You future Baja visitors might be wondering about the tour company we chose for our recent whale-watching excursion. So here’s the “nitty-gritty” – why we chose EcoBaja, price, what’s included, the drive, etc. Essentially… a really long TripAdvisor review.
Rent a Car?
Getting to the whales at Puerto Lopez Mateo via rental car is definitely doable. But at 165 miles one-way from La Paz, be prepared for a looong day trip. And when you can’t drive faster than 50mph or drive at night (gotta watch for cows, speedbumps and construction detours), this option wasn’t appealing. Rental cars aren’t cheap here and I didn’t relish the pick-up/return hassle for merely one day. On the other hand, if you are renting a car for several days or bringing your own from the States, a self-directed day trip is a good bet.
Adding an overnight stay would make things more relaxing and allow a possible second whale-watching trip in the morning. This is my ideal… if the weather or whales weren’t cooperating the first day, you’d be guaranteed a do-over. But with this option, dollars are starting to add up.
Fortunately, several La Paz companies offer economical tour bus day-trips. I chose EcoBaja partly because of a recent good experience using them for a shuttle ride to the Los Cabos airport.
Yes, I’m a Cheapskate
Mostly though, I chose EcoBaja because they were the cheapest. Other tours ranged from $150pp and up, which may be worth it to you if they include hotel transfers, a tour guide or fancier food. But EcoBaja provides an all-day trip for approx. $100 pp (actually 1980 pesos pp). This 7am-5pm day trip is in a comfortable 7-passenger van and includes a hearty snack, a sit-down lunch and a two-hour panga ride to the whales. The worst part? 7-1/2 hours travel-time. The best part? You can leave the driving to someone else. That’s a pretty good deal… the best one I’d found anyway.
Our tour was well worth it, despite a couple hiccups. The first involved a pickup mix-up. I bought our tickets at the La Paz bus station 3 days prior. This is the same place we’d purchased tickets and departed from for our airport shuttle. Of course I assumed we’d depart from where I bought the tickets, like last time. Not so. After several misunderstood conversations in Spanish, where the agent kept pointing outside and stating to go to the other office around the corner (why are you telling me to go outside?), the guy politely and physically walked us out to the street… and to literally, the “other office around the corner”. Oh. THAT other office.
No Ride Back
The woman in the other (main) office told us we could have gotten picked up at the hotel instead of taking an early taxi. Really? Bummer. In recompense, she said the driver would take us back to Costa Baja at the end. Sweet! But upon returning to the office, our sullen driver rejected our request to continue on to the marina. He was done. And we were too tired to argue. Lesson learned - don’t count on pick up or drop off from your hotel with this company. I never expected it anyway, since the website mentions nothing about such service. Not a big deal…we just had a coffee at our favorite coffee shop, Doce Cuarenta, and waited for the next marina shuttle.
EcoBaja drivers are punctual …and as punctual people, we appreciate this… especially in Mexico where promptness is, well, unpredictable. Be sure to arrive around 6:45am, well before your 7am departure. The agent will check you in, handing out snacks and tickets for the panga ride & lunch.
Be prepared for a long bumpy ride. Twice.
This is no one’s fault; it is what it is. Thousands of “topes”/speed bumps and heat-cracked, buckling pavement makes a 4-hr ride in an already bouncy van truly annoying. Yes, I said 4 hours. One way. The road out of La Paz is still under major construction and I lost count at how many times we were diverted onto rutty, sand-filled detour routes that passed alongside slowly evolving bridges and culverts. The ride back was a bit shorter as we didn’t stop for a break. But 7-8 hours on the road plus a 2 hour boat ride and an hour lunch makes for a looong day. It was definitely nice to have someone else do the driving.
A Moving Roadblock
I happened to be gazing out the van’s front window when I noticed a white line across the road. A desert mirage? As we got closer it began to look like a large, white roadblock and I was a tad concerned at our rate of speed. Then, I realized it was slowly moving. What the…? A giant mass exodus of white goats crossed the road in front of us, I’m guessing a hundred. Inexplicably, they traveled in perfect single file, meticulously herded by a man on horseback. The occasional cow, horse or goat in the road is common in Baja, but a whole herd of goats? That’s something you just don’t see every day!
A Baño to Remember
Our rest-stop was a solitary, crumbling, roadside eatery in the middle of the desert where you could purchase fresh empanadas and coffee (not included). We declined to try the food; we did partake of the baño simply because we never pass up the chance. Yeah. We should have passed.
Now, bathrooms in Mexico are often sketchy, but this one was blog-worthy-sketchy. Essentially, these were four glorified pit toilets housed in a near-open-air, disintegrating, cinderblock “structure” that’s barely survived one too many hurricanes. I was almost impressed at the use of real porcelain commodes, had they not been 40 years old, lacking tank lids and missing seats. The lack of toilet paper was a given. Flush handles? Forget it. What to do?
