The Largest Animal on the Planet

Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal known to have ever existed

Loreto is one of the places where the Eastern Pacific blue whales migrate to in winter. We originally planned a blue whale boat tour during our stop in Loreto on our way south and were really looking forward to the opportunity to see the largest animal on the planet.

But when we arrived we found out that “the whales were late” and the rangers who monitor the area had only spotted one blue whale. I nixed the tour knowing that finding one whale would be extremely difficult. Our second attempt on our way North also had to be nixed due to our detour to Cabo San Lucas to service the RV.

After that 640 mile detour and losing a couple of days to technical difficulties, we were pooped. So with the RV in (hopefully) back in good working condition, we took a day off to rest in La Paz before heading north again.

My not so hidden agenda was to time our return to Loreto for a calm warm day and reserve another blue whale tour. Way larger than the gray whales we spent so much time with this trip, these are pelagic creatures that inhabit all of the oceans and are also much tougher to find.

We reserved a campsite in the La Paz city center at Aquamarina RV park. Check out our review of the RV park here. Then we began our drive North once again headed to Loreto on the day before my target calm weather day.

Happily, when we arrived in Loreto we found out that the rangers had identified nine blue whales in the area. Blue whales are an endangered species, we humans hunted them to near extinction. So the area where they mate and feed is part of the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, where they are protected.The morning we set out to board the panga for our tour was clear and crisp, a bit chilly for me but I knew it would warm up.  And it seemed that Mercury in retrograde affected the tour company as well.

The captain of the boat we were due to go out in found that the engine wasn’t running properly. The company finally located another panga and had him switch us over. Finally we were off!

There were only two others on the boat with us, a guy from Tunisia who was living in Mexico City and a gal from Italy. So we had lots of room to move around on the boat.

The sea was calm and the views of Loreto and the neighboring islands were lovely. The pelicans were still doing their “pelican Air Force” thing.

The location where the blue whales congregate this time of year is in the Sea of Cortez South of Loreto past the end of Isla Carmen and North of Isla Montserrat. It took us the better part of an hour to get to this area of open water between the two islands.

Captain Tequila (I am not making this up), educated us about the differences between whale spouts of the whales found in this area. Humpbacks have shorter, wider spouts, fiin whales more fountain like spouts. Blue whales have the tallest of all spouts. We saw what looked like humpback spouts in the distance but decided to continue on our search for blue whales.We searched for the blue whales in a very large open water area. No spouts, no whales. Two hours passed. We saw a couple of other boats in the distance, but none was stopped so it seemed they hadn’t spotted any blue whales either.

Hector and I know how difficult it can be to find wildlife. During our last attempt to see blue whales in Quebec we spotted lots of different kinds of whales but only one blue whale and it was pretty far away.

One of our companions was getting impatient and complaining a bit. Clearly not a fellow with any experience observing wildlife. Hector put his hand on his shoulder and whispered to be patient.  And I said to both of them, you need to be Zen.

Minutes later we saw our first blue whale!  It was a bit far out so we headed in that direction.

When a whale swims along the surface, the up and down motion of their flukes creates turbulence that leaves circular swirls of calm looking water in its wake. These flat patches of water are a good way to tell the exact location of a whale’s last surface movement.

But before we even had time to look around, a blue whale surfaced directly in front of our boat! The whale’s massive back rolled over the surface of the water and then the whale fluked. Fluking happens when whales dive to deeper waters after having surfaced, pushing their tails completely out of the water as they do so.

 

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The tail pushes water up and releases it as the whale continues its diving motion. The water flowing off this whale’s tail was like a beautiful curtain of glass beads. Magnificient!


We were all in awe of this creature. They are not only the largest animal on the planet, but the largest animal to have ever lived. These whales can reach a length of 82 to 105 feet and weigh up to 200 tons.

Their tongues can weigh as much as an elephant and their hearts can weigh as much as an automobile. They are also the loudest animal of all. It is believed that their low-frequency sounds can travel hundreds of miles in deep water and are thought to image underwater features as they navigate long distances.

We saw the whale again, this time getting a closer up look at its two blowholes and its enormous back. And it fluked again! This time the tail had more of a waterfall effect. The whales’ massive size makes their movements seem like slow-motion.

