Our plan was to drive to the town of San Ignacio and continue to the nearby Laguna San Ignacio for a whale watching tour there. But the weather forecast was awful so we decided to bag the lagoon and head back there to try again on our return trip north.
But we still planned a brief stop in San Ignacio to see the town which is just a short hop from Guerrero Negro, about two hours of easy driving.
San Ignacio is a colonial town in a valley nestled in a date palm oasis. It’s kind of a sleepy town, simple but still quite charming. A small dam built by settlers in the 1700’s formed a lagoon that sustains the town’s agricultural economy.
The first date palms were planted in 1765 and now are ubiquitous. It makes a striking difference from the desert scenery that had dominated the landscape for quite a while.
We stayed right by the lagoon at Los Petates, a lovely setting with lots of trees, birds and ducks. Check out our review of the campground here.
We visited the lovely colonial plaza and the mission church of San Ignacio, Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamaán, built of lava rock with walls that are four feet thick. It dominates one side of the plaza and has lovely gardens on both sides.
The plaza has several businesses, some that sell yummy date bread, cookies and pie (spelled “pay” in these parts). There are a couple of restaurants and an ice cream shop “Neverias Danya” that serves as internet café. It cost us $3.67 U.S. dollars for internet access on two laptops for two hours.
The pretty central plaza is the center of town life, such as it is. It felt like a step back in time.
That evening we dined at Victor’s Restaurant which had been recommended by a guide book and independently by our campground host. It’s the most basic looking restaurant in the town (there are only a couple more restaurants) but clearly very popular.
When we arrived, it was packed. Turned out there was a Mexican motorcycle club in town. There was one waiter and he handled the craziness surprisingly well. We had a couple of wonderful dinners.
That evening was lovely and dark and Hector took the opportunity to take some photographs of the stars above the lovely palm trees. Beautiful!
At one of my first jobs in a travel agency in Miami I saw a photo of someone in a kayak next to a whale. I love wildlife and whales are one of my favorites and I thought then how sweet it would be to get that close to a whale.
Eschtrichtius Robustus – robust indeed!
Hector and I have been on whale watching tours about 20 times in three U.S. States and three Canadian provinces. In kayaks, small fishing boats, zodiac boats and big boats. We’ve been fortunate enough to see about nine different types of whales, some pretty close up.
But not long ago, I read about the gray whales who migrate to Baja California from the Bering Sea in the winter. While they’re up north, they spend their time feeding and gorging, preparing their bodies for the long migration south. It is one of the longest migrations of any animal on earth.
Once they reach Baja California, they congregate in three lagoons on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Whales that mated the previous year will give birth to their calves (their gestation period is about 13 months ) and others will mate. In these lagoons the calves are protected from their two predators: sharks and killer whales.
We set off in the morning on our tour to see the whales. I tried to set realistic expectations and told myself that seeing the whales would be enough but had my hopes up for more.
There were eight of us in the boat, from France, Belgium, Australia and us. A second boat from our tour company had a group of Mexicans. Excitement was high.
The boat headed out to the middle of the lagoon and stopped. We immediately saw our first whale, then another and another. The boat inched a bit closer. They have rules that restrict them from getting too close to the whales, approaching them from behind or too directly.
The whales did not approach the boat and we moved on. There were lots of whales around and we could see spouts in the distance. Everyone was enjoying seeing so many whales. There are about 800 in the lagoon at this point, but in other years there have been as many as 2500. Apparently, El Niño changes their migration patterns.
Each cow has one calf and trains them for about five months prior to their migration north. One of the things the cows do to build the calves’ strength for the journey north is to have them swim against the strong tidal current at the entrance to the lagoon.
Momma with her calf
For some unknown reason, even though humans slaughtered them to near extinction, the whales now seem to enjoy human contact while in these lagoons. They will swim up to the small boats that go out into the lagoons to get “petted”.
When the calves are a bit grown they will also bring their babies and lift them up at the side of tour boats, presumably to get petted also. The lagoons of Baja are the only place in the world where they do this.
