Malarrimo and Sand Island

Return to Malarrimo Beach

By Graham Mackintosh   July 2014

This article was originally published in the Discover Baja Travel Club newsletter

Thirty years ago I was in the middle of a two-year quest to walk around the coast of Baja California. Pacific lagoons such as Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon) and Laguna San Ignacio presented special challenges.

Heading north to south and unable to find any fishcamps on the northern shore, I had no option but to walk all the way around Laguna San Ignacio, but I wasn’t inclined to do that with Scammon’s Lagoon.

I didn’t want to miss an inch of Malarrimo beach, the famed beachcombing paradise that comprises much of Bahia Vizcaíno, and perhaps most famously stretches from the lagoon mouth 15-20 miles west towards Punta Eugenia. Unfortunately, five miles southwest of Scammon’s,  a new lagoon had broken through into the desert creating a miles-deep barrier  called Estero Ojo de Liebre on some maps and Laguna Mike McMahan in the Baja Almanac.

Even though I was not sure I could get around that new lagoon, the siren call of Malarrimo couldn’t be resisted. Wearing the boots of a man killed in Scammon’s Lagoon when his boat collided with a gray whale, I hitched a ride in a panga and was dropped just inside the western entrance to Scammon’s. It was high tide. Blinding white dunes lined the shore. I struggled alone, sometimes calf-deep in the alarmingly soft sand, to make my way around to the firmer beaches and rolling thunderous waves of the open ocean.

Malarrimo was not a disappointment; the beachcombing was indeed fantastic. The story was told in my book, Into a Desert Place:

“It was as if some terrible and destructive battle had taken place off the coast. The shore was littered with planks, buckets, tree trunks, helmets, hatch covers, bits and pieces of boats and planes, and all kinds of military and medical equipment.”    Into a Desert Place

But with just three gallons of water I hardly had time to take in a fraction of what was around me. I was driven by the thought that unless I was prepared to risk a 10-mile detour through swamp and mangroves and more strength-sapping soft dunes, or build a raft from all the driftwood, I had no idea how I was going to cross the wide mouth of that new lagoon. In the end, I was able to get over using an old aluminum boat that I found just inside the lagoon’s entrance. It was upside down, under water and full of holes.

As part of the 30th anniversary of my walk, with a new book in mind, I’ve been returning to some of the special, mostly remote, places in Baja to see how they have changed. And above all, I have always wanted to get back to that remote section of coast between the lagoons and walk it again with more time to beachcomb and ponder the natural and historical wonders beneath my boots.

Today that area is just a tiny part of the largest protected zone in Mexico, indeed in all of Latin America - the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. Established in 1988, the reserve includes hundreds of kilometers of the Pacific coast and the Sea of Cortez, and much of the desert between. It includes the habitat of the endangered pronghorn antelope, as well as the world renowned sites of Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio, and the cave painting treasures of the Sierra de San Francisco.

The Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve is administered and managed by CONANP, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. Their headquarters is in Guerrero Negro. So thirty years on, in July 2014, after explaining my intentions to the officials at CONANP and reassuring them that I had no intention of using any motorized transport on the beach, I secured permission to return again to Malarrimo. They not only graciously granted it, but arranged a panga ride across the wide mouth of Laguna Ojo de Liebre and kindly offered every assistance to get there and return safely to town.

I went in the company of longtime friend and Discover Baja member Peter Jensen. And I couldn’t have wished for a more knowledgeable companion. He is a Baja shipwreck historian who for over 30 years has discovered, researched, and collated extensive files on over 1000 shipwrecks along the Baja California coast.

We both bought Annual passes, “pasaportes,” there at the CONANP office, which not only granted us a full year’s access to the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve but also to visit all the parks and protected areas of Mexico – for a very reasonable cost of about $29 US.

I was nursing a strong sense of déjà vu when we landed at about the same spot that I did all those years ago, just inside the lagoon, this time at low tide. Peter and I arranged to be picked up in a week and quickly moved our gear off the beach and made camp among the dunes. I had a SPOT GPS messaging device to assure our families and the folks at the CONANP office that all was well.

The snow-white, talcum-powdery-soft dunes were still there, making for tiring walking. The wind was still relentless. Camping in the protection of the dunes might seem like a good idea… till sheets of fine sand begin covering tent floors, sleeping bags, pots and plates and anything else left exposed. I took three Canon point-and-shoot cameras out with me. Only one survived the insidious assault of the blowing sand.

Camping around the entrance to Scammon’s Lagoon presents some of the most challenging camping anywhere in Baja. With no vegetation more than a couple of inches tall there is absolutely no shade. Coyotes visit every night and are happy to relieve you of anything left out, especially water.  And when the wind relents, biting horseflies seize the chance to munch on your legs.

To compensate – the Pacific beaches are wide (at least at low tide) and strikingly beautiful, summer temperatures are generally tolerable, and can seem downright cool when the prevailing 15-20 mph NW winds are still gusting after sundown.  The bird life was abundant and pods of dolphins patrolled offshore, sometimes bursting into the shallows and chasing fish right on to the beach.

