By Randy Kalp
Whale watching tours in Baja California Sur are nothing like their American counterparts, mainly because the boats used—25-foot, open-deck motorboats—offer a more intimate approach to viewing the whales in their natural habitat. In San Diego, for example, tourists pay $30 to $50 for a three-hour tour on boats that exceed 100 feet. For them, a good day equals multiple sightings. In Baja California Sur, however, a good day ($40 per tour) consists of rubbing the belly of a gray whale as it rolls over like an overgrown puppy, while a great day is kissing a whale as it breaches inches from the boat.
Each November, gray whales embark on their journey from Alaska and Siberia to the placid, warm waters of San Ignacio Lagoon to breed and give birth to their 14-foot, 2-ton calves. Located 600 miles from San Diego (approximately14 hours by car), this region of Baja California Sur is one of the few places in the world that provides close interaction with gray whales in their nursing grounds; the peak season for whale excursions at the lagoon is from January to April.
Things weren’t always so copacetic, though. In the early 20th century, whalers prowled the lagoon, slaughtering gray whales. Years later—even after the ban on commercial whaling—fishermen in the region still feared the whales. However, everything changed on a winter day in 1972, when Francisco “Pachico” Mayor of Laguna San Igancio encountered a whale after it surfaced a few feet from his boat in the lagoon. After realizing the whale was not aggressive, Mayoral reached out from his 18-foot boat and touched the curious creature—beginning an enduring friendship with the gentle mammals. Following his encounter, Mayoral, who operates Pachico’s Eco Tours, began regaling fellow villagers with his tales and taking them into the lagoon to experience the whales firsthand.
Now a bioreserve, San Ignacio Lagoon is located about one hour from the quaint mission town of San Ignacio, which is located directly off of Highway 1. The lagoon is dotted with a handful of ecotourism camps that contain rustic, green-friendly facilities, including solar-heated, fresh water showers and environment-friendly outhouses, as well as drinkable water for cooking and washing.
We stayed at Ecoturismo Kuyima on the southeast section of the lagoon. While Kuyima offers multi-day packages that include lodging in one of their cabins, we opted to pitch our own tent at one of their campsites; the cost is $12 per night for up to four people. Kuyima also offers a dining palapa, where campers can purchase tasty prepared
meals for $7 to $10 per meal and mixed-alcohol drinks or beer.
Know Before You Go
• Temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day, so bring a pair of thermals as well as a wind-breaking/waterproof jacket.
• The winds at the lagoon can be very heavy at times, especially around dusk. If you are camping with your own equipment, make sure you have a well-made tent and durable anodized-aluminum stakes, as the ground, at least at our campsite, ranged from soft sand to hard rock. Additionally, firewood is not sold at the camp, so make sure you purchase it before heading out to the lagoon.
• The road out to San Ignacio Lagoon is dirt and best traversed with a four-wheel drive vehicle or pickup truck. Also, when traveling through Baja California, it’s best to only travel during daylight hours due to roaming cattle and bandits.
When Randy Kalp and Bethany Salvon are not wandering the world blogging for their travel website, BeersandBeans.com, they call Hillcrest their home and enjoy hanging out at Filter coffee shop. Bethany can also be found on her wedding photography site, Nariko’sNest.com. Their work has appeared in the Coast News, San Diego Reader and a variety of other travel publications.