At the western edge of the Magdalena plain on the Pacific coast, a long string of barrier islands protects a series of shallow bays that fill with gray whales during calving season, January–March. The surrounding estuaries and mangrove swamp supports a unique and vibrant marine ecosystem.
Sheltered Canal Gaviota links the two largest bays in the system, Bahía Magdalena and Bahía Almejas, to create some of the best kayaking and windsurfing conditions anywhere on the peninsula. Visitors here enjoy paddling the bay, climbing 30-foot sand dunes, bird-watching, and gray-whale encounters.
In 2009 Hurricane Jimena, a Category 3 storm, made landfall at Magdalena Bay, leaving 35,000 people in Centra Baja without homes, food, power, and water. Airports, roads, bridges, power lines, and cell towers were destroyed by high winds, flash floods, and mudslides. The state of Baja California Sur was declared a natural disaster.
The most severe damage occurred in the area around Isla Magdalena, Bahía Santa María, Puerto López Mateos, Puerto San Carlos, and Punta Abreojos. Given the unfortunate timing of the disaster, in the midst of a global recession, the path to recovery has been extremely slow for these coastal communities.
Two environmental organizations play an active role in conservation efforts around the bay: Vigilantes de Bahía Magdalena, A.C. (www.propeninsula.org/window/1/8.html) and Guardianes del Agua, A.C. (La Paz Coastkeeper, www.guardianesdelagua.org). Both organizations are affiliated with the International Waterkeeper Alliance.
Just 45 minutes by car from Ciudad Constitución and about 2.5 hours from Loreto, Bahía Magdalena is the southernmost of the three gray-whale calving lagoons on the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula. (Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro and Laguna San Ignacio are the other two.) Whale-watching tours that depart from Mulegé, Loreto, or La Paz generally head for this bay.
It is possible on some days to view the whale activity from a distance on shore near Puerto López Mateos, but this doesn’t compare to the experience of getting up close on a boat. Look for a viewing area with a parking lot north of the fish-processing plant.
A three- to four-hour panga tour costs about US$65 per person for up to four people, and prices are likely to fluctuate with fuel prices. It can be difficult—and dangerous—to cruise the lagoon when the winter winds kick up, so tour operators generally recommend that you allow an extra day or two on your visit in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. In addition to the whales, you’ll likely spot sea lions and a variety of marine birds. Beware of any panguero who offers to take you out in inclement weather; your chances of seeing the whales will be slim and the danger factor will be unnecessarily high.
Boat drivers must be licensed to drive in the lagoons during the whale- calving season. Ask at Hotel Brennan in San Carlos for a guide or head down to the embarcadero on the west side of town near the lighthouse to hire someone directly.
Viajes Mar y Arena (tel. 613/136-0076, fax 613/136-0232), Brennan’s y Asociados (tel. 613/136-0288, fax 613/136-0019, turismo [at] balandra [dot] uabcs [dot] mx), and Unión de Lancheros y Servicios Turísticos de Puerto San Carlos (ULYSTOURS) (tel. 613/136-0253, Crispín Mendoza) are all licensed to run guided boat tours.
In Puerto López Mateos, several operators are authorized to take tourists on whale-watching tours. They include Unión de Lancheros Touristicos (tel. 613/131-5114), Aquendi (tel. 613/131-5164 or -5105 or -5306, US$80/hour, up to 6 people), and Renta de Lanchas Juana Rosas III (tel. 613/113-9195 or 613/131-5123) The offices for all these businesses are located at the port.
Baja Expeditions (U.S. tel. 858/581-3311 or 800/843-6967, www.bajaex.com) offers highly recommended “catered camping” trips to Bahía Magdalena for US$240 per person per night (double occupancy). During the day, you’ll go whale-watching, kayaking, or beach walking, and in the evening, you can hear guest speakers talk about local marine life.
Family-run Mag Bay Tours (U.S. tel. 215/667-8470, www.magbaytours.com) started out as a surf camp and then added whale-watching and sportfishing services; the company emphasizes a sustainable, low-impact approach to tourism. It has two semipermanent base camps: Its surf camp is located on the northern point of Bahía Santa María, and the whale-watching camp is inside Bahía Magdalena. Guests stay in dome-shaped tents that are big enough to stand up in. Each has a porch area that is protected from the wind. The camp provides sleeping bags, pillows, and cots with air mattresses. In winter you can book day trips from three to five hours in length or overnight packages that include all meals and transportation from San Carlos. A basic “eco-adventure” package (US$250 per person) includes two days and one night of accommodations with about seven hours of whale-watching over the two days. In summer eight-day surfing trips cost US$1,360.
Aside from watching for whales in winter and surfing in summer, clam-digging, campfires, bird-watching, and beachcombing are all part of the experience.
Puerto San Carlos
The largest town in the area is Puerto San Carlos (pop. 5,200), with the only other deepwater port on the Pacific coast of Baja besides Ensenada.
During the whale-watching season, Puerto San Carlos hosts the Festival de Ballena Gris (Gray Whale Festival), with music, food, and crafts festivities every weekend from the middle of February through the end of March.
Puerto San Carlos has a Pemex station, several tiendas, a post office, and government offices for port captain, customs, and immigration. Public long-distance TelMex phones are scattered throughout the town.
