At the western edge of the Magdalena plain on the Pacific coast, a long string of barrier islands protects a series of shallow bays that fill with gray whales during calving season, January–March. The surrounding estuaries and mangrove swamp supports a unique and vibrant marine ecosystem.
Sheltered Canal Gaviota links the two largest bays in the system, Bahía Magdalena and Bahía Almejas, to create some of the best kayaking and windsurfing conditions anywhere on the peninsula. Visitors here enjoy paddling the bay, climbing 30-foot sand dunes, bird-watching, and gray-whale encounters.
In 2009 Hurricane Jimena, a Category 3 storm, made landfall at Magdalena Bay, leaving 35,000 people in Centra Baja without homes, food, power, and water. Airports, roads, bridges, power lines, and cell towers were destroyed by high winds, flash floods, and mudslides. The state of Baja California Sur was declared a natural disaster.
The most severe damage occurred in the area around Isla Magdalena, Bahía Santa María, Puerto López Mateos, Puerto San Carlos, and Punta Abreojos. Given the unfortunate timing of the disaster, in the midst of a global recession, the path to recovery has been extremely slow for these coastal communities.
Two environmental organizations play an active role in conservation efforts around the bay: Vigilantes de Bahía Magdalena, A.C. (Magdalena Baykeeper) and Guardianes del Agua, A.C. (La Paz Coastkeeper). Both organizations are affiliated with the International Waterkeeper Alliance.
Towns in Bahía Magdalena
Puerto San Carlos
The largest town in the area is Puerto San Carlos (pop. 5,200), with the only other deepwater port on the Pacific coast of Baja besides Ensenada.
During the whale-watching season, Puerto San Carlos hosts the Festival de Ballena Gris (Gray Whale Festival), with music, food, and crafts festivities every weekend from the middle of February through the end of March.
Puerto San Carlos has a Pemex station, several tiendas, a post office, and government offices for port captain, customs, and immigration. Public long-distance TelMex phones are scattered throughout the town.
Puerto López Mateos
North of Puerto San Carlos, tiny Puerto López Mateos offers a similar array of services but on a much smaller scale. It has a cannery, post office, and Pemex, plus several tiendas, hotels, and restaurants. TelMex public phones are scattered throughout town.
The town celebrated its 16th Festival Internacional de la Ballena Grís in February 2009. It also has a local fiesta on the last weekend in April or first weekend in May.
Several whale-watching tour operators have offices at the port, and booths of vendors sell all kinds of artesania in the high season.
Puerto Cancún and Puerto Chale
These two fishing camps are located in the shadow of Isla Santa Margarita. They have basic supplies, good camping, and an abundance of fresh clams, lobster, and other seafood.
Getting to Bahía Magdalena
You can drive the paved highway Mexico 22 from Ciudad Constitución to Puerto San Carlos (57 km west) in under an hour, or catch one of three buses a day that connect the two towns (US$5 pp). Bus fare from La Paz is US$34 one way.
To get to Puerto López Mateos, take the paved route west from Ciudad Insurgentes. And for Puerto Chale, turn off the highway at Km. 157.
The 1:250,000-scale INEGI La Paz map (G12-10-11) will help you find roads along the coast of Bahía Magdalena and Bahía Almejas.
Recreation in Bahía Magdalena
Sportfishing remains a major attraction in the area, especially in the high season of July–November. Anglers catch halibut, yellowtail, red bass (mangrove snapper), corvina, and snook close to shore and big game fish farther out. For clams, you can simply walk along the shallows of either bay and dig.
San Carlos has a concrete boat ramp for launching small boats, as do Puerto López Mateos and Puerto Chale.
Windsurfers and kiteboarders flock to Bahía Magdalena for the best wind conditions on the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula. Beginners take shelter in the relatively calm bay, while advanced boarders venture out to the bocas for stronger winds and bigger waves.
South/southwest swells roll into Bahi Santa Maria beginning in May or June through November. Surfers enjoy three right point breaks here—Cuevas, Campsites, and Betadines—and the estuary mouth provides a fast beach break. Mag Bay Tours offers all-inclusive weeklong surf camps (Sun.–Sun.).
South of Bahía Magalena, committed surfers frequent remote Punta El Conejo, a point that juts far enough out into the open ocean to catch north and south swells. The left here holds the larger swells, while the right will close out. Beware the urchins on the rocks on the inside.
There are no facilities, but you can camp among the dunes here. Local lobster fishermen may come by in the evening to sell their sadly undersized catches. Normally, someone from the property will come and collect US$5 per car in exchange for collecting garbage and maintaining the primitive but sheltered bathrooms. This land and the access to it is private, but the owners don’t mind leaving it open to visitors.
With a sturdy vehicle, you can follow the coastal road south another 17 kilometers to reach Punta Márquez, another surf spot. This same road continues all the way to Todos Santos (124 km from El Conejo), passing a number of remote beach breaks along the way.
For fresh seafood, head to Restaurant El Galeón (no tel., lunch and dinner daily, mains US$10–15), close to Hotel Brennan. It serves beef and chicken dishes, as well as delicious shellfish and fish. Mariscos Los Arcos (Calle La Paz, no tel., 8 A.M.–10 P.M. daily, mains US$5–15, lobster around US$30) prepares seafood, antojitos, and Mexican breakfasts.
Another option for reasonably priced and delicious fresh food is La Cocina de Tere (no tel., mains US$5–10), just up from Hotel Alcatraz. The menu varies according to what’s fresh, and your server will tell you what’s available that day.
A few restaurants in town serve good seafood dishes, but they are usually open only January–April, when the whale-watchers are around. El Camarón Feliz (Abelardo L. Rodríguez, tel. 613/131-5032, mains US$5–10) is the place to stop for fish tacos. Restaurant Ballena Gris (no tel., mains US$10–15), on the right as you come into town, prepares fresh fish and shellfish.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Baja.