SETTING THE SCENE
I have lived in California for the majority of my life and went to Baja California a few times, mainly to Tijuana (especially as a teenager in college looking for parties to avoid America’s 21 year old age limit). I had often heard of Cabo San Lucas, but never really had a desire to go since I thought it would be all about resorts and plush hotels. But when a close friend told me about the whale migration along the western coast of one of the world’s longest peninsulas, mostly in Baja Sur California (BCS), I was intrigued. After doing some research I found that this is in fact the longest migration of any mammal on earth and you have the chance at a front row seat to watch the whole incredible experience.
The migration includes blue whales, orcas, sperm whales, pilot whales, and my personal favorite, the gray whales. So we mapped out the itinerary and began to figure out how we can make this into a long weekend trip. What we experienced was simply unreal! Not only did we lounge on some of the nicest beaches, eat delicious seafood, and drive through fields of what seemed like thousands of cacti, but above all we saw the gray whales up close and personal. Enjoy this journey of The magical experience of petting gray whales.
My main concern on the trip was figuring out where we would see the most whales that is not too far from where we were planning to stay and that would not be pure extortion in price.
COVID: Oddly enough Mexico does not have restrictions on Americans flying into the country, no COVID testing, no vaccination requirements. No wonder Americans are going to Mexico in droves. When we left Mexico to return to the U.S. we needed to show an antigen test and our vaccination status. We used Integralab in La Paz, which was very efficient. Regardless, make sure to check the requirements for Mexico to and from your country of residence.
ACCOMMODATIONS: We initially looked at places close to the ports where we were going to see the whales. But the accommodations in these locations looked depressing and worn down. Not ideal when traveling with your partner. So we shifted focus to the beautiful town of La Paz about 2.5 hours from Cabo airport and another 2-3 hours from the main points of embarkation for the whales. We looked at quite a few hotel options in La Paz. One hotel that was a little over the budget but nevertheless we had to check out was Baja Club: Super well located and very nicely designed. In the end, we decided to get an airbnb and stayed with the super responsive and awesome Andrea in her 2 bedroom apartment very close to the city center of La Paz. Convenient, clean, and comfortable, this was a great way to stay at an affordable accommodation in La Paz.
CAR RENTAL: If you feel comfortable driving, I would HIGHLY recommend getting a rental car. There are a bunch of different companies in Cabo airport where you can pick up and drop off the rental. I usually use Orbitz and found a great deal at the airport. Having a car helped us to be on our own clock, go to random locales, and enjoy the trip without worrying about others. Note the car insurance is a major pain, see Travel Hacks.
WHALE TOUR: The final step was figuring out where we could all but guarantee to see the whales. After a bunch of google searches and reading numerous blogs we found that there are three main areas, two in the northern part (way outside a drivable distance) and one in BCS called Magdalena Bay. We then tried to find a tour operator. We read about a few on tripadvisor and on different blogs. But each time I contacted someone via whatsapp they would say it’s roughly $400 for two people, $450 if they picked us up from our accommodation and with that cost they would still need to find 4-8 people to fill the boat. I simply could not accept paying such a price when we are only going a few miles out of the port for 2-3 hours to see whales. Since I had a car, I decided to just drive to the bay and find a fisherman myself, negotiate a price in my elementary Spanish, and make it happen. This plan was co-signed by our Airbnb host, who also recommended Puerto Chale since its closer to La Paz (2 hours) and friends had sent her videos of the whales days before. That’s all the confirmation I needed, challenge set! Read more to see the outcome!
The focus on the journey was seeing the whales. Everything else was a bonus. Well it turns out that Baja has soooo many awesome activities to do from diving in some of the world’s oldest reefs (even the world renowned Jacques-Yves Cousteau said the Sea of Cortez was the “world’s aquarium”), to swimming with sea lions off the shores of Isla Esqirito Santo, to riding dunebugies, lounging in crystal clear, white sand beaches, eating delicious food and of course seeing the incredible whale migration between January-April.
By way of background, thousands of gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales and others travel between 10,000-14,000 miles round trip from the frigid waters off Alaska all the way to the warm lagoons of BCS. More specifically to gray whales, they often travel 5mph or up to 75 miles a day to reach Baja from Alaska. The goal is to socialize, mate and give birth to their baby calves in the waters of Mexico then return back to their homes. It also turns out that gray whales are very curious and affectionate and like to come close to boats, unlike humpback or blue whales.
So the day arrived and we woke up super early in the morning to get to Puerto Chale by 9AM to find a captain willing to take us out. The game plan was if we did not find a captain in Puerto Chale we would continue driving up north to San Carlos in Magdalena Bay, which we were confident would have many boats, and also many tourists. As we were planning and plotting we could not help but notice on the drive the forests of cacti along the route. Definitely worth observing and appreciating.
When we got to the port (small and quaint) we started asking around and found that the going rate was $150-$200 for a boat (pangas) entirely to yourself for 2-3 hours to see the whales! SCORE! We were assigned Captain Rody:
And off we went along the mangroves to the bay right near the ocean.