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We saw the blow from another whale and the captain got us closer. This was a different angle that allowed us to appreciate the length of the whale.

Next we watched as a boat approached us. A portion of the fees to the tour companies is for access to the national park. The rangers come around to check that everyone is wearing the bracelet that proves they paid the entry fee. This particular boat had the director on board and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

He told us there were six males and three females in the area at this time. He also showed us a map of th protected area and said that they have a staff of seven plus a few volunteers monitoring the entire area – small but mighty.

And he suggested to the captain that he should turn off his motor so we could better appreciate the sound of the blows. Often you hear the deep and powerful whoosh of their blow before you see them and you really get a sense of the giant volume of their breath.

We continued our search and found several whales, we think in all we saw about four different whales, a couple of them more than once.

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We traveled quite a distance around the Sea of Cortez because once the whales submerge it can be a long time before you see them again. They also may travel a long way from the original area where they are spotted.

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We got closer looks at the face s and mouths of a couple of whales. At one point we were motoring along with a whale swimming along the surface on either side of us! They can really create massive bow wakes as they stick their heads out of the water.

It was so special to have these different viewpoints of different whales. The tops of their faces, their blowholes, their immense thick backs, their tiny dorsal fins and their magnificent tails. The last one we saw was a little lighter and was referred to as the light blue one by the boat captains. We never imagined we would have so many sightings.

Then it was time to head back. I had mentioned to the captain that I was interested in seeing blue-footed boobies and on the way back he cruised to a small island where they sometimes congregate.

There were a lot of boobies on the island and most of them were brown footed boobies, but we found some blue footed ones. Yay!

A great ending to a memorable day. It took three attempts but we finally saw the spectacular blue whales.

Oh and we were greeted by one of the harbor mascots as we returned to the dock …

 

 

 

 

 

The Mischievous Whale

When we first visited Puerto Chale, we asked if it might be okay to park our RV and car in their dirt parking lot the night before our whale tour. They said yes, but the first time we went back we only drove our conspicuous car with the kayaks and bikes on top. This time we showed up on a quiet Sunday in our entire rig. That was the day before we “met” the mischievous whale.

We arrived in the late afternoon and Hector went to talk to the guys at the dock. Fortunately, he found Omar, whom we’d met previously and confirmed where we could park and not be in the way as the shoreline is busy with fishing boats. They also confirmed a tour for Monday morning.


Puerto Chale is a modest little fishing village. Although the road into town is in perfect shape, the town itself has all dirt roads. This is the first year that it is an “official” whale watching destination. In prior years this was a secret spot that folks in the know could get a ride out to see the whales with one of the fishermen.

There isn’t any real infrastructure. They’ve installed a pontoon dock for the people going on the whale tours. There are a couple of little open-air sheds and the patio of someone’s home nearby that serve food from limited menus. And a pit toilet that is just slightly larger than a Porta Potty with a permanent plastic enclosure.

We were told that this coming summer the government was going to build additional infrastructure to support the whale watching season next year.  I suspect Puerto Chale is in for some big changes.

Immediately upon our arrival a young boy named Brandon came up to ask Hector about the kayaks on our car. He seemed fascinated by our setup and Hector chatted with him for a little while. He had remembered us from when we were there a few weeks before.

We had not had lunch yet so we walked over to a little shed that’s by the water to get a bite. We bought a couple of cups of scallop cocktail, the local scallops that are really little, they were nice and fresh. The ladies there were super friendly, we’d forgotten our money in the RV, and they told us to just pay them later.

It was really windy and they only had a bench and a few outdoor chairs so we brought our cocktails inside to eat them. We had parked Island Time sideways to the shore with a nice view of the inlet.

We took a walk along the shoreline and I went back to the rig while Hector continued walking around and taking photos. Now Brandon was with two other boys.  I saw them following him around and making conversation. It was super cute. He told me he had asked the kids about school, and the older one, about high school age said he wasn’t in school because he had begun fishing.

A little while later I looked up and saw Brandon smiling at me from the front of the coach. I waved and he waved back. I went back to my writing, looked up and he was still looking at me and smiling. I told Hector “I think they want to see the inside of the coach”.

