Rockin’ Across the Sea of Cortez

When I left La Paz on the Baja Peninsula last year under a cloud of melancholy, I set some intentions declaring aloud, “The next time I come to La Paz, it will be on a boat!”   As is often the case, though, I needed to be a bit more specific.  What I had in mind was a sailboat.  What I manifested instead was a ferry.

This is a zoomed view of the Baja Ferry from Contessa's beachside spot.

This is a zoomed view of the Baja Ferry leaving Mazatlan, taken from Contessa’s beachside spot on the Isla.

The ferry dock is just a "panga" (small boat) ride across the shipping channel from Isla de la Piedra.

The ferry dock is just a “panga” (small boat) ride across the shipping channel from Isla de la Piedra.

I’ve been curious about the Baja Ferry ever since I watched it from Contessa’s beachside RV Park in 2014.   Since Isla de la Piedra is so close to the shipping channel, it looks like the Baja ferry is just “driving by.”  Each night it departs the dock around sunset, making its way across the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, bound for La Paz on the eastern side of the Baja Peninsula.  It seems like such a novel concept.   Just take a panga across the shipping channel, get on the boat, and end up in Baja.  Could it really be that simple?

Although the Baja Star is considered a passenger ferry, it does carry some vehicles as well.

Although the Baja Star is considered a passenger ferry, it does carry some vehicles and lots of freight.

18-wheelers back into the blunt-ended ferry.

18-wheelers back into the blunt-ended ferry.

Simple?  Yes.  Cheap?  No.  I spent a hundred bucks to cross the Sea of Cortez.  I could have flown for probably not much more.  But what am I going to remember 10 years from now?  A one hour flight with a smooth landing?  Or waking up at 3:00am to loud banging sounds, grabbing my passport, and bolting up the stairs to the top deck to see if lifeboats were being deployed?  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Passengers board by following the yellow strip along the floor.

Passengers board by following the yellow strip along the floor.

One might look at this young man in front of me and see "long haired, man-bun wearing punk." I look at him as someone who insisted on carrying my suitcase up three flights of stairs!"

One might look at this young man in front of me and see “long haired, man-bun wearing punk.” I look at him and see someone who insisted on carrying my suitcase up three flights of stairs!”

Reception Desk. A word of warning, you must leave ID here to secure your room key. I didn't have anything but my passport which I didn't want to leave overnight. They accepted my SCUBA certification card. ;-)

Reception Desk. A word of warning, you must leave ID here to secure your room key. I didn’t have anything but my passport which I didn’t want to leave overnight. They accepted my SCUBA certification card instead. ;-)

Baja Ferries runs alternating trips to La Paz; the Cabo Star, primarily a vehicle ferry that carries a few passengers, and the Baja Star, a passenger boat that carries a few vehicles.    I booked passage on the passenger boat, Baja Star, that leaves Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Cloud cover in the harbor suggests the promise of a good sunset...

Cloud cover in the harbor suggests the promise of a good sunset…

Fellow passengers gather on the back deck to watch the show.

Fellow passengers gather on the back deck to watch the show.

Watching the sunset behind El Faro, the Lighthouse.

Watching the sun set behind El Faro, the Lighthouse.

Clouds make this one of the best sunsets I've seen since leaving Zihua.

Clouds make this one of the best sunsets I’ve seen since leaving Zihua.

Departure time varies, depending on who you ask.  The woman selling me my ticket tells me to be there at 3:30pm.   The information board at the terminal and my ticket agree, departure time will be at 5:30pm.  Eye witnesses from the beach say it departs consistently after 6:30pm. But I have missed more buses in Mexico for the reason being they left early rather than my being late, so I decide to err on the side of caution and get there at 3:30pm.  Delayed due to waiting on a couple of 18-wheelers to load, we finally leave around 7:30pm.   The downside of this is my hopes of sailing into the sunset are dashed.  The upside is, I get to watch the sun set while surrounding El Faro, highest lighthouse in North America, in a beautiful crimson cloak.

Sunset, and we are still at the dock...not necessarily a bad place to be...

Sunset, and we are still at the dock…not necessarily a bad place to be…

Ships require a pilot to leave the shipping channel.

Ships require a pilot to leave the shipping channel.

Our pilot is on the way.

Our pilot is on his way!

There are two ways to travel as a passenger on the Baja Ferry.  General Admission for 1200 pesos, around $60 US will get you passage, a relatively comfy airline-type seat, dinner included, and overhead movies with English subtitles.  But I have read horror stories about having to jockey for position for these seats on a crowded ferry.   And nothing says “agoraphobia” like the words “middle seat.”   So that leads to the second option, a cabin.   But a cabin practically doubles the cost of a ticket if one is single.  It’s a single charge for four beds.  If you are a group of four traveling, you split this four ways.  If you are a solo traveler, you have no other option but to pay for all four beds.  As often is the case with hotels, RV Parks, campgrounds, etc., the solo traveler gets screwed.  Still, at 860 Pesos (an additional $43) it seems like a worthwhile investment, if for nothing else but a place to safely store my luggage.

