Just 45 minutes by car from Ciudad Constitución and about 2.5 hours from Loreto, Bahía Magdalena is the southernmost of the three gray-whale calving lagoons on the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula. (Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro and Laguna San Ignacio are the other two.) Whale-watching tours that depart from Mulegé, Loreto, or La Paz generally head for this bay.

It is possible on some days to view the whale activity from a distance on shore near Puerto López Mateos, but this doesn’t compare to the experience of getting up close on a boat. Look for a viewing area with a parking lot north of the fish-processing plant.

A three- to four-hour panga tour costs about US$65 per person for up to four people, and prices are likely to fluctuate with fuel prices. It can be difficult—and dangerous—to cruise the lagoon when the winter winds kick up, so tour operators generally recommend that you allow an extra day or two on your visit in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. In addition to the whales, you’ll likely spot sea lions and a variety of marine birds. Beware of any panguero who offers to take you out in inclement weather; your chances of seeing the whales will be slim and the danger factor will be unnecessarily high.

Boat drivers must be licensed to drive in the lagoons during the whale- calving season. Ask at Hotel Brennan in San Carlos for a guide or head down to the embarcadero on the west side of town near the lighthouse to hire someone directly.

Viajes Mar y Arena (tel. 613/136-0076, fax 613/136-0232), Brennan’s y Asociados (tel. 613/136-0288, fax 613/136-0019, turismo@balandra.uabcs.mx), and Unión de Lancheros y Servicios Turísticos de Puerto San Carlos (ULYSTOURS) (tel. 613/136-0253, Crispín Mendoza) are all licensed to run guided boat tours.

In Puerto López Mateos, several operators are authorized to take tourists on whale-watching tours. They include Unión de Lancheros Touristicos (tel. 613/131-5114), Aquendi (tel. 613/131-5164 or -5105 or -5306, US$80/hour, up to 6 people), and Renta de Lanchas Juana Rosas III (tel. 613/113-9195 or 613/131-5123) The offices for all these businesses are located at the port.

Baja Expeditions (612/123-4900 or U.S. tel. 800/843-6967) offers highly recommended “catered camping” trips to Bahía Magdalena for US$240 per person per night (double occupancy). During the day, you’ll go whale-watching, kayaking, or beach walking, and in the evening, you can hear guest speakers talk about local marine life.

Family-run Mag Bay Tours (U.S. tel. 215/667-8470) started out as a surf camp and then added whale-watching and sportfishing services; the company emphasizes a sustainable, low-impact approach to tourism. It has two semipermanent base camps: Its surf camp is located on the northern point of Bahía Santa María, and the whale-watching camp is inside Bahía Magdalena. Guests stay in dome-shaped tents that are big enough to stand up in. Each has a porch area that is protected from the wind. The camp provides sleeping bags, pillows, and cots with air mattresses. In winter you can book day trips from three to five hours in length or overnight packages that include all meals and transportation from San Carlos. A basic “eco-adventure” package (US$250 per person) includes two days and one night of accommodations with about seven hours of whale-watching over the two days. In summer eight-day surfing trips cost US$1,360.

Aside from watching for whales in winter and surfing in summer, clam-digging, campfires, bird-watching, and beachcombing are all part of the experience.

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Baja.