San Carlos and the sea

Just six hours south of Tucson, this Mexican beach town is exotic and serene
Tim Vanderpool
Travel planner


San Carlos is an Ernest Hemingway kind of town. Brawny and beautiful, the Mexican village stretches along a sun-drenched ribbon of land between the mountains and the eastern shore of the Gulf of California. Fringed with fishing boats and seaside restaurants, with marine life teeming offshore, it's a setting that could inspire Papa to raise his pen―or a toast―to this charmed convergence of land and sea.

On this balmy day, the Marina San Carlos is the place to be. Anglers bristling with fishing rods parade to their boats, preparing to hook their mythic marlins.

This is, after all, an incredible place to fish. According to Rick Brusca, director of research at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, cold upwellings of nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters support an abundant and diverse fishery―Mexico's most productive. Many boats from San Carlos make a beeline to the rugged upthrust of San Pedro Nolasco Island, where the phenomenon brings sierra, dorado, and snapper to the surface.

Behind the marina, tawny Tetakawi Mountain sweeps down into blue water and overlooks laid-back San Carlos. About six hours south of Tucson, the community of 6,000 offers a string of quality boutiques, resort hotels, and restaurants that make a trip worthwhile.

Friendly waitresses dish up enchiladas and chicken tortas (sandwiches) at Restaurante Rosa's Cantina. Couples enjoy spiny lobster and tropical decor at San Carlos Grill, while entire families leave the morning surf for swordfish and snapper lunches at the San Carlos Plaza Hotel.

Look beyond such gustatory delights, and you'll find there's also plenty of history here. Although San Carlos is about 7 miles north of the port of Guaymas, the two towns are intimately linked by the past. This saga spans centuries and includes Guaymenas and Yaqui Indians, a mission founded in 1701 by the legendary Jesuit Eusebio Kino, and pirates who attacked San Carlos in 1854.

Two centuries later, San Carlos Bay was drawing sportsmen and American expatriates. Realizing the tourist potential, Mexican officials vigorously began promoting the area in the 1970s.

Apparently, their efforts paid off. "I escaped to this spot 25 years ago," says Theresa Gonzalez, owner of the intriguing folk-art shop Sagitario. "It's a lovely town, and now I can't imagine living anywhere else."

Lovely―and real. Though catering to visitors, San Carlos has not been overtaken by gringo kitsch. Mexican culture is everywhere, from humble roadside fish-taco stands to the popular Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a mountainside, her feet warmed by glowing devotional candles. The pace is also authentic: A mañana ambience meanders into your consciousness like the lackadaisical traffic cruising through town on Boulevard Escénico Manlio Fabio Beltrones.

In turn, the road weaves past open-air restaurants like Charly's Rock, where couples sip beers on a balcony above the bay. The road wanders around a rainbow of sailboats in the marina and out toward hotels along Playa los Algodones, or "Cotton Beach." Named for white sand and billowing dunes―and used as a setting for the movie Catch-22―the beach is now dotted with lawn chairs and thatched palapas. Parents lounge in the shade, while their kids race into the surf.

You can almost see Papa Hemingway gazing contentedly upon this idyllic setting, his cap pulled low, his thoughts languid. "Yes," he might say, "the sand is smooth, the water is deep, and the sky is very clear and very blue. Life is good."