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

sleeping whale
Sleeping whale in Magdalena Bay   

Please click on photos for enlargements

Triumph.  It was the 8th of March and I stood on a low stone fence taking in the deep blue of the Sea of Cortez, my tiny red car baking on the dust of the pullout behind me.  My mother and I had left Juneau about 24 hours earlier and had a whole week of freedom and adventure in front of us a little farther south on the Baja Peninsula.  It was my first proper vacation in two years and I was ready for it!

The Drive
red carBut before the real fun started we needed to execute a long drive across and down the Baja Peninsula, cutting through red mountains and dramatic mesas populated in palo verde trees,Sea of Cortez scrub brush, ocotillo, and armies of saguaro cactus.  Whole sections of cliffs appeared to be covered in pale green lichen and vultures circled everywhere and I was completely delighted to be driving it on my own with hardly any schedule.  After an hour or so of twisting through the mountains we were launched unceremoniously onto the level plains of the interior desert.  We amused ourselves playing “guess the animal” (a variation on 20 questions)—I managed to stump my mother with “flamingo” and she stumped me with “rabbit.”  In the center of the peninsula we passed through farm country around Villa Insurgentes and Ciudad Constitucion--dusty fields, dry corn, and orange trees hung with brilliant fruit.  Close to three hours after leaving Loreto we began to pass rows of defunct power lines crowned with osprey nests and knew we were approaching Puerto San Carlos and Bahia Magdalena.  Soon mangroves appeared around us, a hotel with a whale skeleton in front, and signs to Hotel Brennan—our home for the next five days.  We found the hotel a few minutes later, a charming little building at the edge of a wide dirt field and the fringe of main street (see photos below).

So what was the point of our arrival in this out-of-the-way corner of Baja?   Friendly whales!  A bizarre and marvelous phenomenon, gray whales in the lagoons of the Baja Peninsula have a reputation for seeking physical interaction with humans and Magdalena Bay is their southernmost enclave.  Certain individuals consistently approach vessels, lifting their great rostrums above the water for pats; others linger in the company of boats, performing antics or people-watching.  In 2001, my parents took me on a trip to Laguna San Ignacio where we spent three days watching spectacular mating activity but never had a friendly encounter.  We tried to ocotillohide the fact that we were bitterly disappointed, and I think my mother was particularly frustrated.  Several years later she visited Baja again and spent one day in Magdalena Bay, again with skittish whales and no friendlies (though she did have spectacular orca and blue whale encounters in the Sea of Cortez).  Ever since San Ignacio I’ve had it in my head to go back to Baja with my mother and stay there until we found a friendly whale.  I myself had returned in 2003 and was fortunate enough to have a friendly calf linger with my boat.  So I decided this winter was it.  I had a companion fare ticket burning a hole in my pocket and badly needed a vacation. 

The Town
San Carlos turned out not to be the sleepy fishing village I’d imagined.  While local fishermen do ply the waters of the bay and the Pacific Ocean, the town was built to support a commercial port as well as a diesel power plant thatosprey supplies electricity to the peninsula.  Harboring about 8,000 inhabitants, the town is spread along the shore of the bay with one clear main street near our hotel surrounded by sprawling houses interconnected with soft dirt roads.  San Carlos is not a prime tourist destination and supports only a handful of hotels and touristy restaurants and no tourist shops at all.  Unlike Loreto or other more popular destinations most of the waiters and store owners do not speak English.  I had a delightful time dredging up my Spanish (amazingly intact) to communicate my way through all kinds of situations from ordering unusual items in restaurants, buying beer, and asking where certain items were in stores, to buying tours, chatting with local kids, and asking directions in the middle of absolutely nowhere. 

After our arrival at the hotel our local guide Esteban sent us to a restaurant called Los Arcos for dinner.  We found it easily enough on the main drive and settled into one of the tables, enjoying the fresh air and the novelty of eating in an open air restaurant.  Over our Mexican beers we perused the menu and were somewhat disappointed to find that seafood was our only option.  Looking forward to “Mexican” food we were instead faced with endless variations on fish, lobster, clams, and shrimp.  I guess this shouldn’t be surprising for a port town.  My mother went for fish tacos and I had a fish fillet—without other choices, I may as well take part in the local fare, right?  I have no idea what kind of fish wound up on my plate (this is one conversation I thought would be fruitless in English or Spanish).  It was enormous, about six inches square, white, half an inch thick, and quite chewy.  Tuna?  It also wasn’t very good, fishy, and I didn’t finish it.  We had more beer and then stopped by a corner “mini super” for a jug of water.
hotelhotel viewhotel BrennanThis began a struggle for good food in San Carlos.  Every restaurant (I think we found three) advertised fish and “mariscos” and we were both reluctant to repeat our first experience. Most of the streetside vendors didn’t look very promising either.  For lunch the next day we were escorted to a simple restaurant off the beaten path by our panga captain.  Sitting down with fresh ceviche (which was admittedly rather good as far ceviche goes) we were once again faced with an endless variety of seafood.  Oh, and chicken.  After the previous day’s experience, I went for the chicken but vowed to avoid flesh after that for a while.

My mother and I both found the prevalence of the “mini super” (short for supermercado, or supermarket) rather hilarious.  There was one slightly larger market in town and a “mini-super” every block or so—and they were tiny!  We speculated that each one might specialize is particular items, but it was a bit puzzling to see what bizarre assortment of goods we found in each of the teeny stores.  We ate many of our San Carlos meals from these little markets and from the local fruit vender. 

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