An April 2004 trip
to San Carlos by btwood2
Quote: Starkly beautiful Cerro Tetakawi rises from the edge of the deep turquoise Sea of Cortez, welcoming us to San Carlos. This little gem, currently a resort community and fishing village, has been in flux since the first people were awed by its forceful peaks and lulled by its tropical climate.
Road and building signs are predominantly in English, secondarily in Spanish, a reflection of the largely American/Canadian population of this resort town. Mexican citizens also come here to play, relax, and get married, but more come here every day from their homes in Guaymas to work. And there seems to be lots of work here, from jobs in resorts and restaurants to construction of fancy homes, and repair to buildings damaged last September by Hurricane Marty.
San Carlos is a mecca for divers, ocean fishermen, and water sport lovers. More than 800 species of maritime life call these deep turquoise blue waters their home. There are plenty of good restaurants, hotels, inns, RV parks, and shops selling folk art and handcrafted items. Highlights of our trip were: watching a delightful, extensive dance performance by a Ballet Folklorico troupe, kayaking around the harbor and up the coast one afternoon, and making ourselves a new "home" at the charming Posada del Desierto.
Attraction | "Cave Kayaking on the Sea of Cortez"
It was a calm, sunny day with the gentlest of breezes, as we tried to coordinate our paddling in the harbor, sheltered by land on three sides. The breeze was blowing in from the sea, prolonging the time it took to paddle past the Peninsula Caracol and the longer west isthmus jutting out past Catalina Island. Once out in the sea, we were greeted by many groups of pelicans skimming over the surface of the water.
West of the isthmus, we spied a sheltered cove. This seemed like a good place to have our sandwiches, so we paddled up and easily pulled our kayak onto the beach. Unfortunately, the cove was far from pristine, as the sands were littered with refuse, mostly plastics. We tried to ignore the mess and admire the organ pipe cacti sprouting out of the cliffs above us, and watched boats go by as we ate.
After lunch we paddled off again, this time to the other side of the cove, where the water was very clear – so clear we could see far down into it, where fish swam among the aquatic plants that undulated in the current. As we began paddling up the coast, gaping holes appeared in the rocky cliffs – caves! We weren’t sure how deep they were, but Bob was bound and determined to explore each one, in spite of my protests. Not the bravest soul alive, I had visions of us being sucked into underground currents. Luckily, each one of the three "caves" we explored turned out to be shallow, no more than grottos. In their shady and cool depths, many crabs scurried spider-like along the walls and into crevices out of sight as we approached. The last cave contained a little "blowhole", which sputtered and sprayed when the bigger waves pushed in.
As we paddled back down past Catalina Island into the harbor, the breeze was now on our backs, helping us make progress even when we drifted. It was late afternoon when we returned the kayak to its slip. Our arms were sore, our hands beginning to blister, but we felt gratified and well rewarded. I’m ready for another kayak adventure!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 19, 2004
Sea of Cortez
San Carlos, Mexico
Best place to cross the border: Unless you relish waiting in long lines of cars for hours while street vendors try to sell you things you probably don’t need, the truck crossing in Nogales is the way to go. From the Mariposa Mall on Highway 89, follow Mariposa Road (Highway 189) all the way down to the border. It’s open between 6am and 10pm daily. We zipped right on through, stopping only to pay the toll at the booth just past the border, and at Km 21 on Highway 15 for customs.
Visa: We parked at Km 21, plenty of spaces, and were led by big signs and arrows to each "station". First, we filled out formas migratorias (visa applications) which were stamped by the official, good for six months. We were told to pay the 210 peso ($21) fee at any bank when we arrived at our destination. We were then directed to have copies made of these forms, plus our passports, drivers licenses, and vehicle title and registration. We saved a little cash by already having copies of the other forms.
Sonora Only permit: We’d read in several places that this could only be used for stays in Sonora state of 72 hours or less, but when we spoke to the young man behind the counter in the regular permit line, he assured us we qualified for this free permit. On we walked to the "Sonora Only" building, and were immediately helped by a young woman who issued us a free temporary import of vehicle permit, certificate, and silver holographic sticker that was to be placed in the corner of our windshield, passenger side. And that was it! We were on our way.
