Here are our recommendations based on the 6 years we spent in Mexico from 2004 to 2010. Others may disagree and your priorities may be different but here’s what we found works best for us.
Our biggest recommendation is to stay out of the Sea of Cortez between Nov 15 and Mar 15 (too cold and screaming Northers)! Go to the "Mexican Riviera" aka "Costa Alegre", between Banderas Bay and Manzanillo. There’s plenty of time to cruise the Sea after Mar 15. We generally spent the Month of January and parts of December and February further down the coast around Tenacatita/Barra/Santiago Bay.
If you are leaving your boat in Mexico for the Summer, we recommend berthing at Paradise Village: No hurricanes in Banderas Bay - only 1 tropical storm in recorded history went there – not a hurricane – and the Marina is behind two rows of high rises which block any wind anyway. La Cruz has a new Sea Wall that has only been in a few years and a fair bit of surge when things get boisterous. You probably want to return to Paradise Village/Banderas Bay by June 1 if you’re going to winter over. We don't like La Paz, Mazatlan or San Carlos as they all get whacked by hurricanes - La Paz every 2 or 3 years!
In Banderas Bay, the best anchorage is at La Cruz and the best marina is Paradise Village (La Cruz Marina: “Marina Riviera Nayarit is #2 in our book: no potable water, no resort, no “real” yacht club). Both run about $0.60 US per foot per day (around $18 per foot per month as of 2010) plus electricity and plus 15% tax, that’s the rate if you are staying longer than 30 days. Both have Summer "Special" rates a touch more than half that if you stay for the whole summer (the quoted summer rate is only slightly lower).
Paradise Village has the potable water, the full amenities of the Paradise Village 5 star resort, a real marine chandlery (SG Boat Works) and the only real cruisers Yacht Club in Mexico which is open 7 days a week and has a very active: social and concert schedule, a Jr. Program with some of the top rated Jr. Opti sailors in Mexico, great food and wonderful drinks too! It's very affordable and one of it's founders goals was to have a club with great food and at or under $1 US Beers! See:http://vallartayachtclub.org and http://paradisevillagemarina.com be sure to call ahead to Paradise Village for reservations. If you can't get in, Marina Riviera Nayarit in La Cruz can accomodate you! http://www.marinarivieranayarit.com/
"Vallarta Nautica" is the glossy, free Banderas Bay cruiser’s guide that’s published every year. Pick up a copy at your first stop in the Bay. The online version of the guide is at http://virtualvallarta.com/puertovallarta/vallartanautica/vallartanautica2013/index.shtml but you must have a very high speed connection to look at it. The authors are cruisers, but the publisher doesn’t get the fact that cruisers typically don’t have high speed connections.
Proceeding south, not to be missed are:
Ipala is a small anchorage for about 6 to 10 boats, but a lovely small town with great, inexpensive lobster and other sea food. We like the left most Restaurant of the 3, the one with the big tents.
Chamela - The lovely town of Perula with it’s Palapas at the Northern end of the bay is great. The mid bay Islands are also a Booby preserve it's not to be missed. All the Restarants are very good, we like Miguelito's (look for the bar in the center of the restaurant). We spent 3 Christmas in Chamala and loved it! Lot's of local families, music, food.
Tenacatita* (the main cruiser anchorage is so nice that some folks spend the whole season there!). It's know for a "Jungle Cruise" a dingy ride through the mangroves. At the far end there used to be a small village restaurants and store, but they're gone because of a property dispute. La Manzanita across the Tenacatita bay is a great small town, but go in the morning or hire a Panga to take you from the cruisers anchorage. It can be difficult to get off the beach once the wind kicks up in the afternoon.
Cuastacomantes* – “The Secret Anchorage” is a very small bay that’s a great place to anchor. It's between Tenacatita and Barra.
Melaque* - is too rolly for us, but some folks anchor there and love it. It's nickname is "Rocky Melaque"
Barra de Navidad* – one of the great cruising destinations. There is an anchorage in the lagoon and the Isla Navidad Marina our #2 favorite Marina in Mexico (after Paradise Village). Hint: if you go into the marina, stay for the month – the daily rate stinks because they hate paperwork. In Jan 2010 the rate was $27 US per foot per month or $2.60 US per foot per day (all plus electricity and 15% tax).
