Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

Sailboats in San Juanico Baja

What’s your favorite place? We’ve heard this question a lot lately. Jamie’s current answer to the “best place” question is that he has 100 top ten favorites. His point (aside from the impossibility of picking just one) is that there’s context needed. Some places are favorites for the delicious food. Others are unforgettable for their Looking back red rocks Bajaunderwater life. Still others for the cultural experiences and learning opportunities they offered. There are so many things to love about a place! The point is made as a family when we each rattle off a few that are top of mind, and quickly finding a dozen “favorites.” And yet what names seems to crop up among multiple family members during that flood? Mexico, and especially, our summer of sailing inside Baja.

Did you ever revisit a beloved haunt from your past, only to find it tarnished compared to the shiny perfection of your memory? That’s what I worried about as we returned to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Our family spent many months there in 2009. Then, as now, we pointed north to mitigate risk during hurricane season.

Returning after so many years and so many countries, would we determine our sophomoric highs to have been idealized in hindsight? Would the drama perceived by our new-to-cruising eyes now seem mundane? Or would familiarity offer comfort?

Northbound from Panama this spring, an old familiarity gradually returned to stars overhead: the Southern Cross still visible, but Orion holding more accustomed placement as our latitude climbed.

Tide pool exploring near San Evaristo, 2009; Totem in the background

We sailed along Baja’s rugged and unforgiving landscape for a month recently, finding a mix of familiar comforts and new discoveries before hauling Totem for our summer away. The kids have mixed memories of our past miles here; Siobhan was only five years old, and her recollections are fuzzy. For Jamie and I, many of our memories center around exploring a new landscape with our children, learning alongside them. Returning with young adults, the everyday dynamic shifted significantly. Our every day life had centered on caring for littles; now it included partners in our adventure as hands-on crew.

Niall at the helm: anchoring in Puerto Don Juan, 2018

The landscape rang familiar for all, even Siobhan. Pictures from nine years ago could as easily have been taken last month. The wildlife, from dolphins to whales to spectacularly diving pelicans: the same.

Anvil with wings looking graceful before splashdown: pelicans at Isla San Francisco

Everyone remembered “the frosting rock” in Los Gatos. Everyone wanted to climb the buttery-smooth looking sandstone cliffs now just as much as they did in 2009.

Totem’s junior crew scrambles up the face in 2009


This time, it didn’t feel quite as daunting to explore with our crew’s longer legs.

Climbing up the frosting rock, Los Gatos, 2018

A skip north in Santa Rosalia the bacon-wrapped were just as delicious, but maybe a little easier to get a mouth around for some.

Niall in 2009 and 2018, Santa Rosalia

Back in 2009, the needs and limitations of young children kept our activy range in a tighter radius: an afternoon on a beach, a walk into town. Our teens make it easier to roam further afield. “How about we try to climb that volcano?” “OK!”

Digging on a beachy afternoon near La Paz, 2009

Hiking Isla Coronados, 2018

A return trip never seems as long as the outbound journey to a new destination. So it feels on our return to the Sea of Cortez: the milestones of points and islands and fishing villages may have been buried in distant memory, but flew by with familiarity this time around. It took the edge off our need to press north, to haul and make our way north for a shorebound summer.

This stretch was eased by familiar faces. In La Paz we caught up with the Boren family from Third Day, a boat we’d shared many anchorages with way back when. Rich now runs CruiseRO watermakers from Cruisers Supply, a shop in one of La Paz’s nicer marinas with the bits and services cruisers want. Rich knows La Paz well and introduced us to gastronomic delights at the spectrum extremes: from street tacos carved off  the al pastor spit, curbside, to serrano ham carved by the ounce in a foodie hideaway.

Amy and Jason (Third Day) help Mairen bury Niall on the beach – La Paz, 2009

Up the coast a ways, former cruiser Jesse (an unforgettable part of our past Baja experience) drove us well inland to experience the whispering history of Misión San Francisco Javier, a 17th century mission halfway across the peninsula and unreachable for us otherwise… breaking on the return trip to try flying drones through the dramatic canyons of the mountains.

Any misgivings about how we’d like Mexico on coming back have faded, but it was these and other members of our cruising family made that return feel more like homecoming. Now there are places we can’t wait to revisit, friends new and old to meet up with, and a whole lot of street taco exploring to do when we head back to Totem this fall. And then, from that base of familiarity, to do what we love most: reach out and explore to find what’s new to learn from, while seeking ways to contribute. Ultimately, “favorite” places don’t matter nearly as much as making the most of the place you find yourself: we’re just that much luckier that Baja has so much to offer.