The captain said that a whale was coming towards us from the right side (my side). He had an uncanny way of knowing when they were approaching even though they were underwater. Once they were pretty close, we could all see them underwater.
The whale came to the boat and then went under. Several times whales came to our boat and swam under it from one side to the other.
A little while later another whale swam over, this time coming right up to my side of the boat and surfacing. I barely reached it and gave it a light stroke but it kept swimming and went underwater.
It was a surreal moment, never did I think I would actually touch a whale.
Several other whales swam up to the boat on both sides, and several of the people on the boat got to touch them.
It was really moving.
One gentleman screamed so loudly when he touched this one whale that it immediately went underwater, I think he must have scared it. But everyone on the boat got a close up look and all were happy.
Hector and I just bought a GoPro and used it for the first time. We captured some of the whale encounters, as well as some shots of whales underwater, but our internet connectivity in this area is not good enough to post. However, the video allowed us to capture a few still photos. Hopefully we can post videos later.
On our way back to shore the boat cruised by a vast expanse of sand dunes that border the north of the lagoon. Spectacular!
And as a last treat we had a few more glimpses of marine life: some dolphins, sea lions and lots of marine birds.
We arrived back on land with big smiles on all of our faces from this magical experience.
To get to the town of Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior), you have to cross the state line from Baja California to Baja California Sur. The state line is the 28th parallel (latitude).
The government does not allow produce across to Baja California Sur so we gave our remaining produce away before we left Bahia de los Angeles. Some people said that “they never check” but we like to do all we can to have nice easy border crossings. They did ask us if we had produce and Hector said “of course not, we heard you couldn’t bring any across”. The officer was pleased with that answer.
The other unique thing about this border crossing is that when you cross there is an automatic spray from the road to the underside of your vehicles and your tires. Presumably some sort of pesticide agent to kill off something or other (hopefully not us).
Our original plan had been to continue directly to the Ojo de Liebre lagoon, where we planned to go whale watching, and bypass the town of Guerrero Negro. But we needed to run several errands and our provisions were getting low so we decided to stay at Guerrero Negro and take a whale watching tour from there.
Guerrero Negro gets a bad rap, so I had very low expectations. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The town may not be a charming colonial gem but it has a very interesting history and is neatly kept.
The whaling Captain John Melville Scammon discovered the entrance to the lagoon and whale nursery and to his delight found it full of whales. Of course he promptly killed as many as he could and had a great windfall. The secret soon got out and other whalers joined in the slaughter in “Scammon’s Lagoon” and soon the majestic California Gray Whale was hunted to near extinction. It is estimated that the total population dropped to a few hundred individuals.
Perhaps because there were no more profits to be had, Captain Scammon became one of the earliest conservationists seeking to protect the animals. Happily, the grey whales have recovered and there are now over 20,000 around the world.
During the whaling times, a wooden ship named the Black Warrior ran aground on the shallow sand bar separating the northern and southern parts of the lagoon. The wreck served as a warning to ships of the shoal water for decades. All that remains of the wooden ship is the wheel, displayed at the bar of the Malarrimo RV Park and Hotel.
We stayed at the Mallarimo RV Park right in the center of town. They also sell the whale watching tours at this location so we could board the bus to the lagoon right outside our RV. And they have a hotel and a restaurant on site. Check out our review of the campground here.
We set off to handle our errands and found an ATM, a place to fill our water jugs with drinking water, a decent grocery store, a very nice fruteria (fruit and vegetable store), a panaderia (bread store), a liquor store, fresh oranges and a laundry all within 10 minutes of the RV park. People were extremely helpful.
But best of all, we found the best fish tacos at the Tacos del Muelle taco truck. Others that have been to Baja say they’re the best tacos in all of the peninsula. A fellow RVer commented on Facebook that “by extension, that makes them the best in the world”. I don’t doubt it.
That afternoon we drove out to the camping area at the lagoon just to check it out. It’s about 35 minutes from town on a pretty good gravel road. It’s a lovely and remote area to camp and we may just camp there on our way back north.
In the 1950’s the present day town was built as a company town to support what would ultimately become the world’s largest salt mine. Huge shallow ponds with hard rock bottoms are flooded with sea water and allowed to evaporate leaving behind sea salt.
