Isla Coronados – Fog and Dolphins!

After an interesting time at Bahia Salinas, we rounded the top of Isla Carmen and headed over to Isla Coronados, where we had been earlier in the season.  With warmer weather and some southerly breezes, the time was right to anchor on the northwest side and hang out on the white sand beach.  It was much busier with pangas bringing day trippers over from Loreto, but we had it pretty much to ourselves in the evenings.  We spent a couple of days beach lounging, soaking up the sun and wading into the aqua water.

We awoke on the morning we knew we would have to move to the other side because of shifting wind to find ourselves socked in with good old northwest style fog!  What a shock.  We hadn’t known this might happen here (but later reviewed the paragraph in the guide that mentions it as a spring and summer phenomena).  The volcano was shrouded in fog, and at times it was so dense we couldn’t see the other boat in the anchorage.  The quintessential northwest sound of foghorns seems to be missing in Mexico.   

This was late in the morning after much had burned off but still shrouded the volcano.

As it started to lift, we pulled up anchor to head around to the other side of the island.  As we rounded the turn, a pod of dolphins headed right for us.  They were very big dolphins, and they seemed to be having a fabulous time, leaping and diving.  We clapped and yelled for them, and this seemed to make them jump even more – right next to the boat!    I was lucky to get a few shots off – they were so close I wasn’t sure it was going to work with my telephoto lens, but I positioned myself as best I could and managed some lucky shots.  

On his way up.
On his way down.
You can see how close they were!

Isla Carmen – East Side

After departing Puerto Escondido in early April we embarked on a circumnavigation of Isla Carmen, a large island with a number of anchorages. Earlier in the season we had spent a number of days in Puerta Ballandra on the west side of the island, mainly sitting through a long norther. This time we were going to explore some anchorages on the east side of the island.

Punta Colorada

We started out at Punta Colorada, an open anchorage just around the southern tip of the island, mainly providing protection from north winds and swell. Our first night we were alone save for a sighting of a lone bighorn sheep on shore at dusk. For the first time this season, the water seemed warm enough to snorkel in, and we were thrilled to be able to suit up in our wetsuits, hoods and fins and snorkels and check out a couple of the rocky areas near shore. When I say warm enough, that’s by Pacific Northwest standards. It was still in the upper 60s but getting very close to 70.

That’s me getting some swimming exercise. It’s easier to breath swimming with a snorkel! And no comments on my form please :).

The first day we snorkeled we were somewhat disappointed with murky water, turbulent waves and a handful of fish. The second day had clear water and a better number and variety of tropical fish – including some of my favorites which are neon yellow and have purple tails – some brown urchins and a few sea stars. No underwater camera, so no pics. There was a lot of dead and bleached coral.

What appears to be a derelict refrigerator.

We walked on shore and saw what looks like an abandoned refrigerator that we joked that the hunters – who are here periodically to shoot bighorn sheep when they get too prolific – can store their beer. They just need to plug it in.

Looking over the rock flows to the anchorage – our friend’s boat in the foreground.
Seemed like optimal conditions for sea life in these tidepools, but we had to look hard for it.
There are some small black spiny urchins and some sponges (we think) in this tide pool.
This was a hermit crab nursery – while we watched all these little shells moved all over the place.
Very cool patterns in this old lava rock.

Bahía Salinas

After a pleasant time at Punta Colorada we made our way about 10 miles north. This bay has natural salt flats which were first discovered by Jesuit Missionaries in 1698 and then operated more or less continually until the early 1980s when a salt mining operation started in Guerro Negro on the West Coast of Baja.  The convenience of that operation – no long trip up into the Sea – effectively put the Salinas salt operation out of business.  Some of the workers lived here in the small village, and apparently they were given short notice about the closing of the plant and had to leave in a hurry, but the last boat helping to remove their belongings wrecked on the beach.

The little village with the hunting lodge (the low white building) in the middle.
Looking past the hunting lodge and a rusted piece of equipment to the boats.

Isla Carmen has bighorn sheep and no natural predators. A hunting lodge was built here sometime after the salt plant closed. While we were here no hunting was happening, fortunately!

Wreck on the beach and the remains of the pier and the village in the background.

