When most folks hear about cruises they think of giant ships with midnight buffets, Broadway shows and crowded top deck pools. Some might even consider climbing walls, zip lines or a parasailing excursion to be an adventure. But that’s not what I am talking about here. I’m talking about small ships carrying only 12-84 guests that explore away from the ship hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and exploring by small craft, right from the ship. With miles of rugged shoreline, abundant wildlife, fantastic climate and a close proximity to the world’s largest cruise market, Baja is becoming famous for its adventure cruises. Baja now competes with world famous adventure cruise regions such as Alaska, the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica.
What is Adventure Cruising?
The hallmark of any good adventure cruise is the ability to get off the ship away from crowded ports. Expert naturalist guides lead excursions to actively explore remote islands, reefs and beaches. By day you can hike through a beautiful arroyo or along a secluded sandy beach then kayak and snorkel before a rest of the beach. Then back on board clean up with a hot shower, a glass of wine and a delicious meal. You rest while the ship relocates to another postcard perfect location to do it all over again tomorrow.
Activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and even paddle boarding allow ordinary travelers to experience Baja’s backcountry in a save and easy way. Experiences that would otherwise take months of training, planning and logistics are available to everyone. Activities are included in the price of every cruise and there are many options to choose from. In this way you can customize the expedition to be as active or relaxed as you wish. To make the most of your next Baja adventure cruise we have outlined some of the top adventure activities available aboard small ships.
Trekking across a deserted island
Quite a few of the islands in the southern Sea of Cortez are small enough to cross, yet challenging enough to offer an adventurous day trek. Starting from a beach on the westward side you may wind your way up an arroyo past sandstone formations, barrel cactus, palo verde and perhaps even an endemic species or two. Soon the winding arroyo will give way to an ascending rock mesa with spectacular views down to the beach you left behind and the dramatic Sierra de la Giganta mountain range in the distance. Walk long enough and you are sure to cross the island terminating your trek on the dramatic edge of a cliff staring hundreds of feet down to the crashing surf below. Birds riding thermals whiz past your head and a refreshing breeze cools your sweating face as you stare into the sea for what seems a million miles. The walk back has dramatic views the entire way and is all downhill.
The Birds of Isla Raza
Isla Raza is a humble hunk of rock located about two thirds of the way up the Sea of Cortez. It is barely a mile across and only one hundred feet at its highest point yet it is home to up to a million birds during nesting season. In April and May of each year one of North America’s great concentrations of wildlife descends upon the island. Heerman’s Gulls, Caspian Terns and 90% of the world’s population of Elegant Terns all fight for space and survival in a cacophony of wildlife. Only a handful of travelers and researchers visit the island each year and the place is strictly protected as bird sanctuary. The islands remote location makes it ideal for the birds, but challenging for people. Small ships with expert birding guides are the perfect way to visit Isla Raza with minimal disturbance to the birds.
Kayaking in the Sea of Cortez
Kayaking is a popular sport and can be done in many places throughout Baja. Wilderness kayaking among the islands of the Sea of Cortez, however, is a more challenging prospect. Avid paddlers know that the protected coves, white sand beaches and abundant wildlife in this area make it a paddlers dream. But the islands location tens of miles from the mainland, combined with strong winds and unpredictable seas make it available only to the most experienced sailors, paddlers or organized camping groups. Small ships however can safely transport guests to the islands, choose the most inviting or protected cove and allow ordinary travelers to enjoy the benefit of wilderness paddling. Stunning beaches, dramatic rock formations, azure waters and sunny skies await those who wish to paddle in the Sea of Cortez.
“The rugged cliff rising out of the water was a beautiful red ash with colorful rocks and the occasional shell fused into it, an ancient ash flow now being exposed by the erosion from waves. The upper crust of soil, if you could call it that, seemed to hang over the edge as if it were melting into the sea taking cactus, flowers and shrubs along with it. The water is crystal clear and we could see nearly 50 feet into the azure depths. As we glided along our guide was explaining how large rays would breach the surface and come flopping down with a pop, but I wasn’t really listening to her. I was overwhelmed by the incredible scene around me and as I gazed I did hear something, but it was not a ray. Cracks in the rocks had been exposed to the sea and warn through like narrow canyons. Waves were pushing in and out of the cavities and you could hear the air being expelled. The island was breathing! I yelled to the group to listen and soon it was so quite it seemed that the island was speaking directly to us.”
Snorkeling with Wildlife
In most places when you snorkel, you are there to see fish. While there are many colorful fish and some reef in Baja, snorkeling with larger animals is the goal. Sea lions frequent the islands and there are several haul outs to visit. Large schools of rays and even manta rays can be seen. Whale sharks are known to congregate in certain places at certain times. So while you enjoy snorkeling from sandy beaches or from zodiacs in remote locations enjoy the fish, but look for the mega fauna.
“Being in the water with these animals (California sea lions) I felt like I was truly making a connection with a wild animal. A juvenile came darting past me several times and I playfully swam with her (I like to think it was a she) diving, twisting and blowing bubbles. She responded with twists and turns of her own and soon I was back on the surface exhausted and elated. I stopped and became very still, just bobbing in the water waiting for her to make the next move. Suddenly she stopped too and slowly swam towards me. Over the course of about 10 seconds she seemed to drift right at me until she was right in front of my mask. I could see her doglike nose, whiskers swaying in the current and the deep black of her eyes locked right onto mine. Closer, closer and closer she came when finally touched my nose with hers and shot away. She turned so fast I could feel the water pushing against me. It was the closest I have ever been to nature. As I recounted the story for my friends later they insisted I had a new girlfriend, and I had a memory that would last a lifetime.”
Among the great whales
Of course whale watching is one of the most popular activities available in Baja and many travelers are familiar with the typical half day whale watching tour. All small ship cruises include a trip to view gray whales along Baja’s Pacific Coast. However aboard a small ship cruise you are essentially whale watching in the Sea of Cortez twenty four hours a day for an entire week. The Sea of Cortez is home to numerous migratory and resident whales including grey whales, humpback whales, orca whales, blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, pilot whales and more. In addition you may encounter dolphins, porpoise or sea lions. Wildlife can be so abundant that a boat may become surrounded by thousands of dolphins or porpoise and it may take twenty minutes for the entire pod to pass by.
“One night after dinner a small group of guests had gathered on the bow of the ship where our guide was giving a presentation on stars, planets and constellations. After the talk many of us lingered enjoying the views of the Milky Way, the warm breeze and the solitude. Suddenly a woman screamed look at that, what is that? We all hurried to the railing to an amazing sight. The foam stirred up by the movement of the ship was glowing fluorescent green. Our guide explained that the bioluminescence was created by plankton and algae blooms in the water. We accepted his answer and went back to our silence, watching the light show. A few moments later we began seeing small sparks of light shooting forward from the ship, first one, then three, then many. It soon became clear that a pod of dolphins was riding the bow of the ship and when they would break the surface to breathe it would light up the dark black water in front of the ship. It was one of the most amazing and unexpected encounters of the entire trip.”
How to Choose Your Baja Adventure
There are now over a dozen different cruises aboard several yachts and small ships. Some trips are more active than others while some ships are more comfortable than others. When choosing a cruise ask a lot of questions about the level of activities available and the experience of the guides. The best captains and guides know where to go, when to go and how to maximize weather and wildlife at any time of year. Make sure that that the above experiences are you want are available on your cruise. Baja is home to a number of incredible adventures and a small ship cruise will combine many of the top excursions in one trip. If you are unsure book with an expert on Baja small ship cruises.
Check out this Baja Cruise Guide