By Lorna Hill
It all started with whales…
Whale watching in Cabo
Our road trip started with the Humpback whales.
Our dear friends, Janet and Duke, had come on their annual visit to Cabo San Lucas and we decided to take a trip to Lovers Beach, for some early morning beach yoga. We gathered on Playa Medano, one of Cabo’s famous beaches, to wait for the panga to pick us up, and take us the short ride across to Lovers Beach, right beside the well-known swimming and dive spot, Pelican Rock.
Just as we were about to step onboard, Rodrigo looked down and spotted a tiny, baby turtle, barely moving, in the sand. It had obviously hatched fairly recently but hadn’t made it to the ocean, and the heat of the sun had worn it out.
Rodrigo scooped it up and dropped it into my hands. “Look”, he said, “we need to take this turtle to where it belongs”. We weren’t sure whether it would survive, but we sure knew that some bird had its mind on lunch back at the beach, or it would fry up under the midday sun… and its eternal destination was to be the water, whether it was to live or to die.
Our pangero, Oscar, a young man who had surely grown up in these waters, took us about halfway and then cut the engine, allowing us space and silence to guide the turtle into the water. To our delight, it seemed to “wake up”, the salty water reviving it, and it took some paddles with its fins and started to swim off, away from the panga.
We took this as a sign and left it be. Godspeed, little turtle. May we see you back here again on one of Baja’s beaches, but much bigger and ready to start your own cycle of life.
So, off we go, well ready for yoga. But just as Oscar started up the outboard motor, he received a call from one of his pangero comrades. “There are humpback whales in the bay”, he told us. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer from us, he could have even seen the reply in our faces; Vamonos! And we were off to see the humpback whales.
The humpback whales migrate to (or return back to) the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), the second of the two bodies of water flanking the peninsula of Baja California Sur, each winter, to mate and to breed and with the famous acrobatics of the humpbacks, the whale watching can be quite a spectacle.
As a group, you could say we were pretty seasoned whale watchers, so we know that there is always a chance that you might not see the whales, they could have decided to swim further out into the blue or on the other side of the bay, away from our small pangas whale watching remit.
However, in Cabo San Lucas, despite its reputation for loud party boats and many whale-watching outfits, seeing the humpbacks is pretty much a given. The key is to find the pangeros who don’t chase the whales, and, thankfully, our pangero wasn’t one of them.
After a bit of time, and a short tour of Lands End and Divorce Beach (opposite side of Lovers Beach), we received a call from another friend of Oscar (he was well connected!), who told us where the whales were. Hurrah! We were very excited.
To our surprise, Oscar immediately told our panga neighbours, who were also on the search for the whales, the location of said humpbacks; the all-important “sharing the love”.
More to our joy, when we had made our way over to where the whales had last been spotted, Oscar and the other pangero friend held back, knowing that these wonderful creatures were always on the move, allowing ample space between his boat and the other, for the whales to pass.
And pass they did, but not without some performance beforehand! We immediately spotted 2 blows, one big and one small, denoting a mother and her calf. Then another blow popped up beside them, so a third whale… then, making the grand entrance, was another, even bigger whale, whose huge head appeared up above the water, with its mouth open, and crashing down again into the water, beside the others. They were playing, a beautiful sight to behold!
We were truly lit up, especially as this hadn’t been planned at all. An unexpected surprise and a wonderful little taster of what was about to come. For we four, were about to embark on a road trip northwards, to San Ignacio Lagoon, to see the gray whales in their winter breeding grounds, picking up another friend, Marilyn, along the way, in Loreto.
We still had music from the night before swirling around in our heads, for we had taken a trip to one of Cabo’s exquisite restaurants, Sunset Monalisa for a night of Jazz on the Rocks, with the wonderfully sensuous Daline Jones and Diego Cabeza, a jazzy duo who live and play regularly in Cabo San Lucas.
As we watched the sun go down, behind the famous rock of Lands End, Daline’s voice and Diego’s piano playing captured our hearts, transporting us through the love story that was unfolding before our very eyes. A must-see when you visit Cabo, you can find the list of their gigs through their Facebook page.
We did the same with the whales… We watched, we listened, we whooped with joy and clapped our hands, then played the guessing game where they would come up next, once they had taken a dive below, showing us their glorious flukes, all 15 feet (4.5 metres) wide.
Once the whales had finished their playing and had moved on, we decided to move on as well… To our beach yoga! As we were starting later than planned, we thought we would find the beaches packed, however, we were still in time for our beach-time peace and solace.
The following day, we departed Cabo San Lucas and headed North. Our first stop wasn’t too far away, but at San Jose del Cabo airport, where we switched the car that Janet and Duke had hired for another, a Town and Country Minivan, from Cactus Car Rental.
Drive from Cabo to Loreto
A quick toilet stop and away we were again!
This time our destination was a little further away, in the sweet mission town of Loreto, some 500km north of Cabo San Lucas (or 540km from San Jose del Cabo) Let the road trip begin!
– we decided to take the “cuota” or the toll road, Highway 19 that leads onto Highway 1, which heads back in the direction of Cabo San Lucas and then shoots North. You can also take the old road, which is Highway 1 all the way from San Jose del Cabo to Loreto, taking you through some of the old villages; San Jose Viejo, Cositas, Santiago, and Los Barriles. However, that is for another trip, another article!
Rodrigo was driving and never likes to drive at night, wisely so –Too many darn cows on the road– he says. Usually, we would stop in La Paz for a couple days, before our departure for Loreto on our usual trip to the lagoon, but we decided to leave La Paz for another time, as it’s so nice to spend some days there, with the whale sharks and the sea lions. — More articles soon.
However, driving fast through Baja California is not only dangerous but pointless… Why drive through such a beautiful place only to not experience its richness in beauty? So, we took our time yet kept going on the road.
It wasn’t until we watched the sun setting as we drove through the town of Insurgentes, the last big town before turning off for Loreto (which means crossing back over to the Sea of Cortez side) that we knew we would miss the last 100km of sunlit road.
Which happens to be some of the nicest bit, especially the windy, hilly part, around Agua Amarga and as you come into Ligui up until Loreto, where you’ll witness the beauty of the Bahia of Loreto National Park and its gorgeous, mountainous islands: Isla Santa Catalina, Isla Monserrate, Isla Danzante, Isla Coronado and, last but by no means least, the huge 37,000 acres Isla Carmen.
Having ridden this stretch many times before, we described the beauty to our friends, and I vowed to capture it on camera on our way out, so we’ll get to that bit later.
Dinner, Bed & Breakfast in Loreto
We were glad to roll up to our accommodation, one of our favourite haunts in Loreto where Rodrigo and I stay, when we’re not in our campervan, and that is Hostal Casas, owned and operated by our dear friend Abel Casas (yes, his surname means “houses” – how apt!)
It is called a hostel, I think mainly due to its shared kitchen, however, it strikes me more of a posada, or a B&B, with its personal touch of having an onsite owner, that being Abel.
Built by Abel, its architecture has a ranch-like feel to it, and its good-looking, dark interior, with strong beds (supreme quality mattresses) and well-sized, clean, and bright bathrooms, gives the place the utmost comfort. There is always a strong pot of coffee going in the mornings and the kitchen is fitted to cater in case you want to cook, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
We had only one night here and we were pretty tired and hungry by the time we arrived, so we decided to make use of Abel’s wonderful, central location, walking only half a block to the nearest restaurant, that is Mi Loreto.
A gem of a place nestled right at the foot of Loreto’s famous mission, you’ll find all sorts of delicious traditional Mexican recipes on the menu, along with vegetarian/vegan options.
The tortillas are all handmade, right there in front of you, and are to die for, and the delicious homemade salsas and traditional meals (they have a wide range of dishes that come from different parts of Mexico including Cochinita Pibil and Chicken Mole) will melt in your mouth.
We enjoyed the Tortilla Soup, Chicken Soup, Chicken Mole, Chile Relleno, and some fantastic salads; the Ensalata Tropical was delicious! With lots of fruits and nuts and some homemade salad dressings, made from…. Fruit!
Needless to say, this night was an early one, we were looking forward to waking up early the next morning so we could get on our way again, once we had picked up Marilyn from Loreto International Airport.
And those comfy mattresses were just calling us to come and lay down our weary bones …… (also, I had told Janet and Duke that, if we were lucky, we’d be woken up by the sounds of the bells from the mission.. And that happens early!)
Morning stroll in Loreto
The following morning, we awoke early (without the bells!) and after some coffee, decided to wander the beautiful cobblestone streets of Loreto, which are lined with fig trees, that meet in the middle creating wonderful arches to walk beneath.
The plaza that fronts the mission was undergoing construction, otherwise, it makes a lovely pass over to the shop-lined streets below. But the beauty of Loreto is that it is small and quaint, so the extra loop around just gives for more exploring.
Once arriving at the main plaza, where we were greeted with Saturday morning vendors (on the plaza every Saturday from 9am – 2pm) selling their homemade food such as locally grown fruits and vegetables, tamales, honey, and pastries (try the Cajeta pastry, if you want to try the Mexican caramel sauce, made with goats milk in the ranches nearby!) plus a whole array of homewares such as mantels (tablecloths) and homemade locally-inspired keepsakes and ornaments to bring home as mementos.
