By day we kayak, hike sand dunes, and take part in tagging a few huge adult sea turtles. By night we have margaritas and a wonderful dinner around communal tables, retiring to comfortable cushioned cots in tents scattered among the dunes. With songs around a campfire and a moonlit boat ride to check the turtle nets, it's the kind of experiential adventure that goes well beyond the ephemeral joys of palatial marble bathrooms and pillow menus.
Lost in a Fog
In the morning Magdalena Bay is in a fog, and not because we had too much to drink around the campfire. Morning joggers from our group have trouble finding our camp when they return from the beach and they get especially worried when they see wolves munching on a dead seal. The huge cardon cacti look eerie in the murky air as we drive on a hilly dirt road toward the highway. It's crystal clear though for the dramatic drive back across the peninsula to Loreto. We pass the craggy mountains of Sierra La Giganta glowing in the sun as we descend down to the deep blue bay coming almost right up to them.
We'll be back to Loreto later, but for now it's a springboard to the sparsely populated areas north of here. There are spots where ancient cave paintings and rock carvings give evidence of former civilizations, but where a harsh climate has always kept the humans in check. The area is still full of life, however, thanks to fog that often moves across the hills like poured pudding, sustaining a whole range of plants and animals.
We take some short nature hikes amidst the towering cacti with our guide from Aventuras Mexico Profundo and stop in a spot where rock carvings lie near boojum trees—the strange twisty plants that look more like Dr. Seuss fantasies than something from nature.
We overnight in lush San Ignacio, home to one of the earliest Spanish missions on the west coast of the Americas, then explore desert cave paintings at a UNESCO World Heritage spot. We push on to San Ignacio Lagoon and arrive at Kuyima sustainable camp, another place built with care in a fragile area. The windmills are spinning hard from the sea breeze to power the central dining and drinking area and light the communal bathroom areas where the composting toilets are located. After the sun sets over the lagoon we retire to our roomy tents with cots for a good sleep before an early rise to go whale watching.
Gray whales come to San Ignacio Lagoon to mate and spawn each year after making a long journey down from the Arctic Circle. In the beginning tourists were fined if they touched a whale here, but then attitudes changed when it became clear that the whales enjoy interacting with humans. The babies like to poke their heads up by the boat and be petted, while the mothers are perhaps glad to have some day care for the little ones as they swim nearby. Occasionally a mother whale will pop up vertically out of the water and survey the scene with one eye.
From roughly mid-January through April, the boats don't have to go chase whales. Instead the mothers bring the kids over to play. Within 20 minutes of stepping onto the boats from our camp, we're seeing blowhole spray and whale flukes. Both our boats have multiple whale encounters, with multiple pairs of mothers and babies visiting. When playtime is over, they can have their own space, however. The reserve has clearly defined boundaries so the mammals can retreat to their own area to swim in peace.
Fins Waving Goodbye in Loreto
After packing up at camp, we ride across the salt flats and then the desert for the long but scenic ride back to Loreto. We arrive at Loreto Bay Resort as the day is ending and as I walk along the beach, I can see a whale swimming lazily back and forth in the bay. We go out on boats one last time at sunrise in hopes of finding one of the blue whales that sometimes swim in these waters. We've seen humpbacks and gray whales on this trip and swam with sea lions and whale sharks, so it seems almost greedy when we are disappointed on this pursuit. All of a sudden we catch a show we weren't expecting though: dozens of rays flying out of the water near our boat and landing with a splash.
Just as we're about to head in we get a consolation prize: a big humpback whale blows water from its spout less than 50 meters from the boat and waves goodbye with his tail before descending again. It's a fitting end to a week of adventure, seeing more whales than I've seen in my whole life combined and being face to face with sea lions and whale sharks. It's hard to think of any other place in the world where there is so much to see just up the road from a place where most tourists do little beyond laze around a pool and order cocktails. There's a wealth of adventure in Baja Sur beyond the lounge chairs.
If You Go:
Book a trip with an adventure–focused tour company that has experience in this region or go direct through one of the excellent local companies. They can usually arrange complete trips by tapping into others in a loose alliance. Check with Baja Outdoor Activities, Todos Santos Eco Adventures, Aventuras Mexico Profundo, RED Travel Mexico, or Kuyima. Uncruise Adventures runs active Sea of Cortez trips that hit many of the highlights by sea and land. For ideas on what to do in this bountiful region, see the Visit Baja Sur website.
Review and photos by Timothy Scott.