Ryan and Kelly sailed with Cruise and Maritime Voyages on assignment for In The Loop Travel on the historic cruise ship MV Astoria.
On this voyage, they were able to explore destinations along Mexico's Sea of Cortez and Baja California Sur.
This beautiful part of Mexico is home to numerous charming small ports that have a lot to offer for adventurous travelers.
Honestly, you will rarely find cruise itineraries that stop in these places, but getting on this cruise with MV Astoria gave us the chance to show off four of the best Mexico destinations that are well worth a look for your overland travels, too.
In fact, you'll be happy to have more time to fully immerse yourself in the rich history and culture offered by La Paz, Guaymas, Loreto and Santa Rosalia.
In an effort to highlight great off-the-beaten-path places around the world, here is your quick guide to these best spots along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Cruise ships dock in this rustic port, which is also a commercial marine facility serving the town of almost 250,00 people. While not specifically geared toward cruise ships, vendors set up a few tents to sell souvenirs and other wares just off the dock. There is a nice little terminal there, but that's about it.
La Paz is known for the whale sharks that inhabit the area's waters from October through May each year. Pacific Manta Rays visit in the summer. Humpbacks also come to the warm and calm waters during their migration season from December to April. This is where the whales come to feed, mate and give birth. You also can see plenty of dolphins if you visit during these times.
La Paz, which is the capital and cultural center of Baja California Sur, also features a permanent colony of sea lions and is well known for spectacular sunsets.
Seafood places are everywhere, and the food is fresh. Balandra Beach is consistently voted one of the best in Mexico.
Malecon: La Paz's malecon is beautiful. The well-maintained waterfront offers with statues on every block, public spaces, playgrounds, wandering Mariachi bands and other music. Visitors enjoy the artwork, landscaping and shops just across the street. This is a great place for a jog, walk or just to sit back and enjoy the people watching.
Balandra Beach: The gorgeous strip of sand offers access to clear blue waters in a calm bay with cliffs jutting out of the sea. This is home to the "mushroom," the iconic geological symbol of La Paz (which is a natural mushroom-shaped rock formation that was destroyed years ago but re-erected with cement reinforcements.
The port is fairly far away from downtown or any other built-out areas of La Paz. The destination receives only about 30 cruise ship visits each year, compared with much busier spots like Cabo San Lucas at 300. Taxis are available at the port, but can be scarce. You cannot walk to any destinations from the port. If you cruise to La Paz, your ship might provide a shuttle bus to get to the downtown area, which is located about 10 miles away.
The Bottom Line
La Paz has a nice downtown, especially around the malecon. It also has a good range of options if you want to spend an active day enjoying nature. It's a nice mix of both worlds. It's a bit of a hassle the port not near downtown or the beaches. Therefore, you should plan for extra time to get to and from your excursions if arriving by ship.
How We Spent Our Day
In the morning, we enjoyed a late breakfast at Bismark restaurant, which offers several fresh seafood options. Then, we spent an hour at the town's regional history museum where our guide Emmanuel gave us a brief overview of the history of La Paz and the surrounding region.
Next, we went back to the malecon and had an hour to stroll. Afterward, we took the bus to a small harbor where our group split in two, boarded tour boats and cruised around the coastline learning about the native bird species, their mating grounds, the sea lion colonies and Balandra Beach.
After the short cruise, the bus took us to a beach restaurant where we ate dinner and watched the sunset. Then, we hopped back on the bus, and actually went to Balandra Beach where we were able to walk around at low tide. Residents hang out well past sunset and vendors sell snacks.
Balandra Beach is definitely a must-see attraction in La Paz and would be a neat place any time of day.
I think your time in La Paz would be best spent enjoying water activities because there is so much abundant wildlife. This is a fantastic destination for active travelers.
