Mexican Whale-Watching Roadtrip
March 2016 was an amazing time to be in Baja California, Mexico. After spending a week biking and scuba diving in San Diego, California, I walked across the border into Tijuana, Mexico. Though it only takes 5 minutes to cross into Mexico, anticipate spending several hours in line to cross back into the US. I've done this several times and found that Saturday evenings around midnight (few people crossing for work and the college kids are still drinking in Tijuana bars) is probably the slowest time - I crossed in 5 minutes!
Two Mexican friends, one a holistic energy worker from Rosarito and another an architect from Tijuana, joined me and we headed to Rancho San Carlos, about an hour off the main highway in Ensenada. This rustic hot springs "resort" and campsite was hidden in the forest and is most easily accessed by truck. I witnessed a couple small cars navigating through water that nearly covered the tires and would surely reach the trunk after a rainfall. This hidden paradise would have been the perfect place to spend the night, staring up at millions of stars from the candle-lit bubbling turquoise thermal waters. Though we were tempted to camp here, we had a 10 hour drive ahead of us to the whale sanctuary in Guerrero Negro, a UNESCO world heritage site. The bumps, potholes, sharp turns, and frequently unannounced speed bumps along the peninsula's only main road, Route 1, extended our drive to 13 hours. Surprisingly, very few drivers turned down their high beams, including large tractor trailers who presumably would know better.
As we crossed the 28th parallel at the border of Baja California Sur, ushering in a new ecosystem at the same level as the Mediterranean, we arrived in Guerrero Negro. A small, unlit, barely visible wooden sign decorated with a hand-painted whale marked the entrance to the national park and whale watching camp site. Ojo de Liebre (Eye of the Hare) Lake, where the whales spend their winters and spawn, sits within the grounds of the world’s largest salt mine. We set up our tent under the large palapa, a sheltered structure made of wood and palms, and listened to the waves crash up against the shore.
The next morning, strong winds cancelled the whale watching trips so we explored a small portion of the 6,000,000 acres of the protected biosphere reserve. The narrow, unmarked maze of dirt roads were covered in a film of foamy salt that the wind had carried up from the surrounding waters. Balls of foam formed, some the size of a steering wheel, and blew across the elevated dirt trails like tumbleweeds. The air was fresh and crisp. Pelicans, cranes, sea gulls, and desert eagles filled the skies while hundreds of ducks swam in the surrounding waters. Ixchel gingerly stepped through the soft, dry mud toward a large turtle, sank down a foot into the mud and fell over.
We woke up early the next day, intending to catch the 8am whale tour but were incorrectly informed that the tours were cancelled due to the wind. We waited several hours for another tour but the wind was too strong so we headed two hours south to San Ignacio, part of the same national reserve, to try our luck there. We arrived an hour after the last boat had left so we decided to backtrack an hour north to visit the Pinturas Rupestres, ancient cave paintings in the mountains that run along the center of the Baja peninsula. Sirios, the tall thin variety of cactus most commonly depicted in desert landscapes, towered above us, some measuring at least 10 meters. In some areas, the dry desert landscape was dotted with palm trees, signaling a source of water in the mountains. Heards of goats blocked the narrow mountain road as we approached the tiny village of San Francisco, home to one school, one church, and 100 villagers.
The cave paintings, nearly visible from the main road, sat behind a locked gate. Several townspeople directed us to the “oficina” where we could secure a guide to open the gate for us. We drove in circles on unmarked dirt roads through the tiny village, passing herds of goats, children playing with chickens and receiving lessons on how to lasso a cow. The townspeople seemed surprised that we couldn’t find the office, which would eventually turn out to be an unmarked front room in an elderly couple’s home. Our elderly guide, Bartolo, took us to see the most popular paintings and explained that the rest of the cave paintings in the region were only visible by a burro-assisted multi-day camping trip. Bartolo invited us to camp in town for free but nervous that we’d get lost in the morning and miss another whale tour, we said goodbye and made the 90 minute drive to San Ignacio. We then spent another 90 minutes roaming through unmarked roads in the salty desert finding the camp site.
The next morning was a bit breezy and we worried it may cancel whale watching again but the wind cooled down by the time we had ridden the boat about 30 minutes out to sea. During the ride we saw pelicans, hundreds of ducks, cranes, dolphins, and finally, a small pack of gray whales swimming toward us. Three mothers and their three babies surrounded the boat, swimming directly up to the passengers who called to the whales and left their arms dangling into the water. The whales brushed their backs underneath our hands, blew water into our faces, and even allowed Roy, a retired Canadian fire chief, to lean over and hug a baby’s gigantic face for at least 5 seconds. At one point, we had to move the boat because so many friendly whales approached us that our guide felt it could become dangerous. At the end of the tour, he told us that he had never seen so many whales so friendly. He said it was the best day he ever had out on the water and I have to agree.
As our architect embarked on a 16-hour drive back to Tijuana, Roy and his wife welcomed Ixchel and myself into their beautiful RV and gave us a ride down to Mulege, a small beach town on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). The tent Ixchel had packed turned out to have no poles in it so some friendly guys at the guard station lent us a lovely new tent that we thought other campers had left behind. When we left two days later, we would learn that this was the tent they normally sleep in so they spent the previous two nights sleeping on the office porch with no protection. Oops! We spent our time lying on the beach, swimming, and snorkeling in search of whale sharks that never materialized. When we were ready to head to Loreto a couple hours south, another retired Canadian couple gave us a ride. We learned on this trip that retired Canadians run the Baja Peninsula and their yearly RV trips down the coast keeps the tourism industry alive.
We checked out the campsite in Loreto, surprisingly located a short walk from the center of town. It was a lovely site and we ran into a caravan of two dozen Canadians we had met in Mulege, but all the campsites were teeming with ants. Unsure what to do, we headed to the scuba shop so I could register to complete final two dives the following morning to achieve my open water diving certification. Before we let the shop, the wife of one of the shop owners had invited us to spend the night at her place, as her husband and daughter were out of town. She took us to pick up our bags from the campsite, dropped us off downtown to enjoy the nightlife, then picked us back up and took us home at night. This incredible generosity is uncommon in the United States but I am blessed to have encountered it many times in my travels, particularly through Latin America.
Bright and early at 7am, our host dropped us off at the dive shop where I would go on to swim with a dozen sea lions and see hundreds of manta rays swim under our boat. In the distance, a blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, blew water through its blowhole then stuck its tail out of the water before returning below water. Ixchel tried to catch a ride to see the blue whales with fishermen but as it was heavy tourism season (the week we visited was both Holy Week AND Spring Break), they and the proper tour groups were charging exorbitant rates. After my dive, we enjoyed some tacos and easily hitched a ride to a gas station on the main highway. After an hour outside the gas station, several people had stopped to tell us they could not take us but wished us luck. A truck with two men, quite possibly friendly and harmless, offered us a ride but we declined for safety reasons. Shortly after, a young couple on vacation from Puebla, Mexico, picked us up and drove us several hours to La Paz. We even wound up staying at the same hotel as them! The following morning, I only had a couple hours to walk through town and admire the beautiful boardwalk (no beach!) of La Paz before catching a flight to Mexico City, very likely my favorite city in the world.