By Peter Breslin
Think Bahía Magdalena and perhaps you imagine whale watching, sport fishing or surfing some of the world class breaks on the exposed Pacific. Less common: a one-of-a-kind excursion to Isla Magdalena, home to 5 species of cacti and one Agave that are almost entirely restricted to that island. A spectacular example of what biologists call “island endemism,” Isla Magdalena also offers solitude, bay and ocean recreation, bird watching, hiking and spectacular views, all while being within reasonable distance of pleasant accommodations in the bustling fishing village of San Carlos.
If you are approaching from the north, the drive across the peninsula from Loreto through the Sierra de la Giganta is a breathtaking prelude. Dramatic vistas of the Sea of Cortez south of Loreto give way to some of the best mountain scenery in Baja, including dense cardonales (forests of cardon). The usually sparse traffic once you get past Puerto Escondido makes for a great trip, although currently some patience is required due to ongoing road construction near Loreto and on the approach to Ciudad Insurgentes. From Ciudad Insurgentes, head south an easy 20 miles or so to Ciudad Constitución. In Constitución itself, you can stock up on supplies at the many tiendas in town or pesos at several ATM machines.
When you're ready to head out to Puerto San Carlos, look for the turn at the north end of Ciudad Constitución with the large statue of Benito Juárez. The well maintained, paved road is about a 40 mile drive to the busy fishing village of San Carlos. Not particularly known as a tourist destination, San Carlos does however feature a few hotels. In preparation for my island adventure, I stayed at the highly recommended Hotel Villas Isabela. To find it, follow signs to the beach/malecon. The innkeeper, Jorge, graciously permitted me to park my vehicle in secure, enclosed parking within the hotel grounds while I was at the island.
My guide for the trip was Marcos Crispin, a second generation eco-tour operator in San Carlos who runs Magdalena Bay Whales. Marcos speaks flawless English and provided superb customer service and reasonable rates for the round trip ride to the island. The panga ride takes about an hour and a half, depending on wind and waves. He is in the process of building a beautiful camping spot on Isla Magdalena complete with a small grill/kitchen, elevated tent sites, a large palapa and a bar. While he specializes in whale watching tours, he is interested in providing service to all kinds of adventurers interested in the wonders of Mag Bay.
Once on the island, I set up my tent camping site at a remote locale and hiked to the top of the volcanic ridgeline that is the backbone of the island. Along the way, I finally had a chance to see many large, old specimens of the very rare plants of the island, plants that are impossible (or nearly so) to see anywhere else in the world. Once up on top of the high ridge of the island, the views of the unspoiled and completely deserted Pacific coast are stunning. A clearly visible trail leads down from the heights to the beach. Back on the bay side, it is a short walk to the tiny village of Puerto Magdalena (about 60 families live on the island year round). As the sun set out over the Pacific, I settled in to a peaceful night sleeping under the stars, interrupted only by the barking of a lone seal out in the bay.
The next day was set aside for the walk along the sandy road from Puerto Magdalena to Bahía Santa María, the large bay to the north of the more mountainous portions of the island. Bahía Santa María is home to two other very rare, endangered cactus species. The hike passes through a huge mangrove estuary, Pacific cactus and succulent scrub, dunes and then to the beautiful and deserted Bahía Santa María, with roaring surf and a seemingly endless coastline.
In order to see it all and allow for time to catch one's breath, at least a two day stay is recommended, camping somewhere on the island. We headed over early on a Wednesday morning and returned Thursday evening. Although there is no lodging on the island, there is a small restaurant that is open during whale watching season (January through April) and a small grocery store. Plan on backpacking your own provisions and water, however, at least until Señor Crispin finishes the eco-camp.
The unusual and endemic plants, the solitude and the rare glimpse into wild Baja make an excursion to Isla Magdalena an unforgettable adventure.
Peter Breslin has traveled the length of the Baja California peninsula by car 8 times in the past 3 years and more than 20 times in the past decade, attempting to locate, study and photograph as many of the cacti of that botanically rich area as possible. Along the way, he enjoys camping at remote, undeveloped beaches, eating unforgettable Baja seafood and hiking the central mountains. He has been published in Cactus & Co., Kakteen und Andere Sukkulenten and The Cactus and Succulent Journal. He begins study toward a Ph.D. in Environmental and Life Sciences at Arizona State University in fall of 2014.Map image courtesy of Mexfish.com.