The Tenacatita/Barra area is so great that we’ve spent 6 or 7 weeks in January 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, & 2010. We typically stayed the month of January in the Isla Navidad Marina (A great “resort” break from cruising). If you do go to the anchorage, be sure to get the waypoints and other local info from the cruising guide below. WARNING: Some cruising guides show an anchorage off town near the Sands Hotel. It doesn't exist! One year we pulled three boats off the sand who tried to get to it!
We collaborated with a group of cruisers over the years to write and publish a free cruising guide for Tenacatita and Barra de Navidad, the latest version of which we posted on our website at:http://raptordance.com a shortcut to it is available at: raptordance.com/index.php?option=com_rubberdoc&view=category&id=3&Itemid=4... locations marked with an "*" are covered by this guide.
The Manzanillo area has at least 3 great places to anchor (Ensenada Carrizal, Santiago Bay and Las Hadas Anchorage) and a must avoid marina at Las Hadas it is med mooring only and very surgy. The marina has a fuel dock, but you are better off going back to Barra. If you anchor at Las Hadas Anchorage, you can use the dinghy dock in the Marina and use the pool restaurants and bar. From there you can catch a bus or an inexpensive taxi to take you to the Mega (supermarket), Walmart, Starbucks and quaint village of Santiago. Stan & MJ, former cruisers, are "Solemate Santiago" and they publish a lot of resources for cruisers on their website at: http://www.solmatesantiago.com/ resources include maps of local resources and great weather forecasts covering the area from the Outside of the Baja to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. As a general note - move over to Santiago Bay from Las Hadas on weekends and holidays as it can get overrun with Jet Skiis.
South of Manzanillo, there’s not much until you get to the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area where there is also a just “ok” marina. There are some anchorages that are “beloved by surfers” but that’s the give away that they are very rolly.
We went to Zihuatanejo once and wouldn't do it again. Too far down the coast and very polluted water in the harbor. You can check our blog for those stories! see http://raptordance.blogspot.com/2007/02/busy-time-in-zihuatanejo.html Some folks love it, however.
Other tidbits about Mexico:
Weather: Weather resources have changed quite a bit the last few years since Don on Summer Passage Radio passed away. I know that Stan "Solemate Santiago" is really good, but there are other resources on the vairous radio networks. We always checked into the Amigo Net on 8.122 Mhz Marine USB SSB at 1400 UTC, Don used to come on during the winter at 1415 UTC (1435 UTC in the Summer). They also switch to channel 4B during the net for boats that can't copy 8.122 because of their location, but I don't know what the current situation is. If someone could report back, I'll update this section.
Paying for stuff: You want to use Peso cash pretty much everywhere. Get your cash from an ATM, it’s the best rate you can get. Call your bank ahead of time to get your ATM limit raised from the usual $200 or $300 US to $1,000 US – every bank I know will do that on request. If you have a Citibank account, you can use Banamex ATMs with no surcharge. If you have a Bank of America Account, you can use Santander’s ATMs with no surcharge. Otherwise the fee for each withdrawal is around a $1 US for most banks. Do not use your Credit Cards as most merchants charge 5 to 10% extra if you use a card. Also the cards themselves charge 3 or 4% for an out of the US and Foreign Exchange Transaction. The exceptions I know of are USAA, Capital One, and some Platinum level cards – they only charge 1%.
WiFi – is available in many Marinas sometimes free, sometimes for a fee. The highest fee is at the Grand Bay Hotel in Barra: $10/day! Fee WiFi is available in many restaurants and coffee shops all over Mexico. Our article on using WiFi afloat is a little dated, but still useful - see: http://raptordance.blogspot.com/2007/11/using-wireless-internet-wifi-while.html
Banda Acha – better than WiFi is a high speed USB Internet connection from Telcel. The first month it’s around $700 or $800 Pesos for the month service and the plug in adapter (it looks like a fat USB Memory Stick). Each month there after is $499 Pesos (about $42 US). It’s DSL speed most places. You need to go physically into a Telcel store to buy it and pay for subsequent months. If you want to use it during the Haha (It’s reported to work in Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria!), you can take the trolley from San Diego to the border, then a cab on the Tijuana side. When you get to Cabo or your next city stop you can pay for subsequent months (takes a few weeks to get you into Telcel’s computer system). You can buy multiple months ahead. We stopped using WiFi most of the time once we got our Banda Acha. Be sure to take in your laptop when signing up so you can make sure that the software is installed correctly and in English and to make sure everything works!