Upon spotting the municipality building, our friend Duke expressed a keenness to enter, as he knew Loreto was Sister town to his home place, Hermosa Beach, California, and wondered if he could find any information about it, inside.
At the door, we were invited to take a look by an official standing guard, Karina, and upon entering, we found plaques commemorating the date of when this took place, in 1967, when Loreto and Hermosa beach became “sister cities”, thus forming the Hermosa Beach Sister City Association (HBSCA) in Hermosa Beach, California. How fun!
After, we took a stroll through the rest of the municipality building, to be blown away by the incredible artwork spread across the huge walls of the building, depicting the story of the people who once inhabited Baja California, and documented their own stories on the walls of caves tucked high amongst the mountains in the Sierra de San Francisco via great big murals, painted in clay from the ground and sap from the trees, amongst others.
Read about our trip to the Cave Paintings of San Francisco
These pieces of art we were looking at here, were representations of those people, continuing to tell the story of the famous (sometimes infamous) Jesuit Padres, who christened Baja into the more modern-day religion we know today.
Lastly, but by no means least, the story of the people who inhabit this glorious and still – wild peninsula we know today, the people who will continue to tell the story; writers, musicians, teachers, and schoolchildren.
What a trip this was becoming.. And we hadn’t even left the confines of Loreto to experience all this heady culture and folklore.
Tummies began to rumble, so we decided to find a local place to eat. Rodrigo and I slowly ambled everyone over to a little corner we like to frequent, at the other end of the plaza, to a place called Pellegrino’s, which does, in my opinion, the best Mexican breakfasts in town.
The outdoor seating sits just off the plaza and if you find yourself in a shady spot and feeling the morning chill, the wonderful staff that works there will bring you a “cobija”, a Mexican blanket, to keep your legs warm as you eat.
After breakfast and check out of Hostal Casas (with a promise to return!), we headed for Loreto International Airport to pick up our friend Marilyn, who was flying in from Denver, via Dallas, on an American Airlines flight.
We pulled up outside international arrivals however we were soon informed that they were using only one entrance and exit, and that is the Departures… and we couldn’t stay there either. It’s worth noting at this point that to pick anyone up from Loreto International Airport, it’s best to have some pesos ready to pay for parking.
They might ask for dollars, which might suit you better too, however, be ready for a low exchange rate.
The Road Trip Continues, Next stop San Ignacio
So, now we were finally 5! The next destination was San Ignacio town. We had decided to overnight here and depart early for the lagoon the following morning (some 60 km away), so we wouldn’t arrive at the lagoon in the dark.
It takes about 5 hours to drive from Loreto to San Ignacio town, with a couple of restroom stops.
We had a toilet break sooner than we had imagined, as the checkpoint just North of Loreto allows for you to stop and use the restrooms there. It doesn’t take too long to get your car checked by the very friendly officials, there are very little incidents but always remember to keep your handbag/wallet or valuables in that line on your person – it’s better to be ready than to regret, and you don’t want to waste time arguing with anyone about things being “misplaced” or “removed”. You won’t win.
Rodrigo’s smooth driving enabled lots of storytelling en route. There is just so much to see on that journey! We loved showing Janet, Duke, and Marilyn our beloved beaches of the famous Bahia de Concepcion (we LOVE Playa Santispac!) and when the volcano, named “Las Tres Virgenes’‘ rolls into view, you can’t help but lapse into a silence of sheer awe.
We rolled into San Ignacio town just before sunset, checking into our hotel for the night, La Huerta. A good option for its budget-friendly prices, comfortable spacious rooms, and clean bathrooms with hot showers. Situated just adjacent to the plaza of San Ignacio Town, you keep going straight at the mission, instead of turning left to go around the plaza.
Seeing the vultures turn in for the night amongst the palm trees, as well as the setting sun, signaled to us it was time to sleep.
The following morning, we rose at 6am. It was a Sunday, which meant the restaurant was closed, so no coffee.
Sunday is a day of rest, after all. Not for us! We were off to see some whales!! Not just any whales, but our beloved gray whales, who traveled all this way from the icy Arctic Circle to spend the winter in these warmer, shallow lagoons.
And we had traveled all this way to see them, and we would have traveled more. But first, we needed coffee. So we piled up the car and quietly circled the plaza, looking to see where it was open, at this wonderful hour.
We fell upon a lovely, welcoming lady called Pina, who ran a taco- by- night, coffee-by-morning stand, just off the laurel tree-lined plaza, in the centre of San Ignacio. It went by the name of “Antojoitos Danny”, who I later learnt was Pina’s son. We chatted with a couple of the other locals who were also fueling up for their day and then carried on.
Rodrigo and I knew the road that was to come. Janet, Duke, and Marilyn had been to the lagoon the previous year, but having flown in, they arrived at the airstrip, which is about halfway from San Ignacio Town to the Lagoon.
