Gulf of California
The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California is a serial property including 244 islands and oceanic marine zones, described as "the world's aquarium".
This site in north-eastern Mexico is home to 39 percent of the world's total marine mammal species and a third of the world's marine cetacean species.
The protected area is located between Baja California and the Mexican State of Sonora. It encompasse the following protected zones:
- Upper Gulf and Colorado River Delta
- Islands of the Gulf
- Isla San Pedro Mártir
- El Vizcaíno Reserve
- Bahía de Loreto National Park
- Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park
- Cabo San Lucas Reserve
- Islas Marías Biosphere Reserve
- Isla Isabel National Park
- Islas Marietas National Park
- Archipelago de San Lorenzo National Park
Map of Gulf of CaliforniaLoad map
I visited this WHS in January 2022 focusing on the Islas Marietas National Park. Depending on the tide and weather conditions, the boat tour companies with the most expensive prices from Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco (full day trips) and Punta Mita, Nayarit do half day trips including a stop and swim in the instagram famous hidden beach, and two more snorkelling and swimming points along another beach of the Marietas Islands.
Make sure to allow more than one day just in case weather isn't good, and when booking at least a day in advance, stress that you would like to visit the hidden beach at the earliest time in the morning to make sure the daily limit isn't reached. Just outside the rocky outcrop leading to the hidden beach from the sea, national guards patrol the area to make sure only visitors with 2 appropriate bands on their hand are given helmets and lifejackets to swim to the hidden beach. From the time you start swimming to the beach you're allowed around 30 minutes and then you have to swim back to your boat. We booked a private tour and knowing that most tours leave the hidden beach as their second or third stop during the Islas Marietas tour, we specifically asked to head straight there, ignoring the whales and dolphins other boats had spotted far out at sea, in favour of getting to the hidden beach first. Drones are not allowed any longer to protect the birds so we had to delete the only video taken but managed to save a quick photo on our phone at least.
Most boat tour companies don't guarantee swimming at the hidden beach, and if you're not given two wristbands upon boarding the boat it means you won't visit. There was quite a swell when we visited and high tide meaning that our short swim to the hidden beach was quite adventurous and it was a good thing we had helmets as I scratched my head with the rocks going in as there was very little clearance. We were overjoyed though to be in such a heavenly place all alone except blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, gulls, terns and turtles. This rigidity in visits is having a very positive effect not only on the birds but also on the marine life as turtles, rays, dolphins and whales are thriving around the islands since the beach is managed in a eco-friendly manner. By the time we left and especially an hour after, there was a queue of boats waiting for their turn to visit. In the meantime, we were very lucky to spot a humpback whale and its calf playing and feeding just off the coast of the Islas Marietas which was the cherry on the cake. Although the photos and videos I took were the best I ever took on a boat trip (after filming sperm whales in the Azores and humpback whales in the Oaxaca coast), the moments I didn't manage to capture with impressive out-of-the-water leaps will forever remain in my memory as uncaptured moments on camera. Towards the end of our trip, before heading to the harbour, we were escorted by a pod of six to eight humpback whales which we continued to spot from land.
The snorkelling is really good in the especially clear waters of the islands. At the second beach, there's also a high ladder leading over the 90 degree cliff from the beach, although you need to get special permission and a tour with a naturalist guide to climb it. Another cool way to visit is by kayak, chancing a close encounter with the gentle giants at sea, present mainly in the winter months between December and April (mostly humpback whales but occasionally also blue whales and orcas). During the tour we did a quick loop around the islands, passing close to two natural rock arches en route. The marine life and nature around the Marietas Islands National Park is top notch and the boat tour experience and adventure swim reminded me a bit of the swimming trips with seals and marine fauna at the Galapagos Islands. We'll definitely make an extra effort to visit other locations of this WHS in Baja California on our next visit to Mexico, trying our luck once again with blue whales or orcas.
Before I started researching for my 2022 Mexico trip, I hadn’t given the Gulf of California WHS much thought. Maybe it’s the uninspirational name or the fact that no less than 12 reserved areas all over the place are included so it seems to lack focus. In its nomination dossier, it compared itself to the Galapagos, Henderson Island, and Gough Island. While the others are more remote and pristine, after now having visited I must say there’s a whole lot of truth in this. Also, Argentina’s Peninsula Valdes came to my mind as a similar site.
