When we entered the San Lorenzo Channel, it was as if someone had taken aim at the cockpit with a fire hose. Mike, standing at the wheel in his bright yellow foul-weather jacket, took the brunt as blasts of buckshot spray managed to miss the dodger entirely and hit him full in the face. My husband, Richard, tucked himself and his camera against the cabintop and grinned.

I wasn’t smiling. While I’m not normally prone to seasickness, its ugly fingers snaked through my insides as we motored with bare poles through the steep and occasionally breaking waves. In gale-force winds, the seas in this shallow channel between the Pichilingue Peninsula and Isla Espíritu Santo behave much as they do in my Great Lakes home waters – which is to say, they don’t behave at all. It seemed Luna Pacifica was lurching and slamming in multiple directions at once.

With a shaky sigh, I stared intently at the horizon, wiped salt out of my eyes and focused on the fact that we’d soon be in the sheltered lee of the island.

It wasn’t the most auspicious start for a charter cruise.

Remember Flexibility

We’d arrived at the Moorings base in La Paz, capital city of Baja California Sur, two days prior with the idea that we’d sleep on the boat, do an 8 a.m. briefing and be on our way before lunchtime. Mother Nature had different plans, as so often happens when boats and vacations mix.

Since we only had time for a three-day charter cruise while visiting the 474-year-old city, we decided to hire a local skipper who would be intimately familiar with the nearby islands of Isla Espíritu Santo, Isla Partida and Los Islotes. Capt. Mike Harris, a former fire chief from Southern California who relocated to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula nearly 10 years ago, met us at our Beneteau 403 and introduced himself – he also advised that the charter would likely be reduced to two days.

“In La Paz, there’s an old wives’ tale that says if the waves are breaking on El Mogote at high tide, it’s blowing 40 in the islands,” he said, pointing at the waves dashing themselves to pieces on the long sandbar paralleling the city’s waterfront. “I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere tomorrow.”

Sure enough. While a pleasant breeze ruffled palm fronds in the city, a roaring gale in the Sea of Cortez closed the port to all vessels less than 500 tons.

Longtime sailors know that, above all things, flexibility is required when planning a cruise. You need to have a backup plan in case the weather changes… which it will.

So we spent what would have been our first charter day as landlubbers instead, and having a local skipper made it a delight. Mike drove us northward to Playa Balandra, perhaps the most famous of the 10 public beaches dotting the Pichiligue Peninsula. We strolled its sun-baked, secluded playitas and hiked out to the famous mushroom rock, a longtime symbol for La Paz.

From there we rounded the tip of the peninsula to Playa Tecolote, wildly popular with reveling locals and tourists alike and the primary jumping-off point for panga day trips to the islands, and bumped onward along a dusty road to the more remote Playa Coyote. With only a few odd campers for company, we gazed across the wind-shredded channel to Espíritu Santo. The island seemed a distant haven, almost otherworldly from the rocky beach.

We capped off the day with fresh fish tacos and cold Pacificos at Moyeyo’s, a sand-floor palapa restaurant on the La Paz waterfront, and later we walked the five-kilometer waterfront malecon into el centro in search of the celebrated La Fuente ice cream shop and its landmark polka-dot tree. After sampling homemade flavors such as corn and guava, we couldn’t resist a café olé at popular meeting place Café Exquisito as the sun set in glorious Baja style.

Holy Spirit Island

As soon as we got word that the port was open in the morning, we cast off the docklines in near-record time and motored north through the narrow, tricky channel that leads from La Paz and its commercial port to the San Lorenzo Channel and, ultimately, open water. We were bound for Isla Espíritu Santo, the Holy Spirit Island.

When we returned to La Paz two days later, we heard that the port captain shut the port again just 30 minutes after we left. No wonder.

The wind still howled in the rigging as we passed Punta Dispensa on the island’s southwestern tip. Espíritu Santo doesn’t offer much of a lee shore in northerly gales – which are not uncommon during the winter months – but if a yacht tucks in close to the bay-scalloped west coast, she can find a measure of protection. As we motored northward, the seas and my stomach quieted.

