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!

 

 

 

 

 

Loreto and the Start of the Camino Real

After yet another beautiful drive along the shores of Bahia Concepcion and across more beautiful desert scenery, we reached lovely Loreto and the start of the Camino Real. Loreto is one of the Mexican towns that has been designated as a Pueblo Mágico.

Pueblos Mágicos offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art, crafts and great hospitality.

Set alongside the stunning Sea of Cortez, Loreto has much going for it. A beautiful plaza where the first mission in Baja California was founded. Other lovely colonial structures. Lots of fine restaurants and shops.

There are beautiful lanes with trees manicured into archways. In fact, this town was the capital of the Californias (Baja and Alta) from 1697 to 1777.

Our first visit was to the mission church, Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó, founded as a simple structure in 1697. This was the first mission in California.

 

The stone structure that stands today was built from stone and mortar in 1740. Its bells resonate through the town every hour. It was also the first of what would be an astonishing collection of missions along the second Camino Real (the first went from Mexico City to Santa Fe) that extended beyond San Francisco in present day California.

 

Next to the church is the Museo de los Misiones, with many beautiful artifacts depicting the history of the mission, the town, and the missionary efforts across the Californias. It was beautifully presented with excellent interpretive panels, the nicest museum that we’ve visited in Baja.

The community’s pride in the town was evident as we drove around and saw people constantly painting and repairing structures and cleaning the streets.

During our visit, there was a small farmers market in the morning where we bought quite a lot of produce for almost nothing.

And there was an arts and crafts fair in the evening with live music and performers.

That night we enjoyed walking along the beautiful malecón, with its many pangas ready to take tourists out on the water.

We enjoyed watching an interesting phenomenon the locals call the picazón both from our campground and along the malecón. When the sardines are running, pelicans are drawn to the area for feeding.


We’ve never seen so many pelicans, and they all are participating in a feeding frenzy. It was crazy.

We also had the finest meals to date in Baja. One was in a lovely restaurant called Mi Loreto, right by the plaza where we had a fabulous mushroom ceviche.

To our surprise we were asked if we had reservations when we arrived.  Since we didn’t we were turned away as they were full for the night!  And moments later there was a last minute cancellation.  Lucky for us!

There is a Uruguayan place in town called Mezzaluna where we were treated to a lovely performance by an Argentinean traveler and musician, Martin Bevacua.  A charming fellow with a beautiful voice.

At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed some awesome tacos at the famous “El Rey del Taco”. Cheap and fun!

Another great meal was in an enterprising restaurant just outside of town that adopted the name La Picazón as it is on the water in full view of the pelicans. We headed out there on a long bumpy road to what we thought was a casual little place only to find a beautiful restaurant, off grid, but with delicious gourmet dishes including octopus in a tequila reduction.

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That same evening as an extra treat we watched the beautiful full super moon come up over the water.

We stayed pretty close to the center of town at Loreto Shores RV park, steps from the Sea of Cortez. An urban park with pretty tight spaces, it did have an amazing view. Check out our review of the park here.

We’d planned to paddle a couple of times, but one day we’d planned to I woke up feeling under the weather (I felt better later) and another day weather did not cooperate. The famous north winds blew most of the time we were there.

On the last day we were determined to get out on the water and there was a brief period of calm so we did take our kayaks out but the wind kicked up shortly thereafter. But we did see some dolphins and as we returned to our campground were treated to the pelicans and their amazing feeding frenzy once more.

Loreto is magical indeed.

 

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.

But the best part is the beautiful bay. Although also susceptible to high winds in winter, we were fortunate once again to have calm winds and seas on multiple days.

A big difference between Bahia Concepción and Bahia de los Angeles is that there are multiple islands much closer to shore, only one or two miles away.

And there are others further out as well. Many more accessible places to explore and we did.

Playa Santispac also has an estuary behind the south side of the beach that can be accessed easily during high tide, or by portaging across a sandbar during low tide. One day we paddled over to the estuary.

There was tons of birdlife back there, including blue heron, yellow-crowned night heron, white ibis, reddish egrets as well as lots of duckies (we’re terrible at identifying ducks). The mangroves always make me think of the Everglades, a national park that I love.


On another day of paddling, we crossed over to a little island just across from our beach where there were lots and lots of osprey, pelicans and gulls.


While Hector was taking photographs, I turned the corner heading across to the opposite edge of our beach and heard water splashing next to me – a dolphin! Then another and another.

I tried to paddle to them but they were moving pretty fast. They were jumping out of the water, sometimes even showing their tails as they submerged. So I just stopped and watched for awhile. Dolphins make me happy. Not many photos as Hector was not close enough, but the memory will remain.

Every morning we were greeted with a different light show as the colors changed and the light returned.  The still water reflecting the light.

On other paddling days we visited some more nearby islands. The marine  and bird life were wonderful.

One day Hector spotted a huge sea lion, obviously a male, who raised his head out of the water briefly and swam away. But we were able to see his body arching down into the water and he was like a little whale.

Another nearby feature was a reef that when not submerged was teeming with pelicans, cormorants and other birds. We paddled softly pretty close to them but they didn’t seem bothered at all. Very cool.


Back on another island, we saw lots of little fish in the water and small sting rays.  I love seeing them with their undulating “wings”, they look like they’re flying instead of swimming. The waters around that island also had many pretty sea stars scattered about.

The day of our last paddle was glorious! It was Valentine’s Day and the sea was calm and soft. Hector drew a Valentine’s card in the sand.

So we paddled lazily further out and for a much longer time, taking in all of the beauty of the sea and the life within it. Usually the breeze kicks up mid day but not today.  The water was like glass until well after noon.

We wound up visiting all four islands that day, while Hector attempted to get to a fifth but it was further than it looked. Distances on the water can be really hard to judge. So he bailed out and met me by a pretty little beach on one of the islets.

Hector hoped that by heading out further into the bay that we would see more wildlife. As we were heading back we looked over and saw a pod of dolphins with a motor boat nearby watching them along with some paddle boarders.

The dolphins were swimming in my direction and I followed them when they swam past me. They swam around me for a bit, then Hector joined me and they swam off.

Hector paddled after them this time and I tried to photograph but they got too far too fast. He was able to get up close to them and they swam all around his kayak.

After our spectacular paddle, we had a wonderful lunch of shrimp ceviche and shrimp cocktail. Then it was hammock time in our palapa!

That evening Hector prepared a marvelous dinner of steak, lobster and hash browns. He set up a table on the beach in front of our palapa with some borrowed candles from our neighbors who were spending Valentine’s at a nearby hotel. It was a lovely and romantic dinner.

A wonderful ending to our time at Bahia Concepción!

 

 

 

The Black Warrior

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.