Just south of San Diego, on a strip of land that more than 12 million years ago decided to go its own way, travelers can find a region of the world that has evolved into a natural paradise. The Baja California Peninsula in Mexico features a desert landscape that stretches for almost 800 miles — from Tijuana in the north to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip.
Separating the peninsula from the mainland is a magical waterway known as the “Aquarium of the World.”
The Sea of Cortés, also called the Gulf of California and the Vermillion Sea (for its majestic brilliant red sunsets), is where I spent a week hosted by UnCruise Adventures, joining 53 fellow travelers who reveled in the chance to dive deep into the history, culture, and adventures available at this special destination.
Here’s why I loved experiencing the Sea of Cortés with UnCruise and why you will, too.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Sea of Cortés and why it’s called the Aquarium of the World, check out Jo-Anne Bowen’s 4 Favorite Small Ports To Experience Along Baja’s Sea Of Cortes.
1. A Superb Learning Opportunity
Look at a map and you’ll notice the long finger of land below California that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean. This is a result of tectonic plates crashing together oh so many millennia ago. The Baja California Peninsula was once part of the North American Plate, but it has since been ripped away after a collision with the Pacific Plate. It’s slowly being pulled away from the mainland and eventually will become an island, a detail that we learned during enrichment chats with UnCruise expedition team members during our sailing.
The result is that the Sea of Cortés and the region feature a mix of characteristics and climate that makes it a fantastic haven for marine and land-based biodiversity. An expedition cruise is an ideal way to explore this place, and UnCruise has been coming here for more than 2 decades on its intimate sailings.
During your small-ship cruise in the Sea of Cortés, members of the expedition team constantly offer up interesting bits of history about the region, and they are especially keen to feed you knowledge about the marine wildlife and mysteries of the desert while snorkeling and kayaking in the waters and hiking in the rocky hills (more on these activities below).
We had a guide who took us through the town of Loreto and told us about the history of the first capital of Baja California and its historic mission, which Jesuits started in the Spanish territory in 1697. Today, you can visit the beautiful church that has been here since 1744.
Each evening on the UnCruise Adventures cruise ship Safari Voyager, a member of the expedition team gave an enrichment talk. The passionate guides are experts in topics like marine biology, photography, sustainable tourism, and more. We learned about whales, birds, the stars and planets we could see in the night sky, and the culture and indigenous people of the region during various enlightening sessions.
Of course, getting out each day for our adventurous activities delivered even more information for our curious group of travelers.
2. Whale Watching
Whales migrate each December to the region off the Pacific Coast of Baja California. The mothers come to the area because it provides a great haven for birthing and feeding newborns. We saw hundreds of whales in the waters close to shore as we hugged the coast for more than an hour during a drive from San Jose del Cabo (our arrival airport for the trip) up to La Paz (where we joined the ship for our voyage).
This preview of the great creatures meant that there was a definite buzz among my fellow cruisers when it was time to head to Puerto Alfredo Lopez Mateos for a whale-watching tour in Magdalena Bay. We piled into panga boats, eight at a time, to motor out to see dozens of gray whale mothers and calves active in the safe harbor. Many of these impressive animals emerged time and again close to our boats to splash around and blow spouts of mist into the breezes. It’s a memorable and moving experience. This was all on top of the several humpback whale sightings that we enjoyed from the outer decks of Safari Voyager during our week in the Sea of Cortés.
Pro Tip: Bring a good, brimmed hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a scarf or buff (neck gaiter) to help protect from the sun. These come in equally handy when you’re out on excursions or outer decks of the ship.
3. Snorkel With Sea Lions
Snorkeling in the Sea of Cortés is wonderful, of course. But diving in and hanging out with playful sea lion pups had us screaming with delight. UnCruise arranges a great snorkeling day at Los Islotes, a small islet that serves as a California sea lion colony at the end of Isla Espiritu Santo, which sits just off the coast of La Paz and is among more than 240 islands designated since 2005 as a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.
UnCruise Adventures offers two options for enjoying this site: Cruisers can stay on a small boat and explore the waters and rocky outcroppings on a photo safari, snapping pictures and watching the massive adult sea lions lazing on the rocks or wrestling for dominance while they keep a close watch on the boisterous pups in the water.
