For yacht captains and crews thinking of cruising Mexico there are just two things to know, said Dick Markie, a long-time area cruiser and harbor master at Paradise Village Marina near Mazatlan. And both are hard to believe at first.
First, safety is not a problem. And second, Mexicans don’t like to say “no.”
Quickly getting the first point out of the way during a seminar at the Antigua Charter Yacht Show, Markie said there has not been cruiser in Mexico that “legitimately had a problem.” While some visitors might have have been in danger, injured or even killed, they were in a place and at a time when they shouldn’t be.
“It’s like anywhere else in the world; there are some places you don’t go at night,” he said.
Once over that hurdle — which he said often stops yachts from exploring Mexico — the cruising is magnificent and the experiences rewarding.
As for the second lesson — that Mexicans don’t like to say no — Markie said it takes patience and practice to learn how to talk to the local people.
“You have to learn how to ask the right questions,” he said.
Mexicans don’t like to say no, so they might not be completely honest when asked a question. For example, if a boater asks if the marina has potable water, the answer might be “It’s the same water we drink in town” or “We’ve never had a problem yet”; neither of which answer the question.
“There is no law that says you have to have potable water, so you have to be aware of the question and the answer you get,” he said.
Dickie gives about 10 talks a year to cruisers. And despite working for what Pacific Coast Sportfishing Magazine has declared the best marina in Mexico, he prefers to talk more about the country he’s lived in for 15 years and less about his marina specifically.
The basics are simple: Mexico has everything a yacht guest wants with all the things they need. That is to say lovely coastal and land-based destinations, affordable food and amenities, cheap fuel and mostly free water. The exchange rate is favorable, dock labor is cheap and dockage rates are some of the lowest in the world.
Most yachts come between November and May.
“Check in at the first place you stop,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a rule, but you should. And check out when you leave.”
Other tips include bringing things to trade with fishermen (balloons, soccer balls, crayons), resisting the urge to buy everything in a small town’s grocery store (“the locals only get shipments in once a week) and surviving chabascos, quick heavy storms (they come with no warning and last 30-45 minutes with 40-50 knots of wind).
“It’s not a third world country anymore,” he said. “The days of having to bring three months worth of toilet paper with you are gone. There are big box stores in or near all the biggest cities.”
He acknowledged that some yachts still run into paperwork problems and explained Mexico’s habit of watching with one eye.
“They [Mexican officials] know you have to bend some rules (they know the rules are dumb) but don’t break them,” he said. As an example, he noted the law against taking crustaceans.
“If you take a few for your own use, that’s fine,” Markie said. “But take 50 and you’ll be invited to leave. … They are patient people, but once their patience is broken, it’s broken.”
He was careful to note that in Mexico, if you are charged with something, you are assumed guilty until you prove yourself innocent. And the authorities can search anything at anytime for any reason.
“Don’t say things like, ‘that’s not how we do it in the United States’,” he said.
Boardings are not like they are in the United States, either.
“If they ask, do you have guns, drugs, say no and let them look around,” Markie said. “They take for granted that you have guns and that they are locked up. If you say yes, they have to write it up in the paperwork.
“Don’t take weapons ashore,” he said. “If you are caught with them, they will get confiscated and you will go to jail.”
Mexican authorities may come aboard wearing masks, he said. But don’t worry; it’s normal. Obscuring their identity is actually for the officers’ safety, he said. If criminals see officers doing their jobs, they may seek retribution.
“And the smaller the gun, the more important the man and the issue they are dealing with,” he said. “Don’t ask any questions, and don’t offer them anything they don’t ask for.
He told the story of one yacht captain who offered the high-ranking officer his fishing license, which was far beneath his authority and insulting.
“Just welcome them aboard and let them tell you what they want,” he said. “Say ‘what can I help you with?’ They will tell you what they want.”
In working with megayacht captains who have cruised the area, especially Capt. Robert Wallace, Markie compiled these tips for cruising Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Yachts entering Mexico from the Panama Canal or Costa Rica should make their first stop in Puerto Chiapas, which has a new Marina Chiapas and is just above the Guatemala border.
Dockmaster Enrique Laquette (email@example.com) says he can handle yachts to 180 feet and has no surge. The port can handle any size yacht alongside large piers where fuel trucks can drive right up.
Laquette acts as agent and will arrange all paperwork clearance (zarpe) with customs, immigration and capitania. Contact him well in advance so the paperwork will be done. Tapachula International Airport is 20 minutes from the marina.
Get a 10-year import permit and fishing licenses in advance. That can be done online.
Fishing licenses: www.conapescasandiego.org/contenido.cfm?cont=MAIN
Application for Temporary Import Permits: www.banjercito.com.mx/site/siteBanjer/Bicentenario/index.
The next marina north at the northwest side of the Gulf of Tehuantepec in the Huatulco area is Marina Chahue. During the strong north Tehuantepec winds, follow the beach closely from Puerto Chiapas around to the commercial port of Salina Cruz before heading off southwest to Punta Chipehua and on to the Bays of Huatulco.
Marina Chahue can handle yacht to 170 feet and it can also arrange all entry paperwork and fuel. Depth is 11.5 feet at the entrance, and there is some surge here. Dockmaster Eziquiel Gutierrez can arrange it all and get a local agent if needed. Contact the marina well in advance. A short taxi ride to the charming village of La Crucecita can’t be missed for the world famous food of Oaxaca. Safe anchorage can be had outside the marina as well as in Bahia Santa Cruz to the west. Huatulco International Airport is nearby.