The salt mine exports millions of tons of salt annually and covers an area larger than the city of Los Angeles! The government originally named the town after some Mexican historical figure, but no one called it that. They used the Spanish name for the wrecked Black Warrior, Guerrero Negro. The name stuck and it was officially changed to the name it has to this day.
The site of the wreck of the Black Warrior was eventually replaced by a proper lighthouse whose ruins can still be seen. The drive out was between wetlands and was actually more interesting than the lighthouse itself.
We saw long-billed curlews and lots of yellow-crowned night herons, osprey, great blue heron, snowy egret, great egrets, and more gulls and pelicans. This is the largest concentration of Osprey in the world and we saw lots of them.
On our return we drove over to a bird refuge area that you can walk on and spotted some brants in the water. I don’t believe we’d seen those ducks before. And we saw more osprey, they are nesting right now.
We have a much better appreciation of this friendly company town. And the actual whale watching was incredible. More on that next.
The weather forecast was for calm days ahead. Perfect timing for us since we wanted to go kayaking in the Sea of Cortez as many days as possible during our stay. Very grateful for calm days in a place known for winds in the winter. As it turned out, the next four days had very light winds, so we paddled four days in a row!
Early in the mornings, the water was like glass. On our first kayaking day as we paddled north from the campground we could see long graceful plants in the water. Not being familiar with these waters we stayed pretty close to the shoreline. We could see lots of fish in the crystal clear water.
We almost made it to Playa Gringa at the north end of the bay but turned around to make it a nice easy paddle on our first day. On the way back we spotted two beautiful Royal Terns and lots of other birds on the rocks.
The next morning, the water was still and clear once again, and we paddled south toward an old lighthouse. On the way, Hector spotted a sea lion and paddled closer. The sea lion was clearly curious about this big orange boat with the big human and swam close and around his kayak several times before he swam off.
Bahia de Los Angeles town from the lighthouse
We continued to a beach around the bend from the lighthouse and stopped at the beach. Hector spotted a stingray in the water as we got closer to the beach, but we didn’t see any others. The lighthouse has been closed up a while but remains standing. And there are rows of “guard” gulls in front of it.
Once again, we found many lovely shells on a couple of beaches surrounding the lighthouse. Another great morning in the beautiful sea.
The following day with perfect conditions we paddled across to the closest of the islands surrounding us. La Ventana is about 2.8 miles out from the campground. Interestingly, we saw lots of saguaro and other cactus on the island. On that day we saw osprey but not much other wildlife. This island has several beaches, which were full of shells. Hector even found a cholla (cactus) skeleton to add to our garden back home.
We don’t normally cross big open bodies of water and even though we returned early to be cautious we had some wind on our return and had to work a little harder, but it was still a relaxing morning.
On our last paddle we headed south again but this time further past the lighthouse and crossed a couple of miles across the harbor in front of the little town. We found some ruins of what used to be the original town of Las Flores, a gold mining operation that started the first settlement in this area.
We walked around the beach and found more shells. Shelling can be somewhat addictive. That day we stayed a bit too long on the beach and the winds started blowing pretty hard in front of us.
There were also swells, including some that went over our boats. The dreaded winds! It was quite a workout to get back to the campsite.
We truly enjoyed spending time paddling in the spectacular Sea of Cortez, but we were tired after four days. So we decided to do something different on our last day in Bahia de los Angeles and signed up for a motorboat ride the next day to some of the other islands.Next up our scenic boat ride with Marco.
Our side trip to Bahia de los Angeles began with a lovely drive through more desert gardens. Thankfully, the road was in very good condition and a bit wider than the Peninsular Highway.
As you approach the Bay, there is a moment when the Sea of Cortez and its surrounding islands appear before you, it is stunning!
We were relieved to see that the gas station in town was open as it closes if the gas delivery doesn’t come. Our rig didn’t have enough diesel to make it both across the gas gap and also do the extra hundred miles or so for this side trip. For cars that run low, there are a couple of pickups with “barrel gas” at the Bahia turn. Folks do tend to find a way.
