Guerrero Negro  is the Mexican translation for the name of a U.S. whaler, the Black Warrior, which sank offshore in the 1850s. After depleting the population of gray whales by the late 19th century, the hunters moved on and remarkably, the whales were able to recover.
Today whale hunting has been replaced by the sustainable activity of whale-watching. If you happen to visit in February or March, you’ll catch the peak season for spotting—and maybe even petting—friendly gray whales.
Head out to Scammon’s Lagoon, known locally as Laguna Ojo de Liebre. In recent years, the whales have been arriving later than usual (late December) and leaving later so that the best months to watch them are now February and March; tours continue through the end of April. In February an official tally of whales in the lagoon resulted in more than 800 adults and more than 500 calves, significantly higher numbers than had been recorded in previous years.
There are two ways to see the whales: The first is to book a three-hour tour (US$50 pp) through an outfitter like Malarrimo Eco-Tours (Zapata, tel./fax 615/157-0100, www.malarrimo.com; reserve a day or more in advance), Mario’s Tours (at Restaurant Mario’s, Mexico 1, 615/157-1940, www.mariostours.com ), near the Desert Inn, or Laguna Tours (tel. 615/157-0050) on Boulevard Zapata next to Motel San Ignacio.
Of these options, Mario’s created a strong impression on our last visit. This operation is fully certified and has been running tours since 1990. The staff is bilingual and includes whale and bird specialists. Mario’s has expanded the restaurant to include a conference room for briefings before the tours.
The second way to see the whales is to drive to the lagoon and hire a panguero yourself. Take Highway 1 south of town nine kilometers and look on the right for a sign pointing toward the Parque Natural de la Ballena Gris. Follow this road six kilometers (with heavy washboard in places) to a gate that marks the beginning of the salt company property. After an attendant opens the gate, continue across the white salt flats to the lagoon (a total of 24 km).
You may be asked to pay a small fee to park here for the day. Taxis are available at the bus depot in Guerrero Negro and will drive up to five passengers to the panga piers and back for about US$80. (They wait for you at the lagoon.)
You can often see the whales from the shoreline, but it’s best to go out with a boat tour if you want the full experience.
Whale-watching is a morning activity because that’s when conditions are calmest and visibility is best. Boats typically depart 9 A.M.–3 P.M. and stay out about 90 minutes. In January–March, there are usually several boats available at the park for hire (US$25 pp).
If you have your own boat, be aware that you won’t be able to use it on Laguna Ojo de Liebre when the whales are in town. Pangueros must apply for permits to lead tours in the bay, and they know how to maneuver the boats without scaring mothers and their calves.
In order to export its seven million tons of salt per year, ExportadoraSal, S.A. (ESSA) employs around 1,000 people in Guerrero Negro —far more than all of the town’s tourist businesses combined. Jointly owned by the Mexican government (51 percent) and Mitsubishi Corporation (49 percent), the company owns 182 square kilometers of salt flats surrounding the lagoon.
The company gives tours of the plant and its vast network of concentration ponds. Of interest are the specially designed trucks and harvesting equipment used to transport the evaporated salt from the ponds to ships that take it to Isla Cedros  and eventually overseas. Tours take about three hours; for information, inquire at Hotel Malarrimo (Zapata, tel./fax 615/157-0250, www.malarrimo.com ).
North of the salt plant, near an old pier and lighthouse, is a bird sanctuary, a great place to catch beautiful views of the dunes at sunset. Baja California Sur Birds (www.bcsbirds.com ) has thumbnail photos online. You can browse by image or by bird name.
If the weather cooperates and you have time for a side trip, the Dunas de Soledad are worth a visit. Located north of Guerrero Negro , four kilometers from the highway, the sand dunes reach heights of eight meters and they face Playa Don Miguelito, a pristine beach on the Pacific Ocean.