Toll roads: We drove mostly on the toll road, but took one libre spur just to see the little town of Magdalena. The quality of the toll road was not surprisingly much better than the side roads, but one common characteristic of all the roads is that they have NO SHOULDERS! If they do, they’re only a few inches wide. If you stray off the road going 100 Km/per hour, you’re likely to roll over. There are many shrines and crosses all along the road that mark where unfortunate people wrecked and died. The tolls are collected both coming and going. The fees are 35 pesos (Nogales), 17 pesos (Magdalena), and 53 pesos (Hermosillo) respectively; just under $10 if you choose to pay in pesos, just over US$10 if you pay in dollars.
Speaking Spanish: Again, a no-brainer, but speaking the language REALLY helps. I get by pretty well in Spanish, and was endlessly complimented and appreciated. As an experiment, I sometimes pretended to be ESO (English-speaking only); even by those Mexican citizens who speak good English, the reception is a shade or two cooler.
The water I’ve always heard and read NOT to drink any tap water in Mexico, and avoid ice cubes, produce which may not have been washed in purified water, and roadside food stands. As a nurse, I know about not fun ova, parasites, and bacteria that can wreak havoc with the gastro-intestinal system, and beyond. However my anal-retentiveness only goes so far. The first two days we were at the Plaza Hotel, Bob inadvertently drank tap water, not noticing that the "purified water" sticker belonged to another faucet off to the side. He remained fine. We enjoyed iced drinks all over town, and had plenty of fresh fruits and veggies in a variety of restaurants, although we didn’t stop at any stands. We brought 10 gallons of Huachuca City AZ tap water with us in two collapsible five-gallon bags, and only used one of them for drinking, coffee, mixing with whey powder, etc. while we were at the inn that didn’t have a purified water faucet. No problema! Find out more about travelers’ diahrrea at this CDC information sheet.
Beer We found out the best places to buy good beer economically were at the roadside subagencias which sell the major Mexican brands. At first, we bought quarts of beer in the grocery stores for a hefty price. Even though the subagencias were all over, the way they were set up, they looked like bars to us. When we were assured this was not the case, we went in to buy. Twenty long-neck Coronas cost 165 pesos, but when you bring the empty bottles back in the box, you are refunded 50 pesos, or if you want another 20 pack, it will only cost 115 pesos because you are trading in the empties for fulls.
Re-entering the U.S. We are especially clueless in some regards. Crossing borders seems to be one of them. I doubt many readers would do as we did the last time we returned to the U.S. from Baja many years ago, that is, not heeding the red stop light well back from the checkpoint and following the car in front of us right up to the entry kiosk. The U.S. entry guard just about had apoplexy and we were guaranteed a thorough search of our camper. So this time, I reminded Bob to not only wait for the light, but also some indication that the customs official was ready for us. We already suspected we were in the worst line (of the four passenger car lines) because ours was moving the slowest. As our turn came, we crept up slowly to the kiosk. The guy made no eye contact with us and seemed to be counting vehicles in the long lines. Finally he asked us for papers, and I handed our passports and Mexican visas. "I don’t need those, just your passports. What state you from?" That question demands a quick, definite response, not, "Uh, California". In fact, we are from California but recently changed our residency to New Mexico, and our vehicles and licenses are New Mexican, which the observant official quickly pointed out. After a few more questions, big surprise, we were directed to have our vehicle inspected. The inspector was much nicer, seemed to be mostly concerned about the illegal importation of birds, and after looking in the back seat and trunk, was satisfied that nothing needed to be emptied out or taken apart.