Water is scarce here (no campgrounds offer water hookups or water for filling your tanks), so we filled our tanks in Cataviña. We checked out Daggett’s campground and used the dump there (only one in town). While Hector handled the stinky slinky I checked out Campo Archelon next door.
Daggett’s was nice enough but Campo Archelon had one spot left by a large palapa right by the water and that became our spot!
Campo Archelon has a fascinating history. Betty and her husband Antonio arrived in 1979 to set up a sea turtle research station. At that time, the turtle population was diminishing but they were still being hunted for food. Their research ultimately help prove that the turtles needed protection and new laws were finally instituted in 1990 to protect them across the Mexican shores, a critical habitat for the global turtle population. The research center is no longer there, but the cabanas and the palapas still in place for the RV park had been set up originally to house volunteers and for educational meetings.
There is still a feeling that something good happened here. Antonio senior passed away a few years ago and Betty now runs the place with her industrious son Antonio. Check out our review of this lovely campground here.
We set up in our huge palapa and were able to place our barbecue and outdoor stove on the large table provided by the campground. Instant covered outdoor kitchen!
That night we were graced with the first beautiful sunset of the week. What a spectacular place!
Bahia de los Angeles is known for occasional high winds from the north (Nortes) which were blowing on our first day there. So we drove over to the little town. We found some interesting murals and a few small businesses but not much else of interest except for a lovely little museum.
The Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura is a museum that was founded by an American lady, Carolina Shepard, who has lived 40+ years and raised her family in Bahia de los Angeles. The museum has many examples of marinelife and shell species, indigenous artifacts, exhibitions representing the history and ecology of the region, mining and ranching artifacts and more. It is clearly a labor of love. Surprisingly, we found Betty from the campground overseeing the museum. Carolina humbly gives much of the credit for the museum to all of the people who have given their time to it and Betty is apparently one of those people. We were fortunate to meet these two pillars of the community,
We returned to our beautiful campsite and took a walk on the beach where we found many lovely shells and watched another stunning sunset. By the end of the week we had amassed quite the haul.
The sunsets were great. But the sunrises were even more intense.
An interesting thing about the town is that most of the residents have to get non-potable water from a nearby well, and potable water from a nearby spring. We saw Antonio head out several times in his truck to acquire water. The campground uses a system to capture seawater to flush the toilets and for two little sinks outside the toilets (clearly marked as salt water). They use the good water for the showers and for a faucet located outside the shower building. Moving water is hard work!
At dusk every day, when the tide was low, shorebirds, wading birds, pelicans and gulls gathered on the rocks to catch their dinner. There were oystercatchers, great egrets, great blue heron, different types of seagulls, pelicans, reddish egrets, greater yellowlegs, and more.
That was our evening entertainment prior to the magnificent sunsets. The sunsets had different colors and patterns each day. A magical place.Antonio the younger has ambitious plans for the place. A new restaurant is under construction and he was continuously working on the garden, the buildings, and helping the guests with advice and assistance.
Campo Archelon was magical. Our visit to Bahia de Los Angeles was all we dreamt of. Next up our kayaking adventures while we were in this beautiful place.
Just south of San Quintin is the town of El Rosario. This very small town is well-known to RVers because it has the last Pemex station before the central desert of Baja and the longest fuel “gap” on the peninsula. The next gas or diesel isn’t for 223 miles! Shortly after you leave El Rosario the scenery changes and civilization is left behind. The central desert, or el desierto central, is where you enter the “true” Baja. And where soon you will enter El Valle de los Cirios.
The change is dramatic. This area is a southern extension of the Sonoran Desert, similar to the beautiful desert around Tucson.
But with some interesting differences. Wild and beautiful and empty of people and development. The Parque Nacional del Desierto Central is the second largest natural protected area in Mexico.
As you near the remote outpost of Cataviña you start seeing what look very much like Saguaros but are not. These are the mighty Cardón cacti (pachycereus pringlei). Also known as elephant cactus. Sort of like Saguaro but even bigger! These monsters are the tallest cacti on earth. They average 30 feet tall but specimens are known to reach 60 feet. They have more arms in general than the Saguaro and the arms tend to branch out from lower on the main trunk.