I elected to try the second option, choosing to squeeze into a wetsuit and jump into the sea for a thrilling swim with the sea lions. The pups are curious and bursting with energy; they zoomed around us, blew bubbles in our snorkel masks, and nibbled at our flippers. We spent almost an hour in the water led by guides who explained the rules of engagement with the animals and how the encounter would play out.
We slid off the boat and into the water, and almost immediately were surrounded by youngsters eager to show off for their guests. We watched them dive and spin and twist and leap from the water. We were so transfixed by the encounter, amazed that we were able to see them so close in their habitat that the time flew by, and most of us groaned when told we had to head back to the boat.
4. Challenging Climbs
And More Gentle Hikes And Walks, Too
Exciting off-the-grid hikes are embedded in the DNA of the UnCruise experience. Sure enough, the guides scout out some great ones in Baja California Sur, as well.
At Espiritu Santo, we scrambled up an arroyo (a dry creek or stream bed that fills up during rains) that is littered with big boulders and loose rocks before we scaled the hillside to reach a windy overlook. Down in the bay, we saw the green waters, skies filled with puffy clouds, and our ship, Safari Voyager, awaiting our return for lunch.
Two more hard hikes were featured during our week. The expedition team also finds more gentle hiking options, so people have choices. This means you can find something to suit your abilities or mood each day.
We enjoyed a thrilling (and grueling) 7-mile quad-burner during our port stop at Puerto Escondido when 16 of us went off to pick our way up Tabor Canyon (also called Steinbeck Canyon because the author hiked here during his time on the coast of Baja). The boulders were even bigger and we used our hands and feet to forge our way through the beautiful canyon before reaching a big water hole, where a few of us jumped in for a refreshing dunk.
Pro Tip: Bring sturdy footwear that gives good ankle support. UnCruise provides walking poles to use during hikes. You’ll also want to be sure to wear layers (long-sleeve shirts and hiking pants) that you can peel off. This is because temperatures vary in the ravines and up on the top of the mountains where you will hike. There might be cactuses and other plants that can scratch you up if you are wearing shorts or a skirt rather than pants.
5. Delicious Eats
UnCruise offers an incredible array of delicious cuisine on its modest small ships. This includes regional specialties and a mix of creative options with meat, seafood, and vegetarian options available at every meal. We fueled our big hikes and other activities (or replenished afterward) with great dishes like red snapper, portobello stuffed with quinoa, grouper, short ribs, ratatouille, duck with raspberry and white wine reduction, Baja-style roasted chicken, and black bean sopes. The list goes on.
Plus, the pastry chef kept serving up jaw-dropping sweet treats like passionfruit cheesecake and banana cake with chocolate mousse topped with salted caramel popcorn. We also flocked to the lounge daily for 3 p.m. cookie time, when we could grab pecan sandies, chocolate chips, peanut butter, sugar cookies, and chocolate brownies. Breakfast also came with goodies like lemon-glazed strawberry fritters and cinnamon rolls the size of your face.
Are we hiking so much to burn off the calories, or eating so much to have energy for our excursions each day? You can look at it any way you like. It just works out as the perfect formula for a pleasurable trip.
6. Jawdropping Sunrises, Sunsets, And Scenery
The sunsets and sunrises over the Sea of Cortés by themselves are worth the journey. During our week-long cruise in early February, I would rise each day for my morning workout and stretch at the small gym area on the ship’s sun deck. Often, the only company I had for those first few moments before 7 a.m. was the sun rising between mountain peaks and the bright moon still visible in the other direction.
It was a great way to start the day. The sunrises and sunsets are both brilliant in the Sea of Cortés, with colors ranging from pink and purple-hued pastels to bright reds.
The surrounding mountains, blue skies, shapely bays and coves, and brown pelicans following our ship on the breezes provided a magical setting in each new spot we sailed. We also had several occasions when we could see mobula rays flying from the sea, humpbacks slapping their tails in the distance, and pods of dolphins just passing by.
Pro Tip: Carry your binoculars around when out on the deck (the ship provides two pairs in each room) because you will often see wildlife at play.
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