Guaymas/San Carlos – Mexico’s Best Kept Secret
by Lisa Coleman
Writers are always searching to discover those special places no one really knows about yet. We love to stumble upon extraordinary hideaways and bring them as a gift to our readers. Having traveled Mexico extensively, I can attest to the allure of today’s “hot” destinations. Cancun, Cozumel, Ixtapa, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta are indeed gorgeous, but it’s the lesser-known beach cities with their intimate appeal, unspoiled beauty and traditional atmosphere that can really touch your soul and capture your heart. Being from Arizona, I love the natural splendor and energy of the desert. When it’s combined with white sand beaches as they meet the calm waters of a crystal clear sea, it’s something truly unforgettable. And so it is with the booming port city of Guaymas and its striking seaside neighbor, San Carlos. Located in the Mexican state of Sonora, Guaymas/San Carlos may very well be the “best kept secret in Mexico.” But since I’ve given it away… let me tell you a few things about this quiet, yet magical Mexican getaway.
Sonora, the second largest state in Mexico, borders southern Arizona and provides over 800 miles of picturesque coastline along the shining blue Sea of Cortez. This very warm body of water (usually 80+ degrees in the summer months!) was formed millions of years ago when the San Andreas Fault created a rift between Baja California and mainland Mexico. The result: magnificent beaches, natural reefs, thousands of marine species, spectacular dive sights, and world-class fishing.
The beach sister cities of Guaymas and San Carlos are distinguished by their trademark “desert by the sea” landscape. The powerful geological formations, mountainous terrain and desert flora and fauna combine to make this stretch of coastline one of Mexico’s most unique. In addition to being a visual masterpiece, the primary draw to the area is the abundance of outdoor activities and water sports involving the ecologically rich Sea of Cortez. Because of its profusion of vibrant underwater life, this entire body of water has been referred to as an upside down rainforest. The enormous (5,000 feet deep) Guaymas Trench and scattered offshore islands are home to more than 800 species of fish including marlin, sailfish, Dorado, red snapper, sea bass and grouper. Not to mention plenty of sea lions, dolphin and an influx of whales during their seasonal migration. These cities have built themselves upon their thriving relationship with the sea, and with recent resort development and new frequent air service, they’re quickly becoming one of Mexico’s most intriguing beach choices.
The small airport will be your first indication that things down here are very laid back. It’s easy to rent a car (or take a taxi), and with essentially one main road running between the cities, the lay of the land is very simple and uncomplicated to navigate. The anchor is the thriving port of Guaymas. With a population of approximately 200,000 this history-rich city makes a mark for itself through impressive landmarks and a gigantic shrimp industry. Sitting on a natural harbor, Guaymas is bustling with maritime activity. Massive fleets of “shrimpers” come and go providing not only the lifeblood of the economy, but fantastic fare for all the local restaurants as well! The city dates back to 1701, when a short-lived mission settlement was established. In 1769 another settlement was launched, this time with success. Hemmed in by mountains and sea, the city itself spreads around Guaymas’ south facing bay. Sightseeing attractions include attractive plazas, some interesting 19th century neoclassic municipal buildings, two lovely churches, and a rambling mercado (marketplace). The seaside avenue leads from the city center to Las Playitas, a beach area with calm water and sandy, safe swimming beaches. Adding to the scenery are several towering rust colored desert buttes and distant cactus studded mountains. Though a long time hub for America West business travelers, Guaymas is usually a side trip to those who have found a small slice of heaven just about six miles down the road.
The quaint San Carlos is the quintessential sleepy fishing village and off the beaten path beach town. One road in and one road out assure that you are on the right path, and don’t expect a high-rise tourism center. This is real Mexico. There is an immediate sense of comfort, and you’ll always be greeted by the warm, embracing smiles of local people who are excited to share their city with you. With a population of only 6,000, it’s easy to see how San Carlos has maintained its charm. Simple whitewashed houses with red tile roofs, colorful local restaurants (with amazing seafood), and an assortment of handicraft shops dot the streets and keep in step with the traditional ambiance. Peppered with a comfortable number of small (to medium-sized) hotels and a few Internet cafes, this is the ultimate Mexican experience… without the crowds.