Slow growers, many of these plants are hundreds of years old. They stretch as far as the eye can see for many miles.
And all around the Cardón are the Cirios, (aka Boojum trees / fouquieria columnaris) which are crazy looking things related to the ocotillo but looking as if it came from a Dr. Seuss book. Sort of like an upside down giant carrot with little green leaves and funny little flowers at the top.
They grow straight up as much as 60 feet tall! There are a few Cardón and Cirios in mainland Mexico but they are mostly endemic to Baja near the 29th parallel.
This area is called El Valle de Los Cirios (Valley of the Cirios). This desert landscape goes on for many miles but the zone around Cataviña has them growing amidst thousands of giant granite boulders. It makes for an incredible scene.
Oh, and the road is absolutely terrifying! Narrow, windy, sometimes potholed, and mostly with no shoulder and a little drop off. Combine that with 18 wheeler trucks that blast down the road and it makes for some white knuckle moments. Good reason to keep driving days short.
So we stopped in the little wide spot town of Cataviña at Rancho Santa Ynez, where RV camping is allowed in a large flat open space. There is a tiny restaurant that serves simple decent food attached to the ranch house and not much else. Check out our review of the campground here.
This area is VERY dry and the extent of the RV facilities is one little lonely water spigot by a palm tree with a sign that says “cuida el agua” (take care of the water).
Words to live by.
As we explored the tiny town we ran across a place selling coconuts. The guy is a transplant from Colima on the mainland, a place with lots of coconuts. He imports them to sell here. The place is decorated with all sorts of flotsam and junk, very entertaining. Love to find these weird little spots!
We went for a sunset drive out among the Cataviña boulder field and spotted a little structure propped up against a giant boulder. So we hiked out to it and found this sweet little painting inside, it was a tiny chapel. Love the little angel with Mexican flag wings.
Sunset didn’t disappoint. The beautiful desert scene made for great foreground.
This section of road also is also where you cross over from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez for the first time. Our first stop on the Sea of Cortez is Bahia de Los Angeles. Stay tuned!
South of Ensenada the road goes through an agricultural area and the towns get smaller and further apart. We try to make our driving days short and San Quintin is just before the central desert and the longest “gas gap” in Baja where there are >200 miles between gas stations so we planned to overnight there.
With no particular expectations other than we knew it was on the beach we stopped to camp at Fidel’s El Pabellon RV campground. Check out our review of the campground here. To our delight the beach was incredible. Wide, beautiful and completely empty. Except of course for the zillion sand dollars that were everywhere and lots of birds.
Fidel was very nice and was busy constructing a new waterfront restaurant focused on local seafood which he hopes will be open in March. He gave me a tour of the work in progress, looks like it will be quite the addition to the limited local restaurant scene in a spectacular location.
A walk on the beach and a gorgeous sunset. In the morning, we awoke to dolphins out on the water. And a few fishermen returning from early fishing trips. Fidel used to be a lobster fisherman so it sounds like that will be a highlight of his menu.An unexpected treat for sure.
After crossing the border with no meat or produce on board our first order of business was to stock the rig for our trip down the 1000 miles of the peninsula. Ensenada is a good sized city and the biggest until we reach La Paz, our planned turnaround point.
From Tecate to Ensenada you travel down Mex Hwy 3 through La Ruta del Vino, a beautiful wine region of Mexico.
We might spend a night or two on the way back and sample some wines. But for now we are headed south.
We camped about 40 minutes south of central Ensenada near an interesting little tourist trap. A blowhole called “La Bufadora” where the ocean swells create a big whoosh thru a feature in the rocks. But the real reason we camped there was the views.
Campo #5 is set high on a cliff with killer pacific views, a perfect way to get in the Baja mood while taking care of business.
No facilities here, just dry camping in an awesome spot for very little moola. Check out our review here.
