Not a Cruise Guy, But Exploring the Sea of Cortez Anyway

A cliffside vista of Isla San Francisco. Photo: Christina Holmes

We touch glasses when toasting because sound is the only sense not used when we drink and clinking addressed the need. Dan Blanchard, the CEO of UnCruise Adventures, told me that on the night we met and as I was about to discover, the senses would play an important role over the next week.

I was Dan’s guest for a cruise aboard the Safari Voyager in the Gulf of California or Sea of Cortez. UnCruise Adventures is not your typical cruise line. They run small boats — ours carried 66 guests — and pride themselves on an adventure-focused and eco-friendly experience. Obviously, this attracts people with a passion to explore so instead of pulling into a port town to shop, the Voyager would drop anchor off the shore of a deserted island and we would take pontoon skiffs to the beach, jump into the water and wade in to begin that day’s activity. We weren’t John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts on their epic Log from the Sea of Cortez adventure, but with a face full of spray, the Baja sun on our backs, and turquoise water at our feet, we sure felt like it.

The Voyager drops anchor off a deserted island and guests take pontoon skiffs to the beach and wade in to explore. Photo: David N. McIlvaney / Yucatán Magazine

Never having been to Baja California Sur, I didn’t know what to expect. We embarked from the town of La Paz and at first glance, the landscape seemed more of the same — brown and brownish-green vegetation against brown and reddish-brown rock. But after a few days, I began to see the subtleties in the colors around me. The pop of a little red flower of an ankle-height cactus along a trail. The browns and grays striated across the rock sediment of the cliffs as if wiped with a giant paintbrush. The way light and shadow played against the water in the little hidden coves, turning it turquoise. Spend enough time in Baja and you begin to realize you are in one of the most beautiful natural art galleries of the world.

On Isla San Francisco, we walked through honeysuckle as we hiked up a trail to summit a desolate rocky cliff. As each person brushed against the shrubs, the perfume in the air became stronger and I glanced back as the last hiker reached the grove to see her stop with a smile on her face.

The lounge, the sea, and guests refracted in the Baja light. on the Safari Voyager. Photo: Christina Holmes

Back on the boat, Chef Matt presented no end of innovative meals all sourced from local ingredients, and the stewards expertly accommodated everyone’s needs and desires (usually for more). Alex, the bartender, dialed in my perfect Old Fashioned and I only had to approach the bar with a smile to find one in my hand.

A burro ride

Midweek, we stopped at Agua Verde for a burro ride through the hills. Decades earlier, while on a motorcycle trip, Dan was stranded in Baja and taken in by Romeros, a local ranching family. He kept in touch with the father, Alejo, and once he had the cruise operating the friendship turned into a working relationship. 

The entire Romero clan — from the patriarch to the great grandbabies — met us on the beach with 20 or so burros and we lined up as the vaqueros matched the right ride to each of us. I was partnered with a leggy steed — half burro and half racehorse — and in no time at all we sped past the others and took our place at the head of the train. I rode alongside one of Alejo’s sons and we swapped stories of life in New York and Mexico as we clambered up a rocky trail too challenging for horses. “Trust your burro” may be my new life mantra.

The local vaquero instructs the group to “trust your burro.” Photo: Christina Holmes

A few days later, we dropped anchor off the cliffs of a protected rookery on Isla Los Isoltes to snorkel with baby sea lions. Playful and mischievous, they darted among the group tugging at fins and heartstrings. To see sea lions in the wild is an amazing thing. To swim with and touch frolicking sea lion pups is life changing.

There’s something else that has to be mentioned. I am a Mérida guy not a Cancún guy, which is another way of saying I’m not a cruise guy. This was my first cruise and I was a little concerned about being with the same group for a week, but I was there to have the entire experience, so I sat down and talked with each guest. The collected life and travel stories told were extraordinary and my reservations quickly fell away as I realized this was a week with like-minded friends. 

On the first night, Dan asked people to raise their hands if they had traveled with UnCruise before. Then three timers … four timers … five. The last hand went up at 14. That not only speaks to the quality of the company, but the experience that the crew and guides work very hard to provide. UnCruise Adventures is consistently awarded the best small-ship exploration line in the United States.

Obeying the vaquero

I started with the sense of sound, so that’s how I’ll end. 

On the last day, about halfway up an arroyo, our guide, Christian, shepherded us into the shade of large outcropping.

“Let’s sit in silence for a moment to let the ‘quiet’ settle in.”

The rock I sat upon was warm and with my eyes closed and in the “quiet” I could hear the wind gently whistle around the cadera cactus; the trill of wrens dancing up the arroyo; and the silence tumble down from the cliff to enter me and carry my joy and contentment down to the waters of the cove and out to sea.

I am not a cruise guy. But for a week I sailed around one of the most beautiful parts of this extraordinary country that many of us now call home. I saw, touched, tasted, smelled and finally heard the best that the adventure of life has to offer.

I may have to reevaluate that “not a cruise guy” thing.

David N. McIlvaney
David N. McIlvaney
Writer David N. McIlvaney splits his time between Mérida and the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he draws water, hews wood, and ponders his relationship with the outdoors.
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