We dingied to shore with the intention to explore the salt ponds and the village. We had heard from another boater that no one approached them the previous day, but as we were walking toward the village, a young man with a topknot and wearing a face mask, the caretaker presumably, came out to inform us which area we could walk on – the path to the salt ponds and to the church, and the beach. The rest of the land is private.

The village church with the salt ponds in the background.
One of the evaporating salt ponds.
The salt up close, looks just like dirty old snow to me.
One of the very old buildings – the walls were over a foot thick.
While it was hot outside, the thick walls meant the interior was nice and cool.
The office.

After our tour of the salt ponds, we walked the length of the long white beach and back. At the south end there is an entrance to a wide hiking trail. Ironically, an old faded Semarnat sign (Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources) says that hunting is prohibited.

Found outside the cluster of old homes.
Resilient cacti sprout anywhere.

As I write this, it is April 16th. We are departing today from a two day stay at Puerto Escondido and are starting to head slowly south back toward La Paz. Our intent is to soak up the hot weather and warming water with as much swimming and snorkeling and beach lounging as we can before we arrive back in La Paz around May 2nd.

Scenes of Loreto

On our way down from San Juanico to Puerto Escondido for whale watching, we passed some beautiful striated cliffs. These were just north of another anchorage called Punta Mangles. It was notable for the hulks of abandoned hotel construction on its shores.

On this return visit to Puerto Escondido, at the end of March a month after our first time there, it was obvious spring had come and birds were migrating through. There was also quite a bit more boater activity, probably partly because this was the Semana Santa week – Holy Week, to celebrate Easter, and the biggest vacation week of the years for Mexicans.

I had a good time finding a number of birds in the scrublands around the marina and getting some good shots of them. I did not manage to get any of the rufus hummingbirds which migrate across the Sea of Cortez in one shot on their way north to the US and Canada, but they were definitely around!

Larry did not believe me that this is an oriole, but his frame of reference might have been the Baltimore Orioles mascot.
This little one is drinking from the irrigation tube for a palm tree – they do have to irrigate them to keep them beautiful.
These are a southern version of a cardinal, called Pyrrhuloxia, identified thanks to my Mom!
This half of a pair of finches were spending a lot of time in the mast of the neighboring catamaran and had beautiful and noisy songs.
This one also had a good song, which is how I found him somewhat hidden in a bush.

Since we had the car, we made a trip into Loreto to check out the malecon and the waterfront and to get more tacos. We happened to choose a day when the winds were blowing a steady 20 + knots, which you can see in the palm trees!

This is the beach right in front of town, with the extinct volcano of Isla Coronados in the distance.
This whale statue is at the base of a pier extending out to create the small harbor.
Looking back toward the harbor from a second breakwater.

Return to Baja and Whale Watching

We decided to head from San Carlos directly back to San Juanico on the Baja side of the Sea, and left at first light.  Conditions for the 100 mile crossing could not have been better – flat calm seas and light, variable winds.  The crossing was uneventful and the wind gradually picked up to about 15 knots in the afternoon, coming from the SE.  Given that wind direction we decided to anchor in the South end of the San Juanico Bay.  When we arrived, however, the swell rolling into the bay was pretty substantial, and while we were getting some protection from the wind, we would have 2-3 ft of swell on the beam, not at all comfortable.  We turned around and headed back into the NW corner of the anchorage where we’d been before.  There were 3 sailboats but plenty of room.  In this corner, the swell was still coming from the SE, but so was the wind, so we were bow into it.  Much more comfortable.  Later in the evening as the wind died down so did the swell.  The next morning we headed down to the Puerto Escondido area hoping to anchor right across from the marina at a place called Honeymoon Cove.  There was another boat in the main anchorage, tour boats in the north lobe, and I couldn’t find a spot that I was happy with, so we went on into the marina a day earlier than expected.

The main goal for coming back to Puerto Escondido was to make a trip over to the Pacific side to go whale watching in Magdalena Bay, one of the protected bays that is a “whale nursery” during the winter months, from a (different) town also called San Carlos.  We rented a car and left the Marina at dawn for the long trek across the Baja Peninsula on MX Highway 1, the main road serving Baja.  It is a two lane highway and well maintained for the most part, but it is fairly narrow and there are no shoulders… hence the many roadside shines to people who have died in traffic accidents.  The cows that frequent the sides of the roads at all times of day likely also contribute to accidents.  Just S of Puerto Escondido, the road climbs steep canyons to get over the Sierra Gigante Mountains and then straightens out over a long, flat plain towards the West coast. 