But I wanted to be cautious because some parents might not like their kids walking into a stranger’s RV. So I opened the door and told them they could peek inside but left the door open. Brandon, the most precocious of the kids, told us he thought the motorhome was really “clean”. This is a slang term that was new to us, lol. We found out that the other kids were Armando and Jose, the oldest one. They stayed on our steps a while and we chatted some more. Three very nice boys.

After they left, I watched Brandon riding his bicycle while the others walked alongside him. There is no cell signal here, and it doesn’t seem like they do much social media. The scene reminded me of simpler times.

That evening Hector was getting ready to make steaks on the barbecue. But I’d seen several stray and loose dogs walking around and I told him barbecuing might bring a whole group of them. So he opted to cook inside and we watched a beautiful sunset from the RV.

In the morning, we set out with Omar. It was Monday morning and we were the only ones in the only boat. Right as we pulled out we cruised by a huge group of marbled godwits on shore. It was a beautiful sight with the soft early morning light.

As we continued, we saw many blows all around. There were lots of whales! But Omar suggested we cruise to another area to see some birds first. The tide was due to change in a short while and he said that the whales would be more active at that time.

We learned some other facts from Omar. The lagoon we were in was actually Bahia Almejas (Clam Lagoon) which is on the Southern end of and adjacent to Bahia Magdalena. The fishermen we’d seen were going clamming.

They also dive for scallops. He took us closer to Isla Catarina across from Puerto Chale to a spot where lots of pelicans, cormorants and other birds gather. It turns out he has been out on this water for 20+ years, fishing and leading whale watching tours. A very, very knowledgeable captain.

As we continued cruising around the lagoon, we spotted lots of whales. This time around they were not approaching the boat. But they were very active skyhopping all around us.

We spotted some babies, and one baby was skyhopping alongside its mother. Super cute.

Even though they weren’t coming near our boat, we were quite entertained watching all the whale activity. It wasn’t the prettiest day, but it was so peaceful to be surrounded by whales and have the place all to ourselves.

One whale breached right next to our boat, the closest we’ve seen a whale breach in all of our whale watching tours.

Finally, one whale started to approach us. Swimming near us for a while but not coming up to us.  Finally, she swam towards the boat. I was hoping that she would raise her head by the boat but she didn’t.

Instead, she turned around and quickly swished her tail back and forth then slapped her tail in the water right next to the boat, drenching us both as well as Hector’s cameras.

Fortunately, our GoPro was in the water and captured the moment. At this point we only have a still of when the tail went back in the water with the wave it caused just above but may be able to upload a video later.


Omar then told us that this particular whale is “traviesa” (mischievous) and has done things like pushing the boat sideways before. Wow! The mischievous whale is apparently well known. It was super interesting to find that the whales have different personalities.

Every wildlife encounter is different and that’s part of what we love.

 

 

Land’s End

We planned a day car trip to Cabo San Lucas from our campsite in La Paz. Touristy and congested, we really weren’t that interested in Cabo but the main event was a boat ride to see Lands’ End, the very tip of the Baja Peninsula.

A fitting capstone to our trip down the length of Baja.

It is a couple of hours from La Paz to Cabo, with little surfer hangouts like El Pescadero. This town has grown much just as many others in this area. It’s really is popular with beginning surfers and is apparently one of the few places in the West Cape that’s good for swimming.

We arrived in Cabo San Lucas to lots of traffic. Spring breakers were in town, though since it was morning, not many were around. We headed to the marina where a guy immediately approached us asking if we wanted a boat ride. After discussing the rate, he said we’d have to wait about 40 minutes and if no one else showed up, we’d have the boat to ourselves.

When we thanked him and started walking away, he came after us and said one of the boats was leaving immediately and we could have it to ourselves for the same rate. Off we went.

As we headed out a “pirate ship” was headed back in. There is lots of boat traffic here as everyone wants to see the spectacular rock formations and of course, Land’s End.

It is a very short ride out to the amazing rock

 

The boat tours go by the pretty but small Lover’s Beach which straddles the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The Pacific side which is too rough for swimming is referred to as Divorce Beach. Divorce Beach is much larger than Lover’s Beach because well, you know.

They will drop you off and pick you back up on a later boat ride if you’d like but we chose not to stop.

It really is a stunning place, and I couldn’t help but think how sweet it would be to visit in a quieter time if there is one.