Ensenada has a nice waterfront Malecon and all the resources one might need. That and some great seafood for good measure.We visited here briefly a few years ago with our dear friends Michael and Gloria who live in San Diego and had a wonderful time so we were happy to be back. We went back to the amazing seafood market where there are some serious overachievers in displaying the shrimp for sale. Some came home with us.
We enjoyed our walk along the malecon and then went to eat our first of what will surely be many fish tacos at the famous and long established Tacos Fenix taco stand, around since 1970 and recommended by the late Anthony Bourdain (sigh). Yummy and cheap, perfecto!
Then a big grocery shopping outing at the modern supermarket next to the Costco.
The central section of Baja is VERY remote with limited supplies so careful shopping at this last town of significance for a long while is important.
Shopping complete we had worked up a thirst and we went for a margarita at an Ensenada institution, Hussong’s Cantina, established as a stage coach stop in 1892, it is one of several establishments that lay claim to having been the inventor of the popular tequila drink, the Margarita.
As this version of the story goes, in 1941 the German Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter came in just the barman was experimenting with a new mix of tequila, lime and Damiana liquor. The drink was a big hit, the ambassador’s daughter was named Margarita Henkel, and the rest is history.
The Margaritas were strong and good, the peanut shells go on the floor where the occasional pigeon comes by to sample them and the bar has old photos and lots of patina.
The next day as we headed out of town we did one more bit of shopping.
One of the offshoots of a wine region is often the production of olives which are sold at roadside stands along with local honey and olive oil. Of course we needed some for martinis …
Hi everyone! We are back out on the road for a couple of months.
Ever since sometime in the 90’s, we dreamt about visiting Baja California. The peninsula is 1000 miles long, with remote deserts, lonely beaches, Pacific views, Sea of Cortez kayaking in crystal clear waters, whales, and more.
We planned to go around a business trip Hector had to San Diego while we lived in Miami but something came up and that trip never happened.
So when we started fulltime RVing in 2012, I tried to add a trip to Baja California to our plans, but Hector did not want to drive our Class A motorhome down there. It turns out he was right, more on that later.
After selling Island Girl two years ago, we bought a nice Winnebago View on a Sprinter chassis from some friends of a friend. One key selling point was that it was “Baja ready” and could take the “dirty” diesel that is still sold in parts of Mexico which more modern diesel engines cannot.
In fact, this rig had already been down to Baja and to other parts of Mexico. She is also a “skinny Winnie”, the nickname referring to this class C RV being narrower than most which would prove helpful on the narrow Baja roads.
We named her Island Time.
We went on some long and fun shakedown cruises which we did not blog about and then we planned our trip to Baja, Now we were finally ready.
And we were off!
Our route plan was pretty simple, first an overnight boon docking stop in the Agua Caliente BLM area outside Phoenix, enjoying the always entertaining desert SW and Route 66 stuff along the way. Check out our review of the BLM area here.
And then down to Tecate, California to cross the border into Mexico. It is a bit out of the way down a pretty windy road which makes it one of least busy crossing points. It is also a convenient place to take care of getting our tourist visas.
When you fly to Mexico your fee is included in the airfare and you fill out the little immigration paper on the plane. If you drive in, you need to go inside the immigration office at the border to fill out the FMM form and pay a small fee ($32pp). Parking is very limited at the border crossing and doing this transaction in an RV can be complicated. So we camped on the US side, drove our car to the border and parked on the US side, walked across, got our papers in order and walked back that afternoon. The US border agent asked how long we had been in Mexico, answer = about 6 minutes :-).
We had a fun dinner that night with friends who live in the mountains outside San Diego close to Tecate and stayed at Potrero County Park which is just a few miles from the border. Check out our review of the park here. One last systems check and dropping off of produce with the park ranger the next morning and …
With our paperwork in order, crossing the border was pretty easy. We had one other RV in front of us, which the border patrol officer waved on. This made me think that they would stop the next one (us), and I was right. She boarded Island Time briefly, looked in a couple of cabinets and asked where we were going and where we came from. Then she poked around in the car and asked what was in our five gallon jug – water. That was it. She then waved us on.
My first experience in Mexico was some friendly construction workers waving and smiling at me.
And just like that we are back in Mexico and off on our next adventure!