Laguna San Ignacio
If you’ve come to Baja in the winter to witness the gray-whale calving, the protected Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific coast is a must-see destination.
Discovered by whalers in 1860, Laguna San Ignacio is 58 kilometers from the town of San Ignacio and measures about 26 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide. Along with the Vizcaíno Desert, it became part of the Reserva de la Biósfera in 1988.
About 100 people live beside the bay and make their living from fishing and, increasingly, ecotourism. A major saltworks expansion effort was blocked recently by environmentalists.
Only two other bays, Laguna de Ojo de Liebre to the north and Bahía de Magdalena to the south, offer comparable experiences for ecotourists. And for some reason, the whales here tend to come closer to boats and show off more for their audiences than at the other two sanctuaries (which is not to say that having an opportunity to touch one is a given).
To see the whales by boat, you need to hire a licensed panguero. There are two ways to do this: You can buy an all-inclusive package tour, which depart from San Ignacio or Loreto by ground transport or from as far away as San Diego via charter plane. Independent travelers may prefer to drive directly to the bay and purchase boat fare “à la carte” from one of several outfitters (US$40 pp, min. usually four people).
Boats typically depart at 9 A.M. and stay out for 3–4 hours. It’s about a 60- to 90-minute drive from the town of San Ignacio to the camps (locals make it in 45 minutes), so day-trippers need to get an early start. Stop by the plaza in San Ignacio to arrange taxi service to the lagoon for around US$60 per person each way. (The larger the group, the lower the cost per person.)
At the south end of Laguna San Ignacio, a peninsula sticks out into the mouth of the bay close the main calving area. This can be a good vantage point from which to see the whales. With four-wheel drive, you can drive to the point; alternatively, a panga driver can also shuttle you there from one of the camps at the north end of the bay.
Two dirt roads connect Laguna San Ignacio to Bahía San Juanico: One leaves from the Kuyimá camp and traverses the Mesa Las Salinas, close to the coast, but may not be passable at high tide. The more reliable route is a continuation of the San Ignacio-Laguna San Ignacio road, and passes through several inland villages on the way to San Juanico.
Whale-Watching Tours and Camping
A handful of outfitters offer whale-watching tours and trips January–April. Water and power are precious commodities at all the camps at the lagoon, so it’s important to reduce, reuse, and recycle at every opportunity.
With more than 35 years’ experience running environmentally focused tours to Baja, Baja Expeditions (2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, tel. 858/581-3311 or 800/843-6967, www.bajaex.com) offers a memorable catered-camping experience. Its camp has upgraded facilities following the merger with Antonio Ecotours. Guests on chartered trips stay in simple cabañas made of plywood and sleep on comfortable beds (full, queen, or two twins) with duvet covers, soft pillows, and cotton sheets. Each bungalow has a sink and tiled counter, and closet area, plus a small porch with two camp chairs.
The bungalows are right on the beach, so you’ll enjoy a front row seat for watching whales, birds, and other wildlife activity on the lagoon. When large groups or additional overnight visitors come to the camp, additional lodging is provided in safari-style tents equipped with cots, camp chairs, and lanterns. Every three tents share a toilet and hand-washing sink.
Family-style meals are a highlight of the experience here. Some of the standouts include a bay scallop ceviche called aguachile, fried flounder, tostadas with shredded beef (machaca), and chilaquiles. Guests and staff dine together in a palapa lounge with two large tables, a comfortable sofa, fabulous library of books about Baja and gray whales, and computer for Internet access (no large file downloads due to limited bandwidth). Coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer, purified water, and baked treats are available anytime free of charge.
When not on a boat looking for whales, visitors relax in the hammock, walk the beach, read in the library, play with the camp dogs, or sit by the fire and gaze at the stars. Guides are all trained in water safety/emergency rescue and knowledgeable about the local marine life.
Shared toilet facilities are outhouse style (and wheelchair accessible), so you need to rinse with a small bucket of water or scoop some sawdust each time you go. Solar showers are hot as long as the sun is shining. The entire camp is powered by sun, wind, and, when needed, diesel generator.
The overnight rate of US$210 per person per night, with a two-night minimum, includes two panga boat rides a day and all meals and drinks. Five-day packages cost US$2,395 per person based on double occupancy and include transportation from San Diego via chartered bus and a two-hour flight from Tijuana direct to the lagoon.
With an office in town and a camp close to the south end of the bay, Ecoturismo Kuyimá (Morelos 23, San Ignacio, tel. 615/154-0070, www.kuyima.com) is a full-service operation. Its campground has hot-water showers, composting outhouses, and a palapa-roofed dining area. Accommodations are either in one of 30 tent sites (US$12/night without the whale-watching package) or 10 cabins. If you don’t have your own camping gear, you can rent a two-person tent, sleeping bags, and flashlights for US$40. Meals cost US$7–10. Best of all, you can often see the whale action from the shore.
For travelers who can get themselves to San Ignacio, Kuyimá’s multiday packages are a good deal, especially when compared to the San Diego–based all-inclusive trips. For example, a four-day/three-night trip costs US$495 per person for cabin lodging, meals, and daily whale-watching excursions. Guests have use of bicycles, kayaks, a library, and video services. The packages include a trip to nearby salt fields and the expertise of the company’s knowledgeable guides. Van transportation is available to or from San Ignacio for an additional US$120 for up to 10 people.
Near the mouth of the bay and even closer to the action, Baja Discovery (U.S. tel. 619/262-0700 or 800/829-2252, www.bajadiscovery.com) has run a safari-style camp for more than 25 years. Its strategic location on Rocky Point gives visitors front-row seats to the show—in season, whales will spout and spyhop right offshore. The downside for budget-conscious travelers is that to stay here, you must buy an all-inclusive package that starts and finishes in San Diego (US$2,395 pp for five days).
Getting to Laguna San Ignacio
Laguna San Ignacio is 59 km from the plaza, and the whale camps are another 10–20 minutes past the point where the road meets the lagoon. The road to the lagoon is newly paved for the first 23 km, and this stretch is in better condition than the highway.
After Km. 23, it becomes a graded dirt road the rest of the way. You may be able to make the trip in a standard sedan, but inquire about the conditions first. Loose rocks and sand drifts pose complications for low-clearance vehicles. Locals manage to complete the drive in about 45 minutes, but first-timers and more conservative motorists should count on one hour to 90 minutes.
When you reach the lagoon, follow the road to the left, and note the sign for information if you need directions to a specific camp. Most of the camps have signs pointing the way, but it can be somewhat confusing the first time you venture out toward the point.
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition