San Carlos is an appealing destination for Americans and Canadians wanting to escape cold weather or the stress of everyday life. An easy six-hour drive from Tucson, it is the most accessible beach resort from the population centers of several South- western states. Visitors from farther away can fly into the Guaymas airport only 14 miles/22 Km south along the coast. Also, one can fly into the state capital of Hermosillo which is only 75 miles/121 Km north of San Carlos.
In contrast to nearby Guaymas (pronounced WHY-mas), a bustling seaport and commercial center for the west coast of mainland Mexico, the slower-paced resort atmosphere of San Carlos draws many well-to-do Mexicans, as well as many foreign vacationers. Tourism has replaced fishing as the mainstay of local incomes. Most store and restaurant personnel speak enough English to facilitate communication, but not so much that you forget you're in another country. Signs and menus are generally bilingual.
The streets are very safe , and so is the food. The crime rate is said to be the lowest in Mexico. Visitors can eat at any of the 23 restaurants in San Carlos without fear of the stomach distress appropriately known as "tourista." Although local water is good enough for washing produce and brushing teeth, tradition dictates bottled water for drinking.
Development of condo, hotel and residential properties has preserved the Mexican flavor of San Carlos village, while blending with and highlighting the natural beauty of the desert landscape. The Gulf of California is the main attraction for most visitors. At places along San Carlos' 6-mile/10-km stretch of coast, eroded peaks meet the sea, forming circular bays lined by sea-smoothed stones and sea caves, which enlarge and shrink with the tides. Elsewhere, beaches of white sand outline miles of straight, flat shoreline.
Climatic changes are exaggerated somewhat, due to the influence of the desert to the east and the changeable waters of the Gulf to the west. Rain is usually rare here, just a few inches annually. Some years it rains several inches; however.
Most of the year, air temperatures are comfortable. In winter they hover in the 70s F/low 20s C during the day, but occasionally drop below 50 F (10 C) at night. Spring and fall they average 10 to 15 F (6-8 C) higher. In summer prevailing winds shift, bringing desert heat in July and August. Highs are generally in the 90s F (30s C).
The waters of the Gulf also exhibit marked seasonal changes. Although sheltered from open ocean turbulence by the 900-mile/1,450-km Baja peninsula, the cold waters of the Pacific encroach all the way to the northern end of the Gulf in winter. Average surface temperature for January is 63 F (17 C), and mid-50s F (low teens C) at diving depth. By late May divers can expect Caribbean like temperatures that last through October. Midsummer water temperatures may peak at an incredible 80 F (32 C)!
This extreme range of water temperature creates a uniquely diverse underwater ecosystem. Over 800 species of fish and 400 species of shelled invertebrates inhabit San Carlos waters for at least part of the year. For divers, there is something different to experience at every season. Gray whales winter off the coast, and schooling hammerheads pass through in November and December. Throughout the winter, shallow coves resemble the California coast as various species of sargassum (red seaweed) grow 6 feet/2 m high, dying off as the water temperature rises in the spring.
In contrast, summer brings pelagic dorado, skipjack and tuna, as well as an increase in the numbers of tropical reef species, including sea horses over 8 inches/20 cm tall. Visibility is generally better in the summer, averaging 70 feet/21 m at offshore dive sites.
Beyond its proximity to the States and the convenient yet still intriguingly foreign ambiance, San Carlos is visited by scuba enthusiasts , more than 25,000 of them annually, because it has some of everything. Scuba instructors from the Southwest states bring their classes for open-water training dives, because the diversity allows students to experience diving conditions ranging from cold water California style to warm water Caribbean.
Just beneath the landmark Tetakawi peaks lie two small bays, favorites for conducting Open Water scuba classes. Lalo and Frenchies coves are easily accessed by vehicle. Their sandy beaches transition to gently sloping hardpan and sand bottom averaging less than 30 feet/9 m deep, perfect for student skill evaluations and refresher dives. These and other coves along the shoreline can also be accessed via dive kayak and boat, both of which are available through local dive centers. No matter which direction the wind blows on a given day, a sheltered bay with calm water and adequate visibility can always be found.
There is plenty to see during shore dives. The sargassum supports an entire mini-ecosystem. When it dies off, there are still piles of boulders and rubble encrusted with red and purple coralline algae that shelter Christmas tree worms, anemones, green moray eels and Pacific octopus. Sandy patches are dotted with various species of sea hares, stars and cucumbers.
Several scuba and watersports centers operate two-tank boat dive trips out of the San Carlos marina. In addition to shoreline coves, nearby dive sites include an offshore reef with a seamount reaching from 120 feet/37 m to within 35 feet/11 m of the surface. Divers can comfortably circumnavigate the pinnacle at least once during a 40 minute bottom time. Its walls are decorated with good-size black coral bushes, and purple and red sea fans. Cortez angels, grunts, goatfish and sergeant majors lead the parade of Gulf fishes that aggregate at the seamount.
