This article is from the June 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

The Desert of San Carlos

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com  

On the way from Tucson to El Fuerte, one of the embarkation points for the railroad through the Copper Canyon, lies the Pacific coast resort town of San Carlos. To get there, you have to pass through Nogales, Santa Ana and Hermosillo on Highway 15, aiming generally for the grubby shrimping/fishing/oystering capital of Guaymas, because San Carlos doesn’t often appear on maps of Mexico. Once you get to Guaymas, you need to follow the coastline south around the bay, and look for things to start not looking so grubby. Then asking for directions into San Carlos is probably the easiest way to find it.  Actually, to call San Carlos a resort town is a bit of a stretch, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say it has a lovely harbor, lots of boats, some impressive homes owned by Americans and Canadians, a few atmospheric restaurants here and there and one run-down-but-sort-of -up-scale hotel, the San Carlos Plaza. Not much of a resort in comparison to what we generally consider The Resorts of Coastal Mexico. But what San Carlos does have that is worth all of the effort to get there, and the chaos of trying to stay there, is the south-westernmost corner of the Sonoran Desert.  

Like most of Mexico’s Pacific coast, the Sierra Madres Occidentals are right there just about on top of the beach, going straight up from sea level to magnificent cliffs and jagged peaks. However, in San Carlos, almost due east from the parking lot of the San Carlos Plaza, there is a dirt road that enters into a small patch of the Sonoran that separates the beach from the mountains, and what a sight it is.  

I have to qualify my observations a little – firstly, I’m from the northeast US and until a few days before (when I got to see the northern end of the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson), I had never in my life seen a desert, so I was bound to be amazed. Secondly, the weekend we were in San Carlos was Labor Day of 2004, which turned out to be the time of the confluence of Hurricane Howard and Typhoon Song-Da in the Pacific. Thus, the desert I saw – used to at best maybe 7 inches of rain in a good year – was coming off of a ten-year drought and had received (according to the locals) 23” of rain in a 48-hour period. Thirdly, generally in September, temperatures hover around 100 degrees; the day we were there, it was a balmy 75 and raining – not a torrential rain, but steady and enough to require constant wiping of your glasses and camera lenses.  

So on the third day of the storms, although disappointed by the rain and doubtful of what we would see, we set out in an open pick-up with a Belgian guy named Lucas who has been taking travelers into the desert for fifteen years. The first thing he did was apologize for the fact that it didn’t look much like a desert. Rainfall such as we were experiencing causes a fluffy little grass to sprout all over the desert floor – grass, Lucas told us, would be gone eight hours after the sun came out. But there was little sand for us to see, and the greens of the plant life were almost as rich as the greens of Ireland, according to Lucas, a most unusual happenstance. But, he also explained, he was even more excited for another reason. He had heard that there were magnificent waterfalls in the cliffs surrounding the desert that he had never in his fifteen years ever seen, but he was sure they would be running now.

We sped along the dirt roads, hanging on for dear life, careening around corners and through puddles, with Lucas pointing out the wild horses that live there among all the giant cordon, chollas, senitas and barrel cactus, as well as the jito (a desert evergreen ), torate (elephant) and sea level ocotillo trees. (The torate tree supplies all the various colors of bark used in amate bark paintings, and the ocotillo fairly drooped with all its gorgeous orange blossoms.) All around us were gorgeous purple desert sage, the lethal pink-blossomed burning vine, and the omnipresent crawling desert gold plant, with its sunny yellow flowers with red centers. Lucas showed us the remains of the airstrip built for the film, Catch-22, that had to be replanted because drug cartels were using it to fly to the southwestern US, as well as the old crumbling Club Med built in the 70’s and now used only by Mexicans, the columnar Cactus Garden built by Club Med but now abandoned to the elements, and the squatters’ shacks along the edges of the desert used by shrimp and oyster fishermen. Apparently, if you can last four years in your shack, the government deeds over the land to you, but this is a difficult arrangement as it is hard for people to establish the exact extent of their time in one place and they have no running water or plumbing. However, there is so much available waterfront land in the area that no one seems to care much who takes up residence on it. 

Finally, about ten miles in, we reached the largest oasis in the desert, directly at the foot of the cliffs, where the desert animals as well as the cows and horses roaming in the area generally come to drink. Lucas told us that this was one of his regular stops and usually several different species could be seen, but on this day, with pools and greenery all over the desert, the animals didn’t need to travel to this spot. Leaving the truck, we started to walk into the jungle-like foliage of the oasis, slowly climbing a little at a time. And suddenly, after reaching a small clearing surrounded by rocks, there it was – the most striking waterfall I have ever seen, not that I’ve seen all that many of them – but still....

It was nothing short of unbelievable, especially for the rarity of its appearances, but also for its roar, the mist surrounding it, the sounds of the many birds coming to drink and bathe, and the sheer beauty of the surroundings, rife with jungle flowers, lizards and insects. I know it was one of the high points of my life, although there are many waterfalls all over the world, and I even hope to see some of them. Even during this trip, because of all the rain in the area, we saw many waterfalls crossing the Copper Canyon, but this one was in a class by itself. Possibly because we were so close to it, perhaps because Lucas kept going on and on about never seeing it before, maybe even because the anticipation he inspired in us was so great – who knows? But it was, for all of that, a seminal moment for me and my husband as we stood there with dropped jaws looking up at it.  

On the way back to the beach, Lucas took us through arroyos new and old, full of birds and animals rarely seen out in the open during the day, and he described to us how the desert would change again when the sun came out, with a whole new variety of flowers and blossoming trees and lots of sandy soil, which is what most people see when they visit. He showed us photographs he had taken over the years, and there is no doubt – what is there most of the time is also well worth the time to see, especially the animals drinking at the oasis. So I can’t promise you the desert that I was blessed enough to see, but even so, I think it would be worth the trip if you find yourself stuck in San Carlos for a day or two. But who can say – maybe the weather will get positively awful again, your snazzy hotel will have five-gallon buckets sitting everywhere catching leaking water, and you won’t get to spend five minutes on the beach the whole time you are there. But then, that special desert will await you with all its hidden treasures – sort of like the rest of Mexico, eternally serendipitous Mexico.