Maybe beachcombing was not as dramatic as in the glory days when Malarrimo was regarded as the inevitable final destination for just about anything that would float that had been cast into the Northern Pacific.

Today, Malarrimo makes you work hard for every discovery. One needs to sift through a prodigious amount of modern trash, especially plastic containers, glass bottles and jars, light bulbs, deflated party balloons, and even rusting fridges!   

And sadly, there were a number of empty blue plastic gasoline barrels, in otherwise new condition that had been deliberately slashed. No doubt these had been thrown overboard by drug runners not wishing to leave a too obvious trail of tossed containers marking their route north.

Even so, it remains endlessly fascinating. Dead whales and dolphins and huge tree trunks abound. And the ever shifting dunes – we measured the one next to our campsite moving an inch a day towards us – guarantee there is always something “old” for the discerning eye to see.

Back in 1983 I had spotted a piece of wreckage, the wooden hull of a sailing ship covered with copper sheathing stamped, “Shears of London.” We looked for more of the wreckage to confirm if this ship might have been the Toward Castle, a British whaling vessel that went aground on that section of beach in 1838.

The Master, Chief Mate, and five of the crew were saved. They had taken to the ship’s lifeboat to find help. Those that stayed behind on the remote beach died of thirst and exposure before their crewmates returned. In his writings, Captain Scammon mentioned the wreck and finding the log book, and using some of its timber to fuel fires for rendering his take of whale blubber into oil.

We found plenty of evidence of nineteenth-century vessels, including sections of deck and sturdy “knees” (massive L-shaped brackets cut out of tree stumps that once held up the deck), and an assortment of masts, booms and spars.

Thanks to Peter’s expertise, especially his discovery from delving into the Lloyd’s archives that the Toward Castle had indeed been refitted and re-sheathed with copper in London in 1835, and Scammon’s account of the location of the wreck, we were very confident that some of the remains did come from the Toward Castle, which was named after a castle in Scotland.

On July 4, we walked to the mouth of the new lagoon that had caused me so much concern thirty years earlier. The passage was several hundred yards wide. I marveled that I had been bold enough to row across in a sinking boat using a piece of driftwood as a paddle! It was partly desperation – I didn’t want to share the fate of the unfortunate crew of the Toward Castle – and partly being encouraged by finding a message in a bottle… a religious tract entitled Help from Above!

And reward for my faith, I recalled that within minutes of reaching the far side I stubbed my toe against a full bottle of Japanese whisky.

On this trip Peter and I did spot bottles of Japanese whisky and sake (unfortunately empty) and crates from Tokyo and Osaka, but perhaps nothing indicative of the vast amount of material from the recent tragic tsunami in Japan. That has clearly yet to arrive.

And it was fitting that as we stood ankle-deep in the soft sand at the mouth of the lagoon, as I gave thanks for the good fortune I’d experienced there all those years before, lightning flashed and thunder boomed from a summer storm billowing on the other side.

It was yet more of the magic of Baja… we were being treated to our own special Independence Day fireworks show.

The following is based on an article written for Baja Bound 2015

By Graham Mackintosh


Sand Island (Isla Arena) stretches between the northern side of the entrance to Scammon’s Lagoon (more correctly called Ojo de Liebre) and the southern side of the entrance to Guerrero Negro Lagoon.

The island, well-named, is almost entirely made up of sterile, blinding white dunes. It is approximately 15 miles long and 3 miles wide in places, and runs from northeast to southwest. Sand Island presents the major barrier that separates the Ojo de Liebre/Guerrero Negro lagoon complex from the open Pacific Ocean.                                        

The town of Guerrero Negro was named after a 231-ton American whaling vessel, the Black Warrior, which was wrecked off the northern point of Sand Island in 1858. But perhaps a more significant if less well-known wreck is a 1575 Manila galleon that likely came to grief on the island, and from which archeologists have recovered hundreds of pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain.

Many whale watchers in Scammon’s Lagoon will be familiar with Sand Island… For those utilizing Mario’s Tours or the Malarrimo Hotel’s boats, the snow white dunes are visible almost from the embarkation point near Guerrero Negro’s salt loading facility at El Chaparrito all the way to the whale watching area near the entrance to the lagoon.

The Guerrero Negro salt harvesting facility, based on solar and wind evaporation of seawater, is the largest in the world, with an annual production around 7 million tons. More than half of the salt is exported to Japan.

The sheltered lagoon next to the island is surprisingly deep. It is utilized as the channel for the large salt barges to depart Ojo de Liebre en route to the deep water harbor on Cedros Island, which can accommodate oceangoing vessels of up to 150,000 tons.

Rain is infrequent in the area, and may not occur for months at a time. The fine powdery sand can’t support a pool or a stream. But somehow a population of unusually bold coyotes call the island home. As I have found to my cost, and sometimes amusement, just about anything left outside a tent at night is likely to disappear.