The most popular San Carlos dive site is San Pedro Island. Commonly referred to as Seal Island, it is home to one of the largest sea lion colonies in the Gulf of California. The guaranteed up-close-and-personal encounters with the playful mammals are well worth the boat ride to the island. Dive boats typically anchor just offshore in 20 to 40 feet/6 to 12 m of water. Divers choose a comfortable depth and settle down to enjoy the spectacular show of underwater acrobatics. Late spring and summer are the best times to interact with the newly born pups. The island is surrounded by deep water, so pelagics as well as the full complement of reef fish are plentiful, and visibility can be well over 100 feet/30 m.
The state of Sonora recently sank a 350-foot/107-m ferry as an artificial reef. At a bottom depth of only 70 feet, it is purported to be the largest, shallowest wreck dive in the world. Located 16 miles/26 km northwest of San Carlos, the site is sometimes sub- ject to current, but is especially well suited for wreck-diving training.
San Carlos is a fast-growing vacation resort for those who desire warm weather combined with water activities. Local busi-nes- ses highlight deep sea fishing, whale watching, sailing, kayaking and sunset margarita cruises.
The surrounding countryside also offers inviting pastimes. Hiking and mountain biking can be enjoyed on your own or in organ- ized groups. Tour a working pearl farm, and take an excursion to a canyon that hides a natural oasis in the desert. Visit the port town of Guaymas, where Spanish colonial heritage blends with modern Mexican culture. Or play golf, shop for curios, and sample the local seafood specialties , particularly the excellent Gulf shrimp dishes.
The easiest way to dive San Carlos is to join one of the many group trips sponsored by dive centers throughout Arizona and other Southwest states. Go for a weekend, and you'll want to stay for a week.
Getting There: Six hours south of Tucson via Interstate 19/Mexico 15 or by air from Phoenix to Guaymas or Hermosillo. If driving a tourist visa as well as Mexican auto insurance can be obtained at the border.
Practicalities: U.S. cash and credit cards are accepted everywhere. Currency exchange is easily done in plenty of places. San Carlos is in the Mountain time zone; daylight-saving time is not observed.
Medical: Mexican Red Cross provides ambulance service; local clinics and hospitals are on par with U.S. facilities. The nearest recompression chambers are in Phoenix and San Diego (by air ambulance), but due to the shallow diving depths, decompres- sion accidents are extremely rare.
The tranquil waters of the Sea of Cortez surrounding San Carlos provides an environement ripe with water activities of all scopes. By far the most popular water sport in San Carlos is scuba diving. The calm, warm waters, and a wide range of fauna, many species unique to the Sea of Cortez entice divers of all abilities. Just 30 minutes north of San Carlos, in front of Canon de Las Barajitas, lie two interesting shipwrecks and San Pedro Island, which provide incredible diving opportunites. San Pedro Island provides divers and snorkelers alike the chance to get an up-close and personal look at the sea lions and seals that live there. Local dive shops offer one-tank dives from about $45 and two-tank dives from about $75. Many Arizona dive shops run trips to San Carlos on a regular basis. Try Aqua Sports in Phoenix at 602-955-4120.
San Carlos is also one of the best places in Sonora to go deep sea fishing due to its warm, calm ocean, luxurious boats and modern marinas and most of all the hundreds of species of fish. Whale watching is also a popular activity in the winter months. Sailing trips and sunset cruises are also a popular past time available from San Carlos marinas. Many of the hotels also rent small water equipment such as kayaks and windsurfers.
The two modern marinas in San Carlos provide a total of 700 boat slips with full service facilities as well as on-premise rental companies that can provide all needs for any type of day at sea.
For those interested in some relaxation in the sun without getting wet, the desert sunshine around San Carlos offers a little bit of everything. For golfers in the group, Marina Golf Club offers a nice 18-hole golf course with varying degrees of difficulty played through the fabulous scenery of the Sonoran desert. Tennis lovers will find many places around town with tennis courts, including the numerous courts at Plaza Las Glorias Resort. Among the other activities on offer: jeep tours, horseback riding
San Carlos offers a wide range of restaurants with Old World ambianace and fresh air patios. The menu of the day in San Carlos is seafood, seafood, seafood. Shrimp scampi, garlic shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp veracruz...sounding a bit like that lovable character from Forest Gump? There are some other fabulous choices outside the seafood arena as well.
Sonora is famous for its beef, and although it may not be cooked up in as many ways as its smaller friend, it can be just as good. And of course a third choice exists, traditional Sonoran Mexican cuisine with soft tacos, enchiladas and chili rellenos. Many restaurants offer wonderful views of the beautiful Sea of Cortez or a festive Mexican ambiance. The margaritas are a specialty in this town and are served in large, lavish displays.
At night these restaurants turn into everything from small discotecas to laid-back venues for live music. One must-see while in San Carlos is a Mark Mulligan concert. This local legend has been entertaining crowds for years with his songs like "Life in a Beachtown" and "Going Coastal".
San Carlos is filled with incredible arts and crafts. Ironwood carvings, for which the area is known, are popular as well as seashell crafts, carved wood furniture and jewelry. In Guaymas, there is an interesting local market where vendors sell every- thing from pig's feet to toilet bowl cleaner. Nearby, the Perlas de Mar de Cortez offers visitors tours of the pearl farm and some unique cultured pearl jewelry.