By Janelle Kuehnert
Day One — Check into the Marinaterra Hotel & Spa ( www.marinaterra.com ) located at the San Carlos marina. In the evening, dine at the Captains Club and try the cahuamanta soup, beer-battered fish or shrimp tacos as you sway to the sweet sounds of live music. If you’re feeling energetic and haven’t had a margarita, depart at sunset from Gary’s Dive Shop (located at the hotel) for a night dive along the walls and boulders of (1) Eagle Rock.
Day Two — Embark on an all-day, three-tank (2) Seal Island/Shipwreck Combo dive package. This includes two-tank dives at Seal Island and a one-tank dive on the Albatun and Presidente Diaz Ordaz. In the evening, visit Fiesta Palapa Bar for dinner and drinks. Soak in the beautiful sunset view as you dine on the best tortilla soup in town.
Day Three — Start the day by making a morning dive at (3) Sea Mount. Return to shore for lunch at Marina Cantina and Deli and order the Cantina Burger. Dig your toes into the sand and sunbathe at Playa los Algodones.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Tetakawi, the seaside resort town of San Carlos is a popular destination for divers in search of the abundant marine life found in the Sea of Cortez and an authentic south of the border atmosphere. This fishing village five hours south of Tucson flaunts its Mexican culture in every nook and cranny –– from roadside fish taco stands and quaint cafes to handcrafted silver jewelry and boisterous festivals. While most people head for the beach resorts and tourist attractions of Baja California, moderate condo and hotel development has preserved the Mexican flavor of San Carlos, making it an escape that offers an inexpensive alternative with charming accommodations, family-owned shops and stunning coastal scenery.
There are more than 800 species of fish in the Sea of Cortez, and divers have the opportunity to experience everything from moray eels and hammerheads to manta rays and sea lions. Just minutes from shore, two popular dive sites –– Eagle Rock and Tres Marias –– give a nice introduction to what awaits off San Carlos. At Eagle Rock, divers explore a dramatic wall that drops 70 feet, showcasing great invertebrate life. Tres Marias features a diverse underwater topography, including large boulders washed by passing currents and plastered with sea fans, anemones and other soft corals.
To see bigger marine life, divers head farther offshore. Located about an hour and a half west of the town by boat, San Pedro Island (aka Seal Island) is home to one of the largest sea lion colonies in the Gulf of California. Against a backdrop of dramatic underwater canyons and cliffs, the sea lions twirl and show off for divers. South Point is another popular site: It features a swim-through that deposits divers at about 75 feet. At that depth divers often encounter hammerheads.
If the hammers aren’t at South Point, divers will likely have better luck at Sea Mount, only 15 minutes east of town. This site has three distinct underwater peaks, and schooling hammerheads circle them at around 110 feet. Sea Mount is also home to giant Pacific manta rays and colonies of moray eels that peak out from their hiding spots among the reef and coral rocks. With luck, divers encounter whale sharks in search of a meal.
If the bountiful marine life isn’t enough, San Carlos also features two artificial reefs nearby. The tuna boat Albatun, nearly 180 feet in length and just 70 feet deep, sits just 30 minutes north of town. Dive operators often combine a dive on the wreck with a plunge on the Presidente Diaz Ordaz, a 330-foot-long ferryboat that lies just in front of the ecological retreat known as Canon de Las Barajitas. The ferry, 20 minutes north of Albatun, was wrecked in a storm in Mazatlán and towed to San Carlos for repairs. When the repairs weren’t made, local dive operators arranged to sink the ferry at its present location.
When not underwater, divers can explore the countryside surrounding San Carlos. Hiking and mountain biking are the most popular dry-day activities, but visitors who prefer a more sedate pace head to the port town of Guaymas, where Spanish colonial heritage blends with modern Mexican culture. Notable attractions include the striking San Fernando Church built in 1850, Plaza 13 de Julio with its Moorish-style bandstand, the stately Municipal Palace across the street from Plaza de los Tres Presidentes, and the waterfront boardwalk where local families and musicians congregate in the evenings.
Need to Know
Getting There — The five-hour drive from Tucson, Arizona, starts on Interstate 19 to Nogales. At the outskirts of Nogales, take the Highway 189 bypass (exit 4) and continue on Mariposa Road, which then becomes Mexico Highway 15 after crossing the border. As you approach Guaymas, the road signs for San Carlos are clearly marked.
When to Go — Peak season for diving here is in summer, from late May through October.
Dive Conditions — The water temperature fluctuates wildly, from 80 degrees F in the summer to the upper 50s to low 60s in the winter. Visibility can range from 30 feet to 100-plus feet.
Price Tag — A one-tank night dive from Gary’s Dive Shop is $55, including tank and weight belt. The Seal Island/Shipwreck Combo dive package is $114 per person and requires advanced diver certification. Rooms at the Marinaterra Hotel & Spa are $79 a night, double occupancy, when booked through Gary’s Dive Shop.