I visited location #5: Bahia de Loreto National Park. From La Paz, where my plane landed, I first drove 3 hours through nothing. It was such a boring drive that I was afraid to fall asleep behind the wheel. Then the landscape suddenly changed: it became a kind of Grand Canyon with cactus forests, the Sierra de la Giganta. Only behind this massive mountain range, the Gulf becomes visible. There’s a great viewpoint along highway 1 (Mirador Chuenque), where you have an overview of several of the islands in the bay. There are 5 larger islands in Bahia de Loreto, and many smaller islets.
For an easy tick of the site, you can walk along Loreto’s malecon or on its beaches. I did so on my first evening in town and especially enjoyed watching the Brown pelicans fishing. They are pretty creatures with their reddish and ochre neck and pouch. When they notice a fish, they dive headfirst straight into the water.
For a more comprehensive look, I joined a 5-hour long boat tour to Isla Coronado. This is the most popular destination of the offerings in Loreto. There were 4 or 5 boats from different companies out on the same morning, but they all operate with small boats (maximum 6-8 passengers) so it never got busy. I shared my boat with a father & son from Tijuana. On the way out to the island, I spotted a group of Bottlenose dolphins. There were so many of them, and we spent a good amount of time amongst them.
Isla Coronado is the only of Loreto’s islands that is of volcanic origin. It still has a volcanic cone and remains of lava streams. We started sailing a loop around the island. The lava has created some pretty weird carved rocks. They are a favourite hangout for birds like the blue-footed booby and their more common cousin the brown-footed booby. Around yet another corner, that’s where the island’s residential colony of sea lions lives. The arrival of the boats did make them “bark”, but they kept their spot. I found it amazing how agile they are in climbing out of the water and onto the rocks again.
At the far end of the island, there are a couple of white sandy beaches. Here we stopped for lunch. I did a short hike inland via a boardwalk and return to the beach. The best thing here however is the very clear water. Even without snorkeling, you can wade into the shallow areas for 20-30 meters and see a great variety of small, colourful fish. As an epic subtitle could make this WHS more popular, I suggest using the quote of Jacques Cousteau: “The World’s Aquarium”.
Read more from Els Slots here.
We visited this world heritage site over a period of 8 days. One recommendation (based on your own resources), spend a bit more with established tour companies to get a more full experience of the major components that make this enormous natural WHS unique. We primarily used "Cabo Adventures" and they are professional and offer basics like sunset tours to more serious excursions to places like Cabo Pulmo National Park. It is also possible to rent your own vehicle, but it's not an absolute requirement, since there is a bus system that connects Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Loretto, and pretty much the whole Baja Peninsula for reasonable prices. I will return to other components of this WHS in the future, it's so expansive and vast that it will be rewarding to return.
Cabo Pulmo - "The coral reef at Cabo Pulmo is one of the most important in the Gulf of California and in the eastern Pacific." UNESCO Description
In our experience Cabo Pulmo National Park was exceptional and worth the time and effort to get there. In fact, from Cabo San Lucas or La Paz it's about 2.5 hours by chartered van. The last 10 kilometers (approximate) of the journey is on a dirt road that is pretty bumpy and passenger cars are sometimes known to have issues passing this final stretch. The small village of a couple hundred people has no running water or electricity, everything they might have is via generator, solar panels, or large water containers brought in. Some bungalows are present and a very small selection of food establishments dot the main dirt road leading to the ocean. No large boats are allowed in the National Park, so expect a small motorized boat to access the specific snorkeling/diving sites.
Since we chose a Snorkeling Expedition through "Cabo Adventures" we had transportation included, all gear provided, and lunch. We had 4 locations to explore the diversity of marine sites at Cabo Pulmo. Broken down by 1) Coral Reef (shallow water) access to the reef offers a wide diversity of fish species on display 2) Deeper Water (40-60 feet) where we witnessed a "Tornado of Fish" or in other words a type of jack fish swarming in a large circular motion. 3) Sea Lion Colony (shallow water) quiet easy experience to view and swim with sea lions up close. 4) Sea Turtle Habitat (shallow to mid-range water depth) longest dive as we covered a large swath of coastline looking for sea turtles and other species of fish.