These are the airline-style seats if you are lucky enough to get one...

These are the airline-style seats if you are lucky enough to get one…

How about a tour of my cabin?

How about a tour of my cabin? We can do the entire tour from this one spot.

Bunk beds overhead are stowed, since it's only me...

Bunk beds overhead are stowed, since it’s only me…

I am impressed that the beds are extremely comfortable.

I am impressed that the beds are extremely comfortable.

Cabins are equipped with a hot water shower.

Cabins are equipped with a hot water shower and amenities.

Dinner is included in the price of a ferry ticket.  They have three options on offer;  Beef Picadillo, Chicken Pozole, or Marlin Veracruz.   Although it doesn’t look like much on the plate, the food is actually quite good.   Beer is extra at $1 a can, so who can complain?  Barry Gibb is blaring on the big screen.  The disco floor begs for a little Night Fever.   But by 9:00pm, the entire ship is sleeping…

The Lounge

The Lounge

Dinner is included. I chose the Beef Picadillo. It was really good!

Dinner is included. I reluctantly chose the Beef Picadillo. It was really good!

Barry Gibb offers entertainment in the dining room...

Barry Gibb offers entertainment in the dining room…

No takers on the disco floor...

No takers on the disco floor…

The wind has been howling for the past few days in Mazatlan, so I don’t hold out much hope for a smooth crossing.  But I’m in bed by 10pm with just enough motion to rock me to sleep like a baby.  By midnight, I find myself expressing gratitude for my immunity to sea sickness.   By 2:00am, I am questioning whether I am still immune.   Lying there in my drowsy, half-dreamlike state, I hear a hull-vibrating, nauseating “CLANG” from below, followed by the sound of the engines slowing.  A sense of dread comes over me as I start to strategize.

A corral for kids...a great idea. ;-)

A corral for kids…a great idea. ;-)

Rolling in the gigantic dock lines.

Rolling in the gigantic dock lines.

Sailing past El Faro, the Lighthouse.

The lights of Mazatlan as we sail past El Faro, the Lighthouse.

I get out of bed and fashion myself a “bug out jacket.”  I zip my passport, pesos, and phone in one pocket of my fleece jacket, and zip my camera into the other.   I head for the top deck to investigate.    I’m almost to the stairs  when I am stopped by a security guard with rapid fire narrative in Spanish.  His face looks calm, but his rapid-fire words are panic-inducing.  I can’t understand a single word except for “peligroso,” which I know to mean “danger.”    I repeat the word back to him, “Peligroso??”  He stands with his hands on his hips blocking the stairs and responds sternly “Si!”  I look out the window into the inky black darkness to see if I can spot deployment of lifeboats.

Finally, a woman comes out from behind the reception desk, speaking in perfect English to tell me the security guard is trying to warn me that the top deck is closed because it’s wet, and I am in danger of falling on the slippery steps.  She assures me that the clanging sounds I hear are just waves hitting against the hull, and are perfectly normal.  I ask if the rough seas are typical, and she tells me they are not uncommon.  I should try to relax and get some sleep.

Sunrise in the Sea of Cortez.

Sunrise in the Sea of Cortez.

bf...Baja Ferry smoke stack.

bf…Baja Ferry smoke stack.

IMG_3509

Traveling alongside Baja near La Paz.

Traveling alongside Baja near La Paz.

I return to my cabin and get back into my PJ’s. I crawl into bed, and fall sound asleep with my “bug out jacket” still wrapped tightly in my arms.   Before I know it, the PA system announces, “Buenos días pasajeros. Buenvenidos La Paz!”

Buenvenidos La Paz! It's nice to be back!

Buenvenidos La Paz! It’s good to be back!

Footnote:  If one decides to take this ride, don’t take a taxi into Centro La Paz!  It will cost you almost 500 pesos, or $25US.  Instead, take a “Colectivo” which is a van similar to Super Shuttle with seven other passengers.  You may have to sit for a while until they fill up the van, but it’s only 70 pesos, or about $3.50US.

13 thoughts on “Rockin’ Across the Sea of Cortez

    • Hi, Maria! Thanks for the comment. If you decide to do it, you might want to check out my Baja posts from last year. At the bottom of each post by town, I listed the names of hotels and prices where I stayed each night. They were all within walking distance of the bus stop. Rates were even lower this year, due to the favorable exchange rate.

  1. What a cool trip! We took a couple of ferries in Alaska and those were not cheap either. Good call getting the cabin, next time we would get one as you are right about trying to get seats!

  2. Lovers of personal space – Finns, for example – should always book a cabin on ferries. Watching Barry Gibb with 300 of my new best friends; not my idea of a good time.

  3. It seems incongruous to me that some one who does solo exploring all over North America would be concerned about banging noises in the middle of the night on a ferry. That said you did not have the opportunity to live on a large gray ship for two years. As always I enjoyed your story, thanks.

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