South of Hermosillo, where craggy mountains meet the sea, sits San Carlos, Sonora. One of Sonora’s Pueblo Mágicos, San Carlos is known for its immense natural beauty. Personally, I was shocked by how majestic the landscape is here. It captured my imagination, and I was in literal awe on a near daily basis while I was there.

So, why should you visit San Carlos? Because the natural world here is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Even as someone who grew up in the northern Sonoran Desert, I can say this. San Carlos is a world class town. And it is barely on the map for most people.

san carlos sonora

So, it’s beautiful! But what can you do in San Carlos? Well, plenty of things. There are sandy beaches to sit on. Good food to eat. “Adventure” attractions like ziplines can also be found. But most important to me, is the hiking. There is a load of hiking in San Carlos, especially by Mexico standards – where hiking isn’t the most popular of activities. I hiked nearly every day. And each trail was a unique wonder.

Now, let me give you a short guide to San Carlos. And if I can’t convince you to visit, at least come enjoy some snapshots from what I consider to be the crown jewel of Sonora, Mexico.

Why You Should Visit San Carlos, Sonora

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

I kind of spoiled it above, but if you are wondering – what can you do in San Carlos, and why should you visit, I am going to give you a short list.

  • Even if you don’t hike one bit, there are jaw dropping views all through town. Especially when I first got to San Carlos, I found myself staring outside, facing the mountains, and just… watching. Birds sang and danced through the desert. The mountains swept up from the desert like strongholds in stone.
  • For hikers, there are short and long trails. Some are quick, some are exceptionally steep, and some take wanders to places unimagined. No matter what you are looking for, there is a trail for you in San Carlos. And it will leave you in awe. (Just beware the heat).
  • There is good food to be had in town. There’s something magical about enjoying tacos while sitting on a peaceful beach surrounded by hills and mountains.

If you don’t believe me that this place is cool, remember that Pueblos Mágicos are Mexico’s most exceptional towns. And thus, the country itself marks San Carlos as one of its many treasures.

Where to Stay: Casa Magdalena

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

When we went to San Carlos, we had the good luck of having picked a bed and breakfast that seriously blew our minds – Casa Magdalena. Tucked back in one of San Carlos’ gated neighborhoods, with views of the mountains, the house is a u-shape with a central patio full of greenery and a crystalline pool. The rooms have access to fresh air on both sides, and each one is carefully curated and decorated. In the morning, we paid extra for a homemade breakfast, and we thoroughly enjoyed it every day. From the large, main kitchen, breakfast was served to us in the cool morning air on the patio.

In the afternoons, when it was too hot to hike or walk around, we lounged in the pool or curled up in our room to rest in the shade.

And for whatever we were looking to do, the owners were graciously available in-person and by WhatsApp for questions and directions. They helped us find some really exceptional places to eat and even get to some trails that AllTrails made me doubtful that we could access.

I can’t talk this place up enough. Of course, San Carlos, Sonora is an exceptional town. But staying at Casa Magdalena made our trip all the more magical. If you can, I highly suggest checking this place out. It is one piece of why you should visit San Carlos – to experience Sonoran Desert hospitality.

Getting Out on the Trail 

If you can, I highly suggest doing at least one hike while visiting San Carlos, Sonora. Experiencing nature should be at the top of your list of “what can you do in San Carlos.” If that is out of the question (or even if it isn’t), please take a car up to the scenic overlook in town. From here, you can see the most famous mountain of San Carlos, and the ocean stretching away. It really is a place that I expect will steal your heart, just like it did mine. It’s hard to believe it even exists.

Nacapule Canyon

san carlos sonora

Nacapule Canyon (c) ABR 2023

Besides the famous Cerro Tetakawi mountain, the Nacapule Canyon was the most common trail that I saw mentioned in blog posts and guides elsewhere about San Carlos, Sonora. It’s no surprise, it’s a really cool place. The trail heads straight into the most impressive mountain range in the area. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix, you might have something of an idea of what it was like. From a distance, the mountains look like a veritable fortress of stone, with steep, carved walls that jut up from the rolling desert.

The Nacapule Canyon traces its way into these mountains. And within its protective arms, there is a forest of palms and desert trees. It’s the classic oasis. It is one of the reasons why you should visit San Carlos. The trail weaves among the trees, discovers gentle pools of water, and towards its further end, requires the navigation of rope ladders and steep cliffs. My favorite moments on this trek were the first exposure to the verdant heart of the canyon. And then, on the way back, looking out at the desert, framed by the mountains and the palm forest. It feels like a world away.

But the trail traces through an adventure park of sorts, complete with ziplines and challenge courses. So, on a busy day, your meander through the canyon might be a little more crowded than you’d like.

san carlos sonora

Nacapule Canyon (c) ABR 2023

That being said, I come from the Western US and it’s rare to be on any easily accessible and beautiful trail on your own.

Un-likewise, when we hiked Nacapule Canyon, we were the nearly the only ones out there, because it was blazing hot. Even with the trail being mostly flat, it was a bit of a challenge to hike it in that weather. And that’s not even as hot as it gets there, because we were visiting in May. Point being, this trail is fairly exposed and is in the middle of the desert, so don’t let it fool you. The heat can be a killer.

In terms of getting to the trail, do expect to pay an entry fee. You will park at the main entrance to the whole attraction area. (There is a bathroom here!) You will pay a uniformed staff member at the entrance to the trail. Do bring Mexican pesos for this.

Playa de Acuario

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

Ok, so Nacapule Canyon might be one of the most famous trails in San Carlos, Sonora, AND it might be actually very beautiful, BUT it wasn’t my favorite trek near town. This one was!

AllTrails calls it Playa de Acuario. And this trail is at the top of my “what can you do in San Carlos” list. It heads out from the desert coast to a bay tucked among the craggy, Sonoran mountains that crouch on the edge of San Carlos’ sea. Along the way, you will cross a stoney, sandbar, and a thin peninsula across which you can see the ocean on both sides. Calm blue water to one hand, and rolling waves to the other. Ships bobbing in the water. And all the while you are walking among the floral wonders of Sonora.

The first part of this trail, follows a dirt road, and is fairly flat. After you cross the narrow and stony, land bridge, you will have to do a bit of climbing. And it can be a bit of a rocky, sandy ascent. So, go carefully and try to wear good shoes. Likewise, after you top the mountain, you will need to navigate the trail back down to the water if you want to see the bay at the end close up. With a rocky shore, it isn’t an easy place to throw down a towel and hang out. But it is exceptionally beautiful and well worth the trek.

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

The one thing that seemed to turn some people off (and worried me) is that to get onto this trail, you need to pay someone who monitors a gate at the trailhead. But with some encouragement from the Casa Magdalena owner we braved it. I would suggest going prepared to be friendly and speak Spanish, and do expect to pay for access to the walk. It is worth it.

Also, please note that this hike is entirely exposed. So, avoid the hotter parts of the day. There is also very little parking space. Please don’t block the road or anyone’s home in order to go see this spectacular spot.

The hikes is 2.5 miles and has 291 feet elevation gain.

Cerro Tetakawi

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

There is one other trail in town that I would be remiss to not write about, even though I didn’t actually end up doing it.

When you enter San Carlos, Sonora for the first time, you would be hard pressed to miss the towering peaks of Cerro Tetakawi. It might be surprising to know, looking at it, that you can hike to the top. It looks (and is) very steep!

So, while there are many folks that brave it on their own, the signs at the base stress that you should go with a guide. I personally didn’t end up doing this hike, for that reason. I have never had a bad experience with a hiking guide, but I prefer to hike on my own if I can. That all being said, I do think it would be wise to hire someone familiar with the hike to go with you. These kinds of trails can be very dangerous with loose rocks, narrow ledges and long, dangerous falls.

For strong hikers, I think this would be a great addition to why you should visit San Carlos. If you can’t hike it, you can always take it in from many angles as you explore the town. It is about a 1.3 mile hike with 1,026 feet elevation gain.

Restaurants with Views

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

There is a strip of restaurants (like Sunset Bar and Brill) outside of town that became a favorite spot for me on Playa los Algodones. That’s because, each restaurant there is perched on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Here, soft sand stretches gently into the lapping water. And from the ocean, small, round islands sit just off shore. We walked down the beach together, bubbly from tiki drinks and fresh fish, and got to watch the sunset over the ocean and the desert.

There was one word for it – magical.

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

The only difficulty about getting here is that there seems to be some expectation that you will pay to enter this area. We did get away without paying both times we visited because we told the gate attendant where we were going, but this many change when you visit. It is well worth paying to enter this beach, at least once, on your trip to San Carlos, Sonora.

Guaymas

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

Very close to San Carlos is the town of Guaymas – and many of the folks who work in San Carlos (and make it an amazing experience for everyone who visits) live here. We visited the city one afternoon, and found the downtown to be interesting, but not particularly comfortable. There was a large, wide Malecon, which was mostly empty when we visited. In the actual downtown, there is an impressive church is in the central square, and a unique coffee shop/museum. (where I very nearly go stuck in the bathroom because I couldn’t unlock the old doorknob).

Once we returned to Casa Magdalena, we were informed that this isn’t the best place for foreigners to go, and in fact there is quite a bit of violence in town. We stuck to lively areas during the day, and we were safe. But truly, I don’t think it was worth the crowded city driving to visit this area. It was SO stressful to navigate town with traffic, one way streets, and construction.

Some Thoughts on Safety 

san carlos sonora

(c) ABR 2023

*You are responsible for your own safety. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety. And these tips are not comprehensive. Do your research and go with caution.

Among all the reasons about why you should visit San Carlos, one is that it is also quite safe. This is a happening tourist area where there is lots of development (boohoo), and people are kind and welcoming. Of course, we weren’t out and about at night or anything, but this lovely town is safe to drive to and visit, generally speaking.

That being said, do your research before going, and be smart.

Aside from city dangers, desert hiking has its own risks. Respect the heat and conditions of the Sonoran Desert, and be cautious. No picture is worth your life, not even in beautiful San Carlos, Sonora.

More on Sonora, Mexico

Sonora, Mexico is not known as the most safe of the Mexican states, but it still has many exceptional places to visit. If you want to learn more, check out my short visitor’s guide to Sonora, Mexico, or any of my recent posts on visiting – such as my post on the Small Towns of Sonora.

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