Islands of the Gulf of California (Isla del Espiritu Santo)
Accessible via tour from La Paz, the Isla del Espiritu Santo is a highlight for many visitors in the region. My only qualm about visiting the island is that its huge and most of the tours offered could not and did not offer a more comprehensive tour of this large island and its marine environment. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the island, and that's by larger watercraft (Catamaran). Our boat cruised along the Western portion of the island and we did get into the water to see the marine life, which was great, but it's generally not considered as exceptional as Cabo Pulmo National Park by scuba divers and snorkelers. The rock formations and rugged coast offer an abundance of Sonoran Desert cacti visible from your boat and an abundance of birds that can best be appreciated with binoculars.
Cabo San Lucas - This reserve includes a submarine canyon and its location within the subtropical North Equatorial current provides "an exceptional flow of plankton that conditions the presence of abundant marine life." - Advisory Body Evaluation
Just off the coast of Cabo San Lucas is a marine reserve, which includes a small portion of a rugged landscape known as Land's End (and the famous tourist spot "Arch Rock" just past Mt. Solmar). While a relatively minor component of this massive world heritage site (about 4,000 ha), The reserve in Cabo San Lucas can be appreciated via land and water. Whales are often spotted within the core portion of the reserve, which occurred multiple times while we were on a sailboat. There is a hike (research online) that allows you a bird's eye view of the reserve from the top of Mt. Solmar. At Cabo San Lucas Marina, there are countless boats that offer a quick tick of this sight. However, I would suggest (if you okay to spend a bit more than 250 pesos) a more thorough experience via sailboat will be more memorable and enjoyable.
Balandra Zone of Ecological Conservation and Community Interest - "The area functions as a nursery for juveniles of a number of important fish species. Balandra is also a nesting site for endangered resident and migratory bird populations." - Advisory Body Evaluation
Added to the World Heritage Site as a "minor boundary modification" in 2011 Balandra is a place of exceptional beauty and because of this, the beach can become busy and tourism here is monitored and access can be limited. It is a very accessible site from La Paz. In fact, a taxi from the Malecon will cost you a couple hundred pesos (a reasonable price) and the taxi will come pick you back up at a set time of your choice for another couple hundred pesos. Since Balandra has no internet or cell service, this is an established mode of visiting. Balandra can both be explored by a rewarding hike and by water. The hike which is located just before the main parking lot, extends a couple kilometers over areas with full views of the nominated property, the bay itself, a rich desert landscape, the restored mangroves, and Isla del Espiritu Santo in the distance. I thoroughly enjoyed this hike and the sun being partially obscured by clouds, the weather was very pleasant, but the downside, my pictures did not do this site justice. I also explored the outer portions of the bay by snorkeling, which also provided a fantastic experience to witness more marine life.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
Where I am on the Gulf of California is a perfect example of why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Kino Bay (Bahia de Kino), the desert meets the bay, forming a fascinating juxtaposition of habitats. This area is Eco-oriented, has a full-time Marine Science Center where classes for college students and community members are taught and research data has been being gathered on sea birds, whales and more for years now. The diversity of marine and land life is unique and it is so important to maintain this habitat for current and future generations. The Seri (Comcaac) Nation is just a bit north and this beautiful and talented group of people who have resided here for so long is In the process of passing on their unique language and songs. It is vitally important that this fishing village keeps its focus on the natural world, enhancing the surrounding habitats and providing education about the unique gifts this land offers. The value of this area lies not in being a vacation land and resort for those who wish to escape and play, but, rather, in standing in representation of all that is beautiful, mysterious and pristine on this Earth of ours. Thank you UNESCO. Now, let's the rest of us follow through to make sure this designation is honored.
Visit the Gulf of California's crystal-clear waters and you'll thank God you learned to swim. You won't know which way to look as hundreds of fish species swim around you, going about their day in this sunny stretch of water.
Bring your sunscreen -- we were sunburned even through the t-shirts we wore snorkeling -- and watch out for sharks; this is prime habitat for both hammerheads and great whites. You'll be grateful you took the plunge, though, and we recommend camping on one of the islands rather than staying in La Paz or (God forbid) one of those tourist traps like Cabo San Lucas.
2019 In Danger
"due to concerns about the imminent extinction of the vaquita, an endemic porpoise in the Gulf of California ... only about ten specimens of vaquita remain today"
2011 Boundary change
To include Balandra Zone
2007 Boundary change
To include the Islas Marietas National Park and the Archipelago de San Lorenzo National Park
The site has 12 locations
The site has 26 connections
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
85 Community Members have visited.