Sea Change in La Cruz

A favorite Mexican anchorage of Pacific puddle jumpers gains a premier marina but retains its small-time charms.

Marina Riviera Nayarit

Pierce Hoover

It’s a balmy Thursday evening in the seaside village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Remnants of the afternoon sea breeze carry the savory scent of baking and the rhythmic riff of a blues guitar. This combined aromatic and melodic spoor leads me up the cobblestones of Calle Delfin to the warm glow of a street-front palapa. On a small stage in the corner of this open-air structure, the namesake owner of Philo’s Studio Bar is laying down some vintage R&B while a trio of senoritas circulates among the tables, dispensing cold cerveza and hot pizza to the audience.

Cruisers will feel right at home at Philo’s. Like Café Sport, in Horta, Azores, or Le Select, on St. Barts, it’s a place where sailors gather to temper libations with information—catching up on news of the fleet, gleaning valuable insights on routes to come, and reconnecting with friends not seen since the last passage.

But it isn’t just pizza and camaraderie that draw the bluewater crowd to the village of La Cruz; it’s all about the location. Tucked into the northeastern corner of the expansive Bahía de Banderas, the town flanks a roadstead that is the most sheltered anchorage in the region. For decades, sailors have dropped the hook nearby and come ashore at the small breakwater that served the local panga fleet.

In contrast to nearby Puerto Vallarta’s cruise-ship hustle and Nuevo Vallarta’s high-dollar exclusivity, the seaside village of La Cruz remained a working-class town, where visiting sailors mingled with local fishermen, and matrons offered home-cooked meals served right through the kitchen window. It was exactly the low-key slice of paradise Philo Hayward was looking for when he pointed his Cal 36 south in the winter of 2000.

"I came ashore with my guitar and knew this was the place for me," he recalls. A long-time singer, songwriter, and music producer, Philo soon added club owner to his resume. But his vision extended beyond simply serving up libations and live entertainment, and over the years, his pizza joint also became part recording studio, part yacht club, and part community center. It's the home of the Friendship Club of La Cruz, an organization Philo founded to assist local residents who were unable pay for needed medical assistance. English and Spanish language tutoring, yoga classes, speakers, and book exchanges are just some of the Club activities that draw locals and visiting yachtsmen together.

And of course, there’s the music. Each week, the stage is opened to would-be impresarios, and talent levels run high. The night of my first visit, I shared a table with an aspiring local guitar player and former professional drummer, who had driven 50 miles down the coast for a chance to sit in with some of the regulars. And on that night, the drummer had come not only to perform, but also to have a first look at what will almost assuredly change the town forever.

For while the regular crowd was dancing away the night at Philo's, a very different class of yachtsmen gathered at the waterfront. Resplendent in evening gowns and nautical blazers, representatives from 24 countries mingled to the strains of a string quartet and dined at laden banquet tables perched on the breakwater of the Marina Riviera Nayarit.

Less than two years ago, this marina existed only as a dream. But it was a dream backed by three highly successful local businessmen who recognized the need for a world-class marina on the Bahía de Banderas. By the fall of 2009, dredging and filling was well underway on the La Cruz waterfront, and the small breakwater that once sheltered a handful of fishing pangas was transformed into an expansive basin with 340 slips capable of accommodating boats of up to 400 feet.

The marina opened in early 2010, though work was still underway on the outer breakwater at the time, and shore-side amenities were still under construction when I arrived in early March of that year to attend the grand opening ceremonies and the Nautical Extravaganza.

To mark the completion of the facility, the developers partnered with local businesses and the state of Nayarit tourism bureau to stage the ambitious Nautical Extravaganza. For one month the Marina was the epicenter for a series of offshore and one-design races, windsurfing and kiteboarding competitions, and Laser and Optimist races for the youngsters. In conjunction with these events, the organizers also staged the Latin American Boat Show and received a visit from Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón.

In addition to the usual banners and bunting one would expect for such gala affairs, the marina development team and the town fathers gave La Cruz an overall spiff up. Businesses and homes were provided fresh coats of paints, potholes were patched, and landscaping was updated in anticipation of the presidential visit. When I arrived, the town had never looked better, and the marina was lush with freshly planted palm trees and flowerbeds. Clean concrete docks were filled with a familiar collection of sturdy trawlers and bluewater sailing vessels, while the far end of the marina held a gleaming fleet of factory-fresh pleasure craft assembled for the boat show.

Strolling down B dock, I stopped to admire the salty lines of a ketch, and soon found myself talking to Brad Baker. A former sailmaker, yacht broker, and partner in Swiftsure Yachts of Seattle, Brad and his family were on the cusp of a great adventure. Aboard their 48-foot pilothouse ketch Capaz, which is a Bob Perry design built by Westerly (www.svcapaz.blogspot.com), the Bakers were about to make the jump to French Polynesia.

I was invited aboard, and met Brad’s wife, P.J., and their sons, Bryce and Austin, who were taking advantage of the marina WiFi to Skype friends back home and network with other cruising youngsters met along the way. “Our big motivation was the kids’ age,” P.J. told me. “We’d been talking and planning this trip for 15 years, then we realized we needed to get on with it while the boys were still at a good age.”

When Brad’s business partner at Swiftsure returned from a two-year Caribbean cruise, the Bakers had their window of opportunity. Selling their Seattle home and moving aboard, they cut their ties to land in the fall of 2009 and turned the bow of Capaz southward. Working their way down to Mexico provided an opportunity to hone cruising skills on shorter coastal passages before committing to an offshore passage.

They first stopped into the Marina Riviera Nayarit in late December of 2009, at which point portions of the breakwater and much of the marina’s infrastructure were still unfinished. After continuing south to Zihuatanejo, they doubled back and returned to the Marina Riviera Nayarit in early March to find a very different facility. The breakwaters and docks were finished, landscaping was in place, bathroom and shower facilities were completed, and the first of several planned waterfront restaurants was open at the new yacht club building.

But what the Bakers found most attractive was not only the new infrastructure, but also the marina’s special Puddle Jumper rate, which provided a month’s dockage at a special price of US$15 a foot. Thanks to this promotional rate, a number of bluewater cruisers who would otherwise remain on the hook were tied to the dock, taking advantage of easy shore access to stage provisioning runs into Puerto Vallarta, where one can find every necessity at familiar venues such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Costco.

Also in place was a new 150-ton Travelift, and a number of service and repair businesses were opening along the basin’s perimeter. By early 2011, the Marina Riviera Nayarit is expected to be the premier yacht service facility along Mexico’s central Pacific coast.

Without a doubt, the marina will bring a new wave of commercial opportunity to the town of La Cruz. And for some who love this sleepy town just the way it was, prosperity may seem bittersweet. While walking the docks, I met Jeri Grant, an American expatriate who first came to the Bahía de Banderas some 30 years ago as crew on a yacht. After several more trips south, she eventually settled in for good, and has watched the surrounding regions boom with new waves of residential and resort properties.

“La Cruz will certainly see some big changes in the years to come,” she told me, “but I do think it will still be an authentic Mexican village where people still live and work.” The marina has already done a lot of good for the local people, she says, including a new basin for the panga fleet, and a market that is owned cooperatively by the fishermen. “It seems like they aren’t letting development run wild. The plan we all hope for is to have the best of both worlds—a world-class marina facility that complements a traditional coastal village where cruisers are welcomed, but are just part of the larger local scene.”