Two girls. Two burros. 2009.

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11 Responses to Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

  1. Greg Tijerina July 17, 2018 at 2:57 pm #

    The pics of Niall eating then and now is halarious.

    • Behan July 31, 2018 at 7:57 am #

      Isn’t it?! I totally broke my rule of getting the kids’ approval for their pictures on the blog with that one, too. Shhh.

  2. Chao Yoong July 17, 2018 at 5:21 pm #

    Time travel Back to the Past…the place has not change much but guess who has? The kids are now teenagers or young adults and their perspectives have added a new element to the travel memories. That is why everyone while revisiting a place, picks up new nuances or things missed last time. A place should not be a museum piece where it sits on a pedestal and remained stagnant. What great way to gauge the issues of the times – kids versus teens n then maybe when they become adults… with each passing decade new perspective emerges and meld them together gives a wonderful ball of fiery memories. Life time of memories start with a First but never end with the Last…Each of you that is part of Totem will forever have tales to share like the stars in the night sky. So many twinkling little nitbits, laughter and sometimes unpleasant but add them all together – its an awesome way of life

    • Behan July 31, 2018 at 8:00 am #

      I love your reflections on this – beautifully written!

      • Chao Yoong August 1, 2018 at 1:58 am #

        do you need an editor for your travelog? just kidding. My inspiration came from seeing how many great moments the Totem gang collected. Sometimes a simple photo tells a thousand words…you shared your life journey with blogs n photos while i borrowed your perspective n put them into my own literary world… i guess at the end of the day, each inspire the other in any which way and wala – great combination to be had. It was such a memorable journey that took almost a decade to complete. And to think of doing it all over again – ARE YOU CRAZY???? hahahah crazy never – eccentric maybe. But the girls too will be trying their land life journey in another 4 yrs and another sailoress will be hopping over to try a landed lifestyle. Anyway wishing Totem of 4 continuous laughter as you CROSS THE SEVEN SEAS… may Poseidon always protect your family. Enjoy your rest before sailing to the next destination.

        • Behan August 1, 2018 at 9:52 am #

          Thank you!! I love that you borrowed the perspective into your own literary world, as you say. But I have to tell you the journey is most certainly NOT complete! Who knows when that will happen. There are a few big milestones in the journey this year for sure, though! I wonder what will happen, how this stint on land will affect us?

          • chao yoong August 1, 2018 at 10:35 am #

            one day maybe you are interested to sell the rights to make a movie…wont that be nice. Not that i am in the movie business but your story of 10 yrs have plenty of laughter, danger, encounters, struggles, kids growing up into their own space within such a confined area as Totem, it is a different perspective. You guys are like Pirates of the 7 SEAS…you “stole” great memories, captured our wondrous nature, share your “loots” of togetherness and most of all, enjoyed the freedom that the ocean provided. so yes your journey is very intriguing, exciting, demanding, struggling, frustrating, desperate at times, dangerous, but through it all, your family emerged intact n safe n have a very inner understanding of the world of the sea, cosmic night sky, internal turmoils, and the fabric of the Gifford love n tie that binds – amazing after all….no words can convey the innermost, however, little snippets weaved a fascinating n alluring movie…i would love to have the first right if you ever consider selling the rights to a movie… actually i was thinking of seeing if Niall would like to share his perspective because it would be easier to deal with one compared to 5 !!! haha but in hindsight, mama bear should be the one to be approached first. in 1999 an Australian teen circumvented alone and unassisted which fascinated how a person;s tenacity saw him through. Your journey reflected that too because you have to deal with children blossoming into teens n young adults. thank you for sharing because i nearly drown when i was 6 yrs old so i could never go sailing. Whenever i am in a boat or ferry it was traumatic…so in a way i envy your journey and in a way i also get to see the sights, smells, taste, interacting with local culture, through the beautiful eyes of the Giffords. For that you introduce me to your world which i could never be part of since it involved sailing haha.

  3. Lynne July 18, 2018 at 5:07 am #

    Great post, great pictures!

  4. Kristin Hanes July 18, 2018 at 7:30 am #

    I loved reading this about Baja! That is going to be one of the first designations we cruise to – I hope this winter. I can’t wait and I hope to run into you somewhere down there 🙂

    • Behan July 31, 2018 at 8:07 am #

      Keep us posted, that would be great!

  5. Anna Makridi July 30, 2018 at 5:58 am #

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

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