The village of Magdalena Bay from the water. It seems to us to have a few more buildings, including the yurts on the left, than when we were here in 2019.

Speed limits on Mexican highways are pretty conservative, Mexican drivers are not.  In many places the speed limit was 60 kilometers per hour, and at most 80.  I think 80 is the limit for any two lane highway in Mexico.  We were passed by all manner of vehicles as I made a rare attempt of complying with the posted speed limits.  We turned off highway 1 around Ciudad Constitución for the highway to San Carlos.  Around 9am we finally arrived at the little hotel and office in dusty San Carlos and were taken directly to our waiting panga and Captain Juan.  As we pulled out of San Carlos, everything was starting to look familiar.  We stopped at Magdalena Bay with the CUBAR rally in 2019 and did a big dinghy excursion to tour one of the estuaries in the area.  Captain Juan took us back to the main part of Magdalena Bay off the same town that we anchored in front of in 2019.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and pretty mild, with flat calm seas.  First we went by a spit with lots of birds, which made Gwen happy. Soon we started to see spouts and headed towards them.  They were Grey Whales, traveling singly or in pairs.  All were adults.  We’d approach the whales slowly as they swam along the surface and eventually, they would sound, showing their tail as they dived down.  When that happened, we knew that it could be a half hour before they surfaced possibly nearby… or not.  Over the next couple of hours, the whales were pretty actively working their way back and forth along the bay, and we would slowly follow along.  The captains were respectful, never approaching from ahead, and maintaining a reasonable distance from the whales.  At lunchtime we went ashore for lunch at the same beachside restaurant we visited with CUBAR. 

The kids from the Pueblo setting up the boarding ladder after lunch.

The enterprising village kids dragged over a wooden platform to the bow of the panga to make it easy for us to get off.  Gwen gave them a propina of a couple of pesos which the boy, at least, viewed with some disdain (she later found more coins and offered more on our return to the panga).  The kids offered to sell us shells but we were more interested in the Pacificos and fresh fish offered for lunch. 

We did another hour or so of whale watching after lunch, finishing with a pretty close encounter in which a large whale surfaced very close to the panga, swam alongside for a few minutes, and then sounded.  After that we headed back to San Carlos, just as the afternoon winds were picking up.  The panga pulled into a beach landing, but instead of climbing out, Juan had us stay in as they pulled it up onto a trailer, and we traveled overland by panga back to the car. 

On the long drive back from San Carlos I paid less attention to the speed limit signs and maintained what was still a stately pace by Mexican standards.  Eventually a large fuel truck approached close behind as we were getting to the twisty part of the highway.  I thought that I would be able to stay comfortably in front of the truck given the tight turns and steep descents.  I was wrong.  Even maintaining a speed of 100 kph, the fuel truck was bearing down on me.  I was having visions of Mad Max and all going down into a canyon in a ball of flames.  Sure enough, the truck passed me, and I was happy to let it go to menace some other unsuspecting gringo driver.

The graveyard outside of Ciudad Concepción. This is a typical one.

While we enjoyed the day on the water and the opportunity to view these magnificent creatures up close, we decided that we’ve had enough of whale watching trips.  I have to admit that I got interested in doing the trip after hearing from friends and reading a blog post about close encounters with grey whales including mothers and calves that actually approached the boats and allowed the passengers to touch them.  We had no such experiences and honestly it seemed that the whales in Mag Bay barely tolerated the pangas, never approaching, and sounding after a few minutes.  So rather than “oh the whales will come right up to us”, it was really, “we will follow the whales until they tire of us and sound”.  Honestly, we’ve had many fantastic experiences viewing whales from our own boat – Orcas in the Salish Sea, humpbacks bubble feeding in Alaska, and Grey whales popping up all around us as we approached San Francisco, and we’ve seen humpbacks several times here in the Sea.