El Arco, the famous arch, also called La Finisterra for Land’s End is beautiful as we expected. The tour takes you out around the point into the Pacific side so you can see it from both sides.

The boats all make space for each other and take turns in front of it so that the guides can take a photo without other boats in the background. A neat bit of choreography as it is really packed out there with boats of all shapes and sizes.

What we didn’t expect was to find out that this was not in fact the tip of the Peninsula. Our captain, Ivan, a charming guy, told us that the real end of Baja is a jagged lonely rock. The rock had a seal sleeping on top who refused to be bothered by all of the boaters.

As we headed back, we picked up a few guys from Lover’s Beach. This angle gave us a good view of what’s referred to as “the Corridor”, the area between Cabo San Lucas and the town of San Jose del Cabo. On the Sea of Cortez side, this area has the most beautiful beaches and lots of super expensive resorts.

Once back in the marina, we noticed many huge yachts, party boats and other vessels including some pretty unique ones like two story floating disco platforms and such.

We took a brief walk along the tourist shops, selling lots of wares. Some funny juxtapositions like a T-shirt with a picture of Heisenberg from “Breaking Bad” alongside a T-shirt with a picture of the famous Mexican actor and comedian Cantinflas.

Lots of restaurants and bars with guys asking you to join them. This place was just too crowded for us. Clearly a place set up for massive partying.

We headed east past the corridor towards San Jose del Cabo for lunch. A quick stop just to see it. It has a very pretty colonial square with a big church and more shops. It felt more like a real community but was expensive and full of Americans and Canadians.

Headed back to La Paz we made a very brief stop in Todos Santos. This is another “Pueblo Magico” with a pretty colonial plaza. It’s become an artists’ colony popular with, you guessed it, Americans and Canadians.

It was pretty quiet although it was a Saturday and one of the shops had an “end of season” sale indicating that snowbirds were now heading back home.

We stopped in at the Teatro Marquez de Leon, a historical structure that represents the cultural heritage of the town and is one of the reasons it was designated a “Pueblo Magico”.

One shop we stopped at had gorgeous handmade items including furniture, textiles, sculptures, jewelry and more. They feature a beautiful garden in the back named the “Jardin del Amor”.

There was a wedding in the church and we peeked in along with some other tourists. A lovely church with beautiful stained glass and lots of light.

Our last stop was at the Hotel California (we were looking for a bathroom) and found some of the most creative bathroom gender designations that we’ve seen.

It’s quite a lovely hotel with beautiful crystal chandeliers, although it has no connection to nor was it the inspiration for the Eagles song. But they still play various versions of the namesake song amongst a variety of rock songs.

Then it was back to La Paz and more adventures on our way back north.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Biggest Fish in the World

This was one of the many boat tours we were looking forward to. We love the water and marine life! And whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, so we could not possibly pass up a chance to snorkel with them.

Juvenile whale sharks come to the La Paz bay to feed between the months of October and April. They are filter feeders and feed on plankton and very small fish.

La Paz Bay has designated an area that is protected by Conanp, Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas).

When we booked the reservation the tour company informed us that the tour might start at nine, eleven or later depending upon the allocation of boats. Only a certain number of boats are allowed entrance to the protected area at one time and for only an allotted period of time.

The tour companies are notified of which time slot they have been allocated in the morning. The boats have GPS devices that track their speed as well as their course. If they go beyond the speed limit, enter an area they are not supposed to enter, or stay beyond their allotted time they are fined.

We met at the tour companies’ office and found out that we had the 9a.m. slot. Excellent! Angel, our tour guide, gave us an orientation. The whale sharks in this area average about six meters (about 20 feet) in length. Adults, who are out in the open ocean can grow to 18 meters (59 feet)! Yikes.

There is a whale shark painting on the ground where he demonstrated how far we should stay from the fish – one meter (3+feet) from the front and three meters (about 10 feet) from the tail.

Of course, the fish don’t know this.

Angel mentioned during the briefing that some of the whale sharks are swimming slowly while feeding and others are swimming quite fast. We thought nothing of it at the time.

We walked the block or so to the dock and boarded our boat. After just a little while we spotted a whale shark, but when the captain and guide checked our location, we were not quite in the area where snorkeling was allowed so we continued cruising.

