Bliss, wonder, and kids in the Sea of Cortez with Un-Cruise Adventures
Those quiet men that always stand on piers asked where we were going and when we said, “To the Gulf of California,” their eyes melted with longing, they wanted to go so badly.” – John Steinbeck
Jacques Cousteau once called Mexico’s Sea of Cortez “the aquarium of the world.” Indeed it is; a vast sea of aquamarine blue bordered by the Baja California peninsula on the west and the Mexican mainland on the east. We are here with our two boys (9 and 11) to embark on a small ship eco-adventure with Un-Cruise Adventures. We are going where no large cruise ship can go- into the Sea of Cortez, home to a whopping 891 species of fish and 695 species of plants. Also called the Gulf of California, this incredible area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the place of the sea turtle and the flying fish, a place of wonder where the magical sparkle of the sea is more than the moonlight glinting off the crested tips of the waves, but also the vast schools of wild-silver shimmering fish.
Our ship is the Safari Endeavor and we are on a 7-night expedition on a “Kids In Nature” cruise. We are on board with 50 passengers, including 10 children. The difference between this small ship and a traditional large cruise is night and day. On a large ship, much of the attraction is the ship itself, whereas on this adventure, it’s nature itself. When you set sail, it’s the difference between being on top of the ocean and being in the ocean.
The superb and attentive expedition crew hails from across the globe and consists of marine biologists, human ecologists, former park rangers, veteran mariners, chefs, wellness professionals, and youth specialists enthusiastic about helping your family have a safe and enjoyable vacation and learning experience.
Travel with kids is not always stress-free. Embarking on a small ship with Un-cruise reveals that rare mix of adventure, blissful relaxation, and education through travel.
No Un-cruise adventure to the Sea of Cortez is exactly alike. Each day brings new and varied adventures that depend on the weather, the migration of the animals, and the interests of the passengers. It’s tailor-made to the day and to you.
Adventure is to be had in spades, for every level of adventurer. If you want to go hiking, you can choose a leisurely beachcombing stroll, an intermediate hike up the bluffs overlooking the cove, or a longer naturalist led trek through the adjacent desert. Snorkeling is available almost daily, with guided snorkels for beginners and experts alike. There is an abundance of wildlife to be seen, including whales, whale sharks, sea lions, and fishes and birds of every kind.
It’s quiet, a time to reflect on life, and the beautiful natural creation around you. The environment itself is breathtaking and the crew and staff leaves you nothing to worry about while on board the ship or on one of the myriad of included excursions. Relax with a morning yoga session, sunset cocktail hour, a massage, or a soak in the hot tub. The price includes all meals, all drinks, and all activities during your expedition.
The entire journey is infused with opportunities to learn more in-depth about the Sea of Cortez environment and the creatures you encounter. Each guide is knowledgeable in their field, which adds to the richness of the activities. After delicious meals, evenings can wrap up in a variety of different ways. One night we enjoyed a talk by guide Paulino debunking the “scariness” of sharks.
We set sail from San José del Cabo around 6:00PM ripe with anticipation of the journey to come. After dinner and a briefing time, we retire to our cabins.
Day 2 – Bahia de la Paz
It’s 6:30AM and I’m awakened to a beautiful orange sunrise over the island of Espiritu Sanctu. We’re surrounded by the sounds and splashes of leaping mobula rays. After a morning briefing, we sign up for the day’s events, choosing snorkeling and beachcombing. Higher than expected winds cancel our beginning snorkel time, so we head to the beach with the kids for a guided beachcombing tour with our guide J.P. As a person who lives less than a mile from the beach, I honestly wasn’t expecting much, but this is not like our heavily trafficked public beach. On our walk we discover troves of seashells, corals, crabs, pufferfish, trigger fish, sea urchins, and keep our eyes peeled for black jackrabbits who live amidst the sand dunes and cactus. We also spy a mama gull protecting her nest of eggs, and take a taste of sea salt left behind in pools in the rocks. After our walk, we hang out at the beach bar that is stocked with drinks, music, chairs, sunshades, water toys, and snacks. My 12 year-old swims with the GoPro camera and records angelfish he finds near the shore. Later that night after a wonderful meal, I enjoy the quiet and bliss of the deck alone as I spot leaping mobula rays, sea turtles, schools of fish, and brown pelicans eating those fish amidst the ship lights.
Highlight: J.P.’s passion for and knowledge of the sea life is contagious. The kids love him.
Day 3 – La Paz and Whale Sharks
Since the grey whales have migrated northward, we head for La Paz, where the crew has received word that the whale sharks are congregating. After a short fifteen-minute ride on the glassy seas, we spot a school of whale sharks.
Whale sharks can reach lengths of over 40 feet long and weigh 47,000 pounds. We had been told to expect to jump in at a moment’s notice and swim hard to be able to view the gentle giants who can easily outswim you. However, today we are blessed with whale sharks feeding on the abundance of plankton who have no inclination of swimming away. The size and grace of these magnificent creatures astounds me. If I could grin from ear to ear with my snorkel mask on, I would. The sheer joy of it is evident every time I surface to exclamations of exhilaration and excitement from my fellow snorkelers. On the way back to La Paz, we are rewarded once again as a pod of dolphins playfully rides our wake as I sit on the bow of the boat.
While in La Paz, we enjoy walking along the malecón ocean front promenade, browsing the markets, and touring the churches and colorful street murals. We stop for the best ice cream in town at La Fuente, where you can find interesting flavors such as tequila, lemon creme, and goat milk carmel. We also spend some time at the new Museo de la Ballena. The museum is a small but well-done museum dedicated to whales and marine conservation. As in anywhere in Baja, we don’t neglect to grab fresh fish tacos before we depart, this time at Rancho Viejo along the waterfront.