San Carlos Area

Beginning of our passage day.
Approaching San Carlos, with the distinctive Tetas de Cabra in the distance.

We arrived at San Carlos in the state of Sonora on the mainland after a very pleasant, calm passage from Punta Chivato. We found our slip in Marina San Carlos and went up to the office to check in.  By late that night, a cold front was moving through and it started blowing hard.  We saw upwards of 34 kts in our slip, which happens aligned perfectly with a gap between the protective hills around the bay. 

The dip between the hills allowed strong winds to blow right at us.
The two derelict boats seem to be permanent fixtures – they are attached to mooring balls. The floating dock is populated by birds and gave a distinctive odor to our moorage when the wind wasn’t blowing 25 knots.

The wind stayed fierce until the next afternoon.  That was fine because it was a chore day on the boat.  I changed the oil and filters on the main engine and Gwen took the laundry in to the hotel and arranged for a boat wash for the next day.  The next morning, it was calm and sunny.  We had the boat washer at work – she is from Guaymas, the industrial city about 10 miles away, daughter of the captain of a shrimp boat and an incredibly efficient and hard worker.  We also found Francisco, the diver, to clean the bottom of the boat, which had been developing some shaggy green growth along the waterline.  As early afternoon came around, the winds started picking up again, and by mid afternoon we had whitecaps, 2 ft chop and 25+ knot winds again, coming right through the gap.  This was getting old!

The next day we decided to get down our folding bikes to ride around town a little bit and see what stores were best for provisioning.  We rode from the marina down the main drag of San Carlos which ran along the bay down the “Charly’s Rock”, a big rock formation that looms over the commercial strip.  We stopped at the Ley supermarket for some key items (big limes and butter) and found a wine and liquor store where we managed to get several bottles of wine and booze packed onto the rack of our bikes.  We also stopped at a bank for a reload of Pesos.  Once back at the boat we turned around and walked up to the nearest supermarket, just up the road from the marina with our folding wagon.  I made a side trip to the Modelorama store to pick up a case of Pacificos, having gotten over the annoyance with the tall, narrow cans.  Back with the groceries, and guess what?  The winds and waves were up again.  Our beautiful boat wash was being rapidly undone by salt spray down the back third of the boat.  We mounted the bicycles again and headed to the beach for lunch at Palapa Griega, which had an excellent menu featuring Greek and Mexican dishes.  We had a couple of cold beers, spanakopita, Gyro salad and coconut shrimp while enjoying a sunny afternoon on the beach.  

(A note on our restaurant going relative to COVID risk. We only go to outdoor seating restaurants – which for us means no walls to impede air flow. We also look at table spacing, and we don’t sit with others. Servers are masked and we wear our masks when not eating or drinking. In San Carlos – the wind was pretty much blowing 15 knots anytime we were at a restaurant so Gwen was confident that any aerosolized virus that could be around was blown away! )

We got back to the boat with the wind still howling.  I wrote an email to Shawn Breeding, one of the authors of our cruising guide, saying that his reports of wind in San Carlos was accurate, to say the least.  He wrote back saying that they used to refer to the winds as the “Afternoon gale”.  An apt description, which somehow did not make it into the guide.

From the walkway inside the marina.

Finally, on Friday morning we were ready to depart.  It was another sunny, mild morning.  After checking out of the Marina, we went over to the fuel dock to top up our tanks.  I have to say that this was the best run fuel dock we encountered in Mexico with two attendants that caught our lines and then took care of fueling the boat.  All we had to do was tell them how much in each tank.  Very efficient and easy for us!  Next we pulled out of the harbor and did a little tour of the bay in front of town. 

Circling around one of many Islets named “Los Candeleros” in the Bay in front of San Carlos.

Our next anchorage was Bahia San Pedro, some 12 miles North, but we needed to make a lot of water (the marina water was reported to be notoriously non-potable) on the way up.  We cruised by the beachfront palapa, viewed Charly’s rock from the water and made a lap around one of many “Los Candeleros” islets before heading North.  As we headed North, the winds, of course, picked up and we worked our way into head seas.  Lots of whitecaps but the waves were not too bad. As we pulled into the anchorage we saw winds as high as 25 knots on a day forecast at 10-15.  No problem setting the anchor – just let the chain out and the wind did the rest for us.

