aquarium.”
With the thrilling morning out of the way, it was time to relax on deck as we cruised for critters, namely whales, out in the sea.
No such luck with critters the day before, but our early morning hike focused our excitement elsewhere. The hike took us through a dried riverbed that after some minutes of desert trail turned to a pure boulder hike, requiring hands and feet most of the way up. We learned about some different plant life, including the Adam Tree, named so because it’s usually naked like Adam in the Bible. Though when “clothed,” as it was on our hike, it has tiny green leaves.
Melanie and I had been surprised at the number who signed up. The hike was sold to scare some folks away, advertised as having many “ninety-degree knee movements,” so we had been looking forward to a small, active group. Unfortunately people didn’t feel like self-selecting themselves out and joined anyhow, slowing our pace considerably.
There was some concern that we wouldn’t make the top of our hike before we were scheduled to start heading back due to our slow start. I was admittedly a tad frustrated, seeing as the hike was listed as just over two miles and I felt should be easy to complete in the allotted time. Thankfully our guide let us hustle to the top and we were rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of the Sea of Cortez heading toward mainland Mexico. The drop off was steep, making for some great dramatic views with the crashing waves beneath. Pockets of wind threatened those who tiptoed too close to the edge.
Last on our agenda for the day was another snorkel outing. We knew it would be impossible to beat snorkeling with the sea lions the prior morning, but it was also nice swimming without having to keep an eye out for an angry bull. Indeed, we were able to find some interesting coral, fish, and even a school of manta rays dashing back and forth, spinning in what looked like a tornado funnel underwater. Above they look a bit more spastic with only their fins splashing, much like our sea lion friends.
PLAYA BONANZA AND LA PAZ
The final two days flew by like a clichéd blur. Day five was dominated by a long hike at Playa Bonanza along a flat, desert field. Paulino, our earlier-mentioned walking encyclopedia, noted that by studying the seashells, the area was probably four to five million years old — dating back to when the ground beneath us was underwater.
We awoke on our final full day back at La Paz with many anticipating a morning swimming with whale sharks. The staff did all they could to maintain an optimistic tone, but the winds had alas forced us to cancel the outing. Our activities director gave the sad news, noting that if the locals thought it too dangerous, it was probably best to listen. Most accepted the news and opted to make the most with an entire day in a lesser-traveled Mexican city.
Personally, I didn’t mind the cancellation. A day in La Paz excited me as it was my first Spanish-speaking city since moving back from Costa Rica about six months prior. I saw it as an opportunity to explore a new city and chat a little with anyone willing. Indeed, Melanie and I had a nice conversation with the owner of a local restaurant that fueled our enjoyment of the port city.
La Paz is modestly-sized city at about 215,000 in population. William Walker established his capital for the so-called Republic of Sonora here in 1854, which seems like an inconsequential bit of history until you consider the fact that Walker pretty much epitomizes the worst of U.S. American stereotypes that Latin Americans understandably loathe.
For those unfamiliar, Walker was obsessed with creating his own nation, so the Tennessean invaded and captured La Paz with the assistance of 45 men in 1853. The laws of Louisiana were adopted, making slavery legal. When Mexico declared independence the following year, he was met with resistance and ultimately fled back to the States where he was tried for conducting an illegal war. The jury took just eight minutes to acquit him due to the popularity of his Manifest Destiny exploits with southern states. So, he later returned to Central America where he tried to convert the region into his private slave colony. Eventually, he was captured and duly shot.
Good riddance, I assume most thought.
Today, La Paz appears much more peaceful and colorful than its early history might indicate. Melanie and I both found the city a joy to walk, especially the relatively young Malecón boardwalk along the sea. We ended the evening by purchasing a couple of locally made coffee mugs and a small plate, something we could easily fit into our bags and would surely use.
We departed early the next morning by bus to return directly to the airport after bidding a fond farewell to the Un-Cruise staff who had done an incredible job taking care of its 40-some passengers over a week’s time. At the airport, Melanie and I reunited (whether we liked it or not) with the more typical picture of Mexican tourism, the portly Gringo slamming coronas with little hint of the national culture present.
It was clear then more than ever before that Un-Cruise Adventures had, indeed, treated us to a special slice of Mexico most travelers to our southern neighbor will never see.