Puerto López Mateos
North of Puerto San Carlos, tiny Puerto López Mateos offers a similar array of services but on a much smaller scale. It has a cannery, post office, and Pemex, plus several tiendas, hotels, and restaurants. TelMex public phones are scattered throughout town.
The town celebrated its 16th Festival Internacional de la Ballena Grís in February 2009. It also has a local fiesta on the last weekend in April or first weekend in May.
Several whale-watching tour operators have offices at the port, and booths of vendors sell all kinds of artesania in the high season.
Puerto Cancún and Puerto Chale
These two fishing camps are located in the shadow of Isla Santa Margarita. They have basic supplies, good camping, and an abundance of fresh clams, lobster, and other seafood.
Sportfishing remains a major attraction in the area, especially in the high season of July–November. Anglers catch halibut, yellowtail, red bass (mangrove snapper), corvina, and snook close to shore and big game fish farther out. For clams, you can simply walk along the shallows of either bay and dig.
San Carlos has a concrete boat ramp for launching small boats, as do Puerto López Mateos and Puerto Chale.
Windsurfers and kiteboarders flock to Bahía Magdalena for the best wind conditions on the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula. Beginners take shelter in the relatively calm bay, while advanced boarders venture out to the bocas for stronger winds and bigger waves.
South/southwest swells roll into Bahi Santa Maria beginning in May or June through November. Surfers enjoy three right point breaks here—Cuevas, Campsites, and Betadines—and the estuary mouth provides a fast beach break. Mag Bay Tours offers all-inclusive weeklong surf camps (Sun.–Sun.).
South of Bahía Magalena, committed surfers frequent remote Punta El Conejo, a point that juts far enough out into the open ocean to catch north and south swells. The left here holds the larger swells, while the right will close out. Beware the urchins on the rocks on the inside.
There are no facilities, but you can camp among the dunes here. Local lobster fishermen may come by in the evening to sell their sadly undersized catches. Normally, someone from the property will come and collect US$5 per car in exchange for collecting garbage and maintaining the primitive but sheltered bathrooms. This land and the access to it is private, but the owners don’t mind leaving it open to visitors.
With a sturdy vehicle, you can follow the coastal road south another 17 kilometers to reach Punta Márquez, another surf spot. This same road continues all the way to Todos Santos (124 km from El Conejo), passing a number of remote beach breaks along the way.
The best place to stay in this town is Hotel Brennan (Puerto Acapulco, tel. 613/136-0288, www.hotelbrennan.com.mx, US$65), where the still-basic rooms have extra amenities such as ceiling fans, air-conditioning, kitchenettes, and satellite TV. The hotel has a restaurant and bar and can arrange guided outdoor activities for guests.
A popular place for tour groups, Hotel Alcatraz (Puerto La Paz, tel. 613/136-0017, www.hotelalcatraz.net, US$65–120), on the main road through town, has nicely tiled rooms set around a courtyard. In-room amenities include TVs, hot water, and minibars. Its restaurant-bar, El Patio, is open 6 A.M.–10 P.M. daily. There is laundry service, plus free Internet, boats and kayaks for rent and secure parking.
You can camp at the northwest and southeast ends of the peninsula for around US$5 per vehicle.
Hotel Posada Tornavuelta (Abelardo L. Rodríguez, tel. 613/131-5106, US$30) offers several clean rooms with private baths. Check in at the house next door. This hotel stays open year-round, and there is an adjacent restaurant in the works.
Cabañas Dunas, affiliated with the Aquendi complex, which includes a restaurant, bar, and tours (tel. 613/131-5293, cabanas_dunas [at] hotmail [dot] com, US$40), is on the left as you head into the port. Its new, duplex-style cabanas each have private hot-water bathrooms and small patios. El Camarón Feliz (Abelardo L. Rodríguez, tel. 613/131-5032) also has five rooms for rent at US$30, each with its own bath.
For fresh seafood, head to Restaurant El Galeón (no tel., lunch and dinner daily, mains US$10–15), close to Hotel Brennan. It serves beef and chicken dishes, as well as delicious shellfish and fish. Mariscos Los Arcos (Calle La Paz, no tel., 8 A.M.–10 P.M. daily, mains US$5–15, lobster around US$30) prepares seafood, antojitos, and Mexican breakfasts.
Another option for reasonably priced and delicious fresh food is La Cocina de Tere (no tel., mains US$5–10), just up from Hotel Alcatraz. The menu varies according to what’s fresh, and your server will tell you what’s available that day.
A few restaurants in town serve good seafood dishes, but they are usually open only January–April, when the whale-watchers are around. El Camarón Feliz (Abelardo L. Rodríguez, tel. 613/131-5032, mains US$5–10) is the place to stop for fish tacos. Restaurant Ballena Gris (no tel., mains US$10–15), on the right as you come into town, prepares fresh fish and shellfish.
Getting to Bahía Magdalena
You can drive the paved highway Mexico 22 from Ciudad Constitución to Puerto San Carlos (57 km west) in under an hour, or catch one of three buses a day that connect the two towns (US$5 pp). Bus fare from La Paz is US$34 one way.
To get to Puerto López Mateos, take the paved route west from Ciudad Insurgentes. And for Puerto Chale, turn off the highway at Km. 157.
The 1:250,000-scale INEGI La Paz map (G12-10-11) will help you find roads along the coast of Bahía Magdalena and Bahía Almejas.
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition