Puerto San Carlos and Bahia Magdalena
March 7-16, 2008

Introduction: The Drive/The Town

Adventure 1: Whale Watching and the Fetid Beaches

Adventure 2: Mangrove Fun and Isla Magdalena

Adventure 3: Dune Camping and a Friendly

Adventure 4: Snorkeling in the Mangroves

Adventure 5: Fishing in the Bay

Loreto/Mag Bay Tours

Pacific side beach
Beach across the dunes 

Please click on photos for enlargements

Adventure 2: Mangrove Fun and Isla Magdalena

This day was a bit more of an adventure.  We got up early enough to eat breakfast at the cafeteria before our 8:00 appointment with Esteban and were pleased with the pleasant staff and the food.  The tiny outdoor restaurant operates boysin a concrete courtyard of the hotel from a modest nook in the corner.  The menu in Spanish wasn’t entirely clear, but we felt bold enough to order avena.  This turned out to be a thin, tasty gruel with large chunks of cinnamon sticks.  The fresh squeezed orange juice was ecstasy and I indulged in spicy Mexican hot chocolate to stave off the morning desert chill.

Unfortunately, the whole area was covered in a dense fog which made navigation on the water difficult.  We delayed the trip to the dock by an hour, then drove down with Esteban and ventured out into the bay.  The agenda for this day was whale watching followed by kayaking in the mangroves, but Esteban (our captain and guide that day) thought it would be wiser to start with kayaking, given the visibility.  “I can always come back in the dark” he said—easier from the whale watching grounds than from the mangroves.

We took with us two boys about 12 years old.  Esteban explained that around that age a lot of kids simply stop going to school; Mag Bay Tours employs a few of them in an effort tomangroves offer them skills and more options.  Isac and Edgar were adorable, happy to clamber over the two kayaks to the bow of the boat to steer us through deep water and around buoys.  On our first attempt we found the channel too foggy and were forced to turn around.  My mother and I sat on the pier and ate corn tortillas and strange Mexican cheese while we waited for more auspicious weather.  The boys eventually came over and were asking questions about the situation…alas, it was not the most productive conversation I had in Spanish as I assumed they knew more about the situation than I did and so struggled to interpret their concerns. 

Eventually Esteban returned and we headed to the mangroves under a rapidly clearing sky.  We wove our way through flotillas of plastic buoys and past the commercial dock, choked with large fishing vessels and alive with cormorants.  Herons clustered at the edge of the mangroves as we made our way into the channel, quickly leaving all signs of humanity behind.  Apparently the mangroves are rarely visited except periodically by fishermen who string gillnets across the channels and come away with most of the resident fish.  The water reminded me of the sloughs back home, amber and calm, weaving in wide arcs but lined with the strange probing roots of the mangroves.  After about 15 minutes we reached the end of the duneschannel and brought the boat onto a stretch of sand 100 feet long at the edge of the dunes.  We took a quick look around for coyotes, then decided to trek across the dunes to the Pacific side before kayaking. 

The land there turned out to be a narrow isthmus connecting two mountainous sections of Isla Magdalena (the southernmore section forms one edge of the mouth of the bay).  It was about 200 yards wide and covered in flawless white sand dunes, some crowned with blooming succulents.  Mouse, lizard, beetle, and coyote tracks (see photos of the former three below) populated the sand everywhere and the whole area was stunning.  Rippled white dunes right out of the Sahara!  We wandered our way up and down and around the dunes, coming across caches of sea shells in pocketsdune flowers between them; there was no sign of humanity.  Esteban said that few people make their way out there, and even he hadn’t been there in a couple of years.  Eventually we dropped out onto the wide flat wet sand and the rolling surf of the Pacific.  Esteban pointed out a computer monitor sticking out and explained that a container had fallen off a barge nearby some years ago; we came across dozens of monitors in various states of decay all over the beach.  Also shells.  Sand dollars, clams, scallops, and elegant snail shells lay on the sand in dizzying numbers…I’m not exactly a sea shell fanatic, but it was too good to resist and I filled my pockets with the finest specimens.  Esteban pointed out enormous scallop shells that looked like mussels and were up to two feet long—too delicate and huge to bring back.  These along with the smaller scallops I saw piled on the beach near town are harvested by divers in the bay.

We played on the sand and enjoyed the view for a few minutes before trekking our way back to the mangroves under the hot sun.  The boys offloaded the kayaks and then took off with Esteban in the panga, leaving us to glide our way silently back with the outgoing tide.  It was lovely.  Sheltered from the wind, the mangroves were quiet and relatively still and we made our way slowly through them, exploring little bays and watching birds.  We snuck up on a flock of sandpipers, saw numerous yellowlegs, and diving grebes with bright red eyes.  Despite ample sunblock, my arms were bright red in half an hour.  The water seeping into the sit-on-top kayaks (the same type I have at the homestead) forced us to sit in puddles of water and  mouse tracks lizard tracks
beetle tracksboys beachand that cooled us a little.    About half way back to the bay I spotted an osprey flying straight up the channel about 20 feet up.  Just as he approached the bow of my boat he turned and flew off over the mangroves, a striped fish clutched in his talons, facing the same direction he was flying—a classic osprey moment!!  Although I think I could have taken a stunning photo, I deliberately opted to enjoy the image with no distraction.

