Into the Sea of Cortez

Barcos Que Cantan sails into the pages of a Steinbeck novel

By: David Mehnert

Let us go, “into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become ever part of it,” wrote John Steinbeck.

So begins the author’s account of a six-week scientific voyage in 1940, in the Gulf of California, during which Steinbeck discovered (with marine biologist Ed Ricketts) more than 50 new tidal species. Having read and loved “Log From the Sea of Cortez,” I was surprised by an unexpected anxiety before my trip. Would my luxury cruise on a Turkish-built sailing schooner, courtesy of Barcos Que Cantan, give me a feeling of true intimacy with this magical place? Could the Sea of Cortez live up to Steinbeck’s promise?

The Sea of Cortez is aptly called the “Galapagos of North America.” It is home to the hemisphere’s largest and most diverse collection of marine life. Whales are abundant, as are countless other exotic creatures which teem in the deep blue and along the coastal inlets, where they are easily observed by snorkelers, kayakers, hikers and other low-impact tourists. The Mexican government has set aside some 51,000 square miles of coastline and ocean, including 244 arid and nearly uninhabited islands, to preserve and protect its extraordinary biodiversity wealth. Hard as it is to believe, this ecological wonder a World Heritage Site is just a two-hour flight from Los Angeles, thanks to new Alaska Air nonstop service to La Paz.

The Mexican-based Barcos Que Cantan operates three handsome sailing yachts in the Sea of Cortez. These are the “boats which sing” and each of these exquisite wooden two-masters, 74 to 85 feet in length, are named for a traditional Spanish song: “Novia Mia,” “Cielito Lindo” and the one on which I sailed, “Tu Enamorado.”

All three vessels were originally built to sail in the sun-drenched Mediterranean, but they seem equally at home in these waters. Each is manned by a crew of four, including a captain and a chef, with the whole crew doubling on domestic detail. Up to 12 passengers stay in six comfortable but simple cabins. Each of the cabins have their own bathrooms with showers and air-conditioning, which is a luxury in itself on a boat this size.

Because boats are chartered for the same rate no matter how many passengers are on board, it’s possible to use extra cabin space to accommodate a scuba instructor, for example, or a guest chef.

I indulged the fantasy that I could be invited back as a Steinbeck scholar, narrating the landscape from his point of view. For it isn’t the food or accommodation that make the trip. What made the trip was the ever-changing tectonic landscape, the delights of being able to go anywhere, of seeing anything and being continually surprised.

Just 20 minutes after arriving at the La Paz airport, we had already boarded and begun crossing to the island of Espiritu Santo. I had never seen stars in the unpolluted night sky as I did that night; we woke the following morning in an enchanted cove, and later that day, snorkeled with a colony of sea lions.

We sailed (or motored) for about three or four hours a day, but otherwise spent our time at anchor some of us going to shore, by kayak or dinghy, to explore deserted island beaches and fantastic rock formations. The underwater landscapes could be seen simply by snorkeling from the boat though some of my group were content to simply stay on board.

Sea sickness is always a possibility on a small boat, and rough seas can occasionally come up suddenly. But the crew inspired confidence by knowing how and where to shelter boats quickly on the western side of the islands, where we moored each night.

In addition to Espiritu Santo, we visited La Partida and San Francisquito on our four-day cruise. Further out are still other marvelous islands, accessible on longer itineraries.

On the remote island of San Francisquito, I understood why Steinbeck fell for the place: Harmless snake-shaped fish nipped at my feet in the tide; the waters had never been more calm. I felt the humility of that nameless ancient explorer who stood stout on a hill, wondering at its holy vastness.


Barcos Que Cantan operates out of La Paz, Mexico. Fares include all services and meals (drinks extra). High-season rates from October through March: $29,400 for six nights/seven days on the Novia Mia (which has no master suite); $32,400 for six nights/seven days on the Tu Enamorado or Cielito Lindo. Low season rates from April-July. No cruises in August and September, the stormy season.

Commission: 15 percent