The Nature Conservancy acquired this 23,383-acre island in January 2003, and today it is a federally decreed Flora and Fauna Protection Area as well as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. Human inhabitation is limited to a smattering of local fish camps and occasional visits by sea-kayaking tours, and “Leave No Trace” is gospel here.

This fragile desert wilderness is a migratory stopover and nesting site for more than 200 species of terrestrial and marine birds. On the island’s multihued slopes reside the world’s largest cactus – the cardón – and a broad range of regional endemic species of plants and animals. Several animals on Isla Espíritu Santo are found nowhere else, including the elusive black-tailed jackrabbit, the ground squirrel, two species of snake and the rare, nocturnal ring-tailed cat.

The biodiversity doesn’t stop there. The desert drops down to meet a sea that Jacques Cousteau once called “The World’s Aquarium.” A whopping 31 species of marine mammals and 500 species of fish call these waters home.

Each bay has its own unique flavor. The island’s human history comes to life at Bahía San Gabriel, home to the century-old remnants of a pearling operation and a man-made lagoon. Acclaimed author John Steinbeck used La Paz and a local legend in his 1947 novel The Pearl; in a sad twist, illness killed the area’s famous pearls that same decade. They’re long gone, but the ruins remain.

Then there’s Playa Ballena, or Whale Beach, which is among Isla Espíritu Santo’s least-visited due to camping restrictions. My first impression of the bay was that of a natural cathedral. A palette of burnt amber, sienna, terra cotta and russet exploded along steep slopes of ancient volcanic lava and ash, which cradled a gleaming, empty stretch of white sand. The islets of Gallo and Gallina, or rooster and hen, lay just offshore alongside the larger Isla Ballena.

As enticing as the island’s many nooks and crannies appeared, we decided to cruise on to El Cardonal, an anchorage just north of Espíritu Santo on Isla Partida. The islands are often considered to be one; they are separated by just a narrow, ribbonlike channel at Caleta Partida.

Adventures in Wildlife

As the sun fell lower in the March sky, Richard and I took the dinghy to shore so we could explore the long, crescent-shaped beach, a mangrove thicket and the cardón- and scrub-covered desert plain that is all that separates the placid Bahía de La Paz shore from the rocky — and today, more rambunctious — Sea of Cortez coastline. Steep mountains reared up to the north and south, casting long shadows.

A flock of pelicans rested on a rocky point near the mangroves, which bustled with water birds of every stripe. A heron cried and took flight across a nearby hillside, and in the translucent shallows, I could spot pufferfish, Gumbylike starfish, a school of striped sergeant majors and even a lone triggerfish.

This is the most intact ecosystem remaining in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. The islands’ beaches, tide pools, arroyos, caves and mountains capture the essence of a Baja that has existed since the San Andreas Fault tore the peninsula away from mainland Mexico, a process that started millions of years ago.

Perhaps the best way to experience it is to camp on its beaches. We ached to do just that, but in the absence of appropriate backpacking gear, we returned to Luna Pacifica for sunset cocktails, salads loaded with fresh local vegetables and a hearty lasagna. Before long, a full moon rose and cast its silvery light across still waters aglow with phosphorescence.

The next morning, we set our course for Los Islotes – a cluster of islets off the tip of Isla Partida that hosts an active sea lion rookery. Visitors are allowed to get into the water with these often playful animals, and such interaction is a highlight for sight-seers, sailors, sea kayakers, snorkelers and scuba divers alike.

Weather permitting, of course.

While the wind had nearly evaporated, the seas had not flattened in the slightest. It was too rough to get close to the islets’ rocky teeth with Luna, much less get into the water with the sea lions. We circled the rookery for a few photographs, listening to animated barks echo across the water.

As the wind had died to all but a few sputtering gasps, we continued our cruise under power, pointing our nose southward and tucking into Caleta Partida. This unique bay is the caldera of an ancient volcano, and one glance at the layers of rock in its steep sides reveals eons of geological drama.

Ripples on the water’s surface caught Mike’s eye.

“Dolphins!” he called.