Tucked into the anchorage.

Our friends on Last Arrow and Gitana had also come to Bahia San Pedro but left at sunrise the next morning.  I was up to wish them fair seas (and less wind).  Waiting in the predawn darkness, I heard the howling of coyotes that were obviously on the beach.  Unfortunately, it was too dark to see them.  Overnight the temperature in the anchorage went up quite a bit.  It was 77 deg at 5 AM, I think due to warm air coming down from the land in gentle N breezes.  Later in the morning as the wind picked up from the NW the temperature went down about 15 degrees with the wind over the chilly (57 deg) waters of the Sea.

Sea cave in the bottom of the colorful cliffs with cacti and palm trees.
Gwen was excited to get a shot of this Hermann gull – breeds only here in the Sea.

We took a little dinghy tour of the anchorage, looking at the sea caves that formed in Roca San Pedro right at the point of the anchorage.  It was interesting to see Palm trees growing all over this large rock, in addition to the usual cactus.  We went ashore, where there were remnants of a fish camp, particularly several dumps of conch shells that I called Conch Cemeteries.  These shells seemed recent, retaining their sharp spines.  The beach was mostly gravel and finely ground stone, forming a crescent shape and surrounded by low hills.  It offered very good wave protection from the N and NW, but the winds funneled around either side of Roca San Pedro.  The holding was very good as confirmed by our couple of windy days and nights.  Morning sunrise over the hills was beautiful.

One of the many conch graveyards.

After a couple of nights we headed back down to Bahia Algodones which is just 3 miles away and around the corner from Marina San Carlos. We anchored right off the beach with the Soggy Peso restaurant and bar and the Sunset Grill and several hotels farther down.  This location is famous (at least in our cruising guides) for being the setting of the late 1960’s antiwar movie Catch 22 (based on the novel). We watched Catch-22 that evening while anchored in the bay (thanks to our “Curator” onboard entertainment system invented by our friend John.), and seeing the distinctive scenery was absolutely uncanny.  It was obvious that we were sitting right off the runway from the movie. The guidebooks talk about being able to visit the runway and see the remnants of the set, so we were excited to do that.

The Tetas de Cabra, or Tetakiwi mountains, are the signature view of this area. In Catch 22 there wasn’t a single sign of development and it appeared completely wild.

Overnight, a bit of wind and swell came in, enough to make it pretty uncomfortable even with the flopper stopper out, so we elected to brave the afternoon gales in Marina San Carlos again.  The next day we rented a car to have lunch and look for the runway and ruins.  We drove over to Bahia Algodones and had lunch at the outside Sunset Grill. We asked the waitstaff at Sunset Grill about the Catch 22 movie site, but they knew nothing of it at all.  And we can see why. Everything on both sides of the road is fenced off and there are various bits of development happening or not happening in that typical Mexican way.  We backtracked and finally found a dirt road off the highway that was going to a ranch that offered horseback riding.  We took that road and veered off onto another that eventually crossed the runway.  We found the asphalt still intact in some places but clearly being overtaken by the scrub.  There were no structures whatsoever left.

Runway looking toward the water.
End of the runway looking to the hills.

The construction going on at the south end of Bahia Algodones is astonishing. The other marina (Marina Real) is completely surrounded by houses/condos, and the road up to the scenic viewpoint is full of construction on both sides, all apparently speculative based on big “Se Vende” sale signs in front of them.  The hills around Caleta Lalo have been carved and flattened for homesites, and  there was a private breakwater and pilings in the NW corner.  You’d think the entire US is moving to San Carlos.  Anyway, we enjoyed exploring the area in the rental car, and shockingly enough, we actually experienced a (single) calm day in the marina.

Caleta Lalo with new mansion and private dock.

San Carlos is obviously a resort town with a significant population of Gringo expats only 300 miles from the Arizona border, but also appears to be growing in popularity as a destination for Mexican tourists. It was established in 1963, and is only some 20 miles from the gritty port town of Guaymas. We actually drove into Guaymas for a look around (and some provisioning) but did not find it very interesting.

Next, we head back over to the Baja side looking for warmer weather!