There simply is no other place like this on earth. You can see gray whales on any number of whale watching tours up and down the California coast, but nothing like this. On an ordinary whale watching trip, you're lucky if you see a whale or two through binoculars. Here, there are dozens all around you, playing near the boats, sometimes close enough to touch.
And the best thing about it is that the whales themselves decided at one point that they wanted to make contact with the humans. That's right -it wasn't always like this. Once they were hunted. Then when hunting was banned, they kept to themselves for many decades. In fact when the first whales approached local fishing boats in the 1970s, the fishermen were terrified. Now humans and whales can commune in peace. It's a wonderful thing.
Know that they won't always come close enough to touch though. On my trip they were just out of arms reach, and the boats are not allowed to chase them (fortunately!). Still, I've never seen so many whales in my life. As a consolation prize, a school of dolphins decided to play near our boat on the way back. I snapped a picture of one just off the starboard side in mid-jump -maybe a foot away from the boat! The dolphin was actually close enough to touch!
There's another lagoon 3 hours north and less remote where you can see gray whales. San Ignacio lagoon requires a two-hour ride down a dirt road to get to the lagoon from town. But I'm glad I made the extra effort to get to San Ignacio. The whales generally come closer to the boats here, and they're more likely to come close enough to touch. And the fact that it's even more remote means even less tourists in an already untouristed part of Baja. They have a saying in Mexico: bad roads, good tourists; good roads, bad tourists. I believe it.
There are several companies that can hook you up in style, but I prefer DIY -more local flavor and way, way cheaper. And it doesn't take that much more time. Maybe less. Here's what it takes to do it yourself on the cheap:
Fly to San Diego, take the trolley to the border. Take a cab to the central bus terminal (tell the cabbie you want to go to the one with buses to Baja California Sur, not just Ensenada).
Buy a ticket for an overnight ABC bus (the trip takes 15 hours provided there are no delays, so overnight is the better way to go unless you can keep busy for 15 hours). The buses tend to be comfortable and safe, though one should always be prepared for various unpleasantries in Mexico... like loud movies, in Spanish, playing well into the night, so forget about sleeping. Or the fact that there's no reading light, so forget about reading. Or seats that are supposed to recline but don't. Oh, and perhaps a 2AM breakdown necessitating a middle of the night bus change. That last part was actually a blessing -no movies on the second bus and I finally got some sleep.
But in the end it all works out. I still got to San Ignacio in the morning of day 2 (only 3 hours late), walked into town (about a half hour from the road -the locals will point the way), and settled down into my room at the cozy Casa Leree. Plenty of time to take a nap, see the cute town park, the Mission, even take a hike up in the hills for a beautiful view of the town.
Oh yeah, and book a trip to the Lagoon for the next day with one of the tour companies. Alternatively staying in one of the camps there is an option, but harder logisitically without your own transport.
Day 3 is for the whales, and the tour company takes you there and back into town by the afternoon. You can be on the evening bus to Tijuana that very same night.
If you want to extend your trip you can take a half day tour to see the cave paintings. I settled for the cave painting museum in San Ignacio, where there's a half-scale replica of the cave paintings. But on the shortest trip, you need just 4 days for everything.
It's a once in a lifetime experience and well worth the effort. If it was anyplace populated, San Ignacio Lagoon might have been overrun with tourists by now. But fortunately, it's as remote as it gets, which makes it all that much better.
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