Highlights: Whale sharks. La Fuente ice cream.
Day 4 – Bahía Agua Verde
We arrive at Agua Verde at sunrise, an isolated clear turquoise bay surrounded by colorful cactus covered hills against the backdrop of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range. The entrance to Agua Verde is marked by the Roca Solitaria, a pinnacle of rock at the entrance to the bay. The morning is engaged snorkeling around this spire with the kids. We spot colorful parrotfish, moray eels, and a variety of starfish, large sea urchins, brown pelicans, and cormorants. Our guide Paulino has brought along a floating buoy to help the younger kids, but it turns out to be unnecessary as they swim, mesmerized by the richness of the marine life. When the kids get tired, they are able to return to the nearby manned boat as the adults continue to snorkel.
Later that day we head to the beach and saddle up on burros for a two-hour ride up the hills and through the arroyos. Once over the hills, we follow the seashore, pass through a palm grove and pass an old cemetery before heading up again and back to the bay.
At the beach there is a table set up with a wonderful family that sells handmade jewelry, one of the few families that still lives the ranchero life. Our guide tells us that the burro saddles are still made in the original style of the Spanish explorers from the 1600’s.
Later that night, guide Lindsey delivers a captivating talk on the culture and communication of mammals, including different whale and dolphin species.
Highlights: Burro ride, the view looking down on Agua Verde, and the hospitality of the locals.
Day 5 – Loreto
After marveling at the bird covered fishing boats, we spend a couple of hours on a walking tour of the town of Loreto. The town was founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1697 and is the first Spanish settlement on the Baja Peninsula. Against the backdrop of the Sierra de la Giganta mountains, we explore the history of the Mission of Our Lady of Loreto with a local guide. This is the start of the El Camino Real, the royal road that runs all the way up to Sonoma, California. After our walking tour, we take a peek at the rest of the town and pause to enjoy Mexican popsicles made of pineapple, coconut, and guava. The remainder of the day is spent cruising and wildlife spotting.
Highlights: For the adults, the history tour. For the kids, the popsicles.
Day 6 – Isla Monserratte
Today we are spending the day snorkeling from the boat, playing with the bottlenose and spinner dolphins, and chasing the mobula rays. The spinner dolphins are particularly incredible, as they playfully leap out of the water and splash us. I head out kayaking with my 9-year-old around the island and spot many types of birds, including oyster cracking birds. He spots several red rock crabs scampering on the rocks and acts as photographer from the front of our kayak.
After returning from kayaking, I decide to try standup paddle boarding for the first time and absolutely love it. The back deck of the Safari Endeavor gets lowered into the water, so it’s easy to slide off into the water already on a paddleboard. I stand up on my first try and commence paddling around the ship and the island. I stay out for close to an hour and am able to enjoy viewing a myriad of sea creatures swimming in the shallows, including many pufferfish.
Highlight: Kayaking and playing with the dolphins.
Day 7 – Isla Los Isolotes and the sail home
Los Isolotes is a castle-like island of rocks covered in bird guano, complete with a picturesque sea arch. It is the southernmost mating rookery for the California sea lion. We are here to swim with the sea lions. Last night our guide Paulino, a marine biologist and former Mexican National Park Ranger, regaled (and scared) us with tales of his encounters with the sea lions. He advised us to keep a healthy distance from the adults. The frisky and curious young pups are a delight to swim with. The sea lions are amazingly playful, so much so that one approaches my 11-year-old and nudges his mask with his nose before darting away.
My 9-year-old jumps into the water and though wearing a wetsuit is immediately fearful of the colder water and decides to get back in the boat. After telling him about the massive schools of colorful fish, he descends the ladder and sticks his face in the water. After one dip, he immediately wants to don his fins and jump back in. The sea lions swim under our boat and poke the bottom, and then flip out and swim near us. Sea lions have been recorded diving as deep as 1050 feet.
Highlight: Swimming with the sea lion pups and the plethora of fish.
As we cruise back towards Cabo del San Jose and past Isla Espíritu Santo with dolphins swimming alongside us, I spend my time trying to grab that elusive photo of mobula rays leaping out of the water.
An Actual Vacation
While it may seem cliché to say it, this trip truly is a “trip of a lifetime”. It was blissful, filled with wonder, and adventuresome. The bliss comes from the beauty of nature as well as the lack of stress. Never once did I worry about the itinerary or the safety of my kids. Our kids were 110% engaged and excited the entire time. The trip was filled with wonder and hands on learning experiences in the midst of adventure. Never once did I hear the dreaded, “I’m bored!” The kids were able to make fast friends with other kids on-board, while on kid-specific activities such as collecting and viewing plankton in a microscope, sitting at the kids only dinner table, or learning about the whale sharks they were to swim with the following day. The crew does a fabulous job of keeping the fun factor high for the kids and adults alike. Every need was anticipated and taken care of.
I am leaving refreshed and rejuvenated, with a newfound sense of peace. I’ve gained a deeper knowledge and appreciation of this earth ecosystem we call home. After a trip I often joke that I need a vacation from my vacation. Not the case here, this is what a topnotch, responsible, eco-travel tour should be. Un-cruise, unbelievable.
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Disclosure: We received a media rate from Un-Cruise Adventures to facilitate this review. However, as always my opinions are always entirely my own.