I first visited Sand Island in 1983 during my round Baja walk. I was several days there in the company of two adventurous American ladies who had arranged a panga ride out to explore its beaches on ATVs. To respect their wishes, I never mentioned that side-trip in my book, Into a Desert Place. Running the length of the island on the back of an ATC brought many treasures and interesting discoveries, and made beachcombing a productive delight.

I have visited the island twice since that time, enjoying camping and hiking along the open Pacific shore, and I was keen to get back for at least one more visit.

Nearly all of Sand Island now falls within the borders of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, the largest such protected area in Mexico. The reserve is administered by CONANP, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. Special permission is required to visit and is not always granted. Today with strict environmental controls in place, use of ATVs or any kind of motorized vehicles is not allowed. I visited the CONANP headquarters in Guerrero Negro and gave assurances that my intention was simply to walk, camp, document and photograph.

I bought an annual pass, “pasaporte,” there at the CONANP office, which allowed a full year’s access to all parts of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, and also to all the many parks and protected areas of Mexico for about $29 US. And in an act of gracious generosity, the CONANP park staff offered to arrange panga rides to and from the island for me and look after my vehicle while I was out there

And so, last July, more than 30 years after my first visit, I enjoyed a week of further Sand Island discoveries. I camped a few hundred yards from the mouth of Scammon’s Lagoon, just behind a ridge of low dunes overlooking the lagoon. It offered a great place to watch the salt barges as they were continually towed from the lagoon loaded with salt and towed back empty. And it was a good, relatively sheltered spot to conduct explorations of the surf-lashed shore that faces the open Pacific.

The first night was quiet and relaxing, though I did have to watch the tide which rose exceptionally high.  The lights of Guerrero Negro glowed faintly in the distance, and the lights of Puerto El Chaparrito shone even closer and brighter.

However, after the relative calm of the first night, things got a little more adventuresome…

I was standing calf deep in the warm lagoon, about to take a few more steps and immerse myself for a refreshing morning swim in the deep channel, when the water beside me suddenly exploded into the form of a huge dark gray “fish.” And from my perspective and vulnerable position it looked truly huge. It rammed its body half way out of the water and nearly bowled me over. Images of orcas and great white sharks flashed into my mind. Backing smartly away towards the shore, I could see it had chased what looked like a large mullet on to the sand. As I watched, snapping jaws clamped onto the flapping fish and then the creature slid and rolled its bulk back to the water and out of sight.

It was actually a large bottlenose dolphin. Every day, thrashing, torpedoing dolphins were feeding along the drop-off from the beach and often two or more would be working right in front of my tent.

And every night in the glow of my flashlight, zombie-like eyes started to appear widely circling in the blackness. Short of space in my tent, I had foolishly left a gallon of water and a two-liter bottle of diet coke on a chair right outside my tent door. Both silently disappeared in the night. The chewed up empty plastic water jug was found 100 yards away surrounded by abundant coyote tracks. The still full coke bottle only made it half as far and was still intact, apart from a few bite marks around the cap.


Next night, my chair disappeared! Dawn revealed that it had been dragged 50 feet away. Another night a plastic bowl of seawater used for washing ended up being pulled from my table and loudly crashing and spilling onto the sand. 

And so for the rest of the week I ended up losing sleep, chasing troublesome coyotes along the shore… usually after being jolted awake around 2 or 3 AM. Displaying cooperative smarts, some coyotes would double back and re-visit my camp while I was down the beach hurling wooden “clubs” and words of discouragement at their colleagues

The fascinating open Pacific shore of the island is crammed with stuff—mostly discarded plastic and glass, and vast amounts of driftwood. But there are also occasional items of interest—welcome additions like an unopened jar of Nescafé coffee and others less so, like a ripped-open 30-40 pound bale of marijuana and several obviously dumped, full containers of gasoline!

While I’m glad I didn’t make the acquaintance of the thwarted marijuana runners, I actually grew rather fond of my coyote visitors and certainly sympathized with their desperate need for water. As I was away from my camp for hours every day, I was also grateful to return and find that my tent and its vulnerable contents had remained unmolested. 

One of the coyotes in particular seemed to grow increasingly bold… and began to linger in the morning long after its companions had disappeared. On my last morning, I left it a gallon of water in a driftwood plastic bowl, a few tortillas and the contents of a packet of sardines. And as I was leaving the island, the panguero park custodian pointed back to the shore and said, “Is that your dog?” The coyote was bounding along, following as if it didn’t want to be left behind!

It had been a wonderful week, a privilege to have had once more an uninhabited desert island all to myself. Camera in hand, I had spent many fascinating hours turning over planks and boards to see what other creatures called the island home. Scorpions, mice, lizards and assorted spiders and insects were all spotted. But the undisputed lords of Sand Island, at least in July, were the coyotes on the land and the dolphins in the surrounding waters.

The only whales were several dead whales encountered on the Pacific beaches… and they had clearly provided abundant sustenance for coyotes and vultures. It would be another 5-6 months before the gray whales would return and bring boatloads of whale watchers to experience their friendly encounters right there at the entrance to Scammon’s Lagoon, right off the shore of Sand Island.