It was wonderful to show them the different parts of that route – the paved road to begin with, then turning into a dirt road, which at some points looks like you’re roaming the surface of the moon.
Then it continues on with fields and field of the biggest cactus you’ll ever see in your life, gradually winding around until you can see the beginning, so the peak, of the lagoon; where the rivers that come make their way down from the mountains, pour into this beautiful body of water, gradually joining out to sea.
It is here you can see the salt flats, or the “salitrales”, as they call them in Spanish. The salt flats are previous beds of what was once a shallow sea, now vast areas of dry land, that still holds the salt from its once watery form.
Once the water levels declined, it left the “bed” exposed to the sun, which evaporated the remaining water, leaving crystal-like salt, so white looking that it resembled snow.
It was fun to show the other camps you see along the way, there are 6 in total in the lagoon, all run by various members of the few families that reside there.
The road follows the edge of the lagoon, eventually leading you to Campo Cortez, which is one of the last camps before the road ends.
This means we are closer to the mouth of the lagoon, which is where the designated whale watching observation area sits, so a short panga ride means you are right there, amongst the whales, in an average of 10 minutes.
We were greeted by Maldo and his family like old friends, a warming touch that, I think, makes Campo Cortez stand out from the rest. We ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans, and Catalina’s handmade flour tortillas (melt in your mouth!), plus, we can’t forget, the delicious, strong coffee crafted up by Elsa – no fancy machines here, just a pot, with the coffee and a strainer, straight into a thermos flask. This is coffee, Baja style.
We can’t really remember getting onto the panga, to go see the whales, we just remember being there, with the wind on our faces, that fresh smell, the brightness of the water, and the openness of the skies above.
And that familiar sound of the water lapping against the side of the boat once the boat captain (the captains rotate, it’s either Maldo or either of his two sons, Paco and Roberto) lets the engine run idle.
You never feel like you’re waiting, because before too long, the whales are upon you. Or are we upon them? I’m never sure which, they’re just there! All rising to the surface of the glassy water, blowing and rolling and diving back down. Heaven.
Surrounded by Whales (Video)
We had the lagoon to ourselves the first morning, before another group arrived. Also seasoned whale watchers, they tucked themselves into their cabins and then quickly changed to get ready for the afternoon whale watching.
Two trips a day, over three days meant we had 6 whale watching trips in total, each lasting roughly 2 hours. Plenty of time to get to know these incredible creatures, in their natural habitat.
Rodrigo and I always say that each trip is different, and it’s true. We can also never really judge what is going to happen. Whether it is glassy, calm weather, or blowing a hooley, the whales will do what the whales will do, and they’re either completely on top of you or just doing their own thing. Which is refreshing, as it means they’re wild and they’re FREE.
We enjoyed a Mother and her baby for a whole afternoon that same first day. When I say enjoyed, I literally mean enjoyed their company, as they came over to one of the boats and, after pegging themselves alongside, they just rolled and played, with us and with each other, continually for some time.
The boat captains always try to help each other, and once they feel everyone has had a good “fill” of whale petting (A bit contradictory in terms because how can you ever get enough?), they carry out the very simple maneuver of pulling back and to the side, ever so slightly, just enough to release the many hands that are piling over the side of the boat and give way for another boat to come in and enjoy some close-up – whale petting time.
Then the other boat moves back altogether, as you can only have one boat with a friendly whale at a time.
San ignacio Whales (Video)
There’s always a tingling excited feeling in my stomach, just as you see the other boat pulling away and our boat starts to enter into the circus ring.
The whales, most of the time, seem nonplussed about being “switched”, they rarely move away, even keeping their rostrums (front part of the head, usually referred to as the “nose”) out of the water, seemingly waiting for more petting! “Hey, where did you go”? We love to anthropomorphize, don’t we?
The truth is, we can really only speculate as to why these wonderful sentient beings choose to come and be by our sides. It’s so humbling as they are always the decision makers, we can never manipulate or change what they choose to do.
The feeling of being powerless, in a way, to these water-dwelling mammals can be a strong lesson to learn for the human species, who are so used to having all the control. And the fact that it is so much fun, makes it even better.
I have never seen anyone come out of the lagoon without a huge smile on their face, almost bewildered as to what has actually happened during their stay.
This is something I always cherish, as a guide; the chance to witness people who have gone through a transformation, seeing life from a different perspective.
The transformation has happened. Now, the trick is to carry that with you into your life. Just imagine the changes we could make, as a whole, if we did this, all stemming from that one touch of a whale.
Tune in to part 2 of “A Road Trip that begins with the whales” where the interaction in the lagoon gets even more intense!
Thanks for reading, see you next post.