We finally got to an open area and right there you could hear the sound and see misty jets of vapor blowing from the spouts of whales all over the bay (this comes from the mist of condensed air exhaled under high pressure from their lungs).
We were literally surrounded by gray whales, as far as the eyes could see, maybe 50-100, bobbing, turning, breaching, floating on the surface of the water! They would come up near the boat in twos and threes, large and small (likely the calves), curious to see what we were doing in their hood. Of course the area was also teeming with wildlife, pelicans, dolphins, turtles and other creatures. Sadly we were not able to get into the water because of environmental concerns and safety issues but we still were blown away from the music they made and their majestic movements as they gracefully swam right by us.
Here was the special moment. As we started to make our way out of the bay we saw that a gray whale had literally swam up to one of the boats in the vicinity and was letting the passengers pet it!! Apparently gray whales love this, and even push their calves to the surface to get some TLC from onlookers on the surface (I thought their boat was going to tip over!).
The gray whale then saw our small boat and came to us. Honestly I can’t put into words the elation of the moment something so large, so majestic, in the wild, making contact. Indeed, stroking the skin, which was so smooth, hearing its breath, while looking deep into its eye as if connecting to each other’s souls with unequivocal trust, was pure magic! I was literally left shaking…
We made our way back to the port but made a few stops along the route to pick up trash. The fishermen are very concerned and involved in ensuring that the marine life is protected and their shores and waterways remain clean. Never Forget: Nature First.
Over the course of the trip we also saw other interesting, beautiful and noteworthy attractions:
Tropic of Cancer: On a recent trip I went to the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia. The southern tropic that lies at 23.5 degrees. Previous to that I had gone to Uganda and stopped on the equator line (witnessing the Coriolis Effect!). So when I saw that a small city en route to La Paz hosted the Tropic of Cancer, I stopped by to see the northernmost point where the sun shines directly overhead!
Cabo Pulmo: When I told a close friend that I was heading to Baja he begged me to stop by Cabo Pulmo on the southeast tip of the peninsula. I obliged as it was not too far from the main highway to La Paz. We stopped for a fresh seafood lunch and walked around the beaches. Absolutely serene! There is tons to do in Cabo Pulmo, with some epic diving with whale sharks, jack fish and other marine life, as well as camping and other leisurely activities to truly immersing yourself in nature.
Balandra Beach: About 25 minutes from downtown La Paz is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. There you will find crystal clear water, white sand beaches, and incredible rock formations that will leave you speechless. Just note because of overcrowding they have two blocks of time: 8-11AM and 1-3PM. Make sure you get there by 2PM so you can see a killer sunset (or so I’m told since we were not allowed to the beach until the next morning).
La Paz: The city of La Paz is nice and small and super central to some great outdoor activities. Also there are some nice restaurants (we went to Olivia Al Mar, which was super nice), historic buildings and a really nice boardwalk along the coast. I would also use it to check out Isla Espirito Santo for great diving and snorkeling spots.
Seeing whales so up close and personal is truly an unforgettable experience. How such mammals continue the circle of life thousands of miles away while letting us humans in on this intimate, incredible experience was something truly humbling and honestly out of this world. Also, Baja California (north and certainly south), has so much to offer and is definitely worth a long visit, especially for those who want to unwind, unplug, and connect with our beautiful planet – mammals and nature alike.
Check out our blog in Tulum, Mexico outlining our top picks of nature based activities:
AIRBNB HOST RESOURCE: Our host, Andrea, was unbelievably helpful providing recommendations for restaurants, tour operators, COVID test sites, and places to visit. In fact, she was able to confirm information that I just could not find anywhere! Make sure when you book an Airbnb that the host has a high rating and people comment about how helpful and resourceful they are, as they will likely go out of their way to make your trip unforgettable.
CAR RENTAL INSURANCE: While renting a car is a great way to jump around different locations, the insurance coverage can definitely become a major cost and headache. In Mexico car insurance is mandatory. And car rental agencies will force you to take out SUPER hefty holds on your credit card (sometimes up to the full cost of the car!). For example, on this trip I rented from Fox/Eurocar. The insurance was like 125% of the daily rental rate, which is beyond annoying. There are definitely ways to negotiate these rates like I did in Cancun, but that takes time and patience. So I would call in advance some of the car rental companies to find the exact price (because the costs on Orbitz don’t include this insurance) and find ways to negotiate over the phone OR when you get to the airport, have a booking as a back-up with one company, but go to the different car rental offices and see if they are willing to match the rate with insurance coverage. If it’s low season you may be able to pull this off. Whatever you do, do get insurance because liability coverage typically does not carry over from the U.S. to Mexico.
ROUTES WITH TOLLS: On the way to La Paz I took a highway that I thought was the main one but it took 2.5 hours, although it did stop by some locations we wanted to see along the way. That said, on the way back to the airport in Cabo (which by the way is way outside central Cabo San Lucas in a city called San José del Cabo or SJD) we found that there is a toll road (did not appear at first on Google Maps) that saved us about 20-25 mins of driving. So make sure to turn on tolls (or basically not have the ‘avoid toll’ option on in Google Map settings) because it can definitely help when trying to save time (just make sure to have cash on hand for the tolls to speed things up).