Traveling Across the Sea of Cortez
Story and Photos by Jim Foreman
Sponsored by Mexican Insurance Store.com
When looking at any map of Mexico, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the Baja California Peninsula.
This unique region of Mexico is known for phenomenal weather, excellent wines, playful resorts, and a diverse topography featuring mountains, deserts, sea, and ocean.
By this time one begins to wonder, “Now I’ve explored Baja, Now What?” Alternatively, a traveler may decide it’s more interesting to travel north back to the US or Canada via Baja California.
How does one easily get across with a vehicle? The answer is, “Take the ferry across.”
Now, a typical Norte Americano will think, “I’ll just go online and book passage.” Quickly, if not immediately, one will become quite confused and frustrated.
Booking passage on the ferry is not terribly complicated or confusing, as long as you do it like a Mexican.
|Mazatlan office of Baja Ferries|
|Ferry Routes by Martin McGowan|
Alternatively, a much smaller and more infrequent ferry, Ferry Santa Rosalía operates between Guaymas, Sonora and Santa Rosalía, BCS.
Ferry BasicsIt’s easy to book passage on a ferry. That said, when traveling by car, you should not book it too far in advance unless you plan on sailing during one of Mexico’s holiday celebrations.
The best and most reliable way to book passage by ferry is to go, in person, to one of the many ticket offices in the vehicle you wish to transport. If you are traveling in anything other than a standard car, the complexity skyrockets. Additionally, if you want to book a cabin, that is also fraught with confusion. Go in person. The website is helpful to know the addresses of the ticket offices and the hours and days of operation. Nine out of ten travelers who try to book passage online get it wrong and end up in a much more complicated situation.
The ferry can accommodate any vehicle that is roadworthy. Bicycles, motorcycles, cars, light trucks, box vans, recreational vehicles (RVs), trailers, and semi-trucks with trailers are all welcome. If you are taking any vehicle other than a standard car, light pickup, SUV, or motorcycle, it will need to be measured. The tariff or fee is calculated based on its length, and possibly it’s width.
The ferries DO NOT run every day. Check their respective websites to learn what days they travel from your embarkation point.
Here is where gets very confusing, very quickly. There are up to four different costs you will need to pay. The first one is for yourself. Each person traveling on the ferry must pay for transit. In most cases, the vehicle fee will include the driver, but only the driver. Any additional passengers will have to pay separately. The second fee is for the vehicle. The third fee is optional, and that is for a private cabin. The fourth and final expense is the La Paz Port Fee which ranges from $76MN to $254MN depending on the type and size of your vehicle. Motorcycles pay $76MN each. Cars pay $153MN. This fee is collected separately when arriving or departing La Paz.
Current Baja Ferries rates and Santa Rosalia Ferries rates are available on their respective websites. Again, it’s confusing.
What’s Included In Your Fare?
The standard fare includes passage, use of a comfortable airline type seat with lots of legroom, and a meal. The seats often have movies playing. It’s wise to bring earplugs if you intend to sleep.
An included meal is served at the beginning of the trip and is basic, at best. There is also breakfast meal served on the run between Mazatlan and La Paz. Do not expect gourmet. It’s not hospital food, but it’s not awesome either.
A la carte items and snacks are available at vending machines, the lounge, and shops, on the ferry. They are priced only slightly higher than an Oxxo. They will have bottled water, sodas, candy, and snacks.
|Baja Ferries California Star|
What to Expect
The Baja Ferries (both Baja Ferries and Santa Rosalia Ferry) are NOT Princess Cruises. It’s best to not act like a princess with your expectations or demands. The ferries are clean and comfortable but mostly utilitarian. Most have a lounge, often with live entertainment. Usually, one or two bars are also available up until around midnight.
Baja Ferries operates mostly larger ships that once served European ferry companies. Most were built in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Santa Rosalia Ferry is rather small. Availability is quite limited. This is particularly the case for larger vehicles. It’s an older ship with much fewer amenities, also.
The voyage duration between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas is approximately 10 hours. Expect around 7 hours from Topolobampo to La Paz and 13 hours between Mazatlan and La Paz. These are the actual voyage times and do not factor loading and unloading.
Many of the electrical outlets will be 240v and use the standard European plug. Most computer and phone chargers will work at 120v or 240v. Having a European to North American adapter will enable you to stay fully juiced while others look helplessly for North American power sockets. Use this as a great opportunity to make friends by offering use of your adapter.
Many passengers will set up bunks or mats with sleeping bags in the open passenger compartment. On warmer days, they may also set these up outside. Unless the ferry is at capacity, there is plenty of seating room. They are comfortable seats. Restrooms are a different story. It’s best to use them early. You would be wise to bring baby wipes for both the toilet and your personal needs. If you have to go, and it’s late (or early in the morning), it's ok to utilize the family or disabled restroom for a cleaner and more comfortable experience.
Earplugs and something to cover your eyes are a great idea. The movies play at loud volumes. Often, one can be a hero by turning the volume down a little, on the TV.
Are Cabins Worth the Extra Money?