Fast forward to San Carlos, Mexico, 42 years later. On this sad day in my life, I had just been told by the good Dr. Martinez that my right lower molar didn’t have enough enamel left between the large filling and the interior of the tooth for the pulp to be saved. Twice before when pieces of my back molars had splintered off surprising me during a meal or a snack, I’d had crowns put on without root canals, and I was hopefully expecting that this would be all I would need. But the dreaded words "root canal" were being spoken, and I fixed my husband (who was in the exam room with me) with a quick penetrating, doomed stare like the one Faye Dunaway gave Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde just before they got wiped out. Bob is an old pro when it comes to root canals, and actually is very much in favor of them as the most practical solution to problem molars, regardless of the options. In this area as in many others, we are opposites, and I had hoped to keep all my teeth, which really have served me quite well in spite of all the sugary abuse I heaped on them. With a root canal, you get to keep the skeletal remains of the tooth, but the living pulp (nerve and circulatory tissue) is destroyed. The tooth mostly dies, or more accurately, is killed. I felt like I was losing a little friend. In a last ditch effort to save my tooth, I blurted out, "I really don’t feel good about this". "The doctor is right; you should have a root canal", responded Bob. "But I’m scared! I’ve heard terrible things about root canals." After combined and repeated assurances from both Bob and Dr. Martinez, I lapsed into a mixture of sadness, resignation, and grumpiness. The next two hours passed rather quickly and painlessly, since my lower right jaw was anesthetized. I’ve always been good at focusing myself to relax under potentially stressful situations. That evening, still in some degree of mourning for my molar, I comforted myself with a plate of soft, creamy fettuccine Alfredo.
My lower right jaw was sore only that night, but I continued to avoid chewing on that side. The following week, I returned to Dr. Martinez to have the procedure completed. After more local shots, the canals were cleaned out some more, then filled. The porcelain crown that had been made for me in Hermosillo was bonded to the remains of the tooth, and that was that. Now, two weeks later, I’ve had no soreness at all and can chew on both sides, but the crown still feels like it might be a tad too large. After the fact, I’ve been reading more about root canals and all kinds of controversy surrounding this procedure. Some holistic health professionals and proponents believe they are inherently toxic and should never be done. The alternative: extraction, not something I’d want either.
If considering having dental procedures done in Mexico, ask around to find out who are the best dentists. Usually, they are booked up somewhat in advance. Usually, they are not the cheapest dentists and are frequented more by foreigners as well as locals who can afford it. Do not expect niceties like informed consent; you may not even be asked if you are allergic to anything. Consider it YOUR responsibility to ask the dentist any questions that you have and inform the dentist of any medication or latex allergies.
The other and perhaps most significant concern remains the potential of acquiring blood-borne and other infectious diseases in dental offices that do not properly sterilize their equipment. An office can appear very clean and staff can assure patients that all their equipment is sterilized, but the fact is, there is really no way of knowing this for sure. On the other hand, according to the CDC, the transmission of HIV virus in dental settings from patient to patient is extremely low. The last documented case of proven transmission was from an infected dentist in Florida who passed the virus on to six of his patients in 1990. You can protect yourself against Hepatitis B by getting immunized, but a vaccine hasn’t been developed yet for hepatitis C. Hepatitis B infection rates in Mexico are under 2%, as they are in the U.S. To sum it up, life is always a bit of a gamble, and everyone has different degrees of comfort when it comes to risk-taking, but the odds are in your favor that with a bit asking around, observation, inquiry, and common sense, you can experience good, economical dental treatment in Mexico.
As we walked on, we spotted a most unusual sight: a pickup truck halfway in the water. There were people all around it, and as we got closer, we noticed another, smaller pickup on the sand was chained to it and the driver was getting ready to try to pull it out. Plenty of people were trying to help. Apparently what had happened was that the man who drove the pickup into the waves was unloading a jet-ski-boat into the water. When he tried to drive back up onto firmer ground, the truck’s wheels just kept spinning in the soft wet sand, digging in deeper. As luck would have it, the tide was coming in. When we arrived at the scene, the smaller pickup was expending mighty effort, its engine revving high; sand and water were spraying in the air from the churning tires of the truck in the water, and as many people as could get their hands on the back of the truck were pushing for all they were worth. After several of these attempts, it became clear that the truck in the water wasn’t budging, and if anything, sinking deeper in. Someone went to see about getting another truck, and a couple of other guys went to ask some construction people for help. We decided there probably wasn’t a whole lot we could do, so we walked on.