Framed by the dramatic backdrop of Mount Tetakawi, the center of town is considered the San Carlos Marina. Since the major focus is on water sports, the marina is always buzzing with activity. Family owned and operated (as most things in San Carlos are) since its creation in 1976, the marina can accommodate 385 boats up to 52 feet in length. Fishing boats, pleasure boats and dive boats make up the bulk of the permanent residents, but if you take a look out in the harbor, you’ll be surprised by the hefty number of private luxury yachts that have discovered this hidden treasure too. The view from the dock always looks like a post card, making it the ideal place to have some breakfast before a day of boating and the perfect way to spend an evening sipping a margarita and watching the sky as it fades behind the jagged mountaintops.
San Carlos has all the benefits of a small town, including plenty of locals who are happy to show you the ropes. One of the names you’ll see almost everywhere is “Gary’s Dive Shop.” The professional dive shops, warm waters, and high visibility have always had San Carlos on the map in the dive community, but Gary Goldstein is working hard to promote his town to newcomers too. Priding himself in taking divers to find wrecks, rock outcroppings, sea lions and deserted islands, Gary’s dive trips showcase some of the best scuba environments on the Pacific Coast. Gary and his wife, Donna, have been residents and business owners in San Carlos for more than 30 years, and their knowledge of diving is just the beginning. “We love San Carlos, and we want to let everyone know how much there is to do and see here,” Gary says. Away from the water, Gary and Donna have published a comprehensive map, information sheets, and an extensive list of “101 Things to Do in San Carlos,” making sure their guests have plenty of choices! They even publish their home phone number so you’ll always have an English speaking voice to help you plan anything and everything you’ll need while you’re there.
Despite the fact that San Carlos has received limited press, it has been making significant strides developing itself into a competitive resort town. Diego Padilla, from the State of Sonora Tourism office, explains, “Increased air service and safe highways from Arizona have really opened things up for us. We are getting more and more traffic from the U.S. and we are growing quickly.” Moises Navarrete, president of the Hotel Association and General Manager of the Plaza Las Glorias hotel agrees. “We are a little known destination with tremendous value. People are looking to get a lot for there vacation dollars and we offer that to them here,” he says. And as awareness is spreading, the hotels throughout the area have begun to feel the same surge of visitors. With reasonable rates, family friendly packages, and all the amenities, it won’t be long before more accommodations pop up.
The Plaza Las Glorias, overlooking the San Carlos Marina, is one of the mainstays in town. Plaza Las Glorias hotels, long synonymous with vacationing in Mexico, are always a consistent choice. Outside of town, and located on their own 5-mile stretch of Catch 22 Beach (parts of the movie were filmed nearby), the San Carlos Plaza and the brand new Phoenix-based ILX Premiere Vacation Club are becoming increasingly popular with those in search of long stretches of sugary sand and gentle surf. To accommodate these hotels and up and coming housing projects, the new Marina Real (with 350 slips) is testament to the booming seaside growth.
Speaking of those new housing projects, it’s clear that some Americans have known the secrets of San Carlos for a very long time. After touring around a bit and seeing some of the elegant homes tucked away on cliffs overlooking the bay or facing the ocean, it’s a simple assumption that homeowners have kept their little secret under their hats. The Grupo Caballero, run by the locally famous Rafael Caballero, has been instrumental in land and housing development in San Carlos for more than 50 years. Senor Caballero is single-handedly responsible for most of the area’s residential properties, and he and his team make it very easy and appealing for Americans to own beachfront property in Mexico. From the way things look, they have speculated correctly because the developments in the works are nothing short of spectacular.
Though I’ve painted a complete “beach scene” picture for you, keep in mind that land lovers will find plenty to do as well. Hiking, mountain biking, jeep tours and horse back riding should keep you busy when you’ve finished with your water sports, and what Mexican beach resort would be complete without golf? The recently renovated Club de Golf San Carlos (designed by Pete and Roy Dye) is the state’s best golf course. This 6,542-yard 18-hole course has some great ocean views and an affordable $40 green fee.
So now you know a little about a special place waiting for you on the shores of the lovely Sea of Cortez. Guaymas/San Carlos is a small destination with a big heart, and all the charm and style you would ever need for the definitive Mexican beach vacation. The secret’s out, so spread the word.