From here north, the weather becomes pretty benign and cruising is great.
For larger yachts, the next stop could be Acapulco. It’s best to anchor off Acapulco Yacht Club and take the tender in for paperwork or to use the bar and pool. They charge somewhere between $35 to $50US per day for tender access to the club.
This old port is interesting to visit and is well worth it as the club office staff can be helpful, security is at the highest level and it’s a nice place to hang out and plan activities. Acapulco has an international airport for owners and guests. (Though it is not safe in town at night).
Don’t bother to get a berth because the surge is very pronounced. The club fuel dock can handle a yacht of about 110 feet. Larger yachts can arrange for large quantities of fuel at the municipal wharf downtown.
Guests will want to at least go and see the famous Acapulco Cliff Divers nearby at La Quebrada and walk around the old town and have some good local food. The club office staff can give you several great places to go.
Next stop for large yachts not to be missed is the bay of Zihuatanejo. Anchor just off Punta El Morro and outside smaller yachts. Cruise ships will anchor farther out. Tenders can ferry guests to the town pier or into the small darsena (repair dock), or there are always water taxis.
Zihuat has incredible scenery and beaches, and the quaint old town has shopping and many excellent restaurants. The nearby marina of Ixtapa can only handle yachts of no more than 70 feet but large yachts can lay off the marina and ferry guests by tender who may be coming to or from the nearby Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo Airport. Or better, guests from the airport can be taken to Zihuatanejo if anchored there.
Now on to the Manzanillo area, which includes everything north to Bahia Chamela.
The main downtown Manzanillo harbor can fuel any size megayacht inside the El Pedrito Lagoon. Permission from the capitania is required first.
A word about Manzanillo: It is a large commercial port and has a large naval base so it can be used as a port of entry for those who come directly from Panama or Costa Rica. Best to anchor off the Hotel Las Hadas and deal with an agent from there while owners and guests enjoy the amenities of the hotel, beaches and golf course.
Twenty-five miles north is Barra de Navidad. The best thing about that place is the wide open fuel dock with 12 feet of water in the channel. It’s got a great village and everybody likes the French baker. It’s an interesting stop for one or two days.
Then there is Tenacatita anchorage and Careyes, which can take about a 150-foot yacht max if there’s nobody else in there. Stern anchor here is a must and watch the weather. Guests can watch polo matches ashore, and also cruising the coast to see the numerous private homes is a lot of fun. Don’t miss the Copa del Sol.
Banderas Bay should not be missed. It is the largest bay on the Mexican mainland coast. Paradise Village Marina (www.paradisevillagemarina.com) is located all the way inside and is well protected. It has 200 slips for yachts, including 23 for those of 150 feet to 240 feet and two slips dedicated for helicopter take-offs and landings, the only marina in Mexico with that authority.
Contact the marina on Channel 16. It is a great place for owners and crew with a large hotel, golf course, hospital, spa, sand beach, and more. Markie and his wife, Gina, can handle almost any need.
The bay has whales and dolphins (but no sharks) and great local fishing, including tuna, sailfish and marlin. The bay is full of tourist attractions and some of the best restaurants in Mexico. It is home to the largest marine store in Mexico and the best place to provision. It is 15 minutes from the Puerto Vallarta International Airport. It is the best location to leave for Baja.
North of Banderas Bay is Chacala, and Isla Isabela shouldn’t be missed. There are just a couple of anchorages up Baja for large yachts. First is beautiful Santa Maria Bay at the north end of Magdalena Bay on the outside. It’s an excellent anchorage to wait out bad weather with good surfing at Punta Hughes with a south swell. Also, at high tide, it’s a lot of fun to take the tender inside the lagoon through the mangroves for a chance at spotting the one-eared donkey.
About 90 miles north is the large cove inside Punta Pequena called San Juanico. Another excellent anchorage for any sized yacht when it’s rough outside. Some of the best surfing in the world is here. Surfers call it Scorpion Bay.
The next anchorage with superb protection from the northwest winds is Asuncion. It’s a large anchorage for any sized yacht.
Then Turtle Bay is an all-weather anchorage big enough for many yachts. Fuel can be purchased and brought out on a barge. There are markets and a few restaurants here as well.
Cruisers share local knowledge on Channel 22 every morning at 8:30.
One last thing: In Ensenada harbor there is shipyard called Gran Peninsula Yacht Center (www.granpeninsula.com) that can haul yachts to 80m and up to 2,500 tons on its Synchrolift.
Don’t leave Mexico without a zarpe. Sometimes U.S.-flagged yachts pull into San Diego without checking out of Mexico. Customs agents in San Diego usually don’t care, but foreign-flagged yachts better have all their ducks in order. If you are enroute to San Diego and need the assistance of the Mexican navy or you get boarded, you better have your paperwork in order. You can get an exit zarpe at any Mexican port that has a port captain.
But to get a zarpe, all tourist cards will be taken away, so the zarpe is done on the last day.
Yachts aren’t required to stop in Ensenada to check out of Mexico and if they have their zarpe from Puerto Vallarta or Cabo, they don’t need to. But Ensenada has cheap fuel. Yachts up to about 130 feet can get an end tie at the Marina Coral with advance notice and can use the fuel dock.
Large yachts with a draft up to 20 feet can obtain dockage, power and fuel at Gran Peninsula where you can also check out for about $150. The yard can arrange for a fuel truck to drive right up next to the yacht for fueling of any amount.
Anchoring is not permitted in the harbor and anchoring outside is sketchy so get a slip.
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.