A tetanus-ridden, rusty coffee can sat in each stall; 3 giant, mosquito-infested stagnant open water bins sat outside. I watched two people rinse their hands in these toxic tubs. Then I finally figured out what the coffee can was for - I watched our bus-mate dip & pour, tub to toilet. Ah, we Midwesterners are no strangers to this manual flush technique during power outages. Except, sadly, the power is always out here. The sewage went down into pipes going…somewhere off into the desolate desert. What I mean is, I really doubt there was a septic field, at least not one with a proper holding tank. Advice: just don’t touch anything. Hover required. Bring hand sanitizer. Better yet, hold it.
Lunch is NOT Comida.
Before your bus departs, the EcoBaja agent gives you a bag marked “lunch”. I was confused initially because I was thinking, “Is this all we’re going to get for lunch? I swear the website said there was a sit-down meal…” Don’t confuse “lunch” with “comida”.
Turns out, “lunch” is actually lunch type food, eaten during what Americans would consider breakfast time, before 11am. The 3 mystery meat-filled, rolled tacos were hot upon receipt at 7am and quite tasty 2 hours later while travelling on the bus. A bottle of water and a can of soda are included.
You still get second-lunch (comida) after the whales around 1pm. Comida is more like an American dinner food-wise, but time-wise, is at a very late American lunchtime. (Usually between 2-4pm). In Mexico, Comida is the main meal; dinner is optional or light. For comida, we went to a restaurant in the village and had typical breaded & fried fish, rice, beans and a coke. Beer, lobster or shrimp was extra. Good food. Apathetic service.
Our Mexican bus-mate warned us emphatically not to eat the salad (she was a pathologist in the jungle state of Chiapas and has probably seen some really bad stuff.) I was glad for the reminder. While most well-established restaurants in Cabo and La Paz are concerned about return customers, in these remote villages, washing veges with purified water is not always standard.
To Dramamine or Not to Dramamine: That is the Question.
A half hour before our boat ride we both took a Dramamine. I didn’t know how fast the boat would travel and whether there would be lots of wave action. I’d googled whale-watcher YouTube videos, many of which showed small pangas in really yucky conditions. In the end, it wasn’t necessary in the calm lagoon. But it worked out. I slept the entire way back. Bonus.
Puerto Lopez Mateo
I get the sense that without gray whale tourism, Puerto Lopez Mateo would surely collapse. This is a dusty, desolate and desperate town as fleetingly viewed via van. But to my surprise, we arrive at modern waterfront plaza. This small but tidy embarcadero is startlingly new! The panga pier is bounded by a pleasant food court, a reasonable number of knick-knack vendors and, thankfully, clean and plentiful restrooms (be sure to bring 5-pesos). You have time to use the baño and quickly peruse the knick-knacks while the driver makes your panga arrangement, about 10 minutes.
Gray whales at Lopez Mateo are unique in that they seem to enjoy human interaction. This is good for us watchers; sometimes not so good for the whales. Continuous close contact with pangas anesthetizes them to other commercial and pleasure boats (and our external propellers) along their long migration route.
To limit panga bombardment, the Mexican government introduced driver requirements regarding how many boats can approach an animal (4), and how long they can remain around a pair (30 min). Our captain cautiously approached each whale and floated at idle nearby, letting the whale decide if it felt up to visiting. Drivers attempt to angle in from behind so as not to get in their path. They also try not to get in between a baby and its mum. Groups of orcas, the gray whales’ only predator, will separate mom from baby as a killing technique – we don’t need mom thinking we are a threat to her child.
No Tour Guide
Do not expect a guide on this bare-bones tour. The shuttle driver is just the driver. He gets you to the port, arranges for the panga ride, takes you to the restaurant and drives back home without a word. The panga captain is equally mum. This is not meant as criticism, but it is our experience. And the language barrier had nothing to do with it; both bus and panga drivers were equally non-chatty with our Mexican bus/panga-mates. So if you prefer an animated tour operator bursting with whale facts & brimming with town history, this tour is not ideal. If you just want to see the whales and not have to interact with a guide all day, this tour is for you.
Sand Dunes Not Included
The EcoBaja whale tour video on their website shows gorgeous people frolicking on the sand dunes. You do NOT get to go play on the sand dunes. Some tour companies may land their boat on the island as part of the tour, but not this one.
All in all, it worked out well and I would recommend EcoBaja Tours for a cheap day-trip alternative. If you are more comfortable with agents and drivers and passengers who speak English, this isn’t the right tour for you. I would rate this as a definite must-do for cruisers or tourists in the Baja area during January to early March.
Why Didn’t We Just Sail There?
Yeah…no. Technically we could…but that would entail sailing 3 days down to Cabo plus an overnighter back up the Pacific coast (not counting the return trip). That’s if the weather cooperates for an entire week. But it’s winter. Weather is typically not so nice and the prevailing wind and waves are against us. Pass. I’ll take the one-day bus trip, thank you.
Plus, as a rule, we prefer to stay away from whales on our own boat. Whales are bigger than us. By a lot. Whales are heavy. Whales are unpredictable. Indigo is our house after all. So I am more than happy to use someone else’s boat as bait. :)