Once we entered the designated area, we all watched for a whale shark. Many times their fins are visible over the water like any other shark. Once the guide spotted one and determined its direction, the captain picked a course to intercept the fish from a distance.

What was surprising was that the guide then told everyone to sit on the edge of the boat and be prepared to jump in when he said “go”. Once we were in the water he yelled “face in the water” right when the fish was near. Ideally, we would then turn in the correct direction to swim alongside the fish. Not exactly the idyllic vision of lazily snorkeling with them!

I completely missed the first fish. He was a really fast one. I watched as the other two people in our boat, Karen and Dave swam away and wasn’t quite sure where Hector was. It was all a bit disorienting. Karen, a competitive swimmer, agreed that the whale shark was really fast, she even had a hard time keeping up.

We did this several times. It was all so fast that Hector and I disagree on the number of times we jumped out. I may have sat one out.

One of the times when Hector jumped in he looked up and the fish was coming right at him. We’d also been told that they don’t see well right in front because their eyes are on their sides. Hector had a slight panic moment when he wasn’t sure which way to go. Somehow, he figured it out. But because he had the GoPro he got some great shots!

Including one of the way too close tail wizzing right by him. Luckily he didn’t get swatted in spite of being on the wrong side of the 3 meter suggestion!

While all of this was going on, the captain quickly moved the boat out of the way of the whale shark (and us) and waited for us at an appropriate location. Once the fish swam away we swam back to the boat. Then we all climbed in and took our position on the side awaiting our next chance.

I started to worry that I would not be able to keep up with any of the whale sharks. The captain recommended to the guide that he have us enter one couple at a time. We took turns.

One couple went in first, came back and the guide yelled at us “go!” once again. More jumping in and paddling like crazy to keep up. I finally saw one.

The last whale shark was moving just a bit slower and all four of us were able to swim with him for a little while. I was holding up the rear pretty close to the tail but it was great fun. They are beautiful fish!

The guide later told us that he thought the last whale shark was about 7-8 meters long (about 24 feet)! Wow!

We were all ecstatic! What a rush!

 

 

 

The Frolicking Whales of Bahia Magdalena

There are three lagoons in Baja where gray whales converge to mate and deliver their babies. The southernmost lagoon, Bahía Magdalena, has two well-known ports that tourists can access. But we learned about a third port from someone we met along the way. Puerto Chale, where we would later find the frolicking whales of Bahia Magdalena.

But first we had to once again cross the peninsula to the Pacific side.  We left beautiful Loreto on a moody day and stopped at a waterfront shack for yet another great meal (clams!) with a killer view.  Then we climbed the very steep and winding Sierra La Giganta.

Next we devoted one day to an exploratory outing to each of the three ports to check them all out. That also allowed us to enjoy the scenery on the way to each port, since we were in no hurry to get there at a particular time.

The northernmost port is Puerto Lopez Mateos. It’s a well-oiled machine with a well built dock, viewing platform and other infrastructure to support tourism. The four tour companies each have an office on the dock (all next to each other) and many large pangas. There is also space for RVers in their huge parking area. Nice.

The middle port, Puerto San Carlos, is a large town that has a cannery and facilities to export farm products of the Magdalena plain. Some hotels in town book whale tours as do a couple of other companies around town. But it is clearly not their main focus. We did enjoy a very beautiful sunset there though.

Puerto Chale is the southernmost port and the least known. Although they’ve been taking people out informally on the lagoon for years they had never had marketing support from the government until now.

This is their “official” first season as a whale-watching tour base. The beautiful new road leading to the town may well be part of this support.

As we reached the town, the paved road ended. The entire town is on dirt roads. It’s a humble looking town that has subsisted mostly on fishing. Now the community is focused on whale-watching tours in the winter. There is no infrastructure whatsoever just a big dirt lot with a little shack and many pangas.

There was a group of people lined up for the pangas on the Sunday we went there, and it seemed the entire local police force (three officers) was out there watching and enjoying the activity. Their rates are currently cheaper than all of the others, but we don’t know how long that will last.

