Much has been written about the many people who live in Mexico part-time or full-time, but relatively little has been written about Mexico’s different expat subcultures.
One group I haven’t found anything about is people whose experience in Mexico revolves around the use of their own personal boats. A Google search just brings up a bunch of listings for rentals. But it’s not hard to see why sailors would be drawn to the shores of Mexico.
The vast majority of these boaters come from the United States and Canada. They can spend all or part of the year here and go through similar immigration and tax procedures as American freshwater sailors. But here there is diversity. Boaters can range widely in age, from their early twenties with their first small, bare boat to retirees who have the financial means to live on floating mansions.
Most boaters, no matter the boat, seem to prefer the same regions of Mexico. The strongest expat boating culture is on the northwest coast of Mexico, including Baja California. One of the reasons is that this region, which stretches from Puerto Vallarta to the north, is closer to the western coasts of the United States and Canada, but also because it boasts bold landscapes and seascapes, not to mention the Gulf of California. , which Jacques Cousteau called “the aquarium of the world”.”
If you’re interested in getting involved in the boating community here, some of Mexico’s most popular marinas are in Ensenada, Baja California; Los Cabos and La Paz in Baja California Sur; Mazatlan Sinaloa; and Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.
There are also installations on the rise in the upper Gulf. Yacht and sailboat clubs that provide camaraderie and logistical support to foreign yachtsmen are primarily in the northwest, including the Club Cruceros in La Paz and the Acapulco Yacht Club. However, be careful when approaching organizations with “club” in their name; many are actually boat rental companies.
The southern Pacific coast is not unknown to sailors, with its facilities in Acapulco; Christmas Bar, Jalisco; Manzanillo, Colima; Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Guerrero; Huatulco, Oaxaca; and Puerto Chiapas (in the municipality of Tapachula, Chiapas). However, many are side trips for those hanging north or stopping points for those heading ever further south. But recreational boaters ignore the east coast of Mexico. Marinas are absent on this coast with the exception of the Yucatan, mainly in the Cancun area with a couple in Progreso and Campeche.
According to Pat Rains, author of the Mexican Boating Guide, the main reason for this is that many Canadian and American boaters on the East Coast are more drawn to places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys, not to mention all those wonderful offshore islands in the Caribbean.
The ocean-based expat culture in Mexico is naturally strongly tied to the season and the weather, especially the hurricane season, which runs from June to November on both coasts. Those that remain in Mexican waters during these months are in or near large sheltered marinas and other “hurricane holes,” natural areas that provide protection in storms. Any movement in open water means keeping a wary eye on weather reports, especially for those with smaller boats.
The other half of the year is mostly storm-free, so this allows boaters to more easily enjoy what Mexico has to offer, whether it’s leisurely cruising along the coast or parking somewhere to cruise inland to places such as the Copper Canyon, the monarch butterfly sanctuaries and the coffee plantations of Chiapas.
February and March seem to be the sweet spot of the boating season. Many settle in an area where they want to be for a while and where weather conditions favor organized events like regattas. The largest of these include the Sailfest in Zihuatanejo in February; the San Diego Yacht Club’s annual race from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta.
There are also the Mexorc and Banderas Bay regattas, both in Puerto Vallarta in March. These events attract thousands of participants and spectators and often raise money for charities based in Mexico.
For many, their Mexican boating season begins in October and November with flotillas or rally boats traveling together from the California coast to southern Baja and beyond. Going in groups makes the trip more fun and somewhat easier, as there are few places for the boats to stop between Ensenada and Los Cabos.
One of those annual rallies is the Cruise Underway to Baja (CUBA), from San Diego to La Paz, and the Baja Ha Ha, which goes from San Diego to Los Cabos.
Ocean based recreational boating in Mexico has always been popular and continues to grow significantly. One major reason is the efforts of the Association of Mexican Marinas, which pressured the Mexican government to overhaul the bureaucracy that foreign boaters had to deal with. Previously, there were procedures of hours, and even days, not only to enter and leave Mexican territorial waters but also to dock at each port.
Today, Rains estimates that at least 2,000 ships enter Mexico from the Pacific side each season, with a respectable 1,500 for the Gulf. Although more facilities have been built and many waterfront businesses cater to this demographic, there is a severe shortage of recreational sports space, a problem that Rains says will continue for the foreseeable future until there is a significant investment in port infrastructure.
Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture, particularly its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Papel, Pasta y Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly.