Birds and Other Reasons to Visit San Carlos, Mexico


Diving Brown Pelican, San Carlos, Mexico

SaddleBrooke residents who haven’t discovered San Carlos yet are in for a treat.  This destination in the Mexican state of Sonora offers sunny skies, sandy beaches and lots of ocean.  Not to mention authentic Margaritas and delicious shrimp.  It’s a great place to hike, kayak, look for dolphins, sea lions and whales or go deep-sea fishing.  It’s also a great destination for birding, especially in the winter and spring.  The oceanfront hotels are just 350 miles south of SaddleBrooke, closer than Albuquerque.  The highway, essentially an extension of I-19, is a safe, divided toll road, costing less than ten dollars to get to San Carlos.  At the current exchange rate ($13 pesos per dollar), regular gasoline is a bargain at $2.28 per gallon (author’s note:  this was written in February, 2010).  You do need a tourist permit, which costs about $20 at a one-hour stop 12 miles into Mexico, and you need your passport in order to get it.  It’s good for 6 months, however, giving you reason to return.  You also need Mexican car insurance, which can be obtained easily by phone in Tucson, but you don’t need an auto permit, as long as you don’t go further than Guaymas, 12 miles beyond San Carlos 

Birding San Carlos

 For birders, San Carlos comes close to idyllic.  There are miles of crooked coastline on the Sea of Cortez, as well as bays, harbors, estuaries, islands and beaches.  The marine life is rich, which attracts thousands of sea and shorebirds, including Brown and White Pelicans, White Ibis, Magnificent Frigatebirds, American Oystercatchers, and multiple species of terns, herons, egrets and gulls.  You can also find Blue-footed and Brown Boobies.  A rough, rocky mountain range lies directly on the coast, showcasing flowering trees, giant cactus, and tropical deciduous forest.  This combination of desert, oases, rugged hills and canyons is ideal habitat for dozens of additional species.  Most of the desert birds we see in SaddleBrooke can be found here, including Gila Woodpeckers, Cactus Wrens, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.  Birds that leave SaddleBrooke in the winter can also be found here, in case you’ve been missing White-winged Doves or Turkey Vultures.  In addition, there are many other birds that are seldom, if ever, seen around SaddleBrooke.  These include Crested Caracaras, Dark-eyed Juncos, Groove-billed Ani, Black Vultures, Lazuli Buntings and Black-chinned Sparrows.  On a short trip in January, we even spotted a Brown Thrasher, a bird rarely seen west of Texas.  In two or three days, dedicated birders can identify 100 species or more.

 My wife and I have visited San Carlos 16 times in the past 5 years, and have never felt any reason to worry about our safety, drug wars or police harassment.  Quite to the contrary, the people are friendly and helpful to those of us with limited Spanish.  Signs in English even reassure drivers that they are in a “no hassle zone” while touring Sonora.  However, driving in Mexico, like in any foreign country, is a lot easier if you are well-prepared.  I’ve written a number of articles about driving, kayaking, touring and birding in Mexico, and you can find those through the sidebar link to my other blogs.  If you get those winter blues, or fear a forecast of snow at 3,000 feet, consider San Carlos.  It’s only a six-hour drive, and a little adventure might spice up your retirement.

Text and photographs copyright Bob Bowers, all rights reserved.  This article was written February 10, 2010, and originally published in the Saddlebag Notes, March, 2010.

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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