Puerto Chale won our hearts. Along with the fact that it was a much quieter place, we liked the idea of supporting this small community. We headed out there on Monday morning only to find that we were the only tourists there. We could charter a private boat for a tiny bit more than we’d pay at the other places to share with four others.

But we waited a while just in case someone else showed up. And in a little while three Canadian tourists arrived.

Off we went with our party of five and our captain in his little panga. In about ten minutes we started to see whales.

Lots and lots of whales.And many of them were spy-hopping, one of several surfacing behaviors. The whales rise and hold a vertical position often exposing their entire heads, thus “spying” on what’s happening above water.

They often do this to look for boats which they then can approach but can also do it to look for prey. They are able to hold this position for minutes, and many of them were. Sometimes we could see various whales spy hopping at the same time.

There were lots and lots of spouts both near and far. This area of the lagoon was full of whales. Although we were surrounded by whales, they did not come right up us yet. Instead they “teased” us by swimming over then going under the boat. Still super fun.

Baby whale!

You can spot the babies because unlike the adults often covered with barnacles and other skin blemishes their skin is black and smooth. As the babies get older the moms will actually push them to the boats to be petted as well.  We haven’t been so fortunate as that yet but hope springs eternal!

We cruised along several parts of the lagoon and saw so many whales spy-hopping and a few actually jumping out of the water. We didn’t know which way to look. It was like a whale party!

Then our captain informed us that only ten minutes were left on our 2 hour tour. We weren’t ready to go, so I asked the others if they’d consider extending one more hour. We made an offer to our captain and he happily accepted.

That last hour was fabulous. We had close encounters with a several whales. One of them turned over so we could scratch its belly! It was truly special to interact with these beautiful creatures.

We found out from our captain that certain whales are more “amistosas” (friendly) and the captains recognize them by their markings. Wow!

We all “petted” whales. Even the captain got in on the petting action. It was overwhelming.

The five of us happy whale petters cruised back to the dock and the others headed back to La Paz while Hector and I decided to stay and have lunch.

There are two restaurants one of which our captain said was all seafood. It is run from the front porch of a family’s house. As we approached a young woman and two of her daughters were sitting at one of the tables making jewelry.

We asked if it was open and she stood up and pointed to a handwritten sign with the four dishes they offered, three preparations of fish and one cocktail.

We ordered a cocktail and one of the fish dishes that we had not heard of before, sarandeado (all were one kilo or 2.2 pounds). After a little while the woman served our cocktail (awesome) and came out of the house with a large knife. We watched her walk out to the dock across the way and Hector decided to follow.

She had picked out a fish from a live well and by the time Hector arrived she’d “butterflied” it into three sections. Hector, who is the cook, was fascinated.

She folded it back together, took it back to the kitchen and laid it out flat again to grill. After topping it with some sauce and vegetables, she brought it to us. A little while later one of her daughters asked if we wanted rice. We said yes and she brought some out. Simple yummy lunch.

The ladies went back to their jewelry making. They were threading and hooking lots of little shells. I asked the woman for the price of a pair of earrings and she turned to the older daughter. The daughter thought a bit and gave me a price.

When we finished the woman again asked her daughter to tally up our lunch costs for the cocktail, one beer and the fish. These were teaching moments for the daughter.

Puerto Chale was such a great experience that we decided we will return on our way north in several weeks. Perhaps a whale baby experience we hope.

The captain and a couple of the guys told us we could park the RV in their parking lot overnight, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Sea of Cortez

Heading back to the Sea of Cortez, we are awestruck every time we get a glimpse of its beautiful turquoise waters during our drive.

The sea’s glittering waters hide behind mountains for a bit and then captivate us again and again.

We drove to the lovely Playa Santispac, one of the first coves you come to as you head south in Bahia Concepción. Check out our review of the campground here.

Our campsite was by one of the palapas right on the beach. Hammocks set up, kayaks sitting at the shore, a dream scene.

Our plan had been to stay a few nights and hopscotch to a couple of other beaches that also allow camping, but we scouted them and decided we liked this one best and wound up staying.

The empanada lady and her dutiful husband

Vendors came by selling homemade empanadas, tamales, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, fresh fish for cooking, fresh produce and more. They even bring water to fill tanks. What could be better!

Well, there were also two little beach shack restaurants, one with rural wifi that actually worked at times and the other with live music some nights.