A couple of hours later, we wondered as we approached the area on our return walk. Would we see the truck floating out to sea? Would we hear it had become hopelessly waterlogged and sank? Or did it somehow manage to get pulled out? We spotted one of the guys who had gone to see the construction crew, and walked over to where he was sitting in the sand with a friend. He said they’d managed to get the truck out, and pointed. Sure enough, there it stood, high and dry, well away from the surf, appearing none the worse for its ordeal. They’d gotten a couple of 2-by-6’s from the construction guys. They were able to place these under the tires, and a second pickup arrived with a chain. The combined effort of the two trucks plus the boards and people pushing from behind were enough to finally free the hapless pickup from the waves. So with a bit of ingenuity and a lot of effort, no calls for official help were needed and the day was saved for the owner of the truck and his family!
Evidence of hurricane damage was already in sight as we continued our walk up the beach. The aforementioned construction crew was rebuilding a structure, one of many in a row of vacation rentals along the beach. Just past a yellow cubular building which turned out to be a restaurant, we came upon another vehicle. A shiny, black SUV had been left stuck in the soft sand. Was there no end to this? On our way back, we witnessed the happy ending to this story. It only took one pickup with a chain to pull the SUV onto firmer ground.
The coast curved eastwards; to the west was a rocky peninsula and some islands, one full of pelicans. We took some photos with the zoom, but wished we’d brought our binoculars. To the east and within the curve of the coastline appeared the old Club Med. We crossed a wooden bridge and continued walking on the path… past very quiet, isolated guest rooms. Under palms and past flowering hibiscus, we eventually spotted a couple of young women, one pushing a baby stroller up the path towards us. They said they weren’t staying here, and didn’t really know what was going on, but thought they had been open recently. Finally we got to the pool and the bar. Dozens of white plastic lounge chairs surrounded the attractive pool, all empty, the pool empty too, but for the water. One solitary guy manning the bar told us this was El Paradiso, bought only one year ago after Club Med fell into disrepair. Three months later, Hurricane Marty blew up the Sea of Cortez on September 21, 2003, causing major damage in many ports along the way. The bar and the resort were again open, but there was still work to be done repairing some of the more heavily damaged rooms as well as the fitness center. Eventually, two young men in swim trunks came out to use the pool – they had it all to themselves. We turned to walk back along Los Algodones Beach, leaving El Paradiso, with its eerie ghost-town feel.
Next order of business was to go help ourselves to the platters of food on tables along the back wall. We found a good variety of dishes, including a scrumptious nopalito salad, and an interesting combination of sweet, peeled orange slices along with cinnamon jicama sticks. The bowl for which the fiesta was named, Holy Guacamole, was there in all its splendor, and seeing as how avocado is my favorite fruit, I helped myself to a generous mound of the stuff – excellent! Besides the standard rice, refried beans, Sonoran soup, chips and assorted salsas, there were some very good main courses, including a hot saucy pork and nopalito dish, creamy tender pork chops poblano, and tamales.
The highlight of the three-hour fiesta, though, was the wonderful folkloric dancing group! Three young couples with boundless energy, skill, and enthusiasm entertained us flawlessly for at least an hour. They began dressed all in white, the women in lace with red shawls and black sequined aprons, dancing the haunting Bruja of Veracruz, with lit candles balanced on their heads. The Veracruz segment ended with the intricate La Bamba, the courtship dance in which the men and women tied the red shawls into bows, on the floor, using only their feet! A costume change and the dancers reappeared, the men in white still, but with brightly colored jackets of blue, yellow and green, and the women in flower printed skirts and colorful blouses of red, orange and blue, edged with white lace. The women wore flower headbands around their buns. Flowers and butterflies were apparently the theme of this next group of dances that originated in Nayarit state, depicting the harvest of wildflowers. The men were featured in these dances, balancing bottles of tequila on their heads. The finale was a daring machete dance, each man with two machetes, one in each hand, also symbolizing the wildflower harvest. Another costume change brought the couples out again, this time representing an area just north of San Carlos, the home of the Seri Indians. The women wore pale green blouses and checkered skirts, the men white shirts, blue jeans, and black cowboy hats. We all thought this series of graceful courtship dances was their finale, but no! After an amusing but silly tequila-drinking contest by volunteer members of the audience, the dancers came out once again – this time dancing to sones from Jalisco province, dressed as charros and chinas, the men in red sashes and black pants trimmed down the side with gold, wearing big, black sombreros; the women in brightly colored high-necked, puffy-sleeved ribbon dresses. Their performance culminated in the jaraibe tapatio, the national dance of Mexico, known in English as the Mexican hat dance.