Cruise ships dock at the pier. The immediate area around the pier is nice, with a small terminal for buses, well-maintained landscaping and a display of national flags. There is not much to do near the cruise port in Guaymas, but this the port stop for exploring San Carlos, a beachfront community within the city.
Guaymas (population around 134,000) is a gateway to a host of nature activities, with access to the sea, mountains and desert within the state of Sonora. The region's ecosystem is home to endemic flora and fauna, especially on display in the beautiful Nacapule Canyon, located about 12 miles from Guaymas. The port is primarily an industrial area supporting commercial shrimp fishing.
San Carlos: Go to explore the El Mirador (viewing point) in San Carlos is the city's popular sunset spot. The modern seaside town of San Carlos is about a one-hour drive from Guaymas and features beaches and the opportunity for boat tours to see whales, sea lions, sea birds and dolphins.
Mount Tetakawi: The mountain is an iconic part of the scenery of San Carlos, and you can hike the well-marked path to reach 656 above sea level on this mountain that is sacred to the native tribes and believed to possess healing powers. It takes about two hours roundtrip for this hike.
Nacapule Canyon: This natural wonder also offers a range of recreational activities to enjoy, such as hiking and birdwatching amid the rock walls, boulders and palm trees.
The old downtown is within walking distance from the pier, probably about 15 minutes, but it is not a nice walk. The route goes past decrepit buildings, abandoned lots and through industrial areas. Our ship arranged a free shuttle from the pier to the central plaza in old downtown that ran about every 15 minutes. Taxis also are located just outside of the port authority area. Outside of old downtown, the city is fairly built up. (We spotted a mall on our drive that had a Sam's Club, Walmart and GNC.)
The Bottom Line
Guaymas doesn't offer much to see or do. The central square has a pretty church and a nicely landscaped central lawn area with a large gazebo. It was full of vendors when we got there, and that was nice, but that was pretty much it.
This is mainly the jumping off point to get to the tourist area of San Carlos, an hour's drive away. San Carlos is a built up and westernized seaside town. The wildlife/scenic cruise was quite enjoyable -- it was narrated by a guide who pointed out geographical sights as well as various birds, sea lions, and the cruise highlight -- bottlenose dolphins! We received a light snack and soft drinks. It was well-organized and lasted about an hour and a half.
If you cruise to reach Loreto you will tender ashore. There is a protected little marina filled with panga boats and pelicans. The town is located right off the pier, with a simple malecon winding along the oceanside.
Several blocks of pedestrian walkways branch off from the malecon, and the port is recognizable from its distinctive Sea Lion statue that welcomes visitors. Loreto has a population of just more than 20,000 people.
Loreto is a quiet and charming destination, especially when compared with more bustling locations like the crowded beach towns of Cabo San Lucas or Cancun. The first mission of the Camino Real was built here in 1697 and is located right in downtown Loreto. The story goes that the first Jesuits to arrive in Loreto brought a donkey with them, and the animal stopped 200 meters from the shore and refused to move, no matter what they tried. They took it as a sign and established the mission on that spot.
The top activities include whale watching, snorkeling and diving at any of the several islands around the city. The primary one we heard about is Coronado. Another top attraction is San Javier Mission, about an hour drive outside of the city.
San Javier Mission: The cathedral was founded in 1699 and is the third oldest on the Camino Real and has been in continuous use it was established. It is situated in the mountains among olive and orange trees. There is a 300-year-old olive tree behind the cathedral that was planted around the founding of the mission. The trip to the mission is a feast for the eyes, as the trip takes you winding through the mountains. The climate changes from desert to steppe, almost temperate with more vegetation as you rise higher along the historic Camino Real.
Islands of Loreto: The islands in Loreto Bay have sandy beaches, rocky shores and gorgeous desert landscapes that make the attractive homes for seabirds, sea lions and other wildlife. Isla Coronado and Isla Catalina, along with other smaller named and nameless islands make up the Bay of Loreto National Park. You can rent a boat or join a tour to get over to explore these blissful wonderlands.