Cell Phones – only AT&T has good roaming coverage in Mexico as far as we know. You need to get a special plan to not get killed on roaming fees though. Also, there is no data roaming that’s affordable. So forget about using data on an AT&T iPhone or iPad. You can however, get an inexpensive “pay-as-you-go” cell phone from one of the vendors in Mexico. If you’re going to be in Mexico for a number years, you could also get a Mexican iPhone from Telcel. Skype works great too if you have an Internet connection!
Provisioning – you can get pretty much anything in Mexico you can get in the US, with only a few exceptions. In many instances, it’s the same brands and packaging you would find in the US (e.g. Washington State Apples, Bunny Love Carrots, etc.). Local produce is very inexpensive – example: Avocados $32 Pesos a Kilo (That’s about $2.50 for 2.2 pounds). One thing to definitely bring down is stuff from "Trader Joes" - things like good crackers, dark chocolate covered espresso beans, and goodies for appetizers.
It's hard to find really good wine, in Mexico, so bring lots! They don't care how much you have when you check in at Cabo.
When you do check in to Mexico, they may confiscate your meat. What they go after varies from year to year.
Mail – We use St. Brendan’s Island as our mail forwarding service, http://www.sbimailservice.com/. We use their service that scans the envelopes and, on request, the contents. Very useful! They will pack up the mail that you have designated to be sent to you and ship it when and where you specify. To Mexico, the only reliable service is DHL or UPS (FedEx to a lesser extent). They’re pricy though! Our last shipment was very light and it cost upwards of $140 US! So we’ve been having friends or fellow cruisers bring our mail packs down to us. We could usually hook up with someone about once a month. Outgoing mail: Bring lots of US Stamps! On the Morning cruisers VHF Radio net, folks announce when they’re heading back to the US and willing to take flat stamped mail. The mail it for you once they get to the US. The Mexican Mail service is totally non functional. Don’t even try it!
Haul outs and fuel docks: There are two yards in Banderas Bay – one in La Cruz Marina, the other in the Downtown Puerto Vallarta Marina. They also have the fuel docks. If you need a haul, get quotes from both – they will compete with Mazatlán prices (which historically were lower). The Fuel Dock in La Cruz is a little less expensive. Both have good clean fuel.
Bottom Cleaning: plan on at least once a month. The water is warmer in Mexico and nutrient rich in many areas (most places natural organic tidal estuary organic material, in Zihuatanejo from sewage). In Paradise Village we like "Guillermo the Diver".
Raw Water Cooled Fridge and/or AC: Do you have a raw water cooled fridge or air conditioner? If so, we found that putting 1/4 of a 3" swimming pool chlorine tablet (available at pool stores and the Home Depot in Puerto Vallarta) in your sea strainer once every few weeks will keep the marine growth out of your raw water system. Before we learned this, we had to clean out about a quart of mussels from our hoses, manifold, etc. I also brought a "Carboy" brush (basically a large diameter bottle brush) from a home brewery store to help clean out the hoses. I would NOT use this technique if the engine, genset or any item with a zinc is on that strainer: too big a danger of corrosion!
Mechanics: In Banderas Bay we like "Teapot Tony" and in Barra de Navidad, John Jones of "Jonco" Marine Repair.
Other stuff: See our 2007 article on Mexico cruising at http://raptordance.blogspot.com/2007/09/tips-for-getting-ready-to-ha-ha-2007.html. Most of that information is still accurate, but Banda Acha has replaced WiFi as the Internet Access Technology of choice and cell phone reception has improved to the point that we got rid of our Iridium in 2008! Also, PV now has a Home Depot, Costco and a bunch of Starbucks!
We still recommend that everyone put a Marine HF SSB onboard. Our article: on Getting More out of Winlink and Sailmail is available in our communications section: http://new.raptordance.com/index.php?option=com_rubberdoc&view=category&id=2&Itemid=5along with a bunch of other useful radio information.
We have lots of other content on our website so please fee free to browse around! http://raptordance.com
After Mexico? Many folks head back to the States, cross the Pacific, head to Central America, or through the Canal to the Carribean. Our advice: Don't be in a hurry! Mexico is a fantastic cruising ground and many of our friends who were in a hurry to move on report that they regret their decision to leave so soon! Some say it's the finest cruising ground in the world! If you are going to leave, spend at least 2 seasons before you leave! Especially if you're going to Puddle Jump or head South. You'll miss a lot! Besides, what's your hurry? Ok, I'll admit that we came for a season, went to the Pacific Northwest, but then we HAD to return for 4 more years!
Hope you find this info valuable! Feel free to pass this along and/or refer folks here!
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Have a blast on the Haha and Beyond!