In between dances, a black-garbed singer dubbed "The Black Mariachi" belted out dramatic love songs in an almost too strenuous voice. At some point, an assortment of delicious desserts appeared on the back tables. But the dancers stole the show for me. Noche Mexicana is a weekly event, every Tuesday from 6 to 9pm. For information and reservations, contact:San Carlos Plaza Hotel Resort
Los Algodones, San Carlos, Sonora
Reservations: 01-622-227-00-77 ext. 510
The early 1800’s saw the port of San Carlos beginning to flourish as a major supply center. In 1847 the war between the United States and Mexico began. The U.S. captured the ports of San Carlos and Guaymas. In the 1850’s, the French pirate Captain Rousset began to carry out business in the Sea of Cortez. Somehow, he was eventually overwhelmed by local militia forces and in an astonishing display of overkill, was hanged, shot and beheaded in the San Carlos town square. U.S. wars were good for port business, and both the Civil War in the 1860’s and the war against the Apaches in the 1870’s saw San Carlos flourish as a military supply port.
La Revolución in the first two decades of the 1900s saw San Carlos continue to serve as a military supply point for General Francisco (Pancho) Villa and his army. The next revolution was instigated by Hollywood; in the 1960s the movie Catch-22 was filmed on location here, causing many of the participants to fall in love with the area forever, and two resorts were born on Playa Algodones (Catch-22 Beach), Club Med and Plaza San Carlos Hotel. The little fishing village/war port was reborn as a resort destination.
Between then and now, San Carlos has boomed as a resort community, creating opportunities and pitfalls alike. It remains a town caught between two or more worlds in its development. It will continue to redefine its identity as time continues to pass, thankfully slowly here. Americans we ran into complain everything is mañana, forgetting that’s what was a huge part of the attraction that brought them here in the first place. The unhurried pace, the graciousness and sense of timelessness that is opened up by this attitude.
As a closing thought and perhaps moral lesson as well, (ugh, I hate that moral stuff, what am I doing??), on one of our last days in San Carlos, we drove to El Caracol, just a stone’s throw away from our posada. The gated, upscale, mostly American community on the Caracol peninsula has breathtaking views of the bay and marina. The sign at the entrance to one of the houses Mi casa es mi casa caught my eye as a perversion of the gracious and welcoming Mexican saying, Mi casa es su casa. The owners of the luxury home were probably trying to be tongue in cheek and expressing pride in the house they built with their money, but it made me wonder… The steep, cobble-stoned one-way road took us higher and higher up the hill, until we crested and looked down on the harbor. On the harbor side, building was going on beneath us, another luxury home taking form as the work crew busily hammered away. Later that evening, we happened to mention our excursion up the hill to a local Mexican resident of San Carlos. He rolled up his eyes, telling us the people with the stunning views and expensive houses didn’t seem all that happy. When the hill was opened up to development years ago, there was already a community of Americans and Canadians living on the flatlands near the ocean. Everyone apparently got along great, living happily and cheaply in lovely San Carlos village. The first people that bought lots and built houses on the hill enjoyed their spectacular views for a while, but soon many others were buying and building, ever higher and higher up the hill. Our local informant told us the man who built his large house on the very top seldom even lives in this impressive structure, generating ire from lower down neighbors whose views were compromised. The latest development has been that some newer homes are being built lower down on the hill, but required dynamiting to create large enough level areas to begin building. You can guess what happened: the explosions had a similar effect to a minor earthquake, causing cracks and damage in the homes above. Our friend said the people on the hill aren’t getting along that well with each other anymore. Which once again demonstrates that wealth can be a complicating factor in peoples’ lives.
Rodeo, New Mexico