Items and actions that may be acceptable in U.S. waters are frowned upon or forbidden in Mexican cruising grounds.
What’s so different about cruising Mexico? It’s not just the warmer water; it’s a completely different history, culture and social structure. What’s considered normal for folks who live on the U.S. West Coast is sometimes abnormal or unacceptable to people who live along Mexico’s West Coast. Even experienced U.S. recreational boaters and long-range cruisers sometimes get a few surprises when they visit Mexico for the first time or venture beyond the perimeters of Mexico’s comfortable marinas and resorts.
Some behaviors that are generally acceptable up here in the U.S. are frowned upon down there. What follows are five of the biggest cruising-in-Mexico no-nos. Avoid them.
No guns or ammo are allowed on a boat in Mexico, period. It doesn’t matter where a firearm is registered, doesn’t matter if it’s unloaded and locked a safe. Having a gun is the quickest way for an entire crew to see the inside of a Mexican prison cell — not as visitors — and for a boat to be confiscated.
Such a restriction may come as a shock to U.S. citizens who aren’t used to traveling abroad, and especially to residents of states that issue concealed or open carry permits. But in a foreign country, its laws are enforced. How could Mexican authorities find out a weapon is aboard? Every vessel, vehicle and airplane that enters Mexico is subject to official boarding and inspection. That includes recreational boats coming down from the U.S. West Coast, coming up from Central America or arriving from the open Pacific. Read the “Boarding at Sea” sidebar.
No marijuana, either. Recent efforts within Mexico to shorten prison terms for marijuana possession don’t apply to tourists or other non-Mexican citizens. Again, the laws wherever you came from do not apply to you in Mexico.
Beware: In glamorous resort ports, the friendly guy offering to sell you a little “moto” is not your friend. He’s calculating how to spend the thousand bucks he’s going to blackmail you for, as you try to keep from going to jail.
Silence Is Golden
Don’t “step on” VHF conversations. If people are already talking on the VHF channel you want but are conversing in Spanish, don’t “step on” them and blast away in English. Just because you don’t speak their language doesn’t give you any right to interrupt. That’s impolite radio etiquette in any language — anywhere on Earth — and you’re likely to earn the verbal wrath of everyone within range. Due to Baja’s complex geography, you may hear only half the conversation. So listen for a few seconds and then ask, “Esta ocupado?” (“Is this frequency in use?”) If it is, simply say “Perdon” (peardoan) — “Excuse me” — and try a different channel.
Never use the VHF ask a lobster diver if he has any fresh lobsters for sale. Why? All the lobster divers who work on the Pacific side of Baja are members of one of 26 local co-ops, or “cooperativos,” so they’re required by law to deliver their catch directly to the co-op’s dock. Selling a lobster could cost that guy his job, his license, and his panga and outboard — his family’s livelihood.
On the other hand, if a panguero swings by an anchored boat and holds up a fresh fish, that’s fine. I usually ask him to fillet it, which he’ll do for a couple extra bucks. Have zip bags ready.
However, if nobody is looking, he may casually uncover a bucket of lobsters and claim they’re his family’s share of that day’s catch, so it’s OK for him to sell them. Unfortunately, these are always juvenile lobsters known as “shorts” — the carapace is less than 3 inches long — and too small to qualify as a legal catch. Do not participate in this short-sighted practice, or lobster season might get canceled next year. If you do buy lobsters at anchor, don’t broadcast the fact on VHF so crew on other boats can buy some too. Word will get back to the man’s boss.
Don’t dress “boat casual” at traditional Christmas celebrations. Gracious Mexican families often invite a few visiting gringos to share in their formal holiday festivities. Lucky attendees shouldn’t wear flip-flops, swimsuits or short shorts, and men need to wear a shirt. Remember to bring a hostess gift; food (cheese, fruit, cookies) or flowers are good choices.
Do not hesitate to ask the Mexican navy for help. All along Baja, ocean searches and rescues (SAR) are handled by the Mexican navy (Armada de Mexico), and the authorities there work hand in hand with the U.S. Coast Guard in SAR situations. But you can also call the Mexican navy — use a VHF or satellite phone — for weather reports, navigational advice, personal security and more.
For example, in Turtle Bay, we once hired a mechanic for two days to help us fix the transmission in a boat we were delivering up to San Diego. We paid him handsomely for the first day, but the next afternoon he arrived drunk, demanded more money, threatened us and threw beer cans at the boat. We hailed the local Armada on VHF 16. The smartly dressed comandante arrived within minutes, briefly held court atop the fuel dock, and told the local to go home, sober up and not bother us. Then the comandante recommended a much better mechanic, who helped us finish the job. See “Mexican Navy Contacts” sidebar.
Boarding at Sea
Here’s what I’ve come to expect during a routine boarding at sea by the Mexican navy (Armada de Mexico). A gray navy vessel will hail you on VHF and ask for some routine information, such as boat name, registration, last port, next port, and people’s name and citizenship. Just like the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard, while they run your answers through their database, they may also ask if any firearms are on board.
They can legally request you to slow down or stop, to prepare for their small-boat boarding party to come aboard and perform an inspection. The skipper can open the lifelines or transom gate to show them where to come aboard safely, hang a couple of fenders, and then step well away and let them board and inspect. The captain or one crewmember can usually accompany the boarding party belowdecks.
When done, the boarding party’s highest ranking officer may ask the boat owner to sign and date a form letter that states they inspected your boat, didn’t find any contraband and didn’t do any damage. I always sign it and ask for (or make) a copy of that form, just to keep on file in the boat’s documents.
Mexican Navy Contacts
People dialing from a landline phone need to include the country code 052. Boaters can also call on a satellite phone.
Ensenada: (646) 172-4000; sat phone, 8105-2154.
Los Cabos: (624) 105-1110; sat phone, 8144-2209.
La Paz: (612) 122-651; sat phone, 8107-2483.
Santa Rosalia; sat phone, 8143-2235.
Mazatlan: (669) 910-0552; sat phone, 8111-2664.
Puerto Vallarta: (322) 221-1123; sat phone, 8115-4277.