It’s been an ambition for some years to visit the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California. I have heard tales and seen pictures and video of the teeming wildlife in its near-tropical waters where whales come to mate and give birth, where dolphins play in their thousands, and where rays fly like underwater aircraft.
Inspired by John Steinbeck and his 1940 expedition to the region, chronicled in The Log From The Sea Of Cortez (no, it’s not about a piece of wood, as I first imagined many years ago), I am here this week on a 12-day cruise aboard Azamara Quest, ready to bring things up to date and write The Blog From The Sea Of Cortez.
It turns out the real highlight may not be the marine creatures after all; along with more than 400 other passengers I will be travelling by train tomorrow to visit Copper Canyon – a spectacular natural wonder even bigger and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
The other 200 or so passengers not joining us on this 16½-hour marathon, leaving the ship at 5.00am, had better be prepared for some exciting travellers’ tales when we return.
But that’s for another day. So far we have spent two days at sea, enjoying all that the delightful Quest has to offer, and two days visiting the Mexican ports of Mazatlán and La Paz, wondering – to be honest – what all the fuss is about.
They have not been the most exciting places to call at.
Mazatlán brought a double dose of disappointment for me. Our excursion promised cliff diving and from somewhere deep in my memory banks I dredged up recollections of black and white television travelogues featuring bronzed youths hurtling hundreds of feet into the sea.
Maybe I was completely confused and the swallow divers were from another part of the planet, but those putting on the display from a stumpy rock – complete with white balustrade – seemed to be no higher than the most foolhardy mini-celebs coached by Tom Daley on TV’s Splash.
They may not have been the highest of high dives, but at least the Mazatlán men (or boys) put on an impressive show of tandem diving which Daley at his Olympic best would have been proud of. And the risk of being smashed against the rocks below could not be denied.
They deserved the few dollar bills that our party pushed into their wet hands as a reward for the brief show.
The other disappointment? Not the performance of Mexican dancing staged for our benefit at the inappropriately named Spectaculare arena. Long experience of anything with the word “folkloric” in the description has reduced expectations of exciting entertainment to a minimum.
And not really Mazatlán’s so-called Golden Zone where shuttered shop fronts and abandoned jewellery stores were testament to the fact that many cruise ships have been scared away by Mexico’s crime rate, our at least by the fear of crime.
No, the second revelation to leave me feeling underwhelmed was the sight of frigate birds roosting on lampposts along the waterfront.
Soaring effortlessly across blue skies on pointed wings and with tails streaming behind them, they have always seemed the most elegant of creatures and a sign – whether in the Caribbean or here on America’s Pacific Coast – that I am somewhere warm and sunny.
Up close, the illusion of grace is shattered. Their bodies are not the glistening Brylcreem black that I expected; more a muddy brown colour that looked ungroomed and unloved.
They’re not sleek, either. Their rotund bodies perched atop the street lights – and viewed from alongside on our double-decker tour bus – could just have been obese passengers sleeping off their last cruise ship meal.
Our second port of call today has been no more inspiring. Quest berthed in the industrial Puerto de Pichilingue, a half-hour’s drive from the attractions of La Paz, where a great deal of work is going on to improve the roads and the Malecón, or seafront promenade. None of it is finished.
There are some impressive hotel and condo projects taking place, although again, there are more signs for show homes in incomplete developments than there are of settled occupation.
A verdant golf club alongside one looked so out of place that it could have been created by an unseen hand sneakily draping acres of turf across the arid desert.
The town has some beautiful beaches, and if there had been more time I might have been tempted to take a boat trip to see whale sharks; possibly even to snorkel with them.
The highlight, though, was a group of local teenagers gathered by a park dancing enthusiastically to traditional music blaring from a speaker. They might not have been dressed in elaborate costumes but they showed more enthusiasm than the professionals from the previous day – and they were not even busking for tips.
After a couple of bottles of local Pacifico cerveza and a Pueblo-style chicken salad while making the most of a seafront restaurant’s free wi-fi, it was time to return to the ship.
I need an early night ready for that 5.00am start in the morning.
More from Copper Canyon and from Azamara Quest itself in the next few days.