Welcome to the Sea
It seemed fitting that our first stop in the Sea of Cortez was Isla San Francisco, just like our first stop when we cast off for cruising was San Francisco Bay. But, unlike the Bay the landscape of this little island was rugged and reminiscent of our beloved Channel Islands off the coast of California.
Isla San Francisco, located off the eastern coast of the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, is a part of the Espiritu Santo Archipelago. One of the many remarkable features of this island is its untouched wilderness. As a protected area, the island remains largely undeveloped, offering visitors a chance to immerse themselves in a pure natural environment. The island’s raw beauty and pristine beaches make it a haven for those seeking solitude and a true escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
While the hook-shaped bay on the southern end of Isla San Francisco is a popular anchorage due to its natural beauty and good protection, it has a reputation for being miserable if the no see ums (tiny biting gnats) and mosquitos are out.
We had arrived to the island in the evening, just a few hours before sunset, concluding a three day passage from La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. After reviewing the weather forecast we decided to lay our hook on the island’s less-popular east side in 20’ of water with 4:1 scope behind a couple of catamarans (coordinates: 24°49.738’N • 110°33.995’W) . The west side features a picturesque crescent harbor that was (at our time of visiting) inundated with charter boats and exposed to incoming wind and chop. Chris was quick to jump ship and stretch his legs, but I was eager to clean up the cabin from our passage and prepare a dinner that used more than one pot – a strange luxury I suppose we take for granted when not underway.
I looked through our galley portlight and admire the calm seastate as the sun began to paint the horizon orange and yellow as it dipped behind the island. Its much colder here than mainland I thought as I dug through my closet for my sweater. Right around the time I was debating turning our diesel heater on, Chris returned and suggested I start making dinner instead – the heat from the oven would surely warm up the cabin. We were finally to the point in the season where we needed to start eating everything in the fridge as we prepared for our haul out in June, so I started to get a little creative with meals aboard. Nothing like homemade hot dog buns, veggie franks and homemade sauerkraut.
We added another blanket to the bed that night, and Cleo was sure to cuddle in nice and close for shared body heat. Unlike the anchorage in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle where we had spent the past 3 months, this anchorage was still. Just one of the many joys of the Sea of Cortez. As Chris and Cleo snored next to me (yes, both of them, almost in unison) I stayed up looking through our stateroom hatch at the stars that had kept me company on our night passage. Somewhere between thinking of everything I was thankful for and mentally planning out the following day I fell into a deep, deep sleep.
Lay of the Land
The first sleep after a long passage is inexplicably euphoric, but this anchorage with its complete lack-of-motion made it all the more enjoyable. We “slept in” to 7:30, squeezing every once of rest we could before we let the excitement of exploring a new place move us from our bed. Cleo didn’t follow suit though, she stayed behind stretching out into the space we once occupied with no sign of moving anytime soon.
After some coffee and breakfast we got dressed, packed our bag and loaded up Winglet making our way to shore. Despite the amount of boats around the island (mostly on the west side) we were the only ones on the island. Perhaps it was too early or perhaps people were just content staying indoors on a glorious overcast day. We dragged Winglet up the shore a ways out of the ocean’s grasp then put our shoes on and started our walk – but first taking the time to take some photos of our brand new QEJA socks curtesy of our friends Mitch and Quincey. We hadn’t had a chance to wear them yet since we had spent so much of our cruising season barefoot or in flip flops so the feeling of close-toed shoes took some getting used to… luckily the socks were so comfortable it was an easy transition back into it.
Much like the temperature, the landscape we found ourselves in was drastically different than the lush tropics. Here, 370 miles north of Banderas Bay, the ground was dry and ground cover was similar to that of Catalina Island – with sage brush, pickleweed, and of course cactus, so much cactus. The salt flat in the middle of the island still bubbled with water as I leaned in close to investigate the quality of the salt, and if we could harvest it. The salt crunching underneath our feet was mostly bone-dry, besides the few pools of water towards the center. In the salt flat, three large pits had been dug to trap the water and remain in the pit after the tides have receded. It was likely that this was evidence of local fishermen that had dug these pits in order to salt and preserve their catch, as they have for centuries. As we continued on back towards the trail, we admired our boat that sat proudly, as she floated above the Sea’s deep royal blue waters that cascaded like a gradient from the shoreline.
Chris grabbed a handful of pickleweed and started snacking on it as we continued on the trail looping back towards the rocky east shore where we found tide pools full of feisty crabs. We discovered that the beach on that side of the island was something of an aquatic graveyard, with skeletons of balloon fish, birds and crabs littered across the rocks. I could sit for hours watching the tide breathe in and out of the pools but we had a ridge to climb.
Up the ridge we went; to our left was a nasty cliff that the photos give no justice to, and to our right was a gradual, but steep, slide down into the west cove where we counted 12 charter yachts. It was around 8:00 in the morning, and the yacht crews were already staging the beach for the daytime activities that no one would participate in. An unfortunate downside of Starlink being so well connected is that people aren’t embracing the world around them when in beautiful locations such as Isla San Francisco, but perhaps it was for the best. Afterall, the trail was narrow and one misstep to make way for a downward hiker could surely lead to your demise.
At the top of the spiny ridge the trail turned into a rock scramble where it was unclear which path those before us took. We used our best judgment to carry on before settling down into a rock that fit the contour of our bodies so we could enjoy the view. It was clear that Isla San Francisco was picture postcard gorgeous: clear turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and a wonderful view of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range across Canal de San José on the mainland. We were astounded by the beauty, and it was only 9:00 am.