Right off the ship, you can walk around Loreto very easily. The town features shops, restaurants, grocery stores, souvenir shops and banks. Taxi drivers and panga operators are available at the port and are eager to take you on tours. San Javier Mission requires about an hour-long ride through the mountains.
The Bottom Line
The town is a delight and easy to wander and enjoy. There is lots to see and do, especially for those looking for good food or shopping opportunities. If you have time, get over to the islands to visit (we, sadly, did not have time). The drive to San Javier was gorgeous (albeit bumpy) and a definite highlight of our visit.
We recommend a visit to El Rey Del Taco (about a 10-minute walk from the pier along Calle Benito Juarez) for "the most authentic tacos I've ever eaten." They have a simple, fresh and delicious beef and fish tacos.
We would love to come back to Loreto and spend a week snorkeling, eating and relaxing!
Cruise ships anchor here, and passengers tender to the pier. Immediately off the dock is the mining museum, which is the abandoned mine cut directly into the hillside. Santa Rosalia receives infrequent cruise ship visits -- our stop was the first in 10 years. The town had held multiple meetings in preparation for our visit and was abuzz as our small 550-passenger MV Astoria stopped for the day. A Mariachi band played as we stepped off our tender boats.
We passed a large group of local media photographing and covering the ship's arrival and even the governor was on hand to welcome passengers and crew. The farmers market area has several stands selling jewelry, baked goods and other items.
Santa Rosalia is an old mining town located on the Gulf of California coast of the Baja California Sur peninsula.
A French mining company Compagnie du Boleo founded the town in 1885 to commercially mine copper, and hundreds of workers died working in the El Boleo Mine as the company exploited the workers and employed labor-intensive practices with poor safety conditions.
The city has a population of about 14,000 and features a mining history museum full of old mining equipment that gives visitors a glimpse at what it might have been like to work in the mines. The French influences are still very present in the architecture (the rich people lived in the French Quarter at the highest elevations of town).
A ferry runs between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas a few times a week.
Panaderia El Boleo: This French bakery was established in 1901. You can watch bakers create French and Mexican pastries in their rustic facility. The Old West-style factory pumps out plenty of tasty treats that visitors have been coming to enjoy for more than a century.
Iglesia Santa Barbara: Perhaps most well-known is this metal prefab church with a disputed legacy. The church was shown in Paris at the 1889 Exposition Universelle and acquired by the Boleo Mining Co. and brought to Santa Rosalia. Much of the interest in the church is derived through the locally accepted retellings of its history that state it was designed by Gustave Eiffel (this claim is unconfirmed and regularly contested).
Hotel Frances: This National Historic Monument was founded in 1886 by the mining company. This is a good option if you're are staying in Santa Rosalia, or you can just come to have a look around the historic hotel property that evokes a period from a century ago.
Scenic Lookout: When visiting the French Quarter that overlooks the town, take the steps up to enjoy the impressive vistas. You get a wonderful view of the harbor and will be able to collect some memorable pictures from here.
A tourist office is situated just off the dock. You'll also find several taxis on call for visitors. This is the area where tour buses will meet any cruise visitors. The Old Town is also a walkable distance from the port. The aforementioned ferry that runs between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas is here.
The Bottom Line
We found the town to have an interesting vibe -- with a mix of French and Wild West feel. Santa Rosalia has a nice little central plaza but is not specifically geared toward tourists but is a bustling place full of activity. Indeed, this is what might make this destination all the more attractive to travelers who are seeking a more immersive "everyday life" kind of experience in Mexico.
One day is enough to see almost everything in Santa Rosalia.
Video feature: The Pretty Ports on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico
Thanks for reading,
JR, Kelly and Ryan
All photo credits for this post are to Ryan and Kelly. Thanks so much to them for working with me on covering this experience.
Check out more of their fabulous travels on their Watch Us Wander YouTube channel.