The pod caught up to us in moments. Richard and I squeezed into Luna’s bowsprit so we could watch four gray torpedoes rocketing ahead of the bow’s knife edge. Channeling Leonardo DiCaprio, I had an irrepressible urge to throw my arms wide and shout, “I’m the king of the world!”

We were elated as several other dolphins leaped out of the water in sync. Yet something was amiss. One “dolphin” seemed significantly smaller than the others, and its arching leap out of the water ended in a messy splash rather than a tidy re-entry.

It was a sea lion pup.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mike murmured. “Maybe something happened to his mother and the pod adopted him.”

When the pod moved on, we motored in high spirits south to Caleta Candelero, an anchorage popular for its freshwater well and inland box canyon. We dropped the hook, prepared sandwiches with Mexican cheese, avocados and tomatoes on fresh bread rolls, and then buzzed ashore with the dinghy.

Here, where a broad arroyo narrows, a thin wisp of hiking trail winds up through the pinkish limestone bedrock and scattering of conglomerate scree into a narrow canyon adorned with fig trees, confectionlike caverns, water-smoothed boulders and a steep, dry waterfall.

It was a magical place, almost preternaturally still, with an army of cardón cacti marching across the slopes above. Hiking back to the beach, we could see the banded Sierra de la Giganta mountains to the west hovering over the cobalt Bahía de La Paz like a mirage.

It wouldn’t have been a stretch to suggest that time might actually stop here.

Just One More Night

Since we only had one more night on Luna and had to return her to La Paz by 10 a.m. the next day, Mike suggested that we leave the island and anchor on the peninsula. As we cruised south, I perched in the stern and gazed at Espíritu Santo’s profile as it fell farther in our wake.

Just then, Richard made an excited noise that fell just short of actual words and dashed for his camera. A manta ray had erupted out of the water behind us, splashed back down, and then threw itself skyward again. It seemed so joyful, and I felt as if the island were saying goodbye.

Mike chose Lobos Cove, just two miles north of the commercial port at Pichilingue, for our final anchorage. With just two other boats for company, it was a quiet spot despite its proximity to the shipping lanes. We could see the the Los Lobos lighthouse as well as the enormous Baja Ferries, slowly making their way toward the San Lorenzo Channel, the open Sea of Cortez and their mainland ports at Mazatlán and Los Mochis-Topolobampo.

As Richard fired up the cockpit grill for steaks and we prepared corn on the cob and baked potatoes, I remarked that we still had a ton of food left.

“I could make a fish-and-salsa dish that I know,” Mike offered. “We can have our own ‘surf and turf!’”

The Negro Modelo cervezas and a mellow Chilean wine flowed as we bustled about the galley and cockpit, preparing our final feast. And, throughout the meal, we regaled each other with stories and swapped jokes – an easy camaraderie that develops among shipmates.

The rich smell of fresh coffee assailed me at sunrise, and I crept into the cockpit to join Richard and Mike. We had company. A large female sea lion was idly cruising the anchorage, emitting a huffing breath each time she broke the water’s mirrorlike surface. Then a squadron of pelicans shattered our reverie as they crashed into the sea for their own breakfast.

La Paz, Puerto de Ilusion

Three days is already far too short as charter vacations go. The fact that we were resigned to just two days made it even harder to say goodbye to Luna when we pulled into her slip at Marina Palmira the next morning – particularly on a warm, sunny day with a fresh breeze, perfect for sailing.

Yet those days gave me an opportunity to experience a world-class cruising ground the likes of which I have never seen. It was a tantalizing taste of what a longer charter cruise would offer.

Although the quote has become overused by travel writers as Baja has become an ever more popular vacation destination, John Steinbeck had it right when he wrote in his 1941 Log from the Sea of Cortez: “The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment. A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination.”

Indeed, this otherworldly juxtaposition of vibrant tropical sea and Sonoran desert, a gem on the 800-mile-long Baja Peninsula, is a place of incomparable richness. At the main dock in La Paz, an archway proclaims you have arrived at the “Puerto de Ilusion.” Port of illusions — a place of dreams.