It’s been a week and a half since we returned to Seattle from San Carlos, where we spent a couple of weeks decommissioning our new boat for its road trip to Seattle. And I’m a little surprised to find myself missing the place.
Truth be told, we didn’t think much of San Carlos when we first went there in late July to check out the boat. The weather was miserably hot and humid, which no doubt colored our perspective. But the town just seemed unappealing.
A subdivision of nearby port city Guaymas, San Carlos was established in the 1960s as a tourist development. As such, it lacks the history and sense of place that make other Mexican towns interesting and inviting. There’s no obvious focal point or town center. Most businesses are located on the main strip, Beltrones Boulevard, a sprawling six-lane thoroughfare stretching for several miles. Getting pretty much anywhere requires a vehicle. A pedestrian-friendly, charming little pueblo it is not.
But what it lacks in manmade appeal it more than compensates for in natural beauty. Flanked by the iconic peaks of Tetakawi (derived from tetas de cabra, which means “teats of goat”) mountain and surrounded by dramatic ochre hills dotted with cacti, San Carlos boasts beautiful bays and sandy white beaches. The sheltered Bahia San Carlos offers protection against hurricanes, and it’s an ideal jumping-off point for cruising the many secluded anchorages on the Sea of Cortez.
Not surprisingly, San Carlos is lousy with gringos, many of them cruisers from the Northwest. Any place teeming with cruisers pretty much guarantees meeting good people, and good people, of course, are what make traveling truly memorable. They turn destinations into fond memories, create associations that forever define a place.
There were Allan and Marisa, our San Carlos fixers and founts of local knowledge, gossip and hilarious stories (for example, the one about the Dirty Underwear Boat, which Marisa was hired to sell and in which she found, to her horror, used underwear stashed inside the oven). A boat surveyor and yacht broker, respectively, they willingly helped us with everything from paperwork needed to transport our boat to advice on where to get boat parts.
There were the other boaters on our dock, including the California couple in the next slip who loaned us their manual pump so we could empty our bulging holding tank. (Since it’s illegal to pump out in the marina, one would reasonably assume there’s a pumpout station at the marina, right? Wrong. Welcome to boating in Mexico!)
There was Mark, who answered my post on an Internet forum about needing a rental car and offered us not just a car, but also a ride to San Carlos from Arizona and a stay in his condo overlooking the sea while we worked on our boat. For all that, he charged a little more than half what a rental car would have cost.
And there was sweet, smiling Dany, the Mexican waitress at what quickly became our favorite watering hole, Club de Capitanes, a nautical-themed bar and boaters hangout. Despite Dany’s limited English and my very rusty Spanish, we managed to communicate. A single mother living in Guaymas with her family, Dany, 24, told me about her two little girls, aged 4 and 7, proudly showing me photos of them on her cell phone.
She also invited me to her niece’s baptism, held at a church near the marina the week we were there. We had too much work to do on the boat for me to go, but I was deeply touched by the offer, realizing what a big deal it was to be invited. When we said good-bye before leaving San Carlos, Dany put her hand over her heart and said, “Deborah and Marty … are here.”
Since a leaky shaft seal thwarted our plans to cruise on the Sea of Cortez for a week or so, we spent 10 days at the San Carlos Marina and quickly settled into the rhythm of the cruising lifestyle, which I could get very used to. A highlight was the 8 a.m. daily radio check-ins on the San Carlos cruisers net, during which a core group of about a dozen boaters talk about comings and goings, weather, local happenings and who’s in need of what.
Information ranges from the useful to the banal. You might hear, for example, that someone just arrived after crossing the Sea of Cortez in 40-knot winds and 10-foot seas, or that someone’s in need of a zinc collar, or that Ralph needs to return the bucket he borrowed.
The rest of the days were spent working on various boat projects, reading and chatting with other cruisers who’d stop by the boat. We made almost daily trips to Star Marine, a chandlery next to the marina, to pick up parts. If it was close to lunch we’d stop by Marina Cantina, one of half a dozen restaurants at the marina, for one of their killer salads (a heaping half salad costs around $4). The taco salad with grilled chicken and spicy, creamy dressing quickly became an addiction.
One day we drove into Guaymas and stopped by Ley’s, a sort of Mexican Kmart. I always appreciate creative translations, so I was pleased to spot the ones in this sign:
“Dust soap” I get—that’s powdered soap, presumably—but “donkey to iron”?! I’m fairly certain that doesn’t even qualify as Spanglish. Our best guess is that it means ironing board. But what’s “launderer” about?
With extra time for the decommissioning, we started early and worked at a leisurely pace, knocking off around 4 p.m. every afternoon for a shower and happy hour cocktail. Sitting in the cockpit over cuba libres, we’d play a game of cribbage, watch the boats coming and going and enjoy the weather, which could not have been more perfect.
After sundown, around 5:30, we’d cook dinner on the boat or walk over to the Captains Club, which has good, inexpensive food, even less expensive beer and wine, and live music most nights of the week. On one especially memorable night, a band of five local men was playing.
About my father’s age, they played Mexican songs, old American favorites and to our delight, tunes by the Beatles and Credence Clearwater Survival. Seeing a kindly looking, older Mexican gentleman in a porkpie hat belting out “Proud Mary” and “Revolution” was priceless.
Another night, we joined Allan and Marisa for weekly movie night at the San Carlos Yacht Club, perhaps the only yacht club in the world founded by golfers. According to Allan, who knows all, a group of golfers wanted to start a dinner club several years ago. A prime space on the second floor of a building at San Carlos Marina became available but was restricted to a boating-related use—hence the creation of the San Carlos Yacht Club. Fewer than 10 percent of its members own boats, which helps explain why the yacht club doesn’t put on regattas or other activities that actually involve boats.
For all its appeal to cruisers, San Carlos hasn’t quite become the booming resort town that Rafael T. Caballero likely envisioned when he purchased three large ranches in the area in the mid-1950s and set about developing a resort and retirement community. San Carlos’ population of a few thousand does include retirees, many of them wealthy Americans living in the haciendas with sweeping vistas of Bahia San Carlos on the hilltop known as The Caracol.
But the town has an air of grand ambitions not quite realized, of promise unfulfilled. Several locals offered an explanation: San Carlos is too hot and too cold. Summer is so stifling that even some Mexicans head for cooler parts of the country. In the winter, temperatures can drop down to the 40s. Water temperatures also fluctuate enormously, going from the 90s in summer down to the 60s in winter—too cold for swimming.
Still, we developed a certain fondness for San Carlos. It’s the place where we bought our first boat together and decomissioned a boat for the first—and hopefully last—time. Our vacation there wasn’t what we expected, but it was unexpectedly fun. Looking out at a dark, rainy Seattle afternoon, I could use a dose of sunny San Carlos right about now.
So I won’t say good-bye to San Carlos, just hasta luego.