This is a much more subjective question. Generally speaking, yes. Cabins range in price from $860MN to $1560MN (as of January 2017) ranging from Estandar (Standard pictured) to Master Suite VIP. The cabins will be quieter. You’ll have your own restroom, shower, and a comfortable bunk. Don’t expect towels folded into animal shapes. The cabin offerings may vary from ship to ship. The earlier you go and book your passage the more likely you are to get a cabin. If you don’t get a cabin, it’s not the end of the world. Just keep a sense of humor and your expectations in check.
What You Need to Do and Bring to Book a Reservation
-Bring your state driver’s license and passport of all the people who will travel.
-Vehicle registration may be asked for, so have it available.
-Temporary Vehicle Import Permit, especially if going to the mainland. You WILL be asked for this when departing La Paz. Make sure you have one.
-Bring your license plate number of your vehicle. Just write it down.
-Payment, in cash or credit card.
If you don’t speak Spanish, there is often someone available who is reasonably good at English. Ask 'Habla Ingles?' kindly. They are professional and work hard to help you out. Do not be a jerk if you don’t get your way or if cabins are not available. Whining about it will only make you look pathetic and make them less likely to help you.
|Forming the line to board the ferry|
How it Works On the Day of Travel
Have your ticket(s) with you at all times. They will be checked and marked several times.
You will be told to arrive a couple of hours early. You will be directed through several inspection points. Be patient and courteous. One of those checkpoints will be to confirm you have a TVIP. Make sure your sticker or paperwork is readily visible.
Trucks are loaded first. The first vehicles boarding will be the last ones off. Motorcycles can go to the front as they are usually tucked into a corner or under a staircase.
Let the staff guide you as to where to wait with your vehicle. Again, be patient.
If you are on a motorcycle, they often have straps there, but it’s best to have a couple of your own, especially if there are a lot of bikes traveling. Strapping points may not be ideal. Remember it’s only a gentle swaying and not the harshness of being on a trailer or pickup.
It’s advisable to center-stand your bike if you have one. Only two straps are needed. One at the front and one at the back to keep your bike from moving. You can also secure your bike with only one strap across the seat or a sturdy part of the frame. Remember, it’s a ship. There are no sudden stops or starts. Expect only gentle swaying.
Special Instructions for RVs
The ferry loading team will probably have you gather with the trucks. You will be backing your rig in. It’s best not to be distracted by family or devices during this process. You will not be allowed on your RV or to stay in your RV during the voyage.
Special Instructions for Non-Driving Passengers
Baggage will be x-rayed and checked into a cargo hold. You will not have access to any of these items during your voyage.
Bring anything you need during the voyage as carry-on.
Any pets must be in their own carrier and are taken to a special pet section. They will be kept in their carrier the entire time. While you wait to board, it’s best to give them every opportunity to run, play, and potty before boarding the ferry. No, they can’t go with you or stay in your vehicle.
Outside Food and Drink
The rules state you cannot bring alcohol or outside food. This rule is only lightly enforced. If you pack some quesadillas or burritos in your carry on bag, no biggie. Be discrete. Do not bring plates or boxes of food. They will not be allowed, and the ferry loading staff will enjoy dining on your disallowed meal.
Alcohol is another gray area. Discretion is the most important rule here. If you bring a flask or transfer your beverage into a nondescript container like a reusable water bottle, there is no problem. Do not bring bottles of alcohol. Also, do not get inebriated or become the idiot borracho.
If you need to smoke, do so on deck, at the rear of the ship.
Leaving the ferry is usually quite orderly. When you reach port, drivers will be allowed back to their vehicles. Personal vehicles disembark first.
Once off the ship, there is a series of checkpoints by the Military, Federal Police, and Port Authority. Be calm and patient.
That’s it. It’s simple and easy so long as you keep your expectations reasonable. Do not go out of your way to read the reviews of the Ferry. Curiously, all the negative comments are written by whiny Gringos. They clearly expected everything to be to their vaulted fantasy standards. Reading them after the voyage can be quite entertaining as it’s easy to see how they were acting like princesses.
|Santa Rosalia Ferry Ticket Office at the Santa Rosalia Port|
Where to Book Tickets
Ticket offices are at the ports and in some of the city centers. Again, unless you are doing a simple standard package of a car and one person only, don’t book online.
Go to a ticket office. You can’t book passage for Mazatlan to La Paz at the Topolobampo ticket office. Book the trip at the city or port you intend to embark. For example, if you are staying in La Paz, Los Mochis or Mazatlan for a few days, go to the port as soon as possible, to book your tickets. This will give you your best opportunity to get a cabin.
A list of Baja Ferries offices are found on their website.
Santa Rosalia Ferries offices are at their respective ports.
Driving in Mexico and especially taking the ferry across the Sea of Cortez is an adventure. Before you cross the border into Mexico make sure you have your Mexican Auto Insurance. Not only is it the law, but the coverage includes roadside assistance and many other valuable benefits.
It’s easy to shop, buy, and print your top rated coverage at MexicanInsuranceStore.com. Policies are available for any duration from one day to one year.
©2017 Jim Foreman All Rights Reserved.