“You know…” I thought a moment before I continued outward with my thoughts. “This trail would be pretty sick to mountain bike” Chris’s head swiveled towards me with wide eyes full of excitement. “Really? You want to go do that?” he asked. It was still early in the morning and we hadn’t had the opportunity to really use our mountain bikes while cruising. So, down we went carefully retracing our steps and returning shoreside to Winglet.
Back on Avocet Chris was quick to pull out our bikes and load them into the dinghy while I triple checked if biking was permitted.
Isla San Francisco in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) is a protected area within the Espiritu Santo Archipelago in Mexico. However, please note that regulations and access to specific areas may change over time, so it’s essential to check for the most up-to-date information before planning your trip.
If you are interested in biking on Isla San Francisco, I recommend checking with local authorities, tour operators, or official park websites to see if any biking activities are permitted, and if so, whether there are designated biking trails or guidelines you need to follow to ensure the protection of the island’s natural beauty. Remember, responsible and sustainable tourism practices are essential to preserve the ecological balance of fragile ecosystems like Isla San Francisco, ensuring that future generations can also enjoy its unspoiled beauty.
A Bike Ride for the Books
It is amazing how much our 8’ Fatty Knees dinghy can hold. Not only does it carry the two of us comfortably, but it also holds both of our full sized mountain bikes, backpacks and other gear necessary for our daily adventures. As we motored by the catamarans near us, they all broke their gaze with their T.V. ‘s to stare at us – it’s not everyday you see a hard dinghy packed to the brim gracefully make its way to shore! We beached Winglet in the same spot and followed our previous tracks as we pulled her up the beach. With a moving blanket carefully spread out beside us, we began to build our bikes and prepare for one of the most memorable rides we have ever had.
I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure when the idea of mountain biking up this sketchy island Ridgeline in the Sea of Cortez was presented to me. The promise of breathtaking views and an adrenaline-pumping ride inspired me to keep pedaling, even when my legs burned as I desperately searched for more gears that weren’t there. My bike felt like a trusty steed as I pedaled along the dusty path, with cacti and desert flowers lining the trail like curious spectators.
“Watch for cactus!” Chris said as he peddled in front of me. Even though the trail was clearly marked by foot traffic, some cactus “arms” still managed to reach across as if in an attempt to catch the ancles (or tires) of all those who went past. I managed to avoid all of the prickly plants while focusing on the trail ahead and my breathing. Thankfully, biking at Sea level is much easier on the lungs in comparison to biking in the Sierra National Forest… our backyard and regular haunt in California.
As we progressed, the trail gradually transformed from a dusty trail into a rocky ascent. The Ridgeline loomed above us like an enigmatic challenge, daring me to conquer its steep inclines and treacherous drops. The trail turned into a narrow ridge with sheer drops on either side. This part of the trail took my breath away when hiking on two feet, but now with two wheels I was even more taken aback. My heartbeat quickened, and every move demanded precision. My focus narrowed to the trail ahead, and the world around me blurred into a blend of colors and shapes. The sound of Chris breathing made its way back to me as I carefully watched him peddle past the biggest cliffside. It was like watching someone bike across a tightrope with a sharp, unforgiving landscape to catch them if they fell.
With each pedal stroke, the ridge seemed to grow steeper, and my determination was put to the test. My bike danced beneath me, tiptoeing along the edge of the world. Yet, the rewards once I reached Chris at the apex were immediate – I was once again met with the panoramic vistas of the desert landscape spread out below, a front row seat to the majestic Sierra Madre’s and the turquoise gradient of the Sea that called to me as sweat poured down my face. And now the best part: what goes up, must come down.
The Ridgeline demanded respect, punishing even the slightest lapse in concentration. My hands gripped the handlebars tightly, and my muscles tensed with each twist and turn. Chris was waiting at the base of the Ridgeline below me, as waves crashed aggressively into the cliffside to my right. The desert seemed to hold its breath, waiting to see if I could tame the untamed like my partner.
I began the descent, feeling a mix of accomplishment and gratitude for the exhilarating experience. It was (as always) a short ride down in comparison to the climb up, but boy was it worth it. As the sun began to dip towards the horizon and break through the cloud cover, the colors of the desert intensified, painting the landscape in hues of gold and crimson. I felt a surge of triumph as we sat back aboard Avocet and watched the Ridgeline glow, bathed in the warm embrace of the setting sun. I’m not sure how many people can say that they had biked the Isla San Francisco Ridgeline (let alone hiked it, then biked it in the same day) but I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity, and will continue to be inspired to accept the challenges of the landscapes we visit.
Waking up with the sun is one of the many simple pleasures of our life afloat. I love how the morning light spills through our stateroom portlight to meet my eyes, as if the sun was personally welcoming me into a new day. As we jumped into our morning routine, we noticed how the sky was bright blue in comparison to the overcast greyscape of the day prior. A slight breeze funneled through the open hatch above the galley, carrying the steam from our coffee elsewhere.
“Woah where’d you come from?” Chris said in the cockpit. I popped out of the companionway and with his mug he pointed towards the bow. A big power yacht, likely a charter, had anchored one boat length away. Our trip line buoy floated into their jet ski that hung off their stern. “Well this should be fun” I said as I went below deck and prepared to sail off the hook. After some close quarter maneuvering while under sail, we made it out of the anchorage and caught a wonderful 10 knots of wind on our quarter. Chris and I were thrilled to be in the land of short anchorage hops, where each destination was a few hours or a day sail away which was fantastic in comparison to the passages we had encountered the past few months.
We set our course for our next destination where we would have one hell of a reunion with some very good friends, venture into a desert oasis, and eat some seaside fish tacos – yes, even me, your friendly neighborhood seafood detester. But all of that and more will be featured in the next post 🙂
Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)