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Mexico Report

As the year 2023 awakens across Mexico’s 3,500 nautical miles of Pacific coastlines, here are four brief items of interest to U.S. recreational boaters, cruisers, and fishing folk.

Gonzaga Update: Shore support has recently improved for boaters exploring the upper Sea of Cortez, thanks to the completion of Mexico Highway 5.

From the fishing port of San Felipe, BCN, this newly straightened, smoothed, and well paved 2-lane highway (occasionally four lanes) runs 85 miles south along Baja’s rugged desert coastline to Gonzaga Bay’s famous Rancho Grande Junction. Thanks to increased traffic, the tiny Pemex station at Rancho Grande has been enlarged, as has its adjacent Mini Market – both critical resources (fuel, food, water, beer, ice) for many dozens of recreational boaters who summer over at anchor in the seven coves around Gonzaga Bay and its adjacent Willard Bay. In addition, at Gonzaga’s improved airstrip, weekend fly-ins and emergency evacuation are now practical.

Instead of just 4WDs and dune buggies, the new Highway 5 makes an easy drive for vehicles towing fishing boats that want to launch, for example, at Papa Fernandez’s Camp in the north end of Willard Bay or maybe off Alfonsina’s sand bar in the northwest end of Gonzaga Bay.

The new Highway 5 also passes close to popular launch spots such as San Felipe’s municipal darsena, Puertecitos Bay and hot springs, Playa La Costilla, Isla Huerfinito, Playa Bufeo just north of Punta Willard, and not far from Camp Punta Final at the south end of Gonzaga Bay. The fishing is phenomenal in this upper Sea of Cortez region. Still, with local spring and neep tides ranging from 12 to 16 feet, boaters need to reach these reliable launch and retrieval locations safely.

South of Gonzaga Bay, Highway 5 turns inland and climbs the steep Arroyo Las Arastras for 30 miles to join Highway 1 at the dry lake bed of Lago Chapala. Now, even northbound trailer boaters can easily reach Gonzaga Bay on Highway 5.

Marias Update: The Marias Islands (former prison colony) are not yet officially open for private boats to visit on their own. Sorry. But the good news is that some groundwork has been laid.

Mexican President AMLO officially inaugurated the Visitor Center and park at Puerto Balleto on Isla Maria Madre on December 21. That day a bright red ferry (the first of two boats) shuttled the first bunch of registered visitors from Mazatlan to the island (a five-hour voyage) for a 3-day excursion (Friday-Sunday), including a hostel-type hotel and buffet restaurant. A nicer hotel and more eateries are planned.

A new website, https://visitlasislasmarias.com, explains the various nature hikes, island tours, and free trail bikes. The excursion prices range from about $175 to $300 per person, depending on which comfort options you pick.

For the hundreds of many recreational boaters who must cross about 300 n.m. from Los Cabos in southern Baja to Puerto Vallarta on the mainland (and vice versa), being able to stop for the night at Isla Maria Madre would be a huge safety benefit. The Isla Marias archipelago is a natural waypoint because it lies about 200 n.m. southeast of Los Cabos and about 100 n.m. northwest of Puerto Vallarta. Only about five years ago, boaters had to dog-leg their straight-line course in order to stay 20 n.m. off these prison islands – or risk getting shot at by the prison patrol boats.

As a safe refuge in case of bad weather, or simply as a much-needed rest stop, being able to anchor or moor at Puerto Balleto (or a couple of other spots) would be a welcome addition to Mexico’s pristine cruising destinations and would surely increase nautical tourism to the Islas Marias nature park and biosphere.

Every week, many boaters ask me if they can stop here yet. Not yet.

No actual charts of the Islas Marias exist, not DMA or S.M. charts. Because at least three different government agencies and two states are involved in the public opening of this brand new Nature Protected Area, my many questions to the authorities about private yachts anchoring or mooring at Puerto Balleto or anywhere in the islands have not yet been answered. Perhaps they are waiting for the Mexican Navy to issue a new chart or to install new moorings for nautical tourism. Stay tuned.

Panama Canal Update: As of January 1, fees to transit the Panama Canal increased for all sizes of non-commercial recreational vessels.

About a third of the long-range cruising boaters who head into Mexico and Central America yearly express some interest in transiting this 50-mile canal, the world’s best shortcut for entering the Caribbean. The Panama Canal Authority issued its schedule of annual price increases, making it easier for boaters to budget this major adventure into their cruising kitties. Each boat’s overall length (LOA) is determined by physical tape measurements performed by agents from Panama’s Admeasurer’s Office. Your LOA, including swim step and bow sprit, determines your Transit Fee.

  • For yachts less than 65 feet LOA, the Transit Fee is $1,760. That’s up from $1,600 in 2022.
  • For yachts 65 to up to 80 feet LOA, the Transit Fee is $2,640. That’s up from $2,400.
  • For yachts 80 to up to 100 feet LOA, the Transit fee is $3,850 – up from $3,500.
  • For those over 100 feet LOA, the Transit fee is $5,000 – up from $4,100 in 2022.

Additionally, flat fees are collected for Security ($130), Buffer ($891), and Delay ($471). The Buffer and Delay fees are potentially refundable after transit. All fees are slated to increase again in January 2024 and 2025.

Covid Update: As cases rise again in both the U.S. and Mexico, we should not be surprised if some masking requirements reappear this winter.

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