All too soon the mangroves widened and there at the entrance was the panga, Esteban and the boys shirtlessly fishing.  They claimed to be catching a fish on nearly every cast and showed us the striped sea bass (if I remember correctly) that were gasping in the cooler.  We kayaked to a little beach and loaded up the boats, watching more herons sandpipersmangroves kayakingkayakingkayaking tallhunt on the sandbars before heading back to the dock.      

So the mangroves and the sand dunes completely won us over.  Esteban, evidently surprised and pleased by our appreciation, mentioned the possibility of camping out there.  With no more activities scheduled for the week, we took him up on the offer and arranged to return the next day.   

But our adventures that day weren’t over.  We still had a whale watching trip to make good on.  After dropping the kayaks off at the muelle we headed out into the bay and I managed to change pants in the bottom of the boat while underway (an awkward endeavor).  Being late in the afternoon the wind had come up and we hugged the shoreline of Isla Magdalena instead of cutting straight across to the mouth.  We passed along the edge of more stunning beaches and sand dunes on the isthmus before turning south along the edge of the mountainous region.  We soon came in site of Puerto Isla Magdalena, a fishing village of about 400 people, and decided to make a stop.  We pulled on to the gravel beach among all the fishing pangas and jumped out.  The tidiness and cleanliness of the village was in stark contrast to San Carlos and we were both rather taken with it.  One of the residents had gatheredskull whale bones over the years and put them together in an engaging display.  The jaws of a blue whale encircled a gray whale skull, a humpback whale skull, some ribs, and the skull of an undetermined toothed whale.  The owner swore up and down it was the skullsPuerto Magdalenaskull of a baby humpback, but I rather think those were tooth holes lining the jaws (see photos).  It had a short beak, so I was thinking orca or pilot whale perhaps.  An interpretive sign nearby identified the local mice as the endemic “spiny pocket mouse.”

We soon continued our way along the coast, gazing up at the scrub desert vegetation covering the reddish mountainsides.  We passed the foundation of an unfinished fish processing plant abandoned in an economic downturn and now occupied by a few fishermen.  Eventually we reached the mouth of the bay and the end of Isla Magdalena, spotting half a dozen whale blows around us.  But the wind was kicking up a bit, the whales didn’t appear friendly, and when Esteban pointed out a few fishing huts on the beach and talked warmly of a hike to the top of the ridge behind them we took him up on that instead. 

After riding the swells onto the gravel beach, Esteban left Isac and Edgar in charge of the panga and we wandered past the lobsters shells in the high tide line and the half dozen huts and scattered lobster pots of the little enclave before starting up the hill behind. Coming from a lush rainforest where going off trail means scrabbling over fallen trees and hacking your way through devil’s club, walking in the scrub desert is heavenly!  We wound our waypanga between ocotillo trees, clumps of grass, and small cacti, following ridge lines and making our way higher and higher until we reached the top of the highest mountain overlooking a precipitous drop to the Pacific side.  A gang of sea lions played in the surf crashing over the reefs below and pairs of whales facing north blew in the open ocean—heading back to Alaska?  The desert mountains spread below us, the blooming ocotillos making long shadows in the late afternoon light.  It was gorgeous.

Esteban left us up there and trekked back to the boat alone.  We reluctantly followed a few minutes later to find that the panga was high and dry on the gravel.  A mounting southerly swell had washed it up the beach and I admit I had my doubts about getting it off again!  But, the swells kept coming and Esteban and the boys were able to take advantage of a big one to push it out into deep water.  In the meantime, my mother and I admired the subtle gray feathers and bright red bill of a Heermann’s gull (see photo below).  By then the light was fading and we faced a long ride home so forewent any whale watching for the day.  Half way back we lost daylight altogether and my mother and I shivered as the Milky Way came out.  Esteban made good on his comment about returning in the dark, following the lighted channel markers back to the dock. 

I admit to feeling some relief at arriving back in town, thoroughly chilled and ready for dinner.  I felt sorry for Esteban who still needed to take care of the boat and prepare for the next day’s adventures.  We set up a morning whaleview view 2ocotilloHeermann's gullwatch followed by camping on the dunes.  Since Esteban was busy, we were forced to find our way back to the hotel without a guide, my mother and I flailing in the dark and quickly becoming lost.  Identical dusty streets seemed to reach in every direction, poorly lit, with no indication of where “downtown” might be located.  I was beginning to get a little unnerved (and cranky) when my mother happened to notice the back side of a playground and we realized we were driving parallel and one block over from the main drag—and had no idea!  We gratefully made our way home and, thoroughly exhausted, decided to have a picnic dinner in our room.  Our hotel had a cooler of beer and a selection of wines downstairs so we bought a bottle of red wine for 100 pesos, had the receptionist open it for us, and locked ourselves in our room.  We feasted on cold refried beans, Mexican cheese, cold corn tortillas, and red wine; it was fabulous.

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